So after a summer exploring the states and parts of Canada, I returned to Chengdu, China for year 3. I’ve been back in Sichuan for a month already; an insanely busy month, full of school work, friends, course work, and sleep. And it occurs to me that there is still so much I have neglected to show you on this blog: food (hot pot and dim sum), trips (to the Panda Base, Sanya, Hanoi & Halong Bay, Taiwan, and Xishuangbanna), and just everyday craziness around Chengdu (construction, school, murder mystery parties, whatever else is going on). I will try to be better to devoting more time to writing.
This coming week, we have a 6 day work-week: 4 days with students (including a back-to-school night), and 2 days of professional development. I have so much to do to get ready for Friday & Saturday! But the following week, we only have a 3-day work week after which I’m heading down to the Yunnan province, which is a deliciously beautiful part of China.
Actually, depending where you go in the Yunnan province, the area may not even feel like China. Last April, Kerensa and I flew to Xishuangbanna for their annual Water Throwing Festival. Xishuangbanna is an autonomous prefecture in the far south of the Yunnan province, which is located in the south-west area of China. The majority of people in Xishuangbanna are not the Chinese Han, but the Dai people, closely related to people in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Xishuangbanna actually sits close to these countries as well, butting up to Myanmar and only a river’s width from Laos. As such, all the signs are in two (sometimes 3) languages: Chinese and some script that looks marvelously similar to Thai (and English, if you’re lucky).
Although a prefecture of only about 1 million (compared, let’s say, to Chengdu’s 14 million), there were plenty of people in the city of Jinghong, where Kerensa and I were staying. I could write about everything we did there, all related to the Water Throwing Festival, but this video I came across explains it so much more concisely:
The coolest part of the festival, by far, was the actual day of the water throwing. This next video are some photos I took of the festivities, set to the Piano Guy’s Cello Ascends. (An aside: these musicians are amazing! Buy their music, see them in concert, become as obsessed as I am!)
I suppose it is time to get back to being productive for the evening. Thanks for checking in!
When my uncle first heard I was spending Christmas 2015 in Vietnam, he told my father that it didn’t seem like too long ago that he was trying his best to spend Christmas away from Vietnam. While the entirety of the Vietnam War predates my existence, I took this revelation to heart and treated my time in Vietnam more thoughtfully that I might otherwise have.
Without delving too much into politics, I can say that the current mentality of the government of Vietnam still relies very heavily on a war fought 40 years ago and all the propaganda they can squeeze out of it. History is written by the winners and there is no place as easily accessible as Vietnam to witness this.
To be fair, neither the Vietnamese people nor the government seem to have anything again American citizens; rather it’s the American government they cajole and celebrate a victory over. And, interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, the men and women in southern Vietnam, once allies with the US, seem very hush-hush about the war, despite the large, very anti-American War Remnants Museum in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC; formerly Saigon), placed by the Northern Vietnamese Troops after the end of the war in 1975 to remind the South how lucky they were that the Northern Army had prevailed.
Regardless, our journey from Cambodia (see the last part of our adventures here) into Vietnam was fraught with difficulty. While in Phnom Penh, it was discovered that our travel agency had given us the wrong paperwork for a border crossing into Vietnam. Fortunately, Nou Sokhien was on duty at Giant Ibis. He took the time to go get us visas to Vietnam from the embassy and didn’t charge us for his kindness. (Again, I cannot recommend this bus company highly enough.)
Although clearing the visa matter took a few hours, with Sokhien’s help, the matter was resolved smoothly. Our tour company also showed up at the bus depot to pay–right then and there–for any unforeseen costs we had incurred that day. Only a few hours after we should have left, we were on a bus into Vietnam.
We crossed the border without incident and, almost immediately I could sense money was around us. The bumpy streets of Cambodia, lined with wild grasses and wooden dwellings on stilts, became gated concrete houses adjoining smoothly paved roads.
We made it to the Liberty Park View Hotel late that night and, tired from the hours bouncing about on a bus, I crashed almost immediately while Kerensa and Melissa explored the streets of HCMC for dinner. When we woke up the next morning, we had a whirlwind day planned–morning at the Cu Chi Tunnels and an afternoon spent touring the city.
