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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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.

A Moving Monument

This weekend is a big weekend here in the DC area, and not just because of the likely appearance of lovely Ms. Irene and her hurricane force winds and torrential rain.  Unless you have been living under a rock, or a giant granite monolith for that matter, you know that Sunday is the official dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in downtown Washington DC.

This monument is a beautiful addition to those already in our nation’s capital.  As guests approach the memorial from Independence Avenue, they are greeted by a massive stone wall, representing the “mountain of despair,”  which has its middle cut out and pushed forward into the center of the memorial space.  The middle piece is a physical manifestation of the “stone of hope.”  It is on this slab of granite that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is carved in a spectacular fashion.   This nod to his most famous speech, “I Have A Dream” is not necessarily subtle, but it’s obvious reference doesn’t create a feeling of amateurism either.  Many visitors will be coming to this monument after having walked up the National Mall, through the series of monuments that ends with Abraham Lincoln’s, where a tile is set into the steps commemorating that same speech.  People can go from standing on the exact spot where the speech was given to then venturing  across the road and literally stepping into the words of that stirring oration, bringing not only its author, but its message to life.

Once inside the monument, the sides of the walls facing the Tidal Basin are covered with quotes, in chronological order, from MLK Jr.’s lifetime.  Visitors move around the monument in a counter-clockwise direction, working their way through Dr. King’s experiences as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. This loop passes back by the “stone of hope,” where guests have a chance to really take in the majesty of the thirty-foot statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The visage of the statue is one that is both prideful and stern at the same time.  It seems to radiate a sense of pride in how far his fight has come since the early 1960’s, but there is also a feeling that there are battles to still be fought when it comes to people being judged by their character, which they choose and create, rather than on traits with which they are born and have no control over.  It is standing at this grand effigy that is bursting forth from a slab of granite that my favorite allusion to King and what he stood for is quietly played out. King’s sculpture looks out over the Tidal Basin, right into the Jefferson Memorial.  As a major player in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s words “…all men are created equal” are perfect reflections of what King was trying to accomplish through his works.

While the monument doesn’t official open until Saturday, with the dedication taking place Sunday, I had the magnificent opportunity to go down and volunteer on Tuesday, the preview day.  My volunteer duties were very much like what I did at numerous Red Cross events back in Idaho.  I, along with Earl, my wonderful partner for the day, stood on the sidewalk offering commemorative bookmarks, free water and a chance to rest to the heavy stream of people headed towards the monument from the National Mall. We were there to not only pass out our goodies, but help by providing directions, information and help when needed.  Earl and I started out duties at 8AM and had a really great day together.  It was sunny and warm (I was chastised numerous times by old women who wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing a hat!), but we did our best to great each person headed up towards the monument and welcome them to DC’s newest addition. (It was also wonderful to talk to these same people as they made the return trip.  I loved asking them what they thought after their visit. Out of the hundreds, probably thousands, of people I spoke with on Tuesday, I have to say that well-received is an understatement when it comes to public opinion of the memorial!)  After  hours of sunshine and no lunch, there came a moment when my head started spinning and my initial thought was, “I’m about to pass out!”  Having experienced a rather unpleasant case of heat exhaustion in Cambodia a few summers ago, I thought I recognized the signs.  It took me all of about two seconds to realize that no, this was not heat exhaustion, but another sensation with which I have experience- an earthquake!

My initial awareness of the earthquake was quickly followed by a scan of the area.  I looked up and saw the light post and Washington Monument, both in motion. I looked down and could see the grass smoothly rolling under my tennis shoes.  As I glanced over my shoulder, the previously glass-like Tidal Basin had some lovely whitecap swells on it.  The quake was short, lasting only a matter of seconds.  Even as the quake was taking place, people were still streaming towards the entrance of the memorial.  Some people stopped to look around and to discuss if it fact they had just experienced an earthquake (a first for many long-time DC residents) and then calmly headed back on their way.  As our tent and area seemed undamaged, people nearby not in need of any assistance, Earl and I went right back to handing out bookmarks and chatting with those headed to the memorial.

One of the fabulous parts about working the tent on the main pathway to the memorial was the really great people I got to meet. I was able to speak with a man who walked with Dr. King in Montgomery, another who was in jail with Dr. King in Birmingham and at least a dozen people who were in the crowd on August 28, 1963. I heard women tell stories of participating in the bus boycott in their hometowns and men talk of sit-ins at local businesses. These were suddenly not just chapters of a history textbook being read to me in sophomore history class by Mr. Cooper, but real people, real events, real soldiers in the fight for equality.

Before volunteering at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument on Tuesday, I don’t think I had a very good grasp on how important this opening was. I understood that his leadership was invaluable in changing the racial landscape of America; I understood that he was a man who deserved this recognition, but  I think I understood these things strictly in an academic way.  A day in the sun, greeting visitors, talking with people who experienced history in a way I can only imagine brought that understanding into a much more human, realistic realm.  The pride was palpable on Tuesday.  Countless people were in their Sunday best for their first visit to the memorial.  The respect and admiration Dr. King’s leadership, his hard work and his life were unmistakable.   While the earth may have moved me physically on Tuesday, my opportunity to serve at this historic event moved me intellectually and emotionally.

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