Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

It's the first snow here! It's just a flurry, but still exciting. Both the children and the teachers loved it - there were snowball fights all around. I'm wishing for a snow day tomorrow, but I'll still be setting my alarm and preparing for the day.

Since the weather has turned chilly here, I've discovered a rather humorous part about taking care of Chinese children. They're dressed up in more layers than Ralphie's little brother in A Christmas Story. It's really ridiculous - a child might be wearing five shirts/sweater/sweatshirts, and four pairs of pants! Getting them undressed for their nap after lunch takes forever.

Speaking of Christmas, please forgive me for belatedly noticing: it's almost here! We've been frantically preparing for a Christmas party at my school, which you'd think would put me in the Christmas spirit, but it hasn't really. Despite our students being 2-5, the party is a ridiculous extravaganza which has put a lot of stress on teachers and students alike. I'll certainly enjoy the party when it happens this Friday, but I really can't wait for the preparations to end. One part I am extremely excited about though: I get to MC the event - in Chinese!

Last week we decorated the school, and I must admit I really, really enjoyed it. I dragged over a CD player and turned on some Christmas music, and voila! It was lovely and festive. The pictures below are from that day. (All taken with my phone, as is the norm lately...)

The head teacher (and my boss) helping one of the other teachers put up a banner.

Two of my coworkers, looking especially festive.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Teaching Kindergarten

"Blue seas where once was mulberry fields; time brings great changes"

(The children above live in our residential complex [photo taken with iPhone.] They were tolerant enough to let me take a picture of them while perched rather ideally on a ladder one day.)

I must admit - I was a little worried about my job this year. I was so in love with my job last year that I couldn't see how I could enjoy any other job as much. Not surprisingly, I was right. I don't love my job as much this year. However, this doesn't mean I don't enjoy my work. It's just enjoyment for different reasons.

This year I'm using a ton more Chinese on the job (with both Chinese coworkers and my kids sometimes,) and learning a lot about Chinese culture and child-rearing. It ranges from the bizarre to the funny to the enviable. (See corresponding stories below.)

For an example of the bizarre, I have to share a story that begins with a small misfortune. A few of my students fell ill with Hand, Foot and Mouth disease earlier this year, so that entire class was closed for about a week. Other children also fell ill with colds and random illnesses at around the same time, so even before the class was officially shut down, there were less than a third of the children showing up for class. How did my Chinese co-teachers decided to handle matters? Certainly there was lots of washing of hands and disinfecting of toys. But one day they took a large sheet and used it to cover up a big mirror in the classroom. When I asked why, they told me it might be causing the illnesses. There may come a day when I understand the Chinese language well, but I just don't think I'll ever understand traditional Chinese medicine.

When the weather turned cold here, I discovered a rather humorous part about taking care of Chinese children. They're dressed up in more layers than Ralphie's little brother in A Christmas Story. It's really ridiculous - a child might be wearing four or five shirts/sweater/sweatshirts, and three pairs of pants! This means the getting them ready to sleep after lunch is a bit of a chore. Layer upon layer of clothing must be unbuttoned and peeled off. I can't tell you how much I wish one particular boy's parents would give him regular diapers to wear instead of pull-ups! Nap time preparation has become exponentially easier now that the weather is warm again.

Of course, I think Chinese culture has some enviable aspects regarding children. Here, everyone dotes on children. Really. Children are beloved and watched out for by everyone. If a child gets onto a bus with their parent, passengers will immediately stand up so that the little one can sit down. Parents don't find it at all weird or annoying if strangers stop to exchange some smiles and baby talk with their child.

