I Return to China!

I started this post while sitting in a Starbucks in Nanjing, China, where I had enjoyed a coffee and sandwich for lunch.  I had only two days left in China and, because of many little things, I was feeling a little low. I had become less resilient in dealing with the annoyances that a foreigner living in China faces and I was very happy to be coming home. I’ll share more about why I was feeling low later but, in this post, I want to cover some things that happened when I first arrived in China.  I spent five days in Shanghai before going to Mianyang, a layover intended to give me some time to get over jet-lag before starting my teaching assignment. I lived in the special flat provided by the company hosting the volunteers, Xu Bo Art and Culture Exchange. For those who may not know, Xu Bo is owned and managed by my friend Jessie Duanmu and I have been her volunteer webmaster since early 2009 (see http://www.xubo.org.)

March 17th: Arriving in China: The first person I saw upon arriving was my dear friend Guoming, who met me at the airport. Guoming is a teacher at the primary school on ChangXing Island. We became close when I taught at the school two years ago and have remained close ever since by talking frequently via email and online chat. Indeed, it was my friendships with Guoming and another teacher, Karen Yin, that made me want to return to the ChangXing Island primary school. Without those friendships I probably would have opted to go somewhere new. Splitting my 3 months between Mianyang and ChangXing Island was a compromise designed to allow me to see my old friends while still seeing something new of China.

It seemed like a lot of trouble for Guoming to pick me up the airport and I had gently tried to talk him out of it. He lives on ChangXing Island and the airport is on the mainland. Driving to the airport from the island is something that has become feasible only recently, with the opening of the beautiful new tunnel under the Yangtze River. At about 9 kilometers in length, the new tunnel is about 3 times longer than our trans-Hudson tunnels. Three wide lanes in each direction support vehicular traffic and there is a lower-level that will be used to extend the Shanghai Metro (train) some time in the future.

Video: The New Shanghai-ChangXing Island Tunnel

Before the new tunnel was completed in 2009, driving to Shanghai required taking the car ferry, an expensive and time-consuming mode of travel. But even with the new tunnel, Pudong International airport is still more than an hour away from Guoming’s home. My destination upon leaving the airport was the Shanghai volunteers’ flat and it would have been easy to get there using the Metro.  But I couldn’t talk Guoming out of meeting me. Since my flight from Newark arrived in mid-afternoon, he requested and received permission to leave school early. I must admit, it was great to see his smiling face among the throngs of people meeting travelers exiting customs. After welcoming hugs we headed for his car in the airport parking garage. I gave him the new Acer laptop I had purchased at home for him and brought along in my carry-on bag. It turns out even computers made in China are cheaper bought outside of China. He paid me one half of its value in RMB, which made it unnecessary for me to convert any dollars to RMB. I asked him to hold the other half until I returned from Mianyang, so I wouldn’t have to carry too much cash while traveling. Guoming used his GPS to guide us from the airport to the volunteers’ flat in the Puxi area of Shanghai.

Video: Guoming Uses His GPS to Find My Shanghai Location

After arriving at the large office building which houses Xu Bo’s volunteer’s living quarters (22nd floor) and office (25th floor,) Guoming handed me off to Xu Bo staff member Nick Yin and then headed back to ChangXing Island.

Over the next several days I became better acquainted with staff members I had known previously only through email and with volunteers from several different Western countries. We enjoyed meals together at restaurants and one spaghetti dinner cooked in the volunteers’ flat. Preparation for the spaghetti dinner is shown in the video below which features Viktoria (Germany), Ulli (Austria), Ward (Holland), Nicholas (Switzerland) and Svenja (Germany.)

Video: Volunteers’ Spaghetti Dinner

Nicholas told me he had chosen to come teach on ChangXing Island after reading my 2008 blog. We enjoyed each other’s company and discovered we share an appreciation for the guitar work of Britian’s Mark Knopfler and America’s Doc Watson.

