Category Archives: Travel

Why Be a Foreign ESL Teacher for a Year?

It’s a new and unfamiliar world out there for recent college grads. When the graduation gowns are stowed away to the back of the closet and the celebration champagne runs out, the sobering reality of life as a non-student both frightens and excites young adults beginning a new chapter in their lives.  Some prioritize traveling for a short period of time, unwinding and celebrating their hard work while others immediately enter the work force to jumpstart their budding careers. Job hunting turns out successful for some while others struggle to enter employment.  Unfortunately, many are oblivious to the surprising amount of high-demand jobs readily available on the other side of the world. One of these unorthodox employment options is rarely considered by bachelor degree holders with a firm grasp on the English language: a traveling ESL teacher.

Nanjing has become a 2nd home to me.
Nanjing, Jiangsu, China.  This beautiful city has become my second home.

A 30-second Google search reveals there is no shortage of ESL teaching positions throughout the world. The qualifications for an entry-level ESL teacher position in China’s booming English teaching industry are pretty straight-forward: be a native English speaker with a college degree and (at least) be TEFL certified.  Normally, you can contact a recruiting agency in the U.S. that vets and places applicants in Chinese schools legally, but I’ve also met expats that came to China on a whim with tourist/non-work visa and found work.  This is pretty risky considering it is illegal to make money in China as a foreigner without a Z-visa and SAFEA work permit, and a non-work or residence visa would require traveling outside of the country (or to Hong Kong) every 3-6 months for renewal. Either method works, but I would personally recommend researching reputable recruiting agencies to help place you in the country of your choice; it’s less stressful being a legal foreigner.

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You may be asked to do sample lessons for your agency’s promo videos and it doesn’t hurt to get paid extra for it either.
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Something I particularly liked about my school is that it didn’t give me any guideline for what I should teach. I didn’t use a book and made my activities and work sheets from scratch or pulled them off the internet.
Your school may even use you in its advertisements.
Your school may even use you in its advertisements.

The craziest part about up-and-leaving to teach English in another country—in my experience, China—is how regularly you’ll surprise yourself. The trials and tribulations (maybe a little dramatic, but it wasn’t easy) I’ve faced during my time here influenced my personality, understanding, and overall perspective on life and this world for the better. The definition of success and happiness completely changed for me. Many of my exploits in the past 11 months make for great stories, but those same situations made for even better learning experiences. If someone told me that a year after graduating college I would’ve began learning Chinese, end up favoring Chinese food more than any other food, befriend both Chinese and other expats from around the world (Australia, South Korea, Zimbabwe, Canada, England, Tanzania, Japan, New Zealand, Hungary, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Scotland, and other Americans), travel a good portion of Southeast Asia, complete the Great Wall Marathon, be rented as a foreigner for promotional dancing, eventually walk into a Chinese classroom with no fear or inhibitions to teach 13-16 year olds English daily, and play tour guide for my parents visiting me on the other side of the world, I would’ve found it difficult to believe.

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First marathon in the books. I never thought I would ever run a marathon much less have it be on the Great Wall of China.
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While knowing you give 100% into your work is its own reward, it doesn’t hurt that your school writes a stellar recommendation for you to be one of the ’14-15 Outstanding AYC Ambassador award winners.

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Dry pot. Sausage, beef intestine, tofu, fried cauliflower, bacon, and shrimp. Also involves the fun game of scavenging through it all to find your favorite.

The life of a foreign ESL teacher is what you make it.  Do you just want to work part-time while also private tutoring on the side?  No problem.  Do you want to work full-time with a heavy workload? The opportunities are there.  Will you have time to travel and explore your surroundings?  Oh yah, you betcha’.  Does it provide a decent living?  You would be surprised.  I make 5,000 RMB (~$800) per month with a little extra on the side from private tutoring and my school pays for my apartment, utilities, visa fees, and healthcare.  My paycheck is spent on eating out, weekend shenanigans, travel, and really anything I want since my only regular expense is groceries. If I decided to stay and teach a 2nd year? I would make 10,000 RMB per month minimum, still have paid holidays, housing stipends, and paid healthcare depending on the school. I’m not living the life of luxury—although private tutoring for wealthy families can get you invitations to expensive dinners, wine tastings, and other swanky events—but I’m truly comfortable.

Wine tasting with Chinese French wine makers.
Wine tasting with Chinese French wine makers.
If you are a party animal there is a pretty...let's say interesting club scene in the larger cities of China.
If you are a party animal there is a pretty…let’s say interesting club scene in the larger cities of China.  Foreigners usually drink for free if you know a promoter (who will seek you out).

So whether you’re seeking a change of pace, a new life, a convenient and cost-efficient way to travel, or a résumé builder, be aware of the opportunities afforded to native English speakers.  At first, teaching will be intimidating and you’ll embarrass yourself more than once. Do take solace in the fact that it becomes easier and easier each passing day to the point where it begins to feel natural.  In my experience, after the Chinese academic year flies by and the school year is over, it feels odd not hearing the collective”laoshi hao” (hello teacher) each morning as you begin your lesson.

Introducing your students to the Charlie Brown holiday specials sparks some serious nostalgia.
Introducing your students to the Charlie Brown holiday specials sparks some serious nostalgia.

