Backlog of Travels: Part 4: Christmas in Shanghai

At 5:45am, two days before Christmas 2012, Cliff and I took a taxi to the airport and then a plane to Shanghai. It was bitterly cold there for us sub-tropics dwellers, at 30-odd degrees Fahrenheit, and immediately upon leaving the Shanghai metro we spotted a cleverly located shop selling hats, gloves, and scarves where we bedecked ourselves appropriately with winter wear.

We dropped our bags at the hostel and took off to find People’s Park, a journey which first led us astray to the aptly named Sculpture Park, which was sprinkled liberally with, you guessed it, sculptures of all makes and models. From giant animals to cascading showers of metallic trash, we took in the unexpected art tour and then had a conversation in our by-now-quite-rusty Mandarin with three park guards who had very different opinions about where People’s Park was.


Once we found it, we were bewildered by the slow-moving, massive crowds of predominantly elderly women. Following the crush into a long, dark tunnel near the entrance of the park, we saw what the fuss was about. The tunnel, and indeed every path radiating out from the entrance of the park, was lined with what appeared to be resumes. They were each numbered, with a photo of the person and a detailed list of their physical attributes, career prospects, personalities, and more. I had found myself in what must have been one of the world’s largest dating pools in history, and it was all being conducted by the old aunties or grandmothers of  the bachelors and bachelorettes. The youngsters being pawned off on one another were in their twenties, thirties, or forties. Very few of them were in physical attendance, as you might imagine, but the resumes were all that was necessary for their elderly relatives to go about their matchmaking business.


We made our way out of the crowd and found two things of interest: an art museum where we happily spent a couple hours, and then a rundown old fair with a few functioning rides. I could not be persuaded on them as they went too high into the air for my tastes, but Cliff gamely rode one.


After visiting a bit of Shanghai, we took a train to spend a couple days of our brief trip in Nanjing, a city unfortunately known for the historical massacre of Chinese men, women, and children by Japanese invaders in 1937. This single horrific event has flavored Chinese-Japanese relations ever since, as the Japanese government has never formally apologized or even admitted that the massacre took place. Compare that to the vast reparations and official apologies that Germany has made in the wake of the Holocaust, and what it would have been like for the world if Germany had NOT done so, and you can see why there is so much anger left simmering in Chinese society toward basically Japanese anything.

Last year, during a lesson in which we read a story written from the point of view of a young Japanese child who lived in the US during World War II, a 5th grade student told me that her dad had told her that the Japanese were bad people for what they had done. I navigated the situation as gracefully as I could, but actually reading the short story by Yoshiko Uchida was much more effective than I was – reason #1,000,000,000 why literature is important to developing empathy and understanding. (I should mention that this was the same student who later agreed when another student said that he was “sometimes germaphobic” to a certain ethnic group. My vehement outrage at that statement was perhaps not my best teaching moment, but it got the point across. What children learn from their parents sticks, so PLEASE TEACH TOLERANCE.)


The Japanese – Chinese feud is not omnipresent in the society, however. An opposing anecdote: I made friends my last couple weeks in Longgang, Shenzhen with a woman who had approached me while shopping to see if I wanted to get a cup of coffee. Thrown off guard, I said no, several times, but she was persistent and I’m no good in the face of persistence, and so I agreed to hang out with this perfect stranger. She was very nice, we chatted about not much at all, and I found out she lived in my apartment complex with her Japanese boyfriend, and that she worked at a Japanese company.

The best place in Nanjing to get information on the subject is the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, where Cliff and I went on Christmas day. The Memorial Hall did not mince words/images/etc. in regards to its history, nor should it have. The high estimate of massacre victims tallies around 300,000 – deaths not of soldiers but of unarmed, starved, defenseless citizens. Parts of the memorial hall were staggering in their simplicity and solemn beauty – an example being the gargantuan statue of an emaciated woman at the entrance, slumped with legs splayed, pain etched in her stone face. Other parts were overwhelming in their aggression and insistence – walls of photographs of atrocities, piles of bones.  Some parts were absurd, such as the cheaply mechanical recreation of a Japanese soldier entering a Chinese house.