In terms of my job though, mostly I just have fun. My children are so great! I'm really lucky. My school is a Chinese IB kindergarten, so (as you might guess,) it's for the elite of the city. We have lots of resources and a great staff. Horror stories I hear about foreign teachers being stuck in front of 30 children with no shared language and no help from other teachers have not been part of my experience. Plus, these kids are being prepared to test into the best elementary schools in the city, so they are quickly molded into some very well-behaved youngsters.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Urban Life, Part 2

This post is dedicated to Katelynn. Yes Katelynn, I have a maid, and she's marvelous. This does not mean I condone being negligent in one's chores. Unless of course you're planning on living in China forever. ;)

I would like to make an announcement: I speak Chinese. Now, everyone knows I've been studying Chinese for years now, but when asked if I spoke Chinese, I would always waffle around: "Well, kind of. A little. The basics. I can get around." And so on. This past weekend though, I decided I will stop hesitating and just say yes. Yes, I speak Chinese. Not fluently, but good enough that I don't worry that someone will respond in Chinese, and I'll be unable to respond, thereby horribly embarrassing myself. I feel pretty confident that I can handle a wide variety of basic situations now.

I'm also becoming versed in the various methods of greeting from around the world. Although, I'm not sure well-versed is the right word. "Prepared" maybe. When you say hello to someone, it might involve a wave and a greeting (Chinese and a variety of other,) a kiss on two cheeks (French, and a variety of others,) a kiss on one cheek (haven't pinned this one down yet,) a hug (Americans you know,) and of course the handshake (Americans you don't yet know, and other people of the non-kissing habit.) Of course, given the international nature of most people's social networks, people have adopted/lost cultural habits, so you just have to be prepared for anything.

Elsewise, Shanghai is still treating me well. There was an outdoor jazz festival a few weekends ago, and it was lovely. The weather was perfect, the bands were fun, and there was plenty of room to spread out a sheet and sprawl on the grass. I've included some photos that I took with my phone while we were there.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Urban Life, Part One

-A Chinese proverb, "to feel at home anywhere within the four seas."

It's the oddest feeling, to be asked how long I've lived in Shanghai. Technically, about a month and a half. But when I say that, people comment on how new I am or how recently I have arrived. It doesn't feel at all like I'm new here though. I've been visiting regularly for so long that life here feels more normal than living in Quanzhou ever did. My days are full in the best possible way.

Weekdays I work from 8-4:30 with a 30 minute subway commute on either end (during which I sit and read a Chinese newspaper, attracting a fair amount of curious glances,) and after work I often attend dance classes at a local studio. On the weekends, I try to take advantage of the urban life.

I've always wanted to live in a big city, and Shanghai, with its approximately 13 million (and one!) inhabitants of the city proper, or about 20 million if you count the suburbs too, definitely fits the bill. There is so much to do and see! There are tons of great restaurants, art galleries, concerts, etc. It's really wonderful.

This week had an odd holiday in the middle of the week. It's hard to explain, but I have Wednesday-Friday off, and then work Saturday and Sunday to make up for it. It doesn't make much sense to a foreigner, but it's just the way holidays are scheduled here. Regardless, it's been a nice 3 day break. Yesterday, my flatmate and I went to Ikea to buy some things for our apartment. As we were thinking about decorating, we had the idea to make our own art to put on the walls.

So, we went to one of the art districts to check out some galleries and buy art supplies. Then we went home and had fun experimenting with acrylics outside on our balcony with its gorgeous view of downtown Shanghai - the picture at the beginning was taken from there. It was a pretty fantastic day.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Last Tour Around Quanzhou

Well, days before exam madness started and then I left for Shanghai, I went on a tour of some of the more famous attractions in Quanzhou with a friend. It's amazing how one can live in a city for so long without ever seeing its tourist spots.

The picture above is a small local temple on one of the back streets we took to reach one of the larger temples. It has a lot of character though. It's probably the most crazily decorated temple I've seen.

And this boy was sitting on his rocking chair watching us as we passed. He was pretty thrilled that we took his picture.

Above is one of the pagodas of the Kaiyuan temple, probably Quanzhou's most famous temple. It has two towers - the "twin pagodas." I don't think it's possible to capture both in one picture without a helicopter, but the other one looks the same. Promise.

Couldn't resist. Isn't he cute?

There are lots of buildings on the grounds of the Kaiyuan Temple. Somehow I didn't manage to get a good picture of the main building, but this is another worship hall (I think.)

One of the courtyards held broken statues. Somehow they all lost only their heads.

