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.


From this side of the holiday season, everything seems…well, exhausting. And cold. I have a hot water bottle under my feet under two blankets, two sheets, three shirts, and fuzzy socks, while my fingers, exposed to the air, struggle to type. It’s not Michigan-cold, but it’s about all the cold Shenzhen-me wants to handle. The thing about being a Michigander is that I know how to prepare for the cold. I’ve got a very warm winter coat, boots, gloves, scarves, and hats–at home. In Michigan. Where they can’t do me a lick of good.

In any case, the colder temps (OKAY, let’s be honest, it’s still in the mid-forties) make it a perfect time to announce my Chinese New Year vacation plans: three weeks beginning January 17, 2011 in the balmy, exotic, sometimes-dangerous, historically- and politically- rich countries of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Spending the American holidays in China was honestly kind of a bummer. I think I made the best of it, and had a lovely group of people who were also making the best of it, but there’s not much that can be done when you really, really wish you were physically somewhere else. Here’s how I spent the holidays:

Thanksgiving Dinner

We had Thanksgiving dinner at Becca’s place in Longgang. She used a toaster oven and two gas stove burners to make a feast the likes of which I’ve never seen before:

The next day Jess and I had the Yunnan “fam” over: Andrew, Ben, Carrie, Cliff, and Greg, as well as Becca, for a second home-cooked meal, this time of chili, tacos, corn on the cob, and no-bake cookies.The following morning we spent cooking yet more for the big CTLC dinner in Futian at one of our coordinators’ schools. We had our third huge meal in the same number of days, but we played Frisbee afterward to work off the calories. For the record, I am so bad at Frisbee. Sometimes I can catch it, but I never throw it correctly.Christmas was next in the holiday chain. Some of the Chinese teachers at my school are impossibly warm-hearted and empathetic. Many of them will say, “Christmas is very important for you, isn’t it? You must miss your family.” All I can do is agree. But sometimes there are distinct “lost in translation” moments when their empathy derails into misguided kindness, like when the teachers at my friend Eliza’s school asked her if she’d like to have dinner and go to a karaoke bar on Christmas day. I know their intentions were good, but we laughed later by ourselves, agreeing that nothing sounds

The Fam at Thanksgiving

more depressing than being in a karaoke bar on Christmas day.

The week before Christmas, the “Longgang 7”–Jess, Jon, Becca, Heidi, Jen, and Mike, and I–all met for dinner at an amazing sushi restaurant and had a 5 kuai ($0.75) white elephant gift exchange. That same weekend, Jess threw a small Christmas party for the teachers in her office, making a quick and delicious spread of hors d’oeuvres (I just spelled that wrong about fifteen times, but that’s okay because I teach English, not French), read the Christmas story from the New Testament while one of the teachers, Melody, read the Chinese translation after each paragraph, and successfully pulled off a 10 kuai white elephant gift exchange in a culture where we didn’t know if the concept existed or not. It was a great time. Her teachers were so friendly and kind, and were sincerely excited to be at a Christmas party, even if it was quite different from any Christmas party Jess or I had ever attended.

Jessica reading the Christmas story

Thanks to Jess’s decorations, the tiny Christmas tree that was already in our apartment when we arrived in August, and the wonderful packages I received from home, our house felt very Christmas-y.Christmas Eve was spent at a hotel in Luohu, the Shenzhen Guesthouse, where the Education Bureau of Shenzhen hosted a banquet and put us up for the night. The food was a little odd (it included, among the tasty Chinese dishes, that classic Chinese attempt at Western cuisine, sweet-sauced spaghetti and slightly soggy french fries, as well as a fruit salad with a straight up mayonnaise sauce) but the company was great and it felt festive to stay at a hotel.

Christmas day, however, I was very glad to leave the hotel early and head back to Longgang with Ben, Andrew, and Cliff, while Carrie

and Jess finished up some shopping for our supper of spaghetti, eggplant Parmesan, real salad (almost impossible to come by in a country with endless misleading (and often bitter) types of lettuce and no way to distinguish between them), fruit salad, and garlic bread. We had a cozy fam plan of eating together and watching Christmas movies all day in between Skyping with our families. That atmosphere did a lot more for me than that of the banquet the night before, and I was grateful. It was odd, however, to listen as each of my friends went into the bedrooms and saw and spoke with their families–as if their true joy had been hiding a little, and then became so evident in their voices and laughter with their families on the other end.After dinner, we dragged a mattress out from the guest bedroom, put it on the floor in the living room, and all piled on to watch Home

Melanie, Rainbow, and Lefty posing with our Christmas “props”

Alone 2, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Christmas Story.

Fast forward a week to the next event. On the last day of school before our six weeks of vacation, Mike and I had to give a performance

at Ping Gang’s annual New Year’s party. We were under-prepared and had not expected the caliber of the performances, the excitement of the students, or the sheer numbers of the audience. The number being around 3600. Which is way too many students by any count, but especially if you’re standing in front of them reciting English and Chinese poetry. I felt like an idiot, but enjoyed the performances of everyone else, and at least I learned a Chinese poem from the deal! The English, very fittingly, I thought, goes something like this:

Thoughts on a Still Night

Before my bed, the moon is shining bright,
I think that it is frost upon the ground.
I raise my head and look at the bright moon,
I lower my head and think of home.

For New Year’s the fam had decided long ago to go to Hong Kong. Planning in advance is necessary, since Hong Kong is a prime destination for New Year’s crowds, and as it’s an island, there’s only so much room for everyone who wants to attend. We made a day of it, arriving early to hit up the Vietnam embassy for visas, and then checking into our hotel, which was on Hong Kong island right in the middle of the action. We booked a room for two people with every intention of sleeping seven people there. As it turned out, we only had to sleep six, since we met up with Jess’s friend from college, Connie, a native Hong Konger, who took Jess back to her place for the night. We ate at an Irish pub, Delaney’s, for supper–amazing–bought convenience store wine and beer, and headed out to find the best vantage point for the fireworks. We ended up sneaking onto the terrace of a bar and had a pretty decent view for the midnight countdown to 2011. White lights shot at ninety degree angles from every five to ten floors of the second tallest building in Hong Kong,

Hong Kong 2011

the International Finance Centre Two, or what Ben affectionately calls “the Batman building” because it played a starring role in The

Dark Knight. We even managed to avoid most of the crowds after midnight, although doing so meant we had to sacrifice meeting up with fellow CTLCers.The following morning we ventured out for an amazing breakfast at a place called The Flying Pan, then I called it a day and headed back to Shenzhen to begin letting the holidays drain out of me.Happy Holidays, everyone. My New Year’s goals include learning five new Mandarin words a day. To make it fun I allowed myself to learn the word “hovercraft,” 气垫船 or qìdiànchuán. As Cliff said, learning that word was an investment in the future. Going to be a good year.

As ever, or more than ever, actually, my heart’s in Michigan. Thinking of you all the time and wishing I could be there. Lots of love from this side of the world.