The Hot Pot Blog


June 29, 2012

11

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Dear Will,

At least once or twice a day now your Daddy or I look at you and then say to one another “he’s such a little person now!”

At least a few times a week your Daddy and I look at each other and say “he looks so grown up already!” as you cruise around the room, wearing a look of big-boy concentration across your chubby baby cheeks, completely oblivious to us and our bittersweet emotions.

You’re 11 months old now–squirmy, indignant, hilarious, oh-so-busy and sweet–often all at the same time.

This month felt like the first time we started making real memories with you–not that you’ll remember, but that we’ll remember.  Memories that don’t necessarily revolve around development milestones or poop.

I’m not so concerned anymore with remembering the first time you showed me your “pincer grip,”  but I want to remember forever the time when I offered you more yogurt and you pushed away the spoon, flung your foot up on the table and started sucking on your big toe instead.

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I don’t care if I don’t remember the first time you walked across the room holding onto just a few of my fingers.  Instead I want to remember the the way you stand at the side of the bathtub, clenching every single muscle in your body and making incredibly high-pitched (yet, thankfully, oddly quiet) screaming sounds until we pick you up and put you in the tub.

Rather than remember the exact date and time you started standing by yourself, I want to remember the first time we took you to the park.  You loved crawling through the tunnel and you shrieked with happiness when Daddy stood on the outside so you could grab his face through the holes.  I took you to the park by myself a few mornings ago and the first thing you did in the tunnel was stand up and peer out the holes, laughing and looking for Daddy.

I want to remember the time you were so excited to see Daddy come through the front door that you fell over backwards.

I want to remember the look of utter, hilarious, misery on your face the first few times we sat you down in the grass at Freedom Park and you attempted to sit with both of your legs up in the air at the same time so you wouldn’t have to touch a blade of it.

I want to remember your obsession with straws and ice cubes.  Will, the easiest way to get through a meal with you in relative peace right now is to give you a glass of ice water to play with.  Unfortunately this also usually means we leave the restaurant all three of us soaked in cold water with a pile of melting ice cubes below our chairs.  If you see a glass of water you will squirm, whimper, fight your way out of arms and practically crawl across the table to get to it.  We’re amazed at how happy you are playing in the cold water, beaming as your hands turn bright red from the cold.

I want to remember how much you love it when your daddy throws a sheet over your head and crawls under to make a baby-and-daddy tent for two.  I want to remember the way you, much to my dismay, love to bounce up and down on your crib mattress when I try to put you to bed before you are ready.  I want to remember how much you love to play in the bathroom, destroy rolls of toilet paper, and the look on your face as you try to figure out why I let you play with the flusher on the toilet but not the plunger on the floor behind it.

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But perhaps more than anything right now, I want to remember the way you curl up to fit as much of your body in my arms as possible after a long busy day.  I want to remember the way you fling your long baby legs across my lap and stick your baby toes in my face as you nurse.  I want to remember the way you still sometimes like to ride around on my hip while I do chores around the house because, for now, sometimes being with me is still better than playing with your toys.  I want to remember the look of joy and wonder on your face as you wake up next to your Daddy and I on a lazy Saturday morning and the way you always wriggle around in bed to get as close to us as possible.

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Your going to be 1 year old next month!  How time flies!  Thank you for making us the happiest parents in the world, little boy.  We love you more than words can say.

All of our love,

Mama

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June 28, 2012

On “Having it All,” Paycheck and Prestige Optional

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A very vital member of my “having it all” team.

Within 20 minutes of The Atlantic publishing an article entitled,   “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” the blogosphere basically exploded.

I very much enjoyed reading the (long, very long) article but I’m honestly finding all of the varied responses to it just as interesting.  I liked reading Alex’s piece here and Jen’s here and this one here, and many others as well.  I really appreciated the response piece from The Atlantic online and the very good points it made about the raw deal dealt to many modern fathers in the work place.

I too started drafting a response post almost immediately.  Reading the great debate over “having it all” made me think a lot about how much my life has changed in the past three years.  When I need to think, I write; but I’ve rewritten this post several times though and almost decided not to publish it.  I can’t decide if it’s too self-indulgent, or if I feel the way I do because I really have no other option, or if I’m perhaps just too close to see the forest for the trees.

I’ve decided though, that it doesn’t matter.  I’d like some record of these thoughts, at this moment.  Because I once was the sort of girl who would have nodded along like some over-caffeinated bobble head, envisioning my own future through Slaughter’s descriptions of her own life.  I distinctly remember once asking a boss I admired how she managed to “have it all”–hoping to learn the secret to juggling work and family in the same capable but unapologetic manner she did.

