A Long Way to Go: Musings on Being Forever Curious

So, here’s to being forever curious. Here’s to being explorers and students of life. I may have a long way to go, but I’m still moving forward, and that’s all I can ask of myself.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not reflect the views or opinions of WorldTeach or its affiliates. 

One of the first things that Chinese people tell me when they learn I speak Chinese is, “Ni shuo de hen hao” (“You speak very well”). Even though I’ve been learning Chinese for ten years, I still reply with “Hai cha de yuan ne” (I translate this as “I have a long way to go”). This is not just coming from a sense of modesty (although, based on their reactions, I imagine that wins points in their book); I still feel like I have a lot more to learn about the language before I’m comfortable using it.

I’ve thought about this ever since I first arrived in Changsha, and I could easily argue that I have a long way to go in other parts of my life too. One thing about me is that I love to learn; I am never satisfied with what I already know. This could work to my advantage and to my detriment, but either way, it’s who I am. (Maybe it’s the INFJ in me talking.) I’ve always wanted to be better at whatever I put my mind to, whether it be learning another language or learning how to paint landscapes. I can only hope that I can keep this going here in Cili, with my learning how to teach English and traveling throughout the rest of China.

When I was living in the Washington, D.C. area before I came to China, I began listening to different personal development podcasts like The Simple Sophisticate with Shannon Ables, and audiobooks like Lessons from Madame Chic by Jennifer L. Scott. I was reading their work to figure myself out at the time, but one common theme that I picked up was an encouragement to be curious about the world around us, whether it be your favorite composer, or a new book that caught your eye in the bookstore, or traveling to a country that you’ve always wanted to visit. It just validated to me that I was on a good path, and it motivated me to keep going and make the decision that led me to teaching English with WorldTeach.

I found a quote from the website Adventure In You that reads, “Blessed are the curious for they will have adventures.”  Tying into that, another quote I love is by Andre Gide, “It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves—in finding themselves.” These two quotes sum up so well what brought me to China, and what I hope will keep me going long after my service with WorldTeach is completed.

So, here’s to being forever curious. Here’s to being explorers and students of life. I may have a long way to go, but I’m still moving forward, and that’s all I can ask of myself. Gan bei!

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This week is rather crazy for me (teaching six lessons almost back-to-back on Wednesday!!) but hopefully I’ll be back later this week with another article! See you then! Zai jian!
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Life in Cili: A Week in Review #1

Talking about getting out of my comfort zone for the first week in Cili

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not reflect the views or opinions of WorldTeach or its affiliates.

Since I came to Cili, I have already made some leaps and bounds in getting out of my comfort zone. I joke with my friends and family about “skill points” like my life is a video game, so here are some of the “skill points” that I acquired this week:

Faith, Trust, and Pixie Cuts

For some reason, I was under the impression that I wouldn’t be able to find a place that could deal with my hair when I was in China, so I pretty much accepted the fact that I’d have to grow out my pixie cut. Almost as if the Universe was mocking me for doubting China, I found at least three hair salons near the school. One day I just decided that my hair was getting a bit dorky-looking (ladies who have grown out pixie cuts before, you know what I mean), so I decided to walk in with a photo and see what happened. Fifteen kuai and forty minutes later, I felt a lot more put together!

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The “before” shot
First haircut in China
The “after” shot

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Skill Point Acquired: It’s Not Easy Being Green

Before I moved to China, I lived in the greater Washington, D.C. area for work, and while I was living there, I tried to start a mini garden on my balcony. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite pan out like I had expected, but that might all change here in Cili! Within my first week, I found a potted aloe plant and a mint seed kit from my wandering around the city! When we were in Changsha, I found a hanging basket with English ivy; I’m hoping I can find one like that to hang from my balcony. I’m hoping that more greenery in the apartment would make it feel a bit more like home.

