Friday, December 25, 2009

Guess what Wii got for Christmas?

Permit me to go all grandma on you for a minute and say, "When I was a kid, we didn't have game systems! We made up games like "grocery store" and "library" and "concert." We played outside. And we LIKED it!" The only opportunity for video games was on the TI994A we got when I was maybe 12. It had less memory than a thumb drive. I think we had three games on it. Amazingly, I never felt deprived.

So I've always had a staunch "there will be no gaming systems in our house" policy. I couldn't see what they would add to the quality of our family life. I still firmly believe this about everything except the Wii. I hate to admit it, but I have fallen in love with Wii Fit, which my brother is borrowing from a friend. I have done it almost daily since coming here, and can really tell a difference. I feel stronger and have even lost a couple pounds. And in this winter weather, it's a way for the kids to get out their energy.

I mentioned to Erik that I might be willing to get a Wii for the purpose of having Wii Fit, and that was all the permission he needed. Last night I opened up the Wii Fit Plus (which of course is fairly useless without the main system). When I did, we said to the kids, "How are we going to play this? Maybe you kids should open that big present over there." It was the Wii family fun bundle. Though Megan had just opened lots of very fun presents she really wanted, this was the thing that sent her over the edge. She threw herself onto Erik with a giant hug. Later, she said, "Am I dreaming? Did we REALLY get a Wii?"

It's yet to be seen if I will regret bringing this into the house.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The First Wave

As we ventured out to Perkin's last night, the first wave of the storm hit. I can't say there were snowflakes - they were more like snow chunks falling. The servers in the restaurant looked stunned that we came, but my sister really wanted to treat us all to dinner, so we did it. By the time we went back out to the car, it was covered with a layer of frozen snow/sleet under a another layer of snow. It kept falling in the night and we now have 3-4 inches on the ground. We're getting a temporary respite, enough to get out and snow blow the drive (ok, enough for my DAD to get out and snow blow the drive, and for the rest of us to watch). We're supposed to get a "wintery mix" all day today. I love that - "wintery mix." Sounds like some kind of coffee blend with vanilla, chocolate, maybe peppermint. But it's actually "freaky, treacherous mix of half frozen precipitation guaranteed to make walking and driving difficult, and coat your car so that it's impenetrable." Then tonight, 3-5 inches, and tomorrow 4-8 more. Funny, it looks so gentle and peaceful outside right now. We're going to go sledding quickly and enjoy it before the craziness.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Here I am, back for more posting. I just had to mention that there are three guys who have just run into each other at Dunn Bros. From the sounds of it, they were friends in high school, and have now all graduated from college and are working. One of them just mentioned that he is dreading turning 25 in a few weeks because it means he's, "Halfway to 50." Because as we all know, halfway to something as ancient as 50 is like one foot in the grave. One of the others commented, "Yeah, you're 1/3 of the way to being dead."

Granted, life expectancy for men isn't much higher than 75, but seriously, how grim are these boys? For those of you approaching 50, be warned: your life is nearly over. If you've managed to elude death and slip past 50, I have to warn you that you have less than 1/3 of your life left. Live it well.

Something snowy this way comes

Contrary to appearances, I have not forgotten how to blog. And it is no reflection on how interesting Minnesota is (or isn't) that I have not posted anything for weeks. Mostly, it's been because I rarely open my computer here. It's very freeing. I might keep it up.

But today I was inspired to type for several reasons. 1) I'm sitting in Dunn Bros with my computer in my lap working on a writing project, so the creative juices are flowing, and 2) I just read the weather report.

I believe I write a disproportionate number of posts about the weather, I guess because I've experienced such extremes in the last few years. We're about to experience another one. From now through the weekend, the precipitation predictions for Minnesota range from 60-100% daily. (We already have at least a foot of snow, with 2-3 feet piled up along the roads). The temperature will fluctuate in the 20's, which means some of that precipitation will come down in the nasty form of freezing rain, freeze on the roads, be covered with snow, and provide a nice treacherous base for all who attempt to drive on it. And many will attempt to drive on it, as they have to travel for Christmas gatherings.

How bad will it be? The front page of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis/St. Paul paper) says, "2 Feet for Christmas? You Better Watch Out." The ensuing article states this storm has, "An uncanny resemblance to the East Coast storm last Saturday" and "this could be the snowiest Christmas for Minnesota in 30 years." Loads of fun for kids, but we're supposed to drive to Minneapolis on Friday morning (an hour and a half away). I wish I could say, "And since we've no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow" but that's just not the case. We'll see what happens!

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I love surprises. To me, they communicate that someone took the time to think of me, and I'm all about quality time. Thankfully my parents like surprises too, because I gave them a big one last night by showing up three days early.

Here's the story - about a month ago, my uncle passed away unexpectedly. My mom's sister passed away last summer (2008) and her other sister also passed away a few years ago this time of year. So this year marks the first without anyone with my mom's side of the family coming for Thanksgiving, which we celebrate on the weekend.

When all this happened I thought, "Our tickets were free (paid for by the company and frequent flier miles). Why don't I spend a little and change my ticket so I can be back with them for Thanksgiving?" So I got my brother to come pick me up at the airport and we were set.

It was hard not to mention it to my mom, especially when she said on the phone last week, "Maybe we should just wait until you guys get back to celebrate."
"No, no you shouldn't. You should do it on Sunday," was my response.

The flight from China is SO much nicer than coming all the way from Singapore. I got on at 5:30 p.m., so after dinner it was almost time to sleep. I normally don't sleep much on the flight because we used to leave at 6 a.m. from Singapore, but I think I got in about 4 hours. I went through customs in Chicago, which was slick. There was no line! And I always enjoy when the customs worker says to me, "Welcome home." It's honesty one of the only times in my life when I am very conscious of being American.

I had a great drive home with my brother and enjoyed the excitement my parents and sister had at seeing me. It's a beautiful day here in Minnesota and I'm glad I can spend it with my family!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Official Car of Injustice

One question the Chinese government neglected to include on the driver's examination study guide was:

If a Black Audi pulls a bonehead, life threatening move on the road, should you:
1. Honk loudly
2. Call the police and report it
3. Force the driver off the road and yell at him
4. Nothing. It's a Black Audi.

The correct answer is #4. Perhaps wrapped into the price of the car is a get out of jail and traffic violations free card for Audi drivers. We're not sure, but whatever it is, people driving Black Audis seem to feel they own the roads and are entitled to constant right of way. You shouldn't cross a Black Audi. It is the official car of injustice in China.

I found this out the hard way tonight. My friend and I were walking our five kids to a nearby restaurant. A car was pulling up onto the sidewalk where we were. Once he cleared a concrete telephone pole, he sped ahead, coming dangerously close to the kids and me. Close enough that it was no effort for me to reach out and smack my hand against the car to demonstrate our closeness and my frustration.

At first it seemed nothing would happen, but soon he slowed down and got out of his car. He unfortunately happened to be one of the few Chinese men who can tower over me. In fact he was quite large. And quite angry. He began to come toward me quickly, and immediately two nearby men grabbed both his arms and held him back while he stood about a foot and a half from me and yelled in my face. At the same time, his wife came and stood to my left, yelling at me. I told them they were not being careful of the children, but it was obvious that no amount of reasoning on my part was going to make them suddenly feel remorseful and apologetic.

Normally situations like that completely unsettle me. But when I realized there was nothing I could do, I became very calm and just walked away (with my friend, who was wisely herding the kids away from the angry Chinese man). I expected my heart to be racing and my body to be shaking, but I was fine. Very weird.

When I told Erik the story in the restaurant, he said, "Was it a Black Audi?" I didn't realize until that moment that it was. No wonder he was furious - how dare a puny little foreigner call him on something? He's untouchable! Next time I'll check what kind of car it is before I call people on their crazy driving.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Let it snow!

We have lived in Asia for 10 years and 3 months. Up until two weeks ago, here is all the snow we have seen outside of Minnesota:

The Great Snowfall of November 2002 (Ethan trying to enjoy the snow before it gets swept away by ambitious sweepers)

The Great Snowfall of November 2003 (Megan not really enjoying the snow, but smiling briefly for the camera).
I think one other time there was a light dusting. But here we are in the middle of our third snowfall in two weeks. The first time was several inches. The second time was six! This time, it's still too early to say.

Thankfully, co-op is canceled today so we can just enjoy the snow. It's one of those days when I love the part of town we live in because the park across the street is a beautiful winter wonderland, and the courtyard is a giant playground for the kids. There is an army of snowmen out in the courtyard. They've even built up a big enough pile to make a tunnel! This morning they were playing hide and seek by following each others' tracks. Ethan was clever and walked backwards to confuse his friends. They were so busy they didn't come in for lunch until 12:30, and now they're back out again. Let it snow!

This is the picture you get when you tell the kids to say "snow!"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Something happened to me today for the second time in my life, something I never imagined would happen even once: my kitchen cabinets fell down. Thankfully, this time they didn't fall completely off like the first time. That was back in our first year here, when we moved into an apartment that was an empty concrete shell. The kitchen initially had only the old Chinese yellow cabinets that are knee high, with nothing on the walls. Ok, maybe not knee high, but they might as well have been for how useful they were. So we had some cabinets made. And apparently the workers didn't anticipate us actually putting anything IN the cabinets because the second we did, they fell down. They conveniently had already left for Chinese New Year break, so our cabinets sat in our dining room for a good month before someone could come back and reinstall them.

Fast forward 10 years to another apartment in China. This afternoon, I heard a crack. I thought the kids had dropped something, but they both plead not guilty. Later, when we went into the kitchen to wash the dishes, we noticed that the cabinet doors didn't line up anymore, and the bottom of the cabinets was hanging precariously low. We tried using our tripod to boost it back up (of course without all its contents) but it was reluctant to bear the weight. Erik went into our neighbor's backyard and found a discarded two by four left over from making their deck. The workers had left their circular saw behind so Erik was able to cut the 2x4 to the exact length needed. How convenient! So our cabinets are being supported by a piece of wood, and all the contents have been transferred to something that is resting on solid ground.

Ah, China. I shake my head and laugh. Do these kind of things happen anywhere else?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

That's not how we roll

Erik and I have been looking into buying a used car. We've been doing this with a fair bit of trepidation because we've heard used cars can be sketchy. Honestly, we've never bought a used car (the new car we bought in Singapore is the only one we've ever bought!) so we don't know what we're doing. We've hit a few used car lots but haven't found what we want.

The car we'd really like is called a Freeca. We have friends who own one (it's actually passed through three families of people we know) and they like it alot. We found two used Freecas at a lot in the south of town, so we borrowed a car and headed down there. Let me tell you a little bit about how things work at a Chinese used car lot. It might be different than what you have experienced in the States.

First of all, when you drive into a used lot, you will be inundated with people trying to buy YOUR car. I can't say how tempting it is to sell someone else's car, especially when you know they are actually trying to sell it. But we refrained.

We have yet to find someone who knew how to operate the car they were trying to sell. Rear defroster? No, that's a light! (No, sir, it's a rear defroster).

Safety standards are what we'd call "wanquan bu yiyang." (completely different). I kept examining the cars to see if the seatbelts worked or even existed. In one car that had two rows of back seats, there were none. I mentioned this to the woman and she said, "Shui yong?" (Who uses seatbelts??)

The whole idea of showing the car off well to the customer is a bit lost here. In one car, there was a jump seat in the back that was folded down. I asked the woman if she could put it up for me. She fiddled around for awhile trying to put the middle row down so she could do that, but she couldn't (see point #2). Finally she said, "It looks just like this one."
"Well, I'm going to have to see it."
"You can do it yourself when you buy it."
"How can I do it when you can't do it?"
Finally her friend who was smoking came over to help, leaning her cigarette precariously into the car while she did. I thought, "Lady, you might want to avoid leaving the smell and ashes from that thing IN the car" but I don't think it crossed her mind.

We did find a car called the Great Wall Hover, which we may buy new instead. Finding a used model was intriguing enough that we asked the man if we could test drive it. His response? "Are you going to buy it today?"
"Well, we don't know. We need to drive it first."
"Let's decide a price first. Then you can drive it."
"But we don't know if we want to buy it unless we drive it."
He was unmoved. So was the car. But we were moved to leave.

One thing I will say is that all the cars there look great from the outside. All of them were shiny and clean, even if inside some of them looked like they were 30 years old. I think we'll be buying new, but it was an interesting experience.

Is that really necessary?

Last year when we arrived in the States on November 24th, from Singapore, it was 45 degrees. And our tropically grown son walked into my parents house, took off his coat, stripped down to his t-shirt, and unzipped the bottom half of his pants so he was in shorts again. We warned him that he would be cold. Eventually he did put pants and a long sleeved shirt on, but later he went out on the back porch with no socks on. I thought, "I guess he won't have any problems adjusting to the weather!"

I think I was wrong.

Yesterday, it was supposed to be 50 degrees. The kids went outside in the morning, and two seconds later Ethan came back inside "freezing!" He went back out 15 minutes later wearing: long underwear, two pairs of pants, two long sleeved shirts, his winter coat, gloves, a neck gaiter, a hat, and his ski goggles. Over the course of the next hour, he progressively came back to strip off bits until he was done to something more reasonable. I don't know what he's going to do today - it's just started snowing.

Answer: add snow pants, go outside, come back in complaining that you need better mittens.

Friday, October 30, 2009

While my native land of Minnesota is coping with record snowfall in October and chilly temps, I have to admit I am enjoying the longer fall we have here. We sit at the same latitude as Columbus, Ohio, and up until today have been hovering in the low 70's/high 60's. That's a bit higher than normal, and supposedly we will be experiencing the 50's for the next week (although a predicted 68 next Friday). Now, I know that sounds pretty warm to people in the frozen tundra of the north, but when I went to put on clothes this morning, I reached for my wool sweater. Why? Because 55 degrees outside mean 55 degrees outside. That's not because we're too cheap to turn on our heat. It's because we don't have any. At least not until the government decides we do.

The Chinese government controls when the heat gets turned on here. Officially I believe it has to be on by November 15th. Sometimes it comes on earlier, depending on your complex (maybe a good reason to pay your management fees). But I like to think that at some point, a government official says, "Wang xian sheng, KAI SHI!" (Mr. Wang, begin!), some crusty old guy shuffles over to a giant switch, and poof! We all have heat. On March 15th, the same ritual happens in reverse. So much power for one little man. (I realize this isn't how it happens, but it amuses me to imagine it as such, so don't spoil it for me).

So until November 15th, or some time around then, we are subject to whatever the weather is outside.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Haiku for Squatties

I was "inspired" the other day to compose a haiku in honor of China's most common form of toilet: the squattie. Not only are these holes in the ground more difficult to maneuver for Westerners, most of whom have not retained the ability to squat flat footed as Asians can (one benefit of daily use of the squattie), but they are often not kept as clean as one might appreciate. Squatties are why God gave us a non-olfactory breathing passage.

I composed the Haiku in Mandarin, but realized this morning that it works in English as well. I'll write the pinyin first:

Wei sheng jian zainar?
Zhi you zheyang de ce suo
Wo xiang wo hui deng

Where is the bathroom?
Only this kind of toilet
I will just hold it.

Forgive me, Mandarin speakers, if my grammar is poor. Call it creative license.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Half

As some of you know, I ran in the BJ Marathon last Sunday. I took the "half the distance, twice the fun" way out and only ran the 1/2 instead of the full. I started training back in June, and have enjoyed many long runs along the canal by my house. It's a beautiful place to run, especially these days as the leaves on the slope down to the water are all changing. It looks like the hills are on fire.

But I digress. My training went well until about a month ago, when I couldn't ignore the pain in my left heel anymore. I was sure I'd have to quite the race. Then I called a woman here who has a great deal of experience and education in healthcare, and her exact words were, "Gina, you're running long distances. When you run long distances, your feet hurt." Her recommendation: ice and new shoes. The ice was good. The new shoes gave me blisters. Chalk up a few more missed runs while those healed.

My biggest hiccup came when I got an email at 5 p.m. one day that said, "We've had a problem with your registration. If you don't contact us by noon today, we will delete your information from our system." The email had been sent the night before. So I called their number and asked to speak to someone in English, knowing full well that I would not be able to communicate what I wanted in Mandarin. The poor man on the other end must have been wishing he didn't speak English by the end of our conversation. He started by giving me the very cultural, "Sorry, there's nothing I can do" response. By the end of the conversation, he was saying, "Ok, calm down. I will do my best to get you reinstated." And he did. Thank you Jerry, from the BJ Marathon Office. I sincerely apologize for verbally haranguing you.

Back on track, I was feeling pretty good about the race. My goal was to finish under 2 hours. The great thing was, even if I didn't, making a PR for this record was a guarantee since last year it took me about 2 1/2 hours to run/walk it. According to my inike training program, which tells me my pace, distance, and time, I was on track to finish in about 1:58.

The day of the race I woke up, joined my three running companions (my husband and two friends from my complex) and had another friend drive us down to Tian'anmen Square. The runners were organized in clumps according their race: we had to push (quite literally) our way through the mini-marathon runners, and the 9K runners, until we broke out into the open area for 1/2 marathoners. After the guy next to us had his pre-race smoke, we were off. The first 1/2 mile we had to dodge discarded disposable rain jackets people had been wearing to keep warm. Me, I wore long socks on my arms until I got too hot (thanks for the tip Tammy!).

Since Erik had to leave for Hong Kong that afternoon, he didn't have time to run the entire race. So, being the gracious and encouraging man he is, he offered to run with me instead of loping off into the distance. It was a bit boring for him, since I run so much slower, and because I had my ipod on. At one point he struck up a conversation with a guy from Iowa. Only my husband makes friends while running a race.

Erik was supposed to run with me until mile 9 or 10, when we ran past our house. At mile 8 or so, he went to get water and never came back! I kept waiting for him to sprint up to me. I couldn't figure it out. But I had to keep running, so I had to rely on the cheers from the sidelines. And they were legion! Granted, most of the people watching were either people who happened to be passing by and decided to stop and gawk at the runners, or people who were just on their regular route to work and got blocked for a few hours. Still, even those people had their cell phones out taking pictures and videotaping. Because why not kill some time while waiting? Many people though were chanting the traditional "jia you" (pronounced 'jah yoh') which means "add oil!", clapping, and giving us thumbs up. I found a few of my own personal cheer squad (my kids and our friends) around mile 9-10. It kept a smile on my face most of the way.

