06/4/13

Let It All Hangzhou

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As you may remember from my last entry, we decided on the city of Hangzhou as our first vacation destination at the very last minute. You probably haven’t heard of Hangzhou (I hadn’t), but it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in China. A popular saying goes, “Just as there is paradise in heaven, on earth there is Hangzhou and Suzhou.” So since we were looking for accommodation quite literally the night before 1.4 billion people would all be traveling at the same time, I was really nervous that we wouldn’t be able to find anywhere to stay, so I was absolutely thrilled when I found rooms for $10 a night.

But when we got to Hangzhou, it became apparent why they were so cheap. It took an hour to get there in taxis from the bus station, and it was in a part of town that could charitably be described as “lively,” and realistically as “kind of a slum.” The hotel itself was what you’d see in the dictionary next to the word “flea bag.” But I didn’t care—I was traveling again! (Staying in the same place for weeks at a time was serious culture shock for me after Southeast Asia.)

The next morning we decided to take the bus rather than pay another exorbitant taxi fare. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. There were dozens of people around, but none of them wanted to talk to me. It is rather dispiriting to try to speak a foreign language when people laugh at you as soon as you open your mouth, or even just shake their heads and rapidly move away from you. (I’m not sure which is worse.) Somehow, after attempting to speak to half a dozen people, we finally got directions to the bus stop. Since I had no idea how long it would take us to get there, I had to stand beside the bus driver the whole time, occasionally reminding him that we were looking for Xi Hu (West Lake, Hangzhou’s most famous attraction). An hour and two incredibly crowded buses later, we arrived.

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It was absolutely magical.

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Whatever direction you looked in, there were flowering trees, willows, beds of tulips, streams complete with quaint wooden row boats, etc. Unfortunately, whatever direction you looked in there were also approximately 500,000 people.

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It was PACKED. Like, one notch below in-danger-of-being-trampled packed.

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I didn’t mind because the views were so gorgeous, but it did get to the others a bit. We took some time out to play cards on the grass and attracted quite a crowd. I had to get up from our game when a woman and her friend asked to have their pictures taken with me. (Well, I didn’t *have* to but I always say yes if people ask. What I don’t like is when they take my picture without asking.)

The fact that the entire world was visiting Hangzhou also made it extremely difficult to find affordable places to eat. We spent an hour walking in circles, looking for a place to eat dinner. Even when we threw in the towel and decided to just eat somewhere pricier because the lines didn’t seem too long, they told us that they didn’t have any tables for five! We ended up eating at a (Chinese) chain. One of Brad’s friends lives in Hangzhou and she joined us for dinner and drinks. After we left the bar she helped us negotiate a reasonable fare with a guy driving a minivan (not an official taxi; normally I would never do such a thing, but since she thought it was ok and I had three six-foot-tall men with me, I was willing to chance it. Thank goodness they were there, though, because he drove us through some very scary, empty industrial areas and if I had been alone I would probably have been quaking with fear.)

The next day we took the bus(es) back to the lake. At the stop everyone got out of the (extremely crowded) bus before me, as I had to wait for a toddler to get out of my way—and then the doors closed and the bus started moving! I shouted to no effect, then looked at the woman beside me like, “help me!” She tried shouting something, but it didn’t work. Fortunately, the next stop was about 50 yards away so I was able to walk back to my friends without a problem.

John was eager to see the nearby tea plantations, so we got directions and forced our way onto the even-more-crowded buses that go around the lake. This bus took us up the mountain behind Xi Hu, through the closest thing to a small town that I’ve seen in China. It reminded me a bit of the Alps, actually (minus the altitude—just the small villages clustered around a main road.)  The terraced tea plantations were probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in China.

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We were starving, so we decided to stop and get some food. But, bizarrely, every restaurant we tried refused to serve us when we said that we wanted lunch. It was noon, so we were utterly baffled until a Chinese patron at one of the restaurants explained that the food is cheap—they want us to drink their (expensive) tea. So you have to order tea or they don’t want to waste a table on you. Since Hangzhou is known for having the best green tea in China, we were okay with that and ended up enjoying a very good (if overpriced) lunch.

I would have been happy to stay in Hangzhou longer (especially given how much energy we had expended in getting out of Wuxi), but the others wanted to go back and have one day to just relax at home, and I didn’t really feel comfortable staying in our hotel alone, so we left that afternoon. But I would highly recommend Hangzhou (as long as you don’t mind strolling around with half a million of your closest friends!)

 

05/5/13

The Invasion

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Greetings from Wuxi, where we are still recovering from being visited by 20 American high school students and a handful of their teachers.

We tried to prepare our students in advance. Brad gave them a long talk about American etiquette (weeks later, they are still talking about “personal space!”) Some of the boys were indignant when informed that Americans expect people to change their clothes every day. I answered additional questions like, “Will the Americans be able to eat noodles with chopsticks?” (Answer: “Probably not, so be nice!”)

Both of us gave the students assignments designed to force them to interact as much as possible. I told them they each had to bring me five (unique) stories about the Americans. (Which, come to think of it, I have never asked them to write down… It doesn’t really matter, though–I just wanted them to practice their English, and they did–even if I had to threaten them to get them to do it.)

When the bleary-eyed Americans finally walked into the hotel lobby where we were waiting for them, one of my students, who would be hosting two of the Americans while they were in town, looked at me aghast and said, “They’re so tall! What if they won’t fit in the bed?” I assured him that really tall people were used to problems like that.

Then we all had a buffet dinner at the hotel. It was very fancy, and wholly unlike anything I have experienced elsewhere in China. There were dozens of food stations to choose from, complete with chefs to prepare things for you. (But of course some of the pickier Americans ended up going hungry anyway.) Strangely, you could have all the sushi and crabs etc that you wanted–but you could only get one helping of ice cream! (It is so sad how expensive and hard-to-find ice cream is here. Wherever you are, please dedicate a sundae to me.)

The next day, Saturday, all my students and the Americans met up for a tour of Wuxi. Brad and I made them sit next to someone from the opposite country on the bus. It’s funny–some of the stand-out stars of the day were kids I would never have guessed (e.g., not the greatest students). But they had no fear about looking foolish, and that meant they talked the most and, consequently, learned the most.

Our first stop was a huge Buddha (88 meters tall, since eight is the luckiest number), one of Wuxi’s major tourist attractions. We were informed that it is the tallest Buddha in the world (but the world says otherwise). There were a lot of steps to get up to it, but after climbing that mountain in Nanjing, it was nothing!

Buddha's feet

Buddha’s feet

Then we visited a sort of Buddhist temple/palace, that was really more like a cathedral than anything else. (It was designed to look old but was clearly very new.) We had to wear little bags over our shoes (either to keep the floors clean or as a sign of respect–I’m not sure which.)P1050497

 

We had lunch in the cafeteria inside the temple. Once again it was a buffet, and once again many of the Americans had trouble finding anything they were willing to eat. I sat with a mixed group of students, and every time the Americans went up for seconds I harangued my Chinese students about talking to them more when they got back.

After lunch we took a little cruise down the Grand Canal (the canal I cross every day to go to school, which I have been told is 2000 years old and the longest canal in the world (but who knows)). This time we had an English-speaking guide, who told us, “My English name is Wonderful because I want you to have a wonderful time.” You can imagine how American high schoolers reacted to that. Poor Wonderful.

The canal cruise was interesting, if very smelly. That canal is just putrid in places. We stopped at three museums, a silk museum, a pottery museum, and a historic house. I had a terrible cold and all I wanted was to be in bed, but I also didn’t want to miss anything, so I dragged myself out of the boat each time and staggered through the museums. Fortunately, there was no communal dinner so I could go straight home to my Kleenex.

At the Wuxi silk museum (which reminded me a lot of the mills in Lowell, MA)

At the Wuxi silk museum (which reminded me a lot of the mills in Lowell, MA)

The next day we took a trip to Shanghai. Once again, we made the kids sit with someone from a different country–and then we all fell asleep.

When we arrived in Shanghai we went to the Orient Pearl Tower, a local landmark with fabulous views of the city.

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I have to say, I was a skeptic before–I can’t see the point of paying $30 to go up in a building–but it really was jaw-dropping to see just how big Shanghai really is. When you’re up there, you can understand how it can be twice the size of New York.

Shanghai...

Shanghai…

 

...and more Shanghai

…and more Shanghai

We then let the kids loose in small groups in the City God Temple area for lunch. Every single group got American food. (This mildly annoyed some of my Chinese students, but on the whole they took it pretty well.) I brought the adults back to the cafeteria-style place I went on my first day in China, which was just as delicious as I remembered.

We killed some time in the People’s Square area before heading to the PuDong river for a cruise. The views were amazing–and the passengers were unbelievably annoying! For some reason, a large group of Chinese passengers became fixated on Alexis and wanted their pictures taken with her. Which is all fine and dandy, except that they were physically pushing my head out of their shots! I finally slouched down so they would stop touching me and sat that way, seriously pissed off, for about twenty minutes while woman after woman had her photo taken, posing as Alexis’ good friend. All I can say is that it’s a good thing none of them asked to have their pictures taken with me!

Some of the many crazy people who assaulted me in order to get photos of Alexis

Some of the many crazy people who assaulted me in order to get photos of Alexis

The next day the American kids came to school and joined our classes. I challenged them to an American-themed Jeopardy game against my students and, as I had hoped, my students won handily. (I taught my students fair but difficult things like all the Great Lakes, how many Indians were at the First Thanksgiving, and the year of the Salem Witch Trials. The poor Americans didn’t stand a chance.)

Since the game took a lot less time than I had thought, I then led a discussion on what it means to be American. It was really interesting to hear responses from both groups. We talked about stereotypes, treatment of the elderly, the American Dream, guns, Hollywood… you name it. I asked everyone to raise their hand if they had ever had a job. My students gasped when they saw virtually every American hand go up (one of my students teaches guitar lessons, but she is the exception). The same thing happened for the question, “Have you ever been on a sports team?” Then I asked them to raise their hands if they had extra academic classes on the weekends. The situation was reversed. (My students were also surprised when I asked the Americans how often they had fast food and they all said no more than once a month. Foreigners always think that’s all we eat, no matter how many times we insist it isn’t.)

I had forgotten how talkative Americans are in class. I don’t think of my students as being that shy, but compared to the Americans they are totally silent. It was so strange to have multiple hands in the air to choose from!

