No Cheese in China! Things I Will and Won’t Miss in the Middle Kingdom

No Cheese in China!                                Things I Will and Won’t Miss in the Middle Kingdom

The communist party took over mainland China in 1949.  February 1972, I was 9 years old and President Nixon became the first president to visit the PRC, People’s Republic of China, ending 25 years of no communication or diplomatic ties between the two countries.  His visit also allowed the American public to view images of China for the first time in over two decades.  Other than whatever knowledge a 9-year-old would get in school, Nixon’s visit sparked my interest in the “Middle Kingdom”.  It was finally in 1978, under Deng Xiaoping, that China opened its borders to foreign visitors.  I remember thinking it would be cool to see/walk the Great Wall of China.  The next time I remember hearing/seeing big news from China was June 1989 and the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square.

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The Tiananmen Square incident recently marked its 30th anniversary.  It was all over Facebook, but I never saw or heard about it on any Chinese social media.  Why? I’m not going to get into politics here, but one reason is Social Media in China is government controlled…..no Facebook, no Instagram, no Google, not even Pinterest UNLESS you access the internet using a VPN (a virtual private network).  Known as the Great Firewall of China, the PRC has even been known to block VPN’s when they feel it necessary.  One thing I won’t miss when I leave China is having to log onto a VPN!

I’m starting off with a negative because as I am writing this, I am multi-tasking.  I’m blogging while attempting to use the internet.  I say attempting because my VPN continues to drop, my Wi-Fi is almost nonexistent, and it’s frustrating………

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Garlic and Rice Vinegar for Dumplings

 

Ah, China, 中国, Zhōngguó, the Middle Kingdom, land of 1.4 billion, the place you hate to love and love to hate, the place I have called home for 4 years.  Before arriving, my thoughts/images of China were The Great Wall, a funny language made up of stick pictures instead of letters, dumplings, eating with chopsticks, cheap merchandise, technology, General Tso’s chicken, rice, kung fu, tai chi, and pandas, to name a few.  I knew its history/culture was deep in tradition.  What I didn’t realize was just how deep and important these cultural traditions were in everyday life.  After arriving, I quickly learned I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and there’s no cheese in China.  What I mean is, China is very “Eastern”, unless you are in one of the bigger/popular cities, you will be hard pressed to find “Western” products/amenities or English language.   What you will discover is an amazing culture, kind people and a beautiful country.

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A Small Round Table Dinner

One thing I will miss are the “round table” dinners.  When a group goes out to eat, they are seated around a large or ginormous, depending on the number, round table with a rotating top.  When everyone is seated, dishes of amazing food start appearing.  A little side note on tradition, no one sits until the host has arrived.  Often, being a foreigner, I was the “guest of honor” and there was a certain position at the table where I had to sit.  This position would be the center of the table facing east or facing the entrance to the room.  Also, it is considered unlucky to start eating until there are a certain number of dishes on the table.  These feasts are amazing and will be missed.  One thing I won’t miss at these dinners are the chicken feet, various innards of animals, dishes of grubs/bugs eaten like peanuts and tofu. I’ve also discovered, I really like to eat with 筷子 kuàizi or chopsticks.

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Grubs
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Chicken Feet

I’m not sure I will be able to eat Chinese food in America when I return.  Chinese food in China is nothing like what we know.  They have an amazing way with seasonings and sauces that I only hope to be able to duplicate in a few dishes.  Other than missing the food in general, I am going to miss 面条 miàntiáo or noodles, but more specifically 兰州拉面 Lánzhōu lāmiàn.  I love almost all the noodle dishes in China, but I will miss the Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles the most.  I’m not sure I will be able to master hand pulling, but I do have a pretty good idea how to reproduce the broth. Which reminds me, Chinese soup spoons are the best.  With the little hooked end, they don’t slip into the soup bowl.  I need to bring some back with me.

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My Noodle Guy

 

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My Favorite Noodles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of food, which by the way is incredibly cheap and delicious…..Chinese home delivery.  There really is no reason to cook if you don’t want to. Simply pull up one of these apps you have installed on your phone;  美团外买 měi tuán wài mǎi or beautiful food buy outside and éle me饿了么 or are you hungry?.  Then choose from hundreds (seriously even in my small town) of restaurants, pick your dish(es) and in 30 minutes your food arrives and remember “no tipping”.  I will miss that too.  I did feel bad that one time I didn’t realize the elevators in my building weren’t working and I live on the 24th floor.  I ordered a 肉夹馍 ròu jiā mó or a Chinese hamburger, which really translates to meat folder.  It is shredded meat, often mutton or pork stuffed in a pita-like bread with hot peppers.  This I will miss but think I can make it at home.  I often order 2, because at a buck each they make a nice breakfast sandwich when you add an egg.  So, back to the day, my elevators were not working and I ordered $3.00 worth of food (2 Chinese hamburgers and a water).  The delivery guy knocked on my door, out of breath and in a complete sweat.  He had come up 24 floors or 48 flights to bring me my food.  I felt bad and he refused a tip.  I am going to miss the convenience and low cost of Chinese home delivery.

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肉夹馍 ròu jiā mó

One of the first things I recommend someone coming to China do is download 微信 Wēixìn (pronounced like we-she) or WeChat.  China’s answer to Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and Paypal (but better) social media app rolled into one.  Named by Forbes as one of the most powerful apps in the world.  Post pictures, links, message or call your friends and so much more.  What I love best, is it is linked to your bank account and is used to pay for everything everywhere.  Just scan a QR code at the supermarket, restaurant, taxicab, massage shop, noodle shop, post office, Taobao, wài mǎi, even the little old lady on the street selling mandarins from a wagon can be paid by WeChat.  Most everyone in China pays for goods and services with WeChat.  I rarely see cash or credit cards being used, although I always carry both.  I just haven’t quite got comfortable with carrying no cash.  Funny story….I was at China Post shipping one of many boxes back to the states.  There are a few things at the post office for which you must use cash.  The Chinese gentleman in front of me needed 20-yuan cash or a little less than $3.  He spoke to my friend Alice who I took along as my translator.  He asked her if I had 20 yuan (I did) because foreigners always carry cash.  He would pay me back by WeChat.  I handed over a 20 and he scanned my QR code and 20 yuan appeared in my WeChat wallet.  China, I will miss the convenience of WeChat.

 

 

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My WeChat QR Code

Ok, we have Amazon and a few others in the states, but nothing can compare to Taobao, China’s online shopping website.  From crazy to quirky and everything in between, if it exists in the world you can buy it on Taobao and usually pretty cheap…….“made in China” after all.  You’re a farmer and need a castrating tool….Taobao!  Enjoy eating goat brains…Taobao!  Need a live peacock…Taobao!  Missing cheese, because there’s no cheese in China?  Taobao!  Although I have learned not to purchase cheese on Taobao in warm weather, it comes packed in dry ice and styrofoam, but by the time it arrives in my rural village, it’s a melted lump.  Other than food and a few necessities, I buy/have bought most everything on Taobao, including toilet paper, mustard (no mustard in China either), coffee, small appliances, sheets, Beefeaters gin, my cell phone, etc. You get the picture.  Taobao you will be missed.

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Castrating Tool
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Goat Brains

 

 

 

 

Since I mentioned toilet paper, no matter how healthy or so-called natural it is to poop while squatting, I don’t think I will miss the beloved “squatty potty”.  That and the fact that you almost always need to have your own TP or tissue.  Picture this…..there you are in a squat, reaching for TP, none is provided and you forgot to get yours out. Bad knees, balancing a squat, trying to keep your pant legs and crotch out of the way while you look in your purse for tissue…..NOT FUN!   I understand why so many people wear pants cropped at or above the ankles and they are tight to their legs. Unless you have been squatting your entire life, when you’re 50 something with bad knees and then a broken back, squatting isn’t the easiest way to go, haha.  I can and I have for 5 months when I lived in Hunan Province, but if I’m honest I really won’t miss it.

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Squatty Potty,  I chose one of the worst ones I had.  This on an overnight train.  Imagine using this on a moving rickety train.

