Before leaving for my Mandarin immersion study abroad program in Shanghai, I was SO excited about all the different and new dishes that I would be able to try. I also made sure to leave one suitcase half-empty for all the delicious snacks that I would be sure to bring home. But that was nine weeks away, and I was ready for some 生煎包 (pan-fried bun – pictured below) right then!

Once I got to Shanghai, I was eager to try all the delicious meals I had seen Shanghai locals eat at restaurants or walk around with. However, the language barrier became evident and I quickly realized how poorly my Chinese classes had prepared me for ordering food. Of course, I knew the basics – 牛肉 (beef),  猪肉(pork), 鸡肉 (chicken),  面条(noodles),  米饭 (rice), 青菜 (green vegetables) – but I was not even close to recognizing the characters of most dishes that were on most restaurant menus. What even is 佛跳墙 (Buddha jumping over the wall)?!

So despite my big dreams of trying all sorts of different Chinese specialties at various restaurants in Shanghai, my American accented Mandarin made me self-conscious which inhibited me from conversing with the locals. Thus, I did not actually eat out for the first two weeks. Instead, I would make morning trips to FamilyMart for their bao buns (which will always have a special place in my heart), eat lunch at the NYU Shanghai dining hall, and then have some snacks from a local grocery store for dinner. During these first two weeks, I lost enough weight that I felt my clothes “grow bigger” on me. 

Of course, some of my Chinese conversation anxiety with the locals was due to the fact that I was in a brand-new environment. Another layer surrounding my hesitance of speaking with the local Shanghainese is that I had early on my travels to the NYU Shanghai campus experienced some unfortunate interactions with the people working at the Shanghai airport. However, I cannot entirely blame them for the weird looks they gave me when I, an ethnically Chinese person, struggled to understand their directions and asked them to “请你再说一遍” (please repeat that again) or to “请慢一点” (please speak more slowly) after almost everything they said. As a Chinese American, but also as someone who only started studying Mandarin when I was 13 years old, their confusion and looks of dismay when they realized I could not fluently understand them made me feel even more out of place than I already was.

On top of having trouble talking with the locals, I also had a very distinguished feeling of being alone despite the fact that I was living with a roommate who was also my classmate. This was further compounded by the fact that some of our classmates had already known each other. In fact, my roommate, Haley, and I were the only two in the seven-person class who did not get acquainted before the program started.  

Fortunately, I was able to make some friends with some students who were not directly in the immersion program, and they helped me become more comfortable speaking Chinese outside the classroom. My friends were ABC (American Born Chinese) who were completely fluent in Mandarin but did not know how to read or write. This, I believed, was a perfect friendship as I was able to help them with reading and writing while they helped me with my speaking. 

Eventually, over the course of the nine-week program, I was able to overcome my anxiety and speak more confidently with locals. While I still have my reservations and do not feel comfortable freely conversing in Chinese, I am certainly grateful that I was able to be coaxed out of my comfort zone and order some AMAZING food which makes my study abroad experience that much more memorable.

I’ve included below one of my absolute favorite meals I ate while out with a friend in Shanghai. 

(Waiting patiently for all the dishes to come out so that we could take a picture before digging in was an excruciatingly long wait but very much worth it. Just look at that spread!)

From left to right:  A seafood curry/soup dish, Scallion pancakes, Fried shrimp rolls, Pork Buns, Fried Tofu, Soup Dumplings, Shumai



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Molly McNutt