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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Take Two


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.


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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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The Best of 2012 While Searching for the End of the Sidewalk

It is that time of year, where everyone and their dog comes out with a “2012 Best of _____” list. I don’t have a dog, but I do have two trusty turtles (GongBao and JiDing) who I am sure would be willing to contribute to my roundup of the year once they get done basking in the heat lamps of our spare bathroom.  But, since they are otherwise occupied and my dog lives on a farm in Idaho now (not *the* farm, the one all dogs seem to move to at some point in their lives, from which they never return, but rather the property of a good friend’s grandparents), I’m on my own to let you in on the best of everything over the last twelve months. (“Everything” might be a bit ambitious with just a few days left on the calendar…)

Best Books of 2012

Not knowing where to start with this one, I hopped on over to my GoodReads account and looked back over my literature intake since January 1. If my count is right (remember folks, I’m an English major, none of that fancy math nonsense for me!), I’ve had the pleasure of reading ninety-four books, but if my notes are any indication, there also appear to have been a couple in there that were decidedly not pleasurable. (I’ll not name names, since the idea is to end the year on a high note, with the positives of the last 365 days.)

{Links to related posts included.}

5- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

4- Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

3- Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

2- The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene

1-Habibi by Craig Thompson (absolutely beautiful!)


Best Outings of 2012

5- Bangkok, Thailand. I may have been there for work, but a week of blue skies and sunshine were a much appreciated break from the daily haze I see out my window.

4- Los Angeles, California. As Thad did his final consultations before heading to China, I took one last opportunity to soak in America for all it is worth. I wandered on the beach, watching the surfers ride wave after wave of blue water; found a wonderful little family-run bookstore filled with all the paperbacks I would soon be missing; got a pedicure to make sure my piggies were ready for their big adventure; and hit up the mall for one last look at shops with clothing in my size.

3- Annapolis, Maryland with Erin and John just weeks before we moved away from DC. Not only is the old-town portion of the city full of things to see and do, there are ice cream shoppes (with an “e,” of course) on nearly every corner. Who wouldn’t love the city?

2- The Outer Banks, North Carolina. With a carload of friends from Idaho, we made it to both Kitty Hawk and the shoreline to see the wild horses.

1-Chengdu, China of course! There is always something ridiculous to see, something fascinating to learn or something worthy of a blog post in this city.

*Honorable mention: Caldwell/Nampa, Idaho. We may have sold our house this fall and are officially classy hobos, but the Treasure Valley will always be home.

Best Moments of 2012

5-Arrival of our HHE (this technically qualifies as a psychic event, as it doesn’t actually happen until tomorrow)

4-John and Lulu’s wedding in Guiyang

3- Moving out of the Crystal City mo-partment and in to our 3-bedroom, 2-bath, 24th floor digs that overlook the river in Chengdu

2- Mom’s surprise 60th birthday party

1-After almost exactly a year of being unemployed, getting hired as the CLO Coordinator for the Chengdu Consulate and once again joining the ranks of paycheck earners!

*Honorable mention- Watching Shea McClellin, one of my former 8th grade English students, get picked in the first round of the NFL’s draft this last spring!! Bragging about the Bears in Chengdu has become a new favorite pastime of mine.

So there you have it, without the least bit of help from my turtles, who are not only slow, but a little lazy to boot, it’s a roundup of the high points of the year. As I look ahead to 2013, plans are bouncing around my gray matter (although I think it is more pink than gray, which we all know I prefer anyway), looking to claim a spot in my continued search for the end of the sidewalk.

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Coloring Outside the Lines

I always color within the lines. The precision and prettiness of the picture depend on it. Within those bold borders I can color coordinate to my heart’s content, mixing a deep raspberry with some dusty fuchsia  and maybe throwing in a splash of watermelon to brighten the scene.(And of course, there will be glitter, if it is an option.) Regardless of the color choices made, all 50 shades of pink will fall neatly within the prescribed outline of the princess’ ball gown.

