Five spice, pagodas, and flight delays: a story and an announcement

If you had told me 8 months ago that I’d be writing this blog post, I would have squinched up my eyebrows at you, just a tad. I planned on staying in South Korea for at least two years. That’s why I started learning Korean, it’s why my apartment looks so… settled in to.

This story starts with winter vacation and the cheapest flight I could find to Thailand.

Of course, if you’re going super cheap, one flight is going to be turned into 3 flights, with 2 long layovers. And if you’re luckless, like my friend, M, and I were in December; then maybe flights will get cancelled all together and you’ll get two full days and one night in China.

But then, if you think about it, how many of my best stories start with catastrophe? It is what you make of it.

So, this is how I found myself, along with M, stranded in the Shanghai airport. I didn’t want to leave the airport; my kindle was loaded and I knew there was a Starbucks in the airport…. somewhere. Leaving the airport seemed, to me, like a bad idea. What if we got lost? Or raped? Or miss our flight back? I mean, this was China, after all. We hadn’t planned on going to China. For me, the country was this black void that I knew little about except for the fact that it’s like, really dirty and probably dangerous and won’t we die of smog inhalation in the first two hours?

But M didn’t want to stay in the airport all day. So, while she found a bank and exchanged some of our money, I consulted with the little tourist office about how and where we should go. Then, amidst some really long stares from passersby, we boarded the Shanghai metro system.

On the subway ride we saw a baby wearing crotchless pants and two white herons taking flight out of a marsh. I was intrigued.

My first impressions of China went like this: Why are all those women standing at the top of this escalator at the exit to of the metro station? My god, why are they jingling their keys at me? I don’t need a ride. Oh, they’re motor taxi drivers! Oh, my goodness, there’s even more of them. Hey, look at that guy. Oh, my gosh, don’t make eye contact with him. Too late. Okay, do what M is doing, look straight ahead. Don’t look back, don’t look back, too late; did he just pat the seat behind him? Yes, yes he did. Why does China smell familiar? What’s that smell? Oh, goodness that’s five spice. Remember that roommate who used to cook only with five spice? Okay, now we have to decide which way to turn; definitely left.

China was bitter cold. It was December, after all. And we weren’t dressed for the cold. But we ended up walking to a park that day and this is what happened next:



We found a beautiful park with a giant pagoda. We went inside and realized we could climb to the top.
On all the different levels were vast, abandoned rooms where we could peak in and just see,
you know, beautiful peacock covered vases sitting in emptiness…


And then we got to the top…..

Once back outside, we walked around the park a little…

It was bone-chilling and all we had was our hoodies, so we decided to leave and look for a coffee shop.


We settled for tea instead.




My first impressions of China was that it smelled like five spice and had beautiful, lush parks.

The tea left something to be desired; but it was just a little chain hole-in-the-wall and they did give us a ton of nuts and fruit.

Things got less happy-go-lucky from there. Back at the airport, we were exhausted and we were supposed to BE IN THAILAND already, but we weren’t. I absorbed myself in a book of short stories about Korean immigrants in the States, M practiced dance moves in a far corner of the airport. We waited. And we almost missed our next flight because they changed gates and made no announcements. I figured it out just in time and for the second time that day; we had to run to make it.

We arrived in Kumming in the middle of the night and discovered that we were going to be stranded for another 17 or so hours before our last flight to Chiang Mai. We would lose an entire day of vacation in Thailand. All our hostel bookings and the itinerary I had planned was now useless. It was 3AM and we were crowded around the help desk of China Eastern, the airline that had screwed us over so badly with delays and overbooking flights. Luckily, we had an entire crowd of Chinese and fluent-in-Chinese other-mystery-nationalities who were fighting with us for the airline to give us all hotel rooms. And eventually, they did and we all crowded into a packed bus in the wee hours of the morning to drive from the airport into some unknown city.



This was our morning view.

We were exhausted and annoyed and disheveled; which of course is the perfect time to meet an extremely handsome guy from Britain. At the hotel, further chaos. The Chinese girl with funky hair at the front desk was trying to charge us for rooms, then she decided that they had run out of rooms and we would have to bunk together or maybe sleep in the lobby. More arguing, eventually, M and I were given a key to a room. I think by this time it was 4:30AM. M and I pushed our beds together (it was freezing, and to be honest I think I was terrified of being in a scary Chinese hotel with a creepy Santa), set our alarms, and tried to sleep.

The next day is a blur of exhaustion and frustration save for one random act of kindness.

We got back to the airport where there was more arguing at the China Eastern help desk for meal vouchers and some sort of compensation. Finally, the airline staff told us we were going to get back on a bus and go to a different hotel for breakfast. We opted out, not wanting to risk missing our flight later that afternoon for the chance of a meal that promised to be as chaotic and frustrating as the hotel trip was the night before.



