Mini paradise in a sweltering city: My first days in Shanghai

Hannah Nguyen/Staff

For some, paradise means relaxing on the beach with a cool ocean breeze. For others, it’s summiting a snow-covered mountain.

For me, paradise is dirt-cheap street food in a place of international higher learning surrounded by people from all over the world who have stories to tell and wisdom to impart. And in the past 48 hours, I have found my paradise.

In the taxi to Fudan University, where I’ll be spending four weeks studying the Chinese language and politics alongside other international students, my nerves were jittery. I was in a foreign country where my knowledge of the language was minimal and where I was undoubtedly going to be facing living conditions far below the Western standards I’ve grown accustomed to. But the possibilities of adventure enthralled me as we drove through the heart of the city, passing everything from bustling banks to street vendors. I looked up at the Oriental Pearl Tower as the cab crossed the Huangpu River and knew that the opportunities in this city were bounded only by the brevity of my time here.

As I was checking into the Foreign Students Dormitory, my new home did not exactly feel like the paradise I was imagining. The other students seemed to already know each other, and I’m painfully awkward when it comes to inserting myself in social situations. After dropping my belongings off in my room, which is about three times as large as a Unit 2 triple, I decided to go solo exploring, leaving my fear of missing out behind.

I spent that entire first day alone, wandering around the campus and surrounding streets. I located my classes and the nearest dining halls, figured out where to buy the appropriate outlet adapter for my computer and actually managed to order a lunch of fried rice and veggies for myself in Chinese. As I perused the different food stalls and convenience stores in the area, I started to feel more settled. I pictured myself picking up freshly steamed buns from the friendly vendor between classes. I walked by a bar and pictured myself and my future friends raising a toast. I passed by the Metro station and pictured myself hopping on the subway to have even more adventures. Shanghai was starting to feel more like paradise.

The next day, I made my first friends. After overhearing someone mention they were from California, I quickly jumped into the conversation, and before long, I had new acquaintances from Sweden, Norway, Germany, Hong Kong and Italy. My new friends and I attended our orientation meeting and ice-breaking sessions, which were awkward beyond imagination (picture this: pouring water from a cup in your mouth into a cup held by someone else’s mouth, all without using your hands). We got dinner at a local mall, then decided to hit a bar before going to sleep.

The bar we went to was about a block away from our dorm. It was empty except for one group of foreigners who were posted up waiting for the World Cup game to start. After we sat down, the kind waitress working there brought us discount cards and nachos, which we had not intended to order. In broken Chinese, I asked her how much they cost. She smiled, and in very slow Chinese, she said, “It’s a gift.”

We sat there for about an hour and a half talking about all the things we wanted to do during our short time here, from karaoke to wandering the arts district to all the types of street food we wanted to try. We shared stories from our times abroad, and as I sat there with the beer making me feel warm and light, I knew that I had found my paradise.

That is, until classes start tomorrow.

Contact Hannah Nguyen at [email protected].