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!

An Update on Life in Suzhou (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elite 1 Girls Class (Grade 7)

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

Elite 1 Boys Class (Grade 7)

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

Elite 2 Boys Class (Grade 8)

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

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

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

IGCSE (grades 7-9 co-ed classes)

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

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

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

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

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

So, You’re Visiting Suzhou

We fell in love with Suzhou before we’d even moved to China.  I did a quick search on the internet for the most livable cities in China, and Suzhou was near the top of the list.  From that google search on, I always knew I wanted to live here.  Although it didn’t work out for our first year in China, with 2 years of teaching experience under my belt, it wasn’t a problem to find a job here for year 2.

Living in SIP, we are surrounded by expats, western food, western bars and English.  It couldn’t be more comfortable for us and I sometimes forget that we’re living in China. But Suzhou isn’t only good as a place to live and work.  There’s plenty to see here as well, and although tourism isn’t as high as it is in cities like Guilin, you’d have no problem filling a week in Asia’s Venice.

Watertowns

Where Guiyang has minority villages, Suzhou has Water Towns.  Water Towns are built along the canals and are a peaceful retreat into ancient China.  They can be a little over crowded during holidays and weekends, but if you can escape to one during the week, they are a lovely experience.  You can get traditional minority candies and food and there are always plenty of little restaurants where you can stop for some food.  Water Towns are also nice for shopping and it isn’t difficult to find a shop that sells scarves and other traditional Chinese gifts.

Shantang Road and Pingjiang Road

There is no shortage of places to shop in Suzhou.  Shantang Road ad Pingjiang Road are both ancient shopping streets where you can find any Chinese souvenir you desire.  They’re also great places to grab a beer, hop on a boat and eat some local food.  My favourite pass-time on Shangtang Road (we haven’t actually visited Pingjiang yet) is taking pictures.  These roads are beautifully picturesque and no matter which time of day you visit, there are endless photo ops.

Although Dave hates shopping and crowds, even he is impressed by some of the craftsmanship you can find on Shantang Road.  Jade carvings, paintings and wood art is easy to find along the street.  Not only are these things beautiful to look at, but they give you an (air conditioned) escape from the crowds when they get to be too much!

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An elaborate stone carving.  It cost over 10,000 rmb and I had to pry Dave away from the window he was so impressed by the work.

Parks

What drew me to Suzhou happens to still be my favourite part of living in this city.  Suzhou has the most beautiful parks I’ve ever seen in my life.  They are a mixture of old and new, with old style buildings and carefully trimmed trees.  In some of the more famous parks, the crowds can be a problem, but if you go to some of the smaller parks, they are peaceful and refreshingly quiet.

Circular doorways are abundant in Suzhou Parks and I never grow tired of taking photos of them.  Most of the parks we’ve visited have also had rock formations that make mini caves.  There are dozens of parks in Suzhou and so far I’ve only seen 3 or 4, but each has been impressive in its own way.

And if you’ve read any of my other posts, you know that I consider it a game to find all the crazy translations each park has to offer.  Here are some from Lingering Garden

There are really 2 types of parks in China.  There are the walled off ‘old style’ parks that are a step into ancient China…and then there are modern parks that are free and open, similar to the ones we have out West.  I don’t often go to those parks, but we had one particularly beautiful weekend back in May where Dave and I, and our friend Michael, spent several hours chatting and walking around Central Park.  I ended up with a pretty impressive sunburn, but it was worth the peaceful afternoon.

If you’re lucky, you may even spot some wildlife in Central Park!  We saw this little guy from across the pond…a testament to the zoom on my camera!

All the Other Cool Stuff

Although we’ve been here nearly a year now, I still haven’t had the chance to make it to some of Suzhou’s most famous landmarks.  Tiger Hill is somewhere I was hoping to go this week, but my leg is still very swollen so I haven’t been able to.  There is a pagoda there that leans that is pretty cool to see.

