Tuesday, April 8, 2008

King PITA Plays Professor

It is true that King PITA’s primary mission here in China is to teach. But, we’ve been having such a grand time questing around different parts of China that I’ve neglected to report a bit on the happenings in the classroom. Mind you, I have not been neglecting the classroom. I’m teaching more sections here in Nanjing than I have anywhere else. It seems that everyone wants a glimpse of PITA, so they have me teaching at least one hour each week in all ten class sections. Then, I have two sections that I teach fully. And, I’ve taken over half of two other sections. So, each week, I’m spending 16 to 20 hours in the classroom alone (some days, I’m lecturing six hours straight). And, this is not counting the hours spent preparing for class, grading papers, leading faculty meetings, talking with students, and leading the English Tornado (also known as English Corner or English CafĂ© in which I spend time helping students practice their conversational English). Needless to say, PITA is a busy little professor.

Teaching is indeed a pleasure here, but it is not easy. Obviously, there is a language barrier. We are trying to train these students to be successful students in an American university, so all of the NYIT courses are taught in English. However, the students are not yet fully proficient in English. They read and write moderately well, but their speaking and listening skills still need a lot of work. This experience has actually made me a more self-conscious lecturer. I’m much more aware of the language and phrases I use, as I often must stop to define or explain words and idiomatic expressions I usually take for granted. Also, I’ve become a bit of an actor as well—if you can’t explain something in words, act it out! That seems to work well, and the students get a kick out of seeing their foreign professor use charades to explain an academic topic. I have also prepared many lecture notes and put them online for the students to download. This way, they can read along as I’m speaking.

I was immediately impressed by the way students treat their professors here in China. Teachers and professors are highly respected in this culture, and that is something I could really get used to!! The students are very polite to their teachers and extremely helpful. On the first day of class this semester, I joked with a student about her having tea but not bringing any for me. The next day, she tracked me down and gave me a box of green tea! The students are divided into sections, and they take all of their classes together. Each section has a section leader, and if you ever want to get a message to the students, all you need to do is contact the student leaders and within a few minutes, each student gets the message. Also, each class has a technology assistant who comes to class early, opens up the computer cabinet, turns on the computer, lowers the screen, and erases the board. He basically prepares the classroom for the class period, and he does it without being told each time. Very nice. When you ask a student a question, he/she stands up to answer! I’m still trying to get used to that. And, if a student arrives to class late, he/she will open the door and wait outside until you give permission to enter. Students also show appreciation for your class by clapping. That really surprised me the first time it happened; I ended a lecture and bid them goodbye, and the class erupted into applause. (It could be they were ecstatic that I finally shut up, but I’m choosing to believe they happened to like that lecture…)

For the most part, these are really good students. We have some slackers, as do all colleges, but these students have worked very hard to get into our program, and their parents are paying a lot of money (much more than if they were going to a Chinese university). Basically, these students are getting two full undergraduate degrees in only four years. It is Chinese law that an undergraduate program be only four years long. So, these students are taking courses all day long—their schedules are grueling. When they finish, they will have a degree from Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications as well as a degree from NYIT. I really don’t see how they do it. Yet, even with this demanding schedule, students are students. They don’t always finish their work, sometimes they are falling asleep in class, and some of the male students play waaaay too many computer games instead of studying. I caught one student reading a World of Warcraft strategy book in the back of the classroom. I thought maybe he was doing homework for a different class, but when I took the book and saw it was a WoW book, PITA became royally peeved. My classes are on the fifth floor of the main building, and there is a wonderful courtyard in the middle with a garden. So, I took his WoW book, opened the door and tossed it over the banister down into the courtyard. It made a delightful fluttering sound on the way down before smacking onto the ground. That got everyone’s attention. The students were quite attentive for the rest of the period. In another class, a young woman was flipping through a fashion magazine instead of paying attention. That one (the magazine, not the student) sailed out over the balcony and landed on the street below. (One side of the room opens to the courtyard and the other side opens to a balcony).

