Americana: A Californian Chinese New Year

I have heard the time around the Spring Festival, as the Chinese call it, referred to as the largest annual human migration in the world.  It is not only all the Chinese traveling to be with their families, but also the foreigners in China taking advantage of the long holiday to get away.

When we first arrived in China it was just three weeks before Chinese New Year.  I knew having just moved to China that 1. I would not have the energy to take a trip that soon, and 2. Even if I had wanted to, it was far too late to book a trip.

It was good to stay in Shanghai that first Chinese New Year.  My household effects (HHE) were delivered just the day before the holiday started so I could spend it putting my apartment in order. The streets were quiet and I had a week to get to know my new city.  But I told myself there was no way I would stay in Shanghai the following Lunar New Year.

The way the holiday shook out is February 6-10 (Saturday – Wednesday) were the Chinese national days off.  The following Monday, February 15 was President’s Day.  So I could take just two days of annual leave and have ten full days off.  I thought of going to Kenya or Jordan or Thailand.  Somewhere exotic.  That is what I used to do when I had a long holiday – take a long trip to someplace unexpected.  But what I really wanted to do was be in the US drinking in America.

A Huntington Half Marathon

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C gets in some pony riding in her Elsa dress and pink cowgirl boots.  Because that is how she rolls.

We started our holiday in the Newport / Huntington Beach area, about an hour south of Los Angeles.  Back in August I had signed up for the Surf City Half Marathon.  The heart issues had started but I positive that I could still train for and complete the half.  It was before the Medevac to Singapore and then Washington, DC.  It was before I had the heart procedure.  By November 11 I was back in Shanghai and determined to train.  My plan was a 5K before the end of November, then a 10K before the end of December and finally 15K by the end of January and then just try my luck.

I did the 10K by the end of December but it was really, really, really slow.  I had some serious doubts.  But my virtual group of runners trying to hit the roads and trails all around the world encouraged me to still try – that the time would not matter.  And a very good friend currently posted to Washington, DC said she would fly out to run with me.

Before the half C and I just sampled the joys of being back in the US.  Our first day in the States involved landing, renting a car, and then driving down the coast in Friday afternoon Orange County traffic.  So it was pretty great.

For our first full day I took my pony-loving daughter to Irvine Regional Park for pony rides and a visit to the zoo.  We had hot dogs and French Fries and sat outside in the glorious Southern California sunshine.  Such a change from the cold, overcast, smoggy skies of a Shanghai winter.

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I got me some race bling. And some running zen.

The morning of the half the sitter arrived from Mollycoddlers, an Orange County sitter and nanny service.  (I am sure lots of people have wondered how I do these half marathons in different parts of the country as a single mom.  The answer is a hotel babysitting service!).  I met my friend in the lobby of our Huntington Beach hotel for the race shuttle to Newport Beach.  We had a lot of time on the shuttle and at least an hour at the race hotel before the start to catch up.  It was important because although we have run several races together, we do not actually run side by side as her pace is a good two minutes per mile faster than mine.

I had no idea how the half would go.  My training had been haphazard.  I was jet lagged.

The temperatures were unseasonably warm.  Yet it was a good course.  Flat.  I did not care about my time.  I ran a half for the first time in a long time without a running watch (it had been in the unfortunately misappropriated bag lost to the taxi driver in December).  I walked through each water stop.  I had fun.  I told myself I could finish in three hours if I needed to.  But I didn’t.  It wasn’t even my slowest half.

I realize that many people might be shaking their heads – why in the world would anyone run a half marathon on their vacation?  For me though, when I run, when I was running, I was not a mom, I was not a visa adjudicator, it was just me running in the sunshine on a course with a bunch of other strangers – all of who have their own reasons and goals for running.  It’s liberating.

Afterwards, it being Superbowl Sunday, C, my friend, her boyfriend, and I sat in the hotel bar, watched part of the game and the half time show, and ate and drank.  If that isn’t Americana, then I don’t know what is.

Friends, Family, and Disney

When I was 11 years old my mom took my sisters and I to LA. I begged to go to the La Brea Tar Pits, but we didn’t. I had to close the circle.

After Newport Beach we headed south to Carlsbad to stay with my mother’s cousin who I had not seen since I was twelve years old.  Now I am….much older.  Yet despite the years, when I reached out to her she responded immediately to my email and invited C and I to stay with her.  We had such a wonderful time and her husband and their therapy dog.  We also drove down to San Diego to meet up with a friend from my Jakarta book club days and on another day we met a grad school friend at the La Brea Tar Pits.

Back in my pre-State, pre-mom days my vacation modus operandi was generally to fly solo to another country or another continent but rarely to visit home. Maybe it is age or being a mother or this particular career, but I have a strong desire to spend more time reacquainting myself not only with friends and family but also with my country.