Most everyone has heard stories of pollution in China.  Until you have experienced an AQI (air quality index) of over 400 and can’t see the building behind you, you have no idea what air pollution is.  In northern China, pollution is usually the worst during the winter months.  This is because in some areas, mainly rural/countryside, coal is still burned for heating purposes. That along with multitudes of factories, car emissions and even the occasional sandstorm blowing through from the Gobi Desert contribute to the pollution problem.  I usually wear a mask if the AQI goes above 150, which is often in the winter.  China is doing a lot to “fix” their pollution problem, but I’m afraid clean air in China is a way off.  I won’t be missing the pollution.

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A Bad AQI Day

I seem to be getting a bit long winded here so just a few more things I will miss:

High-speed trains, but not the crowds, especially during a Chinese holiday

My once or twice a week $5 per hour massages

Chinglish/lost in translation

Street Food

The variety of unique fruits and vegetables some I never saw until I came to China/SE Asia

The low cost of most goods and services (I’m sure I will have sticker shock back in the USA)

Cushy work schedule

Baijiu, although a few mornings after a night of baijiu, I’m pretty sure I said I never wanted to see it again.

Hot Pot

The beauty of the country….I have been blessed to have travelled a good deal in my 4 years.  There is a beauty in the culture and the land that will always stay with you.

There are a few more things I won’t miss but aren’t worth mentioning unless you have experienced them and China is way more than those things.

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My Massage Shop
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Less than $1 for these mandarins

Here’s where I could get weepy.  More than anything, Chinese hospitality is beyond amazing.  Yes, I know Chinese people get a bad wrap in many foreign countries as being rude, loud and pushing their way to the front, etc.  I too have witnessed this, but since living in a country of 1.4 billion people, I have a better understanding of why this is.  I’m not going to defend it, just that I understand.  For the most part, you will find that the Chinese people welcome you with open arms.  Once they get over their initial curiosity you will soon be part of the family.  More than anything, it’s the people I have met along my journey that I will miss the most.  Those crazy kids I spent 2 weeks with in Beijing, Alina, my go-to person in Xiashan, James Allen from Xiashan who took his English name because of LeBron, Summer, my guide in Harbin, Yulia my roommate, Rabbin and his family in Changning, Paul, Skenny, Erwin, Erin, Jon, Sallen, Hety, Doris, CiCi and all the other staff at Champa Flower Kindergarten in Qingdao, my sweet Marlon and his mom in Qingdao, Amy and Harrison in Weifang who shared Christmas with me, Peter, Peter’s cousin and his wife, Phoenix, Alice and too many to name from my life in Dong’e.  I can’t begin to explain how each has made a mark on my heart and soul or begin to mention all the heart hits China will leave me with.  And what about all my students, the 1000’s of kids I have taught.  Those smiling faces will be missed, oh so much!

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”  Maya Angelou

There may not be any cheese in China, but I discovered more than enough wonderful people and things in this country to make up for it.  Thank you, and much love to everyone who has shared my journey.

My Cheese download (1)

Some Chinglish aka Lost in Translation

Oh China, I Will Miss You, But It’s Time to Move On!

Oh China, I Will Miss You, But It’s Time to Move On!

How do you know when it’s time to move to the next phase in your life?  Sometimes you don’t have a choice.  You are forced to make a change, which is how I first ended up moving abroad, living in Paris. Explanation here. Then you return to remnants of your old life and discover you kind of liked that phase you just left.  You find a way to return to life abroad, which is how I ended up living in China. Next thing you know, 5 months has turned into 4 years.  WOW! It’s true, months turn into years and friends turn into family.

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My first 5 months started with 2 weeks in Beijing and a “Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore” moment.  China really is “different” from the rest of the world.  How different is China? You can check out my blog post.  After 2 weeks in Beijing, I was into the next phase in Xiashan.  Xiashan is a small rural village considered part of Weifang in Shandong Province.  So small, it isn’t named on a map.  I was in love with my small country community, but being on a student Visa, I was only able to stay 6 months. I would have to return to the states and apply for a new Visa if I wanted to return to life in China.  Although Xiashan had very little in the way of Western amenities and it was an hour and 15-minute bus ride to get to a train station to get to an airport, I really did love living there and would have stayed on.  But, once again the decision to move to the next phase of my life was out of my control.  I did, however, return to the USA and applied for a new Visa and returned to China.  Unfortunately, I could not return to Xiashan because they had to replace me before I was able to return.

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My co-workers at Weifang Xiashan Bilingual School

On to phase two of life in China.  I returned briefly to Xiashan as they had kindly let me leave my things in the apartment.  I stayed for a couple weeks and got to meet my replacement which happened to be from a city next to my hometown of Warren, Ohio.  Halfway around the world and my replacement is from Cortland, Ohio.  I packed up, said my tearful goodbyes to my co-workers and boarded a train 9.5 hours south to Changning in Hunan Provence.  Life in Changning……my roommate Yulia was from Moscow and we got along famously.  The biggest change here is I went from teaching grades 1 and 2 to teaching grades 5, 6 and 7.  A slight adjustment in lessons plans and I survived.  I also survived rainy season in Hunan.  From the time I arrived at the end of February until leaving mid-June, I think we were lucky if we had 3 straight days without rain.  I did love the spicy food in Hunan Province, but at the end of the school term, we had both had our fill of Changning and I was ready to move on to a new part of China and hopefully back to primary students.

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My Changning Family and Roommate Yulia

August 3, 2016, phase three of my China life found me back in Shandong Province in a large by American standards, not so large by Chinese standards, city of 9 million on the Yellow Sea called Qingdao.  Woohooo, I would be at a kindergarten located right at the seaside.  I was very excited to be moving on to life in Qingdao, China.  Teaching kindergarten, the principal was from the states, the kindergarten was right on the sea, the city had many Western restaurants and supermarkets, life would be good.  I arrived in Qingdao and the school put me up at a hotel until they found accommodations for me. It actually took 6 weeks and I ended up living with the principal and his wife which was awesome.  I started at the school the day after I arrived as the other foreign teacher had gone on holiday.  They had brought in a second teacher (me) because enrollment at the school had increased.  Imagine my surprise when I was informed after 2 weeks that the other teacher had decided not to return.  Hmmmmm, why?  Thank goodness for the helpfulness of the principal and the Chinese teachers. They finally did bring in first Erwin in October and then Erin late November.  Without turning this into a bitch session, the owner of the kindergarten made many promises that were not kept and expected more and more unreasonable duties from the staff.  I didn’t want to hate my job and I was starting to.   Although I would miss my co-workers and the principal, I decided I would not return after Spring Festival.  That is how I ended up in Dong’e.

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My Kindergarten in Qingdao Sat Here on the Yellow Sea

Dong’e County, Shandong Province a countywide population of about 400,000 and located on the left or northern bank of the Yellow River.  The county is regionally and nationally renowned for Ejiao, donkey-hide gelatin used in traditional Chinese medicine.  The city of Dong’e is surrounded by many small villages and farmland.  The closest train station is about an hour away in Liaocheng but doesn’t have the high speed or bullet trains.  For high-speed trains and an airport, I travel 2 to 2.5 hours to Jinan, the capital of the Province.

I arrived in Dong’e in February 2017.  Again, I stayed in a hotel while Peter (the person who brought me to Dong’e) and I looked for an apartment.  After about a week or 10 days, I had a room with a view. I was on the 24th floor overlooking a river, which I later found out was actually a lake.  Economic development in the area had cut off a branch of the river and turned it into a lake.  I don’t think Peter expected to have a teacher come to this small community so quickly.  The first month to 6 weeks, I didn’t have a job.  Thankfully, I was still paid.  The time was spent having dinners to meet local community leaders and school administrators, giving demo classes at Training Centers and in the schools.  My first regularly scheduled teaching job was private lessons/tutoring to two 5-year-old girls.  Gradually more students were added to my tutoring and I was teaching 2 days per week in a local kindergarten and 1 afternoon at a primary school.  This still gave me about 2.5 days of free time which I enjoyed.

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Beautiful Sunset from My Dong’e Apartment

 

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Lovely Lake Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then I had my accident on September 7, 2018.  I ended up in the hospital with a broken back that required surgery.  My story is here  This put me out of commission for about 2 months.  When I was well enough to continue teaching, it was only lessons in my home as I was not well enough to spend days at the kindergarten or primary school.  Since November 2018 I have been giving lessons in my home on Saturdays and Sundays.

