Culture Shock and The Realities of Study Abroad

It’s been exactly four months since I flew home from Shanghai to London. At the time, I couldn’t wait to come home. Not that I didn’t love Shanghai, but I’d been living there for almost a year and felt like I’d done all that I wanted to do, and that it was time for the next adventure. Yet, now that enough time has passed for me to forget the day-to-day reality of my study abroad experience, and instead focus on the grander, more exciting moments – I’m pining terribly for Shanghai. I miss the steamed buns, the ridiculously cheap transport, the way you could go to one of the fanciest cocktail bars in town and still buy a drink for around £5. I miss the tree-lined boulevards of the French Concession, speeding in and out of traffic on a scooter, having hundreds of types of tea to peruse at Tea City. I miss the people that I met, especially Bianca who became one of my closest friends. She is still in Shanghai, having the time of her life without me. Quite selfish in my opinion.

When drinks are so cheap, it’s only right that you get the entire tasting platter
My partner in crime and I

I’ve always had a tendency to be extremely nostalgic. I find it a challenge to be present, and would rather romanticize the past or the future as a means to escape existing in the now. This can be a problem while traveling, as before I’ve finished enjoying the trip I’m on, I’m hyper-conscious of time running out, and already on to planning the next one. While I’m sat here wishing I was back in Shanghai, and looking through rose-tinted glasses, I have to remind myself that it wasn’t perfect. While the challenges definitely helped me grow, it was not smooth sailing, and I had periods where I felt very disheartened. Some of this I’ve already talked about on this blog – managing missed flights, losing bank cards, filing insurance claims, cracking my head open and ending up in hospital.

It would seem that perhaps I’m in the re-entry phase of culture shock whereupon you crave to return to the country you were placed in. I remember being in a pre-departure talk before studying abroad, and the speaker was trying to explain the phenomenon to us. One sure fire sign, is when the things that excited you in the beginning, what is termed ‘the honeymoon period’ start to really frustrate you. Things that seemed quirky, like the food, or the way that the traffic seems to have a logic of its own, becomes aggravating. Everyday tasks that should be easy like doing your laundry, buying food or hopping in a taxi now seem insurmountable, especially for students with no previous language experience of the host country they find themselves in. I was lucky enough to have Chinese friends who could help me use Chinese apps to order a taxi, accompany me to the phone shop to help me buy a sim card, and ring the bank to cancel my lost card and order in a new one. While I’m so grateful for their kindness, this dependency can make you feel quite powerless in a way.

Image source: Global Graduates

I was never overtly aware of culture shock, but could feel it subconsciously permeating through a lot of what I did. I knew it was there, for example, when I was dreaming about home every night. There are so many differences between Chinese and British culture that it would be difficult to cover them all, but one thing that really bothered me in particular was the total excess of bureaucracy in China. Everything seems to be done completely by the book, with no room for manoeuvrability, even if it’s something as simple as trying to substitute an ingredient in a meal at a restaurant – which made it even more difficult being a vegetarian in Shanghai. I’ll explore differences in censorship, and educational systems in more detailed posts as they require more in-depth explanation, but just in general, the West as a whole and Asia are so different. Graphic artist Yang Liu has produced posters, which now make up her book East meets West, which illustrate some of these polar differences. Some of the images might seem slightly reductive or an oversimplification but I personally found them to be pretty accurate at explaining the differences in a succinct, simple manner (West is blue, East is red).

For me, culture shock was anything debilitating, it was more the occasional onset of low moods, which could’ve been due to a multitude of things. I still don’t really know what culture shock is or how it can be measured, I suppose it’s different for every person. Even now, I find it hard to believe that I was in China for a good part of the year. Perhaps one of the reasons that culture shock was minimised in Shanghai as opposed to the rest of China is that it the most westernised city and a lot of the time you could be forgiven for thinking you were walking down a street in, say, New York. This definitely isn’t the case in other cities like Suzhou where traditional Chinese gardens and architecture mirror the idea of China that most people hold in their mind. Shanghai is the largest city in China (and the world, by population) but to tell the truth, I’ve felt more claustrophobic in Oxford Street, although perhaps my experience was different because our university and dormitory is in the French Concession, which is one of the quieter areas.

There is no cure for culture shock, although distracting yourself with a full schedule seems to help. Making friends with local people who can help to immerse you more into the culture so that it isn’t so alien to you is always helpful. Something I found to relieve the stress was to make a list of what I wanted to achieve from my year abroad, and all of the things that I loved about my host country to look back on when you’re missing home. It’s quite a good idea to keep a journal in general, to help put things into perspective during your time there and after you arrive home.

