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…

An Update on Life in Suzhou (Part 2)

Another day, another blog post!  We decided to change things up and go to a Starbucks out in Suzhou New District (where SFLS is located) because I have a farewell IGCSE dinner to attend later tonight.  It’s so crazy that another term is finished!  Most of the department is returning next year, but we are losing a teacher or two that I wish we were keeping.

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Me with some of my favourite IGCSE teachers at Nathan’s Art show.

Personally, I’m happy to be staying in the department.  I really like the administration in IGCSE and next year I’ll be taking over as the grade 7 and 8 English teacher.  Right now I only teach 1 writing class but next year I’ll be teaching 3, plus 3 oral and listening classes.  I think it’ll be better for me than teaching Food and Nutrition and I know I’m more qualified for my new role.  Plus, I still get to keep 2 of my drama classes and I’ll be starting a new Publishing and Editing elective next year (my class will be in charge of the school yearbook, the school calendar and our departmental blog!).  Exciting things are in store for me in September!

My grade 7 writing class is one of my favourites to teach, and I know I’m going to miss them over the summer.   These kids are very bright for their age so I decided to teach them how to write simple thesis statements in an effort to better organize their writing.  Michael is a student who tends to be a bit of a downer…always complaining about how tough life is.  I taught him the word ‘optimistic’ earlier this year and he’s used it every chance he could.  This was my favourite use of this word:

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This year I see them twice a week, but next year I get them 6 times a week, so I’m pretty excited about that!  These kids never stop making me laugh!  They are truly a joy!!

IGCSE is a really cool department to be part of.  Although I mostly taught in the Elite Department this past year, I took part in several IGCSE projects and I ran the school yearbook as well.  All of the staff try to provide a well rounded school life for the students and I try to help out whenever I can.  But my favourite thing about IG is the way they help out with a migrant school in Suzhou.

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One of the Blooper Pages for the yearbook.  It’s mostly just Nathan and Adam making faces…but I feel that it well represents the spirit of the IGCSE staff room.

Migrant schools are for children whose parents are from other provinces but who have come to Suzhou for work.  They are highly underfunded and the students don’t as good of an education.  Each class in our department gets a chance to visit a migrant school each team.  This means that nearly every month, my department takes an afternoon to spend time teaching students English.  It’s a learning experience for everyone involved because the migrant kids get some English lessons and the IG kids get to see how lucky they are to be going to a school with the resources that SFLS has.  We have Nathan (my boss) to thank for this added activity for the students.  He’s been working with the migrant school for years and has won awards for the help he’s given them.

So all these little projects have really filled up my year, but none of them took as much of my focus and hard work than  the Drama Festival.  It took months of work, hours of writing, days of rehearsal…but in the end, it was all so worth it!!!

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I was in charge of everything including writing speeches for the MCs, setting up mini shows between each play and writing and directing 4/5 of the plays at the festival this year.  From sets, to sounds to costumes and script…I was involved in all of it!  It was a pretty big job…

Because of my background in writing, I decided early on that my focus was going to be on writing the plays and (of course) having them act them out with comprehend-able English.  Nathan ran the Drama festival last year, and with his art background there was a lot more focus on sets and props, so it was kind of cool to mix it up this year.  I’m especially proud of the way each of my classes came up with their plays:

Step 1:  I began the term in February by teaching my students how to write a story.  First, we focused on writing good characters and making sure that their characters had depth.  Then, I taught them about plot and what a good plot line looks like.

Step 2:   Each class was separated into 4 groups and I gave them 2 weeks to write the outline for a play.  I gave them free reign on the topics and they came up with very different stories.

Step 3:  Each group presented their outline to the class and then the class voted on which play they would do for the drama festival.

Step 4:  I took the winning outline and turned it into a play.  I met with the students and got a better idea of what they wanted to see in their play and discussed ways that we could add characters so everyone who wanted to act could.  Then I wrote the dialogue and presented it to them.  Other than a few small details, the students were thrilled to see their ideas come to life on page in proper English.

