Tag Archives: chinese

Showers & Coffee

To get a tourist visa for China – you need a hotel reservation. Months ago, I booked some cheap one I found on a Chinese travel website thinking – we can always find something new between now and then, or, how bad can it be – we will save money! It was also close to where I used to live, so I figured it would be nice to be familiar with the area.

After approximately 29 hours of being awake and traveling, we finally arrived at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. Immigration was a breeze, but our luggage took forever. Thank the Lord it showed up finally, and we went to find our way to a taxi.

I thought I wouldn’t be persuaded by the Chinese people trying to get me to pay exorbitant prices for their private cabs, and said I would just go wait in line for the official city taxi. Yea, well everyone had to take a taxi as public transport does not run all night in China. After looking at the hour long line for a taxi, I decided that it was worth the $20 or so to pay to stay out of that line.

Our smoky cab ride wasn’t as long as I expected. But when we got to the street, it took our cabbie awhile to find the unlit hotel. Golden Island Hotel. No receptionist, but after five minutes of the sleepy security officer yelling to the back, a nice, older Chinese lady appeared.

The lobby of the unlit Golden Island was probably what you would expect from a $35 a night room.

The only Chinese I understood from her was “mei you” which means “do not have” when I tried to show her our reservation info. After 15 minutes, paying her for the week plus a deposit, giving her our passports, and some teary eyed tired blonde girl being completely overwhelmed, we got one key and headed down the hall to find an elevator and our room.

The room is huge! And clean! And two bathrooms!?! Granted – figuring out how a remote to a heater worked when all the buttons are in Chinese, took awhile and some more tears. All I wanted was a bed, and I finally had one. Sleep was slightly more elusive.

In the morning, John woke up and knowing that his phone was still on Seoul time told me that it was 9am. So I woke up as well. An hour later, I realized it was only 8am. Confused, John and I realized he had thought we were an hour ahead of Seoul time, when in reality we were an hour behind. Ah timezones!

While John showered, I went to ask the front desk about getting hot water. We had two ceramic cups and tea bags but nothing to heat water. Because the only thing worse than extreme jet lag and little sleep, is extreme jet lag, little sleep and no caffeine. A couple boxes of Starbucks Via in my suitcase were my emergency plan! Also, I wanted to inquire about wi-fi (which I thought was available). No wi-fi, only in the lobby.

When I tried to explain that I want something to heat water, my receptionist friend from the night before seemed to think I was saying, we did not have hot water in the room – like for a shower. She sent a maintenance man upstairs with me, and I managed to get him to get me an electric kettle to heat water. When I realized there was no hair dryer – I decided such luxuries just weren’t worth the fuss.

After he left, John informed me – we have no hot water. At this time, I began to realize that maybe my friend downstairs understood what I did not. There is no hot water. She had typed into her computer something in Chinese and it read, “Opens later.” It came to me that the word for turning on – as in to turn on water – is the same as open in Chinese. Perhaps you need to wait until after 9am to shower in a Chinese hotel?

Nope – I waited until 10am today and enjoyed a freezing shower.

Oh, China!


Chinese Food

Do you know what they call Chinese food in China?  Food.  Yup, that’s right, in some parts of the world it is just food.  Delicious food, by the way.  I was always skeptical about Chinese restaurants and Chinese food in the USA, mostly because any Chinese food I have ever eaten in the States is a far cry from what I grew to love in China.  There is so much variety in Chinese food, so many distinct cuisines under the giant umbrella we just classify as Chinese food.  Most of which American’s have never heard of.  Americanized chow mein, beef and broccoli, and orange chicken were not items I ate in China. Last night, however, I discovered there is good food (of the Chinese variety) in the Portland, OR metropolitan area.

