Buy my photos!

Notecards for $2.40

Friday, December 31, 2010

Things I've Learned 2010

Ever since I was a little girl, I've been a curious person, investigating my world to find out why things are the way they are. I'm the kind of person who learns best by doing. So when I decided that I wanted to know how the rest of the world lives, I just moved there.

I now live in Shanghai, China. I still can't believe it really. I live in China! With a billion Chinese people! Cool, huh?

Cooler still is that I've learned so much from my Global Experience in the last year. I've learned how to wash laundry by hand, & how best to hang it so it dries quickly. I've learned to speak a little bit of Chinese. I've learned to be okay with not understanding, even as I understand more & more. I've learned a lot about Chinese culture & how Chinese people view my culture. I've learned to go with the flow a little more, to let things happen as they may. I've learned that it's a very small world, & that we all have so much in common. & I've learned that I'm a writer with a story to tell.

What about you? What have you learned this year?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

10 Most Popular Posts of 2010

I've had a great time sharing my stories with you this year, & feel honored (& not a little bit amazed) that you have taken the time to read them. I took a look at what you've been reading most & came up with a list of the most popular posts from 2010.

1. Shanghai Rock Climbing Gym
2. Dear Monkey!
3. Women Wandering Solo: Elena Sevastiani
4. Qi Xi Festival: Chinese Valentine's Day
5. One Month Birthday
6. Women Wandering Solo: Linda Redman
7. I See Tall People!
8. 10 Things Chinese Students Think About Life in the US
9. Bored Laowai
10. Split Pants

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Best Gifts I Ever Got

I was a pretty fortunate kid. Santa always left a heap of toys & presents at our house. Being a military family, we moved around quite a bit, but Santa was always able to find us & he was always very generous.

For the most part, we lived in houses with chimneys when I was a little girl, but when we moved to Thailand, we moved into a house without a fireplace. I was so worried that Santa wouldn't be able to bring us gifts if he didn't have a way in, but my mother assured me not to worry - she would leave the door unlocked for him. Thank goodness!

Over the years, my brother & I got so many presents, most of them now long forgotten. There were a few, though, that I still remember, ones that brought me so much joy over the years to come.

One year, I wished & wished for a Barbie Townhouse. It had three floors & an elevator on a string, & was the coolest thing ever. I was so excited to find one on Christmas morning in my pile of loot! After that, Barbie & G.I. Joe (visiting from my brother's room) had lots & lots of dates, going up & down the elevator together, or lounging on the plastic sofa, G.I. Joe with his bendable wrist around Barbie's shoulders, Barbie with her high-heeled shoes kicked off.

One Christmas gift that probably altered the course of my life was an Atari Game System. Oooh! We were so excited that Christmas morning! My parents said they played Space Invaders & Asteroids all night long on  Christmas Eve while my brother & I were dreaming of reindeer & elves. That was probably the only time they really got a crack at it, though. For the next several years, my brother & I were glued to our little black & white TV as we fought off aliens & pulverized space rocks.

But the most memorable gift of all - by far - was being together with my family on Christmas. Seriously. 

I listen to other people talk about their holiday memories. Many of them say that they hate Christmas time because it reminds them of family problems they had growing up, or of family problems they have now.

But the worst thing that ever happened to *me* at Christmas time was that I didn't get that Hungry Hippos game set I'd been hoping for. & if I had, it would probably now be long forgotten.

Instead, I had the gift of spending Christmas Day with my family, watching football, eating my mother's delicious cooking, sharing gifts, making jokes together, listening to Christmas songs, complaining together about the traffic or the weather or the commercials between football downs. We always had a warm house & warm hearts, & our biggest worry was deciding who would do the dishes after dinner.

Now, I still have those happy memories of Christmas time with my family, & even though they are far away on the other side of the world, they are still in my heart, & that is the best gift of all.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Student Essay: The Christmas Eve

We've been talking about Christmas in our classes for a couple of weeks now, so students have become quite familiar with the holiday traditions. In my writing class, I asked the students to come up with their own holiday stories. Here is one by Tony, a 30-ish salesman.

On Christmas Eve, all house is decorated with colorful tinsel. Each person can feel special atmosphere. It is a happy, calm night. It is snowy. The whole city is covered by white snow. The family is around fireplace. They eat all kinds food, such as turkey, gingerbread, mash potato. This is a white Christmas. Each person can not forget it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Student Essay: Another Life of Elf

We've been talking about Christmas in our classes for a couple of weeks now, so students have become quite familiar with the holiday traditions. In my writing class, I asked the students to come up with their own holiday stories. Here is one by Annie, a 30-something doctor.

Elves did a lot of bad things before they became the Santa Claus's assistants. They destroyed the farm, stolen the sheep and chicken people raises so the people suit elves about elves's guilties, and asked had to killed all elves. However angel suggested to give elves one more chance to work for Santa Claus to bring people happiness. Elves finally agree the suggestion.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Student Essay: Change of a Shepherd

We've been talking about Christmas in our classes for a couple of weeks now, so students have become quite familiar with the holiday traditions. In my writing class, I asked the students to come up with their own holiday stories. Here is one by Smile, a university student.

Once there lives a shepherd. He always dreamed of that good luck would fall on him some day, so he didn't concentrate on his sheeps, just for his day dream for his businesses. Sheeps couldn't receive good care, not plenty of output and also not in good quality. On the Christmas Eve many twinkle stars came down through the chimney and turned around the whole sheep, then disappeared. Nothing left! When the shepherd was so anxious to find out where the sheep had gone, a fairy turned up. "You're not a qualified shepherd. You're always think of getting out of expection but ignore what you owns already! Now I'll take them away and leave you alone!" The shepherd was suddenly awaken by that dream, and he realized that the most important was to cherish what you already have.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Student Essay: The Life of a Reindeer

We've been talking about Christmas in our classes for a couple of weeks now, so students have become quite familiar with the holiday traditions. In my writing class, I asked the students to come up with their own holiday stories. Here is one by Jill, a 20-something design engineer.

