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!

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!

 

 

 

So You’re Moving to China…

I can’t believe it’s been a month since I got around to blogging!  Life has been nutty here again…but I’ll have more on that in my next post.

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I also haven’t forgotten about my poll.  It was a 3 way tie, so I’m going with ‘The Best of Suzhou’.  I’ve been collecting material for weeks

Tonight, after realizing that  I had  bit of spare time, I decided to write a post I’ve been considering for a long time.  This particular post was inspired by an old friend of mine who’s thinking of moving to China.  I was giving her advice this morning and it got me thinking about all the crazy stuff that I’ve gotten used to dealing with living in this strange country.

So here it is…a list of all the stuff that you should know if you’re moving to China!

1.)  The Food is Amazing…and Amazingly Weird….

Item #1 on my list isn’t a shocker.  Chinese food is popular around the world, so there has to be something good about it!  I love Chinese food and I doubt I’ll ever tire of it.  There are many different varieties, depending on the regions of origin.  In Sichuan province, you’ll get spicy hot pot, for example.  On the east coast, you’re more likely to get sweet sea food.  No matter where you go in China, the local cuisine is worth a try because WOW…there are some amazing things to eat out here!

Then again, when you say you’ll try a local delicacy, you might get more than you bargained for…

I think most of the world is aware that people in China will eat anything and everything.  From chicken feet to pig face, and everything in between…nothing is off-limits in this country.  I can proudly say I’ve tried everything that’s been offered to me since I got here (still no dog…that may be the one I turn down…), and some of it isn’t bad.

Strangely enough, I enjoy barbecued chicken feet.  There isn’t a whole lot of meat on them, but they’re alright.  I also like chicken tail a lot.  They get nice and crispy on the barbecue.  Organ meat has become far more normal for me to eat as well and I’ve become particularly fond of liver, though brain still grosses me out and chicken gizzards seem pointless and rubbery.

Most of it, however, I simply don’t ‘get’.  I can understand how a starving person might think that pig intestines are the most delicious thing they’ve ever eaten, but for me…they’re kinda gross.  There isn’t much meat in them, and every time I’ve had them…they always faintly taste like poop….maybe it’s in my head…but I swear I taste it.  So I now avoid them when I see them on the menu.

 

2.  Sanitary Standards are VERY Different in China

Currently, I’m teaching a Food and Nutrition class at my school.  It’s basically home economics, but I mostly just teach the students how to cook.  The biggest challenge for me has been teaching them about bacteria, food poisoning and basic sanitation.  It isn’t as easy as it may sound…

There’s no hot water in our kitchens (a norm in China) and I had to teach them to boil water for doing dishes.  When classes other than my own work in the kitchen, the dishes are left a bit oily because cold water just doesn’t clean that stuff off, and soap is often an after-thought…

Teaching them about meat safety has also been a huge issue.  In China, meat is frequently left out, unrefrigerated and uncovered.  Even in the western type stores, like Carrefour and Metro (if you are new to China, seek out those two stores!  They are a must-have for anyone living abroad), you’ll frequently see questionable meat sitting out on the counters.

Similarly, the ideas about personal hygiene are different here.  By the time you are finished your first (of many) colds here in China, you will grow very tired of people telling you to ‘drink hot water’.  It seems to be the cure to everything here in China, while preventative measures, like hand washing, are never discussed.

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Throwing rubbish in the drain….no problem.  Cold water….TERRIBLE idea!
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At the gym, cold water isn’t even an option.  The best you can get is ‘warm’ water (which is still pretty hot), because apparently, cold water is bad for your health…

There are also some pretty nasty habits here, that I have never grown used to.  Spitting, for one, still grosses me out.  People don’t like to swallow their saliva here, so they just spit it out.  This is especially true in poorer areas (where people are less educated regarding the spreading of germs) and with the older generations.  Similarly, Chinese people think that sitting on a toilet seat is dirty, so they will often hop up on top of the seat and squat over top of the toilet, when an actual squatter isn’t around.  The result is usually that urine ends up everywhere (because sit-down toilets aren’t made to be squatted over), which, to me anyway, seems a lot less hygienic than sitting on a toilet seat!

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Furthermore…flushing your toilet paper here is a no-no.  The sewage systems can’t handle the tissue, so public restrooms always smell because of the tp sitting in bins…

3.  Be Prepared for Pollution and Pollution Related Illnesses

Everyone knows that China has a pollution problem.  It’s a topic frequently discussed out here, and Chinese citizens are really starting to pressure their government to regulate factories better for the sake of the air.  In Canada, I’d never really experienced pollution before, and until I moved to Suzhou, I’d never really given air quality a second thought.  Here, students actually know the names of the different air pollutants and what they can do to your lungs.  For example, I had a 13-year-old girl tell me that the PM2.5 levels were very high one day, and that I should wear a special kind of mask so that the particles don’t end up in my lungs.  PM2.5, she informed me, is the most worrisome pollutant because your body doesn’t have any way of flushing it out…the particles stay trapped in your lungs for years.

