Tag: Living Abroad

There and Back Again – Going Full Circle

There and Back Again – Going Full Circle

I mentioned in a previous post that big changes were coming (as if bringing our daughter home only six months ago wasn’t a big enough change!). So today I can finally announce that…

We are moving to Yangshuo!


Our China journey began nearly seven years ago in Yangshuo in Guangxi province. We came to China with Buckland Education Group, which was headquartered in the tiny town. We loved Yangshuo and thought it was one of the most beautiful places in the world. Even though we have traveled extensively since then, our opinion on that front hasn’t changed much.

In April, my husband’s job at a game company came to an end, and instead of looking for another grinding office job, he decided to take a job working from home. It is a lot less money, but he is spending a lot more time with our daughter. In fact, he is transitioning to being her primary caregiver so I can focus more on my work.

Last year, I rage quit my job at the Shenzhen Daily (which I just now realized I haven’t written about on here, so I’ll share that story soon). I also decided to work from home instead of looking for another office job. I’ve been a full-time freelance editor since then, but I’m transitioning to full-time writer.

So since we both now work from home, it didn’t make financial sense to stay in Shenzhen, a city where just our rent is more than we were paying back in the US, not to mention the high cost of living for everything else.

This week we went back to Yangshuo and found an apartment. We found something that was twice the size of our current place with three (huge) bedrooms and all new decor and appliances for about a third of the price. It was so cheap, in fact, that we were able to prepay the rent for the whole year. Talk about eliminating stress!

My husband is so in love with the new apartment he couldn’t wait to share it with the world, so he took a video. Feel free to check it out if you want to know what you can rent in a small town in China for only US$365 a month, or about $4,400 a year.


But check out that view!

Of course, being Yangshuo, that was not the most beautiful view we saw all weekend. Check out this shot from a house in the countryside we looked at that our friend Cherith took.

It feels as though our life in China has come full-circle, and we are back to the beginning, but a lot has changed as well. Not every part of our China journey has been easy, but it has all been amazing, and our baby girl makes every hardship worth it. One of the things we are most excited about is raising our daughter(s) in the country, with good people, fresh air, and an easy life.

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Hiring a Housekeeper in China

Hiring a Housekeeper in China

Long time readers of this blog might remember one of my more popular posts from a couple of years ago about my Housekeeper from Hell, Annie. Long story short, Annie came across some very personal photos of mine while cleaning and shared them on WeChat, China’s most popular social network, and called me a prostitute. It was a very shocking incident as Annie was well known in the Shenzhen expat community (so many of our friends saw the photos) and had worked with me for about a year and a half. I fired her immediately, changed the locks on our apartment, and shared my experience widely to help protect other expat families.

Li Ayi helping our little girl practice walking.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to trust another ayi (what we call housekeepers here). I still get upset when I think about what happened. I fired her about a month before we went to America for holiday and after we got back I still didn’t hire anyone for a couple of months, but at the time I was working full time and had a two-hour commute every day and was ramping up my writing career. I simply couldn’t keep up. Also, one of the reasons I live overseas is so that I can afford certain perks, such as hiring people to do the things I don’t want or have time to do. So after talking to other expat residents in my building, I finally hired a new ayi. And she changed my life for the better.

When I hired Li Ayi, I did something I had not done before, I also hired her to cook. This was the best thing I ever did for myself, my family, and my career. I read an article recently about the mental burden that women carry. Even in families where men and women share housework and childcare, the mental work that goes into running a household still tends to fall on women. I didn’t realize until I hired someone else to cook how much of my daily mental capacity was being spent on meal preparation. This is especially true in China, where a lack of processed foods and climate controlled kitchens means that you have to go to the store to buy food fresh almost every day. I was spending a ton of time planning meals, going shopping, cooking, and cleaning every single day.

After I hired Ayi to cook and clean six days a week, I finally was able to finish my first novel, Threads of Silk.

She has always been wonderful with my dog, Vash, who is a handful, and she is so great with the new kiddo. She isn’t responsible for any childcare, but she does play with her and sometimes even take her outside to play.

So what is it really like having a housekeeper in China?

