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!

Clearing my head!

I should be getting to bed, but my head is awake.  Awake and thinking.  So I figure if I type and get my thoughts out of my head and onto digital paper I will be able to go to sleep.

JD and I finally booked a trip to get out of Teda for a week.  This may not seem like a big deal but believe me – after living here so long, one needs a break.  Julie always tells me that the best advice she ever received was from a previous expat who told here that you need to try to escape here every three months for your sanity.  I believe every word of that statement.  Between smog, general stresses and confined city living – where it is hard to even go on a simple walk, you need to escape and refresh.  We have been promising the kids a beach vacation for a while and in may we are going to go to Sonya – the Hawaii of China.  We actually thought about stopping in Hawaii on our return trip to the states, but after seeing it would mean two bad days of travel instead of just one, we opted to just fly home.  I think this is for the better for the kids too.  I cannot tell you how excited I will be to see the Midwest again!

My kids have been asking to go to a beach for a while.  Bryan jokingly told me the kids are young enough that we could just take them to the Teda beach and they would not know the difference.  (insert smile and wink) Thanks but no thanks – Teda is a port town and just let me say there is a reason we do not eat the local sea food here.  You just don’t know what has been leaked or poured into the water.    Anyway, there are sand pit areas at school and every time we walk by both kids want to build a sand castle and ask when can they get to a real beach to do so.  And after these past few months a week on the beach sounds amazing.

I’m in the middle of trying to nail down a teaching job.  I think this is probably what has been weighing on my mind the most.  When we toured Teda International School back in March on our exploratory trip over here, I wanted to know more about how they got teachers to even come to Teda.  So it was soon discovered that I am a certified teacher.  The next day while we were touring apartments, I got called in for an informal interview (even though I really wasn’t looking for a job).

When we arrived home from our trip, I sort of mauled the idea around in my mind, but soon found out I was pregnant with Newbie and soon put the idea of teaching out of my mind.  Then there have been a few times when I was dropping Sis off at school that the principal sought me out to ask if I would be interested in teaching.  I stayed at home with both Sis and Bear and I guess I thought it was just a given that I would stay home with Newbie as well.  This was all before our new Ayi came into our lives.  Ayi is amazing with my kids and I trust her completely with my kids.  She has fun with them but also knows when to put her foot down and discipline them.  I trust her with watching Newbie during the day while I’m at school – where my older two kiddos will be.

All that is left is to work out my teaching contract which I hope will go smoothly, fingers crossed!

 

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter everyone!  We have been busy busy busy!  Spring is finally starting to spring here in Teda, which means full blown allergies for this girl.  The cherry blossoms are out and the temperatures are becoming increasingly more consistent in warming up.  Today was a beautiful clear day.

We hosted Easter Mass this morning.  It was wonderful!  There were around 20 of us in attendance.  I find Mass to be very special here as it is always in someone’s home.  We have a Colombian couple that sing all of our hymns in Spanish, most of us take turns with the readings, and the children are often asked to participate in someway during the Mass.  Mass is very intimate with such a small group!  The large Catholic Cathedral in Tianjin is over an hour away, and we are fortunate enough to have Fr. Rindo come and visit us once a month and on special occasions for Mass in Teda.  Fr. Rindo often reminds us that this is how the early Christians worshiped before churches were built.  As it is Easter, we Catholics renew our baptismal vows to God.  Just as water is used in baptisms, holy water was sprinkled over us.  As we do not have all the tools an actual Church does, Fr. Rindo decided a pastry brush and a glass mixing bowl worked just fine.

After Mass we had a pot luck lunch.  As we are a very diverse community, the dishes brought to share were equally diverse.  It amazes me how a common religion can bring a group of people together, to create a bond between members that becomes so familiar.  Not always do we share a meal after Mass, but this time, and because it was Easter, it was very important to me that we did.  These wonderful people are my family in faith here.  By sharing food you get to know people just a little bit more as conversations arise.

After our meal, we held an Easter egg hunt for the kids.  We sent JD and Bryan down to hide the eggs then the rest of the group came down to watch the hunt!  I always enjoy watching the hunt – especially with the little ones.  The is the first time Bear actually understood what was going on and I think it is safe to say he had a fabulous time.  After the last egg was found, we headed back in for more great conversation and before too long Fr. Rindo had the kids arm wrestling.  I cannot tell you how much having this wonderful community has helped me personally with living here.

Tomorrow is actually Easter Sunday.  We will be having brunch with our neighbors as well as Warner and Baron (our New Chinese friends – the ones that took us to the Ukulele demonstration).  I made homemade cinnamon rolls.  It has been a pretty great holiday so far even being so far from family and friends!  Happy Easter everyone!  (I have to get to bed so the Easter Bunny can come!)

Sometimes you just need an awesome night and a new friend!

This is not the post I intended to post tonight, but as I’m still smiling from ear to ear every time I reflect back on tonight…I just had to share.

I think it is safe to say I found a new friend and not just an expat friend, but an English speaking Chinese friend.  His name is Warner and he is my wine and spirit guy.  By wine and spirit guy I mean that he has a business importing wine and spirits for area restaurants and people.  My friend Julie hooked me up this past Wednesday by asking Warner if he would not mind taking us to his warehouse and letting us select a wine and spirits from there.  (FYI a bottle of wine here costs around $30 for the same level of wine you could purchase in the U.S. for $10).  With Warner we get a price that makes buying a bottle of wine much more comparable to the U.S.

Anyway, Warner picked us up at our apartment and drove us to and from his warehouse.  On the way home we somehow got to talking about my kids and music.  It turns out that Warner’s friends were having a music demonstration tonight demonstrating the Ukulele.  Well, Sis received a children’s guitar last year for Christmas and has been wanting lessons ever since.  So when Warner invited my family we decided that this is something we were definitely interested in.

The demonstration tonight was amazing.  They had Ukuleles for all the kids in attendance to try.  I do not have pictures because I was trying to help Sis with her fingering, but let me tell you how cute it was.  Both kids were super excited to get to try to play – Sis even had someone by her who spoke English, teaching her where to place her fingers and how to strum the Ukulele.  Bear tried his hardest to figure out his figures.  It was amazing to see my older two entertained for over an hour with musical instruments.

After the demonstration, we stuck around while the musicians got out their African drums and let the kids try playing them.  We are even welcomed back next week when they will be instructing on the African drums and dancing.

After the kids went down to bed, Warner sent me pictures he took on his phone and we got to talking.  He loves kids as well as socializing.  As we took our entire family he got to hold Newbie as well as help the older two.  Warner is the type of person that can walk in a room and make anyone feel at ease – which I believe is a true gift!  Just thinking of his interactions with us tonight brings a smile to my face and lifts my heart!

So thank you God for placing Warner in our lives!

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

A Case of the Blues….

I apologize in advance, but I’m in a bit of a rambling mood.  Yesterday was good.  I went to Beijing to pick up Newbie’s passport.  I had Fatburger for lunch – which is probably the closest thing to a great American fast food staple you can get here.  Note all the delicious juiciness: Fatburger I must say that I ate slowly, savoring every bite – which sort of backfired as I could not finish the excellent ‘fat’ fries.   Then I headed to the Pearl Market for some speed shopping where I picked up an amazing antique basket.  I have never seen a basket like this before and I just love it!  Then it was Sam’s club and then home. Just in case you were wondering our U.S. Sam’s card works here.  The store itself is similar – just more Chinese in flavor.

 Here is the basket!  I’m using it to store blankets in by the sofa.blanket basket

Yet as I am sitting here typing about a fun day, homesickness is starting to creep into my my being and a melancholy mood is setting in.  Looking out the window doesn’t help as it is becoming rather smoggy and increasingly grey.  I just finished my Chinese lesson for today and am no smarter or wiser in Chinese than when I started.  Thank you lack of sleep!  My ears lack the phonemic awareness that is needed differentiate between the ‘u’ and umlaut-ed ‘u’ (which is not truly an umlaut).  Not to mention the four different Chinese tones that set my head spinning.  Ah, Little Bear just awoke – I’ll take the snuggles!

Any bout of homesickness is hard, but I think when your kids have it and they cannot express that they have it, it is even harder.  Our kids have not had the easiest or smoothest move over here.  Yet they have done well enough given the circumstances.  I’m not sure when the last time it was that Bear slept all night.

I am starting to think a large portion of the kids’ homesickness is from the lack of our extended families.  Back home grandparents played such a large and important role in our kids lives that in moving so far away has left a gaping hole in our family’s sense of home and security.  This has been the longest my kids have been away from their grandparents.  We were used to seeing both sets of grandparents approximately once a month.  We use Skype on a regular basis to talk to them, but as human contact such as hugging, kissing, and snuggling is missing – it’s just not the same.

I also think it is fair to say that we miss non-city life.  My kids miss playing in the snow, grass, fresh air…all that fun stuff, but I also think we miss quiet, freedom from depending on assistance, and sights other than city lights.  Sometimes I even wonder if my kids feel like the miss the ability to blend in with their peers.

Julie and I often talk about how life can be so different here.  For instance, I feel like I am never truly satisfied food wise here.  I do not know what it is, but it feels like I have a craving for something that I just cannot put my finger on.  Well, I take that back, I would really enjoy a nice juicy steak right now, but that is not going to happen for another five months.  Maybe it is the lack of red meat in our diets that is causing the feeling of never being satisfied.  Don’t get me wrong, we will enjoy an amazing Chinese meal, but at the end  of it I always seem to be wanting something more.  If I new what that something was – I would not be going this crazy.  I will say that I have baked more in the past few months than I have probably have in the past year in the States.  I think I’m searching for that something and still coming up short.  Maybe it’s lack of dairy too?  Oh well – if I ever figure it out – I will let you know!

I was talking to JD the other night about how I just feel the need to escape for a little while.  I don’t know where to but its almost as if we all need a little break.  Thankfully, JD’s parents will be here soon.  We may take them up into the mountains near here – which I really hope we do as it may be just the escape we all need to renew ourselves.

Sky, Grass, and Smog

So I know it has not been that long, but Bear gave me something to blog about today.  I love that little guy! His actions today gave me something to ponder…..

We have been fighting smoggy weather for a while.  If you read my last post, you will know how much I dislike it, but let me just say it again.  Smog sucks – I do not like to use fowl language, but if I simply said smog stinks I would be stating more of a fact than an opinion.  We miss blue sky. For those of you at home and have seen a blue sky in the past month please know that we are envious over here.  Take time to appreciate the joy of throwing your head back taking a deep breath of fresh air, enjoy the sent, and soaking up the warmth of the sun on your face! We have had friends show pictures of their house back in the States and they had their Chinese co-workers ask if the sky was photo-shopped!  All the crystal clear sky pictures you see in books of the major cities in China are photo-shopped.  

This morning was a rather clearish morning.  There was some haze, but no where near what we have now (see picture).  I decided to take the kids out.  We have been having some serious cabin fever around here.  As it looked decent enough to play outside for a little while, we left our Newbie with ayi and seized the opportunity to burn off some energy.

smoggy day

Both kids were excited to be outdoors.  When we got to the play area, they went wild!  As a mom looking at the play equipment, I cringed.  It was disgustingly dirty.  Okay – so no fingers in the mouths and we can stay outside and play.  Then when we get back in the kids are immediately taking off shoes (which is custom here) and pants and washing their hands until they are good and squeaky clean.  Normally it is custom to remove shoes when visiting any home in China.  We have certainly come accustomed to it as our shoes immediately come off when you step inside the door.  Smog is why.  Smog makes everything outside dirty, dusty, and nasty.  You do not want it dragged through your home.  It is also why ayi washes the floors every day.  It is the reason why we spent a small fortune on air purifiers.  There is no longer a five second rule at our house.  If food hits the floor – sorry – you are out of luck.

This is how dirty Bear's hand got just from playing on the play equipment!
This is how dirty Bear’s hand got just from playing on the play equipment!

Back to Bear! The kiddos played and played, ran and ran, and then Bear did something that I almost stopped him for.  He went to play in the grass. Our apartment complex generally frowns on not keeping to the paths -there are signs posted in Chinese and English everywhere to stay off the grass.  The security guard was even eyeing me pretty hard.  As I was opening my mouth to say something to him…a little voice inside said, no just watch.  Bear played by running around the grass, going from tree to tree – hugging each one as he went.  Then he sat down and ran his fingers along it, pulling at it, feeling/remembering what it is like to simply feel grass.  He was on the grass side of the play area more than he was actually on the playground.  Please note this grass is grass in winter – rough, dry with very few truly green patches.

