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.

Please. Write your own stuff.