Saturday, August 30, 2014

To stay or go?

Me with the kids

 Leaving China, the time comes for it sooner or later for most expats and for us it may be quickly approaching. Ming and I had planned to marry and stay in the US back in 2007, but due to a number of issues, we returned to China. I don't regret the decision, but I think in the back of my mind I knew that the PRC wasn't where we'd settle permanently. I figured that we would, in all likelihood, eventually move back to America and it looks like we will be, perhaps as soon as next summer.

Some people ask why we want to move back while others ask why we didn't move back sooner. Recently, when I've been asked such questions by a number of Chinese friends and acquaintances; I've answered openly and honestly. I have a number of concerns and most Chinese people I talk to share in them. While venting frustrations about life in China is inevitable for most of us living here, I don't like nor want to bash China. This post is meant to be an honest reflection on our reasons for wanting to return to the US and not meant to be about why China sucks and why the US is awesome.

Living anywhere comes with pros and cons. There are certainly a lot of great things about living in China—a rich language and culture, myriad opportunities for travel, little violent crime, and the ease of making friends. For better or worse, as a foreigner, I also get to live a more relaxed and “sheltered” life compared to locals. Many Chinese people expect less out of me than they might from each other and I sometimes receive special treatment and attention simply for being foreign. Recently, an elderly lady tried you yield her seat to me on the bus. I was afraid she had mistaken me for being pregnant (at three months postpartum, the horror!) but Ming explained she was most likely trying to show kindness to a “visitor.” For the most part, I have indeed been very fortunate in my life here. In fact, I might even be willing to stay forever, but with two kids I want what is best for them more what is good for me. In the end, I think life in the US would be better for them, mostly due to the following:

The Environment. Before I came to China I didn't really know what smog was. Really, I didn't. It seems unbelievable now as many of my days are filled with it—sometimes I even have to break out a face mask. I spent most of my time growing up in small town America and unless it was raining, the sky was usually blue. The air quality in most of China is alarming bad. I've heard claims that breathing the air in large cities is no different than smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I don't know if there's truth to such claims, but having lived two years choking on the air and exhaust fumes in Beijing, I just might believe it. Smog aside, I want my kids to have a childhood like a did. . . simple things like running through the yard with bare feet, jumping in puddles, and make snow angels.

Food Safety. This topic is not for the faint of heart. Since living in China I've heard numerous gut-wrenching stories regarding unsafe food, to name a few: rat meat disguised as lamb, melamine-tainted pet food and infant formula, dyed watermelons, and gutter oil. I used to brush these stories off, but once I became pregnant I was more conscientious about what I ate. Gone are the days of eating street food and at cheap restaurants. I clean meat, veggies, and fruits with great care. But I am a realist, I know I'm still ingesting plenty of dirt, chemicals, and toxins. I also know America doesn't have a perfect record when it comes to food safety, but at least there I don't have to worry about my dog or baby dying from melamine poisoning. Unfortunately, this is a real fear many people have to live with, such a great fear that some Chinese have taken to smuggling infant formula from neighboring Hong Kong.

Want the best for this little guy.
Education. Having worked both worked in a Chinese high school and with Chinese kids of all ages, I know the rigors of being a student in China. Kids here have it tough compared to their American counterparts. Chinese students are packed 60-70 deep in a very basic classroom, often without out heat. Homework, especially for high school students, piles mountain high. Everyone, pretty much from birth, has their eye on the final prize—acing the gao kao (college entrance exams) so that they can apply to a good university which will ultimately lead to a stable and secure job. I like the idea of kids having goals and working hard, but I don't want my children to sacrifice the bulk of their childhoods and schooling experience in an attempt to do well on a single exam. Instead, I'd like to see things like after school sports, part-time jobs, and prom in their futures.

Family. I have rarely felt homesick. . . then William came along. I long for days spent with family and friends in Wisconsin. But what about Ming's family? Well, our main concern is his mom, but she can easily come visit us for a few months once or twice yearly. A flight to China is probably not in the cards for my family and anyways, it's much more economical for me to go back and visit them myself. But these days those once a year visits don't seem like enough.

What about you? For those of you who are living or have lived abroad, what factors have greatest influenced your decisions to stay or go?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Recipe: Cake without the Bake

Evidently, there's a lot you can do with a rice cooker. In celebration of this wonderful cooking device, I've decided to repost a recipe I wrote for my Chinese language blog. You can also find a bilingual version from my guest post on Chinese Reading Practice. I think it's a good recipe if you find yourself living in Asia without an oven, as some of us do. You can try making a cake with your rice cooker. Be warned—results will vary. Each rice cooker is a little different. But why not satisfy your inner sweet tooth and give it a try? My cake was a bit unsightly, but tasted delicious. . . and isn't that all that matters anyway? As an added bonus, you should be able to find all the ingredients locally if you omit the vanilla.

I went a few years in China without an oven because I thought I wouldn't be here long enough to justify the expense of one. Once we moved back to Chengde, in 2008, I decided to buy a little convection oven for about 400 RMB (about US$70). It's been one of the best purchases I've made, in my whole life. I've learned how to make many different food from scratch. Since it isn't always easy to find everything I need in Chengde, I have gotten pretty creative with substituting ingredients. I am a big fan of taobao (more or less the Chinese version of eBay) as well because I can find pretty much anything and everything I need on there. I have bought cocoa powder, cream cheese and whipping cream online—all with great success.

I will try to post some more recipes in the future, both western and Chinese. Since the baby was born I don't have as much time to piddle around in the kitchen making western food from scratch (my days of rolling my own tortillas and attempting homemade gnocchi are now behind me). I've now turned to fine-tuning my knowledge of cooking Chinese. Ming taught me some basics years ago and I was decent at making several standard dishes, but now I'm venturing out and experimenting a lot more. Cooking Chinese food is a lot of fun and pretty easy once you understand the flavors. Maybe you'd be interested in making some? Stay tuned!

Upside Down Cake (in a rice cooker)

Servings: 8

250 g (1 cup) fruit, such as strawberries, bananas or mangoes
115 g (½ cup) softened butter or 180 ml (3/8 cup) oil*
180 g (¾ cup) white sugar
2 eggs
180 ml (3/8 cup) milk
5 ml (1 teaspoon) vanilla extract** optional
125 g (1 cup) flour***
5 g (1 teaspoon) baking soda (小苏打, xiǎo sūdǎ in Chinese)
pinch of salt


  1. Mash fruit in a bowl, using a fork. I used strawberries and mangos, but feel free to experiment!
  2. Grease the bottom of your rice cooker with oil or butter.
  3. Spread fruit in bottom of greased rice cooker.
  4. In a bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, and salt.
  5. In a second bowl, cream butter (or oil) with sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add vanilla extract and milk and mix.
  6. Add dry mixture into wet mixture. Stir until combined.
  7. Pour batter into rice cooker.
  8. Close cooker and press 'cook' button. The cake will probably take about 15 minutes to cook but the 'cook' button will change to 'keep' before that. Just let it stay on 'keep' for a few minutes and then hit 'cook' again. Repeat if needed.
  9. Check cake with toothpick; it should come out clean.
  10. Let cool for 10 minutes. When done, loosen cake from sides of rice cooker with a plastic or wooden spoon (or spatula).
  11. Flip onto plate and serve. Top with more fresh fruit if desired.

*I prefer sunflower and olive blend, but vegetable or canola should work well. I don't recommend peanut as the flavor is quite nutty. Some olive oils also have a very strong flavor.
**You can find vanilla on taobao and in some special supermarkets in China.
***You can use all-purpose, self-rising, or even dumpling flour.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Intricacies of Chinese Gift-Giving

Since the birth of William, we've received an endless stream of (mostly monetary) gifts from Chinese family, friends, clients, and co-workers. I have also been giving baby clothes and toys from my closest friends and family, most of them westerners. While the Chinese way may seem more practical, it comes with it's fair share of headaches. It's not as simple as cashing a check and writing a thank you note, as I would normally do in the US. The longer I've lived in China, the more I've learned about the intricacies and balancing act of giving gifts. Some aspects one must consider:

My m-i-l with her bf on her 60th birthday.
The occasion. Chinese give gifts for many occasions, although I didn't realize this at first because many gifts are giving in the form of cash or, in recent years, a gift card. Ming would just hand out cash as needed, with me paying little attention when he explained why. Naturally, we give gifts to couples getting married as well as to children for Chinese New Year, but there are many other times when a cash gift may be expected, such as for an illness (hospital stay) or death (funeral). Surprisingly, I find that birthdays usually don't require too much extravagance, with the exception of certain milestones. Last year, Ming's mom turned 60 and we invited all her relatives out for dinner and everyone gave her cash gifts; this year, at 61, her birthday went mostly unnoticed.

