Leaving Shanghai has led me, in a sort of roundabout way, to a reflection on privilege. This internal conversation voiced itself comprehensibly for the first time on my last drive through the Former French Concession, followed me onto the plane home, stewed inside me for the duration of winter break, and came to a head when I got to Abu Dhabi at the beginning of this semester.
The dialogue had its roots in Jinqiao, and in the student residence hall, and in the attitude so often propagated by the student body. I felt uncomfortable last semester with the amount of hatred there was for Jinqiao, and for the residence hall. I can’t speak to how many people actually like it or dislike it, but I can say that the negative attitudes about the place had a much greater presence than the positive attitudes ever did. I like the metaphor of an echo chamber: negative feelings bouncing back and forth, constantly reinforcing each other.
The moment that pushed me to write this article was when a girl looked me in the eye, laughing, because she was so confident that I would agree with her statement that “everybody hates the dorms.” I am here to say that I did not hate Jinqiao or the residence hall. I am here to say that personally, going to NYU Shanghai only serves to remind me of my privilege. Living in Jinqiao, living in the student residence hall, and listening to people complain about it, only ever reminded me of that privilege.
I felt privileged when people complained that the hot water did not work, or only worked sometimes, because it meant I lived in a place where I could expect to have hot water much more often than not—or, for that matter, where I could expect to have water at all much more often than not.
But as I say, the immediate catalyst causing me to write this article was my arrival in Abu Dhabi. Students in NYU Abu Dhabi live in suites with a sink, a mini-fridge, extensive drawers and cupboards. Each person gets closet space, a very spacious desk, and I cannot speak for everyone but I have far more drawer space than I would ever need. The quality of the dining hall food is better, on the whole (best of all is the grill where I can get omelettes in the morning and salmon steak thereafter, though I must also admit that not all the food is so stellar). There are sizable common rooms on every floor and a very large one on the lowest floor, and there is a flat-screen TV in that very large common room.
I anticipated these benefits; what I did not anticipate was the level of dissatisfaction I would encounter from NYUAD students. Even in my first week, I heard at least a half dozen complaints about the quality of the food, the simplicity of the rooms, the fact that the electric stove and oven are all the way on the bottom floor of each residence hall. I have even heard one NYUAD student remark on how nice the facilities are in Shanghai compared to Abu Dhabi, saying ruefully that no sprinklers ever accidentally went off and flooded a floor in Shanghai, as apparently happened three or four times here in Abu Dhabi (I think there actually were some floods in the Shanghai res hall, but the point is the perception).
The initial reaction to all this might be to scoff and say that NYUAD students don’t know how good they have it, do not see how privileged they are. All this says to me, though, is that we can say the same for NYU Shanghai; by and large, I want to say, the people trapped in that negative mindset about NYU Shanghai and Jinqiao, who bounce around on the walls of that echo chamber, are simply not acknowledging how fortunate they are to be in the situation they are in; how privileged they are.
I feel privileged when people say negative things about their respective school, about the residence halls, about their difficult lives as students, because it means that we live in a time and a place and particularly in a situation that allows us to forget to be grateful for what we have. Jinqiao is not easy. I acknowledge the difficulties of distance from the academic building, of distance from parts of the city we would rather get to in our free time, even to a degree the difficulty of the “inauthentic” experience being offered in the Jinqiao locale. I have strong feelings about the school’s advertising, which I think oversells and inevitably ends up disappointing. But I do not think there is a lot else to complain about. And I think the concept that complaining will end in anything truly positive is an unfortunate attitude.
The attitude of that part of the student body that seems to feel they deserve something better, simply by dint of existing as NYU Shanghai students, is at best privileged, and at worst childish and spoiled. It is the responsibility of the NYU Shanghai student to move forward positively, whether that be a personal attitude adjustment or a commitment to work with, not against the administration. The typicality of the attitude regarding the administration as an opponent in some kind of sick social game seems particularly dangerous: through such a lens, what a negative environment everything becomes! Far better, it seems to me, to acknowledge the administration as a comrade-in-arms, albeit one with different goals, but one with whom goals may be negotiated into alignment, or at least into compromise.
It is, at the same time, the responsibility of the student to let the school know when they are not satisfied; but it is important to do it in such a way that the general mood of the relationship between school and student is not one of antagonism. This can only be detrimental to the future of the school, particularly if each class influences the attitudes and behavior of each new incoming class.
I feel privileged when people complain, because it means that I live with people who have it so good that they expect things, demand things, instead of asking, calling for, working with the administration, requesting, proposing solutions themselves. I fully support the right of the NYU Shanghai student to protest their circumstances. I think it is important, however, to acknowledge the good fortune that we as students of NYU Shanghai have, to play a role in the beginning of this university and to have a say in the direction it goes in the future. These qualities must be tempered, however, by acknowledgement of the limits of the university itself, the limits of its administration, of its leadership, of the housing it would be able to acquire considering our inverse desires of “nice” and “affordable” housing.
A study-away peer asked how I answer the question, “How’s China?” After some joking around we agreed that if you go into China and come back out with a clear, focused idea of what you did there, you’re probably doing China wrong. You have to go in and come back out thinking, “What was that? What did I just witness? What happened?” China, one must realize, is not a fully developed country. The idea that NYU Shanghai students would arrive to a residence hall that was just a shared-space version of their rooms back home, or that it would be a chance to put together a sort of miniature apartment, especially when we live in a country where the norm is to put four or even six people in bunks in a room together with no air conditioning or heating, seems not just fallacy but, not to put too fine a point on it, stinks of privilege.