Because of the way we did this, there was HUGE buy in from the students at the Drama Festival.  Each class was so proud of their play and they all worked very hard to impress all the other students.  Here’s the breakdown of each play:

Elite 1 Girls Class (Grade 7)

These girls wanted to write a story with a moral, so that’s what we did.  They worked the hardest out of any of my classes on their emphasis and pronunciation and the other students noticed.  Although their play wasn’t as exciting as a lot of the other plays, they really shone because their speech was so clear.  I am very proud of these ladies and I’m super bummed I won’t be teaching them again next year!

Elite 1 Boys Class (Grade 7)

This was one of the funniest plays at the festival.  Adam, the student wearing the big glasses, is a Drama King!  He wrote the outline to a fabulous “Robots and Mad Scientist” type play that the class voted in.  There were several fighting scenes (with correlating sound effects) that had the audience in stitches and everyone loved how the Narrator was killed by the villain in the end.  I was worried about this play before the festival because it seemed like the students weren’t listening to anything I was saying during rehearsals, but someone was obviously paying attention (probably Adam lol!) and they pulled it together in the final hour!  It was an AWESOME play and I’m very excited to be teaching them again next year!

Elite 2 Boys Class (Grade 8)

These were easily the most hardworking students at the Drama Festival.  Not only did they participate more than any other class with the writing of the actual play, but they were practicing in their free time and they added so many things to the play that weren’t in the script.  They OWNED this play and it was a huge success at the festival.

The story line was very funny and although it wasn’t originally suppose to be a comedy, we were all glad it became one.  It was a detective story about a murderer who’s calling card was to leave high-end underwear on his victim’s heads (the underwear wasn’t part of the original script but when I told them they needed to have something memorable in the play, that’s what they thought up….middle school boys are hilarious!!).

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No matter how many times I saw that play performed, I laughed every single time.  I loved watching them from the side of the stage…I’m so proud of these kids!!!

IGCSE (grades 7-9 co-ed classes)

The IGCSE play is the one I’m personally most proud of, because I wrote it all myself.  The students were in the middle of their IGCSE exams during the festival so they didn’t have time to help as much as I would have liked.  Still, they worked hard at remembering their lines and bringing their best actor-selves to the stage.

The play was called ‘Breaking Bad:  Candy Crush Edition’ and it was based on the television show, only instead of crystal meth, the students were selling a special type of candy that was addictive and high in sugar content.  Because the play was set in IGCSE, the kids LOVED the issues brought up (the candy starts as a distraction to break ‘the homework system’ that’s keeping them all prisoner).  Best of all, 3 teachers (myself included) made guest appearances in the play.  Isaac, the Economics teacher. does body building on the side, so he came out and raged at the students for misbehaving, even breaking a meter stick in the process.  Adam’s socks were stolen for candy and I was found crying in a hallway because of all the ants that the candy had attracted into the Food and Nutrition kitchens.  Students and teachers alike loved the play and I think it was the perfect way to end the festival.  Even Mr. Rehan, who prides himself in being quite serious, sent me a message after the Drama Festival was over saying:  “Thank you.  In my 2 years at this school, this is the first time I found something so entertaining”.  Win for Marie!!!!

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Adam playing himself…a stressed out teacher who’s socks have been stolen

So that’s been my spring term!  Lots of projects and lots of hard work…but all worth it!

(I am truly looking forward to next year’s Drama Festival already!!)

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!!!

Back in Suzhou

Unlike at the end of many holidays, where I’ve been a little depressed to return to ‘real life’, I am totally thrilled to be back in Suzhou.  I’m only one week into the new semester and I’m already finding work challenging, rewarding and fun.  The number of students who greeted me by jumping out of their seat and cheering blew me away.  How did I end up working for a school with students this cool?  I don’t remember ever loving teachers enough to cheer for them!?  These kids are just so great…and it helps that I love teaching Drama and writing…and even Food and Nutrition (when I’m in the classroom!!!).

