Photo Credit: Benjamin Patin, Unsplash
“What is one of your most vivid memories of your time in China?”
This is a question that is commonly asked to those who were lucky enough to study abroad. Unlike most other people who are asked this question, however, one of my most vivid memories from my time in China comes from my very first few days in the country – it’s not the first meal I ate, nor is it my first time stumbling over the language. In fact, it is not only a memory, but also a unique sensation that will never leave me.
Stepping out of the hotel lobby and into the late morning Shanghai sun, I will never forget the feeling of heat and humidity washing over my body. The heavy air which sticks to your throat, and the deep smell of hot concrete stay with me even today, and I can vividly recall this unique feeling. Although this is a feeling which many might describe as unpleasant, for me, it is tinted with nostalgia as it underpins my memories of this exciting time.
Stepping out into that heat, with my classmates beside me, for my first few days in China is something I will never forget. However, speaking of things that I will never forget, the heat would soon contribute to another ‘unforgettable’ experience later that very same day.
As a bunch of 20-year-old students on our first day in China, it was natural that we’d want to see and experience everything we possibly could. Under the burning August sun and in temperatures over 30 degrees, we immediately set off to the centre of Shanghai to take in the sights, getting off at People’s Park before embarking on a trek down Shanghai’s busiest shopping and tourist destination, Nanjing East Road.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Shanghai, Nanjing East Road is a popular tourist spot filled to the brim with souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, and other tourist traps
There is a popular phrase in Chinese, which directly transaltes to ‘people mountain people sea’ and is used to describe a very crowded place. Probably the ideal phrase to describe Nanjing East Road on summer evening! Photo Credit: Connor Jordan
Nanjing East Road connects the park to The Bund, one of Shanghai’s most iconic sightseeing spots. So, how perfect would it be, to walk from the park down to The Bund and experience both the bustling Nanjing East Road and close off the adventure with some pictures at an iconic part of the city. It sounded like the perfect plan, but one which in retrospect might not have been so well thought through.
We had only just arrived in China, having landed the day before and spending most of the afternoon and evening trying to make it to our hotel with heavy suitcases. We were jet lagged and weary, but wanted to make the most of our short time in Shanghai before moving on to Nanjing (a city a few hours away from Shanghai) to register at the university. As such, we were running off airplane food, coffee, and sugary drinks, and the fatigue was starting to show as we began our 20-minute trek down Nanjing East Road towards The Bund.
Not too long into our journey, one of the more reasonable of our cohort suggested we stop for lunch in one of the many restaurants, which seemed like a good suggestion and a way to temporarily beat the heat. As you might expect, we couldn’t reach a decision on what to go for, but as you might expect less, what we settled on was probably not the most ideal choice – McDonalds. Now, 7 years on, I can look at this and identify that this probably contributed to the events that were about to follow, but as they say – hindsight certainly is 20-20.
After our brief pit stop, we carried on towards The Bund, stopping occasionally to check in shops or to take photos. We were making good progress and most of us were feeling relatively fine, albeit tired, aside from one student. A noticeably tall and skinny student, since arriving in China he had barely eaten anything and stuck to drinking sugary drinks to keep his energy up. He had started to complain about feeling a bit shaky, so as the Pearl Tower crept into view at the end of the street, we were glad to finally reach our destination and take in this much celebrated Shanghai sightseeing spot, before heading back to our hotels to rest. We had just one more obstacle to overcome, which was crossing a busy street packed with loud cars and eager tourists.
As soon as we took our first steps to cross the road, out of the corner of my eye I saw the tall student grab another classmate’s backpack before falling to the floor with a loud thud. That’s when panic ensued – nothing in our year abroad meetings or handbooks had prepared us for this eventuality!
He seemed conscious but unable to stand properly, so we dragged him back onto the pavement and into what little shade we could find. A bunch of young foreign tourists gathered around someone lying on the pavement had certainly started to gather the attention of passers-by, so some of our group attempted to disperse the gathering crowd whilst others tended to the student. Eventually, the tall student regained some of his strength, and as soon as he could stand, we called a taxi and some of the group escorted him to see a doctor immediately.
The Bund, taking during another (less dramatic) visit to Shanghai. Photo Credit: Connor Jordan
As a reader, you can probably identify where we might have gone wrong and what had contributed to this dramatic event – heat stroke. We heard the news from the students who had accompanied him to see a doctor that he had briefly fainted from overheating, and coupled with having not eaten much and consuming only sugary drinks, alongside our lack of sleep, it had finally become too much for his body to bear. Suffice to say, this early experience served as a useful learning point for our class, and we soon knew not to underestimate the Chinese summer heat.
As time passed, we also found the poeticism and comic timing of our classmate collapsing before one of Shanghai’s most breath-taking sceneries – “it was just too stunning to handle!”
So, if someone asks me about my vivid memories of my time in China, the feeling of heat and story of my fainting classmate stand out strongly in my mind. It might not be the most typical story to tell, but to me, it has all the makings of dramatic year abroad tale – well intentioned plans, a series of poor choices, a dramatic conclusion, and some useful life lessons. Regardless, I don’t need to remember trivial things such as my first meal – it turns out, I have a photo of that anyway!
Delicious 70p noodles – probably one of the better choices we made!
Photo Credit: Connor Jordan
Author: Connor Jordan
Connor is the Personal Assistant to the Confucius Institute Director. He graduated with a BA in Chinese Studies and spent his year abroad in China studying at the University of Nanjing in Jiangsu province. Connor has a keen interest in Chinese culture and previously worked for a Chinese media organisation.