Barbie Attempts to Give Blood

Blood. It is a little icky and I don’t really want to see it spurting out of an open wound, but I am also not going to faint at the sight of a cut or a needle.  Recently, the nurse at the consulate organized a blood drive and after advertising it in my Panda Post, I figured I’d better support the cause and go donate some of my own oozy, red fluid.

I had good intentions. I would like to make that very clear. Good intentions.

It started with me skittering out of a meeting and running back to my office to grab my ID, I went out to the alley where the blood bus was located. (Yes. This is legit. The donation was taking place in a bus. The bus was parked in the alley. It’s all good…) After filling in my official government form acknowledging that I do not have a communicable disease, that I have not taken aspirin in the last week, have not donated blood in the last six months and I am not currently (or within three days on either side) menstruating, I was allowed to enter the van.

Upon arrival in the van, I was taken to a table where a nurse pricked my finger and then milked blood from the tip to put on a coded chart. She determined that I had type O blood, which was actually great information to have. You see, my whole life, I had been told that I was A-positive. Then, when Thad and I  were doing our medical forms for the Foreign Service, we had to have blood tests and one came back A-positive and one came back O. Thad’s paper said he was the A-positive, but I was convinced they must have mixed them up, because I had always been told that was my blood type and he didn’t know his, so I thought it could have been a simple data-entry mistake. (Plus, as a total over-achiever when it comes to school stuff, being A-positive would have fit with my nerd-like eagerness to always have the best score.) Now I know. I’m O.

O is the universal donor though, so I was more ready than ever to hop in to that chair and do a little service for my fellow Chengdu-ers. (Chengdu-ites? Chengdu-ans? Chengdu-ren. That’s the one!)

As I was headed in, Thad was headed out with his dress-shirt sleeve rolled up, his elbow and surrounding eight inches of arm thickly swabbed in iodine and a Band-Aid covered cotton swab smack in the middle. He also had a beautifully decorated pink box with his parting gift- a ceramic bowl. I guess giving blood does pay!  As a successful donor, he wished me luck and headed up to the CLO Lounge to enjoy some cookies and juice while I got ready to make my deposit in the blood bank.

With his chair empty, I made my way to the back of the bus (just like all the cool kids!) where I handed over my paperwork, yet again, and settled in for the bloodletting.

At this point in the story, it might be good if I let you in on a rather pertinent piece of information- I’ve never given blood before! You see, when I am not excluded by travel to various countries, the nurses take one look at my arms and send me packing. I apparently have no blood veins. This has become an issue each and every time I have to have blood drawn for tests. In the past, I’ve had phlebotomists go with the insert-needle-and-poke-around method, I’ve had them fiddle with my feet in hopes of finding a good vein and most often, I’ve had them call in the head-honcho to do the poking. My veins are just not easy to access.

But, back to the blood van in the alley.

After the nurse put the tourniquet on my arm and got exactly zero veins to pop, she proceeded to add a second tourniquet and then employ the slapping-the-patient’s-arm method. After the double-tourniquet and slapping got us nowhere, she repeated the same process on my right arm. Again, no luck. At this point, another nurse, between donors, joined the fun. She decided to give it a shot and it was back to the left arm. After another left and right check with no better results, the nurses were stumped.  This entire process involved a lot, a whole lot, of arm slapping!

One of the Chinese staff members who was giving blood at the same time leaned over and asked what was going on. When I told her they couldn’t find a vein, she looked at me very seriously and said, “But your arms are so white. How can they not see them?”  Gee, thanks!

After a third round of trying and failing to find a vein, a mini-conference of the three nurses was convened. None of them wanted to be the one to tell me it wasn’t going to happen, so after watching them huddle and discuss, when one came back, I just looked at her and said, “Should I just go?” She smiled and nodded yes, sending me on my way.

Blood donation failure.

The thing is, after talking to Thad, I think I am okay with the way it worked out. Apparently, the needles being used to draw blood could have doubled as irrigation siphons in an emergency.

Blood donation wasn’t a total loss though. I may not have contributed to my local community and I definitely didn’t come home with a flowered ceramic bowl, but I did walk away humming my favorite Aqua tune. You see, as I waited for the first finger-pricking to determine my blood type, the nurses’ assistants called me over to tell me they thought I looked like Barbie! Blonde hair and blue eyes go a long ways in western China.  Barbie may be living a life in plastic, but she is fantastic!

Come on Barbie, let’s go party!

Massaged by a Steamroller

This weekend marks our one-month-in-Chengdu anniversary.  What better way to celebrate it than with a three-day weekend! It just happens to be Dragon Boat Festival here in China, which means Friday, Saturday and Sunday have been ours to do what we please. Since Thad is the duty-officer for the consular section this week (which also means I get to call him “Doodie!” for a few more days) we were not able to go out of town for the long weekend, but instead enjoyed some rather warm and humid days here in the ‘Du.

After a rather crazy first week on the job, where I am quickly learning not only my role within the consulate, but also a lot about State Department culture, we decided that a massage might be a fabulous way to kick off the weekend. Now, as we’ve traveled around Southeast Asia over the years, Thad has often taken advantage of the inexpensive massage options available, but until this weekend, I bowed out of each offering. It all just seems too awkward and uncomfortable to me. But, with a new city and a new job, why not add a new experience to the trifecta of newness? So, along with friends here in the city, we scheduled a two-hour foot-massage, which is really a full-body massage with a rather extensive foot bath included.

I was leery going in to this massage. I didn’t really know what to expect, nor was I overly comfortable with the idea, but I tried to go with an open mind. Granted, there were a few misgivings when we were brought these cotton pajama-like outfits to wear. They were hideous, but oh-so-comfortable! My brain couldn’t decide whether to rebel at the ugliness (and slight cult-like nature of the four of us in matching PJs) or to find a way to shove them in my purse to take home to enjoy on a nightly basis.  In the end, I donned my prescribed outfit, enjoyed it while I could, and then left it folded neatly on the end of the bed upon leaving. As comfortable as it was, I just don’t think I could manage to wear it outside the realm of the massage parlor. Sometimes appearance trumps coziness, no matter how glorious the coziness is.

I must admit, during the massage, I was pretty okay. The foot massage was great- I’d go for that anytime. The shoulder/neck kneading that occurred while my feet were marinating in what I can only assume was tea prepared on the surface of the sun was a different matter. Let’s just say that deep-tissue doesn’t begin to describe the depth of this massage. While it was slightly painful at the time, I stuck it out, as Thad told me that while it might be a bit uncomfortable at the time, the next morning I would feel fabulous. (Apparently fabulous means “crushed by a steamroller, but more on that later…)

All was going fine, by feet were fully boiled and scrubbed, when it all took a turn towards ridiculousness. Now, throughout the foot massage, I didn’t utter a single giggle. My feet tend toward the ticklish side, but I was able to endure the various implements which must have been purposely designed to make the foreigner titter. My maturity and togetherness quickly came apart though when after a decent back massage moved south and became a butt massage. Luckily, I had been forewarned of this part of the routine, so I wasn’t shocked by the occurrence, but I was forced to bury my head in the pillow as I stifled a laugh as my rear-end received a short, but strange massage. Thank goodness this was towards the end of the evening, otherwise I may not have been able to keep my composure until the masseuses left the room.

After paying what amounted to about $20 for a two-hour working over, we headed home. I mentioned to Thad that my dude was really into the neck and shoulder part of the process and that I felt a little sore. He told me to stop being a baby, which I assumed I probably was being, as this was my first ever massage.  That assumption only lasted until morning, when I tried to roll out of bed and became paralyzed by muscled that not only did I not know I have, but ones that I would rather not ever know I had! My upper back/shoulders/neck hurt so much that I had to do the old-man stumble in to the bathroom to check in the mirror to make sure I wasn’t sporting a full-body bruise! While my skin was as pasty-white as ever, it felt like it should be the raging purple and black of a blossoming bruise.

