Sunday, December 22, 2013

Football

The boys played soccer, or more accurately football, this fall.  The format is a little different from what we are used to in the US.  Instead of practice during the week and a game on the weekend, this program meets only once a week and Daddy does not have to help coach (yea!).  It is very organized and each team has an English speaking and a Chinese speaking coach employed by the organization.  Half the practice focuses on skills and drills and then the latter half is devoted to friendly matches against teammates.  The classes are supposed to be divided by age, but since Isaac is half a head taller than most boys his age and a good many Caleb's age, my two ended up on the same team.  There are also match play teams that teach your child to be a super star in case their life goal involves a serious commitment to the game.  But, we are not likely to avail ourselves of that option.

The boys had fun playing and more than that, enjoyed showing off their expanding skill set during recess at school.  Caleb has asked to be signed up for next "season" and Isaac is still contemplating whether or not he is keen to receive more formal instruction in this sport.  He plays sports purely because he enjoys being with the other kids, but he is happiest engaged in more creative pursuits.  So, we'll see if winter soccer is in our future.







Friday, December 20, 2013

Touring China: #3 - Shanghai -- Happy Anniversary to Us!

In August we celebrated 10 glorious years of wedded bliss.  Seriously.  We are so happy being married to each other, it's almost nauseating, even for us.  People always marvel at how quickly we moved from veritable strangers to eternally together (7 months), but it was the easiest decision we've ever made.  Bar none.

We dashed off to Shanghai for a romantic weekend getaway to celebrate.  In spite of the oppressive and cloying heat we had a lovely and relaxing visit.  We took the high speed train and in no time flat (5 hours or so) we arrived at the massive train station on the outskirts of Shanghai.  We then proceeded to drive on Shanghai's famed elevated highways through the forest of skyscrapers that make up the city's skyline.  I'm sure Shanghai doesn't have as many massive concrete and steel edifices as New York or probably Hong Kong, but we drove through them for a solid hour and there were buildings on every side as far as we could see.

Immediately after checking into our hotel, Kenny booked a river cruise on the Yangtze.  It was still daylight when we shoved off giving us great views of the city in the setting sun.  By the time we disembarked the shoreline was alive with a rainbow of flashing neon lights, including the Bund, which is beautiful all lit up.  We took a taxi to our dinner destination, M on the Bund, a delicious surf and turf restaurant where we stuffed ourselves on rarefied delicacies followed by an enormous slice of pavlova.  Yum, yum, yum.

The next day we meandered around Shanghai stopping for some shopping, everything but Chinese food dining, a stroll through the French Concession, a visit to the world's largest and most collection of Chinese propaganda art posters (no pictures and the constant threat of being shuttered), and several visits to important sites in the history of China's communist party.  So romantic, no?  We also visited the Yu Gardens and Bazaar newly renovated in traditional Chinese architecture.  It was teeming with people and smells (mostly good) and we picked up a few trinkets for the kids and ate mochi ice cream, cookies, candy and other delicious offerings.  We were in Shanghai for less than 48 hours, but we squeezed in a lot of yummy food.

On our final morning we blitzed through the Shanghai Museum taking time to appreciate the impressive collections of jade, pottery and calligraphy.  The museum is really well done, and free, so the lines were long and the common areas crowded.  Surprisingly, many of the galleries were relatively empty.  I guess people were just looking for somewhere to escape the heat.  After the museum we raced back to our hotel, checked out, and jumped in a taxi trying to break the land speed record (our fault, we told him to hurry) before boarding our train home.  We were back in time to put the kids to bed having spent a truly delightful weekend away.  I'm not sure we'll go back with the kids.  There were things to see, but not tons for kids and there is plenty to see elsewhere.  Maybe if they finish Shanghai Disney while we're still in China we'll reconsider...

A new skyscraper in Shanghai.  We could them working on this all night and day long.
I Love Shanghai!
The view from our river cruise
The Bund, all lit up
Shanghai at night
The view from M on the Bund
This picture depicts those that were present when the Chinese Communist Party was officially created -- apparently there were a couple of others there as well, but they didn't stay true and have been written out of the historical record.  A security guard was not pleased with me when I took this picture, but there weren't any signs indicating I couldn't take photos, and surprisingly, he didn't make me erase the shot.
The Birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party -- right behind those doors
French Concession
Former residence of Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People's Republic of China
Sun Yat Sen's former residence
Yu Gardens
Yu Bazaar
Shanghai Museum

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Song and Dance Man

Our bandwidth is insufficient to determine if the attached video will actually play.  But, if it does (I hope, I hope, I hope), you'll see Caleb (he's the blond who waves during the first few bars) "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" with verve.  I love when he demonstrates the "sentimental feeling" he gets from the season.  Just awesome!  Most of all, I love that he volunteered to show off his holiday moves.  He was the only boy, but he didn't care.  He just loves to sing and dance!

video

Disclaimer: This might only be suitable for viewing by grandparents,
proceed at your own risk.

