Stumbling through ShanghaiLindsey McGinnis ’18
A lot of things went wrong during my semester abroad in Shanghai, China. Specifically with the living abroad part of studying abroad (the academic part is another blog altogether). Some of these mishaps didn’t really have an upside. When I couldn’t find my brand of dry shampoo, for example, there was no miraculous Chinese alternative ... I just used baby powder. But most disasters shook out OK, like when my favorite Korean fried rice place closed earlier than expected and I bought dinner from a nearby food stand I’d have never tried otherwise. It was about 8 kuai cheaper and the best fried rice I’ve ever had, bar none.
All told, these situations led me to try, taste, explore and experience things that I may not have otherwise — and to grow in ways that were never on my agenda.
Kung fu museum mishap
I had a feeling we were lost, but I held my tongue.
It was honestly my fault — I should have been navigating, not my friend who was visiting me and reads zero Chinese. But in my defense, I hadn’t exactly mastered the metro system myself, so it didn’t feel too risky handing over the map. She could be tour guide for the day.
Where is the kung fu museum? Lindsey McGinnis ’18 gets lost with friend, Thalia Brown ’19, pictured above.
Still, when I saw us heading north, deeper and deeper into the residential outskirts of the city, I should have double-checked. We didn’t accept defeat until a half hour later, when the Chinese version of Google Maps led us to a youth athletic center that was closed for the season, or maybe indefinitely.
We didn’t find the elusive kung fu museum that day — or ever, for that matter. But we did escape the rain in a charming coffee shop and stroll around a massive, eclectic supermarket, where my friend, Thalia Brown ’19, tried her first Yang’s dumplings — a Shanghai staple! This unplanned adventure remains a highlight of her visit. If you ever have the chance to get lost with a friend, I highly recommend doing so.
So that’s the avocado lady!
One day, near the end of my trip, I decided to go to Nanjing, the historic southern capital of Ming dynasty-China. I figured I’d arrive at the closest train station early in the morning and buy a round-trip ticket for the same day. No dice.
The sprawling, two-building station was completely overwhelming. After an hour of scrambling back and forth across the street trying to find the right ticket window, I was told that there were no seats left for Nanjing.
I sat on the ground, wallowed in my frustration for a good five minutes, and then pulled out my Lonely Planet travel guide book. This was my go-to source when I was tired but restless — I’d just open up to the city map inside and quickly find someplace interesting and easily accessible. That is how I wound up back on the metro, headed toward the former French Concession.
The former French Concession, Shanghai
In this leafy neighborhood, which housed French citizens from 1849 until 1943, I wandered through parks and did a little window-shopping. I also finally discovered the Avocado Lady, a humble streetside shop overflowing with Western groceries — Betty Crocker brownie mix, bagels and cream cheese, familiar brands of wine, etc. I had heard people talking about “the avocado lady” all semester, but I figured it was just a lady who sold avocados?
Of course I still want to go to Nanjing someday, but this missed opportunity was just one example of how a decent mess can turn turn into a decent day.
Sally Ma ’18 (at left) and Lindsey McGinnis ’18 on a final cruise, Shanghai
Coffee killed the computer … and spring break
My friend, Sally Ma ’18, and I had both heard stories about Xinjiang, China’s westernmost territory, from the same professor during our first year at Mount Holyoke. He had since retired, but his stories of travelling through the culturally unique desert region had stuck in our minds. We had to go, and began planning a trip even before we both arrived in Shanghai.
The Friday before spring break, we would fly to the region’s capital, Ürümqi, hop from one UNESCO World Heritage site to another, and then travel south to Qinghai, meeting a friend who lived near the Tibetan plateau. The entire trip would end with a 28-hour train ride back to Shanghai. But just as we got into the nitty-gritty travel details, Sally’s computer died.
It was a slow death, kick-started by about a half cup of coffee spilled directly on the keys — some days it would work, some days it wouldn’t — but after a couple weeks of financial limbo, it became clear that her computer needed replacing and we wouldn’t be able to go to Xinjiang together. Spring break, scratched.
When I told my mom that our plans fell through — on one of the few, brief video calls our shoddy wifi could deliver — she immediately started the application process for a travel visa. Her paperwork came through just in time.
The Jade Buddha Temple, Shanghai
There’s nothing like seeing your mom after spending three months halfway across the globe. We rode to the top of the Shanghai Tower, joined Sally on a trip to the Jade Buddha Temple and, of course, bought a bounty of knock-off purses and backpacks from one of Shanghai’s infamous fake markets (souvenirs for the family …. mostly). On a visit to West Lake, cab drivers kept trying to overcharge us for a relatively short trip. So we decided to tackle the route on foot, and came upon a funky little lakeside bar with fantastic people-watching. And as with Nanjing, I simply added Xinjiang to my next-time-in-China list.
Lindsey McGinnis ’18, Qibao Old Town, Shanghai
Agenda vs. adventure
I’m generally a person who enjoys an airtight plan. I like checking experiences off lists and knowing what’s on tomorrow’s agenda. Living in China, I quickly realized that this kind of certainty was rarely guaranteed.
The takeaway? When things go wrong, take a deep breath and enjoy the adventure you’ve been given.