Sunday, October 26, 2014

Family Matters

Feeling far from home when there are family crises is a theme that affects every expat.

Our time in China has been overshadowed as well by an event that happened before we moved to China, one that came close to ending the adventure before it even began. In October 2010, my father died very suddenly. It's a story I've told so many times that I sometimes feel a little like the Ancient Mariner. I meet a new friend, I tell that person how I lost my dad, I cry a little, and the new friend now understands something that has become something organic to understanding who I am at this time and place.

Daniel was teaching in Xinjiang when Dad died, easily a two-day trip to get back to upstate NY and we all agreed that it didn't make sense for him to come home. He wrote a simple but beautiful blog post the next day, quietly musing on how he had thought to call his grandfather to discuss the Yankees, but hadn't. The loneliness and sadness of his words traveled from his remote post and my heart broke even more for him. Daniel said that even though you think you can just pick up the phone and call, sometimes an event happens that makes being on the other side of the world far too real and far too wrong.

For Bob and me, the opportunity to move to China came up about a month after Dad died. Maybe it was even sooner than that. My words to Bob were, "I can't do anything for six months," partly over worry that my mom wouldn't be okay and partly because I was still in a state of shock and grief. So Bob headed off on his own to China for a bit, I stayed back in DC, and eventually, with the blessing (not always enthusiastic but always loving) of my family, we made the big move to China.

Not a day goes by, though, that I don't think of the possibility of more loss. I call my mother every single day, sometimes as I sit by Smudge in our apartment, and sometimes from the tops of sacred Daoist mountains or in the shadow of the temples of Angkor Wat.

Since I've lived in China, I've lost two of my uncles, my father's younger and older brothers. I did stay in touch with both in the months before they died. Uncle Pat and I would email over food and life. I remember telling him once I was eating my way across Hong Kong and he said he was jealous. And I would see my Uncle Peter in the nursing home. On one of the last times I saw him, he played the organ for me, the look of concentration on his face so much like my father's that I felt stabbed in the heart. But I couldn't go to either funeral when they died, and that made me feel the distance.

It's one of the reasons we're moving back now rather than later. It's not that I have any kind of morbid sense of impending doom. It's more that I have a sense that we were given a window, and that window doesn't stay open indefinitely. I'm sure that feeling has been intensified by our dear friends whose time in Beijing has overlapped with ours almost exactly. Our friend's younger sister, just 33, has been diagnosed with metastasized cancer, and they're cutting two months off their time in China, to be home and to be with her.

None of this has anything to do with China except for its distance from home. We've known plenty of others who have faced similar kinds of crises at home, racing back to see people before they died, sometimes making it in time and sometimes not, and it's tough. I never judge others on this, since family is a minefield and I have no idea where the mines are buried in anyone else's minefields. But I do know that for me, it's time.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mama Bear

Two friends and I just hosted a baby shower for a fourth friend who is expecting a little girl in December but who is about to leave to deliver her in her home country of South Africa.

One of the guests said to me as she was leaving the shower, "You're like a mama bear to all of us here. Our families are so far away."

That did make me realize one of the nice things about being part of a tight-knit expat community. This is the kind of place where there's a whole circle of friends within a walk of a few minutes, ready to go get a manicure, have a beer, pop over for a quick visit, or grab a meal. There's a spontaneity to it that is hard to match back in DC.

At the shower, we decorated onesies, ate cake, and had a generally good time as the air outside was hazardous. One guest showed up with her adorable two-year-old in a face mask. For most people, though, today was a good day to stay inside.
I did the one on the far left, which says mei mei -- little sister -- in Chinese.

Meanwhile, some people did venture outdoors. Today was the day of the Beijing Marathon, and it wasn't cancelled, even though the air was in the mid-400s for much of the morning. Really, China?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Nailing the 14K

Bob and I traveled to Luang Prabang in Laos this weekend to indulge our penchant for using a race as an excuse to see a place. In this case, it's unlikely we would have come to Laos, a little sliver of a country near Vietnam and Thailand. One of our friends in Beijing asked, why would you want to go to such a small country?

But Laos has proved to be charming. We even liked Vientiane, since I booked a charming boutique hotel outside the clamorous town, one with a nice pool but rock-hard beds (it's an Asian thing). And Luang Prabang has turned out to be about as laid back as you can get, with spiky roofed temples all covered with gold leaf, a decent cuisine (think Thai meets Cambodian meets Vietnamese, heavy on the lemongrass and coriander), and very sweet smiling people who greet you with "sai ba dei," or hello, at every chance.

This morning I ran my first 14K. It was two 7-K loops through the charming town, the whole thing a UNESCO World Heritage site. That actually helped my pacing because I could keep track of how far I had to go (for instance, one fancy hotel had set up an archway with sprinkler to run through and cool you off, which was not horribly far from the end).

There were only two runners in my category, females 50-59. The other woman was from Sweden and I imagined her as an Amazon with blonde hair, something like Brianne on Game of Thrones. My number was 238; she was 239. I won't deny that I spent a good part of the race peering at people's bibs. I never found her. There are two theories on this: one is that she ran the 14 kilometers (8.4 miles) in 45 minutes and was drinking an iced Lao coffee by the time I crossed the finish line; or, she never showed.

In any event I ran the whole thing, which was the longest race I've ever run. Bob was alone in his category of men 60-64, which made him claim to be a winner.
I finished in a little under 2 hours (stop laughing), but I only stopped to drink water, take a pic, and maybe dance a little with the kids handing out water at one stop (Can anyone resist Gangnam Style?)

I'm now lounging by the pool at another charming boutique hotel, and thinking about dinner. It's not a bad way to spend a weekend.

