All posts by stephanusoptimus

February 10, 2017: The day I found out my father died

The morning sunrise over Tomsk, Russia, where I Iearned of my father’s passing at the age of 73. He is now part of that sunshine, everyday rising and setting as it has for centuries and millenia over many generations of people and will continue to do so until the end of time.

Like my father, I fundamentally believe in the goodness of humankind and life overall. I do not believe death is the end but I also don’t attribute any one characteristic to it. It, death, simply is, as is life itself. Years ago I would’ve contemplated the meaning but now, after travelling so much of the world, meeting people, seeing how they live and work and, most importantly, simply getting older, I’ve learned to just let some things be. Life is not fair but according to what criteria? Life just is, death just is.

I knew I’d cry at your passing, Dad, I just didn’t think it would happen so soon. All the shoulda coulda wouldas start popping into mind, about which you warned me not to let them interfere with my life. ‘Do what you need to do and be done with it already,’ is what you used to say. ‘Wants become needs,’ you warned. Problem is, sometimes I have a hard time figuring out what is a need and what is a want. I was hoping for a few more years of chats and wisdom from you, but I should’ve known better.

I am happy that you went peacefully and, as you told me the last time we spoke, ‘I can still think.’ It’s to that which I have to look forward to in my old age. I still see that last email from you within the first page and I realize no more of those will come. Shoulda, coulda, woulda, but how much can we know? Like trading stocks, of which you were so fond, we can only trade in real time using what we know at the moment. We all thought you’d make it to Nick and Natasha’s wedding, but your body couldn’t hold up.

Life isn’t about fairness, it just is. Death is a very sad part of that life. It’s the closure of one generation so the next can take over. As your father passed at the young age of 73, I wonder if that was on your mind. Your father moved from Ukraine, you moved from the country, and I’ve just moved because of the decisions you and your families made.

I thank you for the possibilites you have given me and my brothers, sister, nieces and my mother. We did a lot in life and will continue to do so. Again I cry at your loss but I seem to have no one reason to do so, I just do. I read the condolences from others and am surprised by just how far your reach went. I wish I can be even half as great as that.

Dad, I’m sorry I didn’t come home this vacation to see you one last time. Shoulda coulda woulda, but I don’t think you minded, you also had other things to do. You worked right up until the time you died. And in response to my concern for your health you said, ‘Well, if I’m dead, I’m dead.’ Yes, that is how it is. But it’s still painful for those of us you left behind.

Dad, I love you, I miss you already and I hope we meet again sometime later, a thought that is very much real to me now. I need to go now to catch a train, but I’ll see you soon one last time.

Lots of love from your travelling son,


A Little Update – March 14, 2017

So it’s been about two months since I last posted, sadly I even missed posting in February which means there is now a hole in my publication record! The reason for the delay is because of a few changes That have happened in the last month. For those following along, yes, I did finish the Trans Mongolian / Trans Siberian Railway journey I set out to complete at the beginning of January. However, my trip was cut short due to the passing of my father. As result, I expedited my journey to Moscow and then flew back to Canada to attend the funeral. However, once in Canada, a small incident involving my passport prevented me from returning to China as planned. Further, due to another family event (this one happier, my younger brother married his long time girlfriend) AND because of all the confusion surrounding my passport, I am now in Vancouver trying to figure out my next move.

The events of the last two months, though sad in some respect, really aren’t anything to get upset about too much, mainly because these things happen and, moreover, I’ve lost jobs before so this is nothing new to go through. I’ll be writing up a few posts not just to get things off my chest (and out of my head) but also so that others may learn from what I’ve gone through.

More crazily, this coming April actually marks the SEVENTH year that I’ve been posting here. Most, if not all, of the posts are about my travels around the world, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon, both travelling and writing. Seven years… that’s a long time. My only regret is that I didn’t start sooner to document my very early travels in Europe and South Korea! As I’ve always thought, many of my travels and stories are very much based on the idea of ‘Remember that time when…?’ And this time is no different.

If you aren’t already, I highly suggest you follow me on Instagram as I post just about all of my travel photos there and quite a few short videos too, just so you can get the idea of the atmosphere of my travels. If the above link doesn’t work, head over to my Home page and have a look there.

Anyway, thank you to all those who’ve sent their well wishes and condolences as they are truly appreciated.

Giving up on Chinese for… Russian?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I hadn’t done much reading in English this semester because I had another thought: why not read in another language? To which you might respond “Chinese, right?” Well, no. You see, I’ve got kinda fed up with Chinese. Not only is learning Chinese difficult, it’s made more difficult in Beijing because a) I teach English, b) most people here have a working knowledge of English, and c) unless you’re Chinese is very good (re: perfect tones and accent), most Chinese people who can speak English would rather do so than hear out your terrible Chinese. They may compliment you with a smile “Your Chinese is very good” or they may be a little more blunt, “What? Your Chinese is terrible.” Their answers usually depend on how tired they are.

Anyway, if you’ve followed my travels for any length of time you’ll know that I’m knowledgeable in a few different languages, not least my “university languages” of Latin and Ancient Greek. Well, this semester, being fed up with learning Chinese, I decided to try something easier. And so I chose Russian.

Huh? Russian? Easier?

Yes. Easier… than Chinese.

You might recall me mentioning that I have made tentative plans for my next two vacations during which I’ll travel to another country and finally/hopefully practice some of these languages that I’ve been studying for so long. The first “mission”, if you will, is pretty much here and is the one that is causing me the most headache, not so much because of the language itself, but because of the country’s entrance regulations, that is, Russia. (Well, at least I hope to get to Russia, which I’ll have to explain in a bit.)

But why Russia and Russian? Let me explain.

Although you’d be right in saying that Chinese is probably the most practical language for me to learn right now, I can’t help but wonder just how much progress I’m making and, furthermore, how much more I really need to make. Although it’s great to entertain the idea of conversing fluently in the language, I wonder if it’s possible inside the time I’ve allotted for China (I’ll re-evaluate my stay here after about five years). However, this semester I made up my mind to get back to some other languages that I’ve studied in the past. Knowing I didn’t want to handle studying too many languages at once, I had to make a choice. So, after I came back from the Philippines, my interest in studying Chinese on the wane and desire to possibly “prove myself” as some sort of multi-lingual traveller, I chose to go with something familiar, and Russian fit the bill.

Simply writing the word “Russian” will probably cause many in my friend circle in Canada to cringe before they cross themselves and mutter to themselves, “Господи, помилуй / hospody pomyluy / Lord, Have Mercy”. You see, I derive ancestry from Ukraine, Western Ukraine in particular, an area that has staunchly fought for its own unique identity apart from others around it, despite what the political borders may be at any given time. To begin studying Russian is to basically learn the language of a country and culture that has been actively trying to quash the Ukrainian identity. Add to that, Russia’s current leader does not know English but he does speak German fluently as he too remains staunchly Russian all the while impeding upon Ukraine’s territorial boundaries.

(I’m not sure I would go so far as to say it’s the Russian people, as there are elements of pro-Russian in Ukraine and pro-Ukrainian in Russia. So, it’s not so much something of the people, but much more complicated than that. Is it simply political? Economical? Religious? This is part of the entire debate between these two countries. Ukraine is not Russia and Russian is not Ukrainian, but both cultures do have a lot in common.)

I’ve discussed the situation in Ukraine and Russia before and you might even recall that a few years ago I myself went to Ukraine and left with the impression that the country would eventually be divided in two. Well, now it has been divided all but in name. I also never thought it would actually happen the way it did. I will confess, it’s difficult to keep up on current events as the situation in Ukraine has fallen from the mainstream media’s focus. As far as I can tell, however, the situation is still not cleared up.

What prompted this change of attitude?

I mentioned I didn’t get to read very much in English this past semester. However, I finally just finished Sergii Plokhy’s Gates of Europe and have now begun Paul Robert Magosci’s A History of Ukraine. The first is the more modern book, having been published in 2015 and incorporates a discussion of the lead-up and current state of things in Ukraine. The second book is a much more lengthy and in-depth examination of Ukraine, its people, and the country’s history. So, while reading all of this history and the more I read about Russia, its history and its famous literary people, the more I realize the importance of studying and keeping alive a language such as Ukrainian. So, both of those books sort of contributed to my decision in going back to my roots and studying something a little more familiar than Chinese.

So, why Russian and not Ukrainian?

And herein lies the problem. Much like English dominates global business and, geographically, can be found in many parts of the world, Russian’s previous dominance in the Soviet Union saw to it that the language and culture was spread far from Moscow itself. So, the result is that many of the countries that border China speak Russian in addition to their own native languages. Furthermore, modern Ukrainian people I meet either in hostels or wherever around the world typically speak Russian and not Ukrainian. If they speak Ukrainian then they are usually from some small village and haven’t lived in big-city Ukraine for very long, if at all. On top of that, many of the Ukrainian travellers I meet are from Kyiv, which speaks Russian and “surzyk”, a mixture of modern Ukrainian and Russian.

