Fascinated by China, its people, culture and all their eccentricities, Shanghai-based Michael Goffman experiences this incredible country through the lens of his faith, a guiding light in all he does. Christianity and curiosity were what brought him here and his blog things to see and do in Shanghai.>>>China Travel: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in China?
Michael: The story of how I got to China is more of a spiritual journey than anything. I had my very own "Road to Damascus" experience, and essentially I came to realize there was more to life than the 'American Dream,' and the 9 to 5. A change was needed; that change was finally understanding that this life is not about 'me,' money and material possessions will never satisfy my or anyone's desires, and that I'm from a country where I'm extremely fortunate while many in the world remain poor, uneducated, and hungry.
The change that forever transformed me and the path I have taken is 100% attributed to the power of Jesus Christ. After He turned my world upside down, so many things changed. A good friend of mine, who was and is very influential in my life, had been teaching English at a University through a non-profit in rural northeast China and invited me to come teach. A few months later I quit my job and left my comfy salary/house/car/boat/motorcycle behind, and was on a plane to China. [pullquote]From a worldly perspective, it was financial and career suicide... But it was the greatest decision I ever made.[/pullquote]From a worldly perspective, it was financial and career suicide, which was true. But it was the greatest decision I ever made. I'm just trying to do my part in making this world a better place, because I believe a better world is possible, and education was a great place to start for me.
China Travel: Did you write a blog back home or was it something you started here?
Michael: I never had a blog until long after I came to China, long after it was the 'trendy' thing to do (I'm slow to catch on to the latest trends). But now that I've learned a bit about web site creation, I quite enjoy it. I just wish I had more time to post because I love to write and have lots to say.
My goal is to use blogging to encourage and be a positive influence on people, as well give a few 'isolated' Americans an insiders perspective on China. The Middle Kingdom (China) is often in the news these days and yet it still remains a big mystery to so much of the western world. We have this mystical fascination with the east, just as the Chinese are curious about the west. Admittedly, I hadn't a clue about anything 'Chinese' until I came here, except that lots of my consumer products were made in China, and General Tsao's chicken was da' bomb!
China Travel: You are passionate about your Christian faith… to what extent has it shaped your China experience?
Michael: It has shaped my experience in every way possible. It's the reason I came to China and fell in love with the people and culture. Jesus is the reason I do the things I do, not just in China, but in every place I go. For me it's not simply a cultural designation but an entire worldview, a lifestyle, and my identity. And because of China's curiosity with the west, foreigners in China can have a tremendous amount of influence on the people here, in both positive and negative ways. Locals watch us as foreigners in their country, and they definitely take notice of what we say and do. I'm not trying to push my views on people or 'Americanize' China. I love the USA, but I actually hope China never becomes just like the US. We have our own issues, and I hope China will always retain its rich unique culture.
I started working in rural China in education, and I still teach here in the metropolis of Shanghai. But recently in Shanghai I've felt burdened for other social issues such as the homeless, orphans, prostitution, and even the droves of fresh college grads turned yuppies following their dreams of living in Shanghai and finding fulfillment, but often finding frustration instead. There's loads of opportunities and organizations all over China to help serve these people. I'm just a small part of a giant puzzle, but a part no less. And I've been blessed beyond measure in many ways, so I need to share that.
China Travel: You've done a fair bit of traveling here—tell us about your best experience so far.
Michael: China has so many amazing landscapes, on top of being a culture junkie's paradise. It's hard to choose one experience, so I will approach it from a two-fold perspective. When I first arrived in China, I was with a group who came to do a week long English camp with university students before their semester began in late August. It was no vacation that's for sure, up early and off to bed late, jet lag, new food, intense heat, and a crazy new culture all at the same time. But it was the most fun I've ever had in my entire life.
We had all sorts of activities, games, dances, skits, ridiculous talent shows, English classes, and even a Chinese vs. Foreigners basketball match. I'll never forget that time! I got to be a kid again and everyone was just so uninhibited, and we all shared lots of unforgettable memories. I'd recommend a cultural experience like that over a vacation any day of the week. But as far as traveling goes, I would go back to Yunnan province in a heartbeat.
We saw a few cities there, but definitely Lijiang stood out. It's straight out of a fairytale, cobblestone streets and streams running throughout the city, with cultural diversity and natural beauty at its finest. We hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge there, and spent one night up in the mountains. The scenery is unimaginable, and the sunrise even better. I can't wait to go back and explore some more.
China Travel: And your worst?
Michael: This is any easy one. I had a rather humbling experience on a train ride from Shenzhen. The plan was to get to the Guilin train station around 7:00pm, catch my 8:00pm sleeper train to Shenzhen which was to arrive the following morning at 7:30am. Then, spend the day in Shenzhen with friends and catch a flight to Chinese New Year holiday of 2008, when a massive, and unexpected, ice storm ravaged southern China while millions were trying to travel home for the holiday.
