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Useful Apps to Download for China

January 27, 2016
I've lived in China since August, and have to say that the apps listed below have made my life in China a whole lot easier! If you're going to China for more than a month, the apps below are worth a download. Some of them are likely to be helpful for shorter trips, too. 


1) Express VPN- A lot of the internet sites I use daily are blocked in China, such as Twitter, Instagram, Google, and Facebook. The way to access them, of course, is by buying a VPN. For China, Express VPN came highly recommended. Truthfully, my friends who have Astrill are always complaining that they cannot connect. I bought a year's subscription to Express VPN for $99.95, and that allows me to use my VPN on two devices. Click here if you're interested in signing up with my referral link. By signing up through me, there is no extra cost to you, and we will both earn one free month of the service. For me, this was 1,000% worth the money, since I have a long stay in China. If you'll just be making a short trip, I can see how you would forego signing up. 

2) Skype- This app is useful when I have to make calls to the States. I've asked around about where I can buy calling cards, but everyone just recommends adding credit to a Skype account in order to call home. I'm NOT a big Skype person, and prefer to stay connected to friends back home using different medians, but having this app came in handy for me when I had to sort stuff out with my bank.

3) We Chat- We Chat is HUGE in China. When I first arrived and asked about a text messaging plan, the guy that sold me my phone said, "Oh, we don't actually have a plan for text messaging because Chinese people just use We Chat." I've yet to meet a Chinese person who doesn't have a We Chat account, and it certainly proves helpful to get in contact with other expats, to write my Chinese co-teacher, and to stay in touch with my friends and family back home. I made a few of my closest friends download it, and my sister and I message each other through We Chat on a regular basis. The best thing about We Chat is that you can create group chats, so it helps me stay organized at school since I'm in various chats with the other teachers. It's also ideal for my social life, since I get invited to events and outings via We Chat groups.  A friend of mine visited China for a few days, and it was useful to him because he could just access it by using his hotel's wifi, so it didn't cost him any extra money to contact others already in China. 

4) Pleco- I'll readily admit that my knowledge of Chinese is pretty much non-existent, save a few words and phrases. This app has saved me many times because I just type in the English word, and it translates it into Chinese for me. Of course, usually I don't know how to pronounce the word that comes up, but luckily, with this app, I'm able to play it out loud. It just helps me out in order to find what I'm looking for in stores! 

5) Airpocalypse- This app is actually one of my faves! Ever since the air pollution started affecting me and making me sick, I'm constantly checking this app to see what the air quality is in Shanghai. The pollution levels are updated frequently, so I always look at this app before going outside to see whether or not I need to wear my mask. It has a list of major Chinese cities on it, so I like seeing how Shanghai is doing in comparison. The app is also a bit snarky, which I find a bit entertaining. It will say things like, "Meh" or "Only in China is this normal" when describing the air. If being healthy is one of your priorities, you may find this app to be helpful. 

Another app that a lot of expats in Shanghai use is Smart Shanghai. It's not comprehensive, but it has a list of places to go to around Shanghai. All you have to do is type the name of the place you're looking for and the address will come up in Chinese. This app has saved me a countless number of times when taking taxis. I'm also not going to complain about the map function!

What are some apps that you find useful?

Bloggers I've Met in Real Life

January 22, 2016
It's strange how blogging can bring people together. When I started blogging over three years ago, I never thought I would have made the connections I did! Here a compilation of stories that describe how I ended up meeting several bloggers over the past few years.


1) Rachael @ The Rachael Way- Back in 2013, I became friends with a girl named Courtney who used to blog. Rachael ended up becoming Courtney's "Big" for the Bigs and Littles Blogging Network. While the two of them were messaging back and forth, Rachael mentioned a blogger meet up she was organizing in Cleveland with Jess @ Healthy is Happy. I had also seen a post about it on Jess's blog, so Courtney and I talked about potentially going. I was nervous, but both of us went for it, and that's where I met Rachael. We instantly became friends and because of her, I'm now teaching in China! I'm so glad I ended up going to that meet up because Rachael is seriously one of my closest friends! We have a lot in common because we're both teachers, bloggers, and love to travel. Over the summer, we took an epic trip to New York City, Iceland, and Boston and by the time this post is published, we'll be in the Maldives together! I don't say this about many people, but I think Rachael will be a lifelong friend.

