Well, it’s been an interesting start to the year of the Tiger! Dave and I decided to stay in Suzhou over Chinese New Year, once more. Traveling in China at the moment is a headache, as Omicron spreads across the country. We didn’t want to deal with potential quarantines or all the testing required to travel, so we stayed in the city of gardens and canals and enjoyed good times with good friends.
The last night of the holiday, things got interesting. Suzhou announced that 4 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Suzhou. It was announced that schools were going to be closed while the city figured out if the virus had spread. 4 cases may not seem like much, but Suzhou hasn’t had any local transmission since May 2020, so this was a pretty big deal.
Monday morning, things got even more interesting! I woke up at 7am to find out that the city was ordering mass testing, and that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave our apartment compound until we had COVID tests done. So, we lined up outside, along with 1000 of our neighbors, and waited for the swab.
It took about 2 hours to get through the line, and then I was able to get to the school for an emergency meeting on how online classes would be handled. I was a little annoyed that my boss decided that an in-person meeting was required (we’ve been through all this before, after all…), but we were called in, so we went.
My compound was all clear, but some of my coworkers ended up with yellow codes, indicating that they had been in the same vicinity as someone who was confirmed as being a positive case. One of my coworkers had a confirmed case in her apartment complex, which was a little alarming. She had to go home and basically stay there until further notice.
We’re up to 24 positive cases in Suzhou now. No one is really panicking. We all know that omicron isn’t super deadly and that we’ll mostly be fine if we catch it, but with China’s MASSIVE population, and close living conditions, an out-of-control breakout could lead to a LOT of hospitalizations, so it’s still taken very seriously.
Dave and I lined up again this morning for test #2. We’ll likely need to be tested every second day for the next couple of weeks. I’m teaching from home and we stocked up on groceries (and toilet paper!), So we aren’t leaving the apartment all that much. We are free to move around if we want to, and as long as we comply with testing and masks, we can go out, but we’d rather not risk ending up with yellow codes if we come into contact with someone who later tests positive. It’s too much of a headache, so we’re playing it safe.
I find it interesting how different countries are reacting to things now (and through these past two years too). In Canada, there are massive protests going, and with vaccination rates being so high, and population density so low, I understand why people are tired of the restrictions. I am too. In China though, the risks are different, and as frustrated as I can get about things here, on some levels I get it.
I think I can speak for everyone on the planet when I say that I just really want this all to end.
Stay safe everyone! Looking forward to the day that all this is a distant memory!!
At this point, I’m no longer on holiday. We’re still in Langkawi and I’m still not physically teaching classes, but I’m still back at work in a sense. The wonders of the internet have allowed me to teach remotely.
This Strange Holiday
We were originally supposed to be back at work as of Feb 10th, but that was extended to Feb 17th in an effort to keep the virus from spreading further. The government also requested that people avoid flying into China unnecessarily, so we changed our flights to February 15. It wasn’t an issue. Most flight companies are kindly offering refunds on flights to China throughout the virus.
Just last week though, the government decided that February 17th was still too early to reopen schools and has now declared that schools should not open before the end of February. This time, they didn’t give us an estimated return date.
Shortly after the announcement was made, our February 15th flights were cancelled by Air Asia, and the company announced that they were suspending all flights back to China until March.
This is where things have gotten a bit ugly for a lot of the teachers in China. Many foreigners have decided to move home due to the virus, breaking contracts and leaving their schools and students in the lurch. On the other hand, I’ve heard of many schools demanding that their employees come into the school to do “paperwork” until the schools reopen
In some cases, schools have tried deducting wages or flat out telling their staff that they aren’t getting paid for February. Now, this might make sense if teachers aren’t doing online classes or producing online material for their students, but some schools have gone so far as to demand these materials but to also claim they won’t be paying their staff.
I’ve been very lucky. My school administration has asked me to work during this shut down period but they’re making sure to track our work to guarantee that we will be paid for it. I think this is the best way to go about all this (for middle School and high school anyway) because at the end of the day, students still need to pass their final tests to get into good highschool’s and universities, and honestly… As crazy as all this has been… Life can’t just stop.
Of course, life isn’t normal either. We are safer in Malaysia for the time being so this is where we’re staying. Suzhou has over 80 cases now, but the virus does seem to be slowing down. Every day we check the news to see what the new numbers of sick, dead and recovered patients.
Dave and I have been incredibly fortunate in many ways. We’re in a safe and beautiful country (Malaysia) where money goes a long way and the internet is good. I work for a good school that is treating us well. We also have a cat sitter who is visiting our pets every day and an apartment complex that allows her to go in and out. We’ve been on the lucky side of things in a lot of different ways.
