International Schools Vs. Traditional Public Schools


This week it has occurred to me that working in an international school presents a few opportunities and challenges that are nearly nonexistent in traditional state-side public schools.

Wading through the cultural differences is definitely at the top of the list, but few understand what this actually looks like in the classroom. Let’s take history, for example. Say you’re looking at a map, or even talking about the time frame of the early twentieth century, and you happen to mention that China and Taiwan are separate. Better be prepared for a few kids to pipe up with a, “Um, Taiwan is China,” and a few others to counter with, “No it’s not! I’m Taiwanese, not Chinese.” I’ve had to run peace-talks between these eighth grade emissaries a few times.

Or, you’re correcting a student’s mistake in class—him smiling the whole time—only to find out later you’ve completely disgraced him by taking away his “Face.” OR you try to pulse-check the class by wondering out loud if there are any questions or if everyone “gets it,” and they all nod their heads, eager for you to just keep going with the assignment. Start the task a minute later and no one moves for three minutes because they have no clue what’s what. You learn later that they didn’t want you to lose face by making it seem like you had not explained things clearly.

Sure, there are a bunch of kids that have been in the American system a few years and have been pretty much indoctrinated into the ways of the prepubescent monster that is their Western counterpart, but there are enough Chinese students still fresh to the US curriculum to pose this problem.

Then you have the variety of vocals that fill the halls when students are traveling from one class to the other, their many different languages pummeling your ears in ways impossible for you to decipher. Classroom English is stressed, absolutely, but rare is the class wholly without a whispered word in a native tongue. Most of the time this utterance is innocuous, but there have been a few snippets that have been anything but. One time in the library while students were doing research for a history project, I heard one boy talking about the breasts of a video game character he had seen in a website advertisement. When I looked up from across the table I told him he needed to change the topic. Confused and shocked, he asked if I had understood and I just nodded. He hasn’t said anything inappropriate in the months since then.

Bullying is always something teachers need to be vigilant about putting a stop to, but when you add in languages that no one on the staff speaks and a culture that encourages harmonious interactions, even when you’ve been slighted, this can get to be an enigma even the most well-versed behavioral specialist may find perplexing. Throw in new tech like We Chat that allows people to interact in ways faster and more ubiquitous than IMing and E-mail and you’ve got a hot mess on your hands.

The kids and the teachers in international schools also have the opportunity to have some of the widest social circles of any group of people. If your deskmates all hail from a different continent chances are that you’re going to be bringing different points of view to small group conversations. Teachers who work together for a few years and then move on to other posts don’t ever really lose touch, not today with Facebook and E-mail. Goodbyes may be more frequent, but the friendships formed can be made quicker and with more depth, too. Saying goodbye to two students this week proved to be a harder task than I had anticipated. Both of their families are heading back to their home countries, Korea and Japan, because of work changes. Staff and students took pictures with the kids and some even cried at the end of the day when they left the school for the last time. These farewells are important, though, and not always final. Sometimes they just give people destinations to travel to on vacations.

Fun days like International Day definitely get spiced up, though. Being truly international, the environment at the school on this day and the days leading up to it can be very enlightening. Families from all over the world and students with vastly different experiences can share their culture with all the flare of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

And parent-teacher conferences get a little twist when translators are used so the parents can understand what the teacher is saying about their kid. We just finished our two-day conferences and I needed to have a person translating for about three of them. I was able to use my Chinese for the first one, but then the remaining conferences required me to say things I didn’t know how to, so I got a translator.

Also, the happy birthday song in one class being sung in 8 different languages is an awesome thing to behold. Having a German student translate political cartoons during a history lesson, or a Chinese student making a connection between a Native American legend and a Song Dynasty poet’s work can make for amazing teachable moments—the students teaching the teacher, that is. Students learning how to make art from a well-known artist from Peru, or how to make film from a teacher with more experience than half the young Hollywood directors today, or learning English from a teacher who brings great stories from 20 plus years abroad to every class are fantastic ways to learn a thing or two.

