Keeping cool in Shanghai: Julia Cunningham '13

Julia Cunningham '13 is taking part in the Chinese Summer Language Institute (CSLI@EFZ) at Peddie's sister school, EFZ in Shanghai, China.

It's a complicated thing trying to transfer yourself into a type of culture literally and figuratively halfway around the world from your own. What are you supposed to do around men walking with their shirts pulled up around their chests in public? How do you react to peoples' blatant wonder of anyone who looks different? How do you ask for a decent cold drink when the Chinese like to drink everything warm? How do you begin to fathom why someone would turn their car right into the middle of a crowded pedestrian walkway? What do you do when your host family keeps pushing food in your direction, even after you've told them "吃饱了!" (“I’m full!”).

Today was the first full day of my home stay. My partner, Zhu Zhilin, attends EFZ as the equivalent of a junior. She lives in a small apartment with her sister, who told me to call her Charlotte, and her recently divorced mother, who enjoys cooking. And watching me enjoy her food.

By 7:00, it was already 80°F outside. Despite, we ate dumplings filled with soup and meat as well as warm soy milk. I was panting by 8. Our first adventure, destination: Shanghai Zoo, would begin as our taxi driver made a wide U-turn in the middle of the road using his horn instead of his eyes. Shanghai traffic "laws" (if they even exist) are a culture unto themselves. The zoo was steaming hot and, in the midst of Zhilin, Charlotte’s, and my awkward exchanges in Chinese, I found myself feeling sorry for the animals stuck in the heat. Lunch was another hot meal. I felt as though I were being stuffed in order to be eaten later. "I'm full" seems to translate to "Actually, I'd like another bowl of rice. And soup. And some more coconut juice, please." After that, I accompanied Charlotte to a photography exhibit while Zhilin went to a local college in order to do research of her own. Charlotte asked me on our way to the exhibit: Even though this isn’t my first time, have I had any culture shock in coming to Shanghai? My response was that simply the fact that I am in China at this very moment is still pretty shocking. Dinner was wonton soup. During this time, I learned that we had spent the hottest of hot days (so it seemed) in the hottest city in Shanghai. Thankfully, Zhilin and Charlotte and their mother live in an air-conditioned house.

China is, simply put: different. It is made for smaller people. It is a rarity – even with so much tourism – to see blonde-haired, blue-eyed strangers walking though the crowds. One hardly ever sees the sun, let alone a blue sky. But it's too easy to forget that I'm still on planet earth. At the zoo, the dads may have been cooling themselves off a little immodestly, but their kids still enjoyed the giant panda exhibit as American children would have: screaming into the glass to get the creature to move. As we passed shops and apartments on the side of the street, I still saw people walking with their dogs and children. Bugs still enjoy the taste of human blood just as much. It’s not so much a culture shock to be in China as much as it is a culture awakening. America isn’t just an isolated island: and that’s why this experience is so special.