Congratulations, It’s a…Fully-Decorated Home!

I am now officially living in Chengdu.

Yes, technically we embarked upon our first tour with the State Department nine months ago, but after a bit of confusion and drama with the shipment of our personal goods, the move-in process has taken a little longer than we (or anyone!) expected. (The upside to that is that for all future tours, I will be the most satisfied GSO customer there is. When my HHE arrives after six months, I’ll be passing out homemade cookies and juice to all of folks in the General Services Office. When other officers/families are complaining about how long shipments take, I will be kicked back, just enjoying the consulate provided welcome kit.)

But, after the amount of time it takes to hatch a human baby, I am now officially a Chengdu resident.

This afternoon, one of our wonderful locally employed staff members came to my house and hung up my wall decorations.

I know, it sounds terrible that I didn’t do it myself, but really, it isn’t that I am just lazy. (Although having an ayi clean my house twice a week is making me lean in that direction.) With cement walls, there is no choice other than to have someone from the consulate come out with a giant drill, bucket of concrete screws and a small level, for quality control.

Now, here I sit, awkwardly typing on my computer, pretending to be swamped with work, while a lovely man drills holes into the walls of my abode, slowly turning my apartment into a home. The carpenter’s English skills rank just a tad above my Chinese skills, which has made for an interesting afternoon. Occasionally I will hear, “Ni hao,” and that is my cue to come running to answer any number of questions. The problem is, I am not sure if the question being asked and the one I am answering are the same. With hand gestures and pointing, it is pretty easy to clarify whether a photograph needs to be moved up a few inches or to the left just a tad, but it gets more complicated when the (assumed) topic of conversation is about why dozens of men are pulling apart a naga snake in our three-part mural from Cambodia. I’m pretty sure I just had a discussion with him about the barn wood that makes up a mirror we now have hanging in our living room, but I may be *way* off base on that one. Maybe he just asked if the piece was centered above the sofa.

In the best of circumstances, I am weirded out by workers and technicians being in my house. I used to hide in a hardwood-floored room when the carpet cleaners came, knowing they wouldn’t have to touch that part of the house. Or if a plumber had to make a house call to look at the shower that had been leaking into the baseboards for months without us knowing it, I’d find anywhere else to be but home. I don’t even answer the door when the McDonald’s delivery guy comes with our McFood. (That’s right, McDonald’s delivers in China. Not only is the food terrible for you, but now you don’t even have to put in the effort it takes to walk to your car to go through the drive-thru. All you have to do is open a new tab on your browser, order all the mashed potato hamburgers you can eat- it is a real option here- and within half an hour your doorbell will chirp and fast food is at your door.)

After two hours of adding photos, mirrors and a quilted wall-hanging to my white-washed cement walls, the consulate’s wonderful carpenter has just walked out my door with his amazing rolly-cart of tools and his ladder. I showered him with thank-yous in both English and Chinese and I’m guessing he is as happy to be done with our awkward afternoon of pantomimes as I am.

So, it’s official. Nine months (nearly to the day!) since we arrived in Chengdu, we are fully gestated and looking forward to the next year, when the whole moving process will begin again.

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I May Become a Real Snorkeler Yet!

Growing up, my house was full of books, magazines and newspapers. I was surrounded by letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters and novels. Every opportunity to be an early reader was presented to me, but did I go for it? Nope. Why not? Because I also came from a house of teachers and I knew what their job was. It was to teach kids, at a school. So, why learn to read on my own when it was the teacher’s job to pass that information along? I figured just like it was Mr. Roger’s job to take me to the crayon and toilet bowl-making factories and it was the mailman’s job to deliver music catalogs filled with buy 8, get one free deals (plus a million of those postage stamp-like stickers of all of the cassette tapes available that I could lick and stick to everything in the house), it was my first grade teacher’s job to teach me to read. With this idea firmly planted in my head, my mom tied my shoes (I was a bit behind the curve on shoe-tying it would seem and Velcro had not yet hit the shoe scene), packed my Tupperware bowl of Lucky Charms in my Sesame Street lunchbox and delivered me to my first day at Van Buren Elementary School. Eight hours later, with straggling shoelaces, a milk-film lined plastic container nestled next to my Big Bird thermos, I walked out the side door of that same building literate. (Okay, literate in a first grade sense.) Yes, it took just one day for me to go from being a non-reader to a reader. Apparently, I had more book sense that I had let on, but I wasn’t going to show it until the teacher had done her job. (Someone give that woman a raise!)

Jump ahead two decades.

After years of half-hearted attempts to learn to drive a manual transmission vehicle, I was in my early twenties and still couldn’t get my husband’s truck out of the driveway if there had been an emergency. Driving the back roads around Marsing, I could eventually jerk the truck into first gear, get it moving and finally find some rhythm as I shifted upwards to normal driving speeds. That was all well and good when it was just some coyotes and pheasants as spectators, but add in even a single other car and my little bit of stick-shift confidence went flying out the window of the stalled pickup. I’d basically given up ever driving a manual vehicle anywhere witness-able by human beings, when, in the market for a new car, I fell in love with one of the new VW Beetles. (I guess that dates me a bit, as the “new” Beetles have since had yet another make-over!) With no skills to speak of, I bought a stick shift car, which I couldn’t drive home the twenty freeway miles to my house. Since we had gone car shopping in Thad’s stick shift truck, he couldn’t take the new car home either. With the pile of car sale papers adding up and my hand cramping from signing and initialing every detail known to man, I made a call to my sister, who drove an automatic, but could drive a manual, to come pick up my new car and deliver it to my house, with me following her in her car. With my shiny black Beetle safely in the driveway of my house, I had forced myself into a situation where I HAD to learn to drive it- for real. The next day, out I headed, across town to the court house for my license and registration, only killing the engine at every stop sign and railroad crossing, embarrassingly waving “so sorry” waves to the line of cars building behind me at each intersection and painfully lurching into parking spaces as I ran my new-car errands. But, by the time Thad got home from work that night, I was a near-master of the stick-shift. (Well, of my car’s stick-shift. It didn’t take me long to discover that his truck, the one I had frustratingly been learning on in fits and starts over the last few years, was one of the most persnickety transmissions I’d ever drive.)

And now jump ahead one more decade.

This last week was the Chinese New Year (happy year of the snake!), which means the Consulate was closed and it was time to get a little sunshine. For years I’ve seen pictures on the internet of huts perched on stilts above gorgeous, clear, blue seas. A little research said that many of these rooms could be found in the Maldives, and a bit more hunting turned up a direct flight from Chengdu to Male, meaning pollution-free skies, equatorial sunshine, silky soft sand beaches and a rainbow of tropical fish were a mere six hours away. There was only one problem with that plan though- I can’t swim. (Okay, two problems, the second being that I am pasty white and genetically am never meant to live anywhere near the Equator, but that is a dilemma for another day…maybe bidding day.)

On a secluded island, fifty miles from the capital city and only reachable by seaplane, snorkeling is one of the top holiday activities. But, as I said, I am no swimmer. Bless their hearts, my parents did their duty in this realm. They enrolled me in summer after summer of Caldwell Recreation’s swim classes at the public pool. With three kids and an always full summer schedule, we were always enrolled in the first course of the summer, starting in early June, and the first classes of the day. While this made sense from a parental-point of view, I have to say that for a reluctant swimmer, facing that early morning, not yet sun-warmed pool was no easy task. But, summer after summer I went to those classes for a few weeks and summer after summer I hated putting my head under the water, I hated jumping off the diving board and I hated flailing around in a pool that I’m pretty sure had more “p” than “ool.” When it was clear I wasn’t making much headway in the skills department, my parents took me to private lessons. This was better, in that it was in the afternoons and in a private backyard pool, and I am sure I made more progress in that summer than I did in my multitude of public sessions, but still, floating is the only water skill I really possess. In case of a water emergency, my plan has always been to float on my back or doggy paddle until help arrives. I think it is a solid plan.

But, when faced with a week-long vacation on the above mentioned tropical island, I figured it was probably time to pull out that stubborn streak that was the impetus behind waiting until day one of first grade to read or purchasing a car I couldn’t actually drive to force me in to learning how to operate a manual transmission. Armed with flippers, goggles and a snorkel and a bungalow with a private staircase leading directly into the sea, it was time to swim.

I would like to claim that I bailed into the water, swam with the fishes (in a good way!) and could now be mistaken for a big white fish, but my first attempt at snorkeling was not quite that smooth. With Thad as my personal lifeguard, I flipper-ed and masked up and painstakingly crawled down to the ocean, step by step. Once I had eased into the water, I clung to the railing like a barnacle, sure I was going to be swept out to sea and never seen again. (All this before my hair was even wet!) Getting comfortable with the lack of touchable bottom, I put my goggled head under the water, only to instantly hyperventilate. While my brain logically knew air was coming through the tube that broke the surface, my lungs freaked out and I was pretty sure I was going to die, while still in barnacle-mode.

Slowly, but surely, over the next hour, I ventured away from my railing, floundering from hut to hut like someone who was raised far from any ocean. (Southern Idaho anyone?) As my confidence grew, we were able to eventually leave behind the security of the railings and head out into the coral, visiting fish in their own homes. It was a bit surreal, being inside the world’s biggest aquarium! As I pulled myself waterlogged and sunburned self back up onto the deck of our bungalow (avoiding the two crabs who lived there all week as well), I wouldn’t claim myself to be a snorkeling champion but I was comfortable and confident and ready to not only see new parts of the reef around our island, but I was already pondering possible snorkeling destinations for our next R&R.

Some may call it stubbornness or pigheadedness, but I’d rather put a positive spin on it and say that once I set my mind to something, I’ll make it happen. That might mean making sure my first grade teacher gets a chance to do her job properly or that I don’t learn to drive a stick-shift until it becomes necessary for the car I want, but once I see the purpose in learning something new, I’m all over it, just like those clingy barnacles!

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Ringing in the Year of the Snake, Chengdu-Style!

Yes, I just posted new writing a few hours ago.

Yes, it is well past midnight and I’m exhausted.

But no, I cannot go to bed without sharing the utterly amazing and chaotic skyline that is Chengdu on Lunar New Year’s Eve.

The fireworks have been popping off after dark, at random intervals, all week long. Last night, we got in on the action with a trip to the Marine House for pizza and fireworks on the roof’s patio. At the time, we were pretty impressed with the display of fireworks that would never be legal in the US, let alone be shot off in the middle of a city, with a porch full of kids. (Granted, we had the kids behind a dubious perimeter of plastic lawn chairs. Safety first!)

Over the past few nights, what we thought was a lot of noise and flashing lights didn’t even qualify as a preface to the show that took place tonight.

Living on the 24th floor with a balcony that overlooks the river, we had an amazing view of the city. We weren’t boxed in by Chengdu’s ubiquitous skyscrapers, but rather had a line of site across the city’s horizon that was unparalleled. People were putting large boxes of mortars in the middle of the road, lighting the fuse and letting them rip. There were a few times I felt the need to dodge/duck as I watched the show in my bathrobe on my porch.

Imagine a fireworks grand finale that blankets the horizon, from left to right. Imagine reds and greens, golds and purples, lighting up the nighttime sky. Add on top of that the deafening roar of mortar after mortar and the high-pitched popping of firecracker after firecracker.  As I type this, my ears are still ringing from the incredibly loud and incredibly close show. I think I may have just shorted my ear’s lifespan by a year or two, but it was worth it! (Much more so than the New Kids on the Block concert I attended in the 6th grade. Those second row seats were awesome to my 12-year old self, but in retrospect, I’ll take Chinese New Year hearing loss over boy-band hearing loss any day!)

The utter, but beautiful, chaos outside is subsiding, but I can’t go to sleep without giving our adopted hometown a shout-out. Well-done this evening Chengdu. Well-done!


Ringing in the Year of the Snake with Far from the Fireworks

All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go.

Thankfully, my bags aren’t filled with the regret and longing of John Denver’s. Rather, my packing list included much lighter items, like three swimsuits (a girl needs choices when she is willingly-marooned on a minuscule island, soaking up sunshine after a dreary Chengdu winter!) and an array of sundresses that haven’t been out of the closet in nearly a year.

Now, as I gingerly type this post with drying nails (hot pink sandal-worthy toes and glittery, UV-activated red polish on my 8/10 fingers), I can almost feel the sunshine soaking into my skin (I’m already prepared for the possibility of nursing a sunburn the following week, but it is a price I am willing to pay), smell the salty breeze wafting off the ocean, taste the fruity, umbrella bedecked drinks and picture the turtles and manta rays swimming beneath my stilted hut.

Maldives, I’m ready for you!

I’ve got new books downloaded to my Nook and several magazines that I stashed away for this occasion while I was home in the States. (I downloaded this year’s Newberry award-winning book, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate a few days ago, meaning to take it with me and read while lounging on my private deck, but made the mistake of starting it last night. Needless to say, I couldn’t put it down and ended up finishing it this morning, before packing commenced. READ IT! I don’t have time to write a review before heading out tomorrow, but this book is beautiful and should be read by all, young and old. Trust me.)

Bathing suits- check. Sundresses-check. Sunscreen-check. Reading materials-check. Now, it is just a matter of watching the clock slowly tick down the next twenty-four hours.

Needless to say, I will be totally (and contentedly) unplugged from the virtual world for the next week, so there will be no blog posts or Facebook updates.  Until then, I leave you with this mental image of my time on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean :


(I found this picture online last month and saved it. I wish I had had the foresight to take note of the site where I stumbled across it. It is citation-less and this English teacher feels terrible about it!)


Is a Ravens Win “But A Dream Within A Dream”?

The Big Game is finally here. After months of weekly fashion shows by all of the teams in the league (and maybe a bit of ball running/throwing/kicking to make the NFL look like something other than a club for boys with cute outfits vying for rings each winter), it has come down to two options for Mr. NFL. We’ve got the 49ers who will be sporting red and gold ensembles tomorrow morning (game time is 7:30AM for those of us residing in the Middle Kingdom) and the Ravens who will wear a darker scheme of purple and black.

(Looking back over the season, the regular game day uniforms were pretty similar to last year, but when it came time for throwbacks, there were some major missteps! I still can’t believe the Steelers took the field looking like giant bumblebees this fall.  Horizontal stripes aren’t easy for most people to pull off, but put them on a 300 pound linebacker and the results aren’t pretty. Give them some antennae and a few Spanish phrases and they could be stand-ins for Bumblebee Man from the Simpsons. And don’t even get me started on the throwbacks donned by the Buccaneers this season. Just a hint boys: Sherbet-hued outfits will intimidate no one. And regardless of how you feel about the breast cancer awareness pink requirement during October, I would officially like to excuse the Redskins and the Chiefs from next year’s forced “we heart boobies” trend. There is just no way the red/yellow of their normal uniforms can come anywhere near looking good with a splash of bright pink. Let them off the hook, for the sake of all of our eyes.)

While my Idaho roots may make readers think I would lean towards supporting the 49ers, I can’t do that, for several reasons. First, those outfits are hideous. They look like they are stuck in the 80s. If the Super Bowl was based purely on uniform design (which I wish it were), they’d lose before the coin was even tossed.

But, their terrible threads are not the only reason they aren’t getting my vote. How can I not tell the tale of my heart and root on the Ravens? You’d have to chain me to a catacomb’s wall to keep me from cheering on Baltimore’s team tomorrow morning. The wings seraphs of heaven covet the playing abilities of Ray Lewis and Joe Flacco.  Will San Francisco take home the Lombardi trophy tomorrow morning? “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’”

He was a literary master and he has an NFL team named after him. There is no other team to root for. Evermore!

To prepare for the early morning match-up, my day has been spent getting ready for the Super Bowl party I will host at the consulate. With freshly painted purple and black fingernails, I’ve peeled about a million mandarin oranges, which are a perfect for the continental breakfast spread I have ready to go in the morning. (Rather than noshing on nachos, pizza, chicken wings and beer, we’ll be celebrating with muffins, cinnamon rolls, fruit and coffee. That’s what happens when kickoff is before the opening of business on a work day.) I ran to the store to get extra juice, worried that the four boxes I schlepped back to the compound after lunch on Friday would not be enough, and got some baby bananas to supplement the peeled miniature oranges.

Sadly, we won’t get to watch the overpriced Super Bowl commercials, as we’ll be watching the game live on an AFN (Armed Forces Network) feed, which doesn’t allow for commercials.  While all of America is watching a baby Clydesdale grow up and make his owner proud (and getting to take a shot at naming him) and a confusing VW commercial that implies driving one will give you a carefree Caribbean outlook and a stereotypical Jamaican accent (neither of which I got in the several years I drove a VW Bug), we’ll be sipping coffee as the military reminds us about such uplifting topics as PTSD, suicide and the pitfalls of only paying the minimum balance on our credit cards.