While now I could write extensively about the things I miss about Shanghai, I could probably write just as much about the things I don’t miss, and looking back on journal entries helps remind me of that. It might just turn out to be the best year of your life, but expecting that adds an immense amount of pressure, especially when you’re first settling in and struggling to adjust. A semester or a year is a long time, and you probably won’t love every minute of it. It made it a lot easier that another girl on the course was also British. When we were feeling homesick, Rachel and I used to have Brit days where we’d go to Mr Harry’s (a British restaurant) and watch something like the British Bake Off. There’s not much that a roast dinner and cup of English breakfast tea can’t fix!

Mr Harry’s

How To Do Tokyo On A Budget: Things To See & Do

Contrary to popular opinion, there are plenty of cheap (and even free) things to do in Tokyo, so a trip there doesn’t have to burn a hole in your wallet. As I explored in Part 1, I had to manage survival in Tokyo on a budget of less than £20 a day, so found myself being more selective about what I did and where I ate. I was pleasantly surprised with the number of cheap attractions on offer.

IMPERIAL PALACE

The Imperial Palace is the official residence of the current emperor, Akihito. I didn’t realise this, but much like the United Kingdom, Japan is a constitutional monarchy, so the emperor doesn’t have any substantial political power. While you can’t go inside the residency, the palace grounds are free to walk around, and there is a park, bridges, and moats to admire. Free tours are run by the Imperial Household Agency most Tuesdays through to Saturdays (some exceptions July-Aug or public holidays) at 10:30am or 1pm and last around 75 minutes. On Sundays (weather dependent), from 10am-3pm, you can rent bicycles for free to take for a 3km lap around the Imperial Palace. The palace was built on the site of the old Edo Castle and within the beautiful East Gardens where you can see remnants of the original castle fortifications which still stand.

PARKS

Despite being a bustling, futuristic metropolis, like London, Tokyo has a number of beautiful parks to explore with a camera or relax with a picnic. Shinjuku Gyoen (this one charges a small admission fee), Kasai Rinkai, Showa Kinen – the list is endless. My two favourites, however, were Yoyogi and Ueno. Yoyogi park is perfect for people watching and is where you will find cliques like the Harajuku girls on a Sunday.

The area of Harajuku itself is also worth an explore, with quirky fashion street Takeshita nearby which then juxtaposes with the boulevard lanes of Ometasando lined with designer stores (window shopping is entirely free!) The Louis Vuitton building also has a gallery at the top called Escape. Even if you don’t fancy the current exhibition being shown there, you can get a great view on the city!

Ueno was conveniently located right next to my hostel so I had ample opportunity to explore it. It is free to go into, and is also one of Tokyo’s oldest parks (it was established in 1873). It has a beautiful pond, spacious grounds, a large collection of museums and a shrine (although the latter two vary in admission procedures).

MUSEUMS & GALLERIES

A lot of museums and galleries are free, or at least have good student discounts. In the park just mentioned, Ueno, there are a whole host of choices: The National Science Museum, The Museum of Western Art, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art (TMMA) and the Tokyo National Museum (TNM). I went to the latter two, and with a student card, I paid ¥410 for the TNM, and was granted free entrance to the TMMA. You could easily spend a day in Ueno combining these two, the TNM alone takes a while to get around as it has five exhibition halls.

I also checked out the Mori Art Museum which was hosting the Charming Journey exhibition by N.S Harsha which explored post-colonial India, philosophy and the effect globalization has on human rights and trade. What was on at the National Art Centre didn’t appeal to me (and I was still bitter about just missing the Yayoi Kusama exhibition), but usually they have pretty good stuff. You have to pay for admission, but prices are reasonable. At the moment, both galleries are hosting Contemporary Art from South East Asia 1980s to Now and it’s ¥800 for a student ticket to both, or 500 for a student to ticket to one (around £3).

Mizuma is an art gallery which doesn’t charge any admission, is a good size, and also has branches in China and Singapore. When I was there it was exhibiting Lust by Matsukage.

SHRINES & Temples

Most shrines and temples are free to visit. Meji Shrine is free and is located next to Yoyogi park, so it’s ideal to combine the two. It’s dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken who used to frequent an iris garden in the location that it is built.

