Paris of the East

Day 54 (18th of April, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Today my only class was in the afternoon, so I was able to sleep in and tutor some students in the mid-morning. One of my students was new, and her enthusiasm made it a particularly rewarding session. I find tutoring a great mental exercise for me too, because it forces me to break down established patterns in my head and figure out how to explain them to someone who may not always “see it”. It ends up being equally as challenging for me as it is for the student.

In the afternoon’s class, I abruptly realised that I had underestimated the amount of work I had to do to make up for my absence. They were well ahead of what I had prepared for. Errors were to be expected, though, and it’s made up for by the fact that I overestimated my preparation for other classes. The difficult thing in Chinese classes when you’re not up to speed, as opposed to other subjects, is that you literally can’t understand a word. You can’t just “cotton on” if they’re using vocabulary which you’ve never been exposed to. So, it was a boring hour and a half before I could return to my room and figure out what happened.

After class, I marched to the international student office on a determined mission to collect my living allowance, which they routinely procrastinate on paying. Chinese negotiating culture is to deflect and confuse an issue as much as possible, and I’ve figured out that you can only get past that not by falling victim to the Western knee-jerk reaction of demanding answers, but by following their convoluted path until they themselves get exhausted of you chasing. Needless to say, I finally got my money.

I’ll order an extra dumpling tomorrow to celebrate.

I forked out on a lunch with boneless chicken instead of the usual serving of cartilage and bone with a touch of a meat, which was a nice change.

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While my spirits were high I went to the gym. My ego wasn’t high enough, however, to go shirtless like the other gangsters. I’m still building up the courage for that.

While walking back to my dorm, I picked up my usual after-gym dinner. Definitely one of the best meals as the weather starts to get warmer.

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I also passed a fruit store which had blaring K-pop and huge crowds out the front framed by a huge red banner advertising some sort of promotion. I didn’t know how to participate, but I thought that I could use some fruit anyway, so I started asking around for someone to help me get the discount. I met a very helpful couple who installed some sort of app on my phone, had me follow the fruit shop’s social media account. Afterwards, they handed me a literal box-full of apples and bananas for free. I got their contact details with the intention of inviting them to lunch, because they seemed particularly excited that I was a foreigner and they had helped me out a lot.

It was at this point that I realised that today’s blog was purely about food, so I spent the rest of the night researching travel for August in the hope of giving you something more entertaining to read.

Since last discussing this issue, the option which has stood out in my mind is the Middle East. The region fascinates me so much, and from the beginning of this gap year I wanted to do something weird. I didn’t want to do Paris, London and Madrid. I wanted to do Xuzhou, Tel Aviv and Reykjavik. So, I’ve pencilled in a TopDeck tour to Turkey and another one to Israel and Jordan for a total of twenty days in August. To make it even better, I’ll likely link up with three Riverview friends in Istanbul.

I also began the planning process for more domestic travel in China. I want to take the opportunity of the Dragon Boat Festival in June to do some travel. I figured that I need to go to Beijing to meet up with a few people who I’ve been talking about seeing, so I set the wheels in motion by messaging Maggie AnSheng, the mother of Kevin (my Chinese exchange student who came to Sydney in 2014).

I also received some pictures of Guangzhou from an Australian friend who’s just been there. It looks like another booming metropolis – I can’t wait.

Day 55 (19th of April, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

This morning, I woke up to this very kind response from Maggie.

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It reads, “Hello, my dear son! I’m extremely happy to hear that you’ve come to China. Why did you go to Xuzhou? Pretty much every other city in China is comparatively more interesting than Xuzhou! However, I guess you have the freedom to choose as you wish… We’re all still in Beijing, just like before. There’s just been one major change: Kevin is leaving in September to study in England.”

I then went on to explain that while Xuzhou wasn’t my choice, I was happy to follow through with it because of the unique challenges posed by a smaller city.

It’s quite amazing really to witness the sheer opportunities that some Chinese students are afforded relative to others when they move into university. My heart sinks when kids in Xuzhou tell me that they dream of leaving China for a country with higher living standards like Australia, and they ask me how much they’d need to rent an apartment. They always ask if I’ve added one too many zeroes to my quote, and then when they realise that I haven’t, it clicks with them that the barriers are far too high for them to ever get out of their hometown.

At Jiangsu Normal University, you’re a celebrity if you’ve ever had the opportunity to be on even a week-long exchange to an English speaking country. Out of the Chinese students from Beijing, though, it seems like the vast majority are studying in the USA, Canada, England or Australia.

