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.


So, I’m going back to the Orient! Not to Shenzhen this time, but to Hong Kong, a world apart from mainland China, where the English language is plentiful, Western food is abundant, toilets are of the sit-down rather than squat variety, and the cost of living is the ninth most expensive in the world. Yikes.

I’ve been offered a job on Hong Kong Island as an English teacher and editor/writer for a learning center in Causeway Bay. I was offered the position mid-June, actually, but arrival in Hong Kong felt so far away that it was difficult to think of the job as a concrete thing. Now with my departure scheduled for swiftly-approaching August 15–a fifteen-hour straight shot from Detroit to Hong Kong–my first “grown-up job” (to me that means: contractual, salaried, full-time, useful, relevant to my interests, absorbing) feels a bit more real. I will be teaching general English, English literature, test prep, and writing to international and Hong Kong students who may want to study abroad somewhere like the UK or USA. I also cannot wait to jump at the opportunity offered to involve myself with the editing department within the company, as an editor and contributor for various English textbooks, and a soon-to-be-launched educational-themed magazine.

For those who have been following along all year, let me reiterate the perks of this new teaching gig specifically as compared to last year’s job: I’ll teach a maximum of six students per session. Six, not sixty. I will not be teaching ESL, since the students already speak fluent or near-fluent English, but instead, literature and writing. Or, as my brain keeps saying, “Books! I’m gonna talk about books all day!” These students will likely be motivated and hard-working, but even if they weren’t, with so few of them to keep track of, they will not be able to sleep through my lessons, text and play games on their cellphones, do their hair in mirrors propped up on their desks, or throw crumpled paper at their peers’ heads at the back of the classroom.

There are downsides, too. The turnover rate for my students will be greater than last year, so I won’t be able to develop as close of teacher-student relationships. And no doubt, there is something completely endearing about a pile of sixty students eager to hang out with me for a class that could very likely turn brutal at a moment’s notice for everyone involved due to that pesky language barrier. My Ping Gang students’ eagerness on most days to let me be a part of their lives as their resident, and dear, foreign teacher, is very unlikely to be paralleled by world-weary international students who are being bullied into after-school tutoring by their parents.

Nonetheless, I am optimistic. I am apartment-hunting, visa-applying, luggage-packing (about to start, anyway), goodbye-saying, summer-enjoying, and I am optimistic.

just a few things I’ll miss

The way children are adored here, the more precious because there is only ever one per family, their little bare bottoms peeking from the split bottom pants, the way they freely urinate in public.

The food, the variety of it, the vegetables, the fish, the eggplant and rice noodles and dumplings and ricericericerice and teateateatea and green beans and meat with all the fat and bones intact and chicken feet and tofu that smells like a sewer and tofu that tastes sweet as sugar, and lotus, and the sauces that transform normal garden produce into something exotic and intensely flavorful, the spice, the little black balls of spice that numb your mouth, and the fruit–mangoes, mangosteen, durian, dragonfruit, pears–sweet, cheap, abundant.

The vibrant vegetation, the way the tree at the end of the road of my apartment complex burst into flower over the weekend without anyone noticing. After the heavy day-long rain this tree had a sunset painted over its fern-like leaves, small red flowers catching the daylight and tossing it this way and that. Under the tree red petals littered the ground and caught in bushes nearby like snow in hair and my, how lovely.

The freedom to travel, the rush of joy at a new city, how they’re all so different and all the same.

The lived-in feeling of public transportation, the relative ease with which I can cross a city–this city, my city–as big as a state.

The way when you meet someone there’s no preamble. Immediately phone numbers are exchanged, immediately someone says to you, “I hope we can be friends,” immediately you are a part of their life.

The way students disobey and sleep during class and ignore your questions and still love you fiercely as one of their own, as someone to be proud of, as a member of their community.

Guo Bei’s Diary

Guo Bei (her English name is Lena) is the 28-year old woman I just started tutoring last week. It was her idea to keep a log of our lessons together so that I can correct them and talk about them during each succeeding session.

And seriously, this is why I’m here. This is why some days I am breathless with happiness here. That feeling has faded a lot in the past couple months as I’ve struggled with homesickness, but it’s back with a vengeance thanks to, as she wrote in the subject line of the email she sent me, “guobei’s diary”:

Today is Thursdy ,Today is not the sun  .I’m going to “star barker coffe” to study English .This is the first class of mine .My English teacher is a beautifal girl .The hair is golden yellow .Eye is biue . The smile is wery beautiful . She have A apple computer .the computer is white .She is a good teacher .My English is bad ,When i was very nervous start .Her smile makes me relaxed .Time flies.Learned this lesson many everyday language .It’s practical . Looking forward to the arrival nest week .