It’s great. I am always telling my friends over here that they should hire an ayi to help them out. Our ayi eats dinner with us every night. She cleans the kitchen, does the laundry, sweeps and mops the floors, and generally straightens up every day. She can’t really do anything about clutter because we are always bringing new stuff home and leaving stuff laying around and if she moves stuff it will get lost. She also doesn’t do any deep cleaning like scrubbing the bathtub or cleaning out the cabinets. So I still have to do some housekeeping every week, but only a fraction of what I had to do before.

While we really appreciate our ayi and are friendly, I try not to consider her a friend. I think of her like an employee. But I certainly want to be a good employer and know that my employee is happy working for me. I’m in a Hong Kong moms group and the way ayis are treated in Hong Kong is horrifying. I can’t imagine treating someone who cooks your food, takes care of your kids, and is in your home every day like garbage.

How much does it cost?

The cost of a housekeeper in China can fluctuate depending on a number of factors. Where you live and whether or not she cooks being the two big questions. Also, nannies will cost more. But just to give you an example, here in Shenzhen, for an ayi to cook and clean six days a week is 2,000RMB per month. That’s about $300.

How to find an ayi.

If you are interested in hiring an ayi, the best way is to ask around. Ask fellow expats or the people in your building. There is also an app you can download to help you find an ayi, but I haven’t use it yet. I don’t know if it is good for finding a permenant ayi or if it is just for one-time help. It is called Ayi Bang (阿姨帮) and you can download it here https://appsto.re/us/OehWO.i.

Li Ayi has been with us for over two years now and has been a wonderful part of our lives. I decided I better share a little about her and our life with an ayi because some big changes are coming soon and she probably won’t be with us by the end of the summer. We will certainly miss her, but we are excited to start this new chapter of our lives (I can’t wait to share the changes with you!) and I am so thankful to ayi for helping me trust again.

Do you have an ayi? Share your experience in the comments.

Dozens of SZ Expats Swindled in United Airlines Flight Scam

Dozens of SZ Expats Swindled in United Airlines Flight Scam

The following was originally published in the Shenzhen Daily. I have added a little more information for clarity and an analysis to the end.

Cansu Uzcan, from her Facebook page.
Cansu Uzcan, from her Facebook page.

DOZENS of expats in Shenzhen have been swindled out of tens of thousands of yuan in a United Airlines fraud case allegedly perpetuated by a well-known Shenzhen international student, an investigation by the Shenzhen Daily has discovered.

“My mother was stranded in Rome,” said one victim named Rose. “We had to pay thousands of dollars to get her back home to the United States.”

People interviewed for this article asked not to be identified by their full names.

The person accused of the scam, Cansu Uzcan (also known as Jansu Uzcan), is attending Shenzhen University and allegedly used a stolen credit card to purchase flights while selling the flights to Shenzhen expats at discounted rates. Victims deposited cash into Chinese bank accounts under Uzcan’s name or the name of her boyfriend Sean Champion.

Some of the people Uzcan approached were cautious initially, but after booking the flights through Uzcan, United Airlines emailed the victims directly to confirm the flights. Some were even able to apply the flights to their United Airlines Mileage accounts. After several people successfully completed flights booked through Uzcan, the number of expats purchasing discounted flights through her grew quickly.

But on September 2 people noticed that their flights were being canceled by United Airlines.

Some who were halfway through their trips were told by United Airlines that they had to pay for the full cost of their flight – often double or triple the amount of money they paid Uzcan – in order to return home.

Some travelers arrived at the airport before finding out their flight had already been canceled. “I was told I would have to pay over US$3,000 to take my flight,” Seth said. “I only paid US$500 for it in the first place.”

At least two dozen people contacted Uzcan through WeChat and email to find out what happened. At first, she said that United’s system had been hacked and she returned some of the money, according to the victims.

Sean Champion, Uzcan's boyfriend and partner in crime, from his Facebook page.
Sean Champion, Uzcan’s boyfriend and partner in crime, from his Facebook page.

By the end of September, she began blocking the WeChat accounts of people who had booked flights through her.

