Monday, December 30, 2013

A Dolly for Christmas

I've been having some serious issues with Blogger, which may explain my absence here in recent weeks. Because life has been so busy with loads of fun holiday activities, I've not had much time to sit and figure out what's going on, and posting at all is an exercise in massive amounts of patience. Life will shortly slow down a bit and then I can resume posting about our European vacation and Holiday fun.

In the meantime, I would like to point you to my friend Rory's blog, Chocolate Hair/Vanilla Care. Each year her daughter receives just one Christmas gift from her parents, and this year she asked for an American Girl doll. Rory took the amazing step of adding in yarn extensions and styling the dolls hair to look just like her daughter's! See the post here.

In my pre-American Girl doll childhood, Cabbage Patch Dolls were the thing to have. I wanted one so badly, but they were out of reach cost-wise for my family. My grandmother Rose began to create rag dolls in the Cabbage Patch style (though with cloth faces rather than plastic), and her first attempt looked nothing like the much coveted doll. She felt it was a disaster, and tossed it into the sewing room trash bin, where I discovered it later over our Christmas visit to her house. My young and tender heart shattered at the callous way such a creation could be discarded, and I rescued the doll, begging my grandmother to just add hair and please-pretty-please let me keep her forever and ever. It took a lot of convincing, as my grandmother was truly an artist with needle and thread and she felt this was not anywhere close to what she was capable of. However, she promised to finish her and she ended up handing her over on the day of the 1984 Olympics opening ceremony in Los Angeles, which is forever seared into my memory as the day Robin became my constant companion. And true to my promise to my grandmother, I have not only kept her forever and ever, I've actually kept her with me all these years, and all these moves.

 
The Disney/Pixar film Toy Story 2 forever ruined the idea that it's okay to keep your beloved childhood toys in a box in storage. I had a small crisis prior to moving to Macau when I put Robin and my favorite stuffed monkey, Nanner, into a cardboard box and taped it up, knowing they'd be in there for 5+ years while we lived abroad, maybe forever, banished into the toy graveyard of long-term storage. Michael, who knows me so very well, and knows my heart (which has grown no less tender over the years), cut the tape on the box, rescued my two toys, and added them to the pile of things to be shipped abroad. If toys do come alive when we're not looking, then I'm certain Robin there has the very best stories of her adventures to tell the boys' LEGO creations!
 
Within a year or two, Cabbage Patch dolls popularity waned from the white-hot object of the public's desire, and I finally got one on clearance. My grandmother also perfected her technique of knocking them off, and made me several others which had the blocky, stout body of the commercial version. However, never did any of the others make their way into my deepest affection, gaining pride of place on my pillow the way Robin did, and continues to enjoy. Well, not on my pillow anymore, but still in my bedroom nearly 30 years later. All this to say that I hope my friend Rory's daughter gets at least as many years out of her new doll, into which so much love was poured by her mama.
 
Do you have any special childhood Christmas gifts which you still treasure today? It feels so much more difficult to find that one thing which will become a beloved item with my boys. This year we surprised them with Nerf dart guns, the very first weapons we've ever sprung for. I will treasure forever the look on their faces and the lilt of their excited voices when they tore open the paper to reveal something we've denied them up until this point. They aren't quite sleeping with them a la A Christmas Story's Red Rider BB Gun, but they are always within reach and so far no one has shot an eye out!
 
Merry Christmas friends and family! Here's to more regular posting in 2014!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

 
We are simply having a wonderful Christmastime.
I hope you are too!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Farewells

A harsh reality of expat life is that you say goodbye more often than most people. This life is like an airport, with constant arrivals and departures. 

My son Nathan, at 13, has decided the pain of saying goodbye is not worth meeting any new friends, knowing there is a shelflife on time spent together living abroad. My hope is that now that he and his peers are on Facebook, and have access to other types of instant electronic communication, he'll see that the world is small and with some work no friend is lost forever. But I certainly know how he feels! 

When I first arrived in Shanghai there was a group of women I got to know right away. They were unique and diverse and well travelled with amazing stories. Over the past 18+ months, I've said goodbye to all but one, the rest having repatriated or moved on to their next post. Today, however, brought with it the sad goodbye to the final person in that original group of ladies, my friend Kellee. 


This was such a blow because it was so unexpected, springing up very quickly and out of the blue. She had been in Shanghai for over four years, and expected to remain here for awhile longer. When I met her, she was days away from giving birth to her second daughter, now a gorgeous toddler. She's leaving Shanghai pregnant with her third child, one that I won't get to watch grow and change each week like I got to do with little Nina Sophia. 

Kellee was the one who arranged all the meals for me after my surgery this summer, and was a never-ending source of funny stories. While in Paris, we got to eat at the little cafe where her husband Francois proposed, and walk in the footsteps of many of her experiences in France. I thought for sure we'd have lots more years to tell stories and get to know each other. I feel cheated that it didn't happen. Yet I can better empathize with the people who are forever saying goodbye to us as we move on. It stinks. 

I made my husband take the photo above as we said our final goodbye. We were both sobbing our eyes out. It never gets easier, especially when every tear shed is part of a cumulative collection of farewells too numerous (and painful) to count. 

But like I tell Nathan all the time, with each goodbye there is also the possibility of a brand new hello. I am ready and waiting. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Okey-dokey

Good news, our canine friend is back home and back in her usual spot.


She did not need surgery, Lucy Rocket just had a case of acute pancreatitis and is now on a low fat, high protein diet for the next six months. Considering it took two years for her to get up to her goal weight of 2kgs, I'm not sure a diet is a good thing for this petite little thing!

This whole ordeal has been quite interesting. I carry a little baggage from my childhood, having had a grandmother who loved her animal friends far more than the humans in her life. My little brother and I would get to see her only once or twice a year, and when we'd make the journey south to see her, she'd spend the entire time talking to her Weimeraner dog, Schotse. My grandfather would take my family out to his favorite (expensive) steak house during our yearly visit, and my grandmother would take two tiny bites of her steak, and take the rest home in a doggie bag to feed her doggie, who she was always so anxious to get home to see. This messed with my young head, because of course grandmothers are supposed to be loving and kind and very interested in what their grandchildren have to say, especially children they only see once or twice a year. Right? Not always, obviously.