When I was 13…pollution was hardly a concept I’d ever even considered!

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A smoggy day in Suzhou

I don’t know a single teacher that doesn’t catch at least 1 or 2 terrible colds per term here.  I was so sick back in March that I had to be put on oxygen after a short walk to the a nearby clinic.  They put me on 5 different medications to combat the viral infection I had in my lungs and I was honestly really scared because I’d never had such trouble breathing in my entire life!  Even pneumonia hadn’t been as bad as that lung infection was…

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My many meds

4.  Things are Done Differently Here

If health hazards are shrugged off here, I don’t even know how to explain how people here feel about safety.  Workers frequently wear minimal or no equipment went doing construction, and I don’t even want to think about the repetitive strain injuries that some of those people suffer.  I’ve seen women in their 40s and 50s hauling broken concrete out of demolition sights in wicker baskets hanging off their backs…

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All of this was hauled out of the building by hand…on the backs of manual laborers…

And those are just some of the long-term consequences of having  no standardized regulations for safety in the workplace.  Sometimes the consequences are much more current

In funnier instances, some things just don’t seem to make sense here.  Such as:

  1. Our hot water tank being right above our washing machine…but our washing machine wasn’t connected.
  2. Escalators being built outside, instead of under the roofed area…causing them electrical damage every time it rains.
  3. Having air conditioners in every room at a school, but forbidding anyone to turn them on because the cold (or hot…they do heating in the winter) air is bad for your health…
  4. At the school, we use paper so thin that the students have dubbed it ‘toilet paper’.  It’s done because they are trying to use less paper and save the environment…yet no one sees anything wrong with having between 20 and 30 flyers left in your e-bike every week
  5. The government telling employees to smoke more to boost the economy…
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I can’t stress enough:  Cold Water = Bad……transporting food in dirty-cut-up-old containers…FINE!!!

Well, that’s all I have time for tonight!  It looks like this one is going to be a 2-parter!  Come back soon to see the rest of my list which will include:

  • Traffic Laws (and lack of traffic laws)
  • Signs:  The good, the bad and the incoherent

and plenty more!!!

 

 

 

When Culture Stops Being an Excuse

I love my life in Suzhou. I’ve made some incredible friends and adopted some awesome cats. I’m working at a great school in a well-run department where I am respected and valued. I have opportunity for growth here in Suzhou, both professionally and personally and I’ve even been able to focus more on my health here, going to the gym and being more careful with my diet. I’ll be 30 soon and I need to stay healthy so that my 30s are as rockin’ as my 20s were. Still, today I’m not feeling much love for the Venice of Asia. Perhaps it’s the smoggy weather or maybe I didn’t sleep very, but China is getting on my nerves today!

This morning Dave and I met a friend for breakfast, and as is often the case with Michael, we got into a discussion about what it’s like living in China. Michael’s still on his first year here and he is still noticing some of the things that Dave and I have learned to ignore and his perspective on life here always reminds me of the things that foreigners live with on a day to day basis out here in the orient.

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A Frequent theme in my blog

And all things considered, there really isn’t very much that we need to worry about. China is safe and the people here are kind and friendly, the countryside in this country is diverse and stunningly beautiful and the expat community is quite large so it’s easy to make friends in Suzhou. But, as is the case anywhere, China (and Suzhou) has its problems…

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I’ve been going to the gym. I’ve been pretty good about going 3 days per week and although I haven’t lost much in the way of weight (I think I’m building muscle), I’m becoming noticeably more toned and I’ve been slimming down. I’m very proud of the way I’ve been looking lately and I feel good about doing something positive for a body that has treated me pretty well so far in my 29 years. But I’ve gotta say…as much as I love working out and feeling energized, it is EXTREMELY difficult to love Chinese gyms!! Where should I start?.

 

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I discovered, while writing this blog post, that Powerhouse is a chain outside of just China.

The Equipment: Although there are about 20 treadmills at Power House, they only have 6 eliptical machines, 1 stair master, 10 bikes and some weight side to side machines that kind of make you feel like you’re skating. Now, I have no problems with the treadmills…there are more than enough and they are in good shape…but I also don’t use treadmills very often because they kill my knees. So that leaves 20 cardio machines that I CAN use…except 8 or 9 of them are almost always broken. The ones that AREN’T broken are such poor quality that they always feel like they’re about to fall apart underneath you. Out of all the elliptical machines, only 1 of them accurately tracks distance and calories…1!!! It’s the same with the weights and the resistance machines. Many of them are missing pins so you can’t adjust the resistance without first hunting down a pin from some other machine. Plus, nobody puts their equipment away after they use them, so there are random weights just hanging around on the floor…a little bit dangerous…

