The Hot Pot Blog


May 31, 2012

10 Months

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Dear Will,

Before you were born I told your Daddy that what mattered to me most, after your health and your happiness, was that you be a good person.  The sort of person who always treat others with respect and bestows kindness on everyone he meets.

You are only ten months old, your character is hardly set in stone, but this month you awed me with just how sweet and kind you are already.  I know rationally that all babies are sweet in their own ways, but you still make my heart melt a dozen times a day.  You love to laugh with your daddy and I, and you love to bat your eyes at anyone who looks your way in the grocery store.  You amaze me with your ability to read emotions already.  If someone tells me something and I react with concern or sadness, your smile falls and you too look concerned.

You are reaching that stage where you like to share things with us; so you try to feed me your yogurt with a spoon and laugh your funny little laugh when it lands on my nose.  You offer me your Cheerios and giggle ecstatically when I accept them.

The other night while we were snuggling before bed, you suddenly took your pacifier out of your mouth and thrust it in my face with this earnest look on your face.  When I pretended to suck on it, you gave me the biggest, most radiant smile I’ve ever seen.  You don’t talk yet, but I felt like that gesture was sort of like your way of talking.  You’ve been offering me your pacifier every night since and it’s the sweetest, most wonderful thing I’ve experienced from you yet.

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During the day you are constantly on the go, constantly learning new things.  You cruise around pretty well now and you’ve just started standing on your own for a few seconds at a time before carefully sitting back down on your own.  It’s funny, sometimes you are so cautious and careful and other times I feel like your Daddy and I are non-stop lunging across the room to save you from yourself as you attempt to crawl over the side of the bathtub or climb on top of the dishwasher.

Playing with you became so much more interactive this month.  You love it when I crawl around on the floor with you and play “hide and seek.”  You like when we roll a ball back and forth and you finally prefer to turn the pages when we read from your board books, instead of just trying to eat them.  You also like throwing things.  Lots of things.  Everything.  Over and over again.  Honestly, the look of glee on your face when I hand you back the toothbrush you’ve just thrown a dozen times makes me almost happy to pick it up for you another dozen more.  Almost.  I mean, you could definitely get over this stage any time you want to, ok?

You finally have some teeth!  Two of them!  They came in at almost the exact same time. After waiting so long for those teeth I can hardly stop staring at your mouth!  Aside from some skipped naps and some restless nights, you hardly seemed to react to the discomfort those shiny, sharp new additions must have caused.  I don’t know if its just a coincidence, but you’ve gotten much more keen on eating real food since they’ve started coming in.  We tried some bulgogi and bits of a Japanese omelet this week and you actually ate bits of both–and then clamored for more.  You’ve finally come around to hummus and you love when I share some of my pho broth with you.  Such a change from the “I’m going to put this in my mouth and then spit it out repeatedly” train we were on for so long.  I guess you just weren’t really and truly ready for solids until now.  I’m sure we will be in for some serious picky-eating stages at some point, but its just so nice to be able to feed you at least a few things for now.

Will, sometimes when we are on the ground playing, I just have to sit and stare at you in wonder.  Wonder at all of the things you are learning how to do and the sweetness you show your daddy and I, and all of the people we meet when we are out and about in the world.  I hug your tiny little shoulders and kiss your soft, sweet baby cheeks as many times in a day as you’ll let me, because I know you are growing up so fast, faster than I can really comprehend.

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People always say their kids are the best thing that ever happened to them; but until now, I never realized just how lucky I am and how blissfully good it feels to have the “best thing that could ever happen to me” usually sitting just a hug and a top-of-head-smooch away from me.  Your Daddy and I are lucky, lucky parents, Will, to get to spend our days with you.

All of our love,

Mama

pssst these next two photos are a bit wonky (Will reset my autofocus points and it took me about 5 clicks before I realized I needed to set them back) but Will picked up my mom’s tripod before I could stop him and his reaction was too funny not to include.  Sorry about the “handsome” onesie.  It’s not my favorite, but it was clean!!

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May 30, 2012

Life Lessons from Overseas: An Awkward Turtle’s Practical Guide to Making Friends Part 2 of 2

Missing something? (Besides the dudes in the red dresses?)  Check out Part 1 of the Awkward Turtle Guide here, a post on Culture Shock here, and an intro the whole series here.

Can I just say thank you?  Thank you guys so much for all of your comments and for taking this whole series in the spirit it was intended.  I’ve been kicking my butt trying to write from the heart, and its just so good to read what you all have been writing in response.  Either to say “yes!  that’s how I feel!” or “I didn’t experience it quite like that…” It’s all been really thoughtful and and I’m grateful.  There were some really interesting comments, especially on the last post, so it is definitely worth a gander to see what other people are thinking on the topic.

To write this second post on making friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience moving to Chengdu.  You would think that moving to a new place with no job, no kids, and so much free time, would make finding new friends the easiest thing in the world.  It really, really wasn’t though.  I never realized before how many of my friends were people I worked with and how hard it can be for people with kids to get out to see people without any.  Moving to a new place where you don’t know a soul is a damn hard thing to do.  It feels like it should be easier, given how many of us have to do it over and over and over again, but it’s not.

It’s one thing to say “be open-minded and friendly!”  Its a whole other thing to figure out where in the city you should go, and at what time, in order to find people to be open-minded and friendly towards.  Making new friends isn’t just about having the right attitude, there’s also a fair number of logistics involved.

As I was muddling through in Chengdu I didn’t really think about what I was doing or how I was doing it.  I was just flailing around, trying to make friends, any friends at all.  It worked out alright in the end, but it would be nice to go into the next new place (say Delhi in 2.5 months?) armed with a little more confidence and a better idea of what practical things I can do to make the process a little easier, or at least a little more straight-forward.

Looking back at what worked for me in Chengdu and what didn’t, I came up with the following short list of ideas for meeting new people and making new friends in a new city.  These may not be the most innovative strategies you’ve ever read, and they may not be your cup of tea, but they did, at one time, at least work for me.