Needless to say, I spent a good deal of my Dragon Boat Saturday laying on the couch, moaning about how maybe a “foot massage” was not the best way to start the long weekend!

With my initial massage experience officially in the books, I am sure I will be making a few more visits to the parlor, as it is a favorite amongst people at the consulate and organizing a gathering or two there all directly under my job description. Next time though, I’ll be prepared. There will be no silent acceptance of the way-too-deep tissue massage! Call it being a baby, but that just hurt!

Goodbye Bonbons, Hello PB&J

After a year of self-imposed temporary retirement, my days of lounging on the couch and eating Bonbons are coming to an end.  (Okay, there were no Bonbons consumed over the course of the last twelve months, but there was a lot of reading, writing and random wandering in the DC metro area, as well as a few less thrilling days filled with boredom and doubt. Luckily, the down days were few and more nostalgic than depressing.) Soon, as in Monday, it is time for me to rejoin the full-time workforce that powers our great nation. Granted, I am joining that forty-hour-a-week club on a different continent, but it is in the service of the Homeland, so I can soon commiserate with everyone else looking forward to weekend each Monday morning.

While my re-entry isn’t into the world of education (a topic about which I am having very mixed emotions), it is in a capacity that will allow me to be deeply involved in our new community and hopefully create some of the same connections with people that I was able to do teaching. I will be the CLO (community liaison officer) for the Chengdu Consulate. This means that I will work to help officers and families make the transition to their new home, work to create a great morale at the post, provide information about schools in the area, as well as event planning and (heaven forbid it is needed) crisis management on behalf of the families.

My brain (and notebook) have been in overdrive the last few weeks as I have been trying to glean as much information as possible from the outgoing CLO. She is a treasure-trove of knowledge about everything in this city. She can point an officer or family member in the right direction for anything from simple tailoring needs to wherein town to go to get an entire costume created. She can tell someone where to go to get a picture framed and then turn around and office advice to someone else on the best place to find a turkey for a special dinner. The woman is a walking Rolodex for Chengdu! Needless to say, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of having to create all of those connections myself, but luckily she has been kind enough to introduce me to many of her contacts and to take me on a variety of field trips to various sections of town.  She is leaving behind some rather large shoes to fill, but with my predilection for footwear, I am hoping I’ve got something in the closet that will sparkle and shine!

Monday morning, the year-long vacation comes screeching to halt. It might be a little painful when Thad’s alarm goes off and I actually have to roll out of bed, rather than give him a slight nudge to get him moving and then sprawl diagonally across the vastness of an entire bed to myself. And, in a few weeks I may be seeing the grass as greener on the unemployed side of the fence, but for now, I am excited to rejoin the workforce, to pack my peanut butter sandwich each morning and to actually contribute a few dead presidents to our bank account each month.

What exactly have I done with my year off? I have been…

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The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

I love fiction set outside the United States, the more far-fetched the better, as it holds a window up to parts of the world that I may never get a chance to see and experience. Nell Freudenberger’s newest novel, The Newlyweds is a wonderful entanglement of two very opposite worlds- that of Amina, a Bangladeshi young woman and her new husband, George, an American who went looking for love online.

George and Amina  meet on, where he has gone in search of love to console a heartbreak he isn’t as over as he thinks he is and she is looking for love, or at least a connection, that will allow her and her parents to leave behind the life they have in Bangladesh and start over in what they imagine is the Land of Dreams- America. After an online courtship with just a few bumps, George flies to Bangladesh with an engagement ring in his pocket, to meet the woman with whom he has been exchanging emails filled with stories of who he is (although, Amina will soon learn that there are secrets left untold.)

With their engagement behind them and Amina’s successful application for a visa, she travels to the United States alone, to be married and start a life with George, knowing that she will apply for her parents to follow as soon as it is legally possible. She and George settle in to married life and get along fine, but between George’s past love affair and Amina’s future plans, there are certain aspects of themselves that they are each unwilling to share.

