Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cultural Awakenings.

When you live overseas, even after 7 years (ack, has it really been that long?) you will find yourself confronted with cultural...incompatabilities. I have known a few people that really have become culturally assimilated into a new culture, but for most of us...even though you become very flexible and patient when things don't go the way you expect (or think they should), there are times when you throw up your hands and say, "I will NEVER understand this."

For me in China, it's driving. Driving is an exercise that challenges every single notion of whatever seems organized and predictable and regular. It challenges every bit of patience and self-control. It is wonderful to be able to drive because it does give you a lot of freedom, but I still hire drivers and take cabs into the city sometimes, due to traffic and parking headaches. If you don't know where you're going and you get lost, it is a looooooong time to get straightened out.

There are 22 million people and some 6 million cars. Beijing does have fantastic roads, considering they were built when there were hardly any cars on the streets, and Beijing does have actual rules and regulations for safe driving (I know, I did take the test and know exactly what to do if I'm in an accident and my passenger has become somehow disemboweled--I get a bowl and place it over my friend's stomach so I can contain the intestines). Beijingers often drive the way you might walk or ride a bike--at variable speeds (a freeway can have people driving 90+ mph and 35 mph--in the same lane...and you can back up if you miss an exit).

The horn is essential and you must use it all. the. time. Back home, the horn, aside from that friendly "beep" reminding you that the light is green, signifies a pretty big misstep--changing lanes without looking, cutting someone off, etc. Here, the horn is applied when you come up behind someone, when you are turning, when you see someone else turning, when you see a bike/scooter/pedestrian, when you are passing, when you are being get the idea. Using your blinker is optional, and rather pointless, since no one will pay attention to it. Turning may be accomplished whenever you think of it, from whatever lane you happen to be in. Not sure what to do? Just stop and think about it. It's OK if you're in the middle of a lane. Or an intersection. Or a driveway. We can drive around you because using the oncoming lane is always a viable option.

In America we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about other people. Don't take too much, there might be others. Don't stand so close, the other person might feel uncomfortable. Defensive driving is all about thinking about the other person. In China, it is all about me. If there is an inch between me and the car in front of me, then a car will definitely swerve in, forcing me to brake (hard). It's OK, because it's my responsibility to get out of his way. If I'm turning onto a road, I don't have to look, because it's the responsibility of the oncoming car to see me turning and slow down or get out of the way. It's taken 3 years, but I've finally figured out the rules and expectations (which have nothing to do with the driving exam questions I learned).

There has been NOTHING living overseas that has inspired more ill feelings toward my host country or put me in a sweaty fit than driving. I never was a tense or frustrated driver, but here....grrrrr. Never in my life have I choked back so much profanity! It amuses me to think that something so silly as how people drive sparks such a reaction--I think it's because when I'm in the car, I'm going somewhere and it's then that I miss the ability to be efficient and get so much done on an outing, ala America. EVERYTHING takes so long and EVERYWHERE we go, it's in a monstrous crowd, whether it's on a freeway or in a shop. When in Rome, I do what I need to, because driving by "my" rules won't get my anywhere--literally. Watch out!


Panjiyuan is also known as the Dirt Market. In the "olden days" (which here can mean 50 years ago--or 5) the market was in a space with no it's been spruced up. For some reason it doesn't make the top of the lists for tourists, but it should. While the Pearl Market and the Silk Market have all the electronics and knock-offs, the Dirt Market has all the trinkets and "real" antiques (haha--things that are made antique by burying stuff in the ground and letting it age for a bit). Some things are old, though--I think it's funny when I'm told that "no, this is not old, only 150 years" because to a people whose culture is 5,000 years old, it is new!

The dirt market is only open on the weekends and best early in the morning. It's busy and crowded and there's always something unusual to see. Like this:

Man's best friend(s)...FOREVER. And a rabbit. Today several people were selling furs outside the main entrance. I really don't know what kind of furs they are, but many of them are clearly dyed and painted to look exotic. I suppose some of them might be dogs, but I couldn't tell, and they absolutely would not let me take pictures. The expression on this black dog, however...he does seem completely astonished to find himself in such a state.

We also saw a guy getting thrashed by two other guys, who were kicking and punching the snot out of him. I wondered if he was a thief...but he was really getting a beating. As we walked on, we saw security guards running over there, but they all looked about 16 in their faded baggy uniforms. I wondered if they would have any authority to stop things. When we lived in Tanzania, we saw thieves beaten terribly and knew that often they would be killed. I haven't seen as much of that here, but obviously, being caught stealing is taken seriously by people on their own.

Roasted sweet potatoes mean fall in Beijing. I don't like sweet potatoes...but the smell of them baking is heavenly!

The lanterns are thin fabric and wire like chicken wire. So so cute hanging in groups from a ceiling. Mark has them in his reception space and I love them.

Already learning the requesite photo pose.

The Dirt Market is one of the places to see a few of the minority cultures. China has a lot of different ethnic groups but the Han are by far the most numerous. This woman is Miao...her long long long hair is very recognizable. They sell a lot of textiles, some of them looking a lot like Hmong fabric--and amazing silver work, like this:

These necklaces look heavy, but they're very light--the silver is so thin.

A lot of monks were shopping that morning--I always snoop and eavesdrop on what the Chinese are buying--and how much they're paying! Haggling is a challenge here--prices do not come down easily or quickly.

Relics of a bygone era...some of the clocks are old, but the toys are not. Still, looking at them reminds me of the 1950's...these booths have such a nostalgic feel. The toys are very popular--there's always a crowd around his table.

If you come to visit, we'll take you's great!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Scenes from the Jing--courtesy of Instagram.

There is so much beauty in small things...these are from my new iTouch. I used an app called "Instagram." It's a visual Twitter--instead of tweeting your 140 characters, you use photos to "comment" on what you're doing. Ava's teacher last year is incredibly visual and has a fantastic eye. Her instagrams are like works of art. I don't have anyone following me--I just love the filters you can apply. A lot of them make your photos look older or faded and some of them have those old photo borders on them.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Price of Things

Everyone always wants to know if it's expensive living overseas. Yes--and no. Some things make living overseas easy--a lot of our expenses that would be out of pocket are covered as part of our work contracts. There are perks in many countries like affordable domestic help that definitely make life easier. Things that locals eat, especially if you buy them at local shops or markets--rice, fruits, vegetables, some meats--are cheaper.

Some other things are similar in some respects, but because we have more disposable income (because of the expenses our contracts cover), we can do them. Lots of restaurants charge American prices (and no refills!) but at a Chinese restaurant, even one in our expat area, we can eat and drink as a family of 5 for less than $50. Movie tickets are about $10 per person, but since China only allows 25 foreign movies per year, there aren't a lot of times we go--besides, you can buy a DVD for about $1.50.

Other things are more--gas right now is running between $7-8 per gallon. Ouch--but when the weather is nice we hardly ever drive the car (we use bikes and the scooter) and we don't have to drive very far (less than 2 miles) for work or daily activities. Obviously, the traveling that we do each year at Christmas is our major expense--and our summer costs are quite high since we don't have a house to live in.

Everyone goggles at the amount of luggage we carry back each summer--we buy almost all our clothes and personal toiletries back in the States. Clothing is very expensive here--if you buy at the markets, you have to bargain for everything, the prices are still high, the sizes are small, and the quality can be quite shoddy. Some local toiletry items are fine, but I just miss the scents and feel of some favorite things. Others are really pricy--I just saw L'Oreal kids' shampoo for $9.00 (!) today at the store. Anything that is not locally produced is much higher in price. Generally you can take the RMB price and divide by 7, then add a bit more to figure the USD price.

Hey. We're Minnesotans, and sometimes you do need a can of cream-of-something soup, even if you are paying $2 for it. And sometimes you just need a bowl of Double Noodle. Or Chef Boy-ar-dee Beefaroni. Stop judging me.

These babies show up often at our house--at over $3 a bag, they get eaten way too fast. And not by me (NOAH and CAMERON).

What is up with cereal products? For some reason, they are GOLD. Like this $8 box of oatmeal. Cereal is the same price. Even Malt-o-Meal. And the small box, not those family size boxes, either.

Luckily you can't tell when sour cream goes bad because you have to have it for tacos and the almost $5 price tag is for the yogurt-sized containers.

No more hot artichoke dip for me--to the dismay of my book club (honestly, one of the perks of living overseas is that perfectly ordinary things like broccoli salad and hot artichoke dip become fantastically original dishes). They used to sell larger cans for $4, but these petite jars at $10 make that yummy dip a thing of the past.

Other things we regularly buy--potato chips (the smaller bags) at $4-5 a bag, salsa (same price), and pasta ($3-4 per box). Sometimes we go in streaks--absolutely no cereal forEVER, then a few boxes find their way home. Bringing all that stuff back, at least for us, is not about not accepting life overseas--it's time and money management.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Change is for Wet Babies

Once I lived here...and I loved it.

Then I lived here--we lived here.
And we loved it.
Well, not the weather.

And then we lived here.
And we loved it.
And, for the first time, we were sad to leave a place.

Now we live here.
And we like it. Well enough.
But now, change.
Unplanned change.
Unwanted change.
Uncertain change.

And again, we don't want to leave. Yet.

For a person that doesn't crave adventure, who resists change, who sometimes has this sneaking suspicion that life could be a lot more exciting, but then cuddles up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, her family, and a movie...I've been so surprised at how much I've loved living overseas. Part of the realization is that I could have everything I just mentioned in another country. I've had wonderful, hilarious, irritating, unforgettable, dangerous experiences--and I've had the family things I love as well.

The changes that I've experienced have been planned. I got to decide. I got to choose. I like a plan and I like to stick to that plan. And a lot of the time I actually can be flexible, but not about my larger life. I don't need someone or something mucking up my decisions. And that does include God, because, you know, HE might have other ideas...frightening, uncertain, possibly difficult ideas.

So realizing that we are likely going to have to move at a decidedly incovenient time (with an 11th grade son) and the fact that we will be jobless before we are...rejobbed...? is decidedly stressful. So many of my sentences start with, "I want...." or "If only..." when living overseas and life in general should have kicked all of that out of me. When I can recite at least 25 Bible verses by heart about my plans and God's plans. When what I want is really not for me, but for my family, so I'm being altruistic. When I KNOW that we are resilient and we are a strong family, but I STILL want what I want because what I want really isn't such a big deal to anyone else but me.

And yet, the times, they do change. Do I cling to possibilities here and risk disappointment, or fully jump into what lies ahead, doing so without feeling the assurances that faith is supposed to bring? Because I simply can't have the one more year that I want. And I can't see what's going to happen. And I don't like it at all. So I pray for "help." Some vague nebulous assistance for me, and our family, and our situation, for peace, or trust...because it seems to be all that I can do.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Get Sauced!

Why, you ask, would someone assemble all of these ingredients to make a batch of what is already in the fridge and what you know is going to taste perfectly fine?

When your son turns to you and says, "Hey, we should make our own barbecue sauce and we could make it taste like Famous Dave's!" well, what can you do? Seriously, what can you do, because I'm not all that into cooking and if there's a way to divert his attention, maybe with something shiny, I'd like to know about it!

Three recipes--one spicy, one with a beer base, one with a Carolina-style vinegar approach. All start with some yellow onions, garlic, paprika, and chili powder.

It's important to carefully measure. It's also important to know the difference between a tablespoon and a teaspon, becuase they are NOT interchangeable.

I can't show you the rest of the carnage--thank goodness I have an ayi! No seriously, I cleaned it up...we don't do that to poor Xiao! The smell of the cayenne and onions had our eyes watering way out to the living room.

On the left, beer sauce, on the right, the vinegar sauce. In the middle, the "spicy space." I thought we should have a catchy name like "Hell's on Fire" but thanks to creative (mis)spelling, we now have our famous "Spicy Space" sauce.

I made shredded pork (a pork tenderloin, beer and chicken broth, and then dump in a bunch of onion, garlic, and peppers or whatever might make it taste good and let it slow cook for 5-6 hours). Everyone decided to dip before piling it on the sandwich.

Smiles, or a grimace before grabbing that water to cool off the spicy sauce? Either way, he looks pretty satisfied. We all were, too. Three sauces, and each one was someone's favorite. The best overall in terms of texture and flavor was the spicy one--I'd definitely make it again, but tone it down for normal folks!

This is my delightful and quite unpredictable child. You need to CARPE DIEM whenever the opportunity arises with him. You know those emotional bank accounts or gas tanks the experts always talk about? We need to pay way ahead whenever we can, because the withdrawals can be heavy. My feelings about cooking and my love for easy-peasy aside, we had a GREAT afternoon together, my boy and I.

So You Were Saying You Want More China?

Photo by Weda Bory

Here it is...a colleague captured this lovely and not atypical moment. On the brand-new subway line that just opened last spring. So maybe you want to bring your Wellies if you come to visit. Just in case.

Look at that Face!

Look at that sweet face. Can you pretend along with me that this is an artsy shot and not what it really is--one of the worst pictures I may have ever taken in terms of quality? I SWORE there would be NO PUPPIES in my house, but Mark clearly was carrying residual guilt over his part in Peter's disappearance last spring, and he was the one who tipped the scales. I think I can still say NO PUPPIES because this is not a natural puppy...he doesn't chew on the shoes we leave out, he doesn't have accidents in the house, he doesn't gnaw on the furniture...seriously, it's unnatural. I think he's going to be a great addition to the family--he's already added so much life and spunk to the mix!

I've been very "eh" on the blog. I really like doing it, but I understand what serious bloggers say about needing a focus. Should it be family? China? Living abroad? We live in such a bubble that with work and all, I don't feel like I get out and about enough to make it interesting. I'm going to make a bigger commitment again this year, so we'll see. Most people make New Year's resolutions; teachers make back-to-school resolutions. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Legacy

I had intended to post a long time ago about my father -in-law's funeral: how over 500 people attended, how every. single. person that spoke of him said the same thing, that he had changed their lives, that he always listened, that he always loved. That he was genuine and authentic. That he loved his Lord, loved his wife, and loved his children and there wasn't much more he needed. I've been a part of the Hillman family since I was 16 years old, but most of my life has been spent away from my in-laws. When I look at Mark as a man, as a husband, and as a father, I see Russ's legacy--not only in Mark, but in his siblings' lives as well. They are people that follow the Lord faithfully, that have no pretentions, and put their families first. I have spent a lot of time thinking about where I put my time and energy, how much time I spend trying to make an impression on others, and what exactly is my focus in life. I imagine we all spend some time in our lives wondering what our "legacy" will be. I don't know if Russ ever thought about that, but his memory is living on in the lives he touched throughout his life and ministry.

Mark's dad, however, could NOT throw anything away. EVER. It might have been something he felt attached to for sentimental reasons, or something that might come in handy some day, or maybe it seemed just wasteful to toss something you didn't really need, but no one else seemed to need it, either. The end result was a double garage that was stuffed full of...stuff. Bowling trophies from his army days. His Boy Scout uniforms. Annual planners. Copies of programs, bulletins, and handouts from events. Things from desk drawers. Scrapbooks of cards. It was all neatly stacked and neatly labeled, end of several days of sorting and tossing, we still didn't have a clear idea of why it all got saved. What we did realize was that what we have taken away from Russ's life are the memories and stories of a father and grandfather. Those can be stored in your heart and that never seems to run out of room!

Living overseas, we have very little compared to most of our friends. Our home doesn't have great storage, plus the shopping opportunities (think Target) are limited. I buy approximately 300 pounds of stuff per year--I know this because I haul it all back from the States every summer. That's it--a massive Target run and clothes for the year. Twice a year I round up whatever we aren't using and whatever doesn't fit and off it goes to the charity store. Even then, I can't believe how things do pile up (especially in places where our housekeeper tucks things when she doesn't know where to put them and we find the stashes). Sometimes I wonder what we'll have to pass down to the kids...our have a storage locker here in the States (our goal is to get rid of everything in it next summer except photos, the Thomas set, and a couple other items from the kids' childhood) but then I realize that most of whatever we have is enough. A small box of trinkets from each kid's childhood. Enough.

Too much stuff is too much stuff--literally and figuratively. Look at your house and garage. What do you have that you REALLY need? How much do you keep because you might need it someday or it was a good deal or....fill in the blank. Wouldn't life be lighter, feel cleaner, if you had less of what is all around your house?

We'll return to China with another 500 pounds of stuff, and I suppose there's some of it that we really don't need, but I did say NO to a LOT of stuff the kids said they really NEEDED. Being blessed with the ability to have so much doesn't mean we really need to much!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Russ Hillman--A Life Well Lived.

Mark's father passed away last week. He had been recently diagnosed with cancer and had just started chemotherapy. His death was quite sudden. We have been incredibly blessed with opportunity to be with our family in the States this weekend as we say goodbye to a wonderful father, husband, and servant of God. More later, but his obituary is here:

Thursday, May 12, 2011

What Can You Say About Your Pets

There was Smoky, Super, Juneau, Buck, and Sue. And Caddie and Gretel. And Peter. We grew up in the woods and by a busy highway. We learned to love our dogs and cats hard, but lightly--trucks, owls, coyotes lurked just at the edges of life. I remember sobbing over breakfast at the loss of a dog and asking for a puppy by lunch. Was my mother as horrified as I was when my children did the same thing?

Peter was different. Perpetually friendly, eternally cheerful, he surfed his way across our laps every night. If we were gone during TV time in the evenings he let us know we had let him down. He was a dog that really could smile. Everyone who met him commented on how friendly, how sunny, how happy he was. And so were we. Pets bring something indefinable into our lives--the hole they leave when they're gone is unexpectedly enormous.

Peter's been gone for 14 days now. We've resigned ourselves to understanding that he's not coming home. Where he is...if he's safe...I guess we aren't going to know. I pray that someone found a wonderful sweet lonely dog who had lost his way and his collar and brought him in. I pray that he has a cushion and clean water and good food and a new family that loves the stuffing out of him, the way we do. I pray that the next best family to us found the best little dog we'll ever have. But this one...I think Peter might be impossible to get over.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Anything Goes

In olden days a glimpse of stocking, Was looked on as something shocking,

But now, God knows,

Anything Goes.

You're the Nile, You're the Tower of Pisa,

You're the smile on the Mona Lisa;

I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,

But if baby, I'm the bottom, You're the top!

Blow, Gabriel blow, Go on an' blow, Gabriel blow,

I want to join your happy band,

And play all day in the promised land

So blow, Gabriel blow.

Come on you scamps, get up you sinners,

You're all too full of expensive dinners,

Stand up on your lazy feet and sing!

Cameron did a great job--and with our new improved mikes, we could hear him sing on the group numbers and he can sing! The Chinese converts were especially hilarious and would have probably been PC-ed up back home. Cameron's friend (the one one the right) had to work on his fake Chinese accent. HA.
And to all of you who wondered how he learned to be such a convincing's called acting. So THERE. I love American musicals and this is one I haven't seen (or thought about) for forever! It was all good.