¡Guadalajara, Guadalajara!

Somehow, we’ve officially been residents of Mexico for 6 months already, and it’s absolutely crazy how fast the time went by! Of course, as we’re still in “pandemic times”, our usual explorations and goings-on in a new city have been pretty tame, but that doesn’t mean we’re not learning everything we can about the incredible city we call home: Guadalajara. Through virtual chats with local friends, outdoor excursions, online Spanish classes, and, of course, the internet, we’ve definitely gleaned a lot of information about GDL, and I would say we are already as fiercely proud of this city as any good Tapatío (or Guadalajara native) would be. We’re so enamored (okay maybe even a little obsessed) that this month I want to share some keys facts about Guadalajara in the hopes that someday soon anyone and everyone will want to visit this amazing city.  

History

First thing’s first: where did it all begin? This is always a tricky subject with colonized countries because there are typically two histories: one European and one indigenous. Guadalajara’s story is no different. In the region/state now known as Jalisco (of which Guadalajara is the capital), there were many indigenous groups such as the Tonallan, Tetlán, and Zapopan peoples. These names can actually still be seen and heard representing various parts of the modern-day, sprawling city, but it was in the early 1500s, when the Spanish settlers, continuing their journey west, officially founded the city known as “Guadalajara”. However, due to some unrest with the local indigenous groups of the time, the city was actually moved three times before finally settling in its current location in the Atemajac Valley, in 1542. In fact, the true founder of the city was Beatriz Hernández, one of the initial settlers, who got tired of all the moving around and finally put her foot down, ultimately choosing the city’s final placement.

From 1542 onward, Guadalajara has always played an important role in Mexico’s history. Miguel Hidalgo had his headquarters set up here during the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s. President Benito Juárez made Guadalajara the seat of his government during the Reform War of the 1850s. Throughout the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, the Great Depression, and multiple domestic and international wars, Guadalajara continued to flourish and grow. By 1910, it solidified its place as the second largest city in Mexico, and since then has also become known as the “Silicon Valley” of Mexico, hosting a large number of innovative companies and international events throughout the years. As the city of Guadalajara expanded, neighboring cities have also been absorbed into the greater GDL area, including Tonalá, Tlaquepaque, and Zapopan, each of which still retains its unique vibe and perspective.

Geography/Climate

The geography of Guadalajara is a really interesting mix because while we’re squarely in Central Mexico in a “humid subtropical climate” zone, we’re also at 5,200 ft (1,560 m), roughly the same elevation as Denver, Colorado. For this reason, the weather is extremely mild (read: gorgeous). The hottest and driest months of the year here are April and May, but even then, the average high is only around 88°F (31°C). With no humidity and with temperatures dropping into the 50s (10-12°C) every night, it felt somewhat like a brief, very manageable (albeit early) summer. From June-September, GDL is in rainy season, which typically means rainy afternoons and some seriously stormy nights. Luckily, it also means the temperatures stay down as well. It’s currently August, and I usually have to wear a jacket when taking the dog out in the mornings – how awesome it that?! After the rainy season comes a cool, crisp autumn followed by a dry, mild winter. In GDL, winters are usually quite sunny and “spring-like”, but it has on occasion snowed. In fact, we’ve already heard several great stories about the infamous snow event of 1997!

Although it sits at a high elevation, Guadalajara is still technically in a valley, which means there are low-lying mountains surrounding the city. To the northeast there is a canyon system and several surrounding forests including Bosque Primavera. In general, Guadalajara is much lusher than I would have expected: green grasses, leafy trees, and many waterfalls can be found throughout Jalisco. There are also several volcanos in the area, a few small ones to the west (near Tequila) and a few more, southwest on the border of Colima, another one of Mexico’s 31 states. The city of Guadalajara itself is quite large: 58 sq mi (151 sq km) and is home to approximately 1.5 million people. If it helps, it’s about the same size and has a similar population density as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Guadalajara, like most large cities, is broken up into many distinctive barrios (or neighborhoods). We live in the slightly hipster Colonia Americana, which lies a little to the west of the oldest neighborhood in the city, the aptly named “Centro”.

Food

Of course, I cannot write about Guadalajara without highlighting some of its most characteristic foods. I wrote a bit about the common dishes found in the Bajío (lowland)/Western region of Mexico in a previous post, but for Guadalajara in particular there are a few specialties that must be mentioned. The first being the infamous torta ahogada (“drowned sandwich”). Perhaps the Philly-GDL comparison can continue here because the fame and ubiquity of this particular sandwich is very similar to that of the renowned cheesesteak in PA. A torta ahogada is essentially a pork sandwich made on baguette-like bread smothered in a spicy tomato sauce. It’s absolutely delicious and very unique. Other famous dishes here include birria (slow-cooked meat stew), carne en su jugo (beef broth with beans, eaten with tortillas), and jericalla (a flan/crème brûlée like dessert). The French flair that can be seen (and tasted) in a lot of Guadalajara’s signature dishes actually comes from the large swath of French immigrants who came into the area throughout the 1800s.

Not exactly a food, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share the fact that tequila is also an important claim of Guadalajara/Jalisco. The city of Tequila (which is how the drink got its name) is about 40 miles (65km) outside GDL. Grown only in this particular region of Mexico, the blue agave plant (as opposed to other varieties) is what separates tequila from other types of mezcal. Its status is highly protected, and the drink is as beloved here as it is the States. Although the margarita is really more of a US thing, cocktails containing tequila mixed with various fruits, juices, and either salt or tajín (a powder made of chilis and dried fruit) are super common here. In Guadalajara, I’d say the paloma is the most popular tequila-based cocktail, which is made with tequila, lime juice, grapefruit soda (usually Squirt), and salt mixed right into the drink.  

Other Notables

Guadalajara is known as a cultural hub of Mexico because not only does tequila (a national icon) originate here, but so does mariachi. The traditional music often associated with Mexico in general has gone through a lot of phases during its development and various influences. From handmade stringed instruments played by indigenous groups to the brightly colored outfits and trumpets of performers today, you can listen to a variety of mariachi styles in the Plaza de los Mariachis or in various restaurants across Guadalajara (and across Mexico as a whole), especially for important events. Mariachi, and its history, is widely celebrated in GDL, for example with a yearly Mariachi festival, during which (in 2009) a group of over 540 musicians gathered to break the world record for largest mariachi group playing together. One of the songs they played was, of course, “Guadalajara”, famously covered by Elvis Presley.

Other interesting facts about Guadalajara include: the Roman/Greek goddess Minerva/Athena has become a symbol of the city. She has a large statue near the Arch of Guadalajara and is also featured on the city’s license plates. GDL has two professional soccer teams: the Atlas and the Chivas, and from what I understand, the latter is arguably the most famous and successful team in Mexico. Guadalajara also has the largest indoor market in Latin America (Mercado San Juan de Dios also known as Mercado Libertad), which spans over 430,000 sq ft (40,000 sq m). GDL was also the birthplace of celebrities Guillermo del Toro (the director) and Canelo Álvarez (the boxer). And…it’s only a 4-5hour flight from Atlanta or Chicago! Ultimately, it’s a really remarkable city, and unlike some of the other places we’ve lived, the locals here know it and love it just as much as we do. I think you will too!

¡Todos bienvenidos!

Fun Florida Facts (and Opinions)

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Oh, 2020…

This year has thrown a lot of surprises at the world (and some not-so-surprising events as well really), but for me and Tucker one of the most unexpected occurrences has been our prolonged stay in Florida. We were only meant to be here for a few months as we gathered our lives from various corners of the world in order to head north for the next few years. Of course, with a brief snag in our immigration paperwork followed by a global pandemic, we’ve found ourselves in a holding pattern since March. And while, like everyone else, I’m still struggling to figure out what this all means for our jobs, our future, our society, etc. I’ve also been doing what I do best in a new place: exploring. Even though this exploring has taken place mostly online (and occasionally from a socially acceptable distance), life in Florida has still been quite interesting, and in some ways enlightening. Thus, for this month’s post, I have put together a list of my newly gleaned facts (and opinions) to share about our temporary home.

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Hi, guys! Wanna be my friend?

The first thing I have to mention is the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion about Florida. People who have never even been here feel one way or another about it, and plenty of people like to vocalize their opinions (many of which are quite negative) without much regard to facts or feelings. I say this as a non-Floridan, someone who doesn’t have a strong feeling one way or another about this particular state, but sheesh, even I feel bad listening to the many tirades and verbal attacks on the Sunshine State, especially those that can be found online. In our brief time here, I’ve come to view Florida as the state that’s often picked on, but that everyone secretly likes and takes advantage of (like an annoying kid in school that has a really nice pool).

When reflecting on why there are so many negative associations with Florida and Floridians floating around out there, I feel it boils down to two things: 1) the Florida Man and 2) vacationers. Most everyone knows about the Florida Man trope nowadays. A long-lasting meme that has permeated the internet and beyond, it originally referred to the crazy headlines often found in Florida that always begin with “Florida man…” and usually end with his doing something absolutely absurd. But interestingly, one of the first things I learned about the Florida Man origins is that they were sparked by a change in state law. In the 1990’s Florida passed the Sunshine Law, which ensures public access to all government records, including police arrest records. As you can imagine, in 30 years, the spring break capital of the US has racked up quite a few crazy stories, which brings me to my next point.

 

Vacationers. Probably the first thing we noticed after a few months in Florida was the ebb and flow of the people. Renters in, renters out; snow birds in, snow birds out; spring-breakers in, and (thankfully) spring-breakers out. The state of Florida has approximately 22 million permanent residents, but sees 110 million tourists annually. That’s a lot of YOLOing for any place to deal with. I think I actually first noticed this phenomenon in grocery stores. People in bathing suits, vacation gear (lots of Disney paraphernalia where we are), and a general lack of care for their immediate environment. Many people are here for a short time and their mindset is to live it up; therefore, chaos ensues, sometimes in the form of drunken parties and possible police involvement (which is then publicly documented for all the word to see and share).

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Three Sisters Springs

Of course, I completely understand why so many people choose to vacation to Florida. It’s an amazing place for affordable and varied entertainment. We’ve got theme parks all over the place: Disney World, Legoland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, (and for a select clientele) Gatorland. There is also an abundance of parks, lakes, and other natural features like the Everglades, hot springs, swamps, and of course, the many, many beaches. Florida actually has the longest coastline of any of the contiguous states, and the climate (especially in south FL) means beach-going is possible year-round.

Speaking of South Florida, another thing that became immediately clear upon moving here was the presence of three distinct regions. You have North Florida, Central Florida, and Southern Florida, and the people who live (and vacation) in these three places often differ as much as the geography. We’ve heard this said a few times now: the further north you go in Florida, the further South you are. This refers to the fact that northern Florida is very much like Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, etc. Demographically, linguistically, socially, north of Ocala is really part of the South. On the other side, you have South Florida which held onto its Spanish roots and still welcomes a large influx of immigrants from Central and South America. The influence can be seen, heard, felt, and tasted as soon as you drive south of Lake Okeechobee. And that leaves Central Florida, which is somewhat a mix of the two and also somewhat the result of many retirees from out of state. Orlando and many other cities in Central Florida are very much like any other major city in the US: professional, progressive, and a tad hipster.

Another part of life in Florida that caught my attention early on was the naming of the coasts. Most likely, at least in part due to tourism, each section of the coastline in Florida has a name and, for lack of a better word, a vibe. You have the Space Coast, which is the location of the Kennedy Space center and where all the rocket launches take place (which we can see from our driveway, btw). You also have the Gold Coast where the big cities (Fort Lauderdale and Miami) and the famous South Beach are located. There’s the Sun Coast with its beautiful sunsets, the Nature Coast with its natural springs and manatees, and even the First Coast, which is where you can find the first and longest continuously inhabited settlement in modern day USA.

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I sense another checklist forming…

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Castillo de San Marcos

Since our trip to Saint Augustine and the First Cost, I’ve been really interested in Florida’s history and particularly how it differs from that of the colonies. Perhaps most people remember that Florida was first claimed by Spain, which is why we still see so many names like: Boca Raton, Punta Gorda, Buena Vista, etc., but what I (having taken Georgia History, not Florida History, in school) found super interesting was the native American history here. Of course, it now seems quite obvious with place names like: Tallahassee, Kissimmee, and Osceola, but I never gave much thought to the tribes that called Florida home and were actually some of the first to be attacked and displaced. Indeed, the Creek/Seminole tribes, in particular, not only found themselves stuck in the middle of a fight between Britain and Spain during the Seven Years’ War, but went on to challenge the US settlers with what is now known as the Seminole Wars, some of the longest and most expensive in early US history. Historically, Florida has seen a lot, and I don’t think it gets much credit for its important place in US history, let alone world history.

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Daily torrential rain

Finally, the last surprising fact I am very pleased to share is about the weather. As cold weather people, Tucker and I were very much dreading our time spent in the humid and, yes, extremely sunny Florida, especially as that time started to stretch into summer. However, I’m happy to report that it’s really not so bad! Florida is really breezy, which certainly helps with the heat, and now that we’re officially in summer, I can say that there’s a bit of a rainy season here meaning the afternoon thunderstorms that happen almost every day also help to cool it down. We’ve both commented that while the warmer temps might last longer, they don’t feel near as oppressive as summer in Atlanta. Plus, the produce here is absolutely amazing! In addition to citrus, Florida produces significant percentages of the country’s tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, and sugar cane.

All in all, Florida has been a surprise in many ways for us (including the very exciting news that there is no state income tax in Florida!). Ultimately, our time here has really just been another lesson in finding out how much there is to discover/learn, even in a place you think you already know pretty well. So, what have you learned so far in 2020?

Country Curiosities

InkedAround the World_LII don’t intend on writing about my 30 Day Challenges (see January’s blog) each month, or even ever again; however, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share some of what I have learned this month with my “read about a different country every day” challenge. For each day in February (more or less), I selected a country to explore digitally (i.e. with the help of various web resources), and in the process, I have gleaned a plethora of fun facts!

I went with a round-robin style selection process, where I purposefully chose countries (fully sovereign and UN recognized) that I knew very little about from each of the continents in alphabetical order (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, South America). And even with a few missed days, I was still able to read about 24 lesser-known places: 4 countries from each continent.

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My checklist

To say I learned something new every day would be a gross understatement of this process. It is absolutely incredible how much there is to learn about each and every little corner of the globe, including our own. And now, to help pique your interest in some of these places, here are some of the most interesting tidbits I picked up in my daily readings:

 

Togo: This small country in West Africa was originally claimed by Germany as “Togoland”, which to me sounds like an amusement park rather than a country.

Georgia: Nestled in the Caucasus Mountains, Georgia (the country, definitely not the state) has two disputed regions that are currently vying for independence: Abkhazia and Adjara.

Andorra: A country (located between France and Spain) that is so tiny, there are no international airports within its borders.

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Beautiful Andorra 

Costa Rica: In 1949 Costa Rica abolished their army, working instead to replace it with “an army of teachers”, thus focusing on education rather than military spending.

Federated States of Micronesia: Includes over 600 islands extending almost 3000 kilometers in the Pacific ocean (that’s about the distance from Atlanta to Salt Lake City).

Suriname: A small country in South America where the official and most commonly spoken language is, you guessed it (not!), Dutch.

 

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Stars, stripes, guns, and tools

Mozambique: Located on the southeastern coast of Africa, Mozambique has a machine gun and a mattock on its flag, which gives a bit of insight into its checkered (and complicated) past.

 

Kazakhstan: means the Land of Nomads, who fortunately have a lot of room to roam in the world’s largest land-locked country.

Cyprus: A small island in the Mediterranean that was inhabited by humans before boats were invented (gotta love a good ol’ Ice Age story).

Trinidad and Tobago: Only seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, this pair of islands is the birthplace of Limbo.

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Think they limbo to Cotton Eye Joe?

Papua New Guinea: PNG is one of very few places on Earth where you can straddle the equator and see snowfall in the same country! Elevation is no joke!

World CupUruguay: A country consistently providing the world with incredible soccer players, Uruguay was the first country to win the FIFA World Cup (in 1930).

Tunisia: I was most interested to learn that the ancient city of Carthage is in modern day Tunisia, but I was told others might find it more interesting to learn that several Star Wars movies were filmed here.

Bhutan: A small, mountainous country in between China and India, the highly Buddhist Bhutan has a Gross Domestic Happiness index, which is used to measure and develop the collective happiness of the nation as a “fundamental human goal”.

Denmark: In the smallest country in Scandinavia, you’re never more than 52 kilometers (32 miles) from the coast.

Belize: Despite sharing English as a national language, Belize has opted not to share in American fast food chains. No McDonalds or KFCs in this Central American country.

Nauru: One of the smallest countries in the world at only 8 square miles, Nauru also has one of the highest obesity rates at almost 72%.

Bolivia: This landlocked country in South America boasts the world’s largest salt flat, half of the highest lake, and an annual rainfall of over 5m (one of the highest in the world). Talk about biodiversity!

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Salar de Uyuni

Chad: Named after Lake Chad, this large central African country lies mostly in the Sahara desert giving it the morbid nickname the “Dead Heart of Africa”.

Pakistan: Although extremely far from Europe, Pakistan was a prominent stop on the Hippie Trail of the 1960s. If you haven’t heard of the Hippie Trail, I highly suggest a quick Google!

Romania: We might know it as the Land of Dracula, but Romania is also home to the heaviest building in the world (at just over 9 billion pounds)! And no, it’s not Bran Castle.

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Palace of Parliament

Dominica: Often confused for the Dominican Republic, Dominica is a separate island nation known for electing the first female prime minister in the Caribbean (back in 1980).

Kiribati: Another impressive set of islands in the Pacific ocean, Kiribati not only celebrates the New Year first each year, but is also the only country to have land in all four hemispheres.

Paraguay: In part due to its central location, Paraguay was subjected to the bloodiest international conflict in the Americas, the Paraguayan War (1864-1870), in which the country lost 50% of its population in addition to 40% of its land.

Believe me when I say these are just the tip of the iceberg! Each of these countries, and indeed, every country and culture is unique and inspiring. I think this will be an easy challenge to extend past 30 days…I mean there are almost 200 countries out there! What are some of your country curiosities to share?

24 Countries

Viva La Mexico

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Chichen Itza

Another month, another amazing country explored! Have I mentioned how nice it’s been working entirely online? No, but seriously, we’re incredibly lucky to be able to support these explorations as Tucker and I continue to make plans for what we want to do and where we want to be in the future. For the past 30 days, we’ve been in Mexico, sussing out the situation in three amazing cities, and learning all we could in the process. When planning our Mexican adventure (while happily freezing in Canada), we narrowed our focus down to Merida, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. Through online research and word of mouth, we felt that these were the three most likely candidates for a potential future home that fits our particular set of needs/wishes. So we set out to see which city would reign supreme (in our eyes anyways). Of course, we were also very interested in what living in Mexico would be like in general, having never visited any part of Latin America, and also how much tourism we could possibly squeeze into this already packed month of international inquiries! Here’s what we learned:

Merida

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Our first stop was the city of Merida, which is the capital city of the Yucatan peninsula. We arrived fairly late at night and were quite surprised when the first restaurant we came face-to-face with in Mexico was a Carl’s Jr. Haha! From that moment on, we were constantly reminded how much the US and Mexico have influenced each other over the years. From the abundance of Coke products to the variety of Christmas songs, there were so many things that made us feel like we weren’t too far from home. Some things, however, were very different. For example, the colors of Merida were unlike any city I’ve ever been to! Every building was painted a different, yet equally vibrant shade: coral, sea foam, cyan, olive; I lost count early on. All the color was even more surprising when we learned that Merida’s nickname is “the White City”! Apparently that has more to do with the traditional clothing than a description of the city itself, because Merida is nothing if not colorful.

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Pure art!

Merida was also incredibly clean! Everywhere we walked we could smell the scents of soap or laundry detergent wafting out of the various doorways. I had also (wrongly) assumed that in such a warm climate, bugs would be imminent, but we saw none during our 10 days on the peninsula. We what did find was a lot of extremely helpful strangers. As we stood in front of famous buildings or walked back and forth trying to find the correct bus stop, so many people approached us and gave us advice and information. We learned a lot about the Mayan people from locals who kindly shared what they knew in English, just for us. They didn’t ask for tips or for us to buy something from them, they shared because they’re proud of their heritage and wanted foreigners to also soak up some of their history and culture. Overall, Merida was incredibly laid-back, absolutely unique, and unequivocally friendly.

Guadalajara

74469092_10221331106775470_6605481842357305344_nOur next stop was Guadalajara, the capital city of Jalisco (I’m really beginning to think I must have a thing for capital cities…). Anyway, when we arrived in this, larger city, I realized just how much all the negative hearsay (like the number of well-meaning warnings I received before our trip) can really affect first-time travelers. I immediately felt uneasy, like everything was an unforeseen danger. Of course, after only a few hours, that was all wiped away. The people of Guadalajara were just as friendly and carefree as those in Merida. Our Uber drivers, especially, greeted us and patiently listened as we stumbled through Spanish to ask questions or give any necessary additional information. We also noticed that in Guadalajara, and perhaps Mexico as a whole, the timings of things are quite flexible. We often found ourselves checking the hours of one place or another, only to arrive and see they haven’t quite set up yet (even a few hours after opening). We really felt the struggle of coming from a China mindset (up early, asleep by 10pm) to the Mexican way of life, where nothing really gets going until after 8pm at least!

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Arco de Zapopan

Once it gets going though, it’s impossible to deny the liveliness of Mexcio! Guadalajara in particular has an amazing bar/restaurant street that has so much activity it would take more than a year to see and do everything just on that one strip! From festivals and live music to pub crawls and lucha libre tours, the people in the city know how to party (even on weeknights, which was incredibly impressive, and something I wasn’t quite able to do). While in the city, I was also surprised by the extreme variety of Mexican cuisine. I love Mexican food in the US, but what we typically see is a list of the same 5-6 items with various customization options. In Mexico, the food-scene is much more diverse. From the taco stands and torta kiosks to traditional Aztec/Mayan dishes that look like they came right out of a Top Chef episode (not to mention all the international options). In 30 days I’ve added countless new dishes to my favorites list, and I can now be absolutely sure that Mexican is my favorite of the world’s cuisines. Of course, my favorite among favorites is still the humble taco, and I feel no shame in admitting that Tucker and I kept track of the 75 tacos we ate in Mexico!

Mexico City

78976206_10221463131596008_7786060591298248704_nOur final stop on this scouting mission was the infamous Mexico City. One of the largest cities in Latin America with about 9 million residents, and easily one of the most welcoming mega-cities I’ve ever been in. Sometimes in cities of this size, the expectations for speed and efficiency can be extremely high, which poses a problem for travelers who are clueless as to how things are usually done. However, I never felt any impatience from the locals in CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico). Things were just as easy-going and friendly as the other cities we visited. Of course, Mexico City is quite big, which does bring about some challenges. For example, it typically took over an hour to get from one side of the city to the other, even with the super convenient (and cheap) metro. A sprawling city combined with loads of commuters, holiday shoppers, and tourists definitely made for a chaotic transportation situation. However, because of that large and diverse group, we were also able to get some Kansas City BBQ when we wanted something a bit different one night. It’s the eternal struggle of city life!

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Busy, busy!

Aside from the sheer size and diversity Mexico City (and really all of Mexico) has to offer, I was also really surprised by the openness we saw and felt. Mexico is a Catholic country, and having lived in Poland, I remember the conservative lean that often goes along with that. However, Mexico proved again and again that if it’s not bothering anyone, who cares? We immediately noticed all the pda (public displays of affection): lots of kissing, hand holding, etc. anywhere and everywhere, by all sorts of couples: old, young, gay, straight. We also saw more skin than we had grown used to in China (although that is pretty much necessary when it’s still in the 80’s in winter). And finally, the language used was a bit freer as well. I’ve never seen so many kids shouting curse words as when we went to the lucha libre match (all in good fun though). Ultimately, Mexico had the “anything goes” approach that we sometimes found in China and Poland, but here it was definitely more strongly connected to social issues, and we ultimately found it very refreshing.

Mexico In General

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Incredibly lush!

As I’m writing this, I keep thinking of things I want to add. All the information we got in Merida about the Mayan people and the way it influences the modern culture there, all the flowers and fruits of Jalisco that surrounded us even in the middle of a huge city, and all the people in Mexico City, who just like in NYC are trying to make it big in one way or another. As is typical when we travel, we learned so much about the places and people around us, but we also learned more about ourselves: like how strong preconceived notions can be (even in experienced travelers), how many American exports are actually really unhealthy (sugary drinks and fast food), and ultimately, how similar we all really are. We often found ourselves bonding in limited language over traffic, wifi, cute animals, and delicious food: you know, the important things in life.

In short, Mexico was absolutely amazing, and we could definitely see ourselves living there in the future! We felt safe and welcomed, and we had a great time getting to know our southern neighbors a bit better. As it stands now, we’re muddling our way through Canadian immigration, but at least we now have a solid plan B (Guadalajara won out, by the way). Or, who knows, maybe after a few years in the frigid north, the desire to thaw out in Mexico will draw us south of the border sooner than we think!

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Asian Island Adventures

51236081_10218703184719061_8876367206510755840_nThe second New Year (also known as the Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year) has come and gone, and with it, possibly our last long winter break off together. Just like last year, the Chinese university semester break coincides with the holiday giving us several weeks off, which, of course, we put to good use! My program had its mid-year meeting and conference in the Philippines this year, and somehow, Tucker and I managed to squeeze in three (and a half) other destinations on our island hopping itinerary. You might have seen the hundreds of photos on Facebook, but I’d also like to share a few words about our time traveling in South Asia. To be honest, it’s a little surreal to be writing this as I watch the snow fall outside, but here we go!

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Macau/HK

50416214_10218648248945701_250725072455598080_nOur first stop was Macau, a “special administrative region” of China. It gets this rather long name due to it being somewhere between a province and another country entirely. It’s a part of China, but it’s also not China, which is actually one of the reasons we wanted to visit. We wanted to see if there were any noticeable differences. We also wanted to visit because we were eager for another taste of Portugal. Macau used to be a Portuguese colony and has retained quite a bit of the Portuguese flair in architecture, food, and language. It was an incredible mix of the two cultures: tons of Chinese New Year decorations along the beautiful mosaic walkways, pork dumplings could be ordered with a side of garlic bread and red wine, and all the signs were in both Chinese and Portuguese, which was very exciting for this language nerd. The weather was beautiful while we were there, so we were able to walk almost the entire city by foot. Macau is made up of a small peninsula and island on the southern coast of China. The peninsula is where the Old Town is with its ruins, churches, and forts, and the casino-filled island gives Macau the nickname “The Vegas of the East”. We had an amazing time exploring both: taking selfies, eating all the street food, and even trying our hand at gambling again (much to my chagrin).

50679451_10218668969583704_4242597479859617792_nAfter a few days of strolling around Macau’s narrow alleyways, we took a massive speed boat (TurboJet) to our next destination just across the water: Hong Kong. This was actually our second trip to Hong Kong, but last time we didn’t quite get to everything on our list – this short stopover on the way to Midyear was our second chance. We had less than 24 hours in the city, but we managed to make it out to Lantou Island to see the incredible Buddha and cableway there, we took the bus to the top of Victoria Peak to watch the sunset over the city, and we went to Tim Ho Wan for the world’s cheapest Michelin Star eats. While I definitely preferred Macau’s laid back, European vibes, it’s hard to not like Hong Kong as well. Macau and Hong Kong are a couple of tiny islands (and respective peninsulas) that I highly recommend everyone to visit! No visas needed for US citizens! 🙂

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The Philippines

51544827_10218758613504746_7490417853212917760_nAll too soon it was time to fly to the Philippines and get to work. When we first landed in the Philippines it was chaos! Passengers getting up and grabbing their bags before the plane had stopped moving; people sitting on seemingly every inch of the floor in the airport; signs for flight changes being moved by hand from gate to gate; loud cover songs of 2000’s hits playing in every corner of the terminal, etc. All I could think was “Well, we’re definitely not in China anymore.” As we sat waiting for our flight though, the newness wore off, and it was easy to see that the Philippines are just plain fun! In fact, their national slogan is “It’s more fun in the Philippines”, and I totally got it. Smiles were everywhere! The flight attendants wore bright yellow polos and hummed songs as we boarded. Fellow passengers sang along with the music they heard on the plane. The joy was contagious!

51090853_10218728310947201_775519455542247424_nThe first week we were in the Philippines I had to “work”. I attended meetings with the other Fellows, we planned and executed various group activities, and generally bonded and reconnected after our last five months apart in our various host cities/countries. For this part of Midyear, we were put up in a resort on Mactan Island, which was incredibly fancy and not the sort of place Tucker and I usually go for (I’ve never heard so many “yes ma’ams” and “hello sirs” in my life). It was beyond beautiful though, and luckily Tucker was able to take full advantage of the beach, the snorkeling, the infinity pool, etc. However, after a few days completely devoid of local culture, I was definitely ready to get to our next location: Cebu City. It was here that we attended and presented at a local teacher training conference held at the University San Jose Recoletos. Easily my favorite part of Midyear, I was able to meet and interact with many local Filipina/o teachers and get a much better feel for what life in the Philippines is really like.

 

51300721_10218758619504896_748782893282623488_nOnce the conference and Midyear were officially over, Tucker and I hadn’t quite had our fill of the Philippines, so we headed to Manila for some good old-fashioned touristing. Manila is an incredible city with some of the best food I’ve had in a long while. Their specialty seemed to be fusion restaurants. We had super interesting and delicious food at Loco Manuk (Filipino, Peruvian, and Chinese) and El Chupacabra (Filipino and Mexican), and saw a Japanese-French Cafe that looked amazing as well! In addition to the incredible food, we also had a great time walking around Manila Bay, grabbing a drink in Intramuros (the Old Town), and watching the Super Bowl at a local expat bar. The Philippines boasts an amazing mix of languages and cultures, and it was so fun for us to be able to use English (commonly spoken there) to ask about a million questions of our taxi drivers, servers, and any other local we could find. We learned about the strong influence of Catholicism in the Philippines, the new-ish movement towards environmental clean up, and most of all we learned how welcoming and friendly the people are.

Singapore

52466008_10218786674966265_1366061700507238400_nAt this point we were over the halfway mark of our trip, and my body had had enough. I left Manila with a fever and several other ailments (not so fun to describe), but I was still super excited to see Singapore! We watched Crazy Rich Asians on another leg of this trip in preparation, but the movie doesn’t do the city justice. It is by far the cleanest city I’ve ever seen, and has represented its multicultural population incredibly well! Singapore is made up of large groups of ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians, and each has a dedicated area of the city where you can find their respective religious buildings, restaurants, and specialized grocery stores. Even with the diverse neighborhoods in place, the city as a whole really seems to cater to each group in so many ways. Colorful, artistic, and clearly very well-off, there are so many lovely parks and public spaces in this city, where we saw families wearing everything from tank tops and sundresses to saris and hijabs. I often talk about places where there is a mix of cultures, but its usually a watered down mix, where clearly one culture has dominated, but in Singapore they were all there loud and proud. It was amazing!

However, after a few days in Singapore I definitely had another “this is clearly not China moment”. Everything was so quiet, there weren’t many people around, and the “no spitting” signs actually seemed to work, as we saw absolutely no spitting while we were there! Signs like these were everywhere, covering the basics like “no littering $1000” and the bizarre like “no chewing gum $500”, ultimately giving the city a punny nickname: Singapore, a “fine” city. Tucker really loved Singapore – so many interesting foods to try, lots of activities to partake in (the Trick Eye Museum, Universal Studios, and beer tastings to name a few), but I was a little hesitant. It was almost a little too clean and a little too “nice” for me. I guess I like my cities a little more rough around the edges, but as far as a place to vacation and experience as many authentic Asian cultures and foods as possible, it has got to be number one on my list!

Malaysia

The last stop on this epic journey was Kuala Lumpur (usually called KL), Malyasia. We ended up taking a Transtar bus from Singapore to Malaysia because it was only about a 6 hour drive and the price was right. Little did I know that $30 was going to buy me the best bus ride of my life! We had recliners, tea service, lunch, personal TVs, and gorgeous views of the Malaysian jungles. If you’re ever in this area, take this bus ride! Upon our arrival in KL, I couldn’t help feeling a little like Goldilocks. The Philippines was maybe a little too outgoing for me, and Singapore was a little too uppity, was Malaysia going to be just right?

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51885758_10218802010149635_1122751154648776704_nIt turns out KL was full of surprises for us. The majority of people living in Malaysia are Muslim, so it was much more conservative than I was expecting. Most everyone wore long sleeves and pants despite the high temperatures, and the presence of beautiful and delicious “mocktails” was at an all time high for me. KL is actually not on an island, and to us, it seemed like we lost that friendly, carefree island-vibe as soon as we arrived. Interactions were a bit more abrupt and businesslike – like they usually are, I suppose. Another surprise was the color we saw all around us – both the Philippines and Singapore were incredibly colorful cities, but I think any city would be hard pressed to match the vibrancy of KL. Brightly colored murals everywhere, some of the lushest, greenest trees I’ve ever seen against the bluest of skies, and the insanely colorful Batu Caves just outside the city made for some incredible scenes (and photos).

There’s no possible way for me to share everything we saw and learned on this trip, but I hope you enjoyed reading a few of the details! After reflecting on any of our travels, it never ceases to amaze me how little I actually know about the world I live in, and taking trips like this only intensifies the curiosity I have for all the places I haven’t yet been to! I hope no matter where Tucker and I end up next, we can continue these adventures because this experience, like so many before it, was truly remarkable.

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China Bucket List – Nearing the End

The New Year is here! And like many people, it has me both reminiscing about 2018 and planning for the upcoming year. In particular, Tucker and I have been looking at what we’ve accomplished China-wise since our move to Hefei. It’s beginning to hit us that we only have a few months left of living in this incredible country, so our China bucket list has become a bit of a priority. With this in mind, here are some of the things we accomplished in 2018 and a few more that we’re still hoping to cross off before our impending departure. If you’re ever in China, I highly recommend each item on this list!

25550266_10215398260578023_5563219324360546085_n✔ Learn to play Mahjong

As game lovers, we knew we would have to learn to play Mahjong while in China, but what we didn’t expect was how much we’d love it! Since our learning the game, we have bought our own set of tiles and have played in many a Mahjong room. It’s a bit like Gin Rummy, but with added Chinese practice – perfect for me!

 

22195457_10214729980991451_5640761874681964647_n✔ Visit a Buddhist Temple

Although China as a whole isn’t very religious, there are many temples still in use around the country. When we visited Nanjing during Golden Week last year, we climbed to the top of Jiming Temple and burned incense in order to strip away our negative qualities and purify our inner-selves (or so they say).

 

33165983_10216691252622016_2671023896341250048_n✔ Perfect our Chopsticks Skills

Just like many other Chinese takeout lovers around the world, we weren’t exactly new to chopsticks; however, there were many foods we had never attempted to eat with them before (like soup or salad for instance). But it didn’t take long for our hand cramps to disappear, leaving behind beautiful chopstick form and a sense of mastery.

 

23843625_10215123442787750_5496286057710795872_n✔ Hike Huangshan

We live in Anhui province, which is famous for having the most beautiful mountain in China: Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). It was made very clear to us that we had to visit the mountain, preferably once in each season. Well, a year and a half in, and we’ve made it to the top of Huangshan twice – once in November and once in April.

 

48427268_10218385939028117_6167021417226305536_n✔ Share Hotpot and Selfies with Friends

This is a bucket list item that we have happily done dozens of times. If grabbing a burger and a beer is the American way of hanging out with friends, hotpot and selfies are the Chinese way, and we’ve had so much fun every time!

 

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✔ Stare in Awe at the Terra-Cotta Warriors

History was never my favorite subject, but when it’s right in front of you, it’s hard to feel that way. The massive tomb and insane number of true-to-size warriors, horses, and chariots is something I’ll never forget. There is so much history here, and I’m happy to be taking it all in.

 

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✔ Visit the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

Another absolute must-do for us in China was the Ice Festival in the far north of Dongbei. We’d heard about and seen many pictures of this event, but being surrounded in buildings made of ice was way cooler (see what I did there) than what we could have imagined. Honestly, I’m still not sure if it was the cold or the beautiful sculptures that took our breath away.

 

47573080_10218296931362981_8222027968302546944_n✔ Devour the Dim Sum in South China

When people ask me what my favorite Chinese food is, I often say Guangdong style. Sweet BBQ pork buns, light and fresh spring rolls, fluffy pineapple pastries, never ending tea for the table; dim sum is my favorite, and the best version we’ve ever had was in the region itself, in the city of Guangzhou.

 

29186978_10216122142394616_4670802097008799648_n✔ Wander around West Lake

There’s a Chinese saying “in Heaven there is paradise, on Earth, Suzhou and Hangzhou”. These are two cities know for their beauty and ancient Chinese charm. Tucker and I have been fortunate enough to visit them both (multiple times), and can now say with certainty that West Lake is one of the prettiest places in all of China.

 

31347884_10216502220376328_7998563502147002746_n✔ Feel like a Kid at Disneyland Shanghai

Everyone knows my family loves Disney, so of course it was on our list to visit the newest of the parks. How can I describe it as anything other than magical? A large pink castle, new roller coasters to ride, completely different foods and snacks to try, plus, we went with my parents which meant that we also got a much-needed dose of family time.

 

34395359_10216784503553231_2112007591797194752_n✔ Learn about the Minority Groups in China

China is a big place with a lot of people, and in many regions that means there are different ethnicities mixed in. When we visited Yunnan (in China’s southwest corner), we were able to learn more about these groups of people, where they live, what languages they speak, and how they have coped with the rapidly changing, modern China.

 

35475218_10216887149439314_3449926763910529024_n✔ Celebrate Dragon Boat Festival

Every summer, China celebrates an ancient legend by racing their famous dragon boats and eating lots of zongzi (think Chinese tamales). We were able to take part in these festivities by joining the crowds at Hefei’s Swan Lake for the races and following them up with a home-cooked meal (including many varieties of zongzi) at a colleague’s house.

 

42409352_10217684087802275_4573337294823489536_n✔ Drink Tsingtao from the Source

One of the most popular beers in China (thus one of the most popular beers in the world) is Tsingtao, which comes from the previously German-occupied city of Qingdao. As beer lovers, Tucker and I were very excited to traipse around this coastal city tasting all the local brews. We also visited the brewery itself, which had surprises around every corner – including a drunkenness simulator and a pop-up rave with pandas!

✔ Show our Families around our Home

This is one of the things I’m most thankful to have crossed off our list. We have both been lucky enough to host family members in China. It’s so much fun for us to show the places we love to the people we love. My parents visited in the spring, and Tucker’s mom and aunt in the fall. So many memories made and priceless experiences shared in-person this time!

 

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✔ Explore some Rice Paddies

When you picture China maybe you picture vast terraced mountains like these. I can’t remember what I first pictured when thinking of China, but I hope it was this. Although now I know that views like this aren’t around every corner, it doesn’t change the fact that when you do happen across them, you can’t help but be amazed. Definitely makes me think about my daily bowl of rice a little differently.

 

45111553_10217993293292219_5974621691412742144_n✔ Walk along the Great Wall

The most famous landmark in all of China has to be the Great Wall. Of course it’s on every China bucket list, but we took it one step further. We have actually walked on the 3 most famous sections of the Great Wall: Mutianyu, Badaling, and Jinshanling. Three sections, in three different seasons. Maybe we’ll have to come back one winter to see a fourth, snowy section.

 

43104942_10217769755343910_2411993070099759104_n✔ Make Dumplings from Scratch

Although I’m not really into cooking, I did want to experience the magic of Chinese cuisine firsthand. We made a friend just after we arrived in China who said she loves to cook, and offered to show us how to make our own dumplings. Filling, wrappers, everything! We had a great time shopping, preparing, cooking, and eating, and now I can say I’ve done it at least once!

 

46485909_10218117963368893_9080195655615381504_n✔ Crisscross the Yangtze

Along with the Great Wall, the Yangtze river is synonymous with China in my mind. I wanted to walk along it, cruise down it, maybe even swim in it (hard “no” on that now though). The river is central to China in so many ways, and nothing seems to remind me of what I thought about China prior to coming here quite like the Great River.

 

✔ View the Real Pandora at Zhangjiajie

So many places ended up on our list because of the recommendations of others, and Zhangjiajie was one of these. It’s the inspiration behind Pandora’s floating mountains in the movie Avatar, but I think hands down the real mountains were more beautiful. We visited on a snowy day in December and were definitely drawn into another world.

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✔ Soak in some Natural Hot Springs

The most recently completed item on our list was to relax and enjoy some of nature’s jacuzzis (otherwise known as hot springs). Near Hefei is a city called Chaohu, which is home to one of the largest freshwater lakes in China as well as a number of natural hot springs. It was a great way to end the semester, and begin thinking about what’s coming up on our collective agenda.

Still to come…

See some Pandas in Chengdu

In just a few days we’ll be on our way to Sichuan – a province in the west of China, famous for housing the country’s national treasure and some of the spiciest food on the continent. Can’t wait!

□ Gamble in Macau

We meant to go to Macau last year, but due to poor planning and holiday crowds, we didn’t make it. Luckily it’s back on the schedule for later this month! It’s known as the Vegas of the East, so maybe we’ll finally have a little luck at a casino.

□ Try Acupuncture

While not as popular as I thought it would be in China, as a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) practice, both Tucker and I are eager to try it out. He’s not a huge fan of needles though – wish us luck!

□ Practice Chinese Calligraphy

Shufa (or calligraphy) is a well-respected art form here, and it’s easy to see why. Chinese characters are rich in meaning and symbolism, which is why calligraphy here is more than just nice handwriting. It’s often compared to poetry or painting, and I’m super excited to try out my abilities.

□ Sample the Top 10 Noodles and Top 10 Teas of China

One last ongoing item on our list is to try the most famous noodles and most famous teas from around China. We’re always on the lookout for items on our list as we travel around, but we’ve been able to scout out some imported noodles/teas around Hefei as well. Gotta try ’em all!

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In reality, there are so many more things that made it onto our China bucket list, and we seemingly add something new just about every week, ensuring there’s no end to our exploration. However, these definitely stand out as some of the highlights so far – experiences that we’re not likely to ever forget. What a truly amazing way to spend our 2018! Here’s to even more adventures in 2019!

 

China: A Place Full of Misconceptions

31091991_10216468592255646_3327159418909757449_nPerhaps due to its location on the opposite side of the globe or maybe because of its notorious closed-door periods in history, China is a place with a lot of misconceptions. I remember when I first visited China; it was absolutely nothing like I thought it would be. Since then, I’ve continually been surprised by China and have had the pleasure of watching several others break some of their preconceived notions on their first trips to this land in the Far East. While pretty much everything I post (let’s be honest, it’s mostly photos) is in some way shaping people’s views of this country I now call home, sometimes there’s a need for more explicit explanations. Some things just can’t be seen in photos, but can definitely be felt and discussed (and often are if given enough time). However, since not everyone can come to China and experience it all in person, I’d like to share some of my thoughts and discoveries (in written form) on some of the impressions that seem to have a strong effect on outsiders’ views of China, impressions that are often among the first to be thrown into question upon closer observation.

China’s One-Child Policy

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Brothers in a bubble

The One-Child Policy always seems to be at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts on China, its policy, family structure, etc., and while, there’s no doubt it has played a role in many aspects of family life in China, it’s not as black and white as the name makes it seem. It actually began as the Two-Child Policy in the 1970s and was put forth as a way to curb the exponential growth of an already heavily populated country. The policy’s aim was to limit the overall population over time and more importantly bring attention to the fact that the previously held views (something along the lines of “more people = more power”) were not accurate and would in fact hurt the population as a whole. The policy also went through a lot of changes throughout its 36 years, which included many exemptions for people in rural areas, minority groups, etc. Even if you weren’t among the exemptees at a given time, the punishment for having more than one child was a fine, which families often found a way to get around (or just knowingly paid). During this time (and still today) the government also provided easily accessible contraception and family planning education, something that still astounds me as I walk into a convenience store that sells affordable, shame-free birth control. What a concept?!

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Siblings entranced by Tucker’s fist bump

Today, China is back to a Two-Child Policy, but of course, there are still many exceptions. I also want to mention that of my roughly 100 students, the majority of them have siblings, despite the fact that they were all born under the One-Child Policy. For me, I think the trickiest thing about the One-Child Policy is that it is inextricably linked with so many other events and policies in China as they ended one really rough era of their history and very eagerly worked to jump into a position of leadership in the 21st century. Because of these coinciding events (and in part due to our national predisposition towards individual autonomy) we tend to think very harshly of this policy (and sometimes of China as a whole) because we’re remembering things like unwanted babies, hasty adoptions, unprecedented governmental control or worse. However, as I’ve been reminded, these were effects of a much greater set of events, not one policy. China was in the middle of a famine and recovering from a revolution that rivals those of 19th century Europe. Ultimately, nothing is simple or black and white, least of all the effects of any government policy.

China’s Communist Government

44054613_10217851084177080_5744207600904306688_nAfter delving into just one policy that definitely captured the world’s attention, I think another misconception of China lies in the government as a whole. When I told friends and family I’d be coming to China, this was a main point of contention. How could you live in a country that’s not free? Aren’t you worried about the communists? In hindsight, it must have got into my head a little because I now realize that when I first arrived I was a little careful about what I said, how I interacted with Party Members, etc. Now I’ve been here for over a year, and I see that that was totally necessary. While the government has many features of communism, it’s actually a hybrid of several political systems. It’s much more complicated than I care to go into, especially because unlike the US, changes within the government here seem to be made more quickly. China is still figuring out exactly how they want their government and economy to fit and work together, and due to their long history of preferring guidelines to written laws, it’s difficult to nail down the specifics regardless.

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Golden Arches are everywhere

It seems like many people are imagining China to look and feel like Cold War era Soviet Union, but it actually looks and feels much more like the US. Capitalism is here in full force, and the Chinese Dream is on everyone’s mind. One noticeable difference, however, is the safety. Cameras are everywhere, people are everywhere, and although I have no idea who (or if) anyone is watching, I know that there are less crimes because there’s a possibility that they are. We see children walking home from school alone in a city of 8 million, and I’ve never felt or experienced any sort of unwelcomed attention when walking alone at night (something that would be impossible in the US today). When my students talk about China one of the things they are most proud of is how safe it is, which I think is an incredible thing to be proud of. Political systems are often a factor in things like this, but culture is another.

China’s Censorship

Another point often brought up about China is the censorship and the Great Firewall. Many Americans have latched onto the censorship in China as a lack of freedom, but every time I hear this I can’t help but laugh. Seen any nudity on American TV as of late? We all live in various forms of censorship. It just so happens that China, coming late to the internet party, was able to pick and choose very carefully from the beginning what they wanted in or out. And of course, as anywhere, there is always a way around that (I don’t think I have a single student who hasn’t see Game of Thrones). I think what’s more interesting though, is that most Chinese people I know wouldn’t have it any other way. They often ask me, why do you want to be able to access media with excessive violence? Do you want young kids to be exposed to more negative influences than they already are? They’re usually tough questions to respond to. We love physical safety features, why don’t we look at mental safety the same way?

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Multiple lucrative walls in China

In addition to the safety and influence arguments made in support of the Firewall is an economic one. Of course China would prefer its citizens not use Facebook, YouTube, etc. That advertising money is going into other countries’ GDPs. China has cornered their own market by creating essentially the same apps, sites, and services here, but through Chinese companies. That’s how I have come to have double the social media options now. For Facebook I have WeChat, for Twitter – Weibo, Amazon – Taobao. Censorship seems to be part business strategy in China, and to me, it seems a lot like the US move towards more American-made products – it makes sense economically. However, most people aren’t especially concerned with who is benefiting from their use of a free app. Usually it just comes down to how good is the product, and I can tell you without a doubt that WeChat is way better than Facebook.

Wechat
Seriously it’s amazing

China’s Cheap Quality Products

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Their handicraft game is strong too

Speaking of Chinese products, another misconception is that everything here is cheap. I assume this one comes from the fact that we get all of our cheap stuff with “made in China” stamped on the back; however, I’d wager some of your most expensive items also come from China. In my experience, just like in the US, there are places you go for cheap stuff and places you go for expensive stuff. We do most of our grocery shopping at a large chain grocery (like Walmart) where if I were to buy a whisk or something like that I would expect it to break in a few months. However, we could go to a nice home goods store and buy a quality whisk as well. Unfortunately, I think the preference for cheap and fast has been an influence the US has had over a lot of countries – it’s something we hear people complain about on every continent we’ve been to.

 

China’s Size

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Aren’t maps the best?!

I’m not sure if this fits into my “misconceptions” post, but I think it just needs to be reiterated how big China truly is. Like the US, it would take days to drive across it, and many years to visit all it’s provinces and regions (there are 34 by the way). However, even with it’s massive size (and extreme geological features: tallest mountains in the world, one of the largest deserts, a few of the longest, widest rivers, etc.), it’s actually incredibly easy and affordable to get around. It took my family 8 years of concentrated effort to visit all 50 states. Between the incredible amounts of planning, purchasing of flights, renting of cars, and the hours upon hours of driving, it was a challenge. We’ve been here in China for about a year and a half and have already visited over half of the provinces. The ease and affordability of the public transportation situation here definitely makes China feel a bit smaller – it means that without a car and without speaking the national language, we can still explore the whole of the country.

Something else that makes China seem very big is the fact that it’s not crowded. 1.3 billion people live here, but it almost never feels that way. Another misconception I think people have is that there are lines everywhere you go in China, and that nothing can be enjoyed because there are too many people. But I hope this is something I’ve been able to show with my pictures – we find ourselves alone even at the most popular of tourist destinations quite often. Chalk it up to the vast spaces or the well-designed properties, but honestly, only on the major festivals have I ever really felt the population of China.

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Wulingyuan, China

China’s Society

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Fast friends!

Another common insight people often have when visiting China is that it’s not as rigid as they thought. Perhaps this comes from the movies, where we see actors portraying the demur, obedient Chinese brides or stoic martial arts instructors of China’s past, but whatever it is that has given us this mental picture, it’s one of the first to be debunked. In my experience people here love to laugh. I think my favorite are the taxi drivers. They love guessing where we’re from, asking what we’re doing in China, if we like it here, etc. In China we’ve also experienced random strangers smiling at us, which after a year in Europe, I had begun to think was just an American thing. Sometimes the older generation here is a bit slower to smile or laugh, but I think it’s because they’ve been through a lot of changes in the last 30 years or so, and maybe they’re waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

China’s Students/Teachers

A final misconception I want to touch on, since it’s so near and dear to my teacher’s heart, is how the students of China are always seen as studious and highly motivated and how the teachers are often seen as aloof and uncaring. It’s very difficult to describe what education is like here. As a whole, I think China is a land of contradictions (some of the newest technology coupled with the oldest historical sites, some of the most stringent internet restrictions with the largest number of internet users on the planet, etc.), but especially in Chinese schools, can these dichotomies be seen. Students sort of have to be studious; a lot rides on their performances, but really they’re like students all over the world, a bit lazy and more interested in other things. Teachers have similar struggles; they are extremely motivated and often become teachers because they love learning themselves, but the pressure for them is high as well, and like most places around the world, they don’t get paid near enough.

 

Ultimately a key difference for me in teaching in China is the amount of respect the society at large has for students and teachers. Students enjoy discounted tickets at most tourist attractions and are not expected to work or support themselves until after they’ve graduated. Teachers also enjoy a high level of respect in the form of our very own holiday (September 10th) and the general admiration of students and children everywhere we go. In the US, education is treated much more like a business, which I think has turned many people off to the importance of education, but in China even with some of the negative effects of test-based systems and low salaries, the push for education is as strong as ever, and the importance of self-improvement can be seen in and out of universities.

45311418_10217990304857510_1333662588940058624_nYikes! That was a lot of information about China! I should probably start writing a book or something because I have learned so much from my time here. More than I could have possibly imagined, and the longer I’m here, the more I know I’ll learn. I’m extremely thankful that I have been given this opportunity to better understand the people and the culture of the China, and I love sharing what I learn on both sides of the world. Recognizing some of my own misconceptions has been fascinating, but equally interesting is discovering others’ misconceptions of me (and America as a whole). Maybe that’ll be a future post! For now, I’m going to continue soaking it all up, remembering that things aren’t often as they first appear.

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Taking it all in

We’re in China! Round Two:

We’re back! Back in China, back in Hefei, back at Anhui University, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m so thankful I was given the opportunity to extend my fellowship until June 2019, and I definitely plan to make the most of it! In fact, I thought I’d even share a little bit about my plans for the next ten months, partially in the hope that putting them in writing will make them come true and partially so that when I look back I can justify my exhaustion!

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Workshop in Beijing

First, I plan to do my job, of course. Much like last year, my job consists of both teaching and teacher-training. I’ll be teaching courses like Critical Thinking and Writing, Public Speaking and Debate, and English Stylistics to undergraduates at Anhui University. I’ll also be working with my colleagues at AHU to coordinate the English Corner, help coach the student representatives for various national competitions, and ultimately join in whenever and wherever my help is needed. This semester I have an even larger group of students, but I’m super excited to get back into teaching! Now that I have a year’s worth of experience teaching at Anda, I’m ready to try out a few new ideas as well – I hope they’re ready! In addition my duties at the university, this year I’ve also been made a “Fellow Coordinator”, which means that I get to help the new Fellows ease into their China/fellowship lives and help organize and relay various outreach projects within China/Mongolia.

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Some of last year’s students

 

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Some of my amazing colleagues

I also hope to go a bit beyond just doing my job and leave something that lasts within the program as well as at Anhui University. I’m dedicated to making as many teacher-to-teacher connections as possible, so that when I leave, there will still be a clear link for sharing ideas, resources, and information. I’m working on creating an online Anhui English Teachers’ group as well as organizing a province-wide conference, where teachers can get together and build lasting relationships in addition to working on their professional development. I’m the only Fellow in my province, so I feel a certain responsibility to make sure I share everything I have with my fellow Anhui teachers. I’m really hoping to create as many opportunities for them as possible, which will hopefully mean a lot of collaboration throughout the year.

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 It never gets old!

Additionally, I hope to see more of China. If you know me, you know I like new places, and China is full of new places! Tucker and I are already planning several trips throughout the next year (some work-related, others just for fun), but all are very special to me because it’s usually during these trips that I can relax and remember the “cultural exchange” aspect of my fellowship. As far as in-country travel goes, we’ve made a list and hope to visit the cities of Chengdu, Chongqing, Guilin, Qingdao, Macau, and Xining (and more if we possibly can!). Of course, while we’re still in East Asia, there are a few out-of-country destinations I’m hoping to visit as well, starting with a trip to the Philippines in January! 🙂

More than just travel though, I haven’t lost sight of the fact that I’m living immersed in such an interesting and vast culture! This year there are many ways I’m hoping to experience more of what China has to offer, such as by joining AHU’s badminton team, attending a Chinese opera, learning to make dumplings, volunteering at local animal shelter, and continuing to explore life in our home city. We’ve already made some amazing, lifelong friends, and I want to take this year to really enjoy our time with them, learning and doing all sorts of new things. I’m also still diligently working on my Mandarin skills with the hope of taking the HSK before we leave – one of my more lofty goals, but we’ll see how it goes!

Finally, and rather importantly, I hope to spend some time planning for the future. Tucker and I have decided to move to a new place after this fellowship year is up, but we haven’t fully decided on where. Technically it’s Tucker’s turn to decide, so he’s already working on updating his resume and hunting down our next opportunity. Of course, I’ll soon have to join him in some of the mundane prepping-to-move tasks, but for now, I’m just focusing on not letting the time slip by. We have so much still to do in China, and I’m beyond excited for it all! Here’s to a successful round two!

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 Hongcun 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 affected 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 served 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 ushered 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!