United Airlines has since started contacting people who completed flights or attached their United Airline Mileage accounts to flights that weren’t taken. According to letters from United Airlines sent to the victims, the people who booked flights through Uzcan violated the airlines terms of service because Uzcan was using a stolen credit card to book the flights.

United Airlines said the victims are liable for flights they took because United was never paid for the flights by the credit card company. United Airlines has also nullified all the mileage accounts connected with the scam.

“I lost over 100,000 miles I had saved,” another victim named Ariyana said. “United Airlines is saying that I owe them thousands of dollars. The stress has been unimaginable. I had to hire a lawyer. I don’t know when I’ll be able to recover financially. I won’t be able to go home for Christmas this year.”

“United Airlines has been terrible to all of us,” Rose continued. “They are treating us like criminals.”

“United Airlines allowed this apparently fraudulent card to be used for months but are now blaming us for their lack of oversight and responsibility,” said a victim named Jayton.

Several of the fraud victims have reached out to law enforcement officers in China, the U.S. and Canada. While all three countries are investigating the case, they claim there is little they can do. “Most of the transactions were conducted through WeChat,” a Canadian police officer said. “Anyone could have been behind the screen.”

Investigations are ongoing.


Many people have asked how this could happen. How could so many expats be convinced to deposit their money into someone else’s bank account so easily?

The expat community is small. Even though there are thousands of expats in Shenzhen alone, we are all connected. Everyone knows everyone else through someone. We are all also very Internet savvy and keep in touch with each other. Many times, we feel we are “in this together.” Living overseas is not easy, so we are always trying to help each other. Giving each other tips and tricks to make life easier and save money is extremely common.

united-airlinesWhen Cansu said she could help fellow expats save money through booking flights, we believed her. She is also very well-known. Many expats vouched for her because they know her through Shenzhen University. I actually met her several months before when she organized an event as part of the International Cultural Industries Fair.

We didn’t have a reason not to trust her.

At least for me, I didn’t lose that much (about US$500). I chalk it up to a learning experience. But some of the people I quoted in the article and many others lost a lot more money and are facing legal issues with United Airlines.

At this point, even if nothing legal can happen to Cansu Uzcan, United Airlines needs to stop treating the victims of her scam as criminals. She took advantage of the trust and community expats in Shenzhen have built, but United is continuing to ruin lives by re-victimizing the people Cansu took advantage of.

United Airlines needs to reinstate the mileage accounts of the victims at least – at most they need to refund the people who were swindled by Cansu Uzcan.

What do you think? Have you ever fallen victim to a scam while living overseas? Let me know in the comments.

Living with Epilepsy in China

Living with Epilepsy in China

A photo of a crash in Hubei that killed 4 people after the driver of the car suffered an epileptic seizure.
A photo of a crash in Hubei that killed 4 people after the driver of the car suffered an epileptic seizure.

Recently, a man in Hubei was sentenced to life in prison for causing the deaths of four people when he crashed into a group of pedestrians after suffering from an epileptic seizure. Most of the comments in response to the article have centered around how stupid it was of the man to keep his illness secret and keep driving. Of course, the man should not have been driving, but I thought it was important to have a discussion about why someone in China would feel the need to keep an illness like this secret. I thought it was best to have someone who knows what it like to have epilepsy and live in China talk about it. Ondreianna MacKenna, a member of Women Writers of Shenzhen, has agreed to share her story about living in China with epilepsy. 

IMAGINE walking down the street when your thoughts suddenly become sluggish and thick like feet walking in a muddy creek bed. Then you realize you can’t feel much of your body and the edges of your vision are beginning to slide into a gray fog ever so slowly. You take a breath to calm yourself, but something else, something other than your own mind hijacks your thoughts and an icy panic runs up your spine while the world around you begins to tilt and turn like a twisted, tormenting theme park ride.

This is what the beginning of a seizure feels like, at least for some people. For me, this is normal. While I can’t say you ever quite get used to the confusion, the fear, the pain (both mental and physical) and the hijacking of both your mind and your body with varying levels of awareness, I can tell you that it is a struggle that I am well equipped to handle. I have lived with seizures all of my life and have seizures nearly every week (sometimes more often), even at 29.