The Familiar Feeling of Failure

Tomorrow is Snuggle Up and Read Day at school.  The boys are so excited.  They get to dress in pajamas (not uniforms!), bring pillows and blankets, and share their favorite holiday books with their classmates and teachers.  They couldn't be more thrilled.  I thought, in honor of the day and in view of the continually dropping temperatures, it would be fun to make them each a pair of fun and fleecy pajama bottoms.  I've made pants before so I knew I could throw a couple of pairs together in just a few hours, all I needed was the fabric and some elastic.  Luckily, I had recently visited a nearby fabric district and knew exactly where I needed to go to purchase fleece and notions.  Or so I thought...

I gave myself a 3 hour window to run this errand.  I knew I was cutting it close, but I also knew exactly what I needed and where to get it so I was feeling confident.  First mistake!  Traffic was not great.  But, for a city of 24 million people, it was at least manageable.  It only took 45 minutes to get to my destination and I only had 2 almost accidents, pretty good start!  Then parking.  I found a semi-legal (or not) and almost large enough parking space and wedged myself in.  Sometimes having diplomatic plates and living in a country where traffic cops, or cops of any kind for that matter, are basically non-existent is nice.

Then it was off to select my fabric.  There was a spring in my step, a smile on my face and excitement brewing as I mentally composed my blog post about a successful venture that ended with delightfully warm pajama pants times 2.  I passed stall after stall looking for fleece.  I'd seen it the last time I visited, so I knew I'd find it.  During my quest I passed shops selling shirting and wool, corduroy and lycra, silk and broad cloth.  At last I found fleece.  A wall of samples in every color and print I could imagine -- HUZZAH!  I selected the two, okay three patterns -- I decided to make a pair for Claire, too -- I wanted and then got the owner's attention.  I asked the prices of the different prints, roughly $5 a meter, so cheap!  Then I asked for a meter of the first one.  Silence.  I asked again.  Silence.  Then perplexed silence from me -- it was like a play and I'd forgotten my lines.  Deep breath, one more time.  He cleared his throat, looked at another clerk and said, we don't have it.  Okay, no biggie, there are plenty of other great substitutes.  I asked for the next one.  Out as well.  And the next and the next and the next and the next.  ALL OUT.  ALL OUT?  All out.  My mind was reeling.  Why would they be on display if one couldn't buy them?  Why would he tell me the prices if he didn't have them?  Maybe he was lying.  Maybe he was lazy.  Maybe he just wasn't interested in helping me.  Stunned silence.  Defeated, deflated silence.  Starting to sense a less than positive outcome silence.  What do you have?  He gestured to a pile of bolts.  Navy, gray, black and some really depressing plaids.  This is all?  None of these others?  This is all.  Which do you want?

Which do I want?!?!?  None of these!  I want the cute flowers and the fun race cars and the ninjas.  I want the fruit and the baseballs and the space scene.  I want the stars and the hearts and the crazy stripes (which are harder to sew, but I'd be willing to take the extra time).  Those are the ones I want! 

ALL OUT!

I left.  No problem, I'd find other options elsewhere.  I still had plenty of time, success was still going to be mine.  I headed off this time with a slightly less springy step and a lot more skepticism.  But I was not completely forlorn.  One of the things I have learned about shopping in China is that every stall sells the same thing, so hope was still burning, just not as bright as before.  If you're at the pearl market, every vendor has what you want in every color and price point.  Want shoes?  Find your preferred pair one place and you'll find the same shoes in a hundred places.  If you desperately need that Louis Vuitton, they've all got it.  Not this time.  I walked in the bitter cold for another 45 minutes.  I found fur and satin and polyester and rayon and charmeuse and flannel and EVERYTHING else.  But, no fleece.  NO FLEECE!  I know what I want is somewhere in this massive city.  Everything is, if you know where to look.  IF.  I'll find the fleece street one of these days, but today was not that day.  Eventually, I faced the reality of my failure and gave up.  I drove an hour home in stop and go, mostly stop, traffic and selected some boring, but well-loved, pajama options from the boys' drawers for tomorrow.  And, they'll be just as happy as if I'd made them a new pair.  I'm the one who feels dejected.   

I have been an expat for 5+ years now.  And, in that time, I have gotten used to a few things that are constant, no matter where we have lived.  First, everything, EVERYTHING, takes a lot LONGER than you think it will and definitely that you want it to.  Even simple errands often turn into protracted, time-consuming events that don't always end the way you'd planned or hoped.  Second, change is constant and learning to adapt is key to your happiness.  And, finally, failure is a fact of life.  Today I was reminded of that, again.  I failed.  It was a simple task.  And I just couldn't do it.  In years past, I would have been really upset.  I would have raged and ranted.  But, I am getting used to this familiar feeling of failure.  I am getting used to keeping my expectations really low.  Some days everything goes swimmingly, even better than that, but often I run head long into my reality -- that I live a million miles away from a more convenient existence.  It's worth it, of course.  I know that.  But, even with the knowledge that we lead an exceptionally good life, sometimes under very trying circumstances, failure is still failure.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hide and Seek

Claire likes to play hide and seek.  It's not always clear when she is playing, however, and some of her hiding places are better than others.  She is very patient, though.  She will find somewhere to hide and wait a surprisingly long time for someone to seek her.  This gets tricky when there was no prior notice that a game was about to ensue.  Her favorite part of the game is being found and the reward of a great big smile and lots of giggles always makes the time spent seeking worthwhile.




We love our Claire Bear!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Yeah, We're Those People

You know how sometimes you go to a bar and there is a stroller just inside the door and a bunch of little kids hanging out in the corner eating chicken wings and mozzarella sticks?  

Wait, you don't?  

Are you sure?  

Because if you'd gone to a particular bar in Beijing not so long ago (ahem, last week), that is precisely what you would have been greeted with through the smoke-filled haze, entirely too loud live band, and beer-guzzling patrons.  A stroller and a rather large contingent of children sharing an Ipad and rocking out with the music.  In fact, if you'd looked a little closer, you would have noticed that the stroller and some of the children belonged to us.  

Yeah, we are those people that take their kids to bars.  

Okay, so not really.  Generally speaking, we don't often (read: ever) hang out at bars with our kids.  But this was an exceptional night.  One of our dearest friends in Beijing is in a band and our kids wanted to see him perform and this was the sort of venue where that was most likely to happen.  And, his kids were there, as well as the children of some other friends, so we thought, why not?

Claire and I stayed for all of one song.  Not one set, one song.  The music was too loud and she was bored, because, well, bars don't much cater to the under 4 feet set.  Thank goodness -- we do not need to make a habit of this!  So she and I collected the stroller, bundled ourselves up against the winter chill, bought a Minnie Mouse balloon (because it was there and she is obsessed), and trundled on home to the quiet, smoke and beer free apartment that we know and love.  The boys and Kenny stayed on until the end of the show (8pm -- more than reasonable for a Friday night).  Everyone had fun.  Our friend felt supported and loved.  And, we gave our kids a great party game story to tell when they're older.  True or False: when I was 5, 
my parents took me to a bar...


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Santa Claus

Santa Claus paid a visit to our church Christmas Party this weekend.  Claire is not Santa's biggest fan and tried her very best to get and stay away from him.  Actually, she was willing to accept a candy cane from him, but sitting on his lap was absolutely out of the question.  If I think about it from her perspective, being forced to sit on a stranger's lap, a stranger dressed in red velvet, who's face is obscured, and who jiggles as he walks no less is probably exceedingly confusing.  Her experience with strangers as a rule is fairly limited, apart from the ones always trying to take her picture, of course.  She is never allowed to accept anything from a stranger and definitely not food, and we certainly don't encourage lap sitting of any kind.  From her point of view, having her parents force her onto the lap of this red clad stranger was understandably somewhat traumatic.

So, we took a family photo instead and Daddy provided enough of a buffer to get a semi-decent shot.


Traumatized by Santa or not, I have a sneaking suspicion she's going to be very happy with all the presents he'll be leaving for her to open on Christmas morning.

Uncle Loren and Auntie Tomoko

In May, we took a trip to Japan and South Korea (more on that later).  The highlight of the trip was definitely getting to see Uncle Loren (my older brother) and his wife Auntie Tomoko -- one of my three fabulous sisters-in-law.  My sisters and I absolutely hit the sister-in-law jackpot with these lovely ladies.  We see them so seldom, but it always joyous and fun when we do.  Loren and Tomoko have lived in Japan for, well, forever and this was our first visit to Japan.  The kids, not surprisingly, loved spending time with them and they were generous and gracious hosts.  We will be going back for sure.




