I shakily walk my tray down the aisle to a secluded table devoid of kids, or really anyone that remotely looks like they might try to talk to me. I remove my shades, my ear warmers, the hat that was underneath the ear warmers and my headphones. I step out of my laowai-approved, “Hellooo!?”-proof isolation chamber and sit down to one of my most guilty pleasures…the Big Mac.
The first bite is heaven. Say what you want about McD’s, but they’ve got their cook formula sorted out. You’ve got the thing that kind of resembles a burger with nondescript sauces and “cheese” that work together to create something divine. The fries…you can go to hell if you don’t think McD’s has the best fries. Wash that down with a coke and you’re flying high. Someone says “Hello?” but I choose to ignore him and continue to shove three fries at a time into my face like a neanderthal.
I wipe my mouth with a napkin, stare down at my leavings. I stand up, quickly don my winter gear and look around to make sure no one saw. I feel like I’m walking out of a brothel or an opium den. A Chinese teenager is staring at me from outside, mouth agape. He knows. I nod, and walk out of the human feeding trough of shame and disgrace, destined to be hungry again in an hour or less.
It’s not the first time and it won’t even remotely be the last time. I don’t even eat fast food in America. But whenever I’m abroad it’s a taste of home, a drunken treat and my personal ICU for hangovers. Someone drops a subtle “KFC anyone?” after 10 drinks? I’m in. If I’m in need of a quick, disposable sponge to soak up the toxins the next day, McDonald’s is there, waiting. Smirking at the obligatory trip it knows I will make once I pry my tongue from the roof of my mouth and stand in the shower for 15 minutes.
The thing about fast food places abroad is that - wait for it - they are usually five times better and cleaner than any I’ve been to in the States. Sweden’s McDonald’s looks like something out of a sci-fi film while I would sooner eat off the floor of McDonald’s in China than the tabletops in America. Iceland got smart and kicked out Ronald McDonald in 2009 - slow clap for Siggi - even if it was mainly due to the 2008 economic meltdown rather than health concerns.
In China, it’s a rallying point for our tiny foreigner community. Our Daqing Bowling League nights always begin at the golden arches. The guys that live way out in Longfeng and Ranghulu districts have to commute to get their fix here in Xincun. All of us laowai are in our element while the Chinese look on at the spectacle with curiosity and maybe some well-placed disgust. The next time I run into one of these 60 foreigners in this city of 3 million, I know it will be here. It’s always McDonald’s.
The reason why we’re drawn there is obvious. Familiarity. Even if I didn’t eat there back home, I saw the golden arches everywhere, almost daily. When I eat there in China, I know it will taste the same as back home. Food is an emotional thing, and even if it is shitty, disposable food, the taste can bring you home for a split second. Even the McDonald’s package - the service, the shameless branding, Ronald’s creepy smile - is enough to give you a rest from all things Chinese.
As someone who’s always preaching self-improvement, yoga, meditation and other hippie shit, eating fast food is probably one of the most hypocritical things I do. It’s a hard battle to win. No matter how delightful the dumplings are, I will tire of them. The home comforts of consumerist, American global domination are only a five minute walk away. What is a hungry expat to do?
We’ve been cooking a lot more. The (my girlfriend’s) power to cook Western food definitely balances out the onslaught of Chinese food. However, cooking a full meal with one burner and a rice cooker can be a mission, and sometimes, ain’t no one got time for that. My girlfriend is under a newly self-imposed fast food ban and I might try the same. But one thing I never do in life is make promises I can’t keep. For better or worse, I’m lovin’ it.
My first post on Spartan Wanderer was back in June, 2011 in preparation for my first long-term move to a foreign country. 124 posts later, I’ve seen a lot of cool things, experienced a lot of culture and drunken enough to kill a lot of people. Also, I’ve learned that I love writing about it all. I initially just wanted an outlet for that, but also began writing a few pieces about living a minimalist lifestyle and how it is an ideal change for anyone thinking about traveling for a while. Now, I want to inspire people to travel, to show them that it’s actually not as hard as it may seem, and generally be a part of the wonderful thing that is cultural exchange - a great medicine for the human condition.
