This summer, I finally got the opportunity to return to China after almost 2 years since I’d last been here on my NSLI-Y exchange program (2014-2015). Now I’m back and doing an internship at the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai, working in the Public Affairs Section. I’m already about half way through my 10 week internship, and it’s been an amazing experience so far!
After months of paperwork, waiting on a security clearance, and visa applications, I finally boarded my flight to Shanghai, passing through Zurich on the way. I’m living with some of the Foreign Service Officers for the duration of my internship here, which has been a great way to learn more about the Foreign Service & Consulate life in general. The Foreign Service has a really unique lifestyle, so it’s cool to witness it firsthand. Everyone both lives and works together, giving the work environment a close-knit feel which I really enjoy. All the people I’m working with, from our local staff, the American officer team, the other interns and summer hires, and even officers in other sections, have been really engaging and inclusive of me, so I couldn’t ask for better coworkers.
I’ve also gotten to work on some really interesting projects since I’ve been here, with a lot of random unique events popping up here and there. On my 2nd day at work, I accepted an award for an American documentary at the Shanghai International Film Festival on behalf of the Consulate, which was live broadcasted to over a billion people! In the Public Affairs Section, I work on things like cultural and educational exchanges, public programs, media campaigns, and media coverage of events and visits. I also get to rotate in at the Consular Section every week, getting to meet new people there and see the work they do. Every day has been an adventure, with lots of learning and thinking on the go. We also work a lot with other offices under the State Department umbrella, like the Foreign Commercial Service (FCS), the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), and the Agriculture Trade Office (ATO). For example, I got to work on the press event for the Secretary of Agriculture’s visit to Shanghai promoting the return of US beef to the China market, in tandem with the team at ATO. Another fun event was the Consulate’s annual 4th of July event, with over 400 VIP guests in attendance. The theme this year was “Access for All”, which highlighted the US’ commitment to equality for people with physical and mental disabilities, and had inspiring programs by the three signature partners: Special Olympics, Disney, & Sesame Street.
I’m loving the opportunity to be in the city and explore all the many interesting places in the Shanghai metropolis.
Of course, the very first place I visited – & have revisited many times – is the Bund, home to Shanghai’s most iconic old European-style buildings across the river from the towering modern skyline. The Bund is one of my favorite places. If caught at the right time, it’s really relaxing and incredible. Adjacent to the Bund is the Nanjing Road shopping area, which I visited on my first day in Shanghai, and have avoided since. The scale of its overwhelming atmosphere is equivalent to New York’s Times Square.
Another very touristy area I had to visit again is Yu Garden, and its surrounding commercial street vendors & shops. And of course, I waited in line for over an hour for my favorite Shanghai soup dumplings (xiao long bao 小笼包) at NanXiang. Yu Garden really is beautiful and peaceful, with traditional 山水 architecture. A more unique experience at the Garden was a night bike ride tour some Consulate colleagues went on one night. The tour guide bribes the guard with cigarettes to allow bikers to peruse the small streets after-hours, with amazing views and no crowds. It was such a fun time! We biked not only at the Garden, but all through the French Concession, small alleys, the Red Light District, and the Bund, which was a great way to see the city in a new way.
I also went to Tianzifang, a very unique area of the French Concession near Xintiandi, with a kind of artsy vibe. Tianzifang is always full of interesting stores, restaurants, snack stalls, and decor through its many narrow lanes. Even though the heat was a scalding 99 F when we went, it was still a fun area of Shanghai to explore.
To me, nothing is more “Shanghai” than rooftop views, so I’ve taken to testing out many a Shanghai rooftop venue, including the Fairmont Peace Hotel, the World Financial Center, Bar Rouge, Kartel Wine Bar, and the Ritz-Carlton in Lujiazui. Each has a unique view of Shanghai, from the World Financial Center’s dizzying view as the world’s 5th tallest building, to the Ritz’ up-close view of the also tall Oriental Pearl Tower, and the Peace Hotel’s panoramic Bund-side view. Rooftops for me just display Shanghai’s modern and metropolitan side, and I’m glad I’ve had time to search them out while I’ve been here so far.
I am also a little obsessed with the Power Station of Art, which is an art museum housed in a former power plant, combining industrial vibes with modern art and design. From photography, illustration, graphic design, fashion, and sculptures, the museum was wholly intriguing. It even has an awesome view from the roof across the river. Even more interesting to me was the area surrounding the museum, with former EXPO 2010 buildings incorporated into Shanghai’s Urban Best Practices area. The architecture there was really unique and innovative.
Life in Shanghai
Aside from working and sightseeing, life in Shanghai is just as interesting and fun. Honestly there aren’t a lot of sights to see in Shanghai per say; it’s the lifestyle and the every day things that make Shanghai so unique and special and one of my favorite places on Earth. In one sense, I feel like I’m living in an “expat bubble.” Shanghai is definitely not representative of the rest of China. It has such an international presence, with global cuisine abundant, major luxury designer brands and cars, and many international businesses. We play trivia every Sunday with other officers at an American bar, join the British Consulate’s “quiz” nights, drink our daily coffee in cute cafes or Starbucks, and enjoy our fair share of the Shanghai nightlife. On the other hand, I eat lunch almost every day in what we affectionately call “the alley,” which is essentially the outdoor overflow seating of a tiny restaurant with $2 noodles. Small joys of the daily life include the hordes of electric scooters that threaten to run you down at every street crossing and $0.75 breakfast of jianbing (煎饼) before work. Shanghai is a mix of Western & Chinese, old and modern, tranquility and rush, work and play. My favorite parts of Shanghai result from meeting somewhere in the middle.
