Teaching in China

Suzhou Foreign Language school’s Autumn semester begins on September 1st.  As I prepare for my classes and plan out my term, I thought it might be a good idea to write a little bit about what it’s like teaching in China!

(Spoiler…it’s awesome!!)

I’m not going to lie…living abroad isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.  When we arrived in Shanghai last week, after a sleepless 11 hour flight, I was not prepared to deal with the bus depot’s toilets or the long ride back to Suzhou.  I wanted to get right back into the plane and return to Canada.  But as I sat there, fighting back tears of exhaustion in the bus terminal, Dave reminded me that soon I’d be back at work, and that calmed me right down.  I thought of all my students and all the plans I had for them this year, and I knew that everything would be okay.  Teaching is what I was always meant to do and I can’t express enough how rewarding it can be.  I’ve taught children as young as 3 years old, 50 year old business men and everything in between, and I’ve gotta say…it doesn’t matter what age or level you are teaching…being an educator is a blast!

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So pumped to see these guys again!  Can’t believe they’re going to be in Grade 8 this year!!

No matter how awesome the job is, though, the beginning of the semester offers some rather large challenges.  If you know about them ahead of time, it can help a lot, here’s a list of tips I have for teachers at the beginning of the term.

1.)  Be Prepared!!!

I once had an interviewer ask me what my ‘super power’ is.  I replied, without hesitation, that it is organization.  My ability to stay on top of my chaotic life all goes back to my day planner.  Without it…I am lost.  I am the master of lists and checking off items is sometimes all that gets me through hectic days.  But that’s the key…it DOES get me through!

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I started rubbing off on my students…at the beginning of the term, in food and nutrition, many of my students just left all their vegetables all over the counters…by the end of the 1st term, they were neatly putting things in bowls.  They agreed that it made it much easier cooking this way!

I recommend check lists to everyone and everyone because they allow you to stay on top of everything (and not forget about important events or tasks!) but also because they can give you a real sense of accomplishment.  I recently had a coworker tease me for having ‘start grade 7 ppt’ as one of my check-list items.  He thought it was silly that I had only ‘part’ of a task listed as an item on my list.

So,  I asked him:  “What’s the hardest part of making your weekly Power Point?”  He answered “getting it started…”  Boom!  Item #1 is done and once you start, it’s not nearly as daunting of a task.

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Literally, my day planner RIGHT NOW…I leave little boxes in front of the tasks so I can fill them in when I’m done!  Also…notice the colour coding???  It’s an ongoing joke in the middle school that when a student asks if I have finished grading their work or if I know where something is, my response is ‘Of course!  I am VERY organized!’

I also firmly believe in the power of lesson plans.  I know countless teachers who go into their classes with an idea of what they’re doing…but with no physical plan.  I honestly have no idea how they do it…I lose track of time, I miss items and I let the class get carried away in discussions when I don’t have a proper plan.  Don’t get me wrong…discussions are great in an ESL classroom!  It’s what you WANT!!  But in your 8:30am writing class, it isn’t always good when little Tom asks me ‘what I like about Suzhou’ to try and distract me from teaching about Present Perfect tense…

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I am trying a new way of doing lesson planning this year.  Last year I was doing much more detailed plans, but then I realized that my Power Points were pretty much all I needed.  Now, I’m focusing on the big items I want to cover every week.  I leave space for notes to comment on things that went well (or badly) and for information students who really excelled or may need extra help.

And going Macro…Term plans can also be an excellent idea, especially when you don’t have a book to teach from!  Last year, none of my classes had actual textbooks, so it became very important for me to plan ahead to make sure I was covering all the material they’d need to know for their IGCSE exams. Even when I DID have a book to teach from, when I was teaching Elementary and Kindergarten, my term plans were crucial to making sure all content was covered.  It was a simple outline for the term, but an outline nonetheless.  I recommend these tools to anyone! (And if you have any questions about layouts or things you should have in any of these plans, shoot me a question in the comments section!  I’m always happy to help a fellow teacher!)

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2.)  But not too prepared…

This may seems silly…but in China, you need to expect things to change.  Your classes might get moved around or cancelled at the last second.  I’ve often walked into my classroom to find no students there…when I track down their homeroom teacher it’s usually because some other activity was planned and they forgot to tell me.  This is normal in China.  You have to roll with the punches because like it or not…these things are CONSTANT!

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Leading up to the Drama Festival I was losing my mind because each class was so important for rehearsal, and my classes kept getting cancelled so the students could go horseback riding…or because they had a dance rehearsal to go to instead…it was Maddening!!

These types of things used to drive me CRAZY until I had someone tell me the reasoning behind it.  China is what is known as a ‘Shame Culture’.  I’ve written about ‘saving face’ in previous posts, and that’s what’s coming into play here.  Things are often planned at the last second in here because it reduces the chance of having to cancel events.  Cancelling an event is very bad in Chinese culture and knowing that actually made me feel a lot better about the ways it affects me.  People here aren’t stupid or disorganized…the cultural norms are just different.  That is something VERY important to remember when living here!

3.)  Be Prepared for all the September/October Holiday Mayhem

The beginning of term always takes it out of me…  Whether you are in a Training Center, a Foreign Language School or an International school (the 3 basic types of schools in China). the beginning of term has many challenges to overcome.

First, you need to get back into the groove of things and find your flow in the classroom.  Then, you have to get all of your ‘beginning of term admin stuff’ out of the way…then you have to deal with 2 holidays within the first month of teaching!!!

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“Teacher’s Day” is also a mini holiday (no time off) in September.  Students bring you all sorts of little goodies and the school makes you feel very appreciated!!

Mid-Autumn Festival is a lovely holiday (one of my favourites!) celebrated by getting together with family and eating Moon Cakes.  It takes place in the beginning of September and it usually means a 3 day holiday for teachers.

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Delicious, Delicious moon cakes!!!

Then, there is China’s “National Day”, which actually lasts a week.  It’s known in the tourism industry as “The Golden Mess” because there are literally over 1 billion people all on holiday at the same time in China!  The regular tourist sights are PACKED and even the lesser known sights are still teaming with people.  We traveled to Xiamen our first year in China during the holiday and it was uncomfortable trying to get anywhere, because you were shoulder to shoulder with tourists…

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Beijing…literally, shoulder to shoulder….

