Hollywood for lunch

Big milestone for us.  We decided we needed something quick for lunch.  Our friend, Curt, recommended Hollywood (which is a fast food restaurant) about 1 block from our apartment.  He said it was the Chinese version of a Korean version of western food.  I didn’t fully understand what that meant, but I ran over for some takeout.  There were pictures of food pasted all over the store – bibimbap (Korean mixed rice), Teriyaki Chicken, Chicken-katsu (breaded cutlet), hamburger steak, eel and rice, rice omelette, curry and rice, etc, etc.  I was the only customer and two ladies stood behind a counter ready to take orders.  I called Tenille and described to her what was available.  She picked Chicken and Mushroom.  I took a deep breath, and stepped up to the counter to order.  I said, I didn’t speak very well (in my best Chinese)… The lady smiled and said something.  I was hoping it was something like "It’s ok."  What I really need to learn is, "I don’t speak very well, and I won’t be able to understand a word you say."  She whipped out a laminated menu with pictures and English on it.  I didn’t see the Chicken and Mushroom, so I walked over to the sign and started pointing at the chicken and mushroom.  She came over and waved her hand in my face, then turned the sign around.  I assumed that meant it was unavailable.  So, I substituted Teriyaki Chicken (a safe choice, I thought.)  I pointed to three different menu items saying the word "this", "this", and "this".  She nodded her head.  Then she pointed to the prices.  There were two prices.  My general rule of thumb is always pick the cheap one.  So that’s what I did.  I figured out, that she was saying, small or big.  I had ordered the small.  The entire order came to 70 RMB ($10).  I waited about 5-10 minutes, and they had a bag ready for me to go.  I brought it home, and it was probably the quickest we’ve made and eaten a meal hands down.  And the food was delicious. 
This was a turning point for me.  I can do this.  Cheap good food a block away from our house, and all I have to know for next time is the word for small and big.  It’s hard to describe the sense of empowerment from just being able to go out and grab some takeout. 

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China – WangFuJing

It’s our first Friday night, and we decided to go out on our first family adventure for the sole purpose entertaining ourselves.  We got downstairs to the front desk to call a Taxi.  We found out that it was an extra 3 Yuan (50 cents), for the Taxi to come to our apartment.  It’s probably worth it, but this time, we decided to take a stroll to the street to catch our cab.  The front desk wrote where we wanted to go on a piece of paper for us so we can show the cab driver.  After a few false starts (forgetting kids clothes and going to the bathroom), we were off!

When we got to the big street, we hailed a cab.  I was excited to see if I could tell him where we wanted to go.  I tried my best to say, "We are going to Wangfujing."  He looked at me, then read the card I was holding, then nodded and started driving.  Hmm…. not sure if that worked as I had hoped… But, nonetheless, we’re going to the right place. 

We got to WangFuJing street.  It was my job to get some cash from the bank.  We were given conflicting advice about credit cards.  The lady from Sante Fe told us that every place takes credit cards, and we should use it.  Curt told us that credit card security is not very good in China – sometimes all of the numbers are printed on receipts, etc, and there is a lot of CC fraud.  We opted to play it safe and work mainly with cash while we were in China.  It does force us to carry a little more cash than we’re used to, but it’s better than finding out that our credit card is being abused. I went into the bank, and the ATM had an English option (which is good).  I took out the limit – 2500 RMB which is about $350.  I tried to go back out the front door but an attendant started speaking to me in Chinese and led me to the back side of the bank.  I wondered if I had done something wrong.  Maybe I took out too much?  It ended up that there were two other ladies that were being led to the back of the bank, and I started seeing exit signs.  It ended up that we were led to leave the bank through the back door, which led us to a hallway with bathrooms, then exited out into a mall.  I went around, exited the mall, and met back up with my family.  I wasn’t completely sure why I didn’t get to use the front door, but my best guess is that the bank might be concerned about beggars accumulating in front of the bank, especially after customers have taken money out of ATMs.  When I was here in November, we were approached several times by beggars.  On this trip, we didn’t see any.  My understanding is that the social safety net in China is not as robust as the United States and it’s not uncommon to see people (especially women and children) in a sad state.  This is an area that Tenille and I will investigate more.

We finally got out to the WangFuJing Street proper.  It was clearly a tourist street from the many non-Chinese folks that were there, as well as Chinese tourists that were visiting Beijing (which is not as obvious).  The main part of the street is wide and closed of to traffic and is reminiscent of the Promenade in Santa Monica.  Tall retail buildings skirted both sides of the street.  It was cold and we were glad we brought some extra clothes for the kids.  One of the first things we noticed when we started strolling is that everyone was carrying around sticks of strawberries coated in melted sugar.  Tenille quickly found the source in this food alley.  I went in and ordered 2 sticks.  If we’re gonna get sick, might as well get it over with and learn our lesson.  But, the sheer number of people carrying around the strawberry sticks gave us some confidence and comfort.  After a bit of stumbling with numbers, I got my 2 strawberry sticks for 12 RMB ($1.50).  Each stick had about 5 big strawberries and it was coated in a hard tan translucent melted sugar coating.  When we bit in, the sugar coating cracked.  It was delicious.  Caleb later recalled eating these strawberries as the favorite part of his day.  We did find that the sugar coating got caught in our teeth in a bad way.  Perhaps not the best for dental hygiene, but it sure did taste good. 

