28 January 2015

Anna's Senior Pictures

She's one of my favorite people in this world.

More than merely beautiful, she's a genuinely excellent little woman. She handles the challenges of life with more grace than you would expect from many adults, let alone a 17 year old. 

Anna is naturally kind and generous--with a devilish wit that comes as a complete surprise to those who don't know her well.

She graduated high school in 2014 and her gap year (she works as a full-time nanny) is quickly coming to a close. I can't wait to see what will become of my little sister during her college years and beyond.

This was our 'art project' that we snuck in one day in the midst of homeschooling and child-watching. Photography is not a talent of mine, but when I graduated high school, my parents bought a studio package for me to get senior photos taken...because spending an afternoon at a professional photo studio sounds like mild torture to Anna, I wanted her to have some photos taken in a more comfortable atmosphere.

We put Angel in charge of all the little ones--I managed hair, makeup, poses, and the camera, while Anna picked out some of her favorite outfits and accessories.

I still wear some of the clothes and jewelry I wore in my senior photos, so my advice to her was to pick things that she genuinely liked to wear and planned on keeping in her wardrobe for a long time.

We were planning on just 3 different outfits--after getting dressed up and a new hairstyle each time, we'd head out to the parking lot, the pool, or the gardens around our apartment building to take photos wherever seemed suitable.

I asked her, "Hey, Anna, do you think that, say, a decade or two down the road, you're gonna look back at your senior photos and regret that you wore a tiara and a masquerade mask in so many of your senior pictures?"

Anna looked at me like I was an utter lunatic, "Of course not! Why would I regret it? Who wouldn't want to wear these?"

That is exactly the answer I was expecting.

A girl after my own heart.

 I love her elfin features--I love her wild curls and perpetually tan skin (somehow the result of a Dutch-Irish lineage?)--and most of all I love that she's always been contentedly herself. Peer pressure doesn't stand a chance where Anna's concerned.

As for issues of justice, you'll find her quietly fighting for the oppressed wherever they may be found.

I have met very, very few people in my life who I can honestly say embody the command to "Love your neighbors as yourself." 

She really does.
26 January 2015

What Life Looks Like Lately

 From a restaurant we visited on a quick trip to Hong Kong--I was amused by the warning.

 Angel has learned how much "work" homeschooling is while managing Sarah's 4th grade schoolwork.

 Acrobatics at the pool!

 Taking a casual stroll to go get lunch...

 The kids love the apartment building's playroom, we thought it was a perfect location for a group photo!

 Fan-cleaning WHILE homeschooling. Bonus!

 We may have tired Sarah out a little too much, since she fell asleep at youth group...

 I mentioned to some of our friends that we wanted to go kayaking--and a couple days later, they brought the whole crowd out to the beach, rented a few kayaks, and we had fun. Even the little ones were brave enough to go out onto the water, as long as they were sitting on our laps on the kayak!

We ordered a lemon cheesecake saying "Welcome Back, Mom and Dad!" on it and were highly amused when we opened the cake and found out that it said "Mom and Daddy" instead. All of us consider ourselves far too old to say "Daddy."

What do you call your father?
23 January 2015

Packing List for China--Updated

 We probably wouldn't survive as backpackers...

About 2 weeks before we left for China, I published a list of what we were planning on packing. Now that we've been in China several months, I thought I'd revisit that list and update it with notes on what we've found most useful, what we didn't really need to bring, and what I wish we could have brought:

