American expat Living in China, Interview with Michelle

The following is an interview I did with ExPats Blog. You can see the full thing by clicking here. This is a great site to find blogs about places you want to go or are going. (I’ve already signed up to follow several Malaysia blogs!)
American expat Living in China, Interview with Michelle
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Michelle is an ex-pat blogger living in western China. She spends her weekends exploring the cities/sites around Chengdu and trying to avoid the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns that seem to end up sprinkled in every dish she orders. A middle school English teacher by trade, she blogs about life abroad, travel and books. Michelle’s expat blog is called In Search of the End of the Sidewalk.

Here’s the interview with Michelle…

Where are you originally from?
Idaho

In which country and city are you living now?
Chengdu, China

How long have you lived here and how long are you planning to stay?
I’ve been here one year and will be here one more, for a two year total. (I previously lived in Gansu province as a Peace Corps Volunteer, so my total China-time will be at four years when I move on next summer.)

Why did you move and what do you do?
My husband works for the US State Department at the consulate in Chengdu. I am a teacher by training, but unable to work in the schools at this time, but was lucky enough to find a job with the consulate as well. I am the Community Liasion Office Coordinator. My job consists of helping new officers/families get acquainted with the city, assisting with international schooling issues, making connections with the local community, as well as helping the spouses of officers find employment and a lot of event planning. It is a job that keeps me on my toes!

Did you bring family with you?
I am here with my husband. We do not have children.

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
China is very different from the US, so there is definitely an element of culture shock when one first arrives. In Chengdu, there are few people who speak English, so having a working knowledge of Mandarin is extremely helpful. Chengdu is a growing city and one that is striving to gain a more metropolian status, so while there are currently not a huge number of western-style restaurants/supermarkets, they are expanding.

Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialize with other expats?
While I would say that I mainly socialize with ex-pats, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with some really great local folks. Because my job entails a lot of community interaction and event planning, I do tend to have a pretty tight group of friends within the American community, but would say I’ve definitely enjoyed getting to know the citizens of the city.

What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
Pandas! That is by far the number one reason tourists come to Chengdu. We’ve got a great research base on the edge of town where you can spend a lovely morning visiting giant pandas and red pandas. For a mere $300USD you can even hold a panda!

Outside of pandas, the area has some beautiful sightseeing opportunities. A visit to the Giant Buddha at LeShan is a must-see, as is a weekend trip to JiuZhaiGou- China’s answer to Yellowstone.

What do you enjoy most about living here?
There area lot of great things about Chengdu, including the spicy food, but I would say the best part about the city is the countryside surrounding it. Just an hour outside of the city you will find beautiful fields, majestic mountains and clear skies.

How does the cost of living compare to home?
People coming to China often expect that everything is very cheap here, but that’s not the reality of living in the country on an extended basis. Anything “western” is very expensive, including name brand clothing. It may be made in China, but it is then shipped to the US, and then returned with a huge import tax added on to the original price.

Food can be found for very inexpensive, but it is important to be careful about knowing where the food comes from, as quality can be an issue. If it seems like too good of a price to be true, there is probably a reason.

What negatives, if any, are there to living here?
The biggest drawback to living in Chengdu is the pollution. Year-round, the city has high levels of air pollution, that spike over the winter months.

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?
I’d remind them to come with an open mind. Chengdu is not an American city and if that is what you want, you should stay home. There are quirks about the city and people that can be frustrating at times, but when I hear people complain, saying, “That’s not how we do it in the US,” I want to remind them they aren’t in the US. Why should the locals do things our way when it is their country? Learn to let the little things go and enjoy the quirks!

What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
Living in Chengdu has been an easy transition and I’ve not run into any really big problems. Getting ahold of American food for the holidays can be tough, but otherwise, the last year has been a very good one.

What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?

  1. Be ready for spicy! Chengdu is known for its Sichuan peppercorn, which makes its way into all sorts of dishes. This huajiao will numb your tongue and lips, making dinner an interesting experience.
  2. Western sizes can be difficult to find. If you have bigger feet, be sure to bring spare shoes with you. The same goes for clothing, especially if you are tall.
  3. Travel! Chengdu is an okay city, but the best places lie outside the city boundaries. Visit the monkeys at Emei Mountain. Raft the river at QingCheng Mountain. See the ancient irrigation system in DuJiangYan. Don’t spend every weekend in the city or you’ll go crazy. Get out, get some fresh air, see the sun and visit the great places China has to offer.
  4. Don’t let the cultural differences get to you. This is not America. You will see people spitting on the street and children using the sidewalk as a toilet. You will get shoved over by an old lady as you try to get on the subway and you will have your photo taken as you wait in line to buy groceries. Think of every day as a new adventure!
  5. If you are moving to Chengdu long-term, invest in an air purifier (or two!) for your apartment. Your lungs will thank you.

 

Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
In Search of Where the Sidewalk Ends is my attempt to record both the extraordinary and mundane events of life as the spouse of a Foreign Service officer.

Before becoming an “EFM” (Foreign Service code for spouse/children), I worked as an 8th grade English and reading teacher. I took a two-year leave of absence from 2006-2008 so that Thad and I could join the Peace Corps. We served as PCVs in Gansu, China during that time, after which I returned to the States for a few years before heading out on the road again.

The most common question that I have been asked as we prepared for the move from Idaho to China is “What are you going to do?” Thad’s career is pretty laid out, but mine is in a much more unknown state at this point. With each move, I will have to search for a new job, but wherever I go, I will continue to blog about life in another country, travel and books- just a few of my favorite things.

Melting My Way Through Chinese Culture

At least once a month, I try to plan a Saturday excursion for our Chengdu officer and families that gets us out of town for a few hours and incorporates a bit Chinese language learning at a variety of levels. In the past year, as part of this series of CLO events, I’ve visited the ancient irrigation systems of DuJiangYan and the miniature Great Wall in Luo Dai, as well as museums dedicated to foot binding, the Flying Tigers and Chengdu history/archeology. Each of these little trips has been fabulous, mainly because it is a great excuse to get out of the city for a day! (Posts about each of those outing can be found here, here and here.)

I have to admit to a bit of a CLO failure on my part this month though. You see, I had this great trip planned to go to AnRen Old Town, an area about ninety minutes outside of Chengdu proper. And, on paper, it all looked great. What I didn’t factor in to the planning, that I know better to have thought about, but for some reason it never crossed my mind, was the weather. Sichuan is known for its spicy food, but is just as famous in China for its equally spicy summer weather. For the last few weeks, we’ve been having a heat wave, with daily temperatures in the 90s, which means once the high humidity counts are factored in, puts us sitting at a heat index of well over 100 degrees many afternoons.  This balmy weather is exactly what I walked our travel group into on Saturday. I knew it was going to be a long day when I sat on a bench near the consulate at 8AM, waiting for everyone to arrive, panting. When my legs were shimmering with sweat even though I wasn’t moving a muscle, there was no doubt that the day would be an adventure!

So, while I would love to show you photographs of the maze-like passageways and intricate carvings of Liu Manor, a pre-Cultural Revolution era mansion turned museum, instead, my digital camera is filled with pictures of shady spots and cool caverns!  As I wandered the manor grounds on my own (after dropping everyone off at the entrance to the museum, we made plans to meet in a highly prized shady spot of the courtyard at noon), I spent an inordinate amount of time in the opium cellar, not because I was particularly interested (although, I must admit, the size of the storage area was quite impressive!), but rather because it was a stone building, naturally insulated from the heat and humidity outside. (I can only imagine how important to keep one’s opium cool and dry.) I also spent a good deal of time enjoying a back courtyard, used mainly by servants, but which now displays an impressive array of bamboo and flowering trees, neither of which I needed to pay an entrance price to see in China, through which I was more than happy to wander. (Ooze may be a better word to describe my movements by the end of the day!)

While my nearly head-exhaustion inducing Saturday was more of an adventure that I had expected (it was hot, but it really was a great day!), I can’t say that was my biggest failure when it comes to CLO outing this last year. The day I loaded up nearly half of the consulate community to go commune with pandas and ended up at the epicenter of an earthquake will always win that award. Nevertheless, as I start to plan my September event, I’ll definitely be looking for more weather-appropriate options!

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Take Two

Pandas.

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.

Pandas.

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Pandas Need Good English Too, Right?

China has a bit of a bad rep as being a hotbed for infectious diseases- SARS and all. But, there is one epidemic that runs rampant in the Middle Kingdom  that is much more endearing and less fatal than bird flu- the overwhelming and constantly spreading Chinglish plague. (The loogies on every street corner and stairway are one of the least endearing and yet overwhelming and constantly spreading things in Chengdu, but that is a disgusting blog post I’ll save for another day.) Chengdu, in its attempt to modernize and become a more metropolitan city, has thrown up English all over the place. Sometimes it is well-done and rather helpful, like on the metro system, and sometime it is baffling and downright confusing, like on many menus across town.  (What exactly are Mexican tomatoes and how are they different from other tomatoes?)

The Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base is a magnet for most all foreigners passing through Chengdu. It is on everyone’s must-see list, and rightly so. It doesn’t matter if it is a six-year old fascinated with wildlife or a brigadier general, the fuzzy, roly-poly toddlers bring a smile to everyone’s face.

If I were to make a Venn Diagram of Chinglish and the panda center, with one circle blue and one circle red, the diagram would just be a giant purple dot. (I can’t tell you how much I loved making Venn Diagrams as an English teacher!) Every sign in the park is filled with little ditties that, while understandable, are a bit quirky. But, I loved their quirkiness. Announcing, “ I’m the national treasure and I hate noise” is an awesome way to (attempt) to get people to lower their voices. (It doesn’t work, as China is the land of rules/regulations being meant for everyone but “me.”)

But, that giant purple dot is coming to an end and I am sorry to say I had a hand in its demise. You see, a few months ago, the Panda Research Base put out a call for editors for their bi-monthly English newsletter.  They reached out to the US Consulate community, looking to pay someone to do the work, but since the US and China do not have a bilateral work agreement (meaning no working on the local economy while here on a diplomatic passport, which makes working for the spouses of officers a challenge), we offered to put it out to our community as a volunteer opportunity. When  the email came up on my computer, the English teacher in me got really excited, but after taking a deep breath (okay, not too deep, as it was another  “hazardous” day on the air quality monitor), I rolled my chair back up to my desk and got to work putting together an announcement for our adult family members.

Since I am lucky enough to be employed full-time by the consulate, I didn’t want to take this awesome opportunity away from one of our family members who wasn’t currently working, so I sent out a notice and sat back and waited. After a week of the panda base not getting any bites, I resent the notice, but again, no one expressed interest.

Two weeks seemed like a fair amount of time to let other s jump on this great opportunity, so when that amount of time had passed and no one from our group had contacted the base, I reached out and offered my services. (Granted, there was an application process that included a resume and three writing samples, but since I have a fresh resume from applying for my current position with the consulate and I write on a regular basis, it was easy to throw together the needed paperwork.) Then newsletter creator got back to me within a few days, saying she would love to work together on the upcoming issues.

After waiting a few weeks, I got my first editing job from the Chengdu Panda Research Base, but it wasn’t what I expected. Rather than being articles for an upcoming newsletter, it was photographs of *every* sign in the park that had English on them (including pictures of not one, but all, of the “no smoking” signs). My contact at the base asked me to go through each one and correct the English, as they planned to reprint the signs in the near future.

There were some of the signs that I was happy to fix, like the ones with letters transposed, but a little piece of my soul died as I corrected some of the more heartwarming signs about the pandas personalities and backgrounds. As an English teacher, I know how important it is for communication to be clear and concise, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love a little quirkiness as much as the next gal.

It took me several hours to go through all of the signs and make the corrections. Some of the more scientific ones took an extra long time, as I had to decipher what the original meaning was and then put that into a daily English that visitors could readily understand, which isn’t always easy when the starting point seems to be a terrible translation from Google.

In the end, I know that good signage will make the research center a more reputable facility, and I am thrilled to be able to volunteer with them in this way. But, to assuage the heartache of ridding the city of some of my favorite English, I did quietly leave the ““ I’m the national treasure and I hate noise” sign intact.

Just a few of the signs that needed help

Just a few of the signs that needed help

Chengdu Redo!

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.

 

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