I’m squeezed in next to a mix of humanity on the Qing Gui, the Light Rail Train, all of us on our way home from a day’s work. From where I’m standing I watch Dalian’s Development Zone flit by. Big Black Mountain, half-finished apartment complexes, small companies with big neon signs, restaurants, a sauna, a McDonald’s, and the relatively new Wanda Plaza that opened last year. It’s all so shiny.
It’s my stop next, so I shimmy around a woman holding a baby. Pressed against one another shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, it feels like we’re cattle in a too-small corral. Some of the scents wafting around in the train car drive the simile home. A passenger has recently been to a fish market, and I’m not convinced it’s fresh, either. A sour, meaty odour smacks me in the nose, and I notice the mother unraveling an orange sausage that looks mildly radioactive and smells like it’s been setting in the sun all day. It’s called xiang chang (perfumed sausage) but I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to dab that onto their body.
A burly looking guy with short black and grey hair sits on the bench to the side with his chin tucked to his chest and aggressive alcohol fumes floating off him. The smell is unmistakable—Baijiu. It’s the national alcohol of choice for the Chinese, a rice (and sometimes corn) wine that can strip an engine or get a shuttle into space.”
I’ve passed the booths and tables many times. Always a young girl sitting and playing on her phone while before her, laid out on the table, are booklets, posters, and framed photos of newlyweds in all sorts of poses.
In the spring and summer couples flock to the local parks for their outdoor shoots, and descend on the foreign-looking buildings because it’s fashionable to take photos in front of them, and even schedule elaborate trips in order to capture on-site images instead of using green screens or poster backdrops. When Xiao Ming and I were in Nice a few years ago we saw two photography groups following Chinese couples around!
We talked about taking the pictures ourselves around the time we got married two years ago, but neither of us wanted to really commit to it. We’re not picture-takers. But after Xiao Ming’s cousin got her photos a few months ago we decided to just get it over with. So, on November 6th we spent NINE hours dressed like what felt like fools in a few of the outfits, and, yes, even got some shots of us in front of foreign looking buildings out in the middle of nowhere about forty minutes away.
Not going through that again.
LiYing Wedding Photography is a two-floor shop down a side street beside iMall (No connection to Apple products whatsoever). The mall used to be the only competition for Ansheng Shopping Center across the intersection, but now that a Wanda Shopping Center opened just up the street Kai Fa Qu consumers have plenty of places to spend their money. We arrive before 8 am, and Xiao Ming is ushered into the back where her make-up is applied by women with questionable cosmetic choices themselves.
A Chinese girl so small I could probably toss her across the room comes up to me and says she’ll be putting make-up on me and doing my hair. I laugh.
I make it clear to her that my hair is the way I want it, and there’s no way in hell I’m getting any make-up put on me. Shit, my mom and aunts had to hold me down as a toddler just to apply sunscreen!
So then after Xiao Ming is dolled up enough that I might mistake her for someone else, we put on our first outfits. We’d gone in two weeks before to select our clothing and decided on at least a few shots wearing the traditional red Chinese gowns (I also insisted on having shots done with us wearing our normal clothes and leather jackets!). We donned them and then traipsed upstairs for the first round of pics. It’s no good. Babies are everywhere being asked to smile and say “eggplant.” Qiezi, the Chinese for eggplant, is basically their “Cheese” for photos. Saying it makes them grimace just like saying “cheese” does for us Americans.
So our entourage packs up for a place they call the “basement” that’s in Jinzhou, about thirty minutes or so away. Sure, whatever. Just let me change back into my normal clothes first. Nope! We both walk outside in our flashy red gowns for all the Sunday morning busybodies to see.
Along the way we stop for some Chinese breakfast – still my least favorite of the Chinese meals. After the food everyone dozes as we drive toward Jinzhou, the county to the west of Kai Fa Qu. When we get to the “basement” it’s pretty clear the name is a euphemism.
Tian Lai Wan is a mostly abandoned complex that looks like something you’d see in England or parts of France. Pale stone slabs for the exterior, statues, and columns. Close to the coast and eerily quiet, you could almost forget you’re in China.
The facility is shared by seven photography companies, and they’ve all put money into the place. Sets – that’s the only way to think of them – are everywhere. Castle, Bar, Pool Hall, Library, Wine Cellar, Park, Bridge, Nondescript Rustic Foreign Place, etc.
Once there, we begin.
NINE hours and a lunch break later, we finish.
The day is done and we’re wiped out. Xiao Ming is just swearing up and down in our pidgin Chinese-English mix we’ve developed as a couple together (we’re so cultured! Haha). I’m half asleep and hungry sitting next to her. But we’re done.