2 months of which 2 weeks were spent in a hospital bed and then 6 more weeks of minimal “up” time at home, you have a lot of time to think.  I have been in Dong’e for nearly 2.5 years.  Yes, I love my life here.  I have made many friends who treat me like family. But, that simple 3 letter word b.u.t., but I wanted more.  Due to the nature of my injury, I thought about how lucky I was….. I wasn’t paralyzed….or worse.  I thought about the trip to Paris, I had to cancel. Luckily, I was able to reschedule and just went in May.  I thought about my bucket list. I thought about my condo in Warren, Ohio that I haven’t even moved in to.  You get the idea.  Anyway, I asked myself, “Do you want to be in Dong’e this time next year?”.   That answer came fairly easy, as much as I like my life here, no, this time next year I couldn’t picture myself in Dong’e.  Next question, “Do you want to be in China?”.  That was a little more difficult to answer, I didn’t know.

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A Few of My Students

For the next several weeks I thought about that question.  I decided that I would leave Dong’e at the end of the school year which is July 2019.  This worked out well. I needed to re-up my Visa by July 20th, which also means I have to leave mainland China to do it.  I want to spend the holidays in Warren.  I haven’t been in the states for the holidays since 2012.

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Okay, I have the start of a plan.  Now what to do between leaving Dong’e and being in the states for the holidays?  Holidays meaning Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and the grand re-opening of the Robins Theatre.  After the Robins opening, I would be free to make a long-term commitment to teaching somewhere.   Last time I was in Saigon, I met a young University student.  She has often asked me to come to Vietnam and teach English.  So, upon leaving China, I decided my first stop would be Vietnam and investigate job opportunities.  From Vietnam, Bali is just a hop, skip and a jump.  I had friends in the states who had mentioned joining me in Bali in August.  So, I then decided to head to Bali after Vietnam.  Also, having friends in Bali, I decided to look into an extended stay, meaning teaching/volunteer opportunities.  I will spend one month of R&R after which I found a School for Special Needs students where I will work for 8 weeks.  A few more weeks of doing nothing and I will head back to Vietnam before returning to the states.

Great, but what about next year? I use a website, https://en.islcollective.com/ as a teaching resource.  Sometime last year they added a resource for teaching jobs.  I decided to browse the listings.  Thinking I would return to SE Asia, I mainly browsed those opportunities.  While researching my upcoming trip to Paris, I realized I missed Europe and decided along with SE Asia, to look at opportunities in Europe. After putting in my criteria, a company called English Wizards based in Warsaw kept popping up.  It looked interesting, a young company with hopes to expand outside of Poland, so I contacted them.  Long story short, I have committed to relocating to Poland end of January 2020.

It will be difficult to leave Dong’e, but the answer to the question, “is this where you want to be this time next year?” was easy.  I will miss the friends I have made and my students, but I know it is time to move on.  The decision to leave China not so easy and then the decision to leave Asia/SE Asia a little more difficult. Asking myself many questions, forcing myself to answer truthfully and planning to enjoy time in SE Asia before saying goodbye has made the realization a bit easier.

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My “Littles”

 

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It’s Not Easy to Say Goodbye

“It’s a difficult thing, but there are times when moving on with your life starts with a goodbye.” unknown

I am excited to move on to the next phase of my journey.

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My Love Affair with Paris! What Are the French Really Like?

My Love Affair with Paris!  What Are the French Really Like?

Anyone who knows me, knows I have somewhat of a love, no, obsession with Paris.  Evidently, as my brother has reminded me, this stems back to when I was a child wearing a beret and probably trying to speak with a French accent.  I somehow always knew I would visit Paris one day and I even dreamed of living there.  It’s true, you never forget your first trip to Paris.

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It started young….
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Not sorry!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It was our first evening in Paris.  The night was falling as we entered the metro.  Rain was in the forecast, so I had our umbrella.  We were on our way to a wine taste. A light drizzle met us as we exited the metro station. The sounds of the city and the glow of the streetlamps surrounded us.  As we tried to get our bearings, he spotted a street vendor selling crepes.  Huddled under our umbrella….sharing a warm crepe….Paris in the rain….I was in love.”

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10 years later, numerous visits and a brief 6 months living in Paris, I am still in love.

Naturally, when you love something or someone, you tend to defend it/them at all cost.  Before that first trip, I heard, “The Parisians are rude!”, “No one speaks English.”, “The city is filthy, they pee in the street.”, and so on.  I always asked, “How do you know? Have you been?”  To which I often heard, “Well, everyone says so.” My response, “Who is everyone?”  So, it began, always defending my beloved Paris.

Having several years of high school and college French I figured, no problem.  My first trip to Paris was before translation apps were popular so I had to depend on my minimal, poorly spoken French and an English/French dictionary.  While it was true, that few people seemed to speak English, we managed.  Were the people rude?  Was it filthy?  I honestly couldn’t tell you.  It was my first visit, passing through for a few short days on our way to Venice.  I didn’t care, I was in Paris, the city of my dreams and I was in love.

3 more trips after this one, including one to celebrate my 50th birthday with my girlfriend, Teri, and our significant others and one for a job interview, again with Teri.  I knew the next time I packed my bags to come to Paris, it would be long term.  Now, the others on the 25th anniversary of my 25th year, felt that some of these stereotypes were true, the Parisians were rude, no one speaks English and the city was dirty.  True or not, I didn’t care, it was Paris in autumn.   My most recent visit to Paris (spring 2019), had Teri beginning to change her view and my cousins, their first time, understanding my love affair with La Ville Lumiere, the City of Light.  Named, both, because of its leading role during the Age of Enlightenment and more literally, being one of the first big European cities to use gas street lighting on a large scale.

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La Ville Lumiere….The City of Light

So, why do many Americans assume the French are rude?

Finally fulfilling my dream, I moved to Paris in August of 2014.  It’s very different when you live in a city versus being a tourist.  Let me add that I had come to live in Paris for a job teaching English and I had enrolled at the University to study French.  Long story short, my student visa was denied (no reason given), so, therefore, I couldn’t study or have a job.  I made the choice to move to Paris and just live the café life.  For the next 6 months, I wandered Paris, travelled to the countryside, went to Germany, Switzerland,  the Netherlands, Poland and Ireland. 6 months to wander, I was deeper in love.

Daily life in Paris was quite different from life in Warren, Ohio.  I had no car to jump into and take off on a whim.  I had my cozy little flat, the first in the 19th with a view of the Eiffel Tower from one window and Sacre Coeur from another and my second in the 18th, the heart of Montmartre.  Without a job, it was life on a budget, which basically meant I wasn’t taking taxis to get around. I was depending on my 2 feet or the metro. I really felt like a Parisian when I got my Navigo card complete with photo.  This was a card I renewed monthly for unlimited travel on public transportation.  I wasn’t dining daily at fabulous restaurants but cooking in my home.  This meant daily trips to the local market, the boucherie, the boulangerie or the patisserie and only purchasing what I could carry.  I rarely went to a “supermarket” as a large fresh market for fruits and veggies was one metro stop away.  I eventually bought a little trolley that enabled me to pick up a few more items in one trip.  Other than my landlord (in the 19th) whose window I could look into from mine and who on occasion invited me over for a glass of champagne to enjoy the sunset, I knew no one.

So, are the Parisians rude?  One thing I learned (even before living in Paris), a simple bonjour madame/monsieur, when entering a café, a shop, a boucherie, etc., is necessary and will make life a bit easier.  Don’t forget a merci, au revoir (thank you, goodbye) or the less formal and if you are familiar with the person a merci, a bientot (thank you, see you soon) when leaving.  I began to find my favorite shops and before long, even though as soon as I spoke everyone knew I was American, I was greeted with a warm smile. The meat cutter at my boucherie even became familiar with my favorite cuts of meat and was soon making recommendations.  Other than the faces at my local shops, I still didn’t really know anyone, but not because people were unfriendly.  This was because I spent my first months wandering all over the city, taking it all in.  On weekends, I could travel outside of Paris, but still within Ile de France, with my Navigo card and visited small towns and villages.  I was a kid in a candy store and I had to taste it all.  Soon my time in the 19th was coming to an end.  My landlord had told me he needed the flat for family that was coming.

