September 10, 2017
Ni Hao to our friends and family! How do we start to relay everything to you all about what we have experienced in our first weeks in China? We are very excited about our adventure and the challenge of living in a place as different as China and are learning new things everyday about life here. While it is different, there is also a quality of familiarity especially in a modern place like Tianjin-TEDA with modern shopping, excellent and very reasonable transportation, and even lots of Western food if we want. We are trying to live as much like the locals as possible, although interspersed with a few familiar things from home (ie Starbucks) to provide some comfort.
First, a few observations. Living in a modern Chinese city is not unlike living in any modern place around the world. When you are in a mall, a downtown area or a Western-style restaurant you really could be in any city anywhere in the world. The signs are different, sure, but the modern, urbanized world has taken on a measure of sameness that cuts across all cultures which China has adopted even as a totalitarian country. When you are in a Burger King, a pub, or a modern grocery store it doesn’t really matter where you are these days in just about any urban setting. While we haven’t been “city folk for a while, we are enjoying having lots of modern conveniences within a very short walking distance.
The people of China are still curious about Westerner’s however, even in a modern place like Tianjin. We get looks from kids, and smiles from adults when we say “Ni Hao” (Hello) or “Xie Xie” (Thank you) in Mandarin. While I get that we stand out in the crowd, this goes beyond just that our appearance is different. China is still aspiring to be fully accepted as a modern country and on an individual level the people still seem to want to make an extra effort to make us feel welcome. As with many places visited around the world, the response of people on the street or in stores is very, very gracious especially when it appears you are needing some help to figure something out. We have felt very welcome.
While many things are modern, convenient and wonderful, by far the most negative aspect of our time here so far (and maybe the only one) is seeing the pollution in the sky every day. While we have had a couple of clear days so far, the smog is ever-present (especially in the morning) and it makes you wonder what the impact of this is on the health of the population. Air purifiers are popular items with many and we will probably get one especially for the winter season when we are told things will get worse. If China is going to take the final step to become fully a part of the first world, it will need to resolve this issue.
There are lots of things we could comment on (and pictures to share!), for now we’ll just talk about our daily life at home, at school and in our new community. Just to be specific, the area of Tianjin that we live in is called TEDA (Tianjin Economic Development Area) which is a planned city about 45 minutes by car from Tianjin proper. Tianjin is not part of a state, but rather it’s own municipality or regional district and encompasses a number of urban centres. TEDA is where the port is, as well as the site of the chemical plant explosion in 2015 which ended up killing 173 people Tianjin Explosion Wikipedia. We live VERY close (2km) from the site and there are still some signs of the damage it caused. Kind of unnerving for sure.
We live in a very nice apartment complex called the Shuangzi Garden apartments right beside the TEDA and the AEON malls. We live on the 24th floor of the two-tower complex in very new and modern two-bedroom apartment with a nice view of the city. That is, when you can see it due to the pollution. There is a small kitchen (which can be fully enclosed by glass for when you are cooking with oil or some kind of odourous foods) with a fridge, a gas cooktop stove with two elements, and a small microwave. The bathroom has a nice walk in shower and also contains the washing machine. There are very few dryers in China it seems so we have to hang our clothes to dry in sort of vestibule area by the living room window which was made with a tile floor and rods for this purpose. It came furnished with a nice new couch, a dining room table, two king size beds with very hard mattresses and a washing machine.
The place came with a nice, new 50’ish-inch TV which we are using mostly to watch movies on Netflix (through our Canadian VPN) and some Chinese TV, especially when we can figure out how to get sub-titles on these channels. There is 24-hour security and we are making friends with the security guards at the front gate. Some are friendlier than others but we are doing our best.
We have had to buy things to get our apartment set up and started from scratch. It was strange to have none of the basics such as utensils, cups, or cookware available when we first moved in so Judy got to work on this right away. The school gives new employees some start up money for this purpose and it has been kind of fun to get things for our second home. The school organized a bus trip to Ikea outside of Tianjin City and Judy went with a number of the new staff to help get us all started.
When you move in to your place you get cards with chips on them to add electricity and gas. If you run out, you have to go and add money to the card by either putting it in a machine in the front lobby or going to an office location for the utility company. We have already had one experience of running out of power at 3:00 AM for which I had to add emergency (1 day) power at the meter outside of our front door.
We feel very lucky to have a nice place to live in. We were shown a range of apartments on our first day which were not nearly as nice as this one, although also pretty sure that our agent, the wonderful Ting Ting, wanted to rent us this one and showed us the lower quality places first. China hasn’t become the economic powerhouse it is without understanding good salesmanship. As we said, we have a second bedroom so always have room for visitors!
Judy & I work at the Tianjin Maple Leaf International High School which is less than 2 km’s from our apartment. Judy is working as a teacher’s assistant which is giving her an opportunity to build relationships with the staff as well as a first-hand understanding of the educational world. Our apartment is separated by a freeway so we catch a taxi for 9 RMB (less than $2 CDN) or can take the bus for even less. Judy has done this, I’ve only taken taxi’s so far. There are lots of taxi’s around so we hail one from the street, and since the drivers don’t generally speak English we show them the address of the school on a card and we are there in less than five minutes. We have to be at the school by 7:30 so start our days pretty early and get home after 4 for Judy and 5 for me.
After work, we will either go to the gym or have dinner. We have joined the “Tastable” Athletic Club” in the TEDA Mall right beside our building which is a great facility with a pool, badminton courts, all kinds of exercise machines (except oddly, an exercise bike) and a full set of classes if we want to participate in those. It is also a source of community for us as we are meeting people at the gym who want to practice their English with us.
