29 December 2014

Our First Christmas in China

I have heard a constant refrain recently of, "It just doesn't feel like Christmas!" from many an expatriate. I was trying to analyze why I couldn't honestly share with this sentiment, when it dawned on me that I don't really have a fixed idea of what Christmas "feels like."

Many speak of family traditions. I get the impression that my family is the sort that, in theory, likes traditions well-enough, but finds putting them into practice a little impractical. For example: For my first Christmas, my grandmother gave me a stocking that had a teddy bear head and had my name embroidered on it. After seeing that stocking, Mom decided that all of her future children would have matching stockings...a plan which went very well until the company that made my stocking went out of business while several of my sisters were not yet born. The first 5 of us indeed have matching stockings, but Mary-Grace's and Sarah's don't quite fit the mold.

Last year, I had my first Christmas with Angel's family. In other recent years, I have spent a few Christmases with my grandparents and aunts and uncles while I was a single college student, and later, while Angel was working a holiday shift at the hospital. I've spent Christmas with my own parents and siblings in America and in Malaysia as well.

My Christmas dinners have ranged from tamales with my Mexican family, to an 8-course formal Chinese banquet at my church in Malaysia, to a venison roast one year in Michigan when deer season was particularly the very memorable year that my grandparents decided to have filet mignon for Christmas dinner because the party was so small.

This year's Christmas was different from all previous years, but I cannot say it "didn't feel like Christmas" because I'm unable to come to a conclusion on the matter of what Christmas ought to feel like.

The Education Bureau of our city invited all of the foreign teachers in our program to attend a Christmas Eve banquet, which included a night's stay in the hotel where the banquet was hosted. Angel and I were quite excited about the banquet...I mean, we're the kind of people who get giddy about free toilet paper, if you remember, so a free feast and hotel stay sounds perfectly amazing to us!

We were served a sumptuous feast of rolls, french fries, shrimp, oysters, fish, lamb, chicken, beef, stir-fried green veggies, spaghetti, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, and oranges. Angel was quite excited to see bottles of pop on the banquet tables when we arrived--hot water or tea is the usual drink of choice here, so pop is an unusual concession to the preferred tastes of foreigners.

After our banquet, we walked a little around the general vicinity of the hotel, which was located in our beloved shopping district, DongMen, and then headed to bed, since we had big plans for the next day!

In the morning, we gobbled up our free hotel breakfast and headed straight for the metro, because we had plans to head into Hong Kong and go watch The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies with some friends of ours. The border crossing was not particularly busy, but when we arrived at the Festival Walk mall we realized how very crowded everything was and also that maybe it's slightly crazy to visit Hong Kong on a holiday.

Our friends surprised us only after we got in line to buy movie tickets with the news that they'd already purchased our movie tickets as a Christmas gift to us (how sweet is that?). We had a few hours till the movie, so we enjoyed our time wandering the mall (I stumbled across a box of rare and exotic Cheez-its and bought them, how's that for an awesome Christmas?).

Ya'll know I love malls. I want to go back to Festival Walk pretty soon to more thoroughly explore it, hopefully when it's not quite as busy! We ate in the foodcourt, for the four of us are but ESL teachers and most restaurants in the mall seemed to err on the side of being fancy. So, for the first time ever, my Christmas Day main meal was found in a mall foodcourt. However, I don't think that really counts since I'd feasted at the wonderful banquet just the evening before!

We enjoyed our much-anticipated movie, and then headed right back across the border to return to our home in ShenZhen. Angel and I had wanted to attend church Christmas evening, but the combination of rain, the fact that Angel had to be at work bright and early the next day, and the fact that we both had colds made us fall asleep just about instantly when we arrived home.

It was a one-of-a-kind Christmas, I don't think I could have asked for anything more!

(P.S. Nope, schools don't have Christmas break here. We were generously allowed to have the day of Christmas off, but our students and coworkers went on with life as usual)
22 December 2014

Rat in the Restaurant

 Hey, I never claimed that I wouldn't be naming any names...

Some friends of our recommended a particular restaurant to us,  so one day, Angel and I decided to head out and try it. As we stood in front of the restaurant, perusing the menu, we both happened to spot a large rat (but really, are rats ever known as being small and dainty?) run along the wall next to the sidewalk, dart right past a table full of dining guests, and into the entrance into the restaurant we were considering eating at for dinner.

