China Journal
September 1985

My year in China was eventful. I tried very hard to keep a record of my daily activities.
Some days were more exciting than others; I'll let you be the judge.
Sadly I did not continue my written journal past the first semester. However, for the 2nd semester I have included a synopsis and reflections on some high points along with photos.


September 7th

Today Rollie, Norah, Karen and I went downtown. It was great fun riding the bus. We had no idea what the fare was, and just randomly threw some change into the coin receiver. The driver looked at us a little strangely, but didn’t complain. I’m sure we overpaid and gave him a hefty tip! I believe half of China’s billion people live in Shanghai. (Actually, only about 12 million.) The people are amazingly adept at whisking around traffic on their bikes. Somehow, they manage to find the flow of traffic. Everyone and everything is going in different directions. Lots of crazy congestion, honking of horns and ringing of bicycle bells.

We stopped in at the #1 Department Store. Their names range from #1, to #5 to #10. I bought a guitar while we were at the #1. I paid 48 yuan (Chinese currency.) A crowd of about 30 people gathered around me to watch the proceeding. I realized later that I had paid the equivalent of an average workers’ entire month’s salary. No wonder it drew so much attention! Later I bought a blue towel. Once again, I drew a huge crowd. They are so curious to see what purchases a foreigner makes. Often, they will return and cue up in a long line to buy the exact same product, and same color. Foreigners are still an unusual site, even in Shanghai, and we draw a lot of attention wherever we go. Children lean out of bus windows to have a look at us and point and announce to the world – “wai guo ren” or “na gu ni,” which we later discovered meant “foreigner!” At noon we stopped at a nice restaurant. We shared a table with a Chinese family. They were so pleasant and friendly and shared some of their sugarcane with us. I’m already in love with China!

September 10

In our “Foreign Guest Apartment” building there is a small dining hall downstairs where we can choose to eat our meals for a small fee. We have already discovered that our resident chef has NOT been trained in the fine art of Chinese cuisine! Here is a typical day’s menu:
Breakfast – a boiled egg, a piece of dried sponge cake, and a glass of soybean milk.
Lunch – A bowl of greasy soup, a bowl of rice, a plate of cooked cabbage and mushrooms. Sometimes a little shrimp.
Supper – A bowl of greasy soup, a bowl of rice, a plate of cooked cabbage and mushrooms. Sometimes a little fish with bones.

Needless to say, we eat out a lot, or fix something in our little stoveless kitchen. The other evening, we chose to eat in the dining hall with a group of the other foreign teachers in the building. Everything was peaceful and pleasant until a young lady named Erika jumped up from her seat, screamed and ran out the door. She freaked out when she discovered two chicken eyeballs staring back at her in her plate of rice! The entire dining hall was doubled over laughing. Our poor chef couldn’t understand what all the hullabaloo was about. Poor guy! I will give him credit, he can fix a mean bowl of “jiaozi” which I have decided is my favorite Chinese dish ever. Stateside they call them “potstickers,” but they don’t come close to being as delicious as the ones here. They are little meat dumplings either boiled, steamed or fried. I think the jiaozi steamed in specially framed baskets are my favorite.

If our dining hall is not known for the finest cuisine, at least there is one great, redeeming factor to living in Shanghai. It produces some of the finest Chocolate in the world! I was really quite surprised. I ate one of the most delicious chocolate candy-bars I’ve ever eaten in my life! With a good, adequate supply of chocolate in this city, I don’t believe I will have anything to complain about. Actually, the other ESEC teachers are quite jealous of our good fortune here!

We have been more than blessed to make the acquaintance of three other foreign teachers who teach at other universities and live on the other side of town; Helen Oatey from Great Britain, Ruth Peever from Canada and Ada Fesler from Oklahoma. Karen and I were invited to supper the other evening. After eating a steady diet of rice and cabbage ever since we’ve been here, I do believe we thought we had died and gone to heaven. We were served a Mexican meat dish, a real LIVE tossed salad, bagels and a pecan pie! We have only been in this country five days and were already craving American food.

