far east adventures

The Brewster Central School District’s relationship with the Jian Ping High School in Shanghai began before the start of my tenure as a public school music teacher and the connection is still strong. In what felt like a whirlwind month, I went from living and breathing and dreaming and fearing “Shrek: The Musical” to boarding a flight to China with one other adult and 19 students. The student delegation was comprised mostly of musicians as this year’s trip to China was to focus on cultural collaboration and musical exchange. George and I had spent the weeks and months leading up to this trip getting to know some of the non-musicians, helping students fill out their visa applications and the questionnaires that would help place them with host families, selecting and preparing music for performance, communicating with the music teacher we would be working with in China, and assisting in seminars on topics such as traveling abroad, packing, and how to approach situations where cultural norms might clash. Because of the unfortunate amount of snow that fell in our region this winter, Brewster students and faculty received a shortened Spring Recess, but we were gone before it all started. Our 13-day adventure, including travel, began the Tuesday after show week and ended on Easter Sunday.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Ben drove me to school today with my viola and suitcase since Brewster HS has a strict “no overnight parking” rule and my car would certainly get towed over Spring Break. He wasn’t impressed with my packing skills, but everyone else (who brought two big suitcases for their checked baggage allowance in addition to a carry-on and instrument) kept telling me how impressive it was that I brought so little. I still must be running on fumes of Shrek because I don’t feel any more tired or stressed out or worried than I have felt all this month and last. I went to the doctor last week to get a prescription for Ambien to ensure that I’ll sleep on the plane, and the nurse informed me that although my blood pressure was still considered low, it was the highest they had ever recorded. The school gave us surprisingly little information as we boarded the school bus that would take us to JFK Airport — just a list of students and the number for the driver. Luckily, George and I had our itineraries and contact information for Garrick, our tour coordinator, on hand. We left school around 12:30pm.

Garrick said he’d meet us at the gate at JFK, and recommended that George and I check in at ticketing before all the students. I thought this would give me an advantage when it came to seating options, but I still couldn’t score a window seat as I requested. A long security checkpoint, an expensive dinner snack ($20 for a slice of pizza and 2 waters), and lots of huddling around the mobile charging stations later we were boarding China Eastern flight 588K to Shanghai.

I’m not going to lie, there was a lot of worry surrounding the decision to fly China Eastern as opposed to a more known airline like United since the mysterious disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight last March, the TransAsia Airways crash in Taiwan in February, and the AirAsia flight that deviated from their planned route and crashed in the Java Sea leaving no survivors. To make matters worse, many of us were reading preliminary reports of a Germanwings flight that went down in France just this morning. On the surface, China Eastern seemed to have their operation under control: nice interior cabin, lots of headroom, the compartments for overhead baggage were really small, but every seat had a monitor with games and movies. My only real complaint had nothing to do with the airline itself but with its [mostly Chinese] passengers who all seemed to be sneezing and coughing.

The first meal served was a choice of chicken & rice (in spicy sauce with vegetables) or “seafood” noodles which ended up being very thin noodles with what looked like pork. Each entree came with a scoop of chicken salad over a lettuce leaf and a Dole fruit cup. Figuring that we’d be in the air for almost 15 hours — plenty of time to sober up and be ready to address any emergency when we land — George and I had some red wine with our dinner. Thanks to my Ambien, I was asleep for the second meal, a tuna sandwich that looked kind of gross when I awoke to it later. The third meal was also questionable: an “omelete” with Dole fruit cup, orange juice, and a brownie. The “omelete,” seemingly devoid of eggs, tasted like a smokey bite of french toast without any syrup…so I passed.

(Wednesday, March 25, 2015)

We landed at approximately 7:05pm local time in Shanghai on a strange landing that felt a bit like we were fishtailing, but otherwise smooth and safe. It was already dark by the time we landed, adding to how sleepy we were feeling. As we waited in line to go through customs, I had to check the students’ forms to make sure that they wrote “United States” under “nationality”…not “American.” Many forms needed to be re-written… It came as no surprise to me that the district-issued phone, an ancient android model that didn’t even make calls when in the office at Brewster High School, also didn’t work in China. Powered up and full of battery, it couldn’t locate wifi and couldn’t place calls to George’s district-issued iPhone4 or anyone else.

Luggage came out quickly, and our entire group had reclaimed their bags by 7:30pm. There was a bit of standing around, wondering if we should exchange money, exchanging money, wondering if we should withdraw from an ATM, withdrawing from an ATM, etc before we met Cici, our guide in Shanghai who brought us to the bus that would take us to the school. There was a little confusion over a backpack that was left behind in our caravan of luggage, but since China is not JFK, the backpack was still waiting there in the terminal when one student ran back to get it about 20 minutes later. The bus ride from the airport took about 40 minutes, and we could see a lot of the city skyline outlined in lights. There seemed to be speed cameras flashing on almost every sign on the highway.

The bus driver took us directly to Jian Ping High School in the Pudong district of Shanghai where our students would meet their host families and go home for the night. A woman named Helen, who I initially thought to be the principal, met us and brought us to a conference-type room at the front of the school’s campus where we would wait for the host families to arrive. The airplane information screen had said 10 degrees Celsius when we landed, and it was chilly being outside with only a fleece. Many Chinese host students were wearing windbreakers (part of a school uniform?) which definitely didn’t seem warm enough or puffy coats that appeared to be for the dead of winter. Once all the students were claimed, Garrick and his mom Daisy led George and I across the street to the Minya Hotel where we would be staying. Garrick got me a local phone (a burner, really) so I could have some way of staying in touch with people when we were out of wifi range. In the hotel, I can use my phone over wifi for non-Facebook, non-Twitter, non-Google-based apps. IMG_1643

The hotel itself looked as nice as the website had promised, and there was only a slight smell of smoke in the rooms. It is unusual for me to stay in a hotel room at all these days, and even more strange to be by myself, but it was nice to have some personal space. Just as in Europe, the lights are operated by placing the room key in a slot near the door, but after that everything is operated with small touch screens. My view is nothing to write home about — this room overlooks a big construction ditch and the exterior windows are quite dirty. As promised, there are American outlets, but I haven’t had success connecting my VPN yet.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

There is never a dull moment in the life of a teacher/chaperone, and this might be a long trip if last night is any indication of the way we will spend the rest of our time here. Last night, after all of our students had met their host brothers and sisters and taken various modes of transportation back to their houses and apartments, our group chat on WhatsApp began to explode with commentary: everything from the bus rides home to the size of the towels in the bathrooms. We also became aware of a situation involving one of our students who arrived at her host’s home to learn that her host sister’s parents would not be there for the majority of her stay. While she did not feel unsafe, this was not the situation that the parents of these Brewster kids imagined when they sent their kids halfway around the world. That this particular student was the child of one of the more protective mothers added to the fact that this setup needed to be remedied quickly. By about 11:30pm, Garrick had picked up this student and brought her to the hotel to stay with me for the night. So much for me having a hotel room all to myself! There was really no issue with her staying — I had more than enough space for another person with the king-sized bed and chaise lounge in my room. Helen was informed of the problem, and she had a new host family lined up before we went down for breakfast.

Breakfast at this hotel is quite good, albeit a little different from what I’m used to. I had a lot of canned fruit (mandarin oranges, pears, peaches, pineapple,lychee — which I always think I’ll like, but never do), a scoop of thin bread pudding (which looks like eggs, but tastes like really good dessert), a chocolate croissant, a hard boiled egg, and some noodles that look and taste like vegetable fried rice with tofu (in noodle form). I washed it all down with some truly terrible coffee. I wasn’t hungry for nearly this much food, but I figured I had better eat good (free/included) food when I saw it because I didn’t know what the next meal would look like. I withdrew some cash from the ATM in the lobby right before heading across the street to meet the students.

