Reflections

Fully immersing oneself in a foreign country requires a willingness to experience a different culture and an eagerness to eventually embrace the components of the new culture. It is certainly no easy task, as it may place one outside their comfort zone. Fortunately, given my primary major in International Relations and my passion in exploring today’s interconnected world, I constantly seek opportunities that will expose me to foreign cultures. I believe in today’s globally interwoven world lie abundant opportunities to travel to a foreign country and truly experience cultures that define nations, and for me, the past summer in Shanghai has served as an unbelievable experience. Not only have the language classes been both challenging and intellectually stimulating, simply residing in Shanghai has opened my eyes to a vibrant society. The philosophy, traditions, lifestyles, and even interactions embedded in the Chinese culture all explain not only Shanghai’s, but also China’s major advancement in recent years.

If there were one overarching theme I would use to describe Shanghai based on my two month-long venture, it would place emphasis on the city’s determined mindset. During the past two months, I had the privilege to explore multiple sections of Shanghai—People’s Square, Nanjing Lu, The Bund—and one major observation I made was how fast everything progresses. Now that is not to say I believe Chinese people are impatient or snappy; rather, I observe a fast-tempo society in which the people are constantly eager to improve their business and advance forward. I would describe Chinese society as a hard-working one and more importantly, a sincere one that empowers fair play. I recall our first tour guide, Andy, who explained why so many people move to Shanghai for business opportunities when there are already 23 million people bustling in the city. The answer was because Shanghai is a city of fair play that advocates talent and sincere efforts as opposed to other regions where business or employment opportunities heavily rely on pre-established connections and networks. Being born and raised in the United States, where the situation is very similar to China where some regions are attractive for its “fair play” while others are infamous for the dependence on connections or networks, I am beginning to understand how Shanghai’s “fair play” characteristic has become attractive to the Chinese people and how in effect, it led Shanghai to be one of China’s most global and influential cities.

A huge aspect of Shanghai and China in general that I admire is its rich history. I credit this growing admiration to the SISU-CMU program because not only do the language classes provide us a basic foundation in which we can interact and communicate with Chinese natives, but the class trips we had to Hangzhou, Nanjing, and Suzhou provided us with valuable experiences. Each trip composed of different schedules and tour guides, yet they all served one major purpose: to exhibit China’s rich history. From the amazing views atop the Leifeng Pagoda in Hangzhou, to the sacred halls of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial in Nanjing, to even the fascinating Suzhou No.1 Silk Factory in Suzhou, each trip embodied China’s vast capabilities and a piece of the country’s history that will forever contribute to China’s ever-growing culture. Even through my daily interactions with Shanghai natives at restaurants or at shopping mall centers, I am continuously reminded of how far China has come in terms of development. As I learned from previous academic courses and even through recent tours, particularly at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, China has suffered constant oppression the past two centuries through the Opium War and Japanese imperialism. While it may vary throughout the country, to visually witness Shanghai’s exponential development continues to fascinate me. Since my first day landing at Pudong Airport, I am overwhelmed by the never-ending skyscrapers and buildings that fill Shanghai’s skyline, and it reminds me of the determined attitude and willingness of Chinese people. It goes a long way to describe the hard-working and passionate orientation of Chinese society and how it can build its up way to become the world second largest economy and a major global actor.

