We boarded the shuttle bus at 6:05 am and arrived promptly at the Pudong airport shortly afterward. Shanghai has a population of 23 million people, more than 2.8 times the population of New York City. And yet, our first impressions of it are of an eerily silent city.
In the airport we came across the other members of our crew—Dr. Henry, her husband, Bill, Stacey and Carrie. After a nondescript exchange of adventures and a brief repast with delicious coffee (and I thought China was a country of tea-drinkers), we boarded the shuttle for our plane. No one catches this plane just before it leaves. Our shuttle skirted the tarmac and weaved its way past dozens of awaiting aircraft before finally depositing us at the door of China Eastern, and through the portal to Xi’an.
Onboard China Eastern, elegant flight attendants with red, blue and golden scarves served us our first true Chinese meal: an airplane version of a thousand year old egg, watery rice and pork. The heavens treated us with a bumpy ride all the way to our destination.
Xiaolan, the school’s representative and international coordinator, met us in the Xi’an airport. Effusive and cheerful, a fluent English speaker, Xiaolan led us to our awaiting buses and shuttled us over Xi’an motor-ways to Gaoxin school. The scenery itself was a mélange of old and new, rice fields spread out against a backdrop of smoke-belching factories. Our short jaunt brought a variety of colorful scenes—neon Chinese characters and load-toting motorcycles.
Finally, we pulled through the gates of Gaoxin school where Principal Wang awaited us. All but Bill, Dr. Henry, Kelly and I continued on to their host homes, but, since we were staying at the school, Principal Wang and Xiaolan invited us to a private lunch.
This was a China that would not be hard to love. Once in the dining quarters, Principal Wang motioned in a half dozen dishes—eggplant salad, dumplings, noodles, rice, tortilla-like breads, among others, washed down by a steady supply of tea.
Later, when our appetites had been satiated, we rose from the table and were ushered through the school which would soon become our day-home. Now we got our first glimpse of real-life Chinese students. Principal Wang drew our attention to the gracious calligraphy that one of the illustrious students had painted, the subtleties lost on our dull American senses. Next, we passed a group of students taking advantage of their two hour lunch break to perform slow dance-like exercises. Finally, we entered the auditorium where unsupervised students were practicing musical pieces, singing along with the piano. Again, the concept of students without supervision is as foreign to us as the calligraphy we had just scanned.
Much of our afternoon was spent in the company of Bill and Dr. Henry, walking and talking our way to the supermarket and back to gather the supplies necessary for survival—bottles of water, mops, towels, and other items to help the transformation of our quarters into our temporary home.
Our second view of the students was at supper. We joined the students, all dressed in blue and white uniforms, in the cafeteria for our choice of food. Kelly and I both ordered a large ceramic bowl of soup, teaming with squid, tiny eggs, crab, various vegetables and noodles. As we slurped our noodles like little kids, we kept our eyes on the students to figure out proper protocol. We noticed that when students didn’t like a particular item, they dug through their own dishes and plopped that item on the table. I had never quite seen that custom before, but I suppose it gives the table-cleaners a reason for existing.