Celebrating Christmas as Peace Corps Volunteers was definitely a DIY project that included the back-breaking work of carrying a requisitioned (borrowed, loaned without permission, temporarily freed…take your pick of verbs), potted tree up six flights of stairs to our apartment for one member of the family and the not-so-painful, but equally important work of creating ornaments for said tree. A towel filled in for the missing tree skirt and the part of the star on top was played by a pictured printed off the internet and colored in with yellow highlighter by yours truly. In reality, hauling that tree around campus in the middle of the night may not have been worth the back spasms that it created, but it did give our little Gansu apartment a bit of holiday spirit.
Now that we are big-city China dwellers, Christmas abounds, some good and some cheesy, but it is everywhere. The newest mall in town is decked out with pandas wearing Santa hats driving a two-reindeer sleigh and constantly recycling Christmas tunes over their sound system. On the other end of the spectrum, smaller stores are filled with gaudily glittered signs reading “Happy Christmas” and, at times, featuring Santa with a beer in hand. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the random, five-foot tall red and white elf hat that is inexplicably sitting in front of a light bulb store just outside our subway entrance. I don’t know where it came from or for what purpose it is intended, but it currently ranks high on my list of random Chengdu sightings. (The list has heavy turnover, as daily things are jumping up to take the top spot on the roster.)
As part of his job with the State Department, Thad was sent to Chongqing this weekend to represent the US Consulate at an event hosted by the Japanese Consulate to commemorate the emperor’s birthday. I tagged along with him so we’d have a greater presence at the party, and because it sounded great to get out of town for an evening. The event itself was pretty un-noteworthy. It was only an hour and a half long, consisted of a few speeches in Chinese (mine is terrible) and Japanese (mine is non-existent) that I easily tuned out while I checked out the outfits of my fellow attendees, buffets of seafood and sushi (I’ll pass) and a lot of mingling and business card exchanging. I stood out like a sore thumb at this event, filled with Japanese diplomats and Chinese officials. I was like the one black sheep in a herd of white ones, except I was the one blonde head in a crowd of black ones. The highlight of the event (party is a bit grandiose for the evening) was that we got to meet and chat with the CG of the Japanese Consulate. (Thad may point to the sushi as being right up there for evening occurrences as well.)
But, while the official reason for going to Chongqing was a little underwhelming, the trip was still a great, if short, one. (We missed almost exactly twenty-four hours of Chengdu’s terrible air.)
We stayed at the Marriott in Chongqing, which had fully decked its halls in holiday festivity. When we walked into the lobby, we were greeted with what may be one of the best Christmas trees I have ever seen and by far the most marvelous one in China. The tree was huge and fully decorated in silver and pink. It was a tree straight out of my dreams! Their grand staircases were lined with garland, also accented in the same shades of silver and pink. (Just a disclaimer, I’m not talking Barbie pink here, but rather a very pretty jewel-toned raspberry color that was amazing.)
On top of a tree to make any Grinch smile, the hotel provided me with a first- room service! I’ve never ordered food to be delivered to my room by the hotel before (takeout from a nearby restaurant doesn’t count!), but after the Japanese event, I didn’t feel like changing back into street clothes and venturing out into the chilly and humid Chongqing night in search of food, so out came the menu and its dizzying array of choices (and prices!). I settled on pizza (a true Chinese classic, no?) and then went and enjoyed a steaming hot bath made silky with bath salts (thank you Marriott!) while I awaited the arrival of our late-night dinner. Pizza while snuggled up in king-sized bed with an American-ly soft mattress? It might not get any better than that on a cold December night in China.
It may have been a quick round-trip to Chongqing and back, but I between a bit of market shopping on our arrival and what I’m officially dubbing China’s best holiday display, I’m more than glad we went. With just a little under three weeks until the big day, I can’t wait for Christmas to be here!
It all started with the Pony Express…
Okay, my ex-history-teacher of a husband (to clarify: “ex” being a modifier of history teacher and not husband) might take issue with that statement, as I am sure there was some type of postal delivery system long before North America was overrun with newbies, but the Pony Express is just so much more fun than whatever marathon-running postmen had to schlep mail across the hinterlands, rain or snow, sunshine or storm.
