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Culture Shock

I have been in Chengdu, China for a little over a month now. Of course, when you enter a new country,  you know things are going to be different... a lot different. Although there's no better way of finding out those differences than entering the country itself and figuring it out, it's nice to be aware of them before coming to alleviate some of the "shock". I want to share with you the culture shock I have been experiencing my first month in China. 

 

  1. Squat Toilets - The first one of these bad boys I encountered was at the airport in Chengdu. I knew it was coming, but oh how soon it came! It's practically just a hole in the floor. Something to get used to, that's for sure. Also, there's no toilet paper or soap so always have some hand sanitizer and kleenex handy. And I mean ALWAYS. The smell of these bathrooms is quite excruciating and don't be surprised to see older ladies doing their business with the door wide open. It's quite normal. 
  2. Smoking - I absolutely hate cigarettes and this is the hardest thing for me to get accustomed to. I try to walk around people that are smoking in front of me which usually isn't too hard given I'm from Chicago and am an extremely fast walker compared to Chinese people. However, I am a little stuck when the guy next to me lights one up in the elevator. Remember when you were a kid and you would go to a restaurant and the host would ask "smoking or not smoking?"...and how that was banned a long time ago?! Well, here, it's completely legal. Smoking. Everywhere. Inside. Outside. EVERYWHERE. 
  3. Spitting - My dad was right!! He warned me about this. You will commonly here people hacking up phlegm and spitting on the ground. No shame at all. At first, I was very disgusted by this, but after being here, I honestly can tell why they need to do this all the time. The pollution can really get to you and I'm sure it's better to get that stuff out rather than keeping in. Although, not smoking probably would help this situation a lot. 
  4. Traffic - Chengdu isn't the most populated city in China (around 4 million people) but holy crap, that's a lot of people! There is rush hour just about every hour and people lay on their horns the entire time they drive. You really just have to mute the honking in your mind to remain sane. There's no other way. 
  5. Food - The food is so spicy, but so delicious! So this isn't really a culture shock for me, but the pig brains in a bowl and pig's feet hanging up...that's another story. I only ate chicken and fish at home, but I made the decision to end that for my duration in China. Food is a huge part of Chinese culture and the way they prepare these dishes (no matter how strange the body part), it's really delicious. Just don't think about it too much or have your Chinese friend tell you what you ate after you already ate it. 
  6. Stares - I am blonde with blue eyes. So my daily life consists of Chinese people staring at me and asking to take pictures with me. So much to the point sometimes, it's hard for me to get through what I need to get through. I went to the cherry blossoms a couple weeks ago and about 20 people stopped me and asked if they could take a picture with me. And when I say ask, they wrap their arms around me and a photo is taken so quickly, I didn't even know what happened. It doesn't bother me though, they are truly curious about foreigners and are happy you are there, especially if you're a teacher.

My best advise to future teachers/travelers that are coming to China is to just come into it with open arms. These are the norms are and it's best not let them get to you. 

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My First Day Teaching

What a successful day it has been!

Throughout the night, I kept waking up just about every hour. My body is still trying to get used to the time zone in China. 14 hours later than Chicago. With a mix of jet lag and being excited/nervous, I sprung out of my bed at about 4am. Oops. But hey, nothing wrong with getting an early start on a big day, right? Right.

My roommate Joy shows me the way to my kindergarten school. I couldn't contain my excitement the whole 45 minute bus ride sitting in bumper to bumper traffic. (Joy probably thought I was a little crazy, but that's okay). I enter the school and am greeted by the friendliest teachers and the CUTEST students I have ever seen. 

I had 4 classes today, all kindergarten classes and all in a row. I could barely catch my breath between classes; there was just so much excitement and energy. I felt like a little super star in the classrooms with teachers on the side taking pictures and students high fiving me. Each class was filled with games and songs. I taught them a hello song, we played "Teacher Says", practiced animals, played hot potato, practiced "My name is...", "How old are you?", and so much more. It's crazy the amount you can do within a 30 minute time period. 

I am very happy with how today went and can't wait for more with these munchkins!

My advice for future teachers: Stickers + songs + games = SUCCESS

 

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Sticker Time = Best Time
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London Bridge is Falling Down

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My Winter Break in China: Travel Itinerary and Pictures

Hello again, CIEE Teach in China readers!

After finishing teaching the Fall semester at your school in China, you will be given one or two months off. During this time, you are free to do anything and everything you wanted to do during the previous working months. Many schools, like mine, encourage you to spend your long break traveling. Schools especially hope that you will visit other places in China during this travel period so that you can see more of the history and culture that Chinese people are so proud to claim. Many schools will give you a bonus to be used on travel expenses during the break. Some schools will even give you a paycheck or two during the break, which can really help relieve some of the stress of budgeting while traveling. Since no two schools are the same or have the same policies, it is always in your best interest to ask your contact person at the school about the benefits they will provide during the long winter break.

During this long break, many of the CIEE teachers I met in Chongqing took the opportunity to travel abroad to countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Taiwan. Some did a mixture of international travel and domestic travel, seeing some of China's major cities here and there. I decided to use the break as an opportunity to see as much of China as possible. Sitting here now, I can proudly say that I have been to 12 different cities in China, each offering different views, different local cultures and dialects, different historical sites and perspectives, different lifestyles and living situations, and, of course - different foods (food is one of if not the most important discussion topic/concern/point of interest for the average Chinese person).

To encourage all of you to make a full China travel itinerary and to use your breaks and weekends in the spirit of adventure, I am sharing my 2016 Winter Break China Travel Itinerary. I hope that you will find it useful in choosing locations to visit in China!

Destination 1: Guilin 桂林, Guangxi Province (January 15 - January 19)

Three years prior to teaching in China, in my Contemporary Chinese Society and Culture class, I was introduced to this breathtaking city. I promised myself at that time that I would visit Guilin and that I would do it as soon as possible! So, naturally, when it came time to crafting an itinerary, I made sure that it included the city of my travel dreams.

This was the first stop on my trip, but it stole my heart right away. Even after completing the trip, I would have to say that Guilin remains at the top of my list of favorite places in China. When you see the green limestone mountains lining the light bluish-green waters of the Li River, you feel like you have walked right into one of the Chinese paintings that they display in art museums. Especially when you stand on the bank of the river and look up at the mountains, you understand why Chinese poets, artists, playwrites, and scholars were so enthralled by the landscape.