Boring, practical clothes and shoes for work (I packed two pairs of black dress pants. I think I underestimated how much I would wear dresses and skirts to work. I have worn my black dress pants only in December and January as defense against the cold, and even then, reluctantly, because I think they are ugly--but still, probably necessary. I could get away with just one pair.)
Clothes and shoes that Rachel is too fond of to let go (I haven't worn either of my pairs of heels more than 2 or 3 times, but I'm glad I have them. Our lifestyle requires a lot of walking, and I don't like painful feet. I'm wearing my ballet flats down to nothing--it's already obvious that both pairs I brought will not make it out of China alive.)
Clothes and shoes that Angel is too fond of to let go (He says he brought the perfect number of pairs of shoes--the running shoes and basketball shoes are getting quite worn--but overpacked on t-shirts and underpacked on collared shirts he can wear to work. He got rid of all of his dress shirts that were slightly too tight for him before we moved, and promptly lost 10 pounds upon arrival in China. Those dress shirts would be useful now!)
Angel's USA, Mexico, and China flags
Our wedding clothes (used them for our anniversary photos, and Angel wore his vest and pants for our formal contract signing ceremony, for his dance performance, and his jacket when we were interviewed for TV, so he's getting good use out of his suit!)
Chacos (sandals) for both of us (near-daily wear until it got cold)
My Doc Martens (my one pair of cold weather shoes--worn daily since the beginning of December)
A miniature pewter nativity scene
2 Laptops
External hard drive (I'm glad I had access to years of old pictures--sometimes we use old pictures in our lesson plans--i.e. having students describe a picture or guess what is happening in a picture)
Angel's iPod touch  (this has been surprisingly useful. We have a Chinese-English dictionary on it so that we can look up needed words while out and about)
Camera/Camera battery charger
My haircutting scissors and comb (I cut a good 3 inches off my hair in December, hurrah!)
My jewelry and accessories
Angel's favorite prism
My little swiss army knife
Chinese/English dictionary
A few, very few, 3
Light jackets for both of us (on cold days I've been wearing 3 shirts plus my jacket, but I've survived!)
A stock of basic meds we might need (ibuprofen, allergy meds, stomach meds, etc.) (Yep, we've used them! Especially the first couple weeks after we arrived!)
Notarized copies of important papers/ids/etc. (never underestimate how much paperwork is involved in living internationally.)
Potato Peeler (didn't actually make it into the suitcase, but I wish I had it)
Can Opener (ditto)
A few makeup/facial skincare products (probably should have brought a little more of this along)
Toms deodorant (our supply will definitely last us the year, after that, I don't know what we'll do. haha!)
Yes To... chapstick
A 31 brand tote someone gave us (we use it to carry groceries since plastic bags cost extra)
Travel Boggle (we play it with students for English practice)
My Fabric USA Map 
Silverware (I do like eating with my nice forks)
Angel's pewter cup
My Purse from the Red Buffalo Road
The extra HK dollars that we had from last time we were in the HK airport (those are, obviously, gone by now)

Last minute things that made it into the suitcase, and have proved very useful:

Angel's LED headlamp (the sidewalks can be pretty dark at night, he wears this whenever we walk in the evening)
About 10 USB drives. (we, like most, have collected USB drives over the years. I've never bought one, but I happen to own many. We use these daily as we each carry at least two to class when we're doing a computer-based lesson.)

What we wish we brought:

A big pot and a big frying pan (I already had them, I thought of bringing them along, but was advised against it. I wish I would  ignored that advice and somehow managed to bring them with me.)
A year's supply of chili powder
A Kindle (I've never had one, never even considered one, as I always had that dream of having the library from the movie My Fair Lady in my house. But at this point, it's probably time to give up on the dream. English books are few here, and expensive. I would have liked to have a Kindle and a bunch of books on it to read while riding the metro or hanging out at the park while Angel flies his kite.)
21 January 2015

When the Parents are Away

Tell me, when you were growing up, did you and your siblings experience a strange kind of ecstatic joy when your parents would go out and leave all of you at home?

We did.

Oh man. We love our parents, but instantly, the minute Mom and Dad would announce that they were going out on a date, or going to a meeting, or doing who-knows-what outside the house and wouldn't be back till much later--we would get really excited.

The very first time my parents left us home alone, it was for 15 minutes or less while they drove up to the main road to put up signs for our upcoming garage sale. I was 11, mature beyond my years, and very responsible. During those 15 minutes, the toddler threw a tantrum and threw a glass bowl full of water on the kitchen floor, which shattered instantly. My younger sister, 9 at the time, was innocently walking across the kitchen during the bowl incident and somehow managed to step right on a piece of broken glass and cut her foot wide open. The kitchen floor instantly filled up with blood (remember the water in the bowl? That water all over the floor mixed with the blood to make it look like someone had been murdered). In a moment, I'd handed the screaming toddler into the care of her big brother, threw a towel for her foot to the sister sitting in the middle of a pool of blood, and grabbed a broom to sweep the glass out of the way so that we could help my poor sister without bleeding to death ourselves along the way. That very second, my parents opened the door.

