You’ve Got Mail

It all started with the Pony Express…

Okay, my ex-history-teacher of a husband (to clarify: “ex” being a modifier of history teacher and not husband) might take issue with that statement, as I am sure there was some type of postal delivery system long before North America was overrun with newbies, but the Pony Express is just so much more fun than whatever marathon-running postmen had to schlep mail across the hinterlands, rain or snow, sunshine or storm.

Regardless of where it started, we’ve got mail.

USPS has played varying roles in my life. I don’t remember getting much in the mail as a kid, other than maybe a yearly birthday card with a $10 bill stashed inside, from my grandma in Utah. I know I tried the pen pal thing a couple of times, but I don’t think we ever got passed the “What is your favorite color” and “Do you have any pets?” stage of correspondence before one or the other, or maybe both, gave up and moved on to chatting with friends we could see and whose names we could actually pronounce.

Mail was pretty much a non-entity in my life until I moved to college. Then, for the first time, it took on a vital role in my daily life. I lived in an on-campus apartment with five other girls (that’s right- six girls in one apartment. Who ever thought that was a good idea must have been smoking something that was definitely not allowed within the terms of the Honor Code!) and one mail key, which hung on a nail by the backdoor, awaiting its daily trek to the metal box outside the building’s entrance. Each day, the box was checked religiously by whichever roommate was home when the afternoon mail drop happened. (Okay, any roommate except for Emily, who was terrorized by a Nordic witch figurine that sat atop our stove, which she swore looked like something out of a horror movie she had seen. With this knowledge in hand, that little doll ended up anywhere Emily might look, including, but not limited to, the mailbox, her section of the medicine cabinet, her drawer of the fridge or her nightstand. (Remember, this was an apartment with six girls. *Everything* was divided up, from kitchen cabinets to shower shelf space to phone availability.) I remember getting a couple of care packages while a freshman, the first one including brownies, wrapped in tin foil, from my little brother who was a freshman in high school at the time. Who knew the kid could bake?

Then I moved to the Dominican Republic to do a semester abroad. (Tough gig, eh? We had classes four days a week and then a three-day weekend to hit the beach…I mean, study. Needless to say, this pasty-white girl from Idaho came home with the closest thing she’d ever had to a tan. Maybe I need to get Thad to bid on a Caribbean post for our next tour. It would take four months to get a working start on some color, but after two years, I might actually have a decent melatonin level!) There, mail was a different beast. Not only did it take weeks to come, but when it did come, the school often held it for a week or two before letting us know we had a letter. Care packages were expensive to send and it was probable that, if they did arrive, would arrive a little lighter than when they were shipped. Let’s just say Dominican customs inspectors always had the best housewarming and birthday gifts for any event to which they were invited.  But, while packages may have been hard to come by, I did get loads and loads of letters, all of which are still stashed away in shoe boxes, sitting in a long-term storage in Fredericksburg, Virginia, until further notice. (I hate to date myself here, but my Dominican days corresponded with the budding days of the internet. I had an email address, through Juno, but rarely used it and connections, even at the university, were nearly impossible to find. Hand-written letters were still the status quo.)

After coming home from the DR and getting married, mail suddenly took on the role of being the bearer of bills and ads. In the years pre and post- Peace Corps, I was doing well if I checked my mailbox a couple of times a week. I was just in no hurry for that college tuition statement, water bill or JC Penny’s flyer.

But then, the mail once again became key when we moved to China with the Peace Corps. Yes, we had a decent internet connection and I was in touch with family and friends via email on a regular basis, but the actual mail meant not only gifts at birthday and Christmas, but it created our on-campus English language library. With Middle Kingdom resources being scarce, nearly all 1000 of our English books and magazines came from the States, shipped by our friends and family and those of our colleagues. The Book Nook, a mini-institution in the backwaters of Gansu, would not have been possible without the USPS.

(Don’t get me started on the Chinese end of these transactions. It is an understatement to say the mail women in Chengxian hated me. Every time I got the tissue-like slip of paper saying I had a box at the local post office, I would skitter down there as soon as I had a break in my class schedule, excited for a new box of books to add to our growing collection. And every time, once I was there, I would have to go the rounds to get my box. Sometimes the women couldn’t find the package, even though I had the slip in hand. Sometimes they were taking their afternoon rest, so I was told to come back, even though technically the post office was open. Sometimes I had to get an official red stamp from some random person at the school to verify it was for me. Sometimes I had to show my Chinese ID card. And sometimes, the woman just didn’t feel like helping me and would shoo me away to come back and try another time. The only great thing about our local post office was they had glasses on a string. That’s right! Banks in America have pens on strings, but in China, our post office had these awesome, giant glasses on a string, I guess so if you needed reading lenses, you would have them available to properly complete your paperwork.)

Now that we are back in China for round two of the Zhongguo lifestyle, mail again plays a central role in our lives. Mail days are Tuesdays and Fridays, which are the afternoons when I eagerly await the email from our mail room saying “There is a little mail today.” With this pronouncement, there is a bit of a mass exodus out to the mail room for officers and families alike to collect their goods. Boxes are piled on the floor, magazines and letters are stashed in surname labeled bins and the mail room worker knows us all by name.

This last week as a particularly successful mail week for the Ross household. We received our bargained for package from the Hello Kitty queen. (Click here to read about the tough fought negotiations with a four-year old that ended up with me sending two rather large boxes of goods to her in exchange for some random items fished out of her toy box. I think I need to work on my business acumen.) This large padded envelope included the owed Hello Kitty-riding-a-dolphin picture, the Hello Kitty pencil left over from Valentine’s Day, and the McDonald’s Happy Meal giraffe. Plus, it had bonus items such as piñata  candy that may or may not have been stashed in my nephew’s shorts (whatever, I’m eating those Smarties!), a couple of friendship bracelets and a beaded necklace. Not too bad of a haul from Idaho.

And then today I got a long-coveted package- one that I’ve been talking about ordering since draft day. (Click here for my day-after-draft post.)  My Shea McClellin Chicago Bears (#99) jersey arrived in the Friday mail pile! Granted, the “small” jersey is nearly big enough for me to belt and wear as a dress, but I’ll be rocking that thing all over China in the next few months. (Stay tuned for those pictures!) While I am normally a Ravens fan, as they are the only American professional sports team to be named after a literary work, I’ve had to shift some loyalty to the Bears to support Shea, one of my former 8th grade English students from Marsing, Idaho. I will be proudly sporting that massive navy blue jersey this season, putting in a good word for him all around our Land of Pandas and doing more than a fair bit of bragging about a small-town kid working his tail off to achieve his NFL dreams. (Of course, I can’t take any credit for his football skills, but I would like to hope that he always uses “their/there/they’re” and “your/you’re” correctly!)

