Volunteering in China

We’ve been back from Europe now for over 2 months. We’ve been keeping busy, as always, but the last few months have seen some new activities and events added to our lives.

Warning: this post has a lot of cute animals in it! Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.

I had a weird little lightbulb moment near the beginning of March, when I realized I might be able to combine 2 very important aspects of my life to create something good.

That’s how my weightloss challenge was born.

I pitched the idea to a few friends who quickly jumped on board. I expected maybe 20 people to get involved

In the end, we had 136 contestants in about 15 different cities

Businesses started contacting me as well to sponsor the event. I was able to collect nearly 400 prizes ranging from vouchers to wine to free meals!!

The idea was simple. Contestants paid 100rmb ($20 Canadian) to enter the challenge. I would spend two months leading a positive and encouraging group. We’d donate any money raised to a couple of animal shelters.

The idea quickly grew with the addition of all the extra prizes. I realized I could motivate people throughout the month by setting up mini challenges to keep contestants active.

Of course, all of this ended up being a whole lot of work for me. Every day, I get between 25 and 50 challenges to enter into my giant Excel sheet. On Tuesdays, contestants weigh in, so we can stay accountable to our goals, and then on Wednesdays, I draw names for mini prizes based on whatever goals I set for the week.

Some of my own challenge logs. I participated too!!
I’ve been excelling in the steps challenge. I find going to the gym to be much harder to fit into my schedule, but I’ve been trying to walk everywhere
When I am at the gym, I’ve been obsessed with the stair machine. It’s difficult and I’ve been getting stronger and stronger as I climb flight after flight

We also held a “Dogathon” to raise money forvthe shelters. There were 2 main cities involved in the Charity Challenge, so contestants in each city planned a giant walk for dogs and their owners. Similar to the Charity challenge itself, participants paid a small fee to join in, and all proceeds went to the animals.

Glory Goh, a teacher here in Suzhou, did most of the planning for the dogathon. She did an incredible job.
I got several of my students to come down and help with raffles and games
We had more than 100 people join in and we’ll definitely be doing it again next year!!
Some of the dogs who joined in. Sheila, the sheep dog, is one of my favorite dogs in Suzhou! She was adopted by Glory; the main planner of the dogathon

With the success of the challenge and the dogathon, I decided to take things one step further, and to begin organizing volunteer trips to the SAPA shelter, which is home to more than 1000 dogs and cats.

The flyer I made to get people involved in the trip. In total we had 16 people come with us that day, including 4 students.

The trip was incredible. The SAPA is a noisy, smelly and magical place. The animals there are quite well cared for and mostly very friendly. You get the feeling while you’re there, that you are the best thing that has happened to those dogs all week. And that’s a nice feeling.

The cats were quite pleased too!

We had a very talented photographer join us on that first trip, and he did such an incredible job of capturing the beauty and sadness of that shelter.

This beautiful mastiff easily weighs 40kgs (80+ pounds). She’s enormous and will never find a home in China because she’s an illegal breed. Her home will be the shelter until someone can adopt her from abroad. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.
Most of the dogs are mixed breeds. They are mostly friendly but some are quite shy. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.
1000 dogs is not something I can really explain. It’s something you have to see, hear and smell to properly understand. Photo Courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev
Most of the dogs are in large cages with 20 or so other dogs. Some of them are kept separate though, due to surgeries or aggression. Some dogs were badly abused or used for fighting. Those dogs crush my heart with sadness. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev
There are very few puppies at the shelter, surprisingly enough. They’re clearly doing something right. My guess is that they have a vet doing spaying a neutering. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev

Everyone there left a part of their hearts behind. There were 2 animals that really stood out to me. One was a small male dog with a scar around his snout. He likely had his mouth wired shut by an abuser. He is the sweetest little dog but SO afraid of people. It took me 20 minutes of sitting there with him before he finally had the bravery to come over to me. He melted into my lap as soon as I touched him. It was like he had been waiting forever for a bit of affection.

Some dogs never really come around. They just stare at you sadly while you clean their cage. I make sure to talk to them nicely while I mop, but they run away as soon as I get too close

I dubbed my little black sweetheart “Wiggle Bum” because of the way he wiggled back and forth for 20 minutes trying to decide whether or not to come see me. You can see him in the video below. It’s not the best video, but it gives you an idea of what the shelter is like. He was also much less scared when I was there the second time. I wonder if he remembered me and remembered that I was kind to him.

The other animal that I really fell for was a beautiful, blind ginger cat. He was SO affectionate and so darn sweet. My friend Kim spent most of her time at SAPA cuddled up with him. I made sure to get lots of pictures of him and later that night, I made a flyer to try and find him an adopter, or at least to raise funds to get him healthy.

I called him Oliver, after Oliver & Company (the Disney movie)

No one was able to foster him, but a lot of people donated, so Dave and I had him moved from the shelter to our vet, where he was quarantined for a week and treated for mites, fleas, ear fungus, a sinus infection and a few other little problems.

Oliver at the vet. He looked pretty happy to be on vacation from the noisy shelter

Now, he’s staying with us and learning how to be a good house cat. He’s sweet as ever and becoming so incredibly confident!

