Happy Birthday, Marine Corps!

During our two years in China, I spent weeks (or possibly months) plotting the details of each Marine Ball. Along with friends, we searched for hours online to find the perfect dresses, used the top floor bathroom to take measurements at lunch one day and then ordered our beautiful custom creations. We scanned page after page of up-do options and had endless talks over steaming bowls of noodles about whether to go with gold or silver accessories. As CLO, I organized make-up tutorials with one of our wonderful community members who was a professional make-up artist, so all of the women could sign up for a personalized rundown of what exactly to do with all those little boxes of cosmetics in their drawers. I also hosted a mani/pedi party each year, where all the women and girls were invited over for an evening of drinks and snacks and full-access to my nail polish collection. Yes, in the giant scheme of things, none of this is important, but it was fun to plan for a nice of playing princess and it was a good way to pass smoggy Chengdu Saturdays and the annual ball created a great excuse for all of the ladies to get together and play dress-up together.

Coming into fall this year, I assumed we would attend the Kuala Lumpur Marine Ball, but without my plotting partner Stephanie, didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the various permutations of gowns and shoes and jewelry. Tickets went on sale the week we were in Kota Kinabalu for Thad’s work, but I didn’t worry about it, figuring we’d pick up tickets the following week when we were back in town. Chengdu’s small ex-pat population meant you could get tickets up until the week before the event. Not so in KL! With a much larger ex-pat community and an embassy three times the size of our previous consulate, this year’s tickets were gone before we even got back to the peninsula! I was bummed when we missed out on the chance to go, but not heartbroken. It just wouldn’t be the same anyway…

But then, out of the blue, a week before the ball, Thad got an email asking if he wanted to buy tickets! He texted me to see what I wanted to do, but I was in class, so didn’t hear about it until I called him at the end of the day. Initially, I begged off, saying we didn’t need to go and to pass them along to someone else. Not one to usually change my mind, I surprised us both when I immediately called him back (stuck sitting in lovely KL traffic, so lots of time to spare) to say that yes, we should get the tickets and go. Why not!? Of course it isn’t going to be the same as last year when it felt like a party with all of our closest Chengdu-ren, but that’s the point to the lifestyle, right? New adventures. New experiences. New sidewalks to explore.

With just a week to prepare, I knew I’d be wearing last year’s dress (heavens, no!) which needed to be dropped at the dry cleaners ASAP. This was also the perfect excuse to go get my highlights redone, something I had been putting off since I haven’t been working and ex-pat salons here are a pretty penny. Before Thad got home from work that afternoon, the dress was at the cleaners, my hair appointments were scheduled (one for color earlier in the week and another for the up-do that day) and I had found a place for him to rent a tux. When I need to, I can move and shake, even in a crazy new country!

No, it wasn’t the same as last year. We didn’t sit at the head table and I didn’t trade plates with the boss’s wife when she liked the look of my dish better. We didn’t dance Gangnam Style with the consul general and we didn’t get photos taken with the best Marines ever. But, we did have the chance to meet eight new people, our fellow tablemates, who were great dinner company. We enjoyed a well-done ceremony celebrating the birth of the Marine Corps and we (okay, I) had a fantastic time checking out the myriad of dresses, all colors and styles, that danced the night away. It wasn’t Chengdu and that is okay. It is Kuala Lumpur, a post we are learning more about each week and a great place to spend Thad’s second State Department tour.

Happy birthday, Marines!

(To see pictures from Marine Ball 2013, click here. To see pictures from Marine Ball 2012, click here. Enjoy!)

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We Be Ballin’

As a teenager (at least until I got a part time job hawking not-quite-Tiffany-quality jewelry at Shopko) each Wednesday night was dedicated to youth activities at church. Some weeks we met to work on personally set goals and other weeks we did group activities, outings and service projects. But, one Wednesday a month was dedicated to dance lessons, with a bit of etiquette thrown in. As the most un-athletic, rhythmically challenged person who walks the face of this earth (possibly ever), I must admit to more than a little dread when the first Wednesday of the month rolled around. It wasn’t that I was necessarily opposed to the idea of dance lessons, but not only was I terrible at it, it is a bit hard to make the case for the need to know how to foxtrot and waltz to a fourteen year old who lives in rural Idaho. But, for several years, I learned to square dance and do the two-step, in preparation for a world that wasn’t really a part of the vision I had for my life. (Little did I know…)

As an annual Marine Ball has now been penciled onto my calendar until the end of time, sometimes I think I should have paid more attention to those lessons and made a few less trips to the water fountain in the hallway.  Luckily, YouTube exists and is able to fill in my dance knowledge gaps. For instance, never in the Wednesday night sessions did we cover Korean pop music, but I was able to gallop along with the best (and highest ranking!) of them when “Gangnam Style” made it’s necessarily evil presence known last Saturday night.

While I can’t profess to actually know how to dance, at least the etiquette portion of those evenings have come in handy! Granted, in China there isn’t a separate set of chopsticks for each course of the meal, but events like the annual Marine Ball have forks lined up as if the villagers plan to pillage and plunder all night long. Add to that multiple glasses and an array of plates and it is nice to know I don’t look entirely like I was raised on a llama farm!

With three dates in tow (the husband, plus two of his best friends from high school who are in town for a visit), it turned out to be a great evening. I mingled. I MCed. I graced the head table with my presence. I danced (a little). And I left on a high note, singing none other than Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” I would give the mingling and MCing a thumbs up, while the dancing and singing most decidedly earned a thumbs down, but in the end the thumbs of all directions equaled out to a huge LIKE. (Forgive the painfully overrated pop culture reference to Facebook. Just be glad there was no discussion of poking or tagging.)

Now my dress is hung back up in the closet, my shiny silver shoes are tucked away on the window sill (don’t ask, just know storage is tight in China), the gallon of hairspray used to hold my braided bun in place is washed out and the post-ball brunch is behind me, there is nothing left to do but set my MP3 player to push out ample amounts of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Vogue” and dream of next year’s event in Kuala Lumpur.

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And, a little bonus for my faithful readers…  🙂

The Kind of Updo You Get for $8 in China

Hair styling, like most other things that fall into the “artistic category” is outside my narrow field of abilities. (Music, drawing, dance…all other artistic things that I long to be good at, but hold out very little hope for.  Being tone deaf and spastic will just about kill all artistic aspirations. But, books, now there’s something we can chat about!)  Knowing that I have the hairstyling skills of a four year old with a basket full of scrunchies and barrettes  who has conned her babysitter in to being a head model, I knew drastic measures would be needed in the weeks leading up to the Marine Ball.

Other than the aforementioned lack of styling skills, the fact that my hair pretty much refuses to hold curl without an entire can of Aquanet and being well-aware that Chengdu’s humidity isn’t going to help matters at all, I thought it might be time to call in the professionals.  I started with an hours long search of dressy hairdos on the internet, scrolling through page after page of Google search results, creating a personal hair portfolio that would rival Tyra Banks’ wig/extension collection. Eventually, I narrowed it down to a few fancy looking braids, again, because curls are really out of the question. (Although, the crimper that Santa brought my sister and I when I was in elementary school is still kicking and always a great option for when I feel like a bit of poodle-hair in my life.)

Knowing that my lack of styling skills still rates far higher  than my Mandarin hair vocabulary, I enlisted the help of one of the officers who lives in my complex and who has a trusted hair-guy in our neighborhood and together we set out  to chat with him, pictures in hand.

Since the Marine Ball really is one of the biggest things going in Chengdu, I didn’t want to leave the hairstyle to chance, so when the salon said they had time to do a trial run, we both jumped at the opportunity. Not only would we spend a Sunday afternoon getting fancy hair, but we’d get a twenty minute shampoo/head massage to start it all off.

As my scalp was being massaged with a heavenly coconut conditioner, the washer asked me what level of stylist I would like. The options were “trainee,” “advanced student” and “master.”  After having trusted my hair to what could only be termed a “trainee” in Gansu a few years ago, I wasn’t taking a chance on pink hair this time around and opted for the “master.” (Considering that the triple shampoo, head massage, and “master” styling came to a grand total of $8USD, I figured I could splurge the extra dollar for the good guy!)

The picture I brought in was a rather complicated braid that swirled from the front on the model’s head, around the back and into a bun in the middle. I figured they wouldn’t be able to replicate it exactly, but something along those lines would be great. Post-shampoo/massage, I was escorted to my chair in the smack middle the salon (better for everyone’s viewing pleasure) and handed my printed out page to the stylist. He took one look at it, gave me an “okay” and started to work. There was no plan considered, no plotting or hesitation. He instantly went to work with his comb, parting and braiding and wrapping. Within fifteen minutes he had a near perfect reproduction of my example, using a single rubber band and a handful of bobby pins.

As his fingers wove in and out of my hair, creating a swirling braid, he did stop occasionally to answer the questions of the curious onlookers who had gathered around his station. There was a long discussion about my natural hair color (uh, who even knows at this point!), about the length of my hair, about the texture of blonde hair and then, after all of this, whether I understood Chinese.

Wow! (On so many levels.)

Will I be going back to him on the day of the Marine Ball? You bet! (No appointments necessary. It is strictly walk-in, but this is one time being the foreigner is an advantage, as I am sure my blonde hair will bump me to the front of the line, as it creates entertainment for all.)

Hair, make-up, dress….this is the fanciest shindig I’ve been to since my own wedding over fourteen years ago. I think one of my criteria for weighing in on our next post (bid lists come out in the spring) will be whether or not the post has a Marine detachment. I could get used to a once-a-year dress-up day!

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Miiiiichelle’s Faaaavorite Thiiings!

They’re Miiiiichelle’s Faaaavorite Thiiings!  (If you read it in Oprah’s voice, you might think a brand new car or luxury vacation is coming your way. They aren’t, but relish in the possibilities, for just a moment.)

As I was flying solo in China last week, Thad half packed a large suitcase and was off to Washington DC for shopping…uhh, eating…I mean training. Yes, training. That is what he was doing. And a lot of it he did do. He spent a week at FSI getting additional instruction on a new portfolio he will soon be taking over, but between classes at the Institute, he made trips to the mall, to Target, to Mens’ Warehouse, back to the mall and back to Target.

Between hamburgers and non-dodgy seafood and a few pitas, he had a chance to pick up a few things for us (by us, I really mean “me”) back in China. You see, we are on the homestretch towards the Marine Ball here in Chengdu.  It will be held the first weekend in December, which means we have less than three weeks until the big event. Squeezed amongst the holiday preparation (Christmas bazaar this weekend, Thanksgiving next week, Christmas parties for the community and local staff…) has been Marine Ball preparation. We don’t have too many reasons to dress up in Chengdu, so when we see the chance coming, we jump on board and ride it out as long as we can.

You may remember I went shopping for a gown last spring while I was still Stateside. That was a good choice. Although there are wedding dress shops filled with frills and froof on every other street corner, the petite size of most Chinese women rules out me ever fitting in even their largest sizes. Plus, as much as I love some sparkle and shine, most of the dressier dresses here just take it a step or two too far. Coco Chanel, in giving fashion advice to women, once said, “Before you walk out the door every day, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” Ms. Chanel would have a heart attack in China. She’d take one look at these dresses and suggest the designers take *all but one* thing off. Some of them are bedazzled on top of pleated on top of being adorned in large flowers (that often look like cabbages to me) and bows, finished off with a bit of lace or extra beading. Too much is an understatement.

But, although I’ve got a gorgeous wine-colored dress hanging in the closet of our spare bedroom, I didn’t plan ahead to accessories. (I thought ahead to it and then figured I’d make that Future-Michelle’s problem. Well, the future is now here and Present-Michelle has had to scramble to take care of it. Sometimes Present-Michelle has a real dislike for Past-Michelle, who procrastinates everything to Future-Michelle.)

Never one to shirk my shopping duties, two weekends ago I headed to the market with a couple of ladies from the consulate to do a little jewelry/shawl shopping. Knowing that it is going to be rather chilly by December and with all of us wearing dresses designed for warmer climates, we were in search of some nice shawls to help ward off the inevitable frostbite that comes with sandals in the winter.  Success was achieved in the shawl department and one of the other gals found the jewelry she was looking for, but after hunting through stall after stall of sparkly things, I couldn’t find anything in a pretty gold. (My shoes are sparkly gold, so that’s the metallic direction my other baubles need to go.)

With no luck at the market, in the following days we headed to two different malls in search of sparkles to hang from my neck and ears. Nothing. Everything in this town is silver, which is ironic for a country that prizes the color of gold so highly. In frustration, I went online to search of something, knowing it was too late to have it shipped, but hoping I could find something at a site with a brick and mortar store near where Thad was staying. I probably scrolled through thirty pages of jewelry before I found the perfect necklace/earring set. It was gold and rhinestones (no need for real diamonds for this girl!), and the perfect statement pieces to go with my simply shaped dress. Excitedly, I sent that pictures and asked him to make a run to the mall to see if they had them in stock. (I figured he wouldn’t mind an excuse for some food court Taco Bell while home in the States.)

The next morning, when I checked my email as I sat on the floor of my living room, eating Cheerios, I was bummed to see that he had gone, searched the whole store and came up empty-handed. The real-life store didn’t have the same selection that the online-one did.

Alas, Chengdu is a hardship post.

I was beginning to think I was going to go to the Marine Ball bare of baubles.

But, on Sunday, when Thad got home from the US, he unloaded his now full large suitcase which was overflowing with goodies from home. After trying on my two new brightly colored scarves and matching gloves, my warm wool-lined slippers with pink puff balls on top, and munching on a tasty Hostess Cupcake, I was presented with the coup d’état- Marine Ball jewelry.

After failing to find the pieces I was looking for, Thad went back to the mall a second night (and for a second round of Taco Bell) and renewed the search for jewelry. All he knew was I wanted gold and sparkly. I don’t know how many trips around the building it took him, but he came home with the perfect necklace! It is gold, with rhinestones in the shape of flowers. Undecided about which dangly earrings would best compliment the necklace, he bought two pairs- one with large teardrop jewels at the bottom and the other with gold, diamond-shaped cut-outs linked by gold chain. Gorgeous!

As we continue to move closer and closer to the big day, my Marine Ball outfit is coming together nicely. I’ve got the dress (which I need to take to the cleaners to be pressed this next week), the shoes and the jewelry. Next up: finding a hairdresser and hosting a mani/pedi party for the ladies of the consulate.  While a single night of fun may not seem worth this much effort, when the days are as gray and polluted as they’ve been lately (today we’ve been running “very unhealthy” on the air monitor, inching its way toward the “hazardous” zone), having something bright to look forward to and chat about is as good for morale as the vitamin D sunlamp that sits in my office.

17 days and counting…

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