29 April 2015

Our 1-Day Hong Kong Vacation

We had a day off from school on Wednesday and decided to head into Hong Kong for a day of fun and frivolity. The following is a detailed account of our adventures, including my conversations with a bus attendant and immigration official, and the complication process of trying to buy Angel a new pair of shoes.

6:30 a.m.

We leave the apartment, and wait at the bus stop. After we board the bus, the attendant (who charges you based on how far you're going) comes up to me. This conversation (in Mandarin) ensues:

Me: "JiXiang Metro Station"
Attendant: "We don't stop there."
Me: "Oh, sorry, HongJi Garden" {the next closest bus stop to the metro station}
Attendant: "Hey, you're not Chinese, are you?"
Me: "Nope."
Attendant (to the bus driver): "Hey, Driver, these two aren't Chinese, they're foreigners!"
Bus Driver: "Yeah!"
Attendant (to me): "So, do you like China?"
Me: "Yes, we like living in China very much."
Attendant: "That's good!"
Attendant: "You know, we do stop at AiLian Metro Stop, you could get off there instead."
Me: "HongJi Garden will be okay."

This is why I'm glad I speak Mandarin. I may not be able to have deep philosophical conversations, but everyday encounters go pretty smoothly and I like being able to understand what's going on around me.

We eventually make it to the metro, ride it all the way to the Hong Kong border, pass immigration smoothly (standing in line next to a group of Americans who sound very Midwestern and for a moment I think I'm back in Michigan--a quick vision of home!).

We board a double decker bus and head for our first destination of the day: Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden!

Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden
We arrived just after they opened, at about 9:40 a.m., buy our tickets and begin wandering the farm. They have a little museum about the history of the farm, and I became very impressed with Mr. Kadoorie and the other founders of the farm, who took a practical interest in building up the local community and held classes on farming skills and donated livestock and equipment to help give local villagers a way to earn a viable living in the mid-later 1900s. These days, the Kadoorie Farm is more of a tourist attraction and has a message about organic and sustainable farming, as well as animal and forest conservation. It is a working farm and they sell produce and eggs--and they have a cafe on the grounds where we shared a chocolate muffin.

Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden
Angel's favorite place was probably the air-conditioned building where you could sit and watch the wild boar through the window. Because it was air-conditioned. How predictable.

Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden

Did ya see what I did there?

Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden

They had a gorgeous collection of orchids and several other greenhouses with flowers and veggies, and other animal enclosures, mostly housing species non-native to Hong Kong which were rescued from the illegal exotic pet trade or from illegal shipments of exotic animals that were intended to be eaten or used as ingredients in traditional medicines.

We wandered the lower part of the farm until it was time to board our shuttle which would take us up the mountain to the highest viewing platform--stopping at about five different gardens and viewing stations along the way. The road was extremly steep and had lots of hairpin turns--riding the bus felt a little like riding a roller coaster (which I thought was very fun!).

Angel found a bees' nest in one of the gardens we visited, so he was excited about that. We enjoyed quick hikes along the trails and lookouts during the 10-15 minutes allotted to us at each shuttle bus stop.

We were exploring one garden, and stumbled across the cutest little secluded nook. I exclaimed, "Isn't this so romantic! You should propose to me here." Angel said, "All right" and this very solemn proposal is the result of become overcome by the romance of the garden. Since we have no pictures of the actual proposal that took place almost 5 years ago, I'm thinking we can just show this one to our kids instead.

The shuttle bus trip took about 1 hour and a half, and was well worth the 10HKD (less than $2 USD) additional tickets. Tickets for the farm were 30HKD (less than $5 USD).

Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden

Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden

When we'd seen all there was to see, we headed back to the MTR via bus and went on to our next stop of the day: New Town Plaza Mall!

Normally, a mall might not be the most attractive place to go on a short vacation, but while Kadoorie Farm had been my main destination for the day, Angel's goal was to watch The Avengers 2. We stood in a long line to buy our tickets, then ate a late lunch of burgers and fries (but not McDonald' can judge if you want to, but if you lived in China you might very well order french fries when in Hong Kong, too).

Then, we embarked on the as yet never-ending quest to find some new running shoes for Angel. He's a loyal fan of Asics Gel-Kayanos. His current pair has lived through last spring's series of races and many many months of walking long distances in ShenZhen, but they are deteriorating and we've been searching for a suitable substitute for weeks. We've found that discounted Asics Gel-Kayanos are practically impossible to find around here, and that makes the quest a little more challenging.

I have a feeling that shopping with someone else for her wedding dress would require less patience than shopping with Angel for the perfect pair of running shoes. We have been to 4 different shopping malls in China with no luck. His shoe has to have the perfect colors, as well as be comfortable for both running and walking, look good with both jeans and shorts...and certain brand names (ahem *New Balance* *Adidas*) are automatically excluded because he hates them unreasonably.

He found a pair of $300 (yes, USD) Nikes he really likes but I didn't give the approval on that one...We're just not $300 shoes kind of people.

You can probably guess that we were also unsuccessful in finding a new pair of shoes at New Town Plaza. He actual found a model of Reeboks that he really liked--which surprised me immensely as he normally turns up his nose at Reeboks....but though we checked several stores, no one had his size, only half a size too big and half a size too small. Where are all the 9s?


This entire quest is slightly confusing to a non-athlete who last bought a pair of tennis shoes in 2010. Guess what--they're still in nearly mint condition! That tells you how I feel about tennis shoes...

The good news is--I've also been on a shoe quest for some time now, look for open-toed comfy sandals that are not sport sandals (i.e. not my beloved Chacos) and can be worn with dresses or other non sporty outfits. They need to have support, as I can't tolerate those sandals that are completely flat and un-cushioned for long, but they also needed to not be clunky.

I found the perfect pair at Clarks that were 50% off and after long last, decided that, yes, orange matches everything. Aren't they cute?

