There’s a famous Chinese saying that goes something like this: “Above there is heaven, below there is Hangzhou and Suzhou.”
Two years ago I studied abroad in what is considered one of the most beautiful cities in China. Hangzhou is only an hour and a half train ride from Shanghai, so I decided to take a day trip to visit my old Professor and my Alma Mater.
Before leaving for Hangzhou however, I returned to one of the areas in Shanghai that my friends and I had frequented when visiting Shanghai two years ago. Renmin Guangchang, or the “People’s Park” is situated across the river from Pudong (the famous part of Shanghai’s skyline that includes the Oriental Pearl Tower), in the heart of Shanghai’s financial district. There is a hostel near the park at which my friends and I staid, and a street with lots of good restaurants (the real reason why I came back here). Shanghai is famous for a certain type of dumplings, called “Xiao long bao,” otherwise known as Shanghai steamed dumplings, and there is a restaurant called Yang’s Fried Dumplings that makes an especially good Xiao long bao. The minute I arrived at People’s Park I was hit with major déjà vu. Although I remember the area well, I didn’t remember exactly where the restaurant street, or Yang’s, was located. I walked around in search of this place for almost an hour, returning to our old hostel at one point to ask for directions. I finally found what appeared to be Yang’s Fried Dumplings, but something didn’t seem right – the storefront looked the same, but the street it was on was not as I remembered it. The road was freshly paved and wider than I remember, and I didn’t recognize any of the other restaurants nearby. Perhaps I don’t remember it as well as I thought, or maybe a lot has just changed in two years – in China, this is very possible.
Area around People's Park
Line outside Yang's Friend Dumplings
I arrived at the Hangzhou South Railway Station in the early afternoon and got on a bus that I hoped would take me across the city to the edge of Xi hu, or the West Lake, where the campus for the International School of Zhejiang University is located. When I was studying abroad my friends and I had rarely taken the bus, as most of the places we went in Hangzhou were close enough to ride a bike, or it was more convenient to take a cab. Traveling across Hangzhou by bus though, I realized how large the city is and how much of the city I hadn’t seen. With a population of about 6 million, Hangzhou is still considered a medium sized city in China. It took me over an hour to cross Hangzhou’s sprawling outer rim into the heart of the city, situated on the east side of Xi hu. Arriving at the West Lake, I was reminded of why the Chinese compare Hangzhou to heaven: looking across the lake one can see several pagodas sitting atop the hills that turn into rolling mountains which form one of China’s largest nature reserves on the east coast. Lilly’s grow at the lake’s edge and a causeway lined with trees crosses the lake near its center. I bough some yang rou chuanr (lamb cabob) from a restaurant stand and ate lunch on a bench by the lakeside, remembering the time that I met a girl from Chengdu via couchsurfing and walked with her around the lake one afternoon.
The West Lake
View more pictures from Hangzhou and Shanghai here.
My old Professor and the Director of the Tufts in China study abroad program, Jay Yang, had asked me to come to his class that afternoon and give the students some advice about living in China. When I arrived at the Zhejiang University campus, flood of memories came rushing back; of walking to lunch with my classmates, riding my bike to class, and playing Frisbee on a field under the shadow of a 50 foot tall statue of Mao Zedong. I have a lot of great memories of that time, but as I walked across campus I realized most of them involved my Tufts classmates or other foreign students, and very few Chinese students. So my main piece of advice for Jay’s class was for the students to break out of their foreign student bubble and go find Chinese friends. This is difficult to do at Zhejiang University, where all the foreign students are housed in the same dorm and take language classes together. But during my time in China I’ve found other ways to make Chinese friends (on 25 hour train rides for starters). In the long run, meeting locals is the best way to improve any language and to really understand the culture.
Zhejiang University Foreign Student's Dorm
Contrary to my own advice however, I invited some of the students out that night to Reggae bar, a nightclub in Hangzhou that I had frequented as a student. Reggae bar has a relaxing atmosphere and often has live bands playing. Once again I was reminded of my nights out in Hangzhou, and all the good times spent there. One of the most vivid memories I had of my time in Hangzhou however was my apprehension toward speaking Chinese. As I visited all these places that I hadn’t seen for two years, I realized how far my ability and confidence in speaking Chinese has progressed. One sign of this was that although Jay spoke to me mostly in English, he sometimes drifted into Chinese, most of which I understood. The last time I was in Hangzhou I usually couldn’t understand what he was saying, so he always spoke to me in English. Hopefully by the next time I return to Hangzhou I will be able to speak with him entirely in Chinese.