Monday, June 30, 2008

Like Winter, Only Hot and Humid

It’s the gloomiest day of a very gloomy month. The air is so thick you can practically part it with your hands. It’s grey and smelly and smoky and foggy all at once. It looks like a sunless winter day – but go outside and it’s hot and humid. Go inside, and you develop an urge to make soup and cookies – wintertime food. Go outside, and you want some ice water. Or maybe you just want to go back in again. I can’t stress it enough: it’s NASTY outside.

I’m told this is because all the factories in town are cranking full-blast, trying to reach their quotas before closing up shop in the countdown to the Olympics. If so, it should be better by tomorrow – the deadline for shutdown. Of course, I’m also told the Chinese are seeding the clouds, and that’s why there’s so much rain. But I’m kind of a skeptic: I mean, if it were possible to seed clouds with such reliability, why would there still be droughts? The other night there was a particularly violent thunderstorm perched directly overhead for several hours, and I was told by some rather educated folk that the Chinese had created that storm on purpose. To which I say: hmmm, well, I guess I didn’t actually say anything. But I’m not such a good conspiracy theorist.

Today, after swim camp, I took the boys out to lunch. This was to serve a dual purpose, as I needed to write up a restaurant review for a local magazine. On the way there, I saw several dogs sitting in an intersection. I only noticed them because the local dogs usually aren’t dumb enough to hang in the streets – they cross quickly and move to the side. But these dogs seemed to be waiting for something. Plus, they were bigger than the usual football-sized Beijing dogs.

We passed them on the way to the restaurant, only to find it was closed. So we headed back onto the foggy highway toward the dogs. This time, one of them – a large, black dog – was lying in the middle of the road. Dead, presumably. Another golden dog was standing over it, trying to get it to wake up. She was tugging at its ears and its head, trying to drag it out of the road. But the dog was too big and too dead to budge.

I’ve never seen a dog do that before, and the whole scene seemed so tragic, there in the fog. I wanted to do something, to pull over and help her get the dog out of the road, perhaps, before she got hit by another car. But really, what good would it do to have me standing in the middle of a fog-choked highway, grieving a strange dog? Besides, the boys were in back, and they hadn’t noticed the scene.

So I kept going. The last thing I saw in my rear view mirror was the golden dog pulling the black dog’s head in her teeth, pulling with all her strength, until her teeth gave way and the black dog’s head thumped back down on the pavement.

Really, all in all, a gloomy, gloomy day.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

It Should Be Easy, But…

Have I ever bragged about my culinary skills? Well, listen up. I can bake bread from scratch: honey-whole wheat, white, oatmeal… I can even turn it into fancy dinner rolls. I make this awesome whole wheat pumpkin bread. I make my own pita bread. Cream puffs? No problem. Hand-rolled fresh gnocchi and pasta are specialties. I even make cinnamon rolls, cream cheese coffee cake, and Georgian stuffed cheese bread, a little delicacy I learned to make while in Armenia. [Here my husband will be reading with longing, and will likely want me to add: I CAN make all of these things, but I haven’t made any of them recently, thanks to the multitude of beasts running around underfoot. Yes, dear – we’ll likely be having take-out again tonight. But my point is, I COULD make you something fabulously delicious if I felt like it. Okay, back to my story.]

In short, give me a bucket of flour and I can turn it into something tasty. But I only just discovered that there is one thing too complex for me to make, something only a serious home chef should attempt. Something really best left to the experts.


Seriously, people, how hard can it be? It’s just flour, water, salt, oil, and maybe a bit of cream of tartar, whatever that is. There are maybe a half million recipes on the internet, usually prefaced by words like “easy” or “quick.” So when I discovered that the kids had used up our entire stash of store-bought dough, I thought it would be a quick and easy little project we could do together. You know, as a family. A happy family. A happy crafty family. A happy crafty family with loads of cool-colored dough-y dinosaurs on our kitchen table.

