Sunday, August 28, 2011

A New Beginning

So I arrived in China, and I must tell you, it feels like a whole different country over here. My study abroad program is called the Alliance for Global Education (Alliance, for short), and I’m doing an international business and language-learning program at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (SHUFE). There are 27 Alliance SHUFE students, nearly all of us are Americans.
SHUFE, located in the Hongkou district, is the oldest financial institution in China.
It has four campuses - we're staying in the one that is home to MBA programs and international students.

The director of our program is a man named Kai Wang. He is a friendly and helpful man probably in his mid-to-late-forties with a good command of the English language. Sometimes, however, he says things in a way that makes them come across a lot funnier than he probably had intended. Here are some of his lines (more or less verbatim):

“There is not really an explicit drinking age in China. Because of this, you don’t find a drinking problem among students on campuses. On the other hand [pause] we have you guys. I can’t understand why people drink until they vomit and then want to do it again.”

“There may be mobsters in Shanghai, but people don’t know where they are. When you don’t know where they are, it is not as dangerous.”

And perhaps the best one…

 “Do not bring guests back to your room at night. I understand if you like or love someone else in the group and want to spend time with that person [pause] but there are cheap hotels all around campus.”

Many of my initial observations about life here relate to the lower standard of hygiene among the Chinese people. Walking the streets just outside campus, I spot a mother holding a baby in her arms as the small child defecates directly onto the ground. Looking closer, I notice that another young boy has a slit in the back of his pants, most likely for the same purpose. As I pass a street vendor selling fruit, I watch as flies hover around a case of apples. I see a woman chasing after a live prawn, which has leaped off its display – she picks it up off the muddy street and returns it to its place. In the campus dining hall’s bathroom, I fail to find any soap to wash my hands. Lastly, when we eat in large groups, we eat family style – but there are no serving utensils; instead we simply grab what we want with our own chopsticks.

Shanghai is a city of extremes and while our campus is not situated in the nicest part of town, we are just a short ride away from some of the most beautiful and modern looking urban areas that I have ever seen (like the Pudong District and The Bund). In fact, one of our first nights here, we went to see an incredible acrobatics show in the city center.

A trio performs at the Shanghai Acrobatics Show

I definitely think often about how I am missing a semester at Cornell – I think about my friends and the unappreciated comfort of being familiar with the native language and culture there. While in many ways I wish I were home in the States, I remember why I am here. I came to master the Chinese language…or at least get very good at it. Yes, it may seem like a daunting task, but it is very possible if I take advantage of what’s to offer here. (1) I have a Chinese roommate named Guo Jiang – a PhD student with whom I try to speak as much Chinese as possible. (2) I have close to 12 hours of language class every week, and most importantly (3) I have the great city of Shanghai, where every daily encounter calls for an opportunity to practice my Chinese.

I like it here. I’ve made some really good friends and anticipate having an amazing experience in these four months. I think I’ll be surprised at how quickly I get used to living here. I’ll just need an open mind, an eagerness to learn, and some hand sanitizer…

My huge container of Tums - I've only used nine so far.
Box of condoms displays the English phrase
"Play Pleasant Time"

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pre-Departure: My Metropolitan Diary

We should open up a nice little internet cafĂ© next to here. We could provide computers, printers, and delicious refreshments, and help people complete their visa forms. Do you know how much money we’d make?”

These were the words I uttered to my mom as we stood outside the Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in New York City after my visa application forms weren’t approved on the first try.

I was taken aback a little by what I saw as the unwelcoming aura of the Chinese Consulate. What I had soon learned was that successfully obtaining a visa was like a puzzle, or perhaps more like a sick joke. It seemed they could pick out any minute detail on your visa application and decide that it wasn’t correct, leaving you with no choice but to go away and correct it and then return and wait on yet another long queue.

When I first approached the building I found a staid looking security guard who asked to see my passport and forms. His bold, brown eyes gazed over my paperwork as his lips twisted into a grimace. “You’re supposed to write N/A where you left blanks. But go on, give it a shot.” 

Inside the building, I quickly discovered that everyone was having problems. “This is my second try,” said one young man. “This is my third,” said a blond haired lady. “This is my second day here!” exclaimed another man.

We now found ourselves on the sidewalk of 12th Avenue because I hadn’t filled out a supplementary form of which I was completely unaware. In addition, under “Reason for Visit” I apparently should have checked ‘Business Trip” instead of “Study” because I will be in China for fewer than 180 days. You know, because that makes sense…

With our home far away on Long Island, we were left wondering how we could find a computer and a printer, and obtain this visa.

