A very special thank you to Elodie, Omar, Olga, Xian and Gwen.
The outbreak of the coronavirus COVID-19 has had many side effects. We all know that the global drama has originated in Wuhan, China, and one of the most unfair result has been xenophobic attacks against Chinese. Fact is, despite its discussable politics, China is very close to my heart for many reasons. Today I felt like sharing my story with this country as a way to show my love and my support for its people, and beyond that, for the complex but beautiful world that we all live in.
It was 25th August 2013, I barely slept the day before and I was nervous like rarely before. We arrived at the airport. I was 19 and boarding a plane by myself for the first time. My parents dropped me at the very last point of departure, I checked in, passed security, and as I walked away, I started crying, like unstoppable crying. I was still in tears when I found my seat. Next to me a Chinese lady, she probably took pity on me and asked, “will it be your first time in Shanghai?”, I nodded shily and she continued “I promised, you will love it”.
We spent the whole flight chatting, she was young probably in her late twenties, she was a French teacher in China, she was obsessed with French culture. Passioned by cultures myself, we got along well. She told me lots about life in Shanghai and gave me her number in case I needed anything. She slowly took away my anxiety and replaced it by excitement. She gave me the motivational speech I needed and for that I felt grateful that our paths crossed.
Despite the anxiety, I knew I prepared well, I knew exactly what I needed to do and how. I was used to travel thanks to my parents, I already visited all continents at that age. I studied Chinese for a year ahead of the trip and read a lot of books about China and its culture. Back in the days, my parents even made me do a power point presentation in order to prove to them I knew what I was doing. It was all my choice, I choose to travel alone, I choose the exchange program where none on my friend followed me… what I didn’t know is that nothing teaches you better than life itself.
Me and the lady said goodbye at arrival, I had the address of the university written on a paper and showed it to the taxi. I had booked a student room for a week; I was hoping this would leave me time to find a flat sharing in the city center. We drove for half an hour before I started seeing this City I’ve been dreaming of for months. There they were, the majestic towers. It was 5 am, the sun was rising, and I could tell the pollution rate was high. However, that reddish and blurry landscape did not disappoint and left me speechless.
The taxi dropped me in a very random street, while going out, the warmth and the strong smells hit me. Everything felt overwhelming but the mixture of stress and excitement gave me the adrenaline to find my way through an immense park highlighting status of famous communist figures. It was so early in the morning I was worried I had to wait couple hours until I could find help. But I did. The receptionist guided me to my room, crossing a few cockroaches on the way.
After informing me about few fun events coming up, the sweet man left me to my room. It was a small student room quite basic with a small desk and a single bed. I was very jetlag as I barely slept on the plane. I decided to lie down and started realizing I was now in China, a foreign land far from home by myself. I started doubting my decision.
Only few hours later, the campus started to wake up and I managed go through my checklist: meet people, get myself a phone number and an internet connection. I met lots of people in the first week but most importantly the three girls that will soon become my new Mèimeimen which not only translates to Sisters, but also felt like over the months, one adventure after another.
I’ve got great memories for the week spent in the campus. It was a very joyful place; I remember being on the patio sharing beers with other students, opening about our doubts, sharing new cultural discoveries, discussing cultural chocks and differences and experiencing local restaurants. My Chinese was so bad, I would order food blindly from the menus and let my palettes be surprised, and very often the surprise was wonderful.
It was only a matter of days until I found a flat share. I had a few terrible visits but found the one. Located on the 23rd floor of a building in People Square, it had this beautiful glass window with view on the city center. I shared the flat with a Russian girl and a Chinese one, both amazing human beings. The Russian was the one welcoming me while moving in. She was 12 years my elder and lived in China many years. Her warm smile and voice made me feel home instantly, we soon developed a strong connection. Her love and passion for this country imprinted on me and she is, to this day, one of the persons I am the most thankful to have met in my life.
I also had the chance to meet a Chinese girl my age. She was well educated, very openminded and extremely sweet. We could talk hours about our cultural differences and sometimes she would even open-up about her country politics, how she was born a single child and needed to marry one to be able to have two children herself, how the government was lying and investigating on them, how she was scared sometimes… We soon became friends and I owned her all the amazing places I knew in the City, and some Chinese food recipes she shared with me.
Few weeks after I arrived, I received a text from a student from my school in Paris telling me he had landed in Shanghai. I could only imagine what he was going through and, me and the girls got excited to show him around. Little did I know that later him and I would become best friends and remember those precious memories we had shared in China. We had made Shanghai our home and the best playground our young self ever experienced.
We organized as many trips as we could within the country, all different and special. However, I will also cherish those moments of me wandering in the City by myself and meeting the locals. It was all friendly at first, the locals seemed dry to me looking them with my foreign eyes. As time passed on, and as I was understanding their culture more and more, I started liking them and even find them very funny, to my own surprise. To be honest, they were also much friendlier once you speak the language and the French in me can only second that.
I owe many friendships and unforgettable memories to the City that hosted us. This experience changed me and made me truly understand the importance of travelling. Experiencing and living a different culture through local eyes made me more understanding of other but most importantly more respectful. The city of Shanghai and its people helped the teenager that I was to grow, and shaped the woman that I wanted to become.
I guess all I want to say is I am forever grateful for the life lesson. Ignorance is the mother of all evils, so before judging, please travel, learn, experience, take the time to be scared, to be exited, to love… and who knows, maybe one day, we can make this world an even better place.