But then came the 10-12 mile loop. Along that route, there were no bystanders, and I began to start having those, "Why on EARTH am I doing this??" thoughts. I also began to realize that my inike program was not as accurate as I'd hoped. At the 10K mark it had been dead on, but it was telling me I was nearing the end, and I really wasn't.

As I came around the corner for the last stretch, it announced, "Congratulations! You've reached your goal!" but the finish line was nowhere in sight. It was more than disappointing to run the last MILE without music, fully knowing that though my inike had told me I'd finished in under 2 hours, that would not actually be the case.

I finished in 2:07:14. Certainly better than last year, and better than the 2:10 I initially anticipated before I started training. I caught up with my friends and, after doing a short interview for a local TV station, we took the subway home. All in all, a good experience. And just like labor, I vowed for the first 24 hours that I would never, ever, do that again. But now I'm thinking, "So next year . . . "

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Memory Lane

Last night Megan asked me if I knew my mother's parents when I was little. I didn't have the fortune of knowing my grandmother, as she died long before I was born, but I do have many fond memories of my grandpa John, and weekends spent at his house.

So I began to tell Megan about my grandpa. I told her what his house looked like (strikingly similar in layout to my parent's current house). I told her about the box in the basement next to the TV that always had peanut m&m's or chocolate stars, and how we'd try to sneak them without anyone hearing. I told her about eating dinner on Friday nights at the mom and pop root beer stand at the corner, where we'd always have corn dogs (and root beer, of course). I told her that my grandpa's refrigerator always had 20 kinds of soda, and that we would eat Alphabits for breakfast with half and half poured over it, and braunswauger sandwiches on white bread for lunch. But best of all, I told her, were the mornings my grandpa made pancakes, sausage and bacon for everyone, with Karo syrup.

As I talked her eyes lit up, and she said, "It sounds like so much fun!" I told her it was fun, just like it's fun for her to visit her grandparents. On reflection, I realized I made it sound like all we did at grandpa's was eat. Tonight I'll have to tell her about riding our hot wheels in the driveway, playing with old toys we'd find in the closet, the bright green antique dentist chair in the corner of the basement, the salon style doors leading to the back room that made it feel like a secret hideout, the time we stood out on the patio in our bare feet on Christmas Day because it was 50 degrees, the collection of antique dolls in my mom's old bedroom that we used to play with, playing piano while my grandpa dozed in the armchair, and how he'd always snap awake when I was done and say, "Very good!"

I actually can't play piano or make pancakes (like I did this morning, but not at the same time) without thinking of my grandpa. I wonder what our kids will remember about visiting their grandparents?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Race prep

Last year I entered the half marathon with as much forethought as someone who basically wandered into it from off the street. Sure, I had running shoes on, and my ipod to keep me company, but beyond that I was just armed with my 11 weeks of training.

This time, I'm trying to be a little more prepared. Spurred on by a dream the other night that I was halfway down to the race and discovered I'd forgotten my ipod and my hydration belt (which sounds like sounds like something the astronauts wear) I made a list of things to bring tomorrow. That's better than my friend Meg though, who dreamt she'd forgotten her shoes.

Since I'm recovering from a mid-week cold, I've been drinking copious amounts of liquids and sucking down vitamin C and cough drops. This morning I went for a walk and came back to stretch. I iced my left foot just for good measure because of the pain I had earlier in my training. I'm about to head out for a head massage, and then tonight we're having a pre-race potluck.

I have my clothes all picked out for tomorrow too - short sleeved shirt and running capris, plus long socks with the toes cut open which I can wear as sleeves until I warm up (forecast is 50 degrees). I think I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Wish me luck!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Loss of skills

I'm trying to think of what new skills I must have acquired in Singapore which pushed out skills I used to have revolving around cold weather clothing. I'm at a loss to know what those new skills are, but something has caused me to lose my ability to know two particular things:

1. When do you fully make the transition to cold weather clothing in your wardrobe? By this I mean putting away all the summer stuff and pulling out all the winter stuff? How long does this transitional period last?

2. Do I need just one jacket for the fall, or two? This was the question I encountered today while shopping for a coat. I have a winter coat, but I need something until then. I tried on one light weight coat, then found a similar style that had a thin wool/fleece like outside layer instead of cotton. Obviously warmer, right, but necessary? Couldn't I just wear more clothing under the first coat? I can't tell you how plagued I was by this dilemma. The little Minnesotan inside of me was ashamed. How could I forget this kind of information?? In the end, I let my money decide for me - I had to get the awesome shoes of the previous post, so I only wanted to spend enough to buy the lighter weight coat. I figure if I get too cold before I want to pull out my winter coat, I can go back. I also want to take Megan back because she want pink Uggs and a quilted pink vest.

Give me time. I spent the first 26 years of my life in Minnesota. We know how to do cold, and everything leading up to it.

Gina vs the Vendor

Bargaining at markets in Asia is fun for tourists. It's like a little game with Monopoly money. But when you live here, and you go with a mission to find something specific you actually need, it becomes like a show down at the OK Corral.

I went today looking for a fall jacket, shoes for cold weather other than the one pair I bought at Target about ten years ago, and a silver chain. I found these particular shoes in black leather and had that, "I must have these" feeling, while simultaneously trying to look only mildly interested. This is when the guns got drawn (cue The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly theme song):

First, the women try to convince me that it doesn't really matter what size shoe I wear. These are close enough. I counter with "they fit right or I walk." They find my size (this is a very abbreviated version of what happened. In reality, I saw about 4 pairs of shoes in two different colors).

Somewhere in the midst of finding a complete pair of size 7 shoes (these run small!) I inquire as to price. 500Y. My eyes narrow, just like in the Old West. I chuckle, and tell her she must be joking. She draws her calculator so we can bargain without others hearing. She drops to 480. This is where I leave the store.

Ah, but she grabs me and pulls me back in. I was prepared for this. I give her my highest price, 200. Her eyes narrow. She pulls out the calculator again. 450, 200, ok, ok friend, best price 400. 200, 375, 200, 350. I step away to field a phone call from my piano tuner, most of which I don't understand, but it impresses the vendor to hear me speak more Mandarin. She counters with her final price: 275. I stick to my 200 guns. She begins pleading with me to come up a little. She even drops down to 270. I'm weakening - my desire for the shoes and to be done with this transaction causes me to break my cardinal rule of never budging from my initial price: 210. That's all she needs - 220, she's reaching for a bag. The deal is done.

We wipe the sweat from our brows and promise to be good friends in future face offs.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

From tropical to temperate

Each morning my kids wake up and ask me, "Is it cold outside mom?" And my response is, "Yes, and it is going to keep getting colder." Then they look at me with this baffled, "What is going ON in this country?!?" expression. Ah, kids, welcome back to a temperate climate.

In all fairness to my upbringing, it's not really cold. The morning temps are in the 50's, daytime highs in the mid to upper 60's. But when the coldest temperature you've experienced at night for the past five years was 70 something, and daytime highs were regularly 85-90, it's cold. This takes some adjustment. It's at least enough to pull out the long sleeves and pants, and for me to rethink the time that I run each day.

In addition to finding our cold weather clothes, I am also rediscovering a desire to make soup instead of salads, to take baths, and to drink tea (and I don't even really like tea). To my husband's great delight, I actually want him to snuggle with me in bed. He doesn't even mind that I'm just using him for warmth. On the downside, we have also rediscovered static cling. This fascinates my kids. It just annoys me. That's right - for five whole years I never saw static cling.

While I was raised in a temperate climate (some might call it tundra), I have to say I enjoy the fact that this spot on the globe is slightly warmer than my hometown in southern Minnesota - no snow flurries in the forecast for awhile. It's a nice way to ease back into temperate.

Friday, October 02, 2009

National Day Parade

I'm not one for drinking games, but if I were, and the phrase for drinking yesterday was, "Socialism with Chinese characteristics", all the people at our house would have been tanked. We got our cable installed just so that we could watch the National Day Parade on TV. I had forgotten the awesomeness which is Chinese television. The commercials alone are fascinating - usually about 5 seconds long, often repeated within 20 seconds of their previous showing, and generally involving embarrassing situations for those in the commercial.

But yesterday wasn't about commercials - it was all about the Chinese, and their ability to coordinate events with large numbers of people at a level of precision that is awe-inspiring. The parade kicked off with President Hu sticking out of the top of a black car, looking not unlike a Ken doll when similarly stuck in the Barbie convertible, being driven along a long line of troops and military equipment. This is called the "review of the troops", a.k.a. "check out our massive military strength." Periodically he would call out "tong zher men xin ku la!" (Comrades you are so hard working!) and they would respond, "Wei renmen fu wu!" (for the people!). Heart warming. While he was reviewing, and while the troops subsequently marched past the main square with perfectly coordinated moves, there were 80,000 children in the square holding up colored signs that were changed into 41 different pictures. The pictures included different phrases in characters, and the Chinese flag. Don't worry, these poor children had stands on which to put their signs.

