You are probably reading a lot of news related to China right now. We are moving into an uncertain, near future that is scary for many. I am now one of many who practices home office, and I have more time on my hands than what I would have otherwise, also generally fewer distractions (if one looks away from the bigger picture being painted in the global media) due to distanced socialization. Read the fascinating stories from a young Norwegian’s stay in China.
Recently, I received some tips from a friend in Shanghai, who just finished two months of home quarantine. He spent this time on self-reflection, reading books, and learned how to cook better. During these times, it might be wise to look backwards and forwards, to learn from yourself, about yourself, about others and about the larger world.
Personally, I now have time to reflect about the past and the future, but especially I have been thinking about my past and the many experiences I’ve had and I am incredibly grateful for them. There are many to share, but I would like to start with some stories from China, long before the Corona chaos started.
Sharing all of my experiences and stories from China could fill a book. I will therefore share three stories, not necessarily the three most important or the most exciting stories, but simply the first stories that came to me when I wrote this. I want to tell you about a holy Buddhist mountain, how I met my best friend in China, and a story about myself, a Ukrainian man and a potato.
Growing up in an adventurous family
My China adventure started at a young age. I grew up in an adventurous family, who frequently took me and my older brother to travel in Norway, Europe and the United States during our childhood whenever our parents had the opportunity. My grandfather was a sailor, and on my mom’s side of the family several family members worked with building railroads. In other words, they lived a vagabond lifestyle on the road or at sea. That is why I have been told that my inner traveler is “in my blood”.
When I first wanted to leave the nest on my own initiative, I went on an exchange during high school as soon as I had the opportunity to. I ended up in New Zealand, where I stayed with an indigenous Maori family. This was an exciting experience in itself, but perhaps most importantly – it made me long for new experiences. I thought as soon as I get an opportunity to do something like this again, I will grab it.
I was pretty tired of school by the end of high school. The plan was to take a year off, work for 6 months, earn some money, and then travel to Asia. I wanted to experience something new and foreign, and was inspired by ancient the Chinese philosophy, Taoism, learning to live in harmony with your surroundings.
Starting a bachelor’s program in Chinese
In my favor, the University of Bergen started a bachelor’s program in Chinese the same year I graduated from high school. My plan suddenly changed a bit: “What if I apply for the bachelor’s program in Chinese language and culture, so I can go on an exchange through university?” My train of thought was, yes, I was tired of school, but Mandarin, was something completely new. Why not give it a try?
I entered the undergraduate program and was quickly intrigued by the Chinese written language. A completely different structure, the use of symbolism to express oneself, and a different way to think and see the world. This added to my China curiosity, so as soon as I could, I applied for another exchange year abroad. This time not staying with a host family, but by myself.
Arriving in Shanghai
On August 22, 2014, I left for Shanghai with butterflies in my stomach. A new life as a 19- year old, alone, in a city with 25 million people in a completely foreign culture. With my very limited language skills, I managed to explain to the taxi driver at the airport where I was going. The first address we arrived at was wrong (thanks to my accent), but we found my hotel on the second try around. I will never forget the hour-long drive into the city on a freeway with 6 lanes in each direction. High-rise on high-rise on high-rise under construction, until we ducked down to the street level entering a myriad of life.
To have some time to explore Shanghai and its surroundings, I went to Shanghai two weeks prior to the start of my studies. I did not research much before getting there, so after I landed in China, I started to look for nearby attractions. My eyes fell on a sacred Buddhist mountain a few hours north of Shanghai, the Taishan mountain in Shandong Province. Partly due to my fascination with Taoism, partly due to the mountaineer in me, I decided after two days in China to go climb this mountain.
One of the first things that struck me in Shandong was that I was suddenly the only foreigner. There were no longer English-speakers around or English menus. At the hotel I paid 30 bucks for an overnight stay, to later realize that they made a bargain. There was nothing wrong with the hotel, but I had not yet learned the art of bargaining when they showed me the price on a calculator. As a gullible Norwegian, I accepted the price.
When I went out for dinner, I blindly pointed out on a menu at a local restaurant and ended up with a dry salad, not exactly ideal before going on a hike. Later, I realized the waiter meant, “are you sure it is sufficient,” while I thought they would take advantage of me as the hotel did.
