Foreign Service Flexible: On Housing and HHE

Yesterday I received my supplemental HHE (Household Effects) delivery. Another 800 pounds of stuff from the U.S., eleven weeks after we arrived in China.

The “plan” (and when you are in the Foreign Service “plan” almost always has to be in quotation marks) was for this shipment to arrive approximately 4 to 5 weeks after our arrival. We packed out on January 21 of this year. Boats take about a month and then customs clearance about a week.  If only our shipment had been on the first available boat. It wasn’t.

For whatever reason the shippers reserved my shipment onto a boat departing the U.S. in late February, with an expected arrival at Shanghai port on March 23. It must not have arrived until the following week and the week after I was asked for photocopies of my credentials to send to the port for clearance.

Well no worries, our stuff is here.

At least once (though probably more often) in a Foreign Service Officer’s career, she will ask herself, when opening up the UAB or HHE or supplemental HHE or consumables shipment…”What was I thinking?”

350 pounds of cat litter. 50 pounds of cat food. Two 200 count boxes of Fla-Vor-Ice (C’s favorite snack). One bag 300 count dum-dums (C’s other favorite snack). Four boxes of Fiber One buttermilk pancake mix. Various cans of food stuffs like Campbell’s soup, pumpkin filling (for pumpkin pancakes!), canned chicken breast. Boxes of cat items, toys, and all my Chinese study materials.

350 pounds of kitty litter

This is what 350 pounds of cat litter looks like. I know you were wondering.

Now where to put this stuff?

Moving in the Foreign Service (or other similar endeavors) is always a crapshoot when it comes to housing. The size and style and type of housing vary widely from post to post. On one hand African posts are known for their very generous house sizes. On the other hand Western European posts generally have less-spacious apartments.

I had a large three bedroom apartment in Jakarta with a kitchen the size of some master bedrooms and a large space between the living room and the dining area. I guess it was a hallway, but “hallway” belies its size. I also had more shelving and cabinets than I knew what to do with. In Juarez I had a three-bedroom, 2.5 bath, two story single family home with two car garage. I had some space. Here in Shanghai I have a 2 bedroom with den apartment. Do not get me wrong, it is a very lovely apartment, but it is smaller than previous housing and lacks much storage space. I do not even have a hall closet.

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The “Great Hall” at my Jakarta residence. Perfect for wind sprints. And the large area on the right that looks like a doorway? Nope, it is a giant built in shelving unit. Storage and space. The novelty!

No problem. When I received my housing assignment in November, I was informed the apartment came with a 9 x 9 foot storage locker on another floor. Fantastic!

It was because I knew I had this storage space I went out and bought all that cat litter and cat food, a two year supply of feminine hygiene products, children’s shampoo and medicines, and toothpaste and toothbrushes.  Also a two year supply of liquid laundry detergent or pods because an informant told me they were hard to come by and horribly expensive and local products were harsh (true), and six large bottles of olive oil as another informed me these too were scarce (not true).

It is why I bought some 400 packets of sugar substitute and some 800 zip-lock baggies in a variety of sizes (not sure what I will use them for, but they sure seemed important to buy at the time).

It is because of this storage unit that I figured I could easily stow my growing George Foreman Grill and cat carrier collections.

(Yeah. I know. Not your usual collections. It would seem I bought a new GF grill every time I was posted to DC and the cat carriers – you need a different kind for every different kind of travel. Large hard side for cargo shipping. Small hard side for car travel. Small soft side for in cabin plane travel. Sigh.)

Upon arrival in Shanghai I found a welcome letter that again mentioned my storage unit. A few days later I was ready to wheel down some empty suitcases to storage. Unfortunately the small key on my key ring turned out not to be for any storage unit, but for mail. The guards on the storage floor directed me to the apartment complex office. The office referred me to the Consulate. The Consulate informed me that all new contracts did not include a storage unit and mine, it turned out, is a new contract.

Wait. What?!

To become a Foreign Service Officer the State Department looks for individuals who exhibit certain qualities. Although it is not explicitly one of the thirteen dimensions, “flexibility” is a word very often extolled in our line of work. Think of all the times we move.  The different countries and cultures we find ourselves in. The number of times our colleagues and our supervisors change.   You need to be flexible when it takes over nine months to ship and clear your car through customs in a two year tour. You need to be flexible when you spend seven months learning Norwegian and it turns out the Department will instead need you in Japan. You need to be flexible when you do not get any of your top twenty choices for a post and end up where you least expected (and wanted).

And you need to be flexible when post informs you, a week after your arrival, that you do not in fact have the storage unit you had previously been informed you had. Even after you sent 800 pounds of extra stuff to post specifically because you were told you had that storage unit.

You might want to be annoyed. You might want to rail against the unfairness. You might want to pout. But in the end you need to accept, let it go, and be flexible.

To their credit, the folks at the Consulate tried their best to fix the situation, within the confines of what they could do. I now have a storage unit, but on a temporary basis as it belongs to another apartment and when the occupant vacates next summer, I have to move all my remaining belongings back to my guest room.

a full storage space

I am very excited to have the opportunity to move most of this back into my apartment in a little over a year’s time.

So I have a goal to reduce my total HHE I brought to Shanghai by at least 1,000 pounds by departure, and to get rid of most of that before I have to lug it all back into my apartment next July.

Planning and organizing. That is another Foreign Service quality. I have that in spades.

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I am so flexible I will continue to refer to this as my guest room.

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Hanging in Hangzhou

“Above there is Heaven, below there is Suzhou and Hangzhou” ~ really old Chinese saying

Well, I wouldn’t go THAT far, but it turned out better than expected given the weather.

Murphy’s Law: The day before, even the day of, our departure to Hangzhou was lovely. Then once we were on our way it wasn’t. Our first trip outside of Shanghai since we arrived 9 weeks ago and the weather was terrible. I cannot be exactly sure, but it may have begun to rain the minute our high-speed train departed Hongqiao Station.

And it kept raining.

Through the train journey. Through the ride in the taxi to our Hangzhou hotel. Through the night. And through our first day.

I had wanted for years to visit Hangzhou and had certainly been looking forward to this trip (almost desperately) for weeks and now…

2 Anna & Elsa contemplate weather

Queen Elsa and Princess Elsa seem as disappointed as I contemplating the poor weather.

We had breakfast in our room and I poured over the Hangzhou tourist brochure looking for something, almost anything, that we could do on a rainy day. But even the tea museum had an outdoor component. So I gave in.

I decided our first day would just be a relaxing day at the hotel. Just C and I. And I looked at the bright side.

I managed our first trip in China. Getting C and I to the train station on the metro and then to Hangzhou with the two of us sharing a single seat on the one hour journey. I managed, with the help of my little spitfire, to get us from the Hangzhou train station to our hotel. Surrounded by taxi touts refusing en masse to use their meters and tossing out crazy, inflated numbers. As I walked away and they followed, C yelled at them “Leave my mommy alone. BU KEYI!” Yes, in Chinese she told them to basically buzz off. (Well, she said “Cannot!” but I know what she meant.”) I negotiated from 80 RMB ($12.80) to 50 RMB ($8). (Though of course, as I learned later, the real meter cost is 12 RMB or $1.92).

We had a lovely lunch at the hotel and then we went to get a foot massage. Or rather I did while C enjoyed the adjacent chair – in our private room! – with her iPad and then fell asleep for her nap. This is the first massage I have had since a post-partum one within a month of C’s birth. I also read a book. Gasp!

We enjoyed an hour swim together in the hotel pool and then dinner. The hotel had a Tex-Mex promotion and did not do half bad. Sure, I had never before had Mexican Lasagna, but it was very tasty.

When I threw open the curtains on day two to find another overcast, grey day however, I felt a bit defeated. I debated just cutting our loses and heading back to Shanghai whether I received a refund on the third night at the hotel or not. I did not know however if I could get a ticket back on the train. It was a holiday weekend after all. And then, through the clouds, I saw a little glint of sunlight hit a nearby building. So I threw some clothes on C and myself and we headed out.

I thought I would first thing get a taxi to Hangzhou’s famed West Lake. But down in the lobby I thought to the glimpse of greenery, a park perhaps?, I had seen across the street with what looked like a traditional Chinese bridge. We would head there first to see and then back to the hotel for a taxi.

We did find not only a park but a canal filled with upgraded traditional dugout canal boats. In a little exercise park by the canal, friendly grandmas and grandpas getting in some workouts and moms and their kids out for a stroll, came over to check us out and chat us up. They were curious and sweet, testing my Chinese and practicing their English. One woman told us rather than head back to our hotel, why didn’t we head to the little canal boat dock on the other side of the bridge, and head down river a ways?

So we checked out the bridge, where we again became the subject of much kind interest and then over to the boat dock. Turns out the boats are canal taxis. They are fitted with mechanical transport card readers. I did not have a card of course and asked how much. I did not get far as a kind older woman motioned to me and C as she scanned her card three times. It was on the house. (I think it cost 3 RMB, or 48 cents, for a ride)

What a fantastic little trip! We meandered along the canal (or a river with incredibly tamed banks) for at least half an hour. I honestly lost track of time. Our canal trip benefactor took the opportunity to snap some pictures of C enjoying the boat (as did I) and since she had been so nice we both acquiesced to a photo with C on her lap and giving her a hug (because no one gets a photo like this unless C agrees). The canal was lined on both sides with a tree lined walking paths and periodically with covered Chinese gazebos where old people rested and watched the water, did exercise or played Chinese musical instruments. People walked their dogs. Moms and dads walked with their babies and children. The low clouds created a mist that only made it more inviting.

15 bridges

14 bridges Just some of the beautiful scenes along the boat trip.

We were let off at the terminus where pretty little white houses with grey roofs and red lanterns lined the canal. We walked back a little along the canal path, underneath willows and plum trees in bloom. C ran and laughed. Geez, it was lovely.

Then we made our way on foot several blocks to West Lake. We stopped for lunch and unfortunately the skies opened up and buckets fell. Thankfully it started after we entered the restaurant and by lingering a bit longer it ended before we left. A few blocks more and we found the lake.

The weather was still overcast. Clouds hung low and the opposite bank, even boats on the water, could barely be seen through the mist. Still it was beautiful and, judging by the crowds, we were not the only ones longing for a stroll by the lake.

We walked for hours. C alternated between the stroller and running excitedly ahead. When it drizzled, we found refuge under the trees or in one of the lakeside gazebos or even once in a temple. King Qian’s Temple was a wonderful respite from the buzz of the Chinese crowds. It cost 15 RMB to get in and I was a bit hesitant at first, but I am so glad we took the time to visit. Just off the main path around the lake it was as if we were suddenly transported a long way away. The crowds were gone, only a handful of other people were inside, and it was so incredibly quiet.

27 temple quiet

Enjoying the tranquility of King Qian’s temple.

I did not make it all the way around the lake. I had no such anticipation when I started as it is expected to take approximately FIVE HOURS to do so. Yet I did not even make it to Leifeng Pagoda. C conked out in her stroller and I too became tired. So I made the decision to head back to the hotel but told myself that Hangzhou is worth another trip, soon.

29 blossoms and pagoda

About as close to the Leifeng Pagoda as we got. Not a bad view, despite the clouds.

I think C enjoyed the trip. The one part though that seemed to disappoint her is that we never did find “Joe.” Seems every time I mentioned going to “Hangzhou” she heard something about “Joe” (zhou in Chinese is pronounced quite similar to the name Joe). Even just now as I write this, while looking over the pictures of our trip, she said, “Next time let’s visit Joe.”

So there is likely to be a next time.