After the troops marched past, there was a line of floats - one for every official minority group in the country. Many were surrounded by people making patterns with things they were carrying - flags, sashes, flowers, large colorful rings, and my personal favorite - giant colored puff balls like something from a Dr. Suess book. And all of it accompanied by a 2,000 piece band.

The sheer amount of organization required to pull off an event like this is staggering. Everyone was in step (how do you drive giant rocket bearing tanks down a street exactly in a line?), everyone was happy, the skies were blue. That in itself was a feat - the previous day visibility was about 50 yards. These people are experts at cloud seeding.

And all throughout, as we listened to the English commentary, we were reminded that this is a country which is "socialist, with Chinese characteristics." Apparently that includes pulling off major parades for 60th anniversaries. Well done, China, well done.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Entertaining the locals

I set my pink Camelbak water bottle down on the counter while I paid for my copies. An old woman walked up and admired it, saying it was very beautiful.

"How does it work?" she asked.

I flipped up the valve, to her utter amazement, then surprised her even further by squeezing it. She said, "It's like a baby's bottle." I laughed.

"Hey, she understands me. She understands that I said it looks like a baby bottle!" She told the cashier. Then she laughed.

Always happy to entertain.

This is too good

The mid-autumn festival is approaching here. I'd love to tell you more about this holiday, but I'm not entirely sure what it's about other than eating moon cakes. These are little round cakes that have a somewhat pastry like outside and the densest insides you will ever encounter in something considered edible. That part's usually some kind of fruit flavor, but also could be red bean or chicken.

So because I lack the know all to tell you about the mid-autumn festival, let me share with you this gloriously written ad from a moon cake brochure found on our restaurant table tonight. I swear to you that this is word for word and not embellished in any way:

Welcomes the midautumn festival festival, month round person round all things is all smooth, the day and the human and all things are auspicious, are widely separated by Wan Lichuan the friendship, but asks the safe early morning and the evening.A moon cake entrance, the myriad taste enters the throat, the full moon view spends a character and style, the heart, thought, obtains, saw, smells, eats, the luck, transports, wealth, midautumn festival festival!

All clear now on what mid-autumn festival is?

I can't make this stuff up.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Who wrote this?

I pulled out an old notebook and a textbook from my second semester studying in university here. The book has notes written in my handwriting, and the notebook is all mine, but both of them are written almost entirely in characters. Guess what? I can't read a lot of it. Now, I know that I've lost some vocabulary in my five year stint away, but come on! It's the most bizarre feeling to look at something written in your own hand and have no idea what it says.

Now granted, probably some of that left my brain because, after hanging around for awhile it found I had no use for it. No use staying where you aren't needed. And I probably do know the meaning of some of them, but have forgotten what they look like written down. If they aren't characters that direct me on a menu, to a hospital, or down a street, they aren't likely something I need.

So I guess I'll do my best to decipher, and we'll see what sticks this time around.

Piano Tuning

Moving from one location to another can do a number on a piano, but moving it from a ridiculously humid country to one that gets drier by the day can make it go hay wire. And so it is with our piano.

When I visited the music store in the mall the other day, for lack of the vocabulary with which to say, "My piano needs tuning, do you have someone who can tune it?" I asked, "I have one of those. I moved recently. Now it sounds bad. Do you have someone who can fix it?" They gave me a brochure which of course was all in characters, so a friend and I dissected it and figured out that I would have to pay 550 kuai for someone to come. Seemed a little steep for local standards, especially since she pays 150-200 to have hers tuned.

This morning I taught my kids and a neighbor girl piano lessons, and it was like nails on a chalkboard. Not their playing - that was lovely - but the sound. It's not even fun to play it anymore. Then I heard my neighbor's piano being plunked in a way that was either an incredibly boring song, or a piano tuner.

I knocked on their door and was dragged inside by the Snoop Dog of previous posts. I managed to communicate that I needed the same thing done to my piano and the woman came over to see what I had (but not before Snoop Dog tried her hardest to get me to teach her grandchildren English). We debated the age of the piano, and she left promising me she'd call once she could figure out her schedule. There's a national holiday next week, so her time is limited.

I know it sounds like a small thing, but I can't tell you how encouraged I was by this. I didn't have to call someone on the phone and try to get them to understand what I needed (my listening comprehension on the phone is remedial). Her quote, despite my piano being so desperately in need of a tuning, was only 300. And I actually took action on something that needed to be done (while Erik's gone, no less!). Rejoice with me.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Monday Musings

This is day two of Erik being gone, and it's been a red letter day. I took a chance this morning and tried my hand at making crepes for the kids. I think probably French people would turn their nose up at my lame first attempt (pretty sure they're supposed to be thinner and less chewy) but then again, there's a lot I do that I'm guessing doesn't impress French people. After homeschool I made soup for lunch. This may not sound fantastic but I hate cooking. Cooking two meals in a day is my kind of fantastic. Ethan and I then read our book The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey for nearly an hour. The kids have been so active with their friends lately that we haven't had much time to read together. The afternoon turned to Gina time when my helper came - went to the mall, got another much needed foot massage, and am now typing this while she cooks dinner (cooking three meals in a day would just be crazy for me).

So about my shopping, because I'm guessing your next question was, "Ooo what did you buy Gina?" I ventured for the first time over to the giant mall near our house. I was looking particularly for a metronome to aid our piano practices, and new arch supports. I found the metronome thankfully without having to try to explain what I wanted (I was prepared in my mind to say, "I need the thing that helps you with your speed when you play"). It was 150 kuai, which is about $22. I want to believe this is what I would have paid in the US. Please don't tell me if I'm wrong.

In searching for arch supports, I found everything from educational game stores to camping stores. People, I have to say it again - this is the new and improved China. Although all of it is more expensive, it's here in a pinch. I can see my suitcases from the US less full of these things and more full of Crystal Light and Extra sugar free bubble gum. Feel free to send those if you get an inkling to bless me.

The foot massage is conveniently located at the front of our complex. When I walk out the front gate, which is also the entrance to the underground car park, it amuses me that the guard opens the little gate for me because I could just walk around the other side of him and use the wide open space where the cars (rarely) drive. But I let him open the gate for me because it's his job.

While I was shopping, Megan had the opportunity to do some voice recording at a nearby studio. They wanted to try out her voice and see if it is suitable for any of their English language program needs. The kids are hoping something will pan out for the two of them to work together, so they can save money for swivel boards. They're all the rage here.

The weather forecast for this week is mid-70's for the high and upper 50's for the low. It's novel for me both to have a need to check the weather, and to experience this. I'm loving it! After five years of an average high of 90 and an average low of 80, I'm tickled with the prospect of needing warmer clothes, and leaving windows open. Not to mention the fact that the kids want to be outside all the time!

Speaking of which, one of them is finally at the door. It's been a good Monday.

Friday, September 18, 2009


I just took a gander at the three yellow flowered plants (whose name is escaping me) in our backyard. Since my dad planted them in early August, they have been doing wonderfully, but about a week ago they started looking brown. At my dad's suggestion, I decimated them. That is to say, I pulled all the dead blossoms off. Megan helped. Our children are always game for destroying things.

I was a little concerned that I might have caused irreversible damage when I did that, but sure enough, there are new blossoms appearing today. And the lesson is - always listen to your dad. He knows what he's talking about.

Actually, the lesson is pruning. When we moved in here, the backyard mostly had bamboo growing wild, and a few leafy bush/trees that were struggling to survive in the midst of it. When my dad came, he laid waste to the bamboo. All that was left was two rose bush stumps and a cluster of these tree like bushes. Most of them, though, were fairly dead. Their lower branches were bare, and without the cover of bamboo they were exposed as fairly shabby and lame excuse for foliage. But without the bamboo, they now have a fighting chance at growth.

My dad told me that if I cut them back, they would grow better. One of them that had been cut down earlier in the summer grew back from the ground and gave me hope. Within a week or so of cutting back more, I had new growth from those too. It encouraged me to keep trimming, and at this point I've become ruthless. Just today I cut two more stalks down near the ground.

I have to say, it doesn't look as good as it did when there was bamboo. It looks bare. I can see the boring dry ground. But every time I cut, within a week or so there is new growth. I can't help but think of John 15, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." It was hard at first to cut off branches that had some leaves on them, because I thought, "But, they are still alive!" Yet they weren't bearing the kind of leaves they could be bearing. Sometimes it's hard to understand why God takes things out of our lives, or gives us difficult things, because they don't seem like bad things. They seem good, and even fruitful. But God is relentless in moving us to places of greater fruit, even if it means that in the meantime, we're a little bare. I like having this real picture of how my Savior works.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

God's workmanship

We were laying on my bed this afternoon reading Johnny Tremain for homeschool, and Megan said, "Look mom," pointing at the wrinkles on the inside of her elbow, "Here's where God stitched me together!"

In Minnesota, we'd call that, "Oh for cute!"

Kung Fu

Ever since watching Kung Fu Panda, Megan has begged to learn kung fu. I seriously doubted that it might happen, but a few weeks ago one of the other co-op moms decided to organize a homeschool kung fu class. We had our first class today, and it rocked to the power of awesome. Their "master" has been learning since he was eight years old. He trained for twelve years in a martial arts school, traveled around the world doing kung fu (I'm not really sure what that means - he competed? He taught? He just stood on street corners doing kung fu?), came back and got his degree from the sports university, and is now working on his master's. Add to that the fact that his English is great, he was encouraging and patient with the kids, and made it fun for them, and you've got Shi Fu from Kung Fu Panda SO beat.

