Saturday, June 30, 2012

Birthday #9

Today my youngest child turned nine years old. Wowzers. The view from our living room is beautiful, but look at that boy! Growing up to be quite the handsome fella.

Ben was the only one of us not to celebrate a birthday in Macau. The rest of us got big parties and dinners and breakfast with friends to celebrate our special days. Last year, Michael flew home to Los Angeles on June 30th to collect us for our relocation to Macau, and we spent the day celebrating Ben at Disneyland (Michael got Father of the Year for flying fourteen hours and then spending fourteen additional hours at the Magic Kingdom!). This year we tried to think of something special to do for Ben, since he missed out on a celebration with his buddies in Macau. 

Our shipment of household goods arrived yesterday, including all my jeans and sweaters. When we left Macau in May, it was already quite hot and humid, so I only packed shorts and tees in our suitcases. I spent the last month shivering in the unexpected chilliness of still-spring in Shanghai. I predicted that the minute my warmer clothes arrived, the hot weather would finally hit here. And guess what? It did. Toasty!


So what did we do? We jumped on the Metro to visit one of Shanghai's Aquariums. We happen to live right next to one, but we chose the one further away for a couple reasons. First, was the penguins, and second was the sweet surprise we had planned for the trip back home.

Outside the Changfeng Aquarium are these huge icons from the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. It's the Mascot, Haibao. This little blue guy is all over town, in random places. This is the largest collection I've seen in one spot, usually it's just one or two. I've been asking the locals about them, and everyone I've asked can't stand them! Ugly, boring, annoying, lacks imagination... their words, not mine!

When we lived in Macau, we found that we could never, ever leave the house without bumping into at least one person that we knew. It was just that small. When we moved away, I said to Michael we'd never have that problem here, Shanghai is too big, too many people. Anonymity for all! So imagine our surprise when we got in line for tickets and ran right into our old neighbors from the temporary housing that we just vacated across town! Ben was delighted to have his friend there to tag along. Shanghai is smaller than I first thought!


This aquarium is set in a big park that is totally open to the public. You just pay to actually enter the buildings housing the animals. We bought a "Happy Pass" that let us do everything once: Beluga and sea lion show, 3D Movie, simulator attraction, glass bottom boat, and of course the walk through fish exhibit.

The beluga and sea lion show was fun, even though we understood not a word, but the 3D movie was awful! It was called "Sea Dragooon" and we think maybe it was about a wimpy sea horse who falls into a glowing shell and then gets really big and shiny and starts breathing fire and fights this weird crusty-shelled spider thingy that had bad breath. Not understanding the dialog, I could be totally wrong. Michael and I snickered through the whole thing ("Such quality! Great tension!"), but Nathan requested, "no more educational films, Mom." Oh, is that what that was? We watched it with seven other people in what looked like a really run down classroom with plastic chairs to sit in and broken pieces of office equipment stashed in the front corners. See for yourself:

Following the awesome movie, we got in line for the simulator. Have you ever been on Star Tours at Disneyland? Or any of those rides where you watch something on the screen in front of you while the "car" you are sitting in moves around and it feels like you are really doing what's on the screen? (Uh yeah Heather, it's call a simulator). Well anyway, this little simulator simulated us into a grand prix-type race where there were no rules on the road (or of gravity apparently). We were bounced around in a quite painful manner, and when the final scene came (a big fiery car crash), we all felt like the whiplash was real, not simulated! Ouch! Only in China...

Then it was off to the fish exhibit! Right inside the door was the queue for the glass-bottom boat. This attraction was one of the other reasons we chose this aquarium over the one in our neighborhood. Maybe it was just the jarring of the simulator, but woo-boy, this boat was a little too real for me. We were in a tiny glass dingy, in the shark tank. We were propelled around the subterranean tank by a rope that criss-crossed through the water. And you know what else was criss-crossing through the water? Sharks, of course! They swam right up to us and right under us. This guy swam right against where my back was pressed... I couldn't breathe, let alone take a photo until he was a little further away (you can see his fin sticking up right where the shadow starts).

Here is the only photo I took where we got a shark perfectly outlined under our feet. Ugh. The boys loved this part most, though I was completely creeped out.

The rest of the aquarium was pretty standard, but there were two glass tunnels through the shark tank where you could look up to see the shark food, er, glass bottom boat filled with other victims above.

