Skipping Over to Seoul

After my last post, I’m sure many of you are wondering why Dave and I choose to stay in such a polluted country (we both ended up with chest colds after that sandstorm, by the way…). Well, there are plenty of reasons.

  1. The cost of living is low and salaries are high
  2. Suzhou is a gorgeous city where there is lots to see and do
  3. Living in China provides challenges that make life a lot more interesting
  4. Working in China as a teacher, I’m able to make a huge impact. It’s a great feeling
  5. The holidays……3.5 months per year, to be exact….
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China loves its parties!!

In addition to summer holidays, I also get 5 weeks for Spring Festival, a week for National Day and several small holidays throughout the year as well. Tomb Sweeping is a yearly cultural holiday that takes place in March/April. I had 3 days off, so Dave and I decided to hop on over to Seoul.

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Seoul was just of of many options we had for this short little holiday. We also considered Japan and Taiwan, but it came down to flight costs. Even during the holiday, tickets were very reasonable!

It only takes about an hour and a half to fly to Seoul, but when you add in train-rides to Shanghai, plus the drive from Seoul’s airport to downtown, we really didn’t have a whole lot of time to see the sights. Still, we made the most of the 36 hours we had!!!

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Much to Dave’s chagrin, we weren’t able to visit the neutral zone between North and South Korea. Personally, I’d be happy to go my whole life without seeing North Korea…

As always, we found a hotel close to the metro line, and found our way around the city that way. Metros are great because you can get from one end of the city to another in so much less time than it takes to drive. Unfortunately, Metros are also terrible in Asia, because their maps sometimes look like this:

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If I’d been alone, I would have spent about 20 of my 36 hours in Seoul just trying to find my stop. Luckily, Dave is weirdly good at this stuff!

Many people go to Seoul for the shopping or the vibrant night life, but Dave and I aren’t big into either of those things. Instead, we head for Namsan Park and Mountain, where we were able to see Seoul Tower and a beautiful panorama of the city.

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Our view from the cable car

A ‘bonus’ sight Dave and I saw while on Namsan mountain were Seoul’s Love Locks. The idea is simple: if you love someone, get a padlock, engrave your names onto it, lock it to a bridge and throw away the key. This action is suppose to signify that you are bound to a person forever. Of course, 1 or 2 of these locks wouldn’t really be noteworthy, but all around the world, couples are creating mass displays with their ‘love locks’.

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Sweet, right?

Sure, it’s a romantic idea…but it’s also become a bit of a problem in some parts of the world! Paris once had the world’s most famous collection of love locks, but officials had to remove the locks off of Pont de Arts bridge because the weight of them was going to cause the bridge to collapse! The problem was so extreme that the additional weight on the bridge was the equivalent of 20 elephants!

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If you ever see a sign like this, you’ll now understand why

Love Locks have been around for ages, all over the world. They were made most famous in Paris, but their origins trace back to China and Siberia as well. Seoul has quite an impressive display, and officials there were prepared there. They created places for the locks to be placed that were actually designed to hold the weight. The displays were lovely.

I spent quite a bit of time looking at those locks….they were really quite impressive. They seem colourful from afar, but up close, you can see that there are actually quite a few old and rusted locks among the shiny new ones. I guess displays like this don’t happen over night!

When we were done at Namsan, we decided to visit one of Seoul’s many parks. We chose 1 park specifically because of its many Geo Caches. Dave and I each found a couple, and we enjoyed a lovely walk among the budding trees.

There were some interesting sculptures in the park as well.

We spent both our evenings in Seoul enjoying fantastic Korean food! I wouldn’t say South Korea is the best place to visit for vegetarians, but if you like meat, this is the place for you! Meat is grilled fresh right in front of you, and when it’s done, you wrap it in a piece of leaf lettuce, along with Kim Chi and whatever other little dishes they give you. It’s some of the freshest, healthiest tasting food I’ve ever had!

I’m a little sad we didn’t have more time to see some of the rest of South Korea, but I can say without a doubt that Dave and I will be heading back that way again some time soon. Korea is absolutely lovely. The people are friendly and helpful, the service industry is WAY more customer service based than China’s and the city, in general, is very organized!

