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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

Alone.

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.

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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.

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Awake

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This is Birdie – and yes, she does know how cute she is.

It’s not quite ten o’clock here and, a couple hours from bed, I already know I won’t fall asleep tonight. It’s not that I don’t want to. I have a head cold and my new kitten, Birdie, keeps me up at night, every night, since I got her four weeks ago. Of course I want to sleep. But some nights you just know that you won’t.

Often what keeps you awake is the day refusing to fade from your mind. It’s worries, unfounded or otherwise, responsibilities that you haven’t quite seen through to the end, encounters with new people or old that have sparked your imagination and lingered, memories of days or months or years gone by waiting for the dark nighttime hours to be fully explored. Monsters under your bed.

Other times it’s something a little less mentally intrusive and a little…louder, like tonight and I know no matter how tired I am, the thing that’s keeping me up is only going to get worse.

The monster under the bed in this case is the typhoon roaring outside my window, working itself into a frenzy. I know it hasn’t reached its peak yet. In Hong Kong, there are typhoon warning signals that range from 1 to 8, with 1 being the mildest, 3 middling, and usually jumping straight to 8, the most dangerous level, when the situation gets really serious. We’re forecasted for an 8 around midnight tonight. There’s been one other 8 in the past ten years, and that one occurred just this past September (mentioned briefly in this post).

A typhoon in my apartment sounds like a club that’s hired a bad DJ. My room is loud, riotous, but the noise is unpredictable, with no steady rhythm, and it just keeps getting louder and louder. My apartment faces the sea, taking the full brunt of the wind and the rain, but without danger of flying objects (knock on wood) as I’m high on the 26th floor.

Birdie’s not sure what the noise is all about. Then again, she probably doesn’t care, either, since her nights consist not of sleep but of chewing my hands and batting at my nose with her extended claws.

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Scientia: Inaugural Issue Spring/Summer 2012

Sleep or no sleep, I have big news: Scientia, the magazine that was supposed to have been published in December, is finally out and ready for an audience. I’m proud of it (although, at this point, I honestly am quite sick of looking at the articles) and am very glad that it’s a real thing that I can hold in my hands. Thanks to our amazing new designers, it looks gorgeous as well. I wrote the CTY cover article, as well as some other features and reviews. There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement, but I’m looking forward to building off of this issue to make our second one (slated for a November/December publication) even better than the first.

Other significant news includes the fact that I’ll be in America in two and a half days. I’m looking forward to seeing family and friends, and soaking up northern Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Chicago as hard as I can in just ten days. It’s not enough time and never will be. Lifetimes could be lived in all those places and that wouldn’t be enough time either. But I’m ready for my tonic: the little bit of home that will get me through the next however-long.

Meanwhile, I’ve got packing to do, a kitten to amuse, and a typhoon to wait out all night. It’s going to be a big one.

Next

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.

The Truth, If I Could Tell Her

Marie,

    Hi,I miss you so much.

    Where are you?What do you do?Are you happy now?

    We have just finished the final exam,and I have time to write a letter to you.

    Many studentsin senior 3 in Pinggang failed their exams.They must be very sad.

    I regret that I didn’t choose arts.I really love painting.However,my parents disagree.I doesn’t mean that I don’t love my parents.In fact,I love them very much.I know they love me too.They gave me a best childhood in the world,I think.They have rights to ask me to do everything.It is my responsibility to obey their request,though I am unhappy.I hope that they can be happy when they live.

     Do you know?In China,‘孝’is important.It means ‘filial piety’.It may be different from that in America,right?

     Only two years can I prepare for the college  entrance exam.I must do my best.So I might have less time to write letters to you.I have been a little tired.I must insist.

     I still remember what you told us—-go and play.And I want to go to America to play.

     OK.I am going to go to bed.Bye.

                                                                                                                                                                               Pig

                                                                                                                                                                      2011.7.7

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Pig,

Hi. I miss you too, even though, if I’m being honest, I don’t remember which exactly of my 600 students you are.

I’m in my home, on my bed, in northern Michigan with a computer on my lap. I’m worlds away from you. I do things–today, on a lazy Sunday–like fold clothes, clean my room, eat grilled chicken with rice and salad, do the dishes, and play with my new camera. No, I’m not very happy. But I’m working on it.