I found a flat in the 18th, in the heart of Montmartre, which was my real love.  Also, by this time, I had accumulated some “stuff”; a French press, herbs I was growing in my kitchen, a pasta maker, etc.  “Stuff” (too much) I didn’t want to leave behind that had to accompany me on my move.  How to move?  I didn’t know anyone well enough to ask for help, so I moved over the course of a couple days by metro and finally taking the last load by taxi.  Settled, in my favorite area of the city, I began a day to day life that was more routine.  Many days I never left Montmartre.  I again found all my favorite shops in the neighborhood and was soon being greeted as if they knew me.  I was also stopping in the mornings at the same café for coffee and in the evenings for a glass of wine and an occasional meal.

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With Julie in Bali. After a bottle of wine, we took a dip in the decorative pool…clothes and all.

I became friends with Julie, one of the servers and would hang out chatting with her.  I met Samy, who worked at La Cigale and Freddy, who took me on outings to visit his friends in the countryside.  Several others, I would meet for coffee, wine, a meal or just café hopping and strolling around Montmartre.  Some spoke good English, some, not so much. My French was improving. I even had a companion I would meet at a café for French lessons, in exchange for English lessons.   Some, I lost contact after I returned to the states.

 

 

 

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Freddy at Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole.

Some, like Freddy, from Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole (a great restaurant near Notre Dame), I still visit when in Paris.  My dear friend Julie moved to Bali and is the reason I first went there.  She said I must come to visit her, so I did.  Soon, I will be moving to Bali for a 3.5-month stay and teaching experience.

 

But it was during these outings I learned a thing or two that fed into the “Parisians are rude” attitude.  First, I‘ve already addressed that a simple bonjour madame/monsieur is an ice breaker.  It helped me then and after my most recent trip, I can honestly say, and I think Teri and my cousins would agree after the initial bonjour, many people switched to English.  Many more than in past visits.  Next, French waiters probably have the worst reputation for being rude.  French waiters are considered professionals and don’t work for tips. That being said, they don’t buy into the American thought of the customer is always right. They don’t have a need to cater to your every whim because they aren’t working for tips.  On the flip side of that coin, they aren’t working for tips so there isn’t the need to quickly turn over tables.  You can sit for 30 minutes or 3 hours.  They get paid the same wage no matter.  Do also greet them with a smile and bonjour.  Trust me, hearing you speak that one simple word, they will know you speak little or no French.  Nearly every waiter we encountered on my most recent trip, when treated with respect (that initial bonjour) switched over to English and was quite charming.  If it appears, I am speaking of French servers in the male gender, it is because most servers in Paris are men. I can only recall one female server at Le Relais de la Butte in Montmartre (conveniently located across from our hotel) being female and she was equally friendly.

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The waiter at La Mere Catherine, he kept bringing me little dishes of olives because he knew I liked them.

 

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A rose’ and the olives

The menu….as Americans, we often want to switch up the menu…exchange this for that, steamed not fried, Italian or ranch, dressing on the side….not only in Paris but all over Europe, this is a no-no and causes the rest of the world to view Americans as “difficult”.  The dish comes as it is.  Which reminds me of a second female server who thought Teri was asking to substitute an item for another when in fact she was asking for an additional item as a side.  This did give the server a little attitude. However, by the end of the meal, she was smiling and all was right with the world.

You may think your waiter is ignoring you, when in fact he is respecting your privacy.  He won’t constantly be over your shoulder asking if you need anything or is everything alright.  Once he delivers your food, he will leave you alone to enjoy your company and your dining experience.  They expect you to leisurely linger over your meal.  Enjoy each bite and each sip….relaxing with your family and friends.  If you need something, make eye contact and politely signal them over to your table.  When you are finished with your meal, put your knife and fork together across your plate.  This tells your waiter he can clear the table.  Now, he will ask if you would like dessert or coffee. If you decline, this doesn’t mean he is going to bring your bill. They will leave you to relax and socialize, even if the restaurant is full.  Teri even commented about feeling guilty taking so much time.  We as Americans aren’t programmed to linger and enjoy our meals and time with others.  It is one of the things I love about the European lifestyle.   When you are ready to leave, make eye contact, make the scribble motion or say l’addition s’il vous plait (the bill please).

I hope this explains the misconception of rude waiters, although, as in every culture I’m sure there are some who are rude.

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Street Art
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Graffiti

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although I never thought Paris was filthy, it is cleaner than I have ever seen it.  Street art/graffiti is everywhere, but it is an accepted practice.  I’ve only once witnessed anyone peeing in the streets.  Although I will tell you, in some of the older buildings, there are still squatty potties, albeit few, they do exist.  I’m not sure how, but I fall more in love with Paris every time I visit, and my heart is definitely in Montmartre.  Next year, I will be moving to Poland. I am looking forward to once again embracing the European way of life and continuing the adventures of “Down the Rabbit Hole”.

 

 

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”  Ernest Hemingway, “A Moveable Feast”

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With Teri on the steps of Sacre Coeur from our most recent of many trips to Paris.

You’re Never Too Old to “Make Your Life a Story Worth Telling” Why I Do What I Do

You’re Never Too Old to “Make Your Life a Story Worth Telling” Why I Do What I Do

 

“Make your life a story worth telling”1 one of the mantras from “The Promise of a Pencil” by Adam Braun.  I’ve often been asked why I do what I do, or why do you live in a foreign/communist country and teach English?  I’ve even been criticized for doing what I do in a foreign country and not in the USA.  Do I do it because I wanted a story to tell?  The answer to that is, no, but I have since discovered I do have a story to tell.  Back to the question, why do I?  You’ve probably seen the question/quote on the internet “have you ever wanted to pack up and leave and start a new life?”  Well, basically, that’s what I did.  My relationship had gone south, no pun intended, and I was in a job I used to love but was starting to hate.  I packed up and left, moved to Paris, I ran away, far away.  I ran away thinking I had a teaching job in Paris, which I did until my work Visa was denied without a reason.  I had an airplane ticket and an apartment rented in Paris, may as well stick with part of the plan and just go.  After 6 months of living in Paris and travelling in Europe, it was time to go back to the USA.  Returning, I discovered, I couldn’t stay.  I didn’t want to stay.  I found out I could teach English in China, so I left again.  Initially, the reason “I do what I do” was because I ran away. I didn’t like my life situation, so I changed it.  But what actually happened is it changed me.

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I saw my home country in a whole new light compared to what I was living halfway around the world.  70 million children around the world have no access to education and 759 million adults worldwide are illiterate.  I know we have poverty in the United States and there are children who aren’t getting an education.  I’m sure I haven’t seen the worst in America.  When you stay in a home in rural China that has no indoor plumbing and the toilet is a hole in the ground outside; or you stay in a home in North Vietnam where the cattle, water buffalo and pigs live under the house that is on stilts; or you stay in a village in Cambodia where a woman is teaching the young girls who lack a formal education to make purses out of pop tops from cans so they have a marketable skill;  then you start to think that even most of the poor people in the United States have it better than the majority of people in developing countries.

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One of the homes in Quang Uyen Village, N. Vietnam
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The house next to my homestay in Quang Uyen Village, N. Vietnam

 

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Kitchen in my homestay in Quang Uyen Village

 

I’ve just finished reading the book I referenced above, “The Promise of a Pencil”.  I found myself nodding my head yes.  I was sometimes wiping the tears off my cheek as I related to a story that was told.  I think I even verbalized, “Wow, I get it”!  Sure, the author was working to start up a “not-for-profit”, or as he learned to say a “for-purpose” organization to build schools and train teachers in developing countries.  But that isn’t what he started out to do.  He had the world at his fingertips, promises of job offers, internships at the best financial companies in New York City. Yet, something was missing.  He did a semester at sea and backpacked in remote areas of many countries.  It changed his philosophy on life. I used to think I had it all, good relationship, a job I loved…until I didn’t.  That’s when I ran.  Most everything he said I could relate to on some level in my then and now current situation.  I lost my purpose.  Why do I do what I do?  It gives me a purpose.  I didn’t realize that in the beginning, but every day abroad has given me more reasons to do what I do.  China may not be considered a developing country, but its focus on education is huge.  They want every child to learn English.  My purpose in this scheme of things is to show the students that learning English can be fun.  Make them want to learn English, not feel like they are forced to learn it.

