Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries - Field Trips

It has been five weeks since my last diary. Five. Freaking. Weeks. When I started this column my intentions were to write a post every week. That rarely ever happened but I was knocking out about 3 a month. Yet here I am with more than a month between now and my last word on my experiences in China. What happened? As usual, it was several things. A lot of it is what I'll call the French equation.

My wife and I lived in Strasbourg, France for about 10 months in 2003-4. Blogging came into existence for me in the form of journaling my daily life there. For many months I was writing everyday about the differences in culture, food, and lifestyles between the French and the United States, as well as chronicling my every day experiences. As with all things, though, what was once interesting became mundane. What was exciting was then boring. In France I then turned to movie reviews and my life as something of a “real” writer began.

We're now in the boring stage of my Shanghai adventure. I've written about most of the things that effect my life at this point, and the day to day just isn't exciting enough to merit articles. Thus a lull.

That and I'm lazy. Seriously, there are things I have to write. There are stories to tell, and everyday I tell myself to write them, but first I have to check my e-mail and wash the dishes and do a little reading and watch another movie. Then the wife comes home and the night washes on, and no words have been written.

I'd like to say I'll do better. I'd like to say I'll write more and the diaries will shine on. I'd like to say those things, but I won't. I know better than that.


As my life as a tutor and substitute don't keep me exactly full-scheduled and busy, and as my wife is a teacher, and my sister is a teacher, and everyone I know is a teacher, I am often called upon to help out with school activities. Sometimes this entails chaperoning field trips.

A few weeks ago I accompanied my sister's 10th grade history class to the Shanghai Museum. As with pretty much everything in Shanghai, the museum was a good ride away. The school my sister works for does not own their own school buses - there are no big yellow behemoths around these parts. Instead they rent buses from a local company. These look a bit like run-down Greyhounds, but they do the job. More or less.

We loaded into two of these buses and headed off for our destination. The streets of Shanghai are a terrifying experience in the best of vehicles, but in a large, dilapidated bus it quickly becomes close your eyes and pray time. The big beasts lunged to and fro through traffic, horns a-blazing, weaving between taxis and scooters all the while narrowly missing pedestrians.

After about 4 kilometers the bus pulled over to the side of the road, stopped and cut its engine. We were no where near the museum. There was no explanation of what we were doing. The bus driver exited and went to talk to the driver of the second bus. Phone calls were made and still no explanation. After several long minutes we were finally told that the bus we were on had broken down.

Four kilometers from home, after 10 minutes of driving, the bus was dead. You would think they might do a little maintenance checking before they started lugging a large group of kids through the streets of one of the worlds biggest cities, but no. You would be wrong for thinking such things. Another, much smaller bus was nearby and it quickly came to pick up our kids. All but about ten kids were loaded and the two working busses took off, leaving me, my sister and those ten kids standing on the side of the road.

The road was a major city highway with massive amounts of speeding traffic zooming by at every moment. We had no idea where we were and we had no other instructions but to wait there and try not to get run over.. Visions of one of my kids running away, or being picked up, or being smashed into little bits ran through my head. None of those terrible things did happen and a new bus did indeed pick us up.

The museum was of the historical and not the art variety. It was big, interesting and very educational for the kids. They of course hated it and spent most of the day trying to sit in corners where they could play their PSPs and their Nintendo DSs.

For lunch it was decided we would go to a mall but a few blocks away. We again took our kids out into the streets of Shanghai. It was the lunch rush and thousands of people were out, moving about. Fear like I've never had rose up through my skin as I imagined myself losing one of my kids. Good grief there was no way to keep track of them. It is hard enough just to manage the streets alone, much less keep up with half a dozen tenth graders. We crossed a couple of major intersections, went down through a tunnel and finally came to the mall. Downstairs was the food court and the kids were essentially told to do what they want but to meet us back in an hour.

I questioned my sister about the madness of all of this, but she shrugged and said that's the way it is always done here. I took a deep breath and tried not to imagine the terrible things that could happen. Lunch was good and the kids all came back on time. The ride home went without a hitch and I learned that Chinese field trips are certainly different than their American counterparts, but the results seem to be about the same.


On another occasion my friend Sara asked me to accompany her fourth grade class to the Shanghai Aquarium – overnight. I again said yes and it was away we went. Fourth graders naturally behave differently then those in the tenth grade and this time our bus trip was filled not with broken down busses but a little game of “who should the teacher marry?”

This time there was no letting the kids loose on the streets either. The aquarium, though located on some sizable acreage, including a nice large lake was totally enclosed from the rest of the city, and thus much more safe, relatively speaking.

The day was filled with dolphin shows, a Chinese version of an American meal (fried chicken wings, french fries, sticky rice, and stir fried vegetables all eaten with chop sticks of course) and a virtual-reality ride through Antarctica and a race-course. The night found us in the aquarium proper with tanks full of every kind of fish imaginable along with turtles, eels, sting rays and the shark tank.

The shark tank was huge and contained a couple of those glass tunnels where you could see the sharks from every sort of angle. This is where we would be sleeping and it is fair to say I was just as excited as the kids. I've never been to an aquarium. I've never seen a shark in the flesh. I'm a little boy glued to the Nature Channel at heart and I was mesmerized.

We played chase and tag and turned out the lights and silently wandered through the fake jungle scene like explorers. We fed the sharks cut up fish and squid. We fed the sharks! With my bare hands I threw in some fresh meat and watched the killers of the deep tear it to pieces. Awesome is the word.

Eventually we bunked down for the night. Like I said we slept in the glass tunnels underneath the tank. There were no beds, save for our own blankets and small mats provided by the aquarium which weren't much more than cardboard. This is where my own age crept back in. Sleeping on what amounts to concrete and a thin sheet of cardboard isn't exactly something I can do well anymore. Sleeping with a bunch of fourth graders at a glorified slumber party when they are full of sugar and adrenaline underneath hundreds of pounds of water full of swimming death machines is near impossible.

The night was full of laughter, shouting, shhh-ing and a lecture on why it isn't appropriate to shine your flashlight on and discuss the merits of various shark butt-holes. I actually did manage to get a little sleep and despite it all it was quite an amazing experience to lie on my back in my make-shift bed watching sharks swim past sting rays and giant turtles. With a few nights rest in a soft warm bed, I can't wait for my next adventure as a field trip chaperon.

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