The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan


For the longest time, all through high school and college, I shied away from non-fiction books that weren’t on my required reading lists. My image of non-fiction was one of drily written tales that read like epic encyclopedia entries; just the facts, ma’am. But, about seven years ago I stumbled upon Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, turning my notion of non-fiction writing on its head. (Stumbled upon isn’t entirely accurate. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in western China, starving from a lack of reading material and was handed this book. Whereas a year before I would have turned my nose up at it, literary deprivation had taken hold and I devoured the paperback, cover to cover, in just two days.) Since my introduction into the new world of non-fiction, I’ve read everything from real-life accounts of floods in Pennsylvania (The Johnstown Flood  by David McCullough) to adventures in the far reaches of the Amazon (The Unconquered by Scott Wallace), not to mention a bevy of memoirs.

My most recent foray into the world of non-fiction was The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, a tale of the birth of our national park system and the fire that nearly destroyed it. As a frequenter of the American national parks, the book drew me in with the history of how these lands were set aside and preserved for future generations, which was no easy task as industry leaders would rather turn a profit off the wood and minerals available, building a dynasty for their family, rather than create a lasting legacy for the entire nation. Egan does a great job giving the background of this fight, leaving the reader feeling like they “knew” Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.

With a strong back story set, Egan then pushes the reader through the harrowing forty-eight hours that were “the big burn.” Connections between the reader and the characters, as well as the reader and the land, create a sense of panic and fear as the fire ravages the mountain ridges of the northwestern forests. I could feel the flames licking my hands as I turned the pages; I could feel the heat of the fire as it rushed over fireman huddled in creeks under wet blankets and hunkered down in ravines and caves; I could feel the air rush out of the room as the fire stole away the oxygen, leaving noxious poison in its stead; and I could feel the fear of men who were moments away from their painful deaths.

In the last decade, non-fiction has become highly readable. No longer does one feel like they need to be a subject matter in the topic at hand before picking up a history-based book. Egan continues to add to this recreated genre- writing a book about the birth of our nation’s beloved parks that is ideal for anyone who has ever set foot in the wilderness of the northwest. While the disastrous mixture of the greed of the eastern seaboard barons and the big burn nearly destroyed the burgeoning forest service and all Pinchot and Roosevelt worked for, the author is able to spin the tale in such a way to create hope on the part of the reader, ending with a sense of better days, rather than the one of despair that could so easily take its place. Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn earns:

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Welcome China 19s!

They’re here! China’s newest crop of Peace Corps Volunteers has arrived. They touched down in Chengdu on Sunday night and I am sure are already swimming through the cultural shock that instant submersion in the Middle Kingdom delivers. The numerically monikered China 19s are currently seventy strong and will hopefully retain those ranks as they face the long-haul training that is PST.

With the new volunteers in town and excited to begin their journeys, I can’t help but think back to July 1, 2006 when Thad and I were in the same position. He had diligently listened to Pimsler’s Mandarin CDs in his truck on the way to and from work for the semester leading up to our departure, but I had no such mini-foundation in the Chinese language. (I had a similar commute time, but chose to use it less productively- singing along to radio hits like Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” and “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” by the ever-fabulous Bon Jovi.) I hit the ground without a “ni hao” or a “duo shao qian” in my proverbial pocket. We arrived in the city late at night, were handed an envelope of living expense money to get us through the summer (money that, at the time, looked like it belonged in a Monopoly box at a yard sale) and a scheduled that left no room for jet lag. Welcome to Peace Corps training!

Little did we know that we were embarking on an adventure that would include not only working with fabulous students from some of the most rural parts of the country and the making of life-long travel buddies and friends, but one that would reshape our future career paths, creating opportunities that we would never have had if we had stayed home in Idaho, just following the status quo.

But here we are, seven years later…

(Has it really been that long since China 12s began their immersion into the world of hotpot, mouth-numbing lajiao peppers and Sichuan-hua?)

That envelope of money of varying sizes no longer looks like it came from a little man with a monocle.  Rather, it has become my norm. Red bills in an envelope for the ayi, a green one if I’m having lunch at a Western restaurant, blue ones for the cab drivers or purple for a soda from a noodle alley shop. Each brightly colored bill is an easy transaction, while those monochromatic green ones from home require constant mental conversion to RMB.

I don’t get up each morning to fill a white board with Poe or The Outsiders or poetry activities for my 8th grade reading classes (although I miss that immensely!). I now pop out of bed to head to the consulate where I get the pot of coffee brewing and spend my days planning community activities, keeping everyone connected to schools and local events, all while working to maintain strong morale at a post far from many western comforts.

