Tag Archive | asia

The (B) itch is back! (sorry Elton)

As you can see I have not written for some time. I was recovering from my foot injury (which seemed to take forever) and then once I could walk normally again juggling with various travel destinations in my head, and possible courses of action. It’s not that I don’t enjoy life in our new home (Kfar Saba) – actually it’s great- clean, green, small enough to walk around but not so small that it is boring. There are tons of cultural events on here all the time and if we want to pop over to Tel Aviv for music, drinking, theatre etc, it’s only 30 minutes away. But as a travel- obsessed individual, the travel itch is never far from the surface of my skin. So I am constantly scanning  Dave’s   or the Esl Teachers Board and looking into various volunteering websites to plan our next getaway. I discovered that most volunteering sites demand a TON of money to get you a position, and often it doesn’t include flights, and usually just very basic accommodation, which in any case in those locations is dirt cheap (Vietnam, Myanmar, Central and South America).Also, most volunteering websites seem to be geared to very young gap year travellers, and not so many grey nomads, so I don’t know if it would really be appropriate for us to go on one of those things. So then I thought why shouldn’t I just go somewhere that we fancy,  and if we get a volunteering opportunity whilst we are there, then good, and if not we will just hang out. We often travel using Couchsurfing or Servas , since we don’t really enjoy staying in expensive hotels, and we prefer to meet locals and hang out with them.

I have mentioned Servas before- I think it’s an amazing way to travel if you have time. It’s so much more interesting than being a tourist, to spend time in the company of a local who can tell you so much more about a place than the guide book.

So I can’t exactly explain how this happened. I juggled more and more destinations in my head. Realizing that we have seen a lot of Asia and Europe but having  never been to Central or South America, three places kept popping into my mind: Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico. I know that technically Mexico is North America, but everyone thinks it isn’t. Anyhow I went to hear a lecture on Costa Rica and far from convincing me to go there, it put me off. I am not sure how this happened, ( maybe it was the pictures of the huge spiders and the swaying jungle rope bridges in the Cloud Forest) but when I see a lot of pictures of a place it either turns me on or off. Somehow, the latter occurred. But Mexico suddenly became a more attractive destination and as I started reading about it, it became more so- beaches, delicious food, Maya and Aztec sites, colonial architecture, cheap and accessible.  We initially thought to combine it with North America, but as often happens with me less seems better than more. I don’t want to gallop around the places on my itinerary I want to “hang around” in them for a long time and get to know them. So Mexico it is! Booked for February and planned to take about 6 weeks, to do it at a leisurely pace. So we will fly into the Yucatan peninsula, and work our way south through Chiapas and then fly out of Mexico City. I already have about 5 Servas hosts scattered around. And otherwise guest houses or Air BnB look to be about $20. Stay tuned for trip report on our return!

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Back in the Big Silly

After 8 months back home here we are back in Jimei. After a slight mishap at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport where I attempted to lift a 23kg suitcase onto a trolley and felt my back give way with a loud crack,I have become much wiser,and am gradually feeling my back improve.The first week here was agonizing.I can now get out of bed without giving a massive groan of pain.

Our new apartment is right in the University campus of Jimei University, pretty  close to our old one,but for some reason it all feels totally different.Arriving back here was comfortingly familiar.WE knew how to get from Hong Kong airport to Shenzhen and we knew how to get to the train station to board the fast train (max speed 300 kph) back to Xiamen.At the North station we were met by staff of the International department and taken straight to our apartment.Here we were met by friends we knew from before,and that too was comforting and nice. Of course there are many differences.The apartment is much smaller than our old one,but reasonably comfortable- and hey,when you get a free apartment with phone,TV,microwave,and computer you should be grateful,right? Our campus is right across from the Wanda Plaza shopping centre, which has shops,restaurants and supermarkets,even a Starbucks.And five minutes in the other direction is Shigu Lu student street with tons of shops and coffee bars so all is well.Or it would be if there wasn’t military marching music played full blast every morning at 6.30am ( bar weekends,thank god)/ We still need to bring various things we left at the old apartment over here,such as plates,cups etc, and then it will be great.

