Published: January 30th 2012
January 30th 2012
Beginning of January, 2012: Happy Western New Year! Trip to Shanghai and visit to the Shanghai Rotary Club:
My trip to Shanghai came at a perfect time. Having just spent a ferociously cold and dry Christmas in Beijing, I was more than ready for another travel adventure. Learning how to get by in a new environment always gives me a huge burst of confidence and adrenaline that leads to meeting new people and exploring as much as I can. The hostel I stayed at was really ideal. Besides being very cheap (about 8 USD a night), it was in a central location next to a subway stop, had large, clean dorm rooms, and I met some really nice people. The weather was really beautiful, too, and clear! I spent the first two days walking around. This was very enjoyable, however, I wore a hole in my shoe and had to buy new sneakers which didn't break in right away…something to consider before my next trip in which I intend to walk around a lot!! I'm sure lots of people were really amused by my "I just bought these shoes yesterday" limp.
Shanghai was amazing and super
modern, with gigantic shopping malls and vast seas of shoppers, but it doesn't have the classical Chinese atmosphere of Beijing. I visited the Jing'An Temple and YuYuan Gardens, both of which were very old and beautiful (although saturated by tourists), but if you want to see something more historic you will have to travel outside of Shanghai. The Jing'An Temple was my favorite because I enjoyed seeing the amazing wooden pillars supporting the whole temple--all imported wood from Myanmar. But of course the temple itself is surrounded on all directions by an enormous shopping mall--and its magnificent, golden bell tower is shadowed by an even bigger, shinier and golden-er skyscraper, reminiscent of Trump Tower.
Something fun about Shanghai, even with it's mass absorption of consumerism, was the holiday atmosphere. Everyone seemed jovial and happy to be out with millions of other people, shopping and eating and being with family. Even the shopkeepers were in a great mood, and up for some conversating with me and my haphazard Beijing-talk. One especially friendly tea saleslady told me about her whole family and their plans for Chinese New Year celebrations. She had short cropped, dyed crimson hair and a snappy
way of talking that seemed all Shanghai, and congratulated me on traveling to Shanghai-- which as she said "is China's best city."
I also visited the Shanghai conservatory. There wasn't a person on campus, unfortunately, but it was very pretty! The neighborhood around the school actually looked European, and it's probably beautiful in the Spring. Hopefully I'll get to go back when there are students around.
The visit to the Shanghai Rotary was also great! Another scholar from Beijing split the presentation time with me, and there was actually another scholar there that I met last spring in my district's convention! It was a great meeting, and I will go back in April to play for their Spring Gala dinner.
At the end of my visit to Shanghai, my friend YiJin from school came down to be a tourist with me. We went to ZhuJiaJiao, a small historic town built on canals outside of Shanghai. I thought it was going to be something like a Chinese "Williamsburg," because it is advertised on their website as an ancient and preserved town, but now it is so saturated in tourist-oriented trinkets and snack shops that any remnants
of ancient culture are long since gone. The canals and bridges were pretty, but we were constantly approached by restaurant and shop-keepers and their persistence made it difficult to enjoy the scenery. However, I enjoyed watching a man who had just caught a fish parade it up and down the tourist avenue, bouncing it on the end of a rubber band and chuckling, showing it proudly to anyone who showed an interest. He passed us several times. Also, there was a whole operation involving the re-sale of goldfish. The goldfish are sold to tourists as omens of good luck that can carry your wishes out to sea, and then those fishes (that probably just lazily swim around at the bottom of the canal) are caught again and re-sold. Needless to say, they didn't look very lucky!
We also encountered another American, who was tromping around cheerfully with her guide and stopping at everyone little shop to consider their wares and inevitably buy something. At first, I was a little bothered by her loudness and obvious American-ness, but then I supposed she wasn't really offending anyone and she was making a lot of the salespeople very happy by
buying lots of things! They were all very cheap, and she was obviously enjoying herself so.. maybe that's what we're supposed to be doing? Instead of skulking around trying not to be noticed, maybe I should really be playing my part of the foreigner and act just as I feel, and speak just as much English as I like, and stand out like a sore thumb? Is this more "honest"? I hadn't thought about it like that before, and maybe it was worth seeing more touristy stuff to have some new thoughts.
Tips for traveling alone I thought of while in Shanghai:
1. Walk as much as possible until you are impossibly hungry and then eat until you feel like walking some more. This will make you sleep really, really well. Even in a room with 7 other people.
2. Make plans and then deviate to doing exactly what you feel like you should do at that moment.
3. Be quiet. Sometimes it's not necessary to immediately announce that you speak a little Chinese. It's helpful to be undercover, like a ninja.
4. Try not to get lost in thought when you are
walking around, because you will probably get physically lost.