When I go to a job interview and am asked to name three words that describe myself, I don’t, put probably should, put “rule-follower” on the top of that list.  Sticking within those bounds keeps me sane. In the sixth grade, which I would like to say was just a few years ago, but a couple decades is probably a closer estimate, I got a detention. It was my first and only detention I was every privy to in twelve years of public schooling. How does a sweet, shy middle school girl get a detention when she hardly speaks in class? Jake. It was all Jake’s fault and to this day, I blame him for tarnishing my perfect discipline record. (I had a pretty good attendance record going to, but things came up to break that one as well, very few of which were my own fault. Sometimes it was the flu or an orthodontist appointment. My senior year, the streak was intact, until I got wind of  a Clay Walker concert, which I just had to have tickets for. So, Candace, my best friend since middle school, and I decided to take a morning off from US Government and Geometry and Advanced English to  go stand in line at the ghetto-Albertsons in Caldwell to get tickets. Perfect attendance my senior year? Nope. A concert worthy of hypnotizing the moon? You bet! But, even this seeming swerve from the rules was one that was pre-approved by my parents. I would never have dared to ditch school to buy concert tickets, heartthrob in Wranglers or not.)

But back to Jake. It’s a long story, but the short version is that during music class (one of the least favorite periods of the day for this tone-deaf girl), I had slipped my generic-brand Keds off under the desk. Jake took one and tossed it across the room. He got a stern look and I got a detention. Apparently, because it was my shoe, I was responsible for it. (To be fair, there may have been some nuances to the story that my middle school mind blocked out in attempt to justify my seething-anger over the detention, but two decades later, that minutia has been lost in my gray matter.) This all went down on a Friday afternoon, so I had the whole weekend to fret about getting my detention slip signed by my parents. I just knew they were going to kill me, or worse yet, assign me as the sole-pooper scooper for the llama barn until high school graduation. It took me until Sunday night to pull out the yellow and pink pages of that carbon copy slip. In near hysteria, I handed it over to my educator-parents for their John Hancocks. (Other than trying to tell my side of the story through sobs, I don’t even remember what came of the whole thing. I do think I got out of actually serving the detention by telling the music teacher I had piano lessons that night. Again, for a tone-deaf kid such as myself, thirty minutes of piano lessons is probably a harsher punishment than after school detention anyway.)

What I am getting at is that I like to know that things are being done the right way, and rules help set those boundaries. The control that comes along with and the lack of chaos are comforting, so much so that I tend to create guidelines where none exist.

Arbitrary rules are the name of the game in my world. Thad laughs at my rule-creating but usually goes along with the neurosis, even as he makes a mental note of the craziness. There are lots of little daily-life rituals that just work best if done a certain way. For example, when making a burrito, the order of creation should go: shell, sour cream, beans, cheese, salsa, olives. Thad’s mayhem of shell, sour cream, cheese , salsa and then beans is just causing the world to spin out of control!

Some of the most concrete rules, deemed “arbitrary” by Thad, have to do with Christmas, like no Christmas music/decorations until the day after Thanksgiving and then all Christmas music ends the day after Christmas, with the decorations down before the New Year.  Why all the self-regulations revolving around the holidays? Because I love Christmas more than the Grinch after he stole it, had a change of heart and subsequently returned it. I love Christmas like gym teachers love the Presidential Fitness Awards. I love Christmas like the cockroach currently residing in my kitchen loves crumbs. (I had so many more similes I could have gone with here, but in the name of good taste I veered away from any involving things Jerry Sandusky loves or the love bestowed upon the East Coast by storm Sandy. It is quite possibly too soon to go down either of those literary device paths.) Christmas is less special if it is dragged out from mid-September through early February, as retail America has established as the new norm. Christmas is a season. There is a season for everything. (Feel free to bust out some “turn, turn, turn” at this point.)

China has made me toss this rule into the (hazardously polluted) wind. Today, November 3, I spent the day making Christmas cards. Granted, it was a for a good cause, but a tiny bit of my soul died with each sparkly doo-dad I affixed to the card stock, a miniscule piece of my heart shriveled with each ribbon tied and strategically placed to mask a mistake and an infinitesimal sliver of my mind was blown with each sparkly stocking stamp firmly placed on the project.