We made our way down the street and visited the Olympics store (expensive Olympics souvenirs), other souvenir shops, and a big toy store.  The toy store was fantastic.   To me, it felt a bit different than a Toys R’ Us, in that the flavor of most of the toys was pure entertainment with no feigned educational or redeeming value.  Admittedly, I think I was a bit more excited to see all the toys than Caleb.

Finally, it was dinner time.  We weren’t too concerned about language here, because there were so many tourists, we figured most restaurants spoke some English, and provided English menus.  We went back to the mall where I took out cash, and wandered up and down the food court.  We finally settled on a Thai restaurant.  Menus had pictures and English on them.  We were also able to easily get a high chair by pointing to Andrew and saying "chair".  We ordered some fried rice, a pork neck meat appetizer, and chicken satay.  It was all pretty good.  An incident that did make Tenille a bit nervous was when a seemingly homeless man (carrying a sleeping bag) kept stopping right outside the window we were sitting next to and was staring at our kids.  He would move on, then he’d be back in 15 minutes and stare again.  He seemed harmless and to me it seemed like he was more admiring them than planning to kidnap them.  Nonetheless, still a bit uneasy when anyone stops and stares at your kids for too long.

We strolled around the food court some more and managed to get ourselves a frozen yogurt with some fresh fruit mixed in.  They prepared the yogurt in a backroom hidden from view and it took a while.  I commented to Tenille that it was probably taking a while to dump all the melamine in.  Regardless, it was delicious.  In general, the fruit in China seems much better than in the states.  Perfectly ripe and sweeter.  We’ve had a great experience with grapes, apples, strawberries, oranges and miniature oranges.  Caleb got a chocolate covered donut on a stick, and Tenille got an ice cream puff.  We promised ourselves, we’re coming back to this place.

Now for the taxi ride home.  If we can get home safely, it would be a perfectly executed evening.  We got back out to the main street and got in a taxi line that had an attendant.  We were ushered into a taxi and I gave him the card of our apartment and said, "SanYuanQiao" which means Third Ring Bridge (which is the area we live in.)  He turned on the light and looked at the card.  Then he squinted.  He opened up my window and asked the attendant to take a look at the card.  The attendant read the card to him.  Then they bantered back and forth a bit more.  I thought, perhaps he can’t read?  I suppose you don’t really need to be able to read to drive.  Then it occurred to me, he can’t see.  The revelation hit me as we started speeding off.  About half way to our home, he made a gesture as if talking into a phone and pointed to my card.  I promptly called my apartment front desk and told them that our taxi driver needs to get directions, and handed the phone over to the taxi driver.   They talked for a minute and he handed the phone back to me.  When we got near our apartment on the main road (Third Ring Road), he and I started exchanging hand signals to direct us back to our apartment.  I felt pretty good about this, as just a few days ago, I couldn’t have even done that.  I paid the blind taxi driver and we arrived home safely.  Hooray!  We did it! 


China – week 1

We’ve officially been here for 6 days now, and we’re beginning to feel like we’re transitioning from survival mode to tourist mode.  For instance, our major concern the first 3 or 4 days has been water.  It has been fairly painful to go to a supermarket and carry 3-4 bottles of water which we have been using for drinking and cooking.  A few days ago, the apartment gave us a water dispenser with a big bottle of water.  We also each got a cell phone – the Nokia 1200 which is the super-low end cell phone for emerging markets.  I love it.  It does come with a flashlight because in emerging markets, electricity and light is not always available. 

We also effectively got two views of two different people that have lived in China for a while.  First, on Wednesday, we got the orientation from a company that is supposed to help us ease into the transition.  The lady that came to pick us up was a Texan, probably in her late 40’s or early 50’s that has been living here for 8 years as a wife of a diplomat.  She came with a Chinese driver that spoke English.  She showed us around to all the English speaking supermarkets (such as Jenny Lou and the German butcher).  She also showed us around to all the embassy and tourist markets where most vendors spoke English to sell to the tourists.  It gave us a glimpse of a certain type of life-style.  If you want to live in China, pay a "tax" for not being able to speak the language and remain in the tourist bubble, it’s definitely possible that you could live here relatively comfortably.  She hardly spoke the language, and couldn’t tell us what a text message costs, and couldn’t ask.  But, when you ask her, she very much enjoys living in Beijing.

The next day, we went to a Spring Festival at the Ditan Park (Temple of the Earth) with a ward member/co-worker from Microsoft, Curt Carpenter.  As soon as we got into a Taxi, he started up a conversation with the taxi driver like he was a native.  He’s been here for about a year and a half and has extended to three years.  Through intensive study, he can read, speak, and understand Chinese fairly comfortably.  He says that he still speaks English as work because his vocabulary is not suited for business.  Personally, I have ambitions to try and learn as much as I can and try to be able to get around competently, although it’s clearly going to be a difficult road.  Curt has been a great inspiration, and validation that it can be done.  I think Tenille is still trying to decide what her goals are for being here.  Throughout the day, Curt spoke naturally to the waiters and waitresses, taxi drivers, and read signs for us, explaining the things around us.

Spring Festival was interesting.  I could probably best describe it as a Chinese version of the bite of Seattle, where they sell a lot of morsels to eat, a bunch of random, cheap children toys, some performances (lion dancing), and of course swamped in a thick mass of Chinese people.  

At the Spring Festival

The place we ate lunch at and Tenille’s first squatter toilet experience.

Navigating the crowds with a stroller was not easy!

We’re still not completely comfortable getting around in a taxi, because we have no idea what to say, and what they’re saying.  We get around by showing pieces of paper that other people have written things on for us.  I’m hoping that this will transition fairly quickly.  We need to at least learn "taxi talk".  We’d love to do take-out, because cooking meals in our home is not as comfortable as we’re used to – tiny dishwasher, tiny range, no oven, etc.  But, we don’t know what we’d say if we called a restaurant to try and order something.  Honestly, we don’t really even have to worry about that yet, because we don’t even know who to call.

With that, we’re planning on our first touristy adventure this evening to WangFuJing Street which is a street market.  This is the quintessential street market that we saw during the Olympics where vendors are selling spiders and scorpions on a stick.  Hopefully, we’ll make it there…(and back…)

Day 2 – Praying for friends

We started the second day by praying that we’ll find some friends at church today.  We had so many questions… What do we do about a cell phone?  How do we keep a flow of drinkable water coming to our apartment without buying a few bottles at a time?  How do we find dishwasher detergent?  etc. etc…

We looked up where church is on the website, and it seemed fairly close.  It gave us the address 1 Xibahe South St.  Church started at 10:30am, so we decided we’ll leave about 9:30am to give us plenty of time.  We’ve missed the last two Sundays due to travel, and we were determined to make it to this sacrament meeting on time. 

We were downstairs by 9:35am and I asked the apartment front desk guy if he could get us a taxi.  He said that it’s Chinese New Year’s and we can’t get a taxi.  OK, plan B.  We went back upstairs and bundled up for a significant walk.  We packed Andrew in a stroller and we were going to try the subway.  Honestly, this was my preference.  I like the subway.  There is no one to talk to.  We just get our token, and we’re off.  The subway has everything labeled in English.  I made the best reproduction of the google maps that the church provided on a notepad and headed down the elevator.  It was now about 9:45am.  It was frigid cold outside.  We got out to the main street about a 1/3 of the way to the subway station,  and saw a taxi.  We got in the taxi, and I pulled out a map of Beijing and pointed to the location we wanted to get to.  The cab driver said some stuff I didn’t understand, then started driving.  I thought this was a good sign. 

We knew that the church did not own any buildings in Beijing, and the branch met in a rented hall.  It just so happens that I looked up some information about the branch on Saturday night, and it showed me a picture of the building that the church met in.  It was tall and had a lot of windows. 

As we drove near where I thought the church was, there was a problem.  Google Maps and the address were not jiving.  We saw a sign for Xibahe South Rd., but it was nowhere near where the map said it was supposed to be.  We weren’t sure which was correct, but I was willing to bet on the address more than the map.  We turned into Xibahe South Rd., then started looking for numbers.  We saw a tall building with the number 6 on it.  We asked the taxi driver to stop, and for a few minutes tried to ask him to find number 1.  He was friendly and smiled, but he didn’t know where it was.  We decided that we’re probably close, and we’ll try to find it on foot from here.  It was a few minutes past 10am.  Caleb was dead asleep.  We put him in the stroller and I strapped Andrew in the front carrier and we started walking south.  We huddled up for a prayer and pleaded that we might be led to the church.  We were desperate to get to a sacrament meeting, we were desperate for friends, we were desperate for familiarity.

We got a lot of looks from passers.  One lady even yelled at us because Caleb’s pants were pulled up a bit exposing his shin to the bitter cold.  After a quarter mile or so, we found a building labeled 23.  We decided we were going the wrong way, and started walking back up north.  Tenille approached a Chinese lady and asked her in Chinese "#1 Where?"  She said some things we didn’t understand, then pointed in the direction we were walking.  That was a good sign.  After about half a mile of walking, we found a building labeled 4, then 3.  Then we got to a big intersection with a tall building on every corner.  They all had windows.  After some hemming and hawing, we just chose the closest tall building and thought we’d start from there.  There was a parking guard post, and a young guard came out and started asking us questions.  He was probably about 20 years old.  We tried the best we could to say "1 Xibahe Road."  We said it over and over.   He said a bunch of things we didn’t understand, then called a lady that was walking out of the building over to try and help us.  We said the same things to her over and over "1 Xibahe Rd."  She said a whole bunch of things we didn’t understand… Then the guard offered me to come into the guard shack.  They were both concerned about Andrew in the cold and wanted me to warm up.  I obliged and stayed for a few minutes while Tenille was making some conversation with the lady and the guard.  After a few minutes, I decided that this was definitely not the place, and walked out of the guard shack.  Tenille seemed like she was finishing up her conversation as well, and we walked across the street to the other tall building.  This building had no number.  It didn’t seem like the type of building that the church would rent.  At this point, there was one other building to try, but it was across a main arterial, and we had to take the stroller up to a high pedestrian overpass.  (Lots of stairs, no elevator…)  We were all freezing.

