Thursday, July 31, 2014

Oh Daiso!

I recently read somewhere online that there is a Daiso store in Shanghai. Daiso is basically a Japanese dollar store. Our community in Los Angeles is home to many Japanese dollar stores, but I never visited a Daiso. In Macau however, Daiso was my favorite place to find all the stuff I didn't know I needed! There was a small one in Taipa and a huge one on the Macau peninsula. I frequented both regularly. And of course they can be found all over Japan.

Tonight Michael and I left the boys home with pizza and crossed the river for some fun in Puxi. We tried out a new restaurant, and then wandered around the Former French Concession area for about an hour and a half in our quest to spend more time away from the "America Town" area further inland on our side of the river.

At one point during our stroll, I looked up to see the Daiso storefront, and we quickly crossed the street and took a flight of stairs down to the basement which held all the amazing products I have missed since leaving Japan and Macau, and even Los Angeles. 


Everything in the store is 10 RMB, close to a buck fifty. I think I showed pretty good restraint considering how everything in the shop was just so darned cute! 


We're saving up funds for something big in September, so I limited myself to only getting things I have a use for now. I have an art project ready to get started with one of my purchases. Can't hardly wait!


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Seaside Horseback Riding in China

My Mom was one of those girls obsessed with horses. She didn't get one until she was an adult though. She and my Dad both had one, and the story goes that one was sold when I was born, and then the second one was sold when my little brother came along. Horses are expensive! When I was in middle school we lived on a plot of 2.5 acres about an hour north of Los Angeles.  Since we had the space, my Mom gave me what she always wanted growing up, a horse of my own.

I loved my horse, a huge and gorgeous Morgan. She was a pro who'd done both western and English style riding, barrel racing and dressage (jumping), parades and even some police work. Nothing ever spooked her, not even coming across an angry rattlesnake on a trail, which she gingerly stepped around while my companions' horses bolted and jumped every which way, nearly tossing their riders. While the other girls in my community worked with their horses every day to get them to listen to their cues, my horse Chela (CHEE-la), made me look awesome without any effort on my part. This is a good thing, because I was not one of those girls obsessed with horses, so hard work would have meant less love for Chela. Not that taking care of a horse is easy! But she made it worth the effort. All this to say that when I heard about an opportunity to go ride horses on the seashore, I was extremely excited about the opportunity to get back in the saddle.

We were promised a day riding horseback by the sea on a small island. Small is relative... the island was 25 square miles, which is still larger than Macau which only claims 18 square miles. We went to Hengsha Island via car, about a two hour drive plus ferry ride from my home in downtown Shanghai. To see how far we went, see the map below. We live right about where the * is before the word Home, and we went to the squarish island about where the * is after the word Island.


Just so you get an idea of how big Shanghai is, everything you see in the photo above on the right side of that lake on the bottom left is part of Shanghai. The bright blue is the end of the Yangtze River, and the islands you see in the mouth of the river leading out into the East China Sea are alluvial islands, made up of silt flowing down the river. Much of the island we visited was marshy land with very low buildings. No high rise towers to be found. 

To get there we took a tunnel under the river to the long skinny island, and then our van drove right onto a ferry boat which took us across to Hengsha Island. I've been on many a boat and in many a van, but never in a van while on a boat! 
The ferry boat pulling up to the pier.
Waiting our turn to drive onto the ferry boat.

We drove the length of the island to get to the ranch, which sits in a hotel resort filled with these little villas. Knowing we were on an island, I immediately had flashbacks to the television show LOST and the camp of the Others. Michael got a card from the front desk, because we have to go back, Kate!


We unloaded from the van, used the facilities (squatty potties), and then got suited up. We were outfitted in nifty leg chaps, which proved to be very useful while riding through the marshes, and helmets. Side note: helmets are a must with horses. My friend Sue who I've known for 25+ years has worked professionally with horses her entire adult life, and preaches helmet wearing like a revival tent reverend. She was recently thrown from a horse, badly damaged her body, but would not be here today were it not for the helmet she was wearing. Helmets, people. Not just for bikes!

Our group was small, just ten people. We were joined for the day by our friends Riza (left) and Lirie (right), both from the Philippines and working here in Shanghai for Citibank. They both love adventure, and not knowing if this was going to be a crazy awesome trip or just a crazy trip, I was hesitant to invite anyone along. But knowing Riza and I share the same philosophy (it's always a great day as long as you get a story out of it), I made sure she came.  

We were quickly paired up with horses and given some basic instruction. It took no time at all for me to remember my lessons from so very long ago. My body, however, did not quite respond in such an agile way as it did when I was fourteen!

We went on two hour-long rides, with a lunch break in the middle. We rode through the LOST village up a steep bank to a hole in a fence leading down to the marshes.


When I saw the hole, I thought, "Are we really going through there?" We did indeed. And yes, my hair is really that red right now (and the heat+sweat made my face that same color most of the day as well). 

Coming down on the other side of the hole in the fence. The horses didn't balk at it one bit. The same cannot be said for the humans!


We started our ride through the marshland, and gratitude for the leg chaps was immediately felt as the water and mud kicked up. It was a hot and humid day, but the cloud cover kept the direct sun off of us, and the breezes from the sea were quite cooling. 





We rode alongside a dam, and saw lots of wildlife, including noisy water-jumping frogs, goats, cranes, and a herd of cows who were giving us some serious stink-eye as we went past. 




Michael on a horse:


You could tell these horses are used to doing this route, because we got to a certain point and every single one of them stopped, paused, and then made a wide arc to head back. 

My horse and Michael's horse were not friends. They refused to stay together. I think the photo I took of Michael above and the photo Michael took of me below were the only two times we ever got close to each other!





After the first ride, we went for a five minute drive to a restaurant. There was absolutely nothing about the place which would indicate it was a restaurant. No sign, very out of the way location, and looking quite like a traditional house. But it had a few tables and air conditioning, so we ate what they put in front of us. It had a traditional flushing western toilet, so it got the seal of approval from my legs, which were quite like jelly after an hour of riding.

Michael, me, Riza, Lirie, Francois, and Marion.
We walked around the immediate area for half an hour, peering onto the porches and yards of the houses in the neighborhood. Most had small gardens growing produce to feed their own families.


After lunch it was time for our second ride. We went a different direction, straight out toward the East China Sea. We went through the shallow marsh land again, before riding along some higher ground.


The horses spread out quite a bit, and mine drifted toward the back, where I got lost in daydreams. Until the coach bringing up the rear would shout "Jia!" and my horse would break into a trot. Ouch. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I tried posting, going up and down in a pattern with the trot, but my stirrups were a bit short, and my knees were a bit, um, well, they're just getting older like the rest of me. Ouch.


We finally rode right up to the sea wall, where the horses lined up to let us admire the view. All the photos I took out toward the sea look like a wall of grey. But the breeze was amazing, and I really didn't want to turn around to go back.



But alas, we had to return. And sadly, those glorious sea breezes were now at our back. Which meant my bright red face began to drip sweat as though it was a rain cloud. It was not a good look for me, and everyone who saw me exclaimed about how red my face was. Yeaaaaah. That happens. A lot actually, since my surgery. I think my face must be jealous of all the attention my fiery red hair gets, and wants in on that action. 

The photo below was taken at the sea wall above, looking back at our starting point/destination, which is the horizon line. My heart sank when I saw how far we had to go to return, and how pokey-little-pony my horse was being. I don't think he wanted to return either. 


But eventually we made it back, where we were treated to watermelon which was grown just a few meters away. After we had our fill, the horses decided they wanted some too, and moved in for a sweet treat.



All in all, an extremely fun day. Just wish I wasn't so painfully paying for it now!


Trip booking details can be found here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Sunset

I always (always!) think summer is going to be a time to slow down and relax. It never is. Ever. But the good news it is always filled with so much great stuff so the busyness isn't a drag the way the rest of the year seems to be.

We've still got five weeks left of Summer Break, so I'm not sure things will wind down all that soon, but in the mean time we're weary but happy. We've been having people over for dinner at least three nights a week. Two are planned and regular, but the third always seems to slip in there. I'm so far past my quota of "14 dinner parties in 2014" I've lost count. Michael, who has always promised to do the dishes if I do the cooking, is somewhat regretting that promise as we're generally entertaining a party of 10-14 people several nights per week. Now is when we wish we were like all the other expats who insisted on only looking at homes with dishwashers!

But it's worth it. It really is. Mainly because at least three nights a week while we sit down to dinner around our table where we can squeeze ten adults, we all get to soak in the result of Shanghai's best summer feature: the low pollution, resulting in blue skies and killer sunsets!


I never fail to stop what I'm doing to give this view the attention it deserves. I can't help it. My kids are tired of me dragging them over to appreciate it with me, but I'm glad this has the chance of starring in the stories they'll tell when they reminisce about childhood and their crazy mother... Like this:

"When we were growing up in Asia, my Mom used to drag us to the window every evening to 'appreciate the view' with her. Now that I'm an adult and live in this random suburban location in America with a view of row after row of master planned communities, I kinda regret not taking the time to truly appreciate that stunning view we had in Shanghai..." 

