October 1st is China’s National Holiday; this year marks the 69th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Every year, the entire country gets a week off to celebrate. Which sounds nice, right? But it’s the entire country. At the same time. And for many people it’s the only vacation time they have, so the result is millions of people trying to hit the same hundred or so tourist spots at the same time. It’s insanely crowded and horrifying. Beijing was fairly quiet for the first half of the week because most people leave the city to travel elsewhere. But then they come back…
Anyway, Jess and I stayed home, partly because we wanted to avoid the madness, mostly because we had no money to go anywhere. We managed to explore a bunch of new places though. And the weather was spectacularly clear and blue, just cool enough to be considered fall.
Otherwise, we were pretty much our tea-drinking, scrabble-playing, movie-binging, junk food-eating selves all week. It was kind of fun just being lazy.
Last Friday night Jess’s school hosted a night fair; parents and staff could set up booths in the classrooms and parents and kids came to buy their homemade foods and crafts. Jess signed us up for an apple-themed booth and she made a bunch of applesauce and I made some individual apple pies and cheddar-apple muffins, and we went into business! We didn’t make a lot of money but we covered our costs and used the rest to book round-trip train tickets to Tianjin and hotel costs. We’re thinking about taking the show on the road and opening up a street-food cart to fund our travels (joking, joking). So keep an eye out for trip photos in a couple weeks!
Also just a few photos from our nursery rhyme lesson this week. We’re learning Humpty Dumpty so I decorated an egg-which I was quite proud of-then we incorporated some science and wrapped him up in tissues and marshmallows and balloons and threw him off the third floor balcony to see if he would break. In a surprising twist to the original story, he survived!
I was up bright and early Sunday to go explore Hoi An. Hoi An was once a busy trading port on the Thu Bon River and the river is still a big draw, with various tour boats and fishing boats everywhere. Tons of shops line both sides of the walk along the river and the whole place has such a cute, small-town feel; it was easy to walk everywhere. One of the things the city is known for is the tailor shops. There are more than 400 and they can make practically a whole new wardrobe overnight. One of my first stops Sunday morning was to Bebe’s, one of the best-known tailor shops. It was even more fun than shopping. You can look at pictures from their catalog or anywhere you find them, like Pinterest, and they’ll sketch out the items you like and make any changes you want, then you can pick from hundreds of fabrics. It’s relatively inexpensive but I never have money when I travel, so I only got one dress, but it was custom-made from Hoi An silk and still less than I would have spent walking into a shop at home and buying something similar. They had it finished 24 hours later so I could come back and try it on and the seamstress could make any adjustments. She finished the hem and it was ready to pick up Tuesday morning. I wish I could do all my shopping there! Afterwards, I just spent some time walking around the old town.
Monday morning I booked a tour/cooking class where we visited a local market, then took a boat downriver to Cam Thanh water coconut village. It’s a small fishing village at the edge of Hoi An. During wartime, soldiers and locals would hide here, but now they hive a thriving eco-tour business. From the large riverboat, we transferred to traditional woven basket boats, which were fun to float around in. Each boat had a local guide to row us around and show us how to weave grass, catch crabs and fish. I was in a boat boat with a girl named Haley from the U.K., and our guide was a sweet lady who must have been about 80. She spoke only a few words of English but would talk to us in Vietnamese and gestures, smiling the whole way. Her husband was in the boat rowing a couple ahead of us, and their son had his own boat as well.
After floating around for an hour or so, we were rowed over to a big open-air kitchen to prepare lunch. I liked the cooking class a lot. Sometimes, they are too touristy, more like demonstrations, but this one was really hands-on and the instructors knew a lot about the ingredient and could explain the technique. Hoi An is also known for its cuisine so it seemed like every restaurant in town offers cooking classes, but I would definitely recommend this one, especially since it includes the coconut boat tour.
When I got back, I rested up at my Airbnb and did some homework, then went out to see Hoi An at night, which was both wonderful and frustrating. The city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999 to try to protect its culture, but it appears to have done the opposite. The streets are busy enough during the day, and just about everything in the old town area is now a shop or restaurant, which is bad enough, but at night the area is just flooded with tourists. It’s sad to see. I still enjoyed seeing all the lanterns and the small boats going out on the river, but I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more 10 years ago.
That said, the view on the river is amazing. I tried to narrow down my photos but it was hard! I got there just before sunset and stood on the bridge (with about 400 other people) to watch it go down.
