Quarantine-ing in Qatar

What a strange year it’s been! What began as physical distancing turned into social isolation, and just as I was beginning to integrate myself back into society, I decided to pack my bags and head to another country.

In a previous post, I reflected on my experience with online teaching for the first time in “China” and how different it’s been.

While I camped out back home in Canada I continued to teach online and wait for the Chinese borders to reopen. Then I found out that I no longer had a job for next year. My plan had been to stay in China and continue teaching at a different school, but coronavirus had other plans for me. So, I ended up working fast-food for a bit as I figured out what my next steps would be. What a humbling experience it was!

While I worked my part-time fast food gig, I continued on with the job search, and eventually landed on a position here in Qatar.

Qatar is an Arab country in the Middle East right next to Saudi Arabia. According to Wikipedia, Qatar ranks third highest in the world for GDP, and about 88% of the country’s population are expatriates (although I have not done much further digging on the statistics).

Is it safe? Yes.

Can you tell I get asked this question a lot?

At the moment, I am working in Doha, the capital of Qatar. It is very modern, clean, and welcoming based on my impressions so far. Though, to be fair I haven’t seen much of Qatar as I have been wrapping up my quarantine here.

My Quarantine Experience

Coming from a low risk country, I was eligible for a one-week home quarantine at my incredibly spacious school-provided apartment.

Quarantine in this apartment feels like I’m in a luxury jail, but with less perks than what Jeffrey Epstein had. I can still order delivery, have access to wifi, and plenty of space to work out, but at the end of the day I’m still stuck (“safe”) inside.

Upon arrival at Doha International Airport, you need to make sure you download an app called EHTERAZ, the covid tracking app for Qatar. It’s a simple colour-coded system that is linked to your identification. Green means a negative covid test result, and you are free to go about as you please, red meaning you have tested positive, yellow for quarantine, and grey for suspected infections.

They shuttle you off into a testing area where you sign some forms and get swabbed for your first covid test after landing.

I was able to be picked up by my Head of Schools, who brought me to my apartment to begin my one week mandatory quarantine.

On day six, you are supposed to get a call or SMS text message about going in to a designated testing centre for your second covid test. After results are processed, and if you get a negative test result the EHTERAZ app on your mobile phone turns green and you are free to roam about.

This was not my experience. What was supposed to be a one week quarantine has, by some unfortunate event, turned into two.

Frustratingly enough, on day six I received no calls or text messages. I reached out to my school HR representative to inquire, and was advised to continue waiting for further instructions, or for my code to turn green. The next day, I decided to call the number listed on the EHTERAZ app. The person who answered the phone also told me to wait for a call, even though I had already completed my mandatory one week quarantine at the time.

So I kept waiting… Eventually, it was communicated to me by word of mouth that I WAS in fact allowed to leave my apartment to get my second covid test since I was already finished my quarantine, which brings us to the present day. As I am writing and sharing my experience with you, I am also eagerly awaiting for the moment when I am officially allowed to leave the apartment and explore Doha.

Hopefully soon I can post updates about Qatar! (Sans quarantine).

Myanmar in Ten Days: Days 1 – 2

This past February, I took a trip to Myanmar with my good friend Sarah. As we were both teaching in Shanghai at the time, we wanted to take this opportunity to explore Southeast Asia during the Chinese New Year holiday. We visited Mandalay, Bagan, and ended our trip in Yangon. 

Day 1 – Mandalay

We landed in Mandalay at around 3pm on a Sunday. The airport is fairly small and underdeveloped. Depending on the time you arrive, there may or may not be services available. From what I remember, the only place that was open at the time was a shuttle service and a money changer. 

 

Our priorities for the day: get to our hotel and get food! We exchanged what RMB we had in our wallets and took a taxi from the airport direct to our hostel, the Moon Light Hotel, which cost maybe 30 CAD (for reference, the exchange rate at the time of our travel was about 1 CAD to 1000 MMK). 

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Small but cozy. Our room was very neat, clean and tidy (until we arrived, that is).

 

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We stayed at the Moon Light Hotel for 3 nights, which cost us about 50 USD. The hotel is very new, staff are extremely friendly, and breakfast is included. 
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Breakfast featured both Asian and Western cuisine.

 

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View of the city from the dining room.

 

If you haven’t traveled Asia before, some of the imagery you encounter can be pretty jarring. While our hotel was tidy imitation of some Western hotels, just outside you can see signs of impoverishment; unpaved roads, large piles of garbage, stray animals, and the like. Not a vacation destination for the faint of heart. 

 

For dinner, we walked to Mingalabar, the #1 rated restaurant on Trip Advisor in Mandalay, and boy – did it live up to those standards! For bout 15 CAD, we had a beer, lime soda, soup, rice, a main of lamb curry, and dessert. The main course comes with all the side dishes you see below, the idea being that you can customize each bite according to your taste preference. The side dishes they serve vary from night to night, but ours featured peanuts, fish, potatoes, cauliflower, a shrimp paste, and some raw vegetables. 

