American expat Living in China, Interview with Michelle

The following is an interview I did with ExPats Blog. You can see the full thing by clicking here. This is a great site to find blogs about places you want to go or are going. (I’ve already signed up to follow several Malaysia blogs!)
American expat Living in China, Interview with Michelle
Michelle is an ex-pat blogger living in western China. She spends her weekends exploring the cities/sites around Chengdu and trying to avoid the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns that seem to end up sprinkled in every dish she orders. A middle school English teacher by trade, she blogs about life abroad, travel and books. Michelle’s expat blog is called In Search of the End of the Sidewalk.

Here’s the interview with Michelle…

Where are you originally from?

In which country and city are you living now?
Chengdu, China

How long have you lived here and how long are you planning to stay?
I’ve been here one year and will be here one more, for a two year total. (I previously lived in Gansu province as a Peace Corps Volunteer, so my total China-time will be at four years when I move on next summer.)

Why did you move and what do you do?
My husband works for the US State Department at the consulate in Chengdu. I am a teacher by training, but unable to work in the schools at this time, but was lucky enough to find a job with the consulate as well. I am the Community Liasion Office Coordinator. My job consists of helping new officers/families get acquainted with the city, assisting with international schooling issues, making connections with the local community, as well as helping the spouses of officers find employment and a lot of event planning. It is a job that keeps me on my toes!

Did you bring family with you?
I am here with my husband. We do not have children.

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
China is very different from the US, so there is definitely an element of culture shock when one first arrives. In Chengdu, there are few people who speak English, so having a working knowledge of Mandarin is extremely helpful. Chengdu is a growing city and one that is striving to gain a more metropolian status, so while there are currently not a huge number of western-style restaurants/supermarkets, they are expanding.

Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialize with other expats?
While I would say that I mainly socialize with ex-pats, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with some really great local folks. Because my job entails a lot of community interaction and event planning, I do tend to have a pretty tight group of friends within the American community, but would say I’ve definitely enjoyed getting to know the citizens of the city.

What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
Pandas! That is by far the number one reason tourists come to Chengdu. We’ve got a great research base on the edge of town where you can spend a lovely morning visiting giant pandas and red pandas. For a mere $300USD you can even hold a panda!

Outside of pandas, the area has some beautiful sightseeing opportunities. A visit to the Giant Buddha at LeShan is a must-see, as is a weekend trip to JiuZhaiGou- China’s answer to Yellowstone.

What do you enjoy most about living here?
There area lot of great things about Chengdu, including the spicy food, but I would say the best part about the city is the countryside surrounding it. Just an hour outside of the city you will find beautiful fields, majestic mountains and clear skies.

How does the cost of living compare to home?
People coming to China often expect that everything is very cheap here, but that’s not the reality of living in the country on an extended basis. Anything “western” is very expensive, including name brand clothing. It may be made in China, but it is then shipped to the US, and then returned with a huge import tax added on to the original price.

Food can be found for very inexpensive, but it is important to be careful about knowing where the food comes from, as quality can be an issue. If it seems like too good of a price to be true, there is probably a reason.

What negatives, if any, are there to living here?
The biggest drawback to living in Chengdu is the pollution. Year-round, the city has high levels of air pollution, that spike over the winter months.

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?
I’d remind them to come with an open mind. Chengdu is not an American city and if that is what you want, you should stay home. There are quirks about the city and people that can be frustrating at times, but when I hear people complain, saying, “That’s not how we do it in the US,” I want to remind them they aren’t in the US. Why should the locals do things our way when it is their country? Learn to let the little things go and enjoy the quirks!

What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
Living in Chengdu has been an easy transition and I’ve not run into any really big problems. Getting ahold of American food for the holidays can be tough, but otherwise, the last year has been a very good one.

What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?

