Silvia (30) is used to living abroad and still, this experience will always remain a very exceptional and dear one to her. In her interview she shares why it’s worth keeping up dreams even after years and why China (and what exactly) has to be visited. Also read why her country has actually more things in common with this big Asian one than we would most likely assume!
When she was 19, she came to Austria, since then she has spent longer periods in the US and in Spain. Now her master studies in architecture brought her to China – a place that is so different to everything that she had seen before. Or almost. In her interview this shining young lady shares (besides others) why China deserves to be seen, what definitely needs to be visited in this ancient country and what similarities it has with her native Central American country.
HTD: Silvia, traveling has been part of your lifestyle ever since. When you were 18, you moved to Austria and you have spent since then longer periods in Spain and the US. Nonetheless, you shared with us, that this trip to Asia was something really special to you. How comes?
Yes, indeed! I love different cultures and diversity and sometimes you have to travel to get to see and live it. ☺ This month was definitely a particular moment, as I was for some unknown reasons always very attracted to China. That’s why I even started to learn Chinese, when I was eighteen and I planned to spend a year there. But then my family and I came to Austria and my dreams were “shattered”. I still don’t know why I felt this special attraction, as I didn’t know a single Chinese person. Maybe it was some sort of idealist notion of a country. It had always been a dream of mine to visit China but it’s not like it is around the corner so I always remained a dream until this summer. My faculty offers many Design Studios abroad, since it broadens your horizons in general, and traveling and seeing new things can have a very positive impact since you are enriched by new experiences. It works like an injection shot to creativity. This summer they offered one in China for 10 intensive days. Since I still needed some ECTS points to finish the master classes as soon as possible, I decided to use the summer too. Additionally to the workshop, a professor suggested me to spend a year in Shanghai with the possibility of earning a double degree. The idea was tempting, but it was not what I wanted at this point of my life, so I went for this shorter option. The final yes to go for this month to China was the possibility to further develop this subject of the workshop which deals with urbanism in mega cities into a master thesis. Which fitted perfectly because I still didn’t know what to do next semester for my master thesis. So I decided to stay besides de 10 day workshop a whole month in China since it seemed like enough time to dive into the culture and the city life of different Chinese cities.
HTD: You just used the term “diving” to describe this experience. How did this concretely look like?
We arrived after a ten hours trip directly in Shanghai from Frankfurt and when you arrive in this Chinese metropolis, you have the feeling that you could be anywhere in Europe. Shanghai is a modern cities, extremely international. Nevertheless, the first days, I have to admit, were bit of a cultural shock to me. When I arrived, in the hostel I felt as if I had arrived in a “parallel world”. Even the simple fact: Everybody is Chinese, and you are different. The cities are very crowded but people are not stressed and neither grumpy, they are really friendly, even if you are sometimes surrounded by thousands of e-bikes which carry 300kg and pass you by at 10 cm distances. I actually loved that. This sense of lively, dynamic city. What made the cultural shock for me above all were their eating habits, specially the smells. – My stomach was like constantly with “a question mark” inside. The tastes and the smells are not bad, but they are simply so so different! And also the sounds, everything just sounds different. When you enter a grocery store, you hear and smell “different impressions”. But after a week, I got used to it. Moreover other fellow Chinese students, had very good hints for restaurants for us. So I really started to enjoy it.
HTD: What would you recommend somebody with a Western stomach but no contacts in China?
The main reason why I love China, is the people. Because they explain you China. And I don’t know if I would have the guts to just simply go to China without any program. But I am sure that I would have found somebody to help me, because they are so helpful. They take their Smartphone (they all had the latest!), they have their translators and they look up the explanation and show it to you on their Smartphone even if they can´t speak English. They are so communicative! They invite you to type what you are looking for: May it be for a charger, ticket or hair conditioner. They all help! You can really be sure to find somebody, they are so friendly. One thing you need to know is that they don’t have facebook nor google. They have their own apps and social media. And what I appreciated so much, is the way they explained things to us. When I had once dinner with a Chinese, he explained to me that the prepared intestines were meat for them, not leftovers of the cow. This friendly and patient way to explain his culture and cuisine, made me try it. I am quite sure, I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
HTD: Was there any other encounter that shaped your view on China?
Yes, I met a business man, Mr. Michiel, who has been living in Shanghai for decades and we started to talk about China from the Western point of view. And he was like a “bridge” for me, because he started to explain to me the increasingly great impact China has as an emerging world power. He also made me understand that it is a totally different and most importantly ancient culture. And he also explained me China’s political and social frame. As an architect, I was of course thinking about this mega cities with their skyscrapers, tunnels, and 10 lanes roads all over, and the negative impact it has on people’s life quality and on the environment. I thought they were only interested in growing and producing, at any costs, and that of course speaks very bad about a society. Mr. Michiel explained to me though that China is simply facing now the situation in which London was hundred years ago, they are just “in progress” and they are not only open to changing and adapting but are also investing in sustainable infrastructures. I am extremely interested in ecology and sustainability in architecture and urbanism and his statement, was like a light bulb for me. Suddenly everything clicked, my desire to build a better world with the challenging and extremely exiting theme of mega cities.
HTD: You grew up in Nicaragua and you are now living in Austria. Are there any cultural particularities or modes of behavior that remembered you of your native country?
Nicaragua is very different to China. But I felt very happy to experience again such livelihood. In China you feel like you are constantly in a market. And this reminded me a lot about our Nicaraguan markets. The only difference is that you feel in a market even in some random street.
HTD: Which are the must-see sights in Beijing, Shanghai and Guilin everybody should visit when going to those cities just for weekend?
In Beijing a must see is the Forbidden City. Also the summer palace was very nice. But what I really enjoyed was hiking the Great Wall. We booked an excursion through our hostel to go to a part of the Wall which is not so crowded with tourists. We hiked through the Wall for about 4 hours. It was very beautiful and exhausting! But it was rewarded with a wonderful meal afterwards.
I loved Shanghai´s Bund and going shopping at the Nangjing Road, the French Sessesion is very beautiful and you feel almost in an European city which is interesting, recalling the fact that one is in China.
I went also to Guilin and Yangshuo. It is famous for beautiful landscapes, and boat rides on the Li River. I loved it absolutely. I attended a theater whose stage is on the water. It was a beautiful show of light, music, and Chinese dance. Absolutely beautiful. Since this was the more relaxed part of my trip, I also took a cooking lesson organized by our hostel there. A wonderful experience too! I can recommend it too.
HTD: Do you also have some insider tips for our readers in respect of these cities?
I was lucky that people recommended me the best hostels ever. A key to a successful stay in a country is feeling at home in a nice place. The Phoenix hostel in the middle of Shanghai was awesome. In Yangshuo and Guilin, the Central Hostels offered the best service I have ever experience in a hostel.
Silvia, thank you very much for sharing your great experiences! We are truly keen on diving into that fascinating culture too! (ger)