Saturday, July 30, 2011

Shopping in Taidong (a.k.a. Stephanie's First Chinese Victory)

Today was a major victory for me:  Despite having only been in China for six days, I managed to buy a flowerpot from a Chinese woman, using only Chinese to transact our business.  I showed her which one I wanted, asked how much it was, then understood her when she answered me.  I then paid for it and thanked her, and finished by saying goodbye.  It's the small things in life that bring the most joy!

I was in Taidong today, which is sort of a suburb of Qingdao, where there are loads of inexpensive shops.  Beth and I needed to get dishes, since the ones we had were owned by her former roommate, who will be back from vacation this week and will then reclaim her belongings (she's staying in Qingdao, just going to a different apartment).  I still can't believe how well Beth and I get along and how similar our tastes are:  it took us all of about ten minutes to pick out which plates we wanted at the kitchen store we went to.  We found a gorgeous mostly-black plate that has white flowers on it, and then has green and blue in the center (the center sort of reminds me of a seashell in the way the colors show).  We found a bowl that perfectly matched as well.  We decided that we would need eight plates, since we frequently have company, and four bowls, since we don't usually serve soup when having guests.  Unfortunately, there were only five of the plate that we loved.  I suggested getting four of them and then picking four of a plate that coordinated, and Beth readily agreed.  She happened upon a blue plate that has a black back and is round.  It looked fantastic with what we had picked out, and there were exactly four of them at the shop!  For our pieced-together set of dishes, we paid 200 kuai, which is about $30 American.  And these are super NICE dishes, which would probably cost around $200 for a set back in the States.  Awesome!

After the kitchen store, we went to the plant market, because I wanted to buy some plants for the apartment.  Since we have such a nice balcony, and since I don't have any pets to mother, I have decided to create a garden for myself.  Beth told me that the balcony is my domain, and that anything I do out there is fine by her.  So, I decided that I would start myself out with three plants, then add more gradually.  Next summer, I plan to grow tomatoes.  I am also thinking about turning our hanging clothes line into a hanging herb garden next summer, since we can't use it for clothes during the summer (too humid) and since it is really sturdy (it's actually metal).  For my first plants in my balcony "garden", I decided to get two flowering plants and one plant that smelled nice.  We like to use our balcony a lot, so I figured that combination would offer the maximum amount of increased enjoyment.

I right away found a flowering plant that I fell in love with.  It's something I've never seen before!  It has pinkish red flowers that are small and really pretty, and then has lots of thorns as well.  I'm not really sure how to even describe the thing!  The saleswoman told me all about the plant in Chinese, and with the aid of Beth (who speaks a fair amount of Chinese, though she is far from fluent) and charades, I was able to understand some of it (I also, to my delight, picked up on a few words that I knew).  Apparently, my new plant is actually three separate plants in one container.  It will bush out and gain a pretty good size, and it will have tons of flowers.  It likes lots of direct sunlight, which it will certainly get out there, and it only needs water when it gets dry.  No other special instructions.  I picked out an attractive large white pot for it (big enough that I shouldn't have to transplant it for a while, but not so big that it gets dwarfed by the pot), and the woman graciously potted it for me right there (they usually charge for that).

For my second plant, I chose one from the same woman.  It's another plant that I've never seen.  It is small and green, and I have no idea whether it will grow flowers.  It's cute enough without them, honestly.  What I love about it is how the round, thick leaves feel just like velvet, and the wonderful aromatic scent that it lets off.  I chose a blue and white striped pot for it, and it now has a very happy home in the center of our balcony table.  It really adds a lot to the aesthetics out there.

For my final plant, I went with a gorgeous red plant that I had seen before in hotels, but did not know the name of.  After extensive searching on Google, I learned that my new flower is called an Anthurium.  According to Google, they're supposed to be pretty easy to take care of, on top of the fact that they are stunningly gorgeous (as I had already observed).  I also learned that they are best kept indoors, as they don't like constant sunlight and cannot handle super hot temperatures.  So, the Anthurium will live in the living room, by the sliding glass door.  For its pot, I found a striped pot that nicely coordinates with the blue striped one that I put the green plant in.  That was the pot that I managed to buy with no help.  I hope to find out what the other two plants are soon.  I'll probably do some searching on Google tomorrow and see if I can figure it out.

I really wish I could post pictures of all these things, but I am still waiting for the camera cord to arrive (the one I ordered off of Amazon).  In the meantime, just picture in your mind how beautiful my new plants are.

After the plant store, Beth and I walked toward Walmart (yup, we even have one here!) so that I could get some organizational boxes.  On the way, we stopped by a little stand called Magic Lemon, which sells frozen treats.  I saw a picture of something I had never seen before, which looked quite odd and therefore extremely desirable for consuming.  Beth tenaciously described it using what Chinese words she knows, until eventually they figured out what we were talking about.  Her efforts were worth it -- it was the most delicious thing I have eaten so far in China.  It turned out to be actual pieces of mango on the bottom, with mango shaved ice on top of that, and then little balls that looked like golden caviar on top.  The little balls were also mango-flavored (I think made from real mango), but the texture is hard to describe.  The best description I can think of is to call them mango caviar!

