Wednesday, June 6, 2018

China: A Foreigner's Travel Guide

I picked up my visa from the Chinese Consulate only 5 days before my departure. I made it just minutes before their office closed.  In my hands was my ticket to an adventure of a lifetime. I was so thrilled.

Then, it hit me.  Every single reason to be afraid of going to China.

1) I don't speak Chinese! I don't look Chinese!

2) What if I get sick? Not just a little sick, but intensely ill from food or water?

3) What if get robbed?

4) What if get badly lost?

5) What if I miss a flight or train during my trip?

6) What if I get taken advantage of because I have only very basic Mandarin skills?

And the list continued.  Most of my anxiety had been encouraged by other people who kindly warned me about all of the things that could go wrong in China.

Well, I'm happy to report, only # 5 happened to me on my trip to China in March 2018.  I attribute the success of my trip to the generous hospitality of my Chinese friends and some planning ahead.

I'm happy to share some tips with you!

Near the city wall in Xi'an!

1) Bring cash to China. You'll need it.

Items vary in price in China.  Larger cities have restaurant and shopping prices that rival the most expensive European and North American cities. Buyer beware!  Most places don't accept VISA or Mastercard. This is only found in tourist sites and some chain stores.  Cash will get you everything in China.  Budget what you think you'll need and then bring double that amount. Trust me. I was shocked by how expensive things were in China.  It's not the 1980s anymore folks!

2) Get the WeChat app on your phone - immediately.

Make sure you get WeChat in your home country first so that the app is in your language. WeChat allows you to chat with friends, make free calls within the app, book train tickets (!!), and...wait for for stuff!  Literally, everywhere you go in China will accept WeChat wallet as payment.  If you don't have a Chinese bank account or Chinese ID, wait until you get to China to activate the wallet. Somehow, it recognized my IP address as being in China and now I have a fancy WeChat wallet. (Don't worry. After my trip, it's totally empty.)  You can get Chinese friends to transfer money to your wallet and then you can simply pay them back in cash! (There's a theme here. BRING CASH.)

3) Take your passport with you - everywhere.
Chinese museums and tourist sites have strict security.  You will need to present the highest level of identification to get into these places.  Oh, and be prepared to have your bag checked often too.

Iconic Shanghai - the Bund

4) Bring a mask.
I'd seen photos of people wearing masks. I'd even wondered to myself, "Gosh, is the pollution really that bad?" Well, yes, yes it is.  You will need a special mask that protects against smaller particulates.  These are available and inexpensive everywhere in China. Wear it daily.

5) Bottled water on the regular.
Everybody knows not to drink the tap water in China.  I also recommend using bottled water for brushing your teeth and rinsing your toothbrush.  It's fine for washing your face though.

6) Food safety.
The food in China is MIRACULOUS.  I did not get sick once - likely due to sheer, dumb luck.  However, I did 100% avoid street food. Oh, it smells great, looks fascinating, and is "insta-worthy." Nonetheless, if you can't be sure of how it was prepared, I wouldn't risk it.  Westerners have different immunities in their digestive system than people in Asia so don't try to keep up with your Chinese friends in this regard.  Wash or cook all of your produce.

Buddhist temple in Yu Yuan Garden in Shanghai.

7) Eat your veggies!
No, this is not your mum coming back to tell your toddler self what's good for you.  It was really challenging to find vegetables in China - even in restaurants.  Make sure you order them when you can to stay healthy during your trip.

8) Western Alcohol 
The cost of importing Western alcohol to China is staggering. If you really need your French or Italian wine, I'd recommend waiting until you get home.  China has its own delights to sample!

9) VPN and other Internet issues
Yes, the ban on Facebook, Gmail, Google, Twitter, and Instagram is very real in China. If you really need these while you're in China, I have two recommendations. Firstly, check with your cellular phone provider before you leave.  Telus has a $10 per day deal that made my phone operate as if it were in Canada.  Therefore, when I wasn't on Chinese WiFi, my data plan allowed me to access all social media and emails.  Secondly, get a VPN (I recommend Express VPN), before you go to China. You can not (and trust me, I tried) download a VPN while in China.  Most VPNs are free for 1-week. So, pick the top three VPNs and bring them with you to China!  (NOTE: There are some Chinese apps that I will discuss later which don't run properly when you have a VPN.  See my first recommendation about getting data while you're away.)
The Forbidden Palace (Gu Gong) in Beijing

10) Must-have Chinese apps
-Baidu Maps (because Google maps is not up to date or reliable in China)
-Didi (it's the Chinese version of Uber or Lyft)
-Baidu translator (do NOT leave home without a decent translator - more on that later.)