I suddenly thought of the Cornell Club. That’s probably not too far from here. I looked up their number and gave the place a call. I told the receptionist I was a student and wanted to use a computer for 15 minutes. “Sorry, members only”, she told me.

Hmm maybe we can find some hotel with a business center?

After walking a block or so, we located a cheap-looking hotel. We walked in, and I asked the front desk attendant if the hotel had a business center. “No”, she told me, “but there’s a copy center on 9th.”

We walked another block to 9th, but only saw a FedEx service center. We walked in. It was just a small store with one worker behind a desk. No computers available for use. 0 for 3.

We continued our walk, now heading toward 8th. As we crossed the street, my mom asked a traffic cop if he knew of any business center in the area.

“Burger King”, he said as he pointed in the direction we were walking.
“Did he just say Burger King?” I asked my mom.
“I think so”, she replied with a slight chuckle.

In no more than a minute’s time, I saw the familiar blue, red and yellow logo of Burger King. Next to it, in big white letters read “Free Wi-Fi”.

Ok that’s a start. But they still need to have computers and a printer. And I really doubt they have a PDF reader. We walked in. Sure enough there was a row of four computers.

A smile ran to my face as the words of the security guard resounded in my head. Go on, give a shot.

I found a computer at the end of the row that appeared unoccupied. I took a seat in the chair. The computer wouldn’t turn on.

From my left, I heard a welcoming voice. “Here, you can use this one.”

I looked up. Leaning over a chair at the computer adjacent to me was a young black man clad in a print t-shirt and jeans.

“You’re not using it?” I asked.
“I work here”, he replied.
“Oh, I didn’t realize”, I said with a nervous laugh, “Thank you.”

Before I sat down, my mom jumped in.
“Can we ask you a few questions?” She was worried they didn’t have a printer and that we wouldn’t be able to access the Chinese visa documents.

“You can ask me anything,” the man said with an air of confidence. I think I saw him fold his arms over each other and lean back, wearing a mysterious smirk.

As I sat down and took a look at the screen, I had to open and close my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. In front of me was the Chinese Consulate visa form blank and ready to be filled out in a PDF reader program.

You’ve got to be frickin’ kidding me.

I began filling out the form, trying to be meticulous but still feeling slightly dazed as if I were in a dream. I made sure to put in my N/A’s and let the Consulate know that I was, in fact, on a business trip. In the meantime, my mom went to get two of Burger King’s finest iced coffees. Next to the computer, I noticed a machine slot to insert cash, but I couldn’t find any sort of timer to track how long I was using the computer. I don't care how much this is going to cost.

After 10 minutes, I was convinced that I had filled out the form as well as I could.

The Mystery Man came over to my station.

“Do you know the link for the supplementary form?” I asked him. Somehow I just knew the answer was going to be yes.

He clicked on a second tab on the screen that was already loaded. It contained the supplementary form for people applying for an F Visa. This guy knows his stuff.

“Thank you”, I said. My admiration was protruding out of my pores.

The second form was easy to fill out, and after not much time I gestured for the Mystery Man to return to my station. As he ambled toward me, I imagined a crown appear on the top of his head. This guy must be the burger king, I thought.

“You all set?” he asked. “Let me look it over for you.”

He checked over my work carefully and made a few corrections, adding “NYS” next to my license number and writing “Shanghai” as the province that I would be staying in. I had written N/A because Shanghai is just a city and has no province. I didn’t say anything though – Shanghai was now a province if the burger king said so.

As he printed the forms, my curiosity got the best of me. “So how do you know so much about Chinese visas?” I asked.

“Well a few weeks ago they changed the China visa forms, and I had about 120 people walk in here looking for a computer. I learned a lot about Chinese visas that day” he said with a smile. He added, “10 dollars will be the damage”.

My mom handed him a twenty.

Thanking him graciously, we left the fast-food joint. We walked the four blocks back to the Consulate and waited on a long line. After a half hour, it was my turn at the window. I handed the lady my forms, along with my passport and official university letters. After a minute, she still hadn’t lifted her pen to make any corrections to my forms.

“Ok”, she said.
“I’m all set?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes, it will be ready for pickup on Friday.”

I turned around and a huge sigh of relief came over my face. I noticed a woman in the line laugh. She knew where I was coming from.

We exited the Consulate building feeling elated and accomplished.

“I still can’t believe we found the expert of Chinese visas at a Burger King”, I said to my mom.
“Only in New York,” my mom added.
“But come on, he stole my idea!”