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xi'an (4)

A plan. My experiences over the last few weeks have highlighted the similarities between traveling and teaching. It all started with a desire to escape the constant business that naturally occurs in a city of 10.6 billion people. The noise, the traffic, the unsettled feeling of always being on the move. Despite being a beautiful place to live and study, Xi’an is only a tiny part of the Chinese landscape. Over the first four weeks, it became clear that I had to experience what rural China was like, or I would forever regret not taking the opportunity to. Thus, trip planning began, and my excitement grew. However, the only week we would be available to travel, also happened to be the Chinese National Week of Holiday. This meant many millions of Chinese citizens would also be moving across the country, causing many unexpected challenges to emerge. Regardless of all the hurdles, after many late-night planning sessions and time spent endlessly refreshing pages to check for updated train and bus availability, we formulated a plan. We were set to leave with only a few gaps in transport to address in each city.

The day came, we were up before the sun, eager to hit the road. The experience started smoother then we anticipated, we caught a cab without hassle despite the language barrier and time of day, we passed through security with only minimal lineups and the high-speed train was spacious and comfortable. Traveling at 250km an hour, 4 hours later, we arrived in Chengdu, and we were able to navigate our way to our connecting bus with ample time. This was when our plan started to change little by little. Our 4-hour bus ride ended up being 8 hours along a bumpy, and at times highly dangerous road, due to the traffic, but we arrived at the hostel with only a few sore stomachs. The next day we explored Kangding, a stunning mountain town that rivals the sites of Jasper and Banff in Canada. After lunch, we decided to try to hike up a hill to find a monastery, with no guidance, or points of reference in the fog and tree cover, we missed our mark by a longshot and ended up summiting the entire mountain. At the top, we found a beautiful Buddhist village. It was indeed one of those “steal your breath away” unexpected travel moments! The next day, we were off to visit a town even further into the Tibetan prefecture of Ganzi, there was only one problem, we did not have a ride, and all the buses were sold out. “Not to worry!” we were told by the locals, we could always hire a car to take us.  After 2 hours of waiting, attempting to find a driver, we met some very friendly Chinese university students heading in our direction. They helped arrange transport and we were off! Little did we know, that the one-hour drive would become a night spent in subzero temperatures stuck on a mountain sleeping in a car, as firefighters, police officers, and military personnel worked through the night to rescue us and many thousands of others from the mountain, due to an unseasonally tremendous amount of snowfall and freezing rain. We arrived safely back in Kangding the next day, thanks to their hard work, courage, and dedication. Our new friends engaged us in conversation late into the night. They kept our spirits high with traditional songs and our bodies warm by loaning us their sleeping bags (Thanks Jane, Richard, and Bella!).

All and all, in both teaching and travel, having a plan is important, but always remaining adaptable in dynamic situations and remembering to reach out for help when you need it, is critical to being successful in your endeavors!

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A Language Learning Epiphany

Ni Hao!

As the initial culture shock wains little by little and I settle into my life here in China, I have begun to develop more of awareness into how difficult it is to live in a country where you can understand almost nothing. In the area of Xi’an where we live, very few if anyone I have encountered speaks English, and ninety percent of all text is in Chinese Characters. Culturally, this is a true testament to the pride the Chinese people take in celebrating and maintaining their rich and vibrant history! It was eye-opening to recognize my own cultural bias, assuming that there must be some level of Western influence here, furthermore that most people would understand essential English communication. In my past travels, words in unfamiliar languages often shared similarities in letters and sounds, and people were accustomed to frequent interactions with tourists. Thus far, that has not been my experience here. The amount of mental energy that is required to attempt simple tasks like buying groceries, getting a cell phone, doing laundry or reading a map is not something I had anticipated. However, after the initial hurdle, I realized that it was beneficial for me to brought out of my comfort zone in such a way. This environment provides the seeds required for authentic personal growth. Additionally, it offers the opportunity to develop your language skills out of necessity!

The language learning courses have provided me with a whole new perspective regarding what it feels like to be a language learner in a classroom environment. Mandarin is said to be one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn, and it has certainly proven to be a real challenge for me. The courses are taught primarily in Chinese, which means if you don’t understand something, you have the potential to become lost quickly. Often questions will be asked again, but when you don’t have the language background to comprehend them, you can do little except stare back blankly. I witnessed many of the same looks I had experienced when I administered the IELTS test for Chinese students at the international school I am teaching at. These moments provide me with a snapshot into what the ELL population in Canadian classrooms must feel like. My whole experience with language thus far has helped me to develop a new level of empathy for the challenges immigrants across the world face. It has undoubtedly influenced my perspective and approach in the classroom as well!

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Up, Up, and Away!

