I was asked to give a review of my seven month study abroad experience in China. This is difficult to say the least, I loved my time abroad, and so much happened that I would like to go into. While in China I visited six provinces, twelve cities, three villages, three holy mountains, and so many temples I can’t even count. I met people from China, Tibet, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, The Philippines, Rwanda, Burundi, South Africa, Norway, Finland, Taiwan, Sweden, the UK, Niger, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, Ecuador, Germany, and everywhere in between.
I made custom suits at the fabric market, I lived on a tea plantation, I briefly joined a family of goats, I was valued for a marriage dowry of at least four yaks, I ate some of the best and worst food in my life, I taught English to migrant children, I met friends that will last a lifetime, and most importantly I accomplished my goal of improving my Chinese language to a point where I can navigate most conversations.
I can’t thank The Alliance for Global Education enough for their assistance in making this experience a reality. I feel like the best way to articulate my experience here is to tell you what it is like to wake up in Shanghai, and experience a traditional Chinese breakfast fit for a busy student “on the go.”
My alarm clock rings, its morning already, and I am hearing the same ringtone I have heard all semester, HTC’s default “foxglove” ringtone. I swear it’s time for me to change that already. “If I hear it one more time…” I tell myself. I will most likely forget all about it by the end of the day, either way it’s that time again, time for class. It’s seven in the morning in Shanghai, and the sunshine bleeding through the thin curtains of my apartment in YangPu tell me it’s time to start my day. I hop in the shower, get dressed in my “I need to do my laundry” outfit that everyone on the planet has.
Each one is different, but it never fails to be the most comfortable thing you own, because it’s only supposed to be for lazy Sundays where you clean everything you own in preparation for the week. Mine just happens to consist of Thailand parachute pants and an old football shirt. An outfit I would call 最舒服 (zui-shu’fu- the most comfortable).
I walk down the driveway of Tonghe International Student Apartments, and take a left out of the complex. If this were the afternoon, I would normally take a right, and get to class all the quicker. But its morning, and that means it’s time for breakfast, it’s time for the egg man.
Egg man, is the nickname given to the man that cooks only one thing…the coveted 煎饼 (Jian’Bing- thin pancake made of millet flour). Although the English definition makes it already sound so appetizing, it is a thin crepe-like pancake that is cooked on a giant pot covered by a heavy metal plate. The pot holds a charcoal fire that keeps the plate hot while the cook forms the pancake.
The Egg Man, AKA Li Fei, has become a good friend of the foreigners that visit his stand every morning. Li Fei starts his day at five in the morning, and cooks until he runs out of pancake batter around eleven o’clock. Cordially greeting us every morning with a 早上好 (zao’shang’hao- good morning) and a smile, Li Fei works his magic.
He starts with the millet flour batter that he scoops out of the massive pot to his left, and then glops it onto the heavy metal plate. The batter sizzles as he quickly takes a flat piece of wood, and spreads it thin (but not too thin) across the surface of the plate, before flipping the left over batter back into the pot on his left. He then asks the only question a meat head (weight lifter) wants to hear in the morning, “How many eggs?” I always order five eggs, which is always met by gasps from the local Chinese people behind me.
“Five eggs?” they say “One egg is more than enough; your heart will not take it.” Although they are correct, back home I only eat egg whites, but here in China there is an exception. Egg Man doesn’t deal in egg whites, so neither do I. I explain my situation to them, and Egg Man follows up by telling them Americans like a lot of eggs in the morning, because they like to train their body at the gym.
Their questions persist, as egg man continues his process. I tell them that although Americans like to go running, we also like to lift weights at the gym, and this requires a lot of protein. After a few more questions, they normally end with some sort of “Your Chinese is so good!” but by then I have already refocused on Egg Man and his mesmerizing routine.
He throws onions, and chives on top of the eggs he has cracked and spread onto the pancake. He waits a moment, and then takes a paint scraper, and runs it along the sides of the pancake. This lifts the pancake off the griddle, before he folds it in half. After that, he spreads on a purple gelatinous mixture. At first I assumed it was red bean, until I found out it was in fact fermented sweet plum. Either way, the mixture is delicious.
After he spreads it on one side, he adds a bit of spice, and then two strips of crunchy rice noodles that resemble larger versions of the noodles they give to you in wonton soup back home. Li Fei folds it over one more time, cuts it in half with the paint scraper, and tosses it in a bag, to go.
I smile, say thank you, and finish by saying see you tomorrow and I will of course, Egg Man is the best breakfast on the block. Li Fei only charges about eight kuai for my five egg jian bing (about $1.30 USD). After that, my walk continues, I’m off to Chinese class. Let’s hope I reviewed enough for today’s quiz, one things or sure, this jian bing is as delicious as always. It’s a little hard to have a bad day after a run in with Li Fei and the best jian bing in Shanghai.
China is one of the craziest, most fun, and challenging place I have ever lived. I loved it, and I can’t wait to go back. I would highly recommend visiting, and when you do visit, see as much of the country as you can. It’s an incredible country full of beauty, and new experiences.
Whether it its making sure you meet up with the Egg Man every morning, or it’s planning an adventure out into the wild west of China wake up every morning ready to chase after life with all you have, and leave any reservations you had of coming to China on the plane when you arrive. You won’t be needing them. My advice for you prospective traveler, is simply dive in and “when in China do as the Chinese do.” (“入乡随俗”，ru’xiang’sui’su).
Nicholas Henderson is a student at Franklin and Marshall College, and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler in China through IFSA-Butler’s partner the Alliance for Global Education