Following through the museum led us out into a long dark corridor with candles illuminating name upon name of the known victims. After this reflection in the dark, there was light, as the tour ended outside with a long shallow pool of water leading to a giant stone memorial carved with words of peace.


We also made time to walk the Nanjing City Wall. Having lived in the sweltering sub-tropics for three years, I have often felt starved for seasons, especially autumn. When our taxi driver – who was very kind and told us about all the different places we should try to see – dropped us off, the heaviness of the morning disintegrated and I felt actually frolicsome as I darted up the stone steps leading to the wide city wall. (Darted might be a bit of an exaggeration – my ankle was still swollen and twisted from a hiking incident a couple weeks before.) We were stopped for a couple pictures before we could get very far, but after we’d done our foreign-tourist photo duty, we were left alone on the wall.


In a city of over 7 million souls, for the first time since I’d stepped off the plane in Beijing in August 2010: alone.

It was so beautiful up there, with a breathtaking view of the city and the lake. Leaves blanketed the top of the wall in autumn colors which seemed improbable at the end of December: yellows, oranges, browns. We walked a couple miles down the whole length of the wall – we knew we should turn back at some point but it felt so good to keep skipping ahead, to lean over the wall, to take pictures, to have impromptu races and to not be pushed or crowded or anything else that is daily life in a busy city.


Eventually we ran out of wall and had to literally come down from our high, but that tall, leaf-strewn, expansive, and gloriously empty place that gave me such peace and joy on Christmas day is a forever-memory.

Though we could only experience each place briefly, I thought Shanghai and Nanjing exuded dynamism and vibrancy and would be amazing places to get to know for a longer stretch of time.

Backlog of Travels: Part 3: Kaiping

Wonder of wonders, I had a two day weekend at the beginning of May. Cliff, on the recommendation of some of our friends, suggested we use the time to visit Kaiping. I booked a hotel for the night, he got the bus tickets, and away we went.

Kaiping (开平) is the ancestral homeland of many overseas Chinese who fled for their lives due to various conflicts, from the Punti-Hakka clan wars in the late 1800’s to WWII. Those who returned from abroad brought with them Western architectural knowledge which they combined with traditional eastern architectural style, leading to the construction of the Kaiping Diaolou (碉樓), some of the loveliest buildings I’ve ever seen.

A diaolou at Jinjiangli

The diaolou are fortified watchtowers (the tallest is nine stories high) that were used in defense against Japanese invaders at one point in time and now live on as memorialized, unused anomalies dotted across a green rice-paddy landscape.

Cliff and I took a 3.5 hour bus from Shenzhen, arriving in Kaiping in the early evening. We checked into our hotel before heading out to find dinner, which we finally found after walking through weirdly empty streets. It was only around 7:30pm on a Saturday, but almost everything seemed to be closed. After dinner, on the way back, it started down-pouring, crashing sheets of rain.

This continued all night, however resulting in a gorgeous, sunny, swelteringly sticky day. We ate dim sum at the hotel before heading out to find the diaolou. The city was pretty, cut through by a wide, muddy river. Eventually we arranged for a taxi driver to take us to two of the main tourist spots, Jinjiangli village (famous for having the most diaolou in a concentrated area) and Chikan (a historic overseas Chinese village).

Jinjiangli was completely underwater. Because the paths were flooded, we got lost again, this time walking past farms with way too many geese.

Way too many geese

In the picture above, you’ll notice that water comes right up to the diaolou’s door. In dryer times, that water is nowhere present, and you could walk to the diaolou without wearing flippers. Cliff and I gamely took off our shoes to wade to the entrance of one of the diaolou. Inside, we climbed five or six flights of stairs to get onto the roof and take in the view.

