Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Our Month in Pictures

Trying to catch up here:

Started out the month with the Temple Fair at the school. Lots of performers and demonstrations of Chinese cooking and crafts. The big hit of the day? Cotton candy, of course.

Snow! Piles of the stuff. Okay, well maybe not piles, but still... Snow!

We checked out the Blue Zoo a couple of weekends ago. The kids love that place - it's a huge aquarium, and you step on a moving sidewalk to travel underneath it all.

Ainsley checks out the giant turtles.

(We made all sorts of jokes about how this guy probably lost his retainer when he was little. Shay wasn't amused...)

Here are some outtakes from the Secretary's visit. Kid pictures to come when we get them from the Embassy.

I don't know what I said. Must've been funny, though.

Kyra helps make her daddy's birthday cake:

Here they are, celebrating the birthday with Bart's favorite dessert: half-moon cookies:

That's it for now. Good night! See you in March! (okay, I'll try to be back sooner...)

Monday, February 23, 2009

An Article for You

This article is old, but it just went online, so I thought I'd share it now. Stumble it! Digg it! Enjoy it!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Visit is Over

Well, Secretary Clinton has come and gone. She came to Beijing as part of her first overseas visit as SecState.

I brought the boys to the Embassy to meet her (left the girls at home - I'm not crazy, after all).

I don't have any pictures of her with the boys, because they were standing with the rest of the kids in another section of the atrium, waiting for a group photo. Eventually, I'm sure I'll get a photo to post. My friend Jen was the official Embassy photographer, so there should be some good pics coming. (I never did get any pictures of Shay when former President Bush was here last year - but then Jen wasn't the photographer then, because some annoying secret service guy banned her, despite the fact that the Embassy had cleared her in advance. I haven't been able to track down any pictures at all yet.)

Anyway. My pictures are terrible. But you'll see that Clinton walked right down the line and greeted everyone along the way.

More from me later.

For now, good night.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Snowfall in Beijing

An inch or so of snow has fallen in the last 12 hours, and I’m feeling housebound. I drove Aidan to school this morning: he tried to ride his bike to the bus, but the streets were too slippery and he didn’t make it in time. So he rode back home and we all hopped in the car for a quick ride to school.


The roads were covered in ice – the little flashy-warning-light-doohickey kept turning on. I had the car in low gear and took my time: I’m from L.A., after all, so I’m not fond of driving in snow. Beijingers aren’t any more accustomed to driving in snow than I, but that didn’t stop the boneheaded ones from pulling their usual boneheaded moves – starting with the bus that pulled into the intersection in front of me without even looking.

Fortunately, I’ve been driving here long enough that I’ve developed Chinese sixth sense. I knew the bus was going to pull in front of me the moment I caught a glimpse of his bumper behind the trees, so I was already preparing to slide to a stop.

The journey continued on like this all the way to school, with bicyclists on the road, women crossing with strollers, and the like. Most people slowed a bit, but continued to violate every rule of the road as they drove.

After dropping Aidan, I circled around and jumped on the six-lane highway heading for home. Traffic on my side was moving at about 10 miles an hour. On the other side, it moved not at all, as a bus had fishtailed to a halt and rammed into a car, blocking all lanes. Lots of people stood around on the road, inspecting the damage and totally oblivious to the fact that they were now sitting ducks, there in the highway, waiting for oncoming cars to plow into them.

Finally made it home, safe and sound. A light snow continues to fall, one that my in-laws in New York would scarcely notice. But it’s going to be an icy, treacherous day out there on the roads.

When I moved here in ’07, diplomats were not required to take the Chinese driver’s test to get a license. I just had to prove I was licensed in America. But since then, they’ve changed to rules, so incoming diplomats have to take the test. And lots of them are failing.

Good grief. How hard can a driver’s test be, anyway? Why are all of these people failing it? My friend Mary recently took it for the first time, and she almost passed it. She sent me some sample questions from her practice book, just to see if I could pass it or not. Here they are, for you, reprinted verbatim.

Could you pass?

Below is a sample of ACTUAL questions that are on the CDL test. These are legitimate, and not altered in any way. This is China, people.

