Seven Things I Learned While Studying Abroad in Shanghai

As my time in Shanghai comes to a close, I, Kylie Jenner Javana Zahedi, have realized some things. For example, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my lungs are probably irreversibly damaged, as they’ve been inhaling world-infamous pollution and secondhand nightclub smoke for 3.5 months straight. And after being caught one too many times in a barren squatty potty with nothing but flimsy tissues to save my (literal) ass, I also now truly understand the luxury that is readily available, two-ply toilet paper.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m being dramatic…it’s because I almost exclusively speak in hyperboles. My struggles with poor air quality and hole-in-the-ground toilets were actually remedied early on with reminders of their temporality and my own willingness to adjust. Plus, the sheer abundance of early rising, tai-chi-practicing grannies and gramps I’ve seen in the past three months has been enough to reassure me that there are more aspects to being healthy than breathing in mountain-fresh air every day.

So what have I learned in China, then?

  1. The beginning of study abroad is literally freshman year, except students are in a foreign country and know better than to ever wear any program or school paraphernalia around their necks. As in…we live in dorms, have to nakedly flip-flop to and from our communal showers every day, and definitely had to deal with the awkward, nice-to-everyone-because-I-need-to-make-friends week when we first arrived in Shanghai. (i.e. “Where are you from?” “What school do you go to?” “What’s your major?” “Career goals?” “SSN?” “Grandmother’s maiden name?”)
  2. As hard as it is to admit, homesickness is real, and in extreme cases, it may make you start to think inappropriately about a food you really miss (tacos). There was a time in my life where I was as naive as a climate change skeptic – I really believed I was immune to homesickness; it was an ailment of the weak. Man, how I wish someone had slapped me back then and said, “Javana, you literally go to college 40 minutes away from your actual home. You don’t know shit.” Now that I’m around the globe, I know better, and my dearest California: I miss you! I miss your people and your food and your weather and your views and your taco stands that will satiate me even in the latest hours of the night!

    oh my GOD
  3. When people say studying abroad is one of the best ways to improve your foreign language skills, they’re right. I know people study abroad for a lot of different reasons, but one of my biggest motivations for coming to Shanghai was to brush up on my Chinese skills, which have been on a shelf acquiring dust since about 7th grade. As luck would have it, going to Chinese class four times a week and using the language in daily life does, in fact, make for dramatic improvements. Come at me, Chinese speakers – let’s talk about gun control. Or tea culture. Or the difference between education systems in China and the U.S. I got you.
  4. Living in another country can come with unexpected perks that kind of just make your experience, and no, I’m not talking about my sugar daddy who bought me a Maserati. Oh my god. I’m kidding. I’ll definitely still be rolling around in my ’02 Accord when I get home. What I really didn’t expect after coming to Shanghai was that I’d develop such a strong relationship with my family that lives here – let it be known, I didn’t have much of a relationship with them at all prior to studying abroad. I originally figured I’d grab a couple obligatory lunches with them and call it a semester, but a few meals quickly turned into biweekly hangouts full of me nodding along to Chinese that I didn’t understand, my relatives pressuring me to eat more even though I’d already eaten 12 dumplings in six minutes, and my lovely great aunt holding on to my arm as we explored different tourist spots. Ugh. I miss them already. The Chinese side of my family is truly some of the most generous, accommodating, and loving people I’ve ever met, and getting to spend time with them has easily been one of the best parts about living in their hometown. Side note: every time I saw them, they bought me enough fruit and snacks to feed a small village, and for that my belly and I are also very thankful. Side side note: Anyone want pears? I literally have 10+ and there’s no way I can finish them. Let me know.
  5. If you want attention for being a foreigner in China, don’t bother coming to Shanghai, or you’ll leave with a deflated ego. I basically came to China fresh from Taiwan, where my blonde, blue-eyed friends were always asked for pictures. Silly me expected the same wonderment in response to foreigners from the Shanghainese, but because the city is brimming with expats and study abroad students, locals are no stranger to unfamiliar faces. In short, most of the time (key word: most), none of us are paid any special attention. If you speak exceptional Chinese or flaunt out-of-this-world chopstick skills (yes people, we have chopsticks in America too!), you might be able to elicit some questions or stares, but don’t get your hopes up.
  6. Culture shock often hits you when you expect it the least, like when you’re innocently walking through the subway station and you see a mother holding her baby over a trashcan as he poops into it. What a beautiful (and true) string of words I’ve just crafted. While I now respect the “you gotta do what you gotta do” mentality, in the moment, that incident really did render me shocked. Also, to give more context into the situation, the baby was wearing split-back pants, so the whole situation was honestly really convenient for him. Split-back pants, which are exactly what they sound like, are common childrenswear in China, and while I understand their convenience function, I cannot wrap my head around their blatant hygiene issues. Regardless, my point is that culture differences inevitably exist in foreign countries, but I’ve found that getting used to them is a better bet than wasting my time complaining about them.

    split-back pants: the more you know
  7. Unrestricted internet access is a blessing that many take for granted. In a record not worth bragging about, China blocks basically every website and social media app to ever exist. Goodbye Google, hello Baidu? Goodbye Facebook/Twitter/Instagram, hello Wechat? Instead of asking, “what’s your number?,” people around here ask, “can I get your Wechat?” It takes some getting used to. And if we foreigners do want to access restricted sites, we have to rely on VPNs (virtual private networks), which slow wifi down to a sluglike pace and make strong ‘gram games nearly impossible to achieve. You have never seen desperation until you’ve seen me frantically trying to load 50 snap stories at once the minute I find out a place has decent wifi.

So I’m out of this city in exactly a week. China, you’ve been a wild ride. Keep doing you, but maybe consider making Google legal again? Just think about it.


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