30 March 2015

Things We See, Part 2

I did the first Things We See post back in October, and figured it was high time for another one. The following pictures are things I've found funny or beautiful or otherwise interesting over the past few weeks:

For the weekend of Women's Day in early March, our school organized a trip to the beach (Da Mei Sha) for employees--we spent several hours strolling this boardwalk. It was a very chilly day, so no swimming was involved in the beach trip.

There was an outlet mall next to the beach, which we wandered for a while, and found this thing that looked like a phone booth but had nothing except an electrical socket inside. I guess you could always stand inside the phone booth to talk on your cell phone...

Still at the beach--being sneaky and taking pictures of cute couples getting their wedding photos done. We saw two different couples doing this, and I'm always the sneaky one taking photos of them from a distance--I love stumbling across these photo-shoots.

 I think the rocks below create a vivid picture of exactly why you should not stampede the Wire Rope.

I honestly never knew the power of a good, old-fashioned bicycle until we moved here, I am continually impressed by how much stuff is able to be transported without the aid of a gas-powered engine.

This 3-story tree is by far the biggest and coolest balloon sculpture I've ever seen. It was just hanging out in the center of the mall that's walking distance from our place. I was really impressed by the creativity that must have been involved in creating it!

And there's a little dog walking around the mall, following what I presume to be its owner.

This building isn't anything famous, it's just a three-story building at the park next to our apartment complex, but I love how elaborate the roof is--bedecked with dragons!


Saturday morning at 8:30--lots of couples were waltzing on the main floor of this open-air building at the park. I never knew how popular dance was in China until we moved here. On Saturday nights there are salsa lessons in the public square--we go to watch sometimes, but we haven't seen any swing dance, which is the only style we're any good at.
27 March 2015

Being Stared At

If you haven't ever experienced it, you've probably heard about it from others: If you're an expat in Asia, you're going to be stared at. Unless, of course, you are an expat of Asian descent in Asia and happen to blend in with the locals. If you're lighter or darker-skinned than those around you, expect to be the center of attention wherever you go.

 Outfit worn for an afternoon of playing Duck, Duck, Goose, Football, and other assorted games with preteens at the park while their parents (our coworkers) sat on a picnic blanket and laughed at our amusing antics.

Now, from what I heard, this bothers some people. The first time Angel walked down the sidewalk with my family in Malaysia, he was rather disconcerted by the reaction that the sight of our pasty skin elicits from the average passerby. He pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, "Um....everyone is staring at us..."

I hadn't noticed, not that time. I usually don't notice. After a while, staring simply became normal.

Some who visit countries where they are stared at find this behavior invasive and offensive--but I'd like to argue that it's not helpful to view it that way. The fact is, in a lot of non-Western cultures, staring itself is not rude. People stare at anything that they find interesting, and you might just happen to be one of those interesting things.

Here in China, the reactions tend to go a little beyond just staring. Angel and I will no sooner step outside the door of our apartment building when a little girl walking by, chattering away to her grandma, will stop mid-sentence, stare at us in open-mouthed awe, point, and shriek to her grandma, "Wai Guo Ren!" ("Foreigners!") 

It's awesome. It's at least partially due to my personality that I think it's way more fun to walk down a street where I hear a constant echo of "Wai Guo Ren!" from all sides (especially from children, who, as we all know, tend to say what they think) than to walk down a street in my own country where no one takes any notice of my mediocre presence .

In restaurants, we're often asked where we came from, why we're in China, and occasionally, how much our salary is. I carry on more random small-talk conversations with strangers in Mandarin than I ever did in my home country in my native language.

I don't mind the uncalled-for attention--most of the time people just want to say hi, ask where I'm from, ask if I can speak Chinese, tell me I'm pretty, or take a picture with me. After living where we have for this long, even I am startled when we suddenly come across foreigners on our home turf. Maybe a few years down the road, I'll be asking them if I can take their picture, too!

The place where we live is not diverse. I would not dare be offended by a few stares and open remarks about how I appear different than everyone around me, because it's nothing other than the truth. I do look different from everyone else in my neighborhood. I'm watched constantly, and talked about often. My home country and the color of my skin makes for a big conversation starter in this part of the world. I've had enough run-ins myself with rude, uptight, and entitled Westerners, both in my home country and abroad-- I choose to view the fact that I stand out as an opportunity to be a pleasant example of my own culture.

p.s. Funny Story: A teacher that I hadn't previously met at our school was chatting with me, and mentioned, "All of the teachers talk about you and the boy teacher [Angel] often. We think you must be very good friends." Good friends, indeed.

p.p.s. Bonus Funny Story: A few months ago, my curly-haired, blue-eyed, ivory-skinned baby sister told my parents, concerning her decision to start dancing in the middle of the mall to a favorite song that was playing, "You know, people are just going to stare at me anyways, so I might as well be dancing." I think we may share a few personality traits in common.
25 March 2015

Our Daily Life (Teaching in China)

I've gotten several requests to put together a 'day in the life' sort of post. I procrastinated for a long time, because I feel very awkward when taking pictures of normal things, like eating lunch. In the end, these pictures of us going about our normal, everyday life were taken on several different days, because that was the most convenient.

