The Traveling Teacher: China, Part II – Xi’an and Shanghai

About Jake Miller

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

In the part 1 of this 2-part series, I shared what it was like to visit Beijing. Before I attempt to write my way through the ancient capital of Xi’an and the ultra-modern Shanghai, you may want to give the previous article a bit of your time.

Day 5: Xi’an City Walls and Massage

Biking the Xi’an City Walls

During the flight to Xi’an, I sat with our Arizona teacher and just enjoyed his effervescent personality, which helped me cope with the fact that Chinese security confiscated my $100 portable phone charger. Note: If you’re traveling to China, make sure that you have the voltage and other details on your charger or they’ll take it.

When we arrived, we met our new guide for Xi’an, Chris. He took us first to bike the city walls of the ancient city, and that was a great fun. The Kansas teacher and I rode tandem on top of thesewalls which are about 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide. Truly some impressive architecture, especially in comparing to the massive amounts of apartment buildings surrounding the ancient city, which has now ballooned to a population of roughly 9 million. It was a bit too hot and part of the wall was closed, so we couldn’t take our bicycle around the 9 mile ride, but it certainly made the ice cream taste that much better.

 

Chinese Massage

One of our best dinners on the trip (Xi’an is a wheat-growing area, so it’s known for it’s delicious noodle dishes) was followed bye a trip to the Chinese massage. While there, one can choose to have the famous foot massage or an acupressure massage. The teachers from California, Massachusetts, Arizona, an EF staff member, and I chose to go with the latter, and it was probably the most enjoyable time I had on the trip – not because of the massage (I needed a day afterward to recover) – but because of how much fun the 5 of us had in that room. I will never stop smiling at how my roommate (the Massachusetts teacher, and a 6’2″, 250 pound dude) getting his butt kicked by the little leader of the massage team. Well worth the $25 price of admission, even as a spectator!

 

Day 6: Terra Cotta Warriors, School, and Shopping

Terra Cotta Warriors

The real reason we came all the way out here to Xi’an is to visit the incredible Terra Cotta Warrior site. The place, older than Jesus Christ, wasn’t discovered until a farmer randomly found sculptures in his field in 1974 and wasn’t open to the public until 1979. The timing couldn’t have been better, because our guide Chris thinks if it were found under Mao’s time, it would’ve been destroyed as a relic of the past China.

In total, archaeologists believe there are upwards of 6,000 life-size clay warriors there protecting Emperor Qin, one of the most powerful and awful rulers in China’s history. It’s pretty interesting to note the class of the warriors protecting the Emperor (whose tomb remains unopened, by the way), as they become more ornate and better protected as they become closer to the tomb. The amount of detail that goes into one of these things – let alone 6,000 – is intensely impressive. For example, how the hair is tied up determines if an archer is left-handed or right-handed (they don’t want a man-bun getting in the way of pulling an arrow). No two of the warriors are alike. Additionally, they carved the buttons UNDER the sandals. I couldn’t imagine how many people worked on this task to finish it in the 5-10 years it was estimated to construct, color (yes, they were colored), place, and bury with the emperor.

Remember how I mentioned the awfulness of Qin, by the way? It’s also purported he had many of the terra cotta artisans buried with him. Alive. So the beautiful works could never be replicated again.

One of the side notes I saw during the visit was children walking with kaidangku or open-crotch pants, and they just go to random spots to go #1 or #2. I get it that western diapers are gross and end up in a landfill, so we’re hardly the beacon of sanitary purity, but… c’mon here!

I think the most interesting lesson I took away from this place – despite its grandeur, allure, and mystery (scholars think less than 10% has been excavated) – was how we name places. The English word for this ancient nation is based off of this cruel ruler (Qin is pronounced “Chin”). The Chinese, in contrast, call their nation Zhongguo, or “Middle Country.”

It was interesting to know what the Chinese called America, by the way: Meiguo, or “beautiful country.”

After this great, historical landmark, we had a superb lunch. I say this because we were able to drink German beer! It actually had flavor unlike its Chinese competition.

Xi’an Taoli Tourism & Culinary Institute

We then traveled to our second school location, which showcased some craft work of the teachers there. One of the teachers cut a radish into a rose and a cucumber into a crane, while others showed us how to make noodles and dumplings. Yet, I couldn’t get over the sanitation differences between our culture and China’s. As we first arrived at the school, we were ushered to a bathroom where “squatty-potties” weren’t just there, they were unkept. Think of the worst porta-potty you’ve ever used and then cross-polinate it with what the bathrooms probably look like after the Firefly concert. Then don’t add hot water, soap, or paper towels – and then watch your cooks go right to the kitchen and work on the food.

