A Travellerspoint blog

My Moms in Vietnam!

Three weeks through a beautiful landscape with one of the most adventurous moms a son could ask for

all seasons in one day 35 °C

As the adventure of living in China came to an end, the adventure of backpacking through Asia was just beginning. I said a heartfelt goodbye to my students and fellow teachers, sent a large suitcase of souvenirs back to Canada and left Yantai with nothing but a dusty old backpack, a travel guitar and a yearning to explore. To kick off the journey I spent Canada day weekend in Shanghai with my kindergarten partner in crime Amanda. Both Amanda and I were set to begin our travels, her in Mongolia and me in Vietnam. The weekend trip was our way of saying ‘goodbye for now’ to China and each other. We stayed in a great little hostel where we spent the majority of our time chatting with a friendly bartender named Liarrona. She was a Chinese student on summer vacation whose coolness was only outdone by her Malcolm X glasses. Amanda and I only had only two days in the big city but we made them count. We walked the bund, caught the sunset from the top of the Jin Mao and enjoyed a little of Shanghai's Canada day nightlife. Surprisingly, we managed to find a bar which was throwing a Canada day party. The Torontonian owner was so happy to have some fellow Canadians in the bar that fed us free shots all night long. We stumbled back to in the hostel in the wee hours of the morning, catching some spicy street side noodles on the way. The next morning, Amanda was off to Mongolia and I had to catch a flight to Nanning in order to get a visa for Vietnam. We said a sad, hungover goodbye and parted ways. It’s amazing how fast you can become close with people when you are living abroad, especially when they are the only other round eyes around.
The heat was stifling in Nanning and I had trouble finding my hostel. I was pouring sweat when I finally found the small stuffy building. While checking in I started chatting with another traveller who was also on his way to Vietnam. I was surprised to hear that he was not only a Calgarian but had also been living in China for the last year. I told him I was teaching in the north of China in a small city called Yantai. The city seemed to ring a bell. His face straightened and he looked me dead in the eye when he asked if I knew a girl named Amanda Hillestad. It just so happened that I was talking to Amanda's ex-boyfriend. I couldn't believe the coincidence considering him and Amanda had not communicated in months. I literally said goodbye to Amanda in the morning in Shanghai and met her ex-boyfriend randomly in a completely different part of the country that night. It was unbelievable. We grabbed a few beers that night and chatted about life in China. My visa was ready the next morning so I gathered my things and caught the bus to Hanoi to meet my mom. It was a comfortable ride through a beautiful limestone landscape. The Chinese family sitting next to me were wearing matching sponge bob square pants t-shirts but were giggling at me as if I was the one who looked ridiculous. I took the chance to practice my mandarin with the kids.
Vietnam held many surprises for me. Since the Chinese had ruled the region for almost 1000 years, I expected the country to be quite similar to China. As I rode in the cab from Hanoi’s bus station to its old quarter, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Vietnam is a very unique place. Like the Chinese, the locals sit on the side of the road at tiny tables drinking tea and eating noodle soup, but like other of South East Asians, the Vietnamese are generally more laid back. The cities are full of rundown albeit colourful shacks but have a more cheerful atmosphere. That is until you step into the war history museums. I was most surprised to see how many western tourists have overrun the small nation. Since I had faced such difficulty in obtaining my visa, I assumed Vietnam would be more closed off to westerners. After living in a small Chinese city where I was hard pressed to find another white face outside of my school, it was certainly a shock arriving in the old quarter of Hanoi where it often felt as though there were more foreigners than Vietnamese. With that said, I quickly learned why Vietnam is such a popular travel destination.
The cab left me in front of a boutique hotel in the old quarter of Hanoi. Smiling porters helped me with my bags into the lobby. Waiting in an airy hotel room two floors above was my mother. It was great to finally see her again. It had been several months since she had visited me in China and I had really missed her. In addition to providing me with wonderful travel company, she treated me to some comforts I had not experienced in quite a while.
We spent hour time in Hanoi wandering the old quarter, a maze of colourful and chaotic alleyways that manages to maintain an old weathered feel despite the myriad of tourist shops and travel agencies. We ate, we drank and we caught upon each others lives. After a couple nights in Hanoi, we took a minibus to the coast to board a luxury cruise through Halong Bay. The boat was luxurious, the cabin comfortable and the onboard food fantastic but the real treat was the scenery. Halong is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. We visited some caves enclosed in small limestone islands, relaxed on some lost beaches and caught a vibrant pink sunset over the higly pigly horizon. Over various delicious seafood meals, we chatted with a honeymooning Australian couple. The husband was a geologist and gave us some context for what we were looking at and how it came to be. Luckily, out tour company had an entire section of the bay rented for their boats only so we were able to avoid the crowds.
