Goodbye China

I’ve always embraced new experiences, new challenges, new cultures and lifestyles and moving to China for a year has probably been the boldest move I’ve ever done.

Bold but wise. Taking my chance to be an English teacher for young children in China is a daring move that I knew would get me on the right path to my goals. But more than gaining some professional teaching experience (which is already amazing!), I have allowed myself for the biggest doses of personal growth.

My time in China has been challenging, enriching and filled with memorable and special moments. I’ve experienced daily life through a different lens. I’ve pushed myself far out of my comfort zone and everything that I’ve ever known. I’ve had all my habits, familiarities and ways of thinking challenged. There is nothing more humbling and stimulating than throwing myself into the middle of a country and culture I know nothing about.

I have learnt to appreciate the beauty of connecting with someone with whom I speak zero mutual words with. I’ve learnt how to enjoy someone else’s company on the most basic fundamental human level. I’ve had to use all unimaginable resources to make myself understand and to be able to communicate. I’ve learnt how to push my limits and deal with it.

The most interesting part of my adventure is that for a year I’ve been experiencing the authentic and local Chinese life. Not the fancy and glamourous expatriate life that foreigners live when they move to major international Chinese cities like Shanghai or Beijing.

The first city I settled in when I moved to China was Fuzhou. Fuzhou is the capital of southeastern China’s Fujian province. This “small” city of 8 million inhabitants has remained quite traditional and very few people speak English. Compared to the madness of Beijing or Shanghai, Fuzhou is pretty chilled and relaxed. I like it for its temples, its green mountains surrounding the city and the beautiful urban sunsets I never get tired of. [Read more about the life in Fuzhou]

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In the beginning, it was really hard to get used to living in China and after two months I seriously considered going back to Sydney! The feeling of isolation and alienation was very strong. I felt completely lost and helpless not being able to understand my surroundings and not being able to do the most basic things by myself. Without the help of my Chinese best friend Yance, I would have never stayed that long! Adaptation is a long process and it took a lot of patience and wisdom to get through it and see the bright side of it.

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My teaching job helped me to feel better. Wherever you go, it’s not the place that matters the most but what you do. Doing something that I am passionate about every day reminded me of my goals and why I was here. [Read more about my teaching experience in China].

I held on to it and things started to get better. I met wonderful people along the way and I focused on the great sides of the whole experience, the big picture. I have fond memories of my time in China.

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The second city I moved to and where I currently live is Shanghai. When you say Shanghai, everyone thinks of the highly international city, the New York of China, its magical skyline, and its vibrant atmosphere. Which is all true. Every time I go to the city, I forget that I am in China. Everything is so international and open. I love the combination of the historic Shanghai and the strong European influences that bring an “air de déjà vu”. [Read more about the Shanghainese life].

But when you live in the suburbs of Shanghai, it’s a completely different experience. Living a Chinese provincial life has been my biggest challenge since I have been in China. It’s even more challenging than Fuzhou where I had an urban life.

For some reasons, I’ve ended up living in the most improbable place in China. An odd Dutch town of Shanghai called Holland Village. They have recreated a little Holland and all its charming treasures. There is a canal that weaves through the town and is bordered by beautiful weeping willows. A windmill stands in the middle of the river on a little island filled with trees and flowers. Along the main street, the building facades reflect the architectural style of a quaint Dutch village.

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It’s a strange sensation when you walk around. It really looks like Holland but something is missing. There is no life, no soul. Holland Village is mostly abandoned. There are very few, if any, places to eat or get a drink. No one is around except for newlyweds, using the windmill as a backdrop for their wedding photos.

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Although the scenery is picturesque and lovely, I can’t stop thinking that there’s something a little strange about it. It got me to do more research.

How did this Holland town come out in the middle of an old suburb of Shanghai?

I found out that in the early 2000s, the Shanghai government launched a renovation plan to develop and modernise a few suburban districts. Each of these districts was assigned a new town, each with their own country theme. British, Spanish, German, Italian. The place where I live has obviously been assigned with a Dutch theme. You can find today many districts in Shanghai with a complete European design.

The goal of bringing Europe to China was to unclog Shanghai’s urban sprawl and appeal the population to move to the suburbs. However, the Holland village project has not been successful as the place is mostly deserted, but the Dutch architecture remains.

There’s not much to do around but I enjoy the bike rides alongside the canal and wander in the park, watching Chinese oldies dancing and doing yoga.

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I’ve ended up living in this district because of the school where I teach. It’s a brand new school and the competition is less tough in the suburbs compared to the city. This school is actually an English training center designed for children aged from 3 to 12 years-old. The brand is called Cinostar and is present in major Chinese cities.

