China, Germany, The China Chapter, travel

Geh nach Westen, junger Mann: Go West, Young Man (Haven’t you been told? California’s full of whiskey, women, and gold…)

Every morning in the winter, I walk to school under the glow of the tungsten streetlights, watching my breath billow in front of me in small puffs of steam. My scarf is tight around my neck and my jacket, with its ripped pockets and fraying liner, never quite warm enough. In Chengdu, I always feel cold in the winter.

Every day at school, I defrost in my office or the classrooms, but move briskly through the halls or between the primary and secondary building. The air has too much bite to it, too much moisture, and the cold settles around my shoulders and feet, sinking somewhere beneath my skin to the very bones within.

Back in Virginia, in the middle of the winter, I used to crank the heat in my house up to a comfortable 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit (15-18 degrees Celsius) and wrap the back door with plastic to keep out the chill. I would come home every day and kick off my shoes as I walked through the door. In socks, jeans, and a tee-shirt, I would lounge around, grading papers, watching television sprawled out on the couch, or reading in my bedroom.

In Chengdu, I remain fully bundled in my apartment, removing my shoes at the door, keeping my feet bare only long enough to replace the shoes with slippers. The heat on my living room AC unit is set to 25-30 degrees Celsius (77-86 degrees Fahrenheit). The apartment will never get that warm. The hot air blows noisily, heating the sitting area before dissipating, disappearing through windows and uninsulated walls. To sleep, I wrap myself in a heavy comforter, snuggling close to a water bottle filled with boiling heat. In the mornings, I loathe pulling back the comforter, forcing myself up and into the eternal chill.

It’s official though, I will not be here next year. After nearly four years of the same routine, same apartment, same school, the thought is both thrilling and sad. I knew, when I moved away from Virginia 4 years ago, that, with family there, I would always have a reason to visit Fredericksburg, to watch from afar as expanded and aged.  Chengdu, however home it feels to me now, does not have the same hold. I have friends—good friends, great friends—here, but many will move away to new jobs and new schools in years to come. Yes, some will remain here, but factoring together plane tickets and visa prices, it’s quite possible that I will never be here for more than a few days after I move away.

Always striving to be diplomatic, I have thought about what I will and won’t miss about Chengdu, the city, itself. Thus, this excludes the phenomenal people I have met here.

What I Will Miss:

1) Food. Sichuan food is amazing; hot, spicy, and flavorful. I detest so-called “Chinese” food in the states now with its cloying sweetness and sugar-overload. From the street vendors to the upscale hotpot restaurants, from dim sum to shao kao, China has some of the best (and least expensive) food I have ever tried.

2) Culture. When you go to the touristy cities of China—Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen—I feel you miss a lot of “real” China. These places feel overly westernized. While Chengdu may be slouching in that direction, for now, it remains steeped in tea houses, bamboo-laden parks, and Face Change artists.

3) Togetherness. I know I have written about this before. In the states, we spend so much time indoors, watching television or talking only to those we already know. In China, so much life is lived outside. People exercise on street corners every morning, dance in public squares every night, eat chuan-chuan at small folding card tables, and get in screaming matches over card games, causing crowds three to four people deep to gather around in curiosity. Any time I travel to the west, I find myself wondering where everyone is and why they don’t spend more time with others.

4) Nightlife. Chengdu is known as a relaxing city and, with traffic, this may be debatable. But there is no shortage of things to do here. If you want to watch a movie, there are literally hundreds of theatres to choose from. Ice skating? Got you covered. Ski slopes? Fake ones here too. Want to go dancing? Okay, just pick from the endless stream of bars and nightclubs that have popped up all over the city. Whatever your cup of tea (haha, puny), Chengdu has you covered.

5) Community. Here, specifically, I am talking about the expat community. While this includes other Asians as well, I’m mostly referring to the western community. There are 20,000ish (rough, rough data) foreigners here in a city of well over 15,000,000 people. That’s a very small percentage. And you end up seeing the same foreigners over and over again, especially if you hit up expat restaurants. I’ve met many men and women just because we keep running in to each other grocery shopping or at international school events. Chengdu is large enough to feel quite anonymous, but the expat community is close enough to feel intimate.

I’ll miss a lot more than this, like the cheapness of China and the ease of transportation, but these are the Big Five, as I will call them.

