Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Shanghai, China


I didn’t love Shanghai, China, but the purpose of our voyage is not to fall in love with every country. We are here to learn about these countries and cultures, to get out of our comfort zone, to become more open-minded, to increase our global perspective, and to experience new ways of life. I’m grateful for our time in China. Even though the majority of voyagers didn’t like Shanghai, and I share their thoughts, Shanghai offered a much needed awakening to a culture different from our own. Although the experience might not have always been pleasant, the experience was cultural and challenging, broadening our perspective and opening our minds. Japan provided a comfort and familiarity that eased our traveling. Shanghai did not, which first became apparent when we tried to find a taxi to our AirBnB apartment in the French Concession. I heard about Chinese taxi drivers not wanting to deal with tourists who can’t speak Chinese, and to be honest, I don’t blame them; however, watching available taxis speed away wasn’t pleasant. Eventually we found a willing driver, who was only slightly relieved to see that we had our address written in Chinese. Meeting our AirBnB owner, a young expat from South Carolina, was a highlight of the day. He offered to join us for lunch and took us to Din Tai Fung for dim sum. As we shared xiaolongbao, an absolutely delicious steamed-bun soup dumpling I impatiently waited to eat ever since I learned about them months before the voyage, he answered all of our questions about life in Shanghai. Not only did we get advice about what to eat and how to spend our time, we also learned more about his transition to life in Shanghai. Even better, I got to ride on the back of his scooter as we drove through the tree-lined streets of the French Concession, where the tree branches curve above the road to create a natural canopy of beautiful lines from the bare branches of winter. In the AirBnB apartment I learned that Shanghai buildings are often cold, as the walls fails to keep out the cold despite the heating unit on the wall. I also learned that beds in Shanghai homes are often not comfortable, as I would later try to use all the extra blankets to create a cushion underneath while also providing warmth from the cold room. I also learned that my local community had a lot of cats, whose litter smell came through the bathroom window and into the bedroom, since the bathroom window opened directly into the neighbor’s home. Shanghai is also a massive city, and isn’t compact. The French Concession is hugely spread out, and walking to a different neighborhood is not easily done, as your legs are exhausted before you even leave the French Concession. We moved over to the Old Town neighborhood, where we went to the famous Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant for yet more xiaolongbao for dinner, which is where I learned that service in Shanghai is not a priority; however, what appears to be a dismissive rudeness is only my perception. Coming from a culture that values customer service, I found the Chinese in Shanghai to be dismissive and annoyed with me, which is certainly understandable since I’m a tourist, but much of this was my perception of rudeness because of the environment in which I am more comfortable and familiar, and given the culture in China, no rudeness or dismissiveness is actually intended. We continued to walk through Old Town, where the buildings’ curves from the traditional architecture were enhanced and accentuated with lights that soon went out along with the crowds. We finished the night with a drink in the French Concession, mostly to find a place to hide from the freezing cold out in the streets. On the streets I learned about the hacking and spitting. Apparently in Chinese culture the constant loud throat-clearing-spitting is an acceptable act of cleansing, but from my perception it’s mostly gross. The next day a group of us gathered in Tian Zi Fang, where a community of alleys magically appears off a main street, with narrow walkways and a variety of shops, bars, and cafes. We had breakfast and coffee, with the coffee highly recommended and in fact delicious, in a corner nook illuminated by windows all around us. Afterwards a friend and I continued on to People’s Park, where several different groups of people gathered, some playing chess, dominoes or sharing photographs, and others were protesting something we didn’t understand. Before we left the park we were approached by three tourists apparently from Beijing who wanted us to take their picture, and afterwards continued to talk to us because they were happy to practice their English. After developing some comradery they encouraged us to go to a tea ceremony they were about to attend. Fortunately we said no, because if you Google this scenario, you will soon see that we were approached for the tea ceremony scam in Shanghai. The whole routine was rehearsed, practiced over several years and still continuing, and had we joined them we would have seen a tea ceremony, but they would also give us an astronomical bill that we would be pressured into paying as we sat in a small room not knowing what would happen if we didn’t pay. Happy to not be scammed, we went a different way and walked along Nanjing Road, and I continued on to the Bund, the waterfront area along the Huangpu River. I went on the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, a rather strange but entertaining light show in a tunnel to cross the river to Pudong, where I went to the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower for an enlightening view of the pollution in Shanghai. I learned how polluted Shanghai is from above, where at 263 meters I should see a blue sky and a massive collection of skyscrapers, but instead I only saw the skyscrapers that emerged before the pollution drowned out the buildings, sky, and sun into a cloud of gray. By the end of the night the pollution would cause my eyes to turn red and slightly sting. My time in the Oriental Pearl Tower, however, was peaceful, as I looked down upon our ship, the MV Explorer, and contemplated on where this ship brought me in the past and where the ship was about to take me. I thought about the thousands of students who have traveled on the MV Explorer, a ship they often think about and miss. I thought about how lucky I am to see the ship with my own eyes, 263 meters above the river, because I’m currently on a voyage. I remembered how we are on the last Semester at Sea voyage on the MV Explorer and how fortunate and privileged we are to have a floating home that continues to provide us with new experiences in new countries, helping us learn about the bigger world we are a part of, exposing us to new cultures and new ways of life, broadening our perspective of the world, and helping us realize that despite differences, we are all human, and ultimately the same, with hopes, dreams, and daily lives. Despite not falling in love with Shanghai, I felt grateful to be a part of a Semester at Sea voyage where I can learn about other cultures by actually visiting a country like China, instead of only hearing about China on the television or in the newspapers or online. I ended the night by viewing Pudong from the other side of the tunnel, looking back upon the Oriental Pearl Tower now spectacularly lit, illustrating the tremendous growth that has occurred in Shanghai. With the pollution, the growth is probably too much and too fast and too densely populated, and I was happy to leave. I also learned about the pushy culture of the subways on my way back to the French Concession. If you want to get on the subway in a massive crowd, you push and pay no attention to personal space. Again, this was my perception from what I am used to in the United States, but Chinese culture is different, and that doesn’t necessarily mean bad or good, it just means different. I smiled as I was pushed around because I felt happy to be experiencing something new, in a culture far removed from the comforts of home. I don’t think I would return to Shanghai, but I learned a lot, which is why we are on this voyage. I had the wonderful opportunity to experience life in a much different culture. I was out of my comfort zone, I broadened my perspective, and I learned about life in Shanghai, which is ultimately the reason why this ship takes us around the world.     

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