Got the Chinese Phone Plan

I had a brilliant idea for keeping my US phone plan and phone number while living and working in China: Google Project Fi.

I bought a Good Pixel phone (an excellent phone) and signed up for the Project Fi plan (an excellent plan). It allows for free international texting and high-speed service worldwide, for just 30 dollars a month (if you use 1 GB/month).

It worked brilliantly. I had service the moment I landed in China, the fees are reasonable, and I could text my friends back home at any point I wanted.

But, after about 7 months, I found that I needed to switch to a China plan. Why?

This was nothing against Project Fi. It’s the best plan of the best. In my opinion, every US citizen should have this plan. But for China, it caused a few inconveniences.

First, just because my texting is free doesn’t mean that it’s free for Chinese citizens. Any coworkers attempting to text me were incurring huge fees on their own phone bills by texting my US number. I realized that I was becoming a nuisance to contact.

To remedy this first problem, I bought a cheap China flip phone for them to contact. Problem solved, right?

But then I was carrying around two phones, one for America and one for China. And I was paying two phone bills, albeit cheap bills. I was charging two phones at night. It just wasn’t fun for a guy who likes things simple.

My total bills for the month were as follows: $30/month for the US, and another $2/month for China. That’s a grand spanking $32 per month to have two fully-operating phones.

But in China, most citizens use WeChat, even for texting. Explaining to them that I have a US phone linked to my WeChat and a China phone without any WeChat was getting weird. It was also getting weird not knowing which phone number to give to people.

Then I realized: I could just get a Chinese phone plan, with data, for the US equivalent of 7 dollars a month. Yes, it’s that cheap. I’d save another $25/month by consolidating.

Then I accidentally dropped my Chinese cell phone in the laundry, and I had no choice (okay, this played a very significant part in the maneuver!).

So, I have one cell phone now! But it makes sense. US friends can still IM me on WeChat, WhatsApp, or Skype. And at any time I decide to move back to America, I can just put my Google Fi Sim card back in. Voila, back to my old plan.

One more thing I realized this week: it’s about time to get back on Twitter. As much as I despise social media, having one account has its uses. For example, an old Texas friend named Poston used to keep tabs on my life through my Twitter handle. It also brought him to this blog, where he read about my experiences with Aaron Peirsol and decided to share it with other old teammates. Suddenly I was hearing from old friends I never realized gave a damn about my travels.

So maybe social media has its uses (Twitter, NOT Facebook!)…. IF it’s limited in scope.


A “Typical” Friday in China

I woke up at 5:00 am, which is the time I have my alarm set to daily. My room is a little warmer than it was in January. In January, the ceramic heaters just couldn’t overcome daytime highs of zero degrees, which left me sleeping in a hat and scarf on numerous occasions. Now I’m at least sleeping without those, as is expected of a normal human being. I’ve heard that sleeping in the scarf you wear all day isn’t particularly healthy. Just a rumor, maybe.

I woke up and quickly did about 30 minutes of exercise with a jump rope and dumbbells, followed by a few rounds of pushups. I’m eager to jog outside again, but the weather hasn’t quite warmed up enough. Gym? Fuhgetaboutit! It snowed three inches yesterday, on top of another four inches of snow two days before that. The daytime high is still right at 32 degrees F. It’s March 16th. The lakes are still frozen solid.

It’s been a long winter. We’re going on five months of nonstop cold weather (and I mean, COLD). I was one heck of a trooper in January, but I should’ve geared up for a marathon instead of a sprint.

I agreed to teach three extra English classes this term. This morning was to be my first day teaching the extra classes, and I found myself regretting that I accepted them. Last fall, I had 19 classes spread over four days. This term, I have 22 classes spread over Monday-Friday. Those three extra classes make a BIG difference.

After exercising, I trekked over to my newest high school: No. 6 High School. Yeah, I’m also teaching at three different schools now. This is what the workforce does to people who do something well: it gives them more to do!

Public high schools can be difficult (as any job can be difficult), regardless of what country you teach in. They present the same common problems (or “challenges”, if you’re a glass half full kinda person). Rebellious kids, smart phone distractions, and a lack of resources are my “Big 3” problem (challenge) makers. I’ve seen all of them aplenty in China, which seems eerily similar to America. Sometimes it’s more challenging in China because there’s a language barrier preventing you from communicating what you want.

So, I wasn’t too keen on going to No. 6 High School, despite accepting the offer. I’d also heard mixed (okay, negative!) things about the kids there.

The school is enormous–six stories high and possessing hallways you can walk down for minutes straight without making a turn. The architecture looks relatively modern. It’s one of those buildings where every surface is glossy enough to see a little of your reflection. That’s not how I would describe the surfaces of most public schools.

When you enter a new school in China, you sometimes get what I think of as the “new foreign teacher treatment.” This means that you arrive with zero communication on what you’re supposed to teach, zero knowledge of where your classroom is, zero knowledge of what your eating situation is going to be (are you really allowed in the cafeteria? Roll the dice!), and zero knowledge of your teaching resources.

