A Weekend in Laos

About a month ago now, we drove from our city in Southern China to Laos to get our tourist visas stamped and to show Cameron’s brother and his wife a fascinating part of Asia. Before we left I packed a giant bag of food just in case we got stuck somewhere along the road. With all the construction happening along the road between our city and the Chinese border, it was hard to know whether the drive would take 13 hours or 3 hours. Thankfully, we made it to the border and passed through both customs buildings without incident. Since our Chinese driver was not able to pass through the border, it was up to us to find a driver on the Laos side to take us to our guesthouse in Luang Namtha. We had been told by friends that drivers are always waiting on the Laos side, but it was a little unnerving to cross over into Laos and not have a pre-arranged ride. Thankfully, our friends were correct and we were able to easily find someone who was willing to take us to Luang Namtha.

Luang Namtha is a small town in Laos about one hour from the Chinese border. Not many tourists make it to Luang Namtha because most of them travel to Luang Prabang which is a bigger city closer to Thailand, where most tourists begin their journey. The foreigners in Luang Namtha are usually ones who have come to do multi-day or multi-week guided treks through the jungle. It makes for some interesting people-watching, because I figure anyone who does a trek through the jungles of Laos is extremely hard-core. I was particularly impressed with their packing skills since most of them arrived with a single backpack compared to our massive rolling suitcases and carseats. In Luang Namtha, there is one small guesthouse where most foreigners stay when they come. Although my expectations were very low after seeing the pictures of the guesthouse online, it wasn’t as bad as I expected once we arrived. The room was spacious and the hot water worked (occasionally). Of course, there were still plenty of reminders that we were in a very foreign country particularly when a lady dressed in ethnic clothing approached us selling bracelets and opium.

 

 

There wasn’t a lot to do in Laos during a weekend trip with two young kids, but we were able to hire a car to drive us to a few spots around town and in the surrounding mountains. We first visited a Buddhist temple on top of a hillside overlooking the city. Then, the driver took us to a couple different villages to look around. I didn’t get to observe much of the first village because I was too busy chasing after Claire who was chasing after baby chicks. I found it ironic that we had come to observe village life, but after about ten minutes there was a small crowd of villagers watching Claire chase around chickens. Naturally, there wasn’t a modern sewer system in the village, so the dirt roads were all lined with troughs where the waste flowed. I quietly informed Claire there was poop in the troughs hoping to scare her away from them, but to my surprise she walked over to one of the troughs and hollered for all the villagers to come over and look at the poop. As everyone peered over to see what this little crazy blonde girl was talking about, I thanked the Lord that they had no idea what she was talking about.

 

 

 

 

At the next village they were in the midst of celebrating New Years (aka Songkran) and we watched as the villagers marched along the dirt roads hollering and singing. After a whole day of celebrating, most of them were quite drunk. I wanted to watch from afar, but we were immediately spotted and pulled into the middle of the dancing and celebrating. As soon as I saw Claire getting overwhelmed by the number of people wanting to hold her and take her picture, we quickly made our exit and returned to the car.

 

 

The last stop was a waterfall that was slightly underwhelming due to the lack of rainfall at that time, but it was interesting to step in to the jungle for just a second. During just the short walk down the path to the waterfall, I felt so sweaty, itchy, and freaked out by the sight of weird bugs everywhere, that it reminded me that, although I often fantasized about joining those hardcore foreigners on one of their amazing treks, I was in no way suited for that kind of journey. I was happy to return to my guesthouse with air conditioning.

The return drive home was smooth for the most part. As we neared the border of Laos, Claire needed to go to the bathroom really bad. Unfortunately, we were stuck in a long line of eighteen wheelers on both sides of a very narrow, dusty road. The driver kept telling me not to get out of the car, but fearing that Claire was about to wet her pants, I jumped out of the car with Claire and dodged my way through the eighteen wheelers just to find a small patch of grass for her to pee on. To make matters more complicated, our driver had to keep moving down the road with the traffic, so I found myself running along the side of the large trucks searching for our car. I knew we were ok, but it was one of many moments in my life when I had to laugh at the craziness of the situation.