We made a plan.   We would try this last building.  After this last building, we would consider going to the location that Google maps pointed to.  Perhaps the address was a mistake, and the map was correct?  By the time we got to the pedestrian bridge, we were on the brink of giving up.  We were incredibly cold, and I’m sure the children were both freezing.  We saw some Korean letters on a Hair Salon business.  We thought that before we made the treacherous trip up and over the pedestrian bridge with a stroller, I would talk to my people and see if they could provide any assistance.  We were desperate for help and wished that someone would just give us a clue.   I entered the Salon, and tried my best to ask in Chinese if they spoke Korean.  The receptionist lady gave me a blank stare.  The hair cutter must have seen our desperation, and came over.  He claimed that he could speak some Korean, but I could tell that it was limited.  Even more limited than my 4 year-old Korean abilities.  I explained the best I could in Korean that we’re trying to find our church and we’re looking for 1 Xibahe Rd.  The hair cutter looked at our map, shrugged, then said, "I’m sorry."  It was at least nice to hear an English word.  We went back out into the cold, and resumed our plan to cross the pedestrian bridge.  On the side of the stairs, there was a 1-foot wide ramp on each side.  We put one set of stroller wheels along the ramp, and I lifted the other side, and we climbed up the bridge to make it to the other side.  As we approached the building, our hope was dwindling because of the bitter cold.  If this was not it, we were likely not going to continue the search.  I encouraged Tenille, "I’m sure this is the building."  It was tall and had windows…. just like the other two buildings…  Then, we saw the number.  It was 4.  Any hope that remained was extinguished.  Clearly, we didn’t understand how the Chinese address numbering system worked, because we just passed a 4 (and a 3).  This street seemed to go endlessly in both directions, and we had no idea how the buildings were numbered.

Discouraged, we decided we’d go inside the building anyway, and if we can’t find it, then we’d head home.  When we got to the main door, a young white man in a suit was unloading a baby from a taxi.  I blurted in excitement, "Are you Mormon?"  He looked at me for a moment, then said "yes." 

"It’s a miracle!" I shouted.  My wife had to explain our ordeal, and he replied as he was helping his wife out the taxi, "This is the place."  We followed the couple and exchanged some niceties.

It ended up that church was on the fourth floor, and there was no obvious indication on the first floor that the church was anywhere in this building.   If we would not have seen this couple, we would have looked inside, then left for home.

Once we got there, everything was the way it should be.  It ended up that the speakers were the mother and father of a dear friend, Dave Evans.  It was the their last weekend in Beijing, and they were taking on a new post at BYU to coordinate and professor exchange with China.  We met several people that we’ve exchanged emails with, but have never met face to face.  I met a few Microsoft employees, and one that used to work on the project that I am now on.  We met a few ladies that work at the preschool that we will be sending Caleb to.  We even got a ride home from the Carpenters who is a fellow Microsoft employee.  They later took us to a Chinese New Year party, where we met more branch members in a social setting.  Tenille came home with a pile of phone numbers and email addresses and what seems like plans for the next few weeks.  I’ve never fully appreciated the social benefits of being an LDS church member, but it’s difficult to imagine a place where within 8 hours you feel like you instantly have so many people looking out for you, and that you know people that you’ve never actually met before.  We’re finally home.

Leading up to the trip, we’ve been asking a lot of people from China what there is to do for New Year’s eve?  The answer has always been "nothing."  Everyone goes home to spend time with the family.  We were wondering if there were fireworks that we could go see.  It ends up that the fireworks come to you.  There are fireworks stands on almost every corner.  We’re talking serious fireworks.  Boom City type fireworks… Mortars and all.  Free access to all in Beijing.  What ends up happening is that from about 5pm on, it is a non-stop barrage in the city.  I can look out my window and see fireworks going up on almost every corner.  The fireworks do not clear the tall buildings, so huge blossoms are exploding between almost every building, often no more than 30 feet from the side of a building.  We’re on the 16th floor, and that’s about the height that the mortars explode.  It’s hard to describe how much and how constant the fireworks are going off until much past midnight.  Even at the New Years party, our branch had their own stash of fireworks, and all the kids and adults started lighting off fireworks.  It was Independence Day without regard to rules and safety – the way it was meant to be celebrated… except it was in China.  Rumor is that the fireworks rage on every evening for the next 3 weeks.

China: Day 1 – reality sets in

It’s 5am, Sunday morning.  I just spent 3 hours playing summer sausage math with Caleb and making sure Andrew doesn’t eat anything that will kill him.  Caleb missed dinner because we couldn’t wake him up once he started taking a nap at 5pm.  He promptly woke up after 9 hours of sleeping at 2am.  Andrew is now back to bed, but Caleb is still wondering what there is to do in the middle of the night.  I thought I’d take a quick break and journal our first day in China.

