The Hot Pot Blog

January 28, 2011

Little Things I’m looking forward to in America

In honor of our departure for America this afternoon, I’ve compiled a little list.  This is all, of course, in addition to seeing our families and friends who we’ve missed so much.  That’s a given.

1. Airport food. I can’t wait to have to choose between a yogurt parfait at McDonalds or a Cinnabon or a sandwich from Potbelly’s.  With 12 flights in 14 days, we’ll be using airports to satisfy all of our fast-food cravings (and catch up on our reading).

2. Understanding everything that is said to me and around me.  Being able to read signs, newspapers, etc.  I get by here just fine but I’m looking forward to English-language magazines and being able to understand signs that look important with lots of exclamation marks.

3. Walking outside and taking deep breaths.


5. Eating fruits and vegetables with an insane carbon footprint (just for a few weeks).

6.  Eating a hamburger, or a steak, hmmm maybe both.

7.  Trying to make my cat Freckles snuggle with me.  Feeding him copious amounts of treats in order to bribe him to that end.

8. All of my mom’s food. ‘Nough said.

9.  Buying some pants that fit and have no near-holes in the arse.

10. Meeting my obstetrician…oh snap, did I just go there?

That’s right.  I have an obstetrician because, come end of July/early August we’re having a baby! 🙂


January 26, 2011

Public Service Announcement: The Pack Is Back and We’re Going To “Geebs”

Image Source

I waltzed into work this past Monday with a megawatt grin and a desire to obnoxiously spread, as far and wide as possible, the good news I’d just learned from the internet a few minutes prior.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Green Bay Packers are going to the Superbowl.

This is big folks.  There are marriages in Wisconsin currently being saved by this news.  There are people who are getting out of bed again for the first time in years.  Green and gold will become practically a uniform in my hometown for the next 2 weeks, schools are debating whether to cancel school in case of a victory parade, and the grocery stores are stocking up on brats, cheese, beer, chips and those tiny little packer flag toothpicks.

While we won’t be in Green Bay for the big game (but you can bet I’m out to find a Packers sports bar down in Charlottesville!) I’m looking forward to living and breathing in the palpable green and gold excitement while we are hanging out in “Geebs” next week.

And if you need me to pick up any paraphernalia for you while I’m there, just let me know in the comments.  Remember, cheeseheads are not only great for showing your team spirit, they also make excellent head protection implements in case of a post-game car crash (a fact that is proven over and over by overly-enthusiastic tailgaters every year).

Dan, Alexis: it’s go time.  Remember, it’s never too late to switch over to the green and gold side of life.

January 24, 2011

Haggling at the “Antique” Market-DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE RELATED TO ME (Please)

Tucked in on the west-central part of town, only a few blocks from the Sichuan Museum is the “Antique” Market.

It’s one of those few spots in town that the over-ambitious city “planners” (wow the ironic quotations are flying around here today!) have managed to leave mostly alone.

I hear it’s much smaller than it was 10 years ago but it’s still bustling with an air of authenticity.  Women gossip between stalls filled with fake watches and acid-treated “old” coins.  Upwardly mobile youths from the Tibetan plateau man stalls full of beautiful Tibetan fabrics in between classes at one of Chengdu’s nearby universities.  Paper bowls of noodles steam on nearly every counter in the damp cold air.

Monks, or men dressed as monks, wander through red carpets covered in prayer beads.  Little kids waddle around underfoot, bundled so fiercely that they look like mini technicolor penguins tottering around.

A river runs behind the stalls and it’s here on the riverbank that you find the most interesting bits and pieces of recent history laid out on swaths of dirty red and yellow fabrics.

Pieces of jade and lapis (or at least glass made to look like jade and lapis) come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  Small combs and knives turned green with age (or a special treatment of acid) are arranged carefully next to beautiful suede-backed paintings of faded Buddhist demons.

Giant scorpions, beetles, and butterflies are pinned to the back of glass shadow boxes, supposedly relics of university classrooms from generations ago.

Every item in these river-bank displays seems unique.  You rarely see the same item twice, and it’s possible to walk up and down the row of curio-covered fabrics for hours, finding something new on each pass.

The vendors are friendly, content to supervise my fascinated browsing or engage me in a bit of a friendly haggle.  Indeed this is one of the few places in Chengdu where haggling is expected and even enjoyed by everyone involved.

I’m not usually much of a material girl.  I love looking at beautiful things, window shopping, and perusing design blogs but I don’t buy.  Utilitarian purchases like a new kitchen pot or work pants make it onto my credit card bill, beautiful things that I’m lusting over rarely do.

Gifts for other people are a different story altogether though; and with our trip to America fast approaching, I was in a buying mood.

On our 2nd pass down the row of  river bank “antique-like” dealers, I spied a set of tiny bud vases covered in swirling enamel and metal designs in green, blue, pink and red.  They looked old, and more importantly in a place where items manufactured even 3 weeks ago look “old”, they were also intriguing and beautiful in a sort of faded way.