Sanitation: This is a big one. There are no towels or spray bottles anywhere at Power House so people don’t clean their equipment like they do in Canada. I can’t tell you how often I get onto an elliptical and realize that the handles are covered in someone else’s sticky sweat. I bring my Norwex towel with me to help with that kind of thing, but it’s still pretty gross. The bathrooms are also pretty dirty. People don’t flush their dirty toilet paper in China (something about the sewage systems not being able to handle it), so the garbage cans are full of that dirty toilet paper. It smells awful and the cans get emptied so rarely that the entire hallway around the bathrooms and change rooms stinks like urine.   Not pleasant…

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The biggest problem with squatters themselves is that it’s sometimes hard to control where your pee ends up….so most of the time, it ends up on (at least) the bottom of your shoes, and you end up tracking it out of the bathroom…

The People: This is the worst part of going to the gym. I can’t even tell you how many times I haven’t been able to finish my work out because someone is sitting on a machine I need, texting or checking their WeChat accounts…it’s infuriating but I often feel like I’m the only person who cares. This kind of thing was especially bad in January and February, when all the New Years resolution memberships started up. Girls (the worst offenders) would hop on a treadmill and spend 10-15 minutes going back and forth between stretching (on the machine!!) and taking selfies to post on WeChat. This isn’t a huge gym, and while there are plenty of treadmills, that can’t be said about any other machine in the building. Yesterday I gave up after waiting 5 minutes for a guy to get off the crunch machine I wanted to use to target my upper abs. And that one elliptical machine that works…the one I mentioned before…people hog that machine for 50+ minutes…some of them hardly even breaking a sweat they are going so slowly because they are too busy enjoying their favourite TV show on their cell phones.

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And most of the time, people aren’t just taking short breaks between sets…they literally use the equipment like public benches…

And this is where the title of this post comes in…a lot of these problems are annoying but forgivable. After all, I know my standards are high…I’m lucky and I was born in a wealthy country where I have the luxury of having problems as shallow as ‘not having cold enough water’. I also know that the sewage issues in China are complicated and that not everywhere in the world is as sterile as North America (it’s weird coming home for visits by the way…everything feels too clean…the whole country feels like a hospital).  There are absolutely things that can be explained by pointing out cultural differences…and foreigners who have been here for a while are always quick to point out that you’re being judgmental for getting upset about some of the things we deal with here in China.  I always feel bad when someone says that to me, because I try very hard to be understanding of cultural differences…

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A picture depicting the difference between line ups in North America, vs the way it’s done in China…I even learned to embrace this in Guiyang and Xiamen (it’s not to bad in Suzhou).  I put aside my Canadian upbringing and learned to push my way to the front, just like everyone else…

But this morning, when we were having breakfast with Michael, he said something that really rang true with me during my work out today: When can we stop pretending that EVERYTHING is about culture? How many things can we blame on cultural differences, really?? When does Culture become an excuse?

 

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The Chinese think that drinking cold water is bad for your stomach…so even at the gym, you can only find hot water, or room temperature.  At Power House, one of the options is suppose to be cold, but it comes out warm enough to steam up my bottle, sooo…

I don’t think that the selfie taking at the gym is forgivable just because I’m in China and “things are different here”. I also don’t think people have to leave their equipment all over the place for others to trip on. And I definitely don’t think that a gym like Power House, who claims to be the ‘western gym’ and charges western prices, has any excuses as far as buying terrible equipment is concerned. None of these things are cultural…they’re just people being inconsiderate of others. And maybe it’s my Canadian background…maybe it’s just my upbringing…but I really have very little patience for inconsiderate people. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone just paid attention to other people’s needs and tried to be more aware of the world around them?

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Another example of this behaviour..some one took off with the school kitchen’s mop over the holiday.  There was a water issue in the kitchen and the only way I could get the water out of the mop they left behind, was to take it outside and step on the mop to get the water out…People take things from that kitchen all the time and leave messes as well.  I don’t know if they just don’t realize that SOMEONE has to clean it (that someone being me), or if they just straight up don’t care…

So those are my thoughts today. Living overseas can be very hard some days, and although it’s gotten ions easier for me since moving to Suzhou, there are still thing here that tick me off. I guess I still have not succeeded in becoming the Super Wizard that I long to be… a Super Wizard who is annoyed by nothing and can aparate to Canada any time she wants to go to the gym or meet her gorgeous new nephew, Zachary.

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Thank goodness I have these 3 to keep me sane!

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

The Problem with People

 

The world is a funny place.  All I have wanted to do, for as long as I can remember, is to travel.  And I have.  In the 29 years I’ve lived so far, I’ve seen 6 Canadian provinces, 5 US states and 9 Chinese Provinces (plus Hong Kong and Macao, which don’t actually count as Chinese provinces but sort of are…).  I’ve  also visited Cuba, Thailand, Cambodia and now India and I’ve gotta say…everywhere I go, people are pretty much the same.

We all basically have the same needs,  no matter what our religion, ideology or race may be.  We all want to feel safe and to have a place that we can call a home.  We all suffer defeats and achieve our goals and feel defiance and pride and a great deal of other emotions.  We all have families and loved ones and we all want what’s best for them.  Everyone you meet is looking for the same basic things you are…but it’s hard to remember that when you are in the face of a strange culture where you are ‘the other’.