Well, we do have loads of cool-colored dough on our dining room table. Quite possibly forever. And it was a project we did together as a family. But what happened? Did we not cook it enough? Did we cook it too long? Did the fact that we couldn’t find any cream of tartar doom our family to a lifetime of hard purple flour-y bits glued to our table? Because the dough never really turned into dough. It stayed sticky and icky and gross, which meant the kids had a great time smearing it all over the kitchen table, despite the fact that it couldn’t be turned into an actual dinosaur.

All I know is, I can’t make playdough. Not quickly and easily, anyway.

Still, I am determined to learn. After all, the first time I attempted pizza dough, it too was a failure. So I kept trying until I could finally make a decent crust – not one to rival my Uncle Joe’s, but, you know, not bad. I figure I have a year or so before I hit American soil and buy more jumbo bins of premade playdough from the neighborhood Target (ahhh, Target… you people don’t realize how good you have it, with a Target just down the street). So I’m going to master this playdough thing. Can any of you send me your quick and easy recipes? Can anyone tell me what I can substitute for cream of tartar? Or can someone please convince me to just make a pizza instead? At least you can eat that when you’re finished, instead of scraping it into the trashcan.

And while we’re on the subject, let me just mention one more dirty little secret: I have absolutely no idea how to make jello. But I hear that’s quick and easy, too.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ayi and Me

Yesterday Xiao Tong came to work and was alarmed to find that my voice was almost gone. So she dug through the fridge and came up with an Asian pear. She boiled it in water, then added a few pieces of crystal sugar – it’s like rock candy, I guess – you know those big chunks of sugar?

After it cooled, she strained the pears out and had me drink it. And do you know, it seemed to help. I guess it’s a Chinese version of our hot water with lemon and honey. Anyway – it helped enough that I’m on the road to recovery, as is Ainsley – though she didn’t have the pear juice.

Here are some recent pix of the kids. The three oldest just got haircuts (Kyra's first!), and Ainsley just started smiling, though I couldn't manage to catch it in an actual photo.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Treading Water

When it rains, it pours. Literally and figuratively.

Apparently, here in Beijing in the summertime, we are destined to have thunderstorms most every evening. Many of these are serious, get-away-from-the-windows type storms. We had several scary ones in the past week.

Trouble is, they don't seem to clear up the air. It's hot and humid and the sky is mostly grey-brown. The humidity, one friend from Texas reports, is "worse than Texas in the summertime." Yikes.

Breathing in all this nasty air was making me feel sick, with scratchy throat and itchy eyes.

Then, I actually got sick. Which is really not acceptable for a nursing mom. I mean, how much more can I push myself? But it's true. I have the whole sore throat, cough, stuffed nose, miserable outlook on life thing going on. To make things worse, Ainsley has the same thing. She's actually getting better faster than I, but she still has more trouble than usual sleeping at night. Which means I don't sleep, either. Really, no fun at all.

And, as I said, when it rains, it pours. So I've just been contacted by two editors who've read my stuff and want me to write some Beijing things for them. Great news, I said. I'll do it, I said. Cough, hack, wheeze, I said. And by the way, I asked, when are these stories due?

And that is how I found myself with 2 short articles due next week and 2 or 3 more due several weeks down the line.

And yet, here I am, writing to the likes of you. I am a devoted friend, that's for sure. Either that or I'm procrastinating.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have another diaper to change.

Life is good.

Friday, June 20, 2008

One Down, Lots to Go

It’s Friday night and all of the kids are currently, miraculously, asleep. Which means: I’ve officially made it through the first week of summer vacation. And it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I just had to keep them all massively busy and ignore the writing deadlines and other important things looming just ahead.

We spent lots of time at the pool, had a couple of play dates, had a few swim lessons and skating lessons, watched a few movies, started a book club (Shay is actually earning money to read books to his brother and sister – it’s a win-win, in my humble opinion), baked some bread, ordered some pizzas… anything we could do to while away the days.

It’s hot and humid and horrid here. The air has been so polluted these past few days that it feels like my eyes are stuffed with sandpaper, and the kids are all coughing. Really, really gross. Let’s hope they clean it up before the Olympics arrive.

