Spots of Time

June 24, 2004

Last Date

My last night in Sydney, Australia, I left my flatmates in the apartment and went for a solo wander in my neighborhood, the Central Business District (CBD), near Hyde Park. It was my "last date" with the city. The next morning, I would be off to Singapore, and then Thailand, on what was to be the start of almost an entire year spent traveling and working in Asia.

Even though I had lived in Sydney for almost 3 months, I had never just wandered around the city at night. I was always going somewhere, with someone, to see or do something. This time, I had no agenda. I simply had my camera and the need to say goodbye.

Since this "last date" I have had many, many others. Sometimes, the goodbyes are brief - a quick look out the window of the airplane, or a final look around before jumping on a bus. Other times, the last date is lengthy, over a process of several days. This was my experience in Luang Prabang, Laos, where each of my last few evenings were "last dates" - the last time I would see a film at L'Strange, the last time I would eat at my favorite restaurant, the last time I would walk by the winding river.

Tomorrow I will leave Cangzhou, the city in China that has been my home for the past 6 weeks. And, though I admit to being ready to move on, I am also sad to be leaving. This little corner of the earth, far from earth-shattering or exciting, has nonetheless found its way into my heart.

Most people who live in Cangzhou will say there is nothing to do. And perhaps they are right. But, I guess I was not looking for sightseeing. I was looking for a temporary home. And, I found it. For me, the definition of a home is a place that you feel comfortable. Where you can walk around without a map. Where you see the same sights over and over again. Where your life has some routine. To some routine may be boring and dull - but to me, currently always on the move, the idea of routine is actually rather comforting.

Cangzhou offered me these things. My "comfort zone" was small - just a few square blocks - but in that space all my needs were attended to.

Every day I left the apartment, walked down four flights of stairs, pushed the buzzer and was outside, in a modern apartment building that would not look out of place in the US or Europe. I walked out the guarded gate, said "Ni Hao" to the security guard, turned left and walked about two blocks to the school, located across the street.

When my blood sugar would drop, or I had a particularly bad day, I stopped at one of the four local convenience stores to pick up a treat. Most often it was an ice cream bar, though occasionally it was a package of cookies or a bag of gummy candies. I had a certain store for each treat. The closest shop for my gummies, the one down the street for my cookies. My favorite was the shop with the ice cream, not because they had four large coolers filled with an amazing assortment, but because several evenings per week, three gentlemen would be playing music. Lit up from the street in the huge front windows, the men would be practicing playing a small Chinese stringed instrument, the name of which I still do not know. Played with a bow, like a cello, the little wooden and stringed instrument looked a bit like a banjo and would sit upright on the players knee. I loved walking past the window, ice cream in hand, listening to the faint strains of music as I made my way home.

Then there was the local video store, which had a collection of DVD movies in English. The bulk of the movies were animated or action flicks, with a few horror films for good measure. I caught up on some of the children's films I had not seen, like "Ants," "Shrek," and "Harry Potter" - telling myself it was "for school" when in truth, I really enjoyed all of them. I never got past "Hello" and "Thank you" with the video store owners, but we smiled a lot at each other. If I was lucky, their neighbors would have the tiny puppies played out front on the sidewalk, so I would laugh with them while the puppies attacked someone's foot or the pedal of a nearby bicycle.

The quiet street I live on, with its extra wide sidewalks, is always full of activity. In the early mornings, I see business people on their way to work, children at the local day care center outside playing, and mothers or grandmothers with strollers in hand. In the early evening, as I make my way to school, the older people come out for walks in the cooler night air, chatting with shop keepers and passerbys, getting updated on the new local gossip. The biggest traffic jam of the day occurs at 9 p.m., when the students finish class and a crowd of parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents wait for them, filling the courtyard with themselves and their bicycles, and blocking the street with their motorbikes and cars.

Despite my comfort in my surroundings, I was always aware that I was a stranger. Its true that after a few weeks the locals didn't stare quite as much (or maybe I didn't notice as much!), but there were always new people on the street, and I frequently worried someone would crash their bicycle or walk into a street lamp in an effort to get a better look at me. Funny enough, one day, the gawker was me! You see, I had always believed I was the only foreigner in Cangzhou. Then, one day, staring out of an upstairs window in the school building, I saw a young black man walking down the street with two Chinese students. Needless to say, I was as shocked as the people on the street (but much more discreet in my observation!)

