Monday, December 31, 2007

Hurricane Kyra

I have a friend, let’s call her, say, “Jennifer.” Now, Jennifer has two twin boys, aged two-and-a-half, and she is constantly regaling me with tales of their mischief and mayhem. Every day she has a new one, like the time the boys woke up from their nap and sneakily upturned both their beds and the gigantic humidifier full of water before discovering that it was far more fun to smear the Costco-sized tub o’ Vaseline on themselves and the walls instead.

The boys work as a team, apparently, and this, as I understand it, is the problem with twins. One two-and-a-half year old boy by himself can do plenty of damage, as I learned when my boys were that age, but two can egg each other on and invent new forms of torment for their mother at twice the pace of a singlet. Let’s just say that every time she tells me one of her stories, I sympathize, then go home and fall to my knees, thanking the Lord that I had the good fortune to space mine more than a few minutes apart.

But then I realized. If you space ‘em, they just learn from each other and split up into various rooms in the house to unleash their inner demons. So, for example, yesterday, while I was cleaning the kitchen, really scrubbing away and feeling quite virtuous about the state of my house, Shay was upstairs upending a box of legos to find the Perfect Lego. Aidan was eating graham crackers with peanut butter on the living room couch, dropping a trail of crumbs over the freshly vacuumed floor. And Kyra – dear, sweet, smiley little Kyra – she found a spare tube of lip gloss and was adding to the glossy finish on the entry way furniture.

When I discovered the mess she’d made, I scolded her smiley self and then went to find some towels to buff the lip gloss off. That’s when she disappeared upstairs, where her dad was taking a shower. I called her to come back downstairs, which she did, and carried on with my pointless cleaning.

A short time later, I heard Bart yelling from upstairs. He sounded… unhappy, to say the least, so I trotted up to see what was wrong. It turns out Kyra had decided during her brief trip upstairs to turn on the faucet in the bathroom, but she’d then neglected to turn it back off. The drain was no match for the water, which quickly filled the sink and spilled onto the counter, into the cabinet and all over the floor. The bathroom had become the bathtub.

At some point during out attempts to mop up the sea that was once our bathroom, Bart muttered “betcha this makes it on your blog.”

And so it has.

I’ve learned several lessons from this latest mishap, so listen up if you want my advice.

First: No matter how dirty your baseboards get, don’t bother to clean them until your kids are in college. You’ll just end up with an even bigger mess.

And second: If you happen to run into Jennifer, and she happens to tell you one of her infamous twin boy horror stories, whatever you do, don’t gloat about the fact that you don’t have twins. What you have could be much, much worse.

On the plus side, at least I don’t have mop upstairs any time soon.

Friday, December 28, 2007

One Little Thing I Keep Forgetting to Mention

The State Dept allots each family a certain number of pounds in their household effects shipment, so when we moved here, we really had to pare down our stuff. We gave away books and toys and everything baby-related. We were ruthless. Kyra’s newborn dresses – donated. Baby swing and seat – donated. Bibs and socks and teeny tiny hats – all went to the Salvation Army, or to friends who were expecting.

But one thing they don’t teach you in Catholic school: God is a funny, funny, guy. He loves a good giggle. And so, my friends, now is as good a time as any to let you all know that we are expecting the arrival of baby girl Gorman – our fourth child – in early May.

Send those nickels our way, as I’m not quite sure how we’ll feed and clothe them all. But that’s where faith comes in, I suppose. First God laughs – then he provides.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Where Does it Hurt?

“I have diarrhea,” the woman next to me said in Chinese, “What’s wrong with you?”

“My teeth hurt,” I complained, before turning to the next woman and inquiring after her health.

“I’m going to throw up,” she said.

“I have allergies,” said the next.

And so on.

This was my most recent language class, in which we learned body parts and basic health terms. Now, theoretically, I can ask a doctor in Chinese “how many times a day should I take this medicine?” or tell the ayi “today I need to go to the dentist.” Note the use of the word “theoretically” here: it’s the most important word in this post to date, with the possible exception of “diarrhea,” which will of course figure prominently in the upcoming paragraphs.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “wow, she must really be getting good at Chinese if she can say all of these things already.” And you’d be dead wrong. Because somehow, whenever I put it all together in a sentence, unless it is spoken EXACTLY as written in my Chinese text book, no one understands me. Example: I can say “I do not speak Chinese” (Wo bu shuo hanyu) because the phrase is in my textbook. But today, just trying to make conversation, I said to the checkout lady at the store “you speak English very well.” At least, I thought that’s what I said. But she just gave me dog-ears. Dog-ears is what I call it when I say something in Chinese to a Chinese person and they just cock their head to one side and stare at me, puzzled, the way Casey the dog does when I talk to him. I get a lot of dog-ears here in Beijing. I might as well spend my days talking to Casey. And even when the words come out right, they’re still wrong. Which is why I buttoned up my coat today when leaving a restaurant and said to the waitress “It sure is cold tomorrow!”

But I’m trying. And for some reason, I’ve found that words like diarrhea seem to stick in my head longer than other potentially more useful words. So I ask the bread guy for a loaf of bread every week, and every week I say the same thing: “Wo yao yige mianbao… sliced.” I cannot for the life of me remember the word “sliced,” even though I need to use it every week. But “diarrhea…” I mean, really, how often do you discuss that in polite conversation? But I remembered the word “laduzi” the first time I heard it.

That last day in class was pretty funny. We held the class in someone’s home, and her ayi, who speaks no English, was wandering the house, cleaning. I wonder what she was thinking when she heard our little group of ten repeating, over and over, in broken Chinese, “I have diarrhea.” “I have diarrhea.” “I have diarrhea.” It’s a wonder she didn’t fall over laughing. Just as well. If she had choked on her own laughter, we would have forgotten how to say “quick! She needs to go to the hospital!” We would have just stood over her, helpless, before one of us thought to say “do you have diarrhea?”

And speaking of hospitals… Mingtian Shay xuyao qu yiyuan. Ta xuyao kan ya yi. I think that means “tomorrow Shay needs to go to the hospital. He needs to see the dentist.” But go ahead and get all dog-eared on me, because I could have it totally wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

At least I know I’m not alone. I saw a guy in Jenny Lou’s today trying to find matches. He was pantomiming lighting a match, with sound effects and everything. I understood him, but the supermarket employees gave him dog-ears. He eventually gave up and left without his matches. I wanted to follow him out, to tell him I understood. But since I haven’t been able to locate the matches, either, it would’ve been small comfort to him. Somehow, pantomiming doesn’t work in this country. My friend Jen went to a hardware store in a futile search for nails. Apparently, she gathered quite a crowd as she acted out hammering things into walls. But she left without nails. Another woman I know forgot the word for bathroom. Her son really had to go, but they were in the middle of a store. So she acted out bathroom (no, I don’t know how she did it, but we can all imagine, I’m sure). The store employees nodded knowingly, and led her to a display of… toilet seat covers. Not too useful when you’ve got the laduzi, I’m sure.

And I may be wrong here, but I’m guessing you all remember what “laduzi” means. Crazy world, no?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bart and the Prez

As promised, here's a picture from President Carter's visit to the Embassy. He and his wife posed in front of the Embassy with the RSO staff.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Beijing Railway Museum

I heard a rumor that there was a train museum in Beijing, and I got it into my head that we needed to find it. So today, Bart’s only day off, I packed the diaper bag, and off we went.

First, however, I called the front desk and asked them to help me get directions. They called me back with some vague directions, which I apparently misspelled. Because we never did find the street where we were supposed to turn left. It was Danshizhu… or Tanshigu, or Dazushu, or something like that.

When we couldn’t find the street, but we thought we’d probably passed it, we just turned left and headed in that general direction. And sure enough, somehow we ended up on exactly the street we needed. We followed it to the end, and after much back and forthing and rolling down of windows to ask directions, we arrived at the museum. Here Bart came in handy. I can say “train” in Chinese (hua che), but not museum. Also, since I can’t understand what anybody says, I would’ve just stared blankly as they told me to go back and turn right at the tracks. But Bart understood – that last year of language hell paid off today.

So we found the museum, and the kids absolutely loved it. There were steam engines and sleeper cars and even an ancient little engine that was the tiniest thing I’d ever seen – and the kids were allowed to climb all over everything. They got absolutely filthy, but they had a blast.

Tomorrow Bart goes back to work. And I’ll have all three kids at home for the next three weeks – Shay has a long winter break. I’m not sure how I’ll have the time to get any real writing done, but I’ve contracted to write two articles over the next few weeks, and I’m working on a couple of other things as well, so I’d better keep working despite the craziness that’ll reign in the house.

Kyra plays basketball

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Getting Ready for the Holidays

Aidan got his face painted at a holiday party last Saturday. And the boys decorated the trees (we're up to three trees now). It snowed for the first time on Sunday night - when Aidan saw the snow in the morning, he asked "Is Santa coming today?"