That night Brad and I attended a farewell banquet with the American teachers and the Chinese principal and vice principal from our school. One of the American teens tagged along as well because his host family situation had proved unbearable (the grandmother was basically force-feeding him, and she would wake him up every morning by hitting him in the face!) It was fun to explain things to him. (“They are going to stand up and walk over to people to make toasts, over and over again.” “There will be more food than you can possibly eat, so just try a little bit of everything.” “I have no idea what that is, either. Let’s try it!” (It turned out to be a sea cucumber. Not bad!))

All in all, it was terrific having the Americans here. It showed my students that their hard work is really paying off (in that they can understand and communicate better), and it gave them a glimpse of what life in America will really be like. For me, it was just fun to be surrounded by people who understand idioms and know who Mr. Snuffleupagus is. (But I’m not ready to go home to a country full of them yet.)

 

With some of my students at the Orient Pearl Tower

With some of my students at the Orient Pearl Tower

 

04/11/13

Fame Whore

Guy taking my picture in Hangzhou

Guy taking my picture in Hangzhou

This might seem totally random, but stay with me:

I just read on one of my favorite celebrity gossip blogs that before she was famous, Rebel Wilson (who I guess is an actress?) got a Nicole Kidman scholarship to study at a drama school in Australia. Then she saw Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe eating together at a restaurant, and went up to thank Ms. Kidman, but before she could say anything, Russell Crowe told her to f&$* off. A lot of commenters thought that was horrible of him, and couldn’t understand why Nicole Kidman hadn’t intervened. But I have to say, I feel nothing but sympathy for Russell Crowe. Because now I know what it’s like to be famous.

My with my close friend, Random Girl I've Never Seen Before Who Wanted Her Photo Taken With Me

My with my close friend, Random Girl I’ve Never Seen Before Who Wanted Her Photo Taken With Me

Everywhere I go, people stare at me. Sometimes they stare at me while they are driving a motorbike away from me and across six lanes of traffic! They like to shout things at me (“Hello!”) and laugh. If I go into a restaurant, the room goes silent. Everyone strains to hear me talk. When I go to the counter at the bus station, a crowd gathers around me. When I sit on the grass to play cards with my friends, we are surrounded by curious onlookers. Grandparents urge their grandchildren to talk to me. When I’m in public, I can almost see people judging every item of clothing I’m wearing. People take my photo all the time without asking how I feel about it. (If they ask my permission, I always say yes. But if they don’t, I either take their picture, or try to hide my face behind my Kindle or in some other way ruin the shot. I may have stuck out my tongue once or twice…)

Guy taking my picture in Nanjing

Guy taking my picture in Nanjing

Most of the time I try to be a good sport about it. I say “hello” back. If they say, “how are you?” I answer. But sometimes I have just had enough and I want people to just leave me alone. I have changed my mind about going into a restaurant simply because someone inside seemed way too excited to see me standing in the doorway. I have left my earbuds in and looked blankly at people who try to talk to me. And sometimes, I’m (ever-so-slightly) ashamed to say, I have glared at people.

They’re not always happy to see me, either. Sometimes they seem downright hostile. One patron at our regular dumpling place seemed to have a lot of weird, negative energy aimed in our direction. We left quickly.

A crowd gathers to watch us play cards in Hangzhou

A crowd gathers to watch us play cards in Hangzhou

All of this, and I am not an A-list celebrity. (Or even a D-list celebrity.) So I can’t even imagine how annoying it must be to be Russell Crowe. And I know he gets lots of money to make up for it, but the right not to be stared at, pointed at, and giggled at is worth a lot too.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that sometimes it’s fun to feel special and get lots of attention from strangers. Much of the time I find it very amusing.

But mostly I would rather just be able to go to the grocery store without worrying that everyone there is judging the entire United States based on what’s in my basket. (Note to people who shop at my Carrefour: I eat dinner out every night of the week! The chips, Oreos, and Snickers bars are simply for snacking. And I need all this junk food because without any dairy or bread in my diet, I have been losing weight for months and I don’t want to look like I have an eating disorder. I eat healthy, balanced meals, I swear!)

Ok, that’s my rant for the day. I feel better already.

(In a few days a group of American students is coming to visit the school. I can’t wait to hear what they think of China—and what my students think of them!)

 

04/9/13

No, No, Nanjing

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Last weekend John, Liam and I visited the city of Nanjing. The capital of our province (Jiangsu), it is about an hour away by bullet train. It is known for its mausoleums (it has the only tomb of a Ming emperor outside Beijing, as well as the tomb of Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China), its 600-year-old city wall (one of the few the communists didn’t tear down) and, of course, the Rape of Nanking (the horrific massacre by the invading Japanese of approximately 300,000 people in one month in 1937).

The kids were taking a field trip all day Friday so we left Thursday evening after school. In a harbinger of things to come, our cab driver did not have the faintest idea where our hostel was, even with the address in Pinyin. He had to stop and ask people for directions (I called Alexis and asked her to search for it online). Eventually we found it, but in all our time in Nanjing, we never once had a cab driver who was able to get to our hostel without asking for help!

When we walked into the lobby a woman said to us, “How many tapes would you like to buy?” We stared at her in surprise until she consulted with some other women in Chinese and then rephrased herself to say, “Do you have a reservation?” (!!!) We did indeed have a reservation, for three single rooms for $10 each per night. She informed us that they no longer had those rooms available, but we could share a room with a queen-sized bed and a single bed for the same price. Being laidback people, we agreed. It was a very nice room—the only problem was that it was freezing! Unfortunately, I am so used to being cold that it didn’t occur to me to ask the front desk’s help with turning on the heat until Saturday night. When I asked, they opened a drawer in the front desk, which turned out to be full of remote controls for each room’s heat. They located my room’s, came upstairs, and turned it on. Why don’t they just do that automatically, you ask? Good question!

After we dropped off our bags we decided to go out and check out the city. We asked the women at the front desk where we should go, and they suggested 1912. I recognized that as the clubbing street (the one in Wuxi has the same name. It has the craziest night clubs I have ever seen, ever. In fact, let’s take a little break to appreciate them:

P1050216I call this one “Reno Honeymoon Suite Circa 1983.”

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Anyway,  none of us wanted to go dancing, so we asked for another suggestion. They conferred for a long time, and I was getting impatient, so when I caught the words “Shanghai Lu” (Shanghai Street), I said, “Shanghai Lu? Sounds great.” So we went outside and hailed a cab, and told him to take us to Shanghai Lu.

He brought us downtown to a neighborhood that looked like it might be busy during the day but was pretty dead at night. He dropped us off right outside an expat bar, which wasn’t exactly what we had had in mind—we were in the mood to walk around somewhere lively. But since we couldn’t explain that to the driver, we got out and went for a walk. Since it was a Chinese city, it was easy to follow the neon, so after a few turns we found ourselves in front of a giant screen at a major intersection with huge luxury stores like Burberry and Rolls Royce. We walked around for a while, but there wasn’t much going on, so we decided to get some rest and get an early start the next day.

The next morning we asked the ladies at the front desk how to get to the memorial to the massacre. They told us a bus number, and we caught it very easily across the street. The bus cost 2 yuan (6 yuan to a dollar). The ride took about half an hour, through a bustling city (minus tall buildings—they are in a different part of Nanjing). Once we got to our stop I had to ask a few people where the memorial was before we found it. Once we spotted it, it was unmistakable.

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The Rape of Nanking doesn’t mean much to most people in the West. I wrote both my graduate and undergraduate dissertations on World War II and if I hadn’t read a book on the subject before I came to China I would only have been able to tell you that the Japanese killed a lot of people when they came to Nanjing.

The details are so much worse than I could have imagined.

I don’t really want to go into them here—it’s just too sad—but imagine lakes disappearing because they are completely filled with bodies, and women of all ages—and I do mean all ages, from childhood on—being raped. (If you take into account the fact that I am holding back the worst parts, you will have some idea of how bad it was.)

The museum was incredibly well done. It reminded me a lot of the Holocaust Museum in DC. In addition to telling the story of the massacre (and the entire war), it had extensive grounds with gardens (some of the flowers were donated by Japanese people) and numerous spaces for reflection and remembering the victims. The foreigners who were living in Nanjing at the time and who risked their lives to (successfully) save people were honored at length. After Vietnam, it was really nice to see images of Americans heroically saving lives. (One of the Americans, Minnie Vautrin, a female missionary from Illinois, was so traumatized by what she saw during the massacre that she later committed suicide.)

Minnie Vautrin

Minnie Vautrin

After we finished the museum it was mid-afternoon and we were starving, so we went to the first restaurant we could find. Unfortunately, it did not have a picture menu, so I ended up having a conversation like this:

“Do you have dumplings?”

“No.”

“Chicken?”

“Yes.”

“Not too spicy.”

(I can say dumplings, chicken, pork, beef, rice, noodles, cola, beer, tea, coffee, water, fruit, and the names of a few fruits… Not a very impressive food vocabulary for someone who eats out at least once a day in China, but hey, it’s a lot more than all my friends can say…)

She ended up bringing us a chicken and peanut dish that was actually very good, so clearly I am brilliant.

After lunch we decided to try to find the Confucian temple area that is sort of the Nanjing equivalent of Quincy Market. I had emailed myself some information about Nanjing which fortunately had the names of places in characters, so I was able to show someone the name of the temple at a subway station and she pointed out the stop that we needed to go to on a map. Once we got to the stop, the same technique got us to the temple. (I know how to say left turn, right turn, intersection, etc.)

The Confucian Temple area, from the other side of the river

The Confucian Temple area, from the other side of the river

The area was very touristy but it was nice to see so many people (despite being a larger city on paper, with over 6 million people to Nanjing’s 5 million, Wuxi does not feel nearly so busy). We paid (an exorbitant) 30 yuan to go into the temple, which was rather cheesy. You could pay 2 yuan to ring the temple bell; the courtyard was full of Disney-like figures; and there was some sort of pay-as-you-listen concert going on in one of the halls. After visiting dozens of superior temples in Thailand for free, I was not impressed.

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After the temple we walked around and admired (or, rather, did not admire) shop windows. The ugliness of clothes in Chinese stores never fails to amaze me. I just don’t get it—how can a whole country have such bad taste? It’s good for me, I guess—I haven’t been tempted to buy any new clothes!

