The Hot Pot Blog


August 2, 2012

Looking Forward and Back

clothesline

I’m gonna pack my bags

And take that journey down the road

Cause over the mountain I see the bright sun shinning

And I want to live inside the glow

-India Arie “Beautiful”

I’ve loved those lines for years now; they still send shivers down my spine as I sit in our (messy, covered in laundry) apartment and imagine the piles of supplies and suitcases sitting in the next room.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but life always seems extra vibrant and stark in those days and weeks on either side of a big move to some place new.  The air feels crisper, the sun shines brighter, there’s that hum of misplaced adrenaline that infuses mundane chore like laundry and sorting papers with a silly amount of significance.

Before we leave, I walk around feeling like I’m standing at the edge of where the sidewalk ends.

As I responded to a fellow blogger in the comments on my last post, we’ve got 1 week, 6 days, and 7 hours until we leave.  That sounds a whole lot better than two weeks right?

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I’m working on a little project that has me going through old bog posts from China and it’s been kind of fun reading how my perspective and coping mechanisms evolved over the course of two years.  I was such a baby when we arrived!

Its Laundry Day

Here are a few links (in teal-ish) from our time in China:

Running with the Hash 

Stoicism

Week 2 In Chengdu (surprising to read this and realize how many of my feelings towards China stayed consistent from beginning to end!)

A Bridge in Chengdu

Song Xian Qiao

Autumn Moon Festival

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Dear Hong Kong

Mahjong

mahjong tiles

Hitting My Stride in Chengdu

Da shou mian

Where Graphic Design Meets the Language Barrier

Chinese New Year 

Travelers vs. Expats

A few more China photos here…

And a few more China posts here…

girl on iphone

Sausage vendor at Yulin

July 31, 2012

How to Create Cool Photo Effects Without Photoshop

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I thought I’d share this piece that I’ve had sitting in my drafts queue for about a month now.

This summer, without the luxury of having my big desktop and the ability to run Photoshop Elements to edit my photos, I’ve started futzing with my camera settings trying to figure out how to make my photos look as good as possible before they ever leave my camera.

Turns out, you really, really don’t need editing software to make your photos pop.  You don’t need your iPhone and apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram to make blurry, kind of crummy shots look artistic and interesting.  You just need to know what kinds of photo styles you like and how to create them using the settings on your DSLR camera.

Step 1. First things first, you need to create a user-defined shot profile on your DSLR.

Never heard of such a thing?   There is a great tutorial for Canon users here.

(Otherwise, if you have a Rebel, here are some minimalist instructions: hit the MENU button on the top left-hand corner of your camera.  Go to the menu second from the left, the one that has AEB, Flash, Custom WB, etc.  Click on Picture Style.  Here you can choose from a bunch of pre-set styles or you can create your own.  To create your own, select User Def. 1 and hit the Display button in the top left-hand corner of your camera next to the menu button.  This will allow you to edit the style settings.  Select the setting you would like to adjust (Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, etc) and hit the center SET button on the right hand side of the display.  Then use the left and right arrows to make your adjustments.)

On the user-defined profile I use the most, I up the contrast and the brightness and tone down the color saturation.  I also adjust the color tone so that it’s slightly on the cooler side.  My camera tends to trend too warm and red anyway.

Your camera already has built-in profiles for landscapes and portraits and you can use those to great effect; but, if you are like, me it’s probably not a bad idea to have a user-defined style for indoor people photography and for food-type photography.

For people photography it’s usually a good idea to bump up both the brightness and the contrast.  For food photography, color tone and saturation may be more important.

Step 2: Adjust your ISO to fit the style/conditions

ISO, aperture and shutter speed are all interconnected.  Changing one without changing the other two will alter either the brightness, grain, or focus of your shots–or all three at the same time.  You can make these alterations to either render your shots more faithful to real life or to make them slightly less realistic and more artistic.

My photos have that sort-of, vaguely film-like look to them because I’m usually shooting with my ISO cranked all the way up to 1600.  This isn’t ideal and I wish it were more of an optional feature but I’ll admit that I’ve grown to like the grainy look.  If you want to replicate it, up your ISO and then…

Step 3: Futz with your shutter speed until you strike a nice balance between totally blown-out over-exposure and something vaguely artistic.

When you press the shutter down on your camera, there should be some metering that pops up through the view finder at the bottom to tell you how under or over-exposed your shot will be.

People tend to look better slightly over-exposed, it evens out skin tones.  When taking pictures of Will, I usually aim for 2 to 3 little bars beyond the, theoretically perfect, exposure level.

If you have a Nikon or a higher level Canon, you have spot-metering.  This means you can expose for one part of the photo without washing out the rest of it.  If you don’t have spot-metering, you’ll likely have to use some sort of Photoshop software and layers to brighten up faces without blowing out the background.

And if you don’t have Photoshop, well then you can do as I’ve been doing and aim instead for the slightly blown-out, dreamy-yet-gritty look I’ve been using these days.  By using a high ISO with a slower shutter speed I end up with really bright but somewhat grainy photos.  Combined with the high contrast and low saturation settings from my user-defined profile, the effect is a little like a soft-focus action– but more gritty.  It’s not a good look for food photography, but it works nicely for people shots.

Step 4: Use your white balance settings to create cool effects

Your camera likely has settings for full sun, shade, clouds, fluorescent-lighting, tungsten-lighting, etc.  Generally speaking, the Auto White Balance (AWB) is your best bet but you can have some fun by using the wrong settings for different conditions.

For instance, this is a completely unedited photo I took on a mostly sunny day at 10am in the morning:

Jun 12, 2012-1

Fun right?

So those are a few ways you can use your camera to create some really interesting shots without having to run a lick of editing software.  Happy Shooting!

July 20, 2012

Why You Need A Lens Filter

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Thursday  night we took Chris’ sister out for crabs.  It was the one thing she really wanted to do during her 3 weeks in America.

The crabs were delicious but it was one of “those meals” with an almost one year old in tow.

Not 10 minutes into the meal, Will had stretched my shirt out down to my navel, exposing my oh-so-attractive nursing bra to 40+ people.

A few minutes later Will tried Old Bay.  He didn’t like it.  Hysterics ensued.

I didn’t open a single crab the entire meal and instead spent most of it trying to console Will when I wouldn’t let him eat the sprinkler head in the pile of mulch down the street.

Oh and then there was the moment when I opened my camera bag to find shattered glass everywhere.  I know exactly how crushed I looked at that moment because Chris helpfully took a photo…with the camera that had been covered in pulverized glass just a minute before:

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Turns out though, the shattered glass belonged not to my expensive lens but to my $20 lens filter.  I don’t know what would have happened to my lens without it.

Filters can improve the quality of your photos and they can protect your camera from dust, dirt…and whatever happened that shattered my filter in the first place.  Worth it if you ask me.

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May 17, 2012

Life Lessons from Overseas: The Shocking Reality of Culture Shock

Camera Roll-213

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:

culture shock diagram

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 7, 2012

Life Lessons from Overseas: Things I Learned as a ‘Diplomat’s’ Wife–A New Mini-Series!

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Random Chengdu photo from our last few weeks in town.

So I’m going to start a new mini-series here.  I could call it “Things I Wish I Knew About Being a Trailing Foreign Service Spouse Before We Went Overseas” but that’s kind of long and ungainly, so lets just call it “Life Lessons from Overseas.”  It’s catchier that way.

Once a week for the next few weeks I’m going to be talking about things I learned during my first tour living overseas as a diplomat’s wife and a foreign service spouse.  Some of these things are heavy, important stuff, some are pretty trivial. Some are good life lessons in general and some are pretty specific to the expat spouse experience.  I’ll be writing about everything from making friends, to getting out of the house, to why travel will save your sanity, to finding work to why culture shock is the crappiest and most annoyingly accurate psychological cliche on the planet.

After only one tour under my belt, I’m no expert-far from it.  I can still remember though what I thought living overseas as a diplomat’s wife might be like, what it turned out to be like, and what it felt like when all of my warm fuzzy dreams collided with reality.