The Cu Chi Tunnels were…interesting…and going inside a (widened and heightened for the tourists’ benefit) tunnel still made me feel ever so claustrophobic. I’m not sure if what we saw was our tour guide’s normal demeanor or if he was just very aware of the fact that he was guiding around American tourists, but he kept congratulating us, saying we would “make good Viet Cong” and “yay, Communism.” I’m not saying I would have been in support of the Vietnam War–I’m pretty sure I would not have been–but I still felt as though, just by listening to our guide, I was failing to respect the soldiers sent over to die in this foreign, hot land of jungles and Cu Chi traps.
Then we wished our tour guide goodbye, grabbed dinner at a nearby restaurant, and headed to bed early for our next morning tour: a Christmas Eve boat tour of the Mekong Delta.
That evening, we met up with Clemens and Faye, two Chengdu friends, and headed to Christmas mass. We passed by a beautiful, super-crowded outside service but walked on when we learned it was (of course) in Vietnamese. We came to a little English speaking service and…well, celebrated Christmas. Afterwards, we found a club with a quiet rooftop. There we grabbed a few drinks and sat around soaking in the warm winter evening. When the drinks were consumed, the ice cubes melted, and the sticky sweetness of the day had softened into a cool evening, we bid our friends farewell and headed back to our hotel. The next day, we were leaving for Hanoi.
The first truly foreign city we headed to on our Christmas travels was Siem Reap.
When Melissa and I stepped down from the airplane, the warm air greeted us, swaying the palm trees in a gentle “hello.” The land, the airport, everything was so flat as if to distinguish itself even more so from Hong Kong, which rises so self-importantly, from the earth.
We walked to the arrival terminal, completed visa paperwork, and officially entered the country.
Immediately we felt the thrill of having booked a “do-it-yourself” type of tour through IndoChina Legend Travel. Instead of battling a queue to find a cab and risking being cheated or ripped off, we located Melissa’s name on a large yellow paper in the hands of our tour guide, Leng Chenda. She led us through the rest of the airport until we stopped, waiting for our driver to bring around the van.
Upon being picked up, we were whisked to our hotel, Claremont Angkor Boutique Hotel, while Leng told us of growing up in Cambodia. She was one of five kids and now had two of her own. She had studied English for the sole purpose of being a tour guide-a great pursuit considering nearly half of the GDP of Cambodia depends on service industries, like tourism.
As we drove towards the Claremont, the flatness of Siem Reap stretched on. Four story buildings appeared massive next to the typical one-to-two story structures.
Excited to explore, Melissa and I wasted no time checking into the hotel then leaving again to scope out the city. We probably saw a good 75% of Siem Reap’s city proper that first day, stopping only to grab a Cambodian lunch and ice cream at the infamous Blue Pumpkin. That evening, Kerensa, the third traveler in our would be adventures, arrived.
Our time in Siem Reap was spent soaking in the slow pace of life. We dined leisurely. We walked past cemeteries and shops, bars and street performers. We saw the Cambodian circus and more than one sunset while perched on the high 4th floor of a bar or restaurant.
Of course, in Siem Reap, the primary attraction is-always-the temples. So Leng gave us a tour, driving us to Ankgor Wat, Angkor Thom, Baphuon, Bayon Temple, and some that she took her own children to on her days off that were not on the official’s day itinerary.
Our tour of the temples was exhausting but magnificent-especially seeing the brightly dressed monks standing out brilliantly against the subdued tones of the temple walls.
I’m sorry for my blog blackout. The truth is, a lot has happened since my last post, work wise, sicknesses have been going around the school, and, truth be told, I’ve just been lazy. But it’s time to update about at least part of the holiday break, especially considering we’re about to have another break for Chinese New Year in one week.
In 2014, I spent Christmastime relaxing in Bali, Indonesia, hitting up the beaches, enjoying the nightlife, and playing with monkeys. In 2015, Christmas break was a tad more hectic, with a tour of 6 cities in 3 countries (and one “Special Administrative Region”). So I figured that in order to fully parse this adventure, I would create a separate blog entry for each city I visited.