During my time in Cangzhou, I was almost never alone. If I needed to post a letter, go shopping or visit the hospital, a teacher was almost always sent with me. And, thank goodness! Everything in Cangzhou took a long time, even mailing a letter, and without my guide/interpreter, it would have taken exponentially longer. For example, one day, it took me 30 minutes to mail 3 letters and 5 postcards - and that was with TWO fluent Chinese speakers at my side. When we left, the teachers told me it took so long because my letters were the first mailed to outside China! In fact, they weren't sure if they had enough stamps to cover all the letters!

On Friday, when I leave Cangzhou for Beijing, routine will be a thing of the past. Each day will be new again. A new city to negotiate, new food to eat, a new bed in which to sleep. And, suddenly, I will be without assistance. The realization that I should have studied Chinese more has hit me hard. Despite the popularity of English language schools in China, most people do not speak any English. Soon I will be forced to learn more than my standard "Hello!" "Thank you" "The food is delicious!" and "No thanks, I'm full!" The adventure begins, anew.

Still, I'm not too worried. I've gotten quite good at orienting myself quickly, geographically, culturally and linguistically. Language always takes the longest, but when you are forced to learn, somehow the brain seems to kick into high gear. And, when it doubt, point to the phrase book!

A few days before I left, Miss Zhao and Mr.. Cui (my hosts) had a little dumpling making party. Relatives of Mr. Cui came to the house and we all joined together to make the dumplings. Afterwards, 9 of us sat around a small, round cafe-style table, overflowing with food and drink, and gorged ourselves. Everyone was impressed with my ability to handle chopsticks - and politely averted their eyes the multiple times I dropped something on the way to my mouth. Looking around the table, totally clueless to what everyone was saying, I was nonetheless happy at my surroundings and the experience I was being provided. Mentally, I took a picture of the scene - another memory to add to my "last date" file.

June 17, 2004

A Picture is Worth One Thousand Words

The old saying goes, "A picture is worth one thousand words." As a writer, I agree 100%.

There have been many times, in the course of writing my columns, that expressing what I have just witnessed - a moving snapshot of life in some part of the world - escapes me. The scene was too colorful, too full of life, too unbelievable to imagine - let alone use only 26 letters and their various combinations to convey.

Oh sure, I eventually manage to write something, but I often feel like that canyon between what I saw and what I wrote are just too great, and find myself wondering if by just reading my story (without the accompanying mental photographs I carry in my head) anyone really "gets" it at all.

So, it came as a shock to me to realize that since I started writing my column, with the exception of a few homepage pictures, I have not included more visual glimpses into the wonders that I see and have seen in my vagabond, gypsy life.

I can only plead laziness, forgetfulness, and good intentions that somehow always dissolved into thin air.

To try to rectify the situation, I have included (below) a link to a SMALL portion of the thousands of photographs I have taken since I left the United States in November 2002. This first batch only covers Australia, and includes about 40 pictures. When you consider I spent 9 months in the country - traveling it from top to bottom, desert to beaches - you can understand that this is only a tiny sampling.

Despite my previous statement of one photo being worth 1000 words, the writer in me had to include a caption with each photo, which, in my opinion, helps to tell the tale. If you go to "Slide show" the combination of pictures give a more or less chronological taste of my travels around the island. Melbourne and Tasmania are missing, as unfortunately, I only had a film camera then and those photos are waiting for me back home. It's a pity, but will be my excuse for one day accosting you with my many photo albums for a trip down memory lane!

Please tell me if you enjoyed getting the photos, as I am sure that will encourage me to send out a link or two more, with a taste of my travels in Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, India and China.

One final note. As writing and not photography is my concentration on these travels, I admit that many of the "best" photographs never made it to film. There were times when pulling out a camera would have lost the magic of the moment, or I myself was lost in it, and it never occurred to me. A professional photographer I will never be - and that is OK. The memory of these moments will last with me much longer than the potential of ruining them by trying to "artificially" record them.

But, I guess that is one benefit of being a writer - knowing that, in the absence of that ONE photo, you have at least 1000 words to describe what you saw - even if at times that happens to feel woefully inadequate.