I now present to you, scenes from our everyday life in ShenZhen:

Angel looks forward to the free breakfast at work in the teachers' cafeteria every weekday!

This is Angel's class schedule for the 2nd semester--first semester, this seemed almost impossibly confusing, but I'm happy to say that this semester we sat down and figured it all out right away! Angel's classes are listed here as kou yu, conversational language classes.

This was my 2 kuai (Approx $0.35 US) lunch at school--rice, green leafy veggies, tomatoes and eggs, and something pale green that I couldn't identify. This is pretty standard. There are usually meat or fish options, but I don't ask for them because I'm not a fan of meat.

Hanging out at the bus stop, waiting for the work bus to pick up us for school. This was a chilly day, which explains all the layers. I don't have any pictures of our classes, because it's weird to be taking photographs when you're supposed to be teaching, isn't it?

Walking home from the bus stop. When we come home on the public bus from school, the closest bus stop is a 15 minute walk from the house, so we walk past a bunch of little shops on the way.

We were at Walmart to buy groceries for dinner, but Angel got distracted by these shirts. He prefers to wear short-sleeved shirts to work, since he often feels hot in the classroom, so he bought this one. I teased him just a little because he was torn between buying size L and size XL (In the USA it's usually a choice between S and M).

Coming home to our 3rd floor apartment!

Fridge, fully loaded.

Angel loves the bike rental system. It took us a long time and a lot of questions to even figure out where he had to go to purchase a bike rental card, and then we had to fill out a form in Mandarin...but he loves being able to ride a bike when he's going on long errands. The rental card was cheaper than the cost of buying a bike, and we didn't want to have carry a bike up 3 flights of stairs in order to store it, or buy a lock, or worry about it getting stolen, so this is a really cool system!

He solved a Rubik's cube for the first time ever-after watching Youtube tutorials for most of an evening. A lot of his students have Rubik's cubes and try to play with them in class, so that's what got Angel intrigued with them.

Those are a few glimpses of everyday activities. It's simple, and it's a lifestyle I'm enjoying very much in this season.
23 March 2015

Half a Decade

Today, I'm remembering the day my parents gave Angel and I a Skype "thumbs up" to officially begin courting. Five years ago. Older and wiser people, bear with me. Five years may not be all that long, but it's still more than 1/5th of my entire lifespan.

 Photo taken two days before we were official. The awkwardness is palpable as we sit on the floor in my grandparents' living room.

In reality, we could say that the beginning was sometime before that infamous March date--what about my first day in college, Sept. 2, 2008, when we first crossed paths? We didn't even exchange words, so that doesn't count. Should I count from the day after Angel's graduation from college, May 24, 2009, the infamous first kiss? Well, that was a non-starter since I moved out of the country the next day. December 25, 2009 was the day Angel called me to wish me a "Merry Christmas!", and could possibly count as the beginning of something, since he called me an average of once per day from that date until we married (relatives were scandalized by my cell phone bill). But March 23, 2010--that's what I count from, because that was the day my parents gave us their approval (a requirement in my family).

I've been talking a lot of dates, and a lot of numbers in this post, so I figured I'd continue the trend with more numbers:

2 homes in two different countries

2 bikes purchased.

1 grill

1 awesome bed (+2 mediocre beds)

3 roadtrips to Texas

2 new laptops (the ones we had pre-marriage died slow, painful deaths)

7 cats

4 times Angel has flown to Malaysia

1 trip to Hong Kong Disneyland

3 jobs for Angel (Texas Nurse, Michigan Nurse, English Conversation Teacher)

1 real job for Rachel (not counting tutor, ironing girl and professor's assistant)

2 semesters of grad school (Angel)

2 minor league baseball games attended

1 argument resulting in the purchasing of a dollhouse by Angel for Rachel

4 kayaking outings (always a tandem kayak)

4 added family members (2 baby cousins, 1 sis-in-law, 1 nephew)

1 book, self-published

2 anonymous prank letters mailed to loved ones

9 dentist appointments each (I actually don't boycott dentists, who would have guessed?)

0 tandem bike adventures (something Angel has always wanted to do, but never succeeded in doing)

3 houseplants (Christmas Cactus, unidentified plant, mint plant)

I'm finding that the best memories aren't easy to capture numerically. How many hours of sleep have we lost because we were too busy talking the night away? How many bonfires have I danced around, Jack Sparrow-style, while Angel stoically reminded me to be careful? How many plates of nachos al carbon have we split?

I'm not that great at counting.

 Picture taken 2 days ago.

In my teens, I found very idea of marriage incredibly frightening. I don't know why the thought of marrying Angel was never scary to me. From that very beginning, 5 years ago this week, when I dropped him off at the airport and he told me he hated PDA and I said "What's PDA?" and then he kissed me in front of all the airport strangers 15 seconds after explaining the's always felt like we're just two good friends who decided that getting married sounded like the best possible choice. For us, it is.


P.S. For those who haven't been reading this blog since back when I was a starry-eyed newlywed, you can catch the one time I actually told the whole story chronologically in three parts here: 1, 2, 3.
19 March 2015

Bewildering Food


Angel was eating his breakfast at school when I noticed that one of the rolls he'd grabbed wasn't among the breakfast buffet's usual offerings. "That looks kind of like a cinnamon roll!" I said.

(Notice, with that statement I betray my lack of trust in my own eyes' ability to judge what foods actually are by their looks. After all, we've been tricked before, remember the green oranges?)

Angel just grinned at me and didn't say a word. I could tell by the light in his eyes that he was hoping I'd bite into the roll in order to determine if it was, indeed, a cinnamon roll.

I, of course, did no such thing. Upon a few more moments of reflection, I came up with what the true answer to the identity of this mysterious roll might be.

"It's a red bean roll, isn't it?" I asked Angel. Indeed, the "cinnamon" that was rolled up throughout the pastry was actually the ubiquitous red bean paste, a common pastry filling that I am not at all fond of.

Angel likes these pseudo-cinnamon rolls, but even if it weren't for the fact that I have a long-standing opposition to red bean paste (possibly incited by the time Dad bought all of us kids red-bean flavored popsicles thinking that they were strawberry flavored popsicles during our first few months in Malaysia), I'm not sure I could ever quite forgive them for their uncanny resemblance to a treat whose deliciousness is not easily surpassed.
17 March 2015

Answering Questions About Growing Up Homeschooled

*Cue hipster voice(though I have no idea what that sounds like):

"I was homeschooled before it was cool."

In all seriousness, homeschooling resources and groups were much fewer and farther between in the early 90s when my parents made the choice not to put my siblings and I in a 'real' school. I asked around to see what questions some of my blogging friends had about the homeschooled lifestyle, and put together my answers for those of you who are intrigued:

Growing Up Homeschooled
*Yes, she's sitting in a desk in a pretend classroom inside a museum. Because our home has neither desks nor bulletin boards, so these things seem strange and exotic.

From Monica: "Was your mom already a teacher? Do you feel like you missed out on socializing with friends? Were you ever sad that you weren't in public school?"

No, my mom did not go to school for teaching. She is, however, naturally gifted at teaching. While she has taught Sunday schools, VBS, and Bible study classes since before I was born, she has often said that she learned more during her years of teaching us than she ever did in her own kindergarten-12th grade education.

I don't feel I missed out on socializing. With all my siblings, there was never room for loneliness. When I was little, I had a bunch of other kids to play with regularly. Instead of from school, my friends were sourced from church, or from my neighborhood,  or else they were cousins or children of my parents' coworkers. Later on, my friends came from youth group and drama club. In high school, I developed a tight-knit group of friends that I spent time with several times a week (The majority of my close friends attended 'real' schools.).

I never thought I was missing out by not being in public school, possibly because I never knew the difference. In high school, particularly, I was pretty happy about not being tied down to a public school schedule, because it gave me freedom to travel with friends and family, and get involved in hobbies and activities that I would have had no time for if my days had been full of classes and my nights full of homework.

From Julie: "How can homeschooled kids get the full benefit of extracurricular activities when they aren't in a traditional school? Is a cohort/parent as the sole educator more effective than a certified teacher?"

There are lots of opportunities for homeschoolers to get involved in group extracurricular activities: some public and private schools allow the option for homeschoolers to sign up for after-school activities, other times, there plenty of options in the local community that families can sign their kids up for, such as community theater, dance or gymnastics lessons, or sports teams. In high school, I participated in the drama club at a local private high school, and also went on yearly trips with their team to participate in the SEA Forensics Tournament (where I won 1st place in solo acting my senior year). That was my area of interest--when we were little, Mom put us in soccer lessons for a little while, and we were in gymnastics lessons for about a year, but the stage is far more interesting to me than any sport. Chances are, you can find a way for a homeschooler to be involved in just about any skill or hobby he or she wants to be involved in (as long as you're willing to pay for it!).

I'm not sure I'd say a parent is any more effective than a certified teacher. I'd be more likely to claim that a teacher + 1 student is more effective than a teacher + 30 or more students. I've learned this to be very true from the teaching side of the equation--the students I tutor individually show improvement much faster than the students I teach in classes of 50 or more. Simply because in a large class, more time is spent working on crowd control and on answering other students' questions that aren't necessarily relevant to one's own needs. In college, I occasionally experienced frustration at having to sit in class while listening to 15-20 minutes of my classmates asking questions that they would have known the answers to if they'd read the textbook like I had--this frustration, was, I believe, a result of the fact that my homeschooling education had not prepared me to waste precious class time on inane questions.

Also, homeschooling doesn't require that only a parent can be a teacher. My family decided that for us, upper-level high school math subjects like trigonometry and calculus were best taught from DVDs with recordings of "real teachers" for each lesson. My dad is a mechanical engineer, and ought to know his calculus quite well, but he wasn't home when school was going on. When working on complex mathematics at that level, it was helpful to have a digital teacher explaining the concepts, but for geometry on down, Mom could handle it on her own. This is a really good solution for homeschooled students who want to expand their education into areas where their parents aren't quite comfortable teaching.