Rudolph as a big red nose, which is different from other reindeers. For this, all reindeers laugh at him, don't allow him to join them to play game. Rudolph liked CiCi who is a beauty female reindeer, but he has no encouragement to say to her. One Christmas Eve it is very cold and heavy snowy. Santa Claus asked Rudolph's help to carry him to spread the gifts. Rudolph was very happy. He ran very fast but too many families. In one accident, he broke his legs, but he insisted to hold on. Jesus saw the performance of him. He asked CiCi to come to help. CiCi helped Rudolph to aid the legs. Rudolph can run again. CiCi also being proud of him, she thought he is the hero of reindeer. They fall in love. No reindeers laugh at him at all. In reward Jesus gave both of them immortal life.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Old vs. New

When you stand on the river walk on the bank of the Huang Pu River in Shanghai, you have a great view of both sides of the waterway. On the west side, you see an impressive row of European style architecture built in the early 1900s. On the east side of the river, you see a crowd of stunning skyscrapers, which have all been built within the last 20 years. The contrast is stark - a visual representation of Shanghai's past & future.

Puxi - West Bank
Pudong - East Bank
When my parents were here in September, our tour guide Lynn took us to the river side to take photos & gawk at the other tourists. While we were there, Lynn commented that when she takes foreigners to see the river, they almost always turn to look at the old buildings & marvel at the intricate art deco designs. When she takes Chinese tourists to see the same river, they invariably look towards the modern high rises, impressed by how they gleam.

Indeed, Lynn's observation could be broadened to apply to cultural attitudes in general. In the West, everyone loves old things. People are always buying antiques, restoring old buildings, & getting in touch with their roots.

Whereas in the East, the past couldn't be sloughed off quick enough. If it's more than 20 years old, no one wants it. Countless old buildings are demolished every day in favor of 20-storey apartment buildings. Traditional music & clothing is scoffed at as out-dated & useless. The old ways are being replaced by the latest in design, technology & comfort, & no one is looking back - China has torn off its rearview mirror & tossed it out the window.

Some might say it's unfortunate that Ming Dynasty pagodas are being replaced with McDonalds & Starbucks on every corner. However, those that would lament have the luxury to do so. The West has already developed industry & commerce to such an extent that people can comfortably sit back, take a deep breath & sigh about days gone by.

China, on the other hand, is on the verge of something huge - they're charging into the future at a break-neck pace, & they don't have time for the extravegance of looking to the past. Right now, the past is just in the way of progress.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


It's snowing in Shanghai!

I left work tonight to find all the world lightly powdered with fresh snow & more flakes drifting down all around. The air was crisp, like a new beginning, & it made me feel cheery. Perhaps it's because it's Christmas time. Perhaps it's because I'm starting a new job & I feel hopeful. Perhaps it's just because snow is beautiful.

A few years ago I never would have believed that I could feel happy at the sight of snow. I moved to Arizona to get away from the slush & the muck of Ohio winters, swearing I would never go back north. But today I was delighted to feel the fluffy flakes on my face, to see everything turning white around me.

I took out my camera & started snapping photos, feeling like an awkward tourist, until I looked up to see several other people taking photos too. It doesn't normally snow here in Shanghai, & it's got everyone charmed.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Even the Water Is Fake

When I was staying at the Happy Dragon Hostel in Beijing, I noticed that there were some incredibly loud frogs croaking through the night. Then I noticed that the loud croaking didn't seem to move around at all, & that the frogs kept making the same sound patterns. As with just about everything else in China, the frogs were fake.

Some of the fake goods available here are actually great buys. Although they blatantly violate copywrite laws, pirated DVDs and copy books are cheap & widely available. I can get a DVD for about a dollar, & copy books cost $2-$3 each. The quality isn't as good as the real thing, but that doesn't make much difference to someone like me. I'm not going to keep them after I'm finished watching or reading them anyway.

Of course knock-off brands are everywhere - clothing, computers, cosmetics. Most of the real stuff is made in China anyway, so it's not that difficult to copy it & then sell it at the fake market right down the street from the posh boutiques. In China, even the beggars wear Gucci.

In class the other day, we were discussing competition & cooperation in the workplace. One of the students was talking about his job as a bottled water salesman. He said that of course there is a lot of competition in his job - he strives to sell more water than the other sales people. But he said he also depends on cooperation among the sales people, who need to band together against fake water.

Fake water? How can water be fake? He said that about 30% of the bottled water available in Shanghai is bottled by small companies who print labels to look like the brand names. Most of the time these bottles contain nothing but tap water. But he said that most likely the water we buy in supermarkets & quickie marts it legit. We just need to be careful of the bottled water sold on the street, or outside tourist attractions.

That's good advice when buying anything on the street, be it bottled water or a new watch. Buyer beware: If it's cheap, there's probably a reason for it.

Friday, December 10, 2010


I've just been promoted to Content Editor!

After taking a good look at where I'm going in my career, I started researching opportunities at my current school other than teaching. I really like working for EF, so I nosed around the back office until I got myself an interview with the content team. They were generous enough to offer me this new position & I couldn't be happier.

I'll be writing & editing course materials for the EF online learning system. After over ten years in the classroom, I'm going to take a break & sit at a desk for a while. I'll work Monday to Friday, 9 to 6 - a "normal" job. I don't think I've ever had a job like that in my life! It will take a little getting used to, but I'm looking forward to the change & the challenge.

The new job will extend my current contract for another six months, which means I'll be staying in Shanghai until July 2011. That should give my friends & family plenty of time to plan their vacations to China :)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Teaching English Abroad: English as a Global Language

English is becoming more & more necessary for those who participate in the global community, which means that English teachers are increasingly needed overseas. Read my latest article on the GO! Overseas Blog to find out what this might mean for you.

Here's a snippet:

English has become the unofficial international language. It’s the language of business, government, and social communication around the world. High-powered executives in Japan negotiate with their German counterparts in English. Countries with a population that speaks dozens – even hundreds – of different languages are unified through English. Travelers from a variety of countries find common ground as they trade travel stories in English.

Interested? Click here to read on.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Chung King Christmas

Twice a week, I teach a Music Club at an English school here in Shanghai. We listen to various songs in English & the students talk about the meaning of the lyrics, as well as which songs they like or don't like & why.