Having never been to Bangladesh, I can’t say how accurate the portrayal of the country is, but I was struck less by the poverty described in certain sections and more by the brutality employed, seemingly with impunity, by Amina’s distant family members who feel that her father has stolen from them. Between the attempt by one to burn her and her mother alive in their apartment to the acid thrown on her father in the market when she has come home to help her parents secure visas, the violence and lack of punishment for it is astounding. Bangladesh is made out to be rather lawless, especially when it comes to the villages. It seems like a terrifying place to live, let alone raise a family, and it is understandable why Amina and her mother have worked Amina’s entire life to find her a way out.

I love that this story is a realistic look at what marriage might be. In the US, we are conditioned to think love is the one and only basis for a happy marriage, but there are other ways to reach that same level of contentment in a relationship. George and Amina have some tough times and are forced to deal with a variety of difficult issues early on in their marriage, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work through them and create what could ultimately be a lifetime of happiness, despite their cultural differences. Nell Freudenberger’s beautifully written latest work, The Newlyweds, was outstanding and easily earns:





It’s So Fuzzy! I’m Going to Die!


That’s right. We’ve been in Chengdu for two full weeks without seeing China’s cutest export, so we figured it was time to make the short trek to the edge of town and see as much fuzzy adorability as possible. Chengdu is starting to get hot and humid in the daytime, so to avoid as much stickiness as possible, and in hopes of seeing actual panda movement (not a guarantee with these large, sloth-ish mammals), we headed out just after 7AM. (I’m telling you- the pandas must be awesome if Thad was up that early on his day off!) The preserve is about thirty minutes, by cab, from our place, but it is no problem getting there. If a foreigner gets in a taxi and mumbles anything that sounds vaguely like “da xiong mao,” he is going to end up at the panda preserve.

For a mere fifty-eight kaui (a bargain at less than ten American dollars) I had my panda ticket in-hand and was ready to witness all the delights that pandas have to offer. We opted out of the tour cart, which could be had for a few more dollars. (Tour carts are a hit with the Chinese people. They like to load up at the front gate and be driven to the major tourists spots of any given locale and then driven back to their original starting point.) We embarked into the tunnels of bamboo that lead the way to the largest of the animal enclosures. (As we made our way through these forested tunnels, that remarked that while it was a nice stroll through bamboo for us, it was a buffet line for the pandas!)

Pandas are split into three main categories at the preserve: adult pandas, sub-adult pandas and infant pandas. There were quite a few adults in our wanderings, but they all tended to be on the “eat sixteen hours a day and sleep the rest” plan, which is pretty typical for a gigantic animal that has a diet consisting of nothing more than the low-in-nutrient (but surely high in fiber!) bamboo plant. The adults are big and fuzzy and black and white, but ultimately, a bit boring. Really, babies are where the action is at!!

We first visited the main baby panda area, where they were three young ones out in the yard. Out of the three, only one was awake. The other two were gracelessly flopped in the crooks of trees, taking their early-morning naps. The one little guy who was up was rummaging around his mom’s bamboo pile, flopping over the edges of his platform and putting on a show for the hordes of people loaded down with giant cameras. This little guy was cute, but little did we know we had yet to hit the baby-panda jackpot!

In our normal fashion, we soon wandered off the beaten path, away from the flag-waving tour guides and their duckling-like followers, and in to a section of the preserve that I am pretty sure didn’t exist when we were last there in 2007. The Moonlight Nursery sign lured us down a back pathway, down a rather steep hill and through some prettily landscaped scenery. About 2/3 of the way down, we wondered if the nursery referred to a bamboo nursery, as foliage was all that we could see, but figured we may as well go check out the plants since we were most of the way there to begin with. Thank goodness we kept going! At the bottom of the hill was another panda nursery, but this one hidden away so that few tourists made the mini-trek to see it. On the backside of this outpost building were what must be the world’s cutest panda twins! These little guys engaged in a mini-battle royal that made its way from the shrubs to the middle of their water fountain, to the top of their rock hill, eventually ending when one got stuck in the fork in a tree! The epic fight consisted mostly of a lot of huffing, clumsy rolling and the occasional ear-bite. I have to say, it is hard to look tough when your fuzzy little bum in sitting smack in the middle of a fountain.

