And the packing begins…

With 75 days left before I head to Shanghai, I find myself desperately needing to purge what seems like piles of junk while packing what I hope is not piles of even more junk to take abroad.

While I am basically moving to what might be the NYC of China and will have access to just about anything I need, it all comes at price. Whether it is my time and patience to hunt it down or paying double to get it, it’s costly. I’m torn between the desire to pack light and the need to pack for future convenience. My school does provide a significant amount of money for shipping and luggage fees, but with the airlines now limiting international travelers to ONE bag at 50lbs instead of TWO bags at 70lbs I am now facing some huge fees for just the basics.

So what is going to Shanghai with me?

Laptop, small electronics (phone/ipad), clothes, shoes, toiletries, linens, small kitchen gadgets, some spices and hard to get food items, a couple of books, family pics, and no more than two “school” boxes. I have no hope of finding clothes or shoes off the wrack while living in Asia unless I suddenly lose 4 clothes sizes and my feet shrink by two inches this year. Since I will be walking or taking public transit I need to make sure I have some good, comfy shoes for the year. Apparently I will also experience significant rain for the first time in years, so I am hoping my snowboard jacket will suffice for the rainstorms. I’ve recycled quite a few bags of clothes and think I am down to what I need for work and travel. I couldn’t resist an LL Bean sale this week and picked up a couple more light dresses and tanks for humid days.

The heaviest and most costly items I am carrying over are toiletries and meds. Yes, yes I will have medical insurance while there and yes I will have access to western doctors and meds, but the catch is I may not get a western doctor for every appointment and not every prescription or typical med is available. Shanghai has both Walmart and Carrefour (supposedly on Target level), plus dozens of other pharmacy and general stores, and of course amazon, taobao, alibaba and an endless local delivery system for anything I can imagine. So why pack and take over anything? 1. I don’t speak Mandarin, 2. Familiar items are “imports” and expensive 3. I won’t have the “convenience” of a car to bounce around the city to find what I need 4. every blog/forum/packing list I have found recommends the same thing: “bring your own toiletries”.

So it’s coming with me; My own mini Target. I’m sort of embarrassed by what looks like the making of a paranoid packer, but I have a feeling I’ll get over it when I spend the next year not worrying about finding basic things for my daily life.

It’s sorted and bagged, condensed from large packaging into sealed into ziplock bags.

Here’s my packing goal:

Checked bags: 1 suitcase, 4 duffel bags, 2 boxes/rubber containers (school items)
Carry On: Backpacking pack & “overnight” bag

What’s next? Purging…and selling.

It’s your tone!

Since I will be moving to Shanghai in the summer and plan to live there at least two years, if not longer, I thought it would be good to start a crash course in Mandarin. This wouldn’t be my first parlay with the language as I picked up some basic words in my years as a rec professional in Foster City and a rec leader once tried to teach me the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin…

Truthfully until I started watching YouTube videos the week before my first session I knew how to say hello and thank you…oh and some other sound to get kids to “listen up”.

Two sessions down, 4 hours of drilling and I’m not half bad. I can say the tones, I can read the vowels (singular and plural) and I can even do some of the consonant blends! My tutor happens to hail from Shanghai and is the department head of foreign languages at a local JC. I’d say I’m pretty lucky to have landed her as my tutor. She’s not wasting any time cramming in weeks worth of lessons into these short sessions. My homework for this week…just short of brutal. If I can find some good lesson podcasts I know exactly what I will be doing on my drive to Tahoe this weekend.

Here’s her assignment:

Memorize and practice pinyin b,p,m,f,d,t,n,l,g,k,h,j,q,x,zh,ch,sh,r,z,c,s (hint j-s don’t exactly sound like English consonants)

Memorize and practice single, double and nasal vowels (hint they sound more French then English)

Memorize and practice basic greetings of conversational hello and name inquiry using proper titles (mr/ms/miss and names)

Practice practice practice the tones

Practice introduction of pinyin compounds (text)

Start lesson 1 (text)

And finally listen and watch videos 

Head swimming yet? 

Why put in this effort if I’m moving to an international city and immersing myself into a huge expat community? Because I don’t want to be THAT westerner who assumes others should cater to my needs. I am a guest of the country and therefore should learn the basics in their language and study their culture. And I also don’t want to find myself out at a restaurant wanting to order a bowl of dumpling soup and instead propositioning the waiter for a sleep over. It’s fairly simple to make this mistake. Same spelling different tone. 

56 days, but I am considering 51

I have 56 teaching days left. 51 in the current school year. When I submitted my resignation I offered to stay through the first week of summer enrichment to assist with any transitions, but I am starting to think ending the year in June is the best move.