It’s about a month before we get a call that says we can come in and see the digital copies and make our final selections. Apprehensive and skeptical, we go in and look through the 200 pics. We were nervous because the dresses Xiao Ming wore were a bit too big on her, the make-up was way more than she ever wears (which is none), and I have a notorious habit for making monkey faces in my pictures.
After pouring over the photos for about half an hour, we narrow our selections down to 44. There are some decisions about sizes and layout, and then we’re told it’ll be another half month. We wait. Three weeks later we’re called. Yay! Picture pick up!
Except not. We get there and are shown the digital book pages that will become the printed hardcopy books. It took three weeks to put this together, I ask. The woman nods hesitantly. I straight up ask her what they’ve done in three weeks. I tell her that if I’d had the digital copies I could have arranged them just like what she’s shown us in one day. There’s nothing she can do, I know, but sometimes bitching about nonsense feels good.
She tells us it’ll be another half month before we can pick up the books!
And so a few days ago we got the call and went to retrieve the pictures we’d taken in the Autumn.
The other day someone asked me six different questions about being here, my work, and just what I thought….I decided to post my article on here as well.
I’ve also posted this in the “What you need to know” section of my blog because I think it fits there nicely.
My name is Jordan and I’m from Ohio, but for nearly two years I’ve been calling Dalian, China my home. I came over here with the expectation of staying for one year before returning home and getting an “adult” job. One and done, that’s what I kept telling myself, but before long that mantra became like a propaganda tactic that I really didn’t need or want to listen to. When my one year contract came to a close, I decided to stick around another six months. My coworkers were excited, and my supervisors didn’t need to replace a Western teacher (an arduous process here). So I settled back in and enjoyed the time.
I absolutely loved the training school I worked in for the first year and a half—the other teachers, the Chinese staff, the students, and even the building had a unique appeal to it that I will never forget. I enjoyed the walk into work on the nice days, and the convenience of my apartment’s central location. Dalian proper is definitely an urban setting with all the pros and cons of one. You’ve got access to just about any kind of cuisine, attractions, shopping, good public transportation, and parks. You also get great big whiffs of exhaust from all the traffic, the grit and grime of a city getting over populated, and the general chaos associated with a metropolis on the rise. But I don’t live in the actual Dalian city.
Dalian’s Development Zone, or Kaifaqu, is a twenty minute Light Rail Train ride north of the city, and has a much slower, almost quasi-urban-suburban feel to it. I love it. Everything I need is within walking distance, but for those lazy moments the ubiquitous taxi or bus is always available, too. While still technically a part of Dalian, Kaifaqu has its own aura. Seriously. Stationed so close to the coast, there’s always a sea breeze to cool you down, and though the beach is rocky, there’s plenty of swimming in the summer. When I first got here I wandered around, a lot. I took walks almost every evening, just to get a good look at the place. I walked at all hours, usually by my self even though a few coworkers chastised me for doing so at late hours. Even with their warnings, I felt safe. I still feel safer here than I did in my home town.
In the summer, when the heat is too much and you don’t want the stony beach of Kaifaqu, Golden Pebble Beach to the north is the place to go. Just a fifteen minute Light Rail Train away is the “ritzy” side of Dalian. All of Dalian has a large amount of foreigners from all around the world working with many different companies, but in Golden Pebble Beach there are a lot of North American teachers of all disciplines. Two international schools with great reputations entice them to stay a few years, but the area also has a few other cool features. There’s a nice beach, an amusement park, and it’s one of the only places you can escape the curse of one of China’s most well-known idioms—People, mountain, people, sea (ren shan ren hai). The crowds haven’t quite made it up there, but in a few years we’ll see. Plans to move Kaifaqu’s center closer to Golden Pebble Beach have been put into motion, and China loves construction.
My certification as a Secondary Integrated Language Arts teacher has come in quite handy, and is really the big reason I’ve been able to seek other employment opportunities in the area. To get here, however, you don’t necessarily need anything but a Bachelors degree. China has been making it hard to get over here for anything more than tourism, but it is possible. Get your degree, passport, and jump online and start applying. I went through Footprints Recruiting, and they worked as a liaison between me and the first school I worked at. Not only that, but their website www.footprintsrecruiting.com and their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/FootprintsRecruiting have a wealth of information about China and other areas around the world that regularly have postings for teachers. Going through an agency like Footprints put me in contact with a trustworthy school in the smoothest way possible.