Anyway…after 30 days away from home, Poe and Hugo are very pleased to have us back!  Poor Poe was very anxious from us being away, I think, and our first few nights back were sleepless.  She needs constant reassurance and is always worried that we’ve left.  She wakes us up in the middle of the night…seemingly just to see if we’re there.  I  wonder what she went through at that shelter to have so much to worry about!  Hugo, on the other hand, could not be more relaxed.  Although he’s the one missing a leg, you’d never guess that he’s seen a moment of trauma in his life.  Nothing phases him…I guess cats are like people in that way…some handle stress better than others.

The following few posts I’ll be putting up will be about some of the most incredible parts of our trip.  It felt as though writing about these things from my tablet wouldn’t do them justice…not only because the internet was constantly a struggle and my photo editing tools are all on my laptop (which we didn’t bring along), but I wanted to be able to write about these things with some distance from India.  Our trip had a lot of ups and even more downs, but I know that with some distance, things won’t seem as though they were so bad.  The following two posts will be about our time in Agra and our time in the Thar desert…and they are both stories that deserve to be to told without residual frustrations tainting otherwise beautiful experiences.

I hope you enjoy reading about these adventures as much as I’ve enjoyed documenting them through both writing and photography.

圣诞快乐和新年快乐!(Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!)

Although my next post was going to be about our trip to Hong Kong, I thought that writing about the Holidays might be a little more relevant.  The holiday season can be awful or amazing when you are a foreigner in another country.  It’s easy to feel homesick and marginalized when you live in a country where Christmas is important on a superficial level alone, but it helps a lot when you work with awesome people and have good friends to celebrate with.   Dave and I were fortunate enough to be part of several events with the great friends we’ve made over the last 4 months.  And although our Christmas definitely had some ‘downs’, it was, for the most part, an excellent holiday!

The school held several events around the holidays that definitely helped encourage the Christmas Spirit.  In addition to the Lao Wai Holiday supper, there was also a spelling bee the week before Christmas and then on Thursday we had the IGCSE New Year’s Gala.  All 3 events were great fun and big successes.

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One of the dearest friends I’ve made in Suzhou:  Alecia.  She teaches Spanish at the school (she’s from Spain).

My favorite of the holiday parties though, was the IGCSE New Year’s Eve gala.  IGCSE is the department of the school where I work.  Suzhou Foreign Language school is huge and there are actually 3 middle schools within the one larger school.  IGCSE is the ‘English’ department because when the students graduate middle school, they receive a bilingual diploma from the University of Cambridge.  We have some of the brightest students I’ve met in China in this program and I’m proud to be their teacher 🙂

I also got to perform at the gala.  My boss, Nathan, plays the Ukulele, so he and I chose a couple of songs and performed them for the kids and parents.  It went over really well, and when it was done, one of the IG2 students presented me with a bouquet of roses.  It was so sweet!

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We look far more professional than we actually were!

The gala finished with Abba’s ‘Happy New Year’, which I may now never get out of my head!  They asked Nathan and I at the last minute if we would sing the first 8 lines of the song solo, so I had to learn it over night.  I was so stressed about the whole thing (Abba is WAY out of my range) that I lost my voice!  Luckily, I found it the next morning, but it was still a bit of a scare!

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Nathan and I with all of the IGCSE students!  It’s unfortunate that none of the other IG teachers could make it to the event (they all work in multiple departments and couldn’t get their classes changed).  I’m glad I was able to attend, though!

But the school was not the only place where I was able to celebrate the holidays (don’t worry, Dave and I DID see each other!!).  We were invited to, and organized, several events with friends.  Just like we would back home, we ate FAR too much and spent great time with great people 🙂

Christmas Day was a lot of fun as well.  Dave and I got dressed up and had dinner at the Kempinski Hotel in Suzhou.  We ate far too much (again) and then head out to The Camel (a bar in SIP) to meet some friends that I met in Shanghai.

