Asian Island Adventures

51236081_10218703184719061_8876367206510755840_nThe second New Year (also known as the Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year) has come and gone, and with it, possibly our last long winter break off together. Just like last year, the Chinese university semester break coincides with the holiday giving us several weeks off, which, of course, we put to good use! My program had its mid-year meeting and conference in the Philippines this year, and somehow, Tucker and I managed to squeeze in three (and a half) other destinations on our island hopping itinerary. You might have seen the hundreds of photos on Facebook, but I’d also like to share a few words about our time traveling in South Asia. To be honest, it’s a little surreal to be writing this as I watch the snow fall outside, but here we go!

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Macau/HK

50416214_10218648248945701_250725072455598080_nOur first stop was Macau, a “special administrative region” of China. It gets this rather long name due to it being somewhere between a province and another country entirely. It’s a part of China, but it’s also not China, which is actually one of the reasons we wanted to visit. We wanted to see if there were any noticeable differences. We also wanted to visit because we were eager for another taste of Portugal. Macau used to be a Portuguese colony and has retained quite a bit of the Portuguese flair in architecture, food, and language. It was an incredible mix of the two cultures: tons of Chinese New Year decorations along the beautiful mosaic walkways, pork dumplings could be ordered with a side of garlic bread and red wine, and all the signs were in both Chinese and Portuguese, which was very exciting for this language nerd. The weather was beautiful while we were there, so we were able to walk almost the entire city by foot. Macau is made up of a small peninsula and island on the southern coast of China. The peninsula is where the Old Town is with its ruins, churches, and forts, and the casino-filled island gives Macau the nickname “The Vegas of the East”. We had an amazing time exploring both: taking selfies, eating all the street food, and even trying our hand at gambling again (much to my chagrin).

50679451_10218668969583704_4242597479859617792_nAfter a few days of strolling around Macau’s narrow alleyways, we took a massive speed boat (TurboJet) to our next destination just across the water: Hong Kong. This was actually our second trip to Hong Kong, but last time we didn’t quite get to everything on our list – this short stopover on the way to Midyear was our second chance. We had less than 24 hours in the city, but we managed to make it out to Lantou Island to see the incredible Buddha and cableway there, we took the bus to the top of Victoria Peak to watch the sunset over the city, and we went to Tim Ho Wan for the world’s cheapest Michelin Star eats. While I definitely preferred Macau’s laid back, European vibes, it’s hard to not like Hong Kong as well. Macau and Hong Kong are a couple of tiny islands (and respective peninsulas) that I highly recommend everyone to visit! No visas needed for US citizens! 🙂

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The Philippines

51544827_10218758613504746_7490417853212917760_nAll too soon it was time to fly to the Philippines and get to work. When we first landed in the Philippines it was chaos! Passengers getting up and grabbing their bags before the plane had stopped moving; people sitting on seemingly every inch of the floor in the airport; signs for flight changes being moved by hand from gate to gate; loud cover songs of 2000’s hits playing in every corner of the terminal, etc. All I could think was “Well, we’re definitely not in China anymore.” As we sat waiting for our flight though, the newness wore off, and it was easy to see that the Philippines are just plain fun! In fact, their national slogan is “It’s more fun in the Philippines”, and I totally got it. Smiles were everywhere! The flight attendants wore bright yellow polos and hummed songs as we boarded. Fellow passengers sang along with the music they heard on the plane. The joy was contagious!

51090853_10218728310947201_775519455542247424_nThe first week we were in the Philippines I had to “work”. I attended meetings with the other Fellows, we planned and executed various group activities, and generally bonded and reconnected after our last five months apart in our various host cities/countries. For this part of Midyear, we were put up in a resort on Mactan Island, which was incredibly fancy and not the sort of place Tucker and I usually go for (I’ve never heard so many “yes ma’ams” and “hello sirs” in my life). It was beyond beautiful though, and luckily Tucker was able to take full advantage of the beach, the snorkeling, the infinity pool, etc. However, after a few days completely devoid of local culture, I was definitely ready to get to our next location: Cebu City. It was here that we attended and presented at a local teacher training conference held at the University San Jose Recoletos. Easily my favorite part of Midyear, I was able to meet and interact with many local Filipina/o teachers and get a much better feel for what life in the Philippines is really like.