Before each class, I download a few songs from the internet. Music in China is easily accessible online & it's free to download any song you want at the click of a button, one of the few things you can do on the Chinese internet that you can't do at home.

We've been talking about Christmas traditions all week in other classes, so I decided to do a lesson on Christmas songs for Music Club this week. While I was searching for the classics - Jingle Bells, Silent Night, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer - I came across this very cool Christmas album, Chung King Christmas, released way back in 1992.

The Oriental Echo Ensemble plays twelve traditional Christmas songs on traditional Chinese musical instruments. They're all wonderful arrangements & perfectly appropriate for someone spending the holidays in China (like me).

Take a listen here:
Joy to the World

Monday, December 6, 2010

Caught in a Bubble

I teach English here in Shanghai. One of my classes is a Travel Club where we study a different country each week. This week we did New Zealand. I found a photo of a popular sport there called Zorbing. It looks like loads of fun! Apparently you can do this in Shanghai, but I'm still trying to find out where.

Anyhow, since it is such as unsual object, I decided to use it as a creativity exercise. The students were to imagine that this huge plastic ball was something else. To get them started, I gave them some ideas. I said that it could be a new mode of transportation that will eventually replace cars. Or it could be an alien spacecraft that has landed on earth. Or it could be a man caught in a soap bubble.

They laughed at the thought of driving one of these around the streets of Shanghai, & they enthusiastically began adding to the story about the aliens, but that last one simply confused them. They couldn't understand how someone could get caught in a soap bubble. It's just not possible in their minds. Bubble cars? Possible. Soap bubble traps? Not possible.

It made me think about how our cultural backgrounds play such a huge role in how we perceive our environment. I grew up with cartoons like the one here, in which one of the characters gets a little too close to the soap, & winds up flying through the air in a soap bubble. When they get too high the bubble always pops & they plummet to earth.

But here in China, I guess they've never seen cartoons like this. They've never been exposed to the idea of flying through the air in a soap bubble. So for them, it's just not possible.

So I left them to come up with more appropriate uses for the Zorbing ball. One group said it was a new medical treatment for heart disease - the rolling around helps with circulation. Another group decided it was protection against falling debris during an earthquake. A third group said that it was a vehicle to travel under the sea. All wonderfully creative ideas. Still, the soap bubble idea never caught on, & it leaves me to wonder what kinds of things I think are not possible because of my own cultural background.

What about you? What do you think is impossible?

Saturday, December 4, 2010


I walk down a side street looking for some street food for lunch. I find a section lined with food stalls - people selling everything from fried noodles to fruit on a stick to stinky tofu. I notice one stall selling crunchy waffles rolled up tight & cut into pieces big enough to eat with your hands.

A man is sitting in front of a make-shift grill - a metal box filled with burning hot coals. He's working three waffle irons. They look heavy. He has a rhythm going. He dips a ladel into a large bucket at his feet & pours some waffle batter into the first iron. He moves the iron down one spot, flips the second iron over & shifts it down too. He takes the third iron off the fire, opens it & removes the piping hot waffle with his bare hands. He tosses it onto the table next to him, moves the third iron back to the first position & ladels more waffle batter on. Repeat.

Meanwhile, a woman is sitting at the table. She takes the finished waffle & rolls it up before it can cool. She puts it into a cutter & lowers the lever - three hand-sized waffle rolls come out & she tosses them into a bin. Customers reach into the bin & select their waffles. They throw coins into a tin resting on the table. The woman has no time to count out change - fresh waffles keep coming down the production line.

I stand & watch the process for about five minutes, then walk on down the street to a noodle vendor. I sit & eat my noodles surrounded by chattering people on their lunch break. A half hour later, I return the way I came. The waffle man is still moving waffle irons back & forth. The woman is still rolling & cutting, trying to keep up with demand.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Fish Market

There is a small fish market down the street from my apartment. I pass by there occasionally on my way to the bank. It seems that every time I walk by I see something that shocks me.

One time I saw the woman who works there scaling fish that were still alive, their blood splattering the metal pan she was holding them over. Another time, a fish had jumped out of his tank in an attempt at escape. It landed on the floor near a customer's shoe. The man looked down & nonchalantly kicked it under the counter, as if it were a carrot that had dropped on the floor. Today I was walking by the same fish market when I saw something flip out of the corner of my eye. I looked over & saw a fish writhing in a bucket filled with several other live fish whose tails & fins had all been cut off. Instead of water, they were swimming in blood.

In class one day, a student said that he didn't eat tuna because killing dolphins is cruel. I asked him why & he said that dolphins are intelligent. Did he mean that we shouldn't kill dolphins because they might be able to shed light on the origin of the universe? No. He said that the more intelligent the animal, the more pain they feel, so a dolphin would suffer a lot more than, say, a fish in the market. The other students around him agreed.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

ESL Book Club

A couple of my students have started reading the book Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. They heard about it because the movie is to be released in China soon. They were intrigued by the story & thought it would be an enjoyable way to practice their English.

When I was talking with them about it, they both made the comment that they had never read an entire book in English before, & although they were excited to try it, they were a bit uncertain about their ability to finish the book. Without any motivation to continue reading, it's likely that their fears would become reality.

So I suggested that we create a book club. I'll assign a chapter or two a week, & when we meet we'll discuss any problems they have with the language, as well as what they think of the story. They enthusiatically agreed, & as soon as we decided on a day & time, word spread around the school. Soon several other students wanted to join the club too. One of the other teachers even joined the group just for fun. Awesome.

We had our first meeting today. I could feel the excitement among the students as we introduced the book, talked about the movie a bit, & finally assigned the first 20 pages to read for next week. The most common comment was "Why didn't anyone think of this before?" 

I'm really excited about the new book club. Not only will a weekly meeting keep the students motivated to read, it will also be interesting for me to hear their thoughts on the book - divorce, gluttony, world travel, religion, finding yourself - all topics that Chinese people see much differently than we do in the US. I'm sure we'll have plenty of fascinating conversations as a result.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

10 Things to Consider When Choosing a Teaching Job

If you're thinking about teaching English abroad, be sure to check out my latest post on the GO! Overseas blog which lists ten important things to think about when deciding which job to take.