No, but Santa's coming soon - too soon. I was out at the Hongqiao toy market today, looking for Star Wars Legos and a baby basketball hoop. No success on either front, so Santa will have to make other plans.

I did get to barter in Chinese - no easy feat when I still have trouble understanding what's being said around me. I have, however, learned to adopt a shocked expression and exclaim "tai gui le!" (too expensive!). It took all day to drive there, barter for a few things and find our way home again. It's so much easier when you just drive down the street to Target and pay whatever price is on the tag. One transaction alone took well over 45 minutes - just to argue about the quantity and the price, then to find the right colors.

More from me later. Bart's working late, so I'm off to toss the kids in a quick bath before bedtime.

Enjoy the photos...

Friday, December 7, 2007

Life Goes On

Since last I wrote about learning to drive in Beijing, I’ve been driving up a storm. I’ve been in and out of the city on numerous occasions without major difficulties. The biggest problem, really, is that I don’t have a street map. My only map is a one page Lonely Planet guide showing major streets and landmarks. So I squint at that for awhile and try to find my ending point. I then attempt to determine which ring road I should take to get there – there are 5 ring roads circling the city. I look for a street that may or may not be my exit. Then I hop in the car and head out, hoping for the best.

One day, I had an appointment with the ENT (who, by the way, charged me $200 to tell me I’m still deaf. Which made for a Very Bad Day.). I drove into town, missed what I thought was my exit, got off one stop later and circled back until I found a street I recognized. Made my way to the hospital with time to spare. I parked on a side street near the hospital and began to walk away when some guy on a moped started yelling at me. After some discussion, I finally figured out that he was the parking attendant and I needed to pay him 5 kwai to park there for 2 hours. So okay. It wasn’t pretty, but I pulled enough Chinese out of my head to get that much figured out.

The next day, I took off down the 4th ring road en route to a meeting with my editor at the magazine I’ve been freelancing for. I found my way to her building, despite the fact that I got off the road in the completely wrong place. I veered in and out of bike lanes, honked and was honked at, even made a u-turn or two. But somehow, I eventually ended up in her neighborhood. And lo and behold, there was an actual parking garage in front of me. As I pulled in, I realized, I was in the parking garage that belonged to her building! Miracle of miracles! Feeling rather proud, I parked and got out, noted which space I was parked in, and made my way toward an exit sign.

The exit door was padlocked, but no matter. I found another exit sign and followed that. It led me into a dank, dark hallway, through a construction zone, past several curious Chinese, up a horror-film type stairway and to a glass door that led to the street. Would have led, that is, but for the fact that it, too, was padlocked shut.

Now I was feeling A.) panicky, B.) annoyed and C.) late. I thought about asking someone where the exit was. But of course, I don’t know how to say “where is the exit?” in Chinese. I can say “where is the American Embassy?” I can say “Where is my daughter?” I can say “Where is my cup of coffee?” I can even say “My computer is broken, can you please come to my house tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. to fix it?” (I’m bragging now, aren’t I?) But I can’t ask the one thing I really need to know right about now. So I pull out the cell phone and call a friend. Her husband answers, and he can say “exit:” chuko. (Now you know. In case you’re ever locked in an underground parking garage in China, you can ask “Chuko zainar?”) Armed with this knowledge, I find my way out, and get to my meeting on time.

So you see, I’m settled in. Getting locked in a massive underground parking garage is just no big deal anymore.

I have a game I sometimes play when I’m overseas just to keep things new. I pretend someone is visiting me, and I try to see what things would look like to them, as visitors. So the last time I got in the car, I pretended my parents were with me. My pretend mom was riding up front, and my dad was in the back. My mom looked a little uncomfortable because I was hitting the speed bumps too fast, but my dad didn’t seem to like it when I veered around one, cutting off a bike rider in the process. My dad was appalled to see the lady who was riding her bike down the middle of the road, against traffic, with a small child on the handlebars. My mom, meanwhile, was asking about the crazy truck with two wheels in the back but just one in the front. “That just seems like it would fall over around the corners,” she commented. My dad cringed on the highway when I accelerated to get around the slow bus, braking hard and pulling back in front of the bus before I hit the taxi in the fast lane. And on and on it went, the whole way to the Embassy and home again. My imaginary parents were nervous driving with me, I can tell you that. I’m pretty sure they talked about it after I went to bed that night, and you can bet my mom got on the phone with my Aunt Ann that night to tell her how scary it was driving with me. My dad probably cracked some joke about how they’d overpaid for my drivers’ ed classes, way back when. But, hey, what do they want? We got there and back safely, after all. And we had a nice lunch together, too. I think they’re enjoying their imaginary visit.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Another Article For You

I know, I know. I've been terribly out of touch with all of you. I've been busy finishing up my holiday shopping, meeting with an editor, reviewing restaurants, writing articles, studying Chinese, seeing President Carter, mailing Christmas gifts home, baking cookies for Shay's classmates, finding my way around town, reading a big stash of cheesy magazines that I inherited, playing with kids, cooking dinner, visiting doctors, filling and refilling humidifiers... everything, it seems, except sleeping and blogging.

Here, in case you're interested, is my latest article.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Crazy Beijing Driver

Our car arrived in early November, so Bart drove it home and parked it in the driveway, where it sat forlornly, wondering why I never took it anywhere. Truth be told, I was a bit nervous at the idea of driving into downtown Beijing, because I wouldn’t know where I was going, I don’t have a Thomas Bros guide to Beijing, and I don’t know enough Chinese to ask for directions when I get hopelessly lost. There’s also the little fact that Beijing’s streets are clogged with traffic, and the main driving rules seem to be “ignore the guy behind you” and “if you can move into the space, it’s yours.”

So I started slowly, just driving around our little suburban neighborhood, where I know my way around so getting lost wouldn’t be a problem. And it was fine. Well, okay, the first time I drove to Shay’s school to take Aidan to the library, there was a slight mishap. You see, the spaces are a bit too small for a minivan. And you have to back in. And I have no depth perception. And there’s no space between the wall and the curb. So, yes, technically, I did back into the wall at Shay’s school. And yes, I guess that means I did get in my first Chinese car accident. But no I did NOT wreck the car, even if that’s how my husband prefers to characterize it. It was just a little scratch. Or two. Two-ish scratches, maybe.

Other than that little mishap, all went well. Still, I had no idea how to drive to the Embassy in an emergency, and I figured I needed to learn. Lucky for me, my friend Jen knows how to get there, but doesn’t have her car yet, so she agreed to talk me in if I’d take her in. One little thing, though. First, she needed to stop at an apartment complex a few blocks from the Embassy. So we agreed that I’d drive there with her directional assistance, and then we’d go park at the Embassy and walk to the Silk Market to do some Christmas shopping.

We made it in, on the Airport Expressway and the Third Ring Road. The Third Ring was packed with cars, so it took forever. I don’t know how my husband does the commute every day. Just getting the extra few blocks from the Embassy to the apartment took about thirty minutes. But we made it – such a sense of accomplishment when we found the building and got ourselves there without getting lost or hit. We were laughing on our way out, congratulating ourselves. At the edge of the driveway, we had two choices: pull into the closest lane, the one that looked as though it might curve right when we needed to go straight? Or pull into the farther one, which may or may not go straight – hard to tell because is disappeared behind a concrete barricade. After a split second decision, I chose to pull into the far lane.

Turns out the far lane isn’t a traffic lane at all – it’s a bike lane. I was now stuck in a bike lane, behind the world’s slowest sanlunche, ridden by an older guy lugging plastic jugs of something sloshy. To my right was the aforementioned concrete barrier. To my left was a metal barrier, meant to keep crazy drivers like me OUT if the bike lane. So we chugged along behind our three-wheeled friend, who was in no hurry to get those jugs anywhere. And we chugged. And chugged.

When we came to a light, we stopped behind him and debated how to get back into the traffic lanes. Jen, my law-abiding friend, looked at the red light and said, without hesitation, “run it!” With that encouragement, I pulled around jug guy, prayed for no oncoming traffic, and gunned it through the intersection.

We laughed about it all the way back to the Embassy, where the guards waved us in and we pulled over for the obligatory bomb check. Of course, I hadn’t driven the car in so long, I couldn’t remember how to open the engine compartment. After an embarrassing few moments, I found the latch, the search continued and we were cleared to enter the compound.

Unfortunately, one whole side of the street was shut down, so parking spaces were scarce. And did I mention I often have problems parking the not-so-minivan? But we found a space, near the visa section, and I pulled over. I wasn’t sure it was a space, though, given the look the Chinese policeman was giving me. So I got out and asked him, in English “Can I park here?”

He answered, in Chinese, “blah blah blah blah.”

So I switched to Chinese. “Ni hao,” I said, “uhhh… park…. Nar?”

Him: “blah blah blah.”

Me to Jen: “Jen, how do you say ‘can I park here?’”

Pause. We both think back to yesterday’s Chinese class.

Jen: “’may I’ is ‘ke yi.’”

Me to policeman: “ke yi… uhhhh… park… nar?” I point.

Policeman: “bu ke yi blah blah blah.”

Well. If “ke yi” means “may I?”, then “bu ke yi” means “you may not.” As to the “blah blah blah” part, who knows?

Resigned, I climbed back in and put the car in reverse. Just then I noticed a space right in front of the car that was parked in front of me. Literally ten feet away. So I rolled down the window and asked the police man “ke yi… uhhh…. Park my che…. Uhhh… nar?” I pointed at the space.

He nodded and answered “ke yi.”

Now, why he couldn’t have pointed at that space in the first place and saved us all a whole lotta “blah blah blahs,” I’ll never know. But I am happy to report that we did, finally, make it safely all the way to the Embassy that day. We parked, had lunch, did some shopping, got some coffee and even made it all the way back home without further incident. We were already halfway home, barreling down the Airport Expressway, when Jen casually mentioned that she wasn’t sure which exit we needed to take to get home. Uh, you might have wanted to mention that BEFORE you agreed to be the navigator, Jen. But no problem – that was the only thing I did know for sure, so we made it safely home.

For all I know, that bike rider is still meandering down his bike lane, a line of newbie cars with diplomatic plates snaking along behind, trying to find an escape route.

And now I can get to the Embassy. That’s a real accomplishment. Next up: learning to say “may I park here?” in Chinese.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving sometimes feels like an odd little holiday when you're living overseas. You have to search high and low for some of the basics, like cranberries, and pay through the nose for others, like a turkey. I don't think I've ever spent less than $60 on a turkey overseas, because they have to be imported from the States. And what I wouldn't give for a handful of fresh cranberries! They're nowhere to be found.

This year was especially odd for a couple of reasons. First, Shay had school - after all, it's an American holiday, but his school is international. So no break. We did pick him up an hour early, but that's about it.

Also, we usually host Thanksgiving overseas. And I love hosting Thanksgiving - I love the food prep, the smells, the look of the table, the quarreling with my husband over something trivial right before the guests show up... But this year, we went to the Gunny's house. He's the head Marine here, and all of his Marines came, along with most of the security type folks. I'd say there were 40-50 people there. The Marines cooked the turkeys and the rest of us brought desserts, appetizers and sides. Since I didn't have to cook a turkey, I wasn't kitchen-bound all day. So I left Kyra and Aidan at home with the ayi and got a pedicure before going out to lunch, all by myself. Very quiet, very non-Thanksgiving. After lunch, I got back in the kitchen, whipped up a few things (pie, fudge, salad, green beans, apple dip), and then we all headed down the road to Gunny's.

It was a nice day, all in all, though I'm not sure it quite felt like Thanksgiving. And now it is already time to start prepping for Christmas. We have to order and ship gifts pretty much now, because it takes so long to get everything through the military postal service. So I'm frantically trying to send gifts out to family members by week's end, and I need to finish ordering Santa's gifts for my own little ones so they'll arrive in time. The good news is, if I accomplish all of this, I'll be done with Christmas shopping early.

In addition, I have lots of writing work to do. I've just been asked to write three more things for the magazine I've been working with . One is on spec (they may or may not buy it); one is not due for a month but will involve heavy research; one is due in a week but is the coolest assignment ever - I'll be reviewing local restaurants and ranking them in terms of kid-friendliness. So I think we might go out to dinner tonight AND lunch tomorrow. Should be fun... assuming these places really are kid-friendly and further assuming my kids are friendly to each other.

I have lots to be thankful for this season, as always. I have a husband who supports my writing habit (financially and emotionally), I have three healthy (usually) kids, I have a great, if distant, extended family; I still have my hearing in one ear at least; and I've learned how to say my address in Chinese so I won't get stranded in the middle of Beijing some cold winter day.

The list goes on, but unfortunately, chores and kids beckon.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Chaoyang Park

Yesterday we buckled the kids into the minivan and found our way to Chaoyang Park, just off the Fourth Ring Road in northeastern Beijing. The kids whined the whole way there – at least, they did until Aidan fell asleep, which, predictably, happened just minutes before we arrived at the park.

It was long-underwear cold, and we were all slightly underdressed for the weather. In fact, Shay was only wearing a t-shirt and a sweatshirt. He was shivering, but it was his fault – he’d been in a bad mood when we left, and he refused to put on a jacket or a hat. I had to restrain myself from saying “I told you so,” but I couldn’t resist a couple of well-placed “Gee, I sure am cold… I’m glad I have this warm jacket and scarf on.”

Chaoyang Park is huge, and we only saw the tiniest portion of it. We wandered in near the kite-flying arena, where lots of grown-ups were hanging around, holding on to kites that drifted so high you could barely make them out. Not a sight you see too often in stateside parks. From there, we passed the boat pavilion – deserted on such a cold day – and found ourselves smack in the middle of the amusement park section.

The kids forgot the cold and started bouncing with joy. Shay tried his hand at the dart toss, managing to pop enough balloons to win a car for himself and another for his brother. Next, he crawled into a big clear balloon, which the workers filled with air and shoved out onto a lake. He spent the next 15 minutes out there on the water like a hamster in a habitrail, bobbing and spinning and trying to stand, until they finally reeled him in. “That was SWEET!!!” he kept yelling. Aidan had a blast watching him, but refused to go in a bubble himself. Kyra just stared, open-mouthed and drippy-nosed.

We went on a couple of rides, watched some others and then decided it was too darn cold to stay another minute. So we headed for the exit, but not before trying the balloon pop dart game one last time. This time, Aidan wanted to try it out, so the rest of us scattered while he wildly tossed metal-tipped darts in every direction. I had visions of another round of stitches, for Aidan or an innocent bystander, but all went well enough for the boys to win two toy guns.

On the way home, we stopped at an Italian restaurant and plied the kids with pizza. Then home for ice cream sundaes. The entire way home, Shay kept asking if we could go back to Chaoyang Park tomorrow, puhleaaaase. We’ll go back again, I’m sure, to visit the park’s science center or fly kites – but maybe we’ll wait for warmer weather.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Happy Veteran's Day

The Embassy was closed today. Which means Bart should have had a three day weekend, except that he was called into work on Saturday. He was planning to take Tuesday off so we could go out together, but after his illness last week, he decided he couldn't take any more time off. So we decided to go out together today instead. I just had to do an interview down the street at ten a.m., then we'd leave the kids with Xiao Tong and head into town.

That was the plan, anyway.

I was wrapping up my interview when the doorbell rang. It was Bart, telling me I had to come home NOW because Aidan needed to go to the hospital for stitches.

Yep. Turns out he and Shay were golfing together at the playground when Aidan got too close and got whacked just under the ear with a club ( a seven iron, if you must know). We took him to the clinic down the road, where they gave him three big stitches. And either the painkillers didn't take, or he was being a bit overdramatic, because he screamed his head off the whole time. Poor little guy. It's the third time he's had stitches so far in his short little life, but it was the worst by far.

While we were waiting for the doctor to stitch him up, he was sitting in my lap, crying a little, and I told him if he could be very, very brave, I'd buy him a cocoa afterwards.

"I don't want cocoa," he sniffled piteously. Then he paused and added "I want cocoa AND a new toy."

Give him credit. He knows how to work it.

So my romantic day out with my husband was not meant to be. Maybe next Veteran's Day...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Oh, Did I Promise You an Update?

I've been back in Beijing for, what? Two weeks, I think. But I've crammed two months worth of living into that space. And I can't possibly get you up-to-speed on all of it. Here are some of the highlights:

Halloween. Shay was Batman, Aidan was Superman and Kyra was a purple bird. My plane landed just hours before trick-or-treat began, and my camera was malfunctioning, so not a lot of pictures.
The Marine Ball. Bart and I left the kids with the ayi and went to the Marine Corps birthday ball together. An actual date! In dress-up clothes and everything! Again, no camera... but we had our picture taken there - maybe some day I'll post it so those of you who've never seen me in a dress or Bart in a tux can see that I'm not lying.
Writing. I've been working on three articles simultaneously, so that's keeping me busy. But it's a good busy. The kind of busy that might eventually lead to a paycheck. I also got two very nice rejection letters from editors this past week. When they take the time to write a nice "no thanks" letter, that's something. And they both asked to see more of my work. So keep your fingers crossed on that.
Germs. My family continues our quest to be the Sickest Family in Asia. Kyra finally stopped throwing up in the night. Aidan started the sniffles. And Bart... poor Bart took three-and-a-half days off of work this week. The doctor ordered him to keep his contagious carcass out of the office and on my couch. And those of you who are married know - the only thing worse than being sick yourself is having a sick husband on your couch. You can't do anything with them. You can't do anything for them. So you just have to sit and stare, looking appropriately concerned while you secretly wonder if it would be a sin to head out to lunch for an hour. You also likely have to remind him that just because he's sick doesn't mean he can watch scary movies on the tv when the kids are right there in the room. Sick husbands don't like to be told about things like that. He's back at work today - Saturday - catching up on what he missed, and now I'm home with a sore throat.

