Stories from Shanghai


An Introduction to Chinese Culture: Gongfu and Traditional Chinese Medicine

I’ve been in China for about two weeks now, and if there’s one thing that has been drilled into me through Chinese sayings, actions, and what I’ve learned in my philosophy class, its that everything in China holds a lot of traditional meaning. To introduce us to some traditional cultural aspects of China, our teachers brought us to a Chinese culture school here in Shanghai.

When we first arrived, our group of 21 students was ushered into a mirrored gym for a Chinese gongfu lesson. The gongfu master at the front was clothed in traditional clothes, and we quickly realized he didn’t speak any English. I was pretty impressed with myself when I realized that I could actually understand a good amount of what he was saying to us throughout the lesson. The master explained that this style of Chinese gongfu was invented by a woman, and designed so that you can escape and defeat your opponent without being stronger than they are. Throughout the lesson, the master demonstrated different techniques and moves with his assistant, all of which involved deflection and defense. We then got to practice the moves with each other. My partner for practicing was one of my new friends, Lexi, who has a black belt in Japanese style martial arts. Our teachers were really impressed with how easily she picked up the new moves! We ended the lesson with rapid-fire punching practice, and my arms are definitely still feeling the burn.

Next, we went into a classroom next door to learn about traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Each of us sat down on a round woven cushion on the ground, while a practitioner trained in traditional Chinese medicine explained the basis of TCM methods. He first explained that there are three levels of medicine. The physical, which is what western medicine deals with, the energy level, which is what TCM is concerned with, and the psychological, which both types of medicine should have an understanding of. In China, people believe that a balance of energy governs everything from your behavior to your interactions to your health. This concept is known as yinyang. You’ve probably seen the image of the two intertwined koi fish, one light and one dark, that represents this concept. The light side, which also signifies “good” and “male” qualities, is known as Yang. The other side of the image represents “dark,” “bad,” and “female” qualities, and is known as Yin. Initially this concept fazed me because it associated negative qualities with femininity. However, in my Chinese philosophy course we discussed how all people have both yin and yang within them that can emerge in different scenarios regardless of gender.

The practitioner continued to tell us that Chinese culture believes illness comes from six external sources that can get trapped inside you: coldness, heat, wind, dampness, dryness, and fire. He explained a few of the ways each can enter you. For example, if you are sweaty and then go outside for too long, wind can enter you. Or if you are sitting too long in an air-conditioned office, coldness can enter you. In order to diagnose the problem, TCM doesn’t use any of the technology used by western doctors. Instead, practitioners will ask, smell, listen, and observe a patient, with measuring a patients pulse as the final diagnostic method.

The practitioner then proceeded to demonstrate treatments with us that are used in TCM to rebalance your yinyang. My friends tried acupuncture, cupping, and spinal realignment to cure various ailments. I’ve never heard someone’s body crack so much or so loudly as during the spinal realignment demonstrations. I volunteered to try acupuncture and moxihution simultaneously to cure the mild cold symptoms I’ve been dealing with lately. When I mentioned my throat had been hurting, the practitioner said he’d demonstrate skin scraping on me as well. First was the acupuncture. He inserted a small needle into my hand between my thumb and first finger. In TCM, this position on my hand is believed to be on the same meridian as my throat. By fixing blockages in one area of a meridian, the other areas will feel better because energy can flow. Next, the practitioner stuck a burning herb onto the end of the needle. None of this hurt, but seeing the needle sticking out of my hand with the herbs attached left me with a strange sensation. Skin scraping is about as comfortable as it sounds. As the practitioner rubbed a hard piece of plastic up and down my arms (very roughly, I still have bruises), he asked me to try swallowing. I was surprised to find that the pain I’d been experiencing for days was completely gone!

Each of my friends mentioned that they at least felt better immediately following their treatments. Although the pain in my throat came back a few minutes later, by the next day I was feeling completely fine. I went into this day as a skeptic, but now have a new appreciation for these ancient aspects of Chinese culture that are still well respected today. I don’t know if I can say I completely believe in the effectiveness of TCM as an alternative to western medicine, but I definitely experienced beneficial results. In just a few hours I learned some awesome self-defense techniques, was cured of a sore throat, and gained a deeper understanding of the culture I’m living in. What a morning!

mooncakes and fudan university campus

The Bund

The Summer Camp Effect

Studying abroad has always been a dream of mine. Coming here to Shanghai never felt like a decision I had to make, it was just something I always knew I’d do. As early as my freshman year of high school, I knew I was going to study abroad, and I knew I was going to do it in China. I can’t believe I’m finally here. The first few days were surreal. The city is massive. I was a little overwhelmed. I think I got culture shock from going back to class for the first time in three months.


What has really helped ground me so far has been getting to know the other people on my program. As I watch the other students adjust, I am reminded that I can too. There are twenty-one of us in IES’s Economy, Business and Society semester program in Shanghai. Each one of the people I’ve met here is an extraordinary person, and I feel really lucky to have this opportunity to not only study abroad in an amazing city, but also to develop hopefully lasting friendships with the other students. That being said, I have a theory that I’ve developed from being in similar situations before which I have dubbed “the summer camp effect.” A quick disclaimer—I’ve only been to a total of 3 weeks of summer camp (all on separate occasions) in my life, but I experienced this each time. Also, I am speaking exclusively from my own experience. Maybe you have never experienced this before, but maybe you will know just what I’m talking about.