The blog has remained largely unchanged since its debut (not that it was a big event) other than the facelift I gave it not too long ago. I haven’t tried to monetize it, nor ask for subscribers. In a way, I feel like there’s less pressure on my writing because of that. I’ve tried my best to post once a week, with a few breaks every now and then due mostly in part to self-induced extreme busyness. The words have flowed out over several cups of coffee (and beers) and sometimes they stayed stubbornly lodged deep in the abyss, and bringing them out was like pulling teeth. For the most part, it’s been awesome, and so have you guys. My readers.
My faithful few. I have no delusions about this blog and I don’t seek ‘tumblr fame’, much less internet fame, although only writing for a living would be pretty sweet (then again I would lack for material if I wasn’t working in every country I live in). I’m quite happy over the amount of followers I’ve picked up over the years, although the number pales in comparison to tumblogs dedicated to cat photos and porn. But then again, it’s just a number, and whenever it jumps up by a couple it gives me a warm feeling that’s really just a bonus to the enjoyment I get out of writing. When you guys message me or comment, I’m always thrilled to answer, so keep ‘em coming.
Why am I writing this and showing you some of my cheesy reflections? Because it’s time. I think it’s time to take it to the next level. I’ve been playing with the idea of writing something more long-form for a while (yes, a book) and I’ve already said a little something about it. I’m all about putting a bow on things, and I want to do that for this blog. I want to write something that defines the purpose for any of this; a compendium of sorts for anyone wanting to dip their toes into foreign waters for the first time.
People ask me all the time how I got started traveling like this as if I possess some set of special conditions that allow me to do so. Not so. I’m completely average and am not by any stretch of the imagination independently wealthy, hence my working everywhere I go. The secret to long-term travel is that it’s easy. The hardest thing about it are the psychological barriers. If you haven’t been abroad before, it’s really hard to picture yourself somewhere thousands of miles away. And you are, after all, picking up and relocating your entire life. But once you streamline your life, educate yourself and stay on top of things, it is easy.
There’s never more a frustrating answer to all of your questions when you’re trying something new than “it’s easy.” That’s why I’m writing this ebook. I want to outline the process of moving abroad from the reasons why anyone would ever choose to do so to planning your next move. I’m basing it all off of my and my close friends’ experiences, so it’s not some mere, naive conjecture that you can find in abundance all over the web. I’m making a blueprint that is author-tested because I want as many people to experience the liberating, amazing experience of travel as possible. And I’m already three chapters in.
In order to do this, I will unfortunately be taking a couple of breaks from writing here because I also have a job, and I have to be selective about how I spend my free time. October will be the first of these breaks. ‘National Day Golden Week’ starts at the end of September so I’ll have a week off from work in which my girlfriend and I will go to Harbin to explore, and the rest will be writing. I’ll have to see how much I finish in October to know when my next break will be, but I will definitely be posting again in November. I’ll still be tweeting, instagramming and maybe even uploading a few YouTube videos, so it won’t be completely dead air.
But anyway, I’ll be writing it. In addition, I probably will add some type of subscription feature in the future, completely free of course. The only thing I’m monetizing at the moment are the t-shirt designs I do over at Footloose Fabrics. But I will probably charge a nominal fee for this ebook when it’s finished (we’re talking $3 or less) in order to fund future projects for this blog. It’s all very exciting to me, anyway, taking it to the next level and all that. This is some low-budget shit though, so don’t expect me to be Colin Wright overnight. I just appreciate your reading, your comments and your enjoyment, so keep it up with all that.
I’ve just taken a couple shots of baijiu and am not very capable of ending this post very coherently, but to summarize: I’m having fun in China; I’m grateful for my audience; I’m writing an ebook; It might take a while; I love you guys. That’s it. I’ll post some updates on Twitter soon, but using my VPN to get over the Great Firewall really is a bitch.
