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An Honest Look at my Expat Life

July 25, 2016
This year has brought me some reality checks. One of those is that I'm starting to see the darker side of expat life. I guess I was very fortunate in the sense that I spent my first five years living abroad not looking back at all. My life was pretty carefree life in general. Yes, sometimes I would miss my family and friends, but everyone was healthy, and we had time to catch up when I got home. Not being able to have regular visits with those close to me seemed like a small price to pay compared to all I had gained and achieved by living abroad. In France and Italy, I was learning the languages. While working in Korea, I was able to pay off my undergraduate debt and travel extensively. In China, I was loving my job as a teacher and was taking advantage of the perks that big city life has to offer. I've learned about various cultures, made so many international friends, and have had incredible experiences that I would have missed out on if I had just stayed at home in the States.

I know now that I am going through a trying time here in China because of health issues that are beyond my control, but I've just been thinking that this year hasn't been quite the same as past years. I'm not trying to say that I don't appreciate expat life anymore and that I want to immediately jump ship and go home, but I'm just saying that certain events and circumstances have taken a bit of a toll on me. Simply put, living abroad this year hasn't been as easy for me as it has been in the past.

My sisters and I always promised each other that if/when we had kids that we would be an active part of their lives. This stemmed largely from the fact that we barely know our own cousins. It wasn't due to any family drama or anything, but it was just because of the physical distance between us and them. My niece is about one and a half, and I was able to visit her twice before coming to China, but in the past year, we haven't been able to see each other. I was consoled by the fact that my whole immediate family would be able to be together again this summer, but now that isn't going to happen because of the emergency back surgery I had to have. If my niece saw me now, I doubt she would even be able to recognize me, and that's exactly the kind of "toll" I'm talking about. 

When I ended up hospitalized here in China, that was the scariest life event I've ever had to face. Most of the time I felt like I had no idea what was going on with my health. I had to fight hard, become an advocate for myself, and trust me, the ordeal isn't over yet. I'm still having to question the doctors about what I've been told regarding my condition. (More on this in a future post.) Lying there in that hospital for weeks on end, I began to wonder if I would ever be able to walk again or if my pain would ever go away. In these hard times, my family wasn't able to be physically present. Trust me, I am not blaming them, but I won't lie and say it was an easy situation to handle without them. I had to rely on my friends, other teachers, and sometimes even strangers to help me. While I'm beyond grateful for their help, it's just not quite the same as having a family member there. I couldn't help but feel the absence of someone who would be there for me unconditionally. I feel like my recovery would be going better now if I were able to be around loved ones rather than be here alone most of the time. Mentally, I felt like I needed their support and encouragement, and not having that really tested me.

Last week I found out that my grandmother passed away. Her funeral was yesterday, and I was unable to attend because I am dealing with an ongoing complication from the surgery. Even without the complication, I would likely still be unable not to fly home. I'm only supposed to sit up for 20 minutes at a time, so there's no way I could handle a 13 hour flight back to the States, plus layovers and transfers. It was just very upsetting to me that I didn't have a choice in the matter and could not attend my own grandma's funeral in order to grieve with my family. She was there for me so many times in my life, and in the end, I felt like I couldn't be there for her. On top of that, this particular grandma and I had a very special relationship. My sisters told me I was "the favorite," so to not be there was extra hard for me to handle this week on top of everything else. I just try to tell myself that if my grandma were aware of the situation, she would understand and would not want me to risk hurting myself so soon after my surgery. She always encouraged my travels and even told me she had a "shrine" for me in her house, which was a glass table that opened up, and on the inside she had placed the post cards and souvenirs I'd sent her from all over Europe and Asia. Take this and pair it with not being able to leave my apartment/not having friends come because they're all on holiday, and you'll come up with my lowest point as an expat.

