The Best of 2012 While Searching for the End of the Sidewalk

It is that time of year, where everyone and their dog comes out with a “2012 Best of _____” list. I don’t have a dog, but I do have two trusty turtles (GongBao and JiDing) who I am sure would be willing to contribute to my roundup of the year once they get done basking in the heat lamps of our spare bathroom.  But, since they are otherwise occupied and my dog lives on a farm in Idaho now (not *the* farm, the one all dogs seem to move to at some point in their lives, from which they never return, but rather the property of a good friend’s grandparents), I’m on my own to let you in on the best of everything over the last twelve months. (“Everything” might be a bit ambitious with just a few days left on the calendar…)

Best Books of 2012

Not knowing where to start with this one, I hopped on over to my GoodReads account and looked back over my literature intake since January 1. If my count is right (remember folks, I’m an English major, none of that fancy math nonsense for me!), I’ve had the pleasure of reading ninety-four books, but if my notes are any indication, there also appear to have been a couple in there that were decidedly not pleasurable. (I’ll not name names, since the idea is to end the year on a high note, with the positives of the last 365 days.)

{Links to related posts included.}

5- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

4- Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

3- Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

2- The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene

1-Habibi by Craig Thompson (absolutely beautiful!)


Best Outings of 2012

5- Bangkok, Thailand. I may have been there for work, but a week of blue skies and sunshine were a much appreciated break from the daily haze I see out my window.

4- Los Angeles, California. As Thad did his final consultations before heading to China, I took one last opportunity to soak in America for all it is worth. I wandered on the beach, watching the surfers ride wave after wave of blue water; found a wonderful little family-run bookstore filled with all the paperbacks I would soon be missing; got a pedicure to make sure my piggies were ready for their big adventure; and hit up the mall for one last look at shops with clothing in my size.

3- Annapolis, Maryland with Erin and John just weeks before we moved away from DC. Not only is the old-town portion of the city full of things to see and do, there are ice cream shoppes (with an “e,” of course) on nearly every corner. Who wouldn’t love the city?

2- The Outer Banks, North Carolina. With a carload of friends from Idaho, we made it to both Kitty Hawk and the shoreline to see the wild horses.

1-Chengdu, China of course! There is always something ridiculous to see, something fascinating to learn or something worthy of a blog post in this city.

*Honorable mention: Caldwell/Nampa, Idaho. We may have sold our house this fall and are officially classy hobos, but the Treasure Valley will always be home.

Best Moments of 2012

5-Arrival of our HHE (this technically qualifies as a psychic event, as it doesn’t actually happen until tomorrow)

4-John and Lulu’s wedding in Guiyang

3- Moving out of the Crystal City mo-partment and in to our 3-bedroom, 2-bath, 24th floor digs that overlook the river in Chengdu

2- Mom’s surprise 60th birthday party

1-After almost exactly a year of being unemployed, getting hired as the CLO Coordinator for the Chengdu Consulate and once again joining the ranks of paycheck earners!

*Honorable mention- Watching Shea McClellin, one of my former 8th grade English students, get picked in the first round of the NFL’s draft this last spring!! Bragging about the Bears in Chengdu has become a new favorite pastime of mine.

So there you have it, without the least bit of help from my turtles, who are not only slow, but a little lazy to boot, it’s a roundup of the high points of the year. As I look ahead to 2013, plans are bouncing around my gray matter (although I think it is more pink than gray, which we all know I prefer anyway), looking to claim a spot in my continued search for the end of the sidewalk.

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Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night

Merry Christmas from China, round three.

After two Christmases in western China as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I would have told you with a rather high level of certainty that Shengdan Laoren would not be making another visit in my life. Oh, how wrong I was!

Granted, the holiday season in the Foreign Service bears little resemblance to that of a Peace Corps Volunteer. This year we had a whole like-minded community with which to celebrate, several Christmas parties to get us in the spirit and the good fortune to have access to pouch shipping, which allowed family and friends to send gifts knowing that they would make it without being riffled through by various post offices along the way.

Christmas in Idaho entailed a morning of gift opening at our place, followed by the lively and a bit chaotic gathering at my parents’ house, an afternoon nap and then a trip to Thad’s mom’s place for the evening. Throughout those various get-togethers, there is enough food to feed a small army, which to be fair, is what we comprise when the entire McDaniel family is all in a room together. (Over the last few weeks, as I’ve chatted with Mom about winter plans, she has twice mentioned that they might go tubing at Bogus Basin since no one is pregnant…that she knows of. Is this a bit of wishful thinking on Grandma Joycie’s part?)

