Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Homesick

On Saturday night we visited the Oriental Pearl TV Tower to see the beautiful views of the sunset over Shanghai. I'll share photos in another post. The thing that hit me though, was right upon entering the viewing platform high above the ground, they had decals on the windows, pointing out the direction of other areas of China, and their distances from the tower. The first one I laid my eyes on was Macau.

It hit me pretty hard. We've now been in Shanghai for over two months. We've been in our new flat for one month. We are trying our best to settle in. But I felt such an overwhelming longing for Macau that took me by surprise.

Funny, while living in Macau I never felt homesick for America. Oh sure, I missed In-N-Out Burger and good Mexican food like mad, and I wanted desperately to see my Mom and Dad and our friends and family, but I never for a moment wanted to leave Macau and move back there. One thing that really helped keep homesickness at bay was living so close to Hong Kong and visiting there at least once a month. After all, Hong Kong was once home for us. Going back to visit familiar places and faces is comfortable and comforting when things are strange and frustrating.

So here we are in Shanghai, 1233 km from Macau and 1230 km from Hong Kong, according to the window decals. And on the surface, Shanghai is much more like Los Angeles than either of those two places. But dig a little closer and the differences are vast and frustrating. And they make me miss the quirky place I came to know so well.

Monday evening I came down with a full blown case of homesickness. I miss the established life I made for myself, I miss my friends, I miss the easily mastered bus system and the patina of rust covering everything. Trying to think positively, I imagined our family three years from now, when Michael's current contract is up. I imagined Nathan getting ready to enter his freshman year in high school (gulp), Ben in middle school (my baby), and me feeling nostalgic over our time here in Shanghai. I'll be saying tearful goodbyes to my friends here, visiting my favorite places just one last time, all while we pack up house again to move to our next location.

I know it will come again, that feeling of having an established life and a regular routine with dear friends who I make crazy memories with. It's just this beginning part which is really tough. Especially as most of the dear friends I'm currently making crazy memories with are moving away come September. In the back of my head is the realization that I'll be on the hunt for new friends once again quite soon.

But looking at the photo below of our family with our former homes of Hong Kong and Macau in the (very far, invisible) distance, I am reminded that though my faults and weaknesses are many, these are my gifts, my talents: creating a home wherever we roam and quickly establishing deep and lasting friendships. I've done it before, I can do it again, with style and aplomb.



It will be okay. Shanghai is like a big Christmas tree, with innumerable presents beneath its branches, all addressed to me. Every new friend, every fascinating discovery, every delicious plate of enchiladas at Pistolera, is like opening another brightly wrapped gift. And one day, when they are all opened and our time here is through, I am confident that I will be homesick for this place too.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Happy Olympics!

I heard China won the first gold medal, though I haven't even seen so much as a clip of anything Olympic Games related here in China. Perhaps because we've been on the go constantly since our guest arrived.

Our friends the Bradens, who we knew from living in Hong Kong in 2005 and visited last Thanksgiving while they were living in the Philippines have just relocated to London in time for the Games! The just posted a photo on Facebook of their daughter at the gymnastics qualifying rounds (in the audience, not competing!). If you're going to move all over the world, it sure is nice when it coincides with being able to take advantage of attending fun world events! It's even nicer having friends in all the places you want to visit!

Here's our guest's Coke from lunch today, getting in the Olympic spirit:

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gridlock


The worst traffic I've ever seen was in the Philippines. Shanghai is bad, but Manila wins for sheer craziness and audacity of the drivers. But gridlock on the other hand? Shanghai is the champion. Every day I see at least one intersection turn into a parking lot with drivers spread all over in every direction, jostling for position, while electric scooters and bicycles fill in any remaining spots. Then the chorus of horns begins, with everyone honking as though through a simple sound they could blast the traffic away.