Chinese class. I missed quite a bit during my month's forced absence. Like telling time, days of the week and sentence order. But, glutton for punishment that I am, I hopped right back into class and am trying to catch up. As a result, I can now tell the ayi "At three o'clock on Friday we are going to the clubhouse." Or "I will drive the car to the restaurant." All in Chinese! I'm so proud of myself. Of course, when I drove said car to the gas station, I realized I couldn't say "excuse me, but which gas am I supposed to use? And how much does it cost anyway?" I just waved my money in the attendant's face and hoped he'd know what to do.
There's more, much more, but alas - I'm out of time. I have to load up the three kids and drag them all to Shay's orthodontist appointment today. I've hired a driver because I can't brave the journey downtown alone - I'll lose my way. And I'm hoping the driver can help us find a McDonald's afterwards as a reward for good (hopefully, please-oh-please) behavior. So I need to go figure out how to say, "Pardon me, but could you possibly go this way and then turn right? I've heard that there might be a McDonald's around that corner." And of course I'll need to practice saying "chicken nuggets, please." So as you can see, I have a lot to do in the next hour or so.

tbjkids - my article

My first article for tbjkids magazine, an English-language parenting publication here in Beijing, appeared in this month's issue. You can read it here. And I just turned in my second article, which kept me too busy to blog last week. Enjoy...

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Technically, I'm Home

I made it back to Beijing last Saturday - just in time for the Halloween festivities in our little neighborhood. I arrived to find three clingy kids and one clingy husband, each of whom missed me rather a lot. Kyra is sick as can be, and has spent her nights vomiting the contents of her stomach all over me while I carry her around and try not to bump into any walls. Yes, I'm still dizzy, and getting up every hour in the night doesn't help. I've taken her to the doctor twice already, and they can't seem to find a solution.

I also had to take Casey to the vet downtown. When we arrived in Beijing, we agreed to have him checked out by a local vet in order to avoid a lengthy quarantine, but then we promptly blew off the Chinese government. Turns out they don't like being ignored, and they told us they'd quarantine him if we didn't get him inspected this week. So I decided to listen and spent half a day and several hundred dollars on that.

I also agreed, for reasons that escape me now, to write an article for an English language parenting publication here in Beijing, and it is due next week. So I'm spending my days trying to track down people to interview for the story.

In addition, I've resumed my Chinese lessons, and I'm woefully far behind after a month away, so I'm making tons o' flashcards and trying to memorize scads of vocabulary.

I had a parent-teacher conference scheduled at Shay's school - well, that's a story all by itself.

Also took the kids to meet Cal Ripken Jr. last night - for some reason he's in town, and all the kids got to shake his hand.

And of course, the Marine Ball is this weekend, so I'm trying to find a gown that fits, figure out what to do with my hair, get in shape, organize the babysitter and transportation and remember how exactly to apply mascara.

Somehow I still haven't managed to find the time to bring my bike to the repair shop - it has a busted inner tube.

All of this detail is a roundabout way to apologize for not keeping you all up-to-date on my adventures since returning "home."

But I promise, big news ahead! Just let me get through this weekend and I'll find some time to report in more detail.

Thanks to all of you who somehow manage to keep me updated on you. Somehow it was easier to keep you up-to-date when I was all alone in my Hong Kong hotel room.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Chicken of the Sea

If you know me, you know I love eating, and I love trying new

I never thought I'd say this, but - after an entire month of
eating out at Every Single Meal, I am so tired of it. I'm ready
to get back in my kitchen and cook something of my very own...
without MSG or salt or anything else I don't want.

Today I went to the fancy little tea house in the hotel and I
ordered what was called "special dumpling soup." The waitress
told me it was chicken broth and dumplings stuffed with meat.
At least, I thought that was what she said. It was actually
rather good. But when I got the bill, it said right there on the
receipt, in big, bold letters:

"Shark Soup."

I almost threw up right there on the table. SOOOOO not what
I wanted to eat. Hopefully the dumplings weren't stuffed with
kittens. I was afraid to ask.

It's okay, though. Soon I'll be back in my own shark-free
kitchen, forcing lentils and tofu on my darling little beasts.
And if they complain, I'll threaten to cook up some shark

Monday, October 22, 2007

Motherhood in the Age of Technology

My daughter is 16 months old, which is just the most fascinating age. She's testing everything, learning how the world works. At 16 months, her thoughts go something like this: "When I hold my food out to the dog, he takes it..." "When I drop my food on the floor, the dog takes it..." "When I put my food in my lap, the dog takes it..." "When I put food on the dog's head, he takes it..." "When I give the dog my food, my parents get mad..." (insert 10 second pause here) "Hmmm.... I wonder what'll happen if I hold some food out to the dog?"

As I say, everything is new to a 16-month-old. Everything is fascinating, but nothing is particularly surprising.

She is apparently not surprised, for example, to discover that her mother has turned into a computer.

It's true. She used to come into the office and see me sitting at the computer, banging on the keys. She could never quite understand why I got angry when she banged on the keys, if it was okay for me to do it. But now, for the past month, I appear to have actually taken it a step further and moved into the computer. Every evening, she sits in her daddy's lap while he opens the lid of the computer and bangs on the keys. After he hits the computer for a minute or two, I start talking. So somehow, I must have turned into that computer that I used to gaze at for so long.

It's apparently no big deal to her. Mom's a computer. The dog eats pizza off of the floor. Whatever.

But it makes me realize that it is really and truly time for me to get home. I miss her. I miss them all. I've missed the entire month of October, and I'm ready to be with them again.

So I'm pleased to tell you all that I have been cleared for takeoff, and I am planning to return to Beijing this Saturday.

I hope my daughter recognizes me.

And I'm pretty sure that, no matter how much I've missed her, it is really going to tick me off the first time she dumps her milk on the dog...


Today I returned to the ENT for another hearing test.

If there's a doctor out there reading this, please accept my apologies for butchering all of this information. But here, best as I understand it, is what's going on.

Last time I was tested, my right ear could pick up some sounds at around 100 decibels - the sound of a plane flying overhead. That's profoundly deaf. This time, there was only very slight improvement. I could hear some sounds at 77 decibels, which still qualifies me as deaf.

They'd been hoping to get me up around 50 decibels (my left ear, which is normal, picks up noises at 15 decibels). The doctor said that if I had gotten up to 50 decibels, I would've been able to hear someone calling me from my right side. At 40, I would've been able to have some phone coversations, with difficulty. But at 77, I'm still pretty worthless.

I do have a fairly sizeable clot on my eardrum, covering about a third of the eardrum. This is because my eardrum is still healing from the shots. It should heal within two weeks, but even then I'll probably gain no more than 5-10 decibels - still deaf.

The good news is apparently that, should I decide down the road to get a hearing aid, my hearing has improved enough to make this feasible. At 100 decibels, the hearing aid would've had to amplify the sound to the point that it would be painful. At 70, it is possible that it could work.

The doctor suggested that I have my hearing tested in 6-8 weeks, then live with what I've got (or rather what I lack) and decide for myself if it is enough of a disability to warrant pursuing a hearing aid. Right now I'm thinking it isn't. It's just one ear, after all. It isn't like losing your eyesight, or losing a limb, or losing a child. It's just an ear, so in the overall scheme of things, I can still count myself among the lucky ones who walk this earth.

The other night, when I was out looking for something to eat, I happened upon a beggar. I came around the corner, and there he sat. He had apparently suffered severe burns at some point in his life, because he looked as though he had... melted. His skin hung down just like a well-used candle. He had no ears. He had swollen little slits for eyes. Most of his fingers were gone.

The sight so shocked me that I hurried past, giving him as wide a berth as possible. It was only an hour or so later that I realized what I had done. Here I was, living in a nice hotel, visiting the best doctors my credit card could afford, praying for a cure. And there he was, sitting on the street, with not enough money for food, let alone medical care. But I just walked right by.

I went back, but he was gone already. I went back every day after that, but I never saw him. And I was overwhelmed by the sense that I had just royally screwed up. Who was I to ask for help when I'd just passed him by?

Finally, a few days ago, I saw him there again. This time, I gave him a fairly large sum of money, and I felt a tiny bit better. But not much.

