You Never Know Where Life Will Take You

Welcome! This is a blog about a girl, who got a job, and moved halfway across the world to teach English. Read and enjoy!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

MOVE: Invisible Children's new film from the creators of KONY 2012

"...because the world has a tendency of forgetting, moving from one thing to another." 

In the beginning, scam or no scam, what is happening in central Africa and the LRA are both critical issues. I'm sad to see the media trivialize such an important cause and then turn around and negatively refocus and lash out on those people that were just trying to do something about the atrocities of the LRA. I've got the time and the means to be in DC on Nov 17th, so if anyone wants to join me - let me know. I'll be traveling from Illinois to DC. Let's be part of something bigger than ourselves, let's use our voice to make a difference. Kony2012.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Lost Post or My Life in Bullet Points

(This should have been posted circa late March 2012) I'm alive! I swear I am. No, I have not been eaten by zombies, gotten taken hostage by Chinese body snatchers, nor have I hit my head too hard and contracted amnesia and now think I am a 47 year old Chinese man name Feng Weiwei!

I am alive and well and busy as...heck.

Basically, the last two months have been like this:
1. THE ETERNAL NEVER ENDING RAINY SEASON OF HANGZHOU - seriously, this is the most consistent deluge they have had, well, since many Hangzhou-nese can remember.
2. I got a new job.
3. I took a leave of absence due to health issues from my old job, because quitting in China is not Kosher.
3. I got a new apartment (Penthouse baby!)
4. I moved out of my old apartment.
5. I've been dealing with the same Chinese social oddities at my old job that I encountered at my new job, but they are no much more tolerable because of a few things: more monetary compensation, normal work hours, weekends free, better neighborhood, better work environment, English TV channels, to name a few.

Now, I give you pictures of my new apartment! It is small, but mighty, and perfect for one person.

The view of my living room and behind that my bedroom.

My bathroom - there is a shower/tub combo off to the left.

The kitchen - which I will rarely ever use, but it's a nice thought.

The living room and my HUGE TV!

The bathroom walls are kind of see through, but on the bright side - washer/dryer combo!

Hope you enjoyed these. I know I did. More to come soon!

Apologies and Apropos obviously I haven't written in a while. I am incredibly sorry. I ended up switching jobs while in China right after returning from my trip back to the US during the Chinese New Year about six or seven months ago. After some subterfuge and a slight bout of depression this blog just kept getting put on the back burner.

Well, now that I'm back in the good ole U.S. of A, I'm going to try and catch everyone up on what transpired post-year-of-the-dragon. I think this will be good for me as well as allow me to reflect and document everything in a more complete format. I have hundreds of pictures with hundreds of stories I can't wait to share with you...but those will have to wait until my next post.

For now I give you: Claire's Top 10 Non-Essential (but should be) Travel Items

Aside from the obvious things you need to take on a trip - money and debit/credit cards, clothes, toiletries, tickets and identification, necessary technology and accessories, etc. - there are some things I've found myself needing again and again. Travel priorities are different for everyone, but these are the things I find useful whether it's for a weekend at a friend's house or a year-long adventure half-way around the world.
  1. Playing Cards - these are more frivolous than anything, but if you are traveling there are going to be parts of your trip where you are just waiting...and that get's boring, so make sure you bring something entertaining along. Reading material can also help you pass the time, but card games give you the choice of a solitary or group activity. Make friends.
  2. First Aid - prescriptions aside, bringing along some common over the counter drugs can help you cover all the bases of traveling's less glamorous side effects. Pain killers (Ibuprofen), anti-diarrhea meds (Imodium), allergy meds (Benadryl), a laxative (Milk of Magnesia), bandaids, neosporin, etc. are good things to consider. Different cultures prescribe and practice medicine in different ways, so keep something with you that you know will work to avoid a medical mix-up.
  3. A Map or GPS - I appreciate getting caught up in culture as much as the next person, but I also like being able to find my way back to my hotel or hostel. My sense of direction has gotten keener with each trip I take, but I cannot tell you how many times Google Maps has kept me from ending up on the wrong side of the tracks or the other end of whatever city I'm in. A must for men - haha.
  4. Hand Sanitizer - You are most likely going to get sick when you travel, but that doesn't mean that you still can't take steps to prevent it from happening. Don't be patient zero. Plus, bathroom amenities are different everywhere in the world and sometimes those amenities do not include soap. Better sanitary than sorry.
  5. Small Umbrella - good for rain or shine. You can always try to check the weather before you leave for a trip, but that is not always going to be what you want it to be. And as I have learned from Asia, umbrellas aren't just for rainy days. You can beat the heat and avoid that unpleasant sunburn you weren't prepared for by just chillin' under your umbrella during the hottest part of the day.
  6. Empty Water Bottle - staying hydrated is important. I know this, you know this, stores in touristy locations know this and that is why they severely mark up the price of water. Plus, storing up drinkable water in questionable places is definitely a must. So save yourself some money and a potential parasitic infestation and bring a water bottle with you.
  7. Towel -The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy says, "A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have" and I completely agree. Interstellar hiker or not, a towel is not just a towel - it can also be a pillow, blanket, bandage strips, tinder for a fire, converted into a pack, binding or rope, shelter, etc. You can even origami them into little animals for companionship if that floats your boat.
  8. Backup Documents - Print copies or carry a USB with scans of your passport, itinerary, reservations, driver's license, etc. Keep a few copies in a few different places. Should you get pick-pocketed or mugged, this will really come in handy.
  9. Make-up Removing Wipes - Not just for make-up. I've cleaned off everything from wine to blood to mud with these things. Whether it was freshening up from a 13-hour cross-country train ride or getting gum off the bottom of my shoe, these babies come in handy. Plus, should you find yourself without TP, these will suffice. I guess you can substitute moist towelettes if you want to seem less girly.
  10. An Open Mind - Cheesy, I know, but matter where you go or what you do, you are going to encounter things that are so incredibly different. You should never let that stop you or deter you from making each trip a learning experience in some way. If you are confused by something, ask questions. If you try something new, make mistakes. It's all part of the experience and it will definitely make for a great story someday.
*Honorable Mention: Flip Flops - avoid shower fungus, questionable carpet funk, and sore feet with these little suckers. If you are going to a tropical location, then I'm guessing these are already packed, but if you aren't they are small and relatively easy to squeeze into the cracks of your bursting luggage so it's not a big deal to include them.