Even chaperoning trips isn’t the same. In March, I am supervising a volunteering trip to the Ningxia Autonomous Region. A group of High Schoolers are going to a small village in this area and volunteering their time for a week. We’re going to teach at the small school, and do community work for the impoverished town of Tongxin, outside the capital, Yinchuan. Even though this is during Spring Break, it’s like I’m not giving up a thing. Then in May, I’m going to be going to Beijing to help supervise the Lego Robotics competition. Despite hating Beijing, I love being able to go with the kids and see them compete in this big event. These are places I just wouldn’t get to see teaching in a public school back home.

There are a dozen other things that could go in this post, but I’m tired and I have an early Professional Development training at the Canadian International School in town, so I’ll call it quits now.


Traveling in the Rain

It’s raining as I type this, so I suppose that is only fitting.

At the end of June Xiao Ming and I traveled to Guilin and Yangshuo in the southwestern part of China. At the end of July, we traveled to Changbai Shan in the Northeast of the country. Both places seemed bent on soaking every set of clothing we brought.

Yes, Guilin and Yangshuo’s natural scenery were spectacular and truly breathtaking, but rain can be quite annoying. We ducked into Reed Cave that first day in town, just to seek shelter from the storm, had our basement level accommodations changed to the second floor on day two, and then finally just sucked it up and enjoyed an awesome half-day bike ride across Yangshuo’s countryside in the rain on the third.

The bamboo raft ride down the Li River got the ax, but the big yacht worked out all right. Moving from our first room to the next seemed irritating, until we were put up in a private room with a shower. The rainy bike ride appeared less than ideal, but then we realized the rain cooled us down when the area is usually painfully humid most times of the year. The hostel, Riverside Hostel, actually sat along the banks of the river, and the young staff, helpful and tolerant of my accented Mandarin, was fun to talk to.

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Guilin. Chongqing 157

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If you say these numbers in Chinese they sound like "I will love you forever."
If you say these numbers in Chinese they sound like “I will love you forever.”
Longji Rice Terraces.
Longji Rice Terraces.

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Guilin. Chongqing 059

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Guilin. Chongqing 278

Guilin. Chongqing 253

Guilin. Chongqing 298

Landslides in the area cleared these small villages out not long ago...
Landslides in the area cleared these small villages out not long ago…

Changbai Shan (mountain), the spiritual home of the Qing Dynasty, is an old volcano that sits along the China-N.Korean border in the Jilin province. Beautiful countryside begins just north of Dalian, and continues, interrupted only a few times by cities, until you reach the protected land of the Changbai range.

The seventeen hour train ride there through this landscape surprised me. I’d almost forgotten that most of China’s population still lived in rural areas, not the fast-developing major cities. At night the stars were beautiful.

Being the only Westerner on the train provided the usual amusements: stares, giggles, and curious children that continually walked by our car. One boy forgot to keep walking. He stopped dead in his tracks and just stared at me. I asked him in Chinese what he was doing, but he just smirked, and then ran away. He walked by once more, quickly. I saw him coming the time after that, and as he walked by I jumped out of the car and grabbed him, bearhugging him and laughing. When I released him he stepped away and said, in English, “Bad man!” He didn’t walk by again.

The rain began in a haze, then precipitated into a sprinkle until finally, dropping all pretense, the clouds released their bounty and drenched the mountain. We trekked up and down the north and west side of the mountains the first two days, taking in the scenery and clean air even though it continued to rain. Our goal was to see the famed Tian Chi, Heaven Lake, but the ubiquitous fog sabotaged that mission those first two attempts. The small town we stayed in right next to the mountain lucked out and most of the rain passed over it, leaving us free to wander about between excursions up to the lake.

Dirt roads, mobile merchant karts, and small packs of semi-wild dogs playing with filthy looking kids wearing slit-pants made up the town, Bai He, White River.

On the third day there, it stopped raining long enough for us to summit the top. We set out early, and then realized it hadn’t been early enough. Ten thousand or more (easily more) crowded around the outside and inside of the check-in building. A few thousand more packed in tight as they herded themselves through corrals that led to little shuttle busses that rocketed up the side of the mountain to another spot where the people had to queue up again…then they boarded tiny white vans that shot up the narrow road to the top of Changbai Shan. Every van sped up and down the roads, always keeping a distance of a car and a half between themselves, much like the worker bugs in a giant ant farm. We waited in lines for hours that day, and then, when we got to the top: Fog.



