July 4th Mini Holiday

June was over.  At last.  It is the busiest season for the Shanghai Consulate visa section.  And it had culminated with the Consulate’s July 4th event, our largest representational event of the year.  An event I had once again volunteered to help organize.

About a month before I had reserved one night at the JW Marriott Changfeng Park even though its location is only 15 minutes away from my apartment.  If I stay at home I find my weekends are often consumed with the little mundane things that capture one’s attention when you are at home.  Grocery shopping.  Meal preparation.  Facebook checking.  Watching meaningless shows on television (and I only have three English channels other than news channels so this can get pretty repetitive for me).    I wanted to be “away.”

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The view of Changfeng Park from the executive floor of the JW Marriott

 

On the morning of Sunday, July 3 my daughter and I headed downstairs for the taxi queue to head off on our adventure.  The taxi driver appeared to have an interest in making a go at breaking the land speed record, zig-zagging through traffic on the elevated highway with a fervor and intensity best suited to the Indianapolis Speedway.

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The Pudong aquarium might be the one everyone has heard of, but Changfeng has beluga whales.

But we made it to the hotel.  I cannot say for sure if it was the taxi ride, the beautifully appointed lobby, the thrill of having a night away, or the helpful bellhop with the English name Buttery (I kid you not) that led to my agreeing to a $70 upgrade on top of an already $150 room, but I did.  Probably it was the option letting me check in right away that appealed to me most.  With the upgrade we secured a room on a higher floor with inclusive pricey breakfast in the executive lounge as well as snacks throughout the day.  Worth every penny.

 

According to my plan though we had little time to dawdle.  It was off to Changfeng Park right away.  Because I wanted to take C to see the beluga whales.  Some months ago I bought her a book on whales and she has been fascinated by the idea of white whales since.  Watching Finding Dory recently only solidified her need to see them.  Imagine my surprise while Googling one day to come across the Changfeng Ocean World.  We had to go.

There was a show at noon.  We arrived at the ticket line at 11:40.  It seemed possible to make the show.  There were only about 25 people in front of us.  And yet at 12:30 we were still in line.  How is that even possible?  It could be that there was only ticket seller.  But I think the real reason behind the wait were the line jumpers.  There were a few people who were behind me in line who kept trying to move ahead of me, but I called them out and they edged back.  However there were other groups of people who went straight to the front of the line and after a short conversation with the person second in line, handed over money for that person to buy their tickets.  I saw one older woman mouth “you paidui” or “there is a line” as she motioned to all of us behind her and shook her head.  At first I was buoyed that she would turn them down, but then she agreed to buy their tickets.  Argh!

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Which one of these kids does not belong?

So by 12:35 we had the tickets.  I thought we could go in to see the aquarium first and then see the show.  We entered and went through a small section with fish.  It took about 5 minutes.  It turned out the rest of the aquarium was in a separate building on the other side of the park.  Also, although the next show began at 1:30, they would let people into the arena at 1:00 and at 12:45 a line was forming.  So once again we got in line.  Luckily we were able to snag a front row middle seat, right in front of the show tank.  Unluckily we were now there 30 minutes before the show.  More waiting.  I was forced to buy a light-up beluga whale toy on a necklace.  If you have kids and have ever had to wait for a show like this you know exactly why I had to do it.

 

The “show” started at 1:32.  Well some very loud screaming into a microphone began at 1:32 as the emcee welcomed us all.  Then six children were selected from the audience to participate in a quiz game that dragged on for 10 minutes.  C was selected after one of the show’s organizers confirmed with me she could understand Chinese.  Except the questions were rather complicated, aimed at upper elementary aged.  Poor C was likely chosen because of her blonde curls than her chance at winning.  The winner got to pet a seal.  C was not the winner, but she and the other runner-ups did each get a plush sea animal.

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The three belugas.  My daughter named them Cupcake, Sarah, and Wonder Woman

So there was a short show with a seal.  The winner of the kids quiz show and her mom got to pet a seal.  The rest of us watched them pet the seal.  Riveting.