New Year’s Eve was also a nice evening out, though I didn’t take any pictures.  We hung out with my favorite Suzhou-Canadian: Jeff.  Whenever I miss home, I hang out with Jeff…he is basically every Canadian stereotype personified!

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This is basically Jeff

Of course, I can’t exactly say that our holiday season was everything I had hoped it would be.  The pollution from Beijing made its way down to Suzhou and Dave and I both got pretty sick from it.  My skin was very irritated by the smog and dust and both of our lungs suffered.  We really do love our life in Suzhou, but when we decide to move home, it will probably be because of the smog.  Coming from small town Canada has left me with high standards as far as air is concerned, and Suzhou doesn’t cut it.

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The first of these pictures was taken over the summer, when the pollution was very low.  The second was taken when it was at it’s worst.  We base the air quality each day on whether or not we can see the ‘Pants Building from our apartment.

 

But the smog was the least of our holiday worries.  We had Poe scheduled to be spayed on December 23rd, and although she was in heat at the time, we needed to get the surgery done so that she’d be healed in time for our departure for India.   We read about it online and everything seemed like it would be fine.  The surgery is a little more complicated when a cat is in heat, but vets do the surgery out west all the time.  So we went ahead with the surgery.

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Our Sweet Poe

A few hours after her surgery was over, we got a call from the vet telling us that she had to go back under because she had internal bleeding.  2 hours later, we found out that the vet had accidentally damaged her spleen during the original surgery (he has apologized profusely for his mistake and has admitted that it was due to his inexperience…inexperience we weren’t actually aware of…).  As a result, Poe lost her spleen and we came pretty close to losing her.

Now, anyone who is not an animal lover may not understand where I’m coming from here, but Dave and I have really fallen in love with that cat over the last month and a half.  She’s such a little ray of sunshine…very affectionate and always purring.  She became part of our little family so quickly and we were so terribly worried we’d lose her.

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She really is my little sunshine!

The veterinarian did come through for us though, and he saved our little Poe.  She spent 3 nights at the hospital and we visited her between our holiday parties whenever we had the chance.  The nurse there commented on how much higher her spirits were when we were there, which made us feel like there was SOMETHING we could actually do for her.

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Visiting her at the vet

Poe came home on Boxing Day and is still recovering.  We try to keep her out of the cone as much as possible so she can get some good rest and feel comfortable, but she’s a cat…so bathing is inevitable.  Her spirit is slowly returning and she’s becoming playful again, which is wonderful to see.  Hugo rather enjoyed being an ‘only cat’ for the 4 days she was gone, but he’s adjusting to her return.  And as much as he tries to pretend he hates that little black ball of fur, he was worried and searching for her the entire time she was gone.

 

So I guess our Christmas story had a happy ending.  🙂

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The best present I got this Christmas was to have Poe back home safe and sound, but I did score some other shwag as well!  The beautiful wallet and book were from Dave (he also got wii controls so we can play on his computer) and the painting is an original from my boss, Nathan, who is quite a talented artist!  I also received a lot of chocolate and other goodies from my students.  The cat key chain was given to me by Ken…one of the coolest 13 year olds I’ve ever met.  My whole class was worried sick about Poe.  It was very sweet that they cared so much!

I’ll be back soon with some stories about Hong Kong!

 

 

Hitting the Ground Running: Part 1

At this point I should probably give up apologizing for the long gaps between my posts.  Though my intentions have been good, I’m finding it difficult to make time for the things that were my life-savers last year:  blogging, journaling and photography.  And, although these difficulties can be partially explained by this blog post, there is another element to our lives in Suzhou that has made it nearly impossible to keep the momentum I had last year.  I’m actually happy.

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See how happy we are!  It’s ridiculous! :p

Last year at this time I was merely trying to find ways to cope.  I was trying to make friends with people who didn’t necessarily want to be my friends.  I was trying to impress a school that didn’t care what I had to offer and I was trying to force myself to fit into a city that was just very much NOT me.   Blogging and journaling was a way for me to stay positive about the things I was going through.  This year, I don’t find myself needing the same things.

