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, 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, photography, The China Chapter, travel

八月: 发现佛 – August: Discovering the Buddha

Well, I’ve been back in Chengdu for nearly two months now and haven’t really updated anyone on anything.  I’ve been alive and well though, aside from currently fighting the tail-end of a cold.

So, what’s been going on in life?  Well, in August I came back to Chengdu to a school that was…in the works.  Over the summer and–up until the school’s Open House–the library and hallways were being remodeled and repainted.  Everyone was a little stressed, not being able to set up (or, in some cases, even enter) their classrooms due to the hallway furniture that was blocking everything.

Eventually, the craziness of hallway repairs died down and school started up.  June, my para-professional again this year, and I celebrated the end of the first week of school by going out for a delicious sushi and shaved-ice dinner.

June, waving me to sushi!
June, waving me to sushi!
My new favorite Chengdu sushi joint
My new favorite Chengdu sushi joint
Potato Salad
Potato Salad
Salmon
Salmon
Cherry Blossom Sushi
Cherry Blossom Sushi

Aside from changes in the physical school, our staff changed a lot also this year.  Almost everyone I hung out with last year is gone, most people relocating to QSI schools in Shenzhen or Zhuhai.  This means the staff this year?  Totally new.  A few people transferred in from other QSI schools in Kazakhstan, but many are also from the states, teaching abroad for the first time.  Whether they are new to QSI or just to Chengdu, a lot of new teachers means a lot of new teacher outings.  In August, Franscois and Andrea, who have been in Chengdu forever, took teachers (new and old) to their favorite hot pot so the new teachers could have a taste of the Sichuan spice.

Reverse Hot Pot! (Spicy on the inside pot, not spicy on the outside)
Reverse Hot Pot! (Spicy on the inside pot, not spicy on the outside)

The evening ended with a bunch of us walking down to Jinli Street.  This street, although it looks old, is really just a recreation of Qing Dynasty architecture.

A highlight of August, however, was finally getting a chance to see the Leshan Buddha.  Alicia (who was also here last year) arranged a bus to pick us (a hodgepodge group of teachers, rugby players, and out-of-towners) up around 6am and take us about two hours south to Leshan.  Once there, we walked along a river until we reached Leshan National Park.

River view of Leshan
River view of Leshan
Fishing in the river
Fishing in the river
Another view over the river
Another view over the river

We bought tickets, entered the park, and immediately started to climb stairs.

Buying tickets
Buying tickets
Ticket to Leshan National Park
Ticket to Leshan National Park

On the way, we passed a bunch of small buddhas carved into the rock wall beside us.

Small Buddha
Small Buddha
Buddha's head
Buddha’s head

When we reached the top of Leshan (“shan” means mountain in Chinese), we were greeted with a glimpse of the Giant Buddha’s head.

We could have just milled around the top of the Buddha’s head, but that is not what we paid for!  To really get a sense of the Buddha’s height, you have to walk down to his feet.  The park was still fairly empty (for China) at this time, so we started descending.  The stairs leading to Buddha’s feet were steep and narrow, but luckily they had a rail on one side, so you’d have to try hard to actually fall off the mountain.

We had arrived at a great time.  Halfway to the bottom, we turned and looked behind us and saw the massive crowd of people!  We made it to the Buddha’s feet and began snapping photos.  Around us, men and women were posing for pictures, kneeling before the Buddha, and lighting incense.  From below, the Buddha was massive and looming and it was so hard to believe that the statue was carved sometime in the 700s.

The more
The more
we descend,
we descend,
the more Buddha
the more Buddha
you see!
you see!
Lighting incense.
Lighting incense.
Pillows for kneeling.
Pillows for kneeling.
All smiles after showing respect to the Buddha.
All smiles after showing respect to the Buddha.
The stairs we climbed down.
The stairs we climbed down.
Buddha from below.
Buddha from below.
The way back up...
The way back up…

Gross, humid day.It was about midmorning at this time and the temperature and humidity were both starting to rise to levels that had beads of sweat dripping down our faces.  We stayed at the Buddha’s feet for a short while before we began the ascent on the other side of the giant statue.  About a quarter of the way up, a group of monks stopped me and one of the monks asked if he could have his picture taken with me, despite how disgusting I looked (or…maybe because of it!).

After climbing back up to the Buddha’s head, we explored a temple.

            Inside the temple, take 2

It was closing in on noon by this point, so we found a place nearby that served noodles and ate lunch before heading back to Chengdu.  Although I wish I had gone on one of the many river cruises offered (just to see the Buddha from a different angle), I’m glad I went.  It was definitely something to check off the Sichuan bucket list!