Christmas is China is much mellower, lacking the bedlam created by young ones full of belief in Santa and sugar cookies. Family is still a part of the mix though, with calls home for the big day. (Apparently, every foreigner in China had the same idea this morning, as FaceTime was unusually choppy and computer-to-computer Skype was unusable. Thank goodness for regular ol’ Skype long distance.)

Now, as bread is baking in my brand new bread-maker, I am curled up on my couch with Ellen Degeneres’ latest book and a wheat-filled lap warmer making me just a tad bit cozier, as Thad loads his Revolutionary War themed video game and we contemplate reheating the last of the Christmas Eve lasagna on our pretty, new plates. (The bread warmer was a welcome surprise, as a loaf of bread is astonishingly difficult to find in China. I can buy several slices of very soft, almost cake-like white bread, but it will cost $3US for just four slices. The other choices are small loaves of bread at local bakeries that are always filled with unsavory surprises. I lovingly call these loaves “shit-in-the-middle” bread. Sometimes it is a red bean paste that hides inside the crust of a seemingly safe loaf of bread; at other times, that bread has a ribbon of raisins and custard slicing through the center. None of these breads are fit for a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich. From now on, all bread in my house will be Ross-made bread!)

Is China Christmas the same as the one we would have in the US? Nope. No way. Not a bit. But, it is still Christmas in its own unique way and we get to spend it together as our little 2-family, so there will be no complaints from me.  Not all are so lucky.

So, as the day winds down on our side of the world and many of you are just starting to celebrate, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.


Merry Christmas from the Ross family

Merry Christmas from the Ross family

It’s Like a Snow Day for Bureaucrats

Usually, a text that wakes me up from my mid-morning nap on a Saturday morning would not be appreciated, but this morning’s was well worth the jarring buzz that startled me from my dream of an upset elf taking the place of Guiteau as President Garfield’s assassin. (Apparently, the kaleidoscope in my head has mixed the facts of the book I’m reading with all of the festivities surrounding the holidays, to make a mental movie that rivals the evil clown in Stephen King’s It.)   As I laid on my couch with Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic drooped over my chest, enjoying an actual bit of sunshine coming in our living room window, I flung out a hand to grab my ever-present Blackberry (thank you Department of State) and punched in my fifty-seven character long password, three times, since I can never get it right the first time and rarely the second.  (Fifty-seven characters might be slight hyperbole, but barely.)

Expecting yet another trash text in Chinese, trying to sell me something I don’t want, I was giddy as a teacher when that snow day phone call comes in at 5AM. (Teachers love them just as much, if not more, than the kids!) As per executive order, all consulates will be closed on Monday December 24, meaning I was looking at the start of a four day weekend! (Thank you Mr. President!)

What does one do with an unexpected, extra-long weekend? I started mine by pulling the throw blanket up a little higher and huddling down to read another chapter in Garfield’s struggle against the bacteria that was invading his body, which it turns out was much more fatal than the actual gunshot he took in the back.

Once I rouse myself from the warmth of my blanket cocoon, away from the shafts of sunlight spreading across the rug and the intrigue of presidential assassinations, the rest of the day will be spent lazily getting ready for a Marine-hosted Ugly Sweater Party. We bought our hideous tops last weekend at the local market, so now I just have to get our white elephant gifts wrapped and a peach cobbler made in my Easy-Bake oven.

It may have been touch and go for a while yesterday, but the world did not end, for which I am thrilled, as now I get a four-day weekend. (And thank you Mayans for creating mass hullabaloo amongst the gullible while the rest of us were just glad it was a Friday.) The long-count calendar might be at an end, but the countdown to Christmas is well underway and the goose is definitely getting fat. Cheers to a four-day weekend!

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Where Mother Goose and Lotus Market Meet in the Middle

Mother Goose is full of wisdom for ages long ago. As a child, I learned that wool from black sheep should be divided between the master, dame and little boy down the lane. I also took precautions when sitting atop a brick wall, because I knew the king’s horses and men would never be able to put me back together again. And, of course, I am now well aware of the dangers of running down a hill with a pail full of water.  While little of this information was relevant to me as a youngster, some if it just went into storage in the ol’ gray matter for the day it might prove useful.  (Between Peace Corps and the Foreign Service, it really is a crapshoot what random factoid might be prudent on any given day.)

Not all nursery rhymes are outdated and out of touch, at least if you are living in the a not-quite-fully-developed country.  For instance,  “To market, to market, to buy a fat pig/Home again, home again, jiggety-jig” is a as much a part of daily life for some in China as swinging through the drive through of the Golden Arches is to some Americans.

Markets (and therefore nursery rhymes) are on my mind today as I decided to do a little last minute holiday shopping this weekend, braving the biggest wholesale market in Chengdu.  The Christmas season is upon us, and while there are more decorations hanging from windows and adorning doorways than last time I was living in China, there isn’t the bustling of the holiday season that I love so much in the US. I knew a trip to the mall here just wasn’t going to do it, so I thought if it is people and a bit of chaos that I crave, Lotus Market on a Sunday morning is the best substitute available.

Since a couple of us were going to go anyway, I opened up the trip to the whole community, making it an official CLO outing. I figured anyone who wanted to jump into the madness of the market mid-morning on the weekend was welcome to join the fray.  Several people quickly signed up, some who had been before and knew what they were getting themselves in to and some who would experience wholesale anarchy at its best for the first time.

After taking Chengdu’s subway from the consulate to the train station, we disembarked to a lovely maze of construction, blocking the easiest egresses from the subway station, but no one blinked an eye as we hopped over mud puddles, skirted the (possibly live?) wires hanging from the poles above us and crossed the pedestrian bridge lined with vendors showcasing photos of guns and tattoos. (I know the deal with the tattoos, but I am unsure what’s going on with the firearm photos. I didn’t hang around long enough to gage their clientele. Just keep moving…)

Once inside the market area, I was pleasantly surprised with the Christmas atmosphere that abounded.  Shops that are usually filled with an abundance of red balloons, wall hangings, good luck knots and all manner of wedding decorations were overflowing with horribly tacky Christmas decorations.  We all enjoyed the motion-activated, sax-playing Santa who could shimmy his hips right along with the best of the Zumba-fanatics. Knee-high artificial trees so fake the plastic was shiny sat in front of doorway after doorway, some covered in plastic bubs and others just joining together to create a miniature forest of bogus evergreens.

Not only did I enjoy a bit of the Christmas baubles and glitter that I had been missing, but Lotus Market provided the remedy for my missing the hustle and bustle of stores during the holiday season. Most of the market is outdoors, with stalls coming off of the main roads, so I got a bit of that “mall” feel. It was a perfect replica, except that malls in America don’t come with overloaded scooters honking continuously as they swerve in and out of the crowds; malls in America don’t have thin, middle-aged men carrying loads of good on their backs that weigh at least half their body weight; (I’m pretty sure these porters rival ants in their ability to haul huge percentages of their own weight.) and malls in America don’t allow for bargaining at decibel levels reserved for jetliners as I haggle over a few kuai while Psy’s“Gangnam Style” competes for ultimate earworm supremacy  with “Frosty the Snowman,” blaring over the speakers setup outside each and every shop.

I came away from the market with an ugly sweater for next weekend’s Marine-hosted Ugly Sweater party, a few stocking stuffers for Thad and a birthday gift for my soon-to-be four-year old niece. (Sadly, I spotted a woman sporting the same sweater I bought for the upcoming party, which remind me of one I would have smugly worn for class pictures in about the third grade. She was middle-aged and proudly wearing the horizontal stripes, stars and bedazzling on the subway that very afternoon.)

With my canvas bag slung over my shoulder like an undersized Santa, overflowing with my day’s purchases (but no fat pig), home again, home again I headed, jiggity-jig.

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Christmas Has Come to Chongqing

Celebrating Christmas as Peace Corps Volunteers was definitely a DIY project that included the back-breaking work of carrying a requisitioned (borrowed, loaned without permission, temporarily freed…take your pick of verbs), potted tree up six flights of stairs to our apartment for one member of the family and the not-so-painful, but equally important work of creating ornaments for said tree. A towel filled in for the missing tree skirt and the part of the star on top was played by a pictured printed off the internet and colored in with yellow highlighter by yours truly.  In reality, hauling that tree around campus in the middle of the night may not have been worth the back spasms that it created, but it did give our little Gansu apartment a bit of holiday spirit.