After much shoe shopping (we both like shoes, and throughout our marriage, shoe quests have become a regular phenomenon), it was time for our movie. Angel's favorite Avenger is Thor, mine is Captain America, though I don't think either of them really shone in this movie.

After the movie, the long day was beginning to wear on us, and we had to make it home before the trains stopped running for the night, so we headed back for the border. At the immigration counter, I was very shocked when the immigration official pointed to my passport picture and asked:

"Is this you?"

I said, "Yes." and he stamped my passport. But isn't that what everyone would say, even if the photo wasn't of them? I think I look identical to my passport photo--however, my hair is down in the photo and I was wearing it back yesterday. I'm not wearing glasses in the photo and I was wearing my normal glasses (not the sunglasses I wore in the morning) for the movie and the trip home. Was it a good enough disguise that I didn't even look like myself? Maybe I should remember to wear my hair down when crossing borders in the future.

We stumbled off of the no-longer crowded metro at our home stop, just 2 stops away from the end of the line, grabbed a lemon ice tea from our favorite drink place, and walked home, finally ascending the last flight of stairs at 10:00pm.

It was a vacation just the way we like them--slightly exhausting.
27 April 2015

The Official Announcement

We will not be returning to teach at our current school for a second year.

Instead, we will be moving! We are moving much closer to my fact, we're moving into the very building they live in!

From this rocky beach (taken on a really chilly day in early March)...

 To this sandy one (where 'chilly' never happens).

Don't worry, it's a very large building with dozens upon dozens of apartments. We're not quite planning on a family commune.

We are so, so excited, and looking forward to setting up our new home and building our life and community in a new/old place. Old, because I've lived in the region before. New, because we have never lived there together, and because this will be my first time living there as an adult.

Telling our community here in China that we've made the decision to move away is tough.

My friends here bring tears to my eyes as they react to our news with both genuine "Congratulations!" and slightly reproachful, "But we had hoped that you'd stay and teach at our school for many years."

We didn't know how long we'd have in China when we moved here, but we knew we didn't want any of that time to go to waste. We jumped into making friends in the neighborhood and at work...with the result that I already know that when our mid-June departure comes, my tears will be many.

Leaving people you love sucks. There's no way around that. I wanted to write this post to prepare my readers for any possible nostalgia or sentiment in the weeks to come. I couldn't be happier about this move--but I think it speaks very well for our community here in ShenZhen that the thought of leaving them hurts my heart.

We look forward to the excitement of packing everything up once more and starting life in a place we both love so much. I look forward to doing life with people I have seen far too infrequently for far too long. Even better, several of our friends here in China have already mentioned coming to visit us after the move--it's not such a long flight after all!
24 April 2015

When Your Family Moves Far Away...

My relatives are practically professionals at the whole "Yeah, my closest relatives decided to move as far away from me as humanly possible, and I only see them once every few years" deal.

But to loved ones recently blindsided by news of an upcoming move abroad, it can be hard to know how to deal with the huge change in family dynamics or relationships that the move brings. I've written in the past about how I think that family members left behind by expats get the worst end of the deal. Both the people who leave and those who are left need to able to acknowledge to themselves that this choice of lifestyle necessitates a loss on both sides.

Today, I'm coming to you with some suggestions for how the family left behind can best continue to maintain relationships with the ones who move far away.

1. Remember that email is a two-way street.

It's easy to say, "You never update us!" or "You never call!"...but before you do, contemplate whether you yourself have taken the initiative to email or call your family member. Ideally, yes, they will remember to contact you regularly, and stay in touch, but it's important to remember the mathematics involved: you lost one person. The person who moved, lost many, many people. They are now responsible for staying in touch with siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, aunts, uncles, etc. You can simplify things if you simply write to them whenever you want.

I'm a blogger, and probably every single person I know in real life knows that I blog and could find my blog address. I try to manage staying in touch by sending out newsletters to my nearest and dearest every few months, as an easy way of keeping everyone informed on life changes or big events and inviting them to update us on their own lives. A few, very few, faithful people will respond to my newsletter and tell me what's going on with them. I crave these responses, because I want to know! About 90% of those who receive my newsletter don't respond. My guess is that they think they have nothing interesting to say--but I can guarantee you, if you are related to me or are my friend, I want to hear about how your life is going. It's simply nearly impossible for me to psychically know when people have news they might want to share with me and send out dozens of personal "Hey, what's up with you?" emails on the regular. The only avenue I have to finding out what's going on in my friends' and families' lives is Facebook, unless they choose to respond to my emails, or, unless, as I sometimes do in cases involving my siblings, I hound them with repeated messages demanding a response of some sort.

Basically, don't be scared to just get in touch with us and tell us about how you're doing. Your life is not "boring" to me just because you're in the same spot you've always been. But, also, I won't be mad if you don't email. I know that sometimes life is too busy to waste in front of a computer screen (I just typed that).

2. Care packages are overrated.

Okay, this is total personal opinion. Care packages are sweet, and I'm really impressed by everyone who goes to the effort and expense to put them together and send them out. But I tell my family honestly not to bother sending us care packages--so if your expat relatives tell you not to waste your time and money, I'd err on the side of believing that's the truth. Care packages lack a great deal in practicality--from problems with getting held in customs for weeks or months, getting delivered to the wrong expat, items breaking and spilling en-route, postage that's far more expensive than the items in the package...they're just not ideal. I like American candy as much as the next girl, but American sweets and boxed treats are really not good enough to be worth the effort that a care package takes. If you honestly love sending them, go ahead and do it--it's fun to get treats in the mail, of course...but if I had to choose, I'd choose emails.

3. Asking "When are you coming back?" rarely leaves anyone feeling great.

Let me guess, you're not going to appreciate an answer like, "Never" or "We have no trips to America scheduled" or "Maybe in 3 years."

