Study Abroad with CIEE Shanghai - Open Campus Block

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CIEE Shanghai

By Christina Li -  Open Campus - Spring 2024 CIEE Shanghai

When I first landed in Shanghai in February, I was nervous about being part of a new culture, surrounded by people I didn’t know. It didn’t matter that I found China to be beautiful, interesting, lively—I was going to be 2000 miles away from home, in a place where I had no support system, with no idea how to fit in with the local people and customs. But as soon as I arrived on campus and met all my fellow CIEE students, I felt at ease. We were all new to this place and we were all on our own. Most importantly, we had all come to Shanghai to experience it to its fullest. 

The CIEE-organized events also gave us a viewpoint into Chinese culture and history. We went to the Yuan Garden right after New Year’s Day, during our first week, and it really gave me a look into what Chinese celebrations are like: busy and bright. It was packed full of people (人山人海) but so beautiful and so lively. In fact, that’s how I would describe almost everything we’ve done in Shanghai: people everywhere, filled with activity and life. My favorite parts of China are the old-style streets, paved with cobblestones and lined with locally-run stalls selling snacks and souvenirs. Stumbling upon them always feels like discovering a piece of history, preserved in modern times. We even tried our hand at haggling, which can be fun but usually too much of a challenge to be worthwhile for me. 

The classes I took with CIEE also let me see into Chinese culture in a way I haven’t before. I took two classes, the first one on Chinese film; all the movies I watched during this class and the discussions we had about them taught me about modern Chinese history, and the way the events of the past century have hugely shaped contemporary Chinese culture. The second class was on public health, and we took various field trips to Shanghai healthcare companies, which helped me to learn more about work culture and life in China. I wasn’t sure I’d really enjoy either of these classes, being a computer science major, but in hindsight I’m glad I got to take them. There are so many differences between every aspect of Chinese and American culture, and without immersing myself in a variety of different fields, I wouldn’t be able to learn any of them. 

Outside of the classroom, our favorite after-class activity was…shopping! In Shanghai it’s ridiculously easy to go on a shopping spree and come back to the dorms with a haul too huge to carry—there’s practically a mall on every corner, and every store in it has unique clothes fitted to all the newest street styles or cute trinkets and plushies that I bought way too many of. It was really funny to all of us how much Chinese people love Lotso from Toy Story (he might be the movie’s villain, but he’s in every store in all different forms). Personally, I bought enough blind boxes to pack a suitcase full, and I know all of us have played so many claw machines that we could stuff a car with the plushies we’ve won.

OC II Prize Claw

Another great part about Shanghai is how easy and cheap it is to go out to eat. We’re in China, how could we not be eating delicious food every meal? We’ve tried a variety of different Chinese cuisines: beef noodle soup, dumplings, Cantonese-style dimsum, hotpot, skewers, the list goes on. I tried to keep a personal rule to never eat the same thing twice, in the name of trying as many new things as possible, but I had to break it for the rou jia mo that we found in a noodle shop on the outskirts of campus. Meanwhile, the most interesting thing I’ve tried here is green mochi filled with rousong (pork floss). Not to mention even the restaurants you’d typically consider Western—Dairy Queen, Burger King, Pizza Hut—have cool things on their menu that I could never find in America (like potato and beef pizza!). 

OC II meal

Of course, our experiences weren’t limited to just Shanghai. With China’s high-speed railway system, it’s easy to get from city to city in a short amount of time and at a relatively low cost. Over one of the weekends, we went to Suzhou as a big group, and over another we took the high-speed rail to Hangzhou. In Chinese, there’s a saying: 上有天堂, 下有苏杭 which translates to, Above there is heaven, below there is Suzhou and Hangzhou. And indeed Suzhou and Hangzhou were beautiful, with teal-blue rivers and stunning temples and pagodas.

OC II Trip 1

We also took a longer excursion to Guilin, which is a lush and tropical city southwest of Shanghai. Our Guilin adventures were filled with caves, rivers, and mountains—all sorts of beautiful nature. It was a far cry from Shanghai, slower-paced and more rural, and I’m so glad we got to experience a different side of China. This is another thing I loved about my time in China: the country is so diverse, and going to a different city can feel like going to a new continent. Every place has its own age-old history, and every landmark we visited was like fitting another piece into the puzzle that is China.

OC II trip 2

​​​​Six weeks have gone by far too fast, and I don’t know how I’m going to say goodbye. Before I landed, I knew I would have a good time, but I was sure I’d be ready to leave by the time the six weeks were up. I had anticipated feeling like an outsider—Chinese at first glance, but a foreigner at heart, unable to read the language and stumbling over what few words I know. But instead China has felt more like home than I would have ever thought and the people I’ve met through CIEE have felt like a new sort of family. I am going to miss it so much and I can’t wait to come back!!!