Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Chinese Cooking

I've had a bunch of Chinese cookbooks languishing in my U.S. shopping cart, waiting for us to head to America or for another friend to business trip there or here. I've been warned repeatedly that shipping books to China is a crapshoot... many friends report they've ordered books which never arrived, caught up somewhere in customs. Certain things are restricted here, and while books are not expressly restricted (unless they are critical of China, promote division in China, or are "harmful to society"), the number of books you are allowed to bring in at once most certainly is (though the number of books we brought with us when we moved here from Macau did not exceed the limit). So while just sending one or two books seems like it shouldn't be a problem in theory, in practice it is quite a bit more complicated (hey friends who want to send us care packages through the mail/Fed-Ex/UPS - skip the books!).

Michael's quick trip back to the States was the perfect opportunity to finally place that book order so he could bring them back for me with his heavy weight allotment. After a couple years of reading 95% of my books on the Kindle, I must say I relish being able to hold a paper book in my hand! I ordered four Chinese cookbooks (and five other cookbooks), and though I've not yet cooked anything from them, I have been pouring through them and putting post-it notes on anything that looks interesting.

My cooking used to heavily feature Mexican cuisine and pasta dishes. Now that I live in a place where a small can of refried beans is $5.00 USD and cooking a pot of pasta means I have to purchase a big jug of water to boil it in as the water from my faucet is unsafe to consume, my cooking habits, and therefore my tastes, are changing. Even when we lived in Hong Kong and Macau the imported goods were more expensive than what I would pay in Los Angeles. Shanghai takes the cake though, with its high duty on all those imported foods which is passed on to the consumer.

One way to save money while living abroad is to cook and eat like the locals do. For us, this means many vegetables, less meat, and lots of rice. We live directly across the street from a wet market (sort of like a farmer's market you'd find in America but more permanent and less "nice") where I can bring home a large plastic sack of produce for under $3 USD. The number of Asian sauces here is staggering, but the hard part for me is nothing is in English. So I end up going to the imported aisle to find a particular sauce, snapping a pic on my phone, and then walking back to the local aisle to compare the label and characters, hoping for the best. The price difference between an identical brand of imported soy sauce vs. the locally bottled soy sauce can be five times the cost. A little detective work on my end means a big savings.*

The cool thing about now having these Chinese cookbooks is the ability to better find a match for a recipe for some of the veggies I find across the street and the spices and sauces filling up my pantry and fridge. The funny thing about the cookbooks is their frequent reliance on canned products instead of the fresh stuff because of availability in America. For example, check out that last paragraph below:

Strangely enough, I grew up consuming a lot of canned water chestnuts in my very non-Asian family. My Mom puts them in her Thanksgiving turkey stuffing, my Dad uses them in stir fry. So to me they taste like a good memory. But can I get canned water chestnuts in Shanghai? Dunno, haven't looked. Because I've got the real deal across the street at the wet market.

As soon as I figured out what these gorgeously colored little orbs were (and how to prepare them for cooking), I started putting water chestnuts in everything I could, just to see if it added anything (my verdict: YES! The rest of the family's verdict: Um, okay, I think so, maybe).

It's funny how my attitude about cooking has changed since arriving here in Shanghai. It's well documented here on the blog that I've always viewed it as an undesirable task, a means to an end, rather than something fulfilling or joyful. However, when presented with the challenge of creating meals with unfamiliar products, my creative and artistic side sprung into action. It's not so much the nurturing or caring for my family by feeding them each night which appeals to me, it's the idea of creating an artful concoction from mystery vegetables for a handful of coins which brings me to life as I step into my kitchen.

Full disclosure: having an ayi who cleans up the mess I make in the kitchen makes a huge difference in my attitude toward cooking as well.

*I know, I know, many Chinese food products regularly make the Western news with horror stories of what they contain, production quality, etc. You don't have to flood me with emails or comments warning me. I'm not unaware that there can be a risk in consuming products which do not have the stringent code of the USDA applied. There are certain products I only buy imported, including dairy and poultry. You might do something different in my position, but this is what I am comfortable with at our stage of living abroad.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Internet Troubles

Hey everyone, sorry that yesterday's photo didn't show up. I've tried to fix it. We've been pretty much without internet access all week long, so if I can't do it on my iPhone with the wifi turned off using the 3G service only, I pretty much can't do it. And I guess this time uploading a photo on my little pocket computer was in the can't do it column. Just had the internet guru out to assess the problem and it's going to take a little more work before things are smooth sailing again. I had a brief moment of slight functioning on the desktop and I quickly took down the photo and put it back up again, and it sorta looks like it might be working. You tell me. Head on back to yesterday and let me know! Thanks for the patience (and oh how I wish I had more of it!).

Monday, January 28, 2013

Put on a happy face

This morning I woke to the brightest, bluest skies Shanghai has seen since the start of the new year. I ran to the corner for coffee and practically danced on the way home. I definitely sang, loudly and joyfully, like a one woman parade. This might sound a little odd, but honestly I see someone walking down the street singing at the top of their lungs every single day here, so I'm positive my meager musical contribution didn't turn any heads.

It is so true that you can't fully realize how bad things are until good returns, and it was only seeing this glorious blue sky that the full impact of recent weeks filled with thick, polluted air could be felt.

I'm working on an ambitious yearlong photographic art project (sorry, you'll have to wait a year to hear more about it), but I happen to have a photo of the sky earlier this month to compare with a photo of the sky today, and it's quite remarkable. No, those aren't grey rain clouds in the top photo, it's particles of pollution blocking the sunlight. Yuck. Seeing that, you can understand why the loud, joyful song was necessary... My lungs couldn't help themselves, being fed as they were with the cleanest air they've had all year!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Won't be long now

Michael is currently on a plane back home, and this time it looks like a man with a pointy nose is eating the plane. Hope the aircraft doesn't zig when it's supposed to zag. No gentle meandering this direction, that looks like a very specific flight path.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Left at Albuquerque

This poor fella looks a little bit lost...

Like I've said before, it's impossible to be bored in Shanghai, you never know what you might see on any given day!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ginger Fresh

In America, the most popular scent of dishwashing detergent is lemon. We like our dishes to be lemon fresh! I've found a wide variety of dishwashing detergent scents here in China. Orange is far more popular than lemon, which I don't often see unless I look in the imported section. And for $13 USD for a bottle which goes for 99 cents at the Target in America, I don't need to be washing my dishes with imported lemon fresh detergent. So I usually go with a local brand for about 99 cents. The scent which surprised me the most was ginger. I mean, here's some ginger:

Raise your hand if you look at that and think, "Wow, I want to wash my forks and spoons with that!"

Any hands up? No?

Because you totally can. See?

Personally, I love ginger. I look for opportunities to use it in my cooking. In fact, it's one of the fresh ingredients I always have on hand in my kitchen, along with shallots and garlic. Using it to clean my plates and glasses was an acquired taste. Or acquired scent I suppose. But now that I've been using it awhile, I think of it as a very warm and fresh scent, which surely leaves the dishes extra clean and sparkly in the way that Altoids curiously strong peppermints leaves your breath extra fresh and sparkly.

It also makes me a little bit hungry. And inspired to dirty up some more dishes creating something new with ginger. Hmmm. Maybe that's what the company intended all along?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A dog's life

I just realized it's been one year since Lucy Rocket joined our family! She marked the occasion by eating her very first shoe.

I was not pleased at all, especially since finding shoes for my American sized 9 feet is difficult in Asia... Next time perhaps I need to remember the date and bake her a doggy cake so she doesn't snack on my patent leather!

Honestly though, she has never destroyed anything before, so it's been a pretty great year over all. Lucy is a very well travelled dog... she was born in Hong Kong, moved to Macau where she found us, and then moving to Shanghai all before she was a year old. Reminds me of my oldest son!

Having a dog makes living abroad incredibly complicated, much more so than having children. But maybe that's because I've done this quite a bit with children but only just a year with a pet? The biggest complication is money. It's not cheap to move an animal from one country to another. Moving her here from Macau, a two hour flight away, ran us over $2500 USD for all the required paperwork, government clearances, fees, and a pet relocation service. The flights for our family of four humans cost only $350 total. I shudder to think how much it will cost us when we leave Shanghai, perhaps for somewhere much further away.

There are other complications as well, like finding a reputable, well-trained vet for general health and then dealing with the non-English speaking government vet for the official rabies vaccination and licensing. Finding someone to care for her while we go out of town is another big one, and we travel quite a bit. Macau was far easier in that regard. We had a full time domestic helper who doted on her, plus three families who would fight over who got to take her in for our monthly trips to Hong Kong or elsewhere. Here we have a part time ayi (housemaid) only in the afternoons and many friends who would love to take her in but aren't allowed pets in their buildings. Most people here with pets have a full time ayi and just ask her to temporarily move in while they are gone. This isn't an option for our ayi, who also works for four other families around town. When we went to Hong Kong before Christmas, a dog-loving friend took her in for the week. For our trip to America in two weeks we'll be boarding her for the first time ever with the company who provides the groomers who come to our house each month. Fortunately when they get together it's a love fest, so I know she'll be in good hands.