September 11th

Today was China’s National Teachers’ Day and all classes were dismissed. The Shanghai City Council treated all the foreign teachers to a boat ride on the Huangpu River. We had a delightful time and met many teachers from all over the world. I met a young Hungarian teacher who seemed quite lonely. He said he was the only Hungarian around and he was having difficulty making friends. He said he didn’t like Shanghai that much because there wasn’t enough “natural beauty” around to suit him. Well, I have to agree. Shanghai is not the most beautiful city around. Everything is a drab, cold, gray brick with little color; leftover architecture and design from the Cultural Revolution where beauty and color were basically forbidden. The people were not allowed to so much as have a geranium on their windowsill. No dancing or music were allowed in public. The city now hosts hundreds of factory smokestacks that spew out constant pollution. So, yes, this city is not on the list of most beautiful cities of the world. Back to the boat ride…we were served tea, “chee sway,” (a Chinese orange soda), apples, candy and some delicious Shanghai pastries (probably some influence that still remains from earlier French business and commerce in the area.) For entertainment, there was a little tin-pan band that played dance music, and they also put on a rather interesting magic show.

September 12

imageToday was our official opening ceremony where we were presented to our 48 new students, and I presented our team of teachers. The students range in ages from 20 to 52 and are all quite charming and eager to begin their English classes.

September 13

Today we interviewed and tested all 48 of our students. We needed to divide them up into three different classes. Class A would be for those who were not proficient in English; Class B was moderate proficiency and Class C were maybe what could best be described as “borderline genius.” All of our students aspire to go abroad to continue their education and pursue advanced degrees in their field of study. All the students are professors or staff employed here by Jiaoda (short for Jiaotong University.) They have been given permission to study English this semester. Ninety percent of the students are men with degrees in Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, Applied Physics, Electrical Power Engineering and various other scientific fields. Jiaoda is known as the MIT of China. The students are all quite charming. They were somewhat nervous and some of them had quivering lips during their interviews. There’s a lot riding on their success in this course. For many of them, it will be the deciding factor if they get selected to study abroad. The interviews brought us quite a few good chuckles. When I asked one student what his name was, he looked puzzled, thought for a second and then responded very slowly, “My…name…is …computer science.” He was placed in Class A. I asked another student if he had traveled much in China. He looked puzzled and asked, “Muchin? What is muchin?” We obviously have our work cut out for us. Most of the students who have been sent to us have had English instruction, many since kindergarten. Their grammar skills are good, but their listening and conversational skills are quite lacking.

September 14

This evening, all of the foreign teachers here at Jiaoda were invited to be the guests at a welcoming banquet hosted by the Vice President of the university, and the administration. It was held at the beautiful Cypress Hotel and was a sumptuous 12 course feast. The Chinese know how to put on a good banquet. Since I am the team liaison, I was invited to sit at the Vice President’s table. We had six different cold dishes including duck stomach and thousand-year old egg, which it really isn’t…thank goodness, although it does look like it! We were also served fried shrimp with green tea leaves, chicken porridge in a peach bowl, frog legs, bauzhi (dumplings), duck in lotus leaves, freshwater fish, black and white mushrooms, soup, ice cream and watermelon! Jeff, a very refined and dignified British teacher, sitting next to VP Li, lost control of his chopsticks and a frog leg went flying across the table! I wanted to burst out laughing, which I would want anyone to do if that happened to me. However, Chinese custom dictates that you save face at all costs. Poor Jeff turned three shades of red and VP Li turned his head and looked the other way. Otherwise, the evening was quite uneventful. After completing our feast, Xiao Jin got up and announced that was “The End” and everyone was dismissed. There was neither program nor social interaction afterwards. I noticed the foreign teachers, about eighteen of us, looked quite awkward and uneasy, but this is quite customary for Chinese banquets.

September 15

Today we attended the English Fellowship Church which meets every Sunday at the Jin Jiang Hotel. Helen Oatey (a British teacher at Jiaoda) is one of the leaders of the group. This group is strictly for foreign guests and it is forbidden for any Chinese to attend. We stayed for lunch at the hotel and had a Sezchuan dish of spicy chicken and peanuts! Delicious!!! It sure beats the food at our little dining hall! We’ve been here less than two weeks and we already feel like we’re overdosed on rice and cooked cabbage!

