Day one of our 33 day holiday is coming to an end, and it’s time to recap and reflect.
Hanoi City – Organized Chaos
We have begun our trip in Hanoi: a bustling and historic Vietnamese city. We’re staying in the Old Quarter of Vietnam’s capital, where coffee shops are on every street corner and motorbikes are the primary means of transportation. There’s an organized chaos here, in every sense of the word.
There are thousands of shops piled atop one another, and everywhere you look, there are people eating bowls of Pho on the sides of the street, and sipping coffee at tiny tables, sitting on tiny plastic stools. What’s interesting, though, is that all those tiny little shops are organized and neatly merchandised. My (extremely neat) sister would be impressed by the level of organization these shop owners manage to have in their little side-of-the-road shops.
A good friend of ours lived in Vietnam for 4 years and she gave us valuable advice before we left for Hanoi. She told us that the roads here are like a river; vehicles weave in and around one another and never really stop moving. She told us to walk boldly but slowly and that vehicles would mostly just part around us. It was terrifying at first, but she was right. There are no crosswalks in the North American sense, but somehow, we got around just fine. In a lot of ways it was less scary than India. Ok…in every way.
French colonialism is easily identifiable all over the city. The streets, buildings and even French language are visible everywhere you go. Cambodia was also colonized by the French, but the impact there wasn’t as obvious as it is in Hanoi.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake – Passive and Pleasant
After a long day of travel yesterday and a long semester of 60-hour weeks, I wasn’t up for much today, so we mostly spent our time down by Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which was a lovely experience. The lake is a beautiful spot for wedding photos, so we saw several happy couples being chased by photographers.
A Monk, enjoying the view
Some interesting trees
A cobblestone bridge. I love cobblestone!!!
A happy pair of newliweds
Some beautiful bonsais
There was a small temple by the lake as well. We paid 30,000 dong each to enter (less than $2 Canadian) and enjoyed the quietness of the place.
There’s plenty to see walking along the lake. The Old Quarter is a lovely place to spend the afternoon!
Different from Delhi / A Change from China
One of my favourite parts of travel is walking around at night, when the shops are lit up and the weather has cooled. Vietnam is so different from India. While there are shops everywhere, just as there is in New Delhi, nobody grabs you by the arms and nobody is too terribly pushy. South East Asia, though hectic and tourist oriented, seems to have more of a dignity about it. People bargain, but don’t try and rip you off. People try and sell their goods, but if you say no, they move on with their days, un-offended and un-worried.
The restaurant where we had dinner. They greeted us when they saw us looking at the menu, but never grabbed me by the arm to try and pull me in, as was the usual experience in New Delhi
Tonight we walked around for a little while and found a restaurant where we enjoyed the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had. Although I love Chinese food, the oil has started to gross me out a bit. Vietnamese food is fresher and crispier…with more raw vegetables and coconut sauces. Dinner was delicious…and the coffee I just finished was an excellent way to end the night!
Tomorrow we set off for HaLong Bay…another UNESCO World Heritage Site to add to our list. We’ll be spending 2 nights and 3 days enjoying one of Vietnam’s greatest treasures.
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!
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!)
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!
We had a Barbecue at the beginning of May. It was a blast!
Celebrating Jeff’s Birthday was quite the event back in April
Jeff and I 🙂
Dave and I
Fun on the Balcony
I made my deviled eggs for Jeff’s Mexican Themed birthday
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.
Cheetar, Adam and Karsten living it up at KTV
KTV bars are so swank! lol
Dinner on Japan Street where you can get all you can eat sushi and tepanyaki + all you can drink beer for about $35 Canadian
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.
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).
He’s back home now, more handsome than ever
Poe’s been working very hard to keep our spirits up
They had to shave Hugo’s entire stump…the poor guy must be itchy as it’s growing back!
Poe being cute
After 6 wees in a cone, Hugo’s spirits were pretty broken 😦
When we went to visit him during his hospital stay, he clung to me like glue
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!
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!
