Dragon Out – Hello Snake

February 11, 2013


Chinese New Year started yesterday.  Last year was the year of the Dragon, but now we have rolled over into year of the snake.  I’m a snake.  Which means I was born in the year of the snake.  So this is supposed to be a good year for me.  Yea! 

How do expats celebrate CNY?  Well, usually by getting as far away from China as they can.  On the mainland it can be quite a long holiday, so it is a good opportunity to travel.  However since everyone in China is taking the holiday off many businesses are closed.  And additionally the transportation options are all filled to overflowing and are more expensive.  So getting far away can be a really good choice. 

This year we stayed put.  So, we went to a large buffet luncheon out at a pleasant hotel at the beach with lots of other expats.  There was a lion dance and firecrackers and people dressed in red. 

As CNY comes near you need to go change money and get some new bills to give out as lai-see.  These are cute little red envelopes that are given out at this time of year.  They are frequently given out to children.  Luckily I don’t know any children.  The other reason to give them out is like a little end of year bonus.  I give them to the security guards in our building, the cleaning staff, our beloved helper, etc. 

It is also good luck to wear red underwear at Chinese New Year.  Luckily they aren’t particular about the shade of red, so pink, burgundy, wine red are all acceptable.  I also get my fingernails painted a Chinese red just for good measure. 

And let’s not forget the decorations.  The Chinese put up door decorations for CNY.  Frequently they put up “couplets.”  These are just two red banner pieces of paper with lucky writing on them.  But since we never know what they say, we have never bought the couplets.  What if they were charms of fertility or something!  Yikes, don’t want that.  But we do like buying the glitzy decorations that go directly on the door.  I like to buy something with the zodiac animal on it.  The year of the tiger was really easy as there were multitudes of tiger decorations.  The year of the rabbit was harder, not because there weren’t lots of them, but because they all looked like Bugs Bunny and looked atrocious.  There weren’t a lot of dragons available last year, but I finally found one I liked.  This year was nearly a bust.  I could only find one…and the snake was so cutesy you couldn’t tell it was a snake.  So I just bought one with all the zodiac animals on it.  I could just leave it up next year if I can’t find any decent horse ones.  We’ll see. 

Well, that’s how we celebrated Chinese New Year.  Kung Hei Fat Choi to everyone in this year of the Snake.  Ssssssss……



Japanese Favorites

January 23, 2013

Well after living in Japan for two years and having made 3 additional trips I think I can make a few recommendations about traveling there. These are just a few of the things that I thought about on my recent trip there. Keep in mind I have only visited the main island of Honshu, but these are my favorite examples.
Favorite Castle – Himeji. There are only 13 original castles left, of which this is the most massive and most gorgeous.
Favorite Temple – Zenkoji in Nagano. It has it all, great Buddhas, excellent landscaping, a cool gate, beautiful architecture, and a cool underground tunnel you walk through in complete darkness to achieve the key to heaven. The little market shops on the way up are also my favorites in Japan.
Favorite Buddha – Kamakura. He’s big, he’s bronze, he’s in a sweet little valley surrounded by trees. He’s also surrounded by pretty cool temples.
Favorite Shrine – Meiji in Tokyo. The massive torii (gates), the simplicity, the evergreens, the ambiance make it pretty amazing.
Favorite Tourist Trap – Kinkakoji in Kyoto. It is supposed to be a temple, but really it is just a beautiful golden building in a beautiful landscape. But let’s reiterate…it’s beautiful.
Favorite Small Town – Magome. Old, historically preserved town along an old road where you can hike to the next town of Tsumago (also really cool.)
Favorite Department Store – Mitsukoshi. I just like it the best, classy without being uppity.
Favorite Conbini (Convenience Store) – Family mart. They carried Snickers before anyone else and they have my favorite egg salad sandwiches.
Favorite Japanese Word – Honto. It means really. Usually used as a question. Honto? Really? Runners up include sugoi (awesome) and ooishii (delicious).

These are just a few of the things that I thought about on my recent trip there.