Don’t worry, many Chinese wear face masks, though!

Great Mosque and Muslim Quarter

We ended the evening by visiting the famous mosque that was a gift from a different emperor to the many Muslims who lived in Xi’an. For me it was interesting to compare this mosque (which looked entirely Chinese) to the Arabic mosques I’ve seen in the Middle East. Afterward, we ventured the Muslim Quarter market, and I very much enjoyed the food to snack on.

 

Day 7: Tangbo Art Museum, Return to Beijing, Group Departs

Art Museum

Our final day in Xi’an began with a visit to their art museum, in which the tour was just as good as the pieces that were there. The history of the art movement in Xi’an dates back thousands of years, as farmers had little to do in the fall and winter, so they turned their hands to painting. We also got to try our hand at some of the art, namely the beautiful calligraphy of Chinese characters.

I had myself set on buying something here for my wife (who’s a classically trained painter), but she’s such a particular connoisseur of art that I knew I had to make a quality selection. I settled on a piece with a cat chasing a butterfly. My wife would later approve.

People Watching

After this, I really just enjoyed kicking back on the bus and people watching. Life on the streets of China is so drastically different than in the U.S., if not just for the motorcycles which are as omnipresent as oxygen. I mean, cyclists can ride on the streets or on the sidewalks, and they zoom all around with rapidity. However, they exact so much more patience than anybody in America could or ever would, especially as you watch our bus driver regularly do 5-point turns on the busiest street in a city that’s larger in population than New York.

I also liked looking at the phone and electric lines. I don’t really know what’s going on there, but there are dozens (if not more) wires hanging from the same pole that might hold 4 wires in the United States.

Return Flight and Final Hotel Stay

We boarded our flight, and I was just becoming exhausted. I took a nap so long that I didn’t even realize our flight was delayed, and I continued that slumber when we checked into our final hotel.

 

Day 8: Train to Shanghai

Good Byes

I woke up the next morning as early as I could to say goodbye to all my new friends. That was pretty important to me because when people ask what the best part of the trip was, I don’t hesitate to say it’s the 37 amazing educators I met while I was in this wonderful and foreign land. But they all left for home by 11a, and I had to catch a taxi to the train station at 10:30a.

Train Station… Fun!

When I departed from the group, the feeling of being on your own and not knowing Mandarin gets to be a bit overwhelming. So was the train station. This sleek, modern piece of architecture was hardly something I could ogle as I tried to make my way through the hordes of people trying to pick-up my pre-purchased fare. Worst of all, when I tried to ask the information desk how to do that, their reply was “Sorry, no English. Try 4-1.”

I used some deductive reasoning to walk the entire facility, which was about a good 1/2 hour with all the pedestrian foot traffic of nearly 5,000 people, and then finally found a line that said “Ticket Line 41.” I waited in line almost 45 minutes, and when I approached the counter, the person spoke to me in English. I breathed a bit of relief.

All Aboard!

When it was time to board our speed train, I walked to the appropriate platform and got on what I thought was the appropriate car, but no empty seats. I went to the row I thought was mine, and I showed the family my ticket. Their child was in my seat, but they also rearranged themselves so that the wife wouldn’t sit next to me; instead, I was next to the father.

I felt very out of my element being the only white dude on this train, and, coupled with the lack of air conditioning and worry of what to do, I tried to calm myself by settling into some podcasts. That is until my new seat neighbor spilled his entire meal on me – christening by pork juice!

Once I was able to settle in, I just loved taking in the sights. This was why I chose to train my way to Shanghai instead of taking a flight. It was so interesting to see the farming landscape that Mao envisioned would be the resetting of his country. I saw miles upon miles of fledgling crops just emerging from the soil, and instead of being fed by sprinklers and cared by monolithic farming machinery, there were hundreds of years old canals and simple people, usually just by themselves, wielding a shovel or hoe. All this while I’m riding in a bullet train at 210 mph.

It was also interesting to view the cemeteries on our journey. They were beautifully decorated with flowers as far as one could see. You can certainly see the filial piety that the Chinese have for their ancestors.