Walmart successfully finished my household needs.  I found some trays and boxes to aid in organization (I needed something for makeup and such in the bathroom, and something for organizing my desk drawers).  I also found a nice little umbrella that should hold up well during this rainy season (we get a little bit of rain almost daily lately, but mostly we're getting sun), a throw pillow that perfectly matches the bedroom and brings in a bit of lime green, a few notebooks, more hangers (I ALWAYS underestimate how many I need), and a hedgehog t-shirt (I didn't pack many t-shirts because they're the one thing I can find in my size in Asia).

After we got home, we popped in a movie for a while.  Around four, we had some unique fun:  we got to assist with the birthday party of one of our school's eighth graders (her mom is a teacher).  Maddie was having an "Amazing Race" birthday party, and we were the second stop.  The girls had to solve a series of math problems to figure out to come to our apartment.  When they got here (in their teams of three), we had two tasks for them to complete.  First, one girl had to be blindfolded and had to apply several different make-up elements to one of her teammates, which the teammate would then have to keep on for the rest of the race.  Then, the remaining teammate had to stick ten clothespins in her hair, which also had to stay in for the rest of the race.  To find the next location, the girls had to put together a picture of the apartment, which had been cut up like a puzzle (each team got their own to put together).  It was so much fun to have an apartment full of happy, giggling preteen girls (ages eleven to thirteen).  I still can't get over how NICE all of the kids from our school are (at least, all that I have met, and the other teachers have commented that our kids all tend to be pretty sweet).  The girls were only here for about twenty minutes at most, but they really wet my appetite for school to start.

It's looking like I'll have no shortage of quality time with teens and preteens this year.  In addition to teaching high school, I volunteered to help with youth group immediately upon my arrival in Qingdao, an offer that was eagerly accepted.  Then, at dinner tonight, I was asked to coach JV volleyball.  I said that if I could get some help and some instruction, I think I may be able to do it.  At the very least, I said that I could definitely assist someone else in coaching.  I don't know all of the rules that there would be in an official game, and I have no experience in planning strategy, so those are the two concerns that I have.  I do know how to play, of course, and I also know plenty about how to get the kids warmed up.  So, we shall see -- I may be a coach, or I may just assist.  Either way, I am happy to get really involved.  I often think that the time outside of class can be some of the most valuable time a teacher spends with students.  I am hoping to be not just a teacher, but also a mentor and a trusted ally.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Yay Ducks and Yuck Ducks from My First Week

For an explanation of Yay Duck and Yuck Duck, click HERE.

Yay Ducks:

  1. All of the other teachers are unbelievably nice and have been more welcoming than I could ever have imagined.
  2. My roommate and I are kindred spirits.
  3. I was informed by the high school principal that our high school students seldom need motivation to do well -- they do that very well on their own.
  4. I have a gorgeous and large apartment with a fantastic view of the ocean from the balcony.
  5. The food here is fantastic.
  6. My classroom has loads of potential.
  7. My VPN is allowing me access to my blog and Facebook, as well as all of the other sites I would otherwise have no way of getting on.  I even heard from a friend that I may be able to get Netflix here with the VPN.
  8. I get a brand new school laptop!  No need to clutter my Mac with all the school stuff.
  9. The weather here is gorgeous and sunny.
  10. I am picking up Chinese much faster than I thought I would (though I am certainly no prodigy).
  11. My jetlag is fading away.
  12. All of my favorite Korean foods, which I have sorely missed for two years, are now available to me!

Yuck Ducks:

  1. It's hard to be involved with Lantern Hollow Press from here -- I really feel/am out of the loop.
  2. I have to miss the wedding of one of my dearest friends.
  3. I still have no idea what my day-to-day schedule will look like, and I don't have class lists yet.
  4. My apartment is so big!  How will we ever keep it clean once school starts?  (Actually, we're working on that.  We're planning to get an Ayi to work for us two days a week.)
  5. Most of the American foods that I enjoy are either not available or are really expensive.  Fortunately, there are enough other delectables that I don't miss them too much.  I am most likely going to have to break down at some point and shell out 64 kuai (about $9.80) for some oatmeal, though.
  6. My classroom is still a mess.  There is SO MUCH left to do!!!
  7. My VPN likes to act up from time to time.  Without it, the internet is a pretty sparse place, since China blocks so many sites.
  8. My school laptop is a PC, which is highly inferior to a Mac.  I am not nearly as proficient on PCs as I am on Macs.
  9. The weather here is really hot.  And humid.
  10. Chinese is quite hard to learn.
  11. My feet are killing me from all the walking.  (Although I honestly am enjoying walking so much more -- the rest of me is feeling better from the exercise each day.)
  12. Cheese is ridiculously expensive (and quite limited) here.
On the whole, Yay Duck is the clear winner.  Although the Yuck Ducks sound like complaints, really I'm just trying to keep myself balanced so that I don't over-idealize my new situation -- really, none of the Yuck Ducks bother me very much (which should be Yay Duck #13).  Even taking the Yuck Ducks into consideration, I still love China!

