Outings with twins – in Japan. Are they boys?

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This is how most outings with twins look like.

The picture is taken in Himeji Zoo last week when we went to see the cherry blossoms at Himeji castle. Just making it from the car to the castle took quite some time, due to not only the fact that the site was booming with tourists (both Japanese and foreign), but also because a good amount of these people wanted to say hello to the girls.

I don’t mind people’s curiosity or them wanting to chat for a bit. The girls actually seem to make the Japanese overcome their fear of talking to foreigners, of course they do often show great signs of relief when it turns out I do speak Japanese.

The attention does get a bit more complicated when people just decide to stop and stare and thus block passage ways, both for me and others. It still amazes me, how two simple twin girls can make such an amount of people stand in awe, hovering their jaws close to the ground. It’s just twins, not sextuplets.

I also have to come to terms with the fact that no matter how I dress the girls, people will always ask if at least one of them is a boy. No matter how much pink they wear, how frilly their dresses are or how much flower pattern they have on their shirts, for some reason people assume they’re boys. I simply don’t get it.

I know babies are hard to tell on their face alone, but shouldn’t their gender being hinted by their pink clothes? When we went to see cherry blossoms, Yurina was wearing a pink dress and Miharu was wearing a white dress and people actually asked if Miharu was a boy, since her dress was white… even it was blue, would you make a boy wear a dress?!

Let’s not forget the fact that their stroller is quite pink.

People seem quite obsessed with the whole idea of boy/girl twins and even when I tell them that they’re identical twins, people still ask if one of them is a boy.

I also know there’s quite a lot of people from Danish pregnancy communities who would hate taking their babies to Japan. Those kind of people who can’t stand the thought of people talking to their babies without permission or even worse – touching them. If I’m talking the girls farther away from home than the supermarket, I must expect at least one of two old ladies will touch their feet or hands.

I don’t really mind, the old Japanese ladies loves the girls and if the girls can bring them smiles they can touch their feet all they want, or at least until one of the girls starts crying and scare them off. I just find it interesting, being from a from a culture which is very strict with how you act with strangers’ babies and suddenly living in Japan where apparently having a cute baby is an invitation to let people touch them.

I do think the girls enjoy the attention. Not that they understand why people look at them, but the attention brings extra people who can do funny faces, entertain them and make them laugh. A good day for a baby.

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Volunteer work in China and how I was a scam-victim

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So I spend four and a half weeks of my summer vacation doing volunteer work in Northern China. Overall I found it to be a nice experience, I met some awesome people, did work I enjoyed overall and lived with a nice family, thought this does not change the fact that I was a victim of a scam.

After looking through several volunteer companies on the internet, I found the company called IFRE (please note this name if you ever decide to volunteer). They had the cheapest rates and when I looked them up they had relatively good reviews – though I did not find any reviews from people who went to China.

This was my job description in short: 

– Teach poor and underprivileged children in rural cities of China.

– Have time to travel around in China and get help from staff concerning any information.

– Free mandarin Chinese lessons.

– Don’t have to be a native English speaker.

– 3 Meals a day and a host family will be provided.

The problem was the lack of promises they actually kept when I finally arrived in China. I did get a host family. A family of a father, mother and a daughter and they did everything to make me feel at home, so I only have good memories from my stay with them, the problems started when I had to start my work. I was assigned to work in the northern city of Dalian, nothing rural or underprivileged about this city. They put me in a private English teaching center – not a school. It was a company that sold English lessons to especially high school and university students. These classes weren’t cheap either, I was told that this is one of the most expensive English companies in China and one hour could easily cost between 50 to 100 USD. So basically, I was teaching some of the richest people of the city without getting paid, which where the next problem arose – since I might not get any money from my work, but somebody else did.

Before I arrived in China I got contacted by a Chinese guy from the China department of IFRE called “Jeff” – he explained me some of the main aspects of my work and arrangements. When I arrived in China I was told by the school that they actually paid this “Jeff” money to have me – he was getting money for the work I provided, money I never saw because I was supposed to work there as a volunteer – simply: I was working for free. I was told by other foreigners of the school that this “Jeff” was famous for doing these kind of scams, he would help people with finding a job in China, but then get half of their salary. So no poor children to teach and according to the school I wasn’t working for free either.