Then, a few hours before our next flight, we found the airport Starbucks. Some of you might laugh at this, but I was so ecstatic that I startled passersby and caused stares. I knew Starbucks would have good coffee and we were desperately in need of that by now. I also knew that they would probably have wifi so we could communicate with friends and family, who might have been wondering why we hadn’t been making Thailand posts by that time.

Starbucks had both coffee and wifi. But in China, you have to have a cell number to access free wifi. We didn’t have one; but I asked one of the baristas to help me and she did using her own phone to access a code so that I could use my wifi on my ipod. Then, she brought me this:



Was it her lunch? Was it, exactly what was it? I had no idea. But it was sweet and warm and came with something I know to be bean powder. I devoured it with a little help from M. We chatted a little with the girl, who shares an English name with my mother: Bonnie. I was homesick, a little teary, and I was most definitely exhausted.

We arrived in Thailand later that night. Two days later, I bought an expat memoir written by a teacher in China. I started reading it on the long, mountainous bus ride between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. On my last evening in Thailand, while pretty much falling apart after having discovered a used bookstore in Chiang Mai, I bought another book on China.

China was once too strange and scary for me to consider. But being there opened up my mind. It is different, but it isn’t scary. I found the people in China to be extremely kind and welcoming, not to mention that the country was beautiful in a shabby-chic way. You know?

This past April, I started sending out resumes because my current contract ends in August. I sent resumes to schools in Korea, Japan, and yes, China.

In the end, China made me three job offers. The last job offer was one I simply couldn’t refuse.

So, there you have it.

I’m moving to the People’s Republic of China in September. I’ll be teaching oral English and maybe some creative writing or literature classes at a private university in southern China. Here are some facts in no particular order:

  • My university is located in Guangdong province, near the tiny town of Chini
  • There are more than 13,000 students at my university and 50 Western teachers specializing in English. I think maybe there are hundreds of Chinese teachers.
  • I won’t teach more than 20 hours a week, and it might just be 16 or 18. This will be a breeze compared to the 30 hours a week that I put in right now (I’m at school for over 46 hours a week).
  • I basically have complete control over my classroom. This was a big deal to me because right now I have complete control, but with many public school jobs in Korea and Japan, you don’t really have control. I realized halfway through this school year that it would be really difficult for me to switch to that kind of work environment.
  • The university is 1-2 hours from Guangzhou, the 3rd largest city in China. Most of us back home known this city by it’s former name, Canton.
  • The university has a lake and red brick buildings and a clock tower.
  • The university is 35 minutes away from a “modest suburb of Guangzhou” Huadu, a city of over 700,00 (my present city, Cheonan, has less than 600,00). Haudu has Starbucks and H&M. These things are important.
  • I will be 3 hours away from Hong Kong, and apparently the school owns an apartment in Hong Kong that teachers can use for free on the weekends.
  • The school provides housing, in fact they are building new apartments for Western teachers now, so I will be the first one to move in.
  • I have checked and confirmed, there are cockroaches but not too many. Or so I’m told.
  • It will be hot, rainy, and humid for most of the year.
  • I will probably be asked, at some point, to eat frog legs and or snake and or a ton of other things.
  • My school has a gym, and a pool, and a track field (hahahahahahaha!)
  • My school also has a theatre department and apparently a lady who was working on Broadway in NYC now works there.
  • I get free Chinese lessons (Mandarin or Cantonese? I have no idea; but I can add another to the list of languages I’ve started but haven’t come close to mastering; Japanese, Korean… being the first two).
  • I won’t be making as much money in China as I do in Korea, but I’ve been in correspondence with seven different teachers at this university and I’ve asked them how much they’re able to save or put away from their salary. It sounds like, due to the lower cost of living, they’re able to save about as much as I am here in Korea. So hopefully I won’t be losing money.
  • Beijing is a 9 hour bullet train ride away. So I won’t be seeing the Great Wall right away, but eventually, I will.

And here it is, the reason why I accepted the job:

I get 6-8 weeks of paid vacation time from January to February.

And, if I recontract, I don’t have to work from the end of June through August.

This kind of vacation time is going to allow me to travel AND go home to Seattle to see my family.Here is a map:

20140525-190707-68827344.jpgThere is so much more to say, but I’m really tired from writing this post and I still have Korean homework to finish. I do want to make it clear that I don’t dislike or hate Korea, but some of you know that I had a hard time securing a job here and nothing I’ve been offered in Korea has come close to the benefits of the jobs I’ve been offered in China. I’ll be sad to leave Korea, that much is true. But I’m also excited for the adventure ahead of me.If you got this far, congratulations and thank you so much for reading.Also, LOOK! They have peanut butter chocolate bars at the Starbucks in China! Also, I’ve read about raspberry and birthday cake flavored Oreos and I must say, I’m pretty excited.




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