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Vegging Out

When I was studying abroad in Beijing, I didn’t really have much opportunity to prepare my own meals; given that the program was only for two months, it seemed unrealistic for us to go out and buy a wok, a pot, etc. when we could eat out cheaply, compared to the U.S. Luckily, my apartment came with a rice cooker, a microwave, and some of the other basic essentials for cooking, so I only had to get stuff like food storage containers and actual foodstuffs.

I also was able to cook my first homemade meal here in China! I made steamed rice in my rice cooker, boiled a leek and half a carrot in a pot on my hot plate, and then fried an egg with spinach and a bit of soy sauce. The only issue with the meal was that it was too much for just me! Oh, well—all the more excuse to invite guests over! That said, though, the best part about having one pot and pan is that there are fewer dishes to clean up!

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P.S. Bonus points because I found shou zhua bing pancakes in the market across the street from the school! Since I haven’t been able to find a pancake stand near the school (though that might change as classes get going), I made one! I’m still trying to get used to the hot plate concept, though, so it got a bit burnt. That said, it still tasted like sweet victory!

Homemade shou zhua bing
手抓饼(shou zhua bing) with an egg

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Spice it Up

Normally, I go to one place for everything from mantou (steamed rolls; perfect for when my stomach isn’t cooperative) to rou si chao fan (fried rice with shredded pork), but one day, no one was out in front, the lady who helps run the shop was watching TV, and while I was likely within my rights to call out to get her attention, I wasn’t in the mood to yell. So, I decided to move on down the street to a mi fen (rice noodle) place, and ate there instead.

Normally, they ask, “yao bu yao la jiao?” (do you want spice?) and my answer is usually “bu yao la jiao” (I do not want spice). In Changsha (possibly because there were more foreigners), people were generally okay with this, but here in Cili, there was some commentary from the people behind me the last time I ordered food; I didn’t catch all of what they said, but I imagine it had something to do with how foreigners can’t handle spice (guilty as charged) and that the food wouldn’t taste as good without spice.

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At the mi fen place, I took a baby step and ordered my beef mi fen with yi dian la (a bit of spice). Later on, the lady handed me some pink vegetable or fruit; I never figured out what it was, but it cut the spice a lot.

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Could anyone tell me what this is? I wasn’t able to ask the lady who made my food.

Tomorrow I start teaching classes here in Cili, and honestly, as grateful as I am for the time to explore, I’m ready to start teaching. Hopefully I’ll be here next week with another article! See you then! Zai jian!

Think like Kiki: Hayao Miyazaki and Culture Shock

One of my favorite movies growing up was Hayao Miyazaki’s KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE. Now as an adult living in China, I started to see a parallel to the arc of culture shock.

Disclaimer: May contain spoilers for the film Kiki’s Delivery Service. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not reflect the views or opinions of WorldTeach or its affiliates.

I think I was about six years old when I first watched Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, and the movie is still one of my favorites to this day. Earlier this week, upon reflection that I’m going through an almost-identical experience as an adult, I was tempted to go back and watch the film again. After thinking about it, the film basically goes through the general arc of culture shock. Even if it’s technically a movie for kids (although I would say that people of all ages can enjoy most of Miyazaki’s films), it provides a great lesson of overcoming adversity, and discovering purpose and self-confidence. Now that I’ve arrived at my placement in Cili, Hunan Province, it feels like we’ve gotten past the tutorial section of a video game, and now we’re getting into level one, and I have to admit that I’m a bit nervous. Here are the lessons that I got from Kiki’s Delivery Service, and what I can expect from culture shock over the next few months.

Stage One: Initial excitement and curiosity. Thirteen-year-old Kiki, accompanied by her talking black cat Jiji, goes out into the world to begin her training as a witch. She finds a new city to live in and makes new friends like a baker named Osono and a young flying enthusiast named Tombo (the story takes place in a world that just started to develop air travel), as well as starting her flying delivery service after a fellow witch asks her what her skill is.

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When I first came to Changsha, I was incredibly hopeful for the year ahead, despite my nerves about living in a foreign country for a year. We had so much work with lesson planning and working towards teaching practicum (four days in which we taught classes in a trial setting). I’m glad that we were all able to work together and we could ask each other questions about life and how to prepare to teach in a Chinese classroom.

