Teaching in China

Suzhou Foreign Language school’s Autumn semester begins on September 1st. As I prepare for my classes and plan out my term, I thought it might be a good idea to write a little bit about what it’s like teaching in China!

(Spoiler…it’s awesome!!)

I’m not going to lie…living abroad isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. When we arrived in Shanghai last week, after a sleepless 11 hour flight, I was not prepared to deal with the bus depot’s toilets or the long ride back to Suzhou. I wanted to get right back into the plane and return to Canada. But as I sat there, fighting back tears of exhaustion in the bus terminal, Dave reminded me that soon I’d be back at work, and that calmed me right down. I thought of all my students and all the plans I had for them this year, and I knew that everything would be okay. Teaching is what I was always meant to do and I can’t express enough how rewarding it can be. I’ve taught children as young as 3 years old, 50 year old business men and everything in between, and I’ve gotta say…it doesn’t matter what age or level you are teaching…being an educator is a blast!

So pumped to see these guys again! Can’t believe they’re going to be in Grade 8 this year!!

No matter how awesome the job is, though, the beginning of the semester offers some rather large challenges. If you know about them ahead of time, it can help a lot, here’s a list of tips I have for teachers at the beginning of the term.
1.) Be Prepared!!!

I once had an interviewer ask me what my ‘super power’ is. I replied, without hesitation, that it is organization. My ability to stay on top of my chaotic life all goes back to my day planner. Without it…I am lost. I am the master of lists and checking off items is sometimes all that gets me through hectic days. But that’s the key…it DOES get me through!

I started rubbing off on my students…at the beginning of the term, in food and nutrition, many of my students just left all their vegetables all over the counters…by the end of the 1st term, they were neatly putting things in bowls. They agreed that it made it much easier cooking this way!

I recommend check lists to everyone and everyone because they allow you to stay on top of everything (and not forget about important events or tasks!) but also because they can give you a real sense of accomplishment. I recently had a coworker tease me for having ‘start grade 7 ppt’ as one of my check-list items. He thought it was silly that I had only ‘part’ of a task listed as an item on my list.

So, I asked him: “What’s the hardest part of making your weekly Power Point?” He answered “getting it started…” Boom! Item #1 is done and once you start, it’s not nearly as daunting of a task.

Literally, my day planner RIGHT NOW…I leave little boxes in front of the tasks so I can fill them in when I’m done! Also…notice the colour coding??? It’s an ongoing joke in the middle school that when a student asks if I have finished grading their work or if I know where something is, my response is ‘Of course! I am VERY organized!’

I also firmly believe in the power of lesson plans. I know countless teachers who go into their classes with an idea of what they’re doing…but with no physical plan. I honestly have no idea how they do it…I lose track of time, I miss items and I let the class get carried away in discussions when I don’t have a proper plan. Don’t get me wrong…discussions are great in an ESL classroom! It’s what you WANT!! But in your 8:30am writing class, it isn’t always good when little Tom asks me ‘what I like about Suzhou’ to try and distract me from teaching about Present Perfect tense…

I am trying a new way of doing lesson planning this year. Last year I was doing much more detailed plans, but then I realized that my Power Points were pretty much all I needed. Now, I’m focusing on the big items I want to cover every week. I leave space for notes to comment on things that went well (or badly) and for information students who really excelled or may need extra help.

And going Macro…Term plans can also be an excellent idea, especially when you don’t have a book to teach from! Last year, none of my classes had actual textbooks, so it became very important for me to plan ahead to make sure I was covering all the material they’d need to know for their IGCSE exams. Even when I DID have a book to teach from, when I was teaching Elementary and Kindergarten, my term plans were crucial to making sure all content was covered. It was a simple outline for the term, but an outline nonetheless. I recommend these tools to anyone! (And if you have any questions about layouts or things you should have in any of these plans, shoot me a question in the comments section! I’m always happy to help a fellow teacher!)

2.) But not too prepared…

This may seems silly…but in China, you need to expect things to change. Your classes might get moved around or cancelled at the last second. I’ve often walked into my classroom to find no students there…when I track down their homeroom teacher it’s usually because some other activity was planned and they forgot to tell me. This is normal in China. You have to roll with the punches because like it or not…these things are CONSTANT!

Leading up to the Drama Festival I was losing my mind because each class was so important for rehearsal, and my classes kept getting cancelled so the students could go horseback riding…or because they had a dance rehearsal to go to instead…it was Maddening!!

These types of things used to drive me CRAZY until I had someone tell me the reasoning behind it. China is what is known as a ‘Shame Culture’. I’ve written about ‘saving face’ in previous posts, and that’s what’s coming into play here. Things are often planned at the last second in here because it reduces the chance of having to cancel events. Cancelling an event is very bad in Chinese culture and knowing that actually made me feel a lot better about the ways it affects me. People here aren’t stupid or disorganized…the cultural norms are just different. That is something VERY important to remember when living here!
3.) Be Prepared for all the September/October Holiday Mayhem

The beginning of term always takes it out of me… Whether you are in a Training Center, a Foreign Language School or an International school (the 3 basic types of schools in China). the beginning of term has many challenges to overcome.

First, you need to get back into the groove of things and find your flow in the classroom. Then, you have to get all of your ‘beginning of term admin stuff’ out of the way…then you have to deal with 2 holidays within the first month of teaching!!!

“Teacher’s Day” is also a mini holiday (no time off) in September. Students bring you all sorts of little goodies and the school makes you feel very appreciated!!

Mid-Autumn Festival is a lovely holiday (one of my favourites!) celebrated by getting together with family and eating Moon Cakes. It takes place in the beginning of September and it usually means a 3 day holiday for teachers.

Delicious, Delicious moon cakes!!!

Then, there is China’s “National Day”, which actually lasts a week. It’s known in the tourism industry as “The Golden Mess” because there are literally over 1 billion people all on holiday at the same time in China! The regular tourist sights are PACKED and even the lesser known sights are still teaming with people. We traveled to Xiamen our first year in China during the holiday and it was uncomfortable trying to get anywhere, because you were shoulder to shoulder with tourists…

Beijing…literally, shoulder to shoulder….