We all congregated in the same room from the night before — the conference-type meeting room just inside the school’s gate — around 7:15am. The day was to start with a tour of the school, but Helen hadn’t arrived yet, so we took a few minutes to talk about the students’ first impressions. One of our Mandarin-speaking students shared that her host mother put out bread with Nutella and another sweet cake that tasted like seaweed for her when she arrived home last night, but her host family was not pushy about having her shower upon arrival (as other students had said). That was okay, she said, because it seems like the cat’s litter box was in the shower area anyway. A very tall Brewster student was given chairs to extend his bed, and another girl expressed amusement over what constituted acceptable parking (no one seemed to mind that one wheel was on the sidewalk). Another student who had taken some Mandarin classes while at Wells Middle School said that he volunteered his given Chinese name, but that the family didn’t seem to like it. His host brother is giving him his bed during our stay and sleeping on a cot in the family half-bathroom. The family keeps asking him if he likes spicy food — which he does — but they seem to want to give back the gifts he brought for them. Most of the girls have issues with the bathrooms and showering protocol — the size of the space, lack of curtains or doors in some cases, the size of the towels, the amount of hot water, and the time they seem to be allotted for showering at all — and everyone seems a bit chilly at night.

I think these kinds of discussions are most interesting because they really make clear the differences and, in some cases, similarities of our two cultures. However, Helen arrived at about 7:30am, and we began our tour of the school. Jian Ping High School was founded in 1944 and became well-known in China during the 1980s partly because of a new principal who was already a well-recognized individual. Their women’s basketball team is in the top 3 in all of China, and our Brewster boys looked longingly at the many basketball courts each time we passed them on the tour. There are currently about 1,800 students at Jian Ping High School and 150 teachers. We saw chemistry and physics classrooms, music classrooms — complete with photos from the Jian Ping HS trip to Brewster HS in 2012, physical education rooms, and a substantial taxidermy display near the science rooms. Some classes were in session at that early hour, but most rooms were empty. The school was very clean and quiet, each classroom seemed to have a teacher’s office connected to it, and there were cameras in every room. Our students enjoyed the “zen garden” and koi pond in the middle of campus, but my favorite part was the “book booths” — little telephone booths filled with textbooks to read during student free time.

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Our tour ended around 8:30am at the performing arts center where we began rehearsing our own pieces for tomorrow’s concert. The performing arts center was very cold, and it didn’t help that the doors to the outside weren’t closing completely. Many of us left our jackets on, and I know that I never felt completely “warmed up.” George and I decided to each conduct one piece even though our ensemble is small enough that we probably could’ve gotten away with a self-conducted performance. Because our instrumentation was so strange (based entirely on what music students signed up for the trip), we chose Flex-Band arrangements of “Lord of the Dance” and “Korean Folk Rhapsody.” There is also a flute ensemble playing an “Ode to Joy” arrangement, a sax trio playing some Duke Ellington medley, and students from the BHS Wind Ensemble playing a very thin arrangement of “Candide.” Our rehearsal was much more casual and relaxed than if I had been running it myself, but that was okay because I needed to get comfortable using Mr. Sun’s violin for the Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto.

Jian Ping HS auditorium

At the cafeteria we were shuffled to an upstairs room — warm from the sun! — for our lunch. Lunch came on plastic trays much like what I used in school at St. Joseph’s, and we were served individually (so not much use for the Lazy Susans in the middle of the tables). We each got white rice, runny scrambled eggs with tomatoes, some sort of nugget-sized meat in the shape of playing card symbols (diamond, spade, heart, club), a green vegetable that could’ve been a type of spinach but was most likely bok choy, and a box of iced tea. It was not delicious, but luckily I wasn’t very hungry.

Cici and the bus driver for our little dolphin bus met us after lunch to take us to the Shanghai Museum. At first, the kids were a bit rowdy on the bus and found it hard to focus on Cici — even as she spoke into the microphone — but they seemed to settle down once we had pulled on to main roads and there was more to look at. Shanghai is a city of 24 million people and its name means “above the sea.” It is nicknamed “kingdom of the bicycle,” probably because it costs the equivalent of over $15,000 for car license plates. Without license plates, cars can’t enter the tunnels and can’t cross the city. Cici pointed out that the license plates in Shanghai all have the Chinese character for this nickname on them (and in Beijing, the character is “jing” — that city’s nickname). Had we visited in the early 1990s, we would’ve had to take a ferry across the Huangpu River which flows through downtown Shanghai, but today there are 10 tunnels and 6 bridges. Jian Ping High School and our hotel are in the Pudong — financial — district of Shanghai which Cici described as “oriental Manhattan,” and most people travel from this area to downtown on mopeds, bicycles, or using the inexpensive and far-reaching public transportation (subway) system.

Cici, informative and thorough, reminded the students of China’s “One Child Policy” from the 1970s and its loosening of restrictions in 2010. However, this easing does not mean that China has anything like what me might describe as a “relaxed” policy toward families. Now, parents who were only children are allowed to have two children, but they must pay the government $30,000 before they have their second child. She described rent prices to us (the average 2 bedroom apartment rental runs about $600/mo, but purchase prices could be up to $7,000 per square meter) and the customary practice of children living at home long into adulthood.

The Shanghai Museum architectural design was inspired by the Chinese concept of the World. The bottom part of the museum is square, representing Earth, and the top is encircled by a round band, representing Heaven. The main entrance is lined with dragons carved in light rock, one for each of the Chinese dynasties, and George reminded me to look for the Cornelius Vander Starr wing of the museum (since our intermediate school in Brewster bears his name). Cici gave us audio tour devices and encouraged us to start at the top of the museum’s four floors and work our way down. The museum was organized by type of exhibit (jade, currency, textiles, porcelain, painting, calligraphy, masks/performance arts, sculpture, furniture, bronze, etc) rather than time period which made it much more easy to enjoy and appreciate in my opinion. Many of the display cases had at least a brief description or name in English, and the audio guide selected a few items to describe in detail.

Walking into Shanghai Museum Lions from each Chinese dynasty

ceiling of museum

Brewster visits the Shanghai Museum!


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I found the Shanghai Museum fascinating, and I could’ve spent a lot more time there. Given the amount of time we had — and the general attention span of our group — I had to skip through a few of the audio guide selections in order to just see everything. The students seemed to be very interested in the jade exhibit (possibly because it was the first one they visited) –and it was interesting to see pieces such as a dragon belt that took an estimated 700 hours to carve — but my favorite exhibits were the carved Buddha statues and the foreign currency that came to China by way of the Silk Road and dating back to almost 2nd century B.C.E. I wish I had a better handle on the history of the country and the surrounding trade regions so I could’ve gotten more out of that particular currency exhibit. As usual, I was the last to “call it quits” at the museum, and I found everyone else waiting for me in the cafe having tea.


Just when it seemed like everyone was fading, Cici announced that our next stop would be the East Najing shopping district — “Shanghai’s Madison Avenue,” according to Cici. All the students perked up at the suggestion of shopping, though I wasn’t really looking forward to being outside in the still chilly weather. I did a quick survey of the area, went into a couple stores including a supermarket-style shopping area, but then returned to our meeting area and just waited until people started to return. The air quality has been mostly in the “Moderate” range — worse than a bad day in Los Angeles, but not enough to prompt health concerns. It could’ve been because of this increase in air pollution or just because of the activity of the day, but a few students complained of lightheadedness after spending so much time outside on East Najing Road. I haven’t been wearing my mask, but I encouraged them to purchase one just in case. Once everyone was back we had to walk a few blocks to a place where our bus could meet us (and waited near what seemed to be a very creepy underground arcade) and then headed straight back to Jian Ping High School. IMG_0948 IMG_0949

There must have been some confusion about dinner and rehearsal times because we thought we were late when we arrived, but Mr. Sun’s orchestra was not at the performing arts center yet. Mr. Sun is the orchestra teacher at Jian Ping High School and he is also the teacher who chaperoned the Jian Ping visit to Brewster in 2012. Once they were situated, we waited for Mr. Sun to insert us into his ensemble. Much to our chagrin, the Brewster violin student and I were assigned to the assistant chairs: she was to sit assistant principal second and I would sit assistant concertmaster – yay sightreading! The concertmaster, Ray, was a nice stand partner who was generally quiet but helped out by interpreting what Mr. Sun was asking of us. Mr. Sun doesn’t speak much English (though he could recite the alphabet and did so each time he asked us to start at a rehearsal letter. For example, if he wanted us to start at rehearsal D he would say “D: A, B, C, D!”), but I thought he was very easy to follow. The poor percussion students from Jian Ping who couldn’t seem to count might have disagreed… Together we read Ohne Sorgen by J. Strauss, Old Comrades by C. Teike, and The Magnificant Seven by E. Bernstein. It was almost 9pm by the time we finished and we all went home in the rain.

