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Life in Harbin as an American English Teacher

a travel blog by carseat tourist

My family and I are from LummiIsland, Washington. We are teaching English and adopting from China.
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Waiting for little Guy

Harbin, China

I opened my email today and found out that the American adoption agency needed my phone number to send me some "important documents"...it must be the LOA!
That means that China is goingto let us adopt little guy!
So I decided to start a blog for the journey to bring him from our hearts to our home!

permalink written by  carseat tourist on June 12, 2009 from Harbin, China
from the travel blog: Life in Harbin as an American English Teacher
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300 wishes

Harbin, China

American Girl makes a cute little card game, 300 wishes. It is designed for girls maybe 6-10.I brought it from the States to play with my students. I teach university students and staff. They loved the game! I think people don't get enough opportunities to be nice in life, so it was a completely different experience for them. 2 years ago I taught the word "philantropist" in Shenyang to a class and then asked who wants to be one. Nobody, wanted to be a philantropist, I again said that it meant you were filthy rich and had extra money, still no takers. In the end the told me that the Chinese way was to help your family and not people you don't know. So this time I tried a different approach, using Yao Ming. What do Yao Ming and Bill Gates have in common? And told them they get to be like Yao Ming for a class. The premise is you get a bunch of wish cards and you give 1 to everyone, facedown so you don't know who gave what. The wishes range from cool, dream car, climb Mt. Everest, ride a ferry to the Staute of Liberty - to girly, get flip flops in every color, and then there were a bunch of family options, go to a spa with mom, go on a road trip with your family, etc. After you give evryone a wish, they rank them best to worst. Then we read them aloud. This is when it got interesting...almost everybody would rank things with family as #1. Even if I knew the person (a male student) really wanted to go abroad he would have their #2 as surf the waves in Hawaii and get a pedicure with mom as the number 1. One class was really interesting because a husband and wife take the class together, he is so sweet; he gave her a trip to England to have tea with the Queen, and she gave him a trip to the Eifel Tower, but strangely enough they both ranked the trips as #2. He wanted blueberry bushes in his backyard and she wanted
to scrapbook with mom as the number 1. All the classes liked the game. In some classes I let them give me wishes and I could tell they really thought about the ones they gave me. Lifetime supply of Mac and Cheese, teach a gorilla sign language...I actually miss my grandma so much that in one class a I ranked doing something with her over being President of USA. I told them I hope all their wishes come true. It was nice to do an activity with them that they liked and was not competetive.

permalink written by  carseat tourist on June 13, 2009 from Harbin, China
from the travel blog: Life in Harbin as an American English Teacher
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Trouble at the ranch

Lummi Island, United States

Back at the ranch....in 2003-2005 we undertook the massive job our building our own cabin. We watched too many episodes of PBS's frontier house and decided if those guys could build a cabin, so could we. We left the suburbs of Marietta, Georgia with a U-hual of junk and a dream and ended up on Lummi Island. Lummi Island is in the San Juans. It is closest to the mainland, just a $4 ferry ride to Bellingham. After a lot of sweat and tears, many many tears we did build our cabin ALL BY OURSELVES. With power tools, of course, actually I got pregnant so we did get somebody to help with the roof. We really found that working with others was more work than doing it yourself, but we had to contract the wiring out because the building inspector, State of Washington, and untold busybodies said we couldn't live there if we didn't have a liscenced contractor do the electricity. Anyway the cabin was completely legal and finished (the trim in the loft doesn't count) in October 2005. That was my dream come true, my husband's was China!
Fastforward to now, we've been in China for 2 1/2 years, the ferry now costs $10. The first year we had a housesitter/pet sitters, we came back to all of our tools stolen. Ouch...we are still working on that yurt on Sinclair Island! So the next year, we tried a different housesitter couple and came back to an even worse nightmare. All the pipes had frozen it was nasty and dirty and there had been some serious drug usage there. So we are done with housesitters. We spent our winter vacation replacing everybend in the pipes and cleaning. We got a property manager in hopes of renting it. We really wanted to provide affordable housing on the island, it seems unfair that a beautiful place like Lummi Island is out of the ballpark for your average person, so we put the rent at $750.
Little did we know, the property manager decided that they are too busy to show the proprerty on the island that is going to generate so little money for them, so it is sitting unrented for the 4th month. So we are switching to the island vacation rental manager.
Weekend get away on Lummi Island anybody?

permalink written by  carseat tourist on June 13, 2009 from Lummi Island, United States
from the travel blog: Life in Harbin as an American English Teacher
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Rainbow in Harbin

Harbin, China

Well, I was having a hopelessly homesick day today. The paperwork that we thought was coming, is not the paperwork we need to progress the adoption, just more paperwork really. Augh....Then I proofread this Chinese Engineering textbook last week to make a little extra RMB. That was another nightmare for another day...anyway I was told I get paid "about 2000" and then they had some random word count thing and are cheaping out and now paying 1350. Ugh, of course I should have known reading some of the errors I saw, the command of English could naturally be so bad that "about 2000" could be translated to whatever. Then in my Chinese class, its near the end of the semester and so even though I love my teacher and classmates, it is so frustrating because I got a little lost a few weeks ago and by now that means I'm really lost. My name #@#$#@ is #####@% airplane America. Huh? So we get out of class and it just pours. Course we have no umbrellas but I wanna go home so we run. We live close so its not too bad. Then the ayi cooks rice and green goop. My teenager has a fit and doesn't eat and my 4 year old wants to pick out all the meat scraps, so we are sitting there with the ayi at dinner, all exhausted. And the ayi says flower, picture (in Chinese, of course, she knows my limited vocab). She just is so proud of this amazing pink african violet plant I have. It is truly an amazing plant, it blooms from May to December. Blooms and blooms. Anyway this week, it is having the best bloom ever, over 10 flowers. The ayi is so taken with it, she pulled the water delivery guy in to look at it. She even pulled out the fertilizer to show him exactly how we have such an amazing plant. Poor guy was like, nice flower, people are thirsty, I gotta go. So at dinner, I thought we were making small talk. I nod and turn to look at the flower. There is a rainbow.
I so needed to see that. Yeah, it arched at the coal towers. It wasn't a spectacular rainbow, but it was real. It is the first rainbow I've seen in Harbin. I've lived here for a year and a half. I so need to see natural beauty in the concrete jungle. And I've looked and looked for rainbows here. Everytime it rains we look, where's the rainbow? We guessed we couldn't see it due to the skyscrappers or pollution. But there it was today.
So I have hope again.

permalink written by  carseat tourist on June 15, 2009 from Harbin, China
from the travel blog: Life in Harbin as an American English Teacher
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The real LOA

Harbin, China

It's our 8th anniversary and we turned on the computer to find out we got LOA!!!!
So How did we celebrate?
Well with an adventure of course!
We went to Hamamas Kofi Haus.
It is a cool place with really good food. The owners are from Papu New Guinea. The food is as close as it gets in Harbin to real Western food short of McDonalds. It's pretty clean and the menu is great, you mark it yourself and then the waitress goes over the ticket to confirm everything. It is the only place I trust salad. The coffee is strong. They are closed Sundays, which is too bad because it is the only day Chris and I are off together. But today is Wed., so we went early for lunch so we could be back to teach a class at 2pm.
Then we went to St. Sophias to have our picture drawn by street artists. We had thought of having the whole portrait thing done, they make these hardbound books with couple's pictures in several wedding gowns and costumes and then add Chenglish. It is very Chinese and not suppose to be too expensive. Our daughters have had them done for free to advertise for the studios. I was worried that the gowns wouldn't fit our I would feel too self conscious and I didn't want to wear Chinese makeup.
So we decided on the street artists. it was quite nice actually. Business is pretty slow on Wed. at noon, so we chose our artist and set the price. We are sitting there with our guy and the other guys start drawing us too. It was quite interesting. At first I thought they were bored and just were doing it to pass time or put out as a display, but then I realized they were planning to sell these other pictures to us. Our artist was sitting quite pretty and the others were drawing their hearts out like it was a contest on survivor or something. What to do? We were really worried that it could turn ugly when these guys, 5 of them, all finished and wanted to get paid. We had just planned to get one. We kept calm and when it was over our guy showed us the picture and we got up and the other guys sheepishly showed theirs and they were just so strange that we bought 3 of them, 2 of Chris with a Chinese nose and one of me with a big Russian nose. One guy drew me with me nose (a huge one at that) wrinkled in an unattractive way, so we didn't get it. We paid the agreed price for the picture of us and the others we half of that price. So we didn't feel too taken, and they guys were so happy about it that I didn't feel bad. I sort of feel sorry for other foriegners that might find themselves in the same situation, because we bought them they will be more likely to try the same trick again.

Then for diner we had a little cake. I was going to make a homemade one but I'll save it for our TA (travel approval).

permalink written by  carseat tourist on June 16, 2009 from Harbin, China
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Summer teaching plan

Dalian, China

We are planning to make the big yuan this summer. Last summer, we taught in Dalian for Aston English School. I loved Dalian and the people, but hated the whole for profit language school thing. The boss was actually the best boss I have had in China, if not the world. He was just awesome and would do anything for us, without asking.
It didn't really feel like teaching because you use a book that is more for a parrot. Teacher says something, parrot gives response. There is no thought, just this statement gets this response. Maybe over time this language method results in good communication, I dunno. Then, to make matters worse, my heart was breaking for these kids. It was summer, they should be playing. The grandmas and the parents would watch the whole class thru frosted glass. It was so much pressure for these little guys. In the younger classes, the parents would be in the class with them, pushing them to answer every question. I did see that these little kids could read at an amazingly young age, so there is something going on right. The word "elevator" and "balcony" were read by 6 year olds with no hesitation. I assume it was just from memorizing word lists, but it was quite impressive.
The thing that broke my heart the most was on the last week of class. I had this little girl all summer (6 weeks), her parents signed her up for every class there, mine, everybodies. 7 days a week, they had her in English. That actually is some big time money, well needless to say, for 6, her English was pretty good. So she could go a little beyond the basic parrot talk, so for some reason the textbook had words about daily life and showering. So I'm joking with her about oh, you need a shower, the chinese teacher was there too, and she was joking with her. And the little girl whose family must pay their whole salary so she can speak English said, that they didn't have a shower, they go on Tuesdays. She was very matter of fact, not even embarressed. It was all I could do not to cry. I still water up thinking about it and it is almost a year later. I felt so awful about joking with her, I felt so awful that the dumb book had this conversation in it that shouldn't be brought up with little kids anyway. Especially little kids in a developing country. They are learning English so they can pass some exam, go to college abroad, or work in a foriegn company. Unless they are in the hospitality industry, showers aren't going to be on the test. These children are their parents future, and they know it at such a young age. And the parents really just want the best for their kids and they see English as the way. It is just so mind-numbing. Culturally so different.
Since we built our own house from scratch, on an island. I have lived without ammenities. I know what life is like with no indoor plumbling. In fact, this winter thanks, to the housesitter losers, we didn't have plumbing 17 of the 45 days we were in USA. It is a humbling experience to try to figure out where you can shower in America. It is even more humbling to do dishes outside in the snow... Anyway, I've been there. I can tell you in my budget of priorities, water is number one. Electricity is nice, but indoor plumbing is neccessary. I can't imagine the situation where I would feel that my money is better spent on English classes for my 6 year old than a water heater. I think most apartments in China do have plumbling, it is just the water heater that is missing. I certainly wasn't going to ask the little girl to diagram her pipes or anything.
But it killed me that here we were, in this school, with all of her families dreams; learning to parrot talk. And I felt like I wasn't in a position to give her the most amazing vocabulary and language skills possible. She deserved so much more. I just gave her a hug and changed the subject.
The whole time, I worked there, I kept the adoption in the back of my mind. I kept the images of the kids I volunteered with in Shenyang in the forefront. Everyday I told myself, I'm doing this so we can adopt. I know I can't change the world, but I can change the world for one little guy. If I didn't have that big picture in my mind, I couldn't have done it. At the end of the summer, when we counted out the pile of yuan, I couldn't decide if it was worth it.
So now we are going to do the summer camp experience again. it's daunting. Poor Dalian has been hit by the world reccession and since it is the Redmond of China, the language schools are getting hit. I think they make the big money on business English for the software giants, and the kids are just a nice and steady stream of income, but I dunno. Anyway, when the software giants close/layoff, English classes are put on the backburner. So they said, that enrollment was down and they were just going to have their teachers work overtime for the summer classes instead of hiring people. yuck, overtime.
So, we decided to spread our wings and check out the South of China. We are very happy that we found a job in Anhui. I think it is a public school that is offering a summer program, so should have a different feel than the language school. The lady on the phone sounded really nice.
Our second job is in Wenzhou, or Ruian to be exact. That's going to be teenagers. We have found that job by way of recruiter. Sometimes recruiters are good, and sometimes they are fishy. So I feel a little uneasy about it.
Our plan is to go to Anhui by plane and then train the rest of the journey....

permalink written by  carseat tourist on June 19, 2009 from Dalian, China
from the travel blog: Life in Harbin as an American English Teacher
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Father's Day

Harbin, China

The guide books for culture shock all say to observe your holidays from your country.
Somehow this is suppose to allow you to feel better and integrate the 2 cultures. I dunno.
This is our 3rd Father's day in China. By the time we go home, next January we will have had 3 of every thing in China. I think we should skip all the holidays, but observe anniversaries and birthdays. Holidays are not the same over here. The expectation for the holiday is the same, but the execution of the events are disappointing. And it is not like in USA, we had big holidays with all the bells and whistles either. But over here it seems like a big reminder that we are not at home.
I think as a family living abroad, we try to make this our home. Who wants to grow up feeling like they live out of a suitcase in a temporary home? Yuck. We decorated our place, the suitcases are unpacked. Even last summer when we were in Dalian, we unpacked and threw up some posters on the wall even though we were just there 6 weeks. I think it is really important to make where we live feel homey. When we come inside, we can close the door, speak English and feel like it doesn't matter that on the otherside of the door is a completely foriegn country.
Then a holiday comes, and suddenly you are very aware that this is not home. What do Americans do for Fathers Day? All week I have answered this question in my classes- the gift- a tie, the food-BBQ, a lovely day spent at the lake or pool, man stuff.
So I tried to take my daughter shopping for the tie. No luck. There are no displays for Fathers Day, no cards. A tie? Not in the RT Mart. I was in Walmart last week, none there either. A tie, now that is a luxury item. Yep, they are all made in China. I'm quite sure of that. Are they for sale here, sure if you know where to go. They are in high end shops, businessmen wear ties. Business men don't shop at the market or Wally world. I imagine they do shop these places, but the average shopper at these places does not buy a tie. Maybe they sell them at the tourist shops in other cities. The city has a Russian influence so the touristy stuff is Russian. Nesting dolls, furs, vodka, Russian chocolate, watches, and binoculars. A few weeks ago in the teeny booper mall we bought a spider tie that is for a teenie booper chic to wear. We would have given it to Chris for Fathers day, but it truly was not long enough for him. Did I think I should go pay American prices for a tie that Chris doesn't really need, when we are trying to save for the adoption? No. He got a glass mug instead.
Then the meal, mmm do I miss BBQ! No way possible to pull of that here. I've been to a Chinese BBQ, it's good. But not the same. If we were to go outside with a little grill, we'd have a crowd around so fast. Everybody would be standing around watching. It would be a nightmare. So we went to KFC. Nothings wrong with KFC, it's just fast food. If we were in America and went out to eat for Father's Day, it wouldn't be fast food. Even if we did go to fast food for Fathers Day in America, I'd bet it'd be Taco Bell cause the KFC in Bellingham shut down.
So the activity...we went to KFC and the traffic was rough going down the market street and horns were honking us to get out of the way every few steps. There is no sidewalk, so everytime a car comes you press up to a vender stand. It's ackward because we don't need anything, but then the sellers are trying to touch the blonde ponytail or offer the little princess something. So that starts the whining. After all the honking, we make it to the mail drag, which is under construction. Everyone is confused by the construction, so it takes the craziness of the Chinese drivers to a new level. So crossing the road with a child is very intense. We finally arrive, and then the stress of ordering. I want to just order in Chinese or using the picture menu but the eager cashiers want to practice their English. So it is a long drawn out thing. So we eat. The big bucket, much cheaper here than in USA, that's a bonus.
Then back out to traffic. Chris decided that the closest thing to fishing was buying a fish. So we walked to the plant/fish shop. It's not like Pet Smart at all. A couple converted their 1st floor apt to this shop. They have quite a collection of things. Some would not be for sale in the States. They used to have a 2 1/2 ft croc or gavial, but I guess they sold it. What was amazing was that their bed is on a loft that is really just inches above the croc. They have lots of turtles and strange fish. I think some are for eating and others are for pets. We just got some Mollies and an algea eater. You have to bargain, and I thought she said 3 fish for 2yuan but when we paid it was the opposite. But the lady is interesting and just adores our daughter and since she has a house of critters, our daughter tolerates the adoration.
We got home and the survival rate for our fish was a rocking 20%. In fact one of our previous fish went belly up upon meeting his new friends. Princess said,"the new fish swim sideways"
Not the dream day. But if we were in America, I'm sure it wouldn't have been perfect either. Last year we said, next year will have a new somebody to celebrate with...this year we are saying it with more conviction.

permalink written by  carseat tourist on June 21, 2009 from Harbin, China
from the travel blog: Life in Harbin as an American English Teacher
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Beijing Baby

Harbin, China

Beijing Baby!!!
We got another summer camp lined up, a nice one I think. We will start our summer gigs in Beijing now. We'll be teaching chinese English teachers. I like teaching teachers! They want to be there, they speak English. I teach one class of English teachers now and I really like it.
Beijing is good because there is lots of yummy Western food and the English book store!
The bad thing is that I was looking forward to being done teaching on July 4 and having a week to get everything together before we live on the road for a month and half. Now I'm teaching in Harbin on Sat. riding the train on Sunday to Beijing and teaching on Monday. No break at all!
The LOA made the journey back over the ocean and is now in our hands. There was much sweat and tears involved in tracking the package down and having the post office shut 10 minutes early so that we couldn't resend to Beijing. But no piece of paper in the dossier came without sweat and tears, so why would this one be any different. So tomorrow, I hope the post office opens 10 minutes early and we get that baby up to Beijing!

permalink written by  carseat tourist on June 22, 2009 from Harbin, China
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The coal trucks

Harbin, China

In America, there seems to be this whole substainability movement. People are trying to get back in touch with their food sources. Buy local. It's great. I'm all for it. We like to be in touch with everything. We are a hands on kind of family. We leased a vineyard and berry patch for a year, the year before we came to China. I understand exactly how much work goes into a bottle wine. I know about the berries, I learned that bird nets keep the birds out, infact the birds that get in die if you don't get to work early enough to save them. I mainly learned how little money the farmer got and how much money was invested. That same summer we built the yurt. We kind of did hands on overkill, which no doubt was why my husband wanted to come to China the next spring.
We don't do manual labor in here. We watch it. To me witnessing someone else breaking their back is more painful than doing it yourself.
The coal trucks are rolling in. We have a 5th floor apartment with a view of the coal boiler. We live in Harbin, it's way North. Its colder than you can imagine in the winter. Amazingly our apartment and the classrooms are warmer in the winter than they were in Shenyang. So at this time of year, the university buys coal to stockpile for the winter. We aren't talking a little coal. The will make a mountain higher than the 7 story apartment buildings. Coal trucks are big. They are loud. They are ugly and dirty. They are only allowed in the city after dark. So that means that they begin to deliver coal when we want to sleep. The noise is crazy. Truck after truck rolls in, all night, for 2 weeks. By the time all the coal is delivered the trucks will have destroyed the blacktop road.
The work that goes into each truck of coal is backbreaking. Somebody dug it out of a mine. Students have told me stories of the mines in their villages. They don't have happy endings. Then the coal is driven here. Nobody in the truck has a mask on. It is weighed, no workers wearing masks. And it is dumped in a pile. And that massive mountain of coal will be shovelled by hand to the boiler that will push hot water into my radiator. It will keep me warm next winter.
The noise will make me crazy, but thinking about the hardships of the workers makes me just as crazy.
So, even though I wanted to get up at the crack of dawn to mail the LOA to Beijing. I couldn't get to sleep until very late because of the coal trucks.
BUT WE WERE SUCCESSFUL IN MAILING IT! We grabbed one of Chris's students and she helped us at the post office to address the label in Chinese and it was placed into the hands of the postal clerk that mailed our dossier a year ago almost to the day. Yeah!!

permalink written by  carseat tourist on June 23, 2009 from Harbin, China
from the travel blog: Life in Harbin as an American English Teacher
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Double Rainbow

Harbin, China

Last night, I was delivering food to my wife @6pm local time and it was sunny but sprinkling. I looked around for a rainbow and sure enough there was one, or two in fact. We have been in China 3 years and I have only seen three rainbows here. I have seen all three in the past two days. I showed the rainbows to the local card players; who were huddled under a shelter outside. I did not know how to show them exept to point at the rainbows and shout" Kan Kan , Kan Kan!". That is as close as I can say to watch, look or read in Chinese. They finaly understood me and came over. They took pictures and I delivered the food to my wife.
I usually make homemade food for my wife, but last night I sent the teenager out to buy (McDonalds) food. I gave my wife- a burger, fries and drink. We showed the class earlybird's the rainbows and then I went back to the apartment. It was a nice and relaxing experience. It helped me finish grading the final exams and submit my grades.

permalink written by  carseat tourist on June 25, 2009 from Harbin, China
from the travel blog: Life in Harbin as an American English Teacher
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