My first gig at Maestre Brau
I always close my eyes when I’m singing!!!! gah!!!
My dear friend Li who comes to every show that she can.
This little girl loved my voice. She asked her mom to put a stool in front of the stage so she could watch me…..melted my heart!
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.
We were moved inside because of some rain, but the show went on!
A great group! We even got asked to do an encore!
Me and our bassist, Dennis. This guy is multi talented…he also plays guitar and does vocals for one of the mini bands. Great guy
A very cool shot
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
New Businesses Opening
Just because they like to make noise…
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…
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.
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?
The postal system isn’t the most reliable, but every once in a while, a letter makes it through!
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…
This is a Chai Latte….those aren’t around in Mainland China, so I was excited to find them in Hong Kong!
8. Signs: The Good, The Bad and The Incomprehensible
This category doesn’t need much explaining….Let’s start with the good…
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…
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.
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….
Crowds….crowds like you have never experienced…
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…
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.
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!
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.
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!
Hot pot is probably our most regular food in China.
Peking Duck is a MUST try!
Dumplings are a regular for anyone living in China
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.
Pig feet aren’t too bad. They are really fatty though, so probably not great for the heart…
It’s quite shocking how quickly I became used to eating animals whole. This is a fish and pepper dish, where you eat whole little river fish…bones and all. Having my food look up at me doesn’t even phase me anymore
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.
Pig stomach…it’s sort of grown on me…in hot pot, anyway.
Duck Tongue…it tastes about as good as you would think it does. It was served to me at a fancy Christmas party in a high end restaurant. This is a delicacy here.
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…
I also had to teach them to put their dishes upside down to dry. They were putting them into the cupboards full of water that just sat in there until the next class came in…
One student’s idea of dealing with a broken dish…I found it several days later…
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.
So many examples….this is a bucket of gelatanized blood being transported across the city…uncovered…
Meat hanging out of an apartment
Chickens drying in the sun
Meat sitting out on shelves at Carrefour
More Carrefour meat
Dried pig face…I couldn’t decide which section to put this in: strange food, or hygiene
some VERY questionable meat, sitting in a crate…
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.
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!
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!
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…
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…
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:
Our hot water tank being right above our washing machine…but our washing machine wasn’t connected.
Escalators being built outside, instead of under the roofed area…causing them electrical damage every time it rains.
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…
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
The government telling employees to smoke more to boost the economy…
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:
Unlike at the end of many holidays, where I’ve been a little depressed to return to ‘real life’, I am totally thrilled to be back in Suzhou. I’m only one week into the new semester and I’m already finding work challenging, rewarding and fun. The number of students who greeted me by jumping out of their seat and cheering blew me away. How did I end up working for a school with students this cool? I don’t remember ever loving teachers enough to cheer for them!? These kids are just so great…and it helps that I love teaching Drama and writing…and even Food and Nutrition (when I’m in the classroom!!!).
My 7th grade all-girls class. They have improved so much in the kitchen, learning how to clean properly and how to make safe food
One of the girls was looking for extra point on their final exam at the end of last term. It says ‘Love Marie’ in Honey Dill sauce!!
Anyway…after 30 days away from home, Poe and Hugo are very pleased to have us back! Poor Poe was very anxious from us being away, I think, and our first few nights back were sleepless. She needs constant reassurance and is always worried that we’ve left. She wakes us up in the middle of the night…seemingly just to see if we’re there. I wonder what she went through at that shelter to have so much to worry about! Hugo, on the other hand, could not be more relaxed. Although he’s the one missing a leg, you’d never guess that he’s seen a moment of trauma in his life. Nothing phases him…I guess cats are like people in that way…some handle stress better than others.
Hugo, cuddled up and purring like a mad-man
You better not be thinking about leaving me!!!!
I have such a derpy cat!!! lol!!! If this isn’t total relaxation…what is!?!?!?
Hey Guys…where are we going!?!?!?
