What do the Chinese eat for breakfast? Well, I’ve had two breakfasts here and I’m not particularly sure myself. Round two: steamed bread with what I presume was sweet bean paste, sweet rice, fried vegetables, fried rice noodles, watermelon and cake. And bacon. You could tell the English delegates had arrived from the presence of chicken nuggets and chips too: they weren’t here yesterday. I solemnly swear that I will not ingest a single chip until I am back home. I didn’t fly several thousand miles to eat chicken nuggets either.
The Mandarin placement test was pretty unremarkable: a five minute conversation with two volunteer Chinese students. It didn’t go spectacularly badly, though I know I bit more than I was able to convey when on the spot with a camera in my face. Still, I wasn’t shunted back to beginners, so at least that’s something.
A few of us went to the supermarket and had a proper look around this time, buying anything that looked remotely bizarre. The selection of crisps in particular is quite staggering. Helen, Sophie and Rob bought lemon tea, blueberry and cucumber crisps respectively, and they weren’t actually half bad. Well, Rob may not agree. Again, the prices are hard to comprehend; I bought a whole carrier bag of bits and pieces for about £3.50.
The next couple of hours were spent socialising with the student volunteers. They’d set up some activities in a function hall in the hotel: paper cutting, traditional Chinese board games, a game with chopsticks, and what will soon be my next obsession. The aim is to kick a bunch of brightly coloured feathers weighted down with a circular disc of metal into a cardboard box, scoring a point each time you did so. The box was quickly ignored, however, and turned into a two hour game of hackey sack. Receiving a pass on one foot, kicking it on to the other and then kicking it on is probably my greatest life achievement to date. I don’t know what they’re called, but I’m bringing them back to the UK, making it an Olympic sport and winning gold.
The other students here are fantastic. There’s a few introverts, but most are outgoing and it’s easy to make friends. I guess you have to be to do a programme like this. Most of the people I’ve been hanging out with have been guys, Scots and outrageous girls. Looking at my friends now, I’m seeing a pattern forming. I don’t dislike this.
Steven, one of the Chinese student volunteers, and a couple of others took a large group of us into the centre of Shanghai in the evening. The metro station is a few minutes walk from campus and the network puts the London Underground to shame. It’s clean, modern, fully air conditioned and a fraction of the price. It cost me about £0.70 return with four stops each way. Like most things in Shanghai, the scale of it is incredible. With the security measures and bag scanners, it feels more like an airport. It was a ten minute walk just to change lines and there are tens of exits; the student volunteers were even getting confused and they live here. Stepping out of the metro station was a surreal moment.
People’s Square is the very centre of Shanghai and I’ve never seen a city so alive and vibrant, London being one of the few that even comes close. The streets are packed with people and sight seeing carts honk their way through them. Neon lights are everywhere and high rise buildings are the norm. Shops are open late into the night - well past 22:00 - and people were gathered just to watch elderly people ballroom dancing in the street. Somebody compared it to Picadilly Circus, which is an apt description if you scale it up twenty or so times.
I knew it wouldn’t be long until we ran into the old language barrier, and we ran into it hard when we went out for dinner, even with Steven in tow. Three of us wanted to order three cans of 7Up and some steamed crab dumplings to share between Rob and I - the heat is playing havoc with our appetites - and even with pointing at the menu, saying the respective numbers of each in Mandarin and Steven chiming in too, we ended up with five cans of 7Up and too much crockery. It was pretty funny and I ended up just giving the spare cans away, but I’m really anxious to learn some more Mandarin to avoid this happening again in the future. I’m not used to being the hapless tourist. Some phrases I do understand, however. People energetically giving out leaflets are everywhere and I was politely declining left and right. One lady exclaimed “外国人” in a low mutter after I did so: “foreign people”. Hilarious.
We walked to The Bund (外滩) after dinner and this is basically a group of high rise buildings (the Television Tower among them) lit up alongside the river. It’s an awesome sight, though there’s so much light pollution it’s a real bitch to get a decent picture. Fun to try, though.
I’m of a fairly average build, though tall and more on the lanky side than overweight. In short, I’m pretty fat by Chinese standards. That coupled with the humidity that makes straightening my hair as futile as painting the Forth Bridge, and I’m rather unattractive right now. So I’d like to thank the Chinese guy who asked for a photo with me: sir, you genuinely made my day. It’s really common to ask for pictures with Westerners here, or even for them to ask you to hold their baby. Fairly bizzare, but quite fun, at least at first.