Shanghaied, Chapter 15: Oh My God It's Actually Over
Four months in China. Tons of new friends, all kinds of bizarre and delicious food, and adventures ranging from the Pacific coast all the way to the far western deserts. I’ve seen so much in what in retrospect has been an incredibly short time.
And I learned a LOT this semester. Not just academics either, though my Chinese has gotten significantly better and I’m far more knowledgeable about Chinese art history. I learned a lot of little things. Bits of information, little life lessons, tips and tricks that I picked up all through my time here. As my semester abroad draws to a close, I wanted to use this last post to share what I had learned, and maybe impart a little bit of wisdom before I finish this blog.
To everyone who took the time to read through my journey, thank you. I really hope you enjoyed reading about it as much as I enjoyed chronicling it.
Anyway. Over the course of my time in China:
I learned that, despite what well-meaning friends and weather reports will tell you, Shanghai gets cold, and that not bringing warm clothes with you is just asking for your heater to break.
I learned that Chinese food is a whole conglomeration of Chinese cuisines, and pretty much all of them like to try and sneak in meat into even the most unassuming dishes.
I learned that a gentle culinary god has smiled upon this land and granted it baozi, which at one point composed something like 40% of my diet.
I learned that people don’t really proofread their English signs here, much to my delight.
I learned that Chinese taxi drivers fear nothing and expect you to feel the same. No quarter given or asked.
I learned, repeatedly, that Chinese is a tonal language, and that if you don’t get those tones right, be prepared for some very confused looks and messed-up lunch orders.
I learned that things like politeness, privacy, and values are really culturally specific, and that being able to communicate with someone doesn’t automatically let you understand their culture. Things that I took for granted, like issues related to personal space, hygiene, and social courtesy are all relative, and that you just have to accept it and celebrate it rather than going into culture shock.
I learned that the people of China are by and large a friendly, curious, and welcoming people. I’ve of course had plenty of positive and negative experiences, but I have a deep respect for China and its inhabitants.
I learned that most people really don’t know much about the United States. This will not stop them from making some rather dramatic assumptions about Americans; we don’t exclusively eat fast food or all live in mansions, for instance.
I learned that despite many inaccuracies in people’s view of the United States, many Chinese people (and basically everyone) likes talking about American politics. Or talking at you about American politics, which is less fun.
I learned that people enjoy taking photographs of you if you’re different. And that it’s rather exhausting at times but you sort of just get used to it.
I learned that a “small town” in China can have millions of people. And that a “mid-sized” town would be among the largest in the United States if it was dropped there.
I learned that trying to circumvent walls and gates in China is setting yourself up for disappointment. They have a bit of a history of wall-building here.
I learned that puppies here are the cutest little creatures imaginable. And that the Chinese dog-sweater market is thriving.
I learned that China is an incredibly diverse place, both in terms of geography as well as people. Wide plains, foggy mountains, and vast deserts unsurprisingly have lots of different people living in them.
I learned that spiciness in China is a rather complicated metric. “Mild” is unspiced, “medium” is agonizing, and “spicy” is currently banned under the Geneva Convention for being “too brutal”.
I also learned that if they can find a way to put pork in it, they’re going to put pork in it, unless you ask them not to. And sometimes they still do it anyway.
I learned that trains rock. High-speed rails are easy and efficient, and usually cheaper than planes. So much less hassle, such much more efficiency.
I learned that camels are heartless, evil, wicked creatures. They won’t just break your spine; they’ll break your heart.
I learned that when you go into the desert, sand gets everywhere. And it never comes out (I still have sand in my hiking boots).
I learned that around military checkpoints, the following are illegal: taking photos, pointing, friendly nods, staring too much, staring too little, treasonous thoughts, and breathing too loudly.
I learned that there’s this very large ball of radioactive hydrogen and plasma at the center of the solar system and if you don’t wear sunscreen it will char your skin. I feel like I keep re-learning this lesson a lot.
I learned that pandas as fussy, lazy, and ridiculous creatures. And that I love them dearly.
I learned that you can pay around $250 to hold a baby panda in Chengdu. Totally not worth it, but I admit I was tempted.
I learned that when you clear 10,000 feet above sea level, stairs become impossible. Just the worst.
I also learned that in the mountains, it’s cold. And that not bringing warm clothes (as demonstrated in Shanghai) will not convince the weather to magically become warmer for you.
I learned that either mountain lakes are divine and magnificent or that China has an excellent lake-dyeing program that they’ve been hiding from us. They’re so unbelievably blue.
I learned that copyright laws in China are more like copyright suggestions. And that trademarks are really just challenges.
I learned that, for me, what makes an experience particularly memorable is the people whom I experience it with. I met so many amazing people, both students and locals, and the experience wouldn’t have been nearly as wonderful without them.
I learned that creating a new lifestyle takes a lot of work, but that it’s an incredibly rewarding experience to become comfortable with a formerly foreign place.
I learned that leaving that lifestyle behind is often very challenging and disorienting. It can be profoundly difficult to leave it all behind.
And perhaps most importantly, I learned that I always have more to learn. The pursuit of knowledge is a life-long commitment, and I’ve found that the more I learn, the more I see how little I truly know. How little I’ve actually experienced. It’s made me hungry to learn and understand the world in all of its beauty.
And finally, I’ll leave you with this. I’m excited to head home. It’s always nice to return to a familiar world and settle back in to “normal” life. But I’m going to miss China terribly. China has become the new normal for me. That’s the whole point of going to experience another society and culture. I’m going to miss the strange, beautiful life that I’ve created. I’ll miss dazzling, cosmopolitan Shanghai. I’ll miss the program, my classes, and the spectacular friends that I’ve made. I won’t forget my amazing experiences abroad.
And as always, here’s this week’s worst English. To finish it off, here’s a simple one. I found this in a state-funded museum. I’m not familiar with the country to which they’re referring.
And thank you, reader, for sticking with me. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading.