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

Is It Possible To Be A Vegetarian In Shanghai?

Gods gift to vegetarians in the form of steamed buns

In a country where food is so ingrained into the culture, it’s no wonder that a common greeting in China is 吃饭了吗? (Chi fan le ma?) which literally translates to ‘have you eaten?’ but is used as more of a ‘what’s up?’. There is a huge social emphasis placed on food. People usually eat communally and when ordering food, it is commonplace to order various dishes which are set on the table and shared by everyone. I prefer this style of eating, rather than the usual western way of ordering just one dish for yourself as I am so indecisive, and there’s nothing worse than food envy when the orders arrive for you to discover you’ve made an awful mistake. One thing that does make this more difficult though, is being a vegetarian. Meat is a central part of the Chinese diet and it can feel awkward at times, restricting other people who may feel as if they need to take your dietary requirements into consideration and pick a certain restaurant or order based on this.

The kind of meat dishes they offer here could intimidate even the most adventurous carnivore. We’re talking frogs, eels, duck blood, cow tongue, chicken feet and sometimes they have live animals in a restaurant ready for your choosing. Side note: no, it’s not common for Chinese people to eat dogs. That is a myth. Yes, there is an annual festival in Yulin, but the other provinces criticise it, just like the international community does. The festival itself only actually began in 2009, and is not representative of Chinese culture at all. I also don’t really understand why people are so horrified at the prospect of people eating dogs, but not other animals? Just because we’ve decided to domesticate some, their lives are now worth more than other more commonly eaten animals like cows, pigs, etc? Excuse me while my eyes roll into the back of my head.

Communal style eating

I became a vegetarian – or technically, a pescetarian as I still ate fish – when I was about thirteen years old. It admittedly took me a long time to eventually transition to become a ‘full’ vegetarian, which I only really managed a year ago after doing so on and off. This is why coming to Shanghai about six months after that transition was so testing, and eventually (six weeks in) led me to decide to allow myself to eat fish if I felt I needed to for the duration of my stay. When I leave China this summer, it won’t be an issue to revert back, but it’s just been too much of a struggle while I’m here.

To get an idea of how ingrained meat is into Chinese culture, there goes a saying in China which roughly translates to: If it has four legs and it’s not a table, we eat it. If it has wings and is not an airplane, we eat it. My teacher demonstrated the extent of this when she relayed an incident when her friend had told her about a new animal, and her first response was: can we eat it? In some guidebooks, on the section in which they give advice for vegetarians, they (in jest) suggest to just give up. Of course, it’s not impossible to sustain a vegetarian diet here, especially in the larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing where there is a multitude of restaurants to choose from. However, it isn’t simply a lack of vegetarian dishes that are available, but the understanding of the lifestyle itself.

It’s not even a simple case of language barriers. Even whilst out for dinner with Chinese friends, there have been occasions where they have had to stress several times to the waiter that there can’t be any meat in a certain dish and are met with a confused look. My friend took me for soup dumplings and even when I could see there was pork in the broth, she insisted it was fine as it wasn’t inside the actual dumplings. I’ve found this quite common when I have told street food sellers that I’m a vegetarian and ask if their product has any meat. They try to reassure me with the reply, 一点 (yi dian) which means ‘only a little’ as if this would make it acceptable for a veggie to consume. Imagine my despair when my Chinese friend told me that most of the time dim sum contains meat, or when we were dividing up a moon-cake for the mid-Autumn festival and SURPRISE SURPRISE I can’t have any because it contains meat.

It’s okay guys, I won’t eat any. I’ll just take a photo of how pretty it looks so that I can try to extract some joy from this cultural experience that you’re all sharing without me.

This issue can sometimes make it an issue to order even the most basic vegetable dishes. This is because they are often cooked in the same animal stock or fat as other dishes. It’s also not uncommon to use meat to garnish dishes of vegetables. I have found that pork is the most common meat to randomly pop up in dishes that I have ordered. For this reason, I personally find it easier to stick to a vegetarian diet most of the time, but to consume fish if there are no other viable options in a restaurant. I feel horrifically guilty about it, but I’ve come to the conclusion that for now this is the best way for me. Don’t judge me, alas, I am weak.

If you are new to Shanghai or China, then navigating as a veggie can be tough. Memorise or write down this phrase so that you can show waiters or food sellers when you are ordering:

‘I don’t eat meat’
‘I am a vegetarian’

To get 100% vegetarian food, your best bet is to go to an eatery in a Buddhist temple. Some of my favourite vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai include:
Godly (which has been around since 1922)
Pure and Whole
Vegetarian Lifestyle (the Luwan branch)

Of course, there aren’t even a fraction of the amount of vegetarian restaurants that exist in London. I really took it for granted just how easy it is back home to sustain this kind of lifestyle and is one of the things that I’m actually looking forward to going back home to. For now though, the answer is tofu (who knew it could come in so many different forms?!) and too many steamed buns.