I always bring a “goodie bag” as backup in case the classroom is ill equipped. My “goodie bag” has chalk, an eraser, a USB, a computer mouse (sometimes you have a computer without a mouse), about 30 pens (students often forget theirs), a deck of cards for English games, a soft ball for more English games, some textbooks, and some printouts (in case the computer doesn’t work, I have printouts to either distribute or show via an overhead projector).


Sometimes you get a state-of-the-art classroom with a large LED monitor “touch screen” to present your beautiful .PPT-enhanced lectures. It will have a computer that’s easy to use and a sound system that’s perfect for any audio files you might have.

Sometimes you get a dank little cellar with a few rusty chairs, moldy windows, empty candy wrappers littered about the floor, and a stained whiteboard. All that’s missing is some padded walls and a straight jacket.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. In just seven months I’ve seen the full gamut. The quality of the classroom isn’t even dependent on the school. Sometimes the same school will put you in both great and not-so-great classrooms.

Needless to say, you’ve gotta be flexible and expect the unexpected. You have to accept that stability is gone. The moment you sign up to teach English in a foreign country, it falls out the window and crashes into a million sad little pieces.

I hate arriving at places extremely early–I’m a procrastinator by nature–but you need to allow a good cushion of time for teaching in a foreign country, especially on your first day. So I arrived at the school about 45 minutes early and used the extra time to figure out everything I would need before the bell rang.

I met the Chinese teacher in charge of the English department for all of five seconds. She threw a textbook my way and said, “You can use this.” Then she took off, leaving me to an empty classroom and my own devices.

Do I have to use this? Is it optional? Do I test them with this? Do we complete the exercises in this? Welcome to China. This is a common way of beginning a term, so it didn’t shock me like it did back in September.

I then waited in my classroom, in utter silence, until my first class arrived.

Sound like hell? This is a job, and all jobs have positives and negatives. I just described some of the negatives. Nothing in life is Utopian, and if you think teaching in a country that doesn’t speak your language is a great idea, it’s important to realize that there’s a reason foreign teachers don’t tend to last long.

There’s also plenty of reasons why foreign teachers choose to stay for years. As crazy as all of that sounds, the classes can be really fun.

I was pleasantly surprised that I liked the students. They left a first impression of being enthusiastic, attentive, and generally kind; you can’t really ask for much more than that. They genuinely wanted to practice speaking English, and they were eager for me to help correct their speaking. That makes the hassle worthwhile to me. When you have a group of kids that want to learn, the exterior BS becomes meaningless. It also doesn’t hurt that the students seemed to like me (I have an ego, so yes, even I need praise!).

Despite loving free time, I have to acknowledge something important: with every class I teach, I improve a little at teaching. There is something fulfilling about feeling tangible improvements in anything you do. Improvements signify growth, and if we aren’t growing, well… it means we’re dying.

I got home at noon and received a message from my company. “The Bureau of Education will be inspecting your No. 2 High School classes on Monday and Tuesday. Please prepare the best lessons you can. Make them perfect.”

This isn’t the time to be a smart ass and reply, “But no one is perfect!”

Like I said, you have to be flexible if you want to do a job this far off the beaten path. When I get messages like these, I responds with a simple “Ok, I will do my best,” and I get to work. What else can you do? So, I spent the remainder of my Friday creating what I hope are some decent high school lectures for next week.

I might be doing something right. In a field of about 120 teachers, I was selected the “Most Excellent Teacher” in the city for 2017. I don’t say this to brag… okay okay, I do a little! But mostly it’s to suggest that just maintaining a positive attitude and doing your job can elevate you over a very large field, in any facet of life.

Tomorrow I’ll get back to my “normal” weekend routine. This means going to the cinema, eating at a decent restaurant, and reading a good book. Not too much different from the American weekend, I guess.

A day in the life…

What is Enough?

The following passage is cited from Vanguard founder Jack Bogle’s book, Enough:

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have . . . enough.”

I was walking to class with a fifth grade teacher at my primary school today. “What is your dream job?” I asked her. It’s a common question that I’ve often asked and been asked by friends.

“This is my dream job,” she replied with a smile, pointing at the school building. It was one of those moments that was simple and brief, but also profound.

I do believe that life is transient, and the question of “what is enough” is an important one for everyone to ask themselves. You cannot intrinsically be happy if, in the deepest part of your soul, you do not have enough of what you believe you need.

Sadly, we live in a time where it’s easy to always feel a compulsion to climb, to yearn for more, and to chase a greater status. For many, there is never enough, and this, I think, is what causes some of the wealthiest people to ironically die feeling unfulfilled.

