A Travellerspoint blog

Xīnnián kuàilè! 新年快乐! HAPPY NEW YEAR!

For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice. - T.S. Eliot

overcast 6 °C

I woke up this morning with the sound of what I thought was last night's fireworks still ringing in my ears. At first, I was overcome with concern that I was going to have to resort to VanGogh-like measures until a moment later when I was relieved to find that the perpetual explosions were not of my ego but in fact the sound of the Chinese still celebrating relentlessly outside of my window. My relief to find that I was not losing my mind was quickly replaced by annoyance as I was forced to come to terms with the fact that I would not be returning to sleep. I made a mental note to purchase ear-plugs then got up to make a breakfast of bacon, eggs and grits, yum! This meal is a favorite of my roommate's and mine, as it is a nice taste of home. We came across it accidentally when I went to the supermarket for what I thought was quinoa and instead came home with grits. These sort of mix-ups happen a lot and I was quick to learn that if you don't embrace them and adapt, you might find your sanity slowly drifting away. Nothing in China is quite as it seems, unless of course something seems too good to be true, because in that case, it is.

As far as New Years resolutions go, mine pertain mostly to my time in China, as it is where I will be spending the majority of this year. First and foremost, I want to get my priorities straight while I am here. This past week, as 2011 reached its close opening the doors to 2012, has been one of many trials and tests of my patience and sanity. I have had to watch my roommate encounter blatant, unadulterated racism on two separate occasions, I have been cut off from communication with my family do to lack of home Internet access and I have had to wake up to a refrigerator of a house from the power shutting off. Our bus broke down on the way home from school yesterday, I left my favorite leather and cashmere Coach gloves on another bus, I dropped my wallet in a toilet one day and my cell phone in the same toilet the next, and I am fighting off a stubborn cold. I think that the Lord is trying to tell me to slow down. I knew Living in China was not going to be easy and I have been able to face most of struggles and obstacles thrown my way head on, but I have taken on too much and I need to get my priorities straight. I came here to travel, teach, learn Chinese, become better acquainted with a new culture and grow and there are many distractions in the city that have interfered.

insane traffic jam

insane traffic jam

adjusting to the insane traffic jam

adjusting to the insane traffic jam

I want to start seeing major improvement in my Chinese. I have been here for one month so far and though my vocabulary is increasing quickly, my tones and pronunciation need serious work. Because Chinese is a tonal language, if I don't focus on how I am saying each word, I could be saying any number of different things that I don't actually mean. Also, pronunciation is terribly important. If I had a Kwai for every time a Chinese person mistook my Chinese for English, I could stop working. Fortunately, I have made friends with a very kind and patient Chinese boy who is as determined as I am to get me speaking like a local.
I also want to start really focusing on my plans for what comes after China. I have a few options rattling around in my brain so far, the first being to move to Russia and teach English there while working hard to improve my Russian language skills. My other option is to join the lovely Shoshana Abrams in Tel Aviv, Israel and get my Masters in International Security and Diplomacy at Tel Aviv University. I have a lot to think about in the upcoming months.
Finally, I want to take advantage of being in Asia as much as I possibly can (while on a teacher's salary). For the first week of Spring Festival (Chinese holiday period that surrounds the Chinese New Year) I am flying to Seoul, South Korea. I have a friend living there who has been generous enough to allow me to stay with her and her husband. While in Korea I plan to eat a lot of delicious food, do some serious shopping, and go snowboarding! I am very excited.
For the second week of Spring Festival, I am still trying to weigh my options. I have considered flying down to the Philippines which would be an interesting experience, as well as a nice escape from the cold. I have not made a final decision on this however, because a part of me feels as though I should be in China, experiencing Chinese New Year to its full extent. I still have some time to decide.
Next week, I plan to take the train to Xi'an to see the terra cotta warriors, then head East to Nanjing, which used to be the old capital and is famous for the Japanese rape of Nanking during the second world war where an estimated 300,000 Chinese people were pillaged, raped and slaughtered by Japanese soldiers. The city is beautiful and right outside the city wall is Purple Mountain, which I plan to hike during my time there.
Eventually, I plan to book a tour of Tibet. I want to hike a little of Mt. Everest, and experience the religious influence and the mysterious culture of this controversial region.

The longer I am in China the more I find myself understanding the cultural differences and the varying mindsets of the Chinese people. When surrounded by masses of people speaking a language which I seriously struggle to comprehend, i found myself viewing everyone around me as a single entity of starers, spitters, pushers and line-cutters, and this dehumanizing way of thinking made it impossible for me to learn from the culture around me. When I started to take the time to meet the locals and to really get to know each of them on an individual and personal level, I was enlightened to how kind, intelligent, unique and beautiful they really are and now, though I am living among a population of 7 million people, the masses don't seem so overwhelming. I have made many new Chinese friends who have embraced me for my differences, have taught me about their own and have shared with me a piece of themselves.

