Quarantine Endeavors

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Anything to cure the boredom!

Quarantine, for me, officially started on March 14th, and as a person who was already working remotely, this definitely led to a surplus of down time at home (something I certainly wasn’t used to). The good news is, I can always be counted on to come up with plenty of ideas, projects, games, and the like. See? Being an only-child has its benefits! And now that it seems like this phase might be lasting a bit longer than anyone would have liked, maybe some of you are also in the market for some cheap, interesting at-home entertainment! If so, take a look at my newly documented list of quarantine endeavors: twenty-something random activities, categorized, described, and, of course, photographed for your perusal. Enjoy!

Cooking-related:

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International Brunch

If you know me, you know I absolutely despise cooking, so you might be wondering why I’ve been doing so many cooking-related activities. Well, necessity is the mother of invention, no? We had to cook at home more often, so I thought we might as well have some fun with it, starting with our monthly brunches. At the beginning of 2020, we made a plan to meet my parents for brunch on the first Sunday of every month for as long as we were in Florida. As it turned out, our leaving the country wasn’t the issue…having brunch out was. So, we took the idea to our home tables, creating a theme each month and enjoying the process of cooking together and trying something a little different. Some of our recent themes have included: Disney-inspired brunch, international dishes, and red, white, and blue (for July, of course).

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Oui, oui! C’est délicieux!

We’ve also had our fair share of kitchen-y fun just trying out new (i.e. fancy) dishes like coq au vin and cauliflower rice burrito bowls. More time at home has meant more time to find recipes, meander our way through the cooking process, and really sit down and enjoy our meals. We’ve also made the most of our grocery store visits by conducting various taste tests: classic snack foods, Easter candy, and beef jerky, just to name a few. I mean, a bit of nostalgia mixed in with legitimate research, how could you go wrong? In addition to all the food we’ve been experimenting with, I’ve also taken it upon myself to finally figure out which wines I prefer, and potentially learning to like reds a bit more in the process. We live near a Trader Joe’s, and you just can’t beat Two Buck Chuck!

Game-related:

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Destroying it might have been more fun…

I love games even in non-pandemic times, so obviously I have ideas in this category, such as the classic: jigsaw puzzles. I love them, and recently I’ve been intrigued by all the variety there is! 3D puzzles, gradient puzzles, I-Spy puzzles, etc. Tucker and I also had a lot of fun reliving our childhood Lego dreams with a Titanic build, which we then made into a game of “who can make the best ______? Go!” Of course, I probably still gravitate most to board games, thus we’ve recently added Villainous and Sushi Go to our collection. Additionally, we’ve continued putting our own twists on some other classic games (for example, we’ve been known to play Guess Who by choosing two or three people, which makes the questioning much more complicated, especially when we stipulate “no English” – making it a great language practice as well). And speaking of innovation, it’s super fun to make up your own game! Tucker and I still play a version of “Cheyenne, Wyoming”, which is a card game we made up years ago on an overnight layover.

Artistic:

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Striking…lol

One of the things I loved seeing at the beginning of quarantine was all the artistic fun people were having. It started with the artwork challenges where people were imitating famous paintings using what they could find at home. Tucker and I did a few of these, and it was so much fun! Searching galleries for pieces that would work, collecting the props, arranging the set, staging the photo, etc. I’ve also used some of this down time to work on my cross stich and origami skills – getting ready for holiday gift-exchanges already! On a whim, I also ordered a paint-by-numbers kit, and let me tell you, if you’re looking for something that takes up a lot of time, this would be it. Eventually when I finish the thing, I also have big plans for any paint I don’t use: painted rocks for the neighborhood, a Bob Ross video, etc. Time at home really gets the creative juices flowing!

Technology-related:

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Groovy!

Can we all agree we’re really lucky this happened in 2020 and not 2002 because technology really gives us a lot of options. I don’t think I can have a list of things to do during quarantine without including the ever-popular, binge-watching. So, yeah, find something to watch, make some popcorn, and veg out. I didn’t get into the whole Tiger King thing, but I really loved The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Taskmaster, Russian Doll, and many others. Check out the free site Taste Dive to find shows/books/movies that are similar to your favorites. Also, don’t get hung up in doing the same things online and/or on your phone. I’ve found some really amazing websites and apps just from googling other “things to do when you’re bored/quarantined” lists. Some of my favorites include: Seterra (geography quizzes), Mental Floss (human interest articles), Bored Panda (stories of art and design), Sporcle (trivia), and Free Rice (vocabulary games). Some new apps I’ve had fun with are: 13 tile mahjong, psychedelic camera, photo editors/collage makers, and Hello Talk (social media/language exchange). Since I recently had to get a new phone, I also purposely spent a lot of time optimizing it to my exacting specifications. I tried out all sorts of settings I never would have even looked at before, and I also googled tips/tricks specifically for my phone/system. Tucker even learned a few things for his phone, which he’s had for two years now!