 

51300721_10218758619504896_748782893282623488_nOnce the conference and Midyear were officially over, Tucker and I hadn’t quite had our fill of the Philippines, so we headed to Manila for some good old-fashioned touristing. Manila is an incredible city with some of the best food I’ve had in a long while. Their specialty seemed to be fusion restaurants. We had super interesting and delicious food at Loco Manuk (Filipino, Peruvian, and Chinese) and El Chupacabra (Filipino and Mexican), and saw a Japanese-French Cafe that looked amazing as well! In addition to the incredible food, we also had a great time walking around Manila Bay, grabbing a drink in Intramuros (the Old Town), and watching the Super Bowl at a local expat bar. The Philippines boasts an amazing mix of languages and cultures, and it was so fun for us to be able to use English (commonly spoken there) to ask about a million questions of our taxi drivers, servers, and any other local we could find. We learned about the strong influence of Catholicism in the Philippines, the new-ish movement towards environmental clean up, and most of all we learned how welcoming and friendly the people are.

Singapore

52466008_10218786674966265_1366061700507238400_nAt this point we were over the halfway mark of our trip, and my body had had enough. I left Manila with a fever and several other ailments (not so fun to describe), but I was still super excited to see Singapore! We watched Crazy Rich Asians on another leg of this trip in preparation, but the movie doesn’t do the city justice. It is by far the cleanest city I’ve ever seen, and has represented its multicultural population incredibly well! Singapore is made up of large groups of ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians, and each has a dedicated area of the city where you can find their respective religious buildings, restaurants, and specialized grocery stores. Even with the diverse neighborhoods in place, the city as a whole really seems to cater to each group in so many ways. Colorful, artistic, and clearly very well-off, there are so many lovely parks and public spaces in this city, where we saw families wearing everything from tank tops and sundresses to saris and hijabs. I often talk about places where there is a mix of cultures, but its usually a watered down mix, where clearly one culture has dominated, but in Singapore they were all there loud and proud. It was amazing!

However, after a few days in Singapore I definitely had another “this is clearly not China moment”. Everything was so quiet, there weren’t many people around, and the “no spitting” signs actually seemed to work, as we saw absolutely no spitting while we were there! Signs like these were everywhere, covering the basics like “no littering $1000” and the bizarre like “no chewing gum $500”, ultimately giving the city a punny nickname: Singapore, a “fine” city. Tucker really loved Singapore – so many interesting foods to try, lots of activities to partake in (the Trick Eye Museum, Universal Studios, and beer tastings to name a few), but I was a little hesitant. It was almost a little too clean and a little too “nice” for me. I guess I like my cities a little more rough around the edges, but as far as a place to vacation and experience as many authentic Asian cultures and foods as possible, it has got to be number one on my list!

Malaysia

The last stop on this epic journey was Kuala Lumpur (usually called KL), Malyasia. We ended up taking a Transtar bus from Singapore to Malaysia because it was only about a 6 hour drive and the price was right. Little did I know that $30 was going to buy me the best bus ride of my life! We had recliners, tea service, lunch, personal TVs, and gorgeous views of the Malaysian jungles. If you’re ever in this area, take this bus ride! Upon our arrival in KL, I couldn’t help feeling a little like Goldilocks. The Philippines was maybe a little too outgoing for me, and Singapore was a little too uppity, was Malaysia going to be just right?

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51885758_10218802010149635_1122751154648776704_nIt turns out KL was full of surprises for us. The majority of people living in Malaysia are Muslim, so it was much more conservative than I was expecting. Most everyone wore long sleeves and pants despite the high temperatures, and the presence of beautiful and delicious “mocktails” was at an all time high for me. KL is actually not on an island, and to us, it seemed like we lost that friendly, carefree island-vibe as soon as we arrived. Interactions were a bit more abrupt and businesslike – like they usually are, I suppose. Another surprise was the color we saw all around us – both the Philippines and Singapore were incredibly colorful cities, but I think any city would be hard pressed to match the vibrancy of KL. Brightly colored murals everywhere, some of the lushest, greenest trees I’ve ever seen against the bluest of skies, and the insanely colorful Batu Caves just outside the city made for some incredible scenes (and photos).

