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I didn’t realize how distinctly American I was until I began my study abroad experience in China. I knew I was an outsider when I was walking through YuYuan Garden and was met with deadlock stares. I was aware that going crazy in arcades garnered the stares of people who did not realize that the avid arcade culture is something that is unique to China. However, this became especially apparent when I began my classes at Fudan University. There is something unique about the way that American students perceive their presence within a classroom that can be categorized under the characteristics that seems to define all Americans abroad: loud and obnoxious.

YuYuan garden during the day (left), when entry costs around five dollars a person. The same garden area during the annual lantern festival, this year in celebration of the Year of the Pig. Pig decor and memorabilia are especially common in Shanghai this year!

On my first day of class my friends and I arrived at Fudan University fifty minutes before class began, purely driven by first day nerves. What could barely be defined as a crowd of American students, three or four at best, had now become the sole source of noise in the hallway outside the classroom. We complained about the commute, passionately expressed our interest in acquiring breakfast, and constantly messed with the touch screen tablet that is stationed outside every classroom. Putting it not so delicately, we were being loud and obnoxious. Enter another foreign exchange student, headphones in, eyes averted to the ground, clearly not in the mood to talk. Naturally, we asked her what her name was and where she was from. When she responded that she was from the Netherlands and returned the question, four scattered and equally jarring voices responded “America!” She then did what most people do when they see a crowd of loud and obnoxious foreigners: she smirked, nodded mockingly, and said, “yeah I figured.”

Fudan University in Shanghai. This is one of Fudan’s two campuses, were most of my classes take place. Students enjoy many locations to relax within the traditional campus setting.

That was an interesting experience for me, to say the least. I had never identified myself as an American. According to my passport, I am not. However, there is a level solidarity that I now feel with my classmates. Regardless of our own cultural backgrounds, we had all been somehow influenced by our time in America; it effected our behavior, our mindsets, and the way we viewed our responsibilities as students. American students are more rambunctious, both in their behavior and their academic ideas.

(From left to right) A Chinese vintage store in Tianzifang, Shanghai. One of the many gigantic arcades located around the city, this one was also in Tianzifang. “Fried Ice-Cream” from a small fried foods stall across the street from our apartments. These turned out to be fried deep purple balls of custard and not ice-cream at all. They were still absolutely delicious!

This became clear to me in my business class. When asked to pitch a technological innovation that would improve student life, there was a clear division of groups: Americans and other foreign exchange students. The American students went wild, we pitched a cafeteria app that would eliminate language barriers, account for dietary restrictions, and even tell students how busy the cafeteria was before they got there. Ambitious, as expected, but also, as our teacher  explained to us, very difficult to implement and coordinate. The other group came up with a feasible library cataloguing database for which the technology was readily available. The teacher loved it.

This made me question whether or not this blind ambition was beneficial to us as students. Perhaps it would be better to stick to safer options. I have come to the conclusion that neither option is superior, they are just starkly different. They are reflections of the diversity of human thought, traditions, and culture. My academic experience has been opening me up to facets of educational practice, student culture, and social etiquette that differ drastically from what I am used to. I am very excited to dive into this new type of student life and gain different perspectives on what I had previously understood as the accepted order of things.

Two incredible views of Shanghai. The first is from my apartment (left) and the second if from the YuYuan Garden metro stop (left) which is the starting point of our forty-five minute commute to Fudan University.

The first thing you notice when you touch down in Shanghai is the complete lack of personal space. I say this as someone who is usually comfortable cramming into a packed subway car in Manhattan. We were warned of this cultural difference before we left for the semester, but there is nothing quite like experiencing it for yourself. What I’ve come to realize, however, in the last few days that I have been in China, is that this cultural difference is actually one that forces you headfirst into the local community. The people in Shanghai live in a level of comfort with each other that I have never experienced in any of my travels. There is unique a sense of camaraderie and tradition that the entire community adheres to. The ancient cultures and practices that are the foundations of Chinese life are clearly ingrained in every individual I have come across in my short time in Shanghai.

