Back in Shanghai after 13 years

During our flights over from New York to Tokyo and finally to Shanghai arriving tonight, I thought about the last time I was in Shanghai about 13 years ago. It was my very first time leaving the U.S. The only reason I even went was because I applied for and was granted a scholarship to study in the month-long Wellesley-in-Shanghai language-immersion program at East China Normal University. The scholarship covered my full tuition and housing at a four-star hotel on the East China Normal campus, plus side day trips to Suzhou and Zhouzhuang, many activities and banquet meals, airport transfers, and about half of my round-trip airfare. I remember feeling anxiety over whether the scholarship would come through because at that time, my parents said they wouldn’t pay for me to study abroad there: why would they pay for that if they are already paying my extremely expensive tuition, room, and board at Wellesley? They’d only let me go if the scholarship was granted. So I learned probably about a month and a half in advance of the trip departure date that I received it, so I had to expedite my passport processing and quickly book my airfare.

I remember feeling pretty resentful at the time of my parents. I knew they had the ability to pay for it, but they didn’t see what benefits there would be in studying in another country. If anything, they thought the idea seemed pretty fluffy, like an excuse to have fun being masked as “study.” I get that completely; most of the time when I see study-abroad photos of friends and former classmates, they are usually party photos that showcase people doing all the things they are unable to do legally in their own respective country. However, my gripe at the time was that my parents didn’t understand that true language immersion meant actually immersing yourself in the motherland of the language you were trying to gain fluency in. You will never gain fluency in a second language within the walls of a classroom; you absolutely need to speak the language in the real world, and there’s no better way to do it than to do it in that actual land.

Even though I scrambled after my scholarship was approved to get my flights, passport, and travel visa in order, I think in the end, I felt better that I was doing this study-abroad program with a scholarship. It meant I actually earned this opportunity on my own, that I was “paying” for myself to do this and didn’t have to rely on my parents. I still believe it is a privilege to travel; not everyone has the time or money to do it, but when you are presented with an opportunity to do it, you should grasp it firmly and go. That experience forever changed my perception of the world, as hyperbolic as that may sound. At the time, I’d always thought myself more mature than others my age, but that trip really made me realize how little I knew about the world outside not just the U.S., but my own teeny tiny bubble. I really knew nothing. I was unworldly and not traveled at all.

I remember the evening I arrived, and the first morning I woke up, jet lagged and not even aware I was jet lagged. I rose at around 4:30am, eager to step out of the campus and actually see the city. My roommate then was still fast asleep in her bed. I had small talk with street food vendors, some of whom I repeatedly saw and gave business to over the course of my four weeks there. Without realizing it, I purchased and ate my very first sheng jian bao (basically like xiao long bao / soup dumplings, but thick-skinned dumplings, filled with meat, steamed and then fried on the bottom, and spilling out with soup when you bite into them), and also started my Shanghai morning habit of having hot, sweet freshly made soy milk each day, drinking it out of a plastic cup wrapped with another clear plastic bag. Everyone seemed to eat everything out of a clear plastic bag here on these streets. Just that experience in itself excited me then.

Those are just the simple memories of the beginning. So as I recalled all of this upon our arrival, I wondered what this city would be like to me 13 years later. I’m older, a bit more experienced, with slightly stronger language skills under my belt now. I’ve traveled more and seen more around the world. What would be the same and different about my first international destination? What would my perception be like? Would it still be as fun and exciting to me as it was in 2006? Lots of anticipation bounced inside my head as we arrived at our hotel this evening and would start the beginning of our 11-day China trip.

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