We caught a bus back to Hanoi the following morning to spend a night before boarding an overnight sleeper to Hoi An. On a map, Hoi An does not look very far from Hanoi but we had no idea how long the journey would take. The Hotel staff gave us estimates ranging from twelve to eighteen hours. Twenty-four hours later, we finally pulled in to the Hoi An bus station. Despite the length, the ride was actually quite nice. The bus was outfitted with full beds which allowed us a few hours of sleep and my mom got a little taste of the backpacker experience. She told me it brought her back to her days of traveling Asia, however, I'm sure she has had much rougher travel experiences than this relatively comfortable bus ride. Our accommodation in Hoi An was cushy to say the least. We stayed in two fantastic spots, an old colonial style hotel in the town center and a massive beachside resort outfitted with a fancy pool. My mother had really gone all out with hotel reservations. The rooms in which we were staying in Vietnam were the nicest I had seen in almost a year and the nicest I would see for many months to come.
We must have arrived in Hoi An on the day of a festival because the streets were swamped with both domestic and foreign tourists. But the following day the streets were comparably barren. We spent our time exploring Hoi An’s ancient alleys and boutique silk shops. One night we met with a woman who was seated next to my mom on her flight from Canada to Vietnam. Just like my mom, this woman’s daughter was teaching in Asia and had met her to travel Vietnam for a couple weeks. We all met for dinner at a fancy tourist restaurant in center of town. The night started in a very civil manner with a nice meal and pleasant conversation but soon descended into a drinking contest filled with beer, shots, rum and shitty wine. We polished off the evening with a drunken game a doubles pool which lasted only until mom and mine's taxi arrived to return us to the hotel. On our final day in Hoi An we took a cab out to Ang Bang beach, a famous stretch of coast characterized by bright white sand and warm water. It was one of the nicest beaches I had ever set foot on and yet not terribly crowded. We returned to resort tanned and well-rested.
Our next stop was Da lat, a breezy mountain town situated in a refreshingly cool high altitude climate. In many ways, Da lat seemed like it would be more at home in the French Alps rather than South East Asia. It’s got a European mountain village feel. The town’s main attraction is a wacky old guesthouse which looks like something out of the Wizard of Oz. However, we found the expat owned music bars to be more fun. Each night we would end up sipping European beers while watching old expats belt out American blues and rock tunes. Da lat is also the alleged home of the Easy Riders motorcycle gang, an old group of blue vested Vietnamese men who offer tourists the opportunity to tour Vietnam by motorcycle. Unfortunately, there are so many blue vest wearing motorcyclists offering rides its pretty difficult to determine who is a real Easy Rider and who is capitalizing on their popularity. We found a couple of guys that seemed legitimate and organized a trip from the high lands of Da lat through the lush countryside to the coastal town of Mui Ne. The scenery was spectacular and the guides full of interesting information of which only a portion was spoken in good enough English for us to understand. The roads were smooth and we never really felt unsafe. That is until we took a break on the side of the road and watched our guides drive off around a bend. A local man passed by and yelled something obscene at us in Vietnamese. Our hearts sank for a moment as we realized that we may have just let two men leave us in the middle of nowhere and drive off with all of our valuables. After ten anxious minutes of walking down highway, however, we were relieved to find our guides smoking cigarettes a few kilometres down the road. I still don't understand why they felt the need to drive so far away just to smoke a cigarette. I guess they wanted some privacy. We jumped back on the backs and after an hour or so we could see the bright blue ocean ahead.
Mui Ne sits on a spectacular coast line surrounded by beautiful countryside. I had hoped this small fishing town would be somewhat protected by the crowds of westerns but the beach was really just a string a fancy western resorts. Not that I had too much to complain about. We had a fantastic bungalow style room foot steps from the ocean and spent most of our time drinking, eating, swimming and developing a tan. One day, in between afternoon cocktails, we had a cab driver take us to Mui Ne’s famous sand dunes. These imposing white hills made me feel as though I was in the middle of the Sahara while only a kilometre from the coast. I don't understand how a white sand desert can exist directly next to the ocean but I was there to enjoy myself, not ask questions. We took an ATV out into the tunes for a joy ride. At one point our 4’8” guide took me directly over the edge of a steep dune. The beginning of the drop was near vertical and more terrifying than any amusement park ride I had ever been on. My hat was lying in the sand and my hair slicked straight back by the time we came to a stop. It took a few drinks back at the resort before finally I stopped shaking.
The following morning we were off to Saigon, my mom’s last stop on our Vietnam tour. She certainly ended her trip in style. We were booked into the Majestic, an old luxurious French hotel on the river and Saigon is more up class than any other place we had been in Vietnam. It’s a very interesting city. While Hanoi acts as the historic and cultural center of Vietnam, Saigon acts as the center of style, progress and money. It’s full of boutique restaurants, chic bars, fancy high rises and partying foreigners. During the days we walked the city and enjoyed the city’s many classy joints. We also visited the Cuchi tunnels just outside the city limits to see how the Viet Kong lived underground during the war. We even spent ten minutes in the tunnels themselves which is a feat if you consider the limited space and high temperatures. I don’t understand how people were actually able to live down there. In the evenings we sampled some of Saigon’s international cuisine and drank at some chic rooftop patios. Then, after a couple short days, it was time for my mom to go home. We really had a fantastic time in Vietnam. I can’t thank her enough for making it happen. We had fun, we relaxed, we ate some great food, and we experienced one hell of a beautiful country together. I was sad to see her go but it was time for me to continue the adventure alone.
Once my mom had left for the airport, I took a long bath in the nicest hotel room I would see for many months and packed my backpack. I still had four days to wait until my visa was processed at the Chinese embassy so I checked into a hostel and booked a tour to the Mekong delta. I am certainly not the tour taking type but the Mekong delta is a difficult place to navigate and the tour was cheaper than booking my own bus tickets and accommodations.
I was right to be weary of a cheap tour. I was packed onto a bus with twenty five other tourists, few of whom were backpackers, and shuttled from attraction to attraction with hardly enough time to get a decent picture. Nonetheless, the tour operators did show us a few interesting areas that I would never have found on my own. We spent half a day in an island village where they made rice paper and snake whisky. The tour’s highlight was a large chaotic floating market where all sorts of goods were exchanged twenty four hours a day. The wide river was packed with farmers and merchants on rusty old longboats throwing money and bags vegetables at each other.
Instead of staying in the tour’s recommended hostel, I chose to sleep at a home-stay a few kilometres outside of Can Tho. The home stay owner picked me up in the center of town and rode me into the countryside on the back of a motorbike. I stayed with a local family in a river side home. Most of the family was gone since the eldest son was getting married in a neighbouring village. When I ventured into town it became clear that I was the only foreigner in a village of no more than a thousand people. I just drank Vietnamese coffee on the side of the street with the locals and laughed at jokes I didn't understand yet were clearly made at my expense. A cool experience.
I returned to Saigon late in the evening to find that the hostel had accidentally given away my reservation. This was a problem since Saigon was in peak tourist season and there was little vacancy. When I complained to the desk clerk she arranged to have me sleep in a female dorm. It was in this air conditioned six-bed white walled room that I met Dana, a Dutch traveller who had just ridden a motorbike from Hanoi to Saigon. Dana and I would end up traveling together for quite a while. But those stories are for another post. For now I can say that we got a good taste of Saigon’s crazy night life and cheap fresh beer before catching a bus across Cambodian border.
Overall, I enjoyed Vietnam. The crowds of tourists were unexpected and difficult to swallow at times but the country is truly one of the most naturally beautiful I have been to. The French influence added a unique dimension to the experience and the contrast between modern Saigon and the traditional countryside was interesting. My adventurous mother and I traveled in relative luxury and I able to experience a cushy side to Asia I was not used to. It was a great way to unwind after the crazy end to the school year in China.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 00:50 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes beaches vietnam Comments (0)

The Beginning

A short summary of my year in China

I must admit, it has taken me far too long to sit myself down and begin writing this blog. I have been teaching in China for ten months and traveling for another two. However, I have done my best to keep track of the places I have been, the people I have met and the things I have experienced.
Since this is a travel blog, it should begin in Vietnam where I first strapped on a dusty backpack. But first I would like to touch upon how this whole Asian adventure started with a kindergarten position in China. My memory is a little hazy so I will try to recount the basics.
I was offered a chance to teach in China immediately after finishing my studies at UBC. It was confusing time in my life. I had finally emerged from that comfortable student bubble which had sheltered me from so many real world responsibilities for so long and I went through the typical post university crisis. I was ecstatic to finally receive my diploma, then confused as to what I was supposed to do with it. Class was out and it was time to make some real world decisions.
My plan at the time was to get out of Canada and experience the world. I just did not know how. Then, only a week after I finished my last exam, I heard through the grapevine that a distant relative was looking for a teacher to start immediately in China. I had always planned to visit China someday but I did not expect an opportunity to come so soon. The job just fell in my lap and I was given only a few days to take it. I have never been one to turn down an adventure. So, after a very short deliberation period, I went for it. One day the idea of living overseas was a distant thought. A few days later I was on a redeye over the pacific wondering if I had really thought this one through.
I arrived in Yantai, a little known coastal city of China, after dark September 20th 2011. My new boss, Mr. Humbke or Roger, greeted me at the airport with a thin smile and stern handshake. He was an ancient looking man with a full head of slick grey hair, pale tired eyes and a serious demeanour. As we made small talk, however, I found his personality to be far from serious. He liked to joke and his jokes were not always very clean. Roger escorted me to my new apartment in a rattling minivan which had ‘Canadian International School’ plastered on its side. As we drove through the city, I was struck by its seemingly barren communist like landscape. It was past midnight and very few lights were lit. There were no other cars on the streets and countless identical towering white buildings lined the highway. The city looked abandoned. I found this ironic given the fact I had just landed in the most populated country on the planet.
The van soon pulled into the parking lot of a large apartment complex. It was recently built and consisted of several tall white buildings set amidst a tacky Japanese garden environment. Roger led me into one of these buildings and up to the sixth floor flat that I was now to call home. It was a spacious white-walled apartment with hardwood floors and a small kitchen. The living room was clean and furnished with a modern white couch. Sitting on this couch was a 6'2" 250 lb Middle Eastern giant. As I entered the room he sprang his massive frame up from its seated position to shake my hand and introduce himself as ‘Yahia’ (pronounced Ya-Ya). This was my new roommate. I must admit I was a little intimidated at first. He looked like he could crush me with one hand. However, it quickly became apparent that this beast from the Middle East was actually a gentle giant. Yahia and I came to China from very different backgrounds. He was a Palestinian Muslim college football star and I was a non-religious Canadian arts geek. Needless to say, our personalities were not two adjoining pieces of the same puzzle. But it was clear from the beginning that we were going to get along well. Despite his intimidating presence, Yahia is actually one of the nicest guys I know. Looking back now, the experience would not have been the same without him.
I spent my first night in China staring at the barren white walls of my small empty bedroom. When the sun finally rose, I took the opportunity to explore my surroundings. Yantai is a coastal city across the water from South Korea. While it is considered small by Chinese standards (and certainly felt very small at times) it actually has a population of over six million. It’s a traditional Chinese city with very few foreigners. The downtown area is beautiful and a popular summer retreat for domestic tourists. It sports a few decent beaches, some fantastic street food and a very kind population who will take any opportunity to practice the ten or twenty English words they know with you.
I was living in an economic development zone called Kai Fa Qu about thirty minutes outside of the city center. The neighbourhood was more modern than the rest of Yantai and full of Korean families working for companies like LG and Samsung. There was development on every corner and thirty story apartment buildings scattered along the coast. Central Kai Fa Qu was full of clothing markets and food stalls. I easily wasted afternoons wondering through the maze of sizzling meats, unfashionable apparel and random trinkets. My building was also about twenty minutes from a wide beach which stretched the entirety of the city. The sand was soft and beautiful but I did not dare enter the water for fear of developing an eleventh toe.
Five minutes walk from my doorstep was the Canadian International School of Yantai (CIS), a large yet unassuming six story building fenced into a complex. This was my new place of employment. Upon entering CIS for the first time I had the pleasure of meeting the school’s eclectic group of teachers. Roger, the man who picked me up from the airport, was our principal. I think most who met Roger agreed that he was slightly crazy and had a poor grasp of school affairs. Yahia, my giant roommate, was our social studies and gym teacher. Mike, a Pakistani doctor who could speak five languages fluently, was our biology teacher. Unfortunately, he had a local girlfriend who typically forbade him from going out with Yahia and me. There was Bruce, our veteran math teacher with heart of gold, Linda, our middle aged Arts teacher who was an expert at finding literally anything to complain about and Catherine, our moody old grade one teacher who, despite the fact she was Greek, spoke with a British accent and was always at war with at least one of the other teachers. It was an interesting mix which made for a lot of drama. I will save you the details but let’s just say by the end of our second month together many of the older staff were not on speaking terms. I managed to steer clear of most of the politics. In fact, I found it all to be a little comical. I remember thinking that the school had the perfect makings of a sitcom. After the craziness that would eventually unfold, I am still considering the idea.
Before beginning work I was under the impression I would be just an assistant teacher for a small grade two class of about six students. After all, I had no teaching experience and no training. I soon learned, however, that I would be the primary teacher of a kindergarten class of Korean and Taiwanese students. I also found out that the school was in its first year and had no books, no materials, and nothing resembling a curriculum for kindergarten. Thirty five hours a week of class time had to be filled with an ESL curriculum that I did not know how to write. I was given only a classroom full of toys, a broken computer and a mandate to improve these kids English to a high enough level for them to enter an English only grade one classroom. The students’ parents even expected me to give these poor kids homework and grades. It was made quite clear from the beginning that the mothers were not pleased to see a twenty three year old male in the classroom. After all, I was probably the only male kindergarten teacher in the city, definitely the youngest and these parents had paid more money for their kids to attend CIS than I paid to attend UBC. Essentially, I was thrown out to sea with boatload of six year olds who had mothers with high expectations.
Luckily, my classroom came with a fantastic Korean assistant who made my transformation from university student to ESL kindergarten teacher much less painful. Her name was Spring and she was a mother with five years of college teaching experience. But Spring had never taught young children before and was just as surprised as me to find out she was assigned to kindergarten. I felt awkward at first having a middle-aged woman look up to me as a qualified and experienced kindergarten teacher but I had to play the part for fear the parents would ask for my removal. So I quickly started compiling a curriculum to teach the kids while teaching myself the ins and outs of early childhood development.
I know kindergarten sounds like an easy gig. I was under that very impression before I stepped foot in the classroom. But let me assure you, kindergarten is no cake walk. Especially when you have no resources and your students do not understand English. In the beginning, I was stressed to the limit. I could not control my class, I did not know what to teach and I did not know how to get these children speaking English. Some of the lessons I gave were far too easy for the kids, others far too difficult. There were few materials online for ESL kindergarten and most other teachers were too busy to help. I certainly had a few moments where I considered giving up.
But after a month or so, school life began to improve. I really started to enjoy having such complete freedom in my classroom. With no curriculum to follow, I had the opportunity to experiment with different teaching techniques. I came to understand which methods were most effective for keeping the kids engaged and how to keep the classroom under control. The fact that I simply like being around kids certainly helped. I felt like a big kid myself most of the time.
I split the day into four periods and focused on English, math, science, crafts and physical education. After many long nights scouring the internet, I found a few good lesson plans for ESL kindergarten and began coming up with activities to keep the kids interested. Spring handled the arts by designing three or four crafts a week to compliment the lessons. Without a curriculum, Spring and myself were really able to teach whatever we wanted. From jungle animals to phonics to the lyrics of ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, I began to understand that these kids were like little sponges and that the content of the lessons did not matter as much as them simply being engaged. They were learning how to learn and the most important thing was to keep them interested.