In the years since then, when they left us home alone, we never faced quite such a medical emergency, but we did execute all manner of glorious plans that would never have been accomplished if our parents had been home. We'd invite our neighbor friends over when we were teens and put the baby sisters to bed for the night, and then play hide and seek in the dark all over our house and yard. We did science experiments like dropping eggs with parachutes off of our 2nd story balcony. We made ourselves grand feasts and had movie marathons. Mom and Dad's only rules (possibly inspired by the first time?) were to call them if anyone was bleeding and that all dishes should be washed and the house should be spotless and all schoolwork should be done by the time they arrived home--oh, and we weren't allowed to leave the house and yard. Mom would often call us to give us a 10 minute warning before their arrival--and let me tell you, when there's 7 of you, there's a whole lot of cleaning and chores you can accomplish in a 10 minute time period. We always had a lot of fun when Mom and Dad were gone, and for that reason, we'd often suggest things like, "Mom, why don't you take Dad on a date?" in order to get them out of the house at regular intervals.

I'm telling you all of this because this week, my parents are gone. They traveled to another part of Malaysia and it's just us kids, home alone. We felt the same sort of evil glee when we heard our parents were going away this time...the wheels in my head were turning over various experiments we could try out in their absence.

Only this time, it's a little different. Because Mom and Dad are gone for 4 days, and Angel and I are the real adults in charge of this crowd of teens and toddlers. And as an adult I do have to be concerned about whether schoolwork and showers are happening (though honestly, my sisters are generally quite self-sufficient)....but as the big sister who revels in the parents' absence, I can assure you that dinners composed of snacks and movie marathons are happening, too.

Also, I'm finding this new role even more awesome, because as an actual adult, my realm of power is more far-reaching. Now we can take the kids to the pool or the park when school is done, no permission needed. We could even go shopping or out to a restaurant when we want to. The world is at our fingertips!
19 January 2015

Hometown To-Do List

 We're spending our long Spring Festival vacation from school back in my beloved hometown--we've got nearly 6 weeks here, which is by far the longest time Angel's ever spent here (his previous record is just short of 2 weeks). I'm so glad to be spending this time at home and I've got plenty of things to remember to do while we're here. I wonder just how many I'll accomplish (I'll be marking items off as they are experienced):

(The usual cast of characters will be involved, of course)

1. Go swimming in the (apartment complex's) pool.

2. Go to a secluded beach (by hiking or boat)

3. Visit the mainland.

4. Go kayaking.

5. Go to the doctor for vaccinations (Boo!)

6. Go to the eye doctor for new glasses

7. Go to the dentist for cleanings.

8. Pirates of the Caribbean Movie Marathon

9. Take an awesome (partial) family photo.

10. Give haircuts (Sarah, MG, Anna, Shannon, Rebekah)

11. Get a haircut.

12. Watch Into the Woods at the theater

13. Play card games while listening to sad songs on Youtube.

14. Play "Puerto Rico"

15. Host a Valentine's Day party

16. Eat Indian food

17. Have a scavenger hunt

18. Go to morning market

19. Go to night market

20. Give ang pow for the first time ever (AHHH!!! How did I get so old?)

21. On that note, have Angel experience his first ever Chinese New Year. Chun Jie Kuai Le!!

22. Visit Little India.

23. Execute an awesome senior photo session for Anna, my 17 year old sister.

24. Don't completely forget about studying and practicing Mandarin.

25. Go hiking.

26. File federal, state, and city taxes for the USA (probably easier to do in a country with more reliable internet?)

27. Eat homemade cookies and other baked foods (a roast chicken wouldn't be too far out of line...)

28. Do a photoshoot with masquerade masks. (because my family has masquerade masks and they just seem awesome).

29. Organize something in their house--they're better at sweeping and dusting and that sort of cleaning than I am, but I am the master organizer.