Does this mean I wish I'd never come to China? No, because it's not like I could have predicted these unfortunate events. They would have been hard for me to handle in the States, too. I'm also not saying I'll just be done living abroad forever because that's not the case, either. These types of situations just make me think hard about some of the disadvantages of being an expat. Besides missing people from back home, my biggest problem in past years was probably something trivial like, "I miss cheese in Asia." (Okay, so that's not totally true. I did struggle to make friends at first when I lived in Italy.) Nevertheless, before all of this happened, the balance was tipped heavily in favor of me being abroad. However, to be able to stay here happily, I just need to know that the positives of living and working abroad still outweigh the negatives for me personally. If they ever cease to do so, that's when I know it will be time to leave. At this point, I would be lying if I said everything was rainbows and butterflies, and I'd say that I'm 50-50 on staying/leaving. I do acknowledge that this has been an exceptionally trying time for me, and have to believe that things are only going to get better. I've been put through the ringer, but I'd like to think that the worst is over.  I also am trying to remember what a mind blowingly awesome year I had up to the end of April. My next contract starts at the end of August, and I'm just going to have to take it from there and see how the year goes because the answer for this isn't just cut and dry. I'm starting to see the double edged sword for the first time. Something I am sure of is that whether I'm living abroad or at home, I'd like for travel to continue to be a huge part of my life. That will never change, although my taste for expat life might.

I've never truly struggled as an expat to the extent I'm struggling now. If you're an expat, what has been hard for you? How do you overcome it?

Top 5 Blogging Moments

July 20, 2016
I've been hobby blogging now for a few years, so I thought I'd highlight some of my top moments as a blogger.

1) The time I reviewed a book and the author READ my post- I wrote a review for Someday My Prince Will Come by Jerramy Fine, and a few days later she tweeted me a thank you for what I had to say about her book! I was so not expecting that and wonder how many other authors read reviews of their work from even small time bloggers like myself. I was both surprised and a little humbled to hear from her. That was the first time I ever even reviewed a book on here, too. Hmmm, maybe I should do more book reviews? I also reviewed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, if you're interested.

2) Getting to meet other bloggers- This is, in my opinion, one of the best parts of blogging. You read others' blogs and interact with those bloggers for sometimes years on end until you feel like you know the person, so get to meet them in real life can be such fun! I was fortunate enough to meet several of my favorite bloggers, and hope that the trend continues. Sometimes it's just great to go to meet ups and get to know new bloggers. That is, after all, how I met one of my best friends!

3) Pictures from my blog are now in a brochure for prospective college students- When I was traveling through Sri Lanka, I got an e-mail from a graphic designer at John Carroll University. He wanted to know if he could use pictures from my post on Little Italy and the Botanical Gardens in Cleveland. Since I said yes, they have been added to a Cleveland Visit Guide that is distributed by the university to help show new and potential students about what there is to do in Cleveland.

4) One of my photos was featured in a post about South Africa that was shared over 27, 000 times- One day, I noticed that my blog was getting a lot of traffic from travelstart.co.za, so out of curiosity I checked out the link. Lo and behold, one of my pictures was featured in an article titled "50 Photos of Cape Town That Will Make You Want to Live in the Mother City." Even though I'm no professional photographer, the article really has some fascinating pictures of Cape Town, and I'm a little honored that my picture was included. If you ever plan on going to Cape Town, I highly suggest you take a look at this article, as you will find some interesting ideas to add into your itinerary.

5) Receiving well-wishes from other bloggers right before and after my surgery- As my regular readers know, I recently had a back surgery in China. It was one of the worst times of my life, but just hearing that other bloggers were praying for me, thinking of me, or wishing me luck meant so much! It made me feel better to know that others in this aspect of my life were in my corner. 

I can't wait to see what my next top 5 blogging moments will be! What are some of yours?

My Life in Numbers: Hospital Edition

July 12, 2016
A few years back, I did a regular "My Life in Numbers" post, but since my back surgery became a life altering event, I wanted to reflect a bit on what has happened to me so far.

2- The number of cages in my back and also how many different hospitals I stayed at during my surgery. This was how many months pay I missed, too. 

3- The number of vertebrae I had fused together (triple fusion) and the amount of times I still need to go to the hospital per week.

