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Beijing Blog

Part 1

10 °C

Over the last few weeks I have begun to live a ‘normal’ life here in the capital. Whilst the temperature has dropped dramatically, I've been braving the cold and to discover some of Beijing's different neighbourhoods. The first thing I’ve realised is that Beijing is HUGE. I’m not sure that there will ever be a point when I can say that I really know this city, but I do feel like I'm getting to know parts of it.

Recent weeks have been especially interesting because of the Communist Party meeting that took place here. Beijing was in near lockdown for just over a week, with increased security everywhere, bars closing early and shops around subway stations shutting to stop crowding…

Despite this, I’ve still managed to have quite a lot of FUN. My most exciting discovery has been that of The Hutongs. The Hutongs are a network of charming pedestrianised streets not far from Tian’anmen Square. Originally dwellings of poorer Beijingers, some of them have now been converted into snack streets and shopping streets where there are many independent coffee shops, bars and craft shops. There’s an amazing atmosphere - day and night - and it’s a great place to wander around.

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Entrance to Wudaoying Hutong

Not far from The Hutongs, stand Beijing’s Bell and Drum towers. I spent a [hungover] afternoon climbing the extremely narrow, extremely steep staircases of these two buildings, whose purpose was city-wide timekeeping before the invention of clocks. There was a lot of information about the old Chinese calendar which was interesting to read, but the highlight was the view of the city from the top. Although it was a bit smoggy, it was the first time I was really able to gain any kind of insight into Beijing as a whole and work out where things were in relation to each other.

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Beijing Bell Tower

I’ve been getting to grips with Chinese culture too. I’ve been taking Mandarin lessons twice a week, and I’m starting to use it - albeit irregularly - in my daily life. I’ve still got a long way to go, especially when it comes to characters, of which I know around twenty out of several thousand... Still, twenty is better than none, right? Put it this way, my students were amazed when I wrote the characters ‘big’, ‘small’, ‘up’, and ‘down’ on the board! I also partook in a two hour long Chinese paper cutting class. My initial reaction was probably the same as yours; how can you cut paper for two hours? The answer is that Chinese paper cutting is addictive, challenging and surprisingly rewarding.

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Some of my creations

Finally, normal life has taken a turn for the better. I’ve managed to find a really nice group of people who are doing the same thing as me, teaching English in schools and universities, which means I have been much busier during the week and have enjoyed having company to sample some of the food that Beijing has to offer outside of my school canteen, including the local curry house(!), Korean BBQ and various noodle joints. I’ve also started using the sharing bikes, which has changed my life. I’m not exaggerating. Being able to cycle has halved my morning commute and meant that I can see the city as I move around it, rather than being underground on the subway the whole time.

Whilst there are still challenges everyday, like restaurants without English menus, not being able to find a bike when you’re in a rush and then there being several at your destination, and general communication, Beijing has so much to offer, and I still have so much more to see.

Posted by amysblog 07:09 Archived in China Tagged travel city china beijing asia mandarin hutongs tefl Comments (0)

Vietnam: Week 1

Phu Quoc, The Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City

sunny 30 °C

Arriving in Vietnam was quite a significant turning point in our travels. Until now, our journeys had been meticulously planned and yet here we were, on an island just off the south west coast with only one thing dictating our travels - our return flight to China three weeks later from Hanoi, in the north. Naturally, there was an ounce of drama upon arriving, we had arrived a day early for our accommodation. Luckily, that was easily resolved by an extra night on beautiful Phu Quoc island - you can't really complain - which gave us more time to plan the rest of the trip... well, that was the idea. We spent the next few days indulging in some much needed down time, and delicious seafood and Pho. And did very little planning. Phu Quoc was a surprisingly lively destination, with fairly busy beaches and a bustling night market, even in low season. It was in a quiet beach cafe overlooking the palm fringed beach that I had my first experience with Vietnamese coffee. Initially I thought it was just plain vile, but over the next few weeks, it became a staple part of my diet.

