A Weekend in Taipei

Every year, at the beginning of April, Qing Ming Festival is celebrated. Chinese people honour their ancestors and clean the tombs of the dead.

I get a long weekend here in China. This works out rather well for me, because it’s usually a few days before my birthday, so Dave and I began a tradition of getting on an airplane and exploring Asia. Last year, we hopped over to Seoul for the weekend, but this year, we decided to check out Taipei; Taiwan’s capital.

826_w

About Taipei

Now, Taiwan is a bit of a confusing and difficult subject here in China. If you ask most people in the world, they think Taiwan is it’s own country. I mean, they have their own currency, their own government, their own passports and visa regulations….it’s easy to see why some people might get confused when China claims Taiwan as its own.

As far as China is concerned though, Taiwan is a province and not a country. But, like many areas of China, Taiwan has its own culture, it’s own cuisine and it’s own customs that are quite different from the mainland.

Night Markets & Street Food

We have friends from Taiwan who were very excited about our trip to Taipei. Before we left, Linda gave us one very important piece of advice: “try everything”. So we did!

The night markets in Taipei are exciting, lively and full of interesting and tasty food to try. There’s an abundance of choices, and my biggest regret is having run out of stomach room before I could try them all!

We only ate in one actual restaurant during our time in the night markets, and that was mostly just for fun. “Modern Toilet” is a poop-themed restaurant with food that certainly doesn’t look like it should be eaten! The whole place was silly, but the food was alright, and it was a good laugh, so I’m glad we stopped in!

Of course, night markets aren’t ONLY about food. We also saw street performers, movie theaters and arcades, as well as all the shopping options you could ever possibly need. I appreciated the fact that you could buy popcorn without watching a movie, because salty theater popcorn isn’t a thing in China, but it is in Taiwan!!

Lungshan Temple

Our cultural stop in Taipei wasn’t planned, but it sure was pleasant! On our way to find another night market, we stumbled across Lungshan Temple. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Taiwan also celebrates Tomb Sweeping Festival, and Lungshan was buzzing with people offering sacrifices and praying to their ancestors. Incense was being burned in various places around the temple as well.

This was probably the nicest temple we’ve seen ‘in China’. It was extremely well-maintained and the detail was stunning. I couldn’t take enough pictures!


Taipei Zoo

We weren’t planning on a trip to the zoo, but we ended up in Taipei during a rather drab and rainy weekend, so to the zoo we went!

We were pleasantly surprised by the space the animals were allowed. They seemed to be well cared for. Unfortunately, the Asian elephants looked quite stressed out, which further convinced me that they do not belong in city zoos. Our time in Sumatra also gave me insight into how Orangutans and horn bills are suppose to live….and zoos are not it!


Taipei 101

The large building in the photo below is called ‘Taipei 101’. It was our last stop before flying back to Suzhou, and although I’m not usually all that impressed with architecture, I really liked this building!

WeChat Image_20180411205340

Taipei is a gorgeous city, and the view from the 89th floor of this skyscraper is impressive, to say the least! Taipei 101’s observatory is definitely worth a visit!

There were two things that really impressed me about our trip to 101. First, it was the elevator ride to the observatory. To get from the 5th floor reception to the 89th takes only 39 seconds! The elevator moves so quickly that your ears pop on the way up! I’d been in tall buildings before, but Taipei 101 holds the record for the world’s fastest elevator!

The_World_Fastest_Elevator_-_Taipei_101.JPG

The second thing to impress me at 101 was the Wind Damper. At first, I thought it was just a big metal ball that was hanging there for show…then Dave explained…

WeChat Image_20180411205332
Taipei 101’s Wind Damper

Wind Dampers are used to help stabilize very tall buildings from wind and seismic activity (earthquakes). It turns out that ‘big metal ball’ is quite a scientific feat! You can hear more about this from people who actually know what they’re talking about by clicking here.
To Summarize

A weekend in Taipei is not NEARLY enough time to see everything the city has to offer, but it is a start! The people were incredibly friendly and helpful, the food was amazing and it was a modern, clean and beautiful city. There’s so much I have left to see and do in Taiwan, that I just KNOW I’ll be back before to long!

Day 8 – Sardi

Sardi was our guide for days 1 and 2 of our tour and he also accompanied us during our 2 day jungle trek, as he’s going to become a trekking guide himself.

I can’t say enough nice things about Sardi. He was very helpful throughout the tour and he knew so much about the jungle!! He’s still learning English so he sometimes struggled to explain things but he always tried.

He grew up in the jungle and even Bukit Lawang was overwhelming for him when he was a child. He was completely at home in the rainforest, hopping around in flip flops while Dave and I tried not to slide all the way down the mountain on our butts!!

He really made the already amazing experience so much better!!!

Day 7 – Horas Bukit Lawang!!

Horas!! Hello, Welcome!! It’s all we heard as we walked through Bukit Lawang late Friday night. People here are unbelievably friendly and the smile doesn’t fade when they know you aren’t buying anything.

Our experiences in North Sumatra have been so wonderful, and a lot of that has to do with the way we’ve been treated. Everyone is so kind and welcoming. Everyone wants to make sure we are happy in their little town.

I took this picture as we were walking through town over the weekend. People had come out from Medan for the holiday and were playing in the river. When they saw I had a camera, this family started shouting “photo!!! Take our photo!!!!”.

I’m so glad I did because I feel like it captured the feeling of this beautiful little “Gateway to the Hills”.

Day 2 – Marvelous Malaysia

We can’t exactly say we’ve “seen” Malaysia at this point, but due to the layover options we had on our way to Indonesia, we were able to spend 2 days in Malaysia’s capital: Kuala Lumpur.

Kuala Lumpur is a beautiful, diverse and reasonably developed city in South East Asia. I had heard a lot about this great city from my students (several are Malaysian), so I was really looking forward to seeing the city for myself.

One thing that really took me by surprise was how delicious and spicy these tame-looking noodles were. Living in China, I eat a lot of red chillies, but green chillies aren’t used much here. Also, the little green peppers used in Malaysia are fresh, which is quite different from the dried ones I’m used to.

Long story short… If you’re going to be trying these chillies for the first time… Make sure you’ll have access to a bathroom 4-5 hours later!!!!

PS: they were totally worth it!!!

STAY TUNED!!!

I’ll be sharing a lot more about KL after our trip, but for now, I wanted to give you a sneak peak with my “post of the day”. I really loved doing daily updates in November, so I figured I’d do the same this trip. When the trip is over, I’ll be doing more in-depth about the things we did and the places we went!

November 16th

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

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

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

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

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.

IMG_20160515_173456
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:

IMG_20160603_082055

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.

IMG_20160624_205325
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!!!

DFa
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!!).

thumb_IMG_1640_1024
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!!!!

IGd
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!!)

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.

culture shock
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?.

 

Screen-Shot-2013-12-21-at-6.58.49-AM
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…

SquatToilet
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.

mmexport1457350766301
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…

queueimage
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?

 

IMG_20160306_171256
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?

IMG_20160307_160438
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.

IMG_20160306_224714
Thank goodness I have these 3 to keep me sane!

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