Thursday, August 16, 2007

Leaving China

This morning I was reading an English language daily newspaper before I started yet another round of hand laundry when I came across an article about an American businessman being awarded honorary Chinese citizenship. He is 46 years old, the head of China Corning. He was educated at Oxford, and has lived in China since 1996. He was instrumental in working to remove the institutionalized children of Shanghai into foster care, and it was for this work that he was being honored. They had a photo of him in the paper; he is still youthful looking, with the unlined skin of a lifetime spent indoors.

The hotel we are staying in is filled with people traveling on international business. There are Thais, Koreans, Indians, Americans and South Americans here. I am not in business; I have spent fewer than two years of my whole life working for private enterprise. Seeing these people, I wonder if I’m sorry I did not try harder to gain fluency in a second language as a young adult and break into working overseas.

Most of the business travelers I see in this hotel are men. I learned quickly as a Rotary Scholar back in the early nineties that success as a woman in the international business community would not come as easily as for a man. I spent four years as a greatly outnumbered female in Navy avionics in the middle eighties, it was enough.

This Christmas we stayed with my first cousin in London. He is a geophysicist, and he and his family have lived in Venezuela, Pakistan, Malaysia, Canada, and now London. They live the corporate expatriate life, their children attend first class international schools, they have built a life where they move every few years. My cousin tells me that a few of his peers are now women, and their husbands the trailing spouse. It is a sea change from twenty years ago.

I have a good friend who changed careers from journalism to Wall Street in her thirties. She spent about five years flying back and forth to Hong Kong from New York every month, which sounds exciting, but actually became a grind over time, and as a single parent, she loathed the extended time away from her child.

It is all but impossible to analyze the path not taken. We leave tomorrow to spend two days traveling to pick up the threads of the lives we left behind when we came to China. The things I will miss are intangibles. I have loved living in the same room with the kids, loved having them physically close to me so much. I will miss teaching, although I have a tendency to try too hard to put old heads on young shoulders. I will miss the novelty of living in a place so unlike my home in Tallahassee. I will miss China as it was in this moment, for it is changing so quickly that every visit will be different.

Before we left home I read a children’s book about a family that makes a medical mission to Nepal. The book said that there was a saying in Nepal that, “You will not change Nepal, Nepal will change you.” I don’t know that China has changed us, we certainly have not changed China. We perhaps have a little more perspective; I think that Sarah particularly has gotten something from this trip.
Originally I made arrangements for this journey so that James could have a period of language immersion to help his speak better Chinese. It turned out to be an experiment in teaching for me, an opportunity for growing independence for Sarah, and incidentally language immersion for James. It has been well worth the journey. Thank you for sharing it with us.


Doing business in China is sort of complicated. A foreign operation cannot appear one day and set up shop, a joint venture is required, with substantial Chinese employment and ownership. There are two world class aquariums in Shanghai, one is a Singapore joint venture, the other a New Zealand joint venture. We went today to the New Zealand one, which was very good, and well geared to families. It was situated in a large park that had pedal boats (called “foot-powered”) and little rides, and a big aquarium.

The aquarium was almost entirely underground, much of it underneath a small lake. Once I let go of the claustrophobic feeling, it was very nice. It had a shark tunnel and a shallow reef with waves, and a deeper reef with enormous sea turtles, and James got to feed turtles and we saw a shark go poop. There was a beluga whale show, too, but it was not very impressive to those of us who have visited Sea World. It was super expensive by Chinese standards; it cost $40 for the three of us to visit. Having grown accustomed to $2 each for suppers and 40 cents each for bus rides, paying theme park prices is traumatic.

I think the Aquarium is making money, it was a weekday and they seemed quite busy. The tanks and equipment looked first rate, and although the entrance fees were low by Western standards, the labor costs are much lower here. At the hotel we are staying at, there are lots of foreign businessmen checking on China investments. I talked to a guy in the elevator today who had to get more pages put in his passport; he’d traveled so much overseas.

5 Star Hotel

We are here serendipitously, as we were supposed to leave with the group on August 15, but the travel agent made a mistake with our ticket arrangements, so we are paying only half of a discounted rate to stay at a five star hotel. I have never stayed anywhere this nice before and it especially nice to stay in an American hotel after a month of struggling to speak Chinese. Here every staff member speaks English, and every staff member has been so pleasant to us, even though we are patently not their usual customers.

I am slightly embarrassed in my Wal-mart clothes and my $10 haircut. People here are dressed expensively. Most of them are here on business, they do not have kids in tow. The prices for everything are stratospheric. Internet connections are $18 a day so we’ve been waiting to find an internet cafĂ©, but the neighborhood is too upscale to have one. The breakfast buffet is $29 (we get two breakfasts a day included with our room price – the third person has to eat at McDonald’s – we take turns).

