I decided the most efficient and guaranteed way to brush up on my Mandarin speaking, writing and reading skills was to leave South America early and move straight to the heart of China’s largest commercial city. I flew back to SF for 42 hours to pack my bags for Shanghai. Although it wasn’t my first choice to skip out on exploring Chile with Brandon, in the end, the impromptu visit to China paid off. Shanghai is an incredibly vibrant, international and vivacious city where you can get just about anything you want at your fingertips. I was fortunate enough to explore a small fraction of the city over the past 3+ weeks.
To be honest, I thought these were going to be a rather mundane and tedious few weeks of re-learning how to read and write Chinese. It turned out to be everything but dull and redundant! A few days before arriving in Shanghai, I had reached out to Jacqueline, a future INSEAD classmate living in Shanghai, on Facebook to see if we could meet up during my visit. Ironically, she would be traveling to Argentina at that time, but she so generously offered for me to stay in her room in Jing’An, Shanghai – essentially as central as it gets in Shanghai! Her roommate, Monnie, was the first person I met in Shanghai, and she couldn’t have been more welcoming or well connected in Shanghai, having moved there two years ago from Hong Kong. Monnie also had one of her good friends, Melissa, staying at the apartment for two out of three of the weeks that I was in Shanghai which was a treat for me. Melissa and I would spend hours chatting in Mandarin and exploring Shanghai – mainly she was correcting my poor grammar and laowai enunciation – through her, I learned a lot about life in Shanghai and China. And finally, our last roommate, Tanaka-San, was always excited when we decided to have a low key night at home.
My roommate, Monnie, and me enjoying a Hong Kong styled desert on our way home!
After taking one day to settle into Shanghai, intensive Chinese classes began. I spent the first four hours of each weekday in a Mandarin school called Miracle Mandarin, which I found through a simple Google search online. The 30 minute walk to and from class was a daily battle between the endless cars, scooters, bicycles and flexible traffic laws, which I’m happy to report I won simply by surviving! In addition to learning Chinese reading/writing at a rapid pace, I met a few new friends at the school from Germany, England, Venezuela, Indonesia, Brazil and Spain who were fun sidekicks to explore the touristy aspects of Shanghai. We visited the Bund to execute an ice-bucket challenge, and also to visit Shanghai’s fake markets to have custom jackets made and bars to get a taste of the ex-pat culture in Shanghai. You’ll see from the two photos below of The Bund. Although I’m told the pollution in Shanghai is significantly better than Beijing, there is no hiding the fact that the city does struggle with some pollution particularly during the hot and humid summer months. In one of the photos below I had to increase contrast because the smog was dampening the colors! By the end of my stay in Shanghai, I had two days of blue skies and even saw stars on my last night in the city!
Through Monnie, I met many of her friends who grew up either in Shanghai or another large city in China. This was by far one of the coolest parts of the trip. I would spend hours talking to them in Mandarin, learning about their life and culture in Shanghai over a steaming bowl of hotpot (similar to shabu-shabu, but way better!) or a traditional Shanghai styled restaurant. Shanghai’s culture is centered around the enjoyment of good food, drinks, company and of course, KARAOKE! On my last day in Shanghai, Monnie and her friends threw me a surprise farewell party at a swanky Karaoke (pronounced Ka-La-OK in Chinese) Bar so that I could experience one of their favorite outings with friends. We sang, we ate and we drank Tsingtao beers – I had to sit out during the Chinese songs this time, but I look forward to the time when I can also participate!
Another highlight was a weekend “getaway” to Hangzhou Melissa (Monnie’s friend), who is originally from Fujian province in the South of China. I was hoping to escape city-life for a weekend, but it turned out that “getting away” got me to a city that had more people than NYC and all of it’s surrounding boroughs combined. Hangzhou is a city about 100 miles outside of Shanghai, though it only took us about an hour to get there by train. At one point on the train, I looked up and a saw a sign that displayed our current speed: 296km/hr. Impressive! China has something like 16-18 high-speed trains; the U.S. has some work to do to catch up! With 1.4 billion people, 24 million in Shanghai alone, I understand China’s commitment to building efficient modes of public transportation from their subways to high-speed trains that run like arteries throughout China. Once we arrived in Hangzhou, we explored around their famous Xi Hu (West Lake) and their historic temples dating back thousands of years (though many have been restored in the last decade).
My time in Shanghai flew by and I felt that I had hardly scratched the surface. The good news is that I’ll be heading back there with Brandon, my mom and his mom in a few short weeks to show them a few highlights in the city before we take a local airline to Zhangjiajie for a week long tour. Shanghai has changed significantly since my mom lived there nearly 30 years ago, so I am looking forward to showing her, Brandon and his mom the new Shanghai that I so fortunately had the chance to explore with the amazing friends that I met here over the past three weeks!