Maintaining Habits and Staying Healthy in Shanghai

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

When a wave of stress or anxiety hits, habits and routines often provide a means for a person to reground themselves, reset, and remind themselves who they are. They sit at the core of one’s daily activities, and often aren’t thought about consciously until the rest of one’s life pushes against them. Whether it’s shaving, doing one’s makeup, or fiddling with a particular piece of clothing—I personally like the zippers on my leather jacket—habits and routines offer some stability.

Up until now, the greatest pressure I felt against my habits and routines was moving to Pittsburgh to start college. I was living in a new state, a new city, a new building, a new room, and with a new person. The newness wasn’t overwhelming, but it challenged the routines I’d developed for the first eighteen years of my life so that I became more cognizant of them. But if starting college was a gentle push against my routines, moving to Shanghai to study abroad was a demolition ball that shattered its target on first impact.

An original propaganda woodcut from 1974 purchased at the Propaganda Museum.

 My morning routine of going for a run, making myself breakfast, and going to work was no longer possible. My classes started too early to allow for a half hour- or hour-long run—I also didn’t know where to run—I didn’t have access to a full kitchen or the cooking instruments necessary to make my own meals, and, most obviously, I can’t quite go to work in Pittsburgh while in Shanghai.

While I had plenty of things to fill my time in lieu of my old job—classes, a new internship, and exploring a new city—my habitual running and cooking were harder to replace. I got into the habit of running my freshman year of college, mostly as a means to literally and metaphorically run away from my problems. It was therapeutic to get away from whatever was stressing me out, and it kept me in good shape and marginally better mental health. Between the heat, humidity, and unfamiliar surroundings, I didn’t want to run outside in Shanghai. Luckily, CET helped negotiate membership prices with a nearby gym for the students, and now, several times a week, I make the five-minute walk across the street to run, lift weights, and mentally reset after a stressful day. While I was able to continue my running habit, cooking, at least the way I was used to at home, was no longer possible and I accepted that loss as part of being in Shanghai. I knew realistically that I couldn’t—and shouldn’t—try to bring over all of my old habits, and as long as I still had a coping mechanism, I was fine with that loss. However, while cooking was therapeutic, it was also a way for me to eat healthy. That might be overselling it. It gave me a way to control what I was eating. Learning a few basic food words in Chinese has helped me better navigate menus so even if I don’t understand every word, I still have a few hints as to what to expect, and my roommates and classmates are more than willing to help and offer suggestions on what to order.

An illuminated sidewalk near Lujiazui park in Pudong.

 I’ve also been developing new habits and routines. Starting class at 8 a.m. every day may be difficult, but it provides some sense of stability, although that’s easier to say once I’ve woken up and not while my alarm is ringing at 7 a.m. I also eat at the cafeteria every morning, picking up a vegetable steam bun and an egg on my way to class, and my internship has lent itself to the formation of a new weekly routine. Having those portions of my day settled has created a foundation of which I feel more comfortable pushing myself when exploring new places, from bookshops to cafes to various museums and parks, around the city in my free time.

 Most importantly, I found a way to balance my old support network of friends and family with a new group of friends. I never considered friends to be a habit or routine, likely because the words connote a sense of thoughtlessness that’s contradictory to maintaining a friendship, but in the past month, I’ve realized the frequency with which I text or message them. They may not be a habit in a technical sense, but they’re still very much a part of my mental health and my daily routine.

 Many people discourage you from clinging to friends from home, and while I agree that you shouldn’t use them as a substitute for making new friends, it’s still comforting to talk to people who know you beyond the few weeks you’ve been abroad. While it’s possible to create deep connections within a matter of days or weeks, it can also feel isolating if you don’t make friends quickly, and reaching out to old friends is nothing to be ashamed of.

Celebrating the Fourth of July by eating grilled cheese with American classmates and Chinese roommates.

 However, it’s also important to take a chance with people from your program. Even if you’re not sure you’re a perfect match, you’re all in Shanghai because you wanted to be, and you can let things flow from there. You’re all there to have fun and explore the city, and you may want to spend time on your own every now and again, but while abroad you have the chance to learn with and learn from your peers in the program while in Shanghai. That kind of opportunity won’t likely pass by again.