Emiel van Der Molen | Shanghai – The City that Stole my Heart
In this new series of interviews, we catch up with Shanghai Summer School Global Family members to see what they have been up to since they attended Shanghai Summer School.
First up, we have Emiel, an ambitious young student from the Netherlands, whose time at Shanghai Summer School kick-started his love affair with China and Shanghai. Craving for more after the summer school, he returned to China soon after for a language exchange.
When we contacted Emiel for a chat, we were pleasantly surprised by news of him landing an internship at a Shanghai-based blockchain startup, and that he had just moved to Shanghai two weeks back. We caught up over dinner at our favourite burger place in Shanghai.
Hey Emiel, it is been a while! Congratulations on your internship!
Emiel: Thank you! I’m so happy to be back here! And yes, it has been more than a year since we last met. I think it was in Brussels? ☺
I was in my third year of university studies and was basically on the right track towards “the proper life” since the day I was born.
We’d like to think that your interest in China started with us here at Shanghai Summer School. 😉 What actually made you apply for Shanghai Summer School?
Emiel: Well I was in my third year of university studies and was basically on the right track towards “the proper life” since the day I was born. I always had good grades, had great friends and family around me, but at the same time everything felt too right. I felt like I was caught in the net of the ordinary – everything in my life had gone exactly as it was planned; I even had a good job waiting for me in the vicinity of my home (which love). But I felt a sense of unrest in me that had been brewing for years, and I often wondered – could this really be all there is to my life?
About half a year before the Summer School, my sister signed us up for Chinese language classes because she found a cheap deal she couldn’t resist. And because I was bored, I agreed to go with her. After the first lesson, I was in awe. The Chinese language was something I didn’t imagine could exist – pretty ignorant, I know – and the concepts it was based on were completely outside of the box I was trapped in. Then the Shanghai Summer School presentation came along and I was intrigued. I mean, if the language was so different and fascinating, imagine what the land in which it was created a thousand years ago must be like!
For most people, China is a completely different world, which is why I think many participants went without really knowing what to expect. What were your first impressions of Shanghai?
Emiel: The day I arrived in Shanghai was hot, humid, rainy and very hazy. First thoughts that I will always remember were: “Wtf?! What did I get myself into?!”.
I guess your impressions changed for the better over the course of Summer School then? Since you’ve since returned to Shanghai again and again.
Hahaha! Indeed it did!
Many people who visit China properly realize that there is more to China than the place where everything you own is made. Did you feel so? Have your impressions of China changed after attending Shanghai Summer School? If yes, how so?
Emiel: I think that the image of China in the West is still very much based on the notion of cheap labour, low-quality products and perhaps an unimaginable number of uneducated people. I admit I thought the same. My experience in China at Shanghai Summer School taught me never to build stereotypes, to never judge others based on stereotypes, and to never extrapolate your own cultural values onto other cultures.
Once you experience the environment first hand, when you learn the language and get a taste of their culture, when you make new local friends, you realize we are all people, striving for the same goals, working hard towards similar dreams. The anonymous mass of millions suddenly transforms to friends, potential spouses, your neighbourhood fruit stall seller and so on… At the end of it, I came to associate the country I previously only knew through the lenses of the media, with real faces and stories, and indescribable feelings bound to them.
When you get a taste of China and return home, you will always feel like you are moving too slowly and missing out as China speeds ahead.
With its towering skyscrapers, neon lights and crazy intersecting flyovers, Shanghai is often seen as a city of the future. Do you agree?
Emiel: Figuratively and literally speaking, China is moving faster than the West. It’s hard to imagine, but when you get a taste of China and return home, you will always feel like you are moving too slowly and missing out as China speeds ahead. The unprecedented level of development of China in the last 30 years has resulted in what is, probably the most advanced city on the planet. When you walk down the famous East Nanjing Road and you get a glimpse of the Shanghai Skyline, it’s like you have just stepped on to the Coruscant, The Capital of the Star Wars’ Galactic Republic. Coming from the West, we will have to bridge more than just a few hours of difference between our time zones.
I know it wasn’t always easy to wake up for Chinese lessons every morning, but in the end, all of you managed to attend a total of 67 hours of Chinese lessons and even passed the final exam. How do you think having some knowledge of the Chinese language aids in your personal and/or career development?
Emiel: My university education is very important for what I do, but it doesn’t make me stand out from the crowd. Knowing even basic Chinese, for example, does. Whether or not your work is China-oriented, it can really differentiate you from the competition.
Personally, knowing the Chinese language opened an entire universe to me that I didn’t even know existed. The Chinese internet, its billion-dollar entertainment industry, and its rich literature has enlarged my pool of knowledge and entertainment possibilities.
When the movie Arrival came out in 2016 I was like, “Yes! True that!”. The premise of the movie is that when you learn another language, it modifies the way you think and according to the ending of the movie, it opens your mind to the wider world. This is something I passionately concur with.
At the end of the course, some students who’ve never learn Chinese before found lessons very interesting and were even able to make basic conversations. How was your experience with learning Chinese? What did you find most difficult/easy?
Emiel: To be honest learning the Chinese language is not easy. The reward, however, is as big as the challenge itself. Differentiating the tones in the pronunciation of Chinese words has baffled me from the beginning, and is something I struggle with till today. Chinese characters also scared me at first, but I have since developed an appreciation for their aesthetics. There’s a story behind each character! Sometimes I pretend they are a writing form from a dystopian futuristic world – it makes it more enjoyable to learn.
On the brighter side, Chinese grammar is relatively straightforward and easy to learn!
My university education is very important for what I do, but it doesn’t make me stand out from the crowd. Knowing even basic Chinese, for example, does. Whether or not your work is China-oriented, it can really differentiate you from the competition.
Did you continue learning Chinese after Shanghai Summer School?
Emiel: After the Summer School I continued Chinese language classes back home, and I even decided to go back to Shanghai where I studied the language for half a year. Perhaps the Chinese language is like an acquired taste – It’s difficult to swallow at first, but once you are hooked, you are hooked.
In what ways do you think the Shanghai Summer School experience made you more of an interesting candidate in the eyes of your future employers?
Emiel: With the employment opportunities it’s not only about the language itself, but about the independence that comes from self-reliance, the resourcefulness arising from the everyday struggles in an unknown environment, and of course about the open-mindedness that only the world can give you.
What do you think about our slogan. “An experience that will change the way you see the world”? Do you think that the way you saw the world changed after your Shanghai Summer School experience?
Emiel: As cliché as the slogan may seem, it is true in my opinion. Now that I think of it, everyone should probably decide for them themselves, and the only way to do so is by experiencing it. 😀
Would you recommend Shanghai Summer School to your peers? What would you say to convince those who are still hesitant about taking the leap?
Emiel: As I said earlier, I don’t expect you to trust my words completely, especially since you don’t know me personally. But I hope I at least piqued your curiosity a little. Pursue it! 😀
Okay, 5 more quick questions!
Describe SSS in one word? Friendship!
Favourite Chinese character? 爱(love)
Favourite food? Handmade Xinjiang noodles! (新疆拌面)
Favourite place in Shanghai? The partially-deserted Expo Park along the Huangpu River.
Last summer, we all had our own love affairs with Shanghai. ❤️ Some of us fell in love with her gastronomy, some of us fell in love with her endless energy, some of us fell in love with her rich culture and history, and some of us fell in love with her language. This is our love letter to Shanghai.
What would yours look like? Click here to find out more about our programs.