Saturday, March 28, 2009

SIP: Creating a Community

After a couple of cool damp days, the weather, like my cold improved, and I started to explore the city of Suzhou. After having just spent two weeks in Campeche Mexico's, historical city center, Suzhou could not be more different, for there is little history in Suzhou Industrial Park, where I am staying, instead there is lots of “new”. This area is really amazing in how the Chinese have created a  beautiful community to support the rapid expansion of the industrial sector. I am told that similar to Campeche, Suzhou also has a historical central section, and I look forward to exploring this part of the city later in my stay in China.

Unlike an “Industrial” park back home , where the emphasis is very definitely on the needs of the industries using the park, Suzhou Industrial Park has switched the emphasis to the people working in the park. The result is really much more “Park-like” than in Canada. I always wondered why it was called a “Park” when there are none of the usual features we look for in a park. Here in Suzhou they have done it right, combining the needs of industry with needs of the people working in the industries. There are apartments, schools, technical institutes, recreational facilities, restaurants, shopping malls, and acres and acres of actual parkland. The result seems to me to be good for everyone, providing a ready source of workers for the industries, and for the workers a comfortable convenient community close to their work. 

I am told that the Suzhou Industrial Park is so new that there was nothing here ten years ago, and then it was designed with a great deal of thought to create an effective community for everyone. Apartment complexes blend with industry and services to create a unified community serving everyone well. The newness of the area is particularly evident when walking through the actual parkland that is generously scattered through the Industrial Park. All of the gardens and trees are relatively young, and everywhere new trees are being planed and new gardens being developed. It isn't a matter of putting in these parks and then forgetting them either, for I see people every day working, maintaining and upgrading the parkland. I walked through one area where rows of new full sized trees were being planted al wrapped in natural rope to protect them as they settled into their new surroundings. 


All through the Industrial park are apartment complexes, providing lots of comfortable homes for people working in the park. Everywhere you look construction cranes can be seen erecting new, bigger and better buildings. These building are in no way stark dormitory style building designed to simply house workers when they are not building things in the factories. Each building is designed in it's own park like setting. The building are often amazing tall and thin, making the most of the valuable space, but each building is surrounded by gardens and green areas. Built into most complexes are small corner stores and small restaurants. The buildings themselves are unique and of interesting designs. Especially interesting are the tops of these building, which often look like separate little villages perched on top of the towering buildings. 

Scattered throughout the park are many schools, providing education for the thousands of children living in the apartments. I was surprised at the number of “Experimental” schools, often next door to a regular school, and with my background in education I couldn't help but wonder what went on behind these “Experimental” school walls? On one of my walks I noticed a huge Hitachi factory right next door to a large technical school – someone put this schools in the right place. The schools themselves are all large, open and inviting and are architecturally interesting on their own.

The real highlight of Suzhou Industrial Park has to be the actual Parkland designed into the area. Central to the Park is the larg Jing Ji Lake which has Parkland scattered around it. There are also many canal running through the entire area.  Every canal is lined with grass and trees, usually elegant willows. I was surprised that these canal usually are not readily accessible to people, and although you can see and enjoy them, they do not normally have paths along them as I have seen in many other cities.  Scattered through the park are many other areas of parkland, usually with wandering well maintained pathways, benches, manicured lawns, gardens and trees.  Some of these parks within the park were well used, but others I seemed to be enjoying by myself, of course that could simple be me as the crazy Canadian enjoying the 15C day instead of the -5C back home in Nova Scotia, where the local residents are waiting for the actual warmer weather to enjoy their parks. 

Suzhou certainly seems to have figured out how to build an Industrial Park to serve the Industries as well as the people working there.   

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Real Mexico

Gang warfare between powerful drug warlords, multiple murders, drunk drivers smashing into buses carrying tourists, Canadian tourists killed in their rooms in deluxe luxury resorts – the press reports about Mexico are not good, in fact some governments are warning their citizens to perhaps not travel to Mexico. My mother-in-laws sister called her when she heard we were going to Mexico to tell her to try to convince us not to go because it was too dangerous. Doesn't sound like an ideal location to visit does it?

Well, sixteen high school students have discovered that Mexico is way more than what you hear on the news, and they will be coming back to Canada with a completely different opinion of this country.

I had the opportunity to accompany my wife on a educational expedition to Campeche Mexico for a Leadership Camp where sixteen students from Halifax and sixteen students from Campeche spent two weeks working together sharing languages, cultures and experiences all based around developing leadership skills. 