So, where am I moving to? Germany. And considering I never was really drawn to western Europe, I find it crazy and exciting that this is where I’m heading. To make myself feel better about leaving…I compiled a list of things I will not miss about Chengdu:

What I Will Not Miss:

1) Pollution. I am looking forward to being able to walk outside in the winter without checking to see if I need to wear a mask.

2) Traffic. In a city of (last I heard) nearly 17 million people, traffic is—of course—a problem. But common-sense whilst driving also doesn’t seem to exist here. Cars gallop over sidewalks, barrel the wrong way down one-way streets, and blast their horn at red lights as though that’ll make the light change or the traffic move.

3) Inescapable Temperature. Apartments here are basically giant chill boxes. While this is helpful in the summer, in the winter you. can. not. get. warm. There’s no true indoor heating and the standup air conditioning units make the air so dry that hands and lips constantly cracked. Centralized heating will be a dream come true.

4) Construction. This city has grown so much since I’ve moved here. We’ve gone from two metro lines to six (with 15 more on the way). We’ve seen malls and apartments and overpasses spring up from nothingness to fully operational almost overnight. But with that constant climb comes massive inconvenience—rerouted bus lined, closed sidewalks and streets, and more traffic elsewhere.

5) Spitting. This pet peeve is getting a lot better, not nearly as prevalent now as it was, but the expectorating that the older generation does here—loogies smacking against the ground on heavily polluted days—is still disgusting. I will never enjoy the sound of someone summoning up phlegm and will not miss it in the least.

There will be more forthcoming, but for now, I’m in China, trying to make the rest of this school year a great one and preparing to move west.

China, schools, The China Chapter, travel

How We Do Summer

I appreciate the emails and Facebook messages goading me to post, post, post. So finally, with a bit of downtime, I’ll oblige.

May and June were a whirlwind of activity as we wrapped up the end of the school year. So many teachers were moving and we were expecting so many new incoming teachers that much time was spent helping friends pack, working with our school community to host our annual yard sale, and answering questions that new hires (still not in China) had about life in Chengdu.

The last day of school descended upon us in a rush of graduations and spring performances. Then…summer silence.

I was only here a few days after school got out, making sure the office was set for the summer and that some classrooms were moved to new locations, before I flew stateside.

After boarding the plane in Chengdu, it was a quick 29 hours (Quick? Ha!) later that I was at my parents’ house. I think the best part of the flight—save, of course, flying business—was having Amber, a preschool teacher, on my flight. We meandered the SFO airport together for a while before heading our separate ways.

Back in Fredericksburg, I spent about a week hanging out with family and seeing friends before my brother Sean and I headed to Knoxville, Tennessee. There, we got a chance to see family, eat at a pub our great-great-great grandfather used to bartend at, and listen to music written and recorded by our great-great-great uncle. It was a pretty fun way to kick off the non-jet-lagged portion of the summer.

After nearly a week in Knoxville, we drove back to Virginia in time for the fourth of July…although I definitely slept through any and all fireworks this year, I did get to see my other brothers and even had the honor of being one of those who got to help Colin strip wallpaper in his new house. Oh the glory of it all!

For about a week and a half, I floated around my parents’ pool in an inner tube swam, played with Scout (Meghan’s adorable kitten), did way more shopping than I should have, and spent time with friends catching up over breakfast or walking around downtown.

Then it was west coast time. Just like last year, I flew to Seattle for a QSI conference. I’ve been so caught up with email and data at this school that this post is triggering memories of things I need to look at that we worked on in Seattle…add that to the list of things to do this week!

This year, there were a lot of Chengdu (or former Chengdu) teachers in Seattle at the same time. Seven of us were directly involved in meetings, while 3 came to be with spouses or nearby family. All-in-all, it was treat to see everyone before we again went our separate ways—spreading ourselves all over the earth, from East Asia to South America.

After Seattle, I came home for literally one day to repack and take a test. Then it was Iceland time.

I spent about a week in Iceland…and it was magical. I don’t remember ever being in a country where I felt so emotional about the beauty of it all. From the hump-back whales and pods of dolphins to the spitting geysers and glacial waterfalls, the immensity of the landscape was overpowering. One day, I rented a car to drive down from Reykjavik to Vik and had to pull over multiple times—often to take pictures, sometimes just to wipe the tears that formed from falling so overwhelmingly in love with the country and feeling so small in comparison.