Favorite Posts by Rachael: My Biggest Fear, The Best Travel Experiences in China, A Mini Travel Guide to Shanghai, I Gained 8 Pounds and a New Perspective

Follow The Rachael Way: Twitter, Instagram, Bloglovin



2) Rachel @ Small Towns and  City Lights- I discovered Rachel's blog sometime last year and had been following along. When Rachael and I were talking about going to BlogHer, Rachael mentioned that Rachel was also going to be there. We ended up meeting up at the closing party, sponsored by McDonald's. Rachel was genuinely nice and liked to talk about travel with us! Then, we got serenaded by Boyz II Men and had some spiked lemonade. I think all of us had a great time, and hopefully we will be able to meet  up one day at another blogging convention.

Favorite Posts by Rachel: A Day of Bavarian Castles, Dad-Daughter Trip to Savannah, Georgia, 12 Reads for 2016

Follow Small Towns and City Lights: Twitter, Instagram, Bloglovin

3) Ashliegh @ The Darling DailyI met Ashliegh at the same Cleveland Blogger Meet Up that I met Rachael at. Ever since I met her, I've enjoyed following her adventures on her blog. Last year she got to travel all over Europe and worked as a nanny, and this year she's working in Colorado, a place I have always been interested in visiting. Another reason I like reading Ashliegh's blog is because she's stylish. Her fashion tips and outfit posts help inspire me!

Favorite Posts by Ashliegh: The Most Epic Worst Date Ever, 4 Seasons of Style: Utility Vest, Great American Road Trip

Follow The Darling Daily: Twitter, Instagram, Bloglovin



4) Taylor @ The Global Darling- Right before I left for Shanghai in August, I joined Girl vs. Globe, a Facebook group for female bloggers who travel. I remember there being a thread about China, and Taylor mentioned that she was moving to Shanghai right after me. Rachael, Taylor, and I decided to meet up one weekend to go for brunch at Egg. Later on, we visited Zotter's Chocolate Museum, and then we went on another outing to a Christmas market together. Right now Taylor is in the States, but I already can't wait for the next time we meet up! She is the only friend I have in Shanghai that isn't affiliated with the school I work for, and it's so refreshing to have a friend "off-campus" who gets that sometimes life abroad can be challenging but can also be very rewarding.

Favorite Posts by Taylor: Toto, I am Not in Santa Monica Anymore, Why I Left my Job as a Management Consultant, Turkey: Istanbul Reflections

Follow The Global Darling: Instagram, Bloglovin, Pinterest


5) Kaelene @ Unlocking Kiki- As soon as I discovered Kaelene's blog, I was hooked, but when I decided to take a trip to Iceland, Kaelene's blog served as an informative resource and helped me plan my trip! Thanks to her suggestions, I got to visit places in Iceland that I wouldn't have otherwise stopped at. When I was staying in Reykjavik, Rachael and I had a chance to meet up with Kaelene. She's just as awesome in person as she seems on her blog, and we chatted about Icelandic culture, blogging, and about risking it all to live abroad.

Favorite Posts by Kaelene: 10 Free Outdoor Activities To Do in Reykjavik, Iceland, 9 "Off the Beaten Path" Places in Iceland, Road Tripping Around North Iceland, Why I Like Living Abroad

Follow Unlocking Kiki: Twitter, Instagram, Bloglovin


6) Kate @ Another Clean Slate- If you've been blogging awhile, you might remember something called the Cara Box. If not, basically bloggers were matched with two partners to get to know for a specified amount of time. At the end, gifts were to be sent out to the person you were assigned. I ended up "meeting" Kate this way. When Rachael and I went to Boston this summer, we decided to check with Kate and see if she could have dinner with us, and luckily she was free. Kate is easy to talk to and really considerate. She even went out of her way and drove Rachael and I back to the place we were staying at. The three of us had a great meal, and then Kate took us to the bar featured in Good Will Hunting! When we met Kate, she was about to make a big life change and move from Boston to Texas! She detailed her road trip on her blog.

