Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What's That? Wednesday: 3rd Quarter Report

It’s official, we’ve been here for 3/4 of a year now and I thought I’d take a moment and reflect back on the first nine months.

  1. I have not ridden on the bus again since that very first time (read my post here "Small Triumphs")!  It’s not that I don’t like the bus or the bus system, I just haven’t felt like I have had an entire morning, or day, to really conquer riding the bus.  Oh well...
  2. Our fruit and vegetable purchases have grown less adventuresome.  In one post I mentioned that I tried to buy a new fruit or vegetable every time I went to the market.  We still try new fruits, in fact I bought what I thought were blackberries yesterday, but my fruit man said they were mulberries.  However, I am sending my Ayi to get our fruits & veggies most weeks, so I’m not at the market to be tempted by new things.  As for the veggies, we’re just in a rut.  
  3. We are on our second driver and our second Ayi and it happened all around the same time.  There are many reasons why we chose to do this and I won’t go into a lot of detail as to why, but I would like to say that I am very happy that we did.  Both are fitting into our family and our routine here very well. Although it was a bit chaotic for a few weeks, it was a good decision.  Before we moved, Jamie and I were participating in a day-long cultural training in our home to get us ready to move overseas.  The training was excellent and we both really enjoyed it.  However, looking back, I would suggest that they also include a portion of the training on how to be an employer.  In the US I had a housekeeper that came once or twice a month and she was a friend of a friend.  Other than high school babysitters, Jamie and I have not personally employed people.  How do we know when it’s time to let someone go?  How do you fire someone properly?  How do you show kindness and compassion, but not allow yourself to be walked all over and taken advantage of?  It’s even harder when the people are working in your home and so closely with your children.  These are lessons that we hadn’t anticipated learning.
  4. We have not been back to the Hope school yet.  Jamie and I were so moved by the new school his company is building for a small village north of Suzhou (read about it here "Leaving the Bubble") and we had hoped to be more involved, but the opportunity hasn’t presented itself.  Maybe when the building is finished we’ll be able to visit again.  We did get to see some of the students perform at Jamie’s Chinese New Year dinner ("Enter the Dragon").
  5. Life has been running at a much slower pace.  Before we moved, a friend (who had lived abroad growing up) told me “the first 6 months don’t count.”  I think that can mean several things...give yourself a chance to adjust and don’t judge your new home entirely on first will get easier, give yourself time to make friends...and for us, the first 6 months were all about experiencing and saying “yes” to almost every opportunity that presented itself.  For me, that meant doing lots of day trips to the pearl market, grocery shopping with friends, meeting for lunch, volunteering, seeing all of the Suzhou sights, etc.  Now that some of the newness has worn off, the pace of life has slowed down drastically.  Part of that’s because it’s cold outside, not to mention that it’s cold & flu season, and our weekends have been spent in our warm apartment, resting up from the week.  As it warms up outside, I’m sure we’ll start to do more things, but I’m enjoying this new pace of life.  
  6. We brought too many kitchen things.  Just a side note...had to throw that in!
  7. It is nice to not be the newbie!  By no means do I have it all figured out, but it is nice to have some of it figured out so I can now share that with the new people that arrived in Suzhou.
  8. I do daydream about “moving home”.  I am enjoying life here and I haven’t had a “China day” in quite some time.  But, it is possible that at this time next year, plans will be in full swing to get our family moved back to the US in the summer or at least by Christmas.  I do think about what home projects I want to tackle, which preschool I want EBean to attend and when I need to register her, what special China “momentos” I want to make sure I bring back, and about friends I want to reconnect with.  Time will fly, I am certain of that!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What's That? Wednesday: Finances & Taxes

Happy Tax Return day!  I received an email from a college friend a few weeks ago and she had some great questions about how finances and money work while living in a foreign country. This was one of the biggest questions I had before we moved, too.  Since it’s that time of year, I thought it would make an appropriate blog post. I’m using my friend’s questions as a guide for this post.  I hope you learn something, too!