  1. Be ready for spicy! Chengdu is known for its Sichuan peppercorn, which makes its way into all sorts of dishes. This huajiao will numb your tongue and lips, making dinner an interesting experience.
  2. Western sizes can be difficult to find. If you have bigger feet, be sure to bring spare shoes with you. The same goes for clothing, especially if you are tall.
  3. Travel! Chengdu is an okay city, but the best places lie outside the city boundaries. Visit the monkeys at Emei Mountain. Raft the river at QingCheng Mountain. See the ancient irrigation system in DuJiangYan. Don’t spend every weekend in the city or you’ll go crazy. Get out, get some fresh air, see the sun and visit the great places China has to offer.
  4. Don’t let the cultural differences get to you. This is not America. You will see people spitting on the street and children using the sidewalk as a toilet. You will get shoved over by an old lady as you try to get on the subway and you will have your photo taken as you wait in line to buy groceries. Think of every day as a new adventure!
  5. If you are moving to Chengdu long-term, invest in an air purifier (or two!) for your apartment. Your lungs will thank you.


Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
In Search of Where the Sidewalk Ends is my attempt to record both the extraordinary and mundane events of life as the spouse of a Foreign Service officer.

Before becoming an “EFM” (Foreign Service code for spouse/children), I worked as an 8th grade English and reading teacher. I took a two-year leave of absence from 2006-2008 so that Thad and I could join the Peace Corps. We served as PCVs in Gansu, China during that time, after which I returned to the States for a few years before heading out on the road again.

The most common question that I have been asked as we prepared for the move from Idaho to China is “What are you going to do?” Thad’s career is pretty laid out, but mine is in a much more unknown state at this point. With each move, I will have to search for a new job, but wherever I go, I will continue to blog about life in another country, travel and books- just a few of my favorite things.

River Rafting with Chinese Characteristics

Doing something with “Chinese characteristics” is one of my favorite ways to describe most daily occurrences here in the Middle Kingdom. Shopping, even at western stores like IKEA, comes with a uniquely Chinese feel. It is absolutely appropriate to curl up with your entire family and take a little afternoon xiuxi in the air conditioned store; those beds are fully made up, after all. Heck, I even saw a guy using the model kitchen to prepare his lunch! And a night out at a restaurant has a distinctly Sichuanese flavor that isn’t just attributed to the mouth numbing huajiao seeds that garnish nearly every dish. A traditional Chinese restaurant is loud and hot and meals are meant to last for hours. This definitely isn’t the culture for someone who prefers to eat and run.

With three years and change under my Chinese belt, I’m not sure why I expected anything less when I headed out for a weekend trip to QingCheng Shan. Having heard rumor of river rafting, my Idaho genes went on high alert. Floating on water is what we do, whether it be in a twelve-man raft doing down the world-famous Salmon River white water or a more leisurely trip in a tube through the middle of the capital city on the Boise River; when the mercury spikes, Idahoans take to the rivers! It has been a hot, humid summer in Chengdu, so a trip to the mountains and a river sounded like a perfect August weekend adventure.

And what an adventure it turned out to be!

Along with a dozen other members of the consulate community, I headed up to the mountain on Saturday morning. While I didn’t do a headcount, I’m pretty sure our little baker’s dozen was joined by nearly everyone else in the Chengdu basin that day! Who can resist the pull of a cool mountain stream when triple digits are the daily norm?

After stopping at the first rental shack to get pay our rafting fee, we headed down a flight of stairs to where we’d pick up our life jackets and oars. It took over half an hour to gather these river necessities, as the returning line was sparse and the borrowing “line” grew by the minute. (“Necessities” is a bit of an overstatement. Since the river was rarely more than five feet deep, and usually about two feet deep, there was little chance of drowning. The oar, on the other hand, when not being used to dislodge our raft from rocks, came in handy as a defensive weapon, so it turns out the wait was crucial.)

Finally, fully outfitted in bright orange life jackets (because the group of foreigners didn’t stand out enough to begin with!) we headed down the final flight of stairs, to await a raft that seemingly fell from the heavens. (Okay, it really came flying down a chute from the road above, but the crashing and violence of the arrival made it seem much more supernatural.)  With two to three people in each raft, off the foreign crew headed, six boats strong. (Columbus’ conquering fleet had nothing on us!)

We weren’t ten yards down the river before we realized this would be no normal afternoon of rafting. You see, because the river was so shallow, it was really easy for a group to pull their raft over to the side of the water and then set up camp, or more appropriately, set up an ambush! Chinese (we were the only non-Chinese in sight) people lined the sides of the river with water guns and buckets, just awaiting each raft to enter their claimed territory. Upon arrival, the rafts and rowers were drenched in water from all directions. Our leisurely day on the river turned into a three-mile water fight.

And it was awesome!

Who knew river rafting could be so interactive?

Not to be outdone, we decided to set up Foreigner Camp at a bend in the river, pulling our rafts onto a sandbar and spacing ourselves to take on the next set of rafters headed down the river. Again, it was awesome! Everyone on/near the river was fair game. I had old women drench me with buckets, only to watch them get the same treatment from one of our crew.

The long awaited oars spent much less time paddling than they did serving as water scoops, defending us from our river-borne enemies. Thad even had a little girl nemesis the entire length of the trip; her raft would periodically pull alongside our and she would hose him off with her water gun.

The day may not have turned out to be the lackadaisical float down a quiet mountain river that I had imagined, but was still a fantastic way to spend a hot Sichuan afternoon. Rafting, along with most things about this country, takes on a unique hue, best described by the phrase “with Chinese characteristics.”

(If you’re in the Chengdu area and looking for a tour company, check out Windhorse Tours!)

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Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick


Amazing and heartbreaking. Those are the two best words I can come up with to describe Matthew Quick’s newest novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. I downloaded this book just two days ago, flying through it as I couldn’t bear to walk away from Leonard, the protagonist, as he stumbled his way towards a heart wrenching decision.

The story opens as Leonard gently wraps his World War II Nazi-owned handgun into a pink birthday box, figuring even if he were stopped going into school, no one would suspect anything evil beneath the cheery paper. He’s had years to think about the choice he is making and has decided that this world holds no promise for him, but before he ends his own life, he has a few errands to take care of, namely giving a few gifts to those he felt closest too and then killing Asher, the person who he feels most drove him to the final decision of his life.

As Leonard goes through his final day on Earth, he says his goodbyes in the only way he knows how, worried more about how his Holocaust teacher will feel about his death than his own mother, who is distant and fully wrapped up in her life as a designer, rarely even coming home to see him. (His father fled the country due to tax fraud charges, so in all practical ways, Leonard has no parents. He’s a modern-day orphan.) When a few adults at school notice and call him on his odd behavior, he puts on the happy face, the one he thinks adults expect from teens and weasels his way out of tough conversations.

Each turned page in the book takes the reader one step closer to Leonard’s inevitable end.

Matthew Quick has written an extraordinarily powerful novel about teenage depression and pain, one that will resonate with many high school students. As he wades through topics such as incest, rape and suicide, Quick humanizes these horrors, reminding the reader that we are all so much more than we appear on the outside. We’ve all got back stories that are unknowable to the casual acquaintances in our lives, but by looking closer at those around us and really trying to understand the demons they may be fighting, we can give strength to others, helping them feel powerful enough to fight another day.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is definitely not an easy read, but it is an important one. Since it deals with difficult topics, it is not one that I would just put on my middle school bookshelf (although I would keep a copy to give to more mature readers) but I would definitely have copies in a high school English classroom.  Quick’s talk is a powerful one, reminding us that we are more than our suffering, but also that we owe it to those around us to remember that there is more to each of us than meets the eye. Without a doubt, Matthew Quick’s recently released novel Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock earns:

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Melting My Way Through Chinese Culture

At least once a month, I try to plan a Saturday excursion for our Chengdu officer and families that gets us out of town for a few hours and incorporates a bit Chinese language learning at a variety of levels. In the past year, as part of this series of CLO events, I’ve visited the ancient irrigation systems of DuJiangYan and the miniature Great Wall in Luo Dai, as well as museums dedicated to foot binding, the Flying Tigers and Chengdu history/archeology. Each of these little trips has been fabulous, mainly because it is a great excuse to get out of the city for a day! (Posts about each of those outing can be found here, here and here.)