The campus itself is pretty nice,not as impressive as Lin’an,but with plenty of trees,statues,grass,a huge lake with benches along it and lots of cafeterias.

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Campus lake

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One of the many campus statues

Yesterday we went over to see our friend Celine the dance teacher and were amazed to see how her new dance school is coming along.The whole place has been revamped and she has another couple of branches around town,and has about 400 students.Angela,who is her assistant,and was D’s private student last year,told us it was Celine’s birthday and that we were to join her at the KTV where she was celebrating.So she whisked us off in her car to the KTV.As D remarked,when you get up in the morning in China you never know where you are going to end up.At the KTV we met Celine’s sister and brother in law,and some other friends.WE had forgotten how odd the whole Chinese KTV experience is,but it was a laugh,and there was beer and lots of very odd snacks,most of which I didn’t eat.I did eat a lot of almonds though.

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Celine at her KTV birthday celebration

After Celine dropped us back home we met up with our old mate Bernard,who teaches at Xiamen University.He had been hanging out with some other friends in the Wanda Plaza so he came over to our apartment to chat for a bit.

Stand by for further adventures……

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Me and Bernard

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Night view from our balcony

Back from Asia-Where is home?

The title of this entry was going to be “Why Hong Kong is Overrated” but circumstances have dictated a change in emphasis.. Bear with me.

After a few days in Chiang Rai,North Thailand,three amazing weeks in Laos,land of mystery,and quiet relaxation,and four days in cosmopolitan,pulsing Hong Kong here we are.back in Jerusalem. Laos has had its own blog pages,even though I could write on and on about it and post myriad pictures, I will restrain myself.

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Our street in Jerusalem- I did miss the blue sky

 

How to describe reverse culture shock? Better writers than me in other blogs have done this,but I feel obliged to give it a shot.Here goes…Where is my wonderful Chinese life? Where are all my diverse friends from all over the globe- Philippines,Taiwan,Canada,Australia? I left them all behind to return to my family. In China our life seemed to be a constant whirl of the new and exciting.We had  a great time in class with the students,and we had many friends outside the classroom all clamouring to be our friends. Whenever we stepped outside our apartment in the city of Xiamen,there was always something new to explore. Every street corner held a surprise,every face turned curiously to stare at the “laowei” (foreigners)  walking past. Of course family is very important. We miss them when we are away. We were thrilled to see our kids and our siblings and my dad. But when we are with them things can be difficult.We fall back into patterns and rituals that are long ingrained in our behaviour,and that we don’t always enjoy.I am sure many people can relate to this. Reverse culture shock means that what should have been alien and hard to deal with became the norm,and our old familiar life suddenly became strange to us. We peered at the deserted streets and became amazed that we could understand every conversation overheard on the bus and in the supermarket.  The confusion and reverse culture shock we are now going through is compounded by the fact that the Hamas decided to resume shelling the day before our return,and in fact as we were passing through passport control at Ben Gurion airport the officer at the booth told us that sirens had just sounded a few minutes earlier in the centre of the country.Needless to say this was pretty disconcerting ,and we started feeling like turning around and heading straight back to the plane!

So to get back briefly to the last weeks of our trip. We returned to Chiang Mai on our way back to Hong Kong for the return flight home. On our first visit to Chiang Mai the curfew had still been in place because of the military coup there.Restaurants had closed at 6pm and the streets had been deserted. I had considered avoiding Chiang Mai but fellow bloggers assured me it was safe to go there. And on the whole I am glad we did,as the crossing over from CM to Laos was a blast in itself. However when we returned 3 weeks later the tourists had started coming back to Chiang Mai.It was still not  as crowded as on our first trip to Thailand,but it felt a bit more lively and fun.We wandered through the streets of the Old City,saw the Night Market (no big deal after the one in Luang Prabang) and I did something a little unusual- I took a Thai Cooking class! This for me was the highlight of our return to Thailand,especially the Drunken Noodles which burst into flame when we added the Palm Sugar.

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Drunken Noodles

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My Massalman Curry

The cooking school was called “Siam Rice” and I was presented with a certificate and a book of recipes at the end. It was well worth the money and very enjoyable. There are lots of different cooking schools to choose from but I think they are much the same, both in price and what they offer. In any case,this is a fun thing to do, and you have something to take home with you to remind you of your visit.

