An Introduction That Wouldn’t Have Happened in Idaho

“Michelle, I’d like you to meet our Michelle.” That was my personal introduction to the First Lady of the United States last Tuesday morning. Pretty awesome! I’m not a bucket-list, resolution-type, but ever since the 2008 campaign, I’ve always admired Mrs. Obama for her outstanding education, her push for our schools to nurture healthier kids and her continual advocacy for young woman to be successful and strong and independent. (Of course, her amazing wardrobe isn’t hurting her cause, but there is so much more to her than her fantastic off-the-rack fashion.) To have the opportunity to meet the First Lady would definitely have been on my bucket list if I had one. Imaginary box checked on imaginary list!

(When I mentioned on Facebook how excited I was for this upcoming opportunity, I got mostly positive responses, but did receive one dripping in sarcasm about how “lucky” I was. I would just like to point out that I would have been equally as interested in meeting Laura Bush when she was First Lady of the United States. I absolutely love that her “platform” was literary achievement and how supportive she was of school libraries, local libraries and reading teachers. Her love of reading segued into a personal mission to improve literacy rates in low income areas and to get more books in the hands of more students. I may not have voted for her husband, but I respect her work and would relish the opportunity to shake her hand and thank her for making literacy a cornerstone of her years in the White House.)

But back to our current First Lady…

Not only was meeting FLOTUS an amazing opportunity, but preparing for her visit was eye-opening and definitely a learning experience for me. (You know how the proverbial “they” say you should learn something new every day? In the couple of weeks leading up to her arrival, I feel like the fire hose of information was turned on full-blast, aimed right at my brain!) Over the course of fortnight, I had the opportunity to work with White House staffers and Secret Service agents and was lucky to have a good crew assigned to my various venues. Coming into this visit, I was worried that my lack of government experience, rural-Idaho nothing-is-every-super-formal background would make it difficult to keep up with what was going on, but the team I worked with was always happy to answer my million questions, walk through my site one more time and review my role on game day in detail. While the whole experience was definitely stressful and heartburn inducing, with a different team assignment, things could have been much more difficult. (As someone who is easily kept awake by stressful situations, there may have been a night or two that I downed a sleeping pill before crawling into bed. I wish I had learned that trick for the night before the first day of school when I was teaching!)

In the end, everyone at the consulate logged a whole lot of extra hours, but the FLOTUS visit went off beautifully. The First Lady was able to see the pandas, visit a local school, eat at a Tibetan meal (that was Thad’s venue!) and visit the consulate for a Meet and Greet event (my site!). (Yes, she did get to hold a panda. I’ve been in China nearly four years and have yet to hold one, so I am a tad bit jealous of that part of her trip. With just eight weeks to go, I’m not sure the imaginary panda holding box on the imaginary bucket list is going to get an imaginary check mark.)

It’s nice to be on the flip side of Mrs. Obama’s visit. It was a fantastic experience, but one that I’m glad has moved from anticipation to memory.

“Michelle, I’d like you to meet our Michelle.” This Idaho-girl will take that introduction any day!

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Don’t Fondle The Furnishings

Mental Floss is one of those websites that I read obsessively, until one day I don’t and then I forget it exists until it then pops back up on my radar and I start the whole trend again. For some reason it hasn’t earned a bookmark, which would help it avoid it inevitable demise in my mind.  But then again, not even BuzzFeed and those quizzes that I find oh-so-addictive is actually in my bookmarks. Instead, I occasionally see a BuzzFeed quiz pop up on my Facebook feed, take about twenty-seven different quizzes and then go cold turkey for a few weeks. (By the way, a few weeks ago BuzzFeed told me I should really be living in the Netherlands, which after our airport experiences there last fall, is totally spot on! I am pretty sure I secretly an Amsterdam-ian at heart.) I think I am a bit of a bookmark Grinch, as it is tough to make it onto my list. I have folders for “writing ideas,” “fashion,” “fingernails” and “exercise,” but outside of those categories, it’s pretty tough luck!

But, all of that is to say that this weekend, Mental Floss somehow popped back up within my internet surfing, with perfect timing, as I stumbled right onto an articled called “12 Chinese Travel Tips for Visiting America.” It uses Google Translate (always a scary proposition!) to translate Chinese website travel-tips for visiting the US. After reading through the list, laughing out loud at times (seriously, and not just LOL-style) while simultaneously scratching my head in confusion, I figured I’d share my thoughts for all of my Chinese readers (Okay, I have no Chinese readers. My blog, like most blogs, is blocked in China, so the only way to access it is through a VPN. The First Lady spoke about this very issue- not my blog in particular, of course, but of freedom of press/speech in her remarks to a group of students in Beijing today. Expect to see no changes.)

You can pop on over to Mental Floss to get the detailed explanation for each of these, but for my zero Chinese readers, here you go:

1. If an American Goes Silent, You’re in Trouble- I find this ironic, as the Chinese (at least in Sichuan) are *very* loud people. I can’t walk down the street here without hearing a little old grandma screech at her grandchild (not in an angry manner necessarily, it is just the tone in Sichuan!), be assaulted by someone on the subway hollering into their cellphone about the great stinky tofu they just had or enjoy listening to the couple in the elevator loudly discuss how tall I am.  I’d be worried if a Sichuan-ren went quiet!

2. They Don’t Realize How Weird it is to Just Call Them by Their First Name- I can see why this would be weird for a Chinese visitor. In the States, especially in the west, we don’t have a lot of strict protocol with titles. I love the advice that if one doesn’t feel comfortable addressing an American by their first name, they should just smile. That’s totally what I do when I can’t remember someone’s first name!

3. They Deliberately Do Their Own Laundry- Maybe. I think most of us would gladly let someone else do it if it were affordable. This suggestion obviously came from a website made for wealthier Chinese travelers who can afford to spend time in the US and apparently can afford an ayi at home. But, I do have to say, just last week my mom was commenting on how therapeutic she finds hanging clothes on the line, so maybe there is more truth to this than I know. (Personally, I hate line-hung clothes. Yes, the smell is nice, but I’ll just a fabric softener sheet in my dryer that smells like “sunshine” and avoid the possibility of a bee in my undies!)

4. They Don’t Know Anything about China but Don’t Let It Bother You­-Again, probably true, but don’t take it personally. American’s don’t have the world’s best geography skills. (Heck, we call ourselves “American,” forgetting that we share the continent with more than twenty other countries!)

5. Stop Everything, Listen up, and No Interrupting- “Americans also allow others to criticize the United States.”  Here is where the freedom of speech and press in the US really shines. I may not love the opinions being spouted on cable news, but I concede to them the right to spew forth. In China, taking a different opinion from the ruling party is likely to get your newscast shutdown. Sometimes I ask myself, in a sing-song voice, of course, “What would the fox say?” and then go looking for other options.

6. Don’t Get Too Close. They Might Knock You Over With Their Constant Gestures.- While I think I probably do gesture a lot when I talk, I think this heading is a bit misleading. The issue is less with about hand movements and more about personal space. It doesn’t exist in China. So yes, you are probably going to get smacked if you are right up on me while we have a conversation. There was one day when I was at Metro Supermarket with a new arrival, getting her a membership card. We were standing in line to fill out the paperwork, when I felt something very close to me. I turned around the there was a tiny old woman standing so close to me, it was like vertical spooning! And there was no need. She was the only other person in line, meaning she could have taken three steps backward and been fine, but if she had done that, someone else probably would have cut between us and she was not going to give them that option, so I was slightly molested as I waited patiently in line.

Long story short, Americans have rather large personal space bubbles. Respect them!

7. Handshakes: You’ll probably need a cheat sheet- I have never thought of handshake etiquette as being particularly daunting, but apparently it is. The only thing I would add to this advice is to firm up the dead-fish handshake that is so common in China. Americans want a firm, tight shake- none of this limp wrist, clammy palm stuff that passes in the Middle Kingdom.

8. If Their Haircut is Ugly, Make Your Eyes Bright and Say, “Cute!”-  Possibly very true. If I tell you your haircut is cute, there is a 95% chance that I do think it is adorable, but an outside, 5% chance that I think it is horrible, but can’t come up with anything else to say on the spur of the moment. But really, if your haircut is awful, you know it. Let’s just pretend together that it isn’t.

9. You May Not Fondle Furnishing- This one is endlessly baffling. I would love to see the original Chinese to see what word was used that earned the horrible translation of “fondle.”  What exactly is happening to my furniture?

10. Shorts + High Heels = Call Girl- I’ve really got nothing on this one. While I am not a fan of the shorts/heels look, I am not sure this necessarily the best way to pick out a “call girl.” (Who still calls them that?!) I am also confused by this heading’s details that tell visitors it is okay to wear a vest at any time. Is there something particularly strange about vests that we need to single them out for fashion-attention?

11. Show Humility to Ladies—They’re In Charge­- Yes.

12. You’re Doing a Good Job in Your Own Way- This one made me laugh because it comes across as horribly condescending, like Americans are a bunch of kids earning “participation” ribbons at the annual school track and field day. We’ve now officially been patted on the head by the Chinese travel agencies and can continue doing a good job, in our own little, quaint way.

Since Thad spends his days issues (and denying, don’t forget the denying) visas, this article struck home on many levels. A huge thank you to Mental Floss, who will now be back on my internet surfing schedule for at least a day or two, as you greatly brightened my gray Sunday afternoon.  Remember folks, no furniture fondling.


