Another Day in the Life

A collection of weekly happenings.

I had a class on Thursday afternoon with my “special needs” high schoolers (the kids with subpar standardized test scores). One of my favorites is a shy boy who sits in the front. He always sits bolt-upright and sports an attentive demeanor, but he’s never willing to speak. Before and after class, though, he’ll approach me and speak freely, with pretty good English. We’ll talk about Marvel superhero films, zombie apocalypse comic books, and music. He plays the drums and once asked me to join his band as a guitarist. If I wasn’t the teacher, I would join in a heartbeat.

We were doing a simple exercise where I asked the class a few “future tense” questions. The question I asked him was, “what do you want to be.” He said that he wanted to be a dean at a school, perhaps at a university. I felt a mixture of “cynical adult” and “optimistic student” sentiment flowing through me. The cynical world-wary guy was saying, “Be realistic with your expectations”. I hated that thought. The optimist was saying, “Hey, you only have one round of being alive. Go for it, and if you crash and burn… treat it like a rollercoaster ride.” I feel like the day the cynical subconscious drowns out the optimistic one is the day I’ve finally died.

My company videotaped one of my primary school classes this week. The moment before class began, the zipper on my jacket jammed. The room was warm and clustered with 46 students, making it all the warmer. I attempted to pull the jacket over my head, but my shirt started going with it. I taught with the jacket on, and my nerves coupled with the heat led to some intense sweating. The Chinese teacher was struggling not to laugh. After class, the person recording the video insisted it was fine. Maybe it was. It was funny at least.

I found myself going back to the old question, one I know the answer to but think about a lot: how much is enough? I remember a talk that I had with my younger brother about the same question. He brought up his friend’s father, who saved a significant amount of wealth in his youth, only to contract cancer in his late 40’s. He told his son, “Don’t save… just enjoy every moment.” This had a ricochet effect, though, as his son spent himself into a debt-laden oblivion.

I had a dream in which I was swimming again. I was back at the Texas Swimming Center, anchoring a relay at a competition; the details were too fuzzy to recollect. I’ve never been nostalgic for training, but I always found the feeling of conquering someone else to be intoxicating. You don’t really “conquer” in other phases of life; not like that.

We had an intense basketball game at the school yesterday. “Mr. Sun,” our team MVP, had sprained both of his ankles two weeks prior. Leeyang and I had to figure out ways to carry the weight of his loss. Mr. Sun showed up to watch, and his longing gaze reminded me of my own when I walk by a swimming pool.

Mr. Sun had an extremely muscular upper body and a rail-thin lower body when I first met him. That was before his first ankle injury (he’s had three since I arrived in China). Miss Huang, the school manager, told me that he sprains his ankles all the time. “His upper body is so big that his feet cannot support it,” she told me. “He does this five times a year.”

Leeyang added to her statement that after each ankle injury, Mr. Sun let’s himself get fat. “It all turns to fat quickly. Maybe he will get muscular again, but it will only be for a few weeks. Then he’ll get hurt again. He’ll lie on the couch and drink beer while his wife cooks for him. Then, his ankles will heal, he’ll get muscular again, and the cycle will repeat.”

After the game, Mr. Sun and I had dinner. He was in a jovial mood.

“My wife made me so much good food this week,” he said. “But she told me, this ankle injury is the last time I put up with this. No more basketball. This can’t go on. So, I promised her this would be it.”

“So you won’t play basketball with us anymore?”

“Of course I will!” he said with a smile. “Hopefully I’m good by next Friday. My poor ankles.”



The Case of the Disappearing Teachers

There is a dark side to teaching abroad. Yes, there are fun days, but like any full-time gig, there are also serious disadvantages to moving and living in a foreign country. Culture shock is a very real phenomenon.

Sometimes, teachers disappear. That is, they freak out from the culture shock (or multitude of other things they didn’t expect to encounter), secretly buy a ticket back to their native country, and fly away without telling anyone. They have to flee in secrecy because if they are caught, they will have broken a contract, which can incur some serious monetary and legal penalties.