The trip, while full of pretty trees and no actual emergencies, seriously teetered on becoming a complete waste if we couldn’t at least see those blue-green turquoise waters of Heaven Lake. The murky white of the fog clung thick in the air and taunted us as we gazed around at the peak. Once again, another ten-plus thousand travelers greeted us at the top, but we waded through the throngs and found a spot along the rim of the caldera.

Right as we were getting ready to throw in the towel the breeze picked up. Slowly, slowly, the fog rose from the surface of the lake, granting the faintest hint at a color other than gray. The winds continued to lift the mass of fog, revealing more and more green and blue. As one, the entire population of the summit howled and hollered, cheered, and gasped. I laughed like a mad man.

We could see Heaven Lake.






And just two weeks ago we took a week long trip to Tibet. I’ll write about that soon enough…


This place had some good space, but it was just too old, and not comfortable. More like an office.
This place had some good space, but it was just too old, and not comfortable. More like an office.

So when the school I was working with closed I had a few months before I needed to move out this past December. The first place I boarded at was at my amazing friend’s Joyce’s. She and another Chinese teacher were sharing a tw0-bedroom and graciously opened their place to me. They made me feel very comfortable, and I really enjoyed hanging out with them a lot there.

But then after two weeks the itch to have my own place was really naggin’ at me. I’ve had a place to call my own for a long time, so rooming up with folks, even as awesome as Joyce and Hill, was not what I ultimately wanted.

I enlisted the help of a friend and together we scoured the area for open places. Eventually we went to an agency to narrow down our choices. They helped, and it all actually felt pretty legit. They answered questions, were flexible, all that fun stuff…

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Cozy, but just too far away from where I wanted to be...
Cozy, but just too far away from where I wanted to be…

ApartmentsandXM 024

I had a price range, and distance preferences. They kept those all in mind.

After a handful of days we found a place that wasn’t the greatest looking or newest, but it was perfectly positioned. I have a basic square that I exist in while in Kai Fa Qu and this apt was right smack in the middle of it. Perfect. Price was good. The guy seemed pretty helpful and accommodating. I felt OK handing over six month’s rent from the go. Generally renting contracts are between six months or one year here with many landlords requesting at least six month’s rent up front.

And then I spent a few days in the place. It was cold. The entire wall of connected windows was an obstacle the wind had no problems bypassing and saying, “Haha, hope you like pneumonia, sucker!” Only, it was in Chinese.

Being the ultra handyman that I’m not…I used a big roll of tape and taped those windows up. It actually worked.

But then the small water heater quit working. While I was taking a shower. AND REFUSED TO WORK AGAIN.

The landlord was less than helpful with this development. He wanted me to prove that it broke naturally, you know, wear and tear. Considering I’d never even touched the damn thing, I asked him how he proposed I go about “proving” anything. Have someone look at it, he said. Who, I asked. No answer. And then it occurred to me that it didn’t matter. Anyone I’d get he’d just say wasn’t qualified.

I actually stayed here for a month...until the Landlord became a jerk.
I actually stayed here for a month…until the Landlord became a jerk.

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Gotta love a spiral staircase, right? Not when it's in the middle of what should be a living room and leads to a second floor you can't stand straight up on.
Gotta love a spiral staircase, right? Not when it’s in the middle of what should be a living room and leads to a second floor you can’t stand straight up on.

It was at this time my friend revealed to me that the landlord had made a move on her. He called her and said he was in love with her. BAM! Yup. What about your wife, my friend inquired. Oh, my wife? Yeah, buttmunch, your wife. Well, turns out she’s in Japan, so, yeah, alls fair when you’re a creep and stuff. So when my friend just flat out turned him down he insisted they never see each other again. Fine by everybody, trust me.

But then that’s when his Helpful Guy attitude turned to a Resentful Buttnugget Guy attitude.

Back to the heater.

