Going green is quite trendy these days. Local and organic farmers are being glorified (most recently by me, as I spent a blissful Saturday on an off-the-grid dairy farm), solar panels seem to be popping up everywhere, and mainstream magazines are splashing “Green Living!” articles across their glossy non-recycled covers.

Sorry my fellow Western tree-huggers. Chinese people SO have us beat.

Yeah, I’m talking about that China: The polluted, industrial, skyscraper haven that’s pumping out fossil fuels faster than doctors can diagnose new cases of asthma. It may be the most polluted country on Earth, but its citizens are greener then NPR, Al Gore, and my Mom put together.  

Let’s start with food. During a recent trip to Inner Mongolia all I was served was lamb, milk tea and celery. Why? Well, celery was in season and based on all the sheep and cows I saw roaming through the streets I’m guessing that they are always in season. Throughout the rest of China I had watermelon after every single breakfast, lunch and dinner. Why? It’s local. Chinese people don’t go to farmers markets for the “atmosphere” or because Martha Stewart does. That’s just where the food is.

 

And the Chinese get to those watermelon stalls on bikes. Although the car market is growing at an exponential rate, bikes are still a major form of transportation. The wealthy city of Hangzhou is embracing and encouraging this green method of transport by providing bikes practically for free. Fully stocked bike shelters are positioned at every corner so riders can pick up and drop off bikes all over the city. With a quick swipe of a card, you can unlock and use a bike for an hour before fees start accumulating. As long as you remember to switch bikes every 59 minutes you can ride all day for free. In addition to limiting drivers’ licenses, this is one method of the fast-growing city’s attempt to keep the traffic in check while the subway is being installed.

 

And subways! You Chinese and Europeans don’t know how good you have it. If you say “subway” to someone in America, they immediately start salivating for a sandwich. Then they drive their SUV to the nearest sub shop for a tasty meal. The subway (as in the transportation device, not the sandwich) was my best friend in Shanghai. It allowed me to stay in a nicer yet cheaper hotel and still explore every inch of this Paris-of-the-East without consuming any gas. I have lofty dreams of subway lines connecting all my favorite American cities, but my Republican countrymen seem to enjoy their Ford pickups a little too much for this to be a reality.

And while subways are green, convenient, and modern, much of China’s green living is due to their status as a not-quite-developed country. Hand washing clothes is a vestige of limited means, although many parents buy their only child an expensive phone and iPad without even considering buying a washer or dryer. Laundry is hung out to dry in every building in every city throughout China. My daily jog took me past a community of mansions that all featured clotheslines in their expansive yards. The lawn maintenance staff would step around their client’s sequined tops and lacy bras as they planted expensive flowerbeds around the house.

So here we are. The Communist Chinese government chugs on towards a capitalistic modernity as Michelle Obama plots out vegetable gardens for the White House. The Chinese masses pedal their way to the supermarket as urbanites drive to co-op farms. And into a climatically challenged world we all head.

I fork over the equivalent of $6 and hop on the bike. It’s mine for the day. For the first time in weeks I have my own ride. This rusty contraption that holds two wheels together gives me an exhilarating rush of freedom. I grin like a mad woman for the first two miles. I’m so happy to be off my feet that I don’t even mind the motorcycles, cars and buses that come within inches of grazing my handlebars.

 

I could really get used to this biking thing. Slightly delusional images of myself biking through the San Juan islandsand completing triathlons in 8-panal bike shorts fill my mind as I roll down the streets of Suzhou on my pink one-speed.

Then the self doubt starts. I remind myself that this is a one-off. I wouldn’t be able to change a flat tire and I’d be screwed if a hill popped up. Who am I kidding? I’m not a biker! Then I think back fifteen years. That stops the negativity.

Because a decade and a half ago, I wasn’t a runner either.

