Gifts to send abroad

I’ve lived abroad for several years in different countries, and I am always so grateful and excited to receive any type of post from home, but when it’s a package, that excitement increases even more than getting a postcard. A huge thank you to everyone who has sent me postcards and letters over the years, I have kept every single one of them and I found some earlier, which prompted this post.

When you have friends of family living abroad, and want to send them a gift, here are some things to consider…not all home comforts can be sent abroad.

First and most importantly, I think you should never send anybody anything valuable. You should send things with the back thought that ‘it might not get there’, because trust me, not all packages arrive. Some are opened by customs or nibbled at by mice before it gets to the receiver and some just never ever arrive at all.

Food

Food and comfort food is always great to send. Always check the date on what you send, as parcels could take from 10 days to 10 weeks to arrive. Coming from the UK, I always request Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and it’s much better to send a multipack of individual bars, rather than a big 500g block. Because if you open a 500g bar, you have to either share it, or eat it all within a few days. 10 x 50g bars last a lot longer. Plain chocolate is always better than anything with caramel or sticky things inside, as they sometimes leak (creme eggs).

I missed cereals when I was in China, and a friend of mine had the greatest idea to send one of those Kelloggs multipack of cereals, you know, the ones for indecisive children. They’re light, so cheap to send and also nostalgic.

Stuff to read

If you’re a book fan, like me, you might run out of things to read. Even with a kindle, there is still nothing greater than a nice paperback book, a magazine or newspaper clipping from home. Most charity shops sell books for between 50p and £1.50, so they are not expensive to buy.

Cosmetics

Not all foreign countries have the same brands and types of cosmetics as they do at home. Asian countries that attach a high importance to looking pale, use a lot of whitening products in their cosmetics, so it’s nice to receive some moisturiser or hand cream from home, knowing that it won’t bleach your skin. Make sure it’s properly sealed, cos a leakage of creams could be devastating.

Teaching aids

If your loved one is teaching overseas, ask them if they need any teaching aids that you can’t get abroad – like blu tac, ‘well done!’ stickers or colouring books to make photocopies of. Blu tac really isn’t sold overseas!

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First Athletics Meet [1500m]

Ok, so technically this wasn’t my first athletics competition I’ve taken part in. In year 7, I was in the Coventry schools athletics tournament, I raced in the 110m hurdles and came last. I came last because we’d been using training hurdles at school, but when we got to the competition, they were raised a few cms higher. I cleared the first one, but fell over at the second, and the third and ended the race crying, with bloody knees. I still have a scar from that day. It was one of those days where wasn’t about taking part, it was more about finishing the race and not giving up at the first hurdle [pun intended].

Anyway, Zhejiang Normal uni, like most Chinese universities, holds an annual athletics meet or 运动会, it’s like a sports day that Chinese people do throughout their school life, so actually by the time they get to university, most students are a bit bored of it all and choose not to watch or take part – which isn’t the spirit!!

As I love sports and am preparing for the upcoming Jinhua marathon in April, I decided to enter the longest distance races available – 800m and 1500m. I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t a 5km* race, but I couldn’t complain/didn’t know who to complain to.

I was the only girl from my department to enter the 1500m, but there would be other girls competing from other departments (engineering, nursery, maths, literature etc). There were 42 female competitors in the end, and I was quite nervous about all of us running at the same time, but then my 负责人 Evelyn (another Chinese student from my department who was appointed to be almost like a PA – taking me to get my race number, telling me the rules, etc) told me how we’d be split into 3 heats. There wouldn’t be a final, so I’d have to run faster than the girls in the other heats to get up on the leaderboard.

I lined up on the starting line and looked at my competitors, some were in sports clothes, one was wearing denim shorts, not all of them had proper trainers. But I dressed the part, even if I lost my race, I wanted to look like a professional athlete from overseas, so wore my matching purple Puma top and shorts, along with my trademark blue headband, blue sunglasses and worn out trainers which probably need replacing.

Before the race
Before the race

The race started and although my coach told me to stay in the middle, with 5 girls ahead of me, I decided to stick with the first three girls. The four of us broke away at the beginning and we dropped down to three after the first 200m as the girl in grey got tired. I was running alongside the girl in black for a while, keeping a steady pace for a lap. Then her coach shouted at her and she overtook me for a little while, but I could tell that she wouldn’t be able to keep that pace for a long time, so I just stayed with her, stamping my feet so she knew I was coming for her. We’d lost the girl in yellow by this time. I wasn’t really thinking about the other heats, I just wanted to win this race as I had a whole stand full of fans shouting for me. My friends from Sudan, Cameroon, South Korea, China, Ghana and Ethiopia all turned out for me and whistled, shouted and went crazy each time I passed them.