After he refused to simply repair or replace the heater we asked about the price. He jumped around from 1,000RMB to 5,000. His answers varied from having just bought it at a store, just bought it online, and my favorite, having bought it from a friend online (who in no way could produce a receipt of any kind).

So we went to the store. And checked out these heaters. By the way, they are these one foot-by-one foot, two inch thick plastic contraptions that just latch onto your water pipes.  The prices were much lower than the 5K. But we weren’t satisfied. We asked the workers if these particular heaters were adequate for shower heating. Not at all. BAM. Didn’t even provide a proper heater. God, I really wanted to kick this guy with my steel-toed boots at this point.

When we called the agency to see if they could do anything about this they were of no help. We went to their offices and complained. Showing them the contract and highlighting where it lists the landlord’s responsibilities did nothing. They already got paid, and not by us. The landlord gave them a percentage of the rent, so we were not their customers. They couldn’t have cared less. Why even sign a contact if the darn thing was useless, we asked. Shrugs. Basically, just shrugs. My list of people to kick was growing.

When we attempted to reason with this landlord ONE MORE TIME he just refused to pay or be of any more “assistance.” When I asked him if something else broke naturally of wear and tear would I have to pay for it, too. He said probably, yes.

I’m Out. I told him fine, I’m moving today. It was 4 something in the afternoon and I spontaneously decided not to be involved with this moron any longer. But where to go?

Back to Joyce’s. I’d been keeping her abreast of the issues I was having and she didn’t even hesitate to offer her place again. She’s amazing.

We packed all my crap up (which fits in one car load) and drove it back to her apt. And then my friend said something. She wondered if the landlord would try to come over tonight and mess with something and then say it was me who broke it so he could shake us down for more money. I immediately decided to spend the last night camped on the couch just to make sure he didn’t try anything. I stayed in the empty place half hoping he showed up. I’d finally get to introduce him to my Pro Steel-Toed boots.

Alas, he never showed, but the idea wasn’t as absurd as it sounds. Before I moved in, but after the utilities were already checked, I stopped by to find three lights in the place on and no one around. Who knows how long the lights were left like that. That was the first sign and I should have heeded it.

I spent that morning going over what I’d say to him when he came back to give me the money he owed me, and I had some choice Chinese phrases I was excited to try out. Then, shortly before he came, my friend reminded me that he could still cause much more trouble for me than I could for him. We didn’t know if he had good Guanxi with anyone, and he could also get my passport info from the agency. In the end I settled for just eyeing the twit the whole time. Even when he tried to stretch a smile across his smarmy fat face I just eyed ’em. It took him a bit, but when I refused his pen and used my own he finally got it. He looked at me, his smile dropped, and just stared back before ducking his head and not making eye contact with me again. Yes, it was childish, but if felt good to ignore his personal space and force him to walk around me when he had to move through the place.

He gyped me some money, but I knew that was going to happen since I was the one to technically break the contract. Whaterver.

When we left I took a deep breath and just tried to let it go, slime and all.

And this is the place I'm currently in. It's small, but clean and completely new.
And this is the place I’m currently in. It’s small, but clean and completely new.
Landlords bought new everything.
Landlords bought new everything.
Not too bad...
Not too bad…

Back to Joyce’s I went, and that’s where I stayed for more than two weeks. I spent Chunjie, Spring Festival alone while she and Hill went back to their hometowns, but on Feb 28th I moved into my new place. The landlords are a married couple who let me pay for only three months rent, and bought all new stuff. Microwave, fridge, TV, couch, desk, shower–all new. And the heater is great.

It feels good to have a place that’s mine once again, not part of a school package or even a loyal friend’s apartment, but all mine. It’s a small place, but it’s good enough for me. I even sweep the floor everyday.

A Night at the Movies

There’s this list. You know, the one that audiences mark off when they’re watching a movie or reading a story that has a character traveling or going on an adventure. And really, if you’re not aware of it consciously, a part of you recognizes pieces of it as the events begin to unfold. Here, I’ll prove it.

Character is in a new city (heck, could even be a jungle, doesn’t matter). He/She:

A)    Finds the destination easily because the map purchased is an up-to-date work of cartographic genius.