Except for this entry: Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
If you ever need to get from Hong Kong to Shenzhen (in mainland China) easily, I suggest taking a ferry (although, it’s a little pricey at 220 Hong Kong Dollars). My Christmas journey began with one such ferry ride after I flew from Chengdu to Hong Kong. Despite being on an “international” flight, I never actually went through customs in Hong Kong. When I landed, I followed well-marked signs in the airport and boarded a ferry over to Shenzhen. The customs line to get back into China was…non-existent as I just walked up to a counter, handed my passport over, and waited all of 30 seconds to have yet another China stamp. (Make sure, of course, that you have the appropriate visa when visiting!)
Once I made it through customs in Shenzhen, I met with my friend Melissa, who had worked in Chengdu last year. We took a bus back to her place where I met her dog, Rocket. She showed me the area she lived; about a block away from Decathlon and Walmart. That night, Yang—another former Chengdu resident—invited us to Taps for drinks and dinner. The beer was a bit pricey but tasty. The food menu…left a bit to be desired. But, never mind, I wasn’t there for the food or the drinks. I was there to see Yang and her beautiful daughter, Ashley, who spent the entire evening being fawned over and passed from friend to friend.
We spent the remainder of the night in SeaWorld. If you, dear reader, ever visit Shenzhen, I suggest you drop by. SeaWorld is a large area of restaurants, shops, bars, and hotels built around a ship (that itself houses a hotel). There is also a small water show every night. That first night in Shenzhen, we caught the tail end of the water show, but over the course of my time in Shenzhen, I found myself at SeaWorld often, whether meeting up with friends for drinks, going dancing, or even getting new visa photos near the metro.
Shenzhen Restaurant: Modern Toilet
After a few days in Shenzhen, exploring the city and seeing friends from last year, Melissa and I headed, via the Hong Kong Express bus this time (only 40RMB!), to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Bridge
Entering Hong Kong
We made our way to the Empire Hotel Kowloon, where we were staying for one night. The hotel was in a great location, only a few blocks from where the bus dropped us off. When we got to the hotel, we asked if we could pay for the airport shuttle the next morning. The front desk told us our flight was too early. Ah, well, a taxi it would be.
Not wanting to hang in the hotel room all night, Melissa and I hit the town, eating at the wonderful little Koh-i-Noor Indian Restaurant. It was in an old building and a little bizarre to get to, but the food was delicious and–this is always the test for me with any cuisine; do the natives like it–was being enjoyed by a number of Indian families as well. After dinner, we walked down by the bay, saw part of the terrible laser light show that, for some reason is always advertised as being “splendid,” warmed ourselves up with some Starbucks, and settled in to watch a holiday light show. I still don’t really understand what I saw, but the phrase, “Don’t forget the pink penguin” has seared itself into my brain.
At this point, Melissa and I were freezing and we knew that at 5am we had to get ready to head to the airport for our flight to Hong Kong. So we returned to the hotel and stopped at the front desk. Could they call a cab for us in the morning? “No. We don’t do that.” Could we have the number of a cab company in Hong Kong? “No. Just go outside and hail one.” Clearly, this hotel did not pride itself on customer service. We asked if they could give us a wake-up call and that they agreed to. Melissa and I were determined not to let frustration ruin the remainder of our night. We returned to the hotel room, enjoyed unfettered wifi and uncensored news broadcasts and turned in early to be up in time for our flight to sunny and–we hoped–warmer Siem Reap.
So I’ve been out of touch for a bit. With children performances and report cards, December is always a hectic teaching time. But, since school dismissed for the holidays, I’ve been traveling. I started my journey in Shenzhen (near the massive Chinese landslide), made my way through Cambodia, and am currently chilling (well, perhaps not, with this heat) in Vietnam this Christmas eve. We’re heading down to the Mekong Delta for the day, but I can’t wait to catch everyone up when I get back to China! Until then, Merry Christmas from Saigon!
