The Life of an Expat

Being an English teacher has its challenges, but one of the biggest perks I have as a language teacher is that I can teach my lessons through a variety of lenses.  If I’m teaching about conditional voice, for example, I can have the students talk about which super powers they wish they had, or about regrets they have from the past.

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The super power I always wish for is teleportation.  That way I could see these cuties any time I want!

This year, I chose to teach my grade 9 students English through a lens I think everyone should consider: “Critical Thinking in Social Media”.  I introduced them to Snopes, discussed the power (and danger) of memes and we talked about subjects ranging from  gun control in the United States to South Korean fan superstitions.  My hope was that I’d teach them how to be considerate and intelligent Netizens, but I probably learned nearly as much as they did.

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Each week, I put students into groups and gave them an outrageous news article. I asked them to guess whether or not the information was true based on some ‘fact checking’ skills I’d taught them.  Then, I handed out the Snopes articles that verified the information.  Finally, they presented their findings (along with any new words they learned through the process) to their classmates.  It was a VERY worthwhile way to spend a few classes!

Our class discussions about the dangers of Social Media really got me thinking.  We discussed the idea that people rarely write about bad things that are happening in their lives, but instead tend to focus on the positive, making their lives look more glamorous and perfect that they really are.  In of itself, this isn’t a problem, but when others see those happy posts, they start to compare their own lives with the (perfect) lives that others present to the cyber world.

I try not to do this, but, of course, it can be difficult.  I haven’t been feeling particularly positive lately, so I thought this would be a good time to write about the negative aspects of living as an expat.  *Spoiler…it’s awesome…but like everything, it has its downsides*

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For example, I rarely post about all the food poisoning I’ve had in the last 4 years!

June is a hard month for a lot of reasons.  It’s the end of the school year, which is stressful for all teachers.  Between grading, report cards and final tests, teachers across the planet are barely holding it together every June.  When you’re an expat teacher, you have to also consider the stress of booking flights home, finding cat sitters, and spending 6 weeks living out of suitcases.  It’s stressful.

That’s not to say that I’d give up my trip home to avoid these stresses…but it is something a lot of people don’t think about when they think of what it’s like teaching abroad.  Other things include…

Saying Goodbye to Students

One event was particularly emotional for me this month.  My grade 9 students have been with me since my very first day at SFLS, and in September, they will be moving onto high school. Many of them will be moving abroad as well, so it’s not as though I’ll be seeing many of them again.   Their graduation was last Friday and although I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry (I even refused to bring tissue in an attempt to not even give myself the option), I ended up red in the face and tearier than I would like to admit.  When you love teaching…it’s easy to become attached to the kids you see every day for 3 years.

Still, I wish them all the best, and although it sucks to see them go, I have new students coming in next September, and they will provide new challenges and rewards for me and all their other teachers.

Expat Friendships

The friendships you form while living abroad are also a very important part of the expat life. I’ve made friends from all over the world, and although we’re all very different people with very different backgrounds, there is one thing we all have in common: we don’t really belong anywhere.

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Pictured here: 2 Canadians, a Chinese-Australian, an Argentinian and an American.  Some of my best friends in the world

When you’re away from home, having a good group of friends becomes increasingly important.  They’re who you spend Christmas with and they’re who help you through troubled times.  Most importantly, they’re the ones who understand you, because as much as people back home can try and empathize, they only really see the really good and really bad parts of being an expat…none of the ‘in-between-everday-stuff’.

Dave and I are far more outgoing and far more adventurous abroad than we ever were back home, and our social life is pretty awesome.  We spend lots of time going out for dinner, going to KTV, going to Salsa parties, and of course, I have my band.  All these things are done with friends…and 99% of my friends are currently expats, or people who were previously expats, but have moved back home to China.

Of course…when you are a nomad and surround yourself with other nomads…people enter and leave your life regularly.  It’s difficult because I understand it…but I hate it.  I also hate that soon I’ll be the one leaving people behind.  Already, I find myself wondering if I’ll ever find friends as good as the ones I have in Suzhou…

The ‘Home Dilemma’

Home becomes a really weird concept when you live abroad.  I like to say that ‘Home is where my cats are’, but in reality, I spend 3 months away from them every year.  I’d like to say that ‘Home is where you grew up’, but nobody in my family even lives in that tiny Manitoba town, so how can that really be home?  Steinbach never really felt like home for me, because I was too different from the local people.  Oddly enough, in some ways, Suzhou has been feeling more like home than anywhere I’ve ever been.  I’ve become a part of the community, through music, foodie groups and through school.

I think that living abroad changes you in that way.  Home isn’t as easily defined when you don’t ever quite fit in.  In China, I’m a minority.  I’m only one of a few thousand expats in a city of 8 million people.  Back home, it’s the same.  I’ve had such a different 4 years than most of my friends and family.  It’s difficult to explain your feelings about things when the people in your life see the world differently than you do.  It’s especially noticeable when talking about world politics or world events with people back in Canada.  It’s easy to talk about India’s poverty or an earthquake in Indonesia when you see it as some far off place, separate from you.  But when you can picture the smells and sounds of a place….when you’ve been there and it’s personal…you see those events very differently.

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This week a ferry capsized and sank in Northern Sumatra. Several people have been confirmed dead and more than 120 people are still missing. We took a ferry on that same route to Samosir Island back in February. It affects us differently than it will have affected people back home (who probably haven’t even heard about the accident)

What makes it especially hard is that we’ve never had any family or friends visit us here in China.  I know that it isn’t in everyone’s budget, and there are a thousand reasons why people can’t just hop on a plane and visit, but regardless of those reasons…it makes ‘home’ a difficult subject.  At the end of the day, China is currently our home, but the people we know and love back in Canada have no idea what our life is like in the place we call home.

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When family and friends do come visit, everyone gets excited. When Kim’s parents visited last year, we all went out for dinner together.

And that’s why I hound my family save up and come visit us…it’s not because I want to show them the sites or because I think China is the most beautiful place on earth….it’s because I want them to understand me.  I people back home to understand what life is like in the city I currently call home.

Always Missing Somewhere or Someone

And of course there’s the obvious reason it’s hard being an expat is all the stuff you leave behind at the end of the summer.  It’s great having stories to tell your family and friends…but I really do wish I had the power of teleportation.  Then, I wouldn’t need to miss everyone so much.

It isn’t All Bad

Of course, it isn’t nearly all bad.  June is probably my least favourite month of the year.  It’s difficult saying goodbye to students.  It’s difficult saying goodbye to friends.  Add that to the fact that it’s exam season and end of term…and I can’t believe it’s taken me 4 years to write this post.

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I can barely complain about my own stresslevels in June. Students in China write the Gaokao, which is the test that will get them into a good (or less than good) university. When the tests are done, kids choose a classroom, tear up their books and dump them all in a pile. This was this year’s classroom….

Still, there are a thousand things that being an expat allows us to do.  It sucks saying goodbye to friends…but it’s great meeting so many new people all the time.  It sucks only seeing our family and Canadian friends once a year, but we always have so many stories to tell them!  And being an Expat gives us so many opportunities that we’d never have back in Canada.  My band wouldn’t get nearly as many gigs if we weren’t ‘interesting foreigners’.  Of course, we could never afford to travel this much if we didn’t live in China.  And with Dave working from home, we were able to foster little Oscar.  Here are some pictures of Oscar to remind you of all the reasons I love being an expat!

Stay tuned!  I’ve got half a dozen more posts coming in the next month or so!!