1)  Do you have debit cards tied to your US banks or did you have to open an account in China?  We actually have both.  Our US debit card with our local credit union works here.  The only problem is that every time we use it, there is a fee from our credit union, a fee from the ATM here in China and an exchange fee.  It’s not a lot, but we use Quicken to track our expenses and it very annoying to type in a series of debit fees for under a $1.00.  Because China is primarily cash based anyway, we tend to make one big withdrawal for cash instead of individual debit purchases.  We also have a debit card with China Construction bank...well, actually just Jamie.  At our bank, you cannot open a joint savings account, only a joint credit card account.  For now, we just have the one savings account and use Jamie’s card.  He needed an in-country bank account for the company to deposit reimbursements for travel, etc.

2)  Do you get paid in Yuan or USD?  We are paid in US dollars.  It is deposited into our US savings account just like it was when we were living in Illinois.  Then, we decide how to transfer/withdraw the money.  The company will pay the $35 to wire transfer money to our Chinese bank account one time a month.  The only problem is that the money remains in US dollars until Jamie (since the account is in his name only) can go into our bank in China with his passport and ask to have the US dollars changed into Chinese Yuan.  This is why it would be very helpful to have joint accounts so that I could do that during the week and not wait for a Saturday when Jamie can go in during business hours.  Most recently we have just used our savings account in the US for cash withdrawals and avoided the whole thing all together.  I could also get my own savings account in China, but I just haven’t taken the time to do it.

3)  How do you pay bills - do you have a consolidated bill for your apartment that includes utilities and you just pay one entity or do you have to pay several like we often do here?  To pay for our bills in China our Realty Agency consolidates the rent, utilities, and our telephone and internet into an itemized bill, this is then sent to Jamie’s work where we arrange payment.  For any bills that we owe in the US, we handle it through our credit union.  A very special lady at our credit union and her staff collect all of our mail.  It is sorted and any bills that they receive are scanned and emailed to us and we make a decision as to how and when it needs to be paid and the credit union cuts a check.  Most of our remaining bills and monthly expenses in the US (credit cards, retirement accounts, college funds, etc.) are set up for monthly automatic transfer anyway, so it’s the few random yearly bills (professional liability insurance, etc.) that we are emailed about.  The credit union will also write checks for us that we have requested such as charitable donations, checks for birthdays & weddings, and orders that I have placed.  The credit union will also collect any checks that are mailed to us for birthdays and holidays and deposit them for us.  At Christmas-time, some people will have things they’ve ordered in the US sent to the credit union and pick up everything there when they are back in the US.  The credit union also sends us a mail packet once a month with the bills they’ve paid, our magazine subscriptions, cards and other mail they think we might be interested in.  It’s very exciting to get the mail packet!

4)  I assume you budget - is it harder to budget in China than it was in the US?  We did budget in the US and I faithfully entered in everything into Quicken.  I could have told you my monthly McDonald’s large iced tea expenses if you wanted to know!  Things are a little more relaxed now.  Because we are paying cash for so many things (it’s the Chinese way), I don’t spend nearly as much time entering receipts into Quicken.  At the beginning of the month I do set aside the cash we need to pay our driver for gas and tolls, our Ayi’s monthly salary and EBean’s preschool tuition.  I always want to make sure I have the cash needed to pay our driver and Ayi in a timely manner because it is their livelihood and I take it very seriously.  In China it’s good to have a lot of Chinese RMB on hand, because things just seem to come up and, all of a sudden, someone needs to be paid today for something and they only accept cash or the debit card machine is not working at a store and I end up using cash anyway.  At first it was difficult, but now I know, on average, how much we spend on groceries, eating out, etc. and it has worked out fine to use cash.  I do not miss all the time at the computer entering receipts!

Home sweet Illinois home!
5)  What is going on with your house back in IL?  Does the company take it over until you return or do you rent it out?  Because our assignment is supposed to be on the shorter side (under three years), and we had only lived in our house for two years, we decided not sell it.  We are using a local rental property management company.  I had expected the house to sit unoccupied for a few months, but we were able to find renters before we had even flown out of the country.