It’s been a unique experience to be part of the launch of a new school in China. I’ve experienced it twice and observing how Chinese people do business has been very interesting. It will definitely help me with my future plan when I open my own creative school.

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The first time I came to visit the school area, I freaked out. This part of the suburb is called ‘The Old Town” which says it all. Everything around is old and ancient. Like the people living there. There are no foreigners here, the area is typically Chinese and the pace is very slow. It does not feel like Shanghai.

Everything is authentic and very local. The little food shops, the hairdresser, the barber shop. The oldies sitting in front of their old shops smoking cigarettes. The kids playing around in the dirt, the multitude of empty shops selling bric-à-brac, food, animals, clothes, starving dogs rummaging in the bins. It feels like another period of time and we’re very far from the extravagance of the city.

Luckily the area where we live is more modern and lively, probably the busiest part of the suburb, close to commodities, restaurants, and shops. There are a few good places to eat and hang out. Our apartment is spacious and comfortable. I ride my bike every day to go to school, it’s a nice and quiet lifestyle.

Once a week we fulfil our need for excitement by going to the city which is about 45 minutes by train. The fancy Bund, the busy Nanjing road, the lively and lovely French Concession. It’s like living in two different worlds! The authentic Shanghainese countryside vs the flamboyant Shanghai city.

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I am leaving China soon and I feel very grateful for having had the chance to live there for a year, doing what I love and opening my mind in big to a different world. I have definitely learned more about myself and my abilities to adapt to a new environment. My Chinese adventure has been a whirlwind of emotions, the happiness of meeting all kind of amazing people, the fulfilment of teaching the love of learning to young children, the excitement of discovering something new but also the frustration of not being able to understand or communicate.

To me, this is what traveling is all about. Traveling is not just about going to fancy touristic places and taking beautiful photos. It’s about experiencing a different lifestyle, challenging myself to open my world to a new one. Live, eat, act like a local and see what the everyday life is about. The real life. What I love is the fact that travels consistently challenge me to rethink what I think I know. And it’s the biggest dose of personal growth I can get.

In a month, I am back in my country of heart, Australia, [Dear Australia] ready to start my new venture and still chasing my dreams, more than ever.

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If you’d like to discover what’s fascinating about China, read my article: 10 Random Facts about China you need to know! 

 

 

 

 

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Little Humans of China

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I have been teaching English to little Chinese children for almost a year now. I have seen them progressing and evolving, opening their little hearts to me and it’s one of the most rewarding life experiences.

Witnessing their evolution and being part of their lives have brought me so much joy and motivation every day. I call them my kids, they hug me when they walk in the classroom and the smile on their faces would enlighten the darkest places in the world. They are all rays of sunshine and they warm my heart with their adorable faces, their intelligence and their incredible sense of humor.

I have decided to portray a group of them. This core group of students is very special to me because there were my first pupils when I started to teach. In a few months, we have built a connection that has beautifully evolved. I have seen them growing up, becoming more confident, happier and getting better at learning English.

This is a tribute to my lovely students.

 

*****

Winnie

This is Winnie. He is 4 and he is the youngest of my students. He is also the cutest and my favourite. I know that, as a teacher, I am not supposed to have a favorite but it would be a lie to say that no teacher has a special student they’re deeply fond of.

I remember how shy and lonely Winnie was during the first classes. He would not say a word to anyone and was expressing his anxiety by going to the toilets every 5 minutes. It took me a long time to make him feel comfortable and finally see a big smile on his cute little round face.

After 9 months of English class, Winnie can introduce himself and recite all the words he’s been taught. He sings, performs and does the warm-up exercises even if he’s a bit lazy sometimes. He plays with his little friends and shows a real happiness that melts my heart every time I watch him. He is the mascot of the class, everyone loves Winnie, he is the most adorable tiny human on earth. He is also very smart and has an incredible sense of humour. His answers are always hilarious and unexpected. I asked him one day why he did not do his homework and he said that his dad told him not to!

Winnie’s characteristics:

* He always wears pants with a hole instead of a fly so he can pee more easily

* He is very stylish whatever he wears

* He is the biggest fan of Pepper Pig

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Nico

This is Nico. She is 6 and from the very beginning, she has been the one who has shown the most excitement and interest for our English classes. What I love about Nico is that she is always happy. I have rarely seen her grumpy or reluctant to do anything. She is so consistent with her positive attitude and her love for learning! It is a true joy to have her as a pupil.

She’s also very warm and affectionate. She’s opened up to me very quickly and she gives me a hug, shouting my name, every time she walks in the class.