Normally, I’d be working today, but our school (and apartments) are without water, so everything was shut down which has allowed for an awesome day so far. My internet (down for a few days) has been fixed and I had brunch with some coworkers. This is only my second year living abroad and, for the most part, I love it. But periodically, I start feeling intense nostalgia for all things stateside. I miss being able to drink water from the tap, seeing the sun on a usual basis, going to the regular grocery store for nearly all my shopping needs, and finding teaching supplies in abundance.
But because this is Thanksgiving, I wanted to write down a list of things I do love about living abroad. Although I’ve had a positive experience thus far…this list was not really that easy to compile. I think I’m just missing the idea of family gathering tonight…
Things I love about Chengdu, China:
Togetherness. Chinese people spend a lot of time together, whether it’s dancing or exercising on the sidewalks or just playing cards. I love that at night, people don’t just go home and shut their doors. They play, they laugh, they wind down from the day together.
Shoes. Okay, not really shoes (being as though they don’t exist in my size over here) as much as the removal of shoes. I love taking off my shoes at the door and slipping on “house shoes,” whether that’s slippers or flip-flops. It’s a great way to shake off the dirt and stress of the outside world. I’m home. This is my fortress. And now, I’m comfortable.
Space. Bizarre to say in a city of 14 million, but in a 3-bedroom, 2-bath apartment, I have more space to myself than I have ever had in my adult life. Yes, I loved my townhouse in Virginia, but I’m a person that needs time alone to unwind and here…I have plenty of room for it.
American Gardens. I really love this little area of China. It’s not the most happening place, perhaps, but I can walk to work and almost all my friends’ places in a matter of minutes. It gives Chengdu almost a small-town feel. I also like that so many buses go by this area, making it easy and cheap (though not necessarily fast) to get to Carrefour, Auchan, Ikea, and many, many restaurants and malls.
Experiences. The thing I like most about being abroad is that I get to have modern Asian experiences that I never could in the states. One of the most recent things I got to do was take my class to a local Chinese school. There, we watched a Chinese opera, complete with men breathing fire and actors performing the feat of face-changing that is a staple in Sichuan opera. (I’ve attached two videos here. The first I took at the performance we went to and the second is just something I found online to explain more about the art form.)
Today, March 15, marks the Chinese Lantern Festival and, thankfully, the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. I say thankfully because there have been roosters, destined to be some family’s dinner, waking me up at 4, 4:30 in the morning every day this week. And I am going to love sleeping in until 6 again!
Chinese New Year celebrations began on February 18, which was the eve of the New Year. Kristen and I went to Jay and Yang’s apartment to dine on delicious Hot Pot and toast in the Year of the Sheep (Ram, Goat, whatever). We went home after midnight, exhausted and very well-fed.
The next day, Jay and Yang took Kristen and me out to a dim sum restaurant that they knew would be open (so many restaurants were closed because of the holiday). Adam was flying in from Zhuhai that night to spend his holiday visiting his friends here in Chengdu. So after dinner, we went back to my place and watched a horror film, Anna, while waiting for his flight to get in. On the drive back to my place from the restaurant, we had noticed a guy on the side of the road selling Shao Kao. So after Adam’s flight arrived, we headed out for a late night, spicy snack to welcome him back to Chengdu.
The next day, everything was pretty much closed except the large shopping areas. So the five of us headed to IFS (International Finance Square) Mall where we shopped and considered watching a movie. We ended up bowling instead…which was a lot of fun. I hadn’t been bowling since high school but I did manage to have more hits than gutter balls. I actually ended up coming in second place, but Jay still soundly won.
I stayed in Chengdu through the first weekend of Chinese New Year, hanging out with friends, finding restaurants that were still open, watching shows (Galavant and American Horror Story) and movies (Krull and Annabelle), and having fun, talk-til-4am conversations. On Monday, I headed out of China bound for Seoul, South Korea.
Unfortunately, that trip is a story that will have to wait for another day. This weekend, I am heading out of the city with some coworkers to take a group of high school students to volunteer with 6th graders in Bazhong, about 4 hours northeast of Chengdu in the Daba Mountains…and I still have plenty of packing to do!