The school will often find out that their teacher fled on Monday morning, when a class has to sit and wait for a teacher who will never show. Schools and agencies are used to this. There are several “fugitives” every year. Thus, it takes time for a foreign teacher to earn the trust of peers. The first few months, it’s difficult to tell whether a teacher will end up being a “runner.” I have to say that I empathize a little with the schools and agencies here, because it means a loss of money and the shortage of a teacher.

I’ve seen three teachers flee since I arrived last August, which is no short number. The Colombian teachers that I know especially hate this city, mostly because of the weather. One of my Colombian friends, Luis, fled last weekend. He didn’t say a word to me or anyone else beforehand; I suspect he just snapped from the weight of his challenges. One day his roommate went home to find Luis’s clothes and belongings gone.

Luis texted me today. “I’m sorry I had to leave Matt… it’s just so cold and I miss my family. My feet… even when I go to bed, I cannot feel my feet…”. The Colombians I’ve met arrived without enough winter gear and quickly felt the shocking effects of a brutal winter. Culturally, China is about as different from Colombia as it gets.

I remember once, in our Chinese class, when Luis refused to remove his scarf from his face to speak. We were in a heated room by that point, but he was in utter agony. The Chinese instructor would say, “Luis, can’t you remove the scarf to practice speaking a little?” Luis would mutter from beneath his scarf, “I’m… too… cold.” He also had a hat on, and the only part of his skin I could see was his glasses.

The other Colombian I knew, Juan, always said similar things. He somehow made it through his contract though. As I stated in another blog, at the end of his contract, he was practically dancing in the air. I saw Juan enter the taxi for his “final ride” to the airport; he did one of those “heel kicks” in the air before he got in. “Free at last! Colombia, here I come!” In my mind I was thinking, “Man, if I met you earlier I’d help you find some good winter boots.” I asked him if he ever considered a contract extension. “For God’s sake, no!”

You form a strong bond with the foreign teachers who manage to stick around. You have to, really. The foreign teachers are a small enclave of people in your city who speak your language. You discover your favorite places and hobbies together. You hear their life stories and, regardless of where they’re from, draw parallels to your own life. If you’re interested in different cultures, teaching abroad is definitely for you. In Changchun, you might spend a morning with Russians and Ukrainians, an afternoon with some Chinese peers, and a weekend with Colombians, Canadians, or French teachers. You see all walks of life and there’s never a dull moment.

I was thinking about the profession of teaching full-time in a public school system today. It isn’t always easy. I read in an article that public school teaching is rated the “second most stressful” job in the world. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that it isn’t always easy. Regardless of what country you teach in, you encounter some bad seeds, as well as bad classes.

I had a very rough Monday this week. I spent a large portion of Sunday preparing what I thought were going to be some great lessons. Then, at the primary school, every class began with students being downright disruptive. Paper airplanes flew. Pushing and shoving was happening everywhere. Suddenly, I had to spend more time being a classroom manager than teaching. I was especially disappointed because it was utterly unlike most of my Mondays, so I didn’t expect it.

Later that afternoon, I had my “special” class at my high school. This is the class where the school system bundles all the kids who either have disciplinary issues or test scores that are significantly below average. As a full-time teacher, I have to manage this class, often without another supervisor.

Getting through this class is difficult, and it was especially difficult on Monday. Often, I’m not even thinking about the lesson plan; I’m just looking closely at the people to make sure no one gets hurt! Monday was an especially bad day after I had a tough time with the primary school. The bell rang and kids started turning their desks around, away from me. Some kids took out their cell phones. Everyone was grossly eating snacks, throwing wrappers on the ground, and shouting over me. Some were playing cell phone music over my speech. This was all in the first 60 seconds of class. Every attempt I made to quiet them down was falling on deaf ears.

