The Problem with Christmas

I do not know what to do about Christmas.

Christmas should be fairly straightforward. Millions of Americans manage to do the traditional holiday thing every year. I checked. According to statistics some 94 million households (79%) will display a Christmas tree in their homes this year. This was in a survey conducted on behalf of the American Christmas Tree Association. (Yeah, there is an association for Christmas trees in the United States.)

I also found online a number indicating that an estimated 20 million households will decorate their homes with Christmas lights. I have no idea how many people hang wreaths and stockings and put out Christmas cookies, but I would expect it to be a lot. Likely millions.

I have never purchased or set up a Christmas tree. I have never purchased nor decorated with Christmas lights. I have never owned a Christmas wreath. To my knowledge I have never independently (i.e. not “helping” my mom) made cookies.

Does that seem weird? Probably. Especially as I serve overseas as a U.S. diplomat, one that could possibly be called upon to present or discuss U.S. traditions, especially at times of major holidays.

Then again the Internet also told me that more than 99 million Americans regularly drink beer while 100 million Americans regularly drink coffee. I drink neither. So, I guess that means I am not exactly the average American.

Until this past week I had never purchased Christmas stockings. Now C and I have a set of matching stockings – hers is white with a red C on it, mine is red with a white T on it. They both have pom poms.

I am not sure where I will hang them. We are still living in a hotel. There is no fireplace. I think I will hang them from the TV console in the living room. Yeah, I guess that will work.
But we will have no Christmas tree. On Christmas morning we will likely head to my sister’s home. That afternoon we will fly to Florida to visit my aunt and uncle. We crash Christmas.

I do not have a track record of celebrating Christmas as an adult. I have spent many years overseas and even when in South Korea or Japan, I chose to travel elsewhere for Christmas. I liked to be on the road, most preferably somewhere very warm. I have spent Christmas in places Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Myanmar. You know, those really Christmas-y places.

Then I had C. The first Christmas in Mexico we stayed put. I had my duty week starting the day after Christmas through New Year’s Day. Both C and I were sick as dogs with horrendous colds and ears, nose and throat infections. The second year we traveled to my sister’s in Virginia for Christmas and Florida with my aunt and uncle for New Year’s. We also came down with horrendous colds and ENT infections. I hope that will not become our holiday tradition!

So I am challenged first with my own lack of experience. Then there is also C’s birthday, which falls just 3 weeks after Christmas. I know for those who have birthdays even closer to Christmas that this can be challenge. As a parent, I feel this concentrates the gifts a bit too much for C. Last year I made an attempt to buy her only five gifts for Christmas and five for her birthday and I gave them to her just once a week. Along with the concentration of family gifts to her around Christmas, and given I also celebrate the Lunar New Year (and I have since I was a child—a tradition my mother started), this led to approximately 15 weeks of presents.

I thought it a great way to celebrate the season and not overwhelm my young daughter. My sister thought it was really weird. Or at the very least there is something rather wrong with me.

Yet, I wanted to do the same thing this year. Like at Halloween, C is starting to understand the idea of Christmas. She knows words like “Santa” and “reindeer” and “Christmas tree.” But it is not cemented in her brain. If her reaction at the mall Santa photo display is any indication, she is not particularly fond of the man in the red suit. Not even the Frozen theme complete with fake falling snow and a plush Olaf picture just before meeting the big man could convince C that Santa was benevolent enough to sit near. So it is still my advantage to start my own holiday/birthday traditions, whatever those might be.

Except this year I am also challenged by our impending move to Shanghai, which occurs 4.5 weeks after Christmas and 1.5 weeks after C’s birthday. Our actual pack out dates will fall just a few days after C turns the big THREE. By then I have to have decided what all is going in the suitcases that arrive with us, the Unaccompanied Baggage (UAB) that will arrive anywhere from the same day to a few weeks after our arrival or our Household Effects (HHE) that will be delivered to us China 4-12 weeks after our arrival. The HHE will be packed up and shipped with our items packed up in Mexico. Yes, they will be united with those items that have been sitting in a warehouse somewhere since July.

So I gave C one Christmas present already, in mid-November. Her father sent her a scooter and helmet that arrived this past week. We agreed that earlier was fine so she would have a chance to practice riding it before it would be packed up. She is super excited to have the scooter, especially as Penny, the little girl in the Disney movie Bolt, has a scooter. I am happy because I heard that just about every kid in Shanghai has a scooter.

The plan is for C to receive presents from other family members on Christmas along with a stocking with little goodies from me. The other three gifts I have for her will be given before or after Christmas, when I feel like it. We will celebrate her birthday before departure but the gifts will be opened in Shanghai. It may not be the best solution, but it’s what I’m going to do.

Maybe two years from now, as we prepare to depart Shanghai in January 2017, I will have figured out something better? Maybe.

At least we have our Vogmasks for Shanghai.  Merry Christmas to us!

At least we have our Vogmasks for Shanghai. Merry Christmas to us!

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Of Visas, Vaccinations, Our Villa, and Vogmasks (or A Wee Bit More than Halfway to China)

I know I am a Foreign Service Officer and moving is part of the job.

I knew I was headed to Shanghai in January 2015 to work before I even arrived in Juarez.

Yet each move still feels strange and crazy and unreal until it happens. I just have to keep moving forward with the preparations.

Just a few hours after I pushed “publish” on my last I received a phone call from the Special Issuance Agency to let me know our Chinese diplomatic visas were ready for pick-up. Whoa, that was fast! It took only two weeks. My classmate’s visa application took a month and I figured, given my own experience working on visas, that with the holidays approaching it might take longer. Nope.

I drove to pick up the visas, my fingers crossed on the steering wheel, willing there to be no mistakes on the visas. And wouldn’t you know it, they were just right! Hooray! Visas, check!

On Wednesday, I also heard from the training center clinic that C and I are up-to-date on all our required vaccinations for China. There are some ones we do not have which are recommended but we can get those at the Consulate clinic after our arrival in Shanghai. For example, C is recommended for the rabies shot, but as it is a 3 stage vaccination that needs to be administered within specific time sequences, I do not feel like coordinating her transport to and from the FSI or State Department clinics and home while trying to balance my language schedule. Doing so might be enough to drive me over the edge. Required vaccinations, check!

Just before I departed FSI to pick up the visas I thought, hey, I should check my official email and see if by chance my housing has been assigned. And there was the email, letting me know I had been assigned my first choice!

Housing is such a big issue. Wherever you are, you want your home to be a place where you feel comfortable and safe. When overseas, housing can take on even greater importance. It is a refuge from all the unknowns outside the door and can be your slice of the home HOME (reminders of the U.S.A. and family) wherever you might be. Whether you are in a place where physical security is a daily preoccupation or you just need the occasional break from the barrage of cultural differences, our housing can sometimes make or break an assignment.

I have been pretty lucky with my housing so far. In both Jakarta and Juarez I lived within walking distance of work. Now that I am a 50-minute one-way commuter, this means even more to me. Both places were spacious and had good storage space. In Jakarta I looked out large windows from my third floor walk-up onto a big, beautiful mango tree. Pineapples grew in the shrubbery. My two-story, two car-garage single- family home in Juarez was also very welcoming. That does not mean I did not sometimes suffer “housing envy” when visiting others. I admit it; I did, especially in Jakarta. The “grass is always greener” complex can be strong when it comes to housing.

In Shanghai, we will be living in a “premium” high-rise apartment complex just a 10 minute walk from my workplace. In fact, according to the website the place was the “winner best overall serviced apartment in 2013.” There is an on-site health club, a pool, pre-school, kid’s club, and Shanghai’s largest bouncing castle. It is hard for me not to feel crazy giddy about living here, especially as I expect to spend a bit more time at home due to C’s age and the air quality. Place to call home, check.

Speaking of the air quality, I also made an important purchase yesterday: C and I will soon be the proud owners of our very own Vogmasks! (plus two for guests – if you did not find our housing assignment enough of a temptation to visit then surely an opportunity to wear one of these hot little numbers will tip the scale!). According to the website “Vogmask is the first stylish, high efficiency, well-fitting, comfortable and reusable filtering face mask in the world.” It also comes in a lot of fab colors and patterns. Whoo-hoo! Check them out here: http://www.vogmask.com/collections/all. (We need the ones with the air filters) I was just thinking the other day I needed some kind of ornamentation for my face to really feel hip these days.

OK, I am trying to make light of the fact that these masks are necessary for living in Shanghai. When a contact emailed me the link and told me to get at least one for myself and for my daughter, I admit, I thought these were overkill. That was until another friend in Shanghai also sent me a private message urging me to make the purchase. I bought Lapis, Sahara, Slate Grey in adult size and Dragon print for C. We are going to rock these Vogmasks. Air filter face masks for crappy Shanghai air, check!

This move to Shanghai thing just got a bit more real.

Halfway to Shanghai

Let me clarify, I am not literally halfway to Shanghai. I am not writing this somewhere above the Pacific Ocean. I am however halfway through my scheduled time at the Foreign Service Institute, 74 days into training and 74 days out from the day we fly to China.

Halfway! Holy smokes!

I am surprised myself. I feel as though we have been here longer than that and the departure date is much closer. Probably because with each Friday I simultaneously exhale a sigh of relief as I look forward to a Chinese-free weekend (because I’m a bad student that generally does little or no study on the weekend) and take a gulp of panic as I realize I am one week closer to that Chinese exam. It’s that exam that determines whether or not right now is really the halfway point to an on-time here-we-come China departure or merely an ETD, heavy emphasis on the estimated.

Just more of that baited breath unknown that keeps life in the Foreign Service going ’round.

I have had a shift in priorities as my “To-do in Northern Virginia” list grows shorter and the “Prepare for China” list takes over.

Our Chinese diplomatic visa applications are complete and with the Chinese Embassy; I am just awaiting the call to pick them up. I am crossing my fingers they are correct the first time around. Two and a half years ago I went to pick up our visas with a Spanish classmate. Alas, the visas for her two daughters had been switched – the visa for the older daughter placed in the younger daughter’s passport and vice versa. They had to be redone. I would prefer not to have to do that.

Two boxes of things as well as my jogging stroller headed to Goodwill today. Saying farewell to the jogging stroller was a little harder than I expected. I know, I know, it’s a stroller. It is just that it had been C’s primary stroller, until I had to pack it up in the UAB. I spent the summer Home Leave extravaganza solely with the cheap-o, but surprisingly durable, umbrella stroller. No, I do not jog with the umbrella stroller, but then I do not jog with C anymore. As we are heading for Shanghai, a city of nearly 24 million where the Consulate has it’s own air quality monitor with daily updates…I do not see myself doing a lot of jogging out of doors.

The hoarding of additions for my Household Effects (HHE) shipment to China has also begun. As we get up to 7,000 pounds and I only have about 3,000 pounds of personal effects sitting in a warehouse in Maryland awaiting our departure to China, I have a little extra space to throw in a few more things. Things like three bottles of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and three bottles of Grapeseed Oil. I had two people already in Shanghai email me this might be something to include in my shipment. I have also stocked up on toothpaste for myself and C. Yeah. I know they have toothpaste in China, but some of it is unsafe. Not only did one of my Chinese teachers inform my classmate and I of this, but I also found several new stories reporting this online.

I have begun my stockpile of two years worth of tampons. I wish I were kidding. Unfortunately, I also heard from someone in China that some of these Chinese products are not the real deal. Online I found a link to the following news headline “China-wide fake sanitary napkin ring busted.” You did in fact read that correctly. It is not like they weight much of anything, and so into the shipment they go.

Hello Kitty, My Little Pony, and Doc McStuffins Band-Aids are also hot ticket items. Not that C has a lot of accidents requiring bandages —she does not—but she loves to wear them as decorative skin ornamentation.

Certainly I will be able to buy many, many wonderful products in China. I will also, of course, have mail service, including access to a Diplomatic Post Office or DPO, which generally has fewer restrictions and faster shipping times than the State Department mail or the “pouch.” (Hello Netgrocer, my friend, it has been a few years.) But hey, if I have the space in my shipment, I might as well stock up on some of my favorite products, right?

We all do it. We generally have something, some favorite brand of something that will just make some of those hard days overseas feel a little bit better. A few less shopping trips for days the thought of going to the grocery store in a foreign country seems the equivalent difficulty as splitting the atom.

I also need to begin preparing my cats Kucing and Tikus (Indonesian for “cat” and “mouse”) ready for another overseas trip. Yes, even my cats have been to three countries already and we are set to make it a fourth. They flew special cargo via Amsterdam out of Indonesia (I flew via Tokyo) and I was lucky to be able to drive them into and out of Mexico. This go around the kitties should be on the same flight. Laugh if you will, but I will likely be throwing in at least six months worth of kitty litter into the HHE shipment.

I have 74 days to prepare these and more. Well, I hope. Sixty four days until the Chinese test that will say yeah or nay on the departure.

The countdown has begun.

A REAL Halloween

All week I had been excited about the prospect of trick or treating with C on Halloween night. I had had her costume picked out since early September. She loves all things horse and cowboy/cowgirl related. The bonus was that as Halloween approached, she actually started talking about the holiday. The week of she actually began talking about trick or treating – and it was not because I introduced it. I have, for the most part, learned not to discuss future events with C because she has little or no concept of time and believes everything I talk about in the future is about to happen! Indeed, that morning she sat bolt upright and asked first thing to go trick or treating. I forgot my own rule and told her we would go trick or treating later, after school. Wouldn’t you know it, thirty minutes later I drive up to her school to drop her off and she bursts out crying because she does not want to go to school, she wants to trick or treat!

Realizing that C had a concept of Halloween for the first time and that it coincided with us actually being in the U.S.  filled me with a lot of unexpected happiness. In this Foreign Service life I cannot be sure when we will be in the U.S. at Halloween again. Sure, Halloween is celebrated in other places and even more places co-opt it as a special foreign event, popular in schools, expat community housing, and bars, but there really is no place that celebrates quite like the U.S. I mean that neither negatively nor positively; the U.S. celebration of Halloween is just unique.

In Ciudad Juarez they celebrate Halloween for instance. In fact it seems there along the border it is celebrated more vibrantly than the Day of the Dead. Many children in Juarez attend school in the U.S. (as did their parents) and people appear to enjoy this U.S. tradition. There is trick or treating and the handing out of candy. And yet, it is still, even so close to the U.S., not like in the U.S. In Juarez the children, instead of saying “trick or treat” roam the neighborhoods chanting “Queremos Halloween! Queremos Halloween!” (W e want Halloween! We want Halloween!). The candy generally handed out is of the hard candy variety. The kids seem happy enough with their spoils but having been fairly keen on trick or treating as a child, I know that in the U.S. the hard candy (those Dum Dums and Jolly Ranchers) that some people insist on giving out are more often relegated to the “last to eat” or the “give to mom and dad” pile.

It has been great to be here at this time. The leaves have turned gorgeous fall colors and most trees had shed about half their leaves. Pumpkin season seemed especially good. Although the weather hit a balmy 80 degrees the Tuesday before Halloween, the day of the weather had cooled considerably. It was chilly, around 50 degrees, overcast and windy. Yet this created just the right conditions for a “real” Halloween (except some children, like C, had to wear jackets over their costumes to keep warm, which usually bums some kids out). The fallen leaves were swirling. The crescent moon appeared hazy through the clouds. The air was cool and crisp. It was perfect.

I had initially considered trick or treating with my sister, niece, and nephew, but they were heading out from 5:30 and as I am on the late language schedule at FSI, that is my finish time. I would not get home until 6:30. I decided instead we would trick or treat in the neighborhood behind the hotel. First, I figured the neighborhood backs onto an elementary school so there are likely to be plenty of children living there. Secondly, as it is townhouses, we could cover more ground, more homes, with less walking. I guesstimated a minimum of ten houses and a maximum of twenty.

As we walked over to the neighborhood with grandma, I noticed it seemed very quiet. Few of the homes facing the street had lights on and those with lights gave no indication they would be participating in trick or treating. I saw no children knocking on those doors. I did not even hear any children, which seemed a particularly bad sign.

As we turned on to the first street a house was decorated and had a porch light on with a bowl of candy sitting on the step. No person anywhere to be seen. I directed C to take a piece and she happily did so, dropping it in her pumpkin bucket (yes, the ubiquitous plastic pumpkin bucket). The next few houses were dark. Then another two houses again had only a bowl of candy left outside in front of the door. C went up and knocked on the door anyway, she was so excited. But no one came. Hmmm…this was really strange. I thought first this neighborhood must be filled with some of the most honest kids in America. A great sign for sure, though nowhere near as interesting as actually knocking and saying “Trick or Treat!” Then I wondered if actually this is what trick or treating had become in America. It had been awhile…

Finally we saw not only other children in costume but also a door with a real live occupant handing out candy. Thank goodness! I had begun to feel disappointed that C was not going to get her Halloween experience (nor would I!). After this house there was another and another. We turned at the end of the street and behold there many homes decorated for the holiday, with carved pumpkins on the steps, fake spider webs on the bushes, silhouettes of skeletons and witches in the windows. C began jumping up and down with delight, especially as there were several groups of other children out running from door to door.

Halloween was saved!

All was good until C tripped on a step that activated a motion sensor sound machine that emitted a scary sound and the occupant of the house, dressed in costume, stepped forward to offer C some assistance and give her some candy. C burst out in sobs and begged to go home. And thus ended our first trick or treating experience in the U.S. It could be our last for awhile.

At least we got a small candy haul (certainly plenty for a toddler under 3) and this morning I still got to deny her candy for breakfast, which is a time-honored tradition of American parents in the days and weeks after Halloween.

It was perfect. A real American Halloween.

Shanghai, September 2002, Part Four

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.
As I prepare for C’s and my move to Shanghai in January 2015, it seems particularly apt to take a look at when I last visited Shanghai. It’s funny, but I keep thinking that I was in Shanghai “fairly recently,” but 2002 is not recently at all! I visited Shanghai for one week during a break in my graduate classes in Singapore.

I enjoyed re-reading about my adventure to Zhouzhang. I had forgotten how I had met the young woman I went with. Unfortunately, the following year I did not get back to China. SARS hit the headlines, causing panic and insecurity in mainland China, Singapore, and several other countries, almost like Ebola today.  I am hoping to visit Zhouzhang, or a water town like it, when my mom is with us in Shanghai.  

Yesterday I returned to YuYuan Bazaar, this time actually entering the gardens. They are very lovely and peaceful. I wrote in my journal and read a little in my book while in the gardens sitting by a carp pond. I heard a tour guide telling some tourists that a small pavilion situated on top of a man-made hill used to have a view of the whole city and the river. Now it has views of high rises. Sometimes progress isn’t so great. It is too bad that view could not have been preserved. I also did a little shopping at the bazaar, bought a few nice things. Then I went to dinner. While there a young Chinese woman was brave enough to talk to me. She first came to sit at the table beside me. I could see her looking at me and trying to make up her mind whether to talk to me or not. She finally gathered her courage, took a deep breath, then asked if she could sit with me. I told her okay. Then she asked me what book I was reading. So we talked awhile (though not an easy feat as her English is not so good, and neither is my Chinese) and she asked if she could come with me to the Bund. I said sure. Then we proceeded to get very lost walking around. We stumbled upon an outdoor modeling show, wore out our feet, and gave in to take a taxi. We sat down at the Bund to talk. She is also new in Shanghai, having just come from Zhejiang Province to study at Fudan University, which is one of China’s best universities. She is a very sweet girl who to me looks like Gong Li, the famous Chinese actress (of Farewell My Concubine, Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad, and To Live fame). So we made a plan today to go to Zhouzhuang, a water town outside of Shanghai municipality region.

I met Can Can this morning. We tried to catch a cab out to the bus station, but unfortunately neither of us knew WHICH bus station. It turned out there are about five. So we just asked the taxi driver who took us to a station near the stadium. It was a long taxi ride and we arrived after 10:30, when I had heard the bus departed, but it turned out to be the wrong station anyway (guess there are probably several stadiums in Shanghai too!) So Can Can suggested we try to find out how much a taxi to Zhouzhuang would cost, but none of the taxis would tell us and just tried to drive away when we asked them. So we decided that maybe if we found the right bus station we could catch the noon bus. So we jumped in another taxi and endured horrible traffic and several close calls to arrive at a bus station at the train station. There we were told once again we were at the WRONG station. Can Can asked the guy how much a taxi would be to Zhouzhuang, and he said it would be 400 kuai round trip. It seemed a lot, but then again it was just about $45. And time was of the essence, so we took him up on it.

Zhouzhuang is really cool! It is a beautiful little town and a UNESCO world heritage site. Rather like a Chinese Venice. It has canals choked with slim boats and tourists, and lots of old buildings. Apparently about 60 % of the villagers still live in the houses that line the canals. There are graceful weeping willows lining the canal, and small high arching bridges crossing the canal at intervals. The houses are whitewashed with dark wood paneling and Chinese red lanterns. The restaurants along the canal have wood deck-type chairs to sit in and enjoy the view. The boat steerers are mostly women, who wear traditional blue cotton clothes, some also wear straw cone shaped hats, and they sing traditional Chinese songs as they pole along the canal. It almost seemed too perfect, as though it were created for tourists, but it wasn’t. It is not as famous a place as Suzhou or Hangzhou, and does not get as many visitors. But that is part of its charm. Iit seems an oasis in China, Chinese and yet can transport one to a more traditional time. Not that the town is not chock full of souvenir shops and old women following you with trinkets and postcards. It is. Last year apparently Jiang Zemin visited and had tea there. I guess that makes it a legitimate tourist attraction.

Our taxi driver followed us around the whole time. Apparently if two women from out of town hire a taxi driver for a long trip, it is like renting a dad. When I ordered a coke at lunch and it was very dirty on top and was flat right after I opened it, he argued with the proprietors to take it off the bill, and eventually they did! When we had told enough people we didn’t want their postcards and they didn’t go away, he shooed them away. He stayed just in front or just behind us, sort of like a chaperone. We even took him on our canal boat trip with us! I thought he would just wait in the car. Maybe he was afraid we would dump him and take the bus back to Shanghai and stiff him the fare. More probable than the friendly father figure, but I would like to think the former rather than latter, that he was watching out for us.

Traffic was slow on the way back and we were pretty tired. It was a good trip though and I am very happy I made the trip. See I was thinking I would come back next year, because I am planning on traveling a few weeks in China next summer, and will probably come in from Shanghai again, see Hangzhou and Nanjing, and swing over to Anhui to see my friend Jill who has just started teaching at a University there. So I think I could pass through Zhouzhuang again next year.