When Culture Stops Being an Excuse

I love my life in Suzhou. I’ve made some incredible friends and adopted some awesome cats. I’m working at a great school in a well-run department where I am respected and valued. I have opportunity for growth here in Suzhou, both professionally and personally and I’ve even been able to focus more on my health here, going to the gym and being more careful with my diet. I’ll be 30 soon and I need to stay healthy so that my 30s are as rockin’ as my 20s were. Still, today I’m not feeling much love for the Venice of Asia. Perhaps it’s the smoggy weather or maybe I didn’t sleep very, but China is getting on my nerves today!

This morning Dave and I met a friend for breakfast, and as is often the case with Michael, we got into a discussion about what it’s like living in China. Michael’s still on his first year here and he is still noticing some of the things that Dave and I have learned to ignore and his perspective on life here always reminds me of the things that foreigners live with on a day to day basis out here in the orient.

culture shock
A Frequent theme in my blog

And all things considered, there really isn’t very much that we need to worry about. China is safe and the people here are kind and friendly, the countryside in this country is diverse and stunningly beautiful and the expat community is quite large so it’s easy to make friends in Suzhou. But, as is the case anywhere, China (and Suzhou) has its problems…

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I’ve been going to the gym. I’ve been pretty good about going 3 days per week and although I haven’t lost much in the way of weight (I think I’m building muscle), I’m becoming noticeably more toned and I’ve been slimming down. I’m very proud of the way I’ve been looking lately and I feel good about doing something positive for a body that has treated me pretty well so far in my 29 years. But I’ve gotta say…as much as I love working out and feeling energized, it is EXTREMELY difficult to love Chinese gyms!! Where should I start?.

 

Screen-Shot-2013-12-21-at-6.58.49-AM
I discovered, while writing this blog post, that Powerhouse is a chain outside of just China.

The Equipment: Although there are about 20 treadmills at Power House, they only have 6 eliptical machines, 1 stair master, 10 bikes and some weight side to side machines that kind of make you feel like you’re skating. Now, I have no problems with the treadmills…there are more than enough and they are in good shape…but I also don’t use treadmills very often because they kill my knees. So that leaves 20 cardio machines that I CAN use…except 8 or 9 of them are almost always broken. The ones that AREN’T broken are such poor quality that they always feel like they’re about to fall apart underneath you. Out of all the elliptical machines, only 1 of them accurately tracks distance and calories…1!!! It’s the same with the weights and the resistance machines. Many of them are missing pins so you can’t adjust the resistance without first hunting down a pin from some other machine. Plus, nobody puts their equipment away after they use them, so there are random weights just hanging around on the floor…a little bit dangerous…

Sanitation: This is a big one. There are no towels or spray bottles anywhere at Power House so people don’t clean their equipment like they do in Canada. I can’t tell you how often I get onto an elliptical and realize that the handles are covered in someone else’s sticky sweat. I bring my Norwex towel with me to help with that kind of thing, but it’s still pretty gross. The bathrooms are also pretty dirty. People don’t flush their dirty toilet paper in China (something about the sewage systems not being able to handle it), so the garbage cans are full of that dirty toilet paper. It smells awful and the cans get emptied so rarely that the entire hallway around the bathrooms and change rooms stinks like urine.   Not pleasant…

SquatToilet
The biggest problem with squatters themselves is that it’s sometimes hard to control where your pee ends up….so most of the time, it ends up on (at least) the bottom of your shoes, and you end up tracking it out of the bathroom…

The People: This is the worst part of going to the gym. I can’t even tell you how many times I haven’t been able to finish my work out because someone is sitting on a machine I need, texting or checking their WeChat accounts…it’s infuriating but I often feel like I’m the only person who cares. This kind of thing was especially bad in January and February, when all the New Years resolution memberships started up. Girls (the worst offenders) would hop on a treadmill and spend 10-15 minutes going back and forth between stretching (on the machine!!) and taking selfies to post on WeChat. This isn’t a huge gym, and while there are plenty of treadmills, that can’t be said about any other machine in the building. Yesterday I gave up after waiting 5 minutes for a guy to get off the crunch machine I wanted to use to target my upper abs. And that one elliptical machine that works…the one I mentioned before…people hog that machine for 50+ minutes…some of them hardly even breaking a sweat they are going so slowly because they are too busy enjoying their favourite TV show on their cell phones.

mmexport1457350766301
And most of the time, people aren’t just taking short breaks between sets…they literally use the equipment like public benches…