Gorgeous and tiny and unique, I decided they were the perfect vessel for bringing a little bit of China back to folks in the U.S.

The vendor and I squatted together and squared up.

“How much for these two?”

“400 kuai.”

“400?!?  Aiiiiiyaaaaa.  This is too much!  I don’t have enough money!”

“They are very old!  Hundreds of years old!  What is your price?”

And we were off: Chris and I consulting with calculatedly disinterested looks and the vendor and his partner colluding as well.  We pretended to walk away, they pretended that my prices were so low they were disrespectful to the “age” of the precious objects.

In the end we had 4 tiny vases wrapped up in newspaper and I had bargained him down by nearly half.

As a foreigner haggling, a good deal is one in which you pay just a bit more than you really should but much less than most other foreigners would have to pay.

The vendor feels like he’s made a good profit, you feel a rush of triumphant adrenaline, and everyone parts ways smiling.  At the end, when you are quibbling over a just a few dollars, good will is worth that small premium, especially if you want to come back as an “old friend.”

I remembered this again a few stalls later as I stopped to pick up some fabric bags from a vendor a few stalls down.  My mother-in-law turned me onto the practice of giving gifts in colorful, drawstring “shoe bags.”  They are inexpensive, pretty, easier than wrapping paper, and totally reusable for the gift recipient.

A young woman sporting a sweet baby bulge under her puffy coat helped me sort through her selection.  I told her I was bringing gifts home to my family in the U.S. and she quoted me 10 kuai per bag.

I continued sorting, trying to decide whether to settle for 8 kuai per bag or drive a hard bargain all the way down to 5.

A man in an long plush Air Force coat walked up and asked after the price of the bags I was looking at.  She told him 15 kuai.

What?!?!  Was this happening?  Was I, the gullible foreigner, seriously getting a better quote?  I know the local military elite are not well-liked by most Chengdu people, what with their fancy cars and apparent immunity to local law enforcement.  I had no idea though that the dislike (or at least the perceived ability to pay) of these guys was such that a gullible foreigner could actually merit a fairer price.

I kept my head down and my mouth shut until the guy walked away.   As we totaled up my purchases, the vendor gave me a 50 kuai discount and a knowing look.  I paid without argument.

Then she slipped 2 extra little bags in my bag and sent me on my way with a smile.

I used to wonder how my mother-in-law found all of her special vendors, the people who share their lunch with her when she walks into their stall and who offer her their best price without any haggling at all.

I’m starting to understand that it’s not really about striking a deal at all.  It’s about forming a relationship with someone you like and trust and who, in return, likes you and trusts you not to be a total jerk back.  If you pay a little extra one time, that person remembers and, if they can, might find ways to compensate you the next time.

January 16, 2011

A Rainy Baking Day

On Saturday we enjoyed some of the clearest skies we’ve seen around these parts in months.

On Sunday (and now Monday) the clear skies gave way to rain.  Lots of cold, misty rain.

I love rain.  Living under persistant cloud (and “cloud”) cover for months without rain can be draining.  It makes people sad and lethargic.

But rain– rain gives purpose to the clouds.  Rain washes away the awful chalkiness in the winter air and the chemical and coal smells.  Rain is a chance at revival.

Staying indoors when the air outside is bad can make home feel stuffy.  Like an absurdly comfortable prison, but one you wish you could break out of just the same.

Staying indoors when it rains is different.  You can go out, and you probably will go out, but when you come home it’s because you want to, because home is a cozy refuge.  A place to put flannel pajama pants back on at noon, put on some good music and bake until your heart is content.

Rainy days call for curling up in well-worn, soft sweatshirts and slippers and watching movies at 3 in the afternoon.  Rainy days were made for luxuriously long naps. For making a slow-simmering soup stock and not one, but two loaves of hearty homemade bread.

On rainy days ingredients like molasses and wholesome homey projects like chewy oatmeal raisin cookies are especially appropriate.

Should you encounter a rainy day like ours, I can whole-heartedly recommend the following list of baked goods:

A loaf of near-textbook chewy and delicious no-knead bread

A funny little loaf of molasses whole wheat bread-best served toasted and slathered with a generous helping of salted butter

A batch of thick, chewy, granola bars, custom-made for yours truly and ready to be devoured over the coming work days

Oatmeal raisin cookie dough, flash frozen for a later date (today? tonight? 15 minutes from now?)

2 of them require 6 ingredients or less and little to no work.  2 require oatmeal and raisins and if you are making one, it’s quick work to whip up a batch of the other.

It’s been awhile since I’ve so thoroughly mucked up our kitchen and covered myself in flour.  It’s nice to see the freezer slowly filling up home-made goodness again.  It feels good.