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Having fun with my students in Changning, Hunan

“Why be normal”2?  I definitely wasn’t normal when I arrived at the internship in Beijing.  I was an over 50 female who found herself amid mostly under 20s on a gap year.  Somehow, I managed to fit in.  I learned a lot the 2 weeks I spent with those “kids”. “Happiness is found in celebrating others”3. Every night they found something to celebrate…..learning to write our first Chinese characters…..being able to count from 1 to 10 in Mandarin….learning a tai chi sequence…..discovering the necessary skills to teach English to children who would have no idea what we were saying and vice versa.  We celebrated all the small things in our day.  Why do I do what I do?  It’s fun!

“If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough”.4  My 5-month internship was coming to an end.  I couldn’t go back to life in Warren, Ohio or more truthfully, I didn’t want to.  I returned, briefly.  I chatted with friends about wanting to return to China.  Some said I was crazy, some said I was crazy, but why not, and I also heard why, why do you want to go back, stay here.  Have you ever been mobbed by 60 six-year old’s who are so happy to see you they nearly knock you over?  It does something to your heart and soul.  I’ve visited villages of 400 people most who have never seen a foreigner.  My Chinese co-workers, who I had only known for 5 months, cried when we said goodbye.  I have travelled to places most people will never have the opportunity to see.  Pulled in so many directions, I finally turned to my brother.  A person who had his own big dreams.  Who on his own, had started a business, his own company.  He knew how to dream big and was successful.  He asked me what I wanted.  He knew I had a passion for travel.  I told him I want to go back and live in China.  He asked me, “what’s holding you back”?  I said, “my life here, my friends, my family, my “stuff”, I’m scared”.  His answer was simple, “all that will be here when you decide to come back.  I have storage where you can put your “stuff”.  Life is short, who knows that better than us (he was referencing our parents who died at ages 60 & 63)  GO”!  Next thing I knew, my life was in storage and I was on a plane to Beijing.  Why do I do what I do?  It makes me happy and is fulfilling a dream.

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One of the reasons “why”
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This is Grace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I referenced several mantras from “The Promise of a Pencil” but let me give you a few more examples of why I do what I do.  Grace, a girl in one of my classes in Changning Hunan, who wrote me a letter, in her best English, before I left thanking me for the knowledge that I gave her and that she would miss me.  Alina, my co-worker from Xiashan also wrote to me when I left. She told me how happy she was to meet me and wrote me a phrase in Mandarin which meant that no matter where we are, we can see the same moon and that she would miss me.

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Alan and his mom

Alan, one of my students in Qingdao.  His mother thanked me before I left. Thanked me because she said I helped Alan love school.

 

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Sweet Marlon

 

 

 

 

 

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The “littles”

 

 

 

 

My sweet Marlon, a little boy in Qingdao who stole my heart.  His mother still sends me pictures and updates.  My “littles” that I teach on Saturdays who always make me laugh.  The other kids I work with on the weekends that all received full marks in English the last term.  The ayi who worked in my building and would come to visit me every day after my back surgery.  She spoke no English, but we were able to communicate through laughter, pictures and of course, Google translate.

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The young girl who knocked on my door

Peter, who brought me to Dong’e because he had a dream.  His dream was to offer the children in his community the opportunity to learn English.  The random people I meet who want to take a photo with an American.  The young girl who knocked on my apartment door with her father and a bag of fruit.  She read from a paper in her best attempt at English, welcoming me to Dong’e. 

 

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Koming, Ketut and Family
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My homestay family in Thailand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The family I stayed with in Bali, Koming and Ketut, who invited me back to take part in Ngaben or cremation ceremony as part of their family.  My homestay family in Thailand, Golf and her husband who also welcomed me to be a part of their family.  The 400 people of Quang Uyen Village North Vietnam I stayed with who still live off their land.  Loi, my guide from Hanoi who has invited me back and said, “don’t get a hotel, you will stay with my family”.  Le Minh Chau the young college student I met in a park in Saigon who wanted to practice her English and spent the week taking me to all the local places with her friends.  All so they could practice English.  We still keep contact to this day, and I plan to see her again in July. Why do I do what I do?  It gives me a purpose.  I’m not normal.  It makes me happy.  It’s fun.  It gives me the opportunity to travel the world, one of my passions.  It’s changed me.  I’ve learned so much about other cultures.  I’m living my dream.  I could go on and on……but more than anything, it’s the people whose lives have touched mine and I hope in return I have touched theirs.

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Loi from Hanoi
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Li Minh Chau (in black &  white)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One day, I may stop doing what I do, abroad.  Then I will tell my story back home in Warren Ohio to anyone who will listen.  I hope it will encourage people, young and old to follow their dreams.

Mother Teresa said it best, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples”.  Have I changed the world?  No, but I hope I have made a difference and caused a few ripples.  I hope my life is a story worth telling.

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I want to end with a paragraph from “The Promise of a Pencil.  It addresses youth, but I want to add you’re never too old either.  “You may be safe, but I am free.  Take advantage of the freedom that comes with youth.  Inhale life, exhale fire, and embrace the late, sleepless nights, because that’s when the magic happens – when everyone else is asleep and you’re awake thinking about the world as it is, and the world as it could be.  Make the most of those moments, and in the coming years,  people will tell you that you’re too young to change the world. I’m here to tell you that’s fucking bullshit.”

This book spoke to me and I would like to share the website for anyone who is interested.  I plan to use my birthday as a fundraiser for Pencils of Promise which has now built over 500 schools in developing nations. The mantras (1-4) I cited above are chapters in the book.  If interested in learning more here is the website;  https://pencilsofpromise.org/

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Living Abroad …..Why I Sometimes Get Mad at America

Living Abroad …..Why I Sometimes Get Mad at America

First, I love my country and I’m proud to be an American, most of the time.  That being said, “sometimes I get mad at America” and I’m not talking about the political climate.  Second, life abroad isn’t always sunshine and roses.  Sometimes, I get mad at China too…..remember when I couldn’t log on to Facebook or use google because my VPN was down or that time I was sick and only had a squatty potty or when my government controlled heat wasn’t working in December.  But this isn’t about why I sometimes get mad at China. I’ll save that for another time.

I have lived in a communist country and traveled much of this part of the world for the better part of nearly 4 years.  Every single day when I log on to to Facebook, watch a YouTube video, save a recipe on Pinterest, look something up on google, use google translate or like today as I write my blog that says, “sometimes I get mad at America, I am reminded of and thankful for my basic freedoms as an American.  Most of the people I know in China, do not have access to these sites and don’t even know what Pinterest is, let alone anyone dares say, “sometimes I get mad at China”.  So, why does this make me mad at America? I see us as a country abusing our freedoms.  Freedoms that our ancestors fought to give us.  I believe in our freedoms, but let’s take freedom of speech.  Freedom of speech has brought us “fake news”.  Fake news that many, myself included, have passed on as factual and thus snowballing. Yes, I know fake news isn’t just an American problem, but shouldn’t we be above this? Shouldn’t we use our freedom of speech in a more positive way? Just recently in China, an article came out saying China had shut down base camp at Mount Everest to tourists because of litter and abuse of the area.  Saddened, as I had spent one of my most amazing journeys at EBC, I reposted the article.  A few days later, I found out the article was “fake news”.  China had closed base camp to tourists, but not for the reasons stated in the original article.  The article also informed me that the government had shut down over 100,000 websites and deleted over 500,000 articles that were deemed fake.  Can you imagine this happening in the US?  No!  Yet, we continue to abuse our freedom of speech and it makes me angry. This is just one example of our lack of respect for our freedoms.