But, after spending a wonderful five hours with other ladies in our US Consulate community, crafting to our hearts’ content, chatting about everything from Foreign Service bidding to the challenges of schooling aboard to whether a wallet-gutting trip to the Maldives in February is worth it, I am okay that my in-the-box thinking when it comes to the holidays had its corners nicked, just a bit.

There will still be no Christmas station streaming on Pandora for a few more weeks and no hauling out the artificial tree for sprucing up the apartment for another month, but I made red and green cards bejeweled in silver and gold and life is okay.  Just like I was able to bend the rules a bit to make sure I got prime seats for the dreamy Clay Walker’s first Boise concert, I have a strong justification for the early arrival of Christmas greeting- four fabulous local charities.

But now, I’m back on the Christmas regulations bandwagon…for two more weeks. Until the Christmas bazaar rolls around, at which point I will be down and dirty in the muck of holiday madness. (But, probably secretly loving it more than Mitt Romney loves his tax bracket.)

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Did I Actually Just Enjoy Halloween?

Halloween costumes can be a walk down memory lane (or at least another block in the search for the end of the sidewalk.) One year I was a mouse, wearing black tights over black shorts, a black shirt and some mouse ears, plus an electric cord for a tail. One year I was a clown with this crazy jumpsuit that came out of my mom’s closet (I have no idea why she owned it in the first place!), added some wild hair and was a clown. And there was the year I dressed up as the Chicago Bears defensive end with the best grammar and writing skills. (I didn’t actually know what defensive position Shea plays, so I had to look it up on my handy-dandy internet, which sent me to his Wikipedia site. You know you have officially reached “it-dom” when you have your own entry on Wikipedia.)

After teaching middle school for nearly a decade, I saw an array of crazy costumes many of them straight out of a package from the store. (Don’t even get me started on the parents of middle school students who buy them *any* costume with the word “sexy” on the packaging. It happens…more that you would like to think.) Maybe it is a sign that I am getting old (that and the streak of gray hair that has appeared on my temple, which my stylist in America insists is white, which I guess makes okay somehow), but I remember costumes being made from what you could find around the house and then adding a detail or two, if needed, from the second-hand store. When I was a kid, costumes were more about creativity and craftiness than the shimmery and skimpy outfits being pushed by retailers. Although, I do have to say I’ve been very impressed with some of the pictures I’ve seen on the internet. People are still creative! But, the thing that all those awesome costumes I see online have in common is they are cobbled together from pieces of this and parts of that, original designs, not store-bought tedium.

Being in charge of this year’s Halloween events at the Consulate in Chengdu meant I was right in the middle of the spooky goodness this year. But you know what? It was great! Since Halloween costumes can’t be bought in Chengdu, families either had to prepare in advance (super advance!) or come up with something from what they had here. I loved that yesterday’s costumes ranged from an Olympic track athlete, decked out in a warm-up suit, race number and medals to the white rabbit in her dance leotard, tights and cute little ears, with some of Mom’s makeup for a nose and whiskers.  Halloween, Chengdu-style, was a bit of a throwback, which was awesome!

To further point out how maybe my hatred of Halloween could be toned down just a tad, a high school friend and fellow blogger (and all around awesome gal!) put together an amazing Halloween display in her yard. As one who professes to not be on the Halloween bandwagon, I kind of, really, wish I had been there to see the spectacle in person. (Check out her blog here.  This whole month has been filled with holiday posts and pictures. The mummy is my favorite!) Her enthusiasm and excitement are contagious, even from the other side of the world. (Could Halloween be like SARS, spreading on the wings of sneezes and airplanes?)

For someone who claims to dislike Halloween so much, it sure seems to get a lot of play time on this blog. Could it be that I secretly love this ghostly and ghoulish holiday? No, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon, but there are parts of it that are growing on me. (Adults in costumes will never be one of them though.)

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The Hunt for Orange October

It’s that dreaded time of year again. No, it is not Tax Day. Nor is it time for back-to-school dental check-ups that always end in the need to have a cavity filled. It isn’t even the shortest day of the year, when the sun seemingly rises and sets simultaneously.

It is Halloween.

I know some people love this holiday with a passion that most hold in reserve for their spouses and children and baby pandas. I admire those who can look upon this season of spooks and goblins as a blessing bestowed upon autumn by the pagans of years past.

I am not one of them.