The experience of having a grandmother whose words and actions told me I was less important to her than her dog made me vow from a young age that animals would never be more important to me than any human relationship. And so it has been my whole life. Flash forward to the present, and here I am, completely gutted and losing sleep over a tiny poodle, the only thing I can talk about, text about, or post photos about on Facebook. My excuse for sounding exactly like my grandmother? Two human boys, to whom that same tiny dog is an entire world. Two boys who have dealt with a ridiculous amount of loss in their lives as we continue to move around the world every year or two. So yes, I was beside myself with worry, but it was primarily worry over the possibility of losing this symbol of home and continuity to two children who I love fiercely. And yeah, a big dose of worry because Lu is my constant companion, my Velcro dog (always stuck to me), and though tiny, her absence for a week was huge. Us girls have to stick together in this house of boys.

I am so relieved we're back on the side of health in our smallest family member! Slumber is restored, and the boys are back to fighting over whose turn it is to take her for a walk. All is right in the world.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

His Eye is on the Sparrow

So, Lucy Rocket is quite a sick little puppy.


And I am one nervous wreck. You can tell because it's 2:35 a.m. and I am blogging instead of sleeping.

We noticed some mild gastrointestinal upset over the last two days, but she was just so darn perky and happy and full of energy, that it was tough to take it too seriously. And then late last night she just started growing lethargic, and then this morning she curled up in her pet carrier and started crying. This was just not right, so the minute the vet's office opened we took her in.

Let me be really candid here. Human health care in China is one thing, but canine health care here initially frightened me, because pets, especially dogs, don't necessarily have the same status here they tend have in some other countries. I have seen dog meat sold here with my own eyes in two different places, both in my neighborhood. Friends around town have posted photos of the same in their own neighborhoods (I have taken no photos and will not do so, nor will I post any here. Sorry). Knowing our pet is something people dine on made me wonder if the veterinary care for dogs would be on par with what it might be in another country where dog isn't a delicacy.

I've taken Lucy to two vets here in Shanghai over the last eighteen months. One was the official government vet, which is the only place you can get a rabies vaccination, and one was part of a chain of clinics which employs a blend of international and local Chinese animal care specialists. This being me, I did massive amounts of research before taking her anywhere, and made sure to take her in for a comprehensive well-check prior to needing a doctor for something urgent. I felt quite satisfied with everything I saw, and was overwhelmed by the genuine love and adoration everyone in their clinics, from the doctor to the receptionist, heaped onto every single animal. I also appreciated the western mind-set of care, where the doctor provides as much information as possible along with a recommended course of treatment as well as risks and alternatives to help me, the pet owner, make the decision on how to proceed. So I felt very comfortable taking her to this vet today for this more urgent need.

The vet asked and re-asked many, many questions, taking careful notes. He suggested three immediate possibilities, and proceeded to begin some tests, starting with the least intrusive, to try and narrow things down. As a few of the tests came back with negative results, he began the more intrusive tests, like drawing blood after shaving off a patch of her curly fur. After continuing to rule out the most obvious ailments, he narrowed it down to one, a problem with her pancreas, which usually helps with digestion. In her case, it is believed that she's secreting too much of the digestive enzymes which is actually destroying her pancreas and possibly other internal organs as the enzymes have been found floating around her abdominal cavity and causing damage. When positive, the test is about 95% accurate. For a dog her size (2kgs/4.4lbs) this can be rapidly devastating and potentially fatal.

This, of course, was not the news any of us were hoping to hear.

She was immediately hooked up to an IV, and I thanked God for the foresight to bring along the little bed she always sleeps on which smells of home and comfort knowing she was going to have to stay a few nights away from us. I had Benjamin with me, and hearing the possible diagnosis could be fatal was more than he could handle. He started crying, and then he went outside in the chilly, windy corridor beside the road and paced back and forth rapidly.

I immediately called Michael and pulled the Come Home From Work Now card for only the second time in two years, and then ran to the local Chinese grocery to find some baby rice cereal which the vet will feed the dog over the next four days at the hospital. They could feed her the same exact product from their stock at $20 USD a box, or I could go buy my own for 75 cents. It was nice of them to give me that option, knowing the four day stay plus care and treatment is not going to be cheap.

After Michael arrived with his Chinese bank card to pay the initial bill, we spent lots of time just holding Lucy and petting her and saying sweet things to her and whispering prayers that she would be okay. Then they took her for an x-ray, which the vet felt indicated there may also be a foreign body in her gut. He gave us a copy of the x-ray to try and identify the object, but our untrained eyes could see nothing whatsoever. Certainly nothing that didn't look rounded and organic and like it was supposed to be there, instead of something square or angular like a LEGO.

The game plan is this: she's being flooded with antibiotics and fluids and pain killers overnight at the veterinary hospital, and a new X-ray will be taken in the morning to determine if anything looks different. After 24 hours they will take another test to see what's up with her pancreas, as well as do more blood work to see what has changed. She will be seen by a different vet from the clinic tomorrow. And we'll go from there.

The interesting thing about what the vet believes to be wrong is that while there is no specific known cause, most dogs who have this problem are obese, sedentary, and are fed a lot of table scraps and people food. None of that describes Lucy Rocket, who took two full years to get to her ideal weight of 2kgs, and who joins us on long daily walks and has intense and active play sessions with the three guys in the house at various times during the day. And Lucy is fed strictly dog food, with the occasional bit of boiled chicken.

None of us have taken this news very well, though we're all showing it in very different ways. Together we are ever hopeful the morning will reveal complete health in our tiny poodle, who will come home and live a long and healthy life with us, her family. Please God, let it be so.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Street musicians

While I rarely give my pocket change to the panhandlers all over Shanghai, I always tend to drop a coin or two into the hat or instrument case of musicians playing on the sidewalk or street corners. Even the ones playing the screechy Chinese instruments that sometimes aren't that friendly to my western ears. I'm ever hopeful for a surprise like this little girl got when she tossed some change to a musician:



If it ever happens to me, you'll be the first to know!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Hopeful

I had a big writing deadline and I slid in under the wire. It was a script on the theme of HOPE, and man was it really difficult to write. I found a bunch of images for inspiration in the thick of the project, and the Star Wars fan inside me particularly loves this one:


The process took a whole lot out of me, and left me nothing for this little space. I'll be back to regular posting and sharing more of our Chase Family European Vacation (which sadly did not include one of my favorite Chases- Chevy) soon.

In the meantime, a favorite photo from this week:
 
That's my Ben in the middle from America, Alex from Australia on the left, and Ben from Canada on the right, playing in a Japanese soccer league on a rooftop gym with the Shanghai skyline in the background. Photos like this exactly capture why I love this life as much as I do. Love these boys and their mamas, all friends in the neighborhood.
 
And in K-9 news, tonight Lucy Rocket is having a friend spend the night for the first time!


Lyla is a Yorkshire Terrier belonging to the family who cheerfully takes Lucy in when we travel. Lucy is a total lapdog who has about an hour a day of intense playfulness, with the balance spent lounging at my side or on the lap of whoever happens to be sitting. Lyla, on the other hand, is a bundle of licky exuberance who dances circles around lounging Lucy.

Having these two in our flat at once has brought me back to when my kids were toddlers and I couldn't leave them alone together in a room even long enough to use the toilet unattended without a certain older brother trying to do major bodily harm to a certain younger brother. I guess Lucy doesn't mind being at Lyla's house (nor does Lyla seem to mind a curly-haired home invader), but having someone else here to share a lap is not cool with our little poodle! No bodily harm done to anyone, and it better continue that way while Lyla's family is off on an overnight adventure out of town! And no, we won't be getting a second dog any time soon. Possibly ever.

Whew. I'm exhausted. See you again soon!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Thing One and Thing Two

I have a couple of Things running around the house today.

2013: Nat almost 13, Ben age 10.

Funny thing, exactly ten years ago I had a couple of Things running around too. Well, one was more sitting there, looking round and cute, but you get the idea.
 
2003: Nat almost 3, Ben age 4 months.

I think I'll make them dress up like this every ten years. Check back in 2023 for Nat at almost 23 and Ben at 20. If my exceptional good luck for getting my children to dress up in Dr. Seuss characters holds up that is!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Vertical Milestones, Disney and Otherwise

Today was the 2013 Shanghai Disney Resort Cast Appreciation Day. In Disney lingo, a Cast Member is an employee. For last year's Appreciation Day, the company rented out a small ballroom, which comfortably fit the 100 or so employees and their families. This year, the company had to rent out a section of the largest park in Shanghai because there are now over 1,000 employees! It's growing by leaps and bounds!
 
Shanghai Disneyland made the news this past week because it finally went vertical. All the underground work got to a point where they can start growing above ground, and a big ceremony was held to celebrate the first vertical beam going up into the sky. It's still two years from opening day, but it's coming along!
 
 
They fed us lunch and provided many fun activities for families to do, including learning the art of Chinese knot tying, Chinese calligraphy, and paper silhouette portraiture. We were pretty much there for the photo opportunities though, as my boys weren't too excited about getting their faces painted.
 
We missed Mickey and Minnie as we were chatting with our human friends, but we did get to hang out with Goofy.

There was another vertical milestone hit this week. You can probably see it if you look carefully at the photo above. Focus less on Goofy, and more on the two people who flank him.
 
Need some help? Take a look at the photo from last year's Cast Appreciation Day, and then check back up to the photo today.
 

That's right, I'm no longer the second tallest person in the family, I'm now the second shortest.

I measured Nathan right before our vacation and he was still shorter than me. Three days ago we were standing in our bare feet, and I noticed that he was ever so slightly looking down at me. I pulled out the measuring tape and sure enough, Nathan is a full inch taller than his mama. Time marches on, and children must grow up. And up and up and up. But must they lord it over their parents so? A big apology to my own mama, whose height I overtook when I was in the 5th grade, dancing around in delight to her great chagrin. Benjamin is in 5th grade this year, but he's still got some distance to cover. He says he's up to the task. I have no doubt I'll be claiming that shortest person in the family title in no time.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

*Gulp*

Safety harnesses are for sissies if you make your living washing the windows of the high rise buildings on the Shanghai skyline. Here was the view from my bed on the 38th floor upon waking this morning:


A little wooden plank, a single rope, a bucket, a squeegee and maybe a spare pair of underpants are all you need to be in business.

I can't imagine the day will ever come when I will not feel my stomach lurching into my throat when I see this kind of thing in China. And I see this kind of thing nearly every single day. Thankfully, it's not always directly outside my bedroom window!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

American Tourister

Have you ever met anyone who went to London for a holiday who didn't come back with a photo of their entire family or group of friends shoved into a phone booth? No?

Well who are we to be the one family who resists the ultimate touristy shot.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

London School Daze

For me, the best travel experiences are ones we get to share with people who actually live in our vacation destination. For our trip to the UK, we were very fortunate to stay with our friends, the Braden family. As mentioned before, we've known them since 2005 when both our families lived in Hong Kong. They had a profound effect on us and our expat experience, and I credit them with being our inspiration for continuing to live abroad.

I love being able to see the average, everyday things they do wherever they happen to live. When they lived in Manila, our first day of visiting them we got to go help out at the health clinic where Glen served some of the poorest of the poor, and then visit some of the patients in the neighborhood served by the clinic, which consisted of dangerously constructed lean-to dwellings all stacked together, housing an impossibly enormous number of people in conditions which were shocking to say the least. But you know what? All four of us would say it is one of the most memorable travel experiences we've ever had. So when Glen said he had some errands to run around town on our first morning, we were all more than happy to tag along.