We thought it might be nice to sit somewhere with a view and have a snack (getting a cup of coffee here is not really a thing, except at Starbucks. People also don’t linger over meals—they eat and run. So it’s hard to figure out where to go if you just want to pay to hang out somewhere pleasant). We walked up a staircase to a restaurant that overlooked the plaza only to discover that it was a hot pot place—not exactly snack material. Hot pot is also really hard to order at because they give you a page full of meats and vegetables (in Chinese) for you to check off. So your waiter has to speak very good English in order to translate it all, or you have to speak very good Chinese to explain what you want. In this case, the waiter very helpfully found us the menu in English—and then after we only checked a few things he proceeded to read it to us! “Spare ribs?” “No.” “Mushrooms?” “No.” “Chicken?” Finally I said, “I can read English!” And he went away. He was very nice, though!

After dinner we decided to see if we could find a traditional Chinese theater I had read about. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any information about it except the name. I asked a man about it and he said that it was very, very far. That was rather discouraging, so we decided to see if we could find a movie theater and see a movie in English. Some women in the subway station directed us to a stop where we found an absolutely giant mall with an unbelievable number of shops. I think it might be as big as the Mall of America. It took us a long time to find the movie theater (even with help), and when we got there the English-language movies (the Oz and Die Hard sequels and that giant movie) were not very exciting to us and the prices were just as high as in the States (surprising in a country where you can buy a pirated DVD for $1.50), so we decided to save our money and find something else to do.

When we left the mall we were surprised to realize that we recognized where we were—we were at the corner with the fancy stores that we had walked to the night before. So we decided to find that expat bar where the cab had dropped us off and play some cards.

The bar, Blue Sky, had a very cozy atmosphere. They also had a lot of treats you can’t usually get in China, like popcorn. Liam and John taught me to play the card game they are currently obsessed with, Rummy 500. It’s very addicting, so we played until about 1:00am, at which point we found it virtually impossible to get a cab. Taxis in Wuxi display a little green light when they are open and a little red light when they are occupied, but for some reason taxis in Nanjing do exactly the opposite. Almost every taxi passing us was green, and even when they were red, they wouldn’t stop. After about twenty minutes we were getting pretty desperate. We started walking up the street, towards another group of people. I’m slightly ashamed to say that we basically stole a cab from them (just by virtue of being downstream), but since it’s China, I’m sure they would have done the same to us.

Our guidebook said that you should devote a full day to Purple Mountain, where the tombs of the Ming emperor and Sun Yat-Sen are located. Our hostel happened to be right up against the mountain, so in less than five minutes we were at an entrance to a path that led into the forest.

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It was lovely to be in the woods for the first time in I don’t know how long. There were long stretches when we didn’t see any people, which was even lovelier.

Eventually our path met a long stone staircase that led up the mountain.

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Lots of people were climbing it, and we soon joined them. We couldn’t see the top, so we kept expecting to reach the tombs and be finished. Everyone was panting and sweating. I took off my coat, then my sweater. Every time the staircase leveled off for a small landing we were disappointed. It turned out that the staircase went all the way to the top of the mountain, and—the real kicker—that the tombs were not at the top!

Liam later said that about nine other people were taking our picture while we were posing...

Liam later said that about nine other people were taking our picture while we were posing…

After the climb we were both hungry and exhausted. We decided to take a random bus and get off when we saw some restaurants. Unfortunately, this strategy brought us to a restaurant where we had the most unsatisfying meal of the trip. It had lots of pictures of food on the walls, but everything I pointed to, they didn’t have. Nobody liked what we ended up getting, so we had a lot of rice and vowed to find something better for dinner.

We decided to try one last time to see a tomb, and took a cab to the Ming emperor’s. Traffic was so terrible (it’s a very popular tourist attraction) that our taxi dropped us off down the street and we had to find it ourselves.

We bought our (approximately $10) tickets at the gate, then walked into the park. On either side of us were walkways guarded by stone statues. To the left were giant stone people, to the right giant stone animals (elephants, camels, etc). We decided to follow the people. We passed many flowering trees, and a creek. We saw views like this:

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One large avenue lead to a very attractive building—which turned out to be a gift shop.

Farther down was the tomb itself, which I thought was pretty darn spectacular.

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The grounds were very extensive.

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There was a lake, surrounded by “no swimming signs,” in which we counted no fewer than four swimmers. (It’s funny—people in the West seem to think of China as a totalitarian place where rule-breakers are severely punished, while in reality, nobody in China obeys the rules. People swim next to “no swimming” signs, drive the wrong way down one-way streets, laugh at police officers who tell them not to push their way onto subway cars, and pee wherever the hell they feel like it.)

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Anyway, the grounds also had a field where people were picnicking, and even some amusement park rides. We were only there for about an hour and a half so we missed a lot of the sights. John said it was his favorite thing he’s seen in China so far, and I have to agree—it was so peaceful and so beautiful. It’s rare in a country of 1 billion people to get to appreciate nature.

When we left we decided to try to find a busy pedestrian area described in my guide. We tried to get a cab but it was impossible, so we decided to get on a bus.

Drivers in China are very impatient, so someone tried to go around our bus—and completely sideswiped it. So our driver stopped, got out, and yelled at the woman, and everyone on our bus got off and got onto another bus—except the three of us, since we had already climbed a mountain that day and didn’t mind sitting still for a while.

Eventually we got downtown. I was debating where we should get off when I saw a sign for the street we were looking for. So, almost totally randomly, we had ended up on a bus going to almost exactly the place we were headed to. Now that’s what I call great navigation skills!

I had read about this street in the book “Chinese Lessons” by John Pomfret, which I highly recommend. He attended the University of Nanjing in the early ‘80s, and one of his classmates later became a big shot in the local Communist party. If I remember correctly, he visited Las Vegas and returned to Nanjing determined to create something similar. And now, having visited his creation, I have to admit that he succeeded. (Think old Vegas, a la the Golden Nugget, as opposed to the Luxor—lots of neon.)

After dinner we ended up playing cards at Blue Sky again. I really like that place—none of the expat bars in Wuxi feels as much like a pub. I don’t understand why pubs are so hard to find in China. (Pubs, cheese, tampons, salons that do eyebrow waxing, pedicures, and attractive clothing of any kind. Life’s little mysteries, I guess.)

Sunday morning we checked out a section of the city’s 600-year-old city walls.

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Nearly all the city walls in China were destroyed years ago, but not Nanjing’s. They are quite impressive—some of the rooms in them were so deep you could fit hundreds of soldiers. Many of them were empty, but some were used for exhibits. The English was humorously bad—to the point that I usually didn’t bother reading because it didn’t make any sense. I did learn, however, that the man who built the city walls once had a dream that he should help people wearing green, and so the next day he bought all the frogs from the local market and released them. And then a frog fairy gave him a magic bowl that made whatever he put into it multiply. And so he put gold into it and got very rich. (From that point on I couldn’t really follow the story, but once you’ve read about a frog fairy, you feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth.)

And that is the story of my weekend in Nanjing.

You’re welcome.

 

 

 

03/26/13

Food, Glorious Food

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I don’t know how this happened, but somehow I have eaten snake two days in a row. You know. As one does.

Snake is something that I had been wanting to try for a while. They eat it in Vietnam, but the only places where I saw it on the menu were the sort of places where I didn’t even want to eat something that wasn’t poisonous.

When I say that I had been wanting to try snake, I, of course, mean that I wanted to have tried snake. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the actual act of eating it—but more to the time when I could lord it over my brothers. Who’s picky now, boys???

So when one of our students’ families invited Brad and me out for lunch at a fancy hotel, and then told us that our two entrée choices were snake or white pig stomach, it was an easy decision. (I think I would pick almost anything over white pig stomach. Or any stomach. But that’s just me…)

Our lunch was held in an unbelievably elegant room with crystal chandeliers and sweeping views of a bamboo forest. There was a giant, sparkly lazy Susan in the middle of the table onto which numerous waiters kept piling dishes. (They actually broke the sparkly lazy Susan when they brought out a tureen of fish head soup so heavy that it threw off the balance.)

The room where we ate the snake

The room where we ate the snake

This was Brad and my second experience being taken out for a feast in a private room at a fancy hotel. The first time we were hosted by another student’s family. Her father also invited several colleagues. Both times we were served more food than our group could possibly eat in a week. I tried to eat one bite of each dish, because finishing anything was inconceivable.

You will probably find this hard to fathom, but at neither meal—feast would be a more accurate term—was white rice served at all.

At the dinner, toasts were frequently made and it was clear that there were many rules about the order of toasts, who toasts, and how. One by one the various guests would stand up and circle the table to stand beside the person they were toasting (everyone was individually toasted, including me and Brad). The host family toasted, but did not have to travel around the table. And they frequently toasted as a group, with all three of them standing up together. At the lunch, we sipped wine but there were no toasts (which was a bit of a relief because I was sure I was doing it wrong! Apparently it’s more polite to hold your glass with both hands when you toast, and I’m sure there are a dozen little rules like that that I was unconsciously violating.)

At the dinner Brad and I felt a little left out because most of the conversation was in Mandarin. The woman seated beside me could speak English, but she had brought her toddler with her and so she spent most of her time chasing the baby. (She is Chinese and her husband is French. They speak English to each other and French to the baby, whose grandparents speak to her in Wuxinese, the local dialect. The baby is also surrounded by Mandarin speakers. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t really speak a recognizable language yet (she is two). But she did say one thing clearly; her father wasn’t present at the dinner, and when she saw Brad she raised her arms excitedly and said, repeatedly and insistently, “Papa!” Everyone laughed. I guess all white people look alike to those racist Chinese babies!)

At the lunch our student’s mother engaged us in conversation the whole time, explaining the significance behind the food and how to eat it. The snake—which did not even appear until halfway through the meal, making me eye every plate of sausage with suspicion—was a five-step snake—if it bites you, you will only get a maximum of five steps away before you die! She instructed us to pick it up in our hands and gnaw at the place where the skin meets the meat. I tasted it very tentatively—it tasted like a cross between chicken and fish. At first I confined my slow eating to the meat, but when it became clear that everyone else was also eating the skin, I knew I had to do it too. It was hard not to gag at the idea, but the skin actually ended up being my favorite part, because it was bland and had no bones.

Both of these lavish meals were accompanied by day trips. Our first student took us to Mei Yuan (Plum Park), a local park known for its beautiful plum trees.

In Mei Yuan with my student

In Mei Yuan with my student

It had been the private estate of an extremely wealthy family who made their money in textile manufacture (there is a little museum about them in the park), but then they donated the estate to the city. When we were there it was absolutely packed with people—to the point that it was impossible to take a photo in front of the pink blossoms without getting a few other people in the shot. But we gamely fought our way to the top of an observation tower and had our photos taken with the Wuxi skyline.