By late October I started to get the swing of things in the classroom and the city as well. Living in Yantai as a foreigner was interesting to say the least. Everyone was always curious and fascinated by me. People would often stare as if I was some kind of apparition. Elderly ladies would stand less than a meter from my face looking me in the eyes. Having random locals take my picture became commonplace. I heard the word ‘waiguoren’ (foreigner) whispered by passers by where ever I ventured. I got used to high school girls pretending to text while they slyly pointed their camera phones in my direction. After the phone made a ‘click’ sound they would giggle, look down and avoid eye contact.
Occasionally someone who spoke broken English would nervously take the opportunity to practice with me. They always had the same questions. “What is your name?”, “Why are you in China?”, “How much money do you make?” and “Can you give me your phone number?”
I started to develop closer relationships with the teachers at my school. In the short time we had been roommates, Yahia and I had become good friends. Since there were no other young foreigners in Kai Fa Qu, we had to stick close. By the end of the first two months, we were like an old married couple who did everything together. We ate together, we partied together and we worked together. We spent more than half of each and every day in each other’s immediate presence. It was nothing short of a miracle that we never got on each other’s nerves.
As fall dragged on we began travelling to some of Yantai’s neighbouring cities. We visited the old German colonial city of Qingdao in late October. A Mexican expat named Ricardo who was in Yantai for a couple weeks on business joined us for the trip. We spent our time drinking with backpackers at a trendy downtown hostel and strolling through Qindao’s strange thatch-roofed colonial neighbourhoods. Many parts of Qingdao look as though they were carved from German cities and shipped to China. Then we visited the colonial coastal town of Penglai to see the ancient pavilions which hang over the seaside cliffs. I was also lucky enough to catch a weekend in Beijing with my uncle Steve who was visiting on Business as well. Steve treated me to a little bit of the Asian high life while conducting a whirlwind tour of Beijing’s major attractions.
In my spare time, I began teaching myself Chinese. I was tired of communicating with only the small circle of English speakers at my school and wanted to expand my horizons. Mandarin Chinese, however, is not an easy language to learn. The sounds are so foreign that I found it difficult to create any word associations in my mind. It took a couple months of practice before anyone understood my attempts at even the most basic sentences. Progress was slow. I spent weeknights reading through textbooks and weekends striking up conversations with locals at bars and pool halls. I even tried my hand at chatting up some girls. This strategy provided incentive, however, it occasionally backfired.
One night Yahia and I were drinking and playing pool at a billiards club when I struck up a conversation with a young woman playing on the table next to us. She was with a man who I originally assumed was her boyfriend but she insisted they were just friends. We taught each other a little English and mandarin while we played a few games of doubles. The two friends seemed ecstatic to be hanging out with us. They laughed hysterically at our bad jokes and constantly sent pictures of us to their friends. They left early but insisted on meeting again. I suggested we exchange numbers. To be honest, I thought the girl was beautiful and was interested in taking her out on a date.
A couple days later I got a text from the young woman asking why I had not called her yet. ‘Why no call, I miss you’ she wrote. I thought she was perhaps being a bit forward but I apologized anyways and sent her an invite to meet for dinner the following Friday. We sent cute little messages back and forth to each other throughout the week. Her notes were short and sweet. She would often wake me up texts like ‘Good morning, I am so happy I meet you .’ ‘Me too, now get some sleep ’ I would reply. The back and forth continued for days.
I was looking forward to the date. She was obviously interested and this was my first chance to take a beautiful Yantai local out for dinner. When Friday evening arrived, I looked up a fancy hot pot restaurant in the center of town and I phoned her to work out a place to meet. I found ‘Zhao Jing Bo’ in my phone directory and dialled the number. I remember being surprised by how many Zhaos I had already collected in my contacts. The phone rang twice before a deep male voice answered. “Who is this?” I asked. “This is Zhao Jingbo.” He replied. I was confused. Why was some random guy answering a young woman’s phone? “But Zhao Jingbo is a woman” I stated bluntly. “No, I am Zhao Jingbo, we meet at bar one week last.” My face stiffened and my heart sunk. “Were you with a girl?” I asked. “Yes… I was with friend Zhao Qinglo” he replied. The truth finally sunk in. The names were so similar that I had failed to notice. It was not a beautiful young woman I had been writing sweet notes to. It was a man. “I made a mistake, I’m sorry.” I said quickly. “What do you mean? Really, I am Zhao Jing Bo!” He said, emphasizing each syllable of his name. “I’m sorry Zhao…” I paused not sure how to say it, “I thought you were a woman.” There was a long awkward silence. “I’m really sorry, I have to go Zhao, goodbye.” I hung up the phone and stood there not sure what to do. After a moment I dialled Yahia’s number “The date is off and I need a drink.” Zhao continued to call me for months.
Social mishaps were common but I was nonetheless becoming more comfortable in China. I pinpointed my favourite places to grab a bite to eat, I got a gym membership, my Chinese improved and I began honing my photography skills on frequent trips into the city center. Things were looking up. Then winter hit.