Oh yes, that day will come! We all have it, don't we? That moment when something we completely took for granted (or even abhorred) in our childhood becomes something we most long for or at least appreciate as adults? I look back at my own childhood and am grateful for every single thing. I've repainted every memory that was negative into something to be exceptionally happy about. Mainly because I know that if I hadn't have gone through what I went through then, I certainly wouldn't have had the strength and courage and wisdom and drive to get where I am now.

And the view from where I stand now is pretty awesome! Right boys? Come on over here and look at it with me...

Parenting a teen

In the last month, there have been three instances where total strangers have freaked out when I told them I am the mother of a 13 year old. None of the people doing the freaking out seemed to be less than authentic in their shock. I admit this makes me feel pretty good, as I'm rapidly approaching a huge milestone birthday which feels like midlife, and I'm slightly freaking out myself.

Now granted, we are just eight months into this parenting teens adventure, but right now I can cautiously say it's going pretty good. It feels somewhat like parenting a toddler all over again, but at least this time I'm better rested and a whole lot wiser. 

Maybe I'm just more relaxed this summer, with the gaping hole of social media temporarily boarded over. Maybe it makes me look younger? I just hope they aren't simply being polite! 

Today my highest compliment came from a local real estate agent. Good friends of ours left Shanghai a year ago, and miracle of miracles, they are returning to Shanghai in a few days! I couldn't be more excited, especially since they will temporarily be living right across the street from us for the next two months. Today I was their eyes and ears, and went along with their real estate agent to check out apartments for them, taking photos to send back. The agent was making small talk with me, asking if I have any kids. I told her I did and mentioned their ages. She went nuts, saying there was no way it was possible for me to be their mom because I looked far too young. 

Sorry to disappoint, but I snapped that compliment right up to hang on to for a bit. Nice! 

Gratuitous shot of downtown from their new master bedroom: 


I know where I'd be hanging out if I lived there... Glued to the window! And look at those blue skies! It's been like this all week. Simply gorgeous! Yet another reason to look "young"... Not being able to contain my joy this summer! So much beauty this wonderful season in Shanghai! 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Venice of the East

We're back from our weekend in Suzhou. I'll write more about it later, but I have to share how there are hundreds of water towns in eastern China, several of which we have visited, with more on our list of places to go. The funny thing they all have in common is how they each proclaim they are the Venice of the East. 

Now I've never been to the actual Venice, only the Disney version at Tokyo DisneySea in Japan, which is a pretty spectacular copy. And honestly, I've never really wanted to go to Venice. But now that I've been to a dozen Chinese versions, I must admit I'm curious about the Italian original. Because frankly many of the water villages we've visited have been so stunning in their simplicity and authenticity, that I fear I'm always going to have a bias toward Asia. 

Suzhou is a place I'm definitely going to need to visit again. Considering the bullet train got us there in 30 minutes for just over $5.00 USD, I think it's a realistic option when I feel I need more water than just the river which runs alongside our home here in Shanghai. Not that the water was any less polluted-looking, but there is something special about a city which is criss-crossed by as many canals as roads. It just feels like home. And considering every home I've lived in since birth has been near water, whether river, lake, ocean, sea, or pond, you can understand why I'd think that. 


I must be part mermaid, right? 

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Playground


When I wrote this post, I mentioned I was about to embark on a new venture. Well, I'm happy to report it's been launched!

On Monday evenings we gather up a group of people from a handful of backgrounds and countries to eat a meal together and then do a creative activity. Watercolor painting, birthday celebrations, practicing four disciplines that are guaranteed to make you more creative... But most of all, just doing life together on a regular basis with the same group of people. Though it's all adults, we call it the Playground. I was thinking back on childhood and how easy it was to make friends the minute you stepped into the sand at the park. I wanted to recreate that same feeling, but without the slides and swings. Though I haven't ruled out something along those lines for the group just yet! To create the group, we looked outside our usual group of friends and ended up with mainly youthful single career professionals or newlyweds, all without kids. It's always good to get a new perspective, and I hope that Michael and I, married 18 years with a teen and a tween give them as much as we receive back.

I myself am working on a painting for each day of the week with our Summer routine. Mondays we Play, Tuesdays we Swim, etc. Though after I finished the one above, I realized it might look a little lonely, with just the one swing. Not the kind of playground that inspires group play. But in my head, I meant it to be a statement along the lines of there's always room for one more, join us! But not in a creepy, Twilight Zone, Room 22 kind of way!

This afternoon we're jumping on one of China's high speed trains to head to Suzhou, a nearby lake town which is a few hour drive or a 30 minute bullet train ride away. No definite plans, just time to play as a family for a couple of days! Hoping the rain holds off, the hotel has an awesome infinity pool overlooking a lake which the boys are itching to splash around in!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blue Nankeen

I love cloth and fabric, and especially love the handmade kind which is such a beautiful form of art. Here in Shanghai I am lucky enough to be surrounded by fabric markets which house just about anything you can imagine, along with tailors who can sew up whatever you like in a few days' time. I've been sewing since I was a very small child, and have enjoyed making clothes and household goods as well as crazy costumes for many years.

Having access to cheap fabric and tailors here has made me question whether it's the end result of something made especially to fit me I like most, or if it is the process of making something by hand. The jury is still out. I've been fortunate enough to have every garment I've had made for me be a hit. I have friends who've had a long line of misses, which is too bad.

I heard about a place called the Nankeen Exhibition Hall in Shanghai which is where a specific type of fabric called blue nankeen is created. It's a traditional art form tracing back over 3,000 years to the Silk Road in China. Sadly, it has lost popularity with modern Chinese people, and it appears to be somewhat of a dying art.

I called up my friend Heather B and she called up her friend Carol, and together we set off to find the place. I read that it was a mix between a museum and a shop, and I'd lean more toward shop, but they did have a display of how the fabric was made, as well as freshly dyed fabric drying in the breeze.

It's tucked into a residential block, but the blue signs everywhere made it easy to find. We had to admire the fat green grapes growing from the overhead power lines, a common sight in these old neighborhoods.


We knew we'd found it when we saw the fabric billowing in the breeze. I came so close to purchasing that big print at the back. At 950 RMB (~$160 USD) it was quite tempting to take it home to enjoy a large scale piece of handmade fiber art... I may go back...
 

There was an exhibit upstairs that showed how the patterns are created on thick paper stencils, then a paste of soy beans and lime is mixed up and applied to the fabric with a spatula over the stencil, much like screen printing. Once dried, they dip the fabric repeatedly into indigo dye until the desired intensity is created. After the fabric dries, the soy bean and lime paste is scraped off with a blade and the fabric is washed and then hung out to dry, revealing the still-white pattern beneath.


Ancient patterns made from wood blocks...

And the fabric made using them... 

In the shop they sell fabric by the meter in a width of 37 centimeters, starting at 69 RMB (~$11.50 USD) per meter. It was a very difficult choice! I try not to buy fabric without having something specific in mind to create from it. My top two choices initially were the fish pattern draped over the display, and a circular rope looking pattern laying rolled up next to it (sorry, I didn't get a better photo), which had a very nautical feel. In the end, I got neither of those.


This is my friend Heather B with her top pick, which was also a fish theme that she was going to make into a table runner. Every piece of fabric was amazing... the feel of the cotton was a pleasure and the small imperfections of the printing which proved it was made by human hand and not a machine filled me with joy for this art form dating back 3,000 years. 


In the end, Heather B left that fabric behind and bought a large square of fabric with a similar theme which we decided could be used as a wall hanging, tablecloth, and even a shawl. They had it hanging on the wall behind glass, and it was the first thing she saw, and in the end, the pattern came home with her!

And what did I go home with? Another treasure that Heather unearthed and discarded which absolutely sung to me. It's two panels on a very thick cotton, which I've already hung on a rod and used to cover our "pharmacy" in the bedroom. I love the bold graphics! In fact, I just stood up to walk into my bedroom to look at it again. I love it so much! 


I also got a few meters of this lighter weight pattern to make a skirt. I have the perfect pattern (view B) which will show off the design of the fabric and make good use of the narrow 37 centimeter width.


And what did my new friend Carol get? Well, I can't show you. Because I got the same thing for my Mama for Christmas! Only 167 days until December 25th! The shop also sells many items made up from the fabric, like clothing and bags and all sorts of sweet household goods. There's no bargaining, and I wouldn't say the prices are cheap, but in a city filled with cheap knockoffs and junk, I'm more than willing to spend money on something with a rich history made the slow way by hand.

If you're in Shanghai (or visiting Shanghai), I highly recommend a visit here. It was just a quick stop, and it's a small place, but we still spent over an hour oohing and ahhing at the exquisite handmade beauty. And if you do come? Give me a call. I'll totally go back with you!





Saturday, July 5, 2014

Happy 4th of July!

It's after midnight, and therefore actually the 5th here in China, but in America everyone is just waking up and preparing for a day of BBQ and fireworks to celebrate America's national day.


We too had a BBQ as part of our normal Friday night summer routine at a friend's house, but the heavy rain today meant no fireworks (though if there are going to be any, as part of China's normal almost-every-night burst of fireworks somewhere in the city, they tend to start around 2:00 a.m. The night is still young!). 

Today marks 11 years since Benjamin's heart surgery and one year since my hysterectomy. His surgery was done at Stanford, and my surgery was done by a local Chinese doctor who trained at Stanford. I love the synchronicity! We're both doing pretty splendid. 

We waited an entire year to wear those American flag shirts above, purchased on clearance from Old Navy's website right after last 4th of July and then brought to Shanghai in a friend's suitcase late last summer. I'm glad they still fit our growing kids!

Happy Birthday America! Shengri Kuaile Meiguo!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Baby Love

One of the strange things about life as an expat is you don't get to experience all of the normal seasons in the cycle of life that you might if you were in your home country. For example, funerals and weddings.

Nat & baby Zeke, November 2011
People die all the time, of course, but in the expat community you generally don't have people who are quite old. If you live in a foreign country, its mostly because you are working there or going to school there. The countries we've lived in so far are not countries where one would go to retire and live out the rest of your years. And yes, people we know and love have passed away while we've been gone, but with the exception of my Uncle Louis' funeral where I traded in our airline miles and made a very fast solo whirlwind trip, we've not attended any funerals since living abroad. Again, making general statements, if you're an expat in one of the countries we've lived in and find you have a terminal disease, you tend to head back to your home country for treatment. And therefore there aren't funerals or memorial services held abroad for the most part.

Same thing with weddings. We've known several people who have decided to get hitched after meeting someone abroad, but without exception, they all fly back to one of their home countries to do the actual deed. We've been invited to Chinese weddings which have taken place locally, but that was more on the fringe-- we were invited more due to work obligation rather than because they were dear friends.

Having a baby on the other hand... we've known a dozen people who went ahead and had their babies
Nat & baby Leon, September 2012
abroad. However, while living in Macau, everyone we knew hopped the ferry over to Hong Kong to give birth in their superior maternity hospitals. A handful of expectant ladies that we've known have indeed gone back to their home countries a few months before giving birth. But I'd still say the top life event we've experienced while abroad would be the birth of a new baby.

I worry that this will skew things for the boys. My parents dragged me to so many funerals and weddings while growing up that I knew how to behave and also realized both were perfectly normal, one a celebration of a life well-lived, and the other a celebration of two lives joining into a new family. I have adult friends who have never been to a single funeral. They live in fear of the day they lose a parent and will suddenly be confronted with everything that goes along with it. I certainly don't want that for my children. They have been to a few, but all were over three years ago and their memory is hazy at best. As far as weddings go, the last one they attended was that of my cousin Matthew and they have no memory whatsoever. But babies? Oh goodness, they have seen a lot of babies in the last few years!

Nat & baby Saffron, May 2014
From the newborns of friends to newly adopted or simply fostered babies taken in by friends, they've experienced many moments of new life.

Nathan, at age 13, has spent a year declaring, "I will NEVER have kids!" But he's our baby whisperer, the boy who easily calms a crying baby with the palm of his hand placed gently on a tearful little one's belly, and a tender, "don't cry, little baby." This makes me giggle because when Nathan was presented with his own baby brother, he wanted nothing at all to do with the little bundle who only had eyes for his older sibling. Ben's very, very first word was brother ("brub-ber! Brub-BER!"), not even Mama or Dada was as exciting as the boy with the wild movements and loud voice. I remember Nathan frequently trying to vanquish his younger, annoying brother, and for the first year of Ben's life I never, ever used the toilet alone unless there was someone else to watch the children, for Nathan could not be trusted for even a moment. The one time I was selfish enough to think peeing in peace was a right and not a privilege, I exited the bathroom to find Nathan with a tool set, trying to take his brother apart. That was such an exhausting year!

Nat & baby brother Ben, July 2003
I found out recently that I still might not be able to trust these two alone for any length of time, but that's a post for another day. I'm still recovering from their recent shenanigans involving hairspray, a lighter, and a video camera in the early morning hours while I was getting my beauty rest... Ai ya. Boys.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Bathing Beauty

We have seen so many strange things for sale on our street. I once remarked you can get everything but a kitchen sink if you just hang out long enough. 

It's no kitchen sink, but there's a nice deep soaking tub with air jets if you're in the market...