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A store selling Indian rugs.  None of them can fly…

I made a new friend in Suzhou recently.   He found a good job as a chemist in China and is currently dealing with Culture Shock.  When he was at our place a few weekends ago with his girlfriend, he mentioned that nobody ever writes about that stuff in blogs.  Everyone writes about how lovely travel is; how rewarding it is to learn about other cultures.  I laughed and said that although some of my posts can be downers, most of the time, i try to put a positive spin on my experiences.  Mostly I do this because I find it helpful to look for a positive when I’m in a negative situation.  But if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, part of me really wants to hang onto that idea that travel is all lollipops and rainbows…

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Nobody talks about the line ups you wait in so that you can go see an overpriced attraction.  And nobody wants to talk about the traveller’s diareha!  It’s real and it’s awful!!!

So let’s be honest for a moment…

Today was one of those rotten travel days.  We’re beginning to realize how much we overpaid for our tour and we’re both getting tired of being treated like walking piggy banks.  We had a group of children follow us through the bazaar today, trying to sell us something (we aren’t sure what) and we’ve had countless people grab our arms and try to bring us into their stores to sell us their goods for 10x the price they’d charge a local.  It’s exhausting knowing that you can’t really trust anyone when you are travelling….being a tourist can really jade you in that way…

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Can you spot the difference?  This isn’t actually very surprising or unfair.  We don’t pay taxes to keep up these beautiful places so it’s only fair that we pay more than the locals.  What’s unfair is that we had been told by our tour operator that all the sights we’d be seeing were free.  This one was the cheapest one we could find today…

Of course, we do have some coping mechanisms.  Sometimes it’s an inappropriate joke (every tourist makes them).  I recognize that it can be culturally inappropriateive or offensive to laugh at Chinese medicine or to make a joke about Ganesh and his giant elephant head, but it’s sort of like laughing at a funeral…sometimes an inappropriate joke is the only thing you can do to relieve the tension that has built up with every encounter you’ve had throughout the day.

Because really, at the end of the day….people suck!   We are a sefish group, we really are!  We are destroying the earth because we are too lazy to recycle plastic bags or to walk to the store.  We allow corporations to treat their employees like garbage because it saves us money on our groceries.  We use animals for entertainment when we go to Swim With the Dolphin programs or when we go on an elephant ride.

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Disclaimer:  This animal was tortured for months so that you can ride on its back!!

And for some reason…we (and  I’m referring to all of human kind) think that people from other countries are somehow ‘less’ than we are.  Canadians have the resources and space and jobs (yes jobs!) to take in refugees but many are against it, because they think Canadian lives somehow matter more.  Somehow we have to fix ALL our  problems before we can hep anyone else…why should we all have to be living at 100% happiness before starving children and families fleeing war can be helped?  How are they less important??

It’s the same on this side of the planet.  I’ve been taken advantage of in nearly every country I’ve visited because of my white skin and my accent.  Somehow, because I’m Canadian, it’s ok to take advantage of me because I have ‘so much money’ and I can always make more.   I came here with a budget that I need to stick with….so all our tour guide did by charging us 30% more than he needed to, was to take away from what we would have spent on the second half of our trip.

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This also means that we have less money to tip musicians and artists who are trying to make a living without begging.  These are people I like to support.

And yes, these are trivial problems.  I’m sure some of you at home are rolling your eyes and hating me for ranting about my ‘first world problems’…but there are bigger issues too…

I did a lot of research before coming to India because I knew it would be very easy to get sick here  Disentary is something many travelers suffer from while in India and I did not want to be one of those unlucky travelers.  Basically, the water in India is very contaminated and dirty.  So dirty, in fact, that you are told to brush your teeth with mineral water and not tap water.

This means that all raw fruits and vegetables are off limits to us…because if they were washed with tap water (and they probably were), we will get sick.  And I’m not talking about a tummy ache….many people need to be hospitalized and are on medications for months if they catch something from the water here.  It’s no laughing matter.

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We are also on a vegetarian diet while we’re here, because meat is often unsafe.  We’re only ordering it in top notch restaurants, and even then, I find myself sticking with Dhal (lentils and chickpeas)

So when I learned that you are suppose to crush your empty water bottle when it’s finished, so that scam artists can’t refill it with TAP WATER and resell it in the market place, I wanted to scream.  These aren’t just people who are trying to make an extra buck off of me…I can understand why those people resent me.  I am no better than them…i was just lucky enough to have been born in Canada.  I can forgive them for taking as much as they can… After all, many of them are supporting extended families as well as their own children.

But there are actually people here who are knowingly getting people sick to make a few extra rupees…. That’s a completely new level of behavior.  That goes so far beyond ‘doing what you have to go get by’.

