The Invasion


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.


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.




...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



That’s What Wuxi Said


My first few days in China were a blur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Canal Park

Canal Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We still don’t know what Brad’s was.

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

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

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

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

My apartment building

My apartment building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the weekend passed uneventfully.

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

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

In Canal Park

In Canal Park



China Doll


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

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

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

Maybe it’s all the staring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

P1050066was so proud!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is Wuxi,” Chris told us.

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

I disagree!

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

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

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


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