Still, it’s been hard. The most difficult part for me has been to remain positive for the sake of others. A lot of people are really scared. A lot of our friends are back in China, and some of them are immunocompromised, and less likely to survive should they catch coronavirus. We have friends from Wuhan, whose family members are sick, and who can’t go home. We have friends whose parents are doctors, working around the clock and putting themselves at risk. A lot of medical personal have caught the virus and have died from it. Scarier yet, a doctor passed away last week from sheer exhaustion. He was only 28, and he died of heart failure after working hour after hour, day after day, trying to save lives.
I am a community leader in the suzhou expat circles, managing multiple Wechat groups, with up to 500 people in each. These forums are invaluable resources for people living in China, and they’re how we stay in touch with other Canadians, teachers and how we get advice on everything from where to eat to how to renew your passport if it expires while you’re abroad.
I run several communities regarding animal rescue, which has really been a big job through all of this. There have been so many rumours spread about the virus… Some people claim the virus was bio warfare. Others claim that it was a leaked virus from a lab. The one that has been personally quite difficult for me has been the idea that pets can transmit the disease and get their owners sick.
The day that rumour began, pets all over China were killed. Their terrified and misinformed owners threw them off balconies and poisoned them. One woman came down with coronavirus and while she was in the hospital, someone broke into her home and killed her cat out of fear. People began to fear that their pets would be killed in all of this. To make matters worse, British tabloids tried saying that the government was telling people that if they didn’t kill their pets, the government would. It was all nonsense… But just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it won’t be shared and that it won’t spread like wildfire.
Life Back in China
People out west don’t seem to really know what’s all going on. They imagine people dying in the streets and a callous government who doesn’t care if its citizens die. None of it really captures life in China at the moment.
In reality, people are going stir crazy in their apartments, quarantined for safety measures. It’s difficult to get supplies at the moment because delivery companies are shut down. Finding masks and hand sanitizer has been difficult. Items like pet food and food with long shelf life is harder to find. People fill shopping carts with cheap ramen and canned goods ‘just in case’. There is limited fresh food and it runs out daily.
Most public venues are still shut down and many restaurants are doing take away orders only. Some restaurants have a strict 3 person limit at each table, in an attempt to reduce crowds from forming. Malls, vets and grocery stores all have reduced hours and many apartment complexes even have curfews. In other cities, people are only allowed leaving their apartments once every few days, so really, Suzhou doesn’t even have it that bad.
Teachers and students are both struggling with online classes in a country with very closed off internet access. Students still have exams to pass but are mentally checked out, which I completely understand. No one is sure when schools will reopen in Jiangsu province, where we live. Shanghai has announced that schools will be online only through March, but each province is coming up with their own rules.
Wuhan and is still overwhelmed with the sick, and short on supplies and medical workers. People are still dying every day, but the number of new deaths is starting to go down, which is a good sign. The number of recovered patients is also on the rise. Soon, we hope the latter will be the bigger number in our daily updates.
We’re set to go home on February 24th. I miss my cats so much, and Poe has been quite sick, with an interestinal infection, so I’ve been extra worried about her. I also miss my friends and the comfort of my own bed. I miss normalcy.
Change is in the Air
I think things are going to change in China, after all this calms down. Ideally, wet markets will become a lot more strictly run to avoid outbreaks like this from beginning in the future. I hope that the government will start taking measures to teach the general population about unsanitary practices like spitting, and force companies to put soap in all bathrooms. I also think the Chinese people trust their government a little less after all this.
I’m not sure if anything will change, but I know that this whole experience has changed me. Being in Langkawi had reminded me how much I miss being around nature and how much I miss having work/life balance. In China, all we really do is work, but here, we spend our free time animal watching, cruising around on our motorbike or even just swimming in our guesthouse pool. I don’t think I’d ever have time for any of that working in a country with such an intense work culture.
Coronavirus has forced me to slow down and it’s been a good change. I’m not sure what’s in store for us in the coming few years but I can say with certainty that although life in China has been amazing… This chapter in our life is coming to an end. Before long, we’ll be onto a new adventure. We aren’t sure what that will involve yet, but I’m sure it will be grand.
So there you have it. This is our life at the moment. Hopefully we’ll be back home on the 24th, to cuddle up with our kitties and get back into our routines.
I still have a few posts left to write about Langkawi! They’ll be up soon!
