The Joy of Bidding – The Game of “Where Do I Go Next?”

‘Tis the season.  I do not mean the fall season, or entering the holidays.  I mean it is the time of the year when Foreign Service Officers seeking their next assignment begin bidding on potential jobs.

Well, that is not exactly right.  The official bidding season began on Monday, September 19 with the release of the “Bid List” (a database of all available jobs) and was scheduled to end on Monday, October 31, the first day that official offers or “handshakes” can be extended.  Six long weeks.  But that belies how much work actually goes into this process.

I feel as if I have been bidding since I arrived in Shanghai, over 20 months ago.  I feel that way because I sort of have.  A few weeks after my arrival I started looking at the projected vacancy list, a list of the jobs likely to be available for me to bid on.  Only eight jobs appeared to meet my timing and criteria and two of them were on the US-Mexican border.  Ciudad Juarez was a good place for us to be before, but I was not keen to return to the border.

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Will I go here?  Or here? Or maybe there?  That is the question.

Since I arrived in January 2015, my departure date would be approximately two years later in the winter of 2017.  We have two bid cycles a year – one in the summer and one in the winter.  I was a winter bidder.  Additionally, I looked at jobs that were listed as fulfilling a “Political” job.  We have five “cones” or career tracks as a Foreign Service Officer (also called a Foreign Service Generalist; there are also Foreign Service Specialists who have other career tracks:  https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/officer).  The five cones are: Consular, Economic, Management, Political, and Public Diplomacy.  With the limited list generated from my search of Political-coned jobs available for winter 2017, I decided to look into an extension.  Although unusual for an Entry Level Officer (ELO=an officer in their first or second tour), on May 1, 2015 I had been granted my extension to April 2017, placing me in the summer bid cycle.

And I let that stand for a little less than a year.

Then I revisited the Projected Vacancy List.  I poured over it.  I printed out the capsule descriptions, the single paragraph summary statements about each position.  I made lists.  I researched pet importation restrictions (for the two cats).  I read reviews of many places on Real Post Reports (http://www.talesmag.com/real-post-reports/all), where real people who have lived in the cities and countries highlighted can anonymously respond to a survey answering questions on commutes, housing, whether you need a car and what type to bring, security and health concerns, schools and more.  I made more lists.  Then I whittled my lists of top posts down to about a dozen.

In late April of this year I took the time during my R&R to go into the State Department to meet with the desk officers covering several of the countries from my Shortlist Dozen.

Back in Shanghai I started to reach out to some of the incumbents serving in posts on my Shortlist Dozen to find out a day/week in the life of their position, what he/she found were the top reporting issues and top responsibilities, and get the skinny on work/life balance.  By August I had reached out to someone in all of my Shortlist Dozen spots.  In places where the incumbent had recently left and the new one had yet to arrive, I reached out to the heads of political sections.  Before I left for my Australian vacation on September 9 I had identified a firm ten jobs that would make up my bid list (because this year the maximum we could bid was ten).  I felt fairly confident that although each and every place would take me and my daughter in a different direction, they would all meet carefully researched personal and professional goals. I was ready.

Then the official bid list came out.

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And the game is on!  Everyone hopes when the music stops they have a job.

On Monday, September 19, Washington, DC time, the State Department released the Bid List.  Since I essentially live 12 hours in the future, I did not feel concerned returning to Shanghai on Tuesday.  Yet when I nervously checked the list on Wednesday, my first day back in the office, I already felt behind.  Luckily though, having reached out to many offices prior to the official bidding season, I secured three interviews within a week.  The first, with my third choice, went alright.  I think it went better than I had expected, yet at the end of the call I had some doubts this is where I wanted to be.  My other two interviews though went quite well.  Alright.  This might not be so bad.

Then two positions high on my list, both in the same country, were gone from the list.  The incumbent had extended.  Then another slipped off the list for the same reason.  Then another. I searched for replacements, found one, reached out to the office, and then learned it too would no longer be available.

How is it that jobs listed as available become no longer so?  In the case of the jobs I had looked at, they were all two year jobs with one year of training and over 20% post differential.  As I am bidding on Summer 2017 jobs, I would then enter one year of training and arrive to post in Summer 2018, then serve two years in the position.  The incumbents had only arrived at post in late Summer 2016 after their year of training.  Incumbents in countries with 20% or higher differential may extend a third year.  I can imagine it is not easy to arrive to a new position in country and within weeks be expected to decide if you will stay two years or three.  Having now been through the wrenching bidding process, I am not surprised that many opted to extend.  I expect I might do the same.  Still, I will use an un-diplomatic phrase here, it sucked.

Then a fifth job made itself unavailable.  Originally a position with a start date of Summer 2018, that included a year of training (mostly language) became a Summer 2017 position.  The incumbent who had initially agreed to stay a third year under a special “service needs” designation, decided instead to leave after the second year.  Though the language designation remained, the timing would mean no year of training.  It had been the language training that had made it so attractive.  I removed it from my list.

My strong list of ten had quickly been reduced to five, the minimum.

I had two more interviews; I thought they went fairly well.  But I needed more bids to feel comfortable.

My original ten bids had featured four jobs in three countries of the East Asia Pacific (EAP) bureau, three jobs in two countries in the South Central Asia (SCA) bureau, two jobs in two countries in the Africa (AF) bureau, and a single job in the Western Hemisphere (WHA) bureau.  The European (EUR) bureau uses another bidding tool from the other bureaus – too complicated to go into here and make an already complex narrative more so — which is why I then added three Near East (NEA) in two countries into my mix.  I reached out to incumbents.  I had another interview.

I cannot imagine this is very exciting to read for the uninitiated and perhaps too cryptic for those in the know.  For those actually living it though, it is exciting and scary and stressful at the same time.  These bids can begin to feel terribly weighty.  Each bid after all represents a different job in a different city in a different country.  Each place will alter not only my professional and personal trajectory, but also that of my daughter.  If we go to X country in southern Africa I imagine her on the swim team.  She likes swimming.  Swimming seems like the most popular sport referenced on the international school pages.  Yes, there is a swim team with try-outs for five year olds.  Yet if we go to Y country in Central Asia, she will likely not swim.  I cannot find mention of a pool on any of the school websites.  But horseback riding seems a likely possibility.  My daughter likes horses.

I play this game in my head frequently.   Too frequently.  I have to stop when I start to psych myself out of a job.   Many bidders receive a message from their Career Development Officer reminding them to be realistic about their options, to not bid on jobs that are a reach, are too heavily bid (within the bidding tool we can see the number of bidders on any given job), or are above our pay grade.  The email tells us that last year two-thirds of bidders received an offer on or in the days that follow Handshake Day.  The unspoken, but glaringly obvious information is that a full one-third of bidders did not.  I falter.  I feel very unsure again.  I cannot afford to persuade myself now that a job may not be the right path.  If I have an offer, I should take it.  The email says so.

Bidding can be a lonely sport.  Sharing with friends and family who are not in the Foreign Service can be difficult.  People are disappointed and confused to learn I have not bid on a single European post.  When I have mentioned the places on my list I then receive “votes” on a particular place.  “You should go to X because the weather is better” or “My vote is for Y because then I would see you more” or “They all sound nice but I prefer Z because [insert any kind of random fact the person might know about Z].”  I know these are well meaning.  I do.  But unfortunately I do not really get to choose.  I can make a list, but ultimately the choice is on the other side.

So basically in a nut shell: the Bid List is released, bidders pour over the bid list and submit bids (and also their lobbying documents like their resume and references and employee profile) to Posts of interest, *if* post is interested they will contact the bidder for an interview, Posts make their own short lists and send to DC, bidders submit their final bids, i.e. a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 10 bids.  Then bidders wait.  Ten excruciatingly long days til Handshake Day. I try to relax.  I try to focus on my work; I have plenty to keep me busy but I feel a little unmotivated, distracted.  I liken it to when you are working on your computer and a program that you have no control over is running in the background.  For me Bidding 2.0 is constantly running in my brain.

I submitted bids for eight positions in seven countries.  I had interviews with six.  I heard I made the short list, but was not the number one choice, for five places.  I suspected I was on the bid list at a sixth place as I was the only bidder on that job (though as is so many things in the State Department, that is certainly not a guarantee).  By all accounts I was in a good position.  Then Handshake Day arrived…and passed with no handshake for me.

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I bid eight jobs.  I only need one to love me in return.  Just one.