And if you don't like my list, here is an article that lists 50 more lists for your pre-travel perusal: 50 Articles About Things You Don’t Dare Forget When Traveling

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My New Philosophy....and Hong Kong Happenings!

Hong Kong has been crazy! Actually, the whole visa process has been crazy.  Mainly because I realized right after Christmas that NO ONE at TEFL had said anything about my visa. I had told Tina, head of the foreign teachers, that I was going home during the Chinese New Year and double checked the dates to make sure they were okay. I also stressed that my Tourist visa expired before the holiday as well. Apparently, communication isn’t a strong point of TEFL. It wasn’t until I drew a calendar up on the board in my office detailing the countdown until I leave did it really hit them if they didn’t act fast, then they’d lose me to visa complications. There is no possible way to cover 10+ classes on such short notice, so yeah, that kind of shocked them into motion. It was like lit a fire under a bunch of ants. I had my plane ticket booked, hostel booked, and promised money upfront to pay for my trip but the end of the day Friday. Awesome…but still ‘Strike One’ for me having to remind them to do their job.

Also, as they were running around like chickens with their heads cut off, I was compiling information on the side. You know: addresses, phone number, directions, English and Chinese. Things that normal people do to prepare for a trip? They turn to tell me what I would be doing and I show them my sheet and they were so amazed! It’s like they couldn’t fathom someone preparing something ahead of time – what is this thing called ‘organization’!?!

I had classes all day Monday and most of the day Tuesday. I left right after work on Tuesday and hopped on a plane from Hangzhou to Hong Kong. I will say, since my flight was so late, I really appreciate them booking a direct flight instead of a flight to Shenzhen and then having to take a train into Hong Kong. The flight was no problem, had some movies downloaded and I made friends with the guy sitting next to me. Charlie is a financial adviser here in Hong Kong with family south of Hangzhou. He also lived in Australia for about 10 years, so no communication issues. Got his numbah too!  Unfortunately, I don’t have a phone. I’ll probably email him after I post this blog. It’s nice to have connections. Anyway, I got in late Tuesday night to my hostel after taking a shuttle from the airport. It’s small and super hard to find but nice? Downside: there is no internet and the owners speak like ZERO English. Strike Two TEFL. Next time I’m booking a hostel closer with an English speaking attendant….mainly because I tried to ask them a bunch of questions (where’s the nearest Starbucks since your establishment doesn’t have wireless, where do I catch the bust back to the airport, what time do I need to check out). How much did they understand, even when I tried to ask in Chinese, NONE! Gah, frustrating!

But I told myself, if I can survive this, I can survive anything.

I got to downtown Hong Kong no problem on Wednesday morning, but had a hard time finding the Visa office. I walked past a line outside the Chinese Resource building and asked the people in it what they were lining up for. One effeminate man told me 'This is for tickets to Lady Gaga.' Made sense, so I walked around the building, no luck. Walked into the building, still no luck. Walked past the line again and crossed the street...only to be stopped by the guy that told me the line was for Lady Gaga. THEY LIED TO ME! I am so incredibly much for the kindness of strangers.

Oh well, it was a great laugh and the guy and his two other cohorts let me butt in line as an apology and we kept each other company and freaked each other out by telling stories about people who had passport problems and got stuck in Hong Kong. [cue dramatic foreshadowing]

It was all fun and games too….until they mentioned, as I was flipping through my papers, that it looked like I didn’t have my health exam. That’s weird, I thought, I definitely got one of those back in November specifically for the visa application process…why wouldn’t TEFL include it?

I go ahead and fill out the application, where I feel like they ask me a lot of redundant questions. Waited for my number and when I got to the desk, the lady asks me where my heath exam sheet is. STRIKE THREE TEFL, STRIKE THREE! I have to have this sheet to submit my paperwork. No health exam, no visa, big problem.

I rallied the troupes! I told myself, if I can survive this, I can survive anything. I was not going to get stuck in Hong Kong (as cool as it is).

I put on my action pants and ran across the street to the Starbucks and tried to use what little battery was left on my laptop to frantically spam everyone at TEFL to tell any of the people in charge about my problem. I then ask around Starbucks to see if anyone knew where I can get a voltage converter so I can plug my computer in. Found a place nearby and grab one…but then realize I left my chord at home.

NoooooooooooCOPYMAX store. I run over there and then have to buy a USB so I can transfer the file from my dying computer to their system.

Finally, get it printed out. I run back to the consulate, get another number to wait in line right before the cut off time, re-fill out the paper work, and submit my application! SUCCESS…until I learn that I will have to pay double of what we thought ($1400hkd instead of $700). Oh, and we only guesstimated that amount because I looked up the prices on the horribly behind-the-times P.R. of China Hong Kong Consulate website (I don’t think they’ve updated their site since the Beijing Winter Olympics)…but still, TEFL should know this information.

They are saying now that ‘no one knew it had to be included…’ LIES! Someone is definitely lying. I understand Laura not knowing, they have kind of shoved taking care of the foreigners and the foreigners’ visas off on her, because Tina isn’t the best manager (and that’s putting it in Chinese terms…where ‘fine’ actually means ‘horrible’). Putting together visa applications isn’t her actual job. If we are going to point fingers, I’m going to go with the hiring/paperwork department that put together my application papers in the first place. This is their job to know how to do this. Plus, the only reason they had me get a health exam in the first place was FOR this visa. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had to get one. You don’t do health exams for kicks around here.

