Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Chinese Phenomenon of the VIP Card

As I’ve shared before, China is a cash-based, prepay society.  Bakeries, gym memberships, spas and grocery stores are not exempt.  The Chinese love their pre-paid VIP cards and now so do I!  (Well, at least for the spa.)
It is not uncommon at businesses to be asked to purchase their VIP, or membership, card.  By paying a set amount ahead of time, the card owner receives discounts and extra privileges.
I bought one of the my spa’s (yes, I’m now calling it “mine!”) membership cards.   Because of my card I received coupons for two free massages plus 30% off massages, 25% off nail care, and 15% off retail products.  I think it’s a fantastic deal, especially since I was going to be spending my money there anyway.
One of the local bread stores took a different approach.  It won’t exactly “match” the amount the patron puts onto the card, but it will add an additional amount for “free”.  For example, if I put 50 RMB on the card, then and the store might add 5 RMB; or, if I put 100 RMB on the card, then the store could put an additional 20 RMB on the card
There are no hitches, usually, but in China a business is often here today and gone tomorrow.  It’s not unheard of for a favorite nail salon to be a grocery store by the next time you want to visit.  It is a risk to give a business money up front because there is no recourse (that I know of) if the business closes up shop and takes the money.  But, if you have confidence in the business, it can be a great deal.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What’s On My Bookshelf (or my Kindle)?

Since we’ve moved, I can boast a new interest in Asian studies.  Asian history and Asian culture was not a big focus (or not really any focus at all) in junior and senior high school.  And, up to now, I wasn’t personally drawn to it.  Jamie, however, has had a fascination with the far East and especially with tea ceremonies.
Jamie and I both come from families that bond over books.  Which, sometimes means we are all sitting in the same room, lovingly ignoring each other with our noses in books.
I thought I’d share some of my reads since we’ve moved...just in case you suddenly have an interest in Asian studies!  Some books are adoption related and I’ll share more adoption books in another post.  Not all of them were favorites, but I gained a little something from all of them.  If you click on the book titles, you will be taken to the Amazon page for the book.  If you want to buy the book, be sure to check whether it is the paperback or Kindle edition.

The Bridge by Kay Bratt
   **This book is set in Suzhou, China where we live currently.  Here is part of my review of the book that I posted on Goodreads, "As a Tai Tai (expat spouse) currently living in Suzhou, China I really enjoyed reading about my favorite places in Suzhou. Kay does a great job describing the sights and sounds of Suzhou, right down to my favorite Chinese restaurant Yang Yang's.  I laughed when she referenced the slow elevators and the blue Buick vans driving the expats around (except now they are all golden Buick vans)."
    **Loved this story and it's sequel (Dreams of Joy).  The essence of Shanghai she describes in the story is still very much alive.  I believe that when she refers to "Soochow", that is the old spelling of Suzhou.  There is a Suzhou waterway in Shanghai.
Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows
   **This is a great book that intertwines a good story along with the pursuit to master the Chinese language.  My favorite part is when the author's Chinese friends ask that she warn them that she is about to start speaking Chinese so that they will know she is making an attempt.  I feel like that all the time!

   **This is book about one woman's experience volunteering in an orphanage.

by Xinran
   **This is a very well written book and I am looking forward to reading more of her books.

Coming Up:
On Gold Mountain by Lisa See
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang
If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What's That? Wednesday: For the love of Oranges

Is it possible to be obsessed with a fruit?  If so, sign me up for a support group.  Our family has fallen in love with the miniature oranges here.  You might know them as Mandarin oranges.  And, did you know, they don’t have to come from a can?  Amazing!
Seriously though, we buy these little gems 20-30 oranges at a time.  Each of us can eat 4-5 in a sitting and they are so easy to peel that EBean can take care of herself.  Some of the segments have seeds, but most do not and did I mention how sweet they are?  So yummy.  In fact, I will reach for one, or two, or three, instead of a piece of chocolate in my nightly “the kids are in bed and I now have some time to myself” celebration. (Anyone else participate in that celebration?)
And, don’t get me started on the strawberries that have been in season for the last 3 months...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Reflective Post: Part 3

Quick catch-up: This is part of three of three installments regarding our family’s first trip back to the states.  (You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.)
So, did he? Did Jamie have to drag me onto the airplane to get me back to China? Although I was the only crying at the airport, no, Jamie did have to coerce me onto the plane. Actually, I was ready to be “home”. Living out of a suitcase for 3 weeks with your children and without a routine is really hard.  I was looking forward to being back in the apartment and getting back to normal, whatever that might be! I will be honest, having our trip to the Philippines dangling in front of me helped a little, too.
The tears at the airport were because I had to say goodbye to my friend. It was so good to see friends and the trip reinforced just how special my friends are to me. It made it even harder to leave. I feel the same way about my family, but we had been used to being at least a few hours from family since we went to college. But, my friends were part of my every day life and had seen me through the ups & downs of being a mother, the challenges that face every married couple, and our evolving identities as we get a little bit older.
Looking back over the trip I had so many emotions. It was good to be back in Illinois, good to be around the familiar, good to know my surroundings and good to know where to find things. It was nice to be in control of my day and to be able to hop into a car without texting a driver to come get me.
I liked the feeling of being “back in my element.” Where I was good at something, whether it be a speech pathologist, the person that could be trusted to plan an event, the mom that knew where to get pictures taken, how to plan a birthday party or simply the person that could make a positive contribution of some sort. As I told the friends from our small group, some days in China I feel like I’m just “sucking air” (which, considering the air quality, is not necessarily a good thing)! I was so new that I felt like I just wasn’t good at anything. I felt as if in every new friendship I was the one doing the taking, asking questions, being needy and not being able to return the favor.
It was great talking to friends and family about our experiences. My favorite question was, “Do you like it there?” and then the surprised look on the person’s face when I said “yes”--and I meant it. I could tell who reads the blog! I don’t expect expect all my friends and family to read the blog, that’s not why I do it. But, it was funny when someone would ask a question and I would think to myself, “If you read my blog post from...., you’d know the answer.” For those who do read the blog, it was nice not to be asked the same questions all the time and to be able to go in more depth about our experiences because the person asking already knew the basics. From the beginning I have had three goals for the blog: 
1)  Provide my daughters with a scrapbook of our time in China. I plan to have the blog posts printed off and made into a book someday (yes, there are websites that do that). I want them to see our memories through their mother’s eyes and to try and spark memories of the little every-day experiences we had.
2)  To give encouragement to the spouses of future expats. I was a bit of a blog stalker before we moved. I just needed confirmation that other moms were doing this and that they were okay. I put “mom blog China” in the Google search engine several times digging for new information.
3)  To keep the grandmas happy. The least I could do after I moved their granddaughters half way around the world was to keep them happy with pictures, explanations of our life and some common ground for them to ask our girls questions about what had been going on in their lives.
But, to be very, very frank, life looked a little predictable there, too. I guess I want the best of both worlds -- a little predictability and a little adventure. Many days I long for the US, but I have no regrets moving to China and I wouldn’t want life any other way.
I like that the Chinese have not yet been caught up in the intense speed of life that has taken over our American culture. I love watching the girlfriends and boyfriends or husbands and wives riding on their E-bikes (electric scooters) with their arms around each other and whispering in each other’s ears. I like watching friends ride their E-bikes side by side in the E-bike lane laughing and talking as they go to and from work. I love, love walking everywhere and being in the hub of things. 
Although LBean’s school day is long and Jamie works very hard, the way our week runs is so great. As a family, we eat almost 16 meals a week together. We all have breakfast together and then Jamie walks LBean to the bus. That would not be a possibility for us in the US. We eat dinner together every night except when Jamie has business dinners. I like that once LBean gets home from school we are home for the evening. We are not running to Scouts, lessons, church activities, or get-togethers.  I know that some families do things in the evenings here, but for the most part, the restricted transportation, the long school days, and the general views of those here don’t support evening activities. Also, the weekends belong to us. We aren't close enough to drive to family, we don’t have meetings to attend, and there are no household improvement to-do lists. We are together all weekend long...which can be a good or a bad thing depending on the weekend.
I love all the cultures that we encounter every day. Our city has a large Spanish, German and South Korean population, but we have friends that are from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, Africa, Mexico, Canada, Japan and so many other countries. Coming from a small town this is really awe-inspiring. Most of the people here are tri-lingual: their native language, English and Chinese, it is amazing.
Of course, the travel is such a nice perk. I won’t go into much detail, but part of the international employee benefits package includes travel. For us, it’s two trips a year plus a trip back to the US after we’ve been abroad for a year. Jamie and I always said we were saving our money for travel and now we’re getting a chance to really live it. We are in a community where expats can spout off their trips to Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Dubai, Korea, etc. Not only that, but they can tell you the best places to stay, where to eat and the best shopping deals. When we live so close, there is no reason not to travel!
To sum it up, I’ll steal my friend and fellow expat’s assessment of China. “Do I like China? Sure, China’s okay, but I like my life IN China.”

There's a lot of Christmas and US goodies
in those suitcases!

These suitcases are deceiving, they're not just clothes, but
one has a big box of Bisquick in the middle and the
other two have similarly heavy items buried in the middle.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Reflective Post: Part 2

Early that Saturday morning the girls and I hit the open road and headed back to Peoria. We were spending the weekend there and had several appointments scheduled for that Monday morning. 
Quick catch-up: This is part of two of three installments regarding our family’s first trip back to the states. (Read part 1 here: The Reflective Post: Part 1 )After nearly a week of struggling to get some sleep – at the proper time – the girls and I find ourselves hitting the open road once again and heading back to Peoria. Since I’d scheduled several appointments for a Monday, we decided to spend the weekend there. Two words I could use to describe the weekend: wonderfully crammed!
I really do miss driving myself places, but this trip quickly reminded me of the reality of driving young children around. I do not miss driving with children complaining, yelling orders, and fighting from the back seat. The trip was a mixed-blessing for sure.
We started our whirlwind weekend attending our former neighbors Christmas party. In the 10 years we’ve known them, I’m not sure we’ve missed a party yet! Besides that, we got to totally surprise the host, who didn’t know we were coming! The hostess kept “the secret,” though. She knew we were coming because she’d called my old cell phone number a month or so before. You may recall that I’d switched phones with my mom before we left for China. Consequently, they had a chance to chat and catch up.
Let me tell you a little bit these wonderful people who hold a very special place in our hearts. They were our first neighbors when we moved into first house. They took us under their wings when didn’t know a soul in town. In fact, to announce that I was pregnant with LBean, I put a sign in our bathroom window because their kitchen window looked directly at it. When we remodeled our only bathroom in our first house, these were the people that gave us a key to their home and let us use their bathroom for not one, not two, but three weeks! They are those kind of people!
That weekend I tried to cram everything that LBean might have possibly mentioned that she missed or do some “regular” things that she missed. We went swimming at the local indoor swimming pool with friends and even ran into a former preschool classmate that had sent Lilly a pen-pal letter. Since the girls and Jamie fell asleep early after being worn out from swimming, I snuck out for a little girl time at the local Mexican restaurant. Nothing like chips & salsa and some gabbing with friends to make a girl feel good!
We attended our home church and the girls went to Sunday school (and we didn’t even have to take a bus to get there!). After church, we had lunch with friends. Later that evening, we went back to the church to catch up and eat with our small group. We plunked the food down in the middle of the table, pulled up chairs and ate, and talked the night away! It wasn’t nearly long enough, but it meant so much, especially during the busy Christmas season.
Me with two of my dearest friends...our friendship is older than our children!

This is quite a crew!

Monday was a slew of doctor’s appointments and dentist appointments. We took LBean & EBean to the one place they requested to eat...McDonald’s. They got to run around the play land and we caught up with even more friends who met us there. Next, we snuck in a quick trip to the “square” to buy some cute hair bows -- a rarity in China.  This was a well-timed-out weekend!
At our last appointment of the day  -- the dentist – it was discovered that LBean had some “suspicious” spots on her teeth. We were told “the spots” should be monitored over the next few months. As they’re telling me this, I’m thinking: “What?!? We’ll be in China! How are we going to make this work?” I desperately tried to explain the situation that we were flying out in just under two weeks, and that coming back really wasn’t an option for us.
Regardless, we made an appointment for three days later and tried to mentally prepare ourselves for wasting an entire day on the road to come for her appointment. Clearly this was important and I wasn’t go to ignore it, but it was messing up my carefully planned week!
Thankfully, it all worked out. Here’s how: as Jamie and I were sitting there discussing what other errands we needed to run and when and how we were going to return his rental car, etc., the receptionist approached us and said that the doctor had finished an appointment early and could squeeze LBean in right now. What a relief! I was so happy and I need to make a mental note to take back some pearl earrings for everyone in the dentist’s office!
Our “cramming” didn’t just end with this wonderful weekend. Let’s see, what else did we cram into the next few weeks?
-My niece, Rachel's basketball game.
-A trip to the salon to have my oldest niece, Alison, cut my hair.
-A trip to St. Louis to see the Illini v. Mizzou basketball game and catch up with more friends.
Me & my Dad!

Jamie with his college friend J.C. and his wife Jennifer.

Jamie standing under the Toyota sign talking with
Craig, one of the famous college "study buddies".

Me with my friend and former college roommate Sally.

-Another party for EBean’s birthday, this time we celebrated with family.
-Lunch with my best friend from high school.
-Lunch with a treasured
friend from college.
-Jamie and LBean went to his sister’s elementary classroom to talk about China and teach them how to write some Chinese numbers.
-Shopping, shopping, shopping...I wish I could say that shopping was all fun, but mostly it was hurried and frantic. Everyone needed new shoes. Quality shoes are hard to find in China and it’s hard to find shoes that fit my larger-than-the-typical Asian woman-sized feet. I found some clothes for the spring, things for LBean’s May birthday party, and food and household items.
-Four different family Christmas celebrations. We made them all!  Here are some of my favorite photos from Christmas.
The annual Christmas photo at my parents before dashing
out the door to Christmas Eve service.
My nephew Ian with his
steak-flavored Pringles...all the way from China.

My niece Molly with her new pink Chinese slippers.

EBean & LBean showing off some new
dress-up clothes.

My sister-in-law Angela with a book
that I gave her for Christmas called "Dreaming In Chinese"

EBean and Molly putting the finishing touches on
the Baby Jesus Cake (everything on the cake
symbolizes something related to Christ's birth).

My niece Alison and Jamie's grandmother, wearing her
new Chinese freshwater pearls.
Ian and his new Mickey kung fu
t-shirt from Hong Kong Disneyland.

Jamie with the Christmas tree I won
at a charity auction.

Uncle Matt with his new Chinese ear picks
from Hong Kong Disneyland. What every man needs!

Grandma Callie with her Chinese painted tile...
a pig of course (from the Chinese zodiac).

By the end of the week I was literally exhausted. I didn’t want to say no to anything. This was my one chance (at least for a while) to see friends and family and I didn’t want any regrets. I did spend one day lounging around on the couch because I was fighting off sickness and didn’t want to spend 14 hours on a plane feeling miserable.
The last few days and nights were spent slowly and methodically packing our 9 bags. I had Christmas presents, new clothes and shoes, food and other comfort items to stuff into our bags. I thought I was going to have to leave a small box of things behind, but when I turned it on to its side to weigh it (yes, I had to the luggage weigh-in dance again) things shifted and I got it all to fit!
LBean & EBean playing by "the holding area"
with all of our Christmas treasures.

We said goodbye to some of our family and my mom and Jamie’s parents divided our luggage between their two cars and we headed back to Peoria. We were ending our trip where we started, at our friends’ house. The grandparents said a quick goodbye, no reason to prolong the emotional part. 
Our college friends that had faithfully sat with us through 10 years of Illini football drove up to Peoria as well to watch the Illini bowl game with us. We spent a quiet New Year’s Eve with some of our closet friends. We stayed up late chatting and trying to avoid the inevitable. Finally, we gave in and headed to bed.
We were up by 3 a.m. or so to make our 5:30 a.m. flight. We had our personal chauffeur (my friend) to drive us to the airport and it did make the check-in process go much smoother than our move to China.
But, the big question is, did Jamie have to drag me back on the plane? To be continued... 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Reflective Post: First trip to the US, Part 1

