Nanjing: Squirrel Fish, Purple Mountains, and the Miniature Wall of China

Once more into the smog. A quick turnaround in Beijing left me sleepless and exhilarated, again bracing the morning cold before the sun rose. I hopped in a cab and sped away from Beijing University, leaving for nearly two months!

Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen!

“So far I’ve passed seventeen nuclear energy facilities! And that doesn’t even include the ones I can’t see because of the 永远-opaque sky!” (永远 translates as “forever” or “always.”) Recently I’ve been noticing that some words in Chinese are just more conveniently used than the available English 词语 (“vocabulary words”… case in point).

The train to Nanjing was the first 高铁 (high-speed rail) I have ever taken; over 300 kilometers per hour! Scenery was dominated by harvested pastures and villages blanketed in smog. Smooth journey. Advanced nearly 100 pages in Warped Passages by Lisa Randall. An overview of modern astrophysics, the book covers progressive theories regarding extra-dimensions and brief histories of current discussion topics (string theory, the standard model, etc.). Arrived at the East Gate of Nanjing South Railway Station. Nearly a kilometer from the West Gate (an indication of its size), I stepped into the second largest train station in the world and marveled at its astronomically distant ceiling. Greeted by the mother of the Nanjing Foreign Language School student I hosted for the final 10 weeks of my senior year of high school, I departed for 北京东路. Generously accommodated by the student’s family in the Eastern Pearl Hotel (东方珍珠饭店), I dropped my bags off and drove straight to the Nanjing City Wall, designed by the first Ming Emperor nearly 600 years ago, when Nanjing was established as the country’s capital. Rediscovering a small museum within the wall, I learned from my friend’s mother about the city’s contemporary history and recent renovations of its wall. Having lived with the families of two NFLS (Nanjing Foreign Language School) students for a Nanjing-St. Louis sister city exchange program the previous two years, I had developed a familiarity with Nanjing’s 特色 scenic spots, central streets, restaurants, and even developed a friend-group within the NFLS 高二 and 高三 (junior and senior) student bodies. Returning to the familiar city wall, I climbed its blood-stained bricks once more, each signed by its architect, and glimpsed that familiar view through the mist: northern Nanjing’s bustling metropolis contrasted with the southern residential area, spread between 玄武湖 (Xuanwu Lake) and the foot of 紫金山 (Purple Mountain). Was briefly reunited with friends of past eras, host families, and teachers before I headed to Nanjing’s giant 德基广场 (Deji Mall) for a traditional Nanjing dinner with my previous two host families. Laughing over Nanjing delicacies and traditional music, we recalled memories from years past. Delicious tastes included 小笼包 (little dragon dumplings), taro syrup, pumpkin tempura, and duck blood. Mmmm. Back to the Eastern Pearl for a much-needed rest.

Dinner with Host Families
Dinner with Host Families

Early rise and off to NFLS. When I came to the school two years prior, it served as my second home. For nearly a month, the foreign language high school served as my sheltering base while I adapted to the chaos of living in China for the first time. I had cultivated friendships and lasting relationships with peers and teachers. At the time, I wanted to stay forever, and when I did leave, I assumed I’d never return. But this time, it seemed as if returning each spring had become a trend of mine. Teachers expected me. And, while I knew it would probably be my last time to the school before all of my closest friends were graduated, I couldn’t escape the euphoria of returning to the sanctuary of my bygone years once more.


In the halls, I serendipitously came across with two students who had come to my high school in Saint Louis for the final semester of senior year along with the student I had hosted. In the afternoon, I sat in on two of their classes: English and Biology. In English class, which started and ended with a clip from The Simpsons with Chinese subtitles, I was offered one of the VoA (Voice of America) worksheets that the students were given to complete. Having worked through similar VoA worksheets and tests in the past at NFLS, I was not surprised that, while I had breezed through the assignment, most of my answers were incorrect according to the answer key. I’ve always found puzzling the school’s method of teaching English. Classes and instructors teach students not only overly formal (British) English, but also only teach them according to test material. This is a common pattern in the Chinese’s study of English and suggests why, most of the time, Chinese students will excel on written examinations and formal English essays, and, when greeted by a native speaker (“Hey John, how are you?), the majority will respond “Fine. Thank you. And you?” with robot-like regiment.