Though I hold credentials for the high school English classroom, the majority of my students the first year were under the age of twelve. At first I wondered if I had what it took to be in that age range, but after just a few classes my hesitancy fell to the wayside. Learners here are a different breed of student, and for the most part that actually works to a new teacher’s benefit. Respect for elders, the desire to earn the teacher’s praise, and their peers’ admiration are three elements I’ve noticed that sort of collude to make the classroom a politely controlled and often hassle-free space. I had to design classes around asking questions just to get them to raise their hands and let me know what they were thinking! Once they get to know you, though, it’s anybody’s guess how they’re going to behave. I have kids hug me, poke me, try to use qigong to (play) fight me, and ask me to throw them into the air between classes or when we have a break. They like to give gifts, and it was only after a few stomachaches and colds that I realized I needed to stop accepting the damp cookies and candies they were handing me with their dirty hands.
I’ve gotten to teach some memorable lessons, including one about Mexican food like tacos. At the end of the unit about Mexico, I decided to have the class make tacos for real. I readied the ingredients: lettuce, tomatoes, tortillas, cheese, olives, and I even fried up some beef. After teaching the vocabulary and the instructions for the receipt we dug in and made them. We snapped photos and the kids had a good time putting their tacos together, but not all of them grasped the concept of how to eatthem. Some students nibbled on the very top of the tortilla where there’s no filling at all while others munched on the middle of the bottom. The ladder resulted in a few messes as the filling just spilled out! Still, others placed the taco on a plate and used a fork and butter knife to cut into it. I let them play around until finally I showed them the right way to eat them. After that, we all enjoyed our tacos the right way.
My time here has been filled with experiences like that, some inside the classroom and many outside. The clash of the cultures isn’t so much a clash as it is a constant blending that a lot of the times results in humorous misunderstandings and always something learned. Everyone will have a different experience, though. No two are ever the same, and the location will affect this in a multitude of ways. Depending on what province or city you’re in, China will present you with plenty of opportunities to make your own stories.
During my time here I’ve gotten to see a handful of pretty cool places. I’ve visited Beijing and seen the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors, and even Luoyang and the Longmen Grottoes. Natural sights such as sacred Hua Mountain and the beautiful scenery of Guilin and Yangshuo are fantastic, too. Even old Song Mountain where the Shaolin Temple has stood for hundreds of years is a wonderful destination. But if you’re going to live in China, I truly believe that Dalian, and even more, Kaifaqu, is one of the best places you can be. Dalian is a young city by Chinese standards, but it has an interesting history, great parks to see, a nice zoo, some beaches, a lot of job opportunities, some friendly and open people, and I would recommend this coastal city to anyone. No matter where you go, people will always want to get out, to travel. I talk with people all the time here who just want to see different areas of China. They don’t know why I like it here so much, but I tell them that one man’s back yard is another man’s adventure. And I’m still having a great time.
Getting the qualifications and choosing a destination are two big steps to moving abroad, but I would offer a few pieces of advice if you’re looking to take the plunge for an extended period. Before going to a country check out their internet set up. Is it monitored a lot? Get a VPN (Virtual Private Network). This can be the thing that saves your soul, or at the very least allows you to get accurate world news. There are plenty of options available to people for this kind of service.
My second piece of advice is, that even before you arrive, cultivate a habit of observation. Read about the country you’re going to. Do research. Then when you get there just watch and listen. A lot. Do a lot of observing with all your senses, and just try to refrain from passing judgments of any kind. This is a much harder task than you’d imagine, but I challenge you to do it. I’ve heard a ton of foreigners here complaining about one thing or another, but many of them haven’t been here more than three months. Don’t get me wrong, some of the complaints are valid, but certainly their day would improve if they spent the time trying to understand what confused them instead of immediately venting about it. The reward for this? Understanding, awareness, changed or improved perspectives, and you could quite easily make a bunch more friends by being willing to learn all the angles to this new culture in which you find yourself.
Developing and maintaining a sense of humor is paramount. Smiling when you want to curse the world is a skill not only useful for becoming a saint, but for dealing with the other seven billion people roaming around on this Earth. Laughing at an exchange that sees you shorted 50 RMB or on the wrong side of the city at an inconvenient time is, I would argue, the most versatile and practical skill you could have in your arsenal.
I didn’t come to China to get rich; I came to learn something about the world and myself. I have succeeded in ways I could never have imagined, and I know I am not an anomaly in the abroad community. Living and learning in a place that is so different from where you used to call home has a mystifying way of altering you, changing you into something new. My last piece of advice is a fun thing that you can only do when you make a big change. By moving abroad and settling into a different place you get the unique chance to reinvent yourself. That person you’ve always wanted to be? Now’s your chance.