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December 25, 2013 - Growing up in Ortonville, Shea Grounds thought to herself, 'There's got to be more out there than this.'

Now she knows there is.

The 2011 Brandon High School graduate lived in China for three months and also visited Japan this year, widening her worldview far beyond what she had dreamed.

"I saw shrines in Tokyo, and the Great Wall, I had real sushi, and saw a statue of Buddha that is 26 meters high, and I went to the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace where the Qing Dynasty rulers hung out," said Grounds, 20. "The Summer Palace is a huge, really expensive project that they wasted a ton of money on when people were starving and the Forbidden City is where they held executions in imperial China."

Grounds recalled with excitement how she spent the summer of 2013, leaving the U.S. June 3 for Shanghai, China, where she would work as an English as a second language teacher. The company which helped her find employment is Next Step China. While Grounds does speak Chinese (as well as Spanish and Japanese) she said it is not necessary to know any language except English to be an ESL teacher.

"They prefer you don't," she noted. "If you jabbered away in Chinese, they would be like, 'Are you really an English teacher?'"

Instead, Ground said she used pictures and movements and was the English version of the "Dora the Explorer" tv show for her 5- to 7-year-old students.

Grounds paid for her own plane ticket to China and a $1,250 fee to Next Step, which organized interviews with host families and showed her where to eat, how to use the subway and bus system, and set up interviews with employers. The teaching position she found not only paid for her plane ticket and the cost of the program, but also her first five months of rent for her junior year at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, where she is a dual major in international studies and Chinese studies.

Grounds stayed with a wealthy host family, a married couple and their two children, a boy, 7, and girl, 4, to whom she gave hourlong English lessons every day. The family lived in a 3-floor townhouse and the father works in the airline industry and travels frequently. Everyday, Grounds at breakfast with the family at 7:30 a.m. and went to work. She said they ate lunch at 11:30, and then everyone took a nap and had dinner at 5:30 p.m.

Food was one of the things that impressed Grounds the most about China.

"There was always four to five different dishes and always a bowl of rice," she said. "Oh, the food in China is so good, I ate everything I could get my mouth on."

That includes garlic eggplant for $1, baozi (a steamed bun with savory or sweet fillings) for a nickel each, deep-fried foods galore, and bubble tea, which she describes as "awesome."

"They just love food over there," Grounds said. "We do not do food like they do. Food is like a religion over there. They don't say, 'hi,' they say, 'have you eaten yet?' It was just awesome."

She set aside the vegetarianism that she adheres to at home and tried pig knuckles, as well as deep-fried scorpions and lizard, which she said was a lot of grease and salt and tasted like Lay's potato chips. These exotic foods are not something that the Chinese normally eat, she said, but something they can easily sell to tourists.

While she said food is like a religion in China, the Chinese people aren't actually that religious.

"They don't have the radical Christian religious thing like in America," she said. "In China, the norm is to not be religious. They're not atheists, but kind of indifferent, kind of like, 'why should you care what others believe?'"

Grounds found the Chinese people to be super friendly, "way nicer than Americans," with a liking for foreigners. After she finished teaching each day, Grounds would walk around Shanghai, a city that is 2,448 square miles and the most populated city in the world, with more than 23 million people as of 2010. The immense number of people living there makes for extreme pollution. Along with weather forecasts comes pollution forecasts. Grounds noted people don't exercise outdoors due to the pollution.

In an attempt to control pollution, it is very costly to get a license plate for a vehicle— $16,000 for the annual plate, Grounds said. As a result, only the rich have cars, including her host family.

"There is definitely an economic gap," Grounds said.

She kept busy with her list of things she wanted to do, including seeing the Great Wall, which she said was of course, very, very long, but not really that tall. The section she visited she said she could have jumped off and been fine. Grounds also took a 5-day trip to Tokyo, Japan to visit a friend while she was on that side of the world, getting a round trip plane ticket for just $100.

She returned to the United States from China Sept. 3, full of memories and gratitude.

"It was really amazing, I think everyone should go to China and eat food," she laughs. "I learned that China has the best food. And, that people are the same everywhere."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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