11) Getting Around in China
For traveling within the same city, the fastest and cheapest way is Didi - an app-based taxi service.  Download the app before you leave so that it's in your language.  Be prepared that your driver will not speak English.  Some cities have a good metro system as well which is even less expensive but could be crowded and the chance of getting lost is greater.  I had nothing but positive experiences with Didi.  You can link it to your credit card as well.  You don't exchange any money with the driver. Avoid taxis if you can.  They often don't go by the meter - especially if you're non-Chinese.

Do these guys really need a caption? If they do, just look up Shaanxi Province.

12) Ni shou zhong wen ma?
Oh, so you don't speak Chinese. Well, that's okay. You should still visit China and experience its many, many wonders.  Bring a translator app like Baidu or Global.  Chinese people are quite accustomed to tourists communicating with them using this method and they will be more than willing to help you!  For most tourist sites, you can purchase a guided tour from your travel agent before going to China. This is an excellent idea as the guide will speak your language and assist you.

13) Safety in China
China is extremely safe. There are police and soldiers everywhere - literally.  As a tourist, you will be a bit more conspicuous so keep your belongings close.  However, I never felt unsafe in China. The police don't speak English but they are very professional and will help you with directions if needed.

14) Health in China
Before you go to China, make sure you update your vaccines for cholera, typhoid fever, and all forms of hepatitis.  This is especially important in the rural areas of China. Your doctor can also prescribe strong medication for traveller's diarrhea.  And speaking of the bathroom...

15) Washrooms in China
Starbucks is your best friend in China. Their restrooms are always clean and have western style toilets.  Everyone warned me that not all toilets in China have toilet paper.  Thinking this would be true, I may or may not have packed way to many "provisions" for my trip.  That being said, do have some form of sanitary wipe with you at all times just to be sure.  And remember, it's all part of your "cultural experience" in China!

My trip to China was the excursion of a lifetime.  The people are incredibly warm, welcoming, and it gives them great joy to show you their country.  China has an ancient culture rooted in Eastern spirituality so try to find quiet, tranquil moments during your trip.  The food in China is superb and there is no comparison between it and the "Chinese" food we have in North America. (Okay fine - Vancouver does a decent job, but still!)

Although going to China may seem daunting, frightening, and a lot of work, it is worth it. You will see some of the wonders of the world there.  Memories formed in China last a life time. Hope these tips help you and encourage you to book YOUR trip to China!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Past, Present and Future of Amsterdam: A Visit to "Anne Frank House"

Amsterdam Centraal

I have been in The Netherlands for just over thirty-six hours.  I could discuss how the Dutch are extremely friendly, warm, helpful, and just generally a content group of lovely people.  I could tell you how easy public transit is to use and how bicycles rule the roads (that will be tomorrow's post!)  I could write about the amazing art museums which have re-affirmed my love for Dutch art. Yes, when you're in Amsterdam you must visit the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum.

Entrance to Rijksmuseum - a treasure of Dutch art!

Great hall of the Rijksmuseum

However, when one visits Europe, it's important to remember that this is a continent which has experienced two world wars in the last century.  This fact is very much in the consciousness of the people here.  Many Europeans are taught their history at a remarkably young age.  One such historically important place in Amsterdam is the house where Anne Frank and her family hid.  

The "Anne Frank Huis Museum" is located in one of the most beautiful parts of Amsterdam - flanked by canals and a stunning church.  The story that the museum is preserving, however, is worth re-telling.  It's worth taking an hour out of your holiday and becoming grounded in the reality of this place's history.

My visit to the Anne Frank House was touching due to many factors.  Firstly, on such a gorgeous, sunny Spring day in Amsterdam - it is hard to imagine that a young girl and her family would be required to hide in darkness and silence inside, simply in order to survive.  This is the kind of city where everyone cycles, children play football outside year-round, and people enjoy being active.  The chance to grow up like this was robbed from young Anne Frank.  

The Anne Frank House was also emotional because you clearly see that the dreams and talents were stolen from this young writer when she died in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp just months before it was liberated in 1945.  As a Canadian, I have felt very welcome in Holland because of our role in liberating this country in World War Two.  A visit to the Anne Frank House, however, clearly illustrated that for a great many - the liberation came too late.  

Anne Frank's class - age 6.  15 children did not survive the Holocaust.

