Thursday, July 28, 2011

The first 168 hours

Our first week in China has already come and gone.  We packed a lot into seven days!  Although we flew out on Sunday morning, we arrived on Monday afternoon.  The 13 hour flight and 13 hour time change caused us to loose a half a day, a whole lot of sleep.

For the first two mornings our task was to visit various furniture stores to choose new things for our apartment.  We are bringing some of our own furniture (our beds, china hutch, couches), but other furniture will be purchased by the landlord and then remain in the apartment after we move out.  Furniture shopping with two young kids isn't any fun anyway, but throw in a lot of jet lag and you have a potential disaster.  We tried to make the most of it and was fun to see hear the girls' opinions on things.  LBean was really into the "princess furniture" which was the over-the-top Louis the 14th frilly and sparkly furniture.

I wish I could explain the size of of the furniture buildings that we went walked through.  Just to give you an idea, maybe the size of the Galleria in St. Louis and filled with only furniture stores.  And then, next to it another building the same size with more furniture.  Then repeat that on the other side of the street.  It's appropriately known as Furniture Row.


We had the excuse of nap time to go back to the hotel and rest in the heat of the afternoon.  Illinois and China have had about the same amount of heat and humidity this past week.  Then, we'd wake up around 6 p.m. and try to drag ourselves to dinner.

On Thursday morning we drove out to Dulwich College where LBean will be going to kindergarten.  We turned in our application and got to walk through a bit of the lower level of the DUCKS (DUlwich College Kindergarten School) building.  Then back to Furniture Row to finish picking out furniture.

Friday morning was our "health exam".  The government requires that adults applying for a residency visa participate in a health exam.  Our realtor, who should really be called a relocation specialist because of all the work she does (helps us fill out paperwork, find a driver, order furniture, visit the school, etc.) went with us.  It was an interesting experience in part because I didn't know what was involved in the exam...or how complete would it be?!

We moved from room to room visiting each testing station.  We completed a vision, hearing, dental screenings, blood-work, an x-ray, EKG and renal sonogram.  HIPPA laws aren't in affect here so I was present when Jamie had his renal sonogram and the technician complimented him on his lovely kidneys.  I hopped up on the table fully expecting the same result.  Hah!   The technician started calling out "kid-di-ney" like she was looking for a lost pet.  Uh-oh.  Then she called over another technician and they both stared at the screen, hemming and hawing in Chinese.  I have no idea what the problem was, Jamie thinks maybe they were concerned about kidney stones, and after they asked me if I had ever had my kidneys looked at (I had and they were fine), I was allowed to get up from the table.  During another one of the tests the technician told me to relax and I couldn't help it, I laughed out loud.  I wanted to say politely, "listen here lady, there is nothing relaxing about this process".  But, it's done and we were happy to move on with our day.

A fun part of the week has been exploring different shopping areas of the city.   We tried to learn where I will be shopping and what stores I'll need to go to for clothing, household items, and food.  We visited the Korean market near our apartment complex, the Incity mall (with Wal-Mart), Auchan (pronounced O-shawn), which is the Chinese version of Wal-Mart, and Times Square (an indoor/outdoor mall area with a Toys 'r Us).

During our shopping we have been very aware of the fascination with our girls.  As you can imagine, blond hair, light eyes and pale skin is very unusual here (and some consider it lucky).  Our girls, especially EBean literally draws a crowd.  Old men will stop walking to stare at them (it's not rude to stare in Chinese culture), people will take pictures (sometimes they try to be sneaky), and I've seen women double-back just to walk by a second time to see our girls.  I'm sure this will get very old during the next few years, but for now it's nice hearing "piao liang" (pretty) and "mei li" (beautiful).  Some Asian women try to lighten their skin to show that they are wealthy enough to not have to labor outside in the sun and American women try tan to show they have the time to sit in the sun and not work.  You can't win!

At JDL, a furniture store in Times Square.
At the carpet store in Furniture Row.

Friday night we walked to a near-by German restaurant at RainboWalk for dinner.  Sometimes its best to ease into a culture slowly right?! The restaurant is called Big & Whistle (not sure why), but I had heard that was originally called Pig & Whistle.  I have no idea what brought on the name change!  There is a good size German ex-pat community here and I must say we benefited from this.  Big & Whistle was fantastic!  Fresh, homemade pretzel rolls, mashed potatoes, peas & carrots and for me Sheppard's pie.  Yummy!  We have avoided any fruits or veggies that have been washed in local water, which has limited the variety in our meals.  It was great to see the girls chowing down on good 'ole peas & carrots.

People starting to gather by the lake for the 8 p.m. laser light show.

The Rainbo Walk building.  Great Mexican & German
restaurants and Cold Stone Creamery.
We walked back to the hotel along the lake where the laser light show is performed every Friday and Saturday night.  It was a bit loud for LBean, but in the future she'll be able to see it from her bedroom in the apartment.  It was impressive and we watched the finale from our hotel room.
The laser light show set to music and a little bit of fire thrown in too.

The view from our hotel room.

Saturday morning we had our driver take us to Times Square, an area across the lake with shopping (both indoor and outdoor), food and entertainment.  The top floor was almost like a children's museum and it will be a nice place to visit when it's raining.  We found the Toys 'r Us and then crossed a walkway and discovered another toy store.

Jamie got a new Lego set at the second toy that can no longer be found in the States.  So everyone came away happy!

For lunch we were very daring and had...Burger King.  (Remember what I said about easing into the culture slowly?) 
LBean asked for this picture.

Our week ended with a bang, literally.  We successfully made it to Fellowship by catching a bus provided by the Fellowship near our new apartment.  Because of the time we had to get onto the bus, we were not only on time for fellowship, but early.  Shocking, I know! (Stop laughing all you WCC folks.) LBean decided that she would like to go to her class and Ebean sat with us.  Things were a bit different this week because the pastor was back in the States.  So, by the time the service was done, we collected LBean and walked to the bus stop, the buses had left and it had begun pouring.

As we left Fellowship I'm pretty sure that I was chided by a Chinese grandma.  She was upset that I had borrowed EBean's miniature umbrella (who was protected in her stroller) to cover my head.  Sometimes you don't have to speak the language to understand the intent.  Oh well, you can't please everyone!

We huddled in a public restroom with all of the Chinese workers that had come in from working in the park and LBean's Sunday school teacher and his family.  They had also missed the bus and were waiting out the storm too.  Between our ability to call the hotel for assistance and LBean's Sunday School teacher's amazing Chinese speaking skills, we agreed to pay the hotel to send their bus to pick us up.  Most of the city was using all of the available taxis and the other option was to walk the four miles back.  In the mean time, EBean slept through most of it and LBean ran around with her three new friends, the Sunday School teacher's children.  They enjoyed squealing every time it thundered or lightening over our head and peeked at the Chinese bride that was getting ready for her wedding pictures.  I got to talk with LBean's friends parents and make a new friend too.

Finally the bus arrived and the girls insisted on sitting together.  They were soaked, but very happy (which made me happy too).  The warm baths and room service we had at the hotel made up for the unpleasant part of the afternoon.  Plus, we made plans to eat lunch with our new friends next Sunday, hopefully under dryer circumstances!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Leaving on a Jet Plane

The first week has been good, tiring, stressful, fun, overwhelming and a whole lot of other emotions.  Which is probably a good indication of how the rest of our time in China will be.

We flew out of Peoria on Sunday, July 17th.  Our flight to Chicago was at 5:45 a.m. which meant a very early wake-up time.

EBean & LBean snoozing away.  Even the blow dryer couldn't wake them up.
We had 11 checked bags, 2 car seats, 2 roller carry-ons, a backpack, 2 kids backpacks and one stroller to get to the airport.  Jamie and I worked well together to get everything up to the ticket counter, but it was a bit of a challenge because there were no luggage carts.  Thankfully we had checked in the day before online.  Up until that point there was no promise that the little commuter plane could handle all of our luggage.

One of the baggage handlers was called up to help at the ticket counter and we were very lucky!  They were in such a hurry to get all of our bags tagged and on the plane that they didn't weigh any of them.  That was great news for me!  I tried very hard to distribute everything evenly and stay under the 50 lb limit, but I was very close on a few of them.  (Imagine me hopping off and on a bathroom scale holding every piece of luggage.)  I really though I might have to open up some of the bags and shift around the large jars of PB, 5 lbs of coffee, books and other heavy cargo we'd stashed in our luggage.

LBean in front of all of our luggage.

A quick potty stop and we were the last ones to walk onto the plane.  The flight to Chicago is always a quick, get up in the air and then get ready to land trip.  On the way to the next terminal Jamie looked over and saw Gene Simmons from the band Kiss in the elevator across the hall.  That was a fun way to start the trip and then we decided on a place to grab breakfast.

Well, guess who was in front of us in line to eat?  Our new friend Gene.  He was polite and asked Jamie if he had cut in line (he had not) and then when I passed by with the girls Gene said that he also had two (kids) of his own...that he knew of.  If I had been quick-witted I would have said, "yeah me too"!

