The Hot Pot Blog

May 26, 2011

The ‘Du These Days

The photo above is from our local fresh market, a great place to buy vegetables and flowers and an even better place to pick up great snacks and the tastiest morsels of fried dough you’ll find this side of anywhere.

It’s one of the perks to living here, the chance to get up early on a Saturday morning and walk 15 minutes to a 2 story open air structure bustling with people and produce, where you can buy anything from a pet goldfish to a ball of yarn to a roasted rabbit to a gutted pig carcasse.

There are other things I like about living here.  I like the little bit of challenge that comes with each day.  Now that I’ve come to accept most of the strange/silly/frustrating aspects of daily Sichuan life, I’ve come to find most of them amusing and entertaining in their own way.  For some reason nearly getting run down by a black audi cruising down the sidewalk doesn’t bother me like it used to.  Neither does the need to argue with waitresses to avoid paying for dishes that we never ate because someone forgot to tell the cook the whole order.  Those are just normal things now, sometimes funny, sometimes forgettable.

I like the food, I like the pace of life.  I like that there are many months in which we’ve been able to save twice as much as we’ve spent because there is just so little we are interested in buying here besides food.  If I had access to fancy grocery stores or even cosmetics without weird chemicals in them I would have never found out that baking soda mixed with a little honey and lemon juice makes for a fantastic face wash.  I’d have never learned to make bagels from scratch or realized how many uses there are for an empty jam jar.

There are of course things I hate.  I hate the pollution, I hate that even on a “blue sky” day, the air is still thick with chemical smells and cigarette smoke because there are just that many smokers and that many buildings being torn down and rebuilt on every block.

I hate the crazy amounts of pesticides used, I hate the scary lack of food safety and the fact that not even the rice is safe here anymore (10% is tainted with heavy metals).  I hate that we bought 33 pounds of watermelon last weekend only to learn that farmers have been using so much growth hormone on them that they’ve been exploding in the fields.  FYI, there is no excuse for buying 33 pounds of watermelon, not even a barbecue for 45 people.  I don’t know what we were thinking.

Anyways, for everything I hate about living here, there are a lot of things I like and I feel like 13.5 months in (who’s counting though right?) I’m finally hitting my groove.  I have things happening here that I’m looking forward to, a long list of people I want to have over for dinner, projects I want to take on, places I want to visit.  I no longer think longingly of yuppie creature comforts like Whole Foods on a daily basis.  I no longer mourn the loss of my old life in DC among my ambitious non-profit peers, I find myself considering career options and projects that I may have never have thought of had I stayed in that bubble.  I’m getting comfortable navigating the world of the Foreign Service, which at times feels like 1950’s Pleasantville and at other times like a “Breaking News” broadcast.  It can be very aggravating but it’s rarely boring.

Which is all to say that I’m actually a little nervous to head back to the States in a few weeks.

Forget how much I’ll miss Chris for my first 5 weeks home (soooo much, we rarely go more than an hour or two without laying eyes on each other, 5 weeks sounds like an eternity), forget how much there is to do to get ready for the baby, forget what a life change that will be, I’m worried about what will happen to my recently acquired sense of expat peace with a 3 month stint Stateside.

Will I walk into a Target and just totally forget how I’ve survived the last 6 months making my own face wash and contentedly wearing all of the same clothes I’ve owned for the last 5 years?  Will I get so used to having a well-stocked grocery store and organic produce again that I’ll get super frustrated trying to cook when I get back to Chengdu?

The clean air will be amazing, driving will be a pleasure, I can’t wait to gorge myself on pesticide-free strawberries and absurd amounts of guacamole, but how will I handle America again?

Or will having a baby be enough distraction to sort of avoid the whole reverse culture shock thing?  Thoughts?

p.s. I owe this blog a baby update.  For now I’ll just say that the 3rd trimester is exactly as uncomfortable as I was promised but I don’t think I’ve ever been more in love with our son during this pregnancy than I am now, we can’t wait to meet him.

