Pandemic Adventures Part 2: Stuck in Limbo

My last post ended with my stay at a hotel near Bangkok airport, waiting for my flight back to Shenzhen (well, back to Guangzhou, as there weren’t any flights to Shenzhen and Guangzhou is the next closest city). The night before my flight I had messages from several of my friends in Shenzhen telling me that the Chinese government had just announced they would be closing the border to foreigners as of 00:00 on Saturday 28th March (link to article here). My flight was due to land at 11.20pm on 27th March. I thought I would arrive just in time to scrape through passport control and get back home to China.

Unfortunately, this was not to be.

When queuing to check in for my flight, I and other non-Chinese in the line were approached by other foreigners who told us that they’d been turned away when they got to the check-in desk. There was no official announcement, nothing from the staff of the airline. So I continued to queue in the vain hope that I would be allowed on the flight or at least be given some useful information. Instead, I got to the front of the queue and was just told no, please go over there out of the way.

I kept asking people to try and get some official information and eventually was directed to a member of staff around whom was a growing group of foreigners. We were told that even though the plane was due to land at 11.20pm, by the time the plane got to the gate and everyone had their temperature checked it would take about two hours, and so we wouldn’t get through immigration until after midnight and therefore wouldn’t be let in the country.

And so I became stuck in Thailand.

That was on 27th March. Two months, one week and three days later and I’m still in Thailand. And there’s no news about when the Chinese border will reopen to foreigners.

Thankfully, I have two amazing friends – James and Nat – who took me in, for which I am eternally grateful.

I felt at the time that the whole situation completely sucked, and the feeling of being stuck in limbo was horrible; however, I tried to look on the bright side and be grateful that I’m healthy, I have wonderful friends, I’m safe and I have a place to stay.

Since then I’ve had many, many ups and downs.

My work informed me that as I wasn’t able to return to China, once my students returned to school I would no longer be able to teach them. My students returned to school on 11th May, so after 12 weeks of teaching online I had to stop teaching.

In the run up to this point, as well as at many times since being stuck in limbo, I was an absolute wreck. I find it really difficult to talk about such things, but writing about it is – for some reason – a little easier. I’ve had many days where I’ve just been in floods of tears. I’ve been angry, I’ve been sad, I’ve been heartbroken, I’ve been grateful, I’ve been stressed, I’ve been anxious, I’ve been depressed. I’ve pretty much been a roller coaster of emotions over the last four months.

Basically the only things getting me through all this have been my friends, my partner and my family. I honestly don’t know what I would have done, how much worse my situation would be, if it wasn’t for them. They have kept me sane, they’ve given me a place to live, they’ve called me, they’ve made me laugh, they’ve kept me company, they’ve comforted me, they’ve helped me in so so many ways I can’t even count.

I have to give a special mention here to Hela, my flatmate who I’ve never lived with because she moved into my flat after I became stuck in Thailand (which had been planned months earlier). She has spent hours on video calls with me, helping me to sort through all my things, organising and re-organising everything, selling things I wasn’t keeping, coordinating with other friends to sort out and pack my belongings, and generally being just an amazing friend. I really don’t know how I would have got all my stuff in Shenzhen sorted out and shipped if it wasn’t for her.

At this point, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to go back to Shenzhen before starting my new job in Myanmar. I’m really upset that after nearly nine years I’m not going to have the chance to say a proper goodbye to my friends, colleagues and the kids I’ve taught. Yes, I’m hoping to go back and visit once everything reopens, but it isn’t – it won’t be – the same. I loved living in Shenzhen; I had an amazing time there, met so many great people, did so many brilliant things and visited so many fantastic places. It’s such a shame it’s all ending like this. And I’m truly heartbroken.

Despite all the emotional turmoil I’ve been experiencing, there have been good things that have come out of all this. Here’s a few of the positives I’ve been trying to keep in mind during this whole thing:

I’ve started walking on a semi-regular basis, and I’ve walked a total of 182km since 13th April. Looking at this I’ve just realised if I walk another 18km in the next seven days that’ll make it 200km I’ll have walked in two months. Not bad going for someone who hates exercise, even if I do say so myself!

I’ve gotten back in touch with and had video chats with several friends who I hadn’t spoken to in years – one of whom I think it was nearly 20 years since we had an actual conversation rather than a Facebook chat! It’s been really lovely to catch up with people and have regular chats with people who I live thousands of miles away from.

Since I’ve stopped working, I’ve been using my time to study. I’m doing a Masters in Educational Leadership and Management through the University of Bath via distance learning, and I just have my dissertation left to complete. This has actually given me the time to concentrate on this and (hopefully) I can get most of it completed before I start my new job.

Other ups and downs have included the anniversary of the passing of both my maternal grandparents, the death of a close family friend, the nine year anniversary of announcing I was moving to China, and getting a new job in Myanmar as KS2 Coordinator (overseeing classes in years 3 to 6/ages 7 to 11 for non-teachers!). I’m very much looking forward to my new job and settling into my new home; I just hope the borders open in time for me to get there and finish any quarantine that’s required before I’m due to start at the beginning of August.

Rainbow after a thunderstorm.

Pandemic Adventures

I haven’t been on social media much recently, simply because everything has been so crazy and I’ve been trying to get my head around a whole load of things. Now I’ve been in one place for a few days, here’s what’s been happening with me.

My school’s Chinese New Year holiday began on Saturday 18th January, and I flew to India on 21st January for a fantastic tour around loads of places with great friends. At the time the novel coronavirus was just starting to be a news item, but as it was a two hour flight away in Wuhan, we initially didn’t think it would affect us at all. I had a fantastic time in India; however, it was gradually overshadowed by the increasing number of cases spreading throughout China. In the third and final week of our holiday, our flights back to Shenzhen were cancelled and we were informed that our school would not be reopening on 10th February as planned.

At this point we all had to make decisions about what to do and where to go, which ended up being all different places. I continued with my original plan of visiting one of my good friends in Goa while I figured out what to do next. Autum suggested I go to stay with her in Kazakhstan, as then I wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel, so I booked a flight to Dubai and then on to Atyrau as it was about £200 cheaper to do it that way. Plus it meant I got to visit Dubai for a couple of days and go up the tallest building in the world.

