Wednesday, December 31, 2014

baby passport and visa woes

This is a bit of a long post which details some of the issues surrounding having a baby in China and how it relates to passports, visas, and nationality. Hope this info and my experience might be helpful to others as there is not a lot of information online about this topic.

This past week I celebrated my birthday, which is sadly sandwiched between Christmas and New Year's. Having a birthday around the holidays means that presents and well-wishes are often lost in the shuffle. As a kid, I sometimes felt a bit bummed about being overlooked, but now that I'm an adult, I don't mind that much. I was actually shocked at the number of people who emailed/called/wechatted me on my birthday this year—I felt loved. Thanks guys!

Last year I spent my birthday celebrating by holding my annual Christmas party. This year, things were much different; the family took a last minute trip to the big city. This was not how I wanted to spend my birthday or any other day, really. I was hoping to avoid taking William to Beijing until he was a bit older, but the US Embassy had different plans for us.

Ping and William out to dinner in Beijing

I've been planning on taking both Ping and William to the US to visit for a few months now. Everyone is excited to meet them both and I am desperate for a visit. Ming has a big advocate for this trip as he thinks it best for baby William to spend Chinese New Year outside of China, or at the very least, away from Chengde. You see, the weeks leading up to and winding down from the Chinese New Year are very noisy here. Some days there are fireworks and firecrackers sounding from early morning until late at night. I have always hated the noise, but I'm sure it is exponentially more aggravating when caring for an infant.

So it was settled, the kids would go to America with me for a month over the holiday, as long as we could arrange their visas. Since they are both under the age of 14, they didn't have to interview for a tourist visa. In early December, I dropped off their applications and Chinese passports at a CITIC Bank (the embassy doesn't accept drop-offs directly) and crossed my fingers—with any luck the kids would have visas within a week. . . but when have I have been lucky when it comes to visas?

William at Fatburger
When Ming picked up their passports last week, they where empty. Instead of visas, Ping and William each got a piece of paper requesting an “interview with parents.” Great. We needed to take an eight-month-old in to the embassy for an interview. I tried to stay positive. At least we live close to Beijing. At least I'd get to go to Starbucks (I know, I'm pathetic). Still, the logistics of such a trip with a baby were tricky. We decided it would be easiest to take an unlicensed taxi to Beijing since we don't have a car. The taxi ended up being a van which I can now fully appreciate, being a mom. It was a comfortable ride (distance: 250 km, time: 2.5 hours, cost: 600 rmb or US$100). We got dropped off near the embassy and had a lunch (mmm, Fatburger, a stone's throw from the embassy) before our appointment time.

As always, the US Embassy was swarming with people. We skipped the entire line of locals while Ping commented loudly, “Wow! My mom is awesome! We can skip all these people!” I could feel the glares of a hundred pairs of eyes bearing into our backs while I said a little prayer that we wouldn't get sent to the end of the line. We weren't. And once we got inside we were allowed to skip the queue there as well. I'm not sure it was the power of my being a US citizen or the fact that we had a baby. It doesn't matter. It was awesome.

We interviewed briefly with an officer. It was not as I expected; I felt like I was at the bank talking to a teller. Ming said that when he had his K-1 visa interview in Guangzhou the situation was much more serious. He sat down with an officer and there were armed personnel around. I guess they don't bring out the big guns for tourist visas. Our experience in Beijing was pretty relaxed and we informed on the spot that the visas would be issued. But at this point you might be wondering, why did we even both getting William a US visa? Is he an American or what? Fair enough, William's nationality is a frequent topic of conversation. In case you are interested, I will lay the details out here—this could be of use for anyone who is thinking of having children in China.

William, currently, is Chinese. China DOES NOT recognize dual citizenship (although the US and many, MANY other countries do—why China?! Why????). Since he was born in China, William is a de facto Chinese citizen. We applied for his Chinese hukou (household registration) shortly after his birth. Having a Chinese hukou will allow William to have access to public schooling and certain health care benefits should we stay in China longterm. This fall, we also applied for his Chinese passport. Both his hukou and passport list his Chinese name, though his birth certificate holds his English name. Some hospitals will agree to this, but if they don't and insist on a Chinese name, no fear. There is a form you can fill out (with the US Embassy and I'd assume other countries have something similar) requesting the child's non-Chinese name on his or her non-Chinese passport.

William's first subway ride 
Since we had to take a trip to the embassy, we decided we might as well try to get William a US passport. I wasn't sure of there would be an issue considering we were also there to apply for his US visa, but the workers at the embassy were compassionate and helpful (as always). Now the next burning question, Why didn't you just get William a US passport and circumvent all this US visa business?

The answer is complicated and definitely something you should give some thought to if you happen to give birth in China. Firstly, our local PSB (a branch of the police) have been somewhat adamant in their stance that they will not recognize William's foreign passport. According to them, any person born to a Chinese citizen, no matter where in the world they are born, is Chinese. Why a country with such a huge over-population problem would be so rigid in this belief is beyond me. Regardless, I have been assured by the US Embassy in Beijing, they do actually have to recognize his foreign passport—but I don't want to kick up a fuss with the local police until I know we are out of here for good. Most likely, other PSBs are more well-versed to dealing with these matters and won't put up such a stink.

The next, related issue is that if we want William to exit China using that passport, we have to apply for an exit visa. William cannot leave China on an empty US passport and we must obtain the exit visa from the PSB where my husband's hukou is registered (in our case, Chengde). Moreover, William cannot return to China on an American passport without a special travel permit. That permit has to be obtained at the Chinese Embassy or Consulate in the foreign parent's region. In our case, it would be in Chicago. In the end, we decided it would cause less trouble if we had William travel on a Chinese passport for now. I had to laugh when the officer interviewing us at the embassy pondered, “I don't know whose bureaucracy is worse, China or America?” To me, the answer is obvious.

If you, by chance, do have a baby in China and this topic is a matter of concern for you, there are some great posts by Ember Swift (check out Traveling Visa Circus: Part One and Part Two) and on nama mama's blog. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you need any more information.

Anyone care to air their visa grievances? Please do share!

