Sunday, December 16, 2012

Roles Reversed

Only a few months ago Michelle and I were one of the faces looking up expecting to learn something from our professors. Now, halfway around the world, the roles have been reversed.

My first day of school came on only the third day after we've become expats.  Michelle was given a bit more time and began on the following Monday while my first day was Thursday.  My school expected me not only to give my normal lessons, but they wanted me to give a lecture about Christmas to all of the grade 5 classes.  There are about 400 kids in grade 5...If it was up to me that is NOT how I wanted to start but overall I think things went well.

I'm able to walk to my school on Thursdays and Fridays (I take the bus Mon-Wed). I left for school early because I knew it might take some time to travel the short distance due to the questionable set up of the paths in the courtyard of our apartment.  I've cut through there a good amount of times by now and I still have not found the quickest way through.  Anyway, I got to school and everyone was really nice. Most of the teachers in my office speak English and the girl that sits next to me is from Rhode Island.  For those that don't speak much English I can throw them a "Ni hao" and they pretty much get that that's me saying "Hey, good morning. How are you doing? Well, see ya at lunch"...or something like that.  

It turns out that I'm at least semi-decent at keeping kids interested and teaching conversational English.  My first class made me feel more like a comedian than a teacher which is totally alright with me! I put up some pictures of American foods in my introduction and the kids went nuts.  I'm not sure if they are ALWAYS hungry, they really crave a big mac, or they just thought the picture that I used of a baby eating a huge watermelon was hilarious. One of the Chinese-English teachers jokingly let me know that it isn't fair that Michelle and I can come in and instantly be loved by the kids while they have been teaching there for a few years.   Though being a comedian may be a large part of my job in the upcoming days, I think a better way to describe how they act towards me is that I have reached celebrity status.

Celebrity status:  In between classes when I go to my office, I am often swarmed by either kids from my classes or kids that I have never seen before.  Whether they are in my classes or not, they always seem to know my name.  Even the smallest of these children will come up to me and say the only two complete sentences they know:  "How are you?" and "Hello"...The number of times I say "Hello" or "Hi" in a day may equal the numbers of "Hellos" and HIs" I said in the past year. Other times I'll hear my name being yelled from the floor above.  My arm get a pretty good workout for the number of times I wave at the kids who waive at me as well.

The second school I teach at is pretty much the same except more middle class.  School number one clearly has more money and is way newer.  Everything from their lunch to the soccer field is a lot better.  It's even clear that the kids are probably better at English there too.  I wouldn't say school 2 is bad though.  It's literally 100 years old which is why it is a bit different.

The very first thing I did at this school was introduce myself in front of the whole school via microphone as the students were lined up outside.  That was a little bit intimidating but again it wasn't so bad, plus now the kids don't all have to ask me my name.  Now they can fire more "Hello, Tommy" sentences at me where ever I go. I teach grade 3-5 in this school.  I was a little worried about the grade 3 class but their English isn't as bad as I thought it would be.  Again, they seem to love me just for my nationality and/or different looks than them.  This school had me give another lecture on Christmas which went a lot more smoothly because I had already given the same lecture at School 1.  They also had me give a smaller lecture on top of my normal classes about America.  This went really well.  I gave them a brief PowerPoint lecture about America and then students from the 6th grade told me about Suzhou, China.

The biggest difference between the schools is that School #2's(mon-wed) Chinese-English teachers speak much less English than school 1 teachers.  What this means for me is that less adults talk to me here.  I substitute this by killing time talking to the students in between classes, which I obviously enjoy because of my newly gained celeb status.

Michelle likes her classes. She is teaching middle school.  I guess she also is quite popular over there since the students got her to download QQ(China AIM) and all added her as a friend.

Random stuff:

My favorite English names from kids in our classes:  Lizard, Fish, Michael Jackson (See video on my FB), Flower, Blue Star, Taxi, PSP, Ipod, and more.  Next week I'll have them write out their names so I can find more gold.


My personal #1 favorite name:  Machine


Sometimes kids say "Aloha" to me. Are they aware that this is Hawaiian?

They pump Christmas songs and other English things over the PA during recess and lunch I guess to trick them to learn.  This wouldn't bother me except for the fact that most of these songs are just a little bit off for some reason.  For example: If you're happy and you know it clap your hand. If you're happy and you know it clap your feet.



