Volunteering in China

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

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

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

That’s how my weightloss challenge was born.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cats were quite pleased too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 16: Graffiti

As I mentioned in another post, we saw graffiti all over Spain, Andorra and France. On our way down to La Rambla last night (a popular tourist area in Barcelona), I decided to get some pictures.

Some are of it’s good… Some of it is ….. Well….

Some of the graffiti we saw was a collection of work from various “artists”

The colours really pop on the black door…

We noticed that a lot of the graffiti we were seeing was painted onto metal doors, not on the actual buildings.

I’m not sure of the reasons…

Some of what we saw could very well have been commissioned by known Street artists, from the look of it.

A lot of the best artwork is done on shop gates. When the stores close for the day, suddenly, there’s art!
This one was massive and stretched the entire length of a wall
We saw a few Vans like this. The art was obviously commissioned.

Once I made a point of photographing the graffiti I saw, I took more notice of the different styles and locations of the graffiti and even started to appreciate it.

Or, at the very least, I began to recognize the difference between street art and vandalism

There was graffiti on every pillar going down the boardwalk. Hundreds of scribbles.

So, through all this, I started to actually appreciate and learn about grafitti. When we walked to the post office this morning, before leaving Barcelona, we saw some of the best work yet.

This piece is a point of interest in Pokemon Go. The grafitti looked newer in the game, so I’m guessing this piece is a few years old now

Still….I’m left conflicted when I see things like this:

A mixture of “old/traditional” art with “new/abstract” art???

We’re in Poland now, and I’m officially caught up with blogging! I wonder what day 17 will bring!!!

Day 13: Yellow Vests

Yesterday started out as a bummer of a day. We had missed our tour to the vineyards, and we didn’t really have anything else planned, so we headed to an aquarium instead.

I missed out on wine…. But I got to see Penguins!

Just outside the aquarium, there is a huge shopping complex, so Dave and I head in to find some laundry soap and other supplies we needed. Just before we got to the grocery store, I spotted some sweaters I liked, so I sent Dave in to get the groceries and I popped into the shop.

Once more, Geant Casino to the rescue!

It turned out the clothes were all very overpriced, so I went to join Dave. That’s when they started shutting the gates. I was trapped in the mall, and Dave was trapped in a store…. In a country where he doesn’t speak the language.

I was in the hallway between the big grocery store and the rest of the mall. Dave was on the other side of those gates

At first, I figured a child might be missing, but when I asked, I was told that the Gilets Jaunes protesters were going to be coming through. We were all being asked to get out of the store through a back door.

Gilets Jaunes or Yellow Vests

The protests have been going on for months. You can read more about it here, but the short version is that people in France are angry with their government for quite a few reasons. Mostly, the government has been lowering taxes for the rich, and bringing them up for the poor. A recipe for discontent.

Taxes on gas are what ‘fueled’ the protests.

It turned out the protestors organized a march in Montpellier on the very day we were in the city. Dave and I found ourselves separated and without any mode of communication (our Spanish sims didn’t work in France).

Then hundreds of these guys started pouring into the square….

I explained to the staff at Geant that my anglophone husband was in the store, so they let me stay there and wait for him to come out. People were allowed leaving the store … Just not allowed going in.

They weren’t armed, but they looked determined…

It turns out Dave didn’t even know anything happening because all the announcements had been in French. He came up to the cash registers to pay, laundry detergent and a bag of ice in hand, with no idea that I’d been waiting anxiously for him for 10 minutes while protesters marched by!

Seen here: Me, in a rare moment of non-worry. Dave: In an average moment.

Things luckily didn’t escalate at this particular protest, but many others have ended in riots. At the shopping center, a few people set off some fireworks, which definitely scared me, but were completely harmless. In other areas of the countries, fires were set, businesses were vandalized and tear gas was unleashed on rioters. It’s no wonder the mall closed up and everyone moved behind the safety of gates.

The police showed up just as we got to the car.

So that was our experience with the Gilets Jaunes. Long story short: basically nothing happened, but I worried anyway. In fairness, this could have escalated in a big way. You can watch a compilation of a protest that did not end so peacefully in Montpellier just 2 weeks ago here.

The square where the worst of that protest happened. We now understand all the broken windows and closed off ATMs that we saw while we searched for an open bank earlier that morning

Update on Life!

