A Year in Shanghai

This is a narrative of my year teaching in China. It is broken up into chapters — here are the first two.

Table of Contents

Suzhou Creek in the heart of Shanghai

Suzhou Creek in the heart of Shanghai


China. The name itself stirs the imagination and brings to mind thoughts of mystery and intrigue. At the very least this is what it meant to me before I lived there. The Chinese refer to their country as Zhong Guo, or the Central Kingdom. And again I visualized something ancient and inaccessible - a land of aged temples, rice paddies, and endless winding rivers; home to giant pandas, bamboo forests, soaring mountain peaks, and nearly a billion people. Until most recently this Asian giant had remained isolated from the rest of the world. Isolated by choice, because they had a good thing going and felt no need to share it with everyone else. Though the Romans knew of its riches, their trade link with this eastern wonder never held. Less than two hundred years ago European traders forced open the doors intending to cash in on the apparently endless wealth of this deeply cultured domain. On the advent of the Opium Wars, Shanghai was just one of the many ports that had witnessed the abundant commercial exchange, but soon grew to be its largest city. Near the end of the 19th century the emperor saw no need for the outside world or its corruptive influences. The West, however, had already established a stronghold by controlling several Chinese ports, and in an indirect sense, brought about the decline of one of the oldest empires on earth. It was considered by many within the kingdom to be an enormous tragedy - a contamination with disastrous results. Within a few decades this once ancient fishing village had been transformed into a boisterous, unruly metropolis where money was everything. A considerably dangerous city in which death, drugs, and prostitution were commonplace on many of its back streets. Wealth and extravagance were forever on parade, contrasting sharply with the poverty that choked the native populous. Money - or what would be done for the want of it - was the harsh reality in this mecca of vice and decadence. However, monumental changes occurred when a new government came to power in 1949. The Communist Revolution brought about tremendous reform to a country that held one fourth of the world's population. The changes included a swing towards self-reliance and stringent isolation from bourgeois influences - influences that Mao Zedong had declared threatening to the survival of the country. Shanghai, a prototype Sin City if there ever was one, became one of the targeted clean-up areas chosen by the new leader. Spending a day in Shanghai would leave little wonder as to why they were so unwelcoming to foreigners. Following the death of Chairman Mao the country began to soften its stand on isolationism, in hopes of reviving an economy that had yet to master its potential. Eager to show the rest of the world that China was capable of keeping step with the other economic powers, the young government opened its doors, although not very wide, to foreign investment and cultural exchanges. The aim here was to improve the quality of life in their country. This also meant extending invitations to a relatively small number of foreign teachers who wished to trade assignments with a Chinese teacher for a year, giving each country an added share of expertise. Within such an exchange I was to experience a whole new world. One of the most enticing lures was the fact that up until then very few foreign people had been invited to come to China, and even fewer still to work there. This, along with a quickly growing curiosity, prompted me to accept a rare offer.

Shanghai at sunset
Shanghai at sunset.

There have been times in my life, when involved in decision making situations, that I have simply asked myself, "What's the worst thing that could happen to me if..." No matter the complexity of the decision this formula rarely failed me. I had been given an opportunity to do something unusual, and when making the decision it didn't take very long to choose what I wanted to do. There was virtually nothing holding me back. An opportunity of this nature was not an everyday occurrence and I had always possessed a sense of adventure, albeit in limited doses. I haven't a problem at this time claiming no regrets for embarking on this particular journey. On many occasions during the year, however, I remember questioning my decision and wondering what exactly I had gotten myself into. When the school year began in China I had not intended on traveling all the way around the world, it just worked out that way in the long run. Throughout the year I was left with what seemed like volumes of lasting impressions. Images and portraits of the places and people I encountered while in Shanghai, eastern China, the Soviet Union, and Europe. There's probably not an original thought in this entire manuscript, yet I suppose this fact only makes it easier to relate with it. Adversity, adventure, trial, error, success, apprehension, love, and friendship have always had a way of playing an important role in any story dealing with travel abroad. Granted, some of the things which happened to me were because I had a hand in bringing them about. However, most of the memorable situations I found myself in were those which presented themselves in a true serendipitous form - without so much as an inkling or notion ahead of time. In addition, there may be no particular sequence or logical order to many of these stories, which is rather fitting, for China at least - continually random and somewhat unorganized by outward appearances. What follows is an account of that year as I best remember it, told in the truest spirit of each occurrence. Some names have been changed to protect certain people's privacy. These are observations and opinions taken from journals and those that have remained in my memory since returning home in July of 1990. 

