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Month: October 2017

Sojourn to Suzhou

Sojourn to Suzhou

On Saturday, I voyaged south to Suzhou (苏州), a town known as the Venice of China. It is a charming canal town, all winding alley ways and white-washed walls. The weather cooperated and it was a balmy 65-70 degrees and sunny. October is still considered high season in Suzhou, but we visited close enough to November that the town didn’t feel mobbed. It is smaller than Nanjing, around four million, and the center is mostly two- and three-story buildings, which felt like a pleasantly human scale.

The big draws in Suzhou are the charming canals and some gorgeous, ancient gardens. There are five or six scattered around the center of the city. The largest is the Humble Administrator’s Garden, 3.5 hectares, but that one was both the most expensive and most popular. We opted for smaller, slightly less popular gardens, but I would love to see the Humble Administrator’s Garden this spring.

We began the day at 9 in Nanjing’s train station, got a high speed train to Suzhou and arrived at 10:15. From the train station, we headed to the Garden of the Master of Nets (网师园), a pint-sized but charming area constructed around a private pond. This garden, dating to the 12th century (restored in the 18th by an official-cum-fisherman), is well-preserved and a bit of a labyrinth. It was constructed so as to give the illusion of being a larger space, leading you through windy paths and a mix of indoor and outdoor. The study, known as the Peony Study for the spring flowers that grow outside, was used as the model for the Ming Garden in New York City’s MOMA.

From the garden, we walked north to lunch at a fantastic dumpling place. There were two long lines. The first, to get a ticket. There is no menu. You tell the clerk how many people and she rings you up. Then you get in the food line, winding around the tiny restaurant to the kitchen window, where you present your ticket. You are handed a plate of pork dumplings a person, and go to a nearby window for broth to dip in. These dumplings were top notch.

Well-fed, we continued to one more garden, the Couples’ Garden (藕园), which was larger than the Garden of the Master of Nets. It was equally lovely and also featured a pond, around which ran labyrinthian paths and different wood-panels rooms with intricate carvings. Like the first garden, this one featured imposing rock sculptures, which you could climb to get a different view. Their design and landscaping, the focus on carefully positioned rocks and bridges and rooms, etc., was unlike Western gardens that I have visited and fun to see.

From the garden, we walked down a canal to a metro stop. The canal is famous, named Pingjiang Lu (平江路) and was a fun, touristy place to stroll. From there, we came back to Nanjing and headed to a Yunnanese place for dinner. It was a lovely trip, and I hope to return to Suzhou for the spring flowers.

Autumn Cometh

Autumn Cometh

Fall is here at last and the weather has been glorious of late. Today, for example, is perfectly clear, with not a cloud in the sky and a temperature of 55 or 60F. It smells like fall outside and the dappled sunlight is absolutely lovely. Most of the trees have not yet changed on our campus, but some leaves are beginning to fall. I am reveling in this new weather, especially now that I have translated every button on the remote to my heating/cooling unit and am able to use the heater. Next on my list of buttons to translate is the washing machine.

Beyond household appliances, I am beginning to feel more settled here. We have a group of foreign teacher friends here at Nanjing Normal and I continue to meet more people here and at Nanjing University. Now when I walk around one of NanShiFan’s campuses (that is the abbreviation for Nanjing Normal University), I am starting to recognize familiar faces. Now at the two-month mark, I am starting to feel more a part of the community.

A big part of that is my slowly improving Chinese skills. As I have mentioned in past posts, I am starting to understand more and more, or at least be able to get the gist. With improved skill comes a bit more confidence and comfort being out and about. As I go out and about more, I become more comfortable. With friends, I have discovered some fun new pubs, found new museums and tried a food from Guangzhou (广州) that I can’t name but was good.

That confidence is helping in the classroom, too. I am quickly gaining speed in my class planning endeavors and can estimate much more accurately how long activities will take. I would like to think that I am getting better at selecting appropriate activities, but I suppose I’d have to ask my students to give a more accurate opinion. I continue to struggle mathematically in the classroom: if I have 40 students and want groups of 5, I should have them count off by 8s, but I inevitably tell them to count off by 5s and curse myself and my seventh grade math teacher, who shall remain unnamed. Luckily, this is not an unfixable problem and I just tell the massive groups to split again.

Early October Outings

Early October Outings

The date of the Mid-Autumn Festival is decided according to the lunar calendar. This year it fell on Wednesday, October 4th. We celebrated by sampling large numbers of moon cakes, the dessert associated with the festival, for cultural reasons. Traditional fillings include red bean paste, lotus root, and sometimes meat. After completing this culinary journey, my overall sense it that Chinese desserts are less sweet than American desserts. Our fudges and cookies would overwhelm here. And chocolate is definitely a luxury item, costing between 15 and 30RMB for a single bar.

Last week we also celebrated Chinese National Day. This fortuitous coming together of holidays meant that we all got eight days off. This was excellent both personally and professionally. It allowed me to slow down and re-evaluate my semester plans. Now that we are a few weeks into the term, I have more for a sense of where the semester should go. Time off was well-spent reshaping my all-important Excel spreadsheets, mapping out the semester week by week.

But don’t fret, dear readers, I also used the time off to go adventuring. I took the advice of a Nanjing local and headed to Mochou Lake (莫愁湖). Its name translates roughly to “no worries” and it is lovely! Smaller and more landscaped than Xuanwu Lake, it was raining lightly on the day that I arrived. The path around the lake was blissfully uncrowded. When it began pouring, I was able to duck under a covered wooden pathway, along with other walkers, and we were treated to some karaoke by a few park-goers who took it upon themselves to bring equipment to the park.

By the end of the week, the weather improved and I decided it was time to visit something other than a water-based site (my most recent destinations were two lakes and a bridge). My roommates and I headed to Shanghai via the fast train (average speed: 250km/hour) and arrived an hour and a half later.

Shanghai is much larger than Nanjing, about 25 million people, and much more Westernized. The Bund, Shanghai’s famed waterfront, was built in the early 20th century and could be mistaken for a European port. We stayed in the charming French Concession, surrounded by tall trees and low-rise buildings. Much of the rest of Shanghai is dominated by high-rise buildings, which make for more efficient housing, but city planners want to preserve the French Concession in its historic glory. The streets there may not be widened and the buildings are maintained in early 20th century style.

Shanghai boasts an  incredible food and drink scene, with restaurants and bars galore. For lunch on the first day, we tried Shanghainese and sampled some of the best noodles that I have ever eaten. We also tried Hunanese, Mexican and I found a bagel, which I was craving. All in all, it was a wonderful visit!


Post-script: My thoughts are with those of you in Northern California (and Puerto Rico and Texas and Florida)!