I love my students. Every single munchkin brings something to my day. When one is missing because of a cold or even a family vacation their personality is missed. We have 2-5 year-olds together in the same class and the challenges in the beginning of the school year are palpable. 20 very different personalities and developmental needs all needing the attention of their teachers. Normally we have 3 teachers full time, but my right hand person, my mentor and friend retired after 25 years. It was difficult to say goodbye to her, but at 71 it was time for her to say goodbye. The last 6 months have been brutal and exhausting for my lead teacher and I. Instead of getting another staff person we absorbed hours and duties. Did I mention no additional compensation? My average teaching hours are over 43 per week. Zero prep, zero breaks unless I escape into our office for some quite time.

How on earth would I miss the kids when I am with them so many hours?! It is impossible not to fall in love with them. Miraculously they know exactly when we (teachers) need an extra hug or cuddle just as we know when an extra snuggle for them is just what they need to end their “case of the mondays”. They adore us and love us as their pseudo family. We’re with them for more “awake” hours then their own families. If you don’t think your preschool teacher is anything more than a highly paid babysitter, shame on you. I’m not only responsible for keeping them happy and safe every day, I am the person who models and teaches them how to communicate effectively, I help them through elation and failure, I teach them about how their world works and let them experiment with that world to learn even more. I teach a toddler how to get dressed and put her shoes on one part of the morning and the next I am helping a pre-k navigate a world map as he learns where is family is from and he discovers what methods of transportation he can take to get around the world. I teach them how to wash hands before meals, to sit properly at a table and how to clean up after themselves after meals. YES 2-5 year olds all do this at school

So instead of thinking of me as a babysitter consider the fact that in order to be an excellent early childhood teacher I need to know how to break down the world they’re so eager to learn about into terms and experiences they can understand. If you don’t know, saying “because” and “because I said so” or “it just is that way” doesn’t work with a preschooler unless you are entirely comfortable with the question “why” being on repeat every day.

I think I may be the Cliff Clavin (Cheers!) of ECE teachers. I know a little, no I know quite a bit about a lot of things. Want to know why hammerhead sharks have long heads? I know why. Want to know how earthquakes happen? I know why and I can explain it to a 3yr old. I can tell you how and why compost waste makes dirt and I can teach a 4 yr old as well in a way that they can teach you. Childhood diseases, symptoms and remedies? Got it. Behavior and developmental commonalities of children? Yup know those too and I am still stumped some days, but can manage to talk a parent or two a week off a cliff of desperation.

I am a master observer and listener by day which may explain why in some of my adult conversations I can’t remember names, topics or plans of friends or new folks I meet. Sorry, but after 8hrs of being on my A game and simultaneously observing 20 children I have zero brain power left for adults.

The pay is terrible, the hours are long but there is a reward in there for Joy and I. We feel appreciated by our children and families. We know they don’t consider us day care workers, they know we are teachers. They share with us moments from they have at home with their children and will often say to us, “We know they learned that at school.” They appreciate that we do love their children like our own and do our very best every day to give them the attention and care they deserve.

Leaving them and my families will not be easy. I dread giving them notice. Leaving the crappy pay and hours however, is a no brainer. I did not enter teaching to “get rich”, but I also didn’t plan to live paycheck to paycheck while supplementing another’s lifestyle. 56 days may not seem like a lot to you, but it feels like a lifetime when those days are long and unappreciated by…well the factor that isn’t the kids or parents.

56 vs 51, I’ll know by the end of April what is the better choice.

The waiting game 

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not very patient in some areas of life. I believe it’s because I use every ounce of patience to do my job every day. So am I patient with adults? Rarely. Time? Hardly 

If you’re what my mom called a “dillydallier” we are going to have uses. The funny part about not being patient is that I can also be a giant procrastinator. I don’t procrastinate all of the time, but I certainly could win a medal for past performances. I know part of the reason I do it is the thrill of “getting it done” under pressure. If you asked me if I really enjoyed the pressure I’d honestly say, “No.” But the procrastinator in me loves it. The practical, logistical me hates the procrastinator me. The “pract-logo” me is always telling the “crastinator” to stop screwing around and get the hard stuff done first. It’s like wrangling a preschooler but in the adult form. 

Oh I know what you’re thinking now…”holy shit I KNEW she heard voices and talked to them!”  Yes I DO hear voices and I do talk to them. All geniuses and creative people do. It’s very entertaining.

A co-worker a few years back said when he imagined what it was like inside my head he envisioned a combination of Disneyland’s space mountain and the world of the Jetsons. Things just racing by, zooming from all different directions. The other colleagues in the room stared in disbelief at his comment and wondered what my reaction would be…

Well, I cracked up. He was so right. My response, “I like it in there.” They all cracked up with me and realized there was no fighting the constant churning of ideas. 

