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.

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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.