To be honest, I had my doubts about spending two months in Shanghai. It would be my first time in a foreign country for this long, and I was hesitant as to whether or not I would be able to truly embrace this culture. I was hesitant about whether or not my appetite would cater to the food, the language courses that I took a hiatus from my junior year at CMU and Georgetown University, the local Chinese people and whether I would be able to adapt to daily interactions, and even the daunting traffic that people constantly warned me about. These were all concerns that made me nervous, even till the hour I arrived at Jinjiang Inn. However, reflecting on the past summer in Shanghai, I feel truly blessed for everything the SISU-CMU program has provided me. In the process of catching up on my Chinese language abilities, I have developed a mutual friendship with both my professors and classmates that create a comfortable and stimulating learning environment in the classroom. By experimenting at local restaurants, and yes, even at street vendors as well, I came to love the traditional taste of authentic Chinese food. And I am guilty to say I treated myself to China’s popular CoCo bubble tea everyday the first two weeks. I also had many memorable highlights where I would find myself struggling to understand what a street seller was trying to sell me, while having multiple near-death experiences after crossing the streets. I mention all these progressions to highlight how much this past month has meant to me. The new friends, memories, and even newfound determination to continue expanding my Chinese language abilities, hopefully even at CMU, have all made me appreciate spending my last summer as an undergraduate in Shanghai. I view my time at SISU as a huge stepping-stone to my passion in International Relations and future goal in applying to law school. The simple interactions and people skills I nurtured in a foreign country have all been valuable lessons, and the practical use of Mandarin excites me for future opportunities.

To cite another quote from our tour guide Andy, he expressed his opinion that “Chinese people are good at observation, but not innovation.” While I believe there are many perspectives to view the Chinese society from, one thing is clear to me. Whether or not its observations or innovation, I wish to include China, and Shanghai in particular, in my future plans. What those future plans may be, I am not certain. But I understand the how important Shanghai is to China, and subsequently, how influential China is becoming in today’s interconnected world and global economy. By embracing China’s rich history and culture, my time in Shanghai has expanded my interests in hopefully continuing my stay in the near future.  

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Suzhou

Our one-day trip to Suzhou was more relaxing and casual. We first arrived at a local temple where people came to pay their respects. It also seemed to be a combination of a temple and garden. There were multiple pagodas, lakes, gardens, and rooms full of Buddha figures. 

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Afterwards, we were dropped off for a boat cruise along a local river. Among the multiple boat cruises we had, this was probably my favorite. The scenery was so serene and tranquil, with traditional-styled houses positioned along the river. Our tour guide described this cruise route as the “Oriental Venice.” While it didn’t really resemble Venice in terms of beauty, it produced similar vibes with its narrow passageways. ImageImage

 

Our last destination was a famous silk factory. We got to see the step-by-step process of producing silk, starting from acquiring silkworms and their transformation into cocoons, to machines weaving the silk into its final form. ImageImageImageImageImage

 

 

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Nanjing

Our second trip was to Nanjing, which served as the national capital for six dynasties and now as the capital of Jiangsu Province. Overall, I really enjoyed Nanjing. We were able to visit a lot of places and experience as much of Nanjing in two days. 

Our first visit was to the Dr. Sun Yatsen Mausoleum, which was probably the most memorable highlight of Nanjing. The place was huge— covers 80,000 square meters and the memorial hall of Dr. Sun Yatsen was approached by 392 granite steps. The walk up was a bit of a struggle, especially with the hot weather, but once you reached the top, you were offered a very rewarding view of the mausoleum and Nanjing’s landscape. 

The white statue of Dr. Sun Yatsen was also another highlight . Not only was it huge in size, but it was a neat experience standing in front of the statue of the found father of Republic of China and China’s Democratic Revolution. The statue was situated in a domed circular hall and replicas of his will were on exhibited. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the hall.

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(The  journey upwards)

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(Dr. Sun Yatsen)

 

 

 

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Our next stop was the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, which is the tomb of the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming Dynasty. Unfortunately, the path leading to the tomb was closed off due to construction, but we were able to get a glimpse of the main gate.

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When we approached the main wall, I initially thought we were approaching a fortress of some sort. The wall wasn’t particularly big or tall, but it still resembled intimidating barriers I would only see in Lord of the Rings movies. I only discovered later on that in order to prevent robbery of the tomb, the construction of this Mausoleum was under heavy security, involving more than 100,00 laborers and 5,000 troops. 