The “Ugly American”, unfortunately, I have witnessed this.  Americans abroad who don’t respect another culture, who think everyone in the world should speak English.  To quote Clifton Fadiman, “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable.  It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”  What is so difficult about learning one simple word, a word of greeting in the land you are visiting?  Granted, my Chinese language skills leave much to be desired, but I try learning simple greetings and phrases.  I try to do this prior to traveling to any country on my journey. I have a phrase I “pinned”, it states, “I’m a survivalist, I can ask for coffee in six languages”.

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Then there is the ugly American who loudly exclaims, “Oh my god, we would never eat that in America”, or “why can’t you speak English, or “the health department would shut this place down”, or “they don’t even have proper toilets here”, etc.  I have witnessed them all. No, Americans abroad aren’t the only “ugly” tourists, I have witnessed Chinese tourists in Paris pushing and shoving, talking loudly, etc., but I’m not Chinese, I’m American and don’t like seeing Americans behaving badly.  It makes me angry when we as Americans disrespect another culture.  When foreigners come to our shores, we expect them to have some basic knowledge of English and respect our customs.  Let’s do the same when we visit theirs and let’s be more accepting of foreigners when they visit ours.

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My wardrobe

We as Americans are materialistic.  I get angry at myself when I think about how much “shit” I have in storage in the US.  Life abroad certainly teaches you to live simply or more simply than you would in America.  Which makes me mad at myself again, when I think about what I have acquired in 2 years in Dong’e.  I have more clothes than all the teachers at my kindergarten put together and they all fit in one wardrobe and a couple sets of drawers.  How do I know this?  I felt guilty when I had a group of my co-workers over and they went on and on about how much “stuff” I had.

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More of “My Stuff”

 

Even though I think I live simply compared to being in America, it is still not as simple as most in Dong’e.  Simple for me is a manual washing machine.  I fill it by a valve, turn it on and when the wash cycle is finished, I turn a knob to drain and repeat the process.  When I think my clothes have been washed and rinsed enough, I drain and then transfer the sopping clothes to the other side which is a spinner.  I spin the clothes in batches and then hang to dry as I have no dryer.  To me this is living simply, to others, it is a luxury.  I had a woman and her daughter staying with me when I first arrived. She was new in town, single mom, working for Peter.  He asked if she could stay with me until she found a place.  After all, I do have 3 bedrooms.   Until I showed her how to use my “washing machine”, she washed all of their clothes by hand and wrung them out by hand.  I guess you could say that is living simply.  In the states, I have a car to jump into whenever I want, here, I had a scooter, lately, I have had my 2 feet.  Although I will have my scooter back at some point, I have learned to manage without.  Not only do I get angry at America for being materialistic, but I also get angry at myself.  Living abroad and traveling you realize how much stuff you don’t need.

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My Washer
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Wash Section and Spin Section

I’m just going to touch on this next thing briefly….healthcare.  After a few experiences with healthcare in China, it makes me angry about healthcare in America.  We are overmedicated, overcharged for services, drug costs are outrageous, we have an opioid crisis, and insurance costs are inflated.  When I sprained my ankle here in China, I eventually went to the hospital where I had an MRI and x-rays, I saw 3 doctors and had a consultation with an orthopedic specialist….total bill without insurance…$75.  I’m not sure I could see one doctor in America for even an office visit without insurance for $75 let alone an MRI or x-ray.  After a few visits to the local hospital, including one extended stay, I question healthcare in America.  Enough said.

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Dr. Alex, My Back Surgeon

What has happened to random acts of kindness?  I just read a Facebook post from a friend who was unhappy, maybe even angry about the fact that it was “freezing outside” as she drove by a walker.  She was upset because she was afraid to pull over and offer a ride.  They would most likely be as afraid of her as she was of them. It bothered her that we, as a culture, as Americans, have lost trust in our fellow man.  It too makes me angry that we have so much violence and hate in America that random acts of kindness of this type just don’t happen because it isn’t safe.  Sure, people pay for the coffee of the car behind them in a drive-thru or donate to a “go fund me”….it’s safe and it makes you feel good, but when was the last time you had a face to face encounter with a complete stranger?  They are few and far between.  Living in a country that has strict gun laws, strict drug laws and a low incidence of violent crime, I have had several opportunities to experience random acts of kindness.  You can read about one here.

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My Aperol Spritz To Go

What got me started on this whole, “sometimes I get mad at America” idea was after I told the following story to a friend in Warren.  I was in Phuket.  Every day I walked, or my host family took me by motorcycle to Surin Beach.  I would spend my days getting a massage, walking the beach, stopping for lunch and a cocktail, sometimes taking the cocktail and sitting on the beach after lunch.  Then I would stroll to a bar/restaurant just off the beach and chat with the staff and enjoy happy hour until sunset.  The first evening as I was leaving to head back to the beach, the young lady behind the bar asked if I wanted to take a drink with me while I walked to the beach and enjoy it during sunset.  With uncertainty, I replied, “it’s okay to walk down the street with a drink?” She kind of looked at me funny and said, “of course.”  I explained to her that except for certain restricted areas, it isn’t allowed in the United States.  So began my nightly ritual…beach…bar…..drink to go…sunset.  The more I thought about it, it made me a little mad.  In Thailand, I can get a drink and walk down the street….in China, I can take a bottle of wine and sit by the lake….in Paris, I can take a bottle of wine to any park or sit with my friends on the steps of the Sacre Coeur and watch sunset while enjoying a glass of champagne.  In all of these situations and more I haven’t mentioned, I have never witnessed drunk and disorderly people, no fights and most everyone picks up after themselves.  I thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be nice, when I’m living in downtown Warren to sit in Courthouse Park on a warm summer evening or a crisp autumn night with friends and enjoy some adult beverages and a few laughs.  But no……there might be a drunken brawl. As I was telling her my random thoughts, she said I should write about it.

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Attending a Balinese Hindu Ceremony

So, there you have it, sometimes I do get mad at America.  I don’t intend this to come off as an angry post, because 99% of the time I’m just a happy go lucky American girl who happens to live in China for the moment. There’s nothing like getting off your plane after a year or more abroad and seeing the American flag and hearing the immigration officials say, “welcome home”.  I can’t change America or the world with my blog posts, but I can share my thoughts and experiences, good and bad.  I can share a smile with a stranger.  I can continue to learn to live more simply.  I can check my sources before passing on “fake news”.  I can worship in a Buddhist temple, attend a Hindu ceremony or visit a mosque because I have freedom of religion.  I can make my voice heard by exercising my right to vote, even from afar.  I can tell people in this part of the world that despite what they hear about mass shootings, police brutality, the opioid/drug crisis, etc., I really do live in one of the greatest countries in the world. I can tell them that I love my country and I am proud to be an American.  But most importantly, I can show them.  Another thing my father always told us, “actions speak louder than words”.

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Fear as a Solo Female Traveler?

Fear as a Solo Female Traveler?

From the time he found out he would be a father, my dad always said I was going to be a girl and he was happy to have a female as his firstborn.  Although, now don’t all you feminists get your panties in a wad, he raised me like a boy.  He taught me to play baseball, took me to work with him and showed me how to pound nails, cut 2 x 4’s and lay shingles.  He wanted me to be tough and fearless but made sure I understood how to be ladylike at the same time.  He often quoted FDR from his inaugural address saying, “the only thing you have to fear is fear itself”.  As a kid, I didn’t understand what this meant.  According to Miriam Webster, fear is an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by the anticipation or awareness of danger. The definition didn’t help me understand the quote.  E-notes tells me that “FDR used this phrase to motivate American society to remain hopeful instead of giving up. If we become too afraid, we then allow others to control us and we no longer have control of our own lives.  FDR wanted to inspire Americans to respond to a bad situation by doing something positive and not allowing their fears to keep them from reacting at all”.  I guess my dad wanted to motivate me to reach for my dreams and not to let fear of the unknown hold me back,  that I was strong enough to control my destiny.

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In August of this year, I will have spent most of the last 5 years living outside of the United States.  I spent just over 6 months living in Paris and the remainder of the time in various cities in China.  As you can imagine, I get asked a lot of questions, not just from strangers, but family and friends alike.  One of the questions, when people find out I am living/traveling solo, is, “don’t you get lonely?”  Well, I addressed that in my last blog, “The Highs and Lows of Solo Travel.  You can read it here.  The other question I get asked quite frequently is, “aren’t you afraid?”  Simply put, no, not really, but I think I need to expand on that “no”.  Insert a singing Doris Day here, I tend to have a “que sera sera” attitude, but there are some things I should worry about or fear.  Let’s start with safety, that falls under something to cause fear, right?