Friday, March 27, 2015

We had another bright and early start this morning beginning with our own rehearsal from 7:30-9am in the performing arts center for our concert later. During this time we mostly played all the way through our pieces, discussed the plan for the concert, and adjusted some of our concert etiquette to meet the requests of Mr. Sun (adjustments mostly consisted of where we would sit or stand, when we would leave stage, etc).

A shady-looking van came to pick us up at 9am to bring us a few minutes down the road to the Yangjing Community School — a bustling senior center with many artistic offerings. Initially, there had been some discussion about omitting this excursion from our itinerary, but I’m so glad we didn’t! Our first stop at the school was a dance classroom. There, women showed us a slow dance with rings and ribbons before inviting us to participate in learning another type of dance. The one they taught us (called “Mulan wu” after the famous woman warrior from ancient China, our guide told me) was also slow and consisted of a lot of stretching motions.IMG_0954 IMG_0955

After dancing, we took a short break to drink tea in very small teacups. The tea they served us was an oolong and sounded like “tai-wah,” but tasted a lot like jasmine to me. In the same room as the tea service was a painting and calligraphy class. When we had given our teacups back, we were instructed to find empty seats facing the teacher. None of the art teachers in the room spoke English, but they taught us by demonstrating the steps (holding the brushes, wetting the brushes, dipping paint, and then painting strokes on the paper) and giving us time to try for ourselves after each step. Some of us learned to paint birds, others did calligraphy, and the rest of us (including me and George) got instructions for painting flowers. We painted for a while and were able to take our paintings home with us. Before we left that room, the teachers gave their example paintings away, and I got to take home the beautiful painting of flowers and birds from our teacher. IMG_0956 IMG_0958 IMG_0959 IMG_0960 IMG_0961 IMG_0962


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The final room was dedicated to papercutting, and we were given pre-folded paper with patterns as well as normal-sized scissors that felt comically large in comparison to the cuts we were expected to make. There were at least 8 different patterns (the pre-folded paper was numbered), so we came out with a variety of papercuts in the end. After we had cut out our pattern and unfolded the thin paper, the teacher mounted our cuts on white paper so we could take them home safely. Everyone at the center had a lot of energy and seemed excited for our visit, and I think their enthusiasm rubbed off in even the most artistically-challenged of our students.IMG_0967


By the time we left the senior center (only about 2 hours after we had arrived), we were all a bit hungry and getting sleepy. Lunch at school — white rice, similar green vegetables from other meals, clear soup with chunky clear vegetables, and a couple different meats — gave everyone a little boost. Some students went out to play basketball after lunch while the rest of us used that time to relax and prepare for the concert. Apparently the students playing basketball were a big hit and drew quite a crowd of student spectators!

The concert began at 2:30pm at the Jian Ping High School performing arts center where we had rehearsed. It seemed strange to us to have a concert so early in the day, but unlike in Brewster, the students at Jian Ping High School could live up to an hour away. The senior class was invited — though I’m not sure what senior class exactly since the 10th graders refer to themselves as “senior-1” and 11th graders call themselves “senior-2” — and they all arrived just before the start of the concert. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance with speeches, gifts, and photos before we actually got to play, but it made the event feel a little more special. We were given a scroll decorated with a student’s calligraphy, a beautiful painting by one of the Jian Ping students, some Chinese sheet music for chamber ensembles, and huge bouquets of flowers. George’s portion of the speech was translated by one of our Brewster students, and her translations were a big hit!

Brewster performed their five selections first, then the stage was reset for the Jian Ping orchestra to play two more pieces. For a number of reasons, including less than ideal instrumentation, the generally mid-range talent of the students, and inadequate use of rehearsal time, the Brewster musical showing was not very impressive. We joined together for the last 4, including a portion of the Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto with me as soloist on Mr. Sun’s violin and the Ohne Sorgen encore. Thanks to the students who were not part of the musical performance, we were able to get some nice photos and audio recordings from the performance. Once the concert was over, there were still a lot of picture-taking. So many Chinese students wanted photos with me and it was a little overwhelming

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One benefit of an afternoon concert is that there was plenty of day left when we were finished. George and I went back to the hotel to change (and I napped for a couple minutes) before meeting Helen who was taking us to dinner. Students were having dinner with their host families tonight, and it seemed like there was a good mix of families who would be cooking and who would be taking our students out to eat. I’m not sure what the liquid in the box in the cab we took to dinner was, but I was glad that it I could breathe despite all the cigarette smell. So much smells like cigarettes here that it is hard to remember what fresh air really smells like. True to form, Helen was speed-walking as soon as we exited the cab. We had arrived at a shopping center that had outdoor space but also options to stay inside. We three were the first in our party to arrive at Dolar Store, the restaurant they had selected. George and I didn’t know who else would be joining us, and we snickered a little when wondering if this was a fancy place (as opposed to the “dollar stores” in the United States). It was certainly a popular place, and we were glad to have Chinese hosts because there was no English on the menu — not even transliterated Chinese.

Almost as soon as the other guests arrived, Helen began to relax and became much more friendly. The other diners were Lyu Cuihong, a woman who headed the Pudong New Area Education Bureau (I can be specific because she gave me her business card), and two of her sons who were both graduates of Jian Ping High School. Lyu explained to us that “dolar” is a Cantonese word meaning “big catch” but can also be translated to mean “to get the full amount.” Dolar Store is a hot pot restaurant, and this was my first time trying hot pot. Helen asked us if we liked spicy food and appeared surprised when we both answered an enthusiastic “yes.” She ordered our broth for us (each person got their own hot pot) and then took us to a self-serve station where we were supposed to create our own dipping sauce. I had absolutely no clue what to do because I didn’t know what kind of food to expect. I knew I would not like “fish smell” or some of the other offerings, so I created a sauce with mostly chilli pepper and seaweed. It wasn’t fantastic. I also took a couple chunks of some white stuff that I thought might’ve been the same clear vegetable from the school lunch soup, but it was not. This was yet another food item that had no color, no smell, and no taste….

Our key limeade arrived before the rest of the food and was really delicious. I probably could’ve had seconds and thirds of that drink, especially once the food arrived, but I paced myself. Next, a waitress came to offer mix-ins for our soy sauce. I don’t like soy sauce, but I didn’t want to say that, so I asked for everything: garlic, red chilli pepper, green pepper, and chives. Altogether, it didn’t taste bad!

Everyone except the younger of the sons (who I guessed to be about a senior in high school) was talkative, and we were having a pretty good time even before the food arrived. The older son, who played classical sax at Jian Ping and was impressed by the sax trio who performed in concert, was seated to my right and seemed especially interested in anything I had to say. He was planning to attend law school in the United States (Emory in Atlanta) next year and both he and his mother were adamant about offering his services as a chauffeur and guide to me Sunday on our day off. George kept nudging me saying to talk more about Ben, but I’m not sure how many other times I could say I was engaged without it getting even more awkward. Though our conversation, we found out that the older son had visited New York City and fell in love with the United States. George and I were both a little skeptical that his experience in Atlanta would be quite as inspiring. It was also interesting to talk to him about his perception of Barack Obama’s immigration policy (just before we left, Obama had granted amnesty to approximately 5 million illegal immigrants living in the United States who fit certain qualifications, but this decision — and the way he went about making it — is causing quite a stir).

The food came, and our hosts explained some etiquette (how much to cook at once, when to cook, which chopsticks to use when selecting items to put in the hot pot, etc) before we dove in. It seemed that Helen and Lyu had ordered a feast for us: beef, lamb, pork, dumplings, egg dumplings, all kinds of mushrooms and other vegetables, clear and more familiar noodles, tofu, etc. The beef was thin, cooked quickly, and had the best flavor in my opinion. There was a lot of pork, my least favorite, and it was hard to handle with chopsticks because it was in the shape of little logs. I thought I had done something very wrong when I lifted my tofu out of the broth because it seemed like everyone held their breath until I took a bite, but apparently they were just worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle the spiciness (tofu soaks up more broth than any of the other items, and Helen had ordered spicy broth for me) — but it was delicious! The pork logs and the clear noodle satchels were the hardest for me to handle with the chopsticks because both were so slippery, but I mostly did okay. George was doing fine too, just making a bit more of a splatter, and the waitstaff offered him a fork. Mind you, they didn’t bring him a fork when they offered, they just asked. He declined, and Lyu said they must be relieved he said no because they don’t actually have forks at Dolar Store and would have to borrow one from a nearby restaurant had he wanted one.