Stage Two: Uncertainty and a sense of isolation. About halfway through the film, Kiki actually tells Jiji that she feels like an outsider, after having a brief “honeymoon period” of feeling great and meeting people. She feels estranged from Jiji after he starts a friendship with a neighbor’s cat (her name is Lily in the English dub).

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Even after spending a week in Cili, there aren’t as many crazy new things distracting me from what might be the beginnings of culture shock. In Changsha we had cafés that we could hang out in and we were almost never in our hotel rooms besides to sleep and use a Western-style commode. In Cili, I’m still in the exploring phase, so I’ve been spending a lot of time in my apartment. I’m hoping to make it so I’m out of the apartment more often, so I’m not tempted to sink further into any emotional funk I may have though self-imposed isolation.

Stage Three: Emotional crisis. Kiki loses her ability to fly her broomstick and her ability to communicate with Jiji. She says in the English dub, “If I lose my magic, then I’ve lost absolutely everything.” This is a low point for Kiki, and it requires her to step back and work through her emotions.

I would be shocked if I don’t have to deal with this during my time in Hunan Province. I didn’t bring any of my knitting or other art supplies because I wanted to have a full immersive experience in Hunan, but I can understand how I’d miss that in the times where I’m not feeling the greatest. I have a backup plan, though… :Cue fanfare:

I’ve decided to participate in NaNoWriMo! For those of you who don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, it’s a worldwide writing challenge that requires participants to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days during the month of November. It might be that I don’t know what a bad idea is anymore, but there is a method to my madness.

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I’m anticipating that the time surrounding October and November is when culture shock is going to hit me like a train, so if I did something like NaNoWriMo, I’ll have something to look forward to, plan for, and counter culture shock with, as well as being able to work through any emotional garbage I might be dealing with at the time. I’ll be tracking my progress with NaNoWriMo on here, as well as possibly showing what planning methods I use. Let me know in the comments what you want to see!

Stage Four: Rebuilding. Kiki reunites with Ursula, an artist living in the woods outside of town, and she invites Kiki to spend some time at her cabin to take a break from flying. Jiji stays behind to spend time with Lily. The trip is a change of pace for Kiki, and gets her out and about instead of having time to dwell on her loss. She also learns a lesson from Ursula, that she needs to find her inspiration, or why she wants to fly or train as a witch. Ursula also provides a lesson with the metaphor of her painting. When Kiki asks her if it’s worth the trouble to find inspiration or purpose, she mentions that she thought about scrapping an idea for a painting; Kiki mentions that the painting ended up being beautiful, and Ursula replies, “So then it was worth it.”

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In this scene, Kiki is away from any trace of home (including Jiji), so she’s only able to focus on her own personal growth and working through what’s going on. I imagine that in Cili, I’ll have to think creatively to work with how I deal with my culture shock. I hope that I can work with my culture shock through working on NaNoWriMo, and focusing on creating strong lessons for my students. Another piece of advice I received was traveling once every three weeks to visit a cohort in another city, or to visit another place in general; the logic was that once every three weeks was enough to change up the pace, but not so much that one would get burnt out from traveling all the time. The other cohorts are a big support system even now, and I imagine it’s going to be even more crucial for us to stay in contact when we’re all going through culture shock; we’re already planning to visit each other at our placements, and planning trips together for longer vacations.

Stage Five: Growth. Kiki regains her powers, reestablishes a close bond with Jiji, and becomes a strong part of the town. A final montage shows that Kiki’s delivery service flourishes, and Jiji and Lily start a family. Even though she admits to her parents in a letter that she still feels homesick from time to time, she loves the town that she now lives in, and that she is much more confident in herself and her role with her delivery service.

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I can only hope that this is the path to culture shock that I take. I have no illusions that I won’t have any symptoms of culture shock while I’m here, so I can let this experience change me for better or for worse. There is a sticker left over from the previous resident on the wall of my apartment over my desk. It reads, “If you believe in yourself, anything is possible.” I’m hoping that I can take those words to heart.

We start classes on Friday here in Cili, but hopefully I’ll be back here next week with another article! See you then! Zai jian!

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P.S. Despite all the Studio Ghibli merchandise here in China, I’m still trying to find a Jiji mug.

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Around the World in Fifty Pounds or Less

To bring or not to bring—that is the question.

To bring or not to bring—that is the question. Preparing for a trip is always the most nerve-wracking part of a trip for me, and my preparing for my year abroad in Hunan Province was no exception. Almost everything from a fancy formal dress to my knitting projects were up for debate. Ultimately, I decided that I would do my best to avoid my habit of being a serial over-packer, and packed only what I knew I would need for my adventure of teaching spoken English for a year in Hunan Province, China.

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This was me in my head when I learned I got accepted for the program
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I purposefully packed lighter than I usually would for this trip for a few reasons: 1) I was going to be in China for a year so buying extra things would likely be inevitable, 2) this was sort of a kick-start for me to practice minimalism, and 3) I would likely be so busy planning lessons and going on trips with my cohorts that I wouldn’t have much time afterwards to do things like knit, paint, or cross-stitch. Along with the guidance from WorldTeach about what to pack, I used guidance from the blog Lauren Without Fear; the link to her post about packing for a year in China is here.

 

Things one can buy in China:

  1. Shampoo and conditioner. They have brands like Pantene and Head & Shoulders in China. Bring a travel-sized one to get you started, and then buy a full-size bottle while you’re here.
  2. Makeup/beauty supplies. For some reason, I was under the impression that I wouldn’t be able to find nail polish remover while I was here. I was able to find some at a local convenience store, as well as at a local Watson’s (a convenience store chain that sells Western products like Neutrogena).
  3. Laundry supplies. Most convenience stores I’ve been to in Changsha have some kind of laundry detergent for sale. I’ve also found a lot of drying racks at local supermarkets, so I’ll likely buy one when I get to my site (clothes drying machines, in my experience, are virtually nonexistent in China). If you must bring your own laundry detergent, bring a small amount of powder detergent; a little goes a long way. (Be advised, though: one thing I haven’t been able to find here are color catcher sheets like these.)
  4. Toothpaste. This falls under a similar concept to the shampoo and conditioner. Unless you have a brand that you absolutely love or need to use, bring a travel-sized bottle and buy a full-sized tube when you’re here.

Things one should bring with them:

  1. Deodorant. Roll-on deodorant is relatively hard to find in China, from the accounts I’ve read. I’ve seen some spray-on options for ladies’ deodorant, but I’m not sure how well they work. I took no chances and brought a year’s supply.
  2. Feminine hygiene products. Ladies, if you use tampons, bring them with you. From what I see in Chinese supermarkets and convenience stores, most if not all Chinese women use sanitary pads. I don’t even remember seeing tampons in the Watson’s nearest to us in Changsha. If you use a menstrual cup, you should have no problem; if you’re worried about washing the cup with tap water (which is not safe for drinking in China, though I’ve been brushing my teeth with it and have had no problems thus far :knock on wood:), use bottled water, which one can purchase for three kuai (about half a US dollar) at any convenience store.
  3. Dental floss. From the accounts I’ve read, decent-quality dental floss is not as easy to find in China as it is in the U.S. Again, I took no chances and brought some with me.
  4. Medications for digestive issues. If you’re going to be in China for a while, bring medications for diarrhea, gas, and other digestive issues. La duzi (“pulled stomach”, or traveler’s diarrhea) is common among travelers that aren’t accustomed to greasy, spicy food, and Hunan food is both. I remember having la duzi while I was studying abroad in Beijing, and that made homesickness worse (I remember I had some medications like Pepto-Bismol, but I was being stubborn and didn’t take them that much—that’s another issue). Worst case scenario is that you have it but you don’t need it; it’s better than the other way around.