Class at Nanjing Foreign Language School
Class at Nanjing Foreign Language School

Walking around with my host-student, I reconnected with two teachers, Ma and Chen. During my first trip to Nanjing, they had helped spark my interest in Chinese language and culture, a pursuit that would eventually transform my life’s trajectory. Happy to see that a past exchange student had benefited so greatly from their teaching, teachers Ma and Chen engaged me in hours of conversation about the happenings of the past few years. During the students’ mid-day exercise break in which they all (2000+) assemble on the school’s Olympic-size soccer field to run in perfect lines back and forth to the national anthem, I joined in the calisthenics, having grown accustomed to the activity. Tired but elated, I returned to my host student’s home for a delicious Squirrel Fish (traditional, delicious 江苏 (Jiangsu) province dish) dinner. Over a festive meal, we shared discussion about high school life in China, the Chinese election process, and run-ins with local government officials. Stomachs bulging and cameras poised we walked to the nearby Confucius Temple (孔子庙), where we toured its meandering canals in a small motor boat with an overhead speaker playing a recording of a Chinese tour guide explaining the historical significance of the bygone imperial testing center.

Bridge in the Confucius Temple (View from boat)
Bridge in the Confucius Temple (View from boat)

The next day was filled with ancient culture, ancient architecture, and time-honored friends. Traversed Purple Mountain’s windy roads, deciduous leaves crunching under rubber soles as I made the steep climb to the top of 中山陵 (Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum). Gazing into the haze across Nanjing’s rural outskirts, I could feel the mist of fast-moving clouds on my face as they kissed the mountain’s jagged peak. The actual interior of the crypt, where photos were prohibited, contained a towering statue of Sun Yat-Sen, which resembled that of Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. Protected by a ceiling decorated with brilliant shades of blue and yellow, the remnants of Sun were kept just beneath the stone floor of the mausoleum. Back down the 675 steps leading up to the site’s peak, I headed over to the famous 明孝陵 (Ming Dynasty Tombs), a fortress on the opposite side of Purple Mountain guarded by a shaded avenue of stone horses, lions, and unicorns.

明孝陵 - Ming Tombs
明孝陵 – Ming Tombs

Enjoying lunch at a traditional Chinese restaurant overlooking a lake at the foot of the mountain with my host mother and her doctor friend, I then headed to the host family with which I stayed during my first trip to China in 11th grade. Not only were the 杨 (Yang’s) generous enough to host me for an entire month in 2013, but they also helped change my entire outlook on China, the language, and pursuing Chinese as a main course of study for the remainder of my time in high school and beyond. Into the dustier streets of southern Nanjing, I navigated the familiar, winding way to Ryan’s apartment and up the nine flights of stairs to his door. Just two years ago, Ryan and I would spend weekend nights using batteries to test the circuitry of the motion-sensing lighting in his apartment stairwell. And now, he was applying to Georgia Tech for electrical engineering. The cold nights I had spent on my first wooden bed, freezing showers contrasted with hot meals and scalding boiled tap water, all of my first impressions of China had been in their home. Catching up with Ryan while his parents made their ways home from work, we discussed the latest in NFLS drama and changes in popular Chinese culture since I had last visited. In a happy reunion with Mr. Yang, after two years of time apart, I sat down to the dinner table and readied the chopsticks they had designated as mine years ago. The meal brought ambrosial sensations; “Stinky Tofu,” dried marinated beef, morning glory, and my first 八宝炒饭, “Eight Treasure Sticky Rice.” Sealed with the stamp of treasured memories, my trip to Nanjing had come to an end… save trip to the 锅贴儿 (pot sticker) restaurant for breakfast!

Dinner with First Host Family
Dinner with First Host Family

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