Last year, I laid out my argument against Halloween in terms my dislike of most things in costume. (You are welcome to review that good-natured anti-Halloween diatribe here, in “Gourd Sculpting and Arachnid Treats.”) But there is more to my dislike of Halloween than just adults dressed as creatures from Star Trek that follow me around bars in Las Vegas. ( I would like to take a moment  to point out that toddlers and babies are excluded from my aversion to costumed critters. Whether it is a niece dressed as a puppy, the awesome kid who showed up on my doorstep dressed as a UFO in an outfit fashioned from two Rubbermaid trashcan lids fitted with Christmas lights, or a sleeping baby as nearly anything, whether it be animal, vegetable or mineral, I am on board. Little ones in cute costumes are adorable. The distaste starts when the disguised reach middle school. Sorry niece #1- you’ve hit the line this year! Unless, that is, you fathom some awesomely literary costume, of course. Then I will reconsider my arbitrary line.)

Although the costumed creatures are reason enough to not have Halloween on my “favorite days of the year” list (which I don’t have a physical manifestation of, but does exist in my head), I also cannot get on board with the black and orange thing. Black is okay. It is slimming. It makes for a nice little dress. On a car, it can help hide dirt. But, orange? Nope. Rarely is orange a flattering color and it is impossible to rhyme in a poem. It is a waste of a wedge on the color wheel.

Regardless of my personal feelings about Halloween, part of my CLO job is to plan/host events for our community in Chengdu.  Any such day that is uniquely American or culturally significant becomes a bigger deal when you are living overseas. People want their kids to experience Easter like they would in the US, with a giant bunny who delivers eggs filled with chocolate in baskets of plastic grass. They want an abundance of red, white and blue streamers amid which they can eat BBQ while celebrating the birth of our great nation. And, they want Halloween– costumes, trick-or-treating, jack o’ lanterns. ..the works.

To prepare for this festival of ghosts and ghouls, we needed pumpkins, as I am hosting a carved-pumpkin contest next week. (I hesitate to call it a jack o’ lantern contest, as entrants might have to be creative with how they design their oddly shaped gourd art.) Out went the call for pumpkin orders and in they came. With a total required number of orange orbs surpassing the two-dozen mark, I thought I’d get thirty, just to be safe.

With the help of our staff gardener, I headed out to a wet market on the edge of Chengdu, which was great because I love markets! There is something fabulous about seeing all the fresh produce stacked and ready for purchase. The colors in an outdoor market seem more vivid and vibrant. The smells are more aromatic. (This is true for both the pleasant scents and the not-so-pleasant odors that waft on the breeze.) Markets tend to have a different sort of shoppers than supermarkets, which is also intriguing to experience.

Chinese pumpkins aren’t quite the same as American pumpkins. (I am sure there is scientific nomenclature that would trace the lineage of these various gourds, but that isn’t my world. In the US, I see large, round, very orange pumpkins. In China, I see large, squat, toadstool-like, slightly orange gourds trying to pass themselves off as pumpkins.) But, Chinese pumpkins are the only choice, so we’ll do our best with what we have.

After digging through a woman’s enormous pile of pumpkins, sorting out the best, most-likely to be carve-able ones, we had a stack of thirty chosen gourds. As the gardener picked through the stack, helping me along in the process, getting a “hao” (thumbs-up) or “bu hao” (thumbs down) on each selection, he quickly caught on to what I was looking for and supplied a good number of pumpkins to our purchase-pile.

At one point, looking up from my hunt for the next great pumpkin, I glanced over my shoulder to see a crowd of probably fifteen or twenty people, mostly older folks, watching the show. I can only imagine what they must think of the blonde woman in a skirt and galoshes, buying thirty pumpkins. Is there a good story to fill in those gaps?

Thanks to the help of the gardener, I was able to haul my load of necessary Halloween adornments back to the consulate where they were quickly picked up by those who had submitted orders, taken to be carved in to…I actually have no idea.