However, things are never that straight forward of course. Autum’s work were concerned about me coming to visit as I live in China, even though by the time I would have arrived I would have been out of the country for nearly three weeks, and suggested I don’t come immediately. This was quite upsetting as it seemed really unreasonable at the time and left me slightly stranded. My flights then got cancelled as there was a time change which meant the connection didn’t work, but at least it meant I could get a full refund. However, I’d already booked a hotel in Dubai and tickets to watch the sunset from the 155th floor of the Burj Khalifa.

I booked a new flight to Dubai, and bid farewell to my friend in Goa. After lots of discussion and looking at options, I then flew to Bahrain for a few days. This gave me a base to work out of for a week of remote teaching which wasn’t too far from Dubai and so wasn’t too expensive to get to or stay in.

At this point we found out that school wasn’t going to reopen on 17th February, as per the first update we received, but was being pushed back again to 24th February due to requirements from the local government in Shenzhen. I had been wondering about this and hadn’t yet booked my outward flight from Bahrain, as I wasn’t sure if I would have to go straight back to China or if it would be better for me to stay out of the country for now. As it seemed that this whole situation wasn’t going to get better overnight, I booked a flight from Bahrain to Kazakhstan for the Friday of that week.

Bahrain seems like a lovely country, although I didn’t really get to see very much of it. The whole time I was there was the first week of remote teaching, and I had to do this using only my phone. When packing for India I had decided not to bring my laptop as I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be doing any work (school work or masters) during my travels. This meant that from the moment we found out that school wasn’t going to open on 10th Feb, halfway through the last week of our CNY holiday, we had to start planning for online teaching and learning. And I had to do all my planning, finding and making resources, recording and editing videos, uploading videos and resources, communicating with my year group colleagues, and checking and marking children’s work just using my phone.

All the things you have to do as a teacher take long enough as it is. Add to that: adapting everything for online learning, adapting teaching input to a series of under-5-minute videos to make sure they will actually upload, a constant stream of messages and emails about what we’re doing and how to do it, more messages about the changes happening in China, even more messages from parents concerned about their children’s education and what we’re doing about it, making lesson plans in word, making PowerPoints and pdfs for lessons and work for the children – and having to do it all using only a phone. As you may imagine, it all took rather a long time.

At this point in time many members of staff were in parts of the world and therefore time zones other than China, so staff were asked by school to be available from 2pm-8pm China time instead of the usual school day times. Bahrain is 5 hours behind China, which made it 9am-3pm for me; pretty reasonable times. However, as most of my colleagues were in China at this point I was waking up to around 200 messages every morning that first week. Once we started lessons and the children were uploading their work, I also had around 150 pieces of work to mark. Every day. Needless to say, I was working long after the time we were supposed to be available. Especially in the first couple of weeks, teaching online is so much more work than teaching in class. Everyone I have spoken to agrees with this. It’s so much easier actually being in school. On top of this some of the parents didn’t like the way we were teaching or the fact that school was closed, and started demanding that either they had a refund of the fees for semester 2 or the semester should be extended into the summer holiday. Of course, the teachers weren’t happy with this suggestion as we were all putting in more hours than we normally would be.

I managed to do a short tour of Bahrain on one day, by making my lesson videos and preparing everything the day before, and in between being constantly on my phone for work. Luckily, I was the only person on the tour so I could ask my tour guide, Ludmila, to repeat information if I missed anything she said! She was very accommodating, which was great. I saw the Tree of Life, the first oil well, Bahrain fort, the king’s camel farm, Al Fateh Grand Mosque, Bahrain National Museum, Bahrain Formula 1 track and Manama souq. It was a busy but interesting day!

On Friday 14th February, four days after school was supposed to open, I flew from Bahrain to Dubai to Almaty to Atyrau, finally arriving about 1am the next morning. Autum met me at the tiny airport with a borrowed winter coat, as I had gone from a balmy 20C to a slightly colder -5C. Atyrau in February is so cold that the river freezes over. When I visited last year we walked across the frozen Ural River and I stood on the line where Europe and Asia meet.

Week two of online teaching was considerably easier as I was able to borrow Autum’s laptop, and as the time difference was only 3 hours behind China I didn’t have quite as many work messages to wake up to. However, we had new requirements for online teaching from the Chinese Education Bureau and so had to change our timetable for that week to ensure we were meeting those requirements. This still meant making videos for every lesson, planning what we were doing, rewriting the planning into child-friendly instructions, having our Chinese Teaching Partners translate all the instructions into Chinese so the parents could read them too, making the resources and uploading everything to an online server for the parents to access. The first day of online teaching my TP had tried to email all the instructions and resources to all the parents – and her email had crashed. The school IT guy set up the online server as a solution, and that’s what we’ve been using ever since.

I felt much less stressed about the whole situation once I was staying with Autum. I’d been there before, so knew a few people as well as the place, and having a laptop to use for work made such a difference. Of course, the situation wasn’t done changing. The third week of online teaching we had another new timetable, still with video lessons as there were many staff and students still out of the country and so in different timezones.

At the end of the third week, we found out that we would be starting live online lessons the following Monday, 2nd March. This meant that I would begin teaching at 5am every day due to the time difference. The Education Bureau sent out information that the children should have a maximum of 2 hours online teaching per day in primary, with offline work also provided to follow on from the online lesson. This whole time I’d been in constant contact with my colleagues in Year 6 via WeChat, organising everything we had to do between us. (And I will say at this point that my colleagues have been awesome.) With the live lessons we were given the choice of using either a WeChat video platform or Zoom. As WeChat was only available in Chinese, we opted for Zoom!

Starting this whole process of teaching online was a complete baptism of fire. None of us had ever taken part in an online meeting system, let alone had any training. A lot of it was trial and error, at the same time as researching the best ways to do things, adapting our lessons, and trying to ensure that the students and parents were as happy as they could be, considering the difficult situation. What made the whole thing more difficult was the constant changes. Every week we were given different expectations for what and when we had to teach, and so a different timetable of lessons.