I felt such incredible joy driving a car down US highways, listening to Top 40 radio stations, or lying awake jet lagged watching American television programming featuring tiny houses.  Even billboards featuring Serta mattresses make me deliriously happy.  There were several times when apropos of nothing I simply stretched out my arms and yelled “I love you America!”

But I am familiar with America.  For me a trip home is celebration of the things I love and miss (or even had no idea I missed) and want to revisit and carry back in me.  For my daughter though, it is not a place she knows well.  In her four years of life she has lived only a quarter of it in the States.

A few weeks before traveling to the US I read an online parenting article aimed at American parents and their propensity to take their kids to Disney on vacation.  The author’s goal is to encourage parents to broaden their children’s horizons, which is certainly admirable.  But there is nothing wrong with taking your kids to Disney.  Disney is the quintessential Americana.  And I very much want to give my child those kinds of experiences.  She may not always or even ever just be able to get on a bicycle and ride around a neighborhood.  So if I can give her Disney and quality zoos and snow cones and ballpark hot dogs on occasion, I will.

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This happy face needs no caption.

After nine days in beautiful Southern California it was time to head back to Shanghai.  I am not sure that I did this, but I hope I took a sufficiently long deep breath of the good air quality air and closed my eyes and savored the warm feel of the SoCal sun on my face.

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From Sheep to Monkey: Shanghai Year One in Review

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Soon after we arrived in Shanghai we welcomed in the Year of the Sheep/Goat/Ram.

I have marked one year in Shanghai.  I had a hard time sussing out when I felt I had truly hit the one year mark.  Sure, there is the one year anniversary of when we arrived here on January 28, 2015. That is a good place to start. Or maybe my first day in the office, February 2? Or the first time I picked up a case in Shanghai – on February 5? Or the first time I interviewed on the line, which due to a fluke of training and the arrival of Chinese New Year was not until February 26?

Now I can safely call the one year mark, but I have been struggling to find the right words to characterize my year.  The easiest way it seems is to boil it down to the visas since they occupy such a huge part of my existence.

In one year I fingerprinted 5,760 people and adjudicated 24,075 visa cases.  It’s mind-boggling.  I do not know how many people I fingerprint verified in Ciudad Juarez (verification just requires one hand print to verify prints collected at an off-site location; fingerprinting requires taking ten prints, i.e. the four fingers on both hands and then both thumbs), but in my two years I adjudicated a total of 15,112 visas.  And I managed over 24,000 in Shanghai in a year even with a month-long Medevac.

I wanted to hit 25,000.  I had seen another colleague reached 50,000 after two years in Shanghai and I decided, before even arriving, that I too wanted that number.  Just because.  I know it is a crazy, maybe even a completely pointless and meaningless goal, but we set some goal like this here to help us get through the hours, days, and weeks of interviewing.

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“Left hand four fingers.  Right hand.  Two thumbs.  OK. Next!”  I dare you to say that, and only that, over 100 times in an hour.  I triple dog dare you to do it in Chinese.

Still to put my number into perspective a colleague of mine hit over 27,500 in a year of adjudication and another colleague 31,000 in a year.  So as amazing as my number might sound, though it is a lot, I am by no means one of the fastest.  And the fingerprinting number…it is a pittance!  We had a temporary duty (TDY) colleague here for three weeks over the winter to help us during the busier season and in that time she alone fingerprinted 6,001 people!

One day after fingerprinting over 430 people over the course of 3 3/4 hours I came to a number of conclusions.  One is that a surprising number of people appear to be missing digits or parts of digits.  And it makes me wonder how it is that person came to lose them.  Or when the prints seem to be particularly bad, how it is those prints came to be worn?  So many stories exist just in people’s hands.  Another is that you can never judge a person’s fingerprints by their appearance.  Some young people have terrible prints, some old people have wonderful prints.  And finally, really clear, excellent prints are a beautiful thing to behold.  I never thought the image of the lovely whirls of a truly great print would be the thing to blow my hair back, but life is a funny, funny thing.

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Hundreds of average Chinese line up outside for a chance at a US visa

It can be hard to see the amazing activities colleagues around the world are doing while you are busy doing hundreds and then thousands and then tens of thousands of visas.  In the past few months colleagues have posted about meeting Colin Firth and Meryl Streep, having a conversation with a Thai princess, meeting Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, or flying on the Air Force jet with Secretary John Kerry.  Meanwhile today I interviewed over a hundred completely ordinary Chinese people.  And it was a slow day.

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We marked the beginning of our second year with the arrival of the Year of the Monkey.  According to some birth tourists, the Chinese love monkeys, so much so that the hospitals in China will have a bumper crops of babies and just be too busy.  I’ll just leave it at that.

