People, pollution, and possible food poisoning was all I had heard of Shanghai, China. I couldn’t comprehend over 14 million people living in one city. Being from a town of about 8,000, even San Diego’s little over 1 million still blows my mind. So 14 million was unthinkable!
Weeks before I was scheduled to depart, China released two red alerts in Beijing, because the smog was so dangerous. Children weren’t allowed to attend school and citizens were instructed to stay indoors. Shanghai, although not as bad, was facing similar pollution problems.
And as for the food, I had heard plenty of stories and was repeatedly reminded that Chinese food would not remotely resemble Panda Express. That was what I knew about China when I embarked on this two week study abroad experience.
With that being said, I knew that traveling with only these negative preconceptions would not be beneficial to my experience abroad. From my previous trips, I knew that every place has something great to offer if you approach it with the right mindset.
The key to travel is openness. Openness to people. Openness to ideas. Openness cultures. Openness is how you learn. After my first two days in Shanghai here are 6 things I’ve learned:
- Adjusting to the time change is HARD.
China is 16 hours ahead of California time. Let me tell you, that’s a lot of adjustment. My roommate and I have been up at 5 am every morning. As I’m typing this now, the sun is rising, Chinese locals getting ready for the day, and the constant alarm of car horns is just beginning (more on that in a second). The best advice I could give is to bring snacks. I keep getting hungry at strange times and it’s hard to find something edible in walking distance at 2 am.
- The food is different
It wasn’t like I was expecting orange chicken, but I was still surprised by the food. Nothing tastes like you think it will. I ordered a semi-normal looking noodle dish and it was not at all what I expected. Even though the pan it came out of seemed to be steaming, the noodles were cold. They were also soaked in oil and believe me it was nowhere near coconut oil. To top it off they were uncomfortably salty, so much so that after eating a few bites and drinking a bottle of water, I had to stop. One morning we found a bakery that sold these little puffy bread pieces. After trying them I found they were chewy and had no real flavor. All the flavor and textures of the food I’ve experienced so far have been a little bit off. By the second day of these kind of eating experiences, the group took a trip to Carl’s Jr. and nearly cried at the sight of a hamburger.
- There is coffee (!!!)
Being an avid coffee drinker, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find a cup anywhere. I assumed that there would be tea at every restaurant rather than coffee, but I was happily surprised. In fact, when we did try to order tea we received some sort of hot strawberry concoction or a packaged bottle of iced tea (although the language barrier may have been the cause of that).
- Charades come in handy
The language barrier is probably as big as the Great Wall (not positive I haven’t seen the wall yet). The characters are all different and, although some of the Chinese people I’ve encountered speak English, most do not. It’s especially hard when ordering food. There’s been a lot of watching other Chinese people order and then pointing at what they got and handing over a medium sized bill. The only phrase I’ve learned to say is xie xie (thank you) and every time I’ve said it, the vendor has given me no indication that I’m saying it at all right.
- Pedestrians do not have the right of way
It’s every man (or woman) for themselves. There are traffic lights and sidewalks but they serve as more of guidelines than laws. If the light is green, it is still necessary to look both ways and walk fast. I witnessed a few accidents and thousands of other almost accidents. The city is also filled with the constant ringing of honking horns. The drivers’ honking is more of an awareness than any urgency, it’s to let other cars or people know they are there.
- Metro doors will close on you
Mind the gap, but get on the metro as fast as you can. With a class of 24, getting everyone on and off the subway is a little bit of a struggle. The first time we attempted to get on one, everyone filed on at a leisurely pace. After a minute the doors started beeping and closing. Thinking they would bounce back and reopen like an elevator door, people in our class kept walking in. They quickly realized that the doors weren’t going to stop and if they didn’t hurry they would get caught or left at the station.
The best advice is usually given by people who have experienced the situation, but everyone experiences things differently. No matter how much you have researched (or not researched) the place you are traveling to, there will be some things you can’t plan for. That’s part of the adventure.
So far this trip to Shanghai has been nothing but adventure!
Elsie Weisskoff is earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing at San Diego State University. She is blogging from Shanghai, China, during winter 2016.