Strawberry Picking

We went strawberry picking this last Friday.  Like all things to a Westerner living in China it was an adventure like never before.  I’m sure most of you have visited a farm or an orchard and maybe even been strawberry picking yourselves.  Get that picture out of your head and let me paint for you a picture of this experience:

Excitedly we get in the van, stocked piled with snacks and books to keep the kids satisfied as the strawberry picking place is an hour drive away.  Everyone is settled in and the adventure has begun.  Ayi Zou is sitting up front, conversing with Mr. Xu, the kids each have a precious beef stick in their hands and are as content as can be so the focus goes from them to out the window.

As we drive along all you see is a grey, dull landscape – and I truly mean grey and dull.  You will have never seen anything as grey or as dull as our area in China.  Even on a clear day the sky and landscape are dull and grey it truly makes you think wasteland, as if you are driving through doldrums.  Driving out of the city you will find random high rises that have popped up here and there without a real sense of belonging – as everything around them seems extremely baron.  You would expect to see villages but you do not as towering high rises have taken their place.  There are small crop fields scattered around, a small house/hut here or there, and more out of place high rises clustered at random places on the horizon but not much else.  So as you are driving there really is nothing to see, but you cannot keep your eyes from looking out the window as it is all still completely foreign to you.

About forty-five minutes later, it is evident that we are starting to get closer to the strawberry patch as the roads we are on become much more narrow and poorer in quality.  The baron land makes way to small walled structures and all of a sudden we are driving around an actual village and not just a random cluster of high rises.  The poverty and living conditions are astounding as you can see each dwelling is an extremely modest rectangular house with maybe two rooms.  Trash is everywhere, it is already everywhere in China, but you notice much larger piles of it as we drive along.  Stray cats and dogs are prevalent and what I can only assume what are irrigation ditches are littered with trash and discarded concrete and building material.  On the edge of the village are many elongated greenhouses with large rectangular concrete entry ways, that I must say are as much lacking in aesthetics as they possibly can.  The roads are down to one lane now and it becomes clear that our driver, Mr. Xu is unsure of where exactly we are going.  Luckily for us, Mr. Xu is excellent and when I sent him the business card for this place, he programmed the number in his phone.  So Mr. Xu got on the phone and got directions to the exact place where we were to pick berries.  This may raise the question of where the heck did I get my hands on a business card as such?  Most all information is passed down from expat to expat here.  From what I gather there may have been a school trip in the past which is where the card was obtained.

Soon we are on the road by a lady on a scooter.  Mr. Xu rolls down the window and I can only assume directions are being communicated.  We follow along for probably two or three more kilometers and stop just beside her greenhouse.  We all excitedly hop out of the van and prepare to pick strawberries.  As we enter the green house, we are given Styrofoam containers to pick berries.  The smell of strawberries is in the air and we begin to pick some of the most beautiful strawberries I have ever seen.  It does not take long to fill two containers, between the kids, Ayi Zou and myself.  The boxes are then weighed and paid for, and this is where it stung.  Strawberries are extremely expensive here.  In the stores you will pay around $3 for 16 strawberries.  Here I got two nice sized containers for about $40.  So as I’m reveling in the sticker shock of this little adventure, I start to notice that Ayi Zou has found celery and is excitedly picking stalk upon stalk of celery.  Meanwhile the lady that owns or operates the green house is neatly arranging a box of strawberries.  Not thinking much of this, I round up the children and head towards the van.  Mr. Xu at this time is holding and playing with the Newbie at the van and Ayi Zou is still in the green house picking celery.  So we finally get settled into the van and get ready to start the journey back and Ayi comes up with two arm fulls of celery, and communicates to Mr. Xu to go to the green house, in which he comes back to the van with the box of strawberries that was being prepared by the strawberry lady.  It then hits me.  We paid the Western price – Mr. Xu and Ayi Zou were getting compensated for us paying the Western price (insert mental note to self to negotiate next time).   In all honesty I am very grateful that Ayi Zou and Mr. Xu were given the celery and berries as I’m sure I paid for it, and if it were not for either Ayi Zou or Mr. Xu our lives would be so much more difficult than they already are.  We pay the ‘foreign’ or ‘Western’ price on many items here.  It is widely known that we get charged much more for the same goods and services received by locals – but hey what are you going to do?  It is not like you can complain, nor put strawberries back on the vine. 

Anyway, we finally get back on the road and start for home.  Only now, as we are trying to get back to a main road there is a cement truck parked at the next intersection and cement is being dumped in a huge pile on the road.  We are not able to go anywhere until the cement truck moves, so to Bear’s delight we get to watch cement being poured.  While all this is going on a worker moves beside the van and relieves himself for all to see.  And the only thing you can do is shake your head and mutter the words, “Only in China.”  Finally the truck moves and we start back.  Except this time Mr. Xu is taking us home a different way.  We turn left instead of back right.  This is no big deal except as we travel along we run out of road, and from what I can see Mr. Xu is trying to get us from the back roads to the main roads quicker.  And as we have run out of road, we just keep driving, much slower as to avoid all the pot holes and dips in the dirt/gravel.  We cannot turn back as this is clearly the way to go as there are semi trucks ahead of us, behind us, and on both sides of us all trying to drive the same direction.  This goes on for two to three kilometers and then miraculously a four lane highway appears.  Half an hour later we are safely home with our berries and Ayi’s celery.

Off roading in the van!
Off roading in the van!