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So good we went back the next day!

 

A word of caution… 

Our biggest mistake on this trip was not bringing enough CASH! We had read online that there have been many improvements in the big cities in terms of ATMs being available. Having come from China, both of us have UnionPay cards that are accepted at many ATMs throughout Myanmar, according to research. We did not, however, factor into account that these ATMS may not be regularly maintained, so many that we visited were out of cash! 

 

[For some mysterious reason, I was not able to withdraw ANY money on my UnionPay card, but luckily Sarah was able to to do on her Canadian bank card.]

Long story short, to avoid running into this issue, I would recommend bringing enough cash with you to last the trip. But beware of pickpockets, especially in touristy places! 

Day 2 – Mandalay Palace

Our second day was spent getting acquainted with the city, hitting up every ATM we encountered, and getting SIM cards. I would highly recommend getting a SIM with a data plan for your travels, as it makes life significantly easier (access to GPS, Trip Advisor, etc.) SIM cards are fairly cheap and top ups are easy to come by (most convenience stores will have them). Popular carriers include Oredoo and Telenor. 

 

In the afternoon, we asked our hotel to help us call a taxi to take us to Mandalay Palace. If you call a taxi through your hotel, the prices are usually set (though still very reasonable). If you choose to hail your own transport, usually there is a bit more room to negotiate. Keep in mind that these are not “taxis” in the Western sense, but rather random strangers you’re waving down in the streets who happen to have a car and want to make a few extra bucks driving people around. 

To get into the Palace grounds, you need a visitor’s pass. You’ll be asked to leave your passport with the guards in exchange for one. We did not have our passports with us, but luckily, they accepted Sarah’s drivers licence (phew!). In the area surrounding the palace there’s a park and some temples and pagodas. We just walked around and took our time exploring the area. 

At one of the vendors, a girl offered to paint our faces with thanaka, a yellow-white paste made from tree bark. We later learned that wearing thanaka is like putting on clean clothes; worn by people of both genders who may perceived as “unruly” if you did not put it on, though trends seem to be changing in the big cities. 
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Thanaka is used for both cosmetics and as sun protection.

 

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In the afternoon, we ate at a restaurant in town and freshened up at the hotel before heading out again in the evening. We went back to Mingalabar (which means “Hello” in Burmese) for dinner, and walked to the bar across the street for cocktails.

Day 3 – Mandalay Hill

Early next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel and took a taxi to the Lion’s Gate entrance of Mandalay Hill. Mandalay hill is a popular destination at night time, as many tourists often go to see the sunset. I found the views in the fresh morning air just fine, and seeing as there were hardly any people around during the hike up, wonderfully peaceful. 
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Entrance to Mandalay Hill.

 

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The majority of the climb is done under a covered walkway. The climb must be done barefoot, so we left our shoes by the entrance. (You pay 1000 ks for someone to “look after” them).

 

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You’ll meet many strays along the way. Cats, dogs, turkeys even!

 

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Lots of buildings, sculptures and pit stops along the way to the top.

 

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Part of the covered walkway up the hill.

 

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There are many scenic places to stop and take photos along the way!

 

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You’ll know you’re at the top once you reach the giant escalator that takes you down Mandalay Hill. We opted to take a shuttle down for 2000 ks instead. 
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Blue shuttle bus that took us down from the top of Mandalay Hill.

 

Final verdict: Mandalay Hill is a must! Definitely enjoyed our morning hike. We took our time, and stopped a lot to take photos and enjoyed the scenery. 

 

I can’t remember what else we did in the evening (ate food somewhere definitely), but the morning hike did take up a lot of our energy. A day well spent overall. 

​NEXT UP: A private tour to the ancient cities in Mandalay (click here for Day 4 details). 

Myanmar in Ten Days: Day 4

Day 4 – Ancient Cities in Mandalay

For our final day in Mandalay, we opted to hire a private car and paid about 35 000 ks for a “three city tour”. As it is common for taxi drivers to advertise private tours of the surrounding area, it wasn’t necessary for us to book ahead. We had collected a few business cards from taxi drivers during our first few days in the city and opted to go with the driver who seemed the friendliest and spoke the best English. 

 

For our first stop,  our driver took us to a monastery in Mandalay where we had the opportunity to speak to his friend, a monk who teaches English there. We were shown around to various buildings (the dormitories, dining hall, study halls…etc.) and learned about life in the monastery. Becoming a monk is a well-respected and esteemed route to take for boys and men of all ages. A family’s status is elevated if they have a son who decides to become a monk. Of course, not many choose to stay one, some quit years, months, weeks, or even days into monkhood, which is not uncommon. At one point, both our taxi driver and tour guide (whom we would meet later in Bagan) had taken up monastic life.  

