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
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.)
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
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