September 16

Yesterday we met an art professor here at Jiaoda, Chang Yang, who invited us to an exhibit of the Jiaoda Art students at a downtown exhibition hall. When Karen and I arrived, David (as he prefers to be called) began to take us around the exhibit introducing us to some of his students and giving us a detailed explanation of each painting. It wasn’t long before we were surrounded by flashing cameras, including some TV cameras. Karen and I immediately stepped out of the way thinking they were wanting pictures of the paintings! We soon realized we were the center of attraction as we were the only foreigners at the exhibition! Every move we made was followed by the cameras.

September 17

Well, Karen and I were completely surprised to learn that we made the Shanghai newspaper!! Our picture appeared with an article about the Art Show!
Today Class C invited us to Chang Feng Park for a boating outing. It rained all afternoon, and we were practically the only boating enthusiasts on the entire lake. We did have a delightful time even though we were entirely soaked.

September 20

Today we completed our first week of classes. Everything went quite smoothly, so I was very pleased. The students are absolutely delightful. There is just no other way to describe them. They are quite warm, friendly and engaging, and have a keen sense of humor. There is always a lot of laughter in our classrooms. My Mandarin pronunciation leaves a lot to be desired. Whenever I call roll in class the students break into peals of laughter! So far, I have accidentally called some of the students Mr. Pig, Mr. Fish, Miss Joke and Mr. Horse-shoe repairman! Mandarin is a tonal language, so if a word is not pronounced in the right tone, it takes on an entirely different meaning than what was intended! The other day I mispronounced a name and the class gasped, looking a little embarrassed. They wouldn’t tell me what I said, so I guess it must have been pretty bad. Well, it couldn’t be any worse than what some of them have said in attempting to communicate in English! Yesterday, Karen was talking with me before the beginning of class, when a student walked up. He wanted to let me know that he had thoroughly enjoyed our intercourse in class the day before! I thought Karen was going to lose it. She quickly slipped out into the hall. The student asked me if he had said something wrong, but I assured him not to worry. Poor guy. I didn’t want to have to explain. He would have been mortified. I did slip out and join Karen in the hall. She was doubled over, laughing so hard! Another humorous encounter this week was a student who was attempting to explain his absence from class the day before. Basically, he was trying to tell me that he had slipped on a wet floor, had evidently injured his tail bone and could hardly stand up, he was in so much pain. However, his exact words to me were that he had fallen, hit his thing and couldn’t erect! Ah yes! We have our work cut out for us!

September 21

image Tonight we attended a rather unique Chinese Traditional Orchestra concert. I never knew such musical instruments existed. One of the most beautiful and fascinating was the lap pipe-organ played somewhat imagelike a tuba. There were several instruments that resembled mandolins and dulcimers. All of the music played throughout the evening was traditional Chinese, with many of the pieces dedicated to “the Motherland.” The rendition of “10,000 Birds Singing in the Forest” was over the top, difficult to listen to, and about more than the audience could bear…at least for Western ears. Three men made enough racket to wake up all the birds in Shanghai! One man played a miniature trumpet which was able to make every bird-call imageimaginable. The second man played an instrument of which I’ve never seen the likes, but it was capable of putting out a tremendous level of noise. The third man simply stood by and slapped two wooden mallets together to make clucking noises. Well, we were all quite relieved when it was over!! Suffice it to say, I’m not a great fan of Chinese music, probably because my ear has never been trained to appreciate such sounds.

Shanghai is a city of 12 million people and everyone of them owns a bicycle, or so it seems. Actually, bicycles are rationed, in order to hold down the traffic congestion…well, they attempt to anyway. I have not purchased my Flying Pigeon yet. (brand name of the bicycles here) Actually, I’m getting quite expert at riding buses and fluent enough to ask “Gong-gong che cha shi wu zainar?” Where can I catch bus 15? Transportation to and from Jiaoda is no problem since we are picked up by a nice van every morning, which we have nicknamed the Yellow Submarine. The van is also available to transport us back imageto Tien Lin apartments for lunch, if we so desire, which we usually don’t. We are also transported back to our apartment in the evenings. We also have access to the van every other Saturday for shopping. We have been warned that our van, as well as our apartment, are more than likely “bugged.” Sometimes, just for kicks, we carry on ridiculous conversations for “their” listening pleasure!

