Monday, July 5, 2010

Shanghai Shenanigans

I just returned from a month in Shanghai, China. I was there as part of the American Summer Scholarship at Fudan University. I was chosen by the Chinese government from a pool of American students to participate in this program. Overall, there were about 38 of us that participated in the program. It was definitely an unforgettable experience.
Blogspot is blocked in China, along with a few other websites. Subsequently I did not blog while I was there. Instead I sent weekly emails to some family and friends (the ones I happened to have addresses for). Now I will post those weekly updates here so that everyone else can share in my Chinese experience. All of the emails have the date and time according to EST. Shanghai time is 12 hours ahead of EST.


"Hello From China: Friday, June 04, 2010 10:55 AM
Hey everyone!

If you are receiving this email it’s because I thought you would like to be updated about my trip to China. I can’t get on Facebook while I’m here because the site is blocked in China. There are ways to get around the block but I figured a month without Facebook would do me good. So email is my way of communication now! If you know of anyone else that should be on this email list, let me know!

I left Charlotte around 5:30 on Wednesday, June 2, and touched down in Shanghai around 10:00 on the morning of the 4th. It was a very long trip. I would not recommend 14 hour plane flights to anyone but I guess if that’s how long it takes to get around the world… Shanghai is 12 hours ahead of EST.

My flights from New York to Shanghai happened to be the same as the other Clemson student coming for this program. We were invited by the Chinese government as part of the American Summer Scholarship at Fudan University. I still don’t know exactly what it’s for but I’m excited to be here. I was relieved to run into a friendly face. It’s definitely a little intimidating to set out on a trip around the world entirely by yourself. Now that I’m here it’s not so bad. The hardest part is leaving home. I have to say, it feels extremely odd to be a minority though.

I’m staying in a hotel here for my first night. Tomorrow I’ll go to the university. I can’t wait to get there because I’m sick of having to carry my luggage around. One of the big things going on here in Shanghai right now (and one of the main reasons we’re here) is the World Expo 2010. Apparently this has been in the works for several years and is kind of a big deal. I had never heard of it before this trip. My idea of it right now is “the best from all over the world” coming to one place to kind of show off to one another. I’ll have a better idea of it later and I’ll let you know about it then.

As part of the American scholarship program, we’ll have classes on weekdays covering Chinese language, history, culture, etc. We’ll also have some “field trips” around the city. I’ll let y’all know how it all is. I hope everything is great back in the States and that everyone’s having awesome summers! Talk to you soon!


Helena Williams"


"Shanghai Week 1: Thu 6/10/2010 10:14 PM
Ni hao, friends!

That’s about the extent of my Chinese language skills at the moment. I’m in a class of about 6 people from our group that are learning Chinese for the first time. It is not an easy language to learn. Not only do you have to learn new words and what they mean but the Chinese use different tones with their words and different combinations of words and tones have different meanings. So you can have one word that’s said in 4 different tones and each tone will give that one word a different meaning. It’s slightly overwhelming. We haven’t even gotten into the characters. I look at them and it’s like Greek to me except worse. This language barrier makes functioning in China pretty interesting. It’s fun though. And there’s no conjugating verbs so that’s a plus.
I’ve been up at 4 or 5 almost every day this week. I’m slowly getting to where I can sleep in until 6. The sun comes up around 4:30 so I feel like I’m wasting the day if I sleep in too long after that.
So this week has been pretty awesome. I’ve met lots of people from all over the US. Most of them are super cool. We come from all different backgrounds and it’s fun to get to know each other and what everyone’s story is. I’m the only one here with a southern accent although there are a couple of other girls from the South-ish area.
Our classes have all been pretty interesting. I find it a little hard to pay attention because it takes some effort to understand the teachers’ accents. I give them props for teaching us in English though because I definitely can’t speak their language. Yesterday we had paper cutting and calligraphy classes. Paper cutting is a popular form of art here in China. It’s basically like when we used to make snowflakes with paper and scissors when we were little except a lot more talented. The calligraphy class was pretty fun. I don’t know any Chinese characters so I spent most of the time attempting to draw tigers. Go Clemson!
Wednesday we took a bit of a tour around the city. We visited some gardens, a famous shopping strip, and we took a cruise along the river that runs through the middle of the city. It was a pretty wet day but the experience was fun. I have a bunch of pictures but I guess they’ll have to wait for Facebook.
I’ve had several people (strangers that live here in China) ask to take pictures with me. I was a little shocked the first time it happened to me but now I think it’s fun because these people are so happy and friendly. We’ve also had just random pictures taken of us as we were walking around because they don’t see white people that often I guess. Some people try to be discreet about it and some don’t. It kind of makes you feel like a celebrity minus the perks. Another thing I like about this culture: pale is good! My Chinese teacher told me this morning that I was looking very beautiful and white. I couldn’t help but laugh as I thanked her.
A few lessons I’ve learned:
1. Surprisingly, almost anything can be eaten with chopsticks if you try hard enough.
2. It’s impossible for an Asian child not to be absolutely adorable.
3. Pedestrians in China do not have the right of way. Also, lines on the roads are more like mild suggestions of a pathway rather than an actual route to follow.
4. Facebook and a cell phone are not necessary for survival (but they help haha).
I’m attaching a picture of me with the mascot of the World Expo. His name is Hai Bao (spelling?). He’s all over the place here in Shanghai. I’m not sure where they came up with him. Personally, I think he looks like the offspring of Gumby and Crest toothpaste. There are people selling him in all different forms all over the city—from plush hai baos to light up hai baos to key chain hai baos. He’s a pretty popular guy. We go to the Expo next week so I’ll have pictures of that later. Apparently the Expo is the new breed of the World’s Fair. I’m excited to see what they’ll have there. Until next week!


