Volunteer stories : Trevor A., General Business Projects in China
When I arrived in China, I was pathetically ill-prepared. I'd heard that Shanghai was growing so quickly that any guide book was pretty much out of date before it was published, however, retrospectively the books might still have been worth a cursory glance. Projects Abroad offered to meet me at Pudong airport but I opted to take a taxi from the airport to the Projects Abroad office in Pudong -a forty kilometre journey. I had the address written in Chinese on a piece of paper as Projects Abroad had warned me that the taxi driver wouldn't speak English. When I tried to pay for the journey in US dollars the driver's turbulent response marked the beginning of an extremely steep learning curve. That was the first time I had to thank the Projects Abroad staff for helping me out of a sticky situation. Looking back now, the Shanghai I remember from those first few days is very different to the Shanghai I didn't want to leave six months later.
When I started work at Xian Dai Architectural Design, the warm reception I received was extremely reassuring. On my first day I was given tickets to visit some of the attractions in Shanghai and was invited to have dinner with my new colleagues at a local restaurant. The friendly welcome was echoed everywhere I went in Shanghai and the provinces and by everyone I met, mirroring the incredible atmosphere of optimism and enthusiasm for all things western resulting from the rapid development apparent throughout China. Over the following six months I did more and learnt more than I ever thought possible in such a short time.
There are many differences between Shanghai and a western city which the visitor has to look forward to. Some of the differences are subtle; for example, KFC is more popular than MacDonald's and Pepsi outsells Coke. Other differences are striking; the number of bicycles and the division of wealth. However, it doesn't take long to become accustomed to living in Shanghai. The only thing that I never quite got used to was the Chinese palate. I was once taken to Baotou in Inner Mongolia where we were designing a museum. One evening, the town officials took us to a camp outside the city for a traditional Mongolian feast. I ate sheep's testicles, camels feet (the back feet. as apparently they're the best), silk worm larvae and I drank horses milk. Afterwards, I was asked how I liked Mongolian food. In all honesty, the Mongolians' strong penchant for alcohol and the importance they place on drinking numerous toasts with new friends meant that I could no longer taste much of anything I ate. However, none of it seemed any stranger than the things I'd eaten in Shanghai so I said it was good. the others looked at me as if I was crazy. They all thought it was disgusting and couldn't wait to get back to the civility of fish-head soup and pig-intestines. Having said that, pig-intestines were actually quite nice until I knew what they were!
Apart from my food experiences, China was incredible and I'd recommend anyone with the inclination to try it for themselves!
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