A smaller and lesser know destination I HAVE visited is Suzhou’s city wall.  It’s located at the Xiangmen metro stop on line 1 and although it isn’t the kind of thing that would take up an afternoon, it’s a nice place to stop during sunset  or at night, when the area is all lit up.

So there you have it.  These are some of my favorite places to visit in Suzhou.  This list will continue growing the longer we live here, but I think this is a pretty good start!

In my next post, I’ll be writing more about SIP, the area where Dave and I live.

Regarding Suzhou

I spent most of yesterday working on a post about the last few months at SFLS.  Just as I was in my last paragraph, I realized that I am missing some pretty crucial photos from the Drama Festival.  Now, I usually wouldn’t let something like that stop me from publishing, but the Drama Festival was my baby this year, so until I get those photos (I did track them down!  They’re on someone else’s camera!!), I’m going to leave that post in my ‘drafts’ folder and move onto something I’ve been working on for ages…

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A sneak peak of my IGCSE play

A few months back, I published a poll asking my readers what they’d like to see next.  It was a 4 way tie, so I made the decision to write about Suzhou…the beautiful city where I live.  I’ve spent the last 3 months seeing more of the city and taking photos for the post and wound up with so much material that I’ve decided it’s going to be two posts.

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Trust me…Suzhou is worth 2 posts!

Post #1 – So, You’re Visiting Suzhou

My first post will be about all the famous landmarks there are to see in Suzhou.  The focus will be on the top places to visit if you travel to this lovely city.  The scope will be broader and more geared toward my family and friends back home who we HOPE will be encouraged to come out and visit us 😉

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We have a lovely spare room for anyone who wants to come for a visit 😉

Post #2 – So, you’re Moving to Suzhou

The second post will be more focused on the different areas of the city and the things anyone who is moving here should know.  There is a huge expat population in Suzhou and every year there are new teachers who arrive, so that post is going to be focused on helping those teachers get to know the city and helping them get settled.  If you enjoyed my ‘so you’re moving to China’ posts…you’ll enjoy what I have planned for that one.

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Auchan is the Carrefour of SIP…there is a love-hate relationship here….

So stay tuned, friends, family and internet people!  I’ll be back before you know it….

 

 

 

An Update on Life in Suzhou (Part 1)

It’s been ages since I’ve posted about life out here in China, so I thought it was time for an update.  Going through my pictures last night, though, I realized that it’s going to have to be a 2-parter!  There’s just been way too much going on!

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Many things have not changed, to be fair.  We are still going to After Hours so much that our waitress knows our order and where we like to sit…

April and May were busy and filled with birthday parties and ‘just because’ parties.  We had several mini holidays in those months and we made the most of them getting together with friends and cruising around on the Ebikes (I got lots of pictures of Suzhou, so expect a post about Suzhou Must-sees later this week!)

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A sneak-peek

Dave and I also bought a barbecue this spring and had a barbecue party during our May holiday.  We haven’t been able to use it as much as we’d hoped because it’s been raining so much lately (it’s the wet season in Suzhou), but in August and September we should be able to enjoy our grill a lot more!

 

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Sadly, as the semester winds down, we must once more grow accustomed to one of the less enjoyable aspects of expat life:  many of our friends are moving on or moving away.  For a number of reasons, turnover was high at the school this year and more than half of the people I work with are moving on to different schools or different countries.  Still, we’ve made the most of our time together and I’m looking forward to all the people I’ll meet next year.

In other news, Hugo and Poe have been wonderful, as always, but we recently ran into some trouble with Hugo’s amputated leg.  What turned out to be an ingrown hair caused him 2 months of pain.  Our original vet (Beck and Stone…I would NOT recommend these guys!) told us that Hugo had an infection when we brought him in (we were worried about a wound that had developed in his stump).  They prescribed an anti-fungal ointment and sent us on our way.  Well, it turns out that the ointment they prescribed is designed specifically for injuries that need to stay open…so instead of this wound closing, it kept getting bigger.