Evidence of environmentalism was everywhere. Recycling bins, recycled planters, like the ones below, were really common, restaurants and vendors are cutting back on disposable items. The place where I got a breakfast smoothie one day had hollow wooden straws instead of plastic. All the fishermen and tour guides had nets in their boats to nab any bits of floating trash they came across in the river or sea.
One question I’ve gotten more than once is how people act toward Americans, or were there still any signs of war. It seems that’s all Americans really know about Vietnam. It’s impossible to answer definitively; I only visited four cities and I certainly didn’t talk to every person in the country. I can only tell you what I saw and heard from others. I’m sure there are still people who hate us; I would, frankly. But I didn’t feel that at all. What I’ve read, what I had been told by other people I know who have been to Vietnam, is that Vietnamese people love Americans. I don’t know if I’d go so far, but I certainly found them all friendly and welcoming. (Of course, Vietnam now has a thriving tourism industry with Americans pouring money into it.) This article has a much more detailed perspective if anyone is interested. In general, they view us as just one more invader they conquered, the way they did China, Japan, France, and others. Others appreciate that we tried to help. There are likely as many opinions as there are Vietnamese people. Another factor is that many revere Ho Chi Minh, and took his words to heart when he told them to blame governments, not people, for their trouble. (Something we could all learn from right now.)
You don’t have to look far, though, to see that America has had a big impact on this small country. What we call the Vietnam War, they call the American War. On a tour of Hanoi, driving down the shaded road between Trúc Bạch Lake and the West Lake, the guide was sure to detail the account of John McCain crashing down in Trúc Bạch Lake and point out the small memorial of the event there. We went by Hoa Lo prison where the POWs were held. In souvenir shops there are t-shirts like this:
I found a vintage poster shop with replicas of propaganda ads from different eras. I just bought a few, but there were dozens and dozens featuring America, American soldiers, American presidents.
Everywhere I went, people would quote prices to me in USD. I find this completely useless since I now think in RMB, and I don’t even really do that when I travel. I exchange my cash, since my Chinese debit card doesn’t work outside China. I take the amount I have, divide it by how many days I’m staying in any given country, and that’s my daily allowance. I had roughly 1 million VND per day (about USD $44-a lot, compared to my usual budget; I probably could have gotten by with half) to spend. So shopkeepers waving me over to buy things, “Very cheap, only 5 US dollars”, meant nothing to me. I had to keep asking people to tell me the price in VND, which confused them. They assume all Americans must have money and simply didn’t believe me when I told them I couldn’t afford things. “Beautiful necklace, 20 dollars”. To most tourists, that’s nothing. To many Asians, and me, $20 is a lot of money. It doesn’t sound like it, but when I convert it to VND or RMB, my first thought was usually, “Are you crazy? I’m not paying that!” Most of my hotel rooms didn’t even cost $20 a night, and they were nice rooms! I suppose this pricing is helpful to most American tourists, but I didn’t encounter many of those; most were from Europe, China, New Zealand, or Australia. Still, it shows how pervasive our currency is, and our language. Nearly every person I encountered spoke English.
After 3 days in Hoi An, I left to spend a night in DaNang. Hoi An is so small it has no airport or train station, so you have to fly in to nearby DaNang, the 3rd largest city in Vietnam, and from there it’s nearly an hour’s drive to Hoi An. (However, even in a private car, the trip was only about $11.) I had a 6 am flight back to Hanoi Wednesday morning, so I thought it would be more relaxing to go back to DaNang around noon on Tuesday and spend the night there, instead of trying to get back from Hoi An so early Wednesday morning. It worked out well. My hotel was only a ten-minute drive from the DaNang airport and I was surprised to find it was only a five-minute walk to the beach. I got some lunch at a seafood restaurant (incidentally, this is the only time in my life I’ve ever gotten sick of seafood-I think I ate it for every meal in some form) and then spent a couple hours walking up and down. I covered every inch of me I could reach in sunscreen, rubbing it in to my skin, then added another layer on top so I looked like a mime. I added a hat, some sunglasses, and still got burned. Not as bad as I usually do though. The sand was actually sparkling with some sort of gold mineral mixed with black, and there were tide pools everywhere, some up to my knees, and light was reflecting everywhere. It was a beautiful day, and the beach was relatively quiet. I’m sure it’s more crowded on the weekend, and in a few more years it will be unbearable touristy, as seems to be the trend in Asia currently. For now though, it’s perfect.
