Back Home Again in Asia

I didn’t realize how much I missed the Asian culture until I landed in Taipei last night.  The sounds, the smells, the friendly people!  Waking up to a cloudy view of the mountains and the local neighborhood after a 20+ hour journey to get here from Boise to Seattle to Tokyo to Taipei, I couldn’t wait to get out on the streets and explore!


Hat courtesy of caution cone/vest?  Staying safe on the crowded streets of Taipei!


This is a business trip, hopping to a new city every 2-3 days for meetings, so hubby Thom is not along for the adventure.  I’m on my own and, after lengthy conversations with the Westin staff and maps in hand, I started to just wander.  Of course, the hotel team tried to talk me out of walking around “too far!” but I like to walk and they aren’t used to visitors wanting to do that.  I get it and just smile and keep on walking.

Originally, I had planned to book straight to the National Palace Museum via the subway but a combination of uncertainty and self awareness that I get lost easily plus a desire to absorb the local culture vs. art, I decided instead to try and find a temple nearby.

First, though, I noticed a Alice in Wonderland theme in the Westin lobby bar and checked out the adjacent gardens where it looked like a wedding might be taking place today with decorations everywhere.  How fun!  Wonder if the bride had an “Alice” dress to walk down the aisle?  She will definitely need a parasol as it is quite wet here today.

Instead of a temple, I found a delightful street market where I was the only Laowai, aka foreigner, in sight.  Fish, fruit, meat, pigs feet, dry goods and handmade noodles in stalls lining the narrow alleyway-it was packed with shoppers and very reminiscent of my old neighborhood where we lived in Shanghai.  I thought of my friend Patti when I saw the cherry tomatoes merchandised in the fruit stalls next to the apples and oranges.  Yes, Patti, tomatoes are considered fruit.

As I reviewed my map, still hopeful I could find the temple, a 20-something young man walked by me, stopped and considered, and then came back to offer his assistance.  How kind and friendly he was to help me plus he spoke English!  Even with his guidance though, after a few more blocks, I gave up and just enjoyed the journey.  Glad I did too or I wouldn’t have seen the quiet neighborhoods or the lovely lady in the “cautionary” hat displaying her lovely fruit or the antique noodle maker cranking out the sheets of pasta.


Making noodles


Ahh, to be back again in Asia is indeed a beautiful thing.  After a few business meetings, I’m off to Hong Kong (TurboJet to Macau at night for fun!), Shenzhen, Shanghai (home!) and Beijing.  Two weeks of work and fun!

If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a scooter!


Shanghai Farewell Tour-Witnessing the Feast of Sacrifice

WARNING:  Do NOT read this post if you are a child, have a weak stomach or love sheep.  REALLY. I’M NOT JOKING.  This interlude may have scarred Patti for life and instead of remembering the cuddly Panda’s we saw at the zoo, she’ll never forget the sheep doomed to die.  That being said, it is China and as we say here, you can die fast or you can die slow.  The sheep unfortunately had to go the route of the former vs. the latter.

While strolling as a group to the local wet market as part of our cooking class, little did we know we were going to witness a ritual to celebrate Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice.  NOOOOOOO…we thought we would pick up some ingredients for our lovely lunch and then merrily skip back to Helen’s apartment for our class.  Along the way we saw the cutest sheep tied to the fence so we stopped to take some photos.  It’s not often you see live animals in the streets of Shanghai, so I had to take a photo of the boy feeding the cute sheep a leaf.  Little did I know that would be his last meal on Earth.


Coming out of the market, we saw a group of people with their phones out taking pictures.  As we got closer, we saw that the cuddly sheep had been sacrificed and were strung up by their hooves and were being butchered right there on the street IN FRONT OF CHILDREN!  While Emily, the vegetarian in our cooking class, quickly ran away screaming, I felt I had to document what was the most gruesome sight I have ever seen.  If I wasn’t somewhat of a vegetarian before, I am now.  Thom quickly informed me as he shot photos, that this must be the hajj faithful offering a sacrifice by slaughtering a sheep with the meat going to the needy.


In the Shanghai Daily, Thom had read an article on the festival that 1.5 billion Muslim around the world celebrate.  While I respect the culture, it was shocking to see it played out in public for all to see.  But that’s why I came on this adventure-to experience new and different cultures–so it was fitting that I witnessed this while still in China.  Still, the sheep were so cute….


Shanghai Farewell Tour-Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

I know it’s cliché but we just had to go to one of the tourist shows they put on in Beijing. I had a recommendation from a local that The Legend of Kungfu at the Red Theatre was one to experience. So, off we went to check it out.