Favorite Posts by Kate: Showing You My Books, How to Enter Giveaways on Goodreads, So, That's Why it is Called a "Challenge" Walk

Follow Another Clean Slate: Twitter, Instagram, Bloglovin

I consider myself lucky to have met all of these ladies! Which bloggers would you like to meet?

Harbin, China: A Winter Destination

January 20, 2016
When I decided to live in Shanghai for a year, I knew that I wanted to try to make it out to Harbin in the winter to experience the Snow and Ice Festival, which is one of the biggest ice and snow festivals in the whole world and has taken place each year since the 1980's! The sculptures are made with blocks of ice from the Songhua River and it takes more than 15,000 people to carve the them, so you can see why going to Harbin in the winter has become a major tourist attraction.

Scott and I went to Harbin during Christmas, which was technically before the official opening date in January. Luckily for us, Harbin's Ice and Snow World opened earlier for "a trial run." The Ice and Snow World was really incredible this year and worth the 300 RMB ticket price (about $48 USD.) There are massive sculptures of famous landmarks from all over the world that you are able to climb on. We decided to go at night so that way we could see all of the sculptures lit up with vibrant colors.


When we went, there were men holding Arctic foxes so that tourists could pose with them, and then later Santa's sled pulled by real reindeer appeared. You could also ride in a horse drawn carriage, but I did not want to do any of these things because I'm not quite sure how the animals were being treated.

At first we felt okay underneath all of our layers, but after awhile the cold started to get to us and made our hands numb. Luckily, we were able to go inside and order some hot chocolate at one of the huts and warm up. We climbed up on some of the sculptures and got a good look at everything that had been completed in the park. Scott even went down an ice slide!



There is also a snow sculpture festival on Sun Island, but that was not yet open when we were in Harbin. Zhaolin Park has some snow and ice sculptures to see as well, but it looked a bit lame in comparison what we had just seen at the Ice and Snow World. Plus, if you walk down Central Avenue in Harbin, you are able to see more snow and ice sculptures for free, which was good enough for us.

Central Avenue is another must-do in Harbin. It's one of the main streets and was built by the Russians over one hundred years ago. No cars are allowed on it, which makes it a great spot to take a stroll. You can admire the architecture, shop for souvenirs, or grab a bit to eat at one of the many restaurants. We walked along this street each day we were in Harbin, as it was a fun, bustling spot.



Because of its location, there is a huge Russian influence in Harbin. Many Russians settled in Harbin, especially those who fled to China during the Bolshevik Revolution. The influence is still prominent, as there are plenty of Russian restaurants and souvenir shops. At our hotel, the other visible foreigners there were Russian, and we got spoken to in Russian several times.


Although most of the churches got destroyed in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, St. Sophia, a Russian Orthodox church, remains standing. Of course we went in and toured it. It was built in 1907, but the inside was damaged during the revolution, so to me it appeared much older. I think it is one of Harbin's most worthwhile attractions.



What winter travel destination is on your list?

2016 Goals

January 18, 2016

* Pay off at least one student loan. I feel like this is one of my goals every year! In recent months I have been able to put $600 towards the student loan I'm focusing on paying off. What's not encouraging is that it hardly made a dent, but I know I have to keep on making payments because the interest that is accruing on my loans while they sit is no joke.

* Save $5,000. I spent a lot of money from my savings to get to China in the first place, but we get bonuses at the end of our contract and a stipend for the cost of our airfare. I need to replenish the money I lost getting here.

* Explore more in China and in other countries. For traveling and sightseeing, I'd like to do everything on my China Must Do List as well as visit all the places on my Travel List.

* Wear a mask more often when it's polluted. I thought I could get away with not having a mask and that the pollution was tolerable, but in the winter months it really has been much worse. It's so bad that it's visible, my heart will start to race, I'm more prone to losing my voice, and I experience shortness of breath. I ended up buying a fancy mask to help protect myself when walking outside. The first few times I wore it my friends laughed at me, but if there's a possibility that the mask is actually blocking out some of the pollutants, I need to make a more conscious effort to put it on.