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The same student brought us to see the Yangtze River, which was a huge thrill for me. When I was in fourth grade we had read a book about the daughter of missionaries in China, and I had written a very derivative story about it that my (Chinese-American) teacher loved and submitted to a national story contest. The Yangtze figured prominently in the story. And here I was, twenty years or so later, finally seeing it. I must call Mrs. Wu and tell her…

At a canal off the Yangtze River

At a canal off the Yangtze River

This weekend’s outing was to Yixing, a town on the other said of Lake Tai that is considered part of Wuxi. The hotel we dined at was adjacent to a famous bamboo forest. As we drove there in the driving rain our student’s parents told us disappointedly that we would not be able to climb the mountain the forest was on. But when we arrived, we decided that getting a little wet would be worth the experience. The hotel lent us huge umbrellas, and we climbed a winding road through the tallest bamboo I have ever seen.

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Lisa (the English name of our student’s mother), explained that bamboo can grow 1.3 meters per day! These bamboo trees were about 13 years old. Soon they would have to be cut down (they die at about that age and if they die before you cut them down you can’t use them for anything. If you cut them down while they’re still alive you can make all sorts of tools, clothes, and furniture. And it is rapidly becoming one of my favorite things to eat in China. It’s very sweet and has the consistency of an apple.)

Graffiti carved into bamboo

Graffiti carved into bamboo

Lisa told us that bamboo won’t grow if there’s any pollution—a marked contrast to Wuxi, where the sky is usually gray and it is rare to be able to see any stars.

After lunch we went tea-picking nearby. They took us to a house on the closest thing to a suburban street I have seen in China (there are virtually no houses in Wuxi, just huge apartment complexes), which had about 10 feet by 20 feet of large bushes in front of it. A man came out of the house with two large red plastic baskets and showed us how to pick the sprouting leaves from the bushes. That was the tea.

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Because the leaves were so small, it was very time-consuming to pick enough, even with the entire family helping, but eventually we had an amount the proprietor deemed sufficient. He brought us into his kitchen, and started a fire underneath his giant, built-in wok.

Cooking tea in the giant built-in wok

Cooking tea in the giant built-in wok

Lisa explained that usually he does this with a machine but the machine was broken so he had to do it the old-fashioned way. He poured the leaves into the wok and stirred them with his hands. Lisa said that you have to be very careful or you will burn your hands. Then he took the tea out, put it in a basket, put the basket on the floor, and began manipulating it.

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Lisa said he was squeezing out the water. Then he put it back in the wok and stirred it some more. We began to smell something burning and Lisa said, “Oh, no—the fire is too hot.” Back the tea went into the basket. I think he cooked it one more time after that. Then he brought us into the dining room (think: unheated room with table) and put the tea into a number of glasses which he proceeded to fill with hot water.

Tea!

Tea!

He tasted it first and said immediately that the second glass is always better than the first. Lisa tasted it and said it was very good. I said the same (though to tell the truth I am not crazy about Chinese tea. It reminds me of mate, the South American tea. Which to me tastes like dirt. But hopefully I will soon develop a taste for it, since they gave me not only the tea we picked, but a lifetime supply of beautifully packaged tea, and a teapot! (Wuxi is famous for its teapots)).

Our first student gave us a gift, too—I think it must be compulsory to give gifts in situations like this. She gave us two little figures of two children from a famous folk story about Wuxi that I currently can’t remember the details of… When she presented the gifts to us I forget the instructions my friend with Taiwanese parents had given me: when someone tries to give you a gift (or even just a drink) in China, first you should say “no, that’s too much trouble for you,” “I couldn’t possibly,” etc. a few times before gratefully accepting. And you should accept the gift with both hands. So I was terribly rude and just said it was beautiful and so thoughtful of them and took it with one hand. Someday I will get the hang of this!

So now I should explain how I came to eat snake a second time. The five of us—Brad, Liam, John, Alexis and I—go out to dinner almost every night. I don’t even keep real food in the apartment anymore—I think it’s cheaper and tastier to go to a restaurant. (Even though I am sorely tempted to cook an elaborate meal with a pigeon from the market behind my apartment complex…)

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Most of the restaurants we go to are very simple; small rooms with abut six tables. Often the rice cooker is right there in the main room. (Though we have discovered that it is not easy at all to get rice. I frequently have to ask for it three times before they bring it to us, even though each time I ask they indicate that they understand. Once I even resorted to saying, “mifan, xianzai!” (rice, now!) We joke that there is a city-wide conspiracy to keep us from eating rice. We think it’s because rice is usually eaten at the end of Chinese meals, to fill you up in case the meat and vegetables left you hungry. Being American, we would rather eat the rice with the meal than as dessert.

Liam and Brad goofing around in one of the nicer restaurants we've eaten at (most places don't have decorations).

Liam and Brad goofing around in one of the nicer restaurants we’ve eaten at (most places don’t have decorations).Liam and Brad goofing around

No matter how small the restaurant is, the cups, glasses, plates, bowls, spoons and chopsticks all come shrink-wrapped in plastic. At first this seemed terribly wasteful to me–and then I observed what the hygiene standards are like in China. So I’m glad they do this, though I’m still not quite sure how it works (I suspect they must all send their dirty dishes to a central place to be washed and shrink-wrapped–but how?)

Most of our meals cost between $2 and $5 per person, including rice and drinks (usually soda and/or beer). Bars and restaurants popular with expats easily cost twice that for a meal, and can be as much as $10 a drink!

My biggest frustration with Chinese restaurants has been the way the waiters hover over you after the give you the menu. And by the menu, I mean THE menu, since they only give you one per table. And since we have to look at all the pictures, guess what everything is, and get the consensus of five people, it’s not a quick process. I know the waiters are only doing their job but it drives me up the wall. Especially since every time I point at something to ask everyone if they want it, the waiter starts to write it down! One of the first things I made my tutor teach me was how to politely tell them to leave us alone. I used it last night and I only had to say it five or six times before they understood me. It was glorious. :)   (If you get the tones wrong you say something completely different. I tried to say “eat dumplings” to my tutor and she said, “Did you just say ‘go to sleep?’”)

Credit cards are an option, oh, nowhere, here, so we pay for everything in cash. Which is how we are paid at school, too. On pay day you go to the office and they put a huge brick of cash through a counting machine in front of you to show you that it’s the right amount, and then hand it to you. I’ve only been paid once, so I’m using the money to live off of (which is a relief since I had a scary experience at an ATM where all the words changed to Chinese while my card was still in there, and I was afraid I’d never get it back). When I get paid again I’m going to open a bank account and deposit the money. That should be easy, right? Right…. Sigh!

In other exciting news, after a month I finally know how to say my address! Xiangxie Hua Yuan (Champs-Elysee Garden). So now I don’t have to show cab drivers a map or the slip of paper on which my colleague wrote my address in characters. It’s a small thing, but it makes a real difference to me.

That’s all the news from here. Zaijian!

 

03/19/13

Shanghai Noon

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Small triumphs from my weekend in Shanghai:

-          I bought my tickets and found my way to the correct waiting rooms, platforms, train cars, and seats all by myself.

-          I usually show cab drivers the address of the place I want to go, written in characters. But I didn’t have the address of my hostel written that way so I had to read the street name with the proper Chinese pronunciation (easier said than done—I often get confused looks when I think I’m saying something totally obvious) and read the street number in Mandarin. And it worked! I also said the Mandarin word for “train station” well enough to be understood—and that’s a three-syllable, three-tone toughie. Hurrah!

-          I also used two expressions that I had learned at home but never had an occasion to use: “Excuse me” and “I don’t know.” (You’d think they would have both come up before, but there are two different kinds of “excuse me” in Mandarin—one for when you’re trying to walk through a crowd and one for when you have a question. This was the second kind. And I don’t have to say “I don’t know” very often because nobody expects me to know anything! I usually say “I don’t understand.” But when I took a taxi to the office of the friend-of-a-friend I was meeting for the first time, the cab driver pointed at the building and clearly asked if it was the right one, so I got to pull out my vocab. The next night, when I went to the same building, I felt like a native when I told the cab driver, “This one!”

-          Even though I have never, ever liked crab (I don’t even like the smell), I decided that I had to try the steamed crab buns that Shanghai is famous for. And you know what? They were delicious! They didn’t taste the least bit crabby. Score one for being brave! In other food adventures, Greg (the friend-of-a-friend) also took me out for food from Yunnan province and Manchuria, both of which were yummy. I actually felt full afterwards, which doesn’t happen often in Wuxi.

-          It is not easy for me to admit when I don’t know something, but I swallowed my pride numerous times to ask people if I was standing in the right line at the train station (there are dozens of lines and they are so long that if you’re in the wrong one, you’ve wasted a good half hour) and to ask if I was walking in the right direction to the museum I was going to. (The propaganda museum, which TripAdvisor had made sound like was a few blocks from the subway, was actually a mile and a half from the subway—and I had to stop and ask someone where to go every other block. And then when I got to the address, it turned out to be a block of apartments! I was about to give up when the guard rushed out and handed me a card that explained that the museum was in the basement of one of the buildings. It ended up being very interesting—I think propaganda posters are fascinating—and so I’m very glad I persevered.)

-          Ok, this one isn’t exactly a triumph but it made me feel so good: I helped an old lady carry her granddaughter’s stroller up a tall flight of stairs. Things like that make me feel like I am part of a community instead of just a “foreigner.”

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Small failures from my trip to Shanghai:

-          I took the subway twice and both times I totally failed to buy my ticket from the machine myself. Even though you could press a button and switch it to English. For once I was grateful to have Chinese people looking over my shoulder, because all I had to do was look at them helplessly and they took over.

-          I seem to have some sort of mental block that prevented me from being able to use the keycard system at the hostel to open the door to my dorm room. Every time I wanted to go in, I stood there and hit it against the pad over and over again until someone inside the room took pity on me and opened it for me. I felt so bad for being such a nuisance!

-          I did perhaps the worst packing job ever, forgetting, in no particular order: my pajama pants, my umbrella, oh, and underwear. Yeah. Fortunately there’s lots of shopping in Shanghai.

-          Speaking of shopping, the only place I have purchased clothes so far in China is… the Gap. Yeah. I’m embarrassed. (But I needed new jeans—my old ones are practically falling down–and if I wasn’t going to be able to buy cheap ones, then I wanted ones that weren’t going to fall apart.)

-          When I was walking down the street, a Chinese woman came up and asked me a question. I had no idea what she was saying and she gave up after two attempts, but then I spent the rest of the day feeling perturbed. I mean, surely she wasn’t asking me for directions? Unless she was blind? So maybe she was trying to tell me something. Since she was touching her face as she spoke, I immediately went to look in the mirror, but there didn’t appear to be anything strange hanging from my nose. I checked my purse for signs of attempted forced entry. Nothing. Nor did my pants appear to be split. So I have no idea what she was trying to say. And it bugs me.

-          Ok, this isn’t exactly a failure, but I can’t understand why I’m not crazy about Shanghai. I was so sure I would love it. But I’ve been there twice now and each time my reaction was somewhere between “meh” and “fine.” I think they’ve just developed all the charm out of the city. If you ignored the people and the writing, you could be anywhere in the world. Maybe I’ll like it more when all the leaves and flowers come out. Let’s hope so…

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03/12/13

A Boy Named Suzhou

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After two months of never staying in the same place for more than a few days, I was itching to see something outside of Wuxi, so I organized a day trip to the neighboring city of Suzhou. Brad had somehow managed to attach himself to a traveling ultimate frisbee team based in Shanghai, so it would be just me, Liam, John, and Alexis.

Unlike Wuxi, Suzhou is a major tourist destination. Criss-crossed with canals, it is known as the Venice of China. Marco Polo said that it was the most beautiful city in China (and we all know that he had excellent taste). There is even a proverb about it: “In heaven there is paradise, on earth Suzhou and Hangzhou.” (Coincidentally, the location of Brad’s frisbee tournament was Hangzhou, which is just on the other side of Shanghai. I will have to go there soon to see which is more heavenly.)

It was supposed to rain all day Sunday and I had to teach on Saturday morning, which meant that we could only leave at lunchtime, but since Suzhou is famous for its gardens, we decided to go on Saturday. I decided to make class fun for the kids and had them write skits that incorporated their vocabulary words and play a boys-against-girls game involving identifying U.S. states.

I had told everyone to be ready to go to the train station at noon, but someone *cough* the boys *cough* was not ready, so we didn’t make it to the station until 1:00 pm. I had no idea how big it would be! It’s like Grand Central! Fortunately, Alexis had done all of this before and didn’t feel embarrassed walking up to someone standing in line and through gestures confirming that we were in the line to buy tickets for Suzhou. Which was a good thing, because the line took longer than the 15-minute bullet train ride.

Since I was the only one who could speak any Mandarin, I got to ask for our tickets. I memorized the phrase from my phrase book and carefully said it to the woman behind the counter, who shocked us all by replying in English. She asked to see our passports, which fortunately we had anticipated. Handing them over I had a split-second flashback to Argo, which we had seen the day before (a bootleg copy from the DVD store around the corner. And yes, I do feel guilty, and yes, if I ever meet Ben Affleck I will absolutely give him 10 yuan).

To reach the train you have to go through airport-level security (metal detectors, x-ray for your bag) and put your ticket through a reader much like at many subway turnstiles. Your ticket says which car your seat is in so you can pre-walk to the appropriate place on the platform (car numbers are painted directly on the ground). For some reason, our seats were not all together, even though I had bought our tickets together. Alexis and Liam were across the aisle in different rows, and a stranger was assigned to sit between me and John. But when the stranger saw what was happening he gallantly got up and let Liam sit with us–and instead of taking Liam’s seat, he disappeared down the train. I’m not sure where he went in a train full of assigned seats, but it was a very nice gesture.

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The ride was very quick–15 minutes or so–and then we were in Suzhou. Unfortunately the wait for the taxis was just as long as for the train. Luckily, the ride into the city was very scenic. We passed pagodas and lots of beautiful old buildings.

We were dropped off in a very cute, touristy area near one of the canals. We were all starving, so we spent a long time looking for a place to eat. (For some reason, every place by the canals seemed to be a coffee shop.) Eventually we found our way to a main street, where we ate somewhere called Leaf Yummy Pot. Miraculously, the waiters spoke English, which was good because it was a hot pot place where you ordered a bunch of things off an entirely text menu to cook in a little wok on a hot plate in front of you.  We braced ourselves for a repeat of John and Liam’s first night, when they brought us an entire chicken and we had to fight with each other over the less bony bits, but it ended up being delicious. We found ourselves saying things like, “I just had TWO pieces of meat with no bones!”

This city sure knows how to make a Bostonian feel at home!

This city sure knows how to make a Bostonian feel at home!

But when we left we noticed the sun was rather low in the sky. I checked the time and it was 4:15! We hurried to the garden we wanted to see, but by the time we got there, it was closed! Considering that was the point of the trip, that was pretty disappointing.

But we were determined not to let the experience be a negative one. We wandered the city for hours, admiring the blossoming trees and marveling at the number of white people that we saw.

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When it came time for dinner I really wanted to try one of the restaurants near the canal, but when we got there and the menu was carved onto a board on the wall and the waitress smirked when I looked at her, I chickened out. Asking what was on the menu and understanding her response would just be so, so difficult. We ended up going to a chain dumpling place that was not much better–the only real advantage it had was that the word “dumpling,” in English, was in its name, so at least we knew what kind of food they served! When I got to the front of the line, I said something like, “We are four. We want pork dumplings.” (At least, that was the goal.) The woman replied back to me in rapid Chinese, and gestured at the menu on the wall. I replied that I could not understand it. Then she wrote something down–in characters–and showed it to me. (Really, lady???) Finally another guy came up who spoke some English. He told me it would be 20 yuan. Since we had just paid 20 yuan each for lunch, I was sure that he had misunderstood me and thought that I wanted four dumplings and not dumplings for four, but my efforts to clarify this failed and they urged me to go to my table and wait, which I did, feeling miserable. Not being able to communicate is just a terrible feeling.

But you know what? They gave us enough dumplings for four. It’s the little victories, people.

(Incidentally, I tried to order drinks and they brought me a water bottle. I explained that there were four of us and they told me that they had run out of everything else!!! How does that happen at a restaurant?!!!)

Our next ordeal was getting a taxi to go back to the train. Getting a taxi on a Saturday night in Suzhou is a competitive sport–you have to be willing to steal them from other people. While we waited, men driving private cars kept indicating that they would drive us–offers which we ignored. One man in a mini van even did a u-turn and parked beside us, apparently to wait for us to give up. Another man came up and offered to call a taxi for us. We gave polite nos to both of them. Finally, we walked down to the other side of a bus stop and managed to snag what seemed to be the last empty taxi in the city. When we passed our two “friends,” we smiled and waved at them. They waved, unsmiling, back.

Given the luck that we were having, we half expected to find that the last train to Wuxi had just left. In fact, when we got to the station, the ticket counter was closed! But after asking some people we found out that they only closed one of the two ticket counters for the night. We were able to buy tickets and after a lot of wandering in circles (I am telling you, Chinese train stations are HUGE), we found our way to the waiting room.

All the seats were taken so we sat on the floor, and stared back at the people who were trying to pretend they weren’t staring. Just as I was starting to relax a man in his forties joined us and began speaking rapidly in broken English. He told us that he had studied English at university many years ago and he tries to speak it with every foreigner he sees. He asked John how old he is. “Twenty-three.” The man looked surprised. “I thought you were thirty.” You can imagine how happy he was to hear that! Especially when the man said that he thought that Liam, who is the same age, looked much younger.

Soon the train was called and we said goodbye to the man. We got back to Wuxi and waited in another excruciatingly long line for a taxi.

When we finally got one, we chatted for a while before Alexis suddenly said, “I don’t know where we are!” I looked out and we were driving down the highway. We live less than 10 minutes from the train station, which is in downtown Wuxi. I saw signs that said we were going in the right direction for Lake Tai, which is an hour away from us. We tried to tell him he was going the wrong way in English, but of course that did no good, and I couldn’t think of how to say it in Chinese. I had Alexis hold up my iPhone for light as I frantically paged through my phrasebook. Meanwhile, the meter ticked up. Our taxi ride to the station that morning had been 10 yuan. This one was approaching 50!

Finally we decided to call our vice principal, Mr. Q, and put him on the phone with the driver. But Mr. Q didn’t seem that concerned–he said that Chinese taxi drivers are very honest. Which may be true by and large, but didn’t help in our case. When we got to our apartment we had him pull up by the guardhouse, and Alexis ran over to get the guards. We figured at least we’d have someone with authority present while we argued. I said in Chinese, “From here to the train station is 10 yuan!” To which he replied, according to Mr. Q who was back on the phone for part of this, that we had come from a different train station, the train station in the new part of Wuxi. To which Alexis said, even if that were true, she takes longer taxi rides every day that cost less. But since Mr. Q did not seem concerned and our guards were actually laughing at us (perhaps in discomfort, but it was really annoying), we finally gave in. I at least managed to say a cutting phrase from my phrase book (“I am writing down your license plate number and reporting you to the police!”) before I slammed the door and walked away.

The whole experience left me bound and determined to find a Chinese tutor. And guess what? I have! But that’s a story for another day.

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03/10/13

A Day in the Life

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Even though the Chinese teachers have to be at work at 7:00 a.m. every morning, I don’t have to be there until 9:00 a.m.–except on Mondays when my first class is at 7:40 a.m.! (Yes, it’s unfair, but I am so horrible in the mornings, it’s really a kindness to everyone if I stay home as long as possible.)

Brad and I usually meet on the corner by our apartment buildings and walk the 15 minutes or so across the canal to school, dodging motorbikes along the way, and being stared at by everyone. The canal usually has several barges in it bearing Chinese flags. The barges are so low that it is a wonder that they do not take on water and sink.

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I go to my office (which I share with Brad, John, and Liam and a Chinese English teacher, Miss M) and I usually have a pile of the kids’ homework notebooks waiting for me. (It’s a Chinese thing–they do their homework in their “homework notebooks” and then one of the kids collects them all every morning and deposits them on my desk, open to the correct page.) I have had to make a few of the boys redo their homework, either for sheer messiness or for just not listening to the directions. I’m going to have to give some of them some handwriting exercises to do.

Between classes, instead of bells, very loud music begins to play. Sometimes it is accompanied by a voice in Chinese, counting. Once I peered out the back window to see if the kids were doing jumping jacks or something to the music, but no one was outside, so I asked Miss M what the counting was for.

“Eye exercises,” she said.