I had one more night in Hanoi before flying back to Beijing Thursday. I spent most of the afternoon wandering around the streets of the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake again, enjoying the sights. I found a rooftop cafe overlooking the lake and the busy central square and was kind of mesmerized by the flow of traffic. Everybody just keeps moving at their same pace, dancing around each other. There are so many motorbikes! The government taxes cars between 100% and 200% person, so most people use bikes. I have seen a mom and grandma with four kids on a bike, two guys carrying a 6’x4′ framed mirror on a bike while going down the highway around 55mph, fruit vendors with baskets and bundles piled up on the seat behind them. I’m constantly amazed by the innovations people come up with.
Sorry, I’ve been AWOL. Things have been crazy lately. I finally got rid of my kids! It was a great day. There’s a couple I’ll miss, but otherwise I’m so glad to be done with this group of children, and this group of parents. I have a bunch of photos to share though, of graduation and other activities. The last 3 weeks were pretty much just games and toys. My parents are always bringing kids late, pulling them out of school for days or weeks on end; several took off after the graduation ceremony, even though we still had two weeks of school left.
Then I immediately started summer camp the Monday after our last week of school, which really should have been cancelled since I only had 2-3 kids on any given day and they were at wildly different levels. I had two that were nearly 7 and fluent in English and reading, understood everything I said, and two that were barely 4 and spoke next to no English and understood nothing, and some only came half the time. It was frustrating and impossible to plan for them so I basically just babysat and let them do whatever while I cleaned and organized my classroom for next year. We did some science experiments and S.T.E.M. activities every day though. I’m also trying to get everything organized and order supplies for next year, which I am determined will be better. It can’t get much worse.
Other than that, I’ve just been doing a bunch of homework. I have a roughly 30 page paper on American art history to show for it if anyone is having trouble sleeping… Jess and I have also been in the process of moving apartments, and it has been an ordeal. Our lease was up at the end of July and we wanted a bigger place. Fortunately, one of Jess’s coworkers was also moving and his apartment was bigger, closer to both of our jobs (I can bike to work finally! At least, when it’s not 110 degrees and/or pouring rain, as it’s been lately), and not too much more expensive. Rents are rising like crazy in Beijing and this building is in one of the more expensive areas so we really lucked out. I really like the apartment and we’ve got most of our stuff moved in. We had a month between the time we moved in here and the time our old lease expired, so we’ve been moving very gradually, packing suitcases, bringing them over in a cab, emptying them, rinse and repeat. Over and over. You know the scene in Harry Potter where they’re in the bank vault and every time they touch something it multiplies? That was our house. I don’t know how I accumulated so much stuff in three years but it’s got to go! I’m leaving for Vietnam tomorrow and Jess is heading to the States Saturday so everything has to be finished before we leave, so this past weekend was nothing but packing, cleaning, and trying to sell anything remotely valuable to fund our travels. I need to get rid of things anyway. What was I thinking, buying books? You can’t cart piles of books around the world. I knew that, but I bought them anyway. It’s a sickness. We thought we could move everything ourselves in a few trips but a few turned into 8 or 10 or 150, I don’t know, I lost track. And did I mention we now live in a fourth floor walk-up? I think we got more than our fair share of exercise this week. There’s no way I can take all this with me when I leave China, which will absolutely, positively, 1000% be next summer. I swear. That’s all the China I can handle. I believe I’ve said this before but I really mean it this time! It’s a toss up whether my lungs or my sanity will give out first.
Anyway, here are some photos of the new place:
We’ve been exploring the neighborhood this week and found our new favorite restaurant. They have excellent dumplings and everyone is really nice.There’s also one of the best markets in the city-SanYuanLi-just down the street. It’s awesome. They have the best produce and meat, plus a bunch of imported goods that are much cheaper than the actual import stores. It looks small from the outside but inside is huge-like an enormous indoor year-round farmers’ market.
I am going to try to update more regularly this year, especially because it’s my last year (really!) and I feel like there’s lots of things I want to say about China but I just haven’t gotten around to yet. I also want to travel to some more places within China before I leave for good.