One last interesting encounter was when we met a group of Australians at the border who were all driving small antique cars. They had a very ambitious plan to drive from Thailand, through Laos, China, Russia, the Middle East, and into Europe. I had so many questions I wanted to ask them about their journey, but we were all a little busy with customs paperwork. Again, I secretly wished I could have joined them, but the sound of fussy toddlers brought me back to reality. It is interesting that as adventurous as a weekend in Laos sounds, the sense of awe and excitement seems to be lost in the flurry of diaper-changes, temper-tantrums, and the responsibilities of parenting two young kids.

 

 

Visitors

We have had lots of guests in our house over the past month including this furry little hamster that we offered to take care of while her owners are out of the country. Before the hamster arrived, I had my doubts as to whether a hamster could survive in a house with a two and four-year-old, and it turns out I was right. This poor hamster has been dropped, kicked, crushed, and most likely has multiple internal injuries. Despite my best attempts to make sure the kids are gentle with her, there were several times that I thought she was a goner. A couple nights ago, I walked into the girls’ room late in the evening just to check on them. I heard a scratching sound underneath Claire’s bed and froze not knowing what animal or large bug had found its way into their room. Just as I worked up the courage to look underneath the bed, the hamster came running out and ran right to me as if she was elated that an adult finally found her. I think the girls had secretly opened her cage to pet her and had forgot to shut the door. We still have about five months left of taking care of the hamster, and I will be shocked if she makes it to the end.

Another visitor in our house has been this sweet Burmese baby. Our helper has been bringing her to our house for a couple weeks because she offered to watch the baby while her parents go to Thailand to take care of some business. The baby was adopted by a Chinese family that lives in Burma. Even though she is wary with strangers, she has warmed up to our family and follows me around each morning with a big, goofy grin on her face. I am so grateful such a sweet child ended up with an adoptive family who will love her and provide for her.

 

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Cameron’s brother, Colby, and his wife, Jessica, also traveled to China to see us. The details of their trip came together very last minute, but they managed to come and stay with us for almost three weeks! We all loved them being here, especially the girls who absolutely adored having their aunt and uncle visit. While Colby and Jessica were here, they got the full experience – riding in our tuk-tuk, shopping for food at the market, exploring a tea village, eating all sorts of crazy food, hanging out with our local and foreign friends, exploring the city, etc.

 

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At the market

 

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The Tuk-Tuk

 

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Exploring an ancient, abandoned temple

 

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Eating Dai minority food

 

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Visiting a tea village

 

They also were here during a very famous holiday that is unique to our region called Water Splashing Festival. There are many activities all over town during the three days of this holiday, but the most notable are the lantern lighting and the actual water splashing day. This was our first year to see the lanterns since our kids are finally old enough to stay out later at night without melting down. That evening we dressed the girls up in traditional Dai clothing and drove in our tuk-tuk to the Mekong River to watch the lanterns. The tuk-tuk is actually perfect in high-traffic situations. We were able to weave our way along of edge of the crowds without getting too far into the center of the activity. We were amazed at the beauty of thousands lights floating above the city. We even tried lighting a few lanterns ourselves. They are a bit tricky, but the secret is to hold the lantern until the hot air from the flame pulls the lantern out of your hands much like a hot air balloon.

 

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The girls wearing their Dai clothing for Water Splashing Festival (a Dai minority holiday)

 

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the lanterns above the river

 

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Lighting a lantern

 

The following day was the actual water splashing festival when everyone in the city heads outdoors with water guns, water balloons, hoses, and water buckets. The kids are happy just water splashing in our own neighborhood so I stayed with them while Cameron, Colby, Jessica, and another friend took the tuk-tuk into town where the serious action was. As soon as they crossed the bridge that leads to town, it was a giant water fight with tens of thousands of people. I unfortunately went cheap on the water gun purchases though so Cam says it was a bit of an unfair fight in the beginning. After wisening up and purchasing some upgraded water canons that would make the Bellagio fountains jealous, they created a new strategy… play the dumb foreigner and launch surprise attacks.

In the tuk-tuk, they pulled along side random groups of people, particularly “bros” (as Cameron refers to them), slowed to a stop, and asked, “Excuse me, umm, why is everyone splashing each other?” It’s like going to Time Square in NYC at midnight on New Years and asking why everyone is hanging around. The people immediately came to a stop, and with confused looks on their faces, responded, “It’s Water Splashing Festival, one of the biggest holidays of the year.” To which Cameron responded, “‘What’s Water Splashing Festival???” At which point the innocent victims, responded, “Water Spla…….” At this point, Colby and Jessica would throw open the rear sliding door of the tuk-tuk and instantly soak the poor victims with gallons of water from the upgraded bazookas. Then they’d floor it, screaming “Happy Water Splashing Festival!” and speed away. Luckily most of the victims thought it was pretty hilarious. Of course, Cameron, Colby, and Jessica received plenty of payback for their mischievous fun. There were times during their ride that they struggled to get a breathe between all the water coming in the tuk-tuk windows.

 

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We also took Colby and Jessica on a trip to Laos for a couple of days. Unfortunately, this blog post is already a little long, so I think I will just save that story for the next post!

 

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Easter fun

 

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Easter family fun

 

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This is what happens when Uncle Colby comes to China.

Peer Pressure

When I was in college, if I could have had it my way, I would have gone to every class, made straight A’s, gone to bed at 9:00pm, and studied as much as possible. However, I had some friends around who encouraged me to spend my college years less like a 40-year-old and more like a 20-year-old. They pushed me out of my comfort zone and showed me that doing things like staying up to 3:00am was possible and that getting a B did not mean the end of the world. Now that I am getting closer to 40, I can live life the way my 20-year-old self wanted to live, however, once in a while I am reminded of my college years when someone pressures me to do something more adventurous, like swimming in the Mekong River.

The Mekong River is a massive river that runs through the middle of our town and a couple of my friends like to go swimming along the shore for exercise. Recently, they convinced me to bring Claire and come with them. I knew immediately after getting to the river that it was a bad idea. The currents were so strong and the water was freezing, so I refused to go any further than standing on a concrete platform for most of the time. At some point peer pressure got the best of me, and I decided I should at least give it a try. Little did I know that once you entered the water, you had to follow the currents by making a large loop to get back to the place you started. I was hoping to swim out about 10 yards and then turn right around, but as soon as I turned around I realized that no matter how hard I kicked I was going nowhere because of the reverse current that flowed along the shoreline. So, I followed a more experienced friend up the shore bank and stopped after about 50 yards to hang onto a bush. Then my friend explained to me that in order to get back we had to allow the stronger current to push us back down the river. To my dismay the stronger current was a little ways off the shore, but I followed my friend anyway. The whole way back, I could feel the tug and pull of the river which was taking me the right direction but gave me such high anxiety that I was sure I was going to drown. Thankfully, I made it back to the concrete platform without drowning, but I vowed never to swim in the Mekong River again.

 

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Who talked me into this?

 

Besides that one adventure, life has been fairly tame around our house. Claire started school again which means we are once again navigating the cultural differences in education. The first week of school, Cameron attended a parent meeting at the school which unbeknownst to us was actually a “group” parent-teacher conference. I kid you not, the teachers stood up in front of the parents and one-by-one read off the student’s names and gave their assessment of how each child was doing in class. Some students got stellar reviews, others not so much. Claire was praised on the fact that she was doing much better than last year (which is basically “most improved”). These meetings are actually routinely held at every school in China and are something that most parents dread as they can be embarrassing for both parent and child. Whether or not Americans agree with this method, I will say that they are a very effective way to pressure children into working harder in class!

Since school started again, I have tried hard to keep up with Claire’s homework assignments, but I oftentimes can’t understand either the homework description which is posted online in Chinese characters or the teacher’s response when I ask her in person after class. Furthermore, half of their homework is writing numbers or writing basic Chinese character strokes inside these tiny boxes which are 1cm x 1cm. I was under the assumption that no 4 year old on earth could write a legible symbol inside a box that tiny, but I have witnessed with my own eyes that there are Chinese kids who have no trouble with this (see below). As for Claire, I am doing my own handwriting work with her and at this point her letters are about 12 inches tall, so asking her to write in a 1cm x 1cm square would be out of the question. Therefore, the only homework Claire does is math, which probably means we will be on the “naughty list” at the next group parent-teacher conference.

 

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Another girl in Claire’s class doing homework

 

One other interesting aspect of the Chinese education experience is the online chat groups. Every class has its own chat group which includes the parents and the teachers. In some ways, it is helpful because the teacher posts information about homework, school activities, etc. Parents can also let the teacher know If their child is sick or if someone else will be picking up their child. In other ways, the chat groups are not so good. The parents spend a shocking amount of time asking the teacher an absurd amount of questions. Questions like “Did Little Susie eat all her vegetables?”, “Can you feel Jo’s forehead and tell me if he has a fever?”, or “Can you take a picture of Sally so I can what she is doing?” are irritating and only take away the teacher’s attention from the rest of the class. Admittedly, I am quite entertained by the online chat group because of the absurdity of some of the questions and comments.