I’m rather animalistic when it comes to baser needs, so it’s no surprise that one of my favorite things about China so far is the food. There’s fresh dumplings, filled with whatever you want from sweet corn to pork. Spicy hot pot in which to boil whatever bits of meat you fancy. Charred pieces of meat on a stick from the street. A vegan would starve here. I, however, am in heaven. I’m no foodie, but there are a few meals that may warrant some special attention on the blog from time to time. Our favorite (so far) barbecue spot deserves the first honor.
A Quick Note on Cleanliness
China is definitely one of those countries where you need to be careful…but not so careful that you’re giving every restaurant with a C-rating a miss (most don’t even have a grade). The bacteria is different here and more resilient than back home, so it’s not uncommon to have the shits within your first weeks of being here. I messaged my friend telling him that I didn’t think I’d make it to the bar one night because I had eaten something bad. His simple reply was “Welcome to China.”
Two good rules that us newbies have been using are:
1) Go somewhere busy because there is a high turnaround rate for the food, which increases the likelihood that it’s fresh, and
2) use common sense. We’ve only been to two questionable places so far and we knew we wouldn’t be eating what we ordered within a couple minutes of being there.
But I digress…
One Million Degrees Barbecue
We’ve been in Daqing for about three weeks now - not really a long time. But we do have two definite favorites in the running right now, and one is (literal translation) One Million Degrees Barbecue (my friend says the Chinese characters aren’t clear on whether that’s Fahrenheit or Celsius). It specializes in charred pieces of meat, something I’m a bit of an expert in and the reason I will never be able to rattle my conscience enough to become a vegetarian/vegan.
If you’ve ever had Korean barbecue before, you’ll be right at home here. It’s common practice that, after marking what you want to grill on the menu, you cook those things yourself. Unfortunately that’s only happened once so far because (I think) the Chinese there are worried that we don’t know how to do it and are eager to do it for us (we’ll talk about white privilege in China later). This time around we kept it simple with some spicy beef, pork, mushrooms and squid rice. Yep, there’s little bits of tentacle in there and it’s goddamn wonderful.
We cooked…er, our waitress cooked the beef first as we awkwardly conversated across her, which isn’t really that awkward because no one spoke English there apart from us. In the meantime, we sip on our Harbin Beer, but cautiously, as to avoid losing our inhibitions to its whopping 3.1% ABV mid-meal. Once that’s done, we dipped the meat in the three sauces that we’d arranged on our plate: one chili, one crushed peanut, one I’m not sure. Good stuff.
The mushrooms are placed in tiny pans that are slid underneath the main hotplate to sizzle, freeing up much needed real estate for something much more important - the pork. As you can see by the photos, it looks almost exactly like bacon and it basically is. Some people might be turned off by the amount of fat on some cuts of meat here, but many schools of Chinese cuisine work it in to be quite nice. You can even order fat on skewers in most places. After biting into that crispy goodness I didn’t mind at all, and anyone who does can give me their share.
We dish out the rice to each other until the last spoonful. I glanced up for a brief second to confirm that, yes, two-thirds of the place is still staring at us, observing our exotic ways. You get used to it.
“Fúwùyuán!” I shouted. I wanted another beer. It’s basically the English equivalent to yelling “Waitress!” which I’m not sure is acceptable anywhere in the US anymore, but totally the norm here. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to get service in most places without that interjection. I drink up as we drink in the atmosphere. Shirtless bros smoking in the corner and laughing, two independent ladies breaking the mold by having multiple beers in public and unintentional eye-contact with more starers.
The meal comes to 65 yuan; about $10 USD. That’s actually splurging in China, on a meal that would be about $25+ in the US, possibly more for the added value of a “unique dining experience.” It’s just the tip of the culinary iceberg. This isn’t your Kung pao chicken from back home, and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to go back to that. Stick around for more reasons American Chinese food will be ruined for me in a year’s time.
