Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What's That? Wednesday: I love Technology! 11/30/2011

Technology has been a huge blessing!  Emails, blogs and websites gave me an opportunity to learn about Suzhou before we arrived and make new friends.  Now that we are here, Skype and Google video chat have been great to talk to keep us connected to family & friends.

I knew that some websites would be blocked and I was fortunate to discover the power of a VPN (virtual personal network) before we checked out of the hotel.  Once we moved into the apartment I would lose our secure connection and my personal link to Facebook and our blog.  The VPN basically filters everything through a secure connection and I choose the destination of the filter.  If I choose a city in the US, then my internet connection is essentially coming through the US and nothing is blocked.  On a side note, someone I know dressed up for Halloween as the Great China Firewall, hysterical!

Skyping with my dad during our first weeks in Suzhou.
Technology has also bridged the huge language gap.  Our driver speaks no English and, almost five months later, my Chinese is pretty limited.  But cell phones have made up for the lack of verbal communication...almost.  Both our driver and Jamie have applications on their phones that take English/Chinese and translate it to the other language.  Some things do get lost in translation and you have to step back and look for the jest of the message rather than looking at the specifics. Even then I've been known to text "I don't understand" and I have received a few texts like that too.  Now I've learned that if I get a text that says "I went to", that means that our driver is waiting in the garage.  I'm not sure how an essential piece of the text is missing, but it happens every time.

We've also used Google translate to make lists or clarify things for our driver and our Ayi.  I try to stick to simple sentences with subject + verb + object in the hopes that it will translate better.  And most recently, we set up a Vonage account which uses our internet connection for our phone service.  We now have a local Peoria number that people can use to call us without international charges.  For us, we just pick up the phone and call, no dialing country codes.  For some numbers I don't even need the area code.  It's been really helpful when making doctor's appointments or leaving contact information with people in the States.  The best part is that when a caller leaves a voice mail it is transcribed and emailed to me.

For our next piece of technology, Jamie and I have our eyes set on a Slingbox.  The Slingbox would allow us to hook up a box to a cable connection at someone's house (a paid connection, nothing sneaky) and then use our computer to control what is recorded on our DVR.  We could watch whatever we wanted from back in the States.  No more missing The Amazing Race or Illinois football (maybe it's okay to miss that).  Do you think Santa delivers Slingboxes?

I'm so glad that technology has allowed our family to stay connected with friends and family back in the States.  What would I have done if I had to rely on letters and the Pony Express?  Now, if we could only do something about the 14 hour time difference and the middle-of-the night phone calls...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Anchor's Away

The second week my mom was here, we went our first cruise.  I tried to explain the significance of this trip to the girls.  I had to wait 31 years before I went on my first cruise and my girls were going at the ages of 2 1/2 and 5 years, but I think my lecture was lost on them.  When I told some other expats about our upcoming cruise, they would politely ask if we were taking a Yangtze River river cruise (a famous and near-by river), but when I said it was an American cruise line, their eyes would light up.  Ohhh, American standards of service!  
We departed from the downtown Shanghai cruise terminal, which is right along The Bund.  We boarded in the middle of the afternoon and set sail during dinner.  The cost of the cruise was almost worth it just for the cruise out to sea while we watched downtown Shanghai go by.  It was a stunning view of lighted skyline and we could have literally just sat there and looked out the window for hours.  As we got closer and closer to sea we could see the workers in the dry docks welding and building some enormous ships.  For this land-locked girl, it was fascinating to watch.
Getting ready to check-in for the cruise

Looking at The Bund & the Oriental Pearl Tower

Apparently our children were not happy
to take a family picture

Starting to light up

Our first towel animal

A dry dock; can you make out the hulls of the two cargo ships?

Since we had my mom with us, we had a family suite with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a living area with a fold-out bed.  It was enough room for everyone to have their own sleeping area and the girls could run around a bit too.  I loved looking out the balcony windows and watching the sea, it was so relaxing.
We spent one day at sea before we docked in Okinawa, Japan, early on a Monday morning.  The day started with a traditional Japanese performance on the dock.  The girls were not completely won over with the traditional drums at 6:00 a.m., but it was a fun for the adults.  We boarded a tour bus and headed north of the island to the aquarium.  The Okinawa aquarium is one of the largest in the world and it is beautiful.  I really, really wished we had more time there.  By the time the bus arrived we only had about 1 1/2 hours to run through the aquarium.  Our first stop was the touching pond, where we were able touch a starfish and a sea cucumber.  We walked by the tank with the whale sharks and watched the dolphin show.  EBean requested to see the sea turtles and she really enjoyed looking at the baby turtles.  

Walking down to the aquarium

Getting ready to go into the aquarium 

EBean looking at the fish

Two happy little girls

LBean collecting information cards at all the stations

We got to touch a starfish and a sea cucumber

Watching the dolphin show

Some amazing tricks

EBean's request, to see the sea turtles

Baby sea turtles

We really loved the baby sea turtles
We got back on the bus and went to a restaurant for a traditional Japanese meal.  I’m not big sea-food fan, but I did really enjoy the noodles, carrots, and broth!