There are many limitations to having epilepsy or other seizure disorders; however, the challenges and the limitations take a different turn when one moves to a foreign country. My husband and I have been living in China for two years now. China is a wonderfully vast country full of cultural idiosyncrasies, interesting foods, an old culture, a complicated people, amazingly beautiful lands, frustrations, joys, wonders and even mysteries. I love living here, but it is often a minefield rife with dangers for someone like me – someone with seizures.

Common Seizure Triggers

One of the most common triggers (things that cause seizures in those who have seizure disorders) is flashing lights. This is generally called photosensitive seizures, meaning you are sensitive to light and, in this case, to light patterns. So I have to be extremely cautious walking around popular squares or areas of cities at twilight and nighttime; because if there is one thing China likes it is anything that will get your attention. Rapidly changing and moving images on huge LED screens liter these common areas and cause me a plethora of issues. These can range from a severe headache to twitching/spasms to even a full seizure all dependent on how much light directly catches my eyes and the duration of exposure. Adding to these mines there are often string lights or runner lights that are flashing around doors or signs for shops, hotels, stores, restaurants, and other misc businesses that would like to have flashy neon adverts.

epilepsy 3Another trigger for me is crowds and lots of chaotic noises. I know, I know, most people ask me, “Then why in the world did you choose to move to China of all places?” Yes, it is true that China is often perceived as being the motherland of chaotic crowds and the cacophony of noise they release, but the simple answer is that it’s not like that everyday everywhere. I came from a small area with a low population, but even there I sometimes had to worry about crowds like in a busy restaurant, special sales at superstores, or even in day to day living at a busy university. You can’t escape crowds if you want to be a part of a society at large and not live on a farm in isolation.

So I adapted and developed a strong fighting spirit along with a keen sense of observation. With a world so full of dangers in the environment around you and inside you, at all times you must be sure of where the safe areas are, where the exits are, and possible aids (i.e. something to drink, dark places, quiet places) and learn a great deal of physical discipline. This is how I walk through China in my everyday life. I step around crowds or focus on counting my steps so my brain is occupied and, therefore, less able to take in bad stimuli if I have to go through crowds. I wear headphones a lot so that outside sound is muffled or my music drowns it out.

Epilepsy Stigmas in China

You might ask, “Could you ask for help?” The answer in America and other countries is a hesitant “yes,” I could, for the most part; however here in the East there is a rather strong stigma that pushes those with seizure disorders to be silenced. I learned very quickly through experience and reading other people’s stories online that I must keep this a secret or risk some fallout. The stigma can range from fear of it somehow being a contagion that could be inflicted on other people – which elicits fear and sometimes verbal violence – to being a symptom of some kind of darker psychological disorder hinting at possible dangers or violence everyone around.

epilepsy 2Other stigmas from less developed areas revolve around seizures being some kind of trick or punishment from an external source such as spirits, karma, or even bad luck. Thus, if you are being punished by some higher power, then you have done something to warrant this and should be given a wide berth.

Madness, possession, contagious disease, cosmic punishment, psychologically disturbed, irreparable human, mistake, broken, reject, and subhuman are many of the labels thrust upon people with seizures in this society. They are often told they should never marry nor should they hold a job. In fact, if a person were diagnosed with epilepsy before marriage, the sufferer would be denied a marriage license. And of course, children are out of the question. Often people are fired if they have a seizure at work. The person or even family members are often shunned and ignored in their own neighborhoods. If the one suffering from seizures is a child, many other parents will not allow their children to play with “those children” for fear of some sort of damage or repercussion falling on their children.

I have been lucky enough to not have anything but minor seizures out in public or make it back to my apartment in time for a larger seizure. I have to be careful of not getting overheated or overly tired, and I have to be careful about the foods I eat too as some chemicals (MSG) and foods (pork for me) can worsen or even cause seizures.

I am truly blessed because I grew up with parents that were patient and loving even in the grips of a child suffering from a disorder they didn’t understand well. However, many children and even adults here in China do not have that same level of support. Orphanages here are filled with children who have various disabilities or disorders; they are thrown away for falling short of “perfect.” epilepsy 1Teenagers and adults are often sent away or kept in seclusion, denied even the basics of a proper education.