On our scavenger hunt we came across an adorable woman leading a board game in People’s Park and we were all enamored by her charisma. Although we didn’t understand the game, we were positive she was winning.

An amazing example of this sense of community is the Shanghai marriage market in People’s Park. We experienced this practice firsthand on one of our initial activities as a cohort. The Shanghai marriage market is a tradition that has been going on for generations. Essentially, parents gather around in the “blind corner” of the central People’s Park, and hold a sort of showcasing for their unwed sons and daughters. On opened umbrellas, advertisements can be seen boasting good looks and successful careers, as the actual bachelors and bachelorettes are nowhere to be seen. This practice is a clear indicator of the tradition and culture surrounding marriage in China. Parents see it as their duty and right to make sure that their children find the perfect match. This is a very traditional practice that makes me thing of the way marriage is viewed in India as well. I find it so interesting that ancient cultures can bring their value systems into the 21st century unbothered by the global culture of the modern era and pass these traditions down to their children. This is very clear in Chinese culture and I look forward to discovering more of Shanghai’s hidden cultural gems in the months to come!

The Shanghai Marriage market was such an interesting event to walk through. Parents swarmed us to find out if we wanted to marry their children and even pulled out pictures to show us and convince us to say yes. It was definitely a memorable sight.

By Deah Dushyanth

I have always defined myself as a global citizen. Yes, I grew up in New York and sound distinctly American, but my passport will always display the trio of lions that make up the State Emblem of India. In fact, until very recently, I was a complete foreigner in the place I’d called my home my entire life. After twelve years of waiting, I received my Green Card a few days after my 17th birthday in 2016. Officially receiving that small piece of plastic meant that I was finally entitled to most of the same rights as any American citizen. In my mind, it meant that I had as much a reason to be here as any one of my friends. Still, did this finally make me American? But even more importantly, did I even want to be American?

If there’s one thing the immigration process taught me, it's that there are certain passports you want to have, and others that will result in waiting. A lot of waiting. Growing up, I likely spent just as much time at the USCIS building in Manhattan as I did on the playground with my friends. I’m not here to spin a sob story about my lost childhood in my family’s pursuit of the American dream, because that would be a lie. Yes, I missed out on a lot of the carefree aspects of being a child that my peers were able to enjoy, but growing up immigration office-hopping was actually an incredibly rewarding experience for a kid. I learned how to tell where a person was from based on the color of their passport, which helped when I trying to decipher people’s conversations in every language I would hear in the waiting room, consumed by boredom. Even then I was incessantly nosy and annoyingly friendly. I learned the importance of patience, protocol and attention to detail, watching my parents fill out every form in the known universe, and failing, on many occasions, to do so correctly. Most importantly, I learned resiliency and the art of getting through to people who only see you as another face in a sea of individuals who want the same thing. My particularly unique childhood was simultaneously foreign and inherently American, something that every immigrant child grapples with.

My identity has always been something that seemed to be working against me. I festered over it all: my cultural identity, my identity within my family, and my duty as a member of a global community. For a long time, I was ashamed of the fact that I didn’t have roots in the place I called home. I often found myself wishing I’d won the geographic lottery and stuck the landing in New York instead of Bangalore, India. Conversely, I wished that my parents had never left India, saving me the energy of understanding how to grow up in a completely new country. I came to understand, however, that my cultural bipolarity is an integral part of my identity. The Indian side of me helps me understand things on a global scale, and see beyond the idyllic cultural bubble of the northern hemisphere. I understand that people lead different lives in every part of the world because, for a time, my life wasn’t what it is now. But I would be lying if I said there isn’t a big part of me that is completely American. I credit my sense of agency and often bull-headed inability to accept failure to the country that I grew up in. The combination of these value systems is what makes me believe that everybody should be a global citizen. In an effort to not sound like a broken record, I urge people to take the advice of those PSA’s on getting little kids to eat vegetables: you won’t know what its like till you try it. It's exactly that approach that leads millions of people to immigrate to the United States and millions of others to set out around the world to explore how they can be members of a global community beyond geographic and cultural borders. Its why I cherish my annual summer visits to India, and why I am skeptical of forfeiting my Indian passport when I am up for American citizenship in a few years (don’t worry this hasn’t all just been a ploy to get India to offer dual citizenship). Finally, it is why I made a conscious decision to make studying abroad a key component of my college education. What better way to learn how to be a universal thinker than by exploring the way people think all around the world?