Chances are, your expat relative doesn't especially like revisiting the sensitive topic of homesickness and missing family, either. There's almost never a good reason to ask about plans to return, because I can pretty much guarantee you, unless they are planning some sort of epic surprise, or unless a negative kind of emergency necessitates a quick trip back, your expat relative will inform you of their plans to return as soon as they buy plane tickets--possibly even as soon as they're scheduling a trip, they'll call you to discuss possible dates. If they aren't talking about it, they aren't planning to schedule a trip back. This falls under the: "If you don't want a no answer, don't ask a no question" rule.

I mean, you can still ask the question. I don't believe in legislating the sorts of questions people are allowed to ask (I know it's controversial, but I don't even mind it when people ask when I'm going to have a baby). Just know that this is a question that doesn't tend to lend itself toward happy conversation.

4. Remember that just because they aren't there, doesn't mean they don't love you.

I mean, it's possible they don't love you. I don't know your family. Do you all love each other?

The choice to move abroad quite possibly has absolutely nothing to do with you.

Sure, you, the one left behind, are the one who suffers quite a bit because of the choice--but in all probability, the reason that they aren't present for the big and small occasions of your life isn't because they don't love you--it's just because you happen to be related to someone who chose a lifestyle that doesn't involve close proximity to you. They may, and hopefully do, love you very much. I sometimes wonder if the whole immediate family will be present at my siblings' future weddings and college graduations. No one can predict the future, but I'd say the odds look pretty slim right now. It doesn't mean we love each other any less--it just means we're a family who have ended up spread across the globe.

5. Try not to be sad when they find happiness and adventure and community and purpose and contentment...thousands of miles away from you.

I know it's natural. It would be easier to accept your expat relatives if they were just a little more homesick and a little less in love with where they live now.

I know that doubts start to creep in. You might wonder why you and your little town weren't good enough. You wonder why they couldn't be this happy when they lived a mile away from you.

Again, this is one of those times when you can't take it personally. Some people don't flourish in some places. I thrive in ShenZhen in a way I never did in Michigan, no matter how much I loved the relatives I lived close to.

6. Consider visiting.

Yes, it's expensive, and possibly uncomfortable. It's not possible in many circumstances. I wouldn't hold it against you if it never happens, and I don't even expect it to happen. But, man, when it does work out for you to come and visit, it's amazing. Having those who have known us longest visit our new home feels like a dream come true.

My parents are going to spend a few days with us next month. We're thrilled. Angel said that the reason he's so glad they're coming is because if they weren't, that would mean that no one from any other season of our lives would have the chance to really understand our life in China and how much this has meant to us--that none of our "people" in China would ever meet any of our "people" from the rest of the world. Because my parents are visiting, that means at least two people in our community outside of China will have an idea of what we mean when we talk about ShenZhen.  That means a lot.


Thanks for doing what you do, people who stay. We need you. Doing the expat thing without you is something I don't even want to contemplate.

Whether you're the leaver or the left--do you have any advice to offer on managing family and friend relationships when physical presence isn't an option?
20 April 2015

Perks of Working With Your Spouse

I never, ever thought that my husband and I would work in the same place. This is largely due to the fact that I married a nurse, and, on principle, I avoid hospitals at all costs.

But then, last August, we both ended up in a job that we never could have envisioned at the beginning of our marriage: we both became ESL teachers, teaching different grades at the same school. The coworkers who settled us into the office said that maybe it would be more convenient for us if our desks were right next to each other, and they set us up with two computers at two desks in the same room. We work very closely!

Arriving on campus together, bright and early! You can see the "school bus" in the background, behind the hedge.
In reality, because the actual work involved requires teaching classes in all of our different classrooms, we spend good chunks of the work day in our separate teaching buildings--him with his Senior 2 students and me with my Senior 1 students.

Here are the benefits we've found from this lifestyle:

1. Transportation is so efficient! In Michigan, when we first got married, we had two cars--he had a half-hour drive to work, and I had a 40 minute drive to university. We spent so much time in our separate vehicles just commuting! Here, we wait at the bus stop together, and hop onto the school bus for teachers along with our coworkers. If we did have a car, we could get away with owning 1 instead of 2, because we don't have to be in far-distant places at the same time!

2. We wake up for work at the same time and work on the same days. Well, sort of. I wake up a bit earlier than he does, but we leave at the same time. When we first got married, Angel worked 7 pm-7am. After a year and a half, he switched to day shift, but when he was on days, I was in school Tuesday-Saturday, while he had frequent Sunday shifts, so our schedules never meshed well. It's pretty amazing to have the same days off, all the time.

3. It's really easy to line up a substitute teacher when you're married to one. Two times this past year, I've asked Angel to pick up a class for me because I was feeling miserably ill. Technically, we are allowed to have sick days, but I never want to take one, because my students have so few opportunities to interact with English speakers as it is. Most of our classes don't overlap, so it's easy for Angel to take over one of my periods, or me to take over one of his, and that way, students don't miss out on having Conversational English Class and I don't stress about missing work, so I can actually rest and get better.

4. We divide and conquer. Our coworkers notice that we have very different personalities and skills. Angel is the one they ask when they want to gather players for a basketball game after work. Sometimes he joins in on teacher vs. student soccer games, and has even been helping with coaching/drilling some of the students in soccer skills after school. I don't have the ability to make friends via sports, but his affinity for athletics have opened up a lot of doors for great relationships for us. His team won all of the teachers' tug-of-war competitions, and now, a hilarious picture of Angel pulling furiously on a rope is displayed prominently on a school bulletin board. I, on the other hand, as the resident nerd, am the one that teachers know to pull aside if they want someone to proofread their PowerPoint slides, or brainstorm class activities and homework assignments with. The two of us have very different skills, and I think we both benefit from presenting a united front at work and contributing our best talents to the entire teaching team. Angel's better at sportsmanship and normal camaraderie, while I'm quieter and non-athletic, but extremely useful on the academic side of things.