 

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Strike a pose

 

 

Lastly, I hosted a baby shower for a friend a couple weeks ago and wanted to share a few fun pictures. Throwing parties in China are truly a labor-of-love, but it is so fun when they come together!

 

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Home At Last

Every time more than a month passes between posts, I regret it because there is so much to write about. We have been back in China for a month now, but I feel the need share some stories from February about the last part of our Thailand trip and the first week back home in China.

After we wrapped up the business side of our trip in northern Thailand, we traveled south to the beach and stayed there for a week and a half. The beach was relaxing as always, and our toughest decision each day was whether to start swimming at the beach or the pool. Claire is in the process of learning to swim so each day she wanted to practice in the pool without her floaties. I seriously thought I was going to have a heart attack watching her. I honestly could not tell if she was drowning or swimming. Every time I would jump in the water to save her, she would pop up out of the water and scold me for not letting her do it on her own. I tried my best to wait a few moments before I intervened, but it just about killed me.

 

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Since we aren’t traveling with infants anymore, Cameron and I have an increasing desire to do more adventurous activities in Thailand. And by adventurous, I mean something other than watching the kids swim. This time we decided to take the kids on a boat to Monkey Island which is a small island about a half mile off the coast from where we were staying. For some reason it has a large population of monkeys that crowd the beach waiting for tourists to come visit and hopefully feed them. To my relief and Claire’s disappointment, the monkeys kept a comfortable distance since they saw that we did not have any food to offer them. All in all, it was the perfect first adventure for our toddlers.

 

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Claire trying to convince us to let her hold the monkeys.

 

I also had an adventure of my own, but not one that I anticipated. Now that we have traveled to Thailand a lot, we have a good idea of how much things should cost. This is good because we don’t get ripped off as easily, but it can also be a negative thing when we start to fret over something costing 200 baht ($6) vs 100 baht ($3). Anyways, I needed to get from our beach resort to the grocery store which was about a 20 minute drive away by car. The taxi service next door quoted me 600 baht ($18) round trip to the grocery store and back. I was disturbed that they would charge so much just to go to the grocery store and back, so I came up with the grand idea of taking a motorcycle with a side car attached for 450 baht ($13.50) instead, saving me a grand total of $4.50. Unfortunately, there were several factors I didn’t account for – the motorcycle had a manual transmission, the road there was all two lane highways, and I had no experience with driving something with gears or driving on the left side of the road. It took me an hour to get to the store which was unpleasant considering the heat, the wind, and the level of tension I felt driving under those circumstances. Thankfully, a friend was with me and we were able to laugh at our stupidity, but I think I will just pay the extra $4.50 next time.

 

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Even though we had a great time at the beach, we all felt a strong desire to return to our life in China. At that point, we had been in the States and Thailand for almost 8 months. It was time to go home. After Thailand, it felt so good to finally return to our own space and routine. Even though there are many challenges to living here, my soul feels at peace being in a house that we can call our own no matter where that is. It also feels comforting knowing the kids actually enjoy being here. This was made evident by the many, many times in America and Thailand that Claire said she missed China and wanted to go back. It made me realize that Cameron and I are creating kids that are going to be vastly different from us. They already have a connection to China that Cameron and I will probably never have.

However, our return home wasn’t completely smooth. Having been gone so long, there was a lengthy list of things to repair around the house. The washing machine, in particular, was the most challenging. Our old washing machine bit the dust before we left for Thailand, so when we returned we immediately bought a new one. Unfortunately, when we were installing the new one we chose not to spend an hour or more translating the instruction manual which was all in Chinese characters, therefore, we missed the important detail about adjusting the bolts in the back of the machine to balance the drum inside. When we turned it on for for the first time, all was going well until the spin cycle started and the entire machine began jumping around the patio slamming into windows, the drying machine, and my own body as I tried to stop it from moving. We tried to level the machine ourselves knowing that our patio was somewhat slanted, but it continued to jump around on every spin cycle. I was so anxious to get our mountain of laundry down that I ran several loads by sitting or laying on top of it during the spin cycle. Finally, the entire drum tore off of its axis after being jostled around so much. At that point Cameron and I realized that we had broken a brand new washing machine. So, we used our “dumb foreigner” card and called Whirlpool who graciously had pity on us and fixed it for free.