By mahaliasmith

A couple of weeks ago, my mom came to visit me in Shanghai. When she came she said, “Look, it’s not me who’s holding your hand and guiding you along anymore, it’s you who’s holding mine.” The entirety of her stay, she kept remarking on how well she thought I could navigate the city and how generally confident I was in myself in Shanghai.
In the moment, I mostly pushed those comments aside, but as the semester comes to a close, I’m realizing that I genuinely believe I’ve accomplished a lot this semester.
The semester has been full of just about every kind of exhilarating yet humbling experience. From being chased by wild monkeys through the forest in Zhangjiajie, to summiting five of the sacred peaks in China alongside grannies in heels and Gucci track suits, kayaking down the Li River, sprinting along the Great Wall in the frigid cold and heavy snowfall, fending off relentless market vendors (and harassing a few of my own), late night cramming for term papers and exams, experiencing the variety in night life, trying the most unique and somewhat terrifying cuisines, and making friends from all over the world: Shanghai has opened my world to a plethora of new experiences.
One of my favorite parts about Shanghai is how the enormity of the city makes me feel like such a small dot in this world. Despite that, I’m no longer scared to ride the metro home alone at night or to go on my own biking expedition across the city with nothing but a GPS for navigation and my music as companionship. In fact, I’m not afraid of embarking on any other adventure in Shanghai, or China for that matter. I welcome the opportunity for new experiences in addition to the roadblocks that might arise along the way.

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By Shannon Fitzpatrick

It’s a beautiful thing to bring happiness to others through doing what I love. During my past few months in China, I have found that despite the major changes that come about from living in a different environment, the things in life that have always made me happy, continue to do so. I have discovered that the flame of a true passion is not easily put out- it may flicker and change with changes occurring around it, but passion runs deep enough that regardless of the circumstances, it perseveres.

As mentioned in my previous post, I have been volunteering at V Yoga Studio in Shanghai- helping out around the studio and teaching English lessons to the yoga teachers who speak Chinese. In my case, my passion for yoga has allowed me to connect with a specific community that shares my same passion. With this, I have been lucky enough to contribute to the studio’s community in sharing my perspective and knowledge of yoga, and have learned so much from the warm and welcoming women around me in exchange. In our time spent together, it is clear that we enjoy eachothers’ company. With different things to learn from, teach to, and share with one another, we constantly empower one another and have thought-provoking interactions.

One of the most interesting aspects of my time spent at the studio is that every interaction feels so meaningful and thought-provoking, even when no words are exchanged. With a large language barrier between myself and some of the women who speak only Chinese, our interactions are often oriented in gestures and involve translation apps. Nonetheless, we still find ways of understanding each other and learning from one another.

The studio describes itself as a family and welcomes anyone into its doors to practice. Employees are constantly looking for new ways to share their passion for yoga with the community around them. In an effort to expand and achieve their goals, the studio manager has decided to create an outdoor cafe space on the roof of the studio where people can enjoy the positive atmosphere of the studio, without feeling obligated to practice yoga. I have been fortunate enough to be able to contribute to this action of passion sharing- helping to renovate the studio space for the new cafe. I definitely didn’t feel qualified when I was asked to help paint the walls of the new cafe, but had a blast doing so anyways.

