Tai Chi and Feeling Included

I felt better because despite my clear lack of knowledge, they helped me feel included in the activity.

I wanted to talk about an experience I had this morning. I woke up around 5:30 and went for a walk, resolved to find a group doing Tai Chi (太极拳, or Taiji quan) so I could observe and practice (I studied Tai Chi for a while when I was living in Maryland and it feels counterintuitive to be looking up Internet tutorials for Tai Chi while I’m in China). At first, I didn’t find anyone practicing when I was walking around my campus, so I decided to try again later on in the week. On my way back to my apartment, however, I found a group of three people doing Tai Chi—an older couple and a middle-aged man standing in something of a line to practice together. I stood off to the side to follow along as best as I could, and after they finished the set they were on, the middle-aged man left, and the older man gestured for me to get into line with them for the next set. It’s been years since I did Tai Chi regularly, so I was rather rusty—I was heavier on my feet than I would have liked, and I didn’t know the set they were doing—but I felt better because despite my clear lack of knowledge, they helped me feel included in the activity.

In my experience with mainstream America, such an act of inclusion is rare, especially since these people had never met me before and I was very obviously a foreigner (I imagine they also assumed I don’t speak Chinese). It has been my experience in America that society focuses so much on the individual that we don’t know our neighbors and we are automatically wary of strangers. I imagine because the group and I had a shared interest (in this case, Tai Chi), it was somewhat easier, but I wonder how many problems in the world we can solve by showing people that they belong.

I hope you enjoyed this blog post. Tomorrow I start teaching, so hopefully I can post later this week with how that goes. See you then! Zai jian!

Wherever The Path May Lead

I always get the question of “where I see myself in five years”, but it’s a bit tricky when my life has changed so much even in the last year and a half.

It’s been a long time since I posted an article, and I think a lot of that has to do with the end-of-year burnout that seems to plague teachers and students alike. I’ve been working on lessons for the rest of my time in Cili, getting ready for my next year in Yueyang, and heading home next month, as well as thinking about where my path will go next.

People who know me outside of the blog know that I am a very creative person. I love working with music, art, and above all, writing. For reasons that are many and varied, I decided not to bring a lot of my creative outlets with me to China, like my knitting supplies—a decision that I regretted when culture shock reared its ugly head. I have learned this year that I need music in my life, as well as the tools to create it on my computer, and I also need to work on my writing. One of my goals for China was to self-publish a book before I leave; while I’m nowhere near achieving that goal, I’m very close to getting the first draft finished, which is a huge step for me.

Part of my path going forward is to include creativity into my life for self-expression, if not to sow the seeds for a future career. I have started a blog under my pen name, and I hope to keep that going as I keep writing and hopefully publishing my work. I hope to be able to develop a music production setup for next year so I can start composing and producing music again (that’s on the blog too).

I always get the question of “where I see myself in five years”, but it’s a bit tricky when my life has changed so much even in the last year and a half. I’ve changed career paths and moved to rural China. When I first came here, I didn’t plan to stay in Yueyang next year, yet here I am. That said, some things like writing and music have stayed the same. I’ve been listening to a lot of self-development podcasts, and they talk about living one’s truth; wherever the path may lead, I hope I’m getting closer to living my truth.

I’ve been working on my visa for next year, and I’m hoping I can talk about my process and lessons learned. If you want to hear about that, or anything else, please let me know in the comments below! I hope to be back here soon, so I’ll see you then! Zai jian!

Lessons Learned From A Month On The Road

I give my final thoughts on my month traveling through Asia

Today was my first day back in classes, and I’m glad to be back teaching in Cili. That said, I still have all the memories of being on the road for a month. I’m really proud of myself for packing for a month of traveling in a carry-on suitcase, and that I did all the things I did. From cheering on the Olympic Athletes from Russia’s (OAR’s) men’s hockey team in the Olympic finals at their hospitality house in Pyeongchang, to playing with elephants in Thailand, I can’t believe how fortunate I am to have these experiences. I wanted to wrap up my trip, as far as the blog is concerned, with some things I was grateful for, and some things that I would have done differently.

