Weekends Away

One of the best things about living in China is the high speed train. Dave and I have no interest in buying a car in China, so the high speed train is how we get from city to city, when we need a break from Suzhou.

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Gee…I wonder why I don’t want to be a part of this wonderful driving experience?

This year, we’ve taken a record number of weekend trips that I thought might be worth writing about.

Cirque du Soleil

My hatred of Shanghai city has never been a secret, but I’ve recently grown to appreciate this metropolis, regardless of its overpopulation and pollution…

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I mean…I guess it’s a pretty enough city…

The event that began this new understanding of Shanghai was none other than a Cirque Du Soleil show.  Dave and I have seen 6 shows total now, so when we found out that Kooza would be playing in old Pudong…we booked tickets with our friends Kim and CJ.

 

Shanghai doesn’t get as many big shows as I wish it did (mainly because a lot of bands and musicians are banned in China), but now and then, they get a good one.  Linkin Park played Shanghai a few years ago, before Chester Bennington’s death.  Unfortunately, the concert took place while I was visiting family in Canada, which meant I missed my last opportunity to see one of my favourite bands perform.

Christmas with Friends

We’ve taken a couple of trips to Hangzhou this year as well.  Located about 2 hours away by high speed train, Hangzhou is a beautiful city.  It was recently the location of a G20 Summit, and is home to West Lake, which is both scenic and huge.  Hangzhou is the capital of Zhezhang province, Jiangsu’s neighbour to the south.

More importantly, Hangzhou is home to two of my favourite people in the world!  So, Dave and I, along with our friend Kevin, made our way down to Hangzhou for Christmas this year.   We enjoyed some excellent meals, a nice walk around West Lake, and time with good friends.  It was well worth the weekend trip!

Weddings in Hangzhou

A few months later, we found ourselves back in Hangzhou for Deb and Dedrick’s wedding!  We had another lovely trip in, and this time, we got to spend the weekend with our good friends Mark and Deb.  Mark and I play in The Sundaze together, and it was good to get out and cut loose in a new city with them.  And of course, my dear Kevin was there as well!

The longer you stay in China, the more people you meet.  Deb and Dedrick’s wedding was a really cool experience because there were people from everywhere there.  It was a beautiful mixture of North American and Argentinian culture, with guests from all over the world.

Moroccan food in Tianzefang

Finally, Shanghai itself can be an awesome little getaway.  When Dave and I went to Taiwan in April, we opted to spend the night in Shanghai before flying out the next morning to Taipei (Suzhou doesn’t have an airport).  We asked around for food recommendation, and my friend Andy told me of a good Moroccan place in an area of Shanghai called Tianzefang.

Tianzifang is lovely!  It’s a vibrant and interesting area that doesn’t feel at all like the Pudong I grew to hate.  It’s full of bars, unique shops and great international food options.

A month or so later, Dave and I actually made a special trip to Shanghai just to have another meal at Andelus, the Moroccan restaurant Andy recommended.  The following morning, we visited the very famous ” Lao Wai Park“.

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Shanghai’s Lao Wai (foreigner) Park, is an are of restaurants and bars that are very popular among expats.  The comedy group Mamahuhu did a series of videos there.  Dave and I had an amazing lunch at a little Vietnamese restaurant.  I can’t wait til we can visit again!

We also wandered around Shanghai for a bit during our last trip in.  We saw the largest Starbucks in the world while we were there.  There was a massive lineup, so we didn’t go in, but I did take some pictures.

There are so many more nearby places we want to visit before we leave China.  We have friends in Nanjing that we really want to go visit.  We also want to see Yellow Mountain, and of course we’d love to see more of Shanghai and Hangzhou.  The high speed train gives us so many opportunities for travel.  Now, to make the time!

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Here’s a photo of a dinosaur made completely of smoked meat….it was part of an art exhibition we saw while walking around the Starbucks.  Because….China!?

I’ll be writing lots over the next week, trying to catch up on all my Indonesia posts before we head to The Philippines!

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!!

Snowy Suzhou

Suzhou doesn’t get a lot of snow. In fact, it only snows here every 5 years or so; and it rarely sticks around.

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We get enough to make an itty bitty snowlady every once in a while (credit: someone in my office…I’m not sure who)

Fortunately for me, this year was one of those ‘off’ years, where Mother Nature bestowed some of the white stuff upon this beautiful city.

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Quite a bit of the white stuff, actually (credit: my dear husband…my hands were too cold and I didn’t want to take my phone out!)

When people aren’t used to snow, it can be quite an ordeal! We saw one accident on our 5 minute walk home, and I can’t imagine how many delivery men wiped out on their e-bikes today! Imagine a late spring storm…with people who have never driven on ice before!

