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Why I Feel Like I'm Winning Post Surgery

February 20, 2017
For the past month, I've been feeling really great compared to the months directly following my surgery.  I've noticed a big change in my health, even compared to a few weeks ago. I think back to the days right after my spinal fusion surgery and know that I've come a long way, so I want to highlight (and celebrate) some of my successes!

* I was able to travel for three weeks. Last fall, when it was time to book for our vacation during the Chinese New Year holiday, I almost didn't go anywhere because I didn't think I'd be able to keep up or sightsee. Why shell out tons of cash to have to rest in a hotel, right? That was my fear, anyway. I talked to Rachael about it, and she reassured me about the trip we had in mind, which was a private guided tour throughout Morocco. She promised that she wouldn't mind resting or going on some excursions alone if it came down to it. I decided to at least try it because I didn't like the idea of staying behind in Shanghai alone during the cold and polluted winter. Once I went on my trip to Sanya over Christmas, my confidence in my health was boosted a bit more. As for our time in Morocco, I'm thrilled to say that I was able to do almost everything on the entire tour. I even surprised myself with how much I was capable of. Rachael wears a Fitbit, and some days we were walking 8,9, and 10 miles! Rachael told me that it was almost like I wasn't injured. The times we had to slow down for me were really few and far between, such as when we walked up a hill on the top of Chefchaouen to see a view of the city. Distances don't seem to be an issue, but steep steps are still a bit hard. However, with a little extra time and a patient travel buddy, I was able to push through...I'm glad I did because just look at that view.

View of Chefchaouen
* I solo-traveled for a bit. Sort of. Rachael had to leave Spain early to go to San Francisco, but I stayed behind in Sevilla for a few days alone. I was kind of nervous about that, but again everything ended up being okay. Truthfully, I am not currently interested in any future solo travel trips, but if push came to shove and something happened where I had to be on my own, I know that I could probably handle it.

* My back brace wasn't a necessity for the first time ever. I've had to wear a back brace every day since my surgery. Yesterday I woke up and went to leave to  get my nails done, and I had forgotten to put my brace on! Believe me, that is a huge improvement because even last month there is no way I would have forgotten to wear that brace. I would have felt the difference right away.

* I rode a camel in the Sahara Desert. The big question on my trip to Morocco was what to do about our desert tour. We were supposed to ride camels for a few hours in the desert, get to our camp, and spend the night in the Sahara desert. Of course I really wanted to do this, but didn't know if it would be too painful for me to handle. Our guide suggested I get on the camel and try for 10 minutes or so just to see. A short time on the camel ended up being just fine. We went on the camels for about 20 minutes, stopped and watched the sunset, and then took the camels back to our riad, which was about another 15 minutes. Even though we couldn't spend a night in the desert, I don't feel too bad because I was still able to enjoy what was probably the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen in my entire life.

* There is suddenly more time in the day. Right after my surgery, I was sleeping so much. Of course that makes sense because I had some major healing to do. Now I'm finding that I'm back on a regular schedule. While sometimes I might require a bit more sleep, it's nothing like it was before. I was working and then sleeping from 4:30 pm until 6:45 am the next day and still felt like that wasn't enough! Without all that time spent sleeping, I'm able to have hobbies again, which is so important to me.

* My x-rays all looked good according to the specialist. Right before I left for Morocco, I had to go back to the hospital I had my surgery at for a check up. Since in most Chinese hospitals appointments aren't a thing, I had to wait for four hours to see my surgeon who wrote an order for me to get x-rays. At least 200 people were in front of me in line, which is what happens when you live in a city with a huge population like Shanghai. After a few more hours of waiting, I was able to get my x-rays. I was incredibly nervous for the result, as sometimes the hardware moves and has to be removed. I also wanted to know about the bone growth. The doctor that saw my x-rays told me that everything looked good! The hardware in my back was perfectly placed and while I'm not fully fused, I am headed in the right direction. 

* I am able to recognize signs of PTSD in myself. Why is this a win? Well, I know that sometimes I'm being irrational in my thinking and can call it like it is. Now I try to change the way I think before I panic. There has been research on PTSD on those who have had spinal fusions, and the articles I've read say it happens to about one in five patients. The statistics actually made me feel better to know that I'm not alone.  

* I'm adjusting to the new normal. My body is retrained now, and I know which movements to avoid. Right after the surgery there were many new and strange sensations in my back that I'd never dealt with before. It has been about 10 months since my surgery, so I'm better about knowing how to move myself so that I can do simple tasks like putting my shoes on. Picking something up from the floor is still hard, but at least it's possible because I know how to move in a way that causes me the least amount of pain. 