There’s lots more to say, but as I told you, all of my kids are asleep. I think I’ll go join them. Good night to all of you – except, of course, to Carolyn and Brian, whose beautiful new baby daughter Julia is no doubt keeping them awake. I’ll be thinking of them when I get up for Ainsley’s nighttime feeding on the other side of the globe…

Thursday, June 19, 2008

It Was Supposed to be Funny, People

I love writing for publication. I especially love getting those meager checks in the mail. It makes me feel like a real (albeit poor) writer. The main problem with writing for publication, as I see it, is that you can’t control who reads what you write. And there are many, many people out there who were never taught to read critically in school. Oh, they can read “critically:” they complain about how ignorant the author is, or they insult people who comment in public forums. But they can’t read critically – they can’t read for irony, or subtext, or metaphor or any of those other things that writers might employ.

Don’t believe me? Go onto any decent website – Newsweek, or Slate, or whatever – and pick an article that makes you think “yes, okay, that seems to make sense,” and then click on comments. There are usually a few people who make some smart observations, followed by a few people insulting those people for their observations, followed by others calling them on it, at which point the insulters call the others names, and then someone jumps in to point out that none of this would be a problem if only women would stay home where they belong, or if only the government weren’t run by communist sissies, or if California wouldn’t let gay people marry, or something else to that effect – doesn’t matter what they spew, as it’ll have nothing to do with the actual article. I actually saw one site recently where a woman who signed herself “Rose” left a comment, whereupon some other clown responded “Rose actually means A**HOLE in some languages.”

Where does all that anger and idiocy come from, really?

I bring this up because someone left a comment on the Post’s website after my most recent article that indicated he (she?) completely did not understand what I was trying to write. He claims to be “overwhelmed by [my] pompous and insensitive attitude.” He goes on to state that in a city where so many single moms struggle to raise their kids alone, I shouldn’t complain about my dad.

Okay, so that’s the only reason I’m bringing this up. In case anyone out there is wondering, I WASN’T complaining about my dad. I started out by saying “I had the worst kind of dad,” but here’s the thing: I was actually hoping that as you read on, you’d realize that I had the BEST kind of dad - the kind who would stop whatever he was doing and spend hours with me at the table. At the time, I would have been happy with a dismissive dad, with one who just gave me a quick answer and then ignored me, but even then, when I was stuck at the table doing homework for hours, I knew I was lucky to have a dad who cared enough to drop what he was doing, whenever I asked.

My dad spent hours building teensy tinsy furniture for my dollhouse. My dad once bought a bright orange windbreaker with a gift card he got, not because it was what he wanted, but because then there would be enough money left on the gift card to buy us a football, too. That’s the kind of dad I had.

Growing up I had the best kind of dad, okay? But I was trying to be funny. Perhaps the title they gave the article obscured this fact, or perhaps I’m really not as funny as I like to think I am.

Anyway, normally I just laugh at commenters and move right along, but maybe my dad is sitting at home right now, depressed, thinking to himself “How could she say that I was the worst dad? I thought I did okay.” (Hey, he could be thinking that – engineers aren’t known for their sense of humor. Darn. There I go trying to be funny again.) So just in case someone else out there didn’t get the article: it was supposed to be funny! This particular reader just didn’t get it, and perhaps there are others out there also shaking their heads in confusion. So now you know.

One other about thing this guy: he wrote that I described my husband as “part action-hero, part literary genius.” Okay, so that part is actually true. What can I say? I married well.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Father's Day Article

It isn't often that I get a chance to poke fun at both my dad and my husband in one article. But here it is, for your reading pleasure (if not theirs).

Happy Father's Day to them, and to my father-in-law as well - spectacular fathers all...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Kyra's Big Birthday

That's right. It was two long years ago when we set out for the hospital in Virginia, eager to meet our newest (and, we supposed at the time, our last) little baby. "Time flies," people tell you when you first have a baby, as if those two simple words can somehow convey the breathtaking speed with which that helpless ferret-like little creature becomes a walking, talking human.

