Zaijian China

So, as some of you may have guessed, I have been pondering a big change for some time now.  As you know, I have not been happy here in China for a number of reasons (to read about them visit my posts entitled A Rough Start and Unabated Frustrations).  The unfortunate part is that none of the issues seem to be getting any better.  I suppose my students are learning a bit more English, or, I wonder, is it just that I have lowered my expectations drastically?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

As of December 1, I decided, as I was turning 48 on December 5 and that life is way too short to be miserable, that I would make a change.  A big one.  This decision came after first dealing with my guilt.  I tend to be a loyal and committed person, or so I’d like to think.  But when one’s life is surrounded by such unsavouriness, is it being loyal to stay, or simply out of dogged duty?

To top it off, the air quality since I have been here has averaged around 200 AQI – The US usually tops out under 50.  With China putting 1.5 million new cars on the road monthly (according to BBC Asia), combined with all the factory exhaust in the city I live in, it is no wonder that I (and all of us foreign teachers) have an incessant cough.

But more importantly, the area that has given me the most pause is my students.  They are good kids, eager to learn, but completely at a disadvantage as they barely understand the language in which I am trying to teach them.  What they desperately need are English classes – all day long.  If my school hosted a 3 month intensive English language training camp it would change everything for them (and make us foreign teachers very happy).  But instead we are trudging through the mire of non-understanding, throwing out our content and grasping at ways to be ESL teachers on the fly.  So much for quality education.


So all this to say that I have officially resigned.  An ESL teacher is what they need, not a geographer trying desperately to teach rich humanities content to non-English speakers.  I depart with both a sad and glad heart.  Yen Yang?  Possibly.  I have made good friends here and had a bit of an insight into the realities of China, which I treasure, no matter how small my exposure has been.  Now that I have made the difficult decision, my heart (and my lungs) feel lighter just knowing my departure is imminent and that alone tells me it was the right decision.

Have a great December and I’ll be back in 2015.

Cambodia Remembered

Ah the final day.  I did not want to leave Cambodia.  Instead I wanted to head into the interior and explore the whole.  But alas, I had to get back to China and work.  On this final day, Mr. Kong and I headed to Roluos Group.  Bakong was our first stop and it was impressive with its largess yet I must say a bit hard to capture in photos.

Bakong Entrance

Bakong Lion

Bakong Carving


Bakong GirlsThere was a Buddhist temple next to the ruins with a full monastery attached, surrounded by a moat with boats.

Bakong Buddhist Temple

Buddha & Bodhi Tree Painting


Bakong Boats


We then headed to Lolei – a small temple being refurbished.  The surrounding area was lush with tall Bodhi trees.  There was also a working monastery next to the ruin.


Lolei Monk

Before exploring Preah Ko, I wandered through the craft stalls across the streets.  There was a group helping orphans.  The orphans were making art out of buffalo skins and weaving.  It was a bit odd, as the orphans were mostly young kids who should be in school, but instead were laboring at making products for sale.  Didn’t seem as ‘charitable’ as the signs said.

Lolei Orphans Weaving

Lolei Orphans1

Preah Ko Orphans

I also spoke with Dr. Praeung.  He had been painstakingly creating replicas of the temples at Angkor Wat for decades.  He would start out by counting steps and rows and spires… then drawing it all exactly.  Then building molds that ultimately created a miniature of the original temple(s).  Some of his replications took over a year to create.  He was a man that believed in preserving history and sharing it with future generations.

Lolei Mr. Praeung

Lolei Reproductions

Lolei Heads

Preah Ko was my last stop.  It was really petite and pretty.  A tight group of temples that gave a sense of calm and wonder.  It was a nice ending to an amazingly full three days of temple hopping.  Although I was tired, I still very much wanted to learn more about the country and continue my explorations.

Preah Ko


Lolei Lions


We then headed back to Siem Reap.  I said goodbye to my wonderful Mr. Kong and walked into the town center where I had my final diner on the second floor terrace of the wine bar called “Sunshine.”  It was a perfect spot to watch the town come alive as the pink dusk settled into darkness.Mr. Kong Final Meal Siem Reap

I do hope some of the photos have enticed you to visit this wonderful place.  The people were soft and warm and the beauty of the country was never-ending.




