Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province Vacation

 

 

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Summer is nearly over for me. School begins again in about a week. The summer was filled with some great times and great people. This blog posting is regarding my summer vacation. Every summer, I try to go someplace new and different. It is usually in China, visiting the many diverse locations that China offers. This year, I chose to visit the mountain region of Hunan Province, called Zhangjiajie. If you had seen the movie Avatar and are familiar with the Hallelujah Mountains in the movie, you will be familiar with this region, as those fictional mountains were inspired by these mountains.

What do they say about the “best laid plans”? This vacation was kind of a bust in some respect, while providing me with things I needed. I traveled all the way to the mountains regions, and never laid one step in the mountain park. This was due to a variety of reasons (and I hope purpose for the future). My traveling partner, Elly, was sick for a few days. Although this should not have deterred me from my quest of the mountains, it did to some degree. That would only be an excuse perhaps. Actually, we arrived on a weekend. Chinese people travel whenever they have an opportunity…all 1.4 billion of them. With it being a weekend and the summer with school being out, the mountains would be swarming with people. So, Elly and I decided to rest at the resort on the first day and take in some lesser sights the next day. That would leave us with two days of mountain viewing on the weekdays. The days were hot, humid and sunny all weekend. The late mornings and afternoons were hellish on the body. On Monday, we woke to find the region covered in fog and haze. A storm system threatened us on our weather apps on the phone. As did our last day. No need to go to the mountains if all you will see is clouds and maybe get rained on.

Regardless of the lack of mountain viewing, we still had a good visit with other endeavors. And, those mountains are not going anywhere fast, so I can always return during some cooler months.

Below are some descriptions and pictures of what we did see and experience.

Traveling around China this year was brutal. Although we were thwarted many times by weather, I wonder if there was more to it. As more and more Chinese move up into middle class and higher, they are beginning to have more free time and extra money to travel. What was once a great transportation system is now overwhelmed by the numbers, making it nearly inaccessible at times.

Elly was delayed in her flight from Wuxi to Changsha, while I missed my train from Zhuhai to Changsha. Elly was stuck due to apparent bad weather causing delays in her flight. I was detoured due to excessive lines at the train ticket window. In my case, I felt like I was standing in line at Wal-Mart. You know the issue. You see all these unused checkout lanes with long lines at the three that are opened. The same at the busy ticket window of the train station. Ten possible windows to be opened and only three being used. The lines were twenty to thirty people deep. I stood in line for over an hour and narrowly missed my train because tickets were sold out and people were trying to use the ticket agent as a travel agent. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper and had to take an hour taxi to the airport to wait on stand-by to get onto a plane to meet Elly.

That was only the beginning of our travel woes. On our return trip back to Zhangjiagang, our flight was delayed, in Changsha again, for five hours. Instead of getting home by 7 PM, we entered our apartments around 1 AM. Oh, the joys of traveling.

The photos above shows Elly new friend. The little girl stayed near Elly for most of the delay. It was cute at first, but the cuteness wore thin as time went on. The other picture is what awaited us at the airport. It was a welcomed and beautiful sight to see.

This was our hotel. It was a great hotel, one of the best in the area. For six nights, we called this place home. Of course the pool was a nice amenity. The restaurant food was not the best for a five star hotel. I do miss the beds though…soft with outstanding bedding. They actually took two queen beds and stuck them together. You got lost in those beds, as large as they were. You could comfortably sleep a family of four in them.

The mountain views and the local scenery is what draws people to this place. It is stunning just to walk around the town. Pictures definitely do not do the views justice. No matter the weather or the time of day for lighting, the views are awe-inspiring.

The local people and the plants/animals of the region were entertaining to see. People washing things in the rivers takes you back into a different era of time. Despite the amount of tourism dollars flooding the region, most people seemed to be stuck at the lower rung of the economic ladder still. As the area continues to grow, I am hopeful that the money begins to flow down to them eventually.

