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Living Abroad in China with Barbara & Stuart Strother

1. Are there any local customs that a newcomer to China should be aware of?

A few key customs that come to mind include receiving a business card with two hands and treating it as a valuable item, being aware of the fact that there is a particular protocol on where to sit at group dinners (wait until the host shows you the chair you should take), and not leaving your chopsticks pointing straight up in your food, which resembles incense sticks and is therefore associated with funerals and therefore death. There are really too many customs to mention, but the good news is that the Chinese are very forgiving when it comes to ignorant foreigners. They don’t expect you to know all their traditions, but they’ll be honored and impressed if you do.

2. Making local friends is a great way to assimilate to living in a new country. What’s the best way to meet new people in China?

It’s quite easy to strike up conversations with people in China. The Chinese are often very curious about foreigners, so a foreigner who wants to chat is quite welcomed. I’ve made friends with taxi drivers who were simply curious about my life. Of course this is easier to do if you speak some Chinese; even if your language skills are rudimentary, they’ll celebrate your attempt. So the simple answer is to just be friendly and talkative. But the best advice is to learn Chinese, practicing it everywhere you go. When it comes to establishing deeper friendships with acquaintances and coworkers in China, the Chinese culture revolves around food. Friendships are built around shared meals and drinks. Inviting a few co-workers to join you for an evening at a hotpot restaurant is a great way to show you’re interested in building friendships. Just don’t forget that whoever does the inviting also does the ordering and the paying.

3. What do you consider essential items to pack before moving to China? Are there any things you just can’t find?

What to pack greatly depends on what part of the country you’ll be living in. If you’re moving to Shanghai, Beijing, or Hong Kong, you’ll be able to find most everything you’re looking for, though sometimes it does take some searching. But if you’re moving to a smaller city with few expatriates, you’ll need to pack much more—or plan on occasional trips to the big cities to get what you need. Nonetheless, here are a few hard-to-get items to consider bringing along: books, board games, holiday items, your favorite spices, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, deodorant, plenty of undergarments and shoes if you’re much less petite than the Chinese, and perhaps most importantly, personal items that will get you through those occasional homesick days, like photos, hobbies, your favorite movies, or other ways to relax.

4. Should someone moving to China find housing before they leave or look around upon arrival? Are there any great housing resources to be aware of?

Typically it’s best to wait until you’re there to do your searching. Real estate agents can be a big help, taking you around to see multiple properties, regardless of whether you want a villa or an apartment to buy or to rent. The biggest cities with large expat populations also have property websites in English for you to do some online searching on your own. If you can’t find an English website for the city you’ll be living in, there will likely be good resources in Chinese (like www.5i5j.com or www.soufun.com, which cover multiple cities). If you don’t read any Chinese, get a bilingual friend to help, use an online translator, or simply work on recognizing the housing-related Chinese characters on your own. Of course you don’t need to read Chinese to peruse the listing photos.

5. What’s the best way to manage your money in China?

Go local. Eat the local food, enjoy local transportation and housing, and limit your partying. The more you require the comforts of things like American food and imported beer and a housing complex that caters to foreigners, the quicker you’ll see your money evaporate. On the other hand, if you’re trying to make a small budget go a long way and you don’t mind sacrifices, China can be an incredible bargain.

6. When moving to China, what are the initial costs? How much money should you set aside in order to make the move?

Usually foreigners moving to China do not need large budgets because most are going to take a job there, whether teaching English (where the school provides your plane ticket and furnished housing) or working in corporate or government positions (with the accompanying moving budgets provided through their employer). Students who will be studying in China will have inexpensive dorm housing provided. If for some reason you don’t fall into one of these categories and are on your own financially, you’ll need to bring several months rent to get into an apartment, which will be your biggest expense in the first months. Look at the online housing websites for your destination city to estimate how much you’ll be spending in rent, which can vary significantly from one city to the next. If you have children that you plan to enroll in an international school, usually you need to budget around US $25,000 per kid per year, though often employers cover this as well.

7. In which fields is it easier for a foreigner to secure a job? Any tips on getting hired?

The easiest job you can get as a foreigner in China is teaching English. You’ll need to have completed a Bachelor’s degree, but it mostly doesn’t matter what subject you studied or if you have any teaching experience. Again, this differs greatly from one place to the next since the nicest places to live and work will be more competitive in their requirements. Check the many ESL (English as a Second Language) job placement websites online for open positions around the nation.