“EYE exercises?!” I said in total surprise.

“Yes,” she said. “Many of the students wear glasses.”

That was true, of course, but I could not imagine coordinated eye exercises. I pictured staring straight ahead, then up, then down, then to the left, etc. But when I actually asked my students to show me, it was more like acupuncture, in that you massage places on your face that don’t actually touch your eyes. First you pinch your nose. Then you rub your cheekbones. Then you touch your temples. Then you touch your under eye circles. In a million years, I never could have made up such a thing.

Every morning they have a flag-raising ceremony, accompanied by patriotic singing. At first I was torn between wanting to go and the fact that it was freezing cold outside where they did it. Now it’s warmer, so I will definitely go at least once and see what it’s like.

For the first week the eighth and ninth grades were combined into one class, so Brad taught them for two periods and I taught them for two periods. But now we’ve separated them to give everyone more attention (and to give the eighth graders extra help), so now we each teach them for four periods. So I usually have a class before lunch.

I have seven eighth graders and thirteen ninth graders. They are by and large very well behaved and really don’t mind speaking English in front of each other, which was a pleasant surprise. And they are pretty darn good! They make lots of mistakes, of course, but they can express a lot, which is the most important thing.

I don’t really have a routine for what I teach them yet, except that we usually read aloud for a while from our book, Little House in the Big Woods. The boys think it is boring and the girls like it. (Which would probably be true for American kids as well.)

It’s funny what words I end up having to explain. Butter is a totally alien concept here, so I had to describe all its uses and draw it on the board. (They’re amused by all my drawings–they are all very good artists and take art very seriously.) They know nothing—and I do mean nothing—about Christianity, so when we read Ma’s list of daily chores “wash on Mondays, mend on Tuesdays, etc” which ended with “rest on Sundays,” the only guess as to why she would rest on Sunday was, “she was tired?” (I have to say, when I said out loud “Christians believe that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh” I felt kind of embarrassed.)

Since I teach two 45-minute classes back-to-back the music always interrupts me in the middle. The first day I kept teaching anyway and one of the kids finally said, “Teacher, class is over!” So now I let them enjoy their break. Usually it’s 10 minutes but at one point during the day it’s 25!!! The boys usually pull out their phones and play games and/or goof around with each other. The girls usually do homework. I sometimes look out the window to see what’s happening outside. Here’s my view:

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At the end of class I tell them what their homework will be for the next day—and then the kids usually come up to me one by one to ask clarifying questions. I don’t know why they can’t just raise their hand and ask so everyone can hear the answer.

Then I go down to my office, meet Brad, and we head over to lunch together. We now leave our chopsticks, spoons, and bowls in the cabinets like the other teachers. We head over to the window, grab a tray from the worker, say “Xiexie” (thank you), go over the table with the rice and soup and help ourselves, and then stake out a table. We are usually joined by either John or Liam, depending on who is teaching on what campus of the school (Alexis never teaches at our campus). Today a cafeteria worker brought us some apples, which is the first nice gesture they (or almost anyone, really) has made towards us, so that was really appreciated. After lunch we rinse our chopsticks off in the tub of hot, soapy water that the cafeteria workers use to clean the trays, then we put them away for the next day.

A typical lunch

A typical lunch

If I don’t have class, I head back to my office. If I need to print something I put it on my flash drive (the most expensive one I ever bought at $15—who knew that electronics were so pricey in China?!) and bring it downstairs to what may or may not be the teachers’ lounge, and print it from a computer there. Then I go up some stairs to the copy room and tell the man who works there how many copies I need. At first he didn’t believe that I really understood what I was saying in Mandarin and would type the numbers into the machine and show me them before he hit “print,” but now he believes me.

I teach my second class, and then it’s usually time to go home. I meet Brad in our office and we head out of the campus. The kids are running around. They wear whatever they want, as far as I can tell—pretty much the same clothes American kids would wear. (I have seen one of the teachers wear the same outfit three days in a row, though, which most definitely would not happen in the U.S.) At the gate to the school parents are patiently waiting (and somehow managing not be run over by motorbikes.)

Brad and I usually get some stares on the walk home. There’s just so much traffic, and it’s usually pointed so that it’s facing us because we walk on the wrong side of the road.

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We say goodbye in front of his apartment with the understanding that one of us will call the other to make plans for dinner in an hour or so. (I mean, we could just eat alone, but we are both people persons, so that would make us sad.) Alexis is always home when I get there. She is about 23, from Vermont, and has very curly brown hair. I like her a lot. I have some tea and we chat for a while. If I want an apple, I have to boil some water to wash it in (I’m still trying to figure out a good way to clean my produce, which is doubtlessly dripping with pesticides).

Then Brad calls and tells me what he, Liam, and John would like to do for dinner—or I call him and tell him what Alexis and I would like to do.

And then we eat.

Liam and a chicken foot (which he actually ate--I am working up to that)

Liam and a chicken foot (which he actually ate–I am working up to that)

We have had a lot of adventures with food. Sometimes we eat in restaurants…

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…and sometimes we get street food.

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But we always try to be adventurous.

After dinner we usually go back to our respective apartments and try to Skype/FaceTime with our friends and family. Sometimes we watch a 10 yuan ($1.50) bootleg DVD from the shop around the corner. We tend to go to bed early since teaching can be exhausting.

I always get annoyed when it’s time to brush my teeth because I have to run downstairs and get some filtered water for my toothbrush. I just spent a fortune (well, a comparative fortune) on face wash, body wash, razors (don’t get me started on how hard women’s razors are to find in China!), etc, so I hope it will all last me for the duration.

And then I climb into bed with my view of the city. One nice feature of the apartment is that there is a switch for the overhead light right next to the bed, so reading in bed is very easy. Right now I’m reading Team of Rivals (I tried to read it at home, but it was literally too heavy to carry around with me. Now that I have a Kindle, it’s a breeze.)

And that’s more or less what I do every day. In case I haven’t made it obvious: I am enjoying myself. A lot.

Hope you are too! Zaijian! (Goodbye!)

03/7/13

That’s What Wuxi Said

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My first few days in China were a blur.

On day one I woke up feeling what I was—alone in a strange, empty apartment. I managed to flood the entire bathroom when I took a shower, soaking the clothes that I had left on the floor. (Later I learned that the trick is to remove the pipe for the washing machine from the shower drain.) I breakfasted on the welcome food that Mr. Q had given us the night before, trying not to shiver too much in my unheated living room.

At 11:00 a.m. Jackie, another Chinese English teacher from the school, appeared at my door with Brad and brought us to the school, which is right across a canal from our apartments. The word “canal” is rather misleading, though—this canal is the size of a good-sized river. The bridge we have to walk over to get there is very large, with several lanes for cars and for motorbikes and pedestrians. And did I mention that the canal stretches all the way to Beijing and is 1000 years old? I can’t even process what that means.

The school turned out to be several white buildings around a large paved courtyard. When you walk through the gate, on your left is the one-story cafeteria and the bathrooms (which I will describe another time—you’re not ready). On your right is the two-story administrative building. And directly ahead is the four-story classroom building, which also contains the teachers’ offices, the nurse’s office, and the photocopy room (where a man works full time, photocopying whatever you ask him to on two very old machines. It’s a bit odd because it would be just as fast for me to do it myself, and I always feel strange just standing there, not speaking to him. But he doesn’t speak English, so our exchanges are usually: “Twenty, please.” “Twenty?” “Yes, thank you.” And eventually, “goodbye.”) Almost all the classrooms are on one side of the corridor, which is basically a balcony, like a motel. Our classroom is on the fourth floor and on a different staircase from our office, so at the beginning I had a terrible time finding my way from one to the other, but now I’ve gone it down.

Jackie took us directly to the cafeteria, since lunch is only served from 11:15 to 11:45. (You can imagine how annoying that is for me, the world’s slowest eater. I am always racing to finish before the cafeteria workers wash all the trays and tables.) Only the teachers eat in the cafeteria (the kids eat in their classroom), which was a relief to me since I hadn’t relished the prospect of hundreds of teenagers laughing at my chopstick skills. It’s about 20 feet by 20 feet. Rectangular tables that seat four fill most of the room. At the front is a cabinet where the teachers keep their chopsticks and soup bowls. In the middle is an absolutely giant pot of rice for you to serve yourself. To the right is the window where the workers hand you a tray laden with food (the food is directly on the tray). There is usually a vegetable, often some tofu, some meat (often more than one kind), and something mysterious and gelatinous. (I cannot imagine ever finishing all of the food they give me. I wish they would let us decide how much we want of everything, so that less is wasted, but that’s not how they do things here. But I am relieved to report that the food itself is actually quite good—better than most restaurants I have eaten at in China–and proud to report that I always try at least a little bit of everything–especially if I have no idea what it is!)

After lunch we said a brief hello to our students (who just smiled at us in return), then Jackie packed us off in a cab to go to Carrefour, the local supermarket. (She wrote down for us both the address of the Carrefour and our address, so we could just show them to the cab driver, since telling him where to take us was pretty much out of the question.)

Driving into downtown Wuxi was encouraging. It seemed very busy, with lots of shops and lots of people. Among all the characters that we couldn’t read we spotted signs for Starbucks, Papa Gino’s, H&M, Esprit, and, of course, KFC.

Carrefour was in a mall and turned out to be absolutely massive, which was fortunate because while my apartment contained pots, pans, towels, etc., Brad needed absolutely everything. We were surprised at how expensive it was—the prices seemed comparable to the United States for the household items. Some of the food items are cheaper (a head of broccoli is 30 cents) but American food is very expensive. (I waffled but I couldn’t resist splurging for some Swiss Miss cocoa mix for $7.) I decided to stock up on breakfast, snack and convenience foods, figuring that most nights I would be eating out. Cereal was quite pricy. I think that once I run out I will try to eat something more Chinese for breakfast. I also got tea, sugar, Oreos, peanut butter, eggs, some sort of cracker-like thing, and frozen dumplings.

I was entranced by all the fish tanks they have. It looks like a pet store. As I watched them in awe, a woman who was mopping near the tanks apparently ran out of water, because she reached into the tank, splashed some water onto the floor, and started mopping with it!

Ok, this is WalMart, not Carrefour, but same general idea

Ok, this is WalMart, not Carrefour, but same general idea

All the cashiers were wearing traditional red Chinese shirts. I hoped it was for New Year’s, because they really looked like they were wearing costumes. (It was—next time I went there they were dressed normally.) Our cashier spoke English, which made things easier.