We really like our jobs so far. They are a lot of fun.  We'll keep you updated. Love you all.


Shanghai trip next.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Video Game Driving

Before we get into our trip to Shanghai, our first days at school, and our celebrity status here in China, I'd like to talk about driving in China:

I'm not sure if it is possible to completely describe what driving is like in China but I will do my best. Here are a few things I've picked up on while living here for only a little over a week:

1) Driving lanes are 100% optional.  They are more like a suggestion, like when when your friends tells you about a movie you should see.
2) Cars would rather murder you than yield to pedestrians. What ever is heavier has the right of way in China.
3) When driving make sure you use your horn AS MUCH as possible.  The horn signals two things: A) I'm in your blind spot. Please get into any lane. B) Please get out of the street or you will die (people)
4)  When driving make sure you flash your brights as much as possible.  Rather than tailgate a car like in America, the brights mean get out of the way!
5) You can literally park anywhere as long as you are in the car- just keep your engine on! Corners, bike lanes, bus stops, and on sidewalks (my favorite).
6) You can literally reverse on any road.  If you happen to miss your freeway exit REVERSE! If you miss a turn JUST REVERSE!  Why didn't Americans think of this?
7) Scooters usually drive in the large bike lanes that follow all roads in Suzhou and Shanghai.  They sometimes do not feel like stopping at red lights so lane by lane they play frogger (See #2)

Summary:  People drive like it is a video game.  I'm not sure if the people here are terrible at driving or the greatest group of drivers on the planet.  It takes skill to turn a 4 lane highway into 5 or 6 lanes.  It takes skill to put a bus in reverse when the freeway stop is missed.  It takes skill to park and leave your car on a busy street lane.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A day on the town

Yesterday marked a day of minor victories and minor tragedies.

We set out at 8am thinking that everyone else would be up like us. This was only partially true. Most of the stores were still closed, but a few places were open such as the mini marts on the main road in front of our complex. We stopped in each checking out their prices for basic necessities such as soap to determine where to purchase these items. Next, we walked along a line of higher end restaurants we hope to eat at once we figure out how to actually order food.

Our first real stop was at the phone store to buy Tommy's phone. This went smoothly due to the fact that the woman who helped us the day before was there and readily recognized us. I explained that we needed a phone (using far too many words) to which she translated: telephone? We eagerly nodded yes. She passed us on to the phone sales woman, telling her which phone we needed. Ten minutes later we walked out with a phone that we knew how to change from Chinese into English settings.

We walked around the mini mall that the phone store is located in, the stores were just opening which made us feel very much like MSU Asians who seem to be doing something strange such as walking in stores that aren't fully open yet, or walking through sections of stores that haven't turned their lights on yet.

The third floor of the mini-mall is entirely dedicated to children. Tommy is going to tape it next time we stop there so you can appreciate what I'm going to attempt to describe with words. One section of the third floor is a play area for children. In US malls this would be the area with the giant plastic fruit that children crawl all over. Not so in China. Rather, the play area is divided into two parts, the first is a two story play place kind of like the ones in McDonalds if those had compartments with large balls that the children presumably throw at one another. The second part is where the real action is at. This is so hard to describe. There are several different play things, like a merry-go-round with four creatures, but the merry-go-round is on a huge saucer that tilts slowly back and forth (to make the ride more fun?). Then there is a palm tree, that is like the swings ride at an amusement park, except instead of swings you have long vines dangling down with coconuts that the children sit on and it spins around. There are other such thrilling attractions as well, but I will save those for the video which will do a far better job of showing you than I could every hope to accomplish.

On the ground floor of the mall there is a very nice bakery with a cake display. Tommy and I were happily admiring the many different cakes and converting their prices into USD when one of the bakery works came up. She very nicely said Ni Hao and then proceed to say a great many things in Chinese. I looked at her and blatantly said, "We speak English, sorry." She immediately covered her face with her hands in embarrassment and ran back to the other employees. As she explained to her laughing colleges what had happened, Tommy dragged me away from the store. As we turned the corner, he said to me, "We didn't have to leave." I blinked at him, taking in the shocking hue of pink his face had turned. "I wasn't the one who dragged us away," I said. "I know. It was just so embarrassing!" he told me.