He told them that they are going to learn all the animals from Kung Fu Panda, so today they started with crane. He walked them through it step by step, and by the end even the littler kids were pulling decent crane kicks. I'm not sure which one they'll learn next week, but as we were walking to the car and I asked Megan how she liked it, she said, "Good, but I'm looking forward to him teaching us back flips." Yeah, I don't know if that's going to be part of the curriculum, but who knows? Watch out world - we're going to have trained warriors on our hands here.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Driving education comes in handy on Chinese roads

Remember when I told you that there was a question on the driving test regarding what to do when you encounter a flock of sheep on the road? If you don't, here it is again:

When encountering a flock of sheep crossing the road, the driver should:
1. Honk continuously to drive away the flock
2. Speed up and bypass the flock
3. Drive slowly and use the vehicle to scare away the flock
4. Reduce speed and go slowly, or stop to yield when necessary.

I didn't think I would need this information, but I was wrong. I can't tell you how fun it was to be wrong.

Last Friday my friend Jen and I piled our five combined kids in her car and set off for another furniture warehouse. We were only a few miles away from it, in an area that could be characterized as "country roads" when sure enough, there was a flock of sheep crossing the road. I tried to get Jen to honk continuously to drive away the flock, or to at least use the vehicle to scare away the sheep, but she was an obedient Chinese driver and reduced her speed and went slowly.

Megan, Editor in Chief

Megan enjoys writing stories on the Scholastic website. I just sat down at my computer and saw this partly composed story:

There is a parrot who loves peanut butter and jelly.His name is Freddy.He is very funny.He is also very crazy.He wants to travel the world and climb Mt.Everest to the tipy top.And he is doing that today!But he is not flying there he's driving!Becuase he want's to bring his peanut butter and jelly sandwich's!He's going with his friend Jack and he also love's peanut butter andjelly!And he's bringing lot's of peanut butter and jelly sandwich's too!

I'm not sure how it's going to end, but it seems exciting so far, judging by the number of exclamation points. Will give you the ending as it comes off the press.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

No such thing as a free electric bicycle ride

One of my favorite places to shop here is called Golden Five Star. Imagine a giant one story building filled with rows and rows of little stalls. And in those stalls you can buy everything you might possibly need and more, especially if you're not particular. Seriously, everything from mattresses to light bulbs, shoes to purses, underwear to carpets. I even found really cute Christmas and Thanksgiving decorations at one place, but I didn't have time to buy. It's a little bit like Mustafa - if you can't find it at Golden Five Star, well, you probably just didn't look hard enough (except for food - there is no food at Golden Five Star).

So I was there today, where I got a painting from Vietnam framed (finally! we've had it two years!), bought some of those really soft and absorbent wash cloths, looked for a sweater for Megan (the one she just HAS to have because her friend does), picked up curtains I had made, and bought two floor mats. It's a lot to carry back when you don't have a car, but I was doing my best to lug it toward the biggest main road. (and here comes the point of my story . . . )

As I lugged, a crusty guy on an electric bike with a flat bed attached and a cigarette dangling from his mouth offered me a ride. He said I couldn't fit my painting in a taxi, but look! It would lay quite nicely on his bike. I declined. He insisted. He said he would take me to a nearby place, for free! I told him where I wanted to go and he encouraged me to hop on. I asked him several times if he was joking. He said he wasn't. I said how much? He said, "No, free!" Yeah right. This is China buddy. Of course you want money. But he was quite adamant about it being free, so I thought, "What's the harm? I'll give him a fiver for his trouble."

After a rocky start, during which I told him maybe smoking while upwind from me was undesirable, we were off. He took me about a kilometer. As I dismounted, he mumbled something about money, as in "give me some." What followed was this conversation:

"Are you asking me for money?"

"Of course! It's not free to have a ride."

"But you said it would be free."

"What? No, you should give me money. Just give me five kuai."

"You're cheating me!" Here he started looking sheepish, so I continued,
"Back there, you said it would be free. I was willing to give you money if you had asked, but you didn't. This is cheating. If you want money, you should ask in the beginning. Don't say it's going to be free and then ask for money."

I wasn't all that upset because I knew that it would probably happen, but I felt the need to give him a good talking to so that he doesn't try to pull that stunt on more foreigners in the future. I knew it was too good to be true. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free electric bicycle ride.

Language thoughts

My kids are really into secret codes right now. They have a code book, and have actually made up their own code that is a combination of as many of the different codes in the book as possible. Yeah, it's complicated. I'm not even sure the CIA could crack this one. But hopefully the neighborhood kids will understand - that's the point.

Sometimes when I speak in Chinese, I feel like I am speaking in code. And that the person I'm speaking with has learned the same weird code, only better. Then I remember that the other person is just talking, without really having to think about it. And that I probably sound really funny to them.

Why do I sound funny? I sound funny for several reasons (I did a very Chinese thing just then - make a statement, question the statement, answer the question. If I can't speak the language at least I can be culturally relevant). First of all, although I try to use correct grammar, I'm sure I'm probably on par with a preschooler or so. I realize this when people say things back to me like, "So what you're saying is . . . ?" then proceed to repeat back to me what I've just said but in a more complex way. I'm sure my words come out all out of order, with random words stuck in like "snake" instead of "snack."

Second, my vocabulary is limited, so many times I am talking around my subject. Like this morning at the pharmacy, when I said, "I'm not sure how to say it but I need medicine for when you have little insects in your stomach" and wiggled my finger for emphasis. It would have been easier to say, "I need pinworm medicine." I am the master of talking around.

And I think I sound funny because after nearly 10 years of hearing and speaking Mandarin at least sometimes, I've been told I have a decent accent. A few times I've tricked my Chinese friends (unintentionally) when I called them, and they thought I was Chinese. Not hard to do when all you say is, "Hi, is Cindy there?" I've learned things like how to say "How much does it cost?" in a very colloquial way (saying the "sh" of shao like an "h" instead) that conceal my lack of vocabulary beyond it. Now imagine someone you know from another country who has lived in the US for a long time. When they speak English, they have a decent American accent, but their vocabulary is similar to a child's. You'd keep thinking that they should know more than they do. Imagine the frustrating conversations that would ensue. You're imagining many of my conversations. I once had a taxi driver say to me, "Your Chinese is so good!" then launch into a long monologue during which I tuned out because I couldn't not possibly follow him. He ended with a question about what he'd said. I'd been faking that I understood, and in response to my blank expression he said, "I don't think your Chinese is as good as I thought it was." Yeah, that I understood.

Ah, language. It's a funny thing.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Random musings from Friday

Here's a glimpse of the thoughts and happenings in our house today:

I slept til 7:08. That's really late for me. I must have been tired.

We did school out in the courtyard today because I could see the kids were having allergies too. It takes a lot less time (only about 2 hours) to do it out there, because there are fewer distractions. We should do it out there every day.

One of the things I always missed about the States is the smell of grass. Another reason I love our complex - lots of grass that is being mowed today by real mowers! The smell is heavenly.

It feels like a Minnesota summer day! The kids complained the second we were out the door that they were cold. Really, it was about 75 and sunny, but cooler in the shade. I love this weather - the sun warms you, but not too much. Glorious.

My eyes hurt so much I don't want to blink. This is the aftermath of a horrible horrible allergy day yesterday. I broke down and took one Benadryl around noon just to take the edge off, which succeeded in doing so but also making me move like molasses. I finished myself off by taking two more at 5. From 5:30-6:30 I was happily symptom free and awake. Then I went into a coma.

Our kids have been spontaneously playing piano lately. Ethan in particular. He's memorized a few songs and has recently picked out the notes to "The Star Spangled Banner." This beats Yankee Doodle. I'm a little tired of that one. Megan got discouraged last night when she blanked in the middle of a piece, until I told her about the time I spaced completely in the middle of a piano recital. I started over and finished just fine. The lesson being, "See? You didn't mess up nearly as much as mommy did! And she's fine!"

I hear pounding in my backyard. This is the workers laying down bricks over what was previously our giant fish pond (a.k.a. sludge collector). They came two days ago with various tools, filled it in, tore down the sides, and are now providing us with a usable backyard. Yay!

I have to bake for a friend's wedding tomorrow, but I can't use my oven. I plugged it into a power strip the other day, and it melted the strip. That's one mighty powerful oven. A man is in there right now installing a new strip that can handle the heat. Hopefully he'll be done by noon so I can bake these carrot bars and gooey chocolate butter cookies (yes, those are as sinful as they sound).

Speaking of the kitchen, he's also fixing our oil sucker. I don't know what it's called in English, but in Chinese that's what it is. These are essential in Chinese kitchens if people are going to cook local dishes, because the high heat makes the oil evaporate in a big cloud. If you don't have a working oil sucker, the oil cloud will settle nicely onto your floors in a way that requires hand washing. We learned this the hard way, hence, the fix it man.

