How My Hoped For Cute-splosion Became a More Moving Experience Than I Had Anticipated

This post was supposed to be adorable. It was going to be filled with pictures of me sporting a cute, crimped ponytail, scooping some panda poo and making panda lunches. I was hopefully that it would also include photos of me actually feeding a panda the lunch I had just lovingly made him in the nearby panda kitchen.

And alas, I was off to a great start.

After a 5AM alarm woke me in what was still the dark of the night, I scarfed down some Marshmallow Maties and headed out the door to be the first one at the consulate for the day’s exciting adventure. (If only we knew then just how exciting it would be…) Half an hour later, as I leaned against the van, checklist in hand, counting heads and collecting cash, I had a moment where I thought I was going crazy. You see, ever since the 2008 earthquake, I have been less than trusting of the steadiness of the earth beneath my feet. So as I rested against the vehicle, I could have sworn I felt a tremor under my feet. Doing like I always do when I feel that uneasiness (which is more often that I would like to admit), I instantly stood up straight and looked for something that would help me judge movement- a bottle of water, a hanging lamp, a flag suspended on a pole- anything that would show the vibration. But, as I quickly scanned the horizon (with crazy-eyes), trying to not be obvious about my personal issue, I saw nothing out of place. Chalking it up to my now five-year old paranoia, I leaned back against the van, awaiting the arrival of the last adventurers.

Skip ahead a few hours.

As my intrepid group traveled up to Ya’an to spend our day with the pandas, we started getting texts about an earthquake. Where? Ya’an! Many of us thought we felt some weird shaking on the highway, but chalked it up to less than stellar road maintenance. Soon though, after pulling over in a small town, where everyone (!) was outside their homes, we were able to piece together information from friends/colleagues back in Chengdu as well as news coming out through local sources and realized there had been a 6.9 earthquake, centered exactly where we were headed!

Needless to say, after circling the wagons (or at least pulling the vans off to the side of the road) and having a discussion about our options, we decided it was best to turn around and head back to the city.

I could write all about the amazing response time from the Chinese government. (As we headed back to Chengdu on the expressway, we passed ambulance after ambulance, busloads of military, flatbed trucks with digging machines and countless other emergency equipment and vehicles headed to the site of the disaster). I could write about the heart-warming reaction from our community. (When I called around to each officer/family on Monday morning to check in, many of them were already asking me what we could do to reach out and help the victims of Saturday’s quake.) Or, I could write about the continued aftershocks that roll through periodically. (While there have been numerous smaller quakes, there was one particular one on Sunday evening that made me consider crawling under my dining room table for whatever small amount of protection USG furniture would provide.)

But I don’t want to.

All last week as I planned this post (yes, my organizational obsessions extend to my blog- I’m always plotting and planning my next entry), I couldn’t wait to share what I hoped would be jealousy- inducing photos (still trying to get family and friends to come visit!), cuddly cuteness and fun stories of up-close-and-personal panda encounters.

I need more cute in my life. (Lately I’ve been obsessed with the neighbor’s corgi, an adorable dog named Johnny. He currently has a cast on his leg as it heals from a recent break and he owns an array of bandanas he sports as he goes out for his daily walk. If only having a pet in the Foreign Service wasn’t so difficult and expensive…)

So how do I turn an earth-jiggling week into a cute post? By sharing the book I got in the mail this last week. My four-year old niece wrote me a story, illustrated it and, with the help of her wonderful mother, bound the book and dropped it in the mail, headed to China.

For your reading pleasure, Scouty Scout by Audrey.

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Guide to Chengdu Metro Etiquette

Rural Idaho was the perfect place to grow up. Acres of fields surrounded our house, beckoning curious, chore-avoiding children to wander through them all summer long (and get in trouble when we decided to do a little science experiment and figure out how syphon tubes worked.) Canals with rickety bridges were the perfect place to hold races of leaves and sticks, dropping them in on one side and then scurrying across to see which came out the far end first. Those same canals had banks covered in milkweed, home to monarch butterfly chrysalises, and stalk after stalk of puffy pussy willows. But, with all these grand adventures just out our backdoor, one thing my Idaho upbringing did not equip me for was public transportation. Idaho, with its population of less than two million, does not do public transportation well at all. (To be perfectly honest, it hardly does it at all.)

During college, my roommate Cori, and I got quite adept at using the public bus system to schlep our weekly groceries home from Food4Less (yes, that is really the name of the store we shopped at!) and even made one freezing cold, wet December journey into Salt Lake City to spend the day at the aviary amongst angry owls and much too raptor-like emus. But, really, until my early 30s, public transportation was not really an option for daily travel.

Then, we moved to Washington DC. Within the first day of being there, our good friends John and Erin enlightening me about subway etiquette- more precisely escalator etiquette. Walk on the left, stand on the right. Pretty simple, but coming from an escalator-free town (does Caldwell even have one escalator in it?), it never crossed my mind. I was quickly grateful for the tip, as it didn’t take long to discover that our nation’s capital takes their escalator etiquette quite serious. For a year, the DC Metro was my primary source of transportation. I took it the get to training classes, to see the sites and to visit friends. While there was a lot of grumbling by DC natives about the constant track work and line shutdowns, I loved the fairly frequent trains that were clean and while often crowded, rarely over-filled.

Skip ahead a few months to our arrival in Chengdu. When we were here with Peace Corps, there was no metro system, but when we touched down a year ago, we were happily surprised to find a single line running north/south through the city center. Four months later, the second line in the city opened, connecting our apartment complex to a larger portion of the city. But, Metro riding in Chengdu bears little resemblance to that of the DC area.

This chasm is easy illustrated by the free newspaper being handed out all along both lines on Friday of last week. Since I am nearly illiterate in Chinese, I don’t have exact translations for the various guidelines, but the drawings provide a pretty clear picture.  The paper provides ten rules for all subway passengers to follow:

1) No pooping on the train. (Thad and I both agree this would have been more appropriate as #2, but the drawing that includes a wavy stink line and a fly is a nice touch, so credit goes out to the artist for his/her detail work. I haven’t seen anyone take care of business on the subway here in Chengdu, but there were reports last winter of a child doing just that in Guangzhou, which may have been the impetus for this inclusion.)

2)No spitting on the train. (People here spit. A lot. It’s always good to prohibit spitting.)

3) Let others off the train before you get on. (This is my biggest Metro pet-peeve in Chengdu. NO ONE lets the offloading people through before rushing onto the just arrived cars. It creates a horrible traffic jam and is frustrating on a daily basis.)

4) No jumping the turnstiles. (Again, I have never seen this in Chengdu, but I suppose it is a good rule to have.)

5) No smoking or eating on the trains. (Do I see people smoking on the trains? No. Do I see people eating chicken feet out of plastic bags? Yes. But, to be fair, the DC Metro also has a rule about not eating on trains, but that didn’t stop people from snacking in their seats.)

6) No sleeping on the train. (I think this is more about hogging multiple seats by sprawling across them than it is about sleeping. I see people catching little catnaps on the train all the time, which, whatever!)

7) No panhandling. (This one confused me at first. I initially thought it was prohibiting the disabled from using the trains, but then I realized the little orange man had a money tray out. I should have instantly known the picture wasn’t showing a discrimination against the disabled, as the system itself does a pretty good job of keeping them out, since most stations are only accessible via staircase at the entrance. There is almost always an “up” escalator, but rarely a “down” or an elevator.)

8) Only use the emergency button for emergencies. (Again, good rule. Not sure that is has been an issue, yet…)

9) Let the elderly/pregnant/disabled (if they can actually make it to the train) have the seats. (This is probably my favorite of the drawings. I love the seated guy’s eyes. An old man is standing directly in front of him and he pretends to not see him. Nice!)

10) Use the escalators properly. (DC Metro would be proud of this one.)

After hundreds (thousands?) of these free newspapers were handed out last Friday, I would like to say I hold out hope that a few changes will come about on the Metro system (again, mainly #3), but I may be being a bit naïve. My thought is this: the Metro system is new to Chengdu, so new to nearly everyone who rides it. Just like I had to learn a bit about subway etiquette from the fabulous Townsends, maybe the folks here just need a bit of direction. With even more new lines set to open in the coming years, I’m choosing to look at teacup as half full and have faith that Chengdu’s public transportation will only get better with age!

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Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight


After avoiding it for months because it had become “too” popular, last winter I finally downloaded Gone Girl to read on the long flight from western China to Idaho. (I tend to get a little snotty about books that *everyone* says I must read.  When they become a cultural phenomenon, I get turned off by the saturation in the news and internet. It’s uppity and judgmental, I know. And yet, it’s how I roll.) But back to Gone Girl,I loved it! With that rambling introduction, this isn’t a review for Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, but rather one that came up on a recommendation list I look at saying if I liked that one, I should try Reconstructing Amelia  by Kimberly McCreight. They were right!

Much like the suspense that kept me turning pages way too late at night with Flynn’s book, Reconstructing Amelia had me spellbound much longer that was prudent for the few days the book lasted. McCreight’s story starts with the suicide of Amelia, who jumped off the roof of her liberal, left-wing private school, and her mother’s arrival on the scene. But, it quickly jumps back in time, leading readers through the months prior to Amelia’s death, creating a picture of a teenage world much more complicated than her single, long-hour working lawyer of a mother would have liked to believe she lived in.

Told through Kate’s investigation of her daughter’s death (six weeks after Amelia’s death,  on the day she returns to work at her high-priced law firm, Kate receives a text message from a blocked number saying Amelia didn’t jump), the reader follows Amelia’s steps, and missteps, in those crucial months before she died. We not only get to have Amelia as a narrator, but, along with her grieving mother, we delve into her texts and emails (somewhere most parents don’t want to go), her relationships (both long-standing and newly-budding) and read past editions of a nasty online newsletter circulated anonymously at her school.

Several time throughout the book I thought I had pieced together the puzzle of why Amelia would take such a drastic measure, only to have the pieces shift and leave me looking at a whole new scene. McCreight does a wonderful job of giving readers enough information to keep them hooked, but not revealing the entire story until the final pages of the novel.

A tale of a young girl’s suicide may not seem like the book you want to rush home from work to curl up with on the couch, but Kimberly McCreight weaves a tale so intricate and twist-filled that I did just that- scurried home from work and into my pajamas so I could read a chapter or two before dinner and then another few before bed, easily earning Reconstructing Amelia: 

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Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar By Kelly Oxford

Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar By Kelly Oxford

everything is perfect when you're a liar

Hilarious! (And more than slightly inappropriate at times, which makes it all the more hysterical!) As a huge fan of the quickly expanding women’s comedy-memoir genre, I was excited to see Everything is Perfect When You’re a Liar, by Kelly Oxford, pop up on one of the many book recommendation websites I follow. Instantly, I downloaded and dug into this non-fictional series of essays about Oxford’s dramatic childhood, often mortifying teen years and beyond.

While I am not sure how she ever convinced her parents to let her to go LA, as a seventeen year old, for a long weekend, reading about her adventures over that 72 hour period made me giggle more than once. Why not accept a ride from someone you met on the just-budding, new invention called the internet? He has a car; you need a ride. Sounds perfect! And when that works out (by works out, I mean you don’t get killed and dumped on the side of the road), why not meet up with another random LA-er, this one being a woman who claims to know Leonardo DiCaprio- your sole reason for being in LA? And when she turns out to eat more laxatives than actual food, why not ditch her in search of some late night pizza? Oh yeah, and how about tying up the weekend with a glittery bow of Las Vegas, with two more strangers? Sounds like a normal weekend for a seventeen year old if you ask me.

Oxford’s humor runs the gamut from situations infused with sheer mortification (peeing her pants in a gas station) to horrifyingly awful decisions (pretending to be homeless to get a free plane ride after spending the last of her money on weed) to ones more relatable to readers with kids (son barfing, repeatedly, on Disney ride after Disney ride, but still insisting on downing corndogs and churros.)

Throughout the book, each chapter stands on its own as a single tale of ridiculousness, embarrassment or slight insanity, but when put together as a whole, build the blocks of a life of one misguided adventure after another, starting with childhood and working up through Oxford’s current state as a wife, mother and continued maker of bad (yet enormously entertaining) bad decisions.