New friend I made on the bus ride home

New friend I made on the bus ride home

(She got off the bus at a stop early because I was getting off and she wanted a picture with me)
grocery-shopping attire

grocery-shopping attire

This break down of the walls of identity that we innately wrap around ourselves is my favorite part of life abroad. People look, eat, behave and think differently. We hold varying beliefs and values, and we raise different kinds of families. When it comes down to it however, we are all of the same genetic make up, put on this Earth by a God who loves us and expects us to love each other. Galatians 3:28 says "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ." My roommate will even tell you that there is no difference between me and the local Chinese, as she claims that I am slowly becoming Chinese myself, the more I wear ear-muffs and furry slippers, crave dumplings, enjoy KTV (Karaoke Television), dance in the street for no reason and subconsciously weave in and out of people while walking at a speed-racer pace. This is just all a part of the assimilation process, I tell her.
Being a foreigner in a land strange to me, one thing that is clear above all others is that at their roots, fear and hatred are derived from ignorance and lack of understanding of the world around us. The more we learn about those different to us, the less scary a place the world becomes.

I wish everyone a happy new year and the best of luck in 2012!

Posted by Abroadabroad89 06:38 Archived in China Comments (2)

A China Christmas

"i don't know if there are men on the moon, but if there are, they must be using Earth as their lunatic assylum" - George Bernard Shaw

sunny 12 °C

It is Christmas Day and I have just finished a full day of teaching "I like dogs", "How are you?", "I'm fine, thanks" and "It's an apple" to a bunch of unenthused Chinese children. I am sitting on a bar stool eating a bowl white rice with plastic chopsticks at a Chinese fast food chain, Faxy Hen, because my roommate was hungry and there has been no internet or power in our apartment for the past two days. Nice timing, China.

Last night I spent a Christmas Eve that I will never forget. A Chinese co-worker of mine, Austin (his English name) invited me out for shopping, drinks and dinner with him after work so we set off to Walking Street around 6 PM. As we reached the main shopping stretch we were drowned by an overwhelming sea of people. It was as though everyone in Hefei had decided to go shopping at the same time. Completely frazzled, I asked Austin why it was so crowded. He answered, "Because it is Christmas Eve, of course."
It was so puzzling. I had to ask, "But-Chinese don't really celebrate Christmas, right?"
"No, but in America everyone shops on Christmas Eve, don't you?"
"Well, yes. I guess we do, but-"
"Well, that's why we do too!"
"Oh. I see..." I will never cease to be amused by Asia's insatiable appetite for Western culture.
We pushed on through the crowds until we found temporary refuge in a small, under populated store. Austin insisted on buying me a gift 'because that is the Chinese way' and after several minutes of protest, I gave in and allowed him to pick out a pair of fluffy pink earmuffs and a beautiful silk Chinese cell phone holder for me. We then left the store in search of something to eat, which proved to be a much more onerous task than we had anticipated. We scoured the streets looking for any restaurant that could seat us and feed us, but it was Christmas Eve every place was full. <insert obvious Biblical parallel here>... We were Mary and Joseph without an inn.
Finally we found a hotpot place off the main road and the wait list was only nine parties long. We made the decision to stay and were pleasantly surprised when we were seated only minutes later. It turned out that this was because I am a foreigner and they put us in front of everyone else. Austin was thrilled but I could not have been more embarrassed. We enjoyed our hot pot then skipped off with bellies full of happiness to a small bar that Austin frequents.
sea food hot pot

sea food hot pot

It just so happened that this was actually a gay bar, being the only one of it's kind in Hefei, and it was drag night. So, as Santa trailed across rooftops, I had a front row table to a drag queen Christmas show. Next to me sat a couple (man and woman) with their five year old son who wore a leather jacket, sun glasses and was drinking a bottle of beer, which he had to hold with two hands because the bottle was too big for him to use just one. I wish I were joking. The stage was decorated with a small Christmas tree, fake fog and neon strobe lights, and in the center shown eight fabulous queens, dancing in a manner that tiptoed along the lines of impropriety, to "Joy to the World, my Savior reigns." I was dying. One of my favorite things about the way Asians attempt to adopt Western culture is that most of the time, they don't know the meaning behind whatever it is that they are emulating.
christmas eve dinner

christmas eve dinner

(^^ in China they think that Americans wear masks for every holiday, so my friends bought me a mask for Christmas).

After the dancing, the host got on stage to kick off a competition involving spinning around in a circle while hunched over, then running across stage and stuffing straws into a bottle. It was just my luck that my blonde hair caught her attention and next thing I knew, I was being encouraged onto the stage and asked to introduce myself to a crowd of strangers as a microphone was thrust into my hand. Blinded by the spot lighting, I said a few lines in rough Chinese then backed up to join the rest of the competitors. As they were all drunk (one so much so that he spun himself right off stage) and I was sober, I easily won the competition and was awarded a sparkling hello kitty pin. Nothing says 'Merry Christmas' like a sparkling hello kitty pin.