Recently there was a man in Hubei who was sentenced to a life in prison after a seizure resulted in a fatal car crash while he was driving. Yes, he should NOT have been driving, that is undeniable, but he will never receive treatment, support, or good medicines in prison. This is an example of how China deals with “disruptive” disorders, they tend to put you somewhere and ignore you in hopes that the problem will go away.

The Future of Seizure Disorders in China

Now please don’t think that things are hopeless, because they are not. In the last eight years, China has made some remarkable strides in trying to get more information out there about seizure disorders for public consumption and to delineate disorders and disabilities. There are disability groups and agencies popping up all over China, and some colleges are now trying to aid students with special needs. I admit the progress is slow, but it is wonderful and heading in the right direction.bigstock_freedom__995237

I would like to end this blog about living in China with epilepsy by explaining that while life for me is limited and often more difficult than some people, I have more freedom and independence here than I did back home. Things are more closely placed here and the public transits are remarkable. Back home, we had lots of land, so everything is so spread out that walking was not feasible. Public buses were unreliable and often not running, subways didn’t exist and taxis were too expensive, if you can even find one. In China, I am able to go anywhere I want, when I want, and how I want. For the first time in my 29 years of life, I am able to taste what being an independent adult tastes like and this is one of many reasons I feel freer here in China than in America despite hiding my “dirty little secret.”

IMG_5060Ondreianna MacKenna has been living in China since 2013 and Shenzhen since 2014. She is working on getting her PhD in clinical psychology and is an aspiring author and blogger. You can visit her at her blog Surviving China where she is happy to answer any questions about epilepsy, seizures, or living with such conditions in China.

China – Not As Safe As You Think

China – Not As Safe As You Think

In the past, when people have asked me “is China safe?” I have answered “yes.” And most people would agree. In fact, if you Google “is China safe?” you will find plenty of forums that tout the safety of China, even for women. Yet I have been seeing more and more incidents of Western women assaulted in China and have experienced it myself. The truth is no country is “safe.” Assault can and does happen everywhere. It might happen more frequently in other countries, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t become a victim of assault. In fact, I believe that China is far more dangerous than people let on. Part of the problem is that not enough women speak out about it.

Chinese Women in China

1307010010Let me clarify that yes, this article is mainly about the experiences of expat women in China and not local Chinese women or expat women of Chinese ethnicity. This is because China is extremely dangerous for Chinese women. China has some of the highest rape and domestic abuse rates in the world. In some studies, as many as 60% of women surveyed admitted to being abused by their partner and in other studies nearly 25% of men admit to raping a woman. Even in public, most people will not stop a man from assaulting a woman because they don’t want to get involved in a “domestic situation.” China doesn’t even have laws to protect women from domestic abuse. However, being a Chinese local and being a tourist or an expat are completely different experiences. Many times, expats are lured into a false sense of safety. And it is this false safety that has me concerned. I believe assault among expat women is much higher than we have been lead to believe.

Expat Women Assaulted by Chinese Men

I’ve actually been wanting to write this post for a long time. Late last year, Jocelyn Eikenburg at Speaking of China wrote about the time she was sexually assaulted by a Beijing private driver and the way she is constantly street harassed. She says,

It happened in Beijing when a driver a friend arranged to send me to the airport ended up touching one of my breasts. He did it just before I was about to leave his car – as if he had wanted to touch me the entire time and held out for the right moment. It was creepy and despicable and the kind of thing I hope will never happen again.

She also says

Years ago, I often told friends how I would walk through Shanghai late into the evenings and never feel worried about getting raped or jumped by anyone.

But now I wonder if I really had it right or not. Was I safe in Shanghai because we lived in the center of the city, where lots of people streamed through the streets day and night? Or was I simply naïve?

Unfortunately, I think she, like me, was simply naïve. A large reason is because, as she also says “I’ve not wanted to share it for a long time – believing, as she did, that somehow it was all my fault.”

