Reflections on a Year in China

Now that I have been home from China for almost three weeks, I wanted to share some post-study abroad reflections.  People will often ask, “How was China?” and my response of “Awesome/Amazing/I loved it!” will never fully express my accomplishments, emotions and even newfound nostalgia for my year abroad.  When I say, “It was incredible”, I truly hope to encapsulate all the raw emotions of my time abroad.  But how can just a few words explain my love for 小笼包 (Soup dumplings), my frustrations with the blur between individual privacy and safety, my gratitude toward my Chinese teachers, my unforgettable experiences while solo backpacking, my pride in my work at my internship or the character of some of the best and most passionate friends I have ever been fortunate enough to make?

I am very proud of my academic accomplishments and the opportunities I was afforded.  I came to Beijing feeling shy and slightly uncomfortable speaking Chinese, and tested into level 260.  I left Shanghai speaking at a 400 level and perfectly comfortable engaging in conversations about phenomenon in Chinese society.  I conducted research through interviews to learn more about Chinese artwork.  I enrolled in classes such as International Marketing and the Chinese Economy to diversify my knowledge about China.  My ultimate test was my ability to read and translate Chinese documents in order to write client reports at my academic internship at an international consulting firm.

However apart from academics, I have realized that it is these challenges and even more so, the people that I was surrounded with in my time abroad, that made my experience as fantastic as it was and helped me to grow as much as I did.  I want to share below an excerpt from a journal entry I wrote upon leaving China:

“I’m on the train from Beijing to Shanghai now, and I can’t believe that it’s my last day in China, the last day of my beautiful, marvelous adventure.  My eyes are brimming with tears at the thought of the best year of my life coming to a close.  When I arrive in Shanghai, I’ll take a taxi to the airport across the city and finally return home to Boston.  It reminds me of the nervousness in my stomach the day I departed for Beijing so many months ago, when my mom told me to take things one day at a time.  At that time, I couldn’t even begin to picture in my head what this day would look like, and as time throughout these two semesters continued to pass, the less that I wanted this final day to come.  That’s because I’m so proud of the person I have become and the accomplishments I have achieved with the opportunities that studying in China afforded me.  Aside from my academic goals, from increasing my Chinese language proficiency to completing an internship at a consulting firm in Shanghai, I know in my heart my own progress in terms of mental fortitude, confidence, motivation and passion.  But most importantly, and what I think will stay with me the longest, is the relationships I have been fortunate enough to build here, with people who have allowed me to be my most honest and vulnerable self, and who have driven me and supported me in progressing to be my best self.  I’m crying as I leave these people and places behind, but I know that these tears mean that I had a transformative and unforgettable experience.”

Though leaving China came with some of the most profound sadness I have ever experienced, I have embraced it as my part of my journey, and I want others to do the same.

If you are an underclassmen at Holy Cross, or a prospective student reading this blog post, I want to leave you with this final message: study abroad!  Whether you choose to study in China or elsewhere, I know you will grow and gain so much from the experience.

My Experience with Marriage in China

I didn’t get married in China!  However, I have learned a lot about the changing attitudes toward marriage in China compared to traditional Chinese attitudes or those of the West.  In my Chinese class we have discussed how Chinese concepts regarding marriage have changed after China’s one child policy went into effect; attitudes changed from adolescents being expected to marry very young to young adults putting off marriage in order to pursue education and careers despite their parents’ desires for them to settle down and start families.

While China’s one child policy has now transitioned into a two child policy, the policy’s clear after effects still loom at the forefront of Chinese society and are currently playing out their roles in shaping Chinese cultural values and concepts going forward.  Specifically, the one child policy has largely influenced the status of women in Chinese society and even more so in the aspect of marriage.

Though the one child policy has created a huge gender imbalance in China (according to an article by the Washington Post, there are currently 115 male babies to every 100 female babies in China), there still exists a crisis surrounding China’s shengnu because of the values instilled in children who were products of the one child policy.