5. We get to help each other get our work done. Teaching English at two different grade levels that are so close together involves a lot of overlap. There's plenty of times when we've built off the same basic lesson plans to save on busy work, and have just altered activities to fit our own classes' abilities and personalities. We jointly led after-school English corner last semester--and let me tell you, when you're getting 50-100 teenagers to participate in organized games outdoors, having an extra pair of hands helps immensely. I love that my closest partner at work is a man I can trust to do an excellent job and never let me down on doing his part of the preparations.

6. We have the same friends. We've always told each other stories from work, I'm sure that's normal! But I met Angel's coworkers 2, maybe 3 times at most, during his 4 years at the hospital, and I never got great at keeping names straight. "Wait, who's having a baby? I thought she just had one? Oh, that was someone totally different? Okay, never mind." He also rarely came into contact with anyone I was in beauty school with. By contrast, here, we find it fun that we work with the same people and can give updates on friends that our spouse actually knows: "Hey, I went to Coco's office today to chat with her..." "I ate lunch with Snow today and I asked her how common C-sections are for pregnant women in China." {Poll: Please, please guess which one of us, Angel or Rachel, was asking questions about C-sections at lunch. I have a feeling you'll be right.}

I love working with my husband. It's fun to be in a position where we can help each other be excellent in our everyday jobs. I'm glad that we have come to love the same school--we're proud to be teachers at our school, and we're privileged to spend more time together than we ever have before.
17 April 2015

Life Itself Demands Celebration

Lately, I've noticed an increasing number of folks turning to the internet to condemn people who throw excessive numbers of parties or who take too many pictures or who otherwise get excited about the apparently small things of life.

People say stuff like, "Humans have been having babies since the beginning of time. Why does the ability to procreate deserve photographic announcements, gender reveal parties, professional maternity photo shoots, and the like?"

They say, "Graduating from high school is the norm. You shouldn't be celebrating it with senior pictures and huge grad parties. Why should we celebrate something that's so expected?"

Birthday parties for adults, and all manner of other celebrations, also get a bad rap. The argument, by and large, is that having big parties and inviting the extended family over just for a gender reveal is overkill. That elaborate photo-shoots for "small" occasions are narcissistic. That people who frequently post on social media about how happy they are and the cool little things that make their day are making big deals about nothing and are merely selfishly trying to rub their happiness in the faces of those who aren't quite so happy.

If you know me, you'll already know that I happen to disagree that all of the "excessive" celebrating  going on is a mark that this generation is ridiculously self-absorbed. I say, bring on the celebrating, and the photos, and the statuses about what makes you happy, because it gives me a chance to participate in your life more than I could otherwise. To me, your life is a big deal, and I want to celebrate with you.

If you're grouching about how many family photos so-and-so is posting on Facebook, do them a favor and unfriend them. When it comes to the people I love, I look forward to seeing their little ones--even when they're doing the most not-amazing things. You'll never hear a sarcastic, "They're acting like he's the first baby who ever turned 1." from me. Angel regularly messages his brother to let him know that we haven't seen enough of our nephew lately. Just last year, I hosted this graduation party for my cousin and celebrated the fact that she was done with high school and was going on to spend some time abroad. A few years before that, I broke all manner of etiquette rules and hosted a joint high school and college graduation party for myself and my little sister. She had just recently arrived in the USA and we got to see all sorts of old family friends--it was an absolute blast.

 Chinese character bedecked cookies in honor of my Mandarin degree. Because my guests didn't know Mandarin, I wrote random characters like dog, cat, old, fat, fur, wash, etc. I had a blast!

To me, celebrating doesn't mean I'm some sort of special, unique, princess. Celebrating means I realize that the gift of life is awesome--celebration is my natural response. My personality isn't one that demands Pinterest-perfect parties, or even insists on waiting till I have a pretty home or yard to have one. I've never had a particularly pretty home. I mostly likely never will. But I will always have parties.

I remember being asked what the occasion was when I invited some friends to a bonfire party a few years back. I couldn't think of one at first--but then I answered, "It's not snowing!" I swear, every day it's not snowing in Michigan, that's a good enough reason for a party. To some, that's selfish, narcissistic, and wasteful. I do not know why. Money I spend on feeding my friends and family is never money wasted, and Saturdays I've spent getting ready for a party are some of the most enjoyable Saturdays in my memory.

I, like every adult, grew up during the days of film cameras. My first birthday photos? Three pictures of me sitting in a kiddie pool at home. The 4x6 pictures are half black because something was wrong with the camera that day. Now, professional photography and DSLRs are expensive, but I'm glad that photography has advanced so much that we can have better photos of little events throughout life. True, there aren't great photos of my childhood, and if we go back a little further--almost no pictures of my dad as a kid even exist. The lack of great photographic evidence didn't hurt us any, but nice photos of what life is like are fun! A 1st birthday party may not be a world-shaking event, but high quality photos of it can mean a lot to a mom whose kids are turning into adults before her eyes. I don't have a DSLR, and the last time we hired a professional photographer was for our wedding. I'm so glad we did. I love our wedding photos. The last time my parents brought our family to a professional photo studio for family pictures was after my freshman year of college. To this day, I still see my mom looking through the photo album we bought from the studio. I know that those photos (and yes, they cost money, and yes, there was no special reason to photograph the family) bring her so much joy. I love those photos, too, even when the photographers finagled us into rather silly poses with bubble backdrops...

There's plenty in life that heart-breaking. Some days I get the kind of news that feels like it shakes the very ground I stand on. The ability to celebrate is a privilege that I don't take lightly. I will persist in celebrating the big and the small in my own life and the lives of people I love--with photos, with parties, with whatever means I have at any given moment, because to me, it's worth it. Celebrating with others is how I show I love them. I'm already planning goodbye parties for a few special individuals who are moving to the USA this summer--that in itself is not entirely a happy event, but we're going to celebrate together while we can.