The thing is, this series of essays is hilarious because it is so over-the-top! Some readers will be horribly offended by some of the stories she fesses up to, but those are the same folks who also won’t be stifling laughs at Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson or Girl Walks into a Bar by Rachel Dratch. Kelly Oxford’s Everything is Perfect if You’re a Liar is the perfect read for an airport (if you don’t mind being looked at oddly as you muffle your inescapable laughter) or a day at the beach (which might be better, as you can blame the giggles on a Speedo-clad leathery old man sighting) and earns:

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I Love Books- Guest Blog on

I was asked to guest blog on  Ms. Doanes focuses on the world of writing and publishing and I was thrilled to add to her site.


This guest post comes from Michelle Ross. She’s a travel writer and book reviewer. Michelle is currently looking for submissions of galley copies of books to review.

I Love Books: eBooks and Paperback Books

When the air quality monitor ranges from “hazardous” to merely “unhealthy” for weeks on end, it is amazing how much time I have to catch up on my online reading. As my lungs thank me for hiding indoors, where I’ve got multiple air purifiers running, I’ve been amazed to read article after article rehashing the “e-reader vs. hard copy” debate. I can’t believe this is still a point of contention in the world of bibliophiles. With so many of the writers digging in their heels about paper and ink being the only way to read for true book lovers, while the progressive side pushes for screens and buttons as the wave of the future, I’d like to come down smack in the middle, sitting on the fence of reason.

You see, as much as I love going to the bookstore, slowly wandering passed the “new arrivals” section, meandering into the aisles of travel writing, looping through the “up and coming authors” section, making a pit stop on a bench by the fashion magazines and then finally arriving at the discounted paperbacks, taking home a pile of books is no longer a viable option for me. As the spouse of a US Foreign Service Officer, my life is a cycle of packing my worldly goods into cardboard boxes, not to be seen for several (or more!) months at a time, living out of a suitcase, arriving in a new country where I may or may not speak the local language, only to unpack those boxes in my latest apartment, settle in for a two year stay and then start the process all over again. Doing this with the shelves and shelves of hardcopy books that I owned as an English teacher is nearly impossible! (It is pretty amazing how quickly you can hit a weight limit when your boxes are filled with nothing but novels and travel memoirs.) So, while I *heart* the independent bookstore as much as the next gal, my e-reader has been my lifeline abroad!

I Love Books: eBooks and Paperback Books

With hundreds of novels at my fingertips, I no longer have to figure out which books are getting left behind- this time. The young adult novel I downloaded while feeling nostalgic for my 8th graders is safe and gets to venture on with me. The memoir of the blogger turned author (lucky girl!) lives on to be giggled at in airport terminals around the globe. The heartwarming, if rather simplistic, novel about at-odds brothers who reunite later in life continues to take up space, but a small enough amount that it remains a book cover icon to be thumbed through on my e-reader homepage. These are the books that would probably not make the cut if they were traditional, bound paper editions, but because they are mere bits of information, adding not a single ounce to my already strained carry-on bag, travel from America to China to Thailand and the Maldives and destinations yet unknown.

The world of book-lovers doesn’t need to be divided down these arbitrary lines of loyalty. The world isn’t black and white, just like the newest wave of e-readers, shades of gray (maybe even for than fifty!) and a rainbow of colors abound. Yes, I still have several boxes of books that make the move with me every two years and yes, the number of boxes in that category continues to grow as there are times I just can’t resist the smell of a newly bound book, the feel of the pages feathering through my fingers.  But, as a bibliophile traveler, the fence of reason is my book format home.

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain with Lisa Pulitzer

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain with Lisa Pulitzer


It’s hard to imagine how someone could be a part of a group that held as radically negative views as the Westboro Baptist Church, but to choose to join the group after having lived a “normal” life is even more incomprehensible. And yet, it happened to Lauren Drain when she was a teenager and her dad made the life-altering shift from being a perpetual college student to a minion for Pastor Phelps. In Banished, Drain tells, with the help of Lisa Pulitzer, of how her life went from school sports and hanging out with friends to one of weekends picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers and not being able to speak to boys.

For a young lady who has every reason to be bitter, as her teenage years were spent within the confines of a community who ridiculed her every choice, made her feel as though the slightest mistake would send her to the burning fires of Hell and wouldn’t allow even a clarifying question when it came to doctrine, Drain’s book is remarkably even-handed. I expected much more anger from someone who spent her formative years within the Westboro Baptist Church, but instead, it seems Drain has used her book as a bit of therapy, working through the issues that remain.

