Saturday 28 June 2014

An Open Letter To: My Life in China

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By the time this post goes up, we'll be starting our journey home to Canada. While I am literally bursting with joy and anticipation at the thought, the moment is still bittersweet. I was not ready to leave Canada last August to start the second year, but obligation got me on that airplane and I'm really glad it did.

I don't want this post to come across all cheesy, but I got a lot of feedback on last year's informal reflection, and so I'm offering this as an update. It's a lot longer, but I'm not coming back this time, so I've got more to say. Okay, here goes!

Dear My Life in China,

You have been busy, and full of many new experiences and adventures. You let me travel to a lot of really-frigging-cool places and see a lot of really-frigging-cool things. You have challenged me daily, and I haven't always won, but we're going home now so it's time to say thanks.

To my students: This will sound horribly and cringe worthily cliche, but my students are the reason I get out of bed in the morning. You are the reason I can say I like my job, and you are the reason it was a difficult choice to return home to Canada.  I don't like marking tests and essays (in fact I loathe it), I don't like the bureaucratic hoops I need to jump through to complete a simple task, I don't like the fights I have to fight to make your in class experience as good as I know how to make it - and there are days where it doesn't seem good at all.  There are many weeks where I work 10 hour days, 6 days a week - I'm exhausted all the time - but somehow you manage to convince me, every single day, that you are worth it.

At the beginning of the year I started a tradition of Starbucks Fridays with a friend as a way to "get through the week" and "have something to look forward to". I learned really quickly that with you guys as students, I don't have anything to get through and I look forward to everyday. Now I just drink coffee on Friday because I like it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of the sappy people who say things like "I hate the weekend because I love working soooooo much!" Barf. Those people are liars - don't ever believe anything they tell you ever again - everyone loves the weekend. The weekend is my favourite time of the week, it's my me time where I can sleep late and I never have to feel "on", I just happen to not hate Mondays (.... I still hate Tuesdays), and that is purely and undeniably because of the awesome young adults I get to spend my time with for hours a day. And so to them, I say thank you.

To the culture: I don't get you. I appreciate you and I think you are deeply fascinating, but I do not understand you. You have guided your population through life for thousands of years and have created an industrious and hardworking people, but you have some of the strangest (and seemingly backward) set of traditions and superstitions that I've ever known. Thanks to you, I'll never write a person's name in red ink again, I'll think strange things about people who jiggle their leg when they are sitting, and I'll have to endure strange looks when I as ask for my water lukewarm.

I'm afraid to say, there are certain aspects of your modern culture that are driving me away. After two years, the people in the grocery store don't stare at me any less. In fact, the people all over this country don't stare at me any less. Nor are they very inconspicuous when they try to take my photo, and I find it rude. Where I'm from it's not okay to get all up in someone's face just because they look different. It's tiring and irksome and I hate it.

And after two years I still can't get on board with the whole "split pants" thing. I've tried to tell myself that it's just the way it's done here, the culture is different, and so on and so forth. But you know what? It's dirty, and in a city of 15 million people it causes a lot of shit on the streets and a lot of bacteria in your lungs. And while we're at it, if you need to hoark up that much phlegm every single day, could you do it in your own bathroom? Not two inches from my foot? It would really make my day-to-day view of this place a lot better.

To Shenzhen: You are crowded and sweaty and you kind of smell bad. In some ways you're new and glitzy and there's a general sense that too many people have too much money, and then in others you seem to always be falling apart and drenched in poverty. You are a juxtaposition in yourself.

I will not miss your loose sidewalk bricks that splash who-knows-what all over my legs. I will not miss having to stare at my feet as I walk to avoid the multitude of mystery puddles and stains (especially when it hasn't rained in weeks). I will not miss the chaos of your streets or the constant game of Chicken I play with all forms of motorized vehicles. But I will miss your bubble teas, greasy breads, and fresh juices. I will miss your definition of "winter" and the funny little areas that you've created for me to explore. I'll miss the idea of being able to get almost anything for not very much (unless what I'm looking for is good dairy products or baking supplies), and the fact that you've got a mall or market for everything. In many ways you are the reason we are leaving, but in your own way you've been good to us.

To my friends: Living in China is not always easy. In fact, many days it can seem quite difficult. And I wouldn't have been able to make it through 2 years without you. This message is for friends old and new. Simply, thanks.

I could probably go on, and on, and on but I'll stop here, because I can.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Travel: Bagan, Burma

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Of all the places we were able to visit while travelling through Burma (Myanmar), Bagan has to be the most majestic. That's right, majestic - like a unicorn. This patch of land is nothing short of serene, dotted with golden stupas as far as the eye can see. Small and calm, the only hustle and bustle you'll see here is tourists (local and foreign) temple hopping, and even that is done in a leisurely way often accompanied by a bicycle through the relatively flat area.