Friday, December 26, 2014

trip to the clinic

entrance to clinic which is part of apartment complex

William still hasn't full kicked his cold or, more likely, he caught another one. To help ease his cough and throat, he continues to use a nebulizer. Instead of going to the nearby hospital to use it, we decided to take him into our neighborhood clinic. As far as I know, every neighborhood (housing complex) in China has its own clinic. Ours is run by a husband and wife, who are a doctor and nurse (adorable!). They provide basic care such as administering IVs (probably their most popular service), taking blood pressure, and prescribing medicine.

Whenever I go to the clinic, there is a little old granny roaming around. She must be the mother of either the husband or wife. As a typical old Chinese lady, she loves to chat. Unfortunately, I usually don't feel much like talking when I am out with William, especially when we are alone. I feel worn down by the constant comments, criticisms, and advice strangers feel the need to dole upon us (me). While in America I often like talking with strangers and am somewhat outgoing, in China I often find myself avoiding eye contact, hoping to (please, just this once,) be left alone.

As the elderly woman approached, I sang to William. I hoped this would be a clear enough indicator that I was busy and not up for conversation. Of course, my silly western social cues were lost on her and it just fueled her desire to comment.

“Us grown-ups can't understand you, how can he understand you?” she pondered.

Sigh. While this is certainly flawed logic, I can somewhat understand it. When I first came to China I was momentarily confused when I heard people speaking to their dogs in Chinese. I didn't know what the owner was saying, so how could a puppy possibly understand? But a moment later I realized that obviously an animal learns commands in whatever language it's trained in. Babies are no different, but I didn't feel like explaining this to an old lady. She should have been able to figure it out on her own. So instead, I just smiled and continued singing.

Before long, William started to fuss. Nothing major, just a little squirming. The wife (nurse) rushed over to distract him. You'd think I'd be happy for the help, but I knew what was coming. Sure enough, before long she said to him gently, “Your mom can't handle you.”

I could feel the smoke coming out of my ears. I can't handle him? Was she trying to say I was inept? An unfit mother? Or my child was too unruly? What, exactly, was she insinuating?

“An eight-month-old fusses from having to sit still for 25 minutes doing a nebulizer and YOU have the AUDACITY to say I CAN'T HANDLE HIM,” I wanted to scream. But didn't. I don't know the Chinese word for audacity (but I do now know the word for nebulizer).

But it didn't end there. As I talked and sang to William, trying to get him to relax, the nurse cooed to him sweetly, “Aww, grandma's not here today. There's no one to talk to you.”

I was willing to excuse the 90-year-old woman for her similar comment, but a middle-aged lady should know better. Just because you don't understand the words I'm saying, doesn't mean I'm not talking. But at that moment, I let the wave of anger pass over me. They obviously weren't saying these ridiculous comments in an attempt to hurt me. I kept singing. One day William will be bilingual and he'll be able to speak for himself, in both English and Mandarin.

Have you ever had a frustrating experience due to language differences? How did you deal with it?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

I won't be home for Christmas

William with my stocking

Homesickness. . . it's something I never really suffered from until the birth of William. Now that the holiday season has arrived, I have to work extra hard not to be overwhelmed by it.

coloring contest
I've missed nearly a decade's worth of Christmases without much too much regret. I've actually somewhat enjoyed celebrating the holidays on my own terms. In China, particularly in Chengde, Christmas can pass without much notice. Though it's gaining some popularity in recent years, Chinese people don't celebrate the holiday in any traditional sense. There are decorations here and there, some that remain throughout the entire year. Even my favorite cafe, whose boss is normally so well in tune with Western habits and festivities, has had a Christmas tree in her shop since last December. Sometimes I hear Christmas music, but it may be in July or January.

making cookies
Clearly, Christmas is mine do with as I please; unlike in the US, in China there are no expectations. Since returning to Chengde in 2008, I've made a point to go all out for the holiday. I decorate our home with Christmas decorations, some of which date from my childhood, others left behind from other foreigners over the years. I buy presents for Ping, pretending to be Santa, though Ming's mom has given me away numerous times when she says, “Thank your mom for all the nice presents she got you!” (The concept of Santa seems to be lost on her, an elderly Chinese woman). I also spend over a week baking, having each one of my students make a different cookie with me. At the end of the week, I throw a Christmas party for all of my students, at which we sample all the different cookies. We also play a variety of games such as Pin the Nose on the Rudolph and White Elephant gift exchange.
some of the treats

Getting ready for Christmas this year has been just the distraction I needed. Last Sunday I threw my party, with18 kids and 21 different holiday treats to sample. A part of me did feel sad that this might be the last year I host such a party since there's a good chance we'll be in the US during the next holiday season. My Christmas Party has become infamous among students (they start talking about it in June) and it's a tradition I manage to create all on my own. But as with so many things, it's something I'll have to leave behind when we move. But I guess that's okay, I'm sure we'll forge new traditions back in the US.

What about you, have you spent the holidays away from home? Does it make you feel homesick?

decorating the tree

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Eve apples

A year or two ago, I was discussing the custom of Christmas trees with one of my students. I had never given much thought to the tradition, so it was interesting to see how a person unfamiliar with the ritual viewed it.

“Do most people have Christmas trees in their homes?” she asked me.

“Yes, most people do,” I answered, not delving into the complexities of the religious aspect of it.

“So how long do you keep the tree?” she further questioned.

“Everyone is different, maybe a month,” I explained.

“Is it a real tree?”

“Some people have fake trees. Many people buy real ones,” I told her.

“What do you do with the tree after Christmas?”

“We throw it away.”

She stared at me incredulously, “Isn't that a bit of a waste?!”

“Hmm. I suppose it is. . . . I think they make wood chips out of the trees though,” I tried to rationalize.

wrapped apples
I thought more about it. Christmas trees are wasteful, but I couldn't imagine the holidays without one, so I find the waste excusable. But do you know what kind of holiday waste I do not find acceptable? Dozens of sheets of tissue paper used to wrap a rotten apple. For those of you who do not live in China, let me explain. . .

students picking out paper for apple wrapping
There is an odd Chinese tradition, on Christmas Eve, for local children to exchange apples. The reason for this relates to the Chinese word for Christmas Eve, 平安夜 (píng'ān yè), which literally translated means “peaceful night.” The first character, pronounced píng, is a homophone for the first character in the Chinese word for apple (苹果, píngguǒ). Years ago, some clever Chinese fruit seller must have figured that this word play would be a great way to cash in on a foreign holiday most Chinese people know little about—naturally, on Christmas Eve you must exchange apples! Most of my students assume this is a foreign tradition and are surprised to learn I had never heard of it before coming to China. For some of my more advanced students, I try to explain that this custom must have roots in China as Christmas Eve and apple are homophones in Mandarin, not in English or other foreign languages (that I know of).