30. Read good books
-My Father's Daughter by E. L. Konigsburg
-Shouldn't You Be In School? by Lemony Snicket
-Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang
- The Selection, The Elite, and The One by Kiera Cass
-Living on the Edge by Loren Cunningham
-Lies My Teacher Told Me
31. Ask Mom all of the theology-related questions we keep forgetting to ask her.

32. Swing dance with the kids.

33.  Create some food experiments in the kitchen (so much easier to do in a bigger kitchen, with more kitchen appliances, and with more ingredients available!)  So far, we've made "Potato Surprise" casserole.

34. Ride the bus (so that we are no longer middle-schoolers who have to rely on our parents to drive us around).

35. Go to my favorite mall.

36. Help out with homeschooling (because once all the schoolwork is done, we can play!)

37. Take the kids to the park.

38. Organize and back up all of my family's home movies from the last decade.

39. Begin work on my next book.
15 January 2015

For those Left Behind

Expats will often talk about the hardships common to the lifestyle: missing family and friends and familiar foods, struggling with language barriers, being bewildered by cultural differences, experiencing health problems due to a different diet or climate, etc.

Expats who are happy in their choice will universally say that in spite of all of those challenges, their new life is totally worth it, because of the rewards that life in their new home brings: new friends and family, a wider range of life experience, or opportunities to pursue the cause that they are most passionate about.

The general consensus among content expats is that this lifestyle causes you to lose a lot, but the gains outweigh the losses.

I'm convinced that expats themselves are not the ones who experience the hardest part of the expat lifestyle.

No, as far as I'm concerned, the family and friends left behind by expats experience the far harder portion--and their loss is often not even acknowledged.

The face of a happy expat
The ones left behind end up losing a son, or a brother, a sister or an aunt or a best friend. They lose our presence in mundane, day to day life, and they lose our attendance at the highlights: births, graduations, weddings, funerals.

The ones left behind by expats get none of the benefits in exchange for this loss. They only get to miss those who are now on the other side of the world. My grandma simply doesn't have me around anymore. I can't babysit my cousins when needed. I won't be attending my nephew's birthday parties or my siblings' college graduations.

And the average expat causes even more trouble for their loved ones left behind than simply that they're gone. Often expats leave a few beloved possessions behind--which require space in a loved one's attic. We usually need someone to act at our power of attorney, to accept our mail, and  to help make sure all tax information and license paperwork is filed away as it should be from year to year. We need them to mail far-too-expensive packages containing bras or shoes or Benadryl when we can't find what we need in our chosen country. On the rare occasions when we do visit our home country, we're filling up guest bedrooms for days or weeks at a time, borrowing cars and flat irons because we no longer own electronics with the appropriate plugs, and asking for rides to and from airports.

When you're an expat, people call you brave. They say, "I could never do what you're doing," or "We're proud of you."

But I think we got the easiest portion.

In my own lifetime, I've been the expat, and I've been the one left behind. In my own experience, being left behind is far, far harder.

When you're left behind, you have to frequently remind yourself that the reason your far-away family doesn't visit isn't because they don't love you anymore--they do, they do! It's just that for many reasons, trips across the world aren't easy to take (the flight itself is physically demanding, the trip is exhorbitantly expensive, they may not be able to get enough time off of work to make the trip, etc.).

When you're left behind you have to alter your definition of what it means to be a "good" daughter/sister/mother/etc. Physical presence and picking up the phone at any time of day don't happen anymore, so relationships now take place in a world of emails and scheduled Skype calls and Facebook albums. Sometimes that feels weird, and wrong, but it's all you have, so you cling to it.

Us happy expats--those of us who are living abroad without the shadow of a doubt that it's exactly where we should be right now--we have it so easy. Sure, maybe we don't get to eat pizza, maybe reclaiming our apartments from mildew and mold and cockroaches and rats is a never-ending battle, but we get the benefit of building relationships and creating a new community for ourselves in a foreign land and working at the job that brought us here.

The left-behind family members of expats get nothing. They have exactly the same lifestyle they had before, only now it no longer includes us. They're merely left with a hole in their heart where a loved one should be--a hole that may occasionally sting a little extra when they see how much their beloved expats enjoy their new home, because, while they'd never say it, it might make them feel just a little better if their loved ones were homesick instead of jumping up and down for joy in their new country.

