Ruminating on Returning

With so much to see in the world (and currently so much time to plan) Tucker and I find ourselves talking about trips we’d like to take fairly often. We typically have no problem jumping into the logistics and research of a given location, but we do sometimes get stuck on the initial “where should we go” question. There are so many places we’d absolutely love to visit, but there is also a growing list of places we’d really like to return to; places we clearly haven’t explored thoroughly enough for our liking; places, including but not limited to:

The Netherlands

472549_4075793461494_1409717026_oThis was an obvious choice for this particular list because we only spent about 23 hours in the country. It was our first foray into long-layover travel, and we definitely fumbled our way through it. It wasn’t too difficult to get from the airport to the city center (and back again), but as we set off with absolutely no plan, it was mostly just a long walk around the beautiful canals. Amsterdam is a great walking city though, so even with our random ambling, we were able to take in the numerous and iconic bridges, bicycles, and fry-stands. We also explored the infamous Red Light District and (from a distance) the I AMsterdam sign, which is sadly no longer there.

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Pre-smartphone days

If/when we return, however, there many things we have added to our NL itinerary. Mostly notably, all the incredible museums that we missed! Anne Frank, Van Gogh, Rembrandt – we definitely needed more time. I also want to visit Castle De Haar, see the tulips, and maybe spend the night in a houseboat. We’ll also need to do a better job of trying some Dutch specialties on our next trip: poffertjes (small fluffy pancakes), bitterballen (fried meat balls), and some fresh Gouda, for a start.

Finland

414107_4076007586847_1513337318_oNext on our “must return to” list is Finland, which might not have been an obvious choice seeing as we spent almost three weeks there, but at the time we 1) had very little money to spend, 2) were exhausted from finishing up our undergrad degrees, and 3) had just gotten married, which as anyone who has planned a wedding can attest, left us feeling a bit burnt out. Typically when we travel now, we avoid suitcases and we move around a lot, but as this was our first trip sans car, we failed miserably at both packing lightly and at utilizing public transportation. We also weren’t able to afford train passes or much of anything at that time; in fact, our flights and accommodations were wrangled together with the help of some of our wedding gifts and useful family connections. Regardless of what now seems like a trip very far removed from our usual preferences, at the time is was magical.

It was actually my first trip overseas, and I quite literally cried on the plane from sheer excitement. Even with very little planning and even less travel experience, we found time to act our age in a youth hostel in the Olympic Stadium of Helsinki; we then honeymooned properly in a cabin (with its very own sauna) at a lakeside resort in Kajaani, and we also watched a series of bizarre sunsets around 11pm each night. I really wouldn’t change anything about our time in Finland, but for the next visit, I do have a list of a few more things I’d like to see/do. Things like: cross into the Arctic Circle, see the Northern Lights, meet Santa Claus, go snowshoeing, step foot in Turku, and visit Olavinlinna Castle, all while listening to my favorite language in the world: suomen.

The Bahamas

536438_10200935610700815_1786181392_nTechnically we’ve been to the Bahamas a few times now, but does it really count if it’s on a cruise? I mean, don’t get me wrong, cruises are fun and economical, but they definitely keep you in a bit of a bubble. For this reason, I would love to go back to the Bahamas, without the big boat. I think it would be amazing to fly into Nassau and explore New Providence Island a little more slowly and a lot more thoroughly. There are several forts I want to see on the island, not to mention the art galleries, lighthouses, and, of course, the beaches (especially the ones on the far side of the island). At some point Tucker and I want to get our diving certification so we can explore the depths too, or if we don’t have time for that, then I want to do one of those bubble helmet dives instead!

South Korea

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Chimek

Another clear case of not enough time: our quick trip to South Korea still feels like a bit of a blur. I had just spent a month studying abroad in China, but before taking the long plane ride back to the US, Tucker and I tacked on a few days in Seoul as well. Luckily we had our very own personal tour guide as a former student of mine (and his wife) took us around the city showing us all the famous sights and, more importantly, the best eats. We tried to act cool in Gangnam, we saw the famous Blue House, we crisscrossed the many bridges and marveled at the surrounding mountains. We were also treated to the most amazing Korean BBQ, bingsu (shaved ice dessert), chimek (fried chicken and beer), and soju (traditional Korean alcohol), which fueled our love of gochujang (red chili paste) for years to come. It was truly unlike any trip we’d ever taken, and spending the time with new friends was the best part.

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Thanks Hyung-Bin and Jessica!

Of course, with so little time (and a tightly packed and carefully arranged agenda), we didn’t really even make it out of the capital. Next time, we’d love to see the notorious DMZ or to head south to the highly regarded Jeju Island. I find that a lot of my Korean students speak very fondly of the nature in their home country, and I’d love to hike a mountain, view a waterfall, or whatever else is going on in the season we find ourselves in. I’m also pretty sure I’ll never get my fill of Korean food, so obviously we need more time and access on that front. I know we didn’t even try half of what was on our list, and everything we did try, we mostly certainly want to have again!

Italy

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So sick 😦

Does anyone feel like they’ve ever seen enough of Italy? I feel like even Italians are always discovering new things they want to do and see in a country that clearly has culture coming out of every orifice. Speaking of orifices, mine were a bit sneeze-y, stuffy, and runny when we took our trip to Rome a few years ago. It was actually a bit heartbreaking to not be able to fully taste what many people regard as the king of international cuisines. Due to my weakened state and a surprise address from the Pope that weekend, we weren’t able to check off quite as many things as we’d hoped in planning that particular trip. Fortunately, we did still hit most of the highlights of the Eternal City, plus we got to see the Pope pop his head out of the little carpeted window in the Vatican, so how can I really complain?

For Rome specifically though, I know we need to see the Sistine Chapel and the rest of the Vatican Museums (when we were there, the wait to go inside was over 4 hours long). We also opted not to go into the Colosseum when we were there, partly because of crowds but also because it just looked so touristy. In hindsight, we regret not taking a closer look at such a historic structure. And then, there’s the rest of Italy we still need to explore: the fashion of Milan, the waterways of Venice, the architecture of Pisa, the art of Florence, the pizza of Naples; I mean really, there is so so much we still have to see in Italy. I also want to have a clear nose and a few more cannoli taste-tests next time.

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Waiting to hear Pope Francis

Germany

13726595_10210193233855608_8528054797553861878_nGermany unfortunately represents another set of rookie moves on our part. We spent a year living just a few hours over the border in central Poland, yet we failed to A) make it to Oktoberfest and B) visit Bavaria, the most quintessential of all the German regions. While I do sorely regret not making time for southern Germany, we did really enjoy our time in Berlin and Potsdam looking at the incredible architecture, sampling the infamous brews, and picnicking in the numerous parks. It was an absolutely lovely time, but of course, I’d love to go back for a festival or two. It’s really not our fault we missed Oktoberfest; we had wrongly assumed it took place in October, but really it’s more of a September event that actually ends in early October. Ah well, it’s on the list for our inevitable return trip. As are other famous places like: Neuschwanstein Castle, the Rhine, Cologne, and, of course, Bavaria.

Mongolia

22489965_10214825998711834_2745602979160999147_nPerhaps unlike any other place we had been, Mongolia intrigued us in so many ways. It’s really a breathtakingly beautiful country that exceeded every expectation we had for it. We visited for about a week in 2017, but unfortunately a lot of that time was taken up by work (conferences, presentations, etc.) In our free time though, we were able to pretty thoroughly explore Ulaanbaatar, including temples, yurt neighborhoods, live-music bars, and amazingly trendy restaurants. We also took a short road trip out to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, which was honestly a bit frightening for me (mostly because we opted to dismiss the rental insurance), but ultimately it gave us the best glimpse of what life is like outside UB.

It was this glimpse that sparked our conversations of returning to Mongolia. We’d love to experience more of the steppes, perhaps to try our hand at some serious horseback riding, yurt living, and other nomadic fundamentals. I’m also really eager to return to Mongolia in the dead of winter because Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked the world’s coldest capital, and that’s something I want to experience. Although, on the flip side, I also want to make the long trek out to the Gobi dessert or the Flaming Cliffs; as one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the nature in the Land of Eternal Blue Sky is unspoiled and absolutely stunning. Okay, so apparently we need two or three more trips to Mongolia.

Malaysia

51666025_10218814551103151_7277803769331449856_nLast on this list (for now) is a place we actually visited just last year. On our way back to China from a work event in the Philippines, we took a bit of a roundabout path that allowed us to spend almost a week in Malaysia, well, in and around Kuala Lumpur anyway. Malaysia is a tricky country to fully explore in a short amount of time because it’s made up of part of a peninsula (West Malaysia) and part of the island of Borneo (East Malaysia), the two regions being about 400 miles apart. For this reason, although we feel pretty good about our exploration of the amazing capital city, typically called KL for short, we still really want to explore some of the other regions of this incredibly diverse country.

51743204_10218802008229587_1851030617089638400_nWe never made it to a beach while we were in Malaysia, so maybe we’ll start there on a subsequent trip. There are many islands off the coasts of both West and East Malaysia that look amazingly beautiful and relaxing. There are also several world-renowned national parks, which are home to a collection of unique indigenous species that Tucker really wants to check out. Of course, as we found in KL, Malaysia seems to enjoy extremes sports as well, so maybe we’ll try the popular zip-lining, white water rafting, or jungle trekking activities while we’re at it!

65967210_10219977305371281_6241891798231285760_nOf course, there are three countries, not previously mentioned, that are and will indefinitely be on our return radar: the United States, Poland, and China. These are the places we have the greatest connection to, and thus will need many re-visits and reunions to sustain us. Luckily, our friends and family in Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando, Łódź, Hefei, and Shanghai continue to make us feel like we never left. Traveling around the world and learning about different cultures and languages has been a huge part of my life, and I sincerely hope it always will be. Whether we make it back to any of these places, or onto any of the other 150+ countries still on my list, I’ll forever be grateful for these opportunities and the people who have had a hand in making them happen.

Florida Adventures

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Contemplating the state of the world

Have I already mentioned what an interesting year 2020 is turning out to be…well, anyway, as you may have heard, we should all be self-quarantining now. So what better time is there to write about all the adventures we had (and some we still have) planned for our sojourn in Florida, which has also been quite unexpected and rife with issues (more on that in a later, much longer post).

For now, let’s focus on Florida: the Sunshine State, the Family Vacation Mecca, the Hotbox of the East Coast. Of course, like most middle-class Americans east of the Mississippi, Tucker and I had been to Florida many times in our lives. Apparently my first ocean experience was as a two month old at New Port Richey Beach; Tucker and I both visited grandparents down here when we were little (mine in St. Pete and his in Fort Pierce), and of course, if you know my family, you know we’ve made our fair share of trips to the big WDW. We actually both remember separate trips to Pensacola for one reason or another, and as I have family in the Villages, we’ve made several stops there as well. But, when my parents officially moved down here back in 2017, Tucker and I planned and took a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Key West (with his mom this time), which I believe truly marked the beginning of our new and focused Florida Explorations.

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Sunset Key

So, when we came back this year, knowing immigration would take a few months, we decided to really see what Florida has to offer. I made a list, shocking I know, and we’ve done our best amid the global and domestic catastrophes to explore our new state of temporary residency. Here’s what we’ve done:

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Butter beer!

1 – Universal Studios

The first place I knew had to be on the list was Universal Studios. Tucker had never been, and the last time I was here was in 2006 with a friend and her family. Since then, they’ve added pretty much the only thing that could draw me away from Disney and into another over-priced theme park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Long story short, it’s no Disney, but you really can’t miss visiting Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, can you?

 

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So amazing!

2 – Daytona Beach

We realized pretty early on in our Florida-life that everything in the state is between 1-3 hours away from Orlando, so it was easy to plan Saturday excursions in any direction. One of the first of such excursions was to Daytona Beach, which boasts the title of “The World’s Most Famous Beach”. And while I might not go that far, it’s always great fun to share a fishbowl drink overlooking the waves.

3 – Disney Brunches

Some of the things on our list are events rather than places, as with our plan to go to brunch with family on the first Sunday of each month we are in Florida. This was narrowed down to Disney-specific brunches because my parents get a discount and, well, we love the World. So far we’ve been to Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’, Boma – Flavors of Africa, and the Whispering Canyon Cafe. Next up was going to be the Wave…of American Flavors, but I think April’s brunch might be an at-home affair.

4 – Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast

82989356_10221868133720808_9032252941439860736_nNext up, my dad wanted to try a famous seafood place (Dixie Crossroads) out on the Atlantic coast, which I quickly paired up with a drive to Cocoa Beach and Port Canaveral. Although it was a quick visit, we walked along the beach and the pier, looked for the cruise ships and the Space Center, and learned that Florida has a nickname for every single section of coastline.

5 – Crystal River Manatees

Of course, I had to include Florida’s friendliest sea creature in our excursions! Tucker and I took a drive up to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to see some free range manatees and were blown away by the large numbers of them. While they definitely kept their distance, and rightly so, it was incredible to watch them splash and float around in adorable aggregations (which I learned is the group noun for manatees).

6 – Downtown Orlando

Just as I spent a lot of time exploring Atlanta when we lived there, I knew I wanted to go through the different neighborhoods and attractions of Orlando as well, you know, aside from the theme parks. One day we took a lovely walk around Eola Lake and up around Church Street. We went to see Henry IV at Orlando Shakes and strolled around all the museums on the north side. We’ve also found our new favorite used bookstore in Best Used Books and have been back and forth to all sorts of Orlando hot spots since January.

7 – Hop Passport: Florida Edition89925318_10222367882414213_2624685322386014208_n

Actually, one of the main reasons we’ve been to so many random locations in Florida is due to our quest to get a stamp at as many local breweries as possible. My sister-in-law and her boyfriend gave us the amazing Hot Passport for Christmas this year, and we’ve had a great time checking off places and seeing new cities across Florida. We’re at 14 out of 96 so far, and you should definitely check out the Hop Passport for your state if you’re also a beer-lover. You just can’t beat half-off beers!

8 – Disney (free things)

Another more open-ended item on our list is to finally do some of the free things at Disney that we never had the time or energy to do on previous trips. We haven’t bought park tickets for our time in Florida this year, but we’ve had a great time attending free events, walking the Boardwalk, hanging out at Disney Springs (the free shopping and entertainment area), and so much more. If you want a list of fun, free, and non-kiddie things to do at Disney, please let me know. I’m practically an expert.

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The Boardwalk: my favorite Disney place!

9 – Saint Augustine

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Castillo de San Marcos

Finally, on our last day of freedom (pre-self-quarentine), Tucker and I drove up to Saint Augustine to learn a bit more about Florida’s very long history. We visited the Fountain of Youth, the Colonial Quarter, the oldest masonry fort in the US, and ultimately saw a completely different side to this seriously diverse state. I’d really love to go back and explore Saint Augustine even more one day; it’s really an awesome city.

And so that brings me to a few things still on our list for the oh-so-tentative future:

* Take a train

I absolutely love trains, and when I saw how frequently they’re actually used in Florida (albeit still over-priced and not terribly convenient), I knew I needed to try them out for myself. Probably after the pandemic though…

Train

* Naples/Everglades

The Naples area is deemed “Paradise Coast” and it’s one part of Florida neither of us have ever been to; therefore, it was an obvious choice for the list. We’ve also never truly been into Everglades National Park (we’ve only driven through parts of it), so we tacked that (and the obligatory airboat ride that accompanies it) on as well.

* Devil’s Den

A place that has been on my travel to-do list for years now, Devil’s Den is an underground spring with clear waters and an abundance of ancient rock formations and fossils. It looks so cool, and I really want to go! Once the water gets a bit warmer though…

Den

* Tampa/deep sea fishing

And for now, the last thing on our list is a trip over to the Gulf Coast for a deep-sea fishing excursion (during which I might just have to close my eyes or ask that we be allowed to catch and release). We’re also planning to do a more thorough exploration of downtown Tampa on this particular trip. I really love the whole two birds, one stone idea.

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Making lemonade!

Well, that’s our Florida bucket list! Fingers crossed that everyone stays home for the next few weeks/months, so we can get back to exploring once everyone’s healthy again. Until then, I might add a few more things to list now that I have such ample time for research! I also challenge everyone reading this to do the same for your state/region – it’s a great way to pass the time and make the most of our days in the future!

Eating Our Way Through Japan

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Ready to eat!

Japan was absolutely amazing! This summer we spent over three weeks there, traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka, up to Hokkaido (Otaru, Kutchan, and Sapporo), and back down to Tokyo and Fuji – shout out to the JR Rail Pass for all that travel! During our trip, there were so many interesting tidbits that I wanted to share, but I think what I most want everyone to know about Japan is how incredibly unique and delicious the food is! As a non-seafood eater my expectations going in were a little low. Prior to our trip when I thought about Japanese food, I thought of things like sushi, tempura fried shrimp, and wriggling octopus tentacles…so I was a little afraid that I’d be spending the three weeks eating chicken teriyaki while everyone else sampled the bounty from the sea. However, after only a few days I began to realize that the Japanese cuisine in my mind was seriously off the mark. Here are some the abundant, delicious, not-so-seafood-in-your-face meals we enjoyed on our latest trip:

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Omurice

Omurice – As you might have guessed, omurice is a combination of the words “omelet” and “rice”, and that’s exactly what this dish consists of. Fried rice wrapped in a fluffy omelet covered in sauce. What’s not to love about that?! The original version is covered in ketchup, but more commonly in restaurants they’ll have demi-glace or cream sauces – the ultimate comfort food.

Katsu – Pork katsu is a Japanese dish I had heard of but didn’t really try until moving to China (where it became one of my favorites at a nearby Japanese chain). In Japan though, it was easily ten times better! Crispy breaded and fried pork cutlet served with rice and a crisp cabbage salad – so good! Plus, of course, Tucker loved all the dipping sauce options. In addition to the traditional katsu dishes, we also loved the katsu sandwiches that often came in the ekiben (boxed meals sold on the go). These were great for train rides and baseball games, and although they look quite simple, the sauce is so delicious!

 

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Okonomiyaki

All that Yaki – Yaki means “grilled” in Japanese, and there are a lot of variations beyond the teppanyaki that we know in the States. Okonomiyaki, yakiniku, and yakitori were probably my three favorites (although the takoyaki “grilled octopus” might have been the most popular). Okonomiyaki roughly translates to something like “everything you like grilled”. Basically you choose all your favorite ingredients and fry them up in a thick pancake/hashbrown thing on a griddle that’s set into the table in front of you. Think Waffle House meets Hibachi – truly a one of a kind combination! Yakiniku is more like what I always call Korean BBQ. Lots of meats and veggies all grilled to perfection right at your table! Yakitori (or grilled skewers), on the other hand, don’t require any table-side cooking. Typically the skewers are ordered in sets and come covered in the most delicious sauces. Chicken is the most popular yakitori, but we also had beef, quail eggs, okra, mushrooms, etc.

Gyudon – Gyudon means “beef bowl” in Japanese, and while it is incredibly simple, it might be my favorite thing I ate while in Japan. A pile of beef and onions simmered in soy sauce, mirin, and dashi sitting atop a mound of sticky white rice served with fresh cabbage: as a lover of plain, simple foods, I was in heaven! I stumbled into this dish when we first ate at Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain, after which I subsequently ordered it three times at various restaurants and eateries!

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Gyudon with rice and miso

Karaage – Karaage is a Japanese style fried chicken that pretty much blew my mind. Unlike the fried chicken I know, which really only comes in two flavors: spicy and regular, karaage has a plethora of options. Some of my favorites included soy sauce, ginger, and spicy garlic. And the absolute best part? No bones! A popular spot to enjoy karaage is at a local izakaya, or Japanese pub. Cheap beer paired with fried chicken, always a great combination!

 

Curry – Tucker and I love curry. Thai curries, Indian curries, homemade curries: we eat them fairly often, but we had definitely never had Japanese curry before. It’s usually dark brown and served with either chicken or pork katsu, and although it looks similar to other curries, it’s really quite a bit different. Japanese curry is much sweeter and thicker than the typical renditions, and aside from the katsu addition, it also occasionally comes with a hard boiled egg.

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Ramen and kimchi

Ramen – Ah, my favorite type of men…ramen! Before our trip, this is one of the dishes Tucker and I were most excited about. We really love ramen in all its forms abroad, so surely in Japan it would be amazing! Well, I’m happy to say that it absolutely was! All the bowls we had were massive, and the broth was literally worth licking out of the bowl. I was surprised with how many variations of ramen there are though, from a more traditional soy sauce base to the sweet corn miso broth famous in Sapporo – they were all delicious!

Sushi – Of course I can’t write about eating in Japan without mentioning sushi. Surprisingly, even as someone who doesn’t enjoy eating anything from the water, eating sushi in Japan was a highlight for me. We went to one of the sushi conveyor belt restaurants, which are always fun, and we blindly let Tucker do the ordering – the insane number of possibilities of ingredients, preparations, pairings, etc. was really quite impressive. Ultimately, the food was beautiful, and with enough wasabi, I tasted nothing seafood-y. Haha!

Bento – Train food is always a guilty pleasure of mine. In Poland, we got little ham sandwiches, in China, instant noodles, and in Japan: bento boxes. Bento boxes are pre-packaged meals, that are typically quite beautiful as well as delicious! Each little compartment in the box has a different dish, which also gives a lot of variety even when cooped up on a train/plane all day. We paired our bentos with some bīru (beer), and had a wonderful train ride along the coast of Hokkaido.

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Train food perfection
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Famous cheesecake

Otaru Cheesecake – Sometimes you run into a “famous” dish or cuisine on accident, and that’s what happened to us with the cheesecake in Otaru. We stayed in the small port city of Otaru towards the beginning of our trip, and as we were walking around the city, there were signs everywhere for a local cheesecake. Of course, we tried it, and were blown away by how good it was! We never associated Japan with cheesecake before, but it was clear that other tourists did because we then saw this brand of cheesecake for sale all over Tokyo, in the airport, as gift-wrapped souvenirs, etc. I like to think it was much better at the source though.

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Haven’t had enough!

Other Snacks and Experiences:

Onigiri – flavored rice balls often wrapped in nori

KitKats – the infamous crazy flavors of the beloved candy bar

Shabu Shabu – Japanese hotpot or fondue, usually all you can eat

Croquettes – creative new take on the fried food classic, I loved the green tea ones

Goyza – Japanese fried dumplings

Uni – sea urchin (tastes like buttery sea water)

Matcha – green tea power, which can be found in anything and everything

Mochi – sweet, squishy rice cakes

Cheese Dogs – corn dog plus, especially since we had ours in colorful Harajuku

Vending Machine Meals – everything from fried chicken to corn soup

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!

 

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!

Re-learning the American Way

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Western culture = beer on the porch

Tucker and I eased our way back into Western culture this summer by spending three weeks in Australia followed by almost a month back in the States, and while we happily gorged ourselves on some of our favorite food and drinks, we also noticed some distinct changes in our behavior and perspectives this time around. This phenomenon is typically called reverse culture shock (when you return to your home culture after getting used to a new one), and although we had actually experienced this a bit in the past, this time I was determined to not only experience it but also take note of what things stuck out to us as clear effects of living immersed in a different way of life. As usual, in my head I’ve grouped these things in some arbitrary way in order to more clearly share them, and the three main areas of change I’ve come up with regarded: our eating habits, our annoyance at inefficiencies, and a shift in our manners.

 

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Those tacos tho…

Eating Habits: One large area of difference between American and Chinese culture lies in the food and eating. Upon our return to the US we realized there are a few things that we found it hard to get used to again when it comes to food and drink. Ice in water, for example, is way too cold, and it feels like you get less water (ugh, waiting for the ice to melt – who has time for that?). Another thing we immediately missed upon ordering in an American restaurant was that we didn’t order and eat together. It’s sort of an every person for themselves situation, which now feels a little lonely and much more complicated when the bill comes. Tucker also realized he had picked up some Chinese habits when we were out to eat in Australia one night. In the middle of dinner, he started putting his discarded food items on the table rather than in a napkin or on the edge of his plate. I laughed, knowing his reasoning was because that’s what we do in China, but I’m sure the Aussie waitress was thinking, “what is wrong with that guy!”

 

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Why no WeChat Pay?

Annoying Inefficiencies: Another somewhat general category I identified had to do with the speed/way some things are done in the US. Maybe we wouldn’t have ever noticed if we didn’t spend a year in China, but there were some really obvious points of frustration for us upon our return. First, having to pay with a credit card felt as bad as standing there and writing a check. It’s so much slower than the simple scan of a QR code! We were also surprised at how inconvenient it was to have to drive everywhere. Traffic became much more irritating, someone had to shoulder the responsibility of driving, and without practice, we found that we even forget to monitor the gas situation! The third inefficiency that really grated on our nerves almost as soon as we got back was the ineptitude and inefficiency of lines. Say what you will about the crowds in China, but this place knows how to move people! We waited in much shorter lines in the US for much more time than it would have taken in China. At one point, I was also reminded that Americans are not quite as independent as I had previously thought because the airport staff in multiple US cities chose to herd every single individual into the designated waiting areas (slowly and somewhat apathetically) rather than just letting the masses fill in the available spaces naturally.

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Even more difficult when on the wrong side of the road!
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Definitely an American…

 

Forgetting Our Manners: The last bit of reverse culture shock we noticed revolved around our manners. There were several instances where we completely missed our public duty of saying “bless you” because in China (like many other cultures) it’s a bit rude to comment on bodily functions. I was also caught a few times using language in public that perhaps I wouldn’t have used in the same situation a year ago…it’s amazing how being surrounded by people who don’t understand you can desensitize you to that sort of thing! (To the lady I startled in Target with my English swear words, I’m so sorry! And to the people I perhaps gave too much information to on the flight home – sorry again!) Finally, the last difference that completely took me by surprise was the choice of small talk topics. In China we pretty much stay on subjects like family, hometowns, vacations, etc., but immediately when surrounded by those heading back to the US, it was back to politics, the news, and lots of really direct questions that after a year of light, indirect conversation felt super personal and sometimes rude.

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Here’s to more Chinese adventures!

Of course, now that we’re back in China I suppose we’re undergoing reverse, reverse culture shock (like forgetting to carry toilet paper with me everywhere I go and ignoring the slight hand cramp I have after using chopsticks for the first time in months), but overall the more we go back and forth, the more I notice about all the cultures with which I’m familiar. It’s a huge part of why I prefer living abroad to traveling abroad – there’s so much deeper we can go when learning about ourselves and all the amazing customs in the world, and lucky me, I get to do it all again with another year immersed in the Far East!

 

Laughs and Lessons

So, we’re getting close to finishing up our first year in China, and I think it’s about time to share some of our funny little mishaps and the lessons we’ve learned from them because if I’m taking anything home with me from China, it’s definitely the stories! Enjoy:

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At least we had already finished our dinner!

Lessons in Flexibility: Ambiguity and flexibility are a way of life when living abroad. There are so many things that happen around us that we can’t explain, and without command of the local language, what can we do but accept them and move on? Usually it’s just something small that completely confuses us, but also makes us laugh in our ignorance. One such example of this happened when my parents were visiting. We were on a train from Huangshan to Hefei, minding our own business, snacking and playing cards when one of the train attendants stood beside our row and asked us to get out of our seats. Tucker and I have been on a lot of trains in China and had never experienced anything like this before, so we were slightly confused…but we did what they asked. We got up, grabbed all of our belongings, stood in the aisle and watched them switch the seats around, so that they were facing the opposite direction. We sat back down and watched them go row by row, asking everyone to do the same. We thought it was very odd to displace everyone for a little reorganizing; however, we soon realized that at the next station the train would be changing tracks and directions. They wanted everyone to be facing forward for the next leg of the trip, perhaps to ward against any bouts of motion sickness. For us, it was just another go-with-the-flow moment that had us all super confused at the time!

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Teriyaki chicken floss pizza topped with dried seaweed – I just can’t!

Food is another area where I have had to become pretty flexible. Picky eaters don’t really exist in China, so I’ve been working on my acceptance of various foods (but also on my language skills because there are some things that I just can’t bring myself to try!) However, sometimes the flexibility stems not from the food itself but from my ability (or inability) to successfully da bao. Da bao is essentially “take out” and is very useful on my way home from work, but sometimes I run into issues. One evening on my way home, I stopped at one of the campus canteens to pick up dinner for Tucker and myself. I ordered two noodle dishes for us, but when I was asked about the sides, I mistakenly ordered one bowl of rice instead of two. No big deal, they just put both meals into one container and on top of it, the one bowl of rice. I was a little annoyed with myself for the language mistake, so as I started to bike home with the to-go bag hanging from my handlebars, my mind was elsewhere. Unfortunately, my inattention and a plastic bag that wasn’t quite as strong as I thought led to a slight mishap. I hit a somewhat large bump in the road, and the food hit the ground. The one bowl of rice I had been worried about became one pile of rice, and we ended up having leftovers for dinner instead. Oops. The good news is a couple of students got ringside seats to my little comedy sketch as they sat on the curb right in front of the scene!

Lessons in Safety: Safety in China is a bit different than in the US. There isn’t a litigation mindset here, so it’s pretty much fend for yourself, and if you’re dumb enough to try it, then you deserve any accidents that come your way. For the most part, I have no issue with the safety standards because I typically walk a pretty safe line, no dangling from balconies or standing on ottomans on chairs on tables for me – events we have, indeed, witnessed from our apartment. However, the driving here does scare me a bit. One time on a bus from Hefei to Sanhe (about an hours’ drive) we got a bit of an arm workout and a fun story from this difference in driving habits. The bus driver was clearly a wannabe race car driver, weaving when he could, driving on the wrong side of the road to pass traffic, and subsequently needing to slam on the breaks often. Unfortunately this was a rather full bus, so Tucker and I were dangling from the overhead hand grips, wildly swinging around every time the bus moved. At one point, Tucker was looking at his phone with his free hand when the bus stopped abruptly, sending everyone flying forward so hard that Tucker practically threw his phone. Luckily, it landed in the seat of an older man, who upon sitting back down, felt something a little different, and retrieved the phone for us. We all had a good chuckle, pointed at the crazy driver, and left as new friends.

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Beautiful frosting flowers…with Styrofoam supports in some of them…Can you say “choking hazard”?

There’s also a stereotype that things made in China are cheap and possibly unsafe because of the quality. We haven’t found that to be true with most things, but we do live in a converted dorm suite, where the furniture we were provided is possibly a bit on the cheap side and is definitely pre-owned (and owned and owned and owned). Some pieces are clearly showing signs of wear and tear (significant signs that often have me wondering what these students did that was so hard on the furniture!), but generally it all feels pretty sturdy. Or so we thought upon moving in. Flash forward a few months, we’re sitting on the bed voice-calling Tucker’s mom, and we hear some creaking and cracking. The bed slowly starts sinking beneath us until there’s a loud CRACK, and the mattress falls to the floor. Uh oh. Apparently the frame was missing a few screws…good thing we bought a small tool box the week before.

Lessons in Using a Second Language: Eventually I will need to write a post entirely about the language difficulties (and occasional successes) we experience pretty much every day, but for now I’ll limit myself to two incidents that had us laughing for days. The first happened when we were ordering a meal. It’s an incredible challenge to order food here because while we may know the words for a lot of what we like to order and eat, we don’t always know the characters. On this particular day, I wanted something cold, so I asked for cold vegetables. The server pointed to a small section on the menu, and Tucker picked an item at random. No problem, we do this all the time; it’s usually variations of the same dish but prepared with different vegetables. A few minutes later the server comes back not with cold vegetables, but with a cold, fully intact carcass of a small bird. Umm, what?! I’m not a very adventurous eater, so this was a big nope from me. It seems we were randomly choosing from the list of liang cai (cold dishes) instead of liang shucai (cold vegetables). We won’t make that mistake again!

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Great English, bad timing; this photo was taken in June.

Luckily the language errors (and lessons) are not just on our side. Sometimes it’s our Chinese friends that have us laughing with their choice of words/phrases and their occasional mistakes. One of our best friends in China has beautiful English, but as any great language learner, she is always trying to add new vocabulary and expressions to her repertoire. One time as we were riding downtown on a public bus, we asked her how much further until we needed to get off. She looked ahead and reported that the stop we need is just after we “take a left at the intercourse”. Tucker and I couldn’t keep straight faces. She asked us what was so weird about that – “inter” meaning between and “course” meaning path. It totally makes sense! But nope, intersection, “intersection” was the word she wanted.

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Russian treats! Not pictured: the clattering sounds of the silverware.

Lessons in Noticing the Small Things: Living abroad brings out the weirdest forms of nostalgia. I’m always up for a good dose of anything 90s related, but now we’re sometimes thrown into reminiscing about the strangest things. While we were visiting Harbin, a city near the Russian boarder, we went to a traditional Russian restaurant. We were so excited to have some of their delicious homemade bread and butter, some potatoes and meat in a thick sauce: the Eastern European specialties that we’ve been missing from Poland. What we did not expect was that the thing that brought on the most nostalgia was being in a restaurant where you could hear the clatter of everyone’s silverware! Eating with chopsticks for the previous six months had deprived us of that particular sound, which surprisingly, was very obvious after its sudden resurgence. I never realized how loud knives and forks can be or how much they remind me of home!

We can buy almost anything in China. I mean this is the land where most of our purchases in the US hail from, so it makes sense that anything and everything we want is available and can be delivered within a day or two here. However, for some reason, China hasn’t warmed up to the use of solid deodorant sticks. We have sprays and roll-ons, but not what I consider to be the “classic” deodorant, the white solid type. After a few months in China, we ran out of the deodorant we brought with us and started using the other types, but for me, it just wasn’t the same! Cue our trip to SE Asia. Thailand, Cambodia, and even Hong Kong had all the solid sticks we could possibly want! So we went a little crazy. We literally bought bagfuls and smuggled (okay, more like lugged) them from country to country until we safely stored them in our now deodorant-full apartment. It’s so interesting which items we’ve found ourselves clinging to! Some of the smallest things can make a huge difference and some of the larger ones we’ve never even noticed!

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You can really find anything in China!

Lessons in Friendliness: The last couple of stories revolve around the friendliness of Chinese people. Perhaps coming from a particularly turbulent time in the US, after spending a year in famously aloof Europe, China has seemed very different when it comes to strangers and how/when they speak to each other, especially when one of the strangers is a waiguoren (foreigner). During one of the first few weeks of class, I was walking home when I saw a very large group of kids obviously on some type of field trip to the university. There must have been over 150 elementary school children, all in their little orange vests walking towards me in a rough line formation. As soon as one of them saw me, I promptly got approximately 150 different greetings: high fives or waves accompanied by “hello”, “hi”, and even a stunned “waiguoren” or two. It was adorable! After this and other similar experiences, I’ve realized that people here are usually really excited to see and interact with foreigners – they like that more people are choosing to visit or live in China. It’s the ultimate hosting gig for a country that places a lot of value in hospitality, and honestly, since moving here, I’ve found that I’ve also picked up some of these friendly and hospitable traits!

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They’re so friendly and curious!

Another incredibly small moment of friendliness that completely caught Tucker and I by surprise happened in a mall elevator of all places. Typically people smile at us or kids will say “hello”, but for adults it’s a lot of pressure to try and speak English. Imagine trying to use your high school Spanish after so many years out of school. Embarrassing to say the least! However, every now and then we are surprised and excited when someone very kindly uses English just to further connect with us or help us out if/when they see us struggling with the extremely difficult Zhongwen (Chinese language). On one of our many mall elevator rides, I (as I happened to be near the front) held the doors open for a man who was at the back of the elevator as he made his way through the crowd. When he stepped out of the elevator, he casually turned back, said “thank you” in perfect standard English, and tipped his hat to us as the doors closed. For a moment I totally forgot where I was! To understand and to be understood is a truly powerful thing – something we take for granted when surrounded by others who speak the same language as we do. However, in this moment I was reminded of all the positive effects using someone’s first language can have on them, even if it’s something simple like “thank you”.

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We’re always ready for more laughs and lessons! 🙂

I have about a million more of these anecdotes and their subsequent lessons swirling around in my head. It truly seems like something has us bursting out in laughter just about every day in China. In fact, I think the ultimate lesson I’ve learned from my year living here is that there is no reason to fear the unknown – it’s really much more fun to just go with it and laugh along the way!

That Was Unexpected! As Was That…

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Family selfie!

Last month my parents visited us in China, and I think it’s safe to say everyone learned quite a bit! Tucker and I learned a little more about what it’s like to be responsible for people other than ourselves (consistently asking if everyone had what they needed, were they hungry, did they understand, etc. It was exhausting!), and my parents definitely learned a lot more about the Middle Kingdom, this time, firsthand.

When they arrived after their very long flight, we met my parents at the Airport Express station in Beijing. We then spent the following two weeks fitting in as much Chinese culture, food, and fun as we possibly could! We spent a few days each in Beijing, Shanghai, Huangshan, and Hefei: four very different cities in China. Of course, we did lot of touristy things (like walking the Great Wall, shopping on Nanjing road, and hiking Yellow Mountain), but we also went grocery shopping, met Chinese friends for dinner, and spent some time just hanging out in our campus apartment. Overall I think it was a well-rounded trip, and even though we were often on the go, we did still find some time to talk about the things that surprised my parents most about China.

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I can’t stress enough how much there is to see in China.

Delightful Surprises: There seem to be three areas in which China excels in my parents’ eyes: restaurants, transportation, and safety. Very early on they were impressed with China’s restaurant game. A la carte menus, ordering for the table (rather than individually), food coming out as it’s ready, and the lack of tipping just to name a few of the positives. They also, as does everyone, loved paying for everything through a mobile phone app (like WeChat or Alipay) – it’s so quick and easy: no receipt, no signing, no waiting! My mom also really enjoyed the plastic tops and to-go bags for drinks on the run, another innovation that we don’t see much of in the US.

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Family-style meals

As far as transportation goes, they were most impressed with how fast, cheap, and punctual everything was. China doesn’t usually have the reputation of timeliness like, say, Japan, but every train we took left on time or a minute early. They were also amazed that with as many people as China has, the traffic wasn’t really bad and any/all lines moved pretty efficiently. Even I was doubting a few times during the peak tourist hours at the most popular destinations, but even some of the longest lines we had ever seen still moved along pretty rapidly. No dilly-dallying here!

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“Flat toilets”

In China my parents also mentioned safety fairly often: how safe they felt with the cameras, hotel check-ins, and security presence and how welcomed they felt as foreigners. They also noticed fewer homeless people and a great emphasis placed on family time and family connections. Perhaps not directly related to safety, but my mom was also extremely pleased that the hole in the ground that she was imagining China toilets to be was entirely exaggerated, and that they are actually pretty clean and easy to use.

Not So Delightful Surprises: Of course, leaving the familiar can always lead to a few uncomfortable surprises as well. One of the most common difficulties foreigners have in China is adjusting to some of the culinary differences, and my parents were no exception. They mentioned the lack of ice in drinks and the lack of good coffee a few times. My dad had also not expected the lack of meat in many Chinese dishes (probably because American-Chinese food is all about the meat). And of course, even after only two weeks, they also started craving Western favorites like a bacon cheeseburger or a plate of fettuccine Alfredo (imagine the cravings after nine months!).

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Tea > coffee anyways…

Some other unpleasant surprises seemed related to the expectations of personal boundaries. My parents noticed pretty quickly that a person’s “personal bubble” is much smaller in China, and that bumping shoulders is a way of life here. They also weren’t so pleased with finding themselves head-to-head with a bicycle, scooter, or even the occasional car on the sidewalk (something I was already used to thanks to Poland). And finally, coming across several street-spitters and the rare, but still present, late night street-urinators were also surprises that didn’t exactly fall into the positive category.

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Nothing like pushing through the hordes

A third area of perpetual surprises seemed to be in the lack or inferiority of paper products in China. Due to China’s vast size and population, many public restrooms and restaurants do not provide general-use paper products, instead, customers carry around their own packs of tissues to use however and whenever they’d like. Even when some restaurants do provide “napkins”, my parents correctly pointed out that they would be better off using their pants than the tiny, thinner-than-tissue-paper pieces they could get there. And while, as my parents also noticed, this does actually have a positive impact on the potential overuse of resources, it can be pretty annoying when you find yourself without a multi-purpose paper pack in hand.

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The adventurers!

It’s always interesting to see what expectations are met or broken upon first arrival to a new place! Although my parents did have a lot of advanced information from my photos, blog posts, and stories, it was still so much fun to see them experience life in China for themselves: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m so proud of my parents for seamlessly adapting to the ambiguity, and at times, insanity, that comes with immersing yourself into a very different culture, and I’m so thankful we were able to share this experience together! I truly can’t wait to do this again with another culture in a few years, and for the impending reverse culture shock I’m sure to experience when we’re back in the States at the end of the summer!

A Tale of Two Cities

Lodz, Poland and Hefei, China are two cities that 1) not many people have heard of and 2) don’t really seem like they’d share many similarities, but I feel it’s my job as a former resident of one, and a current resident of the other to share some interesting information about these two beautiful places, perhaps increasing their notoriety and proving that two very different cities can actually have quite a lot in common.

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Putting Lodz and Hefei on the map so to say

Similarities: For me (and Tucker, as I’ve enlisted his help with the following comparisons), the most prominent similarities lie in the locations, reputations, and inhabitants of the two cities.

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Train travel in China

Location: Both Lodz and Hefei are somewhat centrally located within their respective countries. They are cities that are not known for their tourist attractions, but are instead used as transportation hubs. All the train routes and major highways, for example, seem to connect through these large, regional capitals. We have absolutely loved this feature in both locations because it has made our travels around Poland and China significantly easier (and cheaper). We have also found that both cities are surrounded by farmland. Unlike the US, which seems to be the land of never-ending suburbs, both Lodz and Hefei have a very clear line between city and countryside. This clear division never fails to amaze me as we ride a train out of the city, and I look down for a moment only to look up and see fields and tractors rather than high-rises. While, we knew both cities were geographically in the middle of their nations, the ease and plethora of transportation options and the stark city to farm transitions were not something we anticipated finding in one, let alone both cities.

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Cityscape in Lodz

Reputation: Another similarity we’ve run into is what the two cities are most known for. Lodz was described to us as the Detroit of Europe (or the Manchester of the Continent), a place where industry was king. In Hefei, it is and has always been about business as well; whether the tea or other Anhui specialties from the past or the engineered or technological goods of today, Hefei is also place where industry has thrived. Both cities are also well off-the-beaten track as far as travelers are concerned. Many people travel to Poland and to China, but far fewer have made it to Lodz or Hefei. For that reason, I think the two cities share a sense of undisturbed cultural “essence” that places like Kracow and Shanghai can’t quite advertise. We often joke that we live in “real” China as opposed to places like Beijing or Hong Kong, which have many international residents and conveniences that might not feel that different from any other large city. Lodz also felt like a part of “real” Poland, and no matter which country we’re in, Tucker and I have definitely preferred being one with the locals.

Inhabitants: A third similarity that has appeared in so many ways is in regards to the people. Both Lodz and Hefei, possibly as a result of their lack of tourism, are fairly homogeneous cities. I remember in Lodz feeling like I was missing out on the diversity that, to me, made a city like Atlanta something special. Hefei is similar in that the vast majority of people fit a very similar mold. Even the names fit very specific standardizations in both locations. In one of my classes in Poland I had six students named Marta, four Michals, etc. In China it’s the same but with the last names, I have seven students in one class with the surname Zhang, five with Liu, etc. We’ve also found hospitality to be very highly valued by the inhabitants of both Lodz and Hefei. People in both cities have been extremely welcoming towards us whether we have a connection (via friends or work) or not. From snack offerings and dinner invitations to personal tour guides and assistance with even the most mundane tasks, strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike went out of their way in both cities to be friendly and hospitable to us, the newbies on the block.

The last similarity that I want to mention, which may even be the reason I’m writing this post, is that people from Lodz (Lodzites, as we call them) and people from Hefei (Hefeians) both regard their cities as “nothing special”. When people asked me what my favorite city in Poland was, truly my answer was Lodz, and they didn’t believe me! Now when I talk about all the things I like about Hefei, I’m met with suggestions for other cities to visit in China. Maybe this can be boiled down to the “grass is always greener” adage, or maybe some form of modesty, but really I think both Lodz and Hefei are great places to visit or to live.

Honorable mentions for similarities: Some other things that stick out as oddly similar between the two cities include:

The prevalence of shopping malls, the of ubiquity of uneven pavements (it’s unclear as of yet whether I’ve tripped more often in Poland or in China), the common appearance of cars on these uneven pavements (i.e. sidewalks, store fronts, etc.), and the the popularity of duck (as opposed to other poultry).

Differences: I don’t think my information about the cities would be entirely complete if I didn’t at least briefly outline some of the differences we’ve encountered as well. When thinking about the ways the two cities are not alike, interestingly, I still come to the features of location, reputation, and inhabitants.

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Skyline in Hefei

Location: The size of the two cities is quite different. Lodz has a population of about 100,000, while Hefei has between 6-8 million. With the population difference, of course, comes a difference of area. Lodz was fairly walkable; usually we chose to take buses or trams, but if it got too late, we could walk home if we needed to. We were also able to walk to the grocery store, a nearby mall, several parks, etc. In Hefei there is no way to get around solely by walking. It takes us over an hour to get to the other side of the city in the best of circumstances, several hours by bus. In Hefei we end up taking taxis a lot more than we ever have before (cheap, reliable, and fast – can’t be it!). Another locational difference is the fact that Poland is surrounded quite close on all sides by different cultures. Europe, in general, has been mixing the cuisines, festivals, etc. of its various nations for quite a while. China, while also surrounded by other countries/cultures, is much larger and only newly “open” for mixing. The difference these facts have made on the cities is quite evident. In Lodz we could go to an Italian, French, Turkish, German, Chinese, or any other restaurant we might want on any given night, while in Hefei, it’s pretty much Chinese all around. There is variety to be had (Sichuanese, Canton, Beijing-style, etc.), but ultimately to me, it’s still all Chinese.

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Skyline in Lodz

 

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Church in Lodz

Reputation: Another difference would have to be the government systems, and perhaps even more than that are the views towards the government systems. In Lodz, I talked about politics more than I ever had previously in my life. We talked about Poland’s history, laws, elections, etc. all the time. I learned that Poland had the world’s second democracy, I heard the word “solidarity” more often than I would have thought possible, and of course, I observed all the negativity surrounding the ideals of communism (which is really no wonder given Poland and Russia’s history). However, now that I’m in Hefei, politics are pretty well avoided. Solidarity has perhaps been replaced with “CPC”, and communism is viewed completely differently, which makes sense, as it is completely different than the former Russian system we’ve all read about. Another large difference in regards to reputation is the presence of religion in Lodz and the almost complete absence of it in Hefei. I took hundreds of photos of churches during my time in Poland, and I think I’ve seen maybe four over the past seven months in China. It’s also interesting to note that in Poland many people loved arguing over the influence the church had/has on the government, but in China that’s just not even possible.

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Temple in Hefei
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Polish offerings

Inhabitants: Finally, there are definitely some differences among the people of Lodz and Hefei. While I mentioned both populations were incredible hospitable, their ways of showing it are completely different. In Poland people had a motherly way of treating guest: Did we want something to drink? Something to eat? Are we cold? Etc. We were asked over to people’s houses for the holidays, and we had no trouble connecting to people on a casual, friend level. In China, we’re treated more like honored guests. We are given the best seats in the house, gifts, toasts, red-carpet treatment (sometimes literally). While hospitable, occasionally we feel a little isolated by this guest-treatment, which has taken a bit of time to overcome and finally allow us to reach the friendzone. Another obvious difference would be lifestyles. In Lodz it seemed like a quiet life was desired. Most people in the city kept to themselves and enjoyed quiet activities like reading or silently playing mobile games while making it through the day (the great exception to this being when a Polish sports team was on TV). In Hefei, however, I’m not sure there’s ever a truly quiet moment. Cars and buses blast their horns around the clock, people listen to surprisingly loud audio messages wherever they are, and with the singing street sweepers and an abundance salespeople armed with loudspeakers, it’s safe to say people here aren’t concerned with the quiet life.

Honorable mentions for differences: Some other notable differences include:

The amount and importance placed on alcohol as a form of socializing, the ability to regulate indoor temperatures (in Lodz we couldn’t cool down our apartment, and in Hefei we can’t heat it), the emphasis placed on the quality of food, and last but not least, the language (there’s way too much to say about the differences in this aspect, so I’ll save it for a later post).

I’m not sure if anyone really wanted quite that much information about Lodz and Hefei, but when I start talking (or writing) about these two places I always find that I have so much to say! Ultimately though no matter the similarities or differences we’ve found, the most remarkable things we’ve taken away form our time in both Lodz and Hefei are the things we’ve learned, the memories we’ve made, and the people we’ve met. And personally, I can’t wait to find out which city we’ll be adding to the comparison list next!

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I ❤ Lodz & Hefei