Sunday, May 24, 2015

Three years in Shanghai

On the morning of May 24, 2012, my son Ben got the worst stomach ache of his life. 

He was doubled over in pain, hysterically crying and barely able to breathe. This was not good timing for two reasons. First, our landlord had come in from Mainland China to our apartment to do a final walk-through and collect our keys, and we were due momentarily to board a plane from Macau to Shanghai, our new home.

Macau flag, left. China flag, right.
It was not going well. We had previously purchased a large refrigerator for our apartment, which the landlord had promised to reimburse from our deposit upon move out, and he was suddenly not willing to give us a cent. I was furious, as we'd had ample time to sell the fridge to recoup our expense if he didn't want it, but he'd insisted he'd pay for it, right up until that day. I was so furious, that I threatened to push the fridge across the kitchen and living room, right onto the balcony and then right over the balcony of our 8th floor home. If we didn't get to sell it, and he wouldn't pay for it, then it was mine to do with as I pleased, including destroying it. 

I don't normally have this kind of rage, but remember, Benjamin was laying on the couch, crying his eyes out while our Filipino helper hovered over him, rubbing his back, while the landlord crossed his arms across his chest, smugly confident that he was going to take us to the bank and bleed us dry. Michael was yelling because the landlord was already making out with two full month's rent (over $6,000 USD) because we were moving out before the end of our three year lease, and refusing to allow anyone else to take over our lease so we could at least leave without a debit. Why not add an extra grand, the cost of the refrigerator, to his highway robbery?

Our real estate agent, there to help translate and smooth the procedure, saw the crazy fire in my eyes as I pantomimed pushing the fridge over the balcony railing, heard the wails of my son, and he fired off a long, loud string of Mandarin, with accompanying urgent hand gestures directed at the landlord. The landlord's wife, dressed to the nines and up to that point completely still and silent, suddenly came to life, and with sympathetic tones gestured to our son, who was not getting any better. She quietly convinced him to have compassion in this one tiny area so we could take care of our sick child. In Asian culture, the concept of "face" is very real, and fighting head on with the landlord would not get us anywhere. But I needed to get my son to a hospital, and then, hopefully, onto a plane with our eight suitcases, four carry-ons, and four backpacks, and so although I wanted to curse the name of the lying, cheating landlord until the day I died, I'm grateful for the landlord's wife giving him the opportunity to save face, and us the opportunity to get our thousand dollars back for the fridge.

With that out of the way, it was actually Michael who grabbed Ben and took a taxi to a local medical clinic with the helper, while I did the final preparations to get out the door to the airport. Thankfully, Ben was diagnosed with extreme gas pains and not something that would require hospitalization or surgery. They gave him some medicine and hot water, and before we knew it, we were all back at the flat to walk out one last time.

It was a rough goodbye. In fact, it was the roughest goodbye I've had in thirteen moves between five countries. I posted today on Instagram that most people cry at the Macau Airport because they've lost all their life savings at the casinos. We were crying because we lost Macau.

It was a short flight to our new life in a different country, rather than the typical long haul flight with jetlag. We got into our temporary housing. We unpacked. We went out for dinner (Mexican). We went to bed. And here we are, three years later, celebrating our third anniversary of living in Mainland China.

We woke up. We got dressed. We went out to breakfast at Mr. Pancake, our favorite American-style breakfast joint. Michael took a selfie of us on the street corner. Just another day, but also not, because we've broken a record, staying in one place longer than any of the other places we've stayed in our just-shy-of-19 years of marriage. I just never thought China would be the place to hold the record.

And for the record, we have an excellent landlord here. He is as honest, kind, and generous as our last landlord was deceitful, cruel, and stingy. There will be no threats of breaking appliances upon our departure from Shanghai, whenever that might be.

Happy Shanghai-versary to us!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Walk in Shanghai

It's grey and rainy and humid and depressing today in Shanghai. Plus, for whatever reason, there is a bit of a stench coming off the river (I'll remember Shanghai by its smells as much as its sights).

This building below, which is the only thing that blocks our (normally) fabulous view of the Huangpu River, has stood mostly vacant since we've lived here. Next week will mark three years in Shanghai for us (hello record!), and there are no more than five floors with lights on at night. There are many "ghost towns" in China, where major construction has happened and then was abandoned, leaving the shell of a city totally empty (there is one such town about an hour from my house), but it's odd to see something so very empty right smack in the middle of this bustling, vibrant city. Especially a building that has some of the very best views anyone could ever hope for in Shanghai. It's a little eerie. 

And speaking of eerie, may I present this video which is both beautiful and vaguely disturbing? I've been everywhere you see in this video (and you can actually see our building in a shot or two). 

Walk in Shanghai from JT Singh on Vimeo.

It's how I feel much of the time here. Like I'm going backwards while everyone else is going forward, or vice versa. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Coming Attractions: Disney Store in Shanghai

There's still no official opening date set for Shanghai Disneyland (there is a vague Spring-ish/Summer-ish 2016 rumor floating around the interwebs). But I can say that there is something huge on the Disney radar about to drop here in Shanghai this month.

They did a good job trying to cover the sign up, huh? Nothing to see here folks...

And when I say huge, I truly mean it. Opening on May 20th of this month, this is the world's largest flagship Disney Store. I took the photo above last Sunday on Mother's Day. Looks like they still have some work to do on the outside, hopefully the inside looks a little more complete! And just in case you are not really impressed with the size of this store, let me show you an artist's rendering from a bird's eye view:

In the photo I took, I was standing on the white elevated walk way you see on the bottom edge of the rendering, looking down at the courtyard. The location is amazing, it's right smack in the middle of downtown Shanghai, next to a huge mall and the Oriental Pearl Tower, a large futuristic-looking tourist magnet with amazing views. And it's just a short walk from my house! 

It's funny, the Disney characters are quite new to Mainland China. Adults my age did not grow up with Mickey and Minnie. Disney has had to come in and do big events to educate people about the company. And maybe the smartest thing of all, they started Disney English, which is a hugely popular children's English language school that uses the characters to teach kids both about the characters and how to speak English. Brilliant, right? So the younger generation of kids out there right now are indeed familiar with Disney. There are also some China-specific animated television shows which look very bizarre to my Western mind, but are crazy popular here with tons of merchandise everywhere you look.

I suspect the store will do very well. And hopefully it will whet the appetite for people hungry for more Disney so that the opening of Shanghai Disneyland will be spectacular. And sure, I'm a Disney shareholder, so of course I'd say that. But honestly, when you've poured three years of your life and career in to something, you want it to succeed. Can't wait!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Oh Mama!

Oh Mother's Day... A day with joy and tension and happiness and mourning. I love being celebrated, but my preference would be birthdays, where the honor comes from simply surviving another year. It's hard to feel comfortable being celebrated as a mom when just this year three friend celebrated with positive pregnancy tests, filled with hope and expectation, only to later find the pregnancy ending too soon to result in that dreamt of child, which will now stay only as a dream. How must they feel on a day where we celebrate moms, when they have carried life within them, but never in their arms? My heart feels heavy even while I was spoiled this weekend with fancy meals, thoughtful small gifts, and handwritten cards from the boys who made me a mama and their dad. 

This actually feels like a uniquely "mom" problem... Making sure everyone has enough, putting yourself second so someone else can get what they need. Perhaps because we're well versed in loss, from lost sleep to lost time, privacy, and a lost sense of accomplishment in the repetitive tedium of early childhood, moms can already deeply empathize over the loss of having the opportunity to give up those things by having a baby at all.

And even heavier on my mind are the people in my life who lacked a mother, or lacked the kind of mother that Hallmark creates greeting cards for. The ones who find themselves shaking in anger or grieving deeply over what could have been but wasn't. I think all these thing weigh on me so heavily the rest of the year, but come to light in tweets and Facebook posts filled with such sorrow this weekend. 

So what can be done? I know that while Nathan and Benjamin made me a mother nearly 15 years ago, I've had the sacred privilege to mother many other people through the years. Some I got for a season, and some are still mine today and always will be. I wish I could go out and solve this problem today for everyone all over the world. But I can't. The scale of the problem is too large. So I do what I can, and I do it with all my heart. These people who come into our lives and home for a season or a lifetime get showered in the kind of unconditional love and support which every kid should get. We've already seen some happy endings which came from the love we heaped on the kids and adults in our life. And hopefully the chain continues... They were loved so they'll turn around and share it again, in a real and personal way. 

So on this Mother's Day I have gracefully accepted the loving compliments and well wishes from friends and family. Because it was having Nathan and Ben, two sons who grew right under my heart, who taught me it is possible to also love someone who has a desperate need to be in someone's heart at all. 

And I can't fail to mention my own mama, Judy, and my mother in law of nearly 19 years, Carol, for both being the best kind of moms in your own way. How grateful I am! And how much I desperately miss you both, living here in China so far across the ocean. 

Above is our annual Mother's Day portrait. I love these two boys with so much of my heart. And Lucy Rocket, the dog? She rocks too. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015


Sorry guys. We had the most fabulous time in America for the month of February, and then our return to Shanghai was met with some of the most challenging days, which stretched into weeks, and ended up being months. Hello May, how you doing?

Shang-Low is what everyone calls those days here in Shanghai which are not Shang-high days. And we sure have had our share recently. From personal loss I won't go into here, the devastating discovery of a young family member's cancer, career frustration, a frightening health scare in my own son, to missing the people we've only been able to see twice in the last four years, it was just a constant stream of things causing pain and sorrow. So many that we were honestly ready to pack it up and leave. But leaving felt like it would be such a failure. We wouldn't be here to see the opening of the project that has kept us here the last three years. We'd be leaving at a low point instead of going out on top. It was a weird moment to be in, especially because we did have a significant amount of choice in the matter, with Michael's first contract coming to a close and a second one not yet signed and other opportunities in other countries calling on a daily basis trying to woo him away. It was tough, but we called on people who know and love us for some wise counsel and decided to stick it out. I think just having that commitment in place helped lighten the dark place we've been dwelling in.

Four years ago I was in America prepping for our move to Macau. I had a local access cable channel on the television that played full concerts of random musical acts which kept me company while I packed late into the night. I was feeling so much turmoil, as the Macau job started with two weeks notice and Michael had already boarded a plane, leaving the boys and I back in America to finish out the school year before joining him abroad. It was hard. But a concert came on that channel which stopped me from packing. There was a guy in an outdoor amphitheater, standing in his bare feet on an oriental rug, doing an acoustic set. I watched the whole hour long video. I'd never before heard of Jason Mraz, but wow, did his lyrics fill me with so much peace and hope for the future. As soon as Michael and I were reunited, I made him fill my iPod with all of his songs, which were on repeat for some time.

In late March of this year, I found out Jason Mraz was going to be playing here in Shanghai on April 1st. It took me 60 seconds to book tickets immediately after that discovery. It started out a pretty dreary date night for Michael and I. We were both feeling pretty blue and run down. But music is medicine for a weary soul, so we went with open hearts.

The concert did not disappoint. From the opening act, a girl band called Raining Jane which had us turning to each other to say, "I bet they're from Los Angeles," (they are, they formed at UCLA), to the final song, it was like going to church and having a religious experience. Every lyric of every song on the new album was like a message speaking into our exact situation. I kept wanting to shout out AMEN! Even the name of the concert and album Yes, was a message waiting for us to receive it. You better believe this new album is also on repeat around here these days.

My favorite song was 3 Things, and actual tears fell down my cheeks as Jason sang the lyrics he wrote about a tough time in his own life. The opening lyric?  There are three things I do when my life falls apart. Number one I cry my eyes out and dry up my heart... Yes, yes, and more yes. Number two is saying thank you to the experiences that got you to this point, and then number three is gracefully letting the door close on that chapter. With a final note to try and try again.

It's worth a listen, and a buy if you need a boost today (video of a live performance embedded below).

I want to say that the evening was a turning point and that everything was absolutely fine after that. In some ways it was, we had hope in a previously hopeless space. But the thing about dark periods in life is that you have to walk through them. You can't easily bypass them. I feel like things are looking up. And even if they aren't, the beautiful thing is that just because I can't see it with my own eyes, it doesn't mean the future isn't bright. The sun still rises each and every day, yes? Yes.

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