We found out later than he was born at SAPA. His mother arrived there very malnourished and pregnant. She and Oliver’s brother both died within a year at SAPA. Oliver survived for 2.5 years!!
One of his eyes had to be removed a while back. His remaining eye doesn’t have an outer eyelid. He will need ointment for the rest of his life but is mostly fine
I spend a lot of time with him … Just watching him navigate around. He’s such an adventurous little spirit and he never seems to run out of affection to give. He’s absolutely wonderful

Since my first trip to the shelter, I’ve organized a group that people can join if they want to volunteer but don’t really know what to do or where to go. I organize buses to and from the SAPA and bring up to 25 people at a time. I’m going tomorrow again and I can’t wait!!

The group of volunteers that came down to SAPA with me on Thursday this week. It’s a holiday here in Suzhou, so I decided to make good use of the time!

Next week, the Charity challenge ends. In total, we’ve raised more than 40,000rmb ($8000 Canadian) and lost more than 225kgs (about 500 pounds) in weight!!! I’d call that a success!!!!

The challenge is nearly over, but the mission will continue!!!

If you’re reading this and wondering how you can help, drop me a line in the comments section!

Evgeny Bakhchev, our talented photographer, also put together a beautiful video about our visit, with the help of his lovely wife, Daria. Enjoy!!

Update on Life!

This term has been one for the history books. With 120 writing & Englush students, 240 homework assignments to grade each week, a curriculum to develop and various elective classes and activities to prepare, I’ve barely had time to breath. Somehow though, Dave and I have managed to have a life outside of Suhou Foreign Language School this year. Unfortunately, my blog has fallen to the wayside.

This is what 240 tests looks like. The final week of the term is always the hardest….

Still, it’s never too late to some catching up, and now that I’m on holiday for Spring festival, I have the chance!

Enjoying Suzhou

Summer is long in Suzhou and autumn is short but beautiful. Parks are always nice to visit in fall because the temperature is cooler and there doesn’t seem to be so many tourists. So, when an opportunity arose for us to take a tour of several Suzhou Parks with a Suzhou expert, we didn’t hesitate to join in the fun.

We saw two lesser known parks on this tour and learned about the art of calligraphy. I was happy to get some beautiful shots as we walked and learned

Several of Suzhou’s parks are UNESCO world heritage sights. They have their own unique architecture and style

Most of these parks were used as living spaces for wealthy Suzhou citizens in the past. Across from the pond is a beautiful tea room where the villa owners would entertain their friends and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere

Water plays an important role in these gardens. Steve, our guide, studied ancient Suzou for many years and he wrote a book about it. He does his walks and teaches both locals and foreigners alike about the history of this ancient water town

It was a beautiful afternoon. Sadly, we missed the other 2 Walks with Steve because of our busy schedule (more on that soon), but I’m sure we’ll be joining him to learn more about Suzhou’s history very soon.

We had a good crowd that day and met some great new people

Music also had me busy this fall. The Sundaze played several big shows, including a gig with Internations; a group that helps connect expats. We also played a really cool gig at a wine party, and one outdoor concert.

The Parking Park Festival is done annually (although usually with a better name). Musicians play on Moon Harbour… One of Suzhou’s main tourist stops

I’ve long been a fan of Internations and was very happy to help this particular event more successful. It was a very fun gig
Hello Wine was also a great show. It was held at one of my favourite restaurants in Suzhou: Pistachio. Excellent food and excellent people!
And they even had a photographer who managed to make me look good singing! Lol!

Those other gigs were fun, but my favourite show of the season was definitely Diwali. My involvement in one of India’s most important holidays began when I was asked to make a flyer for the event. From there, I ended up managing the wechat group, and most of the public relations. I wasn’t planning to take on those roles, but I rolled with the punches and was very proud to be part of this very successful event!

I’m particularly proud of the Flyers I made for the event!

Our performance at the Hello Wine event gave me photos to use for future events too!
My friends Kevin and Sai. Sai is the head of the Indian Association of Suzhou. She planned the more culturally significant party that was held the following day. The event I helped plan was less about Diwali and more about celebrating togetherness and culture in general
More friends! So many great people in Suzhou!

Our last gig of the year was a private event held by a group of Danish expats. It was a particularly interesting event because it was held at a cabaret in Shanghai.

I loved the feel of the venue. We had a proper light and sound guy too, which was a nice change! Proper mixing is a wonderful thing because it means way less work for the vocalist. My mic was perfect the whole night and I never had to force my voice

Beautiful spot!

Aside from performances, we’ve tried to get out and spend time with friends quite a bit these last few months. We’ve made some amazing new friends. Our social circle has expanded considerably!

Zou Guizhou continues to be a favorite hang out

As always, my best friend and I are inseparable. I love being married to someone I like so much!
I downloaded a ridiculous “beauty” app that everyone out here uses. I look ghostly in my cat costume!
Miya is leaving us again, off on a new adventure. She is my kindred spirit in so many ways

Fostering

Our apartment was nearly as full as our schedule for more than 2 months this autumn. We got word of a litter of abandoned kittens nearby, so we offered to take 2 of them in.

Love at first sight!

We called them Coco (the tabby cat) and Havana (the calico). We jokingly called them “The Monsters” because of their voracious appetites, but in all seriousness, they are two of the sweetest, most gentle kittens we’ve ever known.

Best Friends forever…

We had them longer than we had planned, mostly because the adoptions we lined up for them kept falling through for various reasons. Nevertheless, we ended up finding them a good home with a Russian couple that adore them. I miss them so much my heart hurts, but that’s what the “bitter” part is with fostering. You give them all your love, your time, your care…. And then you let them go.