5. Ask for help. Ask what is good to eat. Ask people what they are doing. Ask anything. It made me feel silly and not like a ninja, but it made me have more fun.
After I got back from Shanghai, it was time to get ready for Hong Kong, again! The HK Rotary contacted me in December about an outgoing scholar orientation they were holding, and asked me to attend. Since I never attended one of the big orientations in the US, I thought it would be fun and a great way to meet other scholars. It turned out to be an amazing weekend. Every hour of the weekend was packed with new information and new people. We even got personalized help with our presenting style from two coaches from Toastmasters!
I played with a violinist, another Ambassadorial Scholar, for the opening dinner. That was a little hectic, as I arrived in Hong Kong that day and had to coordinate the harp arriving with a very last-minute rehearsal right before the dinner, but everything worked out. We played Faure's Berceuse
for violin and harp, and Romance
, by John Thomas. I was glad to be able to give something to the weekend, since it was so kind of the Rotarians in Hong Kong to invite me back for the orientation.
The most striking part of the Orientation weekend, for me, was a kind of social experiment that happened one day at lunch. Before lunch the directors lined us up and then pulled me and another scholar aside and told us we were the "VIPs." We got gold stars and were led in before everyone else and sat at a table at the foremost of the room by ourselves. The rest of the people were then led in-- some selected to sit facing us, about 12 of them, and the rest were sitting behind them on the floor. Us VIPs were then served each a hot plate of spaghetti and several bottles of orange juice and cans of coke. The people sitting facing us were served 3 sandwiches, in total, with water, and the people on the floor were given only a couple very basic sandwiches in zip-loc bags. We "VIPs" were told we could not talk to anyone but each other, and we could listen
to the people at the table in front of us but not talk to them, and we could nether look at or talk to the people sitting on the floor. It was quickly apparent that no one had enough food but us. The team leaders encouraged us to eat our meal and ignore the other people but then the people from the "middle class" table came to us and started asking why we didn't give them some food.
We tried to find ways of giving them food, but we weren't allowed--no exceptions. It was very uncomfortable, and discomfort merged into painful awkwardness and the atmosphere soon became unbearable. Everyone was watching us, and the photographers were filming us, and I began to feel very desperate about my inability to do something about the situation. That was it for lunch--we then split up into groups to talk about how we felt about the experience.
Of course, the experiment was really about ways that governments can distribute resources within a given social structure, but it felt personal. I know it was good for us to experience the kinds of feelings that arise in that situation, but I wouldn't want to
go through that again. It really makes you think about how privileged our daily lives are, and what we have done and are doing to improve the lives of others.
After the orientation weekend, I moved to a hostel in Tai Po, in the New Territories. I spent the week tagging along with some friends from Harp Chamber to concerts and hiking around the Tai Po area. I discovered an absolutely beautiful botanic gardens close to my hostel. It was really a treat to stay in Tai Po-- even though it was far from downtown, it was scenic and the air was very clear. The rest of the week I went to see a harpsicle ensemble at a school, played for the alumni association of HKU (and accompanied some of their singers on "Mo Li Hua" (Jasmine Flower) in an impromptu performance!), went to two concerts of the HK chamber music festival, including a beautiful program featuring harp (Naoko Yoshino!) and Marina Piccinini! The program included the Debussy Trio, Debussy Dances, and Ravel's Intro and Allegro. The other chamber music concert featured the Shanghai Quartet, who were really great to watch because of their on-stage report with each other. They really made the music into a visible conversation, as if they were actually speaking to each other, and it was so fun to watch! I was supposed to leave at intermission to make it back to Tai Po before it got too late, but I just couldn't leave and ended up staying for the whole concert. Chinese New Year in ZhengZhou--Happy Chinese New Year!
After Hong Kong, I headed for Zhengzhou and my friend YiJin's house for the Lunar New Year. We celebrated the Chinese holiday in full traditional style--eating, making dumplings, and watching the annual Gala on TV, eating, making more dumplings, setting off fireworks, eating, going to KTV, and eating… We also took the train to Xi'An during the holiday to visit more of her family. We saw a beautiful Qing Dynasty park and the Terra Cotta warriors, and kept eating and making dumplings and setting off fireworks!
Her grandmother's cooking was the best food I have ever had, Chinese or Western! Even though I begged her to let me help her, she wouldn't let me set foot in the kitchen (She nearly beat me up when I got caught sneaking dirty dishes into the kitchen) so I have no idea what kind of magic she was doing. We had dumplings (of course), and the most delicious fish (spicy sauce flavor and the famous Sweet and Sour fish--amazing!!!), chicken with chestnuts, sweet rice with figs and raisins, tangy sprouts and carrots, Chinese broccoli, fried lotus and fish sandwiches, and many other dishes I can't even describe.