Back at “Home”

We just arrived back from our whirlwind trip five-day around Shanghai and Beijing! Strangely, it feels like a relief to be returning back “home,” to Huzhou, even though Huzhou has only been our home for one and a half weeks. It really is a small town (population two million) compared to the other cities that we visited this week. There is room here to walk on the sidewalks and I feel like I can breathe. I’m really glad that we didn’t decide to stay in a major city, even though it was nice to be around some other foreigners (Dutch, German, Korean, and we even met a Canadian guy with dread locks!) who were fluent English speakers.

Justin and I stayed in a hostel for the first time! I really don’t see myself as a “hostel” kind of girl. I always pictured them as these hippie communes where people with unwashed hair and bare feet would just wander in, set down a sleeping bag, and crash in a room full of other people. I’m sure some hostels are like that, but luckily, Justin found us a nice one called the Rock and Wood International Youth Hostel (I guess it was called “youth” because everyone staying there seemed to be in their twenties). We had a private bedroom and bathroom to ourselves (no unwashed hippies on the floor) with nice, fresh-smelling linens and a bathroom that was WORLDS better than the yucky one we have at home. The only difference I could see from a hotel was that everything was kind of sparse: the walls of our room were white, with only a few framed postcards as decoration; the duvets and sheets (and towels) were white, so that they only had to throw some bleach on everything to keep it looking clean; two twin beds instead of a full; there was no television in our room (but they did have a library of books in the lobby that you could check out–how charming!); and there was no soap or shampoo in the bathroom. That was alright; we came prepared with little travel-sized bottles that we’d nicked from our other hotel stays. At 120 yuan for two nights (about $18 in USD), it really seemed like a great bargain!

We did have some interesting characters staying with us in that hostel. We returned to the hostel late one night to see a veritable fraternity party going on, with people playing pool while smoking cigarettes, blasting loud American music, and playing beer pong. There was also one guy who, day or night, was ALWAYS sitting out on the porch having a very one-sided conversation with anyone who would sit down for a few minutes to listen. He had that spaced-out surfer kind of voice, and every snippet of conversation we heard as we were passing through always seemed to include some grandiose plans about moving to China and starting a business there. I did happen to hear him tell a guy that he had only been in China for two days. I thought, “He’d better actually venture out of this hostel and get a taste of real China before he decides to move here permanently….”

We, on the other hand, ventured out pretty often and saw as much as we could during our short two-day stay in Shanghai. There was so much to do! We made a million plans for what we’ll do next time we’re in town. A few of my favorite things?

1. REAL shopping malls! With white, gleaming floors and wide open spaces! Also, full of designer labels with price-tags to match, unfortunately. If I plan to bulk up my wardrobe in Shanghai, I’d better earn some more yuan before returning there…

2. Beautiful city lights! Sorry to sound unpatriotic, but Times Square has got NOTHING on downtown Shanghai and the view of the skyscrapers over the Bund (a large river flowing through the city). Their architecture is so different and modern! Buildings have odd shapes that look like they shouldn’t be possible, and when the sun finally dips below the horizon, they all transform into dazzling colors and lights! Their city streets also seemed very clean compared to downtown Huzhou, where new skyscrapers stand right next to dilapidated buildings and piles of rubble. They keep everything looking top-notch in Shanghai!

3.Ancient temples nestled in between modern buildings in the city! Shanghai is definitely one of the fastest-growing and most thriving cities in China, but they haven’t lost their sense of history. We rounded an average city corner to find the Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple, and ancient-looking pagoda right in the midst of the downtown buildings (and I thought we would have to scale some far-away mountain to find a temple like they do in the movies….what a convenience).  Though we really don’t know the first thing about Buddhism, we were excited to see that we’d arrived just in time to watch the monks dressed in their orange robes performing their daily song-like prayers. We were also pretty amused to see one monk, in the middle of his verses, stop and pull a smart phone from beneath the folds of his robe, enter a quick text message, and then quickly put it away, joining back in the song as if nothing had happened. Man! Buddhist temples these days are nothing like they used to be…

I was also surprised when the tour guide showing us around the temple seemed to notice that we weren’t very interested in all of the little jade Buddhas and good luck charms available for purchase in the gift shop. (Yes! Who knew that a Buddhist temple would have a gift shop!) He asked where we were from and said, “American? You are probably Christian then, yes?” We told him we were, and he was fascinated in hearing Justin explain all about our Christian faith, and the freedoms we have in Christ compared to the very strict, structured religious ceremony that the Buddhist priests are required to complete each day. He was very interested in everything we told him, but also let us know that he was Islamic, himself, and had a hobby of learning about other religions, but he was not in the least interested in switching religions. Oh well….can’t blame us for trying! It would have been pretty wild to help an Islamic man become a Christian in the middle of a Buddhist temple…