But it is splendid. We ride up and down at night in the glass elevator. We hang around in the lobby and listen to the live classical music. We swim in the fabulous indoor pool and wrap ourselves in the luxurious towels. The staff is outstanding. The room is so clean it’s seems brand new. There is a fresh carnation in our bathroom. The maids give James candy.

James and Sarah are ready to go home, but as long as we’re here, I’m not sure I’m ready to go.


Nanjing was a backwater of 5.4 million people. Shanghai has 13.2 million people. Real estate is world class, with world class prices. The skyline is truly phenomenal, but the infrastructure still needs some work. And the air, the air is like Victorian England, virtually black with soot.

I’ve heard of people flying to Hong Kong to shop, and you could do the same in Shanghai, if you are not a large person or if you like you suits “bespoke” (tailor made). There is more stuff to buy here, from fine silks to cheap souvenirs, than I have ever seen before.

The city is going continuously. Last night we could see someone arc welding in a building under construction at 10 pm. The traffic is snarled all the time. Fashionably dressed people walk down the streets as quickly as New Yorkers, marching past impoverished street vendors trying to sell watches to passers-by.

I was surprised to find so many beggars in a Communist country. I mean, considering the significant downside of Communism/Socialism, the upside should be that there is care and feeding of the underclass. I had to physically remove an old woman from my person the day before yesterday; she was that aggressive about separating me from some money. It is not like India, where you can be swarmed if you hand out a rupee, but it can be intimidating. Fortunately, they do not seem to target children, although today I saw a man demand that a little boy waiting in line for the aquarium finish his water, so the man could collect the bottle to sell for recycling.

Sarah loves it here, she loves the fabulous architecture of the skyscrapers, she loves the fashionable clothes, and she loves the momentum of the city. She loves New York, too. James mostly loves the hotel we are staying in, which we could never ordinarily afford, but we got a discounted rate, and the travel agent paid for half of that, because of a problem with our airline tickets. I must confess that I am quite taken with the city, for all of its glaring faults, as it is wildly dynamic.

Chinese Beds

Chinese beds are not like American beds. They are hard, impressively hard. In Nanjing, Sarah said that it was like there was no mattress and we slept directly on the boxspring. In Suzhou, we had beds with a mattress and boxspring, and on top of the mattress a board had been inserted in each bed, sewn in and covered with a mattress pad under the sheet. It was better than sleeping on the floor, barely.

One of the other teachers told me she put the comforter on the bed and slept under her dress. These are some hard beds. My husband would be delighted. Sarah says that one of the things she is looking forward to most is her pillowtop bed at home.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Gentlemen Hotel

We are currently ensconced in the very swank Gentlemen Hotel in Suzhou. We got here because last night's hotel was not very swank. It was sort of the opposite. The bathroom had so much mildew my kids refused to take showers. The cot James was supposed to sleep in smelled so bad he slept with me. A young woman down the hall was awakened by a large rat falling out of the ceiling and onto the floor next to her bed. The rat then ran into her bathroom.

The staff seemed relatively unperturbed by this turn of events. The young woman said she thought it seemed that there were people running in the halls, but once the rat fell through the ceiling, she realized it was rats running. She and several other people left the hotel for another place to spend the night. The kids and I slept through the entire event.

However, today, after discussions between the university and the travel agency and the local tour guide, tonight we have lovely accommodations. We live in fear of where we'll wind up staying in Shanghai tomorrow night, but that's a problem for another day. Tonight, we are staying in a stately converted old fashioned British men's club, complete with card room.

Shuzhou is great. It is called the Venice of China, because of its historic use of canals. It has something like 130 bridges in the city spanning these little canals. It has lovely temples and the famous "Humble Administrator's Garden," which is a World Heritage Site consisting of 6 hectares of Zen garden. I also love the sound of Humble Administrator, and have decided that I'm going to see if my office will change my title.

Shuzhou is a historic city with low rise requirements, so although there has been plenty of construction, it is not full of high rise buildings. It has been a silk producing area for a couple of thousand years, and today we visited a silk factory and James and the other children were given silkworm cocoons, complete with dead moth. They told us that there is 1500 meters of silk in a single cocoon.

The food was spectacular today, I must have eaten 8 different kinds of vegetables, 2 kinds of fish, 3 kinds of tofu, 2 kinds of duck and watermelon. Maybe group tours aren't as bad as I thought.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Student Dormitories

The undergraduate dormitories are 5 story concrete monoliths with no redeeming architectural value. They are strictly utilitarian. There is an attendant at the door to keep members of the opposite gender out, the building is locked at 10:30 pm each night.

There is no elevator, the first room I visited was on the fifth floor. Down the long corridor of doors, each room has an electrical meter. Each room is given a certain amount of electricity per semester, overages must be paid for.

Students sleep 6 to a room, which is about 12 feet by 15, not including the bath. You enter the room, there are two sets of bunk beds on the left wall, six lockers and a set of bunk beds on the right. There are two desks running down the middle of the room. Quarters are tight, even slight Chinese girls have to push in the chairs and walk sideways to get to their beds.