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Below is the link to the pictures. They are all housed on www.ofoto.com. You should NOT have to sign in to see the pictures. Just click on the "Get Photos" (or something like that) button at the bottom of the first picture, which will be displayed. Then, when the pictures come up, go to "slide show" (on the right column) and it will take you through each photograph (captions are at the bottom). Enjoy!

http://www.ofoto.com/I.jsp?c=t90032h.6451yh9t&x=0&y=l36pcw

June 14, 2004

Overmedicated in China

Getting sick in a foreign country can be a scary experience. Especially since your mind is frequently as affected as your body. When malaise sets in, things that use to matter to you are suddenly unimportant. While you might know what to do, you often don't feel compelled to do it. Common sense often takes a vacation.

Several years back, when I was traveling in Colombia, I fell sick with typhoid fever. While the disease sounds scary as hell, in its initial stages it is really quite easy to treat - with a strong course of antibiotics. I had waited about a week before I went to the doctor - still well within the "initial stages" but, due to my "malaise" I had not taken good care of myself. I had sensed I might be sick, and blamed the local water and food. My solution? Eat only bread and drink only bottled coca-cola for about 4 days. This was not a smart move on my part, and never would have happened if I wasn't feeling so bad. Needless to say, I was severely dehydrated and immediately admitted to the hospital.

I was lucky. Not only did I speak Spanish, but my doctor spent part of his medical training in America, amazingly enough, in Indianapolis, my home town. The city where I fell ill had once been the home of a famous drug cartel in Columbia, and as a result a lot of money had been put into the city, which was apparent in the very modern-looking hospital where I was staying. After four days I was released, ordered to stay in town for at least another week, and felt well on my way to total recovery.

About 10 days ago, I started to feel sick. My throat was sore, and I was feeling very tired. Initially, I thought nothing of it. I was teaching a lot, and I figured the added strain had to do with using my voice so much. A few days later, ignoring my better judgment, I made an overnight trip to Beijing. I took the local train there and breathed in heavy cigarette smoke for 3 hours. Then, instead of resting my voice, I spent the afternoon and evening talking to other travelers I had met. The next morning, I was miserable. I could hardly teach my class that night, and the next day I woke up suffering from laryngitis.

The headmistress of the school, Miss Zhao was quite concerned. Even before I lost my voice, she inundated me with various medication - western and Chinese. First, some herbal throat lozenges. Second, some Chinese herbal tea that looked and tasted like a dirty fish tank. Then, two mystery pills from her stash of prescription drugs. Did I mention that Miss Zhao is NOT a doctor, a nurse or anyone with any medical training whatsoever?

I tried to tell her that I would be ok. That I had lost my voice before and just needed to rest. But, this is not how the Chinese deal with sickness. "I never get sick," she said. "Not in 10 years." I think this was her way of showing me her credentials - for giving me prescription medicine without a prescription or any sort of qualifications.

The next day I was not feeling better and was give two more types of medicine. That evening she suggested I go to the hospital with one of the teachers. I was not keen on this idea, first because I was sure I only needed rest, and second because I was kind of scared of Chinese hospitals. I demurred, saying we would see how I felt the next day. The next morning, I was about the same and not given a choice - a teacher called to say he was coming to take me to the hospital - now.

The hospital looked clean enough. After a few minutes, the doctor came into our room, took a look at my throat for all of 10 seconds. I showed her the medication Miss Zhao had given me, to see if she thought they were a good idea. She said something in Chinese. Steven, the teacher translated: "She says you need to get a blood test, ok?" My eyes were wide with fright. "No," I said, without hesitation. A story about used needles flashed into my mind. Combined with the bad press China received during the SARS crisis, a blood test seemed, to me, an unwise choice. Steven looked surprised. Eventually, after much coaxing, he convinced me to go have the blood test. In my head, however, I determined I would survey the blood testing room, and if it was even the least bit scary, run like hell. After all, I was not Chinese so "saving face" was not a real concern for me.