There's a wizened old man who sits on the street in the other direction. He's half my size and three times my age. I'm helping to feed him, too. Whenever I give him money, his face breaks into a beaming, wrinkly smile and he says something to me in Cantonese. He's usually there at the lunch hour, and he seems to have more money in his hat than the burn victim did - perhaps because he's so tiny and cute that it isn't as easy to avert your eyes.

And then there's Coco. I was watching CNN the other night, and they were doing some stories on Burma. One of the stories was about a young mother who'd had twin boys. They were six months old when they contracted pneumonia. There was no doctor in the mother's tiny village. After the first twin died, the mother took the other twin - Coco - in her arms and set out through the jungle, heading for a small clinic in neighboring Thailand. When CNN caught up with them, she was in the clinic, and her baby was still struggling to survive.

That's all I know about Coco. As far as I can tell, CNN never did a follow-up story. Did he die? Did he live?

I'm telling you all of these sad stories to illustrate where I'm at right now. I don't have my hearing back, it's true. But I am so, so blessed.

Thanks to you all for stopping to help me when I needed it.

Friday, October 19, 2007

My Own Personal Book Club

I've been doing a lot of reading since arriving in Hong Kong, to fill my spare time. Back home, I have trouble reading anything longer than 5 pages or so, because of the frequent interruptions. Here, I've already plowed through the last Harry Potter, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and few others that I've long been wanting to read.

Someone gave me a book called "Tai Pan" by James Clavell. I highly recommend that all of you go track down a copy, as it was fascinating. It is about the founding of Hong Kong. I don't understand why no one's made a movie out of it: it has pirates and prostitutes, sword fights and sea battles. Everything you could need in a good movie.

Seriously. I know most of you out there have less time on your hands than I these days, but if you haven't read it, you really need to.

And now I'm off in search of more of his books.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Still Deaf

For those of you who've been wondering: I'm still deaf.

And as far as I know, I'm done with my treatment options. The shots in the ear didn't work, so it looks likely that the deafness is here to stay.

I think I need to stop blogging about it soon. After all, there are only so many posts I can title "Still Deaf" before you all start wishing I'd lose my typing fingers, too.

So now it's time to move on and learn to live with being deaf, instead of whining about it. Here's the good news about being deaf:

When the kids start whining for the fourteenth time, I can sit them down and patiently explain "kids, I'm deaf. The doctor says that means I can't hear it when people whine. So you'll have to say it again in a normal voice."

Also, when my husband calls me from another room, but I'm sitting in a chair happily reading a cheesy magazine and eating potato chips, I can just pretend I didn't hear him call me and keep right on reading.

Perhaps I can blame my inability to speak Chinese on my ears. After all, if you can't hear it, you can't pronounce it, right? So no one can blame me for not learning the darn language.

It should make it easier to tune out those annoying political ads when I'm back in the States.

And of course, I can just start ignoring boring people and pretend I can't hear them.

Anyone out there have any other things they want to add to my List of Things That Are Good About Being Deaf?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Brain in a Bag

Yesterday was a marathon day of doctor appointments, including my Last Shot In The Ear. At some point during the day, one of the doctors gave me a huge white plastic bag to take home - in it were the pictures from my recent MRI, along with a full report. So I hurried through Hong Kong, from one appointment to the next, swinging my brain in a big white bag, just below the knee. Talk about vertigo.

My hearing has not improved since last I wrote. I need to have another hearing test next week, just to measure any hearing that might be coming back. And I'll need a few other tests as well, so it looks as though I'm stuck in Hong Kong for at least another week and a half.

Don't get me wrong - HK is a great place, and in some ways I'm enjoying myself. But I miss my kids and I miss my husband, and I think, right now, I'd really rather be home again with them.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Just a Smidgen

Yesterday was shot #3. This time they put a shot in my ear to numb it first - don't know why they didn't think of doing that sooner. The doctor told me that if the shots were going to work, I would likely notice a bit of a change after shot #2 and more after shot #3. After this shot, he sat me down and talked about what will happen if this doesn't work. Short answer: nothing. No other treatment options available in the world of western medicine.

After that shot, I left the world of western medicine for the east. I had my third appointment with Dr. Paine, a great guy with an unfortunate name for someone who spends his days plunging sharp needles into other people.

This is the first time I've ever tried acupuncture, so I wasn't sure what to expect. It's strange - while he is sticking needles in me, it seems to help. I lose the nausea, lose the dizziness... it even changes the ringing in my ears, quieting it down a bit. But as soon as I sit up, it's over, and everything comes rushing back.

This time, he stuck some needles in my jaw and around my ear, then threaded wire around them and hooked them up to a little device that sent small electric shocks into me - it felt as though someone was tapping on the needles. While he was doing this, it felt so strange. I could feel my ear, which has been numb since this began. And the ringing in my ear almost disappeared entirely.

After more than an hour, I got up to leave, still feeling a bit woozy and odd. On my way back home, I noticed that I could feel the wind blowing past both ears. I still couldn't hear it in the right side, but I could feel it for the first time. By evening, I could feel my actual ear - normally, it feels numb, the way your mouth feels after the dentist shoots you up with novocaine. But now I could feel it a bit.

So when Bart called last night, I had him shout into the phone. And do you know - I could hear it, ever so vaguely, like a wave off in the distance. If I press the buttons on the phone, I can hear them, too, far away somewhere.

So. Something is working, don't you agree? Either the shots, or the acupuncture, or the prayers you've all been shooting my way, from places as far away as Cuba, Egypt, Armenia and the U.S. It's not a lot - just the teensiest smidgen of noise. But I'll take it, for now.

Keep those prayers coming, please. Just make sure they're Really Loud.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

No Tumor

Last night I had an MRI.

Now, in and of itself, an MRI is no big deal. I mean, it isn't painful. It isn't scary (unless you're claustrophobic). It doesn't require any special skills to complete.

But - suppose you're suffering from vertigo and partial deafness. Then, for good measure, throw in a nasty cough. Now, imagine someone asks you to lie flat on your back, perfectly still, for about an hour. Lying flat on your back makes you nauseous, but okay, you can do it. Then imagine they start blasting noises at you - not sure why an MRI has to be so noisy, but it is. Well, the noises will of course hurt that poor deaf ear of yours. And then, the noises will rattle your body a bit, triggering a vibration in your throat and causing a desperate need to cough. But if you cough, they have to start over.

So let's just say, if this were you, you'd be glad to get it over with.

I staggered home last night, post-MRI, gulped down some anti-nausea meds, and basically collapsed.

The good news is, I brought the disc of images from the MRI to the ENT this morning, and there is no sign of a tumor there. So that's one possibility ruled out.

Which leaves us with the virus, and the shots in the ear.

Shot #3 is tomorrow, and the final shot will be on Monday. Keep your fingers crossed that it starts to work, as I'm still not quite sure what happens if it doesn't. At some point, I suppose, the State Department doctors will stuff some cotton in my ear and shove me back on a plane bound for Beijing, with or without my hearing. But who knows? I imagine right now cables are being sent between DC, Beijing and HK, as somebody somewhere tries to find a solution that will get me back to my family.

There's at least some comfort in that thought.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

What Mothers Do

Since I've been here, my mother has been calling me every 15 1/2 minutes just to make sure I haven't dropped dead. My Other Mother, who is actually my Aunt Ann in the biological sense of the word, calls my mother every 15 1/2 minutes, just to see if there's any news. (nope, there isn't - I'm still deaf as a post.)

I myself have lots of time to contemplate motherhood, seeing as I'm no longer an active participant in it on a day-to-day basis. Instead, I find myself thinking about my kids (about every 15 1/2 minutes), wishing I were there with them instead of here, half deaf, in Hong Kong.

Menawhile, my long-suffering husband has become a single dad. Poor guy is trying to juggle an extremely demanding job with three extremely demanding kids. Plus a hellish commute. And his crazy workout schedule. I imagine, when I return to Beijing (assuming he's still alive), he'll be able to give me some insight into which is harder - being a stay-at-home mom or a go-to-work dad. I'm pretty sure he prefers his own job to mine right now, especially as Aidan is not handling the transition well. Last night, he brought all of his stuffed animals to his dad and said they all had "bloody ears." Guessing he's worried about me.

Bart's a great dad, he really is. He's always the one who remembers to bring home movies for family movie night. He's the one who takes the kids on bike rides to the ice cream store. And lately he's also mastered the ability to say "Don't talk that way to your mother" in such a way that the offending little person shuts his snotty little mouth. But let's face it: a Dad is a Dad. That's a whole different beast than a Mom.