4- How many times I tried acupuncture in Xinjiang. Unfortunately, at that stage, the damage to my spine was already too great for this to be an effective form of treatment. Additionally, this was how many hours it took for me to fly back to Shanghai from Urumqi on a stretcher.

 5- The number of doctors, including my surgeon, that have been working with me on my recovery following my surgery. It's also the number of bouquets I received from my whole class and from individual students. 

5.5- How many hours my surgery took.

6- I stayed in the 6th building in bed 6 in Shanghai and it's the number of screws I have in my spine to stabilize it.

6.5- How many trips I had to cancel because of my surgery. I had to forego my trip to Morocco, Spain, Iceland, Hangzhou, Myanmar, and my trip back to Ohio because of this. I also included Urumqi as a half a trip missed since this is where the injury became extreme, and I couldn't go sightseeing and hiking like I'd originally planned.

7- How many different shows I watched at least a full season of while in the hospital: The Mindy Project, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Unreal, Orange is the New Black, Pretty Little Liars, and The Bachelorette (okay, I will watch the full season of The Bachelorette once everything is released.) This is also how many blog posts I've published since the incident.

8- This is the number of students that visited me either in the hospital or at the apartment I'm temporarily staying in. 

11- How many get well cards I've received.

13- The amount of different roommates I've had during my hospital stay.

17- The date I had my surgery (May 17th.)

18- How many months it could take for me to make a full recovery.

20- According to my doctors, the maximum amount of minutes I'm allowed to sit up for at a time.

26- The number of days I couldn't walk for.

42- Number of working days missed.

50 plus- How many meals were provided for me by my friends and my students' parents. I am really grateful for this because I'm not able to cook.

55- Total number of days I spent in the hospital.

90- How many days of bed rest I need before I can even think about going back to work.

180- How many days I should wear my back brace for.

30,000- Roughly the total cost of my surgery and hospital stay, in USD.

Have you ever had surgery or had your quality of life severely affected due to an injury? How did you cope?

China Bucket List

July 11, 2016
Since I'm going to be spending another year in China, I thought I'd stop and think about all of the places I'd like to visit that I just didn't get to see this year. There are seriously so many incredible destinations within China, and it's not like Shanghai will be my base forever, so taking advantage of the domestic airfare is a must. Last year I was fortunate enough to be able to go to places like Harbin, Yangshuo and Guilin, and Xi'an. This year, I'd like to try to get out and explore more of China, once my health allows it.

So, where do I hope to travel to?

1) Zhangjiajie- These are the heavenly mountains that were used as inspiration for the scenery in the movie Avatar. Zhangjiajie is China's first national forest, and within the park one is able to take a cable car to Tianzi Mountain for more spectacular views. Spending a day or two meandering the paths and taking in the breathtaking scenes doesn't sound too shabby. Tianmen Mountain is also highly recommended for anyone who appreciates natural settings. There is even a glass walkway there for those who are brave enough to cross it!

Photo by: East Machinery

2) Suzhou- Suzhou has been compared with Venice because of the canals, bridges, and rivers that run through the town. Only 25 miles from Shanghai and easily accessible by train, Suzhou will probably be one of the first places I venture out to after my recovery. I trust that Suzhou will be the ideal escape from all of the hustle and bustle that is Shanghai. It's famous for its gardens like the Humble Administrator and Lingering Garden, to name a few. Suzhou is also known for a special type of opera, and I hope to be able to catch a performance in person at the Kun Opera Museum. I've heard from my co-workers that Suzhou is picturesque and is an excellent place to spend a few leisurely days.

Photo by: PS Liu

3) Jiuzhaigou- I planned on visiting this national park in 2008, but at the time there was a lot of damage to the surrounding infrastructure due to the deadly earthquake that occurred earlier that year in Sichuan Province.  I was also short on time, so I didn't end up being able to make it out there. Right now I have a good Chinese friend living in Chengdu, and she has expressed interest in going to Jiuzhaigou with me--perfect! We want to go there because it has often been described as "heaven on Earth," not to mention the snow capped mountains, waterfalls, ponds, and forests to admire. Some highlights of the national park include the Five Color Pond, Nuo Ri Lang (widest waterfall in China,) and Shushing Tibetan Village.