Do you think my I.O.U
would be accepted?
Jamie’s company provides tax preparation and filing services for their employees living abroad.  I cannot imagine trying to work my way through all those forms and rules.  I’m very thankful that we are not responsible for that!  Not only is Jamie taxed in the US, but his income is also taxed in China.

My lovely assistant was too busy cleaning
to take a picture, so I had to improvise!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Meeting in the Middle: Hawaii

Aloha!  When talks of moving to China started in earnest, we discussed the possibility of "meeting in the middle" with family for a reunion.  We felt like the "middle" happened to be in Hawaii (sorry Alaska)!  The week before Easter my mother and Jamie's parents met our family in Honolulu for some sun, fun, sand and grandchildren.  The girls and I also happened to meet Jamie in Honolulu...again, I found myself flying with the girls alone (a 9 hour flight this time) to meet Jamie in our vacation destination.  He had spent the previous week in the US at the home office and having dinner with all of my friends (and his friends too)!

I want it publicly known that my children were amazing travelers!  I don't remember if I've mentioned this before, but for long flights I print out preschool & kindergarten theme-based activity packets from a homeschool website and put them in plastic folders for them.  They get so excited now to see what packet they are going to get next!  I never pulled out the iPad, LBean didn't use her Leapster, and they didn't watch any movies (we were on a Chinese airline).  They entertained themselves, slept, and worked on their packets.

We flew through the night and arrived early in the morning.  Jamie came the night before and we were able to meet him at our hotel room.  LBean was excited and ready to go, so after Jamie made a quick trip to the medical prompt care clinic (he was treated for strep), they headed to the beach.   EBean quickly dressed for the beach too, but like me, succumbed to the jet-lag and we napped most of the morning.

EBean napping in her swimsuit.  Thankfully no one
got a picture of me napping!
My mom and Jamie's parents arrived later that evening.  By that time, the girls and Jamie had already fallen fast asleep, so I went out with the grandparents for dinner and we all turned in early.  The next day we walked two blocks to the Honolulu Zoo.  The zoo was the perfect size for our girls and we enjoyed walking around in the shade and looking at the animals.

Renting a double stroller was the best decision of the day!
I voted for a Dippin' Dots break, the girls agreed.
DiDi and LBean.
Me and my girls!
Jamie took some really great pictures of the plants
and animals at the zoo.  The hibiscus is the
state flower of Hawaii.
I think we have another budding photographer.
There was a petting zoo too, but LBean elected to
just take the animals pictures instead.

The next day we took the Honolulu City & Pearl Harbor tour.  Our driver took us through Honolulu's Chinatown (as big as a few city blocks).  He asked if anyone in the tour group had a Chinatown in their home cities.  Jamie and I enthusiastically raised our hands!  We stopped at the Honolulu Courthouse and looked at the King Kamehameha statue and used the nice courthouse bathrooms.  LBean & EBean reported back that the courthouse had sitter potties.  LBean and I liked the two story mailbox that had a mail chute from the second floor that dropped the mail into the mailbox on the first floor.

Grandma Callie & EBean by the
King Kamehameha statue.
King Kamehameha
We drove through the Punchbowl cemetery, which is the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.  The cemetery is built inside of a volcanic crater and offers a beautiful view of the valley below.  I don't remember the specifics, but I believe that our driver mentioned that there are 5 National Memorial Cemeteries outside of the continental United States, including Puerto Rico, the Punchbowl, Alaska, the Philippines (you can read about our visit here: The Philippines), and one other.

Our next stop was Pearl Harbor to visit the USS Arizona Memorial.  In grade school I was able to participate in a program called "Kid University" at Western Illinois University.  One of the "classes" I chose was all about Hawaii.  Our teacher was a really great teacher and she told us a story about how one Sunday morning in early December she and her father went out for an early morning drive and stopped high on a hill to take in the view.  As they were parked on the hill they saw the Japanese fly in for their attack on Pearl Harbor.  It still gives chills when I think about it.