While on the roof, a man stopped us, gesturing with his camera. However, he didn’t want the ordinary tourist photo with the resident foreign couple. He wanted us to pretend to be Rose and Jack from Titanic. Titanic 3D was a huge hit in the mainland (and in Hong Kong as well). Laughing, we did as he asked, letting him position us facing outward from the diaolou with our hands spread out. “I’m King of the World!”

Chikan Village

I wish we had spent more time in Jinjiangli, because Chikan was much less exciting. The street on the river was lovely and we found a curious antique shop with tea cups, masks, snake wine (complete with snakes curled up inside the jars) and various other junk that has no reason to be fascinating except it’s all old, and dusty, and is meant to make us think that if we can take home a little piece of exotica our houses, and by extension, our lives, will be a little less boring.

In Chikan we ate honey twirled on a stick for 1 yuan, a sickeningly sweet and quite chewy piece of candy. Later on, our appetites raging after just three dishes of dim sum that morning and heavy walking, sweating, and picture-taking all day, we finally found a little shop that served us my perennially favorite, excessively simple Chinese meal: 10-15 pork and cabbage dumplings with peanut sauce, chili sauce, and soy sauce to flavor.

After our late lunch, we returned to our friendly taxi driver who had stuck with us all day so that we could get to the bus station and head back to Shenzhen, very sweaty, sun-burned, and pleasantly worn out.

First Impressions

Incidentally, Jane Austen’s working title for Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions. A little more apt, a little less catchy. In any case, if it was good enough for the rough draft of a masterpiece, I suppose it’s good enough for my blog post.

It is somehow August 10th. I am living twelve hours in the future (you all eat cake for breakfast) and I am in Beijing, China. Travel on the 1st-2nd was intense and took an entire day. I cried steadily during the flight from Detroit Metro to Chicago O’Hare. I had expected my mother to cry, but not myself! During the thirteen hour flight from Chicago to Seoul, South Korea, I watched 5 movies, ate airplane food for the first time, peed on an airplane for the first time, and was super uncomfortable for way too long.

As we flew into Seoul, I looked out the window and saw the city. Just like that, I’d seen Korea! Just from the air, true, but it was the first time it sunk in that I was on an actual adventure.

There are a hundred of us in the CTLC program this year. We all left the Beijing airport at close to 10pm, exhausted, dirty, and wide-eyed. The air tasted ashy. The bus ride to the hotel was dreamy–the buildings are huge, all the signs are neon Chinese characters and completely indecipherable to me. We drove past the Bird’s Nest, where the 2008 Olympics were held, on the way to our hotel, the Xin Hua Sports Club. The mattresses are hard as rocks everywhere you go in China, apparently–literally like lying on a slab of concrete covered in a sheet. I do not know how to say this convincingly, but they are incredibly comfortable. I love them. It helps that the pillows are very plush. Our hotel is also equipped with Western-style toilets, which is a luxury that I do not take lightly or for granted, since I am slowly becoming a pro at using the squat toilets. Tips: wear a skirt, wear shoes with decent coverage, and don’t forget to carry toilet paper with you at all times.

The next day was orientation. And the day after that I was teaching. On my own (many others had co-teachers), in front of a classroom of seventeen 12-13 year old, whip-smart, irrepressible, and entirely intimidating Chinese students. More on them later. They are a topic unto themselves, as is teaching. Suffice it to say that I made more mistakes than I thought possible; I am just as bad at this job as I had feared, and I am trying my best to get better. On the fourth day, a few teachers were reassigned to different classrooms, and so now I have a co-teacher, and it has been really helpful and inspiring to see the way he deals with the kids and handles classroom management.

Beijing is a very cheap city, especially compared to Shenzhen, so I’ve been told. Lunch can range anywhere from 4 kuai ($0.67) if you’re eating from a street vendor to 30 kuai ($5.00) if you go to a sit-down restaurant. The food is amazing. Unfortunately, Shenzhen doesn’t have street vendors the way Beijing does. This is probably for the best, as street vendor food has been invariably fried and oily–and hence, delicious. A 24oz beer costs 4 kuai, and 2L of water (the tap water is not potable) is 3.30 kuai. Tourist souvenirs are far more expensive, naturally.