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Unfortunately, I didn’t take this picture, but I wanted you to see Seoul at its most beautiful and my camera just can’t capture a photo like this!

In fact, I saw something on our last night there that even puts Canada to shame! I noticed a stack of free post cards at our hostel and picked one up. It turns out that the South Korean government provides postage-paid postcards so that visitors can alert officials of any problems they had in the city! A program like that would be INVALUABLE in cities like Shanghai or Beijing, where your first experience is often being ripped off by a taxi driver!

Stay tuned! I’ve got plenty more planned for my next few posts!

Pondering Perspectives

I have always loved being a student. As stressful as it was finishing my degree a few years back, I felt so incredibly motivated while I was at the University of Winnipeg. My major was in English Writing & Literature, but I took classes in Anthropology, Classical History, Drama, Psychology, Astronomy and so much more. These classes taught me about the world, taught me to think and dig for information and most importantly, they taught me that there is always more to learn!

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Classical History, for example, taught me that pottery is actually fascinating (if it was made by the Greeks, anyway!)

There are 2 classes that I feel really changed the way I see the world. The first one was Physiological Psychology. In this class, I learned about the different structures of the brain and what they are responsible for. I also learned what happens when you damage those areas of the brain and I learned a lot about mental illness as a result. Now, 4 years later, a month doesn’t go by when I don’t either think about or discuss things I learned in that class. I finished Physio Psych with the worst grade of my degree, but it was one of the most eye-opening courses I ever took.

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The other class that changed my perspectives was a random elective course I chose to fill out my semester. I literally chose it because it was available in a convenient time slot, but by the time the first lesson was finished, I was hooked and knew I wouldn’t be skipping my Tuesday night 6pm lessons. “Needs of Refugees” was all about refugee crises around the world.

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It looks like I have a 1 hour block free Tuesday afternoons…that can’t be right…oh no wait, I have 3 hours of work to cram in that space!!!

The focus of the class was mostly on the process these people go through to get placement in other countries. I had 2 professors for that class. One of my profs was a woman who had spent months abroad working in refugee camps in Palestine, Kenya and a few others I can no longer remember. The other professor was a Somali man who had fled Mogadishu with his family when he was a child.

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This is DaDaab refugee camp in Kenya. When my prof fled Mogadishu as a child, he was actually separated from his family and captured by rebel soldiers. He was forced to work as a child soldier for 2 years before he was finally able to escape. He fled to DaDaab, where he found the rest of his family. Many years later, he was given a place in Canada, where he has become a productive member of society. His story is not one I will ever be able to forget.

Through this class, I met several refugees, all from different conflicts and different areas of the world. I met a woman who had to flee Iraq because her husband had been arrested and the government was coming after her next so she had to flee with her two teenage sons. I met a woman from Myranmar who had fled years ago, who began her own small weaving business in Winnipeg.

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Burmese weaving is quite the art form!

I also interviewed a man from the Congo. He was angry. He’d been in Canada for more than 10 years when I met him. He’d been struggling for a decade to find a suitable job, but because he’d been living in a refugee camp for the better part of his life, he had little education and few skills. It frustrated him that he had so little opportunities in Canada. Still, at the end of the interview, he took a moment to clarify that although he was angry, he was also grateful. He told me he’d rather have no opportunities in Canada than to wake up to the sound of bombs back in The Congo. He taught me a lesson about gratitude.

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Yeah, Canadian winters don’t seem so bad…

If you have me as a friend on Facebook, you know how I feel about helping Refugees. You also know how I feel about mental illness and trying to fight past the taboos that prevent people from getting help. I didn’t always care about these things. I’m sure that I’ve made thoughtless comments about mental health through the years. I know that there was a point in my life where I never really even thought about what a refugee even was.

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Now I do my best to stop bad information from spreading, and correct that information whenever I can.

But school isn’t the only place where my perspectives have shifted. Travelling has taught me so much about the world. Since moving to Guiyang in 2014, I’ve learned about what it means to be an ethical tourist, I’ve seen real poverty and I’ve spent a great deal of time educating myself about the history of South East Asia and India (something never covered in my high school history courses…).

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Learning about the Khmer Rouge was the first of many eye-opening experiences I’ve had in the past few years.

Of course, being in Vietnam has also given me some new perspectives. I knew about the Vietnam war. I knew about the draft, the protests and I knew about the fight against communism. I had never really considered what all this meant for people on the other side of the ocean though…

Now, I’m not here to say that the Vietnamese didn’t do awful things to American soldiers, but when you see things that that happened to the people here, you can’t help but wonder how Vietnam could have possibly deserved the war crimes they endured during that horrible war. Napalm, agent orange and mass bombing campaigns nearly destroyed the country and even today you can see victims of Agent Orange. The chemical created genetic defects that are still being passed onto the current generation. It’s pretty awful stuff.

It’s easy for people in North America to shrug off the Vietnam war because it was so long ago now, but in Vietnam, the war still affects people. There are still bombs all over the country that never detonated properly during the war. Every year, people lose limbs and lives because of these UXOs.

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We visited the War Remnents museum when we were in Saigon, and learned about the war through pictures as well as through a few displays. Horrible stuff was done here.

We also made a short visit to the Phu Quoc prison, where thousands of enemy soldiers were kept during the war. The first thing both Dave and I noticed was how much the prison looked like a concentration camp.

But Vietnam was not the only country affected by the Vietnam War…

Laos is often forgotten during discussions about that 20 year war. I’ve mentioned in other posts that Laos is the most bombed country in the world. We learned more about what that actually means at the UXO museum in Luang Prabang.

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A map showing the most heavily bombed areas of Laos

America dropped 260 million cluster bombs on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions. This is equivalent to a planeload of bombs being unloaded every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. There are still 78 million bombs in Laos, that need to be detonated, and as you can imagine, this caused a lot of problems from this developing nation.

The UXO museum was quite an experience…In addition to having a wide variety of bombs on display, there were a few videos to watch and lots of information of how the UXOs still affect Laos today.

I guess what I’m getting at with all of this is that there’s always more to know. There’s so much happening all over the world right now…I feel like the best thing any of us can do is to educate ourselves. After all, how can you really have an opinion about things when you only ever hear 1/2 of the story.

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The number of people injured and killed by bombs just in Luang Prabang’s province every year

I know that when I have kids, I will encourage them to travel. You can learn about so much more than food and temples when you’re in another country.

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You can also learn a real sense of gratitude when you see these things. Parents have so much less to worry about in North America…

So there you have it…those are my two cents.

Next, I’ll be writing about our week on the island of Phu Quoc! Stay tuned!!!

Initial Impressions

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.

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A small and popular restaurant in the Old Quarter

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.

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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.

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So different from China’s Skyscrapers

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.

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.

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.

An Update on Life in Suzhou (Part 1)

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

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

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

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A sneak-peek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, You’re Moving to China…(Part 2)

As promised, I am back with part 2 of my post!
5. Kiss Comfort Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Bad…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Final Tips for your Time in China

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

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

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

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

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!!!

Back in Suzhou

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!!!).

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.

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.

I hope you enjoy reading about these adventures as much as I’ve enjoyed documenting them through both writing and photography.

圣诞快乐和新年快乐!(Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!)

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 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.

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One of the dearest friends I’ve made in Suzhou:  Alecia.  She teaches Spanish at the school (she’s from Spain).

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 🙂

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!

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We look far more professional than we actually were!

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!

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Nathan and I with all of the IGCSE students!  It’s unfortunate that none of the other IG teachers could make it to the event (they all work in multiple departments and couldn’t get their classes changed).  I’m glad I was able to attend, though!

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 🙂

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.

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!

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This is basically Jeff

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.

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The first of these pictures was taken over the summer, when the pollution was very low.  The second was taken when it was at it’s worst.  We base the air quality each day on whether or not we can see the ‘Pants Building from our apartment.

 

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.

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Our Sweet Poe

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.

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.

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She really is my little sunshine!

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.

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Visiting her at the vet

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.

 

So I guess our Christmas story had a happy ending.  🙂

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The best present I got this Christmas was to have Poe back home safe and sound, but I did score some other shwag as well!  The beautiful wallet and book were from Dave (he also got wii controls so we can play on his computer) and the painting is an original from my boss, Nathan, who is quite a talented artist!  I also received a lot of chocolate and other goodies from my students.  The cat key chain was given to me by Ken…one of the coolest 13 year olds I’ve ever met.  My whole class was worried sick about Poe.  It was very sweet that they cared so much!

I’ll be back soon with some stories about Hong Kong!

 

 

Hitting the Ground Running: Part 1

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.

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See how happy we are!  It’s ridiculous! :p

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.

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In Guiyang I sort of felt like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole…

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.

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After receiving countless flyers from several gyms in the area, we decided on the one that had English on the cover

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.

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!!

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!

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A fairly good depiction of how Chinese Visa requirements can feel.

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.

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Me doing my practicum class. We visited a local university which was sort of fun
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My graduating class.  I met some swell people here 🙂

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.

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We didn’t actually eat here…but it just sounded SO American!
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We DID eat here! We were craving Guiyang food far more than we were craving western food!

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.

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.

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…

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!

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Though, we did meet several nice cats!

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!

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As the weather gets colder, the pollution in northern China becomes so bad that school is actually cancelled. It wasn’t this bad when we were there, but at the moment, it’s worse than it’s ever been. And on an interesting note…filtration system advertisements keep showing up on my facebook feed…

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…

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Although there are so many ways to be ripped off when you’re traveling, it’s difficult to choose just one…

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.

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Dave trying to stay optimistic, while I get ready to slug a cabbie for being rude to me…

But taxi drivers are not the only once looking to make a buck off the tourists…

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This restaurant was so awful I actually ran back over here after I had time to calm down, so that I could take a picture to warn future tourists. Unfortunately, this is what nearly every restaurant in China looks like…

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.

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It’s even been known to happen in Antarctica!

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.

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This is what Peking Duck is suppose to look like

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.

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When they served us this canned, slimy, salty duck on a plate…I almost screamed. That’s when we realized that they weren’t laughing because they were nervous at our ‘whiteness’. They were laughing because we were being taken for a ride…

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.

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I should also add that this restaurant had a picture of legitimate Beijing Duck on their sign and that they shouted ‘we have Beijing Duck’ at us when we walked by. So I think it’s safe to say that this is an ongoing scam these people run…

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.

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BeiHai Park is definitely worth the visit if you are in Beijing. The willows and the old architecture make for a nice walk in a fairly quiet space. The park is also home to many ‘wild’ cats (probably to keep insect and rodent populations down). I say ‘wild’ because they are all super friendly and nearly all were happy to be pet.
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You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to get this shot! It’s nearly impossible to take a picture without tourists in it!
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I love Chinese architecture
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Dave and I in front of a very impressive carved mural

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My love for Suzhou is showing through in other areas of my life. I am now obsessed with archways.

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…

IMG_6911I’ll be back soon with Part 2 of this post.  I’ll be writing about our trip to Hong Kong!  (Spoiler:  It was fabulous!)

 

 

Beginning our new life in Suzhou

Another Starbucks, another city.  We are spending the last day of our holiday in Beijing working, as is often the case with Dave and I.  It helps that we both love our jobs and don’t usually see these kinds of things as really being ‘work’.  Now that I’ve finished my Power Point presentation on writing summaries (riveting stuff…), I can spare some time to blog!

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This fine gentleman took a 3 hour nap (I kid you not!) while Dave and I worked today….yes…this is at Starbucks. And no, he did not order anything from Starbucks…

It’s now been 41 day since we left Canada and head back to Eastern home.  Suzhou has been welcoming and beautiful and there is so much to tell you all about this new city.  So, even though I am itching to write about our trip to the Great Wall, I want to finish writing our time adjusting to life in Suzhou first.  Plus, putting off writing about the Great Wall means I have awesome material to look forward to (and hopefully that will entice me to writing again soon!)

Spoiler Alert! The Great Wall is bloody incredible!!!!
Spoiler Alert! The Great Wall is bloody incredible!!!!

After moving into our apartment, the next step to getting settled into Suzhou was to start work.  For those of you who are new to my blog, or are foggy on the details, here’s a recap regarding the school….

I originally took the position expecting to teach Drama and English, but that quickly changed (things change a lot in China…you come to expect it).  The IGCSE program that is taught at Suzhou Foreign Language School is a pretty big deal.  It basically means that students who graduate from our school, graduate with a bilingual diploma, which is a huge help when it comes to applying to western Universities (IGCSE is an ESL program through Cambridge University).  So, because this program is so important to the school, they didn’t want a brand new teacher teaching too many of those courses.  Some people would have been hurt by the insinuation that they are not ‘good’ enough to teach English, but I saw it as a plus.  Any school that wants to put the RIGHT teachers in place for the important classes is alright with me!  It showed that they are concerned with the quality of education their students receive, and that is exactly the type of school I want to work for.

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My boss used the projector to paint a map on the staff room wall….with the flag of each country in that country’s space…he did all of this in a single afternoon….
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I work for a school where the teachers care so much about the way that our staff room is perceived, that they spend the day making something as awesome as this map. He’s still not quite done…because he’s like the busiest guy in the universe…but I’m still blown away by the effort he and the Chinese staff put into this project

I was able to keep my Drama classes, which I was very happy about, but my English classes were replaced with Food and Nutrition classes; basically I’m teaching Home Economics.  The beautiful thing about both these programs is that I can custom make all of my classes.  There is a basic syllabus that I need to follow, but really…at the end of the day…it’s up to me to decide what I teach and how I teach it.  Once more…some teachers may not be thrilled with this sort of set up, but for me…this is heaven!!

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Another fun fact about the school where I work….they teach several languages at the school, including French, German, Spanish, Arabic and Japanese. Their aim is to teach all of the languages of the UN.

My creative side kicked into full gear and I began brainstorming ideas for both my courses while I was still in Guiyang.  For Drama, we are starting with a play called “Meet the Ancient Greeks”.  It’s set on Mount Olympus and all the Greek gods are fighting over who was the worst of them.  While I teach the students about acting (something I’m actually pretty good at myself…who knew???), I also teach them about pronunciation, confidence, voice projection, body language and emphasis.  They learn a tonne and it doesn’t even feel like learning to them!  Plus, because of my background as an ESL teacher, I use the plays to teach the students lots of new words.  And because of my background in Classical history (my minor in University), I’m also teaching them about ancient Greek culture while I’m at it.

So.  Much.  Fun!!!

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My Elite Boys 1 class practicing the first bit of the play. These guys are AWESOME!!! They get SO into the roles!!! They have me in stitches every class!
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One of my students, Colt, wrote this on the Smart Board before I got to class. Needless to say, it made my day! (and yes…I have Smart Boards in my classrooms!!!)

I decided to take a fresh approach with the Food and Nutrition classes, and have turned it into a bit of a ‘culture course’.  I’ve been teaching the students about different countries and then I teach them how to make food from those countries.  So far we’ve only been to the kitchen once, but the students were all very pleased with their Mexican taco dip 🙂

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This is my middle school class. It’s a mix of boys and girls, which is nice, because most of the classes I teach are gender specific.
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These are my Grade 7 Elite Girls. The girl who is second from the left is named Hani….she is SUCH a character. I also teach her Drama and when I told her off last week for talking while I was trying to explain something, she went into a big soliloquy about how I am the most beautiful and kind of all the drama teachers in the land. Once more……So. Much. Fun!!!
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One of the groups’ dip when they were done. My budget didn’t allow for cheese or meat on all of them, so I had to pick and choose which students got what. Not bad for a first try!!!

The teachers and students are all fantastic at SFLS, and although I’ve had a few small issues with the payroll office (that were promptly sorted out), the administration has also been a dream.  Last year, I was walking on eggshells at about this time, scared to say anything to anyone for fear of being taken aside for a ‘talk’.  This year, I was greeted at the gate by the principal of the school on Teacher’s day, with a box of mango milk and a flower.  I also received a small crate of Chinese dates (which are delish!) and countless other flowers and chocolates from my students…who I’d only been teaching for 2 weeks at that point!!!

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I’d already received this and I took the picture at 8:30am…..by the end of the day, I had to leave some of it at the school because I just couldn’t bring it all home!!  ***Note that the flag in this picture is not on my desk.  It is on my neighbor’s.  I’ve already received some flack for not representing Canada in the office from some family members…but trust me….I represent in my own way!  I get razzed for every ‘eh’, ‘aboot’ and ‘toque’ that I say….

The school is not the only thing that has been great since we got here either!  Suzhou, as a whole, is a fantastic city!  Unlike Guiyang, where I really disliked the spitting, the littering and the smoking…Suzhou is spotless!  Very few people spit, smoking is prohibited in many public areas and people actually put their trash in the trash can!  Although the air is a little more polluted that Guiyang (because Suzhou is so close to Shanghai), it’s so much more comfortable of a place to be!

And the gardens!!!….

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This is just one of Suzhou’s many gardens. A friend of mine referred to Suzhou as ‘the secret garden’ when I showed her pictures of the city a few years ago (we had been interested in living here for a while). I think she gave it the perfect nickname.

Dave and I arrived back in China just in time for a holiday!  This year marked 70 years since the Chinese victory over Japan in the Second World War.  It was celebrated across the country and everyone was given a long weekend.  Dave and I spent those days familiarizing ourselves with Suzhou.  We visited one of the lesser known gardens here (one we’d happened to stumble upon when we were still staying in a hotel).

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The circular doorways add such a beautiful touch to the already beautiful greenery
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The pathways are bordered by benches, where you often see the elderly enjoying some time in the relaxing atmosphere
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I love how the doorways open up to whole new areas of the garden…
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The girl in the blue dress (on the right side of the picture) crossed over that stone bridge. I waited there for ages to get a picture but when she’d finally finished crossing, she just stood there for a while afterwards, looking at her phone…. So, here she is in my picture; a testament to my inability to wait.

The city outside of these gardens is also very nice.  We’ve spent countless hours walking around the different areas of the city, enjoying the scenery along the canals and trying new restaurants.  Times Square is one of my favorite places to take a stroll.  I love walking near water and there are a lot of really great restaurants in the area.

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I love this picture. We both look so happy 🙂
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There is a ceiling above the boardwalk at Times Square that lights up at night with a show. When we walked by a few weeks ago, it had aliens staring down at us!!
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Times Square also has a tonne of western brand stores. Papa John’s Pizza, Toys R Us and a Crocs store are just a few!

I think my favorite part of the city (so far) has been ShanTang street.  There are countless shops that sell all sorts of souvenirs and traditional Suzhou items.  It’s along the canal, and you can even take boat rides around to see the old architecture, which is especially beautiful at night.   We never had a chance to go the last time we were there, but this is where I’m planning on doing a lot of my Christmas shopping, so I know there will be other opportunities 🙂

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The crowds can be a little overwhelming, but this was nothing compared to the Shanghai metro experiences we had….but I’ll have more on that in future posts!
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I love, love, LOVE the canals in Suzhou!
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We bought this print on ShanTang street for only around $15 Canadian. I feel like it was worth more than that (just the frame would cost that much in Canada!). It was the first thing we really bought for the apartment (aside from toilet paper! haha!) and we hung it proudly on the wall by our water cooler as soon as we got home from our shopping adventure

I don’t consider myself a superstitious person and I believe that we are responsible for making our own fate, but still, I can’t help but feel like I’m exactly where I’m suppose to be right now.  Suzhou fits like a glove and it became home  to us more quickly than I really imagined possible.  Maybe I’m still a little shell shocked from everything I went through last year, but I am honestly still overjoyed at how smoothly everything has been going over the last 41 days.  Life…in short…is good.

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A Roots store in Times Square
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Cooking a spectacular dinner in our clean and usable kitchen…..what more could I possibly need?