The 2nd Home Leave Begins

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C at the USS Yorktown at Patriot Point in Charleston, SC

After months of planning my second Home Leave finally is here.   Okay, really, after saving for, daydreaming about, and plotting my Home Leave from my arrival in Shanghai (and only finalizing after securing my onward assignment), the Home Leave arrived!  Well, before it could begin I would have to clear one more hurdle: the PCS trip.

PCS=Permanent Change of Station, i.e. the trip that moves you from one assignment to another or to the US for home leave or training at the end of a tour.  It sounds fairly simple I guess.  Well it is and it isn’t

Now I want to be clear here.  I know there are people facing far more difficult challenges in their lives than the government paying to fly them from Point A to Point B.  I might not be a complete news junkie but in my particular line of work I am, of course, aware of news and world events.  And no one made me have a child, get two cats, or pick this career.  That was all me. But now here I am and, with all things being relative, I do not want to forget the stress and discomfort experienced with this move.

So just try to imagine yourself embarking on an international flight that will consume approximately 24 hours of your life door to door and take you across 12 time zones.  Sure, no problem, you are an experienced traveler.  But add in your 2 checked bags and 1 carry on suitcase.  And a good-sized carry on backpack.  Still with me?  Add in a 5 year old child.  A good one who is also experienced at flying, but nonetheless is still 5.  And gets a checked bag and carry on allowance but who claims her 10 pound miniature backpack is making it hard for her to walk more than fifty feet.  SHE IS SO TIRED!  Also the car seat — you can check that too, for free, but you still need to bring it as you will need it as soon as you arrive at your destination.  Oh, and a stroller.  It folds up and you can check it at the airplane door.  But wait, I am not done.  You are also carrying two cat carriers because, why not?  They will fly in-cabin, under the seat in front of you.  So your 5 year old does not really get to sit in the stroller — the cats do.

There is no way to get to the check in counter, to the gate, or board the plane and look anything close to a suave, experienced flyer, diplomat.  Nope.  The flight attendants see me moseying up to the plane with the grace of a drunk penguin, hair askew, a cat cage on each shoulder and they peg me as the first time flyer I have GOT to be.  “Ma’am, can we help you find your seat?” they ask me slowly, enunciating each word.  I want to tell them that I am pretty sure I can figure out that row 25 comes after row 24 but I just smile.  A strained, crazy smile.

So the crazy parts:

1. I fly this particular airline quite a lot and my profile has me always in a window seat.  Yet for some reason we are booked for a middle and aisle seat.  And also for two in-cabin pets.  Every single aisle seat has a weird box taking up half of the space under the seat in front of me.  Where a cat needs to go.  I alert the flight attendant.  After surveying the situation she suggests I move one row back.  To a middle and aisle seat.  Yes, the exact same seats one row back.  I look at her quizzically.  Is she kidding?  She isn’t.  I point out that will not solve the problem.  She says one of us can just take the window seat and surely that passenger will switch.  I am extremely skeptical.  In fact said person has just arrived and is adamant that will not happen.  He says he doesn’t want to be a jerk, but… I say no problem, I get it.  He figures out two cat carriers will fit under the middle seat.  Problem solved.  Passenger ingenuity.

2. I spent a lot of time previously deciding between the midnight flight with on-demand entertainment on in-seat TVs and the noon flight that had personal device and way-overhead no-choice-of-movie movie.  I went with option 2 and downloaded the app to my daughter’s Kindle (you have to download before the flight or use the expensive wi-fi on board to do so in flight).  The app had not downloaded properly.  I could not access wi-fi for three hours due to Chinese airspace.  Then I purchase the overpriced wi-fi for one hour. But the personal device entertainment system malfunctioned.  As did the “no-choice-screens-from-overhead” entertainment — it was stuck on the welcome screen.

3. Flying from the US to China even with one stop was easier.  Returning, not so much.  Think customs and immigration at the first point of entry, picking up all checked bags, then re-check bags and then go through security again.  Scroll back to my list of stuff I traveled with and my travel companions.  FYI – pets need to be taken out of their carriers to go through security.  Yes.  Think about it.  Oh yes it was just about as much fun as you can imagine.

4. I am SO glad I did not opt to take the 2 checked-bags each we were allotted per government PCS travel regulations or the 3 checked-bags per my airline status.  For some reason the luggage carts located in the baggage claim area, before customs, seemed ridiculously small.  Remember the list of stuff we were traveling with?  It just would not fit.  Even with all my experience playing Tetris.  C pushed the stroller with one cat and her backpack through customs to re-check.  She is 5.  If she had been 3, the age she was when we PCS’d to China I would have been SOL.  She really stepped up.  Thank goodness.

But it was only 24 hours.  And honestly the worst parts were maybe 2-3 hours of my life.  The getting through security with the cats (in Shanghai I used pillow cases to bring one cat through at a time, which inexplicably caused my daughter to cry; in the US after some confusion by TSA, we were led to a private room where the cats were removed from their carriers so those could go through security and one cat might have hidden behind some boxes in that room in an attempt to escape, which might have made my daughter laugh hysterically and me expect I made the TSA agents’ weirdest passenger of the day list).  The boarding and disembarking.  The whole immigration and customs and re-checking of luggage.  Other than that it was just fine.

And THEN my home leave could begin!

Within 24 hours of landing I was in attendance at one of my best friend’s wedding.  As a Foreign Service Officer, often overseas, I miss so many life events.  Had her wedding been a week or even a day before or a week or a day after I could not have attended.  Newly arrived and jet lagged, with my parents watching my daughter, I headed in to Washington, DC to witness this beautiful event.  And during the reception I was seated next to a married couple with ties to Africa who had a friend moving to Malawi in six weeks.  Kismet!

The following morning I drove to my aunt’s home.  It was Easter.  My daughter had her first real egg hunt on the lawn — though without competition of course.  But oh was she happy.  For such a simple thing.  I was happy too.  American traditions re-created overseas are important (and often very creative and so necessary to our community) but naturally cannot quite be the real thing.

Two days later we drove — well I drove, 5 year olds are terrible drivers — to Charleston, SC to begin the first phase of our Home Leave holiday.  I had decided early on I wanted to spend some time in South Carolina on this trip, having only previously driven through the state on my way to college outside of Atlanta many, many years ago.  I hemmed and hawed about where.  Hilton Head?  Greenville/Columbia?  But settled on Charleston.  I know I made the right decision.  The purpose of Home Leave is for employees serving overseas for extended periods of time to reorient and reconnect to the US.  I see it as a time to see more and learn more about my country.  Charleston is beautiful and it has strong ties to just about every major historical period in our nation from the colonial period, early Republic, to the civil war and present day.  So it has plenty for a history and museum oriented mom and also children’s activities for fun-loving 5 year old C.

We visited the Children’s Museum of the Low Country and the South Carolina Aquarium. C enjoyed them both.  I think she was particularly struck by the aquarium’s bald eagle named Liberty as she kept asking me for the name later so she could use it during her imaginative play.  We also took one of the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriage tours.  C loves horses and has talked about it for days.  A visit to the Charleston Museum was also in order.  I was not sure if C would like it but she was struck by the giant whale skeleton (from the late 1880s), the dress up hoop skirts, some silver spoons shaped like shells, and the Egyptian mummy, purchased by one of the city’s early prominent men.  Purchased no less from one of the US’ first Vice Consuls to Egypt.  (I am in no position to purchase priceless artifacts at this time).  In addition, one could visit two period homes belonging to the museum, which we did along with strolls through the historic district.  We took a ferry out to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War rang out and visited the USS Yorktown located at Patriot Point.  At Magnolia Plantation, founded in 1676, C liked the train ride, petting zoo and mini horses and tolerated our garden walk.  A friend of mine and her family drove down from another part of South Carolina to lunch with us and visit Charles Towne Landing, the original site of the first permanent settlement in the Carolinas.

So we have seen and done quite a few things.  But what is it really like to be on Home Leave?  Honestly?  Well, this is only the first two weeks (we are required to take a minimum of four) and it feels very much like a vacation.  It also feels surreal – a jet-lag-fog fueled holiday, except one in which I know at the end of we do not return to our home in Shanghai.  It is no longer our home.  It feels wonderful to have this time to spend with friends and family in the US and the ability to travel around to wherever we would like in our country during this time. But it is also feels a little weird.

It isn’t cheap.  I know cost is one of the biggest complaints about Home Leave.  And that is true.  But I start my Home Leave savings account as soon as I arrive to my overseas post.  And this Home Leave I am lucky that my father loaned me a car for the 3.5 months we will be in the US and my aunt is watching my two cats for the five weeks we are traveling.  That saved me a bundle in rental car and kennels/hotel pet fees.  It does not mean I do not feel a little twinge of panic as the hotel, food, gas and entertainment bills roll in, but the time I get to spend with my daughter together in our country is priceless.

C is taking some time adjusting.  For these first two weeks she could not stop breathing deeply whenever we stepped outside.  As soon as we stepped out of the airport she took a gulp of air and declared it was “so fresh and smelled good!”  Yet whenever we are in a public place and need to use the restroom she says “I hope they don’t have the squatty potties!”  After Shanghai she is not used to such fresh air and all sit down commodes.  It is such a novelty.  Oh and the candy aisles.  They are presenting a bit of a challenge.  It has been a year since we have been in the US and she does not recall such a dizzying array of sweets.  She also often says “I miss Shanghai!” though when I ask her if she is sad it she says no, she is looking forward to our new home.  That seems a surprisingly mature answer for five but I will take it because the alternative would come with a side helping of mommy-guilt.

I too am taking time to adjust.  I have difficulty completely relaxing.  I have received emails about upcoming training with tasks that need to be completed and emails regarding the vehicle I have purchased from Japan and am shipping to my next post.  I think through all the things that still need to be completed before we take the next steps for our move to Africa: plane tickets, shopping for consumables, arranging pet travel to post, finding a nanny, and more.