Post-race update:
It turns out that the Swedish woman was a no-show. So, like Bob, I won in my category. It looked as though, other than the American ambassador to Laos and one fellow in the 70+ category, we may have constituted the older folks in the race. No matter. It was fun, even if getting home again was a classic tale that involved 14 hours of various sorts of travel, missed flights, and meals that were made up of an angel food cake cupcake and peanuts. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Clutter, Bowling, and the Tensions of Moving

Last night, Bob and I went bowling, and both of us came home with trophies from our summer league playing. Even though Bob is generally a better bowler than me, this was his first trophy, in recognition of a phenomenal night he had not long ago where he didn't seem to miss.

As for me, I show up and I get a trophy, which may have something to do with the fact that the league leans heavily male. It's like all those kids who get soccer trophies at the end of the season, even if their main contribution was bringing juice boxes. I tend to win awards in the female category, mainly coming in second after the league's phenomenal lead bowler, Beth. Many nights, Beth and I are the only two female bowlers. I don't even have to bring juice boxes.

So Bob, now in possession of his own trophy says, "We're not going to take all these trophies home with us. We should each pick just one."

Here are my trophies:

They are as heavy as bricks and made of clear glass, each announcing the International Friendship Bowling League, the date, the name, and the reason for the trophy. I think they make wonderful mementos of our time in Beijing.

Here is Bob's trophy:
Now, I ask: Is it really fair for me to give up three of my four trophies just to keep things even?

"But you said you wanted to declutter when we got home," Bob argued.

I think, instead, that this might be a certain person trying to even up the cosmic imbalances in our bowling fame. After all, this is a man who is loathe to part with any small item from our children's youth: a clumsily painted window box that we won at a school auction, a garish yellow quilt that we again won because we outbid other parents, a full bag of stuffed animals, and so on.

I also think that our surprisingly irritable argument over how many trophies to take home is more of a symbol of the tension we might face in the coming weeks as we prepare to move. This morning, for instance, we had a 20-minute argument over whether or not we would need to rent a car when we got back and who might pay for that. I'm going to predict that as real things start to go wrong with the move, those arguments will get a little more ridiculous.

For now, though, I want to celebrate some of the nice little moments we've had in Beijing. Our bowling league is truly international and we always have fun. If my beautiful glass trophies somehow meet an unsavory end, I've still got sweet memories of those nights.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Derek Jeter

I'm sitting here in my parents' family room, watching the Yankees and Derek Jeter, just like the old days.

But it's not my parents' family room any more. It's my mother's family room and it's the last few days of playing for the Yankees star.

And even though this room was my father's favorite spot in the house, and the place where his life ended during a Yankees game in 2010, his memory is fainter after four years.

Before he died, I spent many hours in this room with my father watching the Yankees. "Love that Jeter," he would say, as we would watch his quirks, his tics, his Mona Lisa smile when he would get on base. I think what my father liked about Jeter were the same kind of characteristics he aimed for himself. "He keeps his emotions in check," the sportscasters said of him.

And now Jeter has played his last game in Yankees Stadium, and he ended with a Jeter classic: a walk-off base hit to win to the game. I watched the beginning of the game with some of my oldest friends in Athens' hipster brew pub, and watched the last two innings with my mother, both of us sniffling and laughing at the same time.

I wanted to say more about this, but for once in my life, the words just aren't there.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Man Borrows Money, Hides in Pig Farm

I mean, how can I not love China Daily for stories like these:

* "Man borrows money, hides in pig farm" is the headline from Chongqing. It's not the Daily News' "Headless Body in Topless Bar," which is undeniably the best headline of all time, but this tells a story that is so China. A man apparently borrowed 160,000 yuan, or about $26,000, from a friend for a "big business," the story states. "Instead of setting up his business, he hid in a pig farm until he could no longer stand the smell," the story states in that whole China Daily deadpan way. Finally, he went home and returned the money, but there was no further information on the pig farm.

* Parents barred from cleaning college dorms" was another one that caught my attention. The parents were "barred," the story says, by the college using "red lines to separate the parents from their children," who had to do the cleaning themselves.

* "86-year-old runaway cannot make ends meet" tells the story of a villager who has run away from home 20 times because he is unhappy with the 900 rmb ($147) monthly allowance he gets from his two sons and daughter. "Pan Guojun dislikes homemade food and often dines in restaurants," explains the story, which doesn't help him make ends meet. The story does not explain just how running away would solve that problem.

There are other oddities and sad events: a 14-year-old boy who committed suicide after his school principal slapped him; villagers who captured 1,600 wild geckos, and a migrant worker who started a fire after she had a bad dream. She lit a candle, fell asleep, and burned the house down, says China Daily.

And then, of course, my horoscope. Today's wasn't as disappointed in me as Aquarius, but it still clearly wanted me on the straight and narrow: "Keep a sensible balance between work and family life in order to achieve a happier and healthier environment," it says. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Cold Remedy

This week brought me a nasty head cold, probably from air on the plane back from Hubei. I had sneezing fits all day Tuesday and felt miserable, but I decided to try hiking on Wednesday anyway, and made my way to Shunyi to meet up with the group and go to a beautiful place near Zhangjiakou's Great Wall. When people tell me they're tired of visiting the Great Wall, I know that they've only been to the tourist spots of Badaling and Mutianyu. If they saw these places, they'd change their tune.

I've actually been warned not to be too public about these spots. It's not that no one knows they're there, but that at the moment, it's peaceful. Under sunny blue skies, scrambling over ancient building stones turned out to be the best cold remedy I could imagine.

Here are a few shots from the hike.