On the way up the mountain, I was stared at up and down, not in a nasty way, but out of sheer curiosity. Then it helped that I knew a little Chinese – enough to say my name, where I came from and what I was doing. I was met with a fascination just as great as I had about the culture I was indulged in; all of a sudden, parents wanted to take pictures of me with their kids, I got thumbs up and wishes for good luck for my future.
A night outdoors on top of the mountain
The plan was to spend a night at the top of the mountain to watch the sunrise, a Buddhist tradition. At the top, I rented a hotel room in a Chinese mountain lodge. After checking in, I went out to explore the majestic mountain top. As I wandered around, I met a young Chinese man, Zhao, who also carried a large backpack and a sleeping bag. I knew a little Chinese, he knew a little English. It was clear that he was happy to befriend a Westerner, turned out I was the first he had talked to personally.
Zhao planned to spend the night outdoors, watching the stars and the sunrise. It didn’t take long to persuade me, even though I didn’t have a sleeping bag. With the help of Zhao, I rented my room to another Chinese couple who needed accommodation. Then we decided to spend the money I regained from the hotel room on a good dinner. Finally, I could share a table with a Chinese friend, before I knew it, we had six dishes on the table, among other things, fried scorpion.
It was a cold night, but one I will never forget. It was not only me and Zhao who slept outside. It was not a sea of people, but enough to call it a community, a community that was equally excited to watch the stars, and the beautiful sunrise.
Socializing in rastaurants
About a month later, I had settled down in Shanghai and lived in a collective with two other Norwegian exchange students from the University in Bergen. The night we had signed a lease for our new apartment, we went out to celebrate. After a few beers, it was time for some supper. Late at night in a Turkish restaurant, we sat next to another table with four Asians, and one standing next to it, a little drunk, who tried to make a scene. He scolded the table next to us, who was just trying to enjoy their meal. Finally, he was shown out by the staff. “What was that all about?” we asked the neighboring table. “Just someone who had a little too much to drink and looked for trouble,” they replied. Suddenly we were in a conversation with the neighboring table.
I pulled up my cellphone to show a picture of Bergen when someone at the table said “Hey, I know that sticker” and pointed to a sticker I had on the front of my cellphone. “Ghostly International, one of my favorite record labels,” he said. What a coincidence, it was also one of the record companies I like best! We started talking about music, one of my biggest passions, and quickly realized that we had a lot in common. Chen, nicknamed “C.C”, ran a cafe in a loft in Shanghai, “The Attic”. He gave me his business card, “Check it out!” he said. Well, of course I’ll do that, I thought, a little drunk.
C.C and The Attic
Some days went by, a few weeks went by, I was so distracted by the new school, new friends, a new language, a new city, so C.C. and “The Attic” were somehow forgotten. A few months later, one beautiful spring day, I was on a bar crawl with a friend from Brazil. We walked around the streets of Shanghai and jumped from bar to bar. At one point, we saw something that looked like a party on a roof terrace on the 6th floor in a low high rise, for Chinese standards. It looked lively, we thought, should we check it out?
We walked over to the building, where there was a restaurant on the ground floor, and some other dining places and offices on higher floors. There were no signs for the 6th floor. Let us check it out regardless, we thought. We went into what was known as Shanghai’s smallest elevator, just enough space for three people shoulder to shoulder, and took it up to the 6th floor. A lively gathering of people from all over the world met us on the little roof terrace we had seen from the street. We were not greeted with staring eyes, indicating “who are you and what are you doing here?” rather “welcome up!”
On the other side of the roof terrace was a small door that went into an attic with sloping ceilings. I walked in the door and who was sitting in the corner serving coffee and drinks, none other than C.C.! Instantly I went over to him, “So you finally came through huh!” he said to me. “Yes, I only wish I had come sooner!” I answered. In the Attic there were white painted walls, homemade furniture, art objects, vinyls, used clothes, a sofa corner and a small bar corner. I immediately felt a form of belonging. A place you could be yourself, meeting exciting, creative people from all over the world.
It wasn’t long before I became a regular at The Attic. C.C., ten years older than me, took me under his wings, and introduced me to a vast network of exciting people, taught me Chinese language and culture, how to DJ and some barista skills. He became a mentor, an older brother, a close friend. C.C. even took my parents on a trip when they visited me in China, while I was busy writing my bachelor thesis. He took me to his hometown and introduced me to his family. We still communicate regularly, 6 years later. I wait for him to have the opportunity to come to visit me here in Norway.