Then I went and met my soulmate, who went and joined the foreign service and, as I’ve mentioned far too many times here, I watched my “life plan” derail in spectacular and irrevocable fashion.  I got married at 23.  I moved to China and became a stay-at-home housewife at 24.  I worked a desk job in Chengdu for awhile and then quit when our son was born 2 months before I turned 26.

And while there were many moments when we first moved to China in which I literally cried myself to sleep wondering if I’d totally ruined my life, I have to say that it was with equal parts relief and gratitude that I read Slaughter’s article and could recognize in her words only the person I used to be and not the woman I am now.

This post you are about to read isn’t really about “having it all.”  It’s not about being a stay-at-home Mama versus a working-outside-the-home Mama–I imagine I’ll be both at different times in my life.  Instead its an epilogue of sorts for the Confessions of a Temporary Housewife series I did over two years ago and an answer to the question: “what would an ambitious young woman feel like, what might happen, if she opted out of the rat race described in The Atlantic article?”

Before China, I was the consummate chaser of gold stars.  I don’t think I realized the extent to which I lived for recognition and praise and external validation from my supervisors.  I loved where I worked of course, but looking back I think sometimes I enjoyed the feedback I received for my work more than the work itself.  I enjoyed knowing that I worked for a reputable organization and that my work there would (hopefully) be a springboard to bigger and better things.  I think I would have ended up a little like the Slaughter in a few years.  I would have jumped at the chance to take on an important and exciting leadership role without thinking for one second about whether it was truly what I wanted to be doing or not.

And then we moved to China.  I had no network, I had no clue what to do.  Moreover, for the first time, I found myself truly embedded in the culture of the foreign service.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my husband’s employer and the wonderful benefits and opportunities I enjoy as a diplomatic spouse.  It’s just that I never realized how much being someone’s wife could possibly overshadow every other feature about me, from my name to my intelligence.  Suddenly, nothing I did, nothing I knew, mattered to anyone besides Chris anymore.  It was demoralizing.

But oh, did it hurt so good.  It hurt me in all the ways I needed to be broken down and made to feel small.  I’d always been such a teacher’s pet,  so eager to do whatever work would have the greatest, most public result, the most opportunity for advancement or praise.  In China that sort of external validation and career path no longer existed for me.  I had to find ways to fill my days doing whatever would keep me sane, make me happy, allow me to go to sleep at night feeling like I’d done something worth doing, even if no one else would ever know what it was I did.

It was the first time since before kindergarten that I found myself working hard to please only myself and my small family.  I started to devote my free time to doing what I loved, what I felt compelled to do, whether anyone was ever going to pay me for it, or even pay attention to me, or not.

I began trying things I’d always told myself I wasn’t good at because, with no one else watching, I found myself, for the first time since I was a kid, unafraid to fail.  I found myself imagining possibilities–becoming a small business owner, designing websites, becoming a freelance writer–that I’d never thought to entertain before.  Heck I even found myself drawing and painting and knitting, doing origami, writing letters to people who inspired me, listening to new kinds of music, attempting to make croissants in our easy-bake Chinese oven.

Absent the need to please anyone but myself, absent the pressure to conform with my faraway peers, I aimed to become something of a renaissance women–reading and trying new things for the sole purpose of seeing the world from perspectives I’d never considered before.

I realized that if writing was the one thing I’d been doing non-stop since I was a child, then maybe that’s what I should be trying to do with my life.  I realized that if the only reason I ever wanted to wait until my 30’s to start having children was because that was what everyone else was doing, well then maybe there wasn’t anything wrong with being a young Mama living overseas.   Heck, if I’d already blown my chances at becoming a Slaughter or a Clinton, I might as well be a 100% genuine me.

That’s not to say that I never want to work in an office again or that I hope to take up flower-arranging and perfect the art of impersonating a 1950’s housewife.  No, I still have big dreams and ambitions.  I still love me some gold stars.  I wouldn’t keep a public blog or dream of being published in print if I didn’t still love and thrive on comments, feedback, and recognition.

But–and here’s the big but–I’ve learned how to value doing work for which there is absolutely no payoff except my own joy and fulfillment.  I no longer feel like I absolutely need a career path that vaults me up into super industry stardom–or any career path at all–to feel good about myself and what I do.  I don’t need to be paid for the things I do in a day to make them worth doing.  I think I’d rather be the person at the cocktail party about whom people say “My God, she’s had an interesting life!” rather than “Oh my goodness she’s so successful!”