Taking a boat or raft on the Li River is an absolute must to get the full natural experience of Guilin. I also highly recommend going to the Dragon's Backbone (Longji) Rice Terraces, especially in the warm months. It is another wonderful experience to walk around the terraces that were built into the side of Guilin's gorgeous mountains. If you are looking for a place to feel at peace and feel conncted to China through nature, Guilin should certainly be first on your list.

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Image The Longji Rice Terraces - a must see, especially in warm weather!

Destination 2: Hangzhou 杭州, Zhejiang Province (January 19 - January 23)

Hangzhou is a city that many Chinese citizens recommend as a place to visit and hope to one day visit themselves. Many Chinese people even claim that Hangzhou is one of the most beautiful cities in all of China. Hangzhou is of high cultural significance, as its varied landscapes served as the inspiration for many famous Chinese paintings and works of poetry throughout Chinese history. Indeed, it is a very large city with abounding natural beauty.

There is much to see and do in Hangzhou, so I definitely recommend giving yourself enough time to get lost and enjoy the beautiful places to be seen. Each season brings a different charm and aesthetic to the city, but Spring is said to be the best time to visit because the flowers are in bloom (Hangzhou is famous for its lotuses in bloom). Hangzhou is interesting in the fact that you can find quiet and secluded places wherein you can feel at one with nature, but you can also find high-end shopping malls and nightlife.

One thing is for certain: you must go see West Lake, Hangzhou's most famous natural tourist attraction. It's a huge lake, so it's hard to miss and able to be experienced from several locations in Hangzhou. I recommend getting on a pleasure boat and going out on the lake as well. Some of the pleasure boats will take you to small islands inside the lake on which you can walk around and explore. It can be a little pricey to do this, but you do get some wonderful views of the lake this way.

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3. Shanghai 上海 (January 23 - January 28)

I had one reoccurring thought the whole time I was in Shanghai: this place is another world. People always say that Shanghai is a perfect blend of Western and Chinese cultures, and boy are they right. Sometimes it really did feel like we weren't even in China! But if there is one thing to keep in mind when visiting this city, it's that Shanghainese people are very, very proud of their history and happily claim their identity as Chinese citizens living in THE most global city in China.

Shanghai has a little bit of everything to offer travelers. It was probably the most expensive stop on our travels, but the experience just could not be matched. It was also a strange phenomenon to see so many foreigners in one place, especially for me, coming from a small town in Chongqing where I am one of only four foreigners. But with plenty of restaurants, shopping, and nightlife, you can pack your schedule from morning until night with things to see and do. I also recommend trying some of Shanghai's local foods while you are there, especially if you are a fan of seafood. And of course, try to take part in the shopping culture (even if it's just window shopping) and nightlife that make Shanghai so famous. Image
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4. Qufu 曲阜, Shandong Province (January 28 - January 30)

If you tell any of your Chinese students or friends that you're going to Qufu, chances are they won't know what you're talking about right away. That is because the Chinese characters in the name are not commonly seen or used by the average Chinese person, and also because Qufu is a place that the young generation in China deems "boring." But, the older generations deem it as an important historical and cultural site in China. In fact, Qufu is the hometown of Confucius. His grave is in Qufu along with the graves of his relatives and some of his most famous followers. There are also plenty of Confucian temples as well as the Confucius family mansion. If you are a fan of Chinese history and culture, then Qufu is definitely worth a visit.

Compared to other cities in China, Qufu is considered very small with a population of around 100,000. After living or staying in a large city filled with millions of people, going to a small city like Qufu can be a much needed break. The lifestyle is definitely more simple there, but if you look around, you can find hidden gems and charms. As a word of caution, there are not many English speakers in Qufu, so I would recommend going there with someone who can speak at least basic survival Chinese.

Qufu is also close to one of China's famous mountains, Mount Tai (泰山). The mountain is only a 30 minute bullet train ride away, so I would highly recommend going there as part of your stay in Qufu. The mountain is a bear to climb because it is so tall; its peaks penetrate the clouds, so once you're at the top, you are standing inside the clouds. But standing at the top and looking out at the mountains covered in a cloudy haze is an unmatchable sight.

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Image The clouds at the peaks of Mount Tai

5. Qingdao 青岛, Shandong Province (January 30 - February 1) I studied abroad in Qingdao in the summer of 2013, so I was not sure what to expect going there in the winter. Because Qingdao is right on the ocean, the winter breezes were bone-chilling. I share the opinion of the locals that the best time to visit Qingdao is in the warm months, especially the summer months. While the rest of China is boiling hot in summer (especially in the middle of China where I am located), Qingdao stays cooler than most places because of its seaside location, making for a very pleasant experience.

Qingdao is not a particularly touristy place, but it does have some places of interest for tourists, such as the Qingdao Beer Museum. In some places, it also retains buildings constructed by the Germans when they occupied Qingdao. Many Germans visit Qingdao because of Germany's past influence in the area. Qingdao is a lovely place to visit for a few days, but an even lovelier place to live or stay for a long period of time. It is a large city with millions of residents, but everything is spread out, which makes it seem far less populous. It is also cleaner than most Chinese cities and has plenty of Western amenities. If you are a student of Chinese or learning Chinese, Qingdao people speak Mandarin well, so you should not have much trouble communicating with them.

In short, if you're debating taking a teaching position/job in Qingdao, just know that you would be living in a beautiful area with beaches and sea views, kind people, good public transportation, and all the trappings of big-city life with a more laid-back feel.

Image Inside the Qingdao Beer Museum

6. Beijing 北京 (February 1 - February 5) Of course, no one can resist a trip to China's capital city. It is a must see for all visitors to China. You could spend a long time in Beijing trying to see and do everything the city offers, or you could spend less than a week and pack your schedule full each day. To save some extra money, we opted for the second option.

Must sees in Beijing include: The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple, and the Great Wall (I recommend the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall). When in Beijing, try to stray away from Western food and embrace all of the delicious Chinese food options around. Eating Beijing duck (Beijing kaoya 北京烤鸭 in Chinese) is a must for one meal as well - it really deserves all the hype and all the fame it receives! Beijing duck can get very pricey depending on where you eat it, so do some research or ask beforehand for recommendations on duck restaurants that won't break the bank.

