By Anisha Joshi
I bit my lip, summoning every last bit of willpower in me to stop a deluge of tears from cascading down my face. In the rearview mirror, the Didi driver’s face looked comically large and slow as he yelled at me a diatribe that my simple Chinese 102-wired brain was unable to comprehend.
We were driving in circles around a pedestrian bridge in Shanghai’s Lujiazui area, the driver unable to stop because I’d just informed him I might not be able to pay for the ride. My debit card had just been frozen and I didn’t have any cash.
He’d immediately launched into a vicious tirade, and I’d done my best to keep my cool while trying to think of what I could do. But as his yelling grew louder, I simply couldn’t hold it in anymore. I burst into tears.
For a split second, he stopped yelling to smirk at me, which only made me cry even harder. As I dialed to call someone I knew in Shanghai, I resolved I would never come back to China. I loved China, but for the most part, it seemed China didn’t love me back.
This wasn’t the first time my attempt to explore China had resulted in a disaster that left me questioning my competence as a human being. Almost every trip I made to Shanghai in my freshman year resulted in at least one missed train, to the point where I don’t want to count the money I’ve lost in train tickets. And missed trains weren’t even the least of my problems – every time I left Duke Kunshan’s campus seemed to come with at least one overwhelming experience.
One time that remains fresh in my memory was when I arrived at Kunshan Railway Station about 12 o’clock in the morning. The buses had stopped, so the only alternative was to take a taxi back to a campus. Simple enough, right? How wrong I was.
As soon as I stepped out of the station, a swarm of taxi drivers clad in black jackets and puffing away on cigarettes surrounded me, offering “reasonable prices” and asking me where I wanted to go. Politely refusing and trying to push my way through came to no avail, and the cortisol levels in my sleep-deprived body were skyrocketing.
It might have been a tad dramatic, but unable to think of anything else, I acted on the first impulse that popped into my head – I just shouted “Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!” and forced my way through the crowd. Slightly alarmed, they let me go on my way. Shaken, I took a scooter taxi to campus instead, rationalizing that it would be easier to hop off and run for dear life if things went south.
But as time wore on, I realized it was through these “catastrophes” that I learned much about China and myself.
Kathmandu had often rewarded my spontaneity, for every time I left to explore with little over the equivalent of RMB 10 ($1.50) in my pocket, I’d run into a new temple or alleyway tucked away in an unexpected corner of the city. It was through these mistakes in China that I realized you can’t just storm into a new city in a whirlwind of impulsive decisions, especially when you barely know the language.
Once I was done crying over the money I’d blown on missed trains or being chastised by taxi drivers, I realized it was still possible to explore on my own even when I hadn’t planned my excursions to the letter. I just needed to be more levelheaded and not fly into a panic every time the smallest thing goes wrong.
While I could still explore a new place at my own pace without any rigid plans, I realized it was just not done to be overly reliant on luxuries like WeChat Pay and Didi without any backup plan.
Making my way back to Shanghai with these realizations made for a completely renewed experience. I fortified myself with a fully functioning WeChat Pay as well as cash, I was more careful while deciphering the subway maps, and I kept my mind open to whatever may come my way.
I was rewarded with a lovely Shanghai spring blessed with blue skies and cherry blossoms, discovered a Thai shrine hidden in plain sight, and I caught an art exhibit that I’d been dying to see for months. Time seemed to be suspended that day, and with a new mindset I could absorb all the details I would’ve missed had I been panicking.
As easy as it is to get into trouble when you’re just getting familiar with your surroundings and the language, China is a very good place to mess up, just for the fact that most of the time you are incredibly safe. As disastrous as every trip off campus seemed, I came out unscathed every time.
In fact, I made good friends with a lot of the Didi and scooter taxi drivers I met after these disasters. Although some of the conversations we had took a strange turn halfway through (“Do you want a Chinese boyfriend?”), it’s still another experience to catch a glimpse into someone else’s life, whether it’s just them talking about their hometown or favorite food. You learn to feel less lonely even in a city as massive as Shanghai.
In hindsight, I look back on these experiences with nostalgia. Although I couldn’t help but feel my attempts to travel were cursed for a thousand years, every time I was with someone when catastrophe struck, I often ended up bonding with them over the experience.
Whether it was having to leave Shanghai Disneyland six hours early because we realized we didn’t know how to find our way back, or being stuck in a train station for hours on end with nowhere to sit, I ended up coming out of a lot of these experiences with new friends and people with whom I shared a story.
That experience in Lujiazui will be forever etched in my memory as a definitive low in being alone in China, but I don’t think I will be acting on that resolution to “never return.” There’s still so much I need to see here, and so many stories I need to hear.
Sometimes, it seems, you just need time to grow into a place so that it loves you back.
Anisha Joshi is a member of the inaugural Class of 2022. She is from Kathmandu, Nepal.