The one “adventure” Elly and I took was to a local scenic lake to take a boat ride and see some sights. It was a nice day, but a tourist trap. I would not recommend this to anyone visiting the region, as there are other great things to spend your money on.

The things we saw on the walk too and from the lake region were far more interesting to me than the lake. The various statues were fun to see around town. There is a nice display celebrating the Avatar movie, in which the area has a certain claim to fame. And, we discovered a great mural in an alley way that was beautifully done. It is hidden from most tourists who could easily miss this great piece of art work.

For me, the highlight of the trip was the theater show we saw. In the previous blog, you can see videos of the show. I love Chinese old culture and traditions.

As Elly was laying around the hotel, I decided to venture out to the Yellow Dragon Cave area. Although I have seen enough caves in my life to be uninterested in them any longer, I was pleasantly entertained by the various sights outside of the cave and the experiences I could have just walking around the area. The highlights were of traditional minority life and how they would use the water wheels to irrigate their crops. The cool, refreshing water that escaped to the surface from the cave was fun for kids to play in. And the “evolution” statue at the entrance was whimsical.

Although this vacation was a bit disappointing and filled with major frustrations of travel, it is a reminder that not every trip is going to have the “wow factor” of a Yunnan or Cambodia trip. Despite that, it did give me an opportunity to recharge my batteries through some seriously needed relaxation after a long summer camp. In the end, I am sitting here ready and capable of doing what I came to China to do….teach a new group of kids some valuable English skills so they can find success in their lives. Bring on a new year of teaching and further adventures.

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Zhangjiajie Charming Theater Show

There are three Grand Impressions shows in China. I witnessed one last year in Lijiang, Yunnan Province that was beyond spectacular. Another is located in Guilin. Sadly, I was not aware of how awesome these shows are, so I did not see it when I was there. I might go back to Guilin, just for the show. And, there is the Charming Xiangxi Theater show. All three of these shows highlight ethnic culture traditions and folklore from the various regions.

At the Charming Theater, it is mostly indoors, with a small show outdoors. Although the theater is not as impressive as the outdoor theater I witnessed in Yunnan, the show itself is equally impressive. I have video of every part of the show listed below. Since most of you will never come to China, let alone the wonderful area of Zhangjiajie Mountains, I hope you can appreciate the grandeur and wonderment of the show. Of course, video and real life are much different, but you should get an idea of how great the show is. I apologize for the quality of the video and the sound. It was done on my cell phone. Not to mention, as usual, the audience is a bit loud.

The three kids in the fourth video are remarkable. These kids came from a very poor and rural village. They strived for a better life. They developed and practiced this routine to escape their poverty. At the theater, they showcase in a video their struggles from the village, their hard practice they endured after their regular schooling, and their success since arriving. It was very touching.

Turn your volume down before watching. The video volume is quite loud.

Enjoy the show.

Summer Camp in Zhuhai 2017

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This blog entry will mostly be pictures of my summer camp in Zhuhai this year. There are a few things that need to be noted before I send you off on my picture voyage.

  1. Yesterday, Zhuhai was hit with a Category 10 typhoon, with 130 mph winds and a large storm surge. The area was devastated with property damage. Fortunately, it seems that only 12 people lost their lives in the storm. Speaking with friends in the area, most had interesting stories and experience. One friend in particular is one of the many heroes of the day. He is a scuba diver and was used to recue people trapped in cars in an underground garage. I am so very proud of his actions and knowing him to be a good man in general.
  2. This camp was the best of the three years I have worked it. The head director took over the camp again this year and his calm demeanor and professionalism made the camp enjoyable and pleasant. We also had a great team of foreign teachers this year. This team strived for the best and they delivered. The majority of us just clicked and teamed well together. The Chinese mentors, who are primarily college kids, worked their tails off, being with the kids 24/7. They did a spectacular job with the kids. Although they were tired and weary, they smiled and did their jobs to near perfection.
  3. We had a flu bug hit the camp for the first two sessions. Many kids, mentors and staff, including me, were not immune to it. Some kids went to the hospital or had to remain in their dorms until better.
  4. This year, I took more of a managerial, leadership role at camp. Not that anyone asked me, but with three years under my belt, I felt I could take on this challenge. Most said it was well appreciated and help make the camp better. It was fun, but I put a lot of pressure and extra effort on myself. In the end, I was happy to do it and pleased with the results I was able to achieve. When the boss had to go away for a few days, I took the lead on the teachers and forged a path for them.