Now I am from Calgary where it’s not unusual to face consistent minus thirty days in the winter but I had never experienced the type of cold that Yantai had to offer. While temperatures never sank lower than minus ten, the humidity and the high winds off the ocean were bone chilling. The worst part of the ordeal was that most buildings had no central heating. We had to wear winter coats, gloves and hats whilst eating in restaurants or shopping in markets. We shivered playing pool in the billiard halls. Even our school did not have central heating. Our classrooms were partially heated by clunky space heaters which broke down twice a week but the rest of school was freezing. My poor kids would arrive bundled in all sorts of adorable winter clothes and had to stay bundled well into the morning until the classroom heater finally made progress against cold. A thick sweater was always necessary in the classroom and a full winter jacket in the hallways and cafeteria.
I had a lot of trouble adjusting to the winter as it made moving about the city much more difficult. Poorly heated buses were more packed than usual and did not run on schedule. Taxis were fewer and farer between. Yahia and I spent a lot of time at home watching movies and reading. Our apartment was heated by a government run program which started in late fall after first snow fall and ceased in early spring before the trees were blooming. During this period, leaving the apartment hardly seemed worth it unless Mike was able to drive us.
Christmas break couldn't have come at a better time. Everyone was given ten days off so Yahia and I took the opportunity to head as far south in China as possible. We went to the southern tip of China's only tropical island. The resort city was called Sanya and, in true Chinese style, was much larger and more developed than we expected. Locals call this island the Hawaii of China but its more like the Hawaii of Russia. There were so many Ruskies that most restaurant menus were written in Cryllic.
Yahia and I met a great group of travellers at a laidback hostel. For a week, our small crew of Americans, French, Koreans, Canadians and Chinese played Frisbee all day and partied all night. Some four AM street side dumplings put me out of commission for a couple of days but I nonetheless had a fantastic time.
For New Years, Yahia and I flew to Hong Kong to party for the night. The cheap hotel we reserved had been mysteriously removed from our booking website so we were without a place to sleep. It took us a few hours to find a windowless prison at an inflated price but we balanced the cost of this expense with frequent meals at McDonalds. Unlike on the mainland, in Hong Kong, McDonalds was the cheapest meal around. In the hours before the countdown, the streets were overflowing with drunken tourists and locals. There were so many people the police had to set up barricades to prevent stampedes. We could not even get close to the harbour side to see the fireworks and we missed the countdown in the chaos. But the after party was well worth braving the crowds. The next morning I dragged Yahia out of bed to check out HK. It was a clear blue new year’s day and the beautiful architecture of Victoria harbour was shimmering in the sun. In a few short hours, Hong Kong became one of my favourite cities in the world. The streets are so alive and the city has so much to offer. But we were only afforded a day of exploring before it was time to head to the airport. After a quick stop in Guangzhou, Yahia and I were on our way back to the frigid climate of northern China.
Due to some ridiculous scheduling, I had only two weeks of class before I was given another week off for Chinese New Year. My mother, brother and sister decided to make the trek to China for the event. They traveled up from Hong Kong to meet me in Shanghai where we spent a week in the Paris of the East. Chinese new year is a great time to visit since all the city dwellers return to the countryside to visit their families. We had a fantastic time soaking up all the futuristic architecture, sampling fine cuisine in Shanghai's hip international restaurants and relaxing in an old German mansion turned hotel.
After Shanghai, we made a stop in Yantai where we spent my mother’s birthday in the city’s most luxurious sea side hotel, the Golden Gulf. The hotel staff treated us like royalty. Obviously they relish in the opportunity to impress foreigners. But they took hospitality to the extreme, even spying on us to determine our habits. On the night of her birthday, they covered my mother’s room with rose peddles, balloons and birthday notes personally written by cleaning ladies. This came as a surprise to my brother, sister and I since we did not even mention our mother’s birthday to anyone in the hotel. They must have figured it out from her passport. The manager showed up at her door with a birthday cake and noodles since they had seen my mother enter the hotel with a package of instant noodles earlier that day. Someone had witnessed my sister making a birthday card out of cut-up magazines in the hotel lobby so there were scissors, glue and a pile of magazines waiting in our other room as well. On all of our bedside tables were notes written personally to us from various hotel staff. It was amazing service but borderline creepy.
The following day I took the family to CIS to meet my kids and fellow teachers. None of them truly believed that I had become a kindergarten teacher. This was my proof. The kids really got a kick out of meeting my mother. However, she did manage to bring little Minsung to tears with an overly enthusiastic introduction.
The next day my family was off to Beijing while I stayed behind in Yantai to continue working. The environment I returned to was chaotic and stressful. As the Korean parents had really come to like my kindergarten program, fifteen more Korean kids enrolled for the second semester with more waiting in the wings. I was dumbfounded when Roger told me that I was expected to teach them all. All of a sudden, I had more than thirty students, half of which had been with since the beginning of the year, had a solid base in English and were ready to enter grade one and the other half still at the preschool level. Essentially, I was being asked to teach two classes and I was not happy about it. I gave an ultimatum to the school; unless they found another teacher within two weeks, I would quit.