Regardless of where it started, we’ve got mail.
USPS has played varying roles in my life. I don’t remember getting much in the mail as a kid, other than maybe a yearly birthday card with a $10 bill stashed inside, from my grandma in Utah. I know I tried the pen pal thing a couple of times, but I don’t think we ever got passed the “What is your favorite color” and “Do you have any pets?” stage of correspondence before one or the other, or maybe both, gave up and moved on to chatting with friends we could see and whose names we could actually pronounce.
Mail was pretty much a non-entity in my life until I moved to college. Then, for the first time, it took on a vital role in my daily life. I lived in an on-campus apartment with five other girls (that’s right- six girls in one apartment. Who ever thought that was a good idea must have been smoking something that was definitely not allowed within the terms of the Honor Code!) and one mail key, which hung on a nail by the backdoor, awaiting its daily trek to the metal box outside the building’s entrance. Each day, the box was checked religiously by whichever roommate was home when the afternoon mail drop happened. (Okay, any roommate except for Emily, who was terrorized by a Nordic witch figurine that sat atop our stove, which she swore looked like something out of a horror movie she had seen. With this knowledge in hand, that little doll ended up anywhere Emily might look, including, but not limited to, the mailbox, her section of the medicine cabinet, her drawer of the fridge or her nightstand. (Remember, this was an apartment with six girls. *Everything* was divided up, from kitchen cabinets to shower shelf space to phone availability.) I remember getting a couple of care packages while a freshman, the first one including brownies, wrapped in tin foil, from my little brother who was a freshman in high school at the time. Who knew the kid could bake?
Then I moved to the Dominican Republic to do a semester abroad. (Tough gig, eh? We had classes four days a week and then a three-day weekend to hit the beach…I mean, study. Needless to say, this pasty-white girl from Idaho came home with the closest thing she’d ever had to a tan. Maybe I need to get Thad to bid on a Caribbean post for our next tour. It would take four months to get a working start on some color, but after two years, I might actually have a decent melatonin level!) There, mail was a different beast. Not only did it take weeks to come, but when it did come, the school often held it for a week or two before letting us know we had a letter. Care packages were expensive to send and it was probable that, if they did arrive, would arrive a little lighter than when they were shipped. Let’s just say Dominican customs inspectors always had the best housewarming and birthday gifts for any event to which they were invited. But, while packages may have been hard to come by, I did get loads and loads of letters, all of which are still stashed away in shoe boxes, sitting in a long-term storage in Fredericksburg, Virginia, until further notice. (I hate to date myself here, but my Dominican days corresponded with the budding days of the internet. I had an email address, through Juno, but rarely used it and connections, even at the university, were nearly impossible to find. Hand-written letters were still the status quo.)
After coming home from the DR and getting married, mail suddenly took on the role of being the bearer of bills and ads. In the years pre and post- Peace Corps, I was doing well if I checked my mailbox a couple of times a week. I was just in no hurry for that college tuition statement, water bill or JC Penny’s flyer.
But then, the mail once again became key when we moved to China with the Peace Corps. Yes, we had a decent internet connection and I was in touch with family and friends via email on a regular basis, but the actual mail meant not only gifts at birthday and Christmas, but it created our on-campus English language library. With Middle Kingdom resources being scarce, nearly all 1000 of our English books and magazines came from the States, shipped by our friends and family and those of our colleagues. The Book Nook, a mini-institution in the backwaters of Gansu, would not have been possible without the USPS.
(Don’t get me started on the Chinese end of these transactions. It is an understatement to say the mail women in Chengxian hated me. Every time I got the tissue-like slip of paper saying I had a box at the local post office, I would skitter down there as soon as I had a break in my class schedule, excited for a new box of books to add to our growing collection. And every time, once I was there, I would have to go the rounds to get my box. Sometimes the women couldn’t find the package, even though I had the slip in hand. Sometimes they were taking their afternoon rest, so I was told to come back, even though technically the post office was open. Sometimes I had to get an official red stamp from some random person at the school to verify it was for me. Sometimes I had to show my Chinese ID card. And sometimes, the woman just didn’t feel like helping me and would shoo me away to come back and try another time. The only great thing about our local post office was they had glasses on a string. That’s right! Banks in America have pens on strings, but in China, our post office had these awesome, giant glasses on a string, I guess so if you needed reading lenses, you would have them available to properly complete your paperwork.)
Now that we are back in China for round two of the Zhongguo lifestyle, mail again plays a central role in our lives. Mail days are Tuesdays and Fridays, which are the afternoons when I eagerly await the email from our mail room saying “There is a little mail today.” With this pronouncement, there is a bit of a mass exodus out to the mail room for officers and families alike to collect their goods. Boxes are piled on the floor, magazines and letters are stashed in surname labeled bins and the mail room worker knows us all by name.
This last week as a particularly successful mail week for the Ross household. We received our bargained for package from the Hello Kitty queen. (Click here to read about the tough fought negotiations with a four-year old that ended up with me sending two rather large boxes of goods to her in exchange for some random items fished out of her toy box. I think I need to work on my business acumen.) This large padded envelope included the owed Hello Kitty-riding-a-dolphin picture, the Hello Kitty pencil left over from Valentine’s Day, and the McDonald’s Happy Meal giraffe. Plus, it had bonus items such as piñata candy that may or may not have been stashed in my nephew’s shorts (whatever, I’m eating those Smarties!), a couple of friendship bracelets and a beaded necklace. Not too bad of a haul from Idaho.
And then today I got a long-coveted package- one that I’ve been talking about ordering since draft day. (Click here for my day-after-draft post.) My Shea McClellin Chicago Bears (#99) jersey arrived in the Friday mail pile! Granted, the “small” jersey is nearly big enough for me to belt and wear as a dress, but I’ll be rocking that thing all over China in the next few months. (Stay tuned for those pictures!) While I am normally a Ravens fan, as they are the only American professional sports team to be named after a literary work, I’ve had to shift some loyalty to the Bears to support Shea, one of my former 8th grade English students from Marsing, Idaho. I will be proudly sporting that massive navy blue jersey this season, putting in a good word for him all around our Land of Pandas and doing more than a fair bit of bragging about a small-town kid working his tail off to achieve his NFL dreams. (Of course, I can’t take any credit for his football skills, but I would like to hope that he always uses “their/there/they’re” and “your/you’re” correctly!)
The internet may have created a quicker and simpler way than horse-back delivery to keep in touch with friends and family, but nothing will replace the kid-on-Christmas-morning feeling of cutting in to a box that has come half-way around the world. Whether said package is filled with Hostess chocolate pudding pies (Dad??) or a gift that always ends up back where it came from (Matt??), little is better than seeing a box on the floor of the mail room with ROSS written in big letters along its side.
As a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, one never quite moves on entirely. It doesn’t take long before your non-Peace Corps family and friends are sick of your stories about washing dishes on the floor of the bathroom in the winter because it is the only room with hot water or the ones about how you had to share a not-so-private outdoor squat-toilet (basically a trench flowing into a farmer’s pig sty) with a big ol’ honking goose. They are great stories and volunteers can tell them a million more times and never get tired of them, but the same cannot be said of the poor saps forced to hear them over and over. (I would imagine returned missionaries feel the same way. When you first get home after two years, everyone is excited to hear everything, but soon, the more gritty than gospel stories tire out the loved ones who were left behind.)
This last weekend, I had a chance to relive a few of those PC days, as five of my former students from Longnan Teachers’ College in Gansu came to visit us in Chengdu-Ebba, Shirley, Kacey, Eric and Alex. They would be joined by one former student who is already living in the city-Amazon. (Notice I did not say I invited students to come or asked students to come. Not long after we arrived in Sichuan, I got an email from Ebba, the ring-leader of this group saying they would be coming. I, thinking it would never really pull together, said that sounded great and to let me know when they could make it. Then, about two weeks ago, I got a phone call from Ebba announcing they had bought train tickets and would be arriving Thursday afternoon! Okay then!)
So Thursday rolled around and arrive they did. The group got a bit lost, none of them having been to Chengdu before and without the aid of Amazon, who was in class, but eventually found their way to my neighborhood, where I spotted them sitting curbside (on newspapers, of course), waiting for me to get home.
The weekend was a whirlwind of eating and site-seeing and shopping, and then some more eating.
Thad and I took all six of the kids (I call them kids, as they were my students, but they are all in their early 20s) to western food for dinner one night. None of them had ever eaten with a fork and knife before and they were very nervous leading up to the evening. More than once I was pulled aside to find out if there would be chopsticks available. “No way, Jose!” would be my gleeful response. (Appropriately, as we were going to Peter’s Tex-Mex restaurant.) Once we were at dinner, I had to remind them that westerners don’t usually eat “family-style,” so they would each get to order their own entrée, whatever they thought looked good. The table ended up with a smorgasbord of selections: tacos, spaghetti, chicken sandwich, enchiladas, avocado salad, macaroni and cheese and more. The funny part was that after all their worry about the fork and knife situation, many of them chose dishes that are best eaten with their hands, but they wanted to experience the fork and knife thing, so I watched tacos and chicken sandwiches be sliced (once I had to turn a butter knife the right direction for the user) and stabbed before being consumed.
It was great having the kids here and we even ended up with a meal of homemade dumplings out of the deal! As a non-cook to begin with, as well as someone still awaiting the arrival of my HHE, my kitchen is pretty sad when it comes to food/cookware, but the girls made an impressive showing with my two pots, six bowls and handful of utensils.
Thursday through Monday felt a bit like having a house invaded by whirling dervishes, but at times I just had to take a step back and laugh. Here are just a few gems from the weekend:
**When the kids first arrived, they walked into the apartment and announced, “We brought peaches!” And yes, yes they did. Tianshui, the hometown of the majority of the group, is apparently famous for their peaches. (Every town in China is famous for something. In Chengxian, we were famous for our wonderful walnuts.) The crew brought enough peaches that The Presidents of the United States would feel right at home in my apartment, partaking of their lyrically-desired millions and millions of peaches.
**One evening, as we were sitting on the couch talking, ringleader-Ebba turned to me and said, “You know your special pink sweater in the closet?” (At this point I had no idea, as nearly everything I own is pink, but I replied with a vague grunt.) “When we tried it on…” (What?!?) “we noticed it had holes in the sleeves for thumbs. We think this is a very good idea!” So, apparently, there were mini-fashion shows at night after Thad and I went to bed? I’d rather not dwell on that one for too long.
**Being a paranoid host (I am always worried I won’t have the right breakfast foods or soap or other in-the-larger-scheme of things unimportant details for my guests), I hauled Thad not once, but twice, to IKEA to get bedding for our spare beds to make them comfortable and homey. I thought I had created cozy little spaces for our guests to relax in, only to learn after the second night, that several of them had taken to sleeping on our floor! Why? Because those lovely beds I worked so hard to create were *too* soft. (Anyone who has spent any time in China, outside western-brand hotels, is well-acquainted with the Chinese love for a hard bed. When we first got to Gansu I thought I would never survive two years on the board that was our bed, but over time I gradually got used to it, to the point where when we went home, the first night we were back in the States I woke up in the middle of the night having what was nearly a panic attack, as I felt like I was drowning in the mattress, pillows and piled up blankets! I guess everything really is relative…)
With all the randomness of the weekend, my favorite quote came on Sunday morning when we were out shopping. The girls wanted to go look at clothes and get some gifts for their families and friends, so the boys were hauled along for the adventure. (Thad introduced them to the term “man-bench,” which they came to be quite well-acquainted with by the end of the five hour buying marathon.) While we were waiting on a couple of the girls who were adding shoes to their growing collection of purchases, Ebba asked me if I wore high heels. I said I did all of the time in America, but not so much in China, as I am already so much taller than everyone around me. She thought about this a second and responded, “Yes. In China, you are like a horse standing among chickens.” And there you have it- truer words may never have been uttered.
The kids headed out today while Thad and I were at work, but I came home to find they had discovered my stash of purple sticky-notes, leaving us messages throughout the house, thanking us and making sure we were fed for a few more days. While it is nice to have our apartment back to ourselves, I will miss their smiles and giggles and really random pronouncements.
But, they left with the promise to come back again before our two years here are up and I have no doubt that at some future date I will be receiving a deja-vu inducing phone call saying, “We have purchased train tickets. We will be there Thursday.”
We’ve reached the two month mark in Chengdu. That means we’ve got two months of hotpot and Sichuan-style dishes in our bellies, but also two months of polluted air in our lungs. On a cosmic triple-beam balance, those may come out dead even. (Really though, I can’t say I’ve seen any negative effects from the air. Some days I can see farther through the haze than others, but as far as how I feel, so far there have been no noticeable side effects. Let’s wait until winter and see if this little bird is singing a different song…)
In the last eight weeks I’ve gone from being unemployed and living in what was basically a hotel (that makes me sound much more vagrant than the reality of the situation!) to fully-employed and living in a three-bedroom, two bath 24th floor apartment with a housekeeper that comes twice a week (which makes me sound a lot more fancy-pants than the reality of the situation!)
I’ve also joined the ranks of the scooting folks in China, (click here for that story) with just one mishap of note. Last Thursday, coming home from work, I was gleefully riding along, actually contemplating what a great, problem free trip is was turning out to be, when a, let’s say “jerk” in case there are any younger readers of this blog, comes up the scooter lane going the wrong direction. Not only was he a fish swimming upstream, but he decided that he didn’t need to yield to the traffic coming in the correct direction. He threaded his scooter in the space between my fabulous fuchsia one and another woman’s less awesomely colored one, clipping mine in the process. This put me into a reverse-fishtail, making the front end of my scooter skid all over the place. To get it back under control, I put my foot out to steady the twisting, at which point I kicked the metal guard railing, smacking it with the top of my foot. My first reaction was thinking I had broken my foot, but the shooting pain soon lessened to a slight throbbing, and with both self and scooter under control (under control doesn’t count what I was murmuring under my breath the rest of the ride home) I made it over the bridge and to my apartment complex. Once in the scooter parking garage, I checked my bike for damage, and finding none, checked my foot, which was a bit swollen and had a few scratches, but was none the worse for the wear. Just another reminder to always be aware when scooting in China!
A nice apartment furnished with an actual dishwasher and a clothes dryer, plus a bathtub and several air purifiers were not a part of my life when I was living in Gansu. Neither was a the hot-pink scooter, as volunteers, even helmeted ones, were banned from riding them. Now, these things are just normal parts of my daily routines. I’m movin’ up in the world!
But, while being here with the State Department is definitely a different experience than being here with Peace Corps, some things never change. We’ve been doing a lot of rediscovering things/places we knew when we were in Chengdu for training with the Peace Corps.
Peter’s Tex-Mex is back on the dinner options list, where I semi-regularly enjoy a plate of macaroni and cheese. (Yes Kristen, I always say it in my head with your quirky emphasis! It will never just be regular mac and cheese again.)
We’ve hit up Sabrina’s Country Store for our extravagantly over-priced import needs, such as Cheetos and Pop-tarts and the brownies that I made for my CLO-sponsored New Spouses Welcome Coffee last week. (As I am still learning the quirks of the Chinese oven, as elucidated in “Betty Crocker, I Am Not,” the brownies did not turn out beautifully. They tasted yummy, but they could have used another two or three minutes in the oven, meaning when they came out of the pan, they were a bit on the soft side and ended up squished by the spatula. Then it didn’t help that I had to put them in a Tupperware container in the “trunk” of my scooter! Needless to say, they were tasty but definitely not pretty.)
Since we’ve been back, we’ve also re visited the pandas (click here to read about their fuzzy fabulous-ness), JinLi Street’s tourist shops, where I bought my first round of postcards to send home to family, the Wide and Narrow Alleys and a couple of “antique” markets.
It has been a clichéd blink of an eye. Maybe it is because we lived here before, or hopefully because we are just so dang adaptable, but we’ve quickly created routines and habits to help us make Chengdu home.
Two months. Eight weeks. Fifty-six days. One thousand three hundred forty-four hours. Eighty thousand six hundred forty minutes. Four million eight hundred thirty-eight thousand four hundred seconds. It may not quite be the lyrics from Rent, but it is how I currently measure the life of this woman in my season of Chengdu love.