After this adventure, we tried to go to the pet store but couldn't figure if it was open and decided that we could try it another day. We went back to our mini-marts and bought rice and rice steamer, household cleaner, clementines, sweet potato noodles, and other items. We got back to our apartment all excited to use our rice steamer only to open the bag with our rice and find that the household cleaner had broken open, drenching the rice in chemicals. Thus, we had to throw out the rice and resort to trying the sweet potato noodles. This was not a good experiment. The noodles were slimy and chewy, much like what I imagine eating squid would feel like. After two bites, Tommy had to talk himself down from throwing up and that was the end of trying to eat the noodles.

Now we had no food and were starving. After a 45 minute search aided by my Uncle Leon's suggestions (he has lived in Shanghai with my Aunt Cindy for the past four years) we eventually found a supermarket by us. A short ten minute bus ride later we were in the heart of downtown Suzhou where there is a HUGE mall type complex. The area is called Times City and the mall complex is six different malls that are connected Somerset sky walks and by bridges criss-crossing the medium size river that separates the two mall areas. The supermarket was located in the basement of the four story mall and provided a very wide selection of food with some Western imports. To give you an idea of things, our cellphones cost 250 yuan each. Strawberries cost 83 yuan. A box of Frosted Flakes costs 30 yuan. A liter of coke costs 9 yuan.

Overall, the day was a success. I'm excited to return to Times City when we have more energy to explore its labyrinth of stores. (They claim to have a Starbucks and I for one could really use a Vanilla Bean Frappuccino.) We went to bed at 7:30pm (whoaaa watch out night owls!) and awoke at 6am, so we are very slowly adjusting to the time here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The problem with Cellphones

This morning marked a major accomplishment! Figuring out how to change my Chinese cellphone from all Chinese characters to English! Thanks to google translate for showing us the characters for language and English, we managed to convert our phone over. It was very exciting. Tommy and I legitimately celebrated. Hahaha.

Everywhere around us in Suzhou is construction. You cannot go anywhere without seeing a crane that is busy operating. This is very different from Troy and even from New York, but it is exciting to know that the city is constantly growing. Another thing about the city is that all, and I do mean all, of the trees have white paint on them about a quarter way up their trunk. I have no idea why, but I'm hoping one of the Chinese English teachers can tell me. Another side note about the trees is that all of them are still green and have leaves!

Yesterday was exceptionally busy. After getting up at 6:40 to watch the sunrise and our neighbors practice a form of exercise in the courtyard (see Tommy's youtube video), our contacts took us around the area we are living in to get cellphones (where some of the sales people spoke limited English) and bank cards (where no one spoke English). Our contacts are very nice but thye don't seem to understand that we need to eat .... I.e. we specifically had to ask them if we could stop to eat lunch since we don't own any food yet.

For lunch we stopped at a very small Chinese restaurant that served noodles and rice. Tommy got rice with tomato sauce, tomatoes, and egg; and although it looked really questionable, Tommy said it was very good. I, on the other hand, refused to be so daring. I got plain white rice to which our contact laughed at me and said that was a weird thing to order. Glad to know my taste in food is questioned even in a foreign country. The entire menu was in Chinese and the staff all spoke Chinese so without our contact I'm not sure how we would have ordered. Today Tommy and I are on our own, so I guess we will see how it goes.

In the afternoon, our contacts showed us to our different schools. I took the bus to my school, their buses are very clean even though the bus stops are pretty grungy. It takes me about twenty minutes by bus to get to my stop, then another ten minutes to walk to my school, plus the fifteen minutes to get to the bus stop by my apartment. Thus, I need to leave an hour early arrive on time. Tommy's first school is a fifteen minute walk from our apartment, but for the second school he has to get picked up and dropped off by a teacher because it is so far away and the bus transport takes too long.

The schools are very different to say the least. First, to get into any school you have to walk through a security gate. This is a gate which stretches across the entrance and opens up just enough to let people walk through or opens up for a car. It is controlled by security police. Second, the schools are set up like multi-level motels. My building has four floors, all of the classrooms face a middle courtyard. There is no heating system for the schools. Hence, it is freezing. Everyone, including the teachers, walks around in their winter coats. Finally, the cafeteria is a separate building that is three stories tall, one story per meal. So I eat lunch on the second story.