1. In summer, when a driver drives a vehicle he can ________.
A. wear a pair of slippers
B. not wear slippers because it is unsafe and impolite to wear them
C. wear any shoes, including slippers

2. When a driver is cleaning his vehicle he should:
A. ensure that the vehicle is clean inside and outside
B. be satisfied when the appearance of the vehicle is clean
C. keep the appearance of the vehicle clean and the surrounding environment
tidy as well

3. When a driver finds another driver's driving skill poor or operation incorrect he should:
A. not tell the other driver
B. tell the other driver in a timely manner
C. think this has nothing to do with him

4. For an open abdominal wound, such as protrusion of the small intestine tube, we should:
A. put it back
B. not treat it
C. not put it back, but cover it with a bowl or jar

5. When crossing unfamiliar bridges, how should a driver proceed?
A. He should stop to clarify the situation before crossing
B. He should blow the horn to accelerate and cross
C. He should reduce gear and cross at a lower speed

6. Driving on a road that doesn't allow enough horizontal space, a motor vehicle should:
A. decelerate to pass
B. accelerate to pass
C. keep it's same speed to pass

7. On which condition is a driver not permitted to put his elbow on the window?
A. when the vehicle is running
B. when the vehicle is running at excess speed
C. when the vehicle door is not closed firmly

8. The effect of a road attachment coefficient on the brake performance of a vehicle is:
A. the smaller the road attachment coefficient, the lower the effect
B. the bigger the road attachment coefficient, the lower the effect
C. the smaller the road attachment coefficient, the higher the effect

9. When the vehicle's gas tank is on fire, _______ can be adopted to put out the fire.
A. dousing with water
B. covering the fire with cotton-padded clothing
C. using a carbon-dioxide fire extinguisher

10. When a bicycle rider tries to grasp a moving vehicle the driver should:
A. stop quickly
B. accelerate to get away from him
C. stop smoothly

11. Passing a line of cattle-drawn carts, a driver should observe the width
of ___________the distance of oncoming vehicles. If there is enough space left, he can pass.
A. the cattle carts
B. his own vehicle
C. the road

12. As a cattle-drawn cart is making a turn, the driver should decelerate in advance, and observe and running direction of the cart, no competing for the road ahead is permitted.
A. the speed
B. the road position
C. the moving

13. An applicant who is applying for a driver's license for the first time can apply to drive a large-sized truck.
True False

14. An applicant who is applying for a driver's license for the first time can apply to drive a medium-sized passenger vehicle.
True False

15. On a road without a median (or separating central line) and motor vehicle/non-motor vehicle lane:
A. motor vehicles must keep to the left
B. motor vehicles must keep to the right
C. motor vehicles must run in the middle of the road

16. In order to avoid accidents while driving at night in summer, a driver should beware of ______ on embankments and bridges taking advantage of the cool night air.
A. other vehicles
B. pedestrians
C. various stuff

17. The guiding line for making a left turn means:
A. the boundary between the vehicles turning left and the sidewalk
B. the boundary between the vehicles turning left and the non-motor vehicles
C. the vehicle turning right should run on the route indicated by the marking line

18. The sign of blowing the horn means:
A. no blowing the horn here
B. blowing the horn here is permitted
C. a vehicle must blow horn when passing here

19. The yield sign means:
A. a vehicle must stop before the stop line and observe. When safety is ensured then it may pass
B. a vehicle must stop and give way to other vehicles
C. a vehicle must stop and give way to the oncoming vehicle

20. The essential elements of forming a road traffic marking line are ______.
A. road marking line, arrow, characters, standing signs
B. single solid line, double solid lines, dotted and solid lines
C. crosswalk line, stopping line, guide lines

Monday, February 16, 2009

Long, Long Ago

I'm supposed to be writing this morning, but once again I find myself fresh out of ideas. I'm coughing up stale Beijing air after another sleepless night, and my brain just can't seem to put itself in writing mode. So instead of writing, I pulled up my old Moscow emails.

Long, long ago, before I started a blog, I used to write emails home instead. I eventually turned to blogging, because my mother kept asking me to sign up so-and-so for my email list, and it was embarrassing to email folks I didn't know on my mom's say-so (of course SHE thinks I'm brilliant, but her friends might be afraid to tell her they find my stories tiresome).

Sometimes I go back to those old emails, looking for story topics. Today I went back to the very beginning, to the day I touched down in Moscow, pregnant with my first baby and ready to settle down in a brand new country.