Shopping in Shanghai is marvelous with excellent buys in embroidered tablecloths, silk, cloisonné jewelry, angora sweaters and many other items. However, on a small salary such as ours, we restrict ourselves to just window shopping much of the time. Shanghai literally means “above the sea.” It is quite European in appearance due to French, British and Russian influence prior to the Cultural Revolution. Shanghai has some 8,000 factories which produce such commodities as Spring Thunder radios, White Elephant Batteries, White Cat Laundry detergent, White Rabbit candy, Flying Man sewing machines and Golden Elephant buses. Due to the fact that Shanghai is such an industrial center, and quite dusty, the air is not the best for even the healthiest set of lungs. The thousands of factories pollute the air with their smokestacks so badly, that when you’re riding a bicycle, the air literally stings your skin.

I have been plagued with a cough ever since arriving in China. I finally gave in and went to the city clinic today. The doctor asked me a few questions in English, and then told me I had a mild case of bronchitis. I was prescribed some medication: a cough syrup which tastes like turpentine, and a series of three different kinds of pills, which amount to 22 pills a day! These are all Chinese herbal medications, and I don’t have a clue what I’m taking. I may die and turn into a pill before this is over!

We are constantly kept entertained by our students’ papers and required journals! They are a delight to read, but painful to correct. We all try to be conscientious in grading spelling, grammar and syntax, to the point we spend hours every evening pouring over these papers trying to decipher their meaning. It is not unusual to get an assignment full of such statements as, “Because the child cried at day, so she had a dead sure asleep at night,” or…”You can cross your mind that you knew him when you see him.” The other day I received the following plea for help in Mr. Shai Lin Ken’s notebook: “I would like to thank you, for I had more improved in my English under teacher’s help. But, I satisful not for my improved, because I have still seem many difficult now. Above all, I don’t know for the teacher’s lecture something. Because I studied English early was technology special English, so my vocabulary amount recited too less about usell and life words. This is must to overcome problem right away, so I would think to request you Miss Isensee to help me. Would you writing some words list about usell and life for me, please? Let they despense words list of noun, adjective, verb and adverb, then would recoding to a reading tape. If I can obtain uselly words list, I will trying reciting and remembering they at short time. I think that I will must can conquer my difficult. The words list, would can first write basic words list, then write improve and magnify. Of course that maybe increase your work, so I say sorry very much.”

After responding to Mr. Shai’s request for help with some extra books and lists of vocabulary, and a note of encouragement, I received the following correspondence:

image"Miss Isensee, Thank you so much! Your guided letter have been read three or more times. Gave mine help was a great deal. I follow you – my very good teacher’s guide and study English well. Thank you again! again!"

September 26

Today Class A threw a Mid-Autumn Moon Festival Party after class. The day of the full moon in Autumn is quite a special event here. The following excerpt from a book entitled “Model Essays for Students “ (printed in China) explains: “The Mid-Autumn Festival has been observed by our people through centuries. Every year in the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month our elders offer sacrifice to the Goddess of the Moon and wish her to bring us blessings. Mid-autumn is the time when the peasants are free from their farm work. They have finished their last job for the second crop. What they are waiting and expecting

imageFor is an abundant harvest. Their experience in struggle with nature tells them that their hopes may be swept away by a storm or washed away by merciless flooding water, which are beyond their power to control. In the distant years, our forefathers therefore chose a convenient date and started the worship of the Goddess of the Moon in the hope that she might temper the angers of nature and ensure them a prosperous year. This is believed to be how the Mid-Autumn Festival originally came into being.” Mooncakes are out on the store shelves everywhere you go. They are dense little pastries made with various pastes of lotus seed, red bean, black sesame, and mung bean, with the added ingredient of nuts. I’m guessing you really have to have a Chinese palette to enjoy these little cakes. I have yet to find any really good Chinese “junk food.” At least they DO have great chocolates here in Shanghai.