Things I’m grateful for on this trip:

  • I’m grateful I packed so lightly. A lot of traveling places focus on shopping opportunities, and while I understand that helps the tourist economy in those areas, that’s not a priority for me, and I’m grateful I had the self-restraint to avoid buying a ton of souvenirs. Plus, what with all the mass transit I took, I was so grateful I didn’t have a giant suitcase to lug onto planes and trains and buses. That said, I could probably have gotten away with packing a slightly larger suitcase since my bag started to get a bit stuffed when I got a few things like my Jiji mug and my harem pants.
  • I’m grateful everything went as smoothly as possible. Especially on transit days, I got super anxious (like when I feared I’d miss one or both of my flights to Chiang Mai), but I was just grateful it all worked out. In hindsight, I would rather have a longer layover than rush through a shorter layover and risk missing my flight, but I’m grateful it all worked out with the times I had.
  • I’m so glad I had local recommendations. My Airbnb host in Chiang Mai not only was really open with communication, but they also sat down with me my first day in Chiang Mai and gave me some awesome recommendations for places to go in the city! I stayed with a family friend in South Korea, and she and I had a lot of fun going to the places that she loved in Seoul. If I didn’t have these local recommendations, I would have been so clueless, and I feel like I wouldn’t have enjoyed my time as much as I could have.

Things I would do differently next time:

  • Maxi skirts are not a wise packing decision. As I described in my packing article, I packed two maxi skirts and rotated them rather regularly throughout the month. They did the job—they covered my body in a pretty manner, they provided ideal coverage in the Buddhist temples of Thailand, and I could wear leggings underneath them in Seoul and Japan. That said, they are not practical for travel. In the month I’ve traveled, not only did they take up more space in my bag than I would have liked, but also the hems of my skirts have gotten caught on the wheels of my suitcase, the decorative finials on an umbrella stand, the skull of a water buffalo (?) on display at a roadside market stand (luckily it didn’t break), the track of a moving escalator in Tokyo Station, and (are you ready for this?) the closure clasp of my backpack when I set it on the floor. In the future, much as I despise jeans, those or loose-fitting trousers like harem pants (which I ended up buying a pair of in Chiang Mai) might have been wiser options for being on the move so often.
  • I would have gritted my teeth about the weight and brought my laptop. While my iPad and phone were more than sufficient to do the things that mattered (e.g., check emails, update social media, post blog articles), it would have been nice to have my computer to back up photos (my phone’s storage capacity started to complain halfway through the trip). Plus, while doing blog articles on my iPad is possible, I’m so used to writing them on my computer that it was something of an adjustment process to work with my iPad. I will say, though, my iPad is much more portable than my kind-of-clunky laptop, so depending on priorities, which one to bring is a dice roll.
  • I would have brought a backup pair of glasses. My old glasses had a really bad tendency to fall off my face and onto the floor, but it would be while I was away from home for a month when they would break on impact. I have a backup pair in China, but I didn’t bring them with me, so I had to make an emergency trip to Zoff and get a new pair. A vision test, frames, and lenses cost me ¥9,000 plus tax (about US$90), which is a steal compared to how much glasses cost in the U.S., but it’s still ¥9,000. That said, I love my new glasses, but I could have avoided the emergency purchase and the stress of broken glasses if I had brought my backup pair (I’m nearsighted, so this might as well have been a non-negotiable purchase).
  • I would have paid extra for free checked bags on my flights. One thing that was acutely annoying with flying through AirAsia (I flew with them in and out of Thailand) is that they have a seven-kilogram weight limit for carry-on bags (for non-metric-system-using readers, seven kilograms is about fifteen pounds—the weight of an average school student’s backpack, if not lighter). Because my suitcase was 10kg (22 pounds, which I think is amazing, considering I was packing for an entire month), checking my suitcase from Tokyo to Bangkok to Chiang Mai set me back about $200. Grrrrrrr. (In my defense, I was not aware of this until after I purchased my non-refundable tickets.) The plus side is that I didn’t have to pick up my suitcase until I was in Chiang Mai, and I was able to put my in-flight essentials into a separate bag and put my bulky backpack in the overhead bin. I’m okay with no free meals or beverages (I normally fill up my reusable water bottle before my flight anyway and buy snacks), but no free checked bags, and a ridiculous (there, I said it) baggage weight limit on top of that? I have to draw the line somewhere.