May 14, 2011

Random Updates

1. Sorry for the absence lately.  I’ve got about 7 posts drafted and another 5 in my head but I’m in one of those phases where I can’t stand anything I write.  Great for getting better, not so great for getting anything posted.

2. One of the posts drafted is in honor of my amazing mother and awesome mother-in-law for Mother’s Day.  I tried 5 times to write it, not one version seemed to do justice to either of these fabulous women.  I think I need to write a book instead.

3. Yesterday my husband mopped off our balcony so we could have people over for an impromptu get together.  He also washed the massive stack of dirty dishes I created and grated a whole bowl of carrots for me.  He’s amazing.   Last night I dreamed I married someone else and had a miserable life as a result.  Ok fine, yes it was Prince Harry and his grandmother seemed convinced I was in it for the silver candlesticks, but whatever.  I woke up this morning so, so glad to be in bed next to my man instead.

4. Yesterday I made the husband 2 loaves of  pepperoni and cheese Italian brioche and figured out a way for him to set up his hammock on the balcony.  I won major wife points.

5. Do you ever have charmed cooking days?  Where you miraculously have everything you need in the fridge and in the perfect amount, all of your baked goods need the same temperature oven, and every new recipe you try out is fabulous?  That was yesterday for me.  It was amazing, I felt like Martha Stewart, well if Martha Stewart lived in China and had to make her own tahini for her hummus.  Oh yea, and if Martha Stewart walked around looked like she swallowed a whole watermelon.

6. I also have crappy cooking days I should point out.  The other day I broke 2 ovens and started a gas leak trying to make one measly little cake.  Fail.

7. Peppadew peppers + white beans + cream cheese + food processor = the most delicious and borderline healthy dip on the planet.

8. Carrot cake + freshly grated ginger in the batter + maple cream cheese frosting = I want to eat the whole cake myself.  I have a new favorite cake and it’s made with vegetables.  Who’d have ever thought?

9. Have I mentioned we are done moving?  We are done moving and it feels fabulous.  I will never take American-standard plumbing and circuitry for granted again.  Did you know I can run the oven and any other appliance at the same time here in our compound apartment???  I can even run the washer while I run the dryer!  If Chris brushes his teeth while I’m in the shower, I don’t freeze!  It doesn’t smell like raw sewage in here!  The flames on our stove go low enough to actually simmer things!  There is room for Thumper to play on the floor in a few months!

10. Thumper is kicking away like…well something that kicks a lot.  Chris and I can actually see my stomach move now when he really gets going.  I’m totally entranced.  I never thought I’d be one of those women who stares at her belly, rubbing it all day but I totally am.  Up to this point I never really understood women who say they “loved being pregnant” and miss having their baby inside them after they give birth.  Now I think I kind of get it.  I get the connection people talk about.  He feels so much more like a real person now that he’s constantly bumping around like he owns the place.  Before when we’d put our hands on my belly, he would always stop moving, or we’d stop being able to feel him.  Now when we put our hands on my belly or when Chris whispers into my belly button, he sort of rubs up underneath our hands as if he can actually feel us there.   Now we just can’t wait to meet him in t-3 months.

11. Holy cow, 3 months??  Technically, 2.5 months now!?!  Where did that time go?  How fast can August get here?

12. The lack of photos on here recently is due to the sad fact that my camera appears to be somewhat busted.  It still works but not well and not well at all in manual mode.  It’s as if the shutter is miscalculating how much light is really available for a given shot.  Even with the flash on, plenty of light, and maximum aperture, the shutter stays open for at least 5 or 6 seconds.  It’s nearly imposible to take a clean shot.  Chris updated the firmware for me and that helped a little but it didn’t fix it.  Anyone else have this problem with a Canon Rebel?

13.  Xiang La Bing is probably the greatest culinary bargain in all of Chengdu.  It’s like crack, oily, spicy, bread-y, sesame and green-onion covered crack.  It comes in a little plastic baggy and it makes me high on living in Chengdu.  We also live much closer to the best source in town now.  Remind me to do a post about it sometime.

May 8, 2011

We bought a crib…

Image Source

…From Walmart.  My yuppie, liberal, bleeding heart is well…bleeding.  But we’re ok with it.

It wasn’t long after we found out I was pregnant that I started obsessively casually browsing cribs on the interwebs.

Having never shopped for a crib before I assumed it would be easy to find something we liked: clean lines, non-toxic, on the smaller side, with a modern-esque design for under $200-$300.

Oh how wrong I was.

There is no such thing as a truly inexpensive modern clean-line crib.

There are massive sleigh-bed-esque Victorian-looking cribs in the $150-$400 range:


I saw a few of these in person over R&R and I have my doubts about any of these fitting into a compact Asian high-rise apartment-an important consideration for the next few years.  Plus, the look is a little Drexel Heritage…which gives me the shakes.

Besides the big sleigh-bed cribs, there are also gorgeously simple and beautiful cribs that double as works of art:


Problem is they are expensive works of art-costing anywhere from $600-$1600 dollars.  American, not Zimbabwean dollars.  So gorgeous they make you want to throw out your coffee table and set up the crib there instead for everyone to admire.  So expensive they make you want to stop eating for 6 months to pay for one.

There are also plenty of inexpensive, basic cribs for under $150 bucks, but it’s just kind of hard to tell online which ones are good quality and which ones aren’t.  In D.C. Craigslist would be a great option, in Northeastern Wisconsin all I’m finding for sale are sleigh-bed type cribs and baby Packer outfits.

For months, literally months, I searched for an alternative.  I went up in my price range, I lowered my expectations.  We looked at cribs at Ikea here in Chengdu and found a nice, inexpensive one we liked…until we checked out the available mattress options which were a bit too soft and not sized for U.S. sheets, mattress covers, etc.

At one point I even toyed briefly with the idea of skipping a crib altogether.  Couldn’t we go straight from bassinet to bed?

And then, one day, I was reading Cup of Jo and clicked on pics of her son’s nursery for some baby style inspiration.  Turns out her bedding and decor weren’t quite my style but before I clicked away I noticed that the crib looked compact and modern and sleek.

Given that this $140 night light was on the dresser, I assumed the crib must also be out of my price range.

Turns out, it wasn’t, it was from Walmart.  Yes, that Walmart.

I was intrigued and so last night I did some online Walmart perusing and was shocked, shocked people by what I found.

There’s apparently a lot more to Walmart’s selection than what you can find in it’s stores.  Their crib selection dwarfed Amazon’s and the prices were palatable.  They had all of the cheap cribs plus all of the monstrous sleigh-bed cribs plus a whole selection of modern-esque cribs at reasonable prices.

And so I happened upon a crib: white, with clean lines.  The wood is sustainably-harvested and the finishes are all non-toxic and certified by like every rating system on the planet.  There are 4 mattress-height settings and I’ve read really great reviews of other cribs made by the same company.

And the price?  Not too shabby-more expensive than a super basic crib for sure but a whole lot less than any of the other cribs we liked.

Plus online Walmart purchases ship free to any Walmart store.  And with Mama and Papa Smith graciously volunteering their pick-up services, it just seemed too good a situation to pass up.

Chris liked the crib.  I liked the crib.  We could afford the crib AND we could FINALLY be done looking at cribs.  Holy cow was I ready to be done looking at cribs.

So, in a shocking display of spontaneity I quickly added the crib to my cart, added a crib mattress while I was at it and hit “buy” before I could change my mind.

And there you have it.  Baby has a brand new bed…minus the pink bedding.*

Image Source

*A bed that will stay in the box until it arrives in Chengdu sometime around October…

May 4, 2011

Ding dong the man is dead…

For the rest of my life I think I will remember where I was the moment I heard Chris shout from across the apartment “They killed Osama bin Laden.”

I was in the room that will become Thumper’s nursery, vacuuming rugs.  The room was bright with sunshine, a rarity here in Chengdu, and I stood barefoot in a pair of black tights and an oversized faded chambray shirt I pinched from Chris’ closet to cover my growing belly.

Like a lot of other people, I have no interest in celebrating a man’s death-even a man as vile as bin Laden.  That being said, it was more of an emotional moment for me than I had ever counted on.  It was like the feeling that comes with the end of a sigh, the nearly untraceable relief of an exhale.

It’s been nearly ten years since that other bright, sunny day that changed our world, my world.  On that day I was a teenager.  I watched the towers fall on tv surrounded by my journalism class and I suddenly found myself standing in front of the tv cart as if in a trance, hysterically screaming over and over “my uncle is in that building, my uncle is in there.”

Turns out he was.  There was no way I could have known then but at that moment when the first tower fell he was on his way up the stairs to rescue people.  Already a decorated Rescue 1 firefighter, he made the ultimate sacrifice that day leaving behind the love of his life and his two young sons.

And so began a surreal nightmare for my extended family, for our whole country.  I don’t remember the big things so much, but the little details are branded into my memory forever.  The bright blue sky, the eerily silent high school lunch hour.  The teachers numb and helpless to comfort.  All of the patriotic songs that played on the country radio stations 24/7.  Riding in the car with my father and turning to see silent tears streaming down his cheeks.

My extended family in New York, and especially my aunt suffered far, far more than we did in the days and months and years that followed and far more than I can even imagine,.  Even so, that day changed my life in unexpected ways.

In some ways, paradoxically, that was the day that set me on a path to leave home, to travel and care about the wider world and all of the problems in it.  When you realize that nowhere is safe from danger and heartache, you have a lot less to lose by leaving the nest.  9/11 changed the career path I chose, the friends I made, the political beliefs I hold, and even the Foreign Service life I live today.

In a weird way, I can’t imagine my life without Osama bin Laden and all he represented to the American people.

When the towers fell, people united but then later divided.  Over silly things like “freedom fries,” over big things like the best way to confront evil: fire power or education and economic development; Iraq or Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I began to see my friends in a new light as I saw some choose to hate all Muslims with a blind fury while others held on to the more nuanced stance that every religion has a few ugly beliefs in its holy book, every country has a few bad apples.

But for all of the debate and division and fear spread over the past 10 years, Osama bin Laden in strange ways also united us.  We could all agree that, even if his followers weren’t driven by pure, maniacal, evil urges, he was.  He remained a spector, a ghost of terrors past lurking in the shadows.  In our collective imaginations, he became a man of mythical proportions whose power could turn our worlds upside down again with a simple phone call, but whose destruction might also promise an end to the fear and a return to peace and security.  It was convenient to have just one man to fear and loathe so completely.

Which is why the news left me feeling both moved and deflated.  Osama bin Laden may be dead and buried at the bottom of the ocean, but I don’t think the world is any more peaceful than it was on Sunday morning.

On one hand, I’m very proud of the gutsy actions taken by our President and armed forces.  I think this operation will also finally expose, for once and for all, just how twisted the Pakistan military’s relationship is with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.  On the other hand, I’ve seen far too many t-shirts with Osama’s face on them and met far too many admiring people to believe his death has truly made the world a safer place.  There is still so much hard work left to do.

And at the same time, Osama bin Laden’s death feels like a bookend of sorts.  As a teenager I witnessed him capture the fury and imaginations of the American people and now as a young adult, living overseas, with a baby on the way, his death seems like the end of an era in modern history.  What will come next?   Does every generation ultimately feel this way about something in their past?

It makes me sad that even the violent death of my generation’s biggest boogeyman will not automatically grant peace and security for my son’s future and so I wonder what he will witness, what world events will mark and shape his young life.  I hope for his sake, they are mostly happy ones.  A cure for malaria, a cure for AIDS, clean energy alternatives, economic growth in the most violent and hopeless of neighborhoods around the world.  That’s what I hope for.  Ultimately though, it’s up to us now to make those beautiful things happen for our children, to create a future so much better than our past that there is no place for a man like Osama bin Laden to gain power in it.

For the most fitting tribute we can make to such a man is not a celebration, but to render his legacy and all that he stood for irrelevant; a forgettable, regrettable footnote in a history book that our children read from someday with nothing to fear.

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