In middle school I HATED running. With a passion. I used to conjure up every excuse in the book in attempt to get out of the 1/2 a mile “fun run” around the school. When the excuses didn’t work I’d make it about forty steps before slowing to a walk, red faced with over-exertion and shame.   

But in high school I was jealous of the track team with their cool sweatshirts and their close-knit team bond. A friend talked me into joining the team on the false pretense that I could throw or jump – no running required!

It was a season of humiliation and misery. Throwing and jumping did not turn out to be my great hidden talents. But by the end of May, I could run a mile. Barely, but I could. I kept running all summer and something finally clicked. I joined the cross country team in the fall and to everyone’s amazement I somehow made varsity.

 The rest of my high school days were filled with team dinners, mile repeats, races in the rain, captains patches on my letter jacket, and the finishing chute of a marathon. Since then, running has given me an excuse to travel. It’s been a cornerstone of friendships. It’s an escape from cancer diagnoses and the end of relationships. Plus running has kept my thighs in check. (Well, kind of). I don’t know who I’d be today if I wasn’t a runner.

So maybe I could be a biker. I power up the hill and avoid hitting a family of Chinese people on a scooter. I’m pedaling fast and smiling again. Who knows what great new things biking could give me? This ride through the smoggy streets of Suzhoumay be the start of something great. 

To rent bikes in Suzhou, find the new Suzhou art museum on Renmin Lu (road.) Turn into the alley just past the museum (towards town). The alley is behind shot #2061. There will be a bike rental sign (in English!) pointing you in the right direction. Look for this guy:

He’ll hand you an explanation of his policies, which basically state that the bike is your until 6:00pm and you have to give him 200 yuan (about $30) as a deposit. The rental fee is another 60 yuan. The bike comes with a lock as well.

The shop is near the tallest pagoda in town, which is handy when you are finding your way back. That pagoda is on 1918 Renmin Lu.

The people of Suzhou are helpful almost to a fault. Every time I stepped to check out my map it wouldn’t take two seconds for someone to ask:

“May I help you?” Everyone would ask me this, even if that line is the only English they know. I started making up questions to ask people, because it was easier than declining or refusing any help.

“North?” I’d ask the helpful person, pointing in a random direction.

“North.” The helpful person would confirm.

We’d nod our heads at each other, satisfied with our mutual geographic knowledge and then head our separate ways.

I’m not really a museum person, which I learned after dragging myself to every art museum in Venice before remembering that, oh yeah, I don’t really love art. However, whenever it started pouring down rain in Shanghai I would quickly find the nearest museum to seek shelter in. It rained a lot.

The Shanghai Museum

Billed as “the best museum in China,” by various guidebooks, I actually planned on going to this one. It was okay. I explored the four floors under the guidance of my English audio guide which was 40 yuan (about $7) plus a 400 yuan deposit. Because it didn’t cost too much, the audio guide was worth it. However, it’s not a necessity because all captions are translated into English. The museum featured:

  • The Bronze Galley: Mildly boring except I did like the section that showed how one went about making a bronze item back in the day. The Chinese would create molds out of clay and then pour molten bronze into the molds, waiting until things hardened up before breaking the clay mold.
  • The Sculpture Gallery: Essentially a gallery or Buddhas and Bodeshatvas. It was a bit more interesting, mainly because I like looking people more than things.
  • The Maori artifacts Gallery: A special exhibit that will be in Shanghai until October. I especially liked the bird trapping devices featured here.
  • The Ceramics Gallery: It’s interesting how much our normal chinaware of today resembles ceramics and china from centuries ago. Talk about lasting art!
  • Coin Gallery: The initial six rooms of coins can be sped through, but the last exhibit on Silk Road currency was pretty interesting.
  • Jade Gallery: Lots of jade. It’s green. What else can I say?
  • Furniture Gallery: This is pretty interesting, but if you’ve been to any museums that are former residences of rich guys, you’ve already seen it. I liked the fact that not only were folding chairs were around in the eighteenth century, but to sit in one was a seat of honor. At my family’s Thanksgiving dinner table, my parents sit in the folding chairs and save the nice seats for our guests.
  • Chinese Minority Gallery: This was the most interesting exhibit, and sadly the last one I went to. By the time I’d reached the top floor I was running out of museum patience. I wish I would have started here. On display were various costumes and traditional dress of the people from the outer reaches of China (Tibet, Inner Mongolia, the Uighur Muslims, etc).    