From the inaccurate physical description to the comical misspelling of “Starbucks” to the honest, tangible excitement of learning… doesn’t get better than this.

The Grind

Back to, that is. Ping Gang has been in a tizzy of activity for the past two weeks, but it’s finally settling down. As the foreign teacher with barely enough language skills to scrape by, I’ve been watching and wondering what all the commotion was about. The Senior 1’s this semester (Senior 1’s are first year high school students, 15-16 year olds) are deciding their majors. Ping Gang is fairly unique in this regard, in that students’ curriculum actually changes depending on what track they pick as second-semester freshmen. My students were deciding between the Arts or Sciences, with a few other more specialized tracks such as Drawing, Media, and Music. These decisions are easy for most of the students: their highest test scores and obvious talents indicate which track they should pick. Of course, that means that if you happen to love Chinese literature but have miserable scores in everything but Chemistry, you’re going to be a Science major. I asked and was told that it is possible for some students to change their minds/majors later on, but again I think that is influenced by changing test scores rather than student whim.

What this meant for me was that my “welcome back” lesson after six weeks of vacation was ineffective in terms of reorganizing classes, reviewing classroom rules, and setting up the objectives for the rest of the year, because the first week back was a similar schedule and the same classes as last semester…but the second week back I had about three hundred brand new students and a brand new schedule. No one bothered to tell me that I wouldn’t be teaching the same kids all year. Unfortunately it’s not even helpful when it comes to reusing lessons, because my classes are about half and half old students and new. My classes are also LARGER this semester: the average is 60 students, whereas before the average was about 57. Three students per class doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but, well, that’s thirty extra students and we’re at standing room only these days. Once again I’m endlessly grateful for Chinese high school students, who have so far proved themselves incapable of back-talking and being aggressive the way American high school students can be.

It has been fun to adjust to the new classroom dynamics this past week, though. I’ve been taking notes on the atmosphere and English ability of each classroom, because it’s so different from what it was before. For example, I’ve always had it in mind that Class 6 is a an unwilling, moderate-level, sometimes downright hostile class, but this week the class was friendly, mid-level, and more eager to try than usual. About half of my students used to have Michael as their foreign teacher, so I’m interested to see how I get on with them. I don’t know how Michael runs his classroom, but it’s likely very different from the way I run mine.

I’m glad I got to “keep” some of my old students. I’m entering this second semester feeling more comfortable with my classes. I have a solid relationship with many of them, I think. It’s impossible to know them all personally, but I’ve worked hard to make it so that when I walk into a classroom, we’re all happy that I’m there. It’s not every class, every week, but it’s many of them. That feels good. It took awhile to get there.

Remember how shocking it used to be to see your teachers at the grocery store or walking their dog on the sidewalk? How strange it was that they had real lives and didn’t eat, breathe, and sleep at the school? Well. A couple of my students saw me out getting dinner with Ben on Saturday night. I was mortified, since I was a bit hungover, not wearing particularly teacherly clothing and was, naturally, acting like a goof, but the two girls were thrilled. It took me a few minutes to recognize them (to be fair, I wasn’t really looking at them, I have six hundred students, and I wasn’t expecting to see my overworked kids from Longgang in Luohu for the weekend at a non-Chinese restaurant) but they were staring for so long that finally it sunk in, and I waved them over to our table. I realized I was, indeed, a teacher, when my mortification resolved itself into the thought that at least seeing me forced them to practice their English.

“This is my…” I faltered, gesturing across the table.

“BOYFRIEND?!” one of the girls squealed.

We chatted for a minute, and then they returned to their table, pulled out their phones, and immediately started texting the rest of the student body.

A note on the weather: we’re getting a brief second fall, evidenced by yellow leaves and temperatures in the seventies after the cold and rain of the past couple weeks. “Spring” promises to be so hot, humid, and rainy that I’ll want to wring my skin out after stepping outside. After I wash my clothes, I’m told they’ll rot from mildew before they have a chance to dry unless I use antibacterial soap.

Hopefully soon I will write a bit about my vacation in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but I’ve got to say, I’m happy to be back at work here in China. Being more than halfway through the school year is staggering. Due to complications with extending our visas, CTLC renegotiated our contracts with the Shenzhen Education Bureau, so we’ll be done May 25th instead of June 15th. I’ll fly into DTW at 2pm EST on June 1st. See you then, lovers.