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In Guiyang I sort of felt like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole…

Because Suzhou has been so welcoming and such a good fit for Dave and I, we find ourselves making friends easily and doing things that involve growing a certain amount of roots in this city.  In Guiyang, the idea of getting a gym membership seemed too permanent to me.  I felt like we could be leaving at any moment (I was honestly afraid of being fired for a long time) so I didn’t think signing a yearlong contract at a gym would be wise.  Here, that isn’t an issue.

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After receiving countless flyers from several gyms in the area, we decided on the one that had English on the cover

The same thing goes with the newest editions to our home:  Hugo and Poe.  We ventured down to an animal shelter a few weeks back and found 2 cats that quickly became ours.  Now that they are healthy and well-fed, they are quickly becoming family.  I would never have dreamed of getting a pet in Guiyang.  Moving an animal across the country is stressful and Dave and I both knew that Guiyang was not going to be our last stop in China, so pets were off the table.

So I guess what I’m saying is that although blogging is still a project that is very important to me, I find myself being stretched in other ways as well.  Improving my health further is high on my ‘to-do’ list this year, so Power House Gym will be getting more of my time.  My cats are also high on my priority list.  Keeping my apartment clean is essential for my survival (have I mentioned I’m extremely allergic to my cats?).  If the fur or dander build up, I can’t breath, so I’m spending a lot more time vacuuming and sweeping than I was last year.   And lastly, it’s kind of nice having a social life again!   Now that I’m not a depressed, anxious mess anymore, its great going out with some of the teachers from my school.  As I’ve mentioned before…I work with some really great people!!

So that sums up the last month.  New family members, gym memberships and of course, I’m still keeping very busy at the school (which I still love!!).  September and October were their own brands of mayhem that need some explaining.  I’ve already written about Beijing, but that’s only 1/3 of our travel in those 2 months.  In total, we were on 6 airplanes, 5 high speed trains and slept in 4 different hotels within our first 60 days in China.  That may sound like fun, but we also security checks becomes a bore after that many trips…

Trip #1 – Shanghai

2 weeks after arriving in Suzhou, I had to travel to Shanghai for a week to complete a 60 hour TEFL training program for the Chinese government.  I had already completed 240 hours of this training over the past few years (through a Canadian company), but still, in an effort to weed out any undesirable teachers, the government requested that I complete their program before I would be granted a fully legal visa.  I obliged because the last thing I wanted was to be kicked out of the country after finally finding the right job!

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A fairly good depiction of how Chinese Visa requirements can feel.

The training itself was pretty useless.  Because I’d already taken several of these courses (3 of them being in-depth training for specific age levels: adults, adolescents and children), I already knew most of the material.  I can definitely see how this training would be valuable for anyone who has never taught before, but for me, it was a waste of time.  I showed up, did my best not to lose my temper on our teacher (who insisted with raise both hands in the air any time he wanted us to be quiet…) and made it through the week without losing too much of my sanity.

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Me doing my practicum class. We visited a local university which was sort of fun
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My graduating class.  I met some swell people here 🙂

The supposed bright side to all of this was that I got to see Shanghai.  The reason I say ‘supposed’ was because I didn’t actually like Shanghai all that much.  Most foreigners see Shanghai as a haven from ‘old’ China, and in a lot of ways, they are right.  There are countless western brands there where you can find everything from cosmetics, to western food to western clothing.  Still, this wasn’t all that impressive, given that I’d been in Canada 3 weeks earlier and I was all stocked up on my ‘western’ stuff.

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We didn’t actually eat here…but it just sounded SO American!
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We DID eat here! We were craving Guiyang food far more than we were craving western food!

But Shanghai is simply not my cup of tea.  The city is just too much ‘city’ for this small town girl!  With a population of 30,000,000 (yeah…that’s slightly less than all of Canada), the subways are always packed, the pollution is nasty and the noise is unbearable.  I hate the crowds and there was nothing worse than the metro station where people routinely push their way onto the trains.  Our only refuge from the crowds was our hotel room, which stunk of cigarettes and was nearly as noisy as the outdoors.

