It’s officially been two weeks since I arrived in China, and I feel like I’m just beginning to catch my breath. (I mean that mostly figuratively, although with today’s clearing of the air pollution and getting to the end of my week-long cold, that statement could be interpreted literally too.) Between orientation, my mom’s three-day visit, two Beijing explorations, a week and a half of classes, and an impromptu trip to Shanghai, there hasn’t been much time to settle in or internalize everything I’ve been experiencing.
When I signed up for Duke’s Global Semester Abroad program, I knew I was going to have to grapple with contrasts. It comes with the territory when you choose to split a semester in multiple countries, especially when those countries are India and China. The surface level differences I picked up just in my first day in China were astonishing. Beijing was cold and very smoggy when we arrived. Driving on the four-lane wide highway from the airport to our dorm, I could barely make out the massive characters lit up on top of buildings flanking the road. Cars moved in orderly lanes and rarely resorted to honking, a massive change from the “anything goes” road etiquette in India. There were sidewalks. I saw women in short skirts and high heels. Old men walked purebred dogs. And I noticed billboards for American department stores and high-end fashion lines. I knew China was going to be different. But thinking about it and experiencing it were two different things, and the shift hit me harder than I’d anticipated. After two months, I’d gotten used to Udaipur’s dusty roads filled with scooters, cows and stray dogs. China’s cold, hazy weather and austere skyscrapers made me miss the warm, colorful, bustling streets of Udaipur.
I couldn’t stay homesick for too long, though, because when the bus pulled up to the dorm, I walked inside and reunited with my mom. She’d been working in Sydney and came to visit for three days on her way home. My mom tagged along during my first day of orientation as we toured the Peking University Health Science Center campus, got an introduction to nearby restaurants and met our professors. She and I also found time to go shopping at the Yaxiu and Zoo Markets and eat Shanghai-style pork dumplings at Din Tai Fung.
I caught her up on stories from India and remarked about all the culture shocks I was experiencing in China. I asked her what changes stood out most to her since her last trip to Beijing. She, my dad, and I first visited China when I was five (although we only went to Hong Kong, which was still a territory of England at the time) and then came back for a longer trip when I was seven. During that second trip, we spent a few days in Beijing.
I only remember bits and pieces, but my mom was better able to recall details from the trip. She described the crowded bicycle-filled streets and people in dark plain clothing, vastly different from today’s multi-lane roads bustling with Audis and Land Rovers and subways full of men in Western suits and women in frilly coats and high-heeled shoes. When we visited before, there were not nearly as many high-rise buildings, and consumerism didn’t slap you in the face the same way it does now.
Many of the changes that have taken place are largely due to China’s rise as a global economic powerhouse and massive development undertaken in the build up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but I also think that the contrasts were heightened by our own experiences in the intervening fourteen years. When my mom, dad and I first came to China, it was our first time in Asia. My parents had been out of the country before that, but never to a place quite as foreign.
Several friends on the trip were shocked by my mom’s bravery coming to China alone and unable to speak the language. During the past several years, she’s done a lot of solo international travel for work and is far more comfortable with it than she would have been when we initially visited. This time, I was able to speak some Chinese, and had been to Beijing once more in 2009. This time, we haggled at markets in Chinese. We decided to take the subway, whereas before we’d relied solely on taxis and travel on foot. China had seemed so foreign before, but this time it felt much more accessible and manageable.
Since my mom’s visit, I’ve stayed busy with classwork and Beijing explorations. I’m taking two classes here, one on public health and the other on the environment and development in China. We’ve also been visiting parts of Beijing as assignments for these classes, so I’ve explored the Haidian district (the academic hub of Beijing) and Tiananmen Square and the pedestrian areas surrounding it.
Last weekend, several of us decided to make a trip to Shanghai. We finalized plans on Wednesday, and at 6:30 AM Friday morning, we headed for the train station. We took a five-hour bullet train to Shanghai and spent the weekend exploring the city. We walked around the French Concession, rode a roller coaster in People’s Park, visited the Shanghai Museum, and walked along East Nanjing Road and the Bund. We explored the Yuyuan Gardens and visited two Buddhist temples. On Saturday, we left the hotel at 9 AM and didn’t eat dinner until 11:30 PM; it was literally a non-stop visit.
On Sunday with only a couple of hours left in the city before we had to head back for the train station, we decided to scout out a dumpling restaurant I’d been to on my last visit to Shanghai. I remembered Yang’s Dumplings as an unassuming restaurant tucked away among shops along a small side street. Yang’s specialty is their soup-filled dumplings. In fact, the restaurant only sells one variety of them (pork with onion labeled as “Yang’s Specialty Dumplings” on the menu), and I read that the owner has kept the recipe top-secret, only divulging it to her husband. Before leaving for our weekend trip, I jotted down the address for Yang’s Fry Dumplings just in case our sightseeing brought us to the neighborhood.
On the last day with empty stomachs and two hours to spare, we looked at the map and realized that we were pretty close to the restaurant. The hunt began. We hopped on the subway for one stop and got out near Wujiang Road, the street Yang’s was on. I recognized the area and we began to ask for directions to Yang’s. People told us to go upstairs in the mall nearby. I knew that couldn’t be right; we were looking for a small restaurant on a nearby side street. So we asked around a bit more. Again, people pointed to the mall. Finally, we decided to check it out.
As we got off the escalator, I saw Yang’s Dumplings in big writing above a storefront. Turns out, we’d come to the right place. The restaurant was packed with customers, which combined with the hot dumplings coming out of the kitchen made for a very steamy atmosphere. Overwhelmed and without any place to sit, we asked for our order to go. The dumplings were just as delicious as I’d remembered and very worth the trip. However, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. I’d remembered Yang’s as a humble little shop built on the first floor of a house, like so many small-scale Chinese restaurants. Now, it was in a mall. Not nearly the hole-in-the-wall it had been before. The shop owners were probably very happy about the move, but I missed the old Yang’s restaurant.
I’ve read many wistful accounts of the changing faces of China’s cities with the onset of development. But this was the first time the process impacted me. Yang’s Dumplings was a place I’d visited just once, and certainly held far less sentimental value for me than so many people’s old homes and shops that have been altered as part of China’s development. But seeing Yang’s in a shopping mall somehow made China’s development come to light in a way I’d never felt before.
China is an incredible place with so much to offer. I love exploring the city, riding the subways and eating delicious food at the restaurants near our dorm. Most of the places I’ve enjoyed exploring are the direct result of China’s recent development: the Qianmen and Wangfujing pedestrian avenues filled with Western shops and Chinese food stands, the Yaxiu market in Sanlitun.
I’ve enjoyed the products of China’s recent changes, but have also begun to understand the costs at which these developments come. Beijing is a totally new environment from Udaipur and radically different from the way it was fourteen years ago. It’s certainly not the same as how I remember it, but it’s great to be back.