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!

 

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.

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!)