Educational:

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My constant companions…

If you’re starting to feel like maybe you should do something with your at-home time other than just entertain yourself, it might be a great time to focus on learning something specific. I’ve been addicted to Duolingo for while now, but it’s totally guilt-free because my French is seriously improving. I also really enjoyed my 30-day challenges that included something educational (but also easy), like watch a TED Talk every day or read a random country’s entire Wiki page (which coincidentally also helped with my wanderlust). This time is also perfect for catching up on any reading lists you may have. I’ve focused on books I acquired long ago, but never had the time/access to read as well as books that have popped into my mind for one reason or another (such as Jurassic Park – aren’t you curious about how the movie differs from the book? I know I am). I’ve also been enjoying the time I’ve put into some pertinent research. Human rights’ laws, Black history, local election processes, charities, corona-viruses, and so many other things. We’re incredibly lucky to live in the information age where we can learn just about anything we want, including how to reliably fact-check and source information.

Health-related:

One concern I had (even prior to any lock-downs) was how am I going to be as active as I used to be, now that I don’t have to walk to work or traverse the vast, open spaces of China on a daily basis. One way I tried to address this problem was by setting a physical challenge for myself for each month of the year, such as walk 10,000 steps a day (March), 30 minutes of yoga a day (April), etc. Now that I find myself residing in a new neighborhood, I’ve also made a list of “walking tours” for us to complete when we take the dogs out. Just another way to get a bit more exercise and systematically see our neighborhood (and beyond) a little more thoroughly. Of course, I’ve also been dying to organize my things (which are all still in boxes/suitcases), so if you are able to, use some of this at-home time to go through your closets, drawers, even digital files and Marie Kondo your life. Also let me know when you do, so I can live vicariously through you! Finally, another health-related activity I’ve been working on is finishing up any/all beauty products I have. I came back from China with heaps of hydrating face masks, and I love throwing one on and simultaneously finishing up that tanning lotion I got way back in 2016 (at long last!).

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Luckily Orlando is a really nice place to walk!

Miscellaneous:

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Birthday Boy

Finally, we all need to be reminded that while we might be limiting our face-to-face time, we should still be connecting with family and friends. This is the perfect time to develop new habits of regular phone calls, video chats, game nights, etc. We should definitely all keep celebrating special events too! Birthdays, anniversaries, successfully submitting your tax returns, whatever you want! Tucker and I just celebrated Christmas in July last weekend and had so much fun. I actually think eggnog tastes better in the summer. Also, even though it’s tough to do, try to keep planning. Trust me, I really know the frustration of trying to plan during a pandemic (I’m still technically mid-move), but it really feels good to talk about the possibilities, even if they end up changing. And one last one: write something! Write a postcard or a letter, start a bullet-journal, take up blogging or poetry. It can really be quite cathartic.

So that’s my list. I hope it gave you an idea or two or maybe it sparked something completely different. This really is the perfect time to try something new and perhaps change some habits in the process. I also feel like having these small, solid “events” to look forward to have really helped keep me sane in this time of unknowns. It’s definitely been an interesting phase in our lives, but there’s certainly no reason it can’t be a fun one as well. I can’t wait to look back on quarantine and reminisce about all the crazy things we did and tried! See you on the other side!

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And it will

Country Curiosities

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

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

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My checklist

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

 

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

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

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

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Beautiful Andorra 

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

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

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

 

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Stars, stripes, guns, and tools

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

 

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

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

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

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Think they limbo to Cotton Eye Joe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salt Flats
Salar de Uyuni

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

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

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

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Palace of Parliament

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

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

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

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

24 Countries

Student Perspectives: To Me China Is ______

This semester I’m teaching an English Stylistics course where we delve into the various styles of written English including official documents like resumes and letters of recommendation, but also more creative forms of writing like poetry and blogs. To finish out the unit on creative writing, I had my students use the features we’d been discussing in class to write a blog post of their own, and for added excitement and authenticity, I told them I’d share the best ones with all of you on my own blog.

We decided on the topic “To Me China Is _______” as a way for them to reflect on their own culture and harness their own unique points of view to share something new with an unknown audience. I honestly wish I could share all 46 of them because they all did an amazing job, but for now, here are the links to some of my favorites:

To Me China Is…Golden

To Me China Is…Unequal

To Me China Is…A Land Full of Beauty

To Me China Is…Superficial

To Me China Is…Diverse

To Me China Is…A Peaceful Haven

To Me China Is…Full of Magic Power

To Me China Is…A Treasure-trove of Specialties

To Me China Is…Possibilities

To Me China Is…Changing

 

 

Language Woes

IMG_0262One of my goals this year, as I mentioned in my last post, is to really focus on my Mandarin skills. I’m planning to take the HSK before we leave next summer, and I’d really like to do well. The HSK is a Chinese proficiency test for foreigners learning the language. The highest score is a 6, which would demonstrate “a learner who can easily understand any information in Chinese and is capable of smoothly expressing themselves in written or oral form”. I’m aiming for a 3 (haha!), and since I’m likely going on this journey alone (Tucker really has no interest), I’d like to at least share a little bit about what makes Chinese such a difficult language to learn.