Bear outside 2

Bear outside Vantone

Living in the U.S., we took clean air, blue sky, and nice grass for granted.  We miss the ability to go outside, take your shoes off – to feel soft, green grass between your toes, the smell of leaves in the fall, cut grass, birds chirping and singing.  Sights, sounds, and smells that you do not think much about until they are gone become sorely missed.

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!

 

Starting to Feel like Home (and a few other tidbits)

So this is a little late as we just had baby #3.  More about that later, but in the meantime here is the post I meant to post before I went into labor:

Last weekend was a pretty busy weekend to begin with.  Thursday was Thanksgiving of course, so the kids and I did what any American would do in China when you have small kids and your husband is at a work dinner – you order the most American food you can think of: Papa John’s.  Friday evening we had a proper Thanksgiving Feast put on by the Parrot (a restaurant owned and operated by an American).  Each row of tables received it’s own turkey and the rest of the fixings were served buffet style.  The only item that was truly missing was the dinner roll, but that was okay as at least there was pumpkin pie.  Saturday Sis and Dad had a special date to the super market to pick up a Christmas tree.  Then we all went to Lucy’s school festival.  The festival was pretty neat – there were vendors selling crafts, a bake sale, games and a huge bounce house for kids, a book fair, and food for sale.  Bear and Sis spent an entire half hour in the bounce house.  Then I went to my prenatal appointment in Tianjin.  Saturday evening, JD and I decorated and made food for Bear’s birthday party on Sunday.  Needless to say by the time Sunday afternoon rolled around we all took naps.

Parrot Thanksgiving Meal
Parrot Thanksgiving Meal

We have also been busy sorting and putting our apartment in order and I think it is finally starting to feel like home.  We have rugs down, we had a massive IKEA trip on Monday, and I finally took my bed in the bag out of it’s bag and have the new bedding on my bed (which is a pretty big deal to me).  Tuesday evening IKEA delivered a new sofa, dresser for Bear, dresser for Baby, cabinet for the kitchen, and shelf for the bathroom (we were short on towel storage space).  As mentioned before, we have a pretty awesome landlord who was generous enough to flip the bill for these new pieces (don’t worry, she is making enough money off of our expat assignment this is no big deal.  I think she is also glad that I did not ask to have the living room furniture replaced with leather – which was my original intent.  BTW, think of what a decent piece of leather furniture costs in the states and then double it to buy it here!)  Oh, I forgot to mention that the IKEA delivery people also assembled all of the pieces (which is really fun to watch a sofa be ‘IKEA’ed).  We had a dinner to go to at 6pm so luckily Fiona was here to supervise the construction while we were away.

Little side note here:  After dinner on Tuesday, we walked back to the Renaissance hotel (where we lived for three weeks) to see their massive two story Christmas tree.  I covered Sis’ eyes as we walked through the door so she could get the whole experience in all of its glory!  I would say she was amazed!  They also had a huge gingerbread house, Bombay Sapphire tree, and real gingerbread facade on their bakery shop.  The kids even got to dance and sing with the singers – so I think it was a pretty awesome night over all – especially for the kids!  I jokingly told JD that we should have just stayed at the Renaissance just so we could have Christmas morning under the massive tree – I’m sure the hotel staff would not have minded as much as they doted on my kids 😉

Anyway, back to feeling more like home.  After we got the kids to bed on Tuesday, JD and I worked on getting the wire wrack out of the kitchen and into the laundry room and rearranging our bake/cookware.  Now our kitchen does not feel so claustrophobic!  Each night this week we have been working of finding more and more homes for the random items that were placed in the spare bedroom by the movers.  So slowly but surely we are arranging our space to make it home.  I know you are wanting to see pictures – so trust me when I tell you they are in the works.  Give us another week and I will see what I can do!  JD and I are hoping to make enough progress this weekend to get the baby’s crib assembled as well as decorate a little for Christmas – including put up the tree.  I have another Dr. appointment tomorrow and then we have a going away party in the evening and another on Sunday (so another busy weekend).  Not to mention my due date (which we all know doesn’t mean much) is quickly approaching.

 

Weekend in Beijing

Pre-Trip:

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!