The location. China is a big country with different customs throughout. Not only that, since there are such large differences in development and socioeconomics, trends in gift-giving vary. What is appropriate in Shanghai is completely different from what would be given in rural Guangdong. In Chengde, which is a smallish (population: 400,000) city in Hebei, the standard for giving cash is generally 200 RMB (US$30) for acquaintances and co-workers, 500 RMB (UD$80) for family and close friends. I've heard that in larger cities, 500 RMB is often the minimum and I'm sure in the countryside people may give 100 RMB or perhaps less.

The relation. I probably should have listed this first, as it is arguable the most important point. When and how much a giver gives depends on the relationship with the receiver. As mentioned before, 200 or 500 RMB is the current standard gift amount where I live. But that's really just the tip of the iceberg. If you are invited to your boss's daughter's wedding, for example, you'd probably want to give more, much more, if possible. If you are invited to a friend's wedding who's father has significant pull in the city government, consider giving generously. Also, parents will give extremely large amounts to their children for weddings and the birth of a child (most likely bonus cash if said child is a son). The parents of the groom lay out fat stacks—I think Ming's mom gave of a significant chunk of her own savings, something like 30,000 RMB (US$5,000), when we got married several years ago. At Ming's (male) cousin's engagement party last year, his aunt and uncle handed over 10,000 RMB to the bride-to-be's parents like it was nothing (for them, it wasn't nothing).

Ming's uncle with his cousin and his bride-to-be.

Superstition. When giving cash, you must be careful about the amount; 250 RMB is inappropriate because it means “stupid,” though I'm still trying to figure out why. Chinese people believe six and eight to be particularly lucky, so a gift of 600 or 800 RMB (US$100 or $130) is particularly welcome. Furthermore, cash is generally given in a red envelop (红包, hóngbāo), red being the most auspicious color in China. Giving gifts in amount of four is often taboo because the word for four in Chinese is a homophone for the word death. When giving other gifts, you must also be careful of selection. Clocks are unlucky because to give a clock (送钟, sòng zhōng) sounds like the words for “bury a parent” (送终, sòngzhōng). Books are a poor choice, especially given to those engaged in business, as the Chinese word for book (, shū) is a homophone for the word “loss” (, shū). The list goes on, but you get the point.

Clearly, giving gifts here is a rather complicated matter and the end result is often a carefully calculated stack of lifeless 100 renminbi notes. It's unfortunate, because I relish gift-giving. I find cash impersonal and prefer to hunt down that perfect gift. To me, there are few things in life more satisfying than watching a person open a present and see the look of delight on her face. But in China, even this act is deemed unacceptable, as it's considered impolite to open gifts in front of the giver. Ah, well. I'm sure I have plenty of birthdays and Christmases in the US in my future during which I can satisfy my inner Santa Claus.
Mom's 60th birthday dinner.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Split seamed pants and trash cans: Potty training a newborn in China

Warning: In case the title didn't clue you in, this post is full of toilet talk!

As I've written in previous posts, there are many differences in how Chinese and American people care for infants. One huge difference is in toilet training. In the U.S., most parents start potty training around age two or even three. These days, most American doctors tell parents not too push their children too hard and to wait for the child to show signs of being ready to toilet train. In China, many families start training the baby to use the toilet nearly from day one. I think William was four days old when Ming's mom first started teaching him to pee in the garbage can (in Chinese, “baba” 把把).

When I try to explain this to my family back home, it's hard for them to suspend their disbelief. How can you potty train a newborn? Can you actually potty train a newborn? Well, the answer is somewhat complicated. William is nowhere near being ready to use a toilet, obviously, as he can't even sit up on his own. But I guess we are laying the foundation for him to be able to do it much earlier than most American children. Ming's mom claims that he should be able to around age one, though he may need a diaper during the night until age two.
Who needs these when you have
a garbage can?