I am so excited to watch the community of V Yoga grow and transform, and will continue to use my passion to help fuel the community’s fire.

Partner yoga sesh!


Cafe painting quickly transformed to face painting


Just a little V-Cafe advertising


The V-Yoga family’s newest edition coming soon!

Some things I've learned about Shanghai so far:
Life here can seem like one huge contradiction.
  1. Society runs at its own pace. Lateness is accepted and rather common in some facets of life. Nevertheless, public transit arrival and departure times are always right on the dot and I've never been to a more punctual, streamlined hospital than the one I go to in Shanghai.
  2. Bikes. Are. Everywhere. So much so that massive bicycle graveyards stretch on for miles and miles, piled up with broken bikes and overproduction, but at the same time, bike sharing is generally a very time efficient and cost effective way to travel around the city.
  3. City street cleaners work almost entirely by hand with a broom made of leaves and a shovel, which seems extremely unproductive and inefficient, but the majority of streets—even in less-populated areas—remain relatively clean.
  4. Traffic culture is chaos. Move it or lose it. On top of that, everyone honks at everyone for no apparent reason. However, there seem to be very few accidents—at least none that I've seen.
  5. There is absolutely zero rhyme or rhythm to the way people walk in the streets. You cannot get around anyone. I think people walk at about negative 0.5 mph, but when it comes to catching the bus or metro, everyone runs like they're being chased by a chainsaw murderer down a dark alley at 3am.
But hey … at least you know you've got something really good going on in your home away from home when the only things you truly miss from home are blue skies and fresh air.

...continue reading "Shanghai is…"

By maxleo43

It’s funny; I remember thinking about China before I left and wondering what the society would be like. Would the communist government’s rule of law keep everyone in check? Would I have to be worried about accidentally committing a crime because of obtuse laws?

I arrived and found nothing of the sort. While China, and Shanghai, have many of the same laws as the U.S. that govern day to day life, there is still a lot of freedom and lee-way. For example, it is pretty much acceptable to ride a bicycle anywhere. The bike lane, sidewalk, and even a busy road are all allowable places to ride a bicycle. While this may seem rather minimal, there is something pretty fantastic about riding a bike down a main road in Shanghai and passing luxury sports cars.

This sense of freedom has pretty fully inhabited my life while here in Shanghai. I have class three days a week, Tuesday through Thursday, but I get out of class at noon on Wednesday and don’t start until 1:30 on Thursday. This leaves me with a four-day weekend and a lot of time to explore. On any given day, I can wake up, ride an OFO bike to the metro, hop on and end up in any part of the city. I can spend the day searching for the best dumplings in Shanghai, studying at a café in the French Concession, exploring the location where the Chinese Communist Party was founded, or getting my hair dyed blonde (I did this yesterday). ...continue reading "Freedom"

I have always been fascinated by education. In America, it is not only looked upon as a necessary service, it is required by law. American Children must be educated, at least until they are 16 (around 10 or 11 years of required schooling). The majority of millennials or younger have or will receive a high school diploma, and around 40% will continue on to receive a bachelor’s diploma. In many communities, it is the norm to continue on to college after high school. Since being in China, I have realized that education is not looked upon in the same way.

While it is compulsory in China to go to school for 9 years (only 1 or 2 less years than in America), traditional education is very different than western education. The Chinese education system is very much based on memorization. Critical thinking skills are widely skipped over in favor of regurgitation of facts. Students in China will all partake in this type of education up until high school, at which point they have to choose to either attempt to go to college in China or choose to attempt to go internationally. If they choose China, then they will spend 3 years studying for the Gaokao, the Chinese university entrance exam. The test is extremely difficult and almost completely determines which colleges you get into. If they choose to go internationally, then they will either go to a private school or the international version of a public school. These schools will have either AP or IB curriculum and teach students in a similar way to the American education system. This past week, I got to visit several of these international public and private schools to meet students.