Now that we are big-city China dwellers, Christmas abounds, some good and some cheesy, but it is everywhere. The newest mall in town is decked out with pandas wearing Santa hats driving a two-reindeer sleigh and constantly recycling Christmas tunes over their sound system. On the other end of the spectrum, smaller stores are filled with gaudily glittered signs reading “Happy Christmas” and, at times, featuring Santa with a beer in hand.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the random, five-foot tall red and white elf hat that is inexplicably sitting in front of a light bulb store just outside our subway entrance. I don’t know where it came from or for what purpose it is intended, but it currently ranks high on my list of random Chengdu sightings. (The list has heavy turnover, as daily things are jumping up to take the top spot on the roster.)

As part of his job with the State Department, Thad was sent to Chongqing this weekend to represent the US Consulate at an event hosted by the Japanese Consulate to commemorate the emperor’s birthday. I tagged along with him so we’d have a greater presence at the party, and because it sounded great to get out of town for an evening. The event itself was pretty un-noteworthy. It was only an hour and a half long, consisted of a few speeches in Chinese (mine is terrible) and Japanese (mine is non-existent) that I easily tuned out while I checked out the outfits of my fellow attendees, buffets of seafood and sushi (I’ll pass) and a lot of mingling and business card exchanging. I stood out like a sore thumb at this event, filled with Japanese diplomats and Chinese officials. I was like the one black sheep in a herd of white ones, except I was the one blonde head in a crowd of black ones.  The highlight of the event (party is a bit grandiose for the evening) was that we got to meet and chat with the CG of the Japanese Consulate. (Thad may point to the sushi as being right up there for evening occurrences as well.)

But, while the official reason for going to Chongqing was a little underwhelming, the trip was still a great, if short, one. (We missed almost exactly twenty-four hours of Chengdu’s terrible air.)

We stayed at the Marriott in Chongqing, which had fully decked its halls in holiday festivity. When we walked into the lobby, we were greeted with what may be one of the best Christmas trees I have ever seen and by far the most marvelous one in China. The tree was huge and fully decorated in silver and pink. It was a tree straight out of my dreams! Their grand staircases were lined with garland, also accented in the same shades of silver and pink. (Just a disclaimer, I’m not talking Barbie pink here, but rather a very pretty jewel-toned raspberry color that was amazing.)

On top of a tree to make any Grinch smile, the hotel provided me with a first- room service! I’ve never ordered food to be delivered to my room by the hotel before (takeout from a nearby restaurant doesn’t count!), but after the Japanese event, I didn’t feel like changing back into street clothes and venturing out into the chilly and humid Chongqing night in search of food, so out came the menu and its dizzying array of choices (and prices!). I settled on pizza (a true Chinese classic, no?) and then went and enjoyed a steaming hot bath made silky with bath salts (thank you Marriott!) while I awaited the arrival of our late-night dinner. Pizza while snuggled up in king-sized bed with an American-ly soft mattress? It might not get any better than that on a cold December night in China.

It may have been a quick round-trip to Chongqing and back, but I between a bit of market shopping on our arrival and what I’m officially dubbing China’s best holiday display, I’m more than glad we went. With just a little under three weeks until the big day, I can’t wait for Christmas to be here!

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Pandas Need Good English Too, Right?

China has a bit of a bad rep as being a hotbed for infectious diseases- SARS and all. But, there is one epidemic that runs rampant in the Middle Kingdom  that is much more endearing and less fatal than bird flu- the overwhelming and constantly spreading Chinglish plague. (The loogies on every street corner and stairway are one of the least endearing and yet overwhelming and constantly spreading things in Chengdu, but that is a disgusting blog post I’ll save for another day.) Chengdu, in its attempt to modernize and become a more metropolitan city, has thrown up English all over the place. Sometimes it is well-done and rather helpful, like on the metro system, and sometime it is baffling and downright confusing, like on many menus across town.  (What exactly are Mexican tomatoes and how are they different from other tomatoes?)

The Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base is a magnet for most all foreigners passing through Chengdu. It is on everyone’s must-see list, and rightly so. It doesn’t matter if it is a six-year old fascinated with wildlife or a brigadier general, the fuzzy, roly-poly toddlers bring a smile to everyone’s face.

If I were to make a Venn Diagram of Chinglish and the panda center, with one circle blue and one circle red, the diagram would just be a giant purple dot. (I can’t tell you how much I loved making Venn Diagrams as an English teacher!) Every sign in the park is filled with little ditties that, while understandable, are a bit quirky. But, I loved their quirkiness. Announcing, “ I’m the national treasure and I hate noise” is an awesome way to (attempt) to get people to lower their voices. (It doesn’t work, as China is the land of rules/regulations being meant for everyone but “me.”)