Damn I'm old.

Seriously. Whose voice is that leaping off the pages? I kind of remember the stories, so it must've been me, but... At one point, I mentioned how hard it was to make dinner with the baby sitting there crying. Really? Just one baby and I couldn't cook? The new me scoffs at my young self.

And then, I was so hopelessly, utterly optimistic about everything. I had no idea our three year tour to Moscow was going to be interrupted several times and ultimately cut short when my husband got us all kicked out. No idea I was going to lose two babies before they had a chance to be born. No idea I still had three more living babies in my future. No idea I'd one day come so close to losing one of those.

No idea of the trips to the ER for stitches, accidental overdoses, ripped off toenails, blue-faced coughing, dog attacks. No idea of the surgeries, the medevacs, the going deaf. No idea of the nights spent praying at Children's Hospital.

I got a few story ideas out of my reading. But mostly I just got the sense that somewhere back there, I left behind a young girl who was excited about the world. I need to go find her.

Meanwhile, I'll post one of those old emails shortly. My mom's friends will enjoy it.

For now, I'm off - I'm heading to Starbucks with a pen and a notepad. Some coffee and a change of scenery might just jumpstart my writing muscles.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Friday, February 13, 2009

Another Article

This article was actually published in September, but it didn't go online until yesterday. One more to follow shortly...

Thursday, February 5, 2009


The money just keeps running out the door, and with it goes any chance of cheerfulness.

This week we got a letter, a fancy lawyerly letter, from my husband’s employer, sternly telling us that we owe them almost $3000 from a medical evacuation that took place in 2002 – that’s right: almost 7 years ago.

In the letter, they state that we have 25 days to pay up or they’ll take our paycheck. Plus interest. But don’t worry, they add cheerfully: we take credit cards!

And now I am fuming here at my desk.

Those of you know me will remember that I had a pretty horrendous miscarriage back then, and I had to be flown out of Kazakhstan on a tiny medevac plane – no commercial carrier would take me. We flew first to Finland so I could have surgery, and then on to London for follow-up treatment. When we returned to Kazakhstan, jetlagged and devastated by the miscarriage, I was missing over half the blood in my body, or something crazy like that. So I was sad and sick for a long, long while.

Nevertheless, I promptly filed all of the bills related to the medevac as they arrived. The big bill, a whopping 60 thousand dollars for the medevac plane, was rejected outright by our insurance carrier for technical reasons, but no matter, because the State Department acts as our secondary insurer on medevacs, so whatever the insurance refuses to pay, State pays.

Problem is, apparently the hospital in Finland sent their surgery bill to the Embassy in Finland, as they were supposed to do, and the Embassy never sent it along to us. I say “apparently,” because all of this happened in 2002, so the details are a bit fuzzy. All I know for certain is that State insists I never filed a claim, and I just don’t remember.

Why don’t I just look it up in my files, you ask? Well, because like a good State Department spouse, I went through my files and shredded everything I didn’t need before we moved – you’re supposed to do that before you move to a critical threat post like China, because you don’t want financial statements and private papers sitting around in your house if you don’t need them.

That file was ancient, and finished. So I shredded it.

But the State Department just found this bill, and they say I never submitted it to my insurance. According to the medevac papers we were given back then when I was bleeding on a Kazakh gurney, we are responsible for tracking and submitting bills. In other words, if the Embassy in Finland chose to use my bills as a dartboard instead of sending them on to me, I’m still responsible for knowing that those bills existed and filing them promptly.

The State Department apparently has no responsibility to forward to bills to me, even though I don’t speak Finnish and to this day, I couldn’t tell you what hospital I was even flown to. It’s not like I could call up Finland and ask for the billing department of some random hospital just in case I had an outstanding bill.

It’s made worse by the fact that the medevac to Finland didn’t have to happen. When I first started bleeding, the Embassy doctor told me it was nothing, just go home and rest. She told me this over the phone, because she wasn’t in-country. She didn’t examine me. She didn’t advise me to seek medical help. She told me to go sleep it off. And, because I’d been in-country less than two weeks, I didn’t know if I even had other options. So I took her advice and stayed in bed instead of hopping on the next flight to London.