I have about six days left in Oregon before I head out on my new adventure (to Nashville, TN – check out my new blog) and I had been trying to figure out where to stay for my last few nights in town.  My dad mentioned that he had some friends from Southern Oregon who had a condo in Beaverton and they would be willing to let me stay.  Awesome.  Turns out it is an older couple, my dad sings in the Rogue Valley Chorale with the woman who is American and her husband is Chinese.  They were going to be in town over the weekend, as was my dad, so it was arranged that we would all meet up at their place on Sunday and we would all go out to Chinese food!

I have to say, not only am I incredibly thankful for their generosity in letting me use the condo for a week.  But they were also a lot of fun to get to know.  Gene is a 77 year old man from China, who came to the US sometime after college.  Now, for those of you who know ANYTHING about Chinese history, stop and think about what this man lived through growing up in China in the 1930’s-1950’s.  He has some stories to tell, to say the least.  He also is one of the most energetic, talkative and lively 77 year olds I have ever met.  He was quite a riot.  When we first came in and sat down, he tossed me a newspaper in Chinese and said, “Let’s test her Chinese!”

Anyways… this was supposed to be about food.  They took us to this place called Taste of Sichuan (Sichuan is only my favorite of Chinese cuisines). I had never heard of it and when we pulled up I knew it was new because the building housed a Marie Calendars when I moved away in 2011.  We go inside to a crowd of people waiting to be seated, and luckily they tell us it will only be about 15 minutes.  I sit down in front of the board with some of their specials written on it and see 小笼包 xiaolongbao or steamed dumplings. My first thought is “YUMMY!”  My second thought is “$7.95!?!? I would never pay that much for xiaolongbao!”

We are seated, ordered the xiaolongbao right away as a starter and looked at the menu.  Oh there are so many delightful things it is hard to chose!  But no pictures?  In China, your menu is normally a fat book filled with 15-50 pages of pictures of every single dish.  Of course, when you can’t speak Chinese this is helpful to see what looks good.  But also, the Chinglish translations (although entertaining) leave a lot to be desired.  (Like the time I ordered delicious pork spareribs that were described as octopus in English… hmmm.) Fortunately, in the States the English was more accurate.  However, I did have to ask Gene about some of the characters because I knew the Chinese names for dishes and not the English names.

I opted out of the Tsingdao beer when I learned they had good microbrews to offer as well, so I went Oregonian and ordered a Widmer hef.  Funny thing, I was a little put off about it at the time, but after awhile I realized in China it wouldn’t have been a big deal.  You see, in many non-western establishments in China it is a safe bet to ask for a COLD beer, as they often serve it in bottles at room temperature.  This wasn’t really on my mind when the waitress came out handed me a beer and a glass of ice.  She said, “I brought you ice because we ran out of cold bottles of the beer.”  Indeed my bottle of hefeweizen was room temperature.  In my moment of cultural insensitivity, I was obviously not thrilled with the prospect of pouring my beer over ice and she offered me a different one – Ninkasi IPA to go with my Chinese food.

After choosing items from the menu, with lots of discussion and debate.  I think I shocked the waiter when I did all the ordering for the table – in Chinese.  Okay, so it was broken Chinese and Gene had to help me out with a couple of them, but I did it.  茄子,回锅肉,宫保鸡丁(eggplant in hot garlic sauce, twice cooked pork, Kung Pao chicken) and one more.

Four tell-tale signs that we were in America: there were forks on the table and we had to ask for chopsticks.  The rice came out with the dishes (not last).  Most of the dishes came out at the same time.  And we got a fortune cookie at the end of the meal.  Newsflash America: you don’t get fortune cookies in China. My fortune was pretty good though: You will have a fine capacity for the enjoyment of life.  They know me so well.

Oh…it was delicious.  A bit spicy, as good Sichuan food should be.  But they were all the tastes and smells I have been living without for the past two months being back in the States.  For dessert (which none of us really had room for) we had 芝麻汤圆 or sesame sticky rice balls.

Good food, good company and conversations about China with a little Chinese thrown in… it made me want to go back.  But for now, I might just have to make do with leftovers.

Just Another Day

I normally teach twelve classes a week; although, my thirteenth class will be starting in a couple weeks. This weekend one of the other foreign teachers in my school was out, so I taught two of her classes on Saturday in addition to mine.  Meaning, I taught 8 classes over the course of Saturday and Sunday – surprisingly, I survived with much less time for preparation than I’m accustom and my voiced survived.

My Sunday is always a busy day – as I teach 4 classes every Sunday.  So what does a typical Sunday look like for teacher Julia?  Here are some events of my day today:

I had a conversation with a 5 year old about his little sister, how she goes to a different school and has a green backpack but he has a red backpack.

Another 5 year old told my coworker that I have a knife on my back.  (I believe the translation was actually a knife in my back…) When I asked where the knife was she lifted up my shirt and pointed to my tattoo (which apparently looks like a knife to her).

I listened to two students argue in class (in Chinese) over who was speaking Chinese in class.

I was scolded by my students for speaking Chinese in class. (I referred to Chinese currency as kuai.)

I was told (in response to the question, “Does Julia have blond hair?”) “No, she doesn’t. She has gray hair.”

When a coworker was commenting on the very long braided rat-tail of one of the students at the school, I learned that it is customary for some Chinese boys to never cut this strand of hair until they turn ten years old at which time it is cut off.  No one was sure exactly which people this was customary among, although “a region around Shanghai” was speculated; nor did anyone know the reasoning or tradition behind it.  When the boy was asked why his hair wasn’t cut, he responded, “我不知道.” (I don’t know.)

I listened to one of my 4 year old students reading English and brought another teacher over to show off how good his pronunciation was. I also met his father who, when I expressed my delight in his son’s English, told me when the boy was two he taught him how to speak with both Japanese and French accents.

I finally went an entire class period without calling a set of twins by the wrong name; however, I did mix up the twins in another class for the millionth time.

I was told how to order yet another type of delicious dumplings from the small restaurant next to my school and went and bought dumplings for a co-worker and myself.  Spending 12 kuai (less than 2 dollars) for the two of us.

I relayed orders for milk tea (or bubble tea) from one teacher to another – in Chinese.  Because if I know anything in Chinese, I know how to order 珍珠奶茶.

I taught the sentence: “I am pooping.” And when one student left for the bathroom, I asked the class, “What is James doing?” The entire class responded, “He is pooping.”  If my male students are so obsessed with talking about poop, I at least ensure they do so in a grammatically correct manner.

I explained the difference between the English words chili and chilly, and their uses to four of my Chinese co-workers, one of whom has the English name Chilly.

I sighed a breathe of relief and announced at 3:40pm that I finally had 20 minutes to relax before my last class at 4pm, then immediately sat down at my desk and saw the stack of 55 reports waiting to be filled out.

And, lastly, to top of my day – I, for the first time, had a student spit in my face.  I took him by his t-shirt, pulled him out of the class, through the lobby where his grandmother was sitting and into the teachers office where I sat him down and told the Chinese teacher to please instruct him not to ever spit in his teacher’s face again. He was later brought back to class and apologized. The Chinese teacher explained, as he stood there about to cry, that he merely wanted to let me know what another student had done to him; yet, he didn’t know how to say it in English.

I did get a chuckle after class when I learned that when the Chinese teacher told him an apology might not calm my anger and asked him what he should do about it, he responded, “She can spit in my face.”

And after almost ten long hours at the school, I came home with a sore throat, exhausted, but smiling.  If nothing else, every day is certainly an adventure.

Simple Chinese

I was asked before coming to China if I had considered Taiwan instead (of the mainland).  My answer – I don’t want to go to Taiwan because Chinese is difficult enough and I don’t want to have to learn the traditional characters.  You see – in terms of their language (despite both speaking Mandarin Chinese) Taiwan and China are worlds apart.  As to whether or not they are separate countries – I will just say “No comment” for the time being.