It was a big sigh of relief to get everything submitted…let’s just hope that all of the bad karma today yields a bunch of good karma tomorrow. I want my Z visa and I want my passport back with little to no hassle. I don’t want to get stuck in Hong Kong, even though it’s a pretty cool city. I went and walked around the Harbor and up and down Nathan Road after all the madness this morning.

I think the ultimate thing is this, though: don’t trust anything TEFL does or says as far as I can throw the building it’s located in. Sad, but true. I’ve got about 8 more months of this. So my mantra is always: If I can survive this, I can survive anything!

This pretty much was my day.
Image (c) Allie Brosh (

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Merry Christmas (圣诞快乐), Happy New Year (新年快乐), and a Surprise!

Hey everyone! These last few weeks have been crazy! What a way to usher in the New Year. I can only think that my life will continue to challenge me with new experiences and adventures.

Christmas was spent working. I made a deal with my boss that if I worked Christmas, I could get  few days off of my choosing elsewhere. I didn't really mind working Christmas anyway, because I really wanted to be busy and not thinking about being a half a world away from my family and friends during the holiday season. I kind of kicked off Christmas with a Christmas Eve Skype date with my family where my dad read about the birth of Jesus - a tradition we do every year. We also open one gift (always pjs), which had been sent to me a few weeks back as part of my birthday gifts. The next day I got to school bright and early and put little or no effort into my 5 classes. We mostly played games and talked about Christmas. I really didn't teach anything. Oh well, the kids loved it and that's what matters.

That night, I gave a presentation to a packed room of 40+ students and their parents about Christmas - the history, traditions of the world, US traditions, and taught some Christmas vocabulary. I also showed them a video of synchronized Christmas house lights and music (YouTube: 'Frisco Christmas Lights - Wizards in Winter'). No one expected that many kids to show up. Tina actually had to run out and get more candy and presents. All in all, it went really well. Afterwards we headed over to do KTV, which is basically karaoke Chinese style. I sang a few songs, but seriously I have no idea where they got their English song list. It was incredibly random. I finished up the night with another Skype with my family and we all opened presents together. I got socks and little make-up things. It was wonderful.

New Year's Eve was also a blast! I got together with a few friends from work and we got a little something to eat before heading out on the town. We started the night at Coco (1) and I stood out like a sore thumb (blonde hair). Plus our group was dancing, dancing, dancing, something that is not unheard of in clubs (like in Athens, Greece where people stand around and shout to each other while really loud synth music blares in the background) but not always typical. It was really fun to see some random Chinese people loosen up and dance with us! I made some friends too! I ended up chatting with a few of the girls that came and danced with us. And right after the clock struck midnight and everyone was yelling 'Happy New Year' or ' / Shin-Knee-In-Kwai-Lah,' I got invited back to the table that we had been asked to move from because another party had already reserved it and I met some really nice Chinese guys. Whoot, free drinks. Also, I got a pen pal out of it too. Two of the guys worked in international fashion trade and the other two were students. One of them, Skye, had studied in Birmingham, UK, so his English was pretty good.

Then we headed over to Coco (2), a branch version of Coco (1) with a much more modern feel. There I met up with a coworker, Arslan, and a bunch of students studying south of Hangzhou who were from India. They were so nice and now I have a multitude of tour guides should I ever head their way! So the New Year was brought in with a bevvy of new friends. That's not a bad way to start 2012.


Now onto something a little different and my silly, little gift to you: I've come to realize I'm a collector, but not of Beanie Babies, angels, stamps, etc. like some people. I find these little nuances everywhere here and they are always a joy to find. You can't really find these things in the United States for various reasons, so I try and cherish every little one that pops up.

What I love is Chinglish. I adore it when China butchers the English language. It's the funniest thing ever and never fails to put a smile on my face. It also makes me want to walk into establishments and ask the owner to let me fix their sign's grammar and/or spelling, but I usually resist that urge. Alas.

Whenever I see one of these little Chinglish presents, I try to whip out my camera as fast as possible and snap up a shot. I don't always get everyone, especially since I've recently found myself without a camera, but I do try my hardest. 

So here you go, a belated and comical Christmas present to all my readers, a little Chinglish to brighten up your day:

'Let's merry.'
I was actually a little surprised by this one, since Starbucks originated in the United States and should have a grasp on it's native language....but this little gem may have slipped passed the marketing team over in corporate.

'Dwelling? Why Lotus Fragrant Home'
You see these Lotus Homes advertisements all over Hangzhou, usually displayed at bus stops and bike racks. I just love how literal is is: Dwelling?

'Drink The Water Machine'
Again with being literal. This is on our water cooler at work and I can't help but giggle every time I go refill my glass.

'Write a piece of gentilesse for u.'
This was on a card (which are unending sources of Chinglish) that HR passed out for Thanksgiving. We were supposed to write to another coworker who we were thankful for. Or in this case we would 'write a piece of gentilesse' to them. WHAT IS GENTILESSE? Is it French? Is it a word? ...upon further examination (aka I googled it), it is a noun meaning 'refinement and courtesy resulting from good breeding' from Old English/French origin and it is also a poem by Geoffry Chauser.

'Nordic Casual Style'
Okay, this really isn't Chinglish, but I do want to know what exactly is 'Nordic Casual Style'? Is that like Alexander Skarsgard's awkward short tie and red, courderoy tight pants? Maybe a fur hat?

'I'm no problem.'
I think they mean 'it's no problem,' but if that is not the case then I'm glad their male employees aren't too fussy either. I walk by this one everyday on my way to and from work and I finally got up the courage to run up and take a picture. I got some really weird looks from the sales people, but thankfully, they're no problem.