Campus Life at Shanghai Theatre Academy

Following on from my post about ICS at Shanghai Theatre Academy which primarily addressed course-content concerns, I thought I’d share more about campus life and life as a study-abroad student in Shanghai in general. Although most of these sections will be expanded on in full-length articles of their own, for now it should serve as a useful tool to run through the basics of accommodation, social life, and food…

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ACCOMODATION

I live in the Shanghai Theatre Academy student dormitory, which is conveniently located on campus. The school has two campus’ and my course is based at the Huashan Road campus, which is the smaller of the two. The Chinese Opera course is based at Lianhua Road campus (which is about an hour away from Huashan Rd) so if you opt to take that selective, you will have the opportunity to have classes at both campus’. The two minutes walk to class really does soften the blow of 8.30am starts. All foreign students are based on the 17th and 18th floor. I share my room with one other girl, and we have an en-suite bathroom. A single room isn’t a thing in Chinese universities, so wave goodbye to privacy. Compared to the domestic students though, we’re lucky – they share a room with up to five others and have to use communal toilets and showers (the latter which isn’t even located in the dormitory building).

My desk area

STA is in a great location, very central and based in Jing’an, the closest metro station is Jing’an Temple. We are on the edge of the French Concession, which is a particularly beautiful part of Shanghai, and usually quite expensive to live in. The area is instantly recognizable by its streets, which are lined with trees forming beautiful arches. As a 1-year exchange student, I pay ¥440 a month for my room, which is roughly the equivalent to around £51. However, if you are accepted on to the full 2-year M.A. programme as a scholarship student, your living expenses are covered by the university (as well as your course fees, and a monthly stipend).

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Inspired by the City Garden art installation to make my room more floral

SOCIAL AND CAMPUS LIFE

Shanghai has an excellent nightlife scene. From upscale clubs, to student pubs, to dingy dive bars, it really does have it all. It also has an amazing museum and art scene which I’m currently trying to work my way through. Unfortunately, the university doesn’t really have societies or sports teams which are a huge part of uni life in Exeter/the UK. However, our campus is still vibrant. There is always something going on. When I first arrived, there was an experimental Shakespeare festival, and since then there has been a RAW festival, an international arts festival and countless other productions. There is a gym on campus that is free for everyone to use, but it is very basic so many students opt for a paid membership to gyms nearby.

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Production of MacBain (a cross between Macbeth and the story of Kurt Cobain) during the Experimental Shakespeare Festival
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Schedule for the RAW festival
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Another day, another theatre festival on campus

The course that I’m on is actually the only one in STA that is taught in English and is only made up of around 10 people (the year before us there were only six students on the course), so there’s not really a huge international students’ scene. It is great having such artistic peers, for example, we gathered a cast and crew together and entered into a 48-hour film festival back in Autumn. There are an abundance of opportunities to get involved in the arts, with many of my friends regularly participating in full-scale shows, to improvisation nights and comedy gigs.

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The participants in the 48-hour film festival from Intercultural Communication Studies

I wanted to branch out of the university bubble and did this via the app MeetUp which informs you about a range of things occurring in the city. Through this, I was able to find free yoga classes, meditation, and a creative writing group. Something that I’m also involved in is the Shanghai branch of LadyFest (a community based organization created to open up dialogue about gender equality). Although well-known for their annual arts and music festival in celebration of International Women’s Day, they also run a plethora of other events. For example, I took part in the Dating Monologues event, in which people could submit anonymous stories of their experiences of dating in Shanghai which would be read by other speakers/actors.

FOOD

Shanghai, and China for that matter, is famous for its food. It’s undeniably a heaven for foodies, with the streets filled with delicious, fresh (and cheap) food made right in front of you, which is especially amazing for coming home from a night out. However, it is slightly more tricky for vegetarians, and I don’t know how vegans cope. I will be expanding on this in another article, but let’s just say it’s a tricky terrain to navigate. We do have a kitchen in the dorms, but it’s tiny and not very well equipped. When I first arrived, I probably ate out almost every night for the first week or two. I was just so shocked by how cheap the food is. In a noodle restaurant opposite us, you can buy a large bowl of noodles with soup, veggies and tofu (think Wagamama, but better) all for less than £1.

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Veggie Noodles
Fresh steamed buns for breakfast
Fresh steamed buns for breakfast

There is a canteen on campus, for which you’ll need to buy a meal card, and a western-style cafe. It’s actually very common for students to order in food nightly as it is so cheap. 24/7 Delivery service is readily available. McDonalds even deliver straight to your door at all hours through their app. If you want to order western-style food with apps like Sherpas, then you’ll have to pay more, but if you’re happy to eat like a local then living expenses are very low. Being located in the French Concession means you’re extremely close by to amazing bakeries, cafes and restaurants.