So that's what's happening in our house today. Life is good.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Better and better

We live in a new and improved China. This year our city recorded the highest number of clear sky days ever. Well, at least since they've been keeping track. I'm sure back in the days of the emperors they weren't tracking air quality. But even more than the weather is the development. The throw pillows I bought at a store here look like something from Pier 1. When we were here before, it was hard to find a diet coke. Now you can buy one off any guy on the street. Erik called about an apartment in the famous Olympic dragon building next to the water cube, just out of curiosity. The units there are 600 sq meters (about 7,000 sq ft) and are selling for $7 million. There are Chinese people who can afford those. We can't.

Everywhere you look, there are signs that China keeps getting better and better. This reminds me of a video they would play during the last Olympics when we were here. The gist of it was, "Our cell phones are smaller, our houses are bigger, our kids are smarter, the old people keep getting older, life just keeps getting better and better!"

This was evident again this morning when our refrigerator repairman came. Our fridge has been plugged in for about two weeks, and the kids have been thrilled by all the "snow" in the freezer. The man who came wore new cargo pants I might find in my husband's closet, and a company shirt, and his hair was spiked in a bed head kind of way. When I pulled out the receipt to show him it was under warranty, he pulled out his cell phone and took pictures of it. Contrast that image with the time we had our AC installed in our first apartment in 2000. Three men came wearing belts that wrapped around them 1 1/2 times. They carried their tools in old nappy bags. When one of them had to lay perpendicular to our window to hang out twenty stories and install that AC unit, they wrapped an old rope around his waist and gave the end of it to Erik. Not exactly the picture of professionalism.

Ah yes, I have to say that though a part of me misses those days because they made for great stories, I'm enjoying the new and improved China. I'm heading across the street for a Coke Zero and another bar of Dove 66% dark chocolate (couldn't find much chocolate of any kind the first time around!).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Keeping it real

It's always interesting to hear a real life story of someone famous doing something human, especially when you hear it from someone other than them. There's no one like a family member to paint an accurate picture of you.

Saturday Erik and I had the privilege of attending a marriage seminar led by Greg and Erin Smalley. At first we thought, "Hey, you lucked out having a name so similar to that Gary Smalley guy who's an expert on marriage. People might come to your seminar just because they mistake you for him." Then we thought about it for a nanosecond longer and realized they must be related, which they are. Greg is Gary's son. So naturally a few stories about good ol' dad came out and they were not only hilarious, but raised my respect for him.

Ok, first story which isn't the point of this post but I have to share because it's so funny, is:
Gary Smalley would always fall asleep in front of the TV when Greg and his brother were kids. One day they decided to urge him to his bedroom by using the dog's bark collar, which makes a high pitched squeal and also shocks the dog. One of the boys held it around his dad's neck and the other barked in his face to set off the alarm. Gary jumped out of his seat and bolted from the house. A few minutes later he came back in sniffing. Turns out he thought the fire alarm had gone off. The boys felt badly until they realized that in the face of danger, their dad's gut reaction was to leave them and run for safety. Didn't score points on that one.

But the story that did score points was when Greg witnessed his parents in an argument that sent them both off into separate corners in anger. Greg followed his dad and jokingly suggested that he could pull one of the 50 marriage books Gary had written off the shelf and read something to him. He got the door slammed in his face. Some time later, he went into his dad's office and found his dad staring at a document on his computer called, "Things I value about my wife." He had been adding to it through the years, and told his son that whenever he was angry with his wife, he'd come read it, and it would soften his heart toward her. How cool is that?

So not only am I impressed with Gary Smalley, I'm also thinking that's a pretty fantastic idea. I've made lists before of things that I love about Erik, but the idea of having a running list that I go to in order to keep my heart open toward him is a good one.

Pick a winner

Ok, so it's expected that in driving on the streets in China, you will encounter some creative and dangerous driving. Here are two incidents I witnessed recently. You decide which one deserves "jaw dropping move of the week":

1. I'm on a divided road with one lane on either side of the fence divider. There is also a bike lane, which is often used as a driving lane although it is illegal. I am at a red light, third in line, and needing to turn right. I contemplate taking the bike lane to turn right anyway. As I think about it, a car comes from a few cars behind me, and I think, "Oh, he's going to do it." But no, he drives in front of the line of cars I'm in and U turns in front of all of us, just as the light turns green. This causes a traffic jam in both directions. He is also talking on his cell phone.

2. I am driving to IKEA. There are four lanes on the highway. Ahead of me, a guy in the third lane from the right decides he needs to get off at the exit he is currently passing, so he comes to a dead stop, turns perpendicular to traffic, and slowly makes his way over to the exit. Traffic is stopped in three lanes for him to make this move. No one dies.

Who wins?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


One of the blogs I follow is Don Miller's who wrote the book Blue Like Jazz, and the lesser known but equally great Searching for God Knows What. He had a post yesterday about self-pity that hit home in light of our transition. Check it out here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Focus on the good

One of the ways I have wanted to grow recently is in optimism. I generally depend on my husband to be the optimist one of the family, as he has more than his share to grow around (one of the many reasons I love and keep him). Of course the best way to grow in optimism is to be presented with situations in which the ability to remain positive is tested. Cue "moving into apartment scenario."

I could list off my reasons why it's tempting to crawl into a hole and hope that Mary Poppins shows up and sings that magical song during which all my displaced items will jump and fly their way to appropriate locations, but it's time to think positively. So here's my list of some of the things that I'm thankful for right now:

1. Erik was home today! His presence always has a calming effect on me.
2. Although not all of our furniture is here (hence the many displaced items) what is here is beautiful, and the rest is expected on Thursday. I can't wait!
3. In the coming months, our city will get drier and cooler. Why is this good? Because the recent humidity and the arrival of our dust infested shipment has reawakened my allergies for the time being, but I am confident that it will diminish in the coming weeks.
4. We have an 8kg washer, which will definitely help with the dust mites! I know that's nothing compared to washers in the States, but it's typical to have a 5kg washing machine here, which amounts to about 5 items of clothing. I can't tell you how much I've washed (and dried in my American dryer!) today.
5. Our wardrobe appears to be able to hold much more clothing than I first anticipated. We might fit it all in after all!
6. We started homeschool today, and it went well. More on that on my other blog.
7. We found a beautiful rug for 300 kuai (about $45), I had custom couch covers (a two seater and a three seater) and curtains made for all our windows for $430. I love this country.
8. We have workers coming on Wednesday to finish little details like the outlets that don't work, towel bars and hooks that need to be put up, and a fish pond that needs leveling. So thankful that someone else can do those things, and for very little money.
9. I have so much support here! I have great friends who live in our complex, and when our kids aren't out playing in the courtyard, they are probably at one of their houses. I know if I need someone to help me with the house, go shopping with me, watch my kids, or just hear about my day, they're here for me.
10. Our kids are fed and clothed and sheltered and happy, and they seem to be taking this all in stride.

I keep thinking today, "Rome wasn't built in a day." Though I long for the day when everything will be in its place, the pictures will be hung, the house will feel lived in and feel like it is ours, I know it will take time. I'd appreciate prayers for patience and peace in the process, and for my thoughts to stay fixed on the good!

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Tonight as I wandered through our new apartment, sorting things out, I saw something on the hallway wall that made me pause. It was a gecko. Based on my extensive familiarity with geckos, I'd peg this one as a juvenile. He's definitely not a baby, but not full grown yet. I thought, "Wait a second, I'm in China right?" I've never seen a gecko in China. Cockroaches, yes. Many. The Asian kind, which are smaller than American monster cockroaches, which is fitting given that they're, well, Asian.

But geckos, I don't think those are native to China. Those of you who have read my blog for some time though know that they are native to Singapore (I really should have a tag for gecko related posts, as they are legion). So my only conclusion is that this guy stowed away in our shipment.

I tried to catch him to show the family, as they were off on a Subway sandwich obtaining adventure, but he was too wily for me. Must be all the adrenaline pumping through his little body as he's desperately trying to figure out how he got here and how on earth he's going to get home. Sorry little buddy. I don't know the life span of a gecko, but I'm amazed that you got this far alive and I'm guessing you wouldn't survive the return trip. Better pick up a Mandarin phrase book and settle into your new home. If you need a shoulder to cry on, come find me - I'm a little unsettled about this new apartment these days myself.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Stuck in Taiwan

When Erik was invited to go to Taiwan to visit friends in early August, it never crossed our minds that our shipment would not have already arrived from Singapore, or that we might still be squatting in a friend's apartment. But last Monday he left for Macau, then flew straight to Taiwan for a Greenhouse (our Singapore Bible study) men's reunion. Friday morning our shipment arrived from Singapore, and it was my job to supervise six Chinese workers bringing in box after box whose contents did not match the content list we had been given by the moving company. After awhile, I wanted to say, "Your guess is as good as mine. Put it wherever you want. I don't know what's in there." Since not all of our furniture is done being made, toward the end of the day they came to me and said, "Can we just put paper down and put things on it because there's no where else to put it?" So now our apartment looks a little like our shipment exploded. I managed to rearrange the kitchen, storage room, and homeschool room, but the rest will have to wait until Erik returns. Or our furniture is made, whichever comes first. At this point, it's a toss up.