Getting Started

What brought on this bizarre adventure? How did all of this come about? Let's blame Nick and Patty. Either that, or, they get all the credit, depending on how you look at it. Nick Ahlfs and Patty Stratman, a happily married couple, bitten several times themselves by the travel bug, taught at the high school where I also taught - Olympic High School in Silverdale, Washington. As the three of us were walking in from the parking lot one spring morning it was they who suggested that I go to China. Thinking it may simply be a not-so-clever ploy by the administration to get rid of me, I questioned them further and found out that our ever-progressive school district had, in fact, an exchange program with the People's Republic of China. Perhaps it was fate - the district administration was still looking to fill the position. Other candidates had been approved but had wanted the school district to include their spouse in the deal. Since this was not, according to the school district, financially possible at the time they declined the appointment and left the position vacant. I had really no interest in China prior to this, nor had I any knowledge of how the country operated, but the thought of getting out and doing something completely different was tremendously appealing. Doing Peace Corps work, for example, had always been intriguing to me - somewhere in southern Sweden would have been nice, certainly more comfortable than going to China. I thought it'd be exciting to teach in a foreign country - and if "foreign" is the operative word here then China definitely fits the bill. The first order of business was to call Warren Olson at the district office for more details. He seemed pleased that someone might actually still be interested. After writing a letter of intent, carefully outlining my lifelong interest in China, and then sitting through a lengthy interview, I was notified that I'd been selected. Bully!

A serious hitch in the plans came about in June - China's summer of discontent - when violence erupted in Beijing. Student demonstrators had occupied Tiananmen Square and several dozen were brutally massacred by soldiers of the People's Liberation Army, which had been brought in to suppress the democratic movement. Plans for the exchange were put on hold - indefinitely. I watched the news, hoping that things would get smoothed over in Beijing, but the government retaliation for the demonstrations got a bit ugly. Still, anticipating that I would get there somehow, I enrolled in a class that would introduce me to the customs, language, and culture of Shanghai. This was taught by Mr. Wu, who was the exchange teacher from China for the previous school year. Wu was the family name, Yu Fu his given name. Good ol' Yu Fu. Now here's a man who could Tai Chi with the best of them - a whirlwind of flailing arms and legs, yet to our amazement, completely under control. His singing was pitiful, yet we politely applauded after each song. His cooking was excellent, and that particular lesson proved to be quite helpful in learning how to dirty every pot and pan in the kitchen. At July's end I received the final word that I would be going to Shanghai, and this short notice afforded me only a month to get all the appropriate paperwork finished. Got my passport in one day, which some would say was a bureaucratic miracle. I think the clerk felt sorry for me since he didn't know I was going to China by choice. The fact that the passport picture made me look like an axe murderer was an added bonus. I thought it might be interesting to let my whiskers grow for a couple weeks just for fun. The photo looked horrible, but I didn't mind. Getting an entrance visa to China was a much greater hassle. The only Chinese consulate general on the west coast is located in California. Talking to the staff in the San Francisco office was a frightening preview of the communication nightmare that was sure to be awaiting me in Shanghai.

"Excuse me. Does anyone there speak English? Yes, English!" Somehow my passport got back to me with the proper stamp two weeks later.

Foolishly I waited until the last minute to pack my bags, blaming most of the procrastination on indecision. When going to China what do you bring? What do you leave behind? - good questions that I couldn't answer. Having never been to China before, all I could think of were stereotypical images of what I might need - Mao jackets for sporting about town, and perhaps a straw hats for working the fields. In retrospect, it was obvious to me very shortly after arriving in Shanghai that I had a few too many worthless clothing items - sport coats being one of the major offenders. Not actually offensive, but certainly overdressed. A few more sweatshirts and long johns seemed more appropriate.

Shirley, a helpful travel agent in Pullman, booked me on a flight from Seattle to Vancouver to Hong Kong, and then Shanghai - with overnight accommodations in Hong Kong covered in the price. Not bad. It took nearly three days to get to Shanghai - and for some deranged reason I was eager to get there. I actually liked the idea of going through Hong Kong. How exotic. And the flight out of Kowloon was to be on Dragon Air - or was it Dragon Tail? Who could say for sure? On the morning of my departure my parents took me out for breakfast and we all sat there rather uncomfortably, not quite knowing what to say. Mothers are adept at conveying their moods ever so subtly. She wasn't very thrilled about the idea of her son going to a politically turbulent area. I reminded them both that Shanghai was a long way from the turmoil.

"Besides, I'm going off to teach, not off to war." I thought it would sound reassuring, instead it came out sounding a little stupid. As we cleared security and walked to the TimeAir gate, my mind raced. I had that sinking feeling that often comes at departure time and usually lingers until the plane has climbed through the clouds. Was I prepared? I was sure we'd be well into the air before I'd remember all the things I'd forgotten to bring, people I was supposed to have called, or something that I was supposed to have done.

We hugged and said our good-byes when the plane was ready for boarding and I just couldn't think of what to say to assure them that I'd be just fine. And I know they had all the faith in the world that everything was going to be fine, but sometimes saying good-bye is just plain sad, no matter what.

I threw my carry-ons into the overhead bin and fastened my seat belt - all in anticipation of the flight attendant's riveting spiel on cabin decompression and floatation device procedures. Sitting in a window seat next to one of the port engines on that puddle jumper deafened me beyond the thinking stage. Though the flight was short my head was still abuzz when I walked from the plane to the terminal. The customs lady in Vancouver had to ask everything twice. 
"Will you be in Canada long?", she repeated.