Update on my life: I just bought a spiffy new VPN. So while I wrote this post about a week ago, I’m just getting around to posting it. Hopefully posts will be a lot easier from here on out!…
A short while ago, in Bali…
Wow. December 30. I have never in my life been on a vacation this long. But, since December 13, I’ve been here on the island of Bali relaxing and enjoying the heat, the sky, and the blessed sun. I leave here on January 1 and am decidedly not looking forward to the cold, cloudy Chengdu that I’m heading back to. I can’t wait to see my kiddos again, but a large, pathetic part of me is counting down the days until Chinese New Year, when I can escape again and explore some other eastern port.
Life here in Bali is cheap (by western standards), although it’s a bit of a pill for me to figure out the exchange rate. I end up turning prices back into Chinese RMB then figuring out American prices from there. Basically, 100,000 rupiah is about $8. So pulling $80 bucks from an ATM gives me 1,000,000 rupiah…which is more than enough play money for a day or two. Most meals end up costing me about $10-$15, which is much more expensive than China, but infinitely cheaper than taking a vacation in the United States.
Accents here are also amazing. There are so many Australians around, staying here for a cheap holiday, that I can swoon while listening to them for a few moments, at least until they become incredibly obnoxious. And no, Australians currently splashing and shouting in the hotel pool, I’m not talking about you at all… (Do Aussies get as bad a rap as Americans when traveling?)
Our holiday commenced with four of us–Yang, Jay, Adam, and me–checking into hotels in Seminyak (northern Kuta). There we stayed about a block from the beach, passing by very small, very touristy shops every morning. We spent the first week in Bali soaking up the sun. We explored restaurants, strolled through the hot sand, and went dancing at night in local clubs. Adam got to surf one day and I learned how to play the game Euchre (and am currently on a major winning streak on my phone app of the game). The only downside was Jay and I both got sick with various ailments which had us laying low for a bit.
After Kuta, we traveled on up to the quieter Ubud. We randomly bumped into a couple who taught with QSI in Shenzhen our first morning there. While in Ubud, we took it easy but spent time exploring the monkey forest, rice terraces, a coffee plantation, and attending a local dance. We ate dinner almost every night at the same restaurant, becoming something like regulars in our very short time there. Alicia, Kerensa, and Thommy (all from Chengdu) also landed in Ubud during our stay. We spent one night hanging out with them, exploring the limited Ubud night life.
On Christmas Eve, Jay and Yang headed for the northern part of Bali while Adam and I headed back down to Kuta. It was a quite Christmas eve, filled with lots of walking, exploring the local beaches. On Christmas day, more walking. We went to a local mall and had sushi as our Christmas meal (which always makes a perfect holiday!). After a day of hanging out, Adam headed off to the airport and I went to mass. After church, I walked back to my hotel room (about a 40 minute stroll) and tucked myself in bed exhausted.
The day after Christmas was the only day of this vacation I had to myself (not that that’s a bad thing; I would much rather be around others). But I decided to take full advantage of it. I spent hours at a spa (my skin, I tell you, is still softer because of it) coming back only to order room service and fall into the most peaceful, angel-like sleep.
The following day, Saturday, I met back up with Jay and Yang at our new hotel, also in Kuta (central Kuta this time). I’ve been terribly lazy since meeting up with them. We spent most of yesterday shopping, but today I have only left the hotel to meander down the street to the nearby convenience store. Tonight, we are going out to dinner and then I’m meeting up with Kerensa and Alicia (who are down from Ubud) for drinks and dancing.
We did, however, have one eerie moment. On Saturday night, I was hanging out in the hotel pool with Jay and an Australian. The wind started to blow and lightening crackled in the distance. I was contemplating whether or not to get out of the pool when the Aussie pointed out the lightening. “It never seems to amount to much, though,” Jay said. I stayed in the pool a while after Jay, getting out only when Yang wanted to go try a restaurant nearby. After a late dinner, I fell asleep, waking up to a heavy rain crashing down around 7am. The skies cleared a bit later, but already flight 8501, which took off from nearby Java island, had crashed. Since then there have been heavy periods of rain that roll through and, as we remember the victims of this accident, it’s also a little chilling to know that in two days, at about the same departure time, we’re flying the same airline back to Chengdu.
In Virginia, summer fades to autumn, the suns sinks in the sky earlier and earlier each day, and one morning you feel a slight winter chill telling you to break out your coat within the next few days. At least that’s the Virginia I remember, before this polar winter weather came into our lives. Chengdu, at least this year, is different. The damp heat hung in the air until mid-October. Comfortable temperatures followed until late November when the thermometer’s mercury plummeted and the pollution levels sky-rocketed. Only now are some of the trees’ leaves turning vividly yellow. We’ve had a couple days (like today) where kids were not allowed outside for recess because of the AQI (Air Quality Index). Between the cold, the damp, and the pollution, I can’t tell what is causing my cough. But, looking at the bright side of life (oh, so bright right now), it really doesn’t matter. Because on Friday, after a half day of teaching (actually writing letters to Santa and drinking hot cocoa), I get to flit away to Bali for 3 weeks with my friends Adam, Jay, and Yang. The sand, the sun, the inexpensive airfare? It’s all oh so close!
But what’s been going on here?
The last Thursday in November, we celebrated American Thanksgiving. Not really much to write about; there was good food, great company, and humorous conversation. There were even fake flames on the television, which brought back memories of a tape my grandparents used to own that showed…well, pretty much the same thing. But on a large screen TV, it just made the living room (where we ate) look festive and warm. I guess the Christmas tree did that too… So we ate, we drank, we were thankful for health, friendships, and family. Afterwards, I even convinced Adam to sit through Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog which, in my oh-so-humble opinion, is all sorts of awesome and definitely a film I am thankful for!
Last week was pretty much chock-full of school work, meaning I stayed late way too often. We had narratives due on Friday. This means we had to write a paragraph about how each child was doing in each subject we taught. So I had 81 “blurbs” to write about student strengths and weaknesses in every subject (except, blessedly, science). I don’t know yet if it’s a good or bad thing that our school never closes. We have security guards around the clock, but if you wanna come in and lesson plan at 3am, so be it. For the record, I have yet to be that crazy.
On Wednesday, we had a field trip to the Sichuan Science Museum for Kids. The 7-year-olds had a lot of fun running around. Although I was not as impressed as I was by kid museums in the states, we were pretty much the only people there which made the kids a lot easier to watch. On Friday, we also spent a good part of the day out of school. We drove over to the Women and Children’s Cultural Center to have a rehearsal for the Primary School Christmas performance that night. The 7-year-olds sang and played bells and xylophones. They were also the first group to perform and were amazingly well behaved (not that we have bad kids, but still, this program started at 7pm after a long rehearsal day) for the rest of the performance. Afterwards, we gathered all the 7s up and tried to take a group shot, but with so many parents snapping away, it was hard to know where to look!
On Saturday night, we had a staff Christmas party at a local restaurant. The chef at the restaurant has kids who go to our school, so we were treated very kindly. Below are pictures that my friend Lucy (always the self-designated awesome photographer at QSI events) snapped. After the party here, we headed to KTV (Karaoke). It was my first time going, so I was pretty excited, even though the time spent there was short. Basically, you get a little room with a couch and coffee (tea?) tables. Wait staff brings in any food you order while you look through a computer for songs. Push a couple of buttons (always fun for us non-Chinese reading folk…) and hopefully up pops a music video that you recognize on the television in the front of the room. We had a few wireless mics and shamelessly belted out whatever English songs we could find like…Scrubs by TLC. I did get people to play Xiao Ping Guo, which is pretty much the only Chinese song I know…
That’s been day to day life. Beyond that, many coworkers are hopping on the baby bandwagon (happiness) and many coworkers are going to be transferring to other schools next year (sadness). My buddy Adam’s actually not coming back to Chengdu after Bali, but moving to another city, which sucks and pretty much means my American Horror Story days are over…
Well I just got my first package from Virginia, so I’m going to head home and open it! Thanks Mom! Mwah!