Thom, Patti & Larry pose in front of the Kung Fu boy at Red Theater in Beijing
Thom, Patti & Larry pose in front of the Kung Fu boy at Red Theater in Beijing

Arriving early (you never know with Beijing traffic so you leave early and hope to get there on time), we wandered the gift shops and took photos of the young boy sitting on the throne outside the entrance. Finding a place to relax on a balcony, Thom and Patti quickly took off their shoes and let the massage chairs get to work on their tired feet after walking all day. Ahhhh…..never mind who else had their feet in their recently, all hygiene was forgotten and pulsating commenced until the show began.

This is the "Thom walked my ass all over China" look on Patti's face
This is the “Thom walked my ass all over China” look on Patti’s face

We had paid about $55 US for our Row 16 middle seats and, as the primarily Western tour group population filed in, we were quickly surrounded by a full theater. With a pulsating beat on the wood blocks by multiple bald Kung Fu dudes placed around the sides of the theater, the show began with lots of strobe lights, fog and action. The loose story was about a boy being tested by hard challenges and bewitched by a beautiful fairy (why are women always the troublemakers??) before he could practice Kungfu and Zen to become a master and ascend to the sacred goal of enlightenment with the obligatory old dude with super long goatee to champion his efforts and teach him the wise ways of the world.

The best parts for me were the incredible acrobatic action between the couple twirling high above the stage by holding only fabric panels and then when he did the feats of various incredibly sharp objects being jammed onto his body. Who knows how they withstand that pressure but perhaps abs of steel??? Looked painful to me but made for good theater and probably some bruises.

The Young Man is tested by many challenges in his Kung Fu journey
The Young Man is tested by many challenges in his Kung Fu journey

At the end, you were allowed onstage with the actors to take photos if you bought some outrageously overpriced gifts in the shop. We made haste and just took some photos of the group by the stage and then walked the dark streets begging for a cab to take us home. Amazingly, Thom flagged one down who, of course, had turned off the meter and charged us double for the ride. When in Beijing and it’s dark, you do not argue. You just hand over the RMB and be happy you found a ride.

Cast members at end of show pose for pictures..if you buy something from their gift shop
Cast members at end of show pose for pictures..if you buy something from their gift shop

Shanghai Farewell Tour-Rickshaw Rides and Pagodas Galore

Our day at Beihai Park encompassed so many fun adventures–riding around the lake in the Duck Boat, dancing and seeing beautiful pagodas.  Seeing a bell tower, I forked over 10 RMB a piece to climb the stairs and ring the big brass bell. The attendant pantomimed ringing it 3 x per person for luck in the new year. We let Patti do the honors and my ears are still reverberating. Climbing down the narrow stairs, we decided they were made for local feet vs. our big old soles. Just like my other size dimensions, I am considered large here but looking forward to being average to small back in the U.S.

69 Steps to the White Pagoda!  Climb baby climb!
69 Steps to the White Pagoda! Climb baby climb!

After the 69 (yes, Patti counted them) steps up to the White Pagoda, we enjoyed the view of the lake and park and heard beautiful music being made so off we went next to find the source of the pleasant sounds. Nearing the lake shore, we saw a crowd gathered and investigated to find the music blasting and more dancing going on. Two lovely ladies in red were delighting the crowd with their graceful moves. Kids joined in and everyone watched as they graced us with their presentation. It’s moments like these that celebrate the happiness of small things and joy in movement which I will always remember about our time in China. Think I could get Seattlites to dance more in the parks…in the rain? Maybe choreograph a routine with umbrellas?

After a rest and a pretzel we had scavenged earlier from our hotel breakfast, we went to look for a rickshaw ride. Not wanting to slow down for lunch (more people put food as a priority but we do not-a practice that Patti and Larry are getting used to but probably not loving), Thom and I munched on the energy bars, fruit and water that we always carry with us to eat on the run to save time and money. Patti and Larry had wanted to go on a rickshaw so despite Thom’s insistence that he never, ever was going to do this tourist trap ride, we found two gents reclining on their rides waiting for a fare. As the negotiator for our group, we had decided that 100 RMB would be our highest rate to pay and that’s what we got our rides to agree to. Patti was afraid that the old guys would have a heart attack pedaling our asses all over the hutongs but luckily they had electric bikes so no one was killed on our journey, though we did almost become bus fodder when our dude defied the odds crossing the street just as a big one tried to kill us.  Guess it wasn’t our day to die as the rickshaw hit a burst of speed and just barely evaded it.

Rickshaw Romance with my one true love!
Rickshaw Romance with my one true love!

We flew into the hutong in our electric rickshaw but stopped several times for photos, especially after our driver became enamored with Thom’s cool 1020 Nokia phone to take the pictures. He wanted us to do several poses each time and then review his results with Thom. After stopping for a pose at a classic red door and then into a hutong courtyard, we ended our ride with lots of smiles and thank you’s. Thom admitted he had a good time and it was a nice way to support the local economy.  Very romantic and a ride I won’t soon forget!

Shanghai Farewell Tour-What The Duck!