1. Sign-up for every single listserve in your new city that might possibly, remotely relate to you.  Google “your city” and “expat” or “your city” and “women’s group” or “your city” and whatever hobbies or interests you have.  You’ll probably come up with at least one or two email lists to join with invites to all sorts of book clubs, charity organizing events, volunteer opportunities, play-groups, etc etc.  Once you have a handle on all of the different activities, its time to…

2. Just Say Yes…at least at first.   Bridge club? Say yes. Coffee social?   Say yes.  Somebody is looking for volunteers to go play with little kids at a local orphanage?  Say yes.  Doesn’t matter if you don’t play bridge, don’t drink coffee, or don’t speak the language. GO.  At worst, you’ll have a great story to tell your spouse or your friends back home.  At best, you’ll meet a few people you really like.

As Kaitlin in Hermesillo wrote a few weeks ago:

I have pretty much gone out every time anyone has ever invited me anywhere..even if I wasn’t in the mood, didn’t like the venue, wasn’t going to know anyone, didn’t like the activity, etc. The main way to make friends in Hermosillo is through friends.

I wasn’t always great at this in Chengdu.  In the beginning I assumed, for some silly reason, that I would have nothing in common with the “ladies who lunch,” the book clubbers, or the bridge players of Chengdu.  So I never went to their meet-ups; and, as a result, it ended up taking me nearly two years just to get on a cheek-pecking, “how’s the baby?” basis with some of the nicest, most wonderful women in Chengdu.

Why? It turns out that while I was sitting at home, crawling up the walls, bemoaning my solitary existence, they were out and about … playing bridge.

I’m not talking about bridge club for dramatic effect here, by the way.  My last week in Chengdu, I happened to stumble into a cafe at the same time the bridge club was having their weekly game.  Seriously, every women I knew and liked and wish I knew better was there.  Palm, meet face.

You don’t have to say yes to everything forever –that would be exhausting.  Just say yes long enough so that you can figure out what you like to do and who you like to do it with.  Even just a few weeks of saying yes to everything will give you a lay of the land and help you put down roots in your new community.  Even if you only go to the bridge club once, people will know you came and usually appreciate your effort.

3. Volunteer.  If you can’t volunteer in local organizations, volunteer to help with fundraisers or community-sponsored events.  Personally, I am much more comfortable socializing when I have something else to be doing besides making small talk, be it playing duck, duck, goose with preschoolers, cutting out decorations, or cleaning up tables after a party.  Plus, there is something about being one of the people who is hanging out before or after the actual event that makes you feel a little like you’re on the inside, even if its your first week in town.

4. Invite people to your place.  Similar to number #3, I feel like I socialize more easily with new people when I’m the one hosting. It gives me things to do with my hands, credible conversational pauses when I don’t know what else to say (here, let me go refill your glass for you!), and–its my house–I’ll always know where the garbage is and the bathroom is without having to ask anyone.

Inviting people over can be a big event or as low-key as “hey its 4:30, I haven’t thought about dinner, have you thought about dinner?  Want to come over and I’ll serve you take-out pizza on plastic plates?”  I really like doing the latter, your guests don’t worry about causing you any trouble and you don’t worry about messing up or serving the wrong thing or slaving away in the kitchen while everyone is sitting around the table waiting for you.  A win-win.

But, if low-key isn’t your thing, making a tradition of hosting the same big event every year could be.  I love that some families throw the same cool theme party year after year, whether its a Valentine’s Day group dinner, a big Mardi Gras rooftop blowout, or an annual post-Marine Corps Ball brunch.  Some of our friends in Chengdu were famous for their Trivia Nights, quarterly gatherings where we’d all come over, eat their delicious food, divide up into teams and then curse out our gracious hosts for their diabolical trivial questions.

5. Run with the Hash House Harriers, at least a few times.  The Hash bills itself as “A Drinking Club with a Running Problem,” but you don’t have to drink and you don’t even have to run to enjoy the Hash.  Chris and I aren’t big drinkers and Chris normally only runs when chased, but we met some of our best friends in Chengdu running with the Hash for just a few months.  The Hash also gave us the opportunity to try some great restaurants, meet some wonderful local Chengdu people, run through beautiful countryside, and simply see a whole different side to Sichuan than we could have ever found on our own.  As long as you don’t mind some messiness, dirty jokes and frat-boy-esque humor, the Hash is an amazing way to get to know a new city.  Some cities even have “family hashes” with shorter runs and more G-rated humor and if you really don’t drink, they’ll likely just give you water or juice to jug at the Circle instead.

6. Consider making friends with the international school teachers in your city.  In Chengdu, we had quite a few expats, but a fair number of them were the sort of living-on-five-dollars-a-day-trying-to-escape-the-real-world-and-drown-my-sorrows-in-this-Tsingdao-beer kind of expats.  Especially for younger singles or couples trying to make friends outside the diplomatic community, international school teachers –the people who went to college to learn how to teach– can make great friends.  They are usually adventurous, fun, smart people who’ve already traveled quite a bit.  Equally important-they also have real jobs that they have to get up for in the morning and they are almost as visible members of the expat community as you are; so they understand when you want to head home early or avoid a crazy party that might get out of hand.

7. Look up, smile, walk directly over, say “Hello, My Name is…”  This is a very micro-level tip, but it’s been a hard-won personal victory for me that might be useful if you’re going to be expected to attend a bunch of big social events where you don’t know anyone.

When I used to have to go to networking events, I was always very nervous to go up to people, ask their name, and start a conversation.  Instead of just walking right up to someone, I’d do this weird, non-committal “is she coming to say hi, is she looking at the clock or is she just a total space cadet?” sort of sashay across the room, hoping beyond hope that my target would put me out of my misery by making the first move.

Guess what?  They never did.  And I don’t blame them.  Who wants to experience that “Hi, my name is…ohh you were just looking for the bathroom behind me weren’t you?” type of situation?  As nervous as I was about coming up to them, the other person was probably just as nervous that I wasn’t going to actually come over to them and so the result was awkward non-networking all around.

Don’t be like me.  If you see someone standing alone, smile at them, walk up to them quickly and with purpose, then say “Hi My name is…”  I like saying my name right away because I always feel like I’m interrogating the person when I ask their name without volunteering mine first–maybe that’s just me though.  Unless the other person is the meanest person in the world, they will tell you their name, ask you for yours, and then-boom!  Look at you!  You are talking to someone instead of standing around by yourself!

