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
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?

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.

Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night

Merry Christmas from China, round three.

After two Christmases in western China as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I would have told you with a rather high level of certainty that Shengdan Laoren would not be making another visit in my life. Oh, how wrong I was!

Granted, the holiday season in the Foreign Service bears little resemblance to that of a Peace Corps Volunteer. This year we had a whole like-minded community with which to celebrate, several Christmas parties to get us in the spirit and the good fortune to have access to pouch shipping, which allowed family and friends to send gifts knowing that they would make it without being riffled through by various post offices along the way.

Christmas in Idaho entailed a morning of gift opening at our place, followed by the lively and a bit chaotic gathering at my parents’ house, an afternoon nap and then a trip to Thad’s mom’s place for the evening. Throughout those various get-togethers, there is enough food to feed a small army, which to be fair, is what we comprise when the entire McDaniel family is all in a room together. (Over the last few weeks, as I’ve chatted with Mom about winter plans, she has twice mentioned that they might go tubing at Bogus Basin since no one is pregnant…that she knows of. Is this a bit of wishful thinking on Grandma Joycie’s part?)

Christmas is China is much mellower, lacking the bedlam created by young ones full of belief in Santa and sugar cookies. Family is still a part of the mix though, with calls home for the big day. (Apparently, every foreigner in China had the same idea this morning, as FaceTime was unusually choppy and computer-to-computer Skype was unusable. Thank goodness for regular ol’ Skype long distance.)

Now, as bread is baking in my brand new bread-maker, I am curled up on my couch with Ellen Degeneres’ latest book and a wheat-filled lap warmer making me just a tad bit cozier, as Thad loads his Revolutionary War themed video game and we contemplate reheating the last of the Christmas Eve lasagna on our pretty, new plates. (The bread warmer was a welcome surprise, as a loaf of bread is astonishingly difficult to find in China. I can buy several slices of very soft, almost cake-like white bread, but it will cost $3US for just four slices. The other choices are small loaves of bread at local bakeries that are always filled with unsavory surprises. I lovingly call these loaves “shit-in-the-middle” bread. Sometimes it is a red bean paste that hides inside the crust of a seemingly safe loaf of bread; at other times, that bread has a ribbon of raisins and custard slicing through the center. None of these breads are fit for a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich. From now on, all bread in my house will be Ross-made bread!)

Is China Christmas the same as the one we would have in the US? Nope. No way. Not a bit. But, it is still Christmas in its own unique way and we get to spend it together as our little 2-family, so there will be no complaints from me.  Not all are so lucky.

So, as the day winds down on our side of the world and many of you are just starting to celebrate, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.


Merry Christmas from the Ross family

Merry Christmas from the Ross family

Like a Horse Standing Among Chickens

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.”

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Surviving as a Supertaster in China

I have the taste-buds of a five-year old. I’ll admit it, not because I’m dying to let the world in on my terrible eating habits, but because there is no point in trying to conceal the fact that when refined palates were being handed out in Heaven, I must have been trying to decide which pair of heels would look the best in my celestial yearbook photo, posing by the Pearly Gates. (Do I go with something pearlescent, to bring out the shine of the entrance to eternity or would a bold, jewel color be better? These are the questions I imagine I was pondering while others were given a love for expensive liquor and well-marinated meats.)

Each morning, I happily pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple (or banana if I’m feeling wild!) and some type of treat, whether it be a precious Jell-o pudding cup or just a cookie, for my lunch. This is the same mid-day meal I have been eating since I was a fourth grader. (First through third grade lunches consisted of a Tupperware bowl of Lucky Charms and a twenty-five cent carton of milk, deftly combined in my elementary school lunchroom to put some calories in my scrawny stick-bug-like body before running out to swing upside down on the monkey bars.)  I’m more than content with the contents of this possibly juvenile lunch, not only because it is super yummy, but because the mere fact that I have the peanut butter to make a sandwich each day for lunch in the smack middle of China still amazes me!