But back to the topic at hand…the waiting game.

I’m waiting to move to Shanghai. I’m waiting to end my current school year. I’m waiting to sell off 95% of my apartment. I’m waiting to give notice on my apartment. I’m waiting to sell my first and only car I bought as an adult. I’m waiting to buy my one way ticket to China. I’m waiting to connect with new colleagues. I’m waiting for an email response from my new director. I’m waiting for my friend to text me back about going to breakfast. 

Waiting. I’m waiting. I’m waiting on adults. I’m impatient. I don’t like this waiting game at all.

So if I don’t like the waiting game, how on earth am I going to survive living in a country like China?

Years ago I was more patient, in general. I could play the waiting game for days, because I didn’t worry. Living in the Bay Area for the past 15 years and watching its decline, yes I said decline, from a warm, kind, semi slow paced and generally welcoming place turn into a fast-paced, money centered, technology focused, every-human-for-himself society has helped wear away at any patience I had for waiting. I can and do get things instantly  and when I don’t get them I’m frustrated. Instant gratification is now my norm. I don’t like it.

I’m going to drop myself into the middle of a city that makes the Bay Area seem like a small town. I’m going to immerse myself into a culture that I don’t know the language, yet, or all of their cultural norms. I’m going to test every ounce of patience in my body, just to get by each day. I’ll have help from new colleagues, from my new job, from other expats I’ll meet along the way. But the bottom line is, I’ll need to relearn to wait, to be patient, to go with less or without. I’ll relearn to adapt, to be mindful, and to appreciate. 

I’ll learn that the waiting game has fantastic time outs, that not everyone wins or earns a medal, that losing builds character and denacity, that waiting, being patient is a truly a virtue.

English as a second language, time difference and snail mail

What do you get when you combine a friendly admin assistant who’s primary language is not English, a 16 hour time difference, and snail mail? 4 long weeks of scanning, emailing, waiting and praying that all of your documents will arrive safely and in a timely manner to apply for a work visa. First let me clarify that I am not complaining. I am so appreciative that I have someone who is doing the majority of the work for me. If the most stressful part of my job in this whole process was simply requesting documents and mailing, then I got off easy. I’m not even required to pay any VISA fees.

The admin assistant has been patient this entire process even when I sent what I think was the same resume without any of her required changes. I blame that on the ESL issue and the possibility that I may have just been attaching the wrong resume every time.

If I have a complaint in this whole process it is with the CA state school system that required me to submit a request for a copy of my diploma via snail mail. Really? Even at the poor JCs locally I just log in, submit an online request, add in secret codes and account numbers and 8-10 business days later I had all of my documents.

Oh no Chico State had me download a hard copy of the request form, submit a check (yes a check or a money order), and send it in the mail. I was pretty sure if I mailed it Friday, it would be in Chico Saturday. My prediction was correct, and the post office efficient, because a rep from the school emailed me the following Monday morning (1 point for the USPS). Once I clarified what I needed, I then hoped that Chico’s 4-6 WEEKS processing deadline would be more like 1-2 weeks. Thank you to the Chico records department for pushing print and inserting my diploma into a special envelope without delay…because the diploma arrived exactly 10 business days later. Scanned and emailed with the correct resume (finally), the last worry was the dozen passport photos I sent snail mail all the way to Shanghai. Sure I could have spent $50-100 to send them express, but that extra money is the difference between buying groceries in cash from this paycheck, putting them on a CC or babysitting a few extra hours so I can avoid the CC. Snail mail was the answer. The catch was even though I sent the photos using the required priority envelope that SAYS the fees include insurance and a tracking number, the overly helpful postal worker made it very clear I received none of those features for the $25 postage fee. Awesome. I was relieved this past Thursday when I got a confirmation email stating the package had been received.

So now I wait again…

Time to clean out boxes of junk and recycle and toss things I don’t need.

Bigger is better, and I can prove it

My passport expired last February. I was annoyed that I had let it lapse, but then thought “who cares?! you can’t afford to travel anywhere anyway!” My first adult passport had 4 stamps in it…4 stamps spread out in 28 pages over 10 years.


So this past fall when I finished my paperwork for a new passport, I had the option to choose a 28 or 52 page version. I decided to go for the super sized passport, determined that I would fill it over the next 10 years. There was no way I would let this passport get dusty or bored. With no plans in place other than “I will travel” I sent  in the application and forgot about it.

6 weeks later I was delighted to receive my brand new, 52 page passport with a picture I can be proud of! Yes, I did actually go get my hair cut and styled the afternoon I took my pictures. I was going to look good traveling around the world!

Little did I know that my choice to go big, would lead to the adventures I am about to have, starting this summer.