The Shanghai Museum is free. It’s open Monday through Friday from 9-5. To get there, take metro line 1 to the People’s Square. Inside the immense metro station, follow the signs to exit 1 (there are 19 exits). The address is 201 Renmin Ave, but the entrance is on West Yan’an Rd.

MOCA: The Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai

I blew into this museum absolutely drenched, despite the fact that I had an umbrella. The museum was heavily air conditioned. Plus, as previously mentioned, I’m not a huge art fan. So I was prepared to be irritated.

Luckily for me, the featured exhibit was Disney’s PIXAR. How can you be unhappy when surrounded with Toy Story and Ratatouille characters? I didn’t learn anything about China, but I did enjoy watching the animation process come to life. There is no permanent exhibit at this museum, but I hear that things are usually laid out pretty well here. That was certainly the case with the PIXAR exhibit.

MOCA is in the middle of People’s Square, at 231 Nanjing West Road. Take metro line 1 to People’s Square and follow the signs. The PIXAR exhibit will be featured until the end of October. The MOCA fees change depending on the exhibit. I paid 80 yuan (about $10). The museum is open daily from 10 to 6.  

Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and Ohel Moishe Synagogue:

I LOVED this museum! It was only two rooms plus the synagogue, but I spent more time here then at the entire Shanghai Museum. This was probably because I was taking pictures of every artifact as I planning lessons (whole units, actually) for my non-existent students. I am really going to miss teaching next year.

Unbeknownst to me, as the rest of the world was shutting its doors to Jewish immigration during the 1930’s Shanghai became one of the few places where fleeing Jews could go. The Chinese explanation on this is that the Chinese people/government is just that much more caring than the rest of the world. However, I suspect that the lack of visa regulations and laws in Shanghai (which was an international city at the time) might have a little do to with things as well. Jewish refugees congregated near what is today the museum and built a life of sorts in Shanghai. The museum houses many of their stories and artifacts. Inside the synagogue is a database of the Jewish refugees and a continuously running TV program (one hour long) about some of the Jews that have returned to Shanghai for nostalgic purposes.

The Jewish Refugees Museum and Synagogue is 50 yuan. It is open daily from 9-5. They have free tours every 45 minutes, which seemed a little unnecessary since I was one of three patrons and everything was in English. The museum is at 62 Changyang Road. Take metro line 4 to the Dalian road station and head east for about three blocks. You can check out Huoshan Park on your way there, also a Jewish site. I didn’t linger due to the thunder, lightening, and rain pouring sideways, but it looked nice.

Site of the 1st National Congress of the CPC:

This museum is the old house of one of the first champions of communism, and one of the sites were meetings were taking place. When the police were tipped off on the location of the underground group, Mao and his men finished up their plans in a tourist boat on a nearby lake. The crowded museum was not super interesting. The two or three rooms featured mostly pictures of Mao and his cohorts. At the end of the museum is a 3D model of the revolutionaries at a table, drinking tea and sorting out their red plans.

The site of the 1st National Congress of the CPC is open daily from 9-5. It is located in the middle of Xintiandi, an upscale shopping center in the middle of the French concessions, which is kinda funny. Admission is free, naturally. No sense in having a Communist museum if the bourgeoisies are the only people who can afford to frequent it. You do have to collect your free ticket before entering the museum. Take metro line 1 to the Xintiandi station and head into the shopping quarters. Maps (in English) are all over the place and can direct you to the museum. 