What I was most interested in learning from the book was more about the belief system of this church that is so often portrayed on the nightly news. I couldn’t fathom how a group of people could abide by ideas that were so anger-filled and purported a god who was so wrathful as to cheer the deaths of small children and patriotic soldiers. After reading the whole thing, I can’t honestly say I have much more of a grasp on it. While I now know the doctrines being taught by Phelps and his followers, understanding is far from mine. The teaching conflict with one another, saying that God has pre-ordained a certain number of people to enter Heaven and only those will be “saved” and then turning around and preaching that all must pray for forgiveness and atonement. But, if one is already set on the path to Hell before even being born, why bother? It doesn’t make much sense, and yet his followers trail behind him, spouting the same vitriol at their numerous pickets.

As far as writing goes, the book is a very straight-forward narrative of her family’s path to and within the Westboro Baptist Church. The book is a quick read and gives an interesting “inside” view of the inner working of the church and its congregation. Banished by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer is dynamic enough to overcome the rather bland writing (it isn’t bad writing, but it also doesn’t do much other than tell a story chronologically), earning:

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Cameras and Crashes in Chengdu

Blue eyes, pasty skin and blonde hair stand out in Idaho like a chubby kid in a McDonalds or the Mets having a losing record at the end of the season. It doesn’t. (Sorry Matt!) Take those same light-colored eyes, nearly translucent skin and “yellow” hair and plop them down in the center of China and the simile is more akin to a tiger in a petting zoo.

Some people hate the constant attention that comes with standing out in the crowd in Sichuan and for families with young kids, I don’t blame them for feeling frustrated. American kids are unique and cute and everyone wants to take photos of them when they are out and about in town. But, I’ve spent my two years in Gansu and then this last year in Sichuan being thoroughly amused at the photo ops, the signature signing and the peace signs flying right and left.

Just Saturday, as we were showing friends around JinLi Street, a local tourist attraction that lures in Chinese and foreign visitors with its abundance of great souvenir shopping, blown sugar in the shape of animals and roasted frogs on a stick (think of it like the Chengdu version of a seaside boardwalk!), I had the chance to be an unwitting member of a photo shoot. After wandering the shopping district, purchasing a rather large, but beautiful, Tibetan mandala inscribed with Buddhist sutras, we decided it was time to give our feet a rest. As we sat on a stone bench, resting our weary dogs, a middle aged Chinese woman plopped onto the bench next to me. After sitting down, she suddenly scooted over next to me, radiating a full-on, camera-ready smile. Then, before I could gather my thoughts enough to laugh at the preposterousness of her nerve, she actually leaned against me as her husband snapped a photo. I’m sure when they go home and pull that slide up on their computer they’ll not be impressed, as the look on my face had to read “Oh my goodness, are you kidding me?!?”  If she would have given me half a second, I would have turned into the camera, pasted on my own cheese ball smile and flashed the ubiquitous two-finger peace sign, making her day.

While I’ve graced innumerable pictures over my years in China, (I really have no idea what people do with those snapshots. Do they claim me as a family friend or just point out the random foreigner they happened upon in town?) today I experienced a first. As I was walking along the sidewalk, hoping to catch a cab rather than having to take the crowded subway home, I was intently watching the traffic, eager to glimpse the red sign light of an empty cab, I watched as the cars came to a stop for the changing signal. The driver of one car was having a nice long stare at the rather conspicuous “laowai” standing on the curb and didn’t notice that there was a line of cars at a total standstill in front of him. As he was getting his good look at the foreign girl, his foot never made it to the brake pedal, crashing him into the back of the delivery truck in front of him. Yup, that dude got in a wreck because he was staring at the blonde woman. Nice!  Needless to say, I stood and watched the negotiations go down as both drivers got out of their vehicles, examined the bumper/hood damage, haggled over a payment price (liability was obviously on the part of the rear-ender-er and not the re-end-y) and cash was handed over. No drawn out saga with an insurance company, claim forms or law enforcement. Business was conducted in the middle of the road, traffic weaving around the deal as it happened.

Lesson for this fine (fine being used lightly, as our air quality read “very unhealthy” for a good deal of the day) afternoon: staring at white woman=fender bender=money changing hands. You’re welcome delivery truck driver! I’m pretty sure I just financed your dinner this evening.



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