Souvenir shopping and haggling are also famous in Beijing. You will find all sorts of cute and crazy China souvenirs when you're there! Just know that if you look like a foreigner, you are at an immediate disadvantage because the Chinese vendors will always give you a higher price for things (they have a tendency to assume that all foreigners are wealthy). That is why haggling is so important when it comes to buying anything on the streets, and especially at the infamous Pearl Market. I think that everyone should do a little shopping and use it as an opportunity to practice their Chinese and improve their haggling skills (which are very useful for anyone looking to save money anywhere in China).

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Image The Summer Palace in winter

Image The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall

7. Harbin 哈尔滨,Heilongjiang Province (February 5 - February 8)

Harbin is known as the "Ice City" in China and attracts many tourists in the wintertime for its famous Ice Festival. During the Ice Festival, one can find ice sculptures on the streets of the city as well as in certain parks. The ice sculptures are all lit up at night with colored lights, making for a beautiful wintery scene. But the most famous place to see the ice sculptures lit up is Harbin's Ice and Snow World (bing xue da shijie 冰雪大世界 in Chinese). It is located on an island and it contains the largest ice sculptures in all of Harbin. Seriously, the ice sculptures there are massive! They craft everything from castles to pyramids to pagodas out of ice and include fun winter games and activities in most places too. The entrance fee is a little steep at 330 yuan, but it is well worth the price in my opinion. The experience was so unique and one that I will certainly cherish.

Another famous tourist destination in Harbin is the Siberian Tiger Reserve. The reserve claims to have over 1,000 tigers living in it, and when you go there, you believe it! Harbin is also very interesting to roam around in during the daytime because there is evidence of Russian influence everywhere. Most of the signs are in Chinese and Russian before they are in Chinese and English. While in Harbin, trying Russian food on the streets is also quite a fun experience. My favorite food of all was the sausage, which is sold on the street for 10 yuan. The flavor is smokey and delicious! And of course, if you're looking for a unique souvenir from your time in China, Russian dolls are sold just about everywhere in Harbin.

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Image All photos are images of Harbin's Ice and Snow World

Losing my Grandma in China

*I originally made this post in January, but it was unable to post due to technical difficulties. Below is the original post I intended to make on the night I found out about my grandmother's passing.*

I somehow gravely knew that I would lose a relative while I was in China.

A week or so before my flight, the thought crept up on me in the late morning hours. I let it impact me for a little while, and then I just shook it off, telling myself that I am no psychic and that it was probably just nerves trying to deter me from my drive for adventure. When I heard the news three weeks ago that my grandma was dying, all the same thoughts and their accompanying emotions crawled back into me.

Being the only family member away from my Grandma during her final countdown was difficult. I felt selfish, like I had abandoned her when she needed me most. I felt distant, as far as the physical miles keeping us apart. I felt helpless, because I knew that I was stuck here with no money for a flight and a contract binding me to stay.

So many people asked me if I would break my contract and fly home to see her. Honestly, the thought did tempt me for a while. But I felt the right answer come to me on Christmas Eve, when I ate Christmas dinner with three Chinese teachers from my school.

At dinner, I told them that my Grandma was dying and that we were all hoping she would at least make it past Christmas. One of the teachers then asked me, "How old is your Grandma?"

"90 years old," I replied.

The three of them were in awe. They smiled at the thought of someone living that long. And then, they gave me a new perspective.

They said that in China, if someone lives to be 80 years old or older, people will greatly admire and respect them. This is especially true because of China's history, across which many people passed away considerably earlier.

They then said that, being that my grandma is 90 years old, no one would shed any tears at her funeral. When I asked why, they said that because to them, the death of someone that old means th end of bodily suffering. They are happy to know that their relative no longer has to live in pain and can essentially be set free.

My grandma endured nothing but pain for the three weeks leading up to her death.

I cherished their perspective so much that it became my own. And now that I have officially received the news of my grandmother's passing, I both stand by it and cling to it. And in her memory and honor, I have composed the following letter. May she feel every word as she shines magnificently in the light of another realm, one so much bigger than I will ever understand.

1:50 am on January 11th, 2016: China Time

Dear Grandma,

At 10:00 am Florida time, you passed away. I only heard the news tonight, and it is making me feel so hollow.

I knew that this was coming for three weeks, but there is no way of preparing to lose someone who has always been such a source of light and happiness in your life. I so wish I could have seen you in person one last time and held your hand like the rest of our family, but I thought of you every single day and sent you my love in every way I could. I drank your favorite drink and thought of you. I looked at your picture and smiled like you. I dove into my memories and held on to you.

On New Years Eve, I promised that I would live out 2016 with your immense love as the driving force behind everything I do. And when I leave to explore beautiful lands in China this weekend, I know I will find you everywhere I look.

Grandma, I have always wanted to live by your example; no matter where I end up next in the world, your way will merge with the one I am currently defining to influence the person I become.

Thank you for everything you ever did and everything you ever were. You will always be here with me and I will always find you in all of your favorite things.

I love you across every ocean and every continent, in every culture and language.

Your Granddaughter,

Jennifer

China Menu Survival Guide: 6 Foods You Need to Try

China in all of its vastness can be a little overwhelming. Not only is it populous, it is the world's second-largest country by land area. Its people find pride in its 5,000 years of history and in all of its cultural and technological advances. The languages in China are just as vast as its borders, with dialects abounding in all parts of the country, some mutually unintelligible to anyone other than a native speaker of that particular dialect.

Population, borders, and dialects aside, there is one more aspect of China that always seems limitless: the menu at restaurants.

There is so much variety in Chinese cuisine. Meats and vegetables can be cooked in all sorts of ways, blended with all sorts of spices, garnished with all sorts of add-ins, and complimented by all sorts of sauces. To those of us who did not grow up in China, sometimes the options just seem greater than the distance between our home countries and China itself. We may think we know what we're doing once we learn the words for chicken (鸡肉), pork (猪肉), beef (牛肉), and fish (鱼), but what we don't realize is that those words are always followed by more options for ways of cooking it and serving it than we could even imagine.