My extremely unsophisticated sense of taste is both a slight bane and a helpful quirk for Thad. As someone willing to give any food a shot and as a particular fan of the spicy treats, my overactive taste buds often lead us away from some of the choices he might make if he were on his own. Hotpot always has to be the half-and-half bowls, on the exciting nights we go for pizza, pepperoni as about as crazy as it gets and my cooking repertoire consist of a lot of simple pasta dishes, sauce on the side.  However, the very thick silver-lining on the supertaster cloud is that I am a cheap date! There is no need to take me out to a posh restaurant for an expensive cut of steak or search Chengdu for a slice of fancy-pants cheese. I’m just as content with a plain hamburger (and by plain, I mean plain- just the burger and the bun) and a fountain drink Pepsi.

They Might Be Giants may consider super tasting to be a super power, but in the bi-yearly nomadic lifestyle we have undertaken, it does cause some problems.  One of the most outstanding of these rears its ugly head first thing every morning, when breakfast is to be served. Where’s the cereal? Of all the “American” foods I missed the most when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, my morning bowl of cereal was right there at the top of the list. There is no better way to start a morning than with a nice big bowl of some crunchy flakes or rings or stars, drenched in low-fat milk, being consumed as I catch up on the latest world news via and the latest fashion faux pas via

While we were over the moon about Thad’s placement in Chengdu on his Flag Day, I knew instantly that the cereal issue was one I must remedy before returning to the Land of Pandas. With this in mind, I hit up Costco and bought what felt like a whole lot (but now I question the amount) of Cheerios in “family-sized” boxes.  Those crates are still in transit (I’m told they may hit Shanghai on August 11th, and then have to come overland to Chengdu, so, I’m mentally shooting for a Labor Day delivery.) To bridge the gap between our China arrival in May and my much needed cereal fix’s arrival in September, I’ve supplemented whenever the occasion has arisen.

Cornflakes are the most ubiquitous and cheapest cereal in town. (There are a few other options of imported cereal available but they tend to come in very small, very smashed boxes that cost anywhere from $5-10USD.) I can do cornflakes. So, whenever I was in a store that had them, I was buying a box or two.

Then, I had a few things I needed to order from, like scooter helmets, so with each order, I just added on a couple boxes of sugary goodness. I figured I’d already hit the $25 free shipping amount, so I may as well take advantage of the savings!  Here some Corn Pops, there some Lucky Charms, everywhere a little Fruit Loops…You get the idea.

Early July rolled around and an anniversary package from my parents arrived, which included a bag of Marshmallow Mateys. What a great addition to the cereal stash.

Oh, and then, as part of my job at the consulate, I submitted an order to the Beijing Commissary for our officers, so I figured along with Thad’s desired pickles and Cheetos, I may as well order a couple of boxes of Wheat Chex.

And then, knowing I have this underlying need for a daily breakfast cereal fix, but not knowing the extent of our current stockpile, my dear husband ordered me sixty-four (!!) miniature boxes of cereal for our anniversary last week. (According to the all-knowing Google, a traditional fourteenth wedding anniversary gift would include ivory and orchids, but I’m quite content with Apple Jacks and Frosted Flakes!)

So, there is a cupboard in my kitchen. It is the cereal cupboard. It is full. I swear, I don’t have a problem! I am just prepared for a possible cereal shortage. A cereal apocalypse could be just around the corner. Are you prepared? I certainly am!

It’s not hoarding. Hoarding would mean I saved the boxes and made a special fort out of them in my spare bedroom. Hoarding would be piling the boxes haphazardly along the hallway, creating an impassable maze to the bathroom or the laundry room.  Hoarding would be not eating the cereal, but rather lining the boxes up neatly in alphabetical order, to enjoy their bright colors and feel a bit like I lived in Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment. But I do! I eat it every morning for breakfast. I eat it with a smile on my face as I sit cross-legged on my living room floor, stalking former students on Facebook and catching up on my favorite blogs. (Thank you StrongVPN!)

I’ve heard people snidely referred to as having a champagne taste on a beer budget, but I’m happily the girl with Malt-o-Meal bagged cereal taste on a Kellogg’s boxed cereal budget! So, while the rest of you are contemplating which variety of spices to add to your expensive Kobe beef burger, I will be safe in my knowledge that emerald green creates a divine contrast with the Pearly Gates.

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This is the current stash, but additions are always welcome.

Wii-kends are for Playing

After what seemed like a never-ending week of Chinese in which I attempted to wrap my mind around the ever elusive change-of-situation “le” particle, and was privy to such useful information as the term for godmother also doubles as a common term of endearment used by prostitutes for their madams, some downtime was definitely needed.

A good friend (and fellow China Returned Peace Corps Volunteer), John Park, just purchased a Wii. With weekend looming, along with John and Erin Townsend (also fellow China RPCVs),  we all figured it was the perfect time for that little white box to see some action. Before tackling the games of skill and prowess, we thought a few authentic Chinese dishes might get things off to a good start.

There is a lovely little restaurant in Falls Church that has a bit of a split personality.  In large neon letters, it advertises itself as Hong Kong Palace, with is a pretty normal name for a Chinese restaurant in the US.  The only problem with that is, the smaller, yet still neon, Chinese characters on that same sign say Chengdu, which is decidedly not Hong Kong. Nearby, in one of the front widows, yet another neon sign advertises the store as Small Chengdu Restaurant. Now, not only are Hong Kong and Chengdu more than 800 miles apart, but their food is quite unique as well.  I guess the thinking is that to Americans, Chinese food is Chinese food, so it is best to pick a well-known city with which to advertise. Then, to pull in the Chinese customers, a more accurate description of the culinary style is provided.  (It really isn’t that odd of a concept I suppose. As Americans, most of us would probably make a distinction between southern food and that of the north, but to visitors from other countries, it could all be easily labeled “American.”)

With bellies full eggplant, spicy noodles, green beans and rice, it was time to Wii it up!

If you’ve been following this blog, you have read of my exploits as a softball player. For those of you new to In Search of the End of the Sidewalk, it only lasted one season and mostly consisted of me warming the bench. That stupendous athletic ability extends to nearly everything I do that requires any amount of coordination. (Again, frequent readers will remember that I was no more than ten minutes into my first motorcycle riding class when I found myself pinned to the asphalt by a couple hundred pounds of shiny metal.) Sadly, as I recently learned, Wii takes a wee bit of coordination. That does not bode well for me or for anyone unlucky enough (John T.) to be saddled with me as a teammate.

The evening’s events began with bowling. I was lucky enough to be blessed with a fabulously shiny gold bowling ball, which I think was my secret weapon. While my score was only a little higher than what I would rack up in a real life bowling alley, I came out on top after ten frames. (I think I may have only won by two points, but considering that was the only time all night I didn’t earn the no-so-coveted fourth place position, I want it to be remembered that a win is a win!)

From bowling, it was on to doubles tennis. Poor John T. got stuck with me as his partner for the ensuing matches.  I quickly discovered that I have adequate serving abilities, but that is where any slight aptitude ends. Not only could I not hit the dumb little yellow ball to save my life, more than once I somehow forgot that we were playing a game and not just watching TV. It wasn’t until after the ball sailed by my cute purple clad Mii that I realized I should have taken a swing.  I was so into watching the action I totally forgot that I was supposed to be taking part in the action.

When I did remember to participate and potentially help my partner out, I did so with full effort and enthusiasm. While some too-cool-for-school Wii players may master the art of minute gesticulations, I was all in! It takes a powerful swing to hit a tennis ball from one end of a court to the other, so gaming device strapped to my wrist or not, I was swinging for the stands!

Bowling and tennis were really just warm-ups for the evenings main event- Wii dancing!  It is important to bear in mind, not only do I lack an inherent sense of coordination, I am also totally devoid of rhythm.  Put these two things together, add Britney Spears and let the chaos reign! It may not have been pretty and I may have lost to everyone, every dance, including when John T. played as he lounged on the couch, but it was a blast! Not only did I wiggle and waggle to some Black Eyed Peas and LMFAO, but I got to watch Thad and John P. battle it out as robots busting out some pretty spastic moves.  I am not sure which of them ended up with the most points, but I am positive that those of us watching were the winners!

It is very possible that I logged more hours on the Wii last Friday night that I have spent on video games in my entire life. I may have set up  a permanent Occupy Fourth Place camp that would bow to nothing less than pepper spray,  and I may have pulled a muscle or two during unintentional spastic moments, but there is no doubt that Wii night was the perfect end to a gray matter melting week of Chinese study.

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