Once we started the online live lessons, it was really nice to see the kids again, have a chat with them and find out how they were doing. We got positive feedback from the parents as well, as they preferred the live lessons to video lessons, and the complaints and demands for a refund of fees stopped. For the second week of live online teaching, the number of lessons for the children increased to three per day, but as we were still limited to two hours online by the Education Bureau they had to be three 40 minute lessons back to back. Any offline work we set for the children had to then be completed after all the online lessons had finished.

On the Friday of week 4 of online teaching, and after we’d done all our planning for week 5, we were told there were more changes coming from the Education Bureau. These were supposed to start the following Monday, but as it was such short notice my school decided to keep with our then current plan of changing to three lessons each day for week 5 and start the new plan the week after on Monday 16th March. Previously, this date had been the proposed reopening date for school and all staff were encouraged to return before that date just in case. However, with the new information from the bureau it seemed that this was not to be.

Just to add to all the stress of teaching online, the constantly changing timetable, and the state of the world in general, I was only allowed to stay in Kazakhstan for 30 days and there was no way to extend my stay. This meant I had to leave by 14th March. Of course, this wasn’t going to be as straight forward as it should have been. 14th March was also the beginning of Autum’s spring break holiday, but due to the spreading virus her plans were cancelled as well. My original plan had been to fly to Thailand and stay with friends near Pattaya, so that I was closer to Shenzhen to make it easier to get back and the time difference was only an hour to make it easier for live online teaching. However, the day before I was due to fly, Thailand was added to the list of countries that meant a 14 day mandatory government quarantine upon arrival in China. So I had to decide whether to stick to my original plan and fly to Thailand regardless, fly somewhere else like Turkey or Uzbekistan that I could get a cheap or direct flight to from Atyrau and then return to Atyrau (although by many people would be there then due to the holiday) and start my 30 days again, or go from there back to China but with no guarantee that that country wouldn’t be added to the list before my return to China and therefore I’d still have to quarantine. Plus somehow making sure that I still had access to wifi and enough technology that I could teach my lessons (hence the original plan of going to stay with friends who could lend me a laptop).

After visiting a travel agent who contacted the immigration office for me to check I definitely couldn’t stay longer than 30 days in Kazakhstan, and the airline office to see if I could change or cancel my flight (I couldn’t without a fee and/or losing ask the money I’d paid for the flight), and having conversations with Autum and other friends about what to do, I decided to keep to my original plan of going to Thailand as I figured that wherever I went at that point is probably have to quarantine when I got back to China anyway, and at least that way I’d be with friends, the time difference would only be an hour and I could borrow a laptop for my lessons.

About an hour before my taxi to the airport for my flight to Bangkok, Autum decided she would come with me. Her dog was already being looked after as she was originally supposed to be away for two weeks, and she decided she didn’t want to just stay in Atyrau for the whole two weeks with very few people around. She quickly packed her backpack and we headed to the airport for the first flight to Almaty. When we arrived there and went through to the departure lounge, there was quite a while when we were the only passengers in the whole departure area – the only other people were staff. Then just to freak us out even more, the hands on the main clock on the wall started whizzing around!

The second flight and our arrival in Bangkok went without any further drama. We simply had a temperature check once in the airport and were asked to download the app for the airport to keep up to date with changes. The car I’d organised was waiting for us and a little over an hour later we arrived at my friends James and Nat’s place just outside Pattaya. Unfortunately, the laptop I was going to borrow died but as Autum had come with me I could continue borrowing hers for the time being.

The day after we arrived there was an announcement by the Kazakhstan government that they were going to close the country’s borders the next day at 8am, meaning people could leave but no-one could enter until at least 15th April. This meant Autum couldn’t go back at the end of her spring break. James and Nat had kindly said we could stay as long as we needed to; however, neither of us wanted to impose on them for longer than necessary. We just needed to figure out what to do.

My family suggested I go back to the UK, but at this point there were restrictions in place for people arriving from abroad and I’d have nowhere to quarantine. Plus my parents and sister are all in the high risk group, so I wouldn’t want to put them at risk by staying with them, and with live online teaching I’d have to teach from midnight until 8am every day, which would be horrendous. I decided I would go back to Shenzhen as now things were starting to open up again as the only cases were imported. However, it turns out that getting back to China is not as easy as I had hoped.

I wanted a direct flight to Shenzhen as it’s only about 3 hours and usually not very expensive, and this would save me the hassle of going through Hong Kong when all but one border is closed. When I looked at flights the earliest direct ones weren’t until the last couple of days of March, and the prices and times were ridiculous. The first flight which was a reasonable price and was at a time that ensured I didn’t miss any of my online classes was on 1st April, so I booked it and let my work know what I was planning on doing. A couple of days later I was checking that everything was still ok with my flight; I found out that my flight no longer existed. As I’d booked through an intermediary, it took them a couple of days to catch up, but I had already decided not to wait and looked for a new flight to Shenzhen. There weren’t any.

At the same time, Hong Kong had just announced that they would only be letting in Hong Kong residents, meaning I couldn’t fly into HK either. That left me with one option – to fly into Guangzhou, the next city to Shenzhen. I booked a flight for Friday 27th March, again so it wouldn’t affect my online teaching time.

While I was dealing with this, Autum decided she would go to Hawaii to stay with her parents until she could go back to Kazakhstan. Initially there was no rush to get back by a particular date, as she was still on holiday, but then Hawaii announced a mandatory 14 day quarantine for everyone on arrival from Thursday 26th March. In order to get back before that so she could self quarantine instead, she booked a flight for Wednesday. Just to add to the stress of flying under the circumstances, when she got to the airport the majority of flights were being cancelled. Luckily, hers was not, and she successfully boarded the plane from Bangkok to Hawaii via Tokyo.

In the meantime, the Thai government started introducing various restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. Whilst Autum was in the air, I found out that if I waited until Friday to go to Bangkok I might not make it there at all as starting Thursday people would not be allowed to travel between provinces. Thinking it wouldn’t be a good idea to get stuck and miss my flight, I booked a hotel near the airport for two nights, and a car to get me there. I finished my lessons for the day, packed, and hung out with James and Nat for a little while before getting the car to my home for the next couple of days.