As a foreign teacher, my school prohibits me from doing the following: yelling at students, kicking students out of class, demeaning students, and physically harming students. In truth, I think this is fair. What use is it to yell at a kid in a language he or she doesn’t fully understand? If I was 16, there is no way I’d be receptive to a teacher yelling at me in a foreign language. And if I kick a student out of class with a learning disability, which many of them have, there is nowhere for the kid to go.

The kids have Chinese teachers and parents to fulfill disciplinary issues, and of course I can report them if their conduct is impermissible. For a “special” class such as this one, I just try to manage and maintain enough discipline to get students participating and speaking a little English. To me, this means making a highly participative lesson plan, enforcing rules as best I can, and not taking things too personally. On this particular Monday, though, the class was so egregiously bad that I immediately felt crippled. I asked kids to put their cell phones away and they glared back at me. I asked them not to face the back wall, and they again ignored me. I wanted to leave the classroom and never look back, but knew I couldn’t do that. So, I went through the motions of my lesson plan and did my best to tune out the disrespect that I was receiving. I just couldn’t muster the energy to do much more than that. “Survival mode”.

It was the worst class I have ever encountered, in academics or athletics, as an athlete, student, or teacher. It isn’t even close.

That night, I had self-loathing thoughts such as “you’re a terrible teacher,” “you don’t belong here,” “no one respects you,” etc. It was difficult. I needed a good night’s sleep. I was told by a few other foreign teachers that it’s just part of the trade. Everyone encounters it at some point. Don’t take it too personally.

Since then, every class I’ve had this week has been great. Tuesday was wonderful, as was Wednesday. It was affirming enough for me to consider Monday an “aberration.” You really can’t take this job too personally; it’s public school, after all. And teaching, like any job, has peaks and valleys. You just can’t let the bad days overshadow the great ones.

Weekend Trip to Shenyang, Recent Shenanigans

I decided to take a weekend trip to Shenyang, China. It was a pretty spontaneous idea that I decided on last Wednesday. I felt a little guilty not doing much traveling lately; after all, didn’t I fly to the opposite side of the world to see the world? I was told by several people that Shenyang is considered the nicest city in the northern province.

So, with the help of a Chinese friend, I figured out how to book a train ticket and embarked early Friday evening. The train system in China is nothing short of amazing. The train I boarded moves upwards of 300 km/hour and hits every major city from Harbin (the city farthest north) to Beijing, and probably more.

I was in Shenyang by 8 pm. Score! I got a hotel room near the station for two nights, ate a considerable heap of KFC, and fell asleep early. Friday was cold and rainy; not ideal vacation weather.

The first thing I noticed about the city was that it’s enormous. It’s much, much bigger than Changchun, and that’s saying a lot. Changchun has a population upwards of 7 million, after all. A Wikipedia search revealed Shenyang’s population to be over 8 million. That might not seem like a big difference, but one million more people can make a big difference in your feeling of claustrophobia.

I woke up early Saturday, ate some “zhu rou baozi” (rolls stuffed with pork and some cabbage) with porridge on the side, and went to a local day spa.

They take relaxation seriously in China. This day spa was five stories high. The bathroom had several hot tubs and massage parlors. On the fourth floor, where I spent most of my time, were saunas, steam rooms, “napping” areas, a rest area (living room) to drink tea, and a “dark room” to watch movies. The fifth floor had an array of hot tubs both indoors and outdoors.

I sweat out my KFC from the night before, passed out in a hot tub for awhile, drank some milk tea, and finally left. I ended up at the spa for most of the day.

That night I met up with a Chinese work colleague from Changchun and we went downtown to eat and walk around. He recommended me a “famous dish” of spicy noodles with duck, which I thought sounded amazing. We went into a restaurant that looked good and he ordered it for me.

“I love duck”, I said. “I’m really looking forward to this!”

A few minutes later, he said to me, “Oh, I forgot to tell you. It’s a very special part of the duck.”

Suddenly, dread began creeping in. Special part of the duck?