We also went to the Qingjing Mosque, which is my favorite spot in Quanzhou. It's a thousand years old, which in and of itself it really cool, but mosques are also pretty rare in China. This beautiful old mosque is a sign of Quanzhou's cosmopolitan past. In the late first millenium and beginning of the second, Quanzhou was a very busy international port, so it also had people from all over the world living and traveling through there. Among other things, it had a large Muslim population. Nowadays there is still a Muslim population, for whom a new mosque was built just last year (not picture, mea culpa.)

After 1,000 years, the roof and much of the inside architecture of the mosque has been lost. It's got a stark beauty to it though, like most ruins, I suppose.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Well, anyone who knows me knows that I have no sense of direction whatsoever. This is no false modesty resulting from my time here in China, but just the truth. Over many years of getting lost, whether by foot or in the car, I’ve become very used to it, and I don’t really mind getting lost anymore, so long as I’m not in a rush. It helps to think of these times as adventures, I’ve found.

This week I tried going out to see a famous local temple. I remember it being very large and beautiful from my study abroad in Xiamen a few years ago. (We did a tour of southeastern China, and among the places we visited was Quanzhou and the Kaiyuan Temple. ) However, this time, I was by myself and a little vague on the directions, so instead of the temple, I ended up at a park downtown. The park was nice though, with lots of people of all ages hanging out, as is normal in Chinese parks. Chinese parks are much better utilized than American ones, in my opinion.

I dutifully took some pictures, unlike last time.

This picture would look better if it were bigger, but you can see folks outside enjoying the momentarily acceptable weather. It's been cloudy and rain here for weeks now. I would guess we haven't had more than about 5 hours of blue sky for at least three weeks. For example, the morning I set out for the temple, there was a blue sky for about an hour. Clouds quickly rolled in though, and by the time I reached the park, the sky was gray. At least it didn't rain until a few hours later.

The rain here has been unbelievable. One day it quite literally poured all day. Not surprisingly, there have been flooding in the region. All of southeast China is having this problem. The rain doesn't really make much of difference to me though. When it's not raining, it's so humid it might as well be. When it does rain, it's almost like the only change is that now the water in the air is visible.

Graffiti of this kind is rare in China, so I took a picture.

The sign says "area for makeshift tents," which is actually quite a good translation. I wasn't expecting that, haha.

The writing on the bus roughly translates to: “Uphold civilization, pay attention to protocol, comply with authority, establish harmony.” This kind of public service advertisement is quite common. Everywhere there are reminders to behave with civility, keep the city clean, drive carefully, etc. My favorites are the ones that instruct citizens that girls are just as good as boys (part of the campaign to reduce the still-present notion, especially in rural areas, that sons are preferable to daughters.)

I'll work on getting to that temple. Cross your fingers that the weather cooperates, and I find it alright!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Picture Failure

Ok, despite multiple requests for pictures from the Dragon Boat Festival, I have none to share. Partly my own fault, and partly because there wasn't anything to photograph.

Yes, that's right. There were no Dragon Boat races to photograph, or even Dragon Boats. Not that my friend and I could find anyway. No one we talked to (Chinese or otherwise,) knew of anything going on, despite it being a national holiday. We tried going to the largest park in the city, which also has the largest lake, but no luck. It was probably for the best anyway, as it rained all day. We went to a nearby museum instead, about the relations between Fujian province and Taiwan. It's a good museum, if you can appreciate it apart from its obvious propaganda function.

I have no excuse for not having pictures of the museum. I just forgot to charge my camera. Whoops!

I can offer you a picture of a zongzi though, a food traditionally eaten on the Dragon Boat Festival. Zongzi are bamboo leaves filled with sticky rice and other fillings. In Quanzhou, they're a bit fishy tasting, and not particularly to my liking, but in general they're quite good.

The origins of the Dragon Boat Festival involve a poet who was accused of treason, so he committed suicide by throwing himself into the river. The local people paddled Dragon Boats to save him/collect his body (stories vary,) and also threw in zongzi so that the fish would eat those instead of him.