Where I lived in China

The apartment complex where I lived in Dalian, China.

Then came the next problem, the school weren’t told that I wasn’t a native  speaker of English and it ended with them asking me to don’t tell the students that I’m from Denmark and make of some kind of lie when it came to my nationality. “You have such nice English, easy to understand and no accent – it won’t be a problem” they told me. Exactly – I have no general accent, meaning I neither speak clean US English nor do I speak clean British English. I was taught British English and when I talk with British people my English to also sound very british, but if I talk with Americans or other English speakers, suddenly my English starts sounding more like US English.

Another problem with this concept of lying was the fact that the students liked asking questions about your country. If I told them I was from New Zealand, but suddenly couldn’t answer a single question about this country, how believable does that make me as a teacher?

Dalian City

Dalian City

The next problem came when I came for work on my second day. Another volunteer from Switzerland had been causing problems. He was from the same volunteer company as me, he had been lied to as well and was quite angry about it. He had tried contacting Jeff to get his money, he tried to cover up his non-native English by telling the students he was from England, but the students complained about him. Saying that his English was hard to understand (seems like a had a strong accent) and that he had attitude problems. My supervisor at the school told me he refused to do English Corners and he would angry at people around him. All these problems made them fear that I would cause the same problems, so they decided that I shouldn’t come to the school anymore.

“You can learn Chinese with your host family” – how they’re hardly home and doesn’t speak any English at all.

“You can travel around China” – I paid the company to come here as a teacher, so if you’re going to send me away I want a 100% refund!.

After long discussion they decided to give me a chance and instead they fired the other volunteer – who was the one causing problems anyway.

I decided to stay, even though my husband told me to quit the school since I was clearly a victim of a scam. I had come to China to get teaching experience, so I was going to stay, but I decided to tell my students that I was from Denmark and not an English speaking country. I wasn’t going to tell them lies.

Then came to promise of time to travel around China. I was given 2 days off a week. I worked from 1pm to 9pm in the weekdays – 8 hours a day and then I worked from 9am to 6pm in the weekends – 9 hours. I had to beg the school to give me 3 days off in one week so I actually had a change to go anywhere. I did get 3 days off, with only 2 days notice, meaning I had to hurry home and search for flight tickets to Beijing and find a hostel to stay at. The fact that I got these 3 days off came back to bite me in the ass later since I only got one day off in my last week in China, meaning they made me work 50 hours in one week. Yes, lots of time to explore the Chinese culture!

My trip to Beijing

My trip to Beijing

This was not my first trip to China, since I before had been to Nanjing and Shanghai which also made me prepared for a lot of things – especially the fact that there’s no toilet paper in public toilets and the fact that people will push like the next bus will be the last bus to ever come. I was also prepared for the Chinese food which is very different from non-China Chinese food and I must admit I still prefer Japanese food over Chinese food. I was used to the almost non-existing traffic rules – that cars love honking, especially if you got the silly idea of crossing the road when it’s green light (for you).

From my trip to the Great Wall of China

From my trip to the Great Wall of China

I had some really good experiences in China. I had some nice co-workers at the school, both Chinese and Foreigners. I had a lovely homestay family. I had an amazing trip to Beijing and I had many lovely students, who always seemed overjoyed so see me and always told me how much they liked my classes. Though this does not change the fact that I was scammed. I did not do volunteer work – I was working for free for another person’s benefit. I tried writing complains to the main branch of IFRE (in the US). First they talked about giving me partial refund, but first they wanted to ask Jeff about the situation – I never heard from them again. After I returned home I wrote them again saying that they worked with a liar (Jeff) and I was a victim of fraud. They contacted me again and apologized for the situation and told me they had let Jeff go – though I have no proof that this is true, instead I want to warn people on the internet and tell them to not trust the organization called IFRE – find another company!

My Chinese nails

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So I haven’t posted forever, which there’s a lot of reasons for. The main reason is that I was busy with exams in May and June, then I spend almost 5 weeks in China in July, where this site is blocked. Then I spend my August in North and South America and have only recently returned. I want to be an active blogger again soon. First I felt like sharing the beautiful nails I got done in China. They cost around 30 USD, but after 4 weeks they’re still in the same condition. Neither nails nor rhine stones have fallen off, no chipping in the polish and the only proof that I’ve worn them for this long is the growth of my own nails below the polish line.