Of course, we had to stop and visit the penguins at Ben's request! Though I've never heard of this particular species of penguin:
I just looked it up... it gets that name from the braying sound it makes. It's more widely known as the African or black-footed penguin, but I guess the Chinese were going for giggles from my boys.

When we were all done, we crossed the street to a mall to find lunch. The aquarium's ironic offering of grilled octopus on a stick was a little too much for us. But you know what wasn't too much? This crazy contraption at the mall. For $5 USD, your kid got a helmet and a harness and could climb to their little heart's content, as long as they liked. I had enough of helmets and harnesses in the jungle zip-lining though Thailand, thank you very much. I looked up long enough to take this photo, and then window shopped to distract myself while Daddy kept his eyes on our climbing monkeys.


 Also in the same mall? About a dozen other kid-friendly activities. Lots of families just hanging out watching their kids play. The boys really, really loved these paddle-boats, as it was nearly 100F and they managed to soak themselves to cool off. My kids were twice the size of any other kid there, but I also think they had twice the fun. Photographic evidence:

And then finally our big surprise for Benjamin on the way home! In lieu of a cake, we tracked down one of the three Krispy Kreme Doughnut shops here in Shanghai and hand-picked a dozen! The last time we were at a Krispy Kreme was back in November when we were in the Philippines! That adage about absence making the heart grow fonder? Totally true when it comes to sugary American carbohydrates and the Chase family!

 We ended the evening curled up on the couch watching a movie of Ben's choice from our huge collection which just arrived from Macau yesterday. He picked The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and along with the dramatic soundtrack, we had a huge thunderstorm and a front row view of lightning all around us, hitting the lightning rods on the buildings that surround us.

My birthday is Christmas Eve, and my little brother's is New Year's Day. Not great days if you want to have any kind of birthday party with friends. Feeling our pain (and witnessing the birthday parties which no one attended), my parents went over-the-top making our days really special. As such, birthdays have become a really big deal to me, my favorite holidays to celebrate (not just mine, everyone's!). At the end of the night I began to feel very bad that we hadn't done enough for Ben. In the craziness of the relocation and our things arriving yesterday, his special day felt a little lost, and I felt guilty about it.

At lunch we told Benjamin the dramatic story of the day he was born, when I had scary complications following his delivery, how his heart defect was discovered, and the heart surgery he had just a few days later. I cried telling him all about how we nearly lost him following the surgery, and how relief isn't a strong enough word to describe how we felt after he came through the scary recovery, finally released to come home from the NICU. I'm sure I tell Ben the same story every year, but I think this is the first time the emotional side of it really hit him. In the end, I'm sure that any birthday activity, celebration, or gift we could possibly come up with would pale considerably next to the gift that we get every year on June 30th - another year of life with beautiful boy Benjamin.

Happy birthday, precious son.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Joe Woes

I'm no coffee connoisseur (or consumer for that matter, caffeine and I have an acrimonious relationship due to my propensity for blinding migraines), but I do have a thing for frozen, blended caramel beverages served with a generous amount of whipped cream, such as the caramel Frappacino served at every Starbucks the world over. My preference is the one served at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, followed by the one at Pacific Coffee (a Hong Kong brand found all over Macau and China) and then finally Starbucks' version, but hey, I'm not picky. If it is cold and caramelly, I will drink it with relish.

Macau has three or four Starbucks, but Shanghai is just like Los Angeles, there is one on just about every corner. Including the corner we live on. Or so I thought.

Today it was pouring rain and my plans to explore our immediate neighborhood were stymied when Ben slipped in a puddle and fell hard on the marble lobby floor. After icing up his knee, popping in a DVD, and plopping the puppy in his lap, Nathan and I decided to brave the rain for frozen caramel goodness for me, a blueberry muffin for him. In a sad and unexpected turn of events, we walked to the corner to find the storefront dark, the iconic sign ripped from the wall above the door, and a sorrowful letter taped to the glass stating that sadly, they had decided to close shop. Yesterday. As in two days after we moved in.

Nathan shared my sorrow, only because his love of Starbucks has everything to do with the free wifi he craves so he can play games on his iTouch. So close.

