The First R&R (Shanghai)

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

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

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

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

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

Part One: Virginia

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Jet lag?  What’s that?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Not the usual R&R destination

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

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

Phase Two: Kentucky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three: Virginia, again

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

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

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

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

 

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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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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.

From Sheep to Monkey: Shanghai Year One in Review

New Year decorations Feb 1 2015 (1)

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.

Fingerprint scanner

“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.

Shanghai bulldozer on sidewalk 2

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.

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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.