It turned out the blood test was just a finger prick, done with a small metal object that was hermetically sealed and seemed fine. A few minutes later the results were in and the doctor told Stephen that I had a viral infection. She prescribed an anti-viral medication, but told me to keep taking the medication I had been taking - including the antibiotic Amoxicillin. This confused me as I knew that viral infections, like the flu, were not treatable with antibiotics, while bacterial infections were. If I had a viral infection, why should I keep taking the antibiotics? I was very suspicious, especially when I did not get a satisfactory answer from the doctor. Steven took me home and said he would give Miss Zhao the prescription, and she could fill it for me. I had been lucky to have Steven with me. His English was the best in the school and I trusted him. If I had gone alone, communication would have been a nightmare.

A few hours later Miss Zhao presented me with the drug, which thankfully had an English translation, at least for the name. I did an Internet search on the drug, Ribavirin, and found out it was used for (1) severe lung infections in children, (2) for people with Hepatitis C, (3) had once been used as an HIV/AIDS drug, and (4) was currently being tested for its effectiveness against SARS. One Web site said it should not be used in women of childbearing age, ever. Another said any woman using the drug should be on at least two forms of birth control, and continue for 6 months after treatment. Oh, and did I mention the drug was not FDA approved for either the common cold or the flu - and normally only administered under medical supervision?

Needless to say, I thanked Miss Zhao for the medication, took it upstairs and vowed to flush the doses down the toilet. Still, I was hesitant. Was my sickness clouding my better judgment? After all, a doctor HAD prescribed the medication. I was torn. Logically, I should follow the doctor's advice. But, my gut was telling me something else completely. I decide to get a second option - and a third, and a fourth. I emailed three friends - one who was a doctor, another who was a nurse, and one who's mother was a doctor. I was advised not to take the prescription medication.

It's been four days since I went to the doctor. My voice returned the day after the hospital visit, While I am still nursing a mild cold, I feel fine. The only medication I took was some over the counter Tylenol Cold to help with my symptoms, and some of the herbal supplements that Miss Zhao gave me - including Ban Lan Keli and Ganmao Qingre Keli. (Internet searches proved they were common and popular over-the-counter Chinese herbs for colds - one as a preventative and one as a remedy.) Otherwise, I rested, drank lots of liquid, and, as an after thought, popped a few zinc tablets.

It was amazing to me, however, that even after giving me 4 different pills, and as many herbal remedies, if I did not immediately say I was feeling better, the solution Miss Zhao came to was to give me more medicine. Each morning and each evening I was offered yet another drug - all of which I politely declined, saying we should see how the medicine the doctor gave me worked first. It seemed that the concept for waiting for something to take affect was missing from the her belief system.

Miss Zhao's philosophy was this: "If we have small disease, if we don't have fever, we don't need to go hospital." She said this to me as she showed me the two large boxes, located by the piano, which were full of every drug imaginable. "We have many medicine," she said. No kidding - it was a regular pharmacy in there!

I know Miss Zhao was acting in what she thought was my best interests, and I sincerely appreciate her care and concern. However, I have learned that you must never underestimate your gut - especially when traveling. While there is no scientific explanation for a "gut feeling" most people can name several experiences when trusting their gut helped them more than a potentially questionable authority. I too can name several. Even though my rational mind was telling me that the doctor must be right, my gut was telling me to proceed with caution.

My faith in doctors is not shaken by this experience, even though I do believe the doctor who told me to take the antibiotics and antiviral medication together was wrong. I believe that in most cases, a doctor does know best and is medically trained to offer the best advice and medicine to cure what ails. But, I also believe you should educate yourself about the medicine and drugs that you are taking, and not just agree out of ignorance. If the doctor had spoken English, I would have asked her a lot more questions, especially about alternative medication. Since she did not, I was forced to use the Internet and my own trusted sources.

Bottom line: Educate yourself, seek professional advice, and trust your gut. Oh yeah, and ALWAYS get a second opinion!

June 04, 2004

Olympic Dreams Dashed

Today I read an article on CNN.com about the 2004 Summer Olympics and it reminded me about my own Olympic hopes, once bright and hopeful and then, quite suddenly, dashed.

The story was about the "historic" Olympic Torch relay. This year, for the first time, instead of only traveling from the last Olympic city (Sydney) to the current Olympic city (Athens), the torch will pass through 33 cities in 27 countries, including its first visits ever to the South America and African continents. Millions of people will be involved - from organizers, to participants to spectators, on five different continents and in twenty-seven countries. And, I could have been one of them.