After walking down to our gate, we were very fortunate to start making friends.  We noticed a little girl about LBean's age playing by our gate.  I went and introduced myself and LBean to the little girl and her mother.  Come to find out, they also live in Suzhou and not too far (relatively speaking) from our new apartment.  Wonderful!  LBean joined in some games with her new friend and another little girl.  There were three little girls running around playing hide 'n seek (behind the trash can was the best spot), hot potato (really hot dolphin because that's what we had) and duck, duck goose.  I was so glad to have an opportunity to speak to another ex-pat mom and grateful to exchange contact info with her.

Playing "hot dolphin" (hot potato) and burning off some energy.
The plane ride from Chicago to Shanghai was long, about 13 hours, but pretty uneventful.  We took up residence in four of the five seats in our row and the girls got special "kids meals" to munch on.  They watched lots of movies on the iPad because the movie selection in the airplane was pretty poor.

We have traveled by plane with the girls before and so I know to bring snacks and an assortment of un-used McDonald's toys with us to pull out at any given moment.  I really didn't need to use my toys because not only did Grandma DiDi pack a bag on the plane for each girl, they also had busy bags from their friends Emmalee & Olivia, and wrapped presents from Miss Joyce.  It was great!  Both girls slept on the plane, but it took LBean 10 hours into the flight to fall asleep (and she had been up since 4 a.m.)

After we landed we had to go through immigration and because we had small children we got to go through the priority line and step to the front of the line.  We grabbed all of luggage (yes, they all made it!), picked up a baggage form at customs to authorize the delivery of our sea shipment, and met our driver.

Before we left the States we had just the right amount of room in the rental van for the four of us and all of our luggage.  It got a bit more complicated when we arrived in Shanghai because we now had a driver and we lost some of our extra space.  Jamie and the driver literally packed our duffle bags around me in the backseat and the girls had some of our smaller bags at their feet, but it worked.  We all cuddled up to a piece of luggage and snoozed our way to Suzhou.

We made it!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Like a Bad Lifetime Movie

I don't know about you, but if I'm flipping through the channels on a Saturday evening (and Jamie's out of town), I can easily get sucked into those movies on the Lifetime channel.  You know the ones, the switched at birth stories, the nanny trying to steal the infant she's caring for, those kind of movies.  The plot is terrible, but you just can't turn away.

Our home-finding trip to China was a bit like a Lifetime movie, but I'll get to that later.  We were allowed one week in China to find a home/apartment, look at schools for LBean and become familiar with Suzhou. We left Chicago on a Thursday, after a seven hour delay due to weather and equipment issues, flew 14 hours and arrived in Shanghai on Friday evening.  You know you're half-way through your flight when the plane is over Alaska.  Because of the shape of the Earth, it's faster to fly up near the Arctic circle and back down again.

Saturday morning we hit the ground running with our realtor and a spouse of another engineer in Suzhou.  We looked at apartments all day long and even managed to drop in on a new friend that I had corresponded with via email (another wife of an engineer at the same company), but had never met.  When she said "drop in any time", I did!

Sunday was spent with other ex-pats attending fellowship, eating on Bar street (the name is obvious), walking through old town and taking the bus home.  Monday was more looking at apartments and homes.  Tuesday we started looking at schools and Tuesday night we tried a local Mexican place with a few of the ex-pat engineers.  And then it happened...Wednesday morning I got sick, really, really sick.  In China you can't drink the water, which means no fruits or veggies washed in the local water, no ice in the drinks and brushing your teeth with bottled water.  It's hard telling where I went wrong, but it was wrong!

We met with our realtor and her boss for lunch (of course at a spicy Chinese place) and I tried to delicately refuse most of lunch.  After lunch we toured a potential school for LBean and I know I was more than a little green in the face.  I managed to make it through the school tour and then I had to be taken back to the hotel.  Jamie went on to another apartment, got an inexpensive China cell phone and picked out the van style he wanted.

Wednesday night we stayed in and I was starting to feel much better.  He showed me video he had taken  of the apartment from the afternoon and we made some decisions on which apartments we wanted to re-visit on Thursday.  We were ready to start negotiating and find a place to live!  Before we had traveled to China, we weren't sure if we would want to live in the gated community with single-family homes with yards or in an apartment closer to the shopping and downtown area.  The decision was basically made for us; there were no single-family homes available and the town house was not an option for us because the four-story open stairwell made us very nervous!  So, apartment living it is!

