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.

Summer days

I was home to Michigan for ten days in July to soak up the dusty summer heat and the dry grass and that short lovely road to my grandparents’ house and make note of all the changes, filing them away, to make sure my home was still mine: a tree felled, just missing our house, in a rough winter storm; Allan’s bedroom empty as he works his way through Marines boot camp; grass seeded and sprouting in Grandpa’s former vegetable garden; engagement and wedding rings on the hands of college friends; new people introduced to old places.

Thomas Wolfe might say that you can’t go home again. But you can, again and again, and you can leave it many times too, and there’s vigor to be found in both the coming and the going.

The hardest thing about growing up is losing one’s summer vacation. Not the vacation itself but what that free time means. As children in the US, we’re given these long months of freedom to explore our own hobbies and interests and to play outside to make our bodies strong. Why is that less valuable for adults?

I still make plans in the run-up to summer as if I had three free months to do with as I liked. I meant to finish a novel this summer, and update this blog regularly, and play outdoors frequently, and keep up with my email correspondence, and a myriad other lofty ambitions. Needless to say, the novel has progressed but remains unfinished, the blog has been dormant, the outdoors was experienced via my morning and evening commute to work as usual, and my inbox is a mess. I want a society that puts a little less emphasis on the working week and a little more emphasis on the weekend.

I’m heading into my third fall without any change in leaves or cooling of temperatures and it is very disappointing. I’ve half a mind to sneak out at midnight and paint the vegetation of Hong Kong proper autumnal colors, turning the ever-lush, emerald jungle canopy into a kaleidoscope of sunset hues.

In general news, I just moved into a new apartment; Birdie is growing up (she’s about to be spayed!); and work is bumping around mightily, with many new teachers, summer courses giving way to academic-year private lessons, and a slew of new projects for the Editing Department.

And in Hong Kong, ghosts are flitting freely through the night sky. The seventh month of the lunar calendar is Ghost Month, when the Gates of Hell spring open and all spirits, hungry or just plain malevolent, rush earthward to visit their descendants. The Chinese, therefore, have prepared food and incense to burn in offering to their ancestors at makeshift sidewalk altars. Outside my apartment, that mostly includes setting large fires in trash cans.

Throughout this month (August 17 – September 15 2012), one is not supposed to move house, take an evening stroll, or go swimming, as the spirits are just looking for excuses to nab you. So hunker down during this inauspicious time – and don’t risk moving apartments like I did!

burning “ghost money” so one’s ancestors might be pleased and appeased

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.

Goings-on

I AM A ROBOT. 00010101 0101010 1010101010 01010101.

What I mean is, I’m working a bunch, and that’s about it. I am very much looking forward to my mother’s visit in early March when I’ll get a few days off to show her Hong Kong and Macau. But until then, my teaching hours are increasing because students have May/June exams to prepare for, I am bearing down hard on two deadlines for the editing department, and, currently, progress reports are due.

I did have a brief break for Chinese New Year. During those three days (Jan 23-25),  the city emptied out as people hunkered in out of the cold with their families for this special holiday, and I wandered the barren streets reveling in free movement. No crowds pressed me shoulder to shoulder, and I didn’t have to watch out to keep my purse from bumping into anyone or vice versa. I miss trees, clean air, and, as the Dixie Chicks would say, “wide open spaces.”

On the last day of that long weekend, I went to Sha Tin to see the horse races. It was cold (not Northern Michigan cold, but a chilly 40F) and drizzling rain. We sipped drinks through straws and huddled into our coats and cheered as the horses from three separate races pounded past us on the green below. It was lovely: their shining coats and undulating muscles. I got a kick out of the fact that in the last race, the number 4 horse won–which meant the odds on that one must’ve been great since very few Chinese people would vote on a number 4 anything. The word “four” in Chinese sounds very similar to the word “death” and is considered very bad luck.

The weekend after that I took a ferry with a friend to Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands. We wandered around the streets and onto empty beaches (it was again chilly and a little drizzly), found a candy store, ate cheap seafood near the dock, visited a temple, and fed leftovers to the abundance of stray cats nearby before heading back.

I’d post pictures of these two events but I put my camera in the ocean because…it seemed too dry? Because it worked TOO well? Who knows. I dried it out but it still has a lens error and won’t operate correctly. This, as my mother would’ve said to me if I was much younger (and which she kindly refrained from saying on Skype when I told her), is why I can’t have anything nice.

Happy Valentine’s Day, soon! ❤

Yes

Repulse Bay

It’s November. You know, that drizzly gray month where the charm of autumn has waned and the cold is starting to take itself really seriously? I spent part of last Sunday lazing on the beach. We went down to Repulse Bay, a beach towards the southern end of the island with a low wall decorated with brightly-colored cartoon fishes (including one disturbing picture of a fish fishing for other fishes), gravelly sand, and murky ocean bottom. The South China Sea was filled that day with small rusty-hued globules, and I honestly don’t know if they were some kind of pollution or some kind of organism, and I didn’t take any pictures…but I prefer to think it was the latter. Once we swam out past the shallows however, the little blobs dispersed and the water felt great, and the sun came out for a bit… Just a November day in the subtropics. It’ll be getting much colder in the next couple months, so I’m enjoying this while it lasts.

November also means that I’m doing National Novel Writing Month again. I’m well on my way to that 50,000-word novel by 11:59pm on November 30th, 2011. So far I’ve kept on track. The story’s coming along and I’m more than 11,000 words in. It seems to go better when I’m extremely busy with the rest of my life. I use the novel to procrastinate at work, or use work to procrastinate at the novel and so either way I’m being more productive than I would be otherwise. Win-win?

These last couple weeks, and this week especially, have been very teaching-heavy. I’ve got nearly 30 hours of lessons this week with the remaining few hours for lesson planning and my editing duties. But I’m really getting into the groove, I think. Some of my students are wonderful, and I look forward to the hour or two I spend with them a week. More of them are duds, but eh, you win some, you lose some. I’m a better teacher now (as evidence, more students have requested me than my schedule could allow), and hopefully that trend continues.

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As for the publishing department, in the last month I’ve sat in on a meeting with a potential new book distributor for our International Baccalaureate series, reviewed the proposal they sent us, finished writing four articles (and editing all the rest) for the magazine out in December, and contributed decisions regarding layout and style. It’s exciting, not just to finally get to do the things I’ve thought I’ve always wanted to do, but to do them and realize that so far, I really, truly enjoy doing those things.

I’m running a hotel this week, it seems–from last Friday to this coming Sunday there’s been and will be a steady string of friends from Shenzhen crashing on my couch. They’re all off for midterms on the mainland, so visits are in order. The couch wouldn’t mind some Michigan bodies on it, either…hint, hint.

Love to all. Be well!

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.