Adventures Abroad: Part One


Teaching in a boarding school has provided me with wonderful opportunities for professional development and travel. My very first teaching job was in China in 1986, fresh out of college. What an opportunity to return years later to witness first hand the economic and cultural changes. Here are a few excerpts from our exchange trip to The Pudong Foreign Language School in Shanghai.

Posted on March 24, 2013   Superstars in Shanghai and Hanging in Hangzhou

Is it really Wednesday already? Our days are so full that they feel like two, yet the week is flying by. Since the boys' return from their homestays on Monday morning, they have carved jade seals with their Chinese names (far more daunting than one would expect!), spoke to the entire sophomore class, visited the China Art Museum which is set up in the huge building built for the World Expo held here in Shanghai in 2010 (think massive contemporary paintings depicting significant historical events in China with a little propaganda thrown in….), enjoyed a breathtaking view of Shanghai from the 88th floor of the Jing An building and viewed both the old and the new perspectives of Shanghai from a riverboat cruise. Tonight we had a fantastic dinner with MJ Zhou, a Governor’s Academy Junior and a native Shanghainese! We enjoyed Hot Pot, cooking everything from prawns to pork to beef in a delicious, spicy broth. It seemed as if we ate for hours………..because we did.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the boys felt like rock stars speaking before what seemed like hundreds of adoring fans. Girls outnumber the boys here at the Pudong Foreign Language School, and they greet the young men as if they are members of a boy band. Picture them in front of microphones, introducing different aspects of American schools and then answering questions ranging from what colleges they are applying to, what NBA teams they favor, whether they are going to be Prom Kings (really!) and why are Americans so dreadful at math. It was like a press conference, but the boys handled themselves beautifully………..and in fact I think they quite enjoyed themselves!

So good news and bad news. Tomorrow we will go to one of my favorite cities in China, Hangzhou, famous for its beautiful West Lake. Bad news? We are leaving campus at 6 am. Please note that is a full twenty minutes before the loudspeaker will be blasting Brittney Spears and the Backstreet Boys to wake up the rest of the campus. From what I understand, we will be joining a Chinese tour group. Will they be one of the many senior citizen groups we have seen marching behind a strident tour leader? Will we be wearing the red hats they wear so that we are not lost in the crowd? Stay tuned!



Our Thursday trip to Hangzhou was a memorable one indeed! 6 am felt very early when we met Harold and the school driver; suffice it to say, the boys weren’t very talkative! I hadn’t seen Shanghai that early in the morning in a long time; the traffic was minimal as we zipped towards The People’s Square in the center of the city. Tour buses lined the park, and Harold led us to ours where we sat for a full half hour waiting for our fellow tourists. In my previous post, I wondered whether we would get to wear red hats to distinguish ourselves as part of the group. No, but we did get blue stickers, and yes, this was a Chinese only tour. Finally, our fellow tourists filled the bus; they appeared to be a Senior Citizens Organization. 

Hangzhou is almost three hours away from Shanghai, but when your bus driver is playing chicken with all the other bus drivers flying down the highway……….well, time flies….and lots of prayers are said.When we arrived in Hangzhou, we picked up our tour guide, a purposeful young man who immediately donned a headset microphone that amplified his voice into something VERY loud and very tinny. And so began our tour with the loudest and most talkative tour guide I’ve ever experienced………..except we couldn’t understand a word he said. Very quickly the boys put their earphones in as we marched alongside our fellow tourists.

Hangzhou is one of China’s most beautiful cities. It is green, the air is clean and it is much smaller than Shanghai. We began with a boat tour of West Lake. Surrounded by green hills and dotted with a few islands, West Lake has served as the inspiration of Chinese poets and painters for centuries. It is a popular honeymoon spot for young Chinese couples and remains one of  China's most popular tourist sites. In fact, President and Mrs. Nixon stayed here in 1972; the lakeside hotel they stayed in is open only to “officials”, explained Harold, so “no, we cannot see it.”

From there, we visited some beautiful, very green gardens and ancient pagodas. We knew we were taking the Chinese Tourist Tour when we swarmed off the bus into a huge hall for lunch. As our fellow tourists watched curiously to see if we could use chopsticks, grumpy waitresses dropped plates of fish, pork, rice, cauliflower onto our table. You can imagine the boys’ excitement when lunch was followed by a trip to a silk factory/mega store. At this point, we separated from the group and looked around ourselves. I began to get the feeling that maybe we were on some type of shopping tour? We didn’t buy anything there as the boys weren’t in the market for silk sheets or duvet covers, but we did buy Chinese candy to share amongst ourselves including Green Tea Gummy Balls, milk toffee and some rather tasty peanut brittle. 

The bus then tore off to our next destination: the Longjing tea village. Along the way, the roads were lined with green fields of tea and some lovely villages. The area is renowned for Longjing tea, a green tea famous for “providing good health and longevity.” Our group of about twenty five was ushered into a room for our “infomercial” on Longjing, given by a fast talking saleswoman who served everyone a glass of tea and then brought out the tins and asked everyone how much they wanted to buy. My fellow Chinese tourists did not look happy about this hard sell, so I followed their lead and said, “Bu yao”. We loaded back onto the bus and headed to one of my favorite sites, the Lingyin Buddhist temple and monastery which is famous for its grottos and pagodas. 

There are several huge temples within Lingyin and we witnessed a Buddhist ceremony honoring a deceased family member. We loaded back onto the bus; yes, we were getting tired. Our final stop at The Yellow Dragon Cave involved another beautiful garden famous for its statue of two naked babies intertwined; the inscription read that this was the “child wishing dragon angels” and “If you touch the buttocks of the Dragon angels, you will most probably what you desire.” 

(yes, that’s verbatim, friends) 

And that seemed like a nice way to end our day in Hangzhou. We loaded back onto the bus; it was now about 5:45 pm. The boys promptly fell asleep as I prayed for our safety tearing down the highway towards Shanghai. After a quick dinner of noodles, we arrived back on campus at 10:30 pm.



I Climbed The Great Wall of China or Could You Hear Me Screaming?

Day Two in Beijing

Our tour guide explained that there is a Chinese saying that when one comes to Beijing, there are three MUSTS: The Forbidden City, Peking Duck, and of course, The Great Wall. Most tourists, Chinese and foreign, visit the Great Wall at Badaling because of its proximity to the city. Of course, this means that it is the most crowded and “touristy”; even 25 years ago, it had more of a carnival feel with lots of tourists, cheap souvenirs and throngs of people pushing their way up the Wall. Our tour guide suggested Mutianyu, a bit longer of a drive, but far less crowded and “more natural”, in her words. She was right!


Even in the morning in Beijing, an almost ominous yellow smog hung in the air. We spent close to an hour in Beijing bumper to bumper rush hour traffic, but once we got out of the city, the sky was bluer, trees lined the roads and we arrived in the Mutianyu region of The Great Wall.


Just in case you don’t remember your Great Wall facts, the Chinese call it the greatest construction project in history. It was also the longest. The Great Wall began in the 3rd century BC and continued through the 17th century AD on the northern border of the country. It was initially started to keep out the Huns (as in Attila….) and their horses. The Great Wall begins in the east at Shanhaiguan in Hebei province and ends at Jiayuguan in Gansu province far to the west. Experts estimate it to be about 5500 miles long. And no, one cannot see it from space. Although some of the Wall is in disrepair, a lot of it is in remarkably good condition considering its age; Mutianyu is just one section open to tourists.

So what’s it like? First we had to walk through a gauntlet of sales stands with women peddling their t-shirts, pictures of Mao, chopsticks, hats, sunglasses and other souvenirs. One woman grabbed me and asked my name and told me she would remember me on our way back; this was all in an aggressively friendly manner. I could hear her practicing pronouncing my name, “Kar-en, Kar-en” as we hurried towards the entrance.


We rode up the mountain towards the Wall in a gondola………..I tried not to think too much about safety standards. When we hopped off the gondolas, we were on the Wall! In a word, the Great Wall is breathtaking. To go from the traffic and pollution of Beijing to the mountains and fresh air of Mutianyu was wonderfully refreshing. And a workout. There are lots of uneven stairs to climb with several watchtowers to pause, catch your breath and take pictures. It’s a bit arduous but completely worth it unless you have really bad knees………..then, I can’t imagine.


Ok, so we took gondolas up………… did we get down? Our tour guide casually informed me that we take a “toboggan” down; for some reason, I didn’t give it much thought. Nor did I make note of the fact that she opted to nap in the van while we set out. So I didn’t think much of it………until it was time to get down.


Could you hear me screaming? So folks, before you roll your eyes and mock me, try to picture the small seat one places herself in while carrying her backpack as the “toboggan attendant” instructs me in Chinese how to pull the lever backward to slow down and forward to accelerate. When I told her in Chinese that I was scared, she laughed madly and gave me and my sled a hard push. (Again, I ask, did you hear me screaming??) The trip down was a fast five to seven minute circuitous route. I continued to shriek and pray aloud and tried to obey the signs that instructed, “slow down”, but there were several checkpoints along the route where the attendants screamed, “Kwai! Kwai!” which means, “Faster! Faster!” Scream. Pray aloud. Finally, I arrived at the bottom where the lovely adolescent males that I have been traveling with took photos to document my journey and arrival. Word on the street is that one particularly unflattering photo was posted on social media minutes after touchdown. The boys were laughing hysterically; I was merely hysterical.


As I staggered back towards the van, I heard, “Kar-en! Kar-en!” What?? Who was it? Why, it was the friendly saleswoman who did in fact remember my name. After a few minutes of haggling, we agreed on a price for two “I Climbed the Great Wall” t-shirts. She started at 380 yuan; I ended up with 2 for 80. And that, my friends, was my day at The Wall.


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