It’s really encouraging to see that there’s an emerging class in Beijing and Shanghai who can afford more liberty as to where they want to end up when they’re older, but the country is far from affording that opportunity to everyone.

Between classes today, I thought it was an odd sight to see 50 or 60 year old teachers ask 20 year old students for a lift on their e-bike. The Ukrainians seem to be becoming the chauffeurs for all of the staff.

I used my lunch break to go to a nearby coffee shop and catch up on the subjects where I had underestimated the past week’s content.

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While walking through the campus, I came across a beer promotion. It was a welcome relief considering there’s not a bar in a 10km radius. It was a human whack-a-mole challenge, where the human “moles” had to steal beer from the person with the mallet and chug them.

In the afternoon, I uploaded a photo of Aimee and I in Shanghai on the Chinese social media app Wechat today to a rockstar reception. It leaves me feeling bad for the lack of notice international students get in Australia compared to the attention that we get over here. I guess it’s all a matter of quantity, though. When something becomes more common, it stops being novel.

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I also cracked open one of Aimee’s Easter bunnies. Everyone brought chocolate with them on their visit, and I’m rationing it more strictly that in WWII to make sure it lasts the whole trip.

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Day 56 (20th of April, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Today, I was reminded yet again that my Chinese name 尹利丹 (Yi LiDan) is actually the name of a World of Warcraft character: Illidan the Demon Hunter. I consistently get asked if I named myself after this fictitious beast. In reality, I was given my name (which I do really like) by Mr and Ms Liu at Riverview. I have stuck with it ever since. My name was originally ‘Yi LiYa’ because it was the closest sounding Chinese syllables to ‘Eales’ in ‘Yi Li’ as well as the ‘Ya’ sound from ‘Xavier’. My last name was changed to ‘Dan’, though, because its more forceful and guttural tone adds a sense of authority. The humble Mr and Ms Liu had no intention of my namesake being an MMORPG legend.

I think Joof the turtle is sick, or I’m doing something wrong. He’s been rapidly contracting into his shell and making this sickening shriek where he puts his mouth open for minutes on end.

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I volunteered to go to “English Corner” tonight. This is a room on another campus in a different part of the city where the rule is that only English can be spoken. It’s used for language majors to practice. I was the only native English speaker there. I got a real ego boost, because my English was the best BY FAR…

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One of the Chinese students I met was from a rural town in Jiangsu. He went to a boarding school too. We were discussing the facilities available in my dorm. They were jealous because I got permanent hot water and they didn’t. Then the student told me a story.

In broken English, he explained “well at my boarding school it wasn’t hot water that was the issue, it was whether there was water”.

“How often was there no water?” I asked.

“Every night.” he chuckled. “But it wasn’t all bad – we had our way around it. We would stretch the fire house into the shower and all the students would nude up. Then, we would spray everyone in the freezing cold water and that was our shower.”

I couldn’t believe it. This isn’t a 3rd world country, remember.

I got a photo with two of my new Chinese friends at the English corner. It is only upon uploading it now that I realise how horribly evident it is that my jumper shrunk in my first attempt at washing it.

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Day 57 (21st of April, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Today I decided to take a break by going back to YunLong Lake where I was last with my family. Only this time I came across an unusual monument which we happened to miss.

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I genuinely couldn’t work out what it was meant to be.

For lunch, I ate with the friends that I made at the fruit shop. They brought along some more people who wanted to practice their English. We ended up speaking almost exactly half Chinese and half English. They were some of the nicest people I’ve met so far, and I’ll definitely be seeing them again.

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Cheng even gave me a lift to class on his e-bike.

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I saw a touching video today about discrimination against single women in China. Over here, if you’re older than 25 and you’re not married, you’re openly called a 剩女 (leftover woman). Typically your parents will then attend a “marriage market” for you, where they’ll sift through the profiles of 剩男 (leftover boys) like resumés until they find what they deem to be a match, regardless of whether the children agree.

It’s incredibly sad, and it causes a mad rush to find a partner during university which is very evident in every facet of life on the campus. People are holding hands everywhere, and you can tell that it only takes a few weeks after a young couple has been in a relationship to start considering marriage in the future. It’s a little scary, even.

In the evening I went out to a photocopying shop on campus to print out some essays. When I asked for some help, I simply got a hand waved in my face. The store was open and I wasn’t doing anything wrong, so I sat down at a computer to try and figure it out myself. The staff member wasn’t phased – she continued watching her movie on one of the computers meant for customers. After not being able to figure out how to print, I asked her again.