While Halloween is not high on my list and I’m not a big fan of dressing up, I will be celebrating more than I have in years.  (My current costume plan is to go as the great Chicago Bears defensive player, #99, Shea McClellin, but Thad tells me he is pretty sure Shea never wore gray yoga pants with his jersey.)  And it will be great! I’ll judge funky-shaped carved pumpkins, that I am sure will be extraordinary, since our community is amazingly creative. I’ll hand out candy from the “trunk” of my hot-pink scooter during the “truck or treat.” And I’ll do it all with a genuine smile on my face because distinctively American holidays are just a little more special when you live on the other side of the world.

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Geography Woes

We’ve all got regrets from our years in middle school and junior high, some of which most of us would probably rather not delve in to, especially in the realm of the clothes we were convinced were “cool.” (Think: Hypercolor shirts, overalls, big bangs, pegged baggy jeans,…oh, the list could go on…) But, as my search for the end of the sidewalk has taken me down paths I never could have imagined when I was wandering the halls of Jefferson Junior High, I couldn’t have foreseen that a bit more effort in Mr. Shake’s geography class would have come in handy.

I dreaded those frequent map quizzes, with just the outlines of countries and mocking stars of capitals. At the time, did I think I would ever need to know the difference between Haiti and the Dominican Republic? (I finally got those straight in my thirteen year old mind by remembering that Haiti is the shorter word, so it gets the smaller part of the island. That is some quality logic! That information became key when I moved to the island of Hispaniola to study abroad during college. With the big and little of it in mind, I was able to safely find myself on the correct side of the island. Most of the time.) Or did I need to know where the Yellow River was in China? (When that is the determining factor for heat in your apartment, you soon figure it out!)

At the time, Bangkok was one of the cities that actually stood out to me when the maps of Southeast Asia were handed out, not because I had any great interest in Thailand, and not even because it sounds like it was named by a prepubescent boy, but because it held the exotic appeal of hard men being humbled and tough men tumbling and references to people and places and events I didn’t understand, but backed by haunting music that clung to my mind like pearls to an oyster.

A score and a few years later, I found myself back in that sweltering city, not for anything as exotic as a global chess tournament, but rather for training with the State Department for my first non-teaching job in over a decade.

I may have sat in a hotel conference room for forty (or more!) hours that week, learning a massive amount about the eight portfolios that make up my position, which was well-worth the trip, but the minute we were released at the end of each day, I was ready to go see the city.  Within moments of being dismissed for the afternoon, I was in our (very posh!) hotel room, stripping off the layers of clothing necessary to keep warm in any conference room around the world (never mind that it was a balmy 90 degrees outside), shucking the tights, corduroy skirt  and cardigan for shorts, a tank top and sandals.

One night, we had the chance to meet up with our fellow ex-Crystal City Oakwood mo-partment mates, David and Ian, who were in town for a brief layover before heading south to the lovely beaches of Phuket. (See, I’m telling you, an entire country named by pre-pubescent boys. Wait until you see the picture of Thad at the Mo Chit Skytrain stop.)

We met up at Cabbages and Condoms, a great restaurant that started as a small NGO, and has blossomed into several locations within Thailand. Other than serving good food and fun, fruity drinks, their shtick is that all of their proceeds to go AIDS prevention and family planning education- both very worthy causes.  While we waited for David and Ian to arrive, we perused the shop filled with all things condom.  I decided against sending the postcards home to my elementary-aged nieces and nephews, but did end up buying both a shoulder bag and a scarf for myself. (Both of which I could have bought at the weekend market for a lower price, but I figured it was a good way to help the cause.) Rather than mints coming with the bill as a parting gift, we were each given a lovely, pink-wrapped condom as our take-away for the night. They have a theme and boy, do they stick with it!

As I think back to that second-floor classroom on 10th Street in Caldwell, the one in which I dreaded the day the atlases and colored pencils were handed out, the one in which I felt like nothing we were doing would ever have any consequence in my own life, I have to laugh. More than any other class (okay, other than English, but I have a natural bias there), geography is the hallmark of the Foreign Service. Capital city names roll of the tips of tongues like poetry off the lips of a bard. Who doesn’t need to know where Dhaka and Djibouti are? Or Dakar and Dushanbe? And if you don’t know them, it doesn’t take long to not only place them on a map, but learn their current state of political affairs and exactly how long it takes to fly from said city to home in the States. These are the places where you find that middle ground between despair and ecstasy. These are the places that will be home.