There’s no possible way for me to share everything we saw and learned on this trip, but I hope you enjoyed reading a few of the details! After reflecting on any of our travels, it never ceases to amaze me how little I actually know about the world I live in, and taking trips like this only intensifies the curiosity I have for all the places I haven’t yet been to! I hope no matter where Tucker and I end up next, we can continue these adventures because this experience, like so many before it, was truly remarkable.

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We’re in China! Round Two:

We’re back! Back in China, back in Hefei, back at Anhui University, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m so thankful I was given the opportunity to extend my fellowship until June 2019, and I definitely plan to make the most of it! In fact, I thought I’d even share a little bit about my plans for the next ten months, partially in the hope that putting them in writing will make them come true and partially so that when I look back I can justify my exhaustion!

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Workshop in Beijing

First, I plan to do my job, of course. Much like last year, my job consists of both teaching and teacher-training. I’ll be teaching courses like Critical Thinking and Writing, Public Speaking and Debate, and English Stylistics to undergraduates at Anhui University. I’ll also be working with my colleagues at AHU to coordinate the English Corner, help coach the student representatives for various national competitions, and ultimately join in whenever and wherever my help is needed. This semester I have an even larger group of students, but I’m super excited to get back into teaching! Now that I have a year’s worth of experience teaching at Anda, I’m ready to try out a few new ideas as well – I hope they’re ready! In addition my duties at the university, this year I’ve also been made a “Fellow Coordinator”, which means that I get to help the new Fellows ease into their China/fellowship lives and help organize and relay various outreach projects within China/Mongolia.

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Some of last year’s students

 

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Some of my amazing colleagues

I also hope to go a bit beyond just doing my job and leave something that lasts within the program as well as at Anhui University. I’m dedicated to making as many teacher-to-teacher connections as possible, so that when I leave, there will still be a clear link for sharing ideas, resources, and information. I’m working on creating an online Anhui English Teachers’ group as well as organizing a province-wide conference, where teachers can get together and build lasting relationships in addition to working on their professional development. I’m the only Fellow in my province, so I feel a certain responsibility to make sure I share everything I have with my fellow Anhui teachers. I’m really hoping to create as many opportunities for them as possible, which will hopefully mean a lot of collaboration throughout the year.

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 It never gets old!

Additionally, I hope to see more of China. If you know me, you know I like new places, and China is full of new places! Tucker and I are already planning several trips throughout the next year (some work-related, others just for fun), but all are very special to me because it’s usually during these trips that I can relax and remember the “cultural exchange” aspect of my fellowship. As far as in-country travel goes, we’ve made a list and hope to visit the cities of Chengdu, Chongqing, Guilin, Qingdao, Macau, and Xining (and more if we possibly can!). Of course, while we’re still in East Asia, there are a few out-of-country destinations I’m hoping to visit as well, starting with a trip to the Philippines in January! 🙂

More than just travel though, I haven’t lost sight of the fact that I’m living immersed in such an interesting and vast culture! This year there are many ways I’m hoping to experience more of what China has to offer, such as by joining AHU’s badminton team, attending a Chinese opera, learning to make dumplings, volunteering at local animal shelter, and continuing to explore life in our home city. We’ve already made some amazing, lifelong friends, and I want to take this year to really enjoy our time with them, learning and doing all sorts of new things. I’m also still diligently working on my Mandarin skills with the hope of taking the HSK before we leave – one of my more lofty goals, but we’ll see how it goes!

Finally, and rather importantly, I hope to spend some time planning for the future. Tucker and I have decided to move to a new place after this fellowship year is up, but we haven’t fully decided on where. Technically it’s Tucker’s turn to decide, so he’s already working on updating his resume and hunting down our next opportunity. Of course, I’ll soon have to join him in some of the mundane prepping-to-move tasks, but for now, I’m just focusing on not letting the time slip by. We have so much still to do in China, and I’m beyond excited for it all! Here’s to a successful round two!

Laughs and Lessons

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

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At least we had already finished our dinner!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You can really find anything in China!

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

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They’re so friendly and curious!

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

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

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

Top 8 Underrated Travel Destinations

New York City, Rome, and Bangkok are amazing places to travel. There is so much to see and do in these cities, and all sorts of information available for planning a trip there (and many other cities on the same scale), but sometimes we want to try something new, go somewhere equally interesting, but perhaps not as well-known. I’m a big fan of this type of travel, the less expected places where I usually learn more from the locals themselves than any possible book or website. If you also like exploring lesser-known destinations or just want to try something new, here is my list of 8 underrated travel destinations that I think everyone would fall in love with.

#8 Milwaukee, WI

20479485_10214176655838668_1628109147533371960_n (1)Okay, I realize Milwaukee is not the most glamorous or exotic city on anyone’s list, but hear me out. This smallish city, famous for its breweries and cheese, is only about an hour north of Chicago. Perhaps because of this, it can sometimes be overshadowed by the fame of its neighbor; however, in addition to the flavorful brews and delicious cheese curds, the city also lies along Lake Michigan with a river running straight through its center (sound familiar?). It also has a very strong European influence, which can be seen in the architecture and abundance of towering cathedrals. It might be less than half the size of Chicago (and about half as expensive!), but this city has been modernizing in a way that would make any European enthusiast proud. Many historical neighborhoods have been beautifully restored, the additions of a city Riverwalk and a new park have livened up the outdoor scene, and if you’re brave enough to endure the temperatures, the city is absolutely breathtaking in the winter.

Things to see/do: walk along the Milwaukee Riverwalk, test out some local beers at one of the many breweries (I recommend Lakefront), eat the squeaky cheese curds (available everywhere!), and if you’re there in winter, head to a bar for tailgating and transportation to one of the state’s football games.

 

#7 Kiev, Ukraine

13775957_10210260440975744_9077903166833460651_n (1)The capital city of Ukraine has had a bit of a bumpy ride over the past few decades, but that isn’t so evident when traipsing around the city as an excited tourist. Although Ukraine is not in the EU yet, you’ll find many of the same European conveniences backpackers and travelers alike have come to expect: wonderful public transportation, many downtown hostels and hotels, and a slough of monuments, churches, and parks to wander around. The city is known for its monasteries and domed, Orthodox churches, but I remember it most for it’s extremely cheap and delicious food! Most signs are in Cyrillic (like the Russian alphabet), which I think adds greatly to the city’s charm, but if you’re worried about language skills, the English spoken is quite common and understandable, especially by the younger generation.

Things to do/see: visit the caves and monastery at Pechersk-Lavra, have some Chicken Kiev and varenyky (a local dumpling), marvel at the ornate metro stations, and make the climb to Sky Park, where you can zip line across the river.

 

#6 Huangshan, China

23658757_10215123462988255_8497914411745216999_n (1)“Huang-what?”, you might be asking yourself. Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is not particularly well-known outside of China, except perhaps by avid hikers or mountaineers. However, this city and the mountain it takes its name from are spectacular places for anyone to visit. Lying about 4 hours west of Shanghai (by train), Huangshan is a destination that really has it all: beautiful nature, historical sites, and modern shopping. It might not be one of the largest cities in China (or even close), but it’s still pretty large from my perspective, with a population of 1.5 million. Just outside the city, accessible by bus are the mountains (to the north) and the preserved ancient towns of Hongcun and Xidi (to the northwest). All are worth a visit, and will remind people why China is often referred to as a traveler’s dream.

Things to do/see: wander around Hongcun and Xidi marveling at the bizarre street foods, hike Huangshan itself (or take a cable car up and hike down), shop for souvenirs and local teas on Tunxi Old Street, and eat some local Huizhou dishes, including the famous noodles.

