Southeast Asia and Chinese New Year

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Riding in a songthaew

There are so many things to love about being a teacher, but one that always stands out (even to non-teachers) are the breaks we often get. For me, as a university teacher in China, I was lucky enough to have a little over six weeks off in between semesters this year! Unfortunately, that’s not the norm (it just so happened that Chinese New Year fell quite late this year), but however it happened, I’m so glad it did because Tucker and I were able to take one incredible trip last month! In fact, this was our most involved trip to date, as it linked together several professional events in addition to the typical, touristy ones and ultimately involved us being away from home for 30 days. The planning was…interesting, as neither of us had ever been to Southeast Asia before, I had to be prepared for several work events throughout the trip, and it happened to take place over the biggest holiday of the region. Basically, we had no idea how it would turn out, but we were excited to find out!

Thailand

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View from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Our first stop was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which was the location for the East Asia/Pacific Fellows Midyear Meeting. I’m actually a little ashamed to say that I had never heard of Chiang Mai before finding out that was where the midyear would be because it is a city that should definitely be on any travel-nerd’s radar! It’s located in Northern Thailand, not too far from the Myanmar border and is a fairly popular location for backpackers. Being solidly in Southeast Asia, and inland no less, it was quite warm even in January. About 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30C) when we flew in, which was quite a shock when the week before we were in Harbin, China chilling out at -15F (-25C), but the overall atmosphere of Chiang Mai was anything but stifling. I read a bit about Thailand and Thai culture before we left, and one of the things that stuck out while we were there was the peacefulness and serenity of the people. Due to a largely Buddhist population, the people of Thailand try to conduct their lives with as little conflict as possible. Surprisingly, this was something that was easily felt and observed even in our few short weeks in the country.

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Sharing some yummy treats

Honestly, there are so many things I could share about our time in Chiang Mai! Other than getting to meet up with all the EAP Fellows again, bond through the sharing of meals, drinks, and stories, and attend/present at the exceptional Thai TESOL conference, we were able to fit in some of the most incredible cultural experiences as well! We took a Thai cooking class, something that was extremely out of my comfort zone (although I think I held my own! My Pad Thai was delicious, and I didn’t catch anything on fire!), we visited two elephant sanctuaries and learned more about the history and treatment of elephants in the region, and we walked in and around countess wats picking up phrases and gestures that we’ll likely use for quite awhile (even if they’re a little out of place in China). Ultimately, it was a busy, but extraordinarily rewarding week.

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Floating market

After the meeting and conference were checked off our list, we headed down to Bangkok via an overnight train. I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love overnight trains! This is the sixth we’ve been on, and I have yet to be disappointed! Such a great experience, very affordable, and the stories are fantastic! I should write a “Stories from Overnight Trains” post at some point, but for now, I’ll focus on Bangkok. Most people already know about this Thai city; it’s the capital and a jumping off point for many destinations in SE Asia. I’ll admit that at first, I thought it was just another big city: similar to Beijing, New York, etc. However, the longer we were there, the more I came to like it. There is truly something for everyone – in fact, almost too much of everything! We had a great time with the vast array of transportation options, took in some sights (unique skyscrapers, centuries-old wats, and even a lunar eclipse), and, of course, we also ate a lot of delicious food! That is, until Tucker had some cashew apples from a street vendor – that wasn’t a pleasant 24 hours for him!

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Incredible detail!

Cambodia

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Sunrise over Angkor Wat

From Bangkok, we took a 6 hour bus ride to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap is the nearest city to the famous Angkor Wat complex. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Angkor Wat mentioned in English language textbooks (usually in the chapter on “travel”), and quite possibly because of this, it has long been a place on my must-see list. Now that I have finally seen the breathtaking Angkor Wat in person, I can honestly say that the pictures do not even come close to doing it justice. When we were in Europe I was always so impressed with how old things were. For Americans, 300 years old seems crazy – in Europe it’s normal, in Asia, it’s downright modern. The temples and statues in the complex were built over 900 years ago, a time that is difficult for me to fully imagine outside of the strings of dates and events I studied for university exams. Seeing it in person, and actually being allowed to walk on it, touch it, and understand the amount of effort it must have taken to build, was all truly amazing.

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The place to be in Siem Reap

The city of Siem Reap was really awesome as well although very different from temples of Angkor Wat. Instead of pushy monkeys, we encountered pushy tuk-tuk drivers (touristy areas definitely have their drawbacks). However, there’s a really fun Pub Street at the center of town, where we tried local Cambodian dishes like Amok (a delicious coconut and lime curry dish) and Lok Lak (a peppery beef salad) and drank 50 cent draft beers several nights during our stay. Siem Reap is actually where we found ourselves for the Super Bowl this year, and luckily Tucker quickly sleuthed out, a nearby, American-owned bar that was hosting a party…at 6am (which is when the game began for us). So, of course, we had unlimited pizza, wings, and beer (maybe a little too much) for breakfast, and made some new American, Canadian, and German friends while watching the Eagles pull out a win. Unfortunately the owner was from Boston, so it was a bit of a hard loss for him. I’m just thankful it wasn’t as doom and gloom as last year’s gathering in Atlanta. Still hurts Tucker a bit to talk about it.