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Next stop was a cruise around the Qinhuai River and it was a brief yet relaxing ride. It was a simple cruise that took us along the river, and we were able to pass by different style restaurants and festivities that were taking place. 

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The next morning, we visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. Due to respect for the happenings of the Nanjing Massacre, we were instructed not to take photos inside the museum.

The museum itself was set up very nicely. Each room had multiple features, whether it was photos from the war, personal accounts of survivors, or just basic information on the war and massacre. The lighting was set very dim and I just found myself reflecting on the atrocities and suffering innocent Chinese citizens faced.

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(Nanjing Massacre Museum)

We were then scheduled to visit the famous Zhonghua Gate, but due to the heavy rain, we had no choice but to return to Shanghai.

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(We were able to drive by the Zhonghua Gate)

Next post will be on our trip to Suzhou! 

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Hangzhou

Our first trip was to Hangzhou, and it was probably my favorite city to visit. Not only was the hotel great quality, but the sites we visited were reflective of Hangzhou’s significance and they offered beautiful views of city. We first stopped by Hangzhou’s popular West Lake and took a boat ride through a portion of the lake. Besides the 95 degree with high humidity weather, it was a very pleasant ride. We were able to get a clear view of all the street shops and events that took place along the river, and there were many foreigners in attendance. Some boat rides included a large table in the middle where you can enjoy drinking tea—mostly green tea. It seemed like a very pleasant way to spend your summer afternoon chatting with your friends or family while drinking tea. 

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(Group photo in front of the West Lake) 

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(View from the boat ride)

Speaking of green tea, our next destination was the Dragon Well Tea Garden, where they produce China’s finest green tea leaves. Unfortunately the green tea “doctor” —what they call the experts— was not available, so another expert gave us a quick tour of how they warm up the leaves and package it for sell. There are different sorts of green tea leaves, each differing in quality and the number of times you can re-use them for drinking purposes. One thing I noticed about China is that everyone drinks green tea, even during meals. All the restaurants I’ve been to served green tea instead of plain water, and I honestly prefer drinking green tea before, during, and after meals. It’s perfect for detox and helps digest food, especially Chinese food which typically contains a lot of salt, sodium, and MSG. It’s also supposed to have multiple health benefits, such as clearer skin and improved eye sight if you allow the steam into your eyes/skin. With all the great benefits AND taste, I can see why drinking green tea is so common in China.Image

(At the Dragon Well Tea Garden)

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(Front courtyard) 

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(Classmates receiving the “green tea eye treatment”)

ImageImageThe last stop for the day was at the Liefeng Pagoda and it was my personal favorite. This is where the famous Chinese love story of the white snake is based on. Although it was a long way up to reach the top, it was worth it. The view was amazing— I found myself staring out into the scenery for at least 15 minutes, just admiring the beautiful view of Hangzhou. 

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The following day, we visited the Lingyin Temple—Hangzhou’s most famous temple. It was actually my first time visiting a Buddhist temple so it was a pretty neat experience, especially since it was founded in 328 AD. There were multiple levels that consisted of even larger statues, and people would pay their respects by bowing while holding incense sticks.

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Overall, Hangzhou did not disappoint!

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My First Week..”Traffic lights are for decoration purposes”

Ni hao! I will be using this blog to detail my experience here in Shanghai and share my two-month journey in a new country.