When I got up the next morning, I was gushing blood and beyond the point where I could do a medevac on a commercial airline – I’d lost so much blood that no one would let me fly a commercial jet. Hence the medevac airplane to Finland.

Whatever. Like I said, this all happened almost seven years ago, back when I only had one small child. It seems like ancient history, like a grief that happened to someone else.

But here I am, reliving the experience, thanks to someone’s poor filing practices. I can write a letter of appeal to some Assistant Secretary So-and-So in charge of All Things Money, and count on it: I’ll write that letter. But I don’t imagine it’s easy to get him to reverse the decision.

I’ve had subsequent medevacs, and I have several friends who’ve had medevacs since then. I’ve always told my friends such positive things about State’s ability to deal with crises, about how State just steps up and gets you through your medical nightmare and does their best to help you through it. Now I’m feeling betrayed. I’m appalled that they would wait this long before telling me there’s a problem. I’m angry that they would tell me that, since I have no proof of anything that happened or didn’t happen way back in 2002, I’m stuck paying the bill.

If you’re reading this and you’re a State Dept EFM, let this be a lesson: shred nothing, no matter how many boxes of personal papers you have to drag post-to-post.

And now that I’ve gotten this little rant off of my chest, I’m going to switch gears and go play with my kids before I start drafting that letter.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Rule #1: When You Make an Ultimatum…

When you make an ultimatum with your kids, make sure it’s one you can live with. That’s why wives the world over glare at their husbands when aforementioned husbands take television privileges away from the kids right before the husbands leave for work on a Saturday morning. Not that such a thing has ever happened in our household.


Anyway, I digress. This story actually goes back to last summer, when Shay lost his retainer. Again. I was pretty grumpy. Actually, I was beyond furious. I threatened all sorts of dire things before finally dragging him back to the orthodontist and begging the guy to use superglue this time. Shay lost his allowance for an eternity, and the whole ordeal seemed to make an impression on him.

After that, he kept better track of the new retainer. It didn’t get left at the playground. It wasn’t discovered behind the couch, or in the laundry. It didn’t once get thrown in the trash at McDonalds, for which Bart was extremely grateful.

In fact, Shay held on to this retainer until December, when he casually mentioned to me that some kids had stolen his lunchbox at school.

“You mean the lunchbox that had your retainer in it?” I asked, and he froze in his tracks.

Yep, it was that lunchbox. Of course, I didn’t believe someone had really stolen it from his classroom. He’s at the age where nothing is his fault. Someone else has always stolen it, or moved it, or broken it. Never him.

I told him to go dig through the lost and found. After all, the lunchbox had his name on it, so it couldn’t have gotten far. But he couldn’t find it. So I went to his school and looked in the lost and found. No lunch box. No retainer. Maybe some kids really did steal it, who knows?

Finally, on January 22nd (less than two weeks ago, for those of you keeping track at home), I took him back to the orthodontist for a new retainer. This time, I didn’t take away his allowance. I just showed him the bill for $200 and sadly explained that the money could have paid for several nights in Dolphin Bay instead of the piece of wire now propping his teeth up.

Then I said “this is the last retainer I can afford to buy. If you lose it, we’ll come back to the orthodontist and tell them we’re finished with the treatment. You can pay for it yourself when you’re older.” And, I added, “if you lose it, consider it your birthday present. Because you won’t be getting anything from me or your dad.”

His birthday’s at the end of February, people. Surely he can hang on to it for a month, especially with a threat like that hanging over his head.


On Monday, I went online and ordered his birthday presents.

On Monday night, as I was tucking him in, I asked “Shay, where’s your retainer?”

He left it on the table at his friend’s house after school, he said. He was certain, he was open-faced earnest, and it was too late to call the friend. So I chose to believe him. Only the next day, when he went to the friend’s house to retrieve his retainer, it wasn’t there. And now he doesn’t know where it might be.

So this retainer lasted a total of 12 days. If we cost average it, that’s about $16 a day.

I am, once again, beyond furious. And angry with myself, too, for believing him rather than calling up the friend right away.

And then there’s the little matter of his birthday presents, which I suppose he won’t be getting this year. Because, remembering back to the title of this little post, when you make an ultimatum with your kids…

February is not shaping up to be a very cheerful month.
Please. Write your own stuff.