On Friday, Guoming and Karen invited me to meet them at a Korean restaurant in northern Shanghai. Guoming came with his wife Zhou Hai Qin and daughter, Yao Yun. Yao Yun was one of my second grade students in 2008.  Karen came despite being  8.5 months pregnant with her husband Gu Chao. It was wonderful to see these dear friends again and we had a great time together. Gu Chao speaks almost no English so we all were curious to see if I could communicate with him in Mandarin. I was able to speak to him a little but needed a lot of help translating what he was saying. When you speak, you know what you want to say and can take some time to figure out how to say it before opening your mouth.  Listening is very different.  You don’t have the benefit of knowing what the speaker is trying to say, the words usually come faster than you can process them, and you feel there is an implicit time limit on responding that adds to the pressure.  During the three months I spent in China my listening comprehension slowly improved.  With practice, I began to understand more and became less anxious about not understanding perfectly, giving myself license to extract what (I hoped) was the kernel of what was said.

Reunion with Dear Friends in Shanghai
Click to see slideshow

Karen looked beautiful but fat!  She is normally very thin and she must have gained 25 pounds carrying the baby.  I don’t think she would mind me saying she was fat.  Chinese people seem to be less sensitive about weight:  I often hear kids say they are fat, or call another friend fat, apparently without hurting the friend’s feelings.  After eating we took some photos and gave each other presents. Karen and Gu Chao gave me a special coffee mug.  When filled with a hot beverage, the mug changes to reveal a couple of my favorite photos of us together and the message “To our dear friend John, we will love you forever.”  Guoming gave me a beautiful set of porcelain chopsticks painted with a Beijing Opera theme and a nice book about Chinese paper cutting.  I had brought all of them gifts as well. During dinner, Karen and Gu Chao honored me by asking if I would be their new baby’s “American Grandfather” and give her an English name.  I was touched by this request and readily agreed.  For a moment I worried that I might offend one of the real grandfathers, who both live on the island.  But, since she will call her paternal grandfather “Ye ye” and her maternal grandfather “Lao Ye,” I realized I wouldn’t be stepping on any toes by usurping the title “grandfather.”  After dinner, I said goodbye to Guoming’s family with warm hugs and Karen and Gu Chao drove me to the Metro station where I hugged them goodbye also.  We were all happy to have had such a warm reunion and we looked forward to seeing each other again when I returned in May.

On Saturday, I spent some time getting the lay of the land at  EXPO, the World’s Fair that is going on in Shanghai through October 1st.  I was trying to get a feel for how big the place is (it’s too big) and to figure out the easiest way to get there.  It’s about 3 miles long and 1 mile wide and there are many different gates.  Some gates are near Metro stations and others not so near.  Guoming had already purchased tickets for Grace and me and I knew that we all would attend at the end of May, when Grace arrived and I finished teaching.  I didn’t go in but the place looked very impressive from outside the main gate.  It’s also quite impressive at night.  Even from 3 miles away, the view of the lighted bridge and pavilions from the balcony of the 22nd floor volunteer’s flat is very nice.

Video: Shanghai EXPO at Night

On Sunday, Nicholas invited me to join him in his Sunday routine of breakfast at a coffee house (still rare in Shanghai) and lunch at a restaurant near the volunteer’s flat (great dumplings!)  In the afternoon I accompanied him on the Metro to the stop where the new bus to ChangXing Island leaves. This bus didn’t exist in 2008 and I needed to learn how to get to it because I would be taking it in May when I returned to Shanghai.  That evening, I reorganized the items in my two suitcases so I could take just the larger one to Mianyang the next day, knowing I would be traveling after Mianyang.  I had to get up early (5am) to catch my taxi to the airport, but waking up early was pretty easy because I was still not time-adjusted.  I was very excited about going to Sichuan province, an area I had always wanted to see.  I felt a little nervous about teaching middle school but was ready for the challenge.

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