As this drama was unfolding, a young Calgarian woman named Amanda Hillestad boarded a plane bound for Asia. She had taken her TEFL in Canada and flown to China on a whim to find work. Amanda happened to be the best friend of a cousin and I caught wind of her situation through my uncle. I emailed her immediately to see if she was interested in a kindergarten position. If she wanted a job, she was basically guaranteed. That same day she was being interviewed by Roger and, by the end of the week, Amanda was our new kindergarten teacher. I flew to Beijing that weekend to see my family off before they were to return to Canada. By Monday, I had to have the class divided into two groups. I would take the kids preparing to enter grade one and Amanda would take the younger group.
Things began to calm down after that ordeal and it was nice to have a few new teachers on staff. Amanda, my new kindergarten team mate, fit in nicely. We had a lot in common and got along well both inside and outside of CIS. Other additions included Matt, a 26 year old Aussie motorbike enthusiast who was saving for a bike trip around northern china, Jim "Bodidley", a middle aged west coast Canadian of Irish descent who, due to his fun loving and young personality, quickly became and integral part of our downtown weekend party group and Gary and Lorraine, a friendly well qualified middle aged couple from Toronto who, after thirty years of teaching in Canada, were looking for a little adventure in their lives.
Yahia and I always had fun hitting the pools halls and clubs around Yantai but now we had a small crew to accompany us. This made the weekends a little more entertaining. Our first few nights out together were memorable to say the least. We closed down more than a few of Yantai’s late night joints.
By this time, the worst of winter had passed and as the weather improved, our crew started spending more time at the beach. There were always locals hanging out by the sea in Kai Fa Qu but there was not much of a beach culture. Men in suits and woman in high heels struggled to take romantic walks through the sand, fully clothed high school kids buried each other and occasionally someone would run into the water with a cell phone in their pocket. That was about it. We drew large crowds showing up in colourful swimsuits, blasting music and throwing a football or Frisbee around. People would stand in awe when Yahia removed his shirt to reveal his massive hairy chest. Passers by often tried to join us in games of ultimate Frisbee but could never figure out how the strange plastic disc worked. That was the beach in Kai Fa Qu. Like the rest of Yantai, it was strange but fun. After soaking up some sun we would typically spend the rest of the afternoon drinking beers at a street side barbeque. A cheap massage was usually in order before showering and heading downtown for billiards, dancing and drinks.
Better weather also allowed for more weekend excursions. In May, Amanda, Matt and I went to Weihai, a beach town an hour down the coast from Yantai. The beach was far nicer than Yantai's and the town more quaint. We stayed at Weihai’s only hostel and enjoyed a fun night at Weihai’s only club before returning to Yantai.
The spring season brought with it another ten day holiday and I took the opportunity to travel through Shandong province. First, I climbed China’s most sacred Taoist mountain, Taishan. The unity of China was first declared from its peak over a thousand years ago. It was a tough climb but its temples and sunset vistas were breathtaking. I also visited the Confucius temple and wondered Shandong’s capital city, Jinan. It was a great week of adventure which foreshadowed my months of backpacking to come.
In early June our crew took a weekend trip to Beijing so that Yahia could see the great wall before leaving China. A friend of mine from University who was also working in China joined us on the trip and we had an entertaining weekend exploring Beijing's sites and eclectic night scene.
Summer was hotter than expected and I gave my kids as much out doors time as possible to make up for all the hours spent cooped up in the classroom throughout winter. We got more creative with our lessons developing some more hands-on learning techniques. To teach the kids about dinosaurs, I made fake dinosaur skeletons out of cardboard and buried them in the front lawn. I then took my class on an archaeological dig to find the bones, put the skeletons together and name the dinosaurs we found. We also we took the kids to the zoo and the Penglai aquarium. Given the conditions of the animals, the zoo was a little sad, but the aquarium was well-kept and impressive.
With only five weeks left in the year, I felt as though I had thoroughly prepared my class for grade one. I had done my job and I was looking forward to a relaxing end to the semester. I was in for a big surprise. I came in to school one rainy Monday morning to find Roger sitting in my chair staring out the window. He avoided eye contact and without so much as a ‘hello’, told me that the owners of CIS had purchased a failing Chinese kindergarten. We were to receive eight new Chinese kids of various ages and abilities on Monday. I thought he was joking. It seemed too ridiculous to be true. Anyone who knows anything about kindergarten knows that stability is key to managing a classroom. A teacher needs stability to maintain control and develop a steady curriculum and these kids had already faced far too many changes throughout the year. Adding eight Chinese students to a classroom of Koreans and Taiwanese with only one month left in the school year was just nuts.
We soon found out that the owner of the purchased kindergarten had flat out stolen it from a Korean woman who opened the business a few years previous. The Korean owner hired this woman as an assistant and co-signer. She was forced to use the assistant’s name on the business license since foreigners are not allowed to own businesses in China. After the school had been established for a few years, the assistant simply locked the Korean owner out and stole the business. She quickly ran the school into the ground and was forced to sell her students to CIS. As part of the buyout deal, a position was created for her as a head of kindergarten. All of a sudden I had some slimy business woman looking over my shoulder and heading the program which I worked so hard to develop. I was not happy with the situation and I made my position known. Some harsh words were exchanged but eventually an understanding was reached. Since the kids came to our school with two Chinese teaching assistants from the old kindergarten, the assistants would simply continue teaching the kids by themselves in the morning and then I would join all the classrooms in the afternoon for various activities. It was a band aid solution but it worked.