Shanghai Urban Planning Museum

This vestige of last years Shanghai Expo is a geography teachers dream. The museum uses old maps, pictures and 3D models to show off the city’s past and hopes for the future. The entire third floor of the museum is a model lay-out of the city. Shanghai apparently has a “leave no space un-skyscrapered” approach to urban planning.

The museum also features

  • A photography exhibit glorifying construction workers
  • A laughable “Green Living” section
  • A kids section where little ones can design their own Expo site on touch screen computers
  • Models of metro station hubs and computer simulations of people living in houses during different historical periods
  • The 5th floor is a “photo story” of the rise of the Communist Party. It doesn’t really match the rest of the museum, and is the only exhibit not translated into English

The Shanghai Urban Planning Museum is open daily from 9-5 (Friday – Sunday until 6). Ticket prices start at 30 yuan, with discounts for seniors, students, and children. The museum is located on the west side of the People’s Park. To get there, take metro line 1 to the People’s Square and take exit #2 out of the station.

So this has not exactly been a foodie vacation. When stuck at school I’ve been dining on cafeteria cuisine:

When I start to panic about not having a job, I dine at places like this:

And because I love noodle shops that display pictures on their walls (thus making ordering a non-verbal task), I often go to this place:

However, my dining experience went decidedly upscale one night. I met my friend Sue after she finished her workday an we went to Pichon I can be a tad of a picky eater, especially in China (my travel downfall), but at PichonI loved everything that was put on the table. After our three hour dinner I was full and satisfied for the first time in weeks. Our appetizers were slices of beef and duck meat. For main dishes we shared a crab/sticky rice/scallions/garlic dish. It was good, but I suck at eating crab. I first tried using my chopsticks. That didn’t work. Then I tried one hand and one chopstick. Still a no go. Two hands was the only combination that ensured the food actually got to my mouth. The wait staff must had been watching me and cringing because they brought over silverware. I waved them off and soldiered on sans fork.

In addition to the crab, Sue and I each also got a dish of Dong Po beef. Dong Po was a famous poet who apparently made his beef in a tasty fashion that this restaurant emulates. Sue reports that she gets it every time she comes here. I would too. It was fatty and juicy and other things that vegetarians hate. And delicious, of course.

The restaurant is about a five minute walk from the Bund. Take Nanjing road west from the Bund (as east would have you swimming in the Huangpo  river) and turn left on Sichuan road. After about a five minute walk, Pichon will be on your left. If you hit Fuzhou Road, you’ve gone too far. Back up about five steps. The menu is in both Chinese and English, which would be handy if you don’t have Sue with you. Prices are moderate. The DongPo beef was about 50 RMB (about $8) but the crab dish was three times as much.

My Chinese friend pointed at the sky. “They have heaven,” she said, “but we have Hangzhou and Suzhou.” I politely nodded. I wouldn’t exactly call Hangzhou heaven on Earth, as I don’t associate heaven with sweltering heat, but it’s a nice enough place. The most divine settings can be found around the city’s main attraction: West Lake.

The city of Hangzhou is built up on the Western shore of the 10 mile (circumference) lake, although there is a lot to do no matter where around or in the lake you happen to be. I would suggest the following itinerary for a day at West Lake. 

Begin at the Lakeshore Promenade, between the city and the lake shore. Don’t spend too much time here yet, as it gets better at nighttime. All around the promenade are booths ready to sell you tickets for boat tours. The Hangzhou West Lake Pleasure Boat Company charges 45 yuan (about $7) for a tour around the lake. These boats are like hop-on-hop-off city tour buses, and I highly recommend hopping on. Once you buy your initial ticket you can catch boats to many places around the lake.

The boat will first take you to Three Pools Mirroring the Moon. A stroll around this tiny touristy island features numerous pagodas, walkways, and scenic viewpoints. The main attractions here are the three water pagodas near the island acting like Chinese buoys. There were put there in 1621 to mark where no plants should be grown. On full moon nights, candles are places inside the pagodas, creating the effect of multiple moons shimmering on the lake.