After reflecting on my previous long-haul flights from China to the U.S., and also flights from the U.S. to other countries, here are my tips for surviving the flight to China (or any other long-haul flight you may take):

On the flight

  1. Stock up on entertainment. I don’t sleep easily on most flights (and if I do, I can’t do so for the entire flight), so for me, a full iPad with TV shows, movies, and Kindle books is essential. If you fell behind on your favorite podcasts, now’s a great time to catch up. I meant to catch up on “Welcome to Night Vale” on my flight to Beijing, but I forgot to download the episodes. Oh, well; it gave me the opportunity to finish Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. (As I’m typing this, I’ve just started A Court of Thorns and Roses.)
  2. Pack a good portable charger. Especially if you don’t have an in-seat charging station (or you do, but a not-so-courteous fellow passenger is monopolizing it), this is practically invaluable, especially on long-term flights, or if you have multiple stops and can’t take a break to recharge. My dad let me borrow his for my time in China, and it’s been practically invaluable with us being on the go so often.
  3. Bring slippers. To save on space and weight in my suitcase, I wore my bulky hiking boots on the plane. Sure, they were comfy and supportive for walking through four airports, but they’re not comfy enough for sitting on a plane for thirteen-plus hours—also, they’re not the most convenient going through security checkpoints, despite my reasons for wearing them. Slip off your shoes and put on some slippers (over your compression socks, if need be). Your feet and legs will thank you later.
  4. Layers, layers, layers. On a recent trip to Europe, I think my family expected the stereotype of a super-cold airline cabin. That was not the case; especially on our flight back to the States, we were miserably warm. Layers that are easy to take off would likely be your best bet, especially if you’re going from a cold climate to a warm one (or vice versa).
  5. Bring a bottle of water. Especially on long-haul flights like my most recent flight from New York to Beijing, hydration is key in the very dry airplane air. Get a large bottle of water to carry onto the plane with you, and avoid ordering sodas, caffeinated beverages, or alcohol on the flight. Some airlines might even refill reusable water bottles! If in doubt, just ask the flight attendant.
  6. Bring a sheet mask. This ties in with bringing a large bottle of water, but because I get really bad anxiety when I travel, it also ties in with the idea of reducing stress. I like to imagine that as my skin absorbs the moisture from the sheet mask, the sheet mask is absorbing my stress. If nothing else, your skin will thank you after a long flight of dry airplane air. My mind goes back to when I packed my lip balm in my checked luggage for a flight from Beijing to Houston, so I spent thirteen hours with dry, chapped lips. Oy vey.
  7. Resist the temptation to over-pack your carry-on. I didn’t know how much we were “expected” to pack for the fellowship, and I didn’t want to be that person that ridiculously over-packed (Galinda in the musical Wicked comes to mind). So, I ultimately decided on one rolling suitcase that would be my checked bag, and a large duffel that would go in the overhead bin. After lugging a decently-sized backpack and an at-least-thirty-pound duffel bag through four different airports, I regret that decision with every bone and aching muscle in my body. If I had to do it over again, I would have likely swallowed my pride and forked over the money for another checked, rolling suitcase.

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Galinda in Wicked (Photo from Pinterest)

Around this time next week, I plan to be in my placement of Cili, Zhangjiajie District. Until then, we’re practicing teaching in a Chinese classroom setting with trial lessons before we start at our schools, so my time is mostly spent planning lessons, having classes and group discussions, and exploring Changsha with my fellow cohorts before we all disperse throughout the province. I hope to be back here with another article next week! See you then! Zai jian!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not reflect the views or opinions of WorldTeach or its affiliates.

 

In Need of a Latitude Adjustment

Thus far, I’ve spent about a week here in Changsha, Hunan Province, China, but honestly, what with everything I’ve been doing, it feels like I’ve been here much longer. I’m still working on my article about how I prepared for the trip, but right now I have what’s been on my mind the most these days:

Things I took for granted while living the U.S.

