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.


5am departure to Carita from Jakarta. Tired after a delayed flight and late arrival the night before. Air is humid and smells a little smoky, heavy with evidence of the previous night’s rain. Headache from little sleep, dehydration. We’re on the highway for a quick minute before spending a couple hours on winding, potholed seaside roads lined with children readying themselves for school and brightly colored domiciles: sapphire tile, ruby tile, sunshine yellow tile.


speedboat gliding out of the canals before hitting open ocean

8am arrival in Carita. Breakfast of fried rice and fresh orange juice. Later, I see abundant orange trees lining the road. We walk to the dock through a cluster of houses with children shouting and adults openly staring. The speedboat, maybe 20ft for six of us, revs to life, filling the air with gasoline fumes. It picks up speed. I put my head over the side of the boat like an eager dog. Remember fishing trips with Grandpa; remember tubing with Uncle Jeff. But I’ve never gone so fast, and never  on the open ocean. Exhilarating. So open – no land in sight. Beautiful sunny day and I keep seeing the ocean as water in a bowl about to spill over.

Theme of the day: prehistory, primordial ooze, the beginning of time.

We’re heading into storm clouds. Boat hits waves that toss us like rag dolls. No one else seems concerned that the blue water has turned a menacing gray: direct antithesis to my worst-case planning. Kick off shoes, I tell myself on repeat, hold onto the seat cover – looks like a flotation device. Be okay with tumbling through water for a while. Trust you’ll come back up. Get as big a breath as you can. Later, past danger, I found where the life vests were stowed.


Krakatau seen smoking from the boat

Weather cleared as we had our first glimpse of Krakatau, which seemed to part the clouds and tame the sea as we approached. Krakatau is an active volcano which erupts regularly, most recently in September 2012. Smoke reeking of sulfur steamed and drifted from still-cooling piles of magma. It was two mountains in one: Krakatau’s peak and crater in the distance, pouring smoke, and the magma layer.

Our guide had seen it explode. “Like fireworks, the smoke, like thunder, boom boom.”

We hiked up to the summit of the first steep dune (sand, ash, stone), somewhat hardened by the rain the night before. We struggled up, slipping back each step, shoes filling with sand. At the top of the dune  we looked down into a valley of magma and up to Krakatau’s peak. There’s a clear path where the lava gushed forth and tumbled down to the sea, boiling the waters and killing all manner of sea-life. The piles of magma spew smoke and smolder red in some places, white ash in others, like hot coal. Freshly made pumice and other volcanic rock litters the volcano’s side. I take a piece home. I don’t feel guilty.

It is unreal to stand on an active volcano. It’s like being transported back in time a couple billion years ago to the

hot magma trailing down to the sea

hot magma trailing down to the sea

Earth’s rebellious adolescent years when continents and oceans were more vehemently in flux than they are now, like witnessing my great great great grandparents meet for the first time and realizing I would somehow result from that moment.

We hike back down. Get in the boat. Speed away to a little island for lunch on a beach overrun with too many little crabs scuttling to and fro, eyes on stalks, airs of suspicion.

We snorkel, briefly. Look through crystal clear water to unbelievable depths (tall towers of coral, brightly colored fish darting here and there) and listen to my own shaky terrified gasping breaths through the snorkel. I love snorkeling but each time (three times only) there is a long period of adjustment as I get used to the fear, the new way of breathing, the vastness of the wide unexplored ocean world. It’s nearly the same fear as of heights, combined with the mind-drenching terror of imagining free-floating in space, though there’s no real way for me to fall or even drown in the calm waters.

Meanwhile, as I struggle to regain myself, tiny jellyfish sting and sting – my thumb, my arm, my legs. Sharp isolated areas of buzzing pain that last for a half hour after I’m back in the boat.

Happy Chinese New Year! Spent the holiday and some of my annual leave in Indonesia, in and around the capital, Jakarta. The first day (recounted above) was eventful – the rest, spent on a tiny island an hour off the coast of Jakarta – was less so. I finished Anna Karenina if that’s any indication.

Apologies for the long absence. Love and miss you all!

