Living and Being in Shanghai

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

One of the most common pieces of study abroad advice I received from friends and family and, yes, study abroad blogs was this: don’t go with any expectations. I thought this was absolutely ridiculous. You’re going to have expectations, or at least some preconceived notions, no matter what—especially if you talk to people who have been to Shanghai before. The important part is your willingness to be open to what comes your way so that you can fully be in Shanghai rather than just live there for the duration of your stay.

A canal in shao’xing near cang’qiao at sunset

It’s one thing to live somewhere; it’s another to be there. I’ve heard the phrases used interchangeably and the distinctions switched back and forth, but for me, living somewhere requires relatively little—wake up, go to work or to class or to a tourist attraction or excursion, sprinkle in a few meals, go to bed. You can bring all of your assumptions and habits and norms with you, to the extent to which the place allows. But being somewhere requires letting go of those things, and being in Shanghai these first weeks has been a greater challenge than I could have ever expected.

A sliver of the campus from my dorm window as it rains.

As the airplane touched down, all I could feel was disbelief that I was in Shanghai for the first time, the country where I was born. It was almost numbing as my friend and I got our luggage and met her roommate, and when we walked outside, I spun in a slow circle, trying to fully process where I was. It wasn’t until we were in the taxi that the full weight sank in of being halfway across the world with a major language barrier, no cell phone or internet service, and few resources for help.

The first few days were difficult. I set my clock to Shanghai time as soon as I got on the plane so that I could sync my sleep schedule to Shanghai’s, but even slight jetlag was enough to sharpen the unsettled feeling that accompanied the overwhelming newness. The air was perpetually humid, always feeling like a storm was about to break, and the stickiness clung to my skin and clothes. Elevated highways raised several stories above the ground-level roads, competing with buildings for height and space. A cacophony of Chinese characters, car horns and tires on concrete filled the air. I was a foreigner among it, unsure of how to live, let alone be, in such a place.

At the entrance of cang’qiao historical street in shao’xing

I didn’t have a SIM card, so I was cut off entirely from contact with anyone in the program and anyone back home. I had a small panic when my debit card wouldn’t work at the ATM. People spoke to me in rapid Chinese, and I could only shake my head in helpless confusion before they either switched to English or stopped talking to me altogether. Other people in the program, or their roommates, had to speak for me. I couldn’t get the shower working—which, to be fair, is an issue almost everywhere I go, but this time I couldn’t even get the hot water running.

My first meal in the canteen–chicken and mushrooms with rice.

Luckily, my roommate has been beyond kind and patient with me. Even though she usually attends Donghua University’s other campus in Songjiang, she did her best to show me around the area. By watching her, I got a better understanding of how to move through this version of the world that’s so different from the one I’m used to.

I started learning how to be in Shanghai—from moving aside for bicyclists on the sidewalk to scanning the QR code on the back wheel of a parked bike and joining them, from ordering at the canteen to going to the store, even the simple task of turning on the air conditioning unit in our room. My roommate helped me get a SIM card set up, and I figured out what was wrong at the ATM. I made my own forays to the supermarket and various bookstores and coffee shops, and if I couldn’t understand what someone said to me, I learned how to say so.

The foreign section of shanghai book city, the first bookstore I went to on my own.

Granted, it was and still is difficult. But for better or for worse—and I think for the better—this is now one of my homes. It’s not the one I left in the United States, though, and recognizing and accepting that things will be different has helped me acclimate to the new environment. Some study abroad blogs counsel you not to make comparisons, but I think analyzing comparisons is one of the rare opportunities that comes with being abroad. That being said, any ethnocentric value judgments should be left at the airport gate. Some of them might slip past, despite your best efforts, especially when you long for something familiar—just try to remain cognizant of them.


It’s easy to feel disheartened when you feel isolated and insecure, and there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. But on the Friday night after arriving in Shanghai, some of the people from the program invited me to go to the Bund with them. We took the metro, and when we walked up the steps and out of the station, it landed us into streets that were packed with people and lit up with signs.

The Bund aglow on the first Friday night of the program.

When we reached the Bund, we stood, watching the changing lights of the skyscrapers rotating through colors and reflecting in the water, the cool breeze from the river cutting through the humidity. The initial feeling of wonder returned, this time tempered with the small reassurance that even halfway across the world, the enchantment of a city aglow at night is the same.