A Fantastic Five

As a firm believer in always looking on the bright side of situations and appreciating the small wonders on a daily basis, last Friday shaped up to be an absolutely fantastic day. One after another, little bits here and little bits there fell together to make it a perfect end to what was a super busy and tiring week. (With our big FLOTUS visit just a week away, there’s a lot of overtime being logged in Chengdu! I always know the stress is ramping up when I start to have dreams about work and Saturday night, all I dreamed about was the million ways my “meet and greet” event could crash and burn: kids out of control, a ballroom without air conditioning, forgetting flags, a podium, a stage…if it is a possible disaster, it has run through my head over the last week.) Regardless of my out of control stress-induced dreams,  last week ended on a series of high notes.

1) It was Friday! That in and of itself was a nice little gift, even if I did have to work Saturday morning.

2) When I got up and put on my brand new dress, I discovered it had pockets. This is about as great of a start to a new day as I can think of. I got the dress as a birthday gift when I was in Hawaii back in January, but it is just now starting to warm up to the point where I can consider busting out those summery clothes I wistfully bought in the middle of winter. So, Friday morning, the tags came off, the dress went on and EUREKA! Pockets!

3) Sunshine. Actual rays of sunlight were coming in the window of my office on Friday morning. It was absolutely glorious and I took every opportunity to get out and about that I could. I went to Noodle Alley for lunch, and then ran back out to go to the bakery for bread when my jinjiang rousi ended up being 98% green peppers and only 2% rousi! Later in the afternoon,  there was a pile of welcome packets that needed delivered to a hotel that is a few blocks from the consulate, so I jumped at the chance to deliver those. (I may have walked slower than necessary for that little errand!) All of this was done sans jacket! So nice. I had planned to walk home on Friday (about an hour walk), but my walking buddy was caught up in FLOTUS visit issues and my MP3 player was dead, so I did opt out of that chance at some sunshine, but still, skies were blue, clouds were white and the warmth of the sun on my skin was a much needed mood booster after the long, gray Chengdu winter.

4) Fridays are mail day, which makes them great on thier own, but then when your best friend gets a giant package filled with boxes of Girl Scout cookies from her mom, the day is pretty much made. She busted into the box while we were still in the mailroom, handing me a box of Thin Mints and one of Samoas. I sure did open up those Thin Mints, step outside into a patch of sunshine and enjoy what was possibly the best meal of the week!

5) Finally, when I got home from work, I opened the sliding glass door in my living room and the window that sits in front of treadmill and enjoyed a bit of fresh air. (And by fresh, it was pretty close to fresh! I think our AQI dipped down into the 60s on Friday afternoon.) It was nice to have a literal breath of fresh air coming in the window as I ran on the treadmill, rather than the status quo where I just pretend that the air being displaced by the air purifier is a breeze! And, after a winter of total lockdown, just a bit of new air circulating through the apartment put a smile on my face. (Granted, my face was red and my lungs were burning from the treadmill, but I’ll take that pain with the windows open any day!)
Any one of these things would have made my Friday magnificent, but when you add all of them together, it was one of the best “regular” days that I’ve had in Chengdu and it makes me glad that spring is finally showing her face. We’ve only got about ten weeks left in western China and if each of them has even one day half as good as last Friday, it is going to be an extraordinary end to our two year tour.

Now, enough of this jabber- back to FLOTUS planning!

Among the Joyful by Erin Eastham

Among the Joyful by Erin Eastham


Erin Eastham’s recently released young adult novel, Among the Joyful, was a quick read. I was drawn into the narrative from the very first line and then stayed up way too late on a work night to get through the final line.

Alaire, the main character, is a young lady who lacks the angst normal to the formative teen years, mostly because she doesn’t know what it is.  She lives in Golden State, where happiness (or at least the appearance of it) is of foremost importance. In this “idyllic” planned society, it is each person’s responsibility to never infringe on the happiness of others, which not only means avoiding harsh or argumentative comments/conversations, but also never going out without a smile, as one person’s lack of smile could impact and ruin the day of another. Yes, everyone smiles, all of the time. (As I read, I actually tried to smile for an extended period of time. It is no easy task when it isn’t based on an actual emotion. It doesn’t take long for cheek muscles to tire and lips to dry out. No fun when it isn’t for real.)  As a member of the coveted Joyful Court at her high school, Alaire is a role model to the other students. Until, her world comes crashing down and she discovers empathy- that the world is not all smiles and Joyful Court meetings- there is sadness, heartbreak, disappointment and a whole range of emotions that she has never been allowed to experience.

There are many things to like about this novel, but probably my favorite is all of the references to other young adult books. I love that Alaire’s emotional awakening comes from within the pages of books. I always contend that reading fiction is a great way to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and experience parts of the world that the reader has never encountered. It builds empathy and understanding.  This is exactly where Alaire starts to fall apart- the empathy and understanding piece.