On arrival in Hong Kong,where we picked up our huge suitcases at the wonderful Butterfly on Hollywood Hotel,we were again upgraded to a larger room,this time with a view! Hong Kong was almost unbearably hot and stifling,but we managed to have a pretty good time,walking around the Soho neighbourhood,and making a brief trip to Lantau Island where after an awesome ride on the 360 degrees Ngong cable car we saw the huge Giant Buddha. This was the part where I was going to lay out my theory that HK is overrated as a tourist destination,but I think I will leave that for another post,as I have been rattling on long enough and with the sirens going off here every few minutes I am really not in the mood..

My friend asked me where this blog is going now that we are not travelling.I said I have no idea.So let’s just wait and see,shall we?

View of the Big Buddha,Lantau Hong Kong

Big Buddha Lantau

Nong Khiaw- a bumpy ride to the most perfect sunset

After chilling out for several days in Luang Prabang we felt ready for another adventure.So we boarded a minibus for the 3 hour trip to the small town of Nong Khiaw, north-east of Luang Prabang.This place is noted for having splendid limestone karst scenery on the banks of the Nam Ou River,similar to the familiar views of Guilin on the Li RIver in China,or the karst scenery in the South of Thailand.Now you might think that an air-conditioned minibus would be a better choice for the trip than the cheaper non a/c open tuktuk which is called a “bus” here in Laos.Well you might be wrong.Firstly the tuktuk goes slower so the bumps and jolts are not so bad.Secondly the driver didn’t actually turn on the a/c for most of the trip so we sweltered and bumped,and one Australian even bumped his head on the roof at one point in the journey.Anyway we eventually arrived at the “bus station” in Nong Khiaw which is minimalist to say the least.We had been reliably informed by the Indian guy who works at the Indian restaurant in NK who happened to be in the minivan with us that it was only 600 metres from the place we were dropped into town,so we walked it and arrived at the “throbbing” town centre in about 15 minutes as it was starting to rain.The place was tiny but there were many restaurants and guest houses to choose from.We found one named the CT,which had a restaurant, rooms with balcony onto the river and checked in.

Most of our two-day stay in Nong Khiaw consisted of gazing up at the mountains. The view was indescribably beautiful and a bit mesmerising. We could have gone tubing,hiking,bicycling,canoing or caving.Plenty of backpackers were doing just those things.But we were content to lap up the view and relax there.For one thing it’s the rainy season.For another we are lazy,and have done so much travelling over the last 3 years we are enjoying living the moment. So we gazed at the mountains in the morning,when they were swathed in mist.And we gazed at them in the evening when the sunset over the Nam Ou was simply perfect.One night we did this over a splendid curry at our Indian friend’s place.The next evening we did it over a wonderful Chicken Laap and Mango Shake,served by the French-speaking owner of Sunset Bungalows. Now tell me that this isn’t just the perfect romantic spot!

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After two days of musing we returned by tuktuk (less bumpy but this time soaking wet) to our lovely Saynamkhan River View room.The owner had very kindly kept our room for us and our suitcases were there waiting for us. Ahh it’s a hard life in Laos.We revisited the Big Brother Mouse in the evening to meet with more young Lao friends,this time accompanied by a young lawyer from Manchester. She has travelled far and wide,including Africa (Ghana). and most of Central and South America, and is now heading to all the Stans -Turkmenistan and so on.So she was an interesting travel companion.More anon…Please leave comments.

 

Off we go again- Hong Kong,Chiang Mai, and … LAOS!

We have finally had our last goodbye party and taken our last goodbye photo in Xiamen.We have returned our house keys and our teachers’ cards and boarded a bullet train to Shenzhen.After a couple of days there we crossed over to Hong Kong and after a couple of days there and a bit of sightseeing we boarded a flight to Chiang Mai,Northern Thailand,with a slight bit of trepidation due to the recent military coup and curfew there. However on arrival in Chiang Mai all was well despite the lack of tourists and the restaurants shutting down very early. We felt safe,even though we saw soldiers stationed at the city gates.I will kind of catapult the trip from Xiamen to Laos, since there is so much to write about in Laos,I don’t want to bore everyone with minutae,especially since we have visited both Shenzhen and Hong Kong before.