After three beach filled days, it was time to make a decision on where to head to next and we agreed on Can Tho, a city famous for its floating markets. It would be our first real challenge in Vietnam; we booked a ferry to the mainland and then we would have to find transport to get to the city which was about 3.5 hours away. This 'challenge' turned out to be incredibly simple. Upon arriving at the harbour, I noticed a huge banner for the bus company we were hoping to track down. As it happened, you could by tickets right there and there was a free shuttle to the main bus station. Within an hour on the mainland we were already on route to Can Tho. Even better, upon arrival, there was another free shuttle to the front door of our hostel. The whole trip could not have been more straightforward and that initial experience took all the possible stress out of future journeys. We realised then that travelling up Vietnam was going to be great.

Due to our expected late arrival at the hostel in Can Tho, we had already organised a boat trip to the floating market the next morning before we arrived. We had to be up and out by 5am latest and our guide was there on the dot to meet us. It was still dark when we left the hostel and we walked down a pitch black alley, arriving abruptly at the water edge to board our small motor boat. We then set off down the river towards Cai Rang Floating Market, about 6km away. The market is only active early in the morning and it is where people go to buy fruit such as watermelon and pineapple from large boats. There are some smaller sellers with rowing boats full of colourful produce and our little boat did laps of the market so that we could see all the action as the same came up. We stopped to get some (Vietnamese) coffee and Pho for breakfast - it's not everyday you have noodles for breakfast on a river!

When we had seen our fill, our guide took us to a noodle factory near the markets which was fairly interesting, but the most enjoyable part of the tip was leisurely meandering back along the Mekong Delta towards Can Tho. The scenery was beautiful and we passed small settlements with people washing clothes in the river and going about their daily business. It was very relaxing and the perfect temperature. We got back to the hostel around 9am and felt like we had already done a full day! We were leaving Can Tho that same afternoon so after checking out, we went for a stroll around the city. It was nice but wasn't particularly busy and we actually ended up catching an earlier bus to Ho Chi Minh because there really wasn't much else we could do with so little time.

We arrived in HCMC at about 5pm. This time the free shuttle only took us part the way into the city. It didn't seem like too far for us to then walk to the hostel, so we strapped our bags on, stopped for a snickers and then went in search of Backpackers' Street. It was evident as soon as we arrived. The streets were teeming with travellers and there was English everywhere. Arriving at the hostel, there was a tad more drama, they had missed our booking so we were shown to another hotel on a slightly louder road but it was overall OK. We went out to get some food and look around the area local to our hostel. The surrounding streets were called "walking streets" but a more accurate description would have been "stumbling streets" because they were full of bars and drunken westerners, still, it made for an amusing evening stroll.

The next morning we set off in search of a more authentic HCMC. Initially, we were fairly disappointed by the walking route we followed from the Lonely Planet guide book. It was just a lot of walking and not a lot else. However the afternoon picked up when we reached the area surrounding the Reunification Palace. We saw the Notre Dame Cathedral and stumbled across a small book market before ending up at the War Remnants Museum, where we spent a couple of hours reading harrowing accounts of the Vietnam War, looking through graphic photos and learning about the modern history of the country. Although it was an emotional experience, we were really glad to have taken the time to visit the museum.
That evening we went to a roof top bar called 'The View' in the backpacker's district. Although it wasn't in the city centre, the perspective we had due to being a little further out was really cool, and we made it just in time for happy hour!

The next morning, our history lesson from the previous day came into good stead as we took a trip out of the city to visit Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of underground tunnels used by Vietnamese fighters during the war. It was a great trip and we learned about the different kind of traps and avoidance techniques the Vietnamese used against the American forces. We also had the opportunity to go through a section of the tunnels. The length was just 100m - easy, right? Wrong. The tunnels were so small that it was impossible to stand up straight at any given point. They were so narrow that most of the people in our group turned back before the last section as they weren't sure they could get through. We emerged at the end of the 100m stretch breathing heavily and dumbfounded by the exertion it had taken to travel such little distance. Back in HCMC, we went for some lunch before heading to the airport; the day before we had booked a flight up to Hoi An to save us some time. It was time to leave the south and head for Central Vietnam.