Our first stop was at the school where the Braden's daughter attends. Their daughter and our son
H & Nat, both age 10, 2011
Nathan are the same age, but unlike Nat who was overdue and weighed almost ten pounds at birth, H was a miracle micro-preemie who could fit on the palm of a hand when she was born. It's been interesting to see the two of them growing up over the years, Nat at one end of the spectrum and H at the other. This time around, H had recently gone through a growth spurt, trying to close the gap.

H is super smart, and we were really excited to see the international school she attends. Funny story, there is an international school here in Shanghai which made some list of the top ten most beautiful school campuses in the world, which people keep posting on Facebook. Sure, it's a nice campus. But clearly the people who made the list did not visit H's school, because it truly blows every other school away.

I don't think we'd even left the parking lot before Nathan said for the first time (of many, many times) "Can we please move here? Today?" We strolled all over the campus with Glen, stopping in to check out the theater department and meet the assistant head of the middle school. It was so enchanting that I thought I would have made a very poor student had I attended it in my youth. I would have spent all my time daydreaming instead of studying!



I mean, wouldn't you? Parts of the school are older than America. One part, some arches on the exterior of one of the buildings, are over 400 years old. Amazing, right?


The school is both a day school and a boarding school (hmm, maybe Nathan can move there today?). This pebbled pathway my children are frolicking on leads to the houses where the boarding students live.

And yes, the thatched-roof cottage below is one of the boarding houses. Not sure what springs into your mind when I say "boarding school", but I know this is not among the images I think of.

 
It has a pond, with playing fields beyond. Glen says there are usually geese and swans hanging out to make it postcard-perfect.

Here's the backside of one of the buildings, taken with the pond above at my back. The cafeteria is the low sun room on the right. There's even a little coffee shop serving Starbucks coffee in there.


Amazing, right? The boys just wrote postcards to the Braden family, and unbidden they both wrote to H: I like your school. Me too, boys. Meeeee too.

-------------------
P.S. For privacy's sake, I'm purposely not writing the name of the school. If you are an expat moving to the greater London area and found this page because you're searching for an international school, I can put you in touch with people who can give you recommendations. Just email me. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Irony

I took my poor, hurting son to the corner coffee house to get him a mango smoothie to soothe the pain of his new braces. The only other thing he can seem to handle putting in his aching mouth right now is scrambled eggs, and man-boys cannot live on scrambled eggs alone! While on our stroll, we passed the local Chinese school on our block, and paused to look at the kids doing strange calisthenics. He expressed his great gratitude that we are not a sports-oriented family, and that his father isn't one to get really into watching ball games on television. I asked him why he felt that way. "Because if Dad was into sports, he would make me be on these teams and I'm really bad at them."
Little slugger.

I thought for a moment, and responded, "That may be true, but if we were into sports, you probably would have played on one team or another since the time you were old enough to walk, and gone to a sports camp or two every year. By now, you'd probably be pretty good playing at least one of them. That's what happens when you do something a lot, even if you aren't gifted in that area to begin with."

I went on. "We may not be a sports family, but we are a show business family, which means you saw your first Broadway-style show when you were just twelve months old and you learned from a very early age how to sit still in a theater and be a quiet, polite audience member, clapping at the appropriate time. Also, because of Dad's job, you've spent more hours backstage at theaters and in sound booths than most people will ever do in their entire lives."

He laughed about how in Macau we went to see Zaia, a Cirque du Soliel show, and how shocked he was when we were ushered to our seats in the house with the rest of the audience instead of getting to watch from the Stage Manager's booth or from a monitor in an office backstage. "That's much better than having to watch a ball game on TV every weekend of my life. I just don't understand people who get so worked up over something like baseball."

We started our walk home, Nathan enjoying his icy fruit smoothie. "Did I really see my first show when I was just a year old?"

"Yes you did. Everyone around us was nervous when we sat down, but we knew you'd do great and you did," I told him proudly. "In fact, everyone commented at the end how well behaved you were."

"Wow. I don't remember that at all. Probably better than seeing some baseball game I think. What show was it anyway?"

"Hmm," I thought, wracking my brain, rolling my memories back over all the many shows this kid has seen in his lifetime. "I know! It was Damn Yankees."

"Mom! Language!"

"No really, Nathan, that's the name of the show. Damn Yankees."

"Yikes. Terrible name. What's it about?"

"Well... it's... it's about baseball."

He stopped, his jaw open, look of incredulity on his face. And then he doubled over in laughter. And that, my friends, was the sweetest pain relief I could have ever hoped for him.

One year old Nathan, at a one-time-only company softball game for American Musical Theatre of San Jose to celebrate the opening of Damn Yankees. The first (and probably last) time he's ever held a baseball bat.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mind the Gap


The trains and subways in Hong Kong and Shanghai all have cheerful warnings to please mind the gap  or watch the gap when you are boarding the train car. However, the gap they warn you against is no more than five inches, and level with the platform, so unless you trip, the gap isn't going to cause you much damage or hardship. I've always chuckled to myself over the somewhat unnecessary warnings. And then we went to London, where the saying has been in use for a hundred years by the train conductors, and printed and used in automated announcements since 1969 (to save the conductors from having to repeat it over and over again the story goes).

In London, the gap between the platform and the train car is sometimes so wide, and so different in height, a full grown man could seriously fall between if he wasn't paying attention. A few of the Underground (Tube) stations were curved, with curved platforms. And while the tracks curved as well, each individual car is obviously straight, meaning the gap was wider at one end of the door than the other. So some gaps were even trickier to manage than others. There were a few times we helped someone on or off with a baby stroller, which would have been difficult for just one person to manage. It made me think that perhaps mind the gap was an understatement. PAY ATTENTION WHEN BOARDING THE TRAIN SO YOU DON'T TWIST AN ANKLE OR DIE seemed a bit more appropriate.

I don't have a single photo of any Underground station gaps to show you (we rarely had to wait for a train, it always seemed to be there waiting, so no photos because I was busy minding the gap and saving my ankles), but here is a photo of the family walking alongside the Eurostar train we took from London to Paris, which just happens to have an open door next to the platform.