8. What’s the one thing you wish you would have known about living abroad before you left?

It would have been extremely helpful to have had a book like Moon Living Abroad in China to answer the many questions and confusing situations we came up against, but there wasn’t anything like it back then. There was a lot that we didn’t know before we left, but I wouldn’t change that a bit now. Part of the enchantment of living in a new culture is the continuous opportunity to experience and learn something new every day.

Living Abroad in Spain with Candy Lee LaBalle

1. Are there any local customs a newcomer to Spain should be aware of?

One of the biggest shocks to Americans fresh to Spain is dining times. Lunch runs from 2pm to 4pm, give or take half an hour. If you want to have la comida earlier, you’ll have to look for a sandwich shop or fast-food place. Dinner is also late—9 or 10pm is about average. Of course, you dine earlier in your home, but if you have la cena in a restaurant at 6pm, you’ll likely be dining all alone—that is if you can even find a restaurant open for dinner that early.

2. Making local friends is a great way to assimilate to living in a new country. What’s the best way to meet people in Spain?

Intercambios!! Meet Spaniards who want to exchange their Spanish for your English. Find intercambio ads in the local English press, or pin up an ad around your new neighborhood. Many Irish bars hold intercambio nights. It is a great way to practice your castellano while meeting locals. I even know of two Spanish-American couples who married after meeting through intercambios.

3. What do you consider essential items to pack before moving to Spain? Are there any things you just can’t find?

There is really very little you can’t get in Spain, however even after six years of living in Madrid, there are still some goods I stock up on when I am back home—favorite facial products, jeans, running gear—all vastly cheaper stateside. I also always buy my laptops in the US, both for cheaper prices and US English keyboards.

4. Should someone moving to Spain find housing before they leave or look around upon arrival? Are there any great housing resources to be aware of?

Arrange your short-term housing—a hotel, hostel, or even couch surfing—before you leave home, but wait until you arrive in Spain for long-term housing. You’ll want to visit the neighborhoods, see the apartment, and meet the landlord, seller, or roommate before forking over your Euros. To get a grip on prices and neighborhoods, Spanish mega housing site, idealista.com, is a must.

5. What’s the best way to manage your money in Spain? Any tips on opening a bank account?

It depends on the source of your money. If you are getting paid in dollars from an employer in the US, you’ll probably want to keep a US account and withdraw money regularly from an ATM or via international transfer. Both options entail fees, so check with your bank back home first. If you are earning Euros in Spain, a local bank account is a must. If you open a non-resident account, you’ll only need your passport; if you have legal residency in Spain, your ID card. Keep in mind that a basic checking account (cuenta corriente) doesn’t actually come with checks; Spaniards use debit cards and bank transfers to pay for practically everything.

6. When moving to Spain, what are the initial costs? How much money should you set aside in order to make the move?

It depends on your intentions and needs. If you are young and single and looking to share an apartment, $2000 should be enough to get you started for a couple of months. If you want your own place or are coming with family, you’ll need considerably more. And of course, where you move in Spain will have a big impact, Madrid or Barcelona are much more expensive than Costa del Sol or Northern Spain.

7. In which fields is it easy for a foreigner to secure a job? Any tips on getting hired?

The English-teaching market is still very hot and it is very easy to find work as an English teacher, legally or illegally, with experience or not. Find work by visiting academias in your neighborhood, putting up flyers, and checking the classifieds of both the English-language press and the local Spanish press. If your working papers are in order and your Spanish is up to par, look for jobs requiring inglés. Infojobs.net is a good place to start.

Top-Ten Budget Travel Destinations for 2010

Are you ready to travel in the New Year, but not sure your wallet is quite as ready? Have no fear—our friends at BudgetTravel.com have announced their top-ten budget-friendly travel destinations for 2010, and the list is exciting and diverse. The top-spots include: Portland, Las Vegas, Glacier National Park, Baja California, Mexico, Samaná Peninsula, D.R., Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Vienna, Sydney and Hanoi. Moon offers travel guides to several of these wallet-friendly destinations.

Each year, the experts at BudgetTravel research industry news and trends and dive through mounds of data to determine the world’s new best-value destinations. To find out why their picks are more affordable than ever—and how to have fun once you get there—you can read the full article here.

There’s no better time to book your next adventure. When you do, make sure you return to Moon.com for unique and budget-friendly trip ideas, informative blogs, maps and more. And don’t forget we’re giving away a $100 Southwest Airlines gift card to one lucky reader to help get you on your way. For a chance to win, all you need to do is sign up for our monthly e-newsletter by January 4th.

Argentine Monkeys Howl Back!