Suzhou’s Animal Rescue Network

Which brings me to the last and most important part of my post. While it’s true I’ve been busy raising kittens and making music, there has been a new item on my to do list since the first week of October: Rescuing animals

And not just these monsters!

It all began when I joined a wechat group that was run by university students. The group was basically set up to help animals, and by the time I joined, it was being used to find fosters, adopters and also to fundraise for vet bills.

One of the first posters I made

One particular woman posted a lot. She had multiple puppies living in her home, all rescued from the street. I was keeping up with her posts and it seemed like every day a new litter of dogs would arrive in her tiny apartment. After a few weeks she started asking for help.

I also named each of them. I named this little lady Dobby, after the house elf from Harry Potter
This was one of the few dogs who already had a name: Curly. He was amazing because he was so protective of all the little puppies. He stole my heart in an instant
I loved this dude’s ears so I named him Radar

My biggest concern in all this was the puppies’ health. By the time I got involved, Cindy had 17 puppies, 8 cats and 5 adult dogs all living in her home (plus 7 more being boarded at the vet). More significantly, without the skills to advertise these dogs, she wasn’t finding any of them fosters or homes. Luckily, I have some skills making flyers so Dave and l went down to meet Cindy and get pictures of the 18 puppies in her home.

The first of many, many Flyers!

I started circulating flyers and seeking help for these dogs. 6 days later, the first dog came down with parvo virus…

In the end, we only lost 2 of the 23 dogs living in that house. We expected far worse, especially given that many of the dogs weren’t in perfect health even before the parvo. I circulated flyers, and made people aware of the situation. I collected donations and paid the puppies bills with the funds sent in by the generous people living in Suzhou city. It cost more than $3000 Canadian to get all the dogs healthy, but it was well worth the effort. We’ve rehomed nearly all of the dogs now, and they’re living happily with their forever families!

Domino’s name is now Snoopy. He lives with a guy who adores him. They are a match made in heaven!
Dobby became “Jira” under the care of her foster… Who eventually decided to keep her. They are the best of friends and I couldn’t be happier for Jira!!
Oreo was one of the only puppies not to come down with parvo virus. He was a strong little dude and was one of the first to be adopted. His foster was very closely involved in the adoption process and in the end it was her who found him a home!

Another dog came along during the parvo breakout. When she was found, I thought she didn’t have a chance. The woman who rescued her believed she could make it though, so I named her Hope and started circulating her story. It’s been several months now since she was found, dragging the back side of her paralyzed body… But Hope survived. She’s maintained a friendly and sweet personalty through all this, and helping her was one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever accomplished in my life.

A local “celebrity” interviewed me about Hope’s story. He’s a Danish Baker by day, but his side job is Vlogging. He makes videos about different ways people can find happiness in life. Helping animals is what brings me happiness.

Now, I’m running the group started by those kind hearted university students. We have about 300 members now and it takes 3 of us to manage the group because it’s not an easy job. I try very hard to keep it positive and about the animals. So often, people have different ideas about the best ways to fundraise and I try very hard to focus on successes and the things people CAN do.

Can I save every dog in the world? Of course not, but I helped find more than a dozen homeless animals forever homes in the last 3 months.

Curly was also adopted by his foster, a wonderful Canadian expat!

Can I stop every case of animal cruelty in the world? It would be impossible. But I helped save Hope.

Can I change everyone’s opinions about China and it’s attitudes towards animals? Nope. But I can work together with all the wonderful locals who DO care and very much want to see change in their country.

I am still helping make flyers whenever I can, although it’s been tough to keep up the last few weeks

I’ve had a few good cries over all these dogs and all the ugliness I’ve seen. But something wonderful and unexpected has started happening through all this. As someone who is quite active in the expat community (The Foodies Groups, The Sundaze, Internations etc.), I have a voice here in Suzhou. And at some point in the last few months, I’ve become the person people call when there are dogs found freezing in the rain.

I got a call from a friend of a friend who had found this dog, abandoned in the freezing rain a few months ago. We named her Cinnamon. She was terrified and very nervous with people
When it became clear no one was coming back for her, I got together a team of people to help. 1 person paid the vet bills. 1 person went and got the dog and brought it to the vet to be checked for health. 2 people visited Cinnemon daily to give her people time. Another girl made a flyer. Someone else fostered. It was truely a group effort!
Cinnemon is now part of a loving family. Her new name is Roxy and she has a long and happy life ahead of her!!

And I tell ya, each time I get a new contact and someone says “hey, Marie. I heard that you’re the person to contact about abandoned animals. Can you help?” And I can actually help….. It’s a pretty darn purposeful way to spend my time.

So, that’s why you haven’t been hearing as much from me as of late. But get ready, because I’m on holiday in Europe and will be doing my daily posts!

We’re currently waiting for our flight to Madrid!

If you or anyone you know is interested in helping Suzhou’s abandoned and needy animals, please add me to wechat! Whether you want to adopt, foster or donate, every bit of help we recieve is crucial and appreciated!!!

My wechat ID is Marie-Willman

The Life of an Expat

Being an English teacher has its challenges, but one of the biggest perks I have as a language teacher is that I can teach my lessons through a variety of lenses.  If I’m teaching about conditional voice, for example, I can have the students talk about which super powers they wish they had, or about regrets they have from the past.

IMG_0591
The super power I always wish for is teleportation.  That way I could see these cuties any time I want!