She said “no, I can’t explain to a foreigner.”

“Yes you can, I’ll understand.” I replied.

“No, sorry, no foreigners.” she said, as she started nudging me out of the store.

I left willingly, but I couldn’t help but think that I’d just experienced my first dose of racism. From the receiving end, I actually thought it was pretty funny. I walked into the store next door and got the job done.

On a call to Dad, we also decide that logistically Guangzhou won’t work. Instead, he’ll fly into Shanghai and we’ll meet in a city called Suzhou (also known as “Venice of the East”). It’s a 25 minute train ride from Shanghai, and neither of us have been there before.

Day 58 (22nd of April, 2016) – In Transit

In class, we studied a very odd passage.

The passage discusses the most effective locations to break up with your partner. It’s not a satirical passage. It genuinely discusses the pros and cons of each place. One paragraph I found to be particularly entertaining: “It is recommended that you do not break up with your partner at a Western restaurant. If you are quarrelling, a Western restaurant has knives and forks, which can very easily be used as lethal weapons.” It was a good insight, and one of the times where a passage has helped enlighten me outside of just learning new vocabulary.

Tonight I set off on my overnight journey to Shanghai. I packed my last shirt which was fresh out of mum’s washing from back in Sydney. I had been saving this shirt for a long time – it was my last smell of home. But it’s getting too hot, and I need more short-sleeve options. Needless to say, it’s scent will surely get decimated over the weekend.

I was ecstatic arriving at the train station. There is a real thrill to travelling on your own. The sense of freedom and independence is exhilarating.

It also presented me with a rare chance for a Western dinner (except desert – you’ve always got to keep something different).

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While at the train station, I was searching for a gift for the many people who will be doing me favours this weekend. It was tough, though, when literally every store in the train station was a replica of a certain convenience store. Here was one part of the station where I spotted three of the exact same shops literally connected in a row.

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I’m a bit of a sucker for trains (probably stemming from my Thomas The Tank Engine obsession as a child), so I was very happy to snap some good photos.

The train only stopped over at Xuzhou for a few minutes, and before I’d even settled into my bed we were moving off to Shanghai.

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I really enjoy overnight train travel in China. I’d happily elect to go the overnight option over the speed train. This is the first time I’ve slept in a “hard sleeper” carriage, which is where there are six beds per open cubicle. The beds are like little shelfs with a column down the middle and a ladder. There are three in a stack. In the corridor, there are fold out chairs and tables as well as luggage racks.

The only thing which wasn’t much chop was the toilet.

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When I boarded the train which had arrived from Beijing, everyone was asleep and the carriage was dead silent. So, I’ve moved to the restaurant carriage, which is where I’m writing this part of the blog.

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I wanted to have a conversation with some locals, and so I walked through almost a dozen carriages down to the restaurant section and bought myself a drink. I was told to leave because of a ticket issue, but somehow I convinced them that I could stay by buying more drinks and slipping the carriage supervisor a healthy 20RMB bribe (au$4). I had lots of fun talking into the night with some people from Shandong Province. This is definitely “real China”.

Day 59 (23rd of April, 2016) – Shanghai, China

This morning I woke up on the train at just before 7am once it was light and people started moving around the carriage. I had a very good sleep and felt completely refreshed. I managed to get changed in the confined space of my bed in time for my arrival at around 8am. Paul Grosmann, a Riverview old boy who has been giving me advice on China and checking up with me over the past few months, kindly offered to host me for the weekend. He even sent someone to pick me up in the morning. Right on time, he called to arrange a pickup spot. My Chinese was put to the test, and thankfully I got all the details right. I was dropped directly to the Kingstown Hongqiao Hotel where the Riverview Chinese exchange students are staying while my bag was taken on to Paul’s house.

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You know it’s a significant moment when you’re greeted by a 60 year old man running through a hotel lobby to give you a hug. Lo and behold, the great Lewis Liu stood before me. It was truly a surreal moment. I never would have thought sitting in his class as a 12 year old boy that I would end up keeping the subject for another year, let alone end up studying in China only to meet up with him independently.

We went to his room and talked about what I’d been up to over the past few months. A few sentences and about a dozen corrections of my grammar in, I knew it was back to right where we left off.