“What part of the duck,” I asked. I had eaten pig’s feet not too long before and was preparing myself to do the same that night.

He searched through his phone’s translator for the correct words.

“The inside of the duck”, he said. “The intestines.”

Great, I thought. Gonna have to suck it up and whoof down some duck intestines.

The dish was served and I took a few bites. Not too bad, I was thinking.

There were also some dark clumps I noticed that looked like chocolate. “Some kind of sweet?” I asked him. “Sweet and spicy?” I was really hoping, even though it would make zero sense, that somehow this was chocolate.

“Not sweet”, he said. He then searched through his phone app for the correct words. “Blood. Coagulated duck blood.”

Nothing like a noodle bowl of duck intestines and coagulated blood to celebrate vacation in China!

The next day, I visited the imperial palace of the Qing dynasty. While there I paid 30 rmb to dress up like the emperor and pose on his throne, which was worth the money. It seems to be everyone’s favorite photo.

A few year’s ago Marilyn Manson released an album called “The Pale Emperor.” That seems to fit me here.

I ate a ton of pork dumplings and got on the train to return to Changchun.

It’s weird being on a train to Changchun on Sunday night thinking, Homeward bound, when you know it’s taking you to a frigid city on the opposite side of the globe of your real home. A city that’s zero degrees on average in January. A city neighboring North Korea and Russia.

I like traveling, and I’ll need to visit more cities in this fashion. There’s so much to do, in so many cities, that I simply don’t believe people when they say “retirement would be too boring.” There’s hundreds of years worth of interesting things to do and see, if you have the resources. Retirement is only boring if you make it boring. To be honest, I’d rather travel than work, and I know that wouldn’t change… if I had the resources to do it.

On a completely different note, I watched David Lynch’s Blue Velvet again last week. I don’t give my father enough credit for having an amazing taste in movies that I’m lucky to have adopted. It’s something you appreciate more as you age, I guess. I was introduced to some really fucking good cinema when I was a kid, including this film. When you’re a kid you don’t often think (not enough at least), “damn, my dad is really smart”, maybe because it’s the nature of a child to think himself an immortal that no one has ever surpassed. Then you grow up and realize your own strengths and limitations, and you have time to reflect on everything. Then you realize, “damn, my dad is really smart,” and your own reflection and place in the world become more clear.

The Week’s Events in China

One of the more difficult parts of living as an expat is how transient it all feels. The year flies by, and within that year, you see a lot of people come and go.

This is because most people are on a one year contract at most, and chances are they didn’t arrive on the same day as you. Thus, you might spend a few months with a new expat friend. At my school, the other English teaching position has been filled by three other people since I’ve been here.

Every week, you see new teachers arrive. In a blink of an eye, I became the “veteran” teacher fielding questions. “Eight whole months in China! How did you do it? How did you survive?” Phew… no easy answer there. You just sort of “do”!

Last week, a Colombian friend named Juan gleefully left. “Finally, I have escaped the cold!” He said in his thick accent. “I will be able to feel my feet again! Colombia, here I come!” He looked like he was practically flying, his steps were so light and joyful. That was one happy camper to return to South America.

Maybe my Nordic roots make dealing with the cold a little easier. But make no mistake, 6 months of cold weather is a long time. I’m ready for spring. I think I was saying the same thing three blog posts ago. It was true then and it’s truer now!

There are exceptions to the “one year” rule. “Peter”, for example, is an English teacher who has been in Changchun since 2004. 14 years! I see him around all the time. There are a few “expat” hangouts, and every time you go, you run into the same cast. In another post, I’ll give some stories about the top expat hangout, Three Monkeys Irish Pub.

“Maybe you can be like Peter, and become full Chinese one day!” My boss exclaimed as I signed for another year. I don’t think there’s any way I could do that, but in life we take things a day at a time and see where we end up.

“Peter” status is basically the stuff of legend here. I’m pretty sure the entire city of 7 million people know Peter now, because he’s taught them all English at some point!