We’ve been back from Europe now for over 2 months. We’ve been keeping busy, as always, but the last few months have seen some new activities and events added to our lives.
I had a weird little lightbulb moment near the beginning of March, when I realized I might be able to combine 2 very important aspects of my life to create something good.
That’s how my weightloss challenge was born.
I pitched the idea to a few friends who quickly jumped on board. I expected maybe 20 people to get involved
In the end, we had 136 contestants in about 15 different cities
The idea was simple. Contestants paid 100rmb ($20 Canadian) to enter the challenge. I would spend two months leading a positive and encouraging group. We’d donate any money raised to a couple of animal shelters.
Of course, all of this ended up being a whole lot of work for me. Every day, I get between 25 and 50 challenges to enter into my giant Excel sheet. On Tuesdays, contestants weigh in, so we can stay accountable to our goals, and then on Wednesdays, I draw names for mini prizes based on whatever goals I set for the week.
We also held a “Dogathon” to raise money forvthe shelters. There were 2 main cities involved in the Charity Challenge, so contestants in each city planned a giant walk for dogs and their owners. Similar to the Charity challenge itself, participants paid a small fee to join in, and all proceeds went to the animals.
With the success of the challenge and the dogathon, I decided to take things one step further, and to begin organizing volunteer trips to the SAPA shelter, which is home to more than 1000 dogs and cats.
The trip was incredible. The SAPA is a noisy, smelly and magical place. The animals there are quite well cared for and mostly very friendly. You get the feeling while you’re there, that you are the best thing that has happened to those dogs all week. And that’s a nice feeling.
We had a very talented photographer join us on that first trip, and he did such an incredible job of capturing the beauty and sadness of that shelter.
Everyone there left a part of their hearts behind. There were 2 animals that really stood out to me. One was a small male dog with a scar around his snout. He likely had his mouth wired shut by an abuser. He is the sweetest little dog but SO afraid of people. It took me 20 minutes of sitting there with him before he finally had the bravery to come over to me. He melted into my lap as soon as I touched him. It was like he had been waiting forever for a bit of affection.
I dubbed my little black sweetheart “Wiggle Bum” because of the way he wiggled back and forth for 20 minutes trying to decide whether or not to come see me. You can see him in the video below. It’s not the best video, but it gives you an idea of what the shelter is like. He was also much less scared when I was there the second time. I wonder if he remembered me and remembered that I was kind to him.
The other animal that I really fell for was a beautiful, blind ginger cat. He was SO affectionate and so darn sweet. My friend Kim spent most of her time at SAPA cuddled up with him. I made sure to get lots of pictures of him and later that night, I made a flyer to try and find him an adopter, or at least to raise funds to get him healthy.
No one was able to foster him, but a lot of people donated, so Dave and I had him moved from the shelter to our vet, where he was quarantined for a week and treated for mites, fleas, ear fungus, a sinus infection and a few other little problems.
Now, he’s staying with us and learning how to be a good house cat. He’s sweet as ever and becoming so incredibly confident!
Since my first trip to the shelter, I’ve organized a group that people can join if they want to volunteer but don’t really know what to do or where to go. I organize buses to and from the SAPA and bring up to 25 people at a time. I’m going tomorrow again and I can’t wait!!
Next week, the Charity challenge ends. In total, we’ve raised more than 40,000rmb ($8000 Canadian) and lost more than 225kgs (about 500 pounds) in weight!!! I’d call that a success!!!!
The challenge is nearly over, but the mission will continue!!!
If you’re reading this and wondering how you can help, drop me a line in the comments section!
Evgeny Bakhchev, our talented photographer, also put together a beautiful video about our visit, with the help of his lovely wife, Daria. Enjoy!!
This term has been one for the history books. With 120 writing & Englush students, 240 homework assignments to grade each week, a curriculum to develop and various elective classes and activities to prepare, I’ve barely had time to breath. Somehow though, Dave and I have managed to have a life outside of Suhou Foreign Language School this year. Unfortunately, my blog has fallen to the wayside.
This is what 240 tests looks like. The final week of the term is always the hardest….
Still, it’s never too late to some catching up, and now that I’m on holiday for Spring festival, I have the chance!
Summer is long in Suzhou and autumn is short but beautiful. Parks are always nice to visit in fall because the temperature is cooler and there doesn’t seem to be so many tourists. So, when an opportunity arose for us to take a tour of several Suzhou Parks with a Suzhou expert, we didn’t hesitate to join in the fun.