These instances aside, the students are hard workers, and they are very bright and capable. Of course, they are struggling because of language issues, but they are very smart. It really is a joy teaching them, and I think I am becoming a better teacher for these experiences. So far, the students like my classes, and they enjoy talking to me during lunch and dinner. Some other Chinese students (who are not in our joint program) are sitting in a few of my classes, as they want to learn more about English literature. I guess I’m a bit of a novelty. You don’t see too many foreigners teaching here, so I really stand out. Also, I strike a silly, if not memorable, image riding across campus on my small Chinese bike (that happens to be a girl’s bike) with the seat raised way up, sometimes with a guitar on my back. So, word gets around about the strange American literature professor. And, now that I’m teaching some karate classes for the campus karate club, I look even sillier zipping to the gym in my white gi (karate uniform) on my girlie bike.

Ah, the life of a barbarian professor in China.

Monday, March 24, 2008

PITA Visits the Hospital

Those of you who know a little about good King PITA will recall that his lungs are a bit, how should we say, temperamental. (If I were rich, we’d say they were “eccentric”…) Having endured the wonders of childhood asthma, we could say that I’m pulmonarily challenged, and let me tell ya, my lungs are giving me a fit here in China. The air quality is far from ideal. Pollution is at an all time high, and with all the construction going on in Nanjing (I wake up each morning and it seems some fairies have popped up yet another building…), there is a constant dusty haze about. So, a few weeks ago, I was hacking away like a nicotine-addicted cat coughing up cigarette butts. Not pretty.

Finally, one of our caring staff members demanded I go to the doctor. I had plans to go to the campus clinic, but my good friend Ryan (one of our excellent staff members) warned me otherwise. He recounted a brief personal story that persuaded me: one of his friends fell off his bed and hurt his side. He went to the campus clinic, and the good doctor told him all was fine. A few days later, his side and back hurt him even worse, so he went to the hospital downtown. After a quick x-ray, they discovered one of his kidneys was badly damaged and he needed surgery… So, needless to say, Ryan has little faith in the campus clinic. Sure, it’s only one example, but it was enough for me.

Off I went to the hospital one early Saturday morning. One of my assistants, Cindy, met me at the campus front gate, and we hopped into a little “gypsy cab” for downtown. (We don’t get too many official cabs out by the new campus, so we take these little unregistered local cabs into town. The Chinese assistants bargain a good rate before hand and off we go.) We met up with Ryan at the downtown campus and made our way to the bus stop. Yep, more construction on that particular road, so I was choking on fumes and construction dust, waiting for the bus. (Apparently, many roads downtown are continually being “repaired.” Actually, the local government officials have special arrangements with certain construction companies who seem to make lots of money building, tearing up, and repairing the roads…)

Two jammed bus rides later, and we reached the hospital designated for general practice and internal medicine. Passport in hand, I registered at the front desk (you need your passport for everything here, from exchanging money, to buying cell phones, to visiting the hospital). From there, we went upstairs to another counter to set up a medical file. From there, we went to another wing to find an available doctor. There was a long corridor with several rooms, and in each room were two-three doctors with a crowd of people inside the rooms and waiting in the hall. We wrestled our way through the crowds—like fighting for a cab on a busy street—and finally got an available doctor. I described my symptoms, with my assistants translating, and the doctor ordered a chest x-ray. We then went to another floor and registered at the radiology department. I got a big envelope and waited a short time at another door. The x-ray technicians took my envelope and zapped my chest with some x-rays. I was then told to come back in a few hours to pick up my films.

So, off we went to have some lunch. We walked around for a bit and found a really neat little restaurant specializing in “home cooking.” Basically, the dishes were traditional Chinese country style food. We ordered different dishes: chicken, tofu, a unique vegetable, and beef. Wow, was that yummy.

After lunch, we headed back to the hospital. The films were ready, and I took them back to the same doctor. (In China, patients handle their own test results and their medical records.) After pushing through a smaller crowd, I handed him the films. He looked at them and asked if I had asthma. I explained I did as a child. He told me I basically had some infection in my lungs, and prescribed some antibiotics and Rubitussin. We went down to the pharmacy, purchased my drugs, and then headed out for some fun.

I wanted to buy an electric guitar (you can get some nice “knock-off” guitars really cheap), and Ryan had a store in mind. This time, we took a cab—I wasn’t in the mood for more bus rides. The shop was an interesting little joint with young Chinese playing old Beatles tunes and sad Chinese love songs on acoustics out front. The owner took me into a glass room in the the back with an old Fender, plugged me into a little practice amp, and I jammed for a bit. A few songs later, and I looked up, and there was a small crowd of Chinese folks staring at me through the glass doors. I asked the owner to play a bit, and he busted out some rockin’ riffs and a few metal solos. Very cool. We had fun, but he really didn’t have what I was looking for, so we bid farewell and went off for some dinner.

Ryan asked if I had ever had “hot pot.” “Nope, what’s that?” I inquired. “Ok, ok, good, you’ll see, you’ll see.” He took us to this restaurant that was crowded, really loud, and steamy. Each table had a stainless steel pot divided in half. On one side was a red broth and on the other was a yellow broth. A gas burner underneath heated the broths to boiling. Then we ordered tons of raw food: thinly sliced beef, sliced lamb, chunks of pig stomach (tastes like squid, but a bit chewier), duck’s blood (yep, you read that correctly—it’s congealed and looks like red tofu and tastes a little like liver flavored tofu), fish balls (like meat balls made with fish), different kinds of mushrooms, various types of green leafy vegetables, and tofu. With your chopsticks, you take a food item and dip it into the boiling broth. The red broth is SUPER spicy (basically a pepper broth), and the yellow broth is mild (like basic chicken broth). When it’s cooked through, you take it out and eat it. Wow, that was delicious and fun. You spend hours eating, talking, laughing, drinking, and eating some more. It was a wonderful way to end a most adventurous day of healing. The doctor healed my body, and the new friendships I made that day healed the soul.

Monday, March 17, 2008

King PITA's Digs

Some of you may be wondering what sort of digs good ol’ King PITA is enjoying here in Nanjing. I must say that the local hospitality coordinators have done an excellent job at providing lodgings for His Majesty. That said, We (yes, this is the royal “We”) have had to make some adaptations and adjustments. We must continue to remind Ourselves that We are here to teach and to work—this is not Club Med (of course We have not yet been invited to a Club Med—the nerve of those folks—but We can imagine…). There are indeed many excellent opportunities for fun (more on that in later blogs…)

We have been provided with a very simple yet comfortable royal suite, uh, I mean faculty apartment. Most Chinese universities provide housing for their faculty (mainly junior faculty and graduate students who are teaching at the university and preparing for more advanced graduate work). For a single king, I mean professor, the apartment is quite nice. There is a “great room” that serves as a nice mead hall (dining room with a table and four chairs). Off the mead hall is a small kitchen with a refrigerator, toaster oven, microwave oven, and small gas stove. Also off the mead hall is the throne room. I’m still getting used to having the throne in the shower room—whilst showering the throne is cascaded with water, so one should always do the royal business before showering… . On the other side of the mead hall are two nice rooms: the royal bed chamber and the executive office/entertainment chamber. The bed chamber anticipates a royal visit with a large king sized bed; however, my royal back is unaccustomed to the Chinese mattress which is as hard as the lovely marble floor. I’m told the Chinese believe that a firm mattress is better for the back, but me arse and back still beg to differ. The office/entertainment chamber has a leather sofa, a large desk with computer, and a large hutch with TV (but no channels just yet). However, DVDs and player are very cheap here, so We can watch many movies.

There is also a lovely small terrace out back which doubles as an area to dry Our clothes. We cannot afford to be bashful here and must hang Our clothing for the world to see. So, when the emperor has no clothes, all the neighbors get a glimpse of the royal undergarments. Now that it is getting warmer out (it’s been in the 60s and 70s during the day lately), We will hold court on the terrace whilst enjoying a pipe and a large bottle of Tsing Tao (I must say I enjoy the bottling practices here—they don’t usually mess around with little 12oz cans…ha ha).

We have had to grow accustomed to some differences here. If your royal court is not one for adaptation, then I recommend staying in your motherland. Our apartments are very far from campus—a ten-minute bike ride or a twenty-minute walk. We are getting some good exercise, and We have lost a bit of weight (for which We are most thankful). Heating is NOT a big priority here, even though it can be bone-chillingly cold. I really feel for the students, as they have NO heat whatsoever in their chambers, nor is there heat in any of the classrooms. At least they have provided faculty with heat/AC units, but only in the bed chamber and the office. That’s right…there is NO heat in the throne room. Needless to say, during the cold months, business on the throne is conducted with great speed and the occasional gasp upon first sitting down. ‘Nough said… Also, the throne room has a tendency to flood, since it is in the same room as the royal showers. There is no chambermaid, so I have become skilled in the use of a mop. Thankfully, the electricity issue has been resolved. Now that we have a wonderful assistant (Ryan is his English name), we can get our electricity replenished quickly without any interruption in service. Our Internet is regulated by local authorities, and it is turned off at precisely 11pm and turned back on at 7am. Thankfully, they keep Our electricity on 24/7, but the students have their power turned off at 11pm. But, students being students, they use battery power to play computer games on their laptops or to read by flashlight (unfortunately, more of the former than the latter).

Overall, life is good here for King PITA. Stay tuned for more on the Nanjing scene…

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Passage to Nanjing

We're on the van to Nanjing
Aboard the Shanghai Express
We’ll hit the stops along the way
We only stop for the best…

Click to hear tune

I recorded this really bad rendition of Rush’s “A Passage to Bangkok” before leaving NY in anticipation of taking the bullet train from Shanghai to Nanjing. However, our travel plans changed a bit. I was able to stay an extra day in Shanghai to celebrate my birthday and the Lantern Festival, but the tradeoff was not taking the train to Nanjing. But, that’s OK, as we plan to make occasional trips to Shanghai during the semester, and there will be other opportunities to take the bullet train.

On Friday morning (February 22), NUPT sent a van to pick up the NYIT China campus dean and another professor at the Pudong Airport, and then they came to my hotel and picked me up. After a quick dumpling, bun, and tea for breakfast, we piled into a van or minibus and headed off to Nanjing. On the way out, we stopped at the China office of Pearson Longman Publishers to check on our book orders for the upcoming semester. (Oh yeah, I’m here to teach…so I guess some official work is in order. Ha ha.) We met some very nice book representatives, and after making a slight mistake in accepting business cards, I learned the proper way: accept the card with two hands and hold onto it instead of stuffing it in the wallet (which is customary in the West but which communicates disrespect in the East). Thankfully, these book reps are used to dealing with “barbarians” from the West, and they didn’t think twice about it.

Piling back onto the minibus, we were off for Nanjing. The one professor, Chris, was wiped from the flight, and he was nodding off, but Jim, the dean, was wide awake. So, we chatted for about two hours about China, its development, and things to expect on campus. At around noon, we pulled into a truck stop along the highway and ate lunch. We went into a typical cafeteria that looked like something from Soviet Russia. It was a large room with tables and benches bolted to the floor. On one side of the room there was a small line to purchase a meal ticket. We then took our ticket to another wall counter and then picked three meats and three vegetables that were put on our stainless steel trays. Rice and soup were included. Typically, the Chinese do not have a drink with their meal. They may have tea beforehand, have a clear broth or soup sometime during the meal (which serves as a drink), and then may end the meal with tea. We were out in the country, somewhere between Shanghai and Nanjing, and we were clearly an oddity for most people in the cafeteria. There were a few stares from curious folks wondering why these “barbarians” were eating in this institutional cafeteria. A quick wave or a nod and a “ni hao” usually brought a smile or sometimes a shy turning away of the eyes.

With our bellies full, the minibus took us on to Nanjing. We finally arrived at our campus apartments and unloaded our luggage. Our luggage was ridiculously heavy, as we had to bring a lot of books with us. Our apartments were on the fourth and fifth floors. We “girded our loins” to carry our luggage up, and suddenly a worker showed up to help. He was a little man with some years on him, as his deeply wrinkled face revealed. He bent over and in a quick flip hoisted the heaviest suitcase up onto his shoulder, and up he went! I couldn’t believe it—this was the strongest little man I’ve ever seen. (OK, maybe the little man in Saudi Arabia I saw carrying a refrigerator on his back in the marketplace has this guy beat, but not by much….)

After an hour or so, I was mostly unpacked and settled into the apartment. Jim recommended we get our cell phones that same day. Chris was too tired from the trip, so Jim and I headed to Nanjing city in search of phones. There are no landlines in our apartments, and few people use landline phones here anyway. A cell phone is a must. I was introduced to the gypsy cabs. These are small (really small) unregistered taxis that run from campus to town (about a 20 minute ride). You know, the kind of cab you negotiate the fare before you get in. We got a good rate and off we went.