And this is where the title of this post comes in…a lot of these problems are annoying but forgivable. After all, I know my standards are high…I’m lucky and I was born in a wealthy country where I have the luxury of having problems as shallow as ‘not having cold enough water’. I also know that the sewage issues in China are complicated and that not everywhere in the world is as sterile as North America (it’s weird coming home for visits by the way…everything feels too clean…the whole country feels like a hospital).  There are absolutely things that can be explained by pointing out cultural differences…and foreigners who have been here for a while are always quick to point out that you’re being judgmental for getting upset about some of the things we deal with here in China.  I always feel bad when someone says that to me, because I try very hard to be understanding of cultural differences…

queueimage
A picture depicting the difference between line ups in North America, vs the way it’s done in China…I even learned to embrace this in Guiyang and Xiamen (it’s not to bad in Suzhou).  I put aside my Canadian upbringing and learned to push my way to the front, just like everyone else…

But this morning, when we were having breakfast with Michael, he said something that really rang true with me during my work out today: When can we stop pretending that EVERYTHING is about culture? How many things can we blame on cultural differences, really?? When does Culture become an excuse?

 

IMG_20160306_171256
The Chinese think that drinking cold water is bad for your stomach…so even at the gym, you can only find hot water, or room temperature.  At Power House, one of the options is suppose to be cold, but it comes out warm enough to steam up my bottle, sooo…

I don’t think that the selfie taking at the gym is forgivable just because I’m in China and “things are different here”. I also don’t think people have to leave their equipment all over the place for others to trip on. And I definitely don’t think that a gym like Power House, who claims to be the ‘western gym’ and charges western prices, has any excuses as far as buying terrible equipment is concerned. None of these things are cultural…they’re just people being inconsiderate of others. And maybe it’s my Canadian background…maybe it’s just my upbringing…but I really have very little patience for inconsiderate people. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone just paid attention to other people’s needs and tried to be more aware of the world around them?

IMG_20160307_160438
Another example of this behaviour..some one took off with the school kitchen’s mop over the holiday.  There was a water issue in the kitchen and the only way I could get the water out of the mop they left behind, was to take it outside and step on the mop to get the water out…People take things from that kitchen all the time and leave messes as well.  I don’t know if they just don’t realize that SOMEONE has to clean it (that someone being me), or if they just straight up don’t care…

So those are my thoughts today. Living overseas can be very hard some days, and although it’s gotten ions easier for me since moving to Suzhou, there are still thing here that tick me off. I guess I still have not succeeded in becoming the Super Wizard that I long to be… a Super Wizard who is annoyed by nothing and can aparate to Canada any time she wants to go to the gym or meet her gorgeous new nephew, Zachary.

IMG_20160306_224714
Thank goodness I have these 3 to keep me sane!

There’s still more about India on its way! Thanks for checking in!!!

Culture in the Capital

Our second day in New Delhi was one of cultural discovery.  The day began with some very heavy smog, but that cleared up in the afternoon, so we considered ourselves grateful.  We also didn’t spend the first few hours of the day in a tuk tuk (which are open and very windy), so we were able to watch the city fly by fro the comfort of our hired car instead of huddling together for warmth.

After visiting this beautiful UNESCO world heritage site, we were brought to some shops where retailers tried to sell us Pashminas, paintings and Saris.  I left with a Kashmir scarf and some tea, which didn’t leave the salesman very happy, but I felt pretty good about my purchases!

After a tasty Indian lunch, our driver took us to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial.  There, we learned about this national hero’s life and death, and visited the place where he was assassinatedIndian.  The country owes a lot to Gandhi, and it’s apparent from the time you enter the country.  His face is printed on all of their money and many buildings are named after the man.

20160122175613
Where Gandhi was killed

Our final stop was at the National Museum, where we were able to see art that dated back to 3000BCE!  Having studied classical history in University, I was so excited to see some of the artwork, pottery, jewellery and weapons that have been found across India.  The artifacts provide crucial clues regarding the lives of our ancestors and without them we would know very little about the people who lived before written records were kept.  Through studying classical Greek history at the University of Winnipeg, I learned that what may seem like a pot to you, can actually tell an archaeologist a lot about the people who made it.

Tomorrow we head to Agra, the home of the famous Taj Mahal!!!  I can’t wait to tell you all about it!

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.

IMG_7103
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.

Square-Peg-Round-Hole
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.

IMG_20151206_171931
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!

1
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.

mmexport1442928872782
Me doing my practicum class. We visited a local university which was sort of fun
mmexport1442912906569
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.

IMG_20150917_200104
We didn’t actually eat here…but it just sounded SO American!
IMG_20150917_200113
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!

IMG_6842
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!

130830140347-beijing-clean-air-before-after-horizontal-large-gallery
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…

Tourist sucker hall of fame
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.

'Nonsense dear, what do we want with a taxi? The walk will do us good.'
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…

IMG_6916
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.

penguin_cartoon
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.

0013729e78490fa4b6821f
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.

canned-duck-3
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.

IMG_6916
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.

IMG_6868
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.
IMG_6877
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!
IMG_6881
I love Chinese architecture
IMG_6859
Dave and I in front of a very impressive carved mural

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_6848
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!)