It’s crazy how time flies by when you’re in a foreign country and experiencing everything for the first time. It has only been 12 days, but it feels like I’ve been here for at least a month. To begin, my first week and a half here has been an amazing experience thus far. When I first arrived at Pudong Airport, I was surprised by how neat and modern the airport was. Fortunately, everything was labeled in English and the staff members I asked for help spoke relatively good English as well, so I had a comfortable time getting my luggage at the airport. I also contacted another CMU student in the program before departing for Shanghai and we met up at Pudong Airport because our flights were only 20 minutes apart. It was both of our first time in China and it was nice sharing a taxi ride to the hotel we’re staying at with a familiar face. Unfortunately,  we experienced our first tragic moment when our taxi driver charged us 350 rmb when in fact, our CMU Chinese director informed us that the cost should only be around 180-200 rmb. We had no choice but to pay the 350 rmb, but we didn’t really worry because we asked the driver for a receipt and planned on giving the receipt—which was supposed to contain the driver’s information—to Dr. Yu so we can receive a refund. However, we were later told by Dr. Yu that the driver didn’t actually give us the correct receipt, but some kind of gas receipt, and that it might be difficult for her to get our money back. It was truly a wake up call for both me and my roommate given the fact that our Chinese reading abilities were very limited at the time and we didn’t know any better to double check that it was the correct receipt. 

Once we arrived at the hotel, we transitioned comfortably into our rooms and met everyone in the program the following days. We all befriended one another and pretty much travel everywhere as a group now, whether it’s going to class, eating meals, or exploring Shanghai. Because we all live in the same hotel, we have many opportunities to explore Shanghai together. For example, the first weekend we all traveled to a region known as the People’s Square where there are a lot of foreign and domestic shops. It almost had a NYC Times Square-esque feeling to it at night with all the stores lighting up and thousands of people—natives and foreigners—walking down the large street. There were street performers dancing to traditional Chinese music and even people performing tricks with their dogs. It was fascinating to see the vast amount of activity that goes on at night and how active everyone is, old and young. 

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(People’s Square- day and night)

Classes began last Monday and given the fact that I haven’t take a Chinese class since my sophomore year, it has honestly been a struggle. Almost everyone in the program just took a Chinese class last semester so it has been a comfortable transition for them, but for me, it has been over a year since I last used Chinese intensively. Also, the professors teach 95% of the class in Mandarin so it’s definitely a challenge understanding what the professors are saying at times. Nevertheless, I’m still enjoying the classes and find the challenge exciting. I plan on using these two months to learn as much Mandarin as possible and interact with as many natives as possible. 

We also have a lot of school trips planned for the next two months. Last week we went to the Oriental Pearl Tower, about a 30 minute drive from campus, and saw an amazing view of Shanghai from the top floor. We also stood atop a glass, transparent floor that is about one level from the top floor and you could see everything below— by far the most terrifying yet exciting experience thus far. 

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(As you can observe.. I was terrified)

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(In front of the Oriental Pearl Tower)

I thought the biggest challenge would be adjusting to the food, but since the first day I arrived in Shanghai, the food has been amazing. Every meal is simple—consists of pretty much rice and meat—and very cheap compared to your average meal in America. There is also a lot of street food everywhere you go in Shanghai, and we were advised to avoid it, especially when the weather gets much more humid and warm. But I couldn’t resist and tried a few street vendors, which all actually turned out to be very delicious. Most street food cost between 1-7rmb, which is equivalent to $1 or less.

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Traffic is probably the most dangerous aspect of Shanghai, and China in general. The tour guide for our trip to the Oriental Pearl Tower put it the best— “traffic lights in China are for decoration purposes.” Besides cars, the main form of transportation here are mopeds, and they’re pretty much parked everywhere—sidewalks, in front of stores, parking lots, etc. There are separate lanes for mopeds or bicycles, and  cars, which makes traffic a bit more organized, but still very dangerous to cross the streets. When crossing the street, I always have to be extra cautious for people riding mopeds or bicycles because they basically disregard traffic lights. If they see an opening, they cross the street. 

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(Mopeds are everywhere!)

Overall, my first week in Shanghai has been amazing. The people, food, environment, classes, and even trips have all exceeded my expectations and i really look forward to the upcoming weeks. Now that I have completely adjusted to Shanghai, even my sleeping schedule, I will update much more frequently. In particular, I’m very excited for a two-day trip this weekend to Hangzhou and then to Nanjing the following week. I’m very interested to see how those cities vary with Shanghai and look forward to experience much more of China. Many more pictures to follow!

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