As the high speed trains operating between Shanghai and Nanjing had not begun operation at that time, the Suzhou school's foreign affairs officer Mr. Xu, was driven to Shanghai by a 'driver' and met me at Shanghai Airport to transport me to Suzhou. From memory, in those days it was about a 2 hour road trip between Shanghai and Suzhou. Today it's only an hour, whilst the fast trains on average take only 30 minutes.
If you want the hustle and bustle of big city life without living in a big city like Shanghai or Beijing, then Suzhou is the place to live. It's modern enough to suit the city slicker, and yet retains enough of the old world charm to suit someone like myself, and from where I was living, everything a tourist might want to see was not far away. By foot, bicycle or bus, from the school a person could get to half a dozen different tourist sites within 20 minutes. Xiyuan Temple is right next door to the school; Hanshan Temple is just up from the supermarket; Tiger Hill is no more than 20 minutes away by bike or bus; Guanqian Walking street is only 20 minutes by bus, and Shilu small walking street next to the Shantangjie ancient street and ancient city tower is only 10 minutes away by bike. To get to the Humble Administrator's Garden you just go up the street, turn right and at the lights turn left and bob's-yer-uncle. These of course are just the better known places on the tourist map. There are many other interesting and ancient sites to see that are not in the tourist maps, if you know where to look for them. The first 'subway' line was not in service back in 2007, but today you can enjoy a very pleasant trip to Mudu in one direction and in the other travel to Jinji Lake and beyond. I believe that sometime in 2014 the second subway line will open, but I don't actually know where it will go.
In 2007 as a new resident of Suzhou city I did the only thing a foreigner could do to get his bearings; I rode my school provided push bike in all directions radiating out from the school. As I got my bearings I began to use the buses to see what there was to see. The funniest thing about the 18 months I lived in Suzhou was that I never once entered any of the tourist sites. I saved that until after I left and was living in Yancheng.
My apartment at the Suzhou Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture consisted of two identical hotel rooms that had been especially connected by a door between the bedroom of one and what was to be the living room of the other. This was done at the insistence of two foreign teachers, one of whom was in the last semester of her contract. Formerly the rooms were not connected at all, which was an inconvenience for a westerner and of no consequence to a Chinese person.
In 2007 the school employed 7 foreign teachers, four of whom were Japanese, and two who were native English speaking foreign teachers both of whom happened to be Australian. Sue, the other Australian would finish her contract in the summer of 2007, and at the time I signed my contract, it transpired that it too would conclude in the summer. Because of the trouble with the school in Wuhan, rather than give me a 12 month contract, SPIA gave me a 6 month one.
Within a week or so after my arrival, the seventh foreign teacher, Chiara Braccagni, arrived from Italy for the sole purpose of preparing 7 male students for studying in Italy. I first met Chiara in my apartment on the day she arrived. Mr. Xu brought her to meet me, and in my best Italian (while meaning to say 'it is a pleasure to meet you') told her that 'it is a pleasure with milk', or some other equally stupid expression as I mixed up what should have been an easy sentence to speak in Italian. Chiara's first impression of me was 'old, fat, stupid, but nice in an odd creepy sort of way'. You would have thought that it couldn't get worse than that, but a day or so later when I suggested that we ride our bikes to the local supermarket so that she could learn the way, I ended up getting us lost for 5 hours. On the bright side it did prove to Chiara that I did have the stamina to ride and we thus became good friends and traveling companions as we rode hither and yon all over the city.
I'm sure I wrote about that misadventure somewhere, but succinctly what happened was that we turned left out of the college gates into 'Xiyuan lu', turned left again at 'Xihuan lu', and when we got to whatever is the name of that street where that bridge is beside Han Shan Temple, we turned right. From the bridge where we stopped to get a good view of Han Shan Temple, I pointed out that Da Ran Fa shopping center was 'just there at the traffic lights'. Intent on exploring just a little further, we turned left at the traffic lights and rode a good distance to the next main road traffic lights where we turned left. I figured that we could travel a few blocks up toward the city and then turn left again and head back to the school, but we just couldn't find a place to turn. The whole of 'Gan Jiang' road seemed to be blocked off. How was I supposed to know they were building Suzhou's very first subway under that street?
When we found a place to turn I hadn't a clue where I was until I saw a sign indicating that we were 6 kilometers East of Tiger Hill Pagoda. In trying to head in that direction we inadvertently went over another bridge and got completely lost and found ourselves in such a newly built district that hardly any of the stores were occupied. Eventually finding an internet bar I opened my email account to find Mr. Xu's telephone number and used a public phone in a little drinks kiosk to call him. I told him that we were lost and the first thing he asked was 'where are you?' The kiosk operator told him where we were and he arrived 30 minutes later in a van that could accommodate our bikes. When I asked him how far we were from the school, he told me that we were approximately 15 kilometers west of the school. That was one helluva bike ride.
That first semester in Suzhou was for me a great time of exploration both within and outside of Suzhou, and Chiara and I often dined together either in the cafes across the street from the school or up at the big fancy Muslim restaurant in Shilu (small walking street near Shantangjie). In addition to riding our bicycles everywhere, we traveled together to Shanghai and to Hangzhou's West Lake and Shaoxing , and we climbed a small mountain at Mudu. Over and above that, at the end of May all the foreign teachers were treated by the school to a weekend tour of several nearby towns.
First Semester in Suzhou: March-June 2007
As Suzhou Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture had an affiliation with an Italian college, it was arranged between them to send some Chinese students to study in Italy. It also required sending a teacher from Italy to prepare them. And so it was that Chiara, who had not yet finished her languages degree in Italy, arrived in Suzhou to teach the boys.
I had already been trying to teach English to these boys and it was proving useless. I had thought that Chiara's age, figure and beauty might prove to be an inspiration that I could not provide the students, but sadly, Chiara had as much luck with them as I did. These guys had to be both the laziest and yet nicest students that one could ever have hoped to meet, but it was utterly useless trying to teach them anything. They had already completed 7 years of English studies when I met them and it was obvious that nothing was going to make them progress any further. (They were not the only students in that school in that boat).
I think I only had 2 English lessons per week with the boys, but it didn't take long for me to give up on teaching them anything and I ended up using the time getting them to help me with Chinese. Their Italian classes however were another matter. They had 4 lessons per day in which they did not pay attention to Chiara and certainly did not do their homework. Chiara would spend all 4 lessons each day trying to get the boys to learn just one point, phrase or sentence. Just getting them to learn a simple 'question & answer' drove her crazy: "Quanti anni hai? Io ho vent'anni". (How old are you? I am 20 years old).
As often as I could I would attend their classes to assist Chiara. With a background in French and Latin I would learn in 15 minutes what Chiara had been trying to teach them all day and then we would split the class just to try and keep them focused.
Toward the end of the semester Chiara had to organize an oral test for the boys - via a telephone hook-up with the school in Italy. Naturally the boys failed. Mr. Xu advised Chiara that in order for neither school to lose face, the boys would be sent to Italy and then 2 months later would be sent home. She was told to keep the information a secret and so naturally she told me and together we told the boys. We told them up front that they were wasting both time and money and that if they actually wished not to be kicked back to China that they needed an attitude change. We spent considerable time explaining to them how it was possible for them to turn the situation around, but that it would take dedication on their part and a conscious effort to make friends with Italian students so that they could learn the language fluently.
They must have listened, because they lasted through to the end of the first semester and were told that they could remain for one more. At the end of that one they were told they could continue for another year and so eventually they all ended up staying in Italy. But it took significant effort and preparedness to go against their cultural drives to pull that not so little feat off. In Italy, the laziest of the boys was separated (by virtue of his studies) from the others, and was surrounded by people who spoke neither Chinese nor English, and the dude actually became the first to speak reasonably fluent Italian.
In Chinese society, 'face' is everything, and in Chinese Education, 'making students feel good', is the first rule of the day. You must be 'kind', and 'encourage' students to 'do their best'. You must 'inspire' them. But the fact is that most of the time it is a waste of time. Sometimes a proper kick up the derriere is the best thing for a student - and we kicked those boys until the message was driven home. I know that one of the boys eventually married a local Italian girl and is living in Italy today, and because I had dinner with him a few months ago I know that one of the boys is working for an Italian company in Shanghai. As for the rest, I've lost track. The 'Italian Boys' (as we used to refer to them), despite their laziness in class, had a good relationship with Chiara and I. We went out with them, dined with them and they even snuck us into the 'Shan Tang Jie' for free when at that time you had to pay a fee. Chiara remained in contact with them when they were all in Italy and for some time after they left I remained in email communication as well.
When I look back on that first semester in Suzhou, not only do I take pleasure recalling all the fun I had with Chiara and the boys, but I also feel a sense of pride in having played some part in helping the boys find their way in life. I may not have been their Italian Teacher, but I will always be proud of them for their success, and honored to have contributed something toward it. Some people measure success by power, position, status, money, and possessions. Unfortunately I don't have any of those so I have to measure success in more 'intangible' ways.
When I think about the boys in Suzhou who went to Italy, I am not only grateful that I played some part in inspiring them to be successful, but I feel successful because of it. I don't need acclamation or praise, but what I do need in my life, is the awareness that I have 'contributed'.
In my way of thinking, a person's self identity is not based on what they have or haven't done, but on sufficient and honest self-awareness to be able to say, 'I am glad that I am me!' I am glad that being 'me' meant that I went beyond the 'definition' of my job, to help those boys, not because I 'believed' in them, but because I didn't want to see them waste the wonderful opportunity that came their way.
My self-worth is not dependent on the approval of others, but upon my doing my utmost to be as good a person as I can be in my dealings with people. If some people for whatever reason, find it necessary to grind me under foot in order to be noticed and if some need to run me down to feel good about themselves, or if people think that they can make others think less of me by doing and saying things to destroy my reputation and character, then I believe that is their problem - not mine.
My self-worth comes from the intangibles of life, and my life in China has provided me with far too many for any one person to rob me of my self-identity. This is of course, the meaning of the title of this book. "Finding myself in China"; I found myself! Now my identity is mine. I no longer depend on others to define who I am. They may think, say and do as they please. I no longer need such people in my life. My life is too full of people who have shared their lives with me; too full of people I have cared enough about to help, and helping not only manifests itself in many different ways, but brings with it many different rewards.
As briefly mentioned earlier, in the May holiday that year, Chiara and I visited Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province and while there we also traveled to Shaoxing. Sometime in April, Chiara began dropping hints about the possibility of me accompanying her to Hangzhou. She kept telling me that she was going but that she was not sure it was wise to travel alone. When I asked her directly if she was hinting for me to go with her, she of course said that that was not her meaning, but that if I ever thought of visiting West Lake in Hangzhou that it was a perfect opportunity to do so. I finally told her that if she wanted me to travel with her then she would have to make all the arrangements and that I would 'tag' along for the ride. And so off we went. Little did I realize how energetic, driven, organized and determined Chiara would turn out to be.
She did as promised and planned everything, right down to what time we got up in the morning and what time we went to bed at night. I remember that when we arrived in Hangzhou, she wanted to immediately go sightseeing. I was exhausted and refused to go anywhere but to bed. (We had first stayed in Shanghai). So off she went on her own to check out some places on her itinerary. Next day as we traveled about at a frenetic pace, she would say, 500 meters down that way we can see this sight or we can go 500 meters that way and see that and then go round to see this etc. I remember asking how she could be so sure about the locations and she said that she had "walked it" all out the previous afternoon just to get her bearings.
It's quite funny really. We were so busy, and took so many photos, and had so much information in our heads, that when I got back to Suzhou, I had too much to put to paper. I never did write about West Lake, although I did write about our visit to Shaoxing. It was not until I returned to Hangzhou with Mingxing at the end of June in 2012 that I finally wrote about West Lake.
As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and so it was that at the end of that semester, Chiara headed back to Italy. I on the other hand was meant to head back to Australia to see my family. But I didn't!
Writers Journal Kingscalendar
2013 Social Commentary Articles
The Dysfunction in the Religion of Peace by R.P. BenDedek
By R.P. BenDedek
September 28, 2013
Muslim belief is that ultimately everything is Allah's will. Whether they approve or disapprove of the Kenyan massacres is irrelevant. It is Allah's will! Whether ordinary Muslims approve or disapprove of those terrorists is irrelevant. It is Allah's will! Whatever a Muslim may say with his lips, his true meaning is hidden in the back of his mind. It is Allah's will! Every Muslim, like every other true believer in every other religion, dreams of seeing the world converted to their god. For the Muslim therefore, every action that leads to the defeat or conversion of the infidel must be Allah's will.
Giving the Finger to Comrade GOOGLE's brand of Communism
By Comrade R.P. BenDedek
August 26, 2013
I have come to the decision that the only thing I can do is take a page out of Comrade Google's 'Little Red Book' and say: 'Screw You!' Comrade Google didn't like the way the Communist Government of China kept changing the rules. Comrade Google would not submit to a 'totalitarian authority'. Comrade Google decided to pull up stakes and leave. Is there a lesson to be learned in that?
Learning to Hate The U.S.A.
by R.P. BenDedek
August 11, 2013
American Education is actively turning young Americans into terrorists. The speaker is Brigitte Gabriel (pseudonym), a Lebanese American journalist, author, and activist. Within the video she produces documents which purport that despite so called separation of State and Church, Islam is being introduced to school children at school, and via injection of big dollars into universities all over the USA, Students are being taught to hate the USA.
R.P.BenDedek (pseudonym) is the Author of 'The King's Calendar: The Secret of Qumran' (http://www.kingscalendar.com ), and is a guest columnist and stand-in Editor at Magic City Morning Star News. He is also the Editor of the 'Writers Journal' at Kingscalendar.com. An Australian, he has been teaching Conversational English in China since 2003.
Writers Journal Kingscalendar
"The King's Calendar" is a chronological study of the historical books of the Bible (Kings and Chronicles), Josephus, Seder Olam Rabbah, and the (Essene) Damascus Document of The Dead Sea Scrolls