 

#5 Skopje, Macedonia

13438928_10210125980614319_195783375429514471_n (1)Known officially as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Macedonia is a small country in southern Europe that most people wouldn’t be able to pick out on a map. The capital city of Skopje, lies in the north of the country and is completely surrounded by mountains, giving it spectacular views from every angle. The city was heavily influenced by ancient Greece, which you can easily see in the large stone bridges and plethora of white columns, but it uses the Cyrillic alphabet (like Russia) and also claims one of the largest numbers of mosques in Europe: talk about a melting pot! The culture there is a unique mix all seeming to revolve around food, the incredibly refreshing šopska salad and potent rakija (locally produced alcohol) for example. While winter brings heavy snowfall to this mountain city, the summers can also be pretty steamy. If you’d like to split your time in the city with time in-touch with nature, a city bus can take you about an hour outside of town to the beautiful canyons around the Vardar river.

Things to do/see: take a ride to Matka canyon, spend an evening in Macedonian Square watching the fountain lights, try the šopska salad, and walk up to the Kale Fortress for panoramic views of the city and mountains.

 

#4 Bergen, Norway

1240561_10208510062337372_7927716375680727965_n (1)Ah, Norway! Land of trolls, fjords, and the midnight sun. When I hear people planning a trip to Norway, usually Oslo and other cities in the southern part of the country are the first to be mentioned. However, I would much rather choose Bergen, a little further north, nestled into the fjords on the country’s west coast. This city in winter or summer is a great jumping off point for further exploration of the fjords, but it has enough to do in town that you might not even want to leave! From town squares and colorful row houses to funiculars and downhill sledding, Bergen has a lot to offer for those who prefer to spend their time on activities that don’t break the bank. However, when the time comes to spend a little cash, a great way to do it is on the food! There is a wide variety available here from traditional Scandinavian specialties to a TGIFridays; the choice is really up to you!

Things to do/see: take a fjord tour (I’m usually not a “tour person”, but these are worth it), ride the funicular up Mount Fløyen and sled down, sample extremely fresh seafood at the Fisketorget market, and walk around the quaint Bryggen Wharf.

 

#3 Savannah, GA

17904108_10212977098970496_5512127965221632585_n (1)Another destination from my homeland (home state even) is Savannah, GA. This seaside city is always equated with the “old south”: plantation houses, buttery foods, and a slower pace of life come to mind. However, this city is a lot more than that. It can cater to a younger crowd nowadays with its bar streets and beaches, but there are also tree lined avenues, old cemeteries, and little antique shops that are great for the traveler with varied interests. Savannah is not as famous as perhaps New Orleans or Charleston, but maybe for that reason, I found it to be less affected by outside influences. It is a city that it uniquely itself: beautiful and eclectic, much like many Georgians I know.

Things to do/see: have brunch at any of the restaurants along River Street (I recommend Huey’s), have a drink or two at one of the bars on Broughton Street, amble under the large oak trees at any one of the numerous parks, head over to Tybee Island for the lighthouse and beautiful beaches.

 

#2 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

22448427_10214825952870688_7496229601924814073_n (1)One of my more recent discoveries, Ulaanbaatar is an unexpected gem of the travel world. A unique combination of different cultures set in a landscape like no other I’ve seen. The city itself has plenty of sights and traditional Mongolian activities and foods, but just outside the city is a completely different side of life in one of the largest landlocked countries in the world. A nearby national park gives breathtaking views of the mountains and vast plains of Mongolia, while wild horses and yak stand on the side of the road grazing in the fields or drinking from the winding rivers. It’s a bit more rugged outside the city, but no less friendly. Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked highly by travelers who are lucky enough to go there. The lamb dumplings alone are worth the journey!

Things to do/see: walk around the ger district, view a temple or two at Gandantegchinlen Monestary, watch the wedding parties taking pictures in Sükhbaatar Square, try a modern twist on Mongolian food at Modern Nomad, and make the trek out to Terelj National Park.