You see, about 3 months ago, in Bangkok, I unexpectedly got an email from an old boss of mine, telling me about an opportunity to work with the Olympics - as an advance press agent for the torch relay. The job would include traveling to at least 8-10 of the 33 visited cities, coordinating the media and participants, and then jetting off to the next city to do it all over again. The requirements were public relations and travel experience. I was esctatic! If there was ever a job I was born to do, this was it. It would combine my career experience in PR with my love of traveling. In short, it was a dream come true.

I sent off my resume, and over the next few weeks, exchanged emails with the man in charge of the program. He told me I was well qualified, on the short list for consideration, and could we arrange a phone interview? YES! Logistics were being prepared when he was called to Athens for a meeting. We decided to hold the phone interview when he returned, five days later. The day of his return, I emailed him with a proposed date and time, explained that I was now in India, and waited breathlessly for his response. The next day I got it, and all the breath was knocked out of me.

"We've decided to handle things internally," the email said. "with our people in Athens."

I was heartbroken! Not only did I not get the job, but I didn't even have the chance to prove myself! It had nothing to do with my skills, or my ability - it had to do with circumstances beyond my control. A star that burned so brightly for me was quickly and quietly extinguished. Needless to say, I wasn't great company for the next few days.

But, I believe that everything happens for a reason. Often it takes me a very LONG time to come to this realization, but I always do.

During this time, I was also in discussions with the headmistress at my school in Cangzhou, trying to coordinate our schedules, so that I could come to China to teach after I returned from India. My Olympic dreams had dimmed the "bright light" of working in China, and I found myself stalling for time. I knew I wanted the Olympic job more, but I was keeping China as my back up. When the disappointing news came though, it still took me a while to accept the teaching offer. Somehow, teaching in China didn't seem as cool anymore. Can you blame me? If you had the chance to travel, all expenses paid, from country to country, from continent to continent, with the most famous of all international sports events, would teaching a bunch of kids English compare? On the glamour and excitement scale - not really.

But, after a few weeks, and a lot of soul searching (the timing of my yoga ashram visit could not have been more perfect), I (again) came to the realization that all things happen for a reason and that the past was the past. While the Olympics were a dead end for me now, China was a new beginning - an experience that like the Olympics, would be new and exciting - though in a vastly different way. I accepted the teaching offer.

Several times since my arrival in China, I have found myself thinking of my experience here as medicine - "good for you in the long run, but not always great in the moment."

Sometimes you don't want to do something, or see something, or experience something, because you know it will be hard, or taste yucky, or go down the wrong way. You know that the experience is "good for you" much like a child knows brussel sprouts are "good for them." However, that knowledge does not mean that you want the experience, any more than the child wants the brussel sprouts. Especially when a more appealing offer (the Olympics) or food (ice cream and cake) are also on the menu.

Often their are far more alluring prospects. Prospects which offer more prestige, more glamour, or just more money. They are easy. Its not that the experience in itself won't be beneficial to you - it will. Its not that you won't learn from it - you will. But, it will be familiar to you, or, more familiar than the other option, and a far easier pill to swallow.

As an adult, you often ultimately know that a certain experience will be more beneficial to you than another one. It might open your mind, it might broaden your horizons, it might educate you in a way you never thought possible. But, just like a child, we often shy away from these experiences. We want to take the easier path. We want to eat ice cream and cake. Can you blame us?

I can't lie to you. If I would have been offered the Olympic position, I would have taken it in a heartbeat, China be damned. It was/is a more glamourus job, a more exciting prospect, and would have allowed me a new take on my current traveler lifestyle. It also payed better.

But, maybe for me, there is a reason that door was closed, while the China one stayed open. Maybe someone else out there deserved the Olympic position more? Perhaps it was because I have often wondered if teaching could be a future career path in my life - and China was offering me a change to find out? In short, maybe someone was telling me that I needed to take my medicine, even though, like I child, I just wanted dessert.