So, welcome China 19s. We are excited to have you in the country and thrilled that you are joining the legacy that is Peace Corps China. It will change your life. For me, my service was just the beginning of exploring new sidewalks (many of which you will find to be slicker than snot when wet or littered with what we lovingly refer to as “brick bombs” after a good Chengdu rain); it was a new direction, but one that I wouldn’t change for all the cheese and peanut butter in America.

Welcome.  And good luck!

China 12s!

China 12s!


Guide to Chengdu Metro Etiquette

Rural Idaho was the perfect place to grow up. Acres of fields surrounded our house, beckoning curious, chore-avoiding children to wander through them all summer long (and get in trouble when we decided to do a little science experiment and figure out how syphon tubes worked.) Canals with rickety bridges were the perfect place to hold races of leaves and sticks, dropping them in on one side and then scurrying across to see which came out the far end first. Those same canals had banks covered in milkweed, home to monarch butterfly chrysalises, and stalk after stalk of puffy pussy willows. But, with all these grand adventures just out our backdoor, one thing my Idaho upbringing did not equip me for was public transportation. Idaho, with its population of less than two million, does not do public transportation well at all. (To be perfectly honest, it hardly does it at all.)

During college, my roommate Cori, and I got quite adept at using the public bus system to schlep our weekly groceries home from Food4Less (yes, that is really the name of the store we shopped at!) and even made one freezing cold, wet December journey into Salt Lake City to spend the day at the aviary amongst angry owls and much too raptor-like emus. But, really, until my early 30s, public transportation was not really an option for daily travel.

Then, we moved to Washington DC. Within the first day of being there, our good friends John and Erin enlightening me about subway etiquette- more precisely escalator etiquette. Walk on the left, stand on the right. Pretty simple, but coming from an escalator-free town (does Caldwell even have one escalator in it?), it never crossed my mind. I was quickly grateful for the tip, as it didn’t take long to discover that our nation’s capital takes their escalator etiquette quite serious. For a year, the DC Metro was my primary source of transportation. I took it the get to training classes, to see the sites and to visit friends. While there was a lot of grumbling by DC natives about the constant track work and line shutdowns, I loved the fairly frequent trains that were clean and while often crowded, rarely over-filled.

Skip ahead a few months to our arrival in Chengdu. When we were here with Peace Corps, there was no metro system, but when we touched down a year ago, we were happily surprised to find a single line running north/south through the city center. Four months later, the second line in the city opened, connecting our apartment complex to a larger portion of the city. But, Metro riding in Chengdu bears little resemblance to that of the DC area.

This chasm is easy illustrated by the free newspaper being handed out all along both lines on Friday of last week. Since I am nearly illiterate in Chinese, I don’t have exact translations for the various guidelines, but the drawings provide a pretty clear picture.  The paper provides ten rules for all subway passengers to follow:

1) No pooping on the train. (Thad and I both agree this would have been more appropriate as #2, but the drawing that includes a wavy stink line and a fly is a nice touch, so credit goes out to the artist for his/her detail work. I haven’t seen anyone take care of business on the subway here in Chengdu, but there were reports last winter of a child doing just that in Guangzhou, which may have been the impetus for this inclusion.)

2)No spitting on the train. (People here spit. A lot. It’s always good to prohibit spitting.)

3) Let others off the train before you get on. (This is my biggest Metro pet-peeve in Chengdu. NO ONE lets the offloading people through before rushing onto the just arrived cars. It creates a horrible traffic jam and is frustrating on a daily basis.)

4) No jumping the turnstiles. (Again, I have never seen this in Chengdu, but I suppose it is a good rule to have.)

5) No smoking or eating on the trains. (Do I see people smoking on the trains? No. Do I see people eating chicken feet out of plastic bags? Yes. But, to be fair, the DC Metro also has a rule about not eating on trains, but that didn’t stop people from snacking in their seats.)

6) No sleeping on the train. (I think this is more about hogging multiple seats by sprawling across them than it is about sleeping. I see people catching little catnaps on the train all the time, which, whatever!)

7) No panhandling. (This one confused me at first. I initially thought it was prohibiting the disabled from using the trains, but then I realized the little orange man had a money tray out. I should have instantly known the picture wasn’t showing a discrimination against the disabled, as the system itself does a pretty good job of keeping them out, since most stations are only accessible via staircase at the entrance. There is almost always an “up” escalator, but rarely a “down” or an elevator.)