Happy Chinese New Year: Year of the Monkey!

I apologize for this post being late.  Between visitors, apartment problems, school break, and new baby I have not had a chance to publish this post about Chinese New Year.  Technically the Chinese are still celebrating even though work and school have started back up.  Anyway, I hope you enjoy:

Happy Chinese New Year!!!!  We celebrated the Chinese New Year at the Renaissance Hotel (our home away from home) thanks to another leak in our apartment.  We actually had a pretty dang good view of the fireworks from our executive apartment.  There were fireworks going off all night, starting early in the evening and waning during the early morning hours.   Fireworks are rather inexpensive here, so as you glanced out over the city skyline you could see many large firework displays at one.  Some were rather close to the hotel and would go off right outside the window.  I’m not sure I have ever seen so many fireworks in the air over such an extended period of time.  Unlike the Fourth of July in the States where towns put on large firework shows, businesses and individuals light their own fireworks.  Also unlike the States fireworks are lit off in the middle of streets.

This morning after breakfast, the hotel hosted traditional Chinese dancers to welcome in the New Year and bless the hotel (or bring good luck in the new year with lion dancers paying homage to one of the gods and warding off bad spirits and giving blessings to the hotel, staff and visitors).  It was fantastic to watch.  We had the opportunity to ask Fiona more about it.   The large gold boat looking object is actually a representation of what the Chinese currency used to be.  Depending on status and wealth the ‘boat’ could be gold or silver and it could also very in size (the larger the heaver and more valuable).  This would also denote class as rulers and upper nobility (per say) would have gold, business and trade smiths would most likely be able to obtain silver, and peasants would use coinage.  The character at the hotel represented good fortune and wealth to be spread throughout the hotel.

This past Friday we visited the Ancient Chinese Culture Street in Tianjin.  Walking down Culture Street right before New Year reminded me of the festive atmosphere surrounded by the anticipation leading up to Christmas.  Street vendors were out selling their wears.  You could purchase small animals made of bent palm branches, carved whistles, paintings, carvings, tea pots and tea sets, hats, scarves, toys, Chinese New Year decor, and much much more.

Ancient Culture Street Tianjin

It was rather chilly, but still enjoyable as we strolled along the street.  We came to a cross roads per say and there was a massive area set up with vendors selling New Years items including lots of signs and cut outs to hang in doorways and windows.  There was also a sugar artist creating different Chinese characters out of melted sugar.  The creations were amazing! This was a high light for the kids (both Chinese and my own).  According to Fiona this very traditional and the Chinese children look forward to having a sugar sculpture made for them each year.  We got a panda and Bear was lucky enough to have a small bird made just for him.

We also tried a traditional Chinese dish from a street vendor.  It was recommended we try this particular type of dish by one of JD’s colleagues.  I wish I knew what the proper name of it was.  It was served hot (which was nice as it was chilly) and it was almost like very sweetened finer porridge.  A few of the things I could pick out in it were dried fruits and sesame seeds.  I’m so glad we tried it – it is hard to describe but interesting all the same.

trying a traditional dish

Q & A

Baby news? In baby news we are doing great.  Our beautiful son decided, quite on his own, to join our family on December 5.  He literally broke his own water with a very hefty kick and 12 hours later he was born into this world.  He is an amazing snuggle bug, loves to sleep, and at three weeks old still swims in his new born clothes.  (Knock on wood) he seems to be a very chill baby.  After he gets a bath his hair naturally stands up in a Mohawk .  He looks a lot like Sis did when she was born – many of the same facial structures and features.  He has beautiful blue eyes (I hope he keeps) and both of his siblings absolutely adore him!

When am I coming home for a visit? I will be home from the middle of June to end of July/early August.  JD will have to work, so for a large portion of the duration it will just be the kids and me.

What’s it like giving birth in China compared to the U.S.?   Good question.  I’ve decided after giving birth in China – I would never recommend it to anyone.  JD and I have discussed many a time how we feel that the private hospital where I gave birth is decades behind the U.S. United Family Healthcare is the premiere private hospital in Tianjin (China’s fourth largest city).  To give you an idea, only the elite Chinese are able to afford to go there.  The cost of labor and delivery is very comparable to the U.S. (we have to pay upfront, each time we use their services and then submit a receipt to insurance for reimbursement).  The hospital prides itself on it’s ‘western’ practices.  I’m not sure though how many births like mine the hospital experiences.  Both Bear and Sis were delivered naturally – and I’ve never had an epidural.  So when I told this hospital I wanted a natural birth, more than one nurse and doctor tried to discourage it, asking time and time again whether or not I was sure and if I would sign the consent for an epidural for later on – if I needed one.  One of the options for pain medications during labor was laughing gas (which yes, I did end up using – though I’m not sure it made a difference).  This was a rather difficult labor as my body was not quite ready to give birth to him (my cervix had not even softened yet when my water broke).  So when the going got tough, the doctor and midwife immediately jumped to ‘lets have a C section.’  I on the other hand, just wanted to be left alone, to birth the way that was most natural to me.  Things got a little intense and I ended up calling my amazing midwife back in the States, waking her up and having her consult as things were not going as planned.  Finally one of the head doctors of the hospital (the doctor I had been seeing for all of my prenatal check ups) walked in and things immediately changed.  She told me that I did not look happy and that I could kick out anyone in the room that was not making me happy.  Which I did not do, however, it gave me back the power to labor in the positions I wanted, instead of in bed tied to a fetal monitor.  Things moved rather quickly from that point on and before I knew it I was holding a beautiful baby boy.

So let me back track and explain a little about births in China.  Almost all of the babies delivered in China are via C section (unless someone goes into labor early – and even then I’m sure there is a high probability of being a C section.  Due to the fact that there are so many people here, public hospitals do not have the time or the space to let women birth naturally.  Therefore to keep women having babies moving, C sections are scheduled and these women and babies are pushed through the system.  If you want to have any shot at a natural birth you have to go to a private hospital.  I’m also guessing that most Chinese women who give birth at a private hospital probably elect to have an epidural, just from the way I was treated when refusing to sign a consent form to have one.

Recovering at the hospital in Tianjin was also a lot different than recovering from birth in the U.S.  It was much nicer!  I had a nurse check on me and my baby only a few times a day instead of every two hours (maybe I scared them off during labor)!  For the majority of my time I was left alone to enjoy my baby and recover in peace.  I had to stay in the hospital three days after giving birth (so as I gave birth on Saturday, I was not allowed to go home until Tuesday).  I was ready to go home on Sunday – but didn’t buck the system.  So when Tuesday morning came, I think I freaked the nurses out when I requested that the discharge process get rolling.  The hospital was not ready for us to be discharged, so my hopeful let us be out of here by 10am turned into a grateful I made it out of there by 1pm.  I’ve been told by Fiona that most Chinese women want to stay in the hospital a month after they give birth (no thanks).  I’m guessing that as I was at the private hospital, most Chinese women actually stay a bit longer as the hospital makes more money the longer they stay.

Is the air pollution in Beijing as bad as they show on television? Yes, yes, and then some!  Smog is nasty, smelly, and disgusting.  The air becomes heavy and thick.  When it is super bad it becomes hard to breath when you are outside.  Unfortunately it is the time of year where we experience it way too much.  Just to give you an idea how bad it is, I’m staring out my window and cannot see the buildings a block away.  The air quality is so bad that we do not go outside unless we really need to and we try our best to keep our children inside.  We do have masks to wear when we do go out – especially if we have to walk somewhere (which we avoid doing during these times).  Last time when it rained and it was this smoggy, the rain was a dirty gray-black.  The roads looked as though they were covered in grease.  (When it was snowing beautiful big snowflakes when we were in Beijing, we would not let the kids catch them on their tongues because it is China and you don’t know what is in the snow).

Smog also shuts down roads.  Any major high way is shut down because I guess it is unsafe to drive on really smoggy days.  We ran into this problem on Monday as we tried to go to the U.S. embassy to apply for our Newbie’s passport.  We had to turn around and come back home as the smog was bad and the roads were closed.  There were even two nights this past week that the smog was so bad it was like a white out and you could not even see the buildings next to ours.  Needless to say our air purifiers run 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

What seemingly innocent action performed by you or the kids has earned the most stares (besides just being American)?  Not wearing enough clothes or what is considered warm enough clothes when it is cold out.  I’ve been chided on two different occasions by different Chinese women that I have not been dressed warm enough for the weather.  The first time we were waiting for our shipment and the second time I was hot and did not wear a scarf.  I got looks today as I walked through IKEA without a coat.  Chinese like it warm (think toasty 76 degrees).  We on the other hand still have our air conditioners on.

What Chinese custom caught you most off guard? I think the custom that caught us most off guard is the way the Chinese pay no attention to personal space.  This goes hand in hand with how they push and shove to get on trains.  You can be standing in a checkout line with only one other person behind you and the person behind you gets as close as they possibly can to you.  It drives us crazy.  You want to be like back off but it just doesn’t happen.

How do you communicate with the local people as you are in the process of learning Chinese?  We use a lot of hand gestures, facial expressions and finger pointing.  On a day to day basis I interact with our driver and ayi.  With our driver, I have been instructed to send him a text in English and he will use an app to translate it to Chinese.  We’ve had less confusion this way as before when we were using an app to translate and then send, there was more lost in translation.  I tend to try to be clear and use few words when I send him a text.  So far everything has worked out well for us.

Our new ayi has worked with Western families for the past 10+ years.  She knows some English and she works on communicating with us by speaking what English she knows and speaking Chinese rather slowly to us while moving and pointing to objects she is talking about.  She also has a list of common foods  (produce and meat) that she keeps in our kitchen.  So when she is planning a meal or going to the store, I can show her what we like and she will buy foods that we will eat.  Or if I’m looking for something specific I can point out what I want her to buy.  Our ayi shops at the Tongu Markets which are where locals buy a lot of their foods.  This is wonderful for us as many of the foods are priced better than what you would find in the super markets where we shop.

Any other communication issues we have with anyone, be it driver, ayi, or whomever, we call Fiona.  Fiona will then either call or talk to that person on the phone and then translate for us.  Fiona has also called and ordered McDonald’s for us (yes they deliver here) as well as set up of phones to be able to have Papa John’s delivered – where we can order in English.

If you wake up and find you are out of something you need, what do you do?  I debate how much I really need what I don’t have and then decide from there.  A lot of the non perishable basics (toothpaste, diapers, wipes, soap, etc.) we have a huge stock of – this also goes for vitamins and  drugs.  So usually the only things that we run out of are baking supplies and or food items.  At this point I have two options.  I can either call Julie and see if I can barrow something or walk across the street to the very overpriced grocery store at the mall and over pay for what I need.  If it is something I need for dinner, then I often either decide it is a breakfast night and fix scrambled eggs and wait until I go to the store the next day to pick up what I don’t have. If it is a week day, I can text my driver and have him take me somewhere, this usually takes a little more planning though.