We saw two lesser known parks on this tour and learned about the art of calligraphy. I was happy to get some beautiful shots as we walked and learned
Several of Suzhou’s parks are UNESCO world heritage sights. They have their own unique architecture and style
Most of these parks were used as living spaces for wealthy Suzhou citizens in the past. Across from the pond is a beautiful tea room where the villa owners would entertain their friends and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere
Water plays an important role in these gardens. Steve, our guide, studied ancient Suzou for many years and he wrote a book about it. He does his walks and teaches both locals and foreigners alike about the history of this ancient water town
It was a beautiful afternoon. Sadly, we missed the other 2 Walks with Steve because of our busy schedule (more on that soon), but I’m sure we’ll be joining him to learn more about Suzhou’s history very soon.
We had a good crowd that day and met some great new people
Music also had me busy this fall. The Sundaze played several big shows, including a gig with Internations; a group that helps connect expats. We also played a really cool gig at a wine party, and one outdoor concert.
The Parking Park Festival is done annually (although usually with a better name). Musicians play on Moon Harbour… One of Suzhou’s main tourist stops
Those other gigs were fun, but my favourite show of the season was definitely Diwali. My involvement in one of India’s most important holidays began when I was asked to make a flyer for the event. From there, I ended up managing the wechat group, and most of the public relations. I wasn’t planning to take on those roles, but I rolled with the punches and was very proud to be part of this very successful event!
I’m particularly proud of the Flyers I made for the event!
Our last gig of the year was a private event held by a group of Danish expats. It was a particularly interesting event because it was held at a cabaret in Shanghai.
I loved the feel of the venue. We had a proper light and sound guy too, which was a nice change! Proper mixing is a wonderful thing because it means way less work for the vocalist. My mic was perfect the whole night and I never had to force my voice
Aside from performances, we’ve tried to get out and spend time with friends quite a bit these last few months. We’ve made some amazing new friends. Our social circle has expanded considerably!
Zou Guizhou continues to be a favorite hang out
Our apartment was nearly as full as our schedule for more than 2 months this autumn. We got word of a litter of abandoned kittens nearby, so we offered to take 2 of them in.
We called them Coco (the tabby cat) and Havana (the calico). We jokingly called them “The Monsters” because of their voracious appetites, but in all seriousness, they are two of the sweetest, most gentle kittens we’ve ever known.
We had them longer than we had planned, mostly because the adoptions we lined up for them kept falling through for various reasons. Nevertheless, we ended up finding them a good home with a Russian couple that adore them. I miss them so much my heart hurts, but that’s what the “bitter” part is with fostering. You give them all your love, your time, your care…. And then you let them go.
Suzhou’s Animal Rescue Network
Which brings me to the last and most important part of my post. While it’s true I’ve been busy raising kittens and making music, there has been a new item on my to do list since the first week of October: Rescuing animals
It all began when I joined a wechat group that was run by university students. The group was basically set up to help animals, and by the time I joined, it was being used to find fosters, adopters and also to fundraise for vet bills.
One particular woman posted a lot. She had multiple puppies living in her home, all rescued from the street. I was keeping up with her posts and it seemed like every day a new litter of dogs would arrive in her tiny apartment. After a few weeks she started asking for help.
My biggest concern in all this was the puppies’ health. By the time I got involved, Cindy had 17 puppies, 8 cats and 5 adult dogs all living in her home (plus 7 more being boarded at the vet). More significantly, without the skills to advertise these dogs, she wasn’t finding any of them fosters or homes. Luckily, I have some skills making flyers so Dave and l went down to meet Cindy and get pictures of the 18 puppies in her home.
I started circulating flyers and seeking help for these dogs. 6 days later, the first dog came down with parvo virus…
In the end, we only lost 2 of the 23 dogs living in that house. We expected far worse, especially given that many of the dogs weren’t in perfect health even before the parvo. I circulated flyers, and made people aware of the situation. I collected donations and paid the puppies bills with the funds sent in by the generous people living in Suzhou city. It cost more than $3000 Canadian to get all the dogs healthy, but it was well worth the effort. We’ve rehomed nearly all of the dogs now, and they’re living happily with their forever families!
Another dog came along during the parvo breakout. When she was found, I thought she didn’t have a chance. The woman who rescued her believed she could make it though, so I named her Hope and started circulating her story. It’s been several months now since she was found, dragging the back side of her paralyzed body… But Hope survived. She’s maintained a friendly and sweet personalty through all this, and helping her was one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever accomplished in my life.