The final reason that this museum had such a poignant effect on me is because of a photo in the final room of the exhibit.  There is a very large class photo of Anne Frank when she is six years old.  There are roughly twenty children in the class.  The caption on the photo indicates the children's names, date of birth, and whether or not they survived the Holocaust.  As an elementary school teacher, I was moved to tears looking at this class photo.  Every year, I have a class photo and am quite confident that each face in the picture will grow up to be a contributing member of society.  Over 80% of Anne's class did not survive the Holocaust.  As I looked at their innocent faces, I could not imagine how evil could prevail on such a scale.  Overcome with sadness, I left the museum quietly and walked along the canals as the sun set on what is now a modern, thriving, and gorgeous city.

Canal in Amsterdam at sunset
I was surely no longer in the Nazi-occupied Amsterdam but that does not mean that the stories of those who perished must not be told.   When one travels, one is meant to learn something and grow from the experience of being away from home.   Places and the stories of people in those places are supposed to touch us - deeply.  If you are going on a vacation, do not be afraid to encounter more serious elements of what that place has been through.  In the end, it leaves one more appreciative of the depth that each city, region, and country has.  

Amsterdam - sunset
Otto Frank (the father of Anne) said: "To build a future, you have to know your past."  The whole purpose of the Anne Frank Museum is to encourage visitors that our futures should not include the type of prejudice and hatred that sent Anne Frank into hiding and ultimately her death.  This museum forces us to ask more meaningful questions such as how am I responding to injustice around me?  Am I a bystander who stays silent while others suffer?  Or, am I the type of person who is offering some kind of assistance to those who don't have a safe place to call home?  

The church beside Anne Frank Huis

Thursday, November 5, 2015

On Finding the "Perfect" Teacher

I'm currently preparing for two piano teaching diplomas, so I've been thinking a lot about what makes a good piano teacher.  I've had excellent teachers throughout my musical training.  The vast majority of teachers that I've had are not only fantastic musicians but are wonderful human beings as well - full of compassion and deep commitment to their students.

I've seen a trend lately of "teacher shopping."  People don't commit to a set of lessons.  They want to see how one lesson goes with a particular teacher.  In some cases, one lesson is all you need to see how the relationship and learning will develop.  In other cases, it will take several lessons for the teacher to develop a sense of how the student should progress and what aspects of their playing need to be worked on the most.   In this situation, one lesson will not be sufficient.

This brings me to my next topic: loyalty to a certain teacher.  How do you know when you've found the right teacher?  Well, sometimes you won't know immediately.  In our society, we often move on to the "next greatest thing" so quickly without letting things mature, grow, and flourish.  I'm here to say that the relationship between piano teacher and student is so precious that it can not be replaced as quickly as we change phone devices and hair colours. 

The bond that is created between teacher and music student can be incredibly strong.  The student reveals so much of their inner soul and character through the study of music. The trust that is developed can be very deep indeed.

So, what does all of this mean about knowing when you've found the right teacher?  It means that you'll hear your playing getting better because you trust that the teacher is knowledgeable enough to help you and you don't need to go to someone else.  You'll know you have the right teacher when you can tell that they bend over backwards to make you feel comfortable - but at the same time, challenge you.  

My advice is this: once you find that person - stick with them and don't leave.  Stay with them and attend lessons weekly at a committed time.  Show your loyalty to them as a sign of respect.  Does that mean you shouldn't attend masterclasses? Of course not!  You definitely should.  These are fantastic learning opportunities.  Nearer to a performance or exam it might be wise to play through your repertoire for a second teacher just for the experience.  Please note, this experience should NOT be to change everything you've worked hard to accomplish with your main teacher.

While there are often very legitimate reasons to leave a teacher's studio, more often than not, we should simply be loyal and steadfast.  Music teachers are highly-trained and highly-committed individuals who help bring beauty into the world by sharing their knowledge of our beloved art. So, next time you want to "test drive" a new music teacher, think twice.  The teacher-student relationship is not one that can be discarded as easily as a piece of technology.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

To Tanya ...and to better days

My heart sunk as I learned the news on Wednesday, that Tanya Prochazka, cellist and conductor, had passed away. She had taught for many years at the University of Alberta's Department of Music.  It had been over a decade since I had seen her and been under her baton as an extremely amateur violinist.  During that decade, she had battled courageously against cancer.

My thoughts immediately rushed to my friends who are cellists or who were section leaders in orchestra. They knew her best.  One of my friends had studied the cello with Tanya since childhood.  I feel the acuteness of their loss.  I only studied with her for a year so I can not begin to imagine what their hearts are feeling at the moment.