Despite any complications of having a pet while living overseas, I absolutely adore having a dog. Especially this dog. I think she contributes to our overall sense of well-being and grounds us. A house is really a home if there's a dog in it (or a cat I'm sure, but I can only speak from the perspective of a dog owner), and I think she had a lot to do with us settling in so quickly here. The boys are willing to do crazy things to care for her and have learned so much responsibility. She's such a calm little thing... we brought her home on the first day of Chinese New Year last year, and the 24/7 fireworks and firecrackers blasting for nine days straight outside our building didn't even register for her. The firecrackers that go off here every morning as well as most evenings don't phase her one bit, nor do the constant stream of boats on the river who sound their loud and long horn blasts. My friends with dogs in America are always talking about how on the 4th of July (American Independence Day) they have to give their animals sedatives to help them make it through the annual single evening display of fireworks. Lu may be small, but she's a tough chick.

Perhaps the best thing about Lucy Rocket is her unwavering and enthusiastic love for us and pretty much everyone she comes into contact with (except the food delivery guys in their motorcycle helmets from Sherpa. She want to kill them. Don't bite the hand that feeds your humans!). Returning from even the briefest of errands earns us a greeting like no other. She wiggles with excitement, wagging her tiny tail so fast it blurs, going from person to person to person and back again, doling out puppy kisses along the way as if we've been gone for a year. Makes me happy to come home every time!

Happy one year anniversary with our crazy wandering family, Lucy Rocket! You are still a sparkly diamond in some rather grey days. And considering we live on the 38th floor, you really are Lucy in the sky, like your Beatles song moniker.

For the most part however, she's Lucy at my feet. Oh how we love Lucy!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

3:00 a.m.

My husband is currently hurtling through the air (safely ensconced in a comfy business class seat) on his way to a week of emergency business meetings in Los Angeles. The sad part for him is he'll get back home here in Shanghai just in time to unpack, spend a couple days in the office, repack, and then turn back around with the boys and I for our long awaited first trip back to America in nearly two years. Poor Michael!

It was a stressful weekend, as all the preparations we were making for the family vacation had to be compressed in a shorter amount of time than I expected, mainly the parts where Michael's help was required. We had dinner with him and then sent him off on the train to the airport.

I got the kids to bed, but instead of sleeping myself, I've been up placing huge orders on Old Navy, Amazon, and Drug's websites so that Michael can bring back much of what we were intending to buy in America in his two empty suitcases which have a 70lb limit, instead of the single suitcase with the 50lb limit we'll each have when we get to fly economy in February. The brilliancy of this plan is we can try on clothes in the comfort of our own home, and then bring anything that doesn't work right back to America the following week! This will save my sanity somewhat- American malls and department stores are huge and overwhelming when you've not been in them for awhile. Heck, they're huge and overwhelming even if you go every week! Or is that just for me? I'm just excited to get some new jeans, as my second favorite pair just yesterday went the way of my first favorite pair two months ago, wearing down enough that they fell apart. Sadness!

I keep checking Michael's flight status to see where he is, and the last time I checked, it looked like his flight was playing jump rope across the Pacific Ocean. Here's hoping it's a peaceful flight and I can get at least a little bit of sleep tonight...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

2013 - Year of the Mouse!

As Chinese New Year approaches (February 10th this year), we bid a fond farewell to the Year of the Dragon. My oldest son was born in the Year of the Dragon, so all year long when we saw anything with a dragon on it, we'd point it out to him. And now as the Year of the Dragon roars out, we make way for the new year... the Year of the Mouse!

Okay, not really. It's actually the Year of the Snake. But for us Chases, there is a spectacularly magical Mouse-related year about to commence!

For Christmas this year, we gave the boys these photos:

And then we told them we'll be going to all of the Disney Theme Parks worldwide in 2013!
I'm not sure who was more excited, the boys or their Mama! Truth be told, Michael, Nathan, and I have already been to all the Disney Parks except for the two in Paris. But Benjamin wasn't yet born when we lived in Japan. For that matter, Nathan was just a 13 week old baby when we went to Tokyo Disneyland and a ten month old when Tokyo DisneySea opened. So we got the brilliant idea to do them all again now that both boys are old enough to remember this year the rest of their lives.
As you may know, the whole reason we are living in Shanghai is because of Disney. My husband is a project manager for Walt Disney Imagineering, responsible for the entertainment venues (and a host of other things) which will go into Shanghai Disneyland, opening sometime at the end of 2015 or beginning of 2016 (no official date has been released, that is the estimate given to the press, not any special insider information).