In Lewis’ room is Michael Webb, the other Riverview teacher who is accompanying the boys on the exchange. Although Webby was never my teacher, he was always someone who was very close to me about school. And further, his notoriety as the most brutal (and successful) swimming coach on the GPS circuit always meant that he was well known around the campus.

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Lewis and I went out for a breakfast locally at Hongqiao where we talked about where all the other old boys have ended up. Before long we were in the hotel lobby and I was being reunited with a group of familiar faces from Year 9, 10 and 11. Although I was closer with many of these boys’ older brothers, I quickly fell into place and forgot the age difference.

We visited TongLi Water Town, which I had last seen at the age of 12 with my family. It is about an hour’s drive from Shanghai (in fact, its sometimes considered to be part of Suzhou, an entirely different city), and it is actually across the border in Jiangsu Province (the same Province as Xuzhou).

On the way, the tour guide mentioned that each of Shanghai’s 6 districts has roughly the same area and population of Singapore. He also noted that Shanghai was more than double the size of New York.

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The Water Village was a beautiful experience of a traditional Chinese ancient town. Although it was marred by some rain and the congestion of tour groups, the place was still very picturesque.

Scattered across the town are museums and Qing Dynasty houses.

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I particularly liked the lanterns hanging from the corners of some houses.

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Canals wind their way throughout the village.

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In one of the waterways, I came across a very Chinese scene of storks perched on top of a wooden boat.

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In the bus on the way back to the hotel, we were caught in a traffic jam. The bladders of some of the boys couldn’t be controlled, and soon enough the bus was all commentating peoples’ efforts to relieve themselves into bottles. It reminded me of my own exchange when Dan had done the same thing before putting the bottle in the bin soon after. We all stood nearby only to watch in disbelief as a man walked up to the trash can, pulled the bottle out, smelled it and put it in his bag for later.

If you haven’t thrown up already, dinner this evening was Subway. The students had been desperate for some familiar food after having eaten Chinese every day for the last 20 days. As a result, I got two Western meals in two nights. I’m finding myself already wanting to go back to Chinese dinners, though.

Around dinner time, I went out with Lewis and Michael to explore the local shopping area. I picked up some gifts for my hosts and a friend who I’m seeing tomorrow.

After the day’s activities, I jumped in a cab to go back to the French Concession where Paul lives. The group of apartments is an incredible sight. The entrance and the lobby are in such contrast to the streets beyond. They’re very comforting to come back to after being in the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s biggest cities (the world’s biggest if you count migrants, which apparently they don’t in the census).

The apartment is absolutely stunning. It’s spacious and modern – it embodies the exact sort of place that I’d dream calling home in my adult years. It’s everything I would dream of when hypothesising one day making a career for myself in China, even if it is only temporary.

The view is incredible too.

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My room even had the smell of home.

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Day 60 (24th of April, 2016) – Shanghai, China

I had organised today to be a chaotic day of meeting many groups who I’ve been meaning to see for a while. Right on queue, my SIM card decided to break. Since the public telephones in Shanghai have all been switched off, much of the day was spent borrowing other peoples’ phones and hopping between train stations’ free Wifi to coordinate everything.

Before long it had all worked out, and I was on my way to TaiLun Road. For those who don’t know the geography of Shanghai, the city is divided into two by the HuangPu River. The West side (PuXi) embodies older Shanghai. It boasts places such as the French Concession (including TianZiFang and XuJiaHui), Jing’An Temple, YuYuan, and the Bund. The East side (PuDong) on the other hand is home to the iconic skyline of Shanghai, and its modern architecture is in stark contrast to the suburbs across the river. My destination this morning was in the PuDong area.

Before coming to China, I had the help of some very generous people to put me in touch with some contacts to fall back on for help. Moving to any foreign country even for a relatively short amount of time is a daunting prospect, even more so when English isn’t an official language. One of the people who helped me out was John Coates, who very kindly introduced me to some people at the Chinese Olympic Committee. While I was in Shanghai for the weekend, I contacted some of these people to see if they were available to meet. Yang Yang (杨杨) [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yang_Yang_(A)] who has helped me feel much more comfortable about my transition to China was unfortunately in Los Angeles, but her colleague Ma Changyu (马常宇) was in town to see me. Changyu is a multiple winner of China’s National Winter Games’ short track speed skating event. Both her and Yang Yang are from Helongjiang Province in the Northernmost part of China on the border with Russia. Their hometown is very close to Harbin – the city with the world famous ice festival. Temperatures in their hometown regularly hit -35℃, so it’s no wonder that they both became professional ice skaters.