How convenient is it to just go to the market?  In all honesty it’s not too bad.  I usually go shopping during the week after school drop off in the morning.  Most shops do not open until 9, so I often drop off the boys at home with the ayi and have our driver take me to the store.  Our new ayi also shops for us too.  She will have our driver take her to the Chinese markets and any other store she needs to go to buy what is on her list.  I do really miss having the freedom to hop in our own car and drive myself to where I want to go, however I would never want to drive in China.  The Chinese have a much different style of driving compared to the West.  It can be uncomfortable even cross the street.

How do you shop for food?  It depends on which market or store I’m going to for what I need.  The Tongu markets are more of a challenge for me.  I have only been there once and not as comfortable going there as it is very Chinese.   I can pick most items ups at Jusco or Tesco (think the equivalent of Walmart).  These places often have a small selection of Western foods, but they also supply the basics such as bread, eggs, milk, etc.  If you are really looking for a specific Western food item, such as cheese you go to Times – the Western grocery store (and be prepared to spend an arm and a leg) for whatever you need or have a craving for.  We buy most of our meat at the German butcher because it is all imported from Germany (again you pay for it) but we’ve also had some of the best chicken breasts we ever had from here.  Oh, yes, we have our water delivered as well as juice and beer.  Whenever we are out, we have our ayi order more.

Tongu Market:Tongu Market

Things here (U.S.) that say made in China are many times cheap.  Are things in China cheap — except for exports?  JD and I have a saying – things in China are shiny on the outside, crap in the inside.  This seems to have proven time and time again for us.  China is a society where things are not meant to last.  Take houses and residential buildings for example.  When we visited back in March we toured the Royal Palace – which is basically a small residential area of town houses and/or individual homes.  Just glancing down the street there were a couple of homes torn down and they were working on rebuilding – they were only ten years old.  We live in a high rise filled with million dollar apartments.  At first glance they look shiny and luxurious, however upon closer look (after living in one for a while) you start to notice how the marble is not completely grouted in the shower.  When they have to fix something in a wall or ceiling its not patched to our Western standards.  The front elevator has been broken for two months now with no signs of fixing it any time soon.  There is a room in the basement of this building full of broken marble and tile that does not appear to be going anywhere any time soon.  Nothing is made to last.  So if something breaks you throw it out and buy new.  I think this is why many exports are much more expensive – because they are required to meet much higher standards and can come under scrutiny by Western consumers!


Weekend in Beijing


We are headed to Beijing tonight to spend the weekend there with some of our friends.  While we are excited to go, we are having to face some challenges in preparing for the trip.  For example, it is supposed to snow in Beijing this weekend and the warmest clothes JD and I currently have are sweatshirts.  Our shipment arrives on Monday so no winter clothes for us until then.  Luckily I bought the kids gloves in Beijing when I went last month with Julie.  JD and the men are supposed to go to the Great Wall and hike tomorrow morning while the ladies go to a Christmas market.  The wall be very cold and windy as it is in the mountains, not to mention it will probably be miserable if it snows.  Sis and I are excited to see the Christmas bizarre/market.  Bear will come with us as I do not think the Great Wall would be appropriate for him at this time of year.

Our next challenge is something that we have not had to think about living in the U.S.:  Our car cannot be in Beijing until after 8p.m.  China controls how many people enter and leave major cities by only allowing cars to drive within city limits with certain license plates during certain times.  As JD’s company uses a fleet of vans, there have been times that we or others have had to use different vans because a certain van could not go here or there on certain days.  For instance, our driver drove a different family’s van to pick us up from the airport when we first arrived because our van could not go to Beijing that day.  I had to take a different van this morning to go to my prenatal appointment because our van could not go to Tianjin.  Maybe we will one day we will have a better understanding about the rules and regulations for particular license plates.  Luckily we have an amazing driver that works with an awesome group of drivers that keep things running smoothly for when we need or want to go somewhere.   The only real hick up is when we expect to have something waiting for us in our van and we do not have our van – but C’est la vie!

Post Trip:

So it was a rather interesting trip to Beijing.  I felt bad for the men of the group.  They were supposed to do something cool like visit the Great Wall, but unfortunately one member of the group became ill and with the bad weather, the expedition was canceled.  I think most of the guys ended up doing actual work work Saturday morning while the kids and gals went off to the Christmas market.  The market was great – I’m sure I could have spent a small fortune with all the neat treasures there were!  Here is a picture of my finds that I just could not pass up:  2 hand painted glass ornaments (painted from the inside),  a set of wooden Mary and Joseph ornaments, and a couple of hand carved wooden ornaments.  (I bought a few other things, but as they are Christmas gifts, they are not included).  Oh, and I bought a scarf for myself because it was cold and snowing.

Beijing Christmas Market haul

After the Christmas market, we dropped the kids at the hotel with the men so they could go have pizza while the ladies went to the Pearl Market.  JD said the pizza was amazing!  I really did not pick anything up at the Pearl Market besides Christmas lights for a tree.  I will do more shopping later, but right now it’s just fun to walk around and take in the market itself.  As well as learn from the other gals about where to shop for items to get the best deals.

Hmmm…let me describe the Pearl Market for a minute.  There are actually two Pearl Market buildings – the old and the new.  Let us begin with the old.  The old pearl market has 5 floors of vendors selling all things Chinese made.  This one is often crowded and very touristy.  If you want to buy anything you have to haggle and haggle hard.  I learned this the hard way back in March when JD and I took our exploratory move trip to China to see if we could actually make living here work.  JD and I spent a day in Beijing and ended up at the Pearl Market, where I found a pretty neat pair of shoes that were embroidered as well as a pair for Lucy.  So seeing that I had already been pinned as a sucker, this little Chinese girl let me oggle them and I ended up way over paying for two pairs (one for me and one for Sis) of really cute, but cheaply made indoor shoes.  I vowed to JD that they will always be a reminder not to get taken again!  Anyway, the old Pearl Market is also a place where you can find pearls – lots and lots of pearl vendors (hence the name Pearl Market).  It is pretty awesome to see so many pearls in one place (yes, I ended up bringing some back in March which I purchased (aka haggled) for what I believe is a fair price).  The group of ladies I was with today had a completely different approach to the Pearl Market.  Most of the shopping experience this time took place in the new Pearl Market.  The new Pearl Market is nice, and so much less crowded than the old (many tourists do not even know it exists).  There is a list of vendors that has gone around the expat community as where you go to get the automatic ‘friend’ price.  This is wonderful because you know you are not getting gouged.  This is where I discovered that you buy pearls.  You pick one or two pearl vendors and do all of you business through them.  I even had a custom made set of pink pearls made for my mother (on a past trip).  The more you end up doing business, the better your prices will be.  I even have one of the vendors as a friend on a texting app so I can send her a picture of something I want made and she will a) tell me the price it will be before hand and b) tell me what is possible and what is not, and c) let me further customize the piece if I want.  It was super nice not having to haggle – simply because they want your repeat business!  I bought my Christmas lights from the electronics guy in the basement of the new Pearl Market – and after paying $13 for a simple set of Christmas lights (48 bulbs) from IKEA it was completely awesome paying only $5 for a second set.

After our Pearl Market adventure, we all went out to dinner at a German restaurant.  It was fabulous, and very tasty German food.  I ordered the classic curry wurst (which is basically an equivalent of a German hot dog covered in curry ketchup).  Why would I order this type of dish when there are much more interesting and wonderful German foods you may ask? –  well, I haven’t had a proper tasting curry wurst since living in Germany 7 years ago.  So let me tell you when I tasted it – it was amazing!  JD had the Christmas special – duck legs with an amazing gravy that had a nice hint of citrus, red cabbage, poached pear with a nice berry chutney and German dumplings, Sis had Kase Spatzle, and Bear had a pretzel (we all shared though).  Oh, not to mention JD was able to get his mass of bier!  Overall pretty great Saturday!

Sunday was interesting and not as planned.  I was going to get up and go to the Dirt Market with Julie.  From my understanding the Dirt Market is like an outdoor flea market.  However, it snowed and snowed (not like what the Midwest was just hit by, but a good inch).  By the time we all got down to breakfast Sunday morning, all of the major roads out of Beijing were closed.  You think snow brings the South to a stop – it completely halts a city like Beijing in China.  At first we debated staying an extra night, but then remembered that we were getting our shipment on Monday so staying was out of the question.  Many of the others had school and work on Monday, so it was decided that we would take the high-speed train back to TEDA.  We got our tickets and had our drivers take us to the trains station.  I felt bad for our drivers as they were either stuck in Beijing or taking the 7 hour back way home.  (If we go on overnight trips and take our drivers, the drivers get compensated extra with overtime as well as given an allowance for hotels, etc.  We also gave our drive an extra tip for each day we were there and a little more for having to be stuck in Beijing.  We also gave him the day off on Monday).  Once we got to the train station – it was a zoo!  Here’s the pic!  Yes those are people taking a picture of Bear while we wait.

Beijing Train Station


Our train was supposed to leave at 1:00 pm, but was delayed and eventually canceled – we were able to be on the 4:00 train and at least our reserved seats were still good.  You have never seen pushing or shoving until you experience getting on a train or platform in China.  Sis literally almost got trampled even though we were trying to keeping both kids as close to us as humanly possible (thankfully JD was able to carry Bear).  It is scary as a parent.  Thankfully she did not get hurt and we got on the train.  The train was supposed to take 59 minutes to get to Tianjin and just a little longer to make it to the TEDA area.  Due to the snow, the train ride in it’s entirety took three hours (so much for our first high speed train experience – but oh’well, I’m sure the next time we will actually get to travel the high speeds).  Luckily, one of the members in our group arranged for taxis to pick us up and take us home.  It was treacherous walking from the train station to the taxis, but in the end we all made it safely home (even the drivers).

P.S.  I wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving!!!!!  May it be Blessed and Joyful! Thanksgiving is just another day here, but thankfully we will all go out and have a Thanksgiving feast Friday evening!

Life’s complications X5

This is what JD and I have decided that living in China is:  It is taking something that is normally not very complicated at all or something that may be a minor hick up and you proceed to amplify it five times and that is what it is like living in China.  Because lets face it nothing is ever simple here.  Remember busted water pipes that were plastic and buried in cement between our floor and the ceiling below us (which equaled a three week stint at a hotel)?  Lately it seems like it has been one thing after another and we cannot catch a break.  For instance, our key cards are currently not working to get into our apartment or the fact that the back elevator was not working this morning.  So you could go down the front elevator but not back up as you can only get back up with a key card.  We are on the 22nd floor and at this stage in the game I’m not about to climb 22 flights of stairs.

Today was supposed to be the day we got our shipment.  It was supposed to be delivered at 9:00 this morning.  So as 10:00 rolls around, a representative from the moving company comes to our door telling us that it will be 11:00 am before we get it because the fuel lines in the truck froze due to cold weather.  Okay fine – 2 hours delayed now.  Then 11:00 rolls around and they have now fixed the fuel lines but still no shipment because they have to take the newly fixed truck and pick up our shipment from the port and there is a traffic jam.  Now our said shipment should be here by 2:00 pm (if it does arrive today – I’m starting to have my doubts!)…

I just got a text from Sis’ teacher that they will be taking the kids outside to play in the snow.  Snow by the way is very rare here – so when there is an inch of snow, other parents want their children to go out at recess and play in it!  Parent of the year award is headed my way (oh how I wish there was a font for sarcasm) as my poor child does not have gloves, the pair of mittens I did buy her are in my purse and she has no boots.  Have I mentioned that all of our winter clothes and gear is in our shipment?

…Thankfully our shipment did arrive by 1:45 and oh the chaos that did ensue.  An itty bitty Chinese girl named Shirley knocks on our back door and hands us a sheet full of numbers.  She then proceeds to tell us that there were 113 items/boxes on our shipment and tells me to start marking the boxes down as she calls off the numbers.  Hmmm…okay.  So then she wants to know which room each box goes in in which we explain that that is not happening as Bear just got down from a nap and no one is taking any boxes down the hall.  There is a reason we call him Bear and everyone knows that you let a sleeping bear lie.  We convince the workers to start piling boxes in the living room.  Part way through the delivery the movers decide that it is time to get some of the boxes out of the way by unpacking them.  Please note these movers have been downstairs waiting for the shipment since 10:00 am.  They want to get in and out (which I get).  So now I have four Chinese men going through all of my things and half the time they do not even ask where something belongs – they just take it to whatever room or space they feel like and place it in a pile.  I’m trying to make heads and tails out of everything and before I know it more boxes arrive and the process repeats itself.  Two and a half hours later our apartment looks like a tornado deposited our shipment and now that Bear is awake and Sis is home from school the chaos continues.  I forgot to mention that the back elevator that has worked part of the time as decided to no longer work so now I have movers waiting by the back door as well as moving items in the front.  Oh, and the movers that packed us seemed to have done a less than stellar job as diapers were placed in hanging wardrobe boxes – instead of clothing, which were placed in horizontal wardrobes.  This has left suits, dresses, coats, and many other articles of clothing completely crushed.  Much of my sewing items that were packed in neat bags by yours truly was randomly dumped out of their bags and into boxes. Grrr!

So with everything out of it’s box, the movers are ready to leave but as I’ve been keeping track of the numbered boxes, I note that one box is missing.  No one is leaving until that box is accounted for – according to Shirley.  Shirley is asking us what is in said box based on what is written down on her clip board:  Holiday crafts.  Before I know it, there are two Chinese people arguing about said box in the middle of my living room (Shirley and one of the movers).  I glance at JD, give him a ‘hell if I know look’ and shrug my shoulders.  There is no way I remember what is missing and considering that my household is now a chaotic mess, it will be a while before I figure it out.  We have not seen this stuff in months – there is no telling what is there and what is not.  So now, the movers are going through boxes they have already broken down on a hunt for the missing one.  Unbeknownst to anyone, one of the boxes was accidentally numbered twice.  It only took them half an hour to find this out!

I can only imagine what Ayi Jo is going to think tomorrow morning when she walks into the spotless apartment she left yesterday.  This place is still a wreck!  I should actually be putting stuff away and not blogging.  However the kids are in bed and I need a break.  Alas…I must get back to work as I’m bone tired and want to go to bed.  Right now the only way to get in my bed is to move all the crap, I mean put all the things on my bed away.  Oh what a day!!!!!!

P.S. too tired to take any pictures…maybe tomorrow – or better yet when the apartment is all put together!

Immigration Health Check

So in China, in order to get your residency visa, you have to go through a health check shortly after your arrival.  Now to be fair I had been warned by several people about what all it entailed, but in all honesty, I’m not sure anything could truly prepare you for what the experience turned out to be.

So upon my arrival at the Tianjin Travel Health facility, I was greeted by Henry, the Chinese person in charge of helping us secure our residency visas.  Henry immediately took me to a chair to sit and wait.  He proceeded to show me that they were with client number four and that my number was 47.  So lots of waiting.  This waiting gave me time to observe the large rectangular room, filled with many Chinese men, also waiting for their health checks.  (From what I gathered any time someone leaves the country or to apply for international visas – you first have to go through a health screen in China).  Tianjin is a port city so I assume all these men are probably here to get screened for working on the boats.  The room is rather long with lots of clear glass doors – which I quickly gathered were the different stations of the health check.

Once my number was called, Henry and I went up to the receptionist to fill out my paperwork.  Let me just tell you it is a little unnerving when someone else pulls your passport out of his jacket (and yes I know that he was supposed to have it), but still when you are in a foreign country to not have your passport in arms reach can be a little daunting.  And in case you are wondering – we are pretty much stuck here until our visa paperwork is done and our passports our returned.