When women don’t share their stories, the stories simply pile up. If you read the comments, you will see many, many more stories about assault, harassment, and stalking.

There was a guy who just kept popping up everywhere I was and he seemed to know my schedule. He would always try to chat and get my phone number. One day, I got on the bus and he followed me on it.


Things like that have happened to me as well. I once got a massage in Xi’an, I was with friends and it was supposedly a “reputable place.” The masseuse started to finger me and I didn’t know what to do.


I lived in China for three years and faced a few similarly bad situations. I’m glad you’ve brought this up, because although I would still consider Shanghai to be a safe place, bad things happen everywhere and I often felt my problems were dismissed because ‘China is a safe place!’

There is an extremely frightening account by Zhou JiaYi on her blog Shandongxifu about her assault by three men in Shenzhen.

There were 3 men. They were middle aged and obviously transients to the city from their country-side, labor-worn appearances.

“She speaks Chinese!” one of the men exclaimed. Now I had really sparked their interest. They got closer and started to critique my appearance more. They told me how I didn’t look American because I wasn’t fat. They said they loved my blond hair. I kept walking assuring myself that I was in public in broad daylight, but I felt awkward.

They started talking about my pale skin. Then as one of men pointed out I was slighted tanned on my chest, he literally used his hand to point it out by brushing his finger above the opening of my button down dress.

I reactively swatted his hand away and looked the man in horror. The men smiled. I was feisty.

I started forward but was detained. The other men had grabbed my arms and my attempts to get away only brought them forward with me. Panic rushed through me. I momentarily looked around at the passersby who watched me with curiosity and pity. I had been in China before and I knew that no one would ever help a stranger; They would simply stop and watch. I had been in Shenzhen long enough to know that the police wouldn’t help, even if I had happened to see one in that very second. I was scared.
I fought against the three men as they started to pull me away out the crowds, move their hands towards forbidden places, and start to tear at buttons on my dress.

You should really read the whole post. She doesn’t say when exactly the incident happened, but it is clear that a considerable amount of time passed between the assault and when she finally worked up the courage to write about it. Once again, she stayed silent while everyone else went along thinking China was totally safe.

My Experiences with Assault and Harassment

me and morotbikeI’ve never been sexually assaulted in China, but I have been assaulted, and I’ve written about it before.

As I started to pull away, the man grabbed me by the arm. At first, I was shocked. How dare he touch me?!? I instinctively tried to pull my arm from his grasp. But he didn’t let go and started talking angrily in Chinese. I revved my bike to help me get more force to pull myself away, but when I did he grabbed my arm with both of his hands letting go of his own bike and started yelling at me. At first, I was just offended, but now I was scared. My Chinese is still very poor so I just started screaming in English “help me! Help me! He is hurting me!” which he was. He had on gloves that were of some strange rough material that was digging into my skin and his grip was very tight to keep me from escaping. 

Thankfully, nothing like this has happened to me since, but I still feel panicky when I think about it.

Most recently, I have been at the forefront of fighting harassment here in Shenzhen. There is a Chinese man who calls himself Nathan but I call The Shenzhen Creeper who has been harassing and stalking expat women in Shenzhen for over a year. He is the reason we had to turn the Shenzhen Writers Circle into Women Writers of Shenzhen. The women in the group simply didn’t feel safe with him in our community. Whenever a new expat woman would join our group (only expat women; he has never stalked a Chinese member of our group), he would get their WeChat (like China’s Facebook and instant messenger) and their email address and continually message them. Most of the messages may seem harmless enough, asking if the women want to get coffee or go to a movie, but several of them have been creepy, asking where the women live, work, or go to the gym. He has sent long love songs to women and asked if they “see themselves” in his love poems. I should also mention that Creeper is married and has a one-year-old daughter.

Most of the women simply tried to ignore him, say they were too busy, and stop attending events. But the messages never stop. Several of the women have told him directly to stop messaging them, but he hasn’t. I confronted him about his behavior, but he denied that he was doing anything wrong and has claimed that he is the victim of gross mischaracterization and persecution by me.

