Suzhou, China

Our tour today was an “optional” tour. I guess our fellow tour mates felt the same about having another day in Shanghai as we did – 100% of us opted to leave Shanghai to tour the Venice of the Orient, Suzhou.

We were told that the bus ride to Suzhou would take about 2.5 hours, so would be leaving at 7:30 am. On the drive, Rose (our tour manager) gave us information about life in modern-day China as well as some historical information about the dynasties of China.

She taught us a few basic phrases in Chinese. Chinese is a tough language to master due to the fact that there are 4 tones in the language (rising, falling, rising then falling and flat). Four identically spelled words can have radically different meanings based on what tone is used. For example, Rose’s Chinese name means flower. Using the wrong tone, the meaning of the word becomes “shrimp”. I am a little worried about trying to pronounce the words and saying completely the wrong thing. Just my luck that I would try to tell someone to have a nice day, and have it come out, “You smell like a goat!” Written language is even more complex – there are about 60,000 characters in the Chinese language. There traditional and simplified characters. And, over 100 dialects exist in China, meaning that many Chinese people cannot verbally communicate with each other!

On our recent trip to Vietnam, we learned that the Communist regime there does not provide free education or medical care to the people of that country. We were surprised to learn that it is much the same in China. Education is compulsory for 9 years, but parents must pay for 3 years of kindergarten as well as high school and university. Kindergarten costs about $2000 US per year. This doesn’t sound like a lot until you learn that most people only earn $12,000 to $18,000 per year. School days are long, even for the youngest learners. Kindergarten hours are from 8 am to 5 pm daily, as are elementary school hours. Middle school students attend school from 8 am to 7-8 pm daily. By senior high, students are in class from 6 am to 10 pm, with a couple of breaks for meals. When they finally get home from school, they have a couple of hours worth of homework ahead before they can go to bed. Whew! There are tough university entrance exams to pass and so parents send their children to “weekend” and “holiday” schools (at additional expense) to make sure they are prepared. Teachers are given the utmost respect in this society. Apparently, children have more respect for their teachers than their own parents. As a retired teacher, this is difficult for me to conceive of.

Medical care is not provided for by the government. From Rose’s description, the medical insurance system in China is essentially the same as in the US. In other words, it is quite a mess!

We also heard about the “two parents, one child” policy that existed in China until 2016. Farmers were always exempt from the policy – they were allowed two children. And, the rich were always able to have as many children as they wanted; they simply paid the fines that were assessed for breaking the law. Now, all Chinese are allowed to have two children, but fined for a third. You may wonder what happens if a couple have twins or triplets? Multiples are considered “one birth”and so parents are not penalized. Ethnic minorities are exempt from this law, but only 8% of the population are part of the 55 ethnic minorities that exist here. 92% of Chinese are Han.

Apparently, the generation of children from these two parent/one child families are quite entitled. They expect their parents to take care of the grandchildren, to buy apartments for them to live in, and generally to provide a nice lifestyle for them. Apartments here can cost a half a million US dollars so this is quite a high expectation. How anyone can afford that is a mystery to me – when you are making $18K per year and a 30% downpayment is expected to get a mortgage, how on earth does that work? Actually, I think everyone here (except the very rich) must be deeply in debt because the cost of living greatly exceeds the wages people earn. Money must be borrowed to send children to school, to pay for medical insurance (as well as copays), and to buy a place to live. The numbers just don’t work.

Like the Vietnamese, the Chinese believe in ancestor worship. They burn paper money to “send” the money to their ancestors in the afterlife. They also burn paper votive (models of houses, cars, phones, etc. made of paper) to provide comfort to their ancestors. This takes place in early April. Those that can’t visit their ancestors tombs will draw a circle on the road and burn the paper products there.

Rose also talked about each of the dynasties. I wasn’t too interested in most, but jotted down a couple of facts: China is named after Emperor Chin who built the Great Wall, standardized money, weights, and measures and also had the Terracotta Warriors created. The Han Dynasty was famous for creating the Silk Road, which actually had to do with finding good horses to fight their enemies more so than trade. Of course, the Silk Road connected China with the west for the first time. She also talked about the one female emperor of China, Empress Wu. During her reign, girls were allowed to be educated. When she died, this idea died with her.

We reached Suzhou early due to not hitting any traffic. This is another large city – 16 million people live here. The younger generation likes to live in the newer part of town, but the older part was where we would visit. The old city here is surrounded by a 2500 year-old moat and has canals running through it. Historically, the city was only accessible by boat because it had no bridges across the moat. There were 8 gates that boats could pass through and the canals were built so that the boats could traverse the city. Marco Polo visited here and dubbed it the Oriental Venice.

We boarded gondolas for a half-hour ride down one of the canals. We were serenaded by our gondolier (traditional Chinese folk songs). She was a lovely 68 year old woman that took up this job to supplement her social security income of around $30/month.

After disembarking from our gondola ride, we were given some free time to walk along the canal and visit the shops. Not being much into shopping, we opted for a visit to an ice cream shop instead.

Does this look familiar? No? This is a Starbucks. Also, the meeting point for our group.

Next up was lunch – quite delicious. And, on to our final stop in Suzhou, the Master of Nets Garden. As we drove to the garden, Sean, our local tour guide, pointed out the many camphor trees that lined the streets. He explained that when parents had a baby girl, each would plant a camphor tree. When the girl was old enough to get married, the trees would be cut down and the wood used to make boxes to hold her dowry. Matchmakers would use the height of the trees to help determine if a girl was eligible for marriage. If the trees were too short, the girl was too young. If the trees were too tall, the girl may have been older than the parents claimed. And, if the trees were already cut down, the girl may already by married!

Parents of boys planted Gingko Biloba trees. By the time the trees bore fruit, the son would be in school. Eating the nuts from the tree was thought to help the son’s memory and make him more successful in school. Of course, only boys went to school. Girls from rich families were taught music, chess, calligraphy and painting, but only in order to make their future husband’s happy (so they would have something in common).

There are two main types of gardens in China. We would be visiting the first type, the smaller private garden.The other type is larger and more like a park. The garden was not what I was expecting – no flowers in sight. There are four elements in the private garden: water (signifying wealth), rock (long life), trees, and a pavilion.

The garden was built by a wealthy man for his retirement. It was really more of a compound than a garden – lots of buildings and rooms as well as outdoor gardens built with feng shui in mind.

Sean walked us through the garden and explained the symbolism behind each part. We were then given some free time to enjoy the gardens on our own before we loaded up the bus to head back to Shanghai. We had the evening free to pack up – it’s time to head north to Yichang tomorrow to start our 4-day Yangtze River cruise.