Tailor Made

October 24, 2012

Buying clothes in Asia can be a real drag. In most stores around here they carry one size. And it ain’t my size. It’s tiny. I frequently have to buy large or extra large here. One shirt I have is XXXL. As a woman of 5’4″ and 130 pounds I’m used to buying mediums. Even sometimes in the petite section. Here I am Gigantor. Even my size 7 foot is frequently hard to shod. Can you imagine what Western women who are larger than me have to go through?
But we do have the option to get clothes made for us. However you have to know where to go. Luckily someone passed on the secret shop’s location to me. Okay, it’s not really a secret, but as the sign out front isn’t in English, and it is up some non-descript stairs, it feels like a secret. It is a medium sized store with a reasonable selection of materials. That can be the hardest part, finding the right material. I’ve heard some complaints from people who didn’t end up with what the wanted. But, I find the best thing is to take in an article of clothing that you like and get it copied. I’ve only done this a couple of times, but I’ve been quite happy. The long shorts I had copied two years ago are still holding up and get worn all the time. This last batch was a couple of shirts I love the cut of and a skirt I’ve had for 6 years now that really needs to get replaced. It does cost more than Wal-mart. But not necessarily more than a department store. And I already know that the style fits and is flattering, so it is worth it. Here are pics of the originals and the copies. Can you tell which is which?


Temperature Obsession

September 5, 2012

One of the things that is interesting and confusing about the people I have met in China is their obsession with “hot” and “cold.”  This came up especially at the pre-school, with both the Chinese teachers and the parents.  Really, if I hear one more temperature theory, or something blamed on the temperature one more time I was gonna go nutso. 

It drove me bonkers that the Chinese teachers spent half the day dressing and undressing the children.  The kids were not considered smart enough to know when they were hot or cold.  They weren’t encouraged to take off their jacket if they got hot.  No, they were actually required to ask if they could, and then had to got pack it in their backpack.  It seemed like too much trouble for them.   I let them do what ever they wanted and got scolded for it constantly.  I’m sorry, but two day old puppies know what to do when they are hot or cold (snuggle in or scoot away), but apparently 5 year Chinese children can’t figure out if they are hot or cold.  Really, they have been so conditioned not to trust themselves about temperature that they don’t know when to add a sweater when they are cold.  When they take their naps they are required to be all covered up – no leg sticking out from the blanket, etc – and then they wake up all sweaty.  Really?

Then there is the water.  Drinking water.  It is very common here not to put ice in your drinking water.  I like that.  And it is common to drink hot water.  Mark has learned to like that.  But the fussing over the temperature of the drinking water can really get on your nerves.  At school we had a water dispenser, you know the ones we call a water cooler, even if it is room temperature.  Well, the one at school certainly didn’t have any cooling properties.  And even though the water was room temperature the children were required to dispense half from the “cold” side and half from the hot side because cold water is bad for them.  Half the time they put too much hot water in and had to wait for it to cool down, but there was no time for it to cool down.  So they either had to drink hot water or get yelled at for being late. 

Apparently food has hot and cold properties regardless of whether it has been cooked or not.  Tomatoes are cold, and therefore good to eat if you have hot ailments, and ginger or other “hot” foods are good for ailments you get from being cold.  It’s so complicated…then you have to add in yin and yang foods.  And you thought the food pyramid was complicated. 

The other teacher at my school got fussed at for having the children sit on the floor in a circle for her class.  She was told the floor was hot (it was room temperature) and that sitting on heat would give everybody constipation.  We were both flabbergasted.  I like to respect the culture and all, but that didn’t even make any sense to us.  Wouldn’t sitting on a cold floor make you…..I mean…and…I…and then my brain exploded.  We both decided at that point that the Chinese were obsessed with temperature.  We also decided we were teaching “International Classes” and that the Chinese teachers could do what they wanted in their classes, and we would teach the international way to expose the children to not believing in hot and cold as ruling the universe.  We turned on the air conditioners, drank iced water and put on a sweater and danced around the water cooler in our traditional heathen way.


Last Days of Beijing…I mean Zhuhai.

August 1, 2012

Goodbye Natalie from nataliegoes on Vimeo.

All good things must come to an end.  and all mediocre, crappy, frustrating and rat infested things, too, must come to an end.  My days of teaching in Zhuhai are over.  I tried to quit the job at the end of last semester, but somehow they pulled me right back in.  When it came time to talk about a new contract, I had some stipulations.  Most of which they were willing to agree to.  But the one thing they weren’t willing to agree to was fair pay.  I didn’t take the job for the money, but being taken advantage of gets on a girl’s nerves.