It becomes especially dangerous for pedestrians to try and cross the street, because should any tiny spot open, the cars will lurch forward into the smallest of openings. I've seen a car hit a person on a bike twice in just the last month (no injuries to the people that I could see, but the cheap Chinese bikes involved looked like crumpled aluminum foil once hit).

I've once been in a taxi that completely bypassed the gridlock by driving us up onto the sidewalk and into a crosswalk. I'm just surprised I don't see that little maneuver more often! Though my boys, ages 11 and 9, hate it, I'm back to making them hold my hand when we cross the street. Or at least link arms. There's safety in numbers. I hope.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Typhoon Signal 8

Macau is being pummeled by Typhoon Vicente this evening, while up here in Shanghai we enjoyed hot, dry weather with incredible blue skies filled with cotton candy clouds. I miss living along the waterfront of the Pearl River Delta with a front row view of some of the wildest storms I've ever seen. I'm so glad we got to experience a signal 8 typhoon ourselves last year.

This storm looks a bit crazy. It appears to have made a quick right turn so it could head straight toward Macau! Stay dry my friends.

The photo in the image is our former view. I can check the observatory cam any time I want to spy on how my old city is doing at any time, night or day. Still working on finding a similar site (in English) which gives such detailed weather information for Shanghai.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Snail Mail

This morning was pretty rough. It's Monday, which never helps.

The boys were cranky during Mandarin class (neither did their homework, bad boys).

The dog peed on a throw rug which I'd literally just pulled out of the dryer.

I tripped and dropped a kettle of boiling water, which poured all over my hands and arms (the fact that I'm not covered in blisters is miraculous). As the water kettle fell, it knocked over a brand new box of cereal, which I'd just opened to pour into a Tupperware canister, as well as a full container of coffee, and the bucket of ice from the freezer, which together exploded all over the stovetop, counter, the backsplash, the oven, the floor, and a box of groceries which had been delivered earlier, but not yet put away.

The mess was substantial, and my feelings of frustration were compounded by the fact that I had an interview with an Ayi (Chinese word for auntie, which is a domestic helper, maid, housekeeper, nanny, etc.) who was scheduled to walk through my door in 30 minutes.

I really, desperately wanted this person to be a good fit. I'm not sure a disaster area like my kitchen was going to make the best impression on a potential employee. She'd either run screaming or charge me double. So I scrubbed and cleaned and mopped and tossed the throw rug right back into the wash.

The Ayi arrived and sat down, and my doorbell rang once again. I opened the door to my favorite sight: the postman with a package addressed to me!

Once the interview was over (she'll start tomorrow on a trial basis), I opened the box to find my friend Diana from Macau, who recently repatriated to the States, had sent me a box of my favorite candies, Tangerine Jelly Bellies! I felt so loved and immediately the day turned around. I love mail more than anything! Considering the postage cost about $20 USD, I will savor them and make them last as long as possible!

For friends who regularly get postcards and Christmas cards from us, you'll be getting a wild change of address card from us with all our new details very soon! Postage is extremely expensive here, so stick to letters or postcards if you really want to send us something! Though I would never, ever turn away Tangerine Jelly Bellies!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Perspective

Spicy dim sum with the
Din Tai Fung Dumpling Head.
Today I had dim sum lunch with a group of new friends. I was falling hard and fast in love with a spicy dish, which most of the group declared to be a bit too warm for their taste. We got on the topic of various Chinese restaurants around town, and I mentioned how I've been too busy trying out (and returning to) all the Mexican restaurants in Shanghai to explore much Chinese, good as it may be. A lady from the great State of Texas declared Shanghai to be the worst place to eat Mexican food. I wholeheartedly disagreed, but the conversation stayed with me all day.

Our "home" in America is in the Greater Los Angeles Area, which makes room for hundreds of Mexican restaurants. 80% of the meals I prepare at home have some basis in Mexican cooking. My Dad makes his famous tacos from scratch every year on my birthday at my request, and has been doing it since I was celebrating in single digits. One of Nathan's first "solid" foods was salsa, quite by accident, which I thought would make him cry. His tears only came when I took away the chip he was using to shovel the salsa into his mouth. And we just spent a year living in a place with one Mexican restaurant.

Macau's sole Mexican joint, Mexicana got plenty of visits from our family this past year. There is another place in Macau called Tacos, which would lead you to believe you might find Mexican food there, but the owners are Portuguese and it never satisfied my cravings. I'd call it Portuguese food with Mexican undertones. But back to Mexicana... Like I said, we ate there a lot. Probably every other week, if not every week. The Filipino waitresses knew our order and brought our drinks when they saw us walk in. It's a huge expat hangout, and it's common to table hop when a new party arrives and you know half the group. It's a tiny place, about the size of a large living room. Very cozy. But I've got to say, if I compare it to the Mexican food in Los Angeles, it is sadly, pathetically lacking. My biggest complaint is that everything tastes the same and it's all quite bland.

Sad, sorry, yellow guacamole at Macau's Mexicana.
At lunch today, while licking my chopsticks to consume every drop of the spicy sauce, I told the group how Mexicana's salsa is just diced tomatoes with a little onions and some cilantro. It's possible that putting ketchup on your chips might be spicier! So coming to Shanghai where a place like Cantina Agave has a salsa bar with a dozen different fresh-made salsas (Fiery Mango black bean? Come to mama! Spicy salsa verde? Get in my belly!) is like dying and walking into the pearly gates of heaven!

I admit that after about nine months in Macau, I grew to despise the food at Mexicana. I still went frequently for the excellent company and because it's always nice to have a place where everyone knows your name. But it certainly wasn't the food that brought me back. So I wonder if my Texan friend who has been in Shanghai for two years has also grown weary of the choices here, coupled with the fact that Tex-Mex is different than So Cal Mex, while I'm like a traveller who got lost in the desert of bland and is crawling my way into the oasis of barbacoa burritos straight ahead. Would the Mexican food here in Shanghai really be as good if I'd just moved here direct from Southern California?

I guess that's why the noontime conversation stuck with me all day. We all have so many experiences in our backgrounds that help us form opinions and inform our decision making process. And frequently we tend to surround ourselves with people who have similar experiences in their backgrounds, to the point where we may begin to think everyone is just like us. And when you do meet someone different from you, they may be very different. And sometimes those differences lead to substantial conflict.

One of the things that excites me most about living abroad, and particularly about moving somewhat frequently while living abroad, is the exposure to a vast array of backgrounds. Sometimes the only thing you have in common is that you both speak passable English and you're both living in [fill in the blank with your current country]. However, sometimes the relatively small number of people who happen to speak English in your new hometown means you can't be picky! Or I suppose you can be picky, but you'll be lonely and miserable. Though this life of ours has been difficult, I've especially loved getting to know and become very close with people who are incredibly different than me. And like putting Silly Putty onto the funny pages and coming away with an imprint that eventually gets folded into the putty, forever changing the color just a little bit, the experience of doing life with these diverse people has changed me. I want to say changed me for the better, but that's hard to judge from the middle of your life. I've got a lot of living left to do, many more new people left to meet.

We're having our first houseguest in our new home beginning a week from today. A young man we've known since he was about ten is coming to stay for several weeks before heading off to university. He's flying in from our old hometown in L.A. We'll take him to plenty of Chinese restaurants, but you better believe we'll be dragging him off to our favorite Shanghai Mexican food places so we can get his perspective. Here's hoping our deprived taste buds haven't been lying to us!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Future Olympians

Michael took the boys to a local archery range right around the corner from our house. Twelve arrows for around a buck. I stayed home and did laundry. And by laundry, I mean I took advantage of having the house to myself and blasted Walking the Dog by Fun. twenty times in a row while dancing my way to and from the laundry room. Which is the best way to do laundry, especially when your washing machine capacity is equal to exactly one outfit and should you take two days off from doing laundry for a family of four you will never, ever catch up again. Unless you blast a lot of music from Fun. Nah, never mind, you won't catch up no matter how upbeat the music, but at least it lightens your mood.

