For my summer break, I went to mainland China for the first time in my life. Twice.
My contract guarantees me 8 days off in the summer, but the school gets to decide how I get those 8 days. With summer camp dates set by the Ulsan Metropolitan Office of Education (Ulsan MOE), my school split my break into 5 days and 3 days, with the three week camp in between.
My original plan was to travel to Southeast Asia but after talking to my mentor, Jon, I ended up making plans to go to China after all. We had been talking about my coming to visit him and his wife in China (with my friend Alizeh) since December 2013. I wasn’t sure I’d manage to pull it off, especially with the China visa turning out to be so exorbitant for US citizens. $160! As it turns out, China sets the price of their visa according to how much the United States charges Chinese citizens for visas.
To make the visa more cost effective, I decided to go to China before and after summer camp.
Shanghai (上海) – 6 Days
(Obligatory picture of the Oriental Pearl Tower)
In retrospect, I have to say this wasn’t a very good trip. I though Shanghai would be like Seoul which can’t be completely done in 6 days. (Based on the 5 days I’ve done in Seoul thus far.) Shanghai is certainly bigger than Seoul, population-wise, but it’s low on sightseeing. It’s the place to go if you want to do shopping of any kind, as they have multiple markets and entire pedestrian roads set up for that.
(The only thing Nanjing Rd believe in is commerce.)
Even what few historical sites it does have, Shanghai couches in retail.
(The house where the Communists first met is in the middle of a lot of luxury shopping.)
I wasn’t super interested in shopping to begin with, and became even less so after I got scammed on my second day in the city. Three girls came up to me at People’s Square and asked me to take a picture of them. One of them was very friendly and chatted with me in a mix of English and Chinese. Eventually, the three girls brought me to a teahouse where I got charged 439RMB (about US$71). In the larger scheme of things, that isn’t that much, but it remains my most expensive purchase in China, including my 6-night hostel stay.
What I learned from this situation:
- When checking for things to do in the place you’re traveling to, also check for the local scams. As it turns out, the “tea ceremony scam” has been run in Shanghai for years!
- Asian people (as a rule) do not come up to speak with you unless they want something. They are very shy about speaking English. Don’t get me wrong: Asian people are very friendly, but I had much better luck with conversations I started myself than those that were started with me.
- Asian people do not believe in splitting the bill. They may be willing to split the bill with you if you ask them, but that is not what they’re taught. As a Filipino, I can’t believe I forgot this in the moment!
- Considering the other “scams” I’ve had to partake in (like paying $160 for a visa or paying $132 for a 30 minute physical therapy session back in the US), this is nothing. In fact, it’s so little one wonders why the scammers even bothered, considering that there are bigger fish to fry.
- When I was in Seoul in May, my friends and I wanted a picture of us together. One of my Korean friends was fluent in Mandarin and therefore asked some Chinese tourists to take the picture for us. The Chinese tourists then pretended like we weren’t even there. At the time, I thought this was very rude, but now it occurs to me that they had had their own experiences with this scam! A few days after mine, a few girls at the same park asked me for a photo. I ran.
If I had a do-over button, I would use a few of my days to visit Nanjing or Suzhou. As it is, I spent a lot of my days (perhaps too much of it) walking aimlessly around the city, absorbed in introspection. It was a solo trip so I thought a lot about being alone and being single. I also put some extra thought into my Korean language learning journey and my career.
My Shanghai trip was capped by an 8 hour wait at the airport due to bad weather. Though I met some real friends in Shanghai, overall I felt that the trip was a fat lot of waiting around and doing nothing.
Jon A is a former Foreign Service Officer who leads the Negotiations course at the University of Washington. This is the class that got me so obsessed with Korea I moved here. Since graduating, I’ve kept up with Jon (and Phil, the other guy who ran the Negotiations course) by organizing a dim sum lunch for them and whatever other former classmates were still lingering in Seattle. At our last meeting in December, Jon invited us to visit him and his wife in Beijing.
I managed to take him up on the offer (without Alizeh! D:) and Jon and Jon’s wife, Wenyi, were very generous. They sort of spoilt me, actually. They let me stay in their guest bedroom and were up for most things I requested. I wanted to buy some sundresses so they took me to a market and helped me bargain. I wanted to drink soy milk, so they got that for me, etc.
Jon was also eager to show me around town. Beijing is prone to horrible air pollution, but I lucked out and the weather during my entire stay was perfect. We went to the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, etc. Jon has studied China for a long time, so he told me lots of interesting facts about the places we were seeing and pointed out the “dragons fighting over a pearl” motif that we would see everywhere. We talked about a lot of stuff, and I got tidbits to use towards my language learning, career, and even my financial planning.
My Beijing trip was a lot better than my Shanghai trip. I got very lucky that I had an excellent tour guide who could speak fluent Chinese.
I enjoyed mainland China quite a lot and feel reaffirmed in my choice to go back to Chinese once I reach a level of Korean I’m satisfied with. I already know that I will go back there some time in this lifetime.