Here’s a recap of the week’s events:

  • Studying more Chinese this week. I was slack for a few weeks, but now I’m back on it. I think I’ve come a long ways. I know a lot of words, but damn it’s hard to understand a native speaker.
  • I have three classes at No. 6 high school. Of those three, I love one of them and “deal with” the other two. The second class has a lot of immature high school guys that can make your blood boil if you wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Last week we were doing an exercise answering “How long have you…” questions. Every time I said, “How long”, the guys would put their hands far apart and say, “Teacher, mine is SO long!” Hint: they weren’t talking about an appropriate body part. Now I know why some of my old swim coaches threw chairs across the pool in fits of rage.
  • I was getting better at basketball from December to February because I had time to play every day. Now with a different schedule, I can only play once a week, and thus my skills are diminishing. For every good shot, I’m taking three bad ones. I know it’s just for fun, but it makes the competitor in me furious. Last week, a tall Chinese PE teacher blocked a shot I usually make in my sleep, and I found the old Texas “Manimal” on the brink of unloading, wanting to cuss, shove, push, and spit. I have to let that “Manimal” die though. I’m an honored guest in China. I can’t ruin it by being that fiery 22 year old.
  • Last weekend, I almost took a trip down to Dan Dong, China, to see some beautiful sights. The weather unfortunately didn’t permit though (rain and snow the entire weekend), so I plan on going in three weeks and taking plenty of photos.
  • This weekend I’ll take a trip to the hot springs. It’s time to get out more and do the good “touristy” stuff.
  • Finally, last week marked a major Chinese holiday. Usually if there’s a Chinese holiday in the school year, it’s terrible news for teachers. “Damnit, not another Chinese holiday!” is a common sentence you’ll hear. In China, if you have a weekday holiday, you have to make the work day up over the weekend. Thus, I had to work Sunday. So, all the holiday meant was a 6 day work week this week. I prefer the Western idea of holidays more!

That’s all for now. Other than that I’m just trying to resist the urge to buy a Nintendo Switch, which looks really damn cool. Until next time…

Year Two In China, Coming Up

I arrived in China without a long-term plan to stay. Maybe I was just looking to escape monotony. Maybe I saw my own mortality and wondered, fretfully, “Is this it,” as I felt myself start to age. Like many expats, I think, I arrived with the simple desire to see and experience something different. The teaching part was a nice way to make money while changing pace.

I assumed I’d be in Changchun for a year, if I could stomach it. Two years was definitely never part of the plan. But, I’ve signed on for another year. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, after all. If you’re happy, go with it.

This week, I had a meeting with my company’s boss, who expressed that they’d like to be especially accommodative, should I desire to stay.

“In China, we treat you as well as you work for us,” she said. “You have worked really well and your schools express that they like you, so we can give you more flexibility. So please, if their is anything you think you want, you can tell me now before I prepare the contract.”

I think that’s a fair deal. I’m comfortable. I never go home thinking, “What the hell am I doing with my life.” Contrarily, I think, “What a unique life I’ve lived.” You can’t really ask for much more than that.

Do I plan on staying in Chanchun forever? Of course not! I think you have to approach this job a day, a week, a month, and a year at a time (goes for any job really). I’m sure I’ll be back in America… eventually.

Sadly, my schedule is a little different this term; I have a class during my usual “basketball” hours, which means that I can only play basketball once a week. The other players have been asking where I am.

With all that said, here’s a recap of my week:

I had lunch with Leeyang, my usual basketball teammate, on Friday. “I go home every day and my wife says that I seem exhausted, and she worries that I work too hard. Actually, I am not tired from work… I’m tired because I play so much basketball at school!” He then broke into laughter.

It’s interesting because the Chinese trash talking is eerily similar to American trash talking. For example, I told the guys that my favorite player is Tim Duncan. Now, every time I shoot, people on the other team will shout, “Tim Duncan! Miss! Miss!”