"Shanghai Week 2: Friday, June 18, 2010 1:22 AM

So much has happened since I wrote last. I’ve entered the birthplace of Communism in China, perused the fabric market, and visited a Jade Buddha Temple. Last Friday I attended a rock concert here on campus. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the students here are very talented and I enjoyed the event. We also got to see a girl band perform. They are called Momo and apparently they are famous here in Shanghai. I couldn’t understand anything they said other than random English words but they had a good sound.
Saturday we went up in the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. It’s pretty much just a tall building that people go up to look out on the city. The tower looks pretty cool from the outside but the view could have been better. Shanghai has a healthy layer of smog at all times and the increased pressure from the recent weather has been hugging it into the city. So there have been several days that you can’t see long distances because it looks so foggy (but it’s smog). It’s actually kind of annoying—especially when you’re used to clear, blue, sunny skies. Luckily, the humidity and heat here doesn’t bother me as much since I’m used to it from back home. But you should hear some of these Californians complain!
I was able to go to church on Sunday, which was super awesome. That’s one of my favorite things about visiting other countries. It gave this whole experience a slight sense of normalcy.
I’ve tried a lot of interesting foods since being here. I’ve had squid, octopus, and eggplant (which really isn’t that odd but it looked slimy and gross so I was surprised to find that it actually tasted good), among other things. I am craving Western food pretty badly right now. All of the “Western” food here is more expensive than Chinese food and I’m pretty sure it would not meet my expectations for Western food. So I’ve tried not to eat it. We also learned to make dumplings this week (not the southern kind). And I’ve found dumplings to be one of the Chinese foods I actually like. I especially like xiao long bao (see the picture). I’m told it’s a specialty of Shanghai. It’s different from a regular dumpling because it has soup inside along with whatever else is in the middle. These dumplings are really good!
Oh, yeah! We went to the Expo on Monday. It was basically a group of buildings, or pavilions, (usually one for each country but sometimes they would combine countries from a certain region) set up to show off different cultures. The place was packed. Most of the attendees were Asian although you would run into the occasional foreigner. I went around with one of my friends looking at the outsides of all of the buildings. Even from the outside, most of them were pretty impressive. We had heard stories of 3-8 hour lines. Our policy was not to wait in any line that wasn’t moving. We made it into a few pavilions of which I liked Russia the best. It was full of huge plants inside that reminded me of Ferngully. I’m not sure how it was supposed to be representative of Russia but it made for a good show. The Chinese pavilion was gigantic—the biggest one I saw. I’ll attach a picture of the South Korea pavilion because it was pretty cool looking. By the end of the day I was totally exhausted. It was one of the longest days of my life.
Some things that are different here: girls walk around during the day with parasols and umbrellas to keep the sun off of their skin so they don’t get tan; you’ll see older men (or it could be anybody) walking around the city at any time of day wearing a pair of pajamas; one of the most popular forms of transportation is bike so you see a lot of them around campus—one person will be pedaling the bike and the difference here it that there is very often another person sitting on the back of the bike catching a ride; when people want a break from standing, they don’t want to sit on the ground because it’s dirty so they do what I’ve heard termed the Asian squat (so called by some of the Asians in my program). It’s basically like an American squat except the ball and heel of your foot are both on the ground. They can sit like that forever. I don’t find it extremely convenient but I guess I’m not as used to it. Also, I have decided that I could have a future in editing all of the English that is on display at various places around China. I always see English phrases that are misspelled or not translated correctly on signs and in pamphlets. Being a lover of correct grammar, I find this a shame. But I guess maybe that goes to show just how difficult it is to translate between languages that don’t have the same root.
Well, I guess that’s it for this week. Talk to y’all again soon!