So this is where I am now, watching the occasional plane land and take off as I eat a late dinner, hoping my flight on Friday will go ahead and enable me to get back to China, and wondering what awaits me when I arrive there.

Goodbye 2018!

Looking back at my posts I realised my last one was much longer ago than I thought. So here’s a summary of my year of no shopping and various other bits and pieces along the way.

I started 2018 with a pledge to myself not to buy unnecessary things. Essentials and replacements for things like clothes, shoes and bags, were fine, as was money spent on experiences and travel. Although I haven’t been as good at keeping track of exactly what I’ve been spending since the summer, I have kept to my pledge of not buying unnecessary things. I’ve bought no jewellery, no books, no electronics and no makeup this year. And I’m no worse off for it. I’ve also tried to become more ecologically inclined, so I have bought a bamboo toothbrush and metal straws as well as soap, solid shampoo and conditioner from Lush to try and cut down on plastic.

Dinosaur hoodie I knitted for my friends’ baby boy

As for travelling, I’ve had a great year! This time last year I was in Hong Kong with 3 great friends, having watched the fireworks display in the harbour by boat. For Chinese New Year I met my best friend from home in New Orleans where we celebrated Mardi Gras, then had a day in Miami before heading to Costa Rica for 8 days, which was fantastic. We had one more day in Miami before she flew back to the UK and we got awesome hummingbird tattoos at the shop where the tv show Miami Ink was set. I then flew to San Francisco to stay with my aunt and uncle for a few days in Bolinas before going home to Shenzhen.

Giant cocktails in Miami

After CNY we had a really long semester (15 weeks) with no proper break other than a couple of long weekends. However, I was lucky enough to be able to attend my good friend J’s wedding near Atlanta, USA, in April. It was really lovely to be able to attend and after the big day we all did fun touristy stuff, like visiting a gold mine and Rock City.

See Rock City, Georgia, USA

My summer holiday was jam-packed. I didn’t have a single day of doing nothing, but it was all great stuff: catching up with friends and family and adding a few more countries to my list. I had a spa weekend with my sister in the UK; a few days in Cyprus with one friend; a few days in Ibiza with two other friends; a week in Dubrovnik, Croatia, with my Mum, during which we did day trips to Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina; a week in Bath, England, studying for my MA with my friend T who I work with in Shenzhen, and while we were there meeting up with another friend we used to work with and has now moved to Peru; and finally a few days in Paris with my friend O from Finland as well as catching up with another friend who lives there. My friends joked I was coming back to Shenzhen for a rest!

View from a castle, England
Sunset in Cyprus
Ibiza
Dubrovnik, Croatia
Paris, France

August and September were back to work as usual, ending with a lovely long weekend near Pattaya, Thailand, visiting good friends J & N and their little boy with my friend T. The first week of October is a National Holiday in China and I went back to a different part of Thailand (Railay Beach) with a different friend for more of a beach holiday. This included scuba diving, paddle-boarding at night and getting two bamboo tattoos. Awesome stuff!

Railay Beach, Thailand

The week after that I went back to the UK for a funeral. Although it was a really sad reason to be going home, it was also really nice to see friends and family at such a difficult time. My birthday was not long after that, and while I was home I had surprise birthday drinks with my friends organised by my sister, and a surprise birthday meal for me and my Mum (as her birthday had been at the beginning of October) organised by my sister and her boyfriend. It was amazing, and so thoughtful.

Joint birthday family meal

Back in Shenzhen my awesome friends threw me a surprise fancy dress birthday party. It was the best birthday ever! 70s theme, free flow drinks, 70s music, everyone sang happy birthday to me as I walked in, an amazing birthday cake in the shape of the world with a little icing model of me and a panda, and a video made by friends and family from around the world.

In typical China fashion, however, things never go completely according to plan. My friends had booked out a room in a hotel for the party, but some Chinese people decided they wanted to take over one end of the room and of course the staff let them. At around 11.30pm we were told by hotel security that we all had to leave (not the Chinese people though, just us foreigners). As we still had a load of alcohol we couldn’t go to a bar or club so we decided to go to a local park and continue the party, because, well, why not! A while after that I invited the remaining partiers back to my apartment to finish off the night playing card games and having a dance. The last ones standing left about 7am! Although it didn’t quite go according to my friends’ plan, it was still the most epic birthday ever. The perfect way to celebrate a significant decade.

In November I spent two consecutive weekends in HK; one for HK Pride and the other for a fab music festival called Clockenflap, which I’ve been to for the last 6 years. Both weekends were brilliant and spent in excellent company.

Clockenflap festival, Hong Kong

To finish off the year myself and T went to stay with J & N and their baby boy for Christmas, which was really lovely. Much food was eaten, games were played (including a brilliant Jurassic Park board game), drinks were drunk and laughs were had. We bade them farewell on the last weekend of 2018 and saw in the new year on the rooftop of our hotel in Bangkok, watching the fireworks.

Chao Phraya River, Bangkok

That about wraps up my 2018. Let’s see what 2019 brings!

No Shopping Challenge Week 12 & 13

Time certainly does fly! I’ve been so busy at work this week that I didn’t realise the date. One of my very good friends is getting married on Sunday and I’m lucky enough to be able to go. I didn’t end up packing until today (Friday), and I’m flying now! It was all fine though, and I even ended up getting to HK airport ridiculously early. I’m currently on the first plane waiting for take-off from HK to Seoul.

I had a very big (in shopping terms) dilemma earlier. I’m not usually one for brand names, however I love Kipling bags. They’re sturdy, long-lasting, functional and classy/fun. The first one I ever bought lasted me more than ten years before one of the zips went funny, so they may be a little more than I’d usually pay for things but the quality is definitely worth it. Anyway, there’s a Kipling shop in HK airport, before you go through to departures, and they had certain items on sale with 30% off. One of my bags is starting to fall apart so I’ve been thinking for a while about replacing it. I always said with this challenge that it’s fine for me to replace items that have worn out as long as I get rid of said items and don’t keep both. Of course there was a really lovely bag with 30% off and a very helpful sales assistant who let me check that my tablet fit in the bag, and I very nearly said yes, I’ll take it.