Knowing that winter is going to be cut short thanks to Punxsutawney not seeing his shadow this weekend, those of us in Chengdu will be enjoying some early morning pigskin play action and hoping for a bit of sunshine to break through the haze. Oh yeah, and rooting on an American literary legend’s team.


R & R and a Few More R’s

R & R.

Rest and relaxation. (It serves as a much-appreciated break from work and the daily stresses of living abroad.)

Recovery and rejuvenation. (It serves as a much-needed break for our lungs. For a few weeks while we were in Idaho, I didn’t taste the air once!)

Running errands and retail therapy. (I definitely did my share of shopping while I was home. Neon colored running shoes, a brightly colored purse, a rainbow of tops and a raspberry-colored skirt all squished in to my suitcase next to the new tri-barrel curling iron and hot curlers, to make the trip back to the Middle Kingdom.)

But, getting home from being Stateside for a few weeks requires a bit of readjustment.

Of course, there is the unavoidable jet lag. Our original journey was to be twenty-eight hours from wheels-up in Boise to touch-down in Chengdu. After a problem with the plane at LAX and a transfer to a different aircraft, we left Los Angeles over two hours late, which caused a chain of events that pushed our twenty-eight hour trip to closer to thirty-three hours. Wheels finally met tarmac in Chengdu at 2:30AM, meaning we finally fell into bed at 3:30. The good thing about that terrible arrival time was that for the first night, there was no need to fight the sleep. We dropped our suitcases at the door and were asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows. Too few hours later, my eyes popped open and I was wide-awake. Granted, 8AM is a normal time to roll out of bed on a weekend, but not when it was pushing 4AM before sleep and I were reunited.

I had great plans to battle the tiredness, trying to avoid the lingering effects of cross-hemisphere travel. Needless to say, by noon, I had given up all attempts at starting my week off on a normal schedule. I considered putting more effort into the fight, but then decided one of the great thing about being a grown-up (other than getting to eat frosting straight from the tub without getting in trouble) is I make my own bedtime. If that means the blackout curtains get drawn at noon for a four hour nap, then so be it. A comatose nap I will take! Throughout the rest of that week, I slowly pushed bedtime (and as a consequence, waking time) back later and later. A week of Chengdu under my belt and I was back to a normal sleep pattern!

It wasn’t the jet lag that was the biggest adjustment coming back though. That one is expected. It was the milk. Yes, you read that right- the milk.

While I was home, I enjoyed a lovely bowl of Marshmallow Ladies each morning. (These are the generic Lucky Charms, officially branded as Marshmallow Maties, but my four-year old niece is convinced they are Ladies, so that is what we go with.) Each morning, after filling my bowl with cereal, I turned to the fridge which always housed several gallons of fresh, 1% milk. This was milk that required refrigeration. This was milk that went bad if left on the cupboard for months (or days, or hours.) This was milk that was a perfect companion to freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

This was not China-milk.

Over our first eight months in Chengdu, I had gotten used to the taste of boxed-milk. I have a case of it delivered to my house occasionally, which sits on my cupboard. I transfer small boxes of milk to my fridge as needed. This milk is sufficient for topping a bowl of cereal, especially if I drain the excess off the side of the spoon using the edge of the bowl as a guide.  It is not a respectable substitute to accompany freshly baked brownies. Needless to say, my taste buds had quickly reverted to their love of American milk upon arrival in the US and the conversion back to boxed milk has been a little rough.

Now, with my sleep schedule back to normal (normal is relative, as I am usually curled up in bed under a pile of blankets by 9PM, giving me a good hour or two of reading time before it’s lamps-out time)  and my taste buds realigning to the flavor of never-go-bad milk, I’ve hit the ground running on a variety of projects at work.

Settling in may be done, but it isn’t slated to be long-lasting. The suitcases may be recently stowed in the closet, but they won’t be collecting much more than a light coating of dust. In just two weeks, Thad and I are flying to the Maldives for some highly-anticipated sunshine and blue skies. I’m already planning THAT readjustment period to include soothing a sunburn and cleaning sand from the nooks and crannies of our baggage.  And if that’s “readjustment,” I’ll adjust, readjust and then adjust again!

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