Changyu gave me a tour of the new ice rink facilities in PuDong. It’s a huge building with two rinks: an upper level stadium rink and a lower level training rink. We watched a quarter of a youth ice hockey match which was undoubtedly as violent as the real thing, and she showed me through the officials’ box and the change rooms.

Before too long, I was taken down to the training rink and handed a pair of skates. I couldn’t quite believe it, but here I was about to get a private lesson from one of the world’s best.

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Now that I sit down to write about this, it strikes me that I actually don’t know how to explain what she taught me. After today, I know more ice skating jargon in Chinese that I do in English. Pretty much, we ran through drills on edging my skates into the ice to get more speed on my next stroke. Changyu would video me, then we would pull over and work on what to improve. An hour later, I did a backflip, which was pretty crazy.

Just when I thought that I couldn’t be getting any higher quality coaching, Changyu’s friend appeared on the ice. Lin Lin (I think that was her name… her accent was very difficult to understand) was another short track skater who is still very involved in the Olympic Committee. Before I knew it, I had one champion skater in front of me and another behind me critiquing my technique.

Both Changyu and Lin Lin suggested that we all eat lunch together, and after mentioning that I liked spicy food, they knew just the place.

After saying my farewells and giving gifts to my hosts, I jumped in a taxi to Times Square to meet the Riverview contingent for a second lunch. In retrospect, I definitely should have taken a photo with the two girls. They both suggested that when I begin study in Shanghai that I return on weekends to ice skate with them (I guess so that they can help me work on my flipping technique), so I’ll definitely have another opportunity for a photo. Hopefully next time Yang Yang will be able to make it too.

After linking up with the Riverview exchange, we quickly moved on to Xujiahui. The boys were going to St Ignatius’ Cathedral, which was built by the Jesuits in 1847. Once there, Lewis Liu suggested that I do a reflection on what I have learned about myself from being on my own for so long. I spoke a lot about the challenge to value solitude rather than fear it, and the skill of learning to appreciate the now rather than eternally yearn for the future.

I wasn’t impressive enough, though, so I invited along Paul Grosmann to give his own reflection. Paul’s words meant a significant amount (to me also), because he embodied for the boys a sort of person who had used his Chinese skills to establish a safe career, home and now family in a foreign nation. With Paul currently holding a position at Nike, it didn’t take long for one of the boys to ask him whether he could spot the difference in their counterfeit shoes bought from the local markets.

After the church, I returned with Paul to the apartment to relax and chat for the afternoon. We have an incredible amount in common. Although Paul only started learning Chinese after school, he studied for a year in Kunming soon after leaving school. His living conditions sounded just as bad (arguably worse) than my own, worsened most of all by the lack of a Western toilet altogether. I draw a lot of comfort from the fact that another old-boy has undergone a similar experience to my own. After talking about his year in Kunming, I realised that he had attended Yunnan Normal University, which is the very same institution where Vidya, Angus and I became best friends over the course of two weeks at the Chinese Bridge Competition in 2013.

It’s incredibly valuable for the children of a new generation of international parents to be raised with exposure to two languages. Paul and Sophie’s child, Rex, has a mandarin-only speaking au pair with him every day. I only wish I could have had that head start!

By complete coincidence, after a day spent with the contacts given to me by John Coates, I was able to have dinner with his daughter, Fiona, who happens to be in town. There are few dinner companions as entertaining as Fiona and her colleague, Gaynor. We ate at a beautiful restaurant called ‘Imperial Treasure’ near the Bund, where we were taken care of by a very enthusiastic manager who ordered for us. The sorts of flavours and textures were unbelievable, and it’s something I wish existed in Australian Chinese restaurants.

The restaurant was very accommodating for us and we stayed until late.

So, I have the Coates family to thank for the bulk of today. Few people are as generous with their time and assistance.

Any time I’m in the vicinity of the Bund, I can’t help but escaping there to sit and watch for a bit. It truly is my favourite view on the planet.

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A late night walk down Nanjing Road didn’t go astray either.

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Until next time,

Xavier.

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4 thoughts on “Paris of the East

  1. Xave Thanks once again for the extensive update. G & I are in Mackay at the moment. Great Grandad in Base Hospital. He was not well when we were called to come up last Thursday, however has made good progress since we arrived, so we are going back to the Coast today. Sorry to hear Joof not well, just be careful what you say around him, he probably heard that you like turtle soup. Love G & P

    Sent from my iPad

    Like

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