If you have any questions about being an ESL teacher in China specifically, don’t be afraid to ask!

SE Asia Trip Part 4: Getting Fitted in Hoi An and Da Nang

With a promise never to fall into another tourist trap for the rest of our trip, Zach and I arrived back in Hanoi to rest up and prepare for the beginning of our road trip through Vietnam. Our original plan was to ride the A1 down to Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, continue south to Nha Trang and then cut west inland through De Lat and ending our trip in Ho Chi Minh City.  After riding for nearly 5 days in absolutely miserable weather and stopping in a few towns off the A1 highway (the road trip summary and video can be found here), we eventually found ourselves biking through Hue.

We meant to push through Hue to Da Nang to save time, but after a random encounter and a day of partying with the locals, we holed up for a day there. We woke up refreshed–albeit a bit hungover–and continued onwards to Da Nang and Hoi An, Vietnam.  We trekked the mountain motorbike trails on the east coast to come up Da Nang seated in a sparkling blue bay surrounded by the mountains that we still had to descend.  After almost a week of rainy weather, no sun, and impatience, we were finally glimpsing the beauty of the Vietnamese coastline.

Top of the switchbacks.  Cruise down to Da Nang.
Top of the switchbacks. Cruise down to Da Nang.

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As far as my travel through were, Vietnam, Da Nang and Hoi An were my absolute favorite places to visit.  Da Nang is a vibrant city with an entertaining nightlife that I didn’t really get to experience due to illness, but from my bed I could hear a few venues with patrons belting out karaoke, loud laughter, and the city pulsating; we weren’t even in the heart of it either.  Hoi An is a different kind of liveliness that sits just a 30-minute motorbike ride outside of Da Nang and although it is much, much smaller, it felt like there was so much more to do.  Hoi An is a more pleasant, peaceful cultural hub that contrasts Da Nang’s city life.

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I must’ve been too enamored with both Da Nang and Hoi An because I filmed very little and I have almost no video or film of the latter.

En route to Hoi An from Da Nang, we decided to stop and check out a temple that resided on a random chunk of rock that towered over the roadway off to the side.  I have no recollection on what it was called or what its importance was, but it was still cool to wander around.

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Although my experience in the world is very little compared to many others, I still proclaim Hoi An as the tailor capital of the world; it didn’t matter what you wanted, you could buy it at a cheap price (after haggling) and get it tailored very cheaply. Sneakers, dress shoes, sports shoes, winter coats, suits, Hawaiian shirts, jeans, sweats, summer dresses, skirts, tanks, gloves, winter hats, snapbacks, dress shirts, socks, and even custom-made underwear were all available in wooden shops lining the market street; I couldn’t believe it and I probably didn’t cover everything that you could get. The men’s suits shops were more of an episode than a minute shopping experience.  You get to flip through a catalog highlighting styles from Hugo Boss to Ralph Lauren to Versace; if I could guess there were more than 60 styles.  Next they bring you through the material and color options depending on your price range (I was originally only going to spend $200, but ended up purchasing 2 three-piece suits for $480. Damn those adorable Vietnamese women with their flattering salesmanship).  After a detailed sizing measuring every nook and cranny of your body, they set 2-3 fitting appointments to make sure your suits are to your liking and they fix every single one of your concerns.  You choose your jacket-lining, fit, color, style, etc…everything.  I was overwhelmed and mesmerized at the same time.  Whether you are male or female, I suggest going to Kimmy’s Tailors; they specialize suits but also sell dresses, Hawaiian shirts, winter jackets, and a few other things.  Their packaging is travel-friendly–small and not to bulky–or you can have it air-mailed/ship-mailed back to your home with the price depending on where you live.

The Hoi An night life includes peaceful house bars that allow you to people-watch the inebriated tourists from afar.  We talked up a older British man who just happened to be a SE Asia veteran with his own travel company.  For about 3 hours he gave us hints and tips about traveling through Cambodia and Thailand as he chain-smoked and enjoyed his beer; it was a great time.

Motorbiking through the cramped streets of Hoi An at night, during a full moon, while the orange and red paper lanterns beamed overhead made for a great experience as well.

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Although I find it as an odd descriptor for me to use, I would probably label Da Nang and Hoi An as delightful.  Apart from a small amount of rain, these two places are sunny and very friendly towards travelers.  I want to think that they enjoy travelers because of our personalities, but it’s most likely due to the fact we spend so much money. All of those $5 purchases really add up.

Due to time constraints with our schedule, we decided to ship our bikes by train to Ho Chi Minh City and fly.  If the weather wouldn’t have ruined 3 days of riding through Vietnam, we could’ve complete the entire Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh City extravaganza.  Maybe another time…

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Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School (3)

Here we go with the 3rd chapter of Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School with a larger-than-normal collection of my 7th graders.  Unfortunately the seniors that I teach are less accessible before and after my classes, but I will manage to get a few interviews at some point.

This time we have a good mix of 7th graders from both class 10 and 11.  Enjoy!

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She didn’t want her stuffed animal in the photo.

Name: Zhong Yi, G7C11

Voted the most adorable classmate (apparently her class did this in another period), Zhong Yi brings a large lamb stuffed animal almost everyday; it’s uses range from a pillow during nap time to hug buddy when she has to speak English in front of the class.  Usually she can be found walking arm-in-arm with her best friends during P.E. or enthusiastically turning any English lesson into a time for her to practice her drawing.