 

And then six more kids were selected for another kids’ quiz.  Ten more minutes we watched.  Then the two winners of that quiz and their parents got to go in and touch the nose of a beluga whale.  We all watched them touch them.

Then FINALLY it was time for us all to watch the beluga whales do their thing.    They swam in formation.  There were one or two jumps.  They poked their heads out of the water and looked at us with their cute faces. My daughter was very happy and that made me happy.

Still when the whole show ended at 2:30 I wondered where the last 3 hours of my life had gone.  That as a lot of time for 10 minutes of beluga watching.  Part of me wanted to just go back to the hotel, get my things and go home.  But there was more aquarium to see.

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In my book an aquarium with information like this gets bonus points

Last year my daughter and I visited the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium in Pudong over the Chinese New Year holiday.  There we fought the crowds to catch a glimpse of anything at every single display.  The cacophony was deafening.  After some 30 minutes of the noise and the chaos I just wanted to get out of there.  The aquarium at Changfeng was busy; there were school groups, and yet you could still see everything.  I was quite impressed with the information placards, in both English and Chinese.  They had an impressive number of seahorses, one of my absolute favorite sea animal.  Equally impressive were the signs about protecting sea life.

 

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This was supposed to be a cool museum at one time

Then I wanted to shift into the mommy phase of this mini-vacay.  It was time to head over to an adjacent park for a visit to the Shanghai Matchbox and Brand Museum.  As we walked up to the building I saw what appeared to be a large amount of debris lining the sidewalks in front.  Piles and piles of abandoned desks and tables and filing cabinets.  And sure enough on the dusty front door was a sign indicating that the museum was closed.  Strange.  Just a month before I had found an online article about visiting the museum.   This is not the first time I have gone to visit a a sightseeing spot in Shanghai only to find it closed, but it is disappointing nonetheless.

We had a great night at the hotel enjoying the cake and cheese desserts and beverages in the executive lounge and just being away.

On Monday morning we headed to the Parkside Plaza mall, right next door to the hotel.  Here is where you can find the Shanghai Legoland Discovery Center, which just opened in April.  They promised “2-3 hours of fun” and they were not kidding.  I think it was three hours and one minute of fun when I called “time.”

This was my first time to any Legoland, amusement park or discovery center, so I do not have a comparison, but this place was not only fun but really cool.  There were two rides, a play area with slides for toddlers and another for older kids, building areas, a car build and test drive space, an amazing miniature Shanghai built entirely of Legos (of course), a 15 minute 4D Lego movie (all in Chinese but after a few minutes even I was so into it I sort of forgot I could hardly understand the dialogue), a cafe, and more.

It was a great getaway and a good reminder that not only is Shanghai chock full of awesome things to see and do but also just a 1 1/2 days of fun and a night away from home can be enough to re-charge.  Long live the mini vacay.

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Shanghai Disneyland Trials

I have seen colleagues around the world be involved in some rather substantial events.  From important election monitoring to Presidential or other high level visits, from attending major sporting or art events to standing in the room during key speeches of global significance.

At long last I am at post when something of major historical significance occurs: the opening of the world’s sixth Disney park!

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We got the “golden” tickets

And not only am I here for the opening but I was able to be one of the few to experience the park before the official opening day on June 16, 2016.  Okay “few” might be stretching the truth.  The park opened in early May for a six week trial period.  Though closed Mondays and Thursdays, each day the park welcomed somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people to experience the park to allow cast members and crew to practice and rehearse.  So, that would mean approximately 600,000 people would visit the park even before opening day.  By May 20 Fortune reported that one million Chinese had already made their way to Disney Town, the ticket-free Disney restaurant and shopping mecca next to the park.   But still, for my daughter and I to be two of the lucky ones felt pretty darn awesome.

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The shortest Main Street (called Mickey Avenue) and the largest castle

C and I visited the park not just once, but twice!  Once we went as part of a group of tickets purchased through a special release to the US Consulate.  We had a second chance for a visit because C has friends and those friends have parents who work for Disney.

I am not a Disney expert.  I know some Disney experts and they could really provide you with a detailed treatise on the similarities and differences between the Disney parks.  I have been making a valiant effort to become more of a Disney authority—Shanghai Disneyland is our fourth park in the past year.  We have been to Disney in Orlando, Anaheim, Hong Kong, and now Shanghai—but I still have a long way to go.  I can only tell you my impressions, share only what we experienced. And this was during the trial period so hard to say if it will remain the same when the park opens.

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I have no personal experience with the TRON coaster, but it looks cool.

There are familiar rides at Shanghai Disneyland such as a carousel, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Stitch Encounter.   There are also brand new to Shanghai rides such as the TRON Lightcycle Power Run and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.  I have heard the last two are pretty spectacular but I can tell you absolutely nothing about them.  I have never even been on the Mine Train.  I am a single mom of a four year old girl.  We ride a lot of Dumbo and Pooh.  We meet a lot of Princesses.   And that is totally okay.  That is one of the great things about Disney. We can enjoy it now when my daughter is 4 and we can enjoy it again as she grows older.

We loved the Fantasia inspired carousel.  The Hunny Pot Spin, the Shanghai version of the Mad Tea Party spinning cups, was also a huge hit.  I enjoyed the Voyage to the Crystal Grotto boat ride, mostly because it is probably the longest lasting ride and if you have a sleepy or sleeping child it can provide the most break time for the parent.  I expect C would have enjoyed the displays from Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Mulan and more but I certainly was not going to wake her.  After holding a snoozing C for 20 minutes in line I was grateful for the ten minutes or so I actually got to sit down.  C loved Shipwreck Shore in the Treasure Cove area.  It is an interactive pirate boat activity area with water guns, ropes that lift pirate treasure or a shark from the water, and barrels that shoot water out on unsuspecting guests.  It was really the only thing for a single mom and a four year old to do in Treasure Cove.  We also had fun on the Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue.  It is a fun ride that allows two passengers to each shoot his or her own laser gun and rack up points video game style.    Well, to be honest C spent the first minute or so hiding under the dash of our rocket ship so although she came around she could never quite catch up to me and lost something like 240,000 points to 3,200.  Still I told her I could never have defeated Zurg without her.  Then she wanted to ride again.  (I said no because the line was a slow moving 50 minutes at least)

I also really liked both the parade and the Golden Fairytale Fanfare, which is a musical show in front of the Enchanted Storybook Castle featuring Snow White, Anna and Elsa, Aladdin and Jasmine, Ariel, and Merida.  The downsides were that like any Disney parade route you need to get in place early, so I could only see what I could make out over the heads of the five people deep Chinese crowd (though C got a seat on the ground in front with other kids) and for the Fanfare the “host” speaks all in Chinese and it is standing room only. Although there are 5 or 6 rows they are flat rather than rising.  So if you are in the back rows you have no height advantage facing the stage over those in the first rows.  We stood in the very front of the second row and still had a limited view.  (I put C on my shoulders though so she could see unobstructed) I also really liked the Alice in Wonderland Maze.  The “Once Upon a Time” Adventure in the castle though felt like a waste of time. Character meetings with Baymax, Stitch, Rapunzel and Belle made up for that though.  You can even meet Captain America, Spiderman, and Darth Vader in this park.

If you think about it, this is the only park in the world where the majority of international visitors will require a visa to visit.  Of course international visitors will still come.  And of course there are a lot of foreigners who live in China who will come.  But the majority of visitors to this Magic Kingdom will be citizens of the Middle Kingdom.    And the park has been designed with the locals in mind.

For example, probably 75% of the toilets in the park are the squatting kind.  You read that right.  And for the Chinese that is not a problem.  And look, I have been around Asia long enough that it is not a problem for me.  I would just prefer not to use a squatting toilet if I have the option.  I am getting a bit old to squat.  Seriously, my knees are just not as forgiving as they used to be.  Also my daughter is not a fan of the squatty potty as she once fell in.  That was not a fun day for me either.  So I sought out the western sitting commodes and unfortunately on more than one I found footprints.  Probably where children—at least I hope it was children—tried to stand on the seat.

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Picky Western eaters, you will not starve!