I’ve been avoiding writing this post for weeks. I’m not completely sure as to why, but perhaps it’s because more reflective in nature. Consequently, it’s more emotional than giving a detailed log of our vacations or daily life in China. But, it’s March and high time to get caught up on any loose blog strings I’ve got floating around cyberspace!
In early December, we all journeyed back to Illinois for our first time since moving to China. I, at first, wrote “home” instead of “Illinois,” but felt I had to delete it. Why? Because “home” is where my husband and children are and that is no longer Illinois. I’ve tried really hard not to refer to Illinois as home in front of the girls because I don’t want to encourage the idea that where we are isn’t home.
So, after five months of living in China, we packed up our bags and flew back to the states to spend Christmas with family. I fully understand how lucky we were to spend Christmas with family since we have friends who haven’t been back for years. For some, it’s a choice. For others, it’s financially related or because they’re in the middle of adoptions and couldn’t leave the country with the newest additions to their families because their adoptions had not been finalized yet.
In my mind, and funny enough, also on a map, China seemed so far from the US that I think I mentally separated “here” and “there” and didn’t want to think about both at the same time. (Give me a pass here, please! So much change can be overwhelming. Couple that with trying to make everything “normal” for the kids and I guess you see a coping strategy coming to play!) But, if the trip reminded me of anything, that although the 14 hour flight is brutal, it really is easy to get back to “there.” We took a two-hour trip to Shanghai, hopped on a plane, and landed in Chicago. Just 2 1/2 more hours and we were in the town we moved from; another 2 1/2 hours further we were back with family! It was very reassuring to me that, in all reality, it is very easy.
I could have gotten really teary-eyed when the US immigration officer said, “Welcome home,” but I managed to hold it together. (I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the first person to “break down” at that the greeting, though!) Now, having the point-of-view that I do, I have to say that I was a little disappointed in the personnel at the airport yelling (not in anger, just to get a point across) at the “foreigners” coming into the country to “go here” and “stand there.” Saying it louder will not make visitors to our country understand what you’re saying any faster. Trust me...I know.
We made it to the car rental place and got the girls strapped into their car seats, which are optional in China (not for our family, just no seat belt laws in China). Jamie put his foot on the gas, first time in 5 months, and off we went!
Completely surreal.  It’s just that it was so “normal” and we had not been living normal for a few months. LBean asked why we didn’t bring our driver from China with us. I tried to imagine what his reaction might have been to the sights & sounds of suburban Chicago. I did tease Jamie a bit about the “touchy” brakes, or maybe it was his foot, but there was some adjustment there. We also had a touch-and-go moment with some traffic.  I told him that the girls’ grandmas would be very ticked if we made it this far with their granddaughters and then got into accident 5 hours from their houses!
There was comfort in knowing that we were in charge of our own car and we could stop at any time along the way. The first bathroom stop did make me pause and wonder why I’d been pining for US bathrooms so much (squatter toilets aside), because it really wasn’t very nice. Our first fast food stop...Arby’s! Mmmmm…so yummy!! Jamie looked through the window and saw a co-worker inside (we were still 1 1/2 hours from our town) and I had to laugh. What were the chances?
For the rest of the drive I was priming Jamie to stop at our friends’ house. We were tired and jet-lagged and it was late, but I was determined. The girls and I were spending one night in town before going back to Jamie’s parents’ house. If I didn’t see my friend that night, it was going to be a week before I’d have the chance again. I borderline-begged him to drive straight to their house and, because I have an amazing husband, he did! I cannot tell you the joy I had (and it makes me tear up as I type) knocking on my friend’s door and seeing her face! I had a suspicion she might try to meet us at our hotel when we arrived and I wanted to beat her at her own game. I was right! I’m glad I got there first! We plopped down at their house and savored our time together. (Love you S.G.!) 

In our hotel and enjoying our surprise.
The night just got better because when we checked into the hotel there was a very large box from the “Washington Christian Hospitality Committee.” Have I mentioned that I have amazing friends? The box was filled with fresh fruit, water, homemade cinnamon rolls, fruit snacks, and my beloved Diet Caffeine-Free Pepsi. They know us very well! The fruit didn’t even see the light-of-day because we woke up very hungry in the middle of the night from our jet lag and promptly proceeded to devour the grapes!

Trying to do the Chinese "victory" sign!

The next morning Jamie went to work. He was working in the home-office for a week and then would join the rest of the family in our hometown for two weeks of Christmas vacation. Jamie’s mother graciously agreed to drive over and not only pick up the girls and me, but also let me have a “play-date” with two dear friends and their children before leaving town. Jet lag couldn’t even ruin this play date!
The next few days were a blur of sleepless nights and the excitement of seeing friends and family. It took about 4 days before the girls were sleeping through the night. During one night we were all up at 2 a.m. and I had planned a shopping trip for the next day to get shoes for the girls, so they had to go with me. I knew that we would never get out the door on time because they needed baths. So, since we were all up anyway, the girls took warm baths at 2 a.m. by the light of the moon, literally. I didn’t want them any more awake than they were, so I refused to turn on the lights!
We had a good week with family and went to a very special Friday night performance at the remodeled college auditorium in our hometown. I thought the musical production was really great, but poor LBean was so tired she slept through most of the Trans Siberian Orchestra-inspired show. Also that night was a silent auction to raise money for the local hospital’s new building. Items to be auctioned were theme-decorated Christmas trees. Wouldn’t you know, I found one I had to have (it was covered in earth-moving machines!).  I secretly bid on it and was hoping to win and surprise Jamie with it on Christmas.
This is turning into multiple posts, please stay tuned for part 2!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What's That? Wednesday: Take that Sara Lee!