All Disney employees are called Cast Members, because Walt Disney wanted the entire Disney experience to be like a show, and the employees create that show. In November, the Shanghai team had a Cast Member Appreciation Day in a small ballroom here in Shanghai. At the time, there were just over 100 full time employees on the Shanghai project. If they do the same thing next year, they'll need a much larger space to accommodate the growing team! Here we are, getting the VIP treatment with our old pals Mickey and Minnie in front of an artist's rendering of what the Shanghai Disneyland Castle will look like.
One of the great benefits of working for the Walt Disney Company is a beautiful silver pass which allows you enter almost all of the Disney theme parks in the world along with three guests on most days.
Disney also gives one to the spouses/domestic partners of their employees as well, though Michael's card and my card cannot be used on the same day (that's cheating!). The Silver pass does have a handful of blackout dates and isn't valid for use at either of the Tokyo, Japan theme parks. Wanna know why? Neither Tokyo Disneyland nor Tokyo DisneySea are actually owned by the Walt Disney Company. They are owned by Oriental Land Company, which pays for the license of the Disney brand. So we'll actually have to pay when we visit those two parks!
Having a Silver pass and living a two hour flight away from the nearest Disney theme park is like having a driver's license with no car. It's quite sad. However, this is very typical for us. My husband worked on Tokyo DisneySea and Hong Kong Disneyland, and both parks opened just as we were sent back to America at the end of the project, and both times he left Disney to work for other projects so we never really got to take advantage of the passes. This time around, we vowed to not let this precious resource go to waste.

Disneyland 2004
There are currently eleven Disney theme parks around the world, along with a couple water parks down in Florida. In America, there are two Parks in California. It's home to the original Disneyland Park which Walt Disney himself built, opening back on July 17, 1955. That's actually Walt's image up there on the Silver pass, walking through Sleeping Beauty's Castle. In early 2001, a second theme park was built in the existing Disneyland parking lot. Disney California Adventure is a uniquely California experience, with different lands representing great things about the State. Being native Southern Californians, both Michael and I were raised going to Disneyland regularly, and our children have been to both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure more times than I can count. Nathan's first trip to Disneyland was ten days after he was born!

Also in America are four Parks in Florida which make up the Walt Disney World Resort. There's the Magic Kingdom, which is quite similar to Disneyland Park in California except the Castle belongs to Cinderella, not Sleeping Beauty. It opened in 1971, five years after Walt passed away in 1966.  The second park to open in Florida was EPCOT Center (now just Epcot) in 1982. Epcot stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. I'm glad they shortened it! Instead of a castle, it has a large geodesic sphere which houses an attraction called Spaceship Earth. 
EPCOT with Benjamin 2004
The other two parks that make up the balance in Orlando, Florida are Disney's Hollywood Studios (originally Disney MGM Studios) which opened in 1989, and Disney's Animal Kingdom, which opened in 1998. Part of our honeymoon back in 1996 included a trip to Walt Disney World. We went back again in 2004 with our two very little boys. I don't think they remember it one bit! 
Tokyo Disneyland with 3 month old Nathan
The first international Disney theme park to open was Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. It is very similar to Disneyland Park in California and the Magic Kingdom in Florida. It's also home to Cinderella's Castle like Florida (that lucky princess, castles on two continents!). In 2001 we moved to Tokyo because my husband was on the Tokyo DisneySea project, which opened on September 4, 2001. We were scheduled to repatriate back to America on September 11, and when a spot opened up to leave a week earlier, we took it. How grateful I am that we didn't end up stranded in Canada and Hawaii when flights around the world were grounded, like other members of the Tokyo DisneySea team who did fly back on the 11th! Tokyo DisneySea, like the name implies, features lands that have something to do with the seas around the world. Michael built an outdoor stage and mounted a show in the American Waterfront area.
The second international Disney theme park to open was Euro Disneyland in a suburb of Paris, France in 1992. The castle, like California, is also Sleeping Beauty's Castle, but it is far more ornate! The name was changed from Euro Disneyland as part of a rebranding effort, and now called Disneyland Paris. The park itself wasn't an immediate hit by any means. I can only imagine that if I grew up in France or the UK where there are real, honest to goodness castles with real live princesses, I wouldn't be all that interested in seeing a fake American one. It actually took three years for the park to turn a profit! But by 2008, the park became the most popular attraction in all of Europe, including both the Eiffel tower and the Louvre combined. A second theme park, Walt Disney Studios opened in 2002, and is very similar to Florida's Disney's Hollywood Studios.

