Archives for category: settling in

…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


We had two blessed days off in the middle of the week to celebrate the Moon Cake Festival (or Mid-Autumn festival). Ironically, waking up that morning I found it was the first day that felt like fall! Silly me, though, I didn’t really pack many warm clothes from home, so had to be creative with garb. Mostly hung around the house then went on a nice evening bike ride (quickly becoming my favorite pastime)
Wednesday: mid autumn festival outfit
Wednesday: Mid autumn festival
(Sweater: Energy ace!
Silk blouse: Vintage, from my aunt
Scarf: Vintage, also from my aunt
Thigh highs and flats: Target
Bag: thrifted
Glasses: Street market… people like to wear fake glasses here and I kind of fell in love with the stupid trend! Also I think I love them because they remind me of Cortney <3)
A place near my house

That silly diva the moon couldn’t even come out for her own holiday, or maybe the weather was too suddenly brisk for her. However, she did make a glorious appearance the next night. My friend and I rode out to the graveyard to get a good spook and a good vantage of the city.
venturing into the graveyard at night!
View from the graveyard

Preceding the graveyard, here’s the rest of that day off in picture form:

1. Took the bus to town
bus to suzhou

2. Ate a snack from a bakery
a little bakery treat

3. Walked around drooling over window displays
Window shopping in suzhou

4. Had a gingerale at the Bookworm
had some gingerale

5. Got home in time to see my school looking very dashing in the dusk light from the busstop
my school in the background

6. Ate at a little hole-in-the-wall nearby.
delicious hole in the wall

So it’s about one month in.

Miraculously, I am adjusting.

I’m getting used to the common sights and smells: Mom, dad, kid, and granny all piled onto one electric scooter. People perched precariously on the backs of each other’s bicycles. Ancient looking people balancing goods on poles over their shoulders, trudging on the sides of the roads. Dogs rummaging through overturned trashcans, people crouching with their cigarettes on the curbs, people taking naps anywhere they can conceivably stretch out. Rice paddies with barefoot peasants tending them, right behind the skyscrapers….

There are some ugly things: Like the big market of produce and meat where I do some of my shopping, with piles of rotting veggies swept to the sides and your feet getting splashed by bloody fish scale water as you walk through the seafood tubs. People swatting flies away from the warm meat that’s been sitting out all day. Poor people with no teeth whose pants are kept up by a string, rooting through the trashcans. Buses exuding black smoke, careening through traffic within an inch of the other cars, horns constantly blaring.
hair washing by the rotten veggies
(yes, she is washing her hair….)
warm meat
homeless in china

But there are some beautiful things, too: On Sunday, I rode away from the city on my bike to see what I could find. I found a fishing lake where the wind in the reeds was the noisiest thing. I found a bamboo forrest with a paved path, with little praying graves tucked away at intervals. I found a graveyard, sprawling over an entire mountain and looking over the city.
a lake
a gate in a bamboo forrest
ride through bamboo
in a bamboo forrest
View from the top

Some things are hard to get used to still. Like, even on my bike with my sunglasses on, somehow people can just tell I’m a foreigner; as soon as I ride near I can’t help but notice their unabashed head-turns and steady gazes as I pass. I feel them watching me eat at restaurants, maybe to see if I can use chopsticks or curious about what I’ll order. They overcharge me at the markets because I am Western, and even when I bargain I know I am ultimately paying more than a Chinese person would. My friend Jessica in Korea wrote in her blog about being struck illiterate overnight, and that is also something I am contending with. At the grocery store I have to rely on pictures and in the restaurants I am a master mime… often we will go into the kitchen and point out what we like, and even then we’re never quite sure what will come out! Not to get petty, but I would really like a fresh spinach salad, a taco, and some sweet potato fries.

But despite all that, somehow we really do get used to things. The offensive smells don’t offend me so much, the sound of someone hocking up a loogie doesn’t raise my eyebrow, nor does the sight of everyone sticking their hands into the rice grain bins at the store. I plunge mine in right along next to them. I don’t mind squatting to pee, and I’ve taken to riding on the backs of bikes and carrying an umbrella around in the sun. Granted, it has only been a month and I could be singing a whole ‘nother tune in one more, but as of right now, I feel like maybe I can really do this China thing!


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.

around campus

My campus is filled with little scenes like these. I’ll try harder to pay attention to them when I’m feeling sorry for myself.

my school
This is my school as seen from outside the front gates. There is an observatory in that metal ball, but I haven’t checked it out yet.

come and knock on my door
Do come in. This is my front door. It’s in a hallway with similar doors, most of which have some kind of picture or collage covering the window for privacy and a little personal touch. Mine is from Fall Vogue, of course. (That’s what I want to look like all season).

Here are some different shots of my room:
my room
my room
my room
my room

my room
my toilet and shower

That’s my little sink and bathroom. Yes, my toilet and my shower are in the same little closet, but it’s really not that bad as long as you remember to remove the toilet paper before bathing!!!