Doesn't that make a nice kitchen decoration?
See the picture to the right?  That is my new bread machine, which has been sitting in the box next to my refrigerator since the week before Chinese New Year (CNY).  If you didn't have CNY marked on your calendar and are not sure how long ago that's been approximately 2 months.

When I brought it home, my former Ayi, who spoke English, shook her head and said, "They should print the manual in two language, English & Chinese."  That was not encouraging!

My English scribbles next to the Chinese characters.
Jamie and I thought we could scan, upload the instructions to the computer, and then use Google translate to convert the Chinese to English.  When that failed, probably by operator error, we both scoured the internet looking for English versions of the manual or a website or blog that had already translated the instructions.  That was strike two.  So, yesterday I mustered up my courage to ask my Chinese language tutor if she would help me translate the manual. When she clapped her hands with giddiness I knew I had hit jackpot!

Less than a 1/2 hour to go!
Most Chinese don't bake and most don't even own an oven, which means making bread is an unusual task.  My tutor told me that is why the instructions were very detailed and spelled out each step.  It wasn't a wasted lesson; I actually started to recognize a few characters.  And, I thought it was so interesting listening to my tutor try to translate some of the words.  She would try to explain it, second guess herself, and then look it up on her phone.  To "let the bread rise" in the machine literally translated to "ferment".  Whole wheat flour translated to "wheat powder" and the most confusing was "milk powder".  I pulled out a cookbook from the US I had received from my aunt at Christmas and, yes, the recipe called for dried (powdered) milk.  The funny part was that my tutor kept trying to tell me that this was baby formula.  The Chinese characters might translate to baby formula, but I don't think the recipe really calls for Similac or Enfamil.  Today I tried asking my new Ayi (using my toddler Chinese language skills) and she also tried to tell me it was baby formula.  I'm still working on how to best translate those Chinese characters!  

Anxiously waiting to see what the middle of the loaf
will look like.
I threw caution to the wind and made my first loaf last night.  However, I chose a recipe that did not call for baby formula.  I do remember a few failed attempts with our family bread machine growing up, so I was cautiously optimistic (which is how I describe a lot of things here).  I was like an impatient kid and kept peeking in the top window to look at the dough.  Sure enough, it actually started to rise (a.k.a ferment)!

The bread was done after the girls went to bed, so Jamie and I enjoyed our warm, fresh bread in peace. The picture I will not post is me sitting in bed, eating my homemade bread, and watching the first two episodes of Downton Abbey, season two.  Some things are private you know!

The finished product, 100% whole wheat bread.
No baby formula required!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ohhh, iPhone!

This week's What's That? Wednesday's special focus is the iPhone.  I know, I know nothing new for all of you out there, but for me to finally having a functioning smart phone, it is a pretty big deal!

Before we moved we found out that it was possible to bring an iPhone from the States and have it "unlocked" here, which would allow me to use it in China if I put in a Chinese SIM card.  Buying an iPhone in China is possible, but it would cost $600-$ sounds much better for me!

The problem was, my Verizon iPhone did not have a SIM card (they're built in), but my mom's AT&T iPhone did.  The solution, we swapped phones and we were both happy, of course.  My mom got a newer iPhone and I was happy that I didn't have to pay a huge fee for breaking my Verizon contract, even though three months ahead of the move Verizon promised me that moving overseas was an acceptable reason for breaking contract.

Friends from Suzhou graciously agreed to take my "new to me" iPhone to a local electronics mall and have it unlocked by the same guy that took care of their phone.  They came back with the sad news that the tech guru had not yet learned how to unlock the software version that I had on my iPhone.  I needed to be patient and wait a few months until the tech guys figured out the software.

Fast-forward 6 months and I still was using my $5 phone from the local supermarket.  The joke was that it took me about 25 minutes to compose a text and that if for some reason it came through in all caps (which means you're yelling at the person) not to be offended!  I knew that life was going to get busy pretty soon and that it would be really nice to have "unlock the iPhone" crossed off my to-do list.