'France Crocodilian Shirt Group Limited'
I have NO IDEA WHAT THIS MEANS. Well, I kind of do? It's a company that makes crocodile shirts from France? Or are they French crocodiles that make shirts? Or is it a French company that makes shirts FOR crocodiles? I guess we'll never really know.

'Gift Dreamer / Vitality Fashion Taste'
This reminds me of those nifty little Magnetic Word Poetry sets. Someone, probably blindfolded, reached into one of those sets (with words relating to sports and/or food) and pulled some out at random and slapped it on a water bottle! Tah dah! Instant win.

'Saliva squid must'
This one is from the Shanghai vaults, which I have yet to post about. Food, though, is one of the most interesting as far as translations go. I've noticed it usually goes one of two ways: literally or with a lot of creative liberty and very little explanation as to what it really is. For example, mango juice in one restaurant was called 'Happy Golden Dragon Drink.' ...saliva squid must...I know it has squid in it and that is all I want to know.

'Dwell in your plesant hoard your / gold Lest you with me.'
WHAT DO YOU MEAN!?! It might be a quote from an old English novel or poem of sorts...okay, upon further inquiry (aka I googled it) this is from a poem called 'From Sunset to Star Rise' by Christina Rossetti. I'm guessing she wasn't consulted when this was put on a bag that had nothing to do with this poem. It's so out of place!

There are a million other gems out there like this. I feel like I stumble upon a new one at least every other day. Yesterday, when I was shopping at INTIME (a mall) there was an advertisement that was, what looked like, a jumble of made up words! It was fantastic. I need to go back and get a picture.

So, happy New Year everyone. May jubilate your daily wishes and merry peoples think gentilesse!

Friday, December 23, 2011

My Sanity: When Things Go From Missing to Lost

This might be a bit of a ramble, but bear with me. Lots of things have happened since my last update.

I went to visit my friend Maggie in Shanghai from the 11th – 14th of this month (post to come soon). I didn’t want to leave. It was just so much...more than Hangzhou. I am such a city person and Shanghai was a city among cities. It had everything I wanted: There was an amazingly extensive bus and subway public transit system that was relatively on time and functional. I could live in my tiny western (English) bubble if I ever got overwhelmed, but at the same time, I had to use Chinese the moment I walked out the door. Also, there was so much more to do and to see – the city rarely slept. It was perfect and I fell a little in love with it.

I regretted leaving, but I had to. I thought about quitting my job in Hangzhou and relocating to Shanghai for all of 5 minutes, but realized that 1) it would be a cop-out and life there wouldn’t really be any easier despite what I thought, 2) I have a decent, stable job that actually pays me (a little, but it’s enough), and I get a work (Z) visa, and 3) I really needed to prove to myself that even if my situation isn’t the most hospitable, I have to stick with it and adhere to my contract. Just because this job isn’t my favorite sometimes, doesn’t mean I should up and quit.

We westerners expect certain things out of life sometimes. From the people I’ve seen come through here, there have been many complaints – some of them well founded, some of them stemming from entitlement. One thing I have learned here is: IF IT ISN’T IN YOUR CONTRACT, DON’T ASSUME YOU ARE GOING TO GET IT. It’s a hard lesson (i.e. the mattress debacle), but one I’ve had to learn. I know exactly what to ask for next time.

I had to buy my own dishes, hangers, trashcans, containers, cleaning supplies, other odds and ends, because I didn’t specify having those in the contract….that mistake probably cost me over 500rmb. Also, I can’t take any of them home with me. This irked me at first, but now I see it as another lesson hard learned. Here you have to be specific and thorough. You have to pick your battles – figure out what is important to you and explain it rationally and firmly. The main thing, especially in China, is be diligent, but not annoying

Claire-fucius Say: Lambasting doesn’t win you any popularity points.

So, the current battle I’m fighting is for decent internet. I originally started out with a LAN line (a cable that hooks my computer directly into the internet port) – it worked great and had very, very few problems. I was finally able to communicate, to study Chinese, to learn about Hangzhou, to find resources to plan for lessons, etc. I paid a company 300rmb for installation and for 3 months of 2M (decent) speed internet.
Then my new roommate came along. She wanted internet – understandable, the internet connects us and makes us feel not so alone – but the way TEFL went about getting her the internet is something I am not so happy about. Last Friday, Henry, our sub-par IT guy, went out and bought a wireless router. He then proceeded to take my LAN line, connect it to our router, and convert my VPN to a wireless internet connection.

This did not work out so well. When he first hooked it up, it was fine…came home that night, no internet…tried everything I could think of, nothing worked. I figured out that while my computer could connect to the router, the router could not connect to the internet. Tina had to tell Henry that, because Henry doesn’t speak any English. How much he understands, I still don’t know. On Saturday, I have to run with him, during my short break, during my busiest day, and pantomime to him what was wrong. He figures out that the router he bought was faulty. While I’m in my second marathon of classes, he goes out and buys another one, comes back to our house, and installs it that night after work. It was such a long and ridiculously time-consuming process.

So we had internet? …oh, wait. Very, very, very slow internet. 2M is not made for 2 people to share on a wireless connection that is originally intended for one person using a LAN line. I mentioned it to some coworkers…what I was paying for before was fine. I wanted that back, especially since Monica can’t pay me until next month because her money management skills suck. Nice lady, but I’m practically babysitting a 46 year old. I decided to tough it out for a few days, I could deal with slow internet for a while. Better than no internet…then the connection started cutting out. For no reason, it would just stop working and I couldn’t trouble shoot it. It just keeps malfunctioning and, since there is nothing I can do to fix it, we always have to go back to Henry and we have to set aside time to let him in and let him tinker around. Plus, I refuse to pay for something that doesn’t well or, in this case, at all.