But then I thought about this challenge I’ve set myself and how the whole point is to downsize and reduce the amount I spend on things that I actually don’t really need. I really liked that bag, and I would have used it and got rid of my old bag, but I don’t really need it. So I walked away. And – much as I still really like that bag – I know that I made the right choice because my old bag still has a bit of life left in it, plus I have other bags of different sizes that I can make do with.

Now I’m sitting on a plane heading to the US for what I’m sure will be a fantastic wedding, and I have lost nothing by not buying that bag. So many times we give in to impulses – not that that’s always bad, mind you! – for things we don’t need, we just crave in the moment. If you can get past that moment you will find there’s very few things you regret buying; more often people regret what they haven’t done, not what they didn’t buy.

***

Now it’s a few days later and I need to catch up on posting this so I can start on this week’s post!

Spending for week 12 consisted of food, drinks, transport, a trip to the cinema to see Pacific Uprising (not bad, bit of light entertainment), plus playing football (along with hiring the pitch) and a night out for a friend’s birthday. Yes, people who know me, I played football. Willingly. And it was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football! Total costs for week 12: 2,349rmb / £265.

Week 13 ended up being almost the same amount: 1498.6rmb + HK$604 (483rmb) + US$43.50 (274rmb) = 2255.6rmb / £255. This included a food shop, dinner out, getting my hair cut and dyed, drinks, transport, getting to HK airport, dinner at Pizza Express in HK airport, and transport from Atlanta airport. I’ve been staying in a shared house with friends and my friend’s family, which has been really lovely. This means we’ve shared the cost of groceries for the house, transport around and days out. My share of the house I paid for quite a while ago, and it was only £122 for 6 nights. I’ll write more in my next post about where we’ve been and what we’ve done as week 13 ended the day after I arrived.

Over a quarter of the year has flown by already and I’ve pretty much kept to my original challenge rules, with only one or two tweaks where necessary to ensure I could stick to it without compromising my social life. I’ve not bought any ‘stuff’, although I’ve been quite tempted on occasion, and I’ve only had takeaway once (McDonald’s when I was drunk!).

Anyone else want to take up the challenge?

No Shopping Challenge Week 11

Another week has been and gone. Time certainly flies when you’re running around at work and hanging out with your friends!

Last week was a bit of an expensive one for Shenzhen (although still cheaper than most of my recent holiday! You can check out my musings on New Orleans here, Miami here and Costa Rica here.). This was mostly due to it being a good friend’s birthday and St Patrick’s Day all rolled into one. My spending for Saturday ended up being 963rmb (£110), although this included laser tag, food, taxis to Shekou and back (about 70rmb/£8 each way), a food shop which I haven’t done for ages (muesli, yoghurt, veg and the like), and of course, lots of drinks on the pub crawl in the evening!

My total spending for the week including that was 2419rmb (£275), so 1456rmb (£165) on all food and transport the rest of the week, including eating out with friends three out of five nights (one meal, mala tang, was only 20rmb/£2.30 including a soft drink!).

One other item that hiked up my spending for the week was medication. Something I don’t talk about very often is that I suffer from depression and have done on and off for years. Currently I’m all good, which I expect is to do with the medication I’m on as much as how great my life is at the moment. This means I want to keep taking the antidepressants in order to maintain that oft-precarious balance. Of course, China doesn’t have the amazing NHS, so my work pays for health insurance for all staff. Luckily my medication is covered, but we’ve just changed insurance companies due to increased fees. Whereas before the full cost of visits to the doctor and medication were covered, now there’s a 20% co-pay, meaning I have to pay for 20% of the cost. For a one month supply of antidepressants I had to pay 399rmb (£45). Yes, £45 for 20%, meaning (in case you can’t be bothered to do the maths) £225 for the whole amount. For one month. That included seeing the doctor for about 2 minutes to get a repeat prescription, with a consultation fee of 300rmb (£34).

Some people complain about the 20p rise to £8.80 for a prescription charge on the NHS, with a free visit to the doctor included. If you didn’t appreciate the NHS before, you certainly do when living abroad! My advice would be to treasure the NHS and do whatever you can to make sure it doesn’t get privatised. Otherwise you might end up paying £225 every time you go to the doctors.

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Whilst I may have spent more than intended this week, I’ve still not bought any ‘stuff’, and my birthday presents to people are staying as treats, meals or activities, so I count that as a successful week.

If you have any thoughts or comments about anything I talk about, please let me know!

No Shopping Challenge Week 10

Back in Shenzhen and back to work after a fantastic three week holiday for Chinese New Year.

Which of course meant I was wiped out after work on Monday so the only money I spent was 2.4rmb on the bus home. Tuesday I had a bit more energy and time so I used these to catch up with friends over dinner (363rmb/£41 – more expensive than we thought it would be!) at as little Spanish place called Mambo. I also used some of my time to pay for the deposit and book accommodation for Summer School, where I will be studying for my MA Education which I’ve just started. I’m not counting the cost of the MA in my ‘no shopping challenge’ as this was already arranged before I came up with the challenge idea. I am, however, going to buy as few books as possible and instead read them online through the university library.

Wednesday was another catch-up dinner followed by the local pub quiz, which we actually won! We won 1000rmb of vouchers for The Brew between 7 of us, so 100rmb each plus a drink each next time. Not bad, even if I do say so myself! Total spending for all drinks and dinner for both of us that night was 548rmb (£62).

Usually on Thursday I go to D&D, but unfortunately I ended up going home early from work with a migraine. I guess the plus side to this was that I didn’t spend any money on dinner, instead sleeping for most of the rest of the day and then just managing toast. My only outgoings were the taxi to and from work (37.5rmb/£4.25 both ways) and 100rmb (£11.30) to top up my phone.

On Friday I had to stock up on muesli and yoghurt (67.4rmb/£7.65) as I finished the last of it for breakfast. A small group of us decided to go and see ‘Black Panther’ at the cinema after work as it was the first day of its release in China – and for 35rmb (£4) it was definitely worth it! This time I even remembered to bring my 3D glasses so I didn’t have to buy a new pair! Of course, we had to have dinner before the movie as well: shrimp quesadillas, chips and bogof cocktails for 153.6rmb (£17.45) at Blue Frog was pretty good.