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To Infinity and Beyond (or Till Death Do Us Part)

I am a sucker for weddings.

There’s the massive amount of preparation necessary, which means lots of organizing and planning and  the possible purchase of loads of office supplies to make the organizing and planning more productive and fun. There is the choosing of colors and cakes and centerpieces.  There is flower selection and venue selection and photographer selection. But, more than anything,  I love the dresses- whether long and flowing sheaths or fluffy and  frothy ball gowns or traditional with a splash of color, I could thumb through bridal magazines all day long, critiquing each aisle-bound set of attire. (Just Friday, I was headed home from the consulate, in a cab rather than on my scooter, because it was mail delivery day and we got not only an awesomely large care package from Thad’s sister, but also a couple of his birthday gifts arrived. I know if I were truly integrating into the Chengdu culture I would have loaded it all up on my bike and headed out, but I just can’t put that much on my scooter and expect to make it home in one piece!  I’m doing well to make to and from work each day when I have nothing more than my mere person with which to be concerned. Anyway, as I was headed home on Friday, I noticed, not far from the consulate, a brand new shop had opened up. What kind of shop you may ask? A wedding dress store! I will definitely be heading down there on my lunch on Monday to check out dresses in the windows. Oh, and buy a smoothie on my way, as the new bridal shop is right next door to the new smoothie shop, from which I carry a VIP card!)

But, back to weddings.

I love them.

So, several months ago, when I got an eVite for two of our friends getting hitched in Guiyang, I think I RSVPed before the entire page had even loaded on my somewhat lagging Chinese internet.  Of course we’d be taking the one-hour flight to the capital of Guizhou province to attend the ceremony! (The fact that Thad was the best man, while important, didn’t play in to my decision at all. It was a wedding. I was invited. I was going.)

Thad and I had the chance to attend several wedding banquets when we were in Peace Corps in Gansu, but we never participated in the morning part of the ceremony, which includes the groom breaking down the door to his bride’s parents home, after offering money and promises to do all the household chores; tea being served to the parents and grandparents, followed by the newlyweds bowing to these elder members of the family; the giving of red envelopes filled with money as a gift to the new couple; and the serving of and eating of gooey balls of dough served in a warm soup, called tangtuan.

I was super excited to find out we got to ride with the wedding party in the decorated cars. I see these caravans headed through town all the time, sometimes covered in flowers and other times draped in balloons. We were lucky enough to hop in a balloon laden car to make the trip to the bride’s father’s home and then again heading back to the bride’s mother’s place. I can definitely check that off my Bucket List! (Okay, I don’t actually have a Bucket List, not because I don’t think it is a good idea, but because it has become so much of a fad, I just can’t bring myself to follow the herd that way. I tend to do the same thing with books. As soon as it becomes uber-popular, I am suddenly not interested in reading it, even if everyone tells me it is great.  Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Haven’t read it. 50 Shades of Gray? Too ridiculous. Harry Potter? Only got through the first two before the hype became out of control.  I know.  I should be less of a snot.  But, maybe I’ll make myself a “Pushing Up Daisies” list. That way, not only am I making a set of goals for before I die, but I can adorn said list in every shade of pink and purple Gerber daisy known to man! I think I may just be on to something here…)

The morning wedding ceremonies were followed by a brief afternoon rest, during which I may or may not have gone to the ATM with Thad’s debit card, thinking I knew his PIN, and finding out I was not correct in that thought process only when the ATM gobbled his card and would not give it back after entering the wrong number twice. (Notice it was his card that went in the machine. I need mine for online shopping!)

An evening banquet wrapped up the day’s festivities. There was no ride in a balloon bedecked car, as the dinner was held in the hotel we were staying at, but it did entail a lot of food and even more alcohol.  After walking up the aisle together, Lulu wearing a beautiful knee-length red dress and her hair curled and up in a dainty bow, they addressed the crowd of nearly 200 guests. (Three of which were not Chinese- Jessica, Thad and me.)   A Chinese wedding does not include vows the way a western wedding does, which is, after the dress, my second favorite part of a weddings. Whether it is “Till death do us part” or “To infinity and beyond” (which I think would make a great addition to the traditional American vows),  that part of the event where the bride and groom turn to each other, hold hands and promise to love and cherish and honor and all the other gooey and sappy stuff that brings a tear to the eye of even the most stalwart guest, this is what I missed the most when comparing the ceremonies of the two cultures.