Here's the first thing on the list:


Do you speak the language of the country where your potential job is? If you’re going to a modern city where there are a lot of foreigners, there probably will be a lot of people there who speak English, and the locals will likely have at least a basic command of the language. But if you’re thinking of taking a job in a small town in the rural mountains of Japan, you can expect to be one of the very few people there who speaks English. Although you might have plans to use the opportunity to immerse yourself in the local language, not being able to speak with anyone at the beginning can leave you feeling isolated and lonely.

There are nine more essential things to consider when choosing a job teaching English abroad. Click here to find out what they are.

What do you think is the most important factor in choosing a teaching job overseas?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Shanghai Vegetarian Thanksgiving

Last night we gathered with about 30 members of the Shanghai Vegetarians Club for a tasty Thanksgiving meal. Most of those that attended were not American - there were Chinese, Germans & Canadians in the mix - but everyone had a nice time sharing a yummy meal & lively conversation together.

We hired a local cafe to host the event. We gave them some recipe ideas & they whipped up a tremendous banquet for us. There was brown rice with pumpkin, garlic mashed potatoes, spiced apple cider, & even pumpkin pie. The meal was absolutely delicious, & it was wonderful to be able to spend Thanksgiving with a great group of people.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

This year I'm spending Thanksgiving far away from home, in a country not my own. My family will gather together to celebrate, sharing food, stories & laughter. My friends will spend the day with their loved ones, sharing the warmth in their hearts. They'll watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade. They'll eat yummy Thanksgiving food. They'll take naps to the sounds of football on TV. They'll be together & I'll miss them terribly.

Yet I am so fortunate. I am free to explore this amazing world we live in. I have friends & family members that love me across oceans. I live in a city that has nearly everything that I want, & lots of things I never knew existed. I'm learning a new language & getting better at it all the time. I meet interesting people every day who teach me about life & about myself. & I have hopes for the future.

Thank you for letting me share this incredible journey with you.

What about you? How are you fortunate? 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


My favorite Seattleite is coming to Shanghai today!

Monday, November 22, 2010

10 Things Chinese Students Think About Life in the US

1. The cost of living is low.
2. Salaries are high.
3. Taxes are high.
4. Crime rates are high.
5. There's a good welfare system.
6. You can live in a house with a yard & a swimming pool.
7. You don't need to do homework.
8. You can feel free to do what you want.
9. There are lots of stars in Hollywood.
10.There are many different cultures in the US, so it's easy for people to accept each other.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Elevator Encounters

I step onto the elevator on the 21st floor. It's empty save for a bucket of dirty water in the corner. Where did it come from? Is it being sent down to someone below? Did someone forget it when they got off? The elevator stops on the 12th floor. A little boy about three skips on, tugging at his father's arm. He sees the bucket in the corner, points and says, 是什么 shi4 shen2 me? What's that? His father offers a patient explanation. The boy carries a Winnie the Pooh backpack & sways back & forth as we wait for the ground floor.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How to Be a Language Learning Role Model

I've just written a new post on the GO! Overseas blog about being a language learning role model for your students. Here's a quick peak:

In China, students see teachers as experts in their field, even if it’s obvious that they’re not. Many of my students tell me that their English teachers in high school told them to say X. Now I’m telling them to say Y, and they have a hard time reconciling the two, because even though their high school teacher is a non-native speaker, he or she is still a teacher – an expert. But you are an expert too, and most days what you say will trump any previous expert’s advice.

If you'd like to read the rest of the post & learn more about how teachers can motivate language students to study more, click here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Expat Explorer Survey

The 2010 HSBC Expat Explorer Survey was recently published. It compiles answers from over 4000 expats living in 25 countries about their lifestyles, including topics like finances, social ties and family life. It’s an interesting – albeit simplified – view of life as a foreigner in various countries.

One thing that caught my attention was that the biggest concern for all expats was being able to establish a social life in the new country, & that women more than men worried about making local friends.

Here’s the summary from the report:

Moving abroad can understandably be daunting for any potential expats and this year’s report reveals that emotive worries cause much greater concern than practical issues. The most common concern for expats ahead of moving to their new country is re-establishing a social life (41%), feeling lonely and missing friends and family (34%).

The same worries are also much more prominent for female expats. Nearly half of female expats surveyed (48%) shared concerns about re-establishing their social life in their new country, compared to only 37% of men and 44% of female expats shared concerns about missing their friends and family, compared to less than one third (29%) of men.

This was definitely one of my main concerns when I was getting ready to leave the US. I was worried about leaving my friends behind, knowing I would miss them terribly. I made sure I saw everyone at least one last time before I boarded the plane to Vietnam. I hugged them tight, tears slipping down my cheeks as I finally said goodbye.

Once in Vietnam, I found that it was difficult to make local friends. Try as I might, my American friend-making approach just didn’t work there. Vietnam is not included on HSBC’s survey, but if it were, it would probably be near the bottom of the list for “Local Integration”.

China as it turns out ranks 17th out of 25 countries for ease of integration with the local population, which is also rather low. In the ten months that I have lived in Shanghai, I have made one or two local friends, but our relationship is not close. Again, I’ve tried everything I know to meet locals & form friendships, but I haven’t quite cracked the friendship code here yet.

One thing I have discovered, though, is that people see friends & friendships differently here in China than we do in the US. Back home, my friends are people that I like, people that I want to hang out with, go to a movie with or have a drink with after work. They’re people I respect & admire, who are my role models & my inspiration.

In China, on the other hand, friends are seen as people who can help you, people who can introduce you to business associates or boyfriends. They’re not necessarily people that you like, but they have been your friend since you were a child. The ties are strong, enduring & often unbreakable.

So it’s difficult to make local friends in China because friendship is just different here. Chinese people don’t seek out new friends once they become adults – they have enough of them already – which means the foreigners who come here tend to spend a lot of time with other foreigners.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bored Laowai

I’ve been reading Rachel DeWoskin’s Foreign Babes in Beijing, about her experiences working on the set of a Chinese soap opera. She tells her story with wit & charm, & I find myself smiling & nodding as I read because her story is more about life as a foreigner in China than about being a soap star, & I can relate to a lot of what she says.