Our response was to instantly look at each other, eyes telegraphing, "Did you just see what I saw?" Angel remained fairly composed, though I couldn't help but giggle, at how very not-sneaky this rat was, running straight into a restaurant off of the main road in broad daylight.

Oh, by the way, after that, we proceeded to walk into the restaurant and enjoy a very delicious dinner. It only occurred to us sometime later--maybe that wasn't the natural response, to see a rat run into a restaurant and eat there anyway. At the time it didn't really occur to us to do anything different.

On another occasion, some friends of ours had taken us out to a very nice steak and buffet restaurant located inside a very modern mall. As I approached the drink counter to get my drink, a cockroach scurried right across the whole counter, dodging the ice lemon tea dispenser as it went. I got my ice lemon tea, and returned to my table.

A bit anticlimactic, right? I asked Angel what he thought our reaction would be if we saw a rat run into a restaurant we'd never tried before in the US. We agreed that we'd probably skip that restaurant and go somewhere else, just to be safe.

And yet here, for some reason there's a feeling that I can't necessarily judge eating places based on the presence of occasional rats and cockroaches...after all, I've come across a cockroach or two in my own kitchen, and I'd hardly boycott my own cooking.

It tends to feel like the critters are less a sign of lack of cleanliness here, and more just a part of the lifestyle. Doesn't mean I like them, but I'm not going to write off a possibly perfectly good restaurant just 'cause I saw a rat run in the front door, ya know? If there were rat meat in the food, however, that's a completely different story...and that's partially why I've developed a reputation for being a "vegetarian" since our arrival.

We're much more likely to never return to a restaurant if we get ill after eating there--now that's logic I can stand behind.

P.S. Just in case you didn't notice the huge I PUBLISHED AN EBOOK announcement on Friday, you can read the post here . And there's still a few days left to get my eBook for just $2 with coupon code HV72M. So go to Smashwords and buy it, if you'd like more tales like this rat-infested one! :)
19 December 2014

3,2,1, Launch the eBook!!

Hello! Welcome, one and all!

This news may come as a surprise to some of you, and it may not come as a surprise to others of you, depending on whether you stalk my every move online. That is to say...hopefully...Surprise!

I decided to publish an eBook, so I did.

But what topic could the girl who prides herself on writing about anything and everything without form or strategy possibly write a book on?

I congratulate myself on my own genius.

I have been blogging on The Random Writings since 2011. I have amassed close to 800 blog posts on this particular blog. Chances are, unless you are my Mom, my sister Anna, or Angel, you have not read every one of those blog posts since the beginning, and so, you have most likely missed out on some rather good and hilarious writing (honestly, I think 2011 was one of my best years for creative writing, ever).  Not all 800 posts are the best of the best, however, so in this volume, I've collected the most awesome of The Random Writings, polished them up, made them wittier than ever, and formatted them into one nice little file, available for purchase right here!

Even in the unlikely even that you have read every single blog post I've ever published, you may be surprised by some of the contents of this volume, as it contains a few sketches that I never got around to publishing, and some old sketches that have been rewritten so masterfully that they are no longer recognizable. I know this is true because of the scientific proof I got when my Mom responded, after reading the manuscript, that parts of it were completely new to her. When my most ardent fan (the one who sends me demanding emails when I neglect to write on my blog) is surprised by brand new content--you know for a fact that it's new. I think most notable among the new stories is my tale of hair loss--never published on my blog because I can hardly say the words without gritted teeth.

I also removed a lot of the dashes from my original content, because I overuses dashes far too much. It's a weakness, what can I say?