Posted by amysblog 04:56 Archived in Vietnam Tagged beaches sea food history market river island asia traveling phu_quoc mekong_delta ho_chi_minh boat_trip war_tunnels Comments (0)

Beijing Blog: Qing Ming

National Holiday in the Capital

rain 10 °C

With the arrival of April, Beijing has finally started to melt and after a week of HOT weather, the long weekend brought with it a relapse in the weather resulting in a very wet and cold few days. Not exactly the glorious holiday weekend I had been hoping for but after starting the long "weekend" with the crisis of a missing passport and a very wet journey to the hostel, by Wednesday we were ready to hit the ground running.

After a distinctly average breakfast at out hostel, our first destination was the Temple of Heaven. It was my first time visiting and i was really surprised by the size of the temple’s gardens and all the different parts of it. Unfortunately, a lot of the English descriptions were a little hard to follow and so I wasn’t really sure of the significance of all of the buildings on the complex. Nevertheless it is an impressive and very beautiful piece of architecture that we spent a good few hours exploring. When we left, we realised we were very close to Beijing’s ‘Pearl Market” - or fake market - and curiosity got the better of us. Although I had no intention of bargaining or buying, I was pleasantly surprised by how clean and modern it was, especially compared to Shanghai’s underground fake market (aka maze).

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As it headed towards sunset, we crossed the city up to Beijing’s Olympic Park. It’s the second time I’ve been, but on the previous occasion it was freezing cold and the stadium was not lit up. This time, determined to see the Bird’s Nest in all its glory, I mustered up my best Chinese to try and find out what time it would be lit up. The first person I asked said “soon” the second person gave us the more accurate time of 7.30pm and sure enough, at 7.30pm there was light. We took a long walk all around the stadium and found some quieter spots with the stadium reflecting in the lake. It was very beautiful indeed.

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Day two was also packed full of tourist activities. I had managed to reserve Forbidden City tickets for the afternoon online so to fill the morning we went for a stroll around Beijing’s CBD, Guomao and saw the CCTV headquarters, a distinctive building which looks like a pair of trousers. We spent the afternoon getting cold and lost in the Forbidden City. The skies started to clear as we got to the exit gate and we decided to go into Jingshan Park, which has a big hill in it that over looks the entire Forbidden City - perfect for photos. We fought our way through the crowds to get some snaps but by this time we were in desperate need of food.

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Next stop was Wangfujing Street and we decided to try our luck at a Sichuanese restaurant which turned out to be a fantastic choice. The food was good value and delicious. It was already quite late in the day and we were supposed to be meeting some of my friends for some drinks in Sanlitun which was a fair distance from where we were. So we jumped on the bus back to the hostel for a quick refresh and then headed out to the bars.

We didn’t get back to late, but having been reunited with REAL BEER, the next morning, Will was feeling a little worse for the wear. The weather was much better so we sat on the rooftop of our hostel in the sun, nursing our heads before we went to explore Sanlitun by day. We took the bus and got dropped of in an unfamiliar part of the district which worked out quite well; we found a little shop selling delicious fruit selections and found some warm sun to enjoy while we ate them. We had a wander around the Tai Koo Li centre, which is like an outdoor mall - very new, very glam and very big before settling for some brunch in one of my favourite coffee shops, Baker and Spice. Unfortunately, due to the distance between Beijing and Shanghai, Will’s train was booked for the early afternoon, so it wasn’t long before it was time for us to get on the subway back to the station.

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I really enjoyed exploring Beijing’s touristy side. Having lived here for over six months now (?!) I feel more of a resident and less of a tourist, meaning that it’s too easy to tread the same path and feel like i’ve seen all the sights. Being a tourist for the weekend was a bit of a tonic and left me feeling refreshed and grateful for the opportunity I am living.

Posted by amysblog 02:09 Archived in China Tagged temples china olympics beijing sightseeing asia nightlife forbidden_city sanlitun Comments (0)

Gubei Water Town

Beijing Day Trips

storm 27 °C

As we are approaching the end of our time in China, our priorities have changed from trying to see as much as possible, to trying to save as much as possible. Our travel plans are coming together and with all the excitement, there are underlying nerves about whether or not we can *actually* afford to hit all of the amazing places on our bucket list. So recently we have been trying to strike the balance between still seeing new things without spending our (hard?)-earned salaries. Now that Will has visited Beijing a fair few times, we have more or less hit all of the sights, so when local travel agency CET advertised a day trip to the “nearby” water-town of Gubei, we were both keen to sign up.