Now back to the health check.  With paperwork in hand, Henry escorts me to the sonogram station where a little Chinese girl has me lay on a bench, has me pull up my shirt so she can do a sonogram of my upper body organs.  I think this would have gone a little better if I weren’t pregnant.  However because this baby is getting rather large, in order to get the views she needed, she jabbed the sonogram wand between my ribs.  She had me breathe deeply, which is hard when someone is jabbing you between the ribs.  She then proceeded to stick the wand right under my breast bone to get a better image of my organs.  I’m still a little tender from this screen.

Next was the EKG.  Again I was ushered into the next room where I again laid on a bench and had to pull up my shirt (further this time).  So they could place the electrodes where they needed to in order to get a readout of my heart.  Then came the vision test.  Normally you would think that this test would be no big deal, however when the technician behind the desk uses her pointer to point at the eye chart and points between two rows you are stuck wondering and best guessing which little arrow she is pointing at.  I’m not sure I passed this one but oh well.  I tried.

Moving on…next came the chest x-ray, which I was fortunate enough to get out of because I’m pregnant.  Henry did however walk me over to that station to check me in and I guess to confirm that yes she truly does look pregnant?!  Then came the blood pressure test.  This one made me smile a bit as Henry asked if I knew my weight and height.  I replied I did and he then asked if I knew them in pounds and inches.  So while we were in line waiting for my turn, Henry is on his phone  looking for a conversion app.  So he guesses my weight in pounds – as 56 – yes here is the smile.  I’m like not even remotely close but hey – I will take it as a compliment – especially with how large and pregnant I currently feel.

The last two tests were the blood test and the urine sample.  The blood test was no problem: sit in a chair have a lady stick you and fill three vials.  The urine test is the test I had been dreading upon arrival.  From previous conversations with female expats I was told this would be behind a screen and with a squatty potty (literally a hole in the floor).  So it was recommended to me that I wear a dress for some privacy.  I have never used a squatty potty and being pregnant, I cannot really see what is going on down there – how the heck was I going to collect anything without there being a huge mess?  So when Henry handed me my test tube and collection cup and pointed me to the WC, you cannot imagine how relieved I was to see a western toilet in an enclosed stall.

With my health check completed, Henry sent me on my marry way.  Our driver was waiting for us and upon entering the van I gave a huge sigh of relief, said ‘oye’ and our driver just smiled and said ‘home’.  Yes please take me home.  I’m glad that experience is over (it was not as bad as I thought it would be but still grateful that I do not have to go through it again)!

The moving process…

Hello all!  I’m so sorry that I have been MIA lately – we’ve just been super crazy busy.  I’m no stranger to moving – this is move number six for us in the past ten years.  However, I think this move to China has so far been the most difficult of them yet.  We have been planning, buying, planning, deciding, and more planning for months.  I have already decided that if we have another international move – we will not do it the way we did it again.  How could it possibly be that difficult you may say?  Well…I will give you a rough idea:

  1. Most things (western things) in China are more expensive.  Take diapers for example.  A small box of diapers over here is about $60 compared to a large box in the U.S. (approximately $35).  So when you have one child not yet potty trained and another along the way – it is more cost effective to buy diapers in the U.S. and have them shipped (in your sea shipment) to China.  In case you were wondering, here is what a lifetime supply of diapers looks like:Henry and diapers
  2. Personal items (i.e. soap, shampoo, tooth paste) are different here.  This is okay, except if you are accustomed to a particular type.  Not to mention that as Asian hair is different than Western hair – some products are just not the same.  So we stocked up enough for three years on bar shampoo (we were not allowed to ship liquids), tooth paste, and body soap.  All of this we had to best calculate how much we will go through in a month (times 36 months).  For example.  I go through about one tube of tooth paste a month – so that is 36 tubes, etc.
  3. Toys.  Toys for kids and toys for gifts.  Let us start with the kid’s toys.  It has been a challenge and I’m thankful the kids have been wonderful about deciding what toys to bring and what toys to keep in storage.  We simply could not bring them all.  Now onto gifts:  when JD and I visited in March, we walked through a toy store and noticed how unbelievably expensive toys are over here.  For example, I bought Sis an $8 Barbie doll and found the exact same Barbie doll over here for the equivalent of $32.  So needless to say I have Christmas and birthdays planned and bought for for the next two years.  I will buy for the third year sometime when we are on home leave (but with the kid’s changing interests as they grow, I did not want to take any chances).
  4. Items to make our apartment more like home.  This was one of our biggest mistakes when we moved to Germany.  We did not bring enough items that made the apartment ours – to make it feel more like home.  As this will be our home for three years we felt this is extremely important – especially for the kids.  So we have spent time, money, and energy trying to figure out those special items to make our apartment home.  We were told to bring rugs, as our floors are mostly stone.  We spent hours trying to figure out which would be best to bring.  Next, we wanted the kids rooms to feel like theirs, which meant finding wall decals and decorations specifically for them.  Bear was easy – we found a road rug for toy cars, and will use many of his toys for decor as well.  Sis wanted a princess room so we found princess wall decals, a bed spread (custom made Frozen quilt by mom and grandma), as well as a few special pillows, etc.
  5. Clothes and other necessities tops off list.

We were allotted a 4×4 foot container for our air shipment and a 20 foot container for our sea shipment.  Needless to say we put most of our items in the sea shipment, and toys, diapers, and fall clothes make up our air shipment.  Hopefully we will get our air shipment next week and the sea shipment by the end of October.

