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.

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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.

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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*

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!!

November 17th

This is the hallway outside my office at school. As you can see, the hallway is mostly open to the outdoors. Many schools in China are designed this way.

On a warm sunny day, this doesn’t really affect me, but on days like today, when it’s cold and rainy…. My office is also cold and rainy.

Kids come in and out all day and usually leave the door open. Even after we (the expat staff) installed an automatic door closer, several of the teachers have taken to propping the door open with a magnet to “let the fresh air in”. The results are discomfort, damp homework and grouchiness.

I don’t know why schools are designed this way. It’s often quite dangerous. The floors were wet with rainwater all day today and I nearly slipped twice. Students routinely go running down these halls and I’m constantly worried someone is going to get hurt.

November 16th

This is my desk at work.  I like to keep it organised because I hate forgetting to do things and I REALLY hate not being able to find things.

I also love being able to remind the kids how organized I am when they claim I’ve been lost their work.  That’s fun.  

At home, I’m nowhere near as neat.  That probably has a lot to do with the amount of time I actually spend at my desk at home.  Working in my home office is a bit painful because it’s really hard to grade when you have a black cat batting all your markers to the floor and a 3 legged cat trying to jump into your lap.  

As a result, my desk at home acts as storage space more than it does a work space.

November 15th

Today we held our first Writing Center session.

A few weeks ago, one of the home room teachers approached me with an idea to launch a writing mentor program for some of the IG1 students.

These grade 7 students come to me with strong oral English, but their writing skills haven’t really been developed. They’ve learned basic grammar, of course, but don’t have much practice using it in written form until they reach middle school. This means I have a year and a half to teach them how to pass a Cambridge exam.

What makes my department unique is that we have students in grade 8, writing an exam meant for grade 10 students. It’s a tall order for a bunch of 13 and 14 year olds, but we make it work. I am actually very proud to say that my grade 8 class last year actually beat the grade 10 students in another department who wrote the exact same exam.

So when Tracy asked me if I’d help set up a tutoring program and pair up her grade 7 students with my strongest grade 8&9 students… I jumped on the opportunity.

Today was our first class. I chose 7 students from IG1 who I knew needed some help, and paired them with some volunteers. The results were fantastic. They worked together for the entire 40 minute lunch period and several students made arrangements to meet again outside of the Writing Center because they had run out of time but wanted to finish helping their mentees.

I teach the coolest kids.

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November 7th

A Typical Tuesday

  • I start my day at 7:30am, so I can be at work for around 9:30
  • From 9:30 – 12:00, I work on the IG English curriculum. This way, when I leave Suzhou, the work I’ve put into building the English program won’t go to waste.
  • Lunch is from 12:00 – 1:20. It’s a long lunch break and most of my Chinese peers spend the time napping or resting. I use the time to prep my afternoon classes.
  • 1:20 – 4:35 is spent teaching. I don’t have any morning classes on Tuesday, which is really nice. It makes for a busy afternoon, but that’s when I’m at my best… So I’m glad my classes are scheduled for then.
  • From 4:35 – 7:00, I spend my time tidying up my desk, traveling back to SIP and eating dinner with Dave.
  • From 7:00 – 9:30, I try and catch up on grading. This week alone, I have roughly 100 summaries to check for grammar, spelling, vocabulary, content and format. Each summary takes between 4-8 minutes to grade.
  • 9:30 -10:30 is excercise time. On weeks when I’m really busy I like to walk after I’m done grading. Sometimes I do yoga instead, or calisthenics if I happen to have energy left from the rest of the day.
  • 10:30 – 11:30 is time to wind down. Lately I’ve been watching Criminal Minds and Scrubs. Been going old-school.
  • 11:30 is time for bed.

That’s a Typical Tuesday for this Teacher.

November 2nd

Today’s photo may not look like much…

On the right, there is a student named Michael. He’s 15 years old and in my grade 9 class. He is inquisitive, hardworking and has a great attitude. I’ve been his teacher since 2015.

On the left is Tim. He’s new to IGCSE. He’s in grade 7, and his English skills are a fair bit lower than the rest of his class. Still, he has a positive attitude and a very encouraging home room teacher, so instead of giving up on his writing assignment, he asked for help.

Michael obliged.

These two students chose to spend their lunch hour today working together. I’d like to say it’s a happy coincidence, but so much has gone into this.

  • Encouragement from homeroom teachers and parents. Without their support, neither of these students would have been where they were today at lunch time.
  • A department that fosters a willingness to help. In IGCSE, students learn that helping others is both rewarding, and their responsibility.
  • An English teacher that believes that collaboration is the most effective way to learn language.

Being a teacher is about so much more than ‘reading, writing and arithmatic’. It’s my responsibility to teach these kids to be caring and compassionate people. It’s my job to teach them about responsibility and expectations. It’s my job to give them the confidence to reach out for help and to offer it to those in need.

This picture might not look like much, but today….I felt like a superstar.

November 2b

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!!

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Oh yeah, and that talent show will be televised and recorded in front of a huge audience. And it’s in 4 days…
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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!

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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.

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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…