The Little Tramp Goes to School

Charlie Chaplin could have done a great little movie about getting a classroom ready for students.  And today, my experiences alone were ample fodder for such a film.  (The Little Tramp, by the way, was Chaplin's most famous character.)

My classroom was last used by a man -- so, obviously, it is a complete mess right now.  Yesterday, I stopped in for a moment to take a few pictures of it, and during the course of my visit, pulled down one of my maps and got it stuck.  In my first performance in the classroom today, I wanted to get the map to go back up on the roll.  Since I'm too short to reach the top part, I stood on a chair.  I started to fiddle around with it, when suddenly . . . BANG!  The map shot up so fast that it almost took me with it!  I was so startled that I nearly fell off the chair.

I next started working on clearing out the three bookcases in the back of the room (which I may move somewhere else).  Behind one of them were several posters, which I pulled out to look at.  Suddenly, about a dozen nasty silvery-white bugs came crawling at full speed (which was impressively fast), all of them clearly intent on reaching me and perhaps conquering me.  I dropped the posters with a yelp and leapt backwards!  I then promptly headed downstairs to ask the school receptionist if I could get some cleaning supplies for my room and also some bug spray.

I decided to work on my bulletin boards, and so I measured both of them with my twelve-inch ruler.  The big one, as I learned, is thirteen feet long and four feet wide.  The "small" one is eight feet long and about three feet wide.  Down on the second floor (my room is on the third floor), we have a teacher workroom with several rolls of paper for putting on bulletin boards, so I headed down there to cut my background paper.  Being stupid, I opted to cut two thirteen-foot-long pieces for the big board (the paper is too narrow to cover the board with just one sheet).  Since the workroom itself is only about fifteen feet long, that was a "fun" task.  Then, there came the task of folding the sheets.  Chaplin would have had a blast writing a scene with that!  I found the best/only way to do it was to put the paper over my head and fold it from "inside" it.  It's the closest I've ever come to being gift-wrapped.  Later, I went back up and did the eight-foot sheet needed for the smaller board, and got to be gift-wrapped again.

Have you ever tried to staple an eight-foot sheet of paper to a bulletin board?  It is not an easy task . . . needless to say, it took a while.  I am happy to report that contrary to what my parents are likely suspecting at this moment, I did not staple my finger.  Or my thumb.  I did stab myself with a thumbtack, however (I tack things up first, then staple them, to avoid mistakes).

Shortly thereafter, one of the Chinese janitors came up with cleaning spray and paper towels from me.  She tried to talk to me in Chinese, but since my Chinese is still in its infancy (it's still in the red, pruney, squalling, dripping with amniotic slime stage), I couldn't understand a word of what she was saying.  I informed her that my Chinese is pretty bad (using much less picturesque language than what I just used here), and she smiled, gave me a hug, and said "I like you."  Our entire Chinese staff is really sweet!  She tried then to give me instructions, using a lot of charades, which I took to mean that the spray would not be useful for killing bugs.  It was, however, quite useful for getting the dust, dirt, and grime off of my windowsills, desk, and bookcases.  After cleaning, I moved my desk to a better direction (I prefer to have it catty-corner in the front corner of the classroom), cleaned out all of the drawers in my filing cabinet, and also shook the dust out of my curtains (yes, my classroom actually has REAL curtains!).

Unlike The Little Tramp, my day ended quite happily, with dinner at a great little Korean restaurant followed by a movie with my roommate and the mom and daughter from the Finnish-Australian family that lives directly above us.  I am proud to report that my jetlag is finally dissipating, and I actually am feeling alive long past 2:00 pm in the day.  Also, I received a little certificate today from the Chinese teachers for having excellent pronunciation in class!  Who knew I would actually do well with Mandarin??

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wŏ Shì Mĕiguórén

Today we started learning survival Chinese, following a morning of reviewing school policies and meeting with our respective principals (there are four of them under the head principal).  I picked up on my new words and phrases much quicker than I thought I would, likely owing entirely to the skills of the Chinese staff.

We covered some basic phrases (such as "I am American", which is the title of this post), learned to count up to 100, and also learned the names of a few basic places in our city.  I am a bit overwhelmed with so much Chinese floating around in my poor still-jetlagged brain (I think my jetlag here is a lot worse than what I had in Korea, and the only reason I can think of is that I'm older)!