The following few posts I’ll be putting up will be about some of the most incredible parts of our trip. It felt as though writing about these things from my tablet wouldn’t do them justice…not only because the internet was constantly a struggle and my photo editing tools are all on my laptop (which we didn’t bring along), but I wanted to be able to write about these things with some distance from India. Our trip had a lot of ups and even more downs, but I know that with some distance, things won’t seem as though they were so bad. The following two posts will be about our time in Agra and our time in the Thar desert…and they are both stories that deserve to be to told without residual frustrations tainting otherwise beautiful experiences.
Suzhou’s most iconic building: The Pants
Goodness, I missed Chinese food!!!
I hope you enjoy reading about these adventures as much as I’ve enjoyed documenting them through both writing and photography.
Although my next post was going to be about our trip to Hong Kong, I thought that writing about the Holidays might be a little more relevant. The holiday season can be awful or amazing when you are a foreigner in another country. It’s easy to feel homesick and marginalized when you live in a country where Christmas is important on a superficial level alone, but it helps a lot when you work with awesome people and have good friends to celebrate with. Dave and I were fortunate enough to be part of several events with the great friends we’ve made over the last 4 months. And although our Christmas definitely had some ‘downs’, it was, for the most part, an excellent holiday!
The biggest Christmas tree we’ve seen in China. This is right near Xinghai Square; the metro stop we live near
Some polar bear Christmas decorations outside of a restaurant. They made me feel a little closer to Manitoba
The school held several events around the holidays that definitely helped encourage the Christmas Spirit. In addition to the Lao Wai Holiday supper, there was also a spelling bee the week before Christmas and then on Thursday we had the IGCSE New Year’s Gala. All 3 events were great fun and big successes.
I was asked to present the IG1 and Elite Girls 1 with their awards at the spelling bee. I’m lucky enough to teach in both departments, so it was great being there cheering on these awesome kids I get to teach!!!
The Christmas dinner was both delicious and delightful 🙂 I had a bit of a rough time at the dinner because Poe was in surgury that evening, but it was good to have good friends there to distract me.
My boss, one of the greatet people I’ve met in China, singing his speach. Although he is incredibly humble and wouldn’t brag about it, he does a tonne of charity work here in Suzhou and recently won an award given by the city of Suzhou, for being the city’s most important philanthropist. This is the guy I get to work for. It’s so great having a boss I have so much respect for!
My favorite of the holiday parties though, was the IGCSE New Year’s Eve gala. IGCSE is the department of the school where I work. Suzhou Foreign Language school is huge and there are actually 3 middle schools within the one larger school. IGCSE is the ‘English’ department because when the students graduate middle school, they receive a bilingual diploma from the University of Cambridge. We have some of the brightest students I’ve met in China in this program and I’m proud to be their teacher 🙂
3 of my best IG1 students. I teach these girls English Writing and they always blow me away with their effort and their participation in class. I couldn’t ask for a better group of 13 year olds!!!
The IG2 (grade 8) clas singing a Taylor Swift Song
Some students did a special dance for ‘Ms. Fang’, the middle school’s main administrator. She’s an incredible teacher and person and the students and teachers all love her to bits. The kids decided to put on a special dance for her (they’re all wearing masks with her face on them) and then they presented her with flowers. It was probably my favorite part of the night
I also got to perform at the gala. My boss, Nathan, plays the Ukulele, so he and I chose a couple of songs and performed them for the kids and parents. It went over really well, and when it was done, one of the IG2 students presented me with a bouquet of roses. It was so sweet!
The roses I received when our performance was done 🙂
One of my students, Ken, took some shots of Nathan and I with his Iphone and edited them. I think he did a pretty nice job!
The school hired a photographer for the event, and she caught this picture of me as I walked in. The reason I look so happy is because when I walked through the door all the IG1 kids got all excited and started shouting “Ms Marie’s here!!!!!” They know how to make me feel loved!!!