This year, I chose to teach my grade 9 students English through a lens I think everyone should consider: “Critical Thinking in Social Media”.  I introduced them to Snopes, discussed the power (and danger) of memes and we talked about subjects ranging from  gun control in the United States to South Korean fan superstitions.  My hope was that I’d teach them how to be considerate and intelligent Netizens, but I probably learned nearly as much as they did.

IMG_20180309_111853
Each week, I put students into groups and gave them an outrageous news article. I asked them to guess whether or not the information was true based on some ‘fact checking’ skills I’d taught them.  Then, I handed out the Snopes articles that verified the information.  Finally, they presented their findings (along with any new words they learned through the process) to their classmates.  It was a VERY worthwhile way to spend a few classes!

Our class discussions about the dangers of Social Media really got me thinking.  We discussed the idea that people rarely write about bad things that are happening in their lives, but instead tend to focus on the positive, making their lives look more glamorous and perfect that they really are.  In of itself, this isn’t a problem, but when others see those happy posts, they start to compare their own lives with the (perfect) lives that others present to the cyber world.

I try not to do this, but, of course, it can be difficult.  I haven’t been feeling particularly positive lately, so I thought this would be a good time to write about the negative aspects of living as an expat.  *Spoiler…it’s awesome…but like everything, it has its downsides*

454357609
For example, I rarely post about all the food poisoning I’ve had in the last 4 years!

June is a hard month for a lot of reasons.  It’s the end of the school year, which is stressful for all teachers.  Between grading, report cards and final tests, teachers across the planet are barely holding it together every June.  When you’re an expat teacher, you have to also consider the stress of booking flights home, finding cat sitters, and spending 6 weeks living out of suitcases.  It’s stressful.

That’s not to say that I’d give up my trip home to avoid these stresses…but it is something a lot of people don’t think about when they think of what it’s like teaching abroad.  Other things include…

Saying Goodbye to Students

One event was particularly emotional for me this month.  My grade 9 students have been with me since my very first day at SFLS, and in September, they will be moving onto high school. Many of them will be moving abroad as well, so it’s not as though I’ll be seeing many of them again.   Their graduation was last Friday and although I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry (I even refused to bring tissue in an attempt to not even give myself the option), I ended up red in the face and tearier than I would like to admit.  When you love teaching…it’s easy to become attached to the kids you see every day for 3 years.

Still, I wish them all the best, and although it sucks to see them go, I have new students coming in next September, and they will provide new challenges and rewards for me and all their other teachers.

Expat Friendships

The friendships you form while living abroad are also a very important part of the expat life. I’ve made friends from all over the world, and although we’re all very different people with very different backgrounds, there is one thing we all have in common: we don’t really belong anywhere.

IMG_20171223_124343_1
Pictured here: 2 Canadians, a Chinese-Australian, an Argentinian and an American.  Some of my best friends in the world

When you’re away from home, having a good group of friends becomes increasingly important.  They’re who you spend Christmas with and they’re who help you through troubled times.  Most importantly, they’re the ones who understand you, because as much as people back home can try and empathize, they only really see the really good and really bad parts of being an expat…none of the ‘in-between-everday-stuff’.

Dave and I are far more outgoing and far more adventurous abroad than we ever were back home, and our social life is pretty awesome.  We spend lots of time going out for dinner, going to KTV, going to Salsa parties, and of course, I have my band.  All these things are done with friends…and 99% of my friends are currently expats, or people who were previously expats, but have moved back home to China.

Of course…when you are a nomad and surround yourself with other nomads…people enter and leave your life regularly.  It’s difficult because I understand it…but I hate it.  I also hate that soon I’ll be the one leaving people behind.  Already, I find myself wondering if I’ll ever find friends as good as the ones I have in Suzhou…

The ‘Home Dilemma’

Home becomes a really weird concept when you live abroad.  I like to say that ‘Home is where my cats are’, but in reality, I spend 3 months away from them every year.  I’d like to say that ‘Home is where you grew up’, but nobody in my family even lives in that tiny Manitoba town, so how can that really be home?  Steinbach never really felt like home for me, because I was too different from the local people.  Oddly enough, in some ways, Suzhou has been feeling more like home than anywhere I’ve ever been.  I’ve become a part of the community, through music, foodie groups and through school.

I think that living abroad changes you in that way.  Home isn’t as easily defined when you don’t ever quite fit in.  In China, I’m a minority.  I’m only one of a few thousand expats in a city of 8 million people.  Back home, it’s the same.  I’ve had such a different 4 years than most of my friends and family.  It’s difficult to explain your feelings about things when the people in your life see the world differently than you do.  It’s especially noticeable when talking about world politics or world events with people back in Canada.  It’s easy to talk about India’s poverty or an earthquake in Indonesia when you see it as some far off place, separate from you.  But when you can picture the smells and sounds of a place….when you’ve been there and it’s personal…you see those events very differently.

IMG_1163-2
This week a ferry capsized and sank in Northern Sumatra. Several people have been confirmed dead and more than 120 people are still missing. We took a ferry on that same route to Samosir Island back in February. It affects us differently than it will have affected people back home (who probably haven’t even heard about the accident)

What makes it especially hard is that we’ve never had any family or friends visit us here in China.  I know that it isn’t in everyone’s budget, and there are a thousand reasons why people can’t just hop on a plane and visit, but regardless of those reasons…it makes ‘home’ a difficult subject.  At the end of the day, China is currently our home, but the people we know and love back in Canada have no idea what our life is like in the place we call home.

mmexport1520831785838
When family and friends do come visit, everyone gets excited. When Kim’s parents visited last year, we all went out for dinner together.

