Madi Crowley: First impressions

 This is the second in a series of blog posts from Whitties studying on Whitman’s Crossroads: Shanghai, China: Second Language Acquisition in China and the USA program this summer with Professor Lydia McDermott. Madi Crowley ’20 is a Computer Science and Spanish Major.

There were a lot of things that I found somewhat jarring about Shanghai when I first arrived here.

First, I’ve lost all ability to sense intonation in the conversations around me.  The language is comprised of four tones that, to me, make each sentence sound like a jumble of angry exclamations and questions.  It may seem like a simple shift compared to the biggest one, losing the ability to tell what people are actually saying, but it has made a big difference in my ability to understand my environment.

Although I can see some emotion in strangers’ faces, the tones obscure the reflection of that emotion in their voices.  Walking down any street, the conversations of other people are usually completely lost on me.  There is also, of course, the insane phenomenon that is traffic in Shanghai.  The nonverbal cues that govern the toad are unknown to me.  It seems impossible to tell if a honk or the act of invading personal space indicates “Get out of my way!”, “I’m here!”, something else, or nothing at all.

In the few days that I have been here, it has definitely been difficult to avoid being closed off to many new experiences at once, especially with a full schedule.  As strange as it sounds, listening to the banter of the people working in the bakery and coffee shop next door to our hotel is comforting and encouraging.


These conversations are different from the conversations I hear on the street.  Given context, I know that they’re discussing tasks around the shop, telling each other what was ordered, and joking about people that come in during the day.  Watching one waitress, I see the familiar look of boredom and longing for freedom from the long day of monotonous work ahead.

As our group of ten, only one of whom speaks fluently, has begun routinely inhabiting the shop, there seems to be a growing mutual understanding.  The same waiters and waitresses usually take my order (AKA read to what I point to on the menu), and now pull the menu closer and smile when I walk up.


Amidst the big and small differences that sometimes make the city seem like an altered reality, it is comforting to have similar situational experiences and be reminded that different elements and cues of cultures don’t change the fundamentals of the human condition.  Even if methods of verbal and nonverbal communication are slightly different from those I know (or I just don’t fully understand them yet), it is important to remind myself that making an effort to reach out and get involved goes a long way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *