¡Estamos Aquí!

We’re in Mexico now! Yay! After over a year of immigration uncertainty with Canada, it feels great to be actively taking steps towards our new home base (even if those steps are taking us in a new direction).

So? What exactly is the plan?

Well, what are plans, really? This last year has definitely tested my ability to come up with back-up plans on top of back-up plans; however, what I came up with isn’t as crazy as it seems. When we got back to the US after our time in China, Tucker and I knew we wanted to stay in North America for a while (to be closer to family, to make pet travel a bit easier, etc.) Initially, we planned on moving to Quebec for a few years followed by a few years in Mexico. Unfortunately, the pandemic had other plans. In early 2020 our Canadian residency application stalled due to the fact that Canada and the US took wildly different approaches to the Covid situation. Even now, it’s unclear as to when the border will reopen and immigration processes will resume as usual, so we decided to flip the plan. Mexico and then Canada.

Getting to Mexico was surprisingly easy (just ask Ted Cruz – haha!) although, our process was slightly different. We opted for temporary residency, which is good for up to four years. In Orlando we got the appropriate visa from the consulate, and in our first two weeks in Guadalajara, we successfully completed the immigration process by exchanging our entry visas for our residency cards. Another “yay” moment! Currently, we’re up to our ears in apartment listings, looking for a place to rent for the next year or so. The housing hunt has been super exciting because we haven’t had this much freedom in choosing a place to live in a long time! I’m living my House Hunters International dream right now!

Once we’ve selected and moved into our new apartment, we have to fly back to Orlando, pick up a small, furry passenger (along with a few more suitcases) and drive across the border back down to GDL. The road trip is still in the planning stages, but it’ll be a respectable 30+ hour drive. Who doesn’t love a good road trip?! After that, the plan is to, somewhat unsurprisingly, wait. We’re still taking every Covid-related precaution, limiting many of our usual activities for the foreseeable future. Like most people, we’re eagerly awaiting our turn to get vaccinated and for life move on into some sort of post-pandemic phase.

What’s the situation like in Mexico?

“Sneeze Etiquette”

Speaking of Covid, many people have been interested in what the situation looks like south of the border. More or less, I would say it’s pretty similar to the US. Where we are, a majority of people are taking it seriously, wearing masks, limiting their time in crowded, enclosed spaces, working/schooling virtually when possible, etc. but there are always some who “forget” their masks, fail to wear them correctly, don’t care about the risks, etc. Cubrebocas are mandatory in Jalisco (our state), and in addition to checking for masks, most stores have employees stationed at the entrances spraying hand sanitizer and taking temperatures.

Another concern for us during this move (aside from the pandemic, of course) was our complete lack of connections in GDL and (to put it mildly) our less than rudimentary Spanish skills. We were wondering how difficult it would be to set up our phone plans, complete paperwork, contact renters, etc. On the whole, we’ve been extremely fortunate. We’ve already made a few expat friends and have done our best to pick up some Spanish basics muy rápido. Fortunately, as we’ve experienced in many parts of the world, the locals here are extremely helpful (and thankfully not resentful) when we struggle with the language. They’ve gone out of their way to help us with pronunciation, translation, even involving others to make sure the message is clear. I can never feel anything but humble when we, as foreigners who haven’t learned the local language, are treated this way. I sincerely hope to repay their kindness by doubling down on my Spanish skills – next year when we renew our cellphone plan or residency cards, I’m going to blow them away with my progress!

Hopefully my last temporary setup…

Somewhat less exciting, but a large part of our lives nonetheless, has been our transition into both working fully remotely. Thankfully our internet speeds have been up to the challenge, and it’s been really fun to break for lunch together everyday (albeit a bit early as our schedules are still tied to EST). Anyway, we were very happy that there was no interruption to either of our jobs as we transitioned to Mexico. Other aspects of life have changed a bit, of course, such as being back to never having any idea what’s going on when we step outside our apartment. Men walking the streets ringing cow bells, for instance, or even disappearing carrot cakes. We have so much to learn!

What’s the best part?

Actually, I think I just alluded to the best part: all the new things. We love an adventure, and there’s just nothing like being fully immersed in a new culture. We’re loving all the new things to try and to research. We’re also really enjoying getting to know a new city and a new neighborhood. Orlando taught me that there is so much to see in between the points of interest, and I’m continuing to stretch our walking tours further and further. Plus, I know we’re both incredibly grateful to be finally taking steps towards a feeling of semi-permeance and/or control. I have no problem with not knowing where I’m going, but as it turns out, I like to have a say in when I go.

What’s the worst part?

Sadly, maybe even predictably, the worst part is that we still have to think about Covid. I want to explore; I want to go and do everything, but I also need to be responsible and safe for myself and everyone around me. It’s not so much a product of where we are in the world, rather where we are in history, and unfortunately, it’s no easier in a new place. The good news is there might be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel as long as we all continue to work together and trust the process. As I learned in Gotta Kick It Up, “sí, se puede”!

All in time

Living in China: Daily Differences

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Temples in our backyard!

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

 

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“Noodles 22” – my favorite!

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

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“Fruit Parkway”

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

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If this doesn’t scream “weird”, I don’t know what does…

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Do I wear it well?

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

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An exciting acquisition!

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

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Tucker’s Taobao fail

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

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Love seeing this!

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

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

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

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Fresh off the Plane!

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

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

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Our Apartment Building

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

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Anhui University

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

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Tucker and His Kiwi Tool

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

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Exploring and Eating

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