And that’s why I hound my family save up and come visit us…it’s not because I want to show them the sites or because I think China is the most beautiful place on earth….it’s because I want them to understand me.  I people back home to understand what life is like in the city I currently call home.

Always Missing Somewhere or Someone

And of course there’s the obvious reason it’s hard being an expat is all the stuff you leave behind at the end of the summer.  It’s great having stories to tell your family and friends…but I really do wish I had the power of teleportation.  Then, I wouldn’t need to miss everyone so much.

It isn’t All Bad

Of course, it isn’t nearly all bad.  June is probably my least favourite month of the year.  It’s difficult saying goodbye to students.  It’s difficult saying goodbye to friends.  Add that to the fact that it’s exam season and end of term…and I can’t believe it’s taken me 4 years to write this post.

IMG_20170610_143325
I can barely complain about my own stresslevels in June. Students in China write the Gaokao, which is the test that will get them into a good (or less than good) university. When the tests are done, kids choose a classroom, tear up their books and dump them all in a pile. This was this year’s classroom….

Still, there are a thousand things that being an expat allows us to do.  It sucks saying goodbye to friends…but it’s great meeting so many new people all the time.  It sucks only seeing our family and Canadian friends once a year, but we always have so many stories to tell them!  And being an Expat gives us so many opportunities that we’d never have back in Canada.  My band wouldn’t get nearly as many gigs if we weren’t ‘interesting foreigners’.  Of course, we could never afford to travel this much if we didn’t live in China.  And with Dave working from home, we were able to foster little Oscar.  Here are some pictures of Oscar to remind you of all the reasons I love being an expat!

Stay tuned!  I’ve got half a dozen more posts coming in the next month or so!!

Suzhou Foodies

One of the coolest parts of being an expat is all the people you meet. They come from everywhere. I’ve met chefs from Italy, chemists from New Zealand, PhD students from Turkey and of course, musicians from Portugal, The Philippines and beyond… We all come from different backgrounds and are in China for various reasons, but we all have one thing in common… We’ve all chosen Suzhou as home away from home.

Dave and I at the “Red Dress Hash”. Everyone dressed up in red dresses and fundraised for an Orphanage here in Suzhou. We saw a bit of the city, spent the evening outside walking, and had a great time!

At the beginning of this year, I decided to put myself out there more. I joined several WeChat groups in an effort to meet more people and to become part of the expat community. I started with music groups, because it was something I knew a lot about. I’ve also joined writers’ groups, travel groups and most recently, a Foodie group.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love both cooking… And eating!!!

In the Foodie Group, we all post about our favourite restaurants.  Now, whenever Dave and I want to try something new, we check out places that have been recommended by fellow Foodies.

Our most recent recommendation: a Singaporean restaurant in Suzhou Center

A few months ago, I wrote about our friend, Lixia, and her restaurant that specializes in Guizhou food. Before I knew it, I was getting messages from the other Foodies, thanking me for the recommendation. Since then, this tiny Chinese restaurant has become quite popular amongst expats.

Lixia surprised Dave with a cake for his birthday last month

Lixia is easily one of the sweetest and most hard working people I know, so when I learned about a Food & Beverage competition, I got in touch with the organizers and nominated Zou Guizhou for the “Best View” award.

Her award winning view

Tonight, we went to the finals for this award, at The W hotel here in SIP. Lixia won in her category, and we were able to celebrate with her. It was a really fun night filled with good food, great wine and fabulous company.

Kevin joined us for the evening. He is the one who found Zou Guizhou for us 2 years ago

Several of our friends won awards. Larry (on the right) owns the best Vietnamese restaurant I’ve ever eaten at. He’s also a great guy (and Canadian!)

So happy to have Miya back in Suzhou!!!

Larry and Lixia have become friends too 🙂

Some of the fabulous food we had tonight

The best part of the night was when I realized how many people I knew at the event. A year ago, I made it my mission to become part of the expat community in Suzhou… And that mission has been accomplished.

Beautiful Suzhou – Snaps from the City

In a week from today, we will begin our trip back to Canada for the summer! First, we’ll be stopping by Las Vegas to see some friends get married (more on that next week!) and we also have plans to drive around the area a bit to see The Grand Canyon in all its glory. We were originally planning to take a 10 day road trip back to Manitoba, but those plans fell through when we learned that the car rental alone would cost us $1500. So, instead, we’re going to take a camping trip at our favourite park (Rushing River in Ontario) while we’re back.

I am excited to cook over the fire, and wake up to the sound of loons, but mostly I look forward to the smell of fresh air and being surrounded by trees. I miss the smell of trees a lot. I actually played a gig a few weeks back at a large park just outside of Shanghai. It was the most grass I’d seen in about a year. Since then, I’ve been dying to get back into the Canadian wilderness.

That’s not to say I don’t love Suzhou though! Lately, it’s been quite rainy, but for about a month before the rain hit, we had gorgeous clear skies and (mostly) clean air. I took advantage of that time to snap some shots of the city we currently call home. I thought people might like to see Suzhou the way I see it.

Suzhou has plenty of beautiful parks and gardens. I know I’ve posted some of these pictures of them before, but they’re just so pretty, I have to show you again!