8) Only use the emergency button for emergencies. (Again, good rule. Not sure that is has been an issue, yet…)

9) Let the elderly/pregnant/disabled (if they can actually make it to the train) have the seats. (This is probably my favorite of the drawings. I love the seated guy’s eyes. An old man is standing directly in front of him and he pretends to not see him. Nice!)

10) Use the escalators properly. (DC Metro would be proud of this one.)

After hundreds (thousands?) of these free newspapers were handed out last Friday, I would like to say I hold out hope that a few changes will come about on the Metro system (again, mainly #3), but I may be being a bit naïve. My thought is this: the Metro system is new to Chengdu, so new to nearly everyone who rides it. Just like I had to learn a bit about subway etiquette from the fabulous Townsends, maybe the folks here just need a bit of direction. With even more new lines set to open in the coming years, I’m choosing to look at teacup as half full and have faith that Chengdu’s public transportation will only get better with age!

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How to Reduce Your Manicure Time By 20%

In 1972, years before my arrival on this planet, Carly Simon called out a mystery man, proclaiming, in front of the entire musical world that that he was so vain he probably thought her hit song was all about him and his apricot scarf.

Vanity. Now, just like it did four decades ago, the word carries a pretty strong negative connotation.

But, I think vanity gets a bit of a bad rap. It’s like the middle school-er who had a bratty older sibling and the teachers steel themselves for the next kid in line, wary of what is coming their way. It’s reputation, fair or not, proceeds it. Yes, there are extremes that deserve the negative connotation. We can all think of someone so full of themselves that they can’t see anyone beyond the reflection in the mirror and we’ve all been subject to the rambling of that person who knows everything, has done everything and wants us to hear all about it.

Boatloads of vanity might be too much, but a bucketful or two isn’t so bad. For example, having just enough pride to not go to the grocery store in your pajama pants and slippers is okay. (Wear a baggy sweater with your hair in a ponytail, but for heaven’s sake, put on some pants that don’t have an elastic waist and some shoes that aren’t made for old ladies with poor circulation!)

Until a few years ago, I would not have claimed vanity as a character trait. While it is true I am not willing to leave the house without a bit of make-up (just some foundation, a swirl of blush and a swipe of mascara), I have no need to be dolled up for a quick run to the gas station or drug store. (Okay, I don’t actually go to the gas station or a drug store anymore, but you get the idea.) My vision of myself changed drastically though, when I realized I put more stock in my appearance that I had previously thought.

This realization came about during my first year living in China as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Stationed in rural western China, I was cut-off from most things “western,” but I still craved some American indulgences, like having my hair highlighted. After almost a year in the country, as I faced a huge summer commitment of helping to plan/execute a summer training program for Chinese teachers, I thought it would be great to go to the conference with fresh highlights. After checking with every salon in my small Gansu town, I settled on a stylist who insisted he knew about and had worked on blonde hair. He claimed to have worked in Xi’An, which doesn’t have a huge ex-pat population, but enough to make his story credible. With the help of a student, I described what I wanted and he seemed to understand the plan. Well, he didn’t. Rather than a few highlights, I ended up with a fully bleached head of hair. Glowing white barely begins to describe the look I walked out of his salon with. That morning, I would have told you a bad hair job wasn’t that big of a deal, as it was just hair and would grow out. Walking down the street looking like I had been exposed to deadly levels of radiation, I was singing a different tune.

Vanity. I had as much of it as the hair stylist had bleach.

Fast forward a few years. I’m back in China, this time with the Foreign Service. Well aware of the lack of good western hair stylists available in this part of the country, I’ve strategically planned salon-time into my schedule, having my hair done during a training in Bangkok and during R& R in Idaho.

But, that doesn’t cover another area of weekly vanity- my fingernails. For years, they’ve been the benefactors of a Sunday night paint job. Each week, I re-lacquer them with different colors/designs. Can nail painting be a hobby? (I hear Pintrest says yes, although they call it “nail art.” I’m not sure what I do counts as art, but I do spend enough time I should be able to list it under hobbies on my next job application!)

All was well and good until last spring when my ring finger nail suddenly developed a weird coloring and the nail became detached from the nail bed. Since I never go to salons, always doing my nails myself, I decided just to keep an eye on it, as it couldn’t be some creepy, flesh-eating bacteria. Which I did. And I watched as it didn’t get any better. And then I watched as whatever the mystery-problem was jumped to the ring finger on my other hand. And then I watched as nothing changed- either better or worse. Eventually, I went to our consulate nurse, who recommended I see a dermatologist while I was home this winter.