My final night out for the week was on Saturday, and this time there was no alcohol involved! A friend had arranged a movie night at a private cinema for a group of us – 63rmb/£7 for 4 hours in a comfy room with a group of friends watching movies – it was great, and really nice to do something a bit different. I would definitely recommend it.

Sunday came round much too quickly as usual. I woke up quite early but stayed in bed reading for a few hours before finally deciding I was too hungry to stay in bed any longer. Once again I resisted the urge to order takeout, and raided the freezer instead for my last frozen meal from previous cooking escapades. I spent the rest of the day alternating between studying and watching ‘Legends of Tomorrow’, which meant I spent no money at all (and stayed in my pyjamas all day).

My total spending for week 10 was 1442.4rmb (£164.50) plus the accommodation and deposit for Summer School. Still no takeaway or stuff!

No Shopping Challenge Week 9

Note: This is a week late as I completely forgot to post last weekend in my jetlagged state! Week 10 will follow soon.

For most of this week I’m in Bolinas, California, staying with my aunt and uncle for the last part of my Chinese New Year holiday. Once again I’m not limiting the amount I spend on food and eating out, but I’m still sticking to not buying ‘stuff’.

Monday was a gorgeous day with bright blue skies and a cold wind. I went into San Francisco with my uncle where – after my uncle making a trip to the bank while I had a cuppa ($2.55/£1.80) in Peet’s coffee shop next door – we went to the SF Museum of Modern Art. Uncle H paid for our entry saying I could get lunch instead! We had lunch in the museum cafe ($55/£40 for both of us to have carrot and ginger soup, a pastry and a drink) then looked at the exhibits – mainly Robert Rauschenberg plus a few other artists such as Matisse, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dali and Zammit. SFMoMA is a fantastic place and well worth a look if you’re in SF. Once we’d finished we drove back to Bolinas over Mount Tamalpais and made dinner from bits and pieces in the kitchen, so no further spending there.

Tuesday I asked Uncle H to drop me into town on his way to work, where I went to the Coast Cafe for lunch ($57/£41 for three courses and two glasses of wine, including tip – not cheap, but it’s the only restaurant in town and the food is pretty good) and did a bit of reading and writing. I then took a lovely walk along the beach and circled back around into town to meet my uncle, where I found him next to the wood-fired oven that is brought out twice a week by a guy who makes great pizza, waiting for a pizza he’d ordered for us for dinner. Topped with goat’s cheese, kalamata olives, mushrooms and sundried tomatoes, it was delicious.

On Wednesday it was my uncle’s weekly trip into the city (San Francisco) to look after his goddaughter’s two children, so of course I went too. The last time I was here, the oldest was four years old and the youngest was a baby; now they’re seven and four-and-a-half – such a difference! After picking them up from school and nursery, and meeting mum back at the house, we went to the California Academy of Sciences. The first thing we did was have lunch in the cafe ($13.71/£10 for mine) as it was gone 2.30pm by then and although the oldest boy had had lunch at school the rest of us were starving. The rest of the afternoon was spent looking at the penguins in the Africa gallery, playing tag and watching all the different fish in the aquarium section. Great fun! Plus free entry because mum is a member. Once we’d had enough fun we all piled back into the car to take the boys and mum to their home, where Uncle H and I were invited for dinner. We spent a lovely evening chatting and the oldest boy drew me a picture of his favourite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants. On the way back to Bolinas we had a fantastic conversation (well, mostly Uncle H talking and me listening) about my grandparents (his parents), he and my dad (his brother) as children and various things about the rest of the family. We carried on talking about this for the rest of the evening and H showed me a few old family photos as well. To top off a really lovely evening, my Aunt C then arrived home with a delicious persimmon pudding, and I finally had a chance to have a catch up with her as she’d been working lots all week.

My last day in Bolinas came around much too quickly. After breakfast with my uncle, he went to do some jobs while I stayed in, repacked and chilled out. The afternoon was spent in Point Reyes at KWMR radio station where my uncle interviewed me on his radio show ‘Teatime Books’. It was great fun and you can listen to the archived show here. Let me know what you think!

After the show we picked up pizza and salad ($33/£24 for both) from the new restaurant in town, Eleven, and took it back to the house to enjoy with a glass of wine (for me) and a cup of tea (for H). My aunt came home early from work so we had a bit of a chat and all too soon it was time to say goodbye and drive to the airport for my flight back to HK.

I spent my last $22 (£16) on a drink for the flight and chocolate to take back with me – Ghirardelli sea salt almond chocolate is heavenly.

Friday I spent nothing as the day pretty much didn’t exist for me. I went back in time 16 hours and the little part of Friday I did get was spent on a plane, so I went straight from Thursday night to Saturday morning. The quickest and easiest way from HK airport to where I live in Shenzhen is by Skylimo – various companies run minivans between the airport and the various borders, and if you pay a little extra they’ll take you all the way to your apartment (total 200HKD/£18).

After a nap which ended up lasting most of the day I made it out for dinner with my flatmate E and another friend T. Lovely Italian food and a cocktail later (306rmb/£35) they went home and I went for a few drinks (210rmb/£24) with some other friends who I hadn’t seen for ages even before the holiday.

Sunday was mostly spent hungover and jetlagged in bed or watching tv and chilling out! The only money spent was on bread and fruit juice (52rmb/£6), both very much needed.

My total spending for week 9 was US$195.26 + 598rmb + HK$200 which equals (to put it into one currency) £227.50 – not bad for most of a week in the States on holiday and a night out catching up with friends. I also didn’t buy any ‘stuff’ or takeaway, even though it was very tempting to when I got back.

Week 10: Back in Shenzhen.

No Shopping Challenge Week 5

Once again the start of the week went well, and I managed to spend nothing on Monday. This was mostly because I stayed home from work with a bad stomach and only managed to eat a cheese toastie in the evening. All better now though! I think it must have been the street food scallops I had on Sunday.

My new aim is to try not to go over 1000rmb spending for the week, so I can eat out and see friends but only up to that amount. Let’s see if I can stick to that!

