Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Visitors, Birthdays, and Christmas Prep!

Today's Alarming Statistic:
Average number of new cars hitting the roads of Beijing every day during the first week of December 2010.
China Daily Newspaper

Well Christmas is almost here and Greta and Ivy are still shaking their packages and trying to peek into the wrapping. It's pretty cool I must admit! Here is our "Chinese Christmas" family photo. This is how they pose - no kidding - for wedding photos and other special days. I'm sure you've seen it around. My dear friend Carrie said she's seen nearly the exact photo pose at her local Vietnamese restaurant!

Some sad news to report... every year since Greta was born we've had photos with Santa. Even last year here in China we were able to find a Santa! But this year we missed out. So these are going to have to do...

They ARE quite Chinese looking though, don't you think? Perhaps even better than the standard Nordstrom one we did for years.

Don't you LOVE the one with the million light bulb "Xmas" sign?

And how about that zombie-eyed elf on the Rubix Cube? Gotta love China!

Actually, these were taken at a place so similar to University Village you wouldn't believe it. The only difference is there's only one Starbucks instead of what - five? It's even called "The Village" at Sanlitun.

Let's see... Eric's parents came for a visit in October and then spent nearly three weeks in Taiwan on a birding trip.

They were great sports while we were here - you'd never believe they are 82 and 78. They're in amazing shape and walked and walked. They spend several hours at Ivy's soccer game too.

Here they are on the Great Wall.


Eric and his mom on the exercise equipment.

This type of equipment is available everywhere in Beijing. It is the older people's main activity to go out and hit the "gym" and then sit around smoking and playing mahjong with their friends.

Right after they left, our dear friend Ben Wilson come for a business trip. We took him to our FAVORITE restaurant where you can eat more delicious noodles and spicy soup than you can fit in your stomach for 50 cents. Okay the ambiance may not be all that you dreamed of but...!
We commandeered ALL his free time and even got him out on a bike.

It was so fun to show him around Beijing. He saw some of the worst and some of the best air quality while he was here. Thank goodness it cleared up after a big rain so he could see a rare blue sky. It hasn't rained a drop since he left. Last rainfall was October 22nd. We have to slather lotion on now.

The first Saturday of December Ivy had a birthday party and these are the kids who came ice skating.

Ivy's the one in the giant white earmuffs. They are a great bunch of kids. Skated for a solid three hours with breaks in and out of the "Party Room" for junk food. I can't even describe the tackiness of the party room. But they did personalize it for her!

They put a fire extinguisher at the edge of the doorframe so the door couldn't close, but it kept getting jostled and every time the door closed we had to find someone with a key to open it...

(Well actually not until the 26th of December, technically).

Recently Ivy's math teacher said, and I quote, "It's Ivy's world and we're all just living in it." So true!

We're leaving for Christmas vacation in two days. We're heading back to a small village called Xizhou in Yunnan Province in the south west of China. It lays at the foot of the Himalayas and is really beautiful with springtime weather all year round. We spent last Christmas and new year's there at a place called The Linden Centre which is a fabulous courtyard hotel meticulously restored and with very friendly, accommodating American owners. They offer an educational, experiential vacation experience by taking you on adventures in the area. I wrote about it last January and have tons of photos if you want to look back.


Miss you, love you,

Monday, December 6, 2010

Where Have I Been?

This is my mom, Alice Elizabeth Prout. Her friends called her Betty.

Mom passed away on Thanksgiving night this year. Words cannot describe how much I loved her and how terribly much I miss her. It was really difficult being so far away from her, but she always supported what Eric and I were doing. She was never a demanding person, but instead gave me her unconditional love all my life. Thank you, Mom.

Well I realize I can't tell you every single detail of every single day since I put off writing for way too long. I'm sorry! Life is still interesting here in Beijing, but I no longer feel that I see something entirely new and foreign to me each day. Now I continue to be amazed by the fact that I never know, 100 percent for SURE what will happen when I head out to do a pretty basic task.

For example, I had originally set up a bank account in late August 2009 over near Eric's office which is way across town from where we live. In China they don't allow joint accounts, so it was in my name alone. Occasionally I have to wire money to our Chinese bank account to pay for our rent and food and daily life expenses. The first time I tried this, I wired the money and about 4 days later my Chinese cell phone rang. Someone spoke to me in Chinese for a long time and at that time I didn't even know how to say "I can't understand you".

Finally I ran down to the dry cleaner lady, Vivian, who speaks decent English and had offered her help should I ever need her. I got her to call them and learned that they said I needed to go there immediately! It sounded really urgent like life or death. Well this was around 3:30 in the afternoon and the girls were coming home from school soon. At that time they didn't even have their own keys to the apartment. I was in a panic. I told Vivian to tell them I couldn't come right then. They said I could come after they closed and that I should bang hard on the metal pull down door and they'd come and let me in!

You have to understand that getting across town in Beijing at 5:00 is just enough to make you want to commit suicide. It would have taken me over an hour to get there once I found a taxi and then another hour home at least. I decided not to panic and told Vivian to let them know I couldn't make it that day but would go the next day.

Proud of myself for taking a deep breath, I contacted a Chinese colleage of Eric's who had helped us negotiate with our landlord when we first arrived. She agreed to meet me the next day and go to the bank with me. I trekked over to the west side of Beijing, met Jessica and we went to the bank where I had opened my account right outside Eric's office. Once inside, we took a number and waited 25 minutes for out turn at the teller window. Jessica explained the phone call and I pulled out my bank book and passport. They then informed me that they can not deal in foreign currency transactions because they are a "new" branch and there's some rule that they must wait a year or some such thing to perform currency exchanges!

Can you imagine if I had run all the way across town, pounded on the metal roll down door after hours, and muddled through with my dictionary trying to understand what was going on just to be told they can't convert my US Dollars into Renminbi?

Luckily Jessica had more time and we walked 15 minutes to another more established branch of the bank. Again, got a number and again waited 30 minutes or so. Finally the transaction was performed and my bank account was flush. The rent was paid and we lived to see another day.

As soon as I was recovered from this and willing to see the interior of another bank branch (maybe 2 weeks later) I went to the branch of my bank in the neighborhood where we live and made friends with the manager there. She speaks a tiny bit of English and now I can speak a bit of Chinese so we're buddies and she gives me VIP treatment. I closed my account across town and re-opened it here.

Once that was accomplished, the wire transfers were working just fine UNTIL... a week ago. For some reason the last wire came through but was not converted from US Dollars into Renminbi... ughhhh. Back to the bank I went only to be told that I had reached my yearly limit for converting money. Yikes! We're going on vacation in December and have hardly any cash! But Eric has since opened his own bank account so we decided to just transfer the dollars into his account and then they can convert it in his account. OH, NO! That's far too simple. We had to make three trips in all to accomplish this one. Had to bring our original marriage certificate in along with tons of other documentation. Even with my buddy manager it took well over an hour at the bank.

This is they type of thing I'm talking about. The simplest things can end up taking all day and I really feel helpless so much of the time.

Last year the H1-N1 Virus forced Greta and Ivy's school to re-arrange some of their plans. Each year, usually at the beginning of the year, all the students have Experience China Week. This is designed to show the international students something about the host country they are living in. Because of the virus last year, Ivy and Greta's ECW was postponed until last April. Ivy went to Pingyao, an ancient city in Shangxi Province. It's about 4 hours from Beijing and they took a train to get there.

These are just a few of the HUNDREDS of pictures Ivy took!

This is Ivy and her best friend Lian. Lian is Chinese with Dutch parents. She speaks fluent Dutch, English, and getting there with Mandarin. She is a great friend to Ivy!

............................................................The kids watched a noodle
...........................................................making demonstration....

This is the courtyard hotel where they
stayed. It was rainy the entire week they were there and there is no heat in these places, so it was a bit chilly!

That didn't stop them from doing lots of walking and hiking.

Climb to a Temple

Ancient Pingyao rooftops

LOOK OUT, LIAN!!!!!!!!!!!

Greta's grade went to a gorge in a canyon to the northwest of Beijing. They camped in tents and did a lot of hiking.

This is where Greta's group stayed for part of their trip.

Lots and lots of hiking through the dry hills. At this point we had had no rain for over six months!

It really is SOOOOOOOO dry throughout the winter in this part of China. We haul out the humidifier around Thanksgiving and it runs until late May. Otherwise we get electric shocks all day long.

Pagodas on Greta's trip.

If you ever wonder just how difficult it is living in a foreign country where you can understand very little, this should give you a good idea!

This is a giant escalator in the shape of a dragon on a hill. They rode it up and hiked around up high.

The girl in the middle was Greta's best friend last year, Angela Lee. She moved away in the summer and Greta misses her terribly. It's great to make good friends but tough to say goodbye as people move on in the expat lifestyle. We tell the girls these are contacts they will keep forever and if they want to travel anywhere in the world they'll always have a place to stay. Plus, with the internet the world seems much smaller anyway.

Okay you are now brought up to May 2010. I'll post this now and try to do another one soon.

Love you and miss you all,
Park, Eric, Greta and Ivy

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Beth and Steven Visit and we go to VIETNAM!!!!

280,000 : Number of people reportedly employed in China to troll the internet and make the government look good.