I was sitting at Starbucks on my day off, quietly chuckling to myself as I read her take on conversations with other foreigners:

Expatriate small talk ran a predictable gamut. There was “How long have you been in Beijing?” usually accompanied by the subtext “I’ve been here longer.” Or the more direct “How is your Chinese?” which carried with it the thinly veiled “Mine is better.” Finally, I dreaded most the “What are you doing in China?” and my embarrassed response that I was working in public relations.

I’ve had this same conversation with countless foreigners. Of course I substitute “teaching English” for “working in public relations”, but I feel the same condescension from other expats as DeWoskin did.

It seems that if you’re teaching English in China, you’re considered an inexperienced newbie, fresh off the fabled boat. You haven’t yet found something more worthwhile to do – like starting an import-export company or opening a bar where you can hire karaoke bands & flirt with the locals.

As I sat at Starbucks sipping my coffee, Christmas music wafting through the sound system, a gingerbread cookie warm in my belly, a good-looking guy, 50-something, sat at the table next to mine & pulled out his MacBook.

After a few surreptitious glances in my direction, he leaned over & asked me what I was reading. I showed him the book cover & he said, “Oh… Isn’t that a bored laowai (foreigner) book?” What do you mean?, I asked. “Isn’t that just like every other book about China – you know, with stories about taxi drivers & street food?” I thought of my blog & quickly looked away.

The cloud I had been soaring on because I had found a book that understood me slowly drifted back to earth & deposited me there. How embarrassing to be called out as the newbie that I am. I pretended to continue reading, but couldn’t stop thinking of what he had said.

I’ve been in China for less than a year – a newbie indeed. But for me, most of the joy of living life abroad is the newness of it – discovering things that are different from home, & gaining a new perspective on my own life while I’m at it.

Perhaps what’s really regrettable is getting over that feeling of excitement & wonder – to lose that feeling of inexperience in a foreign country. My friend at the coffee shop may be a “bored laowai” who knows more about living in China than I do, but at least I can still appreciate the taxi drivers & street food. I think life in China is fascinating, & I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

China Census 2010

I trudged home after a long day at work. It was dark outside & the hallways in my apartment building were dim. I got off the elevator, climbed the last flight of stairs, & turned the corner toward my apartment.

Suddenly a man appeared out of the shadows speaking to me in Chinese. I was startled at first, but then remembered that in China stalkers & rapists are not likely to be lurking outside my apartment door. I didn't understand what he was saying - & I was tired - so I gave him my standard "I don't want to talk to you" answer: 没有 mei2 you3, Don't have.

But he was persistent. He approached me with a clipboard & an ID badge slung from a lanyard around his neck. It looked important. I finally took a look at his creditials & discovered that he was from the China Census Bureau, & he wanted to count me.

He asked for my passport & handed me a short form in English to fill out. I explained to him that my family name came last (in China, your family name is first), & told him that I was an English teacher. I signed the form, he thanked me, & I waved to him a friendly 再见 zai4 jian4, See you again.

Apparently, the Chinese government is damn serious about this year's census. They've sent six million people door to door trying to get the most accurate count possible of the Chinese population - & they think they can get it all done in two weeks.

I don't know about the other 5 million some-odd census volunteers, but my guy was on the ball. He didn't take no for an answer & he got the job done. Perhaps for the first time in history we'll know how many Chinese people there really are.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


We’ve all heard of the concept of “face”, that all-important facet of Asian society, which must be protected at all costs. When we hear about this “face”, we often think of it as something unique to Asian culture, which we have to make a special effort to respect if we ever visit an Asian country. Even the Vietnamese & Chinese people that I have met seem to think that “face” is an idea that is exclusive to the East.

But really, there is nothing distinctly Asian about “face”. We all want to protect the image that we show to the public, no matter what country we’re from. No one likes to look stupid or feel embarrassed in front of others – that’s a universal sentiment. We all want people to think we’re nice or generous or badass, & none of us wants that public image to be tarnished.

Everyone has a persona that we show to others, our various masks – or faces – that we put on & take off depending on who we’re with. At work I put on my “teacher” face – I’m responsible, organized, & knowledgeable. When I’m out with friends, I put on my “friend” face – I tell jokes & laugh easily, & I try to be accommodating. When I’m with strangers, I even have a “stranger” face – I’m kind & considerate without being invasive. These are the “faces” that everyone has & that everyone tries to protect.

If you trip & fall in public, how do you feel? That’s the feeling of losing face. If you make a big mistake at work & get fired, you feel embarrassed, ashamed, & rejected. That’s what it feels like to lose a lot of face. It’s the same the world over. In Asia they call it “losing face”, in the West, we call it “feeling stupid”.

Just like in the West, losing face – or looking stupid – in Asia is not such a big deal. You might make mistakes, as everyone does, but you & everybody else soon get over it & move on with your lives.

So why do we use this word "face" when we talk about being embarrassed in Asia? Probably because there's no one word in English that describes it as concisely - the English language is known for borrowing words when it doesn't have its own that are suitable. But no matter what you call it, we all have it & we can all lose it occasionally.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dear Monkey!

I just finished reading the famous tale of the Monkey King. What a great story!

I first heard of this mischievous creature when I lived in Vietnam, where the story was played over & over again on Vietnamese TV. At the time, I didn't know what it was all about, but after I moved to China, I found out that it's a well-known Chinese tale. Everyone in the East knows who the Monkey King is, just as everyone in the West knows who Cinderella is. So I decided that since I'm living in China, I should try reading it.

However, the story was written in the 16th century, & is more than 1000 pages long in PDF form (!), so I was hesitant to get started on it. Luckily, one of the other teachers at my school came to work one day with a copy of the story in a 350-page novel. Now that I could handle.

The book is a 1942 abridged translation of the story by Arthur Waley, the most widely available version of the tale in English, & was a surprisingly quick read. The story is full of the adventures & misadventures of the Monkey King & his companions as they travel 108 leagues (a lucky number) from China to India to retrieve the holy scriptures of Buddhism. In the end, the Monkey King reaches enlightenment as a result of his efforts.