  • *I miss home dearly and Christmas without my family is not the same. I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Chanukah and HAPPY NEW YEAR! Peace be with you over the holidays. xo

Posted by Abroadabroad89 09:01 Archived in China Comments (1)

Shanghai With the Bradners

"Andrew, please walk the dog. I am busy sewing golden poop for Secret Santa-it's very important." -Erica Bradner

I spent last weekend in Shanghai with Ella, Hallie, Andrew and Erica Brander. They welcomed me into their beautiful home and showed me a wonderful time in the short period that I spent in the city. Their housing community is a blend of ancient Chinese garden architecture and upper-middle class American suburbia. Houses have lawns with fresh cut grass, driveways with basketball hoops, and fences with dogs running around inside and yet ponds full of coy fish are found in every yard and small foot bridges arch over serene canals which weave gracefully throughout the neighborhood. Their neighborhood is a nice escape from the hectic city crowds of Shanghai which is a very large city with a population of over 20 million people. Traffic can be a nightmare, both on the road and sidewalks.  Hefei is small in comparison, with a mere 7 million people population...
In just two days of being in Shanghai, I got the full reader's digest city tour and ate enough food to last me for the rest of the month. From left over pizza from Papa John's to dumplings and meat buns at Dim Tai Fung Dumpling House to all you can eat Brazilian BBQ, the Bradners made sure I was well fed.

hallie and ella

hallie and ella

My first day in Shanghai I woke up early and drank Dunken Donuts Coffee and watched CNN while reading the Washington Post and other online new sources from back home. It was the perfect morning, and I really felt like I was back in good old NoVA. After breakfast, Erica, Andy and I headed off into town. We wandered through the narrow meandering walkways of the French Concession, stopping in many of the small shops and having appetizers and wine at a foreign fusion restaurant littered with ExPats. We then moved on to the Bund, a waterfront strip in the center of Shanghai, which plays host to numerous skyscrapers, hotels and financial buildings as well as runners, couples strolling the riverside, tourists and kite enthusiasts. The Bund is a very exciting place and our plan was to have drinks in one of the top level bars in order to enjoy a bird's eye view. We searched vigerously for a place to sit, but everywhere we went had the same sad story, "The bar doesn't open until 5pm"... The Chinese really need to meet Jimmy buffet. We instead settled down at a very nice restaurant called, Zen. We ate enough dumplings and meat buns to earn us a guest appearance on Man vs. Food, then went home to meet Hallie and Ella who were getting home from school. I sat with the girls as they did their homework (math projects and adjective-noun matching worksheets, oh to be in middle school again) then we all set off for dinner at, Cook. A large restaurant offering just about any type of food you could imagine and a wine dispenser - a soda dispenser for adults! I had sushi and a caesar salad because both are hard to come by in China, and then ate all of Hallie's and Ella's greens.
the bund

the bund

shopping and negotiating

shopping and negotiating

On day two in Shanghai, Erica took me around to all of the fantastic shopping areas. We started in Yu Garden and made our way around the city from there, thanks to their very patient driver, Ken. We walked across the zigzagging bridge of Yu Garden, making our way to the markets. Erica told me the bridge is designed the way it is so that the evil spirits are confused and can't follow you. If there is anything I have learned for certain while living in Asia, it's that the evil spirits are not very intelligent.
yu garden coy pond

yu garden coy pond

A major concern of mine, when it came to moving to China, was being so far away from home and family during the holidays.  I have come to find however, that the Chinese are gung-ho for the Christmas spirit.  Every market is littered with tinsel, wreaths and lights and Christmas tunes play in every restaurant and store. While reading the Washington post yesterday, I read a quote by Senator Bachman saying "you can't even say 'Merry Christmas' in the post office anymore" when speaking about political correction in the United States, yet in China, everywhere you go your are wished a merry Christmas by Santas of all shapes and sizes (most of them playing the saxophone). I would bet that there are more Christmas trees on public display in Shanghai and Hefei than in all of the United States.  The Chinese love Capitalism.
christmas market

christmas market

We went to the pet market on dun Tao Lu. There were puppies, kittens, birds, chinchillas, turtles, mice and crickets. So many crickets. My first assumption went back to my childhood days of watching Mulan. "For good luck?" I asked. "No" replied Erica, "For fighting".  I was baffled, but she was right. Here was an entire sub-culture of people who raised, bred, purchased, sold, fought and bet on crickets.  Old men sat around card tables wedged into tight rooms, eyeing various crickets, judging them, analyzing them (for what, I do not know) and bidding on them.  Erica went on to tell me an old Chinese story about an Emperor with the most prized fighting cricket in the dynasty. When he was invaded, his first thought went to his cricket. He had the cricket sent away to be freed on the back side of a mountain, hidden from harm. Today, any cricket born from that part of the mountain as a descendent of the Emperor's cricket is more expensive and highly valued.
pet market

pet market

My final meal in Shanghai was spent at Brazilian BBQ for Andy's birthday. There was an all-you-can-eat salad and side-dish buffet and an endless supply of meats being brought to the table on skewers. It was a Texas-de-Brazil in China! After eating a gluttonous amount of food, and being in the company of such a nice family, it dawned on me that going back to Hefei was going to be very painful. Nonetheless, I had to board the train the very next morning and say 'So long, until next time' to Shanghai and the Bradners.