Congratulations on finishing your exam. The fact that you’re laboring to write me a letter in English after the completion of said exams fills me with pride. I’m lucky for knowing you.

My heart goes out to the Senior 3 students who failed their exams. Their lives are altered now in ways I can only imagine. For one, their chance to go to college–any college–has just gone out the window.

I wish you’d chosen the Arts major, despite your parents. Pig, I hope you’re painting right now. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a Humanities degree it’s that your passion can thrive right alongside your day job. It’s just a shame it has to take a back seat to the Science major your parents are pushing you–a high school student–into. I did know about 孝 (xiao4), and no, it’s not the same in the United States. Filial piety is an important concept and a good basis for a family, but here it is manifested in different ways. My parents, for example, are proud of me for chasing the things that make me happy, not for obeying their every whim and becoming a mini-clone of their own forgotten hopes and dreams, nor a ticket to their future financial stability. I hope your parents can be happy while they live, too, but your unhappiness should not be the price of their contentment.

You only have two years to prepare for the college entrance exam that a bunch of Senior 3’s just failed. Good luck. You must do your best because the social pressures on you are greater than on anyone else in the history of humankind. Females in China have the highest suicide rate in the world at about 15 in every 100,000 women and you’re dealing with that every day. You’ll “insist” because you “must.” You’ll strike those frail little fists against every exam and application and every all night study session where you’re so tired your head drops onto the stacks of books open on your desk. You’ll stop eating and sleeping and you’ll punish yourself brutally for every wrong answer. For what? The infinitesimal chance of going somewhere else. I wish you didn’t have to work so hard, but at least there’s this: it’s worth it. Going somewhere else is worth it.

Go and play, Pig.

Love,

Marie

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.

Solidarity

Carole and Jenny, best friends and Senior II girls who like to talk with me during English Corner, dropped by my office to say hello one day last week instead. To my usual question of “How are you?” they both answered, “Not wery well. Our boyfriends broke up with us.”

“Both of you?” I almost laughed. Solidarity. I minimized my gmail screen and welcomed them further into my cubicle. “Tell me all about it.”

Carole had been forced to break up with her boyfriend because her parents found out about him. Her parents are divorced and so they are both, she says, overprotective. I remembered during the New Year’s festival, Carole had found me as I waited for my turn to perform. Her class had already chanted poetry while stamping their feet in formation. As she ran up to me, boys with swords were tumbling around the stage and slashing at the air. They were all wearing red except for one large boy in yellow. “That’s my boyfriend,” she had whispered, smiling, pointing to the leader. I had teased her. “I thought you couldn’t have a boyfriend!” She shrugged, half coy, half shy.

When her parents found out, they called the school, sic’ed two security guards on her, confiscated her cell phone, and forced the split. “Because this is China,” Carole sighed. “We’re not supposed to–” she paused.

“Be distracted from school?” I offered.

“Yes. But–” she sounded outraged for a moment, as if about to launch into a tirade against that particular system of thought. Instead she changed her mind, and the subject. “But for Jenny it is worse,” she said instead.

I looked now at Jenny, who was smiling from her round face as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “My boyfriend is, how you say, gossip about me.”

“Oh,” I said, raising my eyebrows. “That’s not good.”

“No,” Carole agreed. “He is saying things and giving her a bad character.”

“That’s awful!” I was half out of my chair, ready to hunt the dude down.

“Yes, but it is okay.”

“No, it’s not,” I interrupted. “He shouldn’t say things, and you shouldn’t listen to him. It’s not fair and it’s not true.”

“No, he is wrong. But it is okay. Because we have our friends and our study.”

I eyed them suspiciously. I mean, it’s true, of course, but it’s still propaganda. And teens should not be that self-controlled. It’s eerie.

“That’s a very good attitude to have,” I said lamely. They knew it was. We all know exactly what we’re supposed to be thinking in these situations. I thought about sharing with them my theory that the human race will eventually evolve to the point where the few young males left in existence are kept in cages as exotic pets and the females reproduce spontaneously–if they feel like it–after reaching biological maturity, but I didn’t think it would translate well.

Apologies to my male readership–but control your own, eh? Then I wouldn’t have to get sassy.

Love to my dear ones at home and elsewhere, as always! Just over two months before I fly into DTW.

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.