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With Teri in London
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In Paris

I have a dear friend, yes, you Teri, who worries about my safety.  She often reminds me that I am not always “careful”.  Maybe often is an understatement, every time I travel, she reminds me. She is right about that and tells me not to let my guard down.  Its become a sort of a joke between us. A joke I need to take seriously.

Living in Paris, I regularly walked home from the Seine back to Montmartre alone, late at night, often near midnight.  Of course, machine gun-toting police are often seen all over Paris and that made me feel safe.  Now, after living in China for so long, it does become easy to let your guard down.  From 2012 to 2017, the Chinese government reported an 81.3% drop in gun crimes from 311 to 58.  Of course, China has strict gun laws and it is illegal for a private citizen to own a gun.  But, according to government statistics, police also confiscated 146,000 guns in 2018.  This just means that I don’t really fear violent crime, not just gun crime, in China.  Besides living abroad, I frequently travel to other countries in this part of the world.  During my travels/living abroad, I can honestly say I only once remember having a feeling of real fear……Paris, New Year’s Eve, 2014.  My friend Patty and I decided to brave the crowds and go near the Arc de Triomphe and Trocadero with a view of the Tour Eiffel for midnight.  Pam decided to stay back at the hotel.  Midnight is drawing near, I had a phone in each hand and was snapping photos as the clock struck and the fireworks went off.  Patty let out a scream, my eyes started to burn, and the crowds were running in all directions.  I honestly can’t tell you if I dropped my phones or someone grabbed them, but I lost them both.  Patty took a direct hit in the face with tear gas that someone had set off in the crowd.  Fear of being trampled set in and I knew we had to get out in the open.  Guiding Patty, we managed to find a policeman who directed us to an ambulance that was on the scene.  Thankfully, she ended up with no permanent damage to her eyes and other than 2 lost phones everything turned out ok in the end.

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The picture I took at midnight just before the tear gas incident

 

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Security in Paris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other than that, there has been a couple of times I couldn’t locate my passport.  Talk about fear, that was major panic mode!!

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Of course, when arriving in a new country/city, I do try to make myself aware of my surroundings and usually inquire at my homestay or hotel as to whether there are any areas as a solo female I should avoid.  As far as crime, the worst thing that concerns me is petty crime, pickpockets, grab and run, etc.  Oh, and shady taxi drivers who constantly try to rip off foreigners.  To hopefully avoid petty theft, I usually wear little or no jewelry.  My bag is usually a crossbody which makes it more difficult for a grab and run.  Luckily in most countries on this side of the planet, especially China, paying with your cell phone is normal and therefore I don’t carry a lot of cash.  But there is more to safety than the crime.

Fear of injury…….In most Asian countries, traffic can be a nightmare.  Scooters, cars, bicycles all zooming around traffic circles and through intersections. Just crossing the street in Saigon you feel as if you are taking your life in your hands.  Basically, you just hold your arm out and walk, the traffic will slow down (a bit) and go around you.  It is also a good idea to look for locals crossing and walk with them.  Sidewalks or I should say lack of, can be a problem.  Many of the SE Asian countries, Thailand, Bali, Cambodia, etc. lack sidewalks.  I often like to walk from my homestays to places of interest versus renting a scooter because I can see more this way.  That being said, you often must walk on the road.  This can at first seem a daunting task, but I’ve gotten used to it.  Ahhh, scooters…..my greatest fear with scooters was in countries where they drive on “the wrong side” of the road.  No offense to my friends in those countries, but I am a bit worried about riding on “the wrong” side should I decide to rent one.  I guess I should have had a fear of parked cars when riding a scooter.  Sure enough, in my own town, Dong’e, where we drive on “the right side” of the road (most of the time), I was “hit” by a parked car door and that’s how “I Survived a Chinese Hospital” and a broken back.  It was the perfect storm.

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Taken while on the back of a motor scooter in Saigon.

 

Food safety…..never ever drink the water.  Bottled water is cheap and plentiful.  If buying from a street vendor or somewhere off the beaten path, check to make sure the seal hasn’t been broken.  Occasionally water bottles are refilled and resold.  If you buy a beverage in a can, wipe off the top or use a straw.  Cans are often left in areas where rodents and other animals walk on them, pee and poop on them…you get the idea.   Be wary of ice, most of the time I avoid it.  No one likes street food more than I do.  Be cautious, be observant.  Look for the vendor that has a good turnover, where the food hasn’t been sitting out.  I have been bitten by the food poisoning bug a few times, it’s not pleasant.  Food safety is a concern albeit, a small one.

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Street Food

 

 

Fear of becoming unwell…..In my bag, I usually have liquid bandage for small cuts, Advil and other first aid supplies.  Before leaving the US, I had any shots my doctor deemed necessary.  I also asked for an antibiotic to take with me, just in case.  Not knowing what other health items would be available, I brought antacids, anti-diarrheal, OTC cold medicine, Neosporin, etc.  Luckily, other than a couple colds a those few bouts with food poisoning, I haven’t experienced being unwell.

Fear of natural disasters…..My last trip to Bali was shortly after a major earthquake had killed hundreds on the neighboring island of Lombok.  While I was in Ubud, I experienced several days of tremors that woke me in the middle of the night because the bed was shaking so much.  Natural disasters, I have no control over, so nothing to fear, right?

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Fear of language barriers….fear of the food….fear of the religion……fear of cultural differences……I personally don’t consider these fears but more paranoia.  If a person has these fears/paranoia, most likely they won’t be traveling out of their comfort zone.  These are things I embrace as I live and travel abroad.  They are things I can’t wait to experience, that help me grow.

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I have discovered the world is full of kind and caring people.  Many are willing to help, comfort, assist and befriend a stranger.  I say again, no, for the most part, I am not afraid of being alone in foreign countries.  I will always have some concerns and a few worries but that is natural.  I try to carry myself with confidence, become aware of my surroundings and take precautions when necessary.  I have the smart traveler app and am enrolled in the STEP Program.  The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is a free service that allows US Citizens living or traveling abroad to receive the latest security updates from the nearest Embassy or Consulate.  Plan ahead, be aware, take precautionary measures, research your location and ask the locals questions.  Also, I make sure someone, usually my brother, knows my itinerary right down to the details….flight times and airline, address and phone number where I am staying.  I check in periodically with a text and a selfie.  Being the social media whore, I am, I’m fairly certain if I dropped off Facebook for too long someone would become concerned about my safety.  Don’t let fear hold you back from exploring this amazing place we call Earth.

Confession…..my biggest fear…..my biggest fear is that I won’t have time to see and do everything on my travel bucket list.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.  Thanks, dad and mom, for raising an independent female who isn’t afraid to chase her dream and for giving me a brother who supports me in all of my craziness.

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Mom
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Dad

 

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Brother and Sister

The Highs and Lows of Solo Travel

The Highs and Lows of Solo Travel

My mother always told me my wanderlust began August 13, 1962.  I was born in Kimbrough Army Hospital, Fort Meade, Maryland on August 11, 1962.  As a result of a jeep accident that left my father in a coma for weeks in January of that year, not even knowing he was going to be a father, he received a medical discharge on August 13th.  My parents packed up their newborn, without a name, except “female Marvin” and took me on my first road trip of 350 miles to the place I would call home, Warren, Ohio.

Fast track to 2019…..I have now spent the better part of the last 5 years living abroad.  First, in Paris from August 2014 until February 2015 and when I decided I needed to continue my travels/living abroad, I moved to China in August 2015.  I haven’t looked back and I feel it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. That being said, most everyone, including myself, talks of all the great things about international travel and living….all the “highs”.  I’ve taken mad scooter rides through the back streets of Saigon; attended the Royal Funeral of the Queen Mum; climbed the Great Wall of China and stood where it ends at the Bohai Sea; slept on the rooftop of the world, Mount Everest Base Camp; dined at the Captain’s table on massive cruise ships; found a person from my hometown in a tiny village in rural China; ridden a camel in the Gobi Desert; and visited Angor Wat.  I’ve visited 34 countries of the world and if you count territories belonging to other countries, such as Puerto Rico, Aruba, and Tibet, that number jumps to 43.  I’ve experienced Christmas through the eyes of a child in a communist country.  I’ve prayed in Buddhist Temples and witnessed exhuming of a body for a Hindu cremation or Ngaben Ceremony in Bali.