The most recent international Disney theme park to open was Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005. My husband also worked on that project, opening the Storybook Land Theatre and mounting a show, The Golden Mickeys, which still runs today. It is a very close copy of the California Disneyland, with an identical Sleeping Beauty Castle. In fact, in some of our photos, the only way you can tell the difference is that Hong Kong has the sweeping hills of Lantau Island rising up behind the castle.
Hong Kong Disneyland, 2005 at a Cast Member preview

Whew! What a history! I told you I really love Disney! If I sound like I know a lot about the company and the theme parks, it is because at one point it was my job to know it. When I met Michael, he was working at Disneyland in California as a tech on the Fantasmic show. Shortly after, I was hired by the Walt Disney Company, first by the Walt Disney Travel Company where I brought guests from all over the world to Disneyland, soon moving to work directly for the Disneyland Hotel and the Disneyland Pacific Hotel (now called Paradise Pier Hotel) bringing international tour groups to California and the Disneyland Resort.
I auditioned and got a "role" working through Disney University doing orientations to newly hired Cast Members, teaching them the rich history of the Disney company, traditions, preserving the Disney magic, and all the special Disney terms (like Cast Member instead of employee). I absolutely loved doing that part of my job, sharing my natural enthusiasm for the brand with brand new employees. Later I was able to facilitate a class which taught trainers how to train their employees. I never wanted to be a teacher of children, but I found my groove teaching adults. In 2000 we found out we were expecting Nathan and Michael got hired to go to Tokyo for the Tokyo DisneySea project. At that point I left the company, but never stopped loving the company, as you can tell!
I think this is going to be an exciting and magical year for us. Each year I think my boys will grow out of enjoying all things Disney. This year they will turn 10 and 13. I'm not sure how much longer we'll have! In the meantime, I'm already planning this year's Mouse-themed Christmas card...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Farewell, Huell Howser

Today California lost some of its gold. Huell Howser, a well known television personality who took public television viewers on televised tours to obscure, quaint, and historical places of interest in California, passed away at the age of 67.

He was incredibly cheesy, with a Tennessee accent and only a microphone and a camera. But he had such a sense of absolute wonder about the commonplace things in life and insatiable curiosity. I could never help but be drawn in to what he was showing us. In high school I mocked and imitated him, mimicking his isn't that amazing catchphrase when someone would tell me something less than amazing. But I never stopped watching when one of his shows happened to be on.

In later years I grew to appreciate him and the fact that he took the time to travel all over California, pointing out what made the state so great. They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and having been born and raised in California, it was so easy to take it all in with a blasé attitude (one I fear my own world travelling children might be developing toward living abroad as we hop borders so frequently).

A shift in my thinking came after living in Japan, where thousand year old temples sit nestled comfortably between modern and contemporary skyscrapers. I returned to America, slightly disgusted with the way everything old in Los Angeles is torn down to make room for the new and generally bland, leaving the city feeling culturally bankrupt. It was then that I started watching his California's Gold series, gleaning up facts about the places I had visited throughout my childhood and teen years. Yes, many things in California do get torn down, but Huell pointed out the small treasures which remained. I became an unapologetic fan.

Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, was also a big fan of Huell, and created a character for him on the show, Howell Huser, who declared Springfield the Worst Town Ever. By all accounts, Huell was absolutely delighted to be a part of it, appearing twice on the animated show.

In 2007 Huell visited the set of CSI: NY, filmed in downtown Los Angeles which my father worked on for years. Huell interviewed my Dad, in tones of ever escalating disbelief, asking how they film a show in LA which takes place in New York! Later that night, my Dad called to tell me about his onscreen encounter with the man and his microphone, and I was blown away by his good fortune to have met him. And then upset my father hadn't called me to race downtown to meet Huell myself. Alas, that opportunity has now forever passed.

One of my favorite episodes is when he visits the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. Even if you've never been there, you'd probably subconsciously recognize the gates outside which are used for filming quite frequently. I love watching the young and hip students not knowing exactly what to make of this guy with his over-the-top enthusiasm. At the end of the episode, he films a music video with the students of a very appropriate song, California Here I Come. I'll leave you with the final product, filled with that great cheesy quality that made him who he is. Farewell, Huell. You make me proud to be a native Californian.

(Email subscribers please click through to the site to see the video.)

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Shortly after we moved to Shanghai, we found ourselves in a taxi headed home and saw an unusual sight. Or I should say the boys and I saw an unusual sight, Michael had his nose buried in his iPhone. Running across the road in front of us, trying to dodge the cars, were ten middle-aged men dressed in bright blue overalls and neon orange shirts. And like a band of miners, they were all carrying pickaxes on their shoulders! They looked like they escaped out of a Mario Bros. video game and would look right at home in Minecraft. The boys and I yelled out in surprise but by the time we could tear Michael's attention away from Angry Birds, we'd already sped past. He doubted our story then, and even months later. I admit, it does sound kind of crazy. What would anyone in the giant metropolis of Shanghai need with pickaxes? And why were they dressed like cartoon characters?

I'm happy to report that after six months of pondering this, I came across one of the pickax wielding men along with one of his cohorts, and before I lost my nerve, I snapped a quick photo.

Turns out that wasn't such a great idea. Of course, as soon as I took it, he yelled at me and got his coworker there to yell at me. And I still had to cross the street  right in front of him, listening to him yell me across. Since I couldn't understand what he was saying and I'm not a fan of being yelled at, I called upon my wild imagination and clearly heard him saying, "If I were in my magical video game and/or enchanted Disney world instead of this sad and sorry real one, I would never let a princess as fair as you cross the road on her own two feet! I would summon a carriage to bear you down the road so you would not have to tire your legs! How ashamed I am to be in this real world! My apologies Your Highness! I long for the day we shall meet again in fairer pastures in the realm where we both belong."
In rereading that, I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess it is this (typical for me) line of thinking that made my husband doubt my original story of ten men with pickaxes in the first place...

Saturday, January 5, 2013


When we were looking at flats in Shanghai, we noticed many of them had these metal ladder things on the bathroom walls. My initial thought was it was some sort of towel rack, followed by a second thought - that thing could hold a lot of towels.

When we finally settled on this place and came for our walk through, the owner's husband (who speaks splendid English thankfully), showed us what they really are - bathroom heaters. During the winter, you open the valve on the lower left and press a button on the water heater out on the balcony. This streams boiling hot water into the pipes, which then heats the entire room quite nicely.

Someone told me they were indeed heated towel racks, but they get far too hot to actually put anything on there. Like our bathroom in Macau, the floor and walls are made of marble with no vent for the heater or air conditioner. This means in winter the bathroom is frightfully cold (especially since one wall of the bathroom is windows -single paned- and quite exposed) and in summer it becomes unbearably hot. I'm quite low maintenance, but if blow drying my hair in the summer is absolutely necessary, I do it in another room right under the a/c vent.

I'm such a fan of this type of bathroom heating! The only issue we've had (and it's a considerable one) is that our water heater machine is out on the exposed balcony in the cold, and frequently during the night the automatic pilot cycles off leaving us without hot water, and therefore, without that lovely bathroom heat in the chilly mornings. It's solved by pressing a button on the water heating machine, but still a pain to go from our warm bedroom out to the balcony at the other end of the house. I have to say, when it works, it's amazing! The boys' bathroom and the guest bathroom are more in the center of the house with no windows, so they never get quite as cold (or hot) as ours and we've not yet tried turning on the heat in those bathrooms. Maybe for our next set of guests?

One final image, a partial view from our bathroom. We have a privacy shade that rolls down, but most of the floors of the adjacent buildings are completely vacant. Shanghai is crazy with constant construction, but there seems to be a lack of people to fill all that new construction. Guess they're just being prepared should a few million more people decide to join the 24 million other people who already live here!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Shanghai Hospital Tour

Right after we moved to Macau, we got to experience the local hospital when my oldest son grew very sick. I wrote about that here. I wanted to share what my Shanghai hospital experience was like as well.

First of all, you should know that unlike America, most doctor visits in Shanghai (and greater China) take place at a hospital. Instead of going to an off site doctor's office or clinic, you just go straight to the hospital to be seen. It isn't always a requirement to have an appointment, but if you want to be assured that the doctor you see speaks English (or has someone there to translate), then an appointment is a good idea. Most hospitals have a "local" area and a "VIP" area. The difference is price and wait time, with the VIPs paying more and waiting less. Expats, unless they speak fluent Mandarin or have someone to translate for them, go to the VIP area, which generally has an English speaker to serve you. There are a few expat-centric hospitals with many foreign trained physicians, but our insurance doesn't cover them. This isn't our first experience with medical professionals overseas, so going to a more local hospital doesn't strike fear in my heart as it might for others. In fact, overall my experience this week was a comfortable experience, especially when compared with the stark foreignness of the Macau hospitals where no one spoke English and I had much miscommunication even with a translator.

My most recent illness was a simple cold which refused to go away. I rested up as much as I could before our trip to Hong Kong before Christmas, but soon after our return I was once again feeling those nasty cold symptoms. Last Thursday I started antibiotics after the cold finally settled right into my sinuses, causing great pain and a soaring fever. Instead of feeling better, Saturday morning I only had enough energy to get up, shower, and then climb right back into bed. By Saturday evening, the pain in my head grew so intense I started throwing up. Twenty-four hours later, I was still unable to keep even a sip of ginger ale down and I was dizzy with unrelenting pain and dehydration. I couldn't even mildly protest when Michael made a late night call to the local hospital and our insurance company to find out the procedures for bringing me in to be seen after normal business hours. Michael had been busy all weekend, or I'm certain he would have forced me to go in sooner.

As we don't have a car and driver, we had to take a taxi for the short ride. Just getting upright to go downstairs was agony for me. Thankfully our lobby guard radioed the guard at the street who sent a taxi right to our door. When we arrived at the hospital we followed the signs to the main lobby, which was wide open, but deserted and dark. The information desk was vacated and in shadows. Michael had been told to report to the 11th floor by our insurance company, so we wandered around a bit in the dim light searching for an elevator. The 11th floor had one masked nurse behind a desk who told us to sit in front of an elevator which was blocked by a Christmas tree. No, really. See:

Another nurse and a very grumpy man in a blue polyester suit showed up. The nurse translated for the grumpy man, who said we needed to pay 50.50 RMB (~$8.50 USD), cash only, to be seen. So Michael handed over the cash, while I clutched a plastic bag from Hong Kong Disneyland and tried not to throw up. I was then ushered into a triage room to be questioned by a nurse, who determined that yes, I was sick enough to see a doctor. We were ushered back to the Christmas tree/elevator waiting area with forms to fill in, where my eyes bugged out upon seeing the tree had been knocked over, separated into three pieces, presents and ornaments scattered all over the floor. We'd been gone just a few moments and the floor was deserted. We initially thought someone got off the elevator and got tangled in the tree, but we then noticed a sign saying that elevator didn't stop at the 11th floor. I asked Michael to reassemble the poor tree because the sight disturbed me greatly.
Next, the grumpy man in the blue suit returned with the nurse, to inform us the doctor would want to run blood tests which would cost 65 RMB  (~$11 USD) in advance, and that Michael should follow them down to the first floor (in a different area than where we arrived) to pay the cashier. Michael got to experience the madness of the "local" area, which was packed with patients and long lines. The nurse cut in front of everyone and put Michael's payment through while I stayed up on the 11th floor guarding the tree and miserably clutching my plastic bag.
The nurse and cashier. Photo courtesy of Michael
They returned and I was brought back to the examination room to be questioned, poked, prodded, and assessed by the doctor, who spoke excellent English. I noticed the string of bags meant to bring luck and fortune and health attached to the IV pole on the bed, and fervently hoped I'd be getting something a little more substantial to help me feel better.
They took my blood and sent me back to the Christmas tree to wait for results. After 30 minutes, the grumpy man in the blue suit and his nurse counterpart returned to say I needed to be hydrated and treated with medication via an IV, and that we needed to pay for the medication and fluids in advance once again. Michael made a second trip down to the cashier and then to the hospital pharmacy where the grumpy man collected the medications after they were paid for.
The nurse and the grumpy man at the pharmacy. Photo courtesy of Michael.
Michael returned and we were escorted to a hospital room on the 12th floor, also part of the VIP ward. This floor, like the 11th, was dark and deserted, with only one occupied room. When Michael was paying for the medicine, the nurse asked if I would like a bed or if a couch would be fine. He said a bed. She told him that would be an extra $100 USD. He said a couch would work great (I agreed with his decision, $100 is a flight to Hong Kong and the couch was long enough for me to lay down on). We were ushered into a room and another nurse tried to put in an IV. It was incredibly painful and fluid immediately made a huge bulge on the back of my hand. I started screaming in pain, so she pulled it back out. She didn't apologize, she just said the antibiotic was painful and tried my other hand. Better. I tried to focus on the fact that the IV would make me feel better and ignored the throbbing.
Here's the hospital room with two empty beds which could be yours for $100 a night! I laid on a couch identical to the burgundy one across from me while Michael sat in the chair telling me stories to distract me from throwing up or freaking out over the blossoming bruises on the back of my hands from the giant IV needle.
Speaking of vomiting, every now and then we'd hear the loud sound of the floor's only other occupant throwing up. Completely nauseated myself, I kept repeating the line from Finding Nemo - Find a happy place, find a happy place.
I repeatedly asked the nurse what was in the IV bags they were giving me. All the notations were in Chinese except one, which said Vitamin B6. The nurse would only say one was an antibiotic and one was anti nausea. Considering there were eleven separate notations, I think I got a little bit more than that. I finally got to the last drop in the last bag, and the nurse gave me a bag of medications to take with me, sending us home in the early morning of New Year's Eve to the coldest temperatures we've faced yet.
As we left, I got to walk through the madness of the first floor local area. It was noisy, thick with cigarette smoke, and filled with the strong aromas of various foods being slurped up, but also devoid of Christmas trees, intact or otherwise. The chaos reminded me of my experiences at the hospitals in Macau, and as I shuffled my way out, I found the option of the VIP area gave me another reason to be grateful that we are here in Shanghai.
After a few rough hours of sleep back home, I googled all the medications the nurse gave me. One was an antibiotic which said is useful in treating the plague (!), one was for my upset stomach, one was a pain pill containing Tylenol, caffeine, and propyphenazone (which is banned in a couple places but took my headache away quite effectively), and a box of yinhuang hanpian, a traditional Chinese medicine which she said would make my throat stop hurting. And oh my goodness, did it ever! I'm a fan.
Three days later I can see an improvement though I'm still quite weak and prone to needing an immediate nap every few hours. The backs of both hands have pretty large bruises thanks to the attempted and successful IV lines. 
My overall impression: In Shanghai, the doctor asked me about my symptoms, asked me lots of questions which felt unrelated to the reason I was there, examined my whole body (not just my head and stomach, but my knees, elbows, ankles, back, neck, etc.), and ran a lot of tests. The testing part is similar to what might happen in the US, the difference being I was never given the test results. I did ask. I wasn't told what medication was in the IV, though I asked a few times. The only explanation I got beyond antibiotic and anti nausea was that they were "good for you." The only decision left up to me was whether I wanted to pay for a bed or just use the couch while hooked up to the fluids.
Part of this is the culture, where facing something in a direct manner, head on, is frowned upon. Bad news isn't easily given, even in business situations (much to my direct and straightforward husband's chagrin). I don't feel like I got bad care, but I know if I had felt even slightly better, there would have been more of a fight on my end to know what the test results were and what was in the IV. Honestly though, as a mom accustomed to taking care of everyone else, it was a little bit nice to finally give up and allow myself to be taken care of without having to know all the details. After all, the pain did subside, as did the nausea, just like the nurse said it would. Just another little something to get used to here in China. It's all going to be okay so long as I have access to that amazing yinhuang hanpian!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Shanghai Air Quality

I feel like I was sick a lot in 2012. It seems to take my immune system a whole year to adjust to a new location. Unfortunately, we seem to move every year! Great for my wandering soul, not so great for my health.

Three of the four members of my family have mold allergies, which tend to cause sinus issues for two of us and asthma for my husband. Hong Kong and Macau have subtropical climates and are quite humid most of the year. There is visible mold growing everywhere you look outdoors, and without a dehumidifier in your home, mold will grow on your walls and in your closets, eventually making its way into your clothing and soft goods. Strangely enough, none of us with mold allergies had a problem at all in either Macau or Hong Kong. Bringing up the mysterious lack of symptoms to our doctors, we were told that the humid climate, while breeding mold like crazy, actually works in the favor of those with mold allergies as the mold tends not to go airborne. In Southern California the climate is far more arid, and mold carries on the winds which come in from the desert in the Santa Ana winds, and stirred up on the ocean breezes which blow in from the Pacific Ocean. You may have the cleanest mold-free home humanly possible to sustain, but just going outside or opening your window will expose you to those nasty spores which cause us so many problems. Macau was a nice break from those mold issues.

Flash forward to the present here in Shanghai, and we find we aren't so lucky. At least I'm not. Mold is here, but it's not as bad what we experienced further south. Overall it is far less humid (though our fellow expats like to complain about the humidity here, I've not yet had to shower 2-3 times in one day to remove the stickiness of the air mixed with sweat, a common summer occurrence in Macau), but the air quality here is terrible. There is a free app which tells us every hour what the air quality is, and I actually use it to guide my daily activities. This feels very sci fi to me! The first set of stats are the official numbers from the Chinese government. The second set are from the US Consulate here in Shanghai who also monitors the air. Please note the Chinese government always paints a rosier picture of the pollution. The US Consulate also tweets the numbers every hour. Here's a selection of days from the last few months:
This is today.

This was one of the worst days I've seen. The sky was yellow.

And here's a graph of the last 30 days based on the US Consulate's numbers. No wonder I've been sick most of the last month!

Even without the app, I can tell when the quality is particularly bad by just breathing. Michael is the one with asthma, and though he hasn't seen an increase in breathing problems, there have been several days where my own breathing is labored and a puff on an albuterol inhaler makes a world of difference.

In the seven months we've been here, I've had three sinus infections, each one worse than the last. This is an old issue which hasn't surfaced in years thanks to a great ENT (ear, nose, throat) doctor in Los Angeles who set me on a course of treatment that all but obliterated them five years ago. I guess it's time to seek out a new ENT specialist here. Tomorrow I'll take you on a "tour" of the hospital I went to here in Shanghai when my latest sinus infection got quickly out of control. I'm grateful the services were competent and inexpensive, though completely different from what one would experience in America, or even Macau for that matter! For now it's back to bed for me.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!

Midnight view of the Bund and Huang Pu River from my sofa

At the stroke of midnight, the night sky of Shanghai erupted in fireworks as well as small red lanterns that drifted away on the below-freezing breeze. I spent the last day of 2012 in the hospital of all places, hooked up to an IV filled with antibiotics, painkillers, and anti-nausea medication. Not such a great end of the year! But today starts a new one, a year that I hope is filled with lots of health. More soon, it takes almost nothing to send me back to bed for more rest. Happy New Year everyone, and Happy Birthday to my little brother!

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