Shanghai (China) Skyline

The first time I set foot in Asia was in February 2011. It was for a five day trip to Beijing– part of the orientation for my upcoming semester in Shanghai. As I wandered through the Beijing airport that day, with some other kids in my study abroad program, I had no idea that my life would change forever.

But how did I end up in China of all places for my semester abroad?

I knew I wanted to study abroad (Spring 2010)

Like many college students in the US, at the end of my sophomore year I was forced to choose a major. But I had a problem. Like lots of twenty year olds, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. On the bright side, I enjoyed every class I took in college from World Religions to Microeconomics. But this made picking one area of study really difficult. So, as I do in most times of uncertainty, I listened to my dad and chose to major in History. “It’s reputable,” he told me. Plus, I did always enjoy history. 

Long before I was required to choose a major, I knew that I wanted to do a spring semester abroad my junior year. Like so many others do. I had been contemplating going to Australia. Or maybe somewhere else. Yet, once again, my father talked some sense into me: “Why would you go somewhere like Australia? There’s no language barrier. There’s no challenge.” My dad was right. He further urged me to do a semester in a BRIC country. I contemplated this, but the thought of spending a prolonged time in Brazil, Russia, India or China was not too appealing.

However, my thoughts and ideas changed quickly as I entered my junior year of college.

I knew I wanted a challenge (Fall 2010)

The end of summer and beginning of fall started out rough. My best friend’s younger brother had a sudden and tragic death. Moments like these tend to have a profound affect on people. And I was no exception. Witnessing this tragedy made me realize how short and precious life is. At that moment I committed myself to going to either Brazil or China the following semester. I wanted a challenge.

I had always been organized and meticulous, so I did lots of research on both countries and potential programs available. After seeing some poor reviews on universities in Brazil, I began to lean lean towards China.

Nonetheless, beyond the catastrophic death and all the research, the most important influencer in deciding to study in Shanghai was undeniably one of my professors — Professor Reeves.

My decision to Study in Shanghai

Professor Reeves was a self-proclaimed sinophile. That is, a person who favors “the Chinese or their policy or characteristics.” Essentially, she was obsessed with China.

Professor Reeves was passionate. She was also very stern. And even more intelligent. I trusted and looked up to her. That’s why I took the words very seriously when, during one of her many zealous tangents, she proclaimed that if she were our age, she would pack up and move to Shanghai.

Shanghai China Nightlife Expat Culture

Professor Reeves described the liveliness of the city; how it was so cosmopolitan and had always been that way since established as a gateway to the rest of China. She mentioned the skyscrapers and famous Bund strip along the river. Even more– the vast culinary options, the nightlife and the expat-culture. Professor Reeves raved and raved about Shanghai. And then raved some more.

I was sold. I was going to study in Shanghai the following semester. Still, it was hard for me to believe all the wonders Professor Reeves spoke about in Shanghai. Especially while learning about China’s agrarian and Confucian underpinnings.

Regardless of looking up a ton of pictures online and reading bits and pieces of guide books, I didn’t know what to expect. But I knew it was going to be grand.

Discovering my path

Shanghai China Street Taxis

And it was. But more than “grand” and “fun” and all the other things study abroad experiences are supposed to be– it was literally life altering. My semester in Shanghai led me to discover a true passion. I found a part of myself I never knew existed.

I finally had an idea of what I wanted to do with my life. And I never felt so certain before. I guess it was one of those “gut-feelings”. Yes, the feeling was a bit vague. But I knew the more and more I leaned towards China (and soon the rest of Asia) the closer and closer I was getting to finding my “calling”.

Fast forward to today and, sure, my interests and hobbies have evolved. Yet, unfaltering still is my passion for Asia.

Image of Shanghai Skyline courtesy of ast.wikipedia, Shanghai nightlife on Flickr and Shanghai street on Flickr.


  • Tom Coppinger

    Good on you! Keep yourself wide open to experiences, you never know which paths you’ll end up following. I went to Tanzania in Africa for 2 years in the mid 80’s, which certainly altered my mind-set. I ended up meeting and and marrying an Irish girl and moving to Ireland. My American family (very conservative, unlike your dad) were appalled; long story there. But I’ve become very much Europhile (socialist!) I have two very good friends in Tokyo, someday will visit, and should I include Hong Kong or Shanghai on my itinerary? See, we’re still explorers even in our mid-50’s! As you will be, all your life.

    • Hi Tom — You should definitely go to Shanghai and HK if possible! Both are great cities. But to really experience Asia, you have to head out to the countryside! I don’t have much experience in the Chinese countryside, but did have the chance to go to Mongolia– it’s a total eye opener (as I’m sure your experience in Tanzania was!) I have never been to any part of Africa but hopefully one day in the future! And yes, I fully plan on traveling well into my 50s, 60s and even 70s (depending on my health, of course!)

      • Tom Coppinger

        Good point about getting out in the countryside. In fact, when visitors come to Ireland, I tell them to get out of Dublin as fast as they can, the REAL Ireland is out in the country! I’d rather go on a trek, than shop in a city, any day. Very brave of you to go to Mongolia, exploration that is far outside the box!

        • I’ve never been to Ireland — one day though! But from what I see in photos, it looks gorgeous! Also, I was with a group in Mongolia so not completely alone !

  • Dan Lee

    Lived in Shanghai for three years (’10-’13), and I can honestly say those were the best years of my life till this day. One thing I learned, once you form a friendship with Chinese people, they will take a bullet for you. The loyalty is on a different level, something I have never experienced back home in the states.

    Simply put, an amazing city that should be used as a benchmark for all cities globally.