Rolling in Renminbi

I don’t want to make money; I just want to be wonderful.  -Marilyn Monroe


We’ve been in China for fifteen weeks now, which means I’ve been on the job for thirteen weeks. (Knowing the exact number of weeks we’ve been living in Sichuan has nothing to do with a countdown to another placement or some crazy obsession with days and hours and minutes spent here, but rather a patient ticking off of the rotations of the sun on the prison wall containing my HHE. We got an email from the mysterious Mr. Xu this last week that told us our worldly goods have made it to Chengdu, but won’t be released until someone goes down and pays a rather large sum of cash for them. Customs fees? Bribes? Ransom money? I have no idea, but I feel like maybe this transaction is going to involve a large silver suitcase, a key to an anonymous locker in a bustling train station and a lot of ear-piece wearing folks in dark suits  and Ray-Ban sunglasses. All of this, at least in my imagination, for a quirkily painted dresser I bought at a flea market in DC, some jars of peanut butter and boxes of Cheerios made in the epic Costco run and a few boxes of clothing that I haven’t seen in well over a year and will probably dispose of anyway.)

But, fifteen weeks and thirteen on the job. No big deal, right? Except, I hit a major milestone Thursday.


That’s right. It took thirteen weeks and no small amount of extra work on the parts of my management officer and the consulate’s office management specialist, but payday has arrived!

Marilyn Monroe may have been content with being wonderful, but I’d rather be wonderful *and* have the cash-o-la to buy a bauble or two to accessorize said wonderfulness. I firmly believe one can never have enough purses, necklaces or shoes. To which end, I’ve been spending Thad’s hard earned paycheck, but now, I’ve got not only his, but mine as well!

I’ve promised Thad a fancy evening at Pizza Hut to celebrate my new-found position as a bread-winner in the Ross household, but our party plans have been put on hold for a few days, as Thad has been serving as the social sponsor for a new family who has moved in to our apartment complex. That means trips to the airport (possibly putting him within yards of our hostage-held belongings), dinners at neighborhood restaurants, trips to grocery stores and cell phone outlets and just general introductions to the fabulous area in which we live. Plus, with the earthquake in Yiling on Friday, he had to go in and work for a few hours today, making sure any Americans in the affected areas are safe and accounted for. Needless to say, payday pizza has been put on hold for a bit. But, pizza and possibly the world’s most elaborate salad do await us. Sometime. Soon.

While you don’t need to call me up if you are gangsta’, I do like fancy and you are definitely free to get dancey, so, like Pink and her pop-punk party crashes, won’t you come on, come on and raise your glass.  I am once again a wage-earning member of society.

Why I’ll Never Be A Tetris Champion and Other Lessons from Costco

You know how there are things in life that you just don’t think you’ll ever do? Not things that you insist you won’t do because you are adamantly against them, but those things that you just don’t see in your future- those are the ones I’m thinking about. For example, fifteen years ago I would never have thought I would end up living in rural China. (The Dominican Republic was definitely on my radar, but East Asia? Nope.) Ten years ago I didn’t think I would ever take a random hiatus year from work. Five years ago I didn’t think I’d be the proud (although not worthy) owner of a motorcycle license. Well, last week, I encountered another of those “don’t think that’s for me” moments- a minivan. That’s right. A minivan. Pushing fourteen years of marriage and no kids, the minivan has never been on my list of things I wanted to drive. (And this is coming from someone who kinda’ wants to drive everything! I would do almost anything to get to drive a Zamboni.  When I heard the Idaho Red Cross where I used to volunteer was having a forklift driving class, I seriously considered buying a ticket to fly across the country, just to get in on that gig.) But, with a run to Costco looming, my best buddies at the Crystal City Enterprise didn’t think a Prius was going to cut it.

So, with my parents in town for a two-week visit, we loaded into the shiny new minivan and made the two block trip to Costco. I figured with the pre-shopping trip I chronicled in “It’s Not Peace Corps This Time Around,” plus the addition of two extra sets of hands, the trip should be fairly straight-forward. (Who knew Costco was not only blog-worthy, but double blog-worthy?!)