The story is entertaining, with lots of action (fighting off dragons & the like), along with some crazy magic (Monkey can pull out one of his hairs & turn it into anything he wants), as well as a little bit of humor (they hide some Taoist idols in the outhouse). But my favorite part, at least of this version of the story, is that Waley says "Dear Monkey!" every time Monkey is about to do something amazing. Ha!

Have you ever read this story before? What did you think of it?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Living Simply is Not Simple

I'm discovering that it's way too easy to accumulate things.

I've been trying for a while now to reduce my possessions to a manageable amount, so that I can be free to travel around the world without the burden of stuff. But somehow more stuff just keeps appearing, cluttering up my space. My consumer habits have been surprisingly difficult to change, even though I really want to change them.

When I left the US, I had four different yard sales to get rid of all the stuff that I couldn't take with me on my journey. A lot of it was just junk that I had accumulated over the years, but it was still difficult to decide what to get rid of & what to keep.

The process was like peeling an onion. At first, I went through my house & found lots of things that I didn't use or didn't need & got rid of them. Once all of that was gone, I started to see more things that I could live without. Another pile of stuff formed. With that gone, yet more stuff presented itself as needless.

Perhaps as I went through the process of getting rid of things, my attitude toward my stuff started changing. What I thought I needed at the first go-round didn't seem so essential when I looked at it a second or third time. It was fun - scary, but exciting to let go of things, to test my own limitations, to find my boundaries - & I found that those boundaries kept changing as I peeled the onion.

After the Great Purge, I moved to Vietnam where I taught English. When I left there after seven months, I also left a mountain of stuff behind with one of my Vietnamese friends. She was astonished to see how much I was leaving with her - & so was I. Another layer peeled.

Now, after ten months in Shanghai, I look around my apartment & see lots of books, clothing, & other miscellaneous items that I didn't have when I arrived here. I don't have as much extraneous stuff as I did when I left Vietnam, & nowhere near the amount that I had when I left the US. Still, how is it possible that I've acquired so much in such a short time?

I really want to live with less stuff, but I find that it's just not that easy to do. I buy a stack of books, telling myself that I will be able to read them all before I need to move again, so it's okay. Then I do the same thing with something else - that cute sweater in the shop window (it's going to get cold here soon), or the colorful handmade shoulder bag (I need something to carry all those books in). It's so easy to add more things to the pile, especially if I stay in one place for a while.

Living simply just isn't that simple to do, but I haven't given up trying. It's a lengthy process extracting myself from under the pile of stuff. I'm still working on it, one layer of the onion at a time.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Learning a Language with Lang-8

I just discovered a great language learning tool!

Lang-8 is a cool website where you can post your writing in the language that you're learning (whatever it is), & native-speaking members will make corrections for you. The best part is that it's totally FREE!

I've been writing on Lang-8 for a couple of weeks now, both in Chinese & Spanish, & have gotten a lot of great feedback from other members on the site, which I can use when I'm writing future entries. If you're curious, you can see what I've been writing here.

It's a lot of fun to try to write something in Chinese. It helps me step out just beyond my comfort zone, which is important for language learning. & I get almost immediate feedback on what I write, when it's still fresh in my mind.

It's also interesting to be writing in Spanish after almost a year & a half away from it. I miss speaking Spanish, & it's interesting to see the mistakes I'm making now. This is a great way to get back to using the language on a daily basis while interacting with native speakers again.

You may be thinking, "I wouldn't know what to write." Don't worry - you can write anything you want. Even if you just write something short, like what you had for breakfast, it's fine - & people will correct you!

You might try writing something as long as a college essay if you're so inclined. However, I've found that I prefer to read & make corrections on other people's writing when it's shorter. It's much easier & more interesting for me to manage a short writing than trying to read a long essay.

But really, it doesn't matter what you write, just that you're writing in the language that you're studying. It's up to you how you practice.

Here's my entry on Halloween in Chinese:

Once it's posted, other members on the site will read & correct it - for FREE! Sometimes there are differences of opinion, so more than one person will post a correction, which helps you understand even more how the language works.

It looks like I made a few mistakes on this one. The corrections are here in red.

Of course, it's a community of language learners, so you can pay back those that help you by making corrections on whatever they write in English. You might even make some friends while you're at it. I've already "friended" several people who live in Shanghai through the website. Maybe one day soon we can get together for a face-to-face language exchange.

Go try it & tell me what you think!

(By the way, I don't work for Lang-8, nor do I get any compensation for saying how awesome they are.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010


You may have noticed that I've been posting current photos of the view from my apartment at various times of the day on the left-hand side bar (<-- over there). If you are reading this post on Facebook or through an RSS feed, you can click here to go to my homepage to see the latest photo posted every couple of days.

Check out the one I took this morning. This is probably the worst smog I've seen since I arrived in Shanghai in January. Some people say that now that the World Expo is over, the government won't be cracking down so hard on the factories, & whatever semblance of clean air that we enjoyed over the summer will be a fond memory.

The Shanghai government lists the air quality records here. Notice that the day after the Expo closed (Oct 31), the stats for nasty chemicals in the air shot up from about 50 to over 150. Doesn't that make you feel good about driving that hybrid you just bought?

Friday, November 5, 2010


Thanksgiving 1985

I live in China – Shanghai. It’s been a year & a half since I left the US, & I usually don’t really think about the fact that I live in another country. Daily life here is pretty much like living at home – going to work, grocery shopping, hanging out at the coffee shop.

But sometimes I get homesick. Like today. It’s the start of the holiday season at home, my favorite time of year – that time between Halloween & New Years when the air cools & the heart warms. It’s a time when I get to see my friends more often, when I travel to see my family, when I eat pumpkin pie & ginger cookies, when I share love & good times with those that are important to me. But this year I’m spending it here in Shanghai, among people who don't understand my nostalgia.