So, since I have a lifetime of experience with the Ukrainian language and because I travel quite a bit, Russian seemed like a natural choice.

How is Russian easier than Chinese?

When I say Russian is “easier” than Chinese and you’d probably agree simply because Chinese is viewed as one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, but you might not be aware of the finer points of that statement.

First, Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet (а б в г / ah buh vuh guh / a b c g) which means that once you learn the letters, then you can read anything. What’s more, and probably the familiar part of Russian to any learned of the language, is that when you learn the word stems then you just need to focus on the word endings and you’ll have a large vocabulary. Contrast that with Chinese in which there are hundreds and thousands of characters to learn each of which have their own meaning and then can be combined with others to make new words. You won’t learn either language over night but you can at least have a basic grasp of the Russian alphabet over night which helps you use a dictionary.

Finally, combining the Cyrillic alphabet and the word stems means using a Russian dictionary is much easier than using a Chinese dictionary, even if it’s electronic. Granted, in this day and age of cell phones and touch displays, it’s not too difficult to enter in your text or simply take a picture and have it translated for you (which I’ve described before). However, typing in a Russian word is easier than trying to write in a Chinese character. Further, when you look up a Russian word you are faced with the word itself (which you can read because you now know the alphabet) and then its meaning. Contrast the Chinese language in which you need to first get the right character (some are very similar to each other but have very different meanings), then write down the pinyin (that is, the romanized method of pronouncing the Chinese character and helps a lot of people learn the language quicker than without), and then the definition of that character.

So how good is my Russian and what books did you use?

I didn’t really want to study with a teacher because I knew it would be expensive and also require much more of a commitment of time, which I don’t always have during the semester. So, instead, I opted to focus on reading and listening. I bought two books, The New Penguin Russian Course by Nicholas J. Brown and Russian Stories: A Dual-Language Book by Gleb Struve which contains several short stories by well-known Russian writers, including Tolstoy, Tergenov and Gogol (though many will point out that he was Ukrainian, he did write in Russian). I made it about half way through the course book and only maybe a third of the way through the Russian short stories but, in my defense, I opted to read and watch “real Russian” news instead of simply trying to learn from the textbook. So, on top of reading I also watched quite a bit of Russia 24 (a Russian news network) and read articles from Along the way, as if only fair, I also read a little bit more Ukrainian just to see how interchangeable the languages are. They are a little bit, but they are still subtantially different from one another.

And at this point, I’d say my Russian is pretty terrible, which is the purpose of this winter vacation. Right after I decided to learn Russian I also asked myself “How can I apply this language? Why spend any time learning this language at all?” To which I responded, as any normal person would say, “Go to Russia!” Which would prompt me to ask, “When should I go there?” and to which you might respond, “During your vacation!”

And so this winter vacation I will be taking the train from Beijing all the way up to Saint Petersberg, a route you probably know to be the Trans-Siberian or the Trans-Mongolian, in an effort to practice my Russian.

And so ends 2016 and onto 2017… again, and again, and… again

It’s hard to believe that 2016 is over already with two Christmases done (Julian and Georgian calendars) and two of the three major New Yearses (sp?) are done and over with (again, Julian and Georgian calendars). All that’s left is the Lunar New Year, more commonly referred to as Chinese New Year or, here in China itself, as “Spring Festival” which will end the Year of the Monkey and usher in the Year of the Rooster.

You might be wondering why I haven’t moved along yet. Well, this winter vacation is setting up to be particularly busy. I’ll be travelling, of course, this winter vacation will be taking me across Asia and Europe by train; and then, once the new semester starts, we’ll have a new teacher to train up and, finally, as I try to get that done as quickly and efficiently as possible, I’m off to Canada for 4 days for a wedding and then it’s back to the grindstone for semester number two. So, to tell the truth, I’ve been dreading stepping foot out of my door simply because I know once I do get going it’ll be like pressing “fast forward” on life. And that’s what travel does, no matter what trials or tribulations one encounters on their journey, time seems to move even faster. Before I know it, it’ll be March 12th and I’ll be preparing for class on Monday morning.

First semester is finished and I’ve been off for just over a week now. This semester wasn’t overly challenging in terms of work load as much of my prep work has been done in previous years. I did have a few technical complications which made December particularly challenging (which you can read here, here and here) but overall the semester went rather smoothly. I even made it to the Philippines for a week and completed (most of) my scuba diving certificate.

