New Year in a New Place

So finally we had enough dumplings, or close enough.  In truth, after about six months kiddo got very picky about dumplings and only had them sometimes, although he also learned to like rice, so that made life much easier.  When we moved to China, we told ourselves 2-3 years would be about right; it ended up at 3 1/2.  We left because of a new opportunity, and because we were tired of tasting the air, and also in part because as non-British, non-Chinese people we had hit the glass ceiling at our institution (for me being female added one more layer of glass).

So now we are in the US, ex-expats (to use an overly laden term), getting used to being able to understand most of the conversations we overhear and having access to mountains of cheese.  I will keep writing this blog, at least for a while, both to write about the experience of repatriation and to finish the enormous backlog of posts I have photos and ideas for in the “bloggy stuff” folder on my computer.

We arrived in the US on one New Year, Dec 31, many bags in tow.

leaving China

(This picture is actually us leaving China, and for health insurance reasons, we didn’t travel directly, but stopped in Japan for a few days so kiddo could gorge himself on sushi.)


In any case, we now are back in the land of our birth, although in a new town, in new jobs, learning new regional ways of life.  The rhythms of the year are different here, which is made quite evident by my wechat and facebook feeds, which are filling up with photos of beach vacations, like the ones we took in the Philippines


and in Thailand


We have to wait another month until Spring Break, and meanwhile it’s been just a bit colder stateside.


With or without a beach vacation, however, we are celebrating Chinese New Year, although without fireworks.  In preparation, we went to the local Asian grocery, which has a slightly antiquated name and sits in an unassuming building along a highway strip.


Inside it felt quite familiar,mcok popk

although in many ways it reminded us more of the international groceries in Suzhou, as it carries Japanese, Indian, Thai, Pilipino, Taiwanese, and Korean groceries along with the Chinese (and the Chinese groceries include lots of Cantonese-style groceries not so common in Vanguard).  Since Chinese New Year means dumplings, we bought what we needed to make some. They were out of round dumpling wrappers, so we made do with wonton skins.


We previewed some Saturday night and will have more for New Year’s proper, although kiddo is dumplinged enough that he only had a couple.

I’d like to thank Susan Blumberg-Kason for helping to get me to blog again by suggesting joining the Chinese New Year Blog Hop organized by twoamericansinchina.


As part of participation in this Blog Hop, I am giving away a set of postcards of sites visited on the app Exploring Suzhou, soon to be available in an app store near you.  Just comment on this post and they could be yours.

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Grocery shopping

There are many places to get groceries.  Wet markets are a favorite, but I must admit that I don’t go to them as much as I might like, partly because they require a minitrek to a neighborhood center, and partly because Xiao Yang cooks for us enough that I don’t need large quantities of veggies (I may well post about them later, though).  Foreign stores (Euromart, Freshmart, and others) that carry difficult to get items like cheese, black beans, tortillas, and Kix are also regular stops for us, although we try to get enough when we go to never go more than twice a month.  Euromart’s on the other side of Jinji Lake, so it’s a trek too, and the fact that they deliver for free makes it possible to buy lots without having to worry about how to drag it home.  Right outside our gate is Chun Store, where we do most of our day to day shopping.  It’s a Taiwanese store, with basics for people from all over the world (peanut butter, Japanese curry powder, and kaffir lime leaves are all available) and has fresh milk, basic fruit, butter, pasta, basically most of the everyday stuff.  Nearby is O’Best Bakery, with “toast” bread ready for pb&j or toasted cheese. But today I’m going to give you a glimpse of going to the supermarket, in our case the Vanguard store that is the anchor of the mall down on the corner.



It’s a two-story store, on the second and third stories of the mall.  The ideal shopper goes in on the upper floor, past electronics and clothing, then through toys, housewares, and other sorts of dry goods.  They always have seasonal things in the center of the aisles.


sheep more sheep

Right before New Years, they were full of sheep; just after that was replaced by back to school supplies for kids going back after the long break.


Once you’ve made it through with your batteries, dishes, and shampoo, and hopefully not too many toys, you go down an escalator into food.  You begin with the bakery and prepared foods, go through fruit, veggies, and meat, and end up in the foods in boxes, bulk staples, etc.

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It’s very loud in the perishables.  Competing barkers yell out deals for meat and fruit, and recording megaphones set on repeat yell out deals without the need of a person.


The seafood section includes live fish and very smelly and extensive collections of dried seaweed, shrimp, and fish.

photo 4 (1)photo 2 (12)

At this time of year, dried meats of all sorts, including duck and sausages, are also available.

