Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Eighteen Point Nine Liters

18.9 liters.

That's how much distilled water is contained in just one bottle for our dispenser. We have it delivered, because we can't drink or cook with the tap water in Beijing. So our 18.9 liter bottle sits jauntily astride the dispenser in the kitchen, just waiting for a thirsty person to happen by.

But sometimes, no one is thirsty. Like yesterday. I wasn't in the kitchen. I was in the living room, watching the boys play with the airplanes Uncle Sean sent (thanks Sean - those things rock!). Bart wasn't in the kitchen - he was in the office, placing an internet order. Kyra wasn't in the kitchen. She was running between the airplanes and the office.

Ainsley was is the kitchen. Ainsley, whose favorite Chinese expression is "xi shou," which means "wash hands." Ainsley, who realized yesterday that you can certainly "xi shou" quite nicely with water direct from the dispenser. In fact, if no one is looking, you can just open the spout and wash those hands sparkling clean - with all 18.9 liters of water.

I'm not terribly good at gallon to liter conversions. So I can't tell you exactly how many gallons our dispenser holds. But I can tell you that 18.9 liters is enough to make a mighty fine pond in the kitchen.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Holiday Shopping Story

Just before Christmas, I was doing a bit of last minute shopping at the Toy Market, a two-storied wonder tucked behind the Pearl Market, across from the Temple of Heaven. Jen and I spent the morning haggling with vendors, a sport I've not learned to love.

"How much for the Barbie?," I'd ask, pointing at the cheap plastic knockoff on the shelf.

"500 kuai," the vendor would answer - about $75.

"Tai gui le," I'd gasp - too expensive - and then give my counteroffer of 40 kuai - a bit over $5.

At that point, they'd tell me how that was below their cost price, they couldn't make a living if they sold it for that, and on and on and on.

Now, a truly good bargainer wouldn't let up, and she'd probably walk with that Barbie for 40 kuai - or less. But I hate it. Can't stand it. Get really bored of it after a while. I got the Barbie for 70 kuai - $10. In fact, I bought 5 Barbies for Toys for Tots, and 2 for my daughters. It seemed like a good deal, until the girls opened their Barbie boxes on Christmas and I saw just how flimsy those Barbies were. I should've offered 30 kuai.

Whatever. The point is that you go from vendor to vendor, haggling and shouting and complaining and shrugging and it's just exhausting. Sometimes I get great deals and come away happy. Always I need a shower and a nap after spending a day roaming a market.

Usually, there's at least one point during the day where I offer 75 kuai for something, and the vendor comes down to 80, and I refuse to budge. I'm just so irritated with the whole process, with the lack of price tags, with the back-and-forthing, in English and Chinese, that requires 30 minutes just to buy a silly doll. So I dig in my heels. The vendor, exasperated, exclaims "Why you fight me over 5 kuai? It's just 5 kuai." To which I respond, "exactly. It's just 5 kuai. So why do YOU care?" That usually causes them to throw up their hands and stuff the item in a bag, probably just to be rid of me.

After a couple of hours of haggling, we were pretty much spent and starting to get grouchy, so we decided to head across the street to Lao Beijing, one of our most favorite restaurants in this whole huge city of ours. On the way across the overpass, I snapped these photos looking down into the hutong. It was a cold, dreary (did I mention cold?) day, and these little houses weren't doing much to protect their occupants from the elements. My van was full of Barbies and baubles and scooters and videogames. I was on my way to one of my favorite restaurants with a good friend. I had nothing at all to complain about.

A little holiday reminder of how very, very lucky I am. Even on the days when I feel most grumpy and out-of-my-element. I am blessed.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Audience is Dying to Know...

... will our heroine ever blog again???

Yeah, just probably not this week.

I've been working, see, and the kids are home, and there are gifts to be wrapped and Christmas morning coffee cakes to be baked and I just realized that I forgot to pick up one of my gifts for my husband and we have 2 parties to go to tomorrow and between the 2 parties we have an hour to spend in our so-secret-we-don't-even-turn-on-the-heater church in celebration of Christmas, which is, for some unexplicable reason, barrelling at me faster than I can run.