At the monastery, we met an especially charming and charismatic young monk who went by the name of “Drake.” Funnily enough, we would later run into “Drake” again three days later in a totally different city, at sunset, on the top of a temple, where he would re-introduce himself as “Maha Raja,” and add us as Facebook friends. To this day I am still not sure if he is using his real name. 

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Our friendly guide around the monastery.
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Notice to foreigners about proper etiquette and dress.
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We were told to stay for the monk procession, in which 1000 monks would line up according to rank and seniority for their second and final meal of the day. If I’m completely honest, the sight made us feel uncomfortable in comparison to our calm and quiet morning around the monastery. In an instant, the empty streets became crowded with tourists, with their big cameras, tablets, and cell phones; we witnessed a few elderly women handing out sweets and loose change to the younger monks, perhaps out of charity or something else, I don’t really know. It just seemed like such strange way to sensationalize their lunch time… It was good to finally get out of the crowd. 
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Heads bowed, bowls in hand, the monks walk in procession to get lunch.
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Tourists looking to get a shot of the action.
Next, our driver took us to a location where they made longyis, a long sheet of cloth commonly worn as a skirt by both men and women in Myanmar. We were shown how the longyis were woven and taken to a nearby store were they could be purchased. Sarah suspects we were taken to what is known as a “tourist trap,” but heck, it was cool and we bought one for ourselves anyways.
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Afterwards, we ate lunch at a restaurant of our driver’s choice. The food was pricey and not particularly noteworthy. 

 

Like Mandalay Hill, U-Bein bridge is a popular tourist destination at night time, as people like to go for the sunset. We decided to go earlier in the day to avoid the crowd. Here, we purchased some coconut ice cream (DELICIOUS) and walked about halfway across the bridge before turning back… on account of some uncomfortable cat calling. We weren’t dressed in scantily clad clothing by ANY means but my Sarah does happen to have strikingly blonde hair and fair skin which drew a lot of unwanted attention. We definitely had to check our privilege at that point. 

PRO-TIP #1: Please don’t do what we did and walk the entire length of the bridge! We missed out on exploring Amurapura city as a result, but we ended up having a great day regardless (read on to find out!)

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A tasty snack in the February heat!
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U-Bein bridge is said to be the world’s longest timber bridge (according to Wikipedia).
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Various vendors and stalls at the entrance of the bridge.
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Along the walk back… a sight for sore eyes. Two young boys flying make-shift kites out of plastic bags and string along the side of the bridge.
Now at this point we had been to half a dozen temples and seen a ton of pagodas so if you can forgive me, I do not recall the name of the temple our driver took us to next. The highlight for me, however, was watching the line that quickly formed as soon as Sarah agreed to have her photo taken. One, led to another, and then another… People wanted group shots and individual shots. Blonde, white-skinned, and beautiful, Sarah quickly became a hot commodity! (Only 2000 ks for a photo with this beautiful foreigner! Anyone? 1000 ks special discount just for you!)
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“Save me” she whispers without speaking.
Having my friend taken from me for photos would be a common occurrence throughout the entire trip. Me, on the other hand, being of Chinese descent, and having been told I have a face that can pass for a variety of Asian ethnicities, was able to (at times) conspicuously blend in with the crowd.

 

The next part of our journey would be my favorite in Mandalay. That was our brief tour of the ancient city of Inwa. 

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First, a pit stop in one of the smelliest, but by far not the worst, porti-potty I had ever encountered.
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Then, a short ferry ride to our destination, Inwa Ancient City.
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Once we arrived, we hired a horse cart and driver to take us around the Ancient City (~9000 ks). It’s possible to do on foot, but you’d need at least two hours and we were running short on time. He took us to a few notable locations before dropping us off for the last ferry back.

 

PRO-TIP #2: Keep in mind most places you visit will require you to go barefoot (temples, pagodas, ruin sites…etc.), so bring comfortable shoes that slip on and off easily! 

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A journey via horse cart.
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Bagaya Monastery, built entirely of teak wood in 1834 A.D.
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Beautifully cultivated green pastures.
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​On the way back, we saw a little boy and a dog at one of the ancient ruin sites.

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It looked like they were friends.
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(The dog was likely a stray).

 

But still, it was a fine friendship. 

​We decided to explore the area.

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Some post-card vendors preparing to close up shop for the day.
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But we noticed that someone kept showing up in our photos… 
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“Follow me!” he said.

 

And so we did.

And saw the most breathtaking statue.

There was something about the way the light fell, the little boy giggling and running around us, the other little one who turned out to be his brother, prodding us along, telling us to climb here, sit there, pose like this, not like that… Making faces at us when we did something they didn’t like and giving us the thumbs up when they deemed we had the perfect pose…

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Moon running to bring me a leaf!
Moon trying to hid behind the broken pillar so I would have the perfect shot. I liked it better when he was in it
We had so much fun running around with  those two that we didn’t even break a sweat when they eventually busted out their post-cards and offered to sell us some. 

 

What fine salesmen they turned out to be. 