From NutriFitMama: "What do you remember most out of your years of homeschooling?"

I have vivid memories of the books that Mom would read to the whole group of us. If it was a good book, whenever she reached the appointed end of the day's reading assignment, we'd break into a rousing chant: "Read another chapter! Read another chapter!" Sometimes, this chant worked, and she'd continue reading, but other days, she would heartlessly deny our request and order us to work on our other subjects. Tragic, really.

From Mariel: "When do you start homeschooling? How do universities work with homeschoolers, can they go to major universities?"

My mom likes to start teaching early, and take a few years to get the basics of arithmetic, reading, and spelling really solid before moving on. I'd say homeschooling "started" when we were two years old and learning shapes and colors, and progressed naturally from there. My grade level was always slightly ahead of my age--I graduated high school at 16. However, after that, largely because of the logistics involved in living in the USA without parents and attending college as a minor, my parents have decided that all of the rest of the kids will not be attending college till they turn 18. 

More and more universities are becoming homeschooler-friendly. The college I attended, Calvin College, was very welcoming to homeschoolers (and students applying from overseas, which also described my situation). My younger sister and brother have been accepted to the University of Michigan, and will start classes in the fall, while another younger sister is planning to begin her freshman year at a community college this fall. The biggest thing for homeschooling high school is to amass a lot of documentation. Keep great records of grades and classes taken on your transcript. Get documentation from the jobs you work and the volunteer projects that you're a part of. Develop good relationships with adults outside of your family so that they can write knowledgeable letters of recommendation for you (bosses, youth pastors, local community service leaders, etc.). Getting awesome scores on the SAT and ACT helps, too. If you can provide plenty of documentation that you're smart and you've been well-educated and have a well-rounded high school experience, you will have no problem applying for universities.

From Robin: "What was the biggest challenge for you going from homeschooling to college? Do you have any advice for the transition?"

For me, by far the biggest challenge in the transition from homeschool to college was simply the move from Malaysia to America. Being plopped down in the USA and trying to learn the ropes of driving (on the right side of the road!) and getting used to the general culture was far harder than the academic transition. I enjoyed the academic side of college very much--I had passionate professors who cared about the subjects they taught as well as their students, but I struggled with being half a world away from my family, friends, and hometown. The one area where I believe I was a little under-prepared was in realm of academic, data-based writing. In high school, I focused on creative writing, because that's where my interests lay, but I had to learn quickly about academic research papers and raise my standards quite a bit, because I'd never written a college-level research paper prior to attending college. Now, I think academic research is actually pretty fun, but during the first semester I was a bit disoriented, trying to figure out the library and database systems and my professors' expectations. Because of this, I've recommended to my mom to make in-depth research assignments a regular part of my younger sisters' high school educations.

If you guys have any further questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, and in this post, I will answer all questions in the comment section itself so that others can read the answers.
16 March 2015

Your Perfect Day

Over the past few years, my family has begun experimenting with random days when one person writes a schedule of everything they want to do during the day, presents it to the family, and the family then tries their best to fulfill the schedule.

I'm not going to lie, I have a slight feeling that this tradition may have begun because of my family's overly strong fascination with crossing things off of a list.

These special days are not bequeathed on others as a reward for good behavior, or anything like that--rather, they are declared by the person who wants a day for themselves, and the rest of the family tries their best to accomplish the events of the day.

Before we even arrived in Malaysia, Angel decided that he wanted such a day for himself, and sent a detailed schedule to my family via Skype.

The day we chose to enact "Angel Day" wasn't perhaps the best one--some of his chosen activities were impossible because the mall and most major businesses were closed for Chinese New Year. We did manage to accomplish several of the things on his schedule, including:

 Eat breakfast at Angel's favorite Indian restaurant

Walk on the acupressure path, which Angel has been inordinately fond of, ever since we got engaged there.

And take a family photo. Note: I am wearing a tiara because Angel wrote down on his schedule for the day that I was supposed to wear a tiara at all times except when swimming.

The day after Angel's day, we woke bright and early to find that Sarah had declared a day of her own. Hers we were able to follow a little closer to the actual schedule:

We even ate decorated sugar cookies for lunch! However, the bike rental shop was closed, as was the frozen yogurt shop, so we had to settle for vanilla cones from McDonald's instead. The "book" we were reading was The School for Good and Evil, which I mentioned in my post about all the books I read in Malaysia.

There aren't a whole lot of rules behind a "Day"--for your own sake, don't declare one on a school day, because we all know that schoolwork reigns as prince regent, if not king, in our house. Also, you're more likely to get your wishes if they're free or fairly inexpensive. Other than that, day-declarers are quite free to be very creative in planning their ideal schedule.

