She's been intimate with an octopus and smuggled scorpions onto a cruise liner under her clothing. She's traverses five continents and now tackles her most recent escapade. Let's check her out.
I've had the stellar privilege of traveling with Alexis around the world. As someone who takes their travel buddy choosing very seriously, I was amazed at the karmic happenstance of scoring a potluck roommate aboard Semester at Sea that became such a dear comrade and friend.
I report this to you not because she's my best friend (or because she could squish me with her trekking shoe) but because she's someone you should know. She's Alexis Reller. She's taller than everyone in China, except maybe Yao.
Her Bio: I'm a 186cm Western female romping around China for a year (6"1' for all the confused Mei Guo Rens, Americans)... that means I fall somewhere between celebrity and freak to the Chinese. I am here to teach English and American Politics and Government at Hebei Normal University in Shijiazhuang, China. My flexible and non-demanding workload make traveling easy: this country is NOT small, but I travel it like it is. My current passions include self-depreciation for screwing up my Madarin tones, consuming gratuitous amounts of noodles and pi jiu (preferably simultaneously) and furthering my love/hate relationship with my 2009 Lonely Planet China.
What sort of music are your students listening to, and does China love American music as much as the rest of the world?
The kiddies do enjoy some American beats, namely the late great MJ. All of the songs they blast on their speakers are quite behind the times; I just heard Elliott Yamin crooning "(Baby I will) Wait For You" and an unidentified American pop hit from the 1970s. I haven't the slightest idea how they get these random songs, especially considering China's well developed illegal downloading cyber infrastructure.
Do you have any other jobs in China other than teaching at the university?
Many foreigners easily pick up extra teaching or tutoring to pick up some extra RMB on the weekends. Some of my friends and I have picked up some "modeling" gigs. I was paid a handsome sum to wear an ugly red dress and hand out flyers at a grand opening for a luxury housing development. My friend Josh received the equivalent of a third of one month's salary to appear at a medical conference in a neighboring province. He was provided with a pre-written speech and an alias: Dr. Jesse McCartney, M.D., Specialist in Prostate Cancer (No, I'm really not kidding). I still have not yet wrapped my head around the Chinese intrigue with foreigners, but until I do, I will continue to accept gratuitous amounts of cash for doing next to nothing.
Maybe the Chinese maybe overuse the word "maybe". Maybe after you are here for awhile you will maybe do the same? Maybe...
What are the most hilarious cultural trends or habits specific to the Chinese?
Everyday in my neighborhood a large truck drives by blaring carousel music a la the Ice Cream Man. Don't be fooled, this truck doesn't bring ice cream. Instead, they spray the street down with water. Apparently, its to control the dust.
They also LOVE foreigners. One of my students once told me, in all sincerity, that he thought Americans hated them, the Chinese. I asked him why he thought this. He responded, "Well, when my friend and I went to Tienanmen during the Olympics we saw many Americans. We ran up to the to say hello and take pictures of them, but they were not friendly to us." The Chinese love foreigners but are super awkward in expressing this feeling. Two months into the semester I still have students that whip out their phones to take pictures of me as I am trying to turn on the computer/write on the board/blow my nose. Reminiscent of the Paparazzi, it can be a little obnoxious. But they really mean no harm. So get ready for your close-up...
Any sticky situations with that infamous Chinese traffic yet?
I've been lucky, but I was once trying to balance a large potted plant in my bike's basket while talking to my friend on the phone, and I nearly ended up squished to the back of a city bus. Not wise choices.
China really has no traffic rules. They have traffic suggestions. Maybe. I also find that biking in China is both a simultaneous stress inducer/reliever. Inducer in that people are forever swerving, cutting me off or playing chicken with me. Yelling obscure English curse words out loud is somewhat of a relief though.
I know you've been all over the country these last few months. What's train travel like?
Train travel in China is not your mother's sport. Many new travelers to the train scene might be a bit overwhelmed. There will probably be odd smells, shirtless men, only squat toilets and people yelling into their cellphones at five in the morning. The Chinese don't often bring things to entertain themselves (ie books, magazines); if you are a Western, be prepared to BE the entertainment, for a little while, at least.