The internet may have created a quicker and simpler way than horse-back delivery to keep in touch with friends and family, but nothing will replace the kid-on-Christmas-morning feeling of cutting in to a box that has come half-way around the world. Whether said package is filled with Hostess chocolate pudding pies (Dad??) or a gift that always ends up back where it came from (Matt??), little is better than seeing a box on the floor of the mail room with ROSS written in big letters along its side.

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Balancing the Scale of Tourism vs. Residency

You know how you can have lived in a place for years and years and still not have gone to some of the tourist destinations in your own backyard? Maybe you live in southern Idaho but have never slid down the Bruneau Sand Dunes or picked your way through Craters of the Moon. Or maybe you live in northern Utah but have yet to climb your way to the top of Mount Timpanogos or stroll through Temple Square. Or maybe you live in our nation’s capital but haven’t yet explored the Air and Space Museum or undertaken the long walk that loops around the monuments.

I think it is easy to forget what spectacular things we have right where we live because we get used to seeing the signs for them and as a species of procrastinators, we tend to put off visits to these great sites because we know they will be there next weekend or next summer or next year.

As Thad and I have lived in several different places over the last fourteen years of our marriage (Idaho, Utah, northern Virginia, China X2), we have learned to not take for granted what we can see from our front door. We’ve visited Idaho landmarks; we’ve taken our nephews to the top of Timpanogos; we’ve escorted friends and family all over the DC area and we definitely have more China-seeing in our future.

But, this draw to do and see wherever we end up also creates an odd convergence of tourism and residency. Chengdu is home. We live here now. And will live her for the next two years. While I want to be a part of the events and culture of the city, while I want to see the pandas and temples and parks scattered throughout the city, I also want to settle in and be able to relax on weekends. In America, we had the occasional weekend where we had nothing planned and didn’t really leave the house much. Saturdays held the potential to be filled with nothing more than reading and writing and eating and napping.

Since we’ve been in China (a little over twelve weeks now!), I have often felt a twinge of guilt if we weren’t out doing and seeing every day we had off. Those quirky little pandas are not going to take pictures of themselves and the Wide and Narrow Alley is not going to provide an array of snack foods if no visitors come. Luckily, with the arrival of our UAB, which means a bit more of our American life has touched down in Chengdu, I have been able to settle in a bit better. I am fighting the urge to always feel like we are missing out on something if we take a day off from being tourists and just be residents.

Even with our possessions slowly trickling through customs and to us in western China, have no fear.  We have not become hermits! (Although, sometimes a life of hermitage does have an appealing ring to it. If I had an unlimited supply of books and cold cereal, I might just be able to do it.)  Knowing that we have just two years here, we definitely have things we want to see and be a part of, as well as favorite haunts to revisit when we’ve got a free night.

Saturday night was just one of those nights. I had been out all morning on a CLO excursion for twelve of our community members to learn about jade and do a bit of shopping, but after resting through the hottest part of the day, (Latin American countries may have siesta time, but we’ve got xiuxi time!) Thad and I wanted to get out and enjoy a warm summer evening before they are gone for the year.

We decided that with night falling, JinLi Ancient Street was the place to be! This was by no means our first trip there, having been once before already this time around in China, but several times before when we were here with Peace Corps. It is a great area filled with touristy shops meant to seem “ancient”, lots of food stalls with spicy Sichuan snacks (including some tentacle-bearing,  water-dwelling creature skewered on a stick) and glowing red lanterns hung overhead to create a festive feel.  Plus, if we ever get bored of walking the aisles of shops, we can always find a bench to rest on and enjoy the copious stares and eavesdrop on the discussions about how tall we are.

This Saturday we were also lucky enough to witness a woman in a fully bedazzled sweat suit having a little photo-shoot near one of the ponds in the complex. Her daughter, who had to be maybe nine or ten, clicked photo after photo of her mother using an iPhone, while the mom varied her poses from leaning on the right-hand arm of the café table’s chair to a brilliantly choreographed lean on the left-hand arm of the chair. I am not entirely sure what was going on, but the whole thing reeked of setting up an online dating profile! Who wouldn’t pick out the middle aged-woman in the totally glamorous glittery gray sweatshirt and sweatpants?!

When we first got back to China, I felt like tourism and residency were on opposite ends of a very long spectrum, but the longer we spend in Chengdu (and the more I contemplate our future placements), the more I come to realize that they should not be considered polar opposites. Just like we loved visiting the areas of interest in our various Stateside homes, we can visit the ones here and still have days where we hole up and never leave the house, maybe never even changing out of our PJs. (To be fair, Thad tends to shower and change right away in the morning, even on days we don’t have anything on our schedule. I, on the other hand, am happy to putter around the house clad in my hot-pink, owl-covered pajama pants and over-sized Baltimore Ravens t-shirt until I absolutely must make myself presentable to the outside world.) Tourism and residency don’t have to be, nor should they be, mutually exclusive. I can still get that long-coveted chance to hold a panda one day (for a mere 1300RMB) and flop down on my couch for a day of reading/dozing on the couch the next.

So, here is looking forward to a Saturday of touring LuoDai’s ancient town followed by a Sunday of pajama-pants and a newly downloaded book!

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Negotiating the Fate of Hello Kitty

The Foreign Service lifestyle offers an array of benefits: my housing is paid for (and if I could just sell that lovely Victorian home that sits on a water fountain bearing cul-de-sac in south Nampa, I’d be debt-free), I get to travel to Bangkok in October for training (and I thought it was awesome when Marsing sent me to Baltimore for teacher training), and I can afford a housekeeper to come in twice  a week to make quick work of the floors, bathrooms and kitchen (personally, it is not having to do dishes that makes me the most happy; for Thad, I think it is not having to clean toilets.)

These fabulous perks all do come at a cost though- the separation from friends and family. A trip from the home we own in Nampa, Idaho (again, it is lovely and for sale!) to Chengdu would look something like this:

*30 minute- drive to Boise Airport

* 4 hours- Boise Airport to San Francisco Airport (as direct flights are nearly impossible, plan to be routed through Seattle or Salt Lake or Denver)

*14 hours- San Francisco Airport to Beijing Airport

*3 hours- Beijing Airport to Chengdu Airport

So, not factoring in layovers, to get from our home in America to our home in China, we are looking at a minimum of 21 ½ hours.

Luckily, the wonderful World Wide Web has made the globe just a tad smaller. In mere seconds, I can connect via Skype with my parents and friends, through Facetime with my brother and on Facebook with my sister and former students. This easy (and fairly reliable) connection to home makes communication much more comfortable, as we can talk whenever we feel like it or can match up schedules, giving it an ease that the rare long-distance call of not-so-long ago didn’t have. (I remember when my brother was serving his mission in Argentina and we got to talk to him on the phone twice a year- Christmas and Mother’s Day. Because the occasions were so rare and the time so limited, it was almost as if there was a checklist of what we wanted to tell him about from home and questions we had about his home. The calls were imbued with a certain amount of pressure to “get it all in,” because once the receiver was back on the cradle, there wouldn’t be another conversation for months to come. That stress has disappeared, knowing that I can talk to my mom for twenty minutes today, but when she forgets to tell me the story about the squirrel scrapping his road kill buddy squirrel off the road outside Idaho City, she can call back tomorrow and give me the gory, and yet hilarious, play-by-play of that lovely sight.)

One great part of this easy access to family and friends is the ability we have to keep in touch with our ever-growing number of nieces and nephews. With eleven in total (but with no guarantees it is a final number), there is always someone with a birthday or a dance recital or a new school year staring. It has been nice to be able to be a vicarious part of those events through laptops and iPads.

There is one niece in particular with whom I have been having an on-going discussion. Keira is the youngest of my older sister’s three kids. She turned four this last spring and has what is bordering on a clinical obsession with Hello Kitty. (The fascination goes to the point of there being a bit of a blurred line between her own existence and that of the furry white cat. I think she may, at times, think she actually *is* a bow-wearing, mouth-less cartoon creation.)

Now, keep in mind, I live in the land of Hello Kitty. (Okay, Japan probably out-kitties us, but we are a close #2, with Hello Kitty adorning everything from entirely pink and white cars to cakes in the bakery and clothes on grown women.) Because we live in the Shangri-la of a four-year old with a personality more dramatic than that of a Hollywood soap opera star,  Thad and I have decided to use this opportunity to create a little ruckus on the other side of the world.

This all started with a box of Hello Kitty cookies that Thad found at the little grocery store outside our back gate. We came home and took pictures of us noshing on these lovely little strawberry icing filled treats and emailed them to Keira’s mother in hopes of stirring the pot a bit.

Boy, did we stir!

Apparently, the photographs were greeted with great exasperation, some full-body couch collapsing and a bit of anger that we would dare eat Hello Kitty.

Of course, I couldn’t let such a budding star wither, so a few days later, I found a rather large Hello Kitty shaped marshmallow, stuck on a stick, much like a lollipop would be. This small purchase again came home for photographs of its demise to be taken and sent through cyberspace to Keira.  Again, these pictures met with extreme levels of consternation and anger.

But, at this point, with her little four-year old brain reeling, Keira came up with a plan. She may not be able to physically stop the torture of her favorite fictional character, but she could undertake negotiations for the cruelty to come to an end.

Knowing that I lived in a Hello Kitty laden world, dictating to her mother, we embarked upon a serious business negotiation as to how she could get some of the pink and white swag swiftly out of China and safely into her home. Facebook’s chat box facilitated this every-so-serious deal as we went through what she was offering and what she could get in return.

While the haggling had to be paused several times as she scurried off to her room to dig through her toy chest in search of possible offerings, in the end we had a deal. I am currently awaiting a package from Idaho that must include a Keira-colored picture of Hello Kitty riding a dolphin (this was a sticking point, as she was initially unsure of her blue crayon status), a Madagascar movie giraffe toy from her McDonald’s Happy Meal, and a half-used Hello Kitty pencil she got as a Valentine’s Day gift. In return, I would put together a Hello Kitty care package of treats from my end of the world.

These negotiations took place about two weeks ago, but between work and visitors, today was the first chance I had to actually go out and do the shopping to uphold my end of the bargain. (You may be asking yourself, how today, a Wednesday, did I have time to go wander the streets, looking for the fluff-filled shops that would be necessary to meet my obligations? The answer is: fire. The consulate here in Chengdu had a small fire in the basement last night. There were no injuries, but we were all given the day off as smoke was cleared out of the building and clean-up was completed. It was like having a snow-day in August!)

I have been told that Keira’s side of the deal was posted late last week and is en route, so it is time to get mine on the way as well.

Not working today ended up costing me a lot of money, as I found a variety of cool things I wanted to send home to the young, dramatic one. (Of course, it would be the horror of horrors if I sent a package to her without including goodies for her two older siblings, so the shopping had to branch beyond Hello Kitty and in to things that her brother and sister would also like.) For the most part, I got the Kitty swag at a local department store, but my downfall came when we went to a book store. I was having a hard time coming up with gift ideas for Kelsey, a newly minted middle schooler. Everything I found just seemed to “cutesy” for someone wanting to be a little older and tougher. Thad suggested Chinese school supplies, which is perfect! What 6th grader wouldn’t want to sport a notebook covered in Chinglish verse? Awesome!

Today’s big lesson: I have no self-control in bookstores, regardless of whether or not I am literate in the language of their goods. I went in to the store planning to get a couple of notebooks and maybe a pencil case. I came out with a bag filled with ten books, a whole pile of notebooks and a few pencil cases to boot. And that haul is what I ended up with after forcing myself to walk away from the piles of beautiful picture books, translated American classics and brightly colored board books for babies. I could easily have spent twice as much money, but at one point Thad gently pointed out that it was hot on the second floor and maybe it was time to make an exit and get some fresh air. (This was a subtle hint to step away from the books!)

After checking out with what had to be the world’s angriest cashier, (seriously, she dumped my basket upside down and then proceeded to scan and chuck each item in Thad’s general direction!) I schlepped my Harris Teeter canvas bag, filled with Hello Kitty paraphernalia and Middle Kingdom school supplies, back, block after block, to our apartment. Thad offered to carry it for me several times, but the straps digging in to my shoulder served as penance for the damage I did to our bank account. (It couldn’t be helped! There were awesome books in that store that *needed* to have new homes with our family in the States.)

So, to make a long story short, because Thad and I decided to harass a four-year old over her current cartoon fascination, I now have a box of Chinese goodies ready to mail to Idaho tomorrow and I can’t wait for my shrewdly negotiated care package to arrive in its place.

She might be fruffy and fluffy and dress like a ballerina that got mugged by a clown, but Keira has a bright future ahead of herself in the business world. It’s kitty-eat-kitty out there, but she can hold her own!

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Considering a Name Change– Eudora Welty, Maybe?

I recently wrote about several run-ins with local insects and how I have a rather large aversion to those multi-legged little creatures. (See “Getting Buggy with it in Chengdu.”) As the polar opposite of a bug-lover, I thought I had said my piece and was ready to move on to something more important, or at least more adventurous. Instead, it seems that I have enraged the local minuscule critter population and now I am paying the price for it.

On Saturday, I hosted a back-to-school potluck for the consulate community. (Event planning is part of my gig as CLO. My years at Marsing Middle School, planning fundraisers and organizing the annual 8th Grade Recognition Night gave me a full party-planning toolbox!) We went with a school-theme, as it is appropriate for the time of year, but really, it was just an excuse to get together, enjoy the pool, some fun music and a medley of random dishes. (Potluck in China is hard. Desserts are the go-to dish to bring, as they are easy to come up with here. I, for one, made a cobbler from Tianshui peaches and imported Bisquick. It is the main dishes that cause a problem. No one ever really knows what to bring. In the US, I feel like a casserole would be the dish of choice. I’ve been to enough church potlucks to know that some pasta cooked in cream of something soup, mixed with shredded cheese and topped with crushed potato chips goes over well, whether the event is a holiday dinner or an after-funeral meal This may be one of the only ways you could get both Santa and Death on the same Venn diagram. The only more popular side dish may have been green Jell-O topped with shredded carrots, but gelatin of any color isn’t going to last long in mid-day heat and humidity, so that wasn’t even an option to be considered.)  Even if main dishes are a bit more difficult to whip up in Chengdu, the spread was great. We had everything from fried rice to chicken and cuscus to a noodle salad. Any afternoon that consists of full bellies and a full pool should be considered a success!

But, back to the point- the bugs have a vendetta against me.

While I was enjoying the afternoon in the sun, I unknowingly became a bit of a feast myself.  (Yes, almost real sun in Chengdu! So much so that I actually came home with the slightest sunburn around the edges of my tank top. As an extremely pasty-skinned person, I merely have to think about sunshine to turn beet red, start to peel and then return to my natural ghostly state. My point is, it doesn’t take much exposure to the giant ball of fire in the sky for me to burn, so I’m not equating Chengdu on Saturday with the tropics by any means, but this is the first bit of color I’ve had since we arrived in May. I’m claiming the weekend as a sunny one.)

The potluck may have been spread on the picnic tables, but I simultaneously served as a walking buffet for the evil that is the bug-world. I didn’t notice it at the time, as I sat chatting with colleagues and enjoying a great mix of pop music from the last three decades, but on Sunday morning, I awoke rather early, scratching my legs as I moved from the world of dreams to that of real life. As I rolled out of bed and got a glimpse of my legs in the mirror, I was horrified. I had somehow contracted the plague overnight!

My legs, the right one in particular, were covered with some serious mosquito bites and welts! The flying, blood sucking inhabitants of Chengdu mean business with their bites. Each welt was swollen, bubbling up into a disgusting puff of tight-skin encircled in red.

I’ve spent the last two days trying to think of anything but scratching my legs, while I can do nothing but rake at them with my fingernails. I know I shouldn’t scratch them, as it only makes the itch worse, but the pain of running my nails up my legs creates just enough relief that I can’t stop. (It is a good thing I was such a goody-two-shoes in school, as I apparently have no self-control!)

As someone who does not normally get eaten alive my mosquitoes (this is usually Thad’s area of expertise), one or maybe two bites is the most my legs ever see at a given time. I can only assume that this abundance of welts is payback from the insects of the city for denigrating their kind in a previous blog post. It seems my buggy little friends have a good VPN and are blog-stalking me, and then taking their revenge on my hapless, normally white but currently mottled red and pink, calves.

Take head dwellers of a world measured in millimeters. Twelve or fifteen of you itty-bitty life forms may have used me as a human smorgasbord over the weekend, but know, I will stand for this no longer. If even one tiny bug shows his face (or creepy, wiggling antennae) in my office in the near future, he will become a mere grease spot on the cover of Chengdoo Magazine.

Be warned.


Be gone.


Where Hors d’oeuvres and Harelips Overlap on a Venn Diagram

As an English-teacher, I love words and thinking about where they come from and seeing how they have changed over time or been combined to create new meanings or even morphed into something entirely different from where they started.  (Okay, so I am not an English teacher at this exact moment, but there is a part of me, that no matter where this Foreign Service sidewalk takes me, will still get excited about the correct spelling of “a lot,” will silently thank each and every Facebook poster who knows the difference between “their/there/they’re,” “your/you’re” and “its/it’s,” will still enjoy an evening of editing a paper for a friend or former student and will still feel the need to obsessively recommend books to anyone who will listen.)

I loved nearly everything I got to teach in Marsing: the Edgar Allan Poe, the expository writing, and The Outsiders and A Christmas Carol. But, I especially loved the vocabulary, especially since I transitioned into a vocabulary program based upon Greek/Latin word parts, rather than individual words. I found each word part I could teach the kids opened the door to a whole slew of new words, rather than just the one that was on the list. Plus, each time we talked about these roots, I was blown away by connections the kids made to words I hadn’t thought of, but really did fit the pattern. This method of doing vocabulary was also great for my kids for whom Spanish was their first language, as the cognates were numerous. But enough pedagogy…just know, English teaching is where it is at!

You would think after studying English and literature for four years at Brigham Young University and then teaching middle school English in Marsing, Idaho for eight years, taking graduate level classes about teaching language arts and then volunteering with Peace Corps to teach English to students in China who would soon be teachers themselves, I would have a decent grasp of the English language at its most basic level. And I do. Most of the time. Or at least sometimes.

But, there are moments when I flabbergast myself with simple words and phrases that I thought I knew/understood and then suddenly a light bulb with roughly the wattage of the sun comes on and I realize how clueless I am sometimes!

On occasion, I  can chalk the problem up to the fact that I read a lot and, at times, become familiar with a word on a visual level, which isn’t a word commonly used in our daily spoken language. When this happens, in my head I think I know the pronunciation of the word and I definitely have a definition of it, but somewhere the link between what my brain thinks that word is and what the rest of the English-speaking world knows it is, don’t connect.

For example: hors d’oeuvres- Yes, I know these are tasty little snacks available at fancy parties, often miniature versions of normal foods, speared on toothpicks so that the eater is as jolly as the Green Giant when consuming these bitty bites. The problem is, for some reason that concept and the above word never collided in my head, and with my lack of French training, I just pronounced that word the way it looked-“oars-de-vores.”  (Hey, I have enough world language training to know that the “h” is silent! What more do you people want from me?!)

So maybe I am just not enough of a Fancy Nancy to have such hoity-toity lexicon.

This whole dilemma comes to a forefront because a few nights ago I nearly fell out of bed as a giant glowing-sky-orb-sized realization hit me while I was reading my book and stumbled across a reference to having a “harelip.” Of course, I know what a harelip looks like. I have been sufficiently guilt-plagued by those late-night commercials of the starving children in Africa, who if I gave less than a dollar a day, would be miraculously cured of their distended stomachs, fly-covered orifices and every other inequity heaped upon them. (Or, half that money would go to cover the overhead costs and advertising for the parent agency and the kids would still struggle to subsist on a daily basis. Not that I am cynical about after-midnight calls for humanitarian aid or anything…)

The thing is, I was reading The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna. (This is a fabulous book, by the way! It has yet to make it into my Book Musings, as I am a bit behind on those right now, but suffice it to say, if you have a chance, pick up this 1975 novel-length allegory, translated from Finnish to English. It is well worth your time.)

But back to my curious lack of basic English understanding.

So there I was, sprawled on the bed with my trusty e-reader, just getting in to this story about a journalist and photographer traveling together, when the news-reporting duo accidentally hit a baby rabbit that is in the road. The reporter, getting out to check on the poor animal, makes a comment about his tiny nose twitching above his little hare lip. His what?!? His hair lip?! Of course! Like Thor’s
thunder-bringing hammer, a connotative smack-down rained down upon my brain! Those poor kids in Africa (and elsewhere) born with a split lip- it looks like a bunny’s lip! Why had I never put two and two together?

I can only figure that this case was much like that of the hors d’oeuvres, but in reverse. I know the word “harelip” and exactly what it means, but maybe I have just never registered it when I saw it
written. In my ever-wandering brain, it was spelled “hair-lip” and I could never figure out what follicles of keratin had to do with a facial disfiguration. And now, it all becomes clear. A harelip- as in resembling the split upper lip of the cute, fuzzy, hippity-hop mammal. How had I never seen through Alice’s looking glass, at her giant white rabbit and realized such a simple association existed?

Both reading and writing are slices of my daily life pie here in China, being much better stress relievers than a trip to apartment complex’ not-so-high-tech gym and the 70% humidity that currently ensconces each pilgrimage beyond my front door, would be.  Instead of giving my lungs and legs a run for their money though, I give my rattled brain chance to unwind the various knots created by the language I’ve been speaking for thirty-ish years.

You may be crafty and slightly mysterious, but I’m on to you now, English language!!

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Like a Horse Standing Among Chickens

As a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, one never quite moves on entirely. It doesn’t take long before your non-Peace Corps family and friends are sick of your stories about washing dishes on the floor of the bathroom in the winter because it is the only room with hot water or the ones about how you had to share a not-so-private outdoor squat-toilet (basically a trench flowing into a farmer’s pig sty) with a big ol’ honking goose. They are great stories and volunteers can tell them a million more times and never get tired of them, but the same cannot be said of the poor saps forced to hear them over and over. (I would imagine returned missionaries feel the same way. When you first get home after two years, everyone is excited to hear everything, but soon, the more gritty than gospel stories tire out the loved ones who were left behind.)

This last weekend, I had a chance to relive a few of those PC days, as five of my former students from Longnan Teachers’ College in Gansu came to visit us in Chengdu-Ebba, Shirley, Kacey, Eric and Alex.  They would be joined by one former student who is already living in the city-Amazon.  (Notice I did not say I invited students to come or asked students to come. Not long after we arrived in Sichuan, I got an email from Ebba, the ring-leader of this group saying they would be coming. I, thinking it would never really pull together, said that sounded great and to let me know when they could make it. Then, about two weeks ago, I got a phone call from Ebba announcing they had bought train tickets and would be arriving Thursday afternoon! Okay then!)

So Thursday rolled around and arrive they did. The group got a bit lost, none of them having been to Chengdu before and without the aid of Amazon, who was in class, but eventually found their way to my neighborhood, where I spotted them sitting curbside (on newspapers, of course), waiting for me to get home.

The weekend was a whirlwind of eating and site-seeing and shopping, and then some more eating.

Thad and I took all six of the kids (I call them kids, as they were my students, but they are all in their early 20s) to western food for dinner one night. None of them had ever eaten with a fork and knife before and they were very nervous leading up to the evening. More than once I was pulled aside to find out if there would be chopsticks available. “No way, Jose!” would be my gleeful response. (Appropriately, as we were going to Peter’s Tex-Mex restaurant.) Once we were at dinner, I had to remind them that westerners don’t usually eat “family-style,” so they would each get to order their own entrée, whatever they thought looked good. The table ended up with a smorgasbord of selections: tacos, spaghetti, chicken sandwich, enchiladas, avocado salad, macaroni and cheese and more.  The funny part was that after all their worry about the fork and knife situation, many of them chose dishes that are best eaten with their hands, but they wanted to experience the fork and knife thing, so I watched tacos and chicken sandwiches be sliced (once I had to turn a butter knife the right direction for the user) and stabbed before being consumed.

It was great having the kids here and we even ended up with a meal of homemade dumplings out of the deal! As a non-cook to begin with, as well as someone still awaiting the arrival of my HHE, my kitchen is pretty sad when it comes to food/cookware, but the girls made an impressive showing with my two pots, six bowls and handful of utensils.

Thursday through Monday felt a bit like having a house invaded by whirling dervishes, but at times I just had to take a step back and laugh. Here are just a few gems from the weekend:

**When the kids first arrived, they walked into the apartment and announced, “We brought peaches!” And yes, yes they did. Tianshui, the hometown of the majority of the group, is apparently famous for their peaches. (Every town in China is famous for something. In Chengxian, we were famous for our wonderful walnuts.) The crew brought enough peaches that The Presidents of the United States would feel right at home in my apartment, partaking of their lyrically-desired millions and millions of peaches.

**One evening, as we were sitting on the couch talking, ringleader-Ebba turned to me and said, “You know your special pink sweater in the closet?” (At this point I had no idea, as nearly everything I own is pink, but I replied with a vague grunt.) “When we tried it on…” (What?!?) “we noticed it had holes in the sleeves for thumbs. We think this is a very good idea!” So, apparently, there were mini-fashion shows at night after Thad and I went to bed? I’d rather not dwell on that one for too long.

**Being a paranoid host (I am always worried I won’t have the right breakfast foods or soap or other in-the-larger-scheme of things unimportant details for my guests), I hauled Thad not once, but twice, to IKEA to get bedding for our spare beds to make them comfortable and homey. I thought I had created cozy little spaces for our guests to relax in, only to learn after the second night, that several of them had taken to sleeping on our floor! Why? Because those lovely beds I worked so hard to create were *too* soft. (Anyone who has spent any time in China, outside western-brand hotels, is well-acquainted with the Chinese love for a hard bed. When we first got to Gansu I thought I would never survive two years on the board that was our bed, but over time I gradually got used to it, to the point where when we went home, the first night we were back in the States I woke up in the middle of the night having what was nearly a panic attack, as I felt like I was drowning in the mattress, pillows and piled up blankets! I guess everything really is relative…)

With all the randomness of the weekend, my favorite quote came on Sunday morning when we were out shopping. The girls wanted to go look at clothes and get some gifts for their families and friends, so the boys were hauled along for the adventure. (Thad introduced them to the term “man-bench,” which they came to be quite well-acquainted with by the end of the five hour buying marathon.) While we were waiting on a couple of the girls who were adding shoes to their growing collection of purchases, Ebba asked me if I wore high heels. I said I did all of the time in America, but not so much in China, as I am already so much taller than everyone around me. She thought about this a second and responded, “Yes. In China, you are like a horse standing among chickens.” And there you have it- truer words may never have been uttered.

The kids headed out today while Thad and I were at work, but I came home to find they had discovered my stash of purple sticky-notes, leaving us messages throughout the house, thanking us and making sure we were fed for a few more days. While it is nice to have our apartment back to ourselves, I will miss their smiles and giggles and really random pronouncements.

But, they left with the promise to come back again before our two years here are up and I have no doubt that at some future date I will be receiving a deja-vu inducing phone call saying, “We have purchased train tickets. We will be there Thursday.”

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A Bundle of Joy (X3)!

Almost two weeks ago, our UAB arrived in Chengdu. For those of my loyal readers not familiar with this State Department acronym, it stands for “unaccompanied air baggage.” (The Department has an alphabet and a half of acronyms. Everything from my job as CLO, community liaison officer in long-hand,   to ELO, one of Thad’s many designations, being an “entry level officer” to VAT, which is the “value added tax” that diplomats often get back from their host countries. It’s a veritable menagerie of capital letters!)  This UAB shipment contains most of the daily-life “stuff” we had while living a stone’s throw away from the Pentagon, including clothes, shoes, accessories and Thad’s ever-so-important PlayStation 3.

I was excited to hear that this set of boxes had finally made their way around the world, been approved for entry into China once Thad had his diplomatic ID card from the government and was headed to my doorstep, and more thrilled that I was not the one responsible for getting them to my twenty-fourth floor doorstep!

Two Fridays ago, a pair laborers from the consulate rang my doorbell at 10AM with a delivery that rivaled anything Santa might bring down the chimney. These two men hauled three large crates into my apartment, nicely dragging them a bit further in to the front spare bedroom so I at least had a walkway through my dining room.

Since it was a workday, I had asked my boss if I could stay home to receive the shipments and then come in post-delivery. (Wow! That last part sounds a little too maternity ward for me!) She said yes without batting an eye, as she is awesome like that! But, that meant that after the three crates made their way in to my home, I had to walk out the door without even cracking them open to take a peek. I had arranged with the consulate workers to ride back to work with them, so as soon as the boxes were shoved in the spare room, we headed out the door and to work, leaving me to ponder their contents and clock-watch all afternoon! (It is amazing how in just nine weeks you can totally forget what was packed where! What that means for the impending arrival of our HHE- household effects- being the things we packed out in Idaho well over a year ago, I can only speculate.)

When the minute hand hit the “12,” designating the arrival of 4PM, I quickly shut down my computer, grabbed my purse and hopped on my furious-fuchsia scooter, honking at any poor sap who happened to block my path on First Ring Road.

I had boxes to open!

As it turns out, the boxes were filled with what I would consider essentials. After nine weeks of wearing the same four dresses to work, I finally had options! (Four dresses in a five day work week means they go on a set rotation schedule. Monday’s dress also becomes Friday’s dress, but with a different necklace to hopefully hide the fact that it is in fact, Monday’s dress. Tuesday’s dress then becomes next Monday’s dress and the process starts all over again.)  Plus, the crates were the bearers of extra shoes and more necklaces (and decorative scarves for winter) and enough tank-tops to last me until, well, until next spring when they go on sale at Old Navy again.

I was also excited to see my Scentsy wax warmer and new scents I got while home in Idaho in the spring. (Thanks Candace!) Anything to make Chengdu seem a bit more home-y is high on my list. (Note: that is home-y, not homie, as in the gangsta’ crew and high as in top-ranking, not high as in “I took bath salts and tried to eat someone’s face.” That would make for a totally different blog post.)

Thad was less thrilled with the clothing options afforded by the shipment (this could be because I am pretty sure he packed every pair of socks he owned in our luggage to go on the airplane) and more excited that his beloved PS3 arrived, giving him (and by extension, me) a good excuse to hide indoors from the recent spate of hot/humid weather.  The sad (okay, not sad for me, amusing for me, but sad for him) part of this unpacking adventure was that the day I accepted delivery of our shipment, the power in our complex was scheduled to be off for eight hours.