 Photo by: oarranzli

4) Inner Mongolia- I first heard of this region because my students' parents helped raise money for the Million Trees Project. Desertification is occurring in Inner Mongolia because certain areas have been over-farmed, so this charity uses donations to plant trees in the area in hopes of saving some of the land and to improve air quality. Besides deserts, Inner Mongolia has pastures, lakes, and prairies. It appeals to me because it's off the beaten path and has a heavy Mongolian influence--think yurts and nomadic herders. Since the majority of my time spent in China has been in a large city, I'd like to get out and see more wide open spaces and hike around. If hiking becomes tiresome, I could always opt to visit the Genghis Khan Mausoleum or partake in some sand-sliding at The Resonant Sand Gorge.

Photo by: Zhang Yu

5) Sanya- Dubbed "the Hawaii of China," Sanya is located on the Southern tip of Hainan Island. It's a popular tourist destination within China, and there's a mix of both hostels and luxury accommodation. I'm thinking that this could possibly be my first trip after my surgery to "test the water," so to speak. It's a 3-3.5 hour flight from Shanghai, and if my healing continues, my doctors said I should be able to make this trip over Christmas! I'm thinking asking a group of girls if they want to come with and maybe we could splurge and stay somewhere really nice! There's a beach called Yalong Bay that's further away from the main beach, and it's supposed to be less crowded. There are hotels near there such as the Ritz Carlton, Sheraton, and Sanya Marriott. Besides the beaches and the nice weather, there are hot springs to visit as well as other bays and temples.

Photo by: xiangjun wang

6) Macau- Macau's history is a bit unique since it used to be colonized by the Portuguese. As with Hong Kong, Macau was handed back to China under the "One China, Two Systems" policy. That means that Macau is technically part of mainland China, but those in Macau have their own passports, currency, and flag. One of the main attractions here is to take a look at the architecture, since it was heavily influenced by the Portuguese. It's also the place to try some of the special food that the area is famous for, like egg tarts and African chicken. Macau is also the place to go to if you fancy trying your luck at gambling, as it has been called "the Las Vegas of the East."

Photo by: The Rachael Way

7) Hangzhou- If you're going to Shanghai, you might want to add a trip to Hangzhou to your itinerary since it's easy to take a day-trip here. I've heard a lot of positive feedback about others' trips to Hangzhou, and my Chinese co-teacher's dad was born in the city, so she also raves about it. It is often referred to as "Paradise on Earth," and West Lake at sunset is not to be missed. West Lake is full of islands and is surrounded by beautiful scenery. Hefang Street is also recommended in order to browse local shops. Finally, another big attraction of the area is checking out Lingyin Temple.

Photo by: Michael Tyler

8) Urumqi and Xinjiang Province- My trip out to Urumqi got cut short due to an unforeseen back injury. I would like to return to see the friend I was visiting in the first place but also want to meet up with the locals I became friends with during my extended hospital stay. While I was there, I got a taste of the local hospitality and was taken aback (in a good way!) by the friendliness of the people. I was able to sample some of the famous types of food such as: kebabs, Uyghur Pollo (rice with carrots, peppers, and lamb), naan, and DaPanji (a dish made with an entire chicken mixed with potatoes.) What I experienced just scratched the surface, so a longer trip out to Urumqi is necessary. I didn't make it to the Bazaar or to Heavenly Lake or to Hong Shan Mountain. My friend and I talked about hiking and visiting a farm in another part of Xinjiang and possibly driving out to a desert. My short time in Urumqi sparked a bigger interest in all that Xinjiang has to offer, and one day I hope to go on this 13 day tour of Xinjiang so that I can explore it more in depth.

Are any of these places also on your bucket list? If you've already been to China, do you have any top places that you'd recommend?