I ate so much, and I really didn’t want to stop. This was the best food we had so far — probably the most expensive too, though we didn’t pay for anything — and I enjoyed the process. It felt like going to dinner at The Melting Pot, but with better food. Once out of the restaurant, Helen was back to her quick pace. We took a cab back to the hotel and retired for the night.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

We got a later start today because it is a day of sightseeing, but I still could’ve slept in quite a bit more than I did. At breakfast I met some faculty (a Chinese teacher and a few guidance counselors) from New Rochelle who were on a similar trip with a middle school group, but their trip was more sightseeing and less cultural immersion. George and I met our students at the school and boarded our tour bus with Cici. I got to hear a lot about the dinners that our students had out at restaurants both before Cici arrived and on the bus ride. One student went out to a szechuan restaurant and ate dishes that were very spicy with lots of chilis. Another was appalled when her order of “chicken paws” turned out to be deep-fried chicken feet!

Our first stop was the Yuyuan Gardens. We had to walk past the soup dumpling place that Ben recommended I visit and though the very touristy market area to get to the entrance, but luckily it wasn’t very crowded. Cici was with us the entire time, giving us information about the garden’s construction and purpose as well as explanation of decorations and other points of interest. The gardens were built during the Ming Dynasty (during the 16th century) and is relatively small for all the history it contains. “Yu” in Chinese means “pleasing,” and apparently the gardens were built to please the parents of the person who had it built. Even today, the garden seemed like a peaceful place that was probably beautiful when all the plants were in full bloom. Throughout the gardens are many porous-looking rocks (supposedly jade?) decorating the area, but they are ugly compared to the architecture and water and plants around them.

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When we had seen all there was to see in the garden, Cici gave us all time to do what the students like doing best: shopping! By this point in the day, the market was filled with people, and I felt uneasy leaving the kids to wander on their own, but luckily they all seemed to want to be in small groups anyway. I, however, went off on my own. There was so much to buy that I didn’t know where to start, so I mostly just looked. In the end, I purchased a stamp for Ben engraved with “Scott” in English and Chinese. I got a great price for it (40 yuan instead of the asking prices of almost 200 at other shops), though it appeared that the vendor was unhappy he had let me haggle down so low for it. I bought a green stamp with a ram on the top since 2015 is the Year of the Ram and also the year that Ben and I will get married. Once I had selected the stamp form and paid for it, I watched the man pull out a big book of English names translated into Chinese, sand the stamp area, and hand carve in the name. I visited the Candy Lab where I could watch expensive-looking candy be stretched and rolled, but my only other purchase was three scarves for Andrea, Patty, and my mom.

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We gathered back in front of the soup dumpling restaurant to meet Cici and I got to hear all about the students’ haggling “skills” — or lack thereof. Some were disappointed as they heard their peers describe similar bargaining situations with better outcomes, but I tried to explain to them that if they are happy with the price they pay in the end, then they can consider themselves successful (and that they should always be happy with the price they settle on). On the short walk back to the bus we saw a man butchering a goat on the street — not exactly what I wanted to see right before lunch — and this might’ve reminded some kids that they wanted to get face masks. Cici took them to a pharmacy to purchase paper masks and came back with a small tin of tiger balm for me. I had asked her about where I could purchase some, and she just wanted to confirm that we were talking about the same stuff. I had never used white tiger balm before — only the reddish kind — but it seemed to be similar if not the same.

Once on the bus, we passed a 650-year-old Buddhist temple in which the Chinese government had invested $28 billion to restore. I wrote down this figure as she said it, but $28 billion seems like way too much. However, the temple itself was glimmering in the sunlight because it is covered in gold. I suppose that if it was covered in real gold it might’ve cost $28 billion… Lunch was nearby in another sort of shopping plaza. Some cross between Bingo and Keno and a business presentation was going on in another room of the restaurant, and we were given two tables away from the commotion. Lunch here, served on the Lazy Susan, was mostly okay except for the hot and sour soup which tasted like musty feet and the fish nuggets with added bones. It was at this meal that I became more of a taste-tester for the group (not really a job I’m comfortable doing), and it was at this meal that we learned one of the students didn’t eat fish because she didn’t eat “anything with eyes.” That she was helping herself to the chicken option at the time of this announcement didn’t go unnoticed.

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We drove through the British Concession area on our way to the waterfront for a river cruise after lunch and passed some of the very tall buildings Ben had told me about before I left including the Shanghai World Financial Center. This “bottler opener” building supposedly got its characteristic look from a change in the design originally planned by their Japanese architect. Originally, the opening was supposed to be circular representing a traditional Chinese “moon gate” — a link between the earth and the sky — but that concept was squashed because of similarities between moon gate and the rising sun on the Japanese flag. Not having paid the VIP price, we all went upstairs to the top deck to enjoy the warm sunshine and the great views of the Shanghai skyline. I wish the air quality could’ve been a little better and our views didn’t come with a slight haze, but I liked the variety of music on the boat (ranging from Paganini’s Molto Perpetuo to random American pop tunes), and the cruise itself was a good length of time.




Cici brought us to another market after the cruise, more interesting, more crowded, and more compact than the one near the Yu Gardens. Only a few minutes into our free time/shopping time, I began to feel intense deja vu. I saw a hideous horse mask atop a sport jersey that looked familiar, and a man making papercuts who I swear I had seen before. When I passed “More than Toilet” — a cafe with bathroom decor — I knew that this was the same market Ben had shopped in last year on tour. I really became excited when I found the little leather journal shop from which he had bought me journals. I had the business card, written entirely in Chinese, with me in the hopes of finding the same shop and purchasing a large leather book to use for our wedding ceremony. I didn’t have enough cash to pay for the large journal I wanted, but the shopkeeper let me get away with a discount: I gave her all the cash in my wallet (about $40 instead of what should’ve been at least $55). In retrospect, I wish I had tried one of the neon-lit drinks I saw people carrying around, and I wish I had been hungry to try some of the food being sold there, but instead I met up with some girls who were at a cat cafe (yes, with cats at every table!) and considered myself successful.

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The students had dinner with their host families when they returned home, and George and I went out with Garrick for sushi and sake. Rather than take a cab to the sushi restaurant, Garrick took us on the subway which served as a quick and informative introduction for me.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Initially, when I began planning my only free day on this trip, it included a nice long stay in the hotel’s sauna or jacuzzi and maybe a swim in the pool. Well, the sauna was broken, the jacuzzi was nowhere to be found, and the pool required bathing caps for women. Luckily, I knew all of this before today, and I planned ahead. I had also already learned that the concierge at the Minya Hotel didn’t speak English and would not be of any help to me in obtaining tickets to see Kavakos play at the Shanghai Concert Hall.

By late morning I had taken the subway from Bei Yang Jin Station near the Minya Hotel to People’s Square and walked over to the Urban Planning Exhibition. Cici had been nice enough to write specific directions in my notebook for me, and having successfully followed the first course, I was feeling pretty confident. Thanks to our trip to dinner last night, I knew what to expect when purchasing a subway ticket (price based on length of trip, and you had to keep the ticket to exit, placing bags on x-ray scanners when entering the station), but it wasn’t until this morning when someone enlightened me that I even noticed the painted arrows on the floor indicating where to stand if you’re waiting to board. Having boarding and exit lanes certainly expedited the process of getting so many people on and off the subway cars. The stations also have monitors that tell you when the next train is arriving. As a tourist, I found this public transportation very easy to navigate and, luckily for me, both color-coded and complete with English translations.

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Once outside the subway, things got a little more complicated. I had taken the wrong exit and ended up walking a bit out of my way. I passed the Shanghai Museum again and found myself at the Shanghai Grand Theater, a very modern looking building with a large screen near the entrance. I went in to ask if there were any concerts that night and also how to get to the Shanghai Concert Hall, and both questions were not warmly received. Luckily I got a straight answer directing me away from the Grand Theater, and arrived at the Urban Planning Exhibition a few minutes later.

