Planes, Trains, and Automobiles!

Justin and I have finally wrapped up finals week with our students here at HZVTC. Some unfortunate students still have exams on Saturday and Sunday (can you believe it? It seems almost criminal!), but for the most part, things around campus are winding down and it’s beginning to look like a ghost town around here as everyone heads back home for the holiday. Now that we’re finished with school for a bit, Justin and I are preparing for our epic adventure across East Asia! Pardon me for gloating—but I feel like I should get a chance, especially since I was so sad during the Christmas season (I vaguely remember writing something about my Christmas spirit being as dried up and dead as the leaves on our Poinsettia plant)—it may sound rude, but I get a bit of satisfaction knowing that now the tables have turned. Now everyone back home is returning to work or school from their Christmas break, reluctantly going back to the grind to take on another January. But I am just now beginning my holiday break, since I have been “in the grind” all during the Christmas season!

And may I just say that I have never enjoyed January? I think it’s my least favorite month out of the twelve. It’s not just coming down from the “holiday high”—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all happen one right after the other, but January has no festivities (unless you count the Superbowl). It’s not just the feeling of regret and guilt permeating the air, as countless people all over the country boldly vow to lose weight, or stop smoking, or finally read Ayn Rand’s lengthy novel The Fountainhead, and inevitably fail before the month is even complete.  I also hate January because, as a teacher, it’s the month that we begin rigorously preparing our students for standardized testing. Not only are the students grumpy after being permitted to sleep in until noon every day for two weeks and then suddenly being rudely awakened by their parents at the crack of dawn, but as soon as they arrive to school, we’re throwing FCAT in their faces, making them read passage after boring passage and answer multiple choice questions about it. No more fun activities or novel studies in January; my lovely literature class (grudgingly) transforms into a test prep center. Once January begins, it’s all about how to weed out the distractors in a multiple choice question and strategies for “finding the answer within the question.” Ugh. I will not be missing that this year. My students in China are required to take a standardized test in English similar to the reading portion on the FCAT called the CET (however, it also involves a speaking and listening portion). They also have different levels they take each year; many of my sophomores are taking the CET 4. Some of the oldest and smartest students on campus are taking the CET 6. But fortunately, it is not my duty to prepare them for this test. In fact, much of the onus of studying and taking sample practice tests is left up to the students to complete in their spare time—as it should be!

But anyway, enough of my tirade against January, because this January will be the best one ever! Justin and I have a full five weeks off of school, along with a nice little holiday bonus in both of our paychecks, and we are ready to start traveling!

Above is a map on which I have marked the route that we will be taking for our epic East Asia journey. Bright and early on Monday morning, we’ll be flying out of Shanghai into Seoul, South Korea (do you like my little airplane icon?). I am really excited about just the airport in Seoul, because it’s supposed to be the largest airport in the WORLD, complete with a movie theater, Olympic-sized ice skating rink, miniature golf course, and designer shopping mall, among other things. We’ve been so busy, we haven’t even made any solid plans yet for what we’ll do during our two weeks in Korea (we’ll work on that). But we will be meeting up with some friends from Tallahassee who are currently living there, and they will take us around and act as our tour guides for some of those days. I’ve also really wanted to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), the heavily guarded border/tourist attraction between North Korea and South Korea. My dad has been trying to talk me out of it ever since Kim Jung Il died a few weeks ago, as military tensions may be running high, but when else will I ever get the chance to take a look at North Korea?

At some point during our two-week stay in Korea, we’ll take a boat from the Incheon area (at the base of the peninsula) to Fukuoka, Japan and stay there for a couple of days. This is my consolation prize for not being able to go all the way to Tokyo, which I was really looking forward to. When we looked into flight prices we saw that flying to Tokyo (or taking a train there from Fukuoka) was at least three times the price of our flight into Seoul, so we just couldn’t afford it on our Chinese-sized budget. But Justin does happen to have a friend from high school living in Fukuoka who can meet up with us and show us around, and I will at least be able to say that I’ve been to Japan. I don’t know very much about Fukuoka other than it’s a much more rural area than Tokyo, with mountains and streams and pagodas instead of skyscrapers and taxis.

After that, just a few days before Chinese New Year (and exactly one day before the flight prices will skyrocket), we will fly from South Korea into Hong Kong. My mother, who is obviously not the expert at geography, asked me, “Is Hong Kong part of Japan?” Technically, Hong Kong is part of China, but it is not considered “mainland” China. Because it was under British rule for so long, it is considered an independent Republic. Much of the culture is extremely westernized. They have many little quirks that are quite different from Mainland China, such as their own separate language (they speak Cantonese instead of Mandarin), their own style of food (which from what I’ve heard is much more similar to the Chinese food we eat in America—apparently most of our Chinese restaurants are Cantonese restaurants), freedom of speech and religion that mainland Chinese people aren’t able to enjoy, and they drive on the left side of the road instead of the right (a leftover from their British roots). We also have a Chinese friend named Pui who lives in Hong Kong; we met her while she was studying at Florida State for a few years. She will be our tour guide while we’re in town, and she’s even invited us over to her house for Chinese New Year dinner, though she’s warned us that we need to find some different sleeping accommodations because her house will be packed with relatives who have traveled from all over to be together for the holiday. How exciting! I’m especially looking forward to seeing the Lantern Festival and the Dragon Dance that they do in the street. I can’t wait!

After about a week and a half in Hong Kong, our plans become a little fuzzier. We think we’d like to take the train to Guilin (which is so small it isn’t even labeled on the map), which is said to be one of the most beautiful places in China. It is a very rural area (think people living in bamboo huts and working in the rice paddies), but the landscapes are very famous. I’ll include a picture for you to see below. I remember watching Big Bird (in the movie Big Bird Goes to China) take a little canoe ride through the rivers of Guilin to see rocks shaped like elephants and beautiful mountains rising up on every side. It seemed like a very magical place when I was a child, and I’m hoping it will be just as magical now that I’m going to see it for myself as an adult!

 

Guilin, China

After Guilin, we’ll take an overnight slow train (that should be an interesting experience) all the way back to Hangzhou, and from there, take an hour-long bus ride back to Huzhou. We’ll have about a week to relax and unpack before we get back into our school routine on February 15th. We’ll be taking our laptop with us on this journey, so we’ll still be able to Skype with family, check our emails, and of course, I’ll be blogging and uploading pictures of our trip every step of the way.

Happy January!

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