* Even my students have made remarks on my progress and how I carry myself. I really feel like my trip to Morocco was a pivotal turning point for me. I didn't see my students for over a month, but this past week many of them have commented on how they think I'm healed! If they're pointing it out, it must really be noticeable. 

* This week I went out three times! I mean out-out, as in three nights out on the town. It just so happened that there were some birthday celebrations I could not miss. It's just funny that I went out more times in one week than I did the whole entire last semester. I feel like I am getting my life back!  Not that I want to have lots of big nights out all time time, of course. I'd much rather have a busy day exploring Shanghai, and I think it's going to be possible. 

I hope that these gains continue to keep happening! I've accepted that my back is never going to be the same as it was before the surgery, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy life. I will respect my limitations but also won't hold back on what I can actually do. 

How are you winning at life these days? 

Anecdotes About Cultural Differences

February 7, 2017
Lately, I've run into a few surprises while living abroad in China and while traveling through Morocco and Spain. I thought it might be fun to do a little write up on what exactly I've come across recently and explain how I ended up with a cultural lesson.

In China- I told my Chinese friend happily that my year of bad luck was over because it's the Year of the Chicken, which is my zodiac animal. She informed me that actually it was the opposite, and when it's your year that you have to be extra careful because it's like a curse is on you. I couldn't believe it! She said it's true and that Chinese people wear red and jade to drive away the bad luck. I like reading about astrology and the zodiac for fun, but am just slightly superstitious about being cursed this year. I guess I have an excuse to buy some jade jewelry, right? 

In China again- I was walking down the street I walk on most frequently in Shanghai. It's the street that my school is located on. My friend Lauren needed to stop and use the ATM to withdraw cash. As I was waiting for her, something appeared to have fallen from the sky and hit me on the head. I was startled and a bit horrified as I pulled a wrapper from some type of food out of my hair. There were even a few crumbs from the food wrapper stuck in my hair. Someone was in an upstairs apartment and just carelessly threw his or her trash out of the window, and it happened to fall right on me. I've never had that happen before, but now I'm going to be more wary when standing by apartment buildings. Please check out this article for more information on littering in China--it's very interesting on how they're now using DNA to shame people who litter!

In Morocco- Our tour guide Hassan told me that he was 35 years old. A few days later he mentioned that he was 37, and I brought up how he told me that he was 35 earlier that week. He said he had a birthday during our trip and laughed, so Rachael and I told him that would make him 36, and we were wondering why he said he was 37. Later on during the trip, Hassan told us that he was a Berber nomad and when he was younger he had no official papers from the government of Morocco. Later on, when he did get papers, no one was sure of when he was born or how old he actually is, but they had to write something down. The numbers are basically made up and not super accurate. Even he doesn't know his own birthday or how old he truly is. His parents don't know either. 

In Morocco- The touching. I've never been to a place where the men have touched me so much. Strangely enough, Rachael did not seem to encounter this problem. Maybe I'm tall so I stick out more? I'm not someone who particularly likes being touched in general, let alone by strangers. It took me awhile to get used to the fact that it might reoccur, and it did a few more times. Don't get me wrong--I still totally loved Morocco, but I can't say this was my favorite aspect of the trip. 

In Spain- I'm in Sevilla right now, which is the land of tapas including jamón. Now, I'm not a big meat eater and get squeamish sometimes over meat. In fact, in Morocco, Rachael and I ate vegetarian meals 99% of the time, and I used to be a vegetarian for three and a half years. Now I eat some meat, but not very frequently. I did want to try jamón because it's so famous here and the slices are thin which appealed to me more. Tonight when I went out to a local cafe, I did a double take because I noticed that there was an entire pig's leg hanging up, hoof and all. That's where the meat was coming from--I guess you can't say it isn't fresh. It really shocked me to see that at first especially because I have mixed feelings about eating meat in the first place, but now I see the legs everywhere and am more used to it.

In Spain- I went out to eat and started chatting with an Irish lady who had just spent a month in Sevilla. Both of us were talking about our mutual like of the city and culture here. She brought up how the locals rarely seem to be on their phones during a meal and how people here are more present/have better manners. As we looked around the cafe, sure enough, several tourists were on their phones, but the locals were talking to each other. I know that I'm guilty of getting wrapped up in looking at my phone, especially when it comes to looking Instagram. Now that I noticed the difference, I'm going to try harder to make a better effort to stay off of my phone when out with friends.

What has surprised you about another culture lately? I'm curious to know!