 

#1 Tricity, Poland

13417619_10209884679581944_5470284272553681414_n (1)This destination (and the whole country really) is near and dear to my heart. I spent a year living in Poland and made it my job to explore every corner of the country. What I found was a series of destinations that many people gloss over in favor or Warsaw or Krakow, the more international locales. However, when I think of places to visit in Poland, my mind first goes to its Baltic Coast. Just across the Baltic sea from Sweden, Poland’s “Tricity” of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia sits about four hours north of Warsaw (by car). These cities have an incredibly interesting history, which has allowed them to retain their distinct and varied atmospheres. Gdansk, formally German, has an industrious feel, an international airport, and an impressive city center. Sopot is a resort town with Europe’s longest wooden boardwalk and many fancy shops and hotels. And finally Gdynia, the most Polish of the three, boasts beautiful beaches, several hilly parks, and a ferry to Hel and back. Who wouldn’t want to to see all of that?!

Things to do/see: take the ferry to Hel for the seal sanctuary or the beaches, walk the pier in Gydina to see sailboats alongside pirate ships, watch local artists working in Gdansk’s Long Market, and in winter, enjoy a cup of grzane piwo (mulled beer) at any one of the pop-up Christmas markets.

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!

The Land of Chinggis and Cheese

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Sunset in Ulaanbaatar

Where exactly is the land of Chinggis and cheese, you ask? Mongolia, of course! Although truth be told it should really be “dairy” as opposed to “cheese”, but then the alliteration is completely lost. The Chinggis part (which refers to the Mongolian spelling/pronunciation of Genghis, as in Genghis Khan) is extremely accurate though. Between all the statues, pictures on the currency, and the multiple beer and vodka brands that bare his name, he is well-known in his native land. Catchy titles aside, last week Tucker and I were lucky enough to spend six days in Mongolia, and I could not have been more impressed! Again (this is becoming too common for me!), I failed to think about my expectations before heading off to the “Land of Eternal Blue Skies”, but I know that what we experienced far exceeded whatever I had thought the trip would be. Even with almost zero planning on our part, each thing we decided to try in Mongolia turned out better than we could have imagined, and Tucker and I came away from Mongolia with so many unique memories and experiences that will truly last a lifetime.

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     I promise I was working.

I should start this post by saying that my time in Mongolia was first and foremost work-related. I was able to travel to Mongolia in order to give a teacher-training workshop at the University of Finance and Economics as well as to attend and present at the local TESOL conference in Ulaanbaatar. However, to say that work things were my ONLY motive would be completely false. I really wanted to tourist around Mongolia – and I did! Apart from the professional experiences, which were phenomenal by the way (I met such great people and had a wonderful time exchanging ideas with fellow English teachers, not to mention an epic mini-reunion of Fellows), I was able to carve out some time for exploring the city of Ulaanbaatar, trying some of Mongolia’s traditional dishes, and even taking a road trip out of the city. To choose a favorite moment, or even activity, from our trip would be impossible, but here are a few things that stuck out:

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Flight into Mongolia

Our Arrival: Tucker, who is not easily impressed, is still talking about our flight into Ulaanbaatar. The city itself lies in a valley and is full of colorful buildings that range from small circular gers (the traditional round houses also known as yurts) to sleek and shiny, new skyscrapers. Around the city are snow-covered mountains, which with very little vegetation give a stark and geometric feel to the land. Beyond the mountains are the desserts, orange sand stretches as far as you can see from the window of a plane. It really was a beautiful sight, and something I haven’t seen on any other flight. Another thing we noticed upon our arrival was the thorough mixing of cultures. There was text in traditional Mongolian script as well as both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. We saw Italian and Mexican restaurants (MexiKhan might be the best pun-based name out there!), German brewpubs, and plenty of American brands/chains as well. After time in China or even the US, where authentic, foreign brands are sometimes hard to come by, it was a pleasant experience to see such a mix. We also noticed the strangeness that came with using Facebook and Instagram to connect with people again, as opposed to WeChat. China has pretty successfully occupied all my thoughts in the last two months, and stepping into Mongolia was almost like stepping back into something a little more familiar.

