I will let you in on a secret: Most Foreign Service families relish having friends and family visit them. I know this is true because one thing that is always taken into consideration when bidding on the next assignment is if it is a place people will want to visit. I am not sure why it is a secret but I have found and heard from others it is difficult to get people to visit us. I get it. Foreign Service families are posted all over the world, in some far away and challenging places. It can take a lot of planning and money to get to where we are and not everyone has the means or the inkling to travel the way we do.
So when family members or friends make the trek out to see us – especially if we happen to live somewhere other than Western Europe – it is pretty exciting. We get to show you our life abroad. Our apartment. Maybe our office. Our local supermarket. And all the wonderful, horrible, crazy, fun, fabulous aspects of our new city/country.
Therefore imagine my level of excitement that friends were coming to visit me in Shanghai! After 20 months in country I would finally have my first guests. It is a little hard to believe that I had more visitors to Ciudad Juarez (my mother for three weeks, my aunt and uncle for a week, and my sister for one night over from El Paso so she could say she spent the night in one of the most dangerous cities in the world) than Shanghai. My mother had planned to come, my aunt too, and my other sister and her family considered it, but none had come. My friends D&D had booked a trip but my Medevac back to the US last October/November put the kibosh on that. Yet finally, after some 265 days in the preparation stage visitors were here!
My visitors: My friend CZ, whom I have known 24 years, nearly a quarter of a century (!), and who is also a single mother, her 2 year old son Little C, and CZ’s older friend PK, whom I met in May 2015 and who wanted to visit China to fulfill a childhood dream. My visitors would spend a week in Shanghai and a week in Beijing, with C and I joining for three days of the Beijing portion. I am generally into organizing and planning my holidays/vacations, but given our motley crew including yours truly I developed only ideas of activities, and just hoped all would go well.
On the first day, October 1, I took everyone the few blocks up the street to Jing’An temple. As it was the Chinese National Day, entrance to the temple was free and it seemed that at least half of Shanghai’s 24 million residents were stopping by. Crowded is an understatement. We headed to the park across the street from the temple where we found the other half of the 24 million were milling around. And that was all we managed that day.
Our second day we were blessed with a glorious National Day weekend blue-sky, almost as blindingly wonderful as G-20 Blue. We decided on a hop on hop off sightseeing bus and parked ourselves at the stop in front of the hotel in my complex. And there we sat and sat and sat for about 30 minutes until I suggested we hail a taxi to stop #1. The bus is a great idea for people with kids – ride around the city, looking at the sights and listen to commentary. Except that since kids under 5 are free they do not provide kids with headphones (though who am I kidding? As if a 2 and 4 year old are gonna listen to the history of Shanghai, but it might have entertained them for 5 minutes. Okay 3.), and the bus just sat at stops waiting longer than it spent driving, and the commentary recording kept skipping or just played a Spanish sounding dance track, which seemed just a little strange. We got off the bus at the Bund, the second go around (in order to enjoy the commentary one full way around, though “enjoy” might be a strong word), so we could transfer to another line to head over the river to Pudong for our river boat tour. At the Bund we bought sandwiches and the kids threw a delightful fit over ice cream. Once on the bus we drove over to Pudong. That is literally all the bus did. No stops. No commentary. Just a high speed zip over to the land of Shanghai’s tallest skyscrapers. On the open top of the bus I saw my life flash before my eyes as the driver careened around the loop onto and off the bridge.
To get to our boat trip we had to disembark the large bus, wait around in front of the Shanghai landmark Disney store with sightseeing company staff (waiting in front of a Disney store with children and not being able to go is really fun!), then board a shuttle bus to drive us several blocks, then walk down stairs, and across planks, and then up and down a few more stairs to our boat. Years ago, in 2002 in fact, when I took a tour on the Huangpu River, it was on a large vessel, maybe the size of a paddle steamer? This time however imagine my surprise when we find a midsize cabin cruiser that comfortably seats about 20 with both upper and lower decks. That hour cruise was bliss. The kids were happy. The view was wonderful.
Every day something seemed to not work out right. PK really wanted to see the Shanghai Arts & Crafts museum and CZ and I agreed to visit with the kids as information online suggested it was child-friendly. It was a little hard to find but turned out to be a pleasant hour long distraction. However then PK wanted to visit the Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall, which was several blocks away but not really for kids. We did it but emotions were starting to run high. Another day we took a half day tour to the water town of Zhujiajiao, the closest of the Venice-like towns to Shanghai. The tour bus arrived late. Water towns of narrow stone pathways and stone step bridges are not stroller-friendly. It started to rain. And once again it seemed a good portion of the Shanghai population had planned to visit the exact same place. The return bus trip took over an hour longer than expected due to traffic. I had such high hopes this would be a chance to see the most traditional of Chinese vistas while visiting Shanghai, but it felt like far too much work.
On our last day together in Shanghai I opted for a mommy and daughter day just with C. I had been prepared for another day with my guests but at the last minute I pulled out; I felt too strongly that we all needed a break from each other. C and I headed to Pudong for a trip up the mega-skyscraper Shanghai Tower, currently the world’s second tallest building (the first being Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which C and I have also visited), but the world’s tallest building by usable floor–floor 127! Afterwards we had a nice mommy and daughter lunch and then a visit to one of C’s favorite shopping destinations — the Disney Store. It was just the kind of day we needed, all of us, and that night we were all able to share the stories of our respective adventures.
Then we took our show on the road.
I cannot explain some of the following decisions. One, waking up at the crack of dawn to take a 7 am flight to Beijing. Two, my friends and I booked different airlines in order to get miles on our respective chosen airline partners. Yet at some point it must have seemed like a really good idea. The problem is we landed at two different terminals. In most airports that would not be an issue, but in Beijing Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 are located FIVE miles apart. It took nearly 30 minutes to get from one to the other, while C and I were on one shuttle bus, PK, CZ and Little C were on a shuttle bus in the opposite direction.
Luckily we all made a decision at some point to stop looking for each other at the airport and just head to the hotel. Just a few kilometers we hit Beijing’s notorious traffic and we sat at a standstill for 30 minutes. Eventually we reunited at the hotel. To think the original plan had been to arrive early, leave our things at the hotel and pack 2 kids under 5 off for a several hour tour of the Forbidden City. Yeah, I am still trying to wrap my head around what I might possibly have been thinking. It was raining, the kids were tired, we were all tired and hungry. We took a deep breath, had lunch and rested. In the afternoon, after the rain stopped we took a stroll down to Tian’an Men, where we took photos of all the Chinese taking photos of our kids in front of the gate where Mao’s portrait hangs.
Our last two days things started to turn around. The sun came out and the air quality index stayed low. Sure our plan to visit Jingshan Park (the once imperial garden behind the Forbidden City) AND the Temple of Heaven meant we only visited the first and then called it a day. On our last day we were again graced with blue skies. We had a tour guide, Glenn, whom a colleague of mine had recommended, pick us up at the hotel and drive us to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. I thought back to the Wall of 1994, that was not a place I would take a small child. But now it is possible. We took the cable car up to Watchtower 14 (a cable car!) and then walked to Watchtower 6. The kids did great with the help of snacks, drinks, plenty of breaks, and the great help of Glenn the Guide. At Watchtower 6 CZ and I rode double toboggans down with our kids. Back in 1994 I remember my much younger and fitter self slogging down stairs on wobbly legs — the toboggan is the best way to descend for sure. At the base we all enjoyed a well deserved pizza, yet another thing that was not available back in the day (the few pizzas available my first time in China certainly left much to be desired).
As C and I said goodbye to our friends to head back to Shanghai, I had much to reflect on. The visit certainly had not gone anywhere according to plan, and it was so much harder and exhausting than I had anticipated, yet I am so glad for the chance to have welcomed friends to my current hometown at last.