Study Abroad Reflection: Gillian in Shanghai, China

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After spending so much of my time at the Tripod editing the the articles of writers who have studied abroad, I have often wondered what my own recollections might be. While reading stories of boat rides on the Bay of Naples and excursions to the Great Barrier Reef, I could never have imagined the most exciting abroad adventure of my own would begin in the Hebei Province of Northern China, in a small hotel without heating but with a wood-plank bed and a wake-up call of 4:00am. These harsh conditions preceded a morning hike of the Great Wall of China, with an unforgettable view of the sunrise over the most famous sight in the world.

I have chosen to spend my fall semester in Shanghai, China. Although it is one of Trinity’s lesser known programs, Shanghai is truly one of the most cosmopolitan and exciting cities in the world. Venturing downtown to the famous Oriental Pearl Tower and the massive skyscrapers surrounding it is enough to convince any tourist they have somehow traveled to the future.

Despite this, living in China has highlighted some intense cultural differences that come with living in a city of 24 million people, 7,000 miles away from home. Nearly everything is different- from unfamiliar restrooms to cultural expectations at restaurants. China is governed by a one-party system with a strict censorship policy. I am only able to access Google, Netflix, and Western news sources (running the gambit from The New York Times to The Trinity Tripod) through the use of a VPN (virtual private network).

For any non-Chinese person in Shanghai, the most important term in Mandarin to know is 外国人, or, in English, foreigner. Although Shanghai is a major hub for expats, there are still many parts of the city where it is uncommon to see people who are not native to the country. Second glances, pointing from children, and requests for photos are all a part of life here as a foreigner.

China is a country that is roughly similar in size to the entire continent of Europe, with just as many diverse cuisines, languages, and cultures. In my first month here, I have seen the Great Wall and Beijing, a city centuries older than Shanghai. As a history major, I was completely in my element exploring the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square. Walking the same paths as those who lived during the Qing Dynasty was a surreal experience.

Students on the Trinity-in-Shanghai program attend Fudan University, one of the top universities in the country. The beautiful campus is surrounded by an exciting street of bars, coffee shops, and restaurants (which offers everything from sushi to pizza to traditional Shanghainese cuisine). Attending Fudan and living in Shanghai has allowed me to improve my language skills. Mandarin Chinese, with its 50,000 character writing system, is one of the most intimidating languages to learn. However, the people I interact with are always impressed and truly appreciate the efforts I take to practice the language (even when my words don’t come out perfectly!).

Every abroad student, whether they travel to Asia or somewhere closer to home, is faced with the inevitable- homesickness and culture shock. Uprooting my life in Connecticut and moving to the other side of the world seemed impossible. My life in China is completely different from the life I lived in the West, but I have enjoyed every moment of it so far. While the program I have chosen is unconventional, the challenges and excitement that Shanghai presents are truly incomparable.

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