Michael reported back that the boys really enjoyed themselves. Nathan had great form until it was time to let go and then he became a wet noodle. Ben had two modes, he either hit the bullseye or missed the wall completely. I'm sure they'll get more practice. A buck for an hour of fun for them and an hour of Fun. for me? Gold medal experiences all around!


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

57 + 4

July 17, 1955: Disneyland in Anaheim, California opened for a special press day. The date has been considered opening day ever since.


July 17, 2008: I started blogging because my husband was on a month-long business trip to Canada and I just couldn't get behind the whole scrapbooking movement as a way to document our life. We were also preparing for a move to Macau and I wanted to keep the grandparents aware of what their grandkids were up to. Of course, that move fell through due to the World Financial Crisis later that year. Four years later I've managed to document the winding road that has moved us to two different countries and allowed us to visit a couple more, and expanded beyond just writing about the boys. What a long, strange trip it's been. So glad you're along for the ride.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Share the Hair

Wow. I started this post right before Mother's Day. And then we left for holiday in Thailand and then moved to Shanghai and somehow it got pushed down the list. Alas, this is an instance where life got in the way of my plans! So let me just finish up my thoughts and get this out to you!

My Dad was born a blond, but his hair grew progressively darker until it was just shy of black. My Mom was a redhead, as was her mother. I was born with nearly transparent white/blond hair. My little brother was blond, but not quite as blond as I.

Me at age 5, little brother age 4.
We didn't get the memo about wearing coordinating clothing for family portraits.
Or maybe we did and this is just the 1970's version of coordination. Yeah, let's go with that.



My hair pretty much stayed like you see it above until sixth grade, when I cut bangs into it so I could be like all the other victims of the 80's and have sky high bangs. While I don't have any awkward hair photos saved on my computer and all my hard copy photos are in storage back in America, you'll just have to take my word for it. I did mine through Facebook for some photos, and this is the only one I could come up with from the 1980's, my 1989 middle school graduation, which isn't that horrible at all. 

My middle school BFFs, Josh, Me, Mark, Kat, and Matt.
I moved away for high school and the rest were split up to different schools,
but thanks to fabulous Facebook, we're back in touch.
I look like 80's Prom Barbie, yes?

In high school, my hair continued to just grow and grow until it was long enough to sit on. We had crazy hair day at school my freshman year and my friend Sam and I used a rinse-out auburn hair dye and lots of mousse to make crazy hair. Sad fact, the mousse rinsed out, but the auburn hair dye? It left my virgin blond hair permanently pink. My high school was in an agricultural area of California with a high Latino population. My blond hair already made me stand out, and the addition of pink hair did nothing to help me blend in. In the late 90's I would have been the coolest kid in school. In 1990 I was laughed at and made fun of by some less than kind classmates. But I did note how much I loved having rust-colored hair for that one day before it turned pink. My blue eyes were bluer, and my super pale skin glowed instead of blending in with my super pale hair. By graduation three years later, my hair was back to being its usual shade of white blond.
Portuguese foreign exchange student Max, Me,
and my oldest (longest?) friend Toby, who was in our wedding
and made small town high school almost tolerable.
And hopefully isn't reading this because he hates those glasses
even though they're hip all over again almost 20 years later.

After a year of college, I cut off a foot of hair and dyed it a rusty orange. Since red fades more quickly than any other shade, by the time my summer 1996 wedding came, it was back to pale blond again. Every fall I'd repeat the red dye tradition (sometimes it was hot pink, sometimes maroon, but always in the red family), which would fade away by Christmas. I loved fall, and loved my hair then more than any other time. It felt like a retreat from the incessant blond jokes that were so prevalent in the 90's.