The ceiling is high, so the beds are higher than in the west. You can sit up easily in your bunk bed. The mattress is the depth of an exercise mat, and sits rolled up at the end of the bed. The beds are covered with mosquito nets. There is no air conditioning.

It is still instantly recognizable as a girls' dormitory room. Doors have posters on them, there are stuffed animals on the beds, and the pillows have feminine pillow cases. There is the detritus of female life lying about, make-up, pink notebooks, purses.

The bathroom is just beyond the beds, running the width of the room. On the left is a large, sort of trough like sink, which permits hand laundry to be done in the room. On the right is a combination toilet/shower room with a door. The toilets here are squat toilets, the shower in the dormitories is just a shower head in the small room, the whole room gets wet.

Beyond the bathroom is the balcony, where laundry is hung out to dry. In some dormitories, there are no balconies, and students erect racks outside the windows. There it is best to be on the highest floor, so you don't have higher floor laundry dripping on top of yours. For a time during exams this spring, it rained so much for days that no one could dry their laundry and everyone was running out of clean underwear.

If you have ever lived shipboard as an enlisted person in the Navy, you will understand the closeness of the quarters here. There is a new dormitory building going up right now, one that will have air conditioning. The incoming freshmen in 2008 will be housed in it. We American teachers have a feeling that upperclassmen will not be very happy about that.

Summer temperatures in Nanjing are even hotter than Tallahassee, daytime highs are often in the high 90s or low 100s. The students bake in these little rooms, and spend as little time as possible in them. Those who can possibly leave school and spend the summer at home do so to avoid the heat. Of course, most of my students didn't have air conditioning at home, either, but at least at home they didn't have to share a room with 5 other people.

Group Tour - Day 1

I have heard about group tours but never actually been on one. Sarah went with her school to New York City last year, but when I was young I didn't travel with my school and I was never on any sports teams that went anywhere together, and when I was in the Navy, they just loaded us up and went, we didn't stop and look at anything.

My friend Grace used to like group tours and went on her first group tour in 1930, and her last one in 1991. Based on my now vast experience of one day with a group tour, I don't think I'll be doing this for 60 years. It's, um, dull.

We hauled our luggage out to the bus for an 8:30 am departure, and of course someone was late so we had to go back and find her. Then we traveled for a while, and stopped and we all herded out and went to the bathroom, and then travled some more.

We arrived a Wuxi in the rain, and went to lunch at a place with a bunch of tour buses parked out front. The food was pre-ordered for us, which was fine, it all just felt a little sterile. We had a guide for the afternoon, and we went to see a park that had previously been the country estate of early 20th century Chinese industrialists, and to a pearl factory, and to a temple. But it was too much for the kids, James fell asleep on the bus and missed the temple, and our resident four year old stayed awake but melted down during the temple visit.

The evening meal was also in a place that seemed to cater to groups, with pre-ordered food coming out quickly and efficiently. The hotel is next to the train station and we've been advised to stay in our rooms and not venture out as the neighborhood is dangerous. This experience is not making me feel like I'm part of the culture. Or maybe it's just the rain.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Leaving Nanjing

This morning we are packing up our things to take a group tour with the other teachers for a few days, ending in Shanghai. We don't want to leave. I came expecting that we would all be sick all the time, probably with ghastly illnesses that would give us liver damage. I thought the food would be toxic, the air poisonous, and my children snatched and sold as slaves.

Okay, I was wrong.

We are leaving a world where teachers are viewed as valuable, really valuable members of society. Where people take a couple of hours in the middle of the day to eat with their friends and families and rest before returning to work. Where people gather in squares in the evenings to socialize and dance.

One night, ballroom dancers were out in Times Square, dancing to Chinese music. James and I went out and danced with them, and I hope I always remember the strange tones of the Chinese music, the dancers box-stepping, and James and I dancing in the dark.

Two of my students burst in on us the night before last, while I was typing in my pajamas. I made them wait in the hall while I got dressed. They had come to bring us more presents and to give lengthy advice about what to see in Shanghai. I didn't expect to make friends here, or that young people would be so polite to a middle aged woman, so open with an unknown teenager, or so truly kind to a little boy.

The food is fabulous, rich and varied. As my Chinese is about as competent as my Urdu, we often think we are ordering one thing and get another. This is because of the tonal nature of Chinese. When you say the syllable "ma", depending on which of the four tones you use, it means mother, horse, numb or scold. For adults with non-tonal languages, this means you are misunderstood. A lot.

The food is always good, even when we don't recognize what it is. I must tell you that the Chinese food you get in Chinese restaurants is not what I am eating here. It seems unfair that France gets all the credit for great food, eaten happily with friends.

So I had trepidations for nothing. I am leaving with a satchel of unused drugs, the kids and I having taken nothing more than pepto-bismal since we left home. Sarah wants to come back and teach herself. James wants to live here.

I came, but I never expected to be so happy here.