April is here and with it, as always, comes birthdays week. Generally, around this time, Tucker and I are gearing up for a celebratory trip; however, just like last year, no such adventure is on our horizon. No worries though because over the past year I’ve done more than enough armchair travelling for another round-up of interesting country facts, this time coming to you alphabetically. Enjoy!
Antigua – This relatively small island in the Eastern Caribbean has a sweet secret known as the Antigua Black, the world’s sweetest and rarest variety of pineapple.
Belize – Many countries are known for their wines, but Belize puts a bit of a spin on the traditional recipe. In this Central American country, they specialize in making cashew wine, or wine made from the fermented fruits of cashew trees.
Chile – While the world’s first potatoes are generally thought to have been grown in Peru, approximately 99% of modern-day potato varieties are genetically linked to a small island off the cost of Southern Chile.
Dominican Republic – Located on Hispaniola, one of the largest and most diverse islands of the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic was highly sought after during the Colonial Era. Due to the relatively early Spanish presence/conquest of the area, the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor in Santo Domingo is actually the oldest cathedral in the Americas (completed in 1541).
Equatorial Guinea – People from this Central African nation are called Equatoguineans and their official language is, somewhat surprisingly, Spanish.
Fiji – The name “Fiji” is actually the Tongan word/pronunciation of the island; the Fijian word is “Viti”. The misnomer occurred because the first encounters between western explorers and Fijians took place on the island of Tonga.
Ghana – Ghana, which means “Warrior King”, is located on the Gold Coast of West Africa. It is home to the world’s largest artificial lake, Lake Volta, which has a surface area of over 2 million acres.
Haiti – On the other half of Hispaniola (the second largest island in the Caribbean) lies Haiti, which is often associated with Voodoo. However, “voodoo” is actually more of a product of US pop culture than an accurate portrayal of the Haitian religion known as Vodou.
India – As a country well-known for its delicious curries, I found it interesting that the word “curry” likely comes from the Tamil word “kari” meaning “sauce”. Tamil is spoken throughout most of Southern India.
Jamaica – Like many English-speaking islands in the Caribbean, Jamaica celebrates Boxing Day and/or New Year’s Day with a colorful parade known as Junkanoo. Interestingly, “Junkanoo!” is also the name of a Baha Men album.
Kyrgyzstan – Kyrgyzstan has a long history, thus it’s not so surprising that it has its fair share of epics, such as one of the world’s longest poems, the Epic of Manas. This poem of more than 500,000 lines revolves around the hero Manas and his many adventures.
Lesotho – An enclaved country entirely within South Africa, Lesotho has the distinction of having the world’s highest low point. In fact, the elevation of the entire country is above 1,000m (3,300ft), which is why it has the nickname “Kingdom in the Sky”.
Madagascar – Madagascar is home to many diverse ethnic groups, each of which has their own traditional customs and rituals. One that I found particularly interesting was the Famadihana ceremony, or the turning of the bones, where families rebury their ancestors with fresh cloth, on which they write the names of the deceased so they will always be remembered.
Nepal – Most people know that Mount Everest sits on the border of Nepal and Tibet/China, but I recently learned that the Nepalese name of the infamous mountain is Sagarmatha. In Tibetan it’s known as Chomolungma.
Oman – The humble Sultanate of Oman is actually the oldest independent state in the Arab world, but perhaps even more interestingly, the most popular soft drink there is Mountain Dew.
Panama – The recent Evergreen debacle has shed some light on the importance of shipping canals, and where there’s a need, there’s a price. The Panama Canal makes over $2 billion per year in shipping fees. The average toll for a ship to travel through the canal is about $150,000.
Qatar – A peninsula on a peninsula, Qatar is the flattest non-island country in the world. It would also be a fantastic Scrabble word if proper nouns were allowed!
Russia – Russia is big. The Trans-Siberian railway, which crosses the entire country, is over 9,300km (5,700 miles) long. It’s easily one of the longest and busiest railway lines in the world.
Sri Lanka – The teardrop of India is known for its tea (Ceylon being a former name of Sri Lanka), but it’s also where cinnamon was first cultivated.
Tanzania – While there are many notable features of Tanzania, my favorite country fact is that Zanzibar, an island just off the coast, was the location for the world’s shortest war. The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 lasted about 40 minutes.
Uganda – This Central African country was given the nickname “the Pearl of Africa” by none other than Winston Churchill. He wrote fondly of the country and its diversity in his book “My African Journey” published in 1908.
Vatican City – Technically a city-state, the Vatican City has lots of strange laws, one of which has to do with the guards they employ. Evidently the guards that protect the Vatican must be Swiss males between 19-30 years of age and they must be over 174cm (5’8’’) tall. The uniforms are also required.
Wales – Part of the United Kingdom, Wales is sometimes overlooked by its somewhat more famous neighbors, but a surprising number of celebrities are Welsh: Roald Dahl, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Anthony Hopkins just to name a few.
Yemen – Yet another country on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is the suspected home of the infamous Queen of Sheba.
Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe has had a rough history of leaders. From the late 1980’s to 2017, a disastrous authoritarian regime threw the country’s economy into a tizzy leading to many crashes and insane hyperinflation. For this reason, Zimbabwe’s government was printing 100 trillion-dollar notes as recently as 2009.
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.
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.
Not a Florida Man…
Not really vacationers either…
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).
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.
Daytona Beach (North)
Lake Eola (Central)
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.
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.
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.
Lime trees one street over
Local community garden pineapples
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?
I really love traveling, and recently I’ve been reflecting on why exactly I feel so strongly about it. Is it the break from daily life? A chance to meet new people? Why does anyone choose to travel? I think Tucker enjoys it so much because he loves to try anything new, and going to new places is the perfect way to do that. But I’m not as fond of new things (especially new foods) as he is; I have a different motivation. I like to travel because, ultimately, I like to learn. Originally I thought I’d be a lifelong student because of my love of learning; however, that turned out to be pretty uneconomical. Fortunately, just after graduation (only a few months after we got married) Tucker and I took our first trip overseas, and I found it: a new way to continue learning – through exploring the world around me.
During our subsequent travels I have been amazed at what we’ve ended up learning: geography, history, culture, psychology, self-awareness, the list goes on and on. So this is the force driving my not-so-easily-sated addiction, but thankfully, I’ve also been given ample opportunities to get my fix. Here are the places we’ve traveled and some of the things we’ve learned during my two years as an English Language Fellow (August 2017-July 2019):
Hefei, Anhui [where we learned about HOME]
Through traveling, I think one of the things we’ve learned the most about is the concept of “home”. We’ve learned that a home can really be made anywhere, and that connections with neighbors and friends are absolutely necessary for a place to truly feel like home. In fact, we have often felt closer to the friends we’ve made during our brief stints abroad because these shared experiences bond people together in an incredible way. We become instant family with other expats, and our Chinese friends are literally our lifelines! It’s such an interesting dynamic that definitely opened up our views of family and home. Another interesting aspect of our new perspective on “home” is how well we actually know it. Going into our last two new homes we haven’t known anything about them. Nothing about the neighborhoods we’d be in or even anything past what Wikipedia says about the cities/regions they’re in. This has given us a new outlook on what it means to truly know where you live. We’ve had an amazing time learning more about the places we’ve called home, and it’s made me curious about the places we used to call home and how well we actually knew them.
Mongolia (Ulaanbaatar & Gorkhi-Terelj)
Huangshan & Hongcun, Anhui
Xi’an & Lintong, Sha’anxi
Thailand (Chiang Mai & Bangkok)
Cambodia (Siem Reap & Phnom Penh) [where we learned about CONFLICT]
In addition to learning about our home (and our views of it), traveling to difference places has allowed us to take a closer look at how others view the same places and how they view their own homes. This has lead to a better understanding of conflicts and global perspectives, which I am endlessly interested in. When we visited Cambodia, for example, I was immediately struck by their relationship with Thailand. We took a bus from Thailand to Cambodia, and walked across the border through immigration, where the welcome was, well, not so welcome. Cambodia has had a rough history, with its neighbors and with many foreign nations, and that has left an impression on the population. And it’s hard to deny their feelings, especially when one of the other most noticeable features of Cambodia was the number of missing limbs, mostly caused by landmines still implanted within their borders decades after the end of the conflict in Vietnam. The US has its perspective on our many conflicts, but every country, and every person has their own views, which are extremely important to learn in order to really begin understanding each other.
Shenzhen & Guangzhou, Guangdong
Badaling, Beijing [where we learned about PERCEPTION]
On the topic of perception, I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the fact that traveling has broken pretty much every stereotype I’ve ever had about a place or group of people. When we traveled with my family in China, it was amazing to watch those stereotypes break for someone other than myself. My parents realized pretty quickly that China was nothing like they had imagined, and Tucker and I have done the same thing in every place we’ve visited. Our perspectives are shaped through all sorts of things (the news, education, movies, etc.), but they’re always seen through our own individual filters as well as through the filters of the sources of information. This has lead to many different perspectives on many different things, but seeing and experiencing something for yourself gives you the best insight you could ask for. One of my favorite travel quotes comes from Aldous Huxley: “to travel is to learn that everyone was wrong about other countries.” Even when comparing your experiences with someone else who has been to the same place, a difference in perspective is almost guaranteed, but that’s what makes it so interesting!
