Archives for category: culture

…is my favorite, and it is not disappointing me. I’d say the highlight occurred today, where the kindergarten and preschool forwent regular lessons and instead threw a halloween party for the kids! It’s my number one holiday, but not all that known here. As China gets more affluent they begin to incorporate more Western practices into their culture, and our “halmark” holidays I think are among those. Christmas is the only one you see getting true face time here, in any season; year round you can find Christmas symbols and characters adorning random products and bastardized christmas songs playing over the loudspeakers at the mall while you shop. I kind of missed seeing everything all decked out in spookiness for Halloween. I love how in the states, all the grocery stores and pharmacies are taken over by polyester spiderman costumes and mini candies and those annoying motion sensing robots that cackle or start to sing when you pass. Ahhh what a perfect time of year where I come from. Okay, sorry, that is the second phase of culture shock talking: over idealizing of the homeland!

Anyway, I became the halloween consultant for this little party. (I wish that were a real job, by the way). My adoring mother did not leave me ill prepared for this task in a care package I received several weeks ago. Pianpian and Keke (my two chinese teachers and dare I say, friends) were adorably bemused by the cotton cobwebs I brought in. We had fun stretching it out over the banisters and making little spiders to live in it. They were kind of mystified by the thought when I told them this stuff is EVERYWHERE around halloween in the states.

spider webs from America put to good usespider web from america, put to good use

I’m such a dork, but I think I was as excited as any of the kids would be when I woke up this morning. I put on my halloween party outfit, including tights and a wig straight out of my care package (thanks mommm!!!)

halloween party outfit
he's looking at my wig! ha
(^I managed to capture this priceless reaction to the wig I was wearing! HAHA!)

and went into a properly spookified classroom greeted by lots of little children in homemade masks.

halloween masks
me and a masked villain

I had made a little “pin the tail on the black cat” game (‘black cat’ was one of the halloween vocab words I taught this week so I thought it only appropriate), expecting to set it up in the corner of the room and have kids come up and play it as they pleased. What I was not expecting was for the whole kindergarten and preschool combined, as well as visiting early childhood education university students, to line their chairs up like when I do lessons and wait for me to make a kind of presentation out of it! I was not prepared for that, and it’s not really the nature of the game for people to watch quietly as everyone takes their turn; it was a more somber game of pin-the-tail, but whatever! I winged it, and the kids had fun.

pin the tail on the black cat
pin the tail on the black cat

When it was over, there were lots of eyes blinking at me expectantly for another game, and one of my students (bless her) requested “duck duck goose” so I turned it into “ghost ghost pumpkin” and it filled up the rest of the time quite nicely and got everyone lively and having fun. Pianpian and Keke stopped me abruptly because the children had to go outside for morning exercises… which is odd: they cancel all classes for the day but morning exercises must be attended as usual? But I was just relieved to not be the center of attention anymore!

morning exercisesmorning exercisemorning exercises

The rest of the day was a breeze. The kids made halloween art projects and pretty mush just ran around playing in their masks and having candy. I gave out spider ring prizes. I also did a little face painting. I think I wanna be a carnie when I grow up.

halloween crafts
Kingty working on halloween craftshalloween crafts

Nathan as a scary vampire- MUAHAHA
don't lose your mask in the ball pit
ooooooh scary!
spider man
halloween queen Jenny

face painting
face painting

enjoying english halloween book
Another care package shout out: Ethan there is enjoying the book that ALL the kids love to look at and have me read, a halloween story in English!

It was an awesome day. Although Halloween novices, these children seemed as adept as any at tricks and treats, and they took to it like naturals. But what’s not to love about a holiday that celebrates mischief and candy and fun and kids being the center of it all? Those are the kind of golden values that transcend language and culture and all that other crap.

Look, here’re the party animals now!
halloween group photo
some of my students
some of my students
cutie patooties


Teaching continues to be a series of satisfying successes outnumbered by failures, and most of them surprises.