Within the first few pages, I was thinking to myself how much this novel reminded me of Lois Lowry’s writing in The Giver, so I was thrilled when just a chapter or two later, Alaire stumbles upon this staple of young adult literature. It only gets better and she then comes across another classic, The Bridge to Terabithia and what is bound to be a new bedrock of the genre, The Fault in our Stars.  And of course, the title of the novel, Among the Joyful, is a nod to Margaret Peterson-Haddix’s fantastic YA series, Among the Hidden. All of these references, both outright and subtle, made me love this book from the very beginning.

My only confusion comes with the ending. As I read the book, I liked that it was a single, stand-alone novel. So many YA books these days are written as a part of a series (which are supremely beneficial for reluctant readers), but I do enjoy a good novel that can tell its story in a single sitting. I was very onboard with that idea throughout the book, but then when I hit the end, I wondered if it was meant to be a set-up for a sequel. Without providing any spoilers, but in all honestly, I liked the rather abrupt ending, as it left the reader to imagine where the tale’s characters would end up, but I worry that instead there will be a “book 2” and I am not sure the material is there to stretch for another couple hundred pages. This isn’t a criticism of the book, as I have no knowledge of an impending sequel, but I would like to imagine Eastham is done and will write another engaging novel with a different set of characters, so I can spend another sleepless night following their tales.

There were a few random spelling/grammar errors in the book, but nothing that detracted from the story or meaning, and overall, I really did enjoy Erin Eastham’s Among the Joyful  happily giving it the full score:

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Letting Go of February is as Easy as Sunday (okay, Saturday) Morning

Hooray for March 1st!

February has never been my favorite month; whether as a student, a teacher or living in China, I’ve always been grateful it falls in the “knuckle valley” when I count out “January, February, March” to see how many days April has.

When I was in school, 3rd quarter was always the biggest struggle and the report card that I dreaded bringing home. Take middle school for example.  First quarter is the start to a new school year. I would show up bright and eager, with a new school bag (not the Esprit bag that I dreamed of, but a ShopKo navy blue duffle that squeaked constantly as I met up with my best friend, Lesley and walked from Jefferson Junior High were my dad worked to Wilson Middle School where we were 7th graders, navigating the perils of first boyfriends-Isaac asked me out with a roll of Smarties folded up in the requisite “yes, no, maybe” note. I stealthily crunched through the candy gift in math class before marking “yes” and sending it back through my friend, through his friend to him-, multiple class periods and the necessary Tetris of sharing a locker, and the devastation of a girl in the locker room telling me my mascara -first tube ever!- made me look like a raccoon. Oh the drama.) and ready to tackle all the projects and tests thrown my way.  Second quarter is all about the holidays- Thanksgiving and Christmas doing a great job to break up the weeks of world history and study of photosynthesis, and of course fourth quarter was all about the end of the year and summer the approaching summer break.  But that dreaded third quarter. Ugh. The festivities are behind us (although I survive January with a mid-month birthday) and spring break is eons away. 7th grade- that was the year that during the third quarter midterms, I brought home a report card with a B- in science and a C is math. (Look, I was never destined for the STEM world.) This did not go over well at home. Needless to say, I was grounded until the end of the quarter, having to do math homework each night, even if there wasn’t assigned pages to do. (That’s the downfall to having a father who taught high school math for many years. No homework? No problem! He would take my book, look at the chapter we were working on and make a page of problems for me to solve.) February, you were no good to me as a middle schooler.

Jump ahead a decade to when I was on the other side of the desk. February was no better standing with my back to the white board rather than facing it. It is hard to motivate 8th graders to begin with, but add in days stuck inside because the temperature is in the single digits, the trepidation of the upcoming statewide exams and the endless weeks of sameness and it is long for everyone.

One might think that life abroad is always an adventure, and much of the time there are hilarious stories to be told, but day-to-day is actually not that different from life in the States. I get up, go to work Monday through Friday (and sometime Saturday), come home after work, make dinner, stream some Netflix if my internet is fast enough and then read and go to bed.  Chengdu life just plods along in February. The skies are constantly gray, pollution hits its highest levels of the year and we go weeks without the sun making an appearance. It is a long month.

But, it is all behind us now! March has arrived (not so much like a growling lion as a hulking gray elephant) and I’m ready to get back to real life. Back to going out with friends after work, back to the gym in my free time and back to wanting to participate in the world outside the walls of my apartment. Even without sunshine yet, I just feel lighter and happier, knowing that the eternal weeks of February are gone for another year. (Maybe next year it won’t even feel like February since Kuala Lumpur is a humid 90 degrees most of the month.)

Beware, the Ides is only a fortnight away, but I’ll take my chances with traitorous best friends rather than suffer through another miserable day of February.