Now, a PlayStation with no power is no fun, but the eight-hour window would have been over by late afternoon, before he would be home from work anyway. But no. Eight hours without power turned into a thirty-four hour slog sans electricity. (Think hot and humid with no air conditioning, no fans, no good way to get a cross-breeze through the house and a freezer full of precious cheese slowing turning to the Dark Side.) Eventually, as in a day and a half later, power was restored and the video-game playing machine was hooked up and ready to roll!

So now, we are one and one with our shipments. One has arrived, safely and soundly, while the other one still floats somewhere mid-Pacific. While it is exciting to contemplate the arrival of the second, meaning we will have all of our stuff again for the first time in nearly a year and a half, it is a bit intimidating, as I really have no idea what is coming from the house in Idaho! It will be like the grab-bag you can purchase at the school carnival. If you want even one or two things in the paper sack, it is considered a good buy. Even though I may not still want everything coming in that shipment (read: clothes I have not seen/worn in well over a year that are probably horribly out of style or so smashed and wrinkled they would make a shar pei look smooth), I know that at least my kitchen stuff, oodles of lotion/body spray and Christmas tree will find a good home in Chengdu!

Here’s to one newly arrived bundle of joy and fingers crossed that its sibling makes an arrival soon and without complications. Someone bust out the cigars and pass them around!

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Gettin’ Buggy With It in Chengdu

Bugs. Insects. Creepy-crawlies. Six and eight-legged sources of evil. Call them what you will, but they freak me out.

My dislike of all exoskeleton bearing creatures started at a young age. I can remember going out to my dad’s woodshop and having Velcro-bugs cling to my legs with their sticky little feet if I happened to brush up against a weed. I can’t tell you how many times I sprinted through a garden patch, hoping to avoid the flying grasshoppers that I was sure were aiming for my face. And don’t even get me started on having to mow the lawn under what my family lovingly calls “the bee tree.”  (For those with an interest in actual, real-life, even semi-scientific nomenclature, I can’t help you much. I have no idea what a Velcro-bug really is, and I only know that “the bee tree” gets little yellow flower clusters that are apparently crack for bees. The tree is basically a living, whirling mass of buzzing for weeks on end each summer.)

This dislike of all things with too many legs rears its ugly, tentacle-clad head today because in the last week I’ve had two run-ins with representatives of various species.

The first was at work on Tuesday morning. I was in my office, just doing my CLO thing (meaning answering emails from FSOs who are soon moving to Chengdu, talking about pet-shipping, schools and apartments), when I look over to see an evil, hairy little spider crawling on the wall, right next to my tea thermos. I instantly quit typing, as I don’t any movement/sound to draw his attention in my direction. After staring at him for a good minute, without moving, I decide I must end his existence. While I was staring, he was also stuck in a state of suspension, his only movement being the incessant waggling of his antennae. (Okay, I do remember enough from middle school science to know that spiders don’t have antennae, but that is what they looked like to me! To not enrage my middle school science teaching older sister, I looked up spider anatomy on Wikipedia, which tells me those creepy, wiggling appendages stuck to his head are called pedipalps. I am not sure finding this information is worth the nightmares I am sure to have after seeing so many up close and too personal pictures of arachnids. Next time, I may choose to bear the wrath of the sister instead.)

Once I broke off the staring contest, which I believe he won, but to be fair, the fact that he had numerous eyes made it a bit difficult for me to gauge when the staring contest concluded. At this point, he took off at a dead-sprint, possibly vying for a spot on the arachnid’s Olympic team. (I can only imagine their team flag would bear a bit ol’ ugly black widow in the center, with team colors being black, white and red. Creepy!)  Mr. Spider decided to use the payday calendar, the one that I have ever-so-classily taped to my wall, as a shelter while he contemplated how he could psychologically torture me for the rest of the day. (If you follow this blog with much regularity, you will see the irony in the fact that I even have a payday calendar, as I have been working for a good eight weeks and have yet to see my bank account balance rise.)

With the hairy, evil, spawn of the devil hiding behind a piece of photocopied office paper, I made a quick lunge for my keyboard, sending Thad (who works a floor below me in the consulate) an SOS instant message, asking him to come rescue me from my tormentor. The problem was, Thad’s new boss started on Monday, so it wasn’t ideal timing for him to wander away from his section on an errand of heroism. Visas need adjudicated and a new boss is patrolling the office. He was stuck and I was left to fend for myself.

I knew I needed to get some actual work done, so I figured it was time to take matters into my own hands. With a giant wad of paper towels (a bug approaching technique learned from my mother) and a canvas bag (to be used as a swatter), I rounded my desk, ready to fight.

With the first swat, I knew this little sucker had my number. I took a jab at him and he responded by jumping at me! I squawked and stumbled backwards, tripping over a chair, but gracefully remained upright. Going in for a second stab didn’t get me any closer to being the sole occupant of my office once again. Rather, he leapt at me again (I swear he was aiming for my eyes!) and then scurried into the space between my desk and the wall.

It was over. I couldn’t get to him and he knew it. So, I set aside my weapons of choice and tried to resume the task of welcoming new officers and their families to Chengdu. The only problem was, I swear I could feel that little creepster crawling up my leg all morning long. I eventually had to resort to kicking off my shoes (and putting them on the shelf behind my desk, as I didn’t dare leave them on the floor, tempting my enemy to take up a new residence) and curling my feet up under my skirt on the chair. Sitting like a school kid, hoping no one decided to drop by my office for a chat at just that moment, I resumed answering queries about the quality of Chengdu hospitals (is there a ranking below “poor?”) and the community is general (definitely an “excellent!”)

That was Tuesday. I haven’t seen my nemesis since, but I can sense he is still around. Waiting…watching…biding his time.

Now it is Saturday. I thought my bug woes were over for the week, but no such luck.

Weekend mornings are pretty calm and lazy. I am usually up early, have a bowl of coveted cereal (miniature box of Fruit Loops today), check my Facebook (cute video of my former student, Shea, at NFL training camp) and then read for a while until it is a decent time to Skype home. This morning, post cereal (which I usually eat sitting on the floor, cross-legged, in front of the coffee table so I can surf the internet), but pre-Skype, I looked down in time to witness an earwig (which must be one of the most disturbing bugs in the bug world- I don’t think even earwig moms like the sight of their earwig offspring) making his way across my living room tile, in the exact spot that my butt was occupying no less than thirty minutes before.