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

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

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

Enjoying Suzhou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful spot!

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

Zou Guizhou continues to be a favorite hang out

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

Fostering

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

Love at first sight!

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

Best Friends forever…

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

Suzhou’s Animal Rescue Network

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

And not just these monsters!

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

One of the first posters I made

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

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

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

The first of many, many Flyers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re currently waiting for our flight to Madrid!

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

My wechat ID is Marie-Willman

Oslob’s Whale Sharks

My sunburn has subsided, and the bruises I collected on our Cebu holiday have now all but disappeared, but my memories of our time in the Philippines have not.

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Some things….like this public urinal, for example…are unforgetable

 

Now, before I get into writing about our time in Cebu, I want to write about one activity we decided NOT to do.  Most people who travel to Cebu Island stay in the little town of Oslob.  We opted to stay in a town nearby this popular tourist destination, but we skipped the activity most people do while in the area:  swimming with whale sharks.

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Whale Sharks are the world’s largest fish. But don’t worry…they aren’t the type of sharks that eat people. They just eat tiny krill, so swimming with them is pretty safe.

For those of you who know me, this probably seems like the kind of thing I would love!  Swimming in the ocean…seeing incredible wildlife…learning about a fascinating animal… but after spending the last 4 years learning how to be a responsible tourist, I took the time to learn about the Oslob Whale Sharks, and I learned how human contact affects the fish.

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I learned that although the government has set up all sorts of rules that tourists and tour operators are suppose to follow, it doesn’t stop people from touching the fish.  Sharks have very sensitive skin, so a watch or a ring can easily hurt one of these beautiful animals. 

First, I should say that unlike riding an elephant, swimming with whale sharks is not as obviously harmful to the animals.  They are not captive or trained in any way, so on the surface, it doesn’t seem like swimming with them should be too much of a problem.  After all, they are just being given some free food.  What’s the harm?

Whaleshark feeding in Oslob, Cebu
The whale sharks are swarmed by people and boats as soon as they arrive.  Tourists are also only given a few moments in the water with them, before they are told to get out, to make way for more tourists…

Unfortunately, whale sharks in the area are becoming too comfortable around boats, and are frequently hurt when they approach fishermen, expecting food.  Some fish are also dealing with malnutrition, because the krill they are fed by the fishermen is only 1 of the various types of fish they need in their diets.  Unfortunately, if their bellies are full of this free krill, they don’t search for food, and don’t get all the nutrients they need.

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But there’s actually a bigger problem with feeding the Whale Sharks of Cebu Island.  The free food they receive is actually changing their migration patterns and many scientists believe that this will ultimately result in fewer whale shark babies being born.

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I’d be happier if these animals didn’t join the very long list of critically endangered animals in our oceans.

Ultimately, we decided that seeing the whale sharks was not as important as protecting them, so we chose not to go on that adventure.  We did, however, see Tumalog Falls, a church made of coral stone and of course, and the highest point on all of Cebu Island!

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Over the next few weeks, I have several posts planned about our week in paradise.  They will all be short, and full pictures, so stay tuned!

Day 7 – The Scenery

We live on an extraordinary planet. It supports so much life, and is so stunningly beautiful. I’ve been lucky enough to see that beauty on several continents and in many different countries. I’ve watched vibrant sunsets in Vietnam, stood atop gorgeous cliffs in Laos, explored ancient towns and rivers in China, and even admired desert landscapes in India.  There hasn’t been a single place we’ve gone that hasn’t been spectacular in some way.

You can see where each picture was taken by opening the photo, or just scrolling your cursor over the photo.

Of course, The Philippines is no different and has provided us with some great scenery!  We’ve spent the last few days cruising along the south east coast of Cebu island, and I wanted to share some of our more scenic pictures with you.

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Our motorbike for the week.  She runs very well and has a comfy seat!

We got some great shots on our way up to a waterfall (which I’ll be writing about in a future post, as soon as I have the time!)

And of course, there are always the necessary selfies…

The end of our day was pretty beautiful as well.  We’re on the wrong side of Cebu island for seeing sunsets, but we do get to see the moon rise!

We’ve got a full day planned tomorrow that will include some more beautiful scenery, some snorkeling and more driving around on our sweet motorbike!  Stay tuned!!!

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!!