I’ve lived in Suzhou now for nearly 3 years, and although I’ve had my challenges here, I really do love this city. Many of the gardens here are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are considered to be some of the most beautiful gardens in China. We often spend afternoons walking through them because even the smaller ones are a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Suzhou. I’m always amazed at how quiet the gardens here are…especially when I consider the 8 million + people that live here!

Unfortunately for me, I never had a chance to bring my camera to any of Suzhou’s gardens today. Plenty of others did though, so I’ve collected some of my favourite photos from the day and compiled them so you can see what a lovely city we chose to call home. I can’t actually credit anyone specifically…China isn’t big on copyrighting things, so I’ll just say now that none of these pictures are mine….

November 29th

Behold, China’s greatest secret: How to fit far too many cars into virtually no space at all.

I took this at the end of our walk last night, and my biggest regret was that I hadn’t captured the much worse version of this parking job that we’d seen the night before. You see, there isn’t nearly enough parking available in China, so people just sort of park wherever they can. Some of the most impressive parking jobs I’ve seen:

  • Parking in front of other cars (as seen above)
  • Parking on the side walk (sidewalks are difficult to walk on because of all the cars…)
  • Parking in the middle of an intersection (so that your car becomes an extension of the median)
  • Parking on the ramp of a parkade

I don’t know if we’ve ever eaten a meal at the restaurant behind our building without the waiting staff coming in at LEAST once to ask if we had driven there, because somebody was boxed in, and they needed a car moved.

This is reason #211 why I have no desire to drive in China.

November 28th

This is the little side street that runs behind our building. There are plenty of little restaurants down this road, as well as a couple of hotels and Euromart. It’s a popular area for people to eat, and get a few drinks.

This also happens to be the little road that Dave and I were driving past when we were hit by an e-bike.

Our bike was ok, and Dave was uninjured, but the guy drove directly into my shin. I suppose I was lucky that my leg didn’t break, but that’s not to say the injury wasn’t severe. Even now, a year and a half later, I have bruising, and I’m a bit afraid that the nerve damage will never fully go away.

I call this intersection “Shattered Shin Pass”. My shin may not have actually shattered, but my love for late-night e-bike rides surely did.

November 24th

If Poe is Pretty & Poised, Hugo is Dashing & Derpy. With a missing leg, a slightly cleft pallet and stinkier-than-death breath, this boy stole my heart within 3 seconds of me walking into the SSAPA shelter. We walked in and he marched (limped) over to me for pets. He chose me.

I have never met a more pathetically needy cat in my life. If he could spend every second of the day in my lap, he would.

But he gives as much as he takes. If either Dave or I are feeling stressed or sick, Hugo is right there, cuddling, purring and head bumping us until we smile.

He is pure love.

November 22nd

I work at a huge foreign language school in Suzhou. We have 3 separate middle schools alone (I work in 2 of them). In reality, we’re sort of a dozen or so schools all kind of crammed into one campus.

Each department runs a bit differently. Classes begin at 7:40am school-wide, but each department ends at a slightly different time. In kindergarten, they are finished at 4:30, but my students don’t finish their school day until around 7:30pm. (Yeah… Let that sink in).

This means more than 3000 thousand students are leaving the school daily, in shifts, beginning at 4:30 and going all the way up to around 8pm. This is fantastic for street vendors, looking to hock their goods.

There is almost always a guy selling flowers outside the school gates. Not sure why, but he must sell enough of them because he’s always there.

There are also the kind of vendors you’d expect outside of a school: guys selling candied fruit and other snacks. The kids see it and beg their parents for a treat. It makes for easy sales.

Occasionally, I see pet vendors there. They sell rabbits, birds and other small animals. That really bothers me. Luckily, I’ve never actually seen them make a sale, and they don’t come around often, so I don’t think they’re very successful.

Today, I noticed a new vendor. He was selling candied dates on skewers. It’s a popular snack and we see people selling them off the back of ebikes all the time. But this guy was doing it in style…

My camera didn’t quite pick up the colour properly, but his goods were all lit up with colourful and flashing lights. It was definitely eye-catching. I thought it was a pretty brilliant way to attract customers and to hopefully get an extra sale or two.

November 14th

Dave and I have been taking a lot of walks lately. We’ve both been working a tonne (as we tend to do), and taking a walk at night allows us to catch up. I think that’s important.

On those walks, we talk about our days and we discuss the news and what’s blowing up on social media. Sometimes I take pictures of ridiculous or interesting things I see.

The funny thing about my feature picture today is that I took it because of the “Honey Babe” sign, but when I looked at the photo a few days later, I noticed so much more.