Here, in pinyin (a phonetic way of writing Chinese, which is not a phonetic language), are a few of the new words and phrases I learned today:

Duì bu qĭ (dway boo chee) - Sorry
Méi guānxi (may gwan-chee) - It doesn't matter
Wŏ jiào Stephanie (wo jow) - My name is Stephanie.
One:  yī (ee)
Two:  èr (ar)
Three:  sān
Four:  sì (suh)
Five:  wŭ (woo)

The accent marks over the letters denote which of the four tones to use in pronunciation.  The four tones are (using the letter a as an example):  ā, á, ă, and à.  Each of these gets a different sound, which is part of why Chinese is hard to learn.  Our teacher had us think of the voice as having five levels.  In the first tone (ā), the sound is at level 5 only (the highest tone).  In the second (á), the tone goes from level 3 to level 5.  In the third (ă), the tone goes from level 2 to 1 to 5.  Finally, in the fourth (ă), the tone goes from 5 to 1.  If you now feel horribly confused, then you completely understand how I felt at first.  Now, however, I am beginning to grasp the concept.

Photos that I Stole from Other New Teachers

Since I am still waiting for a means of getting photos off of my camera and onto the computer (long story short: I lost the cord and have ordered a new one), I lifted some photos from the Facebook pages of two of the other new teachers, Ben and Warren.  I'm sure they won't mind (and if they do, I will offer them cookies).

First, here are some pictures of the view from the roof of the school, taken the other day (the day that we got drenched in Qingdao's amusing imitation of a tropical storm):

Some of the views remind me a lot of the Philippines.  The hill behind the school is actually a cemetery, but there are no bodies in it.  China requires that all bodies be cremated.  Unlike in the States, in China, families are responsible for maintaining their own plots -- there is not a caretaker looking after the entire cemetery.

The next few pictures are from our very rainy meal the other day, at the noodle place:
These two shots show the rural village that we walked through to get to the noodle place.  The two people whose backs you see are Carl, the elementary principal, and Stacy, one of the teachers.

This is the small noodle place where we ate (on the left).

Here, our head principal, Dave, orders lunch for everyone.  Our meals were 8 RMB apiece (about $1.24 in US money), which the school paid for.

The stools we sat on were quite small, but surprisingly comfortable.  I think they were less than a foot high.

Those noodles sure were yummy!

Stacy laughs and does her best to avoid the sudden torrential downpour.  'Twas a memorable lunch, indeed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bedspreads and Bubble Tea

After we new teachers finished our health checks, our very friendly bus driver from school, Mr. Wu, drove us out to Metro, a ginormous home store that is sort of what I imagine the lovechild of Ikea and Sam's Club would be like.  Some of the other teachers met us there to help us shop, and to pick up things for themselves as well.  Apparently, shopping at Metro is an Event.

Beth, my roommate, joined us as well.  She and I decided last night that since we have such a gorgeous view from our balcony, we would really enjoy having a set of chairs and a small table out there.  We thought it would make a wonderfully relaxing place to have our breakfast and coffee in the mornings before leaving for school.  We found the perfect set right away:  cute, comfortable, and quite reasonably priced (499 RMB, which is about $76, and we split the cost).  While Beth waited for an employee to retrieve our set for us, I went on to the office supply aisle to pick up some of the things I still need for school, such as whiteboard erasers, paperclips, post-it notes, and binder clips.  I found a really nice three-high paper tray which will be perfect for sorting homework into when I take it home to grade.  I have a nice desk here at the apartment, so I was quite eager to start setting it up.

The best part of the Metro shopping trip was picking out my bedroom decor.  I had originally planned to do my room in light turquoise and chocolate brown; however, there were no bedspreads in that color scheme.  As my parents are well aware, I am notoriously hard to please when it comes to bedding.  I once dragged Dad to ten different stores before I could find a bedspread that I liked!  Deviating from my reputation, I actually found a duvet cover that I really liked!  It's a color scheme that I never before thought of, but once I got everything home and on my bed, both Beth and I were amazed at just how good my new idea for the bedroom is going to look.  The new colors are grey (both light and dark), white, and two shades of pink (one is almost a raspberry color).  The duvet cover has all these colors; it has large grey and white stripes (more like sections than stripes, really) and two-tone pink tulips that amazingly match the pink sheets that I bought from the States perfectly.  (I normally hate pink sheets, but they were exactly what I needed and were $9.  Sometimes, price teaches me to like things.)  Suddenly, those sheets are no longer nauseating, but actually look really attractive!  Later this week, I'm going to paint my walls light gray.  I'll also add some artwork to my walls.

As anyone who has lived in Asia knows, mattresses are REALLY firm here.  Too firm for me, actually.  I've been able to sleep at night owing to my jetlag, but my back has been cursing me.  Memory foam pads are unheard of around here, so I found a different solution at Metro.  Many Chinese still like to sleep on the floor on a pad rather than a bed.  I bought one of those floor pads, and stuck it on my bed for extra padding.  It's not much, but it does make a difference.  I may add a second one, or maybe a cheap thick bedspread under the bottom sheet later if I decide that I want more padding, but I honestly think this will be sufficient.  After picking up a few more household necessities, such as wastebaskets (one for my bedroom, one for my desk), Beth and I headed to the grocery area.