Once I realized I wouldn’t be going back for another year, I took a deep breath and began to relax.  When I first took the job I was quite excited by the prospect of working with the same kids for several years.  See, when the kids move up a grade, the teachers move up with them.  I thought it would be amazing to watch them progress, and know everything they knew about English was because of me.  And I was right, and it was amazing.  But I found a big drawback to staying with the same kids.  I found I had less patience with them and got more frustrated with them.  I knew what they were capable of, and what they had been taught.  I found myself smacking them upside the head more, giving them more spanks on the bottoms and being utterly disgusted with them on more occasions.  Sometimes as a teacher of a second language I find it’s very useful to throw a fit in front of the class and show a lot of drama when they are misbehaving.  When you can’t use words because they don’t know them, a dramatic emotional show is better communication than a lecture.  In the beginning when I would do that, that’s all it really was was a show.  But lately it had been for real.  So, I came to the realization that both for the kids and for myself moving on would be a good thing.

One thing I did differently from school policy, was to always tell the kids what’s going on before it actually happens.  I made a big calendar and every morning we talked about things coming up in the future.  Like when a field trip was happening, or when I would be away on vacation and when I would come back.  But the school’s policy was to not let the kids (or parents) know that a teacher was leaving the school permanently.  I think this is terrible, but it’s completely common practice here.  I, however, put a big “N” on the calendar a month ago and told the kids that was my last day.  I also followed it up by telling them they had three weeks vacation “No school! Yeah!” and that when they came back they would be in “A Class” and not “B Class” anymore.  We talked about how they would have to start using chopsticks, and how they would be learning to read and how they would have a new English teacher.  Everyday we talked about this all in a very positive light.  Maybe too positive.

As my last day approached….nothing happened.  As usual at this point in the school year, parents stop bringing their kids to school.  Some take them on long trips to visit families, so don’t want to pay for a partial month, some just can’t be bothered.  Plus, during the last week we had a typhoon hit.  Blew down lots of trees, storm drains became flooded, debris blocked roads and it continued to rain for days.  When it rains parents are less likely to bring their kids in as well.  So, my last day came…and I tried to say good-bye to the kids one by one as they left.  And that was it.  Out with a whimper.  Got all my belongings back to Macau.  Good-bye Zhuhai.  It’s been….something.


If I don’t teach them, who will?

June 14, 2012

Children usually learn their vocabulary from a variety of sources. These sources include tv and older siblings. Only 2 kids in my class even have brothers or sisters, and they don’t speak English. And the tv is all in Chinese, so no English vocab there. My kids really only learn their English vocabulary through me. Most teachers get to/are required to avoid the ugly words. I on the other hand really need to fill in their entire vocabulary. So I find myself teaching them such words as fat. We had already discussed tall and short, and we measured the kids to see who was the tallest and shortest. So we did the same thing with fat and skinny. I think I did a good job of presenting it as factual and not as derogatory. Now when I ask the kids who is the fattest student in class Larry raises his hand, smiles and says “me.” I’ve taught them the word booger, and fart, butt and yucky and slimy, and even the word stupid. I have refused to teach them one word. That is the word gun. I don’t know why. They point their fingers at me and make shooting sounds out on the playground. But I just feign ignorance and eat the bullets and say yummy. I think it’s worked, I can’t remember the last time I got shot.


Everything is a Teaching Opportunity

May 6, 2012

I have the kids to the point where their English is good enough to teach something besides colors, animals and actions. So I get to use my own life as teaching opportunities. This is as significant as when I travel to other countries, or as insignificant as when I get my nails done. I now ask the kids what color I should get my fingernails painted before I go off for my mani/pedi appointment. Let me tell you, the next day they are all waiting to see what color I got.
Mark and I have a trip to Thailand scheduled next month, and I put it up on the classroom calendar. This allows me to show them I will be gone, and that I am coming back. Plus we get to use new language like “month” “next” “last” “week” and most importantly “vacation.” Jenny always says “You no go Thailand!”, and then I pretend to cry. The entire class then tells me to go to Thailand but to bring them some sort of treat.
A couple of weeks ago I had to go for a checkup as part of the visa renewal process. I had to miss class that morning. But when I got back I told them all about the x-ray I had taken and how the nurses listened to my heart. I still had the band-aid on my arm from the blood sample, so I took that off in front of them. The band-aid actually had quite a bit of blood on it, so we talked about blood for the very first time. I also told them how I had to pee in a cup so the doctors could look at it. They thought that was hilarious.
Another teaching opportunity happened this week. I was pretending to tango in the office and tripped. Not only did I bruise my ego, but as my midsection landed on the corner of a desk during this debacle, I ended up bruising my side. It was a huge, painful bruise. So I used that as a teaching opportunity. Every morning I would show the kids the bruise on my side and ask what color it was today. We got to go through the whole rainbow by the end of the week. So, yes, I use just about everything as a teaching opportunity…even my own stupidity.