China’s shengnu are the “leftover women” of China; those unmarried women who are older than what Chinese society deems to be the cut off age for marriage.  From what I have heard from roommates and friends, this is usually around 30, although some parents start getting worried when their children reach as young as 26 years old.  China’s shengnu “problem” draws a lot from historical, cultural, and economic contexts, but its reach into modern day life is more extensive than one from the West could imagine.

Can you imagine a “marriage market” in which your parents try to set up dates for you every weekend?

The truth is, it exists, and I’ve been there.

The following pictures are pictures I took from my visit to Shanghai’s marriage market.  Every Saturday and Sunday, parents meet up in Shanghai’s People Square and attempt to arrange dates between their sons and daughters (who are not present).  Hundreds upon hundreds of umbrellas line the paths of the park, each with an “advertisement” for someone’s daughter or son attached.  Most of them describe women, although I did see a few sons looking for dates as well.  The descriptions include details such as year of birth (ranging from the early 70’s to the 90’s), height, weight, education level, residency status, whether or not the candidate owns a house or a car, etc.  There are usually no pictures involved.

This advertisement even lists the occupations of the parents, as well as what the parents/daughter is looking for in a potential match.

Having the opportunity to explore the marriage market on my own after learning so much about the context behind it in class has been such an amazing value add of studying abroad; I’m truly going to miss having these opportunities to see and experience for myself.


The Hollywood of Shanghai

Recently I spent the day walking around Shanghai’s Old Film Town with my roommate and our friend Jelly.  This park is now open to the public, but back in the day it made up the set locations for where a lot of Chinese movies were filmed even past the 1950’s.  The sets feature true to size versions of some of Shanghai’s tourist areas such as Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, Old Town Shanghai, and Suzhou creek bridge, along with Western style buildings and pubs.  You can check out some pictures from our day below:


Over the course of the entire semester I have been so excited to go to one of Shanghai’s tallest buildings, Shanghai World Financial Center, and see the views of Shanghai from over 1,500 feet up.  Because of Shanghai’s climate and current pollution levels, finding a clear weather day to do this has not been easy but I finally got my shot and was so impressed by the view that lay before me.

The World Financial Center stands in Pudong, which is the eastern part of Shanghai (my campus is in Puxi, the western part).  What amazes me about Pudong and many of the buildings that you can see in the pictures is that most of them weren’t built until the 90’s, when Shanghai went through a massive period of development that ultimately constructed the city I know today.  At the bottom of the WFC there was even a video that showed a side by side comparison of NYC and Shanghai starting from the 1930’s.  In the video I could see New York already had many skyscrapers by the 40’s and was continuing to grow, while Shanghai was basically a flat piece of land until the 90’s rolled around!  Living in such a modern city now and walking around these streets amazes me knowing that many of the skyscrapers around me are only barely older than I am.

Despite a light layer of pollution brimming at the horizon, the view was absolutely stunning!

A Day Trip to Hangzhou

One of the great things about Shanghai is location – so many awesome cities are only an hour away on the bullet train!  My friends and I were able to take a day trip to the city of Hangzhou.  First stop: trekking through the tea fields!

Despite being deathly afraid we would encounter a snake, I loved walking through the tea fields.  The air had a slight mist and smelled so fresh and dewy.  Being surrounded by so much greenery was almost shocking to my eyes but felt great.

We made our way through the tea fields until we found a tea house where we decided to try some of the Hangzhou tea for ourselves.  The picture above shows the tea being prepared for consumption.

Almost ready to drink!

One of the biggest tourist attractions of Hangzhou is West Lake; while I did not include any pictures here, I did want to include a picture of all the beautiful fish we saw in Hangzhou.

One of my favorite parts of our day in Hangzhou was our time spent at Lingyin Temple.  This temple felt very unique compared to others I have been to in China.  Upon entering the area the temple is in, we discovered breathtaking Buddhas carved into the side of the rock.