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Mekong sunrise

After Siem Reap, we took another bus down to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. My intention for visiting Phnom Penh was to attend and present at the Cam TESOL conference that was being held there, which was a fantastic experience, but we definitely enjoyed more than just the conference and further Fellow company. We took many breezy walks along the Mekong River, had hour long Khmer massages for $8, and again, ate some of the best food I’ve had in a long time! France actually has a long history with Cambodia, and it seems like their culinary flare has definitely rubbed off on the Cambodian population. One restaurant we stumbled upon, La Provence, was a bit off the well-beaten tourist track, but the food we had there was absolutely incredible! There were no menus (we ordered off a chalkboard) and everything was in French, but it was easily my favorite meal of the trip. It’s been a few weeks now, and we’re still regularly talking about it.

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Wat Phnom

Hong Kong

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Aviary friend

Now that my professional duties were officially over and the holidays (Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year) were upon us, we headed to our next location: Hong Kong. We flew into Hong Kong and immediately felt the Britishness of it. Not only were we back on the left side of the road (Thailand also drives on the left), but we took a double-decker bus from the airport to our hostel. I’d like to say that I refrained from speaking in a British accent, but that would totally be a lie – I immediately went into Harry Potter mode when I saw the buses…Tucker looked a little ashamed. But in addition to the British influence, we also felt like we were getting closer to home as we listened to any and all announcements in Cantonese, English, and Mandarin. HK was one of the places Tucker was looking forward to the most, so he lead the way as we wound our way around the hilly island. Hong Kong Park with its jungle-y feel, beautiful water features, and unexpected aviary was a highlight for us. As was the double-decker tram that ran the length of the city. We had lots of plans for our time in Hong Kong. Many of them were successful (like eating and drinking all the HK specialties, taking the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor, and visiting Hong Kong Disneyland), but as to be expected, some things didn’t quite go as planned.

Chinese New Year

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Victoria Harbor

We really didn’t give much thought to Chinese New Year as we were planning our trip because, honestly, we didn’t really know what it would be like either way, so we figured we’d just wing it. However, perhaps we should have thought a little more about it…something about hindsight, right? Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday in China (including Hong Kong), and unlike our New Year, it’s not really a one day event. Rather, the whole country prepares for days (by shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.) and then takes several days off – all together, all 1.3 billion of them (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration), but really, a lot of people were “on vacation” just like we were. Because of the larger-than-usual number of people on holiday in Hong Kong, there were a few things on our list that we opted to forego (rather than spending way too much time or money). This included riding the tram up to Victoria Peak and taking a trip over to the island of Macau for some Portuguese architecture and maybe a casino or two. I guess we’ll just have to take another trip down to Hong Kong soon!

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Hong Kong street market

Other than the crowds of happy, holiday-enjoying people, we saw many Chinese New Year markets pop-up. These markets sold all sorts of festival treats like candied Hawthorne, roasted corn, and cotton candy. They also had booths set up where students (presumably for an economics class) sold different New Year novelty items (stuffed animals, pinwheels, t-shirts, etc,). We were surprised to see that about a fourth of each market was filled with various plants and flowers, which we now know are common gifts to bring to a New Year’s Eve dinner/reunion. Not only the markets, but the entire city was decorated for the New Year – red lanterns were everywhere along with traditional paper cuttings, dog statues (we’ve transitioned from the Year of the Rooster to the Year of the Dog, by the way), and many signs wishing everyone a happy and prosperous New Year. It was very much like the lead up to Christmas, including a parade! On New Year’s Eve we were lucky enough to catch a parade on the Kowloon side of HK. There were some differences to be sure, but more similarities, I think: large balloon animals, floats with glitter and bright lights, marching bands, etc. We even saw the dancing Chinese dragons! It was really awesome to be so immersed in the festivities – I had thought it would be a little boring for us, as the holiday is said to be very family-oriented (and mostly celebrated at home), but being in Hong Kong and hearing all the “Gong Xi Fa Cai”s, I felt like we were in the middle of everything!

Guangzhou

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Adorable dim sum

The last stop on our itinerary was a little further up the Pearl River Delta, in the city of Guangzhou. Guangzhou used to be called Canton and is China’s third largest city. It’s known for it delicious food, including dim sum (a plethora of bite-sized foods like dumplings and steamed buns often served with all you can drink tea). Now that the holiday was over, we naively thought things would return to normal. We were quickly proven wrong when we arrived at our pre-booked hostel and were told that they didn’t have a room for us because they oversold our room for the holiday. Fortunately, we had something similar happen in Ukraine and totally didn’t panic. We used their WiFi (they were really kind and happily celebrating the New Year, giving us cherry tomatoes and candies to snack on while we figured this out), and we were able to secure a hotel room not too far away. Although many stores and restaurants were closed for the holiday (it’s actually still pretty unclear what sorts of things remained open and when the others would do so – we’re now a week into the New Year and still many things are closed by us!), we were able visit a beautiful orchid garden, treat ourselves to some amazing dim sum, and watch the light show on the skyscrapers from a bridge over the Pearl River. We had a lovely, albeit short, time in Guangzhou, but luckily it’s only a train ride away!