One day at school, she saw me from far away at the other side of a long corridor. She shouted my name, we both ran to each other and she jumped on me to give me the biggest hug ever. How can you not melt in front of so much love?

Nico’s characteristics:

* She has a big crush on Yance, my teacher colleague who is also my best friend

* She makes really funny faces

* She is the best performer of the class

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Sunny

This is Sunny. She is 7 and she is very smart. She is a talented student and she is very hardworking. She loves learning English and her skills are really impressive. I can sense in her a strong desire for perfection. She has ambition. She is very studious and she is pushing herself a lot which sometimes makes her a bit nervous when she has to perform in public.

Every time we have to show an example to the students, we ask Sunny because we know she is going to do great. She is a good role model just like her little friend Nico. She is reliable and mature for her young age. It’s definitely awesome to have a leader like her in the class.

She takes the class so seriously that she gets annoyed when others students disturb the class. She tells off the naughty ones and it’s hilarious to watch! Don’t mess up with Sunny!

Sunny’s characteristics:

* She loves cats, wears cat outfits and meows like a cat

* She is always part of the best students of the week

* She loves doing her homework and can’t stop practicing!

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Sunny and Nico are very good friends and it’s heartwarming to see the love these two have for each other.  

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******

Tobby

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This is Tobby. He is 5 and at the very beginning, he could not stop moving and running around the class. It was hard to catch his attention and keep him still. He was obsessed with getting the chairs in order and could not stop moving them around! After a couple of weeks, he started to settle and feel more comfortable. He just needed time to get used to a new environment.

Tobby is a good student and has progressed so much! He’s always enthusiastic and curious about everything. He always asks questions, he is very alert and needs to understand how things work. He has his head in the clouds and is a bit shy when he has to perform. I have noticed he’s really shy when we ask him to team up with a girl! He starts to blush and I can barely hear him enunciate the words. It’s actually really sweet.

Tobby’s characteristics:

* He is our best helper, he always helps us out after the class to tidy up and clean up the classroom!

* He wants to become a policeman when he is a grown-up (which matches his obsession with order!)

* He is a fan of Mickey Mouse

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These children make my day every day. They are a true source of joy. They remind me why I am a teacher and how wonderful and rewarding it is to see the progress of a student.

As a teacher, my mission is to teach the children the love of learning and to help them to feel confident and great about themselves. Because that’s what children are. Awesome.

 

Into the Wild

Tuesday, 3rd September 2013, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.

I jump off the taxi and hug my traveling companions. My sunglasses hide the tears rolling down my cheeks. After a memorable journey traveling and wandering around Queensland, I am on my way to explore the far-flung lands of Australia. Alone.

On the bus that departs from Townsville, I realise that my personal quest starts now. The challenge, the adventure, the real one.

I get off at the bus stop in Cardwell, a small coastal town located 2 hours from Townsville in Far North Queensland. It pretty much comes to one long street, a few shops, and a petrol station. I breathe the heartland of Australia and a very provincial area.

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I am standing in front of the Deli Café, the place where I have been asked to wait to be picked up. It certainly that does not go unnoticed with its huge red crab on top of the roof. The perfect spot for a meeting point.

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I hear a woman hailing me. It’s Chris, the mother of the family with whom I am going to spend a few weeks. I will be helping her with the daily tasks at the farm she owns with her husband Wes.

After quitting my job and leaving everything behind me to move to Australia, I have decided to spend my year traveling and volunteering. It’s as if all those years working in the bowels of a money maker pushed me to run away from it. I am seeking authenticity, wildlife, wilderness, breathtaking landscapes, new lifestyles and cultures but I want to associate something useful with it. Volunteering has appeared the best compromise to me.

Chris warmly welcomes me. She carries my big backpack and puts it in the boot. I open the door of the truck, an old Land Rover over-used by the years. A dog jumps on me and licks my face. I make my way through and sit in the middle of petrol cans, dusty objects, and rusty tools.

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Chris starts the engine. We’re sinking into the Australian bush. Deserted dirt roads, mountains, endless pastures, trees and grass burnt by the sun are all around. After a 10 minute drive, she stops the pickup. We have arrived at the farm.

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I get off the car and look at my surroundings: a vast ground with green trees and a wooden shack covered by a tarpaulin. No walls, everything is open. I spot a “living room” and a “kitchen” under a roof built in sheet metal. A bit farther away, a “shower” and the “toilets” are made of wood and scrap iron.

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I can see two old shaky caravans and some abandoned treasures: an old Mercedes, a broken Jaguar, a van, some carcasses of boats all over the place. There’s also a barn filled with a nameless mess. I can sense a place where all sort of objects, useful and useless, have been stocked for many years.

