(February 6 — February 11, 2014)
*Note: this was originally published via email February 12, 2014*
The first time I truly felt uneasy while abroad was in a Shanghai train station waiting room, where my friend and I were waiting to board a night train that would take us to Beijing. We were anxious to board our 11-hour train because, other than the fact that we had no clue what we were doing, the waiting room was packed to max capacity.
We were waiting in a large warehouse that could have fit a decent sized plane, and there was little to no room for any personal space. There was trash everywhere and beggars shaking coins in your face demanding more Yuan, and many of the Chinese were passing the time by glaring at the only two white people in the entire room. For some of the little Chinese children, we were the first white people they had ever seen. Some of the children couldn’t keep their eyes off of us, and some even poked at their mothers and pointed in our direction. “Look mommy — they do exist!”
Coming from America, a melting pot of races and cultures, I had come to a place where no such diversity existed. I noticed this lack of diversity in Japan, but the Japanese were welcoming of any foreign travelers coming into their country. In China, you were intruding. At the station I felt so uncomfortable trying to smile at strangers who would not return my smiles, so to pass the time all I could do was try to understand the Chinese characters on the label of my purchased water bottle (you cannot drink the water in China).
I tried to find some peace in the bathroom, but it was even more packed with trash and Chinese men polluting the air with cigarette smoke (I wanted to take a picture of a group of suited men smoking under the clearly visible NO SMOKING sign, but I wouldn’t risk my life for such a photo). And my first experience with a hole in a ground as a toilet did not go well (a warm up though compared to what I will see in India).
We had been waiting in the middle of the waiting hanger for almost an hour when we decided to get in line for our train, which was to board in ten minutes. We got in line and felt relieved knowing that a sleeper bed was in our very close future, even though we had idea of how we would be able to sleep on a train full of so many people. Ten minutes went by, and the announcer called for all passengers to get in line for the train, a line that would take us through three metal gates that were smaller than any subway gate in New York City.
Instantly the entire waiting hanger began rushing towards the gates, and soon a sea of Chinese people literally swept us from our feet. The line had turned into a crowd. We were lifted out of line and had no control of where our bodies would go, and we began to move away from the gates. All we could hear were the shouts of violent mandarin right in our ears, none of which we could understand, and all we could see where the furious moments of people all trying to move through the same three little tiny gates, and if your ticket didn’t work then you would of been trampled by the crowd — one woman in front of us almost was.
For the first time while studying abroad, I panicked. My friend and I were hopelessly trying to get out of the sea of Chinese with little luck, so we latched onto each other’s backpacks to make sure that we weren’t separated, and we hoped for the best that we would somehow make it. As I frantically looked upon the many faces that surrounded us, I did not see a single face that wasn’t bothered by the sheer size and force of the crowd. For all they knew, this was a typical travel day. I couldn’t imagine a single place in America where this would have been acceptable. I also couldn’t imagine a single place in America that could fit all these people.
Though we were never really in any kind of actual danger, for the first of many times I was overwhelmed by the realization that I was a minority in the world’s most populated country of 92% Han Chinese. This was also a Communist country where its people were caught under the rule of the Mao Zedong’s ghost. All Chinese currency had Mao’s picture, and his famous portrait that looms over the entrance of the Forbidden City and looks over all of Tiananmen Square is a hot commodity that could be found on coffee mugs, T-shirts and bus posters. I never once saw a picture of Xi Jinping, the current President of the People’s Republic of China, but I didn’t need to — this was still Mao’s country.
From what I also saw, the Chinese are also trapped in the awkward afterglow of an economic and political boom. They had recently become prominent on the world’s stage with its economy and its recent promotion to a world superpower (remember how impressed we all were with the 2008 Beijing Olympics?), and it seemed that China would soon take over the world. But as I walked the streets of Shanghai and Beijing I did not see any sort of economic or social boom. I saw cities that were full of too many old buildings with no room for renovation, and I saw a people that, though I wouldn’t say were openly oppressed, appeared defeated from any sort of promising future.
Or maybe it was my failure as an American to see China for what it actually was. As a college student studying business, I was taught that China owns the United States and that the day would soon come when they would take over. But I did not waste my six days in China trying to observe China economy and think about political theories — I spend my time observing the everyday, the side of China that my business school fails to tell me. And, as America’s middle class is slowly becoming non-existent, I only saw a single middle class — everyone wasn’t doing great, but everyone was doing fine. Was this Communism?
Only Shanghai and the Olympic village of Beijing looked anything remotely modern (after traveling to Hong Kong and seeing its strange “one country, two systems” political theory along with the extravagant lifestyle of its citizens, I don’t consider it a part of China). But with these modern touches, we always felt like we were under the ever surveillance of the Chinese government. Literally, there were cameras on every street corner and on every building, and many SASers ran into situations where they noticed policemen following them on subways and even into nightclubs. It struck me how far away I was from home and how little control I had over my anxiety and curiosity. But the United States and the NSA are not foils to China’s surveillance, so I knew that if I were to be in China then I had to play by their own rules.