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Sarah bonding with the little ones.

NEXT UP: Bagan! 

Burnout

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Taking some time to hike through the Autumn scenery in Sockcho, South Korea.

As we near the end of October, we are finally starting to get a semblance of the Fall weather one would expect back home in Canada here in Seoul. As the leaves begin to fall, so too do my spirits in dreaded anticipation of the dark winter days ahead…  I still spend long hours at my keyboard typing away and planning each day’s lessons in detail. So many thoughts run through my mind I’m surprised I get any productive work done at all.

Slowly, I have begun to settle into a routine of work, eat, plan, sleep, repeat. Little perturbations in this routine are often accompanied by feelings of guilt. I know in my mind that there will undoubtedly be many mistakes in my teaching and yet I still find myself trying to avoid them all. Slowly, I’ve let myself forget what it’s like to spend an hour each day exercising and working on my health, or letting my mind just wander.  

How will I ever learn to enjoy the moment when I’m always thinking of the future? 

I’ve decided to start small. Today, I have dedicated some time to write in my blog. Tomorrow, I will make time to exercise in the morning. This week, I’m going to dedicate an hour each day doing something solely for me and recharge. This girl needs some #solitude.

Travelling, Part 2 + Initial Reactions in Korea

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Rainy day in Myeong-dong

Picture$45 travel pillow I splurged on at the airport in Toronto.

Hello Friends and Visitors! 

I’ve officially been living in Korea for just under a week now and thought I would take some time to debrief my experience here so far. I am currently living in Seoul where I will be teaching science at an international school for the next ten months. 

So I might not look like a super model, but I am slowly beginning to understand why backpackers spend so much money on their gear. The act of travelling itself is not as glorious as it seems – just imagine being sticky with sweat, fully aware that the guy who was standing next to you a second ago has moved away because of that ungodly odor coming from your body, and then really wanting to quench your thirst on the plane but worried that you might get stuck going to the toilet after somebody’s just taken a big dump. When it comes down to it, making your travel experience as comfortable as possible is well worth the extra effort. When I traveled to Kazakhstan last year, I was too cheap to spend money on a good travel pillow and took the “memory foam” one we had lying around at home. You ask, how can you ever go wrong with memory foam? Let me tell you… not all memory foams are created equal! There is real memory foam, and then there are the posers. I ended up spending eighteen hours on the plane trying to sleep with a lump of coal on the back of my neck.  


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Comfort or style?

Despite my somewhat unkempt appearance, I managed to sleep in relative comfort during my 14 hour flight to Hong Kong from Toronto, and 3 hours from Hong Kong to Seoul, Korea. Here are a list of five things I learned while in Korea thus far: 

#1. A little preparation goes a long way.  Last year, I picked up some survival Russian phrases (i.e. hello, nice to meet you, goodbye, and thank you) before heading out to KZ, but did not bother to learn Cyrillic until much later on. This year, I decided to learn Hangul (Korean alphabet) before my arrival in Korea, and BOY, WHAT A DIFFERENCE IT MADE!  Rather than having to devote extra attention to learning the language in addition to getting settled, I’ve been  able to do the latter in a relatively care-free way. It also helps that Korea is very English-friendly; street names and subway stops are translated into English, and I have ran into quite a few English speakers on occasion in shops and restaurants. 

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I’m a bit of a keener, aren’t I?

#2. Expect to be surprised. People generally have a very romantic view of life in the big city, but it definitely has its own drawbacks. To be sure, I’m loving the convenience of living next to a subway station, being able to hop out on the street and pick up free wi-fi at any one of the nearby cafes, and having easy access to all the goods and necessities I need. However, my apartment is basically one room with no clear or distinguishable bedroom, living space, or kitchen; it’s sort of all just blended together. Same goes for the bathroom, the floor of the bathroom serves as the floor of the shower. This style of bathroom is actually pretty common to Korea and China, so if you’ve never experienced anything like this before, it might take a while to get used to. 
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Korean-style shower.

 #3. Expect to have your mind blown. As in, elevator buttons that you can un-press, diagonal crosswalks, key-less door locks, and little foam pads for your car door. Honestly, Korean people think of everything. ​​
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Keypad for my door.

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Crosswalks that go every which way at busy intersections.

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Foam pads so you don’t damage other vehicles when opening your door. Image from businessinsider.com

#4. Be grateful for the little things, like being able to unlock the main door to your apartment.  So my first day here I was given a sheet of paper with a map and the pass-codes for the main door and my apartment door. On some locks, there is a special combination of keys you must press in addition to entering the code, I did not know this, so I figured I would just keep trying different combinations until I found one that worked. Well, my landlady caught me in the act of struggling and I guess I looked like I was trying to break in. She sat me down in her little lookout area while I attempted to explain that I was a teacher who had just moved in and that I was just trying to get back into my apartment. 