Tuesday friends came over and we watched Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, which we’d tried to watch the other weekend but the internet failed us miserably. Two friends ate before they came over and the two others ordered food. I resisted the urge to order pizza and instead and a portion of red pesto pasta that I’d frozen a couple of weeks ago. Point to me for will power!

On Wednesday I ended up having dinner with one friend then meeting some others for a few drinks and the local pub quiz at The Brew, one of whom I hadn’t seen since before Christmas. It was really nice to catch up and not worry too much about limiting the number of times I go out.

The only money I spent on Thursday was 4rmb for two vegetable baozi for breakfast plus the taxi home from work. This should have been just under 20rmb, but there was a car crash (only one car and the driver looked ok) which blocked the junction to where I live, so the taxi driver had to go a really long way round instead and it ended up taking twice as long and costing almost twice as much. After this I was tired and grumpy, and the last thing I felt like doing was cooking. However, after a bit of thought about what I have at home and could make quickly and easily so I wouldn’t order takeaway, I ended up cooking pasta with broccoli, sweetcorn and peas, and a mushroom sauce. I made enough for three portions so froze one and kept the other for lunch on the weekend.

Friday was drinks with one friend and dinner with another at a great Thai restaurant called Very Siam in OCT Loft. I got the metro there and back, so transport only cost me 5.7rmb rather than the 40-something-rmb it would have been to get a taxi both ways.

The best thing this week with regards to my No Shopping Challenge and getting rid of stuff I don’t need was going to an exchange evening on Saturday. This was run by a local group called Green Foot International Group (you can find them on WeChat under that name), which organises events such as hikes with litter picking and beach cleaning. This is the third exchange evening they’ve done and it was very successful. I dragged two of my friends along, as they’re also doing a sort out, but none of us were sure what to expect. It was held at a restaurant not too far from where we live, and once we found the place it all went really well. We started the evening by all introducing ourselves, then we had dinner together. This consisted of delicious Chinese food such as grilled aubergine, egg fried rice with raisins and pistachios, string mushrooms with garlic butter, broccoli and cauliflower with cheese sauce, and rice cakes with beansprouts and fried egg. Split between us and new friends the total came to around 40rmb (£4.50) each. Once we’d finished eating and chatting, the exchange part of the evening began. The initial idea was for everyone to show what they’d brought individually, but me and my friends had brought so much that we thought it would take much too long (and be slightly embarrassing) to do it that way. In the end we spread everything that would fit out on the tables, the idea being that everyone could take what they wanted and whatever was leftover would be taken by volunteers to local people who could use it. I took four bags with me, mostly of clothes and some shoes plus a few random items like a feather boa, spare phone charger, jewellery I never ware and various other bits and pieces. We were all amazed at how much was taken by other people, and it’s so good to know that your unwanted things are going to be used by someone else rather than just thrown away. I will definitely go to the next one of these they organise, and now I know what to expect I’ll try to get more people to come too.

I also went out for a friend’s birthday after the exchange night but only bought one drink (mostly because they’d run out of wine (Oh the horror!), but still) and walked home (not far) instead of being lazy and getting a taxi.

The week ended with a chilled out day working on my secret project, catching up watching Will & Grace and trying out a new tv show called Altered Carbon, which I quite enjoyed. The evening was spent playing various board and card games with friends and drinking mulled wine (it’s really cold here at the moment!), which was great fun and we all were crying with laughter at one point. My only cost here was getting there and back.

My grand total for the week is 996.2rmb (£112)! I managed to stick to my budget but still go out and see all my friends who I wanted to, plus I didn’t buy any stuff or even get anything for free at the exchange evening. My No Shopping Challenge is going well so far. Things may well change when I go away next weekend, but we shall see. I’m still going to stick to my no buying stuff, although I’m going to relax my eating out and doing stuff budget while I’m away. Next time I post I’ll be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras! Can’t wait!

No Shopping Challenge Week 4

Monday was pretty good as far as not spending money went. It was my flatmate’s turn to pay for the taxi to work and I walked home. Dinner was leftovers from the meal I cooked last night, so no money spent there either!

Today (Tuesday) I spent a little money going to Dongmen (by metro) to try and buy some wool. I have a plan to make something for someone but I don’t want to say what in case the person reads this! Unfortunately I didn’t manage to find any wool at all, let alone the type I was looking for, despite walking for close to two hours and hunting through three fabric malls as well as lots of small streets and shops. On the plus side, I definitely beat my daily steps target of 8000! And instead of buying things i can probably make do without, i only spent the metro fare there and back (4.75rmb) plus the cost of a can of apple vinegar (not what it sounds like! Kind of like appletise with a little more sourness for 5rmb). I think I’ll have to go to plan B for my secret project.

This evening is my writers workshop and I have a new plan for going to Costa (which is where we meet) without spending money. It was only when I started doing this and recording how much I spent when I went there that I realised how expensive it is. My new plan is to bring a reusable mug/flask with a lid (is there a proper name for those?) and just ask for hot water when I get there. People who know me will now be thinking, ‘But she doesn’t like water!’, and you’d be correct! Which is where the sneaky part of my plan comes in (if I remember) – to bring my own teabag with me.

Is that wrong??

Update: Karma just told me it’s wrong! Just burnt my mouth on the scalding hot water because I forgot to ask them to add a little cold water. I then had to go back and ask for cold water in a cup because I’d already added my peppermint teabag and couldn’t take it out as I had nowhere to put it. Maybe next time I’ll bring my own cup but buy the tea here. What do you think?

I worked late on Wednesday, totalling around 12 hours at school, as we have reports all due in very soon. They’re not difficult to write just very time consuming. I was very tempted to jump in a taxi home and order food, but I resisted the urge and walked home. I then had the thought of seeing if anyone was at The Brew (pretty much my local) as I fancied a glass of wine after all those reports, and I walk past it on my way home. Luckily for my purse no-one was there and by the time I finished my 45 minute walk home all I wanted to do was have some food, watch an episode of ‘The Gifted’ and go to bed. I had also decided what to have for dinner – M&S pea and mint soup that had been sitting in my cupboard for a while – so I walked via the local Bread Talk and picked up some fresh bread to dunk in it. Some of the new buns and things looked really good (white chocolate and cranberry roll) but I resisted those and instead got some cheesy bread to dip in my soup and plain white bread (not sweet!) for making toasties (total 21rmb).