My (busiest) Day as an ESL Teacher in China
6:30 AM: Uggghhh…
I wake up after stupidly getting only 5-6 hours of sleep (I never learn). I try my best to do 30 minutes of yoga, but it usually doesn’t happen on my early days. I stand in the shower. I make coffee. Usually only have a banana but if I get up early or am more ambitious, I make porridge. Or if I’m lucky my girlfriend decides to make eggy bread. I browse the news or reddit, then review the lesson plan for my first class. I definitely don’t feel like Teacher Seth/Monkey Teacher/Poo Poo Seth/laoshi quite yet.
9:00 AM: Yayyyyy!
I’m in the middle of my first 2-hour class with 8-9 year olds and am truly enjoying myself. I’m playing a shitload of games and just generally having fun with the kids. I even let them come to my desk and talk to me/touch my iPad during the break. They’re always trying to find the games on it, but they’re well hidden under ‘entertainment’. I have a smile on my face and am glad to be in the classroom.
10:05 AM: All Smiles
I’m walking back to my apartment for my 3-hour lunch break (got 30 min if I was lucky back home). I’m smiling and waving at every little kid that stops and stares at me, still in full-blown teacher mode.
10:15 - 12:45: Downtime
Usually we eat lunch back at the apartment to try and save some yuan, but occasionally several of us teachers will go out to lunch together. I may have to plan a couple of lessons for the last part of the day. Then I write a little bit, and inevitably end up browsing reddit some more. If I didn’t do yoga earlier, I try to do it now.
1:00 - 1:30 PM: Baby Speak
I have my youngest class now (3-4) and I’m finding it incredibly challenging to be quite honest. This is the first time that they’re being exposed to English, so even teaching their names is quite difficult. Mostly I play as many games as possible in this class because the kids are so young and have small attention spans. I expel a lot of energy in this short class.
1:40 - 3:30 PM: All Over Again
I have the same class as my first class in the morning, and it’s actually the third time I’m teaching it any given week, so I’m confident about what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, this class has either been trained by some annoying Chinese teacher to never speak or they are just not as clever as the other two classes. It can be a struggle to inject energy into this class but I try my best, and I’m tired afterwards.
3:30 - 3:40 PM: Break
We have a 10-minute break between every class. I usually go to the next room, review that lesson plan and get the order of things in my head so I don’t have to look at it as much during the lesson. I look through that class’s book. I drink some water. Then, “Hello children!”
3:40 - 4:30 PM: Older Kids
Now I have a class of maybe 10-11 year olds. The content is more difficult, obviously, and I only have 50 minutes to teach it. I try my best to make these classes fun, but sometimes there simply isn’t enough time for many games. My goal is to usually have at least one really great game and maybe a shorter one that at least keeps their interest. I’m trying to build up more energy in this class for the next one…
4:40 - 5:30 PM: Games, Games and More Games
Now I go in the opposite direction, back down to very young kids. Let’s say kindergarten to first grade. I have teach six words and maybe two or three sentences in 50 minutes. In other words, there needs to be a fuckload of games to keep things interesting. This is probably my favorite younger class, but there’s no two ways about it - I’m going to be exhausted after this class. I start looking for the light at the end of the tunnel at this point in the day.
5:40 - 6:30 PM: Boring
This is my oldest class, the kids being 12 or 13. They are really quite clever and the material is very dense (read: boring). The kids are at that age where they don’t want to do anything that draws too much attention to themselves but also want to have fun, so the games are more challenging to come up with. The most kids I’ve had in this class was seven. There are several sentences we have to read through to teach structure and then a long passage that they read together and answer questions afterwards. I can speak in a more conversational tone, and the kids will ask me directly if they have questions, which is helpful. I try really, really hard to make it enjoyable but I’m not sure if I succeed, mainly because I’m very tired myself at this point.