The trip set of at the sociable hour of 10am. Unfortunately, we got caught in weekend traffic heading out of the city, meaning that the journey was slightly longer than we expected - around 3 and a half hours, if I remember correctly. It was a very hot day and unfortunately the pollution was relatively high, which meant some of the mountain views were a little on the fuzzy side. Gubei is a very interesting little place, it has a few large resort-style hotels, but aside from the workers, I think the village is basically uninhabited. It is completely pedestrianised and there are hundreds of tiny winding streets that you can get lost in. There are beautiful canals and the whole place is very quaint and picturesque.

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We were starving by the time we arrived so food was, of course, our first priority. We found a small canal-side courtyard selling reasonably priced noodle dishes and tucked in, before heading further into the town to explore. We tried to stay away from the main streets that were exceptionally busy. Sticking to the back streets we still came across the main attractions, such as the silk museum, opera stage and food streets, as we made our way towards Gubei’s section of the Great Wall.

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It’s a good few months since I last went to the Wall, and this is the third section I’ve visited. It was also possibly the steepest! Even with the pollution, we had great views of the wall winding into the distance and we were up there right towards the end of the day so it was quite quiet in places. I was surprised how rugged this section of the wall was. It is one of the restored sections (as are most of the ones you are *allowed* to visit) but - I don’t know if for effect - some parts were very definitely crumbling. The tumble-down effect is perhaps more striking, in terms of realising what a huge feat the building of it was, back in the day! (Even more striking having recently learned that the cement they used to hold it all together was made out of rice?!?!?! - shout out to Lou for that questionable piece of knowledge)

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It was getting dark as we arrived back at the bottom of the wall, and Gubei was starting to light up, it was beautiful with all the lights reflecting in the water. We stopped for a much needed drink at William Bar. There was a live band playing and it was a really pleasant and relaxing atmosphere. It was finally starting to cool down too. We didn’t have long left until we were due back at the coach, so we went in search of some more food, just as the first crashes of thunder happened. Most of the tourists started to panic and as a mass evacuation back to the coach park was underway, Will and I decided to take advantage of the diminishing queues for the Chinese hamburger stalls to get some grub.

When the rain finally started to pour, we too headed directly for the coach. I’m so pleased that I finally got to see Gubei, even with the high pollution levels. Our last view of the town saw it completely lit up with the Wall - also lit up - shining on the tops of the mountains in the distance. It is probably the last time I will see the Great Wall, and so it was fitting that it was so spectacular.

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Posted by amysblog 01:27 Archived in China Tagged china summer beijing sightseeing great_wall asia day_trip tefl gubei Comments (0)

One Month Left Blog: my teaching experience

Ah honest account of Teaching in China

sunny 35 °C

Today is June 1st, which means that in less than a month, my Chinese visa will expire and I will be on my way home. I say “on my way home”, I mean “travelling for two months around Asia and then flying home”. Regardless of the actual date of my return to England (2nd September FYI), with the arrival of June, I have begun to reflect on just how quickly the last 10 MONTHS (?!?) have passed.

One of the biggest mental challenges that I had to overcome was returning to school after the long Spring Festival holiday. Arriving in September, we had a half term equivalent in October, a couple of other days off sprinkled here and there and the ‘piece de resistance’, 7 weeks vacation. However, when that was over and I returned to my teaching post, I was faced with a 17 week semester which had no official break. Psychologically, this was a huge endeavour which I was not looking forward to.

In the first few weeks I was doing everything I could to NOT count the weeks. Halfway through, I must have subconsciously started the countdown. I focussed on the weekends and having plans to look forward to to keep powering through. With 6 weeks to go, it felt like I still had mountains to move, especially as it was time to think about writing the summer test for the students. The semester was dragging and with it so was my motivation. And yet here we are, at the end of week 14, and suddenly I’m starting to feel very nostalgic, even more so having realised that due to public holidays, with 9 out of 12 of my classes, I only have 2 lessons left, 1 of which will be a test for them.

