Monday afternoon, 29/02/2016
Happy leap day! Today was the first day of class, which seems like a good point at which to digest the first five days of our new life at Tongji University. Edwina, Mitch and I just spent a good two hours after lessons finished riding in and around campus looking for a good gym to join, and to say the available options were dire would be putting it lightly. Just as expensive as Anytime, and dingy as fuckkk. Like, old school, rusty weights, straight-out-of-Rocky-type thing, pretty much empty bar four or five shady-looking, middle-aged, gangsterish dudes. No girls in sight. I’m going to take this as a heaven-sent sign that I can take a year off from the gym, and between biking all over campus (sometimes with my roommate riding on the back for an extra-heavy quad workout), walking up four flights of stairs to my classroom each morning, and hoisting homewares on the metro every weekend I think physical activity is decently accounted for.
Having easy access to good facilities like the gym is just one of many things that we’ve quickly realised were a luxury in our old lives. Firstly, the sheer amount of POINTLESS BUREAUCRACY and RED TAPE that accompanies the smallest of tasks here is truly something to behold. At UTS, enrolling is as simple as logging into UTS Online, clicking through, picking your classes and ding-ding, you’re in. On enrolment day here, we were sent running between buildings on the opposite ends of the university, given countless forms to sign, made to pay 元600 for insurance, asked for passports and papers constantly, instructed to make appointments for blood tests, X-rays and ECGs, then told to acquire stamps back at the building we came from, et cetera et cetera. Responsibility shifting is an art form here – if someone tells you to see Ms. Wang for x reason, you best believe that Ms. Wang is going to tell you that actually, this is Mr. Li’s problem, go see him. Then you’ll go to Mr. Li’s office and be told that he’s on a two hour lunch break, come back later. When you come back, Mr. Li is probably going to tell you that the whole issue is under Mr. Wu’s purview, and he’s gone home for the day. Try again tomorrow.
Patience is incredibly important to surviving here. The Chinese have their own way of doing things, and they don’t care whether you like it or not, foreigner. You quickly learn that unlike the “customer is always right” idea that exists at home, you don’t get to call any of the shots here, you just accept that you have to sign the countless forms and contracts that get wordlessly shoved in your face which you can’t read a word of. Service is brisk, and people are often brusque when you ask them for directions. The thing is to not take it personally. It might seem that everyone is very bu nai fan (roughly translated as “can’t be fucked”) with you, and it’s true – but so they are with everyone. Life as a Chinese person, especially in a big city like Shanghai, is so full of external pressures that people are necessarily pressed for time and attention constantly. Making money is hard. Getting medical care is hard. Ensuring a good education for your children is hard. Things are expensive. Simply existing here requires something bordering on constant effort.
If we have to run across campus 18 times to enrol, at least it’s a picturesque journey.
In terms of settling in, we’re all adjusting to life here pretty quickly. I’ll post about classes, the university campus and do a dorm tour later, but Winnie and I have done our best to make our dorm a home, and it’s really starting to feel like one. I’ve purchased a dingy little bike for about AU$20 and ride it everywhere, parking it outside class, the metro station, our friends’ guesthouse. I’m still learning how to carry Winnie on the back without swerving wildly and almost crashing into unassuming pedestrians, but I’m confident we’ll reach our romantic, Korean drama-like biking ideals!
Manspreading is a universal language.
Our little UTS group has done some exploring of the surrounding hotspots like Nanjing Rd and Wujiaochao, but life as big city kids has so far mostly been about sharing photos of our wardrobe storage setups over WeChat (bro look how the box fits PERFECTLY into the shelf space), lusting over Muji cabinets and late-night trips to Walmart to stock up on bath mats. As much as one would envision Shanghai life to be all about dressing up and going out for cocktails on the Bund every night, most days I come back to the dorm looking like this.
However, it all amounts to the slow and quiet building up of a new life here, which feels like something special.