This was especially in comparison to the high rise apartment buildings which shot up like bamboo roots, tall and seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

When I finally arrived in Shanghai, I emerged from the bullet train and was very disoriented. I didn’t really know what to do or where to go, and my phone wasn’t helpful to use the Translate apps or Google Maps. My home sickness was sky high, especially when I thought to myself that my wife and child were moving homes that day… so I planted the idea that I’d walk upstairs to the airport and just fly home right there. Thankfully I couldn’t, because Huangquo (where I was) serviced primarily domestic flights. So I bucked up and worked my way to find an English machine to board the subway, take it for 75 minutes to my hotel area, and then walk there in the rain… but not before snapping this clever pic of the skyline.

 

Day 9: Shanghai Tourist

Hard to believe how quickly a good night sleep changed my feelings, because when I woke up I was ready to tackle this new city. I walked to The Bund, the famous Shanghai district on the Huangpu River where western traders made their mark on this new land. I then ferried across to the Pudong district on the other side of the river, and took in the grandeur of the 21st Century city. I dined on some steamed dumplings at the Park Hyatt overlooking the Jin Mao Tower and Pearl Tower, and hit a hard reset button to begin enjoying myself.

I then moved to the new Shanghai Tower, which was 189 stories tall and the second tallest in the world. The Chinese elevator attendant liked to note that it only took 45 seconds to get to the top, and it was quite impressive. Overlooking the entire city was an amazing feeling, and all these other very tall buildings seemed so infinitesimal. So did the reach over the landscape, which was city for as far as the eye could see to help house the 25 million people that lived here.

I did a bit more sightseeing before taking the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel back to the other side of the river. It was the biggest waste of 50 Yuan or $7.50 I’ve ever spent in my life.

I then walked the famous Nanjing Rd to the shopping district, and as a white person I drew merchants selling knockoff items like blood draws sharks in the water. I then walked over to enjoy People’s Park and stopped in a steak house for a beer and something western. I loved Chinese food, but just needed a bit of a shakeup in my dietary routine. This place provided it, and the beautiful bartender provided some great conversation as well.

When I returned to my hotel, I was able to connect with one of my best friend’s cousins who lives in Shanghai, and he agreed to tour me around his adopted city the next day. It was great to have a “guide” back in my midst!

 

Day 10: Shanghai With a Friend

In my notes, I wrote for today’s entry “Today I met a complete stranger and had a great time.” That’s not a stretch. Eric and I had wonderful conversation from the moment we met, and he didn’t hedge or hide under any of my questions. As an entrepreneur living in China, he’s come to not only be very successful as a businessman but also adopted the culture here wholeheartedly.

We cabbed first to an art deco building called the 1933, and it’s here that I learned his passion and love was how things look for people in their homes. He was in the right line of work, by the way, because that’s what he and his company do. I also enjoyed looking at something that most tour guides wouldn’t have you venture on, and this included Eric taking me to several of the places where architects were working with the metal-work that he and his employees produced.

We also traveled the famed French Concession, just taking in the sights, the scenery, the people, as well as making our way to his working sights and pulling through shopping malls and great Western-style restaurants (which he said he hardly gets to go to because it’s not part of his wife’s preference palette).

Hanging out with this American abroad was a great way to end my trip.

 

Days 11-12: Venturing Home

I was so excited to see my family again, speak English regularly, and enjoy my new house that I hardly slept a wink my last night in China. When I finally woke up, I grabbed a taxi with a beautiful young woman who said she was also taking the train. I told her I was going to the airport, and she said she was, too… to Beijing. When we arrived at my train station, she freaked out and learned she was in the wrong place. I typed the other airport into Translate, paid more than the cab fare, and wished her well as she scrambled to where she needed to be.

I then took the MagLev train to the airport, which is just the Chinese way of showing off that they can build a train faster (268 mph) than the bullet train that brought me to Shanghai. I boarded my flight and then took the 12 hour flight to Chicago, had a 5 hour layover, and then 3 hours back to D.C. for a Midnight return. By the time I put my head down in my new bed, it was 2:00a on July 3rd, and I fell asleep with so many great memories in my head.

 

For more information on how Jake traveled to China, check out:

 

Other pertinent posts as The Traveling Teacher:

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By | 2017-07-31T21:45:43+00:00 July 31st, 2017|Featured, Social Studies, The Traveling Teacher|0 Comments

About the Author:

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

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