One year ago, my husband began a professional, short-term assignment in China, and I had the privilege of spending much of that year with him. We resided near Shanghai, in a city called Suzhou: population 12 million, home to a network of legendary canals and world-renowned gardens, and a near-perfect fit for this landscape architect. I explored the city thoroughly and at a leisurely pace, familiarizing myself with its 2000-year-old layout and assimilating the culture. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way, and I’m not peddling advice, just sharing what I learned.
Wayfinding versus Wandering
A newcomer to any city is tasked with locating tourist attractions, the nearest ATM or the way out. I am blessed with a good sense of cardinal direction, map reading is an integral part of my profession, and I’ve realized that while wayfinding is an invaluable skill, wandering is an artform. If you’re in the backseat of a taxi or ferried about by a driver, you’re unlikely to stumble upon the most epic wet market ever, replete with live pork and poultry butchering and unrecognizable fruits, vegetables, roots and spices. During another outing, had I been focused on my destination only, I might have missed the roadside ear-cleaning business where a woman had customers queued up six-deep to sit in her grubby chairs while she worked her magic with a bamboo probe and a case of cotton swabs. Her customers’ fascination with my fascination prompted a lively dialogue of untranslatable words, pantomime and loud guffaws that kept me giggling for months.
Wander frequently, keep your senses sharp and your heart wide open.
Streets and Alleys
I’ve studied the anatomy of streets and what makes them successful: traffic, people to watch, places to sit, and things to buy. In Suzhou, the main roads include all of those things, but the alleys are the life of the city. Here, dishes are washed, laundry is hung, babies are lulled and the bulk of local business is created and conducted. During my daily treks through the city, I reached dead-ends in the alleys and had to backtrack, passing ancient men squatting on their haunches by their front doors. Spoken communication was difficult, but they greeted me with toothless grins and guided me with hand gestures, pointing to hazards such as slippery drains or gaping holes in the alley that likely had been there for decades, if not centuries.
While strolling through an alley, I met a 10-year old girl, who was emphatically prompted by her aunt to practice speaking English with me. She was in the studio of her grandmother Gu Jinzhen, a rock-star of Su style embroidery. Gu’s work is on display in museums and includes an embroidered portrait of President Bill Clinton and his family, China’s official gift to the President in 1998.This young girl gave me a tour of the studio’s professional needle-workers who spend upward of one year on a portrait, and she took me upstairs to her family’s living quarters, where the needle works were perched on easels and covered with cloth to protect their silk threads from the environment.
Veer off the main road, head down the alley and see what lies near the surface of the city.You won’t be disappointed.
Buildings or Plants
Land development is big business in China, especially in Suzhou where manufacturing and corresponding residential and commercial construction have exploded. It’s not like you have to choose between buildings or plants, but many of the throngs of buildings constructed over the last 15 years are not faring well. Cheap construction methods and environmental factors like abundant moisture and warm temperatures cause mold, leaks, stress and failure that is tangible as well as visible. That same climate and cheap labor that wreaks havoc on architecture also nurtures the plant world. Legions of municipal gardeners move from location to location, in their bright green vests, tea bottles by their sides, as they trim, dig, and cultivate plants of all sizes, chatting loudly while they work.Typically, large swaths of lawn as we know it does not exist, so power equipment such as mowers and blowers aren’t used. Rather, bamboo brooms, scissors, fingers and tarps are the tools of choice, and the Chinese gardeners are masters of those tools. Plants get the love, from nature and humans, and it shows.
I’d rather be a plant.
Always say ‘Yes’
“Why don’t you take the scooter out for a spin?” asked my husband. Oh, you mean that electric vehicle that darts about the streets, sidewalks and market aisles like a water bug, carrying families of four plus baggage, and adheres to NO RULES? Why yes, because once you become acclimated to the fact that there are NO RULES, the ride is delightful, especially in July when it’s 100 degrees, and a breeze is otherworldly. Plus it increases your range in a way that a bus, taxi or subway cannot.
‘Would you like to take a two hour train ride to Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province’? The rain was coming in sideways, and I’d only met my traveling companion briefly, but we found the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, the Father of the modern Republic of China, and we took an emotional tour through the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. From a design perspective, the museum and artwork around the Memorial are both chilling and stunning. I vaguely recall the Massacre in a world history class, but to be educated and immersed in the Memorial to the 300,000 Chinese citizens who were brutally murdered during the horrific event was a profoundly disturbing experience.To think I almost did not say ‘yes’ to this opportunity makes me wonder how much more I’ve passed up, merely because it was inconvenient or uncomfortable.
Even if an outing is not a resounding success, it usually reveals an insight of some sort. Always say ‘yes’. This is the most important lesson of all.
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