After a soul-reviving trip, I flew back to Fredericksburg. I was so tempted to…whoops…miss my flight from Iceland, but my great-aunt was coming to visit, so to Virginia I returned.

The last week of vacation was spent, again, with family. I learned about Escape the Room box games, played a few, and spent too much time putting together Legos, which….is just fun no matter what your age. I’m just waiting for the company to release a “Chengdu skyline” set.

Before July was even over, it was time to head back to Chengdu. I arrived on a Sunday night—later than expected, due to mechanical problems in San Francisco—and had to report to work on Monday. The first week back was full of work, but a little lonely. Not many people were around—and everyone here had families to go home to at night. After about a week of watching way too much Game of Thrones at night, new teachers all started to arrive. Kurt, James, and I took turns meeting them at the airport and taking them to their apartments.

And then…it was orientation time. During new teacher orientation, returning teachers started trickling in. Before the whole staff orientation, we held a barbeque at the school so new and old teachers could mix and mingle.

Since then, we’ve been up and running. We’ve had kinks to work out—a smaller recess space, a new lunch system, but the new teachers are all very positive and energetic. I really enjoy having them all here and can tell it’s going to be a good year! It’s always a shift when old teachers—especially ones you’ve known for years!—leave, but I convince myself that, hey, now I just have many more countries in the world that have a built in tour guide for me.

So the official first day of school was 17th and for the past 10 days—minus two days when I was knocked down by strep—it’s been work hard during the week, cut loose on the weekends. One of the highlights of my year thus far was getting Lucy—who has been here for 5 years—to go to the Jellyfish (a stupid, loud, obnoxious, can-actually-be-really-fun night club) for the first time ever last night. I thank her niece for helping me chart that victory!

Okay, it is time for dinner, maybe a phone call to the states, then most assuredly, bed. ❤

China, fashion, photography, The China Chapter

老外的意见-婴儿臀部: Laowai Lens-A New Outlook on Life and Babies’ Bums

Earlier this week, I was talking to a few other expats about life in Chengdu.  After living in China for nearly 3 years, there are so many things I take for granted now.  “Watch the ground as you walk” and “check the AQI daily” are things I do not need to be reminded to do.  I recently picked up the book Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost and it reminds me how…surreal some of life here initially is to an outsider.  As I read Troost’s words, I find myself continuously laughing and nodding.  Yeah, yeah, that’s China…

Fellow educator and expat, Kelly, has done a great job capturing some of the more interesting aspects of China life.  With her permission, I will be reprinting some of her observations from time to time to give you a look through the laowai (foreigner) lens at life here in Chengdu.


Nope, that isn’t a typo. The “poo” is there on purpose. Chubby little Chinese toddlers are about the cutest darned things ever created – until they urgently bend their knees and assume the toilet-squat position – right there on the sidewalk – where I stroll every single day. Usually grandma or grandpa is waddling along beside them and they stop to supervise; just as a dog owner would pause while Fido relieves himself on a tree. Same, same. Chinese toddlers and dogs.


It’s a fantastic way to potty train kids. When junior is suddenly ready to “go”, he just squats wherever he is. His pants are designed with a large split in the crotch allowing for everything to empty into the toilet, trash can, potted plant, the concrete sidewalk, whatever. No need for expensive, land-filling Pampers! It’s a cultural difference that takes some getting used to. Baby butts and baby twigs and berries just out there for all to see.


I have learned to NEVER step in puddles.

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.24.47 AM

Words & Photographs by Kelly R

China, prose, The China Chapter

닭 튀김 – Korean Fried Chicken

This post today was brought to you by a guest blogger: The ever so kind, ever so inimitable Lucy.  Lucy lived abroad when younger and, as a wife and parent of three, decide to bring her family overseas to live.  They moved to Kazakhstan and, for the past four years, have been living in Chengdu.  Lucy enjoys everything music, being a good mom, and the occasional margarita.  She is also so kind as to grace us with her work this week.  So, without further ado:

Korean Fried Chicken
by Lucy

Korean Fried Chicken?! How can that be any different than American fried chicken…or any friend chicken for that matter? I am not for sure if I can tell you or describe to you how it isdifferent, but it is! And not only is it different, it is amazingly different. Incredibly different.  Addictingly different. I really should not even try to describe (for you need to come here and try it for yourself…Katie Hannifin’s family!) it except that it is crispy yet tender, sweet yet spicy and chock full of flavor bursting all over your mouth. Everyone has a favorite type so it is more fun to eat with a large crowd so you can try all the different flavors of Korean Fried Chicken.


The first time I was introduced to Korean Fried Chicken, my friend, Joyce, ordered it for me for lunch. Joyce was my teaching assistant and she made it her mission my first year to introduce me to all the wonderful culinary delights of Chengdu. In four years, she has yet to steer me wrong!

Back to my first experience….it was a beautiful, sunny day with clear blue skies in Chengdu. For some reason it was a half day. This was back when we  still had the old playground with the basketball court and the big shade tree and the picnic tables, perfect for eating lunch outside. I should have known just by the fact that the other foodies at our school were flocking to eat lunch with us and our Korean Fried Chicken that my take on fried chicken would be forever changed.

Joyce ordered us two types of fried chicken: “Sweet and Spicy” and “Garlic Original.” If you know Joyce, you know she  is all about presentation of food. When the food arrived, she made sure we all had our plates, chopsticks,  and plastic gloves.

Plastic gloves? What? That is so silly!

I scoffed at the idea of wearing gloves and ate my chicken the old fashion way, the “Finger Lickin’ Good” way! However, one thing that was not in the paper bag that the food was brought in was any kind of napkins or wet wipes….So, when Joyce and the others were done eating their chicken, they took off their gloves and had nice, clean, non-sticky fingers.  Me? I was a mess! The Chinese often have great ideas, and this is one of them. In a land where you are not for certain that you will be near a restroom with soap and water to wash your hands before or after eating, when eating finger foods, plastic gloves are ingenious. This time, thank goodness, we were on campus and there was running water in the building. Otherwise, my arrogance would have landed me in deep trouble.

Unfortunately, the restaurant doesn’t deliver to our area of town anymore. However, throughout my years here, we try to make it to the restaurant as often as we can. When someone gets a hankering for Korean Fried Chicken, the rest of us are always game to get on the bus and go to the restaurant. Along with taking the new teachers to our favorite noodle or dumpling restaurants, we try to make sure we get them to the Korean Fried Chicken restaurant as well. Last month, for my birthday, we were having coffee and Singaporean toast for breakfast. We were having such a great time all together laughing and talking that before we knew it, it was time for lunch. We had planned on going across the street to the Malaysian restaurant for lunch, but it was closed. However, we were lucky…we were next door to a Korean Fried Chicken Restaurant that we didn’t know was in that part of town. My birthday lunch was eating finger licking good chicken, with great friends in a wonderful city…..but with the gloves on.  I have learned my lesson!

China, poetry, The China Chapter

乘坐出租车在成都 – A Chengdu Taxi Ride

it’s a lite-brite night in the chengdu sky
and, taxi back, smile split
i sit
staring at a ship that fell out of the water
and tumbled into the middle
of 14 million pairs of eyes and arms
that point and stare a why.
the songs of jamming drummers may
cover the question,
but it’s still too early
and even if it weren’t,
the honking
drowns the sanity.
blackness stretches before us,
punctuated with the
that serve no purpose
other than laugh elicitors.
tunnels reflect constant noise
of rurring engines
as we weave beyond
ebikes and walkers and buses.
the black grows darker still around approaching headlights
until the purple lights in the plastic trees
(recalling a distinctly american vibe)
guide me–

China, The China Chapter

周二旅游-Tourist Tuesday: A Look at Chengdu

So I’ve had a friend or two comment that, although I’m living in China, I don’t really show China that much on my blog.

Fair enough.

As any traveler knows, the longer you are in a place, the harder it is for you to differentiate between the ordinary and the culturally diverse.  I am so accustomed to seeing people spitting on the streets, watching children run in split seam pants, and witnessing Ikea dates that none of it really seems that noteworthy.

But I’m going to try to remember things that excited me the first time I saw them.  And what better place to start than shao kao?

Shao kao is Mandarin for “ridiculously delicious (and possibly spicy enough to render you unconscious) barbecue.”