For these reasons, ordering at restaurants can be a stressful activity for people who cannot speak Chinese or who have not been acquainted with Chinese cuisine before. To save some stress and strain, I have compiled a short list of some of the foods I have been eating often in Chongqing. Granted, I have only been in this part of China for a month, so there are still many, many foods I have yet to try. Even so, these are foods that I have come to know and love and would recommend to any person looking for something good to eat in China.

Beef Noodles (牛肉面 - niu rou mian)

In class, my students always said that their favorite food was noodles, but I never really could figure out why. It wasn't until I started eating beef noodles more that I realized why they all love noodles so much. When I first started eating them, they were just okay to me. They had a nice flavor and made me full, so they got the job done. But the more I ate them, the more I craved them; something just clicked in my brain that made me obsessed with them.

Beef noodles can be found anywhere you go and are a solid choice for lunch or dinner. I'm sure people even eat them for breakfast here too! You can find them at restaurants or on the street. Since they're so easy to make (it really is just broth, beef, and noodles, and maybe a vegetable like cabbage), they are usually a very good price. I think I pay about 10 RMB on average for a bowl, which equates to about 1.67 USD.

I have just come to love them so much that I get excited whenever I see their picture on a menu! And if you ever find yourself needing a very late-night snack around 4 or 5 am, I can almost guarantee that you will find a 24-hour noodle place with beef noodles ready to serve.

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Braised Eggplant (红烧茄子 - hong shao qiezi)

Before coming to China, I never really was a fan of eggplant. I know now that the reason I never found eggplant delicious was that I had never experienced it cooked in a way that catered to my palate.

To make this dish, eggplant is fried ever-so-slightly and served in a warm, red sauce. It is not spicy, but I have come across some varieties that add red chili peppers mostly for decoration. This is one of those dishes that is guaranteed to be served at most restaurants and is guaranteed to make your mouth water every time. I highly recommend it as a vegetable side to any meat dish! And if you are a vegetarian looking to add some good vegetable dishes to your must-eat list, I definitely think I've found you a winner.

Hot Pot (火锅 - huo guo)

In my neck of the woods (Chongqing), hot pot is just about everyone's favorite food, or at least among their top favorites. The way I like to describe it is that it's more than just a meal: it's a festivity for friends. And if there is a single food item that Chongqing people would brand next to their name or get tattooed on their body, it's this one.

There are three sizes of hot pot: small, medium, and large. Unless you're dining alone, medium or large is generally the way to go. A group of four or five people can definitely take on a large hot pot pretty successfully. Depending on the tastes of you and your group, you can select as many meats and vegetables to add into the hot pot as you would like. The hot pot already comes with a few vegetables inside the broth, such as potatoes and lotus root (藕 - ou).

After ordering the meats and vegetables you want to add in, the server will bring the hot pot to your table, where it will be heated with a gas stove that is affixed to the center of the table. You can think of hot pot as you would think of fondue, so at this stage, it is just a big bowl of broth with a few vegetables at the bottom. The gas stove will make the water boil, and once the water is at boiling temperature, you can add the raw meats and vegetables in to be cooked.

In places like Chongqing and Sichuan Province, the default flavor for broth is spicy, spicy, spicy. Chongqing people and Sichuan people can't get enough of spicy food, and both places pride themselves on the level of spice found in their hot pot dishes. If you are like me and cannot handle spicy food well, you can ask to order a hot pot that is half spicy broth and half non-spicy broth, almost like a chicken broth. That way you can still get a little bit of that spicy flavor that people crave while still having the ability to switch back to a more comfortable flavor range.

It takes about thirty minutes to actually order the meats, get the hot pot boiling, and have the first few pieces of meat cook all the way through. Then, the actual eating of the food can take an additional thirty minutes to an hour. Every time I go to eat hot pot with my friends, I end up staying there about an hour and a half. That is why I say that hot pot is something to be enjoyed when you have time and good company, not as a quick meal before your teaching day.

The first time I went to hot pot, one of my school's foreign teachers (who speaks excellent Chinese) decided to order us some meats that can commonly be found in a Chinese person's hot pot but that usually intimidate us foreigners. He ordered us pig brain, which he said is one of the most common things ordered at hot pot restaurants. He also got chicken feet and a kind of intestine, both of which are quite commonly consumed at restaurants all across China. Throughout Chinese history, food was valued as a treasure, so wasting and throwing away food was considered criminal.  Thus, consuming all parts of the animal became deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and cuisine.

When you go to eat hot pot, take a lot at what some of the people are ordering around you; I guarantee you will see some animal parts you never thought about eating before. And the next time you go back, you can be brave and bold and try them yourself!

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Pigs brain is commonly ordered at hot pot restaurants.

Dry Pot (干锅 - gan guo)

Dry pot is actually similar to hot pot in the fact that everything is cooked in a large bowl, but the difference is that the meat and vegetables in dry pot are added in and cooked in the boiling water before reaching your table. The process is the same of selecting which meats and vegetables you want to add to the broth, but more experienced people actually make sure that everything is cooked before bringing the big bowl out to your table. When the gas stove on your table is turned on, this time it is simply to keep the water warm so that your already-cooked food stays as warm as possible.

One of my school's foreign teachers says that he prefers dry pot to hot pot because of the fact that he knows the meat is cooked all the way through before he bites into it. I also think that I sway more towards dry pot than hot pot for the same reason. Although I will say, the atmosphere feels much more lively and jubilant when you're eating hot pot.

Just like with hot pot, in Chongqing, the default broth for dry pot is spicy. So, if you do not want spicy broth, you can always just tell the sever that you don't eat spicy food (我不吃辣 - wo bu chi la). She or he can then help you select a broth that isn't too spicy.

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Fried Eggs with Tomato (番茄炒蛋)

This dish sounds pretty basic, but the combination of fried eggs and tomatoes is just classic. This is one of those dishes that you can order a few times per week and never get tired of. It's perfect with a side of rice and compliments just about any other dish on the table. Especially if you have a hard time stomaching Chinese food or want to stick with something easy and safe, this can be a tasty go-to option. Sometimes green peppers or onions will be added to the dish as well for a little extra burst of flavor. I have never met a single soul who has ever opposed to ordering this dish at any given time, which clues you in on just how much of a winner it is. I eat it at lunch and dinner time, and if I went out to eat at restaurants around brunch time, I would probably order it then too.