I have to admit to a bit of a CLO failure on my part this month though. You see, I had this great trip planned to go to AnRen Old Town, an area about ninety minutes outside of Chengdu proper. And, on paper, it all looked great. What I didn’t factor in to the planning, that I know better to have thought about, but for some reason it never crossed my mind, was the weather. Sichuan is known for its spicy food, but is just as famous in China for its equally spicy summer weather. For the last few weeks, we’ve been having a heat wave, with daily temperatures in the 90s, which means once the high humidity counts are factored in, puts us sitting at a heat index of well over 100 degrees many afternoons.  This balmy weather is exactly what I walked our travel group into on Saturday. I knew it was going to be a long day when I sat on a bench near the consulate at 8AM, waiting for everyone to arrive, panting. When my legs were shimmering with sweat even though I wasn’t moving a muscle, there was no doubt that the day would be an adventure!

So, while I would love to show you photographs of the maze-like passageways and intricate carvings of Liu Manor, a pre-Cultural Revolution era mansion turned museum, instead, my digital camera is filled with pictures of shady spots and cool caverns!  As I wandered the manor grounds on my own (after dropping everyone off at the entrance to the museum, we made plans to meet in a highly prized shady spot of the courtyard at noon), I spent an inordinate amount of time in the opium cellar, not because I was particularly interested (although, I must admit, the size of the storage area was quite impressive!), but rather because it was a stone building, naturally insulated from the heat and humidity outside. (I can only imagine how important to keep one’s opium cool and dry.) I also spent a good deal of time enjoying a back courtyard, used mainly by servants, but which now displays an impressive array of bamboo and flowering trees, neither of which I needed to pay an entrance price to see in China, through which I was more than happy to wander. (Ooze may be a better word to describe my movements by the end of the day!)

While my nearly head-exhaustion inducing Saturday was more of an adventure that I had expected (it was hot, but it really was a great day!), I can’t say that was my biggest failure when it comes to CLO outing this last year. The day I loaded up nearly half of the consulate community to go commune with pandas and ended up at the epicenter of an earthquake will always win that award. Nevertheless, as I start to plan my September event, I’ll definitely be looking for more weather-appropriate options!

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On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu

On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu

on noodle road

Noodles, stews, pilafs and pizzas, oh my! Jen Lin-Liu’s newest book is not the book for you if you’ve just started a new diet or are hungry in the least- it’s like shopping on an empty stomach. From China to Italy, she covers follows the Silk Road in a quest to find where noodles originated, but along the way also discovers ties that bind women together across geographic boundaries and just how central food is the any given region’s history and culture.

When I first picked up this book, as a non-foodie (I’m about as far from it as one can get, as I would gladly subsist on cold cereal for the rest of my life), I was worried that the focus on meals would not hold my interest for an entire book, but as it turns out, that wasn’t a problem at all! While the food is the core of the book, with each chapter including several well-laid out recipes, the tale weaves a story of travel, a first year of marriage and thoughts about what it means to be a woman in our 21st century world.

I was particularly fascinated with Lin-Liu’s time in Iran, as it is a place we hear so much about in the news, but almost always it is portrayed in a negative light. To hear the stories of women creating lives there and providing for families there was a fascinating look into a world that is normally off-limits to westerners.  This same ideas rings true throughout the book, as the author has the opportunity to weave her way into the lives of the women she visits, giving her a much more intimate look at each culture than a traveler would get if they were just passing through the country on a tour or visiting the highlighted sites of the land. I think it is that intimacy of the stories, both her own and that of her subjects that makes this book most appealing.

