Lisa McClure's China Diary

My new custom tailored suit Wearing my new, custom tailored suit

October 10, 1999

Cathi wrote me the following letter, and it made me realize that I've done a pretty poor job of describing our life here, so I am including her questions, followed by a few answers about our daily life:


Oh, I wish you could post more....I am so green with envy that you are in China, although about now you may be green with envy about my living here! I most want to know what you apartment is like in relation to our standards, smaller? hot water 24 hours a day, bed comfy, little kitchen?, do you use a wok or pots and pans exclusively, locks on doors, quiet? nice neighbors?......I was hoping you'd describe this on one of your post but didn't run across it yet.

How do you do your "big shopping at Safeway?" Can you buy good meat that is not in an open market? How do you get around, Taxi? How is your daughter getting on in kindergarten? How is it different. Does she like it? Is it more demanding scholastically? What is your work like, 8 hours a day?, work in the night at home?, much free time? What do you do on the weekends? If church minded, can you find a church to attend? What do you miss the most?, how about your daughter?

Could you post to the list just in case you get asked again, in less of course, you do not have the time to answer the flood gates of questions this may cause.. :)

These are great questions, and I hope I can do justice to them.

First of all, about my apartment. Well, to answer you objectively and fairly, it's a dump. As I recall when I first arrived last February and dropped my 300 pounds of duffelbags and boxes, I was pretty well dismayed at how small and dirty the place is.

Actually, there have been a lot of cosmetic changes since then, because sometime during the summer, the local provincial authority in charge of foreign teacher living conditions came by and said that our guesthouse wasn't fit for foreign teachers to live in. As a result, wallpaper and new ceilings were installed, a few new light fixtures added, and tile laid in the communal kitchen down the hall. Unfortunately, at that time, we lost our convenient hallway clothesline and none of the improvements I really cared about (like running hot water to the bathroom sink faucet) were made. I've been scrubbing on the bathtub stains fairly continuously for the past seven months with every abrasive cleanser I can find (including pumice sticks) and have only managed to lighten the stains, not eliminate them entirely. So, House Beautiful, this place ain't!

I do have hot water 24 hours a day, because I have a small hot water heater over the bathtub, and I keep it turned on all the time. Although I never came to China for the creature comforts, I probably would have lost my stamina a long time ago had it not been for this regular source of hot water.

Lara and I share a queen sized bed, mostly because the bedroom isn't big enough for two beds. The mattress is hard as a rock, as nearly all beds in China are. I had been determined that I would grow accustomed to the bed, but recently I was waking up with such severe pain in my lower back and shoulders (not to mention the many times I often woke during the night with completely numb arm or hand due to lack of blood circulation) that I caved last week and bought a foam pad to put on the mattress. I wanted to toughen up and live like the Chinese, but finally I just couldn't stand it any longer. I must say that now our bed is very cozy and pleasant and I'm sleeping much better now.

The guesthouse houses up to 6 foreign teachers. Right now, there are 5 of us (including one American exchange student) and we have one empty apartment. We share a large communal kitchen and dining room at the end of the hall. It's a Chinese style kitchen, with no hot water, nor any regular oven. However, we do have woks, rice cookers, a microwave oven, and even a small electric toaster oven. As might be expected, arguments occasionally break out between the slobs and the neatniks, and I've recently taken to locking my foodstocks and personal cooking stuff away in one of the cabinets. I just got tired of losing my stuff or finding it left dirty. But mostly, it's not too big a problem.

The guesthouse is located right in the center of campus. The location is ideal, and it's very safe here. We have a duty room at the entrance to the building, and it's attended by one of three staffmembers round the clock. So, I haven't had to worry about our safety or the safety of our stuff. Lara can walk to school by herself, and it's safe to let her play outside in the garden without constant supervision. The students are wonderful company for us both, and often drop by to visit and help out. That is a huge benefit, I think. On the downside, we've all got a 10:30 curfew, and risk being locked out if we stay out past that time. With a four year old, I haven't had a problem getting in on time, but other teachers have had a few encounters with the gatekeeper and it's a source of friction between the foreign teachers and administration at times.

Frankly, it's hard for me to complain about the physical discomforts when I realize that the Chinese people around me mostly all live at a much lower standard than we are living. I made a conscious choice to come to Jinzhou, realizing that I could have chosen to go the higher paying ex-patriate route and live in Beijing or Shanghai or Guangzhou. I would be liar if I told you that I haven't considered making the switch to that track, but life here has lots of other benefits, and so I continue to consider Jinzhou my home. It remains to be seen what our future will hold. But for the time being, we are very happy here, and getting out of this experience what we came here for.