Chiang Mai is a well-known tourist destination,full of attractive Buddhist temples, massage salons and lovely really cheap restaurants. We did take one trip from there to the Tiger Kingdom,which is definitely a must see.According to the internet it it not one of those places where tigers are subdued with drugs.The tigers there are genuinely placid as they have been reared there from birth,and are not capable of hunting in the wild.They are sleek and well-cared for,and you pay a price to stroke smallest,small or big tigers for about 20 minutes.It is an amazing experience,rather hard to describe.You walk into a cage full of tigers (and the small are pretty large!) together with a handler,who reassures you.You leave your bag outside and enter only with a camera.You must not touch their paws or head,just tickle their tummy and you can move their tail and sit next to them,and even lie down next to them and put your head on them if you are feeling really brave.It is well worth it in my opinion.I was overawed by being so close to such a beautiful creature.

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Stroking a tiger at Tiger Kingdom- yes it’s real and alive

 

From Chiang Mai we took a minibus package with a few other people which picked us up at our hotel,and drove us via Chiang Rai to the border with Laos,and helped us cross the border,including do all the visa paperwork and deliver us onto the bus from Chiang Khong (the Thai side) to Huai Xi (the Lao side) and then get a Lao bus to Luang Namtha. On the way we stopped at the beautiful Wat Rong Khun,or White Temple in Chiang Rai.This temple was damaged in a recent earthquake and has since been restored.

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White Temple,Chiang Rai,Thailand

When we arrived at the border,we just had to fill in a couple of forms and [ay $35,add a passport photo and board a shuttle bus to cross the 4th Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River into Laos.On the other side we were dropped off at the Bus station for the trip to Luang Namtha.This was rather longer than we thought and the bus was a bit ramshackle and the road very bumpy and primitive compared to the Thai side.We finally arrived it Luang Namtha,northern Laos at 9.30pm.The bus station was in the middle of nowhere,and there were no taxis or tuktuks in sight.Eventually we asked a guy to help us by borrowing his phone and calling our guest house.They thought we wanted a room,and said they were full.Finally we explained somehow that we just wanted to reach the place and had no transport.They didn’t really understand.The man with the phone pointed at a minivan which was loading local people and goods,and said he could take us for 40,000 Kip (about $5).The man said he knew our guest house.So we climbed on and at 10pm reached our guest house.The main street of Luang Namthat was just one long strip of  backpacker guest houses,restaurants and tour companies.THere was very little else there.The scenery was stunning.After discovering that our guest house had no hot water we moved the next day to a neighbouring one called the Zuela,which is without doubt the best bet in Luang Namtha, a  gorgeous log villa,with hot water,clean rooms, a/c, a downstairs restaurant, tour operators and intermittent wifi connection.

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Zuela Guest House,Luang Namtha

After spending a day strolling around Luang Namtha and discovering its very basic charms. we opted to take a one day tour to see ethnic hill tribes in the area by tuktuk, near the town of Muang Sing. There are some beautiful treks around that area which you can do if you are looking for something more challenging, most include a homestay with some ethnic peoples. During the wet season (when we were there) trekking is more strenuous,due to the mud and the hilly terrain. We took the trek with Elaine, a Californian who had spent 5 years teaching in SHenzhen,China and now lives and teaches in Indonesia. The tour was wonderful.Our guide,Hak, from the Black Tai minority was wonderfully knowledgeable and charming with a great sense of humour and excellent English. He took us to various ethnic minority villages. We began at the Muang Sing market,about 3 hours driver from Luang Namtha. The road was pretty bumpy and rough in places.IT was also muddy so you had to watch your step. We took lots of photos and of course asked people before we did this. Most were happy to be photographed,although some younger women were very shy. WE then saw some Hmong, Yao, Lolo and Leu. There are many ethnic minority groups in Lao, some originating in Tibet,others in Vietnam but most have been there for a few hundred years. They speak Lao language but also their own language which is very different, and each group cannot often understand the others’ language. They are mostly Buddhist,but some are also animist.One very intersting part of the trip was a long chat we had ( with the translation of Hak) with a lady who does hand embroidery. She provides pieces for an NGO which sells her work in the capital and abroad,and gets paid over $100 for most pieces,as her work is very fine,and often takes more than a year to complete. She said she has a brother living in Santa Barbara, and has visited him there, and she produced photos of her visit there,and also of her two sons at university,one here in Laos and one in Guangzhou,China. IT was hard to imagine her travelling abroad let alone to the US whilst seeing her squatting in the mud hut of the village,surrounded with ragged children….