But everyday people can be pretty cool too.  I will admit that I do suffer from interviewing fatigue.  Everyone does.  It is not easy to do this day in and day out for two years or four.  But there are days when it is, dare I admit it, fun.  Each morning or afternoon, depending on the shift, I sit or stand, depending on the adjudication window, and take a deep breath before I pull up the blinds and face the first of so many applicants.  There are times there is a sense of, not dread, but well an acute sense of opportunity cost – that by being there doing the interviews there are so many other great things I am not doing.  But other times there is a quick sense of anticipation, and even excitement.  I cannot speak for everyone of course, but there are many things to like about interviewing.  And even in the short time I have to talk to each applicant you can see a glimpse of a story.  The retired sisters giddy with excitement to take an 18 day group tour to America.  The students nervous and hopeful for a chance to study in America.  The completely unqualified applicant stammering out answers, knowing it is a long-shot, but still dreaming you might give them a visa anyway.

However, just because I think it is fun and interesting work sometimes does not mean I do not struggle with it.  I do.  A lot.  And it has been harder these past few weeks to write and post this because although I have crossed the one year threshold I cannot say that I have only one year to go because I extended until April 2017, which moved me from a winter bidding cycle to the summer. Because I have no idea how the bidding for the next tour will go – bidding that will not begin until late this summer – it is possible that I leave earlier than April 2017 and it is possible I leave later. Yet right now I just do not know how much longer I have, when I will even reach the one year to go mark.  So right now I feel I am in a sort of limbo.

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A symbol of stagnation.  Over 13 months after my arrival and it is still @#$&ing there.

And in this limbo I find it harder to do the visas.  Harder to face the rising numbers of applicants that characterizes our summer season.  Harder to shrug off the cars and buses and motorbikes that run red lights.  Harder to deal with the pushing and the shoving that comes with being in any public place in the largest city in the world’s most populous country.  If you look back at my one my early posts from Shanghai, there was a bulldozer parked unattended, unused in the middle of a sidewalk on my way to work.  It sat on the footpath blocking any pedestrian use, just after a particularly greasy, grimy stretch of sidewalk.  It is still there.  And I did not think it would be possible, but that sidewalk is even more caked, mucky, and encrusted with slime than before.

Yet there has been so much more over this past year than the work.  In Shanghai we have been to so many museums and sightseeing spots from the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Propaganda Poster Museum, and the Science and Technology Museum, to Dishui Lake, the Shanghai Zoo, and the Jing’An Sculpture Park.  Within China we have traveled to Hangzhou, Nanjing, Sanya, and Hong Kong.  We have also been back to the US three times, including my unexpected Medevac, which certainly livened up the year, and to Singapore (another Medevac) and the Dominican Republic.

Shanghai has been an extraordinary place to live.  My daughter and I not only have a nice life here, but we have fun here.  C has especially thrived here.  It is amazing to watch my three-now-four-year old speaking Chinese.  To hear that she refers to China as where we live and America as where we are from.  To have her making friends with children with diverse backgrounds who all find themselves here.  She loves Shanghai, so I love Shanghai.

I am not sure how to end this but I suppose it isn’t necessary because I am not done with Shanghai.  I have a year and then some left.  More visas and more fun still to come.

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And no matter the day, whether it is a love visa or hate visa day, I never grow tired of the view from my apartment

 

 

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.

Decompressing in the DR

I really, really, really needed this vacation with my daughter in the Dominican Republic.

Yeah, I said the Dominican Republic.

Usually when I mentioned that we were headed for the DR for the combination holiday of Mid-Autumn festival and the multi-day National Day together called Golden Week I heard: Why?

Well, why not?

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The Occidental Grand Punta Cana Resort. This will do.

I am aware it is nowhere near Shanghai. That is sort of the point. I have a history of traveling places nowhere near where I am living. When I lived in Jakarta I vacationed in Moldova, the south of France and South Africa. And when we lived in Juarez we visited places such as Panama, the United Arab Emirates, and the Isle of Man.

Do I have friends in the DR? Did family meet us? No and no. I just had a few criteria for this trip: warm weather, a beach, small child-friendly hotel, in a new-to-me country, and fairly far away. The DR met them all. Check. Check. Check.

It might seem a bit crazy to travel 27 hours and 45 minutes or so with a small child to get to a vacation destination. Maybe.

The population of Shanghai is approximately 24 million people squeezed into an area of 2,445 square miles. It is almost impossible to ever be alone in Shanghai (and as I have a small child any chance to be alone is already infinitesimally small). The DR on the other hand has a population of 10.7 million in an area many times larger than that of Shanghai. Even with the near constant music in the DR – the wonderful tipico band that greets arrivals at the Punta Cana airport and the Merengue or top 40 hits playing in the restaurants or during the nightly resort entertainment – it felt quieter than most any day in China. That most of the sounds were the soft roll of ocean waves and the rustle of the wind through palm fronds and laughter did not hurt either.

I also did not run into a single Chinese tourist. Not one.

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Sunrise. Not a Chinese visa applicant in sight.

I very much enjoyed hearing and speaking Spanish again. Granted I would be very hard-pressed to score above a 1+ (if even) on a Foreign Service Institute test in Spanish at this point, having forgotten terribly important words like nuclear non-proliferation or labor union. Yet I remembered the word for bacon so though FSI might not agree with me, I feel I am winning that balance sheet.

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Sunrise.

This was not my usual vacation. Any of my previous travel stories will tell you that much. I am not generally the stay in one place and do little kind of traveler. But strange times (adjudicating 16,000 visas and counting let’s say) call for strange measures, which to me is an all-inclusive resort with nine restaurants, three swimming pools, a Kids’ Club, nightly entertainment, tennis courts, archery, spa, gym, “Punta Cana’s best nightclub” and a bunch of other amenities. I’ll tell you I was so downright lazy that we went to only two swimming pools, ate in only four restaurants, and managed to do little else.

Most of my days went like this:
Wake up (and this started around 1 am due to jet lag and then gradually managed to move closer to 5:45). See sunrise. Eat breakfast. Laze around room. Laze around pool. Eat lunch. Laze around. Walk on beach. Eat dinner (though this was only once the jet lagged had eased and we did not fall asleep before sunset) . Sleep. It was magical. Once I had passed the half way point of my vacation I even began to wish I had booked two weeks of this instead of eight days.

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The oldest cathedral in the Americas

We did make it off the resort twice. The first time was for an all day tour to Santo Domingo. As a self-declared history buff, if there was anything I was going to do while in the Dominican Republic other than little-to-nothing at the hotel it was to see Colonial Santo Domingo, the first permanent settlement in the New World. Only the fourth day in of a twelve hour time difference, I was not sure how C or I would fair with the jet lag, but the trip went off without a hitch. Well, okay C woke up at 2:30 am and vomited for an hour or so, but hey that is just travel with kids, right? Right?? She fell back asleep, and then woke demanding bananas; 2.5 bananas later she was ready for our 2 ½ hour bus trip to Santo Domingo. We slept most of the way there and back and enjoyed all the sites for the day. They crammed a whole lot in and yet it did not feel particularly rushed. I would have liked more time at some places and to see others that were only drive-bys, but overall I was quite pleased with the trip. And C was not the only child on the trip. Another couple brought their one year old and there was also a two year old boy. All the kids did really well. Hooray for parents traveling and sightseeing with their kids!

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Our first view of Santo Domingo

Our second off-resort trip was to Manati Park so that C could see some animals. We were the first picked up in what C referred to as the “Rainbow Bus,” the colorful US-school-bus-like transport painted in the full pallet blasting energetic Merengue music as it made its way from resort to resort and then through a torrential downpour before arriving at the park. Four other similar buses disgorged their passengers at the same time and a brief flood of people poured in. It is not a particularly large park and not particularly awesome, but it is a good place to take a small child who loves animals and is too small to take part in other outings like swimming with dolphins or snorkeling or caving. And she got to not only ride some ponies (a lifelong dream even at age 3) but the staff even let her help them as they brushed and washed a pony. The guy even gave her the lead so C could take the pony back to his stall.

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At the Taino Village in Manati Park

It wasn’t a perfect vacation mind you. There was bored, beer-guzzling Bob from Chicago who took a little too much of an interest in my daughter and I, or maybe just in my mini-bar beer. On the evening of the lunar eclipse, I popped just outside my room for a look-see while C snoozed. It was just before 11 pm. The man I will call Bob appeared to be heading out but then stopped to comment on the moon. We got to chatting for a bit. He seemed friendly enough. He was headed to the all night pizzeria for a snack and, after I had mentioned I do not drink, he said he would come back to get my neglected mini-bar beers. Given the time, I expected he would head up to get pizza and then be back before 11:30 pm for the beers. He knocked on my door at 2:30 AM! And then asked if I would wake him for sunrise the next morning when we headed to the beach. It seemed harmless enough though he was drunk enough to be swaying dangerously as we made our way to the beach. And except that then he just kept stopping by at odd hours. Odd because it is an all-inclusive resort that includes free alcohol with most meals and at any of the seven bars open from as early as 9 am until 1 am. And odd because at no time did I say, hey Bob, my daughter and I would love to have you randomly insinuate yourself into our holiday.

1 lunar eclipse

I was pleased as punch to not only see the lunar eclipse but to actually get a decent photo with my point and shoot. But beware those you meet under the lunar eclipse.

I suspect Bob is just a lonely guy who got his signals crossed (or is so numbed by alcohol he is unable to read them) but nonetheless I requested a room change. Thankfully it was granted. We still saw Bob around the resort at least once a day, but at least I did not have to keep sitting in my room pretending I did not hear the knocks on our hotel room door.

There was also Jorge who came to my room to check my air conditioning unit. He was only in the room for maybe five minutes before his pointed questions revealed I am a single mom and we live in China. Jorge graciously offered to move to Shanghai to take care of me and give C a father. As romantic a proposal from an overweight only-Spanish-speaking hotel maintenance guy I had just met sounds, I turned him down.

Our final day was my birthday. I spent it, in very uncharacteristic fashion, doing almost nothing. I even took my very fair-freckled self to the beach for over three hours. After several hours of play my daughter wrapped herself up in a towel, lay on a beach chair and watched the ocean. She then turned to me and said, “Mom, let’s go home.” “To the hotel room?” I asked. “No mom, to Shanghai.” I told her the following day we would head home (via a little overnight stop in Newark).

Traveling to the Dominican Republic reminded me why I love to travel and see new places. It reminded me how much I love tropical countries and beaches. And it gave me the opportunity to relax and spend quality time with my child.

Oh, and not a single Chinese tourist.

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Another sunrise.

Ode to Nanjing

Nanjing (南京), it means “south capital” but to me in the traditional Chinese fashion of associating long-winded English translations to a few characters it means “long weekend getaway from the sinking morass of endless visa adjudications.”

It had been 14 weeks since returning from my two-week May getaway. Fourteen weeks through a historically-busy, record-breaking crazy visa application summer. I needed a break.

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View of Nanjing from the 45th floor of the Zifeng Tower

I know this falls into the realm of a “first world problem” and that even at home there might be quite a few people who would roll their eyes at my whines regarding lack of vacation time, but to me I really and truly had reached a breaking point.

“Capture of Nanking Rain and a windstorm rage blue and yellow over Chung the bell mountain as a million peerless troops cross the Great River. The peak is a coiled dragon, the city a crouching tiger more dazzling than before. The sky is spinning and the earth upside down. We are elated yet we must use our courage to chase the hopeless enemy. We must not stoop to fame like the overlord Hsiang Yu. If heaven has feeling it will grow old and watch our seas turn into mulberry fields.” ~Mao Ze Dong, April 1949

I could not find a pretty quote about Nanjing. Despite its significant role in Chinese history it is its more recent history, the brutal subjugation of the city in 1937, that it is perhaps most famous for. The weekend might also have been an odd choice of destination considering it immediately followed China’s newest national holiday – “Victory Day” – marking the 70th anniversary of victory in WWII. Although it was announced by the Chinese government in May it did not occur to me as I was buying the train tickets in early August that perhaps the location of one of the greatest atrocities inflicted on the Chinese as part of the larger WWII conflict happened in Nanjing. I wondered why some of the trains were already booked full (though it could have as much to do with a multi-day holiday as anything else, most people were given both Thursday September 3 and Friday September 4 off).

Regardless, our mini holiday in Nanjing became my reward, my focus, my mantra.

Nanjing! Nanjing! Nanjing!

And the trip finally arrived – and I remembered how I love to travel and learn about new places, the history, the culture, and especially to see another place in the country where I serve. I also was reminded how it can be a wee bit challenging to travel with a toddler especially when I insist on trying to do things certain ways.

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The Zifeng Tower. Our room was waaaaaaaaaaay near the top

Like taking public transport. But I packed light and we were able to use not only the Shanghai metro line to reach the Hongqiao Railway station, get ourselves onto the bullet train to Nanjing (less than 2 hours – 300 kilometers or about 186 1/2 miles), then we easily maneuvered our way through the Nanjing metro system. Well, as easy as one can with a duffel bag, stroller with one malfunctioning wheel, and a preschooler. But then they made it easy for us – touch screens, choice of English, plenty of easy to read maps, and a direct 10 stop trip from Nanjing South Station to Gulou, our stop.

I booked us a room at the Intercontinental Nanjing, which occupies the lobby and floors 45-81 of Zifeng Tower, the tallest building in the city (at 1,480 feet tall). Regular guest rooms are on floors 49 to 71 and through a series of events we found ourselves with a room on the 71st floor! As we rode up the elevator, beginning on the 45th floor I thought that we were already well above the 19th floor I live on in Shanghai, which already seemed rather high up.

It was a bit of a cloudy day and our view was sometimes very nearly obscured during our visit – because sometimes we were inside a cloud.

After settling in we headed to the very old Jiming (Rooster Crowing) temple, one of the oldest in Nanjing. It was within walking distance of the hotel and I figured a worthy first stop. Because 3 ½ kids love old, historic Buddhist temples, right? She might have liked it more if we had not had to pass the Paleontology Museum on the way. Posters of cool-looking cartoon dinosaurs and a nearly full glass wall revealing some equally cool dinosaur skeletons just had to be on display. Any interest C might have had in Chinese/Nanjing/Buddhist history was quickly gone (I give my kid the benefit of the doubt). Then I had to keep hearing about the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs for the rest of the block.

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Entrance gate to Jiming Temple, with a view of the Zifeng Tower in the background.

Thank goodness the temple included three large incense sticks in their ticket entrance price. C took these to be drum sticks, specifically her drum sticks and the temple as her castle and was placated for a little while. She was even okay with climbing up all the stairs. Particularly as once on the third or so level she could look down and yell at her subjects. “Hey, all you all down there! This is C! This is my castle. I am the police! Please listen to me! Stop what you are doing!” When I asked her why she kept yelling she said it was because no one was listening. I pointed out she was yelling in English and that most, if not all, of the people coming in to the temple were Chinese. So she switched to yelling random Chinese words of her choosing. Good thing the Chinese generally like little kids.

At the top level, just below the pagoda, we enjoyed some time joining the crowd throwing coins into the large Chinese urn for good luck. C likes this kind of activity. Then I showed her where everyone was placing their incense sticks and demonstrated how we would do the same. She seemed completely on board until we actually lit them and placed them standing with the other incense. Then she lost it. As luck would have it (perhaps the temple gods were smiling down on us?) we turned a corner as she sobbed and found three perfectly nice incense sticks lying on a temple step. The day was saved!

We headed back down and then on to Ming Dynasty City Walls, apparently one of the largest city walls ever constructed in China and still with large portions intact. C was not impressed. She made it clear that she did not want to see any walls but instead wanted to see dinosaurs! It started to rain. It was around 4 pm and we were just up the street from the Paleontology Museum and so made the correct mom decision to return to the dinosaurs.

C skipped up the steps happily right into the arms of a museum curator who informed us the museum closed at 4. What? Who closes a museum at 4? Smart little C immediately broke into huge sobs accompanied by the word dinosaur in both English and Chinese. As the door was wide open and other kids and their parents were still in the museum, he relented and said we could just visit the dinos in the foyer. C perked up immediately – though this was short lived when she learned after ten minutes it was time to go and she walked out, lip pouted, shoulders hunched, dragging her feet. The curator told us to come back that weekend – open 9 am to 4 pm Saturday and Sunday!

An hour at the hotel pool and another 30 minutes in our awesome tub and C forgot all about dinosaurs.

The following morning we took the metro to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Yeah, I sure do know how to pick the family friendly locations. But C is a good traveler and she was very good here as well.

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Outside the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.

It was a Saturday and the one after the new Victory Day holiday, so there was a long line, but with the exception of a few line jumpers it was managed very orderly and well. I have long wanted to visit Nanjing and I knew that when I did I would visit this memorial hall. This is a sobering place and is on par to visiting the Holocaust Museum in DC or a concentration camp like Auschwitz or the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park or the Killing Fields of Cambodia – all of which I have visited. It is a hard place to visit yet also a “must-see” to understand a time in history and serve as witness to the horrors humans are capable of committing, appreciate the resiliency of survivors, and resolve in your heart to never allow this again.

We spent most of our time in the park area and not in the museum, though we did have some thirty or forty-five minutes inside. In theory I could have spent longer there – the displays are well-done and informative – but given the subject matter our total hour and a half at the memorial hall was all we could take. C demanded lunch and then either dinosaurs or elephants.

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Elephants, even stone ones at a Ming Dynasty mausoleum, are cool.

After consulting C elephants it was. And those elephants would be the large stone ones, along with several other stone animals, flanking the Sacred Way to the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located at the foot of Purple Mountain. Thank goodness for those animals and the lovely shaded walk – C approved! She also did not mind the other walk with large stone soldiers flanking the way and climbing through some large gateways. She did show some rebellion at the Golden Water Bridge. The carved dragons, though I pointed out they looked like a bit like dinosaurs, did not impress her in the least. Arms folded, she delivered me a few pointed raspberries in my direction, but agreed to soldier on.
The Mausoleum is huge. We passed through archways and walked through or around memorial halls finally to the large palace-like building at the end and we climbed up all those steps too. Little C bounded up them like a champ.

Although there might have still been time to make it over to the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum, had I still been a single woman, I called it day. C agreed this was an excellent decision. We still had to make our way all the way back from the tomb and find a way back to the hotel. This proved to be much more difficult than I expected as every single taxi driver I saw refused to stop. Finally we found a bus stop that took us to the metro and we were back to the hotel for the evening.

On Sunday morning I did try to reward C with a trip to the Paleontology Museum, after all she deserved it for being such a good sport the day before. But wouldn’t you know it we arrive at the museum around 9:30 am and they tell me it is closed all day. Poor little C. She was disappointed. I owe her some dinosaurs for sure.

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View towards Xuanwu Lake and Purple Mountain from the Nanjing City Wall.

We continued on to the Nanjing City Walls. C made it quite clear she did not want to see the “stupid walls.” She’s 3 and did not really use the word “stupid” but it was so implied in her huffy attitude. I insisted and she plodded alongside me, heavily sighing, shoulders hunched. It became warm – our hottest day so far and we were exposed up on the wall. And I began to think that maybe seeing the walls was okay but walking along them just might have been “stupid.” Sometimes mommy is wrong.

We did eventually make our way to the next gate, Xuanwu gate, from where we could descend from the walls and found ourselves in the middle of Nanjing’s Sunday matchmaking market. There are few things that matchmaking grannies and grandpas like to see more than a 3 year old, curly-blonde haired girl. C handled it pretty well.

Back at the hotel enjoying our welcome (farewell?) drink at the café while a hostess played peek-a-boo with C seemed a good way to end the trip. We successfully navigated ourselves back to the train station with the metro and onto the bullet train to Shanghai. Nanjing has a lot to offer and I think we will back. Maybe next time we will finally see the dinosaurs.

The Foreign Service and the Single Parent – Further Thoughts

After I had put up my previous post, an essay written for the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) upcoming book on “Raising Children in the Foreign Service,” I thought more about what it means to be a single parent in the US Foreign Service. I realized I had more I wanted to share and reflect on regarding this topic.

I recently celebrated my four year Foreign Service anniversary. When I joined the State Department I was eleven weeks pregnant, so my daughter has been part of my Foreign Service experience from the beginning. She and this job are forever intertwined, like fraternal twins. It was because I was pregnant that I bid on Ciudad Juarez, Mexico—where I could easily bring a car and drive over the border for baby formula and diapers at Target—rather than bidding on the places like Kathmandu, Nepal or Rangoon, Burma, that quickly caught my fancy until I remembered that I was no longer bidding for one.

In the past I had not really thought of myself as a Single Parent in the Foreign Service. I was a single parent AND I was in the Foreign Service. When people, usually colleagues, asked how I managed I often shrugged and gave some answer like “I have always been a single parent, so I do not know how to be otherwise.” That is true, but now I feel the response is too flippant – it plays down the challenges that myself and other single parents face in this career.

Writing the AAFSW article made me realize I have had far more “Single Parent in the FS related episodes” than I had previous thought and more are to come.

It was me who sat in the Basic Consular Course and heard the instructor use the word that starts with “b” and rhymes with “mastered.” Though it was meant to be a light hearted comment on a law that appeared to favor single American mothers over single American fathers, it could have been quite hurtful. I did not know then how much it might still resonate with me now and I am glad I made the effort to speak with the instructor.

Yet before I even made it to the Consular course, early in my Spanish studies, I had an experience that still makes me go “hmmm.” Given the Ciudad Juarez is a danger-pay post and one in which a lot of new officers bid low but are assigned anyway, Mission Mexico made an effort to reach out those newly assigned officers early. As I knew I would be a single parent once arriving at post my number one concern was child care. Unless they were going to let me papoose my infant to my back and conduct visa interviews that way, I was going to need a full time nanny, and quickly. I reached out to the Community Liaison Officer (CLO), a person a post that fulfills a lot of roles but one is helping officers with issues such as this. My email was short, but detailed, indicating I was a soon-to-be single mother and I could use some assistance with sorting out child care at post. The CLO responded with a spreadsheet of housekeepers that could do part time babysitting.

Several months before arriving at my second post I again reached out to the CLO to ask for information on the child care situation in Shanghai. I emailed multiple times with no response. Finally, about two weeks before my arrival I heard back – and the response was not to worry, that I would have plenty of time to find someone after I arrived. Granted at the time my mother had planned to come for the first five weeks to provide me a buffer time to search for full time help, but still I found it off-putting. Also, in the end my mother was unable to come with me and I made a mad scramble for child care immediately after arrival. (see Not the Beginning I Expected)

In both cases things worked out, as they generally do. And in neither case did the CLO intend to do anything other than help, even if it was not actually helpful.

Here in Shanghai recently our American Employee Association sent out the following email: “AEA is looking for a few good men and women to support our fellow married Americans! We will be throwing a “Parents Night Out” movie night and am looking for volunteers willing to help chaperone a few cute children with us during a Pixar/Disney movie night.”

I do not recall noticing the “s” attached to “parent” right away, but it was not long before this incredibly awesome response was sent out (not by me): “I’m willing to help out on any of those dates. Let me know when I’m needed. Also, it should be noted that not all parents are married (I was raised by a single mother in need of a night off) and may feel as though they are not included in this.”

Again, the originator of the message meant no ill-will and in fact several people pointed out that the initial message implored people to help out their married colleagues and yet not all married couples have children. The writer owned up right away, apologized for any offense and sent out an updated and all-inclusive email. In speaking with the person later, s/he told me that actually the email had been cleared by four other AEA members before being sent out and none had caught the mistake.

It was these experiences that prompted me to include in my essay’s practical thoughts/advice list a gentle reminder that in many cases people are well-meaning but just unfamiliar with what it is like to be a single parent. I certainly need to remind myself of that and give people the benefit of the doubt.

Then there was this recent experience: A few weeks ago I was serving as a representative of the US Consulate at the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) 4th of July event. I brought my daughter with me so after my two hour shift we could check out some of the activities. At the AmCham booth a smiling Chinese woman greeted me and told me in English I could scan their “We Chat” code and chose a free gift. Though I had been in country already five months, I had yet to buy myself a local smart phone. I kept thinking about doing so, but the Consulate had given us all a “dumb” phone and it basically served my needs. So I had to admit to this woman that I did not have a phone to scan their code. She thought for a moment, then with an ah-ha moment happily suggested “go get your husband.” Without thinking much about it, standing there with my daughter at my side, I replied, “I don’t have one of those either.”

This happens fairly regularly – most still make the assumption that if you have a child, you have a spouse. But I was unprepared for the woman’s response. Her face immediately crumpled. She quickly said “Oh my god, I am so sorry,” hugged me, grabbed a small box from the table, slipping her business card into the side, handed it to me continuing, “please take this gift and here is my card if you ever need anything.”

I blinked. I was speechless. I have had people upset and apologize for making the assumption, but no one before had appeared quite so horrified at the prospect of my having a child without a husband. I have no idea what her assumption may have been – that I was divorced, widowed, or otherwise. I will never know (unless of course I contacted her from her card, which I have no intention of doing).

This did lead me to do some thinking. When I wrote my essay I was thinking about US stereotypes of single parents, not those we might face in other countries. Yet as Foreign Service Officers we have to face them in both realms. It was not that long ago that women after marriage were strongly encouraged to leave the US diplomatic service. (read here) Of course single moms are by nature generally not married, yet I doubt such women were any more welcome, and most likely less so.

Just a simple Google search to see if there were any articles on that topic led me to Careers at State Q&A forums with women asking if single moms are even hired into the Foreign Service. These questions were asked not twenty or thirty years ago, but rather in 2011, 2012 and 2014. I found myself surprised and saddened. When I started in 2011, pregnant and single, it never even occurred to me that I would be unwelcome or unable to serve as a single parent, yet clearly some US women are concerned that is the case. I suppose when you hear from some US politicians that you are destroying the fabric of American society and breeding criminals, (like here), it can make you feel you are undesirable as a representative of your country abroad. I wish that too were something from the distant past, except only recently a bill that would allow some companies the right to fire an unmarried pregnant woman surfaced.  (see here)

Yet it was the response of the AmCham woman that prompted me to look into how single mothers are treated in China, and what I found was unpleasant. Though it would seem that attitudes may be changing, the Chinese marriage and birth registration system and traditional values still create an environment where single mothers are shunned and subjected to social stigma and their children are treated as second class citizens. (see here) Given these government and societal attitudes it is highly unlikely that the Chinese government or Diplomatic Corps includes any single mothers.

Yet China is not alone in its approach toward single mothers. Google “single mothers in _______” and finish it with Korea, Japan, UAE, India, Jamaica, etc, and you find articles that indicate that there remain social constraints and stereotypes amidst a rise in numbers. Another member of my Single Parent in the FS group shared with me that when she lived in Israel a woman once snarled “no wonder your husband left you” when she asked for five more minutes for her daughters to play in the shared garden. This forced me to realize that there may be times when my statement that I am a single mother may be met not with embarrassment or pity but even with hostility.

I am not sure what I will do then, but I am trying to be prepared now. I want to do more in this area in the future; my current job as visa interviewer extraordinaire however does not give me much time or opportunity to work on other things. Until then I just want to continue to be a good Foreign Service Officer and mother and hope that by doing so, and sharing my status with others, it makes a difference somehow.