And then there’s the other problem with all these days off…Holidays are great, but they REALLY mess with your schedule! In China, if you are given 3 days off, it doesn’t necessary mean that you don’t owe some of them back. For example, this year, Mid-Autumn festival falls on September 15,16 and 17 (a Thursday, Friday and Saturday). In order to make up for that time off, schools open on Sunday and the week following the holiday becomes a 6 day week, with 2 Tuesdays in it. My first year, I had to have someone sit me down and draw a chart so I understood what was actually happening and when I had to work!!

4.) Form a Good Relationship with your Co-Teachers/Homeroom Teachers

I cannot stress enough how important this is! It seems like common sense…who doesn’t want to get along with the people they work with? But too often I see people treat their Chinese counterparts in the education system poorly (and vice versa). There seems to be a mentality at some schools (and even in some departments at my own school) that it’s US vs THEM!!! This is SO counterproductive!

I’ve always tried my very best to be kind to the people I work with…to me that’s just common decency. When I was at the training center, I became good friends with Talia and Kayla. They weren’t teachers, but they were the people who helped me translate for parents and made sure that parents got important information about homework and students’ progress. Now, I work at a Foreign Language school where I’m co-teaching with Chinese teachers. We may not always see eye to eye on the way some things should be handled (education systems vary greatly from country to country!), but I always try to find a reasonable compromise.

I also do my best to never to create more work for my co-teachers. I’ve worked with teachers that wait until the last minute to do their progress reports or who don’t grade their papers until they’re told they HAVE to, even when they know that their Chinese counterpart needs them to finish up before they themselves can begin. Once more, I feel like this should be common sense, but I’ve seen it happen SO many times!!!

Too often, Expats won’t even invite their Chinese coworkers out to dinners and things. I always make sure to invite anyone and everyone in my office and a lot of the time, they come out! Ivy (in the middle) has been such a good friend to me over the past year…I can’t imagine how I could have gotten through some things without her (like when I went to the ‘acupuncturist’ and when we got Hugo and Poe.) I don’t understand why people don’t put in more effort with one another!

This doesn’t only extend to the classroom either. Staff rooms can be tricky when you have a mixture of different cultures together. For example, the Chinese staff typically don’t want to have the air conditioners on in the summer or the heaters on in the winter. It’s a belief in China that they both blow dirty air, so they prefer to open the window. I run hot, so this has always been an issue for me in summer, but I compromised and bought myself a fan. On days where it’s particularly humid, I ask if I can turn on the AC for 15 minutes or so, to dry out the air. Then, when the room is cool, I turn it off again! There’s no need to be demanding…you’re in THEIR country! And it’s amazing, because 9 times out of 10, when you are respectful, so are they!!! I didn’t even have to ask by the end of the year…my dear friend Ivy would go and switch on the AC when it started to get uncomfortable.

One of my Grade 5 classes at Interlingua. Notice they’re all in parkas? Parents frequently requested that we turn off the heaters so that their kids wouldn’t ‘get sick’.

5. Extra Work = Extra Awesome!

I’ve found in China (and pretty much everywhere else in the world too) that the better you are at your job, the more you are asked to do. It can be a bit much sometimes when you’re an overachiever (I may fit that description…), but I always remind myself that I am asked to do things because I’m doing well. The bright side of those extra projects is that you expand yourself SO MUCH when you take them on! Last year I organized the school’s first yearbook and hosted the annual Drama Festival, both in the second term.

Both events were SO fantastic!!! Not only did the students work hard, but they also saw ME working hard…that does wonders for your relationship with them. When they know that a teacher actually cares about them…it’s like the game changes a little bit. There are so many foreigners teaching China that are only here for the visa and so they can live abroad….and that’s okay! That’s how I started out too…but then I fell in love with the job and now, I take that job very seriously! And students can always tell when they have a teacher who is present and putting in effort vs the teachers that show up and do what they have to do.

The Yearbook was such a worthwhile project as well…not only was it a lot of fun to put together, but it really expressed what it’s like being in the IGCSE department at Suzhou Foreign Language School

Being a positive influence is SO important. As an educator, I know that my students are learning more from me than just what is coming out of a text book. My boss, Nathan, is a prime example of teaching through doing…As I’ve mentioned before, he does a lot of work with Migrant schools and other charities around the city, and this year, our grade 8 class organized a big fundraiser for the migrant schools Nathan works with! It was so awesome watching them find ways to raise money and they really did a great job! Students are watching you ALL the time! Be an inspiration!!

I encourage Michael to be more positive all the time (he tends to mope a lot…). I was surprised when I saw this on one of his worksheets. He aspires to be more optimistic (a word I taught him!) because I’m optimistic. That’s the biggest reward I could ask for as a teacher!

6.) Have Fun with It!!!

Lastly, make sure to have fun teaching!! It’s an AWESOME job and at most schools you are given plenty of opportunities to let your own skills shine. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t have textbooks for any of my classes last year. That may have intimidated some teachers (which is why my boss offered me a few textbooks I could follow along with if I needed), but for me…it meant I got to be creative.

In Food and Nutrition, I decided to teach my students about culture and how it relates to food. I did focuses on Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, Italy, France, India and then I also taught them about December Holidays around the world (and the foods people eat during those holidays). It ended up being a tonne of fun! Because I’m so interested in both travel and cooking, I was able to shape this class around my own interests and talents. It worked out well for everyone, I think!

At Easter, I taught my Grade 7 girls to dye their deviled eggs. When I taught them about Jamaica, we made Jerk Seasoning and had topped some deviled eggs with it (SOOO good!). They liked the dish so much they asked if we could do it again!

For Drama, I used my writing skills and training to have the students write their own plays for the drama festival! I’m also very competitive and I turn everything into competitions within my classroom. The students ended up LOVING the way we chose which play we’d perform in each class.

The Drama Festival was a huge success because I used the skills I had to make it happen. Best of all, I learned a lot along the way! I’d never been given an opportunity to direct before, nor had I ever coordinated an event like that. I developed new skills while using skills I already had. It was a perfect combo 🙂

One of the groups in my Grade 8 Boys class presenting their play to the other students. They were actually the winners and the whole class had a great time learning their parts

So that’s the beauty of my job! I decided to try and keep my posts shorter this year, but as I was writing, I just couldn’t stop! I’m far too in love with my job and have so much advice to give!! I do hope that you’ve found this informative and if you’re teaching in an ESL classroom yourself, and if you are just reading to know what it’s like to be a teacher, I hope you got a good idea of how awesome my job is 🙂

If you have any comments or questions about anything I do…feel free to as in the comments section below! Thanks for checking in!