My sister Rebekah is turning 16 tomorrow. I hear she has an epic non-birthday party planned. I didn't get the full story on why the party is themed as a "non-birthday" party, or what exactly that means, but I'll find out sometime. I did find out that the party is intended to be a heavy feast followed by an all-nighter devoted to board games and party games. How I wish I could be there, because Rebekah's life demands celebration.
15 April 2015

If I Were a Niche Blogger...

What kind of niche blogger would I be?

This sounds like an absolutely ridiculous sort of musing, coming from Ms. Random over here. I mean, this blog is probably even less focused than the average lifestyle blog, and I like it that way. Most of the time I can't imagine running a niche blog, however, I have a few ideas about what kind of blogs I might have been the author of in a parallel blogging universe...

1) A Sewing Blogger. With a focus on dressmaking and themed/quirky outfits that aren't quite costumes, so that they can be worn in real life. I'd love to learn advanced seamstress skills and design clothing for myself. There's a secret side of me that wants a sewing room filled with all my equipment and tons of material and the skills to be able to make the things I imagine.

2) Theme Park Blogger. I would make a list of all the theme parks I wanted to conquer, and then conquer them. I tend to research vacations pretty heavily before going, so I'd put together resources with park information and strategies to get the most park out of each day, as well as rate parks on a value-for-money scale and choose my favorite rides in every park. This blog would be a combination of Pinteresty resource posts with practical information on parks along with not-so-pinteresty colorful tales of adventures and misadventures while on trips. I would travel the world going to theme parks, and people would mock my obviously skewed priorities.

3) A Dollhouse Blogger. I would spend limitless amounts of money (after all, this is my imagination) creating elaborate dollhouses to fit every sort of theme and time period in existence. I'd have the cutest mini-rooms out there and people would read my blog purely for the entertainment value of seeing a grown woman so unabashedly committed to dollhouses. I'd probably delve a little into small-scale model building as well, another pricey but fascinating hobby.

4) A Prank Blogger. This would be a joint blog with Angel, of course, as he'd be the source of most of the pranks. I tend to be pretty picky about pranks and could probably chat endlessly about the importance of elegant, clever pranking as opposed to the sort of pranking that is vulgar, common, and mean. I love the kinds of pranks that end up putting a smile on someone's face. (Speaking of smiling faces, 9 months after he left the hospital, Angel's former coworkers are still finding the pictures of his face that he taped to obscure locations all over the unit). I think this would be a really fun blog to create and find content for, but it probably wouldn't appear, at first glance, to be a highly professional endeavor.

It's probably equally obvious that these niche blogs of mine would be awesome, and that they are completely impractical. Sewing rooms? Dollhouses? Endless pranking? Inconceivable!

What realistic or unrealistic niche blog do you secretly think would be fun to write?
13 April 2015

Wardrobe Variety (Or Lack of It)

While we were walking home from the mall the other day, Angel told me that his end goal, as far as clothing goes, it to only own short-sleeved baby blue shirts, and dark-colored pants and shorts. He claims that his long-term plan, which will take years to enact, is to replace all clothing that wears out with only baby blue, short-sleeved shirts, and dark-colored bottoms.

This statement helped me understand why he was recently looking at a baby blue t-shirt at Wal-mart when he already owns three. It also made me laugh, because anyone who knows my family knows that my beloved grandfather has a wardrobe consisting solely of baby blue, long-sleeved collared shirts, and black dress pants, so Angel's wardrobe aspirations sounded startlingly familiar.

I still find this desire rather odd. Angel went on to tell me that ever since we've moved to China, he hasn't been stressed about choosing clothes for the day, because he now owns only a mere fraction of his former wardrobe. Like me, Angel hasn't grown since middle school, which meant that before we left America, he'd acquired a large wardrobe over the past 15 years or so. I used to flop myself down on the bed and tease him as he tried on a variety of different shirt and jeans or shirt and tie combos while getting ready for church or a date.

I hate changing clothes, and can never be prevailed upon to do it unless absolutely necessary, so once I'm dressed, I'm not changing till I go to bed at night. I used to joke about how much longer Angel took to get ready than I did, because he had to change into 4 or 5 different outfits before he had come up with something he liked for the day.

In China, we don't have the luxury of owning clothes other than clothes that fit great, look good, and wear well. Angel's small clothes collection gives him much fewer choices when getting dressed than he ever had before, and he's found that he likes it that way.

On the other hand...I can't imagine ever wanting more than one of anything in my closet. I will not be filling my wardrobe with baby blue t-shirts, thank you very much. I enjoy variety. I enjoy picking out drastically different colors and outfits to wear from day to day. I've always liked my wardrobe--when it was bigger, and now that it's small too, because I only buy clothes that I love, and I get a kick out of mixing and matching things in my closet. I've never felt wardrobe stress, and I've never taken off an outfit that I put on before bed, unless I have a really, really pressing reason to change clothes. For example: I'm going swimming, someone spilled ketchup on me, or I was suddenly informed that I'm going out to a fancy restaurant for dinner. I really, really detest changing clothes, so it has to be a good reason.

I'm one of those people who find a silly sort of joy in opening the closet and seeing a rainbow of much-loved, well-worn items just begging to be worn in non-scientific, mis-matched ensembles. My husband prefers a closet with little to no choices. What about you?
10 April 2015

Getting Educated...For Free!

Let me start by saying that in my opinion, education is a worthwhile investment of money. I believe that teachers and tutors should be paid well, and that it's worth it to pay good money for high-quality educational curricula, textbooks, and computer programs. My absolute favorite homeschool curriculum is a very pricey one, and I think the education it provides is worth every penny.