I arrived back to Hefei and hour before I had to teach my public school class to I did not have time to waste in a taxi line. Instead, I hopped onto the back of a motorcycle taxi, and with my oversized backpack perched awkwardly on my hip, I sat behind the driver and prayed that I would make it to the elementary school in one piece.  It was a nice ride as the sun was out and the air was not too cold, but my mind was still stuck in Shanghai.

Posted by Abroadabroad89 21:38 Archived in China Comments (0)

Going Local

"I want to stay as close as I can to the edge without going over. Out on the edge you See all kinds of things you couldn't see from the center" -KV

sunny 16 °C

The last time I was aboard a train was about five years ago when I traveled 23 hours from Kyiv, Ukraine to Warsaw, Poland.  I sat in a Soviet-style sleeper car that smelled of cigarettes, vodka, sweat and fish.  The ride was long and bumpy and I had to stay bundled up for warmth in my hard cot hinged to the wall while loud drunk men named Boris and Yuri Ivanovich argued  and laughed and laughed and argued in the conjoining car. The Chinese fast train is nothing like this.

There is something strangely relaxing about being aboard the fast train in China.  This feeling of comfort came as a pleasant surprise as I settled down into my assigned seat, slowly recovering from the anxiety of traveling alone in a foreign place that had overcome while I sat in a coffee shop at the Hefei train station, waiting for the train to Shanghai to arrive. The seats are generously sized, with more cushion than my mattress provides, the train cars have a central heating system, and the constant hum of incomprehensible Chinese that surrounds me gives off the feel of being in a small coffee shop that offers privacy even when crowded - the perfect setting for getting some reading and writing done.   

This weekend getaway to Shanghai could not have come at a better time. Life in Hefei was beginning to overwhelm me to say the least.  I have lost track of time, abandoning the routine schedule I had developed for myself in Phnom Penh. These past two weeks have come and gone so quickly that I am finding it difficult to digest everything that I have experienced since arriving to Hefei.  More and more with each passing day I feel myself 'going local'. I drink boiling water all day, I switch to slippers when I go inside even when teaching, I always have 1-Kwai coins on my person for the bus and tissues for the bathroom, I am freaked out when I see a Western toilet, I am getting used to the concept of 'push or be pushed' and I am ready to negotiate any price.   I find it easier and less stressful to adopt the "when in Rome" outlook when traveling, than to deal with the anxiety and frustration of fighting the systems that the locals are used to just because it's not what I am used to.  Also, I treat every situation as a chance to expand upon my Chinese - at school, in a taxi, on the bus, in the bar (much to my friends' dismay) - and I am feeling really optimistic about my progress considering I have only been here 2 weeks, today. It is hard to wrap my head around the fact that it really has only been two weeks though, as my time in Cambodia has quickly become but a vague, hazy memory being swallowed up into a black hole and I hardly can picture home in VA.   Each day here blurs quickly into the next and I have been racing hard to keep up with the demanding, fast paced, restless lifestyle that the city imposes on it's foreign inhabitants, while also fighting off a pressing cold which is not easy when I have to talk over screaming children all day.  

Between teaching at two different schools, lesson planning, eating out, keeping up with my multitude of new local friends, skyping back home, learning Chinese and the city nightlife, I hardly have time to regroup between each day. I have to figure out a priority system, which I am sure will come with time.  The problem, I believe, is rooted in the natural fear of running out of time  and not getting the chance to take advantage of everything living abroad has to offer.  When I am in my own local setting, it is easy to take for granted the culture around me. As a visitor in a foreign setting however, I feel as though I am in a race against time to see everything I want to see, try as many new things as possible and to, of course, learn Chinese. Suddenly a year doesn't seem like such a long time after all.

I enjoy my job.  Very little can compare to the heart warming smiles of 50 Chinese 2nd graders, waiting excitedly for your instruction, eager to participate and learn.  This is what I go to work to every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday when I teach at one of the local public primary schools.  At first, 50 children sounded intimidating but they are angels that make my job easy, especially when compared to the private school classes that I teach on Saturdays and Sundays.  The private school employs me and leases me out to the public school (for promotional reasons I assume).  Private classes are smaller and the kids range from ages 4 to 12. The young kids are fun and they know how to bring out the child in me. I teach them songs and play games with them to make use of the colossal amount of energy they have stored in their little bodies.  Middle school classes involve more advanced learning but the students, for the most part, can't be bothered to care or get involved in activities so it takes a great deal of encouragement on my part to get them to actively participate, which can be draining. They can be fun too though. We tease each other and I make them laugh when I use Chinese to instruct them because they find my accent to be amusing, and the ones that call me beautiful and give me hugs or high fives get extra reward points.