Well, there is no way I am going to have a repeat of the missing insect debacle. (Yes, I know, technically spiders aren’t insects! Whatever.)  But, at the same time, there is no way I am going to get near the disgusting creature and his pinchers, even with an entire roll of paper towels wadded up in my hands. So, what is one to do? I did the only thing I could do until Thad was up to rid the apartment of the creepy critter for good. I threw a Kleenex on him and then piled all four of our rubber coasters on top of him, thereby pinning him in place until the extermination crew got out of bed. (Why the Kleenex? Do you want earwig pieces parts on the coaster you set your drink on? I didn’t think so!)

I really hope my buggy week has come to an end. To be fair, both many-stemmed critters were tiny. I’ve seen much larger, more terrifying insects in our world travels, but they are usually out in nature, where they rightfully belong. These two little guys were invading *my* space, not the other way around. I fear at some point Thad will be posted in a bug-ridden country, at which point I may have to take to wearing my mosquito net as a full-time accessory. (You don’t even want to get me started on my bug stories from when I was living in the Dominican Republic!) Until then, I’m calling this week a draw:

Creepy critters: 1             Me: 1

My soon-to-be patented earwig containment unit, awaiting disposal


Row, Row, Rowing Along in Chengdu

We’ve chosen an unconventional lifestyle. As a part of the Foreign Service, we will move roughly every two years for the rest of Thad’s career. This tour happens to be in the middle of China, but the next one might be Brazil or Sweden or Cambodia. We just never know where we will land next. This means there will be no white picket fence or BBQs with the same neighbors each summer for years on end. (Okay, there currently is a white picket fence in Nampa, Idaho, which I am trying to sell in a terrible market. If you know anyone interested in a beautiful Victorian-style house with a wrap-around porch and gazebo at a super price, let me know!)

I’m okay with unconventional.

Yet another marker of ways we tend to color outside the lines was visible last week on our anniversary. While many people would celebrate with gifts of jewelry and flowers (which we have done in the past, and I will always be happy with bright, shiny things that come in small velvet boxes), this year the commemoration went in a slightly different direction.

For dinner, we have a few options in town. There are some Italian restaurants (I’m sure it is Italian with a Chinese twist), a steak-house or two and some very fancy Chinese places. We could have gone to any one of those establishment and enjoyed a lovely meal to mark the passage of time together, but instead, we thought we’d shake things up a bit, break out of the prescribed “anniversary” box.

We went to Hooters.

Yup, Hooters.

The fact that Chengdu has a Hooters is one that I still can’t really wrap my head around. I have no idea why they came here or how great business is for them, but this fine restaurant is just a couple of blocks from the consulate and we pass it on a daily basis, so we figured it was time to give the place a shot.

Hooters is not good.

I’ve not been to this feathery-friend themed restaurant in the US, so I can only speak for its appeal abroad, but I don’t need an owl’s wisdom to come to the conclusion we will not be going back. My dislike of the place has nothing to do with what I can only imagine are a typical wife’s list of complaints, like the boobs and butts and wings. I’m fine with all of that.

I wasn’t looking for class or refinement when the idea of Hooters for dinner was tossed around. I was looking for some decent Western food in a place that had an American-feel to it. I got neither. The chicken carbonara seemed like a good choice off the menu that evening, so I went that route, while Thad had the enchilada. With our orders in, we waited and chatted while listening to N*Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry, Britany Spears and Christina Aguilera. (Okay, I was totally on board with the music part. Seriously. I am a sucker for pop music, so while we waited, I tapped my foot, bobbed my head and sang along quietly. I’ve got terrible taste in music, but I’ve come to terms with it, so you’ll have to as well.)

After waiting an inordinate amount of time for dinner to arrive, my chicken pasta was eventually presented. (I would crack a joke about having to go kill the chicken, but this is China and I may be circling closer to the truth than I want to admit on that one!) It came with two plates and forks, as even at Hooters, everything is served “family-style.” I waited a few minutes for Thad’s meal to arrive, but when it was still MIA as mine was quickly cooling, I dug in. It was…meh. It was…okay. It was…nothing to write home about. (Apparently, it was something to write a blog about though.) I believe there were all of two pieces of chicken and the pasta was definitely not western-style pasta and I was thrown by the inclusion of carrots in the dish, but overall, it was edible. It was not the great dish of creamy pasta I had been hoping for, but it was tolerable.

Eventually, after I had finished probably half of my meal, Thad’s enchilada arrived, cut into pieces, to be served to a group, rather than one person. It was as if his mom had cut his dinner into bite-sized bits for him. I think his enchilada was more disappointing than my pasta, as the meat was sweet and most of the ingredients off just a bit. The high point of the enchilada was probably the sour cream. When sour cream becomes the high point of any meal, it is time to stop and reevaluate the menu.

So, the food wasn’t great, but the quirkiness of the evening didn’t end there. While we were *enjoying* our meal, one of the customers at a nearby table was apparently celebrating his birthday that evening. In a rush of orange hot-pants, tight t-shirts and a whole lot of clapping, an entire parliament of waitresses arrived to sing for him. The traditional “Happy Birthday” was out, as it is in many restaurants due to royalty issues, but most places come up with their own little ditty to replace the song whose singing officially means you are a year older. Not the Hooters’ waitresses though. They busted (yes, I went with “busted” as my verb of choice) out into a lively rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

That’s right! I was lucky to be sitting with my back to the birthday boy, so I didn’t have to exert nearly the same self-control as Thad did, who was looking right at the nursery rhyme debacle. I giggled to my heart’s content while he watched in fascination as a song generally reserved for being sung in rounds on long car trips to the general annoyance of all adults present became the go-to song for an international restaurant business specializing in all things owl. (It is all about the owl there, right?)

Dinner was done and the bill so paid, so when the bejeweled top hats came out and the waitresses began a country line dance to a 50’s jazz song, we figured it was time to call it a night.

Conventional wasn’t what we were looking for as we celebrated our anniversary in Chengdu and conventional is definitely not what we got. As I look down the road to the various holidays and birthdays that we will be celebrating here in the land of pandas over the next two years, I think I can safely say none of them will include a rousing rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

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