When are the happiest?
“When I am with my dog.”

If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?
“More time to spend with my friends and family.”

What do you want to do when you grow up?
“I don’t know.  I have time to think about it.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“Happy stories.  It will make them feel better.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Something sweet.”  Like what? “Uhhhhhhh…Cake!”


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Name: Xuxin Yu, G7C11

While he is one of the more quiet students in Class 11, Xuxin Yu likes to talk to me in-between classes about Transformers, CS:GO, and various superheroes.  His show-and-tells have included his favorite band being Cold Play and his favorite scenes in the Transformers movies.  You can usually find him playing basketball after study hall or just laying down and enjoying the Nanjing sun.

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Chocolate.”

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a professional computer game player in China.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I would want to invite them to my party.”

What is your favorite class?
“P.E. class.” Why? “Sports are my favorite.”


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Deadly serious until she is allowed to have fun.

Name: Zhu Kexin, G7C11

Being the deskmate of Wu Longing comes with an exhausting high energy presence during class and no one handles it better than Zhu Kuxin. Once she starts having fun, the party doesn’t stop until the bell.  Her and Wu Longing foster the energy in the classroom and help people be serious or relaxed when they need to be.  They are pretty much inseparable.  She is the other mind behind making every character in a romantic relationship die during story activities and always claims it makes the love more beautiful because it continues in heaven. Always entertaining.

What is your favorite class?
“Computer class.” Why? “Because I can play computer games.”

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be an artist.”  What kind of artist? “I don’t know!  There are so many different artists!”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them? 
“I want to play a fun game with you.  Do you want to play and be happy?”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“I don’t know.”You have to pick one thing.  “Ok.  Ice cream.”


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Name: LiWei Jin, G7C11

A DOTA player amongst the many League of Legends enthusiasts in my classes, LiWei Jin enjoys everything you would find in a boy his age: video games, sports, and nervously teasing girls.  When he is called upon to speak English, he likes to tap at his teeth as his gaze wanders as if he is following a fly zoom around the room.  He also reps the flyest shoes in the class.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be Superman.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Beef.”

What is your favorite class?
“The holidays.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?  
“You are lucky to be alive.  Don’t be sad!”


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Name: Zhou HongYi, G7C10

Another one of the more quiet students I teach, Zhou HongYi has a tough shell to crack.  His English is actually pretty good for his age, but he can get quite nervous talking in front of his classmates and even just talking with me.  He must think that I am always testing him or something because I can always see his gears grinding for the best possible answer to a question, even if it is a simple answer. He doesn’t ask his classmates for help like many of my other students so he takes the time to think and will then answer my questions 3-5 minutes after moving on.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be the manager of the biggest company in the world.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Pizza.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“Should we go to the sea?  We can be at peace.”

What is your favorite class?
“English.”  Why?  “It makes me feel good talking English and I have fun.”


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Name: Jin Joaquin, G7C10

Although many of my students are avid gamers, Jin Joaquin takes the cake when it come to being a League of Legends fanatic and loves tying the game into our current unit.  His drawings and stories?  League of Legends.  His past 3 show-and-tells?  Each have been about the various aspects of the game.  At the beginning of the 2nd term after Chinese New Year, I asked the students what they wished for going into the new year and he replied: “I hope Teemo gets deleted from the game. I hate him so much.”  (Teemo is a character who embodies the soul of Satan and is frustrating to play against.)

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a successful computer engineer.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“This is nothing.  You must think of the good things and you will be lucky.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Hamburger.  No cheese.”

What is your favorite class?
“Math.  I think it is cool and I wear glasses so I have to like math.”


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Name: Wang WeiChen, G7C10

It can be both funny and annoying at times, but Wang WeiChen is one of the more vocal students in my G7C10. He likes to give his opinion on everything we do whether it be to me, his deskmate, or the entire class. Thankfully he enjoys 99% of what we do so it is never really a problem, but some of his classmates tell him to quiet down sometimes. He has joined Jack’s Super Awesome Lunch Crew a few times and even bought me a few yogurts much to my surprise.  Jin Joaquin and him are very close friends.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a teacher when I grow up.”  What kind of teacher? “A math teacher in China.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I will take care of your problems. You should be happy everyday.  I am always happy.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Beef.”

What do you do with your family during the 2 months of summer holiday?
“We will often have a big dinner at my grandparents home many times during the week and we have a good time.”


I love doing these.

SE Asia Trip Part 3: The Tourist Trap in Ha Long Bay

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Just to the east of Hanoi resides the pristine waters of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Maneuvering through hundreds of colossal rock islands, numerous small cruise ships jet through these waters giving tourists a look at Vietnamese floating fish villages, island-top views spanning overlooking miles of the bay, and a chance to hang around some monkeys.

The rock formations in Ha Long Bay were incredibly diverse.
The rock formations in Ha Long Bay were incredibly diverse.

Before arriving in Hanoi, I’d already booked a 3-day cruise in Ha Long Bay and was looking forward to kayaking, fishing, biking, cave-walking, and hiking throughout this UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the first day walking the streets of Hanoi, I found out that you can buy various cruise packages, in the 1,000s of travel agencies scattered throughout the backpacking area,  exploring these waters for much, much cheaper than what I purchased online, but oh well; I was still anticipating a great time.

In the morning, we were picked up from our hotel and on our way. Think of every terrible “Dad joke” you’ve ever heard.  Not the “it’s so bad, it’s good” kind.  I’m talking about the “I’m cringing because I can’t handle how awkwardly bad that joke was and now it’s really silent on the bus” jokes that you see in family vacation movies.  We endured that for 1-2 hours before arriving at the embarking location for our ship.

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Now, I cannot remember where we booked our cruise from or what company it was, but I do remember specifically reading that we would be welcomed with a free beverage upon boarding. We were greeted with a 1/4 coffee cup of something that tasted pretty familiar, but I couldn’t quite identify what it was; more on that later.

After boarding the ship with 10 other unknowing travelers (4 of them turned out to be a family from Minnesota; small world) and finding that Zach and I had a pretty cool cabin for the night, the ship set sail for the first stop of the day.

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We arrived at a smallish island that held a beach and a stairway, leading you up to a beautiful top view of the surrounding area. Immediately upon disembarking, our crew was greeted with a sign warning about getting too close to the monkeys who had decided to come out to the area in a large group.  The group of monkeys postured on the main rock face and we just chalked it up as them being conditioned to sit there for food.  As we headed towards the beach and stairway, we looked towards the rock face from a different angle and I kid you not, there were manmade shoots leading out from cages planted in the back of the rock.  Zach and I began to have an inkling that we may have signed up for a tourist trap.

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The first destination did provide a fantastic view, a beach restaurant where everything was extremely overpriced, the chance to swim in the waters of Ha Long Bay, and I actually had a monkey jump onto my backpack and jump back up into a tree when I was trying to take a selfie with it.  I even captured the thrilling moment on film as it is in my Ha Long Bay video if you haven’t taken a look.

View from the top of the first island.
View from the top of the first island.
One of these dudes probably could have bit me if they wanted to.
One of these dudes probably could have bit me if they wanted to.

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The second destination was a visit to Surprise cave where there were hoards of other tourists to welcome our arrival.  While the cave itself was pretty cool, the walkway moved at a sluggish pace as it was pretty overcrowded.  Once you moved through the cave, you end up at an outlook point with a view of the entire bay harboring the cave.  Guess what was at the top as well… Another over-priced tourist stand with some lackluster handmade jewelry and a few souvenirs to commemorate your visit to Surprise Cave.

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I read the full rundown of our Ha Long Bay cruise before the trip so I was excited about the third item on the list: kayaking.  We stopped at the location and everyone hopped into their two-person kayaks.  All of us were a little surprised to find out that we were being given only 45 minutes to traverse the waters of Ha Long Bay; oh, and we couldn’t leave the kayaking bay. I understand that they have liability issues and there is safety hoopla, but from the description that I read on the website, it was going to be a much more exciting experience and we would get the opportunity to explore the surrounding area, but no.  We were able to aimlessly paddle in a small bay with the only semi-exciting aspect being drifting near the shores of the rock spires surrounding us.  I will admit that this cruise began to sour for me at this point and we were only on day 1 of 3. I guess we still had the night in the bay and the next day to look forward to.

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Once we were shuttled back to our ship, we were treated to a dinner of fried foods.  We were offered the opportunity to make our own Vietnamese spring rolls, which were delicious, but apparently the money all 12 of us on the ship had used to pay for this cruise only bought us enough meat to satisfy a goldfish; this was split among everyone.  Hooray. With the oily, fried food and one spring roll in my stomach, it was time to endure some more “Dad jokes” as our dinner entertainment.  They offered everyone the option for karaoke, but everyone single traveler chose to enjoy the mini-bar and enjoy the peacefulness of the night anchored in Ha Long Bay.

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Now it was time for another one of the things I’d been looking forward to: some squid fishin’.  Now anyone back home that fishes with me can tell you that I am not the most capable of fishermen (See: does not understand line allowance and rapola depths so his lure just drags off the bottom until it inevitably snags a rock and snaps off).  Thankfully this squid fishing was just bobbing a tri-hook and waiting for the squid to see it flash and attack it.  I bobbed for about an hour before I saw my first squid, but missed it. After about another hour–and 4 drinks later–I managed to snag one of those bastards.  With an excited whooping yell, I ripped that thing out of the water and onto the deck with ink flying everywhere.  I was also the only one to catch anything.  The crew said they would make calamari for me in the morning for breakfast, but I never saw my catch again.

I never said it was huge...
I never said it was huge…

After that, Zach and I talked with two Australian backpackers we befriende–Jack and Shanae(?)–to the tune of the ship crew belting out karaoke while we enjoyed a couple more drinks.  The wind blew both Zach’s and my empty glasses off where they were sitting and shattered them on the deck.  The crew must have thought we were pretty loaded although we really weren’t, but they didn’t believe us and just thought we dropped both of them.  Ok then.  After hanging out a little bit longer, we decided to hit the sack.