When I had my first child, I was certain I would have a red-haired, curly-mopped kid. Every member of both my family and my husband's family have curly or wavy hair. Except my hair, which is so straight it takes a bottle of hair gel and 20 hours in rollers or braids to work up even a wave that will last a few hours. But guess what? I had a blond baby with stick-straight hair. My genes are strong in that one! My curly-haired husband was a blond at birth as well, so I guess it wasn't too much of a surprise. I'll tell you what, if you want to stop traffic, have a blue eyed, blond baby and then move to Japan. I guarantee you won't be able to have an uninterrupted stroll down the sidewalk in his presence!
Nathan 2001, eight months old, dressed for the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival, Tokyo.


Child number two came along, and my fingers were crossed for that curly-haired redhead I hoped for. Alas, only half my wish came true. Toddler Ben had stunning curls that I adored. So did everyone else in Asia who loved to run their fingers through those ringlets and take photos of him while we lived in Hong Kong and visited Macau, China, and Japan.
Beijing 2005. Chairman Mao's tomb, Tienanmen Square. With our friend Jeff and loads of crazy curls on Ben's head.
We moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles shortly after the photo above was taken, and no sooner had we stepped off the plane did Ben's hair go completely flat. I was hoping it was the difference in humidity... Hong Kong wavered at 95% and L.A. is pretty arid. But the delicious curls have never returned.

I began to notice my natural blond was populated with more and more unwelcome greys. And unlike the beautiful platinum white that my own Mom's hair became as she aged, my grey was dark and ugly and in bold contrast to the pale blond growing around it. I was at a crossroad where I was either going to need to let my hair go grey or color it constantly. Fall of 2006 came, and once again I dyed my hair red. And then winter came, and I dyed it red again. And I've been dying it red, or more of a rusty orange, every few weeks since then. Here's my usual color about a year ago, with my "little" brother. You can see how dark his hair has become in the years since that top photo above when he was four. I wonder if his will end up close to black like our Dad's?

When we moved to Macau, I shipped a year's worth of red hair dye with us. My year supply is now up. In Macau there was quite a selection of imported red hair dye. If I'd been smart, I would have stocked up there. Because guess what? There is no imported red hair dye in Shanghai. Unless it exists outside of the 100+ stores I've looked in with increasing desperation over the last two months.

I did find a Chinese version of L'Oreal Preference here labelled Auburn. Of course if your natural starting point is the classic Chinese so-black-it's-almost-blue, then what you will get is Auburn. If you saw my 4th of July post, you'll see that a starting point of rust with a base of blond and grey will get you Crayola-Little-Mermaid-Red.

Oh well. It's not like I don't already stand out here in Shanghai with my curvy body, blue eyes, loud personality, American accent, and my two boys following me wherever I go. Blending in is boring! The honest truth is my hair grows really fast. And red fades more quickly than any other shade. Three shampoos later and my hair is pretty much the color of my dreams. In general, I'm not all that attached to my hair. I've almost never had a bad hair day because I rarely do anything with it other than let it fall around my face or put it up in a loose ponytail. I tried to shave it all off back in 2004 in solidarity with my Mother-in-law who lost hers due to chemotherapy for breast cancer, but she was horrified at the idea and wouldn't hear of it. I hack off about a foot every year or so (and no, don't bug me about donating it to a worthy cause as the coloring and highlights mean no one will accept it).  Keeping it shorter means only one box of hair dye, which is good considering the price here is 2-3 times the price in the States.

Keeping my hair red means I have escaped those nasty blond jokes. I feel the world has grown quite politically correct in many areas, especially race. But being the continual butt of jokes that make fun of my intelligence and mock my common sense certainly mess with my head after a few decades. I think being a redhead suits me better. I'm fiery and passionate and sassy and anything but dumb and helpless. And my husband loves the color. The complete irony of continuing to stay a redhead while living abroad means my friends from the U.K. have their own set of jokes about gingers (redheads) that can be even nastier than blond jokes!


The pale blond locks that Nathan and Ben had as babies have grown darker in the past few years. You can really see the difference in Nathan's shoulder length hair with lighter tips than roots. Funny thing about Nathan's hair being so long... I never thought I'd be the mom who let their boy grow their hair long. Until I gave it a tiny trim a few weeks ago, it was longer than mine.

But here's the thing: my own Mom let me do whatever I wanted with my own hair. She didn't balk at the pink hair, or tell me to cut it or grow it or anything like that. And as a parent, especially intelligent, strong-willed, Nathan's parent, I have to fight a lot of battles. Do I want hair length to be one of them? Nope. No way. Especially not when I'm walking around with Christmas Red hair. I'll save my strength to go twelve rounds over a tongue- or eyebrow-ring or a souvenir Chinese tattoo.

Family members have dropped subtle hints that his hair is a little long (or in the case of my former Marine Corps brother, not-so-subtle hints), but my deal with Nathan is that as long as he keeps it clean, brushed, and out of his face when he's talking to people, he can do what he wants.

Now here's the fun thing, about Nathan and his hair. My friend Rory has a blog called Chocolate Hair, Vanilla Care. Rory and her husband adopted their daughter Boo (nickname for privacy's sake) a few days after she was born. Rory and her husband are Caucasian, and Boo is African American. Rory and Tim have worked incredibly hard to learn how to care for Boo's hair, and created their website to help other parents, either adoptive or birth, care for chocolate hair. I love the blog because in addition to all sorts of amazing hair styles and care tips, there's lots of sciency background on all types of hair and hair products. It's pretty to look at and you'll learn something too!

For the last two years on Mother's Day, Chocolate Hair, Vanilla Care has featured something called Share the Hair, Mama and Me Mother's Day Edition. Nathan and I have participated both years, as the sole mother/son entry. The point is to have a matching hairstyle with your child. In this case it helps to have a boy with long hair! It's fun to see the creative styles people come up with. I had great plans for this year, but in the end we had a particularly hot, humid day that did all the "styling" for us. Click here for this year's post, and then go ahead and click here to see last year's. And then go ahead and add her blog to your reader, because even if you don't have kids I bet you'll get something out of it!

I'll leave you with a photo of me and my own Mama. We're "sharing the hair" as well, only I'm wearing the hair color she had when she was my age, and she's wearing the hair color I can only dream of having when I'm her age!
Mother's Day 2011, fourteen months ago.
Ben is currently up to my shoulder, Nat is only three inches shorter than me (taller than you, Mom).
What's in the water here in Asia that makes these kids grow so quick?
No, don't tell me. I don't wanna know.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Circle of (Plant) Life



When we left Los Angeles a year ago, we gave all our houseplants to a previous next door neighbor, Verity, who has a green thumb like no other.

In Macau, we were the recipients of a selection of houseplants from one of the departing stage managers of Cirque du Soleil's Zaia.

When we moved from Macau to Shanghai, we bestowed the stage manager's plants upon the family who was also taking on our domestic helper, Daisy (another person with a blessedly green thumb).

Today I got half a dozen plants from a family leaving Shanghai for Bangalore, India.

Does anyone in the international community actually buy greenery, or are we all playing musical plants as we move around the globe? I'm not great at always keeping them alive, but it's nice to have a little green to freshen up the place. Especially in the city.
Same cross-stitch made by my Mother-in-law,
same framed photos of my babies
(l-r: me and baby Nathan, me and baby brother, me and baby Ben),
new flat, new itty-bitty plant.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Coco-nuts!

I'm sure it's more of a bar than a bra, but with a name like Coconut, one can't assume too much...

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy 4th

It wasn't a holiday here in China, so Michael had to work. I took the kids out for Dairy Queen after lunch and then when Michael got home we jumped into a few other activities.

We spent it putting together IKEA furniture.


Dying my hair firecracker red.


And grilling burgers.


Happy Independence Day to my American friends!

Let freedom ring!