But somehow, it happened again. I turned around, and my baby turned two.

We celebrated with a chocolate cake with pink frosting. She got lots of presents, but her favorite by far seemed to be the dolly that will actually pee when you feed it a bottle of water - as if there isn't already enough pee flowing freely in this house. Between potty training Kyra, changing Ainsley, calming the dog down during thunderstorms and trying to convince the boys that aiming for the toilet is something to which they should aspire, we've got urine aplenty here in Beijing. But none until now from an actual doll. The doll has also taken a place of honor in Ainsley's bouncy seat, which makes it difficult to put Ainsley down.

Today was Father's Day, so we celebrated by taking daddy out to lunch, then sending him for a massage, then making his favorite dinner and brownies for dessert. Am I a fabulous wife or what?

Tonight Shay has his final sleepover with Alex and Luke - they're leaving to spend the summer in NYC - sadly, they're taking their mom with them, and she's one of my favorite people in Beijing. I wouldn't have survived the past month without her. To make matters worse, their friend Oscar is moving back to Sweden tomorrow. It's going to be a long, lonely summer. But such is our life in the Foreign Service. Lots of goodbyes to lots of good friends.

Tomorrow is the official first day of summer vacation. Wish me luck...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Home, Sick - An Article

Two blog posts in one day! What can I say? I have an article due on Monday, and I'm struggling with how to string it together, so I'm procrastinating a bit. That said - here is another article for you.

I should stay up late and work on my upcoming article, but I'm deadtired. That, and I'm being stalked by a very persistent mosquito. So I think I'll crawl into bed, pull the mosquito netting tightly around me, and hope that my subconscious takes over in the night and writes this darn article already...

The Potty Dance

Some day, my daughter will surely hate me for posting her potty habits on a public forum that’s read in such far-flung places as Havana, Yerevan and Sammamish, but I have to say it anyway: My Little Girl is Potty Trained! That’s right, just one week shy of her 2nd birthday, she whipped off the diaper and decided it was time to be a big girl. After a successful trip to the potty, we celebrated by dancing around the living room and eating a chocolate chip. She asked for another chip, and I explained that she’d have to produce on the potty first. So she did it again, and once again we danced and ate a chip. When she did it again: a dance and a chip. And so on, until her little eyes lit up with the realization: You mean every time I do something in the potty, I get a chocolate chip?

And just like that, she was potty-able. The only problem is, after the 200th consecutive time of doing the potty dance around the living room, it gets kind of hard to feign excitement over what is, really, just a bucket of pee. I’m trying to hold up my end of the bargain, though, and we’re dancing up a storm. Meanwhile, she’s been dry for days. Which is especially fabulous news considering the cost of diapers in Beijing.

So there you have it. My daughter is brilliant. Next up: medical school.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Travelling with Kids - An Article

Here's my latest, on how to travel with kids. I won't be doing any travelling with kids any time soon. Me, on a plane for 13 hours, with 4 kids? Are you joking?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Aidan's Preschool Graduation

This morning Aidan had his preschool graduation ceremony. It was quite the cute little production, though it felt a little bit sad, too. Can he really be big enough for kindergarten in the fall? He's not quite five yet, so he'll be one of the youngest in his class. I don't remember Shay seeming quite that little when he boarded the kindergarten bus for the first time, but perhaps he really was.

I was also a little sad because the director of the school just informed us parents last week that the school will be closing after the summer session. Apparently, the Hong Kong-based owners decided not to renew the lease on the school. So all of the teachers just found out they're unemployed, which must be a huge blow to the locally employed staff. It's such a nice little school, too, and not as obscenely overpriced as the others here in town.

Aidan still has four more days of school next week (Monday's a holiday). So technically, I suppose he could still flunk out.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Picture is Worth 134 Words... Well, It Would Have Been, Anyway

Ainsley is 4 weeks old today. How’d that happen so fast? She went to the Embassy yesterday for her medical check-up, and it turns out she already weighs 10 pounds 5 ounces. I guess it’s time for me to stop whining about how busy I am with a newborn and actually get back to the business of living my life.