Saturday, December 14, 2013

Spring Concert 2013

For Caleb's Spring concert his class sang several songs from various musicals and played a couple of pieces on the violin.  Violin is compulsory for all students at his school through 2nd grade.  He really enjoys learning to play the instrument and can already play quite a few pieces.  

 That's my guy playing his violin.  We're so proud!

Singing his heart out!

Friday, December 13, 2013

So...Halloween Happened

We went trick-or-treating (I never know the correct way to spell that) twice, of course.  We went to two Halloween parties (because one is never enough).  We collected our weight in candy, most of which Claire can't eat and Caleb won't eat -- doesn't like chocolate so much.  Yeah, we're all a little confused.  But, Isaac is delighted because he eats everything.  Even the interesting stuff we got from the Japanese houses we visited.  Gummy corn anyone?  I say thanks anyway, Isaac says he'll give it a whirl.  Claire insisted on walking the entire route (both times) and carrying her own bag.  It was a long couple of nights.  Everyone let her take her own candy -- because she was so cute -- and very quickly she perfected grabbing it by the handful.  She didn't even want the candy, she just wanted to be like the big kids.  

The boys went to a Haunted House and weren't scared at all, or so they told me.  And we were accosted more than once by teenage boys in scream masks.  Claire was not amused, and neither, frankly, was I.  We lost Isaac for a little while.  Turns out he wasn't lost at all, just decided to hang with another family without telling us.  Sometimes he's awesome.  All of the kids had experiences with nearly being trampled as the high school contingent sprinted in herds from house to house desperate for another starburst or gummy octopus.  I don't remember going trick-or-treating when I was in High School...did we?  And, we came home with piles and piles of the strangest Halloween haul I've ever seen. 

Robin Hood, a flower (sort of deconstructed), and a black ninja.
But, most importantly, we were together and we had a fabulous time.  And, we're already planning our costumes for next year!  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas on Celluloid or More Likely DVD

We have an extensive collection of Christmas music.  Our playlist runs the gamut from Julie Andrews to Weezer.  So, technically we don't have Weezer's Christmas album, but just for fun their song "Holiday" is included on our playlist, too.  Yeah, we're awesome like that. We've got so much Christmas music we could listen to it nonstop for over 24 hours and never repeat a single track.  This time of year the soundtrack of our lives is exclusively Christmas themed and we're all humming and singing our favorites everywhere we go.  I'm especially fond of "Do You Hear What I Hear."  The boys love "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." And, none of us can ever get enough of "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas," -- who can?

We love Christmas movies, too.  But, I'm embarrassed to admit our collection is pretty pathetic.  Of course we have 

White Christmas,



Elf,


the obligatory collection of animated Christmas classics


and...well, that's about it.  Pretty sad, I know.  So loyal readers, I'm soliciting suggestions.  What are your favorite and must have Christmas movies?  We need to expand our collection posthaste and all recommendations are welcome.  Can't wait to watch what you come up with.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Touring China: #2 Temple of Heaven

One weekend in early spring we had perfect weather, finally.  The sky was a brilliant blue, the pollution was down to manageable levels, and the temperature was ideal.  So, we joined some new friends and ventured out to visit one of Beijing's most iconic destinations:  Temple of Heaven.

The Temple of Heaven, completed in 1420, is easily one of the most recognizable landmarks in all of China.  This three gabled building is commonly referred at the temple of heaven, but is in fact the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and one of three main structures that collectively make up the Temple of Heaven.

We took this photo atop the Circular Mound Alter, one of the three structures in the temple complex, and in the foreground you can see the roof of the third, the Imperial Vault of Heaven.

Here is an example of the interior design that dominates the buildings in the Temple of Heaven complex.


This the Nine-Dragon Juniper.  The name comes from the fact that people believe the trunk looks like nine dragons coiling around each other as the climb their way to heaven.  OK.  Dragon motif or not, this tree is over 500 years old.



A rare moment when Claire was left alone by the throngs of tourists.  Luckily for us, on this particular outing the friends we went with have much blonder children than we and they, unfortunately, bore the brunt of the unwanted attention
thrust upon the children. 

Amazingly, these structure are made entirely without nails.  Not a single one.  They are an engineering marvel and the complex has been designated a
UNESCO World Heritage site.

The grounds were massive and beautiful.  We saw families picniking and resting and playing.  It almost felt like being in Hyde or Central Park.  Almost.
Any time the weather is even remotely fine in Beijing you will find kites flying.  These kites are massive and often have lights.  Kite flyers wear special harnesses to keep a tight grip on these enormous flying contraptions.

