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On How I Used to Be a Writer

March 17, 2015

Dear Laura,

Remember those days when you spent all day sitting in front of a computer screen, drinking coffee, having deep thoughts, and transcribing your brilliance so the rest of the world could benefit from it? When you used to notice small, significant flashes of meaning in your life and had the time and wisdom to reflect on them? When you were never, ever tempted to use an extra, unnecessary adjective or adverbial phrase?

Ha! Right, me either. But somehow you’ve gone from the occasion post and the infrequent pertinent observation to…nothing. At all. For the last 3 and 1/2 years.

What happened? I’ll give you just a few free passes: you had 2 more kids. You moved to a country with the most sucky, infuriating internet on the freaking planet. Your husband’s job became significantly more stressful. Your sweet, glowingly happy first baby boy turned into a hyper, intensely emotional, still sweet but not so happy little being who demanded most of your attention and almost all of your psychological resources (and you still failed, often). You got older but somehow not wiser.

And meanwhile, other blogs were so well-written. So unique. So witty and inspirational. So everything that you wanted to do but couldn’t.

And your initial reason for starting a blog became obsolete. Your parents want to see photos of your kids? Facebook. Your siblings need realtime reports on Shanghai? iMessage. Your friends like to hear snippets about your life in Asia? WhatsApp. You feel like sharing the odd funny observation with a few people? WeChat. Everyone you know and love needs a window into your world? Skype. (Okay, Skype was always around even before you moved.)

The world shrunk.

Or so you told yourself–when you even thought about it.

But then, one night, you found your way back to this little blog that you painstakingly put together. Does it even still operate? Do people still read posts that don’t originate from Huffington Post? Does 2015 have space for the “miscellaneous observations about living in China’s capital of culture and contradiction” that you so boldly promised?

Why the hell not, you told yourself. The world can always use another writer.

Dan Bing–i.e. Crepe on Steroids

August 12, 2010

On Value Menu Breakfasts

Shanghai is a city of 20 million people, and as far as I can tell, they ALL like to eat. A lot. This tendency works out really well for us, because there is always a new dining hot spot to try or a gorgeous produce stand around the corner. Oh, and you can get delivery from pretty much any restaurant in the metro area if you can’t be bothered to leave the house–which may or may not be the case these last couple of days, when the temperature has hit at least 101 F (38 C) while the humidity hovers around 60%.

In general, food is a big deal here, and one significant incarnation of this phenomenon is the proliferation of street vendors who cook and sell everything from dumplings to soup with noodles to kabobs to mysterious but tempting deep-fried concoctions. In the hustle and the bustle of city whose inhabitants are constantly rushing from one place to the next, often on foot, you can’t beat the convenience of this kind of ubiquitous ‘fast’ food. The morning street scene, in particular, is rife with people eating out of steaming paper bags or plastic sacks and drinking their yogurt beverages as they weave through the crowds on their way to work.

But to confess, I was wary of plunging into this manifestation of Shanghai culture. The good reason is that I’m pregnant and supposed to be more careful about what I eat and how it is prepared. However, the real reason is that, although I adore food, I’m pretty picky about trying new things and I’m definitely NOT that person who will pop something in her mouth first and ask what it is later. And I know it probably doesn’t make any logical sense, but for some reason it just feels safer to eat at a restaurant, where the food is prepared in an out-of-sight kitchen by someone you never see in circumstances you never encounter and then brought to you on a clean plate than to eat something that is prepared right in front of you and flung into a bag.

My scruples about ‘street food’ were eventually worn down, however, by the most intriguing of all roadside food performances: the creation of the ‘dan bing’ (or ‘jiao bing,’ depending on whom you ask). After gazing longingly from afar for a couple months, I finally broke down, stood in line, and told the lady that I would have the ‘same thing’ as the person in front of me–since at that time I didn’t know the name of the item I was asking for:

My local dan bing stand

And here’s what happened. Step 1: Savory batter is ladled onto a hot griddle and spread into a very thin layer.

The process begins.

Step 2: A raw egg is cracked into the middle of the batter.

Add protein.

Step 3: The yolk is broken and the egg spread out across the rapidly cooking crepe.

A new take on 'sunny side up.'

Step 4: Toppings! The options are cilantro (coriander), green onion, some kind of dried shellfish (I’m guessing shrimp?), and black sesame seeds. Don’t worry–I’ll get to sauces later.

Pick your poison.

Step 5: Toppings are sprinkled (I took everything, of course…).

The Works.

Step 6: The first fold. The masterpiece in progress is carefully scraped from the griddle and folded in half.

Fold the 1st.

Step 7: Sauces! The dark brown one is sort of an oyster sauce, I think, and then the red one is a dollop of spicy chili and garlic.

Saucy.

Step 8: The second fold. The sauces are spread and the piece de resistance is inserted–a rectangular sort of rice crisp, which gets wrapped inside the crepe as it is folded into thirds.

Fold the 2nd (and 3rd).

Step 9: The whole thing is tossed unceremoniously into a plastic sack, and I drop my money into the appropriate container as I grab my breakfast.

The finished product.

Total time elapsed: 45 seconds–like, I could barely take pictures fast enough.

Total cost: 2.5 kuai (which translates to 37 US cents).

Total epicurean experience: pure delight. The contrast of spicy and savory, soft and crunchy, warm and cool, is brilliant.

And as I bike away, another eager customer pushes forward for her turn.

Step right up.

My only regret? That I didn’t try this months ago!

Bon appetit.

Back in the U-S-We-Are (‘you don’t know how lucky you are, boy…’)

August 9, 2010

On Relaxation and Revelation

Oh dear, I’ve done it again…let way too much time slip by between posts. But this time, the lapse was facilitated by a worthy cause: more than a month back in the States with the Kid, while Husband Extraordinaire joined us for about 12 days. BLISS. And trust me, ‘bliss’ is not always the first word that comes to mind when reflecting on a trip home, no matter how happy we are to see family and friends (EXTREMELY), no matter how many BBQ’d hamburgers I get to eat (too embarrassing to admit), no matter how much clean, sweet, Pacific Northwest air I can inhale.

If you haven’t been an expat before, then you might not be entirely familiar with the phenomenon I’m about to describe. For lack of a better (more concise) term, I’m going to call it ‘Love and Laughter and Happiness–in Hyperdrive.’ To be fair, I suppose ‘LLHH’ applies in some degree to most people who have moved away, even if not so very far, and then return for a visit to a hometown. And it definitely applies to just about any holiday season. But when, as in our case, the distance traveled home exceeds 5 and 1/2 thousand miles (9,000 km) as the crow flies and 15 time zones, and when the door-to-door duration of the trip is measured in days as opposed to hours, and when at least 4 days must be factored in on each end to compensate for jetlag, the impact of ‘LLHH’ becomes magnified to an extreme extent.

And alright, all you Pollyannas: let’s take a step back for a moment to acknowledge that I am basically complaining about a surfeit of love, laughter, and happiness. I know, I know–life is tough.

But the fact of the matter is, it’s a strain to be a guest over a long period of time. Even in the homes of the people you most dearly love in the ENTIRE world. Living out of a suitcase never ranks up there as a Top 10 quality-of-life booster. And if you’re blessed with more doting relatives and friends than you can count, you inevitably feel like your distribution of ‘quality time’ is bound to be found inadequate by some, if not all, parties. Finally, the pursuit of this elusive ‘quality time’, while fulfilling, is also downright exhausting.

So every six months or so, when Husband Extraordinaire and I return from a trip home, we look at each other and say, ‘We need a vacation.’

On this trip, however, we managed to strike a perfect, grace-filled balance and were able to fully enjoy and appreciate the ‘LLHH’ while not becoming overwhelmed. The trick? Well, I’d known all along that it had to do with doing LESS–particularly less driving from one city to another, less staying for 3-5 nights in one place only to race off for another 3-5 nights somewhere else, repeat, repeat. But this time around, I actually DID it. Arrived in Seattle and stayed put, at my parents’ house, for MORE THAN 2 weeks. (Well, that doesn’t count a quick weekend trip to Utah for my sister’s bachelorette party, but since I got to do that by myself, leaving a jetlagged Kid to recuperate with Grammie and Papa while I got a solid 10 hours of sleep for 2 nights in a row, I think it hardly factors in as stressful travel.)

As if that wasn’t enough, we also got a long stretch of 7 nights together as a family (joined by now by Husband Extraordinaire) at Spirit Lake, in northern Idaho. Yep, Idaho. The state directly east of Washington. Home of good potatoes. And spectacular lakes. Husband Extraordinaire’s family has had a cabin at Spirit Lake since his dad was a kid. So Dave has been going there every summer since he was a little boy, along with his siblings and his cousins (the kids of his dad’s sister).

I’ve probably been a guest at Spirit Lake half a dozen times since meeting Dave, and up until this summer, I thought I fully appreciated it. ‘The Lake’ has a powerful, almost mythical presence in Dave’s family’s consciousness, but since I had my own ‘The Lake’ growing up, I could totally understand the reverence with which Spirit Lake was treated. It’s an experience, a religion unto itself, a tradition so steeped in family lore and history that it truly defies explanation–at least on the level at which I tend to discuss things on this blog.

Nevertheless, I figured that I ‘got’ the Spirit Lake thing, that I understood its impact on Dave’s childhood and life in general, that I fully sympathized with and partook in Dave’s agony when we couldn’t make the trip for the last 2 summers in a row.

And then we got the Kid out there.

It’s actually not his first trip to The Lake–but last time, his main experience of the family’s hallowed ground consisted of entertaining us all with his newly-acquired ability to roll from his tummy to his back. I think it’s safe to say that he doesn’t really hold that memory among his most vivid.

However, turn a 3 year-old loose in a paradise comprised entirely of water, sand, grass, speedboats, kayaks, fish (and a Buzz Lightyear fishing rod), soccer balls, flotation devices, ‘pirate treasure,’ copious amounts of food, and endlessly energetic, adoring family members–all within a 10 yard radius, and you have a formula for the most memorable vacation of all time. (I think the Kid liked it, too.)

Watching the Kid sprint tirelessly from one activity to another, sunrise until sundown, his face a beacon of wonder, absorption, and absolute joy, I had a whole new awareness of what this place means to Husband Extraordinaire. The Lake means the most perfect memories of childhood rapture. It epitomizes the dynamics of fierce familial affection and allegiance.  It both encompasses and perpetuates the best of love, laughter and happiness. Period. No hyperdrive in sight.

So was I as shocked as I should have been when Dave actually turned off the email function on his Blackberry? Did I gasp at the miraculous return of color and vitality to his previously work-paled face? No. I sat next to him, reclined in a lounge chair, cold drink in hand, facing a lake as smooth as glass, and watched our son just exist in his own personal Utopia. Our own personal Utopia.

I Swear I’m Not Making This Up

June 16, 2010

On 3 Year-Old Logic

One of the coolest things about the Kid being 3 is his increased capacity for reason. After a couple years of feeling like I’ve been talking to a brick wall (a brick wall, that is, who sweetly smiles and then continues doing exactly what I’m trying to prevent), it’s so refreshing to explain, for example, how the trampoline will still be there in 30 minutes, after we eat our dinner–and actually have a chance of being understood and therefore preventing a tantrum!

Plus it really helps to have a child who can grasp the concept of consequences. You see, threats have so much more weight behind them now. If I say, ‘I’m not going to read you another chapter of The Magic Treehouse unless you cooperate and go wash your hands this minute,’ I get instant results. The only problem is that we find ourselves having to be judicious about just when to establish ‘consequences.’ Because even when they are only 3, kids can see through an empty threat like it’s a bubble. And man, they love to pop them. Therefore, we have to be willing to follow through (which quickly put an end to the ‘no episode of Curious George before bedtime’ warning, since we’re really punishing ourselves if the Kid doesn’t get his 30 minutes of TV time to unwind/zone out/allow Mommy to pour a glass of wine start dinner).

Sometimes those preschooler mental wheels start clicking along at an amazing–and/or alarming–rate. Following are a few choice examples from the last couple weeks, word for word, I promise.

The Kid: Mommy, when I get bigger and bigger, I can ride mine bike without training wheels?

Me: Yes, that’s right, once you’re a little bigger…

The Kid: Mommy, can you help me get bigger and bigger?

Me (suppressing a smile): Well, sweetie, you WILL get bigger if, um, you keep eating your vegetables.

The Kid: Can I have some veg-da-bulls now?

______________________________________________________________________

Me (reading aloud): ‘Those aren’t pretty fish!’ yelled Jack. ‘They’re piranhas! They have razor sharp teeth and will eat anything, even people!’