My theory is not actually about summer camp, but about any environment you are suddenly thrown into for a predetermined amount of time with a small group of people without knowing most, or any, of them beforehand. Summer camp falls into this category, and in my experience, so do living in a freshman dormitory your first semester of college, going on a school trip that lasts for multiple days, and of course, studying abroad for a semester in a new place. Once you are in one of these environments, I have found that an underlying commonality is that friendships and connections form more quickly than you would expect to be possible in such a short period of time.


Features of the summer camp effect include feeling like you have known these people for much longer than just a few days, opening up to them quickly, and clicking with them and caring about them, despite not having a history together.


Situations like the ones I listed above encourage social interaction. They force you to get outside your comfort zone and become more outgoing, lest you risk going through the entire experience without friends by your side, or missing out on making those great connections. This concern has at least driven me to put myself out there in terms of making friends in these types of scenarios.


The summer camp effect also means you will easily befriend people who are very different from your normal circle of friends back home. Both at home and at Cornell, most of my friends had similar experiences growing up and going to school in the northeast (of the US), and most did that in New York in particular (where I am from). Here, I’m living in the same room as or just next door to people who go to school all over the country from Georgia to Michigan to Washington, and who grew up in just as many different places. Because there are so few of us, similar to a summer camp cabin, we have all started to become close friends very quickly. Some of the people I’m friends with here are nothing like the people I’m friends with back home, and its exciting. Despite having extremely different experiences and backgrounds, we all made the same decision to live in Shanghai for three months, and since our program is rather specific, it follows that many of us have similar interests and goals.


Once one of these camp-like experiences ends, most likely you will still follow these people on social media, maybe reference the memories you had together a few times. With the typical summer camp experience you at least know you can maintain long lasting friends with returning campers. But here, and on other such trips, it’s likely that when this experience ends we won’t ever be in the same place all together ever again. I hope we stay in touch, and maybe I’ll be able to see a few of them again. Its only the second week of class, but already I’m looking forward to a great semester of exploring Shanghai with my new friends.

Shanghai Eats! As a vegetarian.

One of my favorite parts of visiting a new country or city is trying local food. Of course, I’ve had Chinese food back in the US more times than I could ever count. I’ve always been a fan, but to me food just tastes better when I can appreciate it in an authentic setting.

Each province in Shanghai, and even each city, is known for different specialty foods and flavors. To name a few, the Sichuan province is known for its spicy food, Jiangsu is known for sweeter and lighter flavors, and Shangdong specializes in seafood. Here in Shanghai, the several famous dishes that I have encountered so far include soup dumplings filled with pork and veggies, pork buns, steamed crab, and a variety of different styles of duck. However, I actually don’t plan on eating any of these dishes.

As a vegetarian, eating out has proven to be difficult given my limited mandarin speaking skills. Vegetarian food is much harder to track down than I thought it would be. Often, restaurants don’t have a single meatless item on their menu. And even when they do, I still have to be cautious. Apparently, vegetarian food in restaurants here sometimes refers to a dish that includes both vegetables and meat. I’ve only been in Shanghai a week but I’ve already had some close calls at several restaurants where I didn’t realize that the dish I had ordered contained meat. Sometimes, restaurants advertise dishes as vegetarian despite having a little pork or shrimp inside. I’ve learned to adjust my phrasing and ask, “does this contain meat?” (这里面有没有肉?) rather than asking, “is this vegetarian?”(这是素菜吗?). So far I’ve been successful in avoiding meat, but now I know I need to be much more careful here in China than I am when I go out to eat back home.

Even after figuring out which dishes don’t contain any meat, going to a restaurant presents other challenges for vegetarians like myself. Many restaurants are family style. Our group will order many dishes, which are placed on the lazy Susan in the center of the table. Everyone serves themselves with their own chopsticks, even when going back for seconds, something I initially was a little unsettled by, but have quickly gotten used to. If I order a vegetarian dish at a restaurant, everyone helps themselves. Of course, my friends let me serve myself first and do their best to make sure I get enough before they dig in. But since I am the only vegetarian in our group, we generally have a dozen meat dishes ordered which I am not able to try.

Despite struggling with ordering, I feel lucky to be able to eat out in restaurants almost daily. The exchange rate from USD to RMB is definitely doing me favors. Back in the US I wouldn’t be able to eat out half as often as I have been doing here. Even eating in a nicer restaurant here in Shanghai costs less than half what I would expect to pay back in the states. I can order a plate of 12 dumplings in my favorite restaurant near us for about the equivalent of $2 US dollars.

Shanghai is a multicultural city, with migrants from all over China and residents from all over the world, so the food here that I have been able to eat has been delicious. And although Shanghai’s meat dishes may be its most famous, I have definitely been eating well. I have my favorite dumpling restaurant, which has several different combinations of vegetarian dumplings, including mushroom and greens, and egg and celery. I eat red bean buns, one of my favorite foods, almost every day for a snack, and most mornings my friends and I pick up a sort of pancake/omelet with sesame paste on our way to class for breakfast. I am so excited to continue discovering new foods I can eat here, and to eventually try the food in other provinces when I travel.


Amelia Haddad


Class Blog: Voices from Cornell Abroad

Skip to toolbar