This is my paradox. I’m so fortune to be able to experience living in another country, & I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Really. But I still miss my home, especially during the holidays. It would be so nice to have both worlds in one place. Or that teleportation device I keep talking about. Now that would be perfect.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


You may remember that I love books. When I was getting rid of all my stuff so that I could be a world traveler, the hardest part of it was giving up my books. Even after several yard sales & book donations, as I was getting ready to go to Vietnam, I packed one entire suitcase full of books. Of course, that suitcase was way over the airline weight limit, so I had to leave most of those books with my brother at the airport in Los Angeles.

In Vietnam it was really difficult to find books in English. For weeks, I read & re-read the five books that survived the book purge at LAX. I felt like I was wilting without mental nurishment - I needed more books! One of my happiest days in Vietnam was the day I got a package from my friend Debra filled with dozens of books. She knew exactly what I needed.

Here in Shanghai, it's much easier to find books in English. There are several foreign language bookstores in the city with a wide variety of current titles. However, those books come with Western prices. The average novel costs around 200 RMB (about US $30), & since I go through so many books, that's out of my price range.

Instead, I prefer to buy books from the copy book sellers that show up on the street corners at night. Their offerings are much cheaper at around 20 RMB (about US $3) each, & they're surprisingly high quality printings - you have to look close to even tell that it's a copy. But there isn't much variety on the book carts. I can normally only find one or two books there that I want to read. The rest are usually how-to books about business & marketing. Yuck.

So I was excited to stumble across Shanghai Secondhand. They buy & sell everything an expat might need, from furniture to pots & pans to bicycles - & they have tons & tons of books!

The day that I went there, I realized that the address was someone's apartment. I called to confirm the location, & the owner Jane said to come on up. She kindly showed me into her home, & when I told her I was looking for books, she pointed around the corner to a room where she had three tall bookshelves filled with books in English. What a sight! 

By the time I was finished looking through her collection, I had made a tall stack of books to take home with me - 16 in all, including Foreign Babes in Beijing, which I've been looking for for a while now. The total bill came to 340 RMB (about US $50).

I should be good on books for a while now, but if I finish all of these too quickly, I know where to go for more.  

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Poll Results: Where Next?

The poll is now closed & it looks like New Zealand is the winner!

The race was neck & neck there for a while, with Argentina in the lead at the beginning of the month, but it eventually slipped back into third place with a tally of 14 votes. Surprisingly, Indonesia came in second with 18 votes. Perhaps you were thinking of visiting me in Bali? But our winner, New Zealand, garnered 26 votes, a comfortable lead ahead of the rest.

Thanks to everyone who voted. I'll start researching job possibilities on the Kiwi Islands. I hear they have lots of Chinese immigrants there who need to learn English. Maybe my experience in China will give me a leg up.

Stay tuned for updates.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

World Expo: That's a Wrap

The Shanghai World Expo came to a close on October 31st. There was a big to-do that was broadcast on all the TV stations & in public areas around the city with dancing & singing, & foreign dignitaries offering Shanghai congratulations on a job well done. It was all pretty typical for a closing ceremony. Now that it's done, I think I speak for almost everyone when I say, thank goodness that's over with.

In the six months that the Expo was open, I went twice, once by myself & once with my parents. The first time I went, I was excited to see all the countries' pavilions - the architecture of the buildings & the displays inside each of them. I had visions of taking a mini world tour right here in Shanghai, & I think that's what it was originally intended to be.

But then the people came - millions of them. We're in China, after all. They came from far & wide, pushing & shoving their way to the front of the line so they could get a stamp in their Expo passports.

Many people had stacks of ten or twenty of the passports, which they took to as many pavilions as they could, sticking out their elbows to keep their place in front of the stamping stations. Some of my students said that the people with bundles of passports would probably then sell them to those who couldn't afford the 160 RMB (about US $25) ticket price to go to actually the Expo.

Amid all this stamping & stomping, no one seemed to be looking at any of the pavilions themselves. They snapped a quick photo - look, I'm in front of the Qatar pavilion - & then hurried on to the next building to get another stamp.

The only pavilions that people seemed to take notice of were those with 3-D movies or acrobats flying through the air. People wanted entertainment & they were willing to wait in line for hours to get it.

Throughout the six month run of the Expo, South Korea, Germany, Saudi Arabia & Japan consistently had four-hour wait times to get inside. I couldn't imagine what could be inside those pavilions that would be worth waiting half the day for. What's so special about 3-D movies & acrobat shows? But many Chinese people have never seen any of those kinds of spectacles, & the Expo was likely their only opportunity to see anything like that first-hand.

Instead of waiting in those crazy lines, I chose to visit the pavilions with no wait time at all. I saw the displays at the Maldives, Timor-Leste, & Kyrgyz Republic pavilions - all very low-key but interesting nonetheless. I was happy to casually browse their exhibits & be away from the mad crowd.

That first time at the Expo, I spent about seven hours walking around & visiting pavilions with no lines while the rest of the crowd waited hours to see the bigger-than-life baby inside the Spanish pavilion. I went home exhausted but satisfied with my visit. I can't imagine how those people felt who waited in line all day.

My second time at the Expo, I went with my parents who were here in Shanghai visiting me. My dad had the idea to just go & walk around looking at the buildings & the people rather than trying to shove our way inside any of the pavilions. What a great idea! The weather was perfect that day - the sun was shining & the temperature was pleasant. We spent the morning strolling around the Expo site & didn't have to deal with any of the crowds because they were all waiting in line.

When I ask other people about the Expo, "How'd you like the it?", they invariably answer something like, "It was okay - crowded." But I wonder if you could ever have an event like this in China that wasn't crowded. I mean, there are people everywhere here. It's too bad because it had such potential to be great.

Or maybe it *was* great. It gave millions of people the opportunity to see something they would never otherwise see, & it brought a lot of attention & investments to Shanghai. China is growing by leaps & bounds, & the Expo was just a small part of the bigger picture.

Monday, November 1, 2010

EF Halloween Party

This weekend we had a Halloween party at my school. Over 100 students showed up, many of them in Halloween costumes. We played traditional games like musical chairs & tug of war, we carved pumpkins & wrapped each other in toilet paper to see who could make the best mummy. It was loads of fun!

I was surprised at how the students really got into all the festivities. Halloween isn't celebrated in China, & most people have just a vague understanding of what the holiday is about. But I guess you don't need to know the history of Halloween to dress up in a crazy outfit & walk around wrapped in toilet paper. That's just plain fun no matter where you are.