I miss my good internet. I also miss common sense: why couldn’t they just call the company that provided my internet and have them install a wireless router and use my money towards payment for 2 people? Efficiency: apparently just another cultural difference and definitely a topic of a future post.

So with the stress of dealing with Monica, the internet problem, my increased workload (I’m teaching about 15 classes in the space of 2 days), and dealing with holiday-separation-blues...I wasn’t totally focused on the things that were important, like my purse. Ania, who was leaving to go back to Poland, and I were having a dinner in between this last Sunday’s classes in a food court in the mall our office is adjacent to. I went to treat myself to a smoothie and took my billfold out of my purse and when I returned, I didn’t put it back in. I was so stressed out about whether I should go to Shanghai for Christmas, whether TEFL would have my visa papers ready and would they pay for my plane ticket, what to do about the intrusive jabber-mouth Monica, and how to approach Tina about changing the internet situation that when it was time to rush off after our quick lunch, I grabbed my billfold, but not my purse. I wasn’t until three hours later that I realized something was wrong.

I had my phone, my iPod, and my billfold, but where the heck was my purse. I realized I had left it in the food court. I went back with Jolin to check the lost and found, but they had seen nothing.
I lost my camera, my keys, a USB Luke had given me that had some important information on it, and my bus pass. I realize it could have been so much worse and I’m thankful that it wasn’t, but still… I felt so stupid to have forgotten my purse. I ended up emotionally shutting down to save my sanity until I got home. Then I cried. A lot. I kept telling myself: things like this happen, you can do it, tomorrow will be better.
And it was….On Monday, my tutor Effie helped me get a new apartment key, which I paid too much for. I knew I was getting ripped off, I just didn’t have the energy to argue. It was from this little stand in a back alley - people just copy keys on the street, it’s pretty neat. I wish I could show you a picture, but my camera got stolen.

I also was looking forward to shopping with Joy and Candice on Tuesday morning – they also mentioned helping me get a bus pass. We wandered through this really cool, but really overpriced touristy area near West Lake. It was a very gray, blustery day, but we had fun. We walked around and then ate ourselves into a food coma. I tried pig’s ear (a weird chewy and crunchy combo) and jellyfish (like a thin, tasteless gummy bear) – my food adventures in China are never ending. Our meal consisted of seven dishes and it only cost us 30rmb each. A really good deal!

Things went downhill after that, I think we ate too much or something bad, because when we came out and went to go find the bus card kiosk place, I started to not feel so good. I decided I could get it later, I just wanted to go home and curl up and sleep. I think it was the stress and the excessive amount of food that made my body want to hibernate. All three of us were falling asleep on the bus. From the bus to my apartment and into my bed was a haze….which explains why I can’t find my phone.
Another thing I miss: my phone. I realized that it was gone when I couldn’t find it to call Tina about our internet problems for the umpteenth time. I ripped my room apart looking for it, but the last place I remember having it was in my pocket in the market. It either fell out or someone stole it. It was just gone. That’s when I feel like I might have lost my sanity for a few seconds. I my emotions smeared together to the point I didn’t know what I felt. I was just overwhelmed.

I went straight into work and managed to keep it together to talk to Tina, but then when I sat down at my desk, I felt my eyes start to water. I quietly got up, grabbed my iPod, and found an empty classroom where I could just breath deep and be alone.

Unlike my phone, my camera, my bus card, my flash drive, and my keys, my sanity was not lost, only missing. I found it, huddled in a corner of my mind, calmed it down, cajoled, persuaded, reasoned, and practically dragged it back to the forefront of my mind to where it belonged. My sanity and I were going to put our big girl pant on and deal with the situation. And deal with it we did:

-I decided not to go to Shanghai. I need to save my money and I will be there next month before I fly back to the States anyway. Fiscal responsibility: acquired.
-I worked out my visa problems with TEFL and they will be buying my plan ticket down to Hong Kong. Persuasion: acquired.
-I will buy a new phone/camera down in Hong Kong or with my next paycheck if I need a phone sooner. Numbers can be replaced. Rational: acquired.
-I have my old bus pass application and I can either go with Effy, my tutor, next Monday, to get a new one or learn how to say “I lost my bus pass, can I get a new one?” in Chinese and do it myself. Resourcefulness: (decently) acquired.
-I will attend a CouchSurfing meeting Friday and maybe make some other friends to spend this Christmas with! Optimism: acquired.
-I will breathe over Henry’s shoulder the next time he messes with our internet and make him show me what he is doing! I will fix the internet situation! Patience: eventually acquired!
-I can do all the things! Determination: acquired.

Actually, writing all of this down really helped me feel better about my situation. I encourage you, if you find yourself in overwhelming circumstances, either now during this holiday season or in the future, to write things down – get it all out. Write down what the problem is, why it is a problem, how you feel. Then take a deep breath and then write how you can deal with it. Overwhelming problems are like knots. Being able to unravel issues one string at a time, rather than pulling futilely at the whole knot, not only makes me feel calmer, it makes me feel more accomplished and ready to face the next task.  Organization: acquired.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Google Translate Told Me 生日快乐 Means 'Happy Birthday' in Chinese

YAY! December 4th was my twenty....third? fourth? Oh, crap. I forgot how old I am. [goes and gets a calculator]. Okay, it's official. I'm twenty-four....I can't believe I actually forgot how old I am! Hahaha. My coworker, Ania, asked me, 'how does it feel to be older?' I believe the more appropriate reply, rather than, 'It feels the same,' is, 'I feel like my numerical brain functioning is deteriorating much more rapidly now.'

The confusion was probably brought on because I actually celebrated my birthday on the 3rd at work. The reason being that, in order to prevent myself from sitting at home and crying over a lonely, single piece of birthday cake, I decided to bring a cake to work to force invite everyone to celebrate with me. Plus, I can't eat an entire cake by myself. That stuff stays with you forever...on your hips and butt.

