Shanghaied, Chapter 3: Our First Little Group Adventure

This week’s post is really long. Life got real eventful and I have many stories to tell. Fair warning!

Here’s a thing or two that you should know about me. I have no sense of direction. Not a bit. I get lost comically easy. Walking back from the orientation room that we had gone to a half a dozen times before, I got lost for 30 minutes before finding other people from the program. I can’t remember street names. I could get lost in a cardboard box. Add to this the language barrier, my weird nervousness regarding asking for directions, and my desire to go exploring in new places, and you basically get a very lost Gabe roaming the streets of Shanghai. And when you go to another city…

    But first! Class. As always.

Wednesdays in the 21st Century City program are one of the busiest days of the week (and International Business gets their mornings free…). In the mornings we have our Chinese Society class, where we discuss the social and cultural changes that modern China has undergone. We’ll also be preparing for our Capstone Research Project, where we’ll be conducting field research on a chosen topic relating to Chinese society and public opinion. I’m not entirely sure what I want to research, so it’ll be interesting to choose! In class, we began watching the famous movie “To Live”, also known as “Lifetimes”, directed by Zhang Yimou. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an amazing and devastatingly sad movie about life during the 40s through the 70s in China. Following Chinese Society was our Art History class, where we had our first museum visit to the Aurora Museum in downtown Shanghai. Our teacher, Julie, is really sweet and knowledgable, and we focused on studying select pieces of jade in the Jade Gallery. Jade’s history in China is fascinating but I’ll spare you the long and interesting details (you’re welcome). The museum itself is very nice, and it was a lot of fun to explore the various galleries with our little art class. I love museums, and I’m excited to go visit all of Shanghai’s galleries and exhibits.

               And then of course there’s Chinese class, which continues to throttle me. Suffice to say I should probably go study for the big test on Friday…

Thursday night we had our workshop in Chinese Culture and Art. There were lots of stations in the containers (our little private classrooms next to the dorms which are literally repurposed shipping containers), each one containing something like calligraphy, traditional mask painting, or Chinese knot tying. People were playing Mahjong, which I am awful at. After being soundly thrashed a few times, I wandered over to the Chinese chess station. Chinese chess, called Xiangqi in Chinese, is kind of similar to western chess, but the pieces are positioned differently and usually move in different ways. My Chinese teacher, Liu Laoshi, was teaching it, and we played a few games together, which was a lot of fun (if you’re keeping score at home, I narrowly lost the first game, and was winning the second game before we had to call it due to time). These Chinese art forms are very ancient and fascinating, and our Chinese teachers and staff are wonderful for teaching all of us.

Friday began my little adventure, and my painful realization that I really need to work on my navigational and language skills. Kaz, Umama, Eryn, Blaise, and I set out to visit the nearby city of Hangzhou, famous for its picturesque West Lake, traditional architecture, and overpriced-yet-delicious concessions. For those of you who don’t know everyone in my program (and if you don’t, how dare you, why don’t you keep up with every minute detail of my life, GOD), here’s who set out with us. Kaz and Umama are from my Chinese class and they’re both awesome. Eryn was in our class too but she betrayed us and transferred out (we miss her). Blaise is in my art class, and he’s really enthusiastic about travelling and very down to earth. Our little squad set out early Friday afternoon for Hangzhou. Tragically, due to a series of miscommunications and subway complications, we lost Kaz en-route and he couldn’t make the train. The four of us sadly departed on a short high-speed train ride to Hangzhou.

(Sidenote: transportation in China is really hard to organize. Buying tickets is like pulling teeth; you need a Chinese bank card (which I don’t have), excellent Chinese language skills (which I really don’t have) because the app is all in Chinese, and extensive documentation and planning. Our amazing Alliance staff member Yingyi helped me buy the tickets, but when you’re on a time crunch, the Shanghai subway system can be so surpassingly difficult to navigate. The two train stations have nearly identical names if you’re not paying attention, and you can easily get confused if you’re not careful. And you know how I am with finding my way around.)

After making our way to Hangzhou, we took a cab ride to our little hostel. The cab driver barely spoke English, and initially complained about our poor Chinese skills. With the combined efforts of four people and a lot of translating apps (thank you, Pleco. This app has kept me afloat in China. It’s essentially a massive dictionary that has saved me so many times, both in and out of class), we managed to have a rudimentary conversation. We spoke about Asian geography (Umama is from Bangladesh, which we managed to convince him was in fact located in Asia. She was less than amused by his confusion), as well as various sites around Hangzhou worth visiting. We briefly discussed US politics, as everyone seems eager to do here. While I won’t get too political, let’s just say that there are a lot of questions people here have about the latest election. Chinese people are reluctant to discuss their own politics but enthusiastic to discuss US politics, much to my continued exhaustion. Anyway, even though I can feel my Chinese slowly improving, but half the time I could barely understand what our driver was saying. After our ride, we arrived at Fiona’s Travel Hostel, which is this adorable little place at the edge of Hangzhou. Our room was a bit cramped but warm and cozy, and the owners are very sweet. We settled in and spent the evening exploring the local area, which is very hilly and beautiful. There were lots of restaurants with tanks of all sorts of live seafood, which interested Blaise, Umama, and Eryn but deeply distressed me. I’ll spare you a vegan rant but I like my food unfeeling and made out of plants.