Our last stop was a re-built castle.  I need to brush up on my South China Sea history, but I do know that Okinawa was heavily bombed during WORLD WAR II.  Much of the island was reduced to rubble and therefor many historical sites were lost, but there is an effort to rebuild the lost buildings.  I was talking to a friend about our trip and I said that the physical beauty of the island is wonderful, but the architecture was not wonderful.  Everything was rebuilt after the war and most buildings are made of concrete because Okinawa has a termite problem.

The castle was really interesting.  Okinawa was actually under the protection of China for many, many years.  It wasn’t until recently that Japan claimed Okinawa.  For that reason, the castle was built in a traditional Chinese manner.  The gardens around the castle were very Japanese.  LBean and I had great discussions about how this castle was different than what she had been expecting (she was thinking of an English castle or Cinderella’s castle at Disney) and what parts of the castle were similar (throne rooms, crowns, etc.)

What I enjoyed about the cruise was after spending a day of being tourists, it was great coming back on the boat and having a wonderful meal.  In China I miss the taste of grain-feed beef, fountain pop, and cheese, so I made up for lost time while on the boat!  

I'll post more about the cruise and the rest of our trip in some upcoming posts.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

All Around The Mulberry Bush

During my mom’s recent visit we tried to show her around our neighborhood and give her an idea of our everyday life.  We walked to a near-by neighborhood center to eat lunch and purchase some fresh fruits, veggies and eggs.  As we’re walking back to the apartment, with my mom gently cradling a dozen eggs in a plastic baggie, she said, “you do this every week?”  I told her I actually do it two or three times a week.  She said she’d eat out for most meals then.  I think I’ll take that under consideration!
No trip to China would be complete without a trip to get a massage.  Because labor is so inexpensive here, a massage is very reasonable.  I made appointments at one of my favorite places, which just happens to be within walking distance of the apartment (this could develop into a very bad habit).  My mom and I had a 90 minute (I know!) traditional Chinese foot massage.  It really is possible to have someone rub your feet for 90 minutes and it’s heavenly!  After that we had pedicures, had our fingernails Shellaced, and had our eyebrows done.  Any guesses as to how much we spent?  Anyone?  Just about $80 a person, phenomenal.
We also spent a morning walking by Elise’s preschool and peeking in the windows and then trekked to the Crowne Plaza to swim in the indoor pool...I’ll spare you the photos.  One afternoon my mom and I took off on our own and went to the Pearl Market, which is about 25 minutes to the north.  It’s like a large indoor mall that sells only pearls, gems and jade.  Embarrassingly enough, the salespeople there remember me (I’ve been there three times now) and one woman said, “Remember I gave you a good deal on the pearl necklace.”  China is the largest (I think or a close second) exporter of pearls, and most are freshwater.  There is a lake behind the Pearl Market where some of the pearls are harvested.  Let me just say, the pearls you can purchase in the States are heavily marked up.  The market here is full of good deals!

Looking at the silk worms
Standing in front of the mulberry bushes

One of the last tourist side-trips we took in Suzhou was to the silk factory (not to be confused with the silk museum).  It was really fun and interesting.  I was surprised at how much the girls enjoyed the short tour of the factory.  We learned that silk worms only eat mulberry leaves.  The Chinese held the secret to silk production for thousands of years and either a Chinese princess or a monk, depending on what story you believe, shared the process with people from the West.  Silk is very strong and although it’s warm, it “breathes”.  Real silk feels rough to the touch, as opposed to the smoothness of polyester impostor silk.  Also, silk is much like human hair and should be rinsed in shampoo rather than washed in the clothes washer.


A single and a double cocoon

Sorting the cocoons

The single silk strands being pulled from
the cocoons, while the cocoons are resting in water

Machines grabbing the individual
strands of silk

Multiple strands of silk

Re-reeling single strands of silk into multiple strands

Making a large, patterned silk piece of cloth

Punch cards which determine the pattern on the silk cloth

The whole process was really interesting and I really can appreciate the effort and time it takes to make silk.  The tour of the factory ends in the factory-owned shops, of course.  One whole showroom was devoted to bedding (silk duvets don’t have the residue and dust that down feathers do), another room was for silk table cloths and runners and the biggest room was filled with silk robes, scarves, ties and clothing.  While we were in the shop a friend from Suzhou (who had recommended the factory tour) reminded me through a series of texts that 1) I lived in Suzhou and could come to the shop anytime and 2) there were other places that I could buy silk.  I’m sure the things were overpriced, only tour groups come through the shops, but the patterns were so beautiful.  So, I found a few (cough, cough) things that were of interest to me!

Pulling a few inches of silk apart to make a duvet

The silk pulled all the way out to make a duvet
We ended our field trip at a Chinese restaurant in Old Town called Yang Yang’s.  Mmmm, it was so good and we ordered just the right amount of food.  That night we packed for our next adventure, our first cruise.  While I was packing for the trip, my mom was re-packing her things to go on the cruise and filling her checked bags with all of the Christmas presents that we had purchased so far so she could carry them back to the States.  My mom showed her love by bringing all of her clothes for the trip in her carry-on suitcase and filled her two checked bags with things for us (coffee from The Blend, boots & flip-flops for me, three jars of PB, Halloween candy, our Vonage box, clothes for the girls, Christmas presents,etc.) and then returned with checked bags full of our Christmas presents for people.  That is love!
Waiting to eat at Yang Yang's

Jamie thought he was ordering a single Coke,
he did, but it a bit larger than he was expecting.