The photo is from right outside Euromart. I take money out at the little red ATM booth in the middle of the photo. I’ve bought noodles from the little restaurant on the left (they weren’t very good). I’ve walked across that square at least a hundred times and I never noticed how pretty it is at night.

Also, there’s a sign for a bar named “Honey Babe”. That’s pretty funny too.

Smog and Sandstorms

Dave and I had plans today to explore the city. Suzhou recently opened its 3rd metro line, and it has made all sorts of local attractions easier to get to. We thought exploring the city and getting some more photos would be a grand way to spend the day…but then the smog came…

I realized while talking to my family this morning that many of the people back home can’t even begin to understand what pollution is all about and the many ways it impacts our lives here, so I thought it might make for an interesting article.

**Note** Very few pictures in this article will be my own…they’ve mostly been borrowed from the internet. If I did take the picture, I’ll indicate it in the caption
Our Global Pollution Problem

Pollution is a problem all over the world. In India, I saw unbelievable amounts of garbage on the road, and I brushed my teeth with bottled water to avoid getting sick from the tap water.

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The firework displays during Diwali this year set off the AQI scale to more than 1000 and put the country in a state of emergency. For comparison, Toronto’s current AQI is 17

Although much better than India and China, Vietnam also has some pretty terrible pollution problems. The number of motorcyles on the road leave your lungs pretty sore by the end of a day sight-seeing in HoChiMin City. Phu Quoc is also a giant dumping ground for garbage.

Even in the beautiful Caribbean, you can find all sorts of pollution issues. Water there is generally unsafe to drink, and although resorts do a good job of keeping their shores clean, the same can’t be said in other areas of the country.

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This was taken in Haina, Dominican Republic

Pollution is a problem globally, there’s no doubt. I look forward to my time in Canada every year. The fresh air smells so fantastic, and even in the heart of Winnipeg, I’ve never smelt the tinny scent of PM2.5. Yet…where do you think this picture was taken?

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This is in Sarnia, Ontario, where First Nations residents in a nearby town are suffering from the effects of this pollution.

What I’m trying to say here is that pollution is an issue everywhere. If you’re lucky enough to never have seen anything like this with your own eyes, you are a minority on this planet and this is a case where being a minority is a good thing…
The Lingo

In Guizhou (the Chinese province where we lived prior to moving to Suzhou), the pollution isn’t so bad. That’s not to say the air was perfect there (because it’s such a poor province, many of the vehicles on the road are old and blow large amounts of black exhaust), but we never needed masks or felt like our health was at risk.

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Guiyang is in the green zone in central China (the one surrounded by beige zones). Shanghai and Suzhou is in an orange zone.

In Suzhou, things are different. We are only about 100km west of Shanghai, so we get a lot of our pollution from the factories out that way. On a bad day, our AQI level will go up to 200 or occasionally 300. During the current sandstorm, we are sitting somewhere between 450 and 600 on the AQI scale. What exactly does that mean, you might ask?

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This was today’s reading in Suzhou. 596 is the highest I’ve ever seen it here

AQI is the global term that indicates how clean the air is in any particular place. Air Quality Index becomes a very important part of your life when you live in a city with a pollution problem. Most people have apps on their phones that tell them whether they should wear a mask outside. I don’t use an app because I have an easier way to tell. Suzhou’s iconic Pants Building is within eyesight of my apartment. I make a point of looking out the window every day, and I can usually tell how bad the pollution is by how clearly I can see the pants building.

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Dave took these pictures last year. Today looks a lot like the picture on the right

Something else people are aware of here in Suzhou are the different KINDS of pollution. I’ll begin explaining this with a story…

Last year, one of my jobs as a teacher was to help students prepare for their IGCSE spoken exams. To do that, I met with students individually, gave them a topic and had them tell me what they could about that topic. The topic I chose one day was ‘The Environment’. One girl really impressed me, as she started rattling off different types of air pollution (PM2.5, PM10 etc.). I was FLOORED that she knew those terms. I had only lived in Suzhou for a few months at that point.

Now, these terms are part of my regular vocabulary. I frequently say things like ‘PM2.5 levels are brutal this week’, or ‘well this stand storm is mostly bringing in PM10 particles, which aren’t QUITE so bad’. All this ‘PM’ talk refers to the size of the particles. PM10 particles are slightly bigger, but equally as harmful as PM2.5. Both get trapped in your lungs and build up over time and both are linked to lung cancer, lung disease and even brain issues. Of course, living in China for a short-term period doesn’t mean that I’ll come home with lung cancer, but the elderly in China really do suffer.