September 28

Today began our five-day holiday in honor of National Day (October 1st) which will mark the 36lth Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Ruth Peever, Ada Fesler and Helen Oatey asked me to join them in their plans for a trip to Xian, in central China. I was ecstatic! I had dreamed of visiting there but I wasn’t sure I would have the opportunity. Xian is the sight of China’s latest archaeological discoveries. They are considered to be one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.

In 1974 several Chinese peasants were digging a well and came upon the first relics in the area. Soon imageafter, archaeological experts moved in and work began on what proved to be the tomb and burial grounds of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Complete excavation of this sight will take years of hard work!

We arrived in Xian about ten in the morning, after an interesting flight. I discovered Chinese fly differently from the American trained pilots. I honestly wasn’t sure if we would have enough runway left over before the brakes were applied! We found our way to the Bell Tower Hotel where we got a room overlooking the city. Xian is an ancient city, and the bell tower served as the gathering place of all official business. Xian was also the final destination for Gladys Aylward and her 100 Chinese orphans…from the book “The Small Woman” and the movie “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” As I stood looking over the city, I couldn’t help but reflect on the courage of a woman who defied the dangers of the rugged mountains of China for the love of 100 children, only to arrive in Xian, their city of refuge from the war, and find the gates closed!

September 29

image imageToday we visited the archaeological site of Emperor Qin’s burial grounds. What has been unearthed thus far are 1,000 of the estimated 7,000 foot soldiers and horses which were modeled from terracotta clay, and buried with Emperor Qin to provide him protection in the afterlife. Historians tell us Emperor Qin had a great fear of death and ordered the army built to accompany him, and also to protect him from grave diggers. The faces of the soldiers are intriguing. No two are exactly alike. Their expressions range from tranquil to fearful, quizzical to humorous. Each figure was obviously modeled after a unique individual. As tourists, you’re allowed to walk around a balcony area and look down on the excavation from a distance. It is quite an amazing site, and to think of all the pains-taking work that went into designing these figures with their intricate detail. The actual tomb of Emperor Qin has yet to be excavated, but history records it as extravagant and lavish in its artistry.

imageThis afternoon we visited the Hua Qing Hot Springs, a very beautiful resort area for tourists and Chinese, alike. There are many beautiful Chinese pagodas, pools and gardens, and the famous hot mineral baths. The van ride to and from Xian was fascinating. For the first time since I’ve been in China, I got a good glimpse of rural Chinese farm life. Most farmers were plowing with horses or water buffalo, and in many places where there is not a good system of irrigation, water is still transported from nearby creeks by buckets slung on bamboo poles. We were amazed at the amount of corn growing in this area. As you fly in to Xian you see patches of yellow everywhere, even on all the housetops. Later you discover it is drying corn, laid out on the side of the road or on the roofs of the houses. I was quite surprised, as I haven’t seen any corn at all in Shanghai. Other crops I noticed included highland rice, cotton, carrots, red peppers, cabbage, soybean and lots of pomegranates. What Chinese farmers can accomplish without the use of modern technology is quite incredible. Terrace farming is a common sight and they seem to practice good conservation methods. From time to time, though, their farms are devastated by raging floods.

I found the various types of dwellings in Shaanxi province to be quite interesting. Many of the homes look like half-built structures made out of clay with tiled roofs. Cave dwellings are also quite common here. They reportedly keep their occupants warm in the winter and cool in the summer, butimage unfortunately are not solidly built. They are susceptible to collapse during the rainy season, and are also dangerous fire traps as reported by this particular article in The China Daily:

We passed by various markets along the roadside which sold everything from baskets, to raw wool to pomegranates and a type of kiwi fruit. We also passed a dog market! I’ve never seen so many huge German Shepherds gathered together in one place! I’m not sure if they were being sold as watchdogs or for “other purposes!” Enough said!

September 30

imageWe spent the day shopping and seeing the sights of Xian. I had my official Chinese seal carved at one of the local shops. It is carved out of onyx and is pressed into a pad of thick, red ink. Reportedly, the ink is made from a secret, ancient recipe.