The grocery section at Metro is fabulous!  Hard to find delicacies, like hot chocolate, are abundant.  A bag of hot chocolate merrily leapt into my shopping cart, where it was promised a happy future in Beth's and my morning coffee.  I found my favorite snack, dried peas, much to my delight.  I decided to splurge on a box of cereal, which is quite expensive here in China.  I figure I'll use it sparingly to make it last as long as possible.  I was also thrilled to find refried beans, which I promised Beth I would turn into my family's delicious "Special Dip" sometime soon (it's sort of a taco dip that is delicious on chips).  Beth, who likes all of the same foods as I do (I swear, the two of us are truly kindred spirits), was quite excited.  I found kiwi juice, which I cannot wait to drink in the morning.  I just love all of the wonderful fruit juices that you can find in Asia!

Beth and I also stocked up on candy for our classrooms, which I'm sure will delight our students.  I figured my high-schoolers would get pretty excited over Chuppa Chups, which appeal to all ages, and some nice cola-flavored hard candies.  I like to chuck a piece of candy at students when they give particularly good answers -- it's fun for me, plus the kids have incentive to work hard.  This being China, we don't have to abide by the more ridiculous regulations at most American schools (I'm not calling all of them ridiculous, just some), so I went ahead and stocked up on cough drops to give to students.  In the States, it's illegal in most states for a teacher to give a kid a cough drop!  It annoys me, since a coughing student can be such a distraction for other kids, and having to send them to the office for a cough drop robs them of valuable learning time.  Here, fortunately, we're more practical.

After our shopping venture, Beth and I came home for lunch.  After eating, I got back to work on unpacking and putting away my purchases, while Beth and one of our students from school (a really sweet ninth grade girl) worked on baking cookies.  While the cookies were in the oven, I took a break from my tasks and enjoyed spending some time with our guest, whom I sincerely hope will be in my section of ninth grade history.  In fact, I want her in my class so much I may have to start pr*ying about this!  Actually, there are two ninth graders that I am desperately hoping to get -- we just got a really neat family who have been living in Tanzania added to our school family, and the mother of the family shared with me how much her daughter loves history.

Since a different family is feeding me for dinner each night, tonight I got to know another family that I had only recently met.  Allison and her husband took me out first to a tea stand to introduce me to bubble tea, which I had never had before.  I love it!  Bubble tea is a sweetened milk tea, served hot or cold (I opted for cold) which has large tapiocas in it.  The tapiocas make for a rather odd beverage, but I really enjoyed the oddity, and the flavor was great!  While we were there, we happened to run into one of the third grade teachers, who readily accepted the invitation to join us for dinner.

Tonight's dinner, to my utter joy, was Turkish food!  Apparently, here in Qingdao, we have a Middle Eastern foodcourt tucked away in one of the shopping centers.  I had a scrumptious lamb wrap, which tasted quite a bit like a gyro.  It had the delicious yogurt sauce on it that I like so well.  I never dreamed that we would have such a wealth of international restaurants here.  And of course, it was great to get to spend time with more of my fellow teachers.  Since I teach high school, I particularly liked getting to know two of the elementary teachers, whom I really won't run into much at school.

Well, the jetlagged body would really like to go to bed, so I think I'm going to listen to it.  Good night, world!

"Basically Normal"

Qingdao apparently felt a bit guilty for keeping all of drenched for the entire day yesterday, so today we were treated to beautiful sunshine, nice warm weather that was not overbearing, and a very pleasant breeze.  It was the sort of day when a walk on the beach would have heavenly, but there was too much to do to fit that in just yet.  I did, however, enjoy a very peaceful breakfast with the sliding glass door to the balcony open, and the light breeze flowed through the apartment, carrying with it the relaxing sounds of the ocean and that delightful salty scent.  I had two new things with my breakfast this morning:  at the store yesterday, I picked up a container of blueberry juice and a product that called itself strawberry cheese.  Both intrigued me, and thus needed to be tried.  The blueberry juice was delicious and was definitely what it claimed to be.  The strawberry cheese had one of the oddest textures my mouth has ever encountered, along with quite bland flavor.  I didn't really dislike it, but I have no interest in eating it again.  Certainly, it was fun to try.

After that revitalizing start, the day itself became quite full, and even a smidgeon overwhelming.  To begin with, today wound up being the day that we new teachers (there are seven of us at the moment: two married couples and three singles), accompanied by one of our Chinese staff members, went to get our mandatory health checks.  Having done this before in Korea, I was prepared (or so I thought) for a lot of intrusive, "interesting" stuff to be done to me.  I had no idea just how much the Chinese government wanted to know about me!

To begin with, there was paperwork to deal with; thankfully, Heidi, the sweet and wonderful Chinese staff person who went with us, had already filled out most of it.  After pushing our way through the "line" (i.e. crowd) Chinese-style, we got photographed and documented, showed our passports, and then headed upstairs to begin the various procedures.  We each had a list, and the procedures were each carried out in separate rooms (with at least two different rooms doing each of them, so waits tended to be short).

In my first room, I was given an eye test unlike any I have ever done before.  The chart had nothing but "E"s on it.  Some were facing the right way, some were backwards, some were lying on their backs napping (I assume; maybe they were daydreaming) and others were facedown, perhaps suffering from stomachaches.  I had to cover one eye at a time and point which direction the "E"s were facing.  Being quite jetlagged still, I was not up to my usual forte at charades, so it took the non-English-speaking Chinese ladies in that room a few minutes to get me to understand exactly what they wanted.  Fortunately, they did not seem irritated:  most Chinese so far seem to find me amusing, or just ignore me.  To finish in that room, they weighed and measured me.  That part I could have done without.

In the second room I entered, a doctor felt my neck and throat, took my pulse and blood pressure, looked down my throat, and listened to my chest.  He, too, spoke no English, but it was pretty easy to figure out what he wanted from me.  He seemed pleased with my low-side-of-normal blood pressure (90 over 64); I noticed that he gave me an approving nod as he recorded the numbers.

Feeling a bit proud of my good numbers, I went boldly onto the next room, where the EKG (ECG here in China) was to be performed.  And here, the day took a turn for the awkward.  The lady carrying out the procedure spoke some English, but also relied a bit on charades.  She told me to lie down on the bed, which I did quite easily.  She told me to lift up my shirt, which I also did, after she pulled the curtain closed (they didn't bother to do this for the men, so I was rather relieved by the gesture).  Next, we ran into an area difficult for her to communicate.  I was somewhat certain that she wanted me to lift up my bra; however, I was not positive.  I recognized that if I interpreted her incorrectly, this could become a very awkward situation for both of us.  Going out on a limb, I decided to assume that that was what she wanted, cringing inwardly as I complied.  Fortunately for the woman and myself, it was exactly what she wanted me to do.  She hooked things up to my chest, abdomen, ankle, and wrist, and performed one of the oddest EKGs I've ever had (I've had two of them in the US before).  After we finished, I glanced at the computer just in time to see her typing, in English, her assessment of me.  The words brought a smile to my face:  "Basically normal."

Next, I walked over to another room for my blood draw.  The Chinese wanted a lot more of my blood than the Koreans did:  three tubes of it!  I actually felt slightly lightheaded afterwards, probably owing to my small breakfast.  The blood draw was promptly followed by another awkward procedure:  they wanted a urine sample.  Now, as most women know, "tinkling" on command is not the easiest thing for women to do.  In the past, my experiences have involved western toilets.  This time around, I had the "joy" of a squatty potty.  There's a trick to squatties:  you need the thigh muscles of an athlete.  Otherwise, they are not a pleasant experience.  I am happy to report that my year in Korea taught me well, so at least my shoes and clothing did not get sprinkled.  The squatty, naturally, had no toilet paper or tissue, but fortunately I know well enough to always carry tissues when in Asia.  I delivered my sample to the smiling women who awaited it, then traveled up to the fourth floor for my x-ray.

Just as I did in Korea, I had to have a chest x-ray.  This time around, I got to keep my shirt on, which I appreciated after having had to bare my chest earlier (baring my chest is not a favorite activity of mine).  The x-ray tech manipulated me into a position that closely resembled an impression of a chicken, in that I had my arms pushed into little wings behind my back.  The whole thing was done very quickly.

For my final procedure, I got to have an ultrasound (men and women both have to do this).  Once again, I sighed gratefully when the curtain was closed (apparently, there was no concern for men who might like privacy).  The goop was generously applied, and my shirt drank a bit of it just for fun.  The woman questioned me as to whether I had eaten breakfast, then seemed not to believe me when she couldn't locate my breakfast in me.  "Small breakfast," I explained.  And after my shirt had gotten another good gluttonous gulp of goop (try saying that ten times fast), my medical check was finished!

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Drenched Day

Normally, Qingdao is apparently quite sunny and lovely in the summertime (humid, but habitable).  At the present, however, the weather has chosen to take a sauna-ish turn, which meant that my roommate's glasses kept fogging up outdoors yesterday.  Today, the weather decided to rain.  A lot.

The day started out rather amusingly.  I got up when the alarm on my cell phone declared it to be 6:50, noted that it seemed quite dark for that hour, then showered and dressed.  Our bathroom was just recently remodeled, so we have a heavenly shower.  In the shower, I noted with some consternation that my watch was off by a few hours.  Sheesh, already broken in less than a week, I thought.  After I finished dressing, I discovered that the small clock in my bedroom was in agreement with my watch . . . it was 3:00 am!  The cell phone, I soon learned, was not like American ones that already know the correct time.  It needed to be told.  I corrected the error, put my pajamas back on, and quite happily went back to sleep.  I dreamed that coming to China had been nothing but a dream, then woke up confused as to what was real and what wasn't.  A cup of coffee restored me to clarity.

Along with several other teachers who live in my apartment complex, I caught the bus to school at 8:00, missing the rain by mere minutes.  The teachers at the other complex, about fifteen minutes from ours, were not so lucky.  When we arrived to pick them up, we remarked at how cute they looked, all huddling together under three umbrellas (there were about ten or twelve people).