Which I did.

At the doctor’s office, after he examined both my fingernails and toenails (I did not see the toenail inspection coming, so I was mortified as I had to present him with my six-week old Marine Ball pedicure that was looking more like a post-boot camp pedicure by that point), the doctor told me that I wasn’t going to like what he had to say. I steeled myself for a ban on fingernail painting. I figured it would only extend to the two ring fingers, so I was already plotting cute manicures to work around the nude nails. As I daydreamed of polka-dots and stripes, he announced that he was going to cut my nails off. I whipped my head around faster than Willow Smith, nearly falling off the examining table.

Regaining balance, physical, if not mental, I asked when we would be setting up that appointment for. Glancing down at the sharp clippers in his hand, I realized there would be no second appointment. I was losing my nails right then and there.

With some clipping and less pain than I had anticipated, I walked out of the office half an hour later with two gnarly ring fingernails.

Trying to see the nail polish bottle as half full rather than half empty, I’ve decided that rather than lamenting my lack of nails, I’ll just think of this as a time-saving procedure. As I continue my weekly ritual of Sunday night manicures, I’m now 20% more efficient! Rather than having ten fingers to decorate, I’ve only got eight. Maybe I can use those few extra minutes to solve the problems plaguing the world: hunger, disease and war. If that doesn’t happen, at least I can use that precious time to update my Facebook, check my blog stats and watch Carly Simon’s clouds swirl in my coffee.

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Christmas Has Come to Chongqing

Celebrating Christmas as Peace Corps Volunteers was definitely a DIY project that included the back-breaking work of carrying a requisitioned (borrowed, loaned without permission, temporarily freed…take your pick of verbs), potted tree up six flights of stairs to our apartment for one member of the family and the not-so-painful, but equally important work of creating ornaments for said tree. A towel filled in for the missing tree skirt and the part of the star on top was played by a pictured printed off the internet and colored in with yellow highlighter by yours truly.  In reality, hauling that tree around campus in the middle of the night may not have been worth the back spasms that it created, but it did give our little Gansu apartment a bit of holiday spirit.

Now that we are big-city China dwellers, Christmas abounds, some good and some cheesy, but it is everywhere. The newest mall in town is decked out with pandas wearing Santa hats driving a two-reindeer sleigh and constantly recycling Christmas tunes over their sound system. On the other end of the spectrum, smaller stores are filled with gaudily glittered signs reading “Happy Christmas” and, at times, featuring Santa with a beer in hand.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the random, five-foot tall red and white elf hat that is inexplicably sitting in front of a light bulb store just outside our subway entrance. I don’t know where it came from or for what purpose it is intended, but it currently ranks high on my list of random Chengdu sightings. (The list has heavy turnover, as daily things are jumping up to take the top spot on the roster.)

As part of his job with the State Department, Thad was sent to Chongqing this weekend to represent the US Consulate at an event hosted by the Japanese Consulate to commemorate the emperor’s birthday. I tagged along with him so we’d have a greater presence at the party, and because it sounded great to get out of town for an evening. The event itself was pretty un-noteworthy. It was only an hour and a half long, consisted of a few speeches in Chinese (mine is terrible) and Japanese (mine is non-existent) that I easily tuned out while I checked out the outfits of my fellow attendees, buffets of seafood and sushi (I’ll pass) and a lot of mingling and business card exchanging. I stood out like a sore thumb at this event, filled with Japanese diplomats and Chinese officials. I was like the one black sheep in a herd of white ones, except I was the one blonde head in a crowd of black ones.  The highlight of the event (party is a bit grandiose for the evening) was that we got to meet and chat with the CG of the Japanese Consulate. (Thad may point to the sushi as being right up there for evening occurrences as well.)

But, while the official reason for going to Chongqing was a little underwhelming, the trip was still a great, if short, one. (We missed almost exactly twenty-four hours of Chengdu’s terrible air.)

We stayed at the Marriott in Chongqing, which had fully decked its halls in holiday festivity. When we walked into the lobby, we were greeted with what may be one of the best Christmas trees I have ever seen and by far the most marvelous one in China. The tree was huge and fully decorated in silver and pink. It was a tree straight out of my dreams! Their grand staircases were lined with garland, also accented in the same shades of silver and pink. (Just a disclaimer, I’m not talking Barbie pink here, but rather a very pretty jewel-toned raspberry color that was amazing.)

On top of a tree to make any Grinch smile, the hotel provided me with a first- room service! I’ve never ordered food to be delivered to my room by the hotel before (takeout from a nearby restaurant doesn’t count!), but after the Japanese event, I didn’t feel like changing back into street clothes and venturing out into the chilly and humid Chongqing night in search of food, so out came the menu and its dizzying array of choices (and prices!). I settled on pizza (a true Chinese classic, no?) and then went and enjoyed a steaming hot bath made silky with bath salts (thank you Marriott!) while I awaited the arrival of our late-night dinner. Pizza while snuggled up in king-sized bed with an American-ly soft mattress? It might not get any better than that on a cold December night in China.

It may have been a quick round-trip to Chongqing and back, but I between a bit of market shopping on our arrival and what I’m officially dubbing China’s best holiday display, I’m more than glad we went. With just a little under three weeks until the big day, I can’t wait for Christmas to be here!

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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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You’ve Got Mail

It all started with the Pony Express…

Okay, my ex-history-teacher of a husband (to clarify: “ex” being a modifier of history teacher and not husband) might take issue with that statement, as I am sure there was some type of postal delivery system long before North America was overrun with newbies, but the Pony Express is just so much more fun than whatever marathon-running postmen had to schlep mail across the hinterlands, rain or snow, sunshine or storm.

Regardless of where it started, we’ve got mail.

USPS has played varying roles in my life. I don’t remember getting much in the mail as a kid, other than maybe a yearly birthday card with a $10 bill stashed inside, from my grandma in Utah. I know I tried the pen pal thing a couple of times, but I don’t think we ever got passed the “What is your favorite color” and “Do you have any pets?” stage of correspondence before one or the other, or maybe both, gave up and moved on to chatting with friends we could see and whose names we could actually pronounce.

Mail was pretty much a non-entity in my life until I moved to college. Then, for the first time, it took on a vital role in my daily life. I lived in an on-campus apartment with five other girls (that’s right- six girls in one apartment. Who ever thought that was a good idea must have been smoking something that was definitely not allowed within the terms of the Honor Code!) and one mail key, which hung on a nail by the backdoor, awaiting its daily trek to the metal box outside the building’s entrance. Each day, the box was checked religiously by whichever roommate was home when the afternoon mail drop happened. (Okay, any roommate except for Emily, who was terrorized by a Nordic witch figurine that sat atop our stove, which she swore looked like something out of a horror movie she had seen. With this knowledge in hand, that little doll ended up anywhere Emily might look, including, but not limited to, the mailbox, her section of the medicine cabinet, her drawer of the fridge or her nightstand. (Remember, this was an apartment with six girls. *Everything* was divided up, from kitchen cabinets to shower shelf space to phone availability.) I remember getting a couple of care packages while a freshman, the first one including brownies, wrapped in tin foil, from my little brother who was a freshman in high school at the time. Who knew the kid could bake?

Then I moved to the Dominican Republic to do a semester abroad. (Tough gig, eh? We had classes four days a week and then a three-day weekend to hit the beach…I mean, study. Needless to say, this pasty-white girl from Idaho came home with the closest thing she’d ever had to a tan. Maybe I need to get Thad to bid on a Caribbean post for our next tour. It would take four months to get a working start on some color, but after two years, I might actually have a decent melatonin level!) There, mail was a different beast. Not only did it take weeks to come, but when it did come, the school often held it for a week or two before letting us know we had a letter. Care packages were expensive to send and it was probable that, if they did arrive, would arrive a little lighter than when they were shipped. Let’s just say Dominican customs inspectors always had the best housewarming and birthday gifts for any event to which they were invited.  But, while packages may have been hard to come by, I did get loads and loads of letters, all of which are still stashed away in shoe boxes, sitting in a long-term storage in Fredericksburg, Virginia, until further notice. (I hate to date myself here, but my Dominican days corresponded with the budding days of the internet. I had an email address, through Juno, but rarely used it and connections, even at the university, were nearly impossible to find. Hand-written letters were still the status quo.)

After coming home from the DR and getting married, mail suddenly took on the role of being the bearer of bills and ads. In the years pre and post- Peace Corps, I was doing well if I checked my mailbox a couple of times a week. I was just in no hurry for that college tuition statement, water bill or JC Penny’s flyer.

But then, the mail once again became key when we moved to China with the Peace Corps. Yes, we had a decent internet connection and I was in touch with family and friends via email on a regular basis, but the actual mail meant not only gifts at birthday and Christmas, but it created our on-campus English language library. With Middle Kingdom resources being scarce, nearly all 1000 of our English books and magazines came from the States, shipped by our friends and family and those of our colleagues. The Book Nook, a mini-institution in the backwaters of Gansu, would not have been possible without the USPS.

(Don’t get me started on the Chinese end of these transactions. It is an understatement to say the mail women in Chengxian hated me. Every time I got the tissue-like slip of paper saying I had a box at the local post office, I would skitter down there as soon as I had a break in my class schedule, excited for a new box of books to add to our growing collection. And every time, once I was there, I would have to go the rounds to get my box. Sometimes the women couldn’t find the package, even though I had the slip in hand. Sometimes they were taking their afternoon rest, so I was told to come back, even though technically the post office was open. Sometimes I had to get an official red stamp from some random person at the school to verify it was for me. Sometimes I had to show my Chinese ID card. And sometimes, the woman just didn’t feel like helping me and would shoo me away to come back and try another time. The only great thing about our local post office was they had glasses on a string. That’s right! Banks in America have pens on strings, but in China, our post office had these awesome, giant glasses on a string, I guess so if you needed reading lenses, you would have them available to properly complete your paperwork.)

Now that we are back in China for round two of the Zhongguo lifestyle, mail again plays a central role in our lives. Mail days are Tuesdays and Fridays, which are the afternoons when I eagerly await the email from our mail room saying “There is a little mail today.” With this pronouncement, there is a bit of a mass exodus out to the mail room for officers and families alike to collect their goods. Boxes are piled on the floor, magazines and letters are stashed in surname labeled bins and the mail room worker knows us all by name.

This last week as a particularly successful mail week for the Ross household. We received our bargained for package from the Hello Kitty queen. (Click here to read about the tough fought negotiations with a four-year old that ended up with me sending two rather large boxes of goods to her in exchange for some random items fished out of her toy box. I think I need to work on my business acumen.) This large padded envelope included the owed Hello Kitty-riding-a-dolphin picture, the Hello Kitty pencil left over from Valentine’s Day, and the McDonald’s Happy Meal giraffe. Plus, it had bonus items such as piñata  candy that may or may not have been stashed in my nephew’s shorts (whatever, I’m eating those Smarties!), a couple of friendship bracelets and a beaded necklace. Not too bad of a haul from Idaho.

And then today I got a long-coveted package- one that I’ve been talking about ordering since draft day. (Click here for my day-after-draft post.)  My Shea McClellin Chicago Bears (#99) jersey arrived in the Friday mail pile! Granted, the “small” jersey is nearly big enough for me to belt and wear as a dress, but I’ll be rocking that thing all over China in the next few months. (Stay tuned for those pictures!) While I am normally a Ravens fan, as they are the only American professional sports team to be named after a literary work, I’ve had to shift some loyalty to the Bears to support Shea, one of my former 8th grade English students from Marsing, Idaho. I will be proudly sporting that massive navy blue jersey this season, putting in a good word for him all around our Land of Pandas and doing more than a fair bit of bragging about a small-town kid working his tail off to achieve his NFL dreams. (Of course, I can’t take any credit for his football skills, but I would like to hope that he always uses “their/there/they’re” and “your/you’re” correctly!)

The internet may have created a quicker and simpler way than horse-back delivery to keep in touch with friends and family, but nothing will replace the kid-on-Christmas-morning feeling of cutting in to a box that has come half-way around the world. Whether said package is filled with Hostess chocolate pudding pies (Dad??) or a gift that always ends up back where it came from (Matt??), little is better than seeing a box on the floor of the mail room with ROSS written in big letters along its side.

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Balancing the Scale of Tourism vs. Residency

You know how you can have lived in a place for years and years and still not have gone to some of the tourist destinations in your own backyard? Maybe you live in southern Idaho but have never slid down the Bruneau Sand Dunes or picked your way through Craters of the Moon. Or maybe you live in northern Utah but have yet to climb your way to the top of Mount Timpanogos or stroll through Temple Square. Or maybe you live in our nation’s capital but haven’t yet explored the Air and Space Museum or undertaken the long walk that loops around the monuments.

I think it is easy to forget what spectacular things we have right where we live because we get used to seeing the signs for them and as a species of procrastinators, we tend to put off visits to these great sites because we know they will be there next weekend or next summer or next year.

As Thad and I have lived in several different places over the last fourteen years of our marriage (Idaho, Utah, northern Virginia, China X2), we have learned to not take for granted what we can see from our front door. We’ve visited Idaho landmarks; we’ve taken our nephews to the top of Timpanogos; we’ve escorted friends and family all over the DC area and we definitely have more China-seeing in our future.

But, this draw to do and see wherever we end up also creates an odd convergence of tourism and residency. Chengdu is home. We live here now. And will live her for the next two years. While I want to be a part of the events and culture of the city, while I want to see the pandas and temples and parks scattered throughout the city, I also want to settle in and be able to relax on weekends. In America, we had the occasional weekend where we had nothing planned and didn’t really leave the house much. Saturdays held the potential to be filled with nothing more than reading and writing and eating and napping.

Since we’ve been in China (a little over twelve weeks now!), I have often felt a twinge of guilt if we weren’t out doing and seeing every day we had off. Those quirky little pandas are not going to take pictures of themselves and the Wide and Narrow Alley is not going to provide an array of snack foods if no visitors come. Luckily, with the arrival of our UAB, which means a bit more of our American life has touched down in Chengdu, I have been able to settle in a bit better. I am fighting the urge to always feel like we are missing out on something if we take a day off from being tourists and just be residents.

Even with our possessions slowly trickling through customs and to us in western China, have no fear.  We have not become hermits! (Although, sometimes a life of hermitage does have an appealing ring to it. If I had an unlimited supply of books and cold cereal, I might just be able to do it.)  Knowing that we have just two years here, we definitely have things we want to see and be a part of, as well as favorite haunts to revisit when we’ve got a free night.

Saturday night was just one of those nights. I had been out all morning on a CLO excursion for twelve of our community members to learn about jade and do a bit of shopping, but after resting through the hottest part of the day, (Latin American countries may have siesta time, but we’ve got xiuxi time!) Thad and I wanted to get out and enjoy a warm summer evening before they are gone for the year.

We decided that with night falling, JinLi Ancient Street was the place to be! This was by no means our first trip there, having been once before already this time around in China, but several times before when we were here with Peace Corps. It is a great area filled with touristy shops meant to seem “ancient”, lots of food stalls with spicy Sichuan snacks (including some tentacle-bearing,  water-dwelling creature skewered on a stick) and glowing red lanterns hung overhead to create a festive feel.  Plus, if we ever get bored of walking the aisles of shops, we can always find a bench to rest on and enjoy the copious stares and eavesdrop on the discussions about how tall we are.

This Saturday we were also lucky enough to witness a woman in a fully bedazzled sweat suit having a little photo-shoot near one of the ponds in the complex. Her daughter, who had to be maybe nine or ten, clicked photo after photo of her mother using an iPhone, while the mom varied her poses from leaning on the right-hand arm of the café table’s chair to a brilliantly choreographed lean on the left-hand arm of the chair. I am not entirely sure what was going on, but the whole thing reeked of setting up an online dating profile! Who wouldn’t pick out the middle aged-woman in the totally glamorous glittery gray sweatshirt and sweatpants?!

When we first got back to China, I felt like tourism and residency were on opposite ends of a very long spectrum, but the longer we spend in Chengdu (and the more I contemplate our future placements), the more I come to realize that they should not be considered polar opposites. Just like we loved visiting the areas of interest in our various Stateside homes, we can visit the ones here and still have days where we hole up and never leave the house, maybe never even changing out of our PJs. (To be fair, Thad tends to shower and change right away in the morning, even on days we don’t have anything on our schedule. I, on the other hand, am happy to putter around the house clad in my hot-pink, owl-covered pajama pants and over-sized Baltimore Ravens t-shirt until I absolutely must make myself presentable to the outside world.) Tourism and residency don’t have to be, nor should they be, mutually exclusive. I can still get that long-coveted chance to hold a panda one day (for a mere 1300RMB) and flop down on my couch for a day of reading/dozing on the couch the next.

So, here is looking forward to a Saturday of touring LuoDai’s ancient town followed by a Sunday of pajama-pants and a newly downloaded book!

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Where Hors d’oeuvres and Harelips Overlap on a Venn Diagram

As an English-teacher, I love words and thinking about where they come from and seeing how they have changed over time or been combined to create new meanings or even morphed into something entirely different from where they started.  (Okay, so I am not an English teacher at this exact moment, but there is a part of me, that no matter where this Foreign Service sidewalk takes me, will still get excited about the correct spelling of “a lot,” will silently thank each and every Facebook poster who knows the difference between “their/there/they’re,” “your/you’re” and “its/it’s,” will still enjoy an evening of editing a paper for a friend or former student and will still feel the need to obsessively recommend books to anyone who will listen.)

I loved nearly everything I got to teach in Marsing: the Edgar Allan Poe, the expository writing, and The Outsiders and A Christmas Carol. But, I especially loved the vocabulary, especially since I transitioned into a vocabulary program based upon Greek/Latin word parts, rather than individual words. I found each word part I could teach the kids opened the door to a whole slew of new words, rather than just the one that was on the list. Plus, each time we talked about these roots, I was blown away by connections the kids made to words I hadn’t thought of, but really did fit the pattern. This method of doing vocabulary was also great for my kids for whom Spanish was their first language, as the cognates were numerous. But enough pedagogy…just know, English teaching is where it is at!

You would think after studying English and literature for four years at Brigham Young University and then teaching middle school English in Marsing, Idaho for eight years, taking graduate level classes about teaching language arts and then volunteering with Peace Corps to teach English to students in China who would soon be teachers themselves, I would have a decent grasp of the English language at its most basic level. And I do. Most of the time. Or at least sometimes.

But, there are moments when I flabbergast myself with simple words and phrases that I thought I knew/understood and then suddenly a light bulb with roughly the wattage of the sun comes on and I realize how clueless I am sometimes!

On occasion, I  can chalk the problem up to the fact that I read a lot and, at times, become familiar with a word on a visual level, which isn’t a word commonly used in our daily spoken language. When this happens, in my head I think I know the pronunciation of the word and I definitely have a definition of it, but somewhere the link between what my brain thinks that word is and what the rest of the English-speaking world knows it is, don’t connect.

For example: hors d’oeuvres- Yes, I know these are tasty little snacks available at fancy parties, often miniature versions of normal foods, speared on toothpicks so that the eater is as jolly as the Green Giant when consuming these bitty bites. The problem is, for some reason that concept and the above word never collided in my head, and with my lack of French training, I just pronounced that word the way it looked-“oars-de-vores.”  (Hey, I have enough world language training to know that the “h” is silent! What more do you people want from me?!)

So maybe I am just not enough of a Fancy Nancy to have such hoity-toity lexicon.

This whole dilemma comes to a forefront because a few nights ago I nearly fell out of bed as a giant glowing-sky-orb-sized realization hit me while I was reading my book and stumbled across a reference to having a “harelip.” Of course, I know what a harelip looks like. I have been sufficiently guilt-plagued by those late-night commercials of the starving children in Africa, who if I gave less than a dollar a day, would be miraculously cured of their distended stomachs, fly-covered orifices and every other inequity heaped upon them. (Or, half that money would go to cover the overhead costs and advertising for the parent agency and the kids would still struggle to subsist on a daily basis. Not that I am cynical about after-midnight calls for humanitarian aid or anything…)

The thing is, I was reading The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna. (This is a fabulous book, by the way! It has yet to make it into my Book Musings, as I am a bit behind on those right now, but suffice it to say, if you have a chance, pick up this 1975 novel-length allegory, translated from Finnish to English. It is well worth your time.)

But back to my curious lack of basic English understanding.

So there I was, sprawled on the bed with my trusty e-reader, just getting in to this story about a journalist and photographer traveling together, when the news-reporting duo accidentally hit a baby rabbit that is in the road. The reporter, getting out to check on the poor animal, makes a comment about his tiny nose twitching above his little hare lip. His what?!? His hair lip?! Of course! Like Thor’s
thunder-bringing hammer, a connotative smack-down rained down upon my brain! Those poor kids in Africa (and elsewhere) born with a split lip- it looks like a bunny’s lip! Why had I never put two and two together?

I can only figure that this case was much like that of the hors d’oeuvres, but in reverse. I know the word “harelip” and exactly what it means, but maybe I have just never registered it when I saw it
written. In my ever-wandering brain, it was spelled “hair-lip” and I could never figure out what follicles of keratin had to do with a facial disfiguration. And now, it all becomes clear. A harelip- as in resembling the split upper lip of the cute, fuzzy, hippity-hop mammal. How had I never seen through Alice’s looking glass, at her giant white rabbit and realized such a simple association existed?

Both reading and writing are slices of my daily life pie here in China, being much better stress relievers than a trip to apartment complex’ not-so-high-tech gym and the 70% humidity that currently ensconces each pilgrimage beyond my front door, would be.  Instead of giving my lungs and legs a run for their money though, I give my rattled brain chance to unwind the various knots created by the language I’ve been speaking for thirty-ish years.

You may be crafty and slightly mysterious, but I’m on to you now, English language!!

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