Hopefully, I’ll have some more opportunities to travel and write some more articles for the blog before I return home for the summer! There are some plans in the works for a possible trip to Guilin in the next few months, so we’ll see if that works out! See you next time! Zai jian!

Six Lessons I Took From Japan: Final Thoughts

My time in Japan may be over, but I still wanted to talk about what I learned during my time there.

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my Airbnb in Chiang Mai, Thailand, adjusting to the new change of weather and getting ready for the next part of my trip. Since leaving Japan, I have thought about what I learned from my experiences there. My time in Japan reminded me to be present in the moment (like when I dressed as a maiko) and to enjoy the small things (like spotting some blossoms in Gion that I thought were cherry but now may have been plum), and it reinforced my appreciation of the Japanese culture and cities with a strong public transit system. To wrap up my time in Tokyo and Kyoto as far as the blog is concerned, here are some lessons I took away about traveling in Japan.

  1. If you don’t speak Japanese, or need to use Google Maps while on the move, a pocket Wi-Fi will be your best friend! When I first got to Japan, there was a train accident that left me stranded near the airport at 23:00 (that’s 11:00PM, for those who don’t use military/European time; sorry but I’m so used to using it now), and honestly, if I didn’t have pocket Wi-Fi to find an alternative way into the city, I likely would have been crying. It was a great peace of mind to be able to access Google Translate or Google Maps (or any other navigation app of your choice), and I’m already missing the pocket Wi-Fi here in Chiang Mai. For words that I was trying to translate on menus, I also used the app Imiwa?, which works offline, so if you need to access a word or phrase on the go, that’s good as a backup (or if you don’t have pocket Wi-Fi)!
  2. Book your airfare with knowledge of your accommodations. I booked Airbnbs in the Shinagawa (Airbnb) and Nakano (Airbnb) areas of Tokyo. I had no problems with either Airbnb, but to get to and from Narita Airport, I had to cross through Tokyo to the other side of the city, which takes about two hours. I got into my Airbnb in Nakano around 1:00 in the morning, and I had to get up for my train from Shinagawa to Narita around 5:00 in the morning to get there on time for a 9:00 flight. It probably would have been wiser to book my departing flight out of Haneda Airport, which would have been closer to Shinagawa, but there we go, lesson learned.
  3. If you want to do museums or temples on a limited time schedule, PRI-OR-I-TIZE. At least in the off-season when I went to Japan, the temples and museums were open for such a narrow window of time (often 10:00-17:00, give or take) that getting around the city and getting to visit all the areas the cities had to offer was virtually impossible. Also, a lot of places were closed on Tuesdays or Wednesdays as opposed to being closed on weekends, so that was an added complication. Do your research ahead of time to figure out what you want to see and plan your days accordingly.
  4. Get a Japan Rail Pass, especially if you want to take the Shinkansen bullet trains and are going to more than one city. Obviously, if you’re staying in one city, this would not be necessary but since I stayed in Kyoto and Japan, this was a godsend. They’re a bit expensive up front, but given that a rail ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo is about $160-$180 each way, a $300 (give or take) seven-day JRail pass more than paid for itself in the time I was there. Also, being able to use the JRail pass on Tokyo JR lines was pretty sweet, and made it even more of a bargain, considering how quickly the costs of public transit add up. This leads me to my next lesson:
  5. When budgeting time and money for your trip, take public transit into account. Luckily, Japan has reliable public transportation, but they still can take a good half hour to an hour, depending on where you’re going and if you have to change routes. Plus, they do cost anywhere between ¥150 and ¥300 per ticket, depending on where you go (when I was in Kyoto, the bus was ¥230 flat-rate for an adult). From my experience in Tokyo, Uber and taxis are both insanely expensive, so if you’re on a budget, I would use them as an ultimate last resort (e.g., if you’re going out and the metro closes for the night before you can get home).
  6. Maxi skirts might not be the best idea if you’re going on a lot of escalators. I never got hurt, but there were a few close calls with the hem almost getting caught in the track. If they wore skirts, most women I saw in Japan wore knee-length or mid-calf-length skirts—never maxi skirts, possibly for that reason. That would probably be your safest option, if you prefer skirts over trousers or jeans.