 

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Our growing collection of broken washing machines

 

Believe it or not, I have more stories to share from the last few weeks, but I will save those since this post is already getting long. It is a good problem to have when there are too many things to share!

 

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3 Weeks 3 Countries

Whew! It has been quite a whirlwind these past few weeks. We left the States after being there for six months, returned to China for five whole days, then packed our bags again to come to Thailand for a month. There have been tears and stress along the way, but overall the process has gone rather smoothly and the kids are handling things pretty well. Being in Thailand where the weather is always gorgeous in the winter certainly helps ease our transition!

 

Backing up some, leaving the States was just as difficult as when we left the first time five years ago. Saying good-bye is one aspect of living abroad that I loathe. It never gets easier. I have learned to give the sadness and tears plenty of freedom to express themselves during those last two weeks in the States. I have no other way of describing it, other than to say it’s brutal!  Speaking of things that are brutal about living abroad, hauling our stuff and our kids back across the ocean is terrible as well. Imagine moving through multiple airports with 9 pieces of luggage, 3 rolling carry-ons, 3 back-packs, 2 car seats, and 1 stroller…oh, and 2 toddlers. You are probably wondering how that is even possible. It is possible, but I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy. It causes major stress, marital strife, temper tantrums, and nervous breakdowns. The only hope I have during the process is knowing that it will end when we reach home (and Xanax for the flight anxiety).

 

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Waiting for our luggage in the Beijing airport.

 

On a positive note, this time we discovered an amazing way of making things slightly easier. After we flew straight from Dallas to Beijing, we booked a hotel in Beijing which gave us a day of rest before we boarded our next two domestic flights in China to get home. During our day of rest in Beijing, we contacted a mailing service and arranged for them to come to the hotel, pick up most of our luggage, seal our luggage into boxes, then send it to our home in Southern China – all for a fraction of the cost that it would have been to take it on the plane with us. It was wonderful because we didn’t have to carry everything back to the Beijing airport, and the mailing service delivered it to our door within 3 days after we returned home. It was amazing! Figuring that out has given us a renewed pride in being expert travelers (nevermind the fact that expert travelers would not travel with 500+ pounds of luggage in the first place).

 

Arriving back at home in China was not as bad as we expected. Our house helper had cleaned our home so well that it was hard to tell that two people had been living in our house for six months. There were a handful of things that were broken like the washing machine, but we were not surprised by that since products are not made to last long in China. Based on my allergies, I could tell there was more mold in the house than normal (tropical climate problems), but after washing a lot of the clothes that we had left hanging in closets and folded in drawers, that problem was alleviated. And best of all, I got all the suitcases and things we had bought in the States put away in just a few days. Multiple people were trying to convince me to just worry about unpacking until after we got back from our current trip in Thailand, but the organizer in me just couldn’t resist but to get everything back in its place before we left again. All in all, we were amazed at how quickly we felt settled!

 

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The kids’ ritual every time we return from a long trip – dumping out every toy they own

 

After a week in China, we headed to Thailand which is where we have been for the past week and a half. We started our trip here by sending off the paperwork to get new visas for China. We are slightly nervous about this since over the past year China has been passing new laws that have made obtaining a work visa more difficult for anyone other than the professional businessman. These rules have already impacted many of our friends. We are on a tourist visa, so we are not having as many issues getting a visa as our friends are, but we may have problems in the future. After visas, next on our list was medical appointments, my homeschool conference, and some work-related stuff this past week. I was excited to attend this conference because I was eager to learn all about this new homeschooling journey I am about to take! My conference ended this past weekend and next we have one more week-long meeting before we head to the beach for a little family vacation at the beginning of February.

 

Looking back at the last few weeks, I can’t believe all the packing and traveling we have done. Five years ago, I would have truly lost my mind at even the thought of it, but by the Father’s grace we are doing great and looking forward to a couple more weeks in Thailand!