I have a preK-12th grade private home education, a B.A. from a private university, a cosmetology license from a 10-month course, and a TEFL certificate.

Thousands upon thousands of dollars have already been invested in my education, and at some point, I just want to be able to continue learning on my own without having to continually pay for more courses.

Here are a few of the resources I've found helpful in my studies recently:

Khan Academy

I heard about this through my almost 16 year old sister, who is using it for SAT prep.  I decided that with a brother working on his computer engineering degree and a long-standing history as a writer on the internet, it wouldn't be a bad idea for me to get more comfortable with the world of computers, so I've already worked my way through their intro to computer programming course and have started on the second, with plans to work my way through all of their computer courses. This website seems strongly math-focused, with math courses from kindergarten level all the way up to college-level, so if I ever decide to regret that I only took one math course in college, I know exactly where to go.


I think this program is really cool, but I'll admit that I don't really make use of it. It's all about language learning, but currently, the only available languages are European in origin, and I tend to not be interested in learning European languages. But I'm keeping it in mind for when I want to polish up my Spanish.


I've used this solely for Mandarin Chinese, but that's not what it's all about. There are many, many different courses available--my parents have used a few of their Bahasa Indonesia courses. They have non-language courses, too. This program works a lot like digital flashcards, so it's great for memorizing vocabulary words, but not so great for learning how to put sentences together.


This site is an incredibly detailed data-providing search engine. You know how whenever you want to quick learn some facts about a random person or historical event, you'll go to Wikipedia? I think the best way to describe this site is a little like Wikipedia, only with a much better looking design, and with the ability to answer far more questions. The site is heavily loaded with data, so if you're looking for numerical facts, or answers to scientific or mathematical problems, it's fantastic!

Popup Chinese

This is an amazing, free audio resource. Thousands of podcasts and accompanying dialogue transcripts are available at every level from beginner Mandarin to very advanced, and they are free to listen to online, although a premium membership (with a fee) will allow you to download them all. The nature of these podcasts means that they provide far more listening practice and grammar instruction than Memrise ever could. I've been faithfully listening to intermediate-level podcasts from the archives every day, and I've come to really appreciate the slightly twisted sense of humor which appears to be their trademark.

Yoyo Chinese

This is not really free, or, at least the number of free video lessons is very small compared to the number of lessons available for paid students. Video lessons from Yoyo Chinese are loaded onto Youtube by the user Yang Yang Cheng, and although comparatively few of them are actually free, I am extremely impressed by the design of the videos as well as by her teaching style. I would consider paying for this program except that from the sample videos, what's available is a bit below my level. Still, the videos available on Youtube are very fun to watch and provide great listening practice, so I've tried to convince Angel to watch these Youtube videos as our evening entertainment. I'm signed up for her weekly emails, which sometimes have cool resources--recently she sent out one with a link to the Youtube video of a Mandarin pop song that's actually understandable at my level, and I thought that was a lot of fun--I tend to find songs pretty difficult to understand (it's not like I can understand all English pop songs, after all....). If you're interested, check out Lao Shu Ai Da Mi ("Mice Love Rice"). It's silly, but I can understand the song and even sing it and write the lyrics so I'm impressed with myself. Are we allowed to say things like that?

Growing Up with Chinese

Apparently, I'm really into internet-based language learning tools. This is a 100 episode series produced in conjunction with CCTV. The early episodes are very basic, but I started watching somewhere in the middle of the series, and have enjoyed the listening practice they offer, as well as the introduction to various Chinese idioms (my knowledge of idioms is regrettably lacking). I'm finding myself getting weirdly invested into the continuing stories surrounding Xiao Ming and Lan Lan. Maybe I need a break from watching educational videos...


University courses in which lecture materials have been uploaded online. You can choose which courses you're interested in and work your way through them at your own pace (usually). I think there are some options for paying for a "Verified Certificate" that you have completed the course, but I'm skeptical of that service as I don't see a huge value in Certificates purchased via the internet. Still, the courses are very interesting--it's fun to hear actual college lectures again without the pressure of looming exams. I enrolled myself in a few, including one on the Art of Teaching, which doesn't start till next week. I love my job, and it can't be a bad idea to learn more about it, right?

Obviously, these websites are skewed toward my particular interests, which are, perennially, Mandarin Chinese and other languages, and lately, computer stuff. What sites have you found useful in your own educational pursuits?
08 April 2015

Recipes for a Tiny Kitchen


In Michigan, my kitchen was on the smaller end of the scale as far as kitchens in American homes go, but I had all of the normal kitchen appliances: Oven, full-size fridge, stove, blender, crock pot, toaster, microwave, rice cooker, air-popper, etc.

In my current kitchen, I can reach inside the fridge while stirring something on the stove, and, if I had another set of arms, I could be washing dishes in the sink at the same time. It is an extremely efficient use of space, and the appliances I have are: a small fridge, a microwave, a 2 burner gas stove, an electric tea-kettle, and a rice cooker. We don't plan on investing in additional kitchen appliances because there isn't much room for storage here, and appliances are comparatively expensive, so to us, it's not worth it to invest in something like an pricy toaster that will take up a lot of room...not when you can toast bread on a frying pan!

However, as the primary chef in this household and as someone who dearly loves having people over for dinner, I've had to strategize and adjust my thinking when it comes to preparing awesome meals with just 2 burners to work with.

Here are a few of my go-to meals that use ingredients that are easy to find here and can be made easily with non-existent counter space and very few kitchen implements:

Spicy Popcorn Fried Chicken with Mashed Potatoes - Well, the potatoes have to be mashed with a fork because thus far the search for a potato masher has not yielded any results (Why did I not pack my potato masher as I had planned???), but this is a favorite 2-pan meal for us.

Chicken/Veggie Stir Fry with Rice - Ahh, stir-fry, the food which is never the same, and as such, never boring. I was raised on stir-fries--keep mixing up which veggies and which types of spices you add and you'll always have something different for dinner!