The Kid (interrupting forcefully): Mommy, I don’t like mean piranhas. I only like nice piranhas.

______________________________________________________________________

The Kid (on returning from school one day to an unusually silent courtyard in front of our flat): It’s quiet. Why’s it so quiet, Mommy?

Me: Gosh, it is really quiet. I don’t know why.

The Kid (in a stage whisper): There’s must be something going on.

______________________________________________________________________

And now, my personal favorite:

The Kid: Mommy, when we get back from the US, then Didi going to be born. [Note: ‘Didi’ is the Kid’s nickname for the baby, which means ‘little brother’ in Chinese.]

Me: Yep, after our trip to the US, we’ll come back to Shanghai, and then after a few more weeks, Didi will be born.

The Kid (with a frown and a visible effort to process it as a new idea dawns on him): But Mommy…how are you going to get Didi out?

Lucky

June 6, 2010

On Spring

I can hear birds chirping outside my window when I wake up. The smell of freshly mown grass wafts through the kitchen as I make my morning cup of tea. Am I dreaming? Am I home in the US on holiday? Nope: believe it or not, I am in the middle of Shanghai.

For the second time in our expat experience, the Kid, Husband Extraordinaire and I have landed, mostly by chance, in the most perfect living situation imaginable. In Hong Kong, it was ‘The Manhattan,’ a massive high-rise on the south side of the island overlooking the South China Sea. We had a balcony, a 180 degree view of the water and the islands, and a steep, mountainous slope of uninterrupted wilderness rising up behind us. Perhaps most importantly on a day-to-day basis (from my perspective, anyway, as the parent of an active toddler), we were a 16 floor lift ride away from a really first class playground and a huge outdoor pool–our coveted oasis during those long, hot, humid summers. Plus, we could hop on a double-decker bus and be downtown 30 minutes from deciding to do so.

We regularly congratulated ourselves on ‘picking’ the Manhattan, but really, when you’re on a look-see, checking out a dozen apartments in a new city within a 2 day period, your ultimate decision has to be guided by a good bit of luck. Which we had.

Now surely, lightning doesn’t strike twice? Well, maybe we’re exploiting our Chinese good fortune to an extreme degree, but I have to say that our flat here in Shanghai is possibly even better than our set-up in HK. Because we have GRASS. Right outside our door. And we’re allowed to WALK on it (a relatively rare state of affairs in China). And there’s a paved loop weaving its way through the grass and buildings, which was clearly constructed for no other purpose than to provide an ideal ‘race track’ for a three year-old on his bike.

Furthermore, of the 20 or so units in our compound, 6 of them contain families. 3 of them with boys. ‘Big’ boys (ages 6-11). Boys who come home from school everyday and head outside, immediately. To play soccer. Or ride scooters. Or jump on the trampoline that the neighbors bought last month. Big boys who love to yell and run and tackle and play fight, but who also are remarkably gentle and sweet with the Kid, making allowances for him when he doesn’t quite ‘get’ the game they are playing, pretending not to notice when he’s ‘out,’ lifting him onto the trampoline tirelessly because he can’t do it himself.

(The drawbacks? Well, sometimes they forget themselves and let slip with a swear word; so far the Kid just looks at them uncomprehendingly, but I’m bracing myself for the day–and certainly it will happen in a very public place–when he drops his plate on the floor and gleefully exclaims, ‘F@#$!’ And sometimes the boys think it’s funny to make mildly inappropriate gestures and get the Kid to copy them. And sometimes, of course, they completely ignore him, but I’m pretty sure that this last circumstance is actually good for my adored, only grandson-on-both-sides-of-the-family, only child.)

The most incredible thing about our new place, however, is that we are in the center of the city. We didn’t compromise and choose to live out in the ‘Western Suburbs,’ where we could have a proper house and a proper private garden. We are in the French Concession, walking distance from dozens of the best restaurants and bars in the city, a bike ride away from Husband Extraordinaire’s office, and a 15 minute taxi from just about anywhere we might want to go. Life is absolutely bustling right outside our door.

And yet, this morning, I opened all the windows to let in the mild summer breeze. As I ate breakfast with the Kid, we tried to count the number of birds we could hear singing. We were outside before 8 a.m. for a couple vigorous rounds of ‘Hongqiao Dragon,’ the Chinese equivalent of what I would call ‘Sharks and Minnows,’ with 5 of the big boys.  The Kid jumped on the trampoline for the better part of an hour and then flopped on his back to watch the butterflies float lazily by. At one point the 2 biggest boys and I moved the trampoline to take advantage of the shade from one of the many trees. Another parent came outside and we discussed the advisability of an impromptu picnic. I considered going inside for another cup of tea–we are on the first floor, and I can keep an eye on the kids through the window while I boil the water. Husband Extraordinaire ambled out, and the Kid gleefully showed off his newest trick: a somersault.

Am I still desperate to get back to the clean air and surrounding family of the Pacific Northwest? Of course. But can I also say that residence in Shanghai can be pretty darn sweet? Yep.

Cash, Please–Take 2

June 2, 2010

On Second Chances

Yesterday I made my second trip to the nearby Bank of China, confident that this time, at least, I could pick the right machine from which to withdraw cash. I slunk past the lady with the mop–the same one whom I apparently harassed last time–without making eye contact and entered the proper booth. I inserted my card. I selected English. I typed in my security code. Increasingly encouraged, I raised my finger to press ‘Withdrawal’…and found no such option.

I could ‘Check Balance’ or ‘Make a Transfer,’ but I could not, would not get cash. Not on a boat, not in a car, not with a fox, not with a crowbar.

Just for fun, I checked the balance. Sure enough, there was money in the account. Sighing, I ‘Cancelled Transaction’ and with great joy received my card back promptly.

Then I peeked my head out of the booth. And who should approach but somebody with a helpful smile? I started to explain in halting Chinese, and she smoothly replied in English, “You cannot withdraw cash from the ATM machine?” I could have kissed her. Until she went on to suggest that I probably don’t have sufficient funds in my account.

Now, as anybody who has had a credit/debit card transaction rejected will know, the mere suggestion that you are trying to obtain money or services with inadequate resources calls up a variety of strong, unpleasant sensations, not the least of which is acute embarrassment followed by a self-righteous ‘how dare you suggest that I am either insolvent or so clueless that I don’t know how much money I have in my account?’ kind of feeling.

However, having JUST checked my balance, I could certify that ‘insufficient funds’ was not, in this case, the problem. The bank employee gave me a half-disbelieving, half-sympathetic smile and suggested that I try my card in the OTHER machine. You know, the one that ate my card last time. With a vague feeling of panic, I did so–ultimately, she was right there to help me. What could go wrong?

‘Ah,’ she said wisely over my shoulder after I had entered my code. ‘I see. There is simply no cash. Maybe you can try later.’ And with a reassuring glance (‘See? You’re not broke after all’), she walked off.

Right. There is simply no cash. Naturally. I mean, on a Monday morning at 9 o’clock, who am I to think that I can go into a bank and get money? Silly, silly me.

Cash, Please

May 26, 2010

On Banking in China

Today I tried to withdraw cash from an ATM machine. Kudos to you if you can already see where this is going, because I, in all my blissful ignorance and optimism, really thought that I could pull up to a Bank of China branch (our bank, by the way, where we actually have an account and presumably money), pull out some cash, and pull away in short order. Oh, the folly.

Granted, I haven’t taken out money at this particular location before, and so when I walk into the bank, I have to stand for a minute, bewildered by the many choices in front of me. Should I enter one of the two enclosed booths directly ahead? Or should I use one of the two (entirely different from one another) machines standing out in the open to my right? I opt for one of the booths. After trying to put my ATM card in backwards, I correct my mistake, the machine takes my offering, and it prompts me to accept some statement written in Chinese. Assuming that I’m dealing with the standard ‘protect your pin number from the scary people who are stalking you,’ I press the green button.

Next, I get the choice to bank in English or Chinese. How obliging! I select English. Then I see a familiar screen asking me to enter a code. I confidently start to input my pin number and am alarmed to see the number itself appearing on the screen (instead of just discreet little stars). So I stop and read the directions a little more carefully. Aha! It’s asking me to enter my deposit card number. Hmmmm…something’s not quite right here. I step back and examine the machine. There’s a sign talking about deposits and ‘cashing recycling,’ whatever that means, but there’s also a notice proclaiming that this unit only dispenses cash in 50 or 100 yuan notes. Alright, so I should be able to take out money, right?

But after several more fruitless attempts, I determine that I must, in fact, have chosen wrongly. Chuckling ruefully to myself, I press the ‘cancel transaction’ button, expecting to retrieve my card and try my luck at a different machine. It soon becomes clear, however, that the machine has not the slightest intention of returning my card to me. Now, this is a 24-hour self-service situation, but fortunately I am here during business hours, and there are plenty of employees scurrying around in the full-service part of the bank. Feeling grateful that I didn’t try to do this last night at 10 pm, I open my door, lean my head around the corner, and try to attract someone’s attention.

Nope, nobody is responding to the pigtailed white lady in her yoga pants. I don’t really want to leave my card and walk into the main customer area, so I press what appears to be an intercom button, and sure enough, a disembodied voice mutters something in Mandarin.

Please keep in mind that we’ve been living here for 3 months, and my command of the Chinese language is rudimentary at best. However, I am certainly up to the task of communicating that I put in my card, it’s not working, and I would like it back, please.

The voice tells me–I’m pretty sure–to wait. OK. So a couple minutes go by, but nothing happens. I pop my head out and spy a lady with a mop. “Please help me,” I say in Chinese. She’s quite taken aback to be addressed in this manner…here she is, just trying to mop the floor in peace, and this pushy ‘laowai‘ is harassing her. Nevertheless, she waves over a guy in a bank uniform, and I try to explain my problem again. He also tells me to wait, but this time I’m almost certain that he understands what is going on. So I’m a little annoyed but still hopeful.

Five minutes later, I am shading more towards annoyed and less towards hopeful. I still don’t want to walk away from the machine that is holding my card hostage, but I’m starting to think that I need to be a bit more assertive if I want to get out of here before lunch. I compromise by walking a few steps toward the waiting area where all the tellers are sitting calmly behind their glass windows. I make eye contact with someone and gesture impatiently. (Now I am officially that pushy laowai who thinks the world revolves around her.) A teller indicates that I should sit down. Since I can safely do this but also keep an eye on my booth, I do so.

Finally the man in the uniform emerges from a back room with 2 other people, both of whom are carrying large key rings. They disappear through a door that would seem to lead to the back of the ATM machine.

Now we’re getting somewhere, I think to myself. Surely the bank people will come out with my card in hand, all smiles and apologies, and send me on my merry way. (At this juncture, you should certainly snort derisively and shake your head at my continued cluelessness.)

A few minutes elapse; then the man in uniform comes over–empty-handed, as I probably don’t need to point out–and tells me to wait for teller #2. I make a very exasperated face and step up to the counter. The man behind the glass tells me to sit. Growing wiser by the moment, I don’t take this instruction as a sign that I’m about to get my card back.

A managerial type comes over to my teller, and I see with relief that he’s got my card! Phew, at least one thing is on the right track. He confers with the teller for a minute, who then turns to me and asks, in English, for my passport.

Excuse me, WHAT? Seriously?

It’s probably fortunate that I don’t have the capability to explain in Chinese how that’s my card, you little twerp, I’ve been standing by the machine ever since I put it in and this whole ridiculous process would have been so much easier if someone could have just come promptly and shown me how to eject the damn thing and no I don’t carry my passport with me when I’m on my way home from dropping my son at preschool and in fact I don’t have any picture ID with me at all because I’m just trying to get a few yuan out of MY account and never anticipated that it would take a governmental inquiry to do so!

I settle for saying ‘I don’t have it’ in Chinese. And give the teller a look clearly adding ‘and that’s your problem, mister.’ He hesitates for a moment, and then suggests that I could sign a slip of paper? Then he can presumably compare it to my signature on the back of the card. Brilliant. I happily comply. After painstakingly analyzing the two signatures for a solid 20 seconds, he calls over a colleague, and they each use a red stamp to confirm in not one, not two, but three separate places the legitimacy of the intended transaction. He fills out two forms, and I don’t even bother to point out that on one of them, where it asks for my name, he writes only ‘Christine’–my middle name.

The final verification is to ask for my phone number. I pass this hurdle successfully, at which point…he hands me my card!

I’ve now been at the bank for 45 minutes. And I still haven’t figured out how to withdraw a single yuan. But I have learned a valuable lesson: just get Husband Extraordinaire to pick up the cash next time.