We had a great visit to the Temple of Heaven and can't wait to go back 
to do some more exploring.

'Tis the Season for...EXAMS!!!

Caleb and Isaac go to a really fabulous private school here in Beijing.  It is a bilingual school where their instruction is about 60% English and 40% Chinese.  They both really love their teachers and have made some great friends.  They are thriving in the classroom and learning a tremendous amount.  We loved our DC Bilingual Charter School when were back in the States, but the atmosphere here is a lot more competitive and they have endless resources to enhance learning.  It is wonderful.  They both take mandatory violin lessons and there is a very robust arts program.  They have lots of time for unstructured play in addition to actual PE classes.  I have to admit, I'm a little jealous.  The blessing of attending such a school is a great benefit of Kenny's job.  No matter where we live, they will always go to amazing schools, with an international student body, dedicated teachers, and involved (sometimes overly - though I tend to believe any is better than nothing) parents.
Isaac was so excited to finally go to the "big boy" school.
I love that they wear uniforms.  It makes my life SO MUCH easier.
The only real challenge we have encountered as we moved from our old school in DC to this new school in China, has been the introduction of Chinese.  Caleb is bilingual.  He learned to speak English and Spanish simultaneously.  And, while his English is better than his Spanish, mostly because he seldom is called upon to use Spanish, it is still quite good and he has no accent whatsoever.  For all intents and purposes, he has never "learned" a language.  One of the first things he said to us after we arrived was, "but, I already speak two languages, isn't that enough?"  He makes a good point, especially considering he is 7.  Additionally, he is used to being the best in his class at everything with very little effort.  

Things have equalized a lot at this school and though he is still doing very well, there are other children who are doing equally well, and in some cases a little bit better.  Especially when it comes to Chinese.  He has struggled.  He has been frustrated and angry and defeatist.  His biggest problem is that he knows what he doesn't know.  He knows that he cannot use Chinese like he speaks, reads, and writes Spanish.  And, he is constantly comparing his abilities in Mandarin to his facility with Spanish.  But, he is persevering and his Chinese is improving.  We have a tutor (I KNOW!) for him and his English teacher helps translate sometimes when he is really lost.  And slowly, this language is starting to come alive for him.  Chinese is challenging, heaven knows I am aware of that.  My Chinese is pitiful.  But, we are so proud of him for not giving up.  

This week the boys have exams in their Chinese classes.  For Caleb it is a week long process with the children tackling one aspect of their language study every day.  Isaac's version of exams is abbreviated and only requires one day to complete.  But, THEY HAVE EXAMS!!  My Kindergartner and 2nd grader have been studying every night for these exams.  They are creating sample dialogues.  Memorizing songs and stories.  Practicing writing characters.  Answering sample questions.  Writing paragraphs wholly with characters.  It is astonishing!

I have always been amazed at how babies learn multiple languages effortlessly in infancy -- I have watched all three of mine do it.  But, observing my boys go from no Chinese to conversational Chinese to singing in Chinese, to, in Caleb's case, mastering enough characters to write a story in Chinese is just incredible.  We have told them all they need to do this week is their very best.  We have tried not to over drill or burn them out on study -- there is plenty of time for that later on.  We have prayed with them and encouraged them and we are confident they are going to do very well.  But, we were not ready for this kind of pressure and we know it is just the beginning.  We know other children in their classes are being put through their paces for these tests.  We know other parents would scoff at our seemingly cavalier approach.  But, we don't want them to get discouraged, and especially for Caleb, give up.  One of the primary reasons we moved to Beijing was so the children would learn Mandarin.  So far, we have been successful in working towards that objective and we'd like to keep it that way.  


Monday, December 09, 2013

School's Out for Summer

The boys had summer camp for several weeks this summer.  It was a great camp hosted and run by the American Employees Association at the US Embassy, but open to anyone.  They made lots of new friends, went on field trips, worked on crafts, played outside, and just generally enjoyed themselves.  

Each week of camp had a theme and by far everyone's favorite week was the Dr. Seuss week.  Every day required them to dress-up in one way or another.  Funny hat and crazy sock day were easy  -- there is no shortage of patterned socks and inexplicable head wear available in this country.  On the other hand, crazy hair day and, especially, dress up like a Dr. Seuss character day were a little more challenging.  But, motherhood is the mother of invention so after hours (and hours and hours -- Beijing has everything, but the trick is finding it!) of shopping and a veritable vat of hair gel, we were all pretty happy with the end results.



 

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