A Potato story
Fast forward a few more months. My Norwegian roommates had moved out, and I was living with a young Ukrainian man and a Chinese girl. Me and Artiem, was his name, were going to cook dinner after a workout. The nearest supermarket was a little out of the way, we had to go into a mall and up to the second floor, to get to a giant market called Carrefour (French version of Wallmart).
On our way home, three minutes from the apartment, we discovered that we had forgotten to buy potatoes, an essential ingredient for what we were about to make. We were close to one of our favorite restaurants, where we ate about twice a week. It was run by Chinese Muslims, who served food from the Xinjiang region, located in the north-west of the country. They knew us well since we were regulars. “Should we ask if we can buy some potatoes from them,” we thought.
We walked into the restaurant and asked with broken accents if we could buy some potatoes. “Buy potatoes, from us?” asked the waitresses as they scratched their hair. “Wait a minute,” they told us. Okay, we thought, they will probably ask the boss. Two minutes later, they returned with a bag full of potatoes, and a freshly cooked potato for each of us. What a great service, we thought, then asked how much. “No no no, no payment,” they insisted. After a little back and forth, we took the potatoes and said, “thank you very much, we will come and eat here tomorrow!”
During the three-minute walk home we peeled and ate our freshly cooked potatoes. We passed a retired Chinese couple, who stared at us with big, curious eyes. They wondered what we were eating, whether it was actually boiled potatoes. “Yes,” we replied, “we got them from the restaurant on the corner over there”. Suddenly we were talking to this couple, who lived in a block in front of us, turned out we were neighbors.
Giving private lessons in English
We told them that we were exchange students who were in Shanghai to learn Chinese. They had a grandson who learned English and wondered if we would help him with his English lessons, then they could help us learn Chinese. “Of course!” we answered. The following Sunday, we turned up outside Mr. and Mrs. Lin’s apartment.
When they opened the door, they greeted us with big smiles and it smelled of home cooked food. Mrs. Lin was making 48 dumplings and asked if we would like to help prepare them, after a cup of tea in the living room. In the living room, I got caught up with Mr. Lin, who eagerly told me about his personal war stories. With my limited language skills, I tried as best I could to keep up, but I was struggling, something Mrs. Lin quickly picked up. “End your old stories,” she said, “they don’t understand anything! Come into the kitchen instead and I’ll teach you how to make dumplings. ”
This developed into a long-lasting friendship, we were frequently invited Sunday guests with the Lin couple. We helped the grandson, Wang, with his English homework, which he initially thought was a bit scary, but eventually became less and less scary. In return, we got to practice our Chinese, and often got some amazing good food served too.
Stories of humanity
These are stories of humanity. In times like this, with increasing protectionism and localism, with borders being closed, it is easy to resort to xenophobia. It is important to remember that we are all of the same kind, have the same needs and feelings. The generation of the Lin couple has gone through war, misery, hunger and need. It is a challenge for our generation to undergo restrictions to our freedom for the first time, but it is also important to think of all the good we have that we must not take for granted.
Take care of your mental health, show love to those around you, have a routine, a reason to get up in the morning, and be creative. Use this crisis to train your body and soul, both of which can be done at home. Though you may have to give yourself an extra push in the back to take action, maybe now is the time to slow down, evaluate what truly matters and continue on with open hearts.
Stories From a Young Norwegian’s Stay in China, is written by Charlie Mandelid for Daily Scandinavian. Charlie is an enthusiastic traveler with a special interest in China. He studied at Fudan University and Jiaotong University and ended his stay in China with an engagement with the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in Guangzhou. With a master’s degree in International Studies and Diplomacy, Charlie enjoys topics like international politics, sustainability, the Arctic and the Sino-Norwegian relationship.
Charlie Mandelid has a wide range of understanding and contacts to help enterprises understand how to successfully work with Chinese businesses. His source of information comes from his direct experience living in China for 3 years and his wide knowledge of commerce and regulations in China.
By the age of 25, Charlie has lived on five different continents, contributing to his global mind and spirit. He is also a musician with a passion for culture, languages, and food.
Charlie Mandelid can be reached by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
All images by Charlie Mandelid, except image of Shanghai (on top), copyright Store norske leksikon