B)    Decides to just chill in the block around the hotel without venturing out farther (or swings from a hammock fashioned from vines hanging from the ginormous trees).

C)    Gets lost at least once, usually through some humorous fault of his/her own (and will be just one of the many times things like this happens).

Answer: C, right?


Character gets roped into hanging with friends he/she doesn’t really know all that well. He/She:

A)    Leaves the scene early and goes back to the hotel/apartment/jungle hut.

B)    Realizes there’s no one he/she has anything in common with, so consumes copious amounts of alcohol in the corner of the room…

C)    Forges a few actual, meaningful relationships because he/she is stretching, growing, and living in the moment.

C again, right? (Really, it’s just easier for me to make all the answers C)

OK…Maybe I’m not good at doing the quiz thing, but you gotta admit (maybe), there are certain staples to the traveling movie/fiction genre. Someone gets lost, sick or injured, new friends are made, self-discoveries abound, and things get stolen…

These things happen in just about every movie or book like this, ever. I’m definitely the type to romanticize things and give a little slack to my tether holding me to reality, but I’ll be honest, not all of those things are fun. In fact, there’s a good chunk of them that just suck. I’ve had kidney stones here (THAT nightmare has been documented on this blog), Noelle and I have gotten lost in Beijing, we’ve been ripped off….and now I’ve had my wallet stolen, right after I went to the ATM, I might add.

A friend from Scotland recently offered, “Congrats on you theft baptism ;)” when I posted a message stating that I’d just gotten my wallet stolen. I don’t know if that means I had it coming sooner or later, but it does seem odd that none of the people who commented after her seemed surprised.

Here’s what happened. It was Monday night and my friend and I had gone to the movies. We stayed until the credits rolled through, hoping for some extra—every movie nowadays has a little something at the end, ya know? But no, not a thing. We left, the last two from the audience. The only others in there were two ushers, cleaning.

We took the escalators down the four flights and saunter out into the humid night air, me thinking about the flick and how to express my thoughts in Chinese, and also contemplating a late dinner. The latter thought got the best of me, and when I reached into my back pocket to take a look at what remained of my funds my heart did that pause-between-beats-and-turn-to-ice-before-sinking-to-the-stomach combo. My wallet was gone.

I had no difficulty telling my friend in Chinese this particular problem. I didn’t wait for a response. I ran back to the theater, trying to keep enough attention on the placement of my sandals (the ground is super slick in some areas and my sandals are new and prone to slipperiness). This time I ascended to the fourth floor with the help of the elevator attached to the building’s outside.

I ran in, told the workers my issue, and was quickly waved toward the room I’d just spent the last two hours and forty minutes. Lights on and not a soul around, I searched to no avail. Two others helped, and then my friend joined us. And then we left, my friend taking the reins on the explanation and interrogation of the employees. They were of no help, mostly. Although at some point we all walked back in and looked around again for the fun of it.

Eventually, we called the cops. Not entirely sure why. I had no silent hope that they’d be able to get my wallet back to me…and they didn’t. They came, gave me the Eye, talked to my friend, nodded to me a few times, talked to the manager on duty, and then talked to my friend again. But this time it was like we were the ones putting them off. Seriously. They even turned to me and asked if I’d been drinking. I didn’t say anything. I just gave the cop my version of the T1000’s death stare and shook my head. After a few more minutes when it was obvious they were just wasting our time AND arguing with my friend, I stopped them by saying, “What’s wrong? If someone took my wallet there’s nothing you can do now, so why are you arguing with us?” In Chinese I’m sure a few things were a bit off, but it felt good to say it anyway.

My roommate helped me cancel my bank card, I cancelled my credit cards, but I still need to contact the BMV about my stolen, expired license. Really hoping that doesn’t come back and bite me later. I’ve since requested a new card from the bank here and for three days was getting by on money loaned by my roommate. I still can’t touch my account even by going directly to the bank, but I have enough for the essentials until next Friday (when I’ll theoretically get my bank card).

But, my point is, The Dark Knight Rises was good.