Lily-pad style leaves float atop a shallow lagoon that stretches to the horizon.
Scattered open-water lagoons lie within an endless horizon of marshland grasses in Esteros del Iberá. Photo © Miguel Vieira, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.
My Moon colleague Christopher Baker’s recent post on Costa Rican howler monkeys has inspired me to respond from the Southern Cone. In fact, hardly anybody thinks of Argentina as monkey habitat, but the northeastern provinces of Corrientes, Misiones, Chaco, and Formosa have significant if not abundant subtropical forest that supports populations of the black howler Alouatta caraya, which is also present in Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia.

The easiest place to spot the black howler is the gallery forest across from the visitor center at the Esteros del Iberá, just outside Colonia Carlos Pellegrini (the final destination of my recent 4WD adventure), in Corrientes province. On this short signed nature trail, you’re likely to come across the howlers and, if not, you may well hear them at night, as their calls carry across the waters of Laguna Iberá.

I had been to Colonia Pellegrini several times before but, in a recent drive through the Sierras de Córdoba, I also learned that there is a black howler rescue center near the town of La Cumbre. Most of the animals come from the pet trade, and the center accepts volunteers who want to work with them for a minimum of three weeks, “teaching monkeys to be monkeys.”

Dreaming of a New Zealand Christmas

Growing up in southern California, I never had the white Christmas Bing Crosby so famously sang about. With temperatures that rarely dip below 40 degrees, Los Angeles weather isn’t exactly frightful. But it does get chilly enough to encourage crackling fires, healthy doses of hot cocoa and other cold-weather indulgences associated with the holiday season.

[pullquote align=”right”]People who had grown up eating huge, roast turkey dinners on Christmas day were balking at turning the oven on and planning barbecues instead.[/pullquote]However, my notions of normal Christmas weather were challenged when I spent a year in New Zealand. Intellectually, I understood that living in the southern hemisphere meant the seasons would be reversed, but nothing could prepare me for the reality. Arriving in Wellington in July, winter stretched ahead of me like a cold, cruel joke. Around November, just as I was getting used to the rain, the clouds parted and blessedly, it was summertime. The very next day (or so it seemed) Christmas decorations appeared in every shop window. And they all featured… snowflakes? Santa dressed in his fur-trimmed suit? I bristled at these decorations— after all, hadn’t I just bid adieu to winter?

I asked numerous Kiwis for the reason behind these snow-filled decorations. The answers ranged from indifference (“That’s just how it’s done,”) to anger (“Because the USA has to influence everything, doesn’t it? DOESN’T IT!?”). However, the most common answer was rooted in history. The English that settled in New Zealand in the 18th century brought with them their northern hemisphere holiday traditions including mince meat pies, Christmas crackers and cold weather memories.

I was pleased to hear from some friends that their traditions were changing. People who had grown up eating huge, roast turkey dinners on Christmas day were balking at turning the oven on and planning barbecues instead. And while traditional pine trees still stand proudly in many living rooms, it’s the beautiful, Pohutukawa tree that steals the show as New Zealand’s Christmas tree of choice. The Pohutukawa’s shiny green leaves burst forth with dazzling red flowers every December, providing the country with natural Christmas decorations that far surpass any fake snow from a can. Happily, I decided to ignore my north-hemisphere instincts and pursue a uniquely Kiwi holiday.

Unfortunately, Christmas Day in Wellington was unseasonably cool. A chilly breeze whipped through the city, but I paid no mind. I was embracing this summertime Christmas, and that was that. I put on a sundress and dragged my boyfriend to the beach where we flew a kite while covered in goose bumps. For dinner, we battled the wind and successfully lit a barbecue, grilling steaks and corn on the cob. On December 26th (known as Boxing Day in New Zealand), the temperature soared and we hit the road. There’s nothing more classically Kiwi than a camping trip, and that’s just how we spent the remainder of our Christmas vacation. Long, sunny days accompanied us as we toured the country, sky-diving, bungee jumping and surfing along the way.

When I think back to my year in New Zealand, it’s that trip that inevitably springs to mind. I’m sitting at a picnic table in a beautiful campsite overlooking the beach, a cold beer in hand while a warm breeze rustles through the leaves of a nearby Pohutukawa. This year I may be home for Christmas, but sunny New Zealand is where I’ll be in my dreams.

Christmas Delights in Frankenmuth

A mannequin whose dress is made up of a christmas tree hung with ornaments.
Photo © Laura Martone.

Before I’d ever stepped foot in Frankenmuth, a Bavarian-style village in the Thumb region of Michigan, I’d heard about Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland (25 Christmas Ln., 989/652-9931, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-7 p.m. Sun. June-Dec., 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. and Sat., 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri., noon-5:30 p.m. Sun. Jan.-May), billed as the world’s largest Christmas store. As a New Orleans native, I’m familiar with holiday extravaganzas – the Big Easy is after all home to Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, a large shrine to floats of the past, present, and future. But, despite my own holiday experiences, I was still woefully unprepared for my first tour of Bronner’s.

Founded in 1945 by Wally Bronner, the store began as a small business, dedicated to celebrating “the joy of Christ’s birth” all year long. Today, Bronner’s is enormous – nearly the size of six football fields (a third of which is available for the shopping public) – and featuring over 50,000 holiday decorations and gifts – from lights and personalized ornaments to Nativity scenes and artificial trees. Open 361 days of the year, Bronner’s only closes its doors on four major holidays: New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

Despite the incredible wealth of information on the Bronner’s website, this is truly one place you have to see to believe. My husband and I spent several hours there on our initial visit, and though it was late June when we first saw this amazing store (and neither of us are particularly religious), the endless rows of paraphernalia couldn’t help but instill us with the holiday spirit.

Some Michiganders might claim that all this holiday excess is a bit over-the-top, but I, for one, found it utterly fascinating. The oversized snowmen, categorized ornaments, miniature villages, and decorated Christmas trees (which range in religious, traditional, toy-land, and whimsical themes) especially delighted me, but there was so much more than that – everything from stockings, Santa suits, garlands, and wreaths to nutcrackers, candles, angels, and music boxes. In fact, even though it was summertime, we left with a few Christmas presents in tow – some hilarious fishing-inspired ornaments for my father, the ever-hopeful fisherman.

Apparently, Dan and I aren’t the only ones who appreciate this cornucopia of holiday delights. Over 2 million visitors – including plenty of children and hordes of travel writers (like the one-of-a-kind Midwest Guest) – visit this winter wonderland every year. Many even come from overseas, which is no surprise, given Bronner’s international theme: “Welcome” signs greet visitors in more than 60 languages, and “Merry Christmas” ornaments are available in even more. This impressive complex is truly an attraction for all ages – a magical world of sparkling lights, animated figures, and ever-present Christmas music. Some people even come for Bronner’s annual events, which typically include artist demonstrations, prize drawings, and videos about figurine production. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny also make annual appearances here.

Situated on 27 acres of well-landscaped grounds east of I-75, Bronner’s features outdoor treats as well, from adorned lampposts to life-sized Nativity scenes. And then, of course, there’s the Silent Night Memorial Chapel, a replica of the one in Oberndorf/Salzburg, Austria – which was built on the site of St. Nicholas Church, where “Silent Night” was first sung on Christmas Eve in 1818. Erected in 1992 as a tribute to God and one of the world’s favorite Christmas hymns, the chapel is open daily for meditation and visitation.

In an effort to accommodate all visitors, Bronner’s offers free use of strollers and wheelchairs. Snacks are also available on-site – in case you stay longer than anticipated – and there are plenty of free parking spaces for buses, RVs, and other vehicles. Besides shopping, you might also enjoy the store’s free video presentations – “World of Bronner’s,” “Silent Night Holy Night and the Silent Night Memorial Chapel,” and “A Decorative Life: the Wally Bronner Story” – all of which are shown daily.

As I previously expressed in my author Q&A about Moon Michigan, Frankenmuth – lovingly known as Michigan’s Little Bavaria – is “a sweet spot to spend the holiday season.” With the presence of Bronner’s – one of the state’s top attractions – it’s not difficult to see why. But if you want to avoid the holiday crowds, you should consider visiting off-season, as I first did.

In general, Frankenmuth is a family-friendly destination, and with a year-round, full-service campground, it’s especially ideal for RV camping. Besides a range of standard and deluxe campsites, Frankenmuth Jellystone Park (1339 Weiss St., 989/652-6668, $37-77) even offers an indoor pool from March to December and cabins from April to September.

For more information about Frankenmuth and other popular attractions of the Great Lakes State, consult the latest edition of Moon Michigan. Tourism offices like the Frankenmuth Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau (635 S. Main St., 800/386-8696, hours vary seasonally) are a helpful resource, too.

Is Canada the Best Place in the World to Live?

Is Canada the best place in the world for expats to live? According to the 2009 HSBC Expat Experience Survey, it is. Canada topped the list of best places to live, with expats there reporting the highest overall increase in their quality of life since arriving in the country.

The survey polled more than 3,000 expats around the world, assessing whether their overall quality of life increased or decreased during their overseas assignment.

Canada was also number 1 in “quality of accommodation,” with 68% of expats reporting that their homes were better in Canada than in their native country. Canada received high scores in how easy it is for expats to make friends, to pursue hobbies, and to improve the quality of life with their families.

According to survey respondents, the top reasons for living in Canada include:

  • Better environment/quality of life for my children (39%)
  • Lifestyle (38%)
  • Career prospects (35%)
  • Less crime (13%)

Other interesting findings:

  • Canada has a high proportion of retired expats: 24% compared with 7% worldwide.
  • Canada’s expat community is older than average, with 61% age 45 or over.
  • More than two-thirds of Canadian expats own property in the country, which is double the global average of 31%.
  • More than 60% of expats in Canada reported that organizing their finances and their health care was easy.
  • Nearly 40 percent said that their health improved since arriving in Canada.

Want more info? You can download the full report from the HSBC Expat Experience website.

Dallas & Fort Worth with Jonanna Widner

1. What are your top three favorite things to see in Dallas and Fort Worth?

Oh goodness—this is a tough question, because there’s so much to do. If I have to narrow it down to three, I’d say:

Attending a Dallas Mavericks game. The team has been so great the past several years, and the games always sell out. The energy is tremendous in the American Airlines Arena, and afterward you can pop across the street for a drink at the W Hotel.

Attending the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. This is one of the most elaborate, incredible rodeos in the world. Of course, its grown into quite a spectacle and now is as much a social event as it is a true working stock show, but it’s a truly unique, Western experience. The festivities last for days, and the whole town gets into it

in fact, when I was growing up, we used to get the day off from school and a free ticket to go.

Eating! Dallas and Fort Worth have so many choices for dining, from food carts to fine dining. You will never lack for choices here.

2. Football’s a big deal in Dallas. Tell the truth—are you taking your life in your hands if you wear a Redskins shirt?

Yes. Yes you are.

3. Where do the Dallas locals go to shop?

Highland Park Village has always been a classic destination for Dallas denizens, but in the past several years, the Uptown area has provided ever-increasing numbers of cute little boutiques and locally owned shops. Also, North Park Center is one of the best malls in the country.

4. Downtown Dallas is filled with tons of hip shops and restaurants. What are a few of the best?

Wild Bill’s Market in the West End is an awesome place to get boots, belts, pearl-snap shirts, etc., at surprisingly un-touristy prices. Label-lovers will freak at Benji’s Collezioni’s selection of fine Italian name goods like Fendi, Gucci, etc. As far as restaurants, Fuse may be the hippest of them all. This hot Asian fusion spot is located on an upper level of a hip loft building and shares its space with the building’s pool deck. After dinner hours, the place is filled with dance music that rebounds off the buildings on the streets of downtown (I know, since I used to live across the street!).

5. What’s the best music venue in Dallas?

Another tough choice. I’m gonna go with the Granada Theater for its history, locally owned charm, and a funky vibe. It can’t be beat.

6. Where’s the best place to stay on a budget in Dallas and in Fort Worth?

The area is not known for its B&Bs, but if you do some digging, you can find some great places to lay your head for less than many of the admittedly wonderful luxury hotels around the area. Miss Molly’s B&B, a former brothel in the heart of Cowtown in Fort Worth, is filled with character (caution: it’s haunted!). For super-cheap near Dallas, try the Dallas Irving Backpackers Guesthouse. There are also hundreds of discount hotel chains in the area–if you have transportation, try the mid-cities like Arlington, where rates are usually lower.

7. With every restaurant claiming to have the best barbecue in town, it’s hard to know who to believe. What’s your personal favorite in the Dallas-Fort Worth area?

I have to go with Railhead in Fort Worth, but I might be prejudiced because it is very near my house. But when I crave BBQ, it’s not just random BBQ

it’s always Railhead BBQ. Sonny Bryant’s might be the most famous in the area, and it is awesome too, but suffers from being a bit touristy. Still SB’s gets extra points because they actually catch the drippings from the smoked meat and then use it in the sauce.

8. Where can a vegetarian get a great meal?

The Spiral Diner, with locations in both Dallas and Fort Worth, has awesome veggie and vegan food. I’m a meat-eater, but I still frequent the place.

9. What’s the best dive bar in the area?

Ships, in Dallas, is a hole-in-the-wall inexplicably laden with random nautical accouterments. Cash only, and no cursing!

10. How does Fort Worth differ from neighboring Dallas?

Fort Worth is more laid-back, has a slower pace, and displays its Western heritage more noticeably.

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