Top 8 Underrated Travel Destinations

New York City, Rome, and Bangkok are amazing places to travel. There is so much to see and do in these cities, and all sorts of information available for planning a trip there (and many other cities on the same scale), but sometimes we want to try something new, go somewhere equally interesting, but perhaps not as well-known. I’m a big fan of this type of travel, the less expected places where I usually learn more from the locals themselves than any possible book or website. If you also like exploring lesser-known destinations or just want to try something new, here is my list of 8 underrated travel destinations that I think everyone would fall in love with.

#8 Milwaukee, WI

20479485_10214176655838668_1628109147533371960_n (1)Okay, I realize Milwaukee is not the most glamorous or exotic city on anyone’s list, but hear me out. This smallish city, famous for its breweries and cheese, is only about an hour north of Chicago. Perhaps because of this, it can sometimes be overshadowed by the fame of its neighbor; however, in addition to the flavorful brews and delicious cheese curds, the city also lies along Lake Michigan with a river running straight through its center (sound familiar?). It also has a very strong European influence, which can be seen in the architecture and abundance of towering cathedrals. It might be less than half the size of Chicago (and about half as expensive!), but this city has been modernizing in a way that would make any European enthusiast proud. Many historical neighborhoods have been beautifully restored, the additions of a city Riverwalk and a new park have livened up the outdoor scene, and if you’re brave enough to endure the temperatures, the city is absolutely breathtaking in the winter.

Things to see/do: walk along the Milwaukee Riverwalk, test out some local beers at one of the many breweries (I recommend Lakefront), eat the squeaky cheese curds (available everywhere!), and if you’re there in winter, head to a bar for tailgating and transportation to one of the state’s football games.

 

#7 Kiev, Ukraine

13775957_10210260440975744_9077903166833460651_n (1)The capital city of Ukraine has had a bit of a bumpy ride over the past few decades, but that isn’t so evident when traipsing around the city as an excited tourist. Although Ukraine is not in the EU yet, you’ll find many of the same European conveniences backpackers and travelers alike have come to expect: wonderful public transportation, many downtown hostels and hotels, and a slough of monuments, churches, and parks to wander around. The city is known for its monasteries and domed, Orthodox churches, but I remember it most for it’s extremely cheap and delicious food! Most signs are in Cyrillic (like the Russian alphabet), which I think adds greatly to the city’s charm, but if you’re worried about language skills, the English spoken is quite common and understandable, especially by the younger generation.

Things to do/see: visit the caves and monastery at Pechersk-Lavra, have some Chicken Kiev and varenyky (a local dumpling), marvel at the ornate metro stations, and make the climb to Sky Park, where you can zip line across the river.

 

#6 Huangshan, China

23658757_10215123462988255_8497914411745216999_n (1)“Huang-what?”, you might be asking yourself. Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is not particularly well-known outside of China, except perhaps by avid hikers or mountaineers. However, this city and the mountain it takes its name from are spectacular places for anyone to visit. Lying about 4 hours west of Shanghai (by train), Huangshan is a destination that really has it all: beautiful nature, historical sites, and modern shopping. It might not be one of the largest cities in China (or even close), but it’s still pretty large from my perspective, with a population of 1.5 million. Just outside the city, accessible by bus are the mountains (to the north) and the preserved ancient towns of Hongcun and Xidi (to the northwest). All are worth a visit, and will remind people why China is often referred to as a traveler’s dream.

Things to do/see: wander around Hongsun and Xidi marveling at the bizarre street foods, hike Huangshan itself (or take a cable car up and hike down), shop for souvenirs and local teas on Tunxi Old Street, and eat some local Huizhou dishes, including the famous noodles.

 

#5 Skopje, Macedonia

13438928_10210125980614319_195783375429514471_n (1)Known officially as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Macedonia is a small country in southern Europe that most people wouldn’t be able to pick out on a map. The capital city of Skopje, lies in the north of the country and is completely surrounded by mountains, giving it spectacular views from every angle. The city was heavily influenced by ancient Greece, which you can easily see in the large stone bridges and plethora of white columns, but it uses the Cyrillic alphabet (like Russia) and also claims one of the largest numbers of mosques in Europe: talk about a melting pot! The culture there is a unique mix all seeming to revolve around food, the incredibly refreshing šopska salad and potent rakija (locally produced alcohol) for example. While winter brings heavy snowfall to this mountain city, the summers can also be pretty steamy. If you’d like to split your time in the city with time in-touch with nature, a city bus can take you about an hour outside of town to the beautiful canyons around the Vardar river.

Things to do/see: take a ride to Matka canyon, spend an evening in Macedonian Square watching the fountain lights, try the šopska salad, and walk up to the Kale Fortress for panoramic views of the city and mountains.

 

#4 Bergen, Norway

1240561_10208510062337372_7927716375680727965_n (1)Ah, Norway! Land of trolls, fjords, and the midnight sun. When I hear people planning a trip to Norway, usually Oslo and other cities in the southern part of the country are the first to be mentioned. However, I would much rather choose Bergen, a little further north, nestled into the fjords on the country’s west coast. This city in winter or summer is a great jumping off point for further exploration of the fjords, but it has enough to do in town that you might not even want to leave! From town squares and colorful row houses to funiculars and downhill sledding, Bergen has a lot to offer for those who prefer to spend their time on activities that don’t break the bank. However, when the time comes to spend a little cash, a great way to do it is on the food! There is a wide variety available here from traditional Scandinavian specialties to a TGIFridays; the choice is really up to you!