The Intricacies of Ruins

To continue my Cambodia sojourn…

After my escape from the exercising women atop Bakheng at sunrise and a quick breakfast from a street vendor, Mr. Kong and I started the long journey out to Banteay Srei.  As you will recall, Mr. Kong had a small motor for his Tuk Tuk, so our speed never topped 30 mph.  It was just enough speed to have a light breeze to keep me cool.  And wonderfully slow enough to fall into the mesmerizing scenery of green, green, green rice paddies and palm trees.  Mr. Kong drove for two hours outside in the full sun over bumpy, sometimes jarring roads.  While I on the other hand, relaxed under the shade of the umbrella roof with my feet up.  About 30 minutes before our destination the rains hit hard.  I suggested we pull over and get a drink and wait it out.  The bedraggled looking Mr. Kong gratefully agreed and after I was settled with a cool drink, he proceeded to have the lovely ladies at the nearby street cafe extract his back pain with suction cups.

Once the rains stopped we bounced along again and came upon Banteay Srei – the “woman’s temple.”    This little gem was built by the guru of the future king Jayavarman V. in the 2nd half of the 10th century.  Nearly every inch of the red sandstone is decorated with intricate designs.  Although small in size, I kept circling and re-visiting different sides to breathe in the beauty.

Banteay Srei Buildings CollageI was continually amazed at how well the carvings were preserved after 1,047 years.

Banteay Srei Carvings8

Banteay Srei Carvings5

Banteay Srei Cavings4

Banteay Srei Carvings3

Banteay Srei Carvings2

Banteay Srei Carving1After a nice long visit with mostly European visitors viewing quietly alongside me, Mr. Kong and I headed over to Bang Melea, the ruins that are ensconced with rooting trees and tumbling boulders.  I was excited, as I had been told you can climb and explore all you want at this location.  But unfortunately I found three large tourist buses had just arrived shortly before me, so it was over-run with picture-posing frenzy.  Needless to say, I didn’t stay long.

Bang Melea Entrance

Bang Melea

Bang Melea3


The roots and their determination to break through wherever they wanted to, was impressive.
Bang Melea Tree Roots5

Bang Melea Tree Roots4

Bang Melea Tree Roots2


Can’t you just see a scary movie in the making with this one?
Bang Melea Tree Roots


Very few carvings at Bang Melea.Bang Melea Carving

On the way out to Mr. Kong, I had to stop and spread the wealth to the locals.  At every location they were selling mahogany beads.  I’m hopeful that the trees are sustainably grown… they are gorgeous!

Bang Melea Trinkets


So then Mr. Kong and I started our long meander back to Siem Reap.  Here are a few of the images I caught, when I remembered to take photos.  It was so lovely to just smile and wave at the curious, happy faces.

TUK TUK Photos7

TUK TUK Photos6

TUK TUK Photos5

TUK TUK Photos4

TUK TUK Photos3

TUK TUK Photos2

TUK TUK Photos


What a great day.

So I will leave you there for now.  Coming up, one more day of gorgeous ruins, orphans, art…  Stay tuned.





Old Glory in Cambodia

I’m on my way back to China.  I’ve spent the last couple weeks back in the US with my mother and siblings.  My dad died a couple weeks ago and this last Saturday we held a ‘celebration of life’ that was really lovely.  Although the reason for the gathering was very sad, it was a wonderful reunion for my mom and a confirmation of how loved my dad was.  I leave with a sad heart, but knowing that I will be back in six weeks for the Christmas holiday.

So, today, sitting here in the Seattle, Washington airport, I thought I would finally post the fun I had over a month ago in Cambodia…

What a breath of fresh air; Cambodia.  It is filled with vibrant greens, awe-inspiring ancient architecture and reminders of hell.  I only had four and half days, but I felt the beauty and history so exquisitely that I did not want to leave.

I arrived in the dark and a gentle man with a bright smile held a sign with my name.  As we walked out into the night a warm rush of liquid air surrounded me.  I hopped into the back of his Tuk Tuk and off we ambled (about 25 mph) to my lovely hotel (The Claremont) in downtown Siem Reap.