Nezu Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Tokyo. Even if you don’t believe the legend that says that it was created around 2,000 years ago, it is proven to be dating from at least 1705, which is still quite impressive.

Yasakuni Shrine is dedicated to those who served for their country, but is also deemed quite controversial as it enshrines even those who were found guilty of being war criminals. It also has a museum next to it, Yushu-Kan, about Japanese military history which some find to be a nationalistic and a skewed representation.

Ueno Shrine is inside Ueno Park, and you need to pay to enter inside the walls, although you can walk around the grounds for free. It retains its structure from the Edo period so is well worth a visit.

Akagi-jinga might be particularly interesting to those who are into architecture, as it remodelled to make it look more contemporary and now has a glass box for its main shrine building.

The oldest buddhist temple Senso-Ji and it’s charming grounds are free, although you can pay ¥100 to discover your fortune.

VIEWING PLATFORMS

Along with Escape, there are plenty of other places to get a great view of the city on the cheap. You can, for example, access the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which is made up of two towers. Both towers have observatories at the top that are open from 9am-11pm, making it perfect for tagging on the end of a long day of sightseeing.

Paying for entrance to the Mori Art Museum grants you access to the exhibition and a viewing platform. You can pay also a little extra to go up to the sky deck on nice days which provides you with an open air view, unrestricted by windows.

In part three we’ll be looking at cheap places to eat. Bear in mind though, these suggestions are just the beginning! Tokyo has so much on offer, and there were other cheap attractions that I didn’t get round to. For example, rather than paying to go to a sumo match you can go to see a morning training session in a stable. There are around 45 stables in Tokyo, and the training sessions usually commence early and last for a few hours. You can read more about that here. Something else I wish I had time for was the Tsukiji fish market which holds a famous tuna auction you can attend for free, before treating yourself to a fresh sushi breakfast. Again, it starts early (about 5am) and only a limited number of people can fit inside the auction area. You can read more about that here.

A City with Seoul

While out at dinner with Yun Jin Lee, a lovely South Korean girl who I’d met that evening through a friend, I asked her: which three words would you use to describe South Korean culture and its people? She thought about it and replied, ‘competition, education, and appearance.’ I could definitely see this in the capital I had been exploring, Seoul. There is a huge onus put on education. From schooldays, children work hard, starting as early as 7am, and attending after school cramming sessions that can drag on well into the night. Parents can fuel the competition, hoping for their children to secure a place among the few top-tier universities in what’s been dubbed as an ‘education arms race’ as it will dictate their perceived success in society.

EWHA Women’s University Campus

The emphasis on education is not all bad news, as it is also what transformed South Korea from a war torn country into a leading economy. There are reminders of its past all over the city. For example, statues of comfort women (women forced to work as prostitutes for the Japanese) can be found around the city to commemorate them. You can also visit the Seodaemun Prison which was used by both the Korean government (to suppress uprisings) and the Japanese during the Japanese-Korean Wars.

A statue of a comfort woman
Seodaemun Prison

With South Korea being the plastic surgery capital of the world, it’s no wonder the other key word was appearance. It’s so common, that an operation is often a high-school graduation gift. No wonder then, that the shopping districts (Insadong and Myeongdong were my favourite) overflow with shops specialising in face masks and skin care. The make-up and skin care products are phenomenal and a must buy while you’re in the city. A personal favourite purchase was a face mask that bubbles. If you want to take pampering to the next level, then you can drop into a jjimjilbang (a Korean bath house/spa.) Alongside the multiple indoor & outdoor pools, saunas, cedar baths, and beauty treatments, they have cinemas, game rooms, restaurants and chill out/meditation areas. They are open 24 hours a day and you can even stay there overnight. Dragon Hill is a very good one.

Myeongdong
Insadong
An assortment of face masks, make up removers, face wash, hand cream, a blackhead clearing kit and hair masks

I briefly mentioned in a previous blog post how my trip to Seoul culminated in me missing my flight. Despite this, I think Seoul may just be my favourite city in Asia so far. I know that’s a big claim, but it really blew me away. South Korea seems to be massively underrated, but it has a fascinating history and culture. The food is also unreal. While it’s largely meat-based and famous for its BBQs, it is possible to still thoroughly enjoy it (being a temporary pescatarian definitely helped!) Since being back in the UK, Korean food is actually one of the few Asian cuisines I’ve been hugely craving rather than being sick of the sight of it. I have a long list of London based Korean restaurants I need to attend.