These are just some group pictures of me with some of my kids and with the other foreign teachers. I fell in love with all of them.

Bonds are built from their first day in their dorm rooms. Kids eat, sleep, study and play together 24/7 for ten days of each camp session.

The variety of crafts, projects and special activities makes this camp special. Activities include an egg drop project to make a something that will protect an egg being dropped from five stories up. Other activities include making a miniature golf course from cardboard and other recycled items. Boat building, building a city, kite making, bridge building, solar systems, derby cars, totem poles, picture frames, and many other crafts/activities rounded out their day. It is quite remarkable to see these kids take an idea and develop great projects, while learning valuable life skills and English too.

These are just some of the 750+ kids we taught and entertained for a month. Looking into their faces, you can see they are just like any other kid wanting to have a great summer experience. We delivered.

Water Day, Sports Day, and a field trip are all special times for the entire camp to come together and have fun. This includes us teachers.

Each camp session ends with Presentation Day. The kids are given a theme: Fairy Tale Remix, Disney Remix, Historical Figures. They take the theme and develop a presentation, with some guidance from the teachers. The kids make costumes and props, write scripts, and rehearse all week for the final day.

I was so proud of each of the three presentations my classes developed. The first presentation was a combination of a shadow puppet show with live action. Although it was not truly a “fairy tale”, it was one of the most entertaining performances we did.

The second performance, with a new class, had the theme of historical figures. My kids created, wrote and developed it all on their own. They divided it into three parts. The first group features the Wright Brothers and the history of the first flight. The second group focused their attention on Thomas Edison. It was interesting how both groups showed how these history figure struggled in their inventions and were laughed at for their “foolishness”. The last group used George Washington, Abe Lincoln and Donald Trump to show who owns the White House and why. It was very well done.

The last session kids had the theme of Disney remix. I led my kids to do “Disney does Titanic”. See the video below to see how that turned out.

Newest Article Published

I have had the honor of having many of my articles published. If you would like to see my most recent article (July 4, 2017), or any of my previous articles, please visit https://www.oxfordseminars.com/blog/

Below is my most recent article.

How Much Money Can I Make Teaching English in China?
Bill Gain
July 4, 2017

Numerous articles have been written getting you excited about teaching English abroad. These articles tell you about the wonderful travel opportunities, marvelous culinary delights, interesting cultural experiences, and wonderful classroom/social lifestyles that await you. When asked, “Why did you become an ESL teacher and move to your host country?”, many will give the reasons listed above. Seldom is the answer about money. Are we merely trying to be humble? Is it not important to an ESL teacher? Or, is money so far down on our list of reasons that it is not worth mentioning? Perhaps all of these are correct answers.

For newbie ESL teachers, or those who are just curious about this lifestyle, money is an important factor. So, let’s talk about money. I will write from my experiences teaching English in China but I think much of the information crosses over to other countries as well. We need to evaluate salary and cost-of-living when we discuss the economics of an ESL teacher. For the purpose of this article while discussing China, I will use a monetary exchange rate of 7 RMB=1 dollar. Let’s begin with salary.