What activities would make your list for a day full of fun?
13 March 2015

The Great 2015 Book Spree

I've mentioned before that here in China, I don't have any books, and the English language book options in libraries or stores are severely limited. I don't think I realized how much I was craving books themselves until we reached Malaysia, where over the course of 6 weeks I read nearly a dozen books--and I only wished I had more time to check out a few other intriguing titles that my family has scattered on their well-stocked shelves.

I don't have any pictures of me reading, so here's a picture of sister Anna reading Alas, Babylon instead. Close enough.
Here's what I read between January 18-February 26:

My Father's Daughter by E.L. Konigsburg
I really like this author and the intriguing tales she comes up with. This one deals with a masterful con job, special education, and sibling relationships.

Why Aren't You In School? by Lemony Snicket
He's in the top 3 of my favorite authors of all time, and though I wouldn't say this book is his best, there were several parts that thrilled me with their cleverness, including the test for a good uncle--when he takes you to the movie theater, does he buy you popcorn or tell you it's too expensive? The correct answer: Neither. He teaches you how to sneak it in under your coat.

Daring to Live on the Edge: The Adventure of Faith and Finances by Loren Cunningham
This one is all about trusting God over your bank account, by someone who actually lives what he preaches. I found it fascinating.

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang
This is a memoir written by a lady who was in school during the Cultural Revolution. Many of her memories focus on how the Cultural Revolution affected her schooling life, and this was especially interesting to me after spending time in the modern Chinese school system recently.

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen
Fascinating, fascinating read. Reading this at the same time as helping my 3rd grade sister read her very traditional, patriotic, heroify-ing, and extremely boring American history textbook was an especially eye-opening experience. Personally, I tend to believe that moving away from glorification of historical events and towards truth-telling is a very good thing in education--but will it happen? That is something I don't think anyone knows.

The Wave by Todd Strasser
Inspired by a true story of a classroom experiment in creating a secret society that went very, very wrong.

Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl
I don't tend to read sci-fi often, but this was one that that really hooked me.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler
The title tells you everything--it gives you practical tools to facilitate having difficult conversations with a higher rate of success and a lower rate of broken relationships. Not as thrilling of a read as a novel, perhaps, but very useful.

Matilda by Roald Dahl
Another one of my favorite authors, but this is one book of his I'd never previously read. I particularly enjoyed his description of the used car salesman's dastardly tricks, although it didn't make me look forward to buying a car someday.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
This book was written by a professor from my alma mater, so I'm inclined to have fond feelings for it. This was a re-reading, aloud to the family on a long car trip. If there would have been room on the floorboards, we would have been rolling on them due to laughter. As it is, we were packed in like sardines.

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
My youngest sister got this for Christmas, but it turned out to be above her independent reading level, so we had 'book club' and I read this aloud to her over a few weeks. I'm partial to stories that involve familiar fairy tales with dramatic twists, and found this to be very funny and suspenseful, if also sometimes disgusting. I am very squeamish and don't like "ewww" factors in books (think: excessively vivid descriptions of slimy or smelly stuff)...but I am looking forward to reading the sequel!

Have you read any of these? Apparently I was alternating between quirky YA, historical memoir, and educational non-fiction, with a little sci-fi thrown in. I'd say this is a pretty good description of my reading tastes...

If you're looking for a little something to read, I would, without shame, recommend my own book, Staying on Topic is Hard (eBook, Paperback), but I warn you, it fits none of the genres I mentioned.
11 March 2015

Life Without Kids vs. With Them

Spending a month and a half with my family was a big learning experience for us, as regarding how different life is when you live with children vs. when you live without them.

I say "us," although "Angel" is more accurate. I'd never compare siblinghood to parenting, but being the oldest kid in a big family makes you pretty comfortable with a world where little ones are are seemingly always running around somewhere underfoot.

Angel was positively shocked at some of the aspects of life with a bunch of kids. He figured out all on his own that staying around the apartment complex and only going places within walking distance (the pool, the park, the library) was far, far easier than trying to organize a family outing and wrangle feisty toddlers on the public bus.

Toddlers sometimes play with far more toys than they have any logical reason to play with. And you have to sweep after every single meal with them because no matter how hard you're trying to instill table manners--rice is going to end up on the floor. This shocked him--and the fact that it shocked him made my wiser-in-the-ways-of-children family members say, "That's cute."

The husband finally discovered the amazing thing about naps, because when all of the kids happened to fall asleep simultaneously in the afternoon, that's when we could do  utterly irresponsible things like watch Pirates of the Caribbean or play board games that involved small pieces. The miracle of naps is a familiar one to me. When we lived in Texas more than a decade ago, our most favorite thing to do was to play hide and seek in the dark with our friends in the afternoon. I would put the two littlest sisters down for their afternoon nap so that they wouldn't be trampled by preteens, and we'd play as quietly as we could (side note: Hide and seek in the dark is not a very quiet game. People always scream!) until the first cries let us know that naptime was over.

Doing housework suddenly becomes harder than it ought, because not only do you have to mop, you have to prevent small children from attempting to jump into your bucket of soapy water. I thought it was a genius idea of mine to hand scrubbrushes to the 4 year olds and assign them the task of cleaning the bathroom (no soap was involved, of course, just plain old water). They had a grand time, and the bathroom is one that won't be hurt by excessive amounts of water being sprayed everywhere. Of course, afterwards, everyone had to change out of sopping wet clothes, but that's part of the fun.

It's funny to me to look at what we both got out of the experience. Angel says that living life with kids forced him to face his own innate selfishness. I got a great refresher course in rules and strategies for life with toddlers, for example, the classic, "If you two fight over the toy, no one gets to play with the toy." Banished toys are simply a part of life, folks. I also found out that kids are rough on the body. I bruise easily, and my legs were nearly constantly covered in bruises while we were there, due to being grabbed at and head-butted and jumped on by overly-enthusiastic little ones. I think I did eventually convince them that if they want a piggyback ride, they're going to have much better luck with Angel.

It was hard to say goodbye. It's not easy to answer a beautiful, brown-eyed little girl's question, "But why? Why do you have to go to work?" I'm a tough cookie. When they cry because they want to play with a toy that's in jail, it doesn't move me one iota. But it's a different story when they cry because you're leaving them.

Life sure seems a lot quieter now.
09 March 2015

Packing Light

Whenever I take a trip to Malaysia, I pack pretty light. On this past trip, Angel and I only brought a small carry-on bag and a backpack each for the 6 week trip, and a decent chunk of the space was taken up with a few large items we were bringing over for storage purposes, like my wedding dress and Angel's suit coat.

The reasons I feel so comfortable with going on a long trip to visit family with so little clothing packed are several:

1) My family does 3-4 loads of laundry every single day. With many people, a tropical (sweat-inducing) climate, and only a small washing machine and area for drying clothes, this is the only way to stay on top of the chore. With such frequent laundering, I never have to worry about completely running out of clothes after a few days!

2) This family has a lot of girls, and for the most part, they lend me their stuff willingly. Take the outfit above, for example. The nail polish is my sisters'. The shoes are Mom's, as are the earrings, and you can't see it, because of the overwhelming personality of my curls on this particular day, but I was wearing a sparkly red barrette on the right side of my head--also Mom's. The necklace is actually mine, surprisingly, but it was a gift from my parents last year, so in the end, basically everything tracks back to Mom, right?

3) Malaysia has been my #1 favorite shopping destination over the course of my life, so if I'm in need of clothes while I'm there, I just buy them. I love the styles available, which tend to err on the side of much more colorful and quirky than average American mall clothes. If you hit up the right kinds of stores, clothing really isn't expensive, and the size of my frame is pretty close to ideal given the limited size range sold there. Granted, I'm on the tall side, which explains why I'm wearing a t-shirt minidress as a long shirt (bought for 30 RM or $10 US) and skinny jeans as cuffed, cropped skinny jeans (bought for 21 RM, or $7 US). I'll probably never get over my passionate love for purple jeans, and that's completely okay.

Hey, you wanna see behind the scenes of a real-life fashion blogger doing a shoot?

There we are, happily ignoring Angel's prying camera as I tack on a couple outfit photos to the end of a family photo session in honor of the New Year's Holiday. And yes, I was supposed to be wearing red, but my 'packing light' strategy meant that I didn't have any red clothing to wear...and the red-colored pickings from the red of the girls' wardrobes were pretty slim by the time they'd gotten dressed...
05 March 2015

When Someone Judges You...

What's your response? Is it an instant, "Who are you? Who gave you any right to have an opinion on how I live?" accompanied by writing off the criticism, and maybe even the person, as without worth?

I believe that this is an inappropriate response. Why, as a society, have we come to the point where saying something like, "You're a strong and inspiring person and you have great hair" elicits a "Thank you!!!" followed by a dozen smiley face emojis, but a "You're not doing so hot in this department." receives a "How dare you? You can't judge me!"

How did "judging" become so taboo? Most of what is labeled judging in common conversation is simply that, making mental judgments about the quality or lack of quality in a certain area of someone's life. A compliment is also, technically, a value judgment, because it's a positive result of our mental assessment of someone's outfit, job performance, or other personal trait.

Positive judgments are always welcome, whether asked for or not, but very few seem willing to listen to negative judgments, no matter how warranted.

I firmly believe that the blanket decision to write off all criticism as inappropriate judging is only going to hurt you in the long run. Refusal to listen to unpleasant-sounding life advice just means that you're throwing out the good advice along with the bad.

I'm not claiming that being criticized is fun. It's something that our very soul revolts against--but if we're wise, we'll take our time when responding to criticism, and in some circumstances, we might find the initial, "How dare you tell me how to live my own life! I'll make my own mistakes, thank you very much!" may turn into, "Wow. Thanks for caring about my future enough to tell me the truth, even though it was uncomfortable for both of us."

I've received some negative judgments in my day--here are a few of the less personal examples that I can share with the world: When I was a teenager, I was frequently told, "You would be much prettier if you didn't have such short hair." I gradually started growing out my hair and experimenting with longer lengths.