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I catch glimpse of two horses walking around freely, some dogs and cows. I am not surprised to see some spiders and a few dead snakes. I see in that place everything hostile that the Australian fauna and flora has to offer.

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No electricity, or running water. Life here relies on a generator that needs to be filled with petrol every day. Someone has to start it every morning and stop it every night. To get some hot water, we need to turn on the fire in the wood burner of the kitchen.

Chris tells me that a violent hurricane ravaged the town of Cardwell two years ago. The farm has been entirely destroyed.

Everything that I am seeing could have made me run away. But somehow, it’s making me want to stay even more. The change is extreme and without any transition, but this is what I wanted. These people need my help and the lifestyle is far beyond anything that I have experienced in my life.

I can feel that I am about to live in this place the most memorable and crazy adventures.

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7 am, 15th of October 2013, Cardwell, Queensland, Australia.

The deafening sound of the generator pulls me out of my sleep. I had an awful night. The gusts of wind haven’t stopped shaking the old caravan. I thought everything was going to collapse.

I get up to have breakfast. The boys are already awake. Since the destruction of the farm, Chris and Wes have been taking a few backpackers to help them in the daily tasks at the farm. I end up with two French boys, Aurélien and Franck, to share my adventures with. Rosie, the old mare, is already waiting for her piece of toast.

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It’s now time to work. I sit at the back of the old pickup. Jo, the dog of the farm loves coming with us. As usual, he jumps on the passenger seat. Aurélien starts the engine and after a 10 minutes drive on a stony dirt road we stop in the middle of nowhere.

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This morning we are going to do some fencing which consists in fixing the fences to prevent the cows from escaping from their pen. We have to remove the damaged poles, replace them with new ones, stretch the lines of barbed wire and fix them. The very physical and hard work has left a few scratches on my arms and legs.

After a couple of hours, we are back on the farm for a quick break. Then Wes takes us in the bush to cut and pick up big tree trunks. It’s boiling hot and the place is infested with snakes. I stomp my feet every 5 minutes to scare them away. The heat is unbearable, I can feel my whole body melting. I wanted to know what it was like to work hard under the blazing sun, I know for sure by the sweat of my brow!

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It’s finally lunchtime and we’re heading back to the farm. Chris has made some tasty sandwiches and salads that disappear in a flash. We promised Wes to sand the floor of the “living room”. It’s 50 degrees in the sun and the heat is intense but a promise is a promise. With courage and good humor, equipped with pickaxes, rakes, and buckets, we joyfully start the work.

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At 4 pm, we stop our duty. Time has come to relax and rest. As usual Aurélien, Franck and I go down the river. There’s not much going on near the farm and the river has rapidly become our main playground.

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I find interesting the fact that without nothing to do around, there’s actually more space for creativity. We have come up with the idea of building a makeshift raft with two wooden pallets and two inner tubes from a truck. Let’s see if the floating system is on point! Jo, our loyal companion, is always the first one to dive into the fresh and crystalline water of the river.

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Our beautiful raft with the tricolor flag, whose approximate floating system has led us straight to sinking and hysterical laughter!

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After a happy return to childhood acting like kids, it’s time to get back to the farm to…

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…fill the generator with petrol so we can get some electricity.

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…turn on the fire in the wood burner to have hot water.

…and eat a generous dinner! Chris has cooked and the smell tickles my nostrils. It’s a gravy dish with meatballs, mushrooms, onions, mashed potatoes, some cheese and some bread. Not the healthiest but definitely very tasty and well-deserved.

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After dinner comes animated conversations, laughter, and endless card games listening to the sweet sounds of nature.

9 pm, lights out. Time to turn off the generator. Silence takes place, finally. A dark night envelops the farm whose presence can be only guessed under the light of the starry sky.

Life at the farm is far from being easy. The work is hard and the living conditions are difficult. However, I feel like home. I push and challenge myself every day, I learn, I discover and discover myself. I had no idea that I could achieve that much.

Fix cars, build a henhouse, run after chicken and ducks, drive a tractor, a Jaguar, a pickup, fix and repair fences, feed animals, sand the floor, pick up woods, cut it, garden, dig holes, clear lands, load trailers, unload them, work in the bush under a blazing sun, live with insects, spiders, snakes, frogs, toads, and all sorts of poisonous creatures…

I feel like living a second life, thousands of miles away from everything I have known, far away from my familiarities, my habits, my routine and the turpitudes of the modern world. Here, I manage to live in the moment intensively, without fearing what tomorrow will bring. I am not scared of it. I embrace it.