Salary is a tricky subject because there is no minimum or maximum wage. In China, ESL teaching salaries depend on many factors, such as location (city or rural), the kind of teaching institution you are located in, and your experience. Focusing on China for the moment, salaries in 2017 have seen a significant increase in most areas. When I arrived four years ago, a beginning salary for public primary to high school was around $900 – $1200 per month. This year, I have seen salaries jump significantly to the $2000 – $2500 range. There are still many schools trying to hire teachers at the lower rates, but I suspect that most schools will be paying the higher rates by next year. So why the big difference in pay? Personally, I think it is due to the shortage of ESL teachers coming to China for various factors. I have heard that people do not want to teach ESL in China because of the pollution, or other world events reported in the media. Whatever the reasons for ESL teachers not coming to China, it is good news for those who do come. A general rule of thumb for salaries in China is that kindergarten teachers get paid the most. As you move higher in the education levels, the salaries decrease, with university instructors getting paid the least (typically). ESL Training centers run the gambit of low pay to high pay, depending on how well established they are and their need for ESL teachers. You can typically expect a salary of about $1800 – $2000 a month from a well-established, franchised training school.

But what about the rest of the world?

What about other regions of the world? This is where you need to do your research and decide why you want to teach abroad. Are you looking to pay off debt or are you teaching English abroad mainly for the experience and travel? Whatever your reasons are, the basic trends for different regions are as follows.
Central and South America

Countries in Central and South America typically pay lower salaries than other regions. It is not uncommon for the salaries to just pay for your living expenses. Thus, ESL teachers may resort to tutoring for extra pay or paying from their savings.
Asia

South Korea, Japan, and China still have the best pay opportunities in the region, while other nations pay slightly less. Cost of living will be discussed later in the article, but you need to take these things into consideration for each country.
Middle East

Countries in the Middle East have the best paying contracts for ESL teachers, but they also have the highest cost of living and typically the highest qualifications required for ESL teachers.
Eastern Europe

You will find many Eastern European countries on par with those in Central and South America. Each country and their economic status needs to be researched, but you might find that you are just breaking even.
Western Europe and the European Union

Finding an ESL teaching job in Western Europe can be difficult. Most require that the ESL teacher is from an European Union (EU) country, or has an EU passport. If you can find a position, salaries are all over the board, from draining a savings account to being able to pay off significant debts.
Cost of Living Overseas

Be cautious when looking at salaries alone. It does you no good if you have what seems to be a good salary, but the cost of living eats up your salary. Do some comparison shopping and understand the economies of the countries you plan to live in. Another aspect to consider is what your ESL contract includes as part of your benefits package. Your contract benefits are perhaps the most important part of this discussion. In China, your housing is usually provided for you or they pay you a stipend. If the housing is provided with all of the living expenses paid, you have zero expenses. If you have a stipend, will that cover the cost of your rent, utilities and other living expenses, or will you have to take some of your salary to supplement them? Most ESL teachers in China, who have housing provided, have quality living accommodations that are well furnished with the basic needs. They do not have to pay for deposits, electricity, water, cable or internet for their housing. This means more money that you get to keep in your pockets. Your education institution should also pay all of the country’s taxes and worker’s insurance separately from your salary. Most will also pay for travel expenses, if the school is a distance away from your housing. All in all, the only expenses coming out of your salary should be your cell phone, travel/entertainment expenses, and shopping costs (although some schools will let you eat for free in their cafeteria). My personal experience is limited to China. Other nations and their contract benefits will surely differ. What’s important is that you consider all economic factors when choosing a host country.