All that being said, traveling by train in China is AWESOME. I have seen hours and hours of beautiful countryside that would have been totally missed if I traveled by plane. Once I learned how to work the system, I learned that traveling by train in China is convenient, affordable and fairly comfortable. I'm also very proud of my train ticket collection (22 tickets in about 80 days).
China seems to have jobs for English speakers out the yin-yang. What's the ex-pat community like?
The ex-pat community in China varies greatly, depending on where you are. Metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai are like playgrounds for foreigners with plenty of decent Western eats and bars. Some smaller cities like Guilin, Kunming and Dunhaung also have thriving expat communities. Most foreigners are here to learn the language, teach their own language and/or have a blast.
But almost as bad as the Ugly Tourist is the Ugly Foreigner: someone who abuses Western Privilege. The Chinese are intrigued by foreigners and thus Westerners are often times given advantages over the locals. This comes in great handy if you have someone escort you to the front of a lengthy queue or you dodge a few cover charges at clubs. But I have seen far too many foreign Beijingers romp around like they own the place, degrading both the scene and the countries they are representing. All in all, I've met some darn cool people.
What home comforts have you found in your city?
There are a couple of grocery stores in my city that sell cheese, baguettes and Skippy peanut butter. Oh yes, and Shijiazhuang also has a Dairy Queen.
Living abroad is not easy, and I remember China being an aggravating and difficult place to travel. How have you learned to cope with the frustrations of ex-pat life?
Pi jiu with my peng yous. (Beer with my friends)
I jest. But only partially.
I have a job that I love in a city that I hate....which happens to be conveniently located on a major train line. I have been here nearly 3 months and this will only be my second weekend in Shijiazhuang (I'm staying to stimulate my economic situation). I travel constantly and I love it. My friends in nicer cities like Beijing and Guilin have not capitalized on this opportunity to roam and are already starting to envy my adventurous ways.
It also helps that I have a strong network back home to support me in times of stress/homesickness. My parents and Reller-tives surely have some frequent buyer discount with the US Postal Service, given the amount of treats they have shipped over the Pacific to me. And even though they are on the other side of the planet, my friends/sisters are still sending me love messages from the bar and coaching me through my law school personal statement (thanks especially to Linsey, Cecilia and Mikala). My coordinates may have drastically changed, but my friends still keep me grounded.
Can you teach us a good phrase in Mandarin that will tickle a Chinese funny bone?
An easy phrase to use is pronounced like "Ren Shan, Ren Hi!", literally meaning "People Mountain, People Sea" or "Oh Cripes, this place is packed." ANYONE traveling in China will inevitably find themselves in a crowded situation at some point. Busting this phrase out will surely lead to some chuckles...and probably rapid Mandarin responses as everyone around will now have assumed you speak their language fluently. Congratulations for momentarily fooling them.
How do you think you'll feel when you return to America in July of 2010?
POOR, sad and hungry. But also proud and grateful for my year in China. And I'm sure it will be wonderful to see all of the family again, too.
One of the first questions that any Chinese person will ask you is, "Do you like Chinese food?" My first few months here I would respond positively through gritted teeth: secretly, I was NOT a fan. I was so sick of fried rice and pork dumplings I once resorted to eating KFC, something I would never crave in the US.
Now, I am in love with the food here. Everything is unprocessed and fresh. In China, I watch my noodles being rolled and pulled right in front of me. My veggies are not chopped until I order. Since food is really cheap here, I can go out with friends a lot. My opinon might change with time, but I am currently dreading my return to US food. Especially when a lunch out with friends costs 8USD for a sandwich and unfrozen soup instead of 40 cents for a giant bowl of family recipe, time perfected, glorious homemade noodles and tofu. Hen hao chi! Delicious!
Do you have any questions for Alexis about China, teaching English, or being an ex-pat? Leave a comment, and I'll get them to her (as she has a terrible internet connection).