They were right. I didn't want to have long hair, and enjoyed my no-effort boyish haircut very much at the time, but there's no question in my mind, looking back, their opinion that longer hair would be more flattering was 100% correct.

In more recent times, I've been told that I dress immodestly. My instant reaction could have been, "Why should I care what you think?"--but instead, I chose to examine the issue of modesty from different angles, and was able to realize that the culture I was raised in strongly impacted what styles I was comfortable wearing, but the culture I had moved to had very different standards regarding appropriate dress. I didn't end up drastically changing my general dressing habits, but understanding the cross-cultural situation I was dealing with helped me learn how to preserve relationships and respect in the face of differing opinions.

Once, I was told that I should remove a curse word from a blog post. I wanted to fight back, I wanted to stand up for journalistic freedom and state my case--that I pretty much never curse, that that particular curse word was witty and perfect right in that location, that I didn't want to remove it. Stating my reasons for including the curse word opened up a dialogue, and my "judger" was able to give me her reasons for suggesting that I remove the word, pointing out my motivation for that particular blog post to reach a wide audience, and that by including the curse word, I was potentially alienating a large sub-segment of the non-cursing population, and causing them to be unable to appreciate the larger message of my post because they were too distracted by the silly little curse. I may believe that people shouldn't discount the truth of a work of literature because of a rare curse, but I also agree that this is indeed what happens in the real world--I ended up taking the curse word out.

Now, in all of these situations, it would have been easy to hear what they said, and translate it into my mind as You're ugly. You dress like a harlot. Your blog is vulgar and crude. Let me assure you, my mind is just as dramatic as anyone else's. It would have been easy to just cry to Angel that people are being mean to me, tell them "YOU DON'T KNOW MY LIFE!", then suck it up, ignore them, and go about my merry way, not taking into account anyone who critiqued me. But instead, I chose the more difficult route of examining whether it was possible that their negative judgment had any element of truth in it, and taking action based on the results.

I'm not claiming that all judgment is accurate--but far more of it is accurate than we tend to believe. Here are a few warning signs alerting you to when you should really be sure to stop and pay attention to the criticism you're facing:

1. The criticism is coming from someone you respect or have a long-standing relationship with.

2. The person judging you is someone who 'practices what they preach'--their life shows the good results of following their own advice.

3. The person criticizing you shares the same value system that you do.

4. You've heard criticism on exactly the same area of your life from multiple different people.

One thing I've always admired about my husband is how teachable he is. Most of the time, he does take each criticism and judgment handed to him, cautiously examines it, and applies it to his life when it's needed. He's also fond of saying, "Let's bring judging back!" as his way of affirming the usefulness of being criticized.

One evening we were going to sleep, and Angel was reflecting on how he wasn't impressed with his own behavior that day. He said, "I feel like such a bad person."

I said, "You are."

His response? To start laughing and say, "I'm so glad I married you! What other wife would say such a thing?"

My 2-word sentence of advice in that moment came from a position of a long-standing relationship (Point #1) and from our shared value system in which we believe in the fundamental depravity of humanity (Point #3). He said later that he was expecting my response to be something along the lines of, "You're not so bad, you're in a tough situation and I know you're trying to do the right thing!"--but he found my truthful, and admittedly negative, response to be actually more useful.

Right now, Angel and I are in the position of being oldest siblings and cousins to a large population of teenagers getting ready for college. We have the relationship and we have the experience behind us of graduating from college successfully and without crippling debt. We are tireless in our advice-giving: Don't start college if you think there's a strong chance you won't be able to finish--instead, consider a trade school or another, non-college option. Getting a degree in something interesting that you won't be able to get a job in is stupid. Don't take on debt without a foolproof plan for paying it off. Don't get into debt in the first place for an obviously low-paying career. Consider community colleges.

Such advice could be considered nosy and needless. It could be construed as "judging" by passionate young teens who just want to get $120,000 B.A.'s in Philosophy. These young people we love so very much have the option to totally ignore our advice, or take it, and whether they do take it or not probably depends on whether they share our no-debt value system. In the end, whether or not they listen, we've given them a wider opportunity by simply by saying the unpleasant truth that if you go to college for the fun experience, you're setting yourself up for a financially frustrating future.

Decide right now not to write off any and all negative comments wholesale. Keep in mind the 4 points I mentioned above, but also be aware that it's possible, though less likely, to get legitimate, actionable criticism from a source and situation that doesn't match any of the criteria.

I'm not perfect. I need input into my life. I desperately need people to love me enough to say "You messed up" and "I don't think that's a good decision for you." And so do you.
04 March 2015

Our Television Interview!

Our interview aired on January 16, which resulted in us getting messages from our coworkers and students, with pictures of us on their television screens. We were traveling when the segment aired, however, and didn't manage to see it ourselves until this week.

We used the very high-tech method of videotaping the online video with my camera balanced on top of a tissue box, so that explains the less-than-ideal quality, but because some of you said you'd be interested in the video, I'm sharing it here today!

