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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SARS in Singapore (2003) Part Two

Between July 2002 and July 2003 I lived in Singapore while studying for my graduate degree at the National University.  For three of those months, from 1 March to 30 May, Singapore life was altered with the arrival of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS.  During that period of time 238 people fell ill with SARS and 33 people died.  The small country reacted quickly with numerous restrictions and regulations affecting most aspects of social life. 

This is the second of two posts cobbled together from emails I sent out to family and friends during this time.  The strain of living under the conditions imposed to stop the spread of the illness began to take their toll on me.  I began to feel depressed.  I will admit I sought some counseling. At the same time SARS not only brought me closer to my Singaporean friends but also made me think about the consequences of SARS in a more political context.  The ways in which the Singaporean government could react quickly were both positive and negative.  And I got a little political.  When my friends and I, along with all the other international graduate students in our building, were unceremoniously notified on a weekend that we would have to vacate our apartments earlier than expected, we contacted the media.  I served as a student representative from our building in meeting with university officials and I was interviewed on television.  We still had to move out but I spent my last six weeks living with friends in an even better apartment.  When the government announced the plan to require all international students to pay a deposit before they left the country to pay for their possible quarantine upon return, my friends and I contacted our relevant embassies to express our dissatisfaction.  The government soon backtracked and it was never instituted.  The below was written before I started to work for the US government and as such represent only my thoughts at the time and not those of the USG or any department or agency of the US government. 

7. Batman mask SARS comic

Another Straits Times front page SARS comic

May 6, 2003

If you think that subject “SARS: The Show Goes On” sounds silly or tasteless I will have you know it is the title of yet another SARS-related television show launched here.  The following night you can tune into another show entitled SARS: A Courage Within.

Now not only do we have to report each day for our temperature check and receive our stamp, but if we fail to do so we are charged 50 Singaporean dollars a day.  On a Saturday afternoon – when we could not complain until Monday – an announcement was placed in our elevators notifying all students we had to vacate our apartments by June 16 because they will be doing a massive cleaning and all the incoming students will have a ten day mandatory home stay. (Sounds like a fancy name for QUARANTINE!)

8. Fight SARS together brochure

A cover of a what-to-do in the event of SARS brochure

At the bowling alley my friends and I had our temperatures checked, and once declared normal, issued with a sticker allowing us entry.

I have seen the workers at the Deli France wearing their “I am fever FREE!” stickers and the “I’m OK!” sign in the windows of the Singapore buses, to report the temps of the drivers.

Now I am, though not completely officially, a person with a Masters degree.  I thought I would feel happier but because of SARS and the government and university policies my friends are scattering to the winds all the more sooner.

Things are just not as I expected them to be now.  I had plans.  To travel to Malaysia with friends, or to hop over to Batam or Bintan (nearby Indonesian islands, one I fondly remember as the Island of a Million Mosquitoes).  But life has a funny way of throwing up the most unexpected things.  I am itching to travel.  I had planned on a glorious month long trip to China, but that is a definite no-go.  Yesterday downtown I saw three western backpackers alight from a bus near Orchard Road.  Each was wearing their very own mask.

May 22, 20039. cover mouth when sneeze comic

Though the World Health Organization has declared Singapore “safe” in the battle for SARS, the Singapore government continues its relentless political and media campaign. Though today’s Straits Times declares Singapore need not be on the defensive against allegations that it is “exporting” SARS, the government seems intent on pointing its own fingers at the importation of the disease. If ever there was a global non-traditional security issue, SARS is it.   It is literally testing the invisible boundaries between countries and the ability for countries to work together on such an issue. Singapore may have won the battle so far in containing the disease, but I do not know if it would win popularity contests for its diplomacy.  Just a few days ago the Singapore government announced that ALL foreign students in the country would have to re-apply for their student passes and come up with a S$1000 deposit when leaving the country FOR ANY DESTINATION to cover possible medical expenses upon return.  This is clear discrimination against foreign students in the country, as Singaporean students are free to go on their trips abroad without such a deposit, although they are just as likely to contract SARS as anyone else.  I have already sent my letters of protest to the US Embassy and Singapore Ministry of Education after phoning the Ministry of Health. Of course for SARS affected countries there are special measures, but Singapore seems to so easily forget that it is itself a SARS-affected country, and that viruses do not recognize invisible lines drawn on maps, nor the nationalities of its victims.

10. I'm OK SARS note on bus

It’s alright to ride this bus because this driver is OK

I find it so intriguing, this focus on SARS, equating it with war and battle.  I noted that once SARS hit Singapore the front page headers of the Straits Times simply changed from “War in Iraq” to “War on SARS.”  Every day in the paper, the front page begins with a cartoon related to SARS.

Yesterday I heard on the radio that a new television channel has been launched, the SARS channel.  I am not making it up.  They say on this channel one can “see all the SARS programs you missed.” Oh, what a teaser!  Makes you want to tune in right now.  Once I move to my new digs with friends (for just a month) I just may try to tune in, out of curiosity and my new found fascination with the media’s role in policy.  The radio and television ads plead with Singaporeans to be vigilant.  One ad proclaimed that such a war required vigilance, that one mistake, one “selfishness,” could cost the country greatly.  There is even a terribly annoying television commercial in which two “friends” badger a third friend about hygiene practices. It starts with the woman saying she is going to wash her hands, and the idiot friend asks her “why?”  She and her male partner begin a barrage of DOs and DONTs for their third friend, such as “you should always wash your hands after you use the toilet” and “always cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze” and “don’t spit on the floor” and “if you feel unwell see a doctor but don’t ‘Doctor hop.'”

Singapore’s most well-known comedian Phua Chu Kang released a song called SAR-vivor.  There is a video.  It is basically a public service announcement about washing your hands and delaying travel to SARS-affected countries packaged into a dreadfully silly rap.  (This is not a joke.  You can Google it.)

What gets me is that Singapore has been declared SARS “safe” and the regulations and admonishments just keep coming.  So far eleven people have been arrested for spitting. (One such criminal claimed “something flew into my mouth and my instinct was to spit” but the judge would have none of that and he was fined S$300).

11. dont discriminate SARS quarantine comicSingapore is doing its best to recover from the economic consequences of both the Iraq War and SARS.  The government has launched a campaign “Step Out! Singapore” to encourage Singaporeans to get out and have fun, “live life as usual,” yet while being socially responsible (i.e. not spreading SARS).   I am tired of campaigns.

As far as “living life as usual,” we all have to adapt to what is now usual.

Yesterday I found myself taking my temperature while at the copy machine at the library. Although the mandatory in-person temperature checks at the apartment complex have come to an end, we must now register our temperatures on-line every day.  One problem with this, which I pointed out to the Dean of the Office of Student Affairs, is that we have no internet connection in our housing complex.  It is perplexing that international graduate students in one of the world’s most connected countries are housed in a building with no Internet or air-conditioning…but I digress.  Therefore, we are supposed to go to the campus every day, twice a day, and log our temperatures.  Never mind that the computer labs now close at 5 PM each day and they were not open last Thursday, which was a national holiday, and last Friday I could not access the SARS daily temperature declaration website.

12. A tribute to healthcare workers window display

After the WHO declared SARS safe the fancy stores on Orchard Road used window displays to celebrate and recognize the sacrifices

So, yesterday.  I went to the school library. Before entering one must have their temperature checked and identification cards swiped.  This is reportedly so in the event of a spontaneous SARS outbreak, all persons who were present at the time can be contacted.  I submitted myself for the requisite check. I registered a temperature of 37.5, which is the cut-off point, and had to wait five minutes to have my temperature taken again.  I will note that this is Singapore, located close to the equator, with a year round average temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit with 80% humidity.  The entrance to the library is located on the fifth floor and I had just climbed five flights of stairs. I certainly felt warm.  My second temperature check registered at 37.6.  The young woman taking my temperature sounded panicked. “No, no way!  Sorry.  Zhe ge ren you 37.6.  Wo yinggai zuo shenme? (This person has 37.6 degrees, what should I do?)”  I thought, “Maybe I should not have walked past the hospital which looked like a scene out of the movie “Outbreak” because now I might have SARS and I cannot get into the library.”  Luckily, third time was the charm; I was released and allowed to enter the library.  Thereafter I found myself photocopying with thermometer in mouth.

But things did eventually return to normal of course.  The temperature checks and other SARS related measures slowed and then ceased.  The Singaporean government announced that the Great Singapore Sale would happen, a bit delayed but as part of normalizing.  Tourists returned.  My roommates and I moved out of the University apartments to our own place.  I did my six week internship and then left for travel – not China, but Turkey and Denmark instead. 

SARS in Singapore (2003) Part One

Between July 2002 and July 2003 I lived in Singapore while studying for my graduate degree at the National University.  For three of those months, from 1 March to 30 May, Singapore life was altered with the arrival of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS.  During that period of time 238 people fell ill with SARS and 33 people died.  The small country reacted quickly with numerous restrictions and regulations affecting most aspects of social life.  It was a strange time to be in Singapore.  The following is edited from emails I sent to friends and family while living through this period.  It is my take on my experience only.

1

One of the SARS related comics from the Straits Times

April 14, 2003

 If one rides the subway or buses or goes out, there is a feeling that many Singaporeans are restricting their movements around town.  Subway stations on Friday or Saturday nights are almost deserted.

There has not yet been a case of the disease on my campus, and the school is doing a lot to see that it does not, although many other schools in the country have already been closed.  Fewer people eat at the canteens and all the silverware and plates have been switched to disposable plastic.  All the water fountains have been shut down.  The university administration divided the campus into five zones.  We received a Presidential circular requesting we restrict our movements between zones.

2. SARS ambulance brochure

A special SARS ambulance with is own number was established

The exam schedule is also going to be adjusted so that students can undergo a health check before entering the exam rooms.  Students will be sat further apart and there will be fewer students in each room.  We have known our exam dates since the semester began and now we are in limbo, awaiting news as to whether our exam dates will remain the same or be pushed back.

The other day there was a bit of a scare.  One of my roommates and I had just finished our last class and were feeling really good.  We joined classmates for a lovely late dinner.  We felt relaxed in a way we had not for weeks.  While at the restaurant, we received calls that two people from our apartment complex had been taken away in ambulances, possible SARS cases. We were told not to take the elevator for fear of exposure.  Previously I had not given much thought to my own safety in regards to SARS.  Cases are going up in Singapore, but I spend little time in places other than my apartment and the study room at school, but this, this was where we lived.  It turned out the students had food poisoning and all is well, but for an hour or so it was scary.  SARS became real.

Much of the papers in Singapore are dominated by two stories: SARS and the war in Iraq.  Though the war receives more notice in the paper, it is SARS that has people here jumpy.  My roommate and I went to a party last evening and needed to get off at the subway station closest to the hospital where many of the SARS cases are quarantined.  We were warned not to go.  We went anyway.  People want to avoid movie theatres, clubs, restaurants, basically most public places.  I just don’t know…how “dangerous” they could be?

3. fever and weight SARS comic

SARS comic humor.  Keeping it light.  Unrelenting but light.

 

Last evening on the bus my roommate and I saw an advertisement for a new weekly television program called Living With SARS.  No joke.  I can see it is quite a shrewd move on the part of the government to calm the fears of citizens and help businesses being affected by the illness.  But something rang so….uh…Singaporean about having such a show.

I do not know how plans will turn out for the summer.  I had wanted to intern for six weeks and then travel.  But I had planned on traveling for a month in China but with SARS that seems very unlikely.  Right now even people who travel to Singapore are quarantined for ten days when they go back to their countries.  It is hard to say how long these measures will be in place.  Two more patients with SARS died yesterday in Singapore.  It is not quite an epidemic, but it is very serious.

April 28, 2003

There are already more precautions and more new things to report about SARS in Singapore.  I am not sure what to make of it, but the paranoia is growing. I am glad I do not have a television as I might be locked up in my apartment afraid to go out.

4. SARS foldout poster

A “Fight SARS” poster – I collected one in all four languages

Last night I had the opportunity to watch television for about an hour on a friend’s computer, and we tuned in just in time to catch the beginning of the new show Living With SARS.  We promptly changed the schedule.  We know what living with SARS is like. All over the campus are signs about SARS; all the water fountains are shut down for “maintenance,” and every time one signs into the campus intranet via Outlook we get a dose of SARS with notifications telling us to wash our hands, not to hang out with any SARS affected people, not to do this and not to do that.  Today there was a list of places that if anyone has visited in the past few weeks one was supposed to monitor their fever every two hours.

By email we also received an exam update, which listed the number of people who went through the exams and how many had to go to the isolation room and how many went to the hospital.  I know it is supposed to make us feel better, but in reality I am not sure it does.

Beginning tomorrow there will be daily checks at the dormitory apartment building where I live.  We have been issued thermometers.  Every morning the residents of our complex, all 350+ of us, are supposed to line up to have our temperatures taken.  Should we be “cleared” we will receive a stamp – HEALTH SCREENING NUS – on our wrists, which is good for the whole day.  The following day we go through the whole thing again.  This will go on every day until the end of May when the policy will be reviewed.  And the stamp colors are changed each day so that we cannot cheat and use the stamp from the day before.  (I want my next one on my forehead!)  Those who fail to turn up for these checks face disciplinary action.

5. support friends in quarantine comic

A few days ago I was a bit hungry and wanted something different than the usual fare, and it being a Sunday the school canteens were closed.  A friend drove me to the National University Hospital, which has a Deli France.  The scene which met me as I stepped out of the car and up to the entrance was straight out of some movie.  The people were dressed all in plastic with hats and gloves and face masks.  I explained I just wanted to get a sandwich and they said I just needed to go through this small procedure before I could enter the hospital.  I was given a clipboard with a form to fill out (have you been to Hong Kong, Hanoi, Toronto? In the past few weeks have you been around a SARS victim?), and then they took my temperature, issued me a sticker badge only for the Food Court and ATM and my very own mask.  Then properly masked I headed off to get my sandwich.  I was not so nervous until I saw those hospital workers decked out like that.  I will not be getting sandwiches from the hospital for some time to come.  It felt very odd because just a week before the SARS outbreak my best friends and I had enjoyed a lovely lunch there.

The other day I stepped into the university bookstore and already there were two books on sale about SARS.  I went to our local supermarket yesterday and there were very few fruits and almost no veggies. I didn’t make the connection until a roommate reminded me that the Pasir Panjang market closed down because a worker there came down with SARS.  The market, a major supplier of produce in Singapore was shut down. 7-11 is selling SARS kits for S$19.90 which includes masks, gloves, vitamins and related items.

6. Me in SARS mask 2003 close up

Look, I got my stamp, so I’m good to go.

A few quarantined individuals broke their quarantine so now things are even more stringent.  In a special congressional session the government is going to pass a law which allows people who break quarantine to be fined.  Quarantined individuals who refuse to answer their phones will have to wear electronic tracking bands.

The final thing is this screening at Changi airport and at the causeways connecting Singapore and Malaysia.  Now they have infrared temp screening for all passengers/arrivals/departures in Singapore.  The authorities are looking into putting these machines in other places.

These are certainly strange times in Singapore.

 

 

 

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

4

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.

3

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.

IMG_2266 (2)

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Can I Buy an Iron Lung on Taobao?

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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.