6:40 - 7:10 PM: Almost…
My final class is another very young one (4-5) and I really like it. Unfortunately there’s only four kids in it and I found out today that the school broke it up and put them into other more full classes. Makes good business sense when they’re competing with two other major schools and several independent language centers, but I’ll miss that class.
7:30 PM: Amazing Food
By this time, my girlfriend and I are both finished with classes and we’re most likely eating some amazing food somewhere for dinner. I usually order a sizable beer (or beers). We talk about our day; about classes that went well, nightmare classes, naughty kids and general weird Chinese stuff that we’ve noticed throughout the day.
9:00 PM: More Lesson Planning
Just when I thought it was over, I need to do a few lesson plans for the next day. At least it’s less busy. I try to adapt the same games to my different classes in one form or another so it doesn’t take as much time to plan. As long as I know they’re good games and can stomach doing them over and over again, the kids are none the wiser.
11:00 PM: Should Be Sleeping
At this point we’re at least in bed, but watching Breaking Bad or, inexplicably and more recently, The Great British Bake Off. Once it’s over, I’m full of regret. But I get to sleep longer the next morning.
The Good Life
Saturday is my only day remotely like this. I probably have 2-3 less hours on Sunday. Weekends are the busiest because we are a language center, not a public school. So parents send their kids here as more of an extracurricular thing, as if they didn’t have enough already. Monday is off, Tuesday is technically a working day but I have no classes. I have one kid to tutor on Wednesday. No classes on Thursday, but we use it for lesson planning, and I only have one 2-hour class on Friday. Basically, I’m working close to 25 hours less than I did back home for the same pay and better benefits. It’s a surprisingly more laid-back environment than any American school, and much more enjoyable! I’m guilty for being motivated by travel and adventure in a big way, but so far, I really enjoy it. More to come!
I thought you guys might be interested in seeing our complimentary apartment in Daqing, China. The school pays for everything barring ~$50 in utilities every month, and it’s pretty amazing. Later on I’ll give a complete rundown of expenses, what the school covers and how to save more money than you’ve ever saved in your life. The contrast between the stairway and the apartment itself is pretty hilarious and it totally blew us away the first time we saw it.
I have cold, so I’m sorry if my voice sounds weird. If you like this video, please say so on YouTube and I’ll make an effort to have more of a presence there. If not…maybe I’ll make more just to spite you :)
The other night I was in deep relaxation mode, curled up in bed watching Breaking Bad with my girlfriend (so I wasn’t actually relaxed), when I heard what sounded like a feminine scream outside. I said that. “I think I heard someone scream outside.” I got up and went to the window. In the small street between our apartment block and another I saw a drunken man and woman arguing. The girl kicked out at the man and shouted angrily at him. The guy approached her and literally threw her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and eerily enough, she didn’t protest. Our hearts were thumping in our chests and we were both on the cusp of shouting out when they were suddenly gone, further down the street and out of sight. I stupidly threw on some clothes and ran down the stairs to investigate further, but nothing.
From what I’ve read and heard from others, whether those two knew each other or not (I like to think they did), this is nothing out of the ordinary in China. The government would have you think that the gap between men and women in society is nonexistent but China remains quite a man’s land. Most people look the other way if a guy strikes his wife or girlfriend. This happens behind closed doors in any other country yet it seems to stand out more here. This and many other things, from starving kittens stacked on top of hamster cages in the market to food cooked in oil illegally processed from rotting animals are all part of the package that is China. Anyone’s first gut reaction is “Why doesn’t somebody do something?” Well, the culture requires you to mind your own business as “face” means a lot here, and calling attention to any person’s sordid activities would surely cause that individual to “lose face”, resulting in the snitch being perceived as an untrustworthy asshole. Oh, and the police won’t do anything.