Then there is the food.  If you are a fan of Chinese food or the Chinese version of Western food, then this is the park for you!  Rice bowls, noodle bowls, steamed buns, dim sum, Mongolian beef, and grilled squid skewers are all available in the park.  If you want a Mickey shaped pizza that is most certainly not Chicago or New York style, topped with seafood and sweet soy sauce then you have come to the right place.  None of these float my boat.  If you want a gigantic bin of popcorn then be prepared for the super sweet kind.  It smells divine but if you like salty and buttered you are out of luck.  Western food is not out completely though.  You can find German style bratwurst, Australian-style meat pies, and gigantic turkey legs in the park.  The Stargazer Grill in Tomorrowland also serves up some nice hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken fingers, fries and salads.  In Disney Town you can find a Wolfgang Puck eatery, Starbucks, a California sushi joint, Thai food, BreadTalk, and Asia’s first Cheesecake Factory.

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This is joy!

There are a few downsides…

The FastPass system.  It kinda sucks.  When we went to Disneyworld in Orlando, each single day ticket included three FastPass selections that can be chosen as much as 30 days before arrival at the park. If you wanted to change the ride or the time, you just go online.   In other parks there are FastPass machines.  Shanghai Disneyland also has the machines but you must visit the Guest Services kiosk in the section of the park where your FastPass eligible ride is located.  The line to use the machines was in many circumstances as long as or longer than waiting in line for the attraction itself.  I much prefer the Disneyworld model.

Line Jumpers.  This was a disappointment.  Despite the “reminder for your enjoyment” on the brochure to “Line up together with your entire party, please respect other guests while queuing, and guests should not jump ahead of others in the queue” I saw people blatantly disregard this repeatedly.  At the security line, the ticket line, lines at the carousel, Dumbo, Buzz Lightyear, Storybook Court…just about anyplace there was a line I witnessed people trying to bypass it.  At the security line on our second visit a woman walked right up and then stood in front of me.  When I pointed this out, in Chinese, she turned to look at me, responding in English, with “I did not see you there.”  When I indicated this was pretty unlikely as she stepped right in front of my daughter’s stroller she shrugged and told me “This is China.  You are not going to be able to control us all.”  That does not bode well.

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Stitch in Chinese.  As annoying as you can imagine.

Language.  Although there are English and Chinese brochures the primary language is, naturally, Chinese.  You may have heard that Chinese is a difficult language.  i.e. You cannot sound out characters and figure out what they mean.  Not a chance.  Most shows and information for attractions are in Chinese.  Disney even created a Mandarin-only live production of the Lion King for the theater in Disney Town.  We went to see the Stitch Encounter.  I should have known that something was up when there was only a 10 minute wait.  In Hong Kong you can see shows in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.  In Paris, it’s in English or French.   In Shanghai, It is all in Chinese.  (Though in their defense Tokyo has only Japanese).   My daughter loved it—I expect it is a combination of her understanding of Chinese and connecting with an annoying animated alien—but I learned to never get in line for that attraction again.  Ever.

And as usual in China, my daughter became an added attraction for local guests.  She entertained other people in line simply by also being in line.  She was photographed by far more than myself and the Disney photographer while chatting with princesses and other Disney characters.  It added another exhausting element to a day at the park.

I do not have many tips other than take the metro to the park.  It has its own stop on line 11 and reportedly even a few trains are decked out in Disney.  It’s an inexpensive and quick way to get there and back.  Just check the last train times because once its closed I hear the taxi drivers are unforgiving.  Oh, and also, if you are riding the metro do not buy any of those beautiful Disney balloons—no balloons are allowed on the Shanghai subway.  I found out the hard way leading to once very sad little girl.  But luckily I knew before we went to Disney.

So did we have fun?  We sure did.  This is the closest I may ever live to a Disney park.  Though given I am in the Foreign Service (Hong Kong, Paris and Tokyo could be possibilities) and I could choose to live in either Florida or California…  I expect to take C again once the park officially opens so we can also stay at least one night in the Toy Story hotel.  Even with the negatives it is still Disney and we are on the path to hardcore Disneydom.

 

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.

visa applicant line

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

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

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

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

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

Shanghai bulldozer on sidewalk 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Can I Buy an Iron Lung on Taobao?

Taobao oxygen

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

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

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

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C and I get wacky in our Vogmasks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Window View Montage

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

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

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

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

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

Visaland

[scene opens with the camera panning through a lush green bamboo forest]

[Voice over begins]

“In a land far, far away…” [camera rushes across a lake with a Chinese pagoda on its shore]

“There teems hundreds of thousands of souls…” [camera zooms across the Great Wall of China]

“eager for the opportunity to travel across the seas…” [camera zooms over the city of Shanghai]

“in search of opportunity, package tours, and luxury handbags.”

“This is China. This is VISALAND!” [camera pans over the crowd of visa applicants outside Westgate Mall]

“And facing this onslaught are the incredible visa officers of the Shanghai Consulate” [camera zooms toward an awesome group of smartly dressed Foreign Service Officers standing hands on hips, heads held high, in 1, 3, 5 formation]

“I am one of these officers.” [zooms in on me grinning]

Yes, Mission China is a study in visa superlatives. And working here, at least in my mind, is sometimes like a movie, perhaps a cross between Mission Impossible and Office Space.

China by the numbers.

The visa numbers for China are astounding.

H1-B visas, for temporary workers in specialty occupations, are limited each year to 65,000 worldwide (with a few categories that have exceptions to the quota). According to a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) 2013 study, Chinese represented 8 percent of H1-B visa beneficiaries, the second largest group after India.

F-1 visas are for full-time students. Institute of International Education (IIE) data indicates Chinese students now make up nearly a third of all international students at US universities. The Chinese also appear to very much like US private secondary schools; they make up 46% of international students pursuing high school diplomas.

And Chinese tourists? Approximately a quarter of all US B1/B2 (tourist) visas issued worldwide go to Chinese! This year alone Mission China (all our Consular units in Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Guangzhou) is expected to issue some 2.3 million visas.

The average Chinese tourist spends US$6000 while visiting the States. That translates to tens of billions of dollars a year. And right now these Chinese tourists to the US represent only about two percent of Chinese travelers. Mind. Blown. Right?

Shanghai is the second largest non-immigrant visa (NIV) post in the world (blowing my previous post of Ciudad Juarez, ranked about number 15 for NIVs, out of the water) . We are in the top 10 of H1-B posts and a major post for student visas.

Since last November when the US and China announced an agreement to extend tourist visa validity from one to ten years, Chinese applications for US visas has been on the rise. Basically since my arrival in Shanghai, we have seen record breaking numbers every month.

In March we hit an all-time high, adjudicating more than 5,600 visas in a single day.

In April we printed a record-breaking one day total of 7,000+ visas. Yet in June, after the worldwide consular systems issue resulted in our being unable to print tens of thousands of visas, our incredible print team remained late one night immediately after systems were restored to print over 13,000 visas in a single day.

June is our busiest month. It is when our normal 50 student applicants a day (the average in March 2015) reach over 800 a day. In total, Consulate Shanghai adjudicated almost 87,000 visas in June 2015.

Visa applicants begin to line up outside Westgate Mall.

Early morning Shanghai, visa applicants begin to line up outside Westgate Mall.

What in the world is it like to work here?

Most days we aim for approximately 4300 interview appointments. That is more applicants than some posts see in an entire year! Each visa officer is expected to interview a minimum of 120 applicants a day, though most of us, once “on the line” for more than a few months exceed this amount.

I arrived in Shanghai in late January 2015 and due to my training schedule and the Chinese lunar New Year, which occurred just three weeks after my arrival, my first interview day was not until February 26. Yet from that time through June 30, I adjudicated over 9,000 visas. In June my month tally was 2,667. And to think I am one of the slower adjudicators.