Setting the pace
Before the race

I soon overtook her and she kept behind for a while, until when I got to the final 250m I accelerated, and made my move to see if she would respond. A few seconds later, I couldn’t hear her footsteps, only the whistles from the crowd and people shouting my name. I glanced back at the end of the final corner and saw she hadn’t upped the pace like me. That was it, I’d won! Glory was mine as I crossed the finish line.

The crowd went wild and I was suddenly surrounded by people, my 负责人 Evelyn, gave me some water, and the other people were school journalists, all wanting to interview me. I felt like a pro sportswoman as I told them how this was the first time I’d ran a 1500m race and my usual race is triathlon.

When the results came out later, I saw I’d ran in it 5.59:42mins, so my pace was just under 4mins/km, which was what I was aiming for. But what surprised me more was my standing! I came third overall, which meant I’d go on the podium to receive a medal and some flowers from one of the school’s deputies. It was the first time I’d been on a podium like this, with flower girls, my name being read out on a microphone and a group of paparazzi standing below.

Very happy to be on the podium
Before the race

*it turns out there was a 5km race, but it was only open to students in the sports department, meaning there were only 4 girls competing, I should have been able to race in that!

Ridiculous Texts

I’ve been studying Chinese for over four years now, and have used a variety of text books. Some of the texts are really interesting and give us students a real insight into Chinese culture and history – one of my favourites was about 武则天, an evil empress from China’s history. But today I want to talk about three texts which have just been ridiculous, texts that I probably will never forget. I’ve ranked them in order of ridiculousness, and am sorry if I ruin the surprise for any of you currently studying Chinese.

3. God’s punishment for the golf playing Rabbi

This text is from an oral text book and it tells the story of how one day, there is a Rabbi, who love to play golf. One Sabbath*, all he wants to do is play golf, and he thinks that as it’s the Sabbath, nobody will know if he goes to play 9 holes (*Jews are supposed to rest at home on the Sabbath). He goes out, and of course, nobody is on the golf course to catch him out, except suddenly on the third hole, an angel spots him and goes to God to tell on him. God says he will punish the Rabbi, so for the remaining holes, the Rabbi plays excellently, nearly all his shots are holes in one, so he plays another 9 holes to complete the course. The angel goes back to God and asks what kind of punishment is this? He’s getting great results. Then God says to the angel, “Aha, he won’t be able to tell anybody about his excellent round of golf because they’ll know he’s broken the rules by going to play on the Sabbath. Not being able to share your happiness with other people is a punishment”

I like this anecdote, but I just think it’s a bit out of place in a Chinese text book, since religions aren’t practiced the same way as they are in other countries, and I don’t think there is a big Jewish community in China, nor many golf courses.

2. Buying a banana apple

This story was from my first year and was a very simple dialogue about a Canadian student 林娜, buying fruit in a market in China. She asked for a kilo of bananas, half a kilo of apples and a kilo of banana apples. Wait, what, banana apples yes, you read correct. We were told that in China, there is a fruit called “banana apple”, which looks like an apple but tastes like a banana. I’ve been in China for over 6 months in total now, and have yet to find one. When I searched on Baidu (the Chinese Google), apart from photos of apples and bananas beside each other, I found pictures showing yellowish apples as below. Until I eat one, I refuse to acknowledge that they actually exist!

Banana Apple
Banana Apple

1. Is that really our daughter?

This by far must be the most ridiculous text I’ve come across so far. It’s from a text book I used last time I was in China. A couple with straight, blonde hair, small (one lidded) eyes and white skin have a baby. They take the baby girl home, and one day, the Mum says to the baby “are you really our daughter? You have such dark skin, black curly hair and big (double lidded) eyes”. The Mum isn’t convinced, so goes back to the hospital to check. She meets the nurse who delivered the baby, who realises that on that day, there were two baby no. 6’s born. She gives the white couple the address of the other couple who’s baby was no.6. They go to this family’s home and a black lady with curly black hair opens the door, holding a small white, blond baby girl. They realise that their babies have been switched at birth, so meet another day and swap toys, clothes and babies.

I like the variation of our texts, as sometimes learning Chinese, you find yourself always talking about Chinese food and being a foreigner in China (as well as the basic “where are you from, what do you study, WOW your Chinese is so good, how long have you been in China). But sometimes, the texts are a bit strange. Have you had any strange texts in your Chinese text books, or do you remember reading any of these texts yourself?

