Don’t Fondle The Furnishings

Mental Floss is one of those websites that I read obsessively, until one day I don’t and then I forget it exists until it then pops back up on my radar and I start the whole trend again. For some reason it hasn’t earned a bookmark, which would help it avoid it inevitable demise in my mind.  But then again, not even BuzzFeed and those quizzes that I find oh-so-addictive is actually in my bookmarks. Instead, I occasionally see a BuzzFeed quiz pop up on my Facebook feed, take about twenty-seven different quizzes and then go cold turkey for a few weeks. (By the way, a few weeks ago BuzzFeed told me I should really be living in the Netherlands, which after our airport experiences there last fall, is totally spot on! I am pretty sure I secretly an Amsterdam-ian at heart.) I think I am a bit of a bookmark Grinch, as it is tough to make it onto my list. I have folders for “writing ideas,” “fashion,” “fingernails” and “exercise,” but outside of those categories, it’s pretty tough luck!

But, all of that is to say that this weekend, Mental Floss somehow popped back up within my internet surfing, with perfect timing, as I stumbled right onto an articled called “12 Chinese Travel Tips for Visiting America.” It uses Google Translate (always a scary proposition!) to translate Chinese website travel-tips for visiting the US. After reading through the list, laughing out loud at times (seriously, and not just LOL-style) while simultaneously scratching my head in confusion, I figured I’d share my thoughts for all of my Chinese readers (Okay, I have no Chinese readers. My blog, like most blogs, is blocked in China, so the only way to access it is through a VPN. The First Lady spoke about this very issue- not my blog in particular, of course, but of freedom of press/speech in her remarks to a group of students in Beijing today. Expect to see no changes.)

You can pop on over to Mental Floss to get the detailed explanation for each of these, but for my zero Chinese readers, here you go:

1. If an American Goes Silent, You’re in Trouble- I find this ironic, as the Chinese (at least in Sichuan) are *very* loud people. I can’t walk down the street here without hearing a little old grandma screech at her grandchild (not in an angry manner necessarily, it is just the tone in Sichuan!), be assaulted by someone on the subway hollering into their cellphone about the great stinky tofu they just had or enjoy listening to the couple in the elevator loudly discuss how tall I am.  I’d be worried if a Sichuan-ren went quiet!

2. They Don’t Realize How Weird it is to Just Call Them by Their First Name- I can see why this would be weird for a Chinese visitor. In the States, especially in the west, we don’t have a lot of strict protocol with titles. I love the advice that if one doesn’t feel comfortable addressing an American by their first name, they should just smile. That’s totally what I do when I can’t remember someone’s first name!

3. They Deliberately Do Their Own Laundry- Maybe. I think most of us would gladly let someone else do it if it were affordable. This suggestion obviously came from a website made for wealthier Chinese travelers who can afford to spend time in the US and apparently can afford an ayi at home. But, I do have to say, just last week my mom was commenting on how therapeutic she finds hanging clothes on the line, so maybe there is more truth to this than I know. (Personally, I hate line-hung clothes. Yes, the smell is nice, but I’ll just a fabric softener sheet in my dryer that smells like “sunshine” and avoid the possibility of a bee in my undies!)

4. They Don’t Know Anything about China but Don’t Let It Bother You­-Again, probably true, but don’t take it personally. American’s don’t have the world’s best geography skills. (Heck, we call ourselves “American,” forgetting that we share the continent with more than twenty other countries!)

5. Stop Everything, Listen up, and No Interrupting- “Americans also allow others to criticize the United States.”  Here is where the freedom of speech and press in the US really shines. I may not love the opinions being spouted on cable news, but I concede to them the right to spew forth. In China, taking a different opinion from the ruling party is likely to get your newscast shutdown. Sometimes I ask myself, in a sing-song voice, of course, “What would the fox say?” and then go looking for other options.

6. Don’t Get Too Close. They Might Knock You Over With Their Constant Gestures.- While I think I probably do gesture a lot when I talk, I think this heading is a bit misleading. The issue is less with about hand movements and more about personal space. It doesn’t exist in China. So yes, you are probably going to get smacked if you are right up on me while we have a conversation. There was one day when I was at Metro Supermarket with a new arrival, getting her a membership card. We were standing in line to fill out the paperwork, when I felt something very close to me. I turned around the there was a tiny old woman standing so close to me, it was like vertical spooning! And there was no need. She was the only other person in line, meaning she could have taken three steps backward and been fine, but if she had done that, someone else probably would have cut between us and she was not going to give them that option, so I was slightly molested as I waited patiently in line.

Long story short, Americans have rather large personal space bubbles. Respect them!

7. Handshakes: You’ll probably need a cheat sheet- I have never thought of handshake etiquette as being particularly daunting, but apparently it is. The only thing I would add to this advice is to firm up the dead-fish handshake that is so common in China. Americans want a firm, tight shake- none of this limp wrist, clammy palm stuff that passes in the Middle Kingdom.

8. If Their Haircut is Ugly, Make Your Eyes Bright and Say, “Cute!”-  Possibly very true. If I tell you your haircut is cute, there is a 95% chance that I do think it is adorable, but an outside, 5% chance that I think it is horrible, but can’t come up with anything else to say on the spur of the moment. But really, if your haircut is awful, you know it. Let’s just pretend together that it isn’t.

9. You May Not Fondle Furnishing- This one is endlessly baffling. I would love to see the original Chinese to see what word was used that earned the horrible translation of “fondle.”  What exactly is happening to my furniture?

10. Shorts + High Heels = Call Girl- I’ve really got nothing on this one. While I am not a fan of the shorts/heels look, I am not sure this necessarily the best way to pick out a “call girl.” (Who still calls them that?!) I am also confused by this heading’s details that tell visitors it is okay to wear a vest at any time. Is there something particularly strange about vests that we need to single them out for fashion-attention?

11. Show Humility to Ladies—They’re In Charge­- Yes.

12. You’re Doing a Good Job in Your Own Way- This one made me laugh because it comes across as horribly condescending, like Americans are a bunch of kids earning “participation” ribbons at the annual school track and field day. We’ve now officially been patted on the head by the Chinese travel agencies and can continue doing a good job, in our own little, quaint way.

Since Thad spends his days issues (and denying, don’t forget the denying) visas, this article struck home on many levels. A huge thank you to Mental Floss, who will now be back on my internet surfing schedule for at least a day or two, as you greatly brightened my gray Sunday afternoon.  Remember folks, no furniture fondling.


99 Adventures in Chengdu on the Calendar (sung to the tune of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall)

As I was riding home in the cab today, after I got over my slight fuming at the jerk who tried to steal the cab I had hailed (That’s a whole different story involving some angry Tarzan-like Chinese and some much more elaborate, but not eloquent, English, resulting in me sitting in the cab, while jerk-dude and his girlfriend were left in my pollution-filled dust.), I realized that we are well under four months left in Chengdu, which then got me thinking about that kindergarten stand-by where they celebrate the 100th day of the school year, which led me to pondering exactly how many days we did have left in Chengdu. (I know, it was a bit of mental rattling around, especially considering I never even went to kindergarten, but that’s what happens to many folks on a Friday afternoon of a very busy week and to those of us with blonde hair a little more often than that.)

With my curiosity now peaked to the point of cat-killing, I hurriedly changed out of my dress (I opted for a cute red and blue dress covered in hearts, thinking it would be appropriate for the 14th, which it was, but I quickly realized what it was not appropriate for was February! Let’s just say that dress won’t be making an appearance again until summer rolls around!) and pulled up a 2014 calendar. Fourteen days left in February, thirty one in March, thirty in April and then twenty-four in May. 14+31+30+24=99. I missed the epic 100 day countdown by less than twenty-four hours!

Now knowing that I have broken into the double digits of Chengdu days, I already feel a little homesick for this quirky southwest China city. I have only ninety-nine days to perfect my nearly Olympic-level loogie pirouette, where my foot slips in an unknown highly-viscous substance, I flail slightly and grimace greatly, but stay upright and continue along my way, pushing down my gag reflex and trying to convince myself that it was just water, or possibly dog urine, which is a much better alternative than the probable reality. I have only ninety-nine days left to risk my life, skittering across roads without crosswalks or understandable traffic patterns, but with uncovered manholes and scooters headed in all directions. And, I have only ninety-nine days left to join vacation photos in TianFu Square, People’s Park and JinLi Lu, becoming the random pasty girl in the family photo that I still am not sure how they explain to their friends back home. (Do they claim I am a new friend or do they admit that they just took a picture with a totally random stranger because she was tall, with blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin? Oh, to be a fly on the wall…)

Ninety-nine days!

It is going to fly by. Soon, we’ll have to cull the winter weather herd, sending boot and heavy coats to storage, granting a pardon only to a few hoodies and layers for future travels. Then, it will be series of lasts: last hotpot dinner, last trip to the ridiculous IKEA, last CLO outing and last days at work.

I can’t believe we’re down to ninety-nine days, but I am excited to have ninety-nine more days to explore the city and enjoy all the strange and quirky bits that make Chengdu such a great place to live. Rather than countdown (I thought about making a paper chain like we did in elementary school for the weeks leading up to Christmas- red, green, red, green, red, green), since it seems so negative, as if I am dying to get out of here, I am going to count up. I’ve got ninety-nine days of adventure ahead of me, kicking off tomorrow afternoon with #1- ice skating at the world’s largest building- the Global Center.

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Mesozoic Musings

Q: What do you get when you cross ancient four-legged creatures and a Scooby-Doo-style haunted park?

A: The ZiGong Dinosaur Museum!

Last weekend, as a part of my ongoing CLO outing series, I spent Saturday about three hours outside of Chengdu in a city known for its spicy food, its salt production and its dinosaurs. (What a combination!)  I’d like to report that all three meshed together well, but although we did have spicy bullfrog for lunch, there was no dino meat to be had and spice made much more of an appearance at our table than did the salt.

For a year now, I’ve been hearing about how great the ZiGong Dinosaur Museum is and that I definitely needed to take a trek out there before leaving Sichuan. So, with such strong recommendations to back it up, I planned a Saturday event to go see what all the fuss was about. Our travel group included lots of kids, some of whom were dressed in head to toe dinosaur swag, ready to visit the heart of their obsessions.

As with everything in China, I should have known to take the glowing recommendations with a grain of (ZiGong) salt.  The museum is definitely worth the bus ride out and I’m thrilled to have seen all it has to offer, but I will not need to make a return trip before I exit China in the spring. I’ve never been somewhere that so perfectly meshes fascinating knowledge with a creepy park vibe. (Wait. I’ll revise that sentiment. If you’ve been to Haw Par Villa in Singapore, you’ve got an idea of the level of weirdness I’m talking about. While Haw Par Villa centers on Chinese mythology and the tenants of Confucianism, through acres of macabre statues, ZiGong sticks  with violent Mesozoic-era dioramas, but they share strong ties in their particularly peculiar takes on these subjects.)

The ZiGong museum is actually a highly rated center, as it holds the distinction of being one of only three dinosaur museums in the world to include a dig site. (The other two are Vernal, Utah and Alberta, Canada.) CNN rated the ZiGong Museum as one of the top ten dinosaur museums in the world, but I think whoever wrote the article did their research from a distance. The thing is, there are some amazing fossils at the site, which sits atop the Dashanpu dig area, including eighteen complete skeletons in a burial site and a huge number of partially intact remains. Plus, having the actual dig site as a part of the museum, where patrons can walk through the area and see the bones still in the ground is awesome.

But, the greatness can be easily overlooked by the other randomness around the fossils. For example, in the fossil hall where the dinosaurs have been recreated in diorama-type exhibits, an inordinate number of them showcase the carnivorous meals of the various creatures. (Yes, I know the killing and eating of other animals is a part of Simba’s Disney-taught “circle of life,” but I’m not sure it needs to be the focal point of so many exhibits! We get it! Dinosaurs ate one another!! At some point, I began to debate the possible merits of dinosaur meat vs. the bullfrog that showed up at lunch…) I had to laugh when I first walked into the hall because I was standing in the doorway, excitedly taking in the huge displays, when I looked straight up to see a dinosaur skeleton dangling from the mouth of another dinosaur, directly above my head. Eww! I also particularly liked the display that had a tiny (in comparison), quick-looking dinosaur speeding away from the one behind it that was baring giant teeth. The sign in front gave information about the time period that these creatures lived in, as well as details about their habits. It then ended with the words, “Speed is life.”  Yes! For that little guy, speed is definitely life!