There are so many different places to eat in the city and Chinese food, though very unlike Western Chinese food (which I miss very much and have constant cravings for) is delicious.  I have yet to eat a dish I didn't like, which includes the bean-noodle soup with blood of duck that was bought for me last week. Admittedly, that was a tough one to get myself to eat and since then, I have learned to not ask what I am eating, and just enjoy it.  A popular dish here is hotpot.  Hotpot is a giant pot sitting on a burner in the middle of the table filled with boiling broth, then an assortment of raw meats and vegetables are brought to you and you toss them in the pot. Essentially, it is a Chinese 'Melting Pot'. 

My first experience with Hotpot was quite an adventure.  A friend of mine wanted to take me to one that had been recommended to him by a local, but he didn't know where exactly it was located and as he is also an Expat with a minimal grasp of the Chinese language, finding it was no picnic either.  We wandered 'Walking Street' - a grand plaza in the center of the city shut off to vehicles and lined with shops and food vendors -  stopping multiple locals, asking them to point us in the right direction.  After asking six different people who pointed in four different directions, we began to feel as though we were being messed with by people who wanted to have a nice laugh as they watched the silly foreigners struggle.  We were also slowly losing heart as our wandering had led us to a dimly lit alley, and it had begun to rain.  Finally, whether it was the hunger in our stomachs, stubborn pride, an innate desire for adventure or the deep craving for good hot pot, we found it! A hole in the wall, hidden behind old apartments, wedged in the back of a narrow walking path.  As we ate, I was sure there was nothing in this world that tasted better than this bowl of hot and spicy goodness, marinated in victory.

The soft lull and the gentle swaying of the train are causing me to fade. I am about an hour from Shanghai now so I think I'll snag some Zzzz's before arrival. Zai Jian!

Posted by Abroadabroad89 14:45 Archived in China Comments (0)

The Mysterious Stranger

The Stinky Tofu is Stinky

all seasons in one day 14 °C

If nothing else, this week has taught me the value of flexibility and open-mindedness to cultures and norms unlike my own.

Living as a young American in Hefei entails a life of perpetual astonishment and bewilderment. Every experience is new and my environment is, at the same time, both familiar and strange. Through a casual glance from the outside, Hefei looks like any other city, but a closer look reveals so much that I have never encountered before: Restaurants opened up to the street serve chicken with the feet still attached, and these feet still have nails. The woman next to school refused to sell me any less than 10 Kuai (RMB/Chinese money) worth of baby oranges no matter how many times I tried to explain to her (in a pitiful attempt at Chinese) that I had no use for that many oranges and all I wanted was 5 Kuai worth, but as per the norm, it was China's way or the highway so I gave in and was able to keep the office loaded up on Vitamin C for the rest of the week. Toilets, like heffalumps and woozles, come in many shapes and sizes. Today, I came across one that was a long dugout for squatting over built on a downward slope with a stream of water constantly running down it and 4' concrete blocks laid across the trench every few feet as stalls to create a sense of "privacy". Because these holes in the ground, or so-called 'Squat Johns', are so usual here, it is not unusual to encounter a Western-style toilet like we are used to that has foot prints on the seats. To the uninformed local, they simply appear to be raised 'Squat-Johns'.

People spit and snot rocket everywhere. More so than that, they stare. For a while I had myself convinced that whenever I went out onto the street or buses, a giant sparkling purple fairy was dancing over me with a sign reading "spot the foreigner!" I must have had, for the candidly way people gaze, transfixed, in my direction. To some of my fellow foreign colleagues, the incessant staring of the locals is bothersome to the utmost and it really angers them. In my opinion, it's not worth the stress or energy to be bothered. On the contrary, I just allow myself to take it as a compliment and tell myself, "Wow. Another day of looking head-turning gorgeous! Keep up the good work, Rebecca Elyse." It's more fun that way!

I enjoy riding the bus. I think I will eventually purchase a bicycle, but for now, I am very partial to taking the bus. There is something exciting about public transportation in the big city. It creates a feeling of belonging. I never truly feel a part of any city I live in, be it Hefei, Kyiv, Phnom Penh or even London, until I have a firm grasp on the bus and/or metro routes. Undeniably, there is a sense of community that overcomes me when I am sitting amongst complete strangers, all of us stuck in a limbo on the way to somewhere else. I also like the 'clink-clank' sound of my 1 Kuai (2 Kuai if I take the heated bus) dropping to the bottom of the metal jar situated next to the driver, announcing that I have paid my toll. Further, one of my favorite parts of each day is the 40 minutes that I get to sit down and read, bothered by no one. I get my best reading done on the bus. Today however, I was so engrossed in A Man Without a Country (which I am borrowing from the local restaurant we ex-pats frequent-there is nothing better than an establishment that provides coffee, nourishment and books) that I missed my stop and jumped off the bus in a panic, not knowing where I was. And believe you me, getting lost in Hefei is not like getting lost back home where I can just read signs and ask around until I figure out which direction I need to be headed. I walked around a bit, in the pouring icing rain I may add, to try and find something I recognized but I was at a loss. It was a great challenge to keep my cool. Typically, the sidewalks in Hefei are very crowded with pushy people in a hurry. When it rains, the sidewalks in Hefei are very crowded with pushy people in a hurry, carrying umbrellas with vicious daggers jutting out from every angle at face level. 1000 walking death traps just itching to poke an eye out. When my impatience got the best of me and finding my way began to feel hopeless, I reluctantly resolved to taking a taxi. I hailed a car and climbed in, cold, flustered, defeated and annoyed with myself.

