One of the best parts of learning about a foreign culture is discovering new and better ways to do things–best practices that we can bring home and adapt to our own lives.
This story is not an example of that.
This story is, in fact, an example of the opposite.
When we arrived at the school in February, we asked when the vacations would be so that we could start to plan when and how to travel to all the places on our bucket lists. We were told that there would be a three day break in April and two more in June.
“Great,” we said. “When will they be?”
We were such innocents.
It turns out that unlike American school calendars, which were carved into stone sometime during Columbus’ voyage, Chinese school calendars (or at least the calendar at the school we teach at) are afraid of commitment. While the dates of the holidays each vacation honors are fixed, the actual days we will have off school could come before or after the holiday–and it seems like nobody wants to spoil the surprise. Adding a layer to this incomprehensible problem is a second one: in China (or at least at our school) you don’t just get a vacation–you have to make up a chunk of the hours you get off during the week on the weekend. So even if you can guess the dates you will have off, you can’t be sure if you will have to work, say, the Sunday before or the Saturday after. Or both. If you’re wondering what makes that a vacation, join the club.
Eventually we figured out when our first break would be: the beginning of April. The Chinese get the time off from work to sweep the tombs of their ancestors. My students are not big fans of this—traffic is terrible, since everyone is going to the same graveyards, and if their ancestors didn’t live in Wuxi it involves a long drive to the countryside, and then a few hours at a cemetery. But since I didn’t have to spend my vacation sweeping I was very much pro.
Alexis, Liam, John, Brad and I had talked for a while about where we wanted to go, and settled on Xi’an, the central Chinese city that’s the home of the terracotta warriors. It’s an overnight train ride from the east coast, and we knew that train tickets were likely to sell out during a national holiday, so we asked one of our students to write out the details of the trains that we wanted in Chinese and headed for the train station weeks in advance.
Waiting to buy tickets at the train station in Wuxi may very well be my least favorite thing to do in China. (As I type this I’m trying to decide if this is true. Is it worse than squat toilets? Oh, definitely. Worse than squat toilets with no privacy? I’m going with yes again.) Why is it so terrible? Well, for one thing, it takes FOREVER. The lines don’t look that long (20 people or so) but they are interminable. You also have to deal with staring, people standing too close (personal space is not a thing here), people cutting in line (totally commonplace), the uncertainty of not knowing if you’re even in the right line (all the signs are in Chinese), and the dread that you won’t be understood when you get to the front (even with a piece of paper with what you want written on it, they may ask questions, and I can’t always understand them or even guess what they’re trying to say). As if that weren’t enough, for some reason they are always playing a TV show on the monitors that is—I swear I am not making this up—a contest between two men to see who can do a better job of making sandwiches using only their feet. I’m not easily grossed out, but even I have limits.
But the very worst part of going to the train station is that when I finally get to the front of the line, people crowd around me to listen to what I say, and when the woman behind the counter finally makes it clear to me that I can’t buy tickets for whatever reason (we went multiple times in our effort to go to Xi’an, and the reasons were: too early, too early, too late), at least a few of them laughed at me in what can only be described as a malicious manner. Now I am not a passive person—in America I would have had some choice words for them. Heck, I’ve told people off in French before. But in Chinese I would, at best, sound like a toddler doing his best Dirty Harry impression. So I always came away feeling extremely angry and frustrated. (But I did come up with a plan for what to do if it ever happens again. I am going to look them up and down in a really superior way and then say really condescendingly, “I’m using multisyllabic words in a derisive manner.” And just let them imagine that I’m saying something really cutting.)
Anyway, as you’ve probably gathered, we were not able to buy tickets to Xi’an, which was INCREDIBLY frustrating after the multiple trips we had made to and miserable hours we had spent at the train station. By the time this became completely clear it was two days before the vacation. We considered Beijing, but all the affordable tickets to Beijing were sold out. Finally I suggested we visit Hangzhou, a city on the other side of Shanghai that is famous for its beautiful lake. Nobody had a better idea, and Hangzhou won.
Since I had zero desire to set foot inside the train station again, we decided to take the bus. We had never been to the bus station before, but a woman who was lurking outside helped us find the ticket counter. It was not easy, and I’m pretty sure she expected payment for her help, but since I obviously couldn’t understand what she was saying to me (and she never used any of the words or signs I know for “money”), she gave up and left. There was no line at the bus station but there was an even-bigger-than-usual crowd eager to press against me and listen to what I was saying, so buying the tickets was pretty stressful.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel triumphant when I left the station. In spite of not knowing when our vacation would be, in spite of having had zero help and almost zero Mandarin, we were getting out of Wuxi. And we were going to have a good time, damn it!