I want to say to all who we've left behind, and to others who have experienced being left behind by crazy vagabond relatives who chose not to stay where they were born:

Thank you. Thank you for letting us go, even when you really, really didn't want us to. Thanks for letting us have lives that look impossibly different from the ones you had imagined for us. Thanks for sending us holiday care packages when what you really want is to have us there on Christmas morning. Thanks for not holding it against us forever that we couldn't come to your wedding. Most people easily acknowledge the challenges of living abroad, but today I want to acknowledge you--all of you who stay at home. We need you. We need you there to mail us that new credit card before our old one expires, and we need you to tell us what's going on back "home"--though it may not feel like "home" to us any more, we still treasure that place, because you are there. The fact that we love our new life here does not mean we love you any less--we wish we could show our little world to you, but we'll settle for exchanging digital pictures. Thanks for handling this position of faraway family member, a position that I know you didn't want and were forced into, with such grace. It will be easier on all of us if you choose to believe us when we say that our move overseas is permanent, but if it takes you a couple years to accept it, I understand. Thanks so much for being tough enough to hold down the home-front in our absence. You are missed, every single day. Thanks for taking the time to show us that we are missed, too.
14 January 2015

A Belated Christmas Gift

Back in November, I posted my "dream" wishlist for Christmas presents, talking about what would be on my list if I were making one as I had in past years. I wasn't sure yet at the time what we'd be doing for Christmas (we ended up attending a banquet and going to Hong Kong to watch The Hobbit!), but I knew it wouldn't really involve presents.

And then, surprise! The day after I published that post, Vashelle emailed me to ask if  she could mail us some of the candy I'd written about my love for.

My initial thought when reading the email was, "Are you sure? I tell my own family not to send us anything because international mailing is so annoying and expensive!"

She very kindly persevered through all manner of misadventures and hassles in order to get the package on its way...and then, miraculously, it actually arrived, and was delivered to us at our school!

(This is impressive because we know 2 British guys who live in the same district we do and teach at two different schools--one received mail that was addressed to the other one--how that happened, no one can figure out)

Vashelle not only sent Nerds, but paid attention to the very important detail about the best flavor of Nerds and sent RED, WHITE, and GREEN Nerds. These are the flavor of Christmas itself. I was eating them within two minutes of opening the envelope they came in.

Angel was not forgotten either, he got a whole can of cashews and is so happy that he's finally profited off of my blogging hobby.

Thanks, Vashelle! There's a big leap between reading someone's Christmas wishlist and deciding to make it come true--you totally went the extra, unnecessary mile, and it made our day!

(Well, not 'day' exactly, because I'm trying to ration the Nerds and make them last at least a week, because that's the responsible thing to do.)

Also, Willy Wonka, if you see this (either Johnny Depp or Gene Wilder version, both are acceptable), if you're ever looking for a blogger spokesperson for Nerds, I'm your gal.
12 January 2015

Teenage Fashion

I know everyone is under the impression that I only came into existence in 2011, when this blog first began, but let me assure you, that is not the case. I was once a teenager, like most adults in the world today, and since I've been too lazy to take any outfit shots recently, and I have a hard-drive full of ancient photos, I thought I'd give you a glimpse of my style in my teen years:

 14 years old, attending a wedding reception. You've seen this dress relatively recently.

 Still 14. All packed and ready to head out on an overnight train to Thailand. Orange is really not my color. And I detest wearing athletic shoes, though they were needed on this trip.

15 years old. Deepavali party at our friends' home.

 15. Trying out Dad's unicycle. Same jeans as above, you can see. I actually only got rid of those jeans this past summer.

15. Those ugly shoes. No wonder I mostly refuse to wear athletic shoes these days...

 16 years old. We seem to have started taking more digital pictures around this age. Like my bracelet? It's obvious I do. And yes, I still have it.

 16. Cheating, because this is a costume. It was the shortest skirt I'd ever worn at this point in my life and I was rather scandalized by it.

16. I loved this dress a lot--it didn't make the cut to come to China, though.

16. Back when I could still hold my own, height-wise, with these two. I don't even remember owning that skirt, so I have a feeling it's just borrowed.