Suzhou also has some interesting architecture outside of their gardens. For some reason I don’t understand, China is obsessed with creating replicas of famous buildings from around the world. Beijing has a replica of Sydney Opera House, and Shanghai has its very own copy of the Eiffel Tower, and Suzhou apparently, didn’t want to feel left out. So they made a replica of London Bridge (sort of).

There are definitely some inaccuracies, but over all, it looks pretty cool. The bridge is mostly used for wedding pictures, and the surrounding area has plenty of places for photo-ops.

Although Suzhou is pretty during the day, I find this water-town most beautiful at night. Dave and I have spent many evenings walking around, taking pictures of the high-rises that are popping up all around SIP (we live in Suzhou Industrial Park). I love the way the buildings here are all lit up.

The canals are also gorgeous at night. The reflections from the buildings give them a dream-like feel.

Of course, Xinghai Square is such a buzz of lights and traffic, it makes for some very interesting night photos as well.

The city recently replaced the lights along the street outside of our apartment complex, which was a nice change. The old ones, though pretty, were getting pretty rusty, but the new ones are nice and bright white.

Central park is also very pretty at night. We often walk through there on our way to (or from) one of our favourite restaurants: Lu Yu. They specialize in a type of roast fish that’s unlike any fish you’ve ever eaten in your life.

riverside_grilled_fish_566x424_fillbg_88cea81f46
Kao Yu: It tastes better than it looks!

Kao Yu has actually become a bit of a weekly tradition we have with some friends. We walk down there (it’s about a half hour walk each way), and meet up to discuss our weeks and enjoy some good food and draft beer. The walk there takes us through Suzhou’s Central Park, and I’ve brought my camera along a few times now.

But as much as we like Kao Yu, there is one restaurant in Suzhou we love even more. A few months back, we told our bilingual friend, Kevin, that if he could find us a restaurant that makes Guizhou food (the province where we lived prior to moving to Suzhou), that we would take him there for dinner. We’ve gone there pretty much every week since he found it. We’ve brought countless friends and even people visiting from America and Argentina…every person we’ve brought has been floored by how good the food is!

In addition to the food and the company being so great at 去贵州, the view is also pretty spectacular. We usually sit outside, across from the little island near Suzhou University.

Of course, I’m not the only one that’s caught on that Suzhou is an incredibly photographic city. My friend, Kevin, also enjoys taking photos of this gorgeous place we all call home. I asked him if I could include some of his shots, and he kindly said I could. Here they are:

That’s all for this post! I’ll be back soon with an update on life here. We’ve been so incredibly busy lately! There are plenty of stories to come!

See you soon!

Smog and Sandstorms

Dave and I had plans today to explore the city. Suzhou recently opened its 3rd metro line, and it has made all sorts of local attractions easier to get to. We thought exploring the city and getting some more photos would be a grand way to spend the day…but then the smog came…

I realized while talking to my family this morning that many of the people back home can’t even begin to understand what pollution is all about and the many ways it impacts our lives here, so I thought it might make for an interesting article.

**Note** Very few pictures in this article will be my own…they’ve mostly been borrowed from the internet. If I did take the picture, I’ll indicate it in the caption
Our Global Pollution Problem

Pollution is a problem all over the world. In India, I saw unbelievable amounts of garbage on the road, and I brushed my teeth with bottled water to avoid getting sick from the tap water.

BN-OJ027_POLDET_G_20160607063315
The firework displays during Diwali this year set off the AQI scale to more than 1000 and put the country in a state of emergency. For comparison, Toronto’s current AQI is 17

Although much better than India and China, Vietnam also has some pretty terrible pollution problems. The number of motorcyles on the road leave your lungs pretty sore by the end of a day sight-seeing in HoChiMin City. Phu Quoc is also a giant dumping ground for garbage.

Even in the beautiful Caribbean, you can find all sorts of pollution issues. Water there is generally unsafe to drink, and although resorts do a good job of keeping their shores clean, the same can’t be said in other areas of the country.

Water Pollution image in Haina, Dominican Republic - water pollution images -2
This was taken in Haina, Dominican Republic

Pollution is a problem globally, there’s no doubt. I look forward to my time in Canada every year. The fresh air smells so fantastic, and even in the heart of Winnipeg, I’ve never smelt the tinny scent of PM2.5. Yet…where do you think this picture was taken?

First-Nation-in-Ontarios-Chemical-Valley-affected-by-pollutants
This is in Sarnia, Ontario, where First Nations residents in a nearby town are suffering from the effects of this pollution.

What I’m trying to say here is that pollution is an issue everywhere. If you’re lucky enough to never have seen anything like this with your own eyes, you are a minority on this planet and this is a case where being a minority is a good thing…
The Lingo

In Guizhou (the Chinese province where we lived prior to moving to Suzhou), the pollution isn’t so bad. That’s not to say the air was perfect there (because it’s such a poor province, many of the vehicles on the road are old and blow large amounts of black exhaust), but we never needed masks or felt like our health was at risk.

map
Guiyang is in the green zone in central China (the one surrounded by beige zones). Shanghai and Suzhou is in an orange zone.

In Suzhou, things are different. We are only about 100km west of Shanghai, so we get a lot of our pollution from the factories out that way. On a bad day, our AQI level will go up to 200 or occasionally 300. During the current sandstorm, we are sitting somewhere between 450 and 600 on the AQI scale. What exactly does that mean, you might ask?

mmexport1494048171224
This was today’s reading in Suzhou. 596 is the highest I’ve ever seen it here

AQI is the global term that indicates how clean the air is in any particular place. Air Quality Index becomes a very important part of your life when you live in a city with a pollution problem. Most people have apps on their phones that tell them whether they should wear a mask outside. I don’t use an app because I have an easier way to tell. Suzhou’s iconic Pants Building is within eyesight of my apartment. I make a point of looking out the window every day, and I can usually tell how bad the pollution is by how clearly I can see the pants building.

suzhou-pollution-2
Dave took these pictures last year. Today looks a lot like the picture on the right

Something else people are aware of here in Suzhou are the different KINDS of pollution. I’ll begin explaining this with a story…

Last year, one of my jobs as a teacher was to help students prepare for their IGCSE spoken exams. To do that, I met with students individually, gave them a topic and had them tell me what they could about that topic. The topic I chose one day was ‘The Environment’. One girl really impressed me, as she started rattling off different types of air pollution (PM2.5, PM10 etc.). I was FLOORED that she knew those terms. I had only lived in Suzhou for a few months at that point.

Now, these terms are part of my regular vocabulary. I frequently say things like ‘PM2.5 levels are brutal this week’, or ‘well this stand storm is mostly bringing in PM10 particles, which aren’t QUITE so bad’. All this ‘PM’ talk refers to the size of the particles. PM10 particles are slightly bigger, but equally as harmful as PM2.5. Both get trapped in your lungs and build up over time and both are linked to lung cancer, lung disease and even brain issues. Of course, living in China for a short-term period doesn’t mean that I’ll come home with lung cancer, but the elderly in China really do suffer.

The Effects

Pollution is more than just something you see on the news. It’s something that is real and it affects a large portion of the world on a day to day basis. Here are some of the ways it effects me:

  1. I sometimes need to wear a mask to go outside
  2. I constantly worry about the quality of air in my home and at work
  3. I spend hundreds of dollars every year on filters and machines designed to clean my air
  4. I have had a lung infection so bad that I needed to be on 4 different medications to get better. I was using an asthma puffer for 3 months after that infection.
  5. Colds last longer and are much more severe than they are elsewhere I’ve lived
  6. If I don’t ride my e-bike for a few days, I will get dust on my pants when I sit down.
  7. I dry my clothes in my bathroom because if I dry them outside, they’ll be dirty by the time I wear them again (most people in China don’t have clothes dryers)
  8. Hanging onto a railing as I climb up or down outdoor stairs will leave me with dirty hands.
  9. I go into coughing fits when I go to a country with clean air. My lungs literally try and eject the garbage that has built up over the months.
  10. After a particularly dusty day, I’ll wake up with build up in my eyes and a bit of a sore throat.
  11. When the PM2.5 is especially bad (usually in January or February), you can actually taste metal in the air.
  12. I often worry about the long-term health hazards of pollution. The obvious ones don’t worry me as much (lung cancer, emphysema etc.) but after recently discovering that PM2.5 is connected to alzymers disease, I’ve been in a constant state of worrying about the health of my brain.
1gxEWn.So.91
You can always tell if a car in a parking lot hasn’t been driven in a while….the dust builds up over time. Similarly, it’s important to keep your apartment well maintained, because dust collects inside too

Pollution levels are a constant presence in my life. I need to know when they’re high so I can turn on my air purifier. I also need to know about the air quality so that I know when it’s appropriate for me to partake in one of my favourite pastimes: walking.

walking-burns-more-calories-than-you-thought

Since I was just a little girl, I’ve always loved walked. It started with walks around the block with my Pepere, and it evolved into walking my dog in the forest trails of St. Malo Provincial Park. When I moved to Guiyang, walking was one of the ways I dealt with the stress of living in such a difficult city. In Suzhou…taking a walk is off the table some days.


How We Get Through It

On days like today, we mostly stay indoors. At home, we have 2 air purifiers, so we definitely have those running while we’re in the apartment. My classrooms also have air purifiers, but unfortunately, my school doesn’t see an advantage to making sure our offices also have clean air. Air purifiers can be a bit pricey and they seem to become obsolete frequently, making it impossible to find a new filter for a device you purchased only 6 months before. Our solution has been SmartAir Purifiers…they’re a small company that make purifiers that work well, for only 600rmb (most other purifiers that do a decent job cost up to 5000rmb…). If you’re living in mainland China, check out their website. They’re well worth the money.


How This Effects YOU

If you’re reading this from Canada, you might be thinking that I’m crazy for choosing to live here. I know the risks, but I still take them. There are risks living in Manitoba as well. Hitting the ditch in a snow storm, or sliding into oncoming traffic during winter/spring is every bit as much of a risk as living somewhere where pollution is a problem. I check the PM2.5 levels the same as you check the temperature to know how many sweaters you should wear under your parka.

1
Seeing smashed up cars in Manitoba is normal. I was involved in 2 ice-related accidents in 2012 alone. I hate driving in Winter far more than I hate PM2.5

You may also be thinking that countries like China and India are poorly managed and that if they ‘got their acts together’, this wouldn’t be an issue. But let me ask you this….

Where are the majority of your ‘things’ made? The truth of the matter is that we export our pollution to China to cut costs. One of the reasons things are cheaper coming from China is because health and safety standards aren’t as big of a deal here….it’s something to think about before you shop at places like Walmart, Superstore or other ‘low cost’ chains. You’re paying 50 cents less, but the global environment is suffering.