I don’t begrudge anyone who does find fulfillment striving for the kinds of success I once dreamed of, far from it.  I admire so many of my fellow women working hard and kicking ass from 9-5 (or, more often, 9-9).  It’s just that I no longer feel like I also have to live that life in order for my experiences to be meaningful.

Is my life perfect?  Of course not, but it’s incredibly blessed and it’s perfect for me, for right now.  I might not have it all, but I have what I want and I want what I have, and that is so much more exciting and worthwhile and fun than I ever thought it could be.

June 25, 2012

The Weekend

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I had such big plans for this weekend.  I had hoped we could grill out, go to a crawfish boil at Bayou Bakery, visit the DC Capital BBQ Festival, go to a Thai cultural festival in Georgetown, make a super-involved meatloaf recipe, make dumplings and go to our favorite Sichuanese restaurant in the District.

Clearly I must have been delusional when I thought of the above plan for the weekend.  Delusional and very hungry.  That’s a lot of meals, metro trips and miles of walking to cram into one weekend.

Throw in a few badly needed naps for baby, a few pre-India shopping errands and some poor time management, and well, we didn’t manage to cross anything off of our weekend to-do list (except, weirdly enough, the meatloaf).

That’s life sometimes.  Instead of being cultural go-getters this weekend we:

*Went for an impromptu picnic in Freedom Park.

*Helped Will turn the lights in our closet on and off (and on and off, and on and off, and on and….)

*Will sampled his first Cuban at Earl’s Sandwich Shop.

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*We got to Bayou Bakery too early to partake in the crawfish boil, but instead enjoyed the most amazing sweet tea and best red velvet cupcakes in the DC metro area.

*We discovered that the best (read: only) way to get Will to eat baby food is to let him suck it from a straw.

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*We discovered Will will try anything he can sample from a straw (including Mama’s iced latte).

*We took Will to the park and watched the Arlington County firefighters test their hoses and spray rainbows into the hot, humid morning air.

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*We made a ginger, hoisin, and bacon-laced meatloaf to freeze for later while Will took a nap.

*We took Will out for sushi and enjoyed watching as our waitress took a page out of the “Asian” baby book by playing with his toes for ten minutes straight and chastising me for his miso-soaked shirt while the rest of the restaurant looked on slightly confused and horrified.

*We bought new cutting boards.  I wouldn’t normally say this rates mentioning here but our favorite cutting boards are from Crate & Barrel and we only buy them when they are on sale–which they are right now.  50% off–kind of a steal, as far as nice cutting boards go.

*We realized that while 95 degrees in the shade is hot, it’s still not India hot.

What did you do with your weekend?  Did you manage to get to everything on your to-do list?

June 24, 2012

Life Lessons from Overseas: Culture Questions

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More Life Lessons from Overseas here.

Culture is just way too big a topic to cover in one post, don’t you think?  Too big, too messy, too complicated.  To do this topic justice I think I’d have to do another series-within-a-series set of posts.  “Culture!  The Five-Part-Trilogy!  According to Me!”

Gah, I’m exhausted just imagining it.  I think instead of planning such an involved project, I’d like to start talking culture just by sharing one very simple, little culture-coping strategy for now and we’ll see what happens after that.

The thing about culture is that it’s a little like the Matrix.  When we’re in our native cultural environment it’s sometimes hard to remember that the way we do things and the reason we do them aren’t necessarily universal–they are actually quite specific to the culture or cultures we belong to.

It’s only when we leave everything we know behind and travel to a foreign place that we really come face-to-face with the fact that nearly every aspect of our daily lives, from the way we do business, to the methods we use to clean our homes, are all incredibly dependent upon and specific to the culture(s) in which we normally operate.

Cultures exists for many reasons.  Most practically though, cultures exists because they reduce social friction and strife among large groups of people by defining what is and isn’t valued, what is and isn’t useful, what is and isn’t acceptable.  It’s why, in America, we get angry when people cut in front of us in line, but also why we rarely resort to violence when someone does so.  One cultural norm dictates that we queue up, while another dictates that we don’t beat one another to a bloody pulp for not following the rules.  The frosty glares, angry whispers and social isolation one feels when they cut in line is usually enough of a deterrent to keep us from doing so.

But of course that is just in America.  There can be no cultural deterrent from cutting in line when there is no tradition of lining up and taking turns in the first place.