As the unpaid and overworked photographer/videographer, I spent the two weeks following these students around as they experienced Mexican culture, learned a new language, and found ways to make an impact in Mexico. They visited Mayan Ruins, explored the historical UNESCO World Heritage city of old Campeche, brought a bus load of material to an orphanage and a Mayan student shelter, visited a turtle sanctuary, and a nature preserve, and yes, they even got some time to enjoy the sunshine, hot temperatures and tropical beaches on Mexico. The biggest thing they did was see beyond the news stories, and the tourist resorts to discover the real Mexico.

Now it helped that this was an amazing group of young adults. I could tell that they were nice  as soon as I met them, but the clincher was as I got off the plane in Mexico City I was approached by a man and wife who recognized my T-shirt and asked if I was with the youth group. They told me they were on the plane first and were expecting the worst as sixteen teenagers settled in all around them. Expecting the “Plane ride from hell”, they said they were so surprised to find them a most pleasant group. They reported that they were pleasant, polite and friendly to all around them. Not one “inappropriate” word was spoken the entire flight. They were amazed how well they all got along, and completely enjoyed eavesdropping on their excited enthusiastic chat about what they were going to be doing. They said it was the first time they enjoyed being stuck on a plane for five hours surrounded by teenagers.

When these students were not busy with their leadership activities they went home not to a hotel, but home with their Mexican friends to live with a Mexican family. The slept in hammocks, ate strange food, rode in pickup trucks, and partied on Mexican beaches at night.

They did what their new Mexican friends did, which might have involved a lot of things they might not have done at home. There were no accidents, no drug wars, no murders – the worst thing that happened was a sprained ankle, and some upset digestive systems (You still  shouldn't drink the water in Mexico). What they did see was friendly people, ancient civilizations, a vibrant colourful culture , a beautiful city, a wonderful country, and a whole lot of great new friends that they will remember for a long time. 

These Canadian students are coming back home with a completely different picture of Mexico than most of us get from the news. They saw the real Mexico, and I know that the next time they hear warnings about how dangerous it is to visit Mexico they will speak up and tell everyone about the Mexico they experienced. Listen to them – they have been there; they know..

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

China - An Initial Impression

China was not a location I had dreamed of visiting, but when the opportunity arose to go over with all my expenses paid, it was something I couldn't turn down. Someone felt that my 30 years experience in the education system was worth funding my trip in order for me to provide some training for teachers learning to teach English to Chinese children.

This initial post will deal with my first impressions of the country and it's people. I was not going in completely blind, as my wife had visited the country on another educational excursion, and a friend had spent a month doing much the job I was doing. I'm afraid as well I was guilty of a bit of racial stereotyping of a very general nature, as I was expecting something similar to Japan where I had a very enjoyable trip last year. I shouldn't have done that, because all they really have in common is the Asian continent, but I still was basing my expectation on my Japanese experience.

My very first impressions of the Chinese people was on the plane from Toronto to Shanghai. The majority of the passengers were Chinese, and I have never been on a plane where so many people ignored the rules. Now to be fair, I couldn't really tell the native Chinese returning from a visit to Canada, and the Chinese-Canadians going on a trip to the homeland. They made announcements in English, French and Chinese about sitting down,  putting on your seat-belts, putting seat backs straight, and tray-tables up, but the crew had to make more than one trip up and down the aisle reminding people, yet even after flight crew were settled for landing, people were getting up and moving around. I also had one of the “Little Emperor”Children sitting beside me, who was never told to sit still, or behave. He wasn't bad, he just did whatever he wanted, which included trying to change my video monitor, and laying down with his feet on me – hard to get any sleep during the flight with him sitting next to me.

I arrived in Shanghai tired and starting to get get sick with a cold on a cold damp dreary afternoon – not exactly the best way to start a trip after just getting back from Mexico and sun and 30C every day. We drove from Shanghai on a crowded bus through fog (or is it the famous China smog), so I couldn't even see much. Needless to say, my initial impressions of China were not positive.

I hardly noticed the next day, waking from sleep on the hardest bed I have ever experienced, with a splitting headache, a definite head cold, and a fever. My flat mate was not home, but I found some bread, peanut butter and juice, had breakfast and went right back to bed to sleep most of the day. I seem to recall looking out to another dreary wet cold day.

Being an eternal optimist I'm hopefull things will improve soon!