We hailed another cab, showed the driver what Jackie had written, and headed home. Once we had unpacked our groceries we decided to go for a walk. I had a little booklet for Wuxi expats that someone had left in the apartment, and it had a map in it. The map showed that the canal adjoined a very large park, so we decided to check it out. The park had a few nice features—most notably an amazing vista of the canal—but it also contained so many restaurants and museums (and so few trees) that I really didn’t think it qualified as a park. I was very confused, since the map said it was a national forest! (Eventually we discovered that the map is just totally unreliable.)

 

Canal Park

Canal Park

We ended up walking through a second park that was much nicer than the first. We saw a playground with parallel bars—and were amazed to see men with gray hair doing moves on the bars that we had only seen Olympic gymnasts do. (The next time we walked by, they were at it again. There are bars like that at our school, so maybe every Chinese person learns how to exercise on bars at a young age? Or maybe those guys really are former Olympians? The world may never know.)

Somehow we found ourselves in downtown Wuxi, and were delighted to find a Starbucks. (Neither of us had internet access at home, and coffee shops are not exactly on every corner in Wuxi, so Starbucks was our only hope of communication with the outside world.) The drinks were beyond outrageous—a cup of cocoa is almost $6!—but it was so nice to be able to check our email.

We explored the neighborhood around Starbucks, which involved lots of shops, both high-end (Cartier and Louis Vuitton), and low-end (open-air stalls). At the end of a row of shops we found a group of street food stalls that looked good. I was drawn to one, which seemed to be a sort of fried pancake filled with meat. There were three different options, two for 3 rmb (50 cents) and one for 4. Since I wasn’t sure what any of them actually was, I decided to go for the expensive option. Communicating wasn’t exactly easy, but in the end I gave them money and they handed me what looked like half an envelope, put the pancake into it, and I had a delicious meal for approximately 70 cents.

We also took inventory of the shops near our apartments. Behind mine was a number of small businesses, including a surprisingly nice grocery store. A man came up to us and asked in English what we were looking for (Brad assumed he worked there but I thought he was just trying to practice his English). I asked him if he could tell me where there was a cinema nearby and he drew me a little map and wrote the word in pinyin so I could ask other people. I couldn’t wait to go to the movies, since an apartment without TV, radio, or the internet was unbearably silent for me, but Brad was jetlagged and just wanted to go to sleep after dinner I didn’t feel ready to navigate the city alone.

We decided to try one of the restaurants near our apartments for dinner. They are very small (4-6 tables) and so seemed less intimidating. Brad said he wanted one with pictures on the menu.  We walked past a few and peered in the windows. It seemed that our choices were between one with a red tablecloth and one with a yellow tablecloth. We went red, since it’s lucky in China.

I was both nervous and excited to use my Chinese. (I’ve given up calling it Mandarin, since nobody does here, at least not in English. I haven’t heard the Mandarin word for Mandarin either, but then again, I only understand a few words out of every conversation.) Brad picked a dish that looked like chicken, and I ordered a dish the waitress recommended. (I wish I could remember how she recommended it—I’m sure she didn’t speak English, and I don’t think I would understand a recommendation in Chinese. But I distinctly remember it being her idea. Maybe she pointed to the picture and smiled encouragingly?)

Anyway, my dish turned out to be an attractive beef dish that looked almost like American Chinese food.

We still don’t know what Brad’s was.

I mean, it was some kind of meat, but it was definitely not chicken. Or a bird of any kind. It definitely wasn’t beef or pork.  And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t seafood. I don’t think it was snake or dog. It was wavy—sort of like bacon, only thicker. (Not curly, like calamari, and it didn’t look at all like the intestines Peter had in Hanoi.) Each wavy piece of meat had a thick piece of bone or cartilage running through it, making it difficult to chew.

Yes, I tried some. Yes, I am insufferably proud of myself for it. And yes, someday when my Chinese is better I will go back to the restaurant, point to the picture and say, “What on earth is that?!”

So Brad and I mostly just ate my beef dish, and after that we decided that rice and one main dish was enough for us.

Brad was so jetlagged that his head was practically on the table, so we both had an early night.

My apartment building

My apartment building

The next day Miss M, another English teacher at our school, met up with us to help us get cell phones. (I still had Khalid’s unlocked iPhone, so all I needed was a sim card.) She brought us to a large building a 10-minute walk from our apartments. The whole first floor was filled with glass displays of every cell phone you could think of. Almost every person standing behind the displays represented a different small business, so there were dozens and dozens of options. Soon Miss M was talking animatedly with a woman, and negotiating a price for a phone for Brad. (He was interested in buying a smartphone, and ended up getting something that Miss M said was really nice for about $100.) I spent $15 and got a sim card, minutes, and a phone number. They give you a list of possible phone numbers and you can pick your own. Miss M chose lucky numbers for both of us (eights are lucky; fours are unlucky).

After that Miss M had to rush to another city to see her two-year-old daughter, who lives with Miss Mi’s in-laws. I think this is a fairly common arrangement in China. And given how hard Miss M works (she works from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every weekday) and the fact that her husband works in a city a few hours’ drive from Wuxi, I don’t know how else they could manage.

Brad and I went back to Starbucks, where we worked on our lesson plans for a few hours with the help of the internet. We went back to our favorite street food stalls for dinner, and then we headed home.

Brad went straight to bed, but by this point I was dying to watch anything, anything at all, in English, and since everyone said China was incredibly safe, I decided to head out on the town alone.

However, as soon as I started walking in the direction the man in the grocery store had indicated, I felt uncomfortable. It was dark and there were very few people, and the route went by a large soccer field (i.e., even fewer people). People said China was completely safe, but I thought it was better to trust my instincts. So I reluctantly walked in the other direction, to see if I could find my way back to Starbucks, where I might be able to Skype with folks back home.

Imagine my surprise when I glanced up at a sign on a business and saw the words “box office!” I had somehow managed to find the theater, and I was thrilled. There was a screen above the window with revolving images of movies, including the new James Bond. The woman at the window took one look at me and said, “Tom Cruise?” I understood that she meant Jack Reacher, because I had seen it playing at an imax theater near the Starbucks. “James Bond,” I said. She looked confused. Meanwhile, a Chinese couple standing nearby had started laughing at the sight of me. It was really annoying, especially at such a frustrating moment. But when I pointed at the picture of Daniel Craig, they were able to convey to me that that movie wasn’t playing anymore. I wanted so, so badly to see a movie in English—but not badly enough to sit through a movie that couldn’t be released right after the Newtown massacre because it had scenes that were too similar. So I reluctantly continued to Starbucks.

Starbucks is in a mall, so I was able to hang out in the main corridor and use the wifi without spending $6 on a drink. Unfortunately, no one answered my attempts to contact them. I did do a little browsing in the mall, but I felt so exposed—like a famous person hoping not to be recognized, I kept hoping that no one would notice me and laugh the way the couple at the movie theater had. (They were probably laughing more at themselves—they said “hello!” and laughed, which is a lot of people’s reactions to hearing themselves speak a foreign language. But it was still kind of embarrassing.)

The rest of the weekend passed uneventfully.

I was surprisingly calm when I woke up on Monday, given the fact that I had never taught at a school before. Brad and I both planned to play getting-to-know-you games with the kids (we fought over who would get to play Two Truths and a Lie—in the end I gave it to him and decided to have the kids interview each other, then introduce each other to the class, and then have the kids play a guessing game where they tried to figure out which student the student leading the game was thinking of based on his description.) My game didn’t go as well as I had hoped, because no matter how many times I told them to take notes, they didn’t. So when it came time to describe another student to the class they couldn’t remember what each person had said. So I ended up having to scrap that part of the game and improvise. Still, hearing about each of them was interesting. For the most part, they had the same interests as American teenagers—Twilight, computer games, etc. But I have never heard an American teen talk about badminton. And my kids loooove badminton.

All in all, the first day was a very auspicious start to the semester—and I have been enjoying myself ever since!

In Canal Park

In Canal Park

 

03/3/13

China Doll

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[Gentle reader: I have been trying really really hard to write everything in order, but I’m falling so far behind that I’m afraid that I will never catch up unless I skip ahead to the present day. I promise I will write about Bangkok, Malaysia, and Singapore later, but right now, we need to fast-forward to China. Ok. Get out of the Delorean; we’re here.]

I have been in countries where elephants roam free. I have been in countries where people eat tarantulas. I have been in countries with no traffic laws. I have been in countries where the king has hundreds of wives; countries where blood pudding is considered a delicacy.

But I have never been anywhere that feels as foreign as China does.

Maybe it’s all the staring.

It’s not like it’s a surprise; I had done my research and I came totally prepared to be stared at. (There just aren’t very many white people.) But it’s one thing to know intellectually that people will look at you more than usual—it’s quite another to actually see people stop in their tracks and gawp at you. Over and over again. (Just to be clear, plenty of people don’t look at me twice. But enough others actually turn around to continue staring that they tip the scales.)

On day one, when I was sightseeing in Shanghai, I sat on a low wall about two feet from an American couple. A Chinese woman holding a baby plopped herself down between us and smiled as her husband snapped several photos of all five of us. Then they stood up and walked away. (Since I had decided in advance that I would take photos of everyone who took photos of me, here they are.)

But let me back up, because things have been—I hesitate to use the word “strange,” so let’s use the word “different”—since I arrived in China a few days ago.

I flew from KL to Guangzhou (formerly Canton), which is in the South near Hong Kong. I picked up my backpack, got my passport stamped, re-checked my luggage, and went up an escalator to go through security. I was really hungry, so I was looking forward to checking out the food court before my flight to Shanghai. But instead of an open concourse, I found myself (and about fifty other people) faced with a hallway-cum-waiting area separated by the security area by glass doors. A female officer with a walkie talkie was standing in front of the doors, refusing to let people through. So I sat down and waited. After about half an hour I began to get a little nervous—I didn’t know how long the security line would take or how far I was from  my gate, and I still had a second flight to catch. I stood up and headed over to the officer, trying to compose some simple sentences in Mandarin in my head. Fortunately, just as I was about to throw myself on her mercy, she opened the doors and I was able to rush to the front of the security line. I have been in airports all over the world and I have never, ever been in a situation like that.

The area around the gate was also different from any other airport I have ever been to. Usually there is a range of food options, from the low end (McDonald’s) to the high end (say, Todd English’s restaurant at Logan). By the B gates in Guangzhou, however, everything is pretty fancy looking. It was so fancy looking that I ended up having two Snickers bars and a bag of sweet potato chips (the former purchased from an elegant gift shop, the second from a classy fruit shop). I spent about $10!

