Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chinese New Year, ISB Style

Friday was Chinese New Year at ISB. I missed it because I had a parent meeting (an actully kind of serious one with lots of serious issues, which ended up being conducted while the loudspeakers blared drums and cymbals for 20 minutes). There was a big parade through the school, complete with big lion and dragon costumes, led by the administrators in Chinese garb. Later during the day, the middle and high school students displayed their knowledge of Chinese customs by putting on presentations. Cameron's specialty was Mongolian dancing. We found out that his good friend Zach (pictured below in white) shares Cameron's flair for performing and lack of fear in getting the audience involved!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chinese New Year

This week is Chinese New Year, also called (curiously) Spring Festival. Anything Chinese is pretty much shut down and those stores and services that cater to foreigners run limited hours. The good news is that we are off from work ALL WEEK. Noah is in 7th heaven because we've stayed home for 3 of the 5 days so far. It's hilarious--today he was the only kid at home and spent a large part of it watching tv, playing legos (alone), and surfing the 'net. Tonight he was so funny and easy-going and funny! He's rested and he's at home--and he's loving it (although here he's just realized he's not going to get home in time to watch Ben-10 on TV, so he's not feeling the love).

I wish there was some way to capture New Year's Eve on tape. Last week fireworks stands sprouted up all over town and we shelled our our RMB for our share and headed to a nearby lake with friends on Saturday night to shoot them off. Sunday night, from 9:00 or so on was like a war zone. Non-stop booming, non-stop firecrackers, and flashing lights. The sound was like thunder, rain, and gunshots, interspersed with lightning. This went on non-stop for at least 5 hours (then I went to sleep). It was unbelievable. It's actually been happening all this week, too, but it's finally started to die down.

So what do billions of people do here on New Year's Day? Well, they eat. And eat. And eat. We headed out to an area called Liulichang, to a street fair. Along with a few other people. We ate something like peanut brittle made with sesame and sunflower seeds, and sugared crabapples. We passed by sweet potatoes, grilled octopus, and some strange giant fruit cake being toted around via bicycle. It was kind of like being at Grand Old Days, minus the brats but with lots of warm clothing. It's not a place for animal lovers--people sold little bunnies, hamsters, birds, and crickets (they were huge for good luck). My "wow, we're really in China" moment came when I started following a man pulling a cart of hides. They were really pretty and I thought that the kids might like one for playing, dress-up, or whatever. I just couldn't figure out what they were...and then I saw the tails. They were golden retriever hides. Ouch.

Not much for sale that was worth anything to us. Lots of junky trinkets (Ava and Bella, of course, loved them). The big favorites seemed to be pinwheels. Go figure. Mostly people walked up and down the very crowded streets, chatting and laughing. It wasn't what we expected--I thought we'd see dancing, music, acrobatics, etc. Maybe we need to head to a temple fair this week and compare. One of the more frustrating things about living here is that there seems to be potentially so much to do, but then it doesn't seem like we've hit the right spot. Is it because our expectations are too high? Is it because we're not at the right places at the right times? We chose this "fair" because we heard it was one of the bigger ones and we assumed that meant "big" in terms of attractions, but maybe it meant in terms of sheer numbers. Given the number of historical and cultural attractions here, I'm frustrated because we just don't seem to see as much as I think we should (and don't forget Noah's very high need to be at home a lot).

(I'm not a big sweet potato fan, but the smell of them roasting is so yummy! The guy roasts them over charcoal (on the back of a bike) and then weighs them on a little scale and you pay by the gram. They are so cheap and very filling!)

We stopped at a restaurant for lunch. We ordered fried rice (not something on a lot of menus, but tasty in a "Chinese restaurant in America" sort of way), pork in a pagoda shape (very beautiful, but ended up being strips of fat surrounding some green stuff), chicken and chilis (spicy and beautiful, but 95% gristle), and beef noodles (yummy). The beer was so-so, too. When the food is good, it's so so so good, but when it's not--and it's impossible often to tell by the menu! Steering clear of the obvious choices (donkey penis, jellyfish in crusted vinegar, solidified duck blood with chicken feet) it's hard to predict the quality of meat in the food. We all tried to put the positive spin on things (and honestly, it's better that we all eat like this rather than having a Pizza Hut nearby to fall back on) but inwardly the adults were hungry, too! Back out to the street to snack on more brittle and naan-like bread.

I think I've mentioned the sugared fruits before. Ava is just crazy about them. If you get them just dipped, they are better than if you try to eat them hardened and get it out of your teeth. The hawthorne apples are really good (and Ava's favorite) but you can get grapes, strawberries, kiwi, pineapple, watermelon, dragonfruit, and even tomatoes! At 3 yuan (about 50 cents) it's a great bargain and a sugar kick for cranky kids (and dare I even call it healthy with the fruit angle?). Both the Chinese and Minnesotans share an affinity for food on a stick so I guess I should feel comforted by seeing everything skewered--although, truth be told, I feel much more daring around deep fried Twinkies than I do around scorpions on a stick!