The gala finished with Abba’s ‘Happy New Year’, which I may now never get out of my head! They asked Nathan and I at the last minute if we would sing the first 8 lines of the song solo, so I had to learn it over night. I was so stressed about the whole thing (Abba is WAY out of my range) that I lost my voice! Luckily, I found it the next morning, but it was still a bit of a scare!
But the school was not the only place where I was able to celebrate the holidays (don’t worry, Dave and I DID see each other!!). We were invited to, and organized, several events with friends. Just like we would back home, we ate FAR too much and spent great time with great people 🙂
Isaac and Adam making friends at Bei Jiang; one of our favorite restaurants in Suzhou
Our new friend Amanda ADORED Hugo. He was pretty happy to curl up with her all evening!
Dave and I, while being told to stop being mushy in front of the others at dinner lol
Our Christmas Eve dinner party 🙂
IG Life 🙂
Me with Ivy and Sherry! I work with these lovely ladies. They are both fantastic teachers and some of my closest Chinese friends.
Christmas Day was a lot of fun as well. Dave and I got dressed up and had dinner at the Kempinski Hotel in Suzhou. We ate far too much (again) and then head out to The Camel (a bar in SIP) to meet some friends that I met in Shanghai.
Presley, Sarah, Zoe and I 🙂
The Kempinski. It was great, but we definitely missed the one in Guiyang.
New Year’s Eve was also a nice evening out, though I didn’t take any pictures. We hung out with my favorite Suzhou-Canadian: Jeff. Whenever I miss home, I hang out with Jeff…he is basically every Canadian stereotype personified!
Of course, I can’t exactly say that our holiday season was everything I had hoped it would be. The pollution from Beijing made its way down to Suzhou and Dave and I both got pretty sick from it. My skin was very irritated by the smog and dust and both of our lungs suffered. We really do love our life in Suzhou, but when we decide to move home, it will probably be because of the smog. Coming from small town Canada has left me with high standards as far as air is concerned, and Suzhou doesn’t cut it.
We bought PM2.5 masks on Tao bao , as well as an air purifier for the apartment. Of course, neither arrived until the smog cloud had passed, but atleast we’re prepared for the next attack on oxygen!!
But the smog was the least of our holiday worries. We had Poe scheduled to be spayed on December 23rd, and although she was in heat at the time, we needed to get the surgery done so that she’d be healed in time for our departure for India. We read about it online and everything seemed like it would be fine. The surgery is a little more complicated when a cat is in heat, but vets do the surgery out west all the time. So we went ahead with the surgery.
A few hours after her surgery was over, we got a call from the vet telling us that she had to go back under because she had internal bleeding. 2 hours later, we found out that the vet had accidentally damaged her spleen during the original surgery (he has apologized profusely for his mistake and has admitted that it was due to his inexperience…inexperience we weren’t actually aware of…). As a result, Poe lost her spleen and we came pretty close to losing her.
They had her on an IV drip. She spent her first day there hiding in the litter box.
She become much more alert when she saw us there
She was so swollen! The stitches look much better now
Now, anyone who is not an animal lover may not understand where I’m coming from here, but Dave and I have really fallen in love with that cat over the last month and a half. She’s such a little ray of sunshine…very affectionate and always purring. She became part of our little family so quickly and we were so terribly worried we’d lose her.
The veterinarian did come through for us though, and he saved our little Poe. She spent 3 nights at the hospital and we visited her between our holiday parties whenever we had the chance. The nurse there commented on how much higher her spirits were when we were there, which made us feel like there was SOMETHING we could actually do for her.
Poe came home on Boxing Day and is still recovering. We try to keep her out of the cone as much as possible so she can get some good rest and feel comfortable, but she’s a cat…so bathing is inevitable. Her spirit is slowly returning and she’s becoming playful again, which is wonderful to see. Hugo rather enjoyed being an ‘only cat’ for the 4 days she was gone, but he’s adjusting to her return. And as much as he tries to pretend he hates that little black ball of fur, he was worried and searching for her the entire time she was gone.