Gong Bao Ji Ding (宫保鸡丁) - The Original Kung Pao Chicken

No post about food directed towards visitors to China is complete without good 'ol Gong Bao. This is the original Chinese dish that inspired the making of Kung Pao Chicken in America. It's a stir-fry chicken dish that also contains peanuts, vegetables, and some red chili peppers (for decoration, not for consumption) drenched in a delicious, flavorful sauce. The dish typically matches the foreign palate quite nicely, especially since it is reminiscent of the Kung Pao Chicken we all know and love. The pieces of chicken themselves are much smaller, but meat dishes are typically cut into thinly sliced pieces in China anyway.

Gong Bao Ji Ding can be found at just about any restaurant you visit, which means that it can easily be added to your list of go-to dinners. While it is typically not spicy, in places that rave over spicy food like Sichuan Province and Chongqing, you might get a plate of Gong Bao with a kick every once in a while. The sauce on most Gong Bao dishes typically appears brownish in color, so if you get a plate with a reddish-colored sauce, it might be a good indicator that that particular plate has a spicy flare.

No matter what, this dish will always be a foreigner favorite that is timeless and tasty wherever you go. 

My First Week in China at a Glance

It’s kind of hard to believe that I have been in China for nine days already. With all of the running around I’ve done, I feel like I’ve been here for a month already! There is no coherent way to organize all of my thoughts and experiences, so I am going to do my best to recount as much as I can in as orderly a fashion as possible.

I arrived in China at 7:50 pm on my birthday. I flew to the Chongqing airport with one other CIEE teacher working at my school. When we got to the airport, two students from the school were waiting to pick us up. Their names are Jason and Matt. They are both very eager to practice English, so they volunteered to meet us at the airport so they could speak English with us on the ride to school. When I told them it was my birthday, they decided to stop at a restaurant to buy me and the other teacher dinner. Since that day, Matt has become one of my good friends here in China, and Jason has amazed me with his leadership in the English Club.

On my first night in China, I was a little surprised by my living situation. To describe the setup here, there are five CIEE teachers (including myself) at the school, and we all live on the same floor. We each have a single apartment with a bed, a wardrobe, a fridge, a desk or table, and a chair or two. There is a door in the apartment that leads to an outside balcony, on which our sink and bathroom is located. However, the door does not touch the ground all the way; there is about five inches of open space. I was informed that I live on the side of the building that gets all of the bugs, so on my first night, I found myself killing five little bugs in my room and one cockroach. Since then, the bug situation has gotten a lot better. One of the teachers created a barricade for my door with tape, which has so far done a nice job of keeping bugs out. Nonetheless, my apartment is considered a very nice living space in this part of China. It has all of the things I need to go about my daily life, so I have come to peace with it.

I do not have a kitchen, but the school did provide me with a water boiler and a rice cooker. I have used the water boiler to boil the water from the sink, since tap water is not safe to drink in China. Water bottles are also very inexpensive here, so I make sure to keep a few in my fridge at all times. If you are not familiar with the typical Chinese bathroom, it usually only has a toilet and a shower head. The shower head is right next to the toilet, so when you take a shower, the toilet also gets wet. It may sound a little worse than it actually is; all you really have to do is move your toilet paper out of the way while you shower and keep your clothes off to the side where they’ll be dry.

Since your apartment may not come with basic necessities, you will probably have to go run errands for the first few days to get everything you need. For example, my room does not have a mirror. I found a small mirror that I use to look at my face, but I have yet to find a full body mirror. You can get just about everything you need in a Chinese supermarket, or chaoshi (超市). They even sell blankets, pillows, shoes, clothes, towels, and hangers for your clothes.

The beds in China are hard, but you can also find mattress pads in the supermarkets for a little extra cushioning. When washing clothes, people do not really use driers, so loading up on clothes hangers is definitely a good idea. Clothes hanging out to dry is a very common sight in China. Also, it is common for people to wear the same clothes over and over again.

Of course, there are some things that will be very difficult to buy in China. People do not really wear deodorant here, so most stores do not stock it. You can find some types of deodorant in some places, but they are typically on the expensive side and most likely not what you use back home. If you have big feet or wear a large clothes size, then shoes and clothes might also be a bit of a hassle. Mini hand sanitizer is always handy in China but is not commonly sold here. I would highly recommend bringing some from home before traveling to China, especially since most bathrooms do not have hand soap.

Rather than a large city, I am living in more of a town. My school is located in Shuangfu New District, which is located about 45 minutes outside of the big city of Chongqing. Many of the people here have never seen a foreigner before, so my colleagues and I are often met with stares when we go out. When we all walk together, we really get everyone’s attention. It can sometimes feel weird knowing that people are looking at you and talking about you, but you have to remind yourself that it is all coming from a place of genuine interest and not a place of malice. In China, there really is no concept of personal space, so you may even have some people come up to you, stand there, and just watch you. How people react to your foreign-ness will all depend on where you are in China – some places have more foreign influence and a greater population of expats than others.

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The entrance to my school, Chongqing Vocational College of Transportaion

I started teaching my classes two days ago. So far, my work week has been very manageable. My school wants us to focus on oral English, so we do not really give reading or writing assignments. I am teaching at a college, so all of my students are 18-22 years old. Because we are similar in age, we have a lot of fun together in class. The students are all beginners in English, so I have to rephrase things for them, repeat, and speak slowly. Some of my students do not need to learn English for their future professions, so they do not really care about taking a class in English. But I have plenty of students who enjoy learning English and want to practice with me outside of class. For the most part, my students have been very energetic and engaged in class. I honestly look forward to going to teach every day so I can meet all of my students and get to talk with them in English.

So far this week, I have been teaching an introduction class suitable for their level. I come up first and introduce myself to the class. I tell them my name, age, where I am from, my favorite food, and my hobbies. Then, I ask them to remember the questions I answered (such as “what is your favorite food?”) and write those questions on the board. Next, I ask one student to come to the front of the room and to introduce him or herself, answering all five questions. Then, that person chooses who will go next. This continues until everyone has introduced him or herself.

After that, I play a game with them. If the class is smaller and the introductions take up less time, I start by playing telephone. I only play a round or two and give them a word that they have already heard in class, such as “shopping” or “hamburger.” If the class is larger, then I just launch into the second game, which is word chain. I have them play two rounds of word chain. In the first round, they are allowed to write any word they want. In the second round, I make it more challenging by saying that they can only write the names of foods. Since they are still beginners, I let them use their phones during the game. After each round is finished, we all look at the words on the board together. After the first round, I correct the words for spelling and have them point out the words that are the same on each side of the board (since all of my classes have typically been writing the same words, such as “good,” “dog,” and “teacher”). After the second round, I tell them if the food is eaten in America or not. Sometimes, Chinese foods cannot directly translate into English, although their dictionaries give them some sort of English equivalent. I always point out which foods we do not typically eat in America, such as “shark fin.”

I have found that my students know a lot of popular American movies, but they only know the names of those movies in Chinese. So, I have also been teaching them the English names of popular American movies by using pictures. That part of the lesson is always fun because they love to see their favorite movies come onscreen. I also do an activity where I have students raise their hands if they like the movie. Then, we see which movie was the most popular among the class.

At the end of class, I give them the assignment of choosing an English name. Since most students have never interacted with foreigners before, they have not ever thought about getting an English name. I think that they will have fun choosing an English name for themselves, and it will also make life a little easier on me too. I am only an intermediate-level learner of Chinese, so remembering hundreds of Chinese names is certainly a difficult task for me. Some of my students already have English names, and some have really crazy and random English names like “Starfire” and “Sword.” For those two, just seeing their personalities and how happy they are to say their English name, I don’t have the heart to tell them that their names are very out-there to Americans. I think that if they like it, that’s all that matters.

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Me with one of my students!

This weekend, I also got to take a fun trip out to Ciqikou (磁器口), which is one of Chongqing's well-known tourist destinations. It is known for its old architecture and for it's huge open-air market. All sorts of little trinkets and gifts are sold there, and you can find just about anything you could ever want to eat or drink. There is also a Buddhist temple there, which is a serene escape from all of the chaos on the streets. We spent a good six hours there and then took the metro to Honyadong (洪崖洞), which is inside the big city of Chongqing. It is also known as "food street" because it has all sorts of restaurants there. It is a popular place for foreigners to meet and hang out. We all loved the feel of the big city of Chongqing with all its lights at night, so we have planned to go back again this weekend for some more fun. 

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Some of the food on the street at Ciqikou

All in all, my first nine days in China have been jam packed. I may have gotten a little sick from the jetlag, but it is totally worth it when you walk out of class knowing that the students loved being with you. When my students say hi to me on campus, I just light up. This job is nothing short of exciting, and while Shuangfu may not be as big and beautiful as Chongqing city, it’s a place that is full of little charms and hidden gems. The people here are really starting to grow on me, and more and more, I am starting to feel like part of a big family.

 

Waiting on Your Papers? No Worries! Here's 6 Reasons Why It Can Be Positive!

Guys, it's finally happening! 

My papers have all been sent in, and by the end of the day, I will have an email in my inbox telling me how and when to book my flight to China. 

I'll be honest, I never really thought that this day would come. I have been waiting to hear this news since the end of August, when I saw many of the other CIEE Teach in China teachers updating their Facebook statuses about boarding their flights and starting their TEFL journeys. For the whole month of September, I got their WeChat messages about what they were doing in Chongqing and what they were seeing. On Instagram, I saw countless pictures of Chongqing restaurants and street foods, Chongqing scenery, and all of the schools where the other teachers had begun teaching.

Over the past month, I have felt a rainbow of emotions as I have watched everyone else leave for China and have waited for it to be my turn. In the beginning, I felt a little disappointed and let down. I wondered if my school secretly didn't want me to teach there because I was under-qualified in their eyes. I speculated on every reason why my school might have been taking so long to send in my paperwork, which only made me paranoid.

Really, I was just wondering when it would be my turn to post Instagram pictures that would make all of MY followers jealous and finally post that beautiful status I had been saving in my head: 

"It's official: I'll be leaving next week to begin my adventure as a TEFL teacher in China! So long, America! Or should I say, 再见!" 

Eventually, I had to tell myself to stop being jealous of other people's happiness and to start focusing on my own.

It is true, my situation was very different from most of the others'. I was originally expecting to be on a plane and in China by the second week of September. When I saw the other teachers post about their first days of class, I instantly became nervous. "What if I won't be able to start teaching for another month?" "What if my students automatically resent me for arriving late?" "What if I can't assess their needs fast enough or build good relationships with them due to time constraints?" "What if I don't deliver quality material in the short amount of time I have with them?" 

All of those thoughts plagued me for a good two weeks or so. On top of dealing with my own thoughts, I had to deal with people always asking me, "When are you leaving for China?" "You still don't have a date yet?" "Are you sure you're actually still going to China?" "What if it's all a scam?"

All of these thoughts and feelings combined made me want to give up on my dream of ever living in China. I thought that this was the universe telling me to just pick a new aspiration and move on already. That is, until I gained a new perspective. 

The truth is, living in China for 9, 10, 11 months is a huge deal. There are so many preparations to be made and so many details to sort out. After quite a bit of self-reflection, I have compiled this list of reasons for anyone experiencing a delay with their paperwork (which, as I was told frequently, happens a lot when dealing with foreign governments) to take a step back, take a breath, and realize that your situation is not a condemnation but a key for your success. 

 1. More Time for Buying What You Need

One of the first things I realized when I was selected to teach in China was that I needed to improve my wardrobe. I had just graduated college, so I was used to rocking yoga pants and t-shirts every day around campus. When I did dress up, you couldn't really call my choice of clothing "business casual." As a college student, I only owned two or three outfits that could actually fall under that category.

For future teachers in China, business casual is generally the best way for you to dress at school. Business casual in China may not be as strict as it is in the United States, but when it doubt, you can always reference the American standard when shopping. Basically, you want to look presentable and professional, which means no jeans and no t-shirts or tank tops. Also, for the female teachers, it is always a good idea to be mindful of the length of your skirts and dresses and of exposed shoulders. I was always told to be on the safe end of the spectrum by in China by covering up your shoulders if you can. Cover-ups and cardigans really can and will be your best friend! 