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Along the way, big bins of ice hold various specialties, including shark sometimes, and chicken feet.

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The last part of the store is quite familiar to anyone who’s been to a grocery store.  Big wide aisles, promotional items in the most trafficked areas.

photo 1 (13)photo 2 (11)

Big coolers full of perishables, including lots of yogurt (all of it sweetened, and some of it aloe flavored).  Boxed milk is quite popular to give to children.  Our ayi gave B a big box full of little boxes of milk at New Year’s (along with lots of candy and treats)


What is in the aisles is a little different than you would find in the US.  There is a larger ramen selection than you have probably ever seen.


And what counts as a tasty snack is a little different.


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Individualism and Conformity

So this last week I’ve been rereading Organization Man and also thinking a bit about the effects of the Chinese educational system (two different, unrelated, bits of my research).  I know this may seem like yet another instance of thinking about China as being in the 1950s, something I’ve posted about before. I recognize that this kind of thinking is potentially reductionist and can lead to completely misunderstanding the real situation, but bear with me nonetheless.  In the 1950s US, part of the anxiety about conformity and the power of the organization was framed in cold war terms: individualism was equated with capitalism, freedom, the American way of life, and there was a fear that the conformity of the suburbs and the grey flannel suit came too close to the conformity of communism, groupthink, and Mao suits. So this got me to thinking about conformity and individualism in my students and the ways that they approach learning.

One of the experiences that we have had, particularly in urban planning, where students do a great deal of group work, is that our students for the most part do not know how to work in groups because this is not a skill that they have lived in school, and of course most of them are only children and thus haven’t learned the skills of compromise and negotiation involved in being a sibling.  Unlike teams of American students, Chinese groups seem to often pick a leader and then assign tasks, turning much of the group work into individual assignments. Chinese students’ lack of training in cooperation became particularly clear to me when I chaperoned Ben’s school trip to the arboretum, where he and his fellow elementary school students went to a series of stations and had to solve various problems, each of which required cooperation.  The most striking of these was a puzzle where five of them stand on a bathrug and need to flip over, but without any of them stepping off of it.  I watched them propose various solutions and convince their teammates to try them.  Then I went into school where students in my class were to work together to measure and draw a section.  One student came to me and said “my team member was really bossy and I can’t take it so Ieft.”  I realized that as far as cooperation skills went, I might as well have been teaching kindergarten.

But we also think of Chinese students as conformist, shaped by group recitation and mass exercise, like this synchronized basketball practice that’s been making the rounds on social media.

Certainly the range of clothing styles worn by Chinese students is much narrower than those worn by their American counterparts, although not without its charms.


In school, Chinese students have been taught that there is one right answer, and that their job is to memorize that answer and repeat it. We have interesting discussions with them in the Student-Staff meetings; they tend to talk about quantifiable “knowledge” while we reply with talk of critical thinking, skills, and frameworks.  Grading exams you sometimes feel as if there is rampant cheating because you get so many identically worded answers.  They have each, however, individually memorized the “correct” answer (probably derived from a combination of handouts, class notes, and a study session led by the student deemed to be the best) and written it down verbatim.  It is not that they are not creative and critical, because they are, but they have been educated in a system that has taught them to minimize their individuality as the independently compete to be the verifiable best at a clearly defined, identical task.

This kind of competitive individualism may be a good fit with Chinese capitalism, capitalism with Chinese characteristics.  Hard work, following a formula, copying perfectly, these are popularly seen as the hallmarks of Chinese business.  But looking at my students through the lens of the organization man, I wonder whether all that suppressed imagination will flower out into their own version of the West’s countercultural revolution of the 1960s.

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T shirt street

From our very first arrival in China, we have been fascinated by the T-shirts our students and others wear with sayings on them in something related to English.  For example, the very nice young man who made me a bowl of noodles for lunch at the Xinjiang noodle shop down the street sported this mysterious T

photo (35)

We have wondered for some time where these T-shirts are acquired (other than “taobao, from whence all things come). The other day, we by chance stumbled along the answer, when we found what I know think of as T-shirt street, near Shilu, just to the West of the old city’s outer moat.


This side of town is where wedding street is, so it’s not so surprising to find a clothing-centered street.

Andy was quite tempted by this shirt


which also sported a big Statue of Liberty on the back, but it was surprisingly expensive, and even bargaining was unlikely to get it into the range we would be willing to pay.

Some shirts were surprisingly similar.