On Monday, I visited three schools for Chinese national students. All three offered an international curriculum, either AP, IB or both, and were preparing to send students abroad for their college education. Many of the teachers were American or Canadian and instruction was completely in English (with the exception of language classes). Despite this international curriculum with a focus on critical thinking and creativity, there was still a big push for STEM and memorization heavy subjects. For example, one of the college counselors was telling me about a parent who had told her that her daughter was interesting in studying art in college. Instead of encouraging this, the college counselor suggested that she study engineering and go into the artificial intelligence field. Despite the excellent education that students at this school were receiving, they are still only given a limited number options when it comes to choosing a field of study in college.

...continue reading "Education in China"

By maxleo43

This weekend, my program took me and my 26 fellow classmates to Beijing to explore China’s capital. People will often times compare Shanghai to New York City and Washington, DC to Beijing. The comparison is mostly made because Shanghai and NYC are flashy, financial hubs and DC and Beijing are more calm capital cities. However, despite these basic similarities, there are drastic differences between Beijing and DC. For example, Beijing is about 40 times the size of DC, in regard to population, and over 10 times the size in terms of area. Beijing has its flashy moments but is still much quieter and newer than Shanghai. There is no glamorous skyline in Beijing. However, what Beijing lacks in modernization, it makes up for in history. We were lucky enough to be able to experience this over the course of three days.

This past week was the Qingming (Grave Sweeping) festival, and so we did not have classes on Thursday or Friday. Because of this, we left for Beijing on Wednesday night. We took a bus from our apartment complex to the train station and then took a high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing that left at 7 PM and arrived at 11:30 PM. We then went to the hotel, got checked in, and passed out.

On Thursday, we were introduced to Jasmine, our tour guide who would show us around for the next two days. She spoke good English and was full of knowledge, some pertinent and some not (she spent twenty-five minutes talking about wedding dresses). Along with Jasmine, our group drove for an hour and a half to the Great Wall. We got to see it in a very unique state. It had snowed all of the previous day, and so the wall was covered in two to three inches of snow. While this made for a very pretty backdrop, it also made the walking surface very slippery and, at times, dangerous. Despite having to walk with caution, it was very cool to see the wall in this state, and it made for less tourists, which was great. We were able to explore for about two hours, taking pictures and reflecting on the historical significance of the wall. After this, we returned to Shanghai and had the evening free. Twelve of us headed out to a Southern Chinese restaurant for dinner. We got very lucky and they had a private loft to accommodate us which ended up being the perfect setting. We shared dishes like truffle mushroom’s in egg, fried goat cheese and spicy pork. Post-dinner, we walked around and explored the part of the city that we were in. We then returned to the hotel.

...continue reading "The Great Wall is Pretty Great"

By mahaliasmith

In Shanghai, if I am with a group of other international students—especially American ones—, I am typically the individual who appears the most ethnically Chinese or Asian; therefore, whenever a local attempts to speak to the group, he or she generally singles me out and begins speaking (or shouting) energetically in Mandarin, all the while I stand there, hands up in the air, shrugging with confused facial expressions for as long as necessary until a friend steps in who knows slightly more Chinese.
The most enthralling thing to me is how (9.999 times out of 10), even after locals discover I cannot speak almost any Mandarin, they continue to talk (or shout) at me in Chinese. I am not the lone soul this has happened to/continues to happen to, which is even more fascinating in my opinion. I wonder: how many times can you yell at me in Chinese, after which I reply loudly in English, and you yell in Chinese, and I in English, before anything of substance is accomplished? Honestly, probably a lot—I haven't tried that exact method out yet; Google Translate can be one handy tool.
Since I am constantly surrounded by millions of Asian people who relay a vague sensation of biological familiarity, yet am also a complete foreigner, I am persistently bound to this intricate feeling of belonging, synchronic to a slight feeling of alienation—unlike anything I have felt in my life—and, I believe it surprisingly makes me feel more human and especially more "American" than ever before.

...continue reading "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."