Hugo, unimpressed that the ‘black one’ has returned
Poe, unimpressed that she has been ‘coned’
Poe, trying to block out all the ‘human’ around her.
So I guess our Christmas story had a happy ending. 🙂
I’ll be back soon with some stories about Hong Kong!
At this point I should probably give up apologizing for the long gaps between my posts. Though my intentions have been good, I’m finding it difficult to make time for the things that were my life-savers last year: blogging, journaling and photography. And, although these difficulties can be partially explained by this blog post, there is another element to our lives in Suzhou that has made it nearly impossible to keep the momentum I had last year. I’m actually happy.
Last year at this time I was merely trying to find ways to cope. I was trying to make friends with people who didn’t necessarily want to be my friends. I was trying to impress a school that didn’t care what I had to offer and I was trying to force myself to fit into a city that was just very much NOT me. Blogging and journaling was a way for me to stay positive about the things I was going through. This year, I don’t find myself needing the same things.
Because Suzhou has been so welcoming and such a good fit for Dave and I, we find ourselves making friends easily and doing things that involve growing a certain amount of roots in this city. In Guiyang, the idea of getting a gym membership seemed too permanent to me. I felt like we could be leaving at any moment (I was honestly afraid of being fired for a long time) so I didn’t think signing a yearlong contract at a gym would be wise. Here, that isn’t an issue.
The same thing goes with the newest editions to our home: Hugo and Poe. We ventured down to an animal shelter a few weeks back and found 2 cats that quickly became ours. Now that they are healthy and well-fed, they are quickly becoming family. I would never have dreamed of getting a pet in Guiyang. Moving an animal across the country is stressful and Dave and I both knew that Guiyang was not going to be our last stop in China, so pets were off the table.
Oue sweet boy, Hugo, is missing a leg
My beautiful girl, Poe, who is curled up in one of my arms as i type this (she isn’t exactly making this easy but I’ll forgive her because she’s so darn cute!!!
So I guess what I’m saying is that although blogging is still a project that is very important to me, I find myself being stretched in other ways as well. Improving my health further is high on my ‘to-do’ list this year, so Power House Gym will be getting more of my time. My cats are also high on my priority list. Keeping my apartment clean is essential for my survival (have I mentioned I’m extremely allergic to my cats?). If the fur or dander build up, I can’t breath, so I’m spending a lot more time vacuuming and sweeping than I was last year. And lastly, it’s kind of nice having a social life again! Now that I’m not a depressed, anxious mess anymore, its great going out with some of the teachers from my school. As I’ve mentioned before…I work with some really great people!!
The Jamaican Deviled Eggs that I made for a Thanksgiving get together
My latest food and nutrition dish: Jamaican Pizza
A friend we made on the subway. We were actually on our way to the animal shelter!!
So that sums up the last month. New family members, gym memberships and of course, I’m still keeping very busy at the school (which I still love!!). September and October were their own brands of mayhem that need some explaining. I’ve already written about Beijing, but that’s only 1/3 of our travel in those 2 months. In total, we were on 6 airplanes, 5 high speed trains and slept in 4 different hotels within our first 60 days in China. That may sound like fun, but we also security checks becomes a bore after that many trips…
Trip #1 – Shanghai
2 weeks after arriving in Suzhou, I had to travel to Shanghai for a week to complete a 60 hour TEFL training program for the Chinese government. I had already completed 240 hours of this training over the past few years (through a Canadian company), but still, in an effort to weed out any undesirable teachers, the government requested that I complete their program before I would be granted a fully legal visa. I obliged because the last thing I wanted was to be kicked out of the country after finally finding the right job!
The training itself was pretty useless. Because I’d already taken several of these courses (3 of them being in-depth training for specific age levels: adults, adolescents and children), I already knew most of the material. I can definitely see how this training would be valuable for anyone who has never taught before, but for me, it was a waste of time. I showed up, did my best not to lose my temper on our teacher (who insisted with raise both hands in the air any time he wanted us to be quiet…) and made it through the week without losing too much of my sanity.