Across the hall is an identical room set up as a kitchen. Yes, to them, ‘kitchen’ means two hot plates to cook on. The two other foreign teachers have their own little kitchen areas but we decided to combine into one space and have a communal area.

kitchen area
kitchen area

Typical scene in the neighborhood right outside of school:

Fresh noodle restaurant I frequent (noodles made by this cute teenage boy to order!)
fresh noodles
mmm fresh noodles


A good day for lots of long naps and Tu Fu poems.

Like this one, which reminds me of my loneliness and all the friends I’ve left behind:

to my friend Yen at Feng Chi station

Here we part.
You go off in the distance,
And once more the forested mountains
Are empty, unfriendly.
What holiday will see us
Drunk together again?
Last night we walked
Arm in arm in the moonlight,
Singing sentimental ballads
Along the banks of the river.
Your honor outlasts three emperors.
I go back to my lonely house by the river,
Mute, friendless, feeding the crumbling years.

-Tu Fu

the gang (and the noodle cook)

My orientation week in Yangshuo was heaven.

Beautiful scenery all around (that’s the view from laying on my bed in our dormitory), great friends I instantly fell in love with, good food and good times, fantastic adventures…. Obviously, this would be the “honeymoon” phase of culture shock. Oh how I miss it.

Compared to the dream that first week was, my real life here at my teaching school has been a nightmare. Okay, maybe it’s a bit dramatic to call it “hell” but I am having a hard time accepting it after my expectations were pumped up so high at orientation.

Perhaps I am entering into that difficult phase of culture shock of anxiety, regret, and depression, but it’s not even the typical things you might expect that bother me. I really don’t mind squatter toilets or bizarre food! Really!

Please allow me to bitch and moan for a moment: I was led to believe my school would be in Suzhou, one of the “two heavens of China”, the “Venice of China”, and a place famous for gardens, when in reality that place is about 30 minutes away. I haven’t had a ton of time to explore, but this town seems pretty grimy and unremarkable and all around lacking in personality or charm. My room was grungy with lots of little broken down things and extremely dusty, my kitchen is a room across the hall with no oven or stove, only a hot plate, the school hasn’t really done much to make me feel welcome and taken care of, and my schedule is hectic and insane.

I was spoiled by the order and routine of Buckland during orientation, and although I was warned about the Chinese cultural difference regarding time and preparation, being thrown into it like this has been as shocking as being thrown into a pool of ice water. Everything is changing down to the last minute and plans are almost never set in stone. It results in an eternal feeling of chaos and rush rush rush (which anyone who knows me is aware I can’t STAND to be rushed around!!!). We were given our school schedules the night before our first day of teaching and it was more work than we were told to expect and for me, a much more diverse group of ages. Today I taught “primary” (grades 1-3), the oldest kids so far, and was given the books they are learning from a mere hour before I was supposed to teach. They were hellions and I was crap.

I love my Kindergartners, though!! Their cuteness makes it all a little easier to bare. I also have tiny babies 3-4 years old; they are also sweet enough to ice a cake with, but I was not adequetly prepared to deal with this age group. I’ve done a lot of learning on my feet. This week, a lot of my lessons have been busts: often too advanced or met with blank stares; my chinese teaching aids have said things like “Oh just play games with them!” but I have no idea how to entertain tiny children for 40 minutes nor how to organize a game with people who can’t understand instructions that go further than gestures. Hiding behind the black board and popping up and yelling “hello” and ducking behind again and yelling “goodbye” and variations seem successful with the babies, but even I can’t focus on a task for 40 minutes…. imagine if I were 3 years old! Good advice I’ve received: go simple, and it seems to work. I am amazed at what they laugh their heads off at: switching from yells to whispers, pretending to fall asleep on the floor and wake up suddenly shouting “GOOD MORNING,” and tucking in a Snoopy doll whispering “goodnight” to it keeps them entertained for long stretches.

I guess I’m frustrated because I think my strength lies with the kindergartners (ages 6-7) and I want to stick with what I’d do a good job at; my lessons have been by far the most successful with them, and I dunno, I just *connect* to their amazing adorable little brains. Even when they’re a bit rowdy, it’s like this joyful bubbling over with life kind of rowdy that I can get down with.

So maybe I should focus on some bright sides:

Extreme cuteness, some not so terrible lessons (that was one on faces where at the end, I had them take turns coming to the board and drawing different facial features), some good meals and good conversations with my two other Western teachers, and then not pictured is the promise of some adventures to come! One of the guys here has a motor scooter that we’ve gone to the store a few times on and that’s pretty fun, and tomorrow I’ll get to see the Suzhou I’ve been dreaming about. I’m also getting into Tai Chi and hopefully will have some Chinese lessons before too long. Also, today I made friends with some of the teaching aids, humbly begged their┬átutelage, got some valuable pointers, and hope to be much improved by next week.