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The next morning, we were treated to a basic breakfast with no sign of my calamari (the crew never answered what they did with it) and we transferred ships to begin day two of the Ha Long Bay cruise. Little did we know that those broken glasses were $3 each (price gouging intensifies) and that Zach and I had spent about $30 a piece on drinks the night before.  Although I was told a different price at the time, the 2-fingers of Johnny Walker Red Label I enjoyed at dinner ended up being $8 and my White Russians $6 each.  These may not sound expensive, but for Vietnam this is highway robbery. We couldn’t transfer ships without paying the tab so we begrudgingly did so.  Twas’ not a great start to the morning.

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We were offered coffee on the next ship only later to find out it was $2 a cup although there was no mention of this when it was given to us and after paying that and the bar tab, we were on the spectrum between irritated and furious; the cruise had basically cost us $300 at this point.

The ship journeyed to our next location: a dingy oyster farm.  This stop showed us bags of oysters in bags floating in the water and a showing of how these farmers begin the pearl-making process (this was actually pretty cool, but very brief).  Our group was then led to a big display room featuring…and you guessed it, a bunch of overpriced “pearl” jewelry with prices being cheap at $100 and reaching upwards of $1,000s.  This had to be some type of joke.  This cruise was not what we had read about or even slightly anticipated. There were a few good things, but oh man.  I don’t even know how to describe our feelings at this point.  We still had two more things to do that day before reaching the hotel at Cat Ba Island.

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The next activity was a bike ride around one of the bigger islands in the Ha Long Bay area.  Ok this could have some potential.  I remember sitting on top of the deck cruising towards the bike ride just laughing about the past 24 hours.  How could it get any worse?

The bike ride redeemed a large portion of the experience for me. It was a neat ride through mountain terrain (still on a paved path though), areas with dense vegetation, and a remote village surrounded by large mountains.  We cycled for a few hours through the island before heading back to the boat.  The bike ride had actually made me feel a lot better and calmed me a bit and I even got to witness the after party of a Vietnamese wedding at the village.  This was a taste of the scenic and cultural adventure I’d signed up for.

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We then meandered to our 2nd to last destination at Monkey Island. About 8 monkeys hung around the beach area as we walked onto the beach.  Some were looking at us for food while others were play-fighting.  I witnessed a monkey snag a whole bag of fruit from a tourist’s hand and scurry away.  I even had a monkey hiss at me as I was climbing the rock trail that spilled over onto the hiking trails, but I wasn’t given much time to explore the forest areas of the island. Our group stayed here for about an hour before disembarking to end of the cruise experience and head to our hotel on Cat Ba Island.

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Top of Cat Ba Island
Top of Cat Ba Island

The past two days had deterred Zach and I from even thinking about partaking in something remotely similar to that tourist trap the rest of the trip.  When we arrived at Cat Ba Island, we asked our guide about night buses back to Hanoi because we just wanted to start our road trip down to Ho Chi Minh City.  The company was really concerned about us asking for a refund and didn’t care about our feedback about how disappointed we were with the cruise.  We just said screw it and bought bus tickets back to Hanoi for $20 each.  Six hour later, we were back Hanoi preparing for our road trip.

Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island

Overall, it was a pretty fun time being within touching proximity to monkeys, biking through a tranquil Vietnamese village, and catching a squid for the first time of my life.  Unfortunately it was the tourist-heavy events that sucked the soul out of the experience.  It just felt very generic, but I would still recommend visiting Ha Long Bay; just don’t buy the tickets online and don’t go into it with high expectations.  The views are incredible and it is a peaceful place to relax.

Oh and the welcome drink we were offered when we first boarded? Zach came to the conclusion that we had been given orange pop as the welcome drink and after reflecting on the taste, I realized it was most likely Fanta. We couldn’t help but laugh hard at this realization. What an experience.

Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School (2)

If you didn’t get the chance to see my last post about some of the wonderful students that I have the privilege of teaching, you can check out my motivations for doing a HONY type human-interest piece here. I get a kick out of doing these interviews, which allow my students to showcase their personality outside of the classroom. This post includes four of my 7th graders that hail from Class 11.  Cheers!

In the rare times that I take pictures of my students, it sometimes scares me that smiling for photos isn't an automatic reaction here.
In the rare times that I take pictures of my students, it sometimes scares me that smiling for photos isn’t an automatic reaction here.

Name: Yang Sen, G7C11 (I didn’t do this in my last post, but from now on I am going to put the surname first since that is typical in Chinese culture.)

Yang Sen is a pretty calculated student.  He chooses his moments to speak and in general, he is naturally curious.  He usually eats lunch with Flint Lockwood and I, but somedays he will not even say a word; he will just listen.  He is constantly puzzled why I always get beef and rice and even though he already knows the answer, he likes to ask me why I don’t get noodles and pork (not very filling).  He is a Minecraft junkie who loves to do everything during class except speak English.

What has been the happiest moment of your life?
“When I go to my grandparent’s home.  I can watch TV, they take me shopping for nice things, and cook with them.  That is where I am always most happy.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“Don’t worry. I will help you.”

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to do something amazing.”  Like what? “Fly in the sky with no help.”


One of the more popular and eccentric students in my class.
One of the more popular and eccentric students in my class.

Name: Wu Longing, G7C11

Harboring a hatred for boredom, Wu Longing puts 100% effort into any activity or lesson during class.  She motivates students with the energy she brings to classroom, but on the 1% chance she is not rarin’ to go for Foreigner English class, it can be a struggle.  During her group story activities, she will somehow steer her team into writing a romance story that ends up with the lovers dying in the end.  Every. Single. Story.  The first story I can remember had the couple dying of heartbreak and the latest one has them falling off of a cliff.  I don’t know.