And then there’s the other problem with all these days off…Holidays are great, but they REALLY mess with your schedule!  In China, if you are given 3 days off, it doesn’t necessary mean that you don’t owe some of them back.  For example, this year, Mid-Autumn festival falls on September 15,16 and 17 (a Thursday, Friday and Saturday).  In order to make up for that time off, schools open on Sunday and the week following the holiday becomes a 6 day week, with 2 Tuesdays in it.  My first year, I had to have someone sit me down and draw a chart so I understood what was actually happening and when I had to work!!

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4.)  Form a Good Relationship with your Co-Teachers/Homeroom Teachers

I cannot stress enough how important this is!  It seems like common sense…who doesn’t want to get along with the people they work with?  But too often I see people treat their Chinese counterparts in the education system poorly (and vice versa).  There seems to be a mentality at some schools (and even in some departments at my own school) that it’s US vs THEM!!!  This is SO counterproductive!

I’ve always tried my very best to be kind to the people I work with…to me that’s just common decency.  When I was at the training center, I became good friends with Talia and Kayla.  They weren’t teachers, but they were the people who helped me translate for parents and made sure that parents got important information about homework and students’ progress.  Now, I work at a Foreign Language school where I’m co-teaching with Chinese teachers.  We may not always see eye to eye on the way some things should be handled (education systems vary greatly from country to country!), but I always try to find a reasonable compromise.

I also do my best to never to create more work for my co-teachers.  I’ve worked with teachers that wait until the last minute to do their progress reports or who don’t grade their papers until they’re told they HAVE to, even when they know that their Chinese counterpart needs them to finish up before they themselves can begin.  Once more, I feel like this should be common sense, but I’ve seen it happen SO many times!!!

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Too often, Expats won’t even invite their Chinese coworkers out to dinners and things.  I always make sure to invite anyone and everyone in my office and a lot of the time, they come out!  Ivy (in the middle) has been such a good friend to me over the past year…I can’t imagine how I could have gotten through some things without her (like when I went to the ‘acupuncturist’ and when we got Hugo and Poe.)  I don’t understand why people don’t put in more effort with one another!

This doesn’t only extend to the classroom either.  Staff rooms can be tricky when you have a mixture of different cultures together.  For example, the Chinese staff typically don’t want to have the air conditioners on in the summer or the heaters on in the winter.  It’s a belief in China that they both blow dirty air, so they prefer to open the window.  I run hot, so this has always been an issue for me in summer, but I compromised and bought myself a fan.  On days where it’s particularly humid, I ask if I can turn on the AC for 15 minutes or so, to dry out the air.  Then, when the room is cool, I turn it off again!  There’s no need to be demanding…you’re in THEIR country!  And it’s amazing, because 9 times out of 10, when you are respectful, so are they!!!  I didn’t even have to ask by the end of the year…my dear friend Ivy would go and switch on the AC when it started to get uncomfortable.

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One of my Grade 5 classes at Interlingua.  Notice they’re all in parkas?  Parents frequently requested that we turn off the heaters so that their kids wouldn’t ‘get sick’. 

5.  Extra Work = Extra Awesome!

I’ve found in China (and pretty much everywhere else in the world too) that the better you are at your job, the more you are asked to do.  It can be a bit much sometimes when you’re an overachiever (I may fit that description…), but I always remind myself that I am asked to do things because I’m doing well.  The bright side of those extra projects is that you expand yourself SO MUCH when you take them on!  Last year I organized the school’s first yearbook and hosted the annual Drama Festival, both in the second term.

Both events were SO fantastic!!!  Not only did the students work hard, but they also saw ME working hard…that does wonders for your relationship with them.  When they know that a teacher actually cares about them…it’s like the game changes a little bit.  There are so many foreigners teaching China that are only here for the visa and so they can live abroad….and that’s okay!  That’s how I started out too…but then I fell in love with the job and now, I take that job very seriously!  And students can always tell when they have a teacher who is present and putting in effort vs the teachers that show up and do what they have to do.

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The Yearbook was such a worthwhile project as well…not only was it a lot of fun to put together, but it really expressed what it’s like being in the IGCSE department at Suzhou Foreign Language School

Being a positive influence is SO important.  As an educator, I know that my students are learning more from me than just what is coming out of a text book.  My boss, Nathan, is a prime example of teaching through doing…As I’ve mentioned before, he does a lot of work with Migrant schools and other charities around the city, and this year, our grade 8 class organized a big fundraiser for the migrant schools Nathan works with!  It was so awesome watching them find ways to raise money and they really did a great job!  Students are watching you ALL the time!  Be an inspiration!!

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I encourage Michael to be more positive all the time (he tends to mope a lot…).  I was surprised when I saw this on one of his worksheets.  He aspires to be more optimistic (a word I taught him!) because I’m optimistic.  That’s the biggest reward I could ask for as a teacher!

6.)  Have Fun with It!!!

Lastly, make sure to have fun teaching!!  It’s an AWESOME job and at most schools you are given plenty of opportunities to let your own skills shine.  I mentioned earlier that I didn’t have textbooks for any of my classes last year.  That may have intimidated some teachers (which is why my boss offered me a few textbooks I could follow along with if I needed), but for me…it meant I got to be creative.

In Food and Nutrition, I decided to teach my students about culture and how it relates to food.  I did focuses on Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, Italy, France, India and then I also taught them about December Holidays around the world (and the foods people eat during those holidays).  It ended up being a tonne of fun!  Because I’m so interested in both travel and cooking, I was able to shape this class around my own interests and talents.  It worked out well for everyone, I think!

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At Easter, I taught my Grade 7 girls to dye their deviled eggs.  When I taught them about Jamaica, we made Jerk Seasoning and had topped some deviled eggs with it (SOOO good!).   They liked the dish so much they asked if we could do it again!

For Drama, I used my writing skills and training to have the students write their own plays for the drama festival!   I’m also very competitive and I turn everything into competitions within my classroom.  The students ended up LOVING the way we chose which play we’d perform in each class.