Restaurants and street vendors open and close all the time here in China, but when I moved to Chengdu over a year and a half ago, there were many shao kao places within a five minute walk.  This led me to having it about once or twice a week, often after a night at the bar or after dragging a late-working friend away from his desk.  Alas, most of these places are closed now, but there are still some street vendors that set up shop around dusk to serve this Chinese treat.


Shao kao starts with you grabbing a basket.  You fill it up with meat, thinly sliced potatoes, lotus root, tofu, eggs, and whatever else you see that grabs your attention.  Permanent shao kao establishments usually have a refrigerator to house these while street vendors often just lay these choices out on their cart.  It’s all so delicious looking that you never really think about how long food has been sitting out.  That being said…I have yet to get sick from shao kao.


After loading up your basket, you hand it to the man or woman 20140811_185821behind the grill.  They will cook your food to crisp perfection, usually pouring an insane amount of spices (if you order it “la”) over your food.  Sometimes, if you are as foreign looking as I am, however, they assume you can’t handle the spiciness and tone things down for you.

Regardless of whether your food is “la” or “bu la,” shao kao pairs very well with a cold beer (which, in China, is pretty much flavored water*)20140811_191538

While you sip your watery beer, your food is brought to you as it is prepared.

Sit back and enjoy, one skewer at a time!

China, conversations, television, The China Chapter

中国的黄金周 – China’s Golden Week

Swtspontaneous recently asked me what China’s National (or Golden, as they say) Week is.  The official version, as I mentioned last year when I fled to Hong Kong, is…National Day (and Golden Week) celebrates the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

But this really doesn’t give you a great depiction of how National Week is celebrated.  Basically, imagine a billion people…about 1/7 of the world’s population.  Now imagine them all living in one country.  Oh, hi there China!  Now imagine all 1 billion people going on vacation…at the exact same time.  Clearly, this is slightly exaggerated, but the government does mandate vacation days during this time, so millions upon millions of people travel.

To help explain Golden Week a bit more, I found this short video:

But again, that video shows you the official China version of the holiday.  This video, aired at the end of this year’s Golden Week, is what we get to see if we stay in mainland China:

Finally, one last video!  While some of it just gives you a view of the foothills of the Himalayas–where I have yet to see–the open shots of this video are all from around Chengdu during this year’s Golden Week.

So, I hope these videos help explain a bit more about China’s National Day!  Thanks for your questions!  Please, keep them coming!

China, holidays, The China Chapter, video

给在东方的感谢 – Giving Thanks in the Orient

Happy Thanksgiving, America!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)
China, The China Chapter, travel

在秋末时请唤醒我 – Wake me up when September ends

Most of September was pretty uneventful here in the ‘du.  There was teaching and grading, a “Back to School” night, professional development days encroaching on weekends, and picture days.  There were plenty of opportunities, of course, to hang out with friends: we indulged in manicures, grabbed drinks at The Lazy Pug, met to discuss the book All the Light We Cannot See, and explored Taikoo Li (where Lucy had never been before).


In early September, the staff also attended the big CISA mixer (Chengdu International School Association) that was hosted by a school called Leman.  The mixer was held at a lake this year almost an hour south of us.  When we heard it was going to be held at a lake, in true QSI form, we decided to go all out and dress up as pirates.  We ordered t-shirt and pirate gear (which, of course, promptly broke) from Taobao.  At the mixer, teachers were given the opportunity to swim, canoe, ride jet skis, etc.  Of course, this is all while consuming alcohol, so…I kinda spent most of the night just watching out for others, making sure no accidents happened.  Fortunately, everyone made it back safely.


At the end of September, I also got to take another trip out of town.  Lucy, Alicia, Kerensa, and I went to Zhuhai for the Moon Festival weekend to see former coworkers & Chengdu residents.  Although we didn’t end up seeing everyone (Sigh. Isn’t that the way life always goes?), I really enjoyed getting to spend time with those we did see.

We ended up spending Saturday in Macau where we toured the Venetian, meandered around a very Portuguese section of Macau, celebrated Lucy’s birthday at the Hard Rock Cafe, and randomly found–and attended–a Bon Jovi concert.  I couldn’t believe how fast the weekend flew by though.  All too soon it was time to hail a cab, grab our flight, and head back to Chengdu for the last few days of teaching before our “October National Day” Holiday kicked in…