The exciting part for many English teachers in China is how inexpensive most things are due to the cost of living differences:
Fifty cents buys you a cola, while a bottle of water will run about 25 cents.
For those who like to indulge in smoking, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes cost $2.00, while a large Chinese brand beer will cost you a buck at most.
Fresh vegetables, fruits, and meats from the local farmer’s market will cost you half of what you will find in supermarkets in America.
A large rice or noodle dish, complete with fixings, will run around $2.00 at a mom and pop restaurant. A full-blown dinner with six of your friends can be easily had for about $30-$50.
Internet shopping becomes a joy when you find prices are unrealistically low for most items.
Of course, imported foods and products have a huge increase in price, whether it is online or in the stores. Starbucks is still $5, and a combo meal from a fast food joint will be about the same as in America.
Bus fare is about 10 cents, taxis are $2-$3, and a purchased electric bike is reasonably priced for $300-$500.
Airfare in the country is about even with America, since it is still a relatively new luxury for most Chinese citizens. The trains, which reach most parts of China are very affordable, and the long-distance buses are even better priced.
A mid-priced, three to four-star hotel will cost you about $15-$25 a night in most places.
Your non-Apple cell phone can easily be purchased for a few hundred dollars, with $30 for a data plan lasting you 2-3 months.

Stories of how ESL teachers have paid off their debts, sending loads of money home, and/or living the life of luxury are common place in many Asian countries, including China. While you may be interested in teaching English overseas for world travel, culinary experiences, and cultural exchanges, consider the money aspect when choosing your ESL teaching destination. It will make your experiences much richer.

 

End of 2016-17 School Year

It is the end of the school year. The month of June was very busy with a wide range of activities.

In the video above, our school was hosting a dance competition. As most were older ladies, I assumed it was what we call “dancing grannies”. Every evening on the streets and in the parks of every city and town of China, people will dance. Usually it is older ladies that make up the groups, thus being called dancing grannies. They do this for exercise, socializing, and to just have something special to do. Many groups have rehearsed dances they do every night. It is fun to watch.

I was walking to class when I heard the music. I popped into the gym and saw this going on. If I didn’t have classes to teach, I would have stayed longer. I liked the costumes, the music and the dancing.

Earlier in June, many of my students were dismissed from class to attend a business seminar off school property. For those left behind, I knew it would be impossible to teach a lesson. 75% of my class was gone. I decided to have some team building activities outside. It was a huge success. I am always worried about taking a class outside where they have no walls to keep them corralled. Surprisingly, every one of them was into the activities. We played right through our break time. And, when we were finished with one activity, they asked to try it again. Pictured are three games we did. Teams of ten students had to figure out how to flip over a sheet on the ground, without stepping off the sheet onto the “hot lava”. Another game was that they had to figure a way to get all ten members onto the sheet. The sheet was folded very small. The last activity was a relay race to put together six children’s jigsaw puzzles in the quickest time. All the pieces were scrambled together at the end of the sidewalk. They surprised me again when the winning team went over to help the other team finish their puzzles. Great teamwork and great kids.

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Most of the classes had end of year parties. Of course foreigner teachers are often invited. At this sophomore party, they booked a room at a restaurant and we had a great dinner. After the dinner, they sang songs at the KTV (karaoke). Keep in mind that all of these kids come from well-to-do families.

We finished off the year with final exams and the graduation ceremony for the juniors. I was honored to have been asked to speak on behalf of the foreign teachers at the graduation. In September, they will all be in the USA finishing their senior year of high school and then onto university. I will miss these kids very much, having taught them and seen them grow over the past year and half.

Summer vacation is here. Unlike previous summers, I am unsure what traveling I will do. I am working the summer camp in Zhuhai for the third year in the row. Because of the change in schedules this year, it kind of messes up my travel time. I had hoped to go to Mongolia for two weeks, but there is just not enough time. Over the next few weeks, I will decide where I want to go and what I want to do. Stay tuned for more adventures.

Miscellaneous Things

 

 

I have not posted anything lately. There has not been much happening as for adventures. I realize that the idea of an American living in China and saying that adventurous happenings are far and few between seems odd. Actually, to many of my family and friends, my postings may seem like a daily adventure. For me, normalcy has set in after over four years. I tend to take things for granted now days. That is not to say that I do not recognize how blessed I am and that there is adventure in every day that I go outside my door. I recognize the adventure as soon as I am confronted with having to try to translate something to a Chinese person. Adventure remains as I witness the non-western cultural differences that make me proclaim TIC (This is China). I am often awe inspired by the beauty of the China and the people who live here. Despite all of that, I have gained a sense of normalcy to every day life. My normalcy is the daily adventures that face me when I leave my apartment.