 

All the New Knowledge: Although, Mongolia wasn’t quite that familiar as it turns out. On our first day in the country I had to give a presentation during which I had placed my backpack on the floor. Oops – mistake! I was quickly told that’s a bit of a faux pas in Mongolia, and that the other teachers definitely noticed. Another fact we soon learned was that to bump someone’s shoe is a sign of disrespect, and even if it’s done accidentally, you should offer to shake that person’s hand as a sort of truce. Other facts I learned about Mongolia include that their entire country has less inhabitants than the city I live in in China, the language sounds a little more like Arabic than Chinese or Russian, and that lamb/mutton is the most commonly consumed meat. In addition to lamb, Mongolians seem to have an affinity for dumplings, as there were many different types to choose from: the fried kuushuur and boiled buuz, for example.

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Mongolian dumplings

Many had a slightly Chinese flair to them, but the addition of cheese was completely new to me. Another Chinese favorite, milk tea, turns out to be a bit different there as well: it’s salty instead of sweet. And then there’s the bone game. On our tables at several restaurants we found small, felt boxes with four ankle bones inside. The bones are rolled like dice, and the results are read from a list, which can predict your future. We saw fortunes like “will be happy and content” and also ones like “no hope”. Haha!

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Road Trip!

The Nature and Climate: I mentioned what it was like to fly into Ulaanbaatar, but the most beautiful scenery we came across lay outside the city. On our second full day in Mongolia, we went against several people’s advice and rented/drove a car outside the city. While I was extremely nervous for Tucker to drive in a place with a slightly different driving situation (most roads are not paved, steering wheels can be on the right or the left side of the car, and lines on the road are completely meaningless), I’m so happy we braved it and drove to Terelj National Park. The park and the landscapes on the way there and back were absolutely breathtaking. Flat sandy plains (complete with yaks), rocky mountain formations, a few sparkling rivers, and the snowy mountains in Terelj were all beautiful.

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Terelj National Park

Also, they are not kidding about the blue skies thing; they were by far the bluest skies I’ve ever seen (and yes, I’ve been to Montana). I was also incredibly happy to be in a colder climate again! Hefei, Orlando, and Atlanta – the last three cities in which I’ve lived are way too hot and humid for my taste. Mongolia was simply cold, and I loved it! We saw several flurries during our time there, and I relished my time in big, fluffy jackets, scarves, and gloves.

 

 

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Pretty epic, no?

Overall it was an incredible place to visit, even for just a short time. The people we met in Mongolia, including the hostel staff, the car renter, the teachers I encountered at the conference, and even the strangers who approached us in the street (looking to practice their English, of course), were all incredibly friendly and helpful, and we’d like to offer them our sincerest “bayarlalaa” (thanks). I highly recommend traveling to Mongolia if you ever get the chance! It’s very high on my list to re-visit, and I hope that happens sooner rather than later!

 

 

Golden Week Musings

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Evidence of the festival feel of Golden Week in China

This week is Golden Week in China! Don’t know what that means? Neither did we. But we enjoyed the time off regardless! After several questioning sessions and a quick google (yes, I still exclusively use Google thanks to my trusty VPN), I found out that there are actually two Golden Weeks in China. One following National Day, which is every October 1st, and another following the Chinese Lunar New Year (usually in January or February). These weeks are supposed to be a time when everyone in China can take a full seven days off to visit family, do some traveling, or just relax. The universities were certainly closed (and pretty empty), so Tucker and I were definitely able to do these things. However, buses and trains still ran as usual and most restaurants and stores were still open, so clearly not everyone in China enjoyed a week-long vacation. I’m starting to think Golden Week is a bit like a long Thanksgiving: good for the majority, bad for retail/travel workers.

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What would a festival be without snacks?

So how does one celebrate Golden Week? Well, first of all, it’s actually two holidays that are being celebrated: National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival. National Day is pretty easy to explain. It celebrates the day the People’s Republic of China was founded (1949), and looks a bit like the 4th of July in the US (although maybe slightly scaled down). We saw lots of decorations and flags all over the city, and there were more fireworks than usual. Apparently there are larger events in the big cities, but in Hefei we didn’t see or hear much about National Day. Mid-Autumn Festival, on the other hand, doesn’t really have an equivalent in popular US culture. Its date is set by the lunar calendar; thus, it doesn’t always fall on the same day. It coincides with the full moon in the 8th lunar month and is supposed to be a time for gathering, thanking, and moon-watching. As we’re not in with a Chinese family (yet!), I’m not exactly sure how much of this is actually done, but I do know that everyone buys and eats mooncakes during the festival.