I woke to sunshine and walked to the top terrace for breakfast.  A beautiful spot that overlooked the town.Claremont Terrace  At 8:30am I met with Mr. Kong, my Tuk Tuk driver and off we went to spend the day amongst the ruins.  First stop Ta Prohm.  This crumbling magnificence was built in the 12th century by Jayavarman VII.  It was a royal monastary and had lots of additions added on into the 13th century by Indravarman II.  The intricacy of the roots clinging to the stones as well as forcing them to give space kept me glued often to just one spot. Of course the carvings were dramatic, often gruesome, some whimsical.  The lintels that were left in situ (meaning not refurbished, but the originals), were extraordinary.  The details that have remained unprotected for over 800 years were still often so crisp, as if created only months before.  The majority of the ruins at Angkor Wat were built with sandstone.  This type of stone is created from compacted sand aggregate over long periods of time and is extremely strong and weather resistant.  The stone pieces were huge.  Most had hole divots from where the slaves would insert wood poles to carry them.  One of the site guides told me that some of those holes were then filled with jewels in the King’s halls.

Collage.Ta Prohm

Next stop was Bayon – my favorite of all the temples.  It is filled with gigantic heads which although unproven by experts – they looked to be of women.  Loved it.  Besides the heads, it had a feeling of calm, mystery (mostly due to the fact that you couldn’t see around corners) and with such large heads it made it feel like it was a place of learning, wisdom, intelligence.  I toyed so long at this site that two large Chinese two groups came and went while I was immersed.

Collage.Faces Bayon

Sweating so profusely (as was everyone) in the intense humidity, I slowly wandered down the tree-lined lane to the Terrace of the Elephants and then once again re-joined Mr. Kong and had lunch at a nearby stand.  I had my first Angkor Beer there.  But it was the wrong move.  I was so hot, so soaked with sweat that the semi-cool beer nearly put me to sleep.  But rally I did and off we went to Prah Khaan, Neak Pean, and Srah Srang (the emperor’s swimming pool).

Then my camera battery decided to die.  Thank goodness Siem Reap caters to the tourist.  Mr. Kong whisked me (in a slow way) back into town, I bought a new, fully charged battery and back we went to the coup de gras of the day: Angkor Wat itself.

But of course I wasn’t the only one who had read the guide book stating that the best time to see Angkor Wat is in the afternoon as the light is the best for photographs.  So, I was amongst the throngs of Chinese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Europeans and I suppose a few from the good ‘ole USA.  Together, en masse we explored the refurbished paintings, climbed into the spires and took our requisite photos.  I didn’t stay long.  I’m not much of a crowd (or loud loving) person as you now know.  I couldn’t feel it’s awe with so many people around me.  But I did finally see a monkey.  I had been wondering where they were.  Very few birds tweeting and not much rustling of branches above.  It was crazy hot, so perhaps only in the early mornings and late evenings do the sane animals venture out.  Anyway, this one Macaque (I think) male came ambling down the side of the temple as I was heading down as well.  He cared no heed to all the homo-sapiens surrounding him and slowly noticing him, gaping.  Then he sat down right in front of me, scratched is privates and stared at us.


My day was over.  Nine hours of temple traipsing and I was beat.  Mr. Kong dropped me off at my hotel and asked me if I wanted to do some site-seeing around the town that night.  I laughed.  I was so tired, I was thinking a massage, dinner, glass of wine, sleep.  We confirmed a 5:00am pick-up time for the morning and I said good night.  After a cool shower, I did make it upstairs for a light dinner and glass of wine, but I couldn’t muster the energy for a massage.

The next morning it was cool.  So wonderfully lovely that the short 15 minute Tuk Tuk ride to Phnom Bakheng for the sunrise, I had to wrap myself in my scarf.  I climbed, all alone in the dark, the 20 minutes up to the top of the “mountain” and then up the steep steps of the temple.  There were five couples at the top.  Perfect.  Everyone respectful of the quiet, anticipating the awakening of the jungle.  The sunrise felt very distant but my great little camera zoomed out and captured some beautiful moments – these are NOT touched up, but really what my camera captured.