I adore all of the kids I teach. I have been placed at three different schools, teaching 18 different classes of kids ranging from age 4 to age 12. The kids in China are much more behaved than the ones I was teaching in Cambodia, but that was to be expected. They are a lot of fun, they are eager to learn and they adore me. Imagine going to work everyday and being showered with small gifts, hugs and compliments by everyone in the room the minute you step through the door. Needless to say, it is a highly welcome ego-boost. Lesson planning can be tough and I am sure I am going to experience days where my prepared activities crash and burn, but so far it has gone pretty well. The only main struggle was figuring out what to have the students call me, because for the life of them, neither Rebecca nor Becca were working. I settled on telling them to call me by my middle name, Elyse, which was much more of a success, only now I have two names floating around which has become a tad confusing.

I am treating everything as a learning experience. If anyone needs any further validation of the saying "We learn from our mistakes", just spend a month in a foreign land, and working with children nonetheless. I appreciate my infantile blunders because not only are they humbling, but they mean that I am at least taking risks and stepping (more so leaping) out of my comfort zones. I hope to make many more mistakes.

Posted by Abroadabroad89 04:54 Archived in China Comments (1)

China at Last!

Just like riding a bike...

20 °C

I am finally in China, and after only 2 days, I feel as though my entire world has been flipped upside down. From drinking boiling water, to relying on bus systems, to having to download a private internet network in order to access most websites, to the uselessness of English, everything is new and strange and different... and I love it!

I have been practicing my Mandarin on a daily basis and I wanted to start using it right away in order to sway myself from relying on English. MY biggest pet peeve thus far has been when I try to speak Chinese to the locals and they say "I am sorry, my English is not so good" and I just pout and say "I am speaking Chinese!" It is those awful tones! The man sitting next to me on the plane to Hefei was my first guinea-pig and I am pretty certain he was plotting how to either throw me out the window or stuff me in the overhead compartment since the moment the stewardess came around with drinks and I asked for orange juice then turned to him, pointed at my glass and said "cheng zhi?" trying to verify the name. He stared at me for a moment, with eyes that said, "I am mentally squishing your little blonde head between my fingers", affirmed, "cheng zhi" then closed his eyes. I came to the conclusion that he was not in the mood to teach a young ignorant American girl basic Chinese vocab. When breakfast was being brought around, I almost had a break through with him but I failed miserably. I had asked the stewardess for a copy of the Chinese newspaper written in Mandarin because I wanted it for scrapbooking purposes later on. My initially quiet seat neighbor saw this, assumed I could read Chinese character writing and speak fluently and began to enthusiastically ask me questions in Mandarin regarding an article that he kept pointing to in the paper. I could only look at him like a hopeless deer in the headlights, shrug and say "Dui bu qi, wo bu ming bai" ("I am sorry, I do not understand"), which I am sure I butchered because Chinese is a tonal language and I am deaf to the tones, and we returned to our original state of not speaking to each other. I ended up having to suppress a dire need to use the restroom because I did not want to annoy him further by asking him to get up.

As much as I am loving China now, my experience did not start off on a good foot. I arrived at my transfer gate around noon with a 4 hour wait ahead of me. I went to use my iPad and it suddenly wouldn't work properly and despite the numerous accessible wifi connections, I couldn't even get online. I could feel it happening, my personal freedoms slowly being stripped from me and I suddenly was a solitary goldfish in a tiny glass bowl. I wanted to do nothing else but go find a bathroom stall, lock myself inside of it, and cry. When I discovered I couldn't even do that for lack of a Western style toilet I resolved to gathering all of my belongings, returning to my gate and sitting quiet and alone, more alone than I have ever felt in my entire life.

I expected China to be different but my expectations were limited and naive. I feel as though I have entered an alternative reality, crossing into a parallel universe where no other Western expats exist, and invisible strings have been attached to my wrists and ankles, constraining and controlling everything I can and can no longer do. It is an unsettling and scary feeling that I have never experienced before.

The first thing I noticed was the smog. Above the clouds, there was a sun shining brightly. I know because I saw it pre-descent. Below the clouds, in a crowded gray world, the sun is only a memory. In a city where there is nowhere to grow but up, cement sky-scrapers reach up and up in groups, so close together that the dark alleyways only allow for single-file access. A great gray dome of haze encloses the city and brownish-gray clouds loom low and dreary over the streets and buildings below, watching the public closely, with dreadful suspicion and warning. Looking out I can only see so far as the nearest tree line before the air becomes too thick for my eyes to penetrate and every time I look up, I half expect to see a pair of large eyes peering down at me and the surrounding world. It is gothem sans batman.