After being granted access to the store after my Dad flashed his members-only card (again, don’t even get Thad started on the exclusivity of a warehouse shopping experience), we chose a flatbed cart over a basket and retraced my steps from the previous outing. The list I created on my initial visit turned out to be more helpful than even my obsessively-organized self would have imagined.  We were able to go up and down the aisles in the same order I had done before, picking up the desired items in the desired quantities. It was like clockwork.

What wasn’t like clockwork? Mom’s and my stacking abilities. We quickly decided that Dad would be the muscle of the group, pushing the awkwardly huge cart up and down the aisles littered with wandering small children and cap-stoned with sample tables on each end. While he did that, Mom and I would get the items and add them to the flatbed. Apparently, we were horrible at this. I guess neither of us is bound for a job in freight-packing or as Tetris champions.  I get the basic concept. Big, heavy stuff should go on the bottom and light, oddly shaped stuff on top. The problem is, Costco doesn’t organize their store from big and heavy to light and oddly shaped. For some crazy reason they put items together by food category rather than size and shape! Thanks for that Costco.

At first, Dad tried to help out with suggestions and the occasional reordering while we were away from the cart, but I think it soon became clear to him that this process was not going to stack up the way he would like. The helpful hints soon became knowing smirks as Mom tried to figure out how to put twelve cans of tuna on top of a giant bottle of ketchup and I tried to cram one more box of Cheerios onto a four-inch empty spot on the side of the cart.

Once we had finally reached the end of my list, getting everything off of the two-page “buy” list, I had to make a decision or two. On my “maybe buy” list, I had included some camisoles, a polo shirt for Thad, some bath rugs and a 7’X5’ shag carpet area rug. The camisole verdict was quickly reached, when they were all out of anything but white in my size. Thad’s polo was an easy decision too, as I think he needs a few more and he could care less, so onto the cart it went. I eventually decided against the bathmats. I still do want to get a few small rugs, as they will add color to the house, but I also think I may have a few in storage that will be showing up in China a couple of months after we arrive.

The big decision was the area rug. Chinese apartments are almost always carpet-less. I know a lot of people think it is cleaner to not have carpet, but I love the softness of it. I love to be able to lay on the floor with a book and read (or with a laptop and write). Knowing that we will be lacking carpet in Chengdu, I really wanted this big, fluffy rug for my new home. I had talked about it with Thad ahead of time and he said he was indifferent.  So, it was off to the rug rack one more time to stare and them and try to make a decision. (Thad will tell you that this is a key part of all of my large purchases. Staring at them. It is as though I think if I look at it long enough, a light bulb will appear above my head telling me what I should do. There might also be a hope that if I stand there long enough, the price will magically go down.)

After a few minutes of staring and a consultation with Mom, I decided we were going to go for it. We had the minivan, after all! The rugs were all rolled and stacked on their ends in a giant box. Out of the four colors available, three of them were easily accessible from the edges of the holding crate. But wouldn’t you know it? The one I liked the most (there was only one!) was in the far back corner. Luckily, we brought the muscles with us! Dad abandoned the cart, leaving Mom to guard the precious stores of pudding cups and Mountain Dew, to dig out the one and only pretty mottled-brown rug from the back of the display. This meant pulling out about five other rugs, digging the last one out of the back of the box and then returning the previous five to their original holding pen. Thank goodness we brought Dad along! There is no way Mom and I would have been able to do that without creating a chaotic mess.

With my lovely rug piled on top of the goods, it was time to bid adios to Costco and head home, in hopes of finding a place to store all this randomness until mid-May. The mo-partment seems to be getting smaller by the day. The little-used dining room table is now totally off-limits, as it has become a make-shift pantry. (Just a few days after the Costco run, I bought a small cabinet at the Eastern Market, which will be fabulous in our home in China, but is currently sitting in the middle of my living room.)

I now have one more thing ready to check of my “getting ready” list, but maybe more importantly, I can cross “minivan” off my list of vehicles to operate. (Okay, technically I’d have to add it first, as it was never on the list, but you get the idea.) Now, how can I get my hands on a Zamboni?

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It’s Not Peace Corps This Time Around

After thirty one days filled with endless PowerPoint slides, way too many personal comments from some class members, one hundred multiple choice test questions (only two of which I missed and one of those I blame on orphans!), enough fake interviews to know the visa line may not be the place for me and one tedious make-up day (long story!), I can officially cross ConGen off of my list of things to do before we head out to China.

(Short version of the long make-up day story: Because of the classes I missed when we went to Aunt Karin’s funeral a couple of weeks ago, I had to make up the two sessions of training from that day. They were the introduction sessions to American Citizen Services. The thing is, I had already taken the final test on that section, and all of ConGen for that matter, and was just putting in seat time. The first session was fine, but the afternoon one was possibly the longest hour and a half of my life. You see, that session was computer-based, but there were not enough computers and since my class had already “graduated” from the program, my user login was no longer valid. That meant that I took up residence on a spin-y chair at the back of the room. I sat directly behind a young man who obviously was totally uninterested in the lesson.  He spent the ninety minutes chatting on G-mail with a friend of his, mostly complaining about these new rumors that Whitney Huston had an affair with Jermaine Jackson. To quote him directly, “Can’t they just leave Whitney alone? She’s dead. She’s the queen. Let her be!” Whenever he wasn’t decrying the media’s vilification of ol’ Whitney’s morals, he was posting links on his Facebook page to articles about when “douche-bag” became an insult-apparently a novel in 1939 introduced a  pimp named Johnny Douchebag, and it was all downhill from there.  So did I learn anything about serving American citizens abroad during this required make-up session? No! But, the facts I came away with are rather intriguing. I love picturing an old person, born in say the 40’s, busting out the ever so classing d-bag epithet. Makes me giggle every time.)

So now that my days are FSI are mostly over (mostly, because I do have to haul my arm back in for a few more shots later this month), it is time to get crack-a-lackin’ on all of the to-do lists I have formulated over the last six weeks. Today’s check-mark goes to “Costco Reconnaissance Trip.”

Chengdu is a consumables post. (I have no idea why, but I’ll take it!) That means we can have about a ton (literally) of food and other use-up-able items shipped to China for free. Obviously, we have to purchase them, but then the shipping is on the department.  Thad can’t wait to eat Sichuan peppers for the next two years, but my eating habits will be better served with an occasional treat from home. With that in mind, I thought I would do an initial trip to Costco to make a shopping list that included prices and weights so I could mull over my options before actually making any purchases.

I gathered my handy-dandy notebook (not the blue spiral one featured prominently on Blue’s Clues, but rather a cute cream colored one with stylized flowers and vines twisting their way across the cover), a sparkly purple pen and marched myself the block and a half to Costco. As non-card-holders (don’t even get Thad started on the idea of paying a corporation money to shop at its store), this was my first visit, even though it is a mere five-minute walk from my front door. I figured the best way to tackle the daunting cavern of a store was to just go up and down each aisle, skipping the fresh and frozen foods, as they aren’t going to do well sitting on an airport tarmac for undetermined amounts of time.

Here are just a few observations from my warehouse field trip:

*Apparently, Miracle Whip is not popular on the east coast. (Does it fall into the same category as fry sauce?) There were several varieties of mayonnaise available in trough-sized jars, but no Miracle Whip anywhere to be seen.

*People look at you a little strangely if you stand for too long in the cereal aisle, counting unknown items out on your fingers, mumbling quietly to yourself.

*You can buy bras at Costco.  Their packaging claims to guarantee a perfect fit. How is this possible? (Also, said bras only come in larger sizes. Is this in homage to Costco’s giant-sized everything? Do boobs come in bulk?)

*It takes roughly two hours to wander up and down every aisle of Costco, making a three-page list and checking it twice.

*People buy weird stuff in bulk. It is fun, as you wander the aisles, to try to figure out what each person’s deal is. Look in their gigantic shopping cart (or flatbed wagon!) and take a guess at why exactly someone needs that many oversized muffins and three gigantic bottles of shampoo.  The possibilities are endless…


Now that my item, amount, weight and price columns are completely filled in, the contemplating begins. What do I want for the next two years?  In reality, I can get pretty much everything I would want in Chengdu. This isn’t Peace Corps after all. We will be making real salaries, be in a huge town and have easy access to supermarkets carrying at least some basic western foods. Whatever I eventually decide to ship will really just be frosting on the cake. (By the way, both frosting and cake are on my list!)