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The girl said it wasn’t her baby

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Temple wall drawing showing punishment for gossip and lying

 

We had lunch in one village house, and ate sticky rice (with our hands,rolled into a hard ball) ,spicy pork and chicken,bamboo shoots and spinach.IT was delicious but rather spicy. Dessert was a small very sweet banana. We also saw a village temple,with some amazing wall pictures,highly ornate, depicting the fate of those in the afterlife who have gossipped or lied about their neighbours.IT reminded me somewhat of Hieronymous Bosch. Towards evening we drove back again over the bumpy road back to Luang Namtha,which suddenly seemed like a throbbin metropolis in comparison to the tiny villages around the area.

The next morning we boarded a bus at the Luang Namtha bus station to travel to Luang Prabang, the famed UNESCO heritage city of North Laos.I had been anticipating this city very much and was afraid to be disappointed. After a 9 hour extremely bumpy bus journey the risk of anticlimax was pretty high. The bus journey itself was pretty great. The air conditioning consisted of travelling with the door open. There was a mix of passengers, locals, foreign backpackers – young Americans and French, a Chinese guy from Shandong who works in Shenzhen,and  a couple of very well-travelled Liverpudlians.At one point,it being rainy season, there was a landslide on the road,and we had to get out of the bus and wait for the road to be cleared by bulldozer.There were several food and toilet stops on the way in some tiny rural villages. The view was stunning all the way- thick jungle, tall mountains swathed in mist, river valleys of the winding Mekong and its tributaries, rice paddies complete with picturesque buffalo – all you could ask for in  a South East Asian travel video We finally arrived in Luang Prabang at around 6 pm and very easily got a tuktuk to the hotel,glimpsing a tantalizing view of a gleaming gold Wat on our way there.

More about Luang Prabang later. IT is an amazing town.

Will continue later as internet here is a little intermittent….

Please leave comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dragon Boat Festival at Shishi

Yesterday was the Fifth day of the Fifth lunar month ,otherwise known in the East as Duanwu or the Dragon Boat Festival, which is celebrated not only in China but I believe also in Vietnam and other countries in the region.Funnily enough this year it fell on the same day as Shavuot  which also features water-splashing-but more of that later. The school organized a trip for the foreign teachers to the neighbouring town of Shishi, which traditionally hosts some games and activities to mark this  holiday. So we piled onto a bus and set off for Shishi,about an hour away from Jimei out east in the direction of Quanzhou. After getting briefly lost the bus arrived at around 11am in the dusty crowded provincial town which was bursting with people ,many carrying coloured flags and all streaming towards the sea.When we arrived at the seashore however,it appeared that the tide was out.Clearly no sea-based activity was going to happen for a while.The people informed us that the activities would only begin around 1pm- it was already a sweltering 35C and there was nothing at all to do Fortunately we found a small snack bar that served us cold mango smoothies, and which mercifully had air conditioning and even wifi. So we all trooped inside and settled down to eat the packed lunch the school had provided (mostly inedible) and wait. At around 12.30 we went back again to the coast,which was by now extremely crowded ,so that we could hardly see anything . Finally we were permitted to get onto the roof of a nearby temple,which had been prepared with chairs for visiting officials rand reporters. From this vantage point we had a great view of all the celebrations,and started to enjoy things,despite the oppressive heat.We had attended the Dragon Boat celebrations in Xiamen and Jimei the year before,but they had been very different from what we saw in Shishi.In Jimei different teams of rowers representing the different colleges and universities had competed in dragon boat races using highly decorated boats, the events rather resembling the Oxtbridge boat race.In Shishi however,there were firstly colourful parades of marching groups in different costumes,some carrying models of ancient boats.Then there were brass bands. Then men came down to the water with sacks of live ducks, which were tipped into the sea to be caught by fishermen. And many different kinds of boats performed varous  other activities which were hard to follow,but which included splashing water over each other in mock warfare.