Kunming & Mile, Yunnan
Australia (Sydney, Port Macquarie, Brisbane, Airlie Beach, Cairns)
Guilin, Xingping, & Longjin, Guangxi [where we learned about FAMILY]
Traveling with family has taught us a lot as well. First, it taught me to be thankful for our family members who are willing and able to travel with us. There have been many expats we’ve met whose family members have never visited them or even want to see the places their loved ones call home. It truly makes me thankful for the open-minded and adventurous spirits of my and Tucker’s families. I have also learned a lot about taking care of other people’s needs. In China, independence really only comes with time because with no alphabet and very little English, trying to do things on your own can take a lot of effort and patience. Luckily for Tucker’s mom and aunt (and my parents), we were there to help them answer any questions and provide whatever they needed. Through these trips, I learned a lot about what is required to be responsible for someone other than myself 24/7, and it has left no question in my mind as to why we haven’t had any kids. Haha!
Wuhu & Fanchang, Anhui
Chaohu, Anhui [where we learned about the PAST]
Another set of lessons we have undoubtedly received through our travels has been in regards to history. Coming from the New World, our “history” typically refers to the seventeenth century and onward, but traveling to other parts of the world, we’ve realized just how recent that actually is. Europe showed us their history through maps and architecture; Asia has shown us through traditions and languages. Visiting the outskirts of Chaohu and other cities and villages of Anhui is a bit like stepping back in time. There are farmers whose ancestors have farmed the same land for hundreds of years. Ancient artifacts seem to be dug up every day in this part of China, cooking vessels and jewelry from thousands of years ago. In history classes I was never really good at linking what was happening in ancient Rome with the rest of the world, but after traveling and seeing some of the history for myself, it has gotten much easier, as has the ability to connect what has happened in the past with what is happening in the present.
Lantau Island, HK
The Philippines (Cebu & Manila) [where we learned about INEQUALITY]
Traveling truly brings to light things I never would have given second thought to in other situations. Throughout our travels we’ve met many people in many different circumstances. And sadly, we’ve seen that people are almost never treated equally. We, in the US, tend to think of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but there are also issues of class, religion, ethnic background, age, and countless others. Inequality seems to be a shared human-trait, but it’s also something we’re all growing increasingly aware of. Sometimes seeing it manifest in a different way, as it often does in different contexts, helps show how ridiculously common, yet unnecessary it really is. Tucker and I were in the Philippines earlier this year, where we saw first hand some of the inequalities experienced by the people who live there versus the people who vacation there. It’s something that allows us to think about the impact we have when we unintentionally aid inequality, not only when traveling but in all aspects of our lives.
Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur)
Taiwan(Taipei, Jiufen, & Tamsui)
Jiuhuashan & Chizhou, Anhui
Xining, Qinghai [where we learned about KINDNESS]
Finally, I think the biggest lesson of all has been the kindness strangers are capable of showing for each other, which we found well on display on our recent trip to Qinghai. It has been a common thread throughout every place we’ve traveled; the help we’ve received from people we had never met before continues to inspire us. Whether it is someone giving directions in multiple languages or simply sharing information about their culture so that we can leave with a more complete understanding, we’ve made friends with people around the world. This is what allows me to not get bogged down in politics or negative stories that are passed around because I have experienced the kindness of humans in every country I’ve been to. I’ve seen our similarities and they far outweigh any differences. Mark Twain wrote “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, and I believe our ability to travel more freely now than ever before has played a big part in the acceptance and compassion people are showing each other around the globe. I want to continue to spread the kindness I’ve received, and I hope that we all continue to do that whether we’re traveling or not.
Chaka Salt Lake
Chaka & Erlangjian, Qinghai
There you have it: 10 different countries, 20ish provinces/regions of China, over 60 cities, and an immeasurable amount of knowledge, experiences, and memories. It’s fun to keep track and even more fun to share, but don’t just take it from me. As the Asian proverb goes, “better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.” Hope to see you on our next trip!
The 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!
Our 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).
After 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! 🙂
All 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!
The 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.
Once 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.
At 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!
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?
It 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.
Perhaps 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
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?!
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
After 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.
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.
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?
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.
China’s Cheap Quality Products
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.
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.
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.
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.
Teachers hard at work!
Students having fun!
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.
Yikes! 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.