Things to do/see: take a fjord tour (I’m usually not a “tour person”, but these are worth it), ride the funicular up Mount Fløyen and sled down, sample extremely fresh seafood at the Fisketorget market, and walk around the quaint Bryggen Wharf.

 

#3 Savannah, GA

17904108_10212977098970496_5512127965221632585_n (1)Another destination from my homeland (home state even) is Savannah, GA. This seaside city is always equated with the “old south”: plantation houses, buttery foods, and a slower pace of life come to mind. However, this city is a lot more than that. It can cater to a younger crowd nowadays with its bar streets and beaches, but there are also tree lined avenues, old cemeteries, and little antique shops that are great for the traveler with varied interests. Savannah is not as famous as perhaps New Orleans or Charleston, but maybe for that reason, I found it to be less effected by outside influences. It is a city that it uniquely itself: beautiful and eclectic, much like many Georgians I know.

Things to do/see: have brunch at any of the restaurants along River Street (I recommend Huey’s), have a drink or two at one of the bars on Broughton Street, amble under the large oak trees at any one of the numerous parks, head over to Tybee Island for the lighthouse and beautiful beaches.

 

#2 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

22448427_10214825952870688_7496229601924814073_n (1)One of my more recent discoveries, Ulaanbaatar is an unexpected gem of the travel world. A unique combination of different cultures set in a landscape like no other I’ve seen. The city itself has plenty of sights and traditional Mongolian activities and foods, but just outside the city is a completely different side of life in one of the largest landlocked countries in the world. A nearby national park gives breathtaking views of the mountains and vast plains of Mongolia, while wild horses and yak stand on the side of the road grazing in the fields or drinking from the winding rivers. It’s a bit more rugged outside the city, but no less friendly. Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked highly by travelers who are lucky enough to go there. The lamb dumplings alone are worth the journey!

Things to do/see: walk around the ger district, view a temple or two at Gandantegchinlen Monestary, watch the wedding parties taking pictures in Sükhbaatar Square, try a modern twist on Mongolian food at Modern Nomad, and make the trek out to Terelj National Park.

 

#1 Tricity, Poland

13417619_10209884679581944_5470284272553681414_n (1)This destination (and the whole country really) is near and dear to my heart. I spent a year living in Poland and made it my job to explore every corner of the country. What I found was a series of destinations that many people gloss over in favor or Warsaw or Krakow, the more international locales. However, when I think of places to visit in Poland, my mind first goes to its Baltic Coast. Just across the Baltic sea from Sweden, Poland’s “Tricity” of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia sits about four hours north of Warsaw (by car). These cities have an incredibly interesting history, which has allowed them to retain their distinct and varied atmospheres. Gdansk, formally German, has an industrious feel, an international airport, and an impressive city center. Sopot is a resort town with Europe’s longest wooden boardwalk and many fancy shops and hotels. And finally Gdynia, the most Polish of the three, boasts beautiful beaches, several hilly parks, and a ferry to Hel and back. Who wouldn’t want to to see all of that?!

Things to do/see: take the ferry to Hel for the seal sanctuary or the beaches, walk the pier in Gydina to see sailboats alongside pirate ships, watch local artists working in Gdansk’s Long Market, and in winter, enjoy a cup of grzane piwo (mulled beer) at any one of the pop-up Christmas markets.

Living in China: Daily Differences

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Temples in our backyard!

We’re almost three months into our move to China, and something that we’re asked pretty regularly is: what are the differences we notice in our daily lives. Most people are aware of the obvious differences like the language and the food, and, although most daily activities are pretty universal (shower, eat, work, play on your phone, etc.), there are definitely some things that we didn’t really have a need to think about before moving to China. In reality, these are rather small differences, but their regularity and new-found importance have kept them in our minds daily as we shift into a new way of living – the China way!

 

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“Noodles 22” – my favorite!

First is our struggle for food. Of course, as I mentioned, the food itself is obviously quite different. For example, most things are cooked in oil here rather than in butter, and almost everything (from drinking water to what some refer to as a “salad”) is served piping hot. However, something we didn’t think about is how difficult it would be to obtain our food, let alone the foods we actually prefer. Whether at a restaurant or a grocery store we have to put a lot of effort into translating food items. Even then, we’re often not sure what we’ve actually purchased. In the last week alone we’ve gotten translations like “sealed duck palm”, “saliva chicken”, and “fried enema” – I’m sorry, what?!

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“Fruit Parkway”

At the grocery store, things are not only hard for us to read, but they’re often packaged differently or organized in a way we would have never thought of; for example, milk is not refrigerated, but pasta is! On top of these difficulties, there is also a sense of lingering mistrust. We’ve all heard stories about China and the shortcuts they may have taken, so when we see something unfamiliar or “weird”, we’re conditioned to think it’s not healthy or good. The depth of these feelings really surprised me because, although I saw similar things in Poland, I never questioned the hygiene or motives there. This is something we’re really working on by constantly asking “why” and delving a little deeper into these differences. Our Chinese friends have been incredibly illuminating, and honestly, we’ve learned to look at our own way of doing things a little differently as well.

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If this doesn’t scream “weird”, I don’t know what does…
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Do I wear it well?

Another daily difference for us is the general environment that we’re living in. Typically when I wake up, the first thing I do is check the weather. However, in China, I must also check the AQI (air quality index). We live in a city of 8 million people; a city that still uses coal to heat some of its building and has farms just outside the city limits that burn their fields twice a year before replanting. These conditions mean that the air quality in Hefei can have an effect on my day. If the AQI is above 200, I need to wear a mask to ensure that I don’t get a sore throat the next day. Checking the AQI and occasionally wearing masks have become part of our routine. In our (almost) 90 days here, we’ve only had a handful of “bad days”, which we recently found out are about the equivalent of smoking a few cigarettes (and we all know that is not great for long term health).

