08/13/13

A Tour de Friends

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The logical thing to do after traveling approximately 20,000 miles*on planes, trains, automobiles, buses, boats, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and an elephant is to lie completely still for a month or two while hooked up to some sort of oxygen tank.

But I’ve never been very logical.

Since I am what is optimistically termed “between jobs,” I have more free time than I have ever had before (at least, since the summer of ’96 when my father informed me that I was no longer allowed to spend my summers flat on my back watching reruns of Saved by the Bell) or am likely to have again. Since to me “free time” = “travel opportunity,” I have decided to visit all the people I never have time to visit when I only have three weeks of vacation a year.

My mother calls it my Tour de Friends. And it is so ambitious that I will probably have to take a page from Lance Armstrong’s book and start injecting some sort of animal-based steroid.

I am going to start by flying to Seattle to see my friend Anna. Then I will fly to Wichita to officiate my friend Vatsady’s wedding. There I will hopefully be able to hitch a ride with one of the groom’s Ohio-dwelling friends to Indiana to visit my friend Camille. From there I will Megabus it to Chicago to see my brother and my friend Dione. Then I will get a ride with my aunt to Minnesota for my cousin’s wedding. While there I will also see my friend Deborah. Then I will take the bus back to Chicago, rest, then take two buses (one to Cleveland, and one to Pittsburgh) to visit friends in Morgantown, West Virginia. Then back to Pittsburgh to see another friend, before going on to Washington, DC to see more. After that I will make a stop to see people in New York before returning to Boston.

I would have loved to have done a more traditional road trip (i.e., in a car), but buying one just for the occasion seemed a little silly. Hopefully the bus won’t be too miserable. Whatever happens, by the end I should have visited six new-to-me states (Washington, Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia) and revisited at least seven old ones (Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), traveled 3000 miles, and seen countless people I love.

I can’t wait!

 

08/9/13

Hiroshima, Mon Amour

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This week marked the 68th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, so it seems as good a time as any to write about my visit last month.

As I have mentioned before, World War II is, for lack of a better word, a preoccupation of mine. I have been fascinated by it since I was a teenager. I was so interested in Japan and World War II that I took a semester of Japanese in high school (I can still say “my name is Carrie!”) and so interested in Hiroshima that I wrote a play about it that was shortlisted in a young playwright competition. Since this is my first post about Japan, let me just say that I absolutely LOVED Japan, and anything negative I write about Japan’s conduct in World War II should not be taken as any reflection WHATSOEVER as to how I feel about the country and the people of today.

The first thing that hits you about Hiroshima is that it is not what you expect–whatever you’re expecting.

The guidebooks describe the city as, well, ugly–which I can’t really argue with. It comes with the territory of being heavily bombed. It also doesn’t really feel like Japan–or at least not like Tokyo or Kyoto or Osaka. It has very wide streets with streetcars running down the middle, and no particular architectural theme going on. It kind of reminded me of Helsinki, actually. But warmer. And by “warmer,” I mean Satan would be fanning himself. It does have lots of water, though–there’s the river that runs through the center of the city (whose iconic T-shaped bridge was the target the Enola Gay was aiming for), and when I took the train to Miyajima I saw just how many fingers of the sea push inland, dividing the city into cake-shaped wedges.

I spent most of my one day there at the Peace Park, a large area devoted to memorials to the victims of the atomic bombing. I started at the Peace Memorial Museum, determined to look at everything. I pushed every optional button to watch more videos; I read caption after caption after caption. It may sound cheesy, but I felt like it was my duty–as a historian, an American, and a human being–to try to feel as deeply as possible the pain the people of Hiroshima experienced on August 6, 1945–and ever since.

The museum is made up of two buildings with a connecting bridge. The first is easier to handle; it matter-of-factly tells the story of the bombing and of the mayors of Hiroshima’s (ongoing) efforts to stop nuclear testing. The second is much more disturbing–scraps of children’s clothing, the shadow of a body seared into stone, and even some body parts. (I told a French family that was planning on visiting not to take their 10-year-old son to the second building.) I had read about how revisionist the Japanese can be about World War II (which I later experienced for myself in Tokyo), so I was gratified to see this, which I saw as a (small) step in the right direction:

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I thought the museum was well done, but for me it wasn’t nearly as moving as the Killing Fields in Cambodia, though it was difficult to put my finger on why. Was it that the personal stories the museum told were much too short, and told more impersonally? Was it that I, a World War II buff, am not as certain as the museum curators that the war would have ended without the bombing, or an even more costly land invasion of Japan–which would almost certainly have involved my grandfather? (I had also just read a book that detailed how Japan’s plans to massacre all of their POWs were derailed by the atomic bombings.) Or is it just impossible for a building to compete with the emotion of standing on soil where at any moment more victims’ bones could poke through to the surface?

I really wanted to feel more, so I went to a nearby building that contained a room for reflection and prayer (that ironically reminded me of nothing so much as similar spaces at the memorial in Nanjing to the Japanese atrocities there), as well as an archive of personal stories of the aftermath. Unfortunately, they are almost all available exclusively in Japanese, which seems a terrible shame. The whole complex is devoted to promoting world peace with a “never again” message and it would be much more effective if all the international visitors could fully absorb the horrors that the residents of Hiroshima experienced. I read all the stories that had been translated (family members dying one after another; parents fruitlessly searching the city for their children, and vice versa; people camping in the ruins of their homes for years, etc.)

