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China December 8-14, 2006


Friday, 8 December 2006

I arrived in Shanghai this evening, and after taking the bus from the airport and getting off at People’s Square, I was immediately hit by what a different side of China Shanghai offers. Within the first thirty seconds of getting off the bus, I walked past the Shanghai Museum, which was having a ‘Bund People of the Year’ red carpet event; not a likely sighting in Yantai.

After people-watching for a little while at this haute-societe display, I walked around for 45 minutes trying to find my hostel, asking for directions, stopping to marvel at the multi-story movie screens on the sides of sky scrapers, and taking in the overwhelming sensory experience of Shanghai on a Friday night. After nearly an hour trekking in circles with my backpack, I found my hostel just as it began to rain. It seemed like such a quintessential wandering traveler predicament, and in spite of not being that comfortable, I enjoyed it.

Hard to tell how bad the pollution is here; tonight the sky looked like watercolor brush water – murky purple gray – which may mean that its even worse than I remember.

I am excited to get up tomorrow and check everything out in the daylight.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

It has been a great, full day; I’m loving Shanghai. I left this morning around 8:45 and walked all day until 6:30. This morning after indulging in Starbucks after two months of withdrawal, I headed to the Bund, the old European banking district along the Huang Pu River, which looks across to the Pudong District that has some of the modern iconic buildings of Shanghai. There were very few people out in the cold and windy weather, and it was a quiet morning to stroll by myself. The quiet didn’t last for long though, as I checked out some of the Bund’s trendy stores and then walked down Nanjing Road, the notoriously frenzied pedestrian road, teeming with so many people that I stopped to wonder where they could possibly all fit to live in this city.

I am comfortable here, and several times today I thought about why that was; it’s cleaner than other cities in China, more cosmopolitan, modern, diverse, and developed. It still has the aspects of other crowded Chinese cities I’ve seen: slum neighborhoods, dirty streets, polluted skies, scaffolding made of bamboo, and back-alley markets, but much of it feels European, in the neighborhoods and architecture left from previous continental influences. The French Concession has manicured tree-lined streets of boutiques, and the Bund’s row of old banks could be a vision of Prague or London. I have to wonder whether the adjectives I use to label my finding comfort here are all synonymous to my conceptions (accurate or not) of western cities, and then whether I feel guilty about the fact that my own cultural bias makes me feel at home in Shanghai because it feels less like China. After living here for several months, I would hope that my own comfort boundaries have stretched further than being immediately magnetized toward something that feels safe and western. But, maybe it’s just that a respite in something that feels more like home stands out in relief.

In the afternoon, I checked out some of the historical sites of Shanghai, seeing the former site of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League, which is in a little alley and expounds on the historical propagandized successes of China’s youth. I walked through the French Concession neighborhood and Fuxing Park (formerly restricted to only French entrants), and proceeded to Xintiandi, a trendy outdoor shopping market that was full of Christmas decoration, carolers in Santa hats singing traditional Christmas songs, and white lights everywhere. It didn’t feel as odd to see it here as it does in Yantai, again because of the European feeling.

This evening I had my first meal alone at a really nice restaurant, which I had read about in the New York Times and decided I would splurge on, since my budget for meals for the rest of the weekend adds up to about US $5. After weeks of being on my own, I’m accustomed to many of the activities that are normally social ones for me; though I’ve eaten countless meals alone, going to this restaurant, M on the Bund, meant dressing up, asking the maitre’d to reserve a place for one, and then being exceptionally self-aware in an environment where large tables of friends were celebrating, couples were on nice dates, and I was sitting alone. As I sat there enjoying fine food, refraining from reading a book or distracting myself otherwise, I thought about a quote that a great friend sent me recently: “Being solitary is being alone well; being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your presence, rather than the absence of others.” With that thought I relaxed, refocused on the positive aspects of experiencing this alone, and enjoyed a glass of wine and the rest of my meal. It’s a good thought to remember in many different contexts this year.

Sunday, 10 December 2006

I’m now at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, the smaller local one, and early for my flight. My legs are exhausted after two long days of walking, and I’m so glad I made time for this trip.

Today I started at 7 am, walking through some of Shanghai’s older neighborhoods and the contrasting manicured and beautiful parks that appear frequently throughout the city. I went to the old Yuyuan street, packed with souvenir hawkers, and came out to the Bridge of Nine Turns, meant to ward off demons, as they supposedly cannot make the turns.  I then proceeded into the Yuyuan Garden, a beautiful mix of rock ponds, old pagodas, and Chinese relics originally built for a commissioner in the Ming dynasty (1560s).

I walked back through some more old neighborhoods, local markets selling everyday necessities and countless kinds of tea, and into the Hongqi Antique lanes, where alleged relics from ancient dynasties, caged birds, and Mao paraphernalia decorate every vendor’s stall. I made my way back to Xintiandi and the Memorial of the 1st Communist Party Congress which by necessity was in a secret underground location in 1921, hidden from the French Concession police. The young Mao Zedong stands out in every exhibit in the museum. I visited a few other museums in the afternoon, and still had many other places I had been overly ambitious and hoped to see this weekend. It wasn’t enough time here.

Back to Yantai now, and to face the negotiation workshop tomorrow!

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Yesterday felt like an epically long day. Sunday night I got home around 10:30 pm, stayed up for a while to practice my negotiation workshop, plan lessons for this week, and woke up early and tired on Monday. I taught Christmas lessons in my four 2nd grade classes, which was incredibly fun with supplies sent from the States.

After lunch I tutored my regular Monday girls, got ready, and caught the 45 minute bus ride to Yantai University, where I did the negotiation workshop. It was -9 degrees Celsius here today, and I had to wait at the stop for awhile for the English teacher to arrive, trying to sort out in my head the Insight material that I’ve seen taught many times, but am only beginning to be a real student of myself. I was apprehensive about the comprehension level of the class, whether I would be met with a sea of blank faces when I tried to explain these concepts, whether my Chinese would fail and the whole thing would be a failed effort. Luckily, she arrived soon and I had no time to continue with these anxious concerns because we walked quickly to the classroom and I dove right in.

I had fun teaching the material as best as I could, they were a great first audience to have, and I left feeling very excited about it, talking to students afterward and receiving their enthusiasm for the workshop as well. It was also refreshing to feel busy and productive again in a challenging way; I have grown used to the routine of teaching my classes, tutoring, and filling my days exploring Yantai, reading, writing, and day-to-day activities. This was one of the first days here that I was rushing to get things done, a pace I am much more used to, and was able to feel happily capable at the end of it all.

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Today I had to tell my first classes that this would be our last day, since I leave a week from today. I then got bombarded by origami, notes and sketches, and anything they could find in their desk to give me as a farewell gift: a bead, a snack, pieces of plastic toys that were unrecognizable. It was adorable, and also really saddening. I will miss them so much and have formed relationships here with both students and teachers that will be difficult to leave.

After lunch I went out with them for recess; I’ll miss running around and watching their great jump rope games, visiting the different groups on their massive ripped-up carpet basketball courts while they burn energy in an otherwise very regimented day.

This afternoon I walked around town with Xie Cai Xia, and in her ever-thoughtful way, she sighed and turned to me and said, “How time flies…I remember when you arrived and were just a foreign stranger, and now you have become my foreign friend.”