These are more major things that are likely to turn someone off of a country. But then you go into the forums and see people complaining about the food, etc and how they are having a miserable time. The key is to simply accept a place for what it is. That doesn’t mean you’re condoning everything that the culture condones, liking every dish placed in front of you or letting something unsettling happen in front of you without weighing it with your personal moral code or asking questions about it. It’s seeing something, acknowledging that it’s different from back home, and realizing that it’s been that way for long while, that your complaining about it is probably not going to change anything.
Have No Expectations
When people travel and fail, it’s usually because they cannot or are not willing to accept the new reality that they should have already known they would inevitably be thrust into. If I went to Daqing expecting a Mexican place on every corner, likewise for coffee shops, for everything to be as clean as in the US and for people to carry themselves in the same way or else, then I would be on the first flight back home. I really and truly don’t understand some people that constantly complain about the country they’re traveling in. What did you expect? Why did you expect it? There are certain cultural systems in place no matter where you go and presuming your own to be found halfway around the world is some sort of arrogance, or at best, naivety. If you want to be a traveler, try to be informed before you embark, but never expect. It’s pretty counterproductive to your enjoyment.
On Looking the Other Way
People spitting in front of your shoes, parents helping their kids shit in the street and cars jockeying for the best piece of pavement with little to no acknowledgement of pedestrians is a fairly common commute in China. Of course these things are not exactly appealing to me, but I let it fade into the background because it’s fairly normal. What else am I going to do? Ask the old man to spit into a trashcan instead? Lecture parents on how to raise their child and on public health? Start directing traffic? These are the easy things to just ignore while enjoying the rest of the adventure. Then there are some things that invoke a visceral reaction in you, like the altercation we witnessed the other night. A fellow foreign teacher cursed out a Chinese teacher for striking a student (fairly common in Chinese public schools). There will be those things that we feel the human need to do something, but the key is figuring out when that is.
Enjoying the Rest
Accepting most of the bad with a simple nod while tiptoeing around it will give you a lot of room to enjoy everything else about your new home. I’m not saying ignore anything unsavory completely, because reflecting on those things adds to the collective experience as well. But if you can forget the fact that your delicious street food has a 10% chance of being cooked with gutter oil for just a second, it’ll make it that much better. Don’t ask yourself why in the hell someone is setting off a cherry bomb in the middle of the street at 11:00 AM; just enjoy the spectacle. Maybe suppress the “fuck off” that instinctively pops into your head after the tenth person of the day shouts “Hello!” at you from their car and try to smile back. If I’m going to be put on a pedestal in China (sometimes quite literally) then I might as well enjoy the attention.
Accepting a place makes all the difference between having the adventure of a lifetime and being the grumbling expat at the bar who seems to hate everything about the place he/she decided to move to.
As I report in from Daqing, China it sounds like a fucking war-zone outside. It has to be a holiday of some sort to justify the amount of fireworks going off, sometimes a few feet away without warning. Well, if there was a warning, my Mandarin skills are limited only to random food items and greetings. It’s one of several strange and interesting things that characterize my new home.
In fact, it’s been complete craziness since we’ve been here and I’ve had little to no time to write about it here. Lesson-planning actually takes a long while for us newbies, and as much as I love this blog and its audience, the little kiddies come first. That doesn’t by any means suggest that I’m lacking for material, and actually I’m being an asshole right now and just writing a teaser for several posts I know I’ll be writing in the future.
1. Chinese Food - Keanu Reeves once said, “Woah.” That’s exactly how I would describe the initial impression that Daqing’s food scene has left on my palate over the past couple of weeks. From barbeque - and not the North Carolinian variety - to the devilishly and delightfully spicy hot pot, the culinary options available here have already ruined American Chinese food for me. That said, there are some questionable things when it comes to food safety, and yes, sometimes the identification of what exactly is on your plate, i.e. is that beef actually beef.
2. Grocery Shopping - I wrote an article about shopping abroad awhile back, but China takes it to another level. Being completely illiterate in written Chinese will lead you to a land of supermarket mystery. The English signs in the shops will also provide you with hilarious spelling gaffes such as ‘Funtional Driks’. Then there’s the not so hilarious things like turtles stuck in a dirty aquarium wallowing in their own filth until they’re bought and eaten. As I’ve been told already about many a thing, welcome to China.