DSC03297hardcore pap 2

I have no idea whether there is a particular English phrase that these two are trying to replicate.  I suspect no-one wearing them has any clue what pap might refer to, and hardgore pap is a scary, if obscure, thought.

Urbanicteen also had several variations

goodfamilys urbanteen

Some shirts are deliberately referencing existing brand names (like the ubiquitous “Channel” hats, shirts, etc.)


Sometimes the letters are very close to random.


While at other times the words are there but the relationship between them is more obscure

bright braving

Sometimes the juxtaposition of words (and would-be words) is like poetry


In China, T-shirts are also often worn in sets for couples or for families (a trend I believe began in Korea). (If anyone can enlighten me as to the meaning of “lovers fushi,” please do)


One shop, watched over by a small pink-winged angel, carried a wide range of these (inclluding the above), many of them full outfits including pants or shorts.


leadingjoyfamily valencia

I could not convince my family of the necessity of our acquiring the cute sheep family outfits, complete with stripy shorts (seen in the window behind the angel).  But I did manage, once at least, to get us all to wear our matching family (non-T) shirts.

family shirts

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Not Exactly a TaiTai

It’s a little odd being a working expat woman.  The gendered structure of work is very different among expats in China than it is at home.  Back in the U.S. most women I knew work outside the home.  A few stayed home when their children were small or if they had special needs kids, but staying home was the exception, not the rule, at least in the circles I ran in.

It is different here in China.  Expat families are often brought here on the basis of a man’s job (although not always).  The combination of the difficulty of getting a work permit and of (for many people, although certainly not all) good benefits that make it financially quite viable for a family to have just one working adult means that many women suspend their careers while they come here.  There also are a number of families of high-up executives, although they generally live on the other side of the lake and I only interact with them from time to time. Several women take advantage of the opportunity to get a Masters degree to improve their credentials, or to learn Chinese in one of the intense university programs, and learning helps them from going stir crazy too, I imagine.

In any case, it makes for a very particular kind of society here.  I feel a bit like I’ve time travelled to the early 60s, except without the condemnation of working mothers.  School is organized with the assumption that parents can come in for activities during the day on a regular basis; when there is a special activity like an assembly, we often are told with only a day or two’s notice, making it difficult to arrange our time to go.  The school clothing shop is only open during school hours; I’m in the embarrassing position of sending my son to school in pants with holes in the knees because we haven’t been able to go in to buy him new ones (kiddo does not find this embarrassing; he says it’s his style).  There is no regular after school program (although there are activities 2 says a week), or at least not for anyone except teachers’ kids, so we had to hire an ayi so that kiddo can be met at the bus.

Women’s social lives tend to circulate around “tai tai” activities (tai tai means wife, but it is used to refer to stay at home wives here): coffee, exercise classes, clubs, and outings, all of which take place during the day, when kids are in school and I, and other working women, are at work.  Inevitably, I end up at the social margins, less likely to be part of activities even when they are in the evening, since I have no opportunity to become part of the crowd.  I do manage to arrange my schedule to be able to do some dance classes and knitting meet-ups, although not as regularly as I would like.  In the US, my dance classes and spinning guild always met at night.

I am sure this is an odd experience for many people who are here: the women who have put their careers on hold and are trying to find their way around in a strange land; the men who have followed their wives here and are part of a world that assumes that all trailing spouses are female; the partners of both sexes trying to keep up a professional life cybercommuting and working freelance . . .  The expat world is an odd place to be.


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Baby Talk

Last week we watched “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (and the influence was immediately visible in Ben’s sword fighting).  What really struck me watching it is that I actually understood some words.  Not enough to follow the story, although I could understand the whole phrase “she is mine” (ta shi wo de).  It may partly be because many of the actors are not native mandarin speakers, so they spoke more slowly and clearly, but in any case it was a pretty amazing feeling.  It doesn’t usually feel like that.  I know numbers and a small number of other useful words, and can tell a taxi driver the name of the four or five places I most commonly go, and that’s about it.  I wish I knew more, but learning Chinese is a pretty full-time occupation, and what with working and being a parent and attempting to do some research and writing, there’s not a great deal of time and energy left for learning.

When I first arrived in China, Chinese felt like a wave of sound crashing over me and overwhelming me.  I had no idea how to pick out what might be a word; I had a constant look of panic on my face whenever anyone spoke to me.  It was a very different experience from hearing unfamiliar European languages.  I’m not sure why, maybe the tones, but in any case I had to start someplace well before beginner.  I took the emergency Chinese class provided by my work, and that helped me begin to pick out what might be a character’s worth of sound.  Doesn’t mean I had any idea what that character might mean, but at least I could begin to recognize little pieces of language.  Slowly I learned a few phrases, so now I can correct people who call Ben jiejie (big sister) and explain that he is gege (big brother), my erzi (son), and say hello and thank you and excuse me and count up to 100.