First off, there is no alphabet. For example, (meaning “not”) is pronounced méi, while (meaning “establish”) is pronounced shè. They look similar, but sound nothing alike. Similarly, 香蕉 “banana” and 相交“to intersect” are pronounced the exact same way (xiāngjiāo). There is clearly no “sounding it out”, which is what frustrates Tucker to no end! Okay, you think, that’s not such a big deal. You just have to remember the characters as if they were words. Unfortunately that means there are over 50,000 to memorize. Also, each word is not one character; they are some combination of characters, which means not only do you have to know the characters in a particular word, but you have to know the order: 蜜蜂 (mìfēng) means “bee”, but 蜂蜜 (fēngmì) means “honey”. No, I don’t want any bees on my toast, thanks.

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43 strokes for 1 “biang”!

However, recognizing the characters and knowing their order isn’t enough either because if you want to learn how to say them or find more information about them, in, say, a dictionary, you must be able to write them. Chinese has a very particular stroke order, which refers to the order and direction in which you write the characters. This is how Chinese dictionaries are often organized (even online), and if you don’t obey the proper stroke order, most online translators can’t seem to figure out what you’re going for. If you’re someone who starts your English letters from the bottom up, good luck! Even if ignoring the correct stroke order wasn’t an issue, most Chinese characters an average of between 7 and 12 strokes. The most in any single English letter? 4. My characteristically neat handwriting has never been tested in such a way!

Luckily, a group of linguists realized just how difficult the Chinese characters were for people coming from languages with alphabets, so they created one of my favorite things in the world: pinyin. Pinyin is a system of phonetic representation of Mandarin. It utilizes the Latin script (like English), and allows us, alphabet freaks, to quickly (and more naturally) read the pronunciation of a word. Sometimes a word will be presented with both the characters and the pinyin, such as: “卫生间 wèishēngjiān” (which means “bathroom” by the way – very useful!). This double representation is why I often say learning Mandarin is like learning two languages, you really have to know the characters and the pinyin! It is super helpful for us when we see both pieces of information together though. Then we know both how to say the new word and how to write it. Unfortunately, we rarely get that; usually it’s one or the other, not both. Sometimes there is a translation instead of the pinyin, but I’m not sure that is always so helpful…

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This one is actually pretty great!

IMG_0266Another problem we often encounter with pinyin is that it is more often than not missing the diacritic marks. Those marks represent the four tones of Mandarin, and are essential in its pronunciation. Unlike in English, changing the pitch of your voice while speaking Chinese can actually change the words you are saying. The pronunciation of mā (“mom”), má (“hemp”), mǎ (“horse”), and mà (“to scold”) only differs in tone. Unfortunately for lazy, toneless English speakers (like me), this makes it really hard for native Mandarin speakers to understand exactly what we’re saying. We try for “mom” and end up with “horse”, something which I hope has been more entertaining than irritating for them!

Ultimately, we struggle in reading, writing, speaking, and, with the various Chinese dialects, listening is a challenge as well. However, if you ask me whether I find Chinese or Polish more difficult to learn, I’ll say Polish every time. Chinese and English grammar actually have a lot in common. Our word order for example, is pretty similar. Chinese also has no articles or gender to worry about (two language features that I learned to despise very early on in French, and again with Polish). Perhaps most interestingly, unlike Polish and English, Mandarin is an isolating language, which means that the verbs are not inflected or changed for things like tense or aspect. So while in Polish I had to work really hard to conjugate and decline every word in a sentence before I could put them into a coherent thought, in Chinese I can just string them all together, adding new words when a change in tense or number is needed. For my brain, that is so much easier to do!

There is also something so intuitive about Chinese. Although my Chinese teachers tell me I should NEVER separate the characters of various words, it’s hard not to, and honestly that’s what helps me remember the vocabulary half the time in the first place! Here are some gems we’ve discovered (so far) in the Chinese lexicon:

IMG_0267Train = Fire + Car

Balloon = Air + Ball

Cellphone = Hand + Machine

Turkey = Fire + Chicken

Menu = Food + Sheet

Patriotism = Love + Country

Delicious = Good + Eat/Drink

ZhongWenAlright now! Who’s ready to learn this with me?! Chinese is definitely a language on the rise as far as power and prestige go. Much like what happened to English in the 1700s, increases in immigration, tourism, and business are spreading Chinese to all parts of the globe. In Australia, I was surprised and delighted to find Mandarin on most signage, and, even in Georgia/Florida (quite far away from China), maps and other tourist information can often be found in Mandarin. Some linguists refer to Chinese as the language of the future, and while right now it’s more painfully in my present, I hope to keep it around for my future as well! Wish me luck! 祝我好运!

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!