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At the Sunday market in Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

 

 

 

Making Memories

We haven’t disappeared! We are still here in good ol’ US of A. I have taken a break for awhile from updating the blog because when we are in America there isn’t alot of interesting or funny cultural experiences to share like we have in China. However, I do have lots of photos to share, so enjoy…

 

Visiting Friends

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Fall Fun

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Halloween

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Weddings

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Baking Class

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Adventures in America

We have arrived in America! Actually, we have been here for a couple months now, so I will backtrack a bit…

 

Homecoming

During the last few weeks in China before our trip home, I was anxiously packing, organizing, cleaning and making many, many lists. We had to pay all our fees and rents up front for the following four months, take inventory of things we have in China and what we need to buy in America, say goodbye to all our Banna friends and and prepare our home for our long absence. Instead of leaving our home vacant for four months, we decided to ask a Chinese friend to live in our house while we were away. Our biggest fear was that a water pipe would burst and flood the apartment (which happens quite often), so we thought it would be best to have someone live there who can keep an eye on things. Since we live in a tropical environment, another big problem with leaving a house empty for a long time is mold. Having a house guest there will hopefully keep the mold at a minimum simply by opening and closing windows and turning on the air conditioners. I am still a little nervous about the condition of our apartment when we return. I am the kind of person who likes to have everything in its place, so it will be a real stretch for me to return to our apartment and not find things how I left them.

The flight to America was surprisingly easy. We now have to buy a seat for each of us, so not having children sitting in our laps makes a huge difference. Our flight schedule was set up perfectly, allowing us to have an overnight rest in a hotel before our long international flight. Not to mention, I now take medicine to calm my flight anxiety which allows me to sleep, watch movies, and function like a normal human being on flights.

 

Getting Our Feet Wet

Our first week or so in America is always a little rough. Jet lag with two little kids is truly awful. This time Claire was awake from 1:00am-3:00am every night which made our jet lag even worse because we were unable to fall back asleep after taking care of her. As a result, the first week felt like we were swimming in a fog, which didn’t make adjusting to American life any easier. Despite our best efforts to “play it cool” and “act normal”, there is always a learning curve at the beginning. Here are a few of the the things each of us struggled with this time around:

Jennifer –

  • Not knowing how to use the new chip technology at the store
  • Running errands around town only to find that every store I went to had moved to a different location
  • Being asked by friends/family if my kids like certain foods and not knowing how to respond because they have never actually eaten that particular food before

Cameron –

  • Frequently using his horn while passing other drivers, going through an intersection, being approached by another driver on a side street, etc. (which is good driving etiquette in China, but makes Americans just plain angry)
  • Arriving 30 minutes late to church not realizing they had changed the service times

Claire –

  • Answering her grandparents house phone using the standard Chinese greeting (which, come to find out, is a good way to get soliciters to hang up)
  • Peeing outside in the grass a handful of times when her parents aren’t watching (but neighbors are)
  • Getting mad at TV commercials for coming on during her shows (we only watch DVDs in China)

Chloe –

  • Being scared of everything from garage doors to squirrels

 

What Do You Do All Day?

People often ask us how we spend our days while we are in America. Good Question! Obviously, we do build in a good amount of time for relaxation and play. This is sorely needed due to the fact that overseas living is difficult and there are long periods without any breaks. It is important for us to have time here to decompress and reconnect with friends and family. Some of our fun activities have included taking the kids to go swimming, going to the lake, attending cake-decorating classes, spending time with extended family, going to kids’ swimming lessons and gymnastics lessons, going to the movies, and much more. However, our time home is not all fun and games. For example, I have spent many hours so far buying all the clothes and supplies that we need to take back with us. We also have to catch up on things like doctor’s appointments, renewing passports, attending company trainings and taking care of any personal business that needs to be handled State-side. And more importantly, we spend a lot of time seeing friends who allow us to do what we do in China. This part alone requires a couple months of meeting people for meals every day and going on road trips to visit people on the weekends. Our time in the States is always a delicate balance of work and rest.

 

On a final note, here are some of the memories we have made so far…

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Blowing bubbles with Cic and the cousins

 

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Swinging with Yeye

 

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4th of July parade

 

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Fishing at the lake

 

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Watching the butterflies at the Texas Discovery Gardens

 

 

Watch Out America! Here We Come!

Lately, I am discovering more and more what it means to live in a tropical climate during rainy season. Frizzy hair? Check! Constant sweat? Check! Mold on everything? Check! Bugs? Everywhere! Not even kidding, as I write this, I keep pausing to swat tiny sugar ants off the desk since for some reason they have found something in the study that they want to eat. No matter how hard I try to keep the house clean, the ants have become permanent residents in our home. At least these tiny sugar ants aren’t anything compared to the giant bugs we find outside. It seems that living in a tropical climate also means that the bugs grow to mammoth sizes. See exhibit A…

 

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Thankfully, whenever a freak monster bug comes flying into our house, either my Chinese teacher or our house helper, who both grew up in nearby villages, kill them with their bare hands. That is usually followed up by a discussion over whether or not that particular bug is good to eat (apparently cicadas are a real delicacy). According to them, almost every bug they kill can be eaten. I usually try not to look disgusted as they talk about which bugs are best to consume, but I don’t do a good job of hiding it.

Chloe turned two a few days ago. I feel a little bad because we only got her one toy, but I think I have reached the end of the Chinese internet as far as buying imported toys goes. I don’t bother to buy any Chinese-branded toys since they fall apart the moment the kids start playing with them. I figure we can get away with it since she is only two and she will be getting lots of toys from her grandparents soon.

 

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Birthday Girl!

 

We had a birthday party for Chloe in the gym/playroom at Claire’s preschool because the principal was nice enough to let us use it on a Saturday morning. We hired two of Claire’s gym teachers who are super fun and creative to do some games with the kids. They had never done a birthday party before, especially an American-style one, so they were a little confused when Cameron first talked to them about leading games at Chloe’s birthday party. At first they thought we were asking them to come up with games for just Chloe and were unsure (although still willing) of how to entertain just one child. When Cameron assured them it would be a group of children, they were relieved. The only problem was that we forgot to communicate to them that the parents were just planning to relax and watch, so all the activities that the gym teachers planned involved the parents. And by “involved”, I mean the parents were sweating their brains out lifting kids in the air so that they could fly like airplanes, pretending to be a railroad track by laying on the ground while kids stepped on their back, playing potato sack races by hopping around carrying kids in their arms, and holding a giant net up while kids bounced around in the middle. I know parental involvement is a positive thing, but honestly I was just hoping to pay someone else to do the work for me!

 

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Did I sign up for this?

 

In other news, we are heading home to America in one week! It it time for us to take a break, see family, and tend to some business. We are mostly excited, but also a little nervous too as we attempt to step back into American society. Especially after the last year of living in a remote mountain town in southern China, I honestly feel like we are a pack of wild animals returning to civilization. Here are just a few of the things that concern me…

–       Claire will not hesitate to pee outside. We will be playing outside and in a split second, she will have her pants around her knees, squatting to pee wherever she was standing. I can only imagine what kinds of looks we will get when this happens on a playground in America.

–       We have completely let ourselves go. I rarely do anything to the girls’ hair except for brush it. Since I haven’t been clothes shopping in several years, I am down to faded tshirts and just a few actual outfits. I am not naming names, but someone in our family has holes in most of his underwear. We are going to need some serious retail therapy before we get ourselves in a more presentable condition.

–       We have picked up some socially unacceptable habits. We talk about people right in front of their face (since here in China they can’t understand English). When we go out to eat, our children are usually running around the restaurant before and after the meal. Our kids walk up to complete strangers to beg for food or to take toys right out of their hand (because they know Chinese people think foreign kids are adorable and will give them anything they want). The kids address every adult they meet as “auntie” or uncle.” We have picked up so many strange habits, we don’t even know what is strange anymore!

–       We have no easy way of conversing with Americans because our life and our work here is completely not normal. When we meet people in America, it is so hard to answer basic questions like “What do you do?” or “Where do you live?” Sometimes I find myself making up answers just to avoid trying to explain to people what we actually do.

So, if you run into us somewhere and Claire is off peeing in the grass, Chloe is calling you “auntie” and rummaging through your purse to see what goodie you will give her, and we talk about strange things like driving “tuk-tuks” and eating corn for breakfast, then just smile and pretend that everything is normal.

 

 

The Lastest Happenings

It has been awhile since I last wrote anything, but truthfully, not much has been happening around here lately. It has been so hot outside that we have been spending a lot of time either inside in the air conditioning or at the pool. Our seasons are a little strange here because April and May are the hottest months with temperatures above 100. Then, the rains come in June and July and cool things off. We are fortunate that the rains started this week because the high heat and lack of rain was causing a severe drought in this region of Asia. I think our city was trying to conserve water because during May they were shutting everyone’s water off during random parts of the day. My Chinese teacher even said that the government was making it rain to help the farmers in this area. I didn’t believe her, but after a brief internet search, she may be right. It is called “cloud seeding.” Either ground generators or planes can disperse a variety of substances such as silver iodine in the air which causes rain to fall. That was news to my born-in-the big-city ears.

