The Life of an Expat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saying Goodbye to Students

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

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

Expat Friendships

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Home Dilemma’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always Missing Somewhere or Someone

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

It isn’t All Bad

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

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

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

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

Culture Shock: An Experience of Growth

After spending the last hour or so organizing our Christmas presents for loved ones back home, it’s time to sit down and visit my good old neglected blog.  I’ve been wanting to write all week, but I always try to write when I’m feeling positive.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been feeling too positive as of late.  But thinking about it today, I realized that my blog is suppose to be story about Adventure and Growth.  And maybe some of my readers would like to hear about the bumps we’ve had during our first 3 months in Guiyang.

I think this picture shows it best.  Adjusting to a new culture is such a crazy mix of emotions!!
I think this picture shows it best. Adjusting to a new culture is such a crazy mix of emotions!!

Culture shock can be rough.  According to the text books, the worst stage is when the honeymoon is over, usually around the 3rd month.  Things aren’t exciting anymore, and although your routine keeps you sane, you sort of resent the routine because it means the adventure is over (well, on the surface anyway).  Around month three, you begin to notice the little things that annoy you about the new culture you find yourself in.

Like rat poop...in your desk and on the school's bookshelves.  That's getting REALLY annoying...
Like rat poop…in your desk and on the school’s bookshelves. That’s getting REALLY annoying…

Aside from the small annoyances I’ve been feeling, I’ve been missing certain things from home too.  Some days I just want to hop on a plane and go hug my nieces.  Some days I want to close my eyes and wake up with Hobbes wrapped around my head.  I miss his purr.  Most days though, it’s the little things I miss.  A comfortable place to read, a soft bed with soft sheets, good hairspray…

Our couch.  This is an improvement from the couch in the old apartment, which had no cushions.  The back isn't angled at all, and the cushions don't really help much, so 20 minutes after sitting down, your bum is completely numb.  I miss comfort
Our couch. This is an improvement from the couch in the old apartment, which had no cushions. The back isn’t angled at all, and the cushions don’t really help much, so 20 minutes after sitting down, your bum is completely numb. I miss comfort

What’s made my last month difficult though, isn’t the culture shock or home sickness.  These are things I expected.  I knew that I ‘d get sick of hearing people spit.  I knew that the beds were hard, and I cherished my last nights in Canada accordingly.  I even knew that Skype could never replace a hug from Ellie, or seeing Addyson crawl towards me the first time.  What’s made it difficult is the amount of negativity I’m surrounded by at work.

The school where I work has a lot of great things going for it.  I work with some REALLY awesome people.  The visa process was also done properly and the owner here takes great pride in her 100% legit team of teachers.  Last month, 19 Lao Wei were deported for having the wrong visas in Guiyang, so to work for a company where those legalities are taken seriously is a HUGE win for any teacher.

The foreign staff at Interlingua :)
The foreign staff at the school where I work
Lexie and I hiding behind a counter at the Halloween party.  We stayed hidden and jumped out at the kids as they entered the cafeteria :)
Lexie and I hiding behind a counter at the Halloween party. We stayed hidden and jumped out at the kids as they entered the cafeteria 🙂
My wonderful TA Talia and I.  She is really great.  I never need to ask for things twice and she's always there when I need someone to translate for a parent.  She's also super sweet and so nice to my students :)
My wonderful TA Talia and I. She is really great. I never need to ask for things twice and she’s always there when I need someone to translate for a parent. She’s also super sweet and so nice to my students 🙂

But Z Visas and great coworkers aren’t always enough.  When your work atmosphere is a negative one, it can be hard to overcome that negativity, no matter how hard you try.  When you are overseas, missing your nieces and worrying about a friend’s health, that negativity is magnified a hundred fold.  When you do your very best, coming in early to make sure the Halloween party is a success and staying late so that each of your students’ parents feel heard, you expect a certain degree of gratitude from your boss. But in China, that’s not how things are always run.

One of the haunted houses I came in to finish on my day off.  I can't complain too much, seeing as how I love arts and crafts :)
One of the haunted houses I came in to finish on my day off. I can’t complain too much, seeing as how I love arts and crafts 🙂

China is all about ‘saving face’.  When I got a flat tire on the scooter, and the thing fell over as I tried to get it to a fence where I could lock it up, nobody  helped me.  This wasn’t  because they were mean people.  This was because they didn’t want me to ‘lose face’.  Similarly, tipping isn’t a norm in China.  To tip a waitress implies that the owner of the restaurant doesn’t pay him/her enough.  This makes the owner ‘lose face’.  This is also why verbal appreciation doesn’t come naturally to many people in China.  Your paycheck is the ‘thank you’ you receive for doing your job.  Anything more than that is to imply that you NEED your staff, which means you aren’t in control of your business.  This makes the owner lose face.  I think a lot of the negativity where I work is due to that culture norm.