Review: Country Driving by Peter Hessler

I take to my blog once again to expound on the narrative excellence of Peter Hessler. He’s not necessarily a magician with words, but he is a master of narrative flow and he captures China in ways that most foreigners could only dream of.

Country Driving: a Chinese Roadtrip is the summer vacation you never thought possible. This book follows three stories 1) two separate car trips following a path set out by Great Wall of China; 2) his sojourns to Sancha, a quiet rural village two hours north of his residence in Beijing; and 3) the life of a factory over two years in a small city in southeastern China, Lishui.

My favorite bits of this book were undoubtedly the time spent keeping track of Hessler’s time in Sancha. He had rented a small home in this village to have a place to get away from the hustle and bustle and dirt of Beijing. It was a gorgeous place to write and relax, but soon he became friends with some of the villagers, and his trips there became less about writing and more about visiting. Over the course of the book, he becomes particular friends with one sweet little boy who becomes very, very ill. Hessler has to advocate for the boy in Beijing because his poor rural background means the busy nurses and doctors barely even look at the boy’s parents as they shout for help during the midst of a medical emergency.

I loved this part especially because it showcases, first of all, the intense and immediate friendships that can spring up between near-strangers. But I especially like the idea of life encroaching on what you think of as your safe space. Hessler wanted to “get away from it all,” but he learned that you can’t become a hermit in another person’s home. The people of Sancha made him very aware of that. It also functioned as a microcosm of China as a whole – as just a few years passed by, Hessler witnessed Sancha go from this rural secret to a tourist pit stop. It brought money to the people of Sancha, but at what many would consider a great cost of natural beauty and privacy.

The chapters about the journey along the Great Wall just filled me with envy – Hessler took about a couple weeks to go as far as he could. There is a point where the Great Wall stutters to an abrupt halt at the shore of the sea, and I would love to see that.

All in all – another great Hessler read.

Rambo: a microcosm

My meeting today with Rambo characterizes our entire relationship:

We are supposed to meet at 3:30pm. He calls just after 3:00pm and says he’s coming down to my office. This is the first I’ve seen of him since we left for Spring Festival vacation, though I’ve been back since February 8th and have already taught a full week of classes. He’s been communicating with me briefly and confusingly through Michael, the other foreign teacher at Ping Gang. Long story short, I was told through the grapevine that my schedule was the same as last semester. It wasn’t. I missed two classes.

Rambo’s wearing his Monday suit, a sharp-looking ensemble that stretches over his belly. I pull up a chair for him at my desk and he shows me my schedule for the new semester. He points out how few morning classes I have and says “it’s awesome.” He tells me he bought a car. “A lot has happened!” I ask him if he drove to school today or took the bus. “Drove, I drove.”

“Gotta show off your wheels,” I say. I don’t think he understands the idiom. His hair is puffed up like it gets when he needs a haircut. He says he’s going to America in a month or so to further his education, but that he’s “waiting for the files.” I’m thrilled for him. I tell him I’m going home to the USA earlier than planned because of a visa complication. He says “it’s a pity” for the kids. He tells me he saw some of his students’ English test scores and he was scared. “It sucks!” he says.

I get a call from him two minutes after he leaves my office. “Oh, the schedule is not correct yet. The leader will decide tonight, and tomorrow I will tell you.”

Rambo and I on Sports Day

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.

Review: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler

River Town was an exceptional look into the life of a waiguoren learning to become approximately local in rural China in the 1990’s. Frequently beautiful, often funny, sometimes repetitive, this travel memoir was full of insight and warmth.

I could go into detail about Hessler’s art, the history he skillfully introduces and explains, the friendships he makes, the few and minor triumphs and victories over a place that makes him feel otherized and strange, the sometimes tentative and frightening positions he finds himself in, and the students whose education is its own reward. But I’m not going to analyze or critique this book or do a close reading of it.  Instead, I’m going to relate to this book in an Oprah Book Club type of way: I’m going to say that I liked it, and then I’m going to tell you why. Because I don’t want to distance myself from China or even literature about China; I just want to take it in, absorb it, and begin imagining my own experiences, facing my own fears and disillusionment as well as building up my hopes and expectations.

