A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Shanghai, Part Three: On Not Being a Tourist

I spent my Junior year of college studying abroad at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. In the summer after that year, having already seen much of Western Europe, I and two of my friends decided to backpack through Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. While in Istanbul we stayed at a hostel across the street from Hagia Sophia. Rows of bunk beds spanned a large terrace with a canvass roof where sordid travelers rested. Hagia Sophia was a literal stone’s throw away; the Blue Mosque was right around the corner, and the Grand Bazaar could be seen in the distance. One night, sitting up in bed, looking out at this sight, I found myself in a conversation with a French man who had set himself up in the bed across from mine. Many months earlier, he had flown to southern India with the plan of spending the next year slowly making his way back to France. Most recently, he had been in Iran, which is the sort of thing I suppose you can do when you have a French passport. This man went on and on about his desire to experience the real cultures of these countries, not the tourist traps—to eat where locals ate, to visit people’s homes, to be authentic. “You think any Turkish people actually shop at the Grand Bazaar?” He asked me.

I thought his philosophy was bullshit. People’s everyday lives were pretty much the same everywhere, I surmised, but there was only one Grand Bazaar. Visiting only the landmarks might not be “authentic,” by this man’s definition of the term, but it was an experience that was unique to the place. By contrast, fetishizing an authentic experience of the other seemed weirdly colonialist, a kind of poverty porn for a well-off dude from the developed world.


I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, because, since my year abroad in England, this is the first time I’ve traveled to a new place not as a tourist. I’m being paid to work here—and I’m working hard. I teach two classes, one of which meets four times a week, the other of which meets twice a week in the evenings from 6:00 to 7:40. They are both writing classes; one has eight students; the other has 32. And one is a course I’ve never taught before.

One consequence of this work load is that, four days a week, I am on campus, either teaching, eating, or working in my office, for at least eight hours a day, and most days, closer to twelve. Another consequence is, when deciding where to live, I felt I needed to be close to campus, in Minhang District. I could have lived in Xuhui, near the university’s old downtown campus; there is a shuttle that runs between the two campuses, and it takes between half an hour and an hour, depending on the traffic. But the evening class meant that I would only narrowly be able to catch the last shuttle home two days a week, and I wasn’t inclined to risk it. Shanghai boasts an excellent modern subway system, but there are no stops anywhere near SJTU’s Minhang Campus, and while cabs are far cheaper than they are in the U.S., they still aren’t exactly cheap.

I knew that Minhang was far out from downtown and that there “wasn’t much to do” in this neighborhood, but the way it was explained to me by the people I talked to who had done this program before, I had taken that to mean there weren’t tourist attractions or bars or nightclubs, all things I could do without. That’s true, but what’s also true is, there are no grocery stores, there are no signs in English, there is inadequate street lighting at night. Living here has made me realize how full of crap Sophia Coppola is. Scarlett Johanson was staying in a luxurious hotel in a wealthy downtown part of a major cosmopolitan city—she may have felt alienated in her marriage, but she was not lost in translation. You want to get lost in translation? Travel 7,106 miles away from everyone you love and everything you find familiar, and move to the suburbs.

Me, my entire first week.

On my second weekend here, I finally took the shuttle in to Xuhui. Around the corner from the old campus I found a shopping district that looked like Times Square, complete with a Hershey’s store, a McDonald’s, a Starbuck’s a Pizza Hut, and a KFC (I would soon learn that, in just about every district of Shanghai but Minhang, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a KFC). I found a massive shopping mall where virtually all of the stores were familiar European and American brands—H&M, Calvin Klein, Toys ‘R Us, hell, even Ed Hardy. And in the ground level of that mall, a grocery store. Not a Family Mart or a produce stand featuring strange and wilted vegetables, but an honest to goodness grocery store with bread and cereal and pasta and trustworthy-looking meat and produce, and best of all:

Globalization has never tasted so good.
I honestly teared up when I saw that peanut butter. I spent my entire first week operating on a very low point along Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs. Having this mall and this grocery store meant that I could feed myself and that, maybe two days a week, I could come to a place that felt familiar, where I could drink Starbuck’s, read a book, and feel not quite so isolated.


Of course, I knew that I should spend some of that time “being a tourist.”

There are two other Michigan faculty members here. Both are full professors in their sixties. They each are teaching only one course that meets twice a week, for which they each have a TA, meaning that they are doing a fraction of the work I am doing while making at least twice as much money. One lives in Xuhui while the other lives in Huangpu, another downtown district. They spend almost all of their time being tourists. It’s sometimes awkward discussing this experience with them, because while, to a certain degree, there’s a spirit of “we’re all in this together,” it’s also abundantly clear that they are getting a much different view of Shanghai than I am. They get to go to the fancy restaurants and the museums and the gardens and the temples. They have the luxury of money, and of geographic proximity, and most importantly, of time, that I simply don’t have.

Admittedly, I could try harder, and I’m trying to make a point of visiting at least one sight each weekend. But the work is exhausting enough that I sometimes, like today, don’t want to push myself to spend my free time as a tourist. Tourism is hard!

I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my adult life, and the first time it really became an issue was that year I spent in England. And a lot of that came down to the tension I experienced between the pressure to succeed academically and the pressure to “make the most of this experience.” The expectation to keep up with my reading, to write papers, to attend classes, while also finding new restaurants and taking day trips to different towns every weekend, was just too much for my introverted mind to handle.

I was chatting with my fiancee the other week and I said to her, “I know this is crazy, but I need you to tell me that it’s okay if I don’t make the most of this experience.” She obligingly said it was okay.

Ironically, I am having an authentic experience, and I feel validated in my suspicion that it’s pretty much the same. I’m living in Shanghai the way that most Chinese people do, near as I can figure—I go to work, I come home, I cook myself dinner, I spend my evenings reading or watching TV or chatting with friends and family (the main difference being I do the last two mostly on the internet), and once or twice a week I use my day off to visit downtown. I’d rather be a tourist, but once you get past the initial sensory overload that comes with the intimidating unfamiliarity of the suburban life, being an everyday resident of this place isn’t so bad.


Today was the Duanwu Festival, or “Dragon Boat Festival.” Apparently there are boat races throughout China today, but I didn’t know where to go and didn’t have the means to get there anyway, and was suffering from fairly severe sleep deprivation in any case. So I stayed home. From my apartment window I watched kids shooting off fireworks. And yesterday one of my students gave me a zongzi, a rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves traditionally eaten during the Duanwu Festival. It was delicious, and it seemed pretty authentic to me.

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