The downside to this leg of the trip was that it was cut much too short by a bout of stomach flu that kept a few locked up in the hotel unable to enjoy our unique surroundings, or even the great riverside view.  On that note, it should be made clear that "travellers stomach" is a very common occurrence when travelling through Burma and it can hit people in different ways.  Some will get fully knocked out by it for a day or so and then be fine, others will have low level symptoms the entire trip, and others still may not be affected at all.  If you're travelling through this area (and I highly recommend it!) please do your research and take the appropriate medications so that you can fully enjoy your time away.

Now… back to Bagan! Divided into three main sections; Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung U, with the North and South Plains spread around them, there is easily enough to see and do fill at least three days. That is, of course, assuming you like to explore a land so filled with temples and stupas that feels almost impossible for your eyes to never be resting on at least one, if not many simultaneously.

During our time here we stayed within the "new" and "old" Bagan areas, and due to funny stomachs, we never made it over to Nyaung U (which just means I have a great reason to return!) We travelled easily around the area on rented bicycles (motor bikes and horse carts are also available) and had the leisure of seeing what we wanted to see when we wanted to see it.

Like all tourist destinations in all corners of the world, Bagan has some "must-see"locations, and while it's easy to see why they are so highly recommended, some of my favourite sites were the smaller venues that we stopped at in passing. We also managed to find a tasty little cafe in the shade that offered us more than one recoup session over the course of a couple days.

To help you with your planning, here are some recommend DO, EAT, and SHOP destinations. I wish I could offer you more, because I really left feeling as though there was just so much more to see and do, but I'll just have to return for myself to fill in the rest. 

  • Catch the sunset from the top of a temple! The golden hour in this part of the world provides spectacular views across the temple dotted plain of Bagan. There are options that are close and crowded, or further a field and…. still quite crowded. It's true, for the best views you won't have the place to yourself, but arrive early and you'll be able to snag a good seat. And despite the crowds, the process is quite tranquil. A little further out, but a little less trafficked the Pyathada Paya has an excellent viewing spot with a large flat terrace and plenty of spots to rest your feet. 
  • Rent a bike! There are small side of the road rental stands all over the place that offer decent day rates. If you're going around Old Bagan, the plains or even into New Bagan, travelling by bike was a great, scenic way to get it done. 
  • Be Kind to Animals the Moon - despite it's funny name, this charming garden cafe and restaurant is an absolute must! We went three times because the food was good, the drinks were cold, and the atmosphere was relaxed. Their tea leaf salad and ginger lime tea (iced was my favourite) stand out in my memory, but I don't remember getting anything we didn't love, and we got a lot!
  • Shwe War Thein Handicrafts was one of our only stops on the shopping trail while in Bagan but was a treasure trove of well priced lacquerware and antiques (official papers provided so you don't run into trouble at the airport). It's well off the main road that leads into Old Bagan, but is easily found by well placed signage. If the connection's good, you can even pay with credit card (very rare). 

Have you been to Bagan? Or even Burma? What was your favourite part? I'd love to know!

Until next time, you can catch up on Part 1 of our trip through Burma here.

Sunday 8 June 2014

Oreo Stuffed Vanilla Cupcakes

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There's just three weeks left before I'm boarding a plane to move back to Canada, and the feeling is a little surreal.  Bittersweet is probably the best word to use, but more on that in another post. We're here to talk about cupcakes, and that's just what we are going to do!

These were made for the last day of classes (because that's just how I roll) and they feature a tasty vanilla cake, a surprise oreo in the middle (because why not?), are topped off with cookies and cream frosting, and then more oreo. Decadent is an understatement, but the last day of class deserves a little decadence, no?

The actual cake turned out slightly more dense than I had hoped, but I don't think anyone else noticed - everyone was too busy stuffing their faces with these morsels of goodness, just as they should be. 

The process is as simple as can be and merely involves dolloping a little batter in the bottom of each cupcake liner, tossing a cookie on top and then continuing to fill the cup until about 1/2 from the top. Too easy, right? The reward is unreal and has definitely become an instant classic.

Oreo Stuffed Vanilla Cupcakes with Cookies and Cream Frosting
adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction

Makes approximately 16 - 18 cupcakes

1 and 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 scant cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 egg whites
1/4 cup yogurt
3/4 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the frosting: After a (very) failed batch of homemade frosting in which I had no butter and no electric mixture, I had to resort to a jar of good ol' Duncan Hines mixed with approximately 10 crushed oreos. 
  1. Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Line muffin tin with cupcake liners and set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt - set aside for later. 
  3. In a large microwave-safe bowl, melt butter in the microwave. Stir in the sugar until fully combined, the mixture will be gritty. 
  4. Mix in egg whites, yogurt, milk, and vanilla extract until combined. 
  5. Slowly mix dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until there are no lumps - the batter will be quite thick
  6. Spoon about 1 Tbsp of batter into each cupcake liner and top with an oreo. Press down gently to help settle the batter and then top with more batter until you are 1/3-1/2 inch from the top of the tin.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool completely before icing.
  8. Enjoy!


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