After almost a year in the making, the day has nearly come to cross the ocean bound for a world relatively unknown to me. As such, questions such as “why are humans inclined to travel?” have been forefront on my mind. Those are far too tough to tackle in one blog post, so I have opted instead to reflect on why I chose to pursue this educational opportunity in China. The Asian continent has been of interest to me since my early childhood. This is in part because of the stories my aunts and uncles, who participated in peacekeeping efforts abroad with the Canadian Armed Services, shared with me growing up. Perhaps, it was their stories that drew me to study history. From my prior experiences, I have grown to understand that various media, textbooks, and film can only provide a limited perspective on the history of a region. Experiencing a culture, visiting what it collectively values, conversating with individuals about their story; this is what I feel develops a greater understanding of the human condition.

Furthermore, it facilitates the opportunity to reflect on my worldviews and values critically. Of interest to me, because of my minor in history and specialization in social studies, is how China approaches incorporating social sciences into its curriculum. I look forward to being challenged by the substantial cultural differences China has from Canada and the United States. Although it can be tempting to only look for differences when traveling, I am also eager to examine the many similarities we share!

I am interested in learning about the variety of religious influences thousands of years of cross-continent trade has brought to China. My communication and culture courses exposed me to the religions of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, which are common in China. Even though the state’s official position is the embracement of atheism, I am eager to seek out and experience each belief system in practice. Furthermore, I also want to study the fusion that has occurred between them over time. I studied culinary arts during high school, so Chinese food is another aspect of the culture that I yearn to delve into. I have had limited exposure to non-north Americanized Asian food during my lifetime and welcome the introduction to a new culinary profile!

As I finish final preparations, my mind is filled with intense fluctuating emotions. At times, I felt flustered and overwhelmed, while at others I am filled with eagerness and excitement as I think about the unknown. I find it comforting to think back on why I chose to pursue my Bachelor of Education, the joy of experiencing a moment with a student when it all ‘clicks,’ and I hope I feel that way by the time I depart. I’ve learned that the journey preparing for this trip was an integral part of the experience, it has challenged me both personally and professionally, but has made me all the more prepared.

I look forward to developing friendships while travelling and experiencing a culture that is substantially different then my home nation!

“For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven't tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It's probably worth it.”

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A Chilly Realization

Hello Everyone!

Now that we’re halfway through our time in Xi’an I think it’s time to reflect on how my perspectives have changed since I’ve been here.

            One thing that struck me from the moment I landed in this place is the sheer scale this country. The country itself is enormous and on that land is an unfathomable number of people. Everyone knows that China has the world’s biggest population of nearly 1.4 billion, but it’s impossible to truly wrap one’s head around a statistic like that. One of my first things I felt since I came here is that I feel truly anonymous. No one knows me and no one has any reason to know me. Because I am of Asian descent, I am not a visible minority here, and so when I walk through the streets, I feel truly hidden among the masses. In some ways, that was comforting because I can go about my business without anyone really caring about what I do. In other ways, it felt so distant and cold to be nothing more than another number. Adding to this was the fact that I am effectively illiterate in China and I can’t really strike up a conversation with anyone I’d like.

The crowds at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

 

            However, my perceptions on this were changed very suddenly this past week. Logan, Candace and I were touring Sichuan Province which is south of Xi’an and on Oct 2nd we had just hired a car to take us to a nearby village from where we were. That next town was around 70km away on the far side of a mountain and the trip would take two hours in good conditions. We met three Chinese students around our age who were also going to that same town so we decided to carpool. We set off in the car in good spirits and everything was going according to plan...

            Then the blizzard hit.

            The weather very suddenly turned on us and our progress began to slow. We decided that it would be too dangerous to continue so we turned the car around but traffic came to a complete halt soon thereafter. We were about 20 kms from our starting point when we realised that we would have to spend the night in the car. The next afternoon, we finally made it off the mountain when the local authorities cleared enough of the path to let traffic flow again. In total we had spent around 27 unforgettable hours on that mountain.

 

Cars stuck on the mountain

 

            Thankfully, we had enough clothing, snacks, supplies, and morale to last us through the night. No one was hurt and everyone was in relatively good spirits by the time we were off the mountain.

            This was a turning point for my perceptions of China as a cold anonymous place. Because we spent so long in a confined space with local Chinese students, we got to know each other very well out of necessity. At the end of that journey, the six of us had bonded and had become great friends. We were singing, laughing, smiling, and joking around for a long, long, long time. After we were off, they even invited us to a restaurant for dinner so that they could share some of China's rich culinary culture with us. I realized that although sometimes I feel anonymous and insignificant with so many people around me, every single person in this country is just as human as I am. Each one of them is complex and interesting and passionate.

            I don’t think we will ever forget the friends that we made on that mountain. They welcomed us to their country and shared their stories and culture with us in a way that I would never have been able to experience otherwise. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m so glad we were stuck in a blizzard!

 

Our friends

 

Yours,

David Kang

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