"Huh?" was the best I could come up with - my head was somewhat foggy.

There is really nothing very exciting about a Canadian airport, they're about as exciting as anything you'd find in the United States. It's bad enough that I was experiencing a lengthy bout of apprehensiveness, but to be unable to tune out the elevator music piped through the airport terminal sound system was almost nauseating. Someone, somewhere, sat down with sheet music from every popular song of the Rock n' Roll era and transformed each of them into demented tools of audio torture. After a terribly dull four hour layover I was back in the air, headed for Hong Kong. This would be the longest leg of the journey. I began remembering the last time I had flown westbound across the Pacific. It was during my time in the Navy on a flight between Los Angeles and Okinawa, Japan. Scrunched between a stone-faced Marine Corps major and an apparently mute second lieutenant, the flight seemed to last a couple weeks, though my butt swore it was at least a month. So once again I was headed westbound and losing a day en route - it seemed no more ideal this time around. Does this mean I'll get it back later? Thinking for sure that it was the distance of the flight that had aged me, I stood corrected once the pilot entered the landing phase above Hong Kong. When the wind is blowing in the right direction the banking approach to Kai Tak International Airport ranks way up there among life's terrifying white knuckle experiences. From high altitude the aircraft seemed to drop from the sky in a matter of seconds down to the level of the rooftops. If the sudden drop doesn't make you crap your pants the fear of having the wings sheered off by the towering buildings probably will. I'm certain I wasn't the only passenger to respond in kind to the friendly gentleman waving from the balcony of that high-rise. The paintings in his living room were remarkable.

We landed safely. I looked around the cabin and noticed the color returning to the faces of the other passengers. As soon as the plane came to a halt there seemed to be a race for the exit. A trio of buses ferried the passengers from the flight across the tarmac to the main terminal. I passed through customs without incident and waited outside the airport for a shuttle that would take me to the hotel. Remembering that the government requires payment of one hundred Hong Kong dollars as a departure tax, I returned to the terminal to change a bit of currency. On that particular day, one hundred Hong Kong dollars equaled about fourteen U.S. dollars. I was relieved. After a lengthy wait the hotel van arrived and I helped the driver pile my bags in the back. The driver had already picked up two Australians from another flight and as I climbed in we exchanged pleasantries. It was one of my first exposures to a true Australian accent and for the first five minutes - for the life of me - I have no idea what they said. Shortly after that the shuttle pulled up to the Park Hotel and my worries were over - as was the conversation.

One night in Hong Kong is more than enough time to push the limits of one's credit card collection. As I walked the streets in the sweltering humidity the temptation to spend money was nearly overwhelming. Everything seemed to be on sale or priced ridiculously low. Even though I already had two still cameras and a video camera with me I was contemplating an addition to that collection. How could I afford not to buy? Somehow I resisted, not knowing what was waiting for me in Shanghai. Had I known, perhaps I'd have traded in a few of my travelers checks that night. While walking past hundreds of storefronts I became convinced that there were two industries making a ton of money in that town - neon signs and air-conditioning. The colorful displays draw you in and the air-conditioning makes you want to stay. The urge to spend eventually passed and I retraced my path back to the Park Hotel, pausing just up the block at the local McDonald's. Is a Big Mac a Big Mac no matter where in the world you are? I went in to find out. Rarely has a fast food hamburger tasted so wonderful. Perhaps it was the intense hunger which I'd been distracted from while window shopping. Having satisfied my curiosity and appetite I returned to my room and went to bed early, thinking I could prevent the inevitable jet lag. The hotel was comfortably air-conditioned, a welcomed relief from the stifling heat outside.

Shanghai on Suzhou Creek
Shanghai on Suzhou Creek

The next morning I was up with the sunrise. Should I look for a place to eat? No time for breakfast - got a date with a Communist. Being wary of the Chinese postal system I hastily wrote some last second postcards and envisioned the symbolic cutting of the umbilical cord which bound me to the free world. I approached the boarding gate with some trepidation, trying all the while not to fear the unknown. A newly painted Dragon Air 737 awaited its two dozen passengers who crossed the tarmac by bus. I was quite happy to be flying into Shanghai on any airline other than CAAC - which stands for Civil Aviation Authority of China. Their reputation is so horrid that there are alternative meanings for the letters CAAC. One variation is "China Air Always Crashes", and then there's the less dramatic but more truthful, "China Air Always Cancels". I would later hear the horror stories from my friends in Shanghai on the sorry state of the official airline of the Communist Party. As the departure time neared I was surprised at how empty the plane was; thirty passengers at the most. The take-off was much less thrilling than the previous night's landing, but there was little time to take notice. The captain had extinguished the No Smoking sign and the lovely flight attendants had already begun distributing the in-flight meal. Mysterious and filling. What kind of bones were they?