It was starting to get dark as we arrived in town. Jim showed me how to use the subway (which is brand new, clean, and very efficient), and he took me on a quick tour of the main “centers” of Nanjing. We couldn’t find any cell phone stores, so we tried to get directions from a young student in a videogame store. That didn’t go very well, but we all smiled and nodded and off we went. We finally found a huge bookstore, which Jim was trying to find anyway, because cell phones are often sold in bookstores here. Dunno why, but there it is. After some pointing through class counters, I finally bought a simple Nokia for real cheap. Next was to get the internal chip with my assigned Chinese cell number. That was in another department. I took a number and waited for a clerk. After some more hand gestures, they figured out what we needed and started a strange process of getting a number. They listed a ton of numbers that I could choose from (for some reason, some numbers were cheaper than others, but we didn’t know why). I finally got a number, and then they made copies of my passport (you need your passport always here). Hopefully, no one steals my phone and commits a crime with it, because the cops will come after me… . Unfortunately, Jim’s old phone wasn’t compatible with the card he bought, and by the time we figured that out, the phone counter was closed. At least I had a phone that he could use in the meantime.

It was after 9pm by this time. We found a great little Japanese restaurant and had dome awesome noodles for dinner. Jim was really tired by this time (remember, he had just arrived that morning after a 15 hour flight, did some business in Shanghai, rode to Nanjing, and walked all over downtown). It was time to go back to campus. Well, it was after 11pm, and the busses and subway were closed. Taxis were our only recourse. But it was the same recourse for everyone else…. It took forever to get a taxi. The Chinese are far more aggressive, and we lost so many cabs. We even tried to stand on opposite sides of the street to optimize our chances of getting a cab. Nope. We walked around to find a hotel so we could hail a cab there. Nope. Poor Jim was so exhausted, he actually sat down on the street, leaned against a pole, and fell asleep. I finally got us a cab, and home we went. It was after midnight by the time we got to the campus apartments and crashed. Whoa, what a day—welcome to Nanjing.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lanterns and Birthdays

I still can’t quite believe that I have turned forty. Some of you reading this will say, “Oye, you’re getting old!” and others will think, “What’s your problem…you are still young!” I suppose the reality of age is objective (I’m 40, and this is empirically undeniable), but how one experiences it is indeed relative. Yet, with all things relative, one should ask, “Relative to what?...”

Despite some personal challenges in my life right now, I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to celebrate such an important birthday in China! I feel very blessed. As it so happened, my birthday fell on the same day as the Chinese Lantern Festival, the last day of the Spring Festival. I was supposed to be on a train to Nanjing on that day, but I’m happy Providence had other plans. My new friend and colleague emailed me the day before, saying she was planning to head into Old Shanghai (where Yu Yuan is located) to see the lanterns at night and was wondering if I’d like to join her. Sure! What a fun way to celebrate my birthday. I now associated turning 40 with the coming of spring, with celebration of new life, with shaking off the hurts and disappointments of the (recent) past, and looking with anticipation to the promises of life to come.

I had no idea what to expect. As night fell on Shanghai, the people came out in droves, all walking around to celebrate the Lantern Festival with friends and family. The city was one big party. We grabbed a taxi and immediately hit serious traffic. Busses, cars, cabs, scooters, bikes, and pedestrians crowded the streets, seeking out restaurants, clubs, and street fairs. The driver got us as close to Old Town as he could, and then we participated in one of Shanghai’s favorite pastimes—strolling. There is so much unique local flavors in Shanghai that one simply must stroll around and drink it all in. We could hear firecrackers popping in rapid succession, and occasionally a little child screamed with glee as a colorful bottle rocket burst in the air. The side streets were filled with a smoky haze and the smell of black powder.

Eventually, we arrived at the outer walls of the Old Town. Excitement pulsed through the air. Old Town only looked old, but it felt vigorous, electric. Squeezing through the crowds, we purchased our tickets and entered into the brightest, most colorful birthday celebration I’ve ever had. Ok, they weren’t celebrating my birthday, but I was. And it was as if the town was one huge birthday cake. Every major street and minor side alley was full of people, and hanging overhead were hundreds and hundreds of large, brightly lit red and gold lanterns. In the middle of major squares, there were huge new year displays all lit up. It was like Disney’s Magic Kingdom, only this was authentic.

By this time we were quite hungry, so we found a restaurant upstairs in one of the old buildings, and we enjoyed a nice feast of some traditional Chinese dishes (nothing like what we get in Chinese restaurants in the States). We toasted the Lantern Festival and my birthday with some Chinese liquor, loosely translated as “Tipsy Spirit”, and let me tell ya, it’s appropriately named. As is most Chinese liquor, it is made from rice alcohol, and it is very strong. This particular libation was 104 proof (52% alcohol). Yikes. It’s no wonder they served it in little thimble sized glasses. Happy birthday to me!!