An Update on Life in Suzhou (Part 2)

Another day, another blog post! We decided to change things up and go to a Starbucks out in Suzhou New District (where SFLS is located) because I have a farewell IGCSE dinner to attend later tonight. It’s so crazy that another term is finished! Most of the department is returning next year, but we are losing a teacher or two that I wish we were keeping.

Me with some of my favourite IGCSE teachers at Nathan’s Art show.

Personally, I’m happy to be staying in the department. I really like the administration in IGCSE and next year I’ll be taking over as the grade 7 and 8 English teacher. Right now I only teach 1 writing class but next year I’ll be teaching 3, plus 3 oral and listening classes. I think it’ll be better for me than teaching Food and Nutrition and I know I’m more qualified for my new role. Plus, I still get to keep 2 of my drama classes and I’ll be starting a new Publishing and Editing elective next year (my class will be in charge of the school yearbook, the school calendar and our departmental blog!). Exciting things are in store for me in September!

My grade 7 writing class is one of my favourites to teach, and I know I’m going to miss them over the summer. These kids are very bright for their age so I decided to teach them how to write simple thesis statements in an effort to better organize their writing. Michael is a student who tends to be a bit of a downer…always complaining about how tough life is. I taught him the word ‘optimistic’ earlier this year and he’s used it every chance he could. This was my favourite use of this word:


This year I see them twice a week, but next year I get them 6 times a week, so I’m pretty excited about that! These kids never stop making me laugh! They are truly a joy!!

IGCSE is a really cool department to be part of. Although I mostly taught in the Elite Department this past year, I took part in several IGCSE projects and I ran the school yearbook as well. All of the staff try to provide a well rounded school life for the students and I try to help out whenever I can. But my favourite thing about IG is the way they help out with a migrant school in Suzhou.

One of the Blooper Pages for the yearbook. It’s mostly just Nathan and Adam making faces…but I feel that it well represents the spirit of the IGCSE staff room.

Migrant schools are for children whose parents are from other provinces but who have come to Suzhou for work. They are highly underfunded and the students don’t as good of an education. Each class in our department gets a chance to visit a migrant school each team. This means that nearly every month, my department takes an afternoon to spend time teaching students English. It’s a learning experience for everyone involved because the migrant kids get some English lessons and the IG kids get to see how lucky they are to be going to a school with the resources that SFLS has. We have Nathan (my boss) to thank for this added activity for the students. He’s been working with the migrant school for years and has won awards for the help he’s given them.

So all these little projects have really filled up my year, but none of them took as much of my focus and hard work than the Drama Festival. It took months of work, hours of writing, days of rehearsal…but in the end, it was all so worth it!!!

I was in charge of everything including writing speeches for the MCs, setting up mini shows between each play and writing and directing 4/5 of the plays at the festival this year. From sets, to sounds to costumes and script…I was involved in all of it! It was a pretty big job…

Because of my background in writing, I decided early on that my focus was going to be on writing the plays and (of course) having them act them out with comprehend-able English. Nathan ran the Drama festival last year, and with his art background there was a lot more focus on sets and props, so it was kind of cool to mix it up this year. I’m especially proud of the way each of my classes came up with their plays:

Step 1: I began the term in February by teaching my students how to write a story. First, we focused on writing good characters and making sure that their characters had depth. Then, I taught them about plot and what a good plot line looks like.

Step 2: Each class was separated into 4 groups and I gave them 2 weeks to write the outline for a play. I gave them free reign on the topics and they came up with very different stories.

Step 3: Each group presented their outline to the class and then the class voted on which play they would do for the drama festival.

Step 4: I took the winning outline and turned it into a play. I met with the students and got a better idea of what they wanted to see in their play and discussed ways that we could add characters so everyone who wanted to act could. Then I wrote the dialogue and presented it to them. Other than a few small details, the students were thrilled to see their ideas come to life on page in proper English.

Because of the way we did this, there was HUGE buy in from the students at the Drama Festival. Each class was so proud of their play and they all worked very hard to impress all the other students. Here’s the breakdown of each play:
Elite 1 Girls Class (Grade 7)

These girls wanted to write a story with a moral, so that’s what we did. They worked the hardest out of any of my classes on their emphasis and pronunciation and the other students noticed. Although their play wasn’t as exciting as a lot of the other plays, they really shone because their speech was so clear. I am very proud of these ladies and I’m super bummed I won’t be teaching them again next year!
Elite 1 Boys Class (Grade 7)

This was one of the funniest plays at the festival. Adam, the student wearing the big glasses, is a Drama King! He wrote the outline to a fabulous “Robots and Mad Scientist” type play that the class voted in. There were several fighting scenes (with correlating sound effects) that had the audience in stitches and everyone loved how the Narrator was killed by the villain in the end. I was worried about this play before the festival because it seemed like the students weren’t listening to anything I was saying during rehearsals, but someone was obviously paying attention (probably Adam lol!) and they pulled it together in the final hour! It was an AWESOME play and I’m very excited to be teaching them again next year!
Elite 2 Boys Class (Grade 8)

These were easily the most hardworking students at the Drama Festival. Not only did they participate more than any other class with the writing of the actual play, but they were practicing in their free time and they added so many things to the play that weren’t in the script. They OWNED this play and it was a huge success at the festival.

The story line was very funny and although it wasn’t originally suppose to be a comedy, we were all glad it became one. It was a detective story about a murderer who’s calling card was to leave high-end underwear on his victim’s heads (the underwear wasn’t part of the original script but when I told them they needed to have something memorable in the play, that’s what they thought up….middle school boys are hilarious!!).

No matter how many times I saw that play performed, I laughed every single time. I loved watching them from the side of the stage…I’m so proud of these kids!!!

IGCSE (grades 7-9 co-ed classes)

The IGCSE play is the one I’m personally most proud of, because I wrote it all myself. The students were in the middle of their IGCSE exams during the festival so they didn’t have time to help as much as I would have liked. Still, they worked hard at remembering their lines and bringing their best actor-selves to the stage.