China, photography, The China Chapter, volunteering

解冻出 – Thawing

Today we took the kids outside during 8th period to practice singing a song for our international day celebration tomorrow morning.  As the kids stood on stage, they had to shield their eyes from the glare of the brilliant sun.  I saw many students still in sweaters and wool pants, drops of sweat beading across their brows.  And as I saw the mound of cast-off jackets piled in front of the stage, I remembered that it was only earlier this month that I had spent a weekend with high school students and other teachers shivering in the Sichuan mountains.

In early December, Melissa and I had answered a call for volunteer chaperones.  Teachers were needed to go help high school students volunteer, spending a Saturday with sixth graders, many of whom were the children of migrant workers and lived in dormitories at the school they attended.  This opportunity was, in addition to being a volunteer trip, a chance to escape from the smoggy city I now call home.  So, Melissa and I volunteered.  The trip was suppose to happen in early January, but with set-back after set-back, was moved to March.

The group finally able to go consisted of 12 high schoolers and 4 teachers: Melissa, Jason, Didi, and me.  Jason and I were going to superview team building games, Melissa was to help students put on a science demonstration, and Didi was teaching an art lesson.

On March 6th, we left QSI early and loaded ourselves onto a bus to begin the five hour drive to the Daba Mountains to the Hei Tan township.  As we drove, Melissa slept and I gazed out the window, snapping pictures of the yellow rapeseed flowers that people grow in every open field near the highway.  Not only, would we learn, does the plant taste delicious, but it also is used as a primary source of cooking oil.

Rapeseed
Rapeseed

By the time we reached Hei Tan, it was already 7pm and our stomachs were definitely rumbling.  We disembarked at a small restaurant that was expecting us and the headmaster of 南江县黑潭九义校, the Hei Tan school, welcomed us and showed us to tables where we were served local, not-so-spicy food…including rapeseed.

After dinner, we piled back on the bus and drove a few more minutes to 南江县黑潭九义校.  Once at the school, we pulled out all our equipment and piled it outside of the bus.  We meandered about the grounds to find out where we would be sleeping.  We had been told there was a playground or a basketball court to pitch tents on, but once we arrived, we found the school even more accommodating.  They opened up their cultural center for us, letting us sleep in a space that houses computers  and had been built especially for “left behind” children whose parents are in remote reaches of the country.  The female teachers lucked out even more and we were shown to the bedroom of a school teacher who was gone for the weekend.  We laid out our sleeping bags and I proceeded to huddle up to a good book.  While the room was frigid (the entire school is not heated), I was grateful to be inside and was able to get quite a bit of sleep.

In the morning, we woke up early and got ready for the day.  That was a bit challenging.  There was one squat toilet for the 20 or so people milling about.  There was also no hot water, but at least there was running water.  Brushing teeth required us to spit into a hole in the bathroom floor below the spigot that drizzle out ice-cold water.  I don’t know how buildings here seem to trap cold air in the winter, but it was impossible to get warm that morning until we went outside.  We trekked back to the town near the school and ate a breakfast of dumplings and apples.  Afterwards, we returned to the school to begin volunteering.

Walking back from breakfast
Walking back from breakfast

There were roughly 100 sixth graders in attendance that we split between two groups: and inside group and outside group.  While Melissa and Didi took care of the science show and artwork for the inside portion, Jason and I helped the high schoolers lead the outside middle schoolers through a variety of activities.  The high schoolers had the little ones play limbo and a version of “Duck, Duck, Goose.”  They created relays and strategy building games.  And they got the kids up and moving, running around, laughing and singing.  We broke for lunch, packed the bus, then returned to the day.  We switched groups of children and played similar games with the second group of children.

Kids trying to build the tallest card tower
Kids trying to build the tallest card tower
Boys strategize
Boys strategize
A completed tower
A completed tower
Taking a break
Taking a break
Limbo
Limbo
Jumping Rope
Jumping Rope
Jump the Creek turned into Jump the Jason
Jump the Creek turned into Jump the Jason
All smiles
All smiles
A Version of Duck, Duck, Goose
A Version of Duck, Duck, Goose
Enjoying a break, watching others
Enjoying a break, watching others
Singing "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes"
Singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”

By the time the day was drawing to a close, I was feeling quite warmed up largely due to all the jogging about.  I decided to leave the high schoolers to their own devices for a moment and see how Didi was doing with art.  When I walked into the classroom, I couldn’t believe how packed it was.  I counted the desks that were piled into the room: 49.  And with small windows and very little sunlight, the cold air just enveloped the room.  I shivered, took a few pictures, and thought of the tenacity students who study here every day must have to be able to learn anything without being so shaken by the cold.

Getting ready for art.  Look at how bundled Melissa is.  It was really cold in this room.
Getting ready for art. Look at how bundled Melissa is. It was really cold in this room.