Crying: My New Favorite Pastime

February 6, 2017
I don't know what's going on exactly, but it seems like lately my emotions are getting the best of me. Maybe it's because my surgery and (still ongoing) recovery last year opened the floodgates. Maybe it's because I've been influenced by Rachael, who describes herself as a "very emotional" person. Or, maybe it's because I'm just more appreciative of the little things after being cooped up for months on end. I would say it's a bit out of character for me, but I think this is becoming a part of my personality now. I don't really consider this problematic because it's not like I'm only crying because I'm upset.

For example, yesterday was a gorgeous, sunny Sunday in Sevilla. As I was taking a Sunday stroll, I started feeling nostalgic about the two years I lived in Europe. I remembered how on Sundays everything was shut down, so I spent a lot of quality time with my friends and the family that I worked for. That caused me to take a big trip down memory lane, and then I heard some performers start playing some beautiful classical music. At that moment, I started tearing up because while I've always wanted to live in Europe, it became clear to me on this trip that I don't want to live anywhere else. This realization made me more determined to get out of debt so that I can make this possible! After all, wanting to teach in Europe was one of the main reasons I went back to school to pursue a Masters in Education. Life happened, and I think I lost sight of that, but now it's back on my radar and I'm going to try to take the necessary steps for this to actually occur. But yeah, I basically started crying in the street because I realized how well Europe suits me. This is one love affair that's going to be lifelong. 

The second stop on my crying journey has to do with this Facebook group I joined for those who suffer from back problems and for people who have also had spinal fusions like me. When I read some of those posts, it just sickens me because I REALLY feel for those people who are posting with major problems. So many people have lost their jobs or have been fired for "other reasons" (not true!). Some have had to apply for disability because their surgeries went wrong, and they can't live a normal life, let alone work. Many have had to get lawyers and really fight hard for years to get approved for disability pay. A lot of people are not in a good spot financially because they can't work or they are drowning in medical bills. People have lost their homes, their jobs, and sometimes even their spouses who do not want to shoulder the burden of this massive surgery. Some patients are worse off after the surgery--I read about a woman becoming paralyzed and she is now in a wheelchair where she will likely remain for the rest of her life. So, I not only cry for them, but selfishly and with a guilty conscience, I also cry with relief for myself knowing full-well how it could have been me and isn't.

Are you ready for crying example number three? If you've been following me on Instagram, you'll know that I spent thirteen days traveling through Morocco. I signed up for a thirteen day tour, so it was clear all along how many days I would spend in Morocco. At the end of my amazing trip, I started feeling extremely sad about leaving and was fighting back tears as Rachael and I said goodbye to our guide, Hassan. I don't do well with endings, and this one was an exceptionally sad one because who knows if I'll ever make it back to Morocco? 

The next crying episode is kind of funny. When Rachael and I arrived in Spain, we desperately wanted to go shopping because in Shanghai, we are limited in what we can wear and buy since sometimes our favorite products are not always available in China. Also, we are both tall and curvy girls, so what fits the average Chinese woman will not fit us. We went into a department store called El Corte Inglés and were ecstatic to see tons of products/brands that we just don't have in China. Even some of the products that we ARE able to buy were much cheaper in Spain. While we were looking at all of the makeup, we both were so deliriously happy that we started to cry a little. It might sound silly, but that day was really something we both kind of needed. I didn't get body shamed once, and I was able to try on clothes and have stuff fit me. For the first time in a long time, I felt normal. 

Then there's the crying related to political drama because let's face it, there's lots to be upset about especially when it comes to education. 

The final time I recently cried was when I saw flamenco dancers in Triana. For the performance I watched, there was a man playing guitar, a woman singing, and both a male and female dancer. The dances and music that accompanied them were just so passionate and powerful that again, my eyes were brimming over with tears. Never underestimate the power of art.

So, this was kind of a strange post. Out of everything I could have written about, I chose to write about crying--kinda weird, but please don't tell me that or else I'll probably cry again. Or, all of a sudden I might have a sudden onset of "bad allergies," which will be my future excuse to cover up this constant crying. ;) 

When was the last time you cried? Do you think crying is therapeutic?

Seeking Sunshine (and Reassurance) in Sanya

January 23, 2017
One good way to figure out places to go to in China is to ask my co-workers about some of their past trips. A few people mentioned going to Sanya, recommending it as a cheap getaway from Shanghai. Sanya has been dubbed "the Hawaii of China," and is quite popular among Chinese and Russian tourists. After my spinal fusion surgery, I wanted to ease back into traveling, so I knew going to Sanya was a good pick. Warmer weather is good for the hardware in my back--cold places can make it really painful.  (Thank goodness I went to Harbin last year. With the freezing temps, there's no way I could've handled that this year!)  I also figured that if I had issues with my back that we'd be at a resort, so I could just lie by the pool and read while the others went to the beach. Thankfully it did not come to that, and I could keep up pretty well. Definitely not like a normal person, but not too slow.