  1. Clean tap water. One of the first things we were told when we first got to Changsha was “don’t drink the tap water”. While it’s probably safe to brush one’s teeth with water from the tap (by some accounts), I don’t want to be sick my first week here. Regardless, there have been moments in which I’d go to brush my teeth and instinctively reach for the tap. It’s the little things that we as Americans (or any other first world country, for that matter) take for granted, that I think make the biggest impact.
  2. Cooler weather. I joke about Florida being one of the only places where you can die of heat stroke outside and hypothermia inside on the same day, but that’s nothing compared to Changsha. Changsha has a subtropical climate, and is known as one of the “furnace cities” of China, so the summers are very humid and HOT. According to the Weather.com app, temperatures for the next week are expected to range between 83 and 91 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity ranging between 50% and 100%. Compared to last week, this is amazing weather (apparently, it’s supposed to cool down even further around October). Needless to say, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, an umbrella, and a fan are necessities for me now.
  3. Safer roads. To put it plainly, there is no such thing as “pedestrians have right-of-way” in China. It’s not uncommon to see people driving mopeds on the sidewalk, beeping their horns to alert people to their presence (side note: honking horns are a constant sound in Changsha; bring earplugs if you’re a light sleeper), and even people driving the wrong way on a one-way street. All that said, the roads here are generally safe for pedestrians, but it’s an extra thing to be aware of when you’re walking down the streets.
  4. English everywhere. The beauty and the curse of being a waiguoren (“foreigner”) is that if a restaurant or a food stand has an English menu, they will automatically take it out for you. The curse is that it can be very easy to use those as a crutch, especially when you go out of the cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and even Changsha. I’m curious how I’ll fare when I get to my placement in Cili, near Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province.

Things I’ll likely take for granted while living in China

  1. Yummy, inexpensive street food. Especially with the conversion rate, a healthy breakfast is super cheap here in China. I can get a couple baozi (steamed buns), noodles, or (my favorite) a shou zhua bing (a pancake with egg, meat, lettuce, and sauce) for about six or seven kuai (the currency of China, used interchangeably with “yuan” or “RMB”), which would roughly equal one US dollar. Be advised, though, that if you go for McDonald’s, KFC, or non-instant coffee pretty much anywhere, you’re inevitably going to be paying more (an iced coffee at a café is at least twenty kuai, while an iced green tea is nine kuai).
  2. Safer streets. For the most part, I would consider China much safer than the U.S. in terms of being out and about. Obviously, this doesn’t give one leave to abandon common sense completely, but when I’m walking down the street in Changsha (even at night), I’m not as quick to hold my bag close to me or look over my shoulder (unless it’s to look for oncoming mopeds or bicycles) as I would in U.S. cities.
  3. Public transportation. We’ve been using the bus system in Changsha, and it’s been very efficient. Even between cities and towns, there are buses and fast- and slow-speed trains. Back home in Florida, you need a car to go pretty much anywhere. As a person who despises driving in cities, I definitely appreciate this!
  4. Friendly people everywhere. The couple who runs the shop I go to for iced green tea, the woman who cooks lunch for our orientation group, even young children who like to show off their English skills by calling out “hello”—everyone in Changsha has been so kind to us thus far. It’s refreshing compared to my experience in the U.S., where hardly anyone says “hello” to strangers, let alone a compliment like “you speak very well”, unless they work in retail or hospitality, or are otherwise particularly outgoing.
  5. Public or group events. Maybe it was because my circle of friends was scattered after college and high school, but especially in Changsha, I’ve been doing a lot of group activities, including going to movies, English conversation, group dinners, and even archery! Even walking around downtown Changsha, I’ve noticed that the social dynamic is heavily based on group activities, from KTV (karaoke) all the way to evening dancing or early morning Tai Chi in the local parks. It develops a strong social network that I hope I can continue when I go to my placement in Cili.

I’m sure I’ll observe more as I spend more time here, and I’m really looking forward to the days ahead! With my current schedule, I’m hoping I can be back here next week with another post! See you then! Zai jian!

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