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People carrying model boat

 

All in all the whole thing was pretty interesting if rather noisy and confusing.But hey,that’s part of travelling to untouristy locations right?

Well we have only three more days left in Jimei before we pack up and get the train down to Shenzhen and from there to Hong Kong and Laos.So hopefully I will be updating next from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Stay tuned and please feel free to leave comments.

 

 

Culture Clash

Today’s blog post is really a product of  stuff we discussed this week in class.I chose to discuss Culture Shock with the students, as so many things seemed to be leaping out at me over the last few weeks.As I have said before, even though we have now been here a while the “differentness” of things is still zapping my brain.Even though I know that traffic rules are really a recommendation and are not enforced I find myself wondering how anyone can ever drive here.Being a pedestrian is also challenging when bikes can zoom at you in the wrong direction and half of the pavement is being dug up to build the metro.

But other things are also irking me recently.I know that manners and customs are culture-based,but kids peeing and worse in the middle of the street is not my favourite thing about China.The smell of durian and stinky tofu does not do it for me-have I been here too long? I don’t know.There are always going to be things about this place that entrance me and others which are baffling or even vexing.Anyway,I asked my students what they felt would be puzzling if they were to be instantly transported to New York or London.WE listed things that are different: chopsticks,fashion,language,education system,hairstyles,manners,heck-pretty much everything right? Indeed,the more time we spend here,the more alien we feel,really.

The girls can often be seen wearing really really short skirts,or shorts,black tights and super high heels.My mother would never have let me out of the house looking like that.And yet they are super modest,sexually inexperienced and the opposite of how they LOOK to me! Confusing,right? They often ask me about how college girls behave in the West and they can’t understand the sexual liberation they see on TV shows.It’s all so contradictory.Then there is the alcohol thing.I know that students in the West drink far  too much,have wild parties and stay up all night.This has already shocked our friend from Jimei University who is now studying for her Masters in Connecticut.But isn’t being at University all about cutting loose and having some fun and being young? I mean we all did stupid things at college but then we grew up,right? Anyway the kids here just study,study,study.It’s lights out at 11pm and off to sleep,and no internet for them.They spend their weekends in the library.I remember my college days and feel a little sad.But they seem okay with it and for them it’s normal.We discussed the fact that Chinese girls hold hands when they walk out on the street.I suggested they not do that in the US or the UK.

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Judy,Witty and Shirley at D’s birthday party

Another topic we discussed is the students’ unwillingness to discuss.I have one class,Majoring in Chinese as a Second Language,who are outstanding.With them I manage to have real discussions and exchange of ideas.But most classes in China,when you ask them what they think about something,you will be met by stony silence.You never know if they don’t understand or are afraid to answer.I asked the students about this.They said,it is impolite to be too direct in your answers.They are also not trained in Critical Thinking,and most Chinese teachers just want them to regurgitate what they have been told.They are not supposed to express an opinion.It is hard to get them to say much except by doing roleplays,which they really enjoy,because then they can kind of hide behind a fictional character or projection of themselves The students’ idea of a party seems to us really immature.We had a party for D’s birthday and they brought us really childish presents- I mean is was adorable and all but these girls are 3rd year University students- we don’t know how they will have real relationships with boys and get married if they just giggle and blush when you talk about guys and stuff.Their idea of a great night out is to go to KTV together,eat birthday cake and sing corny romantic love songs! However,it is also refreshing compared to all the over promiscuity of the West in a way.

The students are so helpful,respectful and also friendly to us.They actually feel it is an honour to help us out with tasks such as going to the bank or the phone shop or helping us to buy stuff online.The whole experience here is just so different from what we were expecting.

Just like last year, today we had Sports Day where we had to run around the Sports field and wave at the students,hear some speeches in Chinese and then watch the opening ceremony complete with scantily clad cheerleaders with pompoms.BUt this year there was a novelty-they got hold of National Flags for all the foreign teachers to carry,so that was a great laugh.

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