Halfway through the week and I’ve spent just under 50rmb! The expensive day will be Saturday when I’ve got a night out planned.

It’s now Sunday and after doing so well at the beginning of the week it went slightly awry for the rest of it! I ended up eating out not just once but on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Ooops. Thursday we had D&D for the first time in 3 weeks and as I felt like I hadn’t properly seen my friends recently we went for food between work and D&D. Friday I was invited to HK for dinner by a friend who lives there. I spent a total of HK$252 which is 203.75rmb or £22.78 which was just getting there and back plus dinner. I again resisted the urge to buy lovely food in M&S!

As I’d predicted, Saturday was my most expensive day. My friend in HK came over so we went out for dinner before going to the Saturgays event I already had a ticket for. I ended up spending 525.5rmb (£58.74) which covered taxis, dinner, drinks and McDonald’s at about 5am!

Sunday I showed my friend around Dongmen, an area of Shenzhen known for cheap shopping. The only thing either of us bought was food, which was pretty cheap as it was all street food. It was 2.85rmb (32p) on the metro each way plus I spent 30rmb (£3.35) on a strawberry toffee stick, chestnut rice baozi (steamed bread dumplings) and 5 garlic & rice noodle-topped scallops. The only other cost today was the taxi to and from the border when my ground my friend went back to HK, which was 40.5rmb (£4.53) there and back.

My total spending for this week is eerily close to how much I spent last week, completely unintentionally. Last week I spent 1094.79rmb (£122.38), this week’s total is 1095.1rmb (£122.42) – only 0.31rmb (4p) difference!

Review at the end of my first 4 weeks: it’s been quite easy so far not to buy ‘stuff’, although it has made me think twice every time there’s been an opportunity to buy something and I’ve stopped myself buying things I don’t really need. The hardest part is not ordering take out food as it’s so easy to do here. I failed on that front last night/this morning when we ordered McDonald’s delivery, but I blame the alcohol for that lapse! That’s the first time I’ve ordered take out this year though, and considering I used to order food or pick some takeaway up on my way home from work probably at least 4 or 5 times a week before I started this challenge, I think that’s pretty good going. The other hard part is only eating out once a week, as you may have gathered. That’s one of the things my friends and I often do when we hang out together, so I’m actually missing people. That’s why I ended up eating out so many times this week, plus my friend coming over from HK of course.

I think I’m going to amend my eating out rule so I’m not missing out on seeing my friends: I can eat out as long as my total spending for the week doesn’t go over 1000rmb (£111.79). What do you think – does that sound reasonable?

No Shopping Challenge Week 3

Monday started out pretty well. I usually have tai chi after school, which I had already paid for in advance and still have one lesson left after this. So I decided I would get a taxi to work with my flatmate (18.5rmb) and walk home instead.

I then met up with friends I hadn’t seen since way before Christmas for my once-a-week meal out, which was great. We went to a different place than usual and I got the metro rather than a taxi there, which made it 2.85rmb to get to Baishizhou instead of the 20 ish it would have been by taxi. It wasn’t too expensive a meal out either, with a total of 150rmb for all food and drinks I had. Another bonus was I got my Secret Santa present! I was away over Christmas in Johannesburg, so didn’t get to exchange gifts with my friends on Christmas Eve. Instead it was a pleasant surprise as I’d completely forgotten about it. I got a lovely watch, a proper fountain pen and ink set and an antique-style notebook. I know I said that I’d be getting rid of things this year, but as this was arranged a long time before I even thought of this challenge, I’m not counting this!

Tuesday I managed to only spend shared taxi fare from work to a friends’ apartment for games night, then another shared taxi fare to get home, totalling 12.5rmb.

Wednesday was more expensive as I bought 2 containers of protein shake because I’d almost run out. Unfortunately the shop I usually get it from on Taobao (the best website for shopping in China) had closed, which meant paying more than I was expecting – 408rmb. It seems like a lot I know, but that’s basically all my breakfasts and lunches for about 6 weeks, so it works out quite reasonable overall.

Thursday would have only been 10rmb for a glass of wine at our work social ‘sausage sizzle’ (I had jacket potatoes), except that as I was walking home I came across some friends at The Brew, which is one of our regular haunts. I ended up spending 90rmb on wine, mostly because my friend kept ordering another glass for me!

The only money I spent on Friday was the taxi to get to work, so I did pretty well then, and I cooked dinner for myself with food I had in the cupboard (noodles with peas, sweetcorn and leeks, and of course cheese on top).

Now you may be wondering what happened to my plan of walking to work every day. This week we’ve had really bad pollution; it was 234 AQI at the start of the week – very unhealthy. This is because the factories have all upped production to get their targets met before they close for the Chinese New Year holiday, and it’s the same every year. The pollution levels got better as each day went on throughout the week, so I walked home instead of to work instead, apart from Tuesday when we went straight to a friend’s and Wednesday when I walked part of the way with my Head teacher then she made me get the metro instead of walking as the pollution level was still too high. At least I managed 3 days of walking! Hopefully back to the mornings again next week, depending on the pollution levels.

The only money I spent on Saturday was going to a friend’s surprise birthday party (and he was genuinely surprised!), which added up to 222.54rmb for taxis there, to KTV and home, paying for KTV and putting in for the fab birthday cake we got. Not too bad really for a night out!

Sunday was very chilled out. I spent most of the day in bed reading (Origin by Dan Brown) and just popped to the market across the road to buy some veg. A large head of broccoli, a large white onion, a bulb of garlic, a red pepper, a corn cob (with the corn cut off it), a leek and a courgette came to the grand total of 29rmb. Friends came round for dinner and a movie, and as I’d been going to cook for myself anyway I cooked for them too – pasta with pesto, pepper, courgette and leek. There was even enough left for my dinner tomorrow.

My total spending for this week came to 1094.79rmb, which is about £123. Better than last week but still not as good as my first week (when I didn’t go out at all). Although that’s with going out 3 times, and I resisted buying food I didn’t need, so not too bad overall.

I don’t think there’s any birthdays next week, so hopefully it’ll be cheaper again!