On Noodle Road is an eclectic mix of travelogue, food writing and memoir, crossing genre-created boundaries in a way that draws in loyal readers from each category. While I am partial to the travel/memoir sections of the story, Jen Lin-Liu bring something to the proverbial table that nearly everyone would enjoy. (Okay, if she brought dumplings to literal table, we might all be even more thrilled.)Because I appreciated the genre-bending nature of the book and really loved traveling the Silk Road with Lin-Liu, On Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta earns a solid:

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The Fixings in the McDaniel-Sibling Sandwich

Happy Middle Child’s Day!

That’s right, fellow stuck-in-the-middle kids; it’s a day just for us. While our older siblings enjoyed the one-on-one attention of our parents for how many ever years they existed solo and our younger siblings were coddled in babyhood from the time they were born, we’ve been solidly hanging in the middle from the get-go.

To honor Middle Child Day, I thought it would be best to give a shout out to the bread that made me the fixings.

The top piece of the McDaniel sandwich, my older sister, holds the distinction of being first-born. A bit bossy (you know it is true!)  but always put together, she wears her oldest child mantel well. Yes, there was some freedom that came from being the oldest, but I think she also bore the brunt of the chores and rules since she was the firstborn. By the time I was in middle school, my Saturday morning chore list had been reduced to vacuuming the bedroom hallway (who ever sees it anyway?) and cleaning the kids’ bathroom, with the bulk of my tasks being handed over to the sister who actually dusted and didn’t just spray Pledge around the room to make it smell lemony. (Confession time: Most Saturdays, I would take my shiny red boom box into the bathroom, close the door and spend forty-five minutes adding to my collection of taped songs from the weekend Top 40. To make the cleaning seem more legit, I would sprinkle Comet in the tub and swish it around, pour some toilet cleaner in the bowl and swish it around and spray some Windex on the mirror- no swishing. I also found it was a bonus to flush the toilet and then put a bit more blue liquid in there to “soak” so it looked like full effort had been expended. While the bathroom probably didn’t get a thorough cleaning for a good ten years, I was able to capture all the top hits of the early 90s, including Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” and New Kids on the Block’s “Step by Step.” I also was able to fully memorize “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which is still one of my favorite treadmill tunes!)

While Top Bread (I think I may have a new nickname for her!) also got the first attempts at rules/punishments as we headed into our teenage years, meaning the parental units were stricter with her than they were with me. (Partially, this falls to my middle-child status, as I think I was just more low-key about pushing limits than she was.)  I remember one Saturday when we had volleyball at the church in Caldwell. She had been allowed to drive my mom’s brand new Ford Taurus (it was the car of the 90s!) to the games and then we were to come right home. The driving instructions were very explicit about to the church and then straight back to the casa, no in between stops! But, after volleyball, I really wanted a Hostess cupcake, so I convinced her to go to the Circle K to get gas for the car. It would be a nice surprise for the next driver.  The mini-mart was only a mile up the road, so I didn’t see how it would be a problem and she was happy to get a Big Gulp for herself. To make a long story short, she hit the concrete pylon that guards the tanks with the car door mirror (remember, this was a brand new car!) and left a huge scrape on the backside of it. But, before we could even make a plan, my parents happened to pull into the exact same gas station! Oooops! Not only were we not supposed to be there, but now the car had a thick scratch on it. Eeek! Luckily, I sneaked back into the passenger’s side of the vehicle, leaving her to the wrath (which manifests itself as a silent, scary look that no one wants to witness!) of my father. While I definitely had a voice in convincing her to go for snacks, I’m pretty sure I let her take the blame- she is the older (and wiser!) sister, after all!