After dinner, we walked around Old Town some more, taking in the sites, and enjoying watching so many people filled with such joy. On one street, people were clustered in groups, staring up at the lanterns. “What’s going on?” I asked my friend. The lanterns have riddles written on them, and on this particular street, people were reading them and trying to figure them out. I had so much fun just watching different groups laugh, discuss, and joke with each other over the riddles. I had no idea what they were saying, but on some level, joy and laughter is universal.

We ended my birthday bash by heading into a recently renovated area of the former French Concession (used to be a French area during colonial times). Here, some traditional Shanghai buildings have been preserved and restored, and a large block has been turned into a trendy area with high-end shops, restaurants, and clubs. The area is called Xin Tiandi, and it is really cool. Apparently, a lot of expatriates like to hang out there, in addition to young people from Shanghai and trendy folks visiting Shanghai. After a quick walk around, we settled on a jazz club called Jazz, Wine, and Cigars. An American jazz group was playing, and we enjoyed some music with a nice cigar and a tall glass of Guinness. Ah, a most memorable birthday, indeed.

Click to see some pics (scroll down to “Lanterns and People”).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Smoky Hopes for a Prosperous New Year

Fresh off a relaxing and contemplative journey through Old Town and Yu Yuan, I decided today to take a quick trip to the famous Jade Buddha Temple. One normally associates peace and tranquility with Buddhism, yet these were not the emotions I experienced. This temple is active, and it is particularly busy during the New Year festivities, as supplicants come to pray to one of many deified manifestations of Buddha. (Of course, the historical Buddha never claimed to be a deity, and worship of him as a god developed much later. There is also a diversity of mythologies surrounding the worship of Buddha, and in China alone there are at least two major classifications of this form of Buddhism, with various sects in each.) I travelled by taxi from the more affluent portion of Shanghai to a rather poor, older portion of the city. Riding in a taxi in Shanghai is quite an exciting experience. There really is no such thing as pedestrian right of way, even if they have a green arrow to walk, so taxis veer into pedestrian crowds and force their way through. (However, in the downtown area, there are official crossing guards who maintain the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic quite well.) Taxis weave in and out of traffic more notoriously than they do in NY, they make hair-raising left turns into on-coming traffic (forcing the passenger to hope the breaks in the oncoming trucks and cars are in good working order), and they bully around obstinately slow bicycles and scooters that share the roads.

In the middle of a busy, crowded section of town, the temple stands out in bold contrast, surrounded by high yellow walls. However, these walls do not seem to contain a sanctuary of peace so much as demark a bastion of tourism. If you can tune out the blatant tourist aspects, you can indeed enjoy the architectural and artistic splendor of the temple. The pavilion architecture and altar designs are stunning. Many Buddhist (and non-Buddhist) visitors and tourists use the various altars in the two main halls, burning large incense sticks and offering up what appear to be earnestly frantic prayers in the hope that maybe one of the mythical Buddhas will grant their wishes for the upcoming year. The altars and large idols are highly ornate, almost garish, seemingly striving to satisfy a deep spiritual longing with excessive material expression. I wondered, can the physical or the material ever really address, let alone satisfy, the spiritual? And, if the spiritual longing is innately personal, can the woodenly impersonal ever satisfy? It left me much to contemplate, indeed. The truly beautiful highlights of the temple are the two jade Buddha statues, each carved from an individual piece of white Burmese jade. The sitting Buddha (of which pictures are not allowed) is about six feet tall, and the reclining Buddha is about three feet long. These statues were brought to Shanghai in 1881, and in themselves they are amazing feats of artistry and beauty.

Click to see pics of the Jade Buddha Temple. Scroll down to “Jade Buddha Temple Main Pavilion.”

Friendly Stroll through Old Town Shanghai

Compared with other Chinese cities, Shanghai is relatively young. Before the nineteenth century, it was mainly a small fishing village, and after the First Opium War of 1842 with the influx of Western commerce, Shanghai became a cosmopolitan center, reaching its pre-communist heyday in the 1920s-1930s. However, what the old city lacks in “cosmopolitan sophistication” it more than makes up for in cultural charm and architectural intrigue. Today, King PITA took a much needed friendly stroll back in time, to Nanshi (Old Town) and a 16th century Ming Dynasty style rock garden called Yu Yuan (Garden of Peace and Comfort).

