So, You’re Visiting Suzhou

We fell in love with Suzhou before we’d even moved to China.  I did a quick search on the internet for the most livable cities in China, and Suzhou was near the top of the list.  From that google search on, I always knew I wanted to live here.  Although it didn’t work out for our first year in China, with 2 years of teaching experience under my belt, it wasn’t a problem to find a job here for year 2.

Living in SIP, we are surrounded by expats, western food, western bars and English.  It couldn’t be more comfortable for us and I sometimes forget that we’re living in China. But Suzhou isn’t only good as a place to live and work.  There’s plenty to see here as well, and although tourism isn’t as high as it is in cities like Guilin, you’d have no problem filling a week in Asia’s Venice.

Watertowns

Where Guiyang has minority villages, Suzhou has Water Towns.  Water Towns are built along the canals and are a peaceful retreat into ancient China.  They can be a little over crowded during holidays and weekends, but if you can escape to one during the week, they are a lovely experience.  You can get traditional minority candies and food and there are always plenty of little restaurants where you can stop for some food.  Water Towns are also nice for shopping and it isn’t difficult to find a shop that sells scarves and other traditional Chinese gifts.

Shantang Road and Pingjiang Road

There is no shortage of places to shop in Suzhou.  Shantang Road ad Pingjiang Road are both ancient shopping streets where you can find any Chinese souvenir you desire.  They’re also great places to grab a beer, hop on a boat and eat some local food.  My favourite pass-time on Shangtang Road (we haven’t actually visited Pingjiang yet) is taking pictures.  These roads are beautifully picturesque and no matter which time of day you visit, there are endless photo ops.

Although Dave hates shopping and crowds, even he is impressed by some of the craftsmanship you can find on Shantang Road.  Jade carvings, paintings and wood art is easy to find along the street.  Not only are these things beautiful to look at, but they give you an (air conditioned) escape from the crowds when they get to be too much!

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An elaborate stone carving.  It cost over 10,000 rmb and I had to pry Dave away from the window he was so impressed by the work.

Parks

What drew me to Suzhou happens to still be my favourite part of living in this city.  Suzhou has the most beautiful parks I’ve ever seen in my life.  They are a mixture of old and new, with old style buildings and carefully trimmed trees.  In some of the more famous parks, the crowds can be a problem, but if you go to some of the smaller parks, they are peaceful and refreshingly quiet.

Circular doorways are abundant in Suzhou Parks and I never grow tired of taking photos of them.  Most of the parks we’ve visited have also had rock formations that make mini caves.  There are dozens of parks in Suzhou and so far I’ve only seen 3 or 4, but each has been impressive in its own way.

And if you’ve read any of my other posts, you know that I consider it a game to find all the crazy translations each park has to offer.  Here are some from Lingering Garden

There are really 2 types of parks in China.  There are the walled off ‘old style’ parks that are a step into ancient China…and then there are modern parks that are free and open, similar to the ones we have out West.  I don’t often go to those parks, but we had one particularly beautiful weekend back in May where Dave and I, and our friend Michael, spent several hours chatting and walking around Central Park.  I ended up with a pretty impressive sunburn, but it was worth the peaceful afternoon.

If you’re lucky, you may even spot some wildlife in Central Park!  We saw this little guy from across the pond…a testament to the zoom on my camera!

All the Other Cool Stuff

Although we’ve been here nearly a year now, I still haven’t had the chance to make it to some of Suzhou’s most famous landmarks.  Tiger Hill is somewhere I was hoping to go this week, but my leg is still very swollen so I haven’t been able to.  There is a pagoda there that leans that is pretty cool to see.

A smaller and lesser know destination I HAVE visited is Suzhou’s city wall.  It’s located at the Xiangmen metro stop on line 1 and although it isn’t the kind of thing that would take up an afternoon, it’s a nice place to stop during sunset  or at night, when the area is all lit up.

So there you have it.  These are some of my favorite places to visit in Suzhou.  This list will continue growing the longer we live here, but I think this is a pretty good start!

In my next post, I’ll be writing more about SIP, the area where Dave and I live.

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?