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The relationships I have with my classes are ever-changing and unique to every set of students. Due to the fact I didn’t really have any experience teaching, I feel like I was late to establish myself in the classroom which has proved to be problematic with certain classes, but in other classes it has really given me the change to evolve and grow along with my students. Out of 12 classes, there is only 1 class with whom I have had prolonged and serious issues. I have found some solace in the fact that some of their Chinese teachers have recently refused to continue teaching them because of their behaviour, so it’s not just because of my teaching! I have had a lot of support with this class from my school and the English department, without which I think my overall teaching experience would have been greatly tarnished. I had several meetings with several students from this class, all promising to sit quietly, to stop messing around, to try their best but none of these promises were ever stuck to.

The turning point was when a sweet got thrown at me in a lesson. In hindsight it sounds rather trivial, but after weeks of issues, the situation finally came to a head. Whoever the idiot was that threw the sweet did so in a lesson that was being inconspicuously observed by a Chinese teacher and the situation was (thankfully) whisked out of my hands. The entire class was given an immense dressing down, and a new form teacher was brought in, Mr Wang. Mr Wang adopted an army-style regime with the class over the next few weeks. They had no free time between lessons, instead learning how to sit and stand properly. It seemed like the class, which was male dominated, needed an alpha male. Thanks to the continuous and terrifying efforts of Mr Wang, in recent weeks, the class’ behaviour has greatly improved, to the extent that I now have a good rapport with some of the students.

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bribing students with cartoons is now one of my default classroom techniques

I was particularly pleased this week, when for the first time since the sweet throwing incident several weeks ago, I did not have a Chinese teacher in the classroom to help manage behaviour. While the lesson was still rowdier than most others this week, the class was self-regulating much more effectively. The best bit was right at the end though. I usually am ignored when I leave this particular classroom, however one of the boys who was brought into meetings with me time and time again, claiming he couldn’t understand a thing and would rather do his homework, smiled a huge smile at me and waved me good bye. A small feat, maybe, but a significant one never the less.

While some classes have been a challenge from the start, others have been a pleasure since day one. Firstly, let me go ahead and say that any teacher who claims they don’t have favourites is LYING. My undisputed favourite class of the week is the class I see first thing on a Monday. This is both a blessing and a curse, because I could throw anything at them and they would respond perfectly so it means I always have a great start to the week, however it also means that I have no idea how my carefully planned lesson will actually play out in other classes.

My relationship with this class is exceptional and I feel so lucky to have met all the kids in there. They’re so sweet and enthusiastic, greeting me with smiles and “Hey Amy!” in class, around school, and even around my neighbourhood. Even if I throw the most boring work at them, we always manage to have a laugh and they make me look forward to teaching every week. I won’t deny it, I have favourites in most classes but I think it’s rare to have such a lovely class as a whole. They have given me so much confidence as a teacher and the mutual respect that exists in the classroom has given me a bench mark in terms of what to expect from other classes, which has probably improved my delivery and teaching style too.

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Learning to teach has been a very empowering experience. It has definitely shaped me as a person and I have grown in various aspects. I’m a lot less afraid of confrontation and - I think - I have learned to express myself more in some ways, and less in others. As a teacher, I think I project a version of myself that changes slightly every week, every lesson even. It’s so important to understand the difference in your students and so my teaching style changes from one class to the next. I know that I can walk into one room laughing and joking and have a fantastic lesson. I also know that if I walk into some of my classes showing any sign of being anything less than a class-A bitch, I will be taken for an exhausting and infuriating ride. In some respects, it’s quite fun learning to assert myself in different ways. With a couple of classes, earlier in the semester I had an ongoing battle for several weeks, trying to maintain the hierarchy and gain a little more respect. The result was several lessons of me being over the top strict, enforcing punishments of silent written work, or plain sitting in silence, all the time keeping up a stoney facade. In reality I found the whole process to be quite amusing and very worth while. The lessons I’ve had with these classes since loosening the reins have been rewarding for me, and hopefully for them too!

I guess this piece shows the two very different sides of teaching, and probably some of the middle bits too. It’s quite representative of my feelings and experiences. Highs and lows, peaks and valleys. I hope you’ve enjoyed this truthful account of the ups and downs of my experience.

Posted by amysblog 01:24 Archived in China Tagged travel city china school beijing asia students teaching classroom esl tefl efl Comments (0)

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