* Do a Blog Staycation. For this, I mean I would go to a hotel where the Wifi is decent (since it's not the best where I live) and then I'd like to re-vamp old posts, work on my travel page, delete some older posts that I feel aren't representative of my blog, and also make sure my signature matches in each post. This could take hours upon hours, but I think it's worth the investment to make those changes.

* Eat more fruit. While I have definitely cut down on the amount of desserts I've been consuming and get plenty of vegetables, my diet is severely lacking in fruit. I'm a little picky when it comes to fruit and I don't see the kinds of fruit I like here that often or else they're just super expensive. I do know something has to change because I don't feel healthy by only consuming minimal amounts of one of the major food groups!

* Try harder to meet people. Scott and I were talking and we feel like we're stuck in the little bubble of our school since we have to live on campus. I'd love to meet more people living in Shanghai and just branch out more.

* Read more blogs and interact more with other bloggers. Since I moved here and the internet often does not work well/at all, I've majorly cut down on the amount of time I read other blogs. I truly miss catching up on my favorite blogs and commenting on posts. Even though sometimes I can't control it, at other times I don't even bother trying to connect to the internet since it's so frustrating. (Yes, major first world problems, I know.) I'm going to try to be better with this.

* See my family in August. My niece recently turned one, and a whole year is going to pass without me being able to see her even once. I wasn't sure if I would be back to the States this summer because of the extra cost, but after coming to my senses I decided that I can't put a price on seeing my own family so I will definitely be going back.

How are you doing with your goals for 2016 so far?

Life Lately in Shanghai

January 4, 2016
December was a busy, busy month for me here in Shanghai. It seems like just about every weekend was booked, as well as many of my weekdays. I love that there is always something fun going on and am enjoying the perks of living in a big city.

Here were some of the highlights of what I've been doing recently:

* Rachael, Steven, and Scott and I have been going on "double dates." Well, Rachael likes to call them that, even though these aren't actual dates in any way, shape, or form. For our first meeting, we went out for Thai food and then went to a nail shop. Steven and Scott got massages while Rachael got a mani/pedi and I got eyelash extensions. Since all of us loved our first date, we decided to go on another one. I was randomly searching Shanghai related hashtags on Instagram and came across some gorgeous pictures of others' having high tea and the Waldorf Astoria, and asked the others if we could go there next. Everyone agreed, and we had a lovely experience sipping on tea and sampling the sweet and savory snacks in the beautiful Waldorf Astoria. The tea is served at Peacock Alley, which had tables off to both sides with a walk way in between. On the menu there is a little blurb about how the set up makes it the perfect place to "see and be seen."



* I participated in several gift exchanges and went to some holiday parties. The school gift exchange was obligatory, but I was actually glad to participate because I LOVE finding that perfect gift for someone else. Plus, not going to lie, but it was nice to have a few gifts to open around Christmas since I told people from back home not to mail me anything. I had the most fun at our friends gift exchange! The girl that had me even stalked my Instagram feed to figure out that I liked Pepperidge Farm cookies and then bought me some. So thoughtful!


* Rachael and I signed up for a craft class! I told Rachael that she is my fun friend because it always seems like we do (what we think is, ha ha) the coolest stuff. There were several classes to pick from, but we decided to carve our own rubber stamps and use them to decorate handmade Christmas cards. At first we were a little discouraged because it wasn't really a class at all...It was more like we were provided with the materials we needed to make the stamps. My first stamp didn't look good, Rachael cut her finger, and the two ladies next to us were pros. Once we got the hang of it, we started to enjoy ourselves a whole lot more. We also realized that the stamps looked way better on paper than we thought they were going to. I have always liked doing crafts, so hopefully we can go back and try something else. I saw that they have a class where you are able to make your own dream catcher! How perfect would that be for me? Too bad it is when we'll be away, but we'll keep checking back.

* I got to visit two Christmas markets in Shanghai. The first one was with Taylor and Rachael. Although we didn't buy anything, it was nice to catch up and of course have some mulled wine. The second Christmas market I went to was packed, but for good reason. There were so many booths filled with wonderful handmade goodies. I ended up getting a lot of gifts there and bought some handmade tassel earrings for myself. We also got some hot chocolate spiked with Baileys and sampled some German food.