Food has been a tremendous plus, in my opinion. I arrived in Jinzhou last February, seriously worried that we might have to subsist on winter cabbage and salt pork, only to discover the market filled with vine ripened, locally grown tomatoes and cucumbers, plus a huge variety of other fresh vegetables and fruits, including pineapples so sweet that we ate them clear through to the core. Every month since then has brought us a new selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, including many I have never seen before and cannot name in English.

We also have an abundant selection of meats and seafoods, but it's nothing like shopping at the Safeway, I'm afraid! A confirmed carnivore, but now I find myself eating a much more vegetarian diet, and really enjoying it. Yes, I still buy meat occasionally, or order it out in the restaurant, but for the most part, I really prefer the vegetables.

I am learning to cook the local cuisine, because I strongly prefer it to American food, and I hope that by the time we return home, I'll be able to continue eating similarly. I don't know if you can tell from the photos, but without trying at all, I lost 50 pounds the first 4 months I was here, and have lost an additional 20 or so pounds in the 3 months since then. I feel great and can only hope the trend continues.

Very little western food is available in Jinzhou -- there is no butter and no cheese. I have a small stash in my refrigerator/freezer now that I bought in Beijing, but not enough to gorge on. Just enough for special occasions. But the longer I live here, the less I even feel tempted by it. Don't know whether that stamina will hold after we return home, but I sure hope so. I feel younger and healthier with each passing month.

Jinzhou is a fairly small city, 45th largest in China, I believe, and the 7th or 8th biggest in Liaoning province. It has a population of about 800,000 people, about the same number as Denver, Colorado. But in physical size, it's much, much smaller. Our school, Liaoning Institute of Technology is located in the northwest corner of Jinzhou, and I can easily ride my bicycle downtown in about 20 minutes, riding at a very leisurely pace. I can ride clear across town to the far southeast corner in about 45 minutes. We have two busses that take us into town as well, and there are also taxis and motorized pedi-cabs that wait at the west gate of our campus. So, it is very easy to get around, anywhere that we want to go. (bus fare is 1 yuan, cab fare downtown is about 10 yuan, pedicabs generally are about 5 yuan.)

Lara attends the pre-school on campus. Her class is in many ways similar to her daycare back in Colorado. (She attended Children's World.) Her classroom is larger here, and has real beds with iron frames and mattresses and very comfy pillows and comforters, and I guess that there are about 16 students in her class, with two or three rotating teachers.

Of course, it's a Chinese school, as Lara is the only foreign kid in Jinzhou, nobody there can speak a word of English beyond, 'Hello' and 'Goodbye'. So, she was thrown in to figure things out the best that she can. My impression of her school is that they do a lot less in the way of arts and crafts than her American school, but a lot more in the way of singing and dancing. Otherwise, the academic level seems fairly similar. There's a huge difference in the tuition, however. Back in Colorado, I was paying $500 per month for Lara's daycare. Here, the monthly cost is about 50 yuan (approximately $6) and most of that goes to cover the cost of Lara's school lunches.

I have been extremely pleased at how quickly and easily Lara has been learning Chinese and getting along with the other kids, and so I have been a lot less concerned with exactly what sorts of academic things she might or might not be learning in school. She likes it, and that's the most important thing. However, she has clearly been learning a lot of other stuff as well, since she can count a lot better in Chinese than in English, and sings a large number of Chinese songs when the spirit moves her.

Not surprisingly, Lara's Chinese is a lot better than mine, and she's even begun teaching me a few things and even doing some interpreting, again when she feels in the mood. Last night, she even taught me some new cuss words. A couple of days ago, some Chinese people told me, with a smile, that Lara can swear, but they refused to tell me exactly what she had said, so I really had no clue. But last night, she repeated the phrase in question, and I was able to browbeat one of my more impetuous boy students into translating it for me, only to learn that the English equivalent of what she had learned to say is, 'F*** your mother'. Needless to say, I spent a few minutes explaining to her that I don't want her to say that again, but whenever she learns any new bad Chinese words, she should come and tell me so that we can write it down in our book (my Chinese vocabulary book) and then not say them anymore.

Little kids soak language up like a sponge. I wish Chinese came that easily for me. But I don't think I'll soon forget that phrase. I just don't know exactly when it'll be useful, but I'm sure that one day it'll come in handy.

Teaching has turned out to be work that I really enjoy. Before coming to China, I worked as a freelance technical writer, mostly writing software manuals and on-line helps. In many ways, teaching is a complete opposite -- I have to put so much energy into the interaction between my students and myself, and into developing a good relationship with them, instead of focussing on technical accuracy. The kids here are definitely the best part of the job, so eager to learn and so much fun to spend time with.

