Friday, July 8, 2011

Meanwhile Back in Suzhou

Ok, where was I...? Oh, yes, Xian to Suzhou, which happened before we went to Nanjing, but I was so eager to tell you what happened late one night in Nanjing that I...oh, never mind.

So, we drove back to the Xian airport past those noir-ish, sparsely-lit sidewalks where the ladies had been walking and talking to people in cars but now it was daylight, so that wasn't happening. We did not have any incidents at the airport unless you count the rather frenzied search for wine after we determined that, yes, you can bring your own liquor on an internal flight in China. Whoop!  That out of the way, we flew to Shanghai.  Then, Janet, our new guide, met us at the airport and we boarded a van and took off into the Shanghai night, drove for hours, and ended up in Suzhou. We almost lost our dean ("Nira, we hardly knew ye!") under a pile of shifting luggage on this ride because the van was just a titch too small for us and our luggage was way too close and unfettered.  Luggage becomes a theme in the trip at this point.

And, you may be thinking, but they are flying home from Shanghai, so why are they going to Shanghai and they still have six days on their trip? Why are they leaving Shanghai? I thought that's where they wanted to be? What are they doing in Suzhou? Well, the following day was to be the Dragon Boat Festival, a national holiday, so...oh, don't ask. It's complicated.  The important thing about the following day is that it rained 猫 and 狗 all day. Too bad for the Dragon Boat Festival and too darn bad for us too, because Suzhou seemed like a lovely city, smaller than the others we visited, and it is renowned for its gardens, of which we managed to see precisely one. It is also renowned as the "Venice of China," because it's a city of canals and we took a ride through some of the charming canals. That was fun but damp. We got to look through the doors of people's houses if they faced the canal.  Very interesting. Quite a few people have cats, I observed. We also got to see the backs of people's houses if the front faced the street; it wasn't good to consider what probably comes out of the back of those houses and into the canals.  Many of the houses, we were told, do not have indoor plumbing.  Despite the drizzle and rain, though, we did have some pretty stimulating experiences.

We visited the Humble Administrator Garden.  There were a LOT of people and their umbrellas there but it's a lovely garden filled with soothing sounds and with meandering paths, bridges, moving water, fish, beautiful flowering plants and trees (enhanced by rain), and some small, lovely buildings. It's a shame that the day was just not conducive to outdoor activities.

Our next activity, in fact, was indoors and it was fascinating.  I understand that the point of the activity was to get us to buy stuff at the end of the tour (I cooperated), but still it was very, very interesting and certainly something you won't see anywhere in the US.  We went to the Suzhou Number 1 Silk Factory. We saw everything, and I mean it, everything, in our tour. We watched silkworms munching their mulberry leaves, we saw silkworm poop a-plenty, and I made a friend for life.  Joe Ryan pleased me by taking a picture of the worm who seemed so fascinated by me. This worm never took his eyes off me the whole time I was standing by the tray. He was standing up looking at me, yes.  I like to think that the products I purchased later were little gifts from him to me. I wish I could post the picture (Google? Are you listening?). We saw cocoons in all different stages and we saw, up close, every part of the process of teasing out and pulling the individual thread of which each cocoon is constructed (except if there are twins!), and of moving those threads through the process by which they eventually become scarves and lots of other products, such as comforters and pillow covers.  Don't take silk for granted.  Think of this as a process that requires real people to work with yucky stuff and have their hands in boiling water all day.  Yes, individuals do this and we looked over their shoulders.  It is very specialized work and I hope that Bag Balm is handed out to everyone at the end of the day. So the whole thing was enjoyable and instructive and, finally, quite costly. But I accept responsibility for that. Oops!

In the afternoon, we took another bullet train, this one from Suzhou to Nanjing.  I could tell you about the problem with our luggage, which just could not have been anticipated, but all's well that ends well.  Our luggage, which we could never have gotten onto the train, went ahead of us to Nanjing and that was a perfect, though a fraught and, for Pace, costly, solution.

The REAL Highlight of My Nanjing Experience

We spent four full days in Nanjing and, for me, being there was the best part of my China experience.  We stayed long enough to meet and interact multiple times with some very nice people and we did very little tourist stuff; we had classroom time learning more Chinese language and some practical knowledge and experiences (translation:  "we shopped") and we had a series of interesting lectures from professors at the Nanjing Normal University.  I will have more to say about the days we spent in Nanjing, but I have to get the peak experience out there to the world first.  I am so eager to tell this story that I am skipping the day spent in Suzhou, but--not to worry--I will go back to that.