When we arrived at the school, we had to make a run for it in pouring rain, waiting through a flooded walkway (about three inches deep).  We escaped into one of the main buildings of Baishan, the Chinese private school that shares our campus.  A small group of Chinese children laughed merrily at the sight of the soaked foreigners, and we all had to laugh as well.  My jeans felt like they were now about fifty pounds!  On the bright side, none of us felt hot anymore!

We new teachers took a tour of our gorgeous school, and I got to see my classroom for the first time (I will post pictures of both as soon as I purchase another cord for my camera).  I never dreamed that I would have such ENORMOUS bulletin boards!  I'm almost delirious with ideas for how to use them.  My classroom is the nicest I've ever had, and I am looking forward with great anticipation to starting work on it tomorrow afternoon, after my health check and a shopping trip to a home store.

After our tour and a few tutorial sessions, we took a walk (the rain had stopped) through a really neat rural area, which seemed out of place in a big city, to a little outdoor noodle "restaurant".  Basically, it was a very friendly Chinese woman cooking in a few pots under a large tarp.  There were little wooden tables, with tiny wooden stools.  As we sat hungrily awaiting our meal and munching on some delicious bread that our principal had purchased from another food stand, the skies opened up again, and a river was born.  We were flooded in less than five minutes!  The tarp kept us somewhat dry, though it kept swaying dangerously, worrying us that the strong winds may topple it.  Our feet were in about three or four inches of water pretty quickly.  We chose to find the situation amusing, and laughed and chatted while we ate our meal.  Warren, a middle school math teacher, and I are both fond of spicy food, so we bravely seasoned our food with a large scoop of a concoction made from red peppers (the tiny uber-hot ones).  We soon discovered that our food got exponentially hotter with each bite!  By the end of the meal, my lips were ablaze and my clogged sinuses had completely cleared.

Since this is my first week, I'm being fed by different people at dinnertime each night (they do this for all of the new staff).  Last night, my roommate cooked a fantastic spicy curry for me.  Tonight, the Herzogs, a wonderful family, took me out for sushi.  Although I don't do fish, there are plenty of other types of sushi that I enjoy, particularly one that I tried for the first time tonight which had dragonfruit in it.

Despite being completely soaked to the bone for more than half of the day, it was a really good day.  I feel like I've come home.  The stores are filled with all the wonderful things that I've been desperately missing since leaving Korea, I finally have food that is spicy enough to please me, there are loads of new things to try, all the people I've met are unbelievably sweet, the apartment is huge and attractive, the school blows my mind, and things just keep getting better.  I can't wait for what the next few days will bring!
Just a note -- Times and dates on here have now been changed to reflect my current time here in China.

Bonding with the Braces

Well, I am in Qingdao, China at last!  And what a trip it was . . .

While in Chicago on my six-hour layover, I managed to locate the Braces, a married couple bound for the same school.  I was delighted to find them, largely since it meant someone to talk to.  We had been rebooked to the same flight, which made us quite happy.

The flight from Chicago to Beijing was loooooooong, but not at all horrible.  We wound up on American rather than United, which proved to be a very good thing.  Most people here agree that United is really quite lousy on their flights to China.  They give poor service (and next to none, at that) and they tend to treat Chinese passengers very rudely, which gets upsetting for those of us who care about them.  American, on the other hand, gave excellent service and fed us to bursting point.  We had a snack and three meals, along with six beverages during our thirteen hour flight.  Each seat had its own LCD monitor, which a large selection of free movies and television shows.  I watched three movies and five TV shows, played on my iPad, and even managed to nap a bit.  There was no one in the seat beside me and I had a window, so I was able to stretch out a little and actually be quite comfortable.  The only downside for me was that, owing to my cold, my nose leaked like a sieve for the entire flight and I got a sinus migraine for a bit (heavy meds soon defeated it, however).

Our school looked out for the Braces and I by arranging us a hotel room to freshen up in while we were enduring our long layover in Beijing.  The airport there, by the way, is huge and gorgeous in the area that we arrived at (some other areas are not so pretty).  We handed in our arrival cards, got our passports stamped, and then headed to the baggage claim, which was already spewing up baggage.  I would like to point out that the Chinese get your baggage off the plain in about 1/4 of the time that it takes American airports (any of them that I have been to, which is many).  So, big kudos to Chinese airports!

My bags were some of the first out, and all four made it safely.  The airlines had done their very best to make sure that my brand new luggage got nicely scratched up.  The Braces were not as lucky as I -- none of their seven pieces arrived.  So, we headed off to the baggage inquiry area to look into what had happened.  After about two hours, we finally ascertained that United had decided to give the baggage a vacation in Chicago rather than sending it on to American so that it could go to China -- of course, they also had gone out of their way to reassure the Braces that they transferred it.  No kudos for United, and they probably shouldn't count on anything nice from Santa this Christmas.  When we went to go through customs, we were shocked to find that no one was there.  So, we shrugged our shoulders and just walked on through.  China is full of surprises!