I originally came here to teach computer software classes - Internet, Microsoft Word, and Adobe Photoshop. But after I arrived, I was asked if I would also be willing to teach 3 classes of Oral English, and with great trepidation, I agreed. I had no prior classroom teaching experience, and no idea of how to teach Oral English, but I did some research, and learned on the job, and found that I really enjoyed the English classes most of all.

So, this fall when I was asked to only teach Oral English (plus one Reading class) I agreed readily. My official schedule calls for me to teach 12 hours of classes, but I added another section, so I am currently teaching 14 hours. I have only two different classes, so the preparation work isn't too bad. I also attend weekly English corner sessions, and spend a lot of my free time talking and visiting with students who want to practice their English, so I do lead a busy life and have very little free time.

Oral English is a real hoot to teach, because it's as much performance art as teaching, I think. I have to build a rapport with each class, and generate the energy and enthusiasm necessary to keep a class of maybe 36 - 50 students interested and listening and talking for two hours in an overcrowded room with terrible acoustics and miserable physical conditions. It's a constant source of interest to me how different the dynamics of one class are from another, and I constantly have to play against the individual personalities in the class. But I really do enjoy the work. And it is immensely satisfying to see how quickly the students improve during the semester.

This semester, I've established a schedule of going to bed very early, usually before 8 pm. I decided to do this because I found that usually students prefer to come visiting in the evenings, and I was never able to get Lara to go to bed while they were here. She still needs a minimum of 10 hours of sleep, often more, and I need some private time as well. And last semester, it was a bit of a problem having the students stay until 9 pm or occasionally later, then try to get Lara to bed and back up again in the morning in time to get her to school and for me to teach an 8 o'clock class.

Now that I've let my students know that they must go home by 7:30, Lara and I have a little bit of much needed together time each evening, so we can read books, talk, and practice her gymnastics exercises before we go to bed together. As a result of the early bedtime, I often wake up very early, and spend that quiet early morning time reading my e-mail, or doing quiet chores alone in peace, while Lara sleeps. Usually, this schedule allows both of us to wake naturally, and get through the morning routine with plenty of time to make the early classes.

Our weekends are usually very busy as well. During the fine summer weather, we made a point of doing something special every weekend, and have visited many of the local sights. Last month, I signed Lara up for gymnastics classes, and they take up two hours each day on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. So between that and chores and shopping, our weekends are usually pretty well filled up.

I'm not religious, but there are several Christian churches in town of various denominations, though of course, the services are held in Chinese. I'm the Jinzhou warden for the American consulate, charged with disseminating information to all the Americans in town. At the moment, we number 7, including Lara and me, plus one French Canadian and one teacher who is American in all but actual citizenship. (born somewhere else, forget where, but has her green card and is an acculturated American.) So, each of us is on our own to fulfill his or her own spiritual needs.

What do I miss most? Very little, really, though my mother who recently came to visit for a few weeks and toted a huge suitcase from home to me, filled with water filters, blank video tapes, large sized underwear, American junk food, and various other items I had requested might dispute that. I guess, really, I'd like to have more money. Even a few extra hundred dollars a month would make a heck of a difference here, and allow us to do more traveling and splurge a little more often.

But it is a fact that we are able to live on my monthly salary of $233 even if we can't afford to buy everything that we want. I keep telling myself that it's a good life lesson, and in fact it has been for us. I've learned that I can live a very happy life without nearly as much of the stuff that I formerly felt was absolutely essential to my well being and happiness. I know that I'll always appreciate how lucky I am to have had so many opportunities, simply by virtue of having been born American, to a loving family who encouraged me to get a good education and support myself.

Unlike most of my students, Jinzhou is my first choice, not my only choice. Lara and I stay here only as long as it pleases me to stay. We can leave anytime we like, and live virtually anywhere in the world. It is impossible to calculate the value of that freedom, but I sure as heck appreciate it.

What does Lara miss most? She has been very happy here in Jinzhou, and about the only thing that she misses is her Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle Larry, and her kitty, Denver. I'm able to write them via e-mail regularly, but the separation has been much harder for her. But we plan to live near our family when we return to the States. (currently planned for the summer of 2001, when Lara turns 6 years old) And in the meantime, I'll continue to encourage my family to come to visit us whenever they can.

I hope this very long post answers a few of your questions. As I try to get myself and my schedule a little better organized, I continue to hope to be able to carve out some regular time to work on the website and post to this e-mail list. In the past seven and a half months, our life has been filled with both large and small adventures, nothing life shaking, but fun and meaningful and definitely interesting. So, please continue to be patient with me, and write when you can. I always love to hear from you.

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