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An exciting acquisition!

Another environmental issue I was not at all looking forward to was the inability to drink the tap water. I remember last time we were in China, I had a really hard time making sure I had enough water bottles. Something about steaming hot water severed in restaurants (even in summer) really just didn’t agree with me. Turns out, although this is a difference, it really isn’t a difficult one to handle. Now that we’re residents of China, it’s pretty easy to get water. We have a water cooler and a weekly delivery that ensures we have plenty of drinking water (hot OR cold)! Another environmental difference, for Tucker, would have to be the height of everything. Doorways, sinks, counters, they’re all much lower than we’re used to, and he (just about 6 feet tall) struggles with hitting his head and constantly bending over at an uncomfortable angle. I (at 5’3”) don’t really have this problem!

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Tucker’s Taobao fail

Finally, the way we use technology has also changed greatly. It seems that in some ways we’re using technology more efficiently, and in others it’s substantially slowed down or non-existent. For one thing, in China you are not allowed to have two people sharing one bank account. Therefore, Tucker and I share “my” card by handing it over whenever one of us needs it, which just feels so strange! Online banking is also not very popular here, and it’s only possible with a monthly fee. Needless to say, Tucker and I have become much more familiar with the “balance inquiry” function at the ATM. While those banking aspects feel less than modern to us, we’re also being ushering into the future by instead paying for everything with our phones and buying most of what we need from an online service that delivers to our door. The saying “there is an app for that” feels so true in China, as we now utilize our phones for everything! Even street vendors use QR codes for payment!

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Love seeing this!

However, possible is not the same as familiar. As westerners new to China, our most valued service is a VPN (virtual private network). As many people know, China is very particular about what shows up on their search engines (or even which search engines are available), and for this reason, we need to use a VPN to access YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and several other favorites. Of course, for nationals and people who have been here long enough, those services are no longer as important as YouKu, WeChat, and QQ (Chinese versions of the same services), but for now, we’re bogged down remembering to connect to the VPN for some things and at times, not having enough bandwidth to do so.

There are plenty of other differences in our daily lives, and some, as we’re beginning to see, are less China-specific and more like everywhere-but-in-the-US kind of things. We find ourselves walking so much more here, watching less TV, meeting with very different groups of people, and taking advantages of opportunities that we would’ve never had at home. There are so many reasons I enjoy my life abroad, but I think none are as great as these small differences that teach us so much!

The Land of Chinggis and Cheese

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Sunset in Ulaanbaatar

Where exactly is the land of Chinggis and cheese, you ask? Mongolia, of course! Although truth be told it should really be “dairy” as opposed to “cheese”, but then the alliteration is completely lost. The Chinggis part (which refers to the Mongolian spelling/pronunciation of Genghis, as in Genghis Khan) is extremely accurate though. Between all the statues, pictures on the currency, and the multiple beer and vodka brands that bare his name, he is well-known in his native land. Catchy titles aside, last week Tucker and I were lucky enough to spend six days in Mongolia, and I could not have been more impressed! Again (this is becoming too common for me!), I failed to think about my expectations before heading off to the “Land of Eternal Blue Skies”, but I know that what we experienced far exceeded whatever I had thought the trip would be. Even with almost zero planning on our part, each thing we decided to try in Mongolia turned out better than we could have imagined, and Tucker and I came away from Mongolia with so many unique memories and experiences that will truly last a lifetime.

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     I promise I was working.

I should start this post by saying that my time in Mongolia was first and foremost work-related. I was able to travel to Mongolia in order to give a teacher-training workshop at the University of Finance and Economics as well as to attend and present at the local TESOL conference in Ulaanbaatar. However, to say that work things were my ONLY motive would be completely false. I really wanted to tourist around Mongolia – and I did! Apart from the professional experiences, which were phenomenal by the way (I met such great people and had a wonderful time exchanging ideas with fellow English teachers, not to mention an epic mini-reunion of Fellows), I was able to carve out some time for exploring the city of Ulaanbaatar, trying some of Mongolia’s traditional dishes, and even taking a road trip out of the city. To choose a favorite moment, or even activity, from our trip would be impossible, but here are a few things that stuck out:

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Flight into Mongolia

Our Arrival: Tucker, who is not easily impressed, is still talking about our flight into Ulaanbaatar. The city itself lies in a valley and is full of colorful buildings that range from small circular gers (the traditional round houses also known as yurts) to sleek and shiny, new skyscrapers. Around the city are snow-covered mountains, which with very little vegetation give a stark and geometric feel to the land. Beyond the mountains are the desserts, orange sand stretches as far as you can see from the window of a plane. It really was a beautiful sight, and something I haven’t seen on any other flight. Another thing we noticed upon our arrival was the thorough mixing of cultures. There was text in traditional Mongolian script as well as both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. We saw Italian and Mexican restaurants (MexiKhan might be the best pun-based name out there!), German brewpubs, and plenty of American brands/chains as well. After time in China or even the US, where authentic, foreign brands are sometimes hard to come by, it was a pleasant experience to see such a mix. We also noticed the strangeness that came with using Facebook and Instagram to connect with people again, as opposed to WeChat. China has pretty successfully occupied all my thoughts in the last two months, and stepping into Mongolia was almost like stepping back into something a little more familiar.

 

All the New Knowledge: Although, Mongolia wasn’t quite that familiar as it turns out. On our first day in the country I had to give a presentation during which I had placed my backpack on the floor. Oops – mistake! I was quickly told that’s a bit of a faux pas in Mongolia, and that the other teachers definitely noticed. Another fact we soon learned was that to bump someone’s shoe is a sign of disrespect, and even if it’s done accidentally, you should offer to shake that person’s hand as a sort of truce. Other facts I learned about Mongolia include that their entire country has less inhabitants than the city I live in in China, the language sounds a little more like Arabic than Chinese or Russian, and that lamb/mutton is the most commonly consumed meat. In addition to lamb, Mongolians seem to have an affinity for dumplings, as there were many different types to choose from: the fried kuushuur and boiled buuz, for example.

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Mongolian dumplings

Many had a slightly Chinese flair to them, but the addition of cheese was completely new to me. Another Chinese favorite, milk tea, turns out to be a bit different there as well: it’s salty instead of sweet. And then there’s the bone game. On our tables at several restaurants we found small, felt boxes with four ankle bones inside. The bones are rolled like dice, and the results are read from a list, which can predict your future. We saw fortunes like “will be happy and content” and also ones like “no hope”. Haha!

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Road Trip!

The Nature and Climate: I mentioned what it was like to fly into Ulaanbaatar, but the most beautiful scenery we came across lay outside the city. On our second full day in Mongolia, we went against several people’s advice and rented/drove a car outside the city. While I was extremely nervous for Tucker to drive in a place with a slightly different driving situation (most roads are not paved, steering wheels can be on the right or the left side of the car, and lines on the road are completely meaningless), I’m so happy we braved it and drove to Terelj National Park. The park and the landscapes on the way there and back were absolutely breathtaking. Flat sandy plains (complete with yaks), rocky mountain formations, a few sparkling rivers, and the snowy mountains in Terelj were all beautiful.

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Terelj National Park

Also, they are not kidding about the blue skies thing; they were by far the bluest skies I’ve ever seen (and yes, I’ve been to Montana). I was also incredibly happy to be in a colder climate again! Hefei, Orlando, and Atlanta – the last three cities in which I’ve lived are way too hot and humid for my taste. Mongolia was simply cold, and I loved it! We saw several flurries during our time there, and I relished my time in big, fluffy jackets, scarves, and gloves.

 

 

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Pretty epic, no?

Overall it was an incredible place to visit, even for just a short time. The people we met in Mongolia, including the hostel staff, the car renter, the teachers I encountered at the conference, and even the strangers who approached us in the street (looking to practice their English, of course), were all incredibly friendly and helpful, and we’d like to offer them our sincerest “bayarlalaa” (thanks). I highly recommend traveling to Mongolia if you ever get the chance! It’s very high on my list to re-visit, and I hope that happens sooner rather than later!

 

 

Golden Week Musings

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Evidence of the festival feel of Golden Week in China

This week is Golden Week in China! Don’t know what that means? Neither did we. But we enjoyed the time off regardless! After several questioning sessions and a quick google (yes, I still exclusively use Google thanks to my trusty VPN), I found out that there are actually two Golden Weeks in China. One following National Day, which is every October 1st, and another following the Chinese Lunar New Year (usually in January or February). These weeks are supposed to be a time when everyone in China can take a full seven days off to visit family, do some traveling, or just relax. The universities were certainly closed (and pretty empty), so Tucker and I were definitely able to do these things. However, buses and trains still ran as usual and most restaurants and stores were still open, so clearly not everyone in China enjoyed a week-long vacation. I’m starting to think Golden Week is a bit like a long Thanksgiving: good for the majority, bad for retail/travel workers.

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What would a festival be without snacks?

So how does one celebrate Golden Week? Well, first of all, it’s actually two holidays that are being celebrated: National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival. National Day is pretty easy to explain. It celebrates the day the People’s Republic of China was founded (1949), and looks a bit like the 4th of July in the US (although maybe slightly scaled down). We saw lots of decorations and flags all over the city, and there were more fireworks than usual. Apparently there are larger events in the big cities, but in Hefei we didn’t see or hear much about National Day. Mid-Autumn Festival, on the other hand, doesn’t really have an equivalent in popular US culture. Its date is set by the lunar calendar; thus, it doesn’t always fall on the same day. It coincides with the full moon in the 8th lunar month and is supposed to be a time for gathering, thanking, and moon-watching. As we’re not in with a Chinese family (yet!), I’m not exactly sure how much of this is actually done, but I do know that everyone buys and eats mooncakes during the festival.

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Green tea flavored mooncake

Mooncakes are dense and doughy little cakes with a design pressed into the top that are given to family members as a sign of unity and respect (we gave some to our building supervisor, and he seemed really pleased!). These treats started popping up in grocery stores weeks ago and run the gamut from extremely cheap (and rather dry and boring) to the outrageously expensive, ornate, boxed variety packs. Friends gave us some mooncakes early on in the week, and Tucker has bought several others to try as since then. However, I have to say, they’re just not one of my favorites. They’re very pretty, but, honestly, don’t have such a great mouthfeel.

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Waiting to have our tickets checked

Another piece of the Golden Week puzzle is travel. Golden Week is seen as a great time for families to travel long distances for reunions in hometowns or for sightseeing somewhere new, which makes perfect sense since everyone has the time off to do it! However, with a country of 1.3 billion people, things can quickly become rather crowded. We were warned by many people not to travel during Golden Week, so, of course, we booked train tickets right away. I had to see it for myself! And honestly, in retrospect, I didn’t think it was that bad. We chose to go to Nanjing (China’s old capital), which is only about an hour away by high-speed train. At the train station, it’s true, there were a lot of people, but that should be expected for a large and busy train station on a holiday. On the train itself, every seat was filled, but there were no crowds (or even standers) there. In Nanjing, a pretty touristy place, there were some crowds, but no more than you would expect at a festival. Overall, I was underwhelmed by the crowds on Golden Week. It could be that people are starting to stay home instead of fighting the crowds or maybe China’s facilities are just well-equipped for handling these numbers or maybe we just got really lucky. Regardless, we weren’t scared off and are planning to travel during the next Golden Week as well!

First(ish) Impressions of China and Its People

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Garden at Anhui University

A couple of years ago I was writing a very similar post about a very different country, but now that we’re in a new city (in a new country and even on a new continent), I think it’s time for another sharing of our first impressions. Honestly, it can be really hard to write about these impressions! They come all at once (immediately upon arrival) and are quickly forgotten as we try our best to assimilate and adapt to our new lives; however, some things are definitely sticking out as we grow more familiar with China. My plan is to share everything I can about our time in Hefei, China, such as our impressions, experiences, and reflections, mostly because everyone seems to have a lot of questions about China (including the Chinese themselves – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve already been asked how the Chinese are viewed in the US). Of course, China is a massive country (much like the US) and as such, no one person can truly sum up what it’s like to live here, but I’d like to add to our collective knowledge by sharing a few things (in no particular order) that have stood out to us during our first month living in the Middle Kingdom.

 

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Lunch of crispy rice with sauce, garlic broccoli, and lotus root

Variety in Everything: As I mentioned, China is a vast country with a very long history, and for these (and likely other reasons), there is just SO MUCH. I’ll start with the food. Every menu has about a thousand options (not really an exaggeration), and the typical ordering style for a table is to get a few dishes and share everything. Basically the options are limitless! We find ourselves asking a lot of questions about the different dishes because really there are just so many, and, of course, Tucker wants to try them all! However, our Chinese experts (i.e. local friends) don’t seem to focus on the dishes themselves, but rather on the styles. They’ve explained that China has “four cuisines” based on different regions of the country: the spicy Sichuan, salty Shandong, fresh Huaiyang, and light Guangdong, which brings me to the next point: geography. Coming from the US, I know what living in a big country is like. I thought I knew what living in a geographically diverse country was like, but China knows the extremes. The world’s tallest mountain and a good portion of the Himalayas reside partially in southwest corner of the country. China also has the fifth largest desert in the world (the Gobi), Hainan Island (the Hawaii of the East), two of the world’s top ten longest rivers (the Yellow and the Yangtze), and a mainland that stretches into both tropic and subarctic climates! But variety can be heard as well as seen throughout China. It’s a little harder for us to observe, however, since we know very little Chinese (so far!), but we have noticed that communication can be difficult even for two natives. For example, on a bus an older woman asked a question about us to one of our Chinese friends, and our friend was unable to answer her. We asked what the woman had said, but our friend didn’t know. She said the woman spoke in the Hefei dialect that she couldn’t understand. But we’re in Hefei! Who can understand her if not other Hefeians?! This doesn’t bode well for our communication prospects.

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Bamboo broom

Mix of Old and New: Another interesting observance is the incredible mix of old and new that we see on a daily basis. China has been rapidly developing over the past twenty years, and I think it’s evident in this phenomenon. Walking around the city, it’s pretty common to see people sweeping the street with handmade bamboo brooms, while talking on their iPhone 7. We can also watch high speed trains whiz by us on one side, not making a sound, and on the other side a massively overloaded wooden cart delivering materials through puffs of smoke. To me it seems like a country that can have whatever modernity it wants, but maybe feels like, what’s the point if this way has been working for the past hundred years. Another example of an odd mix of old and new comes in the forms of payment used, and is actually a challenge we’ve experienced before. When paying for things like groceries, bus tickets, food, etc. you can either go old school or very new school, but nothing in between (which, coincidentally, is where the US lies on this front). In Poland you pay by either cash or tap cards, and in China, it’s either cash or phone app. What happened to paying with credit cards? Who knew that was such an American thing?!

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We spent over 8 hours in this room.

Organizational Differences: I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch upon the different organizational style of China. Again, it’s early on for me to try and explain what is actually happening behind the scenes, but I can notice how at my level things seem to be done very differently. There are small things like the absence of lining up and taking turns, which honestly, has helped us out in a few time-sensitive situations (apparently cutting should be for those in need). However, it also makes it pretty obvious who the foreigners are (of course, that’s already pretty obvious in our case). In addition to queuing vs. crowding, I have noticed that people stand MUCH closer to me than I would prefer. Granted, I know I enjoy a pretty big personal bubble even by American standards, but I have honestly been a little freaked out by the face proximity of some of my students asking questions after class. Another difference we’ve encountered quite a bit this first month is the concept of collective hierarchies. Generally in the US, at institutes and companies each person has their own authority over something, be it small things like paperwork or large things like hiring/firing people. In China, it seems very few people (perhaps no one) has authority alone. There are almost always several offices and multiple employees involved in everything; even a seemingly simple classroom change request required six stamps, four separate offices, and three signatures. China really has a complicated system of checks and balances, which when coupled with a lack of Chinese, can be a tad frustrating to wade through.

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A colleague and me touring the old campus

Helpfulness of the People: Finally, the most evident impression I have of China is that this is a land of helpful people. To say that we’ve needed a lot of help in getting set up here in Hefei would be a drastic understatement! From bank accounts to medical exams to renting shared bikes, with very little English around us (and Chinese being impossible to read as a beginner), we’ve had to rely on many people that we’ve only just met. And they have absolutely addressed every need/wish we could have possibly imagined. We’ve had colleagues, friends, and random graduate students at the university accompany us on so many long, mundane tasks. On their days off they offer to sit in the bank with us for hours (multiple times), take extremely long bus rides to the train station in order to register us (which we still haven’t been able to accomplish), walk with us through our first trips to the grocery store while we argue about which sheet set we want, and so much more. I honestly don’t know why they keep offering their help!

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Three tired friends after a long day of errands

We’ve surely put them through some terrible experiences, and at the very least sheer boredom! But they do come back; they want to help; they want us to enjoy ourselves in China no matter how much time and energy it might cost them. Even strangers have been helpful in whatever ways they can. We’ve had people help us order food, show us the way when we’re lost, and even just listen to our terrible Chinese, trying harder than most to really understand us. It can sometimes feel isolating, not being able to talk to people, but so far, we’ve felt pretty well-connected, regardless of language barriers.

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Living the life!

And so the record of our first impressions of China is complete. Overall we’ve had an amazing first month (albeit confusing at times), but truly, even after contemplating my expectations beforehand and reflecting on our last trip to China, our impressions still differ from what we thought. The feelings we have are just different somehow. Maybe it’s because now we’re not just thinking of the country, but also the people and connections we’re making. Of course, sometimes we do get frustrated and the ambiguity we endure could probably stretch the length of the Great Wall, but it honestly doesn’t feel that different from living in the US or in Poland. People are people, and some things are just always frustrating (paperwork, for example).

We’re in China! Now What Are We Doing?

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Fresh off the Plane!

We’ve been in China for almost three weeks now, and it’s been a little hectic to say the least! In fact, my thoughts are still catching up to everything we’ve seen and done so far, and I’m a little worried this post might seem scattered because of it! Most likely, my best bet for clarity is going to be by starting from the beginning: On August 29th we flew out of Orlando into Houston and then onto Beijing. We started our day around 4am and got to our hotel room in Beijing around 5pm the next day, which means that even with the 12 hour time difference between EST and China, we had been traveling for over 24 hours! Luckily, we were kept pretty busy in Beijing, which helped fight off the jet lag. For four days we participated in an orientation held at the US Embassy in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, meeting our contacts, receiving various briefings, and generally discussing what the next year could look like. Tucker and I loved hanging out with the other China Fellows and all our new acquaintances; we ate at a trendy hot pot restaurant, attended a reception at the ambassador’s house, watched a traditional acrobatics show, and so much more, packed into just a few days! And although we were having a great time in Beijing, Tucker and I had been without our own space for over a year and were itching to get into our new home and finally unpack our suitcases in the city of Hefei.

After a short 2 hour flight, we arrived in Hefei (pronounced huh-fay), the capital city of Anhui (ahn-hway) province. Hefei is a small (by Chinese standards) city of about 8 million and lies between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in eastern China. We actually live on Anhui University’s new campus, in a building exclusively for foreign teachers. Our apartment is extremely nice and very large. We have 3 bedrooms, a small kitchen, a bathroom/laundry room, a living room, a fairly spacious entryway, and astonishingly 4 balconies! We believe our “suite” used to be a shared dorm, but now it’s all ours!

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Our Apartment Building

Upon our arrival, we immediately started settling in. It seemed no one had been living in the apartment for a while, so there was a lot of cleaning to do there. We also had to register ourselves as residents, begin the paperwork for our ID cards, set up a bank account, find out where everything is, buy cellphone plans, bus cards, groceries, etc. As you can imagine, it was a busy week, especially since we arrived on a Sunday and the first class I taught was on Tuesday. Yikes! Good thing we work quickly, and, of course, we also had some of the best help possible in the form of the director of the English department (Alex), my foreign affairs officer (Sunny), and some incredibly helpful graduate students (Arthur, Stream, and Born)! I think we can officially say we’re now totally moved in and are proudly and confidently ordering the rest of the things we need/want from Taobao (like Amazon) and E Le Me (a food delivery service). We’re practically natives. Okay, maybe not.

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Anhui University

Anhui University is not only where we live, it’s also where I work. I’m part of the English Language Fellow Program, which is an exchange program for language teaching professionals run by the US State Department. This semester I’ll be teaching 3 courses and about 90 students at AHU, and so far it’s been going really well! The students are so much fun and thankfully very helpful with my technology struggles in the classroom (I have trouble with computers in English, so obviously it wasn’t going to get better without my being able to read anything!). The new campus is incredibly beautiful, and quite expansive. I’m generally out of breath any time we have to walk somewhere! For example, from our apartment to the building my classrooms are in is a little over a 1 mile walk, not to mention the 9 stories’ worth of stairs I have to traverse as well. I know, I know. I’m a lazy, complaining American, but its just so humid outside right now! In addition to my teaching at the university, this year I will also be responsible for several teacher-training events in the form of workshops both at AHU and in the China-Mongolia region. Plans are already in motion for a trip to Ulaanbaatar next month, and I’m working on sharing my talents with the nearest Consulate as well. I think this is going to be a busy, but incredibly rewarding year for both me and Tucker.

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Tucker and His Kiwi Tool

Speaking of Tucker, what is he doing while we’re in China? Well, presently he’s right here with me, elbows deep in the settling in process. I recently told him if anyone asks what his job is, he should just say “living in China”, as it’s a full-time job of its own! And that’s exactly what it feels like in this early stage of our move. Everything is new and different for us; thus, it takes much longer to get even the simplest tasks completed. Sending two letters took us half a day between locating envelopes in the store, figuring out how to address them, finding a post office that ships internationally, buying the correct postage, and placing the finished product in the correct bin (which we’re honestly still hoping was the correct one). I really don’t know if I could do this without Tucker! He’s really carrying the team as far as technology goes, which is turning out to be pretty important in China. Almost everything is done on our phones; from WeChat to Ctrip to Alipay, we can essentially communicate, order, and purchase everything without the use of money or a card. I also know I wouldn’t have half as much fun if I couldn’t share the confusion, the frustration, and especially the small successes of everyday life in a foreign country with him! In the near future though, he’ll begin studying to get his Medical Technologist certificate, which will allow him to work in labs internationally, and who knows, maybe that’ll be in Hefei.

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Exploring and Eating

Well, I think that’s about all I have for this update. I’m planning to share some of the growing list of first (or really second) impressions of China soon and, of course, some of our hilarious failings as well (I just need the embarrassment to die down a bit before I begin writing!). Until next time, you can see plenty of other photos on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and please don’t hesitate to ask any questions! Xiè xiè!

Reactions and Expectations: China

People’s Reactions:

We are moving to China in five days (only five days!), and Tucker and I are beyond excited about our next adventure abroad! This past month we’ve been lucky enough to take off from work and spend time with family and friends before we go, which has (of course) led to a lot of talk about our next destination. Perhaps because we just did this less than two years ago when we moved to Poland, we couldn’t help but make comparisons to the reactions people have had when we tell them it’s China this time. I suppose I knew it wouldn’t be as well-received due to certain perceptions of China, plus our moving abroad isn’t as exciting and new as it once was; however, I do have to say that I didn’t expect quite as many (or as strong) negative comments as we got. Things like:

  • “Why China? Europe would have been better.”
  • “China has definitely never been on my list of places to see.”
  • “I would never go to a country that isn’t free, a country that has a ban on things like Facebook.”
  • “Don’t go to China. They treat animals terribly there.”
  • “Don’t eat anything you didn’t cook yourself.”
  • “Just get some makeup to make your eyes look slanted, and you’ll fit right in.”

I think most of the comments we’ve received are stemming from the classic fear of the unknown. Most people just don’t have a whole lot of factual knowledge about today’s China (which honestly, we found this to be true of Poland as well. There’s a relevant “they don’t have bacon in Poland” story here.), but several also come from the negative stereotypes and perceptions that are particularly strong and ingrained in regards to China. China is really far away from the U.S.: geographically, linguistically, and culturally, and although China is changing at an absolutely astonishing rate, it’ll likely take a long time and a lot of mutual sharing to change these lingering ideas, which, coincidentally, is exactly what I want to be a part of!

Teacher in ChinaI have loved hearing and collecting people’s reactions and thoughts about China (including my own), and I plan on spending this next year educating. Educating Chinese students and teachers on American culture and language as well as educating myself and fellow Americans on Chinese culture (and language if any of you are interested!). At one time, these comments might have made me nervous for what we would find in China, but mostly I’m just eager to see and experience it for myself, which actually leads me to another fact worth mentioning: I have already been to China, albeit briefly, and so I have some hazy, half-forgotten reactions of my own to share.

My Initial Reactions:

In 2014 I was finishing up my MA program when I started to get really antsy about never having studied abroad. It was always something I had wanted to do, but somehow after 5+ years of university study it hadn’t happened. So during my last year at GSU, I applied for several scholarships and signed up to go to Spain. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the Spain trip was canceled because not enough people had signed up; however, as an alternative I was offered the opportunity to accompany the undergraduates on their trip to China. China?! I had just finished up a semester of Spanish in preparation for my Spain trip! Oh well, I bought a Chinese phrasebook and was off to spend a little over a month in the massive cities of Shanghai and Beijing, China.

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Me on the Bund in Shanghai

I’m not sure I had much time to think of my expectations before landing in China for the first time (I was still extremely surprised I wasn’t gong to Spain), but luckily journaling was a biweekly part of the program I was in. And due to my suburb ability to not clean out my USBs, I still have these written records of my initial reactions. Out of curiosity, I recently reread these journal entries, and have subsequently listed some of my first thoughts of China:

  • The traffic laws are either completely different or nonexistent.
  • Gestures are common for everyone, often in place of words (e.g. prices when haggling).
  • Everything to do with toilets is different in China. You carry your own toilet paper, never flush any paper products, and many times sitting down is not an option.
  • Everyone seems to love laughing and joking around.
  • Shanghai and Beijing have trees, are not terribly crowded, and only moderately smoggy in May.
  • It is extremely disorienting (and embarrassing) when you can’t read a single thing.
  • It feels like I’m a celebrity because so many strangers are asking to take my picture.
  • Everyone seems very eager to learn about English and life in the United States.

In hindsight it’s clear by my reactions that I was surprised by these things, which sheds light onto what I thought China was going to be like. I thought it would be difficult to breathe, really crowded and dirty. I thought the people would be stiff and unfriendly towards foreigners who could hardly say ni hao. I had heard so many negative things about China all my life that my reactions were a bit jaded. Even small differences (like with traffic and toilets) took a negative spin; however, I soon learned their reasoning behind these different choices: individual vigilance over an abundance of minute traffic laws and economic efficiency over unnecessary comfort in regards to public toilets. They weren’t weird or bad choices, just different. This lesson changed the way I viewed cultures (including my own) and taught me to inquire about differences rather than judge them. In short, I learned the value of cultural awareness and have carried that with me ever since.