The supposed bright side to all of this was that I got to see Shanghai. The reason I say ‘supposed’ was because I didn’t actually like Shanghai all that much. Most foreigners see Shanghai as a haven from ‘old’ China, and in a lot of ways, they are right. There are countless western brands there where you can find everything from cosmetics, to western food to western clothing. Still, this wasn’t all that impressive, given that I’d been in Canada 3 weeks earlier and I was all stocked up on my ‘western’ stuff.
But Shanghai is simply not my cup of tea. The city is just too much ‘city’ for this small town girl! With a population of 30,000,000 (yeah…that’s slightly less than all of Canada), the subways are always packed, the pollution is nasty and the noise is unbearable. I hate the crowds and there was nothing worse than the metro station where people routinely push their way onto the trains. Our only refuge from the crowds was our hotel room, which stunk of cigarettes and was nearly as noisy as the outdoors.
Construction that was being done right outside our hotel window…until 2am
A delicious meal that we were VERY overcharged for! All was well until we got our bill and saw a 50rmb fee ($10CDN) for the tea we asked for. Asking for tea in China is like asking for a glass of water in Canada…it’s complimentary! But we are white so…..
Of course, it was impossible to get a picture of this train without someone else in the shot, so I finally caved after waiting several minutes, and took this picture, with this random lady posing…
This was the first time we were ‘Shanghaied in Shanghai’. We were sold this train ticket as a tourist attraction…we understood that it was a scenic tour of the city from the world’s fastest train. It turns out that it was a 1 way ticket to the airport…and it never went much faster than the regular high speed trains we take on a monthly basis….
I’m grateful that Dave was able to join me on that trip (the beauty of being able to work anywhere where there is internet access). We had an OK time in the shopping district, walking around and seeing the sights, and we found ourselves some good restaurants and had a nice time down at The Bund. Mostly, I met some really cool people while taking my class, so that was good.
A view of the Shanghai Skyline from ‘The Bund’, a famous walking path by the water
The glare from the neon sighns was nearly enough to ruin this picture!
For National Day, Mcdonalds changed it’s vanilla ice cream into ‘green tea matcha’ icecream. I did not know this when I orded an Oreo Mcflurry…
When the course was over, I was thrilled to head back to Suzhou and get back in to the swing of things at the school. I still hadn’t really had a chance to get my classes in full swing and I still had plenty of ‘beginning of semester’ projects on the go, so it was important for me to be present at the school as much as possible. But of course, 10 days later, National Week arrived…
Trip #2 – Beijing
Beijing was somewhere I had never been but had always wanted to visit. When the National Day came upon us, we had to make a decision: Stay at home for a week with nothing to do…or head to Beijing for a mini holiday. We chose the latter, mostly because I hate being bored…
This was so much better that sitting at home for a week!
Beijing was somewhere I had never been but had always wanted to visit. When the National Day came upon us, we had to make a decision: Stay at home for a week with nothing to do…or head to Beijing for a mini holiday. We chose the latter, mostly because I hate being bored…
Now, I’ve already written about the Great Wall, so you might be wondering why I’d bring up Beijing at all. After all…how much could we have seen on a 4 day holiday? Well…the answer to that is that we saw enough to know that we are happy that we don’t live in Beijing!
As some of you may have seen in the news, the pollution in Beijing is atrocious. You can actually taste the pollution in the air and there’s always a bit of a haze to see through…even when it’s sunny. Out on The Wall, we had clean air, but the two days we spent IN the city made me very glad to live in Suzhou, where the pollution is bad at times (it comes down from nearby Shanghai), but where I don’t feel like I’m actually in danger by being there!
You can read more about Northern China’s pollution woes here
But the pollution isn’t the only part of Beijing to leave a bad taste in my mouth (so to speak). Dave and I felt like targets from the moment we left the airport. Everybody wanted our money. Everybody EXPECTED our money. From the moment you step out of the airplane, you are a target…and I can’t think of a group worse than the taxi drivers of China…
In western countries, it is expected that the taxi driver use a meter when taking you anywhere. Taxi drivers will still find other ways to rip you off (taking the long way around, for example), but they are still limited by their meter. In many Chinese cities…that isn’t he case.