The air was actually quite nice for about 4 or 5 days last week which made it pleasant to simply sit around and do some reading (which, sadly, I’ve been neglecting) and then head to the pub in the evening. I did manage to get some reading done in English, but not even half of the stack of books I brought with me at the beginning of this semester. You might be wondering about the books I did read (and what else I was reading)…

First, I finished reading Gang of One by Fan Shen, a man who grew up in the time of China’s Cultural Revolution. This book came recommended by a colleague and shows how the author went from an ardent believer in the Revolution to someone trying to get out, and failing many times. Through trials and tribulations, moving around the country as a young Red Youth to learn from the farmers, getting a placement as a university professor in a city just outside Tianjin (and learning about the nasty effects of industrial pollution), then finally being transferred out to another city, he finally asks the love of his life to marry him but even that had a tragic ending. In the end, he makes his way to the USA. and begins a new life. Though I may have given you the major plot points the book is still worth reading for yourself. Highly illuminating.

The second book I finished was Straight to Hell, a hilarious book about John Lefevre’s adventures in the investment banking world.  John Lefevre is famous for running the @GSElevator Twitter handle with which he tweeted some of the things he overheard while on the job. He starts out in New York, moves to London before being transferred to Hong Kong just before the 2008 financial. Through drunken adventures and antics, he gives some insight into how investment banking works and how deals get done to move money around the world. A good portion of the book is about his time in Hong Kong during which he does big deals with Chinese business tycoons who are often more about the money or the roadshow (read: party) rather than doing a “deal” in the strictest sense. (Not as bad as the business misadventures had by Tim Clissold in his book, Mr. China). This one was very easy to read and made me laugh when he explained some of the tricks he used to gain the upper hand in negotiating deals away from the other big banks.

And so that was the reading I was able to do in English. Now, what else was I reading? Chinese? Well, not as much this semester. I started out with good intentions but something else clicked in my mind that sort of derailed me from my Chinese-learning plans and took me on a new route (actually, an old route made new again). And for that, I’ll need to end it here and explain in another post why I gave up studying Chinese and began studying Russian.

Anyway, I know a lot of people found 2016 a particularly detestful year and it will probably go down in history as “one of the worst”. From celebrity deaths (which never really make sense to me why they’re such a big deal) to changes in governments around the world (particularly the USA) to a few deaths and illnesses closer to home (much more emotionally trying), a lot of people bid good riddance to 2016 and have looked with hope to 2017. With that, I hope you had Merry Christmases and Happy New Yearses (sp?) and here’s to an even better new year! Maybe we just need to get past the Lunar New Year before things get better?

Now, about those languages…

A Bad Week Gone Good, Part 3: Sending Money Home

Moving along onto the third part of the trifecta of disasters that all seem to occur within a one week period, I now introduce to you the complication of sending money home.

I’ve been in Beijing for over two years now and, overall, I find it to be a good place to place. It works for me and I work for it, a relationship that we both respect. But a problem arises whenever I need to transfer money home. Now, I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and, despite the typical language barrier issues, I’ve been able to make this work out. The bank takes their cut (100 rmb) and sends my money and it shows up in my Canadian account a day or so later, with my Canadian institution also taking their cut ($15). Over the last two years this has become a rather simple process (bring passport, bank card, contracts in English and Chinese, fill out 电汇 (dian hui, wire transfer form)) but recently China enacted some tougher banking measures, ostensibly to combat the free flow of money out of the country’s borders. So, as of December 1st, 2016, sending money got just a little bit more complicated. Now I needed just one more piece of paper to send money home: a tax bill.

I have no idea what this tax bill thing is but I sense that it has something to do with if and how much I get taxed here in China (11%, if you’re wondering). However, it’s not like you can just get this piece of paper. No, you need to go through your employer who needs to apply for it and then you have to go pick it up at some government tax office somewhere in Beijing. Let’s put it this way, when I asked my boss about it she simply asked, “Is there another way you can send money home?” The implication being that this isn’t a short process. I had never needed this before and, although the bank girl did kinda make a fuss about this last time, they still processed the transfer. It was not to be this time and in all stone-faced seriousness, she explained to me (in Chinese) that-

…Honestly, I have no clue what she said. I’m not sure whether I should be flattered or insulted that the bank teller thinks I can understand Chinese so well. After a few attempts to explain it simply she wrote down the words “tax bill” on a piece of paper and showed it to me. WTF?