So after 30 days, almost 5000 miles traversed, and innumerable memories made, we made it back to Hefei in one piece. I truly can’t say it enough: I am so grateful for the opportunities Tucker and I have been afforded these past few years. I’m so appreciative of the time we’ve been able to spend together, the people we’ve been able to meet, and the information and perspective we are continually gaining through these experiences. Now it’s time to start the next semester, and I can’t wait to hear what all my students did during their six week break!

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Best travel partner ever!

Holiday Season in Hefei, China!

25551909_10215409724504614_4922483156100992958_n (1)Happy holidays from Hefei! Tucker and I are now into our fifth month of living in China and have just made it through our first holiday season in the Far East. China is the first country we’ve lived in that doesn’t celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, so we were pretty curious to see what it would be like over here. I’ve collected about a month’s worth of holiday observations to share with everyone, so let’s get to it!

25442748_10215324111684347_2436088416400639503_n (1)The Lead Up: Holiday decorations were everywhere! Early in December we started noticing Christmas decorations around the city: large, lighted trees, festive window stickers, red bows, etc. Our local supermarkets put up displays and seasonal aisles that sold everything from ornaments and stuffed Rudolphs to full-sized Santa animatronics (only mildly creepy). I had a great time buying a new set of Christmas décor (we now have a set on three separate continents) for our apartment here: stockings, lights, Santa hats, a small tree, etc. We were also able to find some seasonal treats like Andes candies, hot cocoa, and Ferrero Rochers as well. The malls were probably the biggest Christmas perpetrators with decorations on just about every store front, staircase, and atrium. People were often lined up to get their pictures with Santa or to enter the “Secret Wonderland”, which to us looked like a small, dark room with tons of white Christmas lights on the ceiling. Of course, many American chains like Starbucks and Dairy Queen also had their usual holiday specials advertised in the usual places, and Christmas music (particularly Jingle Bells) could be heard in most stores and restaurants throughout the month.

Christmas Eve: The word for Christmas Eve in Chinese is “Ping’an Ye”, which sort of sounds like “pingguo” (apple), so on Christmas Eve many Chinese people give apples as gifts to their friends and neighbors. The stores sell brightly wrapped apples just for this occasion, and if you tell a Chinese person that we, in fact, don’t have this tradition (despite the fact that it stems entirely from a play on Chinese words), they will be extremely surprised. Other than the apples, many Chinese Christians also go to church on Christmas Eve. In fact, since Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday this year, it was more popular for local church services than Christmas Day. However, the religious facet of Christmas is not as well-known as some of the more commercial aspects. For example, when I asked the students in the English Corner what American Christmas traditions they knew, they stuck to things like presents, Santa Claus, and holiday movies. It was really surprising to us which things they had heard of and which things are just not associated with Christmas for them. Leaving Santa cookies, for example, was something they had not heard of, but during Chinese New Year they have a similar tradition, which I can’t wait to be a part of!

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Christmas Day: Christmas Day is not a national holiday in China; therefore, people (regardless of religion, nationality, etc.) do not get the day off. I was lucky to not have classes that day, but I still got many work-related emails and had to go pick up my paycheck (on Christmas Day!!). When I told my colleagues and students what I planned to do on Christmas, which was to spend the whole day in my pajamas watching the Yule Log on YouTube, they were very surprised. In China, Christmas is the biggest shopping day of the year. Many people (especially the younger generations) spend the day going to the movies or out to eat, and then out shopping for gifts for each other or for their significant others. Christmas Day for the majority of Chinese people is more like another Valentine’s Day, only with slightly different characters. I took no part in the holiday shopping as I can only imagine what the crowds were like, but I did enjoy my fair share of Christmas gifts/messages. On WeChat, a Chinese social media app, I received over a hundred holiday messages from students, coworkers, and friends I’ve met over the last few months. I read “Merry Christmas” and “Sheng Dan Kuai Le” many times over the holiday and was blown away by the effort so many people put into making my Christmas Day a little more cheerful.

 

New Year’s Eve: New Year’s Eve, as we know it, refers to midnight on January 1st, but in China that’s only a minor New Year. Their longest holiday and biggest celebration is for the Lunar New Year, which will be in February this year (more on this later, I imagine). For our piddly little New Year, there was a bit less going on in Hefei than in other Chinese cities. We have signs and decorations wishing everyone a “Happy 2018” and from what I could tell, there were many parties downtown as well, but the large celebrations are reserved for China’s mega cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, etc. We ended up watching a live stream from Hong Kong and were surprised that the only fireworks we heard were coming from the laptop. I suppose since we live on a university campus and China, in general, is really strict about air pollution, local fireworks seem to be rare on New Year’s Eve. I have a feeling this might not hold true for Lunar New Year though. Can’t wait to find out! Happy 2018!

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