That anchor is huge!

On the boat and approaching the USS Arizona Memorial.

A portion of the ship above the water.

Still leaking oil after all these years.
There were smiles there too.
Leaving the memorial.

After visiting the Arizona memorial, we spent some time touring a submarine, the USS Bowfish, which is docked near the Pearl Harbor memorial.  The girls enjoyed crawling through the submarine.  After lunch we visited the U.S.S. Missouri (Truman's home state) where the Japanese signed their surrender at the end of World War II.

This one is for Grandpa Weiser.
Our family hearts Apple products.

After a few days on Waikiki beach, we headed north to a resort on the beach.  We had arranged for each of the girls to receive a new sand bucket filled with goodies.  The next morning we walked next door to the Disney Aulani resort for a character breakfast with Mickey and a few of his pals.  Now that we've had character breakfasts at three different Disney resorts, I have to say that this was the best breakfast by far.  It was very relaxed, not over-crowded and very interactive.  "Auntie" entertained all of the diners with Hawaiian songs, taught the children how to make music with coconuts, and led a parade around the restaurant.

LBean making some music with coconuts.
GrandLarry enjoying his morning coffee.

A view of the beach at our hotel.
On Saturday morning our resort provided free lei making.  The girls chose to make bracelets and the rest of us made necklaces.

Grandma Callie pointing out the rays,
starfish and sharks in the water at our resort.

One of my Hawaiian princesses.

On Saturday night we walked next door for a Hawaiian luau.  I took the girls out in a boat.  The guy that was helping to paddle was not expecting me to say that we were visiting from China.  He said he kew a little Chinese and asked me to say something.  Under pressure, the only thing I could think of to say was "Wo ai xing baca", which means "I love Starbucks"!

LBean getting a tattoo.
A different kind of lei bracelet.

We rented a van on Sunday and took a little drive around the island.  We stopped at the Dole Plantation  before driving up to the North Shore.  Because we had the van all day, we made two trips to Target and Jamie and I had a movie date-night.

LBean reading the map for us.
EBean marking off her card in the pineapple maze.
Itty-bitty pineapples.
Riding the Pineapple Express

I think one of the highlights for me happened on the last full day we were at the resort.  We spent the morning in a more secluded lagoon near the resort and two sea turtles came into the lagoon.  The turtles might have come up on the sand if I didn't keep shrieking "look, look there are sea turtles" and scaring them away.  I'm from the midwest, so anything sea-related is very exciting for me!

We flew China Eastern air, so we were
allowed 2 checked bags per person.  It wasn't
quite as much as Christmas, but very close!
Two jet-lagged girls.
We had a wonderful trip.  Some of the reviews I had read online didn't speak very highly of Waikiki Beach and Honolulu because it is a big city, traffic is bad and it is filled with typical American shopping.  But, I've decided that it is all about perspective because that is something that Jamie and I were really looking forward too.  One Hawaiian resident told me that there are about 1.3 million people in total on all of the islands combined.  We have around 10 million in Suzhou, so Honolulu felt like driving through Peoria.  As expats it was nice to have many American stores within walking distance.  We also really enjoyed the food and we didn't have a bad meal.  When I'm back in the States I find myself craving beef, cheese, cold black ice-tea and most of all...salads.  I'm happy to say that I ate and drank all of those things.  However, I could not enjoy my iced tea from McDonald's as it was mango flavored and it has become evident that I am allergic to mango and what a strange thing to be allergic to!

Jamie and I also enjoyed running into Target to buy Easter candy, shoes & swimming suits for the girls, and presents for LBean's birthday.  We also had fun sneaking off to see the first Hunger Games movie on a Sunday night.  I have a strong suspicion that the movie will not make it to China.

Now, it's time to start thinking about where to meet the grandparents next!