 Over the years, I've seen the tradition of giving apples grow more and more excessive. The apples are often wrapped in layers upon layers of tissue paper and cellophane. They are decorated with ribbons, bows, and even tiny teddy bears. They are often sold for ridiculous sums of money. Even in Chengde, you can find an intricately wrapped apple for upwards of 60 rmb (US$10). It seems like an awful waste of paper and the worst part is, since the apple is often wrapped in advanced, the buyer has no idea of its quality. Inevitably, you are giving someone the gift of a half rotten apple and a bunch of colorful paper she will just throw in the trash.

My students like me too much (or don't like me enough?) to give me a rotten apple for Christmas. That's great, as it's a gift I'd rather not receive.

What about you, what's the worst gift you've ever gotten?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Where is my freedom?

My post and photos about this year's Christmas Party aren't ready yet. Instead, I bring you more social Chinese media fun!

I came across another gem about parenting on WeChat. This one comes in the form of a comic which makes it doubly fun. It paints being a mom in a pretty dismal light, though I will not waiver in my stance that I find taking care of children, even caring for a tiny baby, isn't so bad. This holds especially true in China, where many women have the help of an army of people (at least compared to American moms) such as their own parents, in-laws, nannies, and maybe their husbands. I think Chinese moms may feel like they have no place to complain, as most American moms do. I suppose this type of comic provides a little humor and relief for some.

I thought I'd loosely translate part of the comic into English. The WeChat post is titled After giving birth, do you become your child's slave? And the comic is drawn by Zhang Xiaoyu (张小玉).

1. All along I've been the kind of person to live life to the fullest. . .
“Seeing loads of different performances.”
“Enjoying new experiences.”
“Partying with friends.”
“Snapchating delicious meals.”
“Enjoying the moment instead of saving money.”

2. . . . until the day I had a kid.
(name of a Chinese song about parents' love and showing filial piety)
“Eh? My freedom. . . where has it gone?”

3. Before I could come and go as I pleased, playing happily. . .
“It's all about me!”
“It's all about me!”
“It's all about meeeeee!”

4. . . . now, every time I want to go out I have to plan for ages.
“Arrange a baby-sitter.”
“Shit. Milk is leaking.”
“Need to tidy up the diapers.”
“I'm gonna be late! Kill me! Kill me now!”

5. Even though going out means the possibilities are endless, I'm constantly restless because I'm worried about my baby. . .
“I can't sit still!!!”

6. . . . so then, I can't have a good time. I'm always the first person to leave the party.
“First to go.”
“See you guys next time! Next time!”
“Being a mom is truly miserable,” say her friends (or are they ghosts?).

7. Returning home, each time I vehemently admonish myself.
“Honey, I'm so sorry.”
“Maybe I really shouldn't have my own life.”

Some parents may struggle with a sense of lost freedom having having a baby, but I think most people have gone through a time when they felt their life was not their own—maybe after taking a difficult new job, caring for a sick relative, or suffering through an intense semester at school. Have you ever gone through a period in your life or had something happen during which you felt like you lost your freedom?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas is canceled

from WeChat (微信)

Ming sent me this cute little blurb on WeChat, outlining some of the challenges Santa has to face entering China. I'm not sure whether it makes most Chinese want to laugh or cry, but I couldn't help but chuckle. It's definitely a new spin on The Night Before Christmas. Below, in both Chinese and my English translation:


Entering Chinese territory from Denmark, Santa encountered smog mid-route thus causing an inability to see the road clearly. He crashed and until now, no one has dared help him up. In the snow, lies his bag of presents, which has been looted empty of gifts. His [reindeer] have been taken away by city inspectors (chengguan) and his sleigh, which was unlicensed, has been seized by traffic police. This year, Christmas is canceled; please spread the word!

In such few words, this sad tale cleverly illustrates a variety of problems in China, such as:
  1. Theft and looting  
  2. Police brutality and incompetence 

'Tis the season to grumble about life in the PRC! My next post will be slightly more cheerful but still on the topic of Christmas. I'm hosting my annual Christmas party on Sunday and I'll be sure to post some pictures.

What are your plans for the holiday?

Thursday, December 04, 2014


This past week I came across an article about the most popular baby names of 2014. I was relieved to see that William did not make the top ten, as it did on the US list in 2013 (when it came in at No. 5). I never intended to name my kid a trendy name. I pitied all the Adams I knew growing up. In 5th grade there were four of them in my class of 25 students and we had to identify them by the first initial of their last name. I've never had that problem. I am the only Rosie most people know.

My Grandpa Gerald holding me
I was hoping to come up with a name someone like my own. I've really come to embrace my name as I've gotten older. As a child, it wasn't ideal as I had to deal with endless rhyming (Nosy Rosie; Rosie Posie) and nicknames (Roseanne was the end of me). Now that the name-calling has ceased, I like having an uncommon name. In fact, I've never come across a Rosalie who wasn't elderly or a Rosie that was a retriever (I guess it's a cute pet name). Though not popular, most people can pronounce it and I don't get a confused look when I introduce myself. That's what I wanted for my child.

Then I found out I was having a boy. For a girl, it was easy. I had a million names I loved, but settled on Athena and Ming liked the meaning behind it. For her Chinese name, Ming would have her named by a Buddhist monk, as he had done with Ping. But for a boy, I wasn't sure, as nothing stood out. So I took the sentimental route.

Grandpa during WW2
For a middle name, I went with a good, solid German name—Gerald. Actually, while I like that this name ties William to his German roots, I picked it because it was my grandpa's name. My grandfather and I were very close growing up. He passed away in 2008.

My dad lost his beloved younger brother, Billy, in a motorcycle accident when they were just out of high school. When I brought up the name William as an option for a first name, Ming asked what it translated to in Chinese. I told him the transliteration (Wēilián), to which he smiled and quickly agreed, “Yes! Let's name him after a prince!” We also decided, much to my relief, to give him the Chinese name of Wēilián, instead playing Name Russian Roulette and have him named by a random monk. Double win!

While his English name is certainly common, his Chinese name is not. Wēilián is not something a Chinese person would normally, if ever, pick. However, the characters of his name aren't odd and I like the meaning behind each of them. Wēi () meaning “power” or “prestige,” and lián () meaning “honest and clean” (it also means “cheap” which I generally prefer to gloss over). Wēilián is the name that appears on William's hukou (Chinese household registry) and Chinese passport. On his birth certificate, the hospital agreed to print his English name, William Gerald. When we get him an American passport, most likely next spring, he will officially be William Gerald in the eyes of Uncle Sam.

What about you? Does your name have any special meaning? Do you have a name in more than one language?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Sick Day (Baby Edition)

I've racked up a lot of experience in Chinese hospitals, much of it I've managed to chronicle here. I was hoping to avoid taking William to the hospital for anything other than his vaccinations, but with a cold he just couldn't shake, we had to do something.

At the first visit, the doctor recommended Chinese medicines for his cough. Chinese medicine is gentler and more natural than western medicine but is very slow acting. When his cough continued and he got a fever, the stakes were higher so we added ibuprofen and antibiotics to the arsenal of medicines he was taking. I was okay with that, anything to avoid my baby from getting an IV. IVs seem to be the method of choice for treating many illnesses here. Ping just went through a series of IVs for a sinus infection and cold. I avoided one on a technicality (still nursing) when I had food poisoning a couple weeks ago.

But the coughing continued and grew in intensity. The doctor cautioned that pneumonia could be setting in. We were going to have to be much more aggressive in treating him (Chinese medicine was obviously not cutting it). An IV was definitely in order. The doctor recommended either checking him into another hospital which was equip to deal with infant patients or bring him in twice daily for an IV and nebulizer.

I've found it's probably best to avoid a Chinese hospital stay if possible, because at public hospitals it requires so much manpower. You need someone to take care of the patient, whether a child or an adult, 24/7 as nurses don't play as active in a role in watching over patients as they would in the US. You also need someone to bring food and drinks to the patient and those caring for him. Hospitals don't provide meals, in fact, they don't provide much of anything. With that in mind, we decided to keep William at home and take him to the nearby hospital twice a day for his treatments.

Though less challenging than a hospital stay, taking the little guy in for treatments is no easy feat. We must bundle him up in layers of clothes and a thick blanket since outdoor temperatures are now around freezing. Because we live in a 6th floor walkup (we are on the top floor of a building with no elevator) we must carry him, the 22 pounder, rather than take our bulky stroller (which itself requires two people to take downstairs).

William using a nebulizer.
The walk to the hospital is short, but they entire complex is being overhauled, which leaves an obstacle course of construction and rubble. We must zigzag around piles of dirt, supplies, and concrete. Workers sweep dirt in piles, as patients walk past hacking, trying to avoid the dust. Construction workers saw metal, causing sparks to fly in a million directions. Hospital employees carry huge cabinets, setting them in front of the elevators where crowds of people congregate. As with many situations in my daily life, an already stressful situation is made more difficult by a mountain of tiny annoyances.

In the mornings, William goes in for his IV of antibiotics. Since he is an infant, the only way to insert the needle is in a vein in his head. There are few things more depressing than seeing a baby with a needle in his head. Though William has handled it well, better than some of the older kids who kick and scream and howl whenever a nurse approaches with a needle.

In the past week I've had to see many kids poked and prodded since up to ten tiny patients share one hospital room while receiving their treatments. We've gotten to know some of the parents and children since most of them come twice a day and are there for at least an hour each time. In addition to receiving an IV, many kids also take a nebulizer. William also does this twice a day, once after his IV in the morning and again in the afternoon. This part he somewhat enjoys. Maybe it provides some relief to his troubled breathing and cough.

The good news is, William seems to be feeling much better. As much as I loathed the though of him getting an IV, I do think it sped up his recovery and helped us avoid a case of pneumonia. Having a sick child is scary and it's doubly challenging when you're abroad. Sometimes I struggle to understand or trust the doctors. I've had to put a lot of faith in ideas and procedures I've been unsure about. But after this weekend, William's treatments should be over and hopefully life can go back to normal and everyone will stay healthy!

What about you? Have you ever been unsure or mistrustful of doctors?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

fast food favorites

As a little kid, I loved eating fast food. My mom would occasionally pick up Taco Bell (my first taste of “Mexican”) for dinner and I would happily scarf down an order of nachos with cheese sauce. Some of my best childhood memories are of my grandparents taking me to McDonald's; the playground and chocolate milkshakes were equally addicting. But as I got older, my tastes became more sophisticated. I mostly turned my nose up on fast food, that is, until I came to China.

Portuguese Egg Tart, photo via

When I arrived in Chengde in early 2005, the city's first western fast food chain had just opened. If you haven't been to China, you might guess that McDonald's had the honor of being first, but actually, McDonald's didn't break ground in Chengde until about 2007. The reigning foreign fast food champ in China and Chengde has forever been KFC. Having never been a huge fan of the Colonel or his chicken, I was pretty disappointed to find that if I didn't want Chinese food, my only other option in Chengde would be a little Kentucky Fried. You think that would have inspired me to learn how to cook, but again, that was something that didn't happen until later.

So KFC it was. For one of my first dates with Ming. For those western food cravings. I didn't do any finger licking (considered bad form in China), but I did eventually sample my way through most of the menu. People back home often find it odd that I would frequent a fast food joint, let alone go there for a date, but in China fast food hardly resembles or signifies what it does in the west. Chinese KFC offers a completely different selection of food than its American counterpart and prices are steep compared to many local restaurants—this was particularly true 10 years ago. At that time, you knew you had founder a keeper if your date was willing to splurge on some extra crispy. 

McDonald's pies, photo via

As for Chinese fast food menus, I find this is always a fun topic. It has somehow come up in multiple conversations I've had with family members and again recently when talking with my dad. He asked me (already knowing the answer), if I could get a Jalapeno Double at my local McDonald's. I guess it's a new addition to the American McDonald's sandwich lineup and one which my father has taken quite a liking to. Alas, there is no Jalapeno Double here, but there are lots of other fun things like Portuguese egg tarts (KFC), taro pie (McDonald's), and Korean steak pizza (Pizza Hut).

It's interesting to see how international chains tweek their menu's to suit regional tastes. We are sadly lacking a Starbucks here (I will know Chengde has really made it in the world once we get one), but for those living in places that do (everywhere else), it's Holiday Drinks Time. In the US that means seasonal favorites like Peppermint Mochas and Gingerbread Lattes; drinks that either don't really translate well or don't cater to the tastes of the Chinese market. This Christmas, Starbucks in China has holiday drinks that include Cranberry White Chocolate Mocha and Tiramisu Latte. Fun! Something to try on my next trip to Beijing.

What about you? Have you ever lived or traveled somewhere and found an interesting twist on fast food or other familiar restaurants? Or do you stick to just eating local?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Chinese Superstitions (Baby Edition)

Don't want any ghosts scaring this little angel
(William on his birth day)

William has been a great nighttime sleeper from week one. That's not to say that he never wakes or doesn't have an off night here or there, but he rarely cries and after having a bottle, he goes right back to sleep. The past few weeks have been a bit of a struggle. At first, I thought it was due to his last round of vaccinations. Then I thought he might be teething. Finally, I realized he had a full blown cold and fever. No matter what the cause, I always figure that whatever troubles him must be linked some logical explanation—an illness or a new stage in his development.

Ming's mom had different ideas. She was convinced, and even in the midst of William's obvious illness is still convinced, that his recent nighttime crying is tied to the paranormal. Ghosts have taken a part of him away and it is our job to call him back home, to unite his body and mind.

A stick to scare away ghosts
In order to achieve this, Ming's mom used a two pronged approach. In order to execute part one, she first found a large stick. She broke it in half and placed one section in the mail slot outside our door. The other lies on the bookshelf above where William sleeps. My understanding is that these sticks are used to keep ghosts from returning and re-snatching his spirit. I guess I can get behind this idea; it's almost in the same ballpark as a Native American dreamcatcher, which I used to have as a kid.

Part two of the reunification required my participation. I felt a bit ridiculous taking part and Ming's mom told me that if I didn't want to do it, we could just forget all the hocus pocus. But I decided to play along, even trying to convince myself I believed it, because, really, what does it hurt? So one night, after William fell asleep, Ming's mom went to the door to leave. She called to William:

“William, are you there?”

I answered on his behalf (naturally), calling back to my mother-in-law, “I've come back!”

Then I continued, speaking to William in soothing whisper, “Don't be scared. Don't be scared. Drink mommy's milk.”

This was repeated three times and then William's spirit was returned, which meant he'd no longer have a reason to cry at night. And that night he didn't cry, though I'm not convinced that our little ritual had anything to do with it. Ming, however, is a believer.

An inauspicious alley way 
Interestingly, superstitions about babies and ghosts have come up a number of times since William was born. For instance, Ming is adamant that during the first year of life, we should avoid taking William out at night. Babies, like animals, are susceptible to seeing ghosts after dark.

Another issue we have is that there is a crematorium near our apartment. I didn't even realize this until Ming started panicking about it after the baby was born. Obvious this is a problem because there must be hoards of spirits lingering around. And it is just the off of the main alleyway that connects our apartment complex to the main road. If at all possible, Ming avoids that route when we have William with us, opting for other exits even if they are slightly less convenient. It's not something I would ever concern myself with, but I entertain the belief to avoid arguments.

What about you, are you superstitious? Do you ever entertain other people's superstitions?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A quick update

It seems I have a few more readers than I used to (which wasn't hard to accomplish because I used to be my only reader. I don't think my parents even bother!). I'm not sure exactly where my blog is headed, but eventually it will have its own domain as I purchased one several months ago and am working on making the switch over.

These days, both kids are sick and insomnia has come back, rearing its very ugly head. It's hard to string two coherent sentences together, though there is plenty I would like to write about. I will be adding more posts as soon as I can get my thoughts together properly.

Thanks for reading! If you have any tips for a good night's sleep, please do comment!

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Mommies on social media

We used to have to settle for gossiping at work or complaining to our neighbors, but social media has given us a new outlet to nurse all our grievances. I think, sometimes, this can be a useful tool—helping us connect with and support our friends and family, even those who are far away. Unfortunately, I think it's also tapped our inner narcissist, letting us get carried away with sharing constant updates and photos, often with hundreds of “friends” that just don't care. One of the main reasons I've haven't been using facebook or instagram is because I don't want to get swept up into it anymore. I want to take the time to personally share my life with those closest to me and for those more distant, they can check out my blog if it interests them.

I'll admit, it was tempting to start using facebook again once William was born. There was that small part of me that wanting to show off my new baby, seeing those 'likes' and comments tally up. And honestly, I don't begrudge people who do this. I actually love see friends' and acquaintances' vacation and family photos. But there are aspects of social media I hate. For instance, one of my friends once made a comment about being tired of being pregnant and then two of her friends were quick to comment on her post, saying something along the lines of: “You think it's bad now? Hahahaha. It only gets worse when the baby comes!” Way to be encouraging guys!

In the same vein, I don't like mommy martyrs. I don't want to hear about how you've sacrificed all your free time, sleep, independence, money and regard for other human beings all the name of your darling babe. Yeah, parenting is a hard job, and while it might be one of the most important things you ever do, it is not unique. Of course, it feels like this crazy and magical experience when you are changing the diaper of a colicky two-month-old, but having kids is something most people end up doing at one point or another. And none of us would be here if not for our own parents.

The need to brag and complain about parenthood is most likely a part of every culture. I was beginning to think, however, that my Chinese friends seem much less whiney about the whole parenting gig than my western friends, but then (once again) my eyes were opened by WeChat.

One of my Chinese friends had her first baby this past summer. She is living overseas, so I don't know much about how day-to-day life with a newborn is treating her. She occasionally posts a photo of her son on WeChat. Actually, her posts are so sparse she practically has me begging for more. Recently, she broke form and posted this little tidbit:

photo via weixin

In English, it reads something like this:

Being a mother is great profession. Although you go to sleep late, you gotta get up early. Although you make it look like a snap, it's a huge responsibility. Although you make no money, you spend a lot. Although the baby's small, there's a lot of shit to deal with. Although it's tiring work, you gotta make it look easy. Although you're making pennies, you're worried about millions. Before the baby, you were eloquent and graceful, now you are more down-to-earth. To other exhausted mothers, pass it on!

At first glimpse, I wanted to love this post. After all, it features a picture of my favorite World War Two icon, Rosie the Riveter. But this type of post annoys me a little. It makes motherhood sound kinda terrible. To be honest, I was very nervous about becoming a parent because of the unending stream of similar posts and articles I read online. They make parenting sound awful and thankless while at the same time swearing that it is wonderful and rewarding, leaving me dumbfounded.

Secondly, I feel like it is kinda whiney. Nobody likes a sell professed martyr. Part of me wonders, what if my kids one day are old enough to scroll through my old facebook/twitter/wechat history and see my constant complaining about how tough I had it taking care of them? How will they feel? I think some thoughts are better kept to ourselves.

What do you think? Are these sort of posts cute or annoying? Do you think social media is mostly a good thing or has it turned us into a bunch of whiners and braggarts?

Monday, November 03, 2014

Sick Day

photo by crazedshop via photobucket

One of the most hopeless feelings is being in a foreign country when sick or ailing—of which I've become somewhat of an expert at, both while in China and traveling in neighboring countries. Among one of my worst such experiences was when I was traveling alone in Vietnam several years ago. I had just touched down in Ho Chi Min City when my left arm stopped working. I still don't know what had happened. One day I was fine and the next I could not lift it in any direction (which made changing and putting my hair up near impossible). Luckily, I was blessed with two very helpful roommates at the hostel I was staying at, who, to this day, I can still recall in great detail. Sylvia, German, aided me in styling my hair and getting dressed. A young American guy, Armen, practiced reiki on me in a last ditch effort to ease my pain. It worked. Or maybe my desperation to believe it could work worked. After three days of torture, I finally got use of my left arm back.

As hard as it is when aches and illness render me incapacitated, it's even worse when it happens to your kid. Luckily, William has been a healthy baby so far. Ping, of course, has gone through her fair share of issues. Today, another stomachache has struck. My mind swings from one extreme to the other: Is she faking it to get out of school? Maybe she has an appendicitis? What should I do? I still don't know the protocol. Ming or his mom always save the day, but this morning Ming is at work. I talk to Ming's mom about it on the phone.

“Just see what happens,” she says.

“See what happens. . . ?”

“Just give her blah blah blah chew tablet,” she assures me.

“What was that?” I ask, looking at our box full of medicines and realizing I don't recognize nearly half the Chinese characters on almost all the boxes.

“Just give her blah blah blah chew tablet,” she repeats.

“You're going to have to tell her. I don't know what any of this stuff is,” I admit reluctantly.

I hand Ping the phone and she grabs some antacids out of the box. I feel like Ping's described level of stomach pain requires something with a little more kick, but I have no idea what to suggest. Nor do I know how to call her in sick from school. Or what kind of food Chinese people think appropriate for giving a child with a tummy ache. In other words, I feel completely useless.

No matter. Grandma will soon be swooping in, arriving at our home like Superwoman. But what if no one was around to save us?

What about you, have you ever been sick while away from home or while living in a foreign country? How did you deal with it?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Are you a Chinese redneck?

Thanks to WeChat (China's hottest social media) and a fairly decent grasp of written Chinese, my eyes have been opened to a whole new world of insights. I can't help but want to share some of them because they really shed light on Chinese pop culture.

I recently wrote a post about Chinese beauty standards. In that post, I explained the different tiers of women based on weight and one of the Chinese words within the original post that I struggled to translate was diǎosī (屌丝). There are some similar terms in English used to describe a certain subset of the underclass such as redneck (in the US), chav (UK), and bogan (Oz), but none of these words exactly capture the essence of what a diǎosī exactly is. I tried asking Ming, but being the old man that he is, he didn't even understand what it meant in Chinese, let alone how to translate it into English. I guess I should cut him some slack because it took me a while to figure out what twerking and catfish meant. Once out of high school, slang is a tricky thing to keep up with.

Diǎosī is a fairly new word in the Chinese lexicon and keeps popping up all over the internet. Today I was finally able to get a better grasp on the word, thanks to a friend's post on WeChat. I realized that Ming and I are both very much diǎosī, Chinese rednecks, by the standards outlined in said post. Check out if you match any of the criteria (translated into English below):

Illustration of two diaosi. photo via weixin

For men:
1. Your entire wardrobe costs less than 1000 RMB (US$150).
2. You only drink baijiu (Chinese liquor made from sorgum) or beer.
3. You wear clothes from 361 degrees or Jeanswest (Chinese brands a step below their foreign equivalents of Adidas or The Gap).
4. You had less than three girlfriends before getting married.
5. You drink Kangshifu (ordinary Chinese brand) green tea.
6. Your annual bonus is less than 10,000 RMB (US$1500).
7. Your cigarettes cost less than 20 RMB (US$3.50) a pack.
8. Your car cost less than 100,000 RMB (US$15,000).
9. You haven't taken a real vacation in several years.
10. Your shoes cost less than 800 RMB (US$130).

For women:
1. You haven't changed your hairstyle in the last 6 months.
2. You have a resting bitch face (don't dare give a sexy pout).
3. You've never bought a bikini.
4. You don't wear sparkly nail polish.
5. You don't wear matching panty sets.
6. You've been struggling to diet for the past five months.
7. You like to walk behind your man(?).
8. You don't like looking in the mirror.
9. You don't wear shoes with more than a 5 cm (2 inch) heel.

According to this list, many people I know, both foreign and Chinese, are diǎosī. It seems to encapsulate your run-of-the-mill middle class adult. I do find it interesting that men's standards focus on finance and women's more on appearance. However, I don't find being a diǎosī anything to be ashamed of. I guess I could make more effort to be more of a girly girl and have my under garments match, but now that I'm in my 30's my sparkling nail polish days are over.

The good news, even if you are a Chinese redneck, you probably aren't an American one. The checklist for that is much harder for the average person to accomplish (and to understand, for that matter).

Are you a diǎosī (Chinese redneck)? Do you have a similar term where you are from? Do you find this kind of thing offensive or funny?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Preparing for a long winter

Leeks drying outside (with trash collectors in background)

My favorite season is here, but soon it will give way to Chengde's sub-zero winter. Having grown up in a place with long, cold winters, I actually don't mind winter here that much. My hometown is, in fact, the second coldest major US city, beaten out only by Minneapolis. As anyone from a cold climate can attest, before winter, it is important to prepare. First prepare your state of mind. Seasonal depression is for real. Next, get out your snowblowers, salt, plows, tire chains, boots, ice auger, and snow shovels—you're gonna need them. Most importantly, be sure to have some money put aside for your heating bill. Keeping warm is not cheap.

more leeks

As opposed to the US where heating is paid monthly by usage, in China the price is calculated by the square meter and it's paid for upfront. We just paid ours last week. Our 63 square meter apartment (680 square feet) cost 1500 RMB (about US$250) to heat for the winter, half of which we'll be reimbursed for by Ming's work. Unfortunately, we have no control over when the heat will be turned on, though it is usually the first week of November. We also don't get to dictate the temperature. While I am now anxiously anticipating the arrival of indoor heat, I don't dare complain too much, as the situation in southern China—any place south of the Yangtze River—is far worse. People don't have indoor heating. Southerners have to get by with space heaters, air-conditioners (they have a heating function, who knew this was possible?), and many layers of clothes.

drying cabbage

In addition to paying the annual heating bill, I've noticed people doing other things to prepare for winter. These days, everyone seems to be heading to the grocer's to stock up on leeks and cabbage. I am afraid to visit the supermarket lately because the entire vegetable section is overrun by elderly women filling their carts with bundles of leeks. Every direction I look there are people drying out vegetables for the winter. Ming and I have never bothered to do this. I wonder if anyone under the age of 50 even bothers. I understand the desire to save some money, as the price of veggies obviously peaks during winter months, but I'm not sure if the cost soars high enough to warrant this kind of hoarding.

I just thought this was cute.
Another sure indicator that cold weather is setting in is long underwear (thermals). Despite being from a cold weather climate, I never owned a pair of long underwear before coming to China. My understanding was that long underwear is the sort of thing for ice fisherman and snowmobilers, people who are winter sports enthusiasts. In this part of China, thermals are the very foundation of a person's wardrobe from September to May. If you aren't wearing them, prepare for a verbal thrashing. Only an idiot would be caught without this essential layer of warmth. I am a convert; I wear them all the time now, both indoors and out.

What about you? Do you do anything to prepare for winters? Or are you lucky enough to live in a place without winter?

Monday, October 20, 2014

A not-so-fun run

2014 Beijing Marathon, photo via weixin

Yesterday was the annual Beijing Marathon. As anyone in this corner of China can attest, the air pollution has been stifling the past couple days. I'm hesitant to open my windows or go out, so braving a 26-mile run sounds downright ludicrous. I don't know how people's lungs can cope, though people certainly try. The pictures of participants show a large array of face masks (some resembling gas masks) were used to combat the hazardous air. Check out some interesting photos on this Chinese article. 

In the sprit of the Bei Ma (as it's called in Chinese), I thought I'd write a little about my own experience running in China. Me? Run? I know it comes as a shock. Given my body type (chubby hamster), it may come as a surprise to some that I enjoy running. I've gone through spurts of running and jogging since joining my middle school cross country team in 7th grade.

Although I don't have a bucket list (they seem to be all the rage these days), if I did, running a half marathon would be on it. A few years ago I began a training regiment in anticipation of attempting a half in the Beijing Marathon. Being pathetically out of shape, I was giving myself eight months to prepare, with a couple races leading up to it. The first being the Zheng-Kai Marathon in March.

The concept of the Zheng-Kai Marathon is pretty cool if you are up for running a full marathon; it starts in Henan's capital of Zhengzhou and you cross the finish line somewhere in the historic city of Kaifeng. But that was well beyond my ability. Having only been jogging for several weeks leading up to the race, I settled for running in a 5k (about 3 miles) in Zhengzhou. In addition to the 5k and marathon, there was also the option for 10k or half marathon, but I figured to take it easy in my first race. I signed up for the race and paid the fee online (45 RMB, a steal compared to high profile races like The Great Wall or Beijing Marathon that can cost well over US$100).

I picked up my pack the day before the race with instructions to check-in for the race two hours prior to the start time. When I arrived the next morning, I was amazed at the number of people waiting to participate. I later found it was approximately 10,000 in the 5k alone. To my dismay, we didn't actually have to check-in for anything. I only had to find a place to put my pack and then pin my number to my shirt. After getting situated, I spent the next hour and a half chatting with a race volunteer (of which there were many) and then chatting to a group of local teens who were participating in the race.

At last the time came and we began to assemble by the start line. Due to the large number of runners, I was nowhere near the start line. In fact, after the gun sounded, it took me 10 minutes just to reach it! The biggest problem may not have been the number of people, however; it was probably the sheer lack of organization. Many of the participants were walking the race, but they were mixed amongst runners. It was incredibly difficult to get passed them in the beginning of the race. A lot of the walkers and some of the runners carried large banners, sometimes held by multiple people. I also saw men carrying their girlfriends and adults carrying toddlers. I guess no one cared that children under age eight were restricted from joining the race. Rules are meant to be broken, right? And broken they were. Despite the volunteers manning the race course, people found shortcuts in the course, taking them at liberty. Garbage was strewn everywhere, including hundreds of yogurt containers (yogurt, why yogurt?) that must have been passed out to the runners who leaded the race. I only managed to see one kilometer marker (for kilometer 2) on the course. As I neared the finish line, I wanted to break into a sprint, but couldn't—there were too many walkers ahead of me. When I finally finished the race, over 50 minutes since it began, I was tired and incredibly frustrated.

My first real race was a letdown. I wondered if subsequent races in China would be as chaotic. Unfortunately, I've yet to find out. Shortly after the Zheng-Kai Marathon I came down with the flu and then the heat of summer hit and I never got back into a proper running routine. I still hope that one day I'll properly train for and achieve a half marathon, but I don't think it's going to happen in China. Looking back at my 5k experience and pictures of yesterday's marathon, I guess it might be for the best. I might have better luck when we return to the States.

 not your ordinary face mask, photo via weixin

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

No Perfect Goddess

I've never been thin; in fact, I am overweight and have been since childhood. It's a painful admission as I feel like it is a character flaw. Though I don't eat poorly and I walk daily, I should be eating better (no more chocolate, no more chocolate, no more chocolate) and exercising more (specifically: sit-ups and whatever gets rid of flabby underarms).

In America, we like to dance around the topic of being overweight. Don't call people fat—they are heavy. Curvacious. Bootilicious. Big Boned. Whatever. No one likes to be fat; it means you are lazy and gluttonous and worst of all, ugly. In China, it seems to mean something different, though I'm still trying to understand what. People use the word fat so freely here that it doesn't seem to carry the same weight of an insult as in my homeland. I've wrote about this a bit before. But whatever the intended meaning—good, bad, or neutral—the word stings when I hear it, though I hear it less and less lately.

Being overweight, being fat, is the new normal in eastern China. Still, women strive to svelte. Dieting is popular, though it takes a different form than what I'm used to. There are weight loss coffees and teas, but other common techniques include cutting out all meats and skipping meals. No Atkins, no South Beach, no Paleo. I don't know if any of this is very effective. I've always found exercising and restricting oils and sugars to be most helpful, call me old-fashioned. Unfortunately, even during my most disciplined dieting days, I never was able to achieve what you'd call skinny.

Yesterday I came across a very helpful chart posted by a Chinese friend on WeChat (for those who don't know, WeChat is the current Chinese social media of choice that is like facebook, twitter, and skype wrapped up into one). Anyways, here's the chart:

Vertically, you find your height in centimeters. For example, I'm 5'4'' which equals about 163 cm, we'll round down to 162. The numbers within the chart are all in Chinese jin (which equals half a kilo or 1.1 pounds). Horizontally, at the top, you will see three different categories, under which is a figure of weight in jin. The category on the left represents a “Perfect Goddess Figure.” In the middle, you have something loosely translated as “Ordinary Pudge” (correct me, fellow Mandarin readers, if you can come up with a better translation) and to the right is a full out “Chubster” which is sometimes illustrated by images such as the chubby hamster below:

I am well, well into the Chubster category. In fact, according to this chart I need to weigh about 100 pounds to consider myself a true goddess. I haven't been a goddess since the 4th grade then and I fear I will never make it down to 100 or even close. Maybe I should feel bad about this, but I don't. Not really. I know a lot of Chinese people believe that a woman should never top 100 pounds, but I can't imagine myself, or most of my western female friends, being that thin. I rather not get too hung up on the numbers. At this point, I would rather be healthy and happy than a teeny, tiny goddess.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Six Months (and more lessons learned)

At Giraffe Cafe with William

We've made it to six months! In the beginning, it felt like William would never grow up. I struggled a lot with the newborn stage, but now I can hardly remember those days. Time really passes quickly and it's remarkable how fast babies change. I'm trying to enjoy what's left of the baby stage; before long, William will be a toddler. These days, he is busy learning to roll around and sit up. He's experimenting with lots of different noises, primarily mama, baba, dada—which means he's already well on his way to being bilingual!

I've learned a lot in the past several months. I've learned about the intricacies of my relationship with China, with my husband, and with my mother-in-law. I understand things now that I never fully grasped in all my nine years of living here. I see my own Americanness and perhaps the stubbornness that goes with it. I am working hard on accepting that there is more than one right way to do things. I am also realizes that what works in America doesn't always work in China.

I had a bit of a revelation last week. After months of feeling picked on. After months of feeling like Ming and his mom were watching my every move. After months of assuming I could do nothing right. I finally got it. I have to stop viewing it as My American Way vs. Their Chinese Way. We all have different ways of doing things and personal preferences. It's not about being right or wrong. It seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but I was so wrapped up in being on the defense that I failed to see the situation clearly.

I'd like to go into details about all the silly bickering and beliefs that brought about my change of heart. But I think this time I'd better just let it go. Before long we will be back in the US and the tables will turn. I will be in my comfort zone and surrounded by people who share in most of my daily habits and reinforce many of my cultural beliefs. I need to remember what it's like to be the outsider. Compromise and compassion are really important, in any family, but especially in a cross cultural one.

Monday, October 06, 2014

A New Addition to the Family

Mama and William with the new baby.

William has a little sister! Ming's cousin's wife, Meng Meng, gave birth to a little girl on October 1st, which, coincidently, was the Chinese National Day. Several babies were born at the hospital that day (the same one where I gave birth), which is more than the usual one or two a day they average, indicting that some mother's chose the first of October as a lucky day for their cesarean birth. Meng Meng gave birth naturally, 22 days early, to a healthy daughter weighing in at just under 6 pounds.

While the little one, who is yet to be named, is technically William and Ping's second cousin, they both will refer to her as mèimei (little sister). William has already been dethroned as the youngest and has now earned the title of the baby's gēge (elder brother) while Ping, as the oldest of her generation, continues as jiějie (elder sister).

Learning all the Chinese names for familial relations is complicated. In fact, in Mandarin, there are eight words (or more?) for cousin depending on if said cousin is male or female, elder or younger, paternal or maternal. Perhaps knowing the word for cousin doesn't really matter, however, since many cousins are considered brothers and sisters. When I first came to China I found this very confusing. All my students would tell me about their numerous “brothers” and “sisters;” I didn't understand how so many people could have siblings in a country with a one child policy. Turns out, most of them were talking about their cousins.

looks like they like each other

At first, I didn't know what to call Ming's cousins, but since I'm married to the eldest male cousin, I simply call them by name. They, on the other hand, respectfully call me sister-in-law (sǎozi). All of Ming's relations are on his mom's side. We refer to his mom's older brother as big uncle (dàjiù) and his wife is big uncle mother (dàjiùmā). We call her younger brother second uncle (èrjiù) and his wife is. . . you guessed it. . . second uncle mother (èrjiùmā). There are several words for aunt in Mandarin, but Ming's aunt goes by lǎo yí (which, literally translated, means “old maternal aunt”). There would be completely different terms for his aunts and uncles if Ming had paternal relatives.

Is your head spinning yet? Well, don't worry. Here is a good post about common vocabulary for Chinese family with a "Chinese family tree" link to download. When in doubt, it's probably best to check what to call people. There are a lot of variations.