Okay so I have decided I need to schedule time in my calendar to work on this blog. This is a good thing! It means I have a lot more going on in my new life here in Beijing. Before school ended I had been getting more involved in the school, taking on the management of the school store where we sell school supplies, books, jewelry, BCIS (Beijing City International School) paraphernalia, and ice creams on Fridays! It's the biggest source of income to the PTCA (=PTA in the states).

Goal for this entry: To catch you up on April!

Chris and the kids left on Wednesday, March 31st and Beth and Steven (Eric's sister and our brother-in-law) arrived on Thursday April 1st! And that's not an April Fools joke! We were so psyched to see them and really excited because we were going with them to Vietnam.

They brought along "Flat Mira", a cutout paper doll representing one of Steven's nieces. The real Mira is doing a school project and part of it was to mail a "Flat Mira" to someone and ask them to photograph her in different places. I don't think she knew Beth and Steven were coming to China and Vietnam! Flat Mira had some real adventures...

They trekked off to the Great Wall the day after arriving - what troupers! Here's the proof:

Back in Beijing, we all went to Sanlitun, a 25 minute walk from our apartment, where there's a fun market and, most importantly, a Starbucks! There are Steven, Flat Mira, and Greta.

We also visited Houhai, a popular area in the north central area of Beijing. This is an architecturally untouched area - old hutong neighborhoods, tile rooftops, etc. It was particularly crowded this day.

Can you spot the Westerners below?

Our next big adventure was touring the Forbidden City and the area around it. We checked out the National Center for the Performing Arts (called The Egg locally). It was designed by a French architect, Paul Andreu and is made of titanium and glass. It holds about 5500 people and took 6 years to build. It's 120,000 square feet.

Here's our family in Tiananmen Square again.

We've been inside the first courtyard of the Forbidden City before, but had never gone beyond that (where you have to pay) until we went with Beth and Steven. It was a bit late in the day by the time we arrived, so we had to kind of rush through it. We hired a guide and he was quite good, but we were literally running through and there are 980 buildings covering almost 8 million square feet!

The Forbidden City was built in the early 1400s and has been the imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. 24 emperors lived there over the course of 500 years. It was overtaken several times during those years, parts of it burned.

During the Japanese invasion in 1933, a lot of the art and treasures were evacuated from the Forbidden City for safekeeping.

After the war, some were returned and the rest was sent to Taiwan at the orders of Chiang Kai-Shek. There are still many national treasures now in Taipei.

In 1912, the Republic of China was created. After 2000 years of imperial rule; no more emperors. One of the buildings inside the Forbidden City was given to Puyi, the last emperor, in which to live. Eventually in 1924 he was thrown out altogether. But his nephew is still a presence in the Forbidden City. He is a famous calligrapher and works and sells in this building:

Of course, our tour guide made time to stop in here even though we were racing through the uneven cobblestone grounds at record speed getting tidbits of information here and there before he whisked us on. We didn't get anything, but some of the pink plum blossoms were really tempting!

Steven is an artist, so of course he wanted to visit the 798 District of Beijing.

This is not far from our apartment in the northeast. This is a large collection of galleries in old military factory buildings.

During some of the grimmest times in Beijing's history, the 798 district was a good place for the communist workers. They had a relatively higher standard of living than the rest of the city (and far higher than the rest of the country).

I didn't photograph much of the art, but there were several galleries that looked like this: ----------------------->>>

In general, the Chinese current art at 798 was not anything I would have a hankering to collect necessarily, but it was a great glimpse into where they are in their art appreciation and it was like taking a step back in time - maybe 50 years, to when the USA was more naive about art.

So after a quick few days in Beijing, we all headed to Vietnam. It might have been my favorite place and my best vacation ever if it wasn't so short!

Greta posing with Hermione at the airport:

Greta and Ivy on the plane:

Myself, Eric, Beth, and Steven on the plane:

We had around 3 days in Hanoi and 3 days in Nha Trang - an hour and a half flight south of Hanoi on the South China Sea. The weather was a bit rainy (still warm) in Hanoi, but it didn't slow us down. We stayed in this hotel I found on

We were really happy with the location, service, and breakfast. Super cheap - around $25/night. It was nothing fancy, but clean and had great air conditioning. Here are a couple of views out the window:

The hotel was right in the thick of the old quarter of Hanoi, near Hoan Kiem Lake. The streets were narrow and there were colorful vegetables and people in colorful clothing everywhere.

The locals we met were extremely friendly and kind and a lot more people spoke English than in Beijing. They seemed to value tourism more than I feel they do in China, or at least they put on a good act!

And the food was to die for. I love Vietnamese flavors - lemongrass, cilantro, lime, mint, fish sauce, red pepper, coconut, beautiful shrimp, oh my gosh I'm getting hungry~!