...oops. Maths. Who needs them?

Most people work on Saturday, so to optimize my impromptu birthday festivities, I brought the cake in on the 3rd. Plus, it was like a gift to myself - I love cheesecake, it's my birthday. Why shouldn't I have my cake, eat it too, and share it with all my friends? Haha. Once I had explained why I had brought in the cheese cake-y goodness, Jolin asked if they should sing 'Happy Birthday?' I said that was not necessary...until Ania suggested they should sing it in Chinese. My response: LET ME GET MY CAMERA!

Here's a link to the lyrics: Shenri Kuaile. It's pretty much the same song we sing in the US, but it was a cool experience nonetheless.

Then some unexpected things happened. During one of my breaks Ms. Mei (another teacher and supervisor) comes up to me and hands me a pair of fancy hose. 'For you,' she said, 'happy birthday.' I was not expecting that. I told her she didn't have to, but she insisted. I was happy with just that - I never expected any presents. At all. BUT, I also ended up receiving vouchers from Victoria in HR (that paid for my cake), carrot juice from Daisy (it's my new favorite drink), and the cutest mirror from Richard and Tina! It was so unexpected and just really thoughtful of them to do that. For the first time, I think I felt like I belonged....and that was a gift in itself.

The card is hilariously creepy....see a closeup below.
'Even if you can't see me, I can see you.'

On my actual birthday, I got even more surprises! Ania and I had planned to go to Pizza Hut on the 5th to not only celebrate my birthday, but to have 'you-studied-your-butt-off-for-the-HSK' congratulatory pizza in honor of her taking the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi or the national Chinese Proficiency Test. If she passes (which she probably did), she is qualified to work in or with any Chinese company. She had originally canceled, because her dad all of a sudden needed her to run some quality checks in some of their factories in China, but she had some time after her test before traveling south, so we got to meet up! Also, I know what you are thinking, 'Pizza Hut? That doesn't sound very exciting?' OH BUT IT IS! China's version of Pizza Hut is much crazier than ours. The things they put on their pizzas will astound you. We ordered a stuffed crust pizza - one half had popcorn shrimp on it, the other half had oysters and crab. The popcorn shrimp side was much better....and both of these were considerably tamer than some of the other choices: chicken feet, salmon, corn, etc.

Not what we ordered, but it has mini hot dogs?!

And to top it all off, I got to Skype with my entire family. Trust me that is nothing short of a miracle to gather everyone in one place during a specific time. I really appreciated it. Also, more unexpected presents - I say unexpected because I specifically asked for a plane ticket back to the US over the Chinese New Year for birthday and Christmas from my entire family. So sweet of them!

Possibly the warmest pajamas ever and a book!

So, I just want to tell everyone that made these last few days really special: Thank you. 谢谢 . I feel so blessed.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Story of "The Great Mattress Debacle!" or "Cleanliness Rant"

[Oct. 21-Oct.28, 2011] When I arrived at my apartment and walked into my room all I saw was on this slab of a twin bed. There was no mattress, just what looked like a solid bed frame. It's like if a camping cot and a sheet of plastic had a baby. Maggie said something along the lines of 'very sorry, we get new mattress.' I thought, okay, I can live with this for a few days. Then I took in my surroundings and inhaled. The curtains were stained, the walls scuffed and splattered with dead mosquito guts, and there was this permeating odor of bad BBQ/beef jerky - it was horribly unpleasant. I almost started crying right there in the room, in front of my bosses. They whipped out some new (thankfully), cheap sheets and a thin cotton pad of sorts. 
And only a thin blanket like mattress to go on top.
A better view.

It was just so much to take addition to the culture shock and thinking 'this is my life for the next year?!' I feel like I sound selfish and horrible, but the lack of small comforts kind of got to me...also, I wasn't warned before hand about needing to buy a mattress. Surprise! Extra expenses!

Thankfully, they let me take a shower and I cried to myself in that horribly disgusting bathroom. There was mold where the sink met the wall, the drain smelled and was almost clogged with muck and hair, the shower had a moldy residue all over the shower walls, mildew and gunk lurked along the shower's floor edge, little glass bits from where the shower door was completely broken off (we didn't have a shower door, just a gaping opening) were scattered here and there. 

It festers right under the surface of the caulking...

Evil things live in my drain.

And since I'm already on a roll, I give you the kitchen. The people that lived there a mere day before had better thank hell and highwater that I wasn't there while they were or they would have gotten such a dressing down - they would have wished for deafness. I swear that space hadn't been cleaned for the entirety of their residence in the apartment. The fridge had molding food in it and indistinguishable splatters...more mold too. The counters were sticky with residue. The entire wall behind the stove was slick with oil splatters, the rest of the walls were not exempt from a nice dusting of oil and grime, even the bottom of the wall-cabinets had a thin film of oil under them - they glistened in such a disgusting way when the light hit them right. The floor looked like someone wanted to plant a garden - there was so much dirt and mud built up around the base of the fridge and in the rooms corners. They also had the gall to take all of our pots and pans and leave their dirty, empty, disgusting food containers for us to clean up.
This was after we removed the smelly food packages.
The walls were shellacked with oil spatter.
I'm pretty sure something died in there and it did not go quietly.

I've been told that the different standards of cleanliness is just a cultural difference. At first, I kept thinking, 'well cleanliness isn't about culture, it's about a choice - a choice to clean!' To a certain extent that is true, but what I've come to realize, seeing life go on around me here day to day, is that the decision that is socially okay here in China is to choose to NOT clean. I may look at a piece of trash or dust bunny and think 'I need to pick that up' or 'I need to sweep that up'. The Chinese just think 'it could be worse, I don't care about that piece of trash' and thus they won't do anything. Also, especially with outside garbage and the state of some shops that would have the have the Health Inspectors shutting them down 7 ways to Friday in the states....I feel like I can sum it up in one useful Chinese excuse: 'Méi bànfǎ, rén tàiduō' or 'There's nothing you can do, too many people.' China might literally have too many people to clean up after. I'm still not okay with the cleanliness situation, but I've come to understand why it is the way it is better.
The corners....where no broom or mop has gone before!
When I opened the doors, a small army of spiders jumped out at me.