Stay tuned…the move details to come!!!!

Peach? Coconut? Which cultural fruit are you?

Yesterday JD and I attended a cultural training course on Chinese culture.  Now if you have ever attended a cultural training course you know how exhausting the day can be.  You are bombarded with information left and right, cultural norms, and to top it off are often asked to verbalize what you believe the biggest challenges you yourself will face when living in a new culture.  It is a day of thinking – tough thinking – where at the end of the day you barely have enough room in your brain to process everything that was said throughout the day.  Anyway, I thought I would share a run down of how the day went.

After we go through introductions in which our facilitator asked us to give a brief history of our lives,  she hands each of us a 70 plus page workbook, and proceeds to explain the agenda for the day.  The objectives for the day were: exploring the cultural foundations of the host country, decoding cultural behavior, adapting to a new culture, and applying what we learned to our everyday lives in China.  The first thing we were asked to do was to figure out what we ourselves wanted to get out of the days session.  My goals were:

  • I want to be comfortable being able to ‘go out’ on my own.
  • I want to be able to fit into the new culture (even though I know that I will stand out no matter what).
  • I want to have the skills to thrive not just survive (especially in language).
  • I want to be aware of cultural acceptances vs cultural no-nos.

The first half of the day we talked about the business culture in China.  I learned a lot.  I did not realize how much China’s policy on only having one child affects the cultural climate for businesses.  The one child is often the sole hope of the family.  Therefore the family invests all of their time, money and energy raising, educating and providing for that child – in high hopes that their one child will bring pride to the family.  Thus in the business world the Chinese are very eager to successful, seek to make money, and do their family proud.  This mentality can pose challenges in the workplace as many of the ‘younger’ generation (those born after 1980) have a sense of entitlement because they are held with such high esteem in their families.  I also learned that China is a hierarchical society – meaning where you were born is extremely important to your station in life as well as in your job.  Everyone knows where they stand and it is clearly known his or her place within the hierarchy of the company.

The second half of the day was focused on daily life and the challenges we will face with living in China.  One of my main concerns is crossing the street.  This may not seem like much in the USA, but in China traffic rules and patterns are completely different.  You have to remember that Americans have been driving for quite a while – whereas in China cars are now becoming accessible to more people.  From my understanding 10 years ago in TEDA most people got around by bicycle and now the main streets have 10 lanes of traffic (five in each direction).  When I visited TEDA back in March, I was mesmerized by  the traffic flow.  I remember sitting at our hotel window watching traffic and being amazed there where not at least 30 accidents in the mere 20 minutes I had been watching.   So my question becomes how the heck am I going to cross the street with three little children?  The advice I got was keep them close and watch them very carefully.  (Thank goodness I decided on a sit and stand stroller not to mention we had the foresight to buy Bear a leash).

Remember my goals?  Here is what if found out:  I learned that no matter what I do or how I try to blend in I will always stand out.  I am a Westerner – my appearance, no matter how I dress, I will always be pegged as a foreigner (so accept it).  My children will stick out like sore thumbs (having lighter hair).  I have been told numerous times that it will not be uncommon for people to come up, touch or pet the kids, and want to have the kids in photos, etc.  I’m sure this will take a lot of getting used to for both the kids and myself.  As for language, our language instruction will not happen until we are there so until then we are not adding learning a new language to our already full plates.  As far as cultural acceptance goes, I have learned that as Westerners we will be viewed as models to aspire to – as many of the younger Chinese want to become as Westernized as they possible can.  To me this is a rather daunting thought, but hey we will see how it goes.

Now to the peach and the coconut.  You may be wondering how they fit into this cultural training experience.  Well here goes:  Americans are generally the peach.  We are soft on the surface and are often eager to make friends and know someone.  We can be very cordial to those we just meet and are willing to share something personal about our selves to get to know another person better.  However we contain pits or walls that others may hit when trying to get to know us.  Often this is where we start feeling uncomfortable with where the friendship is heading and often only let a select few see what is truly in our core.  This can be confusing and send mixed messages to those of different cultures – especially those of the coconut culture type.   Coconuts are people that are often hard to get to know, they hold others at arms length, and it often takes a lot of time for them to open up and let people into their lives to see their true selves.  Coconuts often have tough shells to break, but when they are broken open they are often very translucent.  The cultural example given most often as being coconuts are the Germans and Russians.  Yesterday we learned Chinese are fuzzy coconuts – they are more cordial and soft to newcomers, yet beneath the softness there is still a hard shell.  So how does this fruit analogy help?  It gives us an idea of where others stand in comparison with ourselves when interacting with someone from a different culture.



This Crazy Life

Life is an adventure….so I’ve decided to start a blog.  Beware – I’m new to this and I assume that it will take some getting used to…but that’s okay.  You may be wondering why in the world would a small town girl living in Iowa have anything to blog about.  Well…this small town girl is going to be moving out of her element, out of Iowa, out of the USA and moving to China!!!

About Us

We are a crazy, but fun-loving bunch of people!  Life is never dull at our household, as there always seems to be something going on.  Between home, work, school, trips to the ER (compliments of children of course), and life in general, I’d say we lead pretty normal lives.  Then again we have decided to uproot our family and move around the globe.  We love trying new things, visiting new places, and are always up for a good adventure.  Our motto is Carpe Diem! – cause life is too short not too! 😉