See, Erik was supposed to come back yesterday afternoon, then fly to Thailand tonight for a two day conference scouting trip. But part of their men's reunion involved a side trip to Green Island, which looks lovely in the pictures, but less lovely in the video clips of the typhoon raging there right now. As of tonight they are still stuck on the island. Erik had hoped to get a flight back to Taipei this afternoon, and come back tomorrow, but now it looks like it will be at least another day.

This is what the Chinese would call a "zenme ban ne?" kind of situation. What can you do? Nothing. Just wait out the storm, leave your stuff sitting on the floor, it'll all work out in the end.

A New Family Member

Confession: I am a little bit afraid of hamsters. Yeah, I know to them I am Godzilla and Kong Kong rolled into one, but their little pointy claws, tendency to bite, and particularly the fact that they appear to be tailless mice are all creepy to me. But today we have added one of them to our family.

I personally don't want to call a hamster a member of the family, but the kids are in love. The hamster was a gift to Megan from a very generous little friend of hers (though 3 kuai wasn't exactly breaking the bank). But she even bought her a cage! I didn't want to squelch her desire to give, so we have this hamster on a one month probation. If the kids don't take good care of her, she's out on the street. (Ok, I wouldn't seriously put a defenseless little rodent out on the street. I think my dad might though. In fact, I suspect that may be where some of my childhood rodents went, but I cannot confirm that).

The hamster's name is Nim. It was that or Mittens. Nim, from Nim's Island, which is a wonderful children's book Megan loves. She's only one month old so she's a little peep of a thing and seems genuinely petrified thus far, given that long car ride in the pink plastic ball, then being passed around five pairs of children's hands when we showed her to friends. She's currently curled up in a ball inside the mini-house in her cage, probably thinking, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home!" Well, home you are little friend. We'll see how it goes. And if I get over my fear of you.

Monday, August 03, 2009


I've figured out how to make my flickr more secure, so please go take a look at the pics from our day trips last week! I'm still in awe that we can find that kind of beauty so close to this urban sprawl.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Falling snakes, contraband explosives, and donkeys driving cars

Back in my younger days when I was oh so much more foolish, I pulled a bonehead move by passing a car so closely on a two lane highway that both the car I was passing and the car coming toward me were pulling off the road. That, I'm sorry to say, is how many overtaking experiences go down here in China. When this happens and you are the one being overtaken, it's tempting to scream something about the "donkey" driving the other car. But when it happened yesterday in our second Wild China adventure we refrained because there were children present.

We headed out of town about 100km in the other direction looking for a place called Black Dragon Pool. I decided I needed to gain more confidence in driving here so I took the wheel. It was mainly highway until the last 30 km, when it began to be winding mountain road. That's where we encountered said donkeys.

Once safely at our destination, we started hiking. Wow - we thought Ling Shan was a sight to see. This rivals stuff you see in Colorado! Beautiful rocky mountains dip down to flowing waterfalls and creeks. The kids were in heaven once we let them loose into the stream, where they became "undammers", helping the creek to flow as much as possible. Along the hike there were pools where you could rent little inflated boats for 20Y. After hiking all the way up and back, several of us paddled out, trying to get as close to the waterfall as we could. Many happy Chinese walked away that day with pictures of foreigners screaming with joy. Happiness all around.

Happiness turned to screaming on our way out though, when something dropped out of a hanging tree, landed on our friend's son's head, and smacked to the ground. It was a snake! It slithered away, thankful for someone to break its fall, and we spent the rest of the walk trying to encourage a six year old that having a snake fall on your head and living to tell is really super cool!

We decided to take the other way back home, which involved driving around the back side of the mountains. It took a lot longer but it was worth it! Wow - what views. At one corner there was an opportunity to climb up a short peak so we grabbed the chance. The second we were out of our vehicles, we were told by an ancient Chinese man standing there that the experience would cost us two kuai a piece. Ok, buddy, since you've planted your flag out here in the middle of nowhere, we'll oblige. But two kuai became so worth it when he started talking to Erik about something that would make a "boom boom" sound. He brought us over to his little cart of innocent drinks, lifted up his goods, and showed Erik the surely illegal grenade like explosives to be had for five kuai a piece. Who can pass up a chance to throw something into a deep valley and hear it explode? Not Americans! Erik pulled the pin, threw it, heard it hit the ground and said, "It didn't do anything." Two seconds later, kaboom!!

We ran into a few more donkeys driving cars on the rest of our drive. It was all worth it though to see such beautiful scenery and to give our kids a chance to roam freely in nature. What will we see next?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Road trip!

Inspired by the BBC Wild China DVD, our friends, my parents, and we decided to take a trip. When I searched for rural retreats around our city, I was amazed at how much I found! That was good news because our time is limited, and being able to drive somewhere in a day is so much more pleasant and less expensive.

So our first adventure was to take a loop around the west side of town. As we were driving, we happened to see some caves poking out of a rocky hill (see picture in previous post) so we decided we had to stop and explore. Megan later said this was her favorite part of the trip!

Our next stop was planned - Chuan Di Xia, a Ming dynasty era village set against a hill. Most of the homes here are now places where you can eat or even stay the night. We wandered around until we found a woman who welcomed us into her home for lunch. She told us her family had been there for 16 generations! Do you know where your family has been for 16 generations? Well, thanks to my dad I do, but it's not in the same little ancient village.

Our next destination was a further 40 km, at the base of Ling Shan, a 2,300 meter mountain. We turned down the first offered guest house and chose one where we took all four rooms at 80 kuai per room. Our host for our stay was a Mr. Yan, who seems to be the big Kahuna in their little town. In addition to taking us up to his restaurant more than once, and helping us arrange horseback rides up the mountain, he also outfitted my dad with a coat. We had anticipated slightly cooler temps there, but it was probably in the low 60's at best and promised to be colder up the mountain. So Mr. Yan led us to his secret stash of coats. First he offered my dad a quilted metallic peach coat that screamed, "I am a 20 year old Chinese girl. Let me get my Hello Kitty backpack." I wanted that coat to fit so badly. When it didn't, he gave my dad the standard giant green army jacket, suitable for sub-zero temps.

Thankfully, he didn't need it. While the majority of our group rode horses up the mountain, I drove my parents to the cable car so we'd all have a way of getting back to our hotel (although now that I think about it, Mr. Yan might have come in handy there). As we crept up the mountain in a chair lift that certainly was purchased from a ski resort garage sale, suddenly we broke through the cloud bank into sunny skies and beautiful country.

At the top of the mountain we realized we hadn't nailed down the details of where we would meet our party. A few women tried to convince me to hop on a horse to traverse the final distance to the peak. When I told them I was waiting for friends, they said, "They've gone up, we've seen them!" Yeah, I'm not falling for that trick. They insisted that they had seen foreigners go up, one with red hair. Well now, that seems compelling. I asked to borrow a phone. As I was dialing, the woman said, "You should give him 2 kuai to use his phone since you aren't taking a horse ride." The man said, "No, 10 kuai!" We all chuckled. He tried again a minute later, "You should give me 20 kuai to use my phone." I replied, "I'll give you 20 kuai to buy your phone." We all laughed again. Nothing like a little good natured ripping in another language. I finally decided to head up the hill on foot to see if I could find them. Halfway up I started asking people, "Did you see a bunch of foreigners at the top riding horses?" When the answer was "no" I turned around.

The people at the bottom seemed genuinely surprised that I hadn't found my friends. I don't know what foreigners they thought they saw, but our group had come around the other side of the mountain. After our reunion, we all took the lifts back down. I'm a little disappointed to have missed the horse ride, but the chair lift gave a great view.

After another (I'd like to say quick, but it wasn't) lunch, we headed off again on our western loop. We intended to find a reservoir, but along the way we encountered village after village that was too picture worthy to pass. Then we came around a corner to see a giant church on the horizon! We stopped in the village and talked with the locals a little. As we traveled further, we passed through terrace farming, which is a sight to see. By the time we'd found the highway back to town, we decided we'd seen enough to ponder for awhile and cut our trip short.

Who knew all this was so close to town? I lived here five years before and never knew it existed. I think we'll be taking a lot of Saturday drives!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Guess where these were taken?

Right now a bunch of our friends are in Colorado taking great pictures of Rocky Mountain National Park. It's a beautiful place, but I think these scenes are pretty beautiful aren't they? Thankfully we only had to travel about 100 km from home to see them, instead of thousands of miles. More pictures and details to come . . .

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Binge and purge

Confession: I've never pulled an all nighter. Partly this is because my brain is essentially useless after 10 pm, and obnoxiously perky by 5 am. It's also because I've never really been a procrastinator. I hate the stress of it. I don't cram well.

So when it came to taking this driver's test, I started studying last week. Even then, I went to the driver's test feeling like I had gorged myself on the illogical and sometimes contradictory information in the study booklet. As we sat reviewing on the subway, my brain felt like it was told myself, "You can make it to the test room and throw it up all over the computer screen!"

And that's what I did. I was surprised that most of the 100 questions were the more logical ones from the book. There were about 5 I wasn't completely sure on, so when my score came up as 95 I thought, "Well, I guessed wrong on those apparently."