Apologies are hard to come by here...
Apologies are hard to come by here…

But there’s more to it than just that.  If I simply not being thanked for going above and beyond, I wouldn’t be struggling like I am.  I work for a Chinese woman.  It’s harder for women to ‘make it’ here, in the business world.  The culture is very sexist and women here are basically dolls; they wear high heals and are always dressed to the nines.  A teacher who used to work at the school summed up China with the 3 Hs:  Honks, Horks and Heels.  The men in China are a whole different story though.  There is a very clear difference in expectations where the sexes are concerned.  Women are dolls.  Period.  They aren’t suppose to be much more than that…

Even Police Women wear skirts!  Appearance here is so important for women, that I worked with a girl who had been rejected from a Chinese airline when she applied for a job as a flight attendant.  The reason: her ears stick out too far from her head.
Even Police Women wear skirts! Appearance here is so important for women, that I worked with a girl who had been rejected from a Chinese airline when she applied for a job as a flight attendant. The reason: her ears stick out too far from her head.

So for my boss to have made it to where she has, running a VERY successful English School, I know that she’s had to work HARD!  I respect that about her, I really do.  But her success also means that she has to be taken seriously ALL THE TIME.    Even in Canada this is still a bit of an issue.  My 5 years as a retail manager taught me that women are not treated the same way that men are.  My boss didn’t shake my hand, like he shook the boys’.  He’d go in for a hug…and I am NOT a hugger.  I had to be better than the boys to be noticed, and my boss has to deal with that same sexism in a country where equality is even more of an issue.

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Rule with an iron fist, ladies…

So when someone at work steps out of line, or doesn’t do what they’re suppose to do, I know that my boss has to yell louder to be heard.  I know that she thinks that the only way she can be taken seriously, is to be serious all the time.  This creates a very negative atmosphere.  To only ever hear the bad (because saying the good can mean losing face) and to be jumped on for every small misdemeanor (even the ones you didn’t realize were a faux pas until it was too late…) becomes exhausting.  Add the fact that the honeymoon phase is over, and it’s a pretty raw deal.

I'm sure not...
I’m sure not…

So why don’t I just pack up and move home, you might ask?  Well, there are two reasons.

#1

I am able to recognize that many of these issues I’m having at work are due to cultural differences.  I recognize that my boss isn’t  just a bad person.  So much gets lost in translation here, and so many other things get mixed up because we have different expectations of what the boss/employee relationship is suppose to be.  At the end of the day though, KNOWING THIS is what gets me through.

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To help you understand my second reason, I need to tell a little back story here…

In 2006, when I left Xiamen, it wasn’t on my own terms.  I was working for a school where the visas were not legit, and I was caught working with that bad visa.  After 5 days at the immigration bureau, signing papers and answering questions in an interrogation room, I was handed back my passport with a big red stamp across my visa: REQUESTED TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY WITHIN 5 DAYS.  It was heartbreaking.  I was kicked out of a country that I’d learned to love so much.

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When I returned home, my family and friends couldn’t understand why I missed China so much, after I’d been treated so badly here.  People couldn’t see why I’d want to return to the cockroaches and language barriers and uncomfortable beds.  But the thing is…once you’re back home for good…you miss everything about your life overseas; cockroaches, deportation and all!

Knowing that one day I’m going to miss every moment of this helps a lot.  In a few years, I’m going to look back at my time in Guiyang and see how these bad days shaped me into the person I’m going to become.  We’re all growing after all…we’re all becoming new versions of ourselves.  My most important goal in life is to make sure that my next ‘version’ is an upgrade from the last.

Marie V.28.4 - The 'in control' edition
Marie V.28.4 – The ‘in control’ edition

So I’ll take these experiences in stride.  Hopefully, the school will begin to see me for the teacher that I am: a hard working, caring and dedicated educator who wants what’s best for her students above all else.  And if that doesn’t happen, well, I’m all about growth and moving forward.  The best thing about Marie V.28.4 is that she’s been in these situations before.  My experience and my determination will get me through any rough patch that shows its ugly face 🙂

I got this tattoo as a grad gift to myself.  In spite of how terribly painful it was to have done, I love what it means to me.  Grow, no matter what is trying to keep you down.  Oh and of course, I'm a musical junkie :)
I got this tattoo as a grad gift to myself. In spite of how terribly painful it was to have done, I love what it means to me. Grow, no matter what is trying to keep you down. Oh and of course, I’m a musical junkie 🙂

I haven’t forgotten to write about my last few days of holidays!  They’ll be coming soon, I promise!