My Chinese teacher was swept up in the excitement of Singles Day, 11/11, a day for treating your single self that has been injected with steroids by online shopping powerhouses. It’s the biggest online shopping day of the year, proudly beating out Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Amazon Prime Day.

But she didn’t want us to take her word for it. She interrupted our asking for directions unit to give us interview questions about online shopping habits, which we were then sent out into the world with. The goal was to interview 10 Chinese speakers each.

There’s a lot to not like in this assignment, so of course I put it off. On the last day before it was due, I ventured out into our apartment building. With no cheerful cleaning crew around, I went down to the front desk, needing to reserve the service elevator for the delivery of 6,000 lbs. of stuff on Monday anyway. While I waited for them to be free, a Chinese teenager turned to me.

“Excuse me?” She was so quiet, she had to say it twice before I realized she was trying to get my attention with her English. “Would you be my friend? My name in Ling. My English name is Ling.”

She certainly couldn’t have expected me to not only agree but also then have questions about her favorite online stores. Ling answered my questions, put herself into my phone contacts, and then hovered alarmingly close while I repeated the questions to the unfailingly helpful woman at the front desk.

Two down, eight to go, 30 minutes before I needed to be somewhere else. Our building is shared with a department store, which I walk through almost daily to get to the metro station or the supermarket or any of the hundreds of underground eateries. The department store would be recognizable to anyone old enough to remember them, down to the bored shop girls manning their posts. I skulked around, looking for groups to get it over with more quickly. I channeled Ling: if she can approach a stranger twice her age expecting to get a friend out of it, I can find people to answer these stupid questions.

“Excuse me, can you two help me?” I asked. But I couldn’t understand what they responded. “Excuse me, can you two help me?” I tried again, trying the emphasis on different words. “Help you with what?” one said, evidently having to repeat herself more slowly and with exaggeration for the simpleton blushing in front of her. I managed out my questions and got in some good practice of pretending to understand what is being said to me while really just getting the gist. The awkward encounter repeated with two bored shop boys, one translating my attempts at Chinese to the other.

Takeaways from the interviews: people earning more money are more likely to spend more money online; women are less impressed with the quality of items purchased online than men are; interviewing 6 people is really just as good as interviewing 10; and 15-year-olds who get themselves into your phone contacts will enthusiastically text you to make plans to get dumplings together.


Yuexiu field trip

We were so good at the beginning–so good. Our first weekend was at the plant market. I visited the local museum the second week. We were going out and saying Yes to things.

Included in this was our field trip on our second weekend in town. We live in an almost ridiculously modern part of Guangzhou–so much that it’s even in the name: Pearl River New Town. As impressive and clean as it, it can feel a bit sterile.

IMG_20170910_113309But not all of Guangzhou is like that. This part of China was formerly known as Canton, important for its international port since the Tang Dynasty and community that grew around that. And that history is honored. We took the metro to a neighborhood with a particularly high-density of these historic buildings, Yuexiu.

IMG_20170910_114337The buildings here were not nearly so modern nor the streets quite as spotlessly clean; there was charm in the feeling of this being a place where people might live their whole lives. Our first stop was one of the first Buddhist temples in Guangzhou, Guangxiao Temple. It claims over a 1,000 years of history, and was no less active on this particular Sunday. People burned incense and bowed their heads in prayer in front of the various Buddhas. Multitudes more bought lunch from the women manning card tables in the adjacent courtyard: rice, soup, meat, vegetables.


We stopped instead at a street-side snack shop for a scallion pancake hot from the griddle, a favorite treat from our days in Taipei. 

Next stop was the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. We sat in the shade while Colin read aloud the Wikipedia page on the revolutionary hero-scholar-leader who manages the tricky feat of being revered in both Taiwan and China. Inside the building was an impressive theater and old photos of both the man and the hall.

Our last destination was the Yuexiu Park, a sprawling, manicured park with hills, lakes, a handful of historic buildings, and a statue honoring the legend of the Five Rams. These rams came bearing rice for the residents of the city during a particularly dreadful famine 2,000 years ago, saving everyone, and now they’re an emblem of the city.

Some fun things to look forward to, future visitors!

“I have to get out of here”

Colin and I have high tolerances for discomfort fostered over years of traveling on 3rd-class trains to stay in 1-star hostels. But age or having a salary or the combination thereof are apparently making us soft.

Air quality in China is not very good: some days the sunlight takes on a distinctly orange tint. We have top-quality blue-ribbon air filters in all of the rooms of our apartment, but we also wanted some plants for their added filtration and general zen.

At the end of a metro line, the Lingnan Flower Market spreads out several blocks with individual vendors selling not only apartment plants, orchids, and small trees, but also ceramic planters, bamboo fencing, silk flowers, water features, and popsicles. An old hanger is filled with nothing but cut flowers. Lovely, no?