What is your biggest dream?
“My biggest dream is to be an artist.”  What kind of artist?  “I will use Chinese gardens, flowers, and trees.”

What is your favorite class?
“Chinese.  It’s easier than English.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I will show you some interesting and happy things.  I want to tell you happy stories to make you feel better so you will smile.”


He tried his best to pose as Ezio Auditore from Assassin's Creed.
He tried his best to pose as Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed, the video game.

Name: Wang Si Miao, G7C11

The self-labeled “nerder” of Grade 7 Class 11, Wang Si Miao is the most video game and comic obsessed student I teach.  He runs around with his hood up, arms flying behind him, and a pencil hidden in both of his sleeves so that he can practice being an assassin. His knowledge of Marvel based superheroes is unparalleled and his passion shows; he became extremely flustered with a classmate who would not copy the Avenger’s story during a group “make up a story in English” activity.  He is the third member of Jack’s Lunchtime English Speaking Crew and never stops talking about Assassin’s Creed…never.

What has been the happiest moment of your life?
“When I came to this school as a top student. Also I was able to finally play and beat Assassin’s Creed Victory. So happy.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I will say ‘don’t worry’ and then I go help them.  No matter what.”

What is your biggest dream?
“Which dream do you want.”  What dreams do you want to tell me about? “I want to be an assassin with Spiderman’s powers.  I will make the world better. Technology and practice will make it possible.”


“Do I look more business with my jacket like this?”

Name: Ma Wenjie, G7C11

The head honcho and class decision maker, Ma Wenjie is quite vocal.  If she doesn’t like something, if she is bored, or if she is done with an activity and wants feedback, she will make sure you know.  She is the most popular girl in Grade 7 with many friends in the two classes at the high school and with the junior school 7th graders.  She went to primary school with most of her classmates and her decisions are final among her friends.  I swear she is the class mother as some students will check their homework with her or ask her to speak for them if Warren is not around.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a teacher.  A Chinese teacher.  Maybe travel, but I don’t know.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I can cry with you.  No problem.”

What is your favorite thing in the world?
“Hong Kong films.”

Why are their two 7th grade classes at this high school?
“We are the best in all things at school. Much better students than junior school.” (I 100% agree with this statement).

Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School

I’ve always found Humans of New York to be one of my favorite human-interest pieces that I peruse daily.  It reminds me that every single stranger I walk past each day has an entire life that I have no clue about. They have their own problems, interests, and personality that I will most likely never know of. The amount of events that occurred in our lives to lead each of us to that exact location in the world is crazy to contemplate.   I guess you could say these are my shower thoughts?

I really should’ve thought about doing this type of thing when I first arrived and started teaching at Nanjing No. 5 High School.  My students are all friendly, love to talk English with me, and enjoy taking pictures (although I thought it might be a little weird if I were taking pictures with/of my students with my phone, but I guess it isn’t here).  So I started interviewing individual students outside of class, and eventually my coworkers will work their way into this mix, to help introduce the wonderful people that have made my work this year both fun and rewarding.

My main classes are Grade 7 Class 10 & 11 so it can be pretty funny trying to teach English to 13-year-olds who know just enough English to be knowledgable and who clever enough to make jokes at my expense. Some of my students are middle class and some are super rich. Some have excellent English and some struggle a bit.  Some can be found out on the basketball court during break time while others can be found leisurely walking around the track or sitting, nose buried in a book.  I’m more than thankful to be consistently teaching 90 students who are diverse in their interests and—if their math teacher didn’t completely fry their brain in the morning—enjoy my classes enough to freakin’ clap when I enter the room. Most likely, it’s because my class is less stressful than any of their other classes.

So without further ado, here is my first edition of “Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School,” introducing three of my 7th grade students.

The name is Lockwood.  Flint Lockwood.
The name is Lockwood. Flint Lockwood.

Name: He goes by Flint Lockwood, G7C10.  He won’t tell me his Chinese name…
Flint is probably my most helpful and most intelligent student.  He taught himself English through American movies, has a deep fascination with “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “Men in Black,” and even eats lunch with me while asking the most random of questions.

What is your biggest dream?  What do you want to do in your life?
“I want to be an inventor and make the world a better place.”

How are you going to achieve that?
“First, keep working hard at my studies and learn many new things.”

What is you favorite thing in the world?
“Science.”  Just science?  “Oh and scientists.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“No matter how bad it gets, it will be good.  Everything gets better.”


She is really self-conscious about the scratches by her eye and refuses to tell me what happened.  I did here it was a PE accident.
She is really self-conscious about the scratches by her eye and refuses to tell me what happened. I did here it was a PE accident.

Name: Meiwen Gu, G7C11 (technically GuMeiwen since Chinese names typically put the surname first.  Her first name could mean “warm beauty,” but I may be wrong.)

Meiwen is shy around me, but very popular in her class.  I have to coax her to speak English and when she does, she speaks it well. She has a habit of meowing in my class at random times and enjoys tongue twisters.

What is your biggest dream?  What do you want to do in your life?
“I want to be a teacher.  Maybe teach in different countries, but I don’t know.”