After a surprisingly good night’s sleep, we set out for West Lake. West Lake is considered to be one of the prettiest sites in China, so we were all very excited. It’s been cold here but the temperature climbed into the mid 50s (or whatever in Celsius, I still haven’t gotten the hang of it). The walk to West Lake is beautiful. There are mountains shrouded in the mist all around (though the “mist” may just be pollution. It’s still pretty, anyhow). There are also a ton of old wooden buildings that are probably older than the United States.

Here comes my sense of direction. Or lack thereof. We set out in what I thought was the right direction for a bit before I corrected myself, whereupon I immediately got us lost again. I soon lost my navigation privileges, which would be a recurring theme. We ended up getting distracted by a pretty courtyard containing some cool Buddhist caves. Called the Shiwu caves, they have several Buddhas carved into the stone. There are a few tunnels through the caves that Blaise and Eryn managed to somehow disappear into. Umama and I managed to find them after frantically searching for a few minutes, and then I decided that I wanted to go exploring too. And after blindly stumbling down a pitch-black tunnel that was strangely dripping water for some reason, I realized that wandering off is a poor policy.

After finding Blaise inexplicably taking pictures after climbing up the side of the rocky hill, we set out for West Lake. West Lake is absolutely gorgeous. The lake itself is beautiful, even under the cloudy winter sky of Hangzhou. We headed out on the Su causeway, which is a strip of land and bridges that cut through the lake. There are beautiful trees, old stone bridges, and distant verdant mountains. It’s a peaceful place, and would probably be more peaceful without the mob of Chinese tourists. And it’s not even tourist season. Still, it was nice outside. The sun was overhead and we passed through various stands selling delicious local snacks. A little sour plum popsicle (though it wasn’t cold, just kind of jelly-like) cost like 10 kuai! I could buy 5 baozi with that.  There were also people selling those divine caramlized sour plums on sticks but they were needlessly expensive. We took pictures, were asked by Chinese people to take pictures with them (Umama is very dark and Eryn has blonde hair, so we attracted a lot of attention), and stopped at various little buildings or fish ponds along the way. After an hour of walking, we crossed the lake, and circled around the northern edge. We had a really nice time; walking around, exploring hilariously overprices cafes, and trying to watch the sunset through the haze. Umama and I bickered ceaselessly, Eryn helped correct my consistently wrong sense of direction and picked out lovely picture spots, and Blaise made jokes and charmingly practiced his Mandarin on a group of very confused Chinese girls. We had a really nice time exploring the city, and ended the night by exploring downtown Hangzhou.

Sunday was the last day we had in Hanzhou. After another surprisingly good night’s sleep, we set out to explore the Leifang Pagoda, which is a reconstructed Buddhist pagoda not far from West Lake. It’s a beautiful, tall building, and has a lot of history within it. The Leifang Pagoda was burned down by Japanese pirates centuries ago, and the stone skeleton of the building collapsed in the 20s. It was recently meticulously reconstructed, and now houses lots of traditional Chinese and Buddhist art. We saw some stunning wood carvings depicting the story of Madam White Snake (who’s plot I’m still hazy on). They were so intricate, it was almost like a 3D painting with its incredibly detailed background carvings and facial features. The view from the top floor was stunning. Even though it was a reconstruction, the government sought to make it as accurate as possible, and it has become a major tourist site. The building was mobbed with Chinese tourists and several people took as many photos of us as the scenery.

After the pagoda, we began walking to the train station. We walked down Hefang street, which is an old traditional road in the city. There were trashy tourist shops selling souvenirs, fancy tea, and expensive handicrafts. We ducked into a small food court, which was essentially a narrow side street lined with food vendors. I managed to find vegetarian dumplings, which were delicious. That was probably the tamest food around; there were squids, whole baby chickens, every variety of meat and vegetable on skewers, and in one terrifying encounter, fried scorpion. It was a little hard to sit there watching everyone eat (did I mention that I’m a vegan? Yes? Frequently and at every possible moment? Alright then!). Following that, we took our train home, and I proceeded to desperately prepare my Chinese essay and new vocabulary words.

As of yet it’s been a very busy week. Monday night we had a little calligraphy class taught by this really sweet old calligrapher. Chinese calligraphy is a beautiful art, and has so much rich history behind it. I can also now add calligraphy to my list of things that I am terrible at.

And as usual, I’m going to go review Chinese flashcards and slowly wither away under an ever-growing pile of homework! Oh god…

I’ll leave you with this: I love sweets, as should be obvious by now. On Sunday, I bought some cotton candy in Hangzhou. That sounds pretty standard, I know. But the guy making it turned it into a performance. He spun the sugar into cotton candy (which Umama refers to as “candy floss”, which is an adorable little Briticism), and backed up like 10 feet away with the massive strand of “cotton”. And it was certainly massive. It was like 2-and-a-half feet tall. Just gigantic. It made me so happy.

And here’s this week’s worst English: I’ll enclose a picture of what I found written on the front of my notebook. It’s just…I don’t know. I’m sure it sounded a lot better in Chinese.

Zaijian!

Article by Gabriel Wacks