I don’t fully understand why we’re not supposed to drink the tap water.  If it’s a bacterial issue, it seems boiling it would make it drinkable again… If it’s a poisonous material issue (like arsenic), then we should probably just keep it out of our system.  This was my dilemma this morning as I was brushing my teeth.  Is it ok if I spit it out?  I didn’t really mess around with it, and used bottled water to wet my tooth brush and gargle.  Then I took a shower… this seemed impractical with bottled water… I’m sure as time goes by, my relationship with tap water will morph into something more practical…

Our apartment is a bit cozy, especially coming from our house in Bothell.  The whole place is probably about the size of our kitchen/living room back home.  It seemed much smaller when we had 9 big bags sitting in the living room, but Tenille, using her crazy Tetris skills, has packed it all away somewhere (including the bags).  Also the apartment is incredibly hot.  It’s frigid cold outside (below freezing), but inside we could hardly breathe it’s so hot.  After reading about how cold the Gallacher’s apartment was, we were hesitant to turn off the heaters, but as the day wore on, we eventually turned off all the heaters and our now mooching off the apartment heat from the other units.  It’s still a bit hot.

At 8am our whole family went downstairs to the cafe that provides us breakfast.  There was bread, yogurt, juices, and an array of covered hot plates.  Excitedly, Tenille went over to the spread and uncovered a hot plate to discover what delicious, Chinese morsels await us.  There was nothing.  Tenille opened another.  There was nothing… Tenille uncovered every one of them (about 10), to discover that they were just there to taunt the newcomers.  A couple that was sitting next to the buffet table gave a knowing smile to us…  So there was breads, yogurt, and juices.  There was some milk, but it felt a bit warm to us, so we skipped out.  Caleb dived in on the Yogurt.  I guess we’re not going to let the melamine thing slow us down in dairy consumption…

At 9am, the apartment people came to our room and inventoried everything as well as fixed our Internet connection.  The apartment folks are quite friendly and speak some English.  There is a bit of pantomiming, but I’m learning that it doesn’t help much…  

At 9:30am, we caught the apartment shuttle to a grocery chain called "Carrefour".  I believe it’s the European equivalent to a Walmart that is expanding into China.  There is also a Walmart in Beijing, but the apartment folks told us that Carrefour is closer.    Tenille expected it to be full of expats from America and Europe… where we’d be able to talk and associate with the customers and employees. 

We were dropped off about a block away.  Even walking one block was a bit treacherous with the kids.  I eventually held Caleb in my arms and Tenille pushed Andrew on a stroller.   After weaving in and out of cars through the parking lot, we made it to the front door.  It’s difficult to describe the scene inside.  It was like the day before Christmas, this was the only store open, and all Chinese people had postponed their gift buying to this day.  There was hardly room to stand, and you were swept up by currents of people going from one aisle to the next.  Reality set in when we reached the detergent aisle, and we couldn’t figure out which box was for the dishwasher.  After spending about 15 minutes trying to decipher the cleaning agents, we decided that we’ll need to make some friends to help us figure some stuff out, and decided to browse through the rest of the store.  We’re grateful we found a dishwasher in our apartment (the size of a big bread basket), but we’re still unable to use it.  Carrefour was probably about as big as a typical two story Fred Meyer.  More or less everything seemed to be available except it was all in Chinese.  There were some English descriptions on the packaging and the price tags which helped us a little. 

The really interesting stuff happened when we got to the fresh meat section.  We couldn’t actually get to the 50 yards of the trough of meat, because there were so many people crowded around poking, flipping, and bagging the meat.  We just watched from the backrow being swept across by the current.  We saw all kinds of seafood, and even little kiddie pools full of live fish.  There were people there to help you net a fish and bag it for you.  Just as Tenille was thinking, "I wonder what they do with the fish?  Does it just wriggle alive in your grocery bag?"  Then thwap!  It sounded almost like a firecracker.  Right in front of us, a Carrefour employee swung a net over his head like an axe and slammed it against the floor.  We could see the fish twitching it’s last twitches in the net.  Tenille’s eyes went about as wide as I’ve ever seen it.  Then nervous laughter spilled out uncontrollably.  She must have stood there and stared for about 10 seconds.  I suppose there are less humane ways to kill fish…

Tenille wanted some fruit, so we navigated our stroller and cart to the fruit section.  It was enormous with all kinds of fruit.  Tenille found some bananas and put them in a bag.  She then went over to a counter mobbed with people to get it measured.  It took about 5 minutes as she vied for attention of the weighing attendant among the throngs of people thrusting fruit in their face.

We also picked up some milk, 4 big bottles of water, chicken nuggets, yogurt, a couple different types of sausage, and a bathroom squeegee.  We got the squeegee because there’s a minor flood in the bathroom each time we shower due to suboptimal sealing.   There were a lot of checkout lines, but they were all stacked about 8 deep.  We got in a line that claimed to take credit cards, and got checked out in about 30 minutes.  Chinese New Year is this weekend, and we’re hoping that the crowds are because of this special weekend.  We’ll see.

It was about 1pm at this point.  There was a KFC next to the entrance of the store and we decided we should eat there.  It’s something familiar.  We entered with our stroller and shopping cart, and Tenille was promptly kicked out because she was not supposed to have a shopping cart in the store.  I got in a crowded line of about 20 people and this is the moment that it hit me that we’re outsiders.  KFC is my favorite restaurant, but when I looked up at the reader board, it was all in Chinese with different numbers on it.  There were some pictures, but it also had 3 different prices, for which I had no idea what the difference was.  Discouraged, I went back outside to consult with Tenille.  Although I could have done some pantomiming, pointed to something, and paid whatever they asked me, we thought it might be a little better somewhere else not as crowded after we’ve put away our groceries. 