After taking in your fill of Three Pools Mirroring the Moon island, catch a boat to the Mid Lake Pavilion and then on to the Pier at Sun Yat-Sen Park. Warning: bird whistles are for sale and Chinese parents, for some reason, indulge their children in these portable noise makers. To escape the fake bird calls, I climbed every set of stairs I could find. I’d soon climbed over the top and down the other side of the park. This worked out great, as it was then a short walk to the Bai causeway, otherwise known as Lingering Snow on the Broken Bridge. The bridge was neither broken nor snowy, so I’m guess the name has to do with some event in the past. The non-snowy, non-broken causeway takes you back to the western shore of the lake.

Here, on Beishan road, catch bus K7 heading west towards the Linyin Temple and the Peak Flying from Afar (don’t ya love these cheesy Chinese names?). If you aren’t one for walking, you could skip the Bai causeway and just catch the same bus from Yat-Sen Park instead. The K7 bus (“K” means air-conditioned. Very important!) follows a tree lined road up past the Shangri-La hotel to the temple. Admission to the scenic areas surrounding the temple is 45 yuan, with another 30 yuan to actually get inside the temple. I peaked through the gates at the temple and skipped buying the extra ticket. The area around the temple is really the main attraction. Over 340 stone statues are carved in the limestone cliffs and caves around the temple, with a river flowing through the whole area. The most famous carving is that of Laughing Buddha, clutching his satchel. I spent just under two hours exploring the area before catching the bus back down to the lakeshore.

It was a little after six when I got back to West Lake and the Lakeshore Promenade and noticed lines of chairs being set up. Not sure what to expect, I took a seat facing the lake and pulled out a book. (There’s a book store in town on the corner of Qingchun and Yan’an roads. English language books are on the third floor.) The seats around me quickly filled up, especially when a Chinese police officer kicked the people off the roped-off decks in front of us. At seven a water show began, with choreographed fountains dancing to music. If you’ve ever seen Bellagio’s fountains in Las Vegas – it was the same thing. They even played Sarah Brighman and Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye.”  It was a little longer then the Bellagio show though, with four or five songs. The fountains go off every half hour from seven until nine (ten thirty on Saturday and Sunday), and it was fun to watch them both up close and from a distance as I walked around the lake. If you want a seat up close, I’d recommend claiming it a good half hour before the show starts.

After the show is an excellent time to explore the busiest side of the lake, which is along Hubin road. Once the sun goes down, wooden pavilions fill with Chinese line dancing, portable karaoke machines come up, and neon lights fill the air. If I was with someone else, I would have settled down at a bar or restaurant along the lake, but since I was on my own I settled for eating ice cream bars while meandering along the shores. It wasn’t heavenly, but it was a good day nonetheless. 

The Chinese government blocks a lot of online social networks. So I wasn’t ignoring your comments – it’s Communism. This Facebook-blocking government celebrated its 90th anniversary on July 1st, and commemorative crimson fever was high. Thousands of workers across China prepared for the celebrations by scraping gum off of Forbidden City walkways.

 

I was approached by many excited Chinese who wanted to know if I was in town for the celebration. (No. My flight to Inner Mongolia coincided with the big day). Mainstream Chinese people are seemingly pro-Communism, pro-Mao, and pro-anything else China related. I don’t want to get into too much social commentary, but I’ll just mention that Animal Farm is one of my very favorite books.

 My first introduction to red anniversary pride was China Daily, the English newspaper, and its full page timeline of the CPC. I especially enjoy the happy smiling faces of the peasants completing their long march. There is no mention of how the government pulled peasants from their farms to work in factories, creating shoddy steel goods and a famine that starved millions.