My friend and I went to the electronics mall in Old Town to see if the computer guys had caught up to the software on my phone.  Unfortunately we had no luck, again.  I was mentally going between "you've got to be kidding me" and "we're not leaving here until this is working".  We started wandering around this mall while I was waiting to get a text back from another friend about a Gevey card, which is a SIM card that is put in with the regular SIM card and unlocks a phone.  We tried explaining to a random tech guy at one of the electronics stalls what a Gevey card was...he showed us iPhone covers instead...and then he caught on to the fact we wanted to phone unlocked.  Although he didn't invoke a lot of confidence in us, he assured us that he could do it.  Sure enough, he did!  It cost me 100 RMB (about $15) and I had a working phone.

Later that day I tried to text our driver and ask if he would unlock the car for me so I could get something out of the back.  Imagine my reaction when he texted me back saying that he'd like for me to grab an umbrella out of the car.  What?!  Then he started calling me!  I kept telling my friend, "Why is he calling me?  He knows I can't speak Chinese!" and I would hang up immediately.  Finally I looked down and saw a text that said, "Stop hanging up on me....this is your husband." telephone hadn't transferred my contacts when I unlocked the iPhone, so I manually put in my driver's number, or so I thought.  I had saved Jamie's cell phone as my driver's number and had been hanging up on him repeatedly.  Sorry honey!  Jamie couldn't unlock the car for me, but he really did want me to bring his umbrella up to the apartment, which I promptly forgot to do.

The funny iPhone story for this week is the quickness to which my children learn technology.  EBean was amused that I could change the background picture on the iPhone and she watched, and apparently learned, how to go to "utilities", select "wall paper" and then change the background picture.  Last Friday, EBean and I scooted back to the apartment right before LBean got home from school.  EBean decided to stay in the warm van with the driver while I ran to the bus stop to get big sister.  Before I got out of the car, I showed EBean how to use the camera so she could have some fun while I was gone.  It wasn't until much later that I looked at my phone and saw my new background picture (see right).  EBean took a picture of her feet up on the back of the seat and then figured out how to set it as the background.  Did I mention that she is 3?!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Philippines

When we moved to China in July several people asked us if we had made our Chinese New Year (CNY) travel plans yet, which fell at the end of January this year.  All but one person said we needed leave China for CNY because it involves several days of continual fireworks and a mass exodus of Chinese people to their home provinces.  As the time for CNY drew closer, some friends changed their tunes and said "Oh, you should experience CNY once".  Well, maybe we will next year, but for this year we decided to go the Philippines.

I chose the Philippines because it was a relatively short flight, just 4 hours from Shanghai to Manila and considering we had just gotten back from the US (a 14 hour flight), that sounded pretty good to me!  It's also in the same time zone as China, and as LBean would say "Ha ha, no jet lag."  The Philippines is also tropical, beautiful and warm....enough said.

This trip was a bit complicated because Jamie had to fly back to the US for a meeting that ran right up to the start of our vacation.  We decided that it made more sense for Jamie to fly from Peoria to Manila, via Chicago and Tokyo and just meet us there.  I got to make my inaugural international journey with the girls, no help from Jamie.  Because I was flying solo, I felt justified in purchasing direct flights for the girls and myself from Shanghai to Manila!

My girls were fantastic travelers and all went well.  As with our previous trips, I printed off preschool and kindergarten themed worksheet packets for them to do on the plane.  They get very excited to see what's in their packets and I like that they're doing something educational.  It was interesting being on a flight where most of the people were either expats going on vacation or Philippinos returning home for the CNY.  Most of the passengers were in pretty high spirits and it certainly was a fun flight.  The Philippine Airlines flight also gave us the best flight safety video that I've ever seen.  A little bit of music, some humor and dancing flight attendants.  It was very funny!

The girls and I arrived in Manila an hour ahead of Jamie and the plan was to meet him at the airport and then ride to the hotel together.  While we were "waiting" for Jamie, we figured out where the ATM was and got a snack at Jollibee.  As were sitting at the terminal, a security guard asked if we needed help and I explained our situation.  She told me that Jamie's flight was in another terminal and I could only reach it by taxi.  So, off we went trying to find Jamie.  We had no international cell phones or any way to contact each other.  We walked up and down Jamie's terminal and decided that it was best to just go onto the hotel since it was almost 10 p.m.

My first impressions of Manila, as we drove through it at night, were those of a musical movie set...airplane hangers, neon lights, and corrugated metal.  Motorcycles were buzzing around and the nightlife was quite active.

As we got to the hotel I was a little uncertain about where we were.  It was dark and we didn't pull up to a regular hotel.  We had actually arrived at the Manila Aquarium which was attached to our hotel.  We left our luggage with the valet, climbed up the stairs to the aquarium, through the ticket area and up the elevator to the hotel desk.  The elevator doors opened and...Jamie was standing there.  It was a beautiful sight!  We were very happy to be a reunited family.

