Here’s some background about me: I am the first and only daughter with two younger brothers and I am from a small rural town in the foothills of North Carolina. Now, I would like you to take a moment and imagine my parents’ reactions when I said the following sentence; “Mom? Dad? I’m going to Shanghai, China for a month this summer.” I would say that your imagined scenario would not be far from the truth. They were excited, of course, for me to gain more global experience, but equally terrified that I would get sick or injured or that the world would spontaneously combust in the time that I was abroad. So, fast forward through several rounds of optional-to-everyone-else-but-not-to-you-young-lady vaccinations, packing list after packing list, and lots of hugs and prayers, my beautiful biological family sent me off with my beautiful LSP family to the wondrous world of The East.
There really is no way to holistically describe what my first major trip abroad was like. Shanghai is lightning-paced in the race to modernity, but respectful of history. It is westernized, but saturated with tradition and culture. She is interlaced with ideas of structure and organization, but rich with diversity of experience and lifestyle. We began to realize these things as all 18 of us students woke up in this incredible, yet contradictory, city that first morning. From there, we started our journey for the next three and a half weeks. We got to eat, sleep, breathe, and live in the city that we were studying during lecture in the mornings. We rode to the top of the second-tallest building in the world, Shanghai Tower, to see the breathtaking views of urbanization that seemed to extend to the ends of the earth. We walked through museums that showed Shanghai’s history and connection with other cultures, including the Jewish Refugee Museum and the Wuzhen water town. And, we saw museums that exhibited Shanghai’s progress and future, like the Shanghai Planning Museum. We also took class trips to places like the Yu Gardens, the Bund, Suzhou, the French Concession, Xintiandi, and the Disney Research Lab to learn about Shanghai’s past and its future in sustainability, infrastructure, and overall urban planning.
Although these were all unforgettable activities, the most magical parts of the Shanghai Experience weren’t the lectures or the museums or even visiting Shanghai Disney (believe it or not!). The most captivating moments were those that didn’t seem to be capital-M Moments at all. They were the times that we spent squished against the glass in the metro during rush hour, or when we wandered down West Nanjing street and suddenly, the downtown skyline opened up before our very eyes. Or when we traveled in loud-American-style groups to the shawarma place across the street to grab a bite to eat of the most ambiguously labeled, but most delicious meat wraps you would have ever tasted. We watched the annual Dragonboat races and made plans to race next year. The wind made curly halos out of our hair while we overlooked a massive wetland restoration site. We tasted snail, fried scorpions, black ice cream, and Big Macs. Moments like these are the ones that brought us closer together as a group, but also provided unending opportunities to try new things and push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and that’s exactly what happened. They were the times where I could really get to know myself, the unbelievably beautiful city, and my wildly fun classmates.
I learned so much during my trip to Shanghai. Academically, I learned about how history and culture affects urban planning, public health, infrastructure, and sustainability. I also learned about how important it is to the Shanghainese to retain their own identity and history while integrating western culture, ideas, and practices. We studied how Shanghai will continue to operate in the future and how its unique position within China and the world makes it a global city. I am forever grateful to our incredible professors for providing us with that information and experience. However, I also learned lots outside the classroom. I learned how to travel on my own in an unfamiliar country, I learned how important the pictures are on menus that have ZERO English titles, and I learned how absolutely vital it is to be present and an actual participant in your surroundings. Without that last one, I don’t think I would have appreciated the Bund at night, or lovely little schoolchildren who only want to talk about hamburgers, or the experiences and feelings and thoughts of the other 17 students with me. We truly became a small tribe on this trip and made memories that I will never forget. 我爱你 to the Levine Program, my fellow world travelers, and of course, to the living, breathing, gorgeous Shanghai.
(我爱你 is pronounced wo ai ni in Mandarin and means I love you!)