Despite this I am so grateful for this time.  And just might already taking part in some preliminary plotting about the next Home Leave.  There are so many places to visit in our beautiful country, it is so hard to decide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farewell, Shanghai

When I arrived in Shanghai there was a bulldozer parked on the sidewalk on one of my two ways to walk to work.  There it sat day after day after day, month after month.  Then the other day, two years and 31 days after I arrived in Shanghai, the bulldozer was gone.  It was like a symbol that my tour had come to an end.

Bucketlisting Bonanza

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The former Morris residence, built in 1917.  Built by Henry Morris, the owner of the North China Daily News, the first English newspaper in China.  Now part of the Intercontinental Ruijin hotel..

The last several weeks have been a whirlwind of final preparations but the bucket-listing has continued!  With spring arriving in Shanghai, bringing unpredictable temps (some days deliciously warm in the 70s and other days depressingly cool in the lower 50s) and rain, I played my bucketlisting by ear.  When we had an unexpectedly beautiful weekend I packed up C and headed to the French Concession to wander around the Sinan Mansions area, an upscale chic area of beautifully renovated 1930s era homes where you can also visit the former home and office of Zhou Enlai, now a museum.  Nearby there is the beautiful former Shanghai Official State Guest House and historic Morris home where many of the celebrity and historic elite of Shanghai once entertained and visited.

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The massive Chinese sailing junk in the middle of the China Maritime Museum

I took a day of leave so I could participate in C’s preschool field trip to the Zotter Chocolate Factory.  It was a long bus trip on a drab and dreary Shanghai day but I felt so happy to be able to take part with my daughter and the other parents.  I took C to the plaground at the historic Shanghai Children’s Palace just a few blocks down the street from our apartment.  We happened to catch the soft (re) opening of the Hard Rock Cafe.  The restaurant chain had been in Shanghai in the 1990s but closed in 2004 — but just re-opened, and again is located just a few blocks from our Shanghai apartment.  We went down to the international cruise port — nothing at all was happening there despite the information I had found on a Shanghai tourist brochure saying otherwise.  On another nice weekend we headed out to the Shanghai Wild Animal Park, reportedly one of the best zoos in China.  Hmmmm….I probably could have given it a miss though C loved it.  The enclosures were pretty good, the animals looked healthy, but it was the behavior of the other visitors, Chinese who ignored the signs EVERYWHERE, even broadcast on loudspeakers on loops, to not feed the animals, that made me crazy.  But it was on the bucket list.  Finally on our last weekend we headed WAY out (two hours by metro one way) to the China Maritime Museum out at Dishui Lake.  Though that far out it is still in the Shanghai municipality.  But it is a pretty cool museum.

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While not the entertainment complex as advertised, this interesting architecture at the Shanghai International Cruise Port was cool to see up close

In addition to the above I have in our two years in Shanghai visited:

  • Jing’An Temple
  • Jade Buddha Temple
  • Shanghai Aquarium
  • Nanjing Pedestrian Street
  • M&Ms World
  • Hengshan Moller Villa
  • People’s Park
  • Shanghai Museum
  • Shanghai Municipal History Museum
  • Shanghai Urban Planning Museum
  • Tianzifang
  • Shanghai Postal Museum
  • Propaganda Poster Museum
  • Oriental Pearl Tower
  • Bund Sightseeing Tunnel
  • Dishui Lake
  • Soong Qing Ling’s Residence
  • China Art Museum
  • Natural History Museum
  • Fuxing Park
  • Sun Yatsen’s House
  • Fuxing Park
  • Shanghai Natural Wild Insect Kingdom
  • Science and Technology Museum
  • Soong Ching Ling Mausoleum
  • Shanghai Acrobatics show (at Shanghai Centre)
  • Jiangnan Shipbuilding Museum
  • Shanghai Himalayas Museum
  • Shanghai Circus World
  • Xintiandi
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    Samples at Zotter Chocolate Facotry

    Yu Gardens

  • Nanxiang Ancient Town
  • Moon Boat
  • Shanghai Glass Museum
  • Shanghai Legoland Discovery Center
  • Changfeng Ocean Park
  • Site/Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Party of China
  • NBA Playzone
  • Shanghai Astronomy Museum
  • Chenshan Botanical Gardens
  • Jewish Refugees Museum
  • City Sightseeing Bus
  • Huangpu River Boat Tour
  • Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum
  • Shanghai Disneyland (4 times!!)
  • Shanghai Tower
  • Jin Mao Tower
  • Shanghai World Financial Center tower
  • Century Park
  • Shanghai Public Security Museum
  • Power Station of Art
  • Lu Xun park, museum and masoleum
  • Duolun Cultural Street
  • Shanghai Railway Museum
  • Puppet show and exhibition
  • Film Museum
  • Yuan Dynasty Watergate Museum
  • The Bund
  • Telecommunications Museum
  • Rockbund Art Museum
  • Shanghai Children’s Museum

Not too shabby, eh?  There were other places we tried to visit but were denied.  For example, we visited the Shanghai Matchbox Museum, with it’s unique design to look like a giant matchbox.  Although the exterior remained, it had been closed and gutted, with furniture and exhibits strewn in front.  A visit to the only residence of Mao Zedong’s in Shanghai open to the public found it closed and under renovation.  Wild Animal Park, Shanghai Maritime Museum

There were also places we did not get to like the Shanghai Tobacco Museum (odd hours) and the museums for Chinese Traditional Medicine and the China Imperial Examination System, because, um, not only were they located in the suburbs but, um, not even a museum lover like myself could muster much enthusiasm for a visit.  Also as much as I like the odd Jackie Chan movie I did not visit the Jackie Chan Film Museum.  And I did not ride the Maglev train.  I gave myself multiple attempts to do it in the last few weeks when it was apparent I would never ride it to or from the airport (as we would have to walk to the metro, then ride to the Maglev transit point and then the Maglev itself) and in the end I simply did not want to pay to just ride a train, no matter how fast it was.

