This past weekend our group travelled to Suzhou, a city in East China’s Jiangsu Province. After about an hour and a half long bus ride, we stopped at Suzhou University where we received a presentation on the history of Suzhou from Professor Feng Chenghua. The presentation talked about Suzhou’s history, its unique culture, and distinct food. Professor Feng was even kind enough to treat us to pipa, a local food with a pineapple/mango like flavor and the texture of a ripe pear.
After the lecture we toured a local silk factory, where we observed the entire silk making process. First the silk worms eat mulberry leaves, which are the only food source for the worms. Then the silk worms form cocoons which are harvested and used to make the silk. These cocoons are boiled down, spun out, and stretched into large thin layers. From there the silk can be used to create a variety of different silk products. Several of us bought a silk scarf or tie from the shop they had there. Scarves ranged from about 150 to 450 yuan which equates roughly between 25 and 75 dollars.
For lunch we met with a large group of UW-Madison medical students who were also visiting Suzhou for the day. In talking with these students we learned of their experiences and found out that they spent much of their time in Shanghai hospitals, and that these hospitals operated differently from the US.
While visiting Suzhou University and the surrounding community, many of the buildings we saw had distinct characteristics of the local area. White walls and black roofs were said to reflect Daoist ideas of yin and yang. It also bore the functional aspect of making the roofs and walls appear clean. Dr. Li, our professor, also mentioned that over time as the walls became dirty, they began to take on a type of watercolor appearance that many people see as art, like landscape paintings.
From there we traveled to one of the most beautiful sights we have been exposed to so far. The Humble Administrator’s Garden consists of a series of pavilions, canals, rock formations, and bonsai trees covering approximately 5 acres. The garden was designed by a retired politician named Wang Xiancheng as a tranquil home and now serves the purpose of attracting immeasurable tourists and locals to the area daily. We even saw some Tibetan monks there!
Near the gardens was a historic market on Guanqian Street. This street was dotted with many shops and restaurants and was divided in two by a canal running through the area. Suzhou has been referred to as the Venice of the East. Having lunch along the canal made it easy to think that you were in Italy.
Tired and exhausted from a long day of travel, we then headed back to Shanghai and ECNU where the majority of us passed out shortly after getting back at 8:30.
Sunday morning after sleeping in and recovering from the long day before, each of us was assigned to a group of five with a local CIEE teacher. We then got to do something rare in China, we got to visit another’s personal home. Unlike the US, it is not customary to visit the home of another family unless you are particularly close with them. Upon approaching the local apartments we noticed that the buildings we were going into appeared a little rundown and poorly maintained and we thought this to be a accurate representation of what we would expect inside. However, we were definitely surprised in seeing how nice the apartments of the families actually were. Every home was extremely spacious, clean, equipped with the appliances seen in a US home and some even had cool features like a rooftop garden. The nice families we had lunch with were kind enough to welcome a large group of us in, show us how they prepared their food, and answer any questions we had about family life. Many of us made dumplings with our home family and we were treated to other delicious foods like roasted duck, rare chrysanthemum teas, and various other fruits and snacks. This event was particularly interesting, because it really helped us get a feel for how family in China lives, interacts and how they’re very similar to those in the US.
After thanking our host families for the wonderful meal, we had our largest chunk of free time yet. Some of us went grocery shopping at the local mall, exercised, caught up on homework, or even napped during our six-hour block. To cap off the night, the CIEE staff arranged a Chines movie night and we saw the popular Chinese animation “The Monkey King” , a story of a power hungry kung-fu equipped monkey who through great feats was able to battle the gods and assert himself as their equal. What many of us found shocking about this movie in comparison to American animations was that it didn’t seem to have the moral code that was found in the movies many of us had seen. This monkey bore negative characteristics including pride, ignorance, and foolhardiness but somehow escaped his enemies and lived to be “The Great Sage Equal to Heaven.” As in the night before, prompt sleep ensued.