Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stepping Stones Rural Volunteering Tour

I watched as one boy in my class debated over what to do. I had asked him to draw a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up. All around him, the other students were busy copying pictures out of their textbooks. Police, teacher, farmer. His brow furrowed, his tongue slowly crept out from between his lips. Then his hand began to move as he stared down at his paper intently.

After a few moments, I glanced over at his work. At the top of the paper, he had written pilot, simply copying the words from his book. But underneath, he had written the following, "I want to be a pilot when I grow up. I want to fly to the stars". An elaborate spaceship was drawn underneath, complete with a self portrait of the artist himself inside.

By the end of class, the paper lay discarded on the floor. I picked it up and asked the student if he wanted to take the picture home to show his family. He shook his head no and stated that he didn't need it. As the students left the room, I wondered about this student and what his future would hold. Would he become a pilot? Would he even have the chance? Or would his dreams simply fall away, discarded, much like his picture?


In April, I traveled to Shangqui, in rural Henan Province with Stepping Stones as part of their bi-annual, week long volunteer teaching tour to underprivileged schools. What followed was one of the best experiences I have had thus far in China.


Stepping Stones works with volunteers to teach English in Shanghai’s migrant schools and community centers, reaching over 4,000 students in 20 different migrant schools. They also regularly take groups of volunteers to teach English to children in rural schools outside of Shanghai. This is what I had chosen to be a part of.


We traveled by train to Henan, a province located in central China. Henan is the third most populous province in China, sending out millions of migrant workers every year to urban areas like Shanghai. This means many of these children are growing up with their grandparents, only seeing their parents once or twice a year if they are lucky.


In many rural schools, the standard of English teaching is particularly low, especially oral English. In China, English is one of the three core elements of the Chinese school curriculum, along with Chinese and Math. A student’s grade in English is one of the key criteria for entry to higher education, making a basic command of English critical to a child’s life chances.


The majority of migrant children do not make it to senior high school, and only a small handful are able to attend university. It is the goal of Stepping Stones to help these children from rural areas to attend senior high school and university, and thereby improve the future prospects of rural families.


A friend of mine had volunteered for a trip the previous year and recommended the experience to me. While I work in education, I had no direct teaching experience. However, the Stepping Stones coordinators ensured me that all I needed was a positive and enthusiastic attitude. And a command of the English language.


The students were amazing. Kind, attentive, and eager to learn. One the first morning, a group of my sixth grade students skipped their break and asked me to practice vocabulary with them instead. 



At the end of the day, I was presented with flowers picked by the students and hugs farewell. Do I think my few hours with these students greatly improved their English? No. But I know that I gave them a positive first introduction with a foreigner, provided them with fun lessons in English, and reminded them people care about them and their future.


Want to join the next volunteer teaching tour to Henan this November? Contact Gloria at or check it out at

Thursday, July 24, 2014

America Observations

In June, I spent two weeks in the USA for my semi annual detox from China. And while it was wonderful to see family, friends, and eat foods I had been missing (Auntie Anne's Pretzels, I'm talking to you), I was shocked by some of the things I encountered. Perhaps it was reverse culture shock or just my poor memory but I found myself noticing odd things wherever I went. What surprised me the most? Here are five things about America that blew my mind.

1. There are a lot of dead animals

Seriously, what is going on with all the roadkill? I've seen exactly one animal that was hit by a car in the 2.5 years I've been in China. But America, holy hell. I saw three dead deer on the five minute drive to my dentist. And don't even get me started on the amount of roadkill I passed on the 3 hours drive from NY to PA.

(not a dead animal, I saved him from the middle of the road)

2. Being carded is a real thing

I ordered a beer in a restaurant and was shocked, SHOCKED, when the waitress asked to see my license. Officially, the drinking age in China is 18, but I think that's more of a suggestion than a law. I've never seen anyone carded here or anywhere else in Asia. So being asked to provide my license at the age of 30 gave me a pretty good chuckle.


3. English is everywhere

I know, I sound like an idiot for this one, but hear me out. On an average day in Shanghai, I see thousands of signs and hear hundreds of conversations that I simply cannot understand. I've learned to tune out most of it or treat it as background noise. But in America? I can understand everything! I found myself listening to all the conversations around me, simply because I could (Which also led me to interrupt a few random people's conversations. I'm pretty sure that makes me creepy). But at times the massive amount of information coming my way was just too much to process. Plus I really didn't want to hear all about the bowels of two men behind me in line. Sometimes it's nice not to know what people are talking about.

4. Tipping

I have no idea how to do this anymore. How much am I supposed to give? And to who? I gave exact change to a waiter one day and he just stood next to the table waiting for me. After a swift kick from my husband, I shoved some money at him while mumbling something about being out of practice. After that, I tipped everyone. I think the Target cashier was confused when I told her to keep the change.

5. Grocery stores are overwhelming

I walked into Wegmans (do you all know about Wegmans? You haven't lived until you've grocery shopped at Wegmans) and fully freaked out over food choices. I even hugged the cheese display before Matthew reminded me that people were watching. There are 23 million people in Shanghai and we have no where near this amount of variety in our grocery stores. I counted over 100 different brands of cereal at Wegmans before I got tired of counting. How is that even possible? And why? I can find 5 maybe 6 different brands in Shanghai if I'm lucky.

American grocery store cheese sections are overwhelming #expatlife

Those are the things that surprised me the most while visiting the States this year. Anyone else find themselves experiencing reversed culture shock when they returned to their home country? Or perhaps try to hug a cheese display? No, only me? Fine then.

Monday, July 21, 2014

FAQ: Part 2

Today I present to you the second half of the questions I am most frequently asked. Click here for part one.

Should I bother bringing appliances like my espresso machine, Kitchen Aid Mixer, and food processor?
The short answer: No.

For any of the large kitchen appliances, the transformer would be just as large or larger than the appliance itself. You’d be smarter to buy the items here (check Shanghai Craigslist for secondhand options) or you’ll find yourself adapting to life without it (though I still dream about my Kitchen Aid).

What about curling irons, straighteners, blow dryers?
Again, no. General rule of thumb is that if it heats up or has a motor, you are better off leaving it behind.

Can I drink the tap water?
China’s water sources are amongst the most polluted in the world. A World Bank study found that 13 of the 15 major cities (including Shanghai) in China are affected by severely polluted water.

The most common pollutants in Shanghai drinking water are high levels of chlorine, bacteria, lead and toxic heavy metals. According to PureLiving, Shanghai’s water authorities have publicly acknowledged that tap water potability is compromised largely by secondary contamination from old piping. So no, you should not be drinking the tap water in Shanghai.

Can I drink the water if I boil it?
Nope. When heavy metals are the main concern in your water, boiling it will only concentrate the metals. Boiling water works to kill bacteria, but does nothing for removing heavy metals.

So is the water safe in bathe in? Can I rinse my toothbrush?
Other than the water being a hit hard on your hair and skin, it is absolutely fine to bathe with. And yes, I do rinse my toothbrush with tap water in Shanghai. When traveling to other areas of China however, I err on the side of caution and rise with bottled water.

Where can I find books in English to read?
You can buy Kindle books to download here (though you may need to be on a VPN, I’ve never tried without). Also, does your current library allow you to take out ebooks online? I’ve saved a ton of money by simply “checking out” ebooks via my small, hometown library.

There are also some book stores that stock English titles such as Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore (390 Fuzhou Lu) or Garden Books (325 Changle Lu). Additionally, there are a number of spots where you can pick up second hand books. I recommend Apleines Mains, a charity which operates a used book sale on Jiangsu Lu or the small Shanghai Book Traders Used Books shop at 36 Shanxi Nan Lu.

How do I watch my favorite American TV show?
You can watch almost any TV show you want here. You can buy cable/satellite packages but to be honest, your best bet is to visit your neighborhood DVD store. As soon as movies are released in theaters, they will have a copy in the store (no, it’s not exactly legal but it’s what everyone does). For many series, you can watch them online via Youku (it’s like Hulu for China). I wrote an entire post on watching TV that you can read here.

Is there a question that I missed? Anything else you are wondering about? Feel free to shoot me an email or leave a question in the comments. Perhaps I'll even cover your question in a part 3 in the future!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

FAQ: Part 1

I receive quite a lot of emails from people who are looking to move to Shanghai or China. Many of these people ask the same questions so I thought I would put together a little FAQ for those people who are feeling a little too shy to email me (you can, really!).

Where should I live?
The housing situation is a bit tricky. Overall, my advice is to live within a reasonable commute to your office. You will be making this trip twice a day so settle on something that works for you. Matthew works in Minhang, which is about 45 minutes away from where we live. There is NOTHING down there and we decided that we would both be happier living closer to "downtown" and having access to Western amenities and the subway. That being said, it is sometimes frustrating for him when his commute balloons to over 2 hours on a rainy, Friday night.

Other things I would consider is your location to public transportation and basic necessities. We have a Western grocery store in our basement, a wet market within five minutes, and a Chinese grocery around the corner. It still takes me 3 hours to grocery shop some days but when I just need milk, it only takes me 5 minutes to get it. My friend lives 25 minutes away from a Western grocery and when she runs out of something while baking, it pretty much ends the process. My subway stop is only 10 minutes from our apartment. Honestly, this is the one thing that really helped to open Shanghai up for me because I was free to initially explore the city without understanding the language or the geography. I simply jumped on the subway and rode around until I became more comfortable.