"Shanghai Week 3: Fri, Jun 25, 2010 at 7:22 AM
Hello Everyone!

So today is the end of week three. Once again, it has been quite an eventful week. I went to Wal-Mart this past week. I thought this would be a familiar place for me but I was very wrong. I have never been so lost in a Wal-Mart in my life. One thing about the experience that I can’t get over is the fact that they had blueberry potato chips. I wasn’t in the mood to try them at the time but I am almost convinced that those would never be a good idea.

We had a couple of special activities this week. We visited the Urban Planning Center which was full of a bunch of displays about Shanghai. It was alright to look at but not my favorite thing. We also had a Tai Chi lesson. Our teacher was from Romania. He showed up wearing a black polo that had Abercrombie and Fitch written on the back of the collar, which was popped. I had a bit of a hard time taking him seriously as a martial arts teacher at first. The lesson was alright but a bit hard to follow since it was so short and I feel like Tai Chi isn’t something that can be rushed. We also went to the circus last night and contrary to my expectations, there were no elephants. I found that slightly unfortunate. It was insane though. The acrobats were ridiculously strong—even the women. Some of the things they did were just unbelievable. It was all of the stuff you would think you’d see in a Chinese circus—lots of juggling (hats, balls, umbrellas, rugs, etc), maneuvering of bodies in positions that are sort of unnatural, balancing plates on sticks while walking across each other’s heads, driving motorcycles around the inside of a metal sphere (they did as many as 5 at a time), and more. Most of their stunts made me nervous but luckily everything went smoothly.

I walked the Bund with a couple of friends one night this week. It was so pretty. The Bund is a more touristy/western/developed part of the city where a lot of important buildings are. I’ll attach a picture of a view across the river. I wish I could get better pictures of it but the smog kind of puts a damper on things. The most identifiable structure in that picture is the Pearl Tower. We also went to see Toy Story 3 that night—in English. The movie had Chinese subtitles so there were non-English speakers there as well. There were several points in the movie where my friends and I would be the only ones laughing because the humor didn’t translate over through the Chinese. I thought that was funny because we were four loud girls in a silent audience. It was a very cute movie though.

This morning we did stone carving in class. We were each given a couple of rectangular stones and a metal tool. We carved Chinese characters (or smiley faces for the guy next to me) into one of the ends. Once we were done carving we dipped the end into ink and used the carving (or seal, as it’s called) to make a stamp on paper. Here in China people will get seals with their name carved into the bottom. For instance, when we did calligraphy a couple of weeks ago our teacher did several pieces and on each one he used his seal to stamp the calligraphy—sort of like signing his work.

One phenomenon that I have forgotten to tell y’all about before now is what my friends and I call “couple shirts.” They are everywhere here. Basically it’s a couple who either wears identical shirts or a pair of shirts that in some way complete each other. For instance I’ve seen a pair that says on one “I believe…” and the other “…in love” so that when they stand next to each other the phrase is complete. And sometimes if the couple has a kid, the kid will wear a matching shirt as well. It’s an interesting anomaly.

My classes seem to be more boring for the past few days. Our recent topics have been foreign trade, China’s capital market, social security, and today is the stock market. Some of our classes are really interesting and I think the most important factor is the professor. There have been a couple that I’ve really liked and they were very interesting to listen to. My Chinese class is fun most of the time but it’s just a bit redundant to have it every morning at 8:30. Our teacher is really sweet. I do enjoy feeling like I’m actually learning something that I can apply thoug. It seems pretty easy to catch onto things that I’ve learned when I hear it spoken in conversation so that’s pretty cool. But I’m not so awesome at speaking right now. These tones still trip me up. Luckily, I have friends here in the program that can speak and they help me out when I need it.

Only one week left!