3. Staring And Other Weird Social Things - I briefly mentioned the staring in my last post. Yes, it’s completely justified, I suppose, as we are two of 60 foreigners in a city of 3 million. But still…this is like staring-into-your-soul staring. You break eye-contact for a healthy amount of time, but when you chance a look back they’re still staring right into your eyes. The only times that it really gets to me is when we’re in a restaurant and sweaty, shirtless middle-aged men are blatantly staring at my girlfriend and smiling creepily between cigarette drags. Culture and all that, but I will always perceive that as rude no matter where I am.
4. The Teaching - We came to China to teach English, so I suppose I should give you an inkling of what that’s like. We’ve just survived our first week and it actually went pretty well. I was definitely nervous at first, but throughout our one 8-hour day a week I had no choice but to fall naturally into the role of teacher. By the end of the week I was enjoying myself. The kids are so damn cute. The higher-level ones are amazing to the point that they could ask me why I came to China, etc. One really difficult thing for me is the special needs situation in China. Most of them go undocumented because parents would see that as ‘losing face’ (it’s a big deal culturally) so they push their child through without any accommodations. It sucks watching that unfold.
5. The Expat Community - As a foreigner, you’re in Daqing for two reasons: oil or teaching. It’s an eclectic group of people, and we all meet at one of two bars on the weekends. Kingsley’s has been open for 4 years and is owned by the man of the same name who has been teaching in Daqing for nearly 12 years. Orange Bar is so difficult to find that you need someone to take you there and knock on the door a certain way (I’m still trying to figure out if this is a joke or not). Because there’s so few of us, the community definitely gives off some familial vibes. After all, this isn’t Beijing or Shanghai where foreigners are a dime a dozen. This is Daqing, and everyone we’ve met so far - foreign or Chinese - has been nothing short of helpful.
There’s so much to write about that my journal’s margins are constantly getting filled up with strange observations, the best places to buy fruit and veg, Chinese characters for various things; documenting this experience has been overwhelming so far. From what I’ve seen, the teaching is only going to get better and as that happens I’ll probably post more regularly. Until then, look out for updates on Instagram and Twitter. Now I’m going to try to get some sleep and hope that our parking lot doesn’t become a launch pad for mortars during the night.
“You only truly own what you can carry at a dead run.”
This quote from an unknown wanderer is something to be embraced as you plan to move to another country for a long while. Of course I can’t fit suitable attire for teaching, winter wear that will help me a avoid loss of limb in -30F winters and all of my gadgets in a small daypack, but I still meditate on this philosophy that is as I prepare for my move to . What do I need, what do I need, what do I need…and what would be nice to have? That’s the order of operations when you pack for a year.
Deciding what to cram in that suitcase and the anxiety of leaving something out can make packing way more stressful than it needs to be. First of all, you really just need to think about what you get on with in your day-to-day life. Those will be the most vital things to throw in. Of course the reason for travel matters just as much. Your results may vary. I’m moving to a very cold corner of China to teach English for a year, so I’ll just quickly document how I’m tackling this challenge for my own situation. Adapt accordingly!
What to Bring
1. Purpose - Why are you traveling? I’m going to be a teacher. So right out of the gate, I know I need some business casual attire. I have about five shirts and two pairs of trousers that are appropriate for work. If I could pack patience, I would. Luckily the school will be providing most of the teaching materials so we won’t need to worry about that. I won’t be working constantly, so I’ve also got about five t-shirts and two pairs of jeans. I’m also traveling to China because, well, it’s what I do! Travel writing is starting to become less of a hobby and more of a second job to me, so my and laptop are the first two things in my bag.
