China Intern Clemmie – socialising in Suzhou

Fun and socialising, questionable bars and boat trips

When we first arrived in Suzhou,  we were all full of optimism about our new lives in China. We were going to find the expats,  immediately become remarkably popular and punctuate our teaching with a bursting social calendar. As often is the case with over-optimism, our expectations were gradually lowered to a more achievable level, our aim after the first week was to make A friend. Just one single friend. It’s not that people weren’t friendly…it’s just that there weren’t any people. At least not ones that could speak English.
Now, don’t get me wrong,  I don’t want to move from my London bubble to a western bubble in Suzhou; but sometimes it’s nice to have a conversation with someone different who actually has a clue what you’re saying.
So with that in mind we got our sociable faces on and ventured to Downtown and Shi Quan Lu where we’d heard all the bars were. What we hadn’t heard was that a considerable chunk of Shi Quan Lu is essentially a red light district. The first bar we went to was innocent enough, a tiny Western style pub, alright for the first drink but not the sociable vibe we were going for so we moved on.

Next we went to Linda’s, and that’s where everything was illuminated for us. The hostess at Linda’s was very keen to get us through the door so it was almost under duress that we sat down with a delicious cold drink. There were three older Western gentlemen in the bar, two with their Chinese girlfriends (oh, how innocent we were) draped over them affectionately. After a while one of us made the comment that all the ladies in here were very dressed up compared to every other woman we’d seen in Suzhou, and that the two Western gentlemen’s “girlfriends” were leaving very little to the imagination, but still the penny hadn’t dropped yet. It embarrassingly took until the bar lady, aka the madame, asked the third Western gentleman if he wanted a “nice young girl” tonight too that it clicked. Shit. We were in a brothel disguised as a bar (and not very well disguised either). Very quickly my feeling of slight discomfort at the Western-Chinese PDA skyrocketed into teeth clenching awkwardness and almost horror. Suddenly the idea of downing my drink and running away seemed very appealing. In the end I think the madame realised that we were horribly out of our depths and kindly told us that we were in the area of “lady bars” and pointed us in the direction of the Western friendly bar – but not before double checking whether we were employed full time in Suzhou and not looking for part time jobs…
After the shock to the system of Linda’s, Jane’s in comparison was a dream. There were Westerners watching football, there was live music and karaoke; it was everything we could have hoped and dreamed for. That night we met Alex, a London boy who went to Westminster and Oxford, or in other words comes from my little bubble back home. Sometimes it is amazing how true the saying “it’s a small world” really is. I think it’s safe to say we went home that night pretty pleased with ourselves that we’d a) escaped a brothel, and b) made an actual Western friend. Good times.


Since then we’ve been back to Jane’s bar (and steered well clear of Linda’s) and are starting to make a decent group of friends. It seems like anyone Western anywhere close to our age is in Suzhou teaching too, and this is an immediate bonding point. Some people, like Harry, have been teaching in Suzhou for over 6 months, while others are like us and just started; it’s a good mix of people who know how Suzhou works and what’s going on and people who are in the same boat as us. The one distressing thing we have discovered from Harry is that Suzhou doesn’t really do going out. Or at least not going out out. There are next to no clubs and bars seem to close pretty early and rapidly empty out after 1am. This is a curse of being so close to Shanghai. With one of the most exciting cities in China only 30 minutes away people tend to commute out to the bright lights and clubs of the big city. But we too have big plans to venture out to Shanghai and see what it has to offer – over the first weekend of April a group of us from around the country are hoping to converge for a sort of mini-reunion. I hope the planning all comes through so we can relive a little bit of training week but until then we’re continuing to fairly sucessfully scout out our own little city.

We’ve been to a house party (semi-crashed) and met some people who coincidentally live in the same neighbourhood complex as us. We’ve transfered evening bar friends to actual daytime friends on a beautiful sunny trip to Tongli, a water town just outside Suzhou.

In other words, our initial dreams of having an overflowing social calendar may, very slowly, be becoming a reality.

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