Of course everything is done a little differently in China, so we had a lot to learn about choosing an apartment. One of the apartments we liked was in a community with several other families from the same company, but the landlord couldn't be reached by cell phone and some resistance on moving out existing furniture ruled out that option.  So, then it was on to the next top choice, which ironically was the first apartment we toured and the last apartment we toured.  Again, there was some difficulty reaching a landlord (she lived in another country), so we moved our focus to the apartment in complex called Horizon that Jamie had toured on Wednesday afternoon.

And that is where the bad Lifetime movie begins.  It goes like this...Jamie tours apartment on Wednesday afternoon, I go back with him on Thursday morning, we agree that with a few modifications the apartment could work for us, and we ask our realtor to start negotiating for us (things such as glassing in the open balcony on the 27th floor, full-size refrigerator-everything in China is negotiable!).  It is set that we will sign papers Friday morning before we fly out.

Friday morning rolls around (please remember that we have been here for a full week now) and at 10 a.m. our realtor and her boss meet us at the hotel...uh-oh.  It appears that the negotiations are not finished and the landlord needs to be reassured that we are indeed moving to Suzhou.  So, we all walk over to Horizon and go back up to the apartment where our realtor's boss and the Chinese landlady begin some serious talks.  Actually some of the points that she brought up were very valid and had to do with the company's policy on housing contracts, but it was nothing that we could change.

The clock is ticking and we are scheduled to leave our hotel at noon to get to the Shanghai airport in time for our flight.  We start walking around the apartment, double-checking wants/needs for the negotiations and well, I did it, I started crying.  Not a lot, but just a few tears.  I'm trying to explain to our realtors that the movers are coming in 10 days (10 days!) and I need to know where I am living so I can pack appropriately.  I might have uttered the words, "I need to know where my children are going to live."

We all shuffle back into the living room and I try to compose myself.  I really liked the apartment, but I also knew of two other apartments that I would be very happy in and I just wanted to know if it was time to walk away and start talking to another landlord.  The negotiations continued and it was very obvious, even without understanding a word of Chinese, that our realtor's boss is very good.  They work out a deal with the landlady and at 11:55...I repeat 11:55 a.m. (five minutes before we are supposed to leave, 7 days after we arrived) we sign the letter of intent.  We rush back to hotel, zip up our luggage and race to the airport.

After we settled ourselves in the car, Jamie looked at me and said, "I'm so glad we know where we're going to live."  I looked at him and said, "I'll believe it when we actually set foot in the apartment."  Then I explained to him my feelings about it being a Lifetime movie.  I was still nervous about it falling through because the letter or intent is not the final contract.  It is simply a piece of paper saying that you have negotiated out all of our wishes/wants, it still had to go to corporate and sign a final contract.  The whole thing was ulcer-inducing!

As I write this, we are one week from taking possession of the apartment.  It appears that everything will go through fine and we'll be in a great apartment.  But, until we set foot in the apartment, I'm not posting any pictures of the interior.  I don't want to jinx it!

Now, roll credits, this Lifetime movie is over.

Horizon apartment complex
Our building is Block 68, the far right building
Floor 27 (on the left side of the building)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Battle of Wills

Who has more will power, the 2 year-old or those in charge?   Jamie traveled to India in May and we decided to have some family time together in the morning the day he flew out.  Part of our plans included running downtown to have our visa pictures taken at the administration building and then a nice, fun lunch across the street before driving Jamie to the airport.

The visas (travel stamps, not credit cards!) from the Chinese government are for our passports and allow us to enter into the country.  The visa application required photos of each person in the family.  Easy right? Nope, not when that includes taking the picture of a two-year-old that hides her face every time a camera is taken out.

There are very specific requirements for the photos and they must be against a plain background, a close-up of the face, looking straight ahead, etc.  EBean refused to meet any of those requirements.  The woman taking the photos (who also had a toddler) was wonderful and tried all kinds of tricks to get EBean to cooperate.  Then we decided that Jamie would try and take the photo and the other woman would leave the room.  Still no luck.  Next plan was that I would hold onto EBean and try to take a picture of her looking over my shoulder.  How about me holding her up over my head?  Still no luck.  At this point both Jamie and I are sweating from holding her and feeling a bit of pressure.  We have to have this pictures, but we're not sure how it's going to get done.  EBean was also causing a bit of a commotion (i.e. whining and crying), which reverberated nicely through-out all of the cubicles around the corner.  One gentleman stopped by to offer his condolences, I don't think the employees are used to crying in their building.

Jamie and I exchanged a quick look of desperation between the two of us and decided we'd give it one more try before heading off to lunch.  This time we decided that Jamie would count to three, hold EBean above his head (to get in front of a plain background) and I would snap the photo.  It almost worked!  Between the tickling and being hoisted up in the air EBean was smiling, but the picture was not close enough on her face.  By this time she would not look straight forward, so we had to alter the plan just a bit.  With the promise of candy (one in her mouth) and the instruction to "look for the M & M behind mommy's head" we got the winning picture.  Hooray and we all rejoiced!