After a day of culture-soaking, what better way to wind down than by celebrating at a good ol' American TGIF! And I'm afraid to admit that ordering food that actually was what was described and pictured on the menu (and then having it taste exactly as you expected it to) was a big fat slice of heaven. Cameron was nauseous
after eating a whole cheeseburger, his system not being used to all that greasy fat! We all agreed it was fantastic--but expensive--and relegated it to a rare treat.
I don't mean to sound snipe-y about about life here. We are really enjoying the opportunity to experience life in this part of the world. It's just much harder to feel a part of life here--so much of what we do is centered around school and work consumes a lot of time now that we are both working fixed full-time schedules. One of the things we loved about Tanzania was that we lived in much closer contact with Tanzanians. Even though we were obviously drastically different in so many ways, our work and living situation put us (and most everyone we knew) in daily contact with people. We learned enough of the language to get around, and Arusha was easily managed because of its size. All of that has changed here. The city is enormous, the language much more difficult, and we live much more in an ex-pat bubble. I think we're still surprised at the adjustment here, when everything is much more convenient. So I don't know if it's better or worse or what. It's just different--and adjusting to very different family needs now with our work schedule, three kids in school full-time, and the demands placed on the kids with their schoolwork has definitely changed the way we do things.

I do hate change. Remind me I said that when I get the bright idea to move again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Xin Nian Kuai Le!

Chinese New Year starts at midnight on January 26 and it is the very biggest celebration of the whole year. Million of Chinese, including migrant workers and those who live overseas, travel to visit families To give you an idea of the magnitude, it is the largest human migration on the planet. This year it is estimated that 2.32 billion people will travel as a part of Chinese New Year, most of them within China and a very large segment in this next week! Huge numbers of people will travel by train, on a rail system that can't absorb those numbers. Tickets can only be purchased in person at the train stations and only one-way tickets are sold, so if you get your ticket, you're not sure when you'll get back! People have all sorts of arrangements for getting their tickets, which are scalped, stolen, and fought over. Once on the train, there are so many people that it's almost impossible to move, to get to the bathroom, to eat...and some will travel across the whole country! It sounds crazy--but at the same time, it gives you an idea of how important this time is for the Chinese people!

There are far more traditions associated with Chinese New Year than I can begin to describe. Legend has it that there was a monter called "Nian" (Chinese for "year") that arrived on New Year's to eat all the livestock, crops, and sometimes children. The villagers began to use the color red and set off fireworks to scare away the monster. It worked, and since then, the color red (especially red lanterns and symbols for good luck and fortune) and fireworks are an essential part of the celebrations.

Chinese wouldn't think of having any sort of get-together or celebration without food--and lots of food. One of the tastiest traditions is jiaozi or dumplings. They are supposed to be good luck because their shape resembles coins from the olden days. They are a bit time-consuming to make so families all get together and make tons of them to eat together. Thankfully, they aren't limited to the holidays because they're some of our favorite snacks here!
What holiday would be complete without gift-giving? People bring gifts when they come to visit, but hongbao is a favorite tradition. Families give each other and children red packets of money. In some parts of China certain denominations are considered good or bad luck--everywhere the number 4 is unlucky and 8 is lucky, so those numbers are taken into account. When you pick out your phone number for your cell phone, you have to pay extra if you want extra 8s in your number--and people do! Another tidbit--the opening of the Olympics this year was set for August 8 for that reason--8/8/08. The Chinese take traditions very seriously!
There are many more traditions about what to wear, how to visit relatives, when to clean your house, and what to eat. We have heard that New Year's Eve (and actually most of the week) will sound, smell and feel like a war zone with the fireworks. Right now we are watching the inauguration crowds--and you can't believe it, but much of the public areas in Beijing look like that most of the time! Going anywhere public this next week will not be for the faint-hearted, but the weather is warming up this week and we are looking forward to getting out to parks and temples to participate in such a big tradition!

Monday, January 19, 2009

...Or maybe not...

His (Cameron's) ability to make these big life changes, and begin to take on more responsibilities in making decisions and managing his own life grows every day.

I did mean that when I wrote it. Before Oldest Child broke his arm on a snowboarding rail Sunday afternoon. Before same Child determined he needed to exercise his teenager-y rights by attending a Christian concert downtown, getting home at 11:30. (Before Sensible Mother was outvoted by Overly Indulgent Father on the skiing and concert issues, not that I'd ever bring that up).
He's around fussing about how he can't possibly write his Chinese homework when he can't hold a pencil. He goes in Wednesday, again, probably to get a permanent cast (he currently has a plaster splint and brace), and then I think he'll feel better.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Cameron spent the weekend on stage in the middle school production of "Groovy", a very cute take-off on Woodstock. Cameron played a music promoter who tries to tempt a hot band (The Lemon Bugs) away from playing a small gig at a love-fest at a local apple orchard by offering them a big contract. It was not a big role, but Cameron played it well. He has a very natural presence on stage and pulled off a very good "bigwig looking down his nose at the local color".
The process of settling in here was very hard on all of the kids. Cameron really struggled with finding his place here after finding his niche in a small school. We prayed so hard for him to get a role in the musical. He had to sing (a solo) in his audition, something he had never done before. He was initially placed in the chorus--where he was both disappointed at not getting a speaking role and relieved that he was in it at all. A few weeks later a student quit and with the shuffle, Cameron landed the role. Last night he said that while he loved his school in Tanzania and still missed it very much, he was really enjoying the opportunities for actitivities that a large school offers. He's already trying to get us to promise that we won't move again until after he graduates!
One of the most gratifying aspects of parenthood, I'm finding out, is watching your child become their own person. Cameron has grown so much in the past year. His ability to make these big life changes, and begin to take on more responsibilities in making decisions and managing his own life grows every day. It does take a bit of getting used to, this letting your child go off with friends and do things separate from the family, but he is proving thtat he is responsible to our rules and his school and other commitments. After 3 play performances, he's skiing today and then going to a big Christian concert (Delirious) in the city tonight, sans parents (I'm sure that somewhere in there some homework is definitely getting neglected), so it's likely that Monday morning will produce a less-than-cheerful teenager getting ready for school!
This is one my favorite shots. I think the boy in the brown in front of Cameron (who was the lead) should be a bit worried. Cameron clearly has his eye on him (and that role)! Cameron wore a great hippie costume when he was singing in the chorus and pronounced his Nehru jacket "very cool" and thought he might like to get one of his own made. I suppose he'd wear it with his latest fashion interest, Converse high-tops (which he was able to talk his mother into last night, what with all the maternally glowing feelings I was having towards him and all--and then, not to short-change the other 2, laid out the $ for shoes for them, too).
Cameron's scene is only a couple minutes long. I taped it, but something was wrong with the camera and it insisted on only focusing on the plants behind the actors, so it was completel fuzzy. When I get a copy from a friend, I'll post it here and you can say you knew him when!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Things Overheard in the Car

Mom: Does Sally (Ava's friend Bella's dog) have any new clothes?

Bella: She has lots of clothes! Two swimsuits, and a running suit, and a pink coat, and others, too.

Mom: Does Sally like to wear her clothes?

Ava: No way, Mom! She doesn't even like it when we try to put on even her tank top!

Noah: Guess where I'm going to live when I grow up?

Mom: Where?

Noah: In the middle of the woods. In a trailer.

Mom: What do you think your wife might say about that?

Noah: Well, I could just go there on the weekends with my three dogs.

Mom: In a trailer?

Noah: Actually, I'm going to build a log house.

On a previous discussion about his future, Noah once said he was going to own a muscle car and live in a duplex so his best friend Isaac could live next door. Last year, he announced he was going to own a German Shepherd and a Rhodesian Ridgeback and a big 4WD Chevy, the kind with the back window that opened so that his dogs could stick their heads through. AND, he was going to build a big metal cage in the back so the dogs wouldn't fall out. FURTHERMORE, he was going to get all that gear before getting married because there was the chance his wife might not let him have all that stuff if he married her first. How's that for thinking ahead?

(I think there's a bit of Montana in that boy somewhere)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Where Would You Go?

This is kind of a place holder post. I know I haven't had that much to say about China lately. The end of the semester brings a lot of reports and activities, so we've been hopping----I'll have something after Chinese New Year, I promise! My good friend Calandria occasionally posts about places she'd like to live. Well, now that I'm living a life that a lot of people would consider exotic (although when I'm trying to drum everyone out of the house on time for school or go grocery shopping, it doesn't really feel very exotic--and when I'm just trying to buy a freaking pair of socks without having to bargain for 20 minutes, I definitely wish for less exotic!) I'm less interested in places I could live than places I can visit.

Traveling, I've started to discover, has become somewhat of a personal conflict for me. For one thing, I (may have made the mistake of) reproducing before I did any travel. Now, my ideas of travel are dramatically altered. I realize that many of the places I've seen or will see will be once in a lifetime opportunities. So, what I would ideally like to do in some places just isn't possible if I travel with a family. Instead of a day in art galleries, it's a couple hours. Meals have to be more planned. Sunscreen has to be applied regularly. A certain attention must be paid to sleeping habits. I personally am of the opinion that if one wanted to sleep, then one should do that before or after a vacation, not during (beach holidays are exempt from this rule; in fact, an afternoon siesta is mandatory). At the same time, I love the idea of spending 2 weeks in 1 area rather than doing 14 countries in 14 days. I love the things we do as a family and I love the blessings of being able to create these memories all together, don't get me wrong. It's just that sometimes I wish I could be a bit more selfish!

Then there's cost. Five plane tickets, two hotel rooms instead of one and activities that may not be available because of the ages of the children (case in point--hard-core off-road dune buggies in Thailand) have to be factored in. There's my darling husband who carefully attempts to mind the budget--so things like banana boats, go-karts, entrance fees and desserts cause a certain amount of angst. Let's face it--we're cheap. And sometimes not in the good way, but in the way that we don't take advantage of little things that can really be the icing on an event. Often our first knee-jerk reaction is "we can't afford it" even when it's not really true.

Finally, I've come to realize I'm a bit of a fraud. As in, I camped for a loooong time and really enjoyed it, but it goes far down on my list of activities now. As in when someone says they're exploring this bit of China and staying in local level housing and food and thus will be able to get a much better feel for local life and culture--I'm enthusiastically agreeing, but let's face it--I'd be bothered by no heat in February and a shared squattie. Turns out those kinds of adventures can make me a bit short-tempered and I compensate by wanting more conveniences. At the same time, I have now vacationed at a much higher comfort level (in Egypt) and I always had this nagging feeling I was missing something far more interesting by staying in a beautiful 5 start hotel. I know from my work in Africa that it is virtually impossible to have a 5 star culturally interactive vacation--unless you really have the big big big bucks. Which we don't. Really--I'm not just saying that this time!

So, the world is soooo big. Given all of that, where should I go?

The Amazon, maybe. Noah just announced that a quality vacation should always include animal adventures, so the Amazon should suitably fill that bill. I have the feeling that this is a place that is not going to be around for long. The clock is ticking, and I want to see it. I'm not picky about what country I go to--but I'd love to see Rio, so maybe Brazil. I'd love to take a 2-3 day boat trip on the river--and for that I'd do some primitive conditions for the privilege of seeing something so wild.

Pros: Kid friendly--we all like being outdoors (in varying degrees), we like hot weather, we like animals and exploring. There are very few things about that area that I wish I could see alone or with hubby, so having the progeny tag along is ok on this one.

Cons: Do you know how far away Brazil is? And what if I cause trouble by becoming utterly frustrated at how NO ONE can understand my Spanish before remembering that they all speak Portugese? Definitely a potential landmine.

Australia is a place where so many Americans want to go but I haven't always been so interested until meeting a lot of Australians. I think it's a country that is so big that I just don't know where to start and when I pick 3 places I'd love to see, it's the equivalent of wanting to see Anchorage, Galveston, and Boston. In addition to Uluru, there's Darwin (which was bombed during WWII and the northernmost city in Australia), Sydney, numerous mountains and hinterlands to explore, and the Great Barrier Reef. I suppose 80% of what I'd want to see is at least on the same side of the country, but I would want a sense of the reefs, the outback, and the mountains.

Pros: Again, kid-friendly, unless we have to travel a lot via car once we get there, which makes them a little scratchy, especially Noah. Hugh Jackman (having children with the same name = bonus instant conversation starter). Australia has more poisonous snakes and spiders than any other country. Add crocodiles, sharks, deadly jellyfish, stingrays, koalas, and kangaroos--that's recipe for success and disaster all rolled into one.

Cons: Australia is expensive. And far away from EVERYTHING. Because it's got Sydney, the kids will be tempted with paintball, go-karts, and amusement parks, things not typically on the Hillman agenda. The chance that one of my kids will blurt out, "Hey, you're the singing Wolverine" always a threat.

OK, I know, I know. This is weird. I lived on the edge of the Serengeti for 3 years. Why didn't I go? Don't think we didn't try--try spending $40 per person per night to camp. AFTER you've driven there in a car with only 1 gas tank. It is so unbelievably expensive. And, while I loved the safaris we went on as a family, I want to spend a week with my husband on safari. I want to be up at daylight and explore for 3 hours before breakfast, then lounge near a pool during the heat of the day with a good book, a soft pillow, and a cold gin. I want to go on a late afternoon safari and have a lazy evening before a late dinner. This year, the TZ government is allowing companies to do walking safaris, which I would be completely freaked about and yet so would do! One of my travel dreams is to be at the Grumeti river during the Migration and watch the wildebeest cross.
Pros: Duh. It's Africa.

Cons: Cost. Timing (I mean the animals migrate when they want to, darn them, not when I can travel, and Tanzania is never a last-minute planning event). Child abuse issues related to leaving one's children alone for a couple weeks at home while I'm enjoying some peace and quiet in the Land Rover.

Most of the time I'm not that fussed about the dangers of traveling and being an American. But there are some areas (notably those that end in -stan) that I really don't have a desire to visit, no matter how great people tell me they are. And while this particular few weeks are terrible for Israel and Palestine, I believe that generally people can travel safely as tourists. But for some reason I am convinced that I would be blown up immediately upon deplaning at the airport.

And...I can't get out of my head the fact that there would be so many people filing past all the sites. That the cynic in me keeps eyeing the shrines knowing that there's no possible way to know if Jesus was actually born right here on this very spot. I know a number of people who have been to Israel and say that it was a truly spiritual awakening and renewing experience and because of that, I am willing to set aside my cynicism and believe that once I got there I would feel the same way.

Pros: If I was in awe standing at the pyramids, imagine standing at the Wall, or in Gethsemane. Christianity and real-life scenes from the Bible mixed with archaeology is a definite crowd pleaser in our family.

Cons: Beef bacon doesn't measure up to the real thing for breakfast. The ongonig niggling idea that we'd be in mortal peril every time we went out for pizza.
This one is actually on our agenda. When I saw Lord of the Rings I couldn't imagine that there were places so wild and so beautiful. Right before we left the States Cameron's piano teacher toured New Zealand with a camper and said it was just spectacular (and she lived in Nepal so that's saying something). I love Kiwis (the people, not the fruit, although that's good, too). I found a driving trip that will take you through different spots from the LOTR movies and on the way also passing many of the countries highlights.

Pros: Not too expensive and rural. Any place (like Montana) that boasts of more sheep than people is OK in my book. Kiwis (the bird, not the people or the fruit), cassowaries, and whale watching all meet the animal criteria. Bungy-jumping HUGE in New Zealand and apparently now something I have to consider.

Cons: It's far away, so plane fares are an issue. It's a big vacation so it's liable to come at the expense of another kind of big vacation. It would likely involve spending 3 weeks in a camper, something I'm not opposed to in theory, but there are those child abuse issues, this time related to tying one or more on the top of the camper due to excessive arguing over the 1 (out of 10 available) seats in the camper that everyone has to have.

Greece. Cameron wondered recently (after suffering through that dreadful Mama Mia and don't get me started about how you liked the music or that Meryl Streep is a phenomonal actor or how Colin Firth is to-die-for handsome because none of that matters when a movie just plain sucks) if going to Greece meant that we would have to slide down banisters or wave colorful scarves above our heads or jump up and down in slow-mo in order to show just how happy we were to be there (see what I mean about that movie?) but I think we could get by with just sighing in amazement at a shade of blue that is truly cerulean, and at the temples of ancient history.

Pros: Weather. Ancient history is a big hit in our family. Outdoor artifacts mean less chance of breaking something. Chance of easily getting the beach and the history all in one vacation without too much travel. Humorous photographs as you pose in front of ancient statues.

Cons: Quite possibly the kind of vacation where I would have to adjust my museums and shopping to accommodate the family. Traveling in a country where you don't speak the alphabet is a bit more work than I like to expend at times. No one in my family likes olives.

Here is one my 2 "trite" entries...because everyone wants to go there and most everybody already has. I've never been to Europe, unless you count the Amsterdam airport, which I don't. I want to go to Ireland and see the castles and the sheep and the green fields and the cliffs and real Irish pubs.

I want to see St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey and Poet's Corner. And Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London. And the British Museum. And the Globe Theatre. I want to see a play. I want to see every tried and true English landmark in and around London. If things have gone downhill since you started going or the crowds really ruin it for you, or it's not nearly as impressive or interesting as you might think, just keep all of that to yourself. You. don't. know. me.

Pros: HELLO. It's London and Ireland. Merrie Olde England, and the War of the Roses and Leprechauns and Celtic stuff. I've mentioned the whole history aspect already, and much of it is suitably gruesome. The British Museum has more Eyptian artifacts than the Egyptian one (but not King Tut, so take that) so we'd get to see all the stuff they stole way back then.

Cons: The weather. I'm generally peeved about it anyway wherever I go. Cost--not the cost of getting there, the cost of everything once we are there--you know how kids are. Let's face it--most of you know how I am when it comes to a budget and I need a Diet Coke and that $5 sticker is not going to stop me.

Trite entry number 2--also because everyone's been. If you've read here, you know of my love with Under the Tuscan Sun. In addition, Italy bats 1000 on the history aspect alone. My friend Lisa has spent summers there for years and describes it as a sort of European Tanzania in terms of getting things done, so I'm already prepared. There's opportunities to marvel at the accomplishments of the likes of Michelangelo and Botticelli, and other less-edifying things like the Angels and Demons tour from the book. It's hot there, too.

This trip would require careful planning because it is the one place where I would be seriously tempted to do a whirlwind tour at a nightmareish pace because there's so much to see. That directly conflicts with my Tuscan imaginings where I'm wiling away the afternoon with a platter of crusty bread, great cheese, and perfect grapes. Because "wiling" is a synonym for "you could be missing something."

There are so many great places, that I either need to plan carefully or spend a year there. Hmmmmm....I bet they have international schools there, don't they?

Italy is at the top of my places I want to visit, and at the top of my most conflicted travel plans. On one hand, wouldn't it be so wonderful to see it with just your husband? To stay up, or sleep in, or meander along. The "whiling" away an afternoon could actually happen. It would be oh-so-romantic.
On the other hand, there's watching your kids see the Colusseum for the first time. Or the Sistine Chapel. After Egypt, I learned that historical travel with your kids is so much fun and interesting--it's amazing to hear what they already know and watch them soak up what they're learning. I want to be along when they see it all.

Secret admission time. There is a small part of me that would love to see a lot of this with Cameron. Alone. He and I are so similar in what we read and what we like and laugh at. He shares my penchant for never passing a souvenir or book shop without popping in, and tends to regard sleep as lost time when he's touring. I would love to be able to take a trip with each one of my kids, just the two of us (and I want them to go with their father, too). I think Mark would share amazing things with them on their 2 week trek in Nepal or Mongolia. God Bless him, but I have other talents, and they involve gelato and antique stores. And restaurants.

Pros: Great weather. Great cheese. Great bread. Great gelato. Great wine. Chance of actually seeing the Pope. Ancient art, ancient architecture, ancient everything.

Cons: Um....let's see. Oh, definite conflict with the needs of the children vs. what I want to do. Because I want to go so badly, the odds of me taking everything personally may increase. Valuable works of art and my children not a good mix. Meltdown potential when the birthplace of pizza doesn't cough up something that looks like Dominos. All of which is why maybe they need to go camping.

Bora Bora. Or Bali. Or Tahiti. I never really wanted to go to Hawaii or the Caribbean and never fully appreciated beach vacations. Now I'm hooked. I want a vacation at a truly tropical truly heavenly locale. It's indescribable. It's one of the vacations where staying at less than upscale (like our place in Tanzania) is preferable than an upscale resort. Fresh fish and seafood. Gin and tonics. Sun. Snorkeling. Total bliss.

Pros: Everything

Cons: Serious consideration must be paid to sunscreen application. Need to convince kids every day that they need to spend some of that hot part of the day in the shade. Snorkeling, while interesting, puts one in close contact with poisonous animals, and we're just plain unlucky sometimes. Difficulties arise at times trying to get Noah away from the swimming pool to actually see the ocean.

Truth be told, I just spent time doing this when I was supposed to finish a report and plan next week's spelling lessons. On the other hand...I just spend 40 minutes wandering around the world. Sometimes, on a Friday afternoon, dreams need to trump reality.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Yeah, My Kids Might be a Little Different

You might be a 3rd culture kid if...

-You can speak 3 languages but can’t spell in any of them
-You try to bargain with a checkout girl for a lower price when you're on home leave
-You consider a city 500 km away very close
-You have a time zone map next to your telephone
-You watch National Geographic and recognize someone
-You have friends from or in at least 10 different countries
-You can speak with authority on the subject of bathrooms in many countries
-You can’t answer the question “where are you from” in less than 10 minutes
-You have a passport but no driver’s license
-You know how to pack
-You think it’s normal to fit 15 people into a car
-You watch a movie set in a foreign country and you know what the local people are really saying
-You consider parasites or diarrhea to be appropriate dinner conversation.
-You miss the sub-titles when you see the latest movie.
-You think “visa” is a document stamped in your passport, not a plastic credit card
-You go into culture shock upon returning to your "home" country.

New Faces in Washington

There's a great online article in The Daily Beast about Obama's cabinet and staff picks. Many of them are TCKs--Third Culture Kids. Since we've been living overseas, I'm convinced that people should spend time out of the country. It's been fascinating to be able to see our country from an outside perspective. I think that Americans tend be insulated and inward-looking when it comes to world events, thinking that many things just don't concern us or that we don't need to be bothered with them. Just picking up a newspaper or turning on CNN now and seeing how little space America occupies on the international news front is an eye-opener.

Being a TCK brings innumerable blessings and a lot of challenges. I've included some quotes from the article, but I encourage you to read the complete article at its site--and the comments, most of which are written by TCKs.
In this respect, I do believe that Barack Obama is the face of our present and future America. Hallelujah!
Barack Obama is the first modern American president to have spent some of his formative years outside the United States. It is a trait he shares with several appointees to the new administration: White House advisor Valerie Jarrett was a child in Tehran and London, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was raised in east Africa, India, Thailand, China and Japan as the son of a Ford Foundation executive, and National Security Advisor James L. Jones was raised in Paris.
According to a body of sociological literature devoted to children who spend a portion of their developmental years outside their “passport country,” the classic profile of a “TCK” is someone with a global perspective who is socially adaptable and intellectually flexible. He or she is quick to think outside the box and can appreciate and reconcile different points of view. Beyond whatever diversity in background or appearance a TCK may bring to the party, there is a diversity of thought as well.
And the characteristics derived from an expat childhood may be well suited to the challenges facing the new administration. The economic crisis, for one, demonstrates how interdependent world cultures have become, and its solution will undoubtedly require the unconventional thinking that comes more easily to a Third Culture Kid. Even though Tim Geithner is not an economist by training, he apparently demonstrated such a keen problem-solving skills in the financial arena that the stock market jumped 500 points on the news of his appointment. Returning to Japan as an adult and speaking the language he learned as a child have given him an unusually deep understanding of the global economy.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Read Your Way Through Winter.

I just finished Malcom Gladwell's The Outliers and found it fascinating. Like his other book The Tipping Point it is an easy read, and like another great book Freakonomics, it looks at the hidden side of "outliers", those people, groups and events that lie outside of the general population. It's not the sort of book that I would seize and fall into line wholeheartedly with without doing some more reading. What I really enjoy about it is that he takes a perception or value that we commonly hold and looks at it from a different angle. The basic premise is, whether it's a group (elite hockey athletes, Asian students, Jewish lawyers), individuals (Bill Gates, John D. Rockefeller, Robert Oppenheimer), or a situation (plane crashes), there is more than meets the eye. Beyond talent or the initial event, there are a series of circumstances--fortuitous events completely beyond one's control, cultural imprintings, and hard work that shape the person or the situation that we see.

How often do we look at Bill Gates and admire his genius? Or wonder why Asians are so good at math? Why do lower-economic students fall behind wealthier ones? Why might pilots from countries with a high "power distance" index be more likely to crash a plane than pilots from a country with a low "power distance" index? Is being gifted with an IQ of 140 any different than having an IQ of 180--or can you be too gifted? How many hours do you have to practice or work to become great, whether it's the violin, computer programming, golf, or chess?

The sections on culture were especially interesting. If you have always lived within your own culture, even one that is more diverse like the US, you don't see your own culture. We may be able to articulate the values and customs, but rarely (if ever) do we think about how we respond to authority, how we answer questions, how we approach problems as a product of culture. It's only when our mores are thrown up against something different do we recognize that who we are and what we do are largely products of culture, family background, and circumstances beyond our control. I have worked with some very arrogant smug people who pat themselves on the back and say, "Look what I have accomplished through my hard work" and not comprehend that the "can do" attitudes, the ability to persevere, the work ethic, and the conditions surrounding that person from birth (and sometimes a generation or so back) play as much as part as the personal efforts of that person. The Outliers digs into those other things and serves as an important reminder that, whether a person is John D. Rockefeller or a convicted felon, multiple complex factors come into play to shape who we are.

Next on my list is Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman. I am not a big non-fiction reader but I read The Earth is Flat and really found it fascinating. It was also a bit scary, really. It talks about the United States, China, and India and those and other countries are on the move economically in a way that is not good for the US if we continue to do what we've always done. The idea is that the United States needs to adapt to a world that is fast becoming very different from what we're used to and we are perhaps not adapting fast enough. Like the others, it's really a pretty easy read if you're not familiar with business or economics, but the outlook is not cheerful.

The premise of his new book is that America has to lead a new world-wide revolution regarding the environment and in our relationships with other countries. Post 9/11 we have withdrawn and are operating out of fear, which has damaged our image and relationships. I'm only into the first chapter, but I think it will be very good.

Both of these books might be considered "soft" by people who study foreign relations, environmental science, or economics seriously, but for those of us who are reasonably intelligent and well-read, but don't have the time or inclination to dive into those subjects in depth, these authors have presented information that is thought-provoking, a strong reminder to view information, people and events with a critical eye. In these weeks leading up to the Presiden't inauguration, we will hear about all the things Obama promises to do, what he needs to do, and why he can't possibly do it. There will be ample opportunities to think critically about what we hear and see.

And, since I'm on a roll and mentioned it above, this is another one along the same lines. What do real estate agents and the Ku Klux Klan have in common? Why do drug dealers live with their mothers? Why are people still smoking? Again, Levitt takes perceptions or situations and looks at the conditions that create them. His chapter on the Chicago school system as it relates to teachers and students cheating on standardized tests is fascinating for anyone in education or who cares about education reform. Humorous and accessible, while still being a very smart read.

Happy reading!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

A Test I'm Proud to Fail

Are YOU a suitable husband or wife from the 1930s? According to this test I am not even close.

I scored a 42 out of 100. That's an F, I'm pretty sure, although the quiz is generous enough to call me "average". Apparently my propensity for gossip, drinking, occasional swearing, eating garlic, and serving food from cans, combined with me not praising my husband's strength and maculinity in public, smiling with delight at every "marital congress", and keeping myself, perfumed, dainty, and feminine counted against me.

Damn it. I need a beer and a Blooming Onion. I think I'll go out after work and talk about this with my friends. My sensitive husband can fix dinner for the kids--I think I have a can of Hunt's spaghetti sauce somewhere. Maybe when I get home he'll be too tired to want to do it and I can try to find my missing deoderant.

Update: Mark just took the quiz and scored a whopping 97 out of 100. Jinkies! He would've been a great catch back in the Depression era, something I've always realized. He is very hardworking, even-tempered, and humble. There is no job that he wouldn't do if we needed the money and while I have teased him plenty in the past for being kind of tight with money (in the way that Britney Spears is kind of a train wreck) the truth is, if we were stuck I would turn it all over to him and we'd survive because of this thrift and propensity to patch and reuse. He's a man for the ages.

What I noticed after doing both quizzes is that a lot of the qualities admired back then for men are still admired today--things like ambitious, hard working, good provider, religious, involved with family, helpful around the house. It seems that women's roles have changed considerably--I lost points on wearing pajamas instead of nightgowns, for squeezing the toothpaste from the top, for wearing socks in the house, for wearing soiled clothes while doing housework. While I was supposed to keep up a very clean organized house and serve delicious well-balanced meals on a thrifty budget and clean, mend, and sew clothes, I also seemed to have to have a much higher standard of care regarding my personal appearance.

Today's standards would include being able to manage one's blog, particularly the color of the type. So I guess I might not do so well now, either.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Ziplines and Bungy Cords

You know how when you decide to have children, you wonder if they'll look more like you or your dearly beloved? And then you ooh and aaaw over the sweet and spectacular things s/he can do and how that is just like when you or dearly beloved were small?
And then you have those moments--where you KNOW you've been faithful. The child just HAS to belong to the both of you--I mean, he's YOUR child. How, then, to explain this (sorry for any resulting neck pain--I tilted the camera and can't change it around)?

This IS NO CHILD OF MINE. Or Mark's. He kept asking, "So, if you had to stand up there and someone put a gun to your head and said jump, what would you do?" And I said, "I'd say, 'Pull the trigger' because only by being dead would I go over the edge." Look closely. Can you see him shaking just a titchy bit? He was. He has a strange look on his face--a little tense. And he appears to be afraid to actually touch his certificate. Must some after-effect of terminal velocity, I don't know.

When we went back a few days later for go-karts, though, we watched a girl who just couldn't do it--until the guy just pushed her out. Cameron was full of sage advice: "You have to do your thinking on the ground. Once you're up there, you just have to jump. You can't think up there, you'll just psych yourself out." (He actually jumped so quickly that we barely got the camera up and running before he leaped.)

By far and away, though, the big highlight was the Flight of the Gibbon. It was awesome. As in cool. Spectacular. Amazing. Exciting. Fun. Exhilerating. Adventurous. You know, that sort of thing. Me, the woman who is too afraid of heights to stand on a chair. I zipped! I (We) zipped for 2 kilometers over 14 lines (the longest was 375 feet) about 150 feet off the ground. We had to rappel twice down to another level (and then down to the ground at the end). Most of the time, we were only 20-30 feet above the treetops and you couldn't see the ground. The last line and rappel was over open ground and that did give me the willies.

We zipped forward and backward. We zipped in pairs. We zipped alone. And a little guy kept an eye on us (a venomous eye, to be sure).

We did a lot of fun stuff, and agreed that most of it fell into the "been there, done that" category, if we ever returned. Not this one, though--this is definitely a "re-do" if we return!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Are You Hungry?

Food, glorious food!
Hot sausage and mustard!
While we're in the mood -- Cold jelly and custard!
Pease pudding and saveroys,
What next is the question?
Rich gentlemen have it, boys --In-di-gestion!

Food, glorious food!
We're anxious to try it.
Three banquets a day -- Our favourite diet!
Just picture a great big steak --Fried, roasted or stewed.
Oh, food,
Wonderful food,
Marvellous food,
Glorious food!

Food, glorious food!
What is there more handsome?
Gulped, swallowed or chewed --Still worth a king's ransom.
What is it we dream about? What brings on a sigh?
Piled peaches and cream, about
Six feet high!

Food, glorious food!
Eat right through the menu.
Just loosen your belt
Two inches and then you
Work up a new appetite.
In this interlude --The food,

Once again, food!
Fabulous food!
Glorious food!

Food, glorious food!
Don't care what it looks like --
Burned! Underdone! Crude!
Don't care what the cook's like.
Just thinking of growing fat -- Our senses go reeling
One moment of knowing that
Full-up feeling!

Food, glorious food!
What wouldn't we give for
That extra bit more --That's all that we live for
Why should we be fated to
Do nothing but brood

On food,
Magical food!
Wonderful food!
Marvellous food!
Fabulous food!
Glorious FOOD!

Thai food is really the very best food I've ever tasted--and nothing like the Thai food I've eaten in the States. One night Cameron and I polished off 4 meals! Granted the portions were small, but's light and fresh, not oily, and runs the gamut from oh-so-spicy to very mild. Anything with basil and cilantro and garlic was simply unbelievable! Ava is very sensitive to anything even mildly spicy, and Noah is quite picky, so the two of them ate literally nothing but omelettes, watermelon, and fries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a whole week. Oh wait...they did pass by a couple waffle stands and branched out with a chocolate waffle. Goofballs!

If you're wondering, the top pic is skewers of squid. I didn't eat them, but I have eaten them here in Beijing and they're really good. Then you have fried quail eggs...they used a round pans with little dimples, like a muffin tin, to cook them. Then you have some gelatinous noodles in squid ink--given how good noodles are there, it might be good, except it was served cold. Then you've got the ubiquitous food cart serving up a fantastic pad thai, and succulent shrimp and mussels.