Sunrise Forest Sunrise.Ruin





Just after the sun had gone into the clouds we all were extracted from our rapture by loud, cackling women coming up the path, up the temple steps and proceeded to stand in front of us and do their morning exercises laughing and yelling at each other.  The reverence was gone.  Down I climbed to an awaiting Mr. Kong and to breakfast.

I have to catch my plane so I will leave it here and continue when I am back in Guangzhou.

Until then… Gretchen


Unabated Frustrations

Its been a little over two weeks since my last post and the near impossibilities of trying to teach rich and wonderful, but conceptually challenging subjects to students who barely speak a few words of English, have hit me harder than I’d like to admit.

After my last post there was a five day national holiday here in China.  I spent those days wandering the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  It was wonderful and I promise to post photos and my fabulous experiences later this week.  But as I wandered, I hoped that the lushness of the land, the warmth of the Cambodian people and the awesomeness of the temples would set my mind to the challenges ahead.  I would return with a desire to conquer the problems and preserver in my quest to educate my students on the delectable subjects of humanities.

Unfortunately that didn’t happen.  As I slowly meandered through the vibrant green rice fields, waving to smiling passers-by in my little tuk tuk, it dawned on me that it wasn’t only the student’s lack of English that was dampening my determination;  it was the whole situation.  I was living in a suburb of one million people in what I call “high-rise” city, where nothing is really pretty and you can’t get out of town on your bike to go for a hike simply because it is so far away.  There is nothing to buy that isn’t cheaply made and can be bought anywhere in the world (they make it all right here in Guangzhou) and their aren’t local craftspeople selling their unique items (which I love the most).  The culture is one of loud.  Individually the people are soft spoken, but something drastic changes when they encounter even two other people (or simply answer their cellphone).  The conversation rises to what I would consider yelling.  Put a large group together in an enclosed location, such as a grocery store, and the decibel levels reach beyond what my ears and mental capacity can handle.

So this is to say that I have not found happiness outside the classroom.  I had so hoped that being in the suburbs and nearer to the mountains, that I would spend my weekends hiking and biking and exploring the little villages.  But it isn’t to be.

The one redeeming happiness is the staff at my school.  For the most part, I really enjoy both the Chinese and the foreign staff.  An eclectic group from the US, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand.

So last week, upon returning from my country-side capers, I was supposed to begin with new vigor and determination.  But instead I found that simple requests, written on the white board, such as:  Choose two vocabulary words and write each in a sentence, were received with blank stares and complete incomprehension.  I spent twenty minutes explaining what choose, vocabulary, write each, sentence… meant.  This was a starter, something to take five minutes that would refresh their memories on the vocab.  It was the final straw.  It wasn’t the student’s fault.  They simply didn’t understand.  So I decided that I needed to throw out the curriculum and teach ESL.

I asked my principal and he approved, but that was just for year 7’s.  Then I proceeded to keep trying with the four other grades I teach, which are a tiny bit more versed in English.  I tried.  Although I had revamped my units a few times already, I did it again, slowing them down further.  I left another week wracking my head to find more creative solutions.  The other foreign teachers are doing the same.  We weren’t hired to be ESL teachers and we have all continued to cling to our subject content with the unrealistic hopes that a new day brings enlightenment and fluency to our students.

Yesterday, in near tears, I knocked on my principals office.  We spoke and I explained the reality.  I (we all) believe that he is still in denial of the situation.  He was blown away with the examples I was giving him.  He ended up saying to me “chuck it all and start all over teaching ESL.”  Then proceeded to apologize over and over saying that he knew I didn’t want to teach ESL and he knows how excited I was to teach humanities.

Well, another day has come and gone and I am having the hardest time letting go of my content.  I so want to enrich my students with skills of critical thinking and to open their eyes to what is beyond China.  So I continue to try to find creative ways to infuse ESL with the wonders of the world.  A process, a bit of a roller-coaster and I’m finding, very emotional.

Thanks for listening.  I will bring you beautiful photos and a few tales of ancient Cambodia in a few days.