Many people may think a few messages are “no big deal,” but from a woman’s perspective, any unwanted attention can be seen as threatening. And Creeper has reacted with verbal and emotional violence. He has threatened to have me arrested, sued, and has threatened my employer. He has even threatened my guy friends who have stood up for me, telling them that they would also end up in court if they take my side. The women are not unreasonable in their fears that Creeper could escalate things if they were to outright reject him. Even though he was ejected from the writers group, he still finds ways to contact our members occasionally. He has also found other social groups that have large numbers of expat women and has been stalking their members.

Speaking Out

I am not saying that the onus of stopping assaults and harassment in China is on the victims. However, if women don’t speak out about their experiences, many more women could be hurt by this false belief that “China is safe.” There is no shame in speaking out if you have been a victim of abuse. And no longer should people stick their head in the sand and pretend that assault in China doesn’t happen. If you have been assaulted, speak out. If you know that someone is being assaulted or harassed, speak out against it. Everyone must work together to stop abuse.


Throwback Thursday – Deadly Snowflakes

Throwback Thursday – Deadly Snowflakes

When my husband and I first came to China in 2010, the plan was to stay two years. Well, we are now going on our fifth year, and we don’t have any plans to leave. It’s hard to believe that we have been here long enough to start doing Throwback Thursday posts, but we have. My goal is to go back through my files and find old pictures that never made it onto the blog and tell the story behind them. This is for a couple of reasons, including blogging more regularly and taking part in something fun, but also because I stopped blogging about daily life in China a long time ago. After about a year, life in China just became…life. It stopped feeling interesting, novel, or noteworthy. We were just two people going to work, having dinner, watching TV just like everyone else, or so we felt. But it isn’t that simple. Life here is different than it is in America, and many days it’s really hard. And our life is interesting to most of our readers, people who still live in the West., so this series is for our readers and for ourselves. So, here is our first TBT post!

photoFinding a learning activity for over 60 teenagers is really hard, and one of the reasons I started hating teaching. But after the first light snowfall we experienced when our first winter in Hunan, I had the bright idea of teaching the kids to make paper snowflakes. They really enjoyed the activity and came up with some amazing designs. The problem came when I tried to stick the snowflakes on the doors and windows. The kids completely freaked out. In China, white is the color most associated with death, so putting anything white on windows and doors invites death. I tried to overcome this by getting them to understand that in Western culture, that isn’t a superstition, so they should put them up anyway. But they were having none of it. I was at least able to get one picture before they took them all back down.

Have you heard this superstition or anything like it before?


Amazing Expat Spends Last Seeing Days With Students

Amazing Expat Spends Last Seeing Days With Students

nicholasTeachers in China have a bad rap, and many rightly deserve to be criticized and even looked down on. Far too many unqualified expats come to China to “teach” just to make a buck at the expense of the students, parents, and schools.

But every once in a while, a teacher comes along who completely reaffirms your faith in humankind. Nicholas Pretorius is one of those people. Pretorius was recently profiled by the Shenzhen Daily, but that is so much less than he deserves.

In 2001, Pretorius was diagnosed with Ocular Choroid Nerve Recession, an eye disease so rare there is hardly any information on the Internet about it. The disease has no cure and 90% of patients are blind by the age of 40. What would you do if you knew that eventually you wouldn’t be able to see any more? It’s a scary thought, but Pretorius decided to use his time teaching in China.

Around 2004, Pretorius arrived in China to begin his teaching career, and he has done very well. He teaches students who compete in the Star of Outlook English Talent Competition. In 2013, one of his students won the competition and another one was the runner up.

I was really moved by what he said in his recent interview with the Shenzhen Daily:

“I’m afraid that someday I might wake up and not be able to see,” he said. “I just want to teach more students before that.” He has set a quantitative goal in this regard. “I have taught more than 70,000 students in China. I hope I can teach 100,000 students before I can’t see the sun.”

The whole article is really worth a read because it is very moving. 

Cultural understanding, or — everything you ever knew is wrong!

Cultural understanding, or — everything you ever knew is wrong!

Grease! Grease everywhere!

Many years before I ever imagined I would be living in China, I remember having a conversation with a woman at church who owned rental properties. This woman is one of the most hateful people I have ever met in my life, so what she said probably shouldn’t have made an impression, but it was so odd that it has stuck with me for years.

“The Chinese don’t know how to clean,” she said. “Their apartments are disgusting with grease everywhere. And when I show them how, they always say ‘we not know how.’” (Yes, she was sure to emphasize her story with a mocking Chinese accent for that extra punch of racism.)

I don’t remember what I said in reply, if anything, but I wondered about that for a long time. How could it be possible that people “don’t know” how to clean? They might have different standards or ways of cleaning, but I have eaten at Chinese friends’ houses before, and their homes seemed perfectly fine to me. After all, if they didn’t know how to clean, wouldn’t they all be dying of disease?

Fast forward a few years. Missouri is long in my rearview mirror and I’m living in a small, moldy apartment with no hot water in any of the sinks. I’ve done my best to cope, but by this time I have hired an ayi (a housekeeper). I’m speaking to one of my friends about cultural stereotypes, and I ask her, “What do Chinese people think about Americans?” and she says, “Oh, they don’t know how to keep house.” This might be actually why I remember that conversation at church from so long ago, because I’ve heard these claims before.

In America, I was a perfectly competent housekeeper. Not excellent (I always hated dusting, folding laundry and making the bed), but my house was typically “guest ready” or could be that way in a matter of minutes. I had bible study at my house twice a week and regularly held baby showers, Pampered Chef parties, and hang out nights in my home. The same was true of my cooking. I was not a gourmet chef, but I was a damn good cook. My chili, spaghetti and chocolate chunk brownies were famous.

The greatest sponge ever!
The greatest sponge ever!

But living in China, I was no longer a domestic goddess. Along with all the other culture shock issues, one that has been particularly hard to deal with has been feeling unable to care for my own home. There is a lot more to living in a new country than just learning a language and making new friends. When you move to a new country, you quickly learn that EVERYTHING YOU EVER KNEW IS WRONG!  You cannot find foods you recognize at the market, the way you bank and go to the post office is different, the pots you use to cook are different, the sponges you use to clean do not exist, and even picture frames come in wonky sizes that don’t fit any of the pictures you brought.

When it comes to living in China, everything is hard. Every day is a struggle. I don’t lie to people and tell them that things will eventually get normal. That’a a common lie. It’s something people who have lived overseas tell newbies to comfort them. But your life will never be normal or easy again. You do get used to the struggle, but it never goes away. The struggles of everyday life just become a part of everyday life. The struggle of living life every day is what drives most expats back to their home countries eventually.

In the place where you are born, you learn how things are done; and everything is done a certain way. You use xxx brand of dish soap, hot water and xxx brand of sponge or rag to clean them. But what do you do when you can’t find your brand of dish soap. Try a new one? One that doesn’t smell right or feel right? One that doesn’t seem to rinse completely away? Sure you can find things that look like sponges, but they aren’t as absorbent as you are used to so you make a big sloppy mess every time you try to wipe down the counters with them. The broom you now use to sweep the floor is of a different material and you know it isn’t getting all the dust up. Hot water? Ha! If you want to lug it through the house from the shower because that is the only tap with hot water. Same for your laundry. Forget using hot water to clean your sweaty clothes or the soft, warm, fluffy feel of towels fresh out of the dryer. DRYERS DON’T EXIST HERE!

It isn’t that I don’t know how to clean; it’s that I don’t know how to clean when I don’t have the “proper” tools (i.e. – the tools I’m used to). I’m sure the same is true of the Chinese tenants that the lady from church was talking about. They are just as out of their element in America as I am out of mine in China. The tenants were not stupid, not unable to clean, but they needed help, support and, most importantly, compassion. If you have never tried to live outside your home country, you have no damn business judging someone else who has. You cannot fathom the struggles they face every single day.

I’m learning to deal with it. Like I said, I have a housekeeper. I know my limits and I know she can do a better job. I do still have to clean on her days off, so I recently spent $5 on sponges you can buy for $1 in the states just because they were the exact right sponges I needed. The feeling of those sponges in my hand was a relief few other experience in China have brought me.