My first impression of Shanghai was a complete slap in the face. I had no idea this place is actually under water. Okay, it’s not actually underwater, but it might as well be. The humidity here is insane. I half expect to see goldfish floating in the air. They certainly have enough live, consumable aquatic creatures at the market. Perhaps that counts. Suddenly Colorado seems so dry. I don’t think you are ever really dry here. The instant we stepped out of the plane the humidity made all of our clothes about 10 times heavier. And the temperature right now ranges from the low 90s and dips down into the 70s at night. I am quite surprised, however, at how not unpleasant it is. I don’t mind it one bit. I sleep quite well at night when it’s hot and humid, unlike everyone else who came with me who has their air conditioning running at full blast and set to -3 degrees. I truly am a warm climate person, and that is definitely a good thing here.
As for the city itself…wow. I find myself at a loss for words. I now know why my friend Nathan said the best word to describe this place is “nuts!” I think I’m going to have to rely primarily on photos to describe this place. Even then, photos don’t do the city justice in certain aspects. First of all, this place is enormous. The population is estimated to be around 20 million and growing – fast. There are high rises everywhere. When I walk around the neighborhood of the school, it’s hard to get a true feeling of just how big the place is. But the city has a highly developed elevated transit system, and when you are driving on that, you see just how big the city is. You are about 6 stories up on these roads and as you drive along, you see and endless sea of skyscrapers. During the day, the haze grays everything out, so it’s simply a bunch of neutral colored buildings. But at night, everything changes. The lights flash, blink, dazzle, and inundate your mind. It’s kind of like Las Vegas, just multiplied by about 20 times.
At the street level, this place is replete with photo opportunities. It’s incredibly picturesque, but not in a romanticized, idealized, or mother nature-y kind of way. When you look around, you see things as they really are. You see people as they really are. A short woman in her 50s pushes an elder woman in a wheel chair, while another person sitting on the sidewalk asks if you want to buy some fish or crayfish – all piled up but still alive and squirming within a pail of water. A man rides a rusty, three-wheeled bike down the tight and crowded street ringing a bell. He is collecting cardboard. His clothes are dirty, his hair messy and unkempt. On his feet he wears old sneakers, dirty and abused – reflecting the nature of the work he does to provide for himself and his family. Two women wait as a man negotiates a price on a dish scrubber. This all is taking place within about a 5 foot radius. Oh, and don’t forget the other 8 people, 3 bicyclists, and 2 scooters who are merely passing through. Meanwhile, I am waiting for a woman in her late 40s making what I can only describe as a “Chinese crêpe” about 3 feet in diameter atop a giant barrel filled with what I assume to be boiling water. She spreads it so that it ends up paper thin as her husband spreads an egg, some seasonings, and a peculiar but tasty brown paste on top. They then put on something crunchy and rectangular, then fold the crêpe-like thing all around it, but not before I ask for them to put on a spicy sauce. This will be my breakfast. The cost: two Yuan, which is about 30 cents. Not bad. It certainly beats a $0.99 Egg McMuffin at McDonalds, or a $4 cappuccino at Starbucks. A cool bottle of orange juice or a cup of fresh soy milk will help it go down nicely.
You see how the people here live, what they do, what they sell, and how they get around. They, in return, look right back at you with a look of complete, unabashed curiosity. They may stop and just watch you for about 5 or 10 seconds before they move on. Perhaps they will just watch you for a moment as they go about their daily routine. Or they may stop and start talking with you. You never really know. It’s quite an adventure. And this all happens within about 5 minutes in the morning as I seek out some breakfast. You can imagine what the rest of the day would be like.
If I had to pick one word to describe the Chinese people, I would pick “curious.” Although Shanghai is much, much more exposed to foreigners than most cities in China, everyone I come across or talk to is very kind, hospitable, and incredibly curious. Having also lived in France, I can readily compare both cultures. The contrast between the two is quite sharp. In France, people were largely apathetic. Maybe they would talk with you, maybe they would sneer at you and go on, or maybe they would be quite nice. But overall, they are quite apathetic. They are rather closed until you get to know them really well. At that point, they will remain your friends forever. Here, however, the people are incredibly friendly. They are so eager to talk with you, see what you do, find out what interests you, and just watch you. They ask you where you are from, not because they would judge you on your nationality, but rather as a representation of their curiosity of the world outside of China. Whether you are American, Canadian, Brazilian, or even Azerbaijani (we can pretend that’s the right word), they would treat you the same. You are a foreigner, and they want to know more about you.
