Arm candy field trip.

On Monday last week, Bao sent us an email saying that Shen (his boss) was planning an overnight to the Hangzhou Bay Bridge on Friday; did we want to go?  Um, absolutely.  Anytime the school takes us anywhere, they treat us like we’re kind of a big deal.  And after googling the bridge, I figured I’d at least get some good pictures out of it.  So once our last classes of the week were over, Trisha, Ian, Claire, Shen, our driver, and another teacher- his English name is Wayne- and me piled into a van and headed to Cixi.
In typical baller fashion, we each got our own rooms (with free internet!  kind of a rarity here), which we enjoyed for exactly 20 minutes before hitting up a private room in the hotel’s restaurant.  One amazing dish after another, a few bottles of high quality Chinese red wine (also a rarity), a 90-minute full body massage to end the night- compliments of the school, of course- and yada yada yada, I slept really well on Friday.
Saturday was all business, or so I thought.  I wasn’t really sure what the itinerary was, but I’ve gotten much better about rolling with whatever we do, so it didn’t surprise me that Shen told us we’d first visit a kindergarten and then a Mercedes-Benz dealership.  Of course we’d go to a car dealership!  Why not?
The kindergarten stop made more sense, especially once we got there.  The woman who runs it- I think her title is headmistress- used to work at HFLS and knows Shen well.  We toured the school, which was adorable in its miniature-ness.  It’s called a kindergarten, but here that means kids ages 2 through 5 attend the school.  Some of them spend 4 nights a week on campus, including students as young as 3.
Teeny little toilets imported specially from Thailand.

Wee little beds.

Little mugs.
Mini tables and chairs for meals and snack times.

The main play area.  Notice the winding ramp instead of stairs: the headmistress told us the kids love to run and climb up it during play time.

A giant pool of balls!  This my favorite place to play at Chuck E. Cheese’s when I was little.

The upstairs play area is underneath a giant dome, which they cover during the summer to prevent the space from getting too hot.

A stage.

After posing for several pictures at the kindergarten (and being featured in several we didn’t pose for), I realized that we were Shen’s foreign arm candy.  Good thing I threw a little makeup on that morning and didn’t wear the yoga pants I originally put on.  We left the kindergarten and drove across town to the high school, which interestingly also had a dome.

The dome was cool- and a little leaky.
The dome connection became clearer when Shen explained that both schools were part of the same “education group,” i.e. corporate-sponsored school district.  And who was the corporate sponsor?
Ta-da!  Then I understood the next stop to Mercedes.  We walked into this giant dealership to (once again) the click-click of cameras in the hands of white-gloved employees.  This is where we would meet Ms. Xu, the business mastermind of this operation and the education group.

See the cameras?  Ms. Xu is the one in the floral sweater.

We headed upstairs to her office.
Her staff served us freshly brewed cappuccinos, expensive green tea harvested during Qing Ming, and heaping plates of waxberries (and if you’ve never tried a waxberry, I’m sorry to tell you that you haven’t truly lived).
With Wayne acting as translator, Ms. Xu told us the story of how she became involved with education.  Once her car dealership reached unheard-of levels of success, the government approached her and asked her to consider starting a school.  So she did.  To date, she’s invested $40 million (that’s USD, not RMB) into a kindergarten, a primary school, a middle school, and a high school.  

Ms. Xu with her plans for a new high school/middle school joint campus.
The swag she presented us with while we enjoyed our morning tea: Mercedes brand sunglasses that Shen told us are worth 4000RMB and a 4GB flash drive that looks like the key to my very own Benz.  She also gave us each 2 fancy-brand silk scarves, the kind her employees wear.

We left the dealership and thanked Ms. Xu profusely for her generosity, not expecting to see her at lunch, which was our next stop.  Turns out that she and her family (her daughter, a former HFLS student, and her husband, who looked every bit the I’m-going-to-wear-a-trendy-t-shirt-and-ripped-jeans-because-my-wife-is-the-wage-earner-and-I’m-chasing-my-dream-of-fronting-a-rock-band husband) were treating us to what turned out to be the most extravagant meal I’ve had…probably in my whole life.

It is a special kind of treat to sit down to a meal where the staff does absolutely everything for you, including placing your napkin in your lap, keeping your wine/juice glasses full, and bringing out trays of beautifully plated delicacies.  Among many, many other dishes, we had 4 different types of fish, 3 different duck dishes (including Peking duck!), and 2 different types of crab.  I’m talking claws on the plate and everything.  Being so taken care of while eating is sort of like being on drugs; my dopamine levels must have been through the roof on Saturday.  We didn’t have to worry about what to order, or if we’d ordered enough, or how we’d split up the bill when we were done.  The soft lighting, the constant toasting, even the fact that I didn’t really have to pay attention to most of the conversation (as it was mainly in Chinese) all meant I could simply relax and enjoy just one more piece of crab, just one more duck pancake.  As my students would say: it was, in a word, glorious.

In my post-feast haze, I did vaguely wonder if we were actually going to see the Hangzhou Bay Bridge or if it was mentioned in our itinerary because we were near it, but we did traverse said-bridge on the way home.  At 22 miles long, this bridge is the largest non-suspension bridge in the world; it spans the Hangzhou Bay so that residents of Ningbo can get to Shanghai much faster than if they had to creep along the outer edge of the bay.  The most incredible part about this bridge is that it was actually privately funded.

Unfortunately, the day was rainy (we’ve officially entered the Plum Rains, aka monsoon season), so the view was less than impressive.  But I still took a few pictures.

The bridge looked like it disappeared into the fog.

Landing pad.  I’d bet my new sunglasses that Ms. Xu has a private helicopter.

Observation tower.

We returned to Hangzhou on Saturday evening.  It was still raining, but Shen and Wayne walked me and Trisha back to the apartment under their umbrellas, and I lived in the “I’m kind of a big deal” fantasy for a little while longer before coming back to my dirty laundry and sink full of dishes.  But at least I still have- and will totally rock- the shades.  Arm candy, indeed.

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