Now all the information has fled my brain like birds released from a cage, and I am free to drive the streets of China like a madwoman, honking and overtaking at will. I feel much better now.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Take a guess

Erik and I just hit upon what might be the best question in the study guide for the Chinese driver's test. I'll let you guess which one is the correct answer:

After a vehicle falls into water, the wrong method for the driver to rescue himself is to:
1. Close the window to prevent water from flowing into the vehicle.
2. Immediately use hand to open the door.
3. Let the water to fill up the driver's cab so that the water pressure both inside and outside is equal.
4. Use a large plastic bag to cover the head and tight the neck closely.

My first language lesson

They say the first thing you learn in a new language is something bad, like how to swear. I'm not the kind of person for whom that would normally be true, but in the case of Chinese, it kind of is.

I was 12 years old when I learned my first phrase in Chinese. You see, my best friend then was Chinese American, and she and her mom would often converse in Mandarin in my presence. Once, in an effort to join in, I spoke some random gibberish, and accidentally said, "Ni you mei you" which means, "Do you have . . . ?" or "Have you . . . ?" So my friend decided it was high time I learned something, and springing off that she taught me, "Ni you mei you fan guo pi?" Which means, "Have you farted?" She also taught me how to ask someone if they pooped their pants. I asked those two questions of every Chinese person I encountered thereafter. No, I'm kidding.

But learning that did come in handy yesterday in the swimming pool locker room. There was a woman, her daughter, and her friend dressing next to me. While trying to avoid the woman's naked and freely moving near me body, I overheard a little noise escape from her daughter. The friend then teased her saying, "Hey, who farted? Was that you?? Did you fart? It was like a little song!" and so on. I think she was a little surprised when I started giggling into my locker. I'm usually more mature than that, but it amused me that I understand what she was saying.

So thank you Vicki Chia, for my first launch into Chinese language. Thankfully I've gone beyond my auspicious beginnings, but they are still helpful from time to time.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Preparing to drive

Erik and I are studying for our driver's tests. There are (we've heard, but not counted) 1300 questions to study, but only 100 on the test. I'm hoping the test questions range more toward the logical ones, such as this:

When encountering a flock of sheep crossing the road, the driver should:
1. Honk continuously to drive away the flock
2. Speed up and bypass the flock
3. Drive slowly and use the vehicle to scare away the flock
4. Reduce speed and go slowly, or stop to yield when necessary.

I don't anticipate encountering a flock of sheep, but if I do, I plan to reduce speed and go slowly, or stop to yield when necessary. But I am a little unsure about my first aid skills. What would you answer for the following?

When there are many wounded persons, those who should be sent to hospital last are the persons:
1. suffering cervical vertebra damage
2. suffering massive haemorrhage
3. suffering breathing difficulty
4. whose intestines and veins are exposed

When there is a bleeding in an upper limb or shank without bone fracture or joint damage, the bleeding can be stopped by . . .
1. tourniquet
2. compression dressing
3. cushioned limb folding
4. pressure bondage

If you're curious, the answers to those questions are 1 and 3, respectively. What on earth is a cushioned limb folding? I don't know but I promise to do it if I am ever in that situation.

Most of the questions are in reference to how to behave with other drivers, and it appears that we should answer according to what they want us to do (reduce speed and yield) rather than what people actually do (honk, speed up, and overtake). There are a number of questions that deal with fines and illegal activity, but it seems that the answer to those is always, "the traffic control department of the public security organ", "200-2,000 yuan" or "detain the driver." So I think we're good. Wish us luck!

Friday, July 17, 2009

How to watch a movie

China is notorious for pirated DVDs. I'm sure somewhere on the streets of China right now there is a copy of Harry Potter to be had. Of course, it would be a copy with echoing audio, and peoples' heads popping up at the bottom of the screen. I didn't want to see it that way.

So yesterday, while the kids were up in another part of town visiting friends, my friend Jen and I decided to see it on the big screen. The earliest showing was at 11:30 in the "VIP room." To get in there, I had to buy a VIP card which allowed us to purchase the tickets at half price, which was a whopping $9 US. And that for a matinee! But we soon saw that VIP really does mean VIP.

For starters, we were escorted into a coffee room, where we were given free snacks and coffee or tea. The snacks included little dog bone shaped crackers and sandwich crackers with rock hard icing in the middle. Thanks but I'll pass. The tea was decent, but I wasn't about to give myself any reason to have to leave during the film. If I had, I would have not only missed the movie, but also an extra five minutes of sitting in the mother of all movie seats!

We walked in to the theater which was small (VIP only you know) and filled with about eight rows of giant red leather (nice leather) recliners. This is how to watch a movie! The screen was big despite the room being small. Now that I've done it that way, I don't know that I'll ever be able to go back to a regular theater.

Oh, and Harry Potter was quite entertaining, by the way.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

It just got interesting . . .

I've had a full time maid here in China for two weeks now, and I had seriously starting thinking this thought, "I don't really need someone full time." She comes to my house every morning at 8:30 and leaves by 4 - most days before 4, unless I have cooked up some extra work for her, like cleaning the curtain rods in my new apartment (yes, I really had her do that). Even then, several days she has come to me at 3:30 or so and said, "Is there anything else you need me to do?" and I am at a loss so she leaves.

So I told Erik maybe I didn't need someone and he tried to counter by saying that this woman saves me so much time. But the reality is, if I didn't have her, my house just wouldn't be this clean. I wouldn't sweep and mop every day, or do laundry every day, and I'd use the dryer instead of hanging everything up, and I'd probably not make my bed every day either if I'm really honest. When my kids were little, I needed someone more because if I had to go out my kids needed someone to actually watch them. Now, I head out the door and say to my maid, "I'm leaving. The kids are somewhere in the complex. They might come back." Yesterday I even sent her across the street to the market while I went to Carrefour and the kids both stayed home for about 15 minutes. They just don't need the same level of supervision they did back in the day.

But I'm holding on to her for now because I know that when school starts my time will be quite different than now. In the meantime, I'm trying to think of things for her to do. Today I thought I'd teach her how to make some honey whole wheat bread. As we were making it, she commented that she knows how to make tortillas. And cornbread. And coffee bread. And she can teach me how to make dumplings. So now I'm thinking a daily baking order might be good. This is the blessing of having someone who already worked for an expat family! Things just got more interesting. What else should I have her make?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

It doesn't get much better than this

Can I tell you about my weekend? Because it rocked. Friday night we had dinner at a friend's house here in our complex. It was a going away party for a Chinese friend who became a believer a year or two before we came to China. As we were leaving to go there, I prepared the kids for who we would see there, reminding them that this girl was their favorite babysitter when they were little. Megan said, "Is she the one who let us drop stuffed animals on her from Ethan's bed?" Uh, I guess so. I don't remember that happening. Since those days of pummeling, she has gotten married and had a little girl. They are moving to Ohio this week so he can study. Also present was one of our first Chinese friends, a teacher at a nearby university. We spent some time reminiscing, and she helped me with a few language questions I've had. It's amazing to think I've known these women for 10 years!

Yesterday morning I went to my friend Jen's house to help her finish painting her bedroom. She'd done most of it except a bit of the edging and one large spot in a corner. As I painted, I commented that the color seemed lighter. She said, "Yeah, I thought that last time I painted too but it dries darker." After an "I'm stuck halfway off this wardrobe" incident in which we both laughed hysterically (at me, because I was the stuck one) I realized the paint had dried and was still no darker. Turned out it was a different liter of paint we'd tried before the color she chose. Oops. Not so fun for Jen, but I enjoyed the time with her!

In the afternoon, our furniture man came. I don't know how it's all going to turn out, but he walked away with drawings and pictures for nine pieces of furniture he's going to make for us, and we were only $1,400 poorer. Nice.

In the evening, some friends came down another part of town and we shared a BBQ meal and celebrated Erik's birthday while our girls ran and giggled through the house. Ethan mostly watched. Our friends also tipped us off to the fact that this morning at their church, Steven Curtis Chapman was going to lead worship and speak. I love it when this happens (it's happened before - SCC likes China).

So after a six mile run in the early morning cool weather (have I mentioned how much I love the canal where I run?) we went and were hugely blessed by SCC, his sons, and Geoff Moore singing and sharing about their experience in China. Then they invited us to join in and led us in a bunch of worship songs. After the service we had a great lunch out with a load of friends, then came home.

I don't know how this weekend could have been better unless maybe there was a pony ride.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pottery Barn, Welcome to Asia

Our initial search for furniture here was a bit of a shock. Where'd all the cheap furniture go? Suddenly IKEA looked like a more viable option. But the thing is, I'm not Swedish. It's not as appealing I think if you aren't Swedish.

But a friend of ours gave us a phone number for a guy who's made some furniture for him. We gave him a call, and out of curiosity asked him how much he might charge us for a solid wood dining table, 1x1.8 meters. His quote was around $250. Ah, this is more like it.

He's coming this afternoon to see what we want, so I am in a mad scramble on the internet, looking for pictures of the furniture we want. Of course my first stop is Pottery Barn, and Pottery Barn Kids. Ironically there is a good amount of Asian style furniture there, which I am going to have him replicate. Granted, my furniture won't be kiln dried like the stuff from Pottery Barn, but it won't cost me an arm and a leg either. I'll let you know how it goes.