4. The friendly, and sometimes strange, natives! Because there were so many foreigners in Shanghai, we got a break from our celebrity status a little bit (although we still saw some people do double-takes when we walked past, and a few Chinese people requested to have their picture taken with us). However, one afternoon as we were walking through People Park, we unwittingly stepped into an English Corner. English Corner is something like a club for people who like to meet casually and practice having English conversations (Justin and I are actually in charge of an English Corner that meets once a week on campus at HZVTC). A twelve-year-old Chinese boy came running up to Justin and me, and we stopped, wondering if he was in some sort of trouble. Out of breath and in a sort-of rehearsed sounding way, he said, “Hello. I am practicing my English for English corner. May I practice my English with you for awhile?” This was just the type of thing Justin and I have been getting bombarded with in Huzhou, so we weren’t trying to be mean when Justin said, “Hey, maybe later okay? We’re on our way across the park to….” But the boy would not move out of our path, and instead, took Justin’s “maybe” as a whole-hearted “yes” and interrupted the end of his sentence to say, “Where are you from?” Justin hesitantly answered, and they boy didn’t even wait a half-second before firing away with the next question: “How long are you in China?” Rather than responding to Justin’s answer, he fired the next on his list, “What is your favorite food?” We were trying to edge away from this boy and his persistent questions, when a guy who looked to be in his thirties approached us saying, “Hello. Welcome to English corner. We meet here in the park every week. Where are you from?” And he fired away with his list of questions. It was as if we were waving a large American flag up above our heads, because it seemed as if everyone in that area of the park started heading over in our direction so that they could fire through their list of questions. Soon, Justin and I got separated somehow, and I had a group of twenty or thirty Chinese people surrounding me, all asking me questions (even behind me, so I couldn’t back away)! From what I could see of Justin, he looked to be in the same situation. It was a sudden attack of friendly Chinese desperate to know what I thought of Shanghai and what my favorite type of food was. I was glad that Justin had used our TSA luggage lock on our backpack, because they were all standing so close, I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell if someone was emptying the pockets of my backpack! I really felt overwhelmed and a bit panicked as the Chinese crowded in around me closer and closer, all pressing in their faces to get a closer look and hear my responses to their questions. Finally, after what seemed like twenty minutes, I heard Justin breaking away from his crowd saying in a loud voice, “Well, we need to be going now! We’re on a tight sightseeing schedule today and we don’t want to miss the next stop!” (which was, of course, a complete lie. We had no definite plans that day, other than our desperate need to get away from these people). He reached through the crowd and grabbed my arm, pulling me and my half-smiling, half-grimacing face away from dozens of flashing cameras which had just started up a couple of minutes ago. I’m not sure how I would have gotten away if Justin hadn’t saved me. We nearly broke into a run in our haste to leave the park. Who knew that a bunch of friendly people could be so terrifying?

Only a few minutes later, on our way out of the park, we stopped walking for a moment so that we could consult a map to see which way we needed to go next to find an architecture museum that Justin had read about in our travel book. Another friendly Chinese man seized the opportunity of our motionlessness and said, “Hello there! Are you lost? I can show you the way, follow me!” We had learned our lesson from the last group, and we tried to shake him off, but he was quite insistent and even grabbed Justin’s elbow at some point to steer him in the opposite direction. How does he even know where we’re going? I wondered, as we followed him out of the park. He of course had many questions for us, and told us that he was also a teacher at a large university in Shanghai. He also told us that he was quite taken with American culture, especially since he’d been to a John Denver concert, and much to my embarrassment, he started belting out John Denver songs as we walked down the sidewalk. He even insisted that Justin bore a resemblance to John Denver. What does John Denver even look like? I wondered, as we continued following this man down the street, hoping he was taking us to the architecture museum. Not wanting to seem rude, I said, “Wow. You must really be a hit with karaoke.” He positively beamed at me, and said that he was in charge of a karaoke club at his university. He assured me that he knew all of the popular American songs, and then started belting out “You Are My Sunshine” (still gripping Justin’s arm by the way, as we walked through a crowd of staring people on the sidewalk). He went through a litany of others….from the Temptations, to the Jackson Five–he just had an endless number of songs to serenade us with. Finally, FINALLY, we arrived at the museum. The man didn’t let go of Justin’s arm, however, and showed him a little side street with coffee shops and souvenir stores. He told us that the price to get into the museum was pretty steep, but if we followed him down the street, he would treat us to a drink and have a nice long chat with us about America. Justin gave him excuse after excuse (not making the mistake of using the word “maybe” this time), and I kept glancing behind me half wondering if this guy had some sort of scam going on, and if his partner would be sneaking up behind me to empty my pockets of cash while he distracted us with more karaoke. Justin broke away from the grip on his arm and said, “We really need to go to the museum now. Thanks for helping us. GOODBYE.” And the man downright insisted that we ditch our plans and sit down with him. Justin said, “We REALLY can’t. We’re on a tight schedule,” and he gave most disappointed look, like we’d just crushed all of his hopes and dreams (sneaky! I thought), but he seemed resigned to let us go. When we were about to walk away, he asked if we happened to have any American coins that we could give him, to add to his collection of American memorabilia at home. That’s just what he wants, for me to get out my wallet so he can snatch it! I thought. So we lied for the third time that day. We told him we had exchanged all of our money into yuan (even though my wallet was bursting with American quarters and pennies). We nearly ran to the ticket counter and headed into the museum, grateful that the entry prices were steeper than our stalker was willing to pay.

Well, this has again been a really long entry, much longer than I intended. I’ll have to try to write again tomorrow about the Beijing portion of our trip!

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5 thoughts on “Back at “Home”

  1. Loved it! So funny! I had a similar experience and I still can’t get over the fact that, although friendly, some people have NO notion of personal space. Looking forward to reading more about your adventures in China!

  2. Rachel I love the way you write. You need to write a book after this 🙂 I’m glad you guys had a good time and you made it out in one piece! Fonzie says “hi” 🙂

  3. Rachel,

    I love reading your posts and hearing all about you and Justins’ adventures. You are a gifted writer and teacher, too!

      • Hello
        I’ve tried to contact you via Facebook, I sent you a message, but have not received a reply as yet.
        I am teaching in Huzhou as well and I think it would be nice to meet up for a coffee sometime…
        Please do get in touch. My Skype name kataryna.michalak

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