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.

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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

 

 

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Can I Buy an Iron Lung on Taobao?

Taobao oxygen

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

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

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

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C and I get wacky in our Vogmasks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shanghai Escape, Derailed

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

Consulate Pollution message

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

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

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

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

Shanghai to Sanya flight

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

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

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

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

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The Holiday Inn Resort Sanya Bay. It is beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmastime in Shanghai

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The Christmas Tree Light display in front of Plaza 66 mall

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

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

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The Christmas decor section at the supermarket – not too shabby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sick, Abroad

I am writing this post from the comfort, or, er, sometimes discomfort, of my Medevac (Medical Evacuation) to Washington, DC. This post however is NOT about my Medevac.

Someday, I might be able to write about this, after I have put some distance between myself and this whole crazy, stressful, yet, I hope and believe, ultimately positive experience.

To keep my mind off the current situation my mind has turned to some of my past experiences when I have found myself a bit more than just under the weather while overseas. The pre-Foreign Service, pre-Medevacs times.

There have been those days when I just did not feel right. You know those days, they happen to everyone. But when you are traveling or living solo in a foreign country those days may feel all the more bewildering and lonely.

So there was that time I had my appendix out in Japan.

In January 2000, a few days after returning to my teaching job after a lovely Christmas and New Year’s getaway to Australia, I came down with an excruciating stomach pain. It started an hour or so after eating, the pain building by the hour. Eventually, convinced I had a terrible bout with food poisoning, I called my Japanese friend Tomomi who called the local ambulance to collect me.

I lived in the small town of Kogushi, which in Japanese means “little stick,” (which I found rather appropriate) located on the famous San-In coastline of Yamaguchi prefecture. I was half way through my third and final year of teaching English at the local high school. I not only taught at the school up the street but once a week, on Thursdays, at another high school in the next county over, and alternating on Tuesdays a school for the deaf located about 45 minutes away, and the local hospital school. The hospital school was adjacent to the small county hospital, and this is where the ambulance took me.

Tomomi, a student in my three times a month adult class, who had become a close friend, however met me at the hospital to assist. Though I had thought it to be a very bad case of food poisoning it turned out to be appendicitis; I was scheduled for emergency surgery the following morning.

I learned a lot from my time in Japanese hospital. I quickly learned the Japanese words for IV, pain, nurse, doctor, and all manner of hospital-ese. I have forgotten them all except for “appendix.” Pronounced “moe-cho” I thought it sounded like “mo-jo” and I like to say I had my mo-jo removed in Japan. I also learned how amazing a health care system can work. The ambulance, albeit in a small town, arrived quickly, and was also free. My whole bill came to about $800. This included the operation, my two days in a private room, and four days in a shared room, everything. As an employee through the Japanese Ministry of Education, I was enrolled in the Japanese national health care system. Because my bill was less than $1000 I had to pay upfront, and then seek for reimbursement. To do so I filled out two pages, front and back, of simple paperwork – my name, address, date and type of illness, the procedures, the hospital information, and then the information of my post office savings account. Within ONE WEEK the entire amount was reimbursed directly into my account. I am still in awe of this efficiency all these years later.

Then there was that time (or rather the two times) I came down with food poisoning in Nepal.

On my next to last day in the country my two travel companions, A&P, and myself decided to celebrate with dinner at a recommended Western-food restaurant. P and I ordered the same delicious chicken dish. It was scrumptious. Then the next morning, around 6 am, my stomach cramped up. Bad. It was race to the restroom time. Again and again. Thankfully I had one of those wonderful backpacker rooms with the tiny bathrooms, which allows one to uh, excuse me, well, you might know where I am going with this. (If you have been a sick backpacker abroad with one of those closet sized rooms then I am sure you and I are on the same page).

After hours of this I walked, or rather crawled, up a flight or two to A&P’s room to discover that P too had had a disagreement with dinner. I had planned for a final day of sightseeing before heading to the airport the following day, but the most I did was walk really, really slowly to a place where I could buy beverages to keep me alive curled up in my room. A&P stayed on another few days and A took P to the doctor who confirmed food poisoning.

That was in the Spring of 2001. Fast forward to Fall 2002 and I find myself back in Kathmandu for a week. I planned to finally take the trip out to UNESCO World Heritage Site Boudhanath Stupa and then Pashupatinath, Nepal’s most important Hindu temple. These were the same sites I had missed the previous visit and to celebrate my plan I went to the same restaurant and also had the chicken. Was it really so shocking that in the middle of the night, around 1 am, I woke up with a familiar and unfortunate feeling? I tempted fate and it came back and bit me.

Yet I was determined. Though up most of the night with my, uh, issues, I dragged my weak, dehydrated self out to Boudhanath and then for extra measure walked the 2+ kilometer walk to Pashupatinath. The walk revived me some and my initial impressions of the temple were positive; it was colorful and the cultural importance and the comings and goings fascinating. However, then the smoke from the funeral pyres started to get to me, my stomach reminded me of its’ earlier malcontent, and I unfortunately caught site of a body part in a pyre alongside the river and I knew I had to get out of there.

I suppose getting food poisoning twice by the same restaurant in Kathmandu trumped the time I came down with a terrible bout of stomach issues following a cooking class in Thailand. I did not know whether to blame the green papaya or chicken from the wet market or my preparation of said items.

And then there was the time I came down with the mumps as an adult…

Yes, you read that right. And yes I did in fact receive the MMR vaccination as a child.

After I returned from that second bought of Nepalese food poisoning, I had a weeks of finals in Singapore, and then I flew to Bangkok to begin approximately seven weeks of backpacking in Thailand, Laos, and Burma for winter vacation (oh, I miss graduate school). In Bangkok my jaw started to ache, in a way it had never ached before. The following morning before I flew to Chiang Rai I had a lump on my jaw and felt queasy. By the time the plane landed I could hardly stand and my jaw had swollen even more. I made it to a guesthouse, checked in, got my pack to my room, and then stumbled down to the front desk area to ask if there were a clinic nearby. When I explained I could not walk to one even 500 meters away, a man in the lobby jumped to his feet and declared he would take me on his motorbike. He not only took me to the clinic, but he also waited with me and during my appointment, took me to the pharmacy, and then back to the guesthouse. When I tried to offer him payment he stated he was a Thai policeman and that is job was to help people. Awesome.

The doctor had told me that I had “mume.”which seemed a mysterious illness indeed. I put on a hoodie to cover my misshapen face and then secreted out to an Internet café where I used one of those online medical sites to input my symptoms and voila – mumps. I made sure to purchase a fair amount of beverages so that once again I could sequester myself to my room. I also bought a packet of pumpkin seeds – one of my favorite backpacker snacks – and after eating maybe three of them that caused my jaw to throb for hours afterward I was very, very sorry.

I read my Paul Theroux book and played many, many hands of solitaire with the deck of cards I used to always carry in my pack. After a week I felt well enough to move on – to the Thailand/Laos border to continue my trip, including a two day slow boat down the Mekong River.

Besides these rather unforgettable experiences I have had a few other opportunities to experience medical care overseas – I had my first sigmoidscopy in Tunisia, an emergency doctor visit in Singapore when my fever spiked and my hotel implemented their SARS protocol (I was SARS-free), my first pregnancy ultrasound in Jakarta, and a fun emergency room trip in Tasmania the night before a half marathon.

Thinking over all of these experiences reminded me that while I did feel pretty awful at the time, I did recover. And I shall recover from this too (the procedure was successful and I am on the mend). And maybe someday I will be able to write about it.

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.