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At first, he didn’t mind the cone so much

After another trip to the same vet and no improvement we decided to get a second opinion.  That’s when we found out about the medication…and it turned out at that point Hugo needed surgery to clean the wound out and stitch it back up.  He was home for about 5 days after that before he split open his stitches and had to have the surgery redone.   When he came home a week later, the same thing happened again and he needed the surgery done a 3rd time.  He’s home now, but he spent a total of 6 weeks in a cone, 3 weeks in a cage at the vet (basically on bed rest so he couldn’t tear out his stitches) and he’s turned back into a bit of a grumpy boy in the process.  I’ve trained him to be gentle before, and I know I can do it again, but still…I feel awful that he went through all of this.   All because of an ingrown hair (he never even had an infection), a bad veterinarian and his clumsy disposition (it was jumping off of furniture that kept causing his stitches to tear).

The moral of my story is:  Just because a vet is shiny and western looking (Beck and Stone looks pristine and very professional), doesn’t mean that it’s actually your best option.  The vet we are seeing now (Simon Pet Healthcare Center down near Zhongnan Jie station and Aeon Mall) is far more low tech and has a very simple set up, but they are FANTASTIC.  They love animals and work to rehome animals that have been surrendered by their owners.  They took such good care of Hugo and cost less than half as much as Beck and Stone did.  I highly recommend them if you are looking for a vet in Suzhou!

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So life has been busy between work (which will be its own separate post), birthdays and parties and taking care of our furry family, but nothing has kept me as busy as my new project.  In May I began singing with a band.  We go by many different names (there are 12 of us in total I think and depending on who’s playing, our band name changes) but I’m officially a vocalist and I perform pretty much every weekend!

The most exciting gig for me so far was a music festival last weekend called Suzhoubury.  The Bookworm is a popular expat hang-out in Suzhou and they throw this festival annually.  It’s free and people LOVE it!  Usually I sing at restaurants and bars, where we’re sort of background noise, but at Suzhoubury, people were there to hear us perform!  It was a tonne of fun and I got to sing my two favourites:  Rolling in the Deep and Summer of 69.  The wonderfully talented Christina Peters took the pictures below of our event.

So that’s been life as of late.  My plan is to write 5 blog posts this week….I was hit by an ebike last night on our way to dinner, and my leg is pretty damaged, so I figure it’s a good week to stay off my feet and blog a little!

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Be careful driving in China!  This guy was entering the street from a back alley and didn’t so much as slow down when entering the road where we were driving.  He drove straight into my leg (I was riding on the back of the scooter).  The worst part is that when I stood up and was checking to see if anything was broken, he had the nerve of saying it was OUR fault…didn’t even apologize….jerk!

 

So, You’re Moving to China…(Part 2)

As promised, I am back with part 2 of my post!

5.  Kiss Comfort Goodbye

Whether you’re in your apartment or at a restaurant, the standards of comfort in China are very different from out west.  Beds are often rock hard, couches are frequently nothing more than a wooden bench, and restaurants (in certain areas of the country) forgo purchasing conventional tables and chairs, and have everyone sitting at child-sized tables, with plastic stools.

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Our couch in Guiyang.  My butt would go numb within about 10 minutes.
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One of our favourite hot pot places….not exactly the most comfortable restaurant…

And it’s not only your butt that will miss the comfort.  People here have a different idea of what ‘public space’ means.  I frequently see people watching movies on their tablets in public spaces (in the metro…at Starbucks…in restaurants…), without using ear buds.  When you have several people doing this in the same space, the room becomes so cluttered with noise that it’s difficult to think.

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After taking this picture, and posting it online, I saw someone post an article about how it’s wrong to take photos of strangers.  I agree…except for in cases when those individuals have forsaken their rights to privacy by taking away my right to focusing on my blog…

Smoking is also common place here, and you will see it everywhere you go.  Restaurants, shopping malls and even some schools all allow smoking and although Beijing and several other cities are beginning to make smoking illegal in public spaces, China still has a long way to go before you can enjoy a meal without choking on someone else’s cigarettes.

