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Tour de Shanghai

May 22, 2010

On Commuting

One of the first challenges about moving to a new place, of course, is figuring out how to get around. Throw in a three year-old and a belly that’s ever expanding to accommodate the Kid’s imminent little brother, and the simple task of going to the grocery store can feel a bit overwhelming.

(The grocery shopping problem, incidentally, is compounded by the fact that I’ve already accumulated at least 5 different destinations depending on the type of everyday item I need: the nearby wet market for common fruits and veggies, as well as live chickens, killed, plucked and beheaded–be-footed, too, upon request–while you wait; the fancy produce stand for more exotic offerings like avocados, fresh basil, grapes, and decent salad lettuce; the ‘local’ supermarket for rice, pasta, milk, juice, oatmeal, sugar, paper towels, and any type of pork product that you can imagine–freshly hacked by the butcher and flung, unwrapped and unmarked, into large bins through which dozens of shoppers at a time can rummage; the ‘expat’ supermarket for sandwich bread, cheese, kosher salt, all-purpose flour, olive oil, coffee, and other imported or ‘luxury’ items; and the smaller, specialty shops that carry exclusively imported goods like Mexican canned green chiles, whole wheat crackers and biscuits, micro-brewed beer and palatable wine, grain-feed beef and free-range chicken, chocolate chips for baking, and the surprisingly hard to find black tea. Some of these places are a 5 to 30 minute walk, some only accessible by metro or taxi, and naturally all of them are in opposite directions from one another with my flat as the central point.)

But this post is not primarily about food (she says grudgingly as she shifts her focus with difficulty away from contemplations of dinner tonight and remembrances of her first Shanghai shopping debacle, to be recounted later).

This post is about a heroic quest to get the Kid to preschool before 9 am while saving the environment, one trip at a time. In other words, I’ve become a bike commuter.

The preschool (a bilingual institution with a predominantly Chinese enrollment that has somewhat embarrassingly named itself ‘Little Eton’) is located just south of where we live. It’s probably 2 miles (3ish km) from our place. However, more significantly, it’s about 3 massive intersections, 2 one-way streets running in the wrong direction, and a prime-time rush hour commute away. So it takes about:

35 minutes to walk–too far on a daily basis for a easily-distractable three year-old, which can easily stretch into an hour of meandering, or even worse, a stalemate where I am required to carry 30+ pounds of grumpy, squirmy humanity–

OR 15 to 30 minutes in a taxi depending on traffic and lights,

OR a 10 minute walk on one end PLUS a 10 minute subway stint if the train comes on time PLUS another 10 minute walk on the other end,

OR a consistent 18 minute ride by bike.

Our obvious winner? The 2-wheeled option, barring heavy rain or stifling humidity.

Conveniently, we bought bikes within our first couple weeks of living in Shanghai. It’s a city perfectly adapted to biking: almost completely flat, large enough for nice, wide driving lanes, spacious enough for big sidewalks with ample places for chaining up your bike in front of almost every shop or restaurant, and a significant portion of the population either too cheap or too poor to shell out the cash required for owning and maintaining a car (and in many cases a driver).

Not so conveniently, it’s also a city of anywhere from 18-23 million people, depending on whether you try to count ‘unregistered’ inhabitants, and in the morning and evening it feels like pretty much every single one of these many million residents is trying to get somewhere–in a hurry.

On the average day, the Kid and I set off on my single-speed, cruiser style bicycle, with the Kid strapped securely into both his helmet and his safety seat (that cost more than the bike itself), with backpack and purse stowed in the front basket, around 8:35 am. We immediately encounter obstacle #1: a left turn from our driveway onto the local two lane street, which is normally quiet but at this time of day is bustling with cars, taxis, buses, motorcycles, other bikes, and pedestrians.

Once safely negotiated, our entry into the morning traffic leads us to obstacle #2: a school zone. We actually pass two of these areas, and they are both teeming with kids and guardians trying to cross the street where there is no crosswalk, cars parking and double parking on the wrong side of the road to drop off, bikes weaving in and out of narrow gaps between starting and stopping vehicles, uniformed guards whose main purpose evidently is to stand around looking official, and always, insistently, the sound of a honking horn. You know, from that singular car or taxi that haunts every street in the city and remains convinced the crowd will miraculously disperse if only forcefully, repeatedly reminded of the inconvenience it is causing the aforementioned honker.

Then we reach the first of three major intersections. And by major, I mean not 3 or 4 way but at LEAST 5 way intersections with multiple lanes of traffic headed each direction. The biggest challenge here is that, if you don’t get a head start, you will never get through the light. If you’re going straight, you’ve got to contend with the oncoming traffic turning left, which inevitably leaps out into the intersection in anticipation of the green (there’s not always an arrow) and proceeds with its turn, each subsequent car shaving the angle just a little tighter than the car before it in order to beat YOU, the rightful occupier of the intersection.

Of course, God help you if you’re the one who needs to turn left, especially on a bike–your only option is to dart ahead of the oncoming traffic and try to time your bid for right of way so that you beat both the oncoming cars and bikes while also avoiding the pedestrians and the vehicles remaining from the previous light. (Fortunately we only have to turn left one time at a major intersection.)

Somehow, however, this loosely controlled chaos seems to work, and the Kid and I continue on to meet our final obstacle: a half mile stretch in a fenced-off bike lane. Now at first glance, a lane exclusively devoted to bikes and scooters sounds pretty blissful after the other challenges, right? But here, you are dealing with a situation where 2 or maybe 3 (very competently operated) bikes can ride abreast, and everyone is going different speeds. Unfortunately, I seem to ride at an awkward pace–faster than the average biker but slower than most motorized scooters or electric bicycles. So while I’m trying to pass the grandpa who is placidly pedaling his grandchild to school and not showing much interest in conforming to a straight trajectory, I’ve got honking, impatient scooters trying to get by me. The result is that a handful of times I’ve had to come to a screeching halt (OK, so I’m not going THAT fast…maybe it’s really just a halt) in order to avoid being cut off and/or run over.

Usually the Kid is happily singing his ABCs from behind me, blissfully unaware of the perils I am navigating. Usually we get to school, without major incident, before 8:50.

And usually, just when I’m unstrapping the Kid from his harness and smugly congratulating myself on my successful trip and adventurous nature, I’ll see some other expat go by. On HER bike. With a kid riding behind her. And ANOTHER kid in front of her. Holding two full shopping bags, and steering with one hand. Who is probably, after taking her kids to school, off to rescue some neglected orphan from his own personal Fagin in order to cook him an organic meal.

Oh well.

Makeover

May 17, 2010

On New Tricks

As you can see, this blog is UNDER CONSTRUCTION! Most obviously, we’ve moved. To Shanghai. You know, that big city in China boasting 21 million people.

More details as events warrant.

So THIS is Why We Do It…

October 7, 2009

On Raising a Toddler

Sometimes the tantrums, the early mornings, and the mindless, repetitive games start to grate a bit on the nerves. And I’m that girl who used to think that 2-4 year-olds were her very favorite! Well, apparently it’s different when you’re the mom. You might have heard this before, but parenting? It’s a full-time job!

The good news: just when you realize you’d rather pluck out your own eyeballs than deal with one more playdate where your child is the one snatching toys relentlessly from other happily playing, well-adjusted kids, and your child is the one telling the darling infant present to “Go Away, Baby!”, and your child is the one screaming for more potato chips while his friends contentedly munch on apple slices, JUST when you think you can’t deal with it anymore, your child will pull out his ace in the hole. Because God, in all His wisdom (and desire for human life to continue) created toddlers with a remarkable tendency toward self-preservation. And it usually manifests itself in the form of the Cuteness Factor.

Basically, at the very moment when I’ve used up all my carefully crafted tricks and gimmicks to coerce good behavior and I’m ready to sell the Kid on EBay, he’ll say or do something so charming, brilliant or just plain CUTE that I can’t help but laugh and hug him.

After a week of adjusting to HK again and conquering jetlag and missing the family, I’ve had several such moments that saved me from a meltdown. Here are a few choice examples from the last couple days:

  1. We’re working on manners. You know, “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” “Gosh you look really lovely tonight, Mommy.” Yesterday I handed the Kid a bowl of blueberries and gave him the now-it’s-time-to-say-thank-you look, so he obligingly said, “Thanks.” Just then, the phone rang, so I was distracted, and the Kid, realizing that something was missing, filled in the rest of the exchange by calling out “Yur yell-come” as I walked into the bedroom.
  2. The Kid’s aunt and uncle just got married and are on their honeymoon in New Zealand. He loved spending time at their house while in the US and frequently talks about “Tom and Becky’s house.” When he mentioned that he thought there was a “monster dere,” I reminded him that they are in New Zealand. “Yes, honeymoon!” he replied enthusiastically.
  3. While poaching some of my green salad, the Kid pointed and asked for grapes. I gave him one. He shook his head and said, “No, tiny grapes!” Momentarily confused, I looked down and realized that he wanted some dried cranberries, which he knew weren’t raisins but for which he didn’t have the name.

These are the things that get us through the day. With smiles. Along with the fact that the Kid is the best eater EVER and a pretty consistent sleeper and has the most darling mop of curly blond hair.

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"Prost!"

September 26, 2009

On Weddings, Toasts, and Going Overboard

The Kid, Husband Extraordinaire and I just spent over a month touring about the Pacific Northwest, catching up with friends and family, frequenting our favorite, dearly-missed eating establishments (Mexican making the top of the list), watching football (NOT soccer), drinking microbrews, driving on the right side of the road…in short, doing all the things that any good US expat misses while living in Hong Kong.

And being the upstanding Americans that we are, we indulged in what appears to me to be a unique ritual compared to our other English-speaking friends: The Wedding. Please note the caps.  Because rest assured, people from other countries get married. They do it all the time! But they do not, as far as I can tell, insist on making it quite the spectacle that we Americans routinely expect when we receive that scallop-edged invitation at the appropriate 6 to 8 weeks-in-advance mark.

Since I’m sure the blogosphere is saturated with posts and entire sites devoted to mocking the US wedding industry, I’ll spare you the sarcastic commentary (mostly). But I cannot resist mentioning a couple changes I’ve noticed in the five short, sweet years since my wedding.

For example, the “Save the Date” card, which used to be an optional courtesy, especially for out of town guests, has mutated into a required element that usually should include a darling picture of the bride and groom, preferably laminated onto a magnet to aid the scatterbrained recipient who can’t just write it down in her planner.

And the websites! Admittedly, we had one, registered on theknot.com, and I think it included the date, the hotel accommodations, a link to our registry, and maybe a photo. But today, you are seriously slacking if you don’t have your own catchy URL (for example, http://www.JanAndMitchAreGettingHitched.com or something), an array of suggestions for sightseeing in the wedding location’s city, an interactive quiz about the couple’s life together that increases in difficulty as you answer questions correctly, an entire photo gallery documenting both bride and groom from infancy, a customized countdown that you can add to your desktop, a link to five different charities that will accept donations for underprivileged about-to-be-married couples, and a virtual reality feature where you can upload a photo of yourself and then try on various outfits that you might want to wear on the blessed day. Alright, just kidding—sort of.

When Husband Extraordinaire and I said “I do,” we defiantly abstained from several conventional components of the modern American wedding. We didn’t serve cake—but then again, we don’t really like it. And I guess we had one anyway, for cutting purposes. And we bought the special cake-cutting knife. And we fed it to each other with that ridiculous “will they or won’t they” feint at smashing aforementioned cake into each other’s faces. And we supplied mini desserts to the guests that probably cost 3 times the amount of a slice of cake.

But we did manage to entirely escape serving champagne! Although now that I think about it, we skipped the bubbly because we’re cheap. We figured most people take a sip and abandon their glass anyway. And we wanted to maximize our budget so we could have a keg of Fat Tire and still offer mixed drinks.

OK, so how about this: we didn’t toss the bouquet or garter. Ha! Then again, I did wear a garter that I had been saving since being a “junior bridesmaid” in my aunt’s wedding, and we did order a special arrangement of flowers to bestow upon the couple present at the wedding who had been married the longest.

Oh, dear, my record for rebelling against the expensive, time-consuming, silly marital “traditions” doesn’t stand up too well, does it? Wait, got one! We didn’t pass out wedding favors. Instead, we opted to make a donation in each guest’s name to one of three charities that has significance to us as a couple. I’m still pretty proud of that one.

Anyway, this post isn’t even supposed to be about my wedding. But did I mention my stunning bouquet of mini fire-orange calla lilies? Or my seven bridesmaids in their dark red strapless dresses that they can totally wear again?

So now that I can smugly pass judgment on the excesses of getting married in America with a clean conscience, I have to say that the 3—count ‘em, three—weddings we attended in the States this summer were all so beautiful, so genuine, so filled with happiness and sincere pleasure that I was overwhelmed each and every time.

I think you can probably tell a lot about a couple based on the toasts offered at their reception. And even though we all joke about the “open mike” policy that two of our friends employed after their ceremony a few years ago (yep, parents of the Peanut, you know who you are), I still vividly remember thinking, “These guys are so respected, and their love is so admired, that people can’t shut up about it!” I was truly in awe of the emotion those two crazy newlyweds inspired. Never seen anything like it.

This summer of weddings offered even more than the usual opportunity to reflect on the phenomenon of The Toast. Because the Maids of Honors and Best Men I heard over the past 2 months totally rocked. And it got me thinking: what makes a great toast?

No, this is not some metaphysical, theoretical, or hypothetical question. Some day, I’m going to have to give one of these toasts, and I better figure out the key before that time. In case you’re wondering, the previous statement means I’m now publicly expressing my expectation of being my sister’s Matron of Honor. Presumptuous, you say? Gosh, I hope not…

Presumptions notwithstanding, I can safely say that I observed at least 3 of the BEST toasts I’ve ever heard this summer—from Kathy, Brian, and Jeremy—and will try to comment on them at more length on a day when naptime isn’t over so quickly.

But to Erica and Nick, Becky and Tom, and Chase and Katie, my most earnest gratitude for creating such lovely weddings…even the ceremonies in which my son was not the cutest ring bearer in history. We were humbled to be a part of them.

By the way, if you’ve never left a comment before on this blog, feel free to break this distressing habit anytime in the near future. I’m not sure about the etiquette of soliciting comments, but I do know, after watching the charming movie Julie and Julia, that comments are a good thing!

Just Another Hong Kong Weekend

July 27, 2009

On Being Locals

Hiking through the jungle one day and riding a double-decker bus into the city the next…it’s all par for the course here in the ol’ HKSAR.

On Saturday, Husband Extraordinaire and I decided to cross another “must-do-while-we-live-in-Hong-Kong” item off our list and finally travel out to the New Territories for a hike.  Now here’s the thing: we live on the south side of Hong Kong Island.  The north side of the island is considered the main downtown area, and then across the harbor to the north is Kowloon, which is another major shopping, cultural and residential district.  And then as you continue further north, you reach the New Territories—still technically Hong Kong—and then as you keep going you hit China.

hong-kong-map

So on this (very simplified) map, we live near Stanley, the southernmost red dot, and our destination was the Sai Kung Peninsula (in bold).  As you see, the New Territories is massive compared to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.  But our Hong Kong experience has been limited to the two latter areas—and a few of the 230+ outlying islands, for good measure.

In our defense, you could easily live here for years exploring only Hong Kong Island and Kowloon and still never see and do everything there is to, well, see and do.  But being the 18-month natives that we are, we felt it was time to branch out.  You know, ‘cause we’re hardcore like that.

If you don’t have a car—and really, it’s hardly necessary in this most efficient country—your trek from our flat to Sai Kung involves several modes of transport.  We were out the door by 6:30 am (OK, fine, it was closer to 6:45) to catch a mini-bus, the trusty #16, around the east side of the island, then transferred to the metro’s island line and rode a couple stops along the north side, then switched to the (never previously experienced by yours truly!) purple line, which crossed underneath the east side of the harbor and then took us north into the New Territories.  From the town of Sai Kung, we hopped on another mini-bus (the 101M, in case you’re keeping track) and headed out to the entrance of the Sai Kung Country Park.  From here we could have caught another mini-bus, but since we weren’t sure which one—and there are dozens, I mean, DOZENS, to choose from—we opted for a taxi to take us to the beginning of the MacLehose Trail, stage 2.

Now, I always feel like a bit of a sell-out taking a taxi in Hong Kong, and this decision was no exception.  Sure enough, just as we were feeling all proud of ourselves for navigating thus far and arriving in plenty of time to complete our 15 km “strenuous” hike before the worst of the heat, we realized that we had to drive along a road that is part of the MacLehose Trail, stage 1.  And so we passed scores of people who were not ONLY out earlier than us, and not ONLY opting to start from the trail’s origination, but in most cases backpacking in, with loads 3 or 4 times heavier than our light daypacks, or even worse, RUNNING, and now forced to choke on the fumes of our taxi and we went sailing by in air-conditioned decadence.

Anyway, we made it to the start of our chosen section of the trail and summitted the first 1000 foot (300 meter) climb with gusto.  The views were splendid.

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As the photos reveal (aside from cool things hanging from trees), it’s pretty hilly out there, and after this first ascent, it occurred to me that we weren’t just going up, snapping a few pictures, and heading back down.  No, no, we were going down, and then back up, and then down again, and up.  Repeat.

Usually when Husband Extraordinaire and I go hiking, we look at the anticipated time allotted by whichever guidebook we are using and shave off a fair amount, knowing that WE are hardly AVERAGE.  So in this case, our Serious Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong projected 5 hours, and Husband Extraordinaire confidently predicted 3 hours, while I secretly assumed 4.  Ha!  5 and a half hours later—which does include a 30 minute lunch break—we stumbled down the last descent and thankfully hailed a mini-bus.

Truly, it’s a gorgeous hike, and while definitely strenuous, as in “Wow I’m still a bit sore 2 days later,” it’s certainly not very strenuous, as in “Honey, save yourself, I can’t make it, just go on without me and tell The Kid I tried.”

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On Sunday we set out the find the Hong Kong Farmer’s Market, which allegedly takes place at the Star Ferry Pier from 11-4 and boasts such novelties as affordable free-range eggs and organic produce.  Since the ferry departs from Central (as in, the most downtown part of the sprawling downtown), we packed up The Kid and caught the 260 (Central Express) bus from Stanley.

The Kid adores all methods of transportation, but in particular, he loves the double-decker buses.  And even more particularly, he loves riding in the very front seat of the very top of the double-decker bus, where a wide window is all that separates you from the outreaching arms of overgrown trees that arch over the narrow, winding road.  When you pass another double-decker coming the other way, you can seriously count the freckles on the eager faces of the tourists who are sitting in the seat corresponding to yours.  It’s a thrill, alright!

I am happy to report that the Farmer’s Market does exist, and that our arrival at about 10:50 a.m. assured me an advantageous spot in the queue for free range eggs.  We also bought some lovely asparagus, but my hopes of garden tomatoes were quickly dashed when I glanced across the spread of almost exclusively green offerings.  Yep, the Chinese love their leafy veggies.

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The photo on the right portrays the figure whose sign communicates the very strict rules for how and when you can acquire the free range eggs.  On the left, the queue for the coveted eggs themselves.  Oh, and what’s that, you say?  You see a Subway in the background?  True enough, my friends, and make no mistake about it—we had turkey on wheat and spicy Italian on parmesan-oregano for lunch.  Like I said, we’re totally natives.

Things You Don’t Expect to Hear Yourself Say as a Mother

June 9, 2009

“No, you can’t have any more green beans until you finish your sausage and rice.”

A Few More Pics of the Kid

May 30, 2009

You know you’re out for a pretty early run when you actually see the bird getting the worm.  So as I went plodding by a little sparrow this morning who had just hit the jackpot, I had to smile to myself.  But it’s that kind of day in Hong Kong…either get outdoors before mid-morning, or suffer the sweaty consequences.

At Ocean Park And speaking of sweaty consequences, we took the Kid to Ocean Park the other day.  (Now how’s that for a seamless transition?)  This outing could be considered insane on several levels.  First of all, it was Sunday…and no self-respecting Southside resident of Hong Kong goes to Ocean Park on the weekend.  You’re just asking for enormous crowds, each person wielding a camera like a weapon.  And to compound our madness, we chose to go even though the weather promised a high of at least 30 degrees (86 F), which, when you take into account the relative humidity of 85%, can be pretty miserable.

But guess what?  We had a nice time, emerged unscathed, and snapped a few cute photos in the process.  Man, I love being such a rebel.

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Panda Cuddling