My Expectations This Time:

FullSizeRenderAs culturally aware as I hope I am, this time we aren’t just traveling to China; we aren’t just visiting with a large group of other Americans for a specific, short-term purpose; this time we’re moving there. The difference between short and long-term cultural immersion is evident in our physical preparations already as I have had one hell of a time obtaining the proper visas and, of course, if you take one look at our four mostly-packed suitcases you’ll see I’m planning on taking a lot of my culture with me. However, there are also differences as I mentally prepare for living (not just traveling) in China. We absolutely adored our time in Poland, but reading my early posts about our move there reminded me that there was definitely an adjustment period, and as different as Poland seemed, it was much closer on the cultural scale than China. Therefore we’re now spending the necessary time preparing ourselves for all the ambiguities and unknowns that come with living in a new place. One of these preparations is discussing our expectations.

I am expecting to…

  • Feel uncertain in everything I do.
  • Need a lot of patience.
  • Either grow tired of or used to the oily food and hot water.
  • Live in a noisy, dirty city.
  • Work around the Great Firewall of China.
  • Notice a greater social distance.
  • Experience life with an extreme language barrier.
  • Have a vast array of new experiences.
  • Glean endless tidbits of cultural information.
  • Eat a lot of delicious food.
  • Go to new, beautiful places.
  • Make friends.

And of course so many other things that pass through my head on a daily basis. Ultimately, I wanted to write this post so that I can look back on it in a few months and compare my expectations to my new reality. I’m also hoping to share what I learn over the next year through this blog (and maybe change some perspectives), so with that, let’s go to China!

My Top 15 Travel Photos

I know I’m a little behind the times, but I recently got my very own Instagram. Yay! Better late than never, right? Well, actually it hasn’t been as quick and seamless of an addition as I thought. Not only am I rapid-fire adding all the people that should have been added steadily over the years, but I also have a very lonely 1 photo posted so far. So in order to beef up my post number (and also because I really like countdowns), I’ve decided to add some of my favorite photos from my Facebook collection to my Instagram. I tried to narrow it down to only 10, but that just wasn’t possible! So instead I’m going with a top 15, which I’ll be posting one at a time, every day or so.

As a bit of a disclaimer, I’m definitely not a photographer. I don’t know much about lighting or composition (I take all my photos from my iPhone if that tells you anything), but I tried to choose my list based on the picture itself and not the destination. Feel free to let me know (through comments or likes) which ones you think are the best and why! In addition to the photos, I also thought it would be fun to look at where they came from, so once the list is posted in its entity, I’ll add a map showing their locations. I hope you enjoy perusing my list as much as I am enjoying reminiscing about it!

 

#15 Crooked Forest, Poland15 (1)

 

#14 Rua Augusta Arch – Lisbon, Portugal14 (1)

 

#13 Cliffs of Moher, Ireland13 (1)

 

#12 BAPS Temple – Atlanta, Georgia (USA)12 (1)

 

#11 Cesky Raj, Czech Republic11 (1)

 

#10 Skopje, Macedonia10 (1)

 

#9 Zhujiajiao, China8 (1)

 

#8 Crater Lake, Oregon (USA)9 (1)

 

#7 Brooklyn Bridge, New York City 7 (1)

 

#6 Bergen, Norway6 (1)

 

#5 Byodo-In Temple – O’ahu, Hawaii5 (1)

 

#4 Colosseum – Rome, Italy4 (1)

 

#3 Black Sand Beaches, Iceland3 (1)

 

#2 Parliament Building – Budapest, Hungary 2 (1)

 

#1 Tatra Mountains, Poland1 (1)

 

Map of Photo Locations:Top 15 Locations

 

 

I’m Officially Blogging Now

It seems the time has finally come. For some reason, I had been fighting the inevitability of having an actual blog site, but now I realize this might just be the best (and easiest) way to share my experiences during this next phase abroad. If we have the pleasure of being friends on Facebook, then you’ve probably seen the evolution of my makeshift “blogging”, which came in the form of photo captions, wall posts, and eventually Facebook “Notes”; however, each of those came with a slew of issues including but not limited to lack of visibility, consistency, and ease. Therefore, here I am with my very own domain name and a place to post all my thoughts, experiences, and reflections.

So that’s the plan! Just like in Poland, I’m hoping to post at least once a month about some aspect of our lives abroad. The topics will vary (mostly according to my whims), but I’m putting this out here from the start: I’d love to get questions and/or suggestions from you! They can really help guide the blog, and I always find them extremely interesting! Also in an effort to keep everything consistent (and also because I’m a bit OCD and just want all my writings in one place), I’ve already created a post on this site called “My Posts from Poland” where I’ve included links to all ten of my writings from last year. Feel free to check them out if you’re interested! And be on the lookout for more posts in the near future!

My Posts from Poland

13690599_10210260223090297_1418854365690200827_n (1)Last year around this time Tucker and I were finishing up our year spent in Łódź, Poland. It was an absolutely amazing experience that I did my best to share with all my friends and family via social media. Perhaps one of the most expressive ways I found to share what we were experiencing was through the “Notes” I wrote each month on Facebook. Unfortunately due of the nature of Facebook, they weren’t terribly easy to find, especially after some time had passed, so as I prepare for our next adventure abroad (and the sharing that will surely follow), I wanted to make my previous posts more accessible. So here are the links to the ten posts I made last year during our time in Poland. Enjoy!

Post 1: My First Impressions of Poland and its People

Post 2: What Am I Doing Here?

Post 3: Christmastime in Poland

Post 4: Cultures in Comparison

Post 5: My Progress Report

Post 6: Stereotypes – What Do Poles Think About Americans?

Post 7: A Taste of Poland

Post 8: Reminisce With Me

Post 9: Our Travels

Post 10: Missing Polska