Vegetable Soup - A pan full of chopped assorted vegetables plus water (broth if you prefer, but I just use water) garlic, pepper, and a dash of chilies, 1 pot meal!

Chicken Rice Soup - Similar to the above, but with different ingredients. A pan full of chopped chicken, celery, carrots, onions, garlic, pepper, potatoes, and some rice. Add enough water for everything to boil up nice, and you can add milk after it's cooked if you want a creamy soup. Add a couple dashes of sesame oil for flavor, too--I love that stuff.

Chicken Fried Rice - Eggs, chicken, onion, bok choy, bean sprouts, whatever veggies sound good at the time (I like chopped fresh carrots and green beans), fried with pre-cooked rice, pepper, chilies, garlic, and soy sauce. Another 1-pot plus rice cooker meal.

Sloppy Joes - Or a from-scratch version of them anyway (using what we can find here): ground beef, onions, tomatoes, bell pepper, a chili or two, ketchup, oatmeal (since the beef is so expensive, this is my trick to make it stretch) a splash of vinegar, till everything seems tasty enough to slap on a piece of bread.

Veggie and Egg Hash - Start cooking potatoes first, add onions and assorted vegetables (tomatoes, zucchini, sweet potatoes are all good) and spices. When everything's cooked, add in some eggs.

Chicken Tacos - Only uses one pot, to cook the chicken with random spices, onions, zucchini and tomatoes. Top with some homemade fresh salsa (my recipe: tomato, onion, avocado, lemon juice, cilantro, pepper, and salt).

Hamburgers - Pan-fried burgers will never be the same as grilled burgers, but we shouldn't expect them to be. Angel loves this meal, and it only uses one pan, plus sliced tomato and avocado as toppings, so it's pretty easy to whip up.

Chili - So, there's no actual chili powder that I can find here, but beans, meat, veggies, chili peppers, chili powder-like spices...that's close enough for me. Eaten with crackers or avocado, but as yet, never topped with cheese because we've never been willing to spend the money on it. If you have cheese, enjoy it!

Bacon and Eggs - In theory, we could also do BLTs, but we wash all veggies that will be eaten raw in boiling water and that takes the satisfying crunch out of lettuce. Instead, we've also done bacon, egg, tomato, and avocado sandwiches.

Popcorn - No air-popper, so I'm back to old-fashioned popcorn in a pan. It works great, just remember to keep the lid on unless you were going for the popcorn-explosion look in your kitchen. I import my popcorn kernels by bringing home a couple bags of them after a trip to Malaysia.

Oatmeal with Fruit - This is when that electric tea kettle comes in handy. I don't even have a single pot to wash. Good thing I like oatmeal!

Our meals are a little simpler than when I had access to an at-home oven and blender and fancy stuff like that, but we've found plenty of ways to make the most of our tiny kitchen! If you're adjusting to life with a 2-burner stove, don't dismay, those little stoves can be hard workers!


p.s. My mom will laugh when she reads this post of mine because they've been feeding their gigantic family with 2-burner meals for a decade now. Feeding two people? That's nothing.
06 April 2015

My #1 Tip for a Happy Cross-Cultural Marriage

 We aren't the couple who claims not to even notice the fact that we come from two different cultures. It's noticeable. Pretty much all the time.

Our skin isn't the same color. We didn't grow up eating the same food. Our families don't speak the same language. They don't even land on the same side of Protestant Reformation. Add to that the fact that we were born in different decades and spent our formative years on different sides of the globe, and you've got a pretty strange combo.

The one thing we have going for us is that we're both born U.S. citizens, and I'm grateful for that (differing citizenship adds an extra level of complexity).

Usually, we appreciate and value our different backgrounds. Between the 2 of us, we speak the 3 most widely spoken languages on earth. We talk about whether our children will have English or Spanish names (or English names with easy pronunciations in Spanish). I'm more aware than I ever was before about racism towards Hispanics in the USA (i.e. the man visiting the hospital who asked my ICU nurse of a husband if he moved to Michigan to work in the onion fields) and Angel is now far more interested in Southeast Asia and the local news of that region than he ever thought he would be. But times come when our lack of shared cultural background is a genuine cause of frustration.

My biggest piece of advice when it comes to living well with a spouse whose culture is different from your own?

Don't forget that your spouse doesn't know the things you know--prepare them for success by informing them ahead of time about cultural situations and expectations they're likely to face.

Angel has told me recently that this move to China has gone so much more smoothly for him than it would have gone if he hadn't had me as a mediator to prep him for cultural expectations and rules of what life is like here. Even though I hadn't ever lived in China itself before, living in a part of Malaysia with a heavy Chinese influence and majoring in the language, history, and culture of China in college does a pretty good job of preparing you for the change.

On the other hand, my most dramatic failure in adapting to cross-cultural situations brought on by marriage came in large part because Angel did not prepare me for something that is very different from my own native culture. Neither Malaysians nor Dutch West-Michiganders are known for being the touchy-feely type, especially with strangers and people of the opposite gender. I don't hug my own family members every time I see them, unless it's a first meeting after a long time apart--and I never kiss anyone on the cheek, except maybe my littlest sister--certainly not my father!

Angel, on the other hand, is a hugger. He hugs my own relatives far more often than any of them hug each other, but because I had no prior experience with his culture, I assumed this was just a personality quirk and not actually a cultural phenomenon (and I did helpfully inform him that some of my relatives are even less comfortable with hugs than others, so that he'd tone down the physical affection a bit).

The problem came the very first time I met some of Angel's extended family. I came down the stairs to find everyone seated in the living room, was introduced, and greeted everyone with a bright smile, a general wave and a "Hello! Nice to meet you all!"--was enveloped in a bear hug and a kiss on the cheek from someone standing nearby, found that slightly strange, but returned the hug, and found a place to sit down in the living room and listen in as best I could on the Spanish conversations going on (this was before my Spanish 101 class at college had even begun, so I was totally lost).