Photo via

How does one teach a baby to go potty in a garbage can? It's pretty simple. You just hold him over the garbage, especially when he first wakes (when he is most likely to need to go). You can whistle while you do it, which helps the baby associate the sound with using the toilet. Eventually, he develops the habit and will try to go potty when you hold him in position over the trash—in fact, William already does this at four months old.

I'm sure you still have a lot of questions. Is it really worth doing? Does he still wet his diaper? Is it healthy? Isn't it tiring? What about when he is out of the house?

As for me, I'm a bit lazy and this is a practice that I still find a bit strange. I basically go along with it to appease my mother-in-law. When I'm alone with the baby, I normally don't hold him over the trash. I do see the value in this practice as it will eventually get him out of diapers and much sooner than many children. But it's a lot of work and also a bit unhygienic because not only do we (okay, mostly m-i-l) “baba” the baby, but he is often in cloth diapers or no diapers at all. It's a lot of mess. Moreover, I'm not sure if this practice is good for the baby. I read an article in Chinese stating that holding young babies in such a position (over the trash) is not good for their developing spines. Though interestingly enough, this early toilet training trend isn't popular just among Chinese, it is also practice in other countries. Even in the U.S., it is a movement which in parenting circles is known as “elimination communication.” There is even a few books about how to do it!

As for diapers, William is definitely still using them and will wet them if he isn't held over the garbage at regular intervals. When we take him out of the house, we always put him in a diaper. Many Chinese will allow their children to run around diaperless, sporting split seamed pants in which they can pop a squat and use the world as their toilet. A lot of foreigners are shocked and even disgusted by this practice. I generally don't mind it, as I don't see how it's that much worse than people who allow their dogs to do their business wherever. What I don't like, however, is when people allow their kids to pee and poop freely indoors (like on the chairs in McDonald's, as I've witnessed) or on people (I got soaked by a toddler on Beijing subway without so much as an apology). There have been countless reports on Chinese social media about Chinese abroad causing an uproar for allowing their kids to no. 1 and no. 2 in public places such as on airplanes, subways, and while waiting in long lines for the bathroom.

As for me, the verdict is still out. I'm not sure if I'll ever be a firm believer in baba-ing or not. I guess I'll have a stronger opinion if and when I start reaping it's benefits—when William is off the diap.

Friday, August 15, 2014

100 Days (and just one hospital visit)

Due to a very busy summer, I haven't been posting regularly. With summer vacation wrapping up in the next two weeks, I will try to make a better habit of posting.

Even before my pregnancy, I had a acquired a fair amount of time spent in Chinese hospitals. I'd assumed that after having the baby I'd be routinely gaining more experience in the doctor's office, but that hasn't been the case. Just another way in which life in China varies from that in America.

I figured that both the baby and I would be needing check-ups. In the States, women see the doctor in the weeks following birth for their post-natal check-up. I was told that I don't need to visit the doctor unless I am suffering from a particular problem. Likewise, a Chinese baby may not see the doctor until he is ill, whereas an American baby would go in every several weeks as a newborn, steadily tapering off to every few months during later infancy. William is now four months and has only seen the doctor once, to have some “work done” on his belly button (the umbilical cord wasn't detaching). He also sees a nurse once a month to have his vaccinations.

Ah, vaccinations—these seem to be the new hot button issue among parenting circles in the U.S. More and more parents are deciding to forgo vaccinations for their children. In China, the threat of many diseases is still very real. I see adults who suffer from polio fairly regularly, not to mention, my own mother struggled with the disease, enduring multiple surgeries as a child. Moreover, in Chengde, there have been recent outbreaks of both measles and mumps. For me, the benefits of vaccinations far outweigh any perceived risks. Furthermore, I don't think opting out of vaccines is an option in China. My understanding is that it is a requirement. In any case, William goes out for his monthly shots. Until quite recently, that was the only time he was “allowed” out of the house.
In late July, William finally reached 100 days (百天), which is a huge milestone in China. Before this time, infants are not allowed out of the home except to visit the doctor. They believe babies are still too weak and can easily catch cold or an illness. In celebration of William's One Hundred Days, we took him for a photo shot. This is very popular among families these days. Parents will do different things to celebrate their child's 100 days, including taking photos, buying a cake, and having a dinner party. For us, most of the celebrating will be put on hold until William's first birthday.