After enjoying the rather grisly displays in the main hall, and wandering through the dig site itself, I spent some time taking in the posters about the discovery of the fossils and the history of the site. The photographs of the paleontologist from the 1980s were interesting, but my favorite part can be chalked up to a translation error. While most of the signs talked about the study of dinosaurs as paleontology, a few instead substituted “dinosaurology” as a synonym. This is my new “when I grow up” goal- to be a dinosauroligist!  And really, I have to give them credit, as it does make sense. I actually had to stop and think to make sure it really wasn’t a real word. But no, it’s not. Sadly, dinosaurology is not a real thing. Too bad…

Wandering on from the various displays and digs, I was about ready to call it a day for my inaugural visit, but before I could make my way out of the building, I spotted the highlight of the trip- a dinosaur you could ride!  That’s right! It was a rubberish-feeling, horse-sized dinosaur with a metal saddle mounted on its back. With a rickety wooden stepladder as leverage, I quickly clambered to the top for a photo-op to commemorate my fantastic journey through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Because really, what historical museum outing doesn’t end with a ride on a long-extinct giant reptile?

I now have a new museum to add to my “favorites” list:

1)      Chengdu Panda Reserve Museum- it includes a diorama display of animals that look like they are made out of my grandmother’s couch, giant vats of panda sperm and an amazing piece of artwork displaying the prowess of the battle panda

2)      Royal Regalia Museum in Brunei- Filled with the narrative of how wonderful the sultan has been since birth and a massive amount of gifts given to him by the VIPs of the world

3)      ZiGong Dinosaur Museum- See above!

But, the most important thing I learned on Saturday came from one of the younger members of our excursion. As we walked towards the main exhibit hall, through a series of hillsides covered in dinosaur statues, he scurried up behind his mom, exclaiming, “Mom, I need to stay in the middle of the herd, that way I won’t be eaten.”  It’s brilliant advice from one so young- if you’re little, stick with the herd, for the young and weak are the most likely to become lunch. When I’m back in the classroom, this will be my new field trip rule- stick with the herd, or be eaten! Easy enough.

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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.

River Rafting with Chinese Characteristics

Doing something with “Chinese characteristics” is one of my favorite ways to describe most daily occurrences here in the Middle Kingdom. Shopping, even at western stores like IKEA, comes with a uniquely Chinese feel. It is absolutely appropriate to curl up with your entire family and take a little afternoon xiuxi in the air conditioned store; those beds are fully made up, after all. Heck, I even saw a guy using the model kitchen to prepare his lunch! And a night out at a restaurant has a distinctly Sichuanese flavor that isn’t just attributed to the mouth numbing huajiao seeds that garnish nearly every dish. A traditional Chinese restaurant is loud and hot and meals are meant to last for hours. This definitely isn’t the culture for someone who prefers to eat and run.

With three years and change under my Chinese belt, I’m not sure why I expected anything less when I headed out for a weekend trip to QingCheng Shan. Having heard rumor of river rafting, my Idaho genes went on high alert. Floating on water is what we do, whether it be in a twelve-man raft doing down the world-famous Salmon River white water or a more leisurely trip in a tube through the middle of the capital city on the Boise River; when the mercury spikes, Idahoans take to the rivers! It has been a hot, humid summer in Chengdu, so a trip to the mountains and a river sounded like a perfect August weekend adventure.

And what an adventure it turned out to be!

Along with a dozen other members of the consulate community, I headed up to the mountain on Saturday morning. While I didn’t do a headcount, I’m pretty sure our little baker’s dozen was joined by nearly everyone else in the Chengdu basin that day! Who can resist the pull of a cool mountain stream when triple digits are the daily norm?

After stopping at the first rental shack to get pay our rafting fee, we headed down a flight of stairs to where we’d pick up our life jackets and oars. It took over half an hour to gather these river necessities, as the returning line was sparse and the borrowing “line” grew by the minute. (“Necessities” is a bit of an overstatement. Since the river was rarely more than five feet deep, and usually about two feet deep, there was little chance of drowning. The oar, on the other hand, when not being used to dislodge our raft from rocks, came in handy as a defensive weapon, so it turns out the wait was crucial.)

Finally, fully outfitted in bright orange life jackets (because the group of foreigners didn’t stand out enough to begin with!) we headed down the final flight of stairs, to await a raft that seemingly fell from the heavens. (Okay, it really came flying down a chute from the road above, but the crashing and violence of the arrival made it seem much more supernatural.)  With two to three people in each raft, off the foreign crew headed, six boats strong. (Columbus’ conquering fleet had nothing on us!)

We weren’t ten yards down the river before we realized this would be no normal afternoon of rafting. You see, because the river was so shallow, it was really easy for a group to pull their raft over to the side of the water and then set up camp, or more appropriately, set up an ambush! Chinese (we were the only non-Chinese in sight) people lined the sides of the river with water guns and buckets, just awaiting each raft to enter their claimed territory. Upon arrival, the rafts and rowers were drenched in water from all directions. Our leisurely day on the river turned into a three-mile water fight.

And it was awesome!

Who knew river rafting could be so interactive?

Not to be outdone, we decided to set up Foreigner Camp at a bend in the river, pulling our rafts onto a sandbar and spacing ourselves to take on the next set of rafters headed down the river. Again, it was awesome! Everyone on/near the river was fair game. I had old women drench me with buckets, only to watch them get the same treatment from one of our crew.

The long awaited oars spent much less time paddling than they did serving as water scoops, defending us from our river-borne enemies. Thad even had a little girl nemesis the entire length of the trip; her raft would periodically pull alongside our and she would hose him off with her water gun.

The day may not have turned out to be the lackadaisical float down a quiet mountain river that I had imagined, but was still a fantastic way to spend a hot Sichuan afternoon. Rafting, along with most things about this country, takes on a unique hue, best described by the phrase “with Chinese characteristics.”

(If you’re in the Chengdu area and looking for a tour company, check out Windhorse Tours!)

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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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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!


Take Two


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.


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“Streets” Are Where It Is At- Literally!

We’re doing it wrong.

America does many things well, but shopping organization is an area in which we lack. In Idaho, if I am looking for a particular item, say a plumbing part, I’d have to go to Home Depot, but then when I don’t find my needed part there, I have to get back in my car and check Lowe’s, D&B, Plumbers ‘R Us (I’m sure this store exists somewhere!), crisscrossing town until I find the store with my niche plumbing gewgaw. (Plumbing may have been a bad choice for this example, as I know exactly nothing about anything plumbing related, but I thought a household-fix item would hold more credibility than say a cute purse or the perfect pair of summer sandals.)

Suburban Stateside shopping is set up in a much more “all-in-one” fashion, where I can go to Target and get the latest best seller, as well as a case of Diet Mountain Dew for Thad, then with just a quick walk up the strip mall, I can stop in and get a wedding gift from Bed, Bath and Beyond, some brightly colored throw pillows at Cost Plus World Market and wrap up my wanderings with some cute shorts and a tank top from Old Navy.  At this point, my arms are full of bags that may or may not all fit in my trunk and it is time to hop in the car and head home. This is great for checking a lot of items off a list (although that list probably only had “Diet Mountain Dew” on it, which means this set-up is also great for spending way more of my paycheck than I had intended), but it is not great for comparison shopping.

In China, on the other hand, when it comes to a varied shopping list and convenience, you are just plumb out of luck. But, if you are looking for a selection, shopping is a breeze.  It’s all about the “streets.”

Want a dog? Go to Pet Street. You can get a pup, a kitten, a baby chinchilla or even a pot-bellied pig. (I was tempted!)

Need a bank safe? Go to Safe Street. (I regularly pass this area of town and am always amazed at the number of stores selling safe after safe. What are people keeping in them?!)

Need a Halloween costume? Go to Costume Street.( You can buy off the rack or get your Jem, from Jem and the Holograms, costume custom made.)

Need dishes and chopsticks? Go to Restaurant Street. (Also available: Lazy Susans, waitress uniforms, weird blown-glass centerpieces and baskets- lots and lots of baskets.)

Need a light fixture? Go to Lamp Street. (The lamp section of Chengdu is very close to my house, so I frequent it often. Since my house is decked out in very locally-styled light fixtures, all with about a million lights each, I am often there buying another bag full of less-than-long-lasting bulbs.)

My “street directory” could go on and on, rivaling the New York City Yellow Pages.  In China, shopping is just a matter of knowing which small area of town your item in found in and then once you are there, you’ve got more selection than you could ever want!

Usually, I get overwhelmed with the choices and walk away without actually making a purchase. This happened last summer when I was looking to buy an electric scooter. We went to Scooter Street and walked up and down the length of it- twice. Having too many bike options in my head to act, I headed home to ponder my next move. The following Saturday, we again went to Scooter Street (luckily it isn’t too far from our apartment) and walked the entire row. This time I actually test drove some scooters (on the sidewalk, of course!), making sure they were both stylish and equipped with a powerful horn. I actually narrowed down the options to about three, but couldn’t pull the purchasing trigger. It took a third trip to the street the following day to decide upon and bring home my newest form of transportation.  (If you’ve not seen pictures, check them out here!)

Streets. They really are the way to organize a shopping trip if it is in search of one particular item that you go. All it takes is a quick explanation of what you want to a taxi driver and before you know it you are down a hidden alley, facing a multitude of stores, all stocked with the single item you want.

What are you in need of? Yarn? A purse? Or even a plumbing part? Chengdu has a street for you!

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A Venn Diagram Foiled…

Venn diagrams are awesome! I used to make my students create them to compare and sort an array of different things, from vocabulary words to literary character traits to ideas for writing essays. So, as I wandered the grocery store last week, in my mind I thought about how I could make a Venn diagram to describe the similarities and differences between shopping in an American grocery store and shopping in a Chinese one. (I often write blog posts in my head when I am out and about in town. My daily taxi ride home seems to be a hotbed for blog ideas, some of which turn out to be great, but others of which turn out to be mere ramblings about excessive horn honking or women wearing control-top pantyhose with shorts so short I can see the control top. I should get a cute “blog” notebook and carry it around with me everywhere I go so I can record these brilliant insights bring them home and form them into coherent written thoughts!)

But, back to Venn diagrams and the supermarket.

My plan was to draw up a cute little overlapping set of circles (probably in well-coordinated colors like pink and blue so the center was a lovely purple) and fill them with shopping habits. It didn’t take long though, before I ran into a major roadblock with my diagram- my circles never crossed!

Yes, I could overlap with words like “food,” but that’s a 6th graders way out and would never have flown in my classroom, so there is no way it could go here. While there food at each supermarket, the food items are vastly different. For instance, my local Idaho Albertson’s, never have I seen live fish jumping out of their aquariums, flopping on the market floor and never once did I see bottle after bottle, shelf after shelf and aisle after aisle of high priced baijiu liquor displayed in fancy red boxes. But, on the other hand, in China, I’m never forced to choose between twenty-odd types of sandwich bread just to make a PB&J or have to discern the difference between a hundred different boxes of cereal.

I also considered putting grocery carts in my central Venn section, but again, a little more thought pushed them out of the running as well. Grocery carts- It seems easy enough, and yes, they exist in both countries, but Chinese grocery carts are made with some serious maneuverability in mind. Rather than having two set wheels and two free ones, the carts here have all four wheels able to go in any direction, meaning pushing a cart can make you look a bit like Bambi when he walks on ice for the first time. It is easy to get splayed out on the slick floor of the supermarket, holding on to the cart handle for dear (deer!) life.  And, as the cart gets fuller (and heavier) the exaggerated movements it takes to keep the basket on course becomes only more hyperbolic.

Even payment can’t fall into the pretty purple at the heart of my Venn diagram. China, at least western China, is still very much a cash economy. There is no easy swipe of the debit card or quick signature on the credit card slip to have you on your way. Nope. Here, cash is still king. It’s not all a bad thing though. There is an advantage to grocery shopping in cash only. Going into the store, I know exactly how much money is in my wallet and there can be no giving in to the temptation to buy a box of doughnuts or a bag of Cheetos, as funds are limited to what came with me from home. (Although, if I somehow stumbled across a box of doughnuts, I’d probably just dump the million-year shelf-life milk out of my crazy cart and make room for the sugary goodness of chocolate and sprinkles!)

With three China years under my belt, there are still times that supermarkets here overwhelm me and send me straight out the door with nothing to show for my trip. I can only imagine what a Chinese person on vacation in the US would think if they walked into a Costco where food is sold by the case lot, carts are upgraded for flatbed trolleys and it’s nearly impossible to get out of the store for under $100! Their mental diagram would have no more middle ground than the one planned out in my brain as I swerved and skidded up First Ring Road in my taxi last Friday.