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Sweet treats at Sunflour Café
Head to WIYF for the best craft ice-creams in the area


For more information, go to Shanghai Theatre Academy’s website.

Study Abroad in Shanghai: Intercultural Communications at STA

So, much to my disbelief, I’ve been in Shanghai for almost three months now. I was planning to do a series on my experiences studying at Shanghai Theatre Academy sooner, but for the past month I have been left laptop-less after a liquid damage mishap (shout out to Exeter Uni’s insurance policy Aviva for granting me a replacement). When I was preparing for my year abroad, there was a shocking lack of information provided concerning details such as course content, the academic calendar, accommodation, etc which was very frustrating. This was exacerbated by the fact that I was the first student from Exeter to undertake a year abroad at STA and therefore had no-one to share their experiences with me. So, this series will aim to cover these aspects along with other things that you’ll want to take into account when deciding on taking a year abroad such as culture shock and the social life in the city. This first post is dedicated to the details of the course itself.

I am on the Intercultural Communications MA programme. It is usually a two-year programme, with the first year consisting of classes and the second year dedicated to writing the thesis. There are 12 people on my course, but it seems to be expanding yearly as it’s relatively new (last year’s intake was six students). We’re made up of eight different nationalities, but the language of instruction for the course is English. As it is the only course at STA that is taught in English, there’s not really a range of modules to choose from. I remember browsing the modules on STA’s website and thinking I’d be able to take classes in subjects such as TV-hosting and directing. Nope. They’re all taught in Chinese. So unless you’re bilingual, you’ll be restricted to the modules specific to the ICS course. As a student on a year abroad, I am only here for one year before returning to Exeter to complete my fourth year. There is one other undergraduate (who is a student on a year abroad from the University of Leeds) and the rest of the participants are graduate students. If you are also an undergraduate, don’t be intimidated by the fact that it is an MA, the classes aren’t too challenging. They are pretty relaxed, and aside from weekly reading there isn’t much of a workload.

This term my schedule has consisted of the following modules:
Chinese Language: Three compulsory (and two optional) classes a week 8:30am-11:40am. Assessment is through a mid-term exam and a final exam. I sat the mid-term exam last week and we went through it in class beforehand, and then spent about thirty minutes working on it. It was all directly from what we’d been learning, so nothing to stress about.
Modern Chinese Performing Arts in Global Perspectives: We have eight classes in total, held weekly on Thursdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of three thought-pieces reflecting on readings that have been set, a group oral presentation and a final paper of around 2500 words (or creative project) with a presentation to discuss your findings.
Intercultural Theatre: Eight classes held fortnightly on Tuesdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of one final paper around 2500 words in length (or a creative project) and an informal presentation/discussion about your research.
Chinese History and Culture: Eight classes held fortnightly Tuesdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of a museum report, a critical commentary on one piece of reading and a final paper to be a minimum of 800 words.
Optional Chinese Opera Acting: Three classes held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 1:30pm-3pm.

Here, we have two academic terms as opposed to the usual three that we have back in the UK. This semester started in the first week of September and will finish in the week before Christmas. Usually, semesters in China run into mid-January, but they make an exception for our course as all participants are foreign students, and many will want to spend Christmas with their families. The second semester begins in the last week of February and runs until the first week of July. We are yet to be informed of our classes next term, but last year’s students took the mandatory Chinese language classes, Cultural Creative IndustriesFilms and Contemporary Chinese Society and Politics, and had the option to take traditional Chinese Culture & Taiqiquan, Chinese Opera Acting and Chinese Culture.

The teaching style is different. Three hour classes were definitely something I needed to adjust to. We do have a 5-10 minute break halfway through, but as someone with a short attention span, it took a while to get used to concentrating for longer than an hour at a time. All of my classes are essentially in a seminar format which I prefer infinitely to lecture-style teaching. The only issue with this format is that the quality of the class discussion is dependent on how many students do the reading, and as some of the teachers are so relaxed, it’s easy to become complacent. The flexibility of the course can be a merit though, as you can mould the course to your needs. The final paper (or creative project in some classes) has very large parameters and you’re given freedom and encouragement to seek out a topic that interests you, as long as it’s somewhat related to the class.

There is also the opportunity to gain academic credits in other projects. For example, I was among a group of STA students that decided to creatively collaborate and submit a film to the 48 hour film festival which was held in Shanghai a few weeks ago. Provided we contributed equally to the project and wrote a short reflective report on the experience, we were awarded academic credit. To complete the year, you need to have a certain amount of credits. However, the study abroad team advised me that I needed to take a minimum of seven modules, and not to worry about credits. So, perhaps the film project won’t contribute to my overall mark, but it was still an exciting experience to have.

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ICS students who took part in the 48 Hour Film Festival