Colin took this photo.

The narrow roadway that cut through the market was busy with rumbling trucks delivering plants and silent electric scooters delivering people. Motorcycles with trailers honked their annoyance at pedestrians with nowhere else to walk but the gutters. I had not yet acclimatized to the intense heat and humidity, and the tarpaulin coverings we walked under kept off the worst of the sun but also trapped some of the heat. I was melting.

“This isn’t fun anymore. I want to leave.”

Fast forward to last weekend and our first trip to the big-box store that has been described as the German Costco. A cart each, we loaded up with the greater variety of imported goods: canned tomatoes, pickles, Campari. I noted a gallon of ketchup and 10 kilos of mozzarella, but mostly it was just normal amounts of product at a significantly cheaper price than I can get at the supermarket in our underground mall.


Can I interest you in 2 kilos of cream cheese?


The noise level increased as we approached the frozen section and met a crush of carts and people and women shouting into microphones about… frozen shrimp? Pork dumplings? There were samples of hard-boiled eggs and children playing foursquare with a ball from the outdoor section. Colin looked nauseated by the onslaught and not any better by the time we’d navigated to the dairy. I grabbed my butter for baking; he got his milk for yogurt-making.


“Do we need anything else?” I eyed the Mission tortillas even though we have no appropriate beans or cheese. “I don’t know anymore. I have to get out of here.”

So we’ve gotten soft. We need cool, calm, quiet environments where there is no risk of being mowed down by teenager with scooter or granny with shopping cart. No problem.

Old Friends

Our arrival in China has been smooth. From being fetched at the airport to signing up for our own library cards at the top-notch library just a short walk away, everything has gone as expected—some traffic here, a typhoon there, but really well on the whole. Some old friends here have eased our way.

It hasn’t just been the friends from C’s initial training class that we’re overlapping with, though picking their brains has helped enormously. It has also been the familiar sounds and flavors, the feeling of warm rain, of being curiously stared at. The scent of a specific kind of fried chicken took me right back to our night market in Taipei, even as we took a pedestrian overpass above an eight-lane road in our neighborhood.

In meeting new people here, they often want to know, First time in China? And I can see why. This place is foreign from the U.S. in a multitude of ways, sometimes delightful, sometimes frustrating. Our Taiwan frame gives us a reference point on so many of our initial experiences here.

So even though this city of over 15 million makes me feel like a country mouse, and it’s been over 7 years since we left Taiwan, and that technology here lets one pay with the swipe of a phone or hail a taxi with no Chinese ability whatsoever, we have found old friends here, and old friends are nice to have when you’re so far from home.

Summer Vacation: Suchitoto getaway

Two years and three weeks ago, Colin and I threw a big party and said some vows, so three weeks ago we celebrated by visiting a tiny mountain town with stinky lake and one of the best hotels in the country. Suchitoto is only about an hour and a half north from San Salvador and has the distinction of being one of the few towns spared during the civil war, so its streets are cobblestoned and its buildings are one-story and surround small courtyards. We walked from the indeed lovely hotel to the lovely plaza in front of the church. That Friday was a national holiday, Father’s Day, so the plaza was full of families enjoying shaved ices and snapping photos. We had a decent lunch on the square and did a bit of souvenir shopping, picking out a new hammock and a clay pitcher.

Our guidebook, an old copy of Central America On a Budget, suggested walking down to the lake, so we set off in the heat Saturday morning, but about 20 minutes in and soaked with sweat, it occurred to me that our book never would have considered that we might be able to drive our own car down. The lake and its recreation area, once we got down there, proved disappointing. Not actually all that stinky, but definitely nicer to look at from afar. After about 15 minutes spent watching the small ferry boats from a park bench with an empty, open-air food court behind us and a curious family next to us, we took our leave. A dip in the hotel pool and a couple hours reading in the courtyard seemed a better use of our time.

Rainy season

I was told when the rains started again back in May that they were coming late, and I could see El Salvador was parched and needed the relief by the time the rains were falling regularly. I am happy that it’s rainy season again because it makes our little garden happy, it makes the farms across the countryside happy, it makes the lakes and rivers happy, and it brings El Salvador back to the lushly green country we landed in a year ago. It’s a good thing.

It does also mean that our ceiling is leaking again, even though we have over a month of roofers up there after the last rainy season. It also, this time, means our little tomatoes aren’t reaching maturity because the daily pounding rains are too much for them to bear. And most annoying, it means the mosquitoes are out in force and have somehow breached our perimeter, such that I killed five inside the house yesterday and four so far today.


Couldn’t hang.