2. Health - China is, er…infamous for having some dodgy products that slip through the cracks of government regulations. I want to have time to vet some of these products before I apply them to my face. Therefore I’m bringing a complete starter set of toiletries that will last me a couple months or so. So there’s my toothbrush and shaver (both rechargeable - environmental win!), deodorant, soap, toothpaste, and basic first aid. China is also known for air so thick with pollution that you can pick some of the larger particulates out of the sky with a pair of chopsticks. I’ve got the ubiquitous M3 masks for the worst days as well as a ton of vitamin D3 and Nyquil if they fail me. Everyone I’ve talked to said that I will get some respiratory ailment within two weeks of being there. Fun.
3. Climate - Heilongjiang Province is the most northern area of China, poking Siberia in the ass above it. It will get COLD. -24ºF in the winter. Suffice it to say, I have packed my warmest clothes and plan on buying an expedition-grade jacket when I get there. I now regret not getting one of these when I was in Iceland. The climate should always be on your mind as you’re packing. Not only will you be uncomfortable if you arrive unprepared, but depending on what you’re doing there, carelessness is dangerous. I can tell you firsthand that pondering the future use of your toes is not very fun.
4. Interests - When you’re packing you should try to include a few things to facilitate your interests and hobbies. Maybe an instrument, some watercolors or underwater basket-weaving supplies. I love to hike, so I’m at least bringing enough gear that would be appropriate for some day trips. I still design things from time to time - mostly t-shirts inspired by my adventures on Footloose Fabrics - so I’ve tossed in color and graphite pencils, sketchbook and my Wacom Bamboo tablet. I also run and do yoga in my free time, which would technically fall under health, but I’m also interested in them and like having somewhat symmetrical paragraphs. So yeah, yoga mat and running shoes.
How to Pack It
1. Compression - If you don’t have one of those bags that allow you to squeeze the air out of all your clothes, then you’re doing it wrong. These are so helpful because air really does waste space in your luggage, unless you’re trying to smuggle a cat in there. I buy them from Eagle Creek and they’re very easy to use. Put the clothes in, close it like a Ziploc bag and roll it up to push the air out of the bottom. It’ll cut the size of a big stack of clothes down by 50% or more. This way your clothes do not have to rule how you pack.
2. Layering - Okay, this is Packing 101. You should be mindful of everything you put in your bag, when you put it in and how you do it. I recommend starting out with one of the more bulky, frustrating shapes you’ll deal with: shoes. Next, put some of your smaller do-dads inside the shoes and build around them until you have an even layer of stuff that reaches the height of your shoes in the bag. Then you have a nice, flat area to stack your clothes, books, etc. on top of. ‘Playing Tetris’ is a big part of layering. Play this in the background for effect.
3. Precautions - You’ll notice in some of the photos that I learned to store liquidy things the hard way. Changes in air pressure and the oh so gentle treatment your luggage receives from the airline can result in a toothpaste bomb going off in your bag. Zip that shit up and sandwich it between your clothes so it doesn’t get smashed. Also, stuff gets stolen from time to time. Keep the more expensive, important things in your carry-on with you. I’d also recommend stuffing an extra change of clothes in there just in case your luggage gets lost (which you should definitely pony up the extra $50 to insure).
Well, not ‘goodbye’ to you guys. But tomorrow I leave the States, spend 29 hours in airport hell, and finally emerge from my cocoon of airline pillows and blankets in China. Less than 48 hours from now, I will be dead to the world in my new apartment in Daqing with my girlfriend - who I haven’t seen in four months - by my side. It’s a strange feeling that combines Christmas morning levels of excitement with a nervous anticipation of experiencing the inevitable culture shock in addition to being completely burnt out.
I also sense that this will definitely be the advent of a new chapter for Spartan Wanderer. So far, I’ve been to some pretty vanilla countries, so to speak. Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and England may be different from the US in several ways…but this is frickin’ China! For a year! Whatever happens, it’s guaranteed blog security. Thanks for joining me for the journey so far, and you can bet your ass that there are going to be some interesting stories on here over the months to come.