"Shanghai Week 4, The End!: Thu, Jul 1, 2010 at 11:16 PM
Hey Everyone!

I’ve finally come to the end of my month in Shanghai. It has been pretty amazing. This week has been full of new experiences. I feel like I’ve had more interaction with the locals recently. I wish I had more time to be here and really get to know the Chinese people.

Earlier this week we had a Chinese brush painting class. It was pretty hard. I enjoyed classes more this week in general though because they were geared toward the social sciences and art. Today was our last class so all I have between me and the airport is closing ceremonies tomorrow!

Here are a few of the things that I will remember from my experience….

Things I will not miss:

-The dirtiness of a big city (although Shanghai seems to be worse than most I’ve been to). I will also live quite happily without all of this smog. I imagine even the dirtiest places in South Carolina to be clean compared to here.

-There are horns and bells on cars, trucks, bikes, trikes, motorcycles, and mopeds here that honk and beep and ring constantly. If anyone in China (at least in Shanghai) happened to drive a horse and buggy, I’m sure that it would come complete with a horn. It really has been one of the biggest annoyances to me. My only break from this noise pollution is when I’m sleeping and that’s only because I’m not conscious enough to acknowledge that it’s happening.

-The beds here are not very comfortable. I haven’t found them as much of an inconvenience as some of the other students. But honestly one of the exercise mats at the gym would probably be more comfortable to sleep on.

-I have discovered while living here that cilantro is one of the foods that I don’t like. I find it an unfortunate circumstance because I feel like I should like it but then again I am not in control of fate. It just so happens that cilantro is in a lot of Asian foods so it’s been kind of hard to avoid it here.

-Being stared at everywhere I go gets old pretty quickly. There are some people I don’t mind looking at me; I can tell they’re just curious. But others are kind of creepy. It will definitely be nice to blend in a little more when I get home.

-I think one of the most frustrating things for me while I was here was not being able to read things when I’m out and about. It makes functioning independently a bit of a challenge. I also didn’t like having to have other people speak for me when we were out in the city. The language barrier makes me feel ignorant here.

Things I will miss:

-As much as I claim not to be a fan of public transportation, every time I have left a big city I end up missing it. I will be very happy to get back to my car though, for sure. I’ll also miss being forced to walk long(er) distances when I want to get somewhere. It’s really good exercise!

-Being able to go to my church here has definitely been a blessing. I’m sad that I didn’t have as much time to get to know the people better.

-There is a vegan restaurant here that has a really good soup I like. My friends tell me it’s authentic Asian but it could definitely pass as homemade vegetable soup. I love it.

-I love the fact that my money goes farther here. The conversion rate has been about 1 USD = 6.8 yuan while I’ve been here (although I think it changed recently). I haven’t spent a ton of money by American standards but you can definitely get a lot of stuff cheap here.

-These adorable little Asian children!

-Sadly, we don’t have street food in America (at least not in North Augusta). Around 9:00-9:30 at night several vendors post up out on the street and sell various food items from Asian dumplings to kabobs to fruits to French fries (I haven’t tried these in particular but I’m sure they are somewhat different from the States). My favorite street food is a meat sandwich that is basically pork chopped very finely and stuck in a flat sort of biscuit thing.

-I’ll miss getting to take pictures with all of the Asian tourists around Shanghai. I love seeing how excited they get when I agree to take a picture with them. I can tell it makes their day.

-The city looks really beautiful at night because everything is lit up—buildings, bridges, trees, everything. I don’t want to know the cost of Shanghai’s electric bill but it puts on a nice show. I especially like the Bund area. It’s almost magical on a clear night.

-I will miss my Chinese classes. I’m not sure yet what sort of relationship I’ll pursue with this language after I get back home. Hopefully I make time for it.

-And of course, I am going to miss all of the awesome people I’ve met here. They have become wonderful friends and we have some great memories together.

But now I am ready to come home! So in a little over 24 hours I will be on a plane out of Shanghai and I’ll get home the evening of July 4th—God bless America! Happy Fourth of July to everyone! Watch some cool fireworks for me because I will probably miss them because of traveling. Thanks for sharing this experience with me for the past month. Hopefully these emails were interesting to read. I appreciate all of the prayers and words of encouragement. Y’all are awesome! I hope the rest of your summers are amazing and hopefully I will see all of you at some point in the future. Take care!



P.S. This picture is me and my friend from church with some cute girls on the Bund who asked for a picture with us."

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