Farewell, Shanghai

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

Bucketlisting Bonanza

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Jing’An Temple
  • Jade Buddha Temple
  • Shanghai Aquarium
  • Nanjing Pedestrian Street
  • M&Ms World
  • Hengshan Moller Villa
  • People’s Park
  • Shanghai Museum
  • Shanghai Municipal History Museum
  • Shanghai Urban Planning Museum
  • Tianzifang
  • Shanghai Postal Museum
  • Propaganda Poster Museum
  • Oriental Pearl Tower
  • Bund Sightseeing Tunnel
  • Dishui Lake
  • Soong Qing Ling’s Residence
  • China Art Museum
  • Natural History Museum
  • Fuxing Park
  • Sun Yatsen’s House
  • Fuxing Park
  • Shanghai Natural Wild Insect Kingdom
  • Science and Technology Museum
  • Soong Ching Ling Mausoleum
  • Shanghai Acrobatics show (at Shanghai Centre)
  • Jiangnan Shipbuilding Museum
  • Shanghai Himalayas Museum
  • Shanghai Circus World
  • Xintiandi
  • 5

    Samples at Zotter Chocolate Facotry

    Yu Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

Saying Goodbye

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

What I will surely miss:

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

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

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

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

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

What I will not miss:

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

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

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

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

My final Shanghai tally is:

Total visa adjudications: 52,178

Total hours scheduled to interview: 1,208

Total fingerprints taken: 15,834

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

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

Visitors to Shanghai- At Last!

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Shanghai shows off for my visitors

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.

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Which is more impressive?  Three of the world’s tallest buildings or a pollution-free day in Shanghai?

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.

arts-and-crafts-museum

The Arts & Crafts museum, like a mini White House, in a renovated 1905 French Concession home, and some of the beautiful crafts on display

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.

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It looks beautiful.  But pushing our way through the crowd was a struggle.

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.

shanghai-tower

It might have been a cloudy day but the view from the top was still amazing

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.

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The kids enjoy Jingshan Park and C makes climbing the Great Wall look like child’s play (Follow the arrow to find C)

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.

 

A Stroll down the Street of Eternal Happiness

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The Street of Eternal Happiness in the former French Concession of Shanghai

One of my most constant activities in Shanghai, outside of spending a lot of time in the gym poorly training myself for middling performances in random half marathons, is my book club.  This is no ordinary book club.  Besides getting me to read at least one book a month – an astounding feat for this tired Foreign Service single mom – it is also a dinner club.  As we meet at 6 PM on the third or last Thursday a month, dinner is part of the equation.  So not only do they get me to read, but they also get me to cook.  For those who know me, the latter is the much more impressive achievement.

Our book for this September is Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road by Rob Schmitz, an award winning journalist based in Shanghai.  The book is about the lives of several people and families along Changle Lu, the beautifully named Street of Eternal Happiness, where the author lives in Shanghai.  This post is not about the book, but rather my own walk down the street just yesterday.

1A few weeks ago my four year old daughter and I had to travel to the Consulate Office Building (COB), the main compound of the US Consulate in Shanghai, so we could have our vaccinations updated.  Although I work for the Consulate, I do not work in the COB; the visa section is located on the eighth floor of the Westgate Mall.  My daughter and I took a shuttle from our residence, where many Consulate families live, to the COB to have our appointments with the Consulate clinic.  Along the way, the shuttle bus turned on to Changle Lu, and I realized how very close the road is in relation to where I live and I resolved one day soon for C and I to take a walk along the 2 mile slice of Shanghai life–to bring the book club book literally to life.

We started off at No. 274 Urumuqi Road, just a block and a half south of where Changle Lu intersects.  This is the location of the Avocado Lady, a Shanghai institution.  What appears to be a small double-wide mom and pop grocery operation is the shopping destination for expats in search of fresh produce with a smile along with some rather hard to find exports from home.  The Avocado Lady has been recognized for promoting Mexican avocados and used to sport a plaque from the Mexican Consulate in front of the store.  Two weeks ago when C and I passed by the plaque was there, but yesterday the owners informed me that it had fallen.  This did not deter the customers; on a Saturday afternoon the shop was hopping.

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“Build core values with one heart, and realize the great Chinese dream with one mind.” One of the many posters along the wall on Urumuqi Road.

A half a block and across the street up from the Avocado Lady one can find the wall that surrounds the demolished lot that was once Maggie Lane.  I have passed by this wall many times as I walked back from the COB to my residence.  I liked the posters.  There used to be one with a cat on it, I think also one with a carp.  I never thought of the significance of the posters until I read the book.  These posters sporting optimistic slogans about achieving civilization, progress and happiness while realizing the dreams of a nation, cover an ugly wall around an empty lot where once stood Shikumen homes built in the 1930s.  Although the at times vicious demolition began in late 2004, the area has still yet to be developed.  Progress. At a standstill.

5We headed on to Changle Lu and it did not take long until we fund another of the addresses: CK’s boutique restaurant 2nd Floor Your Sandwich, now called 2nd Floor Natural Flavor Cafe Bistro & Exhibition.  Not knowing what was on the menu at at 2nd Floor or the energy level of C, I opted to lunch at home before we headed out.  I wish we had waited to lunch at 2nd Floor.  The wrought iron spiral staircase is tricky for a 4 year old and the stroller was just a no go (I left it parked behind the blackboard sign in the nook in front of the stairs).  Yet upstairs the cafe is a comfy, crowded well-lit room with lots of windows. The ceiling of half the cafe is windows, like a greenhouse.  The walls are covered in artwork and different sized shelves with knick-knacks, old cameras, books, and plants. It is chic and eclectic, and the menu, with pancakes and burgers, pumpkin soup and buffalo mozzarella with arugula salad, looked inviting.  They were doing a brisk business for Saturday lunch.  I would have loved to sit down for tea and dessert but C was having none of it.  She was complaining loudly about having to climb the stairs and wanting to continue the walk, so I gave up and we left.  I will go back some day.

6Further down the road, on one side of the street large, imposing grey walls or brick and iron fences with  thick brush blocked the views of former French Concession mansions, on the other side small mom and pop shops with apartments on the upper level, there between the homes an alleyway opens up with a sign indicating just inside, just follow the signs, one will find the Chinese Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall.  As I was here to check out Changle Lu and all it had to offer, this invitation was too much to pass up.  I pushed the stroller down a broad alley with narrow passages on either side leading to both front and back doors of small apartments.  Up above clothing hung out to dry from make-shift clothing lines.  At the end of the alley, signs instructed us to go over a gate, heading first to the right and then to the left down a very narrow passageway about as wide as two strollers.  Again to the left, it opened to a courtyard and there you find the museum and shop of hand painted blue and white cotton cloth.  The shop beautifully displayed the cloth in clothing, framed pictures, fabric toys, table cloths and more, on dark wood shelves and walls.  I bought a small Nankeen blue cloth elephant to go with my cloth elephant collection (one from Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia).  Just outside the shop C caught sight of what appeared to be a mongoose running through the courtyard.  I imagine it is more likely a pet ferret that got away.  Nonetheless it added to our adventure down Changle Lu.