But no, for those of you who are wondering, we haven't gotten an assignment yet. Though my faithful readers have guessed that we were considering a bid on Nairobi (if I gave out prizes, Leesonthego would be our winner!). For now, we're leaving the list alone and waiting for someone, anyone, to call us and tell us why every other bureau within the State Department has managed to make assignments except ours.

And yes, if you're wanting to know, it's bitter cold here and smoky-aired and we're all coughing. Plus which, we're enduring hour after hour of truly awful Chinese Christmas carols, played at super-high volume, everywhere we go. Also, there's some strange vomit virus running through town, and two of my kids have already fallen victim (possibly three, if you count Kyra's vomit the day we went to meet Santa. She may have been Patient X).

But I digress. The point of this post is, I don't have time to post right now. I do have a nice article to link you to, from this month's beijingkids: this one is about my son's fantabulous P.E.teacher. Read it, love it, stumble it, digg it.

For those of you who celebrate, I wish you the happiest Christmas ever. May Santa bring you a pink skateboard, or whatever it is you most wish for. And may your church have central heating.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Article

I wrote this as part of a larger package of articles I wrote awhile back for beijingkids magazine. I had no idea they were going to reprint it this month. But it's a nice little article about a couple of people making a difference for kids in Beijing.

Monday, December 21, 2009


I'm tired. Really, really tired. I guess that's what happens when you age.

That's right - I just celebrated my birthday. My husband took me and the kids out for brunch at Chef Too. (except he had a work emergency, so technically I got everyone ready and met him there.) We had a great meal, and Chef Billy brought out a big ole slice of cake afterwards. Check out that cake - can you see why the kids like it there?

He also gave me some Tibetan jewelry (my husband did - not Chef Billy). And then he watched the kids for THREE WHOLE HOURS while I went to the Spa for a deluxe manicure and a hot stone massage. I knew there was a reason I married that man.

The kids are home for the holidays, but I'm still working (my poor ayi!). So I don't have much free blogging time. I thought I'd link you to an old article of mine, about believing in Santa Claus, just in case you're looking for something to read. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Our Holiday Party

Last year we didn't have our holiday party because we were on a beach in Thailand (I know, I know - some aspects of foreign service life are harder than others). The year before, if I recall correctly, we didn't have our party because I was pregnant and still newly-deaf and just plain not-in-the-mood.

This year, we restarted the tradition. About 50 people showed up at the house last night, and though you might not be interested in the details, I need to record them for posterity's sake.

We made: peppermint fudge, marshmallow fudge, white and dark chocolate peppermint bark, 7-layer bars, almond sea salt bark, walnut dreams, marshmallow-peanut butter brownies, butterfinger-somethings, coconut macaroons, chocolate chip peppermint bark cookies. We made: black bean chipotle hummus, plain hummus, veggies and dip, apples with rasperry-yogurt dip and basil-brie dip, baked garlic-honey brie. (Then we got tired so we ordered chicken skewers for delivery.) We made: champagne punch and hot apple cider, which we served alongside wine, pelligrino and rum-and-cokes for the Marines.

Friends came early to help light luminaria and put desserts on platters. Shay designed a little box to solicit donations for "Holiday Hounds," to help cats and dogs in a nearby shelter. I ate entirely too many scraps as I baked: after all, you can't put those crooked end pieces on a nice platter, but you hate to just throw them out.

It was exhausting and fun and I'm glad we did it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

More on Bidding

We turned in our bids for our next assignment way back at the beginning of October.

And we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

But they take their time, and unless you have a really good CDO (career development officer), they usually don't tell you what they're up to. So you just sit around and wait, and imagine yourself living in places like London, or Paris, or Ougadougou.

We had to put down a minimum of 6 bids. We put down 6 overseas and 3 domestic.

Well, it appears that last week they finally started making assignments on my husband's level. At last! We know this because he went to work this morning and discovered....




.... (is the suspense killing you yet?)


Yes, we discovered that FOUR of our SIX overseas bids had gone to other bidders overnight. That's goodbye to Ankara, Madrid, Lima and Brasilia. We only have 2 more overseas bids left: Amman and Geneva.

So it isn't looking good for us. I spent the better part of my morning moping around at work, grumpy and irritated. I knew we wouldn't get Madrid, but c'mon: what's wrong with Ankara?

To make matters worse, we are now left with only 5 bids on our list. Which means we're required to go back through the list and add one more of the posts that we previously rejected, in order to keep 6 places on the list. And if we add it, we could get it, so you have to be careful about what you add.

Just for once, you know, it would be nice to get something you really wanted. I know, I know: that isn't how it works. But still...

I went back to Real Post Reports today, to start looking around at other overseas posts. One of the posts that I might consider putting next in line on a bid list actually has a review that states, in part: "Crime is insane. Had a couple of murders and shootings of embassy personnel, both American and locals." Gulp.

And with that, I'm off to sulk some more.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Should Be Sleeping

...but I'm not. Obviously.

Yesterday, we decided to go to church, for the first time in a long while. It's not entirely our fault that we haven't been. The local government shut down our super-secret, let's-pretend-this-is-a-party-and-not-a-church-service ceremonies right around the Tiananmen anniversary, and they never let us start back up. Perhaps the churchy-type music emanating from the party room every Saturday night clued them in? Who knows?

Church finally started up again, in a new location, not far from home. It's still an underground, secret handshaky kind of place - no locals allowed, because... well, I don't know why exactly, but they don't want us converting them, I guess.

We set out for church a few minutes early so we could stop at the flower market on the way and buy poinsettias. I ran in while Bart and the kids waited in the car. It took about 5 minutes, during which time Bart was listening to music in the car.

When I returned, I turned the key and - no battery. We were stuck in the parking lot, just down the road from church. I called the auto club people (yes, we have a little club that we pay into for precisely this reason, just like back home). I tried to explain where we were. It took awhile to explain, but we got it sorted out, and a nice guy showed up to jump the car.

I drove down the street, now 30 minutes late for mass, and Ainsley and I sat in the car, motor running, while everyone else went in for the end of the service.

Let's just say it wasn't the best church day ever. But I did say a little prayer of thanks that the car died so close to the house. Because it could have been much, much worse.

That was yesterday. Today the car was fine. We drove to a new burger restaurant that I'm supposed to be reviewing for a local magazine. Watched "It's a Wonderful Life" with the kids. Went to a Christmas party at the neighbor's. Ate dinner. Only then did I realize I was out of milk. I ran out to the car and - can you guess? Dead battery. Only this time, it appears that one of the kids turned on a ceiling light in the car and neglected to turn it off.

Ummm, yes, I was pretty annoyed. The nice car guy came over and jumped the car again. But by that time, the store was closed, so no milk for breakfast tomorrow.

I really, really hope the car starts tomorrow. And I think I'll be looking in to how one gets a new battery for a U.S. car here in China. Also, I plan to staple the kids' hands to the seats whenever they're riding in the back of the car.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Blogging About Work

Blogging about work needs to be done cautiously, if at all. On the one hand, blogging positively about life in the foreign service is probably okay. Blogging about what you're doing in the office is likely frowned upon in most instances. But hey, y'all know I'm working, right? And I'm actually really enjoying it, except for when I'm not. The people I work with are, for the most part, obnoxiously smart, funny, hard-working people. I'm no dummy, but I'm usually feeling about 10 steps behind as I listen to them go about their workdays. I've been off-and-on part-time in the same section for most of the year, and they've given me lots of interesting stuff to do. Mostly writing projects, which I like because I can sit at my desk and research and type and not go out into the real world of meeting people. The learning curve is steep: the office is so busy that they just throw projects at me and let me flail around until I figure it out or come slinking back to ask sheepishly for advice. Usually I figure it out, eventually.

And that's really all I'm comfortable saying about my job for now. Still and all, I thought I'd link you to this interesting report that is now available online, straight outta Beijing. It must have been a lot of work to research, compile, update, etc. I mean, it looks like it, anyway. But how would I know?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


We went out last week, my husband and I, hoping to buy another Christmas tree. That's right: another. As in, the TWO that we already owned weren't enough. We needed another. Where better to buy an export-quality fake made-in-china tree than, well, China?

We bought two.

That's right: two. So now we have four trees up in the house, and I blame my in-laws. We didn't get this crazy, fill-every-last-inch-of-space-with-holiday-cheer-thing from my side of the family, that's for sure. So the fault must lie with my husband's genetic make-up.

The trees do look nice, though, don't they?

Did I ever tell you about my first visit to the in-laws' house, before they were actually in-laws? It was winter. In New York. I didn't have a winter coat. My poor mother-in-law probably said a prayer that night that her son would come to his senses and find a girl with brains enough to bring a winter coat with her when she travelled to New York in the dead of winter. But bless her heart, she never said a word. And she gave me a beautiful purple overcoat that I wear to this day. Literally, to this day. I had it on today in the bitter cold Beijing outdoors.

That year, I brought the dog. Why, I don't recall. But the dog ate my mother-in-law's heirloom gingerbread ornaments, the ones she'd been storing in the freezer all those years and hanging up each Christmas. To his credit, the dog didn't eat ALL of the gingerbread man ornaments. He just ate all of the bodies. He left the heads dangling from hooks on the tree.

And then, a year or so later, I married her son. It all worked out, though. She has some fabulous grandkids; I have a nice coat. She doesn't have anymore gingerbread ornaments; I have a husband who probably wonders why I haven't baked any yet, in all these years of marriage.

There's no real point to telling you this story. I just wanted an excuse to post some blurry photos of our Christmas trees. (Hey, Jill - did it work? Are the photos side-by-side? If so, it's thanks to you.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Of Trophies and Toilet Plungers

Shay was so nervous last week, when his Chinese class did their quarterly presentations for the parents. They all put together powerpoint presentations showing what they do all day, and then they each gave a talk in Chinese using their slides (I get up at 7 o'clock, I eat breakfast and then I go to the bus stop...). Shay worked really, really hard on his, and it showed. He did a great job.

The teacher told the kids that one student would be getting a trophy for overall best presentation, and guess what? The trophy went to... Gao Shi! (Yes, that's Shay's name in Chinese). Shay came home with his trophy this afternoon, and he was so thrilled to show it off.

But wait - there's more. He's also been working hard at his juggling skills, because he wants to become a "Jedi Juggler" at school. First he learned to juggle balls, and when he got up to 50 times in a row, he graduated to rings. Once he mastered those, he got his clubs. Today, he passed the 50 mark with his clubs, and so he's been invited to perform with the Jedi Jugglers.

He had to choose a skit to work on, and he chose the "Plumber" skit. I'm not sure what that means, exactly, but he came home with three toilet plungers that he is now learning to juggle.

Trophies and toilet plungers, all in one day. Who'd've thought? He's making his mama proud...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dr. Santa Closet

Last year, Kyra called him "Santa Claus-it." This year, I was telling her about him, and I slipped up. "We're going to go see mister... doctor... santa claus!" So now she calls him "Dr. Santa Claus-it."

The good doctor was planning to stop by the Embassy Christmas party this evening, so we got all decked out to go see him. On the way there, Kyra threw up all over herself. I don't think she was sick, persay. I think it likely that she shouldn't have helped herself to her dad's nasty protein shake earlier in the day. We pulled into a restaurant complex near the Embassy and Bart took her in to clean her off. So much for the cute Christmas sweater and tights. He was able to salvage the dress, though she was a bit stinky.

I was a little worried when the kids went up to read a Christmas book with the Ambassador and his wife. It wouldn't have looked good if she'd chosen that moment to toss up the rest of the protein shake. But she was fine. (Someone else's kid peed on the floor, but hey, it happens. As long as it's not one of my kids.)

The role of Dr. Santa Closet was actually played by someone in my office. It just so happens that I'd brought a loaf of pumpkin bread in to share last week. And when Santa asked Kyra if she helped her mommy make that delicious bread, she nearly burst with pride. Too cute.

Ainsley, on the other hand, could not wait to get off of his lap. She wasn't impressed at all. I don't know what Aidan thought of his visit with Dr. Claus. Even Shay sat on his lap - hedging his bets, I imagine, as he's hoping to find a Nano under the tree.

Enjoy the photos...

The Ambassador and his wife read to the kids...

Four kids, four different reactions to Santa...

Please. Write your own stuff.