What I learned from watching Tanya conduct concerts for over five years and by playing in orchestra under her for one year changed me as a musician and a person.  Tanya's energy was contagious and revitalizing. Orchestra rehearsals were from seven to nine in the evening. We would arrive absolutely exhausted from the day of studies and classes. However, as soon as we started tuning up, the energy changed.  Making music under Tanya was magical.  She demanded passion and commitment and she let us know when we weren't giving enough to the score.  The finished product of her concerts were always impeccable and brought audiences to their feet.  She inspired countless young musicians to discover orchestral and chamber music at an in depth level.  Most importantly, Tanya gave students a chance to reach their potential as human beings and musicians. (The two are certainly inseparable.)

Old Arts Building, University of Alberta, Edmonton AB - August 2013

Old Arts Building, University of Alberta, Edmonton AB - August 2013.

Convocation Hall, University of Alberta, Edmonton AB - August 2013.

Convocation Hall, University of Alberta, Edmonton AB - August 2013

In this period of mourning, I grieve for the loss of a great musician and teacher. However, I also grieve for those times of inspiration.  My heart longs to return to the halls of the Fine Arts Building in Edmonton and chat with my friends before and after rehearsal. I long to attend my friends' undergraduate recitals in warm halls filled with familiar faces.   Believe it or not, I wish for cold winters and walking through campus in the snow to get to concerts.

University of Alberta - Fine Arts Building, August 2013.
Tanya Prochazka's passing has made it all too real for me that the stage of life I spent with friends at the music department at the University of Alberta is truly gone.  That wonderful group of people will never be in the same place at the same time again.  However, we can all continue to honour the memory of Tanya and the time we spent with her. We can refuse to play a note unless it is with absolute conviction and we can refuse to settle for anything less than any musical score demands of us.  Tanya taught us to celebrate music and to respect our colleagues.

Let us go forth and pass on her legacy to our students and to all those with whom we have the honour of working.

Rest in peace, Tanya.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Attacca Quartet : Haydn's "Seven Last Words of Christ"

Today is the 283rd anniversary of Franz Joseph Haydn's birth.  One of his most magnificent works is the Seven Last Words of Christ.  It was commissioned for a Good Friday service in a Spanish Oratory in 1783 but was not published until 1787.  Originally conceived as an orchestral piece, the composer later adapted this work for string quartet.

Most recently, an absolutely fabulous recording of this work has been released by the incredible Attacca Quartet.  This New York based quartet met at the Juilliard School and have not looked back since. They recently completed a cycle of all 68 of Haydn's quartets in performance in New York. It is with much anticipation then that we awaited their release of this mammoth work by Haydn on the Azica label.  


It is with great joy that we report how fantastic this recording truly is.  Throughout the performance, one observe so many admirable qualities of this quartet.  One of the strongest features of the disc is the sense of dialogue that one hears between the members of the quartet. The sense of ensemble that the Attacca Quartet attains is of the highest level and at times we feel as if the players are one being playing just one instrument. The attention to detail by the musicians is evident in the sound quality and balance achieved.  Throughout the performance, we are invited into their world and the world of the story being presented - the passion of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

From the very first notes of the introduction, the quartet conveys a sense of drama and lures us into the story that they are about to weave.  The listener understands that something important is about to occur and that if they embark on this journey with the performer that they will be transformed.  In this movement, the tone is completely refined - a feature which characterizes the entire recording.

The second introduction (L'introduzzione - transcribed by the quartet's cellist Andrew Yee)  is particularly striking.  The quartet never loses our interest by always presenting a wide variety of colours and sounds.  The rests hold us captivated - waiting for the next part of the Passion story to be told.  The second introduction demonstrates a trait that is clear throughout the recording: this quartet has a thorough comprehension of emotion or affect associated with each movement.  In addition, the second introduction (track 6 on this recording) demonstrates the absolute technical mastery of the Attacca Quartet - both as individual players and as an ensemble. 

This is a recording that belongs in every music lover's collection because of the conviction with which the Attacca Quartet plays. Moreover, they never stray from the classical style and their choices with regard to expression and tempo are well-informed.  The emotional range captured by the group ranges from sorrowful to peaceful and finally to absolutely earth-shattering in the final movement "Il terremoto." 