Summer Vacation: Recent obsession

Hello world! I’m starting week three of summer vacation, and I honestly don’t have much to show for the enormous amount of free time I’ve suddenly been given. That’s OK, though. I’ve watched some Netflix, read some books, baked a LOT of bread, made some fancier meals, and gotten at least halfway through organizing some of this past year’s school materials to be better prepared for next year.

The first two weeks of vacation, and continuing into this week although to a lesser degree, have been set to the soundtrack of Hamilton, the musical. The Tonys happened the Sunday after the last day of school (do yourself a favor and watch this clip of their performance during the awards show) and so the hugely popular production resurfaced in my consciousness and, acknowledging I will likely never see the show live, I downloaded the original cast recording and blasted it three days straight while I cleaned my classroom. My pal, the third-grade teacher, wasn’t there to make fun or to see me tear up during “Burn” (it was an emotional week).

I tried to mix it up by listening to other musical soundtracks, but the thing that I can do while Colin is around is read 1776 by David McCullough, which follows Gen. Washington during the fight for American independence and barely features Hamilton. Oh well. A riveting story nonetheless.

one thing

I also made this inspirational poster for next year’s second graders. It’s a lyric.

Late to the game, I know, but I’ve got a lot to catch up on coming out of the first year of teaching. So if everyone could stop talking about House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and Game of Thrones, that would be great, thnx.

Pen pals

No excuses; no epic, sweeping catch-up post; no promises that this will be regularly updated once again. It’s bad blog practice if even Grandma has given up on you…

We’re doing a really fun (for me) project in class right now–my amazing former mentor teacher agreed to have her class be pen pals with my class, and my students are now writing their second letters to send off to their new Virginia friends. It’s funny to see what eight-year-olds think is worth putting into a letter to a near stranger. It’s funny to hear a comment come out of one child’s mouth and then see it appear in drafts of four other students. Everyone’s favorite movie is Star Wars.

My students lives are not so different from those of the Virginia students, but there are misconceptions on both sides: although the twins in my class at one point had a pet monkey, that was unusual even for here; and my students aren’t real clear about the different weather phenomena likely to hit the Mid-Atlantic region. Sports and games go by different names, but everyone loves art class. (Note to self: incorporate more art projects.) I can say with 100% certainty that more of my students have nannies at home, and also that even though I’m the one teaching at the international school, the Virginia classroom is more diverse.

Anyway, Vicky, I’m doing the best I can. It’s a lot to teach social niceties and grammar and handwriting all in one to the bunch I’ve got. Thanks for your class’s patience.

Rain Days

I got two unexpected days off work this week because Central America got hit by some severe… rain. I have next to nothing to show for my time: some carrot muffins, a pumpkin loaf, the leftovers of an involved fish dinner. I watched more Netflix than I care to admit. I did manage the outline of a plan for how to teach five days’ worth of material in three days. Somehow we’re already in week 10 of the school year–the end of the first quarter. I will have to issue report cards for my little monsters next week. It also marks 10 weeks that we’ve had Cat (and have managed to keep her). IMAG2852

Things that are making me happy this week: Halloween preparations are in full swing! My costume is going to be on the understated side, but I’m looking forward to a fun Friday at school (complete with birthday cake!) and then a nice long weekend with a trip to the lake. All of the family visiting for Christmas now has their flights booked! Colin bought our tickets for the Marine Corps Ball at the end of November. We received a Halloween care package full of lots of fun goodies! It has been decided that we’ll be the hosts for Friendsgiving, so this weekend I allowed myself to start planning that.

Every weekend should last four days: there’s so much more to be positive about when they do!


Our days are filled with choices, most of them small. Eat breakfast at home and risk leaving late or take it on the road and risk spilling yogurt in my bag? Cut through the gas station to make my right turn or wait in line like a decent person? Grade papers, plan for tomorrow’s classes, or edit? Frozen lasagna or fried rice? Must I shower tonight or can I go another day? I’ll just check facebook real quick. I’ll blog… next weekend.

Some of the choices are easy: I will forgo mascara today because otherwise we will both be late to work. I will edit for my second job instead of going to bed because doing otherwise affects people and profits beyond me, as well as my professional options looking into the far future. Call Grandma every weekend. Make sure Cat has what she needs. Pack lunches the night before. Spend time doing fun, productive things with the husband.

And some of my choices are not the most responsible: I’m going to spend all of Saturday in the kitchen even though I really ought to figure out how to turn my students into competent readers ahead of their big test this week. Sure, one more glass of wine. I will do anything else before I workout.

My priorities tend toward short-term happiness, but that’s not totally cutting it anymore. This teaching thing requires a LOT of planning. This living abroad life requires regular maintenance of important relationships (and campaigns of persuasion to get people to visit). This getting older business is no joke and I should really choose to make an appointment with the med unit for a check-up. And to exercise.