But, that giant purple dot is coming to an end and I am sorry to say I had a hand in its demise. You see, a few months ago, the Panda Research Base put out a call for editors for their bi-monthly English newsletter.  They reached out to the US Consulate community, looking to pay someone to do the work, but since the US and China do not have a bilateral work agreement (meaning no working on the local economy while here on a diplomatic passport, which makes working for the spouses of officers a challenge), we offered to put it out to our community as a volunteer opportunity. When  the email came up on my computer, the English teacher in me got really excited, but after taking a deep breath (okay, not too deep, as it was another  “hazardous” day on the air quality monitor), I rolled my chair back up to my desk and got to work putting together an announcement for our adult family members.

Since I am lucky enough to be employed full-time by the consulate, I didn’t want to take this awesome opportunity away from one of our family members who wasn’t currently working, so I sent out a notice and sat back and waited. After a week of the panda base not getting any bites, I resent the notice, but again, no one expressed interest.

Two weeks seemed like a fair amount of time to let other s jump on this great opportunity, so when that amount of time had passed and no one from our group had contacted the base, I reached out and offered my services. (Granted, there was an application process that included a resume and three writing samples, but since I have a fresh resume from applying for my current position with the consulate and I write on a regular basis, it was easy to throw together the needed paperwork.) Then newsletter creator got back to me within a few days, saying she would love to work together on the upcoming issues.

After waiting a few weeks, I got my first editing job from the Chengdu Panda Research Base, but it wasn’t what I expected. Rather than being articles for an upcoming newsletter, it was photographs of *every* sign in the park that had English on them (including pictures of not one, but all, of the “no smoking” signs). My contact at the base asked me to go through each one and correct the English, as they planned to reprint the signs in the near future.

There were some of the signs that I was happy to fix, like the ones with letters transposed, but a little piece of my soul died as I corrected some of the more heartwarming signs about the pandas personalities and backgrounds. As an English teacher, I know how important it is for communication to be clear and concise, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love a little quirkiness as much as the next gal.

It took me several hours to go through all of the signs and make the corrections. Some of the more scientific ones took an extra long time, as I had to decipher what the original meaning was and then put that into a daily English that visitors could readily understand, which isn’t always easy when the starting point seems to be a terrible translation from Google.

In the end, I know that good signage will make the research center a more reputable facility, and I am thrilled to be able to volunteer with them in this way. But, to assuage the heartache of ridding the city of some of my favorite English, I did quietly leave the ““ I’m the national treasure and I hate noise” sign intact.

Just a few of the signs that needed help

Just a few of the signs that needed help

‘Twas The Night Before Christmas– Chengdu-Style

Yesterday, to complete my holiday-ification of the consulate, I hung (with care!) stockings outside the Marines’ Guard post, in hopes that our community would help fill them with holiday cheer. To encourage others to stuff the stockings, I (re)wrote a little poem you will all recognize, giving it a decidedly Chengdu feel.


‘Twas the Night Before Christmas–Chengdu-Style

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the Consulate
Not a creature was stirring, not even a Pol. Officer working a bit late.
The stockings were hung outside Post One with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas (or maybe Ambassador Locke) soon would be there.

The visa applicants were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Vegas danced in their heads.
And a consular officer in his ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a quick, xiuxi nap.

When out on the concrete there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the CLO Lounge to see what was the matter.
Away to the door I flew through the smog,
Through CAC One, out to the guards’ and their dog.

The moon through the Chengdu haze, on the horizon sits low
Gave the same lack of luster as mid-day to objects below.
When, amazed by the sight, I had to stop and stare,
At a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny panda bears.

With a little old driver, who else could it have been?
I knew in a moment it must be Shengdan Lao Ren.
More rapid than visa adjudications, his pandas they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

“Now Lun Lun! now, Mei Lan! now, Tao Tao and Zhen Zhen!
On, Chuang Chuang! On, Chi Chi!, on Gao Gao and Gu Gu!
To the top of the consulate! Over the razor wire wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the compound-top the pandas they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I listened with awe,
To the prancing and pawing of each little paw
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Buzzed through Post One St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with factory pollution and soot.
A bundle of toys on his back, for all who would like
And he looked like a peddler, overloaded with goods, just needing a bike.

His eyes-how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like lajiao, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a Zhonghua cigarette he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly too,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of mapo dofu!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
Stockings were filled with brilliant EERs and dream posts to bid on in a flurry,
And giving a nod, past Post One and beyond, he fled in a hurry!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Shengdan Kuaile to all, and to all a Wan An!”