An American in Shanghai: Unexpected Lessons On Self-Reliance, and Humanity and China’s Budding Democracy

  I recently returned from a three-week class in Shanghai calledGlobal Studies of the Human Body, Mind, and Nature.” The idea behind the class was to explore Chinese culture, healthcare, education, and literature in a cultural immersion setting. I definitely experienced all these ideas I was supposed to learn, but I also learned new ideas accidentally.


(Pictured above: ECNU celebrates 60 years of educating and empowering young Chinese)

Nine students and an instructor accompanied me. We studied at East Normal China University most weekday mornings from about 8:30-12:00. I did a lot more walking on campus than usual, because of the way it was set up and because we had no other kinds of transportation available.


  (Pictured above: Rows and rows of bicycles can be seen on different parts of campus as well as in the city proper, demonstrating a very popular way of transportation in such a densely populated area.)


(Pictured above: One of the lovely views on campus. The implementation of gardens in the city was a beautiful and peaceful distraction, and one of the topics we studied in class. Shanghai’s contrasting landscapes continued to surprise me on a daily basis—every day was a new discovery.)

Some of the views we were privy to I found breathtaking, while others were sad examples of those who were in need. There seemed to be no separation of the “good” and “bad” side of town, and there also seemed to be very little evidence of “middle class.”


(Pictured above: A view from the education building we studied in Monday-Friday. The landscape in Shanghai is both diverse and unpredictable. At once, the city of Shanghai equally represents both squalor and magnificence. Pictured below: a view from our dorm window.)



(Pictured above: The Bund)

   During the week, we attended class and learned from various instructors on campus. We experienced authentic Chinese cuisine and attempted to communicate with the staff. At first we went everywhere with Dr. Wu, but slowly we became more independent and ventured into the city on our own.

Among the things we learned, traveling throughout the city without speaking the language was challenging and fun. Before our trip was finished, we had walked, hailed taxis, ridden busses, and taken subways all over the area. Our last day in Shanghai, we enjoyed feet massages in the city and High Tea at the Renaissance Hotel downtown.


(Pictured: a view from the 23rd floor of the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Shanghai)


(Pictured above: a bridge on campus that led to the entrance of the school.)


(Pictured above: students using the subway)


 (Pictured above: Part of the group at our first lunch in Shanghai. Dr. Wu ordered for us because we had no idea what to eat!)


(Pictured above: delicious green tea)


(Pictured above: One of my favorite dishes. I don’t know the names of everything pictured but I loved the roasted eggplant, bok choy, carrots and especially the dumplings!)

The Chinese and Transcendentalism

            In addition to daily life lessons in Chinese culture and education we were assigned, I was perhaps even more fascinated by the unexpected topics that surfaced on their own.


(Pictured above: the gates of East China Normal University)

            For instance, one of my favorite days on the trip (as well as my favorite learning experience) was the day we visited an Early American Literature class on campus. The topic of the day was Thoreau, Emerson and Transcendentalism. This was one of the unexpected topics I stumbled upon. Having taken extensive classes on these topics here in Texas, I was anxious to see how the Chinese would approach some of the ideas I perceived that might be considered “hot topics” for them, for example, the idea of Self-Reliance.


(Pictured above: a statue of Chairman Mao presides over the campus.)

Because the Chinese tradition roots the idea of community over individuality very early, this clearly American idea presented some cultural dilemmas.One student asked if Transcendentalism directly opposed the communist philosophy. I can’t remember how the teacher answered but I was fascinated by the exchange. Whether or not China is ready for the idea of democracy, nevertheless, it cannot be stopped. Democracy is a driving force of equality, and as China embraces the fruits of western thought, it’s inevitable that other parts of our culture will bleed into theirs. Not every facet can be controlled.


(Pictured above: a popular hangout in Shanghai: the Chinese version of Pizza Hut.)


(Pictured above: Another very popular American-based restaurant: KFC)

            I still do not understand the Chinese fascination with KFC. It’s gross enough in the States, but especially with the echoes of the bird flu still in the air, I just don’t get it.

The Chinese Notion of Humanity

 Something else that interested me was the subject of the Chinese notion of humanity. Following closely to the teachings of Confucius regarding the relationship of the individual to society and the community as family, the Chinese are taught that you are not born a human, rather, it is something that is earned through achievement.

Achievement comes as a result of formal education or self-learning of both human relations and obligations. Ways humanity can be earned are divided into six main areas: writing, playing an instrument, calligraphy, painting, reading, and other fine arts.  All the pieces must be present to fully gel together a “human.” Simply being born (or being conceived) is not enough for the Chinese. Thus, education is very crucial for the Chinese student.


(Pictured above: my ink and brush)

Besides the calligraphy, Chinese history, other themes we touched on included doing business in China, a short history of Shanghai, Chinese literature, Chinese government/economy and symbolism and history of Chinese gardens.


(Pictured above: centuries old gardens remain a tranquil and lovely testament to an ancient civilization)

Unexpected Lessons


(Pictured above: students try their hand at calligraphy)

Education in China

            Education in China is divided into stages by age, similar to the United States. Preschool (ages 3-6), Primary (6-12), Junior High (12-15), Senior Secondary (15-18), Vocational Secondary School (15-18), and College and University (18-22).

Typically, most Chinese do not return to school after raising children, so it puzzled them to see the over 40 female student pursing higher education. In China, women of this age usually retire and take care of the grandkids for the children while they work. I was not impressed with this concept. I like that I can keep pursuing higher education as long as I want to—if I want two PhD degrees, nobody is going to raise an eyebrow at that.

I learned a lot on campus, including the passion of the natives for physical fitness. It wasn’t unusual to see old people gathering early in the morning to practice Tai Chi or to see young women meditating or to see middle-aged men jogging in the rain. The Chinese are overall pretty fit.


(Pictured: a statue of Confucius.The Chinese highly value the respected philosopher’s teachings regarding many things, but especially his contributions to health and well-being.)


Although I will always value my time spent in Shanghai, I’m glad to be back in the US where I am indeed human, free, self-reliant, and educated.  The lessons I learned in Shanghai will resound in me the rest of my life.


(Pictured above: a walking track and play area in front of the university)

 (Pictured above: a quiet escape on campus)

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