8We came to a small toy store.  This is what C had been waiting for — she had seen the shop from the windows of our shuttle bus on the way to the COB weeks before.  Her eagle eyes had spotted the My Little Ponies in the window as our bus sped by at 25 miles per hour.  And finally here we were in front of the little place.  Inside there was no place to move – both the proprietors, a husband and wife, sat in chairs watching a television placed on top of a pile of stock.  There was no place for the stroller inside, there was barely room for C and I to stand.  C did not care, as I am sure most children would not, because she was within touching distance of all the merchandise.  Most of the toys were no longer even in their boxes, but that too only seemed to add to the appeal.  To pick out her new toy for the day, C had to stand outside and make her choice through the front window display.  As we stood outside with our new purchase, C drew a small crowd as she chattered away happily in a mix of Chinese and English about all the other toys that she also wished we were buying.

It seemed strange that we would draw any attention as I had noticed quite a few foreigners on the road throughout our walk.  Even as we loitered in the cramped toy store, a very pregnant young foreign woman popped in to buy a 300 RMB China mobile phone card.  (Of course the toy shop would also be in the business of selling phone cards.)  I had begun to feel the foreigner to Chinese ratio was higher here on Changle Lu than it was on my own block, the very swank Nanjing Xi Lu.  Perhaps that is not surprising because the luxury brand name stores around my home are more likely to draw wealthy Chinese than hip but frugal foreigners.  I  felt more at home on Changle Lu, more at ease than I do on Nanjing Xi Lu, where I walk to work each day passing stores like Christian Louboutin, Ferragamo, Bvlgari, and Louis Vuitton.  The walk though was eye-opening in other ways.  I thought about how small our world, the one C and I occupy, is in Shanghai.  Most days I walk only the 3 1/2 blocks to work and return and C stays in an even smaller radius, to the playground, pool, Kids’ Club, preschool, and supermarket, all within our complex.  We go out frequently enough to museums and other sights around town, but it is rare we walk off the beaten path, just to walk.  We did so more when we first arrived, but I became caught up in work and my bucket list, and C with her swimming, dance,  birthday parties and school (again all within the complex) and we wander less and less.  The Shanghai we know is quite different from that others know – and were we to come back ten years from now, even if the city miraculously remained the same as it is now, it would be a different place to us.

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The inviting kids corner.  (Yes, I do see the no photo sign though I swear I did not see it when I took the picture)

We passed the corner of the Street of Eternal Happiness and Rich Man’s Road, where the restaurant Chicken & Egg was doing a roaring business of mostly foreigners in their outdoor seating.  On we went, passing slick office buildings, upscale and downscale clothing and shoe stores, Chinese fried food stalls alongside trendy foreign food establishments from Thai to Mexican to Italian.  We came to a bookstore, and I had to go in.  Imagine my surprise to find a wonderful traditional English language book seller with a small cafe.  There were sections around the store; you could determine the travel book section, the foreign language learning section, the Children’s book section despite the lack of signage, but there were also just stacks of books on tables, on shelves of different heights, and in piles making a pathway just wide enough to carefully maneuver a stroller, but just.  It is the kind of place where those who love books could get lost for hours and leave carrying a heavy bag of unexpected finds.  I felt I had not been in such a store for ages and ages, and it is probably true.  If it were not for my book club getting me to read, I would be hard pressed to get through a book a month.  This from someone who devoured 100 books in more than one summer.  Also, these days most of my books are purchased on Amazon and within minutes transferred to my Kindle.  It is just not the same. We parked the stroller and C immersed herself amongst the shelves.  She delighted in the kids’ section though did have to run downstairs to complain to management, in Chinese, that the area with the toys trapped under a glass floor was “difficult” for children.  She actually pulled an amused manager upstairs to point this folly out.

11We continued on. Another block brought an unexpected sight.  The stores on the one side of the street seemed on the seedy side, with sex shops and risque lingerie stores, whose window displays reminiscent of Amsterdam’s red light district, on an upper level and small cafes and restaurants and other shops on lower levels, just a few steps down.  That one small section reminded me of a street in Amsterdam, U street in Washington DC and a part of Orchard Road, Singapore all at the same time.  we passed a small Mexican deli closed for the nuptials of the owner.  I not only loved the sign the owner posted but also that the small shop, like so many small business owners, would close for such a celebration because they do not rely on an army of employees.  No doubt it is a tough job running your own small business, but there was just something so joyous and infectious in the simple sign.

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C hides in the stroller outside the flower shop

We ended our walk at the small flower shop at the corner of Changle Lu and Chengdu Nan Lu, featured in the book.  I was encouraged to see two women sitting out front in deck chairs fanning themselves in the heat and gossiping, though neither it turned out was Ms. Zhao the owner.  The shop, like so many others, was also too small for the stroller so C waited outside while Ms. Zhao’s eldest son made me a bouquet of roses that C had picked out.  While C fended of pinches and coos from curious older Chinese, the elder son told me his mother was back in her hometown, but would return the following day.  Shandong? I asked, because I had read the book and knew the location of her hometown.  He did not seem surprised in the slightest that I asked about his mother or knew her travel was likely to Shandong.  I suddenly felt shy and intrusive – almost as if I were talking to a celebrity.  I had after all read about him and his mother’s shop in a book.  I thanked him for the nice arrangement of the flowers, paid, and then we turned around and headed back home, about a dozen blocks away.  Well worth the stroll on a summer Saturday afternoon in Shanghai.

 

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

 

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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Can I Buy an Iron Lung on Taobao?

Taobao oxygen

This one is very snazzy. I think that blue really brightens up the whole room.

Taobao is China’s version of Amazon. It is China’s “largest online shopping platform.” It is the place where you can order just about anything under the sun, except apparently not an Iron Lung. It turns out Iron Lungs are really, really large contraptions, about the size of a tanning bed. However, if you want to buy bottled oxygen you can. They come in all different kinds of bottles, in a range of colors even. There are the kinds for home use and the ones for taking on the go. There are also ones especially marketed to pregnant women or students or travelers. You can get your oxygen bottles in 2, 4, 10, and 15 liters for home use.

On Taobao you can also purchase any number of anti-pollution masks. In fact a China Daily article from December 2015 noted a steady rise in the mask orders from the online market. Some are very stylish. Some are cute. Some are, well, interesting. If you have been hankering for a face mask that looks like you have a teddy bear on the lower half of your face then you can make that happen. Probably the most popular are the basic white 3M disposable masks. Although unfortunately that mask you buy might not be real. It might cover your face but not protect you from the pollution. In December 2015 Chinese customs authorities seized 120,000 counterfeit masks in two separate raids. Counterfeit face masks, who would have thought? Well, it is China.

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C and I get wacky in our Vogmasks.

The other day I saw a woman walking toward me in the street and I noticed her striking face mask. It was black with silver adornments. Although what popped into my mind was “Hannibal Lecter,” which admittedly sounds gauche rather than graceful, I did find myself thinking I would like to have a mask like that. Is this what it has come to? My coveting anti-pollution masks as an accessory? As far as I know Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture are not yet into designing face masks, but is it only a matter of time?  Should I get in on this before it is too late?

Honestly, as stylish and fashionable as my mask is I am not that into wearing it. I wear glasses and whenever I put on the mask, which tends to be in winter when the air quality levels are on average worse, they fog up. In general if the air quality levels are high, over 150, I try to limit my time outdoors and my nanny keeps my daughter inside. On weekdays that is pretty easy. I live only a ten minute walk from work and there is an indoor play area for kids within the building. On weekends it can be a downer if I have plans to get out for a walk or head to a museum. Poor air quality can be the deciding factor in our extracurricular activities.

If we do have to stay indoors though the Consulate provides us with BlueAir purifiers; they are reportedly some of the best on the market. We receive one for each room. At least every six months the management section delivers us new filters and we change them. It is super easy to change them but it is astonishing how dirty the filters are after six months in a small apartment even with four purifiers running.

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Few things say “have a great holiday” than buying yourself or your loved ones an anti-pollution mask.

When people hear about air pollution that hangs in a pall over a city they do think of China, but usually it is Beijing that is in the news. And frankly, I guess with all things being relative, Shanghai is really not all that bad. It is not Beijing. It is not Shenyang. It is not Chengdu. In fact in a 2014 study examining the PM 2.5 levels across China that ranked 74 Chinese cities by their air quality, Shanghai came in at 48th place. And if you look across the world Shanghai is not Delhi or Peshawar or Ulaanbaatar. I am not sure this makes the level more tolerable or okay, but I do realize that things could be worse. (Though they could most certainly also be better – on the most recent day I checked the PM2.5 it was 153 or “unhealthy” in Shanghai, and 46 in Washington, DC, and in Los Angeles, a city known for its smog, the level was 9, yes NINE, with a daily average of 41.)

I do not know where Shanghai’s average PM2.5 level falls. I have a colleague though who could probably tell you as he has created a spreadsheet or a computer program that figures out the average and he can tell you the range for each city where we have a diplomatic mission in China. This is the kind of thing I guess some people do for fun in China. To think that before I arrived in Shanghai I never once thought about checking the Air Quality Monitor (AQI). Now it is something I check fairly regularly. It is part of my vocabulary.

I do not check the monitor so much now as I used to when I first arrived though. One hardly needs to check when just a glance out the window will give you the kind of “mask” or “no mask” indication you are looking for. If you want the exact numbers so you can complain smartly at work, then yes, you will need to check it. But if I haven’t checked it, then I am sure someone at work has.

Window View Montage

My apartment view on a good, bad, and ugly air quality day

All kidding aside, the pollution levels may have some long term affects on myself and my child and I do not yet know what they might be. In the short term however I do notice that I need to use my asthma inhaler more in China, and particularly more in the winter. And in October I was Medevac’d to the US for a procedure for a heart condition I developed in China. I have no idea if the air quality had anything to do with it but I did not have a heart condition before I came to Shanghai.

I sometimes daydream about being somewhere I do not have to think about AQI. There are so many places on my projected bid list for my next tour that might not fit that bill. I wonder if I will eliminate them as a result? There are days when I suppose the only reasonable next place should be an island country with few high rises, few polluting industries, few skyscrapers. A place I might reset the damage done this tour. When on vacation outside of China, away from the AQI monitor I do feel liberated, and I realize how much it does affect my life in Shanghai. When in Shanghai, I get used to it.

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Is this the next step? Do my cats need their own kitty masks? And yes, this is my actual cat. And yes she kept this mask on and let me take pictures.

Hong Kong Birthday

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At the Lantau Island Buddha in the summer of 1996. I look pretty stunned, which could explain why I have no recollection of this at all.

Hong Kong. To me, it is one of those places the very name evokes a sense of adventure and excitement. I first visited in the summer of 1996, a vacation from my English teaching job at an after school cram school in Seoul, South Korea. It was part of a wildly concocted two week trip that would include Hong Kong, Macao, Guam, an unexpected stopover in Saipan due to a typhoon in my flight path, and Guangzhou. The most thrilling part I recall was running full speed down a pier in Hong Kong and jumping aboard the boat that would take me overnight to Guangzhou, the gangplank pulled in behind me. The second time was in the spring of 1999; I was an English teacher in the government-sponsored JET Program in Yamaguchi, Japan and spent a few days exploring Hong Kong while securing my visa to re-visit Beijing. I must have gone up Victoria Peak in the tram that second time. Yet all I have are a few vague memories of cold, bureaucratic, but quick formalities at the Chinese Consulate.

How had it been so very long ago since I had visited? I wanted to visit Hong Kong once again. After some research online – determining that January was one of the best months in the territory – I decided my daughter’s birthday over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend was the time to go.

Back in August, when I bought the tickets, it seemed quite reasonable and exciting to have trips planned for September/October (Dominican Republic), November (Chengdu), December (Sanya), and January (Hong Kong). By the time the Hong Kong trip was rolling around though I had instead come to the conclusion that I must have made these plans in a fit of insanity, possibly a function of having nearly survived a summer without leave through the biggest visa demand period in history. Maybe. Or maybe I just do crazy stuff like this all the time? (My past travel record would, I expect, point to the latter)

The Dominican Republic trip happened of course and it was wonderful. But Chengdu was cancelled because of my unanticipated month-long Medevac back to Washington, D.C. And Sanya, yeah, that one was far less restful than expected. (See Shanghai Escape, Derailed)

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A colder and wetter view than I had expected. Star Ferry ride over to Hong Kong Island.

Given the Sanya episode I approached the Hong Kong trip as a nervous travel maniac. I double-checked, triple-checked, quadruple-checked the departure time of the flight daily on a travel website to make sure the flight time did not change. The last thing I wanted to do was miss a flight…again. I decided not to check a single piece of luggage. I hesitated to bring the newly purchases Kindle Fire Kids Edition (the replacement for the lost/stolen iPad), but in the end placed it and several other belongings into a new tote that would, I hoped, never leave my eyesight.

My soon-to-be four year old daughter too seemed traumatized by the Sanya episode. When a week before our trip she accidentally punctured a colorful sport ball we had had since Juarez and I informed her that we would need to throw it away, she broke down in sobs. “No,” she blubbered, “I don’t want to lose any more toys.” She insisted that the deflated ball was now her second most favorite toy in the world, after her beloved stuffed animal Black Cat, and that Pink Ball should also come with us to Hong Kong. I said no but then relented, imagining the hilarious pictures of Pink Ball in various Hong Kong locations. Unfortunately the day before departure I could not locate Pink Ball. <sigh>

The day before departure I wondered if maybe we needed to be at the airport earlier than expected? Sure enough I checked with a colleague who had just been and yes, we would be traveling through the international terminal and passport control on both ends. I thanked my lucky stars I knew that before rather than after the flight. Visions of Sanya, and the missed flight that started it all, swam through my brain.

Still the flight left late. I thought back to when I lived in China in 1994 and how foreigners fondly changed the acronym for the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to “China Airlines Always Cancel.” I have heard that every single commercial flight in China must be cleared before take-off through an office in Beijing. I do not know if it is true, but I have yet to be on a flight that departed on time. Only flights we were not on (i.e. to Sanya).

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Maybe it is Nathan Road or my own limited outings in Shanghai, but Hong Kong sort of felt more Chinese to me than China. Except with Facebook.

January is supposed to be one of the best months to visit Hong Kong. I read online, it has the lowest amount of rainfall and the most comfortable temperature. So imagine my dismay as I checked, and re-checked the weather report for our trip dates, and it was not only colder than expected but predicted to rain four out of the five days. Over 80% chance of rain each day, including our days at Disneyland and on C’s birthday.

Despite the late flight, the rain, the colder-than-expected temps, I felt pretty pumped when we landed and as we rode into town on an airport bus to central Kowloon. A very kind Indian woman, resident in Hong Kong for fifteen years, not only engaged my daughter in conversation on the bus, sharing photos of her own recent trip to Hong Kong Disneyland and explaining she was pretty good friends with the Princesses, but also helped us to get down from the crowded bus when we reached our stop. The ten minute walk down three long city blocks through the cold misty rain did not damper my spirits.

We arrived at our hotel, down a side street in Mongkok, somewhere near where I must have stayed in a cheap cramped guesthouse with friends in 1996, and in our room I posted direct to Facebook. Freedom. Hong Kong may have been returned to China, but with an international flight and immigration checks to get here and a very different Internet environment, it certainly did not feel like China.

On our first full day out in Hong Kong disaster struck.  C lost Black Cat, her much-adored stuffie who had been with us for over two years.  For a little stuffie Black Cat sure got around.  He or she, C referred to it as both, went with us everywhere from the grocery store to museums to across the globe.  Black Cat had been to seven countries and territories and approximately sixteen US states.  I thought Black Cat would be the stuffie that C would hold onto forever, into adulthood.  But Black Cat must have used up his nine lives.  He had been dropped, run over by the stroller, left behind and retrieved, so many times that our second chances had finally run out.

The last known location of Black Cat

The last known whereabouts of Black Cat

I took a picture of C sitting on a bollard near the Star Ferry terminal. She has Black Cat. Then she hops over to the stroller and informs me we need to make a pit stop before we head to the ferry. I spy a public bathroom just 50 feet away and off we go. By the time we make it to the stall she no longer has Black Cat. We run outside but in that space of time and physical space we have lost the stuffie; he/she is nowhere to be seen. C is inconsolable. She bawls loudly as I push her through the ferry terminal and onto the vessel. Huge tears roll down her face as she sits on the ferry. She sobs out loud “Black Cat, don’t leave me. Please come back. I miss you so much!” I tell her I am so sorry and ask if there is anything I can do. “Yes,” she tells me, “find my Black Cat.” There is nothing I can do. I tell her this. There is no reason to sugar coat it although I feel like the worst mom in the world.

On the other side, on Hong Kong Island, we meet up with my friend L who back in 2001 took a summer intensive Chinese class with me in Monterey, CA. We were roommates that summer and we both graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She has been living in Asia, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore for most of the intervening years. This is not how I wanted her and her children to meet my normally high-spirited, effervescent daughter, now in the throes of her greatest loss. But it is what it is. And surprisingly, C, after pouting for a good 30 minutes, warms up to them all and is in good spirits at lunch.

I should have known something was up. By the time we return to the hotel by 4 PM she is calm and rested, having napped in the stroller the whole walk back from Tsim Sha Tsui. However, when she wakes she informs me that she will simply ask Santa to bring her Old Black Cat next Christmas. I am amazed at her creativity and feel like the Grinch when I tell her this is beyond Santa’s powers.

The next day we wake. It is Sunday and C’s 4th birthday. I again feel pretty bad about letting Black Cat get away. However, when I ask C about it she informs me, “Black Cat likes Hong Kong and has decided to move here to be with his Grandma and Grandpa.” I am stunned. Four years old and already so grown up. Plus Black Cat is one very wise stuffie; I too want to move to Hong Kong.

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Hello wonderful Disney Hollywood Hotel.

We meet my friends D&B, who had come down from Guangzhou to visit Disneyland with us, down in the lobby. It is raining cats and dogs, heavy sheets of rain are shot down from the cold, steel grey sky. It looks like an unfortunate day to visit an amusement park. We cannot get a taxi. It is also the day of the Hong Kong Standard Chartered Marathon and no taxis are able to get to our particular road. We wait. The rain lets up and we all decide to try to walk over to the MTR stop some fifteen minutes away to try to take the train to Disneyland (there is a stop at the park). We are lucky to find a nice taxi driver willing to give it a go.

When we pull up to our hotel, the Disneyland Hollywood Hotel, the whole place smells like fresh flowers after the rain; it is a lush desert oasis after a terrible sandstorm. There on the red carpet leading to the hotel I cancel my hotel the following night near the airport and book a second night at the Disney hotel. The magic of Disney was already working on me.

We store our bags and head straight to the park. The sun, believe it or not, comes out. I know I cannot believe it but I am thrilled. I may have even danced a jig. I may have thrown my arms out and thanked the Gods, Mother Nature, or Kismet for this blessed event. I had wanted this day to be perfect for C and though determined to make it so despite the rain, I was glad I did not have to contend with a soggy day.

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Of course we met with several princesses! Ariel wins for most awesome because she spent a lot of time with the birthday girl, even playing a little game of tag with her.

We rode the carousel, two times; it remains C’s favorite ride. We all took a spin on the tea cups, which by the way are not built for three adults and one child. Nor for someone my age who sometimes feels sick in the backseats of cars after spending so little time in them while living much of my adult life overseas. A trip on the Jungle River Cruise revealed that natives shooting arrows from an unfriendly village and a mountain that breathes fire are not four year old fare. I read the warning after the ride. Oops. Yet we even rode Space Mountain, C’s first roller coaster. I could scarcely believe that she met the height requirement, but she did. Just. Once the ride started I felt kind of bad to have brought her on, remembering my own fear riding this same attraction when I visited Disneyland California at age eleven. It was sort of hard to hear C crying over my own screams. Yet she surprised me once again when she declared at the end (after heaving a huge sigh of relief that we had survived), “I had to cry a little bit, but it was okay.”

We took a break, returned to the hotel, checked in and enjoyed a walk around the grounds and a rest before returning in the evening for the parade and fireworks show. I had expected just a good parade and then some good fireworks. Both were beyond anything I could have imagined. I sort of felt that other people who had been to Disney had been sworn to some secret oath not to reveal the true amazingness of the spectacle.

We said goodbye to D&B the following morning after breakfast and C and I returned to the park for another day of fun. The weather was even better than the day before. As a result, despite it being a Monday, the crowds were larger and the wait times for rides longer. More carousel time, a whirl on the Disneyland railroad, a visit with Anna and Elsa and Cinderella and we managed the Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo rides despite the longer lines. We called it an earlier day so I was very glad to be able to relax in our lovely Disney hotel room and catch the movie Up with C in the lobby bar and restaurant.

The next morning as we departed for the airport right after the 11 am check-out it had grown cold again, the fog so thick that visibility was very limited. Had we tried to head to the Lantau Buddha, my original plan until I realized that getting there would take more time than we had, we would not have seen much. Our flight was not until 4 pm but the man at the check-in counter moved us to a flight leaving an hour earlier. Of course though, this being a Chinese flight, it left an hour late…

All in all, even with the loss of Black Cat, Hong Kong turned out to be a wonderful getaway.

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The view from our Disney hotel room on a beautiful, clear Hong Kong morning

 

Shanghai Escape, Derailed

It is winter in Shanghai, which apparently translates to short, cold, gloomy, and overcast days. When it has not been raining the air quality has been poor. It is not Beijing Red Alert poor, but it has already warranted twice receiving this message:

Consulate Pollution message

The second time we received it was the day before our flight. It was time to get out of dodge.

The Plan: Leave the drab, choking skies of Shanghai behind for a beach resort in Sanya Bay, on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, known as China’s Hawaii. The island is located at the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands and is China’s only tropical beach destination. Blue skies, palm trees, warm weather, and a place in China where no one has to check the Air Quality Index. The perfect balmy Christmas getaway.

The Airport: We arrived at Pudong airport at 9:25 am for check in for our 10:45 am flight. Except it turns out that our flight time was moved up, to 10:05 am…and the flight closed 40 minutes before departure…so even before I stepped into the check-in line it was already too late. In all the years and places I have flown I have never missed a flight.

The airline was able to rebook us on a later flight departing at 3:50 pm. I felt rather thrilled we were still arriving the same day and I made sure to take advantage of the time at the airport. We had lunch and then C took a nap while I cracked open the 700+ page book for my January Book Club meeting. Then the flight was delayed two hours. No problem! There was a massage chair place located across from our gate – I had a massage and my daughter sat in the next chair playing nicely with her iPad.

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Just three hours by plane from wintry Shanghai to the balmy beaches of China’s southern most point

The Plane: Once on the plane I realize this is the first domestic Chinese flight I have taken since 1994.

I particularly remembered a flight from Chengdu to Urumuqi. There was no English to be found on the plane. Instead the information was in Chinese and Russian, the airplane seemed to be an old Aeroflot. The color scheme of the cabin was something like hospital white. Plane cabin temperature was set to somewhere around “sauna” and a leak of some sort dripped on me from the overhead compartment for the length of the flight. And smoking was allowed on the plane.

Fast forward to 2015 and the China Eastern flight is world-class. Comfortable seats, designer cabin colors in a palette of warm sand, professional flight attendants, English information. I sat back and relaxed, reading my book club book to page 345. We were on our way to vacation!

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The Holiday Inn Resort Sanya Bay. It is beautiful.

Arrival and Derailment: We land in Sanya at 8:30 pm, 5 ½ hours later than originally planned, but it is 77 degrees so I don’t care. Suitcases in hand we headed to the domestic airport legal taxi stand and wait.

Twenty-five minutes later we are in a taxi. Whew! We are soon to be on our way to the hotel to officially start this vacation. I feel so happy. I tell the driver the name of our hotel and she doesn’t understand. She confers with a taxi line attendant then she grunts in what I assume to mean “ok, yeah, I know where that is” and off we go–all of 20 feet before the driver pulls over, gets out of the taxi, and barks at the occupants of the back of the taxi line. Soon three additional passengers, two additional fares, are squeezed into the cab. I am forced to hold my daughter on my lap.

We stop and the driver tells the man in the front this is his stop. Then the driver gets out and opens my door, takes my daughter off my lap and places her in the street and tells me this is where I get out. “But where is my hotel?” I ask. The driver makes some noises that sound like “I don’t know” and “You can look around here.” She points to the suitcases in the back and I tell her the blue one. And then suddenly headlights are on us, a truck is heading our way, my daughter is in the middle of the street. I am distracted. The taxi driver takes off. I get my daughter to safety. I realize my other bag is in the taxi…with my new computer, my daughter’s iPad, and our jackets…

I walk two blocks with my daughter to the closest hotel. An English speaking manager helps to locate our hotel and takes us there by taxi. We had been nowhere nearby.

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Despite the rocky beginning, my daughter jumps for joy on the beach.

At our hotel the police are called. The officer who arrives is far more interested in my marital status than in my missing bag. He is fascinated that I am single, never married and have a child. He says he will return the next day, but I never see that cop again.

In the hotel room my daughter says, “Mom, I am sad about our bag, but this is a beautiful hotel.”

Fuel to the Fire: After breakfast and some beach time I head onto my first order of business to recover my vacation – obtaining chargers for my two phones (the chargers were unfortunately also in the bag).

The hotel furnished me with the location in Chinese where they promised up and down I could obtain chargers for both of my phones. I admit, I was skeptical, but I was thrilled when 30 minutes later we arrived at a phone supercenter, selling just about every phone and accessory you could imagine. Not only did they have a charger for my iPhone 4S but even for the Nokia dumb brick phone provided by the Consulate. I not only felt relief, I felt I had personally thwarted fate in a superhero kind of way.

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The Hui woman who sold us the Little Mermaid accessories, um, I mean, the shell necklaces.

We had lunch nearby and I bought C an ice cream cone that she nursed our two block walk to the beach and then as we walked along the waterfront. It actually sort of, kind of did remind me of the walkway in Waikiki. If I had been in Waikiki maybe in 1930? I bought C a shell necklace and conk shell whistle from an ethnic Hui woman on bicycle. Although the Muslim Hui are generally a northwestern minority, there is a large group on Hainan. I mused that perhaps there were more similarities between Hainan and Hawaii beyond their latitude and the letter “H.” There is also the military presence (with a base right in the middle of Sanya Bay fronting the beach, much like Waikiki’s Fort DeRussy) and an ethnic group subsumed and co-opted by tourism.

I had difficulty finding a taxi to take us back to our hotel – all the traffic on the beachfront road was heading in the wrong direction, all the cabs already with passengers. Even after turning up a side street to a crossroads, the taxis were few and already full. So I made the decision to take one of the two motorcycle taxis that had been vying for my business for ten minutes.

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What do you mean that airport is not a tourist spot? Doesn’t everyone hang out here on holiday?

I know, the parents amongst you may cringe and the Foreign Service Officers may tut-tut my decision. But the current and former backpackers might just give me a thumbs up. C, sandwiched between myself and the driver, yelling “wheee, wheee” as her hair blew in the wind. All was fine until we arrived back at the hotel. I got off the bike and burned my leg, badly as it turned out. Second degree. In all the times I was on motorcycles throughout Southeast Asia I was never burned before…

The Quest: My friends M&S from Shanghai also in Hainan for the weekend joined us for Christmas dinner for company and to get my mind off everything that had happened.  And as luck would have it, they hailed a blue colored cab on the way over and secured a telephone number for me. It turns out that there is only one dark blue taxi company in Sanya. How many female drivers could they have?

Bright and early on the second day I prepared for Operation: Get My Bag Back! I started up my iPhone – it was not connected to a phone network and had no VPN, but it could still connect to WiFi and I activated “Find My iPad.” Unfortunately it was offline, but I typed up a message in English and Chinese that would let someone know it was lost and how to reach me. Then I called the tourist complaint line number M&S had provided me and explained the situation in Chinese and then, almost unbelievably, the woman told me an English-speaking colleague would come in at 8 am and call me. Even more unbelievable is at 8 am an English-speaking person DID call me!

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Betel nut is popular in Hainan. I ironically found a bag of fresh betel nut left behind in taxi. I handed the bag over the driver and kept one for a photo.

At 9:30, after some checking she phoned me back and told me that I should phone the Airport Customer Service number. I did. Incredibly, they also had someone there who spoke English. That woman told me it would be best if I went down to the airport to talk with the Airport Police to locate the surveillance tape of the taxi line for the night in question. Of course! This is China and there are surveillance cameras everywhere!

Off we went to the airport. I located the police station on the second floor and again told my story in Chinese. The officer there did not seem too sympathetic as he stood in front of a four word police slogan that stated something like “integrity, honesty, service, hard work” – similar to one of those annoying motivational posters found in employee break rooms across the US. He informed me that in fact it was another police station that would be in charge of the taxi line and he gave me their number. I asked him, since I had just explained my whole story, if he could call for me. He shrugged and said he could not as it was my problem and not his.

I did call the number and explain again, in Chinese, my story of woe shouting in my phone above the airport and police station din. However, the policeman on the other end did seem nicer and told me he would see what he could do. A few minutes later my phone rang – an English-speaking woman who identified herself as Lisa and a friend of the second policeman. Lisa would prove to be not only sympathetic but incredibly resourceful.

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Despite the off-putting description of this area as a “Buddhist Theme Park” the landscaped grounds are quite nice and the statue is pretty cool. Not an amusement park ride to be seen.

While Lisa did whatever it was she was doing, I went in search of the surveillance tapes. Unfortunately, it turned out that due to airport construction the taxi line bay in the domestic terminal presently has no cameras. Of course it doesn’t! Despite this setback, I took advantage of our time at the airport to have lunch, visit the first aid center to have a nurse take care of my burn, and purchase the only thing resembling a diary from an airport book shop. (Yes, it turned out my diary too was in the bag. I have kept a diary since I was 12 years old and traveled with one all over the world and have never before lost one. Are you sensing a theme here?)

Back to the hotel. Lisa had sent the hotel duty officer the photos of the NINE female drivers employed by the dark blue taxi company for me to identify in a virtual line-up. I selected a few but emphasized that my driver had long black hair worn in a ponytail. We arranged to go to the taxi company the following morning to meet with the drivers and enjoyed the rest of the evening with pool time (well C was in the pool, I was sidelined with my second degree burn) and pizza in our hotel room watching either CNN or the Discovery Channel, our only two English options.

On Sunday we headed to the taxi company. I was quite disappointed to arrive to find only a single female drive in attendance – a woman with short, brown hair. When I explained my disappointment the two women at the taxi company appeared unphased. They said I had identified this woman as one of the possible drivers. I conceded I may have found the face similar from an employment photograph but in other aspects she did not resemble my driver at all. They suggested that perhaps I had confused dark blue with light blue as there was also a light blue taxi company in Sanya. They also incredulously suggested that perhaps I had mistaken a male driver for a woman? I stared at them.

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This taxi driver was worth his weight in gold – when C fell asleep on the way to the Goddess of Mercy, he offered to carry her.

I was told that this one female driver was the only one who had been to the airport on the day in question. Ms. Chen showed me the elaborate tracking system they use on all of their taxis – they could input a taxi driver number and a date and time and show exactly where the taxi had been. It seemed impressive but I could not help but feel they were trying to appear helpful without actually being so. In one final show of assistance they typed up a BOLO (Be On the LookOut) describing my lost bag and sent it out to all of their entire fleet of 200+ drivers. They suggested I also visit the Public Security Bureau, but I was done.

Instead back on the street I hailed a taxi to take us to the 108 meter high Goddess of Mercy statue located at the Nanshan Cultural District Buddhist Cultural Park. I may have lost a bag full of valuable items, received a second degree burn on my leg after an ill-advised motorcycle ride, and spent countless hours in fruitless pursuit of the aforementioned bag, but I was going to see one tourist site in Hainan! The funny part is that on the way I started to think about what I might see the next time we came.  If I was thinking about a next time, this time could not really be that bad, right?

I could have seen this as just a crappy vacation where everything went wrong or I could see it as a trip with some challenges and an epic quest, which though was ultimately unsuccessful in obtaining the sought after item, resulted instead in learning valuable lessons on what is truly valuable.  I did lose a lot of stuff (about $1300 worth) but I can replace them and am lucky to be in a position to say that.

In the taxi over to the taxi company, my almost-four-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Mommy, I am sorry about our bag, but don’t worry, it is just games.” She was thinking about her lost iPad, but regardless, she had a point. And if my kid is telling me at this age, I have to be doing something right.

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The view of the South China Sea from our hotel balcony.

Christmastime in Shanghai

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The Christmas Tree Light display in front of Plaza 66 mall

Full disclosure: I do not have a history of celebrating Christmas. In fact, I have generally escaped from partaking in Christmas revelry. In the twenty-one Christmases from 1995 to 2015 I have spent only four in the United States, three of those four are since I joined the State Department in July of 2011 (two because I was in training at the Foreign Service Institute where there is a general no-leave policy and once when we flew back from Mexico). There were only five of those Christmases I did not travel somewhere. I have spent Christmases in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Curacao, Antigua, Sri Lanka, Batam Island, and Mexico. You may notice the warm weather locale theme.

I have not changed the plan this year either! The morning of Christmas Eve has us heading south to escape the cold and dreary Shanghai winter – at least for a few days.

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The Christmas decor section at the supermarket – not too shabby

But Christmas in Shanghai, just like in the US, is not really just one day. There have been decorations up for quite some time. Case in point: C and I headed over to the Kerry Centre mall across the street on Thanksgiving Day to purchase some wine to bring to my colleague’s home. There was tinsel and ornaments and wreaths and piped in Christmas tunes. The basement supermarket had a section of holiday items at the base of the escalator – front and center. It was so authentic – for C at least – that when she woke up the following day and learned Thanksgiving was over, she cried because she thought she had missed Santa. It took some convincing to get across that Christmas and Thanksgiving were in fact two different holidays.

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The lights in the trees lining Nanjing West road for blocks on end

C and I have not been out and about very much lately. The weather has been less than lovely (cold, wet, grey) and work has been busy. Yet we live at one of Shanghai’s premier addresses on the major thoroughfare of Old Shanghai. Here the Christmas decorations have been out in force. And I do mean Christmas – there is not much of the Happy Holidays sentiment that has some Americans upset about the ‘War on Christmas’ (except the Starbucks in my complex did have the red cups). Though it is very much a commercial holiday here, and one that caters to expats. It is largely the fancy malls that have the displays – walk just a block or two off the main street and there is almost zero sign of the season other than it being cold.

The Shanghai Centre, the complex where I live, hosted a holiday party for the residents and this included a buffet, live band, and of course a visit from Santa for the kids. The Portman Ritz Carlton hotel, which is a part of the same complex, set up a Christmas market selling gifts, sweets, warm beverages (Gluhwein!), and live trees. They also had a Swedish choir perform holiday songs, a tree lighting ceremony, and a very large gingerbread house on display in the lobby.

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After seeing this gingerbread house I realize it is of no use to ever try to build one of my own.  Portman Ritz-Carlton lobby

This is the first Christmas though that my daughter is old enough to sort of understand what is going on. I say sort of because we celebrated Christmas on Saturday, December 19 since we would be out of town on the 25th and C has no idea it was not the actual Christmas Day. Still, through various DVDs including My Little Pony and Paw Patrol she knows some Christmas traditions that I was unable to recreate.

For one, she expected snow. Despite her very limited exposure to the cold, white stuff (one time in Juarez and a few days last winter in Virginia) she talked about it. That on Christmas there would most certainly be some snow. I tried to explain that the climate in Shanghai is generally too warm for snow but that doesn’t make much sense to her as it is not warm outside at all. We have our coats and covered shoes on each day after all.

She also seemed particularly upset about the lack of a star on the top of our Christmas tree. I did buy a tree, a small plastic tree about two and a half feet high. It was not a purchase I had planned to make but C made a comment about wanting one. The giddy delight with which she greeted that miniature fake tree (“Oh mommy, mommy it is the most beautiful tree in the whole world! It is Awesome!), however made it so worth it. At the supermarket I also found the string of lights for our window and the small red and gold ornamental balls, tinsel, and candy for the tree. However, there were no tree-topping stars and no time to find one.

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Our first Christmas tree.  Small, and hopefully one that travels well for this lifestyle.

It made me realize that there were all these traditions from the US that I wanted to share with my daughter – candy canes, driving through neighborhoods full of beautifully (or crazily) lit homes, singing along to Christmas songs on the radio or listening to carolers, watching the Night Before Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer on television. Even just running out to a store to pick up those last minute Christmas needs – like a Christmas tree star or egg nog.

Just after I returned from my Medevac in mid-November we received email notification from the DPO (Diplomatic Post Office) that in order to guarantee delivery before Christmas orders would need to be at the DPO facility in California by November 22. I placed an order for all of my daughter’s presents before that date so they did all arrive. But the two rolls of wrapping paper I purchased were barely enough to cover three presents so the rest were wrapped up in a Frankenstein-style hobbled together from random paper bags I found under my sink.

Luckily my daughter is so young that traditions are ours to be made. There are times we will be back in the US at Christmas and be able to take advantage of those special traditions, but more likely we will be overseas and there is no telling what may or may not be available on the local market or how the holidays may or may not be celebrated. This turned out to be the most excited I have been about Christmas since I was a child and though I realized a bit too late in the game I still put on a pretty wonderful Christmas morning. Though I still don’t want to be cold on Christmas.

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The not yet finished (at the time of the photo) Christmas decor in front of Westgate Mall, where the Shanghai US Consulate Visa Section is located

What China is This?

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I stand above the Yangtze River for the Three Gorges cruise – the river and the gorges are not now what they once were.

I first came to China in 1994 as a student at Beijing Normal University as a part of the College of William & Mary’s study abroad program.

It was an eye-opening experience for me. On our second day in country we were served fried scorpions at lunch. Even more surprising to me is that 14 out of 16 of the students in our group ate them. I refused. (I then ordered a bowl of chicken soup only to find as I stirred it an eye ball popped to the surface – and this is how I kept my girlish figure while in China, by surviving on white rice with soy sauce and peanuts and garlic stir fried broccoli.) I had my first experience with a squatting toilet – something again I refused to use. I even held “it” one day during a 12 hour bus trip from Changsha to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, steadfast in my determination as each rest stop only presented “traditional” facilities. A delayed flight and Mother Nature eventually forced my hand and it turned out not to be so bad.

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In my Beijing Normal U dorm room. I cannot believe how great my hair looks.

We stayed in the international dorm – each of us assigned a Japanese roommate to encourage our Chinese language acquisition even first thing in the morning and just before bed. I had a room on the fifth floor of the dorm – no elevator of course. We had only one telephone per floor located at one end. Hot water in our showers was available from 5 PM. It was supposed to last until eight, but if you waited too long you were generally in for major disappointment – and a very brisk bathe.  We also had two hot plates per floor for cooking. I used it perhaps twice in six months – not a surprise at all as my good friends know that is only a little less than I use my kitchen now.

I rented a shelf in a mini fridge of an enterprising Korean student. There I kept my few prized refrigerated items like cheese and Tang. Each of us was issued a large thermos. Most evenings I would make my way down the five flights and to a small brick building across from the dorm where there stood a very large coal furnace constantly heating water. I would pop off the corked top of the thermos and fill it with scalding water and then carry it back up to my room. I would leave the top off overnight to cool the water and then in the morning fill my smaller bottles with the water, mix in the Tang, and then switch the new bottles for the cool ones in the rented fridge.

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The old hot water furnace and my super chic thermos. I thought it would look even older in Sepia; I was right.

I had an old bicycle that two thoughtful classmates acquired for me. As I understand it they staked out an area in the massive student bicycle parking area and monitored activity. They identified a weather-beaten green one that, according to them, had been left neglected for weeks. So they liberated it and gave it to me. I did not ask too many more questions. I took it to an on-campus bicycle repair shop to get it into riding shape and I joined the (hundreds) of thousands of Beijing cyclists that took to the roads daily.

I rode to class each morning, with my glass bottle of drinkable yogurt in my basket (the bottles were returned to the dorm café to get a few jiao back), and across town to the little Uygur village behind the Minority University where I would go to the last shed where I bought the most fabulous tudou qiu (potato balls) with a soy sauce and cilantro dipping sauce. Once while riding to my English teaching job of two Korean boys who lived in the Asian Games Village, all the spokes on my wheel dropped off one by one in a spectacular fashion. I simply coasted a few hundred feet to a roadside bicycle repair guy, who for a handful of kuai had me on the road again in no time.

Twenty years later I find myself once again living in China. Although I am in a different city I feel as though my life has circled back around. Amongst the modernity there are glimmers of the past and I experience the occasional sense of déjà vu that transports me back to the China I first knew.

Shanghai is so incredibly modern and glitzy now (as is Beijing and other major Chinese cities) that I imagine few students here would know what to do with the giant furnace I once had to use. And only one phone per hall would be cause for most students these days to walk out in protest.

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A glimpse into our hard seat train compartment.

There are so many things that have changed. No longer are bicycles the chief transportation method. Gone are the bicycle lanes that rivaled those for cars and parking areas where they sat by the thousands awaiting their riders. There are still some intrepid cyclists, but they have been mostly replaced with fancy cars, mopeds, and even electric bicycles.

Train travel too is not what it used to be. The trains now, at least those I have had the pleasure of taking lately, are ultramodern and sleek. Comfortable reclining chairs with tray tables in clean and efficiently serviced non-smoking compartments. This is so far removed from the two day train ride in hard class chairs that my friends and I took between Beijing and Qingdao. On the return trip I remember an old man in front of us smoking beneath the no-smoking sign. When my friend and I asked him to put out the cigarette and pointed out the sign he took a deep draw and turned and blew all the smoke in our faces. The hard seats were just that – hard benches with unforgiving straight backs. Bleary-eyed and desperate for sleep I asked for and received the newspaper another man had finished. I took it and spread it down in the aisle and it was there where I went to sleep for a few hours. I was awoken in the morning at 6 am by the snack cart coming through – I was surrounded by apple cores and banana peels and other debris. And the time we took the two day hard sleeper from Beijing to Chongqing. We were the top of three bunks, maybe a foot and a half from our sleeper, i.e. hard fake leather slab, and the ceiling. A small electric fan by my head kept shorting out and when I tapped it sparks flew and it made a few more revolutions. THAT is train travel my friends, the kind that you never forget.

Advertising is also a bit different. Gone are the unimaginative roadside billboards extolling government policies like this one:

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Hooray for the one child policy!

And instead they have been replaced by sleek advertisements for just about everything including luxury goods, international brands, and world-class performances on stage at first-class theaters. Even commercials that remind the Chinese to be good citizens of the world, such as this one, which might surprise many people outside of China:

IMG_6699 (2)And probably one of the most surprising things of all is the number of signs everywhere directing Chinese to behave in public. No smoking. No spitting. No littering. No this. No that. People get into lines. I can hardly believe it myself. Gone are the days at a fast food restaurant where those who were served first were those who fought their way to the counter best. Or like when I stood in line at the Forbidden City in Beijing and many people behind me chose to pay those in the front of the line to buy their tickets too. There are still those would-be line jumpers but these days the Chinese around them will usually give them a good scolding and maybe even rough them up.

090But there are still glimpses of the past. Off the main glitzy streets, I mean just one block off, you can find clothes still hanging out to dry from apartment windows – even twenty or thirty stories up. Also many women still wear pantyhose in inappropriate lengths – knee highs with thigh high skirts or even thigh highs with short shorts. This really takes me back. People still squat down on their haunches on the street – today I passed a young woman doing this on West Nanjing Road, old Shanghai’s premier street. She was reading text on her smart phone.

The parks on mornings and weekends are still full of groups of old and young doing tai chi or ballroom dance. Nowadays you can also find the occasional belly dancing or hip hop group, sometimes right next to one another, their music and routines in side-by-side competition.

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Taken in 1994 but except for the fashions (or even including the fashions) you could see this in most parks in China today.

I am especially tickled to see that correct English spelling and translation remains elusive. Despite the rise in the number of Chinese who speak English fluently, you can still find some fun signs about town.

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The country is modernizing so quickly and leaving traditions behind; there are times when I do not feel I am living in China, but rather somewhere else. Somewhere with some Chinese characteristics but not quite China. Sort of like Singapore, but not exactly. It can be a challenge to live here – as an international student or a foreign diplomat – but it offers every visitor and expat, at the very least, some interesting experiences and never ceases to surprise. More than twenty years on and I am still trying to find my place in China.