As the last month of school wore on, the school owners had a few more crazy tricks up their sleeve. One school day a disgruntled local businessman showed soon after classes had begun and chained the doors of the school shut. Some of the smaller kindergarteners could squeeze through the small opening underneath the chains but the rest of us were sealed inside. Nobody knew what was going on. The man returned several hours later to remove the chains and we were told to resume classes as if nothing had even happened. Apparently the school owners owed this man a large sum of money. He chained the doors shut until they were forced to pay him.
On another occasion, Amanda and I arrived at school to find our classroom windows boarded up. When we asked what was going on, Roger told us city officials were coming to inspect but the school did not have a license for a kindergarten classroom. We were instructed to load all of our students into buses and take them to the beach for two hours. This was the solution. Board up the classrooms and take the kids to the beach. No one stopped to think that sending thirty kindergarteners to the beach on a hot summer day with no food, water or sunscreen was maybe not the best idea. But once again, we were left to pick up the pieces.
Many of the teachers made it clear to school administration how unhappy we were with how the school had been run. This out cry eventually led to many of our visas being revoked without warning. There was no point in trying to change things. This was just the way business was done in China.
During my last month as a kindergarten teacher, I pushed the school’s ridiculousness aside and focused on the kids. Amanda and I had seen huge improvements in our students during the second semester, especially the group who had been with me since the beginning of the year. In only ten short months, they had grown so much. Some had gone from shy little toddlers too afraid to say a word in either English or their native tongue to confident little people who wouldn’t shut up. To play a part in the mental development of these little people was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The problem was that I had become quite attached to many of them, even the hellions who frustrated me to my wits end. I felt responsible for them. I wanted to see what they would turn into in five, ten or twenty years. I began dreading the day I had to say goodbye.
The new assistants, Alison and Tracy, were very nice and helpful. Alison even gave me a few Chinese lessons. Despite difficult circumstances, the new Chinese students adjusted well to their new surroundings and I came to enjoy having them in the program. That's the difficult thing about receiving new kids in kindergarten, you know your workload will increase but you also know that once you spend a couple weeks with the new kids, your not going to want to say goodbye. It’s a double whammy.
After a few short weeks we were entering our final week of school and several celebrations were held to conclude the year. First, there was a grade nine graduation with lots of speeches, presentations and fancy clothes. Amanda and I played a bluesy version of "Summertime", her on the vocals and me on the guitar, as our contribution to the event. Then we held a kindergarten graduation. Parents were invited to watch us hand out kindergarten diplomas and candy to our students. The parents held a large banquet for the teachers as a thank you for our work. They prepared various Korean dishes and translated some heart moving thank you speeches from Korean into English. I found myself wondering what was actually being translated, however, since the ratio of Korean words to English words was about 3:1. The mothers all stood in a line and sang ‘you are my sunshine’ to cap-off the event. Last but not least, there were the teacher celebrations which involved dressing up and hitting up the town hard for a couple nights of debauchery. Those are nights which I won't soon forget but often have trouble remembering.
On the last day of school I said goodbye to each and every one of my students. It was not an easy task. They had been at my side Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 3:30 for the last ten months. During this time we had developed a special bond. I kept telling myself that I would see them again someday in the distant future but, deep down I knew this wasn’t true. One by one, each student gave me a hug and left, looking back at me with big confused eyes as their parents escorted them out of the school. Soon, I was sitting in an empty classroom, already reminiscing as I stared at the leftover crafts still hanging from the walls.
Spring, Amanda and the other teaching assistants held a surprise dinner for me that evening during which Spring presented me with a book the kids had made. Each page was a picture drawn by a student with a caption like “Thank you Mr. Ford, I love you”. My heart crept up into my throat as I flipped from page to page.
Soon after our final day of class, the CIS staff dissolved and all the teachers parted ways. Yahia returned to Nova Scotia to find another teaching post. Matt embarked on a motorcycle journey into northern China. Jim flew to Chengdu to meet his new Chinese lady friend. Gary went on the search for a new job in China while Lorraine went back to Canada to take care of the house and kids. Mike continued working a summer program at the school and Amanda and I took off to Shanghai to spend a couple days before we began our travels. Ten months after I had become a kindergarten teacher, I was back to being just a university graduate eager to see the world.
My stint in China was finished. What an experience it was. Ten months of immersion in a traditional Chinese city with little access to western niceties changes a person. Yantai, after all, is no Shanghai. Life in this little known coastal city was not without challenges and I certainly had some difficulty adapting to my surroundings at first. But, as far as experiences go, there is not much I would change. It was often frustrating but always interesting. I learned a lot about Chinese culture, tradition and business. I met a great group of teachers and travelers who I will always keep as close friends and, most significantly, I met a fantastic group of kids who brought a broad smile to face my every morning for an entire year. It’s them who I will miss most.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 00:49 Archived in China Tagged in china teaching Comments (0)

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