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


On a Monday in mid-November I showed my advanced class scenes from the movie High School Musical to go along with the lesson on high school culture in America that I had prepared. As the movie played, I sat in the back of the classroom in an empty desk, in a unique position to observe the dynamics of the classroom. The minimal laughing and talking that occurred went unchecked, since Class 1 is my best-behaved class and most of them were avidly watching the movie and trying to understand the English. High School Musical is one of my favorites, too (it nursed me through a wretched freshman year at Grand Valley State University), so I was busy rooting for Gabriella and Troy and hoping the Wildcats would, indeed, “get their heads in the game.” But soon my attention began to wander to the top girl in the class, Eleven, and the boy sitting next to her, Steven.  The classroom is set up in three rows of about ten pairs of students, amounting to nearly sixty students per class. Eleven and Steven were on the far left of the classroom, the middle pair of students.

Last week, something odd happened during my lesson on mood, feelings, and emotions that should have tipped me off. When I called on Steven to answer the question, “What makes you happy?” the rest of the class took it upon themselves to answer the question for him with a chorused roar of, “When he gets to sit by Eleven!” And then they all laughed. Steven had acknowledged this with a small smile, but he otherwise kept his composure except for the usual nervous look on his face whenever I ask a question, so instead of pinpointing the reason for the good-natured teasing, I pressed on with my questions and the lesson.

The students do not sit in the same seats every week. I have a few classes where the same big, sleepy boys sit in the back of the classroom and try to nap while I teach, but for the most part, the students change seats every week. I think this is a good practice, even if it makes learning names nearly impossible. I have six hundred students, though—learning all their names already was an impossible challenge, since many of them don’t know their English names, either.

The light was dim in the classroom except for the big projector screen as the movie played. I found myself watching Steven and Eleven more and more rather than HSM. Eleven was the most excited of the students, singing along to some of the songs and laughing uproariously at the right moments. She would occasionally turn to Steven and murmur something to him. He’d laugh, but as soon as Eleven turned back to the screen, his face would turn all business again.

He was preoccupied with touching her.

Chinese students are not allowed to date. I don’t know if this is an actual, written rule, but if it isn’t, it is a very strictly enforced unwritten one. Schooling is only compulsory in China up until the ninth grade (the end of junior high), so students who make it into high school based on their test scores from junior high are generally the more motivated ones. Focusing on schoolwork or basketball or whatever it is that you’re good at is considered the one important factor in your life. After high school, if you have performed well on the big test, the gao kao, you may go to college. Your scores on the gao kao determine which college or university you’re allowed to attend. There are so many children in China, and so few opportunities for success. To get anywhere you have to be dedicated, severe, naturally talented, and willing to give up the idea of a childhood.  For example, Fishes, another Class 1 student, came up to me and proudly proclaimed she’d gotten her “hairs cut.” I said it looked nice, and did she like it? “It is like a boy,” she said. I couldn’t argue with that. “But it is good for my study.” Ah. “I think long hair is beautiful though,” she said, looking wistfully at my hair.

The students are up every day in time for breakfast at 7:00am, and they have classes, study time, chores, and exercises all day until, I kid you not, 10:00pm. Their jaws dropped when I told them American students are done at 4pm every day, with optional extracurriculars and a few hours of homework. The Chinese students’ homework is done after 10:00pm or during their two-hour lunch break, which, for the senior ones, must be spent studying in the library. It is not an easy life. These students, especially around exam time, are more overworked and exhausted than most American adults I know.

And somehow, in the midst of this, there is time for Steven to be preoccupied with touching Eleven. He took it very seriously. He edged ever so slightly closer to her. When she laughed, her body would convulse to bring her that much nearer to him, and he’d take advantage of that movement to touch her shoulder or upper arm or, if he grew daring, her upper back, with the palm of his hand, as if admonishing her for her laughter. He was careful not to look at her while he did this. His face grew redder and redder. Sometimes he sat back in his chair so he could look at the small expanse of brown skin exposed between her red t-shirt and high-rising uniform pants.

This week’s assigned-seat rotation has Eleven and Steven on opposite ends of the classroom. Karen, Class 1’s headteacher, told me that if the headmaster knew, he would be very unhappy with them. She said, “I do not interfere. I don’t tell them what to do outside of class, no one is going to stop them. But I can make sure they don’t sit by each other. Their test scores this time were very bad.” I’m not sure what to think. Distractions here can’t be tolerated: there’s too much at stake. Karen is one of the sweetest women at my school, and still she knows that test scores are more important than teenage romance.

But there it was: the painful redness of his face, the brief touches of his hand, her overzealous laughter, the way she spoke to him quickly and quietly, the bright smile on her face, and the deadly serious, intent look on his: they were sixteen, they were falling in love, and I was watching it from the back of the classroom, remembering all too clearly what it felt like to be in Eleven’s seat as a student and thinking that the world ‘round, sixteen is sixteen is sixteen.