So that’s how it is.  That’s what it can be like to travel in foreign countries.  Tourists aren’t protected by the same laws we have in Canada here, because let’s face it….their government has bigger fish to fry.   The number of homeless people in India is astounding and my tourism dollars can go a very long way to help those people…I just wish so much of that money wasn’t in our tour operator’s pocket…

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The number of stray dogs is astounding…you see them curled up in the boulevard between lanes, trying to sleep like this

But I will leave you on a happy note..

We had a lovely walk today through Old Jaipur.  We set out early and were walking through as everyone was just getting set up for the day.  The crowds weren’t out yet, and we were able to walk along slowly, taking in the Pink City.  And the most wonderful thing, was all the smiling.  We had several people give us the warmest, most genuinely beautiful smiles.   They couldn’t communicate with us verbally (now that we’re out of the capital, fewer people speak English), but they spoke in a way that they could.  Indian people, as a whole, are so wonderfully inviting.  It’s a shame that the bad apples all flock to the tourist industry, where they tarnish the name of a country that is otherwise, welcoming and vibrant.

And we finished our day at Tiger Fort, where we watched the sun go down over the Pink City.

And while today i do feel that people suck….my love for animals remains…

And there is an abundance of them in India…

I will be back soon!

An Update on Life in Guiyang

It’s beautiful and sunny  here in Guiyang, and it’s one of the hottest days we’ve had this year.  We chose to spend our day off scooting around the city and enjoying the beautiful scenery that Guiyang has to offer.  Guizhou’s rugged beauty is something that I know I’ll miss as we move on to the next phase of our travels.

Life here has definitely improved.  Part of that is because the worst of culture shock has passed…we’ve become accustomed to some of the things we find difficult in China (the last minuteness of everything…the terrible driving…the lack of customer service) and as a result we are both feeling a little more relaxed than we were back in October and November.

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See my post about culture shock here

So I suppose it’s true…time heals everything.  But I wouldn’t be giving myself due credit if I said that time alone helped my circumstances.  After all, with all the problems I was having at the beginning of my contract, there were several routes I could have taken.   The way I see it, I had 3 options at the time:

  1. I could have given up and quit/gone home.
  2. I could have given up trying…after all, I didn’t feel that my efforts were appreciated or noticed.
  3. I could power through and continue being the best I could be, in the hope that that would eventually be recognized.

Of course, given my tenacity, I chose the 3rd option.  Instead of sulking or giving up, I turned my focus to the classroom.    I transformed that bland room into an engaging environment where my students can learn.  I also started spending more time on my students themselves…creating customized worksheets to help the ones that were struggling with spelling…learning new songs for the students who love music…looking for new activities and games to ensure everyone is getting the most out of their classes.  And it paid off.  I’m now considered one of the top teachers at the school, and that means a great deal to me.

So I suppose I’ve been keeping busy.  I’ve spent hours on these displays and sometimes I don’t even bother going back to the staff room for breaks, I just tidy up the classroom and add posters to the walls.  And while I’ve been been so busy powering through the last six months, life outside the school continued…

We’ve celebrated milestones:

Undergone transformations:

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Anyone who thinks marriage is lame, by the way, is not married to the right person.

Received countless care packages from home, which always brighten our day (and restock our goodie bin!!

We’ve made friends…both of the human and furry variety:

And, of course, we have tried many new foods 🙂

One of our favorite new restaurants is in the Future Ark area of Guiyang.  Dave made a video to show you all what street food in Guiyang is like:

I have experienced so much in the last 6 months.  There have been highs and lows, but no matter what has happened, I’ve had a constant positive in my life:  my students.  They are really the best part of being here.  I know I should be exhausted every Sunday night, after back to back 10 hour days…but I always find myself energized at the end of it all.  I have no doubt that teaching is my true calling…I have never loved a job as much as I love this one.

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How could I ever complain when I’ve got kids as cute as Poppy, who brought me a rose on Saturday…just because 🙂

Sadly, it really hit me this week that I’m going to be leaving soon and that although I’m excited to move on, I don’t know how I’m going to say goodbye to some of these kids…

But I suppose, once more I need to remind myself not to complain.  I’d rather have met these kids and have to say goodbye, than have never met them at all.  They’ve all taught me so much.  Smile (a little boy in one of my kindergarten classes) has shown me how he can be brave, no matter how scary it was for him to be away from his parents when he first began coming to class.  Lee taught me that no matter how bratty a child may be, they can ALWAYS turn it around.  And Chuck…Chuck taught me that 6 year olds can get brain cancer, and that I should cherish every moment I have with all of my beautiful students.

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He was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer 3 months ago. His classmates still ask where he went. I have no idea how to answer…

Spring Festival 2015: An Overview (Part 2)

Starbucks has become an integral part of of our lives here in Guiyang.  We sometimes go to other cafes, because they are closer to home or because they have cats to keep us company, but nothing really compares to the atmosphere at Starbucks.  The Baristas now all know us by name and we’re always welcomed warmly when we visit.  It’s nice being somewhere that not only has indoor heating, but where the customer service is good and the coffee is always fresh.  Signs like these are an added bonus:

This sign is posted in the bathroom.  Many Chinese people don't like western toilets because they are 'dirty', so they hop up ONTO the toilet and squat over that instead.  The result is a very dirty toilet seat.
This sign is posted in the bathroom. Many Chinese people don’t like western toilets because they are ‘dirty’, so they hop up ONTO the toilet and squat over that instead. The result is a very dirty toilet seat.

