I was fortunate enough to supplement my academic experience with various travels and just exploring Shanghai at length. One particularly memorable trip was one I took during the Moon Festival. Eight of my new friends and I decided to make an excursion to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) over the long weekend. It was a perfect destination due to its relative proximity to Shanghai and its prominence in China. We bought our train ticket, and in an effort to be economical, we chose the hard seats. So after a torturous 15 hour overnight journey, we finally made it to Huangshan city at eight in the morning. After relaxing all day in the first hotel we found after getting off the train and exploring the city a little bit, we decided to start climbing the next day.
Not knowing exactly how long the hike would take, we brought everything with us – a few loaves of bread and some ramen noodles, and embarked on our journey. After two separate buses and trying to figure out where to sleep on the mountain, we finally reached the bottom of the hill. We took a gondola to the top, hiked all day, and arrived at our lodging by nightfall and crashed.
The purpose of spending the night on the mountain was to catch the sunrise in the morning. We arose at 5:30 the next morning and caught a stunning sunrise as the sun came up above the clouds between the mountain ridges. Shortly after, we continued our hike and were off the mountain by 9 a.m. This started our adventure of getting back. Our first bus dropped us of in the middle of nowhere, and we had to use our Chinese language skills to ask the locals directions and bus schedules. Eventually we made it back after a much shorter five hour bus ride, and getting back into Shanghai was when I first realized how comfortable I felt in Shanghai, a city that was completely foreign to me just a month earlier.
Another adventure I had the pleasure of experiencing was the market. I had heard stories about the market and had even seen pictures, but nothing can really prepare you for the exhausting activity that is shopping. The main market that I went to was called Qipu Lu, which was a complex of interconnected buildings in which one could easily become lost. Once I ended up on the other side of the street without even knowing how it happened. Entering the market and not looking Chinese, I was targeted immediately. The market is loud, colorful, and every single stall tries to get you inside. This becomes extremely exhausting seeing as there are hundreds of stalls. Some storekeepers know limited English, others just insisted on pulling me into their stall. Once a shopkeeper grabbed me and would not let me go until I had looked at all his goods. The market was also filled with 'helpers' who had picture cards of various items sold in the area. If someone pointed to an object, they would take the shopper to the store that paid them commission and had the featured item. Being a foreigner, I was constantly being targeted by these helpers. They would eavesdrop on my conversation and try to direct me to stalls that carried those items.
One skill I developed during my stay was bargaining. Bargaining is expected and anyone who doesn't is sure to overpay. Items in the stalls are not labeled with prices, and it's a good idea to decide on an item and be seriously interested before asking for a price. Personally, no matter what price was said, I would say it is too high and look at the shopkeeper as if they offended me for overcharging. A rule of thumb is to counter with a price that's about 10% of the original asking price. This may seem ridiculous, but they always overcharge foreigners. Have a price in mind that you're not willing to exceed, and if you can't manage to get it down to that price, then just walk away. Many times the shopkeeper will chase after you and go down on the price. It pays to be friendly and to attempt to speak some Chinese.
Another fun experience in China was ordering and trying so many different amazing foods. My first meal in China was in Beijing, and also the first time I tried eating with chopsticks. When there are no other options, it's amazing how quickly someone can learn to use chopsticks. I got a lot of practice by visiting the various restaurants and street vendors nearby the university. For example, there was an extremely popular dumpling stall, and a mere five RMBs (less than one US dollar) got me a dozen dumplings. This stall was so popular it was even featured on a local TV station. Other restaurants around the University were all priced inexpensively, and it was nearly impossible to spend more than two US dollars on a meal. The street-side restaurants obviously weren’t as sanitary as US restaurants or even larger Chinese restaurants, but the food was delicious and I learned to accept the fact that they never worn gloves. I also learned that many restaurants also doubled as people's homes. One night I walked by after the shops had closed, and there were some people who had pulled out bunks into the restaurant. This struck me as crazy, as these people never leave the restaurant and they are open sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. One restaurant owner I met was named "Jack" and he was my age and owned a little dumpling shop. He spoke decent English and asked me if I could exchange with him American money because he wanted to travel to Seattle some day. I'm not sure if he will realize his dream, but working out of a tiny food stall is keeping his dream alive. He always had a smile on his face and said hello every time I passed.
These travels, encounters, and personal anecdotes are what made the study abroad experience so rewarding and memorable. It was an amazing opportunity to live in a completely different culture and challenge myself in every way. I would do it again in a heartbeat and recommend everyone else to take on the challenge.
Content maintained by International Programs