My staff seems very friendly, although the Chinese English teachers thought I was stupid for not knowing Chinese. However, the Chinese English teachers spoke in broken English so I felt just as dubious as them. Luckily, my contact arranged with the staff for me to start on Monday rather than on Thursday like Tommy has to. This gives me plenty of time to work on my lessons and help Tommy with his, since his are far more immediate.

My schools are similar in their layouts. Courtyard in the middle of a multi-level motel like classroom set up. What differentiates my workplace from Michelle's is that not only do I have to begin tomorrow, I will be giving 2 lectures and introductions to each entire student body! One lecture will focus on Christmas and America because each school is having a International Day Festival and since I am one of the few Americans at each school, I am all knowing.

Other than the intensity of standing up in front of over 500 students I think my schools are good. When I visited my second school (3rd-5th graders) classes were ending and there was a huge swarm of parents waiting outside of the gate looking to pickup their child. When we entered through this gate I was met with a large amount of "HELLOs" and "HIs" that went hand in hand with waives, huge smiles, and wide-eyes. Grace, who took me to each of my schools, let me know that Michelle and I would be a little bit like local celebrities due to our "very western looks". It's very obvious that people know that we are not around here but I think they are curious rather than hostile.

Wish me good luck. Next time I'll update you all on how my first classes go. Hopefully all will go well with my 5th grader! -Tommy


I arrived home at 4:30pm. I went straight to the bedroom, grabbed the comforter, went to the couch and instantly fell asleep. Tommy got home at 7:10pm and joined me on the couch. We woke up this morning at 5am. Good thing we didn't believe in any of that jet lag nonsense. Hahaha.

We have today to ourselves so we are setting up to explore the area around us, get groceries, sheets, and other items. I'm sure we'll come back with many stories since we plan on going to the mini mall by our apartment and the really cheerful looking pet store that I'm sure is far less cheerful on the inside.

Monday, December 3, 2012



After 24 hours, 3 plane rides, and 4 questionable airplane meals, we have arrived in Suzhou, China!

We started out our trip by leaving at 4am for Detroit Metro Airport. Everything went smoothly through security with the minor exception of TSA asking us who the man taking photos of the security lines was ... Mr. Murdock! Hahaha. The first plane ride was from Detroit to Denver, three hours during which Tommy and I mostly slept. The second plane ride was two hours from Denver to Los Angeles. This was less fun. The exceptionally old man behind me kept spastically kicking my seat every fifteen minutes and I was afraid to say anything for fear of giving him a heart attack.

Our final ride was from Los Angeles to Shanghai. LAX was the least fun of the trip. The airport terminal was beyond confusing and of the two workers we asked, neither could help us figure out where our terminal was. This ended in us having to leave the airport terminal 6 so that we could enter terminal 4, thus going through security again. After that, things improved. We were on a huge plane for Shanghai, luckily we had two seats separate from the 6 seat middle section. The 14 hours was very very long and the food was questionable, but edible. The movie selection was poor at best and thus I spent most of my time watching the person diagonal from me watch various movies (Kung Fu Panada 1 &2, Bourne Legacy, cartoon X-Men, etc - his taste was eclectic) and draw impressive Pokemon-esque creatures. Tommy decided to be adventurous with the plane food, opting to try the shrimp thing (as seen in the picture at the end of this post). In his words, "It was sick." I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the other food we encounter is better. We have yet to eat a meal here.

At 8pm we landed in Shanghai. Our contact was there with a driver to meet us after we went through customs. They drove us around Shanghai first to give us an impression of the city. I was carsick and therefore had my eyes closed, but Tommy assures me it was all very beautiful and impressive. The drive to Suzhou was about 2 and half hours due to our Shanghai detour.

Our apartment is very nice! We have two bedrooms, a large sitting room, a kitchen, dining area, tiny laundry space, and a bathroom. The shower is the only thing that is totally shady. It is a drain in the floor about two inches from the toilet. I will try to get a picture of it uploaded.

The strangest thing is the room lights. They are a weird intense white light that seems to tint everything almost slightly purple. That will take some getting used to. Our building is very nice though, we have many windows, a window seat in each of our bedrooms, and a balcony. The view from the balcony is beautiful! There is a courtyard with trees, paths, and presumably a fountain type thing when it isn't winter.

Today our contacts are taking us to get bank cards, sim cards, and to show us around our schools. It's setting up to be another busy but exciting day!