Which is why interacting with a foreign culture sometimes feels a little like navigating through a Tri-Wizard Cup hedge maze.  You don’t always know which behaviors are governed by which cultural norms-if any–so there is sometimes no way to know exactly how you’ve messed up until after the fact.  It’s one thing to remember that you shouldn’t stick your chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice, it’s quite another to figure out how to run an American-style office staffed entirely by local employees.  Or to come up with the appropriate way to convince your housekeeper to buy more soap when she runs out instead of trying to save you money by just using water to clean.  Or how to react when people tell you you’re hurting your child by letting them have ice cream in the winter time.

What about when the cultural tradition, as it is practiced in a modern world, is corrupt, wasteful, or even just horribly unproductive?  What if the local culture dictates discriminating against someone because they are younger, poorer, or female?  What about when the local practice seems inherently unsafe or dangerous?  What about when the local practice is actually fairly innocuous—but drives you bat-sh*t crazy anyway?  How does one win the cultural tug-o-war in these situations?

And here in lies the real crux of the cultural dilemma for expats: how does one stay sane while having to constantly operate in two or more cultures? If culture is, on some level, the arbitrator of good and bad behavior for a group of people, what do you do when the right thing to do in one culture is very much the wrong thing to do in another?  How do you pick which set norms to follow for any given circumstance and what can you do to avoid feeling constantly confused or even angry when things in the foreign culture aren’t the way your culture would have you believe they “should” be?

For me the answer, and the most effective coping strategy I’ve found is actually another question: “why?”

When in a new place, observing and interacting with a new culture, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of asking “why” about everything I observe–from the simplest of traditions to the most thorny of societal ills.  I ask Google, I ask people I meet, I read books and I ask “why” over and over again until I get some sort of practical, historical, or anthropological answer.

And you know what?  I always get an answer.  Even if it’s an outdated practice, or people disagree over the origin of a custom, no cultural norm or practice is done “just because.”

Why bother asking “why” though?  What good does it do if it doesn’t change anything or resolve any questions of right and wrong?

Well, on the most practical level, asking why helps me to remember local etiquette more easily.  If I know why it’s so rude to point my feet towards someone, it’s much easier for me to remember not to do it.

Asking why also tends to makes daily life much more colorful and interesting. Walking down the street becomes a richer, more enjoyable experience when I know the stories behind some of the seemingly strange behaviors I see: husbands complaining that their wives’ delicious food is terrible so as not to seem boastful, old men bringing their birdcages to the park so that the birds can “talk” to other birds, the pregnant ladies rubbing their bellies for luck as I walk past them carrying Will.  The more I ask “why,” the more I know.  The more I know, the more I want to know and the more I truly begin to enjoy the place I live.

The most important reason I ask “why” though is that often it’s the only thing that keeps me from dissolving into an angry, frustrated ball of ugly American.

As much as I loved many of the cultural norms of China–the tolerance in public places for children, the absurd extremes of Chinese practicality, the ability to get a cup of hot water at every restaurant I went to–there were many others cultural practices that I did not enjoy as much.

Everyone has good days and bad days when living in a foreign country.  On the good days, I didn’t need to ask “why,” I just went with the flow.  On the bad days though, ruminating on the “why” behind the things that were driving me nuts was sometimes the only way I could avoid making a total ass of myself at the grocery store.

**

Why is this old lady elbowing me in the spleen and spitting on my foot to get ahead of me in the produce-line?

Maybe she grew up during the famine of the Great Leap Forward and she was so thoroughly traumatized by the experience that she can’t help but fight everyone in line to make sure she gets the food she needs before its all gone.

Why do grandparents bundle their children to the point of absurdity and heat stroke during the winter months?

Maybe it’s because none of the stores, schools or restaurants in Chengdu have heat.  Most likely the kid’s home doesn’t have heat either.  It’s not totally unlikely that a kid without a warm house to go home to could become dangerously chilled if they aren’t bundled warmly enough at all times.

Why do I have to worry about people running me over when I’m in the crosswalk with a green light?

Because if cars in China waited for every single pedestrian to cross the street before they turned, they might as well just turn off their engines and resign to never move again.  Oh, and also because people who have cars tend to think they are more important than people without them.

Why is that baby peeing on the street?

Because diapers are expensive.  And, really, would we want to have as many landfills on Earth as it would take to handle all of the waste that would result if every single baby in China wore diapers?

**

Are all of my “answers” absolutely factual?  Kind of.  Maybe. I hope so?  Does it really matter though?  Not as much as one might think.

Accuracy is good of course, but if the end goal is simply to get through the day treating everyone the way I’d like to be treated, then asking why also serves the purpose of allowing me to distance myself emotionally from the behaviors or beliefs that I find annoying, insane, or just plain abhorrent.  When I’m asking “why,” I’m momentarily distracted from the temptation to judge everything I see as good or bad, right or wrong.

For me, fewer judgement calls means I feel less indignant and less frustrated.  I’m more able to accept things as they are rather than perseverating over how I think they “should” be.

Let me qualify the above statement by saying that, yes, there are certain things that are just so universally wrong that we can’t and shouldn’t witness them without feeling anything other than moral outrage.  There are things too terrible, too brutal to ever be justified by asking “why.”  We’ll get to how to deal with these sorts of things in a later post, I hope.

But for all of the absolutely-no-question-just-plain-horrible things out there, there are many, many, many more beliefs, practices and social norms that fall into a grey area of cultural relativity.  They might not be the “right” thing to do, but they happen because, short of a system overhaul, there is no other option.  Or, they might be things that don’t make sense in today’s world, but maybe they were vital practices 20 or 30 years ago.  They might not even be the sorts of things a person can judge “good” or “bad” but they befuddle and annoy us just the same.

As I said above, everyone has good days and bad days navigating their way through a foreign culture.  I’ve found though that by relentlessly asking “why” on my bad days, I tend to have fewer and fewer of them and more and more good days instead.

This Life Lessons from Overseas series will be taking a hiatus next week.  Partially because I need some time to get my creative juices flowing again, but mostly because we’ve got two different sets of friends and one awesome sister-in-law coming to town.  They’re all coming to us from Bangkok, New York and Munich and we can’t wait for them to get here.  In liu of Life Lessons next week, expect quite a few photo-heavy posts from all of the reunions!

In the meantime, I have a few more ideas for this Life Lessons from Overseas series, but I feel like we’ve covered quite a few of the big topics already.  Are there any big things I’ve missed that would be fun/helpful/relevant to discuss?  Any topics you’d like to see a post on?  Let me know if the comments!

June 21, 2012

A Few Things

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While I’m finishing up this week’s Life Lessons post, I thought I’d post something silly and light to pass the time.

One of the great things about having a blog is that a blog is not the same as a mirror.  What I write is not necessarily a perfect portrayal of who I am as a person.  For instance, reading this post, you don’t know that I’m sitting here in the same yogurt-stained sweatpants I’ve been wearing for the past three days.

Well, I guess now you do; but most of the time writing a blog allows me to edit out my weirdest faults and worst imperfections.  What I write is very representative of me–but more like an air-brushed version of me.  Not the one who hasn’t washed her hair in 2 days and plans on serving toast for dinner tonight.

So in honor of ‘keeping it real’ and in hopes of busting through the rotten bit of writer’s block I’ve got going on, I give you:

11 Weird Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Me (and probably didn’t want to know either):

1. I didn’t eat my first salad until I was a freshman in college.  My dorm-mate had to lead me by the hand through the salad bar line and explain all of the options to me.  (Thank you Kendall!)  I’m still making up for lost time, I eat salad almost everyday now.

2. I love grocery stores.  My favorite thing to do in a new city is go to the grocery stores.  Seriously.  Forget the sites, forget the beach, give me aisle and aisles of produce and weird and exciting versions of jam.

3. The last time I blow-dried my hair was for the holiday party our Consulate General threw in Chengdu last year.  The time before that?  I can’t remember.  This isn’t a new-Mama thing, I’ve blow-dried my hair maybe 15 times in the past 5 years.  I’ve only gotten 3 pedicures in my life.  I once turned down a free cosmetic procedure to even out my front teeth.  And yet, I won’t leave the house without putting on blush and mascara.   Go figure.

4. I eat oatmeal with dried cranberries for breakfast every. single. day–ideally with a mug of coffee and an internet connection with which to peruse the interwebs in peace.  I’m incredibly particular about how I make my oatmeal.  I have my own propriety mix of ingredients and I think I might actually rather go hungry than let someone else attempt to make it for me.  Kind of nuts, I know.  When Will was little, the hardest thing about becoming a Mama wasn’t actually the sleep deprivation, it was giving up my private morning communion with my bowl of oatmeal.

5. I’ve been known to fall asleep in mid-sentence.

6. I don’t like watching television.  If it’s on though, I can’t look away.  You can have an entire conversation about me, in front of me–but if the television is on, it’s very likely I won’t hear a word of it.

7. I sometimes take multi-tasking to absurd extremes.  My husband’s number one pet peeve with me is my habit of brushing my teeth at night while also putting on pajamas and trying to read a book at the same time.

8. I have horrible vision but I’ll never get LASIK due to an irrational fear of either losing my sight or spending the rest of my life feeling like I have sand in my eyes.  Well, irrational fear and the knowledge that the surgery results might reverse themselves should I ever find myself in the middle of a summit bit on Mount Everest.  Hey, it could happen right?

9. I tend to carry too many things at once, to the point of looking something like a bag lady.  And yet, if I ever have two hands free when we’re out walking I usually feel slightly uncomfortable.

10. I hate petunias.  I don’t know why, I guess I think they smell bad.  And I just don’t like them.

11. I’d like to, at different points in my life, write, teach and open up a small bakery/cafe.  When I “retire” the plan is to get myself a workshop and take up woodworking.   Oh, and to drive an old sage-green pick-up truck.  I’ll need something to haul all of that wood after all.

What are the strange things few people know about you?

June 18, 2012

The Weekend

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Will’s “For the love of all things holy, dad!  Hand over the frozen yogurt!” face

This weekend we:

made our (second) attempt at visiting the new Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, but owing to a rather rare and surprisingly vocal vote of descent from the youngest member of the group, we ended up instead making a frozen yogurt run on F Street.  A certain young teething someone was thrilled.

We walked around Georgetown, refreshing the Zillow app every few blocks in the vain hope that someone may have dropped the 1 from their 1.3 million dollar asking price.  Surprisingly, this has yet to happen.  Not even on the block across the street from the most picturesque fire station in America.

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We went to brunch for Father’s Day.  Will drank from his first official restaurant kid’s cup and I nearly cried.  Then he tried some potatoes…and put them in his hair.  Phew, I guess he’s still a baby after all.

I didn’t even realize it until this morning but the only “present” Chris ended up with on his first Father’s Day was a six pack of athletic socks.  It was sort of an accident, but seriously??  Aren’t there bad jokes and corny Hallmark cards about that sort of thing?  All I need to do now is give him a bad tie or a toolbox for our anniversary and we’ll have the man-gift cliches covered.

We had a diaper malfunction situation not once, not twice, but three times this weekend as we were walking around town.  Never were we less than a mile from home.  Kind of icky.  I don’t think I would, but should I ever try to sell my Ergo second-hand, make a mental note here and now not to buy it from me, ok?

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Before we left for China our favorite thing to do on the weekends was take long looping walks around the city.  Now that we’re back here in the land of clear blue skies and zebra-striped crosswalks, we’re back at it and making up for lost time.  We walk for groceries, for dinner, for no reason other than because it’s a beautiful morning.  We walk so much that we tend to crawl into bed on Sunday nights tired and sore from covering so much pavement.  I love that the worst things that can possibly happen to a pedestrian here are sore feet and getting stuck behind a very slow family of camera-wielding tourists.  Talk about first world problems.  It’s fantastic.

While we walk, we talk and point out the sights to Will as he destroys rides along in his Ergo.  We play a game of watching passers-by and trying to guess their stories–who’s out on a first date, who’s meeting their girlfriend’s parents for the first time, and so on and so forth.  Do you ever play that game?

How was your weekend?  What did you do?

On tap for the week, among other things: how to create cool photo effects without a lick of editing software and a Life Lessons post on learning from and assimilating into local cultures.  Speaking of which, if you have any stories, posts or experiences to share, let us know in the comments!

Happy Monday!

June 17, 2012

Father’s Day

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Sometimes being with Will all day long, it’s easy to think that I somehow know and give my little boy everything he needs.

And then I see him with his daddy.

Has this scenario ever happened in your house?

“No, don’t flip him upside down!  He doesn’t like….oh wait, ok.  Nevermind, he’s laughing.”

My son needs me, no doubt.  I’m his Mama, after all.

But if you were to ask who makes him laugh the most, who makes up the must fun games, who he’s so wildly estatic to lay eyes on every morning and every night?  That person is his daddy.  His daddy who loves him so much that he stays up late at night thinking about him and who can’t wait to teach him everything he knows.

A long time ago, long before we were married, Chris told me that his highest goal, his most important purpose in life was making sure the people he loves have the most wonderful, the most beautiful experiences he can find for them.

What I don’t think he realizes sometimes is just how beautiful and wonderful an experience it is just to watch him with his son.  I never get tired of seeing look of completely rapture on Will’s face when he looks up at his Daddy.

Nor do I ever tire of seeing Will with his two grandfathers.

In real life, Chris’ dad is a dignified man with the intellectual air of a college professor.  He’s not the sort of man you would picture jumping up on a coffee table to make a baby laugh or insisting on holding his 5 week old grandson for hours on end until all of his own extremities go numb.

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And yet he’s done both, on multiple occasions.  I know where Chris gets his gift for making up fun baby games because Chris’ dad is another genius in that realm.  Someday he’ll be the man to teach Will all about history and politics and we’ll tell Will stories about the time his grandfather was quoted in Rolling Stone.

My father is the sort of free spirt who likes to pick up garbage as he walks down the street and get the life story of any waitress, pan-handler or cashier who crosses his path.  The man exudes so much kindness and love for people that he practically bounces.

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For now, my father is the man in Will’s life who makes the “walrus” noises that make him laugh, the man who does the Buddhist chants that put him into a sort of baby trance.  Will loves when my Dad holds him high up in the air, his eyes just glow when my father zooms him around the room like an airplane.  Someday though, my dad will also be the one to teach Will how to treat everyone he meets with the same respect and kindness that his grandfather shows to everyone he meets.

Happy Father’s day to the amazing men who make my baby, and me, so happy to be around them.  And Happy Father’s Day to all of the other wonderful dads and grand-dads and soon-to-be-dads out there in the world.

June 16, 2012

Life Lessons from Overseas: On Making Good First Impressions & Complaining Wisely…

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The Panda Hash version of a good first impression.  More from the Life Lessons from Overseas series here.  Apologies for the tardiness of this post and any typos, there’s a teething-induced sleep drought going on at Chez Hot Pot right now!

First impressions.  Your own and the ones other people have of you.

As much as I wish it weren’t true, sometimes first impressions actually matter.  They matter when you are starting a new job, entering a new neighborhood, moving to a new city, or doing all three at once.  They especially matter when you’re joining a new community overseas.

Why?  Because living in a small or even not-so-small expat community is a little like living in an alternative universe that combines the best and worst traits of small-town America, a sleep-away summer camp and a middle-school girl’s bathroom.

Only in the diplomatic or expat community will your spouse’s boss also be your next door neighbor.  Only in a diplomatic or expat community will the person who decides when your air conditioner gets fixed also be the husband or wife of the person who hosts your kid’s play group.

Yes, the impressions you make on other people and the ones they make on you matter a whole lot more when the people you live with, work with, and socialize with, now and at future posts, are all the exact same people.

Of course, no one is going to make an lasting judgements about you the minute you step off the plane after 26 hours of travel, when you are still in need of a complete stranger to point you to the bathroom in “your” new home at 3 in the morning.  If that were true, none of us would ever become friends.

Most of people you meet will be incredibly patient, empathetic and charitable people who will reserve judgement as long as they can; but even so, no one can reserve judgement forever.  At some point we all end up having to decide how we feel about one another; and those early days, weeks and months in a new place are a time when people will pay extra close attention to everything you say and do.

People will especially notice how a new person reacts to the people and places with which they themselves are already very well-acquainted.  Eventually, opinions on character, friendliness,and collegiality will be formed, solidified and shared, almost unconsciously, as people ask one another whether they’ve met the new person and what that person is like.    Our reputations always travel ahead of us, on the rims of wine glasses at happy hours and on the wings of the planes of our friends and acquaintances take as they leave Post and scatter around the world.

Which is why it matters that we think very carefully about the things we say, the way we say them and who we say them to, especially when we are new in town.

It’s totally normal and reasonable and probably healthy to move to a new place and make constant comparisons between it and “Other-Place-istan.” It’s ok to be upset with aspects of your housing, job, social situation and to want to make changes, but it’s important to “complain wisely” or avoid doing it at all — especially when you might not have perfect information or when you aren’t quite sure yet how all of the people you are socializing/living/working with are connected to one another.

You might think you have the worst possible apartment in the entire housing pool…until you visit the home of a colleague and suddenly feel grateful for how good you have it.  You might think that Mr. Smith is the person responsible for your miserable HR situation but actually it’s Mrs. Johnson…and she’s standing right next to your new best friend as you spill your guts at the coffee social.

I read a really wonderful blog post over at Email from the Embassy over a year ago which encapsuates this particular challenge even better than I can:

Everyone has a different response to the newness, and some people start right out by complaining. Why, people, why? One of my friends here has a self-imposed rule: don’t complain until you’ve been here for six months. Because you can’t know whom you’re offending when you complain about the school, or the house, or the store. And you don’t know how far your complaints will travel. And do you really want to be known for the next three years – or beyond – as the lady who whined about her fireplace? Answer: no. No, you do not. If you can’t put a positive spin on it, you need to tread carefully, because in a small community, in which you’re the newcomer, there’s no way of knowing how far your complaints – no matter how legitimate! – will spread, or how they’ll color people’s perceptions of you.

As someone who’s always been exceptionally good at sticking my foot in my mouth, these words ring so painfully true.

I look back now and realize how absolutely silly I was complaining about our first apartment in Chengdu.  Did complaining about it accomplish anything?  No, it just made me appear to others as a sort of high-maintenance newbie who didn’t know how good I had it.  Living at a small post where we all socialized together quite often, I think people eventually realized that I wasn’t a total debbie-downer but instead a first-tour spouse who didn’t quite feel comfortable yet with her new life.  In a bigger community though, in which people might meet once or twice and then not again for months or years, I doubt I would have been so lucky.   More likely, there would be a whole group of people now who would know nothing about me except that I once complained about our kitchen!

I sincerely hope no one reads this post and thinks they can never say a single negative thing to anyone ever.  That’s not true.  Some of the best, most hilarious conversations you’ll ever have will be about the terrible, no good, very bad experiences you have with your housing, your taxi ride, or some other facet of daily life.  The trick is how you talk about them and to whom.

You are always going to have something that is bothering you and it sure isn’t healthy to keep it all bottled up inside.  Complain, vent, gripe, bitch to your spouse, to your folks back home or to close people you can trust.  If you have a serious, legitimate issue, by all means take it through the appropriate channels.

But in every other social situation, err on the side of diplomacy.  If you are going to talk about the terrible maintenance situation in your bathroom, do it in a way that makes people laugh, that offends no one and that leaves people with a positive impression of you as someone who has a good attitude and can roll with the punches.  If the situation is just too aggravating, too emotional for you to be able to pull that off, then deflect questions and save the real story for a coffee date with a close friend or your people back home.

Of course, you all already know all of this, but this has been such a hard-won lesson for me that I couldn’t not include it in this series.

I’m still so far from a perfect adherent to the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” adage, but I’m slowly getting better; and it’s amazing how much more easily I socialize when I don’t have to constantly be looking over my shoulder to see who might have overheard me.  It’s a wonderful warm fuzzy feeling when I hear someone repeating a nice comment I made about someone or something rather than relaying a grievance of mine around the room.  Apparently living overseas as part of a diplomatic community has actually made me a bit more…wait for it…diplomatic.  Who’d have thought right?

What have been your experiences with making first impressions?  How do you balance the urge to pass judgement with the desire to keep an open mind about someone?  Do you have any tips or words to live by when it comes to entering a new community for the first time?

Next week we’ll talk about interacting with people outside the expat/diplomatic community.  What are some of the best/worst/most educational experiences you’ve had?  What are the sorts of etiquette and social norms particular to your current country that you have learned to follow or even appreciate?

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June 14, 2012

Outtakes

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I’m spending Will’s naps today drafting some posts, editing photos, and  futzing around with our knock-off version of Adobe InDesign (it’s called Inkscape, in case you are in need of something similar–it’s a crowd-sourced, linux based, free software that I really have  no clue how to use; but nonetheless, seems fairly functional).

This weeks’ Life Lessons from Overseas post should be up tonight or tomorrow, but until then will someone please explain to me how I ended up with an almost 1 year old baby in need of a (small, totally un-Pinterest-worthy) birthday party already?  I mean, look at this little man!  When did he go and get so grown-up looking on me?

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June 12, 2012

When You’re Happy & You Know It…

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It’s summer.  The days are long and warm.  Chris gets home from work earlier here, while the sunlight still streams in our apartment windows and we have time to go for long walks, all three of us.  With Will tucked snugly into his Ergo on my chest and Chris’ hand in mine we stroll, drinking in that delicious early evening air when the breeze blows warm, kissing bare arms and baby toes, absent the searing heat of midday.

Sometimes as I sit and watch Chris and Will playing and laughing I remember the title of one of those Laura Ingalls Wilder books I used to read over and over as a child.  These Happy Golden Years is the name of the book that covers the first few years of her marriage and her daughter’s childhood.  I didn’t really understand that title as a child, but I think I do now.

These days, months, years of chubby baby thighs, of giggles, of early morning family snuggles, of those moments of pure straight-down-to-the-bones contentment when my squirming, tottering, always moving little boy finally rests his head on my shoulder to fall asleep at night, they feel golden, fleeting, so achingly perfect I don’t know what I could have ever done to deserve such happiness.

I want these moments to be imprinted on my brain forever so that someday when Will is all grown up I can still remember the smell of his downy soft baby hair, the magic of being able to make tears stop instantly with just one hug, those excited shivers of pure joy that he does when he sees his daddy walk through the door at the end of the day.

That’s possible right?  Anything to hold onto these happy golden years.

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