Suzhou Industrial Park scenery, near where I live
It’s now November, and already we’re in Week 10 of the semester at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou. After the headaches of the visa process, everything since has seemed like a piece of cake. The summer is gone, autumn grows colder, and life is comfortable.
I live in the Lotus Flower residential community, a vast sea of 5-story apartment buildings that are all exactly the same. Fortunately, I haven’t wandered into the wrong building too many times. I am somewhat of a curiosity here, as I seem to be the only foreigner in residence. Other university personnel seem to be clustered in apartment towers nearer to campus or in more expensive locations further afield. Xiao Gou Gou and I have established a rhythm for our morning and evening walks that center mostly around a wonderful food street just across the road. In the morning we can feast on fried dumplings or on the Chinese version of flour tortillas filled with egg; the evening brings such delights as sliced spit-roasted meat sandwiches, fried noodles or rice, roasted chickens, stir-fried vegetables, or other goodies we haven’t tried yet.
Tourist boat on the canal, Suzhou
As far as teaching goes, I teach EAP (English for Academic Purposes) to 4 classes of Year 2 Math majors. Our lesson plans are prepared for us by a module coordinator, supplementing the Oxford EAP textbook, greatly lightening the class preparation load. I add my own PowerPoint presentations or additional readings, and manage to make it through my 16 weekly class periods relatively unscathed. Unlike previous teaching jobs, we are expected to be on-site – in the classroom, office, library, or other university facilities – 40 hours a week. Since I have my very first private office, this is not much of an imposition, as I can also work on my University of Nottingham M.A. during office hours.
Teahouse interior, Pingjiang Road, Suzhou
I spend one day a week in Suzhou; I say “in Suzhou” because the central city is some distance from the greater suburbia I inhabit, a vast swathe of joint China-Singapore development called the Suzhou Industrial Park, or SIP for short. The area is beautifully landscaped (see top photo), but a bit, well, dull, and most shopping is either distant or in big-box stores such as Auchan.
Ancient courtyard house, central Suzhou
In Suzhou I have discovered the picturesque areas, parts of town like Pingjiang Lane which have been preserved and done up for tourists, but on weekends these areas are jam-packed. Suzhou is one of the top tourist destinations in China because of its ancient canal system and whitewashed traditional houses, but the crowds are overwhelming at times. Once or twice a month I make it to Shanghai, for a bit of variety. In addition to my teaching job, I also just re-certified as an IELTS speaking examiner for the British Council, which in the future will necessitate travel between Suzhou and Shanghai a couple of times a month.
In my next post, I’ll talk about my new interest, collecting Yixing teapots.
北寺塔 North Temple Pagoda, Suzhou
I’ve now been living in Suzhou for two and a half weeks. At long last the trials and tribulations of the visa process have come to an end, the car drive across China from Chengdu to the east coast has been done, and I’ve settled into my new apartment. In the midst of all this, three wonderful weeks spent in Chicago passed like a dream. As of this moment, I’ve met all of my EAP (English for Academic Purposes) students, approximately 80 of them divided into four classes. I have each class for four hours a week, which comes to 16 hours of teaching, plus office hours. Between classes I’m in my private office in the Science Building, complete with brand-new large-screen computer and a printer. I keep wanting to pinch myself – did all this really happen, despite my misgivings and uncertainty about ever obtaining a work visa? I guess they did.
Location of Suzhou in China
A short recap: I was offered a two-year teaching contract as an English Tutor at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, located in the section of Suzhou known as Higher Education Town, in the southern part of Suzhou Industrial Park. It’s a vast suburban sprawl, but with some stunningly beautiful landscaping; the whole area, so I’ve read, is a joint venture between Singapore and China. Fortunately, the apartment I found is three bus stops away from school. The dog and I have settled in nicely, after surviving the two-day drive scrunched together in the back seat of my hired driver’s car next to my luggage. I’d previously spent two and a half days in Suzhou before departing the country to renew my visa in the US. In between rain storms, I’d spent one afternoon looking at apartments with an agent, settling on the final one I saw, with two bedrooms. After my round-trip flight from Shanghai to Chicago, I returned to Chengdu for three days, made some quick goodbyes, and now here I am.
Art gallery and teahouse in Suzhou
I’ll write more about my first week of teaching after I have a chance to sit down and think about all I’ve experienced so far, but for now my feet are so sore from standing in a classroom for up to four hours at a time that I just need a rest. In the meantime, Here are some pictures of Suzhou and of the XJTLU campus.
留园 Liú Yuán Lingering Garden, one of Suzhou’s famous classical gardens
Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou
Central Building – geometries
Science Buildings, XJTLU
Science Buildings, XJTLU – with waterfall
Elevated tracks at Leavitt Street, Wicker Park
Foremost Liquors, Argyle Street
Belmont and Clark, Lake View
It’s over. Three weeks of indulging in food fantasies, hanging out with my dear brother, exploring Chicago, went by very quickly. Oh, the clothes and shoes I bought. In China it’s virtually impossible to find “western” sizes, so I had a good excuse to go slightly mad in Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, Old Navy, and an incredible shoe store called Altman’s, where they won’t let you leave the store unless the shoes fit perfectly. It was old-fashioned service, actually measuring both feet, bringing stacks of shoe boxes for inspection, and fitting my hard-to-fit feet.
Wabash Avenue, El steps, pigeons
I even took a stab at riding a bike along the lake front. In my college days, I could easily make the 25-mile round trip from Evanston south to McCormick Place, but this time I was winded after just 45 minutes or so. 8 years of China smog, lack of exercise, and laziness have caught up with me (OK, age has something to do with it too).
My brother and I visited the Art Institute on a (free) Thursday evening, to catch the Magritte exhibition. We explored Chicago neighborhoods I’d never visited before, and I experienced the reverse culture shock of returning to my home country only the second time in 8 years. Most surprising, I guess, was the friendliness of the people. I’m a native midwesterner, and lived in Chicago in my youth, but I simply didn’t remember this kind of friendliness. It was a completely different kind of social dynamic than I experienced in my 15 years in Los Angeles. Rather than sounding fake, however, the Chicago friendliness seemed completely genuine.
Snow Drop Lounge – now Gino’s North Pizza
One of the sentimental journeys my brother and I made was to the former Snow Drop Lounge [above], a beautiful 40s deco bar where we used to hang out in the early 80s. The place had an amazing jukebox, and we would always play the Les Brown/Doris Day version of Sentimental Journey. These days the place is called Gino’s East, and serves pizza. Except for a window wall on the street side, it’s exactly the same.
We met up with an old friend, Lorraine, and reminisced about wacky things we did in younger years, such as visiting a fortune teller, crawling on hands and knees up the steps of Holy Name Cathedral, trying to drive into a 7-11, and re-enacting Lorraine’s birth at 4:30 a.m. on her New Year’s Day birthday at the Orbit Room bar. Generally, all of this was done while insanely drunk. Expriencing Chicago now after 22 years of sobriety was, well, a sobering experience.
Chicago skyline from Diversey Harbor
I’m now back in China, having gotten my working visa at the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, which was ostensibly my main reason for returning to the US. My biggest headache – the insanely difficult visa process – is now over, although I’m still experiencing jet lag, and waking up at ungodly hours. All my packing was done a couple of weeks before I left, so now I must make arrangements with a driver and vehicle to make the 2-day cross-China trip from Chengdu to Suzhou. My new job starts next Monday, at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, and I have an apartment to furnish. My dog and I will make the trip together, and soon we will start the next 2-year segment of our lives.
Leaving the USA to return to China