My cousin had recommended the Urban Planning Exhibition which touted the motto “Better city, better life.” I bought the audio tour which provided me with slightly more information than the exhibits themselves but didn’t succeed in making me less than vaguely interested in the countless maps dating back hundreds of years. As with most city planning, Shanghai was designed with certain shapes in mind, and those shapes were outlined by walls or roads or rivers. I meant to take notes on what I learned at the Exhibition, but my experience there was something between information overload and meaningless dribble. The highlight of the Exhibition was a scaled model of the city that took up an entire floor and was complete with lights that you could walk around via elevated walkways to see the whole thing from different angles. On the same floor was also a workshop area for children, much like you would find at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, except this one cost an additional participation fee and the kids actually made real things such as carved table legs and wooden birdhouses. Small things interested me too, like the escalators that moved slower when people weren’t on them.

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I didn’t stay long at the Urban Planning Exhibition, partly because I was starting to get thirsty and wanted to find dumplings before I got too hungry. I stopped to purchase what was to be the worst Mountain Dew I’ve ever head on my way over to the Shanghai Concert Hall. As I feared, the Kavakos concert was sold out (no rush tickets, no student tickets, no standby). The next place on my list for the day was a less-touristy marketplace and then on to Ding Tai Feng, a chain dumpling restaurant that Ben had recommended. However, it seemed like we had already done a lot of shopping on this trip, so I went in search of dumplings. This involved another subway ride and when I emerged from underground my surroundings looked familiar. We had driven through this area on our tour bus yesterday and I recognized some of the shops. I never did find the dumpling place, but I found some good beer for me and George at a grocery store and bought a handmade coin purse made out of cork from vendor at a craft fair at the mall nearby.

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I was feeling waves of hunger, sometimes feeling very hungry and other times thinking I could go for quite a while longer without eating. I consulted the map I had picked up from the hotel lobby and saw that I could walk back to the Yu Garden area and hit some points of interest on the way. Safety aside, this was probably one of my best decisions in Shanghai. I got to walk through all kinds of neighborhoods from touristy to residential and back to market areas. I saw kids playing on the sidewalk and a lot of people sitting and eating meals outside. Almost every alley had clothes hanging out to dry, and there were quite a few street vendors selling all kinds of fruit. It looked so good, but I had to remind myself that fruit would’ve been either unwashed or washed in water that I wasn’t supposed to be drinking. I passed a drug store and purchased about $20 worth of tiger balm and then used one of the sidewalk overpasses to head in the direction of one of the Buddhist temples.

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If I didn’t have my map with me, I would’ve been completely lost at this point, and it seemed as if I was entering an area that didn’t see many foreigners. After a couple of blocks of fabric shops, I arrived at the Temple only to be refused admission. I had enough money for entrance, I was dressed appropriately, I had arrived during visitor hours, and I could see no other reason for being denied entrance, but the woman at the ticketing booth shook her head “no” nonetheless. I was a little disappointed, having walked all that way, but luckily there was a street fair in the area directly around the Temple, so I browsed their offerings instead. Most interesting was a man making beautiful shapes (tigers, butterflies, bicycles, etc) out of hot sugar and selling the candy on a stick. I watched him for a while, then looked at some books for sale (some in English), and passed a pet store selling mostly fish and rabbits (but also one tiny kitten). Each rabbit — and the kitten — had their own small cage, and the fish were being sold in what seems like the usual fashion here: in shallow tubs filled with water rather than tanks. I got a little turned around in the street fair and had to exactly retrace my steps in order to exit. Had I been lost, I don’t know what I would’ve done because no one seemed to speak any English, and I didn’t see any non-Chinese people in the area.

By the time I walked all the way back to the Yu Garden tourist shopping area (entering through a different area than before), I was pretty hungry. I got myself a soup dumpling and another little cup of other dumplings (filled with mostly onions) at the street-level part of the famous dumpling shop. Perhaps these are the best dumplings, but if so, I’m not really a fan of dumplings. I got on the subway when I was done eating and rode it back to the hotel area.

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As I was getting ready to answer some emails and transfer photos onto my computer, I got a WhatsApp from a student asking if she could call me on my local cell phone. She sounded terrible and said she felt awful. My first questions were about her symptoms (fever, sore throat, feeling exhausted, headache), and then I made sure that she wasn’t allergic to anything although nothing was listed on her form. She was one of the students used to traveling abroad and trying new foods, but she said that she didn’t eat anything out of the ordinary. She had spent the entire day with her host family outside in the sunshine, and even though it was almost 80 degrees today, she felt cold most of the time. Her fever was over 100 degrees (about 38 degrees Celsius…we did the math a few times), and she was taking some Chinese over-the-counter medicine that her host mother had bought for her. She read me the English translation on the box: acetaminophen and dextromethorphan, which sounded about right to me. She asked me not to tell George — she didn’t want him to worry — and I said that she needed to get some sleep right away and update me with any change in her temperature in a couple hours.

I was still going to be hungry for dinner and didn’t really want to go out again, so I was really happy when Garrick offered to pay for room service for me and George. After a long and labored conversation with the room attendant, we were finally on the same page about me ordering jasmine tea. I also ordered sushi (salmon was the only option) and some ice cream. The kitchen quoted me an expected wait of 60 minutes. Now, I was ordering this food long past the normal dinner hour (close to 8pm), and I joked with George when he came over to drink the beer I had bought from the supermarket that they must be cooking my food for it to take so long. Live and learn and don’t joke about these things! My sushi arrived within about 45 minutes of ordering and the salmon had apparently been cooked prior to rolling it in rice. My order came with a small fork — no chopsticks — and no wasabi. They also didn’t have the flavor of ice cream I ordered, so they gave me vanilla with all kinds of dried fruit topping on it. I was hungry enough that I ate it all.

After dinner, I got an update from the sick student. No change in her temperature. I told her that I needed to tell George because even if she starts feeling better soon, she had to be ready to fly in a couple days. The last thing we needed was someone to be quarantined at the airport. Just as she feared, George got very worried very quickly (he has a history that makes him a little more prone to worry about this stuff than the rest of us). We decided that the student should just stay home and rest all day tomorrow.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The students had a lot of interesting stories to share about their free day with their host families. Some stayed home and cooked meals with the parents, a couple families went as a group to a local amusement park, and one participated in a tomb-sweeping festival related to an upcoming holiday.

We arrived at Jian Ping Experimental Middle at 9:30am and were scheduled to take a tour of the school, but since classes were in session and it was raining a bit too much to enjoy the outside campus, they escorted us to a Greco-Roman-inspired waiting room. The term “experimental” in the middle school’s name supposedly refers to a more international, comprehensive, and otherwise modern curriculum than the more traditional schools in China. Unfortunately, we were in that waiting room for almost 45 minutes before being able to get to the stage area for a dress rehearsal. George spent the morning mostly worrying about our sick student who wasn’t feeling much better today. He wanted to go to see the student at the host family house, but I didn’t think that would help the situation. Unsurprisingly, his constant calling and texting for status updates meant that the student wasn’t getting their much-needed sleep.

I absolutely loved the stools — not chairs — that were available onstage at the middle school, and I wish that the music rooms at Wells Middle School were similarly equipped (if we need places to sit at all). The students seemed less thrilled than I was at the prospect of improving their posture while performing, but we didn’t spend much time onstage anyway. Our dress rehearsal was really just a quick read-through of our portion of what was to be a much shorter program. As luck would have it, the student who was at home sick is a violinist, so I decided to play the violin part for the concert in order to maintain the balance that had been established.

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Lunch was probably the worst meal yet and confirmed that, in fact, food improved from middle school to high school all over the world. This meal consisted of fried chunks of fish from which it looked like no effort had been made to remove bones, and there were almost as many bones in each bite as fish. There was soup also, a clear soup with big bones (pork or chicken most likely) in it supposedly for flavor. I ate one of my granola bars with water from the hotel instead.

This concert was much more low-key, so much so that I even forgot to take off my NorthFace fleece before our portion… The concert opened with a trumpet soloist, a small boy from Jian Ping Experimental Middle School, playing a beautiful slow piece with pre-recorded accompaniment. His tone was full and warm, and his sound was focused and controlled. It was the kind of playing that any trumpet student from Brewster High School could long for. He joined his classmates in the full band once he was done playing and their director, a young woman who seemed both strong and playful in front of her ensemble, led them in the 1950s version of Tequila and an arrangement of the K-pop Gangman Style song that I had almost all but forgotten about. We played our pieces afterwards and then had a quick gift exchange and photo with the students and faculty of the school before getting back on the bus.