A local “celebrity” interviewed me about Hope’s story. He’s a Danish Baker by day, but his side job is Vlogging. He makes videos about different ways people can find happiness in life. Helping animals is what brings me happiness.
Now, I’m running the group started by those kind hearted university students. We have about 300 members now and it takes 3 of us to manage the group because it’s not an easy job. I try very hard to keep it positive and about the animals. So often, people have different ideas about the best ways to fundraise and I try very hard to focus on successes and the things people CAN do.
Can I save every dog in the world? Of course not, but I helped find more than a dozen homeless animals forever homes in the last 3 months.
Can I stop every case of animal cruelty in the world? It would be impossible. But I helped save Hope.
Can I change everyone’s opinions about China and it’s attitudes towards animals? Nope. But I can work together with all the wonderful locals who DO care and very much want to see change in their country.
I’ve had a few good cries over all these dogs and all the ugliness I’ve seen. But something wonderful and unexpected has started happening through all this. As someone who is quite active in the expat community (The Foodies Groups, The Sundaze, Internations etc.), I have a voice here in Suzhou. And at some point in the last few months, I’ve become the person people call when there are dogs found freezing in the rain.
And I tell ya, each time I get a new contact and someone says “hey, Marie. I heard that you’re the person to contact about abandoned animals. Can you help?” And I can actually help….. It’s a pretty darn purposeful way to spend my time.
So, that’s why you haven’t been hearing as much from me as of late. But get ready, because I’m on holiday in Europe and will be doing my daily posts!
If you or anyone you know is interested in helping Suzhou’s abandoned and needy animals, please add me to wechat! Whether you want to adopt, foster or donate, every bit of help we recieve is crucial and appreciated!!!
Being an English teacher has its challenges, but one of the biggest perks I have as a language teacher is that I can teach my lessons through a variety of lenses. If I’m teaching about conditional voice, for example, I can have the students talk about which super powers they wish they had, or about regrets they have from the past.
This year, I chose to teach my grade 9 students English through a lens I think everyone should consider: “Critical Thinking in Social Media”. I introduced them to Snopes, discussed the power (and danger) of memes and we talked about subjects ranging from gun control in the United States to South Korean fan superstitions. My hope was that I’d teach them how to be considerate and intelligent Netizens, but I probably learned nearly as much as they did.
Our class discussions about the dangers of Social Media really got me thinking. We discussed the idea that people rarely write about bad things that are happening in their lives, but instead tend to focus on the positive, making their lives look more glamorous and perfect that they really are. In of itself, this isn’t a problem, but when others see those happy posts, they start to compare their own lives with the (perfect) lives that others present to the cyber world.
Elephants in Thailand
Ziplining in Laos
Cruising down the Mekong River looking for Irawaddy Dolphins
Sunsets on the Great Wall
Sunsets in Phu Quoc….if all you see are these…it seems like my life is a breeze!
I try not to do this, but, of course, it can be difficult. I haven’t been feeling particularly positive lately, so I thought this would be a good time to write about the negative aspects of living as an expat. *Spoiler…it’s awesome…but like everything, it has its downsides*
June is a hard month for a lot of reasons. It’s the end of the school year, which is stressful for all teachers. Between grading, report cards and final tests, teachers across the planet are barely holding it together every June. When you’re an expat teacher, you have to also consider the stress of booking flights home, finding cat sitters, and spending 6 weeks living out of suitcases. It’s stressful.
Not to mention the nightmare of travelling…
And the fact that I have to go to an airport that has SIM card vending machines every few meters, but bottled water is hidden away
And then there’s the train station…. Have I mentioned we do all this with luggage???
That’s not to say that I’d give up my trip home to avoid these stresses…but it is something a lot of people don’t think about when they think of what it’s like teaching abroad. Other things include…
Saying Goodbye to Students
One event was particularly emotional for me this month. My grade 9 students have been with me since my very first day at SFLS, and in September, they will be moving onto high school. Many of them will be moving abroad as well, so it’s not as though I’ll be seeing many of them again. Their graduation was last Friday and although I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry (I even refused to bring tissue in an attempt to not even give myself the option), I ended up red in the face and tearier than I would like to admit. When you love teaching…it’s easy to become attached to the kids you see every day for 3 years.