Peking University campus is beautiful. I need to find the library–it’s the oldest one in Asia with some very rare materials. However, we’re kept hopping day in and day out. I teach first thing in the morning at 8:30am, and then it’s off to TEFL activities, lesson planning, lunch, then two hours of Chinese language classes, and then back to TEFL lecture. Peking University’s campus is very widespread. It’s a lot of walking, a lot of high-energy, demanding work, on not a lot of sleep and with, in my case, a sore throat and congestion type of cold that kept me pretty fatigued. Half the time I feel like I’m running on fumes, and the rest of the time I’m running on sheer adrenaline because I’m in Beijing. I’m in China. CHINA!

Today we went to the Great Wall, and because we didn’t have to teach in the morning, most of the group went out last night to a club called Banana (apparently there are mafia-owned clubs in Shenzhen called Chocolate and Ice Cream. I’m not sure what to do with this information except revel in it). The floor supposedly bounced up and down, but there were too many people dancing for me to notice anything more than a slight wave that could have just been my own uncoordinated movements.

The Great Wall today. I was on it. I climbed up it, and then I climbed down it (bad idea, by the way; there are other ways down like a luge or a cable car, and the endless stairs downward destroyed my knees, but somehow it seems kind of…off…to get down from the Great Wall–which spans 3,100 miles and was first constructed in 700 BC–by jumping in what amounts to an amusement park ride). The Wall was unbelievable. It just goes on and on. I’d love to hike through the unrestored parts someday. In China, ruins look shameful rather than something to be revered, so much of the Great Wall has been rebuilt over the years. But it’d be something to walk over the actual crumbling rock of one of man’s earliest and loftiest architectural endeavors.

I could write forever, but instead I’m going to go find something to eat, look over my homework and lesson plan, and enjoy the rest of the day “off” (if that’s what you call an early morning and intense hike accompanied by a mild hangover) before jumping back into the grind tomorrow.


Review: Iron & Silk by Mark Salzman

My foray into Chinese travel memoirs has been backwards, chronologically speaking. I began with Chang’s Factory Girls, which was written in 2008, then journeyed to 1996 with Hessler’s River Town, and then wrapped up this morning with Iron & Silk by Salzman, the events whereof began in 1982.

Iron & Silk I read off and on throughout a day and a half. Salzman’s style was blunt, crisp, and to the point. He wrote about what interested him: wushu and his study thereof (with, among others, the famous Pan Qingfu), and calligraphy and his study thereof. His friendship with a peasant fisherman’s family was recounted, as were relationships with his various teachers and students, including an interesting young boy who was continually on the run from his family, staying with strangers and stealing trinkets as mementos until officials dragged him home again.

This book surprised me–was even unsettling–because, although it chronicled events that occurred in 1982, so much closer to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s time in power than the events in Hessler’s River Town, when China was still so far from the modern, progress-guzzling behemoth we know it to be today, the Chinese people in Salzman’s books were characterized as much more irreverent, much more unfettered in their language and criticism of Chinese politics than the Chinese citizens in River Town.

The irreverance of the earlier book, the careful close-lippedness of the later book: nothing could be so indicative of the shift caused by the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Not yet a part of history in Salzman’s books, and only briefly covered in Hessler’s, the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the government crackdown afterward nonetheless influenced nearly all of Hessler’s interactions, and caused me to see ghosts in Salzman’s, ghosts of a future that hadn’t yet taken place.

There’s more to be said of this book, certainly, but there’s not much more for me to say. It was a good read, but not a remarkable one, and in the end, it made me feel kind of spooky.