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As “high” as you can get.  The rooftop of the world EBC. Photo by Jan

The “highs”…. I could go on and on because that’s what everyone wants to hear about, right? Or, maybe, if I’m honest, because that’s the story I want to tell.  But, what about the “lows”?  I know I sometimes go on and on with all the happy, happy, everything is great bullshit, but for me, that is my coping mechanism, because yes, sometimes there are “lows”.  In most instances, attitude really can improve a “low”. I’m not saying it can make it a “high”, far from it, but it can help you through that period.

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So, what are the lows of solo travel?  I was going to start with the biggest low of my journey, but I think I am going to start with the time I felt most alone.  I arrived in Beijing, a day before the other recruits in August of 2015.  The first thing I noticed was that I was given a private room.  All the other rooms in the dorm had 2 names on the doors.  I thought maybe many people came with friends or I was just the odd man out and luck of the draw I got the private room.  At this point, I wasn’t too concerned, but the next day everyone else starting arriving. Jane told me they figured since most everyone else was on their gap year between high school and university they thought since I was older, I wouldn’t want to share a room with one of the “kids”. Ok, I felt old and alone and I had to spend the next 2 weeks with these “kids”.  I kept to myself for a while, but that’s not really my style.  I don’t remember the circumstances, but somehow, we (a group of 6 or 8) ended up on a search for alcohol and snacks.  I’m sure you can imagine me on this quest.  For the rest of the time we were together, I spent most evenings in someone’s dorm room, laughing, drinking, singing and dancing.  It was another low when at the end of 2 weeks we all got our teaching assignments and had to say goodbye, most likely never seeing each other again.  It was amazing the bond that was formed in 2 short weeks.  I’m happy to say I do communicate with many of that original group.  But, I have never felt that alone as I did when I first arrived.  I learned that people will accept you for who you are no matter your age, looks, race, or religion.  You discover that those who pack up and move abroad without knowing anyone usually have a similar mindset as yourself.

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Those “kids” in Beijing

Other lows I have experienced traveling…. sometimes your heart hurts.  After spending 5 months with 2 lovely roommates in the tiny village of Xiashan, China and with the entire staff of an all Chinese primary school, you have to say goodbye.  You know all along this day would come, but your heart still hurts.  Deep down you know you will most likely never see these people again.

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Li Zi Han aka “fish lips”

What about Li Zi Han, aka “fish lips”, that little girl in grade one who made up to me on my first day in the classroom.  She wanted to be a dancer.  What has become of her and will she follow her dream?  What about the little girl who didn’t have crayons and I gave her a box?  When she finally got her own, she returned mine. Will she grow up to be a kind and caring young lady?

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One of my naughty boys

What about the naughty boys in grade two who always tried to see what they could get away with? Will they grow up to be doctors or lawyers?  What about the charming Frenchman I spent much time with during my last few weeks in Paris.  The one that showed me “his” Paris…..the Paris off the beaten path, the smoky cafes, the paper cups of wine while we walked the streets late at night as he walked me home.  I had to say goodbye to friends who were like family in Changning, Hunan.  All my friends, teachers and students at the kindergarten in Qingdao.

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My sweet Marlon

My sweet Marlon, yes, I still have contact, but it’s not the same.  My bestie in Qingdao, Erwin, oh how I miss him and our antics. Will I see him again now that he has moved to Norway?   Goodbyes, when you travel, are most often lows.  Yes, sometimes your heart hurts.  Having spent 2 years now in Dong’e, I am not looking forward to the goodbyes that await me at the end of this school year.

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My bestie in China, Erwin

 

 

 

Sometimes your heart hurts, but not because you are saying goodbye.  Those nights you are trying to fall asleep, but you know your best friend back home, home as in hometown, is struggling and you can’t be there to share a glass of wine, a good cry, a laugh, and a hug.  That night you are all alone in your apartment and have a little cry because you know your brother is receiving an award and you won’t be there.  You know he understands but he’s the closest family you have left and it gets you down.

 

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My brother before the award ceremony

 

 

Then there are the lows that you will look back on laugh.  That time in Changning I drank a little too much, imagine that.  That wasn’t the low, because it wasn’t the first time and certainly not the last.  The low is when you are sick for 3 days and only have a squatty potty.  I think I remember saying “I hate you China, why can’t you have normal toilets”?

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That time I drank too much and was sick for 3 days

Then there are the times you feel sorry for yourself lows.  The time I returned to Xiashan, my roommates were gone, most all my Chinese friends were home with their families for Chinese New Year and I got the flu.  The sneezing, sniffling, achy head, fever, I can’t breath kind of flu and there is no one to take care of you.  You can start to feel sorry for yourself.  Those times you are traveling with too much luggage because you are coming or going from the USA and you get to the train station and no elevator, no escalator or the escalator isn’t working so you must lug your suitcases up and down stairs.  China, why?  That time I agreed to go home with one of my Chinese co-workers to visit her family for several days in a February.  When we arrived in a very rural village, I learned I was staying in a home with no running water.  Her mother heated water from a pump outside over a gas fire and filled a washbasin each morning for us to bathe. Her bedroom had no heat and the toilet was a hole in the ground outside.  Really, I’m 50 something years old, I’m sleeping with no heat, now I’m going to have to find my way in the dark and go outside to pee in the middle of the night.  What did I get myself in to?  I will admit, after first feeling sorry for myself, it ended up being one of the most memorable experiences in China.

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How we bathed when I stayed with my friend at her home in the countryside

Since I see I am getting a bit long winded here, I will wrap it up with the biggest low of my journey…..my broken back.  You never think you will end up in a hospital, halfway around the world, 24+ hours travel time from your family and friends.  You can read about it here.  I had wonderful care. I survived and am on the road to normality.  If I am honest with you and myself, this was tough for me.  When I was finally able to reach my brother, between MRI’s, x-rays, doctors, etc., it was the middle of the night his time. I put on a brave front as I told him I was in the hospital, injured bad and would probably need surgery.  Trust me, it took everything I had not to bust out into tears.  Then he spoke with the doctor and other than my tests being sent to doctors in the USA for review and confirmation, it was agreed I would have back surgery the next day.  The doctor put Mark back on the phone, he asked me if I needed him and Lori to come to China.  Although it would have been nice, it would serve no purpose other than being there for emotional support for me.  It would also more than likely be 2 days before he would even arrive in Dong’e.  Holding back the tears I told him no.  The next hardest part for me was when I was wheeled into surgery and about to be put under and I realized I hadn’t talked to him to say I love you.  I wasn’t scared or worried, but somewhere in the back of your mind is always that “what if I don’t make it”.  Obviously I “made it”, but those few seconds before I went out, I was very sad.  I spent the next two weeks post-surgery confined to a hospital bed.  Then for about 6 weeks after I was home, it was a struggle.  I had plenty of help and caregivers, but it was easy to fall into “why me?”.  This is where attitude played an important role. Every day I looked for something good, some improvement anything to make me happy and to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  This period was the toughest for me emotionally since I have been abroad.

As I stated in the beginning, choosing to travel and live abroad has been one of the best most rewarding decisions I have made.  A life of travel isn’t always a bed of roses.  I think it is even more difficult as a solo traveler and a female.  Yes, I have felt alone.  Yes, I have had my heart hurt. Yes, I have felt sorry for myself. Yes, I have missed my friends and family in the states.  No, I wouldn’t change a thing.

“My confession is I fall in love with so many places I’m always half broken-hearted by goodbyes. And I don’t believe in non-attachment.  There’s no passion inside of that.  I believe in burning and longing.  And I believe we leave tiny pieces of ourselves in every placed we’ve loved.”  ~ Victoria Erickson

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