For example: Bart was fretting the other night because the kids have gone off their food since I left. Aidan, in particular, has given up all foods that might have some vague nutritive value in favor of nasty Chinese chocolate milk in a box. So I explained to Bart that he probably just needs to make the food look prettier. If you slice the veggies and arrange them artfully on a platter, making sure none of the various types of vegetables accidentally touch another type, then the kids are more likely to eat said veggies. Similarly, if you slice the banana into wheels and arrange the wheels in a pattern on the plate, Aidan gulps it down. Skinless pear slices are good, but the apple needs to retain its skin - and no slices, please - the kids prefer their apples halved. I continued on in this vein, waxing poetic about spinach with just a touch of garlic and Ritz crackers with peanut butter slathered inside (smooth, of course, not crunchy).

I said all of this to a man who was just finishing a long day of: work out, make breakfast, dress little ones, walk to school bus, commute, work, reverse commute, oversee homework, make dinner, serve dinner, argue about why no one will eat dinner, clean up dinner, pack school lunches, bathe kids, read books, put to bed, put to bed again, "get back in that bed right now, so help me god," better call wife to see if she's still deaf, please go to bed right now and finally I can go to bed.

I'm pretty sure he still isn't color coding the vegetables. That's just not his job: it's mine.

So, my point is: my kids need me. My husband needs me. But there is no end in sight: I'm here until they cure me or give up, I suppose.

Shot # 2 was yesterday, but so far, no change in my lack of hearing.

So I wait.

And think about veggie platters.

And worry about my babies.

Every 15 1/2 minutes or so.

It's what we mothers do.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Wise Woman

Yesterday I was wandering through the mall, looking for a shop that sold face lotion (mine was confiscated at the airport in Beijing). I went into the Body Shop and was checking out their lotion when a sales lady approached to my right.

"Bzzzz bzzzz bzzz," she said to me. I turned toward her, cupping my hand over my good ear so I could hear. "That is for dry skin," she informed me.

"Thanks," I smiled, and turned my attention to another product.

"Bzzzz bzzz," I heard again, so I cupped my hand over my ear and turned to face her. She looked puzzled, but repeated "that is for oily skin."

"Thanks," I replied, and turned away.

Then again: "bzzz, bzzz." Again I turned toward her. This time she motioned me to the back corner of the store. She picked up a box, and as I cupped my hand over my ear again, she explained, "This product is for, how you say," and she pointed at the label.

"Wise Woman," proclaimed the label, and underneath, in smaller type, "for mature skin."

"Yes," the saleslady said into my left ear, "this will tighten, firm, the skin."

She smiled.

What? No really, What?

I'm deaf, I wanted to tell her, not old. In the doctor's office, they had said "you're still young, these steroids will probably work." But here, out in the world, where it matters, the saleslady had just said "You're deaf, therefore you're old."

As I stared at her, my life sorta flashed before my eyes. I saw myself sliding down that slippery slope toward pureed food through a straw and Depends. All before I hit forty. I grasped at an imaginary walker, trying to get my balance, as I took all this in.

Then, Dear Reader, I fled the store. I went straight back to my hotel room and checked myself out in that magnifying mirror hotels seem to think you need in your bathroom.

Maybe my face could use some firming, some tightening. I don't know. It could definitely use some lotion, that's for sure, but I won't be showing my saggy ole face in the Body Shop again. I'll have to buy my lotion elsewhere.

And I really have to stop cupping my hand over my ear like that old lady in the Tweety Bird cartoons.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Shot #1

I had shot #1 this morning. They put some drops in my ear to numb it up, then stuck a tiny needle through my eardrum and stuffed my inner ear full of steroids. The doctor said it would hurt "just a bit" when he put the needle in, and he was right. It did hurt just a little bit, in the same way as setting your head on fire would likely hurt just a bit.

He tells me that if I am to have any improvement, I'll likely notice it somewhat after shot #2, which is scheduled for Monday,or shot #3, a week from today. So for now, I'll remain deaf and ring-y. Though I do notice the nausea seems to be subsiding a bit, which is nice.

I've found a coffee shop down the street from my hotel that allows free internet access if you buy a cup of coffee, so I can satisfy my two addictions at once. I'll update you all when I have something new (hopefully good) to add.

Thanks for the thoughts and prayers - it means a lot to Bart and me.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


Sorry I've been away for awhile. Here's the story:

Last Friday night, as I bent over to get Kyra out of the tub, my ear started ringing and I got quite dizzy. I put myself to bed right away, thinking I could sleep it off, and when I woke up the next day, I couldn't get out of bed without falling over. My head was spinning, my ear was screaming, and I had gone totally deaf in my right ear. Here it is Thursday night, a week later, and I've been medevaced to Hong Kong to figure out what has gone so horribly wrong. I met with a couple of hearing specialists today, and they confirmed what I already knew: I'm deaf. As in, can't hear a single sound in my right ear, other than that otherworldly ringing and buzzing known as tinnitus.

After running a few tests, they determined that the problem is likely that my inner ear was attacked by some sort of virus. The only possible cure is to inject steroids behind my ear drum, which apparently works in some cases; not all.

I will be in Hong Kong for the next two weeks while they inject steroids and run some other tests. They tell me that even if my hearing never does return, which it doesn't in at least 30% of cases, the nausea and vertigo should eventually pass - which is good, because right now I'm drugged up just to get out of bed in the morning. They hope the screeching in my ear improves, too. They hope; I pray.

This is just the slightest of updates, as I've had a full day of tests and stress and what ifs. This on top of the last week of utter and complete illness. And I've left poor Bart behind to manage all three of the kids in Beijing - along with managing his own rather stressful job. I will not have regular access to a computer over the next few days, but I promise to look for an internet cafe as soon as I feel well enough to brave the noisy streets outside.

Please think good thoughts for me, would you? But think them into my Left Ear, otherwise they'll pass me right by.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Another Article

Two articles this week, hurrah. You can find the new one, from, here.

Our shipment is arriving today, so the day will be full of boxes and dust and movers and "why the heck did we decide to pack this?" The kids are thrilled at the prospect of being reunited with all of their stuff. Shay begged (unsuccessfully) to take the day off and "help."

I'll admit, I'm a little excited myself to get our house back.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Moon Festival

Today is the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival here in China. I wrote a kids' article about the Festival - it appeared in today's Christian Science Monitor, and you can find it here.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


We live in a large house. A large, nearly empty house.

It doesn’t much feel like home yet, because our Stuff hasn’t arrived. Sure, the house is fully furnished, with government-issued furniture, but it still feels empty. No pictures. No rugs. Few books. Only the bare essentials in terms of clothing, supplies and kitchenware. We have only what we carried in our suitcases or packed into our 500-pound air freight allotment.

So it was with great excitement that I informed Xiao Tong that our household effects would be delivered next week (well, five of the six crates, anyway). She looked around, puzzled. “You have more than this?” she asked.

I think I’m going to be embarrassed next week when Xiao Tong watches as the movers carry in box after box after box of toys and books and other non-essential goodies.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Slow Boat to China - An Update

Attentive readers might recall that we packed up our house back in Virginia last July, with the understanding that all six crates o' stuff would eventually arrive here in China. So here's the good news: we just found out that five crates have arrived and are scheduled to be delivered to our house one week from today. The bad news? Well, no one seems to know where the sixth crate is. Somehow it didn't make it with the rest of the shipment. Was it washed off the boat by a rogue wave? Was it accidentally packed into someone else's container? Is it still sitting on the dock in Baltimore? We can only hope it shows up eventually. I guess that's what transit insurance is for.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Accidental Death and Dismemberment

Now that I have your attention, why don’t I tell you about my week?

I think I mentioned that I’m working on an actual article that I’m being paid actual money to write. The subject is kids’ health crises in Beijing, so I’ve spent the last two days touring hospitals and evacuation facilities and talking to doctors about all of the things that can and do go wrong. I’ve been amazed at how willing these docs are to go on the record about the issues facing expats who need medical attention. I’ve been impressed by how many services are available to expats and diplomats here in Beijing. But it’s also a little scary to hear firsthand what isn’t available and what this means for people like me and my family.

For starters, I’m going to try really hard not to get stabbed in the heart while in Beijing. Apparently that’s a tricky one. I’ll also want to avoid brain surgery of any kind. And then there are the day-to-day worries like rabid puppies, ayis who think baby will enjoy a swim in the washing machine, fireworks-wielding kiddies and lack of sleep amongst long-haul bus drivers.

And if I do happen to have an emergency, I’ll have to hope and pray that a bystander knows CPR, or I’m a goner by the time the ambulance arrives.

Seriously. It’s a scary world out there. But I have to say, there are some amazing doctors working here, and they can do an awful lot to save your life - if you can get to them in time.

Unfortunately, they can’t write the article for me. I have about 40 pages of notes to transcribe as I start outlining this article of mine. Let’s hope there’s a doc here in Beijing who specializes in carpal tunnel…

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Great Wall, Little People

We’ve been here a month and a half (is that really all?), and so it was time to go see the Great Wall at last. Yesterday we hired a van to take us to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, about an hour away from home. We went with our friends the Davises and their twin two-year-olds.