What would you want to read about my time in Chiang Mai? Is there anything else you want to know about my time in Japan? Let me know in the comments below! Thank you so much for reading, and until next time, now that I’m in Thailand, I have to say “see you” in Thai—แล้วพบกันใหม่!

[15 February 2022: upon further reflection, it was too early for me to see cherry blossoms, and I was under the impression I made that correction already. Sorry about that!]

Japan: My Impressions Thus Far

After three days in Tokyo, I’ve had a few things to think about.

As I’m writing this, I’m on a train from Tokyo to Kyoto. I’ve been in Tokyo since Sunday, and I must admit, by the end of it, I was getting overwhelmed by the amount of stuff to do in Tokyo! I want to put my experiences in Tokyo into more articles, but for now, I’ve been thinking about my overall impression with Japan thus far, and some points come to mind:

  • Stand to the left, pass to the right. I noticed in the metro stations that people tended to fall into a pattern of walking on the left side of the station (I imagine that’s because in Japan, people drive on the left side of the road), and standing on the left side of the escalator so people can pass on the right. In America, and even in China, that’s not as likely to happen, if it happens at all, and the chaos that ensues seems inevitable. Regardless, I’ve been saying sumimasen (“excuse me”) a lot, mostly because I would be focusing too much on Google Maps, or I’d have no idea where I’m going.
  • Durable is not always practical. I knew full well that hiking boots were not a good option for taking on and off when entering a Japanese home; however, I didn’t realize just how often people take off their shoes in Japan. Fitting rooms in clothing stores, some parts of museums like the Samurai Museum in Shinjuku, some places like the cat café I went to in Harajuku—all of them required me to take off my shoes. At this point, I’m wondering if Japanese people can tell if people are tourists by seeing if they’re wearing shoes with laces. I was tempted to see what kind of cute, durable flats I could find in my size, but I wouldn’t have had enough room in my suitcase for my boots, so for now, I’m soldiering on.
  • Few trash cans. I know that Japan has a rigorous system when it comes to recycling and trash disposal, but I didn’t expect how few trash cans or recycling bins I’ve seen on the streets in Tokyo. In America and China, you’d have at least one trash/recycling bin per street block. Japan? I once had to keep a food wrapper in my pocket for hours before I found a trash bin. I imagine if there were a lot of waste bins, though, in such a big city like Tokyo, trash would inevitably accumulate (“if you build it, they will come” and all that), and Japan doesn’t have much space for landfills, so I understand why this is the case, but it’s still a bit of an adjustment.
  • Not many places to sit. When I was researching customs in Japan, I read that it’s generally considered inappropriate to walk and eat at the same time. That said, when I would order food at a place that didn’t have seating, I would want to find a bench so I could sit and eat, but there wouldn’t be any, so it felt like a bit of a Catch-22. I realize that as a foreigner, I could probably get away with making some faux pas, but I didn’t want to be that person. Instead, I just stood in a place where I wouldn’t be in the way of foot traffic and ate there. Was that the best alternative? I don’t know, but I was trying to make do.
  • Just how many foreigners there would be. After being in Cili (and thus being one of only a handful of foreigners in the county, to my knowledge) for almost six months, I noticed that there were so many foreign tourists in Tokyo, and I kind of didn’t know how to react at first. I imagine this is going to be similar to reverse culture shock when I return to America.

I’ve been having a great time here so far, and I hope I can have an equally good time in Kyoto! I’ve been thinking about posting a sort of food diary about the themed restaurants and other places I went to in Tokyo, but I’m not sure if y’all are interested in that. Let me know what you want to read about in the comments! Until the next article—well, it feels weird saying zai jian since I’m in Japan, so I’ll say またね!

Four things I learned in Inner Mongolia

I’ve put off this article about the lessons I took from Inner Mongolia for far too long.