I guess it's understandable that people don't get too worked up over the holiday. My mom tells me that Concord, NC has a Dragon Boat race in August, so maybe I can share some photos/actual Dragon Boat experiences then. I think this might be an example of situational irony.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

One more reason to love it here!

I have another exciting announcement to make: not only do I have a job in Shanghai, but now I have TWO jobs in Shanghai! Earlier this week I was offered a freelancing position with Women of China, and English-language magazine about - you guess it! - women in China.

Now, this doesn't mean I will definitely write any articles for them. As a freelance reporter, I will propose my ideas every month, and if I'm lucky and the editorial staff likes them, I'll get to write an article. There are no guarantees, and the pay is paltry, but, oh man! what a great opportunity!

This is yet another positive aspect of living in China: the opportunities available. Whether you are a writer, teacher, advertising professional, or architect, there are jobs available, usually at a higher level than you could get at home. (I have friends in all of these professions.) Here it's possible to skip the entry level paying-one's-dues and skip right to the good stuff. Where else could I teach at a university or write for a national magazine?

If you're interested in the magazine, this is an electronic archive of past issues:

Hopefully my writing will be in one of them someday!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Out and About

A few weeks ago I went to see one of Quanzhou's landmarks: the Luoyang Bridge. It's a stone bridge that's almost 1,000 years old now. A couple of my friends and I took a bus out there. I couldn't believe it - it was only a few stops past the university! I didn't realize it was so close.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, so we enjoyed walking down the bridge with lots of other people with same idea. As usually happens when foreigners visit a tourist attraction, we became a bit of a tourist attraction ourselves, and had our picture taken many times.

In the picture below, you can see a carving of Buddha from the side of the bridge, and there is a place where it looks like a stone or something similar should be. The story goes that there was once a giant gem there, but it was stolen by the Japanese when they invaded (I'm afraid I don't know details, like which invasion.) Given their history, the Japan makes a popular scapegoat in China, so take the story with a grain of salt.

The bridge spans the Luoyang River, which seems to be subject to drastic changes in water level. The picture below was taken when we first arrived.

And if you look closely, you can see the same boats in the next picture, but this time resting on land. ?! It was quite a drop in water level! We had no idea if this was a normal occurrence or not.

And last, I'd like to share a picture from the town garbage dump. Quite a throne, no?

Completely unrelated and much closer to home (and by that I mean IN my home,) today I discovered that my apartment leaks. Last night we had the worst storm I've seen since coming here. Pouring rain, thunder, and powerful wind. I guess it was powerful enough to expose some leaks in my windows. I woke up during the night to the sound of water dripping. I got up to see a puddle forming on my floor, so I grabbed a bowl, put it beneath the leak in my window, and fell back asleep.

The next morning I awoke to the same puddle and a bowl full of water. Then I walked into my study/extra room, to discover that apparently there was a leak in that room's window too. The entire floor was covered in water. Yikes! I set up fans outside the room blowing in; I don't think I can safely set up a fan in the room yet.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Shanghai, here I come!


You might remember me mentioning frequent trips to Shanghai to see friends there. Well, I will no longer have to refer to it as my second home - starting this August, it's going to be my real home! I am moving from teaching at a university to teaching at a .... kindergarten! It's going to be a huge change, but I'm really excited about it.

The job sounds fun, with great hours, (great pay,) and great breaks. I'm going to have to leave behind the job I really truly love here, but I'll be getting a lot of other benefits. First and foremost, I'll get to live with a good friend of mine in Shanghai! Also, I'll get to use Chinese on the job, as 5 year olds don't know any useful English yet, and my coworkers will be Chinese. Not to mention I'll be getting paid to fingerpaint, haha.

I'm also looking forward to life in a big city. Shanghai has so much to offer! Right now it's an especially great time because the World Expo is going on. It will last until October, so if anyone wanted to visit me in the fall, it would be a great time, hint hint.

It you want to read more about the Expo or my new place of work, there are links below:

I'm going to be busy arranging my big move, but soon I'll be back to posting about life here.

Monday, May 3, 2010

I love it!