Settling into classes

This is now my fourth week in China and my third week of classes. At first, I was in the upper intermediate class, along with 30 other students, making it quite a cramped and loud class with not much opportunity to participate in discussions or receive feedback from the teachers. A few of us thought that this class was also too easy, as we had already covered most of the grammar points and key words. We asked for an advanced group, and after much deliberation, the university finally agreed!

This was my first week in the highly esteemed 高级 class and it was definitely harder. The texts are longer, there are new words like ‘snail 蜗牛’ and Chinese sayings like ‘the stupid bird flies first 笨鸟先飞‘ which I may never find an opportunity to use….but I really wanted to push myself this year. I feel in previous years, Chinese class has been too easy. The proof of this is that I have studied Chinese for 4 years, whereas my most ofnclassmates that have the same level as me have only studied for 1 – 2 years. There are definitely different teaching styles, methods and requirements in different countries and the Cameroonians and Koreans have learnt a lot quicker than me.

I like the style of Mandarin teaching in China. The text books used to have explanations in English (in advanced level the explanations are now in Chinese too), but even so, each lesson the teacher will go through each new word and explain how to use it, as sometimes there are different uses – in English we can ‘spoil’ children, boy/girlfriend, a surprise and food can spoil. But in Chinese 溺爱 (spoil) is only used to refer to children.

Our tex

We read the text and are given chance to ask questions about parts we don’t understand and then do the exercises in the text book, or have a class discussion. The teacher will always give us homework and we are expected to review the next lesson before coming to class. It’s going to be difficult, as now I’m getting involved with more things at university, I run each morning, I’m doing a talent show this weekend, I also signed up to some Chinese dance show which may appear on TV*. So I’m finding it hard to find time to sit down with my books and study.

The Chinese national holiday is coming up and I don’t have any travel plans, so I’ll probably use the time to continue my studies and crack on with my characters! I’m sure the teachers will give us plenty of holiday homework to keep us busy too.

*I’ve learnt my lesson never to write my name and Wechat ID on a list if I don’t know what it’s for.

Leaving Asia

They say that reverse culture shock is always worse than the initial culture shock of going abroad and I know leaving Asia will be difficult. Although China was a hard country to live in because of the language, local people’s culture and of course that horrible 7/8 hour time difference, it was easier than I make it out to be; I only cried twice in China. The first time was the first night I arrived, after almost 24 hours of travelling with a dodgy tummy I just wanted to find my dormitory and sleep but I arrived after midnight at Qingdao university. My taxi driver didn’t know where my dorm was so he just dropped me at the big gate and I was stranded. I knew where my dorm was but the gates were all locked, I woke up several watchmen who didn’t seem to understand or help me and when one started shouting at me I just cried. I was cold, lonely and had no idea what to do until some nice people in the hotel helped me find a hole in the fence for me to climb through. The second time I cried was on the plane to Thailand when I left China. Again, I wasn’t feeling too good after a three hour delay and the reality just hit me that I don’t know when I’ll be going back to China and I may not see some of my Asian friends ever again.

There are so many things that happen in China that I don’t think can possibly happen anywhere else in the world. Even my politest of friends would still spit their chicken bones on the table, people would encourage their children to go to the toilet (both types) on the street and little boys had big slits in the middle of their trousers making this even easier. Curious people would approach me in the street asking for a picture of/with me because I was a foreigner and the people too scared to talk to me would just take a picture without asking. Children would tug at their parents arms and say “Look Mum, a foreigner!” At first these things obviously shocked and outraged me but soon I became immune to the shock factor and by the end of my time in China not much could shock me.

The way of life I’ve gotten used to has been very different. Most days something outrageous, crazy, disgusting or weird has happened to me or my friends. I’ve learnt to expect the unexpected, especially where toilets are involved. But I’ve even adapted to this as I’ve learnt that the previous user might not have cleaned up, that the door might be opened by a middle aged Chinese lady and there might not even be doors in extreme cases.

Squat with no door, no flush
Squat with no door, no flush

I think I’ve toughened myself to deal with difficult situations, especially where bargaining is concerned. In all the countries I visited, life was enjoyed outside, on street markets you could buy anything from food, clothes, souvenirs, fake designer goods, magazines and even pets. These markets/streets were always good places to buy things as they were full with locals and prices can be beaten down. What annoyed me was that the vendors, seeing I was foreign would immediately treble the price and assume that because I’m this “rich foreigner” I would just accept that price as their first offer. Although you might think it’s silly bargaining over 20p it was also the principle that I was fighting against. A notoriously bad vendor sold fruit outside our dormitory, he would change his prices depending on who you were and once he sold some bananas to a Chinese girl for 35p/500g, I was next in line and he tried to charge me 45p/500g for the same bananas, I asked why he’d charged her different and he said you’re my friend, 45p is a good price. I knew it wasn’t. This was the last straw for fruit guy as I termed him and as he didn’t drop the price I didn’t buy the bananas or buy from him ever again. Bargaining for fruit was fun for me in China as I learnt the value of fruits, saw which ones were in season and learnt that if you buy a whole watermelon, you can get it for as cheap as 7p/500g if you go to the right part of town off the main roads. So when I’m back in the UK and just pick up the bananas from the shelf in Tesco it will definitely be different.

I developed a love/hate relationship with the street food in China. Normally I would just walk past it and avoid it at all costs after horror stories from my friends telling me how the lamb could be dog or rat meat, the oil has been used thousands of times and it’s pumped full of MSG. But sometimes it wouldn’t look that bad and I think it was ok to eat there occasionally. I enjoyed the savoury Chinese pancakes, with sesame seeds and this sauce I cannot describe. The roasted sweetcorn was always fine and I also liked deep fried octopus from Taidong.

Grilled cuttlefish
Grilled cuttlefish

As I’ve mentioned before , I really enjoy Chinese TV, it’s another aspect of Chinese life that’s totally unpredictable. For example, let’s look at a clip from China’s version of Take Me Out. . This isn’t a special minions related episode, it’s only from a few weeks ago. (If you want to see if he got a date or not, skip the video to 19.30). The Chinese reality shows were fantastic and I will continue to watch them in England but it will be weird not having anybody to discuss 爸爸去哪儿? with. I’ll have to find some Chinese exchange students and get them to introduce me to more new Chinese TV shows. I really want to find a wife swap type one.

With many internet sites blocked in China (Facebook, Youtube , The Guardian etc) the internet has been a strange place to navigate from China. Sometimes the speed would slow down completely for a day or only parts of websites would load. Having a break from being constantly connected to Facebook was really nice, but now in Thailand I find that as before, it’s one of the first websites I open when I turn my laptop on.

It will be interesting to see if I have picked up any mannerisms or habits from China. I know that when I went to Khao San Road in Bangkok, a place with many bars and even more foreigners, I was staring at the foreigners. I hadn’t seen so many in one place for a very long time and I’d forgotten how diverse we look with blue eyes, freckles, curly hair, dreadlocks, tattoos and not forgetting the pink sunburnt shoulders, typical of a Brit in the sun. I’m hoping this will be the only thing I’ve picked up from living in China, as I’ve also seen a lot of spitting, eating loudly, talking at an unnecessarily loud volume, horn beeping, pushing in queues and drinking shots of beer.

I know when I get back I will be quite excited about things like reading the paper and understanding every word, watching the adverts on TV and knowing what products they’re advertising and even buying skin products and not having to worry whether or not it has skin bleaching ingredients. But after a while I think the initial novelty of UK life might wear off and I’ll be wishing I was back in China where people have often said:

“Look at that foreigner with the curly hair, she can’t understand us and we cant understand her, she must be wearing a wig but we’ll never know for sure.”

Only for me to turn around and say, “I do understand you, my hair is natural.”

One time, I was going to a bar for a drink with some friends and my Chinese friend Allen warned me about cases when gangs have made someone pass out by placing bleach or something on a cloth. Then when they wake up the thieves have taken their…..money? bank cards? clothes? mobile phone?

No!

Organs! Well only a kidney and maybe a cornea or two.

This turned into a regular greeting between us, when I would leave he would say “Watch out for/protect your organs!”. This was not too much to worry about however as apparently Westerners blood is different from Chinese, so an English kidney would be difficult to sell on the black market.

Watch your organs

There’s so many more things I can say about China but I don’t want to bore you or drag on. How can you condense five months of life into a few paragraphs and photos? China has been a great experience and I will miss it but for now, I’m coming home…someone put the kettle on.

Quick, quick!

 

The Trouble With Keeping a Diary

I’ve kept a few diaries whilst I’ve been abroad, starting in Chile. I found it a good way to de-stress at the end of the day and spend some time in my own little world after being surrounded by people all day at school or in the internado. I could lie down, snuggled up in the covers, change my handwriting on every page and write about the mundane things that happened on that day. I started my current diary in India…two weeks after I’d arrived. somehow I always manage to start my diary a good few weeks after I arrive in a new place, it’s never on the first day.

Now I’m in the long process of catching up on my year abroad diary. I’m still six weeks behind and it’s really frustrating at times, well all the time, especially as some of my daily notes to help me remember what I did on those days are more like clues that I have to decipher for example:

  • wup early do nada 11 go bus DESTINATION UNKNOWN. park kites field marriage corn. cute girls are u foreign? bus windy chicken on stick. squat toilet. chill chat
  • holiday. Matilda, dye, yoghurt, blossom, spring
  • write essay for AA* think about life choices, no decision made.

Whereas before in Chile, my diary was a type of escapism now it’s a little like a chore. I have a lot of free time in the afternoons at university in China and I normally spend this time alone doing homework, watching TV or “sorting out my life”. I’m never that motivated to write my diary as I already have a lot of time by myself and although when I start to write I enjoy it, finding the motivation to get started is difficult.

Do you have any ideas on what can motivate me to write on a daily basis? I am determined to keep up with my diary as I don’t know when I’ll next be in China. Some things that have happened here also have to be documented somewhere as they have been outrageously funny, strange or cute. It might sound silly, but I think when learning languages it’s really important to keep up with your mother language. I can now write passages in Chinese about things that have happened to me but I don’t want to forget my English grammar.

Maybe being constantly six-seven weeks behind is holding me back. Right now I have 70 days of life to write up and leaflets, receipts and tickets to stick into my diary. If I sit down for an hour to write, I can normally write two or three days worth of entries but then I don’t write again for another four days, setting me back again. 

It’s not really writer’s block as all I have to write is what I did/saw/experienced on that day, which I all have in note form. I have the inspiration, the facts, the memories, the paper and the different coloured pens. The trouble with keeping a diary? It’s the writing part. 

*AA stands for Advantage Award, an extra module I’m taking at university, not Alcoholics Anonymous

Heading East, Can’t Sleep

I write this blog post from my bed. I can’t sleep, I have butterflies in my tummy and I can’t stop thinking and stressing about my next adventures. Even though the furthest I have been away from home was my year in Chile, with 7573 miles between Temuco and Coventry, I feel like my next set of travels will be my biggest challenge yet. 

First I am going travelling in India, to see some good friends of mine that I met last year in Nottingham. I have no doubt that they will look after me very well (there are even talks about one of their cousins’ weddings being in February!) but I am still very nervous about going to a country that I have very little knowledge about. I don’t know any Indian languages and my knowledge of the big Eastern religions (Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddism) is a bit rusty. I don’t know what clothes I’ll have to wear and I am very nervous about the risk of malaria and Dengue fever. Then there’s the overcrowded cities, the public transport, the mosquitoes and the idea of being so far away from home (ie time difference) is daunting.

After just over two weeks in India I will travel to China…from New Delhi, India. I found two flights to get me to Qingdao that were cheaper (and much better for my carbon footprint) than returning to the UK between visits. This also means I have to step up my act and get all my Chinese paperwork done before I leave for India…and I have to pack for two very different countries with a 20kg weight limit. 

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Overall I feel a little let down by my university in regards to my year abroad. I am still a member of the student community but I am unsure who to actually write an email to when I have a question that needs answering…and I am a person who has a lot of questions. My academic tutor is usually in Guatemala or somewhere like that, researching to write more scholarly articles and the year abroad team are split into the international office and then somebody is on maternity leave and it’s all very confusing. Maybe they organised it that way on purpose so that they wouldn’t receive emails from worried and stressed students. I understand that at any one given point there are hundreds of students abroad and we cannot each be assigned a mentor, but I think that an “are you ok?” email once every couple of months from somebody (anybody) would show that the university still has some kind of responsibility or interest in my welfare.

There have been many obstacles in organising my time abroad, especially on the Chinese side due to the language barrier, strict immigration/visa procedures and with the university offering a new exchange scheme, starting with my year group. I tend to skim read emails now that concern China as many contain, not bad news, but just not the type of news I want to hear. For example one told us how we had been offered brand new student accommodation on campus in the international building, something like that…however, the building work hadn’t begun on this building yet and it is likely to be finished well after we arrive in China. 

There was a time when I really didn’t want to go to China. I was more than happy staying in Spain and the thought of moving to a city with a population of millions was looking more and more like a nightmare each day. Now I have come around to the idea more and now that my flights are booked, everything is seeming pretty real. It will be an opportunity to speak and learn a lot of Chinese, live in a huge city (that has a metro, that’s a first) and also to experience the Chinese university life – 11pm curfew and all. 

Even so, I still have a huge to do list before I go. Normally if I split my to do list into sub categories they are: things you have to do, things to do if you get time and things you should do but let’s be honest you won’t. Now my to do list is separated into many categories all of which I simply have to do in the next month: packing, paperwork, health and “questions”. One of the questions on my to do list is quite simply “Do I have enough pairs of shoes?”.

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