HANGZHOU, Zhejiang — I hesitated shutting the door to my apartment today, because I knew I wouldn’t be opening it again until October — at the earliest. All the constants, all the comforts of my less-foreign-every-day existence in Shanghai were locked inside. I couldn’t hesitate for long, however. I was already behind schedule. With the months of build up — and delays — this trip had, you would think if anything I would be too prepared. No, not me. I was running around at the last minute looking for bottles of hand sanitizer and spools of dental floss, things not easily found in the wilds of China, or some neighborhoods in Shanghai for that matter.
But I’m not roughing it … yet. Far from it, actually. Sure, I broke a sweat walking from my apartment to the metro station, past the gourmet food shop, past the Starbucks. But when it’s mid-July in Shanghai, you break a sweat walking anywhere — even if you don’t have all of your belongings for the next four months strapped to your back.
Yeah, I’m easing into this adventure. First stop is a familiar place, Hangzhou, a “small” city in Zhejiang Province just a two-hour train ride from Shanghai. Known as “Shanghai’s backyard,” Hangzhou is where the big city people go to get away from it all and, you know, get back to nature. Hangzhou’s population is only 8 million.
Marco Polo once called Hangzhou paradise on Earth. And parts of it are indeed beautiful. Unlike Shanghai, some trees in Hangzhou have actually been known to stand taller than a two-story building. (But the three previous times I visited Hangzhou, it rained. And, sure enough, as I look out my train window, the sky is darkening. And now, yes, it is raining. Great.) There is a famous temple here, Lingyin Si, and a big body of water called West Lake. There are a few dozen West Lakes in China, but — even though it’s not west of much — this one is arguably the most famous. Some actually tout Hangzhou as “China’s number one tourist destination.”
And now, I’m happy to enjoy the conveniences associated with such a place, because I know they will be non-existent in the near future. So I was happy to wait in the air-conditioned luxury of Shanghai Railway Station’s “soft seat waiting room” while the poor hard-seat saps roasted outside in the sun. And, on the train, I was happy to sit on my doiley-covered soft seat and listen to the people a few rows over speak English. I was happy, because I knew soon I’d be traveling in a part of China where “traveling by soft seat” would mean sitting on your neighbor’s lap.
In Hangzhou, I am staying with my former student Arthur, who is an Electrical Engineering major — he calls it “Double E” — at Shanghai University. (I taught him the single E, English. And, I must admit, he seems a lot more excited about his current gig stringing for a national tennis magazine than he does about his future as an engineer, which also happens to be his father’s occupation.)
Arthur is different from most of the male students I taught. He does not appear addicted to computer games. He is not awkward or shy. I bet he’s even talked to a girl once or twice. He’s taking driving lessons, even though he doubts his family will ever own a car. He’s a huge tennis fan. Posters of Andy Roddick and Roger Federer hang in his bedroom, which occupies the top floor of his family’s two-story apartment. So do posters of Catherine Zeta Jones, Mariah Carey and Angelina Jolie. (Actually, on the back of his Andy Roddick poster, out of view, is an image of Wimbledon queen — or princess — Maria Sharapova. I told him he should think about turning that one around.)
Yeah, there is something different about Arthur. Compared to his peers, he appears sophisticated, regal even. Maybe it’s the way he uses his umbrella like a cane when he walks. Maybe it’s his Tom Cruise-like smile. Or maybe it’s just the things that he says.
“The connection between your visits to Hangzhou and the rain is quite mysterious, I think,” was how he greeted me at the Hangzhou train station.
Later, as we waited for the bus that would take us to his apartment, we talked about my travel plans and the four uncertain months in China that await me. “I’ve heard that Americans are crazy,” he offered. “I think now I know that it is true.”