Following perhaps my most enjoyable term at Oxford, I’ve set out on a journey 6,000 miles away on what has so far been the most enlightening trip I’ve ever had. I’ve been asked on multiple occasions why on earth did I decide to go to China when I don’t speak Chinese and do a German degree? Dear reader, I asked myself that same question when I was being corralled through customs at Pudong Airport after a twelve-hour flight from Paris, following a sign that bared the rather un-PC name ‘foreigners’.
I’m visiting Shanghai, the largest city on earth (depending how you measure it), for eight weeks on an internship at a non-for-profit organisation supporting British businesses and their development. In the two weeks I’ve been here, my time has been highly enjoyable, from the enlightening, the amusing, to the downright bizarre.
My working day consists of me getting out of bed at the insane hour of 7am in weather so humid I feel like I’m in a swimming pool all day, before climbing aboard the whirlwind of death that is the Shanghai Metro. It’s a most un-British experience. Politeness and orderliness go to shreds when you’re squeezing your way onto a subway carriage where people are so amazed to see a blonde-haired person that they take photos of you on the morning commute. I then wander outside into the stifling heat, past the red flags, and into work. To be fair, you really don’t notice that China’s not a democracy except in glimpses like how Facebook and Twitter are officially blocked, although as OUSU’s ex-Returning Officer, the lack of elections is alarming.
My workplace is a British company, conveniently located above four floors of Marks and Spencer on the longest shopping street in the world (Nanjing Road). But it remains a culture shock when you step outside at lunchtime, struggling by through pointing, hand actions and saying ‘zhege’ (this one) and ‘xiexie’ (thank you) when ordering dumplings or noodles. Luckily, the cuisine is excellent, although I’ve eaten some unusual things like turtle.
Of course, it’s not all work and no play, as I’ve discovered from exploring Shanghai from a more tourist-y perspective on the weekend. First things first, I meet up with other interns and do what many students do best: get plastered. Only here, it’s a far cry from Wahoo or Plush. We start in taxi from Pudong (I admit the name is funny) passing the skyscrapers of Lujiazui, paying only about a quid each (taxis and food are dirt cheap here) to reach a rather claustrophobic dance floor. Occasionally, I find myself getting street food after (think Hussein’s or Hassan’s, only more noodles and fewer kebabs) out on the Bund, which is modelled on Liverpool’s waterfront, at 5am in the morning.
As it’s the biggest city in the world, there’s obviously plenty to see, from the quaint and green People’s Park to the department stores on Nanjing Road, which you wander past on your way to the Bund, being offered countless “massages” on the way there. Shanghai is a very westernised place by Chinese standards so there’s very little in the way of ‘traditional’ China here, although there are glimpses of it. During rush hour when I had a half hour to spare, I walked around the Jing’an Temple, a stone’s throw from my office, where the sound of people throwing coins into wells and the smell of burning incense drowned out the morning traffic and the occasional onslaught of pollution. There’s also the Yuyuan Gardens and the Old Town, where I hear there’s a market selling crickets and other insects.
It feels extraordinary to be in such an unusual, albeit exciting country, where the cultural contrast can be daunting but if taken light-heartedly, is astounding or at least hilarious. The dreaming spires of Oxford seems so far away, as does my Yorkshire home, although my memories of the latter certainly come out in the markets here where you barter for what you want, so the strategy and stinginess come to the fore.
Indeed, I might never truly understand what actually brought me here besides my own curiosity and dreams of experiencing the world, which I’ve chased all this way. Maybe I’m sounding a little too fascinated because when all’s said and done, it’s not like I’ve discovered another planet. Yet as someone who has only been out of Europe once, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this.
However, I’ve always held that you’ve got to experience what hasn’t been experienced, which is certainly what I’m trying to do here and am doing so successfully. I’ve made plans to visit the countryside beyond Shanghai and see the city from the top of one of those skyscrapers. But for now I’m playing out the dream I set out to live on my year abroad away from Oxford, a city I already miss so much. But so far, I’m astounded by what I’ve seen.