No handy step to get you halfway there in Europe! It's a giant leap from platform to train car. And a pain if you've got a big, heavy, rolling suitcase which actually has to be lifted up. Thank you, Michael, for being our designated lifter.

The trains and Metro in Paris also had entrances which were not level to the platforms by a few inches, but London takes the cake. Considering England's very first underground rail line dates back 150 years, it's not surprising there are much larger and irregular spaces than here in Shanghai, where the Metro first opened in 1993, a mere 20 years ago. That's quite a gap in railway line technology advancement.

Now when riding the Metro here I still chuckle at the watch the gap signs and announcements, but for a whole different reason. Now I picture the scene in Crocodile Dundee where he's in New York city, being mugged by a guy with a little switchblade. Laughing, he pulls out his giant Aussie blade and says, "You call that a knife?" In my head, I'm now saying, "You call that a gap?" in my best Australian accent. For I have seen a gap, and I did mind it.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Heavy Metal

We've entered the orthodontia years.
 


Nathan is currently moaning himself to sleep over the pain he's feeling in his mouth, and I'm feeling like a super lousy parent for signing him up for a couple of years of braces. Thankfully, the actual braces are a whole lot smaller than the ones his Dad and I had to wear at his age, and thanks to advances in technology, the estimated time he'll need treatment is also smaller than the four years I wore them and the five years Michael wore his. If it was only a matter of some crooked teeth, I'd be tempted to be very un-American and let them be. However, he's got some actual issues with the way his jaw is formed, and the longer we wait the harder it will be to fix. We've already waited longer than is ideal, but this nomadic life isn't conducive to ongoing treatment. Thankfully, a long search here in Shanghai netted a great dental group with a gentle specialist Nathan can tolerate (it's been a long road with this kid for anything related to the medical or dental profession), so there's no time like the present.

Nathan has been dreading this day, and nearly sang with joy a month ago when we had to postpone his brace-applying appointment a bit to give us time to get the funds together (you have to pay 100% of the cost up front here). I gave him a long pep-talk before Michael took him to his appointment, about how everyone in the whole world goes through an awkward stage right around this time in their lives. No one gets out of it, not even presidents, kings, or supermodels. So really, the best thing to do is to go ahead and embrace the awkwardness proudly by smiling despite the braces, because awkward is awkward and there's not really much you can do to increase or reduce it while you're in the middle of it. When I realized maybe I was sounding like I was bidding him farewell at the side of the road next to the entrance of Awkwardland, I just gave him a big hug, told him I was incredibly proud and that I loved him more than I could ever have enough time to express it in words.

I hope he can eventually fall asleep tonight. I hope the Advil will kick in enough to take the edge off. And that some day he'll make a less awkward speech to encourage his own child when their turn comes to have the lovely combined Rose/Chase dental anomalies realigned into something more pleasing. Maybe the mother of his children will have naturally perfect teeth and pass it along to their children. Sigh. Parenting is not easy.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Dog's Life, Abroad

Happy 2nd Birthday Lu!
 

Are we the type of people who take birthday portraits* of our dog? Evidently.

Lucy Rocket was born in Hong Kong but joined our family in Macau and then moved with us to China. Every single night when we're laying in bed reading while Lu snuggles between us, I turn to Michael and say, "Thank you for this dog." We only got her because of Nathan. Our oldest son can be quite socially and physically awkward, anxious and tense, yet when you put an animal of any kind in his arms, every muscle in his body relaxes and he becomes suddenly graceful.

Living abroad doesn't make it easy to have a pet with a lifespan longer than a goldfish, so despite repeated requests for something with fur, I consistently said no. But one night we were watching movies at a friend's house, killing time during a typhoon, and Nathan was communing with our friend's cats for hours. Completely zoned out, just watching the kitties. None of the tweenage tension he normally carries could be found. It made me wish he had a pet of his own. And then later that week, Nathan sighed and said, "Mom, I never imagined that not having a dog would be part of my childhood memories."

This was like a knife to my heart. Of course, Michael and I chose this nomadic life, our children are just along for the ride until they are old enough to leave home and make their own choices. It felt horrible to deprive them of something which children who aren't forced to constantly relocate can enjoy. Plus, there are so many lessons in life that can be taught through caring for a helpless creature which depends on you (responsibility, selflessness, sacrifice, time management, the list goes on...). So Michael and I had many late night discussions and began a tentative search of appropriate breeds for people with allergies. Poodles, and other curly-haired dogs, were the best choices, as unlike many straight-haired dogs, their hair grows until you cut it, with almost zero shedding. We also had planned to be in Macau for 3-5 years, so it seemed like the most appropriate chance we'd ever have to add a pet to the family. We searched for quite some time, but when we found Lucy, we knew she was the right dog for us immediately.

Of course, like Woody Allen said, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. The 3-5 years we'd planned to be in Macau ended up being a whopping fifteen months, and we were faced with an added complication of moving from one country to another, the crazy paperwork, quarantines, and costs that comes with bringing an animal across borders. Michael had a job offer in Melbourne, Australia. If we didn't have a dog, we'd probably be there right now, getting ready to welcome summer instead of saying goodbye to it. The quarantine for animals in Australia is six months in a government kennel, the cost of which is carried by the pet owner. Considering Lucy was only six months old at the time, the thought of leaving her for six months was almost unbearable. And the cost was crazy. Luckily, Michael also had three other solid and interesting job opportunities in three other countries with more reasonable quarantines for animals. In the end, Shanghai won, which was good news for Lucy.

Technically, both Shanghai and Beijing have 30 day quarantines, seven days in a government facility with the remainder in your own home if the pet is deemed healthy. However, like everything in China, there are ways around that. The quarantine is only enforced if Shanghai or Beijing are the port of entry for animals. Since Macau shares a border with China, we simply hired a pet relocation company who picked Lucy up in the morning, crossed the border with her into Zhuhai, and then flew with her to Shanghai, delivering her to our Shanghai doorstep in the afternoon. The cost for this service was exorbitant, five times what Lucy cost to begin with. We could have done it ourselves, but China has several different types of visas, and the visa we were traveling into China with might have been compromised had we ourselves used any other port of entry than Shanghai (and we didn't want to delay Michael's employment while we sat in limbo in another nearby country waiting for new visas). And then the visa kept us grounded in China for 30 days, our passports taken for processing for most of that time, so it's not like we could have just flown back to Macau to retrieve her after a week while she stayed at a friend's place. It's complicated, and if you really want to know all the details, email me.


One terribly sad thing I've seen among the expat community both in Macau and here in Shanghai are people who adopt a pet during their stay abroad who then abandon their pets when it's time to go home. It can be very, very expensive to move a pet across borders, even for countries with less restrictions than Australia. Although Lucy has been the absolute best thing for our family, and having a pet might be the best thing for yours as well, I just want to put it out there for the expats who read this that when you consider the upfront costs of adopting an animal and the cost of food and medical care, also do your research on an exit plan. Without knowing the details, you might get down to the last month of your stay abroad and realize you simply don't have the funds to bring Fluffy or Fido home and run out of time to find him a new family. Animal rescue organizations in both Macau and Shanghai report that early summer finds them overflowing with dogs who have been obviously well cared for, well trained, and yet abandoned, right at the most common time for expats to move as the school year wraps up.

I know plenty of expats who have repatriated and found wonderful new homes for their adopted-abroad animals, and there's no fault in that. In fact, if you are an expat and you're interested in getting a pet of your own, adopting a pet from someone repatriating can be a great plan! Just please, please, please remember to also plan in advance for the possible day when you'll need to move. Don't simply abandon an animal. We're already socking away the cash to transport Lucy to wherever our next home might be. This dog is firmly entrenched in our little family so we'll do whatever it takes to take her with us.

*Believe it or not, we didn't actually take Lucy in for a "portrait" here, it was just the perfect afternoon sunshine bouncing off a nearby building right into my bedroom. This was taken with my iPhone and then posted on Instagram. So I guess we're not really people who take our pet in for fancy portraits, we just devote a lot of space on our devices to this fluff ball!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Home Again

We are back home in Shanghai. It was quite a struggle to voluntarily get back on a plane leaving Europe for Asia. Quite the struggle indeed.

We had a marvelous, busy, adventurous time, and I'm full to the brim with excellent memories. I also filled an SD card with photos and had to buy a second one with a larger capacity. As a family, we took over 3,000 photos between my DSLR, my iPhone, Michael's iPhone, and the little Cannon digital camera that Michael used to use but now our budding shutterbug Ben has taken over. 3,000 photos in two weeks works out to over 200 photos a day. I won't be posting all of them (in fact I only just started looking at them), but I did find one from our first day of going into London town that made me giggle as only the mom of two boys who love jokes about bodily functions can giggle...

Here's a quote on a bench, from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra:


The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burn'd on the water; the poop was beaten gold.
 
Funny enough as it is all on its own, right? I mean, it can totally be a potty joke, right? Throne (as in toilet), poop (meaning deck on a ship, but also could mean, you know, poop). But of course the real humor is in knowing that this lovely quote bedecks a bench right outside the royal pay-toilets next to the London Eye.


 
Brilliant, right? Already wondering when I can go back. To London, that is, not the toilet.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Since my surgery, I've noticed my emotions are far closer to the surface than ever before. I joked in the weeks after my operation that my hormones were apparently set to 14 year old girl mode, because I can go from tears to anger to joy in three minutes flat. It's crazy. It's crazy for Michael to watch but even worse from inside my head. It is however, getting much better. Thank goodness. However, I've been in a bit of a funk lately.

We have had a series of moderately stressful things drop on our heads in rapid succession over the last three weeks. Family issues in the States, unexpected financial turbulence, miscommunication (or one-sided communication) resulting in significant angst, trouble with our offspring, health concerns, a friend's terrible life-changing accident, another's marriage ripped apart, a week that brought a dozen emails and phone calls from people who personally wanted something from me, mainly a significant commitment of time, plus some other stuff I won't bore you with. I think any one of those things are manageable, but when you toss all the rest in and give it a stir, it feels a lot like standing in the waves at the ocean when there's a strong undertow.

I'm such a dreamer, always thinking about the future and the great things yet to come. In fact, I collect a bunch of inspirational art work on my phone which remind me of all there is out there on the horizon. But this past week I have not been able to even imagine what the future will look like. The truth is I had the strongest wave of homesickness I think I've ever experienced. We don't have a "home" anywhere but where we are now, and whenever people ask if we are going home for summer or the holidays, I always answer, "no, we are staying home. Here." So I guess the homesickness wasn't for a place so much as it was for people. I just wanted to crawl into the past, full of friends who've known me forever and love me just the way I am. Or maybe for a time. A time where from the lens of today everything looks far more sunshiny and full of flowers and laughter and dancing.

I have a little sign above my desk (along with an action figure of Thor, a gift from my friend Lori) which quotes C.S. Lewis: There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind. I taped a photo of our family from the Macau Tower to it, just to remind me that no matter how great or glorified the past was, the future is full of promise.


Unfortunately, I just stared at that sign which has brought me heaps of encouragement over the past year and thought it was such a lie. All I could think about was the past and how awesome it was! How much easier and simpler things were. I thought about times in the past which I thought were so hard at the time, and laughed bitterly, knowing that in comparison with right now, those were mere child's play!

On Sunday I had the great privilege of hearing a friend speak about being strong and looking forward, not at the past. And about being present in this moment, instead of longing for things that used to be. To say that her talk completely gutted me would be an understatement. I was so convicted! All this current misery is only made so much worse when I'm focused on things that are over and done with and completely out of my control. The beauty of this life is our choice to respond to any situation with hope and a positive attitude, or to dwell on the negative and be overcome with self pity.

Nothing about my situation over the past few weeks has changed one bit. In fact, there are so many intricate layers of things to worry about that I don't even know where to focus. And the truth is, one day I will look back on this time in Shanghai and think about how it was surely easier than whatever I'll be up to in the future. But in an exercise in looking forward, I've decided to make a list of eight things that I am really, really excited about happening in the near future.

1. Vacation. On Monday we leave for a holiday we've planned for over a year. Talk about looking forward!

2. Dream finally fulfilled. We finally get to go to London, a trip which has been booked and cancelled and booked and cancelled repeatedly for seven years.

3. Friendship. While in London, we'll get to stay with our friends the Braden's. These are friends we've known since we both lived in Hong Kong and have spent the last eight years visiting back and forth in the various countries our two families have lived in since then. We are excited to create new memories with them for two weeks.

4. Disneyland Paris! As part of our Year of the Mouse, we're taking the train with the Braden's from London to Paris. When I push through the turnstiles at the Park, I'll be realizing another huge dream of mine... to go to every Disney theme park worldwide! We still have to hit up Tokyo Disneyland so that Benjamin (who was not yet born when we lived in Japan) can say the same thing.

5. Recreating the Abbey Road album cover while we're in London. I told the boys I specifically stopped at having only two children so there would be four of us to be able to do something I've wanted to do for over twenty years. They rolled their eyes at me, but one day they'll thank me. Right?

6. Creative outlet. I'm working on a publication about HOPE using all original artwork and text which will be put out at Christmas. At the same time, I'm also working on a short script for a Christmas production which is on the same topic. The irony of being waist-deep in intense study about hope at a time when a lot of things have felt pretty hopeless is not lost on me!

7. My birthday (Christmas Eve) and Christmas. I know, I know, it's still September. But I already have bubbles of excitement about my most favorite time of the year (we're picking up my birthday/Christmas gift in England!). It's too bad we don't live in the Philippines, where Christmas decorations go up and stay up for all the "Ber" months, September through December. Maybe we need to move there next?

Wow. In re-reading that list, I can only say I'm suddenly quite prepared to leave the past behind and get on with the future! What are you most looking forward to in the near (or far) future? Inspire me!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

2003

I'm juggling several photographic projects at the moment. Some are yearlong projects and some are just on going. I just wrapped up a project which documented Benjamin's ninth year of life from his 9th birthday to his 10th birthday while he was standing in doorways throughout the places we visited that year. I'm going to start a new yearlong project with Nathan starting on his 13th birthday, which will revolve around art (if I can talk him into it. He's a hard sell).

I have another project I'm working on continuously during our time here in Shanghai. Shortly after moving here, I noticed all the manhole covers and utility covers are stamped with the year they were created.


Pudong, the area on the east side of the river, is a relatively new place. None of the familiar buildings in the skyline even existed 20 year ago. So all the manhole covers in this area are from the late 90's or begin with the year 2000. Over on the Puxi side, west of the river, there are older communities which have been around far longer.

I started snapping photos of the covers and then adding the years to a list so I don't end up taking photos of the same years all the time. I plan to just continue this little side project as long as we live here, hoping for as wide a spread as possible in years.

The kids are used to me walking down the sidewalk and then screeching to a stop to pull out my phone to consult my list when I spy a particularly interesting cover. Benjamin has taken to checking out the years as we stroll along, asking if we already have the year he sees.

2003 was evidently a very productive year in Pudong, because it's the most common year we see printed in the concrete. It was also a very productive year for us, being the year we added Benjamin to our family! I took the above photo at his request. I know there will come a day when he doesn't want to be in any photos (I think Nat is right at the border of No Photo Town), so I never turn down an opportunity to snap a picture of him. Even if it's just his feet.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hmmm...

 
Why not both? At the same time? Is it just me, or does this seem like a strange combo for a shop? Do they graft on new eyelashes using the stuff they attach fake nails with? This is a mystery.
 

Um, yes. Wait, do you mean the people who worship nature are fantastical? Or is this two separate thoughts combined onto one tee? I'm confused.
 

So far lost in translation I can't even guess what goes on up on the 17th floor.
Hold me. I'm scared. I don't want to be appyopyiated. Or do I?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Flash Flood


Nothing but oil derricks.

There was this time during my first year of college where I drove solo up to my parents' house, four hours north, at night in a heavy rain storm (sounds like the start of a mystery novel!). To get to their house, you could take a significant short cut off the main highway through a very desolate and rural area filled with oil derricks (seen in daylight in the photos in this post). At some point after I'd left the highway, the California Highway Patrol cut off the exits at both ends of the short cut due to flash flood warnings in the oil fields. These were the days before cell phones (I had a pager though!), so I had no way for anyone to warn me or for me to call anyone if I got stuck. 

 
It wasn't too long before I realized I was experiencing the heaviest rain of my life. I slowed the speed down in my little red pick-up truck to nearly a crawl, as my windshield wipers beat at their fastest speed and my headlights only lit a few feet in front of me. The roar of the storm shook the cab of my truck, and the only thing that kept me from shaking myself was my complete ignorance of how dangerous storms like that can be in a region flanked with mountains and covered with miles of soft dirt as far as the eye can see. I was simply wowed by the power of nature.



The lonely road in the middle of nowhere, cutting through the oil fields.
My slow speed came almost to a stop as the road in front of me would continually disappear, and large objects like tractor tires and fence posts would zip right in front of my car in the murky brown water streaming across the pavement. It was only the power poles that flanked the road which kept me vaguely on track, I certainly couldn't see any lines on the blacktop. The short cut, which normally took about 45 minutes end-to-end, took me nearly three hours. When I emerged back out at the highway on the other end, I found Highway Patrol cars blocking the road with their lights spinning like beacons in the pitch-black darkness. As I slowly approached, a CHP officer banged on my window and when I rolled it down a crack, he gave me the lecture of a lifetime. I can't tell you if it was tears on my cheeks or the rain streaming in my window which wet my face, but I've never forgotten the mixture of anger and fear and relief that officer projected toward me at the top of his lungs.

Flash forward to this week. On Friday we had to make a quick run to a hospital a mile or two up the road for a vaccination. As we were leaving the house at 3:00 p.m., the sky began to darken ominously. Nathan and I grabbed our umbrellas though Michael declined to bring one. While at the hospital, thunder began crashing, booming and echoing off Shanghai's collection of high rise buildings. Lighting began flashing, and soon there were continuous rolls of thunder with constant lightning temporarily brightening up the grey sky. We seemed to be in the very center of the storm. Looking out the window we could see the fierce wind violently blowing trees on the sidewalk and waves of water blowing horizontally.

Our business concluded, we made our way downstairs to the street in the hopes of finding a taxi home. At first, the rain was just filling up the gutters. We saw this lady, shielding her son from the storm under her skirt.

 
A few available taxis passed us right by, and then we weren't "local" enough to forcefully grab the one that did finally draw near enough to jump in, getting aced by a middle school aged girl and her sister? Mom? who put her in the taxi and then ran back into the hospital behind us.
 
We tried crossing to a different corner of the intersection, but every open taxi driver would shake his head and speed away. The thunder and lightning continued violently, and then the skies really opened up. As we stood on what had just been level ground, we found the water was suddenly over our ankles. The two umbrellas were no help in keeping the three of us dry, as the rain just pushed at us horizontally and splashed up from the ground. Michael finally dashed after an open taxi, temporarily losing a sandal to the boggy street, and Nathan and I sloshed our way over to it, completely drenched.
 
Even driving slowly down the road splashed up streams of water higher than the taxi. I felt bad for the people on their bikes and scooters. The water level quickly rose. Please note how in this blurry photo you can at least see the yellow curb, with brown water filling up the gutter.

 
This is the same block, moments later. Notice the curb is completely under water!

 
The intersection at our street was completely under water, and street equipment left out was floating down the road. A man in knee high galoshes was wading out to try and retrieve something I couldn't identify. I think we only cleared the intersection by floating. We finally made it to the front of our building, which has a large glass overhang to shield you from the rain as you get out of your car. In this photo, taken outside our taxi, you can see where the standing water is rippled from the falling rain, and where it becomes still and glassy, under the overhang.
 
 
We paused a minute to watch the waterfall of rainwater coming off the edges of the overhang, and in those quick moments, that lake of water had risen all the way to the entry doors of our lobby!
 
We quickly went inside and changed our clothes, all the way down to our soaked underwear. We compared notes with other friends on Facebook who'd also been caught out in the sudden deluge. One friend in an adjoining complex had to walk down the 52 flights of stairs to the lobby to retrieve their kids from a stranded school bus, as water had somehow broken through into the elevator shaft, creating a waterfall and rendering it completely unusable. Several shanghai Metro lines were temporarily closed due to underground flooding.
 
This morning we found an article in the paper stating what we could have guessed, Friday had brought the most intense level of rain seen in four years. Our neighborhood actually recorded the highest hourly precipitation of 124 millimeters (nearly 5 inches). In a city made completely of concrete and asphalt, it was just like a flash flood... the water simply had no where to go.
 
We've seen areas of the Philippines affected by flooding so fierce that entire valleys were under water, and we're thankful that though very intense, this storm ended quickly. I wish I could say all that water left the city nice and clean, but the truth is all the roads the next day were covered in brown sludge, and our windows on the 38th floor are streaked with grey streams of dried pollution.

The good news is we didn't get lectured by anyone for venturing out in a storm warning we knew nothing about!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Waste not

This pile of bikes can be found in a little alcove on the side of our building. It's right next to a grassy patch where we take Lucy Rocket to do her business. I noticed it right after we moved in.

 
Whenever I would see it, I would think about how sad it was that people would just discard their bikes in such a haphazard manner. I thought of it as a graveyard for rusted and unwanted bicycles. Bikes here are so cheap (seriously, a decent adult bike can be found for under $50 USD), it made me think they are almost disposable, and treated as such. 
 
One evening after dark, I went down and happened to walk past this little alcove and discovered the bikes were all gone. I figured the junk hauler had come along and loaded them up.
 
But the following morning I passed by once again, and all the bikes were back! As I was standing there, I watched a tiny Chinese woman ride her bike up and toss it on top of the pile. I paid close attention for a week or so, and discovered the bikes primarily belong to the day workers, the housemaids (ayi, pronounced ah-ee) who come each day to mind babies and clean houses and cook for the people in our building. As there is no convenient place to lock bikes up, they just toss them in a pile. I suppose it is both a deterrent from theft and a way to keep the front of our building from looking like a junkyard.
 
Though my initial impression was of bikes being discarded and disposable, I've noticed that everything here has a far longer usage period than other places. At the point where I'm ready to toss something out due to wear or disrepair, our own ayi will show shock at the waste, rescuing our cast-offs for a second life. Or third life, as much of our household goods and appliances came from other departing expats, who probably got them from still other departing expats. 
 
I hear a lot about waste in China, especially industrial waste. But when it comes down to the consumer level, there is such a small amount of waste. Even the communal trash bin on our floor which serves two flats is no larger than a kitchen waste bin. We brought our large kitchen trash can from Macau, and finding trash bags to line it has been nearly impossible. When I do find them, I stock up like crazy.
 
I'm trying to be mindful of this longer-than-normal shelf life for consumer goods, especially as the season is changing and I'm starting to put away my summer things and pull out my cooler weather clothing. I look at these clothes I feel like I've worn and worn for over three years, some of which are actually showing wear, and think about how they'd have long been retired to the Good Will or Salvation Army if we were in the States, replaced two-fold to fill up American-sized closets. Though feeling sick of just about everything I own, I hesitate to get rid of anything, knowing how difficult it is to replace with appropriately-sized (and reasonably priced) clothing here in Shanghai.
 
I've changed much in this area. At least I can see progress anyway. I won't be darning socks and sewing my own undergarments anytime soon.
 
And where do we store our own bikes? Same place everyone in a high rise building in Shanghai does, right outside our front door, locked to each other just to make it that much more difficult to walk off with them. Not that you can even get into the elevator to get to our floor without a key card, but it helps me sleep at night.
 
 
Now let's talk about how many plants I keep killing... pretty wasteful indeed!