"Fresh" Fish Pools – notice the belly-up fish in the back.

Black Chicken

Duck – I think

Navigating the crowds at Carrefour

Now to get home.  We walked outside and tried to find a taxi, but none were available outside the doors.  We had to abandon our cart and carry our bags and children to the main street.  As we’re walking, we’re stopped by 3 men that are saying something to us.  I gave my best shrug to let them know I’m completely incompetent.  Then one of them shouts out "Taxi!"  I said, "Yes, we’re looking for a taxi."  Then they started saying something else in Chinese…  I had not let down my look of incompetence.  Tenille chimed in and showed them a card from our apartment that shows the location.  The three of them discussed for a while, looked at me and asked a few more questions… I replied with more incompetence… Then one of them says, "fifteen".  I said, "OK."  He led us to his car, which looked like a normal passenger car.  Tenille gave me a warning, "We’re only supposed to get in clearly marked and metered Taxi cabs."  I replied, "I think we should be fine."  Taxis in general charge 12 RMB (which is a little less than $2) which is the base fare for the first several kilometers, and so 15 doesn’t seem so bad.  Lesson #1 – Always listen to your wife.

In the car, I complimented our driver on his English, and he denied it.  He asked to see the directions again, and he called our apartment, talked to the apartment front desk to get the exact directions.  After a little bit of searching, he got us to our door.  Tenille found 15 Yuan and handed it to me.  As he was unloading our bags, I smiled and gave him the money.  He looked at it, then looked at me again and shook his head as if saying, "what is this?"  I told him, "fifteen".  He then took out his phone and typed in "50". 

It’s possible that it could be the culmination of the lack of sleep, the stressful shopping experience, not being able to order at KFC, hyper-sensitivity to all the Beijing fraud stories, and my wife’s "I told you so" lingering over me… but I went berserk-o.  Why in the world would I pay 50 when I could have caught a taxi for 12?  I told him that he said, "fifteen".  He then looked incredulous and wouldn’t take the 15.  Flabbergasted, I went to talk with our apartment front desk.  He came out and talked to the taxi driver.  He asked me which Carrefour I went to, and I told him we went to the one that the shuttle took us to.  Evidently, there’s a closer Carrefour, but even then, he said it shouldn’t cost more than 30.  They argued for a moment.  I told the driver, that I’d pay him 30.  He came down to 40.  I told him he could have 30 or 15, the originally negotiated price.  After some more squabbling, he came down to 35, then finally took my 30 and left with some sore feelings.  I could feel the "I told you so" eyes searing on my head on the slow elevator ride up to our apartment.

After some calmer reflection in the confines of our home, I came to grips with how ridiculous my behavior had been.  The amount of bad feelings caused over $3.  Frankly, now I’d pay $20 to be able to apologize to the driver and resolve the mess without bad feelings.  Not to mention dragging in the apartment staff, who I’m sure felt awkward about the situation.  Tenille and I agreed that next time, we just pay.  But, it was a bigger lesson for me, that we’re guests in a foreign land, and should show graciousness to our hosts.  Hopefully, this experience and attitude will take seed in me.

By this point, Tenille had enough China for one day and wanted to start cooking.  I convinced her that we should still check out the area, especially for lunch.  We went across the street to what I thought was a shopping center, but it was actually just a big bank.  I asked the concierge ladies there if they spoke English, and they said, "yes."  I asked where we could eat something.  They directed us to the 2nd floor where there is a Korean/Japanese restaurant.  After searching around for a few minutes on how we get to the second floor, the concierge lady came over and led us to the stairs.  I thought that perhaps there might be a food court.  At the end of the stairs, we found that we were in the middle of the restaurant.  The hostess there said hello and immediately seated us.  The place looked a bit pricey, but we just went with the flow and were seated before we knew it.  They gave us a menu, and luckily it had English as well as Chinese.  We ordered some Udon (noodles) and breaded pork.  They served us tea, and I tried to order some water by saying "Shui" (prounounced "Shway"), but they all looked at me, and asked a bunch of questions in Chinese… after replying with a blank stare for a few seconds, I told them it’s ok.  Tenille and I are now trying to compile a list of survival Chinese.  "Bottled water" is on that list.  The meal ended up being quite delicious, and the whole bill came out to about $15.

The whole time, Andrew was getting considerable attention.  The waitresses and restaurant staff all had turns playing with him, and they’d pick him up and hold him.  Andrew was overjoyed with the attention.  It reminded us of all the attention Caleb received in Korea.  Admittedly, Andrew is a little better at playing the crowds with his ever-present smile.  It was a bit strange to us that a dedicated waitress stood next to us the entire time we were eating.  She was very attentive to us and played with Andrew most of the time.

After lunch, Tenille went to our apartment to nurse Andrew, and I played in the park next to our apartment building with Caleb.  The playground is shared by the apartment and the preschool (which is right next door.)  It’ll be great to have him so close throughout the day.  As of now, if our boys got lost, I have no idea how they’d eventually get returned to us.  We’re trying to figure out a strategy on this issue. 

On the way back into our apartment,  I did discover a small snack shack that serves ice cream and chicken wings.  There’s hope that I could be happy here.  I just need to learn how to order.

The fun playground that we will get much use out of.

Bigger Structure for Caleb

Smaller Structure for Andrew

Caleb pretending to be spiderman

Off to China: Day 0

Today, we left for China.  In some ways, it seems like any other vacation.  It hasn’t completely sunk in that we’re actually not coming back for 6 months.  Tenille packed up all of our necessities into 9 bags and 4 carry-ons, and the rest I suppose we’ll buy there.

It did feel a bit more real when my mom started crying as she dropped us off.  I’ll give her a skype call when we arrive.  Technology allows us to do some amazing things, but admittedly, there’s no substitute for sitting in the same room and chatting or giving a hug…

As I sit here on the plane somewhere over the Pacific, I realize there are plenty of things to worry about:  Will Andrew fare ok with the air pollution?  Will Tenille and Caleb become socially well adjusted?  How will we all do with the language barrier?  Will we get frauded?  Will we be able to steer clear of traffic accidents?

There are also plenty of things to be excited about:  Who will be the new friends that we meet as neighbors, churchgoers, and workmates?  How well will be able to learn the language?  How much of China will we get to see?

We have 23 weeks and hopefully we will waste no time in packing in as much experience as possible – with regards to work, travel, education, church, and family.  Knowing my wife, I’m sure we’ll be exhausted to collapse by the time we get home. 

For now, there’s nothing else to report, except that I got the business class seat on the leg to Tokyo and feel a little guilty.  I get the Tokyo to Beijing leg in coach with the kids… It’s only a fraction of this leg, and hopefully the kids will all be sound asleep… 🙂  I love my wife…

Vacation

 

The week before a major vacation is almost always stressful… packing, getting everything squared away at work, making last minute arrangements, etc, etc… 

As it turns out, we had planned a major family vacation with Tenille’s family (about 24 people, of which 14 are little children) right before our 6 month trip to China.  The plan was that we’d go on a week long vacation to Orlando, come back for 3 days to Seattle, then move to China for 6 months.  It seemed a bit aggressive when we were making the plan 6 months ago… as the date approached, it became clear that we lacked any kind of judgment and had lost our minds during the planning stage…   There were a few breakdowns, a few evenings of prioritization, then re-prioritizations… and at each meeting, we basically started cutting things out that were not absolutely essential…. like taking time to choose a preschool for Caleb next year, burning music CDs for China, anything to do with the yard, or home improvement, Andrew’s birthday party, etc, etc.  (OK, OK… we actually ended up doing Andrew’s birthday party, but it was family only…. )

At T minus 1 week of when the traveling was all about to begin, it started happening…   And don’t get me wrong… what I mean by "it" isn’t anything Biblical…   like being sold to Egypt by our brothers… or losing all our kids and getting sores on our bodies….  "it" wasn’t even as bad as a lot of the incredible hardships that people around us are facing like lost jobs, or homes floating away… But "it" wasn’t pleasant, and just like any other trial, helped us focus on the important things.

For the last few weeks of December, there was an unusual volume of snow for Seattle.  In the beginning of January there was a considerable amount of rain that fell, and in combination with the snow melting, it has caused historic floods all over the western part of Washington state.  Unfortunately, those parts included our basement.  We did the only thing we knew how to do – panic.  After talking with our trusty neighbor Karlin, and our home builder friend Norm, we tried to find the source of the flooding.  We lifted up all the tiles in the flooded bathroom, moved all of the furniture in the basement into the garage, lifted up the carpet, removed the drywall, and lifted out the toilet in the bathroom  The water started gushing down the toilet hole which relieved much of the flooding.  By the second day, we finally figured out that the source was the back of the bathroom and a steady stream was ever present between the bathroom wall and the toilet hole. 

After some consultation with Norm Smith, our home-building friend from church, he advised that we dig along the side of the house and re-do the foundation drains.  There was a debate over a few days whether or not we should dig up the backyard deck and dig all the way around the house.  The bad news is that homeowner’s insurance does not cover water that comes in from the outside and we were not covered.  The cost had a lot of zeros. 

We finally decided that we would just dig along the side of the house to fix the foundation drain.  We’d just deal with the downstairs bathroom later.  We’d also leave the backyard alone.  We’d just get the basement in working order for the Adams who will be guests in our home while we’re in China.

With our home trusted to Norm, Karlin, and my mom, we left for Florida.  Our plane was an hour late, but with a good tailwind, the pilot told us that we’d only be 30 minutes late to Chicago, our layover.  That means we’d arrive when our connecting flight started boarding.  When we got off the plane, we put ourselves together and arranged our kids and our bags and started running toward the gate K10 which is where we were directed by a man standing outside our terminal.  When we got there, we were confused.  There should have been people boarding.  Instead, the sign said that the next flight was to San Jose.  There was a lot of snow outside, but I figured Chicago was generally prepared for snow storms. 