A Rough Start

A disturbing, satirical, perplexing, and very frustrating two weeks have just flown by.  As you know the school I am working for, the actual building, was far from complete the week before we were to open.

School CollageMiraculous work took place and we are now in the buildings.  Unfortunately the need to open the buildings/school on time took precedence over quality of construction.  We have also learned that resources were not ordered in any timely manner or logical order, so that while we have 20 printer/copiers, the network to connect them to our computers is not fully established yet, nor is there enough paper to print with.  As the library has zero books, and most of us do not have textbooks either, we are left to the our own devices, and much of that requires printing.

The week that school was to open (Thursday, Sept. 18th) the engineers decided that there was simply no way they would be ready and they needed four more days (thats all they needed – really?).  And as the owners of the school did not want to lose face, that is big here, they couldn’t simply forstall the opening to Monday, 9/22, so instead we created an orientation camp.  They rented out the resort near our school and we hosted crazy games for two days (which didn’t allow for much communication between teachers and students) culminating in a 30 minute lecture from the regional curriculum director about how they should embrace their new school, while shushing some kids who had questions.

Orientation Collage

Monday, opening day.  No detailed plan had been given to us teachers.  We only knew we had to get our form class (similar to a home room) and wait. We waited and waited in the hot (no A/C working) cafeteria.  Finally they moved us out to the flag pole where we hoisted the flag, one gal from admin sang what we are now calling the funeral march song, our school anthem, alone, as none of us knew the words.  Then school was off and running.


This is when the big blow to the gut started hitting us foreign teachers in waves.

As our sweet and wonderful kids sat down, we excited teachers began introducing ourselves and getting the kids ready for a great year.  But wait, why isn’t anyone understanding me?  Why aren’t they answering my questions?  Just shy?  Cultural issues?  Or?  It was the Or.  We had been told that our students would not be fluent, but most would be close.  A few would be lower level English speakers, but just a few.  Nope.  Just the opposite.  I have approximately 1% that can understand me most of the time, 50% can understand me about 50% of the time and the rest, 49% can understand next to nothing in English.

So I began speaking really slowly.  I enunciated every single word.  Blank stares.  I mimed and did antics to get them to respond.  I did get some laughs.  But overall it was devastating.   Please do not mis-understand me.  These kids are great.  99% of them are fun, warm, ready to learn, happy kids.  But the majority simply do not have the English language level to understand their foreign teachers.

So while some of the kids would translate for the others, and my charades at the front of the class ensued, my mind was rushing to and fro trying to find ways to solve the problem.  But as the week continued, and I learned that everyone had been sold the same bag of dirt (most students would be close to fluent), a collective sad came over of us all.

Late in the week I started planning my next unit.  It will start when we come back from the national holiday (First week of October).  For 7th grade I am supposed to be starting a unit on world religions.  I found wonderful resources on the internet and was putting together my plan when I stopped and re-read my essential question – the one you ask the kids at the beginning to launch critical thinking and what is to come:

Is it important to learn about other cultures and beliefs?  Why?

How would my non-English speakers understand the very first question of the unit?  Even if I pre-defined cultures and beliefs, they wouldn’t understand the nuance/concept of the question.  How can I move forward?  My heart sank.  I really wanted to introduce my kids to TED talks and other great sources.  But on those videos, people talk too fast and with vocabulary way beyond my students.

We finished the week on Saturday as the parents had not had a chance to tour the campus before school started, so we spent the better part of the day listening to presentations, presenting ourselves (with translators) and then giving the parents a tour.

So now I sit here, Sunday night, trying to maintain a positive outlook and to come up with some sort of plan.  How to teach the subjects I love rather than straight-up ESL?  I know the myriad of other problems (no paper, printers not working, wifi rarely stable, no books, no shelving in our classrooms…) will eventually work themselves out.   It would all be dealable if our students could understand us and we could dive into our subjects.

One great beam of light appeared yesterday.  I was awarded six Nexus 7 Tablets from Map Your World, a great organization helping teachers get kids directly involved in solving local problems.  When these tablets arrive I am going to get my kids outside and documenting their world and the issues swirling around them, come hell or high water!

On that note, have a stellar week.  We deserve one!