The play was called ‘Breaking Bad: Candy Crush Edition’ and it was based on the television show, only instead of crystal meth, the students were selling a special type of candy that was addictive and high in sugar content. Because the play was set in IGCSE, the kids LOVED the issues brought up (the candy starts as a distraction to break ‘the homework system’ that’s keeping them all prisoner). Best of all, 3 teachers (myself included) made guest appearances in the play. Isaac, the Economics teacher. does body building on the side, so he came out and raged at the students for misbehaving, even breaking a meter stick in the process. Adam’s socks were stolen for candy and I was found crying in a hallway because of all the ants that the candy had attracted into the Food and Nutrition kitchens. Students and teachers alike loved the play and I think it was the perfect way to end the festival. Even Mr. Rehan, who prides himself in being quite serious, sent me a message after the Drama Festival was over saying: “Thank you. In my 2 years at this school, this is the first time I found something so entertaining”. Win for Marie!!!!

Adam playing himself…a stressed out teacher who’s socks have been stolen

So that’s been my spring term! Lots of projects and lots of hard work…but all worth it!

(I am truly looking forward to next year’s Drama Festival already!!)

Spring Term- The Life of a Teacher

I have about 10 blog posts planned at the moment, but have had so little free time that they’ve all just been sitting in my head Spring term has been a little bit crazy, and when you add in holidays, birthdays and regular life into the mix…finding downtime can be tricky! So, I thought an update on all my projects was a good idea…

Life since we returned from India has been eventful in both good and bad ways. When we got back to Suzhou, I started going to the gym again, but realized that I didn’t have anywhere near the energy I should have. I was actually feeling all around pretty terrible…by the time my lung infection hit full force, my body was having difficulty getting enough oxygen. I ended up at the Sing Medical walk-in clinic in SIP (the area of Suzhou where we live), where I was put on 5 different medication and told to stay in bed for the next week…

The doctor wasn’t sure if it was a bacterial or viral lung infection, but he was fairly sure that it had been building up for some time…I think it began in India…but it might have even been before that.

Since that necessary ‘mini vacation’, life hasn’t really stopped. I’ve been put in charge of the yearbook committee and the drama festival this term (two huge projects!) and I’ve also been helping out with some grade 8 exam preparation and of course, I have all my regular classes as well. It’s been a busy few months!

Brain Storming for the school yearbook. Yearbooks aren’t a ‘thing’ in China, so this is SUPER exciting for the students!

My favourite project has definitely been the Drama Festival. 4/5 of the classes that are participating in the event are taught by yours truly, so I’ve had my hands full preparing sets and props, teaching the students how to write a play, and of course, actually writing the plays. This festival has actually given me the chance to teach the students a whole set of new skills, and I really feel that they’ve gotten a lot out of these projects.

Of course, when it came down to actually writing the plays, that was mostly left up to me. So working with their plot lines and character profiles, I got to put my creative writing skills to use! It was a tonne of fun and although it meant spending my long weekend holiday at Starbucks, it was well worth my time and efforts! I am SO looking forward to seeing what these plays look like up on stage on April 22nd!

This project has also given an opportunity to develop leadership skills in many of the stronger students.

Drama has been a blast this semester, and I have to say that Food and Nutrition has been on an upswing as well! Last term, and at the very beginning of this term, I was struggling with keeping the kitchen up to an acceptable standard of cleanliness. My students do alright, but students from the high school were using the kitchen in their free time and leaving quite a few messes to clean up.

And, in addition to the regular challenges you’d expect to face in a Home Economics-type class, there are some serious differences in culture when it comes to health and safety. It’s been quite the battle trying to teach the students about mold and bacteria. While in the past, it’s been perfectly acceptable to just stack up wet dishes into the cupboards (that aren’t finished…they have raw wood inside), the mold problem I faced in September made me determined to teach them the value of properly cleaning up. My students learned these skills pretty quickly, but as I mentioned earlier, I share the kitchen with other classes, and not all of the other classes were so quick to catch on.

My writing class continues to be one of the most rewarding things I do at the school. I love teaching those kids and they’re so engaged and interested in my lessons that they are making leaps and bounds as far as their writing is concerned. My biggest success has been a student named Jared, who went from getting 30-40% on his homework last term, to 75-80% this term! Something clicked for him and now he’s finishing 3rd place in the class on tests! That’s huge for a mainland kid, because it means that he beat kids from Singapore and Malaysia, who have been learning English most of their lives. I’m very proud of him.

A classroom selfie. I very much look forward to Friday mornings, when I get my 80 minutes with these 13 year olds 🙂

And of course, in addition to being an incredibly hard-working group of students, they’re funny too! They played a very cute trick on me on April Fools day!

I came into the classroom and this is what I saw! They had all put their hoodies on backwards and were sitting backwards in their seats. Little Tom was also hiding in the teacher’s desk and he jumped out at me as soon as I started teaching! I screamed and jumped about 3 feet in the air. I’m pretty sure I added about a year onto these kids’ lives with laughter!!

Life outside of the school has been busy too. With both Dave and I having birthdays in April, it’s already usually a busy month. As it turns out, our good friend, Jeff, also has a birthday in April and his friends Matt and Lisa came out for a visit as well, so we’ve been having lots of parties as of late!

I’ve gotta say though, the best part so far was the one we had last night. I turned the big three oh, and some of my favourite people took me out to Beijiang (a Chinese Muslim restaurant with INCREDIBLE food!) and then to KTV! It was such a great night! I can hardly talk today because my voice is so tired from singing…but it felt so good to be out! I have met some awesome people in Suzhou and last night I felt incredibly lucky to be out with them.

So that’s been life lately….it’s been full and awesome and 50 shades of crazy! Oh, one last thing…I already got Dave his birthday present! I found them for sale on the Suzhou Buy and Sell and I’m SOOO happy I did!!!

I’ll be back soon…though I’m not sure if I’ll be around again before the drama festival on the 22nd. As always…thanks for reading!

PS…Hugo and Poe say hi!

When Culture Stops Being an Excuse

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

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

culture shock
A Frequent theme in my blog

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

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


I discovered, while writing this blog post, that Powerhouse is a chain outside of just China.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Thank goodness I have these 3 to keep me sane!