But Starbucks isn’t just a place to relax.  I do most of my blogging and journaling here as of late, and Dave has been working hard to complete is TEFL certification, so that he can do some teaching if he so desires.  Teaching is an excellent way to meet people, after all, and the extra income means we can take more trips, so there are really no downsides 🙂

It's like they understand coffee here!  Also...it's nice to get away from the smokey haze that seems to be everywhere in Guiyang
It’s like they understand coffee here! Also…it’s nice to get away from the smokey haze that seems to be everywhere in Guiyang

Onto Bangkok, Ayutthya and Chiang Mai!!

The Best of Bangkok First, I must state how much I LOVED Bangkok!  There was something about that city that I can’t exactly explain.  It’s modernity, liveliness and history all combine to provide the experience of a lifetime.  It’s actually very difficult for me to summarize the best things quickly, but I will do my best to try.

Bangkok is located in the center of the country.  It's further north than Phuket but it's actually quite a bit hotter there.
Bangkok is located in the center of the country. It’s further north than Phuket but it’s actually quite a bit hotter there.

As is often the case, the food was a highlight for us.  Our first dinner in Bangkok was an incredible array of seafood that was about half the price of the cheapest food we’d eaten in Phuket (where we never actually had a seafood dinner because the prices were so high!).  The best meal we had though was at a western style bakery near our hostel.  I was actually able to order a smoked salmon sandwich (with capers, REAL mayonnaise and everything!!!) on a toasted EVERYTHING bagel!!  They also had cream of broccoli soup, which I hadn’t even dared to hope for in Asia.  Once more, this may not be exciting for all of you back home…but good bread is enough to get me excited…never mind a proper smoked salmon bagel!!!  And as though the food wasn’t enough, I also found A&W root beer at 7-11!  I sipped it and savored every drop!!

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This dish was made of crab and finely ground egg. It is honestly one of the best dishes I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some incredible food in my time!!

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I don't know if I have EVER enjoyed a sandwich this much!!!
I don’t know if I have EVER enjoyed a sandwich this much!!!

But there is so much more to Bangkok than good food!  There is a great deal of culture there, and in the markets you can find everything from clothing and souvenirs, to flower offerings and seafood.

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Some cooked fish for sale
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Hearts, Stomachs, Livers and Kidneys for sale
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We saw this cool little cat walking along the canopy above the night market as we were crossing the pedestrian street bridge. He’s so stealthy 🙂
Flower offerings like this are everywhere in Bangkok.  They are bought and put on Buddhist shrines as well as shrines dedicated to the royal family
Flower offerings like this are everywhere in Bangkok. They are bought and put on Buddhist shrines as well as shrines dedicated to the royal family
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I actually felt very overwhelmed when we first got to the night market. I hadn’t felt that way since our first days in China. It’s an odd feeling when everything around you (the smells, sights, sounds…) are all foreign.

The most adventurous thing we did in Bangkok happened our last night there, on Kao San Road (it’s the backpacker’s party road).  Although culturally irrelevant, Bangkok has become known for it’s ‘deep fried bugs’.  Just as Cuba is known for their wooden carvings (although they are not popular within the culture itself…just among tourists), people flock to Kao San Road to try deep fried scorpion, tarantula, cockroach and grasshopper.  The Thais we met thought it was quite funny that tourists will pay to try to these things, but we figured we may as well give the fried critters a try!

We tried the silk worms (the small ones near the top of the plate) and the bamboo worms (the fat ones).  Both were alright...not anything I`d go out of my way to order, but they definitely weren`t as appalling as some may assume!
We tried the silk worms (the small ones near the top of the plate) and the bamboo worms (the fat ones). Both were alright…not anything I`d go out of my way to order, but they definitely weren’t as appalling as some may assume!
They also had centipede, tarantula and cockroaches, but I didn`t care to try any of them haha!
They also had centipede, tarantula and cockroaches, but I didn`t care to try any of them haha!

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The Worst of Bangkok

I actually had to ask Dave what the worst of Bangkok was, because I couldn’t really think of anything myself.  In Phuket our options for getting around were to use the shuttle bus (which stopped running at 8pm every day), hop in a tuk tuk, or hop in a taxi.  The taxis and tuk tuks there all refused to use meters, and instead just charged a flat rate that they’d all agreed on at some point, so you couldn’t get a better deal from using one over the other.  But in Bangkok, taxi drivers are far more honest.  They will sometimes try to use a flat rate, but if you request that they use the meter, they do.  As a result, the tuk tuk drivers can’t get away with being as greedy, so the prices are generally a lot better.