秩序 (zhixu): "freedom from disorder through respect for the established system or authority; order"
-my Chinese dictionary

Alright, enough complaining. It's time to tell you all the reasons why living in China is awesome.

I love it!

Why did I even come to China in the first place, you might wonder. To improve my Chinese, of course. And while my Chinese has not been improving as much or as rapidly as I'd like, it still is much improved since coming here, which is incredibly gratifying. I picked up a literature magazine the other day while killing time, and I was able to read one of the essays! Gave myself a big pat on the back for that one.

And just like there are little things that bother me, there are little things that make life here great: cheap delicious food, not having to drive, and silly English translations.

Living abroad (alone) has also taught me to be independent and autonomous. I've never lived alone before, and definitely not in a situation like this. Moving to a foreign country by oneself creates self reliance in the same way that pushing a person into deep water creates swimming skills. It doesn't always work, and some people can't take it. I know people here in Quanzhou and elsewhere who have given up and gone home. But I did it! And now I will always know that I can. I'm an independent woman. ;)

There are also lots of cultural differences that I really enjoy. For example, hospitality is a very important part of the culture here. Everyone wants to welcome me to China, show me around Quanzhou, and altogether be incredibly gracious. When I go out with my students for dinner, sometimes I must literally fight with them to pay the bill! Everyone is insanely friendly and generous. People are usually nice in the US, but hospitality and generosity are much more noticeable here.

Too, my foreigner status has its benefits. While I may dislike being stared at and approached, it also grants me a lot of privileges. Foreigners are treated extremely well, and have near-celebrity status. This means I can comfortably go anywhere or talk to anyone. While going to the nicest mall in Charlotte, NC can make me (and most people) feel inadequately dressed and out of place, there is nowhere I can't go here where I won't get deferential treatment. From the littlest hole in the wall restaurant to the nicest restaurant at the fanciest hotel, I am welcomed.

I am also lucky to be living in a place whose economy is doing so well, and I don't just mean because they're able to offer me employment. China has been on the rise, in terms of economy, standard of living, international power, etc. for quite some time now, so there is a definite sense of optimism among Chinese people. Life has been getting better, and they expect it to keep doing so. Most people here are pretty content. I'll admit, this sense of optimism might contain some complacency too, but overall I like living in such an environment.

My favorite thing about being here though has nothing to do with China, but instead with what I'm doing here: teaching. When I stand in front of the classroom, all that stuff I wrote about in my "It's hard" post really doesn't matter at all. I love my job. I have found my calling in life, and although once I leave here it will be some time before I teach at a university again, at least I know my goal.

Also, did I mention that I have a maid?


Thursday, April 29, 2010

It's hard!

I don't usually write about very personal things on this blog; it's been more of a travelogue than anything. However, I'm sure people are curious what it's like to live in another country, to live in China. Like most things, it's complicated. There's good and bad. I love some things, I hate others. So, here is my attempt to convey some of my thoughts about my experiences so far. Today's post will be negative, and the next will be positive. They're going to be long, so prepare yourself.

It's hard!

In my post-graduate speaking and listening class, we listened to a radio piece by James Fallows. He was talking about his time living in Japan, and at one point, he described it as living "in exile." I had to explain to my students what exile meant, and that it implied that in some ways, his time living in Japan felt like a punishment.

I don't want to say that living in China is like being punished, because it's not. But sometimes, I do feel like I'm "doing time." Putting in time in China so that my Chinese will improve, and I can move back West and pursue my career goals. I am normally a pretty happy, content person, and that hasn't changed in China. I'm content with my life here. Sometimes though, it does feel like something I just need to "get over with" so that I can do other things.

Why does it feel that way? Lots of reasons. Small things, like fireworks going off at all hours, streets where everyone constantly honks their horns, or horrible pollution and litter everywhere (the rumors are true.) Blue sky days are a real rarity and treat, as most of the time everything is gray and monotone. Similarly, I get so tired of everything, everywhere being dirty and grimy! The air, the streets, the buses, the restaurants, my white clothes after I hang them to dry...