Hessler talked a lot about his Chinese self, Ho Wei, compared to his American self. He said the greatest difference between these two selves was that Ho We, for a long time, was stupid. He was an illiterate, foolish, bumbling foreigner with the Chinese vocabulary of a toddler. And because of that, he was able to relate to locals in a way that he may not have otherwise. As a buffoon, he was harmless, and as a harmless figure, he was able to immerse himself in local life–and begin learning from his mistakes. Growing up, as it were.

I admire this optimistic point of view. I don’t mind being silly, but I have a horror of being supposed foolish or stupid. However, since my “Chinese self” will be much like Ho Wei was in the beginning, I need to try to get used to that feeling now, I guess. How exciting to be able to have a Chinese self! To be able to develop as an entirely new person. If language influences–if not creates–all of an individual’s perceptions, then going to a country illiterate and learning the language really will be like growing up again from infant to adult, with an entirely different culture as a backdrop to my life. But of course, I am already an adult. I came to adulthood in America, and being an American adult will flavor all of my interactions and observations and every aspect of my day-to-day. But perhaps my American adulthood can help nourish, nurture, and raise my Chinese infancy–perhaps I can at least reassure myself that this time around, adolescence doesn’t have to be so tough.

My own experience will be in a big, modern city, and will take place almost fifteen years after Peter Hessler lived in the “small” rural river town of Fuling. History as well as books like this have taught me that China changes constantly, so expecting my Chinas to be the same as Hessler’s is ludicrous. Still, from reading about his experiences, I feel closer to that far-distant country I’ve never seen, and I feel more confident now that I’ll be able to carve out a home for myself the way he did, through hard work, language study, flexibility, patience, understanding, and an interchange of kindness with people, who, if we seem to have nothing else in common, are people, as I am a person.

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!

Review: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang

In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang attempts to interweave her own family’s history and migration from China to America with a different migrant story entirely: that of 130 million Chinese youths who leave their families, homes, and schools in the village for  unknown factory jobs in the big cities. Chang focuses on two teenage girls, Wu and Chunming, who job-hop relentlessly in the city of Dongguan, always looking for the next big thing: the highest paying factory with the least amount of overtime, a pyramid scheme that destines them for success, a new boyfriend who isn’t a loser (jobless or an “ordinary” bottom-rung factory worker) with whom they can share a mobile phone and perhaps, in time, even an apartment.

It’s a strange world that Chang depicts, one utterly alien to me. These young girls often work 11 hour days, with just a few days off per month, for very little pay, and yet their high-energy, high-drive, non-stop race for success leaves me, the reader, more exhausted than they ever appear to be. They think constantly of money, social status, and self-improvement. In China, a self can be remade overnight. Quit a job at your old factory, start a job at a new factory, get a haircut, get a new boyfriend: none of these is more important than the other on the road to success.

These migrant girls are the basis for the world Westerners live in. They are the ones who assemble the pieces of the clothes and handbags and phones that we can’t live without. Many of them stay their whole lives in a single factory, leaving for a while to get married and have children, and then returning to help support their family, while others strive constantly for something better.

Although the world they enter is one completely unfamiliar to me, their journey out and away from home isn’t. I, too, come from a “village” (literally, Thompsonville, MI), where opportunities are scarce and money is tight. I, too, left that home for a city, and higher education, and a hope of something bigger and better than what I left behind. The pull of home will always be strong. The girls Chang interviews idealize their homes to a certain extent, declaiming the beauty and rural quietude. But they all say “there is nothing to do at home.” Nothing is available to them, either in the way of job prospects or social opportunities. Their only choice is to go out to the city, and once they do, there is virtually no going back. Even the youth who come home to marry often return to the cities to find new work. Many people from different provinces and regions meet in a factory and when they marry, instead of settling in either’s home village, they find a new home in the city where they work.

I can’t help but feel lucky, and undeserving, that by virtue of my foreignness, and my native ability to speak English, I am able to get a job in a highly economically desirable Chinese metropolis, making a modest sum that is still far more than the factory girls’ monthly income. But Chang’s book did illustrate one thing that should lend hope to every “factory girl:” for the enterprising young person bent on making a name for herself, all doors will open with enough persistent shoving.