Trip Summary: Cambodia – A land known by their dark history, but remembered by their smiles.

After our six days in Thailand, my husband and I went to Aranyaprathet, the Thai city bordering Cambodia, got our Cambodian visas and crossed to border into Poipet, into Cambodia. After that a very long drive from the border to the famous city of Siam Reap which offers tourists the famous Angkar Wat, awaited us.

The first I got to see of Cambodia, besides the stuffy border buildings and the big casino on the border, was the barren land, flat fields that looked like they were stretching into what seemed never ending, only separated by small villages with little wooden huts placed on poles to avoid the floods of water during the rainy season. We saw skinny cows walking along the roads, either dragged a carriage or walking by itself. We saw whole families riding a single scooter and we saw small, laughing children chasing around chickens on dirt roads leading away from the single, main paved road our taxi was putting to use. We saw people sitting outside their homes engrossed in conversations, we saw people taking a rest in their hammock under the shades of the many palm trees and we saw people working in the fields under the relentless Cambodian sun.

I found myself amazed by the sights of a world I hadn’t laid my eyes on before. Cambodia became the travel destination I would never forget and a destination that would leave me longing for a return.

Last summer I picked up a book in the local super market called “De dræbte min far” (First they killed my father) by Loung Ung, without knowing anything about the history of Cambodia I decided to buy in and soon after I found myself sucked into the life and story of Loung Ung, who was just a child when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army took over Cambodia in 1975, drove the Cambodian people out the fields and started what they called “Year Zero”. A new era, where hard working farmers were the ideal and educated people were the enemy. During their four year reign the Khmer Rouge army killed an estimated 2 million people, over 20 percent of the Cambodian people lost their lives to the vision of Pol Pot and a few other leaders. Many died of torture, savage executions, over work or starvation.

Through the story of Loung Ung, I found myself drawn into a dark and inhumane era of Cambodian history, a history that ones again shows us the true evil some humans are able to commit, a history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Just outside the capital, Phnom Penh, tourists are able to visit one of the most famous killings fields, called Choeung Ek, where the khmer rouge killed and buried more than 8,800 people in mass graves and in Phnom Penh city it is possible to visit a former high school, which was turned into a prison for the many enemies of khmer rouge, called Tuol Sleng. With such a dark history I never imagined to find so many smiles in Cambodia.

I did witness poverty, especially in the eyes of the small children begging me to buy either postcards, bottled water or bracelets, or in the eyes of an old man or woman lacking limbs asking us for money. I did witness hardships, from seeing people live on the ruthless streets, seeing people work under the burning sun without breaks and seeing people just trying to survive another day, but despite of that I also saw a strong willed people who had moved on, who had raised from the ashes and a people who do their best to enjoy even the smallest pleasures in life. A people who focus on the present while they flash bright smiles to world and to foreigners like me, who no matter how books I read about the genocide, will never be able to fully comprehend what they or their parents have gone through. A foreigner like me, who will probably never experience true, human hardship.

I fell in love with Cambodia, I fell in love with all the beautiful cultural and historic sights, like the famous and impressive ancient city of Angkar Wat which draws in tourists from around the world to the city of Siam Reap, or the beautiful and majestic royal palace in Phnom Penh – which is once again a thriving capital, with busy streets, big markets and boulevards lined with buildings showing off French architecture, reminiscing the French colonization. Phnom Penh, the city once called “the Pearl of Asia”, a city left empty by the khmer rouge, is a city in development and a city worth to visit. Whole Cambodia is worth a visit and I know I didn’t get to see enough during my measly four days in this amazing country, so now I am left with a urge, a need, to once again go back to the country so filled with rich culture and history, the country which offers magnificent sights of true country landscapes, where people still rely on nature, hard work and basic utilities during their everyday lives. The country of Cambodia can offer one an experience of a lifetime, help one create memories one won’t forgot and the Cambodian people can offer one smiles, kindness and show one that it is still right to believe in humanity, even when dark times should prove otherwise.

Cambodia have now a special place in my heart and I hope others who goes there are able to make a place as well.