Monday, after a lazy morning spent doing the washing and generally getting ready for our Tuesday evening departure for Beijing, we left at noon with James Qian, the father of Amy ’16, for Suzhou, one of the oldest cities in China and reputed to be one of the most beautiful. It is another modest-sized city of some 6,000,000 people and a major producer of technological goods. We first visited the Humble Administrator’s Garden, whose name is misleading because the garden is extensive and seductive with many exquisite details. It takes a while to feel the full attraction of this place, but our guide slowed us down with a wealth of stories and comments on the significance of various details of the walkways, elegant structures, and plants. The garden is traversed by a variety of small ponds and waterways that produce one fine viewing spot after another as the visitor walks slowly on its paths. Gradually, this walker found himself stepping out of time and into a meditative mood that the garden rewarded fully.
Afterwards, we headed down a beautiful pedestrian way toward the Suzhou Museum. Unfortunately, it was closed, but we were nonetheless able to appreciate the understated beauty of its exterior, which fits harmoniously with the surrounding walls and roofs. This museum is the last major work of I.M. Pei, who spent the summers of his childhood in Suzhou. Afterwards, James, a real estate developer, had an unexpected treat for us. He arranged a visit to Chuocheng Garden, site of an ambitious luxury housing development, designed to be totally in harmony with the spirit of the Humble Administrator’s Garden next door, so it represents a meeting of traditional and modern China. Many elements of the houses, such as the separate wings for husband and wife, reflect aspects of the structures in the garden next door. Similarly, all of the external areas of the complex are set up as gardens, all quite different from one another, so that each change of position, again as in the garden next door, offers an unexpected and charming vision. The quality of the building materials and furnishings made me feel almost like I was in a museum, and I fell in love with some of the rooms, especially, of course, the library and also the basement swimming pool. However, the house is so elegant that I’m not sure it’s livable, and I’m sure that a Peddie salary would not enable any of us to afford it. Still, it was fascinating to see such a project in the People’s Republic. The asking price, you ask? It was edging into eight figures – and we thought that it would be higher.
From here, James took us to a restaurant on the lakefront, and we again enjoyed a delicious meal of beef, fish, duck, and eel, plus a variety of vegetables and a mushroom soup, followed by a couple of local desserts. Once again, though, the real charm of the meal came from our conversation as we discussed family, school, Princeton, and China. After dinner, we had the opportunity to drive along the lake and enjoy the lights of the city. Even more than in Shanghai, the lighting is striking, especially the illumination of the tops of buildings that makes each one seem like a mini-Parthenon sitting on its dark acropolis. What a wonderfully memorable day!
Today, we are getting ready to leave. At noon, we met with the group of students heading for Peddie to give last minute advice about jet lag, dress code (!), and American food. It will be a change for them! We then answered questions and will try to help them connect with students at Peddie with similar interests, especially in music for which many of our visitors have a special passion. Andrew then headed up to the TV studio to say good-bye to the teachers there while Anne-Marie and I went to see Jenny, whose class we taught last week, and said good-bye to her and her entire class. They all gathered around us for a class photo. It was nice. This evening, we will have dinner with Jason and Shaun to talk about our experience at EFZ and to say good-bye. Andrew, Anne-Marie, and I have had a marvelous visit, and EFZ has paid attention to every detail to make our trip a success. We have been happy getting to know the teachers and students of this fine school and have appreciated the opportunity to play a very small part in its daily life. We will feel sad to leave but also completely satisfied with our experience here.
Tomorrow we will be in Beijing, and we are eager to see another side of China. We will move from the high-powered, financial boom city of Shanghai to a cultural and historical capital. Everyone says that we will love Beijing …