What is your favorite thing in the world?
(stone-faced and stares at me) “Cats.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“Get a cat.  Pets make everything better and will make you happy.”


When I asked where he wanted his picture taken, he said," That looks like a nice tree."
When I asked where he wanted his picture taken, he said,” That looks like a nice tree.”

Name: Warner, G7C11.  He just likes to be called Warner…

Warner is one of my favorite students.  He is the class mega-phone; I can always count on him to translate instructions, get people excited, or help me understand how the class is feeling during class.  If I explain an activity we will be doing, he gauges class opinion, stands up in the nicest way possible, and says, “I think that the class will not like this the most, but they will still do it.”  I have to resist laughing because his voice is still a bit high, but is always very calm. He is a huge gamer who plays League of Legends and Minecraft, and is obsessed with the show, “Fringe.”  He always refers to J.J. Abrams as a genius.

What is your biggest dream.  What do you want to do in your life?
“Policeman.  I want to help people as a policeman.”

What is your favorite thing in the world?
“Nature.  It is the world.”  

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“You just need to be brave.”

SE Asia Pt. 2: Hanoi, Vietnam

My main goal of teaching in China right out of graduation was to use my holiday time to travel SE Asia.  An incredibly generous 5-week holiday—January 25th-March 1st—was given to me by the Nanjing No. 5 High School and I took full advantage of it.  After saving 70% of my paycheck every month for 5 months and a couple of unforeseen expenses, I had about $2,500 in my pocket and a rough itinerary of what I wanted to experience.  

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I paired up with a buddy who was also teaching English here in Nanjing at the time, planned to meet up with two other friends during the trip, and we headed out from the Nanjing train station with just our backpacks and a sense of adventure. After an hour train ride to Shanghai, another hour ride on the subway, a 20 minute lift on the Maglev train (a 186 mph heightened subway that rollercoasters through Shanghai), and a 3-4 1/2 hour flight from Shanghai to Hanoi, we had arrived.

Shanghai Maglev speed
Shanghai Maglev speed

Funny thing about Vietnam is only one type of visa available for tourists who do not live by a Vietnam consulate: visa on arrival.  The nearest Vietnam consulate to Nanjing is either Hong Kong or Beijing and we weren’t going to spend the money to travel there and back, so we opted for the visa on arrival which you can obtain online and only if you fly into Vietnam.  Unfortunate thing is that as soon as you land, you have to bring the visa approval letter, $45, and your passport to the processing area and wait until they call your name.  There is no method to the madness.  

The officials just hold up a processed passport and you collect it. The order and time you gave them your passport doesn’t matter.  I received my visa after an hour of waiting, receiving it before others who had definitely been there longer than me.

Just make sure you bring cash to pay the processing fee.  I ended up giving an Israeli guy $50 because his bank accounts were frozen and he had been at the visa processing center for about 2 hours and no one would help him, which was disheartening to see.  I don’t believe someone should be prevented from traveling for a minor reason like a visa fee and although he wanted my address to send the money back, I just told him to make the most out of the his trip. Maybe good karma for the trip (?), but it seriously pissed me off that no one would help him.

We paired up with a brother and sister (let’s name them Brian and Lily, both in their 30s) we had met in the visa processing line—Brian had travelled Vietnam numerous times—and hopped into a taxi from the airport.  The funny thing is that the tax driver wouldn’t reset the mileage ticker no matter how many times Brian yelled at him, and while this was our first red flag with the taxi, Brian just told us not to worry about it.

We finally arrived to the Hanoi city center except there was another problem that sprung red flag #2: the taxi driver kept driving.  The travel application I have on my phone showed that the taxi driver decided he was taking us north to drive around all of West Lake just to squeeze some more Vietnamese dong out of us (it’s the currency, get your mind out of the gutter). After some more awkward shouting from Brian, and me showing the taxi driver that I was tracking his route in relation to where our hostel was, he played dumb while bringing us back to the city center.

Traveling from the airport.
Traveling from the airport.

We arrived near our hostel and Brian told us to get our stuff out of the trunk and that he would pay for the taxi ride since he wasn’t going to give more than 200k dong (10$) compared to the 500k dong the taxi driver wanted. After an exhausting 13 hours of travel to start off the holiday, we were finally settled at our hotel in Hanoi.  Hoofta.

First night out wandering Hanoi
First night out wandering Hanoi

Besides the chaotic traffic (seriously, Vietnam traffic makes China’s traffic look organized), Hanoi is an old and pleasant city with a history that resonates through the neighborhoods you visit.  The smell of Phở wafts from local restaurants and whether we were in the backpacker’s area, the Old Quarter, or north of West Lake, Vietnamese coffee was a prevailing temptation. I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but during our time here I swear I was drinking 3-5 cups of this heaven each day.  Now whenever I do go for coffee, I’m disappointed it isn’t drip coffee with chocolate mixed-in; this caffeinated heaven in a cup was our fuel to ingest on every stop during our road-trip and I am fully convinced I’ll never have better coffee.

Dat Pho doh
Zach and Dat Pho doh
Vietnamese coffee, ain't nothin' better.
Vietnamese coffee, ain’t nothin’ better.

Hanoi has everything to offer travelers.  From lush, green parks to historic attractions to unique Vietnamese food, Hanoi is a large city with much to explore.  