And then there is the bottom bread to the McDaniel sandwich. Not only was he the last-born, making him an instant favorite, but he was the only boy, doubling his princeling-hood. From day one, we’ve teased him about being a favorite. (As a matter of fact, he said I could have today as Middle Child Day, as he gets the other 364 days of the year!)Probably the biggest advantage he had as the last born was an unbroken chain of sympathy and trust from our mom. More than once he was able to turn a small jab in the ribs into a knock-down that left him stranded in the prickly bushes outside our front door. It was amazing the strength my scrawny eight year old body held in it! (To be fair, he may have been locked in the crawl space under the house a time or two as payback for the hyperbolic stories he would try to weasel past Mom.)

Just like my older sister, he enjoyed some perks of his birth order,  but it wasn’t all unicorns and sparkly, pearl-strapped purses.  Being the youngest meant that as Top Bread and I got older and left for college, all of the chores that had been divided three ways shrank until they were his sole responsibility. Mucking out llama stalls with three pitchforks on the move goes a lot faster than with just one.  (Okay, two, as I usually found important wandering around “chores” to do, like rolling straw bales to the barn or pushing a barely used wheelbarrow out to the manure pile.) And mowing a yard that is the size of a small farm is no fun when you are the only one pushing the mower.

So yes, it is National Middle Child Day, but I wouldn’t be the spectacular sandwich fixings that I am today without the support of the bread on either side. With that in mind, happy Middle Child Day Top Bread and Bottom Bread. Go have a sandwich and celebrate our McDaniel-ness!


Blogging for Bucks

A zoo without zebras…

Idaho without potatoes…

Waffles without syrup…

An English teacher without students…

All are hopelessly adrift in a sea of slight melancholy. Until, that is, they find their missing piece. Luckily, I’ve found mine! (My “piece “might disagree with the “lucky” part though.)

Last Thursday, when I got the email from our fabulous mail clerk saying, “Today there is a little mail,” I, like many others in the consulate, locked up shop and headed out back to the mailroom in hopes that a bit of that “little mail” would be addressed to me. Surprisingly, the sun was out, forcing me to dig through my purse to find my seldom used sunglasses for the short walk around the building. But, the search of shades and the short walk were worth my effort- mail in the Ross bin! I had two Netflix movies, a bill from my dermatologist (you know, the one I pay a lot of money to hack off my fingernails, reducing my weekly manicure time by 30%) and a hand addressed envelope. Exciting!

After checking to see what movies I had for the weekend and making a mental note to send off a check to the doctor, I sliced open the edge of the mystery envelope. Inside, I found a letter from my niece, who is going into the 7th grade in just a few short weeks. She’s a budding biologist, hoping to be a veterinarian in the future. To that end, she is going to Florida next summer with her science class, on a five-day visit to wildlife parks, swamps and the ocean. But, as with most great experiences, there is the little issue of the almighty dollar. The fieldtrip costs a lot. She is thirteen. Those two things don’t go together so well.

Hence, the plea for help.

I’m not about to send the child cash, just for the heck of it, but, I will gladly put her to work! Not being there to employ her as a backyard pooper scooper or knick-knack duster, and feeling the tug of the classroom as my Facebook feed blows up with my teacher friends bemoaning the end of summer, I came up with a better plan: I would pay her to write!

In the last six months, she has started two blogs, both of which never really got off the ground. This was the perfect chance to support her fundraising efforts and encourage her to spend time writing. The English teacher in me could hardly contain myself!

So, I sent her a proposal. I would pay her a set amount for each blog entry she posted, but they had to follow a few simple guidelines. (For example, they had to be well-organized, not just a single, gigantic paragraph.) Within those basic parameters, she is free to write about whatever she would like- school, dance, family, her summer adventures, etc.

I am super excited for her to start writing and posting on her blog and I am more than happy to throw down a bit of cash as an encouragement. (Now, if only I could get someone to pay me to write!) Her first post went up today at and is a fun look at the day she spent at Idaho’s first aquarium.

I may not have a classroom full of 8th graders to pester about reading and writing, but with middle school aged nieces/nephews, I’ll work my magic anyhow.