This is a pretty creative Jack-o-Lantern for a group of first-time pumpkin carvers.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

10 Things About China

While my friend Debra was here in China visiting & traveling around, a few things made quite an impression on her. Here's her list of 10 things about China:

1. Squatty potties
2. Spitting
3. Masses of people in the subway - fighting to get off
4. Available bike lanes everywhere in Beijing
5. Dog walking in pajamas
6. Feeling like a star chased by paparazzi - everyone taking our picture
7. Bargaining - it's normal to pay 25% of the asked price
8. Consistently fantastic architecture, even in a normal residential neighborhood
9. Government blocking of Facebook and Twitter
10.Delicious street food (excluding the fried scorpions & crickets on a stick)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Woman Wandering Solo: Linda Redman

Women Wandering Solo is a series of guest posts that inform & encourage women who don't have travel partners to take a solo trip instead. There are so many amazing places to see in the world, & experiencing them solo could wind up being the best way to do it. To learn how you can share your own story with us, click here.

Another option for traveling solo
Linda Redman lives in Phoenix, Arizona. She has traveled all over the world - both solo & with friends - to places like Costa Rica, Morocco, & India. Here she recommends combining solo travel with an education.

As my friends well know, I am an avid traveler and am constantly exploring new corners of the world (although my real passion is exploring the countries of Latin America). I have been fortunate in being able to share my explorations of the world with my husband as well as with close female friends. As a result my solo traveling has been more limited.

There is one avenue, however, which I would encourage women wandering solo to consider if they are worried about striking out on their own in unknown territory for the first time: enroll in a language school or a volunteer program in a location you want to explore.

While I have opted to do this as part of my ongoing effort to learn Spanish, I have also found it to be a great way to strike out on my own in locales that I have never visited before. While the volunteering option would be more practical if one already had a basic knowledge of the native language, the language school option is viable for all levels (beginners to advanced students of the language).

What this approach to travel offers

• Provides an more secure context initially within which to begin your exploration of a new country

• Allows you the freedom to strike off on your own (when not in class and on the weekends)

• Provides you with an easy avenue for meeting other interesting people

• Increases your understanding and appreciation of the local culture, affording you a view of life beyond that of a tourist

• Provides you with a knowledgeable resource on local activities and sites as well as frequently offers you the opportunities to go on school-sponsored cultural excursions to places you may not go on your own (e.g., eating at the night market, visiting a woman’s weaving co-op, taking a cooking class)

Choosing a language school

While you want to pick an area which interests you, your options will be somewhat limited by the availability of a school. Generally, the larger cities or towns will offer several options to select from. However, in some cases I have found opportunities in smaller rural communities as well.

There are all types of language schools, and you will need to decide what type will best meet your needs. For example, there are large schools (75 to 100 students) and small schools (10 to 25 students). Some have structured classes in small groups, and others offer private lessons. Some schools cater more to college students (especially if located near a beach), while others (generally smaller-sized schools) seek out the independent travelers with a mix of ages.

The time of year can also change the nature of the schools. Schools tend to be full during the summer months. While this means there may be extra activities offered and a greater array of students with whom to form friendships, it can also mean a more chaotic environment and the use of second string teachers.

All the schools offer the opportunities for home stays and I would highly recommend this as another way to further get to know the local culture. However, this experience can also vary. I have had good and bad home stays – ones that have seen me as simply a paying boarder and others who have welcomed me into their home as a guest.

Other alternatives which I have also tried and would recommend include renting an apartment through the school (shopping for food in the local market and cooking it at home is fun), or staying in a hotel for a few days to get a better sense of your surroundings and then staying with a family.

My favorite language school by far has been the Querétaro Language School in Querétaro, Mexico. Not only is the school great (it’s run by a young couple who were involved with the Peace Corp in Mexico - he was a volunteer and his wife ran the Spanish program from the Peace Corp), but the city is wonderful as well.

Whatever you do, before signing up with the school, ask about former students who you can email to find out more about their experience at the school. Also, talk with the school director on the phone.

Volunteering abroad

For me, finding meaningful volunteer work has been more of a challenge and has taken a lot more work than finding a good language school. One easy and potentially good avenue can be through the language school, itself. But I have also found that while a school may say that they can offer you volunteer opportunities it does not exist in reality.

The other problem I have found is that organizations which specifically offer volunteer opportunities can expect you to pay a fair amount of money for this experience, along with the fact that the setting/experience may not be all it is said to be if you start reading the reviews. As with anything, upfront leg work is needed.

However, despite the challenges, I believe that this too can be a great way to experience a country when wandering solo. I have worked for a week on an organic farm in Costa Rica which was wonderful, and in January I plan to return to Querétaro, Mexico for a month to work in a school for indigenous children.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Return to Shanghai

After spending a great week in historic Beijing, Debra & I returned to bustling Shanghai. My total expenses for a week in Beijing, including round trip airfare from Shanghai & all the sights & attractions: 4348 RMB (about US $650).

Back in Shanghai, I went to work while Debra explored the city on her own. That woman is amazingly fearless. She bravely navigated the public transportation system, stood in line for five hours to see the Oriental Pearl Tower, & haggled like a local for some great souvenirs to take home.

She definitely made the most of her short time in Shanghai, & did it almost entirely on her own. She's a great example for the rest of us. She just grabs the tiger by the tail & hangs on!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Beijing: Summer Palace

Our last stop in Beijing before heading back to Shanghai was the Summer Palace. Everyone had the day off for National Day, so there were hordes of people there. Walking around the lake, we felt a bit... surrounded, but the beauty of the lake was unmarred by the crowds.

The Summer Palace reminded me a lot of West Lake in Hang Zhou, which is about an hour by train from Shanghai. The two places are 645 miles apart, but seem to have been designed by the same architect. I've included some photos below from both places. It's remarkable how similar they are.

West Lake, Hang Zhou

Summer Palace, Beijing

 West Lake, Hang Zhou

Summer Palace, Beijing

West Lake, Hang Zhou

Summer Palace, Beijing