I'd like to think that my travel experiences have changed me for the better. That they have made me more open minded, more culturally aware, and less western-centric. My ego also occasionally likes to think that these travel experiences have somehow made me a better, more "perfect" person, a wise and well-traveled sage with a (somewhat) deeper understanding of life and a better ability to chose the "right" path over the "wrong" path. Then something like this comes up and I realize how far that is from the truth. When faced with the glamorous, the prestigious, the thing that "looks good on my resume," I am weak and human and all thoughts of a deeper understanding become nothing short of laughable. I am still the six year old that will chose the bright, colorful package of store bought cookies over plain homemade ones.

I'm not saying that China is the "right" path, and that the Olympics were the "wrong" path. Life is not that black and white. I'm just saying that right now, in this place and time, in this current life of mine, that teaching in China was a door that stayed open for a reason.

I hope it takes me less time, rather than more, to find out why.

June 01, 2004

Cangzhou, Sweet Cangzhou

China made me cry within four hours of arrival. This might be a new record for me in my international adventures. But, I will get to that in a minute.

I currently live in a modern, western-style apartment building in the city of Cangzhou, about 3.5 hours from Beijing in Hebei Province. Cangzhou (pronounced "Tsang-joe") is a "small" Chinese city of about 3 million people and not on the tourist track. My guidebook to China does not even mention the city, except to show its location on one map of Hebei Province. Needless to say, I am the ONLY westerner in the city, and just walking to the store draws quite a bit of attention.

I live with the headmistress of a small private English language school, and her family. Her husband does not speak any English, but is friendly, smiles a lot, and dresses in black from head to toe, mafia style. Their son, whom they call Lung Lung (which means "little dragon") is a typical only child teenager, which means he is a bit rebellious, a lot spoiled, and spends most of his time on his computer playing video games. Or, complaining about his tortured life. It seems teenagers are the same everywhere, doesn't it?

I teach 24 hours per week at the school, which is located a two minute walk down the street from the apartment. My kids are between the ages of 8 and 14, though most are 11-13. They have been studying English for about two years and have 1000-2000 English words at their disposal - at least the best students do. Some of the less gifted might have less than 500 words.

As most of you know, I am not a trained teacher, but this is not a problem. I have been hired primarily for my accent - that is, the accent of a native English speaker. I'm not sure you can consider what I do teaching, for while I try to teach the kids new words and phrases, mostly I play games with them, read them stories to improve their listening comprehension, and assist them in their pronunciation of words they already know. I create lesson plans, but they are at the mercy of the headmistress, who often says, "More stories! More riddles!" Clearly, there is a system here, and I am paid to follow the system.

That said, teaching is a lot harder than I imagined it would be. The latent insecurity that bubbles to the surface of even the most confident person when confronted with a classroom of pre-teen children is significant. The blank stares, the lack of comprehension and even the occasion yawn is enough to make me want to walk out and never come back (on a bad day). But, the excitement of understanding a new word or phrase, the laughter when I make a fool of myself trying to pronounce Chinese, or the appreciative clapping after I sing them a new song, makes it kind of fun, and on these days I don't mind my isolation and daily culture shock.

I never thought I would travel to China. Sure, it was on the list, but pretty far down to be honest. From what I had heard from other travelers, it was a bit of a nightmare. It's hard to get around, it's expensive (for a budget traveler), and outside the two major (mainland) cities, it's almost impossible to find anyone who speaks English. All of these things are true, and yet I came anyway. Which brings me back to my tearful entry into the country.

I arrived in Shanghai from Bangkok, on a hellish overnight flight during which I did not sleep at all. Upon arrival I found that I had to transfer to a different airport for my "connecting" flight to Beijing - obviously "connection" means something different in China. When I arrived at airport number two I found that I had missed my flight. The Shanghai to Beijing route is frequently plied, so I did not worry too much and simply asked to be put on the next flight. I was told that was not possible, as it was booked, but I could wait standby. The fact that it took me three lines and forty-five minutes to get this information was annoying, but not overly so.

That is, until I did not make it standby on the next flight. Or, the next one. Or, the next one. Did I mention that many, many Chinese did manage to secure positions on these flights? Or, that two teachers from my school were waiting for me in Beijing and I had no phone number with which to contact them? And, that Shanghai International had NO Internet terminals for me to email the headmistress? And, when I thought to have the teachers paged in Beijing, I realized all I had was the names Mr. Wang and Mr. Li. When you consider Mr. Li is the second most common surname in China, and Mr. Wang is number 5, it would be like paging "John" or "Jennifer" at Chicago O'Hare, or telling someone in Chicago you were suppose to meet a friend at THE McDonalds and asking them to point you there. Needless to say, I was beginning to question coming to China in the first place.

That's when the tears began to flow. I'm not sure if it was the tears that got me on the 12 noon flight, and honestly, I don't care. I was just glad to be booked on a flight - any flight. Even this flight, which while on a HUGE 747 airplane, had a total of - can you guess? - THREE passengers. I was the only female, and the only one in coach. There were two businessmen in business class, 6 flight attendants and three flight crew. I am not kidding. If I had not been so tired, and fell asleep immediately upon take off, I would have wondered what kind of airline can afford to send a flight of three people two hours away in a jumbo jet? And, just who were these other passengers?

I eventually made it to Beijing, met up with the two teachers, apologized profusely for the delay, and got to Cangzhou. By the time we arrived, we were laughing about the incident, even though I felt horrible that the teachers had been waiting for me for 6 hours!

It's been just over two weeks since I arrived in China and Cangzhou, and I have settled into a regular routine of writing, teaching and reading. I start the morning on my own, eating breakfast (an apple and some instant cereal), writing emails, and reading. Lunch is taken with the family at about 12 noon, and is usually a few common plates of vegetables, steamed buns or noodles, and occasionally rice. North Chinese people eat more noodles and steamed bread than rice, which is a more popular South Chinese staple. After lunch the family "rests." Most Chinese have a long lunch break, and it is common to take a little nap after lunch before going back to work/school. In the afternoon, after my nap, I work on my lesson plans, study Chinese language and read. At about 6 p.m. I go to the school, where I eat dinner with the teachers.

This is an experience in itself, as the food is placed out on a large center table and all the teachers eat from the common containers with their individual chopsticks, usually munching on a steamed bun or some other kind of bread. It took me a while to get use to seeing them spit fish and chicken bones right on the table (the plastic table cover suddenly made even more sense), or slurp noodles into their mouth with all the accompanying sound effects, but overall its a fun, social experience. The food is unlike Chinese food I have eaten in the US, and I am not sure if that is because most American Chinese food is Cantonese (South Chinese) or because it has been Americanized past recognition. Regardless, its pretty good, and seems quite healthy.

I teach two classes per weekday evening, from 7 until 9 p.m., after which time I go home, usually picking up a DVD from the local store to watch before I go to bed. On the weekends, my schedule is very intensive, and I have 8 classes per day, almost constantly from 8 a.m. until 7 or 9 p.m., with a three hour break at lunch time. By Sunday night at 9 p.m., my body, my mind and my voice, are shattered. Lucky for me, my day off is Monday.

There is not much to do in my city, especially for a foreigner who does not speak Chinese, so outside of teaching hours I practice yoga, read books on China, write, answer emails and occasionally make a visit to the local shopping center. They have a KFC (the only fast food chain in the city), which is quite the luxury, and few Chinese can afford to eat there. To give you an example, a small ice cream sundae (McDonald's style) is 6 yuan. Across the street at a very modern, clean and well-decorated noodle shop, a huge, filling plate of noodles with tons of veggies and sauces is a mere 5 yuan. Still, the KFC was packed, while the noodle shop was not. Pity, I thought the noodles were excellent.

According to Miss Zhao, the average Chinese family of three (mom, dad and one child) in Cangzhou gets about 1800-2000 yuan per month, which is less than $250 US dollars per month (the exchange rate is about 8 yuan to $1 US dollar). Based on the house I live in, and the nice things that the family has, I would say my family is living a much better lifestyle.

So far, despite some teaching style differences, and cultural misunderstandings, my life in Cangzhou is really quite pleasant. After having been on the road and moving around since I left my job in Australia, its nice to be "settled" in an apartment, and have some kind of routine to follow, even if it is temporary. Of course, being the only foreigner here means that most of my conversations are quite limited, and every now and again, I miss having conversations with people who can understand pop culture references or American slang. Do you know what its like to try to explain "munchkins" to a group of kids who have never seen the Wizard of Oz?

I still have 3 more weeks of teaching left, and I am bound to have some entertaining stories to share, if not from Cangzhou, then from my day off trips to Beijing. Stay tuned!