This morning I drove Aidan to school. As I was leaving, I saw a little old man pedaling his three-wheeled bike down the road. The back of the bike was stacked high and covered with a tarp. Tied to the top of the tarp was a huge empty water jug. And perched precariously atop the jug sat… a tiny dog.

Sometimes words just don’t do this place justice. If only I’d had a camera…

Thank Goodness for Grandma

When my mom was here, she spent a few days cooking and freezing dinners for us.

As it turns out, our dinner menus since she left town have gone something like this:

Day 1: What Nana made
Day 2: order pizza
Day 3: What Nana made
Day 4: order Mexican
Day 5: What Nana made

... you get the idea.

Unfortunately, supplies are dwindling. Soon I'll have to start cooking again. Or just go ahead and order more pizza.

Monday, June 2, 2008


If I ever write a book (you know, in all my spare time), I think I'm going to call it "Some Day, This Will All Seem Funny."

Because that's pretty much how I start every thought these days.

But mostly, it isn't very funny yet.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Meiyou Pretzels

Chinese class has started up again in the past few weeks. It's harder than last time, mostly because I bring Ainsley with me and hold her throughout. The other students are all moms, so sometimes they hold her while I scribble notes.

I know lots of words and phrases now, but my pronunciation is apparently terrible. The other day, for example, I told Aidan's teacher I was going to Chinese class (hanyu ke). She looked at me, puzzled, and I repeated myself. Then I said it in English: "ummm.... Chinese class? Hanyu ke?" Her eyes lit up. "Oh, hanyu KE," she repeated. Apparently my tones were just enough off that she thought I was saying something entirely different. Kind of depressing, to attend class for months, only to realize you can't even be understood when you say "Chinese class."

When my mom was visiting, I got to practice my speaking more than usual. I believe she was blown away by my skills. We’d be at a restaurant together, and I’d order in Chinese. So then she’d say something like “ask them if they can roast the vegetables, not fry them. And what kind of dressing do they serve? Also, do you think they could tell you how they prepare this dish?” I’d stare at her, dumbfounded, and reply “you do realize I used every single Chinese word I know just to order, don’t you?”

It is, however, kind of cool to hear my kids speaking Chinese. Shay has Chinese class every day at school, and until recently, he’s been unwilling or unable to share what he knows. But lately, he’s started showing off the phrases he’s been learning and I’m actually impressed with his vocabulary. Aidan seems to understand quite a bit, but his trick is to use made up words in Chinese. He’ll say something to me, and I don’t know, it SOUNDS totally Chinese-y, but when I ask him what he said, he just laughs and shrugs his shoulders.

Kyra is the real expert in the family. She mixes Chinese and English, and knows quite a bit of both, considering she’s not quite two years old. She has multi-word sentences down in English (“Daddy, give me piece of gummy now,” or “I want more apple juice”). In Chinese, she says things like “mommy hui lai le” (mommy came home). My favorite phrase: “I love YOU!!!,” spoken emphatically while she’s pointing at whomever she happens to love. This morning she was eating pretzels (and no, this wasn’t for breakfast – I haven’t stooped that low yet). She ran out of pretzels, looked into the bowl and sadly said “Meiyou pretzels.” Meiyou is Chinese for “I don’t have any.” For some reason, that cracked us all up.

I imagine by the time we leave here, her Chinese will be the best of everyone’s. I’ll still be struggling to be understood, as the tones are just absolute craziness. (a few small examples: “shu” spoken one way means “book,” while another way it means “plant.” “Tang” can mean sugar, soup, hot, lying down… and those are just the meanings I know. “Ke” means “class,” so Chinese class is “hanyu ke.” But ke also means “grams.” See what I mean? How can I possibly be understood?)

Still, every so often, I have an exchange that makes me think I’m getting somewhere. Then I get cocky and try to take the conversation just one step further. I never get far. But I’m still trying.

Okay, well, I hear Ainsley crying, so I guess you could say that I “meiyou” any more time.
Please. Write your own stuff.