I will be honest here, it isn’t easy. Interviewing that number of people every day is mentally and physically draining. It is not tiring in the same way as I found the Immigrant Visas in Ciudad Juarez. The complexity of the cases, the amount of paperwork, and the stakes for the applicant (to become a new US citizen or not) are generally higher in IV work. There were cases that kept me up at night and many that made me weep from joy or sorrow. There are cases from Juarez I doubt I shall ever forget.

It is the repetitiveness of NIV and the sheer number of cases per day in a post like Shanghai that wear on the visa officer. Still, I will not say I do not like the job. There are days that are fun and interesting; there are applicants that bring a smile to my face and even a few that cause me to choke back tears (generally happy ones).

I am astounded by the number of Chinese students who want to pursue their educational dreams half way around the world. At 18, I was pleased as punch to be going to an out-of-state school in Georgia, some 650 miles away from my Virginia home. And although I did do a study abroad in Beijing my fourth year, I am not sure I would have ever been ready at that age to spend four years studying so very far from home. I have had the pleasure (and sometimes pain) of interviewing easily over 1,000 Chinese preparing to go to the US for their BA, MA or PhDs. It can be mind-numbing to hear yet again that the reason for his/her interest in studying in the US is “because the US educational system is the best in the world” or “this school is ranked X in the US in my degree program” or “the teaching level of this school is optimal for my career goals,” which, as genuinely as the applicant may believe these statements, simply sound like well-practiced platitudes. It is far more interesting to hear an authentic declaration such as the student’s hope that they will find either llamas (California) or alligators (Florida) on their university grounds or their fervent fascination with the number of hectares the campus of their college occupies. Although these do not sound like particularly relevant reasons to choose to study at one school over another, they are a welcome change. Of course the best answers are the sincere and honest ones, in which the student’s eyes shine in anticipation and hope that you will grant them the visa and make the first part of their dream come true.

I am even more astonished at the number of students prepared to attend our private secondary schools. There is of course many a US family (many Foreign Service Officers among them) who choose to send their children to private boarding schools far from home. Yet, I am not of that world and my daughter is so young, I have a hard time imagining sending my 14 year old child 10,000 miles away for high school.

These children often arrive at their visa interview alone, on their own to present their case for study in America. Many are shy and stumble over their words. Others appear incredibly mature and confident. Faced with one such young female student I was impressed when she answered my question about being concerned to study in the US alone with “No, I welcome the adventure and the challenge.” Her tone told me she no doubt did.

I see relationships on display every day in the interview line. In a culture where public displays of affection are still infrequent, it is nice to see a father familiarly hang his arms across the shoulder of his wife and teenage son and grin or long-time friends give other a joyful slap on the back when they know they get to take their 18 day USA group tour together. While I may not be too sure of the idea of a two week group tour with my parents, here I have interviewed many adult children traveling with their parents, grandparents with their grandchildren, married siblings with their spouses, married couples with both sets of in-laws, even the occasional ex-husband and ex-wife traveling with their child. I am amused and intrigued by the number of newlyweds who wish to honeymoon with a group of friends-maybe it is actually a nicer way to celebrate?

Sure, as a visa officer at a busy post I only get a few minutes at most with each applicant and I cannot lie that there are days when I see this as monotony stretching for the next 22 months. But other days, I see, and feel, the amazing opportunity to both serve my country and interact with a heck of a lot of Chinese, who just want a chance to visit the US.

Some days it is pretty incredible in Visaland.

The Long, Not-so-long, Expat

On an extension, bidding prep, and the challenge of being at a post with too much to do

So the big news is that I have extended here in Shanghai. Or rather, my request to extend has been approved, because nothing like that happens without getting approval from DC.

Why in the world would I want to do even MORE visas? Especially when colleagues around me are applying for onward assignments that allow them to curtail. Many of the younger and/or single folks heading on to third tours opted to bid on and accept handshakes for positions in one-year unaccompanied posts, or the Priority Staffing Posts (PSP) like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Yemen. Of course married folks too opt for these posts. But me, the single mom of a toddler? No. No, I extend.

I requested the extension so that I might move from the winter bidding cycle on to the summer cycle, because A. there are more bidding options on the summer cycle and B. because soon enough school will become an issue for us and it would be nice not to have to pull my daughter out in the middle of a school year (though summer cycle does not guarantee that – nothing in the Foreign Service is ever really 100% a sure thing).

It helped my case that Chinese is a super hard language that generally takes 36 to 44 weeks at the Foreign Service Institute to reach the required level and China is experiencing a huge boost in visa applications and we are short staffed to meet demand (though making a super valiant effort anyway). Here I was, already in China, with the requisite Chinese level, asking to stay longer. So it was granted.

A three month extension brings my tour to April 2017, which makes me eligible for the summer cycle.

Bidding. It is bidding season now, though not mine, but there is that whiff of excitement and anxiety in the air. Colleagues who are in the midst of the cycle huddle together, whispering about “handshakes” and jobs “slipping off the list” and follow-up phone calls and emails, about interviews and “lobbying packets.” There is a whole vernacular devoted to mid-level bidding.

I will not start until next summer, yet it has not stopped me from already daydreaming about the possibilities. Alright, truth be told, I am doing far more than dreaming. I am researching potential posts. I am thinking through the ramifications of another stint at language learning at the Foreign Service Institute (something I swore up and down that I would NOT do before my third tour). I am imagining us in Post X in Central America or Post Y in Africa or Post Z in Asia. Do I want myself and my daughter to take anti-malarials the whole tour? Would friends and family visit? How difficult is it to import pets? Is the tour straight up Political or is it a Pol-Econ or jack of all trades? Is it an Embassy or Consulate, large post or small? How are the schools? Each and every one with positives and negatives to ponder.

However, although it is fun to research and ruminate over the options of where we might find ourselves living next, it is also a bit odd to already be thinking about the follow-on post. I liken it to running for the House of Representatives. No sooner have you been voted in when you begin to prepare and campaign for the next election.

Every month a farmer’s market of sorts is held in the atrium of the apartment complex where I live. There one can find fruits and vegetables from organic farms but also homemade chocolates and baked goods and other products. Many of the sellers are foreigners who have lived in Shanghai for awhile, they have set up businesses. Last month I stopped at a table where a woman, about my age, was selling specialty soaps and home tonics. I ended up talking with her for about 30 minutes and found out that it is a company she founded and operates with her husband – an Australian/New Zealand couple with seven and fourteen years living in Shanghai respectively.

I have spent the past few weeks thinking on that. My three month extension means that we still have approximately 22 months left here in Shanghai. [“Approximately” because an ETD is still always rather fluid as one could leave April 1 or April 30 or even March 1 or May 31 and still be within the general departure guidelines.] But Foreign Service Officers are generally less permanent and more nomadic than many other expatriates. We arrive in country knowing we are here for only a certain period of time. Sometimes you will hear us say such things as “I can live anywhere for two years.” So even if we have to put up with a less than ideal assignment, with less than ideal housing, with less than ideal local conditions, we know it is temporary.

And as a result I feel quite eager to see and do as much as I can in and around Shanghai before we move on to the next tour, wherever that may be. Yet there is just WAY too much to do in Shanghai. As I noted in my post the 5 Pros and Cons on Being Posted to Shanghai there are some 70 museums alone in the city and they keep opening them faster than you can visit. In the last few years alone several world class museums have opened. Add in the restaurants and special events (Cavalia, a sort of Cirque du Soleil with horses, is coming this month as is Linkin Park in concert) and the cultural and historical sights like the Bund, Yu Gardens, the temples, the French Concession… Next year brings the opening of both Shanghai Disneyland and Shanghai Legoland Discovery Center. What’s a history/museum/travel-loving mom to do?

Reading a “Real Post Report” for one small southern African post I am considering bidding for my next tour the author wrote that the biggest quandary on a Sunday would be whether to go to one hotel for brunch or another hotel to swim. I wonder how I would deal with that. Part of me thinks it sound wonderfully simple and another part of me worries I would be bored. Would I feel more like an expat and less like a long-term tourist?

For the time being it is a moot point. We still have time here. My biggest dilemmas are often should I rest after that exhausting week of visa interviews or should I pound the pavement and ride the metro to yet another incredible sight?