The van arrived on time, and we started loading car seats in, only to discover (grandparents, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph) that the van had no seat belts. Still, we buckled the small ones into their car seats and tossed ‘em in – there was no turning back at this point, as we were all determined to get to that wall. The ride wasn’t bad: the roads were fine, and the driver wasn’t crazy. He did have a fondness for his horn, which he used at every bend and crosswalk, warning all within honking range that he had no intention of slowing for anyone foolish enough to challenge his ownership of the road. There were a couple of close calls when we played chicken with an oncoming car, but it was mostly okay.

We made it safely, and the driver walked us to the ticket counter, where Bart and Drew bought tickets for the cable car. We thought. But when we went through the turnstile, we discovered that we had been routed onto the ski lifts: open benches that you sit on for the ride to the top. Jen and I mutinied. No seatbelts is one thing. Taking small children onto a metal bench that flies through the air thirty feet above the ground is quite another, and all of you mamas out there know exactly what was going through our heads.

Jen: But I saw a cable car on the way up.

Me: Me, too. It had closed sides. That’s what we need.

Bart and Drew to workers, in English: Cable car?

Worker gestures towards flying bench. Bart and Drew shrug and look resigned.

Jen and Donna together: Ask them about the cable car. How do you say cable car? Tell them we need an enclosed car. How do you say cable car? We can’t go on this. We saw a cable car. How do you say cable car? Maybe just say car. How do you say car?

Bart and Drew to workers, in English: Cable car?

Davis twins: Bagel car! Bagel car!

Donna: There is no way we can take the kids on that thing. There has to be a cable car.

Jen: What good are you guys to us if you can’t say cable car in Chinese?

Bart and Drew look visibly frustrated - clearly they are thinking of pushing their own wives off of the flying bench.

Jen: How do you say “car?”

Donna: It was red. How do you say “red car?”

Jen: How do you say “enclosed?” Say “enclosed red car.”

Twins: Bagel car! Bagel car!

Bart and Drew: (insert something Chinese-y here, likely a curse word)

Back out through the turnstile we go, Drew and Bart plotting something evil while Jen and I complain about how obvious it is that our husbands were not studying enough during their ten months of Chinese if they can’t even come up with one simple word when called upon.

Somehow, though, the husbands managed to get our money refunded and we were pointed further up the hill, to where there was, indeed, a red, enclosed cable car.

We took the car up (throughout the 5 minute journey, Aidan kept muttering nervously “I don’t like this mountain…. I don’t like this mountain…”) and there it was – the Great Wall of China. It’s just a wall, you know – a long, long, winding wall curling across the surrounding peaks into the middle distance. But it’s an odd sensation to stand in the middle of a postcard. I mean, there WE were, and there IT was. I had the same sensation standing in Red Square for the first time, or at the base of Mt. Ararat. Am I really here?

All five of the kids took off. Even Kyra insisted on walking the length herself, and she became quite angry when we picked her up to maneuver the steps and steep parts. The kids peered out of the holes and tried to figure out if there were any bad guys still out there. All of the other tourists stopped to admire the kids – Aidan’s curls were a big hit as usual, and Jen and Drew’s twins were as popular as the mustached lady at the circus. Everyone stopped and stared. At one point, Aidan got a bit too far ahead, and as I ran to catch him, a Chinese guy grabbed his arm and wouldn’t let go. He wanted to take a picture. I caught up to find a terrified Aidan trying to wriggle free. I grabbed Aidan’s other arm and let the guy take a quick picture before saying “zaijian” and taking off. I never know quite how to handle those situations. In the States, we tell the kids that if a stranger touches them, they should kick and scream and bite and do everything they can to get away. Here, people don’t mean any harm when they touch and smile and try to get a picture, but it’s unnerving for a kid who has been lectured about stranger danger. And while I don’t want my kids sinking their teeth into the locals, I also want them to feel empowered to decide who touches them and when. That’ll be an issue we’ll struggle with throughout our tour.

Anyway, the kids all loved the Wall, and they even survived the gauntlet of vendors on the way back down to the van. Vendors all block your path, saying “lady, lady, I give you deal.” They try to put something in your hands – or worse, in the kids’ hands – so you’ll have to stop. I lectured the kids about not touching anything, and then we told them they could each choose one souvenir. Aidan easily settled on a stuffed panda doll. Shay, as usual, had more difficulty choosing, but finally settled on a gold dragon statue.

We had almost made it safely back to the van when Aidan started screaming “He bit me! A bee bit me!” We stopped to check, and sure enough, he’d been stung near his eye. Drew, who was clearly an Eagle Scout in a previous life, somehow procured some ice in a baggie, which seemed to sooth Aidan. We continued down the path, trying maneuver past vendors, when I realized Aidan had fallen behind yet again. I stopped to look up the hill and saw him taking a little toy horn from one of the vendors and putting it in his mouth. This in a country with rampant TB and hepatitis. I hollered for Bart and yelled at Aidan to Put The Toy Down. We grabbed him and wiped out his mouth with baby wipes – not the tastiest thing, but who knows where that toy horn had been?

Finally, finally, we made it back to the van. We returned home and collapsed on the couch for a celebratory pizza and movie. All in all, I’d have to say that the kids were all remarkably well behaved throughout the day. And this morning, Aidan asked if we could go back and ride in the big red car again. No whining, no complaining, no accidents bigger than a bee sting and no lost kids – another successful family outing.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Latest From Here

Well, it’s been a little bit crazy around here, what with temper tantrums and diaper changes and endless pleas to watch yet another Scooby Doo video. The weather is starting to turn: it rained yesterday, and today it is cloudy and cold. This would be a welcome change, except for the fact that we still haven’t gotten our household effects. They are currently floating around somewhere out there on a freighter in the middle of the ocean. Bart’s boss packed out on the same day as us, from the same place in Virginia, and his stuff arrived in country 2 weeks ago. Of course, he hasn’t gotten it yet, as it takes awhile to clear customs. Our things haven’t even arrived in customs yet. Hopefully they didn’t fall off the boat. Pretty soon I’m going to have to dig up a few yuan and go in search of fall clothes, or my kids will freeze.

I did not get the job for which I interviewed a few weeks back. I was kind of surprised, kind of disappointed, kind of relieved. But – this week I met with the editor of an English-language parenting publication here, and I got a story assignment from them. So I’ll be listed as a contributing writer in their November edition. Assuming I don’t blow the story, and further assuming my foray into journalism doesn’t anger the Chinese, it could turn into something sorta steady.

In between researching and writing this story that is due in about a week, I’m still trying to learn some Chinese. Let me tell you, it is one crazy language. But I can now, at least theoretically, order food in a restaurant, ask how much something costs, or inquire as to the health of your elder brother. I say theoretically, of course - just because you know a few words doesn’t mean you can communicate. I can tell a waitress “I’d like some mineral water,” but let’s just hope she doesn’t respond with “we’re out of water today, can I get you some juice instead?” And I can say “How much does that postcard cost?” but to actually understand when they reply “23 qwai, 5 jiao and a fen…” well, that’s another story. Still, it feels good to have a few words so I can at least try to talk to the people around me.

I know this is a brief update. But let’s face it – you people aren’t paying me to write, so I’d better get to work on that article right now. So with that, I’m off to schedule some interviews.


Sunday, September 9, 2007

Happy Birthday Aidan

Aidan is turning four this year, and so we decided it was finally time for him to have a party with all of his friends. We made cupcakes and ordered pizza. We had 50 balloons delivered - if only I'd had my camera out when the delivery lady came riding up on her bicycle, holding all 50 balloons aloft! We couldn't find any decent party plates, so we bought plain white plates and the boys and I put Spider-Man stickers all over them. We had little Lego sets for party favors for our ten guests. And the best part of all - we rented a gigantic Spider-Man bouncy castle and had it set up in the driveway. All this for less than the cost of a Chuckie Cheese party back home.

Friday, September 7, 2007

It’s Just Like Riding a Bike…

You’ve probably heard the expression “It’s just like riding a bike.” It means that something is easy – if you’ve done it before, you’ll remember how and be able to do it again. I’ve used the expression myself many times in the past.

Here in Beijing, the locals all use bikes to get around. So I bought one, too. I haven’t ridden one since I was eight, but hey, it’s just like riding a bike, right? I’m sure I’ll remember how. I equipped my shiny new red bike with a basket, a baby seat and a bike lock – important accessories all. And off I went to explore.

It felt a bit awkward at first, but I am getting the hang of it. I can speed by the locals, most of whom meander along at a pace that indicates they either have nowhere to go or no shower available when they get there, and thus don’t want to break a sweat. I can brake at the last second when approaching a speed bump, without fear of skidding down the road on my side. I’ve managed when necessary to answer my cell phone while pedaling. I’ve even mastered the all-important hop-off-the-bike-while-it’s-still-moving maneuver, the one that saves me literally tens of seconds when I’m approaching my destination. Believe me, I am a busy woman, with loads of important places to go, and no time to walk my bike to the front door.

