Less Than a Month To Go (Shanghai)

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My favorite puppet at the Shanghai Puppet Exhibition

Why is it when you have arrived in a new place and survive the first month you feel like that month is a big chunk of time but when it is time to move yet again and you have a month left it is like you have no time at all?

I guess it is not rocket science.  When you first arrive in a place everything is new and exciting.  You explore the simple things like your new home, your neighborhood, figure out the new job routines and if you have kids get them adjusted to the new school or child care.

Now I am just sort of waiting to go.  I am counting down the days.  I am rather dreading when they pack up our things and I have still have time left in an apartment devoid of our personality.  And most importantly in an apartment without much to entertain my daughter.  I have tried to prepare her, she talks about it, but I will not know if she gets it until that day is here. I feel I  have one foot already in Africa and at least an arm and a good part of my torso in the US on home leave and training.  My head however is all over the place – it is here, it is in the US, it is in Malawi.  I am thinking ahead – to the vacation, to seeing friends and family, to the things I still need to prepare for the next phase of my career.  Yet I find myself often fretting over the things still to be done here.

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Well look at that, I bought myself a brand new (to me) car.  Now I am going to Disneyland!

A few weeks back I was really struggling.  I stayed up late most nights to try to tackle various aspects of my impending departure.  For about a week I had only 5 hours a sleep a night.  Then I crashed.  And suddenly things began to work themselves out.  I picked out the Japanese car I wanted to buy for shipment to Malawi, worked out the details, and then when my pay advance hit my bank account I bought the car.  After weeks of sweating the details of child care for my daughter during my DC training, and then cobbling together a complicated, but workable, plan, an email came out of the blue with a simple solution.  I wrote my personal statement for my annual evaluation in a day and a half  and my boss and my boss’ boss wrote their portions in record time.  All of the above still have little details to be worked out but the major issues are past me.  It’s Miller Time (well if I drank it would be Miller Time.  Since I do not drink it is Overindulge in Cheese and Get Some Much Needed Sleep Time).

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C jumps for the stars at the Shanghai Children’s Museum

The Bucketlisting in Earnest continues.  I had no idea I had so much ground still to cover but items continue to be added last minute.  For example, at the beginning of March our Consulate newsletter advertised a puppet show of Little Red Riding Hood in Mandarin at a apparently well-known puppet show venue.  The Shanghai Puppet Theater, founded in 1960, is actually located on the same street where I live, only a 25 minutes walk away.  I had no idea but decided to add a trip to the theater and puppet exhibition to our t0-do list.  The show, all in Mandarin, was enjoyable enough and the kids, including C, got into it.  I really enjoyed the exhibit of all different types of puppets from shadow to leather to marionette and more.   On another day we made a pilgrimage out to the newly re-opened Shanghai Children’s Museum.  A year and a half before we had attempted to visit only to find it shut with a typed sign in Chinese taped to the front door informing visitors it was closed for renovations.  Given the sign said it would take a year to renovate yet the building across from mine has been under some form of construction since our arrival over two years ago, I was not holding my breath we would ever see the inside of that place.  Then lo and behold I happened across an article saying it had just re-opened at the beginning of March and off we went.

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Even the building for the Yuan Dynasty Watergate Museum was cool

I took advantage of having a bit of leave and took half a day to visit the Shanghai Yuan Dynasty Watergate Museum while C stayed with the nanny.   As you can guess from the name the museum is pretty specialized — it is specifically about a watergate (sluice or lock) discovered a few decades ago during road expansion in Shanghai.  Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the story is that the road construction crews stopped their work when they hit the solid rock of the historic watergate AND the Shanghai government called in experts to examine the find AND they preserved the site and built a pretty great free museum to educate the public about it.  I will be honest here — I spent all of 25 minutes at the museum — but with its multimedia displays in English and Chinese I was impressed and I am glad I did not skip seeing it though I am glad I left C behind.  On another rainy day I made a solo visit to the very excellent Shanghai Film Museum.  I may not have known most of the celebrities, directors, or films, but I can certainly appreciate a well-designed museum.

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A view of the Astor House Hotel (left side red roof) and the Russian Consulate (center with flag) and the Garden Bridge across Suzhou Creek

This time of year is rainy season in Shanghai — many days have been cold, overcast, and drizzling.  This poses a problem when it comes to Bucketlisting in Earnest.  I cannot really plan what I will see or rather when I will see it.  I have a list — if it is a rainy day and I have time it is indoor museum time and if the weather is suddenly glorious then plans shift to the outdoors.  When the forecast all week called for rain on a Saturday but instead the sun shone I bustled C out the door for our Walk Along the Historic Bund.  We started at the Astor House Hotel, which was fitting as it was the first place I visited — in fact stayed — when I arrived in Shanghai for the first time in 2002. We then walked (well I walked and C enjoyed a ride in the stroller) to the historic Rockbund area where there stand several heritage buildings, including the former British Consulate.  On to the 1930s-era Art Deco building that houses the Rockbund Art Museum, another of Shanghai’s growing contemporary art venues.  Really cool building with a collection that again confirmed my dislike for modern art.  (An exhibit on the first floor of old crackers and sugar wafers confused C — she said she could barely concentrate because all she smelled were cookies.  Well, who are we kidding?  It confused me too).  Then a walk along the riverside pedestrian walkway for obligatory photos of C with the skyscraper skyline of Pudong across the Huangpu River.  We finished with a look at the Telecommunications Museum, where we could learn about the history of telecommunications in Shanghai and look at displays of old phones and phone books.  This might sound really boring but I found it interesting and must have made an impression on C who mentioned the old phone booths and books a few days later.

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When George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Everest he replied “Because it’s there.”  That’s my excuse for yet another trip to Shanghai Disney

We rounded out our recent Bucketlisting excursions with yet another trip to Shanghai Disney then joined friends to see the movie Beauty and the Beast.  We soon will head off to Malawi where there are no movie theaters and the closest Disney park (Paris) is 4,700 miles away.  We lucked out with one of the Disney-inspired metro trains on our way out to the park and C was just tall enough to finally ride the Jet Packs and just brave enough to take on the Pirates of the Caribbean.

It has been wonderful to get out of the house and see more places in Shanghai as part of my farewell, but also because back at the homestead all I see are our things and all I think about is the looming pack out.  Every item I lay eyes on — when I open my closet, walk into a room, open a cupboard — seems to ask me to determine its fate: in the suitcase? In the air shipment to the US?  In the boat shipment to Malawi?  Or is it time to say part ways?  It is maddening.  At work I find myself alternating between the extremes — in a four hour interview shift I may swing from irritation at how many times I have asked these same questions to feeling a soppy sentimentality about the applicants.  Just yesterday I thought again how often I see Chinese family members traveling together — not just couples and their children, but new couples on honeymoons with their parents, sister-in-laws taking trips together, retired sibling couples, grandparents and their grandchildren, and extended families of six or eight all on a group tour with one another.   And I start thinking of all the aspects of Shanghai I will miss.

Only 10 more work days to go–seven more interview days, two more fingerprinting days, and one clean my desk and say goodbye day.  Plus three weekends, a pack-out prep day, pack out day, Consulate check-out day, two days of leave and one holiday.  T-minus 24 days.

45 1/2 Days and Counting (Shanghai)

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Time for spring cleaning and spring moving. (Blossoms in bloom in Century Park, Feb 2017)

The food (in my cabinets) is no longer interesting.

I have zero interest in my clothes.

Retail therapy cannot help me anymore as I have stopped making purchases.

I am not 100% sure, but I might want to never, ever, EVER move again.

Welcome to that time when the move is soon, but not really all that soon.

I am not a fan of this time; it makes me uncomfortable.  I do not feel like I have free time — because all the time I think I should be doing something to prepare.  I feel as though my life is divided into segments:  work (yes, I have to keep doing my job but also wrapping up work-related projects), preparing the logistics of the move, sorting through our things for the physical move, hitting the bucket list hard, and sleep.  The last is the hardest to do because if I am not doing one of the other things then I am thinking about doing them.

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Moving is fun!

In the last 45 days or so I have made real headway on some big and some small projects.  I made several hotel reservations for during home leave and purchased our tickets to Disney World.  I completed two really large personal projects — finally moved the last of my photos to a file hosting site in The Cloud and put together a photo book for C’s 4th year.  If you have ever made a photo book in your life then right now you are shaking your head in wonder at my incredible ingenuity completing it in just a few weeks.  Seriously. I am amazing.  My taxes are done.  So is a huge nine page document I prepared for my supervisor on my work accomplishments over the past year.  I scheduled my pre-pack out survey and pack out, requested a pay advance, filled in two departure related surveys for different Consulate offices, reserved our plane tickets as well as transport for our two cats, and wrote a recommendation letter for our wonderful nanny.  And perhaps THE MOST FUN was taking my two cats to the Shanghai Shenpu Pet Hospital to get their required-for-export vaccinations.

I wish I could tell you that I am done and for now on it is smooth sailing.

But that would be a lie.

There still is so much to do.  From completing my annual evaluation report to buying a car from Japan and shipping it to Malawi.  There is more fun with pets and export authorities still to come.  I also still need to organize childcare for when I am in training in the US and later in Malawi. And organize all our things for the actual moving day.

I am obsessed with the organization of stuff aspect.  There are the things to keep and the things not to keep.  Seems pretty simple.  But it isn’t.  Of the Things Not to Keep there are the Things to Use Up, the Things to Throw Away, the Things to Give Away and the Things to Try to Sell.  Of the Things to Keep there are the Things that Go in the Household Effects (the “HHE” i.e. the things that will go from Shanghai to Malawi and we will not see again for many moons), the Things that Go in the Unaccompanied Baggage (the “UAB” which we will see again in the US after several weeks of home leave), and the Things that Go in the Luggage (the items that I will try to stuff into our two pieces each checked suitcases).  BTW – these phrases are all official moving terminology.

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C’s vision of Malawi?  Disney hyenas and gifts?

Every. Single. Day I try to make a decision about some item.  I use things up — the mound of foodstuffs featured previously is mostly gone. Sometimes I put an item into a suitcase and add it to the suitcase list, which is a piece of paper where I write the contents of said suitcase (I am brilliant at naming things, my cat’s name is “Cat” just in another language).  I toss things out, and, it is a bit embarrassing to admit this, I have a list for that too.  This is not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, particularly for a child of Pack Rats.  My parents saved nearly everything.  I do not want to, but I agonize over possessions anyway.  Now it is not only my things but also my daughter’s.  Try convincing a 5 year old she does not need every drawing she ever drew or every picture she ever colored or every stuffed animal ever given to her.  I believe I have at least been successful in telling her we will buy no more here in Shanghai.  It is part of my The Best of Moving to Malawi Mix-Tape in which I regal her with all the benefits and wonders of moving to our new home.  She will go to school full time!!  (this works wonders because she is a half day student here in Shanghai and she wants more than anything to go to school FULL DAY)  She gets to decide on the theme of her new room!! (Moana.  No, horses.  No, I changed my mind, definitely Moana) We get to live where there are hyenas (Mom, do not let the cats out of the house in Malawi or the hyenas will eat them).  We will have a yard in Malawi (and she can kick the soccer ball in the house and not worry about downstairs neighbors.  She is right on not bothering neighbors, wrong on soccer in the house).  And the best of all is that there will be toys, toys, and more TOYS to be had in Malawi!  She seems to have confused Malawi with Christmas, but if it helps her to focus on our new home and not feel too sad about leaving, then I am willing to let the illusion stand for awhile.

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Shanghai’s three giants at night (from left to right: SWFC, Shanghai Tower, Jin Mao tower)

Meanwhile I am also Shanghai bucket-listing like crazy.  Yes, I just made bucket list a verb.  Two weekends ago I reserved one night at the Grand Hyatt hotel in the Jin Mao Tower in Pudong.  The Jin Mao building is one of the tallest in the world and the third tallest in Shanghai and the Grand Hyatt is one of the highest hotels in the world occupying floors 53 to 87.  We had a river view on the 66th floor.  Wow!  The weather was pretty great with sunshine, low air quality index readings, and blue sky.  We visited the huge Century Park, strolling through blooming orchards and enjoying kiddie rides at the amusement park.  We also went to the top of both Jin Mao tower (on the 88th floor) and the Shanghai World Financial Center Tower observation deck on the 100th floor.  We went up the latter in the evening to get the bird’s eye view of Shanghai at night — C fell asleep thus enjoying one of the highest napping areas in the world.