It wasn't a particularly interesting day (Wednesday, June 8) till we went on a trip to the other campus of Nanjing Normal.  It is far from the original, old campus (the school is older than Pace, by the way), and seemingly way out of town, but the way things work around here, it's probably still in town, just doesn't seem like it. So this campus was built about ten years ago and it is very spread out with all shiny, modern buildings.  Very impressive.  We met up there with some of the same people we seem to see everywhere and a few new ones.  First, we had a meeting, quite formal and structured (I've lost count of how many of these we have sat through). Then we were driven to the library, which has a cafe downstairs, so we (now a subset, i.e., just the visitors and a couple of our entourage members, including my personal favorite and new friend, Mr. Wu). Then we were driven to another building and had another big banquet with all the same people from our previous meeting. I got to sit by Mr. Wu again and he and I talked about literature, teaching and summer vacations.He is going fishing, just so you know.

We had numerous dishes, including a surprise birthday cake for Deborah, and a soup with some very strange stuff in it (the one thing I thought I could identify looked like a chicken gizzard)(I only tasted the broth, yuck), and--the bonus round--what turned out to be fried chicken "paws," as Adelia delicately called them. I didn't know what they were, so crunched through one and ate it, then crunched another and spit it out (Mr. Wu was away toasting someone at that moment, fortunately). Tried another and spit it out too. I thought perhaps the first one was an aberration, but it turns out they were all like that. On purpose.

Then the party was over and two of our Pace people (I am protecting your identities) decided to go for a foot massage at some place back downtown that an incredibly gorgeous PPMG staff person recommended and I was invited to go with them. You are surprised I said ok, right? Obviously this is a trip where I have stepped way outside my comfort zone! And, to be honest, I have not regretted that even one time.  Even with the chicken paws and the donkey.

Well, I can't begin to tell you what a weird experience this was. The PPMG rep (we had all met Isabelle at Pace before) took us to the hotel (not one we were staying at) and made the arrangements. Then she left and we fumbled through the rest of it with people who spoke not one word of English. And it's not like we've learned a helpful vocabulary for, say, foot and head massages, which is what we all had. We were all required to take showers first, and the charge for the showers was greater than the charge for the additional services, so we see how they turn some profit.  None of us knew the proper, shall we say, protocol for dressing and undressing in a Chinese spa, so we just got on with it however we could.  I, for one thing, ended up with both my towel and my abandoned clothing getting wet from my shower.  Oh, and we had lockers to deal with, but only a staff person had the key, so I can't begin to tell you the embarrassing number of  times I had to call her back, since I was pretty disorganized.  I don't exactly have my own routine for Mandarin Massage established. 

We finished our showers at all different times so had to be led individually through multiple turns down hallways lit for perpetual twilight.  It was eerie  because there were so many doorways off the hallways but I could get no sense of whether there were people behind all the doors, or even some of them. Was I being kidnapped? Had we been separated and assigned to different interrogators?

The foot massage was very pleasant.  Once we were situated in our room that had several BIG comfy chairs in it, these young women dressed like 15-year-old private-school girls came in and took our feet in hand(s). After they determined that we did not want to watch tv, they got to work, but soon set up an incessant chatter. That part was not relaxing but since we couldn't understand a single word, it was sort of like Muzak.

When they were finished, the head massage woman came in and was shocked to find three heads, rather than the one she had been informed needed massaging. She was peeved about this, I would surmise.  I went last so had time to examine her performance by using my peripheral vision. Anticipation had plenty of time to build.

So, turns out the head massage is done by this woman who sits behind you in the big massage chair.  She wears a long, split skirt and she hikes it up and "mounts" (so to speak) behind you.  Let's just say that by the time this was over, I figured that she and I were--at the very least--going steady, if not planning the size of the family we want to have together. I was, literally, in a sweat and she was too, because at one point she paused in the massage and heaved a big, hot sigh. We were making a lot of sweat between us.  Man oh man. I opened my eyes at the end (closing them was part of my unsuccessful relaxation attempt) and--uh oh!--my friends were gone and it was just this head-massager with me in this dark room.  And I wasn't sure at this point that I had given her the kind of encouragement that would signal that we had bonded in a special way. And I had forgotten to drop breadcrumbs in the hallway so I could find my way back.  She led me out the door of our twilit room into the twilit hallway around the many corners and did deliver me safely. She did not ask me for my phone number or email address so we could touch base later or plan whose family to visit over the holidays.

We had a good laugh about all of this in the cab.  A very good laugh. A very, very good laugh. Anyway, the foot massage was relaxing, but the head massage was...strange. I wasn't quite relaxed enough for it, let's say!

And then there was the part where we tried to stiff the cab driver for his fare, but just don't check the Nanjing police blotter for that evening and you will not risk destroying the high reputation I have attained with you.

PS: If you had a bad day today, will it make you feel better if I tell you I somehow managed to pee on both pants legs in a squat toilet before dinner this evening?