Finally, what makes this recording an absolute must have is that the quartet absolutely adores this music. They desire to truly serve the score and their performance reflects this commitment.  The emotional sensitivity and attention to phrasing in this rendition are superb. Please visit iTunes to purchase this wonderful performance:

Please find out more about the Attacca Quartet here:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Mozart: The Artist as a Young Man

For the last two weeks, my students have been focusing on observation in art class. The goal has been to represent and draw exactly what we see.

As a subject, we chose the famous portrait of Mozart as a young man.  Here are a few samples of my students' work.

I think that they did a fabulous job of representing the many aspects of Mozart's personality.  Of course, his wonderful music accompanied our artistic activities!

I'm so proud of these young people!
Proud, bright cheeks, stern, wise

Gentle, bright-eyed, youthful, in love?

Chubby and SUPER cute

Distinguished, thoughtful, planning some practical joke!
Distinguished, mischievous, loving son and brother

Stunning, refined, balanced - the classical beauty.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sidewalk Chalk: What I learned on strike

Last Tuesday, at 3:50 in the morning, I received the greatest news I'd heard in a very long time.  The BC Teachers' Federation and BC Provincial government had reached a tentative deal to end the 3-month long (which was really 18 months of negotiations) strike.  

It was the worst three months of my life. Full stop.

I have never felt so useless, helpless, and frankly unappreciated.  I am honoured to be a teacher and chose this profession because of its important role in society. While on strike, I felt as if my role did not matter to my employer.  People on the street would make impolite hand gestures (you know the ones) and yell things like "go home! Get a real job!"  I can not count the number of times I came home in tears.

Trust me, I would've gone to work at the snap of a finger.  

Nonetheless, I realized fairly quickly that I would not survive these three months of being on strike (June 13-Sept 18 inclusive) unless I found a way to learn about God's character from the experience and grow in wisdom.

So, here's briefly what I learned. I had a lot of time to think so hopefully these thoughts are somewhat developed:

1) God uses suffering to teach us how to rely on Him. This may sound like a fairly common observation to most people.  Nonetheless, this was made painfully obvious to me when I literally had to rely on the generosity of my church, friends, and family in order to eat and sleep in my home. I relied on the kindness and graciousness of my flatmates in order to make arrangements that would make paying rent easier.  I was forced to rely on God to provide employment when no one would want to hire a striking teacher during the summer months.  Nonetheless, when so much was taken from me, God taught me that He will not be the type of Heavenly Father that hands me a serpent, but instead be the loving Father that knows each hair on my head and provides for each need. (Luke 11:11)

2) Humility.  It's quite difficult to be arrogant when you're standing on a sidewalk, not earning any money, and hoping for a resolution to a labour dispute over which you have very little control.  God showed me that I must be humble enough to accept the generosity of other people. Often, I was too ashamed to accept gifts of money or food.  Halfway through the strike, however, I simply thanked the person as sincerely as I could and promised to return the favour if ever they should need it in the future.

3) Hope. "Do not put your hope in princes or sons of men, in whom there is NO salvation." - Psalm 146.  This lesson was made clear to me each time I would check Twitter, hoping against hope, that the BCTF and the BC government were finally getting along. Each time, I was disappointed. When Sept. 1 hit and we had NO contract, I was crushed.  Nonetheless, God showed me that when I put my hope in Him, I will never be disappointed.  God used this strike to show me what the object of my hope ought to be.  Again and again, it is His Son, the Lord, that proved to be only source of true hope during this time.

4) Generosity.  I was taught generosity by the example of people who showered me with love during this very arduous time.  Between my family and friends, I have never seen people simply just rally together so lovingly to assist me.  This has been an area of my own heart that has needed transformation.  I've always been slightly careful with how much money I give away and have often expected someone to give something back to me in return.  Now that the strike has concluded, I continue to pray that God will remind me of how His saints were generous to me during this time.  May He give me the wisdom and compassion to be the same way to those around me in need.

5) God's goodness.  Throughout the labour dispute, God just kept pouring blessings upon me.  He provided me with some part-time work in the summer which kept me slightly afloat.  At the very end of the strike, I was fortunate to receive extra financial support from my union. Moreover, my bike was stolen during the strike but was found (TODAY!) and I can return the one I had bought to replace it.  "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." - James 1:17.

In Eastern Christianity, suffering is viewed as a blessing from God because of what it teaches us.  I can affirm that this is true.  While I do NOT wish this sort of labour dispute upon anyone, I "bless the Lord" (Psalm 103) because this has taught me lessons to which my heart had been previously hardened. Glory to God!