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My ticket to the fascinating world of Shanghai policing – past and present

On President’s Day I visited the Shanghai Public Security Museum, reportedly the country’s first museum dedicated to policing and one of the few small museums in Shanghai open on Mondays.  This somewhat out of the way museum also appears on numerous “museums to visit in Shanghai” lists and as such made the bucket list.  It occupies the second, third, and fourth floors of what what appears to be a police building.  A uniformed policeman asked me to sign in and handed over my free ticket.  Although there was only a little English signage other than that introducing the content of each room (traffic policing, criminal investigations, domestic and international police cooperation) it was actually rather interesting.  I realize that people may call foul and say I do have the language, and you would be right, to an extent.  My Chinese long ago boiled down to little more than “why do you want to go to America?” and I have practically given up on reading.  I certainly do not have the vocabulary to read up on police procedures.  And yet, the graphic photos of a Black Dahlia-like case, a stuffed police dog, and fish sewn up with drugs inside were fairly self explanatory.

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C enjoys the rooftop cafe and viewing area at the Power Station of Art

I took advantage of another beautiful weekend day in Shanghai to drag C to the Power Station of Art, a contemporary art museum housed in the digs of a former power station on the west bank of the Huangpu River.  Although I am not a fan of modern art by a long shot, the museum had its highlights.  The use of the building architecture would be a plus.  I love re-purposing buildings and retaining a lot of the old structure to create a new space.   People watching too kept me busy — the museum was packed with a line out front, something I had not expected at all — and some of the hippest, most fashionable people of Shanghai were out in force.  I even found several pieces that I liked!  And yet the art installations of a block of 40-some black standing electric fans and the one of half empty paint cans, paint stained rags, and a half finished painted area had me scratching my head and wondering if I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in the supply cabinet.

On yet another day (I told you I was bucket listing — talk about action verb!) while C was in the care of the nanny I visited the Shanghai Railway Museum, the Duolun Cultural Street and the Lu Xun Memorial Park including the Lu Xun Museum and Mausoleum. I could hardly believe my luck with the weather — Shanghai wants me to see all of its places in the best way possible.

There is still more to see and still more to do before we leave.  And there is still a bit more time to do it in.  Just about 45 1/2 days, give or take a 1/2 day.

No G20 For Me (and Other Stories of Single Parenthood in the Foreign Service)

It has been a year and a half since I was approached to write an essay on being a single parent in the Foreign Service.  That essay was a revelation for me.  It made me reflect on, for the first time, what it meant to be both in the Foreign Service and a single parent.  It also connected me with other single parents serving in the US government overseas as I sought out advice and other viewpoints for the essay.

About a year after the publication of the first essay I was again approached to write on the topic for another book.  I had the option of just reprinting the original essay or updating.  Initially I thought, not much has changed—I am still in the same location and my daughter had yet to start school—so what more could I write about?  But then I thought about it and I realized I did not have to think all that hard to come up with more material.

keep-calm-and-single-mom-onOne of the first new challenges came early in fall 2015 when I had to make the difficult choice to be medically evacuated to Singapore for several days without my then-3 year old daughter.   I know, I know.  I am still trying to come to terms with how that particular scenario came to pass.  There was certainly pressure on me to leave her behind because it would be “easier” to do so, though easier for whom I never really understood.   I initially fought to take her.  I insisted that she would be included on my travel orders and I was successful.   I then tried to find child care, which is what proved impossible.  There was a high likelihood I would be hospitalized, though the time frame—maybe a few hours, maybe overnight, maybe a second night—was uncertain.    Although there were several hotels in Singapore listed to have babysitting services, not only were they all the most expensive in the city-state and well above the government reimbursable rates, and while I would be hospitalized the hotel would not be covered anyway, but how do you arrange a sitter for an indeterminate amount of time?   So instead her nanny stayed with her overnight three nights and two other single Foreign Service parents served as Power of Attorney, checking in on her and emailing me daily.  It was not easy – I thought a lot about the fact I was separated from my young daughter not only for several days but also by international boundaries at least a five hour flight away.  Now, I am not 100% sure of the right way through what happened but I know I will be a better advocate for us both should it happen again.

By the following summer I was presented with yet another challenge.  The G-20 was coming to Hangzhou, China, within our Consular coverage area.  Oh, how I wanted to volunteer to assist in any way I could.  As a Foreign Service officer, assisting with such multi-national organizational meetings is part of what we do.  As a political officer, particularly one who has yet to serve in a political position, it would mean so much more.  And yet I had to be realistic.

In my original essay I had said something along the lines of it not being necessary for the single parent to put his or her hand up for every volunteer opportunity because their colleagues are not.  I was wrong.  Some of my colleagues were and are.  Some of them seem to have inexhaustible reserves of time and energy.  Many of those doing so are single without dependents, but not all of them.  Many are also married and some have children.  I cannot compete.  But honestly I do not have to.  I will not say it has been easy to come to terms with these limitations and to be strategic in what I volunteer for; it has not.  But I stand by my original advice to be realistic with oneself, to set expectations, and to have a straightforward conversation with your supervisor.   I may have missed out on the temporary duty opportunities to Hangzhou and India and Haiti and Ecuador and around China, but I found other meaningful and equally important ways to support our mission.  And although I did not get a picture of myself with the US President, I did walk my daughter to preschool on her first day, something I would have missed if I had been at the G-20.

working-parent-aheadPreschool, that was my next test.  My first experience with the preschool came in the form of the email requesting payment of tuition.  The entire 17,000 RMB (US$2474) tuition and 1000 RMB (US$145) registration fee were to be paid in cash on one of two days between the hours of 9 and 9:30 AM.   Although the letter noted that should someone be unable to pay the tuition on the stated days and times then one could notify the committee and they will try to make alternative arrangements.  “Try” seemed the operative word – implying the parents who were unable to pay on those dates and times were inconveniencing the committee and it would be at the discretion of the committee to be accommodating.  Wow.