In just two of our six days in China, I experienced more culture shock than in all six days of Japan. Where Japan was clean, efficient and welcoming, China was cold, dirty and run down. The many Chinese flags that were positioned on nearly every major building were cold reminders of China’s theology — the red represents the Communist Revolution and of the four Chinese social classes (the working class, the peasantry, the petite, and the national bourgeoisie) all revolving around the large star, which is the Communist Party of China. I saw plenty of the large star, but I only encountered the working class.
The people had been friendly enough, but where as the Japanese wanted to make sure that us American tourist were comfortable in their land, the Chinese didn’t care that we were even there. But I still encountered some amazing strangers that restored my faith in humanity over and over again — my heart goes out to the brave woman and her eight-yearold son whom were brave enough to try and help my friend and I figure out the entire Shanghai rail system without being able to utter a single word of English. The more places I travel to, the more I notice these good Samaritans, and these are the people that we remember the most from traveling. These everyday good people, whom would normally never cross our minds, become extraordinary heroes to us while we travel, and they are the necessary reminders that there are good people everywhere. You do not need a vocal language to help your fellow man.
China was a difficult experience to write about in a single email, and I’m still trying to find the words for a very challenging yet incredible experience. I find myself frustrated with simply listing off the things I did while in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, but for now that will have to do.
A massive rainstorm covered all of Shanghai in the two days we were there, yet the rain could not take away the city’s impressive views, especially at night with its incredible skyline. The city is a mix of traditional western infrastructure and advanced eastern designs that makes it look like a modern futuristic city. If you ever need a real-life model for Gotham City, rainy Shanghai is your city.
The MV Explorer came into Shanghai port on the night of February 6th; we actually reached Chinese land around 1 pm that afternoon, but it took about seven hours to navigate through the Yangtze River that leads to Shanghai, China’s largest city by population. Both sides of the river leading up to the city is full of miles of industry, and you can literally taste the pollution on your tongue — many students couldn’t stay outside for too long because of the smell.
When we reached the city, the sun was setting and we watched the lights of Shanghai lit up and we stood in awe. It was the most impressive skyline that I had ever seen, and it was the first of many reminders of the flip side of China’s red and gold coin — this is one of the most impressive countries in the world that, in many ways, were more advanced that the United States. In America we always talk of the eventual Chinese takeover, but from walking its streets and meeting its people it felt like the Chinese didn’t need America at all — they already had Shanghai.
That night we only had enough time to check out the famous strip of bars known as The Bund and we slept on the ship to save money. The next morning we made our way to the train station to pick up our tickets and we killed a couple hours by walking around and exploring the city during the day. We quickly realized that Shanghai is a night city and there was little to do during the day, especially in the rain.
As we walked around, we began to pick up on the few differences China set itself apart from Japan and America. Right away from our first subway experience, we immediately experienced the difference between the Japanese and Chinese. On a subway in Japan everyone was neatly packed in and mindful of their own space, and you wouldn’t hear anyone talk above a whisper. In China everyone finds whatever space they can find, and we found that we had to push and shove our way through the crowds much more, and all we could hear were the loud engines of the old subways trains and of loud Chinese loudly talking, sometimes shouting, to their neighbors to be heard over the loud engines. This was all very different from petite little Japan.
In Shanghai we also noticed that there was a lack of popular culture in China, or at least it was all borrowed. Japan has its own identity in popular culture (J-Pop is Japan’s most popular music genre, more popular than anything Justin Beiber could ever release) and much of its culture has been exported throughout the world. China is the world’s largest exporter and importer of goods, but it imports nearly all of its pop culture from the west. We went into one of Shanghai’s many shopping convention centers (calling it a mall wouldn’t do it justice) and every store we passed was covered with the faces of Kobe Bryant, Miley Cyrus and other American celebrities promoting their goods.
A SASer commented earlier that morning that, although it has a long history that goes back towards the beginning of civilization, China as a modern united state has only been in existence for sixty-five years and was still trying to define its culture. I couldn’t quite understand what my friend was trying to get at, but as I walked through the shopping mall that only offered McDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC in its food court and was only playing American music on its loudspeakers, it began to make some sense.
So far Beijing has been the hardest city I’ve traveled in on SAS. It’s a historic city caught in the middle of its growing superpower status, yet it was clear as we explored the city that progress was slow or at times nonexistent. I never felt in danger, but I always felt uneasy being in China’s political capital.
