Sunday July 7, 2013
So while BD is still continuing his world adventures, for those who know me, I’ll be posting my recent one in Shanghai. This first post will date back to the first day of arrival as China graciously blocks access to several websites, including wordpress.com. We’ll see what I remember…
This is the first time I’ve left North America and I left for Shanghai to take an interdisciplinary, intercultural course on global health involving Canadian medical and pharmacy students and Chinese public health and medical students from Fudan University. The course lasts 3 weeks. I have sworn to myself that this is the very last time I ride Air Canada. I have the worst layover in Vancouver; arrival at around 10pm and I won’t fly out until around noon. I’m really starting to question the value of penny pinching as a student.
After the horrendous layover in which I was miserably cold and tired as I couldn’t fall asleep peacefully on the cold, metal benches or find an available empty cushioned seating area, I haggardly got on the plane to Shanghai. The plane is filled with Asians who have ridiculously overpacked the carry-on luggage. One of the female passengers near me is trying to cram her luggage above my bin as I’ve stored my crap under my seat (ask LVM, I travel light). Watching her cramming her luggage was like a plus size woman trying to fit into a size zero pair of jeans – ain’t gonna happen hun. She hands me her Starbucks coffee to hold as she tries shoving her luggage in the space. Why do I hold it? I have no idea. I guess I’m one of those suckers that feels compelled to hold things if something is shoved in front of my face. Trust me, it’s a habit that’s broken by the end of this trip in China. I am ecstatic though over the 3+ meals I am served on the plane (a choice of Chinese or western food…. amazing!) and 10+ new release movies (score!). I managed to see 4 movies during the flight. This turned out to be a bad idea, considering that when I landed it was around 2pm Shanghai time and there was a welcome dinner that night. I also luckily was seated near an English speaker (a Caucasian male) who traveled to Shanghai frequently for work as part of management to oversee a company that manufactures screws (or something else metal that sounds manly). He gave me tidbits of advice and tips of which I’m pretty sure escaped me by the time I got off the plane. Selective memory – oh yeah!
What I remember upon landing in Shanghai is how the heat hit me – like a wave of uber hot mugginess upon exiting the plane. I bump into one of my classmates at the luggage carrel whom I’ve never actually met before since I postponed my graduation by a year to complete an MBA. I paid for an overpriced Chinese SIM card at the airport; my fear of being disconnected from the world took over my stinginess. We split the cab fare and the ride from the airport takes us about half an hour or so. Thank goodness I ran into a classmate who speaks broken Chinese; the cab driver does not understand a word of English. And I conversely, am so whitewashed that I do not understand Chinese. This is going to be a problem.
My first impression of Shanghai was that the city was so industrial looking from the outskirts. Smog, yes. Towering clones of highrises situated so close to each other, yes. How do people not confuse which building they actually live in? Not friendly for the people lacking a sense of direction such as yours truly. I expected to see tons of pedal bikes on the road. That was a stupid assumption considering we were driving on a highway. Instead, there are so many vehicles on the road. Chinese people like their SUVs too. And being in Shanghai gives a whole new meaning to the term “Asian driver”. A North American Asian driver looks sane next to those in Shanghai. Apparently the lines on the road are just for show as 5 cars will try to fit across a 3 lane road. Rules don’t exist and honking is used as a communication tool to signal that their car is near you; it’s a constant cacophony of blaring horns in a concrete, chaotic jungle. At least the roads lack the gaping potholes that riddle the streets back home. A non bumpy but noisy, jolty ride by a brake-happy cab driver with a lead foot. Our hotel that had been selected for us by our professors (3 who accompanied us on the trip) was the Home Inn in the Xuhui district (Fenglin Road). Trying to check in is an ordeal. The hotel staff do not understand English well and keep trying to communicate in Chinese with me. My credit card PIN is not working and the staff do not understand my crazed charades attempt to get them to just swipe the card instead of sticking it into the PIN slot. In the end, they call some of my other classmates already checked into the hotel to translate. After a half hour or so, I end up paying in cash to cover 2 days worth of my stay. Sigh. Epic communication fail. By the time I arrived at the hotel, it was pretty much time to head out for a campus tour of Fudan University. We are stationed at one of the satellite campuses that houses the public health department. What I notice during our walk is a culture shock: how narrow and dirty the sidewalks are; how cars, bikes, scooters, and people are constantly intermingled across the large, multi-lane roads; how I’m fearing for my life walking across these roads; and how people love to park their bikes and cars across the sidewalks. It was like ghetto Chinatown at home had grown virally infecting all the streets and unevenly paved sidewalks. The walk to campus is only 10-15 min but feels much longer due to the unbearable heat. During the tour, I completely walk around like a sheep in a herd as my mind is obsessed by how grossly hot and sweaty I am. I head back to the hotel quickly afterwards to shower.
At the hotel, my first obsessive thought is to turn on the A/C. Oh look, the remotes here don’t have any English on them. I press every button like a desperate madwoman until I hear the roar of the machine coming to life. Not sure what I pressed to create such magic so I’ll inevitably have to repeat my crazed dialing procedure again. I started getting really itchy during the heat (probably on the brin k of breaking out in hives) so I immediately self-medicate on the good ol’ antihistamines. As a pharmacy student I made sure to come prepared with my own mini-pharmacy of quality Canadian meds.
Our welcome dinner was near the Fudan campus at a halal restaurant. Little did I know that this was going to be one of the best meals I had in Shanghai. Should’ve ate more of the hummus and pita bread. The meal itself is served Lazy Susan style as small dishes. I have the misfortune of being seated next to a very accident-prone classmate. As she reaches for, of course, the most staining red, spicy Asian sauced dish (see pic below), her chopsticks slip and I ended up doused in red, spicy sauce on my new, white Guess shirt and on my face (did miss my eyes though). I am too tired and polite to freak out. Instead, I just wipe my face with the hot cloth the waitress had passed around prior to the start of the meal. The Chinese students are pretty nervous and shy the first night to speak to us foreigners. Understandably so, considering I am a hot mess of makeup mixed with spicy sauce and seated next to butterfingers who should be given a fork to use for the rest of the night. Sweet girl though and she did feel bad. I think we ended up bonding over the fiasco.
The rest of the night is really a blur to me. Somehow I got home, although I have no idea where the restaurant is actually located. I must have followed some other people back to the hotel. Stared defeatedly at the remote control for the tv that mocks me with its incoherent Chinese hieroglyphics. Oh wow. It’s 10pm here but noon back home in Canada. I can’t for the life of me fall asleep. Tomorrow is going to be a brutal day – the first day of class – and today I have been up for close to 48 hours. Ugh.