To bring things back on track, I knew that I had a lot of shopping to do to become a young professional. And BOY, did it take me a while! I'll get more into this in a later blog post, but if you are especially tall, wear a large shoe size, or are plus-sized, then you're really out of luck as far as shopping goes in China. So, for a plus-size woman such as myself, finding the right style and sizes can take an eternity. I also have the big feet problem, so I had to throw in shoe shopping into the mix as well. For bigger people like myself, clothes shopping can be a hit-or-miss activity. It really took a lot of the pressure off knowing that I had plenty of time to find items that were suitable for the job that I would actually love wearing. 

2. The Ability to Save Money and Spread Out Payments

When you start paying the fees associated with your teach abroad journey, you may become a bit overwhelmed when you see your monetary supply slowly disappear. The costs for the physical examinations required for your visa paperwork, your CIEE fees, and the cost of all of the clothing and personal supplies you will need to live in China for a long period of time can quickly add up.

The more you can disperse your payments, the better. The extra time between payments allows you to save up money so you aren't scrambling for it later. This is especially true for those of us who just graduated college and are relying mostly on our parents for help. I know that my mom appreciated the ability to space out our shopping trips so that she could budget her money better. Plus, I had extra time to earn some money of my own to cover some of the necessary expenses. 

 3. More Time for Packing

When it comes to shoes and clothes and makeup, I am a major girly-girl. So, being confronted with the thought of having to fit all of my favorite clothes and shoes into two suitcases caused me quite a bit of anxiety.

Your two suitcases can only be 50 pounds each, which means that you have to be selective when it comes to clothing items and personal supplies. To pack and unpack and still be at the 50 pound weight limit is an ongoing process. The more time you have to analyze what you really need to get by in another country, the more likely you will be to avoid overweight baggage fees. You will also be more confident that you have everything you need and everything you will use. Most importantly, you will have time to check and double check that you actually packed everything you planned to pack so you don't get a shock when you start settling into your apartment in China. 

 4. More Time to Study Chinese

Okay, this one I probably should have taken advantage of more. When you are in the waiting period, you have plenty of time to set aside for studying Chinese. If you study Chinese often, you will see and feel an improvement in your language ability before leaving the States, which can be a huge confidence boost. Even just 30 minutes a day is better than none!

If you really don't feel like studying, you can watch a Chinese movie or start a Chinese TV series to get yourself accustomed to listening to the language. Or, if you're more into learning about Chinese culture, then you can also allot time for researching Chinese culture online. All of the extra time you spend learning about your new destination will result in you feeling more comfortable than ever with the thought of living in a new place with a different culture. 

 5. More Time for Yourself

This one may sound selfish, but the importance of rest and rejuvenation cannot be disputed. As a Psychology major in college, I have read multiple studies showing the benefits of reducing stress through leisure activities. Some of the benefits include increased happiness and life satisfaction, better quality of physical health, and decreased likelihood of depression or anxiety. 

When you step off that plane in China, it's going to be go, go, go all the time. Between lesson planning, exploring, building friendships, helping out at your school, and actually going in to teach each week, you're going to get back to a life of strict schedules and time management. You're going to constantly be thinking about your students and your colleagues and focusing less and less on yourself. Teaching is one of the most selfless fields out there, which can make it feel highly rewarding. But if you focus too much on everyone else and not enough on yourself, then you're sure to burn yourself out. 

During this waiting period, take advantage of the time you get to rest. Sleep in, indulge in your hobbies, catch up with your favorite series on Netflix, and have fun-filled weekends. Especially for those of you just coming out of college, you can think of this time as an extended summer vacation. Now that I know that my summer vacation is actually coming to an end, I'm already starting to miss it.

There is nothing wrong with treating yourself to some substantial you-time. Soak all of it in now before you go and get back on the daily grind! You're going to wish you had it all back once you fly into a new time zone and start to feel the jet lag sink in. 

6. More Time for Friends and Family

Of all the items on this list, this one resonates the most with me. I am really close to my family, and the thought of having to leave them and my friends almost made me want to back out of teaching abroad altogether. While I was swimming in self-doubt and speculating on everything that could have gone wrong to keep me in the States, the consolation that I had more time to spend with my loved ones was what kept me above water.

Thanks to this month-long waiting period, I had so many opportunities to make fun memories with my friends. I got to take new pictures with them, which I will be printing out and hanging on my walls in my apartment in China. I got to share everything that I was excited and nervous about with people who wanted to listen. I even gained some shopping and preparation pals to help me make the move easier and more fun! 

I am having my final goodbye dinner with my friends this weekend, and I am actually not sad about it. The extra time I have had to spend with my friends has made me feel confident to take on China. It has made me realize just how strong our bonds are and just how much they are looking forward to seeing me pursue my goals. Knowing that I have that strong of a support system behind me, there is no need for sadness or fear. 

  

The true gem of China

Honesty is something that is frequently underestimated. The honest pursuit of wealth, or rather the honest gain of material wealth, Whats-more, the more important things: Happiness. Health. How often have you neglected your body? How often have you said you would put it off. I’m guilty. Be honest. Be true to who you are, what you will become. Always grow. Growing as you breathe, you can then learn to be one with yourself. Meditation is a key to knowledge. In order to elevate yourself, you must lower yourself. Let the qi and blood course throughout your body. You are alive. Make sure you always remember: this life is a gift. It is a beautiful, precious, and fragile gift. Don’t live it like you are dying. Live it like you will live forever. Don’t drown your pain in alcohol or material possessions. At the end of your life, what will you have to draw from? One second by every second, slowly, slowly. Rome was not built in a day, or even in many years. People died. People suffered. Everything revolves around time. 

 

In China, honesty is a huge part of the culture. Rather than the pursuit of money and power, they have thousands of years of history to draw from. They are the world’s oldest civilization with a rich language that much of the Western world feels is a mystery. We know their symbols, their emblems, and the main idea of their culture. Honor your father and mother. Honor yourself. Honor your relationships. Honor is the root, but honesty and compassion tie hand in hand with that. Without true expression of emotions, you are simply a “human doing” not a “human being”. 