We were at a supermarket getting some drinks and one of my colleagues said hello to a lady in front of the store on the narrow street. She instantly began asking him questions. His Chinese vocabulary consists of about 5 words at this point, but she had no hesitation or frustration as she kept asking him questions, even though he couldn’t understand a thing. She had seen his cross he wore around his neck and asked him if he was “Hallelujah”, which meant she was asking if he was Christian. As we emerged from the store to catch up with him, more Chinese people walking and biking down the street stopped and just watched. A crowd began forming, and as it grew, more and more people stopped. They didn’t watch from a distance. They would walk right up in the middle of the circle where we were conversing and look right up in to our faces. It’s simply amazing how eager they are to learn about people from outside China. They aren’t rude or anything. They are quite the opposite, in fact. You may feel like they are stepping into your space on a perpetual basis, but that is the norm here. It’s hard to have 1.3 billion people in a country without people getting a little cozy.
Whenever we go around as a group of 30-some American students, we draw a lot of attention. Today we all went into a gallery that was selling some incredibly amazing Chinese art. The ironic thing here was that the people who were working in the gallery busted out a camera and we taking pictures of us! I took a few pictures too, including a giant stitched panoramic picture of the Shanghai skyline. I hope it turned out well, because it was jaw-dropping amazing. They even had a dozen chairs set in front of it for people to sit down and just look at it. It looked more like a painting than something stitched, and that’s saying quite a lot.
Person Taking Photo of Us
The Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, which I shall hereafter refer to as SUFE, is pretty nice. This school actually has three campuses in Shanghai, but we are on the smallest one. This is where the graduate, international, and highly gifted students go, and all of our classes will be here. We will have an economics class taught by one of the most important economists in China, which is pretty impressive. Apparently he often travels all over the world to speak. I will also have a finance class and a management class. This will all be in English. We also will be doing a relatively extensive research project on a topic of our choice that will require us to go out and meet with people in the city, interview them, and write a final report. We even have a budget for this project! This will certainly be no equivalent to a spring break in Cancun or in Macau, and I’m quite happy about it. The opportunity to learn here is limited only by my own motivation, energy, focus, passion, and curiosity.
The Chinese students start classes a week after us, so the campus is pretty much dead right now, aside from a few faculty members, us, and the local wildlife. At CSU, the local wildlife consisted primarily of squirrels. We don’t have squirrels here though. What we have, instead, are kittens! Yes, I am completely serious. If you go out in the afternoon, you will see kittens lounging under bushes or sprawled on the curb of the gardens relishing in the heat. Occasionally one will get into a building, at which point you see someone scoop it up and carry it out in their hands, its disproportionately large head popping out from their two hands holding it. They let go of it outside, where it scurries off. I haven’t seen any fully grown cats yet. Sometimes a person will have some food and set it down for them. They see it and all come running, even from across the plaza and devour the meal. They are all very skinny and, up close, a bit mangy. They certainly don’t lead a spoiled life. But they do provide some great entertainment.
Yesterday we went out to get cell phones. Wow. You would not believe the cell phone stores here. We went to one digital store and it was probably as big as Best Buy, but literally at least half the floor was devoted entirely to cell phones. Compared to the USA, where you pick your carrier, then get slim pickings as far as phones go, here you pick your phone, then you buy a SIM card to pick your phone service. And as far as phones go, you easily have hundreds you can pick from. It’s insane. Oddly enough, however, I didn’t see any desktop computers in the store. They only had laptops, and even then there weren’t nearly as many as there were cell phones. Overall, though, I would say the prices in the world of high-tech are about the same here as in the US, if not even higher. So, there will definitely be no flat panel TV in my dorm room, not that I plan on watching TV anyway. We have one, but I haven’t even turned it on to see if it works.
The dorm rooms are relatively nice, I think. I mean, they are slightly more ghetto than in the US, but we have our own balconies in each one and our own bathroom. Mine has an awesome view of the huge Shanghai World Financial Center skyscraper in downtown that they are constructing in the financial district. This thing is MASSIVE. When competed, it will have 101 stories and will be the second tallest building in the world from floor to roof. I have followed its construction for the past year because I’m an architecture buff. Most days I can see it from our room, but it’s very hazy. For some reason, our rooms have two beds, two desks, but three closets. Oh, we also have three bookshelves on the wall. I don’t have too much stuff, so I don’t take up much of this space. The bathroom is an adjustment. We do have a normal toilet, compared to the common hole in the ground. But the shower simply hangs from a bracket attached to the wall. There is no shower stall or anything, just a drain in the floor in the middle of the room. There is also a large basic affixed to the wall with one facet that provides cold water only. It’s a deep sink, but there is no counter or anything, so I’m working on getting used to it. The hot water heater has to be turned on an hour before showering so that it can heat the water. We do have air conditioning though, and that is nice. When it’s in the mid 90s outside with 100% humidity, a small room featuring cooler air can make for a nice retreat.
View from My Balcony
The bed could probably be more comfortable. It’s quite hard, as is the pillow. But I sleep well enough, especially after being out in the heat all day. And in the end, I think we have it pretty well here. I certainly have no cause for complaints. And the cockroach I found in my luggage as I unpacked is the only one I’ve seen in here and the only one I expect to see in this room. As long as that remains the case, I will be quite at peace.