So why should you go to South Korea (or officially, the Republic of Korea, ROK for short) and Seoul in particular? To be honest, if I’d had more time to spare I wouldn’t have limited myself to just Seoul. I would’ve headed out to spend time in the countryside, or gone out to the book village which caught my eye while perusing my guidebook. The good thing about Seoul though, is that it is a good introduction to ROK and a good base from which to start exploring the rest of the country. If you don’t have time to do the latter, you’ll still come away feeling satisfied. You need at least four days in Seoul. I spent five nights and I barely scratched the surface, so I’d recommend a solid week to get through all the main attractions.

THE BASICS

Currency: South Korean Won
Language: Korean
Time Zone: UTC +8
Visa: Not needed (for UK passport holders)

Gyeongbokgung Palace
PALACES & OTHER FOCUSES OF TRADITIONAL KOREAN CULTURE

There are five grand palaces in Seoul which were built in the Joseon dynasty, but we only had time to go to one. We chose Gyeongbokgung, which is the biggest and oldest one. It is a huge complex with museums and a daily changing of the guards ceremony at 10am and 2pm in front of Gwanghwamun (the main gate). It is open Wednesday-Monday whereas most other palaces close on Mondays so this is something to bear in mind when constructing your schedule. The other palaces are: Deoksugung, Changdeokgung (a world heritage site which requires you to join a guided tour), Changgyeonggung (this one has a secret garden) and Gyeonghuigung.

Changing of the Guards ceremony at Gyeongbokgung
Gwanghwamun Gate

Seoul also has an abundance of hanoks (traditional Korean houses). The most popular collection of these in Bukchon Hanok Village which has around 900.

A couple dressed in traditional Korean attire
ARTS AND ARCHITECTURE

Seoul has some beautiful art and architecture. There are tons of galleries and museums, but with limited times and funds we had to be very selective. There are lots of free galleries though, like the ones that are dotted around in Insadong and an abundance of street art.
There is stunning architecture all over the city. Cheonggyecheon, for example, is a man-made river that was installed to bring a natural space into the city and is now a hub of life. The City Hall is also a sight to behold.

Seoul City Hall

There is also a section of Seoul called Mullae-dong or Mullae arts village, which is in a district that is mainly dedicated to steel production. The inhabitants wanted to make it look more aesthetically pleasing and it has since been transformed, with art murals dotted throughout the streets.

FOOD & DRINK

While nightlife in Japan can feel slightly seedy, and China a bit uptight, ROK (or Seoul, at least) seems to strike the perfect balance. Soju (a clear liquor, similar to vodka) is very popular to drink. Don’t underestimate it, with strengths of up to 53%, it’s lethal. I thought I’d be fine. A few hours later and I’m speaking Mandarin to a poor taxi driver and wondering why he’s refusing to take me to my university dorms (which are in Shanghai.) Sounds like too much? Korean beer is pretty good and how can you resist when some are endorsed by K-popstars. Girls Generation have actually outsold Spice Girls (85.10M vs 85M.) GIVE K-POP A CHANCE.

The food is very diverse, with only one certainty – kimchee will be served with everything you order. Kimchee is basically a collection of mini side dishes such as pickled vegetables. This isn’t restricted to just Korean food, I went to an Italian restaurant in the Mullae arts village and the spaghetti still came with kimchee!

Other foods to try:

Yachae Jook (Vegetable porridge which tastes A LOT nicer than it sounds.)

Yachaejeon (The vegetable pancake pictured in the left hand side of the image)

Odeng (fish cakes)

Tteokbokki (Rice cakes in a spicy red sauce)

Melona ice pops (Just a personal fave)

Street food is also very popular, with a very good (if little on the pricey side) selection in Myeongdong

*Special shout out to Abby for making my time in Seoul even better. I met this little ray of sunshine on my first night at the hostel I was staying at as a further testament to the perks of solo travel! We subsequently spent most of our trip together, and then met up in Hong Kong and Shanghai. See you in Utrecht!*

Essential China: Everything You Need to Know

One of the best things about studying in Shanghai is the easy access it gives you to the rest of China. China is so well-connected, and a great jumping off point for going further afield and exploring Asia. Obviously, it’s huge, but the transport network ensures that you can get to anywhere in the country in a few hours. This series, ‘Essential China’ will focus on the how to travel around China and places to add to your itinerary. We will cover places such as Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Taiwan, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Suzhou and Nanjing.