We arrived late in the night so went straight to bed. Greta slept with Beth and Steven each night we were in Hanoi because each room had two beds. That way Greta and Ivy each got their own bed! In the morning I got up first and went for a walk outside. I saw this shrine near the end of our little street. It reminded me of some of the shrines I saw in Mexico... so much to look at in such a little space with candles and fairy lights and offerings of sweets and flowers. I assume someone died recently who lived in the room behind this shrine.

From 1886, the French colonized Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and this area was called French Indochina. In 1902 the capital was moved from Saigon to Hanoi. Therefore, there is a lot of evidence of French influence in the architecture in Hanoi. It was so different than anything you would see in China.

During this time any Vietnamese people who protested the French rule were all thrown in jail. We toured the jail (Hoa Lo, aka the "Hanoi Hilton") for a few hours one day - extremely interesting. Of course the French had their own deceivingly nice name for it - Maison Centrale, built in 1886.

Here is what it must have been like to be a prisoner here.

After the prison was expanded in 1913 it was supposedly able to hold 600 prisoners but on a given day in 1916 it held 730, and in 1922 there were 895 recorded. This rose to 1430 in 1933 and unbelievably, over 2000 in 1954! The situation was sub-human and prisoners were badly mistreated. Many people were tortured and killed. A guillotine:

John McCain was held here during parts of his 5.5 years as a prisoner of war. Here's the suit he was wearing when they pulled him out of the water.

A few people were able to escape from Hoa Lo over the years. in 1951, a couple dozen death row inmates escaped through this sewer tunnel.

On a much more pleasant note, we also spent a few hours in the Temple of Literature. This is a Confucious Temple where people also took imperial exams like in China. It was also a university for 700 years. The temple had beautiful gardens with lots of bonsai. There were laurel plants shaped like deer, rat, dog, rabbit, etc. Here are photos from the temple:

Can you see the turtles at the bottom of the stairs? They're real!

Roof details:

Inside one of the buildings this group was playing traditional music. It was beautiful! We sat and listened for a bit but ran out when they stopped to ask us to buy a CD. The amazing bamboo xylophone is called a T'rung. It was my favorite thing to watch and listen to.

After the Temple, we went to lunch and had some amazing food (as usual in Vietnam!!) Ivy went to use the bathroom and came back raving about how nice it was! I had to go check it out after lunch just to see what all the fuss was about.

You decide for yourself... have we lowered our expectations / standards at all since leaving the USA?

After some of the facilities we've seen this truly is the Taj Mahal of toilets. AND it had toilet paper on the back of the toilet tank!!! A true score in Asia, let me tell you.

Here's a tiny shrine I saw in a tree out on a main street in Hanoi:

And here are some police pulling somebody over with just a stick. Not sure what they did wrong, but we saw this several times.

The quantity of motorcycles and scooters and bikes on the road is insane. I now see Beijing as tranquil. It's good to get away and see the rest of Asia to put this into perspective. Crossing the road in Hanoi is truly life threatening. I don't actually know how I survived it.

We finally couldn't resist the Vietnamese hats, just in time to escape Hanoi's drizzle.

We headed south for some sun! Nha Trang is about a two hour flight from Hanoi, closer to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It's a beach town, quite small, but still buzzing with motorcycles! We really relaxed and had fun in the water, went snorkeling and saw some amazing colorful coral and fish. We also went to a large market, rode rickshaws, ate beautiful food, and everyone but me rented motorcycles. Thank goodness I didn't go with them. Steven crashed and Ivy got a third degree burn on her right calf when she got off the motorcycle and hit the exhaust pipe.

Here's a daughter of the hotel proprietor and her number one fan:

The beach chairs:

Swimming - water was beautiful and perfect temperature.

Fruit on the street!

Taking a load off!


Flat Mira

Snorkeling trip

Our crew on the way out
(before wetsuits):

These boats are clear bottomed.
The men will take you out to see
the fish if you don't want to
snorkel. Everyone in our group
snorkeled. One of us got seasick...

Guess who that was? Suffice it to say the fish were fed well that day!

Tired! We had to get up at the crack of dawn for this trip!

Beth and Greta:

Eric and Ivy:

All the hot rods (Steven in background):

Here it is, one of the

casualties of the motorcycle ride...
Right after it happened:

Here's a hottie we spotted strutting down the beach in his subtle swimsuit!!!!!!!!!!

And the burn after an hour in the sea...

At the large market in Nha Trang:

Here Steven is chatting with a

Women at the market:

Greta and Ivy near the beach - look at the color of green!

Okay, that's most of April. Cross my fingers I'll get up to date before I leave for Seattle on July 17th! Miss you,
Park and Greta