America has many things going for it, including a steady supply of Lucky Charms and cheese (not together mind you!), but when we our great leaders sat down to choose an animal to represent us on the world stage, I think they could have spent a wee-bit more time considering the cuteness factor of their choices. Think about it: panda vs. eagle. A panda is going to win that vote every time, no question about it! I’m considering the need to start a petition to designate a second national animal- something more along the lines of a mascot. How about a porcupine or a manatee or a mountain goat? Even an armadillo! All of these animals have a cute-factor that eagles are lacking. The country could boost its economy through the loads of mascot-related “stuff” that tourists would purchase as exorbitant prices and haul home to their families abroad. (It would work! You would not believe the amount of panda-stuff purchases I saw being made today. Not one to shirk my duty, so far I’ve purchased a handful of panda postcards and a panda toothbrush holder. I am sure this is just the beginning of my panda-purchases over the next two years.)

It may have taken us fourteen days to get it done, but we have now done our official duty by visiting the Chengdu Panda Preserve. I am sure today’s visit was the first of many over the next couple of years, as we’ll have to make the trip with each set of visitors, as one can’t spend any amount of time in Chengdu and not partake of the fuzzy wonder that is the panda park.

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Betty Crocker, I Am Not

With the jetlag behind us and Thad already entrenched in his new job, I thought it was time to help make our new apartment a little more like home. Right now, it is a lovely conglomerate of every shade of beige imaginable. I could make a beige-only color wheel out of this place, from the dark camel colored couches (for which I’ve been searching the internet for slipcovers), to the light tan area rug to the orange-ish-brown lamps that look like pineapples, to the dark hardwood furniture, we definitely have “earth-tones” taken care of. The problem is, I am far from an earth-tones type of girl. I’d prefer something more in the jewel-tone range, with rich purples and pinks and greens and blues. All of that, though, is in our UAB/HHE shipments, which may or may not be on their way. (May not being the more likely option this early in the game.)

So, while I await color, I thought I could at least add a bit of American feel to the house and what better way to do that than with a chocolate cake. (I found a cake mix for less than a dollar at a local store, but the frosting was six dollars, so it will be icing-less cake, which is what Thad prefers anyway.) Cake baking, from a box of course, is pretty straight-forward. That is, until you move to China!

I had my not-quite-expired cake (which explains the five kaui price tag), and was ready to bake. The first thing I did was turn on the oven to pre-heat it, but I quickly ran in to a couple of problems. To begin with, the oven doesn’t have words or characters on it, just lots of little pictures, mostly squares with varying squiggly lines coming off each one. I just need my oven to bake, but after digging out the manual, I discovered that certain squiggly lines mean “bake” while a different configuration means “broil” and a third pattern means “grill.” With six such combinations to choose from, I eventually had read through a good deal of the  manual so I would choose the correct box/line combination. With that selected, I moved on to the next knob- temperature. The only problem there was  the oven is European, which means the heat is measured in Celsius, a measurement for which I have absolutely no sense. Thank goodness we have an internet connection in the apartment to help me convert Celsius to Fahrenheit in just a matter of seconds.

With my oven preheating at 178 degrees, it was time to mix the cake. The first step in making a cake in China is to wash the poop off of the eggs. (Well, even before that, at the egg stall, make sure you buy chicken eggs, as there are a variety of goose and quail and other fowl eggs to be had.) Once my eggs were poo-free, they went in to the bowl, along with the oil and mix. While it would be baked and probably turn out fine, rather than take the risk of tap water, I used water from our distiller, which is a giant metal contraption that sits on the counter in the kitchen. It heats and cleans water so we always have a ready supply.

At this point, I thought I was doing fabulously. I had my cake mixed and poured in the pan. (No beater licking here though…in America, I always disregarded the warnings about cookie dough and cake batter, but here I feel like they might carry a bit more weight!) Without thinking much more about it, I popped the pan in the oven, set the timer and headed off to the living room to enjoy some Netflix while I waited for the smell of baking chocolate cake to begin to permeate the house.