Recently the preschool teacher sent out a message to all the parents to ask for volunteers to teach a cultural class each day for a week.  The message went out on a Monday for classes two weeks later, after the Chinese New Year.   I would have loved to have participated. Unfortunately, my job required me to submit my requested leave dates for the August 2016-February 2017 time period last June!  It is not impossible to change, but it can be denied.  This very issue nearly derailed my attempt to attend the preschool Christmas pageant when the date was abruptly changed two weeks beforehand despite being on the calendar the previous three and a half months.

I had expected to feel some pangs of jealousy missing out on a few school activities, but I have had other unexpected negative feelings.  The very narrow and specific times to pay the tuition and the sudden rescheduling of the Christmas pageant (seemingly to accommodate the travel schedule of one parent on the preschool committee at the expense of others) felt at best just inflexible, based on some kind of outmoded idea of family.  At worst…well, maybe I will leave that to your imagination? I am still working out how I feel, but one thing I did realize is that my experience in this area is not unique to single parenting, but is part of a broader challenge to working parents.

In all of this my daughter C and her friends are becoming more aware of differences in family structures.  While trick-or-treating I overheard one of C’s school friends ask “How come you don’t have a dad?” And C, not yet 5 years old, responded matter-of-factly “I have a dad but he doesn’t live with us.  He lives in Kentucky.”   Although I will say that particular moment warmed my heart, I was feeling much less confident when just before the Christmas pageant she burst out crying because it would be the nanny and I attending and her father and I.  The outburst came out of nowhere and hit me like a cast iron pan to the head.   In these issues too I am not alone.

support-just-aheadNow I am in the middle of preparing to move us – myself, my daughter, our two cats, and our stuff – across three continents in a matter of four months, I am reminded again of the Herculean effort Foreign Service Officers put in to move themselves from Point A to Point B.  That is not to say we have no help, but we do a surprising amount on our own.  I am not going to say it is harder as a single parent – every FSO whether single, married, with children or some other permutation, has equal but different challenges.

Here though is where I circle around and mention again the connections I have made that have helped make single parenting in the Foreign Service easier (not easy, just easier).  The affinity group myself and a colleague started has in just two years grown from a handful of members to over 80.  That may not seem like much but it makes a difference to me and our members to know we are not single parenting in this career alone.  Beyond a support group I have also found allies and advocates.  These may be former single parents, those raised by single parents, or just plain awesome people who acknowledge my situation, support me, and lift me up.  I have been extremely fortunate at my current post where I not only serve with other single parents but also have received friendship and encouragement from two former single parents and seven, yes, SEVEN colleagues who came forward to tell me they were raised by single parents.   And they became diplomats!

Of course there is more to come!  Childcare while I am training in DC remains a challenge without resolution.   And soon enough we will arrive in a new country where I will start a new job, need to find a new nanny, and C starts kindergarten.   Whew.  At least so far, so good.

 

 

A Krabi Chinese New Year

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The confusing duck display at Pudong Airport.  Our first year seemed to be the year of the ram/sheep/goat/deer so I guess for the Year of the Rooster any fowl, water or land, will do

It is Chinese New Year again and our third (and final) one in Shanghai.  Having already done our Chinese New Year in the city penance once, it was time to get out of Dodge yet again.

Initially the plan was to visit to a new country.  I mean a new-for-me country and that is becoming increasingly hard for me to do in Asia.  I had a few ideas.  I had been debating about someplace in the Middle East, particularly a country where a good friend is posted, but as I was bidding one country in the region I decided to hold out until after I had secured my onward assignment.  Having waited until that auspicious time I discovered it was going to cost me an arm and a leg and maybe a few digits to make that trip, so I started to look closer to home.  I hemmed and hawed.  I recalled a friend from Shanghai had visited Krabi.  I looked up the ticket prices.  Yikes!  Chinese New Year price gouge.  I closed my eyes and hit “purchase.”

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Long-tailed boats in Ao Nang Bay.  Nope, not a mistake to come here.

This will be our last big trip from Shanghai.  It comes in the middle of the crazy wrapping-up-my-work-and-life-in-Shanghai and preparing-to-move-across-three-continents period so I wanted it to be easy.  I have been to Thailand so many times I have lost count (I can say that about no other country).   Although I had never been to Krabi, and that appealed to me, it is, for the most part, just a beach destination.  As a result there was no pressure to go here and there to see things.    I made few plans other than to book a resort hotel with kids amenities.

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The magical and wonderful Kids Club

This vacation has turned out like no other.  First it is because of the kind of hotel where we stayed.  While we did stay at an all-inclusive resort hotel in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic in October 2015, this is not my common travel practice.  That hotel too was quite isolated.  The Holiday Inn Resort Krabi Ao Nang beach is not.  It is located on the main strip in the beach town.  We have options to head out and about.  But for the first several days I simply chose not to do so. Secondly, C is finally old enough to go to the Kids’ Club all by herself.  I had no idea how this would impact the vacation, but my goodness, what a change!  She spends hours and hours there coloring, making crafts, watching kid-friendly television and movies, playing with LEGOs, and making friends.  The very first day she won the title of “dancing queen” at the Kids Club dance party (complete with crown and snack prize) and was invited to a birthday party to be held at the club the following day.  This has led to the third difference in this vacation- the amount of things that I have been able to do on my own.  Unfortunately, given that this trip comes at a time when I am under a lot of pressure to manage our move on top of other commitments, I did bring some “work” with me.  In the course of the week I have written three blog posts (this one included), completed uploading a huge number of photos from my computer to a cloud storage (and in so doing learned just how incredibly slow my Internet is in Shanghai), have reserved several hotels for during my home leave in popular places where hotels are likely to sell out, started and finished my next book club book, and started and completed my taxes!

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Do not feel too bad for me.  This was my view as I did my taxes.

I know, I know.  Not exactly the things dream vacations are made of.  While my daughter was at the Kids Club I did also go for an ill-advised run (my first in months) in the sweltering noon heat and took advantage of the hotel spa more than once for some very much-advised massage.  My daughter and I also were able to spend a lot of quality time together in the pool, at meals, walking along the beach or to shops in town.  I asked her about her time in the Kids Club and she shared her artwork and stories with me.