So I showed her an email from my employer stating how much tax I pay. She shakes he head, “不是 / bu shi“. No.

She goes on to explain what she means (again, all in Chinese) and (again) I have no idea what she is saying. I imagine what she’s trying to tell me that, despite my handsome and good looks and great reputation amongst all my students, she simply cannot allow the transfer to go through without the proper paper work.

Well, pickle my eggs, Batman. Another complication.

I was aware of other foreigners having problems with bank transfers and the bank teller did inform me that other foreigners had this tax bill thing, I was one of the few who didn’t. That’s not completely true. Yes, there are foreigners who have this thing, but none of the foreigners I know who have been here for any length of time have even heard of this thing. At any rate, I now had to reconsider my options.

Option 1: wire transfer. Foreigners can still do wire transfers but there’s a limit to how much they can exchange per day. The daily amount of money foreigners can exchange is $500 USD, any more than that and you need this tax bill thing. That means I can exchange up to $500USD per day and then, after a few days, do a wire transfer of all that cash. I did see online in one or two places in which foreigners simply went bank to bank and withdrew and then exchanged $500USD until they reached a suitable amount to send overseas. However, I was thinking of all the exchange fees (~ 20RMB / $4 CAD) that would add up over time so I was a little reluctant to do this.

Option 2 is to use Paypal. This is an old one and apparently no longer works, but I may have to try one more method. I know this because I spent an entire Saturday morning setting up a Paypal account IN CHINESE (which required taking screenshot after screenshot and translating it using Baidu translate, which I explained in my last post, and, worst of all, trying to link all of my accounts again) and attempting to send money overseas only to have nothing go through. It was only after this morning that I met another teacher who had lived in Taiwan and other parts of China for a few years beforehand and said it used to work but they have since shut that down. The odd thing is, however, that Paypal and Unionpay (China’s Interac equivalent) recently struck a deal and their websites indicate that sending money overseas is possible. So I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong or if I just need to re-try and click the right buttons. I suspect I might have to use online banking to send money, which also requires a USB dongle in order to enter my PIN.

Option 3 is to get a friend to wire the money to your account. Chinese nationals have a higher annual limit to the amount of USD they can send (ostensibly to their princes/ses) overseas or to buy a house in Vancouver/Seattle/Toronto) so not only can they exchange more, but they can send more in one go. Their annual limit is $50,000USD. This option, however, requires me to transfer my money to their account and then hope that they actually put the transfer through so, as you can see, there is a bit more trust needed in this case. Luckily, I think I know someone who can help me with this. Now this would be fine for the short term, but sending money home on a regular basis might be a bit of a nuisance.

Option 4 is the newest one to come along and comes with another learning curve: Bitcoin. This option is a bit of a wild card because I simply don’t trust all the connections you have to go through, not to mention that many of the Bitcoin sites can up and disappear over night with no accountability. The funny thing is, however, that since China has been enacting tougher banking regulations and devaluing its currency on a steady basis, the price of Bitcoin has actually gone up quite a bit in the last few months. It is possible to buy and sell Bitcoins and send them overseas much cheaper than doing any of the above transfer. However, and this is kind of what prevented me from even learning about how to do this exchange, Bitcoin is known to fluctuate quite a bit so there’s no guarantee that by the time you buy, send, and exchange your Bitcoins that it will be worth the same amount. So there’s a big exchange risk factor when using Bitcoin and I’d rather not have that problem when simply trying to send money home.

Other options include sending money via Western Union or Moneygram but, again, foreigners are capped at exchanging $500 USD per day. Further, Western Union likes to take a hefty percentage (~10%) of the amount being sent and, what I dislike about it even more, is that you need somebody on the other side to receive the money. Yet another option is to use Alipay to make an international wire transfer but, as with all simple things for Chinese nationals, you require a Chinese ID card to link bank cards and send the money. In other words, foreigners can’t use the Alipay wire transfer option.

I eventually went with Option 3 and had a friend I know transfer the money into her account and then wire it to me. We went together to the bank and went through the steps because, not only is there a bit of trust required, but she had never done a wire transfer before. Anyway, the bank had no problem doing the transfers (why would they? They made some nice commissions.) and the money went through shortly after.

And so ended this rather challenging week. I now had a new computer hard drive, a new operating system, the ability to order stuff online, and now money in Canada. Despite it being a “bad week”, it actually wasn’t that bad at all and, what’s more, I learned a few things along the way.