China Debrief

One day in mid-September, I cleared out my laptop bag. I was going to put my laptop and some very early drafts of stories I’m currently working on into the bag in order to take them with me to a local cafe. What I didn’t realize is that I hadn’t even opened my laptop bag since returning from China. This is what I found.

Boarding passes, train tickets, museum brochures, zoo tickets, and one Alpen Fruit & Nut bar with Milk Chocolate. The Alpen granola bar is a surprising remnant from my ceaseless and frustrating attempts to find items at Chinese grocery stores comparable to items in U.S. grocery stores that my kids would eat. In this case, the Alpen chocolate bars were one of those. They cost roughly $3.50 for a box of six at the Carrefour. The Quaker granola bars the kids prefer here in the USA were not to be found anywhere.

Friends have told me that my wife and I are brave for doing the trip to China and bringing the kids. I always suggest that “crazy” is also a good characterization. I have no idea what our kids will take from the trip. As their father, my hope is that our trip to China will have at least broadened their understanding of this big planet on which we live.

Recently my son Henry said he liked the amusement park rides at the park. He was talking about the rides at Lu Xun park. It was the place where I learned that while in China you just need to barge your way in front of people, shout “Liang zhang piao!” and hand the ticket agent the money for the ride tickets. Otherwise, someone else will cut in front of you, leaving you holding your money waiting for a turn at the box office window that will never come.

(On a side note, I have to say that the word xing, meaning “please,” is the most useless word you can learn in Mandarin. I don’t think I heard it spoken once. The Chinese just barge in and start demanding and bargaining. To hell with pleasantries when you’re fighting for your own needs in a country of 1.3 billion people.)

With kids, the Chinese were very friendly towards us and quite curious. It definitely got my wife and I better attention in restaurants. I can’t help but think that they were a disarming presence. But sometimes the Chinese curiosity (especially what I dubbed the “Chinese Paparazzi”) was too much for the kids. After about three weeks, whenever a Chinese person would try to say “hi” to them, the kids would turn away from them. They were shutting down. Near the end of the trip, Henry said, “I can’t wait to go home, where I’m not famous.”

On the other hand, as difficult as it could be trying to take the kids around Shanghai, they definitely made many of our interactions with the Chinese easier. Without them, I was just another laowai who surely must be working for a western company in China temporarily. Most Chinese were surprised to learn I was not some kind of British  business person. I was surprised to be taken for a British business person.

Things I miss about Shanghai (and China)

  • Walking – we walked everywhere, because we could. There is something freeing at times about not having to rely on a car to get you everywhere. Most Americans associate owning a car with freedom. That’s because the only way to get around the USA is by car. In China, between the public transportation, high-speed trains, and airline connections, you don’t need a car to get around. This is very similar to Europe.
  • Coco – Their bubble teas and fruity ice-cold drinks were perfect for hydrating and comfort on those hot and humid summer days.
  • Lilian Cake Shop – Those egg tarts are unbelievably awesome. Their other pastries are very good, too.
  • The Food – So many different kinds of wonderful regional specialties. The culinary adventures are near endless in China.
  • Museums – There are so many museums dedicated to showing so many different aspects of Chinese history. It’s an old and well-documented culture.
  • The View from Our Hotel Room – Waking up to that neverending skyline every morning was a thrill. Seeing it light up at night was a delight. At least when it wasn’t smoggy.
  • Adventure – Every day I had the sense that a new adventure was there to be had. Shanghai has so many things to see and do. As much as we were able to do, we did not get to see the aquarium, nor did we take a cruise on the Huangpu River. Maybe next time.

Things I don’t miss about Shanghai (and China)

  • Beijing cab drivers – It is my sincere hope that I never have to see the look from a Beijing cab driver that they give you when you hand them your hotel’s card and they read the address, near some famous Chinese landmark (Forbidden City, etc.). It’s a look that easily translates to, “Gee I’ve never been in that part of town before. Forbidden City? What is that?”
  • Isolation – The experience was far more isolating than I could have ever predicted. I assumed the other professors would bring their families. They didn’t. So there wasn’t anyone to pal around with on our daily adventures in Shanghai.
    There were days when the only other adult I spoke English to was my wife. There were many days when the kids and I went out and about our business in Shanghai and never saw another laowai.
    There were weeks that went by when our kids did not speak to any other kids, because there were no other kids for them to talk to or play with. A two week trip is one thing. For kids, being each others’ only companions for six weeks in a foreign country and sharing the same bed is a bit intense. By the end of the trip, every single subway trip resulted in the two of them bickering and fighting. No day passed without at least a half-dozen squabbles or shouting matches. There was also the Highest Timeout in the World. Towards the end, I was tired of the fighting and the whining.
    Since we returned home, Henry and Meredith have gotten along much better.

Would I do it again?

If by “it” you mean travel to China in the same exact way in the same exact conditions, then the answer is “no.”

I don’t want the four of us crammed into a two-room hotel suite for a month and a half without so much as a hot pot, or easily available laundry facilities. (I could write an entire post on the challenges of doing laundry for four people at the SISU Guest House.) Two weeks? That’s okay. For a semi-long-term stay? Hell, no. I’d prefer a place with at least a stove, so we could cook our own food.

I don’t want my wife to experience the stresses and difficulties she endured while teaching in the Summer China Program. The trip was ultimately worth it, but let’s just say that many Chinese students have a far more open attitude towards sharing test answers than their American counterparts.

My wife and I do not regret the trip in any way. We are so glad we went to China. It was such a unique experience; amazing, exhilarating, baffling, frustrating, challenging, yet oh so rewarding.

I want to go back to Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hong Kong. I want to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. I want to go see Jiuzhai Valley-Huanglong National Park. I want to go see Wulingyuan National Park….I want to go back to China.

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3 thoughts on “China Debrief

  1. What an adventure! Have you ever noticed adventures are never easy, it they were, I don’t think they qualify as a official one. Like Bilbo said to Frodo – it is a dangerous business going out your door. Yet the strength and knowledge that comes from the experience adds resiliency.

    • You are right. I think it can’t be a true adventure without some difficulty as part of it. Otherwise, it’s more like touring. Not that touring can’t be an adventure. An adventure implies more thorough engagement, whereas touring seems passive. Touring is nice, but you get more thrills, more transformative experiences, on an adventure. China was definitely an adventure for my family.

      For Bilbo and Frodo to leave the Shire was a Big Deal.

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