The Braces and I then took a shuttle to the gorgeous hotel, where we all had heavenly showers and then sat around watching CNN and nibbling on the snacks we had with us.  We eventually dozed off for a little while, but we were a bit too keyed up for any quality sleep.  At 7:30 am we caught a shuttle to the airport, where we raced to get to our gate in time, arriving just as our 8:40 flight was boarding.

A word about the security check:  China, which is not nearly so full of freedoms as the United States, has a far more reasonable and easy security check in Beijing than any American airport I have been to.  Not only do you get to keep your shoes on, they also were not the least bit concerned about my pillow, which had greatly troubled the TSA agents in both Grand Rapids and in Chicago when I traveled through there a few weeks ago.  The China security people were also unbothered by my knitting needles, pens, tweezers, and nail clippers, all of which have previously gravely worried TSA officials in the USA.

At 10:30 am, the Braces and I arrived in beautiful Qingdao, and rushed toward the welcoming committee of our head principal, his wife, and my new roommate.  Home at last!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Start of the Journey

The First Rule of International Travel is that something will go wrong.  This rule is more dependable than the ability of telemarketers to sniff out the dinner hour and the dishonesty of politicians.  This rule is an absolute certainty, in a world of few absolutes.  Something will always go wrong on an international trip; the only uncertainty is how one will deal with the problem.

With this in mind, let me say that so far, my journey to China is remaining faithful to this rule.  I knew when my visa came to me in only two days that, owing to the First Rule of International Travel, something was bound to go wrong on the trip itself.  Being a seasoned traveler, I was right.

I arrived at Grand Rapids airport three hours early this morning, and was promptly informed of a storm that would be delaying my flight to Chicago.  I figured that this meant that my "something wrong" would be having a delayed flight and then having to run to my gate with the frantic speed of a warthog fleeing a lion.  Silly Stephanie!  No, no, no, no delay at all.  Instead, my flight was cancelled.  Few words have quite the same heart-stopping impact at an airport as that always-in-red word "cancelled".  I immediately jumped into action, rushing back to the ticket counter to beg for mercy and rerouting (I had not yet passed through security, since Grand Rapids airport is such a small one).  The ticket agent sprang into action (kudos to United for having some very nice employees in Grand Rapids).  She got me completely rebooked for all of my flights, a complicated process that took even longer than Superman's usual efforts to save the world (not her fault).

As a result, I left Grand Rapids at 3:25 pm instead of 11:27 am.  It meant a few more hours to spend with my parents (yay duck! -- see the previous post for an explanation of yay duck).  We had a leisurely lunch at a Mexican restaurant, since I figured it will probably be quite some time before I eat Mexican food again.  My first flight was quite painless, made even more so because the kind United employee upgraded me to Economy Plus.  My knees, unaccustomed to not being smashed up against the seat ahead of me during a flight, were quite grateful to her.  Now I'm stuck in O'Hare for my first of two big layovers, a six-hour one (yuck duck -- again, see the previous post).  At 9:05 pm, I will finally depart for Beijing, where, following the thirteen-hour flight, I will have my other mega-layover, this time for eight hours.  Finally, at 8:30 am on the 24th, I'll arrive in Qingdao, which is beginning to take on the image of the Promised Land for me (fortunately I just have forty hours of airplane/airport journeying rather than forty years in a desert).

A "Pair-a-ducks"

In our new staff orientation (in preparation for going overseas), one of our favorite speakers, Jerry Jones, gave us each a “Yay Duck” and a “Yuck Duck”.  Yay Duck represents the good things; Yuck Duck represents the bad.  Together they make a “pair-a-ducks” (paradox).  When living overseas, you cannot have the one without the other.  It is important to maintain a balance of both.  To keep myself balanced and positive, I've been keeping the two fellows close to me -- in fact, they're excited to be traveling carry-on to China.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Departing in T-2 Days!

Wow, I really cannot believe that my departure date is so close at hand.  Even more amazingly, no catastrophes have happened yet!  Oh, sure, I do have my traditional pre-departure sinus infection (ever prompt) and the careless individual who hit my car head-on back in May is trying to file a claim against me (she and her front-seat passenger were not wearing seatbelts and got hurt.  Clearly, the solution is to blame someone else and try to get money.), but other than that, the roadblocks, hassles, and hair-pullingly stressful madness that preceded my year in Korea are nowhere to be seen.  Could I really have an easy trip in my grasp?

The biggest stressor, in all honesty, has been packing.  An extra suitcase costs $200 on United, so I have to limit myself to only one extra.  For Korea, I made do with only two suitcases, but that was for one year whereas this jaunt to China will be at least two years.  Furthermore, in Korea I was teaching ESL and did not have to worry about things like decorating a classroom or creating in-depth lesson plans for high schoolers.  Also, I did not have a dress code in my hagwon — my director was perfectly happy with my wearing jeans and t-shirts.  For my China school, I have to dress professionally.  No complaints here — I think dress codes are a great idea, and I know from experience that students pay a great deal more attention when their teacher is well-dressed.  The only downside is that I have to have more clothes than I did in Korea, which means three suitcases this time around.
"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"