For now though, my next trip will be Vietnam. Finally! I’ve been wanting to go forever. Tickets are incredibly cheap right now too, only about $250 roundtrip from Beijing to Hanoi. I leave Beijing Tuesday and have a short layover in Guangzhou, arriving in Hanoi after 11 that night. I’ve got the next day to explore the city, then I booked a tour of Ha Long Bay the next day. Everything I read and everyone I talked to said Ha Long is not to be missed and it’s the one place to splurge so I did. I’m taking an overnight cruise of the bay before returning to Hanoi the next day. Then Saturday I fly to Da Nang, which is the closest city to Hoi An, which doesn’t have an airport. I’m staying in the Old Town area of Hoi An though, to spend a few days exploring. Then it’s back to Hanoi for a day before returning to Beijing. It’s going to be a busy trip for sure. I’m excited; everything looks beautiful. I’ll definitely be posting pictures!
It has been a hectic, and festive, couple of weeks. I’m just going to tell it in pictures:
Tonight Jess and I went to see On Pointe’s original production of Mary Poppins at the International School of Beijing. It was so much fun. They turned Mary Poppins into a ballet but also had jazz and tap dancing. They used the original movie soundtrack with the leads lip syncing along in place. ISB has students from elementary through high school in one huge campus so there were all different ages. Some of the older students were really great. And all the little ones were adorable. Several kept missing cues and they’d just keep going, twirling and trying to keep up with the others.
My plans with my kids for next week involve making Christmas cards, making Christmas presents, making Christmas cookies, watching Christmas movies, and then having a Christmas party on Friday before taking off on Saturday for Switzerland. Sometimes I do love this job!
I just thought I’d share a brief history of Thanksgiving with all my friends and family across the world on this occasion. Disclaimer: I threw this together in 20 minutes before my kids arrived this morning, it was done entirely from memory, any resemblance to people, places, or things, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, yada yada yada, yes there are stereotypes, I have the illustration skills of a second grader, and it was intended for 5 year ESL kids who have the attention spans of a fruit fly with ADHD, so yeah, let’s not take it too seriously. But I was trying to explain briefly what Thanksgiving was and keep their attention:
Then we all made Thanksgiving lunch. Turkey isn’t really available but we roasted chicken and the kids mashed potatoes and made instant stuffing and pumpkin pie. I made some green beans and we ordered some canned cranberries online. The kids had never had them but they loved everything!
After lunch-which the kids inhaled-they were a little dopey. Which worked in my favor actually. We watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and I took them outside to enjoy some crisp fall air. It’s been beautiful the last few days.
Beautiful, but icy cold. Winter is either mild and smoggy, or freezing and clear. The same arctic winds that come down to clear away the smog also cause a major temperature drop. It’s also unbelievably dry. I took my sweater off earlier and it nearly electrocuted me. At night, my sheets actually throws of sparks in the dark room anytime I move. Crazy!
Tonight Jess and I went to a Thanksgiving buffet at EAST hotel. Their food is always amazing: ham, lamb, turkey, all kinds of side dishes, salads, and seafood, fruit, wine, beer, soda included. It’s a popular holiday spot for expats. Two Thanksgiving dinners in one day though-bad idea. I think I’ll go into hibernation now. Work tomorrow sounds awful.
Yesterday we talked about gratitude and made a Gratitude Tree. The kids wrote all the things they’re grateful for on leaves-mom, dad, flowers, butterflies, cake, eggs, friends, eyes… Then they glued them to the tree trunk:
I’m way behind on this blog! Later this weekend I’ll catch up and post about our trip to South Korea. For now, here’s a few pictures from our field trip to the aquarium last week:
Then we read the Rainbow Fish and made our own rainbow fish to go with the story, since we’re learning about caring as our character trait, and different habitats in science. They turned out really cute!
I’m excited to announce my Winter 2017/2018 Trip Itineraries! I just booked my last tickets this afternoon: October 27-29-Busan, South Korea; December 16-23- Zurich, Switzerland; December 26-29-Xi’an, China; and finally, February 10-22-Delhi and Agra, India. So stayed tuned for some stories!
Otherwise, it’s been an uneventful week. For science class, we’ve been learning about the 5 senses so I did a taste test experiment Thursday and let kids try different tastes: lemons for sour, coffee and super dark chocolate for bitter, cookies and sugar cubes for sweet, salt water (salty), and spicy beef jerky (spicy).
I also thought I’d share these paintings. The kids were supposed to be drawing elephants from this story their art teacher read them. These were the results; I’m a little concerned about the last one.
Friday night Jess and I held our Second Annual Halloween Movie Binge. Hocus Pocus, Nightmare Before Christmas, black bean and bacon chili, corn bread, and apple crisp. We even did some pumpkin carving.