A Foreign Summer in Mainland China

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

Skyline of Shanghai's Pudong side across the Huangpu River

As an African or any foreign (non-Asian looking) person going to China. You’re always forewarned from sources credible, non-credible or even incredible about “The stares”, people wanting to touch your hair, or the greatest of all, people wanting take pictures of or with you. Many foreigners have many of their own tales that they take back home to their families and friends, many embellished or otherwise made up, I am going to share my real experiences with you all, with a few drops of knowledge and experiences of Chinese culture sprinkled in-between. With that being said let’s begin talking about some of my experiences and knowledge learnt while being in China.

China is a very old place. A little over 3000 years old. That is a lot of culture, tradition, ideology and artifacts (any physical presentation of the past or present that can be observed) to be found, unpacked and enjoyed in this massive country (largest landmass in the world). My personal experience was a very interesting one. From Day 1, given the foreknowledge that China is “about to take over”, you come with assumptions. Assumptions that you should be prepared to do away with.

For one, when thinking about Hult’s identity as an international school located in international areas, and general approach towards their slogan of “the Global Generation” one automatically expects Shanghai to be an internationally diverse city. However, on the day of arrival many foreign and non-Mandarin-speakers are immediately hit with the obstacle of the language barrier. Almost nobody speaks English. I am referring to people even in service-related positions from taxis to vendors to people working in restaurants or stores. Most places you go, it’s the Mandarin you pick up or a game of charades. If you’re lucky your favourite consistently inconsistent translator app will help get you where you would like to go or what you would like to have, however for the most part you get to create your own sign language.

Another problem to be encountered is the blocked internet in mainland China. Websites such as Google, American news outlets like CNN and some others as well as any other websites or content that the Chinese government deems to not be in the “best interests” of its people and itself were all blocked. To get around this we had to download VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) that have servers across the globe that you can use to access the normal and unregulated internet. Only problem is they work when they want to, that’s why people used multiple. Also, you can imagine the “complications” it caused given that most tests at Hult are online. ‘Twas fun… really fun times.

Once you get over the hurdles, the fun begins. Shanghai is a place with much to do from Temples and markets, to the Pearl TV Tower, to KTV (a unique form of karaoke) and even its own Disneyland. If something isn’t walking distance from you, you could take a taxi or electric-bike (both of which “can” fit 5 people), train, bus, or a DiDi (China’s Uber). The most interesting food I tried while in China was pig’s brain (kindly comment what face you just made). It doesn’t have much of a taste and is extremely tender to the point where you don’t even have to really chew it, I liked it.

Raw Pig’s Brain Before Being Boiled in HotPot

Sometimes people would request to take a picture with you, other times they either stealthily took one picture of you or wouldn’t try even try to hide it at all. Personally, I’m not even going to lie, I liked the attention. Feeling like a Z-list celebrity on some days was really interesting to me, so I never got into any altercations with people or got publicly upset over people pointing at their friends to quickly take a picture of me if they didn’t do so themselves.

Now for the aforementioned staring. If you’re easily offended or rather insecure about being watched and stared at… I recommend a different study/vacation spot. Specifically, for me as an African, I received anything from normal glances, to moderate staring contests, long and uncomfortable stares, and even people randomly letting their children know I’m there. It was extremely fun!

I remember one particular incident while trying out squid and some seasoned crab at a temple market, a man tapped me on the shoulder and when I looked up I found a baby staring at me completely bewildered (like eyes wide, mouth open in an ‘O’ and everything). He didn’t ask yet proceeded to point to the direction in front of us. I turned to find his shy and embarrassed wife nervously holding a phone down in front of her. The husband was completely oblivious to his interruption of my meal, but I really loved his innocent confidence and excitement. Whilst trying to tear his baby’s eyes away from me and to the camera (which he ended up doing successfully) I waved to the man’s wife letting her know it’s okay to take the picture. They thanked me afterwards and myself and a friend were left laughing quite hysterically.

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

The Chinese themselves are a really reserved people. Whereas many other foreign people I had met interpreted their relative indifference toward tourists as cold, I enjoyed being left alone to get lost and discover things. However, in stores you can find some of the best service as the store clerks follow you just a few metres/feet away in case you need assistance. I don’t smoke, but for my smoker readers, buying cigarettes is extremely cheap and almost everyone smokes there. I was also able to travel to Xi’an and Suzhou outside of studying and living in Shanghai. Suzhou was a way of experiencing much more rural China. The staring intensified, but I was able to try really good food, such as Durian a fruit that smells pretty lovely, but tastes pretty horrible; and ride in an auto-rickshaw, a 3-wheeled car and bike amalgamation or ‘sān lún chē’ (three wheeler) also called the ‘du du chē’ which I remember because it literally means “beep-beep car” and our driver was quite literally bumping into pedestrians when they ignored his honking. Xi’an is the home of the Terracotta Warriors and that in itself was quite the experience. Due to time constraints, a choice had to be made between visiting Beijing and The Great Wall as well as the Forbidden City vs Xi’an and those Warriors I watched in Disney’s “Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior”. You know that nostalgia always wins.

High Angle Shot of Terracotta Warriors Statues

In conclusion, China is a really interesting place and one that is FAR different from any other country in the world. I was only able to give a microscopic taste of the kind of experiences you’ll have there. I was there for about 6 weeks, and that was 6 weeks of adaptation and learning, mistakes, growth and general fun. A highly challenging place to live in, but highly worthwhile. I hope to hear of your experiences if you have been or lived in China before, and if you were thinking of going, I highly recommend you make the trip.

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