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

Back in Suzhou

Unlike at the end of many holidays, where I’ve been a little depressed to return to ‘real life’, I am totally thrilled to be back in Suzhou.  I’m only one week into the new semester and I’m already finding work challenging, rewarding and fun.  The number of students who greeted me by jumping out of their seat and cheering blew me away.  How did I end up working for a school with students this cool?  I don’t remember ever loving teachers enough to cheer for them!?  These kids are just so great…and it helps that I love teaching Drama and writing…and even Food and Nutrition (when I’m in the classroom!!!).

Anyway…after 30 days away from home, Poe and Hugo are very pleased to have us back!  Poor Poe was very anxious from us being away, I think, and our first few nights back were sleepless.  She needs constant reassurance and is always worried that we’ve left.  She wakes us up in the middle of the night…seemingly just to see if we’re there.  I  wonder what she went through at that shelter to have so much to worry about!  Hugo, on the other hand, could not be more relaxed.  Although he’s the one missing a leg, you’d never guess that he’s seen a moment of trauma in his life.  Nothing phases him…I guess cats are like people in that way…some handle stress better than others.

The following few posts I’ll be putting up will be about some of the most incredible parts of our trip.  It felt as though writing about these things from my tablet wouldn’t do them justice…not only because the internet was constantly a struggle and my photo editing tools are all on my laptop (which we didn’t bring along), but I wanted to be able to write about these things with some distance from India.  Our trip had a lot of ups and even more downs, but I know that with some distance, things won’t seem as though they were so bad.  The following two posts will be about our time in Agra and our time in the Thar desert…and they are both stories that deserve to be to told without residual frustrations tainting otherwise beautiful experiences.

I hope you enjoy reading about these adventures as much as I’ve enjoyed documenting them through both writing and photography.

Beginning our new life in Suzhou

Another Starbucks, another city.  We are spending the last day of our holiday in Beijing working, as is often the case with Dave and I.  It helps that we both love our jobs and don’t usually see these kinds of things as really being ‘work’.  Now that I’ve finished my Power Point presentation on writing summaries (riveting stuff…), I can spare some time to blog!

This fine gentleman took a 3 hour nap (I kid you not!) while Dave and I worked today….yes…this is at Starbucks. And no, he did not order anything from Starbucks…

It’s now been 41 day since we left Canada and head back to Eastern home.  Suzhou has been welcoming and beautiful and there is so much to tell you all about this new city.  So, even though I am itching to write about our trip to the Great Wall, I want to finish writing our time adjusting to life in Suzhou first.  Plus, putting off writing about the Great Wall means I have awesome material to look forward to (and hopefully that will entice me to writing again soon!)

Spoiler Alert! The Great Wall is bloody incredible!!!!
Spoiler Alert! The Great Wall is bloody incredible!!!!

After moving into our apartment, the next step to getting settled into Suzhou was to start work.  For those of you who are new to my blog, or are foggy on the details, here’s a recap regarding the school….

I originally took the position expecting to teach Drama and English, but that quickly changed (things change a lot in China…you come to expect it).  The IGCSE program that is taught at Suzhou Foreign Language School is a pretty big deal.  It basically means that students who graduate from our school, graduate with a bilingual diploma, which is a huge help when it comes to applying to western Universities (IGCSE is an ESL program through Cambridge University).  So, because this program is so important to the school, they didn’t want a brand new teacher teaching too many of those courses.  Some people would have been hurt by the insinuation that they are not ‘good’ enough to teach English, but I saw it as a plus.  Any school that wants to put the RIGHT teachers in place for the important classes is alright with me!  It showed that they are concerned with the quality of education their students receive, and that is exactly the type of school I want to work for.

My boss used the projector to paint a map on the staff room wall….with the flag of each country in that country’s space…he did all of this in a single afternoon….
I work for a school where the teachers care so much about the way that our staff room is perceived, that they spend the day making something as awesome as this map. He’s still not quite done…because he’s like the busiest guy in the universe…but I’m still blown away by the effort he and the Chinese staff put into this project

I was able to keep my Drama classes, which I was very happy about, but my English classes were replaced with Food and Nutrition classes; basically I’m teaching Home Economics.  The beautiful thing about both these programs is that I can custom make all of my classes.  There is a basic syllabus that I need to follow, but really…at the end of the day…it’s up to me to decide what I teach and how I teach it.  Once more…some teachers may not be thrilled with this sort of set up, but for me…this is heaven!!

Another fun fact about the school where I work….they teach several languages at the school, including French, German, Spanish, Arabic and Japanese. Their aim is to teach all of the languages of the UN.

My creative side kicked into full gear and I began brainstorming ideas for both my courses while I was still in Guiyang.  For Drama, we are starting with a play called “Meet the Ancient Greeks”.  It’s set on Mount Olympus and all the Greek gods are fighting over who was the worst of them.  While I teach the students about acting (something I’m actually pretty good at myself…who knew???), I also teach them about pronunciation, confidence, voice projection, body language and emphasis.  They learn a tonne and it doesn’t even feel like learning to them!  Plus, because of my background as an ESL teacher, I use the plays to teach the students lots of new words.  And because of my background in Classical history (my minor in University), I’m also teaching them about ancient Greek culture while I’m at it.

So.  Much.  Fun!!!

My Elite Boys 1 class practicing the first bit of the play. These guys are AWESOME!!! They get SO into the roles!!! They have me in stitches every class!
One of my students, Colt, wrote this on the Smart Board before I got to class. Needless to say, it made my day! (and yes…I have Smart Boards in my classrooms!!!)

I decided to take a fresh approach with the Food and Nutrition classes, and have turned it into a bit of a ‘culture course’.  I’ve been teaching the students about different countries and then I teach them how to make food from those countries.  So far we’ve only been to the kitchen once, but the students were all very pleased with their Mexican taco dip 🙂

This is my middle school class. It’s a mix of boys and girls, which is nice, because most of the classes I teach are gender specific.
These are my Grade 7 Elite Girls. The girl who is second from the left is named Hani….she is SUCH a character. I also teach her Drama and when I told her off last week for talking while I was trying to explain something, she went into a big soliloquy about how I am the most beautiful and kind of all the drama teachers in the land. Once more……So. Much. Fun!!!
One of the groups’ dip when they were done. My budget didn’t allow for cheese or meat on all of them, so I had to pick and choose which students got what. Not bad for a first try!!!

The teachers and students are all fantastic at SFLS, and although I’ve had a few small issues with the payroll office (that were promptly sorted out), the administration has also been a dream.  Last year, I was walking on eggshells at about this time, scared to say anything to anyone for fear of being taken aside for a ‘talk’.  This year, I was greeted at the gate by the principal of the school on Teacher’s day, with a box of mango milk and a flower.  I also received a small crate of Chinese dates (which are delish!) and countless other flowers and chocolates from my students…who I’d only been teaching for 2 weeks at that point!!!

I’d already received this and I took the picture at 8:30am…..by the end of the day, I had to leave some of it at the school because I just couldn’t bring it all home!!  ***Note that the flag in this picture is not on my desk.  It is on my neighbor’s.  I’ve already received some flack for not representing Canada in the office from some family members…but trust me….I represent in my own way!  I get razzed for every ‘eh’, ‘aboot’ and ‘toque’ that I say….

The school is not the only thing that has been great since we got here either!  Suzhou, as a whole, is a fantastic city!  Unlike Guiyang, where I really disliked the spitting, the littering and the smoking…Suzhou is spotless!  Very few people spit, smoking is prohibited in many public areas and people actually put their trash in the trash can!  Although the air is a little more polluted that Guiyang (because Suzhou is so close to Shanghai), it’s so much more comfortable of a place to be!

And the gardens!!!….

This is just one of Suzhou’s many gardens. A friend of mine referred to Suzhou as ‘the secret garden’ when I showed her pictures of the city a few years ago (we had been interested in living here for a while). I think she gave it the perfect nickname.

Dave and I arrived back in China just in time for a holiday!  This year marked 70 years since the Chinese victory over Japan in the Second World War.  It was celebrated across the country and everyone was given a long weekend.  Dave and I spent those days familiarizing ourselves with Suzhou.  We visited one of the lesser known gardens here (one we’d happened to stumble upon when we were still staying in a hotel).

The circular doorways add such a beautiful touch to the already beautiful greenery
The pathways are bordered by benches, where you often see the elderly enjoying some time in the relaxing atmosphere
I love how the doorways open up to whole new areas of the garden…
The girl in the blue dress (on the right side of the picture) crossed over that stone bridge. I waited there for ages to get a picture but when she’d finally finished crossing, she just stood there for a while afterwards, looking at her phone…. So, here she is in my picture; a testament to my inability to wait.

The city outside of these gardens is also very nice.  We’ve spent countless hours walking around the different areas of the city, enjoying the scenery along the canals and trying new restaurants.  Times Square is one of my favorite places to take a stroll.  I love walking near water and there are a lot of really great restaurants in the area.


I love this picture. We both look so happy 🙂
There is a ceiling above the boardwalk at Times Square that lights up at night with a show. When we walked by a few weeks ago, it had aliens staring down at us!!
Times Square also has a tonne of western brand stores. Papa John’s Pizza, Toys R Us and a Crocs store are just a few!

I think my favorite part of the city (so far) has been ShanTang street.  There are countless shops that sell all sorts of souvenirs and traditional Suzhou items.  It’s along the canal, and you can even take boat rides around to see the old architecture, which is especially beautiful at night.   We never had a chance to go the last time we were there, but this is where I’m planning on doing a lot of my Christmas shopping, so I know there will be other opportunities 🙂

The crowds can be a little overwhelming, but this was nothing compared to the Shanghai metro experiences we had….but I’ll have more on that in future posts!
I love, love, LOVE the canals in Suzhou!
We bought this print on ShanTang street for only around $15 Canadian. I feel like it was worth more than that (just the frame would cost that much in Canada!). It was the first thing we really bought for the apartment (aside from toilet paper! haha!) and we hung it proudly on the wall by our water cooler as soon as we got home from our shopping adventure

I don’t consider myself a superstitious person and I believe that we are responsible for making our own fate, but still, I can’t help but feel like I’m exactly where I’m suppose to be right now.  Suzhou fits like a glove and it became home  to us more quickly than I really imagined possible.  Maybe I’m still a little shell shocked from everything I went through last year, but I am honestly still overjoyed at how smoothly everything has been going over the last 41 days.  Life…in short…is good.

A Roots store in Times Square
Cooking a spectacular dinner in our clean and usable kitchen…..what more could I possibly need?

Catching up… August

It has been far too long since my last post, and I apologize to all my readers!  But, if it’s any consolation…the reason I haven’t been writing is a happy one!  I have been far too busy enjoying life to have the time to sit down and write about it!  But I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, so I better get to it!!

Saying Goodbye

We left Guiyang on August 3rd and I finished my class at 8pm on August 2nd.  I knew it was going to be hard; I’d grown quite attached to my monkeys…but I didn’t realize just HOW hard.  It took everything for me not to cry and in the end, it was the apology and the hug from my boss, Huang, that did me in.  She thanked me for all my hard work and told me that she had been very wrong about me when she thought I was a bad teacher.  That meant more than I can really explain.

Huang and I at the goodbye dinner the school held for us
Huang and I at the goodbye dinner the school held for us. She and I came a long way…
Second last day with my babies. I miss this guys so much! I still get voice notes from many of them on WeChat…China’s bbm. It makes me smile every time I hear their little voices telling me how much they love me and miss me.

My final day at Interlingua was the hardest, because I taught most of my favorite classes on Sundays.  My Reading and Writing class was particularly difficult because I loved teaching them so much.  The mood in the class was blue, and I ended up bringing in Sylvester…the school’s kitten…to cheer them up.  It worked for a little bit, but eventually the bell rang and we had to say goodbye.

The most surprising thing for me was the parents…I expected to feel sad about saying goodbye to my students.  They are who I was closest to.  But Some of the parents are the ones that made me truly well up.

This is Jason. He started off in my kindergarten class and eventually graduated into the level 1 primary school level. His dad had tried to get him to switch teachers at the beginning of last term, because the other teacher’s time table suited him better. Jason tried it out and then begged his dad to come back to me. This little boy…for whatever reason…thought I was the cat’s meow. I guess his dad started paying attention more after that, because on my last day, Jason’s parents came in, with a speech they’d written me (in English!) to thank me for all the hard work I’d done and how I’d helped Jason so much with his confidence. They said that I was a big part of why he’d won a speaking contest at his school recently and they showed me his performance. Talk about a rewarding job!!! I miss Jason a lot.
This is me with Martha’s grandmother. Martha has always been special to me…she started off so sweet and shy…afraid to say a word in English class. But after some time, she blossomed into this funny, quirky, confident kid. Her grandmother feels like it was me who brought her out of her shell, and she broke down and cried a few minutes after this picture was taken. She was more upset that I was leaving that even Martha was….and Martha didn’t take it all that well either…
She didn’t cry. She just wrapped her little arms around me and wouldn’t let go until she had to. She sends me messages through her grandmother’s WeChat account every week and I love getting them and responding. She’s such a great kid. I’m so happy she’s in my friend Chris’ class now… Chris is an awesome teacher and I know he’ll keep her out of her shell and keep her confidence up.

After saying goodbye to my wonderful K2 class, Dave and I head down to Trip Smith’s for a few final beers with the staff from the school.  Before we knew it, it was 2pm the next day and we were boarding our plane to Hong Kong.  From there….we were on our way home…

Our Trip Home to Canada

Goodness it was good to be home!  We only had 3 weeks, but WOW did we make the most of it!!  We were able to meet up with everyone who put in an effort to meet up with us and got to spend lots of great time with our wonderful families and friends.  The only downside to our trip home was the food poisoning I had for the last 5 days of our trip.  Other than that, we had a magnificent time and can’t wait to return again next year!!! (For a longer stay!!)

I was so happy to see my grandparents, who drove out from Quebec to visit with the family while we were home! I love those two so much and it was so great to spend that time with them!..
Our fantastically wonderful friends Nathan and Dianne. We had such great Friday nights with these two…cooking and playing Charades. I miss them both so much already!
The only picture I got of Kathleen, and it doesn’t even have her fabulous hubby, Cory in it! They put in such a huge effort to spend time with us while we were home and it was so great going for Dim Sum with them and seeing them at our bbq
My beautiful siblings and I. Ellie decided to photobomb us!  It was my sisters and my brother Josh planned our whole BBQ along with my BFF, Jamie. Although Dave and I showed up 2 hours late (the cost of keeping it a surprise!!! haha!!), we had a wonderful time that afternoon!!!
I honestly don’t know if I could have gotten through last year without this girl in my life. My best friend in the world, Jamie, and our boys. Life is good when you have a friend who is always able to help you see the positives…but who knows when to let you rant!! LOVE YOU TO BITS!!!
Another dear friend, Veronique. I don’t see her nearly often enough, but when I do, it’s as though we were never apart.
Jamie and I with our friend Tiffany, who is about as good of people as you can find! These gals are too fabulous for words!
A beautiful shot of my beautiful girls, Ellie and Addyson 🙂
I missed this kid more than anyone else over the last year. My gorgeous niece, Ellie
Being an Auntie is one of the best parts of my life. I love these kids to bits and I can’t wait to see them all again next year!!!
My mum and I at Pepere's birthday party. I'd love to have a picture of my dad too, but he's so 'anti-camera' that I learned years ago that it's best not to try...unless he's not looking. Then all bets are off!!
My mum and I at Pepere’s birthday party. I’d love to have a picture of my dad too, but he’s so ‘anti-camera’ that I learned years ago that it’s best not to try…unless he’s not looking. Then all bets are off!!

It would be impossible to choose just 1 highlight from our trip back home, but if I absolutely had to choose, it might be the day we spent in St. Malo park with our families and a few friends.  Even though we were late for our surprise party, it was such a blast and when I think back to our time in Canada, that’s always the memory that sticks out.  I grew up in St. Malo and it was so wonderful being back there, at the provincial park, walking the same stone paths that I walked with my dog, Trace, as a teenager.  I love my country and when I think of Canada, this is what I think of.  This is home to me.

Nothing quite like a sunset over St. Malo lake. Better yet…there was a family of geese hanging out in the water. I walked along the shore with them for a while. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so calm and relaxed.
When you grow up with this as your surroundings…it’s hard to get used to life in a city as loud and dirty as Guiyang. The fresh air here did me so much good.

The rest of the scenery we saw in Canada was fantastic as well.  I missed the big skies and the open fields that make Manitoba the beautiful province that it is.

There’s nothing quite like a Manitoba sunset!
Loved seeing so many sunflowers and adored seeing the fields back home!
Loved seeing so many sunflowers and adored seeing the fields back home!

Our trip home was finished far too soon and before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye again.  Next year we plan to be home for closer to 6 weeks (twice as long) so perhaps we’ll be able to find time for a camping trip at Rushing River.  I’m so grateful that so many people took the time to spend their time with us while we were home and I really can’t wait to for July of next year when we can do it all again 🙂

The Trip to our New Home

We arrived in Suzhou on August 27th after a long trip back to China.  We got to know the LeQiao area of Suzhou, which is actually a lot like the nicer parts of Guiyang.  We quickly found the essentials…a BBQ place, a noodle place and a milk tea place.

Our favorite “Nai Cha” joint from Guiyang is everywhere in Suzhou!
We craved these the entire time we were in Canada
I forgot to take a picture of the BBQ place but I did get one of the walk there.

We spent our first day in Suzhou apartment hunting.  Eight apartments and three real estate agents later, we found our new home.  We are SO thrilled with it!!!  The building is gorgeous and secure and the area is quiet and very modern.  Just outside our apartment building is a EuroMart, which sells everything from blue cheese to port wine to taco seasoning (all things we’d never seen in China before!).