After our Shanghai train station incident, we arrived in Beijing in the early morning and the city was covered in heavy snow and ten-degree cold that made me feel right at home (don’t worry mom, I bought a winter hat and I was well dressed the entire time). Without any knowledge of where anything was, and without any English-speaking Chinese people in the entire station or any maps of the city, we decided to go to the subway and pick a subway station that seemed the most promising. Lucky for us, we managed to take the subway to Tiananmen Square by complete accident, and we were able to knock out the Square and the Forbidden City before the crowd of SASers got there.
I would say seeing Tiananmen Square was my highlight of China. After only seeing photos of the square in the summer of fall, seeing the square nearly empty and completely covered in snow was a rare and beautiful sight. As we walked towards Mao and the Forbidden City, I began to replay the moments of history that took place in this square, especially the 1989 protests that killed hundreds of unarmed civilians, and I stood in awe of one of the most infamous squares of the world.
We then traveled to Olympic park, which was a little less serious endeavor. It’s only been six years since the famous Beijing Olympic games, yet the Chinese are already treating it like one of the most celebrated events in its history. We saw all the buildings we could recognize from TV, and we went inside the Bird’s Nest and sat in the seats for a while, replaying in our heads the opening ceremony and Usain Bolt’s famous race. Even in the cold weather the park was packed, and I’m sure that it’ll be packed for many more years.
We then made our way to another fun experience that was uniquely Chinese — bartering markets. We found one that was nine-floors tall and was full of all the greatest fake movies, clothes, watches and electronics that you could ever want. I was proud of myself for buying a pair of John Lennon sunglasses and bartering for half the price.
For dinner, my friend arranged a meeting of a friend’s parents whom lived in Beijing. They took us to this wonderful restaurant downtown, and they shared with us some insight into everyday working and living life in Beijing. They seemed happy to live in Beijing, and they shared many wonderful stories of traveling to America (the father believed the Grand Canyon was far more impressive than the Great Wall). The parents ordered our entire dinner for us. We had more duck and dumpling than we could stomach, and the parents explained to us how important meals are to Chinese families and how each dish represents a different providence of China. It was much tastier than all the McDonald’s we had in China (if our group failed at one thing it was trying new foods, but we were skeptical of trying new foods in a country where it wasn’t safe to drink the water).
But we saved our best event for our last day — the Great Wall of China. It was five-degrees and snowing when we got the wall, and we hadn’t eaten at all that day and we had a stressful time finding a bus that would take Americans to the great wall. It was one of the greatest mornings of my entire life. As impressive as the Great Wall is, it is simply a wall that is miles and miles long. I’m severely downplaying the beauty and wonder of the wall, but I cannot add more to the Great Wall other that it is simply the most impressive man-made thing that I’ve ever seen, though I did not forget the millions of lives this wall took and of its less popular nickname, “The World’s Largest Grave.”
Hong Kong is a city built upon shops. There are literally only shops in Hong Kong, and they are all full of things you can’t afford. The MV Explorer was stationed along the extravagant Harbor City shopping area which itself was a cultural experience (did you know that there is Gucci for babies?). I had never seen so many advertisements in my life, but I doubt any of these flawless looking people, most of them white western models and not eastern, would have wasted their glamor on this Indiana boy who couldn’t afford to even walk into these shops.
Hong Kong is a true international city — imagine New York City but set in Asia. I could not, and still can’t, fathom that this city is technically a part of the same country as Beijing, but it was refreshing to see more English in the many bright lights of the signs that illuminated the city all day and night. Shanghai has the better skyline, yet I found myself more drawn to Hong Kong’s friendlier skyline. There is a long walkway along the river that runs along the skyline, and I found myself spending most of my time there reflecting on my travels and admiring that such a world friendly place such as Hong Kong can exist.
We didn’t have much time to see specific sights and there was nothing that I could afford, so nearly all my time was spend exploring, which itself was still a rewarding exercise in people watching. I saw the richest of the rich from all around the world come and go into these mansions of shops, and I tried, but failed, to find a part of Hong Kong that wasn’t littered with shops. Everywhere I went was a sale, and everywhere I went people were buying. Eventually the shops became too much, and I had to come back to the ship to drop off my bags and take a thirty-minute nap (the most pleasant sleep I ever got in China).
As I was emotionally and physically drained, I was relieved to make plans on my one free night with a good friend from IU who was studying abroad in Hong Kong. We both are in the business school together, and she was one of the few people I knew who was familiar with Semester At Sea. We had a wonderful Dim Sum dinner and afterwards we watched the nightly light show that lit up the Hong Kong skyline. I then showed her the MV Explorer and we walked along the water talking for hours and sharing stories and photos. We shared our studying abroad experiences in the East, laughed about how petty our first world problems were back in college, and confided in each other about how hard it will be to come back to the states and trying to answer the question of “How was studying abroad?” without punching someone in the face.
It was nice seeing a non-SASer and sharing a common experience of going through such a huge change that nobody back home will see. Neither of us could find a good answer of “How was studying abroad” because there is no such thing as a good answer.
But I’m working on it.