What’s worse is that people here are so accustomed to this sort of behavior from drivers, that they don’t even question it. Drivers refuse to use their meters and they will not take you unless you agree with their price. Worst of all, most cabbies work for a small number of companies, so they all agree on a minimum price, so no matter which taxi you go to, you are paying AT LEAST double what a metered ride would cost. This is infuriating…especially when there are really no other options at 11pm when you have luggage and have just gotten off a flight.
But taxi drivers are not the only once looking to make a buck off the tourists…
The restaurant business reportedly did well over the National Holiday, and nowhere was that truer than in Beijing. One restaurant was actually handing out 1500rmb bills ($300 Canadian) by charging people ‘per shrimp’ in their food orders. It’s sad that we live in a world where this is common place – tourists all over the world deal with this treatment. It doesn’t only happen in China.
Our personal experience was at a restaurant near the Forbidden Kingdom. We wanted to have Beijing Roast Duck while in the city (it’s hardly a treat for Dave and I…we have a fantastic ‘duck place’ in Winnipeg…) so we ventured out to find somewhere that wasn’t going to overcharge us.
We saw a sign advertising the dish, so we went into the restaurant. It was a bit of a hole in the wall, but we often seek out those restaurants, as they often have the best food in China. We ordered the duck along with a favorite bean dish of ours, and could hear the staff nervously laughing while watching the ‘crazy lao wai’ from their little desk at the other end of the restaurant.
We ate the little bit we could tolerate before asking for the bill…in Chinese. You see, at this point, we hadn’t been given much opportunity to demonstrate that we weren’t their average tourist. We do, in fact, know the difference between real Beijing Roast Duck and the canned, slimy sludge they’d served us…
The staff actually huddled together to see what they could charge us for the meal. I could HEAR them discussing how much to charge us for the meal (the restaurant DID have menus…and we DID check the prices…). When the waiter came over, our conversation went something like this (done completely in Chinese. I am VERY proud).
Marie: Why is our bill so high? Our duck never arrived.
Waiter: Your duck is right here
Marie: THIS is your duck? This is NOT Beijing Roast Duck! Beijing Roast Duck is delicious. This tastes terrible!
Waiter: Well, this is our Roast Duck.
***Moves uncomfortably, shifting his weight from foot to foot***
Marie: Ok, well, even if this IS your duck, our bill should only be 140rmb…why are you asking for 190rmb?
Waiter: Wait one moment please.
***He runs to the back…to speak to a manager, I imagine.
Waiter: The additional charge is because you used our dishes. There is a 50rmb fee for using our plates.
Marie: I’m sorry, but you are a racist.
Waiter: What!? I am not!?
Marie: So, you’re telling me that you would treat a Chinese person this way?
This is the point where Dave wisely gave the man 150rmb and we walked out of the restaurant. We created quite a scene and several customers had quickly paid for their dishes and left. We’d actually even scared some new customers away from eating at the restaurant. I felt good about myself. I also felt angry, so we walked around for a little while longer and then went back and got a picture of the place. I half-hope they saw me take it.
The rest of our time in Beijing was less eventful (thank goodness!). We saw some parks and some old buildings. We really weren’t up for anything overly touristy so we never made it down to the Forbidden City or Summer Palace, but some day we’ll head back down there to see the rest that China’s capital has to offer. Beijing is only 5 hours away by high speed train, so a visit would hardly be difficult to organize.
Our last grand adventure in Beijing was to do some Christmas shopping. We braved this night market and found some goodies for our family and friends back home. Now we are faced with the challenge of finding a post office so that we can ship these gifts! The strangest things are struggles in China…
I’ll be back soon with Part 2 of this post. I’ll be writing about our trip to Hong Kong! (Spoiler: It was fabulous!)