 

This glorification of peasants was again apparent on Tiananmen Square which is bookended by Chairman Mao on one end and two patriotic slide shows (patri-vision?) on the other. Glamour shots of terraced rice field and harmonious field hands fill the mega screen as music meant to inspire nostalgia fills the surrounding space. Chinese tourists stood by and filmed the entire spectacle on their cell phones.  

 

Along with the glorification of Communism, there is the inevitable trashing of the Japanese. I’ve been to Nanjing, seen evidence of the massacre, but WOW – this country really knows how to hold a grudge. On out hike up the Great Wall the only time our sweet tour guide stopped the whole group was to point to a blown-out wall, say it was from a Japanese bomb, and suggest that we take pictures of it. As for World War II, here in China it’s known as the War of Aggression by the Japanese. Again from China Daily:

 

I’m happy to be in China, I really am – especially on this return trip. I don’t know if it’s my perception or the result of the Beijing Olympics/Shanghai Expo/general globalization, but the country seems much less chaotic to me. But I agree with Colin Firth’s comment when he was asked about the British monarchy: “I really like voting. It’s one of my favorite things.”

Obvious side-effects of China’s one-child policy are overbearing parents and spoiled children. These generations of only children are increasingly being referred to as “little emperors,” as parents will do anything to keep the small king or queen of the household happy.

And then those little emperors have to go to school.

You know that stereotype about Chinese kids silently sitting in rows of neat chairs, heads bent over workbooks, feverishly studying? Not true. These little attention-seekers are just as talkative, loud, and rambunctious as their western counterparts.

Thank God. I don’t even know how to teach quiet, well behaved children.

It’s funny how the smallest of classroom management techniques are cultural though. Most teachers, me included, will use “teacher proximity” for mild discipline issues. If a child is off task, I simply walk over to his or her desk and put my hand on it. Maybe touch the student’s arm and point to what they are supposed to be doing. Classroom management 101 stuff. Not in China though. Personal space means nothing here and proximity or a simple touch is completely irrelevant to a kid that’s living with over a billion countrymen. I’ve upgraded to giving harsh looks. That works.

The kids are pretty good for me actually. My Chinese counterparts complain that the students are better for me as I’m a foreign teacher with blond hair. They may have a point. As I was leaning over a computer my first day of class one little guy ran over and stuck his face under mine. “Blue eyes!” He squealed. I’m totally riding out the novelty effect.

“Maybe if I go teach in the USA all the students would be good for me,” one of my new teacher friends mentions to me.

“Definitely.” I lie. I don’t have the heart to tell her that there is no foreign-teacher novelty effect in melting pot America.

Especially since the Chinese teachers are going out of their increasingly exhausted minds dealing with behavior issues, students throwing rocks, kids getting fevers, overbearing parents calling at all hours of the night, and homesickness. I understand the homesickness. Fifteen days is a long time to be away from home when you’re eight. One girl spent the first five nights on her cell phone begging her parents to come pick her up. When mom and dad (mostly dad) finally acquiesced, the big wigs from the school showed up talked them out of it to fend off a negative PR storm.

There are also the parents who show up at school unannounced to drop off massive amounts of snack foods and wash their kids’ clothes. One mom took the opportunity to critique my hand washing abilities as well. Too much soap and not enough scrubbing, she’d pantomimed disapprovingly.  

I don’t know if this is the parent’s plan or not, but a lot of this snack food goes to me. Students are continually gifting me packages of wrapped seaweed, sweet beef lollipop things and random hard boiled eggs. Or they throw impromptu dorm room parties where they invite me to sit on the top bunk, eat duck tongues and listen to Chinese music via their cell phones. One such party included a talent show complete with a dressing room, and program. It was all very cute until I discovered that I was actually ON the program. I’m not known for my singing abilities, but the students applauded enthusiastically after I belted out “Party in the USA.” Again, thank you novelty effect. I will miss that once I’m back in Miley Cyrus’s favorite country.