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The tuk tuks in Bangkok only have 3 wheels and run on propane. They’re a cool little vehicle to be driven around in!

The only exception is at the Grand Palace.  There, the tuk tuk drivers run several scams that involve getting tourists to go with them to jewelry stores and clothing shops, where they are given a cut of your purchase by the shop owners.  They’re quite sneaky with this scheme as well…they tell tourists that the grand palace is closed until *x*pm, but that they (the generous tuk tuk driver) will drive you around the city for a nominal fee until the palace is open again.  It’s gotten so bad that there are actually announcements played outside the palace, warning tourists of the scams.  We had one guy try it with us, but I’d read about it ahead of time so we just walked right by him, but one of the teachers I work with, who also visited Bangkok, did not get off so lucky.  He was taken to several stores before he caught on and nearly had to get into a fight with the driver before he finally agreed to drive them back to the palace.

These signs are posted at hostels and around the palace as well.  It's quite the problem!!
Scams in Thailand These signs are posted at hostels and around the palace as well. It’s quite the problem!!

The Grand Palace was also a bit of a downer.  Although it’s incredibly beautiful and unbelievable ornate, the crowds are ridiculous, and in the heat of Bangkok in February, it was a little too much for me to handle.  Add on the fact that you have to be wearing a long skirt or pants and that your arms can’t be showing, and I was ready to pass out from the heat.  We didn’t spend much time there, but I did get quite a few amazing pictures that I’ll be sharing in a future post 🙂

The crowds at The Grand Palace were a little crazy!  It was like being back in China!!
The crowds at The Grand Palace were a little crazy! It was like being back in China!!

The Best of Ayutthya

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The train ride to Ayutthya is a trip worth taking in of itself. Seeing Thai countryside is an interesting glimpse into ‘real’ Thailand

Although we only spent 1 short day in Ayutthya, it gets a spot in my ‘overview’ post due to its sheer awesomeness.  I encourage anyone who visits Bangkok to take the 1 hour train ride (that only costs 40bhat round trip!!!) to the old city to see the sights. We loved our day there and I wish we’d been able to spend the night.   The best part of the city was definitely its ruins.  It was once Thailand’s capital city, before the Burmese burnt it to the ground, and has since become a UNESCO World Heritage Sight.  We got so many beautiful pictures there!!  Plus, we rented a motorbike, so we had a lot of freedom, going where we wanted when we wanted, which was a nice change after all the tours we’d done in Phuket.

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A sneak peak into some of the beautiful ruins we saw in Ayutthya
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Blue skies make the most beautiful backdrop
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A vacation isn’t a vacation if Dave and I don’t rent a scooter at some point!

The Worst of Ayutthya

I never thought I’d consider seeing elephants and tigers as being the worst thing about a city, but in this case it was.  The elephants weren’t terribly abused (from what we saw), but the Mahoots did have long hooks out, ready to hit the elephants in the head with them if they misbehaved.  The little shops there also sold toy Mahoot hooks for children, which, to me at least, is horrifying.  Teaching children from a young age that it’s appropriate to hit an animal in the face with a sharp hook is not something I think should be done.  But it is…

That metal hook above the elephant's head is called a 'Mahout Hook'.  They use to to stab the elephant in the face if it misbahaves.  Many elephants have had their eyes gouged out by these hooks.  They are commonplace in trekking camps.
That metal hook above the elephant’s head is called a ‘Mahout Hook’. They use to to stab the elephant in the face if it misbehaves. Many elephants have had their eyes gouged out by these hooks. They are commonplace in trekking camps.

Worse yet, we saw several jewelry shops that were selling curious white rings and necklaces.  I went over at one point and tried to look interested.  A woman approached me and said ‘Elephant bone.  Very beautiful’.  I asked ‘oh, they aren’t ivory?’.  She replied ‘no, but THESE are ivory!!!’.  Dave pulled me away before I could tear her apart too badly, but she did get an earful, and at the very least, she knew that I was NOT impressed.  I have a feeling that they weren’t legit ivory, because if they were, they wouldn’t be sold out in the open that way, but just the advertisement that they ARE ivory, perpetuates the trade, and that is not something I can stomach or tolerate.

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I’ve always been against the ivory trade, but if you want a real eye opener, this is the edition of National Geographic that made me become more vocal about it. Too many elephants die every year so that rich people can wear pretty jewelry and religious fanatics can carve religious symbols into something that costs an animal it’s life…just for the sake of decoration.

The Best of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is located in the north of Thailand.
Chiang Mai is located in the north of Thailand.