After the second session, we showed the school the movie Big Hero 6 using their projector.  Then we ate dinner and hopped back on the bus to drive back to Chengdu.  While the bus was warm and cozy, it wasn’t until I was back at QSI, helping to unload the bus, that I truly felt spoiled.  Here we have so much: water that runs hot and cold, heat in our school buildings and apartments, children who have parents they get to go home to on a daily basis.

And, as the weather now starts to warm up outside, I think of the children at 南江县黑潭九义校 and wonder how their lives change with the seasons.

China, teaching, travel

A Change of Scenery

It’s been quiet here on the blog.  Mostly this is due to a lot going on in my life.  I work, I volunteer, I attend baby and bridal showers, I prepare for big things this upcoming year.  Big things?  What do you mean?  I mean I’m trading my job of working with 5th graders for one of working with preschoolers.  I’m giving up my rented three-bedroom townhouse for a small apartment.  And I’m moving 7600 miles away…almost the other side of the world…

(On a completely tangential side note, how cool is this website?  The opposite side of the earth from me is…water.  But Perth, Australia is really close, which just cements my desire to live, someday, in the land down under.)

In July/August (not really sure of dates yet), I’m moving to Chengdu, China.  Although this is the capital city of the Sichuan (Szechuan, if you prefer) province in Southwest China and about 80% (so I’ve read) of the world’s giant pandas live there, I had never heard of this city before.  Now researching it is a delightful pastime of mine.  As a snowy day activity, I decided to compare and contrast my hometown with my future…town.

Fredericksburg, Virginia, USA 

Chengdu, Sichuan, China 

How old is the city? While the Virginia Assembly built a fort near here in the 1670s, Fredericksburg was not officially established until 1728. Um.  I don’t know.  The history of Chengdu can be traced back to at least the four century BCE.
How many people live there? In the 2010 census, there were 24,286 people living in the city.  Technically, I’m not one of them.  But the nearby counties are so spread out that this at least gives you some idea of the small population. The city houses 14 million.  Over 7 million live in the actual districts of the city while just under 7 million live in the area immediately surrounding Chengdu.
Where is the city located? This city is situated on the Rappahannock River at the Fall Line (where it becomes hard for boats to get upriver due to rapids).  Fredericksburg is 49 miles south of Washington, DC (the country’s capital) and 58 miles north of Richmond, Virginia (the state’s capital).  Virginia is located centrally on the East Coast of the USA. Chengdu is located at the western edge of the Sichuan Basic in Sichuan, China.  Sichuan, China is in southwestern China, bordered by various mountain ranges.  The Yangtze River flows through the western portion of the Sichuan province.
Tell me about its name. Fredericksburg was named for Frederick, Prince of Wales, the son of King George II.  Walking the streets, you will notice they bear the names of the members of the royal family. The emperor of the Shu Kingdom built the city, wanted it to be the capital, and named it Chengdu which literally meaning becoming (cheng) a capital (du).  And the name stuck although the city looks (obviously) drastically different now.
Does it have any nicknames? I remember Fredericksburg being called “The Pear City” once upon a time.  Legend was that George Washington planted Pear Trees, the descendants of which were lining the streets in the downtown area.  But now the trees have been removed which, I think, leaves Fredericksburg without a nickname. Chengdu is known at the City of Hibiscus ever since King Mengchang ordered Hibiscus planted on the fortress wall around the city in the 900s.  Although the walls have since been torn down, the city’s flower is still the Hibiscus.  It’s also known as the Brocade City (still have to learn about that one) and the Turtle City because the city’s lines were apparently originally demarcated by the path a turtle took as it walked.
What about a motto? America’s Most Historic City A City You Don’t Want to Leave
Why would someone visit?
  • To see the Civil War battlefields
  • To make business deals over a round of golf
  • To see the historic downtown area
  • To visit George Washington’s boyhood home, Ferry Farm
  • To play in one of the many parks or do something aquatic on the river or at Lake Anna
  • To try new drinks at a nearby winery or brewery
  • To eat Carl’s Ice Cream
  • To explore Central Park
  • To attend a First Night of Fredericksburg
  • And, currently, to visit me
  • To see the Giant Panda reserve
  • To make business deals over a game of mahjong
  • To see the Sichuan opera
  • To visit the important Taoist center, Mount Qingcheng
  • To play at the beach in the New Century Global Center (currently the world’s biggest building)
  • To try new drinks at one of the many teahouses
  • To eat “Hot Pot”
  • To explore the ancient Buddhist monasteries
  • To attend the Lantern Festival, the Huanglongxi Fire Dragon Festival, or the South China Snow and Ice Festival
  • And, starting in August, to visit me