My first international volunteering assignment was in 2008 in Shanghai, China. The small company that hosted me there is called Xu Bo Art & Culture Exchange. For three months, I lived and taught English at a primary school on ChangXing Island in the Yangtze River near Shanghai. During that time, I met several people who have become dear friends. For this reason, I added Shanghai to the itinerary for this trip, even though it is pretty far from any of the other places I visited.
Most of my Shanghai friends are people I’ve met through Xu Bo. First, there is Jessie Duanmu, who started Xu Bo in 2005 because she wanted to do something to help bridge the culture gap between China and the western world. I liked Jessie from the start and got to know her well during my 2008 stay. When I returned home I continued to work with Jessie by building a Xu Bo website. The website work turned out to be a fun retirement activity so I’ve been doing it ever since. When Jessie came to New York for a volunteer conference in 2011, she and her husband Frank stayed at our home in New Jersey for a few days and we learned that Frank is just as nice as she is. In 2012, they moved to Singapore but Jessie still manages a staff of 6 or 7 Xu Bo people in Shanghai.
I’ll describe the reunions with my Shanghai friends in the order in which they occurred.
Friday, March 14
I arrived at Shanghai airport Friday night about 8:30pm. My plane from Hong Kong was 3 hours late taking off but I never discovered why. Jessie had arranged and paid for my transportation from the airport to the hotel near the Xu Bo office which was wonderful because it’s a long way to the office and I was tired. (She also paid for my hotel for six nights!)
Another Shanghai friend, Lisa Xinlu, had wanted to meet me at the hotel and take me to dinner when I arrived but I had told her via email that the plane would be very late and that she shouldn’t try to come. But, just after checking in at the hotel, while I was trying to get someone at the front desk to help me get WIFI working on my laptop she showed up beside me and warmly welcomed me. She said she knew that Spring Airlines doesn’t serve meals and she thought I would be hungry. So sweet of her!
I met Lisa in 2008, when she was a college student who worked for Xu Bo providing orientation classes for new volunteers. She impressed me as a bright, polite and competent young lady. I particularly liked the way she handled a young volunteer from Switzerland who was giving her a hard time during a Mandarin lesson. In 2009, when Jessie mentioned that Lisa would become an exchange student at a small univerity in South Dakota, I contacted her and told her she would be welcome to visit us in New Jersey. She came for her Christmas break in 2009 along with a friend from Ohio named Mandy and we had a very special time together: sightseeing and introducing them to the family-centered customs of the Christmas season in the western world. When I returned to China in 2010 to volunteer again, Lisa and Mandy took Grace and me to Suzhou for the day and Lisa’s parents invited us to their home for dinner.Lisa sat with me at the hotel while I gobbled up the treats she had brought (including a “bubble tea” which she had introduced us to in Suzhou.) It was getting late and her husband (she was married last fall) was worried about her being out so late by herself. I walked her back to the Metro (subway) station and I took this photo on the way. I thanked her for her kindess and we said goodnight – I would see her and her family on Tuesday.
Saturday, March 15
My 2008 volunteering experience was very special. I became especially close with many of the kids and two of the teachers on ChangXing Island.
Karen Yin is an English teacher who was born and raised on ChangXing Island and she was my mentor/supervisor at the school. She helped me develop lessons and helped me in social settings when I didn’t know exactly what to do, or how to eat something :-). Karen’s parents invited me to dinner at their home on the island and Karen and her husband Gu Chao entertained me many times. In 2010, when I went back to teach at the same school, Karen had just had a baby whose English name is Kathy. I was invited to the special celebration the family had for the baby. I was honored when Karen and Gu Chao told me they would like Kathy to think of me as her American ‘grandpa.’
Guoming (family name Yao) is the computer teacher at the school on the island. In 2008, his English wasn’t very good but he wanted to learn. Since I wanted to learn Mandarin, we started helping each other and we became good friends. Guoming invited me to his home one weekend where he cooked a delicious meal for us and, there, I met his wife, Zhou Hai Qin. I already knew his daughter, Yao Yun, who was one of my 3rd grade English students. When I went back to the island to teach again in 2010, Guoming and I spent a weekend together traveling to see NanJing, former capital of China.
Both families now live in the area of northern Shanghai known as Baoshan and commute to their teaching jobs on the island every day. Most people who can afford it move to the mainland when their children reach middle school because the schools are better there. We arranged to meet at a Metro stop not too far from their homes. Guoming picked me up and the first thing he did was help me get a local SIM card and he wouldn’t let me pay him for it. Unlike America, you can buy prepaid cards very cheap in many Asian countries so it’s cost-effective to buy one even if you’re only going to use it for a week or less.After stopping to pick up Hai Qin and Yao Yun, we visited a very nice “wetlands” park along the northern edge of the Huang Pu River where it enters the Yangtze. I recognized the area from the regular ferry trips I made from Baoshan to ChangXing Island in 2008. About 4pm we met Karen and her family at a Japanese restaurant where they had reserved a private room for our get-together. Karen and Gu Chao greeted me warmly and I met my Chinese granddaughter Kathy (actually I met her shortly after she was born in 2010.) Not surprisingly, she is a beautiful little girl. She was a bit shy about meeting me at first but Karen encouraged her to offer the drawings she had made for me and she warmed to the task. Karen had told her about her “grandpa” over the past couple of years when she had received gifts from me. Within 10 minutes she was over her shyness and we had a great time together. She loves to sing and dance, has loads of energy and can be extremely charming, as you’ll see in the video below where she is reciting a story. Even without understanding what she is saying you can enjoy her emotional delivery.
NOTE: If you cannot view the YouTube video below, click here to view a Flash version.