The Effects

Pollution is more than just something you see on the news. It’s something that is real and it affects a large portion of the world on a day to day basis. Here are some of the ways it effects me:

  1. I sometimes need to wear a mask to go outside
  2. I constantly worry about the quality of air in my home and at work
  3. I spend hundreds of dollars every year on filters and machines designed to clean my air
  4. I have had a lung infection so bad that I needed to be on 4 different medications to get better. I was using an asthma puffer for 3 months after that infection.
  5. Colds last longer and are much more severe than they are elsewhere I’ve lived
  6. If I don’t ride my e-bike for a few days, I will get dust on my pants when I sit down.
  7. I dry my clothes in my bathroom because if I dry them outside, they’ll be dirty by the time I wear them again (most people in China don’t have clothes dryers)
  8. Hanging onto a railing as I climb up or down outdoor stairs will leave me with dirty hands.
  9. I go into coughing fits when I go to a country with clean air. My lungs literally try and eject the garbage that has built up over the months.
  10. After a particularly dusty day, I’ll wake up with build up in my eyes and a bit of a sore throat.
  11. When the PM2.5 is especially bad (usually in January or February), you can actually taste metal in the air.
  12. I often worry about the long-term health hazards of pollution. The obvious ones don’t worry me as much (lung cancer, emphysema etc.) but after recently discovering that PM2.5 is connected to alzymers disease, I’ve been in a constant state of worrying about the health of my brain.
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You can always tell if a car in a parking lot hasn’t been driven in a while….the dust builds up over time. Similarly, it’s important to keep your apartment well maintained, because dust collects inside too

Pollution levels are a constant presence in my life. I need to know when they’re high so I can turn on my air purifier. I also need to know about the air quality so that I know when it’s appropriate for me to partake in one of my favourite pastimes: walking.

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Since I was just a little girl, I’ve always loved walked. It started with walks around the block with my Pepere, and it evolved into walking my dog in the forest trails of St. Malo Provincial Park. When I moved to Guiyang, walking was one of the ways I dealt with the stress of living in such a difficult city. In Suzhou…taking a walk is off the table some days.


How We Get Through It

On days like today, we mostly stay indoors. At home, we have 2 air purifiers, so we definitely have those running while we’re in the apartment. My classrooms also have air purifiers, but unfortunately, my school doesn’t see an advantage to making sure our offices also have clean air. Air purifiers can be a bit pricey and they seem to become obsolete frequently, making it impossible to find a new filter for a device you purchased only 6 months before. Our solution has been SmartAir Purifiers…they’re a small company that make purifiers that work well, for only 600rmb (most other purifiers that do a decent job cost up to 5000rmb…). If you’re living in mainland China, check out their website. They’re well worth the money.


How This Effects YOU

If you’re reading this from Canada, you might be thinking that I’m crazy for choosing to live here. I know the risks, but I still take them. There are risks living in Manitoba as well. Hitting the ditch in a snow storm, or sliding into oncoming traffic during winter/spring is every bit as much of a risk as living somewhere where pollution is a problem. I check the PM2.5 levels the same as you check the temperature to know how many sweaters you should wear under your parka.

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Seeing smashed up cars in Manitoba is normal. I was involved in 2 ice-related accidents in 2012 alone. I hate driving in Winter far more than I hate PM2.5

You may also be thinking that countries like China and India are poorly managed and that if they ‘got their acts together’, this wouldn’t be an issue. But let me ask you this….

Where are the majority of your ‘things’ made? The truth of the matter is that we export our pollution to China to cut costs. One of the reasons things are cheaper coming from China is because health and safety standards aren’t as big of a deal here….it’s something to think about before you shop at places like Walmart, Superstore or other ‘low cost’ chains. You’re paying 50 cents less, but the global environment is suffering.

Furthermore…we live in a very wasteful world. I recently got into a heated debate about the use of paper cups in the office. I think they should be banned, whereas other people really like their convenience. What’s important to remember is that by using disposable items (on a regular basis), you’re contributing to our landfill problems, as well as creating a need for more factories in the world. For more information on that, I found this nifty article written by Time Magazine called ‘Throwaway Living’. Be sure to check it out if you’re interested in the topic.

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If hearing about this very sad state of affairs has depressed you, here is a picture of Poe to help you feel happy again.

PS..I know it’s been a while, but I have 3 posts in the works:

  • Our weekend in Seoul
  • Catching up on Life in Suzhou
  • Beautiful Suzhou (I’ve been on a picture taking mission lately)

Teaching in China

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

(Spoiler…it’s awesome!!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2.) But not too prepared…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Delicious, Delicious moon cakes!!!

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

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Beijing…literally, shoulder to shoulder….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Extra Work = Extra Awesome!

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

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

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

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

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

6.) Have Fun with It!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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