When I finally arrived in Shanghai I could not wait to jump in a cab and get to my hostel. Little did I expect the longest taxi line I have ever seen, anywhere. And there I was without a winter coat. Fortunately, it wasn’t freezing cold, so with my sweats I was reasonably warm, and the line did move pretty quickly. But there were literally hundreds of people in it. And the Chinese are not known for respecting lines, so I had to keep an eye on the woman behind me, who kept trying to edge in front of me.

Then when I was finally pointed towards a taxi, the driver seemed befuddled when I showed him the hostel confirmation on my ipod touch, which was written in both English and Mandarin. (China has a 91% literacy rate, so odds are that he could read it just fine.) Fortunately, the man directing people to taxis strode up and read it to him. The driver nodded in what I hoped was not feigned recognition, and he drove me into the city. I was too tired to absorb what I was seeing, but I did register that the hostel was right around the corner from the Bund, Shanghai’s famous riverside walk.

The most notable thing about my hostel, Captain Hostel, was how cold it was. There was a central courtyard and even though it was winter, the windows were open into the hallway. The bathroom was so freezing that I didn’t even contemplate a shower. I opened the dormitory door with dread, but was relieved to find a very warm, modern room with only about six bunk beds around the edges of a large room with tables to sit at and the most high-tech lockers I have ever encountered (you touch a key fob to them and they unlock). Most of the girls were already asleep, which was a huge relief since I was too tired to deal with loud people coming back from bars. I was a little surprised to see that I was the only non-Chinese—I’ve never, ever stayed at a hostel where everyone was from the country I was in. I’ve only stayed at two where anyone was from the country!

In the morning I stopped at the front desk to get advice as to where to go. The man at the desk suggested I buy a ticket for the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus. Normally I don’t do those things, but since it was so cold out and my winter coat was in my luggage that Brad (my co-teacher) was bringing from America for me, it seemed like a good way to see the city without freezing to death. He also wrote the name of a breakfast food I should try on a piece of paper in Mandarin so I could just hand it to a waiter. But his description of where to go was a little hard to follow, so I decided to walk to the Bund and see what I could find.

The view from the Bund is spectacular—on the far side of the river is Pudong, the newest part of the city. The skyline could rival any city in the world. On the Puxi side, my side, were old buildings built by the British and French during Shanghai’s various colonial periods. I saw the red double decker buses and was just about to buy myself a ticket when I decided that it would make more sense to get some food first. I walked down a side street in search of a Chinese restaurant that could give me whatever was written on my piece of paper (I really hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was), when in the window of a beautiful art deco hotel I saw the one word I can never resist: patisserie.

I headed inside (hoping the doorman was not thinking: who is this woman who is wearing ten layers of thermals and no winter coat and why does she think we allow riff-raff like her in our hotel?) and found myself in a very elegant café. My heart sang when I saw that they had pain au chocolat for a not-too-outrageous price (a little less than $3). I was about to order a cup of coffee when I saw the prices. Not trusting my mental math, I pulled out my ipod touch and checked my currency converter app. I was right: there was not a single coffee option for less than $8!!! I quickly decided that my pastry would be enough for me.

After breakfast I purchased a bus ticket for the very reasonable price of 30 rmb/$5 (or, as I like to call it, about 60% of the cost of a cup of coffee). They gave you a little card that you had to swipe each time you got on the bus and a pair of ear buds that you could plug into the wall and get descriptions of what you were looking at in about six different languages. Which was all very well in theory, but in reality the timing was usually so off that I had no idea which building I was supposed to be looking at. And most of the time they just played elevator music while the voice reminded us to hold onto the bars in front of us at all times. (The other big negative was that the route only went in one direction. Which meant that if I found myself just one stop past the Bund when it was approaching the time when I needed to be picked up at my hostel, I would have to take a taxi back, since there wouldn’t be time to do the entire loop again.)

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The first stop I alighted at was the City God Temple, which seems to be the Shanghai equivalent of Quincy Market. I never actually spotted the temple, but since the whole area was built in the traditional Chinese style (and still decorated for New Year’s) it didn’t really matter. I walked around for a while and admired the shops. I was impressed by the line at a place that sold crab dumplings. It looked vaguely familiar to me—I had a feeling I’d seen it before in videos about Shanghai. I guess I will have to try it someday. (Hopefully before that I will learn to like crab.)

I ended up eating at a cafeteria-style place where you grabbed a tray and then could choose between at least a dozen different foods. Descriptions were on display in both Mandarin and English—though the prices were not as easy to discern. The food was already plated so I ended up grabbing a plate of many more pork dumplings than I could eat. I’m sure there was a way to take less but since I couldn’t communicate I just took them all and it ended up being relatively pricy (maybe $6). I found a seat next to some Chinese people, who, mercifully, ignored me. I couldn’t see chopsticks anywhere, so I went over the cashier and managed to ask, “Where are the chopsticks?” in Mandarin. When she pointed to the chopsticks I could not have been prouder.

I really enjoyed my dumplings but there was no way I could finish them. I hate wasting food and I was just working up the courage to ask the Chinese family sitting across from me if they wanted to have some when they left and were replaced by a middle-aged white couple. After a morning of total silence I could not have been more excited to see them—and that was before I found out that they were from Braintree, Mass! They own their own construction company and are on a cruise around the world on the Queen Mary 2 for their 45th anniversary. Chatting with them was very comforting. I was very sorry to see them go!

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I got back on the bus and went to Nanjing Road, a pedestrian street with lots of shopping. I looked in a few shops for a winter hat but didn’t see any. In one touristy shop a Chinese man who at first had appeared to be another customer sidled up to me and asked in a low voice what I was looking for. Since I had nothing better to do, I told him that I was looking for a hat. He told me to follow him. He led me out of the store and around the corner to a smaller shop full of silk scarves. I didn’t see any hats and I told him so. He looked at me in confusion. “Scarf?” “No, hat.” I touched my head. Light dawned in his eyes and he motioned for me to follow him down the adjoining alley. I hesitated, since it’s not usually a good idea to go down alleys in strange cities with strange men, but since he wasn’t even waiting for me and was almost out the other end of the alley, I decided to go for it. He ended up leading me into a store full of… baseball caps. “I want a warm hat!” I told him. He finally understood, and led me around the corner to a small stand at the end  of another alley, right next to the shoppers making their way down Nanjing Road. He showed me an attractive black wool cap, picked up a calculator, and typed in the number “80.” (Typing numbers into a calculator is a popular way to negotiate when both parties don’t speak the same language; I did it all over Southeast Asia.) I might pay $13 for a winter hat in Boston but there was no way I was doing it in China. I took the calculator back and typed in “40.” He made a sound as if both amused and injured. Then he typed in 75. I typed 45. He tried 70. I held firm. I had barely started looking for a hat, and as far as I was concerned one black wool hat was very much like another. He must have sensed how I felt because after a few minutes he relented. When I gave him the money he shook my hand with a look of real admiration on his face.

P1050066was so proud!

I spent most of the day on the bus, admiring the city from the warmth of my seat. I went back to the cafeteria-style place for dinner, then took a taxi back to the hostel to be ready for my ride to Wuxi, the city where I would be teaching for the next four months. I found a seat by the door and settled in to wait.

After a few minutes a Chinese man and Chinese woman appeared at the door. They scrutinized the faces of everyone in the room, and I waited for them to settle on me. Finally they did.

“Carrie?” the woman asked. I smiled and nodded. She introduced herself as Chris, one of the English teachers at the school. The man, she told me, was the driver.

Our first stop was the airport, where Brad would be arriving shortly. Chris asked me if I’d eaten. I said I had since I wasn’t sure if we’d have time for food before the long drive to Wuxi. She said that she and the driver hadn’t eaten so we’d be stopping at KFC. (I had no idea how popular KFC is in China. There must be hundreds of them in Wuxi. I don’t think I’m exaggerating—it feels like there is one on almost every corner. There are some intersections which have KFCs across from KFCs!)

Chris told me she was excited because it was going to be the first time she had ever seen an airport. I told her I hoped it would live up to her expectations, but the part we would be seeing would probably not be that exciting.

Chris was alarmed when we got to the international arrivals area and we didn’t see Brad. “It says his flight got here half an hour ago!” I told her not to worry—lines can be very long at immigration and luggage takes a long time to unload. But she didn’t seem convinced. Every time a white man emerged from the baggage area she asked me if I thought it were him. I pointed out that they weren’t pulling my (giant red) suitcase, so probably not.

Eventually, a tall, American-looking young man appeared with my bag, and we were all very happy to see each other.

I expected the drive back to Wuxi to be on an American-style highway (i.e., in the middle of nowhere), but tall buildings remained around us at all times. After an hour and a half I read a sign on one of them and was very surprised to see that we were still in Shanghai! I guess that’s what happens with a city of 20 million people.

Eventually the city around us became noticeably less dense (though still full of tall buildings with lots of neon decorations).

“This is Wuxi,” Chris told us.

I had been warned before I arrived that even though Wuxi had a population of 3 million, it felt more like a town than a city.

I disagree!

It may feel more like a town than Shanghai does, but it feels more like a city than Boston does! Everyone, but everyone, lives in an apartment building with at least 10 stories. There are so many tall buildings that my building, which has 25 stories, is only visible from a few streets away. I live in the downtown core, and the city’s famous lake is more than an hour away from me by bus.

We stopped at Brad’s building first. Even in the dark I could tell that his complex had a beautiful garden. (I later found out that there were multiple water features and statues.) His apartment seemed nice, if a little outdated (especially the furniture). I was happy to see that he had a bathtub, and hopeful that that meant I would have one too. Mr. Q, the vice principal of our school, met us at Brad’s apartment and was very helpful about turning on the heat and other details. He also presented us both with welcome bags of food.

Then we went across the street to my building. Alas, there was basically no green space, but my apartment was on two levels, with a living/dining room with floor-to-ceiling views of the city, and a well-appointed kitchen and half-bath, and a staircase leading upstairs to the bedrooms and the main bathroom. Mr. Q turned on the heat for me in the larger of the two bedrooms (which also had a spectacular view of the city), and told me that he would send an English teacher to pick me up at 11am the next day and bring me to the school.

P1050129

And then I was alone. Alone with my view of a city that in America could only be Las Vegas. But I wasn’t in America any more.