The International Woman of Mystery

Yu Garden 

I have been woefully out of touch with my blog since … the end of last school year. Wow. Pretty soon I’ll be turning into the Dos Equis guy, without the beard, of course.

The summer went by much too quickly in a lot of ways, and though I had a great time visiting West Texas – which really doesn’t have a great deal to see but windmills, the odd river gorge, and tiny towns with quaint farmer markets – on a road trip with my college bff Kari. We got lost, nearly ended up in Mexico, and drank enough Diet Coke to last into next year.

Then, I spent two weeks on an update New York and French Canada road trip with the family. Montreal was lovely, though hotter than heck, and then up to Quebec City, which I actually enjoyed more, even if it meant a leg-jarring jaunt up a huge hill because our hotel was at the bottom of it. I took the Maid of the Mist tour on our way back through Niagara Falls and then ate Amish-style in Shipshewana, Indiana. I was going from one border to the next in just a few weeks.

It was time to return to China in the beginning of August, though the feeling was much different this year than last. At least I knew what I was doing and what to expect…though the 116 degree heat for nearly two months wasn’t the best thing about returning to Shanghai’s hottest stretch of weather in 140 years…

Now, nearly three months back into China and my second year of teaching abroad, I have come to the realization that overseas work, being an expat, is like having this crazy alter-ego life. There’s the home life of people back in the States, the one you can only see through Facebook, and then there’s the life here, a life of dealing with the unexpected, sometimes difficult situations that pop up. They come and go, and that’s part of it. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

But the reward of it is an experience unlike I would have had staying in Illinois. So, I remind myself of that whenever I get frustrated with processes and such. Besides – the travel is fabulous.

We took our students to Beijing just a few weeks ago. The weather was pretty lovely, even if the first day was rainy and sloppy. By the time we went out to the Mutianyu Great Wall, it was blue skies and green valleys all around us. This part of the wall, versus the Jinshanling Great Wall we went to last year, was much nicer. It’s been restored some time since the last Mongol invaders, so it wasn’t like the three hour death crawl.

The farmstay in the country was interesting. When you have to do stretches and lunges just to be able to use the squatty potties, you learn a new sort of resilience.

After Beijing, I was meant to go with two other teachers to Vietnam for October holiday. Two out of the three of us did not get visas in enough time, so we had to cancel our trip. Instead, we were tourists in Shanghai enjoying a “staycation.” So, we learned a valuable lesson – make sure you get your visa super early!

I wandered pretty much all over Shanghai, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone.

On Monday, we visited Yu Garden, a Ming dynasty rock and water garden in the middle of the city. It’s right in Shanghai Old Town, all the old school Chinese architecture you are pressed to find in this megatropolis. It’s a huge tourist attraction, which usually means enormous crowds during the weekends and holidays, but Monday was still a work day in China, so we took advantage of it. It’s a nice little escape from the bustle of the city, with serene woods, still pools of water filled with giant koi, and loads of rocks in various odd shapes. Beka and I become official friends once we took a picture together at Yu Gardens and posted it on Facebook. It’s real now!

Nearly England

After visiting the garden part, we ventured into the Yu Bazaar, which is pretty much Hobby Lobby and Oriental Trading on steroids. I found jingle bells, pipe cleaners, baggies of glitter, buttons, boas, raffia spheres, etc, etc. 10 kuai scarves abounded (if you’re a scarf fanatic, like I am, 10 kuai scarves are so incredibly cheap and addicting!) along with bits and bobs with the Union Jack. I got Scotch Tape with Union Jacks on it! Pretty fab.

If Yu Bazaar wasn’t enough, we then went to the underground market for more shopping and more bargaining. The key to success here is a poker face, knowing your Chinese numbers, and never saying you need a watch, purse, wallet, or any i-accessory. Otherwise, it’s a frenzy!

Beka & Winston
I can’t even name this street.

On Tuesday, we took the Metro so far south and west of the city it almost wasn’t Shanghai. Here, near Songjiang University, resides what is known as “Thames Town,” a completely fabricated subdivision meant to look like an English country village. There is a local pub, a “fake” cathedral, Tudor-style buildings, “old time” postcards meant to look as if it’s been there for centuries, and guards wearing red shirts and striped pants as if they were plucked off Buckingham Palace duty. Bollards rose in the streets, and apartments built like “castles” dominated the sky. Even the traffic lights looked British! It was nearly like a camp ground for Chinese people, who were picnicking “English style” on the green lawns. The only strangely out-of-place items were the modern art sculptures with strange figures in awkward positions.

To the castle…

In Thames Town, one can find Winston Churchill and William Shakespeare, though w
e weren’t able to identify any other statues dotted around the subdivision. We photobombed wedding photos, as it’s an extremely popular place for engaged couples to take their pictures. Lunch was at a nondescript cafe with items like crepes, spaghetti (the speed of its delivery suggested canned sauce), and thin, chewy pizzas. Not really stellar, but in a town built around the premise of pretending, it was okay. Since it’s so far out from the city, not many people live here, so it’s almost deserted. Eerily deserted.

The “Cathedral”

Wednesday I struck out on the Metro alone to visit Hongkou, the north suburb of Shanghai where the Jewish refugees of WWII were housed. The refugees were moved out once Japan took over Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s and put into an international zone, but the Schindler of the East managed to save several thousand lives by issuing visas for travel to China. There’s a small refugee museum there detailing life during the war and talking about families who had lived there. The most impactful photo showed how the Japanese and Nazis were collaborating to also “take care of” the Jewish question now in China. Then, upstairs in the old synagogue, there was an exhibit about Auschwitz, an attempt to educate the Chinese about the atrocities of the death camps in Europe.

A quote on the museum’s wall
Hongkou Architecture

The more I learn about the Holocaust – I’ve been to the museum in Skokie, IL, Houston, TX, the Jewish Quarter in Prague and to Terezin Concentration Camp, and now to the museum in Shanghai – the less I understand about, and, sadly enough, when I keep hearing about current atrocities, I wonder what we really do learn from the past.

I spent Wednesday roaming the Hongkou area after visiting the museum, essentially getting lost in the neighborhood. I wandered up and down rows of lane houses for about two hours before settling on a baggie of roasted chestnuts and a stroll through LuXun Park, about three Metro stops away.

Hongkou Football Stadium

The clouds were gathering, and it was overcast by the time I arrived at Hongkou Stadium, a giant sports field in the north of the city. I wandered around the upper perimeter of the stadium, looking into the park and watching various games and martial arts being done. Eventually, I found my way down to the park, but it was starting to sprinkle and pick up on the wind. I ducked into a nearby Starbucks for a drink, and sure enough, the skies opened up and poured!

The sudden storm pushed
these up against the window
at Starbucks.
A quiet street near LuXun Park

Once the rain slowed down, I left Starbucks and tried to get into LuXun Park. Unfortunately, it was closed for some sort of remodeling. The main gates were closed, and only the amusement park section was open. It was nearly 4 PM, so many public things were closing down for the evening as well, so I couldn’t get in through the museum either. I figured it wasn’t worth it to stay out any longer when the temperatures had dropped, so I got back on the Metro and headed home, tired and ready for at least one more day of exploration.

Bit of a hazy afternoon

So far, the staycation was actually sort of relaxing after a long trip to Beijing the week before.

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