My strengths seem to be and my satisfactions continue to come from teaching the young children. I’d like to share one little easy, successful thing I did with any other beginning EFL pre-k teachers who like me, often flounder with how to entertain and instruct the little ones. Again and again, it always seems to be the simplest things that are the most effective. This week, I focused on “Apple — a, Banana– b, Cookie– c”…. and without any real intention behind it, threw in “all done!” to supplement the whole eating theme. Much to my surprise, “all done” turned out to be the catchiest part! Here’s how I did it:

all doneall done

It was SUPER easy to make these little flippable pages, which were given rave reviews by my 3 year olds. I would have a child come up and “eat ____” then open the page saying, “all done!” at which they would all laugh their butts off. Even though it wasn’t my target vocabulary, “all done” became the phrase of the week, and much to my glowing pride I heard them using it during playtime with each other and to the other teachers. Since they got such a kick out of it, it was a piece of cake to provide them with their own flip book thingy.
all done
They colored it, folded it (with some assistance) and got a lot of entertainment out of showing them off and shouting “all done!” Also, the coloring activity was good because I was able to apply “all done” to something other than food. When a child finished drawing and raised his or her hand, I could say “all done?” I guess I’m pretty lucky that I can draw a little bit because they don’t provide a lot of teaching aids. If you can’t draw and you want to try this, I’m sure there’s plenty of clip art and stuff online that you can use!

With my slightly older, more advanced kindergartners, we made our own books for the last two days. This was both a success and a failure. Day one was a complete success, and here are some pictures of my class operating like an adorable, well-oiled machine:
book making (thanks for the materials, mom!)
book making (thanks for the materials, mom!)
book making (thanks for the materials, mom!)
book making (thanks for the materials, mom!)
book making (thanks for the materials, mom!)
The success was that they understood the book and enjoyed making it and “reading” it with me. The failure (completely on my part, obviously), was that on day 2, a lot of kids were missing their unfinished books I was planning to use the period by working on. It was a complete idiotic oversight on my part not to make sure I collected ALL of the books the day before, because turns out a lot of kids took them home and left them or just plain misplaced them. Also, I didn’t write names on the unfinished ones (it can get tricky with the kids without English names so sometimes I’m too lazy–big mistake this time!) and they had a hard time recognizing their own work. Luckily I had brought some other picture books, so while people with work left did that, we had a little reading corner to keep everyone else busy. It was…… probably the worst lesson I’ve done with them, but we survived.

They are my favorite class to teach and the ones who have me considering kindergarten teaching (particularly Montessori) as a profession. I have so many fun ideas dreamed up for them already that I couldn’t wait to try. So here’s something upsetting I found out today and a cultural clash between my values and the Chinese education system. Starting tomorrow, I have to start preparing them for an oral English exam they have in December and can only teach them words and sentences out of this one particular book. They’re 5 years old for goodness sakes, and they have to take an exam??? And to top it all off, the sentences are SO stupid, they make my skin crawl and I can’t stand that I have to teach them. I kid you not: “Mr. Black is a good man. Most men like football. Mrs. Black is a nice woman. Most women like nice things.” WHATTT???? I was warned about having to suck up certain disparities in modern values and whatnot in teaching, and this is pretty minor compared to some “behind” seeming practices at other schools (paddling is still a common form of discipline)…. I feel weird making kids recite crazy gendered statements like this that my hippie dippie nurturing side rebels against, but I’m here to do the job they ask and pay me for, so all I can do is just teach the ridiculous sentences.

I also taught my really bad third graders today. Here’s what I wore and here’s the face I was making by the time it was over:
if i go to hell when i die....

I don’t have any other pictures from that class because I’m not sure these kids would show up in mirrors or on film. I’m joking about it, but I actually cried over it today. I haven’t seen them in a few weeks, and last time it was sheer pandamonium in the classroom and I kind of gave up and let them go Lord of the Flies on my ass. So this meeting, I was determined to bring them back to the light of civilization! I read up on classroom management in some great teaching manuals my mom gave me (First Days of School by Wong, Tools for Teaching by Jones), where as the first title suggests, they underscore the importance of establishing a management system on the FIRST DAY….oops….

