Pigs and Pancakes and Pantries

Somewhere in northern Maryland (okay, not somewhere, Hagerstown) is a gigantic warehouse that is home to the chattel and baubles of American Foreign Service Officers currently serving in far-flung places (and some less far-flung, but still outside the boarders of Home). I’ve never been to this promised land of left-behind goods, but I can only imagine it is more of a complex than a warehouse.

It is somewhere within this massive storage facility that the majority of my HHE still sits, awaiting shipment to Chengdu. Emails have been sent, hallway conversations have been had and there are many sets of eyes anxiously awaiting a reply about when all of our Idaho possessions will begin their literal slow-boat-to-China journey.

But, in the meantime, we did receive our rather small HHE shipment, coming from the Crystal City mo-partment. I may not have wall hangings or kitchenware, but I do have a few items that will make our Chengdu apartment just step closer to being home for the next two years.

Friday’s shipment brought with it my Christmas tree, 75 bottles of nail polish, our winter coats (as fall seems to have hit just this last weekend, I think those coats came right in time), my adorable and colorful Eastern Market bureau and, of course, the goodies from my epic Costco shopping trip.

I can only imagine what my ayi thought when she came to clean the house today and found the back bedroom now doubles as a pantry. After hauling a giant bookcase in there Friday afternoon, I filled it with all of the important things we’ll need over the next two years: 45 boxes of Kraft mac and cheese, 40 packets of microwave popcorn, 108 cans of Mountain Dew, 21 cans of refried beans, 80 Jell-O pudding cups…and the list goes on. (Having been raised in a church that pushes self-sufficiency and emergency preparedness through food storage, I have to say, none of the Sunday handouts I ever got made it look this tasty! Who needs flour and pinto beans and rice when you can have Fruit Loops and Rice Crispy Treats and loads upon loads of Miracle Whip. Wait, wait. Miracle Whip was probably included on the hand outs.)

So, while my HHE arrival wasn’t everything I had ever dreamed and hoped it would be, I am happy to have a few more of our things with us here in the Middle Kingdom, things to make our spacious, but barren, apartment home.

With a newly arrived box of Bisquick and some maple syrup I ordered from the Beijing commissary, this evening we feasted on “breakfast for dinner.”  Granted, I only have my single welcome-kit frying pan, so while the pancakes slowly browned in that, I scrambled eggs in a sauce pan, which may not be a traditional cooking method, but, you’ll not find me complaining.

Granted, if you give this pig a pancake, she will want syrup, get sticky, need a bath and demand bubbles, but she won’t whine about missing photos and office supplies.

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The Case of the Missing HHE

It may have taken a few months to get the paperwork sorted out, but just a week ago today I was thrilled to announce that I was “Rolling in the Renminbi.” That windfall (okay, windfall may be a bit of an exaggeration, but at least I have employment and a steady source of income) was a high point of the week, leading to a lovely Sunday outing to ChunXi Lu where I treated Thad to the long-promised Pizza Hut meal.

(Pizza Hut may seem like an odd choice for celebrating a new job, and while Pizza Huts in China are fancier than those in America, with waitresses in long white aprons and fancy decorations adorning the restaurant, that is not why we chose to eat pan pizzas for our personal-sized party. Rather, when we were here with Peace Corps, Pizza Hut was the destination for pizza whenever we happened to be called in to Chengdu for a meeting. It was pricey on a Peace Corps budget, so we would plan carefully, weighing the triple threat of quantity we wanted to consume vs. the quantity our stomachs could handle after being without dairy and grease for so long vs. the amount of cash we were going to drop on a single meal.  Now, here on Thad’s Foreign Service salary and my CLO income, we could eat Pizza Hut every day if we wanted. [Ugh! We don’t want.]  So, falling back in to the DINK category, it was off to Pizza Hut where I promised to buy Thad anything he wanted off the menu- although when he went with the popcorn chicken stuffed crust pizza, I did have to question his taste. )

With the successful deposit of my hard-earned  money into our account I thought we’d have smooth sailing for the foreseeable future.

I should have known better.

Monday morning I was greeted with a long-anticipated email from our consulate customs staff member saying our HHE (Foreign Service speak for “everything that was in my Idaho house which has been in storage for the last sixteen months) had arrived in Chengdu and was ready to be delivered to our apartment.


For weeks now I’ve been mentally pacing my office, hoping to hear that our stuff is in town. I’m excited for the wall hangings from Idaho to help disguise my cement walls. I’m itching to read the piles of books that I know are in plastic Rubbermaid tubs, just waiting to line up neatly on the shelves of my apartment.  I’m uncharacteristically enthusiastic about the pots and pans and plates and pitchers awaiting homes in my Chinese kitchen. And I’m dying to get my hands on my school supplies to make my office at work not only more colorful, but also more organized and efficient.

With a twinkle of excitement in my eye, I dropped by the cubicle of the staff member in charge of shipment deliveries this afternoon. My excuse for popping in was that I wanted to verify the time of tomorrow’s delivery, but in reality, I just wanted to look at the white board that says “Ross” and “October 14” that hangs in his office, announcing to the world that I will soon have a complete household.

This was a poor choice.

Rather than walking away with the same twinkle in my eye, I walked out of his cubicle holding back a tear. There will be no massive HHE shipment tomorrow. There will be one box.

That’s right. One, single, lonely box.

After a bit of mild panic at Thad’s desk, an almost meltdown in my bosses office (which took every ounce of my power to contain, but as nothing less than a professional, I did my best to hide the tears of frustration with a smile and a whole lot of note-taking) and a few deep breaths behind the closed door of my office,  it was time to get to the bottom of the mystery of my missing HHE. (I really could have used the detective help of Scooby-Doo today. If only that goofy dog and his slightly-stoned partner in mystery-solving were here to follow a green slimy monster through a deserted amusement park, eventually unmasking him as the horrible customs official who was hiding my goods.)

A bit of digging revealed a much more bureaucratic bad-guy: paperwork.

It seems that when Thad scheduled our whole pack-out from the mo-partment, he told them that we also had a lot of items in storage that would need to be shipped to Chengdu at the same time. The operator that he spoke with said that wouldn’t be a problem, so we left it at that. Somewhere between that discussion and the forms though, this extra piece of information was lost in the shuffle and the operator never added the note about our other boxes that were resting in storage.

None of this came to light until today, when I saw the packing slip that was written out for a single box.

After sixteen week in Chengdu, we will now wait another eight (or more…it is hard to be optimistic at this point) weeks to be able to finally settle in and completely make our apartment home.

Tomorrow I will get my giant box of goodies, most of them items I collected on my shopping spree to Costco in the weeks leading up to our departure, and for this I am grateful, as I may need those bulk-sized boxes of chocolate pudding cups and the case of brownie mixes to get me through the frustration of not getting family photos and holiday decorations for another two months.

Here’s to countless more weeks of white walls, pineapple shaped lamps and a set of dishes that rivals those we had when we were first married…

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A Bundle of Joy (X3)!

Almost two weeks ago, our UAB arrived in Chengdu. For those of my loyal readers not familiar with this State Department acronym, it stands for “unaccompanied air baggage.” (The Department has an alphabet and a half of acronyms. Everything from my job as CLO, community liaison officer in long-hand,   to ELO, one of Thad’s many designations, being an “entry level officer” to VAT, which is the “value added tax” that diplomats often get back from their host countries. It’s a veritable menagerie of capital letters!)  This UAB shipment contains most of the daily-life “stuff” we had while living a stone’s throw away from the Pentagon, including clothes, shoes, accessories and Thad’s ever-so-important PlayStation 3.

I was excited to hear that this set of boxes had finally made their way around the world, been approved for entry into China once Thad had his diplomatic ID card from the government and was headed to my doorstep, and more thrilled that I was not the one responsible for getting them to my twenty-fourth floor doorstep!

Two Fridays ago, a pair laborers from the consulate rang my doorbell at 10AM with a delivery that rivaled anything Santa might bring down the chimney. These two men hauled three large crates into my apartment, nicely dragging them a bit further in to the front spare bedroom so I at least had a walkway through my dining room.

Since it was a workday, I had asked my boss if I could stay home to receive the shipments and then come in post-delivery. (Wow! That last part sounds a little too maternity ward for me!) She said yes without batting an eye, as she is awesome like that! But, that meant that after the three crates made their way in to my home, I had to walk out the door without even cracking them open to take a peek. I had arranged with the consulate workers to ride back to work with them, so as soon as the boxes were shoved in the spare room, we headed out the door and to work, leaving me to ponder their contents and clock-watch all afternoon! (It is amazing how in just nine weeks you can totally forget what was packed where! What that means for the impending arrival of our HHE- household effects- being the things we packed out in Idaho well over a year ago, I can only speculate.)

When the minute hand hit the “12,” designating the arrival of 4PM, I quickly shut down my computer, grabbed my purse and hopped on my furious-fuchsia scooter, honking at any poor sap who happened to block my path on First Ring Road.

I had boxes to open!

As it turns out, the boxes were filled with what I would consider essentials. After nine weeks of wearing the same four dresses to work, I finally had options! (Four dresses in a five day work week means they go on a set rotation schedule. Monday’s dress also becomes Friday’s dress, but with a different necklace to hopefully hide the fact that it is in fact, Monday’s dress. Tuesday’s dress then becomes next Monday’s dress and the process starts all over again.)  Plus, the crates were the bearers of extra shoes and more necklaces (and decorative scarves for winter) and enough tank-tops to last me until, well, until next spring when they go on sale at Old Navy again.

I was also excited to see my Scentsy wax warmer and new scents I got while home in Idaho in the spring. (Thanks Candace!) Anything to make Chengdu seem a bit more home-y is high on my list. (Note: that is home-y, not homie, as in the gangsta’ crew and high as in top-ranking, not high as in “I took bath salts and tried to eat someone’s face.” That would make for a totally different blog post.)

Thad was less thrilled with the clothing options afforded by the shipment (this could be because I am pretty sure he packed every pair of socks he owned in our luggage to go on the airplane) and more excited that his beloved PS3 arrived, giving him (and by extension, me) a good excuse to hide indoors from the recent spate of hot/humid weather.  The sad (okay, not sad for me, amusing for me, but sad for him) part of this unpacking adventure was that the day I accepted delivery of our shipment, the power in our complex was scheduled to be off for eight hours.

Now, a PlayStation with no power is no fun, but the eight-hour window would have been over by late afternoon, before he would be home from work anyway. But no. Eight hours without power turned into a thirty-four hour slog sans electricity. (Think hot and humid with no air conditioning, no fans, no good way to get a cross-breeze through the house and a freezer full of precious cheese slowing turning to the Dark Side.) Eventually, as in a day and a half later, power was restored and the video-game playing machine was hooked up and ready to roll!

So now, we are one and one with our shipments. One has arrived, safely and soundly, while the other one still floats somewhere mid-Pacific. While it is exciting to contemplate the arrival of the second, meaning we will have all of our stuff again for the first time in nearly a year and a half, it is a bit intimidating, as I really have no idea what is coming from the house in Idaho! It will be like the grab-bag you can purchase at the school carnival. If you want even one or two things in the paper sack, it is considered a good buy. Even though I may not still want everything coming in that shipment (read: clothes I have not seen/worn in well over a year that are probably horribly out of style or so smashed and wrinkled they would make a shar pei look smooth), I know that at least my kitchen stuff, oodles of lotion/body spray and Christmas tree will find a good home in Chengdu!

Here’s to one newly arrived bundle of joy and fingers crossed that its sibling makes an arrival soon and without complications. Someone bust out the cigars and pass them around!

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Searching New Sidewalks

Between the ever-so-trying trip home from Idaho last week (click here if you missed that saga), Friday’s government-sponsored packout and the subsequent organizing and reorganizing of suitcases to go with us to China, the only time I have to blog is at 30,000 feet above the surface of the Earth.  So, with a five hour flight in front of me (okay, four and a half at this point, since I was just cleared to use my electronic devices), I figured now is as good of a time as ever to get an entry logged and star-dated.

I finally made it home, not on Wednesday as planned, but at 2AM on Thursday morning. After falling into the giant king-sized bed, I slept for a few hours, but once Thad’s alarm when off, I was wide awake, not because I was feeling overly refreshed and rejuvenated, but rather because my uptight, must-be-organized genes were kicking in and I knew I had only a day to get the whole mo-partment ready for the movers.

Thursday was spent taking everything out of every closet, drawer, nook and cranny in good ol’ #905 and placing it in one of four piles:

*Suitcase-These are things going with us on the plane to China, including most of our electronics, clothing for both work and weekends for an indeterminate number of weeks, a variety of shoes to go with those clothes, as well as toiletries and nail polish to get me though until the other forms of baggage transportation come through. (I’m currently sitting at a mere five bottles of nail polish to see me through that period. I will be creatively mixing and matching those colors until my box of sixty-some shades arrives in Chengdu. Don’t ask about the shoe situation. It isn’t pretty.)

*UAB- Unaccompanied baggage is a shipment of limited weight that is goes by air, but not with us. It is supposed to arrive a few weeks behind the owners, but I’ve heard in China that “few weeks” can easily stretch to a couple of months. All of our winter clothes are in this shipment, as well as comfy house stuff, like throw blankets and pillows. Thad’s PS3 and video game collection is also in this load, although I am not sure it will do him much good until the TV arrives.

*HHE- The household shipment is truly the slow-boat-to-China load. It will literally get placed on a container ship, where it will trek across the Pacific Ocean, arriving in the Middle Kingdom at some unknown future date. It could be a few weeks after the arrival of UAB , or a few more months. Who knows! This shipment has all of the goodies I bought at Costco about six weeks ago (again, click here if you missed that adventure!), as well as my Christmas tree, a sizable stack of books, and all of the boxes from our house in Idaho that we packed up a year ago. (At this point, I have no idea what randomness lurks in those!)

*Storage- The final pile from Friday morning belonged to storage. These are things that we didn’t  want to take with us to China, but rather wanted put in permanent storage until we are living back in the US. The tricky part of this pile was that the moving company required a minimum of 200 pounds to put a load into storage, but we were well below that level. (This may be the first and only time in my life that I want to see the number on the scale go up!) We had a couple of boxes that were meant to go to permanent storage when we packed out in Idaho, but somehow mistakenly ended up in Arlington with us. (These boxes include such necessary items as the feather pen used by guests to sign-in at our wedding reception, my 7th grade mosaic of a pig made from kidney beans and split peas, and my ginormous graduate program portfolio.) On top of that, we wanted to put our TV in that stack, as we already have one headed to China from the Idaho house. When the packing company representative came to the apartment a few weeks ago to do the pre-pack survey, he estimated that we were about fifty pounds short of being able to do a permanent storage pile, so we either had to up the weight or haul that stuff halfway around the world with us. With no desire to take my bean-art to China, we searched high and low for random junk to add to that pile, but came up empty handed. It was at this point that I remembered that in the activity room of our Oakwood, there is a bookshelf for taking or leaving books at will. The bottom two shelves have been filled with the same pile of books for a year now- tomes of diplomatic history, Norton anthologies of literature and a few technology textbooks that appear to be at least a decade out of date. Sticking with the fashion rule “if you haven’t worn it in the last year, it is time to get rid of it,” I figured if no one had taken them in the last year, no one is ever going to want them, they would be perfect for my pound-needs. It took me two stealthy trips down there to collect the needed weight, but I was able to get within a few pounds of the requirement, which is good enough for government work!

With all of our earthly possessions boxed and hauled off (an entire day of sorting and piling turned in to a mere two hours of work for the movers), we were left with the mo-partment looking eerily like it had exactly one year before when we moved in. After a few evenings of farewells with friends in the area, time has finally arrived to embark upon the trek to Chengdu. We’ll touch down in LA (with cardigan in tow, just like Miley, although I’m not sure I can get Thad to throw his hands in the air if they are playing his song) in just a couple of hours, spend a day and a half in the Sunshine state and then head out for Chengdu on Thursday.

The section of sidewalk I’ve spent the last year exploring was a great one. I saw more of our nation’s capital than I ever thought I would (parts of it more than I ever wanted to!) and was able both spend time with old friends and make some great new ones. With that said, I also feel like I’ve worn that chunk of sidewalk to its core and it is time to take this exploration on the road. I’m excited to search a new section of sidewalk, looking not necessarily for where it ends, but for where it will lead.

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