Anyway, I wish I were over exaggerating, but I'm not. Victoria and I gave the whole place a scrub-down the next Saturday morning and now it is much more livable. I spent half my pocket money on cleaning supplies that I don't think I'm going to get reimbursed for, because it's not in my contract goddammit. Now, I digress, back to the later on they reported that a new mattress would be delivered on Sunday. I waited with baited breath! A good, comfortable night's sleep, not some chiropractic nightmare!  So, after work on Sunday I prance home and walk into my room to see....nothing has changed. 'Hmm, okay,' I thought, 'must have gotten the rooms mixed up...' So I walk into my roommates much nicer and larger bedroom and see a new large wooden bed frame (a double or queen sized one), but no mattress. 

A view from above.
I'm going to bet that this bed was not purchased new....origin: ignorance is bliss.

I go over to look at it...the middle was made of this odd interlaced, almost fibrous material and was trampoline-y in nature. But still no mattress. And then I wondered if, what it, mattress is just one of those things that is lost in translation. What if this is just the way common folk here in China are expected to sleep. In Japan they sleep on cotton mats on the floor sometimes. Oh joy. I laid down on it and wasn't too displeased. It was better than that plastic, unforgiving nightmare I had been tossing and turning on. When Victoria came back she was confused as I was about the 'new mattress' / 'better bed' we were supposed to get. Since the new mattress freaked her out (she kept saying, "We don't even live like this in Ghana!") we ended up switching rooms because she didn't want to sleep on the new bed and opted to keep her own little stone table. 

I must say, the bigger room was much nicer and I felt a lot better in there. Actually, after spending a night in my old room Victoria came to me and asked, 'how the hell did I live in there?' [insert hysterical laughter] HAHAHAHA...kinda wanted to cry again. She only stayed for a few more days before returning to Ghana to complete some visa paperwork. I really doubt she's coming back...

...and speaking of backs. Thank god I have a chiropractor in my family. I'm starting to have a lot of pain in my shoulders, despite my awesome family sending a few foam mattress pads my way. They are like little heavenly clouds that I sleep on each night - in comparison to NOT having them. I really didn't realize how integral a decent bed was for being able to stand where and how I live. A normal, western bed: probably one of the things I miss the most - call me spoiled, but it's true. 
Or maybe I will choose option B? Merry Christmas to me?

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Chinese Thanksgiving

[November 24, 2011] Thanksgiving! I woke up feeling horrible – which is why I haven’t written in a while. Most of my free time in the last week has been spent sitting in my bed feeling miserable as my chameleon of a cold goes from terrorizing my swollen throat, to wracking my chest with bone rattling coughs, straight up to my head to strangle my sinuses and turn my nose into a faucet. It’s been an unpleasant week for my immune system…

Despite my state, I was not going to let a bug derail my Thanksgiving plans in which I was somehow going to try and concoct a festive meal. Now, I’m not a stellar cook to begin with nor can I really follow a recipe…but I have this uncanny ability to whip up things from scratch using basic ingredients.

Not Possible: I'm no miracle worker or Martha Stewart

I mapped out the most basic holiday meal I could think of:
1.       -Chicken – a good substitute for Turkey (they don’t have this bird in China) which I knew how to cook
2.       -Mashed Potatoes – decided to flavor with garlic instead of gravy because I could not find flour
3.       -Corn – I had seen some at the store, sounded easy enough
4.        -Fruit – self explanatory
5.       -Pumpkin Pie – easier said than done, the Chinese don’t make this dish

Also known as 'China's 3-Story Walmart'

I had grabbed potatoes, onion, milk, salt, fruit, and garlic on earlier trips. I was just going to go to TESCO after work on that Thursday to grab the remaining things: chicken, corn, and pumpkin pie. I mentioned this to Tina, a coworker, and she said she would go with me to help me pick out a chicken.
This was good, because fruits, veggies, meat, and bakery bread is organized differently here and has to be packaged by an individual at the store. Also, the places is so freakishly huge and most things are in Chinese, what takes a native 5 minutes to find can take me up to 30 minutes sometimes.

Meat-a-polooza: It's like this x1000.
Tina, once we started our grocery shopping, tried to convince me to get a whole black chicken…head, legs, everything. I told her no. It’s not that I didn’t want to try it, it’s that I didn’t know how to cook it nor did I think it would fit into my pan. We ended up finding some chicken breast! Success. Then we found some corn…that was shrink-wrapped and microwavable. I figured since I didn’t try the black chicken, I should at least humor Tina and get the corn-in-a-bag. Corn, check. She talked me into getting some 5rmb (~$1) white wine and some garlic to cook with. Which inspired her to add some sugar to that, since a glass of warm wine with sugar and garlic is said to be good for health. Didn’t take long to convince me! Onto the pumpkin, which pie made of that squash is not available here, so I went with these little pumpkin croquettes.

As I was leaving, I decided to take a detour to Starbucks and got myself a congratulatory Cranberry White Chocolate Mocha and a piece of cherry cheesecake (just in case the pumpkin croquettes didn’t work out).

I can't read any of the labels...

Cooking went off without too many mishaps. The garlic mashed potatoes turned out great. The chicken with a wine/garlic/onion/ginger sauce was a pleasant surprise! I sliced up some kiwi for my fruit portion. The only fail was that after microwaving the corn…when I began to cut it, I noticed a weird texture anomaly. It was hard, so I tasted one of the kernels. IT TASTED LIKE WAX.