Victor and I with Wendy. I was happy I could put my hands in front of my face because I’d started crying a few moments before and simply couldn’t stop
This class is full of the coolest kids in China. I’m sure of it
This is Angel. She’s the reason I was crying. She came up and gave me a hug and whipered ‘thank you’ in my ear and I just couldn’t stop. As a teacher, you pour yourself into your students. You spend all your free time grading their work and helping them on Wechat. You spend you life getting them ready for exams and making sure that they’re getting the best education you can provide. Unfortunately, teaching teenagers can be pretty thankless. They often forget about their foreign teachers because we aren’t as important at the school as the Chinese staff. It’s amazing what one quiet “Thank You” can make you feel. Also…I know teachers aren’t suppose to have favourites…but Angel is one of my favourite students ever. She’s kind and intelligent as she is beautiful.
Michael and I at the Drama Festival. I’m still waiting for him to send me the photos of us at grad, although he made me cry too. He has popped up in many of my blog posts and will always have a special place in my heart.
Ken, back when he was in 7th grade
He’s taller than me now…but still one of the coolest kids I’ve ever known. He’ll be moving to Hawaii over the summer. He was accepted in the a school there. I’m insanely jealous.
Still, I wish them all the best, and although it sucks to see them go, I have new students coming in next September, and they will provide new challenges and rewards for me and all their other teachers.
This class is full of the coolest kids in China. I’m sure of it
Kate looked beautiful in her graduation dress. She reminds me so much of what I was like at that age…kind of sarcastic…very dramatic…but as passionate as they come.
With the students at this year’s spelling bee
Final class photos
The friendships you form while living abroad are also a very important part of the expat life. I’ve made friends from all over the world, and although we’re all very different people with very different backgrounds, there is one thing we all have in common: we don’t really belong anywhere.
When you’re away from home, having a good group of friends becomes increasingly important. They’re who you spend Christmas with and they’re who help you through troubled times. Most importantly, they’re the ones who understand you, because as much as people back home can try and empathize, they only really see the really good and really bad parts of being an expat…none of the ‘in-between-everday-stuff’.
When a student of mine committed suicide in January, it was Kim and CJ who helped me through. Kim has been a teacher for years, and she understands the pressure Chinese students deal with. It’s pressure different from anything western students experience
These people have helped us both through a whole lot of crappy days, crappy months and crappy moments.
Mike also helped me through Pony’s death. He and I spend quite a lot of time brainstorming ways to make sure our students know we are there for them. Pony was his student as well, and I think that if I hadn’t had someone to talk to about how we could prevent this from happening again…it would have been even harder to get through it.
Dave and I are far more outgoing and far more adventurous abroad than we ever were back home, and our social life is pretty awesome. We spend lots of time going out for dinner, going to KTV, going to Salsa parties, and of course, I have my band. All these things are done with friends…and 99% of my friends are currently expats, or people who were previously expats, but have moved back home to China.
Cheetar (USA_, Myself and Tythus (Malaysia). They both work in the highschool. Cheetar and I have been working together for 3 years. He is leaving to move to a different part of China this summer. I’m going to miss seeing him around the school.
Dedrick, Mark and I….We are the Sundaze! Dedrick moved to Hangzhou last summer…it’s only an hour away, and I still get to see him often, but it’s sucked not having him around. Luckily, he’s moving back to Suzhou in September!! Mark and I are planning to leave Suzhou at the same time. I’m working on convincing him and his wife to join us in Vietnam. Fingers crossed!
Katie, Kevin, Dave and I last year at Dave’s Birthday. I just learned that Katie is moving back to Suzhou after finishing her Master’s degree in England. It’ll be great to have her back!
Jeff…the very first friend i made in Suzhou. When he found out a new Canadian was going to be working at SFLS, he emailed me to welcome me to the team. I felt more welcomed in Suzhou before I even moved there, than I did my whole time in Guiyang
Liz. One of my longest friendships in Suzhou
Adam is also one of my oldest Suzhou friends. We only worked together for a year before he moved to a different school, but we’ve stayed friends even though he’s across the city. His girlfriend, Tracy, lives in our building, so we get to see her often
Kevin is one of my best friends in the world. He moved away last week. I miss him more than I really want to think about
You make friends at school too, of course. Sam is the giant on the far left. He teaches economics with me in IGCSE. Crystal is the Chinese teacher and she is also my cleaning buddy in the office! And Victor is one of my bffs. We’ve worked together for 2 years at SFLS. He’s from Nigeria and he’s a fantastic human being
Linda and Paul are Taiwanese. We became friends over the past 3 years because Linda’s parents own a restaurant we like
Miya. One of the most beautiful people on the planet. She moved away for a year to live in New Zealand. It sucked.
Michael and Dave. Michael is a Kiwi who lived in Suzhou for our first 2 years. I still find myself missing him although he moved back to New Zealand more than a year ago now.
