Friday Apr 04, 2008

Pandora's Box Closed Again

I read about Pandora on Skrocki's blog and fell head over heels in love with this website. It's something like an online radio station that you can customize. You can tell it for example that you want to hear songs from artists like Celine Dion, and it might not play Celine for you but it will play songs that are in her same genre. Then you can vote on the songs it plays for you and it's more likely to re-play the ones you liked.

So now that I'm completely hooked on this site I logged on this morning and found this message:
"We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative."

That totally stinks! I'm going to need to check myself into some sort of music halfway house now.

Tuesday Apr 01, 2008

If blogs were restaurants

Mine would be a downtown diner. The food you get here wouldn't be haute cuisine or especially nutritious but it would always taste good. Basically I'd be the grilled cheese sandwich of blogosphere. But the waitress here knows your name and she always has a smile for you, and it's a good place to stop by whenever you need a little break.

If your blog was a restaurant what would it be like?

Update: Lalo Martins described his blog/restaurant here. It's the kind of place where I'd like to hang out every Friday after work.

Monday Mar 31, 2008

Badaling Safari: Too Thrilling to be Safe

On Friday we went on a team-building event - tree planting and then a safari at 八达岭野生动物世界, a wild animal park north of Beijing. The tree-planting part was great - a light snow was falling and it was absolutely beautiful. I remember hoping that you'd be able to tell from the pictures that it was snowing that day. Yeah, be careful what you wish for. (Thanks to Aaron, Yong and Xue for these pictures!)
planting trees

Then we loaded onto park buses and started through the wild animal park.

The first stop on the safari was the wolf exhibit.
wolf

Next brown bears. Awesome.
bear in snow

As our tour progressed the snow was falling harder and harder, and pretty soon it was what I would call by Alabama standards a blizzard. And the road through the safari park was hilly and narrow.
snow scene
snow

Next stop was the lions' den. Ferocious. And do you see how close we were to them? These shots were not taken with a telephoto lens. The animals were literally right outside our window, not caged in or anything.
lioness
lion

Then the tiger exhibit. Way cool.
tiger

And then the bus got stuck in the snow.

And that was terrifying. Because we couldn't get out and push the bus. Couldn't shovel snow. Because we were in the tiger exhibit and tigers were walking all around the bus. Then our bus slid back a bit and off the road and leaned up against a tree. A thick branch of the tree pushed hard against one of the sliding glass windows and I had a terrifying foreshadowing that the window could shatter and a tiger could climb through it and ...

The bus driver and our tour guide were not exactly confidence-inspiring. They had called the park manager to come get us but when no one had showed up to help us after half an hour, the driver and guide seemed helpless.

I sent my husband a text message that said, "stuck in snow at the badaling safari. surrounded by tigers. if i don't make it out, please remarry. i love you." Apparently I didn't do a very good job communicating the gravity of the situation because he replied "You're funny. What's our ebay password?"

Finally a park manager did arrive and climbed from the window of his jeep through the window of our bus. He managed to navigate the bus away from the tree without breaking the window, thank God. Then he spent the next hour-and-a-half backing the bus out of the park inch by inch down the snowy road. Fortunately he managed this feat without killing any humans or animals.

So what did I learn from this? I learned that you can't make assumptions about safety. You can't assume that just because someone opened a safari park that they maintain a fleet of good vehicles, or train their staff or have evacuation plans in place in case the unthinkable happens. If something seems too thrilling to be safe, it probably is...

And I learned, once again, that my team can show good humor in the face of adversity. As we were waiting for the park staff to arrive and wondering if we would ever get out of this situation alive, one guy from the back laughed, "This will be something to blog about!"

Wednesday Mar 26, 2008

Home Sweet Home

We got the key to our new house on Friday and we love it although of course there are a few minor bugs that need to be fixed. We can't wait to move in but it's going to take us a while to buy the furniture and get it decorated. Meanwhile we'll stay in our current house in Wangjing.

As Buddy and I did the walk-through I was reminded of November 17, 2000, the day we walked through our new house in California for the first time. Audrey was five weeks old and I remember she spit up on the carpet in the upstairs hallway. We quickly cleaned it up and apologized to the guy from the developer who was doing the walk-through with us. But he just laughed and said, "Don't apologize to me! It's your carpet now!" Buddy and I looked at each other and smiled. Our carpet. Our floor. Our house. Our little piece of California.

It was an amazing feeling and I felt the same way on Friday. Our marble. Our floor. Our condo. Our little piece of Beijing. Definitely for the next 70 years and after that we'll have to see what happens.