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Without reinforcement, signs like this don’t actually do very much.  There are ‘no smoking ‘ signs in most elevators, after all…it doesn’t stop people from lighting up in them…

And even in private spaces, China finds it’s way in.  People in our apartment building frequently leave their front doors open to air out their personal spaces….this often results in my own apartment smelling like cigarettes.  Our neighbours across the hall have apparently run out of room in their apartment, so they’ve begun storing personal items outside of their door, in the hallway…They are currently keeping their baby stroller and several other objects (including open umbrellas…) right outside of our door.

And Fireworks….The Chinese use them to ward of evil spirits and the following events all merit their use:

  • Weddings
  • Funerals
  • Birthdays
  • New Businesses Opening
  • Festivals
  • Holidays
  • Just because they like to make noise…
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Fireworks are a constant here.  When you live on one of the higher floors of a building, you’ll wake up to the sound of these things going off right outside your windows.  One day, when we were living in Guiyang, our apartment got smoked out when a new business had opened up downstairs.  We’d had our windows open…

Even babies don’t get any break from the discomfort of living in China.  I can’t help but wonder what this sort of thing means for this poor kid’s neck muscles…

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6. Traffic Laws are Non-Existent…and Mayhem most Definitely Ensues…

It’s rare that you will see a police officer pulling people over for bad driving.  It’s so rare, in fact, that the only time I can remember it happening was in Guiyang, when police officers caught on that they could get bribe money from e-bike drivers who aren’t wearing helmets.

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Take Note: There are no drivers in many of these cars.  In Suzhou, people frequently park in the areas meant for uturns….because… why not?  Sidewalks are another very popular place to park and double parking is common.  There’s no end in sight for this behaviour, because nobody gets ticketed for these types of things.  It’s beyond me…

The results of this lack of enforcement are terrifying.  In Suzhou, the driving isn’t TOO bad.  There are e-bike lanes and for the most part, people pay attention to stop lights and stay in 1 lane at a time…Well, ok, that might be a little generous…

I don’t have many pictures of this stuff, because, I’m usually trying to jump out of the way of drivers who are busy taking selfies instead of watching the road, but this video that I took in Guiyang should give you a pretty good idea of what it’s like driving, or ever walking, in China…

 

7.  You’ll Begin to Appreciate the Most Surprising things…

The most mundane things in Canada become the most appreciated in China.  Something as simple as Shake n’ Bake chicken is the cure to culture shock and bad days.  Although I was never really big on Deviled Eggs back home, I’ve grown to love them in China, because they remind me of Christmas and Thanksgiving.

One of the best things is getting care packages from home.  Getting Coffee Crisps, clothes that fit and western spices is such a great event!  It’s like the best Christmas gift you can imagine!!  I especially love getting letters from my nieces and nephews, though it’s common that China Post loses those.  I’ve had countless letters mailed to me over the past 2 years, but I’ve only every actually received 2.  Most of our family and friends have given up sending things, and I can’t say I blame them.  Canada Post charges an exorbitant fee to send packages overseas, and when they likely won’t even make it to us…what’s the point?

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China Post workers going through their mail deliveries…this could be why so many packages go missing….

On the subject of ‘stuff from home’, I realized something amazing about myself while I was finding pictures to use for these posts.  I apparently have a need to photograph any western-brand sign I see.  It must be the excitement of seeing something from Canada or America IN China…

8.  Signs:  The Good, The Bad and The Incomprehensible

This category doesn’t need much explaining….Let’s start with the good…

The Bad…

And, of course, the ones we can barely understand…

9.  Things are Just Done Differently Here… (Part 2)

Of course, there are a few things I forgot to write in this section of my last post, so here they are…

  • Public space is used differently here…Below is a photo of a man shaving.  In the metro.  On his way to work…

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  • Advertisements are weird.  These women are serving pie…in a glass cage..to promote a new restaurant.  They’re white…and it was weird…so people stopped.

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  • Products are also weird.  The grossest one I’ve seen are the facial creams that are supposedly made of human placenta.  They have a rejuvenating quality to them….yeah….no thanks….IMG_20160319_224523
  • Crowds….crowds like you have never experienced…

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  • Chinese medicine can be questionable.  I have tried acupuncture here and it did not go well.  I wound up passing out and I think the guy did more damage than good.  I’m a pretty firm believer in scientifically backed treatments, but if you want to try eastern remedies, I do urge you to seek out professionals.  Cupping is one of the most popular thing for westerners to try out.  It’s pretty harmless, and it leaves some pretty wicked (temporary) scars that you can show off.  Every Chinese person I’ve asked swears that it does wonders…
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A friend of mine, after a Cupping session.  The welts go away after about a month…

Some Final Tips for your Time in China

  • Buy clothing and shoes before coming to the country.  Even petite girls can have a difficult time finding clothing here, because generally there is NO ROOM for curves in Chinese clothing.  If you’re busty…shop at home accordingly, because you will not find anything above a B cup here.  Similarly, it’s difficult to find shoes bigger than a lady’s size 6 or 7 (36 or 37 in European sizes).
  • While the Chinese are perfectly ok wearing mini skirts where you can actually see their bums when they bend over, cleavage is a nay nay…Be prepared to have pretty high cropped shirts here, ladies.  It’s inappropriate to show off your goods (on the upper part of your body anyway…)
  • Learn how to use Tao Bao!  It is truly a life saver.  You can use Bing Translate or google translate if you have a VPN.  ***Tip:  Translate whatever it is you want to buy into Chinese (Google Translate works very well).  The prices are much lower if you search in Mandarin.
  • Buy bedding foam.  There’s very little worse than having a bad sleep.  The first time I lived in China, I was able to get used to the hard beds, but now…I find it unbearable.  There are all sorts of foam mattresses you can buy (Tao Bao is your best bet!) to soften up your bed.  They are invaluable and I HIGHLY recommend buying one!
  • Find a local store that carries western goods.  Metro, Carrefour, Walmart, Decathelon and Euromart are some of the best.  Tao Bao also carries a wide range of western brands, so that’s always an option as well.  It’s amazing how comforting it can be to find taco seasoning or salty popcorn when you have had a bad week.
  • Get a VPN (preferably before you enter the country)!  I couldn’t blog or keep in touch with anyone on Facebook if it weren’t for my VPN.  For $100 a year you can get set up with Astrill or Express, and both are reliable and fast.  The government does sometimes crack down on that stuff, so expect the occasional glitch in service, but for the most part, I feel that they do pretty well.

My last piece of advice before ending this post:  surround yourself with positive people.  There’s nothing worse than spending time with people who do nothing but complain about the culture and the country.  Of course, it’s inevitable that you will need to rant now and then, and that’s totally okay.  But I’ve met so many foreigners who spend their time abroad angry that the people here won’t conform to what THEY think it normal.  Those types of Lao Wai kinda suck…so don’t be like them.  Remember that there are good things and bad things in EVERY culture, and you don’t come from a perfect country any more than the Chinese do.  Be tolerant, and when it gets REALLY bad…grab some western bevies  (because Chinese beer is pretty terrible) and chill out with people who are going through the same things you are.

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Having a positive group of friends is key to surviving overseas.  I can’t claim that we’re all positive all the time, but we all count ourselves lucky to be having this incredible experience, and when all else fails, beers at Euromart, or a night out at KTV can go a long, long way for the spirit!!

That’s it for today!  My next post will be an update on life in Suzhou!  I’ll have pictures from my first gigs (I’m singing in a band :)), the Drama Festival at my school and all the stuff that’s been keeping me busy and away from my blog!