Year Abroad: Shanghai Touchdown

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Leaving Taipei is strange. I’m not sure what to make of the move I’m making to Shanghai – controversially thought of as the south capital of China – but making it with my entire family in tow manages to dull any would be panic. Having never lived in a city bigger than Taipei, I’ve no idea what to expect of life in a city sprawled across some 6,340 km², to Taipei’s mere 271.7 km², and that’s to say nothing of Exeter or Belfast.

However, it’s not the first time I’ve set foot in Shanghai: the family transited here at the end of July… for one of the hottest heatwaves that Shanghai has experienced. As we fled the mid-day heat that soared into the high 30s (Celsius), world news was transfixed by a news broadcast of bacon and eggs frying on pavement that was reaching searing temperatures of 60. Some serious hotel air-conditioning, and continental breakfast does much to ease our jet-lag, exhaustion and the shock of the temperature difference, still we brave the mid-day make a regrettably sweaty visit to the magnificent Yu Yuan Gardens (stopping off for a much needed McDonalds Taro Ice-Cream) and at night venture tentatively for an afternoon to Nanjing East Road and nightfall at The Chinese Bund.

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Like many a literature student, my only second-hand, preconception of Shanghai comes from reading J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun at seventeen: a 1940s city falling into the turmoil of World War II. As I approach The Chinese Bund, and gape at the looming structures of former foreign consulate and business buildings on the PuXi, side it’s the hoards of people, surging towards the black water of the Huang Pu River in the night that are the strongest presence around us. The water reflects the thousands upon thousands of lights that string up the towers on the PuDong bank in the night sky, making me think the “gaudy city”, as Ballard opens his novel, is still living up to it’s claim. It’s hot, sticky and as the throngs press around us, down the entirety of East Nanjing Road to and from the Bund, and rushing with blankly manic gestures towards the opening train doors on the metro (地鐵 – Dìtiě); queuing is a foreign concept, running for a free seat is not.

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Yet, the Bund makes a second appearance when we arrive in the Shanghai for the second time, and for a welcome to my home for a year, the family brave the humidity and heat of Nanjing East Road a second time, to see the skyline of the Bund by day. It’s well worth the baking concrete walk and overhead sun. The crowds are considerably less by daylight, and we wander up the banks strip, noting the spirited Chinese flags atop the Pu Xi buildings, and becoming more and more interesting to the local Chinese tourists. The blink of black lenses and unnecessary flashes on the sidewalk slowly turn towards our family of five, as we snap our own family photos, and as the pictures become ridiculously blatant, we make a quick exit off the Bund sidewalk. Nevertheless, I’m glad to be with my family for our first experience of the interesting social practice of  photographing foreigners.

I assumed that here in Shanghai, with an estimated population of 23.5 million, my dark hair, dark eyes and vaguely Asian features may have spared me the embarrassment, total invasion of privacy and complete bafflement  that comes with having a stranger blatantly take your photo.

Apparently not.

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Looking forward to the year ahead!

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Beijing, TUESC: Yuan Ming Yuan Gardens

When they do parks in Beijing, they really go all out.

Yesterday Emma, Ellie and I (all of us Exeter University girls!) headed out to a park not 15 minutes cycle from us; it’s just outside the east entrance to Tsinghua and was a perfect post-teaching day relaxation for three worn-out volunteers. It can be hard to muster up the enthusiasm for trips post 9am-4pm days as it takes huge amounts of enthusiasm, coaxing, encouragement and hard-work to keep next to 60 students motivated!

But a good wander round the park, however, is just what the volunteers ordered!

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The parks are not only absolutely alienly beautiful, they’re full of people! From school children to gossiping women, to old oba-san and oji-san walking arm in arm, the park is at some points along the clean paved paths bustling with Chinese talk and laughter between long, wafting fingers of the willows that tickle the crowd.

We’re drawn into a silent crowd of transfixed children and parents by one of Beijing’s ever present back-drop of hawkers and stalls; this man shows children how to blow a balloon of liquid sugar as he shapes them into animals of their request. This is a real life Willy Wonka and us girls are dumbed as the crowd listening to his heavily accented commentary. It’s something strange to see a late fourties man peddling his sugared sweets in a park, there’s something reminiscent of another age here, which he no doubt capitalises on, but it’s only really looking back at these photos that I think that. That said, his well-prepared mic and sound system bring this fabulous talent well into the 21st century.

Amazing.

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Moving away from the crowds for some peace and quiet we take some of these obvious tourist shots! And I’m mesmerised by an old man weeding glacial pond surface of pond weed – traditional style (Awwww yeah.). It looks like heavy going, but his back remains turned to us and his slow, practised movements are other-worldly.

Maybe I’m just too tired today, but everything seems a little surreal.

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Well, things don’t get much more surreal than the incessant paparazzi style photography that goes off all around us at any tourist spot. Looking foreign (given, some more than others) the girls attract all manners of sly photographs, but none in the realm of surreal as this.

A man, in full camoflague, tripod and ridiculous zoom lens, obviously originally taking nature shots, turns without a single trace of embarrassment to snap several of Emma, Ellie and I as we walk along from the pagoda. It’s impossible to miss the click of the shutter, and completely baffled, we can think of nothing better to do in retaliation than to catch this shot of our perpetrator (courtesy of Emma).

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I’m left pondering what exactly what I should have done in that situation, what I would do differently, and what kind of personal invasion of privacy I feel I’ve experienced. It happens so often here in Beijing that I’m baffled as to any power we have to stop it. I laugh, but I wish I was a law student so I could recite some rights…

Law students, do I even have any in this situation??

Another typical day in China, folks!

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