(This post was originally written for Asia on E Street, The Sigur Center for Asian Studies blog.)
I’m writing this from my first class cabin on the T110, Shanghai to Beijing overnight train, 15 hours of the low rumbling bliss typical of trains here. I’ve taken dozens of trains in China in the past; I’ve never taken first class before. A special treat as a result of poor, last minute planning. I’m here with my girlfriend, we’ve got a couple cups of noodles and some playing cards. The cabin is cozy: four beds, two bunks on either side of a small dining table under the window and a door for privacy. Our cabin mates are a young Chinese woman from Shanghai, a Fudan scholar as it turns out, on her way to Beijing to collect materials from the National Library in preparation for her visiting scholar trip to Oxford University next month, fluent in English, and her mother accompanying her. I’m going to heat up my bowl of extra spicy instant noodles soon, and mix some instant coffee into kaishui (开水), water from the samovar.
My name is Stephen Dutton. I am a graduate student in the Asian Studies program at the Elliott School. I have been in Shanghai since February, studying as an exchange student in the Chinese Politics and Diplomacy program at Fudan University. I’m staying in Shanghai for the summer however to enroll in the university’s intensive language program. I’ll be refocusing my efforts here from English language masters classes and an English language internship, to full time Chinese. I intend to study, live, breathe Chinese until I get back to DC in the fall (these blog posts are an exception).
My classes start soon, just after this mini vacation to Beijing, so I wanted to offer an overview of my time so far in this incredible city and to introduce the program a bit. Shanghai is unlike any other city I have seen thus far in China. I lived and studied in Beijing in 2007 as an undergraduate student. That city is dominated by politics, the government, CCTV, Tiananmen. Old Beijing and the hutong offer insight to local Mandarin culture. The English speaking expats there are mostly students and diplomats. And I was also studying and living in Chengdu, in China’s western Sichuan province, in 2012. That city resembles the older, slower pace of Chinese culture, ancient even, tea houses along the river banks, pandas, and mahjong. Foreigners are few and far between.
Shanghai is a completely different city entirely. It is an ultra modern, financially driven, economic powerhouse of a city, socially forward leaning, and there are English speaking foreigners everywhere (as well as loads of other languages, particularly French which dominates certain neighborhoods). A walk through parts of the French Concession makes you feel like you’ve almost left China completely, and the foreigner and local communities have blended so thoroughly that it’s truly unique for a city here on the mainland, something more similar to Hong Kong or Taipei perhaps. The city is a sort of east meets west microcosm, it’s livable and pleasant. The smog is mostly a non-issue, nothing at all as serious as it is in Beijing.
Since I’ve been here starting in February, I have had the pleasure of traveling around the city and around the neighboring cities and I think I have a reasonable impression of the city so far. One thing I have noticed though is that it would take a much longer time for me to really understand the subtlety of the local Shanghainese culture. The local dialect is a challenge to understand—actually I think it’s nearly an entirely different language. Locals switch between Mandarin and Shanghainese, depending on who they are talking to. And they are used to accommodating foreigners with at least Mandarin if not some English.
Fudan University is a bit outside the city center in the northern Yangpu district, fairly local, meaning there aren’t many foreigners apart from the foreign exchange students at Fudan and Tongji, another large university nearby. Apart from Fudan, Yangpu is well known in the city for the Hongkou soccer stadium, hosting one of the city’s Chinese Super League soccer teams, and Wujiaochang, a large shopping center with some interesting architectural points of interest. The recent Spike Jonze film,Her, was filmed in around Wujiaochang’s Wanda Plaza (as well as Shanghai’s Lujiazui financial zone in Pudong, and Taipei and LA). The university is ringed by streets of local shops and residential buildings and are bustling with activity: street food stalls, pedestrians intermingling with a chaotic blend of electric scooters and bicycles that ignore traffic rules, and buses and taxis that play chicken with pedestrians and that honk incessantly, delicious and cheap noodle shops, a few foreign student-accommodating cafes, and some cheap bars.
I’ve finally finished my long spring semester of Chinese politics classes and will begin my Chinese language program this week. I’ll be taking full time Mandarin language classes for the summer. Classes are 8-12am each day and cultural classes are offered in the afternoons. They’ll be teaching mahjong and how to cook Chinese dishes (if someone could teach me how to make proper yuxiang qiezi, (鱼香茄子) fish-flavored egg plant, I’d be very grateful, I’m truly obsessed), tai chi and calligraphy, etc. And I think we are taking a weekend trip to the beautiful neighboring city of Hangzhou.
I’m really excited to get started and to improve my Chinese. Knowing some Chinese really helps unlock some of the more subtle cultural points of interest that often go unnoticed to those that have to rely on English. A little Chinese goes a long way and the more I learn the more I want to continue.
I’ll be posting periodically through the program (including some video blog posts which will be new for me) and I will be letting you know about my progress as well as any trips I take. In the meantime, here are a few pictures of my time in Shanghai so far. Enjoy and see you next time…
Typical Chinese lanterns hanging from the eaves of a temple
A smoggy view of downtown Shanghai from my balcony on the 20th floor of the foreign student dormitory
Locals worshiping in a temple
Local printing shops on campus
A panoramic view of the Bund (more Bund photos to come…)
A meal of eggplant, cucumber, and chicken dishes in a local restaurant
A view of the canal in Zhujiajiao
An ever-watchful Mao stands guard by Fudan’s main entrance gate
An old building on the Fudan University campus
Fudan students relaxing in front of Fudan’s famous Guanghua Tower (an early spring-time photo)
Chinese gondolas along the main canal in Zhujiajiao, a canal village near Shanghai