 

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Lately, I have continued helping our house helper, Sarah, with her baking business. Recently, someone asked her to make a cake with a dragon on top, and I reluctantly agreed to help her with it. I had serious doubts it would turn out right, but I was pleasantly surprised by the end result.

 

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Even though I don’t mind teaching Sarah Western baking skills, the differences in Western and Chinese cooking styles definitely present a challenge. In Western baking, recipes need to be followed rather precisely. When a recipe says to put in a cup of flour, it is important to measure carefully to ensure that the proper amount is added. In contrast, no Chinese person I know has ever looked at a recipe to cook a Chinese dish. They simply chop vegetables and meat and throw it in the wok with whatever seasonings they think might taste good. Sarah sometimes reverts back to this extremely flexible way of cooking when she is baking Western goods. For example, the other day she was making buttercream icing for the dragon cake, but she didn’t have any butter or Crisco on hand (the two main ingredients in buttercream icing). Therefore, she improvised and made icing out of only milk and powdered sugar. She tried to persuade me that it might be possible to make the dragon out of this strange, rubbery, icing she had made, but I convinced her it was best to just use the butter and Crisco in my cabinet and make the icing again. I am sure she thinks it is odd that I am so rigid with my baking.

In recent weeks I have also continued with my Chinese lessons. This year I noticed a big improvement in my fluency. I used to be very embarrassed to speak because I talked so slow as I thought about each word I wanted to say. Now, I just start talking and only pause occasionally to think of a word. My next goal is to reach a more advanced level of vocabulary so I can start talking to Chinese people about deeper issues. My Chinese teacher comes to our house twice a week to teach me Chinese, and it has been such a blessing. She is a funny lady who is so patient and doesn’t mind Chloe crawling all over me while we study together. Randomly, my teacher has recently started bringing Chloe entire husks of corn to eat for breakfast. Steamed corn-on-the-cob is a very common breakfast food here, but something I am definitely not used to feeding my toddler for breakfast. I end up spending a good thirty minutes of our class picking up bits of corn off the floor and chasing Chloe while she runs around with a husk of corn in her hand.

 

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Chloe munching on corn.

 

This past weekend we all made a short trip to our old city of Tianjin. Cameron needed to go for some meetings, and we decided it would be fun for all of us to go see the place we lived for three years when we first came to China. On our flight to Tianjin, it seemed that we received even more attention from local people than we usually do. I wasn’t too bothered, but this one woman on the plane was pushing my limits. Before we could even sit down, she was leaning over our seats taking pictures of the kids with her phone. She then spent the entire flight staring at us with a huge smile on her face (see picture below if you don’t believe me). At one point, Cameron got up to go to the bathroom and she immediately hopped up and sat right next to me in his seat. She wanted to hold Chloe, but naturally Chloe got upset when she tried. I told myself not to get too annoyed with this lady because I knew that if we needed anything during the flight, she would be the first one to try to help. Besides, I would much rather have her riding next to me than some mean person who gets annoyed at small children.

 

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Is this not awkward?

 

Being in Tianjin was a lot of fun. It brought back many memories of first coming to China, riding our bikes to class every day, hanging out with tons of local and foreign friends, and feeling like everything was a big adventure! We got to see our old house helper and spend some time with her. She was so excited to see Claire who she had grown extremely fond of during her time working for us. While we were there, I couldn’t help but notice the extreme differences in Tianjin and Banna. Tianjin is huge with a population of 15.5 million people compared to Banna with 500,000. There is a ton of wealthy people in Tianjin and everything is so much more expensive! Also Banna is very much a foreign world compared to Tianjin. Banna is full of diversity and people from every different minority group one can think of. I have a hard time understanding how two such different places are part of the same country!

 

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Claire and Ayi.

 

We just got back from Tianjin yesterday and are taking a day to catch up. Sadly, our electricity was turned off while we were gone because we still don’t understand how to pay our bill. We lost some food in our refrigerator and freezer, so we are trying to sort through and throw things away. It doesn’t matter how long we live here, we are still reminded that we are the lost foreigners who don’t know how to pay a utility bill!

 

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Claire and Cameron at the Tianjin zoo.