For a little lesson in the differences between Mainland China Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Mandarin Chinese check out this article by BBC News: China and Taiwan

I would have to agree with the eight year old student in the article.  Writing Chinese characters (or 汉字)is very tiring and difficult.  I am still flabbergasted by the thought of having to learn and write traditional characters.  I will stick to Mainland China’s simple characters for now.

Simple… like the ones I learn in Chinese class.









Oh, those are just a few.  But speaking of Chinese characters, I think I impressed my students today when I wrote a sentence on the board in Chinese.  Go Julia! The English teacher can write in Chinese!!

Another side note… I managed to entertain a stranger at Starbucks by telling Roger (who is a Brit) that I was now teaching his former students “proper American English”.  The man sitting across from us burst into laughter as he too was British and found my claim quite entertaining.  🙂


China, Oh China

Lunch and a 20 minute walk on a sunny day can be inspiring.

Welcome to Shanghai:

Where you can buy lunch for two (at a restaurant, I’m not just talking street food here) and a kilo of fresh strawberries then walk down the street and spend just as much money on one latte.

Where you can watch a child take a dump on the sidewalk… just 3 feet from the large basket of strawberries you just purchased from.

Where you can get turned around while walking one evening, not be sure where you are going and run into someone you know in a city of 25 million.

Where, in the most populated country on earth, the government is so alert that it will cut off your cell phone service if you quote  Shakespeare.  (see NY Times Article)

Where foreigners doubt the news they read in the NY Times and quote Shakespeare, speak of Bob Dylan (who is visiting Shanghai soon) and confuse Chinese workers in order to prove the NY Times wrong and that quoting Shakespeare will NOT shut off your phone service.  (see blog post)

Where, in many ways, woman are advancing more in the workplace than in other parts of the world; and, thanks to a 1979 population control policy, they aren’t worried about childcare.  (1 child policy equates to 4 grandparents per child.)  (see Shanghaiist post)

Where you are just as likely to be hit by a motorcycle, moped, scooter, taxi, bus, bicycle, Mercedes or rickshaw crossing the street when you have a walk signal as when you have a don’t walk signal.

Where you can purchase bunnies, turtles, hamsters, umbrella’s, leggings and an apple logo for your fake ipod at the subway station.

Where you can purchase live bullfrogs & crabs, pigs feet/tongue/stomach, and a duck head at the meat market – or just choose your chicken and watch them kill it for you.

Where you can intend on studying Chinese characters all day, but get distracted thinking of the obscurities of Life in China instead.  There are over 40,000 Chinese characters and I need to learn at least 21 today…

The Student

Over the past 12 years of my life, I have spent almost 8 years both working and studying.  For most of those years, I was studying full time and working part time.  More recently, I was working full time and obtaining my masters degree part-time (who ever decided a part-time graduate student should take 12 credit hours in a term doesn’t understand the definition of part-time).  And now, after a brief 3 months of being out of school I decided to go back, to study Chinese (the original reason for shipping myself to Asia) at Dǒnghuá University in Shanghai.  This time, my work and my studies are both based around a foreign language, either learning one or teaching one.  It makes for interesting (and long) days (and nights).

I decided I shouldn’t be completely insane, and signed up for the part-time language course at Dǒnghuá as opposed to the full time language course and I am very glad I did (I do enjoy my one day a week of complete freedom).  I also, despite having taken some Chinese classes in the States while in the MIM program, decided to put myself into the first level of Chinese as we did not learn characters (Hànzì) at PSU and the next level up at Dǒnghuá is based entirely on characters. (No pinyin, the Romanization of Chinese, in the book or the class at all.)  I figured the review wouldn’t hurt and I could spend my time focusing on learning to read and write Chinese while only improving my speaking skills.

