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.
Please. Write your own stuff.