This belongs at Madame Tussauds under 'bad idea'

 It was disgusting. Awesome, I had bought mutant corn. Oh well, the dinner portion was a success nonetheless and I was too full by the end of it to really miss the corn.

Garlic mashed potatoes, chicken in a hodge-podge sauce, kiwi, and coffee

Now, onto dessert! My first attempt to fry the pumpkin things was a failure

The top one looks like a hockey puck. Probably tastes about as appetizing as one.

…but failure is the mother of success (and it also helped that I had a lot more for some more tries) and eventually produced to lightly fried pumpkin croquettes with a drizzle of honey for good measure. I also boiled the wine with some sugar and ginger in it…and voila!

Fork courtesy of Starbucks!

 The wine ended up a bit too booze-y for my tastes, but all in all the whole debacle was a success! Go me! This evening I'm thankful that I didn’t burn my apartment down. Also, I was ridiculously happy to be able to Skype with my family and friends later that evening as well – a really special treat to see everyone I miss!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Travel and First Day in China, Part I

[10-21-2011] Packing Monday and Tuesday morning of this week was ridiculous. I don’t think people realize how many things they accumulate that define their life until they have to move their entire life elsewhere. Trying to fold, arrange and re-arrange, and smash all of my clothing and toiletries into three suitcases proved nearly impossible except for the wonderful creation of space bags that you vacuum or roll the air out of.  Finally, after much finagling, Emily, Natalie, Mom, and I fit everything into the three containers that my life was reduced to.

Leaving sucked. I cried. A lot. I don’t think I realized, amidst the feverish need to leave, to just get out, that a part of me desperately wanted to stay. I guess I didn’t realize how much I love what I had, until I left it behind. Familiarity is a safe and wonderfully reassuring thing.

I drove to St. Louis with my mom and dad. I was on the phone mostly with the credit card and phone companies concerning my departure – I really wish I would have talked to them more. I didn’t realize how much, with the lack of communication that I am experiencing now, I would miss their voices. We finally get to the St. Louis airport and try to check my bags at the wrong airline at my urging; finally, we find my way over the right place and are 7lbs. over weight on one of my suitcases. So we start taking things out to re-weigh it and find that the vacuum bag containing my pillow, towels, bedding, etc. is a perfect candidate at 8lbs. My poor mom was trying to do the motherly thing, despite my earlier protests that those things would be provided for me. So out those went (which was a big mistake I realized later on), my bags were checked, we met up with my cousin for some farewell airport pasta, and after some waterworks, I was through security and on the plane to LAX. It was an uneventful flight, got lucky that the seat next to me was open.

Once I arrived, walked halfway across LAX, got my boarding pass, passed through security again, and found my terminal, I was eye-bleedingly tired. When I booked my flight I didn’t really take into account time zones. So what I thought to be a 1AM flight, was actually a 1AM flight California time – a 4AM flight EST, which is what I’m used to. I made some more tearful calls and then grabbed some food and coffee and prepared myself to stay awake. My methodology consisted of much walking in circles. It was the only thing that really kept me awake. I must have looked ridiculous doing it, but it was the most effective. Finally, we boarded, just when I was about to pass out/shoot myself from boredom. I was unfortuitously seated in the middle row in a middle seat (something I had no control over), but I was tired enough that I could have slept anywhere.

I got out my travel pillow and earplug/eyemask combo, ready to sleep, when the Asian lady next to me decided to be my friend. It was like a hippie exploded. Good lord. She talked on and on and on and on about being vegetarian, living a clean life, recycling, the methane gas bubble in the Caribbean, plate tectonics, her yogi-guru person (whose picture she wore around her neck)…I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at first, I thought I was just going to be polite and respond accordingly to a few phases and then ignore her for the rest of the flight, while I hopefully slept like a baby. Maybe even get a few tips on Chinese language and culture. Nope, what I got was a series of environmentally-charged college lectures. I eventually cut her off before I started twitching and drooling on my seat, saying that I needed to sleep. Which I did well enough through the din of the plane’s engine roar; when I woke up, I immediately started reading to prevent anymore discussion.  I evaded the well-meaning chatterbox for a few hours, until we got our food and then it was off to the races again with diet, pesticides, the unnecessary abuse of livestock, etc. I was familiar with most of these topics, but I didn’t want to dig myself a deeper hole of conversation to fall into. Thankfully, we soon deplaned – me a sweaty, tired mess. I know she was just trying to be nice, but I was tired and just wanted to get to my next plane in time. I had to go through customs and security again and did not want to have a scheduling mishap this early in my journey. I evaded her at customs, changed clothes, grabbed my bags, went through airport security for the millionth time and got to my gate. Beijing’s International Airport is frickin’ impressive, it seemed to span forever it was so huge! So many shops for everything you could have wanted! I ran by all those though in an effort to get to my gate on time.

I made it, took a deep breath, powered up my phone, and realized I could get FB on it! YAY!

At the cost of data charges though. BOO!

One weird thing was that I thought I heard the soundtrack from the first Narnia movie everywhere. It was so surreal. I’ve listened to that CD so many times that when I heard familiar parts or something that sounded like it, I couldn’t help but stop and wonder why the heck were they playing it here?! I definitely heard it at my gate in Beijing – the track ‘Lucy Meets Mr. Tumnus’ or ‘Evacuating London’. I guess China is like my Narnia though, a completely new world full of wonder, discovery, and complete governmental control…new friends, danger, adventure, talking animals (this one I have yet to verify), etc. Though I doubt I will be a Queen of China anytime soon. So weird! Music and movie references aside, 

I finally found myself on the plane to Hangzhou, tired, but still in one piece. At the airport, after grabbing my bags, I met Maggie and Richard – I thought Davs was supposed to be picking me up, but I just went with the flow. We drove about 30 minutes to my apartment and that is where all the fun began….

Coming soon: Pictures and Part II