So how to best to describe this process?  It is rather like the dating game.  Imagine you are at a high school and the Homecoming Dance is coming up.  Everyone would like to get asked to the dance.  Cindy likes John.  John likes Cindy but is a bit more into Jessica.  He would like to ask Jessica to the dance, but if Jessica says no then he will ask Cindy.  Rajiv likes Cindy too.  He thinks he will ask her to the dance.  But he heard that John might ask her if Jessica says no.  So Rajiv is also thinking about asking Kaori or Naomi.  Kaori likes Rajiv but also Blake, but does not think she has a shot, but is hopeful anyway.  She heard from a friend who knows someone who knows Blake though that he knows she is interested, so maybe she will wait it out.  Aaron though is the star quarterback of the football team and if he asks Cindy, Kaori, or Naomi, they will say yes.  Claudia is a cheerleader and if she asks Blake, John or Connor they will say yes.

Confused?  So am I.  But picture instead of hormonally charged teenagers these are bidders and cities where positions are available.  A very strong candidate might get two or three handshakes on Handshake Day, but can obviously only take one job.  The candidate though has 24 hours to consider the offers and respond.  When that candidate takes one of those jobs, the two losing Posts must now go down their Shortlist to their number two.  Number two though may have been number one on another list and has already accepted a handshake.  Perhaps number three on the list though is still waiting and will accept Post’s offer.  Yet, this can go on for days.  And as the days pass bidders become increasingly hopeful to get an offer from someplace, any place they bid.  At the end of the day, as everyone and anyone who knows you are bidding but did not receive an offer on Handshake Day will tell you, everyone gets a job.  So after the dust settles there are always jobs that either did not have bidders or for whom their bidders took other jobs.

But on day three of the process I got an offer.  Thank goodness the stress of bidding is over.  I should take a few days to….Oops, too late, now I am freaking out about all I need to prepare to get there…

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Our next post will be Malawi!

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Sydney Getaway

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Kites of all kinds, Bondi Beach.  Look at that blue sky!  No need for an air quality monitor here.

After months (it felt like years) since my previous vacation, through the hard slog of a busy Shanghai visa summer, then into a strange low visa-demand month that was challenging nonetheless with the whole “half the staff is gone for 1-3 weeks in Hangzhou to support the G-20” thing, I was so ready for a vacation.  I would especially need it as my trip was sandwiched between the summer/G-20 season and my first foray into mid-level bidding, which is State Department speak for “virtual cage fighting for your next job.”

So off to Oz we went with stops in Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

We flew Shanghai to Singapore and then overnight to Sydney.  (I love that my four year old asks before we travel how many planes we will take.)  My friend K and her family picked us up at the airport — K used to work at the US Consulate in Shanghai as a locally-employed staff (a local hire) but she relocated to Sydney with her husband’s job and now she works for the US Consulate in Sydney — and then whisked us off to Bondi Beach for the annual kite flying festival.  It did not have nearly the number of kites we expected and K’s husband could not find a parking space so he just drove around and around the area until we had our fill of beach and kites, but to be honest I didn’t care because it was just great to catch up with K, and her son KZ and C, who are the exact same age, really bonded.  After Bondi we headed for a quick lunch on our way to the wonderful Featherdale Wildlife Park in the northwest suburbs of Sydney.  The wildlife center is all about native Australian birds and animals, so it is a great place to see cockatoos, kookaburas, emus, cassowaries, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, quokkas, echidnas, Tasmanian devils and the like.  KZ and C pet a koala — one of the few places where you can do so complimentary with your entrance ticket — and some wallabies.  We finished up with ice cream.  Then we headed back to K’s house and while her husband prepared dinner K and I took a stroll in a nearby park while KZ and C zoomed around on a scooter and a bicycle.  And while this might sound like your average day out with friends — meet up, have lunch, drive to a kid friendly place, dinner at home, and a walk in the park — I have not had a single day like that in Shanghai.

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Only 45 minutes on the train and I get this look

The following morning, a Monday, K headed out early to work and her husband drove C and I to the nearby Blacktown train station to catch the 7:57 am train to Katoomba.  Initially my plan had been more complicated and involved renting a car.  But the logistics and cost and dragging C’s car-to-booster-conversion seat for a short drive to and from Katoomba was outweighed by the simplicity of taking the train.  Me–I was incredibly impressed with myself for packing one large backpack I could put on my back, a smaller backpack I could wear on my chest, thereby leaving my hands free to push C in the stroller.  I felt I was almost, sort of, kinda, not really, really, but as close as I have been in awhile, close to my old backpacker self.  C was less impressed.  For some reason she found the idea of a relaxing 1 hour 22 minute ride on the train seemed incredibly boring.  In true 4 year old style she asked at every station if that was our station.  I only had to endure her asking 16 times before on it finally coming true.  But she is 4 and she would have asked every five minutes if we were there yet had I been driving.

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Great location, historic charm: the Carrington

We arrived at 9:22 am and headed straight for our hotel, the historic Carrington located just half a block from the Katoomba train station.  The restored historic hotel is the oldest hotel in town having opened in 1883.  I opted for us to stay in the “traditional rooms,” which are billed as “budget” accommodation that channels the original rooms of the hotel, i.e. they share bathrooms down the hall as the hotel would have had prior to 1927.  Again, to me it was a tip to my backpacking/hosteling days and I was curious as to how C would take to it. Her assessment at the end of our stay: “I liked the room, I liked the bed, I liked the TV, but I did not like the bathrooms outside.”

It was a gorgeous day.  It was warm (in the upper 70s), the sky was a brilliant blue.  There was no time to dawdle.  We were at the hotel WAY too early to check in.  I left our bags with the front desk and whisked C in the stroller off to see the sights.  I decided to walk from the hotel to Echo Point, the location to see the Three Sisters, the three iconic pillar rock formations that are the most recognizable symbol of the Blue Mountains.  I had hoped the walk to Echo Point would be interesting, but it was not.  We simply walked down a sidewalk that started in the commercial center of Katoomba and passed through a nondescript residential neighborhood.  There were no views until the end when suddenly you find yourself at Echo Point 30 minutes later.  And here the Jamison Valley opens before you.  It is the Grand Canyon of Australia and it is awesome.  C agreed that it was worth the trip only because I gave her some ice cream.  Whatever.  (I want to be upfront about travel with a four year old; C is a very good traveler but she is four.  Ice cream ranks higher than amazing natural wonders right now).

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The Three Sisters and Jamison Valley view

We were beat though.  We had flown through the night to arrive in Australia.  Been whisked around on a wonderful whirlwind first day right from the airport.  Then we woke up very early for the train to the Blue Mountains.  Despite the stunning views and great weather we needed lunch and a rest.  We lunched at Echo Point watching a kookabura sitting in an old gum tree (get it?) and then road the hop on hop off bus back to the first stop, across from the hotel.  We bought fruit and sandwich fixings from the local grocery store and were in for the night.  (I want to be upfront about travel with a tired thirty, ok forty-something, mom with a young child.  Sometimes a nap ranks higher than natural wonders.)

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Are you sure there is a contraption of any kind on those cables?  The Skyway disappears into the fog…

The following day I was kicking myself.  It was cooler.  The fog was thick.  Sigh.  This is the day we would go to Scenic World, a privately run wonderland of activities in the Blue Mountains.  The activities include riding the steepest incline railway in the world, riding the steepest aerial cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, ride the skyway tram that crosses a chasm 270 meters above the valley floor, and enjoying various walks on elevated boardwalks through the forest.  I was not sure how great it would be in thick fog. It is called scenic world, but it might be a bit hard to see…  At AUS$70 for the two of us it seemed to be a bit pricey to look at the inside of a cloud.  The upside is the fog had no affect whatsoever on the thrilling ride on the scenic railway.  You whizz down what seems a near vertical track, you pass through a tunnel, and then some trees.  C and I screamed.  Then C laughed while I continued to scream.  At the bottom of the railway we enjoyed a 30 minute walk through the forest with stops to ride the bronze statue of a pony in front of an old mine, swung on a tree limb outside an old minters cabin, and just enjoyed the fresh air.  With the fog we had almost no wait for the cable car back up.  And while the Skyway is supposed to afford riders incredible views, the fog gave the ride an otherworldly feel.

We had spent several hours at Scenic World and then an hour in the town of Leura before once again calling it a day.  With most sightseeing buses stopping at 5 and the sun beginning to set around 5:30 PM, this is not as crazy as it sounds.

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I could have put a normal beautiful day at Scenic World photo but while there I accidentally discovered my camera has this awesome setting. 

The weather for Wednesday, our last day in the Blue Mountains, was supposed to be pretty bad — rainy all day.  Imagine my surprise when we woke up to blue skies!  I made the decision to head back to Scenic World.  Imagine my surprise and sense of wonder when at the ticket counter the cashier let us in for free!  He had asked, “Have you ever been to Scenic World before?” and I had answered “Yes! We were here yesterday but we could see very little with the fog so I thought we would come back.  My daughter loved the railway and cannot stop talking about riding it again.  Here is a picture I took of the fog around the Skyway.  Isn’t it great?”  He told me he would give me a discount, but when I handed him my credit card he declined it and told us to have a great time.  Customer service is not dead.

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This trail is rated perfect for 4 year olds by gift store employees

We rode the railway twice more (once down and once up) at C’s request.  Then I decided we would ride the Skyway one-way with the stroller and walk along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk to Echo Point.  It was only 30 minutes and a woman in the Scenic World gift shop assured me it was stroller friendly.  She must have never, ever, ever been anywhere near that cliff walk because it was not stroller friendly in any possible interpretation unless you mean carrying your stroller the entire time as you fumble along several hundred dirt steps while praying your adventurous preschooler does not walk off the edge of the trail.  My favorite part was the 9 or 10 rung metal step ladder affixed to a rock in the middle of the trail.  Super kid friendly (not).  But we survived the walk and luckily arrived at Echo Point before the skies darkened and poured.

The following day we took the train from Katoomba back to Sydney.  As C found the 1 hour and 22 minute ride up boring she was even less impressed with the 2 hour trip to Sydney Central.  And even more disgruntled to learn that we would transfer trains to ride to Circular Quay where we would find our hotel.  But once again I was massively astonished at my travel-with-small-child prowess.  We checked into our hotel located in a historic building in “the Rocks,” the location of the oldest European settlement of Sydney and headed off to Darling Harbour.  There we got more animal time in at both the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and the Wild Life Sydney Zoo.  At the latter C pet a snake, got up close and personal with a sugar glider, and rubbed the belly of a spotted quoll.  All fine and well except she noted I had yet to produce a platypus.

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C feeds a giraffe.  This is NOT the AUS$29.95 professional photo.  That one, which makes me look like the Hulk in blue and is taken from an angle that looks directly up my nose, will never be seen online.  Ever. 

What I did produce were partial views of the Sydney Opera House from our hotel room.  This is what we were here in Sydney to see.  The Opera House (which of course is featured in the Disney movie Finding Nemo), kangaroos, koalas, and the duck-billed platypus.  I was beginning to fulfill my promises.  Our second day in Sydney we rode the ferry across to the Taronga Zoo where I could at long last produce a platypus and make good on the promise to have C feed a carrot to a giraffe.  It only cost me AUS$29.95 for the privilege though we got to take home one of the worst “professional” photos I have ever paid money for proving C and I were near a giraffe with vegetables.  C loves it though and that is what matters.  The highlight of the zoo though was the hour we spent on the kids playground adjacent the lemur enclosure where C made fast friends with Sarah, an equally adventurous and outgoing Australian-Korean girl.

We also made a trip to the Sydney Tower Eye for views of the city just before sunset.  It sounded nice and I already had tickets given I bought a 4-sites-in-one ticket that included the tower, but the views, while nice, are not as great as one might suppose.  The two most iconic structures — the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge — are obscured by large and unimpressive buildings.  I also had to contend with C’s deep displeasure at visiting the tower.  If I have not mentioned it before, she is not yet into taking in the views.  Not even “look mommy has already taken you to four animal venues and now it is time for something mommy wants to see” swayed her.  Luckily she fell asleep in the stroller and I enjoyed the views in peace.  And the next day I took her to Manly Beach to our fifth and final animal adventure, the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary.  There she had her face painted and balance was restored to her world.

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Yes, I arranged our trip to Sydney at this time of year so I could run across the bridge (on a night stroll across the street from our hotel)

Then of course on Sunday morning, if you have been following my adventures with any sort of regularity you may have guessed it — I participated in a run.  Originally I had signed up for the Sydney Running Festival half marathon, but a last training run a week before departure made it very clear a half was probably a bad idea.  Luckily there was still time to contact organizers and downgrade to the 9K Bridge Run.  I just wanted to be able to run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a few thousand strangers.  The “flat and fast” course was neither flat nor fast and seemed to me to be much longer than 9K, but I finished.  And before the rain.  Despite rain predicted for most days of our vacation, only the one day was blustery and rainy with both the wind and rain holding off til the end of the running events.  We celebrated with lunch and a walk at Darling Harbour with K and her family.

The day after the run was another beautiful, glorious day.  Unfortunately it was our last (half) day in Australia.  We strolled along Circular Quay to the Opera House and through the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens (it is a wonder that such prime Sydney real estate is set aside for a large, public park).  I did not want to leave.  Although I usually find 9 days away is very restorative, this time I still felt it was just too short.  But it was time to return to Shanghai and get ready for bidding on my next assignment.

 

Two Weekends on the Outskirts of Shanghai

August is hot in Shanghai.  And like most places I have been there seem to be no holidays the whole long, hot month.

Shanghai municipality mapThis August is expected to be busier than last because of the G-20 Summit being held in Hangzhou, just an hour outside of Shanghai and within the Shanghai Consulate region.  Though the G-20 leaders meeting will be held in early September, advance teams and preparation begins weeks beforehand and a large number of staff from the Shanghai Consulate have key roles.  As a single mom of a young child I opted not to put my name forward to TDY (be sent temporary duty) to Hangzhou for potentially weeks, and instead volunteered to take on additional roles in Shanghai.  Before the madness would begin I wanted to spend two long weekends away with my daughter.  As I did not want to travel far I opted for two staycations, of sorts.  We would stay at hotels within Shanghai municipality (though outside the city proper) for some quality mom and daughter time, where I could also tick a few things off my Shanghai bucket list.  Thanks to a G-20 clean up campaign, we experienced days with some of the lowest AQI (air quality index) since we arrived, with the most startling blue skies I have ever seen in Shanghai.

Weekend One: Sheshan

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The Sofitel Sheshan swimming pool – C liked the hotel so much she asked if we could move there for 5 years

After lunch on Friday, August 12 we departed for Sheshan via metro.  C was not all that happy as she has a generally low opinion of traveling on the Shanghai subway.  Her preference is for taxis.  But with an hour ride ahead of us from Jing’An Station to Sheshan Station (with one change of lines), the 5 RMB metro fare (C rides free as all children under 1.4 meters tall do) was more attractive than the 150+ RMB taxi fare.  I thought it might take awhile too to find a taxi driver willing to make the one hour journey.  So it was worth it to me to drag C, the stroller, my bag, and our suitcase (full of enough toys and books for at least a week) the three blocks to the nearest subway station and through the transfer.  Thankfully an hour later I still had not regretted it.

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View of Sheshan with the basilica and observatory clear against the startling blue sky

We booked at the Sofitel Hotel Sheshan Oriental.  The plan was to arrive around 2 pm, check-in, and then head out to one of the nearby sights.  I should know by now that traveling with C never means we “just” check-in and we head out “immediately.”  It is almost laughable how much I persist in this fantasy.  C is a true traveler and hotel connoisseur; she likes to check-in and then check out the hotel.  We were wooed by our large corner suite room, the make-your-own-ice-cream-bar bar in the lobby (50 RMB but the front desk clerk gave me coupons for two free ones just because I asked about the ice cream stand), and the two swimming pools – one for kids and one for families.  In the evening after dinner, we went for a walk around the extensive grounds, stopping also at the two kids rooms — one an arcade of sorts and the other with ball pit and slides.

For day two I was determined to get some bucket list sightseeing done, so we were off to Sheshan – or She Hill (pronounced like “shuh”), which is the highest point in Shanghai.  How high seems to be the subject of much debate as I found 97, 99, and 100 meters online, but since most of Shanghai is quite flat, this hill stands out regardless how high it may be.

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C gets cheeky before we begin our climb

The hill is located in the Sheshan National Forest Park.  I find Shanghai to be a fairly leafy city; even in the heart of the concrete jungle of downtown, there are trees on every street and given my view from my 19th floor apartment, many high rises with rooftop gardens.  Still I was unprepared for the amount of greenery I found at Sheshan.  Entrance to the park is free, one only has to bring some energy to climb.  Ninety-seven to 100 meters may not sound like much, but if you are braving it with a 4 year old and a stroller (that you have to carry half the time and push up inclines the other half) in 95 degree weather with 80% humidity, then it does feel like the mountain the Shanghaiese sometimes jokingly call it.

I chose the wooden walkway vice the “difficult path” on the map located near the pagoda at the top of a steep flight of stairs from the parking area.  The boardwalk-like pathway was very nice.  Thick bamboo forest could be seen on one side of the hill.   I had a hard time believing we were still in Shanghai.  After some time – I lost track – we arrived at another rest area from where we could choose to visit the observatory or the basilica.  I could tell you we made it to the top without complaints, but I would be lying.  It was hot and C may have said a few times that she did not want to walk, did not want to see “Snake Hill” (“she” can mean snake, but it is not the character used for Sheshan), and that the whole thing was “boring.” A second Chinese popsicle might have helped us to get up the extra bit.

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The view from Sheshan including the hill with pagoda and the conservatory at Chenshan Botanical Garden

At the top we visited the small but interesting Shanghai Astronomical Museum and the pretty Sheshan basilica. The original observatory was built in 1900 by French missionaries and was one of the first modern observatories in China.  The basilica is purportedly “the largest cathedral in the Far East,” and a church has been on the site since 1863.  C seemed to rally for both the sites but I did reward her for her cooperation with a delicious lunch and more pool time once back at the hotel.

On the last morning I again had a plan – to arrive at the Chenshan Botanical Garden at 9 am, right when it opened.  We made it by 10. The gardens, at 207 hectares or 511 acres or 2 million square meters (whichever measurement makes the most sense to you), is one of the largest botanical gardens in the world and Shanghai’s largest green space.  Thank goodness I had a stroller and I sprang for the 10 RMB sightseeing bus.  We stopped first at the Children’s Garden, which of course is more a giant playground than a garden.  But it being the first weekend in August, at 10-something in the morning, it was already well over 80 degrees and climbing.  The playground had almost zero cover.  C played for about 10 minutes as I slowly melted into a puddle.  I found a double chair swing in the shade but I was antsy to get moving.  I spotted what appeared to be swans and used them to distract C, and we were off.

We visited the tree house island, where the water fowl were hanging out, and then headed over to the rose garden via the topiary garden and a long way around the western edge of West Lake.  The roses were naturally pretty and the perfume from the flowers extremely fragrant, but with no cover, the flowers and me were wilting.  C seemed happy enough though so we pressed on.  But as we walked (and C rode) I could feel my enthusiasm for the gardens diminishing.  It was too hot.  I planned on one last stop – the quarry garden (listed on the brochure as a “recommended attraction” during the summer months) – and then a ride on the shuttle bus back to the visitor’s center.  But once inside the abandoned quarry, now a large artificial lake with a floating walkway, complete with dual waterfalls cascading down from the top of Chenshan hill, I found my second wind.  The floating bridge led to a tunnel through the rock leading us from the Quarry Garden to the Rock Garden.  We walked on, until we found ourselves at the conservatory, a 12000 square meter greenhouse, the largest in Asia.

After about 45 minutes in the greenhouses we were on the shuttle back to the Visitor’s Center.  We had survived three hours in the gardens, but now I was feeling concerned about getting back to the hotel and home.  The hotel had arranged an Uber driver for us to the garden, but at drop off it was clear this was not a location where taxis frequented.  It seemed we might have to wait for the bus that would take us to the Sheshan metro station from where we could catch a taxi back to the hotel to collect our belongings and then head home.  But as we crossed the vast parking and entrance area I spotted a taxi across the road, idling.  I began to sprint, pushing the stroller with an energy I was sure I had sweated away hours before.  We secured the taxi, one of the nice new caravan taxis with fully functioning A/C and no stench of stale cigarette smoke, back to the hotel.  Along the way, C fell asleep, hard.  I asked the driver if he was up to driving us all the way back to our home downtown with just a quick stop at the hotel to grab out bags.  He agreed much to my relief.

Weekend Two: Chongming Island

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The bridge linking Shanghai with Chongming island

Depending on whether or not you count Taiwan, Chongming is either the second or third largest island of China.  It is 1,267 square kilometers (489 square miles) with a population around 700,000 people.  Given that Shanghai total, the municipality including Chongming, has a population of 24 million, that means that the island makes up about a seventh of the total land area but has only 3% of the population.  High rises are few – though there appears to be a building boom on the island – and for now nature is the primary thing to see.

I had read about the Hyatt Regency Chongming in a Shanghai family magazine aimed at expats.  The island and the hotel sounded so nice I quickly added it to my bucket list and determined it would be my destination for my second weekend staycation.

The concierge at the Portman Ritz Carlton, part of our apartment complex, arranged an Uber for us to the hotel.  Even with an Uber it cost us 220 RMB for the hour plus ride including tolls.  Once we hit the tunnel to Changxing Island (in-between Shanghai proper and Chongming) it already felt like we were very far from the city.

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A room fit for my princess

I knew better this time than to make some big plans after our arrival.  There is less to do on the island than in Sheshan and this weekend was going to be more about relaxing.  Once again I shelled out the extra dough for an upgraded room that would include breakfast, a better room, and club access including “happy hour,” where we could fill up on a full dinner meal.  Still there was a bit of a mix-up with the room, but the helpful hotel staff arranged for us to have a further upgrade for one night to one of the kids’ character rooms.  C chose a Frozen-inspired room (though she was also quite taken with the Captain America room too).  The rest of the day was devoted to walking (ok, running) through the hotel’s sunlight wooden corridors and the extensive grounds, rocking in the comfy swing on our balcony listening to bird song, saying hello to dogs (it is a very dog friendly hotel, with specially designed rooms with enclosed patios for those who bring their furry companions), and swimming at the pool.

The next day my bubble was burst.  My plan was to rent one of the “mommy and me” bicycles available at the hotel for a nice bike ride to the Dongtan Nature Reserve.  When I explained my plan to the woman at the rental counter her draw dropped.  “But,” she stammered, “it is really hot right now.”  She had a point.  It was hot as blazes outside, again forecast to climb into the mid-90s.  But hey, I am fit and I wanted to ride the bicycle.  “But,” she explains patiently, as if talking to a child, “the reserve is very far away.”  The magazine I had read indicated the reserve was a “short trip from the hotel.”  She told me that it was not, it was actually about 20 minutes away by car.  She told me if I took a regular bicycle it would take me at least an hour, but with the mommy and me bicycle, it would take me about three because is is really sloooooooooow.  Yeah, three hours one way on a weird bicycle in 90 degree heat did sound like a terrible idea.  Scratch that.

Meanwhile C had already decided she wanted nothing to do with a bicycle that had her just sitting the whole time.  She had her eye on the children’s bikes with “stabilizers” (she watches a lot of Peppa Pig so does not even know the American term “training wheels”).  I asked instead about Dongping National Forest Park, also claimed to be “close to the hotel” in my trusty magazine.  The huge park is perfect for long walks and also apparently includes an area with horse rides, bumper carts, and other carnival type rides.  The helpful concierge could barely keep from snorting her incredulity at the proximity I believed the park to be.  She informed me it is AN HOUR taxi ride from the hotel.  We might as well head back to Shanghai.

So C got to ride a bicycle for the very first time for nearly two hours in the sweltering heat.  She was so happy I don’t think she noticed it was warm.   (When we returned the bike though, a bellman gave me props for our long time outdoors because he told me he could barely stand 5 minutes outside. C and I are dedicated to “relaxing” at all costs.)

I was determined to see some of the natural sites on Chongming – or any site at all other than the hotel.  After lunch and the heat of midday I again asked the concierge about a trip to Dongtan Nature Reserve, this time booking a taxi to pick us up.  Because there is no dedicated taxi stand at the hotel (it isn’t near anything other than a new retirement apartment complex on the one side and a new Tuscan-style housing complex on the other), she had to call a taxi to come from Chenjia town about 10km away.  And the meter starts from the taxi leaving the town, not picking us up.  So our 20 minute ride to the Dongtan parking lot cost 80 RMB, about four times more than a similar ride would cost in Shanghai.

The nearly empty gravel parking lot at Dongtan and small ticket shack did not give me much confidence that this had been a good idea.  At 2:30 in the afternoon it was still sweltering.  Again, there was no cover to be seen and I had decided to not bring the stroller, probably a poor decision on my part.  I shelled out an additional 10 RMB for the golf cart shuttle to take us from the parking lot to the furthest stop.  At 60,000 acres, the wetland reserve, is no small feat to get around.  Even had we brought the stroller there was simply no way for us to really get around to all the areas.  Bicycles are for rent, but there are no “mommy and me” ones here.  So I limited us to two areas – the far wetland marsh area where one can walk through the tall marsh grasses on a boardwalk and the area around the visitor’s center.