 

China has taught me valuable lessons about my life, but it is not the society itself or the complex language or any of those things that are the true gem of China. Chinese culture is the true beauty. Chinese medicine has been proven to work across thousands of years. Why now, in the west, we consider it quackery is a bigger mystery than the traditional script itself. 

 

In the West we honor the Asian society but we know nothing of its wonder and beauty. There is so much left untouched, so much more left to be explored. Don’t get my meaning confused.. China is not a utopia. There is ignorance that runs in families even.. just as frequently as the United States. It’s a deeper wound than we thought in the world. We all bleed the same red blood. We are one, but so drastically apart from one another that some bleed to forget it. 

 

I won’t pretend to have knowledge of anything I am not capable of having knowledge of. When I came to China, I could barely form correct English sentences due to my physical and mental exhaustion prior to my arrival. I am still very damaged and I will revel in and embrace the brokenness of both myself and society for as long as I live. But I will improve my body. I will improve my mind. I will train to control my mental and physical health. I have the capability to be the master of myself.  

 

The basics of Chinese medicine are still very new to me, as I am an Amateur in every since of the word spanning across hundreds of different subjects, much more than I had ever realized. I am weak in ways that I never thought imaginable, but yet capable of much higher-level thought and power. Releasing yourself of the fear of failure. Releasing and being free. Flying higher.

 

In Chinese traditional thought, the yin and yang is seen as two opposing forces that contrast and compliment one another. The word for nutrition in Chinese is actually “yin yang”. In the West we say, “You are what you eat” 

 

Think about it. Consider the impact you have on other people, but more importantly yourself. Another phrase, “You can’t help others unless you help yourself!”  

 

And thus, begins the process. I will clean my body and mind over the next couple of months and years. 

More updates to be coming soon.  

Living in China: Authentic Urban Life, Travel Galore, and Lifelong Friendships

Allison S. taught in Hangzhou in 2011, then moved to Shanghai for two years to polish her language skills and help Chinese students study abroad in the United States. Read about her three years abroad here.   

Authentic City Living 

When I first moved to China in 2011, I was continuously asked, “Why China?” My immediate answer was, “Why not?” After living there for three years, I could go on and on listing reasons why China is now a second home to me. One is the incredible city life in China that most travelers don’t get to experience. From marathons and music festivals on the Great Wall in Beijing to lying by a pool on a hot summer day in Shanghai, there is something for everyone in China’s amazing cities.

Living in Shanghai for two years gave me the opportunity to really understand the city and experience the many social activities expats and locals alike take part in throughout the year. It’s such a thrill to walk down a little alley, pick up a bowl of noodles or dumplings from a street vendor for lunch, speak with locals, and watch them play an afternoon game of cards or mahjong. Around the corner, there’s an Italian restaurant, a Starbucks, and European parentsteaching their son how to ride a bike. 

Access to Amazing Sites and Destinations

One of the greatest aspects of living in a foreign country is the convenience of traveling to a new destination every chance you get. When I lived in Shanghai, planning a weekend trip to Beijing, Nanjing, or Hangzhou meant deciding to go on a Friday morning and hopping on a train that afternoon. Even after three years in China, I had barely begun to explore all of its amazing sights.

Beijing is an obvious destination for travelers around the world, and for good reason. The first time I went to the Great Wall, I couldn’t help but think how remarkable is was to walk on a piece of history like so many have done before me. Plus, it’s another Wonder of the World I can cross off my must-see list!

In addition to well-known destinations in Beijing, China offers many other can’t-miss sites. The Chinese say (loosely translated): “If there is a heaven on Earth, it is Hangzhou in China.” One of the most unique memories I have of China is spending a spring afternoon learning a traditional Chinese dance near West Lake in Hangzhou.

The Chinese also tell foreigners, “If you haven’t been to Xi’an, you haven’t been to China.” After hearing this, I traveled to Xi’an and realized the Terracotta warriors – a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of the first Emperor of China – were one of the most amazing sights I’ll ever see in my lifetime.

The more I traveled through China, the more I was astonished by what its society is capable of.  I was continually impressed by the consistency of Chinese culture and history in each city, yet every place I visited was completely different from the last. My interest in China will never end because there will always be something more to learn – which is why I love to travel in the first place.

Relationships You’ll Never Forget

If you’ve traveled, you know the bonds you form when traveling are unlike any others. In a country like China, relationships, or guanxi (关系), are very important to all aspects of life. One of the best guanxi I had in China was with my ayi – the equivalent to an American aunt. These Chinese women typically take care of your home. My ayi became a part of my family in China. She helped me with learning Chinese, made me warm ginger tea crammed with sugar when I was sick, and invited me to her home for Chinese holidays. Without living in China, it’s unlikely that I would have formed a bond with a Chinese lady 20 years older than me, who didn’t speak a word of English! While she never owed me anything, she was like a mother to me when my own family was more than 7,000 miles away. That is a person not easily forgotten.

The friends I made while traveling and living in foreign places are unlike any others. Traveling can be a bit of a roller coaster. While my time in China had some bumps, those are not the memories I look back on (unless I am laughing at them!). I’ll always remember the people I met and their indelible influence on my life.

Now, if someone asks me, “Why China?” I tell them that it’s the unexpected city life, the opportunities for incredible travel, and the lifelong relationships that you’ll gain that should make you choose this amazing country.

中国欢迎你-Zhongguo Huanying Ni – China welcomes you!

 

Ready to start the journey of a lifetime? Apply now!

 

雷雨 (Thunderstorm)

If I had one word to describe Chongqing's weather, it'd be HOT. If I had two words, the second would be thunderstorms. The only redeeming thing about the weather in this city is that it has great thunderstorms.

I'm from the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and we definitely don't get storms like this. Last night, a huge storm rolled over the city and knocked out the power. People had trouble driving on the roads. The thunder rattled my windows. And the lightening lit up the entire sky every few seconds. It was incredible to sit on my bed and watch out the windows of my 28th floor apartment because I have a great view of the entire city. I managed to get a video of the storm. I apologise in advance for my excitement. I also got two videos from Alexis that I'll include too. Enjoy!