Panda in Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

So, why should you go to China? More importantly, why wouldn’t you? As the fourth biggest country in the world, it is diverse. No matter what kind of traveler you are, China has something to offer you. It has one of the most interesting histories on Earth, is brimming with natural beauty, is famous for its unique food, and is rapidly changing and developing all the time. It has the second most UNESCO world heritage sites in the world (34),  surpassed only by Italy. China is both massively underrated and misunderstood. It often gets such a bad press in foreign media that people subconsciously dismiss it or harbour negative conceptions about it.

Street food in Suzhou
East Nanjing Road, Shanghai

Go to a hostel in Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Japan or Vietnam, and you’re bound to be surrounded by foreigners. China, not so much. Perhaps it’s because getting a visa is more difficult, or that it’s not perceived to be as affordable as other Asian countries. People that I’ve spoken to, just don’t seem to be that interested in China, or if they are, they think that a few days in Beijing and/or Shanghai will suffice. It won’t. If you neglect China, you are missing out big time.

View of Qinianmen from the Temple of Heaven, Beijing

THE BASICS

Getting there
Fly direct from London to Shanghai in roughly 11 hours or from London to Beijing in around 10.

Currency
¥ (RMB/CNY)

Time Difference
+7

Language
The official language of the country is Mandarin, but each province has its own dialect. Even Shanghai has its own dialect: Shanghainese. China is divided into 34 areas. The dialects spoken in them can vary as much as from English to Dutch, but the standard script of the written language remains the same. Due to its pictorial language, China is one of very few places where you can speak the language but also be illiterate.

The art of calligraphy in Chengdu
Tea City, Shanghai

Visa
You will definitely need a visa, unless you are planning on just visiting Hong Kong/Macau. Don’t let this put you off though, the process is simple and quick! Depending on whether you are simply traveling, studying or planning to work here, your visa will differ. All information regarding the process including step-by-step guidelines can be found here. Remember that if you’re planning to go to autonomous regions like Tibet, you’ll need to get a separate visa. Due to the political situation there, foreigners aren’t permitted to travel there solo and must go with a tour group which can be expensive. The best offer I’ve found is here.

Map of China. Image credit: Travel China Guide

Getting around
Something that I’ve found, is that there are many people traveling around China with tour companies. This is so unnecessary. Granted, China is more difficult for the average traveler, but if anything, this ensures that it’s more of an adventure. Do it alone. I believe in you. If you want to attempt to explore the entire country, it may be necessary for you to occasionally take internal flights between your destinations. However, the train network is also huge and continually expanding and developing. There are bullet trains connecting most major cities, for example, you can get from Shanghai to Beijing in less than five hours.

If you’re not in a rush and you wish to save money, you could also opt for the sleeper trains. They have four different types of accommodation: hard seats, soft seats, hard sleeper and soft sleeper which vary in price. By western standards, they are very inexpensive. I’ve taken the sleeper train from Xi’an to Chengdu in winter and it was not uncomfortable in the slightest. There are four beds in each room (two bunk beds). Most cities have efficient metro networks and pretty much everywhere has buses.

Hectic subway scenes in Shanghai
Soft sleeper bed from Xi’an – Chengdu

Political Situation
China is run by the CPC (Communist Party of China). It’s not quite a communist country, they adhere to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ In the past thirty years, there has been an unprecedented amount of rapid development and privatisation leading to China emerging as one of the global economic superpowers. As the focus has arguably been on economic development rather than social, censorship still plays a role in keeping the peace. Therefore, you will need to download a VPN if you wish to use your phone/laptop to access most social media in China (whatsapp, youtube, facebook, snapchat, gmail, Instagram, skype, BBC news, etc). There are many free options but the best ones are constantly changing, so do some research closer to the time of your trip.

Resources for before you go
If you’re planning to spend a prolonged amount of time there, or if you’re just simply interested in getting to know the culture more, then I’d highly recommend having a look at the following resources. Many are books/films that I’ve studied in my Chinese culture and history classes over the course of my year at STA, and others are simply things I’ve found interesting. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just an introduction. If you want any more, then feel free to ask!

Books: The Rape of Nanking, China: A Modern History, China in Ten Words, Factory Girls: Voices From The Heart of Modern China, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, The Art of War, The Peony Pavilion
Films: Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, To Live
Ted Talks: Behind the Great Firewall of China; Are China and the US doomed to conflict; Learn to Read Chinese With Ease; Understanding the Rise of China

The Great Wall of China