Confused? Me too. Think of it like this. You get your dream job, perhaps at Disney World, and your first couple of months is awesome. Everything is new and you are working in a great location. You enjoy everything about your job. Excitement abounds. You write to your family and friends how great the experience is. Six months to a year later, you find a normalcy to your life. You still love your job, you love the environment, and you couldn’t see yourself doing anything different. The only thing different is that the newness has worn off. The honeymoon ends and real life takes over. That is where I am today. The honeymoon is over and I am living a normal life with no regrets or second thoughts. The normalcy for me is know which side of the bed is mine. The normalcy is doing the daily routine of housework. The normalcy is going to work and achieving the goals I set for myself. The normalcy is even going to a Chinese restaurant where no one speaks English and I am still able to have a fine meal. Understand?

I decided to go out this morning and get some breakfast. I decided to stop at Starbucks for a Frap and read a book. This is part of my downtown region. I took a quick video to showcase a wonderful mural that lines the canal and the park-like setting along the canal.

 

Yes, I know the water looks like the chocolate river from Willy Wonka’s factory, but it is not chocolate. At least the water does not smell the way it looks. The city does have cleaning boat crews that go up and down the canal filtering the trash and other things from the water.

There are statues throughout the city. Unique and fun. But, these are my favorites. I can imagine, before the significant pollution of the waterways, this was a favorite pastime of children in this town. Skinny dipping in a cool, once clean, waters of the canal had to be so much fun for the kids.

It is quite remarkable to think that Zhangjiagang, just 15-20 years ago, was mostly a rural farming community of a few thousand. Like many places in developed China, the richness of the culture and traditions of a simpler time have made way for the technological advancement of the 21st century. My high school students can remember when this town was just beginning to grow and become developed. That is such a unique and special thing. Often asked why I choose to stay in China, my response is that I like to see history in the making here. I want to see what happens. This city, as well as the country, is in a constant flux of change and growth. I can almost imagine what it must have been like for my ancestors to see such cities in America go through rapid transformation in their lifetime.

Every once in a while, I do get a glimpse into their past. Daily, people come to the canal next to my school to do laundry. They pound the clothes and rinse them in the dirty water, which makes little sense to me. Throughout the day, these people come to the canal and conduct their business as usual.

I am often brought back into the present when I come across any number of commercial marketing to get people to spend their money in this growing capitalistic country. Here are some pictures of a local mall hiring a company to put on a show to drive people into the mall. I can only imagine the cost of such productions, but I see such things all the time during my travels in China. Of course I find these to be entertaining, as to the locals. I just wonder how much bang for their buck that they get for such promotions.

 

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Then there is this monstrosity of a marketing ploy. China Jeep set this up to draw attention to their products in a local parking lot. You see the white vehicle on the right. That is lined up to take potential customers up the ramp to the top where the top is on a swivel. Once the jeep is up there, the swivel deploys through gravity to the other side of the ramp, allowing the vehicle to drive down the other ramp.

I see two problems with this concept. First is that there is no way you would get me into a car and let someone do that to me in the vehicle. Knowing most Chinese, I doubt they would do it either. Secondly, where we live in China is about as flat as Kansas. There are not many opportunities to go off-roading and to climb steep hillsides near us. In the hour I was there, I did not see anyone use the demonstration.

I recognize how blessed I am to be doing what I love to do and to live where I am. If I am bored, it is only because I choose to be bored. I am often saddened by the things I witness on international and American news. I honestly do not have any experiences in my life that others do around the world. Yes, I have the typical Communist power hungry bureaucrats and the red tape to deal with. Aside from that, life is good. Life is normal. Life is every day… at least until summer when vacation comes. Be on the look out for my adventures as usual during my summer holiday.