My classes are three mornings a week, MWF from 9:25am until 12:10pm.  This leaves me with a 1.5 day weekend (Monday afternoon – Tuesday night) as I work Wednesday-Sunday.  Originally, the school created two classes of part-time beginning level Chinese students, such as me. However, because of the program’s popular demand, after one week of sitting in a class with 27 or so other students, the students complained about class size and the school created a third section.  About 8 -10 students were taken from each class to make 3 classes of 20 or less students.  I was randomly chosen to move to this new class so after a week of one teacher and getting comfortable with the flow, fellow students, the teaching style – I was moved to a new class with a new teacher.  I have now been in the new class for 4 classes and it is going quite well.  I was one of several Americans in my original class but now am the lone Měiguó rén (American) in the class.

I do relish the diversity of my new class, here is the breakdown:

5 Brazilians (Bāxī rén) By far the biggest population in the class.

3 French (Fǎguó rén)

2 Dutch (Hélán rén)

2 South Koreans (Hánguó rén)

1 Flemish Belgian (Bǐlìshì rén)

1 German (Déguó rén)

1 Serb (Sàiěrwéiyà rén)

1 Indonesian (Yìndùníxīyà rén)

1 Zimbabwean (Jīnbābùwéi rén)

1 South African (Nánfēi rén)

And 1 American (Měiguó rén)

It is a good group despite the vast range of Chinese ability in the “beginning class” and I think I’m really going to enjoy the classes.  I was even unanimously called on to be “class monitor” for my class.  What does this mean?  Apparently, according to the meeting I had for class monitors today, it means “taking care of my classmates”.  Everything from helping the teacher, encouraging students to get involved in extra curricular activities, communicating news about events and activities to my classmates, arranging class outings & events and just being awesome in general.

And my Chinese, well – I’m still working on it.

The school isn’t too far from my apartment, but with the subway it takes me about 45-50 minutes to get there in the mornings.  Plus, I give myself a little extra time in case I have to wait for a subway, my transition between subway lines doesn’t go smoothly, or I want to stop and get some delicious and cheap street food on the way.  Bacon, a fried egg, lettuce and your choice of spicy or not spicy condiments wrapped in a crepe for a dollar or less is always a delicious treat before school!

Pearl milk tea and a crepe with fried egg - less than $1

Why China?

People frequently ask what I’m doing after I graduate from my master’s program in December 2010.  I would love to find my dream job based here in Portland that allows me to travel the world, but considering:

a) I still don’t know what I want to do with my life

b) the economy is still in the toilet and

c) I really have nothing tying me down at the moment

I decided if I wanted to run off to travel, have fun and try something totally new and different this is the time.

So why China?  What am I going to be doing there?  Originally, the idea was to get a scholarship from the Confucius Institute, go to China, and continue my education in Mandarin Chinese (the 9 months of Chinese I had at PSU is very limited and fading from my memory quickly). However, because of a technical issue with submitting my application online (might have been the fact that the website was in Chinese) I did not get the scholarship.  Laoshi Meiru (my Chinese teacher at Portland State) tried to help me get a scholarship anyway, but nothing worked out. 

My mind had already gotten fixed on the idea of going, and when my mind gets stuck on something… well, I want to make it happen.  I have friends who have travelled to China and let me know that as a native English speaker is really easy to get a job teaching English there.  I never thought I would be a teacher, but I love kids, it could be fun, something different!  Leah, my sister, teaches, my mom teaches ESL, it must be in the blood. I’m always up for something new and an adventure. I found a few places to apply through referrals and searching online.  I had a couple interviews and was most impressed with Reach to Teach.  I passed the interview process and now they are in the process of placing me in a school.

Currently, I’m looking at a school in Shanghai.  It will be a bit of a change, from little Portland, Oregon,population about 1/2 a million, known for it’s liberal culture, being bicycle friendly, environmentally conscious and micro breweries to the most populous city in the world, with 20 million people and well, in China. But I’m really excited.  Still waiting for more definite answers and placement before giving notice at my job, buying a plane ticket, etc.  I’m a planner though, my head is full of thoughts, what I need to do, what I need to buy, what I need to get rid of, dates, times, everything. 

Everything, obviously, includes being 100% prepared to share about my journey with anyone and everyone wanting to hear about it.  So here we are, come take a peek into Julia’s Life in China.

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