Recommended best uses for Staying on Topic is Hard:

-Read while snuggled up in bed with an electric blanket to guard against the cold.
-Read while you're a passenger on the long car trip to visit your grandparents on Christmas Day.
-Read while riding the subway to the mall to go hang out with your friends.
-Read at 5 p.m. so that you can ignore the fact that dinner needs to be made.
-Download the book, even if you have no intention of reading it, just to make Rachel do a happy dance.
-Read on the airplane en route to moving to China to teach English. That is one LONG flight.
-Read in church. It's okay, everyone will just think you have a Bible downloaded on your device.
-Read to your small children as a bedtime story.
-Save the book to use as research for April Fool's Day, because it's a great resource for prank ideas.
-Give the book to unsuspecting friends so that they can be utterly bewildered by my fast-paced switching between topics.
-After reading the book, leave reviews that lavish wonderful praise on my writing. Use of the phrases "the Mark Twain of the millennial generation" or "The Lemony Snicket of fortunate events" are recommended.

Staying on Topic is Hard is priced at $3.99 on every retailer where it's sold, although, for the next week only, as a "Happy eBook Launch!"/"Merry Christmas to all!" promotion, you can buy it on Smashwords for just $2.00 with this coupon code: HV72M

I know many of you have been faithful readers of my blog for a long time, now, and I appreciate that greatly! If my writing has been a cool part of your life in any way, I'd really appreciate it if you made the splurge to support me by purchasing my book, and I honestly believe it'll be worth every penny.

If, however, you'd love to read the book, but you don't have a couple bucks to spare right now, feel free to email me privately at randomlyrachels (at) and I should be able to arrange an opportunity for you to review my book for free!

So, yeah, I'm an author with a brand new book, and this entire post was shameless self-promotion. If I had Jedi powers, I'd use them: This IS the book you're looking, really, it is!
17 December 2014

Our Weekend (in China)

This past Saturday morning, we had every intention of getting to DongMen early enough that it wouldn't be too crowded, but the bus took longer than we expected and we didn't arrive till about 10:30.

We had a few things on our list to buy, and our first stop was at "MiniSo", a home goods/beauty/everything sort of store which reminds me of a nice dollar store. Just about everything in the store is $5 or else, and it's always fun to see what they have. Last time we went I bought a mint plant which is coming along quite nicely, this time, Angel got some cologne.

Dong Men Shopping Streets, ShenZhen

Then we wandered till we found Angel's favorite candy store. We feel like we're getting to know the layout of the DongMen shopping area fairly well, but it still feels pretty easy to get lost. We headed down a few other streets that didn't look familiar, and Angel, who was hungry because he didn't eat breakfast, stopped to get some snacks.

The first snack of the day was a rou jia mo, which in this case, was a sandwich containing pork and lettuce. Angel says it was the best rou jia mo he's ever had. I tried it, but I prefer the beef rou jia mo sold at a little Halal restaurant near our apartment. I'm not a big fan of pork.

Rou Jia Mo

He also got these two meat sticks. They looked really spicy, so I did not partake, but Angel ate both sticks on his own and then decided that he doesn't want to eat such spicy meat anymore.

We stopped by the movie store before heading back on the subway and picked up the 3 original Indiana Jones movies, because Angel's been wanting to see them ever since watching some men cracking whips at the town square the other day.

We returned back to our "home" stop on the metro and stopped to get a bubble tea (for Angel) and lemon tea (for me). Man, we sure got a lot of snacks on this day!

I'd only noticed recently that this little river we cross to get home from the metro had a stepping-stone crossing as an alternate route to crossing via the bridge that cars use, and I thought it looked way more exciting to cross the river via stepping stones, so we tried it out for the first time!

Before returning home, we stopped by Walmart for a few groceries, and, among other things, trash bags. These bags don't look really "hefty", do they? We just have one tiny trashcan, and take out the trash every day--it's a good system, because trash seems to attract cockroaches.

And Sprite. I'm a snob now, I won't buy pop unless it comes with something free. Often it'll come with a free water bottle. Sometimes it's a little plastic bowl. Today, two free packs of tissues, score!

We made ourselves dinner, watched some Indiana Jones, and then Angel read his eBook "The Psychology and Spirituality of Overeating and Obesity" while I did mysterious things on the internet.

Sunday morning involved church (Where we sang "We Three Kings" and "Angels We Have Heard on High" in Mandarin), a lunch of tacos, and a short nap before Angel's three students came over for their English class.

Post-English class was a much anticipated event--playing with remote control boats at the park! The week before, one of Angel's students, who has an inexplicable love for me given that Angel is her teacher, gave me a model boat, and we spent an hour on that day putting our boats together, which was a bit of a challenge given that I've never put a model boat together, and the instructions were in Chinese.

We had to wait for the glue on the boats to dry, so this Sunday, we took them out to the park for a spin around the lake. She felt Angel and I needed a lot of instructions because we'd never played with remote control boats before, so she carefully told me not to sail my boat too far away, lest it go out of range, and not to let the boys (her classmates) take the boat, because they would run away with it.

That was our weekend. Meat on a stick, boats, a fun river-crossing, Christmas hymns, and Indiana Jones. What more could I ask for?
14 December 2014

Wearing Dresses in Winter

Lizzy here is modeling eShakti's Moto Style Ponte Dress in Baked Apple (Currently out of stock). eShakti provided this dress as a sample for review, I was not otherwise compensated for this blog post.

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you know I'm a die-hard eShakti fan. I love dresses with sleeves, and with eShakti, I'm spoiled for choice, as they provide all the sleeved dresses I could ask for! Also, because I live in a (mostly) tropical climate, I love that they offer so many dresses made out of 100% breathable cotton (when it's 90 degrees and you're in a small classroom with 50 teenagers and there's no air do not want to be encased in synthetic material, let me assure you!).

Just take a peek at this, this, and this if you want to see what I wear to teach on a regular basis!

Lizzy, the queen of layering, is showing off how eShakti dresses can be perfectly comfortable even in the midst of wintry weather, as well. eShakti makes customization easy, and if there's anything I like, it's the ability to wear clothes that are unique. When picking out this dress, I chose to shorten the sleeves and the skirt from the original design. I wanted to remove the pockets, because I, unlike everyone else in the world, don't like pockets in dresses, but Lizzy likes them, so the pockets stayed.

What do you think of the way Lizzy styled this dress? Have you purchased from eShakti before? If you haven't, but you want to, email me, I may have a referral code so that you can get $30 off your first purchase!

On another note, is there anyone who agrees with me on a preference for pocket-less dresses?
12 December 2014

My Favorite Photos of this Year

I just found out that Chelsea and her husband are doing a 12x12x12 photo challenge today, and I decided to quickly hop in! The goal was to find 12 of the most iconic photos from this year and post them today, on the 12th of December. I decided to add an extra layer of complexity to my post, and in order to narrow down my search, I made sure that these are 12 photos from the year that I never posted on the blog before. So I present to you: 12 iconic moments from my 2014!

I have a long standing relationship with the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, and an especially close relationship to the baby sister I haven't spent much time with, since I moved out when she was almost 2. Walking into the ride hand in hand with her is not something I ever thought I'd do in my lifetime. I love looking at this photo now, with her in her too-big borrowed winter clothes, me carrying mom's purse full of snacks so we'd be fed throughout the day, and the uncle who brought us along on this trip leading the way into the ride--it was pretty much perfect.

It took Angel and I being together for 4 years before my parents finally had the chance to meet my in laws, but it finally happened this year. It was fun to see them in the same place at the same time, if only for a very brief visit.

This photo is in honor of something I really hope to never experience again: Winter in Michigan. This last one was pretty bad as far as snow and ice go.

This has to go up, because the World Cup characterized a good chunk of my summer. I'm not exactly pro-soccer, but it meant spending a lot of time with good friends when the games were on, so it wasn't a bad thing. I don't know why Angel is holding the flag, though, he definitely wasn't supporting Italy!

In July, we realized that our time in Michigan was quickly coming to a close, but we'd never been to Grand Haven! For some reason, this prompted us to quickly take a day trip up to check out the boardwalk and the beach, and it was fun. Funny how the prospect of leaving causes you to do and see things you've never felt any need to do before....

Angel quit his job a few days early to make sure that we could both go to the Riverbend Show and hang out with the family and play with tractors and engines all day. This was back when he could wear his green hat without fear of rebuke. I love this photo of him and grandma!

I feel so loved when I see this photo. Angel and I went out swing dancing with my sister and two of my cousins on our last night in the US. We later returned home at about 10 p.m. (we had to wake up at 2 a.m. to leave for the airport) to find that our house had been disarranged. There were partially eaten bowls of oatmeal on the kitchen table, and worst of all, these beings had already taken up residence in our bed! Some relatives who happened to know where our spare key was hidden decided that our last evening was the perfect night to prank the prankster (Angel).

We had the whole bus to ourselves as we were headed to Waikiki Beach one morning in Hawaii, so Angel said, "Quick, take my picture!"

This photo from our month of TEFL training is currently the background screen on my computer. Wow, August was a whirlwind. Learning how to build lesson plans at the same time as being put in front of a classroom every single day at the same time as learning that China has BOTH 5 "dollar" bills and 50 "cent" bills and vendors will laugh at you if you confuse them....all of that made for a pretty fast adjustment to a completely different lifestyle! We also lived in a hotel for 3 solid weeks, so there's an experience I can check off the bucket list, because I'd never experienced full-time hotel life before!

My first day of teaching at our school, ever! We were so excited to finally settle down into our new home and new jobs at our high school. The first day and week were exciting--if occasionally confusing, and the rest of the year have continued on in the same manner. Our coworkers have done a great job of making us feel welcome, and our students never leave us bored!

Taken during our trip to Malaysia in October. This is what happens when Angel puts the camera on the ground and yells that we all have to pose for a family photo. I love it!

And let's finish off with a selfie from our anniversary pictures at the park. By the way, if you've ever really wanted to be the center of attention, just be an expat who puts on a wedding dress and takes a point-and-shoot camera to the neighborhood park to snap a couple of anniversary photos. You will get all the attention you crave, and more. :)
10 December 2014

Survival Guide: When You Don't Have Water

Occasionally, our water service goes out. Thankfully, it's never gone out for days at a time, usually it's gone out in the morning and come back on by the time we go to bed. Maybe I could survive in a world without indoor plumbing, but to be honest, the way houses are designed now are not designed to work well without running water. I don't have a well or an outhouse!

My advice for surviving a water outage:

1. Ideally, you will have already taken a shower and finished doing laundry BEFORE the water stops coming. If you haven't, go with the old ponytail-that-covers-a-multitude-of-sins and save the laundry for tomorrow.

2. Try not to be in the middle of cooking a big lunch when the water goes out, or you will have to stack up the dirty dishes and let the grime dry to a crisp while you wait for water to come on again. If you become hungry, go to a restaurant or eat snacks that don't require dirty dishes.

3. Locate a bathroom within walking distance that has water service. For us, this is the bathroom at WalMart. Unless Walmart loses water at the same time as your apartment, which has also happened. Then you're out of luck.

4. Before your water shuts off, anticipate and be prepared for such an event, and save a big water bottle (We buy our drinking water in 8 liter bottles) full of tap water in your storage room instead of recycling the bottles when they're empty, so that you have some water at least. Or you could just buy a huge water bottle if the need is great, but they're not super cheap, so avoid if you can.

5. Go to work, where there is water. Stay there a long time, enjoying their faucets that work.

6. Do not play basketball after work, but before discovering that you have no water. Avoid sweating at all costs.

7. Reminisce about the good old days when you had water and how awesome that was.

8. When the water does come on, do not instantly jump into the shower with joy. Run the shower and all faucets until the water stops coming out muddy and orange. You do not want to be covered in that stuff, believe me.

Have fun, and may your water always work!


In recent history, we've had the internet, the electricity, and the water go out. The internet went out for a 5 day stretch last week, but the electricity has only ever gone out for an hour or two since we've been at this apartment. Which do you think would be the hardest for you to live without?
08 December 2014

Angelisms, on Hong Kong Disneyland

I could tell you my thoughts on HK Disneyland, but I'm an easily excitable person, and on vacation most of my thoughts tend to be "This is so much fun!!" Because of this, I thought it would be entertaining to bring you a few of Angel's comments during our day at Disney:

Hong Kong Disneyland

"I've always wanted to buy you a tiara, but this is the first place I've ever seen that actually has a good selection!"

"It's a Small World sucked. But I was thinking, we should make President Obama and Xi Jin Ping and Putin all ride It's a Small World together before they have meetings, just to see what the effect would be, for good or for bad."

{while waiting in a 30 min. line for Autopia} "If this is the future, the future is slow."

{after seeing lots of empty shelves in the gift shops} "Who has the money to buy all of this merchandise?"

"This kind of makes me want to buy some Disney movies at DongMen because I don't really remember any of them."

"How in the world can there be a 45 minute line for a carousel? It's a carousel."

{after riding Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars} "Now I understand why Disney is famous--they have a roller coaster that goes backwards! That was awesome!"

"Okay, most of the rides were really cool, except the one about Winnie the Pooh, I thought that was lame. And It's a Small World. But I know they have to make rides for little kids, so they're okay, I guess."

{after watching the "Disney Paint the Night" Parade} "That was exactly what I want."
Rachel: "That's exactly what you want in a parade?"
"No, that's exactly what I want my life, my house, everything in the world, to be like."

04 December 2014

4th Anniversary

4 years of marriage.

I love that husband of mine.

I promised him a "treat" when he finished HSK 1 for Chinese on Memrise. His treat of choice was a burger and fries.
I love that in a world where everyone complains about staged Instagram photos, he happily snaps away and posts ill-lit, blurry photos of whatever he wants to.

I love that he can convince me that I'm beautiful while at the same time loudly describing how much he does not like my outfit.

I love that whenever I give him a piece of food because it doesn't meet my standards (it's too greasy, doesn't taste good, it's lump of fat, etc.) he recognizes that I'm only giving it to him because I don't want to eat it and he says, "That's my Rachy!" with a big smile. He likes the fact that I use him as a human bin for scraps of food that I don't want. It helps that he eats anything. It especially helped when I slyly put an oyster that was given to me at a fancy dinner on his plate for consumption and he ate it without a word. That's teamwork.

I love that he's proud of our marriage and is quick to set people straight when they think we are merely dating (I'm not sure why, but many people don't assume that we are married when they meet us).

I love that he spontaneously tried to buy a surprise hair straightening iron for me but got to the cash register and realized he didn't bring enough cash, so he had to put it back.

I love that he's never embarrassed, including on occasions when he hasn't had enough money on him to buy something that he brought up to the cash register.

I love that he can go from chatting with his parents on Skype in Spanish to studying Chinese and speaking to our coworkers in sentences where every single word is is in the wrong place but they understand him anyway (sometimes).

I love that he plays Fernando Ortega and Rich Mullins songs in the mornings as we get ready for work together.

I love that he loves my family as much as I do.

But mostly, I love that somehow, in the weirdest possible way, we are just right for each other, and it becomes more and more apparent with each passing year.
03 December 2014

Our Traditional Anniversary Photos





It would appear that not all that much changes over the course of 4 years, but that's the limitation of photographs. More has happened in the last few years than I could ever write, but it's been an adventure that I've been proud to live.

{Tweaking this post and linking it up to Not Dressed as Lamb for the #WearingMyWeddingDress challenge, since it seemed to fit, and it's about 3 weeks too early to post my 5th anniversary photos, though there's a sneak peek on my Twitter}
01 December 2014

What My ESL Students Want to Learn

Last week was the beginning of a new term at our school, which means I was given 500 new students! Every time I meet a new class for the first time, one of my warm-up activities is to have everyone answer the question: "What do you want to do or learn about in this class?"

I find that this question helps me with assessing the English level and interests of a particular class, and helps me plan to meet their needs over the next few months as much as I can. Sometimes their answers are exactly what one would expect, other times they are a little more creative. I thought I'd share some of their written responses with you today:

"I want to improve my spoken English."

"I want to talk well with Englishmen."

"I want to be friends with my teacher."

"Learn some things about USA traditional culture."


"Can we learn Spanish?"

"Watch lots of English movies."

"I want to talk to my friends in English."

"I want to talk with my teacher about many things."

"I want to learn how to lose weight."


"I want to learn about the cultures of all the countries in the world."

"I will learn to be a good boy and study hard."

"Learn to sing English songs."

"Everything is okay."

"Play some funny games"

"I want to stay awake in this class."

"Learn how to be very slim like the teacher."


P.S. My students are awesome. They make me smile everyday. And I have no idea why they comment on my size/weight--I am, I'd guess, average-sized, if not slightly statuesque in this part of the world.