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This cannot possibly be Shanghai anymore – boardwalk through the wetlands at Dongtan

Though the reserve is a migratory location for some 1 million birds representing nearly 300 species, we heard only a few and saw even less.  Given it was 3 to 4 PM and around 1000 degrees outside, I think the birds had the right idea to lay low somewhere.  Yet the sheer size of the reserve, its layout, its mission, and the incredible scenery under those G-20 blue skies, made sweating away a few pounds of water while occasionally carrying a disgruntled 4-year-old worth the effort.

The following day, having decided that Dongping Forest was not worth the two hour round trip for a 50 RMB 5 minute pony ride (which I was sure what we would end up doing), was just for lazing around the room, swinging on the balcony, and snuggling with C.  I had planned to leave the hotel right after check out at noon, but I am glad I asked the concierge yet again about getting back to Shanghai.  Turns out it is no simple matter if you do not have a car.  Chongming taxis are local and only licensed for the island.  Therefore in order to return to Shanghai, the concierge would have to call a Shanghai taxi to pick us up, for which we would incur a steep fee and at least a 90 minute wait.  My other option was to hire a local taxi to come from Chenjia town to take us to the island bus station.  We would have to wait 30 minutes for that taxi and pay at least 80 RMB.  Then we would take a bus from the island to the Science and Technology Museum metro station in Pudong, then ride the metro seven stops to West Nanjing road, and then walk several blocks home.  Weighing my two options I decided the latter offered the greatest amount of adventure.

As luck would have it, I struck up a conversation with a couple traveling with their 18 month old son whom I had helped direct to the swimming pool the night before.  While I was in line for check-out, psyching myself up for our taxi-bus-subway-walk journey, the wife approached me and said they would be happy to drive us home.  It turned out the couple, both fluent in English and German, having studied in Germany and worked for German companies in Shanghai, live only a 10 minute walk from our own apartment.  They saved C and I from myself and my sense of “adventure” and we had a lovely trip home.

Shanghai: Inside a Year

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Spring comes to Shanghai–blossoms and celebratory lanterns at Longhua Temple

I joined the Foreign Service in part because of my love of travel and experiencing other cultures and as much as I may come to care for one place, after some time I itch to head on to the next.  And I rather prefer knowing approximately when that might be.  I knew that I would head to Shanghai for my second tour before I even arrived at my first.  That is not usual in the Foreign Service, yet that was my experience.

Back in February I celebrated one year in Shanghai (see From Sheep to Monkey: Shanghai Year One in Review). One year in a two year tour is a milestone.  Knowing the length of a tour gives one a natural timeframe–literally a frame, to bookend your period there.  But in my case I have extended, so one year, well it marked one year, but not half way.

I struggled with this, I will admit it.  It actually made me just a tad crazy.

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The very cool facade of the Himalayas Center

So to keep myself busy through the spring I worked through my Shanghai bucket list.  There is so very much to see and do in Shanghai.  Given my circumstances – an introverted tee-totaling single mom of a young child – I am not into the bar and restaurant scene.  I am however into museums and historical sites and Shanghai has those in spades.

In February I took C out to the Shanghai Himalayas Art Museum.  Yes, there is such a thing.  There is such a surge in museum construction in China that there seems space for museums on some very specific topics.  The museum is located in the Pudong Himalayas Center located just outside the Huamu subway station.  You might not think a museum about the art and culture of the Himalayan regiona would be that entertaining for a four year old, but C seemed into the replica rooms of a few of the Mogao grottos and several of the murals.  Well, ok, she seemed into it for ten minutes and then she started pointing out all of the exit signs…I still highly recommend it.

In March we headed out to see the ERA Intersection of Time show at the Shanghai Circus World.  The show was spectacular.  I had enjoyed the show at the Shanghai Centre theater but it could not compare with ERA and the theater space that Shanghai Circus World could provide – for example the giant metal sphere into which up to eight, or maybe it was ten, motorcycles drove into and around.  C seemed delighted, but that particular performance had me covering my eyes and crossing my fingers.

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Great weather for a visit to Yu Gardens.  Beautiful but a LOT of work to visit.

The first weekend in April is a long one as it coincides with the Chinese holiday Tomb Sweeping Day.  It would seem like a good time to take a nice short holiday, except that this weekend also tends to be a very wet one; I learned this the hard way last year (see Hanging in Hangzhou).  I was glad I did not tempt fate again with a trip out of town because it did not defy expectations – it poured all weekend.  Yet the following weekend was absolutely beautiful and it coincided with the Longhua temple festival.  We visited the temple awash in sunshine and blossoming peach trees decorated with small lanterns; the stone temple lions festooned with large red bows made them seem more like pets than fierce guardians.  Next to the temple we saw the pagoda, one of the few in Shanghai, and explored the Longhua memorial park, martyrs cemetery and museum.

Later in April we also braved a visit to Yu Gardens and bazaar, a must-see listed in every single brochure and tourist website about Shanghai. We went on a weekend.  With Every, Single, Person in Shanghai.  The zig-zag bridge leading to the Huxingting teahouse, designed to foil evil spirits (who cannot turn corners), was so packed to the gills with people such that our progress was not only slow but totally in the control of those around us.  I imagine from above it might have seemed the bridge itself was moving like a writhing snake.  Yet we were trapped on it – and there I was with a curly blonde haired child in a stroller.  She was the subject of a lot of unwanted attention.  Once inside the garden itself, where the entrance fee dissuades some of the throng from entering, we had a more enjoyable time.

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A quiet place for reflection at the Guyi gardens at Nanxiang

Then there was our epic R&R, two visits to the world’s newest Disneyland, and on Memorial Day I took advantage of the nanny watching C and headed out solo to Nanxiang “Ancient Town” a Suzhou-like water town in miniature located in northwest Shanghai and the nearby Ming-dynasty Guyi gardens.  As I do most things in my free time with my four year old daughter in tow, being on my own for sightseeing is an extremely liberating but sort of bewildering experience.  I am grateful for the chance to walk longer and further than I can with C, but invariably I come across something, for instance a stone horse, that I know C would have enjoyed seeing.

In June I managed a work trip to Jiaxing to participate in Dragon Boat holiday festivities, visiting the newly opened Museum of Zongzi (dumpling) Culture and taking part in a dumpling wrapping contest for foreigners.  The skills I learned hurriedly at the museum came in handy and I clinched third place in the contest.  Alright, I tied for third place with nine other people, but third is third, and I proudly accepted my certificate.   July brought about a mini getaway within Shanghai and also a visit to the Shanghai Museum of Glass, with the super-fun acronym SHMOG.  A glass museum might seem a terrible place to take a small child, and indeed there is a display in the museum  thoughtlessly damaged by poorly behaved children and video-recorded by even more irresponsible parents.  (The museum plays the surveillance video of the crime next to the damaged artwork to serve as a warning and reminder.  I used it as a teaching moment with C).  Yet we stayed at the museum for FOUR hours – visiting the main museum, having a nice lunch in one of the three or four museum cafes, running around the beautiful rainbow chapel, exploring the co-located children’s museum of glass, and finally watching a glass blowing demonstration.

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C contemplates the beauty of the SHMOG Rainbow Chapel

All of this eventually brought me to this point – I am now comfortably at the “inside a year” mark.  Where inside a year I am is still very much up in the air.  At this point I still do not know when I will head to my next tour.  It will depend very much on where that next post will be.

While there are still a lot of unknowns and it is unlikely I will have the answers until sometime late this fall, I am fairly confident that I have less than 11 months left at post.

This is in part because I am a pack-rat dependent in recovery.  I grew up with pack-rat parents: I dislike having too many things in my home.  You may recall back to when I first arrived and I wrote about the storage unit mishap with my apartment assignment.

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In my bid to conquer the bucket list C and I also visited the Moon Boat, which had been the Saudi Pavilion during the 2010 Shanghai Expo.  This is from the upper inside floor looking down the spiral walkway.

My use of the ninth floor storage unit ended on July 15th and all of my remaining belongings have been moved into my guest room.  Well, I can stop kidding myself.  I have been living here in Shanghai for 18 months and have not hosted a guest yet.  I might as well call that room my storage room.

I hate it.

Ok, hate is a strong word.  I really dislike it.  I keep the door to the room now closed because I do not want to look at it on a regular basis.   It makes me want to get rid of things in this apartment NOW.

I will admit to having already begun to make the lists of items that will not come with us when we depart.  To have already begun the UAB and HHE lists.  To have started calculating the timeframe for using up those consumables (the laundry detergent, the shampoo and conditioner, the toothpaste, and the like) I brought with me.  I am losing interest already in buying things on Amazon…  Yes, I just said that.  Losing interest in buying things on Amazon.  You know things are getting pretty serious when someone says that.  And I may still have 11 months to go!

The consulate is in the summer transfer season.  Each week brings yet another long-time colleague/neighbor/friend leaving post.  In the past four to six weeks four of my daughter’s closest playmates have left Shanghai.  They head to South Africa, Los Angeles, Jamaica and Ohio.  I too have had to say goodbye to many good colleagues over the past several months, some of whom had become good friends. I am feeling  a little jealous of those departing.

Next year though will be our year.  We will get to do the pack-out survey and the pack-out.  We will get the farewell party and the confusing check-out survey, visiting offices that have to sign off on our departure that I had little or no interaction with during the tour.   I will see who has lasted longer in Shanghai – my daughter and I or that darn bulldozer that has been sitting on the sidewalk on my way to work since day one. Eighteen months later and it is still there.

I am sort of rooting for the bulldozer.

Current Shanghai visa tally:

Total visa adjudications: 36,096

Total number of fingerprints taken: 8,997

 

Shanghai Disneyland Trials

I have seen colleagues around the world be involved in some rather substantial events.  From important election monitoring to Presidential or other high level visits, from attending major sporting or art events to standing in the room during key speeches of global significance.

At long last I am at post when something of major historical significance occurs: the opening of the world’s sixth Disney park!

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We got the “golden” tickets

And not only am I here for the opening but I was able to be one of the few to experience the park before the official opening day on June 16, 2016.  Okay “few” might be stretching the truth.  The park opened in early May for a six week trial period.  Though closed Mondays and Thursdays, each day the park welcomed somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people to experience the park to allow cast members and crew to practice and rehearse.  So, that would mean approximately 600,000 people would visit the park even before opening day.  By May 20 Fortune reported that one million Chinese had already made their way to Disney Town, the ticket-free Disney restaurant and shopping mecca next to the park.   But still, for my daughter and I to be two of the lucky ones felt pretty darn awesome.

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The shortest Main Street (called Mickey Avenue) and the largest castle

C and I visited the park not just once, but twice!  Once we went as part of a group of tickets purchased through a special release to the US Consulate.  We had a second chance for a visit because C has friends and those friends have parents who work for Disney.

I am not a Disney expert.  I know some Disney experts and they could really provide you with a detailed treatise on the similarities and differences between the Disney parks.  I have been making a valiant effort to become more of a Disney authority—Shanghai Disneyland is our fourth park in the past year.  We have been to Disney in Orlando, Anaheim, Hong Kong, and now Shanghai—but I still have a long way to go.  I can only tell you my impressions, share only what we experienced. And this was during the trial period so hard to say if it will remain the same when the park opens.

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I have no personal experience with the TRON coaster, but it looks cool.

There are familiar rides at Shanghai Disneyland such as a carousel, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Stitch Encounter.   There are also brand new to Shanghai rides such as the TRON Lightcycle Power Run and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.  I have heard the last two are pretty spectacular but I can tell you absolutely nothing about them.  I have never even been on the Mine Train.  I am a single mom of a four year old girl.  We ride a lot of Dumbo and Pooh.  We meet a lot of Princesses.   And that is totally okay.  That is one of the great things about Disney. We can enjoy it now when my daughter is 4 and we can enjoy it again as she grows older.

We loved the Fantasia inspired carousel.  The Hunny Pot Spin, the Shanghai version of the Mad Tea Party spinning cups, was also a huge hit.  I enjoyed the Voyage to the Crystal Grotto boat ride, mostly because it is probably the longest lasting ride and if you have a sleepy or sleeping child it can provide the most break time for the parent.  I expect C would have enjoyed the displays from Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Mulan and more but I certainly was not going to wake her.  After holding a snoozing C for 20 minutes in line I was grateful for the ten minutes or so I actually got to sit down.  C loved Shipwreck Shore in the Treasure Cove area.  It is an interactive pirate boat activity area with water guns, ropes that lift pirate treasure or a shark from the water, and barrels that shoot water out on unsuspecting guests.  It was really the only thing for a single mom and a four year old to do in Treasure Cove.  We also had fun on the Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue.  It is a fun ride that allows two passengers to each shoot his or her own laser gun and rack up points video game style.    Well, to be honest C spent the first minute or so hiding under the dash of our rocket ship so although she came around she could never quite catch up to me and lost something like 240,000 points to 3,200.  Still I told her I could never have defeated Zurg without her.  Then she wanted to ride again.  (I said no because the line was a slow moving 50 minutes at least)

I also really liked both the parade and the Golden Fairytale Fanfare, which is a musical show in front of the Enchanted Storybook Castle featuring Snow White, Anna and Elsa, Aladdin and Jasmine, Ariel, and Merida.  The downsides were that like any Disney parade route you need to get in place early, so I could only see what I could make out over the heads of the five people deep Chinese crowd (though C got a seat on the ground in front with other kids) and for the Fanfare the “host” speaks all in Chinese and it is standing room only. Although there are 5 or 6 rows they are flat rather than rising.  So if you are in the back rows you have no height advantage facing the stage over those in the first rows.  We stood in the very front of the second row and still had a limited view.  (I put C on my shoulders though so she could see unobstructed) I also really liked the Alice in Wonderland Maze.  The “Once Upon a Time” Adventure in the castle though felt like a waste of time. Character meetings with Baymax, Stitch, Rapunzel and Belle made up for that though.  You can even meet Captain America, Spiderman, and Darth Vader in this park.

If you think about it, this is the only park in the world where the majority of international visitors will require a visa to visit.  Of course international visitors will still come.  And of course there are a lot of foreigners who live in China who will come.  But the majority of visitors to this Magic Kingdom will be citizens of the Middle Kingdom.    And the park has been designed with the locals in mind.

For example, probably 75% of the toilets in the park are the squatting kind.  You read that right.  And for the Chinese that is not a problem.  And look, I have been around Asia long enough that it is not a problem for me.  I would just prefer not to use a squatting toilet if I have the option.  I am getting a bit old to squat.  Seriously, my knees are just not as forgiving as they used to be.  Also my daughter is not a fan of the squatty potty as she once fell in.  That was not a fun day for me either.  So I sought out the western sitting commodes and unfortunately on more than one I found footprints.  Probably where children—at least I hope it was children—tried to stand on the seat.

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Picky Western eaters, you will not starve!

Then there is the food.  If you are a fan of Chinese food or the Chinese version of Western food, then this is the park for you!  Rice bowls, noodle bowls, steamed buns, dim sum, Mongolian beef, and grilled squid skewers are all available in the park.  If you want a Mickey shaped pizza that is most certainly not Chicago or New York style, topped with seafood and sweet soy sauce then you have come to the right place.  None of these float my boat.  If you want a gigantic bin of popcorn then be prepared for the super sweet kind.  It smells divine but if you like salty and buttered you are out of luck.  Western food is not out completely though.  You can find German style bratwurst, Australian-style meat pies, and gigantic turkey legs in the park.  The Stargazer Grill in Tomorrowland also serves up some nice hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken fingers, fries and salads.  In Disney Town you can find a Wolfgang Puck eatery, Starbucks, a California sushi joint, Thai food, BreadTalk, and Asia’s first Cheesecake Factory.

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This is joy!

There are a few downsides…

The FastPass system.  It kinda sucks.  When we went to Disneyworld in Orlando, each single day ticket included three FastPass selections that can be chosen as much as 30 days before arrival at the park. If you wanted to change the ride or the time, you just go online.   In other parks there are FastPass machines.  Shanghai Disneyland also has the machines but you must visit the Guest Services kiosk in the section of the park where your FastPass eligible ride is located.  The line to use the machines was in many circumstances as long as or longer than waiting in line for the attraction itself.  I much prefer the Disneyworld model.

Line Jumpers.  This was a disappointment.  Despite the “reminder for your enjoyment” on the brochure to “Line up together with your entire party, please respect other guests while queuing, and guests should not jump ahead of others in the queue” I saw people blatantly disregard this repeatedly.  At the security line, the ticket line, lines at the carousel, Dumbo, Buzz Lightyear, Storybook Court…just about anyplace there was a line I witnessed people trying to bypass it.  At the security line on our second visit a woman walked right up and then stood in front of me.  When I pointed this out, in Chinese, she turned to look at me, responding in English, with “I did not see you there.”  When I indicated this was pretty unlikely as she stepped right in front of my daughter’s stroller she shrugged and told me “This is China.  You are not going to be able to control us all.”  That does not bode well.

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Stitch in Chinese.  As annoying as you can imagine.

Language.  Although there are English and Chinese brochures the primary language is, naturally, Chinese.  You may have heard that Chinese is a difficult language.  i.e. You cannot sound out characters and figure out what they mean.  Not a chance.  Most shows and information for attractions are in Chinese.  Disney even created a Mandarin-only live production of the Lion King for the theater in Disney Town.  We went to see the Stitch Encounter.  I should have known that something was up when there was only a 10 minute wait.  In Hong Kong you can see shows in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.  In Paris, it’s in English or French.   In Shanghai, It is all in Chinese.  (Though in their defense Tokyo has only Japanese).   My daughter loved it—I expect it is a combination of her understanding of Chinese and connecting with an annoying animated alien—but I learned to never get in line for that attraction again.  Ever.

And as usual in China, my daughter became an added attraction for local guests.  She entertained other people in line simply by also being in line.  She was photographed by far more than myself and the Disney photographer while chatting with princesses and other Disney characters.  It added another exhausting element to a day at the park.

I do not have many tips other than take the metro to the park.  It has its own stop on line 11 and reportedly even a few trains are decked out in Disney.  It’s an inexpensive and quick way to get there and back.  Just check the last train times because once its closed I hear the taxi drivers are unforgiving.  Oh, and also, if you are riding the metro do not buy any of those beautiful Disney balloons—no balloons are allowed on the Shanghai subway.  I found out the hard way leading to once very sad little girl.  But luckily I knew before we went to Disney.

So did we have fun?  We sure did.  This is the closest I may ever live to a Disney park.  Though given I am in the Foreign Service (Hong Kong, Paris and Tokyo could be possibilities) and I could choose to live in either Florida or California…  I expect to take C again once the park officially opens so we can also stay at least one night in the Toy Story hotel.  Even with the negatives it is still Disney and we are on the path to hardcore Disneydom.

 

The First R&R (Shanghai)

Ah, R&R. Good ole Rest and Recuperation.  Or Rest and Relaxation.  That time when the State Department pays for you and your family to get out of dodge, er post, on holiday.

The Foreign Affairs Handbook (3 FAH-1 H-3721.2) defines the need for R&R as Conditions of life at the post present distinct and significant difficulties of sufficient severity to justify temporary relief for an employee and employee’s eligible family members during a period of assignment.

That sounds pretty dull actually.  I searched and searched for something in the FAH that had a bit more pizzazz but to no avail.   Some might not think Shanghai is the kind of place that would justify temporary relief.  I will be the first to tell you that we have things pretty good here.  Our apartment and apartment complex is amazing.  The city is full of great things to see and do.  The supermarkets usually have a good selection of fresh produce and restaurants are plentiful.  However the poor air quality, the internet restrictions, the crowds, the language, the pace of work can get to a person.  I will tell you I feel a palpable sense of lightening when I am outside of China.

This was actually my first R&R with the State Department.  Yeah, that is right; Ciudad Juarez had no R&R because well, it was literally five miles from the US.  None of the Mexican border posts had R&R although interior Mexican posts did.  I will refrain from my personal opinion on this but suffice to say that some of my colleagues were not too pleased that the dusty desert border city with 15% danger pay was a no but culturally rich and exciting Mexico City was a yes.

I am just grateful to have an R&R, even if I have to work on the resting and recuperating.

Part One: Virginia

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Jet lag?  What’s that?

We landed at 5:40 am at Dulles International Airport.  My father loaned me one of his cars for the duration of our time in Virginia, so I drove him home (my parents live only ten minutes from the airport) and then to the hotel.  The hotel management was really awesome to let us check in at 7 am.   All the luggage into the room, a shower, and then we were off to our first activity.

 

My daughter loves horses.  I mean LOVES horses.  At 4 she is a bit young for horse riding lessons but there is a wonderful stable in Aldie, Virginia called Stonelea Farm that has a Hello Pony program for kids ages 2-5.  They get to groom a horse, ride it twice several times around an arena, feed the horse snacks and receive a horse shoe souvenir.   The program is only on Saturdays and we only had the one in Virginia…so fresh off a plane, jet lagged and all I took my little girl to see a horse.  Afterwards we headed to a restaurant to meet my parents, my aunt, and my sister, brother in law, niece and nephew for lunch.  We made it to 5pm before falling asleep.

On our second day we met a friend of mine who had recently relocated from New York to DC.  And we went to PetSmart because we like an entire store dedicated to animals where people bring their pets to shop.  And then we went to Target because I love that store with a special kind of love from deep within my core.  You never know what things mean to you until they are gone.  Target is my happy place when I come back to the US.

We spent the third day in historic Manassas, Virginia.  It being a Monday the museum was unfortunately closed and we did not have the time to visit the battlefield, but we did enjoy a stroll around the historic section.  After lunch we drove to the home of an A-100 colleague.  A-100 is the 6 week course that all new Foreign Service Officers take.  Your A-100 class is like a freshman dorm or hall – it is your identifying mark, your built in network.  Although this colleague has left the Service she still remains in touch and had offered my daughter an opportunity to meet her beautiful horse and I was finally taking advantage.

On Tuesday I went into “Main State,” the Department of State’s headquarters on C Street in Washington, DC.  Why pray tell did I use up a day of my vacation to do that?  Believe you me; the day before and morning of I too was wondering the same thing.  Later this year I will go through the mid-level bidding process for the first time.  “Bidding is a wonderful experience,” said no one ever.  From what I understand bidding appears to be a special long-drawn out form of torture we put Foreign Service Officers through again and again and again.  We may have a career but we need to make a huge effort to get each job.

Flags Flown At Half Staff At The State Department After Ambassador Killed In Libya

Not the usual R&R destination

With this in mind my mentor had suggested I consider taking part of my R&R in or around Washington and make my way through the halls of the Harry S Truman (HST) building to meet with people.   I embraced this idea wholeheartedly and managed to score four meetings with desk officers working in countries where I have a strong interest in serving (and which at this time are projected to have a vacancy in a political job at the time I transfer from Shanghai) and also a meeting with my mid-level Career Development Officer.  I had lunch with two friends who are currently desk officers.

Yet that morning I really was feeling resentful.  This was my vacation.  I wanted to be vacationing, not networking.  Once inside the building though I felt different.  First, I was immensely pleased that I managed to get from the front door to the cafeteria to buy a snack and to my first appointment on time.  I may have been lost for only 20 minutes.  For me, Main State is akin to the Winchester Mystery House.  I have actually not been to the haunted home in San Jose, California, but I read about it in a ghost book when in elementary school.  I was fascinated with the idea of a crazy house with stairs that lead to the ceiling, doors that open to nowhere, and secret passageways.  HST has corridors cut in half, stairways that lead to doors outside but will take you nowhere else in the building, and hallways that are labeled the same number but are not connected.  Second, I felt connected to the greater work of the State Department in a way I do not feel at post doing visas.  Visas are a big part of Consular Affairs but there is so much more going on.  It seems obvious but it felt like a revelation nonetheless.  My meetings went well; I have no idea if it will help in any way come bidding time, but I learned a lot.

Phase Two: Kentucky

IMG_2307Off we flew to Louisville.  I was there for a few reasons.  One, I had never been to Louisville, which is generally, in my opinion, a good enough reason to go somewhere.  Second, I was signed up to run the Derby Half Marathon.  Of course.   Few R&Rs are complete without running a long distance that one is not well-prepared for.  Third, my daughter would spend two days and two nights with her dad – the first time she would visit with him without me.

The first day was for my daughter and me to get out on the town.   It was just 10 days before the Derby so it felt essential to start our visit at the Kentucky Derby Museum at the famous Churchill Downs.  The museum has the right mix of the modern and historic, and exhibits for adults and children.  The admission price included a tour of the racecourse, and we were there at an early enough time in the morning to see several horses being put through their paces.  It is hard to say which my daughter loved more—the real horses on the track or the pretend Derby race in the museum.  I really hope someday to take her to see the real thing.

ANext we visited the Louisville Slugger Museum, which was a lot of fun.  C seemed a bit hesitant at first, until she saw the Captain America statue out front.  She was more impressed with that than the 120-foot tall baseball bat.  I really enjoyed the factory tour and C tolerated it enough to let me get through the whole thing without incident.

The following day we met her dad and his new wife for lunch and then the two of them drove off with C to the zoo.  (Just for clarification I was never the old wife.  Someday I might address our particular situation, or not.  But suffice to say we get along and he loves C).

What to do with myself though?  Now that I was on the town on a Friday night without my child?  With the half marathon the following day?  Well, the weather was predicted to be less than ideal, with the rain set to begin around 2 am.  And my training had not been particularly inspiring.  Once again, I just wanted to get out on the road and run.  So, I went to the Jim Beam Stillhouse.  Because bourbon was the best thing I could think of.

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This seemed the appropriate way to celebrate both before and after a half marathon in Kentucky.

The next day I was up early.  The rain had not started in the early am.  Even at 5 am the skies were cloudy but dry.  A little before 7 I walked over to the start line.  Just before the race was to start at 7:30 my heel began to hurt.  So, that was a great sign.  At the one mile mark my chest started to tighten and I began to wheeze.  It felt like the start of asthma.  It had stopped bothering me by the 3rd mile.  I stopped at a port-a-potty at mile 5 but the line didn’t move after five minutes so I just started running again.  Around mile 5.5 it began to rain, lightly but steadily.  At 6 I stopped to put on the one-time-use rain jacket I had bought at Target the day before.  (See?  Target.)  At mile 8 we entered Churchill Downs.  There are no spectators allowed inside, but I had heard on the TV that morning a reporter say she would be there and to stop at her tent, covered from the rain, to say hello.  So I did.  We chatted.  We did an interview.  I told her my goal was a personal worst and I looked to be on track.  The rain became harder.  I was getting tired.  But I kept going.  I’ll tell you it was not easy to clinch that slowest time.  Even with all those stops and the bourbon I barely beat my next slowest time.  I really had fun though.  What a great course  Good support throughout.  I celebrated with lunch at the Hard Rock and a visit to the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse for some more tastings on 4th Street Live.

The following day I took a drove to pick up my daughter.  Her face was glowing. She had had a really wonderful time.   She had so much to tell me.  Her favorite thing about her dad?  His wife!  Given how happy she made my kid she gets super high marks in my book too.

Part Three: Virginia, again

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A girl, a dog, and a cabin in the woods.  This is R&R.  This is America.

This time we landed around 4 pm.  The jet lag had nearly worn off anyway.  We drove out to Winchester, Virginia to stay with my aunt.  We spent two nights at her home there and one at her cabin at Stone Mountain, West Virginia.  I had visited the cabin with her before.  Heck, my sister got married there.  C had even been there before for a July 4th celebration.  But something about this time felt like it was where I was meant to be on R&R.  That perhaps this is where, if I were really after rest and recuperation, I should have spent the whole vacation.  There is no television.  Internet service is extremely weak, mostly non-existent. The cabin is a studio with a loft.  When it rains the pitter-patter on the corrugated roof is about the only sound you hear.  The activities?  Setting and up swinging in the hammock.  Sitting on the porch and looking out at the field.  A walk down to the river. Maybe a conversation with a neighbor that stops by to tell you of a rare orchid he finds in the woods.  Then a search through the woods for said orchid.   A hike up Stone Mountain.  More conversation.

We departed my aunt’s on Thursday late morning.  There was another day and a half left.  We spent some more time at Target, of course, another meal with a friend, a pizza and movie night at my sister’s house.  Then it was time to return to Shanghai.

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I made it to the top of Stone Mountain and the view is so worth it.

 

The Paparazzi – With my Blond Daughter in Shanghai

I expected it would happen–that my daughter might draw attention when we went out in Shanghai.  It happened a little when we were in Ciudad Juarez.  But then, for obvious reasons, like narco-trafficking gangs and a dearth of sightseeing spots, we did not go out all that much in Juarez.  And given Juarez’s border location, many residents spend quite a bit of time in the U.S., so a blonde-haired child is really not that out of the ordinary.  Plenty of Juarenses are blonde themselves.

In the China of 1994 I was the subject of some curiosity on the train from Beijing to Chengdu; a wedding party in Qingdao-which one of these people does not belong?

China is different though.  I knew that.  When I was in Beijing as a student in 1994 I had my fair share of “oh my gosh it’s a foreigner!” experiences.  I was aggressively stared at, grabbed, photographed, and petted.  A woman once, in a terrifying display of jungle cat reflexes, vaulted over her store counter to grab hold of my hair.   When I stopped to admire some footwear at an underground shoe store, I was soon surrounded by a group of curious onlookers.  In one holiday weekend in Qingdao, my friends and I were asked to stand alongside no less than 20 bridal parties for photos.

Twenty two years later China is not the same place.  In 1994 there were around 26,000 foreigners studying across China (1,257 of them were from the US according to the Institute of International Education), while today there are over 300,000.  Currently, there are some 170,000 non-Chinese (i.e. not from Macao, Hong Kong, or Taiwan) residing in Shanghai alone.  No doubt that is a drop in the bucket of the over 14 million Chinese residents, but it is far more than the approximate 6,000 registered foreigners in the city in 1994.  And the Chinese in the big cities like Shanghai are sophisticated, educated, international-minded people.  They travel overseas.  They study overseas.  They work in multi-national companies. They speak foreign languages.  These days no one in the big cities is interested in having their picture taken with me.  I do not cause a stir going about my daily business.  Thank goodness.

However, that does not appear to apply to children.

On the right is what happened when I stopped to consult my map while we visited Pudong during Chinese New Year week in February 2015.  What was particularly interesting to me was not only the crowd wanting photos of my daughter, but they wanted photos with my daughter.  Even the grown man on the bottom right in the brown leather jacket. On the left we stop along the walkway around West Lake in Hangzhou in April 2015.  Some girls had stopped to ask if they could take a photo of C and I said they could – the rest of the crowd took advantage.

From our first day out, my blonde, curly haired, fair skinned child has been the subject of interest.  A LOT of interest.  The kind of in-your-face, pushy, camera-wielding-hordes-type interest, akin to celebrity paparazzi.  Some people are respectful and will approach me and tell me in Chinese, broken English, or excellent English that my daughter is very cute and ask if they can take her picture.  Some try to take the pictures on the sly, which is easy enough to do with camera phones, but they are giggling so much and/or talking loudly in Chinese about my daughter and their secret photo taking, not realizing I can understand.  Others are bold in their complete disregard of how either I or my daughter might feel about their photo taking.  They may touch my daughter’s hair, her arms, her cheeks.

I get it.  Soon after arriving in Juarez I took my then 8 month old child on a tour that included a market in the historic downtown.   Our guide warned me that people may stop to admire my child and in so doing would be compelled to touch her – not doing so would bring about the “Mal de Ojo” or Evil Eye and unfortunate consequences for the child.  I do not know of a similar superstition in China, but that does not mean there is not one.   Or that such touching is not simply a function of a different sense of personal space or of cultural mores not extending to foreigners (because physical contact and affection between even people you know, much less strangers, is not a Chinese tradition)?  Or maybe cute children are simply irresistible?  I too am guilty of taking pictures of beautiful children on my travels.

This seems completely normal, right?  Just a day out in the city and people whip out their cell phone cameras or their telephoto lenses to capture your child sitting in her stroller sucking her fingers or sporting a new hat you just bought her from the street-side hat seller just to my left out of the frame.  

I will admit it; I also find it flattering that people admire my child.  I am her mom and I naturally think she is quite special.  But there are times when the attention is terribly intrusive.  For instance, when we took the train back to Shanghai from Hangzhou.  Thirty minutes into the journey a man boarded the train and sat in the seats in front of us.  He showed great interest in my daughter and he turned around and snapped a picture of her.  I happened to notice him scrolling through the photos on his phone and saw he had not one, but two photos of my daughter.  In one of those photos my daughter is wearing a different outfit – it was from another day!  That bordered on disturbing.

My daughter has come to really dislike the attention.  In the beginning when people approached me to ask to photograph her I generally agreed.  However I noticed that C became irritated rather quickly by the attention.  (It was very hard not to notice) She would hide her face, slump down in her stroller, turn around her face could not be seen, or make faces at the camera.  But the requests kept coming every time we were out and about, and I began to feel less and less good about allowing these strangers to take a photograph despite C’s obvious discomfort.  So then I began to tell people if they would like a photo they have to ask my daughter and they may do so in English or Chinese.    With the ball in her court, my daughter usually consents to a few photos and then retreats.  Her stroller now has a canopy that she pulls down as low as it will go and those who attempt to pull it back often receive an unwelcome surprise – my daughter hisses at them like an angry cat!

My daughter actually agreed to these photos!

All of this attention raises two big questions in my mind.  The first is how will this affect my child as she grows?  Will this make her self-centered?  Will she become less and less inclined to go out?  Will she become withdrawn?  I do not have the answer but I do not want us to stay inside our apartment complex all the time when there are so many things to see and do in Shanghai.  I do not want my child to feel fear or frustration from the attention but rather learn to handle it and positively express herself (we have to get beyond the cat growling and hissing).

The second is what in the world are all those people doing with photos of my child?

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