I’m grateful that Dave was able to join me on that trip (the beauty of being able to work anywhere where there is internet access).  We had an OK time in the shopping district, walking around and seeing the sights, and we found ourselves some good restaurants and had a nice time down at The Bund. Mostly, I met some really cool people while taking my class, so that was good.

When the course was over, I was thrilled to head back to Suzhou and get back in to the swing of things at the school.  I still hadn’t really had a chance to get my classes in full swing and I still had plenty of ‘beginning of semester’ projects on the go, so it was important for me to be present at the school as much as possible.  But of course, 10 days later, National Week arrived…

Trip #2 – Beijing

Beijing was somewhere I had never been but had always wanted to visit.  When the National Day came upon us, we had to make a decision:  Stay at home for a week with nothing to do…or head to Beijing for a mini holiday.  We chose the latter, mostly because I hate being bored…

Beijing was somewhere I had never been but had always wanted to visit.  When the National Day came upon us, we had to make a decision:  Stay at home for a week with nothing to do…or head to Beijing for a mini holiday.  We chose the latter, mostly because I hate being bored…

Now, I’ve already written about the Great Wall, so you might be wondering why I’d bring up Beijing at all. After all…how much could we have seen on a 4 day holiday? Well…the answer to that is that we saw enough to know that we are happy that we don’t live in Beijing!

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Though, we did meet several nice cats!

As some of you may have seen in the news, the pollution in Beijing is atrocious. You can actually taste the pollution in the air and there’s always a bit of a haze to see through…even when it’s sunny.   Out on The Wall, we had clean air, but the two days we spent IN the city made me very glad to live in Suzhou, where the pollution is bad at times (it comes down from nearby Shanghai), but where I don’t feel like I’m actually in danger by being there!

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As the weather gets colder, the pollution in northern China becomes so bad that school is actually cancelled. It wasn’t this bad when we were there, but at the moment, it’s worse than it’s ever been. And on an interesting note…filtration system advertisements keep showing up on my facebook feed…

You can read more about Northern China’s pollution woes here

But the pollution isn’t the only part of Beijing to leave a bad taste in my mouth (so to speak).   Dave and I felt like targets from the moment we left the airport. Everybody wanted our money. Everybody EXPECTED our money.  From the moment you step out of the airplane, you are a target…and I can’t think of a group worse than the taxi drivers of China…

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Although there are so many ways to be ripped off when you’re traveling, it’s difficult to choose just one…

In western countries, it is expected that the taxi driver use a meter when taking you anywhere.  Taxi drivers will still find other ways to rip you off (taking the long way around, for example), but they are still limited by their meter.  In many Chinese cities…that isn’t he case.

What’s worse is that people here are so accustomed to this sort of behavior from drivers, that they don’t even question it.  Drivers refuse to use their meters and they will not take you unless you agree with their price.  Worst of all, most cabbies work for a small number of companies, so they all agree on a minimum price, so no matter which taxi you go to, you are paying AT LEAST double what a metered ride would cost.  This is infuriating…especially when there are really no other options at 11pm when you have luggage and have just gotten off a flight.

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Dave trying to stay optimistic, while I get ready to slug a cabbie for being rude to me…

But taxi drivers are not the only once looking to make a buck off the tourists…

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This restaurant was so awful I actually ran back over here after I had time to calm down, so that I could take a picture to warn future tourists. Unfortunately, this is what nearly every restaurant in China looks like…

The restaurant business reportedly did well over the National Holiday, and nowhere was that truer than in Beijing. One restaurant was actually handing out 1500rmb bills ($300 Canadian) by charging people ‘per shrimp’ in their food orders. It’s sad that we live in a world where this is common place – tourists all over the world deal with this treatment. It doesn’t only happen in China.

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It’s even been known to happen in Antarctica!