Another time I had the ball stolen from me by a much shorter player. I can be too careless with the ball. As he looked back at me he said in Chinese, “Thank you very much!”

If I make a shot, the other team will grumble, “Tai gao le!” That’s the Chinese way of saying, “He’s too tall!”




Teaching ESL Requires Flexibility

A whole lot of flexibility.

Don’t get me wrong, being “good” at teaching, like coaching, does require planning too. There has to be a curriculum, as well as a set of teaching “styles” you’ve developed that are ready to use. There has to be an outline of how the days, weeks, and months will flow, and a vision for what people will gain over a span of time.

But damn, if you teach ESL in another country, you’ve also gotta be really flexible. There is nothing “stable” about ESL teaching! If you want utter predictability, you’re better off just about anywhere else. To lean on any strategy or to follow a lesson plan verbatim can be your doom on any given day.

When I was first starting out, I heavily relied on PowerPoints. I still use them, but I used to NEED them. I put exercises, audio, and video on them. It was nice and convenient–plug in your USB and then let the class fall into place.

Then you enter the occasional classroom where the Chinese teacher says, “The computer doesn’t work today.” If you need the PowerPoint to teach, suddenly you’re screwed. Hope you’re good at improvisation!

Or maybe you have a class with a lot of kids that just don’t like PowerPoints. It happens. The second the .PPT gets switched on, they’re making paper airplanes.

Conversely, if you rely on your chalkboard, you might walk into a classroom where the chalkboard is covered with text and the eraser is missing. With no one else in sight, it simply means that you can’t use the chalkboard. Hope you brought some songs!!!

Sometimes too, you have quiet classes full of students who love watching you write on the board. But you also have some classes that turn into crazed psychopaths the second they see you turn toward the board. How will you handle THOSE classes?

In ESL, the teacher who stubbornly follows a lesson plan, bullet point by bullet point, is the teacher that will slowly (or maybe quickly) go insane.

Sometimes, the game you thought would be your masterpiece just falls flat. Inevitably, the students will hate something that you hoped they’d love. And if they hate it, you can’t fight back at them or display anger to “make” them like it. The verdict is out: your precious game isn’t good! Now, are you going to drag out an activity they hate for another ten minutes while the class turns into a scene from Children of the Corn, or are you going to switch things up?

It doesn’t matter how fun YOU think a game is. If the kids aren’t interested, the game will probably not work to your benefit.

You have to have an honest grasp of the present moment and have an arsenal of “alternatives,” should something not go your way. In other words, make a backup plan! Maybe you have some extra flashcards in your bag, or a “go-to” game like Hangman. But at some point, you’ll find yourself needing to switch gears. You can’t cling to an outline if the outline isn’t working.

You also have to be patient, because if things that are out of your control start to get the best of you–whether it be the PowerPoint not working, or the class fighting back/ignoring you–you’ll find the next few hairs that you grow will be white. The second you display anger and frustration, you’ve lost.

If a plan goes awry, put on a game face, switch to another activity, stay calm, and try your best to make some semblance of progress. Trying your best is truly all anyone (anyone reasonable at least) asks of you; if you can do it with a smile, you’ll succeed as an ESL teacher.

And if that alternative approach doesn’t work, you have to go home, assess what went wrong in the lesson, and try to figure out how a different approach might improve things for the next one. Maybe it’s just trying a different classroom management strategy. Maybe the class just wants to sing more songs.

It’s like sports. Sometimes you lose a match; that doesn’t mean you jump off a bridge! It means you try to win the next one.

I’m not a guy that likes to sing and clap to lame kid’s songs. If some of my old Texas Swimming teammates saw me clapping and singing to “Three Blind Mice” today, they’d probably be wondering what alien invaded the “Manimal’s” body. I wasn’t even that goofy when I was eight years old.

Funnily enough, before I came to China, I had a conversation with a childhood swim coach who knew me as an eleven year old. I told her that I thought I could work well with kids under 12.