The Drama Festival was a huge success because I used the skills I had to make it happen.  Best of all, I learned a lot along the way!  I’d never been given an opportunity to direct before, nor had I ever coordinated an event like that.  I developed new skills while using skills I already had.  It was a perfect combo 🙂

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One of the groups in my Grade 8 Boys class presenting their play to the other students.  They were actually the winners and the whole class had a great time learning their parts

So that’s the beauty of my job!  I decided to try and keep my posts shorter this year, but as I was writing, I just couldn’t stop!  I’m far too in love with my job and have so much advice to give!!  I do hope that you’ve found this informative and if you’re teaching in an ESL classroom yourself, and if you are just reading to know what it’s like to be a teacher, I hope you got a good idea of how awesome my job is 🙂

If you have any comments or questions about anything I do…feel free to as in the comments section below!  Thanks for checking in!

So, You’re Moving to China…(Part 2)

As promised, I am back with part 2 of my post!

5.  Kiss Comfort Goodbye

Whether you’re in your apartment or at a restaurant, the standards of comfort in China are very different from out west.  Beds are often rock hard, couches are frequently nothing more than a wooden bench, and restaurants (in certain areas of the country) forgo purchasing conventional tables and chairs, and have everyone sitting at child-sized tables, with plastic stools.

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Our couch in Guiyang.  My butt would go numb within about 10 minutes.
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One of our favourite hot pot places….not exactly the most comfortable restaurant…

And it’s not only your butt that will miss the comfort.  People here have a different idea of what ‘public space’ means.  I frequently see people watching movies on their tablets in public spaces (in the metro…at Starbucks…in restaurants…), without using ear buds.  When you have several people doing this in the same space, the room becomes so cluttered with noise that it’s difficult to think.

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After taking this picture, and posting it online, I saw someone post an article about how it’s wrong to take photos of strangers.  I agree…except for in cases when those individuals have forsaken their rights to privacy by taking away my right to focusing on my blog…

Smoking is also common place here, and you will see it everywhere you go.  Restaurants, shopping malls and even some schools all allow smoking and although Beijing and several other cities are beginning to make smoking illegal in public spaces, China still has a long way to go before you can enjoy a meal without choking on someone else’s cigarettes.

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Without reinforcement, signs like this don’t actually do very much.  There are ‘no smoking ‘ signs in most elevators, after all…it doesn’t stop people from lighting up in them…

And even in private spaces, China finds it’s way in.  People in our apartment building frequently leave their front doors open to air out their personal spaces….this often results in my own apartment smelling like cigarettes.  Our neighbours across the hall have apparently run out of room in their apartment, so they’ve begun storing personal items outside of their door, in the hallway…They are currently keeping their baby stroller and several other objects (including open umbrellas…) right outside of our door.

And Fireworks….The Chinese use them to ward of evil spirits and the following events all merit their use:

  • Weddings
  • Funerals
  • Birthdays
  • New Businesses Opening
  • Festivals
  • Holidays
  • Just because they like to make noise…
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Fireworks are a constant here.  When you live on one of the higher floors of a building, you’ll wake up to the sound of these things going off right outside your windows.  One day, when we were living in Guiyang, our apartment got smoked out when a new business had opened up downstairs.  We’d had our windows open…

Even babies don’t get any break from the discomfort of living in China.  I can’t help but wonder what this sort of thing means for this poor kid’s neck muscles…

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6. Traffic Laws are Non-Existent…and Mayhem most Definitely Ensues…

It’s rare that you will see a police officer pulling people over for bad driving.  It’s so rare, in fact, that the only time I can remember it happening was in Guiyang, when police officers caught on that they could get bribe money from e-bike drivers who aren’t wearing helmets.

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Take Note: There are no drivers in many of these cars.  In Suzhou, people frequently park in the areas meant for uturns….because… why not?  Sidewalks are another very popular place to park and double parking is common.  There’s no end in sight for this behaviour, because nobody gets ticketed for these types of things.  It’s beyond me…

The results of this lack of enforcement are terrifying.  In Suzhou, the driving isn’t TOO bad.  There are e-bike lanes and for the most part, people pay attention to stop lights and stay in 1 lane at a time…Well, ok, that might be a little generous…

I don’t have many pictures of this stuff, because, I’m usually trying to jump out of the way of drivers who are busy taking selfies instead of watching the road, but this video that I took in Guiyang should give you a pretty good idea of what it’s like driving, or ever walking, in China…

 

7.  You’ll Begin to Appreciate the Most Surprising things…

The most mundane things in Canada become the most appreciated in China.  Something as simple as Shake n’ Bake chicken is the cure to culture shock and bad days.  Although I was never really big on Deviled Eggs back home, I’ve grown to love them in China, because they remind me of Christmas and Thanksgiving.

One of the best things is getting care packages from home.  Getting Coffee Crisps, clothes that fit and western spices is such a great event!  It’s like the best Christmas gift you can imagine!!  I especially love getting letters from my nieces and nephews, though it’s common that China Post loses those.  I’ve had countless letters mailed to me over the past 2 years, but I’ve only every actually received 2.  Most of our family and friends have given up sending things, and I can’t say I blame them.  Canada Post charges an exorbitant fee to send packages overseas, and when they likely won’t even make it to us…what’s the point?

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China Post workers going through their mail deliveries…this could be why so many packages go missing….

On the subject of ‘stuff from home’, I realized something amazing about myself while I was finding pictures to use for these posts.  I apparently have a need to photograph any western-brand sign I see.  It must be the excitement of seeing something from Canada or America IN China…

8.  Signs:  The Good, The Bad and The Incomprehensible

This category doesn’t need much explaining….Let’s start with the good…

The Bad…

And, of course, the ones we can barely understand…

9.  Things are Just Done Differently Here… (Part 2)

Of course, there are a few things I forgot to write in this section of my last post, so here they are…

  • Public space is used differently here…Below is a photo of a man shaving.  In the metro.  On his way to work…

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  • Advertisements are weird.  These women are serving pie…in a glass cage..to promote a new restaurant.  They’re white…and it was weird…so people stopped.

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  • Products are also weird.  The grossest one I’ve seen are the facial creams that are supposedly made of human placenta.  They have a rejuvenating quality to them….yeah….no thanks….IMG_20160319_224523
  • Crowds….crowds like you have never experienced…

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  • Chinese medicine can be questionable.  I have tried acupuncture here and it did not go well.  I wound up passing out and I think the guy did more damage than good.  I’m a pretty firm believer in scientifically backed treatments, but if you want to try eastern remedies, I do urge you to seek out professionals.  Cupping is one of the most popular thing for westerners to try out.  It’s pretty harmless, and it leaves some pretty wicked (temporary) scars that you can show off.  Every Chinese person I’ve asked swears that it does wonders…
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A friend of mine, after a Cupping session.  The welts go away after about a month…

Some Final Tips for your Time in China

  • Buy clothing and shoes before coming to the country.  Even petite girls can have a difficult time finding clothing here, because generally there is NO ROOM for curves in Chinese clothing.  If you’re busty…shop at home accordingly, because you will not find anything above a B cup here.  Similarly, it’s difficult to find shoes bigger than a lady’s size 6 or 7 (36 or 37 in European sizes).
  • While the Chinese are perfectly ok wearing mini skirts where you can actually see their bums when they bend over, cleavage is a nay nay…Be prepared to have pretty high cropped shirts here, ladies.  It’s inappropriate to show off your goods (on the upper part of your body anyway…)
  • Learn how to use Tao Bao!  It is truly a life saver.  You can use Bing Translate or google translate if you have a VPN.  ***Tip:  Translate whatever it is you want to buy into Chinese (Google Translate works very well).  The prices are much lower if you search in Mandarin.
  • Buy bedding foam.  There’s very little worse than having a bad sleep.  The first time I lived in China, I was able to get used to the hard beds, but now…I find it unbearable.  There are all sorts of foam mattresses you can buy (Tao Bao is your best bet!) to soften up your bed.  They are invaluable and I HIGHLY recommend buying one!
  • Find a local store that carries western goods.  Metro, Carrefour, Walmart, Decathelon and Euromart are some of the best.  Tao Bao also carries a wide range of western brands, so that’s always an option as well.  It’s amazing how comforting it can be to find taco seasoning or salty popcorn when you have had a bad week.
  • Get a VPN (preferably before you enter the country)!  I couldn’t blog or keep in touch with anyone on Facebook if it weren’t for my VPN.  For $100 a year you can get set up with Astrill or Express, and both are reliable and fast.  The government does sometimes crack down on that stuff, so expect the occasional glitch in service, but for the most part, I feel that they do pretty well.

My last piece of advice before ending this post:  surround yourself with positive people.  There’s nothing worse than spending time with people who do nothing but complain about the culture and the country.  Of course, it’s inevitable that you will need to rant now and then, and that’s totally okay.  But I’ve met so many foreigners who spend their time abroad angry that the people here won’t conform to what THEY think it normal.  Those types of Lao Wai kinda suck…so don’t be like them.  Remember that there are good things and bad things in EVERY culture, and you don’t come from a perfect country any more than the Chinese do.  Be tolerant, and when it gets REALLY bad…grab some western bevies  (because Chinese beer is pretty terrible) and chill out with people who are going through the same things you are.

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Having a positive group of friends is key to surviving overseas.  I can’t claim that we’re all positive all the time, but we all count ourselves lucky to be having this incredible experience, and when all else fails, beers at Euromart, or a night out at KTV can go a long, long way for the spirit!!

That’s it for today!  My next post will be an update on life in Suzhou!  I’ll have pictures from my first gigs (I’m singing in a band :)), the Drama Festival at my school and all the stuff that’s been keeping me busy and away from my blog!

 

 

 

So You’re Moving to China…

I can’t believe it’s been a month since I got around to blogging!  Life has been nutty here again…but I’ll have more on that in my next post.

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I also haven’t forgotten about my poll.  It was a 3 way tie, so I’m going with ‘The Best of Suzhou’.  I’ve been collecting material for weeks

Tonight, after realizing that  I had  bit of spare time, I decided to write a post I’ve been considering for a long time.  This particular post was inspired by an old friend of mine who’s thinking of moving to China.  I was giving her advice this morning and it got me thinking about all the crazy stuff that I’ve gotten used to dealing with living in this strange country.

So here it is…a list of all the stuff that you should know if you’re moving to China!

1.)  The Food is Amazing…and Amazingly Weird….

Item #1 on my list isn’t a shocker.  Chinese food is popular around the world, so there has to be something good about it!  I love Chinese food and I doubt I’ll ever tire of it.  There are many different varieties, depending on the regions of origin.  In Sichuan province, you’ll get spicy hot pot, for example.  On the east coast, you’re more likely to get sweet sea food.  No matter where you go in China, the local cuisine is worth a try because WOW…there are some amazing things to eat out here!

Then again, when you say you’ll try a local delicacy, you might get more than you bargained for…

I think most of the world is aware that people in China will eat anything and everything.  From chicken feet to pig face, and everything in between…nothing is off-limits in this country.  I can proudly say I’ve tried everything that’s been offered to me since I got here (still no dog…that may be the one I turn down…), and some of it isn’t bad.

Strangely enough, I enjoy barbecued chicken feet.  There isn’t a whole lot of meat on them, but they’re alright.  I also like chicken tail a lot.  They get nice and crispy on the barbecue.  Organ meat has become far more normal for me to eat as well and I’ve become particularly fond of liver, though brain still grosses me out and chicken gizzards seem pointless and rubbery.

Most of it, however, I simply don’t ‘get’.  I can understand how a starving person might think that pig intestines are the most delicious thing they’ve ever eaten, but for me…they’re kinda gross.  There isn’t much meat in them, and every time I’ve had them…they always faintly taste like poop….maybe it’s in my head…but I swear I taste it.  So I now avoid them when I see them on the menu.

 

2.  Sanitary Standards are VERY Different in China

Currently, I’m teaching a Food and Nutrition class at my school.  It’s basically home economics, but I mostly just teach the students how to cook.  The biggest challenge for me has been teaching them about bacteria, food poisoning and basic sanitation.  It isn’t as easy as it may sound…

There’s no hot water in our kitchens (a norm in China) and I had to teach them to boil water for doing dishes.  When classes other than my own work in the kitchen, the dishes are left a bit oily because cold water just doesn’t clean that stuff off, and soap is often an after-thought…

Teaching them about meat safety has also been a huge issue.  In China, meat is frequently left out, unrefrigerated and uncovered.  Even in the western type stores, like Carrefour and Metro (if you are new to China, seek out those two stores!  They are a must-have for anyone living abroad), you’ll frequently see questionable meat sitting out on the counters.

Similarly, the ideas about personal hygiene are different here.  By the time you are finished your first (of many) colds here in China, you will grow very tired of people telling you to ‘drink hot water’.  It seems to be the cure to everything here in China, while preventative measures, like hand washing, are never discussed.

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Throwing rubbish in the drain….no problem.  Cold water….TERRIBLE idea!
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At the gym, cold water isn’t even an option.  The best you can get is ‘warm’ water (which is still pretty hot), because apparently, cold water is bad for your health…

There are also some pretty nasty habits here, that I have never grown used to.  Spitting, for one, still grosses me out.  People don’t like to swallow their saliva here, so they just spit it out.  This is especially true in poorer areas (where people are less educated regarding the spreading of germs) and with the older generations.  Similarly, Chinese people think that sitting on a toilet seat is dirty, so they will often hop up on top of the seat and squat over top of the toilet, when an actual squatter isn’t around.  The result is usually that urine ends up everywhere (because sit-down toilets aren’t made to be squatted over), which, to me anyway, seems a lot less hygienic than sitting on a toilet seat!

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Furthermore…flushing your toilet paper here is a no-no.  The sewage systems can’t handle the tissue, so public restrooms always smell because of the tp sitting in bins…

3.  Be Prepared for Pollution and Pollution Related Illnesses

Everyone knows that China has a pollution problem.  It’s a topic frequently discussed out here, and Chinese citizens are really starting to pressure their government to regulate factories better for the sake of the air.  In Canada, I’d never really experienced pollution before, and until I moved to Suzhou, I’d never really given air quality a second thought.  Here, students actually know the names of the different air pollutants and what they can do to your lungs.  For example, I had a 13-year-old girl tell me that the PM2.5 levels were very high one day, and that I should wear a special kind of mask so that the particles don’t end up in my lungs.  PM2.5, she informed me, is the most worrisome pollutant because your body doesn’t have any way of flushing it out…the particles stay trapped in your lungs for years.

When I was 13…pollution was hardly a concept I’d ever even considered!

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A smoggy day in Suzhou

I don’t know a single teacher that doesn’t catch at least 1 or 2 terrible colds per term here.  I was so sick back in March that I had to be put on oxygen after a short walk to the a nearby clinic.  They put me on 5 different medications to combat the viral infection I had in my lungs and I was honestly really scared because I’d never had such trouble breathing in my entire life!  Even pneumonia hadn’t been as bad as that lung infection was…

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My many meds

4.  Things are Done Differently Here

If health hazards are shrugged off here, I don’t even know how to explain how people here feel about safety.  Workers frequently wear minimal or no equipment went doing construction, and I don’t even want to think about the repetitive strain injuries that some of those people suffer.  I’ve seen women in their 40s and 50s hauling broken concrete out of demolition sights in wicker baskets hanging off their backs…

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All of this was hauled out of the building by hand…on the backs of manual laborers…

And those are just some of the long-term consequences of having  no standardized regulations for safety in the workplace.  Sometimes the consequences are much more current

In funnier instances, some things just don’t seem to make sense here.  Such as:

  1. Our hot water tank being right above our washing machine…but our washing machine wasn’t connected.
  2. Escalators being built outside, instead of under the roofed area…causing them electrical damage every time it rains.
  3. Having air conditioners in every room at a school, but forbidding anyone to turn them on because the cold (or hot…they do heating in the winter) air is bad for your health…
  4. At the school, we use paper so thin that the students have dubbed it ‘toilet paper’.  It’s done because they are trying to use less paper and save the environment…yet no one sees anything wrong with having between 20 and 30 flyers left in your e-bike every week
  5. The government telling employees to smoke more to boost the economy…
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I can’t stress enough:  Cold Water = Bad……transporting food in dirty-cut-up-old containers…FINE!!!

Well, that’s all I have time for tonight!  It looks like this one is going to be a 2-parter!  Come back soon to see the rest of my list which will include:

  • Traffic Laws (and lack of traffic laws)
  • Signs:  The good, the bad and the incoherent

and plenty more!!!

 

 

 

Spring Term- The Life of a Teacher

I have about 10 blog posts planned at the moment, but have had so little free time that they’ve all just been sitting in my head  Spring term has been a little bit crazy, and when you add in holidays, birthdays and regular life into the mix…finding downtime can be tricky!  So, I thought an update on all my projects was a good idea…

Life since we returned from India has been eventful in both good and bad ways.  When we got back to Suzhou, I started going to the gym again, but realized that I didn’t have anywhere near the energy I should have.  I was actually feeling all around pretty terrible…by the time my lung infection hit full force, my body was having difficulty getting enough oxygen.  I ended up at the Sing Medical walk-in clinic in SIP (the area of Suzhou where we live), where I was put on 5 different medication and told to stay in bed for the next week…

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The doctor wasn’t sure if it was a bacterial or viral lung infection, but he was fairly sure that it had been building up for some time…I think it began in India…but it might have even been before that.  

Since that necessary ‘mini vacation’, life hasn’t really stopped.  I’ve been put in charge of the yearbook committee and the drama festival this term (two huge projects!) and I’ve also been helping out with some grade 8 exam preparation and of course, I have all my regular classes as well.  It’s been a busy few months!

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Brain Storming for the school yearbook.  Yearbooks aren’t a ‘thing’ in China, so this is SUPER exciting for the students!

My favourite project has definitely been the Drama Festival.  4/5 of the classes that are participating in the event are taught by yours truly, so I’ve had my hands full preparing sets and props, teaching the students how to write a play, and of course, actually writing the plays.  This festival has actually given me the chance to teach the students a whole set of new skills, and I really feel that they’ve gotten a lot out of these projects.

Of course, when it came down to actually writing the plays, that was mostly left up to me.  So working with their plot lines and character profiles, I got to put my creative writing skills to use!  It was a tonne of fun and although it meant spending my long weekend holiday at Starbucks, it was well worth my time and efforts!  I am SO looking forward to seeing what these plays look like up on stage on April 22nd!

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This project has also given an opportunity to develop leadership skills in many of the stronger students.  

Drama has been a blast this semester, and I have to say that Food and Nutrition has been on an upswing as well!  Last term, and at the very beginning of this term, I was struggling with keeping the kitchen up to an acceptable standard of cleanliness.  My students do alright, but students from the high school were using the kitchen in their free time and leaving quite a few messes to clean up.

 

And, in addition to the regular challenges you’d expect to face in a Home Economics-type class, there are some serious differences in culture when it comes to health and safety.  It’s been quite the battle trying to teach the students about mold and bacteria.  While in the past, it’s been perfectly acceptable to just stack up wet dishes into the cupboards (that aren’t finished…they have raw wood inside), the mold problem I faced in September made me determined to teach them the value of properly cleaning up.  My students learned these skills pretty quickly, but as I mentioned earlier, I share the kitchen with other classes, and not all of the other classes were so quick to catch on.

 

My writing class continues to be one of the most rewarding things I do at the school.  I love teaching those kids and they’re so engaged and interested in my lessons that they are making leaps and bounds as far as their writing is concerned.  My biggest success has been a student named Jared, who went from getting 30-40% on his homework last term, to 75-80% this term!  Something clicked for him and now he’s finishing 3rd place in the class on tests!  That’s huge for a mainland kid, because it means that he beat kids from Singapore and Malaysia, who have been learning English most of their lives.  I’m very proud of him.

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A classroom selfie.  I very much look forward to Friday mornings, when I get my 80 minutes with these 13 year olds 🙂

And of course, in addition to being an incredibly hard-working group of students, they’re funny too!  They played a very cute trick on me on April Fools day!

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I came into the classroom and this is what I saw!  They had all put their hoodies on backwards and were sitting backwards in their seats.  Little Tom was also hiding in the teacher’s desk and he jumped out at me as soon as I started teaching! I screamed and jumped about 3 feet in the air.  I’m pretty sure I added about a year onto these kids’ lives with laughter!!

Life outside of the school has been busy too.  With both Dave and I having birthdays in April, it’s already usually a busy month.  As it turns out, our good friend, Jeff, also has a birthday in April and his friends Matt and Lisa came out for a visit as well, so we’ve been having lots of parties as of late!

I’ve gotta say though, the best part so far was the one we had last night.  I turned the big three oh, and some of my favourite people took me out to Beijiang (a Chinese Muslim restaurant with INCREDIBLE food!) and then to KTV!  It was such a great night!  I can hardly talk today because my voice is so tired from singing…but it felt so good to be out!  I have met some awesome people in Suzhou and last night I felt incredibly lucky to be out with them.

So that’s been life lately….it’s been full and awesome and 50 shades of crazy!  Oh, one last thing…I already got Dave his birthday present!  I found them for sale on the Suzhou Buy and Sell and I’m SOOO happy I did!!!

I’ll be back soon…though I’m not sure if I’ll be around again before the drama festival on the 22nd.  As always…thanks for reading!

PS…Hugo and Poe say hi!

When Culture Stops Being an Excuse

I love my life in Suzhou. I’ve made some incredible friends and adopted some awesome cats. I’m working at a great school in a well-run department where I am respected and valued. I have opportunity for growth here in Suzhou, both professionally and personally and I’ve even been able to focus more on my health here, going to the gym and being more careful with my diet. I’ll be 30 soon and I need to stay healthy so that my 30s are as rockin’ as my 20s were. Still, today I’m not feeling much love for the Venice of Asia. Perhaps it’s the smoggy weather or maybe I didn’t sleep very, but China is getting on my nerves today!

This morning Dave and I met a friend for breakfast, and as is often the case with Michael, we got into a discussion about what it’s like living in China. Michael’s still on his first year here and he is still noticing some of the things that Dave and I have learned to ignore and his perspective on life here always reminds me of the things that foreigners live with on a day to day basis out here in the orient.

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A Frequent theme in my blog

And all things considered, there really isn’t very much that we need to worry about. China is safe and the people here are kind and friendly, the countryside in this country is diverse and stunningly beautiful and the expat community is quite large so it’s easy to make friends in Suzhou. But, as is the case anywhere, China (and Suzhou) has its problems…

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I’ve been going to the gym. I’ve been pretty good about going 3 days per week and although I haven’t lost much in the way of weight (I think I’m building muscle), I’m becoming noticeably more toned and I’ve been slimming down. I’m very proud of the way I’ve been looking lately and I feel good about doing something positive for a body that has treated me pretty well so far in my 29 years. But I’ve gotta say…as much as I love working out and feeling energized, it is EXTREMELY difficult to love Chinese gyms!! Where should I start?.

 

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I discovered, while writing this blog post, that Powerhouse is a chain outside of just China.

The Equipment: Although there are about 20 treadmills at Power House, they only have 6 eliptical machines, 1 stair master, 10 bikes and some weight side to side machines that kind of make you feel like you’re skating. Now, I have no problems with the treadmills…there are more than enough and they are in good shape…but I also don’t use treadmills very often because they kill my knees. So that leaves 20 cardio machines that I CAN use…except 8 or 9 of them are almost always broken. The ones that AREN’T broken are such poor quality that they always feel like they’re about to fall apart underneath you. Out of all the elliptical machines, only 1 of them accurately tracks distance and calories…1!!! It’s the same with the weights and the resistance machines. Many of them are missing pins so you can’t adjust the resistance without first hunting down a pin from some other machine. Plus, nobody puts their equipment away after they use them, so there are random weights just hanging around on the floor…a little bit dangerous…

Sanitation: This is a big one. There are no towels or spray bottles anywhere at Power House so people don’t clean their equipment like they do in Canada. I can’t tell you how often I get onto an elliptical and realize that the handles are covered in someone else’s sticky sweat. I bring my Norwex towel with me to help with that kind of thing, but it’s still pretty gross. The bathrooms are also pretty dirty. People don’t flush their dirty toilet paper in China (something about the sewage systems not being able to handle it), so the garbage cans are full of that dirty toilet paper. It smells awful and the cans get emptied so rarely that the entire hallway around the bathrooms and change rooms stinks like urine.   Not pleasant…

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The biggest problem with squatters themselves is that it’s sometimes hard to control where your pee ends up….so most of the time, it ends up on (at least) the bottom of your shoes, and you end up tracking it out of the bathroom…

The People: This is the worst part of going to the gym. I can’t even tell you how many times I haven’t been able to finish my work out because someone is sitting on a machine I need, texting or checking their WeChat accounts…it’s infuriating but I often feel like I’m the only person who cares. This kind of thing was especially bad in January and February, when all the New Years resolution memberships started up. Girls (the worst offenders) would hop on a treadmill and spend 10-15 minutes going back and forth between stretching (on the machine!!) and taking selfies to post on WeChat. This isn’t a huge gym, and while there are plenty of treadmills, that can’t be said about any other machine in the building. Yesterday I gave up after waiting 5 minutes for a guy to get off the crunch machine I wanted to use to target my upper abs. And that one elliptical machine that works…the one I mentioned before…people hog that machine for 50+ minutes…some of them hardly even breaking a sweat they are going so slowly because they are too busy enjoying their favourite TV show on their cell phones.

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And most of the time, people aren’t just taking short breaks between sets…they literally use the equipment like public benches…

And this is where the title of this post comes in…a lot of these problems are annoying but forgivable. After all, I know my standards are high…I’m lucky and I was born in a wealthy country where I have the luxury of having problems as shallow as ‘not having cold enough water’. I also know that the sewage issues in China are complicated and that not everywhere in the world is as sterile as North America (it’s weird coming home for visits by the way…everything feels too clean…the whole country feels like a hospital).  There are absolutely things that can be explained by pointing out cultural differences…and foreigners who have been here for a while are always quick to point out that you’re being judgmental for getting upset about some of the things we deal with here in China.  I always feel bad when someone says that to me, because I try very hard to be understanding of cultural differences…

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A picture depicting the difference between line ups in North America, vs the way it’s done in China…I even learned to embrace this in Guiyang and Xiamen (it’s not to bad in Suzhou).  I put aside my Canadian upbringing and learned to push my way to the front, just like everyone else…

But this morning, when we were having breakfast with Michael, he said something that really rang true with me during my work out today: When can we stop pretending that EVERYTHING is about culture? How many things can we blame on cultural differences, really?? When does Culture become an excuse?

 

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The Chinese think that drinking cold water is bad for your stomach…so even at the gym, you can only find hot water, or room temperature.  At Power House, one of the options is suppose to be cold, but it comes out warm enough to steam up my bottle, sooo…

I don’t think that the selfie taking at the gym is forgivable just because I’m in China and “things are different here”. I also don’t think people have to leave their equipment all over the place for others to trip on. And I definitely don’t think that a gym like Power House, who claims to be the ‘western gym’ and charges western prices, has any excuses as far as buying terrible equipment is concerned. None of these things are cultural…they’re just people being inconsiderate of others. And maybe it’s my Canadian background…maybe it’s just my upbringing…but I really have very little patience for inconsiderate people. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone just paid attention to other people’s needs and tried to be more aware of the world around them?

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Another example of this behaviour..some one took off with the school kitchen’s mop over the holiday.  There was a water issue in the kitchen and the only way I could get the water out of the mop they left behind, was to take it outside and step on the mop to get the water out…People take things from that kitchen all the time and leave messes as well.  I don’t know if they just don’t realize that SOMEONE has to clean it (that someone being me), or if they just straight up don’t care…

So those are my thoughts today. Living overseas can be very hard some days, and although it’s gotten ions easier for me since moving to Suzhou, there are still thing here that tick me off. I guess I still have not succeeded in becoming the Super Wizard that I long to be… a Super Wizard who is annoyed by nothing and can aparate to Canada any time she wants to go to the gym or meet her gorgeous new nephew, Zachary.

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Thank goodness I have these 3 to keep me sane!

There’s still more about India on its way! Thanks for checking in!!!

Hazardous Banares

Varanasi (also called Banaras or Benares), is easily the craziest place I have ever experienced.  If you take regular India, which is already astoundingly crazy, and add another factor of about 10, you have Banaras!

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This is the closest I got to the river.  I originally had plans to either go in, or to at least touch the water….those plans changed once I arrived and smelled the Ganges…

Located in the North Eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is the holiest sight in all of India.  3 million Indians and 200,000 foreigners flock there every year to see the holy Ganges and the many ceremonies celebrated there.  And it isn’t only the Hindus that find this place holy.  Jainism, Buddhism and Shiekism are all linked to Varanasi as well, and about 25% of the city’s residents are Muslim, so there is a great deal of cultural diversity.  Best of all, is that all these cultures seem to come together in a peaceful way.  That, in of itself, might be a miracle!

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Preparing to bathe in the holy river

We walked along the River Ganges several times, people watching, animal watching and enjoying the old buildings and colourful scenery.  Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi is very auspicious (lucky/holy) because it means that you will no longer have to reincarnate, and instead you will find Nirvana.  Many people die and are cremated here and certain Ghats (areas of the river with steps leading into the water) are specifically reserved for that purpose.  We saw several cremations taking place, which was both fascinating and a little horrifying for our sheltered western eyes.  To the locals, this was business as usual, and there were children playing cricket in the neighboring ghat, where the smoke from the cremations blew into…

Walking along the river at night was especially interesting.  In addition to the cremations, there is a ceremony every night where people send out little floating candle offerings.  This year hasn’t been great for tourism in India, so when we were there, there were probably more salesmen than tourists.  The big seller on the banks of the Ganges:  boat rides.  Everywhere you go, people will be asking you a 1 word question:  “boat?”. Depending who you speak to, a boat ride along the Ganges can cost anywhere from 100 rupees to 1000 rupees.   The official price is suppose to be around 250 (according to government regulations), but just like everywhere else in India, the salesmen in Banaras just can’t help but try and soak you for that extra money…

Plenty of people also tried selling us hash, opium and even Colombian cocaine (doubtful).  And of course, there were always beggars around, with various ailments..some real…some badly faked.  It is considered specially good to give money to beggars in Varanasi, but it’s very unwise to do so as a foreigner.  If you give to one…not only are you encouraging a practice that the government condemns, but you’re also opening yourself up to being mobbed by 30 other beggars in the area.  I had it happen to me in China, and it was scary!  It is very hard to give in when you are being asked by children…so hard…but it’s much better that they take on jobs instead of relying on begging.  Especially with India’s growing tourism industry and the jobs that are being created with further focus on sanitation in the country, there will be more and more jobs opening up for these people in the future.