Walking through the temple felt so calming, and the Buddhas and architecture were absolutely beautiful.  I would definitely recommend Lingyin Temple to anyone traveling to Hangzhou!

A Surprise in Qibao

After almost 5 years, I decided to revisit Qibao, one of Shanghai’s ancient water towns.  Some aspects were exactly as I remembered them, from the street food to the crowded market streets.  I even saw exactly where I tried stinky tofu for the first time and swore I’d never eat it again (though that has changed now!)

You can find every variety of street food here, from cute lil bao’s to snake and goose neck.

Being a Saturday, the streets were particularly overcrowded, and I decided to wander off into some of the less touristy areas.  These streets reminded me a bit of Shanghai’s Old City.

Looking down random side streets, I was so surprised to stumble upon a Catholic Church!

I went inside and was able to read about the history of the church, from its construction in the 1800’s, to surviving bombings, and its present day services.

And suddenly, turning down another side street, just like that I was back in the typical commotion of a crowded Shanghai street.  Moments of discovery like these are some of the moments that make living in China, or studying abroad, so special to me.

Shanghai’s Contemporary Art Scene

In the picture above you’ll see a couple large structures that were formerly used as oil tanks; these have now been reimagined as the backdrop for a contemporary art installment which I recently had the opportunity to check out!

The exhibit is put together by a group of artists known as teamLab.  Below are pictures from my experience at their Shanghai installation, Universe of Water Particles in the Tank.

Walking inside the tank, you are immediately immersed in an environment that pushes the boundaries of nature and technology, with interactive flower and water designs projected 360 degrees onto the surrounding walls and floor.  The projection is made from a specific computer software and is not played on a loop, so anything you see there in one particular moment will never be portrayed quite the same again.

The walls of the tank are also lined with sensors which grant the ability for human interaction with the artwork.  Standing against a wall of flowing water for example, the water would part around my body and flowers would gradually start to grow!

Because the inside of the tank was very dimly lit, the pictures can hardly do it justice.  I highly recommend checking out teamLab’s official pictures, as well as their other exhibits here.


Having a fashion designer roommate has its perks – I recently got to check out a temporary exhibit dedicated to CHANEL!

The exhibit was hosted inside the huge warehouse seen above.  We were slowly guided through the world of Chanel, from fragrance…

…to clothing design…

…to jewlery.

The exhibit was a great introduction to the history and craftsmanship of the brand and its iconic designers, and has definitely piqued my interest in learning more!

Views from a Confucian Temple

Just outside Old City, we explored a Confucian Temple where ancient students once studied for their civil service examinations.

Now incense burns here and visitors are welcome to write three wishes…

A statue of Confucius

The juxtaposition of tradition and culture against modernity and development continues to amaze me.  Will China continue to develop at the expense of sacrificing some of its rich culture and history?

Walking Around Old Shanghai

I feel so fortunate that the manager of my study abroad program is a local Shanghainese; she is so willing to devote her time to help us explore parts of Shanghai you wont find out about on Trip Advisor’s list of top 15 attractions.  Recently I had the opportunity to go with her and some classmates to Old Shanghai, the few remaining areas of Shanghai that for better or for worse haven’t been touched by China’s rapid economic growth (yet).  In the coming months and years the government will evaluate whether they will tear these last parts of Old City down or maintain them as tourist destinations, but for now I got the opportunity to experience them as they are meant to be, in their most untouched and natural state.

I found this red book, a selection of the works of Mao Ze Dong, in a local shop.

Life goes on here as if the world’s second tallest building doesn’t exist just a couple kilometers away…I watched grandmothers care for their grandchildren, women hang laundry to dry in the streets, men zoom by on electric scooters or cut the shells off of turtles.  Life seems slowed down but content.

We were fortunate enough to be invited inside one local’s home.  She told us within a week the government will come to evaluate how much her home is worth and will soon pay her to relocate elsewhere.  It is an unfortunate yet all too common occurrence in China.  The pictures below are from her beautiful home, which I believe dates back to the Ming Dynasty: