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!

hb_98-8-13_av1
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.

mentalhealth

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.

54ff15ded377f-ghk-scheduling-secrets-02-s2
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.

dadaab-aerial
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.

Lotus and Silk Weaving
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.

121123110824-congo-crowds-fleeing-horizontal-large-gallery
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.

only_in_canada_-_rebuttal_for_refugee_claimants_credit_silvia_daddario_and_students
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…).

IMG_5239
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.

img_7042

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.

img_6979
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.

img_6976
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.

img_6989
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.

img_5134
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.

img_5119

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.

img_5059
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!

IMG_20160430_141645
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!)

IMG_2870
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!

 

IMG_2937

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.

IMG_20160503_222253
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!

mmexport1464055991546

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!

IMG_20160627_224059
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.

IMAG0641
Our couch in Guiyang.  My butt would go numb within about 10 minutes.
IMAG1188
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.

IMG_20160326_153520
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.

IMG_20151002_233739
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…
IMAG1561
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…

IMAG0705

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.

IMG_2886
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?

IMAG1618
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…

IMG_20151123_075944

  • 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.

IMG_7163

  • 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…

IMG_7142

  • 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…
IMG_3064
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.

IMG_2753
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.

IMG_2870
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.

IMAG1651
Throwing rubbish in the drain….no problem.  Cold water….TERRIBLE idea!
IMG_20160306_171256
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!

aid253056-728px-Use-a-Squat-Toilet-Step-7
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!

IMG_20160306_171614
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…

IMG_20160314_200004
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…

IMAG1650
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…
IMG_6347
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.

IMG_20151223_203258
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!

mmexport1451536242847
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!

mmexport1451554750580~3
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!

48b6c401a85592fa25b86ed42e986327
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.

suzhou pollution
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.

IMG_20151226_151641
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.

mmexport1450931986662
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.

IMG_20151225_151113
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.  🙂

IMG_20151225_160538
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!