We explored further afield, making large loops around our complex, coming upon a McCafe (nice coffee house with Starbucks-style drinks and prices, run by McD's), a Gloria Jeans Coffee, a Sasa Coffee, and a sign saying there was a Starbucks in the mall that we walked past. All great, but I'm still sad we lost the Starbucks that was visible from our bedroom window, so soon after we moved in. My biggest hope would be that a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf opens in its place. That would be super sweet with extra whipped cream on top!

Monday, June 25, 2012

New Digs

So we just moved from our serviced apartment (long-term hotel stay, which was actually a two story house with an actual yard, woot!) to our more permanent home (most definitely not a two story house).

I'm working on a longer post about the house hunting process, but little things like unpacking and trying to find things to make sandwiches with (Kids! They insist on being fed at regular intervals!) keep getting in the way. But the dog feels 100% at home. See for yourself in this little sneak peek until I finish the longer post:

Friday, June 22, 2012

Brave

We are braving another cinema in Shanghai, this time the UME International Cineplex to see Disney/Pixar's Brave. It's awesome how we chose our wedding date to coincide with a release of a Disney or Pixar animated film almost each and every year! How kind of Disney to celebrate us in this manner!

So far the theater itself is a massive improvement over our last dreadful experience! I just hope the film is good. I haven't read many positive reviews...

Sweet 16

On June 22, 1996 I said I do and life has never been the same!

Today we celebrate sixteen years of married life. Last year we celebrated apart - Michael was in Macau and I was back in Los Angeles packing up our life in preparation for our move to Asia. This year we're together, but we'll spend a good portion of it packing once again, as tomorrow we get the keys to our new flat here in Shanghai, where we'll (hopefully) spend the next three years.

Our address may change frequently, but our love for each other has remained constant through the years. How grateful I am to have such an amazing person to share all these great adventures with! Here's to many more years... and adventures!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Heartfelt

My heart feels fond of having an absence of ironing. Does that count? I want the one that says "Take this job and shove it." Alas, they seem to have been sold out this trip.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tips for International Living, #2

It's been awhile since my first post about Tips for International Living, and I thought it was a good time for another one. This one is especially appropriate given that we just moved from one international location to another, and I need to follow my own advice!

When you move to a new place, you tend to have a bit of a honeymoon period where everything is bright and shiny and new and you are flooded with positive feelings about your new home. And then right about the three month mark, the bloom comes off the rose and you begin to feel a little miserable. The excitement of adventure wears off and you realize that this is no vacation. This is life. You really do have to do all your laundry in a laughably small washer/dryer machine that doesn't ever quite dry the clothes, and go to seven different markets to get the ingredients for one meal, and see a doctor who doesn't speak your language and prescribes you medicine that Web M.D. says is not for use in the United States of America. Your only desire is to be like Dorothy, clicking your heels to go home, wherever that is. And when that doesn't work, a good cry under the covers in the middle of the day is your only alternative. If you give into it, it becomes a comfortable pattern which is good for nobody.

The thing I have learned through continually moving house over the last sixteen years: people love to meet you when you are filled with enthusiasm and a zest for life that comes with exploring your new city, but they run screaming when you are unable to get out of your jammies and can't stop crying because you are miserable and hating life and feel like you can't go on another day in this crazy foreign land.

I have found the time when I most desperately need a friend is when I'm least likely to make one. Mainly because my miserable attitude keeps me from going out and seeking someone to share my misery, and if I do make the effort, I'm such a wreck that I might as well have a horribly contagious communicable disease along with bad body odor by the way people avoid me.

So what to do? The key is those first twelve weeks of being in your new home. Go make friends like you are being paid a ridiculously high commission to do so. It's so much easier when you are a little kid, isn't it? I marvel at Benjamin who runs outside because he sees some kids playing on the basketball court. He wiggles himself into the game, gets invited over to someone's house for a snack, and comes home to say he's made three new best friends. For adults, or perhaps just for me, it's so much more difficult. How exactly does a (non-basketball playing) grown up make friends? Here's my tip:
I know it's the opposite of what we teach our kids or what we've been told our entire lives, but everyone we currently call a friend today is someone who could have been called a stranger in our past. So what do I do? I talk to anyone who makes eye contact with me. I seek out the moms at the park who are there with the kids my kids are playing with. I look for groups with similar interests on the expat websites in every city, and I commit to going to whatever their next activity is, even if I have to give myself a peptalk to walk out the door to attend. I never, ever turn down an invitation. Whether for coffee, dinner, a backyard BBQ, a quick tour of a shopping area, whatever it is, my answer is yes, even if I have to rearrange other plans. I am bright and bubbly and witty and charming to the point of exhaustion. Because I know there is a giant calendar over my head and that when it gets to the three month mark, I may not have it in me to be bubbly or charming. But after making the effort to get out there and make friends, what I will have is at least one person who invested time in me who saw me at my best, who is more likely to be compassionate when I'm suddenly at my worst. Someone to walk through the rough patch and see me through to the other side in month four where I make peace with my new city and it goes from being just another dot on the map to my actual home.

I must confess, this whole talking to strangers thing does not come easy to me. The truth is I'm quite shy and much more of an introvert than a social butterfly (a fact which stuns anyone who has spent any amount of time with me and seen my willingness to get up and make a fool of myself in front of a crowd). I relish solitude and actually require it to be at my best. But I also know there is a difference between solitude and feeling totally alone. And there is nothing more lonely than believing you don't have any friends. So I treat making friends like a job. I know it sounds a bit cold, but the investment pays off. Not everyone I meet, or every group I join is a perfect fit. But by trying everything out and talking to that lady on the bus or the family over the frozen meat case at the grocery, I'm sure to find a few that stick and stay friends long after I've moved on to another country.

So go ahead and try it. Even if you've been in your current home for years and years and think you have all the friends you could possibly need. Look around. There's probably someone brand new to town who just left all their friends and family behind and is in desperate need of what you have to offer. Don't destine that person to afternoons spent crying under the covers! Life is meant to be shared, so get out there and talk to some strangers. Especially the sassy redheaded one with two boys in tow, snapping photos of everything.  Bet you're gonna love her! Especially for the next, oh let's see, eight weeks or so...

Monday, June 18, 2012

Enter

I loved this street where every doorway was delightfully different. One day when we are done roaming and wandering the globe, we'll buy a house and install a unique door which will make all who pass want to pause their busy life to ring the bell and find out just what kind of people would choose such a door. I don't know what it looks like just yet, but I know we've got nothing but time to figure it out as our days of wandering are far from over. So I content myself with peering at other people's doors, wondering how or why they chose them and if there is a story to be told about this particular wood or that intricate design. One day I'll know this language and pause my busy life and go up and ask.

Darn this beauty!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day!

Today is a bit of a working day for husband, meeting people he's doing business with who are only in town today. It is what it is, and I'm long over it, having spent many holidays and birthdays and special occasions without his presence. We get through it and over it by making other occasions just as special, sometimes for no reason at all. It works for us.

Being Father's Day, I do have to stop and give a shout out to the Dads in my life. Starting of course with my husband, who I loved deeply and passionately before he became a father, but then found I loved him so much more when I saw him parent our boys.



To my own Dad, who taught me so much about how I should be treated by men, so that when Michael came along, I knew he was the man for me.



To my Father-in-law, who is the bright and shining example of what a husband and father should look like, and raised a son like Michael.



How lucky my own sons are, to have so many great fatherly examples to learn from!

Happy Father's Day to all you Dads, current and future, and to the men who may not be dads but still influence the young people around you. Thank you! Enjoy your day!

Saturdays = Shanghai Exploration Day

I'm definitely warming up to Shanghai. My feelings of being overwhelmed with it all are fading away as we do more exploring and the sorrow over leaving Macau fades just a bit. Every Saturday we've used as an opportunity to pick a location and explore. This Saturday we went to Shanghai Culture Square to buy tickets to see Shrek the Musical which is swinging through next month.



I see a huge difference between China and the rest of the world in the ability to do things online. In Macau we did everything online, from paying our gas bill to picking out our seats at the movie theater. Here in China (or at least Shanghai, I can only speak for here), almost everything is done in person. We had to go into the bank to make a transfer from our account to our new landlady's account. I have to take my mobile phone bill to a shop to pay it. And I can't remember the last time I went to an actual box office to purchase tickets for live entertainment, but you cannot buy them online here! I can see that patience is going to be necessary for survival here! That and a lot of free time. Hmmm.

After our tickets were in hand, we explored the neighborhoods directly around Culture Square. Tons of little shops, cafes, and tiny art studios, which made me swoon. I snapped photo after photo on my iPhone, driving the boys crazy. They asked why I felt the need to document everything I saw... which was a good question. The answer is that whenever you go somewhere new, things are first odd and unusual. And then before you know it, they become normal and you can never again see it as you first did. The photos you take once you've been in a new place for three or four months are never the same as the photos you take when you've been there only three or four days or weeks. And I love to look back in wonder and remember that dazed feeling of everything being strange and unusual and see how far I've come. So I snap away while I can!

After we'd had lunch and strolled up and down the tree-line streets, we jumped on the Metro and made our way to People's Square. I was trying to find another movie theater that I'd read about online that was right around that area. We never found it, but we did exit the subway right into People's Park, directly in front of the gate that is filled with permanent carnival-style rides. Both the boys were in a blue mood, thinking of friends in Macau that they've been missing, but something about those noisy kiddie rides snapped them right out of it.





The park was full of locals with their little kids. I saw one other non-Asian family wandering through the area. Poor Benjamin was fending off people who kept rubbing their fingers through his hair. Nathan wasn't touched, but he was photographed quite a bit. I don't know if it is their age or size, but I am finding that people are a lot more discreet about taking their photo than they were when the boys were under four in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and China. I've had one or both of them snatched from my arms too many times to count when they were little, passed from person to person while someone snapped photos like crazy. Now that Nathan and Ben are old enough to know what is happening, I let them choose. I have no problem with them throwing an arm in front of their face or turning their back if someone is holding a camera up to them. Some might call it rude, but I draw the line on the other side of people photographing my children without asking them (or me) first. Michael didn't notice it nearly as much, but I think perhaps I'm just more sensitive to it. Maybe it's a mom thing?

We did more wandering outside the park, which I'll save for a post of its own. But all in all, it was a great day for the whole family. Months and months ago we'd purchased tickets to see the London cast of Annie on a tour that was coming through Hong Kong. Sadly, we moved to Shanghai a few days before the show. I found someone more than thrilled to take the tickets, but I was so sad to miss an opportunity to see a show. With tickets in hand for Shrek and a calender of events at the many theaters and galleries here in Shanghai, there is a certain song from Annie that just won't get out of my head! I think I'm gonna like it here!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

White Elephant

Perfect for the next white elephant gift exchange! Doubt these have quite the power of the Energizer Bunny, but they are much prettier to look at!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Summer (Dance) Break

Everybody dance now! Both of my children have completed all their school work for the year, over-achieving second-born Benjamin a full two months early, first-born procrastination-station Nathan exactly two weeks before the deadline. I'll write more about our school experience later (sorry Cez, I know you ask me every 25 minutes what our process was this year, but privacy and other stuff kept me mum), but for now I'm just rejoicing as much as (okay maybe MORE than) my offspring are.

We get a little break and then all four of us begin the intensive process of learning Mandarin with private tutors who come to our house six times a week. We learned the bare minimum of "taxi Cantonese" while living in Macau (stop here, turn left/right, keep going, name of our flat, name of the movie theater, hospital, please, thank you, OMG, that kind of stuff). I wanted to learn more, but was repeatedly told Mandarin would be more useful. Cantonese is spoken in Macau, Hong Kong, the southernmost parts of Mainland China, and in California. Mandarin (and several dialects that are based on it) is spoken throughout the rest of China, Taiwan, and in the American university system should you elect to take Chinese as your language. Besides being more useful, I've also heard rumor that it's much easier to learn than Cantonese, less tones, etc. I do have to say that Mandarin is much easier on the ears than Cantonese! Hopefully it will be easier on the tongue as well.

In the meantime, my youngest son is turning nine in two weeks. Because he's the one with the heart and kidney diseases and because we almost lost him as a baby, I've always rejoiced in every milestone and birthday that he's had, knowing his (and our) story could have been far different, much shorter. But looking at him now as he's pushing his way from little boy to responsible young man, I'm suddenly flailing about, wishing I could just pause right here for a tiny little bit. But time marches on, and I guess I'll just be dancing with tears streaming down my face. I'll focus on the things we have to celebrate and call them tears of joy, okay?

Happy Summer Break!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Let's all go to the movies! A cautionary tale...

Michael and I are major movie buffs. Sure we go to see live theatre every single chance we get, but living in Macau our choices were limited to the two big shows in town or heading over to Hong Kong every few months to see whatever tour was coming through. Movies on the other hand, were much more available.

When we first moved to Macau, there were two movie theaters. One was the Portuguese Cineteatro Macau. They had four houses, the highest one being on the eighth floor. And no lift, just a tiny set of stairs that could barely fit two people trying to pass. Most of the houses had simple digital projectors that you could buy yourself to project on your living room wall. The seats were highly uncomfortable. The other theater was at the Macau Tower. It has a single house and looks much like a large university lecture hall. The old wooden seats even have trays that fold out of the arm rests.

Last December, the Galaxy Macau (one of the large casino complexes) opened a United Artists Cinema which blew the other two out of the water. No competition whatsoever. The UA Galaxy has nine houses, reclining plush seats, thick carpet to muffle sound, and even a few Directors Club houses which seat just a handful of people in enormous, fully reclining Barcaloungers with foot rests. You can press a button and an attendant will bring you refills of popcorn and soda, included in the price of your ticket. Once we went to the Galaxy, we only ever went back to the other theaters one time, to see movies that weren't playing at the UA Galaxy on the day we had available to see them.
Interior of the Grand Theater of the Galaxy UA Cinema
During Michael's recent garden leave, we had plenty of time to see movies, and we saw everything that came through, even the stinky films we would normally skip. We went so often that the staff remembered us by name and lit up with big smiles when they saw us coming. It helped that we had a full-time, live-out baby sitter/helper which allowed us to have frequent date nights.

Now that we're in Shanghai, we don't have help. Yet. So date night is suspended. But because we've been here 2+ weeks, we decided to go see a movie that was kid friendly. Madagascar 3 in 3-D recently came out, my kids have been begging to see it, and was the only thing kid-appropriate that was in English, so that's what we saw (and honestly, I laughed. It was entertaining). However, the experience overall was so far away from the UA Galaxy I wanted to cry!

Buying the tickets was crazy. We got in a long line, flanked by men in ball caps, holding stacks of cash in one hand and tickets in the other. They'd approach people in the line and then whisk them away, never to return. Touts? Scalpers? Don't know. We got halfway to the counter and were approached by two ladies in uniforms who had a printout of the film schedule. The printout was completely in Chinese, except for a couple titles, like Men in Black and Madagascar. They asked us which film we wanted to see, and we told them. They said that they had tickets at a good price, 90RMB, and to follow them. 90RMB is about $15 USD, which I thought was a little high (high for Macau, low for Los Angeles, it's all relative). But they took us to a VIP counter, let us pick our seats (which is common everywhere in the world except the USA), and then made change for the 400RMB we forked over.

We got popcorn and drinks and then went to the theater entrance, where we were confronted with the bizarre sight of a puppet theater featuring characters from Madagascar talking about a milky beverage that a nice lady nearby had a tray of samples to offer. I'm assuming this is what was going on, because it was all in Chinese, but when we paused to look at the poor puppets with no audience, we were offered drinks. We declined.


Up to the theater we went. We climbed a few sets of stairs and ducked into the very low entrance. In Macau and Hong Kong, you have to buy or bring your own 3-D glasses. Here in Shanghai they give you a pair at the door, which they collect at the end. It was quite obvious that they recycle them and don't wash or sanitize them between movies, because all of our glasses were smudgy, and mine was greasy in all the places that it was supposed to touch your head. Out came my wipes and I rubbed and scrubbed and tried not to think negative thoughts about the creepiness (I know my sister-in-law Holly is ready to throw up reading this right about now. I'm trying not to throw up recalling it).

We entered the actual theater and went to our assigned seats. The entire theater smelled strongly of urine and mold. Not a pleasant combination at all. Our chairs were suspect, they were all stained and damp and covered in popcorn. My cupholder was completely filled with old popcorn, the floor wet. The armrests were sticky and greasy, and I was not about to put my backpack on the floor, so I kept it on my lap with my arms folded across my chest.

Now I can guess what you might be thinking: Heather, why didn't you just leave? Good question. I really, really wanted to. My skin was crawling. My overactive imagination was certain I was acquiring any number of diseases. There were two reasons. The first - no refunds. We paid 360RMB ($60 USD) for our tickets, which were stamped with No Refunds across the back. The second - my kids have been asking to see this movie for months. Buying tickets, getting popcorn, sitting down, and then saying, "Never mind, we're leaving," is about the cruelest thing I could do to two children who jumped up and down cheering and plastering me with kisses when we walked up to the box office to buy tickets. Like driving to the gate of Disneyland, entering the turnstile and then not even getting to Main Street USA before yanking them out to go home. I have a lot of battles I have to fight with those boys of mine, and this was not one I had ammunition to fight. Especially in a town where we don't even know where any other movie theaters are yet. So we stayed. Luckily, the movie drew me in and distracted me from the brain tumor that I'm certain the theater was giving me...

When it was all over, I rushed us out of there quickly. We were sent out a back way, which took us right through the kitchen of a seafood restaurant lined with tanks of live fishy friends. We got back to the lobby, avoiding the theater bathrooms which smelled even worse than the theater. The theater is in a nice mall, so I herded everyone to the clean mall bathrooms where I forced everyone to scrub their hands and arms before immediately heading home to strip off our clothes to wash in scalding water. Everyone took extra long showers as well.

Thinking about the experience, I pulled out the movie tickets. And noticed the price:

25 RMB ($4 USD). NOT the 90 RMB ($15 USD) that we paid per ticket! Insult to injury, salt in the wound, whatever you want to call it... we'd been had. We paid more because we were dumb foreigners being helped by a kind lady in a uniform who spoke English and said she'd give us the VIP treatment. I think we gave her the VIP treatment with our extra cash!

So here's what we learned from this little experience:
1. Never, ever return to the Stellar International Cineplex at the Super Brand Mall in Shanghai.
2. Don't be afraid to stand in the line the locals are using and pay the price the locals are paying.
3. Cinema and comedy are powerful. They can distract you from nastiness. And one day I will laugh about our first movie experience in Shanghai. But right now I have to go take another shower just to make sure I got all the germies off in the first three showers...

Friday, June 8, 2012

Flora

With a name like Heather Rose, you can believe I was made to love flowers. My middle name is Ann (no E), and for my wedding bouquet I chose heather, queen Anne's lace, and roses. Brilliant, yes? If only there was a flower to incorporate my husband's last name of Chase... Anyone?

One of my favorite things about Shanghai, beside the delicious and flavorful food, is the wide availability of incredibly inexpensive flowers. Every block has a vendor or two selling them out the back of their van, or off a bicycle cart. The smell is exquisite and I never pass by a bunch of them without bending toward the blossoms and inhaling deeply.

Every time we'd pass one cart in particular, the salesman would practically beg us to buy some. Our problem? No vessel to put them in! But last Sunday as we passed him by, we saw a blanket spread on the ground next to his cart, covered in vases of every size and shape and color. I didn't even ask, my husband told me to pick one out. And then he convinced me to pick a second, which I did. Both are chartreuse green, one patterned, one solid (in addition to flowers, I love the color green!). Since we now had a couple vases, we stepped back to the flower cart and I smelled every stalk he had. I settled on lilies, as they are currently the most abundant on all the carts and the scent is intoxicating to me... spicy yet sweet.

We got two bunches of twenty stems that were all over three feet long. I put some on the dining room table, some in the living room. Walking downstairs is like walking into heaven! So many of my memories have scents attached, and now the smell of lilies will be forever associated with Shanghai.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ray Bradbury

This morning started like every morning does, Michael comes up to say goodbye as he leaves for work, and I reach over and open a curtain to let some sun in to help me wake up. Then I reach down to the floor and grab my iPhone to check Facebook to see what everyone on the other side of the world has been up to while I slumbered. This morning I was faced with very sad news: Ray Bradbury has passed away at age 91.

When I was a little kid, my little brother and I would ride our bikes across town to the Simi Valley Public Library by ourselves every day of summer. We'd check out the maximum amount of books allowed (the total depended on if you checked books out from the children's section or the adult's section but I think it was around 20 books), and then lug them all back to our house, where we'd lay in the family room and speed read through our treasure so we'd be ready to return them and get more the next day.

Side note - my brother and I were/are very prolific readers. When I was 3rd grade and he was 2nd, our elementary school did a Read-a-Thon. For every fifty pages you read, you'd get a big button. I think they only made buttons that went up to 500 pages, thinking no one would read that much. My brother and I read over 10,000 pages and they actually had to go have more buttons made up. We got an award, which I found when we were moving to Macau in a box of childhood news clippings, trophies, and ribbons.

Back to the story - when my brother and I had read everything that interested us in the children and young adult section, we moved on to the rest of the library. My brother discovered fantasy and never looked back. I discovered science fiction which spoke to me like nothing else. And I discovered Ray Bradbury, a couple years before my peers would be introduced to him in school. I read everything by Mr. Bradbury that I could get my hands on. The librarian helped me find big anthologies which would have a single short story of his inside. I re-read his books over and over again. Themes I didn't understand when I was 8 would suddenly be perfectly clear when I was 10. And then reading them again in high school I'd realize there were more layers to be found.

My childhood was transient, I moved schools almost every year (a life which echoes in my current life where we move almost every year). Books were my constant friends, and Ray Bradbury always came along. I loved how his stories were about wild and fantastic things, but at the core was an average everyday "person" who was just going on, trying to make the best of things. That was me. It still is me.

In high school, Ray came to a bookstore in San Luis Obispo, California for a reading right after he'd published Zen in the Art of Writing. I was first in line along with my boyfriend at the time, driving two hours to see this giant of a man. There was a huge crowd there to get books signed. My heart was pounding a little bit when I came face to face with him. How could I say everything he meant to me? I couldn't. I handed him my book and he asked me my name. "I have a granddaughter named Heather," he told me. He signed my book: Heather, Write every day, Ray Bradbury. I lost the book later than year in the messy breakup with the boyfriend who'd accompanied me, but I never lost his advice. I do write just about every day, and when I don't (yesterday for instance) I have a miserable day filled with grumpiness which is hard to recover from.

A friend of mine who I'd met through my in laws is an old friend of Ray Bradbury's. I had great hope that at some point I could have another chance to come face to face with him, have another book signed, one that I would never let out of my sight. To perhaps articulate what he meant to me as a child, a young adult, a writer. This morning I found the opportunity for that is over. How grateful I am that though he is gone, his immense body of work has been left behind for generations to come.

Today I'll honor his passing by reading a creepy childhood favorite of mine to my children. The Veldt is a story of two children and their unhealthy obsession with electronics. Written in 1950, it's quite timely in this age of people more attached to video games and smartphones and Facebook and Twitter than they are to the real people around them (I can be guilty of that as much as my kids, see my morning routine as described above). You can find the story in its entirety here. Join me in reading.

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for giving me a childhood filled with stories worth reading, and reminding innumerable people to write every day.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Shanghai Metro

We're in the midst of house hunting and it's come down to the final two: an inexpensive flat with luxe furnishings close to Michael's current office (which will change as the project gets further along and he moves onsite) with a grocery store nearby, or a pricier flat downtown right along the Huangpu River with stunning views, an open kitchen, and huge bedrooms, access to the waterfront park, with a bit of a walk to shopping.

We always like to visit a potential home at different times of day, especially at night, to see what it's like away from a sunny weekday when no one is at home. And in this case, we wanted to see what the commute was going to be like for the flat that is further away.

Taxis are indeed inexpensive, it would be about 24¥ (Yuan) or $3.00 USD to get from the office to the river flat, but we wanted to try out the Metro, Shanghai's subway system. There is a stop right outside Michael's office and a stop about an eight minute walk from the river flat, so we wanted to see what the transit time would be in between.

There are 12 lines, conveniently numbered 1 - 11 and one named M. The Metro map is easy to navigate, it is similar to Hong Kong's MTR. We had to take lines 7, 2, and 9, and were grateful for the incredibly helpful signs and station announcements all in English. We had no problem navigating it whatsoever. In fact, we somewhat left it to the kids to find the next platform, to engage them and make sure they were paying attention!

Door to door total commute time was 34 minutes. We took off 5 minutes to make it 29 minutes for the commute time as we took time to buy reloadable Metro passes, look at signs and our map to figure out which direction on the line we needed to go, and pop our head in a bakery along the way. And because Michael alone is a much faster walker than Michael with two wily boys up past their bedtimes and a wife with much shorter legs. Totally reasonable commute. Best part? The total cost was 4¥, or ~.65 USD!

I think the Metro will help a lot in getting me settled and navigating throughout Shanghai. There isn't a line close to our current housing, which is why we haven't tried it out before now. But we'll use it again this weekend to visit the Science Museum, and be pros in no time!