Lulu sang for John and John put together an adorable video, fashioned after the introduction to How I Met Your Mother.   The evening seemed to be a success. Toasts were made and then more toasts were made. And then, a few more toasts were made.

While a traditional Chinese wedding is not a white wedding, and it is true that nothing in this world is fair or safe or sure, I do think Billy Idol would agree that it was a nice day to start again.

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Moaning About Moon Cakes

In America, around Christmas and the winter holidays, there are always endless jokes about the ubiquitous, yet terrible tradition that is fruitcake. (I will admit from the start, I have never actually tasted a piece of fruitcake. A look at its heavy brown pastry, dotted with candied fruit brings to mind a slab of concrete with large pebbles strewn throughout. Not appetizing in the least.) And while fruitcake may be a uniquely western thing, terrible pastries at a time of celebration are apparently a global phenomenon.

Here in China, the bane of my fall season is a not-so-lovely little treat called the moon cake.

Moon cake shops start to pop up in early September, seemingly overnight. What was once an empty storefront will suddenly be bursting at the seams with fancy, silk-lined boxes of moon cakes, selling for hundreds and even thousands of RMB. Usually these fly-by-night stores also have a variety of bin-cakes, some wrapped, some not, selling on an individual basis. (It is the Chinese version of WinCo Supermarket bins, down to the fact that people dig through them barehanded. I didn’t dare buy goods out of the open grocery store bins in Idaho and I don’t dare do it here!)

These omnipresent snacks are a part of China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival. This fall celebration is a popular harvest festival recognized by the Chinese government as an official holiday, meaning all official businesses are closed, schools are closed and many people go on vacation for an entire week. (It’s like a national spring break, but in the fall, and minus the uber-drunk, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini-clad college students.

Mid-Autumn Festival dates back over 3,000 years to the ancient times of moon worship in China’s Shang Dynasty. I’m pretty sure some of those original moon cakes are still floating around this place, as they don’t seem to have, or need, expiration dates. (Chinese version of the Twinkie?) While it is also sometimes referred to as the Moon Cake Festival, this is less common, but, it does make me think that maybe we should rechristen Christmas and Fruitcake Festival.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, which is usually around late September or early October on the Western calendar. It is a date that parallels the autumnal equinox of the solar calendar, when the moon is supposedly at its fullest and roundest. The traditional food of this festival is the moon cake, of which there are many different varieties, and yet none that I want to eat. Whether it is the type with an entire cooked egg yolk in the middle or the one made of five different nuts, none of them are appealing. And this is coming from someone who has a deeply-ingrained love of pastries. Last week, I got two care packages from the States, one from my best friend Shannon and the other from by parents. Both boxes had a variety of goodies inside, but the one place their overlapped was in their containment of chocolate pudding pies. (Together, they could make one of the best Venn Diagrams known to man!) So I am no slouch when it comes to the consumption of sweet treats, but when I bite through the thick breading that makes up the outer layer of the goodie, only to find I have a mouth full of mashed red bean paste, I don’t consider that a win in my book

In the Middle Kingdom, Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important holidays of the year; a time when, traditionally, farmers would celebrate the end of the summer harvesting season. Customarily on this day, Chinese family members and friends will gather together to admire the bright mid-autumn harvest moon and eat moon cakes under the moon. (As much as I dislike the dense, hockey-puck-like pastries, they really are all the rage here! I even bought a small package of them for my ayi as a thank-you for her wonderful housekeeping skills

With Mid-Autumn Festival right around the bend and moon cakes on every corner, I’ll be on a mini-blogging hiatus as I head to Bangkok for a week of CLO Training, (I need to find out how to CLO better!) and then on to the wedding of a good friend in Guizhou. I’ll be back with tales of Thailand and continued adventures while In Search of the End of the Sidewalk after Columbus Day.

Until then, 中秋节快乐!Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Colorful moon cakes for my ayi