Cici took us next to the Shanghai Museum of Oriental Musical Instruments, part of the Shanghai Conservatory. The brochure said that there were over 400 musical instruments on display, but it felt like a very small museum. Almost as soon as we arrived, George got a phone call from Helen at Jian Ping High School saying that she could take him and our sick student to the hospital for treatment. He left right away and it seemed as if a cloud of stress and distress had been lifted from our group. I stayed with the rest of the students at the museum for about another hour. The MOMI has four areas: Chinese ancient instruments, current Chinese instruments, instruments from China’s minority nationalities, and instruments of foreign minority nationalities, so we got to see everything from 2,000+ year-old pan pipes to crude violins to all sorts of reed and hole flutes to an entire Indonesian gamelon set. There were quite a few English descriptions and also photos of the instruments being played, but unfortunately there was neither an audio tour nor audio examples of the instruments on display.

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I rode the bus back to Jian Ping High School where the students met up with their host families to have dinners at home. I grabbed snacks from the convenience store near the school and waited for George to get back. Our student had been diagnosed with a viral infection — not the strep throat that I had suspected — and was given a throat spray and some fever-reducing medicine. Though her host family had been superb throughout this ordeal, we decided it was best for her to stay with me at the hotel rather than return to the private home. In an effort not to get sick myself, we had a cot brought in to my room for her to sleep on. After Skyping with her parents, she had a little to eat, took her medicine and melatonin, put in her earplugs, and settled in for what we both hoped would be a long restful night.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The kids said goodbye to their host brothers and sisters this morning when we all met at the apple. We took a bunch of photos and then boarded the bus to the airport. I had to laugh when one student remarked that this would be his first domestic flight — until this point, he had only ever flown internationally! Of course, even a Chinese domestic flight raised new questions for us because our group’s luggage, already pushing the limits for international allowance, were now filled with souvenirs and poorly-packed personal items and supposedly destined for a smaller, commuter plane. Although I had only one small checked bag, I was now toting my backpack, viola, and the giant oversized painting (wrapped in Hello Kitty paper) from the students at Jian Ping High School. Luckily, Cici came to the rescue again and negotiated with the attendants as we checked in. We had to say goodbye to her also after we all had our tickets.

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As we waited for students to take bathroom breaks before heading over to the security checkpoint, one of the non-music students shared a giant box of mooncakes that his host family had given him upon departure. They were really beautiful pastries with different designs, but they were big and heavy snacks. I wish someone had offered to share one with me because I felt bad throwing the rest of mine out after only one bite — red bean paste is not for me.

Everyone was able to board the flight to Beijing, including our sick student who had taken her medicine at just the right time to lower her temperature enough to avoid quarantine. George and I were both relieved that we didn’t have to use our Plan B which involved one of us taking the high speed train with the sick student — an approximately 5.5 hr trip — and the other flying to Beijing with the rest of the group. Relieved that I didn’t have to make this journey without another adult, yes, but slightly disappointed that I didn’t get to experience the Chinese rail system that puts our already shameful Amtrak to even more shame. The flight was uneventful, mostly filled with commuters it seemed, and I tried to sleep most of the way. Unfortunately, the horrible-smelling food woke me up and, even more unfortunately, I tried to eat it. Why anyone ever thought that a spork was an appropriate utensil in asian cuisine is really beyond me.

Our new guide, Lily, met us upon arrival in Beijing and it was as if we had hit the ground running. She had big plans to take us sightseeing, but we were all a bit anxious to get settled in the new hotel. The kids had been assigned roommates (2 and 3 students to a room) before we left Brewster, and George and I had prepared ourselves with ground rules and other procedural things we would be following when it came to the more camp-counselor aspect to our chaperoning experience. Reluctantly, Lily changed her plans and brought us straight to the hotel, but not before providing us with a wealth of information about Beijing on our bus ride.

There are approximately 23 million people in Beijing, though almost half of that population are people not originally from Beijing, and city planners expect the population to be up to 30 million people by the year 2020. The city is organized by ring roads inspired by a wall around the old city built by the Ming Dynasty. Today, the second of six ring roads represents where that wall was built, though it was torn down in the 1950s. There are 15 subway lines, approximately 80,000 taxis, and about 110,000 public buses in Beijing to deal with the transportation needs of its massive population, but still there is quite a bit of traffic congestion. Most of the population lives between the 5th and 6th ring and, according to Lily, private cars have to abide by a system similar to the gas-rationing systems put in place in the United States during the oil crisis in the 1970s: only cars with certain license plate numbers can drive on certain days.

Jianguo Hotel Qianmen Beijing was not nearly as nice as the Minya in Shanghai, and though the front desk staff spoke English more fluently, they were not quite as skilled at their jobs. The first problems were with issuing room keys — only one per room despite 2-3 guests — and later problems included a far separation between our chaperone rooms and our student rooms (not normally a problem, but closer to us were the rambunctious middle schoolers from New Rochelle whose chaperones were nowhere to be found. We sorted out the key situation, found our rooms, collected the student passports, and held brief meetings (I took the girls and George took the boys). The rules we established were pretty clear: no leaving the hotel without one of us, be in your rooms for bed checks at 10:30pm, and no fewer than three people in a room if you are visiting another room or have a Brewster student guest. The girls caught on to the last rule a lot faster than the boys did and pointed out to me that this would not necessarily prohibit lewd behavior, but they agreed with me that that third person would certainly make things a lot more awkward.

Lily brought us to dinner in what can only be described as a dungeon dining room. The kids were excited because one of the buffet items were french fries, but neither George nor I had enjoyed our airplane food and were hoping for a better dinner than the variety of questionable options ranging from burnt stuff to stuff in brown sauce to stuff that had been reheated more than a few times. I considered ordering room services when I got back to the hotel, but ultimately I decided I was too tired. Besides, I had some scheming to do…

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

One of the biggest and most frequent complaints from the students about their homestays was regarding showering: when, how long, bathroom setup, towel size, etc, so when it came to devising a good April Fool’s Day prank, that’s where I started. After breakfast at the hotel (more extensive, but poorer quality), we were all scheduled to meet Lily in the lobby to start our day of sightseeing. It seemed like everyone was there early, and I pulled George aside to tell him my plan. He agreed to go along with it, as long as I didn’t drag it out too long. Luck was on my side because the wifi for the hotel lobby happened to be down and the kids were already bothered that their WhatsApp and other applications were unavailable.

So I started by telling them I got a call from Garrick this morning and was passing on the message we were given by the hotel staff. I told them that it was good that it looked like everyone had showered this morning, but unfortunately we were using too much hot water and would be limited to one shower per room per day for the remainder of our stay. I told them that they should try to figure out a system of alternating showers for the next few days and that it might be best for them to work it out amongst their roommates right away. It was as if I had punched them all in the face the way they looked at me, aghast. Then the questions started flying! How did they know how much water each room was using? That was easy to answer: there are meters on every room (they believed me). Is the problem how hot the shower is? Can they take as many cold showers as they wanted? Yes, I told them, cold showers are fine, but remember that a cold shower means NO heat. How long can the one shower be? Can they turn on the water and just keep it on between each person’s shower? I said that was an excellent question and that I’d ask the front desk. George was squirming, and almost gave away the entire thing by asking if he could tell them. I completely ignored his question and tried to redirect it back to the crisis at hand. Of course, many kids were scrambling to find a working wifi network so they could call home and complain to their parents, but none of the networks were functioning. Finally, they pleaded with me to go ask at the desk about the length of the shower, so I did. They watched me walk up to the desk, they watched me ask the attendant about exchanging money (of course, they couldn’t hear what I was saying, they could only see we were having a conversation), and they watched me walk back with the most distressed look I could manage…

I started to give them the response, slowly and carefully. I told them that the front desk had told me “April Fools!”, and all of a sudden Lily was here and we went on the bus. They were so mad at me, and it was amazing! Easily the best April Fool’s prank I’ve ever pulled, and within a few minutes the kids realized that their bathing routine was no longer in danger and congratulated me on such a good lie. I was really, really proud of myself.

We were back down to business once we were on the bus with Lily. Our first stop would be the approximately 100-acre area in the center of Beijing: Tiananmen Square, named after the Tiananmen Gate — Gate of Heavenly Peace — which separates it from the Forbidden City. The bus dropped us off a few blocks away from the security entrance to the square, and Lily told us to “walk like sticky rice” as we crossed the busy street. She pointed out the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong on one side of the square which already had a long line of visitors by the time we arrived. Nearby was the Great Hall of the People, the legislative building for the Communist Party of China, built in 10 months ending in September 1959 and decorated with the 36 ethnic minority groups in China. Between the two buildings was, essentially, a veteran’s memorial for people who died in revolutionary struggles during the 19th and 20th century which was built around the same time as the other two buildings.



It was overcast and still chilly when we arrived at Tiananmen Square, and since there weren’t many descriptions or remarkable sights to see in that area, we took a few photos and then arrived back at our meeting place a little early. As we walked toward the gate, Lily explained the Flag of China: a big star is for the Communist Party, and the four stars radiating off of it represent the four social classes of peasants, laborers, and urban and rural merchants/craftsmen. We walked through the Duan gate, a gate built for reminding people to stabilize their attitude before meeting the Emperor.

Lily asked us to guess how many rooms were in the Forbidden City, and none of us had any idea. Her hint wasn’t helpful for those of us who can’t do quick math in our heads either, but would’ve gotten us closer to the “official” answer. She told us that it if a newborn baby slept in a different room each night of its life it would take 27 years for it to sleep in all the rooms of the Forbidden City (or, approximately 9,855 nights). In Taoism, there is a god for just about everything, and the Forbidden City was built on the belief of the god of heaven living in a palace with 10,000 rooms. Since the Emperor was believed to be second only to that god of heaven, the Forbidden City was built with 9,999.5 rooms.

Five bridges led us from the Gate of Supreme Harmony to the main political center of the Forbidden City. Each bridge was for a specific person or office, and the center bridge was reserved exclusively for the Emperor. The Empress would use the center bridge only once in her life: on her wedding day. Lily was about to lead us even further into the Forbidden City via one of the side bridges and she laughed, but agreed, when I asked if we could enter using the center bridge instead. Why not? For hundreds of years, only a select few women could cross that bridge — and only once in their lives — so if I was going to be here only once in my life I certainly wanted to use the special one!

Once inside, we were given free time to explore on our own. Lily had offered to guide us around and explain all the significant structures and artwork, but even for someone like me who really wanted to learn as much as I could, her vast historical knowledge was overwhelming. I saw as much as I could see in the amount of time allotted for us and then headed through the Gate of Terrestrial Tranquility to the Imperial Garden which had a few cherry blossoms here and there for me to enjoy among the giant rock formations.

Next was lunch in the back room of a small restaurant which could barely accommodate our party. I found myself at a table with some of the boys I hadn’t dined with, and one started a reflective conversation about our experiences in China so far as we waited for our food. Some students shared that they had spent some of their free time going on walks with their host families and talking about travel in general, and others went to parks with their host parents as their host brothers and sisters had individual tutoring at home. Some said they saw people practicing kung fu in the park and many observed people dressed in work uniforms biking to work in the mornings. A few had stories about attending karaoke or trying to cook in their hosts’ small apartments without ovens. One person seemed to like the food here better than in America, and a lot of students expressed satisfaction from our community center visit. When it came to comparing the “foreign-ness” of China, a girl who went to the amusement park on her free day said that she thinks we are all similar in many ways. When asked to elaborate, she said simply, “Everybody screams.”

It was still cold enough to be wearing a light Fall jacket when we left the restaurant and boarded the bus headed for the Lama Temple. The most renowned Tibetan Temple outside of Tibet, the Lama Temple had a beautiful entryway that really encouraged a sense of peace. Formerly a residence for an emperor, this became one of the many Buddhist temples China built in their attempts to quiet Tibetan unrest. In 1950, the Dalai Lama visited this Lama Temple. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, especially of the decorated Buddhas or the biggest wooden-carved Buddha in the world (26 meters tall, made from a single piece of sandalwood), but we had a lot of other things to do! Before we entered, Lily directed us to a woman handing out free boxes of incense to use in the temple. She told us that we were to use the incense to make a wish — one wish, repeatedly — as we moved from one hall to the next. We would light our incense using coals provided, then kneel and wish, then deposit our incense in a different container filled with sand and ashes. There were also some exhibits along the sides of the temple area which contained ceremonial items, clothes, and artwork.

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Our next stop couldn’t have been more different from the Lama Temple. The Silk Market is not a charming collection of shops and merchants gathered in a historic area, but rather it is just like a mall with very very small stores. Initially, I began following two of our boys who darted off the bus in a way that seemed suspicious to me, though if they were planning to act unseemly they didn’t with me around. In fact, it was a big help having them around when it came to bargaining for things like knock-off Ray Bans (which I purchased for $16 instead of $40) and other souvenirs. I’m very glad I had brought a limited amount of money with me because it would’ve been easy to spend everything (as the students seemed to be doing). I would’ve liked to have some custom-make dress, but I couldn’t think of anything I really needed even for such good prices. My favorite parts of the Silk Market were finding the other branch of the journal shop from Shanghai and eating at a Yogorino with many more flavors than are offered at the branches in Philadelphia. Also, right before we arrived at the Silk Market we passed a restaurant advertising “Probably the best steak in town.” I found this reluctance to commit to being “the best steak in town” very funny since it seems like every Chinese restaurant in the United States is “#1.”

After dinner we were welcomed back at the hotel by sugared-up masses of middle school students from Manhasset and New Rochelle school districts whose chaperones must have vanished. Their bedcheck times were later than the ones we set for the high school, and they made use of every waking moment being loud and disrespectful of the other guests in the hotel. It was nice to know that our students were much more well-behaved.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Originally, our itinerary had called for a visit to the Great Wall today, but Lily had requested a change once she saw the weather report. The skies were overcast this morning, and by the time we arrived at the Summer Palace it had begun to drizzle.

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Built over 800 years ago as a temporary palace for the Yuan Dynasty, the Summer Palace is about 4 times as big as the Forbidden City. Lily told us a lot of history about Empress Dowager Cixi, nicknamed the “Dragon Lady,” who played a significant role in rebuilding the gardens after they had fallen into disrepair. According to Cici, the Dragon Lady was very wasteful and was not well-liked by the people of China, but she is famous for her political maneuvering. The Summer Palace was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

Once it began to rain (lightly and) steadily, I was quite cold outside. I bought an expensive (¥20 or about $3) and very milky hot chocolate which made touring the grounds more bearable. Given the size of the Summer Palace and the amount of time we had to view the grounds, we had to make some quick decisions about what to see. I had just enough time to walk all the way down the Long Corridor to the confusingly popular Stone Boat and back. Had it been a warm, clear day, the Summer Palace might be a beautiful place. There were magnolia trees and cherry blossoms in bloom, a large lake with pavilions and bridges. However, I just wanted to leave and get somewhere warm and dry.

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The lunch spot was a pleasant change from our past meals in Beijing. Lily brought us to a Cantonese restaurant which Lily said the Chinese call “dessert” because of how sweet the food is. Here, we ate foods of all different colors, dumplings with bean paste and other slightly sweet fillings, pastries with vegetables, jasmine tea, and soup that I actually enjoyed. Was it delicious? A place I’d return to? Not really. But it was a nice change from the unidentifiable meats in even more ambiguous brown sauces. The restaurant was also sunny, bright, warm, and seemingly clean.


Hu Tongs are the traditional neighborhoods of Beijing, supposedly where their pre-Communist communities and cultures are preserved. We traveled from the restaurant to the a local Hu Tong via a small army of rickshaws. Lily said that these houses were coveted for their historical significance and are sometimes homes to celebrities and other important officials, but the neighborhood seemed completely run-down and deteriorated. Even though these Hu Tongs were supposedly over 700 years old, I found this part of our tour completely uninteresting. I don’t know why these particular residents would open their doors so we could peer into their homes, and I felt uncomfortable being the adult with all these kids in a private residence. At least the kids seemed entertained by the pet dogs, turtles, and birds in the courtyard areas.

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Upon exiting, we walked through the “back lakes” area of Beijing. No surprise, this houhai area was also filled with restaurants and tourist shops. There were a lot of Chinese families around the lakes, presumably enjoying the weather (which had cleared up significantly since the morning). One family was flying kites so high that I couldn’t even see the kite itself through the clouds.