8.  Nothing ruins a conversation faster than spending every second of it wondering what on earth I’m going to say next.  Another micro-tip here, another one of my weaknesses.  When I’m talking to people I sometimes have a hard time slowing down my brain and just paying attention to what the other person is saying–especially when I’m nervous.  I worry about asking the wrong, or the stupid, or the accidentally-too-personal question and so sometimes I don’t ask any questions at all.  Sometimes I start talking about myself to fill the silence (yuck) and sometimes the conversation just trails off and the other person drifts away without ever knowing how interested I actually was in what they were telling me.

So, I’ve been trying a new thing lately.  As soon as question pops into my head, I ask it.  I might even interrupt the other person to ask it, on the theory that its better to interrupt and keep the conversation going than it is to stay silent and walk away.  Now I ask stupid questions, I ask obvious questions, I ask questions I have to repeat three times because they are too convoluted for simple small-talk, but I keep asking.  Those who’ve had to sit through any number of business or network training sessions are probably now saying “oh gawd not another preacher for Active Listening!” but that’s not quite what I’m talking about.  I think most of us would be wonderfully active listeners if our nerves and self-consciousness didn’t get in the way of us focusing 100% on the other person.

Strangely enough, I think that just the simple decision to not worry about asking or saying the wrong thing seems to make my conversations flow more easily, even without me doing a single other thing right.  Sometimes I still catch myself nodding along to what someone is saying without actually hearing it because I’m too busy worrying about what to say next, but I’m getting better.  Happily, I’m also enjoying the conversations I’m having a lot more, and learning so much more from them than I did before.

9. Ask people if they would like to come run errands or exercise with you. Honestly, I’ve had some mixed results here.  People are picky about errand-running, they have routines and stores they like.  If its something random like exploring a new market or visiting a tailor, this works great.  If its the grocery store-sometimes not so much.

Exercise can be easier, especially if you are just asking to go for a walk.  The best conversations I ever have always seem to happen when I am either walking or running with someone.  You know why guys play sports with their friends?  Its because its easier to talk to someone when you don’t have to sit there just looking at each other.  Its true for most girls too I think.  That’s why we like hanging out washing dishes together after a dinner party and why “Stitch ‘n Bitch” parties sound like such an awesome idea if it weren’t for having to actually know how to knit.

Plus, you are probably a busy person, the people you want to be friends with are probably also very busy people.  Sometimes its less stressful to make the time for socializing when you can do it while you cross a few things of your to-do list at the same time.  Typing that out sounds so horribly Type-A personality, doesn’t it?  Oh well, its the truth!

Nine things is kind of an odd number for a list, but that’s what I have to share.  What are your tips and ideas?  What little things have you tried that have worked for you?

Next week we’ll take it a little easier and talk about something more fun and less serious: travel!  What have your best travel experiences been?  Has being able to get out and travel a few weeks here and there affected how much you’ve been able to enjoy the place you live during the rest of the year?


May 29, 2012

This Weekend We…

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Communed with the dishwasher, took some long walks, had some old Chengdu friends over for a Chinese take-out picnic on our living room floor, played with new friends in the pool, ate burgers, cleaned the house, destroyed the house, finally bought sunglasses to protect our weak eyes after 2 years in Chengdu, and got the spare room ready for my mom to fly into town tonight.

We also….

Enjoyed some honest-to-goodness only-in-America fare…

Memorial day weekend

Caught glimpses of Rolling Thunder…

Memorial day weekend

Played with new camera lenses…

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Someone around here used the weekend to finally (finally!) get some teeth…

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And yes, the dishwasher again.  Looking for us?  We can usually be found hanging out at the dishwasher, throwing clean spoons onto the floor and putting them back again.  Funny how, when it comes to babies, the most annoying-sounding things can sometimes be the most fun.

Other totally random thing I did this weekend?  Took some photos and hung out with some free runners hurling themselves over concrete barriers on the roof across from our apartment building…

Freerunners in Arlington

Random, but also a lot of fun.   More to come on free runners, Part II of an Awkward Turtle’s Guide to Making Friends (tomorrow), and camera lens reviews soon.

May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

Woke up this morning and realized that, more important than Chris’ day off, more important than the burgers and the watermelon, and the motorcycles, is being so thankful for the people in the armed forces who are back here today safe and sound, and remembering and honoring those who aren’t.

In college I was one of those kids who used to spout off a lot against the Iraq War.  I’m ashamed to admit that it took me a long time to realize that nobody likes war, least of all the people who have to go fight them.

I get to sit here in safety and comfort precisely because of the hundreds of thousands of men and women so fiercely devoted to their country and so unspeakably brave as to put their lives on the line to keep all of us free and the sovereignty of our nation sound.

So I have to say thank you.  Thank you to all of the awesome guys in the Marine detachment in Chengdu, many of whom came to us straight out of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Thank you to my cousin and his wonderful new wife; who, between the two of them, have done more tours in Iraq than I can count.  And thank you to all of the other soldiers and families of soldiers now, and in the past, and in the future.

May 24, 2012

Life Lessons from Overseas: An Awkward Turtle’s Practical Guide to Making Friends Overseas (Part 1 of 2)

Earlier in the Life Lessons from Overseas Series: Culture Shock

I have to be honest with you, I’m either uniquely qualified to write this post or I’m highly unqualified to write it; because here is the truth: I don’t think I’m very good at making new friends.

One of the things I love most about writing is that the practice comes with a delete key.

In real life I often say the wrong things at the wrong time, I interrupt people when I get excited and I’m horrible at following a conversation with just one person while standing in a room full of other people.  I never know what questions to ask someone I’ve just met and I’m clueless as to how to parlay small talk into real conversation.  More often than not, I end up awkwardly saying “see you around!” to someone I would have rather said “let’s exchange numbers and hang out next Tuesday!”

In other words, being social-especially with people I’ve just met-is hard for me.  It does not come naturally.  Sitting at computer with the time and space to compose my thoughts and my words so that they come out exactly how I want them to?  That comes naturally.  Knowing instantly what to say to keep a conversation with a new friend going?  That does not.  It’s something I have to work at.

So consider this opening a sort of disclaimer.  If you are the social-butterfly type, the following may be a bit “duh!” for you; but if you are as inclined towards social awkwardness as I am, hopefully it will be a bit reassuring.

I’m splitting this “how do I make friends overseas?” topic into two posts: big-picture type stuff today and more specific tips and tricks of the friend-making trade after the long holiday weekend.  There is so much to write that I think if I put it all in one post, I’d cause you all some significant eye-strain.

And, since I’m something of an awkward turtle  with a somewhat limited repertoire of tips and advice, if you have any of your own tips or ways you’ve learned to make friends or start a conversation with a new acquaintance, please, please comment below or send them this way, I’d really like to include them!

Now, without further ado: An Awkward Turtle’s Practical Guide to Making Friends Overseas-The Big Picture Stuff

1. You May or May Not Find A New Best Friend at Every Post

I think when most of us say we want to make new friends when we move abroad, what we really mean is we want to find overseas clones of the people we love best at home.  We want to recreate the comfort and security we enjoy with those special people whom love us for, and in spite of, our quirks.  We want those fridge-raiding, clothes-sharing, “what’s wrong?-I’ll-be-there-in-five-minutes” sort of close friends.

Here’s the deal though, you may or may not find them.  In some ways, making friends overseas is easier than in the US-after all there is usually someone in charge of making sure people have the opportunity to get aquainted with one another.  On the other hand, your friend-able pool is usually a lot smaller overseas and comes with all sorts of weird diplo-related challenges.

After all, in America we don’t usually have to bring our friends through an armored checkpoint when we invite them over for dinner, nor do we usually live in the exact same neighborhood as our spouse’s boss, the boss’ boss and every other colleague your spouse works with on a daily basis.

I think trying to make new friends is a little like dating to try and find Mr./Mrs. Right.  A really great friendship is a mix of compatibility and a little bit of luck-finding each other at the right moment in one another’s lives, and–for us–while you both happen to be living in the same city abroad. What do you do if you can’t find them?  You keep looking, you keep hanging out with new people, and you feel grateful for the internet to keep you in touch with your good friends back home or living in other countries around the world.

Besides, if you don’t actually find your new best friend at post, that doesn’t mean you’ll have absolutely no one to hang out with.  It’s not a best friends or no friends sort of scenario unless you choose to make it one.  As long as you don’t mind putting in the effort, there are always at least one or two really nice people to hang out with.  And those 1 or 2 people might even surprise you.  They may not be your BFFs now, but they might somehow become them over the years when you meet them again in a different place.  The foreign service/expat experience is funny like that.

2. There’s No Time For Playing Hard to Get When Your New Best Friend Comes with an Expiration Date (sort of)

Or as Eve put it so perfectly:

Making friends in the foreign service is a quick and dirty affair and you have to trust your instincts. We could learn a thing or two from the baldies [editors note: Eve is referring here to her super adorable bushbaby and baby pals, not very forward bald men]. It’s not like in the “real world” where you have the luxury of years to casually let your friendship evolve over early Saturday mornings trolling yard sales, sharing favorite recipes, kicking back with a latte while your kids tear around the playground, hitting up the clearance racks at Anthro while reminding eachother that just because that ill-fitting see-through beaded maxi dress is 75% off, it does not mean it suits you…aw, come on, let’s go get cupcakes instead … If you sense you may like someone or have any similarities at all- you’ve got to dive right in, hope for the best and enjoy it while it lasts because it’s likely that in less than a year, one of you is going to be packing your bags.”

Yes, yes, yes.  Just, yes.  Too many times I held back in Chengdu, I didn’t call people and say, “hey, what are you doing right now?  Let’s go for a walk!”  I always assumed we’d have plenty of time to hang out later, that the people I liked would contact me if they really wanted to hang out, or that I’d be bothering busy people if I called out of the blue.  

We all need downtime, we all need those days to just knock out the to-do list and then kick back solo-style with a book and a cup of tea.  Turning acquaintances into close friends though, requires that some days we be brave, that we call someone we’d like to get to know better and make some plans.  Making real friends in real life requires good old-fashioned hanging out, face-to-face time, there is no way around it.

(And yes, blogger friends whom you’ve never met in real life can still be super amazing “real” friends; but if we are talking about people who live in the same place you do and who you can go see without using Skype, you really have to spend some time together in real life, otherwise it just gets a little weird.)

3. Your Friends Overseas May Look Nothing like Your Friends Back Home…And That’s Ok

My best girl friends in the States are liberal, crunchy, yuppies like me who read the same newspapers, shop at the same stores and hold mostly the same world views as I do.  They are insanely wonderful girls who I love to the moon and back, but I’ll admit- it’s pretty easy to be friends with people exactly like myself.

The people I spent the most time with overseas?  Honestly, at first glance, it would seem like we had nothing in common but our address.  Some were agnostic and liberal, some were devoutly religious and conservative; for some Chengdu was their first overseas experience ever, others had never once in their life stepped foot in the United States of America.

It turns out, you don’t have to share religious views to enjoy Harry Potter; and you don’t have to come from the same economic, or geographic background to empathize with someone over things like our relationships with in-laws, siblings and spouses.  So many of the life experiences that make us who we are have nothing to do with the labels and stereotypes we sometimes rely on to divide the world up into people we could and could not be friends with.

Is it more comfortable to meet people who think exactly like we do and share the same values we do?  Yes, that’s a flat-out yes; but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to become comfortable being friends with different people.  That’s one of the really wonderful opportunities that comes with the expat experience–learning how to get along and be friends with people who are very different from ourselves.

4. Make Friends Outside the American Diplomatic Community (when you can)

Why?

Because big cities abroad are often full of many smaller expat communities that don’t always overlap; and they often have very different experiences living in the exact same city as you do.

It’s really easy for any expat community to get caught in a rut, recommending the exact same restaurants, markets, tailors, and activities for, literally, decades.  Hanging out with locals or a different expat community gives you the chance to branch out and have some new and fun experiences you might not have otherwise known existed.  My favorite restaurants, favorite tailor and favorite dumpling shop were not recommendations I got from anyone at the Consulate in Chengdu, they were places I found through my friends outside the Consulate community.

Making friends outside the American Diplo community also gives you a chance to escape “the fish-bowl” once in awhile.  Embassy and Consulate people might end up being your closest friends–but things can get pretty insular when all of the people you socialize with are also the same people your spouse works with.  As such, there is something very liberating about hanging out once in awhile with people who don’t know everyone you know and who don’t give a damn about the commissary hours or what’s happening with the mail this week.  It forces you to have real conversations about real things-which often leads to closer friendships.

5. Make Friends with Local People If You Can..But Don’t Sweat it If You Can’t

When asked what they are looking forward to most about living in a new city overseas, many people will say they are looking forward to making friends with the local people who live there.

That’s absolutely wonderful…and sometimes sadly unrealistic.

Truly I don’t know if there is a better way to learn to love a country than by hanging out with someone who has lived there since the day they were born.  I never liked China better than when I was hanging out with Chinese people my age, sharing a meal or running through the countryside of Sichuan.  Those moments made the world feel really small and made China feel really vibrant and exciting.

But when I step back and think about it, those moments were only possible because the Chinese people I knew represented a very tiny minority in the country: young, relatively affluent English-speakers, usually dating or married to Westerners or with at least some prior exposure to Western culture.

Which means that, say you live somewhere where most people don’t speak English or where people can’t afford to hang out at the same places Westerners hang out; or say there are strict social norms about the ways men and women are allowed to socialize; or perhaps many people in the country desperate to get out by any means necessary…then honestly there is a good chance you will have a hard time being able to form close relationships with local people–if they even want to be your friend in the first place.

My point is this: if you can make friends with local people in the country you are in, do it.  Put some serious effort into making it work because those times when it works out will likely give you memories and a sense of perspective that you’ll carry with you forever.  And don’t think you have to go out to someplace special to meet people.  Talk to the local staff at the Consulate or Embassy, befriend your language tutor, make a point of chatting daily with your housekeeper and any other staff you employ.  You’ll be seeing a lot of these people, it’d be nice if you can be friendly, if not bona fide friends by the time you leave.

On the flip side though, don’t beat yourself up too much if friendships with local people don’t work out.  It’s usually a much harder relationship to establish and maintain than either side might realize at first.

6. Everyone is an Awkward Turtle Sometimes…That Doesn’t Mean You Should Become a Hermit

There are a lot of people in the world.  Statistically speaking, it is highly unlikely that you are the most awkward, shy, or anti-social person on the planet.  Thus, it’s also highly unlikely that everyone around you is vastly more awesome at making friends than you are.  If they were, there would be no awkward turtle moments, all of those super-socially adept people would be able to instantly erase them for you with their diplomatic magic tricks.

We all spend so much time online these days where we have that wonderful ability to edit and censor ourselves until all we’re left with are a few quippy sound-bites.  It’s easy to forget that, in real life, sometimes we say things we don’t mean and sometimes we don’t know what to say at all.  That’s part of the deal.  You aren’t the only person who is going around feeling like a total arse for something you said at the party last night.  We all are, all the time–especially during those difficult getting-to-know-one-another moments.  Real friendship isn’t all about politeness and diplomacy and being perfect, its about being vulnerable and honest and sometimes having to apologize or clarify when we misspeak.

I think most of us have days when we’d rather just hole up in our house on the couch than go out and “be social.” When Will was really little, I joined a baby group full of expat and local moms in Chengdu.  Most weeks I was the only American in the group.  A lot of days just the thought of packing up all of his gear and shlepping across town in a cab to hang out with a bunch of women I barely knew made me want to curl up in a ball and take a nap instead (if Will would have ever let me).  In fact, I canceled a few times because all I could think about was the work involved, both getting there and then figuring out what to say to the other moms once I did.

But of course you know what’s coming right?  Once I made the commitment to going, I never once regretted it.  I always expected to come home totally exhausted from the effort; but instead I usually came home feeling so refreshed, with a smile on my face and all sorts of interesting things to tell Chris about when he got home at night.  Being a part of that baby group made Chengdu a lot less lonely for me at a time when it could have been downright depressing.

Honestly, hanging out with anyone at all can make a new place a lot less depressing, especially when your bottoming out with culture shock.

Bonus: You Aren’t Imagining Things, People with Little Kids Really DO Have an Easier Time Making Friends

I’m so sorry, I hated to write that sentence but it’s so true.  Kids are like little grown-up friend magnets overseas because so many of the community-organized activities revolve around them–things like holiday parties and play groups and going to the pool on the weekend.  Most of the time the assumption is that somehow, if you are young and single or married without kids, you somehow have this magical ability to go out and find friends all on your own.

I don’t know why, but people with little kids seem to have very idealized fantasies about what happens at bars on the weekends.  Must be something about never getting to go out to them anymore.  We forget about the loud music that makes conversation impossible, the sloppy drunks, the ulterior motives some people have when they befriend American diplomat-types.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that making friends is impossible without kids-heck no.  Chris and I made some of our best friends in Chengdu before we had Will-its just we weren’t quite prepared for how difficult it would be to do so and we didn’t realize that we’d really have to look outside the diplomatic community to find them.  Tomorrow I’ll share where we met some of them as well as some tips from another blogger who gets a serious gold star for her tips making friends in the local community.

Remember to send your best tips for making new friends!  From great get-together activities to conversation topics to clubs to join, let me know if you have some ideas!

May 23, 2012

On the Subway

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A man sat down next to me on the metro this morning; as in actually got up from his seat two rows behind me in order to sit next to me and make googly-eyes with Will.

He looked older than my father, with deep dark-chocolate eyes and an accent that sounded as if he’d immigrated from somewhere in Eastern Europe many, many years ago.  He had a certain eccentric, if not slightly disconcerting, charisma about him.  He cooed at Will, asked his name and how old he was and then he looked straight at me and said,

“You are so lucky to have a boy.  Daughters, let me tell you, daughters will always go astray. But a son will always adore his mother.  To this day, my son thinks his mother is the most wonderful woman in the world.  She can do no wrong.”

There must have been a story behind such a kind (and wildly inaccurate) statement, but with one stop before we had to change trains, it did not seem to be the time nor the place to ask this strange man what his daughter had done that so disappointed him.

Instead I asked if he had just the one son and the one daughter.

“Yes,” he said looking at me with a vaguely horrified look on his face.  “That is more than enough.  If we all knew how hard raising children would be before we did it, no one would ever have any. ”

“But,” he said then, “at least we can tell each other stories and help one another learn from our experiences.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that old man since we got off the train, wondering what his story is, what his children think of him.  The same way I wonder about the middle-aged women in line at the Post Office or the 20-something guy in the elevator telling Will how they are going to have to go out and play ball together.  Its funny, I thought people in China were special for how much they loved Will and how simply having him along with me inspired people to share stories and confide in me.

It turns out though, that babies have the same effect on nearly everyone around the world; whether they are toothless grandmothers in a Chengdu market, or young waitresses in Bangkok or old men on the subway in Washington D.C.  I’ve had more conversations in elevators and on metro platforms during our past month here in D.C. than I’ve ever had before in my entire life.  Everyone always has a story to share.

There are times, when Will and I are stuck in the house all day, that being a Mama can feel isolating, even lonely. Still, one of the most beautiful things I find about being a Mama is that, as soon as I pack up our bags and drag myself and Will out of the house, people always have a way of finding me.

When I was a kid, I used to dream of a world  in which everyone treated one another like friends and family.  For brief moments, Will has a way of creating that beautiful, childish dream-world.  He has a habit of transforming every stranger in a ten foot radius into new friends and surrogate family.

There is no way to be another anonymous commuter with Will strapped to my chest.  And honestly, I don’t even know if I would want to be one anymore.  Not with so many people in the world, on street corners and in subway cars, seemingly just waiting for us to sit down to tell us their stories.

May 20, 2012

Saturday in the City

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Saturday morning we jumped on the metro bright and early to take Will for his inaugural zoo visit.  He didn’t entirely appreciate the gustatory appeal of the Open City croissants, (though he did enjoy dismantling them) but he did seem mildly intrigued by the Asian otters– at least until he fell asleep.

1 falafel, 1 Dupont Circle pit stop for Will, 2 coffees, 2 croissants, 2 cupcakes, and 6 hours later we made it back to Rosslyn; and we learned a few things on our day out in D.C.:

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1. Amsterdam falafel is still really, really good.

2. When you walk 6 hilly miles and all the way up 2 of the world’s longest escalators with an 18 pound baby strapped to your chest, it doesn’t matter how much junk food you eat along the way.  You will still be hungry for dinner at 4:30pm.  And you will want pizza-lots of it.

3. Will throws up when he eats grass.

4. When one is rekindling the semi-awkward “haven’t seen you in two years” relationship with the coffee guy at Open City, it’s best not to open with the line “weren’t you getting married when I last saw you?”  Look for the ring, damnit! Always look for the ring!

5. We miss D.C.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving our digs here in Rosslyn (1 block from the metro! Mariott points!  Huge closets!  In per diem!  Really nice ladies at the front desk!) but walking through our old neighborhood in D.C. Chris and I remembered why we liked it there so much.

P.S.  Food trucks!  DC finally has them!  Vietnamese slow-cooked pork salad with pickled daikon and lemongrass/fish sauce dressing?  Yes Please.  Next week I’m aiming for Korean.  So many trucks!  So little time!

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P.P.S. Can’t get enough of my “let me tell you everything I think about living overseas” ramblings?  Natasha over at La Vie Overseas just ran an interview with yours truly.  Guys, she is as lovely in person as she is on her blog, check her out!

P.P.P.S  I finally pulled the trigger on not just one but two new lenses for my photography habit.  Gigantic white L series telephoto lenses with red rings on them.  Just kidding!  I’ll post about them when they get here.  Until then you’ll know where to find me…hitting refresh on that “track shipment” button on Amazon.

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May 17, 2012

Life Lessons from Overseas: The Shocking Reality of Culture Shock

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Culture shock can hit you anywhere, even Paris (or in this case-Georgetown).

Here’s the thing about culture shock, it’s a total misnomer.

You hear the phrase “culture shock” and it sounds like something that should happen that moment you step off the plane and feel that first hot wet slap of near-suffocating humidity.  Or it should happen on your way home from the airport as your driver swerves around cows and potholes and drops you off at a gated compound full of houses that look nothing like they did “back home.”

It should be how you feel the first time you go to the grocery store and realize that you’ll be paying $10 for every gallon of milk you buy for the next two years…and that you will be buying it from a store in which rats run amok and the refrigerated section hasn’t been refrigerated in years, if ever.

But no, that’s not how it works.  Those first moments are never as bad as you think they will be and, in fact, you might even revel in them.  I know I have.  The books call it the “honeymoon phase,” I call it manic denial.

You so desperately want to avoid feeling like a narrow-minded scaredy-cat.  You so badly don’t want to spend the next two years hating your life every time you walk out the front door.  So you put on your brave face, you post tongue-in-cheek “can you believe this?” pictures on your blog, and you tell all of your new friends at Post that yes the traffic is a little terrifying crazy but the food is just so amazing and you are adjusting just fine.  Really, everything is fine here, we’re all fine here, how are you?

You tell yourself and your concerned spouse (who gets to go off to work everyday to an office full of other Americans, consistant internet access and made-in-the-USA staplers) that you’ve got this living-overseas-giant-life-change-everything-is-completely-upside-down-and-different-thing totally under control.

And for a while, you do, you really do.  You can pat yourself on the back for mastering the rudimentary language skills, haggling skills and thick skin necessary to navigate your new everyday life.  The traffic that was once so terrifying fades into the background and you learn how to cross the street with the practiced, death-defying, nonchalant attitude of a local.

But then, just when you think you should be all done with “transitions” and mental anguish, it hits you.  Or rather, you hit it: the bottom of the that infamous culture shock “U.”  Using the bountiful art supplies that came with our Exec-U-Stay apartment, I’ve drawn you my own version of that normally rather understated diagram:

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You made it through the U!  Here have a cookie!

Somewhere around 6 months in, everyone bottoms out.  Being experienced and open-minded and well-read might help soften the worst of the blows, but no one, no matter how cosmopolitan or well-traveled, is ever completely immune.

The hardest thing about culture shock, and the reason that I wanted to write this post, is that sometimes when you are fighting for your sanity at the “bottom of the U,” its really hard to remember that your fight isn’t against the seemingly horrible, cruel and totally bonkers world outside your new front door, it’s a fight against your totally normal, totally understandable reactions to it.

Because I’m out of creative bits of literary magic, I’m going to paraphrase myself now from this interview on La Vie Overseas:

a tour abroad will always bring you moments of joy, elation, great insight and adventure. On the flip side, it will also always bring moments of crabbiness, resentment, disappointment and anger. All of those yucky things are part of the deal– but it’s how you deal with them that will make or break your experience. Understanding that they are normal, inevitable and usually justified reactions to a new and difficult experience is often half the battle.”

There are lots of different ways to overcome culture shock, but there are also lots of different ways to experience it.  If you can at least recognize your feelings and behavior for what they are (totally normal), and remember that it’s just a phase to be endured (for just a few months usually), it makes the experience of culture shock not only slightly easier, but also more rewarding in that “I’m learning all of these important things about myself and the world” kind of way.

So, let’s talk about what culture shock looks like and feels like today and in later posts we’ll talk about ways to cope. So often the books and the power-points attempt  to gloss over the low points of culture shock, without actually telling you what it looks like and feels like.

They don’t tell you that for some people, the experience looks a little like depression.  It makes a person want to hole up in their living room streaming too much Hulu over the VPN and avoiding all human contact.  They don’t tell you that for other people, culture shock manifests itself as inexplicable but intense feelings of rage that can be triggered by something as innocuous as a smarmy cab driver.  One minute you are an apparently sane and mild-mannered housewife, the next minute you are sputtering obscenities like some sort of over-boiled potty-mouth teakettle.  They don’t tell you that culture shock can sometimes make you feel like you are slowly turning into an ugly, hateful person.  Or like you are marooned on a lonely island of yuckiness that no one else seems to understand.

I tend to experience culture shock mostly as a sort of claustrophobia, interspersed with fits of indignant “it shouldn’t be this way!” judgments.

In China, it hit me about the same time the sun stopped shining for the winter and just after we found out I was pregnant.  It really was exceptionally poor timing in that regard, but whatever.  Culture shock would have gotten me one way or another.

I remember staring out our apartment window, unable to see across the street for all of the pollution in the air; and suddenly I felt almost panicky at the thought of spending one more minute, much less another 18 months in that place.  All of a sudden the apartment felt like a prison cell and our tour felt like a prison sentence.  What was I doing to my unborn baby by living in this place?  What was I doing to my own health?  What was I thinking signing up for this gig?

And then all of a sudden, I could not stop thinking about not just the health of my own family but about all of the millions of Chinese who spend their whole lives eating foods with poisonous additives, breathing unsafe air and chain-smoking cigarettes as if they can’t wait to get sick fast enough.  I remember just wanting to scream “you people could do something about this mess if only you cared about something besides getting a new Louis Vitton bag!!”

Later, I would learn that people do care, albeit in different ways—but that’s a topic for a different blog post.  For now, let’s just say I spent a few months feeling both incredibly trapped and incredibly frustrated by the pollution and the scary food issues and the apparent apathy I saw all around me.

I couldn’t let go of my convictions that “things should be different,” I couldn’t just let myself enjoy the good things about Chengdu.  Whenever anyone had anything nice to say about the city we lived in, I’d find myself jumping in with a rebuttal or a counterpoint.  This conversational tic made me a real joy to have as a guest at dinner parties, I’m sure.  I always hated myself the second the whiny words came out of my mouth; but it was as if I just couldn’t help myself.

At the time I truly believed that the only logical reason I should feel so indignant and so unhappy was because Chengdu just had to be the worst, more horrible place ever.  Looking out my window, I thought my reactions couldn’t be just culture shock, they were “real,” real reactions to real things.

And truly, they were real.  Most people’s complaints about a new country are “real,” the stuff we hate the most actually happens, it’s actually horrible sometimes.  That’s what makes those things so hard to get over.  There is no disputing that life in China comes with some serious downsides; but what could I possibly do to change any of it?  And why was I so dead-set on feeling so miserable if there was no hope that my misery could change anything?

One of the wonderful things about living overseas is that it often gives us the chance to put our good-intentioned, good-deed-doing money where our mouths are.  Not in China perhaps, but in many other places, there are wonderful opportunities to volunteer, to donate, or to just treat everyone, from beggars to vegetable vendors the way we want to be treated.

It’s just that sometimes for Americans, with that “you can do anything you set your mind to” mantra etched in big red, white, and blue letters on our souls, its hard to remember that sometimes we can’t fix everything; and that constantly feeling bad about something is not the same as working for a solution.  There are some things we can do, but there are a lot of things we can’t-and perhaps have no right to do-as brief guests of our host countries. Getting over culture shock is not about changing the world around you (though its wonderful if you can try to), its about changing how you feel toward it.

For me, aided by a well-timed R&R, the arrival of spring and a happy sonogram visit to Singapore, the rise from the bottom of the “U” was mercifully quick and speedy.  I ended up leaving Chengdu feeling like I learned so much and that I mostly enjoyed our time there.

But of course, that’s just my take, that’s what culture shock felt like to me.  Here are some other perspectives from bloggers who can express what culture shock feels like far better than I can:

From Sara who is currently in Addis Ababa (and who also just wrote this awe-striking post that made me cry and made me think)

Everything that seemed interesting and new about Addis Ababa is starting to be annoying and frustrating and heartbreaking at times.  This past weekend was the first time I wanted to hide in my house and at the same time felt suffocated by the four walls around me.  I wanted to pack the kids up and take a walk to a park, drive to the Mall and get a burrito, go to the movies with my husband, hug my sisters and parents.  It was the first time since we’ve arrived that I looked around and thought it would just be better if I went back to bed and didn’t get up the entire day.  We all know that didn’t happen, but I wanted to.  I knew I was in trouble for wishing it.”

And from another blogger who was in Manilla, this wonderful post about the sorts of things that can drive a person nuts living overseas, but also about humility and thoughtfulness and making peace with one’s surroundings.

And from another former Manilla-based blogger who writes about coming to terms with life as an expat–a sort of culture shock experience in its own right.

And finally an oh-my-gosh this will give you shivers and make you hug your kids and your spouse extra-tight tonight story about how, when tragedy strikes, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, it just matters that you are in it together.

Also, I’d like to throw it out there that, while I’ve described a lot of hardship post-type circumstances in this blog post, culture shock can strike no matter where you are, whether its Switzerland or Swaziland.

I have a friend who moved to Ireland after living for years in places like India and Egypt.  She said the culture shock she experienced in Ireland was far worse than anything she’d experienced anywhere else.  Why?  As she put it, living in a place like India, everything looked so different and felt so instantly different that, even when things were difficult, at least she wasn’t expecting them to be just like back home.

In contrast, it was a complete and difficult revelation for her to realize that, even though the Irish may look like Americans, speak the same language as Americans (mostly) and enjoy most of the same first-world amenities; everything about the culture– from their worldview to the way they conduct interpersonal relationships– is as different from the American way as the American way is different from the Chinese way.  “Garden spots” like Paris, London, Sydney seem like they should be so “easy,” but more often than not, they can be just as jarring and destabilizing as moving to a place like India or South Africa, if not more so.  Just something to remember.

What have your experiences of culture shock felt like?  Were you able to recognize it as culture shock at the time?  What were the strategies you used to get over the worst of it?

Next week we’ll talk making friends overseas.  Send me your stories, links, experiences!

May 16, 2012

The Culture Shock Post is Coming…I promise!

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Last week I responded to a comment from the lovely and talented Eve about how I find time to blog so prolifically.

Big mistake. If I’ve learned anything about the relationship between blogging and child-rearing its this: whatever I blog about becomes instantly inaccurate and just laughably wrong.

If I write that Will is sleeping soundly, he wakes up.  If I write that I do chores while he is awake, he disintegrates into a mess of “Mama please help me throw my toys onto the floor over and over again for hours or else I will cry.”

And if I say I use his naps to write, well then I’ve really screwed myself over: he wakes up and I come down with a nasty case of writer’s block.

That’s life with a 9 month old and I’m not complaining (much); but really this post is a long and roundabout way of saying the post on culture shock is coming, it really is.  It’s got contributions from some of my favorite FS spouse bloggers, its even got original artwork!  It’s just…not finished…yet.  But it will be soon, hopefully in the next day or so.  I feel really bad about the delay.

On the upside, if you have any personal stories or blog posts about culture shock that you’d like me to include or link to, there’s still time!  I would love to include your thoughts.

And in the meantime, one of my favorite things about living overseas is collecting foreign language words that have no English equivalent but that encapsulate a feeling, phenomenon or situation so perfectly you can’t help but add them to your everyday speech.

The Chinese phrases, “mei ban fa” (sort of like a linguistic shoulder shrug, a “what can you do?” literally: no option/alternative) and “ma fan” (sort of like hassle, but not quite) are 2 of my personal favorites.

But then my sister-in-law sent me this awesome link full of even more non-English words to love.  I’m thrilled to finally have a word that perfectly describes how I feel about Will playing on the floor in his Daddy’s dress shirt.  What are your favorite non-English words?

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May 13, 2012

The Mother’s Day Post It’s Taken 375 Days to Write

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Because both my Mom and Chris’ Mom would probably prefer a photo of Will to a photo of themselves on this blog…and because I’m getting behind in my photo editing, oops!

About a week before Mother’s Day last year I started drafting a post dedicated to my Mom and my Mother-in-Law.

I never posted it though.  At some point, about 1/100th of the way through everything I was going to write to them, I had the equivalent of 10 pages typed–single spaced.

It was at that point I decided a non-fiction-ish novel/memoir/action-thriller would be a better medium to show my appreciation.  Their lives have been filled with so much adventure and drama, trial and triumph.  I don’t know if I could really do justice to their stories, but I hope to try someday.

And in the meantime I don’t know how to write a blog post that can adequately express just how amazing these two women are, how much they’ve taught me or how much I love them.  This year, again, I find myself drafting and redrafting this post, filling up screen after screen and still not finding any of what I write to be quite enough.

So let me just say this:

Among many, many other things growing up, my mother taught me the definition of unconditional love and she taught me selflessness. She makes me feel so loved, everyday, even at my worst moments.  She taught me that anything worth doing is worth staying up all night for and that sleep is only as necessary as you believe it to be.  She taught me that sometimes the hardest, most demanding jobs are the most rewarding.  She taught me to love roller coasters and Star Wars, and to stop and smell the lilacs in the spring time.  My mother taught me integrity, she taught me to always do the right thing, to never lie, to never make excuses, and to never let someone else do for me what I could do for myself.

She taught me all of these things not by telling but by doing.  As a kid I watched her take care of us everyday, with an energy, patience and sense of humor that never seemed to falter, no matter what.  My mother is such a good person and yet, she’s still human and just so fun to be around.  In high school my mom went back to school for her Master’s degree, routinely staying up all night to study after pulling 3 days of 14 hour shifts in a row.  After she finished her degree while working full-time and raising two kids, she said she was bored and asked me what I thought of her taking up a new hobby: either archery or sky-diving.  That’s my Mom, in a nutshell.

My mother-in-law is cut from the same cloth as my mother, in many ways.  They were born on opposite sides of the planet and they’ve lived very different lives from one another, but they are so similar in so many ways that I often wish they lived in the same place, I think they would be good friends.

They are both very tiny women who would rather walk across a city on foot for hours on end than hop in a car.  Neither of them are very good at sitting still for any length of time.  If I leave either them alone in my home for more than 10 minutes, I’ll return to find it suspiciously tidier than when I left.   They are both incredibly smart, incredibly stubborn and they are amazing cooks.  They both thrive on change and adrenaline and adventure.

I feel so lucky to have a mother like mine, but also a mother-in-law like Chris’ mom.  I learn so much from her.  One of my favorite things about Chris’ mom is that-to her-nothing is impossible.   There is always a way, always a solution; and if it’s coming from her, its usually also creative, elegant and deceptively simple.  She teaches me how to think outside the box and the power of a “why not?” attitude in a “that won’t work” world.   From Chris’ mom I’ve learned that no small detail is unimportant, from the height of a countertop to the garnish on a dish.  She has taught me the joy of making things look beautiful, even in the smallest, most everyday of ways.  She is the kindest, most diplomatic and most considerate person you could ever meet; and she has taught me exactly the kind of mother-in-law I want to be for Will’s spouse someday: loving, warm, open-minded, so incredibly patient and so incredibly supportive.

Growing up, I always felt so lucky to be my mother’s daughter, now I feel so grateful to also have a mother-in-law like Chris’ mom.  These two women are the reason I feel so lucky to be Will’s Mama now-they’ve taught me what the best of motherhood looks like.

Happy Mother’s Day and all of my love.  I’m the luckiest daughter in the world.

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