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Beautiful courtyard at the former Zhou Enlai office and residence at Sinan Mansions

We also did some travel further afield making it to Hangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou by train, and Beijing and Sanya (on Hainan Island) by plane.  Unfortunately our epic trip to Chengdu with friends was cancelled due to my unexpected month-long Medevac back to the U.S.  I am a bit sorry we did not make it there.  Yet honestly, two years and several months ago as I prepared for our travel to Shanghai I thought long and hard about my daughter’s age and travel in China and figured two places outside of Shanghai a year would be the minimum and we did that.  So all in all I feel good.  There is just an inexhaustible number of places to see and things to do in Shanghai and China that one really cannot do it all.  I feel C and I certainly made a dent though.

Saying Goodbye

Something I learned many years ago while studying cross-cultural psychology is the importance of saying farewell to places you live.  It is important to recall the things you will miss but also those you will not — the latter so one does not get too nostalgic for all the good things while sugar-coating the bad.  Every place has it’s positives and negatives.

What I will surely miss:

My daughter’s preschool.  I was not previously sold on preschool.  It is not covered by the educational allowance and in Shanghai it is not an inexpensive proposition.  I did not attend preschool as a child and somehow I did alright.  But I am ever so glad I took the leap (and opened my wallet) because the Shanghai Centre preschool is amazing.  My daughter was a smart, verbal, imaginative, creative, thoughtful Chinese-speaking child before preschool but this school tapped into something she was not getting at home with only her nanny (and me, let’s be honest).   Somehow in three hours a day her two incredible teachers, through play time, song, crafts, and snacks taught leadership, cooperation, kindness, and personal expression.  And to top it off, although parents were not allowed to drop in, at the end of each week the teachers shared some 50 to 80 pictures of the children learning and at play alone and with classmates.  I look forward to those photos every Friday night when I get home from work.  For any parent who has asked their child “what did you do today?” and if lucky received a few sentences and at worse a sullen “nothing” and a shrug, this is like gold.  I kinda want to give her teachers in Malawi a disposable camera each Monday to record the week.

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This is where we lived.  Yeah.  Pretty awesome.  Still counting my lucky stars.

Our apartment/complex.  The 15 minute door to door commute on foot.  The location on one of the oldest commercial streets in Shanghai and between two metro stops on one of the first and arguable most convenient metro lines (Line 2).   Consistently awarded as one of the city’s best serviced apartments in the city’s original multi-purpose skyscraper complex.  What is there not to like?  This is where statesmen stay and celebrities get married.  This is where they hold waffle making and bench press competitions and Zumba-thons.  This is where I do my grocery shopping, eat at restaurants, see the doctor, have my hair cut, my nails done, work out, and where C has had her swim and ballet lessons, her preschool and her Kids’ Club activities.  There is a monthly farmer’s market and annual back-to-school and Christmas markets among others.  Every day I come home to a beautiful 19th floor apartment with views across one of the most dynamic cities in the world.

The city.  Shanghai may not have the thousands of years history of Beijing but it is still a historical city that has played a prominent role in world events.  And still there is SO much happening here.  This is where the entrepreneurs – whether Chinese or foreign – set up their businesses.  The Shanghai subway system–16 lines and counting–is fast, efficient, inexpensive, and can get you just about anywhere you need to go.  The juxtaposition of modernity with history, tradition with innovation, is on display everywhere in Shanghai.  Walking the streets of the former French Concession, where my apartment complex is located, is all of this right up in your face.  That was not always a negative feeling.  It is thought-provoking and astonishing and humbling.  I loved the energy of Shanghai, even if some days it wore me down.

The people. I had the opportunity to work with some of the absolute best officers in the Foreign Service and most proficient locally employed staff anywhere (though the local staff of Juarez were without a doubt also top-notch).  The level of professionalism, creativity, efficiency, and innovation on display every day in the visa section was amazing.  It was sometimes exhausting and did not give us a lot of time to get to know one another, and yet on occasion I had the chance to talk more at length and get to know some very extraordinary people.   And these were just some of the people I had the pleasure to get to know.  Even the  random strangers who helped me when out and about with C.

What I will not miss:

Poor Air Quality. I know there are places in the world with worse air quality.  Heck, there are places in China that have it much worse.  But still it is a drag.  It is checking the Air Quality Index on the computer or phone.  After only a short while here you do not need to check the AQI to know it is a bad air day, but you check the AQI to know how bad.  It is that we have air masks to wear (although after awhile I stopped wearing mine — since I wear glasses and the worst of the poor air quality days come in winter, when I wear the mask my glasses fog up and I have to choose between breathing better or seeing where I am going) and we have air purifiers running 24/7 in each room in the apartment and also at work.  As an asthmatic who has to use my inhaler more frequently here than in other places.  It is not awful, but I would generally prefer to live somewhere this is not an issue.

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What do you mean I cannot feed this lemur?  A sign?  Where? I do not see any signs.

Crowds. I am never alone.  Granted no matter where I would have been in China at this time in my life, coming with a 3 year old and leaving with a 5 year old, I find it nearly impossible to be alone.  But in a city of some 24 million it really is not possible.  Even if you take off a random Tuesday from work, leave your child with the nanny, and head to a museum, said museum will still be full of people.  It might not be jam-packed, but you will not be alone.  And in crowds people push.  In my last several weeks in Shanghai I have been very much reminded of this — as I forced us to go out and see these last things on the bucket list and we ride the metro or trains and get in lines.  People push and people jump the line.  The Chinese culture reveres children and my daughter gets a LOT of attention – some positive and some negative.  But it amazes me how many times when standing in line how someone has not only walked right up and stood in front of me, but they have stepped over my daughter’s stroller to do so.  And when I cough loudly or tap that person on the shoulder and ask them, in Chinese, why they thought they could stand in front of me, the answer is almost always “I didn’t see you there.”  It seems impossible you could miss us, particularly when going out of your way to step around or over us, and yet it has happened so often that I begin to wonder if it could be true?  This is not everyone — as I noted before I see a real change in the culture for waiting ones turn — and yet it still happens far too frequently for my taste (its a big pet peeve of mine).

And what about adjudicating all of those visas day in and day out?  I do not yet know how I feel.  As you probably know I am a Political-coned officer who has yet to serve in a political position.  I have instead served in the Consular section at two high volume visa posts – in fact two of the largest in the world.  I have a lot of mixed feelings about it.  Too many to go into now.  But there are things I enjoy about visa work, things I find satisfying.  But also the volume in Juarez and Shanghai…there were just some days I had a hard time with it.

My final Shanghai tally is:

Total visa adjudications: 52,178

Total hours scheduled to interview: 1,208

Total fingerprints taken: 15,834

The numbers make my end of Juarez post about the 10,000 club seem naive.  I have adjudicated over 71,000 visas in my four years as a visa officer.  Whoa.

The final weeks were stressful and bittersweet and, if I am honest, a teeny bit boring.  I had fewer responsibilities at work and could not volunteer for new ones.  At home I had only the final packing to do and I did it half-heartedly.  Even on the last day, which I took off work, I went into the office “for just a few minutes” because I could not stand a moment longer packing the suitcases.  Then suddenly it was time to go to the airport. It was time to bid farewell to Shanghai and head off on the next adventure.

Suddenly Suzhou

I am packed out!

I thought I was so ready.  I had prepared one whole room that would all be Household Effects (HHE: the items that are shipped via land and sea) and I had set aside a corner of stuff for Unaccompanied Baggage (UAB: the items that are shipped via email).

[Note: the maximum for HHE is 7,200 pounds and will be shipped directly from Shanghai to Malawi.  I expect to see our things again in 5 to 7 months.  The maximum for UAB depends on the number of family members.  C and I get a total of 450 pounds and we will have one UAB shipment to the US and then later another to Malawi.  So we should see the UAB again in 7 weeks.]

Pack out (12)

Just one of the many lies to myself: I am ready (I called this ready?!?!)

And then on the fated day, at exactly at 9 AM, five packers showed up and suddenly packing was happening left and right and all around.  I had been told that the UAB would be packed first, weighed, and if there were extra room I would be able to put in more.  But the five packers fanned out – one in C’s room packing the UAB, one in the kitchen, one in the guestroom, and two in the living room.  I was so NOT ready.

I found myself sitting on the floor of my bedroom next to a pile of paperwork that had accumulated over two plus years.  And in ten minutes I made short work of it.  It had sat there for two years…. Then in the midst of my dealing-with-papers moment I gasped and jumped up — I had not cleaned out the desk in the guestroom! And sure enough my checkbook had been packed.  Luckily it had just happened and the packer expertly sliced open a nearby box and released the item in question.

[For some of you out there you might be scratching your heads.  A checkbook? you ask.  Hello?  It is 2017.  What are you doing with a checkbook?  I write one at least once a week to the Consulate cashier to get cash.  No joke.  Welcome to life in the Foreign Service.]

Around 2:45 in the afternoon I lay like a wet potato sack on the floor of my bedroom.  My poor little introverted heart just wanted to be alone.  The head mover popped his head in my room and asked me to take a look around to see if there was anything else.  I squashed my first instinct to simply tell him I guessed they did a great job and could they just now leave, and instead took a look around.  I found TEN drawers that were still full of things!

Pack out (8)

95 boxes (91 for HHE and 4 for UAB) later

As the packers began to pack up those nearly-left-behind things I started to wonder about my cat.  I have two.  One, Kucing, hates to be held but loves to be near people.  She had been quietly observing the chaos, taking it all in.  When a mover got too close she retreated and after a decent interval returned for observation.  Tikus however had made herself scarce.  An hour or so before I had found her wedged inside the underside frame of the love seat.  However, when I went there to look for her later she was not there.  I could not find her anywhere.  I did find one of the packers had cracked open the window in the guest bedroom.  The window where Tikus, on the few occasions she is allowed in that room (or sneaks in), likes to sun herself.  I found myself wondering if she had climbed out in her terror…  I will remind you we live on the 19th floor.

Pack out (7)

One freaked out cat wedged inside a love seat frame.  Good thing the furniture was not packed! (it belongs to the apartment)

The movers helped me lift up the bed in the guestroom and guess what we found?  No, not the cat.  But, we did find several more things that needed to be packed — long, slender, carved wood fabric hangers from Indonesia and Thailand.  One is about 5 feet long; there was no way it would fit in my luggage.  While some movers got to packing those items the others helped me lift up the master bed where wedged back against the wall was my hiding cat.  Whew!

In all the movers packed 91 boxes of HHE–  a net weight of 3,250 pounds (my stuff) but a gross weight of 4,100 pounds (including the packing materials) for HHE.   I cannot wait to open the boxes on the other side and find my treasures — things like the Pizza Express menu I know was inadvertently packed.   That will surely come in handy.

Afterwards we were left with a very quiet, very sparse and soulless apartment.  With a four day weekend ahead I  made a spur of the moment decision to book us train tickets and two nights in Suzhou.

I had thought about heading back to Hangzhou as our first trip had not been all I had hoped for.  However, I had been waiting to see if a schedule would be released for the lakeside water play created by famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou (I love his movies).  At last the website announced the play would resume in May…too late for us.  I was interested in a visit to the tea museum but it was not enough draw for me.  Friends had recently traveled to Suzhou and one had suggested I go there.  Initially I said no.  I had visited way back in 2002 and I felt fairly certain that a bunch of hundreds of years old gardens were not going to hold much interest for C.  Yet the more I thought about it the more keen I was to go.  I drag C to all kinds of things after all.

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The view across Jinji Lake from our hotel

As I hustled C in the stroller and a suitcase to the train station and on the train I had my doubts, but once we arrived in Suzhou I knew I had made the right decision.  The weather was perfect — warm and sunny with blue skies, something that can be quite rare in China but especially during the rains that bring spring blossoms and Suzhou was bustling and alive with the holiday crowds.  From the train station we headed directly to our hotel, checked in, and then headed right back into the historic part of town for lunch.  Next stop was the I.M. Pei designed Suzhou Museum.  I loved it.  The beautiful museum focuses on the art and artifacts of the Wu Culture, of which ancient Suzhou was the capital.  The museum was small enough and with enough interesting things to keep 5-year-old C entertained (the courtyard with traditional zigzag bridge over a pond with carp certainly helped) and plenty of superb pieces to make my little-museum-lover-heart sing.

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My favorite at the Suzhou Museum (C asked if I would buy this for my bedroom — HA!)

From the museum we visit the Prince Zhong Mansion, then took a break to snacked on some dumplings and then headed to the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the largest and most famous of the UNESCO World Heritage classical gardens of Suzhou.  This is where the joy of the holiday crowds diminished as hundreds (maybe thousands) of Chinese crawled over every corner of the not-really-that-humble garden.  It was a struggle to push the stroller over the garden walkways (whether C was in it or not).  The garden is huge! Luckily C likes flowers and ducks and Chinese gazebos and there were these in spades in the garden.  We then visited the Lion Forest Garden.  Yes, another very large rock and foliage and Chinese feature garden, with a 5 year old.  And she loved it!!  The Lion Forest Garden has a large stone maze-like area.  I did not want to climb all over the rocks but C did.  She begged me to run through it.  And so, in an unexpected moment of trust parenting I said she could all by herself for five minutes and come right back.  And she did — so full of accomplishment of her adventure.

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C enjoys the view while pretending it is warmer than it is

But then we were done with gardens.  Well, C was.  I wanted to see more.  And it was here when I really began to feel keenly our departure from China.  I was nearly done with my Shanghai bucket list but had hardly scratched the surface of the China bucket list.  Suzhou alone deserved a week so I could visit all the gardens (there are nine primary ones though over 50 in total) and pagodas and temples and more.  I wished we had longer; wished we could back a following weekend.

But we did not have that kind of time (or energy) so instead we headed back for some mommy-daughter time at the hotel pool.

For the second day I figured we could visit one of the old city gates, visit one or two maybe three gardens, see the twin pagodas and maybe head to the Tiger Hill area.  Clearly WAY too ambitious and an indication that I still struggle with our sightseeing limitations.  The Pan Gate scenic area did not appear that large on the map, but that was very deceiving.  There was a pagoda and a small lake full of carp and gardens and bridges and finally, in the back, the gate itself connected to the old city wall.  We were there over two hours!  It might have been three.  We had to climb the pagoda, take pictures by the small lake, take pictures with the scenery, buy fish food to feed the carp, have some ice cream, buy more fish food to feed more carp, move to another location to feed more carp some food we were saving, take a picture on a bridge, take a picture of C practicing Tai Chi (this is what she said she was doing; I had my doubts) and finally make our way to the Pan Gate.  I imagined what it would be like living in Suzhou and coming here during different seasons. C, clearly in awe of the historic and architectural significance of the gate, turned to me and said, “Can I have a hot dog now? I saw a human eating one over there.” (to 5 year old C human=grown up)

Pan Gate scenic area montage

Pan Gate Scenic Area — just about all the wonderful things of Suzhou in one place

I thought to walk from the Pan Gate scenic area to the Master of the Nets garden and then lunch, but was too overcome by hunger and C’s increasing frustration about her lack of a “hot dog” (its really a Chinese sausage on a stick) to stop for any length of time at a garden.  So we pushed on (or well I did, literally, C sat in her stroller) to the pedestrian walking street of Guanqian Jie, in the very center of old Suzhou, where literally (well, really my own rough estimate) about a million Chinese had descended for the three day holiday weekend.  Yet despite being a street for thriving modern day shopping and dining there also stood century old shops and an even older Taoist temple.  C made it clear that if there were no hot dogs to be had then she wanted some of the dumplings she had the day before and under no certain terms were we to go into any temple.

My once (and future?) backpacking heart crumpled just a little bit but my mommy heart won out.  I searched high and low for dumplings with no success but did find us some delicious crab-apples covered in what appeared to be donut glaze to tide us over.  Yum!  Then I found us a bicycle rickshaw to take us back to the pedestrian street in front of the Suzhou Museum.  After some bartering he agreed to give me the Chinese price instead of foreigner price (or so he said), and I happily folded up the stroller and hopped aboard. C and I sang songs about cats while riding the streets of old Suzhou.  We found the dumplings and then a taxi back to the hotel for more swim time.

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Sugar coated crab apples and C’s prized chocolate and red bean dumplings

The following morning we took the train back to Shanghai.  It was bittersweet — for me at least.  Our tour here is coming to an end.

Single Parent in the FS: DC Childcare Trials

In September 2011 I placed my 17 week old fetus on the Foreign Service Institute Child Care Center waitlist.  Yeah, you read that right.  Only a handful of people even knew I was pregnant – my sister, my aunt, a few friends, my doctor, my A-100 coordinators, two other pregnant FSOs in my A-100 class, my Career Development Officer…it was an interesting time.  So as weird as it was it also sort of made sense to find myself filling out a child care form for my yet-unknown-gender Baby C.

Arranging child care in America is hard.  If you do not have a child or know someone with a child or have never seen a news story on this topic, then crawl out from under your rock and Google it.  Finding child care in the Washington, DC area is notoriously difficult.  Summer is especially hard as kids are out of school.  Try finding short term child care in the Northern Virginia area in the summer as a single parent while living half a world away…  It is like buying a book of Sudoku puzzles and skipping right to the Expert Samurai level at the back of the book.

I never got off the waitlist once the Belly Moocher, as I lovingly called my fetus before she made her debut.  When I signed up we were number 17 on the waitlist, when I checked in December, at 31 weeks, I felt hopeful when I saw were were number 5.  That is until they told me there was no chance that would change; the next openings were in May, several months after my due date.   Other places in the area wanted non-refundable deposits of between $100 and $250 to place my unborn child on their waitlists.  Just to be on a waitlist, no guarantee.  These same ones also wanted to schedule meet and greets and I wondered how that worked for kids still in the womb.

Perhaps unsurprisingly I had other things going on in my life besides trying to find a child care provider.  I had a job (learning Spanish for my upcoming assignment).   I had homework.  I had friends.  I met up with my family.  I was pregnant.  Yet the child care problem hung over me until I could find a solution.  My mother started to talk about retiring.  I mentioned I might have a little something for her transition.  I lucked out.

Fast forward two years later.  It is January.  I am preparing for my departure from Mexico six months later and training at FSI to begin nine months later.  Once again I am put on the waitlist for FSI.  I am not particularly hopeful.  I call FOUR additional child care centers in the vicinity of the housing unit I am likely to be placed.  ALL of them tell me that unfortunately they have no space.  Nine months before I even arrive they all already know there will be no space in their two-year-old class.  I opt to move further out and deal with a 50-minute one way commute so I can put my daughter in a place that has space and again, luckily, near my parents.

So once again I recently found myself returning to FSI for seven weeks of training.  The first three and last three will be at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia but the fourth week will be in West Virginia.  I start looking online for in-hotel babysitting services or a company that will send sitters to hotels in that city in West Virginia.  Nothing.  After days of this I reach out to my sister and she agrees to have my daughter over for an extended play date/sleep over with her kids for five days and five nights.  Right after returning home from her ten year anniversary trip in Jamaica.  I lucked out.  My sister and brother in law are saints.  I felt so relieved having found a solution for what I thought was the hardest part.  I was wrong.  Once again in January I began making the dreaded calls and emails.   But third time is supposed to be the charm, right?

I call the first place.  It is located only 5 minutes walk from where we will live.  The website is great.  They receive high ratings.  Sounds amazing!  I call and am told right off the bat they have space.  I am over the moon!  Wow, right out of the gate.  I tell them I will hand over my left kidney if I can receive the registration papers now.  They say ok.  But then I ask how much it costs per week.  They tell me they do not have a weekly rate but the monthly tuition is $1770.  That works out to be $442.50 a week.  For two weeks my daughter will not even be there.  Not loving it.

I call the second place.  It is also within walking distance, maybe 15 minutes.  I talk to a very nice gentleman for 20 minutes.  There may be space but they are reserved first for Arlington County workers.  I am asked to sign up for a waitlist, and I do (it’s FREE!) but I never hear from them again.

I call the third place.  This place is cheaper than the first two ($385 a week) AND charges by the week.  It is further away, but only two metro stops and a short walk or a quick drive.  I have a really great conversation with one of the directors and am told they do have space and we can register soon.  I am SO happy.  It took a bit of research and I had to stay up a couple of nights to make the call (thirteen hours time difference – during daylight savings – folks!) but only the third call and I have found the place.  Hooray.

I email them right away.  The next day they respond.  FYI, they casually mention, we are not actually enrolling any children after May 31 because we are moving locations soon and we do not yet know where.  <sound of record playing stopping>  Wait, what?  I most certainly mentioned dates — first thing — the evening before.  It was if I were being punked.  Except I wasn’t.

Some friends suggested I sign my daughter up for summer camps.  That sounded like a great idea.  Except as it has been a long time since I have had the summer off from school and my daughter is not yet old enough, I do not really have a concept of summer.  And it turned out the summer camps begin June 19.  My training begins June 5.

So I call another place and they tell me their five-year-old class is currently full but the can take my name and contact me after Memorial Day.  Right, after Memorial Day.  May 29.  My training begins June 5.  That is not. going. to. work.

I call several more places and sign myself for the FSI child care center waitlist yet again.  I also contact the WorkLife4You number — it is a resource and referral service for State Department families.  They can assist with medical, financial, attorney referrals, school information, and even to help with finding child care centers with openings.  Getting close to my wit’s end I call.  The woman I speak with for about 30 minutes makes me feel like she really,  really cares and she is going to do everything in her power to help.  She tells me she will contact me in about two days with the information — however after a few days I instead received an email saying she was still working on a solution and it would take several more business days… Even the professionals were stumped.

After lots of thinking I decide to sign my daughter up for four weeks of summer camp with the before and after camp extended hours option.  I found the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer who does occasional babysitting willing to watch my daughter for two whole weeks.  The first week I would pay out of pocket and the second week I would utilize our five days of annual emergency back-up care (a State Department benefit), filing for reimbursement.  So it would look like the following:

Week 1: At babysitter’s house (out of pocket)

Week 2: At babysitter’s house (for reimbursement)

Week 3: Summer camp 1 with extended hours

Week 4: My sister’s house

Week 5: Summer camp 2 with extended hours

Week 6: Summer camp 3 with extended hours

Week 7: Summer camp 3 (continued!) with extended hours

Sure it was complicated.  Sure, I would have to keep reminding myself where I should be driving my daughter and picking her up.  But I had found child care for all seven weeks!

Then I received an email from the FSI Child Care Center.  My daughter was being offered a spot!  I read it, and re-read it.  It was like my kid just got into Harvard.

The email said I needed to call the next day, which given I live 12 hours in the future meant I needed to call that night.  I could hardly wait.  I was so excited.  OK.  Maybe I should dial it back.  I wasn’t that excited.  I totally have other things going on in my life.  Really.

So I call.  I am again informed my daughter has a spot.  I say I want it, but I have a few questions.  I was being offered a slot starting in May, two weeks before my training even begins.  That seems off.  I explain I would technically still be on Home Leave at the time but ask if I could still get a spot.  And the pause came…. Um, wait, your training doesn’t begin in March?  Um, no, it begins in June.  Oh, I see….Hmmmm…..I must have written down your information incorrectly….let me see….could you hold…. And I held for what seemed an eternity. I felt my child care dreams slipping away.  It was okay, I told myself, I had that other ten step plan ready for execution.  No problem.  She came back.  Hello?  This is Laura*, right?  (*name changed to protect me from Laura*).  Ummmmm…..no.  Oh, I see…. Another pause.  I wrung my hands.  I could feel the “I’m sorry, but….” coming.  I braced for it.  And then, “well, I already offered you the space, so it is yours if you want it and send in the deposit.  We will make it work.” (Sorry Laura*)

I will lose the camp deposit on all three camps and must pay for the week my daughter is at my sister’s.  There are somewhere around 100 forms to fill out and turn in (Ok, maybe only seven….).  No worries. We have a spot in the best place possible.  My daughter and I can ride the shuttle to FSI together; I can visit at lunch.  My DC child care trials appear to be resolved this year.*  Next up: finding child care at the next post!

*Disclaimer: I knocked on wood, threw salt over my shoulder, crossed my fingers and my toes, and waited until I had the confirmation email of receipt of my deposit before posting.

 

 

 

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.