Is it better to live in Pudong or Puxi?
There are two sides of the city where you can live, Pudong or Puxi. Pudong is the "newer" side of the city where the new skyscrapers are being built, apartments are larger, and there is more green space. Puxi is "older" but is the area most people consider to be downtown.

Everyone will have an opinion on whether Puxi or Pudong is better. I obviously love Puxi since this is where we live, but both sides have merit. I tend to go to bars and restaurants on this side of the river, but there are certainly many in Pudong as well. If you live close to a subway stop, it's not hard to take the train to the other side (taxis aren't as willing to cross the river but will do it when needed). Many families tend to live in Pudong as you have more access to green space and more of the international schools are located there, but you will no doubt find a community no matter where you end up.

Is living in Shanghai expensive? Will xxx amount be enough for housing?
I would say Shanghai is comparable to any big city. As for costs, the answer is that is varies. Anything from 12,000-25,000 rmb is reasonable to pay for a 2-3 bedroom apartment, depending on amenities and location. You'll pay more for amenities like an English speaking receptionist, an oven, or a compound with a pool. Just remember that when negotiating, you can have other things thrown in. For instance, you may want to insist they install an oven (most apartments won't have one), pay your gym membership, or cover your ayi costs. Don't be afraid to ask for what you want.

Food costs also vary. If you want to eat foreign, imported foods, your grocery bill is going to cost more than it does now. If you buy and eat local ingredients, your bills will go down. We buy a blend of local and imported foods so I would say our grocery costs have gone down but our restaurant costs have significantly increased. A meal at a local Chinese restaurant for two people should cost less than 100rmb while you will pay at least double that at a western restaurant.

Is public transport efficient? 
The most efficient I have ever used. Everything is well marked in English on the metro and it's cheap! I use it daily to commute. I am also a fan of using the public bus system as well.

Did you experience a major culture shock when moving there? 
Of course! China is about as far from my previous life as I could have imagined. But as long as you come in with a positive attitude and open mind, you will do fine here. You have to accept that things are simply the way they are, and not try to change them. Sure, the kid peeing on the street is gross but you just have to learn to adapt and not step in puddles!

Is the air consistently bad? Or are there enough good days to still be able to go outside?
If you have a iPhone, you should download the CN Air Quality App. It allows you to see what the air quality is like. The US Consulate also has a Twitter account which they update with information about the air. Most of the time it's ok (today is 78) but it can get high (over 300, I stay inside as much as possible). We bought an air purifier for our apartment and I hope that helps! And yes, I do run outside on the street sometimes and we bike quite often, we just make sure to check the air quality first.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How to: Ride the Bus

I love the bus system in Shanghai. It's easy, it's convenient, and it costly a measly 2 rmb (that's .32 US cents) to ride.

To be honest, it took me awhile to have the confidence to ride the bus. When we first moved here, I stuck to the metro system because 1) I didn't have to talk to anyone and 2) signs were clearly marked in English. But once I realized how simple the bus system was, my love affair with another form of public transportation began.

Shanghai's public bus system is quite comprehensive with more than 1,100 lines that run all over the city. Stops are generally located near intersections, with each stop named after the closest street intersecting the road the bus is running on. The stops are generally indicated with a black post with number signs on it. There is a number sign for each line the bus serves.

Each sign shows the route number, the bus stop name and the next stop, all in Chinese. But that doesn't mean you can't still figure it out. You just have to plan your trip in advance.

Determine Your Route
Personally, I use Google Maps to plan out my trip. You can also use Baidu Maps but it's a little trickier as it is in Chinese.

You start by simply typing in the route you want to take. You can use either landmarks or specific addresses. Then you select the public transportation option, indicated by the bus icon circled below.

Select "Get Directions" and you are given options for public transportation that will help you get from point A to B.

You will notice that numerous routes and methods are given to you. I generally try to take the quickest route, but am willing to deviate from my plan if one of the other buses comes along first. 

If you happen to know which buses pass by the stop you want to take (as indicated on the sign posts), you can also check out this Shanghai Bus Route website, which offers English route information for each specific bus.

Paying Your Fare
Board the bus through the front door and put the bus fare into a money box beside the driver or scan your metrocard. Drivers will not make change so ensure you have the exact amount before boarding the bus.

Ride Like A Regular
You will see several yellow seats on each bus. They are reserved for senior citizens, small children, the sick, disabled and pregnant women. You are welcome to sit in them, but remember to give your seat up if one of the above mentioned is left standing.

Air-conditioned buses can be identified by an snowflake symbol in front of the bus number. In the summer, you only want to get on an air conditioned bus.

Getting Off
Most of the buses announce in both Chinese and English and many have a screen displaying the stops at the front of the bus. Simply listen/look for your stop and exit from the backdoor when you arrive at your destination.

Overall, the bus system in Shanghai is fairly simple. Challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone and ride the bus the next time you are meeting friends for dinner. Or when your walk to the nearest metro line suddenly feels entirely too long.
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