During our dinner we shared gifts for each other. Karen and Guoming seemed to really like the wooden English name-plates I had made for them. Guoming gave me a beautiful wall hanging with 4 lines from a poem by the beloved Chinese poet Li Bai. I will need to study them to understand the exact translation but Guoming explained they have to do with a friendship being deep, like a
Karen showered me with gifts, including many interesting foods that were available on China’s historic Silk Road. She also gave Grace and me beautiful silk scarfs. I had given Kathy an “M&M” backpack and some of the candies – I don’t think she needed the extra sugar 🙂 We had a wonderful time and all felt a little sad as we said goodbye. We plan to get together again but we’re not sure when. I want to go some other places in the world in the coming years and, although they would love to come visit us, that is very expensive and also hard to fit into their busy schedules. But I believe we will see each other again!
Sunday, March 16
On Sunday I met two former Bellcore/Telcorida/Ericsson work colleagues who now live in Shanghai. One friend, MaryAnn Lee, has lived there with her family since 2007. The other, Paul Hughes, moved there with his wife only two weeks earlier.
In 2008, when I let MaryAnn know I was working in Shanghai, she and her husband Peter and their three children took me out to lunch at the fantastic “dumpling restaurant” Din Tai Fung. After lunch they treated me to a visit to the newly-opened World Financial Center observation deck. On another weekend in 2008, MaryAnn and her youngest, Jonathan, took me to visit one of the interesting “water villages” outside Shanghai. Jonathan was only 10 or 11 at the time. In 2010, MaryAnn took Grace and me to lunch, again at Din Tai Fung but at their XinTiandi location.
Paul Hughes recently got married to a lovely young woman named Daowen from Taiwan. They met when Paul traveled to Taiwan on business to do offer a Telcordia training course to employees of Chung Hwa Telephone, where Daowen was working at the time. When Paul told me he would be in Shanghai by the time I arrived, we planned to meet. I suggested we meet together with MaryAnn and her family so that Paul and Daowen could meet some new people there.We met at another Din Tai Fung restaurant in a shopping mall at the XinLuJia area of Pudong. MaryAnn and Peter brought Jonathan who, of course, is now a young man. I learned that MaryAnn will return to New Jersey this July with Jonathan (her older two children are already in the US, one at Rutgers and other looking for work after completing college in Philadelphia). Jonathan wants to go back home and MaryAnn and Peter think it’s a good time to go: it might be easier to make the transition to middle-school than high school. Peter will stay on in Shanghai for at least one more year – his job in New Jersey is no longer there – if he really wanted to return home, they would need to relocate to Pennsylvania.
It was great to see MaryAnn and her family again and they were wonderful hosts as usual. Seeing Paul and welcoming him to his new home city was fun and Paul’s wife Daowen is a delightful young lady. After lunch, the three of us walked around the Pudong area to enjoy the sunny day. It had been cold in Shanghai and this was one of the first warm Spring days. I really enjoyed seeing all of these friends and hope to see them again… somewhere in the world 🙂
Monday, March 17
Monday was my day to meet, in person, my “virtual colleagues” at Xu Bo. As webmaster, over the past several years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Jessie’s staff in Shanghai and I looked forward to meeting them. I met Summer, Athena, Angela, Ms. Sun and a new staff member, Ms. Chen. On this day, I took them out to lunch at a famous local Shanghai restaurant near the Shanghai Outdoor Stadium. The food and service were both great and I really enjoyed getting to know my colleagues a little better in such a nice setting.
Tuesday, March 19My young friend Lisa had asked me to save Tuesday for her and her family. She actually took a vacation day to do this – I wish she hadn’t done that but I sure enjoyed the day. I met her at a Metro station and the first thing she did was to take me to a bakery to buy something for my breakfast the following day: she knew I would be leaving the hotel quite early and she wanted to be sure I had something to eat. We then stopped at a little restaurant called Fresh Element which specializes in juice drinks and we had some time to catch up on what had been happening with each of us over the four years since we were last together. Lisa’s big news is that she got married just a few months ago. The civil union has been done but the wedding ceremony will be in October. She met her husband, whose name is Shan Shan, through a family connection and they got to know each other talking via Skype while he was working in Japan.
About noon, Lisa and I took the train to meet Shan Shan near his office and he drove us to lunch at an upscale Korean restaurant in a local luxury hotel. We had Korean hot-pot and several items that were really delicous. After lunch, we drove to Lisa’s parents home so I could say hello to them. Grace and I had first met Lisa’s parents on a Skype conversation in our living room when Lisa stayed with us in 2009. Our communication was limited by the language barrier but we could tell they were very appreciative that Lisa seemed to be in good hands in that far-off, somewhat frightening place called America. In 2010, when I went back to volunteer in China a second time, Grace came to visit and Lisa’s parents invited us to dinner. Again, our conversation was limited but we felt so welcome in their home. We knew they were really special people.
Arriving at Lisa’s parents very comfortable apartment we warmly greeted each other. They seemed to like the gifts Grace and I had bought for them and I was pleased about that. They gave me a very special gift for Grace (can’t tell you yet, Grace is listening) and Shan Shan had bought some excellent tea and some nougat candy from an area of China to which had been travelling on business. They also served lots of treats and tea to me while I sat in their living room. We took the photo below of all of us using my camera and Lisa’s tripod.
Lisa and Shan Shan took me back to my hotel where I felt a little sad to say goodbye to her. Although I had planned to take the metro back to the airport in the morning, Lisa insisted that she pay for a taxi to the airport. She arranged the taxi using an App on her smart phone. When I arrived at the airport (actually at the Maglev fast train which I enjoy riding and didn’t want to miss) I called her to tell her the fare amount and she paid via her phone app. What a sweetheart she is! I feel so lucky to have her for a friend!