After nearly an entire episode of Brothers and Sisters I realized that no such smell was wafting through my apartment. I scurried in to the kitchen, opened to oven door only to discover that there was no heat coming from the oven. The oven light didn’t come on. The cake was still liquid batter.  Ack!

I fiddled with every knob, pushing them, pulling them, jiggling them and wiggling to no avail. With those options expended, I moved on to shaking the oven, slamming the door a couple of times, and cranking up the temperature. Again, no luck.  When Thad got home from work, I was sitting on the kitchen floor, surrounded by the manual and all of the household information given to us by the Consulate, trying to figure out how to make my oven go.

At that point, he reached in to the fridge to get a Pepsi and I instantly noticed the refrigerator light was off. I checked the microwave, which also wasn’t working. A fuse! I must have blown a fuse! (It turns out I cannot dry laundry in the clothes dryer and bake a cake in the oven at the same time. Good to know!)  After showing Thad a closet he didn’t know existed in our house, the one that contains the fuse box, he found the goofy one and got my oven back on track.

The cake went back in for round two of baking, after sure enough, after about half an hour, that chocolate cake smell I was aiming for began to drift through the house. While it wasn’t the surprise of coming home to that scent that I had hoped Thad would have after a long day at the Consulate, after a few missteps and a much too long of baking process, we had cake for dessert last night. It was well-worth the minor bedlam to get there!

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The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha

It has probably become apparent by now that I am fascinated with North Korea and how such an isolated country can still exist in this world of ever-increasing abilities to communicate with people from around the globe. (I write this review from my couch in Chengdu, China, where I just got off Skype with my parents who live in Idaho, have emailed several friends back in the States and caught up on world news via a variety of online newspapers. I know what I am talking about when it comes to being connected!) Recently, I reviewed Escape from Camp 14 which was a memoir of one man’s time in the horrific camps of Northern Korea. The Impossible State is quite a different look at the country- taking an in-depth approach to everything from the history of the country to detailed looks at each of the Kim family members who have ruled throughout the last decades to the economy as it is today and why it can’t sustain itself.

Victor Cha’s new book is filled with fascinating insight into North Korea, but it reads more like a college textbook than an average non-fiction book published for the run-of-the-mill reader would. I especially enjoyed the chapter on the Kim family and how each successive leader had to create a place for himself within the government, but at times the information seems to get bogged down in technical language that isn’t necessary. It is almost as if the book is trying to push itself to be picked up by professors of classes about the Koreas, thereby helping it reach a higher profit margin.

The other thing that I really struggled with while reading Cha’s book was the writing itself. Yes, I feel that it was too textbook-y, but maybe I just wasn’t the intended reader. I found the book at the library and picked it up because it looked interesting, but maybe Cha was really pushing for a more academic setting for his research. Being written in a technical manner doesn’t mean, though, that it can’t be well-written and well-edited. There were many times throughout the book where the writing just became ungainly, with confusing modifiers and the occasional antecedent left to hang on its own.  More than once I had to reread sentences and paragraphs, not to tackle difficult vocabulary, but to decipher the meaning behind poorly edited writing.  Going back to my days of Six-Traits Writing instruction, I would say Cha really needs have someone help him focus his organization and conventions.

This newly released book is great because the subject is so relevant, as North Korea’s new constitution just named it as a nuclear-power, thereby trying to bully its way into international talks and aid. The research and discussion is current, dealing not only with Kim Jong-Il, but also his successor, the country’s current leader, Kim Jong-Un.  In a world that is as politically fluid as is ours, it is rare to get such a contemporary viewpoint. It seems as soon as books are published, the landscape has changed and they are out of touch with this moment’s crisis.

I enjoyed this book, but I think a lot of that had to do with my inherent interest in the topic. The book is filled with fascinating insights into what is easily the world’s most isolated and possibly most brainwashed nation, giving the reader both facts and theories about where the country has been and where it is headed. The writing itself leaves something to be desired. Victor Cha’s The Impossible State earns: