Shanghai Fortnight

About a year ago, I wrote a post on my plans for an extended 50th birthday celebration. The plan I outlined was to set out on a series of adventures designed to take me out of my comfort zone. I would undertake these adventures, accompanied by friends who proposed the various treks.

Today, I leave for Shanghai with Tom, a college buddy. Tom suggested that we go off somewhere and learn a new language. We considered both Arabic and Mandarin and settled on the last based on the availability of 2-week immersion courses and the sentiment that learning Chinese is probably something that all Americans ought to start thinking about. As any politician knows, learning the Mandarin for “Would you like to loan us another $100B?” is important.

And so, we’re off to Shanghai. We’re going to be taking lessons at Mandarin House. We knew we’d made the right choice of school when we saw they had a “50+” program. Although their “50” refers to the number of classes and activities in the program, we thought the coincidence was too good to pass up.

I fly tonight. Tom flies tomorrow. We both arrive Sunday (it’s a day later there) and classes start early the next morning. I’m bringing my camera, my netbook and no knowledge whatever of Mandarin. My expectations are low. I hope to not totally fail at dealing with the “four intonations” and I hope to remember a word or two after two weeks of study. I expect to follow up with classes at the local community college where, perhaps, after a year or two, I’ll be able to say “Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese” in Mandarin.

I’m excited about the trip. Tom’s suggestion perfectly meets my criteria for 50th birthday celebrations. I’m not particularly good at languages, I’ve never been to China and I’m nervous about being in a classroom with 20 year olds. Just what I was looking for!

Tom, who turned 50 this year, is an old friend from college. This will not be my first trip with him. The summer between my Junior and Senior year in college, we both set off on a Eurail Pass adventure for 2 months (along with another friend, Mark). We traveled all over the place in Europe, probably visiting 10 or more countries in that time. We made some great Danish and Swedish friends during our travels with whom we still stay in touch almost 30 years later. In 2006, Tom, Mark and I all traveled to France with families in tow and met up with our traveling companions. We had 31 people in all and had a wonderful time together in Narbonne. 

This trip to Shanghai, in some ways, is different than our first trip. Whereas the first trip was accentuated with backpacks, sleeping on the beach and dealing with crowded 2nd class train travel, in this one, we’ll stay in an apartment and have some nice meals along the way. I’m using my airline miles to travel business class.

In another respect, however, both trips are the same.  When I set out for Europe in 1980, I’d never been outside the country. I spoke Spanish, but not a lick of French, Italian, or German not to mention Greek, Turkish, Danish, Swedish or Croatian!  Every time I got off the train in Europe, I had to cope with cultural and language differences. I had to learn to be “comfortable with my discomfort.” I think Shanghai will unquestionably challenge me the same way.