Photo courtesy of Taylor
* Scott and I found a new bar we like! We were talking about how we only know a few places and seem to keep going back to the same ones, so Scott found a new spot for us to try called Chalet. They had a good deal on happy hour drinks, so we will be back!

* I shopped, shopped, and shopped some more. Most of this was for Christmas gifts, but I did by some things for myself in Marks & Spencer. My British friend recommended that I try mince pie, Percy Pig gummies, and Christmas pudding with brandy sauce, so naturally I picked up all them! I also got a dress made for the upcoming banquet, but it will be good to have the dress in my wardrobe for future fancy occasions.


* I had a blast at our school's Christmas banquet! It was a buffet and we also got unlimited beer and wine. They had a raffle (which is called Lucky Draw here) and I even won a block of cheese! (Cheese is expensive in China and those in charge know that many foreigners like it.) I had a really good time talking to my friends and co-workers. Afterwards, Scott and I went out dancing. I don't always like to dance, but I certainly had a little too much fun on the night of the banquet. :)


* I tried a gel manicure for the first and second time. Lauren knew of this little nail shop in Jing'An that can pretty much recreate any design you want for your nails. The first time I got some feathers, and the second time I got them to put real pressed flowers in between my layers of nail polish. They also have all sorts of pretty gems and beads!

This weekend I didn't have that many plans, but it was a welcome reprieve! I got to blog, watch The Originals,  have a movie night with my friends, go grocery shopping, read, and go out to eat. Even though I didn't do anything super exciting for New Year's,  I finally got some time to rest and relax which I really needed.

How was your holiday break and the time leading up to it?

Looking Back at 2015

January 1, 2016
Taking a look back at how my year started and comparing it to my life now is almost a complete 180. In all honesty, the start of 2015 was very rough for me. Happily, it ended well and my life here in China is better than I imagined it would be. Looking back, I know that I made the right choice to come to China and teach even if I had some doubts initially. 2015 was a year that brought about the right kind of changes for me. I feel like I'm finally out of the "rut" I felt stuck in for so long! 

January and February: Like I said, these were pretty dark months for me. I was constantly stressed because of my job and had very little free time. Also, I got a fairly large ankle tattoo and the end of December, and my ankle took about three weeks to not be swollen and puffy anymore! It wasn't infected, but it took a longer than expected amount of time to heal. During those three weeks I couldn't really move around well, so I didn't do much of anything. It seemed like as soon as my ankle got better that I started getting severe lower back pain and a shooting pain down my leg. I dealt with this problem until August of 2015, but it got so bad that I was walking with a limp and was in tears from the pain at the end of each day. 

The main positive in my life at this time was that I started becoming even better friends with one of the teachers that worked at my school. Since we had both moved down to South Carolina from the North and were both licensed first year teachers, we had a lot in common. We became pretty close, and I don't know what I would have done without her to confide in! She is one of those people that you could talk to for hours (and trust me, we did!) and was a great listener and just a stand up lady! 

The other amazing event going on at this time, was that my niece Sophia was born in early January and I became an aunt!! I was lucky enough to be able to make the drive to North Carolina and see her when she was still a newborn. 


March: The weather started getting better, and I promised myself that I would go out and try to enjoy life more. I did make it to Savannah's St. Patrick's Day festival, which is the 2nd largest celebration in the United States. It had been on my bucket list for a long time, and I got to experience that with two of my really close guy friends. 


I also took a ghost tour in Savannah, and even though Savannah was 45 minutes from where I was living, I tried to go there as much as possible. I also made it to Charleston one weekend and had a lot of fun with my Chinese co-teacher. 


The bad news was that I did get bronchitis from one of my 1st graders. I had a severe case and it took weeks for me to fully recover...Bad luck!

April and May: During April, I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I had already made it through most of the school year and was counting down the days until the end of the year. We also got a week off for spring break, so I went out and explored Bluffton for a bit.


April is also my birthday month, and I had a wonderful day out in Charleston with my bestie and his aunt. We went to Boone Hall, Kaminsky's Bakery, and to see the famous Angel Oak Tree. 


In May, it was warm enough to go to the beach, so I went three times this month! It was just what I needed to relax!