And, bigger things. Things usually termed "culture shock." It's really different here. I often catch myself thinking, 'Chinese people are weird,' and then I realize that no, Chinese people aren't weird. I'm weird. I'm out of place.

One of the biggest difficulties is also one that I have trouble talking about. It's a cultural difference, so it's hard to discuss without coming off as judgmental. People my age are often not mature in the ways that I am, having grown up in a very different manner. Chinese children and young adults don't have the same amount of choice that Americans do, so it tends to result in a different mindset and personality. Children usually don't have extracurricular activities they can choose among, nor do they usually choose their own classes, and they tend to have very little free time to spend as they choose. They don't usually choose their university, and surprisingly often, they don't even choose their major. Even at university, they don't choose most of their classes, and life is still pretty prescribed.

All this means that most Chinese people seem much younger than their years to me. If you were to meet most of my students, despite their being about 20, you'd probably guess them to be around 16, by American norms.

The biggest problem this creates is that sometimes I have trouble identifying with some of the other young people. I'm not really interested in watching Hanna Montana or shopping for Hello Kitty. This means it's been much easier to make friends with foreigners, even disregarding the language gap. I just have more in common with them - not surprisingly. It feels like a cop out sometimes, but it's just the way things are for me right now.

This is not to say all Chinese people are like this, but it is a definite trend that contributes to my "culture shock." There are, of course, cultural differences that I really like, but that's for the next post.

Another negative aspect to living in China, for me, is an obvious one. I am different. I am foreign. And I look different and foreign. No matter what I do, it's immediately obvious. Living in China as a foreigner is different from living in say, Australia, as a foreigner for one major reason: I am white, and blond, and tall, and I stick out everywhere I go.

This means that everywhere I go, on campus, to the supermarket, taking the bus, etc. I get stared at. Everywhere. Sometimes people even (quasi-surreptitiously) take pictures of me with their cell phones. Strangers often approach me with such conversation starters as: "Hello. Can I have your MSN?" (screen name.) "Hello. Can I have your cell phone number?" "Hello. Can you help me with my English?"

I shouldn't complain about this, because the inquiries are all friendly. But it's hard sometimes to have people look at me and think, not, "normal person," but "different" or "English tutor" or "walking, talking English dictionary." I am constantly approached by complete strangers who, often without any introduction, ask me for my cell phone number or internet screen name so that I can help them with their English, or just ask me to help them with their English right then and there. Don't get me wrong - I love my students. And I love helping them with their English, even in my spare time. But I have about 350 students, and when I'm just walking around, trying to buy lunch or go to the post office, I don't really want to help random people with their pronunciation while I walk. And I definitely can't be a private, free English tutor to every person who sees me and my blond hair walking by.

If nothing else, I have learned that I never, ever want to be a famous celebrity. I'm quite looking forward to a life of anonymity when I move back to the West.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lantern Festival

Back to China! I've got lots of blog posts I'd like to share about China, so now that I've (finally) finished chronicling my trip, it's back to China! This post is very old - the festival happened on February 28.


On the last day of the Chinese New Year Festival, Chinese people celebrate Lantern Festival. I got really lucky, because I was in Quanzhou for the Festival, and Quanzhou is famous for its celebrations. Everyone buys beautiful, intricate paper lanterns to put out. Some rich individuals and businesses spend a lot of money to have professional lanterns made.

In downtown Quanzhou, one of the main temples is decked out with lanterns and opened to the public for a fee. It was crazy how many people were there! It was the sort of situation that could have easily turned dangerous had anything gone awry. As we stood waiting to get into the temple, the crowd was pressed person to person. There was no moving on your own, and if you fell, getting up would be a serious undertaking. Nothing happened, of course, and after waiting in the packed crowd, we got into the temple and were treated to a beautiful display.

There is a pond in the middle of the temple grounds that was particularly beautiful.

I can't even imagine how these were put together, as I'm fairly sure most/all of them were made by hand.

The other part of the lantern festival, besides looking at the beautiful lanterns, is setting off a (usually much plainer) version yourself. First, you light a piece of fuel that is attached to a the bottom of the lantern.

Once the air inside the lantern has heated up enough, away it goes!