Once Upon a Time, In the Land of Waffles and Books…

Once upon a time, not so much during my Peace Corps service, but much more as I’ve been living in Chengdu with the Foreign Service, I’ve heard mythical-sounding tales of a land called Taiwan. The fairy tales from this far away land include mentions of easy access to western food, an abundance of bookstores and streets where one can walk without needing to be on high-alert for slick phlegm deposits.

I didn’t buy into the story. A princess can’t kiss a frog and end up with a prince, nor can she slide her foot into a glass slipper and live happily ever after. (Although, there are some beautiful heels that I have often thought could grace my closet and at least make my wardrobe happy until the next season.) And, in no world, make-believe or real, can China possibly be spit-free.

Yes Virginia, there is a Taiwan. It took only three days to turn me into a believer.

Taiwan was beautiful and I feel like we barely scratched the surface of the wonders it has to offer with our short long-weekend trip.

On the first full day we were there, our wonderful hosts took us to waffles (mine slathered in peanut butter and bananas) for breakfast and then to a local grocery store where the dairy section had not only several types of cheese to choose from, but also milk that required refrigeration.  That was followed by a bike ride where waiting at crosswalks to cross a road was the norm and everyone stuck with the right-hand side of the street. Our little adventure took us to a frozen yogurt parlor and then on to a fabulous bookstore where I meandered through aisles of various volumes, fanning them in front of my face to smell the gluey, musty paper smell that can only be created by a book. The evening included dinner at an Italian-style pizzeria and then a stroll through the night market where I bought a sundress (we had just learned that morning of our new posting to KL, so my mind was on equatorial-appropriate outfits) and a bag of fun-shaped waffles. (I’m not sure what it is with the Taiwanese and their overwhelming affection for waffles, but who can argue with pig and elephant shaped mini-waffles?)

Day two saw us visiting Taipei 101, a giant building in the center of town that has a 91st floor observation deck and is home to the world’s fastest elevator. (I could really use one of those in my apartment building! It would make the daily trip up and down from the 24th floor so much quicker.) Oh, yes, and another trip to a bookstore that was filled with English-language books. The luggage weight allotted to Mainland la jiao sauce for Lulu was quickly replaced by book weight. It’s a fair trade!

After passing on the opportunity to ride the dazhi (a Ferris wheel on the top of a building), we hit up another night market, where again I indulged in some fun-shaped waffles. (This time I went with a motorcycle and a gun. I must admit, eating a gun waffle is pretty awesome. I wonder if I could qualify for NRA membership…)

To round out our weekend in Taipei, John took us to the city’s public library. That’s right! I’d nearly forgotten what one of those was. The building was six stories of stories, including an entire section of English books. (He even had his own library card and favorite reading nook!)  Not only that, but outside the front door of the main entrance was an amazing invention- a book vending machine! It was filled with books on a spinner. Using their library card and the touch screen, patrons can choose a book and have it dropped into the delivery slot, making for a quick literary getaway!  (Looking back, this paragraph is filled with way too many exclamation points, but I was that excited by the availability of books in Taiwan. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” I understand the sentiment, but to be fair, I am not sure he ever lived for two years in a place without easy access to libraries and bookstores. I would like to think he’d understand, and forgive, my enthusiasm.)

Three days of Taiwan meant three days of beautiful blue skies and sunshine, three days of fabulous food (and probably at least three gained pounds), three days of literature-filled outings (and many more than three books purchased.)

But, most importantly, Taiwan meant a weekend of happily ever after with our great friends John and Lulu, living the Foreign Service fairy tale.

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The Birthing of a Bid List

Department of State bidding (at least at the entry-level) is much like naming a baby. Yes, I know this may seem like a far-fetched simile, but it is pretty darn accurate. Being an obsessive planner, I always figured if I had a kid, I would scour the baby name books and have a short list of options picked out before the freedom ending trip to the hospital (I mean, birth),  but it would be shared with no one beyond Thad.  It is just too easy for names to be picked apart:

-“Not Donatello! I knew a Donatello and he was an obnoxious stinkbug, living in the sewers and eating pizza all day!”

-“Medusa? Are you serious? You’re tempting the follicle fates with a name like that!”

-“Pumpernickel?!” She’ll be called Bread-Head by the mean kids at school!”

You see, even the most well-meaning friends and family feel the need to weigh in on the moniker of the yet-to-take-a-breath child, passing judgment (always negative, for some reason!) upon the name by which they will be known for their entire lives. So, rather than have to hear all the worst possible mutations of any selected name, I think I’ll just lock the options away in the vault, only making the announcement once the name is officially inked on the birth certificate, making it the chosen name, for better or worse.

Bidding is exactly the same! Rather than perusing book after book of baby names and meanings, we downloaded a giant list of over 250 possible posts, sorting them into a shorter and shorter list of possibilities.  But, just like a baby name, that short list was kept top secret, as everyone has an opinion to share (or at least an eyebrow to raise) about whatever tops the list:

-“Cuba? But internet costs $500 a month!”

-“London!?” Are you sure? I hear the morale at that post is terrible!”

-“Really? Calgary? But Canada is just America’s hat and you’re not really a hat-girl.”

Again, you see, even the most well-meaning people are overwhelmed with the need to share what they “know” about the posts ranked high on your bid list. (The problem with what people “know,” is it is often from the friend of a cousin of an officer who served at that post twenty years ago; or even better, it comes from a Personal Post Insight survey that was obviously filled out by the most bitter, jaded officer  on her worst day in the country, where if a hug from a koala bear were paired with a bookstore shopping spree, the post would still earn a negative rating; or, sadly, maybe just a bored, unhappy EFM who doesn’t want to be a part of his community. Any way you cut it, the “known” advice is often not the best advice.)

The LIST came out a few weeks ago, was narrowed down and submitted for an initial review by Thad’s CDO (career development officer) in Washington DC. She came back with some suggestions; the list was reworked and resubmitted for final consideration a week later. (That makes it sound like the list was only revised a single time. Sooo untrue! We went over that list time after time, as dark horses like Ljubljana took the lead and initial frontrunners like London dropped into the teen spots.)

In the end, our list (okay, Thad’s, but I consider it mine too, since I also have to live with the assigned results) went to DC and then we waited. One day…two days…three days…eleven days!  In reality, eleven days is a pretty quick turnaround when it comes to an assignment, but it seemed more like nine months of gestation while we waited, checked the email and waited some more.

But, the bundle of joy has arrived! A bouncing baby boy? A giggly little girl? Nope! Rather, a balmy two years in KUALA LUMPUR, starting summer 2014!

And, much like with a newly named baby, I’ve been privy to all sorts of opinions and ideas on our new post, but they’ve all been positive. “Bethesda is such a cute name!” and “Oh, Reginald fits him perfectly!” are translated to “What a great place for travel!” and “You’ll love the embassy there!”

With some serious secretive list-making skills being fully honed, we are ready for the next round of high level information security. No, not baby naming (don’t get your hopes up on that one!), but winter R&R planning!

 

A few pictures from last time we were in KL, on vacation with friends.

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Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

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Western-style burgers and pizza aren’t the only things Beijing has that our little (okay, not little, but non-connected) outpost of Chengdu lacks, although filling up on both this last weekend was a treat. No, we are also missing a true English-language bookstore, which means I’ve been deprived of shelves upon shelves of novels, memoirs and travel writing for months now. (Yes, I’ve got my Nook and do a good deal of book downloading on it, but there is something special about thumbing through a book off the “new releases” shelf or the “employee favorites” table that is lost in the translation to digital reading.) My trip to the capital this last weekend not only did some serious damage to my waistline (thank goodness for skirts with stretchy waists!), but also to my pocketbook (thank goodness for per diem!).

One of my treasures from this outing was Carol Anshaw’s release from last fall, Carry the One. (No worries my math-phobic friends. The title is in no way a reference to adding large numbers by hand!) In this newest novel by Anshaw, the reader is taken on a multi-decade tour of the lives of a group of friends who share a bond after all are present for a terrible disaster. While some are able to come to terms with what happened on that fateful night, not ever necessarily forgiving themselves for the pain that was caused, but creating lives of their own beyond the tragedy, others circle back to that night over and over, in a downward spiral that only ends in more pain.

Love is found and lost. Relationships grow and ebb. Careers are built and tumble down. But through it all, this core group of characters (friends is a bit of a stretch, especially as time goes on) are reunited over and over, always being reminded of the terrible bond they share.

I must admit that I wasn’t instantly drawn to the narrative of Carry the One. I found the ensemble cast hard to keep track of for the first few chapters and I wasn’t sure I would ever get them straight in my mind. But, not long after I considered the need to make a chart (thankfully I was able to contain myself and not get that crazy), the storylines diverged enough that each individual became unique and separate from the whole, while still being connected to the main tale. By the end of the book, I was definitely drawn to some characters and their personal struggles to deal with the shared tragedy, while I was disgusted at how others chose to profit from the pain of someone else. Creating such strong feelings about the players, whether positive or negative, is the mark of a great writer.

Like a wheel, with the central hub being the fateful night of the first chapter, each character spins off as a spoke, creating a life of their own, yet never being able to fully shake their shared nexus.  Carol Anshaw’s latest creation, Carry the One is a powerful narrative of pain and loss and the desire for redemption and healing, easily earning a solid:

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Take Two

Pandas.

They will be the alpha and omega of this post. They are to Chengdu what the Great Wall is to Beijing or the Egyptian Pyramids are to Cairo. People actually fly to Chengdu to stay for less than twenty-four hours, simply to stop in at our panda research base.  Some are even willing to pony up the nearly $300 (that’s USD folks!) to hold a baby for mere moments.

All of this means I wouldn’t be a CLO worthy of the city if I didn’t organize at least one community trip to see the monochromatic creatures of Sichuan. Due to our recent rocking and rolling, thanks to Mother Nature, the trip entailed an initial reconnaissance phase, followed by a twelve-hour panda-riffic adventure.  (The first attempt was not meant to be just an information gathering leg, but rather a real excursion that was abruptly called to a halt when the earthquake turned our winding, narrow road through the gorge into a lesson in dodging increasingly larger and larger rock slides.)

A month later, with our backpacks refilled with snacks (a lesson learned after a recent CLO outing that included what was possibly the worst meal I’ve been presented with in China), it was back to BiFeng Gorge and the pandas that awaited our much needed volunteering efforts.

Rather than bore you with the minutiae of my panda volunteering experience, I’ll rundown the schedule of the day and then provide you with what everyone really wants anyway, the pictures!

8:30AM- Arrive at the base, buy entrance tickets for our entire group, buy shuttle tickets for the entire group, hold on for dear life to not fall out of the shuttle I just bought tickets to ride

8:45AM- Climb out of the shuttle, say a little prayer of thanks for my safe arrival

8:46AM- Skim (barely, as nothing it says is going to deter me from getting up close and personal with the pandas) the safety waiver and sign away any liability on the part of the base for the loss of fingers, toes, and my life (apparently poisonous snakes are rather common in the area)

8:47AM- Shimmy into  a lovely gray jumpsuit lacking in all fashion sense, which instantly reminded me of my sister-in-law’s late grandfather, whom we lovingly called Grandpa Jumpsuit

8:48AM- Crack several jokes about needed a Bedazzler to add some serious bling to my jumpsuit

9:00AM- Join the fabulous Team Bam-poo for a day of panda cage cleaning

9:05AM- At the first moment we are left alone without the handler, reach into the panda cage and pet YuanYuan, breaking the first (and possibly only) rule of panda volunteering

9:06AM- High fives all around Team Bam-poo for the close encounter with our assigned bear

9:10-10:10AM- Sweep up panda poo, which is surprisingly fibrous and not too stinky, although it is clear the creatures don’t digest the carrots they are fed on a daily basis. Also, sweep up the tree leaves that litter the ground outside the cages. (This hour of work was interspersed with as much stopping to watch the pandas and to holler at the two other work groups as it was filled with actual exertion.)

10:30AM- By hand, feed the pandas their morning bread and carrots

Noon- Lunch at a wonderful farmer’s restaurant and then some basking in the brilliant sunshine

1:30PM- Visit the panda kindergarten to see the babies, which were all draped over tree branches, twenty feet off the ground

2:30PM- Again, by hand, feed the adult pandas their afternoon meal of panda bread and bamboo shoots

3:00PM- Return to the panda kindergarten in anticipation of watching the little ones enjoy their lunch. Instead, enjoy the comedy of two panda handlers chasing a six-foot long snake, whacking at it with a broom to defend their tiny charges who are munching bamboo leaves as if there isn’t a ridiculous commotion taking place just a few short yards away

3:30PM- Pick up certificates for all of my intrepid panda volunteers and head back to the vans for the return trip (or nap, as it turns out, for many) to Chengdu

It took two attempts to get there, but I have now officially touched China’s national treasure. Maybe it was just for a second or two, but it happened. It was awesome.

Pandas.

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Twigs by Alison Ashley Formento

Twigs by Alison Ashley Formento

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With a nickname like Twigs, one can barely expect a book’s protagonist to lead a quiet, unassuming life. And yet, standing less than five feet tall, that is just what Madeline Henry would like as she gets ready to start her freshman year of college. But, it is not to be. With “adulthood” staring her in the face, Twigs would like to transition to the more mature (and given) moniker of Madeline, but even as her life is in shambles around her, she can’t shake her childhood image.

In a single week, Twig’s boyfriend heads off to university, leaving her behind to attend a less-than-stellar community college, her brother goes MIA as a solider in the Middle East, she is finds out that same missing brother is actually a half-brother and she smashes a car into the soon-to-be ex-husband of a woman who assaulted her with hair dye, breaking his elbow and earning a place forever in the heart of his pink-obsessed soon-to-be ex-wife.

Confused yet?

Yes! That is how I also felt as I read Alison Ashely Formento’s new young adult book, set to be released in September.

The premise is a good one: a young girl is facing the next stage of her life as those she is closest to also go through their own personal transitions. But, it is too much of a good thing! There are twists and turns in Twig’s story that I didn’t even begin to elaborate on in the above rundown. There are boyfriends, the willful destruction of a classic car, an alcoholic father, heck, there is even the loss of an eye! The tale quickly becomes overwhelming and unbelievable in its scope.

What this narrative needs is a good editor. I really do like the potential behind this book, but I feel like Formento would benefit from someone looking at her story outline and crossing out at least a third of the drama. (This reminds me of the famous quote by Coco Chanel about always looking in the mirror before you leave the house and taking one thing off. This book could use a little accessory editing.)

Twigs, while a young adult book, definitely skews to the high school side of the genre. With talk of college and more than one delicately veiled reference to Twigs’ sex life, it would be most appropriate for more mature teenagers. Maybe at sixteen I would have appreciated the endless drama of Twigs’ life, feeling like she was a character who could relate to the daily drama of being a sophomore, making the book more appealing to its intended audience.

I didn’t dislike the book, but it was just a bit too much for me. Alison Ashely Formento has something to work with here, but after finishing the book and pondering it for a few days, I still can’t say I have digested all that the book threw my way. For this reason, Twigs earns a middle-of-the-road:

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The Ugly One by Leanne Statland Ellis

The Ugly One by Leanne Statland Ellis

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The young adult book genre has expanded rapidly over the last decade, creating reading niches for a variety of teenage interests, from the currently ubiquitous choices that include vampires and werewolves to the popular dystopian series. But, one of my favorite growing topics in the world of YA literature is cultural/travel fiction. I think it is outstanding when kids sitting in their suburban American homes can open and book and be suddenly transported to Southeast Asia, South Africa or South America. Leanne Statland Ellis’ soon-to-be-released book does just that- taking readers on a journey to Peru and the thriving Incan civilization.

Names are an important part of this tale, with the narrator going by several different ones, depending on who is addressing her. (Tale is a fitting label for this book, as it reads like a mystical tale from the ancient oral traditions, tying the reader up in the story as pages fly by.) She is called by her given name, Micay, by her loving older sister, but mocked as The Ugly One by a young bully in her village. As her story progresses, she gains other monikers, more fitting to her changing situation, but at heart, she remains the same strong young woman.

Micay’s name isn’t the only morphing element of the book, as her role within her small mountainous village is challenged and set on a new path by a stranger from the jungles below. While she initially doesn’t believe she is destined for great things, those around her see a potential that, with the right help, she is capable of achieving.

A great middle-level book is one that not only entertains, but draws on universal themes that open larger dialogs, which is an area this book excels. From the tale of the bully and his painful words to the difficult decision of when it is right to put one’s personal desires before those of the community, The Ugly One provides a great deal of fodder for thought and discussion.

The reading level of The Ugly One is not particularly difficult, making the book easily accessible to a wide range of middle school readers, although some might struggle with the occasional unfamiliar Incan word. Luckily, there is a great glossary at the back of the book, which not only helps the reader follow the narrative, but as a teacher, I love having yet another chance to introduce students to references sections in different types of literature.

The one place I felt letdown by this book was at the very ending. As the narrative is wrapping up and the reader gets a glimpse into what the future holds for the main characters, I felt that one young man who played a critical role in the story is left out of the story. I was really hoping to get at least a hint as to whether sharing a moment of understanding with Micay is enough to change this boy’s outlook or if his attitude is too deeply engrained to transform into something more positive.

Overall, Leanne Statland Ellis’  The Ugly One is a great read for students, drawing them out of themselves and into another time and another culture, earning the book:

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“Streets” Are Where It Is At- Literally!

We’re doing it wrong.

America does many things well, but shopping organization is an area in which we lack. In Idaho, if I am looking for a particular item, say a plumbing part, I’d have to go to Home Depot, but then when I don’t find my needed part there, I have to get back in my car and check Lowe’s, D&B, Plumbers ‘R Us (I’m sure this store exists somewhere!), crisscrossing town until I find the store with my niche plumbing gewgaw. (Plumbing may have been a bad choice for this example, as I know exactly nothing about anything plumbing related, but I thought a household-fix item would hold more credibility than say a cute purse or the perfect pair of summer sandals.)

Suburban Stateside shopping is set up in a much more “all-in-one” fashion, where I can go to Target and get the latest best seller, as well as a case of Diet Mountain Dew for Thad, then with just a quick walk up the strip mall, I can stop in and get a wedding gift from Bed, Bath and Beyond, some brightly colored throw pillows at Cost Plus World Market and wrap up my wanderings with some cute shorts and a tank top from Old Navy.  At this point, my arms are full of bags that may or may not all fit in my trunk and it is time to hop in the car and head home. This is great for checking a lot of items off a list (although that list probably only had “Diet Mountain Dew” on it, which means this set-up is also great for spending way more of my paycheck than I had intended), but it is not great for comparison shopping.

In China, on the other hand, when it comes to a varied shopping list and convenience, you are just plumb out of luck. But, if you are looking for a selection, shopping is a breeze.  It’s all about the “streets.”

Want a dog? Go to Pet Street. You can get a pup, a kitten, a baby chinchilla or even a pot-bellied pig. (I was tempted!)

Need a bank safe? Go to Safe Street. (I regularly pass this area of town and am always amazed at the number of stores selling safe after safe. What are people keeping in them?!)

Need a Halloween costume? Go to Costume Street.( You can buy off the rack or get your Jem, from Jem and the Holograms, costume custom made.)

Need dishes and chopsticks? Go to Restaurant Street. (Also available: Lazy Susans, waitress uniforms, weird blown-glass centerpieces and baskets- lots and lots of baskets.)

Need a light fixture? Go to Lamp Street. (The lamp section of Chengdu is very close to my house, so I frequent it often. Since my house is decked out in very locally-styled light fixtures, all with about a million lights each, I am often there buying another bag full of less-than-long-lasting bulbs.)

My “street directory” could go on and on, rivaling the New York City Yellow Pages.  In China, shopping is just a matter of knowing which small area of town your item in found in and then once you are there, you’ve got more selection than you could ever want!

Usually, I get overwhelmed with the choices and walk away without actually making a purchase. This happened last summer when I was looking to buy an electric scooter. We went to Scooter Street and walked up and down the length of it- twice. Having too many bike options in my head to act, I headed home to ponder my next move. The following Saturday, we again went to Scooter Street (luckily it isn’t too far from our apartment) and walked the entire row. This time I actually test drove some scooters (on the sidewalk, of course!), making sure they were both stylish and equipped with a powerful horn. I actually narrowed down the options to about three, but couldn’t pull the purchasing trigger. It took a third trip to the street the following day to decide upon and bring home my newest form of transportation.  (If you’ve not seen pictures, check them out here!)

Streets. They really are the way to organize a shopping trip if it is in search of one particular item that you go. All it takes is a quick explanation of what you want to a taxi driver and before you know it you are down a hidden alley, facing a multitude of stores, all stocked with the single item you want.

What are you in need of? Yarn? A purse? Or even a plumbing part? Chengdu has a street for you!

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