Former Motley intern Ashleigh Hayman talks about her experience of studying in China so far.
Whenever someone’s telling you about a really great place, they inevitably say some variation of “you just have to experience it for yourself”. It’s the most frustrating thing, as clearly at that present moment you can’t. However when I arrived in Shanghai for the first time, I was engulfed in this indescribable feeling of “oh holy cow, I’m in China”. And I hate to admit it, but it might just be one of those places you have to experience for yourself. Nevertheless, I will endeavour to convey some sense of the euphoric madness that this city has to offer, and some of the experiences one can expect to meet here.
One of things that reminds me most of how far I am from home is the reaction I evoke amongst some of the locals. Shanghai is more than three times the size of the entire country of Ireland and is fast becoming a very cosmopolitan city, with East and West happily coinciding everywhere you look. You’ll make dozens of international friends within the first few days and most of the people couldn’t care less that you aren’t of Chinese origin. That said, some people will literally stare at you. I don’t mean a subtle glance or double-check. Oh no. I mean the wide-mouth gawking, take several photos of you while pointing at you kind of stare. It is a bit like being a minor celebrity, so I reckon this is sort of a perk, but you will have new empathy for those ‘stars looking bad’ tabloid photos.
The first things to hit you are the potent smells and strange sights, but while you are still adjusting to that, you might notice that you are not alone. In fact there are a hundred other people all going the same way as you; trying to buy the same drink, trying to get on the same subway, trying to read the same sign. As you scramble through the bustling crowds, feeling this buzz of being part of it all, you will at some point encounter a road. There are traffic lights, but I have yet to work out their actual meaning. People, bicycles, motorbikes, cars and animals all seem to play this exciting game of dodge-ball, as they drive through whenever they see a gap. Russian Roulette or organised chaos of which I’m not sure, but I live to tell the tale and it sure does add excitement to your day.
There is no point in moving all the way to China and not trying all the things the place has to offer. So while my Chinese had somehow evaporated over the summer, we skipped McDonalds and used a great combination of guesswork and charades to buy food. It doesn’t always work (for instance I ordered what I thought was a pastry, it was in fact an Octopus) – but I can honestly say I have had some of the best meals of my entire life here. Your chopstick skills will just not be able to keep up with speed you want to eat the noodles, springs rolls, dumplings and the hundred other delicious things on the menu. From restaurants to street stalls, a whole hot-pot of different cuisines to choose from and all for about 2 or 3 euro maximum, it doesn’t cost much to experiment until you find your favourites.
In fact there are a hundred other people all going the same way as you; trying to buy the same drink, trying to get on the same subway, trying to read the same sign.
While the food has been a highlight, it is definitely not the only treat to look out for. At times the rush and mayhem of the city can prove too much, this is when you should head to the tranquil temples and gardens – the perfect place to take a breather. There are a number right in the middle of the city, so within minutes you can be ushered in behind their closed walls to silently coo at the beauty of a world-celebrated architecture, sit next to pools of Catfish, and just relax in the soothing incense-clung atmosphere. It’s like walking into another time, and having a small piece of peaceful paradise whenever you need it.
Perhaps the city’s greatest charm is its great contrast and ability to continually surprise. Skyscrapers sit next to Shanty fruit stalls, designers like Gucci coexist with the fake markets, and the sharp businessmen share the pavement with the crippled beggars. While it is ‘everyone for himself’ as you battle through subway crowds, you can watch the same big crowds of strangers all get together in the streets and park to sing and dance at night. People of all ages and backgrounds come together to grab a karaoke mike or Waltz partner, and just let go and enjoy themselves. It is like a flash mob without all of the organisation or anyone thinking of it as anything out of the ordinary.
Plus, if shopping is your thing, there is no end to the bargaining and prizes to be had. The European brands are all relatively the same but browsing the local stores and markets is more like a sport. It’s the biggest game of poker you’ll ever see; if you don’t disclaim interest, throw your hands up in the air and leave the store three or four times, you won’t be offered any of the best prices. Bring your best bluffing skills, and get haggling.
So the weather never makes up its mind, the Wi-Fi can be a hassle and they use drop loos not toilet seats, but somehow you wake up 4 weeks later and realise you are having the best time of your life with some of the coolest people you have ever met. It hasn’t even been a month and I am already dreading the day I have to pack up and leave!