T-12 days to crisp blue skies, my mom’s gumbo, some snow-shoeing, some snorkeling, and eating lots and lots of salad…

January 11, 2011

A Collection of Random Thoughts

*The owners of our favorite cafe in Chengdu, really the ONLY good cafe in Chengdu, are leaving us to go back to France.  On one hand, I’m so happy for them.  They are so good at what they do and they work sooo hard and they deserve the chance to spend more time with their young son.  I’m glad they were so profitable that they were able to sell so quickly, but can I just be selfish and say it?  NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!  Please don’t go!!! We need you!  For our sanity!  For our coffee!  For the only eatery in Chengdu with REAL atmosphere!  For the best salads and pastries in the whole of Western China!  I feel like its the end of an era.  I never knew I could care about one little tiny cafe so much.

*I’ve done some nominal research on bike safety in China.  Shockingly, they don’t really publish those sorts of statistics widely. 🙂  But I did find out that China has 7 times the bike fatalities annually of either Europe or America.  Granted, I don’t know whether this is per capita or just overall, but I’m going to assume its the former until someone tells me otherwise.

*I also found out that, in NYC, if you wear a helmet, you’re actually more likely to be hit by a car.  I’ll buy that, but it doesn’t change the fact that you are still more likely to get hit by a car in China than in NYC, whether you wear a helmet or not.  Since I can’t magically enforce traffic laws or teach everyone how to drive, promoting helmets seems like a more manageable goal.

*In 3 weeks we are getting on a plane to go visit…America!!!!!  It’s going to be a whirlwind trip-2 weeks, 4 cities, 12 flights total.  Are we nuts??  Yes, but we’ve got a long list of food to eat, people to see, and freedom and democracy to enjoy and we are thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis excited.  Plus, we get to see a dentist!!!!!  I never thought I’d be so excited to see a dentist.

*We haven’t been back to America since we arrived in Chengdu last April.  While I’m super excited, I’m also worried that I’ll find a lot changed.  It’s weird to read the news of recession and struggle and political bickering and be so far away and a little removed from it all.  We know it’s not a good or easy time for a lot of people right now.

*On the other hand, I live in China and when I read all of the reports of people being afraid of China becoming more powerful than the U.S., when I read absolute nonsense about how “Chinese mothers” parent (Hey lady, last time I checked with the Chinese parents I know, your methods are not so much Chinese as they are…umm a little scary??), when I read about how we should all eat a mythical “Chinese diet” that doesn’t exist in modern China anymore, I feel a little sad.

Sad because I wish people knew what China is really like.  Because I don’t think America has anything to worry about.  I’m not saying this to knock China, China is definitely a powerhouse and its definitely going to get bigger and better, but that’s ok.  Because what makes America great-our people, our melting pot-ness, our emphasis on innovation and ingenuity and creation, our deep-seeded belief in the power of the individual and freedom of expression-those are all things that China doesn’t have and more importantly, really doesn’t want to have either.

And sometimes wanting it more is what matters.

*I wasn’t intending to get so serious for this collection of random thoughts.  Sorry!  Back to the mundane:

*I just realized that all but one of our towels have Chris’ name on them in permanent marker…from when he went to summer camp…25 years ago.  China may be making minimalists of us, but perhaps a bit more consumerism wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

*In America, I can go on any website I want without a VPN or proxy server.  Woahhhh.

*America has brunch and salads, and delis and bagels from a store-not scratch, and Lebanese food and giant grocery stores and real organic produce and Junior Frosty’s from Wendy’s.  All of which I plan on consuming in just 3 short weeks.  I love America.





January 6, 2011

Chengdu Ain’t Never Heard of Helicopter Parenting

I’m sorry, but I just can’t this issue out of my head.

Every morning on our way to work, Chris and I pass-and endure near misses with-dozens, maybe even hundreds of kids riding their bikes to school.

These kids ride from near and far through the predawn darkness to be at school by 7 or 7:30 or 8:00am.  We usually see the kids with extracurriculars (read: nearly all of them) biking home again at 7 or 8 or 9 at night.  Again in the dark.

And its dark, dark people.  Like middle of the night dark.  Like, half of the streetlights don’t work dark.

And its not just bikes on the road, its cars.  Lots of cars.  Like more cars per capita than almost anywhere else in China.  Most of these folks have very, very questionable driving skills.

We know.  A guy once backed up 100 meters into the grill of our car going 15 mph just because he didn’t know how to use his reverse gear very well.  Making a right turn from the far left lane going the wrong way on a one-way street?  I’ve seen it happen so many times now that I barely flinch.

On top of the thousands of kids on bikes and the hundreds of cars, there are also hundreds of scooters on the road at this time of morning as well.

The scooters scare me the most.  For some reason they are the greatest offenders when it comes to whipping through red lights at major intersections no matter how many times you honk to announce your (very large and red and scary) presence.  While equipped with headlights, no one turns them on.  Would waste the battery.

Now here’s where I get really freaked out.  Those kids on bike?  Not one of them has a bike-light.  Not a single one of them has a helmet. None.  I’ve never, ever seen one.

The little kids standing on the front of their mom and dad’s scooters?  Ditto. No helmet, not even a seat-they usually stand between their parents legs.  A lot of times mom and dad have a helmet but not the kid.

I’m not some crazy safety paranoid person.  I don’t see anything wrong with a kid biking to school in the dark as long as they are careful and take some precautions.

In fact, I think its fantastic that all of these kids bike to school.  They seem to enjoy it, their parents drive less, and they get some good exercise.

But to me, in this city, with this many insane drivers, and so many people operating so many motor vehicles with zero practical training, these kid’s daily pilgrimages to school-sans helmet, sans bike-light-seem almost suicidal.

I can understand that maybe 20 or even 10 years ago, there weren’t many cars, there weren’t any scooters on the road.  The utility of a helmet probably seemed laughably negligible in relationship to its cost.  Truly, people might not have needed them.

But now, I don’t think so.  I can’t imagine that in a city of 13 million, every single kid gets to school safely every single day.  I see way too many car accidents and scooter accidents and black eyes around town to believe that a kid on his bike is somehow immune from our dismal traffic safety records.

So why no helmets?!?!  Why not even a light on the kid’s bike so we can see them coming!?!?

I know a piece of compressed styrofoam isn’t going to save every kid from injury and death and I know some kids will refuse to wear them, but come on! At least give your kid a fighting chance against the scary bad drivers in the fake BMWs out there!

I’ve literally NEVER seen one helmet on a kid despite living spitting distance from at least 3 different schools.

I know people here care deeply and fanatically about their kids.  I know they love them.  I know they work like hell to give them every advantage they possibly can.

So I just can not fathom why the uniform no-helmet thing for kids.  We have them here.  They aren’t outrageously expensive.  If mom and dad are wearing them on their scooters, why not the kid?

Am I missing something here?  Is there some cultural explanation that I’m not getting?

Or am I just a silly foreigner for having a coronary every time we turn a pre-dawn corner into a flock of helmet-less children?

January 2, 2011

Reverb 10 All the rest of it!

Wow, what a self-indulgent labor of…self-love?  Whatever it is, I do think I’ve gotten a lot out of this exercise, if only a little bit of clarity and a dogged sense of responsibility to finish what I’ve started-which is nice after a few months of slacking off in the writing department.

Please don’t feel obliged to read this long, long, long post in its entirety.  I’m just happy to publish it to prove to myself that its finished! 🙂

December 16 – Friendship. How has a friend changed you or your perspective on the world this year? Was this change gradual, or a sudden burst? (Author: Martha Mihalick)

This one is tough as its been a year of leaving good, old friends and meeting new ones, finding our way in a significantly smaller social sphere.  I can’t point to one person who has changed my perspective but I’ve come to realize that in this nomadic life, friendship can be expressed in so many different ways.  There are the people I’ve met through my blog and theirs who I’ve never met but who I hope to someday.  There’s my friend from college (and later DC) who I talk to regularly at 3am her time on gchat while she’s studying for her finals at Johns Hopkins.

There are the people I knew from elementary school who take the time to comment on a Facebook post or send a quick message.  There are the friends whose cell phones I call sometimes from Skype, just because.  There are the emails I exchange every few months with people I care about just to find out what’s going on in their lives now that I’m not around everyday.

Sometimes its conversations sparked by something big, an engagement, a move across the world.  Sometimes its the little things, a funny news story or an old photo.

Would I prefer to be sitting down having coffee and hanging out in person with all of these people?  Yes, definitely.  Sometimes it kills me that I’m missing out on all sorts of important stuff in my friend’s lives.  But am I so grateful for technology that, even in our absences, we are still able to stay close until we see each other again?  Hells yes.  My life wouldn’t be the same if we couldn’t.

December 17 – Lesson Learned. What was the best thing you learned about yourself this past year? And how will you apply that lesson going forward? (Author: Tara Weaver)

The best thing that I’ve learned about myself is that, take away the peer pressure to stay single and childless as long as possible, take away the expectation to strive ambitiously up the career ladder as fast as possible, take away the glory of knowing my place and that people thinking highly of my work, and I’m not necessarily ruthlessly ambitious and driven.  In fact, I can act quite lazy, let opportunities pass me by when I’m feeling lost and unsure of the way forward.

This doesn’t sound like a good thing, but it is still a good thing to know about myself.

Up until this year, I’ve been modestly successful at most I’ve set out to do.   I got a lot of A’s, I graduated in 3 years with a double major, I worked abroad after college, I got the first job I interviewed for.  I did well at my work.  I knew where I was going, at least until we found out we were moving here.

I’ve always worked extremely hard, but I think I’ve also always been really lucky too.

I’ve experienced a lot of painful growing experiences in my life, but overall, things seem to work out for the best.

Coming here, I guess I assumed “the best” would mean that, with a little digging, the perfect non-profit job or writing gig would fall into my lap.

It didn’t, for a variety of reasons, many of them far beyond my control.  I struggled, I gave up.  I baked pastries all day, read the NY Times and looked forward to a job at the Consulate with a good salary and a predictable work load.

None of the past 9 months here have been part of my plan.  In fact, I would go so far as to say I’ve failed  myself in a lot of ways that I never even thought were possible before.  I’ve learned alot through all of this.

Which also, consequently means that I’ve learned a hell of a lot through the process.

I’ve learned that, even in countries where I have a professional network, even if all I want to do is stay home and write all day, the perfect job is never going to fall into my lap just because I want it and I work hard.  There will always be trade-offs.  There will likely always be struggle.

I’ve also realized though that I haven’t lost my ambition,  My plans have just changed.  My dreams have changed, but I’m still not settling, I’m just growing and lucky enough to have the opportunity to try and fail over and over with the support of my incredible husband and family.


December 18 – Try. What do you want to try next year? Is there something you wanted to try in 2010? What happened when you did / didn’t go for it? (Author: Kaileen Elise)

Next year I want to try to make writing something I do with purpose, not just for pleasure or emotional outlet.  I want to actually find and apply for some freelance gig-no matter how small or silly-and actually see it published and paid for.  I want to spend some time in Wisconsin working on the novel I’ve been tossing around in my head for months now.

It’s one thing to write pages and chapters and blog entries in my head at night when I should be sleeping, its another to do it purposefully during waking hours-which is what I hope to do in 2011.

In 2010 I tried a lot of things, learning Mandarin, getting more serious about blogging and photography, baking all manners of crazy things.

I think I’ve succeeded thus far up to the point that the challenge has held my interest.  I’ve learned Mandarin well enough to get around and eavesdrop with some degree of accuracy.  Should we ever consider another China tour, I’ll probably get more serious, but for now, the amount of language I know serves me just fine.

Same goes for blogging and baking.  If I’m home all day with blogging and baking as nearly my sole  preoccupation, I’m pretty good at both.  When I’m not, it shows.

Photography requires some renewed focus in 2011.  Towards the end of this year I just got so bloody tired of the grey, grey, scenery that I gave up for awhile.  Wrongly.  There is always more to see and photograph, even when everything feels so dull and the same.

December 19 – Healing. What healed you this year? Was it sudden, or a drip-by-drip evolution? How would you like to be healed in 2011? (Author: Leonie Allan)

Wow, this is a tough one.  I don’t really feel like this was a year of healing.  This was more a year of cutting open and digging deep.  A year that sometimes felt like a surgical excavation of my heart and mind and ambition.  Not necessarily in a bad way though.

Sometimes we need a little purging and rearranging and digging deep to release the worn, tired bits of our souls and fill them up again with good new bits.

In India at the beginning of the year I felt like I worked myself into the ground to be reborn amidst my own ashes, a stronger, more experienced person.  My experience in China has been less dramatic, less story-book satisfying, but I think I’ll ultimately feel similarly about it.

2011 I know will be so different that I can’t even imagine how I’ll answer this question at the end of next year.  But I think it will be a beautiful year of healing and acceptance and brilliant new priorities.

December 20 – Beyond Avoidance. What should you have done this year but didn’t because you were too scared, worried, unsure, busy or otherwise deterred from doing? (Bonus: Will you do it?) (Author: Jake Nickell)

Hmmmm two things here, one big, one little.

The Little: I didn’t whip out my camera to take scenes of ordinary life as often as I should have.  I have a weird hesitation about taking photos of people without getting their permission, even taking photos with lots of people around.

Given how many people I see snapping photos of me on their cell phones everyday (look Mom! A foreigner!!) I should probably be over this on a strictly tit-for-tat basis.

Or, I could do the honorable thing and ask permission, even with just a nod to my camera and a short “hao ma?”  Sure it would likely ruin a great number of candid shots, but at least I’ll be taking them instead of shooting the rafters or the ground in front of me.

The Big: I didn’t work hard enough at finding writing work.  I had at least one minor opportunity that I didn’t take.  I didn’t reach out to people I know asking for advice or ideas.  After a few tries and no response, I gave up on searching for work and hoped instead that it would somehow just find me.  Whoops no, it just doesn’t work like that.

December 21 – Future Self. Imagine yourself five years from now. What advice would you give your current self for the year ahead? (Bonus: Write a note to yourself 10 years ago. What would you tell your younger self?) (Author: Jenny Blake)

Five years from now I’d be thrilled to be writing from home and maybe out of a small non-profit office doing both my own work and projects and assignments for a wonderful little NGO wherever we happen to be living.  I’ll be balancing my work with raising a few (adorable, smart, funny, polite, and culinarily adventurous) kids with my handsome partner in crime.

Advice? Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Revel in the small wonderful delights of everyday life but don’t use those little moments as an excuse to not pursue your dreams and goals.  Go about the day with action and purpose, not because it’s what is expected of you but because it’s what makes you truly happy.  Celebrate all of the success and milestones, not matter how big or little, remember those as your fuel to keep striving.  Remember that a day spent playing is sometimes more fruitful than a day spent working.  Remember that there are somethings worth staying up all night for and drinking 5 cups of coffee to recover from the next day. Plan for the future but make sure you’ve got at least 3 or 4 back up plans you like as much as the first one.

December 22 – Travel How did you travel in 2010? How and/or where would you like to travel next year? (Author: Tara Hunt) {Future Tool: New Year’s Goal Questions for No-Goals Creatives from Jeffrey Davis.

January: Hyderabad, India

February: New York, New York

March: upstate Wisconsin

April: move to Chengdu, China

May: First attempt at E Mei Shan outside Chengdu

June: Chris worked Monday-Saturday= mei you travel

July: Qing Cheng Shan outside Chengdu, Chris’ family visited

August: mei you travel

September: Langkawi, Malaysia

October: parents visited, does that count?

November: Guangzhou, Hong Kong

December: Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong

In 2011 we have an R&R whirlwind trip planned to Wisconsin, Virginia, U.S. Virgin Islands, and NYC, another trip back state-side hopefully in the summer, and potentially a quick trip over to Singapore.  Once we find out where our next post is, we’ll start planning a getaway for circa Thanksgiving next year or Christmas.  Europe? Thailand? Who knows?  We had a 10 day trip to Vietnam planned with tickets bought but will probably have to cancel.  Anyone need tickets from Chengdu to Vietnam in March!?!
December 23 – New Name Let’s meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why? (Author: Becca Wilcott)

Honestly, I often wish my name was Daniella instead of Danielle.  A very simple change but to me it sounds like a lot more.  Could be that my Italian roommate back when I lived in Chennai called me Daniella and it always sounded so cool with her Italian accent.

On an unrelated side note: what is with everyone of my generation wanting to name their kids Isabella, Sophia, and Olivia?  Dude!! Those are the names I’ve loved since I was practically a kindergartener but apparently they are everyone else’s favorite names too.  Twilight fanatics aside, is there some sort of name-consciousness among every generation that makes us prefer the same 3 or 4 “new” names?

December 24 Prompt – Everything’s OK What was the best moment that could serve as proof that everything is going to be alright? And how will you incorporate that discovery into the year ahead? (Author: Kate Inglis)

Hmm, for me, these moments are always somehow tied up in being outdoors.  At other times in my life, I’ve had them on sunny beautiful days, while swinging on a park swing or walking along a river or riding my bike down a gravel trail.

I don’t revel in the outdoors here the same way I did in the U.S.  It might be the lack of sun, or the pollution or the different climate, I don’t know, but I do remember that one perfectly glorious day we had on the back side of Qing Cheng Shan.

The waterfalls were raging and Chris and I stood on slippery steps just a meter above and next to the rushing water.  Chris folded up a 1 yuan note into a lucky elephant and we tossed it into the sunlit mist and made a wish as it tumbled down the mountain.

At that moment, I knew everything was going to be alright.  That even here in Chengdu, we would eventually find our bliss.  Not that we weren’t happy here before that day, as silly as it sounds, I go to bed happy every night I get to crawl in next to hubs and whisper until we fall asleep.

But that day, I realized there was meaning and reason to be here in Chengdu, and that everything was going to be alright.

December 25 – Photo – a present to yourself.  Sift through all the photos of you from the past year. Choose one that best captures you; either who you are, or who you strive to be. Find the shot of you that is worth a thousand words. Share the image, who shot it, where, and what it best reveals about you.  (Author: Tracey Clark)

Langkawi, Malaysia.  Chris has successfully wrestled my camera away from me.  We’re enjoying a barefoot morning stroll on the beach.  I don’t take good photos but we’ll call the expression on my face “wry.”  One foot bathing in the waters of pure, unadulterated happiness, one part of me making fun of myself for whatever I have just said right before the photo was taken.

On a side note, if I could wear oversized white cotton button downs with leggings and/or running shorts every day, I think I would.

December 26 – Soul Food What did you eat this year that you will never forget? What went into your mouth & touched your soul? (Author: Elise Marie Collins)

Hmmm first coffee and cinnamon cookie at our now-favorite cafe.  I saw the beautiful foam, tasted that perfectly-spiced little star and realized that we were sitting in what would become a special place for us in Chengdu.

First dim sum at the Shangri La with Chris.  It’s not the world’s best dim sum, but its a quiet peaceful setting in a city where those words are never used in the same sentence as “restaurant.”

Fish-fragrant eggplant.  No fish involved but this quintessential Sichuan dish taught me that I had be ohhhh-so-wrong about eggplant.  Salty, sour, savory and sweet all at the same time, wow.

Xiang-la bing.  Spicy, onion-y, greasy and delicious fried dough.  My father thought this was one of the best things he’d ever eaten in his entire life when he came to visit us.  Available for just pennies at Yulin market.

Malaysian coconut tapioca-like pudding.  I’ve forgotten the name of this now but wow.  In Malaysia we asked our waiter for this favorite dessert recommendation as this was it.  Seemingly simple but drizzled in that deep palm sugar sauce it was soul-satisfying in a way that had us swooning.

First sushi in Malaysia.  Ohhhhhh sushi.  There are no words for how much I miss you.

December 27 – Ordinary Joy Our most profound joy is often experienced during ordinary moments. What was one of your most joyful ordinary moments this year? (Author: Brené Brown)

That first hike up the back side of Qing Cheng Shan wins hands down.  Chris and I were giddy and smiling doofuses the entire time we walked up those steps.  Maybe a hike isn’t an ordinary moment but when you consider we were essentially walking up 50-some flights of stairs and happy about it, I’ll take it.

December 28 – Achieve  What’s the thing you most want to achieve next year? How do you imagine you’ll feel when you get it? Free? Happy? Complete? Blissful? Write that feeling down. Then, brainstorm 10 things you can do, or 10 new thoughts you can think, in order to experience that feeling today.  (Author: Tara Sophia Mohr)

Is it just me or are these questions beginning to seem similar but also more demanding?  Oh well, I’m still enjoying it.

Hmmm next year I want to achieve my personal brand of balance.  That feeling of busy accomplishment with plenty of emphasis on play and the people I love.

That means accomplishing goals like finishing the first draft of that novel rolling around inside my head, while also seeking out new adventures and experiences with Chris, making employment/education plans for our next post, and indulging all of my domestic fantasies like a perpetually clean-ish house and lots of homemade food.

I know how it feels when I accomplish that balance.  It’s a feeling a breezy satisfaction, of falling into bed every night tired but happy.

December 29 – Defining Moment Describe a defining moment or series of events that has affected your life this year. (Author: Kathryn Fitzmaurice)

Going back to India.  I realized that, more than before, India is a home away from home for me.

Moving to China and realizing that meaningful non-profit work just wasn’t going to happen without potentially putting my husband’s first tour out in jeopardy.  Could I have gotten away with it?  Maybe, but it just wasn’t worth the risk.

On the other hand though, I realized that without work I care about or at least a project that I care about, its hard for me to feel fully content no matter where I am or how happy I am day to day.

December 30 – Gift Prompt: Gift. This month, gifts and gift-giving can seem inescapable. What’s the most memorable gift, tangible or emotional, you received this year? (Author: Holly Root)

I spent a year working on the project that culminated with my big trip to India in January/February of 2010.  There were lots of rough spots, weeks where I thought I might just quit outright.  Lots of feeling totally overwhelmed and under appreciated.

And then, the Fellows finally arrived in India and I basked in their warmth and energy.  They were all just so happy to be there that it made every single little struggle feel totally worth it.  Then there were the guests who worked for small NGOs who I helped attend the event and who came away so thrilled to have participated that they were practically bubbling over with excitement and gratitude.

If all that wasn’t enough, before I left Ashoka, my boss and best friends through me a kick-ass surprise going away party.  There was energy and all of my favorite people in one room.  And just when the embarrassment of being the center of attention was about to overwhelm me, one of our good friends and colleagues was able to announce she was pregnant and all of a sudden we had a whole new wonderful reason to be celebrating!

I walked home from work that day on cloud 9, happy to have seen the project through, happy to have such an amazing boss and amazing friends, and happy to be leaving Ashoka on such a high, high note.

That was my best gift of 2010.  Well that, and one other gift from Chris that I’ll have to remember to explain another time.

December 31 – Core Story What central story is at the core of you, and how do you share it with the world? (Bonus: Consider your reflections from this month. Look through them to discover a thread you may not have noticed until today.) (Author: Molly O’Neill)

Hmmm, I hope my core story is to keep striving to learn and grow in the face of challenge or even outright failure.  To always be a little silly everyday and to remain childishly awestruck and grateful in the face of wonderful people, experiences and moments.

Bonus point common threads:

Apparently I see this past year as a time of hard knocks and failure even though, day to day, I always feel pretty happy and satisfied.  That’s how I am though.  I’m usually happy unless I’m really, really not.  I usually don’t realize how difficult an experience is until its already over and done.

Another bonus point: I love nature and sunshine and soft breezes.  Who knew I was quite so obsessed?  As a kid I always liked to go outside to think or blow off steam but being in a place where I don’t have wide open spaces or clear skies and sunshine all the time makes me realize how core those experiences are to my sense of well-being.

Honestly, I think next post, I’ll take cold or extreme heat or a tiny, tiny town with absolutely no good restaurants if I can just have sunshine and breezes and a place to run outdoors near my house.

January 1, 2011

We’re Back

From Guangzhou, and Shanghai, from the isolated darkest days of the winter tide that has finally turned, no longer are we bracing for the darkest days of the year-we’re looking forward again to the brightest ones.

We’ve had beautiful, amazing moments and the most important happenings in the past few months, but we’ve also forgotten to count our blessings once in awhile- grumbling instead about the pollution, the kamikazee scooter riders in the still-dark 8am rush hour, and all manners of gripes related to living in a provincial city covered in clouds, far from family, friends and sunshine.

We left Chengdu just a day or two after the darkest day of the whole year to celebrate Christmas with Chris mom, dad, and sister in Shanghai.  All told, we hailed from 4 cities and 3 continents.

I worried when we left that returning would be a total downer.  That the sunshine and blue skies, amazing architecture, and amazing food of the coast would render us completely unfit to return to life in our tiny grimy little town in the midwest of China.

I shouldn’t have worried.

In Shanghai the architecture amazed us.  I had forgotten how much there is to love about old buildings with their grand stately entry ways and stone corners just slightly worn and rounded from witnessing so much history.

In a country where sometimes it feels like nearly EVERYTHING is torn down and rebuilt every 5 years, the old parts of Shanghai are to be cherished.

The 100 or 20o year old buildings on the Bund are truly works of art.  You can’t help but look up at those stained glass ceilings and marble-inlaid floors and feel a sense of awe for that sort of patient craftmanship.


There is a sense of security and watchfulness in these old buildings, the kind where you can reach up and slap your palm on a piece of stone that’s been standing guard for centuries.

And its not just on the Bund that you find these old buildings, spared the relentless bull-dozing and dynamite of China’s grandest plans.  The old narrow sidewalks and alleys are treasures.

But the greatest one was finally seeing Chris’ mother’s old house amid these winding alleys and laundry lines.

My mother-in-law was born in a townhouse on this very block.  Walking down the narrow alley, she remembered the neighbor children she played with, the tragedies that followed as the Communists took over Shanghai and turned my mother’s families once grand 3 story home into an apartment building housing large families in every room.

Eventually they fled to Hong Kong and then to the United States, their title and ownership of the house was lost to history.

But the house is still there and life goes on.  A neighbor eyed us warily as she shared that a nice family of three lives there now.

That walk was the first time Chris’ dad had ever seen the house, mine as well.

We took a quick picture in front of the new front door and then walked on down the lovely little side streets of Shanghai.

The rest of our time in Shanghai was spent eating well.  Lots of Shanghai’s traditional xiao long bao (tiny, delicate, soup-filled dumplings) and dim sum and for Christmas dinner: our first really nice Western meal since we’ve moved to China.

We left Shanghai full and content and sure that if we ever lived there we’d be fat and happy, and likely quite poor as well.

Then it was on to Guangzhou, where Chris’ mother is currently working.  We walked, we shopped, we relaxed.  We enjoyed the orderly traffic where everyone moves in lanes and scooters have dedicated lanes that they actually use.

We ate some of the best dim sum I’ve ever had at one of the weirdest hotels I’ve ever been to.  We had amazing Japanese food and some delicious Indonesian nassi goreng.

We crossed over into Hong Kong for the day with Chris’ sister where we splurged on lunch at a real New York style deli and mochi from the most amazing Japanese mochi counter I’ve ever seen.

Our last day we spent in a park and out to lunch in 70 degree weather and sunshine with a light breeze and no pollution as far as the eye could see.

And then soon, almost before we knew it, it was time to come back to Chengdu.

We left sadly, if only a little excited for clean clothes and good night’s sleep in our own bed.

And now we are back and, surprisingly, less upset about it than I thought we’d be.

Sure we miss sunshine, we miss safer driving, delicious non-Sichuan food, that lovely Shanghai accent with its light “-li”endings, and the musical quality of the Cantonese in Hong Kong.

I’ll miss toilet paper in bathrooms  and I’ll miss freedom from perpetual clouds of cigarette smoke.

But this is home.  This is where we know our way around the grocery store, where to find the street vendors we like and the fruit stalls with the best produce, where we know that a guttural “ughhhh” is just another way of saying “hello” or “yes.”

This is where I know that, while completely disgusting, I shouldn’t take the local custom of spitting and blowing one’s nose directly onto the floor in front of me as a personal insult.

Would we love to live somewhere with sunshine and a breeze and a bit more of that cosmopolitan east coast diversity?  Yes, gladly.  Would we prefer a short 1.5 hour trip to Hong Kong with it’s amazing scenery, people, food, and world-class medical care?  Of course.

But we should also count our blessings.  Rather than factory pollution, we have coal pollution and so, hopefully, a few less weird chemicals in the air.  A very nice dinner out in Chengdu can still be had for under $25 for two.  We might not have any great shopping but we’re sure saving a lot of money without the temptation of nice new clothes or shoes or housewares available around town.

It’s a new year and I feel like we are settling into a new groove.  One that is a little more content, a little more grateful than the one we’ve been the last couple of months.  It may be only January 1st, but spring is only a few months away with so many wonderful things to look forward to for the rest of the year.

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