One Week In

Ask any teacher and he or she will tell you: the first two weeks of classes are always pretty good. Students behave well as they learn the rules and expectations of a new teacher, and they’re normally not prone to testing the boundaries. The first weeks are, therefore, the easiest of the year. And what is it like in Shenzhen, China, after one week with Chinese eleventh graders?

Not bad.

The only aggravations are of a sort easily dismissed. They’re a result of the power in the office going out without warning periodically (I hope that grade book autosaved…oh, snot, it didn’t); the internet not always working properly, and a lack of wifi in the office. Oh, and there’s a bit of disorganization, which would probably have driven me nuts if I hadn’t been through worse before. For example, the English text books we are supposed to be using this term to help students firm up their language fundamentals only arrived yesterday, and further, it was unclear which classes were expected to use which books. As it turns out, grade 11 students will use a book called Interchange, while others at a higher level will use one called Know More English, the title of which seems a questionable play on words to me. One might have expected to know this stuff ahead of time, but ultimately, it’s not a big deal.

One fantastic thing about teaching where I am is that I get lots of prep periods. There is time to get organized, time to gather materials, and time to grade student work. There is actually enough time in the workday to get my work done. That’s huge. Last year, though I loved my job in Utah, I took work home every weekend. And not a little–hours worth of work. I didn’t have a spare moment at work, never mind actually being able to enjoy my entire weekend. Here, I have time again. It’s splendid.

I’ve found Chinese students to be more or less like students anywhere. There is a great deal of variation in capabilities–or rather desire, I suspect–between streams. Yep, students in this school are streamed according to ability. I have two classes which are higher level English learners, and one which is very low. The ones in the lower class tend to be unmotivated, as you might expect, so I have to wake sleepers and prod those who aren’t taking their work seriously. Oh, about sleepers–this is a boarding school where students are kept working until 9:00 at night, so that’s one reason they nod off. They’re legitimately tired, not just uninterested.

Yesterday left me with a smile on my face, for it was Teacher’s Day. As the day wore on, students brought me a box of apples, two big bouquets, chocolate, a couple of hand-written notes, and some fancy soap. In the evening, there was a banquet staged for all of us teachers, too, at some fancy restaurant, but it turned out my little ones weren’t welcome, so I skipped it. After all, who wants to go to a teacher’s day banquet where teachers’ families aren’t welcome?

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Gifts for teacher’s day.

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Traffic jam upon leaving. Note people walking in middle of road. The white Mazda is partly in the wrong lane.

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Note the smiles and the flowers on the bus.

Another point of interest is the end of the school day at a boarding school on Friday. Since most of the English teachers live at a different location, we ride a bus to and from school. Yesterday, we sat in traffic–not even able to get out of the school gates–for almost 20 minutes because the students were going home. The kids rolled their carry-on sized luggage out the gates and along the sidewalk to a car sitting in the road waiting for them. It was a big of an exodus, and quite interesting to witness. Hopefully, though, our bus can make a quicker escape hereafter.

If things continue in this vein, I’ll be very pleased to be working in Shenzhen. Here’s hoping the first week is a harbinger of what is to come, not merely the honeymoon period.

 

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Russian Winter Has Come…

…and gone, or so it seems. It’s been snowing here since October, so what is going on? I expected a frigid winter, and while it has been significantly below freezing since about the end of November, it hasn’t been the sort of “Holy crap, it’s horrendous!” cold that I’d anticipated. Except for about a 2-3 week stretch, that is. Last week it was down all the way to -20 Fahrenheit.

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The day it started warming up. Look at how quickly it bounced back t0 + temps.

That was pretty much Russia as I’d expected it: nose hair freezing weather. It was actually cold enough that public schools closed for a couple days. My school, holding the weather in contempt, did not follow suit. After a couple of days in a chilly classroom, suddenly I found myself with two electrical space heaters to augment my room’s 4 hot water radiators, and a room that’s always plenty warm. During that cold snap the school doctor also started planting little home-made paper trays full of sliced onion in all the classrooms and even common areas.

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Nice little carton, huh?

Did I mention there’s supposedly a flu epidemic going around? Not that I’d have much way of knowing it, since my Russian language skills are rudimentary at best, and since I haven’t seen anyone outrageously sick, either.

Anyway, two days ago, the temperature bounced back up. Now, it’s above freezing and the all the white stuff is melting; roads are slushy (a slight improvement in the case of the really secondary ones which they seem to have given up plowing after the snowfall got really serious and the cold snap occurred).

Today I went outside–it’s a rare sunny day (see some photos above from another sunny day a couple weeks ago, when it was 7 Fahrenheit and Turtle and I ventured outside for some fun in the snow)–and found that the fleet of tractors and skid steer loaders which at first did a somewhat acceptable job of keeping our residentail area’s driveways somewhat cleared of snow was active again for the first time in approximately 3 weeks. In the interim, the snow had gotten so deep on these roads that cars’ undercarriages were scraping the snow flat between the deep ruts cut by their tires. For a country where winter comes at the same time every year, it seems to always be a surprise here, and even though Kazan is far better at handling it and keeping the main roads clear than Ryazan, the other smaller city I’ve spent time in here, it is quite astonishing from a first-world perspective. To cope, people buy studded winter tires as a matter of course, and get stuck remarkably little, given the conditions.

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The forecast for the next week is fairly warm, hovering not far below freezing, so that should be nice. February’s first week is already virtually past, so maybe we have only a few weeks of real winter left.

Money Monday: 4 Years in

It’s been almost 4 years now that we’ve been living the expat life, experiencing life overseas and away from home. Regular readers know that we’ve found this to be a challenging, but generally wonderful period of our lives. We’ve had children, we’ve traveled to corners of the globe we once only day dreamed about, and we’ve mingled with lovely people from all sorts of places we’d have never been blessed to meet otherwise. That said, one of the major stressors in anybody’s life, except maybe the privileged few from the one percent, is finances. Living abroad carries its own stressors, of course, especially after moving to a new location, but we’ve sought and found employment that allows us to significantly allay our financial stresses, and that’s a big deal.

Going rent-free and enjoying the reduced expenses of life in the UAE allowed us to pay off my student loans in 2 years, a task that seemed Herculean, though not impossible, in the USA; the best aspect of working in the UAE was that I, Shon, generated the income (if you subtract taxes) that it took 2 of us to make in the States. The income was one of the redeeming elements of the job, along with the shorter work days.

So where do we stand at this juncture, approaching 4 years into our adventures in ordinary life abroad? How are we faring financially? We are doing alright, I’m glad to say. We’re not wealthy, by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re able to put back a healthy nest egg, a significant portion of which came in the from of the 3 years worth of bonus pay (not really bonus, given that it’s contractually obliged) from working for ADEC; and we’ve been building the savings account nicely.

Besides the savings account, in 2014 we opened a couple of Individual Retirement Accounts and started contributing to them–only to discover that, as we should have known from reading about them, but failed to notice, IRAs are meant to be contributed to from taxable income only, and we would be looking at a significant tax penalty every year we had no USA taxable income (and, of course, one of the main advantages to working in Abu Dhabi was that we weren’t being taxed). So, with the assistance of our Edward Jones financial advisor, we shifted the money into an American Funds mutual fund which Edward Jones manages. That meant no tax penalties, happily. That was about all I could say about it–the mutual fund, called Capital Income Builder, which goes by the ticker CAIBX, had generated a reasonable return for years, and it seemed like a solid enough choice, given that neither of us knew much about investing. Whatever fees we incurred through using a financial advisor was of no consequence, because the advisor was, after all, being paid to help us navigate waters we didn’t know anything about.

However, during the last six months or so, I’ve been learning a great deal about investing, and I’ve discovered that our Edward Jones mutual fund account is probably a financial mistake, since there are plenty of other Electronically Traded Funds (ETFs) which perform better, and cost a lot less to purchase. Not only that, but 2015 turned into a terrible year for CAIBX, and instead of the upper single-digit return it had been generating, it turned -8.5%, making our ongoing investment into that fund seem like a bad choice. Not only that, but taxes on an actively traded mutual fund are higher than a more static ETF, and the fees that it once seemed reasonable to pay Edward Jones (which, by the way, are among the highest of the investment firms, at least according to my research), now don’t seem like such a good idea. After all, the waters of investing are evermore familiar to me at this point. We haven’t yet closed our Edward Jones account, but we will; we’ve reduced what we put into it, however. We will close it, though, and transfer that money into other funds in the near future.

Besides having a savings account and a mutual fund, we’ve also opened up a Scottrade account to manage our own investments with. Scottrade has low brokerage fees and has an excellent program called FRIP, wherein dividend payments are reinvested for free into stocks of your choice. We’ve established a portfolio there with a small number of stocks, and will be expanding it over time, confident that we can do better than -8.5%.

What brought on the interest in investing, you might ask? My friend read The Wealthy English Teacher, penned by a blogger with numerous years spent teaching abroad, and he recommended it to me. I found the book very relatable, and then perused the author’s blog. I’ve also discovered, again, thanks to my friend, blogs like Go Curry CrackerDividend Mantra, and many others, all of which helped show me what’s possible to achieve without much more effort than we were putting into being frugal anyway, and prompted me to get serious about my own investing.

So there you have it. I’m happy to say that we’re doing rather well for ourselves at this point, especially considering where we came from with quite a bit of debt, and we’ve learned a lot about investing our hard-earned cash for ourselves. It’s nice to actually have a net worth these days, and we have every reason to believe that it will continue to expand.

The Next Adventure

Fall is right around the corner. New school years are beginning here in Georgia. Teachers are reporting for duty. Our new adventure is about to start: we will be moving to Kazan, Russia, where I (Shon) will be teaching at a virtually brand-new international school.

Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, and is known as Russia’s Third City (despite being the eighth largest in the country). It has a population which is 50/50 Christian and Muslim, and numbers over a million people. The city is a center of education and manufacturing, and is becoming increasingly well-known for hosting sporting events. 2018 will see the FIFA World Cup take place in Russia, and some of the games will be in Kazan.

For a nice, starry-eyed promotional video about the place, have a look at this video: 

I’m excited to be going to a school where the calendar is unlikely to change (short of a legitimate emergency) and where I’ll have well under 32 students in my classes. The school has a truly bilingual program, and the curriculum is modeled on the typical International Baccalaureate one, which is sensible, well-grounded, and features a number of interdisciplinary features that really make it stand out. Besides the promising work environment, I’m also happy that we’ll be in a place where there is grass which grows naturally.

The adventure begins when we soar out of Atlanta this weekend.