On the movie reel playing in my head before we left the States, I practically skipped through picturesque cobblestone alleyways, finding secret Sichuan delicacies, I spoke and read fluent Mandarin.  There may as well have been a choreographed song and dance number starring me, my favorite vegetable vendors, for how realistic my visions were.  I pictured myself meeting new best friends to have giggly girl’s nights with.  I assumed I would be a fearless explorer roaming the countryside.  That ban on working on the local economy?  That would somehow magically not apply to me and I would find fulfilling and important work to do with great non-profits on the ground in China. I would never sit at home, hitting refresh on the New York Times website and counting down the minutes until my husband came home.  Never.

Ha!

The reality is that I did eat at hole-in-the-wall restaurants–but I also ate at home–a lot.  Sure, I chatted a lot with the grandmothers and vendors in our neighborhood, but I never felt like anyone was just one “ni chi fan le ma?” away from inviting me home to dinner.  On the contrary, the one time an elderly woman put her arm on my shoulder to draw me close and confess her hatred for her native land 3 weeks before we left China, I was so shocked by her intimacy that I wondered for a split second whether it was some sort of elaborate setup.

I was able to make friends both within and outside the Consulate community, but too many times I waited for others to ask me to hang out instead of being the one to make the first phone call.  Too many times I didn’t join a club or a group because it seemed like it wouldn’t “be my thing” and it was always my loss.

Working for a non-profit as a diplomatic spouse in China? Forget it!  On the other hand, I didn’t take advantage of the small opportunities I did have, believing I could always find something better elsewhere.  Bad move.

China was not my first time living overseas and so I assumed, quite wrongly, that I’d somehow have a leg up on the culture shock and the expat life.  Maybe I did in some ways, but it was still a total shock to find out how different life can be when you’re living in a place to be with the person you love rather than a job or a city you love.  I made some really good decisions in China and I made some really not-so-good ones and I learned a lot.

I’m going to be writing about my experience, but I’m only one person with one set of opinions, so for this set of posts especially, I’d really love your input and to hear your thoughts.  Write comments, send me links to your blog posts, shoot me emails.  I’ll include and attribute and link to it all throughout this series wherever I can.  I can’t wait to hear from you.

Next week we’ll start by talking culture shock, or why everyone looooves Post at 3 months, hates Post with a fiery passion at 6 months, before gradually adjusting and falling ridiculously head over heels in love again…6 months before pack out. Send me your thoughts!

Will and I…looking very diplomatic, right?  (By the way, how great is that fountain in that “new” (read: 2 years old) park on the Potomac in Georgetown?  Will thought it was amazing, can’t wait to take him back to play when the weather is warmer)

May 3, 2012

New Post Up on Wander This World

A quick post about street sweepers, more here.

April 11, 2012

So Long Chengdu, Zaijian

Men playing cards on street

And so here we are, ready to finally say good-bye to Chengdu and “see you later” to all of the wonderful people we’ve met here.

I don’t have anything profound or poignant to say, I wish I did.

This morning I left Will sleeping under the watchful eye of our capable ayi to walk down to the local fresh market one more time.

It’s strange now to make the journey by myself, unencumbered by a diaper bag and a baby who always entertains himself on these trips by trying to eat my camera and find creative new ways to get germs into his mouth.

Without my mini-celebrity strapped to my chest, I felt invisible–in a good way, like I was somehow a part of the sidewalk scene instead of a foreign observer of it.  I moved quickly through the crowds, leaped over a puddle of what I now know to be baby pee, swerved around the crowd in front of the doufu maker’s shop, and avoided whips of the long cilantro stalks that stick out out above the sea of shopping bags.

I stopped and bought xiang la bing and cong you bing from my favorite stall.  I thought about telling the husband-wife bing team that we will be leaving Chengdu tomorrow, but then thought better of it.  I took a few pictures that I’d been too chicken to take all of these months here and then I walked out into the mid-morning haze, taking a long route back through the neighborhoods of Yulin.

Xiang la bing chengdu snack food

As I’ve written before, I didn’t do enough here.  I didn’t take enough pictures or talk to as many people as I should have.  I never learned the language properly and I didn’t do enough exploring.  Perhaps its these regrets that keep me from feeling like this is truly goodbye.  I can’t help but feel like I’ll be back again, maybe not to Chengdu, but to China.

We went to lunch at a nearby mall today, one that didn’t exist when we first arrived.  On our way we drove by at least 15 of the ubiquitous cheap lunch stands that often feed us and the masses here in Chengdu.  Plastic stools and mini card tables spilled out of the restaurants and onto the streets as patrons hunched over big white, chipped bowls, furiously slurping their noodles with the sort of subconscious concentration needed to eat a private meal whilst constantly brushing elbows with the two dozen other people also eating lunch, also attempting to ignore each other long enough chill out over some post-noodle pickles and a quick game of knock-off Angry Birds.

Whenever I see these scenes played out in the alleyways of this city I always wonder whether these places will still exist on our next trip to China.  I kind of think they will always exist in Chengdu.  I hope so.

I feel like there should be more to say but I can’t quite wrap my head around it all yet, so I think I’ll just stop here for now.  This isn’t the end of the China stories, but its getting late and we’ve got an long day of traveling ahead of us tomorrow.

More come next week from Wisconsin including photos with grandparents and tales of traveling for 24 hours straight with an 8 month old.  Until then, Bon Voyage and Chengdu zaijian. Thanks for reading.

April 9, 2012

Mr. Wobbles, the Baby Ninja & Street Pancakes

Will trying to stand up

We’re still in Chengdu, winding down, trying to stretch our limited supplies of laundry detergent, soap and oatmeal until Thursday morning when we head to the airport.  Until then, a few photos of Will?  A few more photos of food? Sound good?

We’ve taken to calling our son Mr. Wobbles, the Baby Ninja.  He’s pulling up on everything in sight (albeit, quite wobbily-hence the moniker).  Additionally, since he learned how to crawl, he’s become scarily proficient at finding all sorts of “off-limits” items to play with and put in his mouth.  Things like our laptop charging cord and my house slippers.  He’s quite stealthy and ninja-like in his quests, although I can’t imagine many ninjas would find a bottle of diaper wash as exciting as Will does.

You’d think in a house empty of every single item save for a few clothes, diapers and some furniture, it would be easier to keep Will out of trouble.  Instead, its the opposite.  With most of his toys packed up (or hidden so that they regain their novelty for the 13.5 hour journey from Shanghai to Chicago) we are passing the days playing with a broken salad spinner, water in the bathroom sink, and wet dish rags.  Its amazing how many ways we can find to entertain this child without toys, though it does require a bit of quick thinking.  When Mama’s not fast enough with the ideas, we’ve only got so many seconds before those electrical cords and the door hinges become irresistibly enticing again.

stripes smile 2

Can I just say it again?  8 months is such a fun age.   All of the scrambling to keep Will away from electrical outlets (yes we will baby-proof in America and India) is so, so worth it for the fun I have playing with Will now and watching him explore the world.

And while I miss the days of 2+ hour naps, I’ll gladly take Will’s shorter naps now in exchange for the ability to put him down in his crib at 7:30pm, knowing that I won’t have to spend the next 4 hours pacing our bedroom trying to get him to stop screaming.  Not to say that he sleeps through the night–oh no far from it–but its getting better and better, easier and easier.

After worrying about my skinny baby the first few months of his life, I’m completely addicted to the rolls of baby fat on his thighs.  I love the way both his lower lip and his rotund little belly stick out while he’s concentrating on something.  Watching him scoot around, I imagine I can already see his legs turning long and lean on me, so I’m enjoying the days of pudgy hands and feet and multiple chins while I can.

In other news, Chris and I went on a lunch date today-without Will.  You’d think that since we employ a wonderful housekeeper whom we love and trust completely that we would have tried this before, but nope. This was the first time we left Will with someone other than family for more than 15 minutes (guess who was totally fine and had a great time sans Mamma and Daddy?)

Da shou mian

To mark the occasion we went for some of my favorite hand-cut noodles, though with food prices going up, they now cost about $1.20 a bowl instead of 80 cents.  Big spenders we are.

I’m quite proud of my skills eating steaming bowls of noodles over Will’s head in three countries now, but it was a real treat to do it without all of the contortions and hand acrobatics I usually employ to keep all of the red oil out of Will’s hair.

On our way home we picked up a few pancakes from the ever-popular guy on North Yulin street.  I’m addicted to the thick savory pancake filled with a gritty savory-sweet mix of raw sugar and roasted sesame seeds.

Street pancake

We’ve lived here for two years now, I’m not bad at interpreting simple conversations in the Sichuanese dialect, but I still can’t understand a word the pancake vendor says.  I can’t even understand his word for the number two unless he’s holding up his fingers.  If his pancakes weren’t so good I don’t think I would continue to put myself through the linguistic embarrassment of trying to order each time, but they are fantastic.  It’s just that I’m also half convinced the guy is not actually speaking to me in Chinese.

Anyways, how are you all doing?  Any big moves, pack-outs, plans?  How was Easter, Passover, your weekend?

looking for mischief

April 7, 2012

I’ll Miss This…

Sichuanese dinner

We woke up Saturday morning to overcast skies, raindrops on the balcony, and a house so empty we hear the echoes of every footfall.

It’s a fitting last weekend here, a little gloomy, a little cold, a little typical Chengdu.

Saturday we skipped an Easter egg hunt and potluck on account of Chris having the flu. Instead we laid low and watched Will scamper around the empty house, chasing toy cars and enjoying the wide open space.

For dinner, we took a short stroll over to Yang Yang’s. It’s a neighborhood joint, but one of the best in town, beloved by both locals and foreigners alike. A New York Times writer came and ate at Yang Yang’s a few years ago, though I think he may have been trying to pad his reimbursements a little when it came to the bill. We’ve never paid more than about eight dollars a person no matter how many heaping plates of food we order.

Sichuanese dinner

Yang Yang’s is amazing, if not sometimes a bit inconsistent, pretty typical for a Chengdu restaurant. On this night though, the kitchen gave a command performance; as if trying to send us off with the perfect farewell dinner (little do they know, we plan on at least a few more take-out orders before we leave).

Sichuanese dinner

We only ordered a few dishes, but they were about as perfects we’ve ever had: yue-xiang zhezi (eggplant), feng wei (a local green stir-fried in garlic and too much oil), Riben doufu (literally Japanese tofu, deep fried doufu in a yue-xiang sauce) and a plate of deep-fried peanuts.

Sichuanese dinner

The waitresses we’ve known for two years now graciously supplied us with extra chopsticks as Will attempted to drool on as many pairs as possible before flinging them unceremoniously on the floor. Each time he’d look up and give the waitresses a flirtatious smile until they’d bring another pair.  We are in for a rude awakening the first time we eat out again in America, I think.

Will in today hat at yang yang restaurant

We have three and a half days left in Chengdu.

Will in today hat at yang yang restaurant

photos of Will and I by Chris

April 3, 2012

Spring Time in Chengdu

man with pineapples

Its been another beautiful sunny day in Chengdu.  Lately the air quality has been relatively good and we’ve had more sunshine in the last 3 weeks than I think we did for an entire 6 month stretch during our first year here. I’m afraid all of the new arrivals must think we are crazy.  We talk up the gloom and the grey skies and then they get here and its all 72 degrees and sunshine.

Whatever, I’m not complaining.  Today Will and I took our picnic blanket outside and hung out with a bunch of the little kids in the building.  Its so nice to live in a place full of kids running around, laughing, playing.  It just adds a certain amount of liveliness and fun to the atmosphere.

I’ve been on a photo-editing binge the last few days trying to get everything mostly done before we pack up our computer on Thursday.  I have a bunch up on Flickr and I’m also putting some of them up on my new site.

Oh wait, what, my new site?  My absolutely-no-baby-pictures-in-sight-site where I’ll post about China and India and other more portfolio type pieces?  Thanks to Chris helping me out with the template and debugging a bunch of php and CSS, its finally up and running.  I’m still making all sorts of tweaks behind the scenes, but finally it exists!  Check it out at http://www.danielledumm.com  Let me know what bugs you run into!

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