For food, we have eaten out more than in our apartment. There are many, many restaurants close by and China is a “going out” culture it seems so this has been easier especially while we have been setting up the apartment. You can get a decent dinner for around 50 RMB ($10 CDN), of course more in some places but less in others. One of my faves so far is a big bowl of spicy Ramen for about 20 RMB ($5 CDN) at the “Food Marche” (Food Court) in the Aeon Mall about three minutes away. There are all kinds of different food options and we are trying different kinds to see what we like and what we don’t. One of the dishes we ordered had chicken feet in them which is on don’t like list so far. Went out for a great barbeque meal with the staff from school on BBQ Wednesday at a place that the staff have made a bit of tradition. Chinese restaurants serve food on platters for everyone at the table to share, not unlike Chinese places at home, although we haven’t seen chow mein or chop suey or sweet and sour pork anywhere here yet. The Chinese food is quite spicy so that works for me and Judy is getting more used to this.
We have shopped at a couple of different and very modern grocery stores. The closest one is the grocery store at Aeon which is a great store, but it is a little expensive by China standards so we tried the Metro store which is a little farther away but a bit cheaper (I am a teacher after all!) so we will go there a couple of times a month to stock up and get our fresh stuff at Aeon. Veggies are very cheap anywhere and plentiful so we will plan to eat lots of fresh stuff when we eat at home. We have a lot to learn about preparing food the Chinese way so will delve into this as we get set up more in our place. A couple of things we won’t be trying anytime soon however are the chicken feet or especially the live bullfrogs that we saw in the meat section of the Metro store yesterday. Living like a local has its limits.
The Maple Leaf Educational System operates 35 private elementary, middle, and high schools in 13 cities across China. The high schools are BC “Offshore” schools which are accredited and regularly inspected by the Ministry of Education of BC. The students follow the same graduation program as other high schools in BC and receive a Dogwood graduation diploma upon graduation. They have also recently opened up two schools in BC for Chinese students to attend and have plans to open up more sites in China so it is a going concern. The major goal of all Maple Leaf schools is for students to enter a university outside of China, and for the best and brightest to go to a Top Ten university somewhere in the world including Oxford. Last year, more than 1400 students graduated from ML schools. At the Tianjin-TEDA campus there are three schools with more than 3000 students with the high school having 1500 students in the three grades (10-12) of the graduation program.
The highlight of the opening day was the opening flag ceremony which was very formal. The students were all lined up in the courtyard behind their homeroom teacher and there were speeches from the front by students, a Canadian and Chinese teacher, the headmaster and the BC Principal, and then three flag raisings…the Chinese, Canadian, and Maple Leaf flag. The national anthems of the two countries and the school song were all sung while the flags were being raised. Those who know me will know that I love flag ceremonies so this was a great way to start the year. Each Monday will feature a flag ceremony assembly for the whole school and we have been told by the Chinese Headmaster, Mr. Long, that we are expected to dress appropriately so I will plan to wear a suit for the first day of each week.
The school itself is not dissimilar in function to a BC High School on opening day. Besides the little more than usual confusion with student schedules, the school opened without incident. Students, while polite and respectful and well behaved in class, are also kids and prone to say “Yes, teacher” and then go away and do something completely opposite to what you ask. All the groups are represented: the glamour girls, the cool guys, the jocks (sorry for the old terms but this is what I got!), and the academic elite. We have found students hiding out in the library, avoidance in the many nooks and crannies of the building avoid going to class, and even smoking in the bathrooms.
However, despite the fact that “kids are kids” the tone of the school is still very different. Besides BC teachers and administration, there are Chinese teachers and admin as well as counselors whose role is to play either a disciplinary or supportive role (still trying to figure that out). With all of this support in place, and the general expectation of the society of respect toward authority, there does not seem to be much room for rebellion or serious inappropriate behavior by the students. I did have to deal with a fight on the third day however in PE class where one student ending up in hospital with a broken nose.
The BC staff is made up teachers who are all certified through the Teacher Regulation Branch of BC but who come from a wide range of places. We have some teachers from BC, but more from Ontario, and then others from South Africa, New Zealand and a couple from the US who have all received BC Teacher Certification through the TRB. The BC side works with the Chinese side to coordinate the educational program of the school, which as you might imagine creates some interesting cultural dilemmas. I have been to three meetings so far run by the CEO of the whole Tianjin campus, the very serious Headmaster, Mr. Long. Most of the meetings have featured “work reports” by school or program heads followed by commentary from Mr. Long. While each is expected to take five minutes for their report, they take about 10-15 which is followed by sometimes lengthy commentary by the Headmaster.
On Friday afternoon at 4:00 PM we had an all-campus Staff Meeting which featured a swearing in ceremony for the new staff followed by an hour- long speech in Mandarin (without translation) by the headmaster. The swearing in ceremony featured once again the school song, followed by us taking the Maple Leaf oath by raising our right hand and making a fist interestingly, and repeating the oath pledging to be good employees of Maple Leaf and to provide a top-quality education for the attending students.
Today we went shopping (or looking) at what we would have thought was a traditional Chinese shopping experience in Tanguu, just four stops away from us on the Metro train or Quinguu (pronounced Ching-goo). This is the place around here to find fake Rolex watches and Coach handbags among many other things. These are also the places that you barter for price. The shop owners will know that Westerners are not great at bargaining and don’t know prices so this is a place to be on our guard. Not feeling quite ready to take on a crafty shop owner yet but will soon want to go and get a brand-name watch for a tenth of price or some such thing just for the fun of it.
Lots more to share about but time and attention span are always in short supply. All the best to you all. While we are happy to be here we miss our friends and family and appreciate everyone’s efforts to stay in touch very much. See you again soon!