There are many other memorials in the park, including the cenotaph (through which you can see the iconic a-bomb dome)…

 

The cenotaph

The cenotaph

…and the Children’s Memorial, conceived of and funded by Japanese children, to commemorate the children who died:

The Children's Memorial

The Children’s Memorial

You can see lots of paper cranes at the memorial.

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(Side note about paper cranes; twice on my trip, in Kyoto and in Miyajima, I encountered children from Hiroshima who wanted to practice their English. They would come up to me in pairs or in a larger group and say something like, “Can I ask you a question?” When I responded in the affirmative they would ask, “What is your favorite Japanese food?” or “What has surprised you the most about Japan?”   or, if they were really little, “What is your favorite color?” or “What is your favorite animal?” (I initially answered “orange” because the little girl was wearing orange, but the look of alarm on her face prompted me to blurt out, “Or blue! I like blue, too!” The same thing happened with my favorite animal, the hippopotamus. I quickly amended my answer to, “dogs.”) Anyway, after I answered, the kids all gave me folded paper cranes. I was tickled and touched by each and every encounter, and would happily have answered questions all day.)

The plaza in front of the museum.

The plaza in front of the museum.

I spent hours reflecting (and reflecting on reflecting), but in the end I had nothing to say. I left the beautiful guest books at both museums (signed by every luminary you can think of), blank.

A building that was not destroyed by the bomb. It is now a rest area/gift shop.

A building that was not destroyed by the bomb. It is now a rest area/gift shop.

After many hours at the Peace Park, I decided to give myself permission to get an ice cream cone and move on.

But my trip to Hiroshima did raise some big questions for me. 1. Did the U.S. do everything it could have to warn the Japanese about the bomb? (The museum makes it sound like there was no warning at all, but I just read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and she says that fliers were dropped all over Japan urging people to evacuate cities including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) 2. Was the U.S. postwar occupation of Japan as benevolent as I’ve always believed? I’ve always thought of it as something to be proud of–the Japanese honestly thought we were going to come in there and enslave them, and instead we built the country into a superpower. But the museum said that during the occupation studies of the effects of radiation were suppressed. And the Yushukan Museum in Tokyo (which is infamously revisionist, but that doesn’t mean it’s always wrong) said that there was lots of censorship during the occupation. I’d like to learn more about that.

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I feel like what I’ve written is so inadequate–but I guess there’s nothing you can say about something so terrible that doesn’t sound flat and trite in comparison. I can only echo the message of the Peace Park, and hope that nothing like this ever happens again.

08/5/13

I’m Baaaack!

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima, Japan

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima, Japan

Wow. It’s over. I’m back in the U.S.A.

I can smell the freedom.

First, I’d like to apologize for being so lax about posting towards the end. In my defense, teaching is hard and prepping/grading takes a lot of time. In my further defense, my VPN (which allowed me to access WordPress from China) stopped working so I couldn’t even see my blog, let alone post on it. In my further further defense, sometimes you just want to live things and not write about them. In my further further further defense, I’m kind of lazy.

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what I’ve learned from my seven months of (mostly) solo travel. In no particular order:

- Eating at restaurants alone is the opposite of a big deal and I can’t even imagine why people are afraid of doing this. Especially in America, where people don’t stare at you and hand you menus that don’t have English on them and there is a zero percent chance that you will end up accidentally ordering snake.

- If you do end up accidentally ordering snake, it won’t be the end of the world.

- That said, eel is much tastier than snake.

- If you had asked me a few months ago if I could imagine voluntarily eating eel, I would not have responded in the affirmative.

- The worst thing about traveling alone is having no one to put sunscreen on your back for you. Or watch your bag while you go swimming. This means that you have to keep your bag right at the water’s edge, and watch it, while you burn. But it’s all good because you’re swimming in Repulse Bay and that could not sound any cooler.

- Staying in female-only dorms is better than mixed dorms, both because you can change your clothes without stress, and because the odds of someone snoring loudly are greatly reduced.

- There is always someone who has been to more countries than you have. There is also always someone who has been to fewer.

- Things are usually on must-do lists for a reason, so don’t try to be smarter than everyone else and skip the main attractions, unless you’re absolutely sure you wouldn’t like it. (By the end I didn’t want to see any more big Buddhas. I feel like I’ve seen every possible variation–largest indoor, largest outdoor, largest gold, largest bronze, largest happy, largest sad… enough! You know something isn’t right when Buddha is making you angry.)

- Don’t plan too far in advance. You never know when someone will tell you that you HAVE to see something–and you want to have the flexibility to go see it.

- Safety is worth splurging on. Take a cab if you feel the tiniest bit uncomfortable, anywhere.

- Be careful about what you say about the country you’re visiting. Sure, we all need to blow off steam sometimes but occasionally people would say things that struck me as borderline racist. Saying “China is so dirty” is a lot better than saying “the Chinese are so dirty.” (But neither should be said aloud if there is even a possibility than someone Chinese will hear you. You are a guest in someone else’s home and the only polite thing to say is that you are delighted by everything.)

- Don’t buy something unless you’re sure you or someone you know will love it forever. Just because everyone else is buying it does not mean that you need it!!!

- Embrace the differences. That’s why you travel, right? Sure, it can be maddening that it’s so hard to find cold water in China (how can people drink hot water when it’s 104 degrees out?!!) but if you wanted everything to be the way things are at home, you could have just stayed there.

What am I missing???

 

 

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!)

 

06/2/13

Spring Breakers

My classroom

My classroom

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!

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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