From a small southern town to attending college halfway across the world

Hi, I am Lily Blair, a sophomore at NYU Shanghai. I am sharing my experience of going from a small southern town to attending college halfway across the world. I am an American-born Chinese Korean. My parents mainly spoke English and Fujian dialects around me. My Mandarin Chinese was rusty when I first came to Shanghai. The transition from life in the South to a bustling metropolis like Shanghai was a profound experience that reshaped my worldview. The transition revealed both differences and surprising similarities between two very different lifestyles. My adventure began when I decided to attend a college halfway around the world. This decision took me far from my southern roots and into a world of skyscrapers, exotic cuisine, and a completely different culture.

Differences I experienced

One of the most apparent differences I encountered was the pace of life. Things tend to move slower and more relaxed in the South, while Shanghai buzzes with energy and constant activity. The streets are always filled with people, and the city never sleeps. It was a culture shock that took some time to adapt to, but eventually, I came to appreciate the vibrancy of city life. Another noticeable difference was the language barrier. Although English was the primary language in the South, Mandarin Chinese was the dominant language in Shanghai. Initially, communication was difficult because the phrases I assumed to be okay were not okay in China. I did not know many homophones in Mandarin, so my professor thought I was talking about losing (输 shu) when I was talking about reading a new book (书 shu). However, I saw it as an opportunity to learn a new language and gradually improve my skills. The time and effort I put into learning the language allowed me to connect with locals and learn more about the city’s rich culture. I spent about four years studying Mandarin by mainly watching Chinese shows and listening to Chinese music to improve my pronunciation. 

Despite these differences, I also discovered unexpected similarities between my southern upbringing and life in Shanghai. Hospitality and warmth are universal qualities. Just as Southerners are known for their friendliness and hospitality, I encountered similar kindness and generosity from people in Shanghai. The importance of family and community also transcended cultural boundaries, as both the South and Shanghai placed great emphasis on close-knit relationships.

Adapting to life in Shanghai

Adapting to college life in a foreign city presented its own set of difficulties. The academic system, teaching methods, and coursework intensity were all unfamiliar. I had to adjust to a more rigorous educational environment, but I overcame the initial challenges with perseverance and the encouragement of professors and peers.  One of the most influential classes that pushed me to design my future and map out my life was a course called Life Design with Professor Emily Tsiang. She has such a welcoming energy and provided advice that made a meaningful impact on my life. The experience broadened my horizons and expanded my knowledge in unexpected ways. Because of the community at NYU Shanghai, I was able to form close relationships with my professors and have a variety of mentors on campus.

People I met along the way were instrumental in my adjustment. Creating a supportive network was critical to my emotional and psychological well-being. I connected with other international students facing similar challenges, and we formed a close-knit community. In addition, I made friends with local Shanghainese who assisted me in navigating the complexities of Shanghai life, from finding the best street food vendors to understanding cultural nuances. 

Beyond academic support, having a solid social network was vital for my overall well-being. The friends I made became my family away from home, providing a sense of belonging and a support system that eased my transition. Whether it was celebrating traditional festivals, exploring the city’s hidden gems, or simply sharing a meal, these relationships enriched my experience in immeasurable ways. One of my favorite festivals in Shanghai is the Moon Festival. There are many activities and food vendors around. All the stores in Shanghai would produce mooncakes that were special to their brand. However, NYU Shanghai also makes their limited-edition mooncakes, which are delicious. Those are some of the most exciting times to be in Shanghai. 

View of Shanghai skyline
Image courtesy of Canva
A street view of signs in Shanghai's Nanjing Road
Image courtesy of Canva

Learning resilience and open-mindedness

In conclusion, my adjustment from the South to attending NYU Shanghai was a transformative journey that brought to light the differences and surprising similarities between these two worlds. Embracing a fast-paced urban life and overcoming language barriers were challenging, but the experience broadened my horizons. This experience reinforced the importance of building a support network in a foreign land, and the friendships I forged became an essential pillar of my successful adaptation. Through this journey, I learned the value of resilience, open-mindedness, and the remarkable ability of individuals to adapt to new environments when surrounded by a supportive community.

Hi there! My name is Lily Blair, and I’m from the South. I’m a sophomore at NYU Shanghai, majoring in Interactive Media and Business with a double minor in Psychology and Global China Studies. On campus, you can find me either working out at the fitness center, working on a new project in the IMA lab, planning events for my boxing association, or hanging out with friends in the 3rd-floor lounge. During my free time, I grab a bite at my favorite hotpot place, visit my friend’s corgi, or go shopping. I’m incredibly passionate about the law and plan on attending law school after graduating. Feel free to ask me all about life in Shanghai or about studying at NYU Shanghai!!