The next morning we decided to visit the American Cemetery in Manila since Jamie's grandfather served in the Philippines after WWII.  Knowing that we probably wouldn't ever be back there, and to connect with a piece of our family history, we wanted to go.  We hired a car to take us there and wait for us as we walked around, which I'm learning is a really smart way to sight-see in southeast Asia.  We stopped at the visitor's office first and the caretaker/overseer of the cemetery introduced himself.  He was also a mid-west boy, raised in Iowa.  It was nice to talk to him and hear more about his experience in the military and the cemetery.  He said that there were several sets of brothers buried together and a father and son were laid-to-rest together.  We then walked around the grounds, looked for familiar last names, and enjoyed the mosaic murals around the memorial.

Tile mural in the chapel.

Maps made from tiles of the different Asia-Pacific battles.

The exterior of the chapel.

That would be a van full of nuns!

The yellow contraption is called a "Jeepney" and they were
every where.  They looked like a really fun taxi ride.  The
Jeppneys were originally made from left-over US
military Jeeps after WWII.

It's hard to see, but that is what I call a side car!

Look at all the power lines running through
San Andres St.

Now it truly is a paradise!

Enjoying a Philippino lunch!

A "mermaid" at the aquarium.

The public fish pool.

There are special fish that will *ahem* eat the dead and dry flesh off your body.  It's something that I had read about and really wanted to do, but under the right circumstances.  For a small fee (about $3) I could have dipped my feet in the public fish pool at the aquarium, but thankfully Jamie discovered that the spa at the hotel had private facilities for just a few more dollars.
I wish that we would have captured my first reaction on video because it was the strangest feeling and I had a pretty funny reaction.  I also wish I could adequately explain how it felt.  The weirdest part was that the pool was made for you to put your entire body into it.  Umm, no thank you.  I don't want to know where all my dead skin is!

Can you see the fish swimming around my feet?

By some Chinese New Year decorations, doing the
traditional Chinese "victory" sign.

Running to the room.
We checked out of hotel in Manila and took a short flight to the island of Cebu.  We hopped into a cab and took the back roads to our hotel.  The route took it us past some interesting sights including several live chickens and huts on pillars at the edge of the ocean.

Lovely lady waiting at the Cebu airport.

First afternoon at the beach: 

That's a real coconut!

What the McClintock family really likes to do on!

The kids play area and slides.

One of the pools.

Who said we can't have ice cream for lunch?

Two tired and slightly sunburned sisters.

We spent part of a day in the actual town of Cebu.  The explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in Cebu in the 1500's.  He placed a large wooden cross on the island and now the original cross in encased in a new cross at a little pavilion.  In an attempt to seize control of the area (an important trade route), Magellan decided to invade Mactan Island (the island that our hotel was on)...this did not go well and he was unceremoniously "buried at sea" near the island by the local natives.

Near the site of Magellan's cross is the Basillica of Santo Nino.  When Magellan landed he brought a statue of the Christ child as a gift for the wife of the Rajah of Cebu.  There is a huge festival where the statue is carried through the streets and then dressed in new clothes.

A date night, even in the Philippines.
We had to get up pretty early to make our flight home.  We had checked with the front desk and left on the shuttle the hotel had suggested.  It turned out that it wasn't enough time.  Our family, along with a few others, we running onto the plane.  I think we could have improved our time if every passenger wasn't required to take our boarding passes, step into another line, pay our "security fee", step into the security line and fight our way to the front.  The girls and I had a pleasant surprise on our flight from Manila to Shanghai for an unknown reason.  Somehow we were upgraded to business class (Jamie wasn't because he had booked his flight separately).  It was a mixed blessing because as much fun as it was to be served a three-course meal on china, I was all alone with the girls...again, at the front of the plane and Jamie was (blissfully, at least I assume it was blissful) alone in the back of the plane.  Since the seats were bigger, there weren't three in a single row and the girls and I couldn't sit together.  LBean was brave and sat on other side of the aisle and EBean and I were on the other side.  We made it back safely to the cold and rain of China.

When we got home I was motivated to finish a craft project that I had envisioned.  We took the sea coral that we had gathered along the beach and spelled out the girls' names.  I paired their names with a picture of each girl from our vacation and I think the results were pretty good.  I think I was even happier that I finished a project within a year of deciding to do it!