In an interesting turn of events, our weekend trip to Beijing planned by Boston University’s Shanghai office was canceled at the last minute due to hazardous air quality in the nation’s capital. In recent years, air pollution has become so oppressive that schools and workplaces are sometimes totally shut down on days in which the air quality is deemed too hazardous for citizens to step outside. The Chinese government recently introduced a 1.7 trillion yuan (about $2.8 billion) effort to stymie the spread and intensity of air pollution, but cities still become drenched in smog from time to time.
To be honest, I haven’t noticed the air quality in Shanghai since I’ve arrived. The city has been wet and rainy for the past week so it is hard to tell whether the constantly damp sky can be attributed to weather conditions or low air quality. I’ve been susceptible to respiratory issues before, so I’m glad that the air quality is not bad enough to negatively affect my health. However, the air quality is not guaranteed to remain in non-hazardous territory — I’ll be on the lookout to see if at any point the air quality dips below safe levels.
Our group used the time we were supposed to spend in Beijing getting acclimated to the city of Shanghai. Navigating through Shanghai via metro is an unusually enjoyable venture: subway fare costs about 50 cents, bus fare only 30 cents. The metro system spans the entirety of the city and is new, clean and fast. I’ve taken the Metro a number of times in the past week and I haven’t had to wait longer than five minutes for my bus or train to arrive. Taking public transportation in Shanghai is a welcome relief from the often-frustrating MBTA.
The city itself is incredibly safe — more restrictive gun control laws keep the crime rate lower than cities in the United States. According to Prof. Rottmann, head of the BU Shanghai program and our tour guide for the past couple of days, the only criminals visitors to Shanghai need to look out for are pickpockets.
Another benefit of life in Shanghai is the value of American currency. I’m constantly amazed that I can take the subway for one-fifth of the cost of the T, buy a bottle of water for 16 cents or a full meal for around $4. If I feel like splurging, taking a taxi from my dorm to downtown Shanghai costs around $10.
A couple of us recently took a trip to Shanghai’s “Soft-Spinning Material Market,” a building full of small shops where one can get tailor-made shirts, suits and dresses for a ridiculously low cost. Haggling is a must at establishments like this. Often shop owners will jack prices to almost triple the normal cost for foreigners. It was a great chance to practice my Chinese with native speakers — though I didn’t buy any suits, I learned how the bargaining system works and will likely return to upgrade my wardrobe before I leave the country.
Though I haven’t had a ton of free time between learning how to navigate the city, becoming acquainted with the rest of the BU group, and preparing for classes, I know that I will have even less free time in the coming months. I just received confirmation that I will be interning for the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, an exciting development that will likely entail a lot of hard and worthwhile work. In addition, my eight-credit intensive Chinese class is likely to cause headaches. To round out my schedule I plan on taking a class on Chinese diplomacy taught by a Chinese professor. I took a class on modern Chinese politics in Boston last semester, but the opportunity to have a similar class taught by someone from within China is too good to pass up.
My only fear for this semester is that the intensity of my workload will detract from my opportunities to experience Chinese culture. However, Chinese culture is all around me: I can’t leave my dorm without experiencing some sort of culture shock. I was told when I arrived that Chinese culture is far more direct than the usual American sensitivity. People have sometimes spoken me to on the street and denizens of shops, bars and the local basketball courts have no issue striking up a conversation.
I get the sense that the difference of culture in China is not only shocking me but also changing me. The Taoist (and somewhat Zen) idea of “the way” and the philosophies it entails have always appealed to me. However, seeing these philosophies enacted in everyday life has been an eye-opening experience. I’m excited to see where the rest of this journey takes me, although I know that in the immediate future it will be taking me to Chinese class.
Tate Gieselmann is a College of Arts and Sciences junior studying abroad in China. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.