There are many other little things that I never thought twice about in Canada and had to re-learn while in Korea. Like, figuring how to get hot water for a shower, turning on the gas so I can use the stove, setting up password protected wi-fi on a Korean-only site, and learning how to properly sort my garbage (they take this very seriously in Korea) to name a few. I spent the first night showering in cold water because I didn’t know how to turn on the boiler. I spent the second night showering in cold water because I didn’t realize the hot and cold symbols were mixed up! Don’t worry, this story has a happy ending: I am now able to take hot showers. =D 

​#5. Watch your spending, because temptation is everywhere! 1000 won here, 2000 won there, and pretty soon you’d have spent a good chunk of your money on a) food, and b) things you never knew you needed, like that cool organizational storage unit designed specifically for your bras. 

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Amsa market.

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Fried chicken stand at Amsa market.

Adventures in Kazakhstan – Meeting the Students

Last Thursday, I finally got to meet some of the students I will be working with this year and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! I started off by introducing myself as one of the new international teachers at the school. Teachers go by a first name basis at the school, so the students call me “Ms. April.” Since I will be working with them for the entire year, it was only fair that we take some time to get to know each other. I passed out two pieces of paper to each student (one white, one blue), and my first task for them was as follows: 
The first unit we are covering has to do with series and sequences. The blue paper I passed around to students contained a sequence with a missing number. The idea is that answer to their sequence problem would determine the order in which students would speak. In theory, this seemed like a great way to tie in bits of math instruction along with my introductory spiel, but since all of them were English Language Learners, this part of the activity took longer to explain than I had anticipated. While the students worked on the Starter activity, I passed my camera around and asked them to take a #selfie of themselves so I would be able to better learn their names. The students had a lot of fun with this, and I got some pretty nice pictures at the end: 
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Picture modified for privacy reasons.
I had a professor in university who started off his very first lecture with the statement, “Ask me anything,” and it’s stuck with me since. I appreciated how he did not choose to just hide behind all the abbreviations attached to his name (trust me, there were many), and owned up to the fact that he was a real life human being who eats, poops, and sleeps just like you and me. So, I let my students ask me anything they wanted to know about me. I figured they were all curious to learn more about the new young and beautiful looking international teacher at their school (ha!). 

Most of them wanted to know where I was from, what I thought about their country and their city, how long I would be staying at the school, and what my hobbies were. I answered their questions in earnest and they shared some facts about themselves. I am from Canada; I’ve had a very enjoyable time in Taldykorgan so far and I love seeing the mountains as I walk to work everyday; my current contract allows me to stay for one year; and I enjoy reading, playing volleyball, badminton, and drawing. I learned that most of the boys enjoy playing football (soccer) and basketball while the girls had a wider range of hobbies, including playing musical instruments, watching anime, and reading. I got the feeling that the students wanted to share more, but their limited English language prevented them from sharing any thoughts that may have been too difficult to express. 

After the sharing, I showed the students some pictures that represented me and where I am from. In particular, they were very interested in my grade 8 class photo. I explained to them that I grew up with people from many different ethnicities, and that there was no single colour of skin that defined “Canadian.” Also posted some examples of my artwork from high school since drawing is one of my hobbies. I got a big reaction from the boys when they saw my pencil crayon drawing from the cover of “World of Warcraft” which I wasn’t expecting. I think I gained some massive cool points for that. 
I shared with the students what my reasons were for teaching, and talked a bit about my teaching philosophy in language that was more accessible to them. I framed my classroom expectations within a brief talk I called “How to Ace Math Class.” There are only three rules in my classroom and they are not optional. They are: listen ACTIVELY, take good notes, and participate! I took some time to talk about what each rule entails, and explained the rationale behind each one. I chose these specific rules because I learned from the experience international staff that the students will often chat among themselves during instructional time, and that they are used to being spoon-fed information so it is not unusual for students to sit passively in class. I think if I were to teach in Canada, I would have to rethink these rules a bit. Keep in mind that many teachers in Canada and the US will spend at least the first week discussing expectations and classroom procedures, I only had 20 minutes – and that is longer than most local teachers spend on this topic. The culture here is just different, and the norm is to jump right into curricular content. The good news is that there are no major behavioural issues with the students. As I learn more about my classes, however, I will continue to introduce and rework new routines and procedures on an as-needed basis so that we can have a successful year together. 
My concluding message? “Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous,” (advice from one of my teacher idols Tina Seelig).  

Adventures in Kazakhstan – First day of classes!

Today was the official first day of classes, and I did absolutely nothing. As someone who values organization and preparedness, I am left feeling adrift. I feel like I’m stuck in a cycle of restlessness and unproductive-ness, and I’m itching to get out of it. But since everyone is assuring me that this is normal, I am doing my best to just go with the flow. 