Countdown: 41 days until takeoff

The more I study Mandarin Chinese, the deeper into contradiction I fall: I am at once gaining access to the language and beginning to understand Mandarin the way I understand English, and I am also realizing just how little I have learned, how far I have to go, and how completely impossible it will be to ever grasp Mandarin in remotely the same way that I know English. Mandarin Chinese and American English, if you haven’t noticed, are not in the same language family. Not just oh, language acquisition is difficult but oh, the written system of Chinese lacks any and all intuition for me; Chinese speech patterns are alien; tones are impossible; and pinyin, while easier (and the only way I can make–or force–headway into this language) is not used at all in China and thus is of little practical use to me except as a study tool. Pinyin is the romanization of Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet, and it’s only used to help us poor waiguoren, or foreigners. Or, literally, “out-land person,” a person from somewhere else. An other.

Am I intimidated by the idea of tackling the Mandarin language?  Yes. Because even if I do manage some level of fluency over years of study, there are 200 languages in China as well as countless local dialects. Dialects! Look what has to say about the word dialect:

di·a·lect // (d-lkt) n.


a. A regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, especially a variety of speech differing from the standard literary language or speech pattern of the culture in which it exists: Cockney is a dialect of English.
b. A variety of language that with other varieties constitutes a single language of which no single variety is standard: the dialects of Ancient Greek.
2. The language peculiar to the members of a group, especially in an occupation; jargon: the dialect of science.
3. The manner or style of expressing oneself in language or the arts.
4. A language considered as part of a larger family of languages or a linguistic branch. Not in scientific use: Spanish and French are Romance dialects.

I would also add that dialects are indicators of heritage and (often!) geographic location or PAST geographic location. If you speak a certain way that sounds different from the way others speak around you, even if you’re speaking the same language, I’m going to assume that in your past you lived somewhere other than where you are now. Nifty! My nasal tones and my drawled A’s all indicate the Midwestern United States. My lazy “ain’t”s and inflections bespeak a poor, undereducated upbringing while my written/academic voice indicates the exact opposite. More evidence of my past life, no matter where I am at the present! Time traveling via language. We speak in certain ways and our speech tells a story.

There can’t be anything much more intimate than language study. Fluency in any language is the closest an outsider can be to being a local. Imagine being privy to another culture’s idioms and turns of phrase which originated in cultural habit, and understanding just how certain traditions permeate and influence language. History exists in language. Customs. Ideology. Consider the masculine oppressive, sexist structure of English, which is a testament to our patriarchal history: mailman, “he” as a generic pronoun, actor vs actress (why are two words needed for a single profession?). These are the insights that language can reveal. No matter how difficult language study is (and for me, it is VERY difficult) it is also impossibly interesting.

Right now I am completely fascinated by the Chinese phrase hao(3) jiu(3) bu(2) jian(4), which is translated into English as “long time no see.” Which is crazy! Because:

The English phrase “long time no see” is, according to my Chinese textbook, “said to have had its origin in a word-by-word translation of the Chinese greeting.” Now, of course, “long time no see” is not an English sentence–that’s not how English speakers use or construct their language. But we’ve adopted that phrase as our own to the point where even though I am trying actively to think and write about this phrase for the weird thing it is, my mind keeps slipping back into thinking of it as normal.

But think: (1) hao jiu bu jian is Chinese. (2) It was very roughly translated into pidgin English, who knows how long ago (large scale immigration of the Chinese to the United States began in the mid-1800’s thanks to the California Gold Rush, although of course there were Chinese immigrants before then), in a character-by-character/word-by-word translation into “long time no see.” (3) This phrase then becomes a functioning and completely acceptable part of the English lexicon, even though it makes no grammatical sense. (4) Because the phrase has been adopted, when I get to Lesson 4: Hobbies in my first semester Mandarin Chinese class at the University of Michigan during Fall 2006, I come across the phrase hao jiu bu jian in a dialogue and it is STILL being roughly translated character-by-character into the now acceptable pidgin English phrase “long time no see!” An acceptable translation into English should be something like “a long time has passed since seeing you” or even the more casual “it’s been awhile.” But instead, hao jiu bu jian is translated into a non-grammatical phrase which, while ostensibly English, HAS ITS ROOTS IN CHINESE!