Hefei, China is everything that Phnom Penh, Cambodia is not. Where in Cambodia I was always hot, rarely donning jeans and never sweater, in China, inside or outside I must be bundled up. I have yet to enter a building with a central heating unit, including my apartment and school where I will be working. Also, in Cambodia I was used to smiling and waving at everyone I passed and having the smile and wave returned to me in the same fashion. The Chinese are far too strict and serious for such petty interactions. People keep to themselves and courtesies are often forgotten. For example, when I asked my Chinese teacher how to say "You are welcome" she looked at me for and moment then said "bu ki qi, it means don't be so polite".

After only one day and night here, I feel much better than I did when I sat anxiously in the Guangzhou transfer airport. I have met many people, Chinese and foreign, who have gone out of their way to help me around and make me feel comfortable. The smog is not as bad in Hefei as it is in Guangzhou, but I can definitely feel it. There are some things that are going to make a lot of getting used to, but I am ready to embrace them with open arms. I want to learn everything I can about this strange new culture around me and become as much apart of it as I can.

Posted by Abroadabroad89 12:08 Archived in China Comments (1)

Come With Me.

This city's not for everyone, but we call it home and we like it fine.

I will be graduating from TEFL training on Thursday and saying my farewells to this crazy land that is called Cambodia. My bags are packed and the warm, comfortable and homey hotel room I have been 'living' in this past month is all cleaned up. I am not sure what I will miss more; the yellow-green walls or the brick mattress wrapped in a plastic sheet.

This past weekend was my first and last to be spent in Phnom Penh so I decided to take advantage of my time off in the city. I first spent Saturday morning catching up with homework and getting ahead on lesson planning for the upcoming week. In the afternoon I went to one of the city temples where I fed a sandal-wearing elephant a bunch of bananas. After, I went shopping at the Russian market then met up with a local Khmer, Sothea, who took me out, on his moto, for a delicious dinner of squid, prawn, beef and cow heart, which I was really tentative of at first, but I have become very brave where my palate is concerned and I gave it a shot. The heart was not my cup of tea, but at least now I know that for sure. We BBQed the great myriad of meats ourselves at our table in a traditional Khmer food garden, complete with a live chicken that ran around everywhere, squawking. None of the food went to waste either, because when we were ready for our bill, all of the raw meat we had left untouched was gathered from our table and delivered to the group at the table behind us. Sothea and I had met because part of my training requires me to meet and tutor a local one-on-one in English. He wanted an English lesson that revolved around International Politics and Ethics so I drew up a lesson plan and got a free meal. I then listened to him talk all through dinner about how he plans to one day "reform everything in Cambodia, to have Cambodia be a good Democracy and to stop the corruption."

friends of every shape and size

friends of every shape and size

After dinner, I met some of my fellow trainees on the river walk for coffee and chocolate. We played cards on the restaurant balcony, over-looking the water and the busy streets which were populated with evening traffic, joggers, walkers, tourists, kids playing soccer, and my favorite, the zumba crowds. Every evening in Phnom Penh, once the sun goes down and the air cools off, the parks and sidewalks are littered with groups of Khmer, dancing zumba to stay fit. On this particular evening, I decided to join them and I had such a blast! All of the Khmer dancing around me were shocked to see a foreigner join them, and the group attracted crowds of on-lookers, but I didn't mind. I left my friends on the balcony and did Zumba for an hour and I only had to pay 25 cents to a man who came around and collected money from people as they danced.

Later on, once I was nice and stinky from my Zumba workout, I took a moto with a friend to a guest house on the river front which is frequented by backpacking vagabonds, drifters and local expats alike. It was a bit seedy, located at the back of a narrow, unlit alleyway of potholes, puddles, laundry lines, stray cats and dogs and some sleeping street-dwellers, but I was shooting for the full Cambodian experience this weekend, so it fit right in. I met many interesting travelers (most of them from Australia) and learned some new card games that evidently all backpackers know, and I just didn't get the memo. As much as I love travel and exploration, I find that I am very set apart from the average world wanderer, and although it is a very intriguing culture to witness/experience every so often, I am happy to be the exception. The world of backpackers is one very much of its own and I believe a fascinating ethnography could be written about it, but that is all I will say on that particular subject. Mostly because I don't want to scare my parents. Love you, Mom and Dad.

I have become a moto-riding junky since motos are the taxis of Asia (again-Mom, Dad, remember that I love you. and think of it this way, now I don't need a boyfriend with a motorcycle because I can just hop on the back of any stranger's.. Just something to help you sleep better at night! ;] ). I would love the chance to learn how to drive one myself, but with all of the traffic in Asia (and trust me, it is enough to make 14th street bridge appear rural), it will be a real challenge. As a passenger, there are many important things to know: First, always get on and off of the back from the left side otherwise you will end up with a nasty burn on your calf, curtesy of the exhaust pipe occupying the right side. Second, when wearing a skirt and forced to sit side-saddle, make sure you find a moto with a bar under the back seat for holding onto, unless of course you want to become a little more personally acquainted with your driver. Third, sitting side-saddle is wonderful and much easier than it looks; and much more comfortable, to boot. Fourth, it is only required by law that the driver wear a helmet, so they usually do not have a spare. If you want to wear a helmet, you pretty much have to carry around your own. Finally, when properly executed, it is absolutely possible to have a driver and 3 passengers on one bike. I know, because I tried this weekend and it was quite a success. No one wanted to pay for a Tuk Tuk.