Flexibility is Key
To give you a little bit of context, all international teachers are paired with local Kazak or Russian speaking teachers for every class we teach. An international teacher may be working with anywhere between 3-7 national teachers each year. As a result, curriculum planning is arguably one of the most difficult  parts of the job. Aside from those who teach English, a majority of national teaching staff only understand limited English. Google translate is not always the most reliable, which means I have to muster all the charades skills I have just to communicate simple sentences with the local teachers whom I work with. To add to the challenge, the school timetables are still in the process of being finalized since every school within the *** network (acronym omitted in case of publishing issues) must wait for a set of directives from the headquarters in Astana before the real planning can begin. This means that everything is currently being run on an ad hoc basis, and will likely continue this way until mid-September. Since I’ve had so much free time in the last two days, I’ve mostly been reworking my introductory powerpoint and reviewing key concepts for the first unit I will be teaching (whenever that may be). 

Aside from wanting to just hit the ground running (a sentiment I’ve been warned I might later regret having), my experience at *** have been very positive so far. The staff are supportive and the students are extremely talented and well-behaved. 

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A little snippet from my “first day” introductory powerpoint.
Some Background Information About the School (‘Shkola’)
For those who are new to my teaching journey, I am a new teacher at the *** school of Math and Physics in Kazakhstan. *** is a network of schools around the country whose aim is “to increase the intellectual capacity of Kazakhstan as well as to implement the best Kazakhstani and international practices.” The locals usually refer to *** as the “President’s School.” *** is an extension of the public education system in Kazakhstan, but students must pass an exam to get into the school, and they must  maintain their grades to stay.  The schools have a trilingual policy in which students receive instruction in Russian, Kazak, and English. 

The facilities are clean and well maintained. The hallways are MASSIVE compared to the schools in Canada. There is a canteen that is open all day, where teachers and students can have lunch for cheap (a regular meal at lunch would cost me no more than 3 USD). In all, there are over 300 staff members that assist with various upkeep activities at the school; from security to plant maintenance (they take their plants very seriously here). 

The Teachers (‘Uchitelya’)
International teachers are invited from around the world to help shape the new educational models and introduce innovative teaching practices into the country. Out of the 170 or so teaching staff, there are about 20 international teachers. One of my favourite things about teaching in Kazakhstan is getting to know the other international teachers in our staff team. A lot of people back home think I’m crazy for coming here, but it’s good to know I’m not the only one! I have colleagues from England, South Africa, the United States, Canada, Germany, Kenya, the Philippines… and now we’re all in Kazakhstan! They have all different types of accents and have taught all over the world. I love listening to their stories and hearing about the experiences they’ve had prior to teaching in Kazakhstan.

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The moment you realize you just fit right in.
That’s all for now. Stay posted for updates about my teaching journey, and what it’s like living so far from home. Leave a comment below if you have questions or words of encouragement, they will be most welcome. =)  

Adventures in Kazakhstan – Travelling

Some things I learned on my trip from Canada to Kazakhstan :

1. Not all travel pillows are created equal. I was cheap, so I just took the one my mom and brother used on their trip earlier this summer instead of buying a new one. My brother had warned me against this, but I was convinced that he was just using it wrong. It was one of those firm, memory foam travel cushions and probably the most uncomfortable thing I could have used on the journey. Luckily for me, Turkish Airlines provided mini-pillows, a blanket, and a “comfort pack” that had things like toothbrush and toothpaste, a sleeping mask, a pair of socks, slippers, and lip balm to all its passengers (Air Canada really needs to step up its game). What I can say for sure though, is that having an uncomfortable travel pillow is better than having no travel pillow at all because after I arrived in Almaty, KZ, I had to take a 5 hour ride to get to Taldykorgan, the city where I now work. Since the bus I rode in was more spacious than the seats in the airplane, I was able to try out different configurations until I figured out the optimal pillow-to-head ratio and positioning to be comfortable for the trip. 

2.  Starbucks is pretty much the same everywhere. If they don’t know how to spell your name, they will make it up. My first ever “butcher your name” experience was at the Starbucks in Istanbul airport: 

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When the barista asked for my name I said, “April.” He then proceeded to write down “Ibra.”
3. Not all customs officers will treat you like a criminal. Prior to the trip, I had been watching a lot of “Border Security” (on National Geographic Channel) with my younger brother. So, after I claimed my bags at the Almaty airport, I was mentally preparing myself for this lengthy inspection process where I would have to declare all the food items I brought into the country (I packed some comfort foods like candy, chocolate, instant tea and coffee), and to explain that the fuzzy peaches I brought with me were artificial peach flavor, etc. As I was bumbling about the airport with my bags looking for the bag inspection area, one of the officers noticed that I was struggling so she stopped me and pointed me towards a door. I tentatively walked through. . . and that was it! So, for the ten minutes I had been trying to figure out whether or not they would let me bring my fuzzy peaches into the country, the school representative who had been sent to meet me had been standing about 4 meters away from me the entire time. And all I had to do was walk through a door. What a relief it was to see him there!