Helping Ben with his homework, I learned a very very tiny number of characters (many fewer than he knows) and had the revelation that avenue was  dadao in Chinese after I recognized the character da, which means big.  I also recognized the character men (gate) and came to the very belated realization that dongfangshimen station was named after the big pants (the gate of the orient).  I know these are very silly revelations, but when one is illiterate, recognizing a word from time to time is quite exciting.

I am pretty sure that I will never know very much Chinese, although depending on how long we stay here it may become a higher priority.  We have big hopes for Ben, but haven’t been tough enough to throw him into an immersion situation and force the matter.  Meanwhile my Chinese isn’t much better than baby talk, but I still feel pretty excited to be able to understand a few words and phrases and occasionally chat a tiny bit with a taxi driver.


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Shantang Canal

As I mentioned in the last post, Shantang Street and the Shantang Canal were created together c.825CE.  Suzhou is essentially a water town, with what is called a double chessboard structure, in which streets and canals sit in parallel. It is in the delta of the Yangtze river (although surprisingly we haven’t yet been to see the river itself) and the larger area is as much water as it is land.  Every empty lot has a pond, which I think it what you naturally get if you dig a hole in the ground.

In a vacant lot next to my bus stop, the pond has been visited by egrets.

In a vacant lot next to my bus stop, the pond has been visited by egrets.

Not only the egrets are interested in the fauna of this tiny pond.

Not only the egrets are interested in the fauna of this tiny pond.

Historically, the waterways were very active, filled with boat traffic, which probably went faster than the traffic on the narrow streets.  Suzhou is also connected on the Grand Canal, which connects Beijing and Hangzhou (like Suzhou, the canal is very old, with parts dating back to the 5th C BCE; the completed canal dates to about 681 CE, but of course it has been constantly worked and reworked).  This meant that water was central to Suzhou’s role as a center of trade.  Nowadays, there are still ships on the canal and on the Wusong river, but the small canals in the city are pretty quiet, mostly home to tourist boats and cleaning boats.

The Shantang Canal is plied by boats that ferry tourists between Tiger Hill and the tourist end of Shantang Street.  Taking one of these boats provides an opportunity to see traces of Suzhou’s water culture.

View towards the front of the boat on the Shantang Canal

View towards the front of the boat on the Shantang Canal

The boat ride is not all picturesque -- the canal is now crossed by a major highway.

The boat ride is not all picturesque — the canal is now crossed by a major highway.

While Suzhou’s most famous tourist canal street, Pingjiang Lu, runs right next to the canal, for most of its length Shantang Street is separated from the Shantang Canal by the houses that line the canal.  Along its length, small squares connect the street and the water, often facing onto public buildings like temples.


Theses squares provide access to the water for those on the other side of the street and in the larger neighborhood, and may also provide loading and unloading for boats.  They always have steps leading to the canal.  Similar steps are historically part of Suzhou houses, although in many canal houses (especially in other parts of town) the steps are unused or only visible as traces.


Back steps lead from a patio to the canal for washing or, historically more than presently, for taking a boat.

Ghost steps on the Shantang Canal.  Clearly this wall once held a door.

Ghost steps on the Shantang Canal. Clearly this wall once held a door.

If you look closely, you can see a figure on the left washing something in the canal.  We often see clothes or dishes being washed in the canal water, which is unlikely now to be clean enough to make it a good idea.

If you look closely, you can see a figure on the left washing something in the canal. We often see clothes or dishes being washed in the canal water, which is unlikely now to be clean enough to make it a good idea.

The side of houses facing towards the canal is very much the back, and houses are often more open to the canal than to the street.


The houses along Shantang Street face south to the canal, so the canal side creates a great opportunity for gardening, drying clothes (and mops), and sitting in the sun.


Even more closed houses make use of the southern exposure for a miniature back yard or an outdoor room.

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little room

Canal frontage also creates an opportunity to expand the house a bit by building over the water, whether quite modestly by suspending a porch

porch extending

more boldly with a wooden pop-out

extending house

or pretty much just building half your house over the water on stilts.

wooden house

When you get to the tourist end of the canal, the waterscape is decorated with red lanterns, lit beautifully at night.

shantang lanternsshantang lantern

But the peopled canalscape is much more interesting, and worth paying for a tourist boat to get a chance to see.

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