hello moto

hello moto

Teaching has been going well. I have a wild group of private school kids ages 8-13. We play a lot of games and they keep me on my toes. I don't know what children are like in elementary school back home, but in Khmer school the boys and girls have a tendency to hit, kick, scratch, choke, pinch and whack each other on a regular basis. I can only assume it has something to do with the fact that in addition to their weekly library day, they also have weekly thai kwon do day. They also enjoy climbing under tables, screaming at random and ripping paper into small pieces to throw on the floor. I have an increased respect for my old teachers, because lesson planning every single night can be very stressful and also very frustrating when you stay up for hours the night before planning what would be a fun and exciting lesson and come the next morning the kids don't want to listen or participate or even show up for class. Nonetheless, they are growing on me. They seem to enjoy most of the games and activities I plan for them each day, and they have a cute habit of calling me "Cher" whenever they have a question (take 'teacher' and drop the 'tea'). Trust me, it's cute. And nothing beats the moments when I have been teaching something to them that they are struggling with then one day out of nowhere a light bulb switches on in their heads and they get it and I get to think, "Yeah, I did that. Awesome!"

I can't wait to meet my classes in China. Actually, I can't wait to be in China in general. Cambodian expats are a very different breed from China expats. Again, this goes back to the potential expat/backpacker ethnography. I am looking forward to being in a place where there is a little more structure in my life. I am also looking forward to cold weather, Starbucks (China has it!), and living in a real apartment with a real washing machine and a real dishwasher and a stove for cooking real food. I have a feeling China is going to be a whole different world from Cambodia and I want to enjoy every minute of it!

Posted by Abroadabroad89 17:14 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Cambodiology 101

The things I have learned along the way....

1. Never get into a Tuk Tuk before first establishing a price for the trip. Otherwise, the driver can charge you whatever he please upon arrival to your destination.

2. ALWAYS carry toilet paper on your person

3. When crossing a street, just go. Waiting for a lull in traffic is futile. Do NOT run. Walk slowly forward and with a purpose. The motorists will dodge you. Running is a great way to get yourself killed.

4. Traffic laws (or any laws, for that matter) are more realistically guidelines and are simply a means for police officers to make a little extra cash through pay offs. Ex: $1 can get you out of pretty much any kind of ticket.

5. Catching a ride on the back of a passing motorbike is completely acceptable and much more cost/time affective.

6. A budgeting young traveler living in a hotel room and without a paying job eats a lot of dry cereal and $0.20/packet ramen noodle. so many carbs.

7. When you think you are pronouncing any given Asian word correctly, more often than not, you aren't.

8. ExPats gravitate towards each other like flies to a florescent light bulb.

9. "Personal Bubble" is a completely foreign and untranslatable concept

10. Do NOT go to a Khmer doctor. Fly to Thailand in any emergency. SO. MANY, HORROR. STORIES,
-one past Languagecorp student had a stomach pain and went to the doctor here for an x-ray. The x-ray showed that her large intestine had
swollen up and sucked her small intestine up underneath. She said she wanted to go to Thailand for the surgery but they insisted that she get it
done there, right away, So she did, When she went back to the states for recovery, she had a sonogram done where she found out they had also
taken her appendix without telling her. When languagecorp confronted them about this, they shrugged and said "its not like she needs it
anyway"...true, but you TELL someone before you just start taking organs out of their body. Plus, they cut her open straight down the middle,
leaving a quarter inch thick, 6 inch long scar down her stomach.

-Another student got in a motorbike accident and the Khmer doctors stitched him up and wrapped his arm in a cast. A couple weeks later he
went to Thailand for a second opinion and they found that the Khmer doctors had been very negligent in the cleaning process, because they had
left a piece of rear-view mirror in his arm when they sewed it up.

11. Never ask a Non-native English speaker an "either/or" question...unless you like to be given blank stares and nonsensical answers.

12. A Tuk Tuk driver who nods his head when you tell/show him where you want to go has absolutely no idea where that location actually is or what you are even saying

13. Do not point with your fingers or feet!

14. Do not touch someone on the top of the head, unless you want them to think you are trying to steal their soul.

15. Most motorists buy gas by the liter... from glass pepsi bottles on the side of the road.

16. In Cambodia, anything goes.

17. It is not as hard as one might think, to live without basic luxuries such as, a washing machine, a dishwasher, a full kitchen, Harris Teeter...etc. I have become very resourceful

18. Riding side-saddle in a pencil skirt on the back of a moped is much more comfortable and much easier than it actually appears. I really enjoy it =]

19. Cambodia is hot and Cambodia is humid. Morning, daytime or night. HOT.

20. Khmer school children like to scream, throw things, beat each other up and ANGRY BIRDS!

Posted by Abroadabroad89 22:14 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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