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

 

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One of my favorite photos I took out in the grasslands

Hello, everyone! I have returned! It’s been almost two months (!) since I got back to Hunan Province from Inner Mongolia, and I’ve had a lot to think about for what I want to write about my time there. I’ll probably write about what we did and where we stayed in another post, but I want to write about what I learned out in the grasslands, because quite honestly, I’ve put off posting this article for far too long. I know I hoped to have more articles after my last article, but the Universe had other ideas; we were without WiFi in our apartments for pretty much all of November. We are, however, now back online, and I’m hoping to make up for lost time and make good on my promise to bring y’all more articles! So here are the four things I learned in Inner Mongolia:

1.     I want to learn beyond the surface. It’s easy to just visit the tourist spots and say I’ve been to an area, but for me that almost feels like cheating, and it feels like I can’t say I’ve been to a certain place (e.g., I’ve been to the tourist attractions in Paris, but I can’t say I’ve seen France). When I was at Dazhao Lamasery in Hohhot and out in the grasslands, I could tell that the places we visited were old—very old—and I was curious to know about the history and the culture of the place. When we were out in the grasslands, I wished I knew Mongol so I could sit with our host families and ask about their story. There was one instance when I was sitting in the family’s kitchen, and I would have loved to be able to sit with who I assumed was our host’s wife, and talk with her about what she was cooking or how life was out there. The fact that I know Chinese is rather convenient for Inner Mongolia, but if I’m to travel to other countries like Thailand, Cambodia, or Nepal, or any other country where my language proficiency is less than ideal, an interpreter would be invaluable for this.

2.     I realized my privilege in America. I know that Pinterest and other social media platforms can make off-grid living sound really comfortable with the right tools and planning (when my parents learned we were living in a yurt, they asked if it was like “glamping”), but out in Inner Mongolia, we got a taste of no-frills off-grid living (AirBnB). When we were out in the grasslands, we had no running water, no paved roads, no power grid, no central heating, and no public infrastructure like police or medical centers. We depended on potable water, solar and wind power, a wood-burning stove in our yurt for heating, cars made for off-roading, outhouses, and a lot of hoping and praying that no one got hurt or sick. While it was easier than we expected, we were also staying there for only a few days. I imagine that there’s a lot of planning that goes into living out there, but they at least seemed to make it work. It just made me realize how much privilege I have living in America, not only to have that security of public infrastructure, but also having the opportunity to travel and have these experiences.

3.     I realized how much stuff I actually need.  When I was preparing to leave for a year in China, I realized how much stuff I had accumulated, even after only a year in my apartment at the time. I’m starting to begin my journey to minimalism as a result, especially if I want to travel somewhere else after my time with WorldTeach is over. In Inner Mongolia, I knew we’d be on the move a lot of the time, so I knew I had to pack light for the week we were traveling. I traveled with a small suitcase (my backpack wasn’t big enough) with all my warm clothes, which were only a few items like sweaters, a light coat, a leather jacket, and leggings I layered under my jeans (we were totally unprepared for the cold). Aside from that, I’ve realized how much I need certain things like my journal and my tablet, and how much I don’t need other things, and it’s been liberating to travel without lugging around a giant suitcase.

4.     I’ve questioned some of my views on traveling. Before I went on this trip, a lot of anecdotes I had read about traveling almost belittled the idea of youth hostels, claiming that they weren’t safe or they weren’t up to par with hotels in terms of cleanliness or service. That was not my experience when I stayed at a youth hostel in Hohhot near the East Railway Station (AirBnB). The woman was very helpful, she spoke enough English to have a basic conversation, the rooms were clean and comfortable, and I never felt that I or my belongings were not safe. Also, when I booked a standing (!) train ticket from Hohhot to Sanggendalai, strangers were kind enough to let me share seat space with them. I realized how lucky I was to have a place to sit down on a train, which was amusing to some of the train staff when they realized a waiguoren (foreigner) had to buy a standing train ticket. I never thought I’d do those things when I first came to China; I would be open to doing a standing train ticket again (but for a shorter journey), and I’ve stayed at another youth hostel in Zhangjiajie City since then.

I’m glad to be able to have this experience growing as a person, as well as being able to go out and see the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. If you want to know more about where we stayed and what we did, please leave suggestions and requests in the comments below!

A few life updates: I was able to win NaNoWriMo (*cue celebratory fanfare*) so it’s been good to work with my novel and hopefully get it published before the end of the academic year. Plans for the Christmas holiday are still up in the air; I get Christmas Day off (effectively giving me a four-day weekend, since I don’t teach on Fridays), so I will likely go and travel another part of southern China. I hope to get back into the routine of posting updates to the blog regularly after having no WiFi in the apartment for a month. See you then! Zai jian!

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