We also did some special activities together.  On the fourth day of our vacation C and I went horseback riding.  C loves horses and the only brochure to catch her eye at the nearby travel and tour booth was the one with horses.  I grimaced.  She’s 5.  In most of my online research, places generally allow horse riding from 8 and a few places from 6.  I quietly informed C of this and she burst out in tears.  I told her we would ask.  We sat at the booth with baited breath as the attendant made the call and had what felt like the longest conversation possible to find out the answer to what seemed a simple question “what is the minimum age for this horse riding activity.”  C patiently waited the verdict.  Just kidding.  She asked me every 5 seconds if she could go horse riding.  Imagine my surprise when the woman told us that C could in fact go horse riding as all of the horses are led.  C gave a few fist pumps and danced for joy.

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C on the beach during our ride

We waited in the hotel lobby for our pick up.  C scanned every vehicle and immediately noticed the truck with the pictures of horses when it drove up.  We sat in the back of the songthaew, on the long benches, a side for each of us.  There were no other passengers and we made no stops to pick up anyone else.  The wind blew through our hair and C let out whoops of delight.  I felt an incredible feeling of lightness and bliss.  At the riding center, some 15 minutes away by truck, we disembarked and were quickly given our mounts.  C could hardly contain her excitement — her own horse!

The ride was one hour along the beach.  I felt fairly confident that C would grow bored with the riding after 10 minutes, 15 minutes tops.  But she did not.  We had gone a full 50 minutes before she told me that she would like to go back to the barn.  The beach was okay — the tide was high and there was little beach at all, with the horses stepping into the shallow water to get around low hanging branches.  There was little scenery.  A few long-tailed boats floated near the shore and a few of the iconic rocks jutting out of the sea that Krabi is famous for were visible in the distance.  Yet none of that really mattered.  My horse followed behind C and as I watched her sit proudly on her very own horse, chatting away to no one in particular(the horse? the Thai boy who led the horse?  To me?) I simply felt happy.

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C helps this elephant take a bath

When you ask C what her favorite animal is she will tell you that she loves ALL THE ANIMALS.  But I know she does have a particular fondness for cats, horses and elephants.  To round out our holiday I decided on one more activity–elephant riding coupled with an elephant bath.  This time the truck that picked us up would pick up 8 more passengers, filling the back of the songthaew.  There were no other children and though at first I worried about this – is this a child appropriate activity? what kind of mother am I? – I soon felt an absurd amount of pride to be able to give C this kind of experience.  We set off on the elephant trek through the jungle, crossing some streams.  Our elephant ride in Chiang Mai was 15 minutes and plenty long enough (ooh, my bum!) so I had some concerns about a full hour but again it was just right.  After the ride we were given fresh pineapple and water but C had disappeared – I found her sweeping up leaves with a Thai mother and her 2 year old son.  We all then headed to the river to help a playful 7 year old elephant take her bath.  The laughs we had!  Some of the best money ever spent.

It was not easy to leave Krabi after such a wonderful week especially now that I am back in cold, grey, poor air quality Shanghai.  We relaxed.  We played.  We had adventures.  I wrote.  C made friends.  I saw a glimpse of C’s increasing independence (and mine).  It was just what C and I needed and I am ready (sorta, kinda, do I have a choice?) to tackle the last ten weeks here.

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(I am also VERY happy to report that I neither forgot to pack something for the trip nor lost anything, which given the last few trips and all that I have on my mind is a major accomplishment.)

 

 

 

The Trip in Inappropriate Shoes

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As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.

In December 2001 and January 2002 I took the five week winter break between my first and second semesters of graduate school to travel in Southeast Asia. I spent the first two weeks in Indonesia, on the island of Bali, with my then-Balinese boyfriend. Originally we had planned to travel together for the rest of the weeks, but soon after my arrival it was apparent the relationship was not going to last. So, we broke up and on January 1 I flew into Bangkok to begin three weeks of travel split between Cambodia and Thailand.

I started this trip with only one pair of ill-advised shoes — a pair of cheap sandals I had purchased in a mom-and-pop store in northern Bali the spring before.  They were two inch high pieces of foam rubber with a wide blue band with no grip whatsoever on the bottom.  One time while walking in Lovina, the town in northern Bali I lived in for several months, I slipped on the sidewalk and landed on my behind in 2 seconds flat.  These were clearly some high quality shoes and just perfect for some backpacking.  I have long wanted to write a story of this trip with this title, though the shoes are only a minor actor in the tale.

On January 1 I flew to Bangkok.  I was exhausted and did not have the energy to do much searching for a cheap place.  The place I stayed the last two times appeared to be closed so I went a few doors down and paid $8 for a room.  I believe this is the most I have ever paid for a room in Thailand.  I did not do much for the next two days but eat and sleep and read.  I needed a rest.  Then I booked a bus ticket to Siem Reap.

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Me and my backpacks at the Thai/Cambodian border

The bus was supposed to pick me up at 6:45 am.  I was a little anxious as the last time I was to be picked up early for a bus in Bangkok it failed to arrive.  But at 10 til 7 a man showed up in front of me and asked “Siem Reap?”  I nodded and I was moved about 10 feet from where I had been standing.  Ten minutes later another person came up and asked “Siem Reap?” I nodded and was ushered along with another group of groggy foreigners shuffling down the street.  We walked about 10 minutes and crossed a rather busy road to wait in a highway circle.  There were buses there but the herders made no move to get us on them.  We stood for about 15 minutes and then the selection process began.  We were asked to show our tickets.  Some people got yellow tape or a badge to place on their shirts.  I received neither and was held back in a smaller group.  I began to wonder what was going on.  Then we were motioned to move onto a second bus.  The first bus looked more posh, but ours was less crowded and I actually had two seats to myself.  Our tickets were checked again and we were given orange pieces of paper, and then we were off.

We drove to the Thai/Cambodia border where we disembarked for lunch and visa applications.  We went through immigration on the Thai side and then walked across to the Cambodian side.  It seemed a strange border as all kinds of people were simply walking across without checks.  Unfortunately one person from our bus was denied entry and had to return to Bangkok.  We changed to a mini bus on the Cambodian side and our orange pieces of paper were collected.  Unfortunately some riders had lost the paper, were berated by our “guide” and were forced to pay more money to continue.

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Me among the ruins of Angkor

This time we were squeezed in shoulder to shoulder and the road was incredibly worse, if it could be called a road at all.  We were told we would arrive at Siem Reap at 7 pm, but instead finally made it at 9.  The trip had been fun for the first few hours and then it became very tiresome.  I guess that it is part of the beauty of travel, it was easy to get there then some of the fun is lost, at least then fun in re-telling the journey, and everyone would do it.  Again, exhausted, I took the first guesthouse I found.

I stayed three days in Siem Reap and saw the incredible temples of Angkor.  I spent hours examining the amazing carvings in the largest of the temples and clamoring over ruins in those ridiculous shoes of mine.  And yet I wrote very little of this part of the trip. 

On January 8, I had a 5:30 am pick-up for a truck to take me to Tonle Sap lake and then the boat to Phonm Penh.  I had a choice seat in the back with my legs crushed awkwardly under other people’s backpacks.  As we bounced over the steadily worsening road, I was sure I was going to bounce out backwards into a rice paddy, but after some 30 minutes we all made it safe and sound.  We boarded small boats to ferry us out to the “BIG” boat, which turned out to be not all that big.  I sat in the very last row in the back of the boat where the boat vibrated so loudly I could not hear the Cambodian karaoke movie properly (a blessing?).  I tried sleeping bu the vibration made my nose itch beyond control.  Instead I read my book (which I left behind and I will never know what happened in Mexico) and watched the mute videos.  Four hours later I gratefully disembarked in the capital.

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The sobering country map at Cheoung Ek

The same day I went to visit the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek.  After a bumpy 25 minute motorbike ride I arrived at the field where the Khmer Rouge killed thousands of people, bludgeoning them to save bullets.  There is just the excavated graves and a pagoda with 17 shelves of skulls, almost 9,000 of them.  And 43 graves yet to be excavated.  My guide lost his parents there.  The weather was beautiful – a sunny day with blue skies, the fields green.  It reminded me of when I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau.  On the 9th I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, which used to be a school but was turned into a prison for interrogation and torture.  Not a day of lightness.  Is it strange that this country boast the architectural achievements of the Khmers in monuments of beauty and grace and yet is also home to some of the sites of the most atrocious horrors done by humans to other humans.  Not uplifting, but it should be seen nonetheless.

I flew from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, stayed one night, and then flew to Phitsanulok in Thailand, where I took a bus to Sukhothai.

As soon as I step off the bus in Sukhothai I am accosted by a woman who demands to know where I want to go. I look at my guidebook.  Yupa guesthouse?  OK.  Forty baht.  I look at her dubiously but agree.  As we head to the “taxi” I realize it is a little truck, a songtheaw.  I also notice another songtheaw full of Thai people though I am being led to an empty one.  I aks her, how come all the Thai people are over there?  Farang (foreigner) 40 baht and Thai 5 baht, I ask her.  She laughs as she helps me into my own personal truck.  You must walk far if you take Thai truck, this truck right to door, no walking!  I wearily agree and off we go.

I do not have much energy for the day so I have lunch and take a nap.  I meet a woman from Belgium and we agree to have dinner.  She tells me the truck from the bus station is 10 baht.  The woman from Belgian tells me that the guesthouse is blissfully quiet.  I can hardly wait.  As I lay down to sleep after a furious storm a concert begins.  It is Children’s Day and some pop star from Bangkok is in town and there is nothing more enjoyable to do on Children’s Day then to set up a huge outdoor concern and keep all the children and everyone else in town awake until after midnight.  I put in my earplugs and try to get some sleep.

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A bridge at Si Satchanalai

iOn January 13 I decide to visit Si Satchanalai, another town 56 kilometers north of Sukhothai, where there are some nice ruins.  I consult someone at the guesthouse down the road and discover I can take a bus in the direction of Chiang Rai.  The owner of my guesthouse gives me instructions to the bus station.  He tells me “PingBaBaBuKaLa.”  I look at him.  He repeats “PingBaBaBuKaLa.”  I repeat after him.  He looks at me.  I realize he is saying “Pink Purple Bus Color.”  Ah ha!  I am set.

I write nothing about my time in Si Satchanalai or Sukhothai.  I am always curious of my choices to record some things and not others.  I remember renting a bicycle and riding around the ruined city and my ridiculous shoes constantly fell off as I cycle and I walk right out of them when I get stuck in some mud. 

I travel next to Chiang Mai.  I take part in a Thai cooking course.  I take a three hour Thai massage introductory course at the handicapped center.  I visit Doi Suthep, the temple on the top of the mountain, where I assist an Italian woman bitten by a dog.  I then follow it with my unexpected trip to the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Facility, which I chronicled in another post.  As I sit in a hotel room, once again in Thailand many years later, I feel nostalgia for this trip, for the kind of travel I used to do.  Though this time I have some better shoes.

 

 

 

 

I Hope They Have Cheese

I have to be quite honest here, grocery shopping in Shanghai is pretty great.  I want for few things.  It is China after all, where they manufacture and grow just about everything under the sun.  That is not to say you may not miss some things.  For example if you are a die hard fan of Trader Joe’s or Amy’s Enchiladas or the shrimp and avocado sushi rolls they make at the deli at Whole Foods, then you are gonna have to do without.  But with a few adjustments you can find most of the things you need and want.  Sure, sometimes you might pay through the nose for your must-have items (see my earlier post) and other times you might have to set aside some of your food safety and security concerns.

I generally shop at four supermarkets, all within a half mile radius of my apartment.  The one I patronize the most is the City Shop supermarket located in the basement of my apartment complex.  Located in one of the swankest addresses in town (voted several years running as one of the top serviced apartment complexes in the city), the prices are not going to be the most competitive, but I am all about paying a little extra for convenience.  And being able to stop in on my walk home, or during lunch, or a quick visit before the nanny heads home (i.e. without my daughter) is worth the extra money to me.  I will also go with my daughter.  They have child-sized shopping carts so the kids can help out, which C generally loves to do.  They also sell, right next to the front cash register, medium-sized jars filled with water, plants, and tiny fish that serve as mini aquariums or a bunch of cheap plastic kids toys with candy — either of these items will keep my daughter entertained while I shop.  And when all else fails (i.e. C opts to roam free at the supermarket — though not in the fish tank aisle, which she is afraid of because sometimes the shrimp jump out of the tanks), I know my daughter is safe there as all the staff know her.

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The Olé fruit section is a thing of beauty

Once or twice a month we head across the street to the Olé supermarket.  This place is so swank that they have an accent over the “e” in Ole.  Reportedly some 70% of their items are imported and their places reflect that.  If I buy a single can of Diet Coke at City Shop it costs me 2.5 RMB (US$ 0.36) but I can get what appears to be an identical can at Olé for 9 RMB (US$1.30) because it is imported from South Korea.  Still their fruit section is dazzling.  I may not want to spend 80-100 RMB (US$12 to $14.50) for a few pints of raspberries or some white cherries, but sometimes I like to look at them stacked up beautifully in the section and wonder about the people who do.  There are times though that City Shop’s fruit section is sometimes wanting and a trip across the street will mean acquiring the strawberries or pomegranates I know are in season.  Olé also has this super-delish Italian-imported vanilla gelato made with Madagascan vanilla bean that makes my heart leap.  I do not often eat ice cream, but when I do, I forever want it to be this kind of creamy goodness.  Olé also has better seasonal – i.e. Halloween and Christmas – selections when those times of year roll around.  C sees heading to Olé as a real treat – she often asks at odd times, like 9 PM at night, to go to the “across the street supermarket” because they have carts in the shape of cars and sell miniature hot dogs baked in bread.  Dreamy.

Then on the rare occasion I also shop at Pines, a mom-and-pop kind of enterprise that tends to have imported goodies you can find no where else.  I have found Country Kitchen pancake syrup, Betty Crocker cake mix, and some Chef Boyardee.  OK.  I realize that some people might have just balked at calling these “goodies” but it is all a matter of perspective and upbringing.  For me, these preservatives in a bottle/box/can remind me of my childhood and America.  I do not buy them often, but sometimes I  feel better knowing they are available if and when I want them.  There is also a supermarket in the basement of the Westgate shopping center (梅龙镇广场 or Plum Dragon Town Square is you were to translate it directly), where the U.S. Consulate visa section is located.  It is part of the Isetan Department Store and so has lots of Japanese imports.  Fruits are often astronomically expensive but so perfectly beautiful that at some price points I cannot help but buy.

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A Trader Joes/Whole Foods-kind of experience at Hunter Gatherer

There are also tons of little family run stores, often for fruits and vegetables.  Urumuqi North Street is one not too far away that has dozens of these along its length, including the famous “Avocado Lady.”  If I happen to be walking back from the main Consulate building, located on the same street, I will pop in for some bargain priced locally-produced fruit.  Some people make an effort to head out to wet markets to buy their produce.  If you scroll up to paragraph two you will note that I shop very close to home.  Some might say I am lazy but really I am just a time-strapped working single mom who chooses time-saving proximity to less time conscious bargain-hunting (!).  Wet markets also tend to be places where one can buy “fresh” meat, sometimes so fresh it is still alive, and live seafood.  C does not just avoid the seafood aisle of our City Shop due to spontaneously jumping shrimp, but because she also has a history of sudden, um, illness when she sees crabs, lobsters, and such.  Not really my idea of fun.

There are also other grocery experiences for those who want something different.  Hunter Gatherer is an organic, farm-to-table, restaurant/grocery or a “seed-to-table ecosystem that serves and celebrates real food” according to their website.  In addition to store shopping you can also order online at one of numerous places like Kate & Kimi, Fields, and Epermarket.  I used to do the online grocery shopping and delivery when I lived in Washington, DC as a childless hipster.  (Okay, when I was childless because I do not think anyone would have ever called me a hipster)  However, I was really slow to catch on in Shanghai.  While I had colleagues who had ordered their first grocery delivery within a week of arrival it took me, oh, I don’t know, 18 months?  I received an online invite to join in the grocery delivery revolution, and all I had to do was order my first order and I would receive a welcome basket of seasonal veggies for free.  I ordered something like 250 RMB (US$36.20) of groceries to give it a go.  Imagine my surprise when they were not only delivered on time but the box of free stuff was enormous!

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The free welcome box!  It contained a bag of potatoes, a bunch of eggplant, a box of tomatoes, a box of mushrooms, a box of carrots, 2 ears of corn, 2 avocados, 2 bell peppers, 1 zucchini, 1 head of broccoli, and 1 pumpkin!!

Shopping in Shanghai is not always bliss.  Although I prefer to head to one supermarket each one has special things that the others do not.  One will have Japanese soy bean rice crackers.  Another will have frozen raspberries.  A third will have Tartare, the French cream cheese with fine herbs.  Yet another will have Tostitos.  Or at least they will some of the time.  There is always the chance that a store that has a favorite import today will not have it tomorrow or next week or maybe ever again.

About six months into our time in Shanghai, C and I are on one of our trips visiting Olé when C spies a box of chocolate Lucky Charms.  She has never had them before but declares suddenly she must have them.  I am reluctant to spend US$12 on a box of cereal she might only eat two bites of, but I find myself buying it anyway.  She loves it. I buy a second box.  She wants to eat it for breakfast every day.  I go to buy another box, they do not have anymore.  Not that week, or the next, or months after that.  I buy a couple of boxes while on Medevac and again on R&R and bring them back in our suitcases.  Friends bring a few boxes when they visit.  But I do not find it at my supermarkets again.

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Where did the rest of the cheese go?  Evidence of the beginning of the Great Cheese Shortage of 2015

There was also the Great Cheese Shortage of 2015, followed by another Lesser Cheese Shortage of 2016.  It was the first that prompted me to first consider writing a blog post about grocery shopping in Shanghai with this title.  It was right around the National Day.  In mid-September the once full shelves of cheese began to empty out.  Little by little the good, imported cheese was gone leaving only “cheese” cheese — you know, the kind of cheese that has to be put into parentheses.  I took the photo above of the limited cheese selection and another of a depleted imported processed meats section and a supermarket employee tried to stop me.  Seriously?  Yes, seriously.  I was approached and told to stop taking pictures and she tried to swipe my phone.  I guess the Great Cheese Shortage was supposed to be kept under wraps, not shared with the outside world.  But now you know.

I cannot remember how long the cheese shortage lasted either year but they did not appear to be isolated incidents because the cheese selection diminished in all the shops I frequented.  This past year I thought I might circumvent the shortage and order my cheese from Epermarket, only to find that they too reported that the items I wished for were currently out of stock.  Yet eventually the stocks returned and appeared even more bountiful than before.  Huge bags of Monterey Jack cut into cubes for the ridiculous price of US$20.  I will leave you wondering if I bought them or not.

It has taken me far longer to get around to writing this particular post than I had anticipated.  And here I am nearing my time in Shanghai.  This puts things into perspective.  I know how good we have had it here.  I am ready to have some extended time back in the US during home leave and training to get my fill of all those food items I have missed and a good ole US of A prices, not high-import-taxes prices.  But then we head to Malawi and I think about what might be in store (or not in store, get it?) for us there.  I have heard about some food shortages that make my complaints here seem especially petty.  I am really not sure what to expect, but I still hope they have cheese.

 

100 Days and Counting (Shanghai)

100 Days and Counting (Shanghai)

100-days-and-countingFirst, a little something about the title.  It is actually now less than 100 days until I depart Shanghai but I thought the title Less Than 100 Days was nowhere near as catchy.  And if the title were 90 Days and Counting* then I would not be able to use this cool graphic I found.  Besides I thought of the title 100 Days and Counting just before it was actually 100 days, liked it, and am therefore am sticking with it.

Regardless of the title, the fact is clear:  OH MY GOODNESS I HAVE LESS THAN 100 DAYS LEFT IN SHANGHAI!!  Um, excuse me.  I panicked for a little bit there.  <throat clearing>  I mean <in my most diplomatic voice> I have precious little time to do the host of things necessary before I depart this post. It is just that it caught me off guard.  I received the handshake for my next post (Malawi) in early November.  In mid November I began looking at the training I need.  In late November my HR Assignment Officer contacted me to confirm the months of my departure from Shanghai and arrival in Malawi and suggest probable training.  Improbably, just a few days later in early December I was approved (“paneled”) for the position and received the official cable notifying me of my transfer.  I reached out to the incumbent to learn of his projected departure date.  I reached out to my next post to lay out some options for my arrival.  Then went on vacation to Mauritius.

Then suddenly it is January 2017 and it hits me: this year is going to be one crazy roller coaster.  Three and a half months in Shanghai.  Then three and a half months in the US divided between home leave and training.  Two intercontinental travel days in which time is suspended.  And five months in Malawi.  Yep, one crazy roller coaster and I am already strapped into the car rolling out of the station.

Roller Coaster Track

Wait, I want to get off!

First is the Shanghai portion, the 100 days.  And in that time all I have to do is organize getting myself, my daughter, our two pets and all our stuff from Post A (Shanghai) to Post B (Lilongwe) via home leave and training at the Foreign Service Institute.  Oh, if only it were so easy.  Naturally it is on top of my regular full time work.  It is as if I have acquired a second, part time job.

I am by no means alone in this; I know my situation is not unique.  There are Foreign Service Officers all over the world preparing to transfer this summer.  While it is comforting that the majority of us will get it done, it does not make this process any easier.  I often find myself lying awake at night fervently hoping that I will love living and working in Malawi so that I can extend and put off this next time I take part in this fabulous migration activity.  Geez, if I just kinda like my job I will do what I can to prolong my tour and postpone the next PCS (Permanent Change of Station).  I daydream about what it must be like to have an adult EFM (eligible family member) to be my partner in move preparation. (Applications currently available.  No deadline.  Rolling acceptance.   Open until filled)

Just this week I did the following: Completed and submitted my proposed travel itinerary from Shanghai to Malawi and in-between.  Filled out and emailed registration forms for my daughter’s school in Malawi.  Filled out the paperwork to renew my daughter’s medical clearance.  Scheduled a doctor’s appointment for my daughter in relation to her 5 year old well appointment.  Contacted the State Department lodging office regarding housing during my training and secured a reservation.  Completed and submitted the housing and community questionnaire for Malawi.  Secured child care for my daughter for the week that I am in training in West Virginia.  Firmed up my reservations with a friend at Walt Disney World for during our home leave.  A great start, but it barely scratches the surface.

There are vaccinations.  Plane tickets.  Check-ups and exit paperwork and plane reservations for the cats.  Figuring out the buying of a car in Japan and getting it to Malawi and financing that whole shebang.  Child care for during the rest of my training in Arlington.   More home leave planning.  Organizing our stuff into what we leave behind, what we give away, what we put in the suitcases, and the UAB (unaccompanied air baggage) that will be delivered during training, and the HHE (household effects) that we will not see again until Malawi.

You know.  Just a few things.

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Do you know what you are eating for the next 90 days? I do. And this is not even all of it because all of it would be even more embarrassing.

And I mentioned this before this is of course on top of my regular job and all the other regular life kind of things.  Like filing my taxes.  Completing my one year work evaluation- due April 15 just like the taxes. And organizing my daughter’s 5th birthday party this month.  And sleeping.  I have had a bit of trouble with that last one of late so I think it important to remind myself it is something I should be doing.

I think the biggest shock to my system regarding how much time we have left was when I opened my cabinets at the very beginning of the month.  From the huge amount of food items I saw staring back at me I knew I had been in denial for awhile.  Why in the world did I buy myself another box of cereal and more of my breakfast smoothie mix just before Mauritius when the other packages were nearly done?  Seriously?  I already had 20 packs of instant oatmeal too.  And peanut butter.  I seem to have A LOT of peanut butter (not pictured because you do not need to see that kind of thing).  Guess what the kids at C’s birthday party are going to be eating?  PB&J sandwiches for everyone! (eat up kids and take the extras home)

Finally, I have to prepare to say goodbye to Shanghai, our home for the past two plus years.  This is where C went from being a 3 year old, a newly minted “preschooler” to a 5 year old ready to begin Kindergarten at our next post.  She has gone from saying “hello” and “watermelon” in Chinese to having full on Mandarin conversations with the nanny.  I too have grown a lot in these two years at work and as a mom.  We have lived here and Shanghai is a part of us.  Also, I still have things left on the bucket list because are just too many things to see and do in this city!  Ok, Shanghai, just stop being so chock full of activities already.  I cannot keep up.

And all of it has to be done in this first quarter of the year. Whew.

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The late afternoon view from my apartment yesterday.  How am I to say goodbye to this?

*In reality there there are only 88 days and counting as of today. It took me 12 days to get my sh*t together to write this.  And I was committed to this title I tell you.