June: I made the best decision I could have possibly made for myself and quit my current job in order to teach in China. I have not looked back except for the times I have reoccurring nightmares about my old job and wake up in a cold sweat. (Sadly I am not joking!) I decided to move out of South Carolina ASAP and move back to Georgia with Everett and Jared for the summer. The hassle of moving was worth it. We went into Savannah a lot, went on walks, went swimming at Ev's aunt's place, watched Gran Hotel on Netflix, and just spent hours chatting and having tons of fun.  

I also visited my sister Denise in North Carolina for a week and got to see Sophia again. We mostly just relaxed and hung out, but we did go out and pick blueberries and made a day trip to Emerald Isle.

Right after my trip with Denise, my parents visited me in Savannah! I hadn't seen them all year, so it was nice to catch up with them. Plus, I got to be their tour guide in Savannah. I was surprised at how much I learned about the city from my trips into town and of course from my best friend who was born and raised there. My parents were impressed with the city even though we didn't get to everything I had planned for them. 


July: I drove back to Ohio for my first time in a year and stayed with my parents for a few days before I met Rachael at the Cleveland Airport so that we could fly to NYC together! We had an eventful few days in the city and even attended the BlogHer Conference. Right after New York City, we flew to Iceland and went on the most amazing road trip with Rachael's co-worker Nate and his friend, Jeff. 


Sadly, Jeff and Nate had to leave after our road trip, but Rachael and I spent a full two weeks in Iceland. I felt it was a good amount of time to explore. We got to go to the Blue Lagoon, went inside a volcano, I went inside a glacier while Rachael went scuba diving, we chilled and tried out quirky cafes and restaurants in Reykjavik, went on hikes, took a day trip to Snaefellsness Peninsula, and went horseback riding through lava fields. 



August: Right after Iceland, Rachael and I flew into Boston and spent a few days there. We did a Lexington and Concord historical tour and spent a day in Salem where I got an "interesting" psychic reading. The tour we took to Salem was with a guide named Bob, and he was seriously one of the BEST tour guides I have ever had! Rachael and I even felt a bit emotional when our day in Salem was over and we told him goodbye. Both of us highly recommend taking this tour, as Bob was born and raised in Boston and is a gifted storyteller. 


After Boston, I drove back to Georgia and spent a short amount of time with Everett and Jared in Savannah as a last hurrah. On one of my last nights out in Savannah, we went to The Shrimp Factory, walked around town, and stopped at Krispy Kreme.


I packed up all of my belongings, drove back to Ohio, and spent a few days at my parents' house so that I could do everything that I had to do before leaving for China. I flew into China to start the next chapter of my life. I met up with my close friend Scott, completed orientation, got my classroom ready, tried to adjust to living in Shanghai, and celebrated the start of the year at the annual banquet my school holds. I also found out that I would be teaching 1st grade again, which was my first choice!


September and October: We got to meet our students and start teaching! It's ridiculous how much I LOVE my class this year. I've been enjoying getting to know my students and am truly grateful for the class that I have!

There was a holiday in September, so Scott and I made the most of it and visited a water town called Zhujiajiao just outside of Shanghai. 


Then, we went to Yangshuo and Guilin for our October break. Yangshuo was exceptionally pleasant, and we got to go bike riding through the Chinese countryside. We also had so much fun taking a bamboo raft down the scenic Yulong River.


For the first time in a long time, I even celebrated Halloween and actually wore a proper costume! There was a celebration at school and then some of the teachers hosted a Halloween party that I went to. 

November and December: I stayed pretty busy during these two months and managed to go on two trips! The first one was to Xi'an to see the Terracotta Warriors with my friends Scott, Lauren, and Chris. 


Over Christmas, Scott and I went to Harbin so that we could check out its annual Snow and Ice Festival! The cold was worth braving in order to get a chance to see these incredible snow and ice sculptures like the one below.


In these two months, I also went to Zotter's Chocolate Museum with Rachael and Taylor, visited Jing'an temple, tried my first ever gel manicures, went to two Christmas markets, and had a fabulous time at our school's annual Christmas banquet. 



Although my year got off to a rocky start, I made it through the tough times, and it has been smooth sailing for me ever since June! I look forward to 2016 and everything that lies ahead.

Happy 2016! What was one of your best moments in 2015?