We are losing Shane on Saturday. He’s moving back to Australia. He’ll be missed a lot. Other than Dave, he’s our best groupie!
Of course…when you are a nomad and surround yourself with other nomads…people enter and leave your life regularly. It’s difficult because I understand it…but I hate it. I also hate that soon I’ll be the one leaving people behind. Already, I find myself wondering if I’ll ever find friends as good as the ones I have in Suzhou…
Occasionally, you get to see your expat friends again….
We were lucky to have 2 friends visit us this year. Joan and Lexie both visited us in the fall
And sometimes, people even move back…like Miya. this was us the day she came back to Suzhou. I look only about half as excited as I actually was!!
The ‘Home Dilemma’
Home becomes a really weird concept when you live abroad. I like to say that ‘Home is where my cats are’, but in reality, I spend 3 months away from them every year. I’d like to say that ‘Home is where you grew up’, but nobody in my family even lives in that tiny Manitoba town, so how can that really be home? Steinbach never really felt like home for me, because I was too different from the local people. Oddly enough, in some ways, Suzhou has been feeling more like home than anywhere I’ve ever been. I’ve become a part of the community, through music, foodie groups and through school.
My band has turned me into a more social and charismatic person. Playing with these guys is easily one of the funnest things I’ve ever done in my life
Whether we’re playing in dingy bars
Or at music festivals
We always have a blast!
I think that living abroad changes you in that way. Home isn’t as easily defined when you don’t ever quite fit in. In China, I’m a minority. I’m only one of a few thousand expats in a city of 8 million people. Back home, it’s the same. I’ve had such a different 4 years than most of my friends and family. It’s difficult to explain your feelings about things when the people in your life see the world differently than you do. It’s especially noticeable when talking about world politics or world events with people back in Canada. It’s easy to talk about India’s poverty or an earthquake in Indonesia when you see it as some far off place, separate from you. But when you can picture the smells and sounds of a place….when you’ve been there and it’s personal…you see those events very differently.
What makes it especially hard is that we’ve never had any family or friends visit us here in China. I know that it isn’t in everyone’s budget, and there are a thousand reasons why people can’t just hop on a plane and visit, but regardless of those reasons…it makes ‘home’ a difficult subject. At the end of the day, China is currently our home, but the people we know and love back in Canada have no idea what our life is like in the place we call home.
And that’s why I hound my family save up and come visit us…it’s not because I want to show them the sites or because I think China is the most beautiful place on earth….it’s because I want them to understand me. I people back home to understand what life is like in the city I currently call home.
Always Missing Somewhere or Someone
And of course there’s the obvious reason it’s hard being an expat is all the stuff you leave behind at the end of the summer. It’s great having stories to tell your family and friends…but I really do wish I had the power of teleportation. Then, I wouldn’t need to miss everyone so much.
I always laugh because when I’m in China, I call Canada Home…and when I’m in Canada, I call China home
There’s so much I miss about Winnipeg. Going to concerts is definitely one
I miss lakes and trees….and quiet.
I miss these wonderful people most of all!
It isn’t All Bad
Of course, it isn’t nearly all bad. June is probably my least favourite month of the year. It’s difficult saying goodbye to students. It’s difficult saying goodbye to friends. Add that to the fact that it’s exam season and end of term…and I can’t believe it’s taken me 4 years to write this post.
Still, there are a thousand things that being an expat allows us to do. It sucks saying goodbye to friends…but it’s great meeting so many new people all the time. It sucks only seeing our family and Canadian friends once a year, but we always have so many stories to tell them! And being an Expat gives us so many opportunities that we’d never have back in Canada. My band wouldn’t get nearly as many gigs if we weren’t ‘interesting foreigners’. Of course, we could never afford to travel this much if we didn’t live in China. And with Dave working from home, we were able to foster little Oscar. Here are some pictures of Oscar to remind you of all the reasons I love being an expat!
Stay tuned! I’ve got half a dozen more posts coming in the next month or so!!
He was found in the bushes right outside my school
He was mostly blind when we found him. Within our first week with him he started following movements
He was such a princely little cat!
What a flirt!
If Dave didn’t work at home, we never would have been able to give him the care he needed
These are the lovely women who adopted our little foster kitty
China is an interesting place to be for a foreigner.
First, let me begin by asking you: what do you know about China? Really? The fact that dog is eaten here may have popped into your mind, and perhaps you pictured deep fried ‘honey garlic’ something or other as well. Maybe you thought about the Great Wall. But really, for a country with 5000 years of written history, many North Americans know very little about life in the Orient.
