Sleepless in Shanghai (And Other Chinese Cities): My Summer of Study and Travel on the Other Side of the Globe by Audrey Bauman

audrey with class

HOUSTON, TX—As I board a plane bound for Tokyo, where I’ll catch another one to China, I can feel my stomach slowly disintegrating. I haven’t even left the states yet, and I’m already in an unfamiliar situation. Rather than splitting passengers into numbered boarding groups, the Japanese airline is boarding first class, then business class, and then economy class all in one huge crowd behind the gate. I’m surrounded by foreign voices, and all too conscious that this is the farthest I’ll have ever traveled (to Shanghai, for a summer program), the longest I’ll ever have been abroad (almost two months, taken all together), and the first time I’ll have traveled by myself. I swallow, I sweat…and then I board.

My Honors-funded summer journey took me from Hong Kong to Shanghai to Beijing and Guangzhou—and then back to Hong Kong—all over the course of eight weeks. The longest time spent in any one place was the five weeks in Shanghai, where I attended East China Normal University through a UCA summer program and studied Chinese for four hours every weekday morning. After spending two nights in Hong Kong with my grandmother, flying to Shanghai on a Sunday, and settling in for one whole evening, I joined the rest of my UCA program-mates on Monday morning for the most sobering language placement test of my Chinese-learning history. (Note: Jet lag stemming from a thirteen hour time difference does not a good testing mentality make.) After the test, we got to choose between a harder class and an easier one, because for all the other ECNU international students, this was the tail end of their semester abroad. Our time there was merely a blip.

Once we picked a class, the Chinese-learning head honcho, Maggie He, took us straight to our classrooms. And we began.

To say I felt stupid, and scared, and way out of my depth would be an understatement. With six years of Chinese study (four in high school, two in college), I thought I would be okay. Oh, past Audrey. How foolish you were. After an hour and a half of sitting in a classroom full of nodding heads while the teacher talked so fast and used so many new words I understood practically nothing, I had to meet with the teacher to touch base. She said something, and I stared at her. She paused, and then said in English, “If it’s too hard, you can move to another class.”

For most of that first week, I thought about giving up—who was I to think I could do well in a city where every place I passed was an unfamiliar one, as was almost every word I heard? But I realized I would hate myself even more if I did give up, so I stayed. I fell into a weekday morning routine of MW Speaking, TTH Reading and Writing, and Listening on Fridays—rinse and repeat for five weeks. I found out my classmates were international students from all over, and friendly ones to boot. I was smacked in the face by the sheer amount of new characters and sounds and smells. I also had the novelty of free afternoons where I could explore the city.

Believe it or not, in Shanghai everything is in Chinese. (Shocking!) I had to order food in Chinese, decipher instructions in Chinese, and tell the hotel restaurant ladies my room number in Chinese. The greatest consolation was that my UCA program-mates were as lost as I was. The seven of us figured out how ECNU’s cafeteria worked together, rode the subway together, and even went to Hangzhou together on a weekend trip we organized ourselves. We waffled over where to eat dinner every night, and often that place turned out to be KFC. (Before you scoff—the KFC menu in China was both tastier and cheaper than in the U.S., so it was well worth it. Can you get KFC squid in ‘Merica? Didn’t think so.) We fumbled our way through Shanghai together, ferreting out the best places to walk around (People’s Square) and the best places not to study (the too-quiet library and the nearby park, where a bird pooped on my head). We ate street food together and hung out our clothes to dry. There were mix-ups with train tickets, and delicious soy sauce chicken was eaten. My Chinese improved tremendously, both through the classes and through sheer exposure. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences in the world when my program at ECNU finished and I could understand almost everything my teacher said. Part of why I came was for my Chinese minor credit, but I began to regret my stay in Shanghai was so short. “What if I came back for a semester?” I wondered, and tabled the idea for later.

Of course, Shanghai wasn’t the whole trip. There was also seeing my grandmother again for the first time in seven years and the Hong Kong visit after Shanghai, where I experienced a world of crazy expensive stores and crazy delicious food. There was Beijing, where everything was just huge. Huge! No matter how many pictures you see of the Great Wall, there’s nothing like the moment when your tour bus turns a corner on a mountain road and you see the wall sprawled across the slopes. There was the on-a-Chinese-guided-tour experience itself, where half the tour was spent at factories buying silk and Chinese traditional medicine—or at restaurants. There was Guangzhou, where I saw my uncle, aunt, cousin, and the family home built by one of my great-great-grandfathers. There was going through immigration so many freaking times the process became boring, even though the first time I encountered the immigration line in Hong Kong I nearly cried because I was so scared. There was so much in China, and by the end I had nearly forgotten what America felt like.

I don’t want to oversell my experience. It was often crowded, it was always scorching hot, there were numerous mishaps, and most of the time I felt like the stupidest person on earth. But I also experienced living in a city for the first time ever, saw the historical sites of one of the oldest lasting civilizations in the world, made new friends, saw old family, and learned a lot of Chinese. I realized how enormous the world is and how the piece of it I occupy is tiny in comparison. I gained confidence in my ability to solve problems by myself, without my parents there to figure it out for me. I gained confidence in my ability to adapt.

Also, the food wasn’t half-bad.

All of this—a full, crazy two months six thousand miles away—because of UCA Honors and the TAG the college provided. I remember filling out that TAG application and not knowing what to expect, what kind of memories I would return with. After the fact, I can say definitively that they were lifelong ones. And I can’t thank Honors enough.

audrey long

 

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