We got in a line along with others who were also apparently wondering where their flight was.  Tenille, a bit impatient at this point, noticed an American Airlines employee at an empty terminal.  She ran over to the lady, and apparently, she was making progress because she waved me and the kids over.  The customer service lady was booking us on a flight that evening to Miami, then connecting back to Orlando.  After about 20 minutes of "ticketing", we went to our gate and waited.  We found out that the problem was a snow storm in Chicago.  Planes were not able to land, which meant that the planes that were supposed to fly people out were also not available.  As time drew on, our flight to Miami started getting delayed little by little. 

Tenille, always attentive, heard the gate agent call over people who had connections in Miami.  She jumped up and headed toward the agent.  The agent was giving out a piece of paper and telling everyone to run to gate K17.  Her tone was urgent and kept saying, "run, run, run!"  We packed up all our belongings and our kids and started running toward the gate.  In my mind, I was thinking, "Hooray, we are going to make it!"  We got to the gate and there was a man there holding the gate and waving everyone into the terminal.  He looked at us, and yelled, "No strollers!"  Then slammed the door shut.  Out of breath and defeated, we started our long mope back to our original gate wondering what the evening has in store for us. 

Tenille spoke with the lady at the gate, who confirmed that there was no way we will be flying into Orlando that evening.  We could go to Miami, but there was no flight to Orlando until the next day.  After a flurry of phone calls between Tenille and her family, we decided we would fly to Fort Lauderdale that evening, then we’d drive to Orlando.  We made all the arrangements with car rentals, then checked into the flight for Fort Lauderdale. 

We arrived in Fort Lauderdale about 11:30pm.  We went down to the baggage claim and waited for our bags.  We stayed until the conveyor belt stopped.  That’s funny – where are our bags?  Maybe they shut off the conveyor belt, when they get another load of bags from the plane…   But, why are there only 2 families left?  Needless to say, our bags were lost, and Tenille just got a piece of paper from the American Airlines people saying that our bags are lost.  (They actually called it – delayed… but I figure if they can’t tell you where it is, then it’s lost… )

By the time, we got our car, it was about midnight.  At Alamo, they just point you to a row of cars and tell you to pick whatever you want.  This was not good.  Tenille was walking up and down the aisle trying to pick the perfect car.  The right brand, the right smell, the right color, etc… By this point, we had been traveling for more than 12 hours, and I was admittedly not in the most patient of moods… I flashed a look of disapproval and encouraged her to quickly pick a car, perhaps not as nicely as I am writing it now.  She eventually chose the perfect-smelling silver Nissan Altima.  I admit it – it’s a great car.    Driving from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando was the longest straight-a-way drive I’ve ever been on.  I don’t normally use cruise control, but I did on this drive.   It almost felt like I could take a small nap and we’d be fine… I’m pretty sure I was awake most of the time.

As we approached Orlando, in an attempt to avoid a 50 cent toll, we took some liberties with the directions and found ourselves completely lost.  We stopped into a CVS, and I talked with the cashier, who admitted he "was not too good with roads."  He was able to point out the road that we came in on, but was not much help otherwise.  We next stopped in at a Walgreens.  The pharmacist had no idea where we were supposed to go.  Then, the janitor lady helped us and pointed us in the right direction.  We were pretty far off.  We finally pulled in around 4am, got in our beds in the clothes we traveled in, and went to bed. 

The next morning, it was Sunday and we were going to go to church.  We had no Sunday clothes, but my father-in-law left me some of his clothes to wear.  Tenille and the kids just wore what they wore on the plane.  No shower, no brushing teeth.  The rest of the family went to Tenille’s uncle’s ward which was more than an hour away and started at 9am.  I was pretty sure that that would be a recipe for disaster for ourselves and our kids.  I found a local church that started at 11:30am.  It looked close on the map, but it took more than the 30 minutes that we allotted and missed sacrament.  I have to admit that as it was getting clearer and clearer that we were going to be very late to church, anger filled me.  If nothing else, I just wanted to make it to sacrament meeting, but we couldn’t even get that done.  But, as I sat there silent and sullen, I was impressed that the point of attending church is lost if I’m going to have anger inside me.  The Spirit is not at church.  It’s within us – provided that our demeanor and behavior invites it.  I resigned and prayed inside my head, that we’re trying our best.  I’m sorry we can’t make it to our church meeting on time.  When we got to church, we had missed the sacrament, and there were no seats in the chapel.  We sat outside in the foyer and listened to the youth speaker.  It was a good time to reflect upon the blessings of humility as I sat in my father-in-law’s ill-fitting clothes.  I met another dad outside whose wife just ran the half marathon 7 months after having a baby.  He was in the Coast Guard stationed at Cape Cod. 

After sitting in the foyer for 10 minutes and chatting with the Coast Guard guy, Tenille gave me the look to go.  I agreed.  We left for Tenille’s uncle’s house where we would see our family for the first time since making it to Orlando.  On the way to Tenille’s uncle’s house, we sang a hymn and I gave a spiritual message and called it church.

We saw some manatees that afternoon at a state park, and on Sunday evening, we got our bags back.  I guess they were just "delayed".  It was nice to shower, brush teeth, and change clothes.  I think the one thing to note was that Caleb and Andrew were angels throughout the trip.  It was as if for them, everything was going as planned. 

Despite some setbacks, I’m happy to report that everything that matters is going perfectly…