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The bus took us to the Wangfujing Night Market, though we still had plenty of daylight. Lily walked us through an extremely crowded area which was the worst-smelling place I think I’ve ever been. We passed all sorts of vendors selling jewelry, souvenirs, and food that could’ve also been garbage from the way it smelled. Once we had arrived at a more open shopping area with upscale stores, Lily gave instructions as to when and where to meet her. This was the moment of truth for many of us who had considered eating some of the scorpions we had passed on the way through the market. Wriggling on their sticks next to larger insects, starfish, and other disgusting-looking creatures, the scorpions didn’t seem quite as gross. It still took until after I watched the first group eat their scorpions that I decided I could do it too. Together with two other students, I purchased a stick of scorpions for ¥15. The vendor selected a stick of live scorpions, flash-seared them in a fire, and handed them to me. Me and the two other girls ate them together. I was not entirely grossed out! The scorpion disintegrated and was really dry. It had a kind of earthy-burnt aftertaste that I quickly washed away with bottled water, but otherwise there wasn’t much flavor. I’m glad I tried it, but I won’t try it again. In my remaining time I bought chopsticks for souvenirs and a lot more tiger balm.

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Friday, April 3, 2015

Thank goodness the bus was warmed up for our early morning departure so I could sleep most of the way to the Great Wall! I woke up about 30 minutes before we reached our destination, just in time to see some green scenery along the way. Lily, as expected, had a full history of the Great Wall for us including which dynasties had no part in building the wall, how long it was (and how long it is now), original materials used to build the wall, and why it was built in the first place. She told us that one of the nicknames of the Great Wall is “cemetery wall” because so many of the workers who died while building it are buried beneath or inside it.

Our bus parked in the lot with a bunch of others, mostly bringing cruise ship vacationers, near one of the entrances. Lily recommended that we take the time allowed to us to walk all the way up to the visible watchtower and then come back down. The first part was very steep but wide across. It was a good thing we changed our plans and came when the weather was nice because not only would we not have seen so much, but the steps probably would’ve been dangerous. I mostly went up on my own and ran into kids along the way. Once I had reached what seemed to be the stopping point for many of the students, I decided to follow one particular girl (who I know to be attending the Naval Academy next year) who was continuing up. It was only when I’d stop to catch my breath that I saw a group of Brewster boys who had basically sprinted to the tower. They were taking some daring photos at the top which I should’ve been admonishing them for, but it looked like fun — and plus, I wanted the same photos!

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From the top, it seemed like we had a lot more time just to walk down. As is frequently the case, I was persuaded to go against the advice of our guide and try a different route back, one that was much longer. I was certainly not convinced that this way would bring us back to our original starting point, but at the very least I figured that if a group of our students were to get separated from the tour then there should be an adult with them… I also reminded them that if they didn’t return with me, they’d be in big trouble, and that they should be prepared to have to carry me if this new way was too strenuous. It was pretty strenuous, but the sights were beautiful! If it was the only time I ever see the Great Wall, I’m glad I took the risk. We essentially made a huge loop and came back to our meeting point with about 20 minutes to spare and I rewarded myself with ice cream from the gift shop.

We went to a restaurant on the top floor of a giant touristy shopping center for lunch. Despite food being served buffet style for about 300 people, the food wasn’t terrible. I think the restaurant was used to serving large groups of tourists as it appeared to be the only place to eat around our section of the Great Wall.

The next stop was the Ming Tomb, a collection of mausoleums for 13 of the Ming dynasty emperors. The grounds seemed to be like any other park we visited, and the underground tomb area was entirely uninteresting. Perhaps there was more for me to learn or see there, but after the Great Wall it wasn’t in the least bit fascinating.

The bus ride home was quieter than usual, possibly because all the knock-off Beats speakers needed recharging, or maybe because the kids were actually tired. We had a little bit of time to relax before dinner back in Beijing. The girls decided to make dinner more special by dressing up, and it was nice to see even the boys getting into the spirit of things. Dinner was in an upstairs room of a restaurant nearby, and was mostly appetizing. One dish in particular had a lot of peppers in it which gave it some pleasant spice without the kind of charred heat of chipotles. I felt a little bad after convincing one of the boys to try the pepper because although it wasn’t all that hot for me, it was a little more than he was used to handling. My favorite part of that meal were different colored dumplings (yellow, green, purple, etc). Two other students gave me a bookmark with “Ellis” written in Chinese. According to the explanation on the back, “Ellis” is written with three Chinese characters: Fair, Profit, and Gentle.

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Saturday, April 4, 2015

For our last day touring China we went to the Temple of Heaven, a Taoist temple built in 1420 by the same emperor who built the Forbidden City. To get to this Temple, we had to pass through a park we had driven by a couple times earlier in the week. The park was full of elderly Chinese men and women playing all sorts of games (an overwhelming number of hackysack games were in progress), dancing, and singing. Even with all the cultural sites we had visited, it seemed like this social interaction had the greatest effect on all of us. It was fascinating to watch their movements and enjoyment. One architectural highlight was the circular mound alter which, in its center, had a small stone that is believed to be a place to communicate with deities. I waited my turn to stand on it, though I didn’t ask anyone to take my picture. I think it is interesting how every religion assigns special significance to a particular place where they think their god listens closely (kind of like the Dome of the Rock for Muslims, Christians, and Jews).

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What would a day in China be without a shopping trip? The Red Bridge Market was BY FAR the least interesting and least enjoyable shopping venue with extremely pushy vendors who would hold on to your clothes and follow you around the market. I had some success buying “pearls,” which to this day I’m not sure are real or fake, and what I later learned was NOT a knock-off iPad mini but the real deal (stolen? I can only imagine), but mostly I spent my time making sure the kids were okay and not being sucked into buying things they neither wanted nor could afford.

Lunch was Peking duck — though Lily always called it Beijing duck, so I wonder if “Peking” isn’t politically correct or something. This was a higher-stress meal than I had anticipated partly because students were starting to get on each other’s nerves and partly because I took it upon myself to try to convince the non-vegetarian students to try the duck even if they thought they wouldn’t like it. Most of them took at least a bite, which was all I was asking them to do. We had many different versions of duck to try — some good, some kind of gross — along with a few sides and, randomly, a whole fish. It was just my luck to be at the table with the kids who, despite their reluctance to eating the prepared duck, bickered over who got to eat the eye of the fish.

We got back to the hotel with quite a bit of time to spare before dinner, an intentional plan to give everyone a chance to pack. Unsurprisingly, dinner was at another hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we had to walk through some strange back hallways that smelled like trash in order to get to our dining area. The food itself was unremarkable and also unmemorable, but the dinner experience was very nice. Some students in particular had elected themselves to the rank of speaker, announcer, and/or organizer, and they began the process of reflecting on this trip we took together, thanking me and George, and declaring us all better people for having traveled in this way.

Our final excursion was a Kung Fu show at an absolutely packed theater near the restaurant. The theater was probably as big as some of the larger ones on Broadway, and the audience was entirely tourists. I appreciate that the Kung Fu show had attempted some sort of plot, and I recognize the physical skill and strength needed to perform the acts on stage, but the show was not stimulating for me. I had a little trouble staying awake toward the end and was happy to see the conclusion wherein the little boy realizes that the story he had been listening to was the story of the old master’s life.


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Easter! It still felt like the middle of the night when we boarded the bus with our pre-boxed breakfasts to catch a 7:25am flight to Shanghai. There, we connected on an 11:30am flight to New York. The connection was stressful because one of our students had been flagged for security (she needed to go through the scanners again) between landing in Shanghai and departing for New York, and the buses that took us from the plane to the terminal were both slow and crowded. It ended up not being a big issue given the time of day and slightly special treatment from the airline staff who knew we were trying to make a connecting flight, but it was something we could’ve done without. I would’ve never said it before, but I was lucky to be sitting next to a student who nudged me awake when the food came or when it was time for me to fill out customs forms.

Customs and baggage claim were a breeze for the majority of us, but one poor student waited as the baggage carousel circled and circled around. His bags didn’t make it. Leave it to the one student who didn’t overpack and didn’t try to purchase brass knuckles or lighters or other prohibited items to be the one who has to worry about the airline locating his luggage! George helped him file a claim, and we took our school bus home. Parents were so happy to see their kids come back safe and sound! I received many bottles of wine from parents, some cards, and a lot of thankful messages. George’s wife drove me home, and I unpacked enough to find the gifts for my parents. Being Easter, I drove to LaGrangeville to say hi and to drop off the gifts, but no one was home. It is a relief to be back, to be reunited with my violin and good viola, and to finally have an afternoon to rest!

(Here’s a video one of the students made using footage from his GoPro)


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