4. The “enroutes” in Kazakhstan are very different than the ones in Canada. Now, Almaty is only about 250km away from Taldykorgan, but they are currently fixing all the roads so instead of a 2-3 hour car ride, it took about 5 hours, during which I drank minimal amounts of water to avoid making pit stops along the way. 

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What I’m used to.
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What’s it’s like here.
5. A little Russian goes a long way. Prior to the trip, I learned some basic Russian phrases to help get me started (e.g. ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘thank you’, etc.). Since I’ve arrived, these phrases have been tremendously useful in terms of basic communication with the locals and it’s actually helping me learn the language faster since I am at least somewhat familiar with some of the pronunciation. The native language here is Kazak, but I the official language here is Russian, and most people will know how to speak it. One thing I regret not buying prior to the trip is a Russian phrase book (useful for shopping, asking for directions, etc.). As an alternative, I’ve been writing down phrases and words in a little notebook I carry around with me, and now I know to look these words up ahead of time and write them in my notebook before going to the market. My next goal is to learn the Russian alphabet. 
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The basic phrases I learned prior to the trip.

Adventures in Kazakhstan – Day 1

I’m so grateful to have the support of my school and colleagues for my transition from Canada to Kazakhstan. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was met by a school representative and driver at the Almaty airport who accompanied me on the trip to Taldykorgan. Then, when we arrived at my new apartment in Taldykorgan, I was met by a VP (one who deals with the international teachers at the school) and a friend of mine who also works at the school. They helped me move my belongings into my new apartment, and later that day, two of my colleagues took me on a basic tour of the town.  

My New Apartment
As someone who has been living the student life too long to have high expectations, the apartment I have been assigned is more than I could have asked for. While the decorations are a bit on the lavish side, I definitely have more space than I need! My apartment came fully furnished with a kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, and spare room. In addition, I have  a few updated appliances including a plus size fridge and a new washer.  I was also left with some some kitchenware (likely from the previous owner), and given new bedding and bath towels to help get me started. The VP also bought me some food items like bread, yogurt, water so I wouldn’t have to starve on my first day.

A Festival
What a treat on my first day! We managed to run into a festival/celebration (of what, I’m still not sure) in the streets across from my place. There were tents of cultural displays, people playing music, and someone even brought in their pet eagle! 

The School
About a 10 minute walk from my apartment, the school is large and spacious with a swimming pool (the only school with one in my city), tennis courts, a gymnasium, auditorium, library, canteen. . . you name it. The hallways are also incredibly spacious, contrasted to the narrow ones I’m used to at the public schools in Ontario. There are many pictures and statues of the President Nazarbayev throughout the school.

Adventures in Kazakhstan – Getting The Job

To read the prequel, click here.

Before the school year came to an end, I spoke with a school counselor in regards to my worries about finding a job and having to fend for myself in the adult world. I asked for some practical advice on the job hunt/interview process, and the top five pieces of advice he gave me were:

1. Get a LinkedIn account.  It really works! Exhibit A: my current job. Unlike visiting individual job search sites that add spokes to your wheel, networking is like adding entire wheels to each spoke (see diagrams below). 

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Type of connections individual job search sites offer.
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Networking opens up more connections.
2. If you have an online or phone interview, don’t wear pants. Check out my version of “letting it loose” below. 

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An interview is already nerve-racking enough. Loosen up!
3. Always follow up. Call, email, or send a card to your interviewers to thank them for their time, and this could also be a good time to ask for feedback about the interview.

4. Practice, practice, practice, practice, and practice some more! There’s no way you can prepare answers to every single possible question they will ask you at an interview, however, you can think about situations in which you’ve exemplified a certain skill that’s relevant to the position, and practice telling that story in a clear and concise manner. If you’re like me, not practicing prior to an interview will only end one way:

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Word vomit.
5. After you’re done school, take some time to relax and do NOTHING (easier said than done). Then devote a good two weeks to the job hunting process – it’s a full time job! 

So, it turns out I didn’t have to spend the full intensive two weeks job hunting… I was haphazardly updating my LinkedIn profile when I saw that a friend of mine whom I worked with two years ago made a post about teaching positions available at his school. I sent him a message, and a few emails, a lesson plan, resume, and Skype conversation later, I managed to get an interview with the school! 

The interview was an important deciding factor for me, because it gave me the chance to ask the interviewers about the school culture, some of the things they enjoyed most about the school, and some things they thought could use some improvement. Their responses were genuine, and they didn’t give me stock responses that made me want to cringe (“Oh the students are great, yeah, really great! [Full stop. No further explanation provided]”). Another thing I appreciated was the fact that the school sent me a sample copy of the contract to review right when they gave me the offer instead of swaying me into an agreement before I could review the terms and conditions for myself. (SIDE STORY: During my time of post-grad panic, I accepted a part time position as a tutor for a tutoring company that was a two hour bus ride away from home. It wasn’t until after the first training session that the employer revealed to me that training was unpaid. Which, isn’t the worst thing if that was the whole story, BUT I was expected to attend monthly training sessions (an additional 5 hours a month, not including the induction process), AND that bit of information just happened to have been left out of the contract.) 