Guilin is normally pretty mild, but it was freezing cold there! My train was late and I kept waiting and waiting, and the workers kept saying "one more hour, one more hour." I ended up spending the night in the station, freezing, frustrated by the cold and with no one to speak to but a few old ladies with my then limited Chinese. The train finally rolled up at 7:30am, exactly when it was supposed to arrive in Shenzhen. So I got on and went straight to bed. I woke up in the afternoon and we weren't moving. I looked outside and the trees were all covered in ice, only they were in an upside down 'U' shape as the weight of the frozen rain on the branches curled the tops of the trees to the ground. Needless to say I missed my flight, and I spent nearly two days on the train!
I was sort of upset at the railway employees as I didn't understand why we couldn't just go. Later I learned that other trains were stuck too, and some didn't even have heat or food like we did. When I finally arrived in Shenzhen I walked outside and saw thousands upon thousands of people waiting for their trains to arrive so they could catch their only opportunity of the year to get home and see family for the holiday. In my anxiousness to get out of there, I regrettably forgot to take a picture of the massive sea of people, but it was an incredible sight. Most of them never made it home, and here I was complaining about missing my flight which I simply took the next day. Like I said, humbling.
China Travel: You're currently based in Shanghai, what are your top 5 recommendations for a first time visitor to get a real feel for the city?
Michael: Shanghai has so much to do that it can get overwhelming. I definitely think walking along the Bund at night and looking at the skyline across the river never gets old. You could aimlessly point your camera around and never get a bad pic.
The second thing I'd do is check out Tian Zi Fang. It's a peaceful little oasis in the middle of the city, with lots of little tranquil alleyways to get lost in. It's a bit touristy and overpriced, but definitely worth seeing. Go during the day if you want it to yourself!
Next I would go find some dumplings. Shanghai has some amazing (and cheap!) dumplings ranging from Xiao Long Bao to Sheng Jian. I always take visitors to Mr. Yang's Fried Dumplings (Xiao Yang Sheng Jian) and they can't believe what their taste buds are experiencing.
The fourth thing I'd do that's not to be missed is see one (or more) of the acrobat shows. There are a few different ones, such as the one at Shanghai Circus World or the Bai Yu Lan Theater, but they are all probably quite impressive. The things these people can do are nothing short of astonishing, if not impossible. It brings new meaning to the words 'training,' 'dedication,' and 'talent.'
The last thing I'd do is just throw out the guide book and get lost. Walk around some hutong areas and find some of the wet markets off the beaten path. There's a great one north of Nanjing Road's walking street. It feels more like the real 'China' and who knows, you may even find some sweet deals. You'll definitely find cheap amazing food!
China Travel: What is the one thing you wish you'd known about China before arriving?
Michael: I often think about this and I'm actually quite thankful that I knew almost nothing about China before I came. That way everything was so much more of a shock! Getting to experience so many new things, meet so many friendly people, learn a new language, and eat all the amazing food... yes, I'm definitely glad I didn't know much. Not that you shouldn't come prepared, but those cultural differences are what make the China experience so unforgettable. Foreigners here often have ideas about the way China 'should be' instead of embracing its uniqueness. There are cultural challenges to living here no doubt, and the one thing I wish I would have known about China is the staring. Outside of Shanghai, a foreigner WILL be stared at... constantly. It's not rude to them, just their friendly curiosity!
China Travel: What do you miss most from home?
Michael: Definitely being far from friends and family is hard, but ironically, the distance often helps me better appreciate the close relationships I have back home. I've had many long deep chats (thank God for Skype) with friends and family I may not have had otherwise. My brother and I are pretty close, and I definitely miss spending time with him and my amazing parents, and just doing all the things I grew up doing, like fishing, camping, and just sitting around the campfire. Also cheese... mmmmmmmmmmmmm, cheeeeeeeeese.
China Travel: What would you miss most in China if you were to leave tomorrow?
Michael: I would totally miss living internationally and soaking up all aspects of this culture. I really enjoy learning the language and having lots of free time to serve, learn new things, as well as travel around Asia. I've been fortunate to make loads of great friends here (easy to do in China), so leaving them behind would be hard too.
And in Shanghai, I frequently meet dynamic people from all over the world, all of whom have amazing things to share about what they're doing here and where they came from. In my bible study group we have people from Korea, Hong Kong, France, Zambia, Uganda, Thailand, Ecuador, Brazil, Haiti, and the list goes on. Where else can you get a group of people like that together? Though all of our cultures are different, we have common ground in Christ, as well as the fact that we are all foreigners in China.
China Travel: What three words sum up your China experience?
Michael: Faith, hope and love! 1 Corinthians 13:13 "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." I just want to use my faith to give people here hope for a better world, and show them what it means to truly love.
If you've enjoyed hearing from Michael and would like to know more about him, then head on over to No Frolicking and say hi!China Blogger Spotlight is a regular column highlighting great China blogs that we think you should know about. If you know of a blog that's got good things to share with other China travelers, be it your own or an RSS essential, let us know by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org