Anyone who knows me at all, knows where this is going!  We probably wouldn’t have visited Thailand’s second largest city if it hadn’t been for Elephant Nature Park.  When we decided to go to Thailand for Spring Festival, Dave knew that it would kill me if we went and I didn’t get to spend some time with elephants, so we started doing some research.  We are both very against cruelty against animals, and consider the use of animals for human entertainment to be a form of cruelty (I’ll be discussing why I feel this way in an upcoming post), so we were very picky on where we would be spending our money in Thailand (the best thing an individual can do to stop injustice is to vote with their dollar.  It’s also why I don’t support companies like Apple and Nike, who have been proven to use child labor in their factories).  After a great deal of reading, we found Elephant Nature Park.  Instead of riding the elephants and watching them paint pictures (which may seem harmless, but the training they are given to do such things is unspeakably cruel), you get to watch them BE ELEPHANTS.  We signed up to stay the night and had the experience of a lifetime.  Please believe me when I say I have pictures and stories to share that will be worth reading!!

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Two young elephants cuddling in the river
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Some of the first elephants we met. I don’t know any of their names, but the middle one was not fond of pumpkin, and every time I tried to give it to her, she’d spit it out and look for more watermelon! haha!!
Me and one of my favorite elephants (the one to my right).  The elephant to my left helps take care of Jokia...she's blind.
Me and one of my favorite elephants (the one to my right), Jokia. The elephant to my left helps take care of Jokia, as she was blinded by a mahout years ago.

But the elephants weren’t the only perk to staying at Elephant Nature Park.  We were surrounded by animals our whole stay there!  We even had a ‘pet’ dog who stayed at our cabin.  When we came back in the evening to grab some bug repellent, he ran down the road to greet us…thoroughly happy to see us back!  ENP truly cares about animals.  They’ve rescued over 40 elephants, 400 dogs, 100 cats and even 70 water buffalo!  It was so nice to see animals that were well cared for and who are being given good homes and learning that not all humans are cruel.

This is the sweet boy who hangs out outside the cabin where we stayed.
This is the sweet boy who hangs out outside the cabin where we stayed.
A cat stuck up in a tree.  I got the picture at the exact right moment lol!
A cat stuck up in a tree. I got the picture at the exact right moment lol!
They have signs like this up all around ENP
They have signs like this up all around ENP

The Worst Of Chiang Mai

Like Bangkok, I had do some thinking to think of a bad part of our time in Chiang Mai.  We both enjoyed ourselves so much during our stay at ENP, as well as during our time IN Chiang Mai, that it’s hard to think of a negative thing to say.  We did have one rather irritating experience though…

Banana Plantation
Banana Plantation
Scooting down some back roads near Chiang Mai
Scooting down some back roads near Chiang Mai

 

The old city walls still stands around the ancient part of the city, where we were staying at a hostel called Gong Kew Home
The old city walls still stands around the ancient part of the city, where we were staying at a hostel called Gong Kew Home

We rented a scooter so that we could visit a waterfall near Chiang Mai.  About 20 minutes into a trip, we were pulled over by a police officer who asked to see our licenses.  We were both wearing helmets and in China, you don’ t need a license to drive these scooters (nor do you in Thailand…we saw many many foreigners riding them and I can’t imagine any of them having international drivers licences).  We told him that we had Canadian drivers licenses, but that they were at the hotel (we make a point of never traveling with all our ID in the same place.  We had our passports with us, so we left our drivers licenses at home, thinking they wouldn’t be needed).

The falls where we'd been heading.  They are nicknamed the 'Sticky Falls' because there is a type of algae on them that is so sticky that you can actually climb the falls.
The falls where we’d been heading. They are nicknamed the ‘Sticky Falls’ because there is a type of algae on them that is so sticky that you can actually climb the falls.

It turns out the cop only wanted a bribe.  He told us we’d have to leave my passport with him, go to the police station and pay a 1000bhat fee for a license.  I was not about to leave my passport with anyone I didn’t know (I learned my lesson in China.  All of a sudden they don’t know which passport you’re talking about, but if you give them some money, it might help them remember…), so instead we offered to pay him.  We knew that’s what he was getting at anyway.

For any new travelers reading this:  You will never realize how important your passport is, until someone else has it and won't give it back.
For any new travelers reading this: You will never realize how important your passport is, until someone else has it and won’t give it back.

We didn’t have a whole lot of cash left, as it was the last day of our holiday, and he made fun of us for being ‘broke foreigners’.  It took everything in me not to tell him off for taking advantage of his position as cop.  I wanted to tell him that he should be ashamed for robbing people and leaving us with such a bad impression of a country we’d otherwise really loved.  But instead, I shut my mouth and we went on our way.  I’ve learned through  my travels that lipping off to authority is almost never in your best interest…

This seems very appropriate to describe how I was feeling in that moment
This seems very appropriate to describe how I was feeling in that moment

So that concludes my overview of our stay in Thailand.  There will be much more detailed posts to come, with stories about our Snorkeling Tours (the bad…), our time in Ayutthya (the good) and our day in the James Bond Hongs and at Elephant Nature Park (THE AWESOME!!)

My apologies for the delay in this post.  I’ve actually had it done for days, but haven’t had the internet to post it (or to add the last couple of pictures).  I had originally planned on posting a lot more this week…but fate seems to be working against me.  Or at least the Chinese internet companies seem to be working against me…

Until next time!