The only move I can’t seem to master is the one where you approach a speed bump (which are everywhere in our neighborhood), and instead of bouncing over it, you veer around the very edge, where there is a gap between bump and sidewalk. I console myself with the idea that my constant slowing and starting to get over the bumps is doing wonders for my thigh muscles, but really, I’m embarrassed by my fear of that tiny gap. It seems so small and my wheel seems so wide. I see mopeds, weighed down by two or three people and few grocery bags, and they can get through. Motorcycles turn in at the last second and they don’t topple. But unless the gap is particularly wide, I never even try. Or I’ll try: I’ll steel myself and aim directly for the gap, nice and slow, but at the last moment I’ll actually veer away, back to the safety of the wide, butt-bruising bump.

Other than my irrational fear of the gap, I’m actually getting quite cocky. It is just like riding a bike. I can do it. I remember this skill, attained and then abandoned all those years ago.

Last weekend, I was riding around the neighborhood, delivering Aidan’s birthday party invites to a few of the neighbors. I did my rolling-jump-off stop at one house, tossed an invite in the mailbox, and hopped back in the saddle, all in one graceful move. I headed for the next stop, just on the other side of the playground, feeling quite accomplished and athletic, and that’s when it happened.

I had to make a 90 degree turn onto the small path into the playground. The path was bumpy, but with nary a speed bump in sight. “I can do this,” I thought to myself, and prepared to make the turn without slowing. The bike wobbled, I chickened out, and I made just a 45 degree turn instead of the required 90 degrees. The tree directly in front of me was bigger than a speed bump. Much bigger, I thought, mere moments before I rammed right into it.


Not a problem, though. I didn’t fall – just got a faceful of branches. But here’s the really pathetic part. I actually tried, for the sake of the guards and the cameras that are on every corner here, to Pretend It Didn’t Happen. That’s right, I ran off of a road and into a tree, but instead of stopping, cursing, and checking for injuries, I tried to pretend like it was just another rolling hop off your bike stop. You know, like I just wanted to check out the local foliage.

So now I know that when the guards go out together drinking, they all choke with laughter when one of them begs, for the fourteenth time, “no, no, now tell the story about that crazy American lady who tried to pretend she could ride a bike and ran into that cypress.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

It’s Been Awhile

This will not be the in-depth update you’ve all been hoping for. I apologize – I know I’ve dropped off the radar over the past week. Our friends Jen and Drew arrived last week, and so I was busy, first with getting their house ready, and then with hanging out and showing Jen the sites. I know, I know, taking a friend for a massage should not qualify as a hardship. But I blame her – I haven’t had time to write. Also, I’ve been a bit ill. I caught a cold from Shay and Kyra, so now I’m coughing and wheezing – great fun biking in Beijing’s nasty air when you have a head cold. And then there’s Chinese class. That’s right, I started my Chinese class on Tuesday. I can already see that it’s going to kill me. I mean, why would it be necessary, in a language that consists of literally thousands of characters, to come up with just one word that could mean “Horse,” “Mother,” “Hemp” and “Scold?” Among other things. Anyway, after just one day, I am proud to report that I can now say “I am Kyra’s mother.” Or her horse. Whatever. Either way I’ll get kicked if I don’t trot fast enough.

For those of you who have been writing me, demanding to know where I’ve gone with my witticisms and my brilliant commentary on life in Beijing, I can only say – I’ll be back soon, I promise.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Blue Zoo Beijing

This weekend we took the kids to the Blue Zoo, an aquarium here in town. The pictures aren't particularly impressive - I don't think our camera was up to the task of taking photos in a dark, underground, surrounded-by-glass kind of place, but at least the grandparents will enjoy them.

The first stop was the shark tank, where you could get up close and personal with the beasts. The glass enclosure isn't very high, and while Shay was posing for a photo, one of the sharks bumped the top edge of the glass, splashing water all over us and scaring the little ones. The sea turtles weren't as scary, but they were equally close to us.

Next we stepped on a moving sidewalk and entered a glass tunnel that took us under the aquarium. This was a huge hit, as we were surrounded by eels, stingrays, sharks and all sorts of sea creatures. Even Kyra got into it. And if you've never looked up and gazed upon the butt of a sea turtle directly overhead, well, you don't know what you're missing.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Four Weeks Gone By

Four weeks ago we arrived in Beijing, which means only 152 weeks to go, but who’s counting?

Slowly, slowly, we’re settling in. Shay hates school. Hates it. The teachers are too mean, the work is too hard, the days are too long, the friends are too few. We’re hoping once he finds a good friend in his class, some of these objections will fly out the window. The elementary school counselors, who hold monthly meetings to educate parents, inform us that it takes 6-12 weeks before the average kid begins to feel at home here. So I suppose this is normal.

Aidan, meanwhile, desperately wants to go to school. This morning there were even more kids than usual at the bus stops, as the rest of the schools started this week, including the pre-schools. So he saw several of his friends in their school uniforms. Not good. But I explained to him that A.) he’ll have to rob a bank to pay for private school here, and B.) those kids in the cool uniforms? Not gonna watch Scooby Doo in the morning. That seemed to appease him somewhat.

Kyra has learned her first Chinese word. She wanders through the house muttering “shi shi, shi shi,” which means “thank you, thank you.” It’s unclear if she knows what it means, but hey, the kid’s got manners. Just don’t ask her to share her cookies.

Bart’s attitude is similar to Shay’s. Not about the teachers or friends. But if you ask him, he’ll tell you that the days are too long and the work is too hard. The difference between the two of them is that, no matter how frustrated Bart gets with his day, he rarely calls me a “stupidhead” when I tell him to go to bed.

And me? Well, I have my ayi, which feels quite luxurious. I’m working on a few story ideas, and I’m eager to make them work. I have a job interview at the Embassy this week for a job that I’d really be quite good at, but which I’m not sure I want (Because, as you might have guessed, the days would be too long and the work would be too hard. We’re a whiny family). So I keep hoping to sell something, anything, before they make a decision about whom to hire. Maybe then I can talk myself out of taking it and focus on being a “real” writer.

But for now, well, the day really has been too long, and so I’m off to bed.

Good night.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

International House of Pancakes

We've been here for three and a half weeks now, and I finally got it together to re-start our weekend chocolate chip pancake breakfast tradition. I used Chinese eggs and yogurt, milk and butter from New Zealand, a chocolate bar from Europe and wheat flour from my air freight shipment.

For the first time in three and a half weeks, the kids were totally satisfied with their international meal. Even Casey the dog got back into the routine, barking at the pan as the pancakes sizzled.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Introducing Xiao Tong

Because every good story needs an interesting cast of characters, and I’m getting bored of myself already, I thought now would be a good time to bring someone new into this story.
After two weeks of battling Beijing dust on the floors, I gave up. After two weeks of dragging the kids to the store on their various bikes, scooters and strollers, I gave up. After just two weeks in Beijing, I decided to hire an ayi.

The first woman I interviewed spoke no English at all (a neighbor helped translate), and shook with fear throughout the interview. She couldn’t even smile at the kids. The second lady complained, also through a translator, about the workload (“three kids! A dog! She better not expect me to cook, too!”). The third woman walked in, picked Kyra up with a smile and greeted Aidan in English. A regular Chinese Mary Poppins. So, dear reader, I hired her.

Her name is Xiao Tong. She’s in her early thirties, with a five-year old boy of her own. She’s been here all week, full time, cleaning and ironing half of the day and entertaining the kids the other half so I can spend my mornings writing and my afternoons playing with the kids, instead of yelling at them for the sixteenth time to PICK UP YOUR OWN TOYS OR I’M TAKING THEM AWAY SO HELP ME GOD!

So far, it’s been a big success. I’ve sold another article to the Christian Science Monitor this week, and my husband hasn’t once asked me if it might be possible, please, that there is some clean laundry somewhere in the house that he might be able to wear to work tomorrow. It’s all right there in his dresser already. Doing the laundry, as he’ll readily tell you, has never been one of my talents.

The only problem I can foresee at this early stage of the relationship is that her English is rather good. And that’s a big problem, because I really need her to talk to the kids in Chinese only. I told her that was a major condition of her employment, but she doesn’t seem to get it, because she’s still going back and forth between English and Chinese. So we’ll see. I’ll give her a week or so to settle in, and hopefully she’ll start to feel more comfortable speaking to them in Chinese despite the fact that I can’t understand. Because while a rotating cast of characters makes for an interesting story, a rotating cast of ayis does not make for a happy house.
Please. Write your own stuff.