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Green tea flavored mooncake

Mooncakes are dense and doughy little cakes with a design pressed into the top that are given to family members as a sign of unity and respect (we gave some to our building supervisor, and he seemed really pleased!). These treats started popping up in grocery stores weeks ago and run the gamut from extremely cheap (and rather dry and boring) to the outrageously expensive, ornate, boxed variety packs. Friends gave us some mooncakes early on in the week, and Tucker has bought several others to try as since then. However, I have to say, they’re just not one of my favorites. They’re very pretty, but, honestly, don’t have such a great mouthfeel.

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Waiting to have our tickets checked

Another piece of the Golden Week puzzle is travel. Golden Week is seen as a great time for families to travel long distances for reunions in hometowns or for sightseeing somewhere new, which makes perfect sense since everyone has the time off to do it! However, with a country of 1.3 billion people, things can quickly become rather crowded. We were warned by many people not to travel during Golden Week, so, of course, we booked train tickets right away. I had to see it for myself! And honestly, in retrospect, I didn’t think it was that bad. We chose to go to Nanjing (China’s old capital), which is only about an hour away by high-speed train. At the train station, it’s true, there were a lot of people, but that should be expected for a large and busy train station on a holiday. On the train itself, every seat was filled, but there were no crowds (or even standers) there. In Nanjing, a pretty touristy place, there were some crowds, but no more than you would expect at a festival. Overall, I was underwhelmed by the crowds on Golden Week. It could be that people are starting to stay home instead of fighting the crowds or maybe China’s facilities are just well-equipped for handling these numbers or maybe we just got really lucky. Regardless, we weren’t scared off and are planning to travel during the next Golden Week as well!

My Top 15 Travel Photos

I know I’m a little behind the times, but I recently got my very own Instagram. Yay! Better late than never, right? Well, actually it hasn’t been as quick and seamless of an addition as I thought. Not only am I rapid-fire adding all the people that should have been added steadily over the years, but I also have a very lonely 1 photo posted so far. So in order to beef up my post number (and also because I really like countdowns), I’ve decided to add some of my favorite photos from my Facebook collection to my Instagram. I tried to narrow it down to only 10, but that just wasn’t possible! So instead I’m going with a top 15, which I’ll be posting one at a time, every day or so.

As a bit of a disclaimer, I’m definitely not a photographer. I don’t know much about lighting or composition (I take all my photos from my iPhone if that tells you anything), but I tried to choose my list based on the picture itself and not the destination. Feel free to let me know (through comments or likes) which ones you think are the best and why! In addition to the photos, I also thought it would be fun to look at where they came from, so once the list is posted in its entity, I’ll add a map showing their locations. I hope you enjoy perusing my list as much as I am enjoying reminiscing about it!

 

#15 Crooked Forest, Poland15 (1)

 

#14 Rua Augusta Arch – Lisbon, Portugal14 (1)

 

#13 Cliffs of Moher, Ireland13 (1)

 

#12 BAPS Temple – Atlanta, Georgia (USA)12 (1)

 

#11 Cesky Raj, Czech Republic11 (1)

 

#10 Skopje, Macedonia10 (1)

 

#9 Zhujiajiao, China8 (1)

 

#8 Crater Lake, Oregon (USA)9 (1)

 

#7 Brooklyn Bridge, New York City 7 (1)

 

#6 Bergen, Norway6 (1)

 

#5 Byodo-In Temple – O’ahu, Hawaii5 (1)

 

#4 Colosseum – Rome, Italy4 (1)

 

#3 Black Sand Beaches, Iceland3 (1)

 

#2 Parliament Building – Budapest, Hungary 2 (1)

 

#1 Tatra Mountains, Poland1 (1)

 

Map of Photo Locations:Top 15 Locations