Will Weber ’11 – When I stepped off the plane at the Pu Dong airport in Shanghai the first thing that popped into my head was “what have I gotten myself into?” I had just stepped onto foreign soil, controlled by a totalitarian government that wasn’t too friendly to my American ideals like freedom of speech. I found a surprise waiting for me at the arrival gate. Yangnan “Paul” Liu ’12 was waiting to welcome me to China before he flew back to Wabash. After that I felt alright.
I talked to my language professor in the cab from the airport and asked her about Shanghai. She told me that it had 16 million inhabitants. I assumed that I had heard 6 million, about the size of Chicago. It took me a while to grasp what she was saying. I have since learned that estimates range from 16 to over 20 million. Shanghai is the economic capital of China. As the largest sea port, with a developing financial center, and the headquarters of many international corporations it is the wealthiest region per capita in China. Shanghai is its own administrative region, equal to a province in political terms. The city has a very large international community and many virtues for hapless foreigners. For instance, Shanghai has what we call “the magic number;” a call center where you can ask them anything in English and then give the phone to the Chinese person you’re with and the call center will explain to them in Mandarin. This is useful for everything from telling the restaurant what you want to finding your nightlife destination to telling the barber how to cut your hair.
China is different. It takes an experience like study abroad to really understand what foreign exchange students experience coming to Wabash. You walk into McDonald’s, everything looks just like America, and once you bite into your longed-for burger you discover that one of the standard toppings is corn. Seat belts aren’t available in the taxis, though foreigners wish they were. In China the rules of the road are a little different; cars have right-of-way then mopeds and bicycles (who don’t have to obey traffic lights), and then pedestrians. If you get hit, you’re at fault. When a group of tourists from my home town came to Shanghai for a week in November, I couldn’t help laughing at how they covered their eyes and clutched their seats in the taxi in fear. Cultural adjustment is inevitable, it just takes time. Initially we whispered criticisms of the Chinese government, fearfully paranoid that microphones were everywhere just like the cameras were. Now we are more outspoken because the Chinese don’t care or don’t understand what foreigners say in any other language than Mandarin.
In China they work 7 days a week. Students at Fudan University ask us why we are so frivolous with our time in Shanghai, instead of studying every waking moment. I told him that this was one of our last opportunities to do anything like study abroad for many years. Soon we would have to get jobs and settle down. The students typically respond “Oh, I never thought about it like that. We always work hard and try to get a good job so that by 35 or 40 we can take care of our parents and take vacations and have fun.” To my American ears this sounds depressing, but it’s the view point of everyone in China. It’s also something that I welcome on occasion. Construction projects that in America take months are completed in days in China.
I make a point of going to the underground market at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum at least once a week. While initially incompetent, I have developed into a foreigner who can point and count to 10 in Mandarin. This, combined with a rough idea of how much something should cost, essentially means that I am an accomplished bargainer. One of my personal rule of thumb is that my opening counter-offer should be 5%-10% of their opening offer. At $12 for a tailor-made shirt, my wardrobe has also expanded significantly. But the best part of the market is watching the other foreigners, the ones in Shanghai on business or vacation for a week, get taken advantage of by the shop-keepers. Without the experience of doing it time and again, visitors overpay for everything and think they’re getting a good deal. Another one of my rules of thumb is that if the shop-keeper gives you their business card at the end of the transaction, you were probably robbed on the price. On the other hand, if they yell at you in fury after handing over the goods, you did a good job.
During the National Holiday (60 years of Communist totalitarian rule woo-hoo!) a group of us traveled down to the city of Guilin and then through the Yunnan province. We bought cheap knock-off backpacks and regretted it hours on the trail. My own broke both shoulder straps before lunch. The mountains near Tibet were majestic and beautiful, the roadblocks and checkpoints less so. I was so used to Shanghai that being in the countryside and the absolute poverty there was a surprise. For a socialist society, China is not very egalitarian.
Shortly before Thanksgiving my program sent us to Taiwan for a week. It was like being back in a Western country, in spring. The temperature in Taiwan seems to be perpetually in the high 70’s. There were copies of The Economist available and Dunkin Donuts were everywhere. Facebook was not blocked by government censors. And the prices were very close to American values. I was so used to measuring everything in Chinese Yuan that I experienced decided sticker shock.
In both cases of travel, when I got off the plane in Shanghai I genuinely felt like I was coming home. Shanghai, with its 10s of millions of inhabitants, its parks, its incredible cleanliness, and its exciting nightlife, has become my home. I will be as sad to leave Shanghai as I will be excited to go back to America and Wabash.
In photos: Top right, Weber with Charlie Kelly ’11, who is also studying in China. Center left, Weber’s class visiting Taiwan. Bottom right, Will and class visited a Chinese Meditative Garden.