Here's the California house:
house

This is the Beijing one:
new house

Tuesday Mar 25, 2008

Goodbye iPhone, I never knew you

Saturday night I was dyeing eggs with the kids in the kitchen when my husband walked in and said, "Why did you send me a blank text message just now?" I had been in the kitchen with the kids for over an hour so there was no way I had sent him the message. He said, "Where is your cell phone?" And when I think back on it now, I always hear him saying those words in slow motion, and all the background noise fades away and all I can hear are those words. "Where is your cell phone?"

Where was my cell phone?

Well apparently it was in the hands of a pickpocket who had picked it from my backpack at the store earlier that evening. Yes, I know, backpack purses are totally dangerous, and on top of that I keep the phone in an exterior pocket, which is almost like asking for somebody to steal it. But I have young kids and I need to keep my hands free at all times, and when my phone rings it needs to be easily accessible to me.

Which unfortunately means it's easily accessible to pickpockets too.

I'll go back to my 100-year-old Sony-Ericsson cell phone now, which will never get stolen and will never break and I will never accidentally throw it into the washing machine. And if a pickpocket ever steals that one he'll probably call me later and ask if I'll take the stupid thing back.

Tuesday Mar 18, 2008

The Future is in Good Hands

Yesterday I picked my daughter up from school at our usual meeting place, the north gate of the school. This cute little boy was walking with her across the court yard and I noticed he was holding her arm. As soon as Audrey saw me she said good-bye to the little boy and he walked back in the direction that they'd come from.

"Who's that boy?" I asked.

"Oh, that's (something really fast in Chinese)."

"Why is he walking back to the school now?"

"He's going to the south gate, that's where his mom and dad meet him."

"Why did he come to the north gate then?"

"He was walking with me here to meet you. I broke my ankle during martial arts class and he wanted to make sure I made it to the gate okay."

How sweet is that? Nobody asked this kid to walk Audrey to the north gate to meet me, he did it all on his own.

If this kid is any indication, the next generation is kind and considerate and thoughtful. And the future is safe in their hands.

By the way, Audrey's ankle wasn't broken or sprained or even bruised. In addition to being kind and considerate, the next generation is also a bit dramatic.

How expensive is your taste?

Can you identify which of these sofas is designed by Versace?

Sofa #1:
ugly sofa

Sofa #2:
ugly sofa

Sofa #3:
ugly sofa

Sofa #4:
ugly sofa

Sofa #5:
ugly sofa

All of these specimens were discovered during my recent shopping excursion to a gigantic furniture mall called Macalline. Please note that I risked getting myself arrested for taking pictures of the merchandise but I did it for you, my readers. :)

I put the correct answer in the comments section. Let me know if you got it right.

Friday Mar 14, 2008

I'm living and working in the Journey of Joy

I learned this from a sign in our office park.

journey of joy

The Chinese is a little less goofy than the English.

Monday Mar 10, 2008

The Power of the Grapevine in Beijing

Last Friday my husband got a text message that said the price of gas was going to go up Saturday morning by about $.10/liter. That would cost us an extra $5 or so to fill up our tank so we decided to stop by a gas station on our way home and tank up. We didn't know where this text message originated but it was forwarded by one of Buddy's friends. We didn't know how true it was, but we figured what the heck, let's tank up just to be sure.

Well apparently that text message had been spreading like wildfire. There were cars lined up for blocks around all the gas stations. The average wait was 2 hours!

gas station

gas station

gas station

We decided not to tank up after all. And would you believe gas prices did NOT go up on Saturday morning? It was apparently just a rumor. Can any of you out there in blogosphere tell me who starts rumors like that? And do you know why?

Friday Mar 07, 2008

We're eating this but don't know what it is

Does anyone know what kind of nut this is? We got them as a gift at Chinese New Year and we've been eating them. But we don't know what they are.

nuts

nuts

Update: An anonymous user left me the correct answer to this puzzle - these things are apricot kernels. I looked them up online and apparently they have cancer-fighting agents. So many thanks to that commenter for solving the mystery for us! And thanks to all of you for submitting such good guesses. My appetite is now whetted - I have to try hickory kernels and plum pits. They all sound wonderful.

In case of emergency dial 119. Or 120. Or 110.

I found these cryptic icons on a pay phone yesterday. It all made sense when I remembered China has three different numbers for emergency services. I don't know how they expect anyone to have the presence of mind to remember "Is it 119 for fire .... or 120 ... or 110?"

emergency numbers

Thursday Mar 06, 2008

Challenges of a Joint Venture: Raising our Kids in China

I gave this speech at Toastmaster's last night. It was speech #4, under the category "How to Say It."

Most of the time raising kids in China is great. This is the most kid-friendly country I've ever encountered. When we walk into restaurants the waiters and waitresses usually light up, and they come over to talk to my kids and pinch their cheeks. If my kids break a glass in a restaurant or drop a spoon, someone comes over to clean it up right away and we don't get any nasty looks. When we walk on the street many people say hello to my kids and my kids have learned to be very friendly and open as a result.

But there are some challenges for me as a parent in China. Specifically I have challenges because I am a foreigner raising kids in China. And because I'm raising my kids in a culture that I'm not completely familiar with, and because my kids are speaking a language which I myself am not fluent in.

So let me tell you about three issues that I face as an American mom raising children in China.

My first challenge is - I don't know the schedule for qiu ku, or "long underwear". And I'm sure that there is a calendar somewhere that says "today everyone should start wearing long underwear" or "today is the last day for long underwear". My problem is - I don't have that calendar. Here's how I know I missed the date though. Some time in the late fall I'll be with my kids at the playground, and several of the grandmothers at the playground will tell me that my kids aren't wearing enough clothes. So then I start putting their long underwear on them, and they wear it until I miss the last day for underwear. I know that I've missed that day because the same grandma on the playground will tell me my kids are wearing too many clothes.

My second challenge is - I don't always understand what my kids are saying to other people. For example last weekend I was in the elevator with my son Grant and one other woman. Just before the other woman got out of the elevator Grant said something and the woman laughed. I didn't understand what he said. So after she left the elevator I asked Grant what he had said. He gave me a shy smile and said, "I said a dirty word." It wasn't a seriously bad word, it was just one of the gross words that he and his friends say at preschool and they think they're funny. But my concern is this - I want to stop my son when he says bad words. And I want the woman in the elevator to know that I don't think it's OK for my son to say words like that. I want her and my son to know we're not that kind of family. But I can't do that if I don't understand what my son is saying.

A very strange dynamic develops when your children can do something better than you can. As a parent, you're supposed to be the smart one, the capable one, the experienced one. But when your child can suddenly do things that you can't do, the dynamic is reversed. And it's very uncomfortable. I want to take this discomfort and turn it into my motivation for studying Chinese and becoming super-fluent. That's the only way to resolve this conflict for me.

And my final challenge is - people tell my daughter she's fat. Usually these are strangers, people who don't know us or have a vested interest in my daughter's well-being.

First let me give you some background. My daughter is a little bit chubby but not fat. She was much chubbier when she was younger. She has always enjoyed eating. As she's gotten older she's consistently gotten thinner. And she's very active: she loves to play ping pong, swimming, gymnastics, jump roping, kick-boxing, cycling, ice skating, whatever. She's very strong and very good at sports.

My husband and I are aware of her weight but we don't want her to be. We don't want her to develop body issues, where she believes she's fatter than she really is. We also don't want her to develop an eating disorder: we don't want Audrey to think about diets or depriving herself of nutrition at her age. We just encourage her to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and get plenty of exercise. And over time, our plan is working. Slowly but surely she is growing taller and thinner.

But these strangers on the street or in the elevator don't have that context at all. They don't know us, they don't know our daughter, they don't know how chubby she used to be, they don't know how active and healthy and energetic she is now. They don't know that eating disorders run in my family.

Now on a rational note, I know they're really just making a comment when they say she's fat, the same way someone might say "you're very tall" or "you're so cute." And I know they don't know how much damage they're doing by telling her that she's fat.

But nonetheless, I struggle with this. This wouldn't happen in my home culture. So as an American mom in China, I don't know how to deal with it.

It happened last Sunday in the elevator, for example. (Do you notice how many of my family traumas happen in the elevator?!) Someone casually said to Audrey "You're fat. The older you get the fatter you get." Afterwards we stood in the hallway and I held Audrey and she cried and cried. I said, "We've got to figure out what to say to people when they say that." We agreed that she can say, "I'm kind and happy and I study hard at school, and that's what matters to me and my family." (Clearly I'm passing on to my daughter my own tethers of Southern politeness, responding to someone with gentleness and restraint when in fact you'd like to scratch their eyes out.)

Based on these stories you might think that I'm confused or perplexed most of the time here in China. In fact that's not true, I love raising my kids here. It's exciting and fun and relatively easy. And one day I will write a book about my experiences as an American mother in China, and the stories I mentioned today will be the most interesting chapters.

Wednesday Mar 05, 2008

And there goes the neighborhood

This sign is hanging in the lobby of my building, posted by the local police department.

sign

Yes, it says "whoring activities". Apparently that's what we're dealing with in my neighborhood. In three languages, no less.

A beautiful morning

The sunrise was so beautiful yesterday I had to snap a picture of it for you. I wish I'd had a better camera handy than my cell phone.

moon and sunrise

A blue sky like this is unfortunately all too rare in Beijing.

Thursday Feb 28, 2008

Happy Chinese New Year from the Gao Family!

Yes, it's a little bit late but if you know us, you know that's not unusual.

We were blessed with abundant love, happiness and fun in 2007. I was trying to write up everything that happened in the year and why it was so wonderful and then I found this picture, which somehow says it all.

gao family

May 2008 be your best year yet!

Wednesday Feb 20, 2008

Dinner Theater

menu

6:00pm Sunday night: 7-year-old Audrey decides to write a menu for the dinner I'm cooking.

6:10pm: Menu is done, Audrey decides she will be the waitress and Grant will be the maitre d'.

6:12pm: Grant seems unable to learn the one simple line he'll need for his new job, "Let me show you to your seats."

6:15pm: Still can't say his line.

6:20pm: Despite Grant's protests Audrey insists that it's not acceptable to let the guests choose their own seats.

6:21pm: Grant does what he always does when his sister tries to control him too much: he turns into a dog.

6:22pm: Audrey takes the dog outside for a 'private conversation'. All I can hear from the kitchen is Grant barking.

6:30pm: Audrey comes back and tells me Grant has a new job. All he has to do is turn flips for the guests and make them laugh.

6:45pm: I'm relieved that my daughter can work with what she's given sometimes. And glad that my son can assert himself. And thrilled that he didn't crack his head on the kitchen floor trying to turn flips for the guests (me and my husband). And happy that the spaghetti was good.

Monday Feb 18, 2008

blueberry tea wisdom

blueberry tea
Look what my Celestial Seasonings True Blueberry tea had to say to me today.

"When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is; the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way." - Fred Rogers

Nice.

Anger, Fear and Frustration: It's What's for Dinner

cows

Here's a disturbing article in the New York Times about the US's largest beef recall ever: 143 million pounds.

The beef isn't contaminated as far as we know and so far there are no reports of anyone getting sick from eating it. So what's the problem? It's the way the workers at the processing plant were treating the cows before they killed them, specifically the cows who couldn't walk on their own anymore. The article says, "Authorities said the video showed workers kicking, shocking and otherwise abusing 'downer' animals that were apparently too sick or injured to walk into the slaughterhouse."

Much of this meat went into a school lunch program, which means we fed it to our kids. I'm reminded of something I read in the Skinny Bitch book and I'll have to quote the authors roughly, "When we kill animals in slaughter houses, they are afraid, frustrated and angry. If you eat their meat, you're eating anger, fear and frustration."

Is that what we want our kids to be eating at school?

I'm not even a big animal rights activist. I'm just a normal person. And I can't stand to eat meat any more that comes out of the industrial food chain.

Friday Feb 15, 2008

The highest form of flattery?

The other day we were driving behind a car that had this logo on the back. I was sure it was a Toyota.
zhonghua logo

But it wasn't, it was a Chinese brand called Zhonghua. Compare Zhonghua's logo to Toyota's.
toyota logo

Pretty close, huh? According to this article, it appears Zhonghua isn't the first or the last one to copy Toyota's logo.

Thursday Feb 14, 2008

Happy Year of the Mouse!

According to the Chinese Horoscope this is the Year of the Mouse, or at least that's what I'm calling it because I think the Year of the Rat sounds really bad. How good could a Year of the Rat be? Anyway, this turn of the New Year got me thinking about all the systems that different cultures have created to try to help us understand ourselves. The Chinese horoscope tries to guess things about you based on your birth year, the Astrological Zodiac guesses based on your date and month of birth, and in Japan they guess based on your blood type. So I decided to compare a few of these systems and see if they say anything coherent about me.

According to Chinese Zodiac I belong to the Year of the Rooster:
Give impression of being adventurous, but are timid (timid? please!)
Capable and talented (but of course!)
Always interesting and extremely brave (doubtful on the former)
Selfish and outspoken (yes to the latter)
Deeply disappointed if they fail (but not afraid of failure!)
Eccentric (can't deny that one)
Always think they are right (I think that because I am)
Most compatible with Ox, Snake, and Dragon. (My husband is a Rat.)

According to the Astrological Zodiac I am an Aries:
Adventurous and energetic (check)
Pioneering and courageous (check)
Enthusiastic and confident (check)
Dynamic and quick-witted (check)
Selfish and quick-tempered (why are they bring up 'selfish' again, dammit?!)
Foolhardy and daredevil (nah)

Most compatible with Leo. (My husband is a Leo.)

According to the Japanese Concept of grouping by Blood Type I am AB negative:
Type AB's are the split personalities of the blood groups.
Confident and timid (it depends)
Outgoing and shy (well, yes and no)
Trustworthy and likely to help others (sure)
Most compatible with AB, O, A and B. (Excuse me, isn't that all of them? Anyway, my husband is A.)

I don't see much of a common thread among these three systems so the only logical conclusion I can draw is that all of the positive traits are indeed mine and none of the negative ones are. ;)

If you want to read about your various profiles you can check out these links. Leave me a comment if you learn anything interesting about yourself.
Chinese Horoscope (click on the animal icons to see your year's description)
Astrological Zodiac
Blood types

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