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Fried spring rolls, roasted duck, and glass noodles
Fried spring rolls, roasted duck, and glass noodles
Sweet and sour chicken
Sweet and sour chicken

One of the most popular attractions harbored in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature.  I thought of this place as taking an ancient Vietnamese college campus tour and the design of the place really sends you back a few centuries. The entire compound is ripe with historical information.  I personally found the old, scholarly tablets sitting upon awkwardly smiling turtles to be the coolest part of the visit and if the University of Minnesota hadn’t already stolen my heart, I totally would’ve enrolled here.  

Entrance to the Temple of Literature
Entrance to the Temple of Literature
Temple of Literature garden
Temple of Literature garden
Just past the first area
Just past the first area
2nd main area
2nd main area
Those smiles...
Those smiles…

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We also dropped by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the location where Ho Chi Minh read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  I was a little uncomfortable walking around so many soldiers carrying AK-47’sI would hold and shoot one of these badboys later in my travels—but walking behind the monument in the gardens eased my mind. Besides the heavy military presence, it really is a tranquil area separated from the busy Hanoi streets.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

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Mausoleum Gardens
Mausoleum Gardens

Our visit to the Hoa Lo Prison was a more solemn experience. I found it appalling how many pro-Communist Vietnamese prisoners were held hear during their fight for independence and what they had to endure.  I actually didn’t know this prior to my visit, but learning about its use as an American POW camp was pretty brutal.  Sadness aside, as someone who enjoys learning about history, it was a great place to visit.

Just inside the entrance.  Broken glass is cemented into the top of the walls
Just inside the entrance. Broken glass is cemented into the top of the walls
Prison cells
Prison cells
Hoa Lo Prison Memorial
Hoa Lo Prison Memorial

My absolute favorite place here is the Botanical Gardens located just behind the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  The park is a peaceful oasis from the city where many of the Vietnamese locals go to workout, play a variety of sports, and enjoy the beautiful weather.  The serene pond is surrounded by walking paths that take you through the profuse vegetation.  We talked with a few locals, strolled the park, and enjoyed watching a game of shuttlecock.

Shuttlecock.  Awesome to watch two really good players go at it
Shuttlecock. Awesome to watch two really good players go at it
Botanical Gardens Park center
Botanical Gardens Park center

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Zach and I decided to buy two motorbikes off two British travelers, in the Hanoi backpackers area, who just ended their road trip from Vietnam and the next day we decided to take our new bikes out for a ride through the city.  Cruising around the West Lake was an impressive trip that gave us even more views of Hanoi.  We also learned that if we can handle the traffic hell that is Hanoi, we would be just fine for the rest of the trip.  

North part of West Lake
North part of West Lake

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The Hanoi ultimate street shopping experience resides in the Old Quarter near Turtle Tower Park. Numerous times, random guys on bikes would pull up next to us wondering if we wanted prostitutes or drugs (I found this common in almost every place I visited during my SE Asia trip so you just get used to it), but thankfully once you tell them no, they don’t hassle you.  Otherwise you can find a great deal on shoes, trinkets, yummy food, and many other items in this area. There is a great bar scene as well and apparently the Vietnamese really like roller-blading in this area at night.

Red bridge to enter the Jade Museum at Turtle Tower Park
Red bridge to enter the Jade Museum at Turtle Tower Park

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Red Bridge at night
Red Bridge at night
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Turtle Tower beginning to light up
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Turtle Tower Park at night

I found the nightlife of Hanoi to be a bit tricky.  Due to government regulations, most places have to “close” at around 10.  Usually alcohol serving businesses just close their front shutter, but they won’t kick people out. Unfortunately, government officials and police came in and shut down a foreigner bar around 11:30pm when we had only been there for 15 min. The entire city turns into a borderline ghost town after 11pm.

Roller blading party before bedtime
Roller blading party before bedtime

Hanoi was my 2nd favorite place that I visited during my time in Vietnam. The city is exotic and the people are extremely friendly.  We kept busy for 3 packed days of exploring what Hanoi had to offer and I wouldn’t have minded staying a whole week if we had the time.  Day and night, the city and its people had me loving my vacation, and it had only just begun…

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Locations visited: Temple of Literature, Turtle Tower Park, Old Quarter, Botanical Gardens, West Lake, Hoa Lo Prison, Lenin Park, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Highlights: Motorbiking around West Lake was an awesome experience although Zach got in a minor accident during our roll.  I thought I saw his leg go under the bike of the person he collided with and proceeded to freak out, but he just yelled “GET THE F@%& OUT OF HERE,” and we peeled out.  An extreme adrenaline rush, a few scrapes and bruises on him were, a broken mirror, and some cosmetic damage to his bike were (thankfully) all that happened.

Favorite Food: Phở.  More Phở.  And Phở.  By the end of the first week, I was sick of eating it.

Snake wine.  Also saw scorpion, bee, worm, and a few other less than appetizing additions.  Needless to say I didn't try it.
Snake wine. Also saw scorpion, bee, worm, and a few other less than appetizing additions. Needless to say I didn’t try it.

What I want to do and where I want to visit when I return:

  • Get out of the Hanoi city center and explore the north area and east of area of the Hong River.

Total money spent: $200 ($400 including the bikes)

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum area at dusk
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum area at dusk