Despite this, armed with my brilliant new skills and a newfound confidence, I brought a Chinese teacher in to translate for me, and the children were all big penitent eyes and angelic arms folded on desks while they received my translated finger-wagging and helped suggest rules for the entire class and learned and recited the word “RESPECT” with me. As soon as the Chinese teacher was gone, though, they were back to their antics. I wrestled with it for awhile before bringing ANOTHER teacher in to help. This time, we went over consequences and rewards and I made class teams. Again they transformed into Jeckylls moments after the Chinese teacher was gone. By this time, class was practically over (yes, this all took 45 minutes), and without having taught a single thing from my super fun lesson plan, I left in a storm of grabby hands chorusing “sweets, sweets, sweets”…. It was a nightmare. It’s easy to joke about the kids being evil but I know it’s not really them that’re the problem. I am so frustrated with myself. I knew I was screwing up the techniques from the manuals even as I was doing it. Like an out of body experience, I watched myself do all the wrong things and botch the whole experiment. Like good little cannibals, Grade 3 Class 2 skewered me and ate me alive.

I would love to run into MY third grade teacher, Ms. Ernst, again. I was a difficult, stubborn, mischievous third grader myself, and I really want to shake her hand. Actually, I want to grovel at her feet, beg her forgiveness and make her swear to be my sensei and tell me all the ancient magic and mind-control meditation she did to maintain her sanity and actually teach imps like myself. I’m pretty sure she can probably levitate, walk on coals, and be consumed by fire without a burn; I only have to do this once a week and my knees already shake at the idea, but she had to face us every day!! Amazing woman.

I had several more cross cultural eye-openers after we got back to Chengdu. One of the funniest and strangest was probably the club, or “wine bar” as David kept calling it. It was just SO…. I don’t even know, gaudy or something! There was kind of a Michael Jackson theme going on, the staff decked out in satiny ruffled blouses and adorned with a single white glove. We went with Spring’s girlfriends, who were so cute and treated me like a celebrity, or else they always love to take tons of pictures of themselves, who knows.

the ladies at da club
da club
Spring's cute friend in David's glasses

Although it was called a wine bar, we didn’t have wine… I think because “liquor” in chinese is often translated as “wine” (“jiu”); like “bai jiu” or “rice wine” which is actually super potent nail-polish-remover-esque liquor. We had whiskey, but this was a prime example of how the Chinese are not very good drinkers. The whiskey was handled by the Michael Jackson cocktail waitress, who came around periodically to pour a shot and a half into a pitcher, followed by THREE bottles of tea and soda mixed together. We’re talking 1.5 shots polluted with all this mixer for 5 healthy women! I’ve gotten drunker off baby formula.

really weak whiskey drinks
at the club

The other interesting part was the entertainment. Unlike most western clubs where the closest thing to a talented performer is a DJ, many Chinese bars and clubs have entertainment acts booked with dancers or I guess what I’d describe as advanced karaoke. My absolute favorite was when a girl came on to sing “I’m your Venus,” or as she pronounced it, “I’m your Weenus.” A girl also performed that Ke$ha song “Don’t Stop” but she made up half the words in a language Tolkein would admire. I think maybe I’m sounding too disparaging, but what I mean to express is that I found it cute and funny and thoroughly entertaining. Really it’s a step up from Western night scene. The atmosphere is beautiful and lively, and they provide fresh fruit and popcorn!

I'm your weenus

Here’s one more picture I just wanted to include because it makes me laugh:
the feet
Typical guy, David. We asked him to take a picture of us with the instructions “don’t get our feet” so naturally this is what he did.

So let me give some background: David and Spring are two Chinese English teachers in Chengdu who have become a part of my family over the past few years. They participated in a teacher exchange with my mom’s student teachers when she was an instructor at GSU. My mom met them when she took a group of teachers to China and stayed with David. Next year, they came to Atlanta where I met them, and last summer I got my first taste of China when my mother and I attended their wedding. David calls my mom his American mom and he is my Chinese brother (gege!). It was only natural to spend my National Holiday vacation visiting them.

During these last few days, my acquisition of Chinese language and customs was put on hyper speed and I was exposed to a lot of interesting aspects of their culture, some wonderful and some frustrating.

As is their way, they made me part of the family which I liked and gave me TOO MUCH which I didn’t. I could not open my wallet the whole time and was in fact made a bit uncomfortable by the lengths they went to for my comfort! In my Western mindset, I want to be able to visit people I know well and am close to on an informal level. I want to crash on their couch and go with the flow and not have a big deal made over me. Impossible. My first night, Spring and David pick me up at the airport to take me to a HOTEL to sleep in a HOTEL ROOM… by myself… which he paid for…. all because his mother was worried I wouldn’t get a good night sleep the eve of our drive into the mountains.
my lonely hotel room
Me in my personal private hotel room haha.

The next day, we joined up with Spring’s relatives, forming a three car caravan packed with 15 of us in total. There were Spring’s parents, her aunts and uncles, and her cousins all along for the ride.

A Chinese custom I am having to adapt to: no solid plans. I like this because it matches well with my natural disposition of tardiness and overall up-in-the-airness, and it allows for breathing room in itineraries and unexpected adventures. For instance, on impulse we stopped at a famous temple we were passing on our route.
Spring and me at the temple

Temples here are like part religious site, part tourist trap. ANYthing the Chinese can charge admission to, you better believe they’ll be charging admission to. This includes religious places. It was an interesting combination at this temple; on the one hand, it was crowded with people snapping photos, on the other, people were shouldering each other aside to light candles and incense and pray at the altars. The Chinese buddhist faith kind of reminds me of Catholicism in a way, especially the medieval Catholic trend of purchasing religious merit. In these Chinese temples, you pay to pray. The more you pay, the more potent the prayer. Like patron saints, there are different buddhas and bodhisattvas particular to different kinds of wishes. David spoke skeptically about this, saying “if you have an exam, you shouldn’t study, you should come here and pay for good grades” rolling his eyes. But a lot of Spring’s relatives are believers, and Spring in her own way also participates in the tradition although maybe not with religious fervor.


You can buy the different candles and incenses at the temple store. The bigger more expensive ones are more spiritually potent, of course.

part religious site, part tourist site.

wishing tree
wishing tree
Wishing tree. You write your wish on the red string then throw it up as high as you can. Of course, you pay a fee for this.

David, being the master tour guide that he is and explaining EVERYTHINGGGG.

pretty temple roofs

Spring said she was praying for a son
Spring, praying for a son (but I think she really wants a daughter :~))

At every turn, there is a stunning statue or relic, and at every other turn, a little something to buy or spend money on. It’s a fascinating combination of spiritual faith and consumerism.

I quite enjoyed this sidetrip as it was a uniquely Chinese experience I couldn’t have gotten if I were on my own. I was the only westerner there (as with many of the things we did on our trip), and it was one of the ways I was grateful to be made part of the family and for the breeziness with which Chinese people change plans and forego schedules.

The other side of this double edged sword I experienced at the end of the day, when we finally got into the mountains and were tired and cold and hungry. No reservations were made at any of the inns we were planning on staying at. They were all full. And it was hectic and stressful figuring our where we would all sleep, but somehow it always seems to work out and we found some spare rooms in local people’s houses above their restaurants and tofu stands.

the little mountain place we stayed at

Stay tuned for tales of “skipping tickets” at 5am and daring cable flights through the clouds!

I can’t believe how much people work here sometimes, including kids. I’m lucky in my schedule in that I have every weekend off, but most people have every other weekend off. I found out that even some of my little babies 1-2 years old spend the night at the school in dormitories all week. One years old! And they only see their parents on the weekends! I got a taste of this grueling schedule this week, when we had to make up for the Mid-Autumn festival days over the weekend. This means I was working straight from Friday to Thursday, an exhausting trial for me and the norm for most of the other teachers here. Being the big clothes dork that I am, sometimes getting dressed in the mornings was the only way I could get pumped about the day! Here’s my super long week in outfit form.


Saturday: work shirt



Tuesday: big shirt day

equestrian print wednesday

Thursday is robin egg blue day

I learned a painful lesson in differing cultural values: The puppy didn’t survive.

He was such a good dog with so much potential. He was so eager to please, already well on the way to being potty trained. Even when he was obviously in extreme pain, if we took him outside for a moment he used that opportunity to go potty. He had already started to come when called. He didn’t complain about being put in my purse when we took him out to buy a leash and doggie supplies. He was a good good dog and it’s not fair what happened to him.


But it’s something we have to accept. There’s less compassion for animals than we are used to in the West, and less legal protection for them and their owners.

Apparently the pet shop where Liam got him has a bad reputation for selling sick dogs. We took him to the vet and it turned out Whiskey had Parvo, on top of another disease, and was also anemic. He went from being bright eyed and mischievous as a puppy should be, to lethargic and suffering. He wouldn’t eat, had trouble breathing, and even cried at night.

Here’s the tough lesson: In China, neither consumers nor animals are guaranteed with any rights. This means if someone sells you shoddy merchandise, you can’t go complaining to anyone to force them to give your money back. And it means that if a pet store is profiting from producing as many puppies as possible without any consideration for the health and wellbeing of the animals, there is no agency to call and have them shut down or punished. They can just keep selling as many sick animals as possible and making as much profit as possible. After Liam got the dog, he heard from 4 separate sources that the shop was not to be trusted, so perhaps the only action people can take is to spread the word. I went back and saw the place Whiskey came from and it was definitely shocking to my animal-rights Western sensibilities. I honestly don’t know what Liam was thinking.

The entire pet vending street is atrocious. They have skinny snot covered kittens stuffed in cages, rabbits, mangy looking dogs in tiny crates, even hedgehogs. And they’re stacked in hole-in-the-wall shops with no more consideration than empty vegetable crates. The smell is terrible as is the sound of the crying animals.

Chinese pet market
Chinese pet market
Chinese pet market
Chinese pet market

Anyway, this was a tough lesson in cultural differences I learned. It’s easy to say this is wrong and the way I’m used to is right, but I’m not here to pass judgments like that. It was just a major difference in values that was difficult for me to experience first hand.

Sunday I wanted to get out, so I packed a bag and took the bus down to Suzhou. During the 30 minute voyage, I had a Moon Cake filled with red bean paste for a snack and read my Journey to the West book, the classic Chinese saga about the Monkey King.

moon cakes and monkey kings

Moon Cakes are everywhere lately. Around this time of year is the Moon Cake festival, or the Mid-Autumn festival. It celebrates the Chinese legend about the moon. As far as I can grasp it, I think it’s about a moon goddess who falls in love with a human man, then as these love stories go, she must tragically fly back to the moon and leave him. Somewhere there is a magic Jade Rabbit involved. Kind of a step up from the moon being made of cheese.

When I got to Suzhou I got a little bit lost, but eventually found my favorite little expat bar, sweating a bit from lugging my backpack all over town. The Bookworm has quickly become my favorite refuge, with a semi-decent veggie burger (a blackbean patty that almost doesn’t fall apart as you eat it), and walls full of books and a calander full of creative type events. I hung out there the whole day working on lesson plans and procrastinating from working on lesson plans.

Spent Sunday at the Bookworm in Suzhou
Doing work for my classes at the Bookworm on Sunday

By the time I got home, it was high time for a snack, which is why I love the street grillers that open up after dark. You pick your raw meat or veggies on a stick, most less than 1 rmb (that’s about 7 cents y’all), and they grill them up for you; probably with some risk to one’s internal organs but would I even be here if I weren’t a risk taker???

Late night snack
(trust me, it wouldn’t taste as good if everyone and his mother didn’t put their hands all over the food)

Late night snack
Late night snack
(that’s right, a huge selection of tofu and veggies– drool with me, fellow vegetarians!)

I joined my family on the other side of the world for a skype brunch party:

(photo courtesy of mom)

And if that wasn’t a perfect enough ending to a day, when I got home I met the newest addition to our foreign family: Whiskey Blue! Prepare for the puppy porn parade:

Whiskey naps
Whiskey naps
Whiskey Blue, I love you.
Whiskey butt

Yes, he is just as downy and fluffy and sweet as he looks. I think he might actually be part teddy bear but would have to look into his pedigree chart.

In China, there is a day like Valentine’s day or Memorial day set aside just for teachers. Since we don’t have it in the West, I was quite confused when my kindergartners ran up to me shoving flowers in my arms babbling about “cake” later… Then I was educated about the wonderful holiday known as Teacher’s Day!

teacher's day

Teacher's day outfit

It’s weird feeling like a grownup, but being celebrated as a teacher definitely had that effect. To be quite honest, I feel like an impostor! It’s only a matter of time til they figure out my clever deception. Hey, she’s not a mature adult!!