Furthermore…we live in a very wasteful world. I recently got into a heated debate about the use of paper cups in the office. I think they should be banned, whereas other people really like their convenience. What’s important to remember is that by using disposable items (on a regular basis), you’re contributing to our landfill problems, as well as creating a need for more factories in the world. For more information on that, I found this nifty article written by Time Magazine called ‘Throwaway Living’. Be sure to check it out if you’re interested in the topic.

mmexport1493625925800
If hearing about this very sad state of affairs has depressed you, here is a picture of Poe to help you feel happy again.

PS..I know it’s been a while, but I have 3 posts in the works:

  • Our weekend in Seoul
  • Catching up on Life in Suzhou
  • Beautiful Suzhou (I’ve been on a picture taking mission lately)

An Eventful End to Summer

It’s hard to believe that Dave and I have nearly been back in China for a month already! The past 3+ weeks have flown by possibly even faster than our time in Canada did! I sat down today with the intention of writing about Vancouver and realized that until I updated all the things that have been going on out here, I couldn’t focus on another topic. So here we go!!

20160828_105922
Here’s a picture of Suzhou’s iconic ‘Pants Building’ being cleaned. Just because…

I’ve Been Performing as a Lead Vocalist!

Until recently, I was working back up or in duets with The Chairmen. It’s been great fun playing with those guys, but when Kit (our fearless leader) approached me and asked if I’d do a duet show with our guitarist, Mark, I jumped on the opportunity. We’ve only done one show so far, but it was pretty cool singing all 3 sets by myself. Best of all, Mark is super flexible about what play, so I’ve been able to do a bunch of new stuff. It was a nice switch up after all the Adele and Stevie Nicks I’ve been doing since May!!


I’m Competing in the Suzhou Expat Talent Show!

This one came about in a bit of a crazy way…Back in July, one of the HR staff at my school contacted me about representing the school at some kind of school district party. I agreed because I knew I’d already be back in Suzhou by that point and all was good. They knew I cover Adele, so they recommended I do “Rolling in the Deep”. I was cool with it.

img_20160824_191616_1
We ran into our friend, Nick, at the show. He was there on behalf of his new school, Eaton House. (Also, my face looks like that because he was photobombing us)

Fast forward to the day of the ‘government party’…it turns out that this was less of a school district party and more of a ‘government beer party’. There was a full band there waiting for me along with about 100 government officials and 200 teachers (etc) from schools in the area.

img_20160824_191335
I had a tough act to follow…this (rather tone-deaf) district big wig sang some traditional Chinese songs before my performance

The real kicker was when HR Frank told me…about an hour before I went on…that if it went well, I would be representing Suzhou Foreign Language School in this year’s Expat Talent Show. Notice that he didn’t ask…

mmexport1472360017984
Oh yeah, and that talent show will be televised and recorded in front of a huge audience. And it’s in 4 days…
mmexport1472043068813
This band didn’t like me very much…They wouldn’t believe me when I said I did the song in A Minor (I don’t have a terribly high voice) and they refused to play it in my key. I had to sing it high, and I wasn’t as strong as I could have been, but it was alright…I guess…

It went well. Fast forward to 4 DAYS LATER (!!!!) and it was talent show time! There was a mix up with the band (mainly, there wasn’t one) but I lucked out when I learned that The Chairmen (my band) were also going to be performing (the rest of them all work for the same school). They ended up backing me for my song too, and the performance went pretty well! Here, you can see it yourself!!!

To my credit, I don’t feel like I looked as unprepared as I felt! I was very relieved to have Kit and Mark there! I also had a student come to see me perform, which was pretty awesome. I have awesome students. Have I mentioned that?

I have no idea what the results were for this show. From what I understand, they are going to be watching video auditions for the next month, and choosing people to go onto the second round from there. I just hope I find out with more than 4 days to prepare this time!!!
I Am Writing for a News APP and a Newspaper!!

The night of the talent show, I received a text message from an editor at Nihao Suzhou, an APP designed to help foreigners in China (it’s actually a branch of Nihao China…every city has their own, I believe). They had been for writers earlier in the week, and I’d inquired along with a link to my blog. The editor liked my work and asked me to write an 800 word piece about anything I wanted. A week later, I was published!

download-1

The article was pretty successful and received over 2000 views in the first day. Carrie, my editor, told me to go ahead and write another article if I wanted, and I submitted that one today! Also, she was so happy with the article that she recommended it for publication in the Suzhou Daily Newspaper! So there’s that, too!
I Lost the Olympics

Dave and I decided that we wanted to be more social this year, so we’ve been busy trying ot get involved in the expat community. Dave’s joined a gaelic football team, I’ve been doing gigs (and everything else above)…and we subscribed to this really cool website called InterNations.

mmexport1472962335036
The Olympic Athletes

InterNations plans all sorts of events across the city. The one we attended last weekend was held at the Kempinski Hotel, where there is a Paulaner Brewery. We got to learn about the ancient German art of beer making and we spent the afternoon playing games with a few friends we’d dragged along, and a LOT of new friends that we met at the event.

I did not win. Not by a long shot. But it WAS a blast! And I feel like we met some really cool people. It was definitely a good time and we’ll be attending another InterNations event next Friday.


School Started

September 1st was our first day of classes. I am transitioned into a full-time English teacher (no more cooking classes) and am getting to know my 2 new grade 7 classes! So far, my new coworkers are upbeat and awesome, and I’m having a great time!

So that’s been our last 3 and a half weeks! Pretty wild! Now I need to catch up on some sleep…