Tangents aside, because I was able to see myself working well with the people at the Nazarbayev Intellectual School in Taldykorgan, KZ, because they had been honest and professional in their dealings with me, and because I knew I would have at least one friend at the school, I decided to take the job. 

Of course, my family insisted that I also do a sh*t ton of research before committing myself to the position, so I did my due diligence and asked as many questions as I could before accepting the offer. After that, the rest of the summer was spent vegetating at home and gathering all the paperwork that was needed to obtain my visa. 

Up Next: Adventures in Kazakhstan – Getting There

Adventures In Kazakhstan: Prequel

This is the story of how I ended up with a teaching job in Kazakhstan. Here, I’ve decided to include a “prequel” because, unlike getting a job in a local public board, the UK, Australia or the like, telling people that I’m going to Kazakhstan usually demands a more rigorous explanation. For one, people either assume I’m going to an extremely remote part of the world, or some sort of war-torn country. I’ve found that telling this truth generally elicits a visceral reaction that causes family and friends to begin to fear for my safety, and strangers to look at me like I’m crazy. My grandparents have already revealed to me that this fear has caused them to have regular nightmares of me in life-threatening situations across the world. The other explanation for a background story is that I also feel the need to justify, or at least consolidate some of the choices I have made that led me here. This post was not easy for me to write, because it meant confronting some ugly truths about the decisions I’ve made, and the after-math of living out those consequences. But I am writing with the self-assurance that “the truth will set you free,” so please bear with me.

                                                                                . . .

A Fear of Commitment

It was three months prior to my expected graduation date I was already panicking about the ominous and uncertain future ahead of me. Scattered about teacher’s college were select students who had already been offered teaching contracts in different countries overseas (and even public school boards for a lucky few!). One by one, as the pool of unemployment began to shrink around me, the reality of Life After School became more and more real. I began to question a lot of things, including the vocation I had chosen. University life had opened me to more possibilities than just traditional teaching. Throughout my time at university, I had the privilege of working within the student housing and academic affairs department. I learned that the skills I possessed as a teacher were also invaluable to positions I held outside that role. What if I had picked the wrong profession? Should I explore other options before settling down? Those were the types of questions lingering in my mind. Maybe I should have been asking myself why I was having those thoughts in the first place.

Those last three months before the end of the school year not only exemplified a period of great uncertainty, but also some of the worst decision-making I have ever done in my life. Wanting to keep my options open, I applied to any and all jobs I had the qualifications for, and yet I would find some excuse or other to not take the jobs I had been offered. Not really knowing what I wanted, I deluded myself into thinking that every job I applied for was going to be “the one.” I was desperate and picky; and because I did not take the time to truly understand the rationale behind each one of my actions, I was not able to act with honesty or integrity. I sought explanations outside myself, and rejected offers because my family did not approve, because I would not be able pay off student loans, because it was too far from home, because, because, because…  All of my excuses, compounded with a deep inner desire to make my family proud, ended up sabotaging the healthy connections I had created while in university.

Burning Bridges

To give you an example, there was a summer job opening within the student housing department at my school that would allow me to stay in town a few months longer doing work for the people which I owe much of my gratitude. I interviewed for the position and was offered the job. I, being stupidly short sighted, I only thought about how great it would be able to continue working at the university, and did not factor in any long term goals or plans. When I eventually went to turn down the job – (Okay, dramatic PAUSE here) I mean, who DOES that anyway? Not many new grads are lucky enough to find employment, let alone being able to afford the luxury of turning job offers down – I faced a painful reality check.

My interviewers were gracious enough to provide some feedback for the interview upon my request. To foreign ears, this feedback may seem unsolicited or unprofessional, but because these people had been my mentors for the last few years, I took their advice with an open heart. The conversation went something like this, “April, I think you really need to assess your own values and where they stand in relation to your family’s values, and what they want for you. This is not the first time you’ve turned down a position like this, and people will remember you for that. Employers invest a lot of time and energy into the hiring process, and when they make the decision to hire you, and you reject that offer, you are burning bridges in a way.” Those words struck me like massive blows to the head, and the reason I felt them so harshly was because in my heart, I knew them to be true.

It is not easy to confront the ugly, selfish, and completely idiotic side of yourself. People always have a tendency to deny its existence. Luckily for me, I had some pretty wise mentors who were not afraid of holding a mirror up to my face and showing me what I had neglected to see. When I think on this memory I am reminded of something a good friend said to me, “People of our generation think that just because we’ve gone to school and graduated with fancy diplomas, we are entitled to a well-paying job” – it simply isn’t true. It was lesson in humility that will stick with me forever.

After that episode, I gave up on the job hunt for a while, which eventually led me to a position as a senior math teacher in Kazakhstan. More on that later.