There is also life away from the Ganges’ Ghats.  This densely populated city has a population of about 1.2 million residents.  When you add in tourism, there are some very full roads.  Varanasi is also quite poor, so the infrastructure leaves something to be desired.  In an alley barely wide enough to fit 1 car, you’ll find Tuk Tuk’s, rickshaws and cars all weaving around each other, while pedestrians and people on bikes try to get out of the way.  And of course, there is livestock everywhere as well.  We saw plenty of cows, goats, pigs, chickens and even a few horses walking the roads of Banaras.  Considering that the holy city is larger than the capital of my home province (Winnipeg, Manitoba), the variety of animals in the streets is surprising to anyone just arriving in India.

And if you think I must be exaggerating about the state of Varanasi’s roads, I will provide proof of the mayhem.  This is a combinations of several videos I took while visiting the holy city.

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A picture of the ‘back seat’ mentioned by the tuk tuk driver.  He insisted that he could fit all 3 of our suitcases…us…and him (plus 2 back packs).  Something tells me that wouldn’t have been a pleasant ride…

If markets and the River aren’t what you seek in Varanasi, there are also plenty of temples to see.   According to Wikipedia, there are an estimated 23,000 temples in Varanasi, ranging from small shrines to massive stone structures.  We didn’t go into any this time around  because we’ve seen enough to last us a lifetime.  Instead, we walked the busy streets and spent an afternoon at a small cafe near Assi Ghat.  Open Hand Cafe was wonderful…playing English music (the Dixie Chicks!!) and serving excellent coffee.  Best of all, they sell items made by disabled women and children, who are unable to otherwise create income on their own.  With fixed and fair prices, it’s an excellent place to make purchases.

In short, in Banares you will experience everything from fully visible cremations to near death experiences on the road to people claiming to be selling Colombian cocaine.  No matter what your interests are…Varanasi has something for you!!!

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And always remember…you may think you’re cool…but you’ll never be as cool as these guys!!  (they were probably about 14 years old…)

We’re home now…but don’t worry!  I’m not done writing about India just yet!  Stay tuned for my posts about the Taj Mahal, our night in the desert and our final days in Delhi!

 

An Update on Life in Guiyang

It’s beautiful and sunny  here in Guiyang, and it’s one of the hottest days we’ve had this year.  We chose to spend our day off scooting around the city and enjoying the beautiful scenery that Guiyang has to offer.  Guizhou’s rugged beauty is something that I know I’ll miss as we move on to the next phase of our travels.

Life here has definitely improved.  Part of that is because the worst of culture shock has passed…we’ve become accustomed to some of the things we find difficult in China (the last minuteness of everything…the terrible driving…the lack of customer service) and as a result we are both feeling a little more relaxed than we were back in October and November.

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See my post about culture shock here

So I suppose it’s true…time heals everything.  But I wouldn’t be giving myself due credit if I said that time alone helped my circumstances.  After all, with all the problems I was having at the beginning of my contract, there were several routes I could have taken.   The way I see it, I had 3 options at the time:

  1. I could have given up and quit/gone home.
  2. I could have given up trying…after all, I didn’t feel that my efforts were appreciated or noticed.
  3. I could power through and continue being the best I could be, in the hope that that would eventually be recognized.

Of course, given my tenacity, I chose the 3rd option.  Instead of sulking or giving up, I turned my focus to the classroom.    I transformed that bland room into an engaging environment where my students can learn.  I also started spending more time on my students themselves…creating customized worksheets to help the ones that were struggling with spelling…learning new songs for the students who love music…looking for new activities and games to ensure everyone is getting the most out of their classes.  And it paid off.  I’m now considered one of the top teachers at the school, and that means a great deal to me.

So I suppose I’ve been keeping busy.  I’ve spent hours on these displays and sometimes I don’t even bother going back to the staff room for breaks, I just tidy up the classroom and add posters to the walls.  And while I’ve been been so busy powering through the last six months, life outside the school continued…

We’ve celebrated milestones:

Undergone transformations:

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Anyone who thinks marriage is lame, by the way, is not married to the right person.

Received countless care packages from home, which always brighten our day (and restock our goodie bin!!

We’ve made friends…both of the human and furry variety:

And, of course, we have tried many new foods 🙂

One of our favorite new restaurants is in the Future Ark area of Guiyang.  Dave made a video to show you all what street food in Guiyang is like:

I have experienced so much in the last 6 months.  There have been highs and lows, but no matter what has happened, I’ve had a constant positive in my life:  my students.  They are really the best part of being here.  I know I should be exhausted every Sunday night, after back to back 10 hour days…but I always find myself energized at the end of it all.  I have no doubt that teaching is my true calling…I have never loved a job as much as I love this one.

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How could I ever complain when I’ve got kids as cute as Poppy, who brought me a rose on Saturday…just because 🙂

Sadly, it really hit me this week that I’m going to be leaving soon and that although I’m excited to move on, I don’t know how I’m going to say goodbye to some of these kids…

But I suppose, once more I need to remind myself not to complain.  I’d rather have met these kids and have to say goodbye, than have never met them at all.  They’ve all taught me so much.  Smile (a little boy in one of my kindergarten classes) has shown me how he can be brave, no matter how scary it was for him to be away from his parents when he first began coming to class.  Lee taught me that no matter how bratty a child may be, they can ALWAYS turn it around.  And Chuck…Chuck taught me that 6 year olds can get brain cancer, and that I should cherish every moment I have with all of my beautiful students.

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He was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer 3 months ago. His classmates still ask where he went. I have no idea how to answer…