The first thing you see when you walk into our apartment. Yes...we have 2 floors :)
The first thing you see when you walk into our apartment. Yes…we have 2 floors 🙂
This is the upstairs bathroom. Do you notice that there’s no telephone line running through it???
We have two bathrooms. The downstairs one has a western style washing machine. Quite the upgrade from our laundry facilities in Guiyang, which basically required us to hand wash all our clothes!!!
Our gorgeous, clean and USABLE kitchen!!!  We even have hot water in the sink!!
Our bedroom. The bed is super comfortable and King Sized :)
Our bedroom. The bed is super comfortable and King Sized 🙂
One of my favorite features of the apartment. This is the desk in our bedroom…
It opens up!!!
Our dining room tables folds out into double this size. And that big thing beside it is a heater/AC. We have 4 of them in our apartment….fantastic! Also…I love the bay windows we have!!!
My office/ Yoga Room. It leads out to the balcony, which is nice 🙂
My office is also the extra bedroom, so if anyone’s planning on visiting us…………..this whole space can be yours!!!!
The daytime view from our balcony. You can see the lake and even one of Suzhou’s many canals from there 🙂
Dave discussing the details of our apartment with Jean. Notice the couch? IT’S NOT A WOODEN BENCH!!!!!!!
Our gigantic TV 🙂 It’s actually a flat screen! First time in my life I’ve had one!! We have used it a whopping 1 time in the last month lol!!
Our upstairs ‘den’ that we turned into an office for Dave. The landlord bought us this desk when Dave wasn’t happy with the size of the one that was originally up there. He also bought a brand new Air conditioner/heater for the room so that Dave would be comfortable working there.

I should also note that both our landlords and our real estate agent are amazing.  It was Jean (the agent) that suggested the air conditioner in the upstairs den and the landlady had 2 women come in and clean the place til it was spotless before we moved in.  And we moved in the day after we saw the place, so she did that with very little notice.

The view from our balcony at night

The whole process of moving out here has been so easy.  Last year, we arrived to find a run down apartment with mold and bug issues and when I asked for some help getting it set up I was called negative and told that I shouldn’t complain so much.  This year, I’ve been welcomed to Suzhou with a clean apartment, kind coworkers and wonderful students.

But I’ll have more on that in my next post!  And I promise it won’t take me 2 months to write it next time!!!

An Update on Life in Guiyang

It’s beautiful and sunny  here in Guiyang, and it’s one of the hottest days we’ve had this year.  We chose to spend our day off scooting around the city and enjoying the beautiful scenery that Guiyang has to offer.  Guizhou’s rugged beauty is something that I know I’ll miss as we move on to the next phase of our travels.

Life here has definitely improved.  Part of that is because the worst of culture shock has passed…we’ve become accustomed to some of the things we find difficult in China (the last minuteness of everything…the terrible driving…the lack of customer service) and as a result we are both feeling a little more relaxed than we were back in October and November.

culture shock
See my post about culture shock here

So I suppose it’s true…time heals everything.  But I wouldn’t be giving myself due credit if I said that time alone helped my circumstances.  After all, with all the problems I was having at the beginning of my contract, there were several routes I could have taken.   The way I see it, I had 3 options at the time:

  1. I could have given up and quit/gone home.
  2. I could have given up trying…after all, I didn’t feel that my efforts were appreciated or noticed.
  3. I could power through and continue being the best I could be, in the hope that that would eventually be recognized.

Of course, given my tenacity, I chose the 3rd option.  Instead of sulking or giving up, I turned my focus to the classroom.    I transformed that bland room into an engaging environment where my students can learn.  I also started spending more time on my students themselves…creating customized worksheets to help the ones that were struggling with spelling…learning new songs for the students who love music…looking for new activities and games to ensure everyone is getting the most out of their classes.  And it paid off.  I’m now considered one of the top teachers at the school, and that means a great deal to me.

So I suppose I’ve been keeping busy.  I’ve spent hours on these displays and sometimes I don’t even bother going back to the staff room for breaks, I just tidy up the classroom and add posters to the walls.  And while I’ve been been so busy powering through the last six months, life outside the school continued…

We’ve celebrated milestones:

Undergone transformations:

Anyone who thinks marriage is lame, by the way, is not married to the right person.

Received countless care packages from home, which always brighten our day (and restock our goodie bin!!

We’ve made friends…both of the human and furry variety:

And, of course, we have tried many new foods 🙂

One of our favorite new restaurants is in the Future Ark area of Guiyang.  Dave made a video to show you all what street food in Guiyang is like:

I have experienced so much in the last 6 months.  There have been highs and lows, but no matter what has happened, I’ve had a constant positive in my life:  my students.  They are really the best part of being here.  I know I should be exhausted every Sunday night, after back to back 10 hour days…but I always find myself energized at the end of it all.  I have no doubt that teaching is my true calling…I have never loved a job as much as I love this one.

How could I ever complain when I’ve got kids as cute as Poppy, who brought me a rose on Saturday…just because 🙂

Sadly, it really hit me this week that I’m going to be leaving soon and that although I’m excited to move on, I don’t know how I’m going to say goodbye to some of these kids…

But I suppose, once more I need to remind myself not to complain.  I’d rather have met these kids and have to say goodbye, than have never met them at all.  They’ve all taught me so much.  Smile (a little boy in one of my kindergarten classes) has shown me how he can be brave, no matter how scary it was for him to be away from his parents when he first began coming to class.  Lee taught me that no matter how bratty a child may be, they can ALWAYS turn it around.  And Chuck…Chuck taught me that 6 year olds can get brain cancer, and that I should cherish every moment I have with all of my beautiful students.

He was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer 3 months ago. His classmates still ask where he went. I have no idea how to answer…

The Life of the Lao Wei

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.

There are over 50 ethnic groups in China.  They all have their own traditions, holidays, cuisine and language.  How's THAT for diversity!!
There are over 50 ethnic groups in China. They all have their own traditions, holidays, cuisine and language. How’s THAT for diversity!!

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!!!!”

Beautiful Xiamen City.  My home in 2005/2006
Beautiful Xiamen City. My home in 2005/2006

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.

I live in the capital of Guizhou province; Guiyang
I live in the capital of Guizhou province; Guiyang

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.

We have a Dairy Queen and a Baskin Robs by the school where I work
We have a Dairy Queen and a Baskin Robs by the school where I work

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!

A wild monkey, staring at the Lao Wei!  (Lao Wei is 'foreigner'.  We hear it everywhere we go!  We are treated like celebrities because there are so few of us in Guiyang)
He’s looking at me, thinking to himself “Lao Wei!!!!”

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.