I went with my friends Rachael, Steven, and Kelcey. When I went to go meet Kelcey, I was walking down the stairs of my apartment and started to have a panic attack. Can you blame me? The last time I tried to travel in China, I ended up being flown back on a stretcher and needing major back surgery. I thought of walking back upstairs and not even going. I didn't know if I'd be able to handle it, and my back was doing better, so what if I couldn't make it through the long flight? What if sitting for so long messed something up? What if I injured myself on the trip? Luckily, I talked myself out of canceling my trip, and then Kelcey reassured me saying that I was with good people who would all be willing to help me.

The flight to Sanya was nerve-wracking at first, especially because I am not a good flier anyway. It's about a three and a half hour flight from Shanghai to Sanya, and I didn't know if I could bear sitting for that long. Everything ended up being okay. My friends helped me with my carry on, it was a pretty smooth flight, and I just made sure to get up as much as I could. Once I arrived in Sanya, I just felt a million times better. I accomplished something in that I got over part of my fear! I was able to go to a new place without a major incident!

We went directly to the Cactus Resort which was located right by Yalong Bay. Yalong Bay is considered to be one of Hainan Island's nicest beaches, and there was a complimentary shuttle provided by our resort that could take us directly there.

All of us were pretty much on the same page with staying at the Cactus Resort. The rooms were a bit run down, but we didn't pay that much, so we kind of got what we paid for. It wasn't a horrible place by any means, but all of us would have rather paid more and gotten a better place. If you do go to Sanya, I recommend staying at one of the two Pullmans on the island. Another group of our co-workers also happened to have booked a trip to Sanya at the same time as us, and they were quite pleased with the Pullman Sanya Oceanview. We left for a day trip one day to visit them, and had to agree that we wished we would've stayed there, too.

The weather was a bit rainy on our first day, but it cleared up and we had some really nice weather for the rest of our trip. It warmed up and stayed in the low 80's for our last few days, so we got two sunny beach days in. The beach was really clean, and the water was surprisingly warm. The first day, I struggled getting into the water, but I tried to go in by myself and probably shouldn't have done that. The waves were knocking me around and at one point I was flopping around by the sand struggling to get up and some Chinese tourists were taking pictures of me, so that was lovely. The next day, Steven offered to go in with me, and it was totally fine. The water wasn't as choppy, and I think just having Steven standing there gave me the moral support I needed to calm down and go into the water independently.

It was just nice to be out of Shanghai and to get a break from life in a big city. The semi-tropical environment really didn't hurt, either. There were plenty of flowers and palm trees and other sorts of greenery--it was just a lush place in general. We took in the blue skies and marveled at how the air was breathable, a real luxury for us considering that there's an airpocalypse in Shanghai fairly often every winter.

We had a relaxing trip, enjoyed each other's company, went out to eat at different restaurants on the island, and had some down time to watch movies, too. We had a mini-photo shoot by the I Love Sanya sign, which was pretty fun. Kelcey called it "very edgy," but I don't know about that, ha ha.

On Christmas Eve, we joined the other girls at their hotel for a buffet dinner. It was 500 RMB for all you could eat/drink (including booze), and entertainment was provided. There was a stage and we got to watch various singers and dancers perform. A raffle (or as they say here "a lucky draw") was going on as well, but none of us were lucky enough to win anything.

The main reason why I guess I'm even writing about this trip is because it was pivotal for me. It gave me more confidence because I saw that I COULD travel again, even though now it's not the same as before. My friends all thought I did really well, but they agreed that I should probably choose my future destinations carefully and told me I should probably try to keep traveling with friends. They all carried my bags at one point and also helped me put my sandals on since I'm not supposed to bend.

Sanya ended up being a very important trip in my life. After struggling with being able to walk for so long, I really thought I would maybe have to give up traveling altogether, which was terrifying for me, as it has always been a huge part of who I am. This trip made me see that I AM capable, so onwards and upwards!

Have you ever taken a trip that changed the way you think about yourself?

Being Appreciative

January 16, 2017
Some of my lowest moments in life were hit this year due to challenges I've been facing with my health. Recently, I've been doing a bit better. I'm about 7.5 months into my very long recovery from my back surgery and am finally feeling a bit triumphant seeing how I was able to travel for the first time since before my operation. I started thinking about how grateful I was that I could go somewhere again, and then I thought in an effort to stay positive that it might be nice to compile a whole list of what I'm grateful for. So what am I thankful for lately?

