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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.)