We’re always chasing greater returns in our finances, causing us to take on more risk, expenses, and complications. We’re always chasing a bigger home, a better car, a better school for our kids, and a better city to live in. We chase with a vehement and rabid obsession that can bring out the worst in us, when simplicity is the true solution to our problem. I’m guilty of it too! And regardless of how good we seem to have it, a media report springs up about how we could potentially have things even better, if we’d just buy the latest fad!

How can I define what is enough for me now, if it cannot be found in something bigger that I can buy one day in a hypothetical future?

The answer to this question, I think, can be found in the past. There are values that we can derive from the past that are too neglected in the present.

What are these values?

Simplicity and frugality are high on the list. Regardless of your wealth, they lead to peace of mind. They nullify the need to chase and validate beyond what is necessary.

Also high on my list are the willingness to help people in need, and to love and be loved. I don’t think I need to justify these.

Simple, but I don’t see how these values aren’t needed today!

Ironically, when we do these things well, money tends to take care of itself. Work becomes a more fulfilling duty and we become more valued citizens.

I compare the aforementioned teacher with some of the corporate hyenas I knew, who obsessed over their job titles, their offices, their out-of-scope mortgages, their hybrid cars, their hypothetical promotions, and their social media statuses. Their offices tended to have the door closed–how dare the cubicle lemmings speak to them without knocking!

That closed office door was, to me, symbolic of the hole in their core. What compels a person to work somewhere nicer than the company’s fellow men and women, besides the need to flaunt status?

I recall a date I had, many years ago, when the woman asked me, “Do you have your own office at work?” “No”, I answered, “I work in a cubicle.” She then taunted me with the revelation that she had her own office, as well as people who answered to her. She got me, I guess. I wasn’t one of the “chosen ones.”

But did she have enough?

If you choose not to play their game, but live a prosperous and giving life regardless, are you really losing?

Finally, I’ll compare the corporate hyenas I knew with the aforementioned teacher I spoke with. The salary of the corporate crony is probably much higher, yet I’d venture to guess that they also have more debt–possibly much more. More importantly, they have greater stress due to the complications their status chasing has gathered.

Most importantly, the teacher has the crown jewel that they might die having never found: enough.


Teacher Field Trip Day

I was finishing lunch at the primary school cafeteria on Thursday when I found out that my afternoon high school class was canceled. Eureka! I was done for the day. I teach at two different schools–a primary school in the morning, then a high school in the afternoon. It’s an interesting contrast to say the least.

I’ve found that building friendships in China is a slower, more gradual process than in America. People often have a natural inclination to be reserved and shy with strangers here, and it takes time to get past that barrier. There has to be a well established sense of trust to have camaraderie. At first, it can seem as though people are cold relative to their American counterparts. After getting to know you (over months, not weeks), though, interactions feel about as normal as anywhere.

To celebrate “International Women’s Day”, the primary school teachers were taking a field trip to a local movie theater.

“Since you are done for the day, why don’t you come with us?” One of the teachers suggested.

“What movie are we seeing?”

She then searched through her smartphone for the English translation of the movie name. “Fierce China,” she said. “I think that’s what the name means in English.”

“Is the movie in English?” I asked.

“No, all Chinese. It is about the strength and power of China. Maybe you can try and learn Chinese by watching!”

“I’m not sure. Maybe I should get back to the high school.” Considering the movie plotline and the fact that I wouldn’t understand a single word, it didn’t sound like I’d get much out of a viewing. Then again, it was free.

“There is free popcorn and coke too,” she remarked.

“Okay, in that case I’m in,” I said. I quickly got on the charter bus that drove us to the theater.

Even after studying Chinese for a few months and living in the country for half a year, I understood approximately 5% of the film. Not to bash the movie, but as a result of not knowing what was being said, I dozed off about 30 minutes in. I was able to gather that it was a documentary.

It was a worthwhile trip nonetheless; Chinese popcorn is fantastic. Unlike American popcorn, it’s caramel coated. Thus, it’s much sweeter. I had two small boxes.

After the film, I communicated with another teacher via his phone app. You speak into the app, which then translates your words into any intended language.

“Did you see the strength of China today?” the teacher asked me via the app. He was sporting a huge grin.

“Yes, it was amazing to see the growth of this country,” I responded. I’m always sure to keep an upbeat and encouraging response. What can I say, I like making people happy.

After a boast, it is Chinese custom to say something humble and self-critical. That’s exactly how the teacher responded.

“China’s growth rate is 6% now, which is slower than in the past. India’s is higher, and India also aims to be competitive on a global scale.”

“China’s growth is practical and impressive for its size,” I responded. “And Chinese companies are improving rapidly.”

The teacher’s grin widened more. “I would love to speak with you more!” he said as we left the bus.

We’re a few weeks into the spring term here. It’s March 9, yet the city had 6 inches of snow this week and daytime highs below 20. Needless to say, I’m ready for spring!

Changchun translates to “long spring” in English. I asked a teacher when this “long spring” would commence. He smiled and exclaimed, “It is just a name. We have a very spring here. Long winter!”