Our personal experience was at a restaurant near the Forbidden Kingdom. We wanted to have Beijing Roast Duck while in the city (it’s hardly a treat for Dave and I…we have a fantastic ‘duck place’ in Winnipeg…) so we ventured out to find somewhere that wasn’t going to overcharge us.

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This is what Peking Duck is suppose to look like

We saw a sign advertising the dish, so we went into the restaurant. It was a bit of a hole in the wall, but we often seek out those restaurants, as they often have the best food in China. We ordered the duck along with a favorite bean dish of ours, and could hear the staff nervously laughing while watching the ‘crazy lao wai’ from their little desk at the other end of the restaurant.

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When they served us this canned, slimy, salty duck on a plate…I almost screamed. That’s when we realized that they weren’t laughing because they were nervous at our ‘whiteness’. They were laughing because we were being taken for a ride…

We ate the little bit we could tolerate before asking for the bill…in Chinese.  You see, at this point, we hadn’t been given much opportunity to demonstrate that we weren’t their average tourist.  We do, in fact, know the difference between real Beijing Roast Duck and the canned, slimy sludge they’d served us…

The staff actually huddled together to see what they could charge us for the meal.  I could HEAR them discussing how much to charge us for the meal (the restaurant DID have menus…and we DID check the prices…).  When the waiter came over, our conversation went something like this (done completely in Chinese.  I am VERY proud).

Marie:  Why is our bill so high?  Our duck never arrived.

Waiter:  Your duck is right here

Marie:  THIS is your duck?  This is NOT Beijing Roast Duck!  Beijing Roast Duck is delicious.  This tastes terrible!

Waiter:  Well, this is our Roast Duck.

***Moves uncomfortably, shifting his weight from foot to foot***

Marie:  Ok, well, even if this IS your duck, our bill should only be 140rmb…why are you asking for 190rmb?

Waiter:  Wait one moment please.

***He runs to the back…to speak to a manager, I imagine.

Waiter:  The additional charge is because you used our dishes.  There is a 50rmb fee for using our plates. 

Marie:  I’m sorry, but you are a racist. 

Waiter:  What!?  I am not!?

Marie:  So, you’re telling me that you would treat a Chinese person this way?

This is the point where Dave wisely gave the man 150rmb and we walked out of the restaurant.  We created quite a scene and several customers had quickly paid for their dishes and left.  We’d actually even scared some new customers away from eating at the restaurant.  I felt good about myself.  I also felt angry, so we walked around for a little while longer and then went back and got a picture of the place.  I half-hope they saw me take it.

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I should also add that this restaurant had a picture of legitimate Beijing Duck on their sign and that they shouted ‘we have Beijing Duck’ at us when we walked by. So I think it’s safe to say that this is an ongoing scam these people run…

The rest of our time in Beijing was less eventful (thank goodness!).  We saw some parks and some old buildings.  We really weren’t up for anything overly touristy so we never made it down to the Forbidden City or Summer Palace, but some day we’ll head back down there to see the rest that China’s capital has to offer.  Beijing is only 5 hours away by high speed train, so a visit would hardly be difficult to organize.

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BeiHai Park is definitely worth the visit if you are in Beijing. The willows and the old architecture make for a nice walk in a fairly quiet space. The park is also home to many ‘wild’ cats (probably to keep insect and rodent populations down). I say ‘wild’ because they are all super friendly and nearly all were happy to be pet.
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You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to get this shot! It’s nearly impossible to take a picture without tourists in it!
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I love Chinese architecture
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Dave and I in front of a very impressive carved mural

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My love for Suzhou is showing through in other areas of my life. I am now obsessed with archways.

Our last grand adventure in Beijing was to do some Christmas shopping.  We braved this night market and found some goodies for our family and friends back home.  Now we are faced with the challenge of finding a post office so that we can ship these gifts!  The strangest things are struggles in China…

IMG_6911I’ll be back soon with Part 2 of this post.  I’ll be writing about our trip to Hong Kong!  (Spoiler:  It was fabulous!)