That's my point of view--and for the point of view of a shy 19 year old being introduced to her fiancee's family for the first time, I behaved respectfully and appropriately for the situation.

Turns out--there was a larger cultural phenomenon going on. I only found out later, that somehow during the course of my introduction, I'd managed to offend all of the elders present, who had assumed that like any good fiancee being introduced (or in general, any young family member walking into a room full of her elders), I would have made a round of the room, greeting each aunt and uncle with a hug and a kiss. Angel didn't even think of telling this to me ahead of time, because to him, it was simply an automatic reaction (and, in fact, he had done exactly the same thing upon meeting my family, although we'd chalked it up to "He's just being Angel..but why is he touching everyone?" instead of "Oh, this must be important in his culture.").

I was crushed, because who wants to completely fail at making a good first impression on all of their future in-laws? Rough. But I'm glad it's a lesson we learned so early on. These days, we set each other up for success by making sure that the other knows what to expect before they're placed in a foreign situation. In 2013, Angel and I picked out Christmas presents for his family together, and he explained to me ahead of time about staying up till midnight on Christmas Eve (that's probably the only time I've stayed up till midnight in the last 3 or 4 years), and eating tamales. This year in February, Angel asked me all sorts of questions about ang pow for Chinese New Year--who do we give to? How much should be in the envelope? When do we give out the envelopes?

For us, we've found it to be immensely important that we do not forget our differences. When we remember not to make assumptions based on a non-existent shared cultural background (weirdly, something that's all too easy to do) we help each other the way we ought.
03 April 2015

Dating Meets Dystopia

I first heard about The Selection from my little sisters, who, by this point, have already read the first three books in the series. I've never watched any of the popular reality TV dating shows, but the prospect of reality TV dating show + future dystopia combined into one novel was enough to intrigue me. So, when I heard about the opportunity to review the book through CleverGirls, I signed up right away!

The Selection Series

The Selection, by Kiera Cass, follows the story of America Singer, born into a society of numbered castes, where the caste you're born into determines your lifestyle and career. Suddenly, however, she is cast as a potential candidate for the prince of the realm to possibly choose as a wife, and now she has the opportunity to change both her life and the lives of her family if she moves to the castle, meets the other contestants for the role of wife-to-the-crown-prince, and manages not to get sent home to early. Joining The Selection means leaving behind the boy who had her heart, but the more she gets to know the crown prince, Maxon, the more she is intrigued by the young man and the kingdom he will rule.

This was a quick and fun read, and one that launched several Skype discussions with my little sisters. They aren't huge fans of the love triangle element, as they insist that America should be firm in her convictions and choose one guy or the other, instead of keeping both in mind and becoming distressed because of it. Apparently, being ultimately practical about affairs of the heart takes a high priority in their minds...I wonder who they get that from...

My sisters also described the books as rather "scandalous," but said that I probably wouldn't find it "scandalous" because I don't cover my eyes and run out of the room when a couple kisses on tv (you know who you are...). They were right. A couple of kissing scenes do not scandalize me, though they might seem risque to some. Reading local news is possibly more scandalous than this book, in my opinion.

The Selection Series

I'm fond of giving the heroines in my books unasked-for advice (which they never heed). As a big sister, I'd be telling America, "Don't play games. Don't be coy. Tell him how you honestly feel about him and don't be afraid to ask for his answer." People wouldn't have to guess nearly so much if they would just talk!

Enough with the spoilers, though. The Selection is the first in a series, which makes me all the more likely to approve of it, because I prefer series to stand-alone books (it gives me more time to get to know the characters). It's followed by The Elite and The One. I and my little sisters were all excited to find out that the 4th book in the series, The Heir, will be released on May 5th. That means there should be just enough time for you to get all caught up on the series before the new one comes out, if you start now! I do so hate having to wait forever in between books in a series, don't you?

Have you started reading this series yet?

I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.
01 April 2015

Sometimes Stuff Explodes in Microwaves

 Just riding the bus home from work!

Occasionally, I don't make meals. Because of this, Angel made himself hot dogs the other day. He didn't want to wash a pan, so he heated them up in the microwave. When I walked into the room and saw him putting together his hot dogs, I noticed that they were all exploded (if you've ever microwaved a hot dog, you probably know what I mean). I said, "Oh, honey, you know if you stick a bunch of holes in the hot dog with a fork or slice them open with a knife, they won't explode like that."

"Really?" he said, "Is that what I should do if I want to microwave a boiled egg? One time, at work, at the hospital, I microwaved an egg for lunch and right when I opened the door it exploded all over me. My coworkers couldn't stop laughing. I never saw them laugh that much before that day. There wasn't even any part of the egg that could be saved for my lunch, it was destroyed!"

By this point, I was also laughing uncontrollably picturing this scene at work, which story I'd never heard before.

"Didn't you know you have to cut up a boiled egg before you microwave it?" I asked.

"NO!" he said, "How am I supposed to know that if no one tells me?"

"...For the record, if you're ever baking potatoes, punch holes in the skin with a fork, just to be safe."

My husband can cook, but he seems to have missed out on the "how to avoid exploding food while heating it up" lessons. Microwaves are especially dangerous in my experience. Did you know that if you put a mini lemon poppyseed muffin in a microwave and proceed to use said microwave as a timer while doing your math homework, setting it to microwave your mini-muffin for 5 or 6 minutes, your muffin will disintegrate and the house will fill with smoke when you open the door of the microwave? Then you'll have to call your dad and let him know about the microwave/smoke problem and he'll have to leave work to come check it out. Oh, you've never had that happen? Now you know.

Have you ever exploded anything, in the microwave or oven? Tell me about your microwave mishaps!