The news reporter is speaking Mandarin, of course, but the segments where we are speaking or teaching are in English, so you will be able to understand at least part of the news segment. As to what the announcer is saying, as far as I can tell, he's not saying anything shocking, the summary is that: Angel and Rachel are a married couple from America who moved to ShenZhen to teach conversational English. In America, Angel was a nurse, and Rachel was a journalist (I thought that was an easier label to give them than blogger, self-published author, and magazine contributor. I write stuff, that's all). Our students say that their classes are fun and relaxed.

*Side note: They do a zoom-in on my wedding ring when I'm talking about when we got married. How strategic. It's so funny to watch a news interview when you're the subject! Also, this is totally a bucket list kind of thing for me. I've been on TV!!!

03 March 2015

Real Life Funnies

 I appreciate an elaborate joke from time to time, but I become transfixed when listening to a good, true, absolutely hilarious story. Ask my mom about the time the guy who would become my dad dropped by her house to introduce himself to her family...while she was out on a date, and you'll know what I mean.

Here are a few of the things that have made me laugh recently:

Seriously, Mandarin has a 4-syllable phrase for everything.

 I just thought this was the most literal food advertisement I've ever seen. Can you imagine saying, "Guys, you have to try the Oblong Burgers from this little street stall that I visited the other day! Best. Oblong. Burgers. Ever."

 My 17 year old sister, Anna, scolded Angel gently, telling him, "You're always putting stuff where it doesn't belong!" in response to his misguided attempts to clean the house. His response was to remove her mattress from her bed and put it somewhere it didn't belong: the tiny bathroom. The absence of the mattress was actually not detected for several hours, and because this is the squat toilet, and therefore the one that everyone in the house avoids except for the most dire of emergencies, it was some time before they located her bed.

 At first glance, this appears to be a very normal "Rules for proper behavior at the park." I mean, good call, no drinking and no smoking, this is supposed to be a safe place for children...but wait, no cows? I mean, where else do you expect the cows to be if not at the park?

I tend to giggle when I'm nervous, which probably explains why I was laughing while taking this photo--it's not funny so much as it is nerve-wracking. Sarah loves having big brothers around to help her accomplish acrobatic feats in the pool. I'm thinking Angel ought to make this a fitness goal: Always be strong enough to balance an 8 year old with fully outstretched arms. Are you fit enough? Next time he ought to try it with me...or Anna as a stunt double...
02 March 2015

Chinese New Year 2015

Chinese New Year brings lion dances:

This was actually my very first lion dance. Somehow, I've always missed the rest of the lion dances that my family has stumbled across over the years. I had no idea, that over the course of a lion dance, or at least this one, you can return with a lot of loot: The Lion offered us peanuts in his mouth, and some people scored mandarin oranges, and at the end, lettuce was thrown everywhere. The man in costume accompanying the lions was handing out red packets with instant coffee packets inside, because this particular lion dance was sponsored by a coffee company!

Some of the younger children got pretty nervous when the lion got right up in their faces, and the drums were so loud I spent most of the time covering my ears--with the decibel level thus lowered somewhat, it was a grand experience!

Chinese New Year means the bestowing of lots of traditional snacks (during the month of February, my family tends to have more mandarin oranges and 'love letters' than they know what to do with, which is really saying something, given the large number of mouths to feed). This year was the first year for Angel and I to be giving ang pow, red envelopes filled with cash--traditionally given by older, married people to younger, unmarried people (usually children). We've been qualified for a few years, of course, but this is the first one where we were actually in a land where this tradition is practiced. I asked some friends, and it sounds as if the rule about whether you are supposed to or not supposed to give ang pow to unmarried people older than you is a little hazy...I decided to err on the side of strictness, so all single folks above the age of 23 were out of luck!

Wearing a new outfit on the first day of the New Year is a tradition that we were going to skip entirely, until a friend made a comment that she was looking forward to seeing the girls dressed in their Chinese New Year Outfits, which sent us scurrying to the mall on the eve of the New Year in search of some new clothes (my sisters tend to wear through their clothes on a regular basis, and seem to be in need of new ones every time I visit, so it was timely).

We arrived at the mall on Wednesday at 5:30 to find that most of the mall looked like this:

Apparently, unlike in America, the eve of a major holiday is apparently not spent shopping. It was surreal to see this 7-floor shopping center nearly dead. We did find a few shops still open, and 4 of the girls managed to get 'something new' to wear for the holiday--in our family, that's pretty much how we do traditions, halfway and at the last minute. What could be wrong with that? We find it exciting! Here's Sarah modeling her brand new red dress:

Chinese New Year is a time for visiting family, and holding open houses for friends. We had a very quiet day or two while most of our friends were busy visiting with their extended families, and on the 3rd day of the New Year, we were invited to several home parties and fed large quantities of food.

I didn't get any pictures, but if you're ever in a country that celebrates Chinese New Year, don't be surprised if you hear fireworks every night for a solid two weeks. Neither Angel nor I have ever been opposed to fireworks in the slightest degree--there were even some going off as we were being driven to the airport for our flight back to China, and we considered them a festive finish to our long visit!