I’m also fully amazed by China’s growing e-commerce trend, no longer using cash nor cards for purchases, but rather, WeChat Pay & Alipay. From big retailers down to our noodle guy at “the alley,” everyone prefers paying via phone & QR code. You can use these platforms to pay for cabs, trains, planes, hotels, carryout, phone bills, utilities, and much, much more. Shanghai also has a robust share economy, with hundreds of thousands of bikes available around the city to use for only 1元 (or less — free!) per hour, and DiDi, China’s ride-hailing version of Uber. I also just love Shanghai’s transportation system, with sparkling speedy metro lines connecting every part of the city, elevated highways, and special bus lanes. Living in Shanghai is very convenient.
I’ve also had some opportunities to travel around a bit. Over the long 4th of July holiday, I went with another intern & 2 summer hires to the nearby city of Nanjing – the capital of Jiangsu province – and an off-the-beaten-path nature reserve called Nanshan Zhuhai. I’d be to Nanjing once before while living in Changzhou, but only to take a test, and I’d seen amazing pictures from Nanshan Zhuhai, so I was really excited for the trip.
In Nanjing, we stayed at an Airbnb near Fuzimiao, in a super local area. One lady even stopped us as we were walking in to say “You know, this is a residence.” We went to Zhongshan National Park, climbing an insane amount of stairs to see the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum. The park itself was really big and peaceful with tons of trees overarching the road. We also bought cucumbers from a roadside seller and went to the outdoor theater, where we were flocked by white pigeons. We also ate at Nanjing’s famous Da Pai Dang restaurant, trying lots of delicious Nanjing food in a cool atmosphere. The next day, we walked around the Fuzimiao area by the canal with typical Jiangnan watertown architecture. Even though I’d been to Nanjing before, it seemed different than what I remembered. It also seemed a lot smaller. There were considerably less foreigners and considerably more random restaurants and street vendors. It’s just funny because when I lived in Changzhou, we always considered Nanjing so big, but now coming from Shanghai I have a much different perspective.
Leaving Nanjing, we took a train with standing tickets half an hour to Liyang, in the district of Changzhou, then took a bus half an hour to pretty much the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, we missed the last bus going to Nanshan Zhuhai, but fortunately, we met a lady who offered to drive us there for a reasonable price. At first we were suspicious, but a group of ladies soon crowded around us and vouched for her, and since we had no other option anyway, we went with her, enjoying the view of little farms and winding roads. The whole area was much less developed and generally rural and relaxed. When we arrived at our hotel, we were bombarded by a horde of children at a “survival camp” all screaming “老外！” We also found an adorable puppy. Later that night, we went to the town for a lovely dinner of 鱼头 (fish head- the local specialty!), eggplant, garlic spinach, and bamboo shoots. The people at the restaurant were really kind and even gave us some of their homemade rice wine to try. After dinner, we went to a small store to buy snacks and load up on water. We bought a HUGE bottle of water, only to find out from our friend at the restaurant while waiting for our taxi outside that this huge bottle was not water, but in fact baijiu! We laughed so hard, felt dumb, and promptly exchanged our baijiu for actual water bottles.
Breakfast at the hotel was 稀饭 (rice porridge) which really brought back memories of my host family. As soon as we entered the park, we were amazed by the scenery! We walked along wood or stone walkways with bamboo growing tall overhead and alongside clear streams. We also walked through “Bird Heaven” where I got within 2 feet of a real peacock! Next we arrived at Longevity Square, where the air was filled with the sounds of chants and the smells of burning incense at a shrine for a local mountain god. We then took a cable car up the mountain to Wuyue Xiongdi Peak, with incredible aerial views the whole way up. At the top, we gazed down below while eating ice cream, watermelon, and 串儿 (kebabs). A true Chinese mountaintop picnic. We climbed higher to the very top, with more awesome views, red ribbons flying everywhere, and the sound of the bell. Then we descended 1000m through the bamboo forest. When we exited the park, we were bombarded by children once again, and ended up chatting with a 57 year old local and his father for about half an hour in Chinese.
On the car ride back to the train station, I reflected on how much I love Jiangsu and the less developed parts of China. China is so vast and beautiful, and there is so much to explore. The 2nd half of our trip was so relaxing and enjoyable. The people were so kind and curious, and I was reminded of the general hospitality of the Chinese to “travelers from afar.” I was also reminded a lot of my experiences in Changzhou and many Chinese customs I’m familiar with. In a way, I felt very at home, or at least nostalgic. It was also fun to be exploring a completely new place & feel a little uncomfortable and challenged. I kept joking that we were “glamping,” but in all seriousness, I got definite backpacker vibes from our journey to Nanzhan Zhuhai. At the train station, we ate Starbucks (the symbol of civilization), I used a squatty potty for the first time since being back in China, and we boarded our 高铁 (high-speed train) as the sun set.
I also took a quick trip to Suzhou to meet up with my host family from Changzhou. My host brother was there to take tests, so my host dad invited me to link up with them there. I went straight from work to the train station. My host dad picked me up from the station in Suzhou and we chatted and caught up on the car ride to the hotel, where we met my host brother for dinner. Dinner was really nice, and I was surprised by how much older and mature my host brother seemed! We could also communicate a lot better. He was like, “Your Chinese is so good now!” and I responded, “Your English is so good now!” After dinner, we chatted some more in the hotel room, before my host dad took me to the hotel I was staying at. The next morning, after my host brother finished his tests, we all went to lunch, then saw a movie because it was much too hot to do anything else. We walked around the main street in Suzhou, and went to an early dinner. It was really nice getting to catch up with my old host family. My host dad seems the exact same, but my host brother has grown up a lot.
Thus far, my summer has been amazing! I’m loving life here and time is flying by!