Finding Balance in Shanghai

Written by Kim Rooney (University of Pittsburgh) Student Correspondent CET Shanghai, Summer 2017

Finding other people to push me to do and try more definitely helped me experience more of the city–being at the top of the Shanghai Financial Tower also helped

One of the things I was most nervous about when starting this program was juggling my classes, my internship, and being in a new city and country. During orientation, it quickly became apparent that expectations and rigor would be high for the first two—from finding out about a research paper for the internship class to receiving the syllabus for my political science class and discovering over 100 pages of reading assigned for the second class. However, at the first program lunch, Qu Laoshi wished us well and encouraged us to “work hard, play harder.”

In a city like no other in China, there are endless streets, parks, museums, markets, and more to explore. There’s also a finite amount of time to experience the culture, whether historical or contemporary, traditional or blended with the cultures that have visited (or colonized). And that’s before you calculate the time spent in class and at your internship, and doing work for both.

One of the many lovely views on Huangshan

I’ve always tended towards privileging academic and professional work above other priorities. But when confronted with the compelling pull to experience all that I can, I realized that refusing to reorganize my priorities would mean missing out on opportunities and experiences that may not come my way again. Especially in the fourth week, when I realized that the program was almost half over, I became determined to push myself out of the comfort zone—or at the very least, the familiarity—of work.


Granted, it helped that I found someone in the program who knew the city better than I did, and who wanted to explore it with me. We went to the Propaganda Museum one weekend, and Yu Yuan and the Shanghai Financial Tower the next, and I began joining him and his friends for an occasional night out. And, for a change of pace from the cosmopolitan metropolis of Shanghai, we even planned weekend trips out of Shanghai to Huangshan, Beijing, and Gaoyou.

After stumbling through ordering, I sat and read while enjoying some caibao at dayin shuju

So, fantastic—I managed to loosen up a bit and get out more. Plenty of people who study abroad probably skip that step altogether. But because it was a process during study abroad for me, the next balance I had to strike felt even more acute: how to balance sleep and general self-care with work and play.

There’s a fairly well-circulated joke about sleep, work, and fun being three points on a triangle, out of which you can only choose two. Or, in my case, just choosing work. But depriving oneself of sleep typically lowers one’s ability to optimize their time spent doing the other two, so that leaves the ever-present but especially salient quandary of how to do it all.

Meandering through Yu Yuan is a lovely way to spend a morning

The obvious answer is that you can’t, or at least you can’t all the time. While the breakdown of one’s time into three categories is oversimplified, it does lend some guidance for time management. Despite the temptation to somehow do it all, focusing on two at a time allows you to strike a balance among all three, even if it’s not all at once. Have a test coming up? Work and sleep might be a wise priority. Taking a weekend trip to Huangshan? Let yourself enjoy it and leave the work for when you get back—or try to get as much as possible done before you leave. The test comes directly after that weekend trip? Sleep might have to go to the back burner for a bit.

Of course, there’s more to life than sleeping, working, and going out. Sometimes, to maintain a sense of balance, it helps to take some time to stay in and recharge, or at least reground and reset. There might be a sense of guilt that accompanies a desire to stay in—after all, there are so many things to do, and it feels like a waste not to do all that you can. But to fully enjoy all that the city and the country have to offer, you may need some time to yourself. If you’re particularly determined not to let a moment go to waste, exploring the city on your own can be a good compromise.

An ancestor worship ceremony in Xidi near Huangshan

So, true to my nerdy, book-loving form, I spent an entire afternoon exploring the Shanghai Library and a few surrounding bookstores. Walking through the bookshelves and settling down amongst the walls of stories and voices that offered a simultaneous invitation and challenge to understand them, I might not have been optimizing one of the three points of the triangle, but I did feel a sense of balance and assurance that my time in Shanghai was being well spent.