* The ability to travel- After this was taken away from me, travel is something that I will never take for granted ever again. I was very leery to get on a plane and go somewhere new because of what happened to me the last time I traveled. I had an intense (but not unfounded) fear that maybe I couldn't handle the trip I had planned, but I just spent three and a half days wonderful days in Sanya, China for the Christmas holiday! The way I travel now must be done differently to accommodate my needs, and I had friends helping me the whole time. Just to be able to leave Shanghai again was a major accomplishment in itself. Travel means a great deal to me and is a major reason why I decided to live and work in Shanghai, so to have that back was the best Christmas present I could've asked for.

* That my surgery was successful- I joined a spinal fusion support group on Facebook, and it was eye-opening for me. I haven't been able to talk to others who have gotten my surgery, so being a part of this group is a helpful reminder that I am not alone. Even though I went through my own personal hell for some time, I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones!  I feel so awful for some of the people in that group because many of them are still in a lot of pain and some of them had surgeries that failed. I couldn't even imagine going through all the trauma and expense of a major surgery only to be in worse pain. One woman is paralyzed and says she will be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. 

* Friends and acquaintances who help me- People have still been so kind to me. Even the small things have added up to make a huge difference, like a co-worker offering her chair to me so I could sit down at a meeting. The girl who lives across from me offered to lift my water because she knows I can't. My friends who went to Sanya with me had to help me carry my backpack and suitcase. I really don't like asking for help, so when people offer it's a big relief!

* Getting asked back- Not all the teachers at my school will get asked to stay for another year. I was worried that maybe because of my bad health that the school wouldn't want me, but they do. My boss even mentioned to me how she really hoped I could stay at the school for a third year.

* Receiving very warm Christmas wishes from my students' parents- Some of my students' parents personally messaged me on We Chat or students gave me a card or gift. I care a lot about my class, so it's nice to know that the feeling is mutual.

* Still getting invited to events- Gosh, if I were some of my friends, I would have probably given up with the invites. I have turned down SO many invitations this year that I'm genuinely surprised people still ask me to anything at all. I'm so glad that I'm still getting asked to stuff because on the rare occasion, I do go! I want to go to a lot more events than I capable of attending. I'm getting there, though. Hopefully next semester will be better than this one!

* For time off- I have about three and a half weeks off of work coming up here soon. There aren't many jobs out there that offer a paid vacation for that amount of time, so I will be making the most of it!

* Getting better- Even though sometimes it is hard to notice my day-to-day progress, I do have to be cognizant of how far I've come. As my friend Lauren said, "Remember when you first tried to walk? You were really unstable, and look at you now. You have to keep in mind that you're still healing." I'll readily admit that I'm impatient, so when I'm having some frustrating moments, I need to remember that I'm still on the road to recovery. Recently, I started walking to the cafeteria again with my students, so that was a big milestone for me.

* Being able to pay off debt- I still owe my dad quite a bit of money for my surgery, but in the past few months I paid off $6,000 worth of debt! That's pretty impressive for someone who couldn't even walk in May. Thank God I can work full time again. Trust me, I am fully aware that there are those who cannot work at all, so I know I'm fortunate.

* Having people that still read my blog- I haven't been posting regularly, but it's nice to know that a few of you keep checking back. Thanks! <3

* Good books- I just read And the Mountains Echoed, and it was nothing short of amazing. I love all of Khaled Hosseini's work. He is such a brilliant storyteller, and every time I open one of his books I get sucked in for a few days. He knows how to make his audience care about the characters, that's for sure. Also, reading is a hobby that doesn't hurt my back, so there's that too!

* Funny and gifted students- My students are so adorable and being around them just puts me in a good mood! (Most of the time, ha ha.) They're always telling me jokes, stories, or just being silly in general. I got their MAP results back, and it confirmed what I've always thought. I'm working with some of the best and the brightest kids out there. I consider myself lucky to be their teacher.

* Coziness- Fuzzy socks, fleeces, duvets, hot soup, and warm drinks are pretty much the best on these cold winter days.

* The food scene in Shanghai- I love the mix of restaurants and types of foods that are available here!  There are lots of big cities in China, but not all of them have such a wide range of restaurants. I can have Mexican one day, Chinese food the next, then some French food, or maybe Spanish, Italian, Thai, or Japanese food. It's all possible here!

What are some positive things going on in your life right now?