It occurred to me that we would probably have many moments like this throughout our move to China.  Times where we would have to improvise, try plans A, B, C & D and feel a little pressure, but if we could make it, the memories would be wonderful.

I'm including two photos in this post of EBean.  The first one is of Jamie holding her over his head.  If you look at the lower left-hand corner of the picture you can just barely see Jamie's hand.  The second photo is the one we had to include with the visa application.  She has an M & M in her mouth, which explains the weird smile and you can tell her eyes are searching for the mysterious M & M behind mom's head.

Such a cute photo, but not usable for the visa application.
The final photo!

P.S. When LBean is taking photos of EBean now she'll tell EBean to "look for the M &M"

Sunday, July 17, 2011

How to get from Point A to Point B

I underestimated what it takes to move a family from point A in the States to point B in another country.  I knew there would be some paperwork involved, a visit to find a home and then the packers would come and whisk all of our things away.  Easy enough, right?!  Not quite.

This post is for all of my friends that might take an international assignment with Big Yellow or to remind myself in a few years when it's time to return to the States what all is involved in an international move.

After Jamie and I agreed that he would accept the new position and he had been approved, the emails started rolling in and a big to-do list was created.  If you think of it like a wheel, we are the middle and there are many spokes that connect to us to make a move happen, but they are independent of each other.

Here is a short list of what we have done so far:
*Read a 45 page document on what is involved with an international move
*Pictures for our Visas (that is an entire post on it's own), thankfully we all had our passports
*Teleconference with our moving coordinator to review all of the benefits associated with moving
*Attend a one-day cultural training program at our home about China
*Teleconference with the tax preparation people since moving outside of the US complicates the tax return a bit
*One week house-finding & school-finding trip in China, also open a Chinese bank account & get a cell phone
*Start a mail-forwarding service & meet the person handling our mail
*Schedule all of our dental, doctor, eye, etc. exams before leaving
*Additional vaccinations such as typhoid and Japanese encephalitis
*Meet with the counselor to learn about the availability of counseling provided to all international service employees
*Make a decision on whether to sell/rent our home and move forward with those plans
*Find a home for our cat & fish (thanks mom!)
*Sell our cars
*Purchase items for China that we wanted (clothes, detergent, health & beauty products, converters, etc.)
*Tour storage facility in East Peoria (for those things that weren't coming with us)
*Pack up items for storage, air shipment (4ft x 4ft x 5ft container), sea shipment (semi-truck length), checked baggage (3 bags per person) and the rest to Goodwill, garage sales or garbage

Jamie has had to do many more things at work that I wasn't even able to help with.  Thank goodness for good friends and family because our children have spent so much time at other people's homes while we were in meetings, on the phone, packing & organizing our things, and out-of-the country.  The girls spent more time with my friends in the last two months than I did, I'm trying to not be bitter about it!

I jokingly told Jamie that I would see him in August because I felt like we were dividing and conquering and we wouldn't really be back in a routine until August.  We were getting things done, but we had to go in opposite directions to make it happen.  Every night we'd get the girls into bed look at each and say "power through" (the fatigue) and start working on our to-do list.  I am very glad to be getting to the end of the list, even though I know more is coming, it's nice to have a break for a moment.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Our Amazing Race

Jamie and I have watched every season of The Amazing Race, which has been on for 10 years.  The show premiered the summer that we were married that means a lot of racing around the world!  We view our move to China as our own version of The Amazing Race.

As part of our preparation for our move, Jamie, myself and LBean participated in a day-long culture training about China.  Something that we heard from our cultural trainer and from other ISEs (international service employees) is how the days and weeks will cycle through.  As with life in the United States, there will be good days and bad days, but when a family is on an international assignment everything is magnified.  So the bad days can be really bad, but the good days can be really great.  Therefore, you live for the great days.

There is actually data on how emotions cycle during an international assignment.  Typically there is a honeymoon period in the beginning where everything is new and it is all an adventure.  At about three months the newness wears off and a feeling of not having at "home" in the US and not being settled in the new country takes over.  Then, there's an upswing for a few months and another dip around six months.  For us, the three-month mark should be around the time of our first R & R trip (rest & relaxation vacation) and the six-month mark will be Christmas in the States with family.  I hope the timing works well for our family and smooths out some of those low points.

So, as Phil would say on the show, "The Amazing Race starts now!"