 16. I was going to a party with a competition for the person who had dressed most completely in RED. I had streaks of red paint in my hair and you can't see it, but I'd stuck individually wrapped twizzlers through my bun as if they were hair chopsticks. I was so proud of myself.

 16. This was slightly after I got my senior photos taken, I know, because I learned how to do this hairstyle from the stylist who did my hair for the photos.

 16. When I'd been back in the US a week or two. Wearing my cousin's jacket because I didn't even own one!

 16. About to go meet up with some friends and feeling pretty cool with my chunky black bracelet and chain.

 17. The last day of my first semester of college. I have a love hate relationship with sweatedresses...they're warm and cozy, but I don't love the look that much. And that jacket. It was a women's size medium. I think a women's size medium might have been wishful thinking on my part.

 17. A Christmas party, and another sweater dress--but a short-sleeved one, which creates such an enigma. I feel like I took way more serious-faced photos when I was a kid, don't you?

18 years old. Just before our engagement party. I love this photo because I love that stop-sign. I'd say that dress is more comfortable than it is flattering, but I like anything black and white.

Looking back, I don't even think my style has changed all that much. I still like blue jeans (although I no longer detest skinnies), bright colors, and black accessories. I'd say the biggest changes are that my hairstyling skills have improved, I wear tennis shoes less (and the ones I have were chosen for their cuteness), and I wear clothes that fit better (I could still improve at that. Why is finding and buying clothes that actually fit well so hard?).
09 January 2015

I'm a TV Star!!

Okay, Okay, I know what you're thinking: "Rachel, be logical here. One interview on local television does not a TV star make."

But then I will respond with the fact that I'm American, and I was interviewed for a local television channel, which makes me not merely a TV star but an international TV star.

And then you will stop trying to use your logic on me and will just let me do my happy dance in blissful ignorance of reality.

Basically, what happened was, a few weeks ahead of time, we were informed that the local television station wanted to feature us on their news program--they were interested on doing a story on the lifestyle of foreigners teaching English in ShenZhen, China.

The journalists came to our school one morning and spent the morning videotaping our classes. Angel wasn't actually scheduled to teach that morning, and was only informed that he had to teach for the cameras 10 minutes ahead of time, so he borrowed a class from another teacher, one that he'd already taught that week, and didn't have a completely new lesson prepared for them, so he had them play a version of charades where the students verbally describe a word they are trying to get their classmates to guess.

The students were very excited about having cameras in their classroom and a few were even pulled out during class in order to be interviewed about their experience of having Angel and I as English conversation teachers.

They filmed individual interviews with us in our office (our own desks weren't quite suitable for the filming, so they kicked a couple of our coworkers out of their desks). They also filmed us 'lesson planning' together and walking to our classes together. They were particularly interested on catching the touching moment as we separate and head two different ways, as we teach in completely different buildings. They had us re-enact the point in our walk where we separate multiple times, but I'm not sure if we did it good enough that that clip will even make it into the interview.

 Our interview questions. Just as a help for those not experienced with non-native English, #1 is asking about our previous work experience and #11 is asking how Angel and I met. I thought those two were the trickiest ones.

Also, this is how you know everything on tv is fake: Angel wore his suit coat and a tie to teach in--he may, on rare occasions, wear the tie, but never a suit coat. I also pushed things to the extreme and taught in heels. Which may have been a bad idea because Angel said afterwards, "Whoa, those heels look really pretty! Why don't you wear them more often?"

It was funny how we both responded differently to the cameras. I was on such an adrenaline high that I had a hard time sleeping and then eating breakfast before the interview, though when the cameras were on me I was perfectly comfortable. Angel, on the other hand, didn't show that the thought of being on TV made any impression on him whatsoever until he was in the classroom a minute before class began and turned to me and said, "Why do I feel so nervous?" He was definitely a little uncomfortable in front of the cameras, but I was very proud of how well he did.

If we do end up getting a copy of the aired segment, I will post it online and share with you guys! We don't actually have any television service...or a television, and there's no guarantee that we'll see our segment when it airs (though they have told us that they will give us a disk of the segment), but I wanted to write own the story of this fun little adventure while it was still fresh in my mind.