Many of my friends and family assumed that I would be going to a country with more advanced technology than we have in Canada. Many people also assumed that I would be eating nothing but rice and chicken feet. But in reality, China is an incredibly diverse country. There are hundreds of local languages here, an incredibly diverse geology and every city has it’s own specialty cuisine. In short, China is so much more than you can imagine.
But as little as you know about China, China knows less about you!
Eight years ago, when I lived on the east coast, in a beautiful little city called Xiamen, I was stared at daily. I had people point at me and yell “Lao Wei!” (foreigner) so that their friends might notice in time and get a look at me too. I had people come up to me and ask for my photo. More often still, I caught people sneaking photos of me. There were times when an interested man or woman would come up to me as I shopped, pulling things out of my cart to see what the strange ‘lao wai’ was purchasing. Everywhere I went in Xiamen, I was pointed at, shouted at and stared at. Whether I was taking a 2am stroll (the only time I found quiet in that small city of 2 million people), or walking up the path to my apartment, I was constantly met with stares and pointing. And of course, the ever-present sound of the words “Lao Wai!!!!”
I imagined it would be different in Guiyang. 8 years have passed, and thousands of teachers have arrived and left the country since I departed in 2006. Nearly every young person here now speaks at least a little English. EAL teachers are everywhere, working for private training centers (like I am), for private schools and even at public schools. There are easily a hundred of us in Guizhou province alone.
And if the presence of white teachers isn’t enough, Western culture has also permeated life here. Guiyang has several KFC restaurants, 2 Pizza Huts, 3 Walmarts, a Starbucks and H&M, just to name a few. English is everywhere! In their music, on their signs and on their T-shirts. Any company who aims to have a ‘cool’ image must have English in their name, even if no one within the company speaks a word of the language. People here are obsessed with Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, and today I even heard “Criminal”, by Brittany Spears, blasting from a lingerie store. 8 years ago, this was not the case. Sure, there was a Walmart and KFC in Xiamen, but seeing English on signs and T-shirts was hardly an every day occurrence.
Yet, the sight of a foreigner is still shocking for the majority of Chinese people.
A few weeks ago, I was driving my scooter to school, when a bus pulled up beside me. I had to focus on the traffic and ignore the commotion that my presence had caused in that bus. Windows were rolled down, and people were shouting and laughing and saying ‘Hello!’. I sometimes feel like an un-talented celebrity when this happens! (Perhaps this is how the Kardashians feel?) When Dave and I went and visited QianLing Hill Park, we were in as many pictures as we took! Even the monkeys seemed to think we were interesting and strange!
On good days, this isn’t an issue. I laugh and smile and respond to their calls with ‘hello’. A simple wave, or greeting in response to their excitement usually results in further excitement. “Did the Lao Wei just say hello to ME!!! Oh My God!!!”. I waved at a child who was staring at me from a restaurant this week. Her entire family waved back. Some of them even stood up to get a better view of me! And this, I should add, was in Zhong Tian Garden, where I live. There are between 8 and 10 EAL teachers who live in this area, yet it’s still exciting for them to see one of us.
On bad days, this aspect of life in China is less enjoyable. Being stared at while you are fighting back tears after a particularly difficult day, is not a pleasant feeling. Having a crowd form around you, while you struggle to chain your scooter to a gate because it has a flat tire, is exasperating. There are some days where I want to shout: “What’s wrong with you! Didn’t your mothers ever teach you that it’s rude to point!!!”. But I don’t. I know that even if I did, they probably wouldn’t understand me anyway, so I keep my head down and try to blend in with the masses. I’m vertically challenged so that’s easy, but it’s certainly harder for some of the tall teachers at Interlingua.
Still, in spite of these bad days, I’d say life in Guiyang is more interesting than upsetting. More often than not, people here are curious, but kind. We’ve had people bring out dishes for us that other customers in the restaurant have paid for us to try. Most people thrilled when I greet them in Mandarin, and embarrassed but excited when I respond to their ‘Lao Wei!!!’ with a ‘hello’ and a coy smile. (Yes, I know that you are talking about me…).
I consider myself lucky to be in China in 2014, during such a time of growth. In the last 8 years, many things have changed: I now see English everywhere I go, I hear English Music in cars and in stores and I can shop at H&M (I can’t even do that in Winnipeg!). But in some ways, China continues to be its cut-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world self. The people here still marvel at the foreigner as though they are something special and interesting. I can’t help but wonder whether this will still be the case in 8 years from now.