A Chinese colleague who teaches in the Communication Arts program at the Nanjing campus was kind enough to take time out of her hectic week to take me around Nanshi. She is from Shanghai, and after a fifteen-year sojourn in America, she is pleased to be back in her home town and to reconnect with her familial and cultural roots. She is in the process of finding a new apartment and moving in before the semester begins (in less than a week), so she is clearly extremely busy, and I was grateful that she took the afternoon off from her apartment search to stroll with me. Over lunch in a charming restaurant in the heart of Old Town, she shared some funny real estate agent stories (apparently, another human universal). I was curious, though, why she was securing an apartment in Shanghai, two hours by bullet train from the Nanjing campus, when faculty apartments are supplied on campus. In answer to this quite logical question, she relayed some fascinating details about living in Nanjing that, somehow, nobody told me…. Being that she grew up in Shanghai and has lived in New York City, she is quite used to cosmopolitan life. Nanjing is nothing of that sort. OK, fair enough; this I knew. There is a TV in the apartment, but no cable connection; that is, the TV makes a great modernist artwork and serves as decoration only. That doesn’t bother me, really, since I wouldn’t understand the Chinese programming anyway. (However, I have surfed the channels at my hotel, and there are some really amusing sitcoms, old kung fu movies, and what appear to be rather melodramatic soap operas.)

So far so good. The other main problem is that if you are not careful, you will “run out of electricity.” Excuse me? How does one run out of electricity? Well, quite simple. The local communist municipality doles out electricity in prepaid packets. It’s a lot like purchasing a cell phone with a set amount of minutes, only with the electricity, you don’t know how many kilowatt hours you have. “Is there a meter in the room to let you know?” I asked. “Sure,” she said, “but you don’t know how much you have and when you will run out.” For example, the hot water heater uses electricity, not gas, so you have to turn it on in the morning and turn it off when you finish your shower. If you forget to turn it off, the meter is running, and before you know it, you are out of electricity and CLICK all the power shuts off in your apartment. This happened to her a few times, and it took what seemed an act of the People’s Congress to get her more power. So, this semester, she is planning to train in to campus, teach a few days in a row, and then train back to Shanghai and live in the comfort of undisturbed electrical service. Nice. I’ve learned that there will be a vacant apartment on campus across from mine. Being an enterprising King PITA, I will secure access to that apartment as well, so if in the middle of living I use up my allotment of electricity, I’ll scurry across the hall and wait until I get more juice.

After laughing about some of her experiences and discussing the students in Nanjing, we set out walking around Old Town in search of Yu Yuan. Old Town is aptly named. It’s as if you’ve been transported back in time. Sure, you can hear the traffic noise of a modern city, and you can see the skyscrapers of Shanghai looming all around, but the atmosphere is completely different. Some of you have remarked that you were surprised at how Western Shanghai looks; well, that is downtown and Pudong. If you are looking for that exotic (for the Westerner) scene, you’ll find it in Old Town. I was still a target, even though I was walking with my Chinese colleague. The merchants and hucksters just ignored her and pressed me. She just laughed and told me to ignore them and move away quickly. (In the taxi ride over, I shared with her some of the scams I encountered, and she had not heard of them. I guess she wouldn’t, since she is Chinese and they don’t try to scam locals….) I really can’t describe Old Town in words. OK, I could, but it would not do it justice. Please check out the photo album, and I think you, too, will be deeply moved and transported.

We eventually wandered our way to Yu Yuan. Since the Chinese New Year festivities are still in full swing, the streets are decked with celebratory lanterns and lights, and in front of the Gardens is a colorful display of mythological and folkloric Chinese scenes, floating on a small pond. Though hundreds of tourists from all over China (and the world) are here for the New Year, the Garden still presented a relaxing locale for quiet reflection, people watching, and creative photography. The Garden has a classical Ming Dynasty design, and is a maze of different courtyards, rock gardens, bridges, and pavilions. Again, descriptive words do not do it justice. Please enjoy a sampling in the photo album.

Click to view the photo album (scroll down to “Old Town Shanghai). Enjoy!