“You think so? I think that’d be awesome,” she said. “I think you can, but you know, you were never one of those “rah rah let’s cheer together” kinda guys. Do you think you have that in you?”

No, I’m not that goofy by nature, but I am a guy that likes to do activities that resonate well with people. When I sing and clap, kids tend to love it. I don’t love it, but they do. Hey, sometimes we’ve gotta make the sacrifice. So, I do it! I put on an “alter ego” when I enter the classroom–one willing to be energetic and “enthusiastic” about chants and singalongs–and I go with it. This “goofy dancing McGinnis” isn’t natural, but it isn’t all that bad either.

If you’re willing to change according to what works (in anything you do, not just teaching abroad), I believe the sky is the limit.

And if you feel too self-conscious doing silly little kids’ stuff, remember: just because your friends back home don’t think your goofy, doesn’t mean the people in your new country feel the same way. What better place to act like a “kid at heart?” It’s not like anyone will judge you for being out of character!

So, be flexible!


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…

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!”


Chinese New Years

It’s Chinese New Years, the longest and most important holiday in the country. The streets, shops, restaurants, and supermarkets are completely shut down. I was told that trains and airports are horrifically flooded with people rushing to their families, which is why I elected to stay put.

It amazes me that in a span of 12 hours, a city of 7 million people can transform into a vacant ghost town.

For about a week, citizens spend time in their homes with family and friends. Thus, over the previous week I stocked up on snacks and drinks. Almost everything is closed for the entire week.

I was fortunate to eat an authentic holiday meal with a colleague (Leeyang, who I wrote about in a previous basketball blog) and his family. It was an invitation I didn’t expect and graciously accepted. We stuffed ourselves with pig feet, fish head, chicken, mushrooms, spicy cabbage, and shredded potatoes.

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I’m not a particularly adventurous eater. Fish head and pig feet aren’t my idea of a quintessential holiday meal, but when you’re the honored guest, I believe you should stuff it down your gullet and stress how much you love it. So, that’s exactly what I did.

It actually was an excellent and delicious meal, by the way.

The pig’s feet actually wasn’t bad, though it’s tough to separate the meat from bone. It’s especially difficult to gnaw with chopsticks, and I found myself repeatedly having to use my hands. Luckily, Leeyang’s family didn’t seem to mind. “You can eat it just like you would at home,” they repeatedly stressed. Still, I tried my best to fare with the chopsticks.

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We may lose at basketball daily to teachers shorter and older than us, but we definitely won at devouring that food.

Leeyang’s father was the head chef of the day. He’s also a renowned dentist in the area, which makes him a useful contact to have in case of a sudden toothache.

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With the iron chef.

I couldn’t help but feel some initial fear–the fear of entering a household with different cultural customs. This stems from not knowing when you are committing a cultural faux pas or doing something that would be considered strange. Am I really using these chopsticks the right way? Am I eating in the correct order, and am I sitting properly? Am I speaking too little or too much? I found myself thinking all of these things and more.

It did give me some perspective on life as a foreigner, and just how many customs we develop over our life that we aren’t aware of. There is a lot more to learn than just another language. Culture is like an onion, and over a long period of time, you peel away layer by layer to gain a better understanding.

I’m still pretty stuffed from that meal, and it’s been about twelve hours. They also had some French red wine for me to take advantage of, which I greedily did.

After finishing the meal we spent a few hours relaxing, talking, and drinking green tea.

Later that evening, the school principal (I work at a high school) visited me with a few bags of gifts.

I’ve heard horror stories of English teachers flying (literally) into bad situations overseas, in which they’re overworked and underpaid. I’m lucky in that my situation couldn’t be more different. I’m treated pretty damn well.

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Of all the goodies in these bags, this was the most interesting:

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This is “Chinese dragon fruit”. You peel away the flesh like a banana and eat what’s inside. I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet, but intend to within the next day or so and report.

It was a great holiday, and hopefully I spend the rest of the week relaxing and munching down dragon fruit.