After wandering through a hutong by the Forbidden City and stumbling into Beihai Park by accident last year, I have always wanted to go back and experience this beautiful park again. Locals dancing, boats gliding around the lake and singers entertaining the local crowd plus beautiful temples make this an enchanting place.

Ladies in Red dancing for the crowds in Beihai Park
Ladies in Red dancing for the crowds in Beihai Park

Now that we are on the Farewell Tour and enjoying our last visit to Beijing, it became more urgent to make it happen. So on our last day in town and with the heavy pollution clearing and the sun shining, we were able to explore again the most beautiful place in Beijing.

Patti & I hanging on for dear life--no life preservers provided.
Patti & I hanging on for dear life–no life preservers provided.

Going in a new entrance this time, we immediately saw the Duck Boats, still available for rent due to being early in the day. Off we went! Sign a release of liability?  NOPE!!  Instructions on how to steer or safety instructions?  HELL NO!!  Life preservers or any type of flotation device to save our sorry asses if we have an accident?  ARE YOU F&%KING KIDDING?  This is China and, as with anything in China, you are on your own so you better pray you don’t get hurt.

Thom and Larry started us off in charge with Patti and I enjoying the lake views and variety of boats–dragon boats for the many, little wood electric boats, round tulip-like boats and our Duck variety all raced around the lake.  Occasionally we saw a speed boat cutting through the traffic to get across the lake and deliver some important person to their destination.  The more money, the bigger and faster the boat.  In China, it’s all about the status.  I’m not sure what our Duck Boat says about our status but I’m betting no one was very impressed with us.  Since I had just taught a class where the theme was, “Be The Duck!” (as in a duck is calm on the top of the water gliding gracefully while underneath the water (where no one can see) the duck is peddling fast and furiously), it was a foregone conclusion that we had to pick the Duck as our boat of choice.

Needing some exercise, I took over the peddling and steering to take a tour of the lake. Crazy parents let their spoiled kids steer so it was like bumper boats with one family intentionally ramming us with their electric boat while we pedaled like maniacs to avoid them. BAM! Since they were aiming for us, there was no avoiding it so you might as well smile and hold on for your deal life.  Luckily no damage and after lots of laughter on their part, we continued on our journey around the lake. 

After watching the ferries from our apartment window daily and how they turn and slam into the docks, I mimicked their moves as we approached the end of our journey. BAM! I’m such a local now.  The attendant hooked us with his long pole to tether us to the dock and off we went to our next adventure in the park.

Shanghai Farewell Tour-Great Wall v4.0

Crooked, sloping, uneven, and totally awesome-steps at the Great Wall
Crooked, sloping, uneven, and totally awesome-steps at the Great Wall

Luckily, I had to be in Beijing this week for business, so we made time to visit the Great Wall one last time–my fourth visit.  After a rainy travel day yesterday, today was blue skies, clean air and cool weather–WHAT??? IS THIS BEIJING, REALLY?  Patti and Larry, our visitors, think we are lying about the pollution in China because since they have come, it has been the best weather of the year.  Perfect time to visit China is late September/early October while the trees are still green, the coal heat isn’t being used yet and the fields of corn aren’t being burned yet after the harvest.  There is a this very narrow window of normality that I am sure all citizens rejoice and revel in.  I know we are!

So, we set out at 8 a.m. for the Great Wall with our driver, who saved our lives not once but TWICE when he swerved to avoid the crazy drivers who had missed their exit and then decided to dead stop on the highway to back up.  Thank you driver!  I was sitting in the middle of the back and holding onto Patti for dear life because I had no seat belt.  Safely arriving, the new Great Wall Guest Center was barely busy with all the new shop areas just coming to life.  They sadly are opening a Burger King in the complex-yuck!

Sharing the Great Wall with our friends, Patti & Larry, was awesome.
Sharing the Great Wall with our friends, Patti & Larry, was awesome.

After the lovely climb to the top on the ski lift, we climbed and enjoyed taking lots of pictures, though we can’t possibly take more than our local friends who can pose for what feels like hours when we are waiting to use the same space.  Get on with it, folks!  Snap the photos and move on.  One couple actually dragged the huge wedding dress to the top to take their wedding photos.  Can’t imagine the coordination or how the bride had to probably change into it to keep it clean.  Amazing what you will do for a cool wedding photo!

SO FUN!  Toboggan your way down the mountain!
SO FUN! Toboggan your way down the mountain!

After traipsing up and down the crooked, leaning, worn steps through several gatehouses, we proceeded to the most anticipated part of the trip–tobogganing down the mountain.  I’ve done this twice before and it is FUN!  The crazy local group who had hogged the best spot to take photos was just in front of us.  I warned our group to wait because I just knew they would stop mid-mountain to take a few photos and they surely did just that.  Thom was screaming at them to move on so we wouldn’t plow into them but we had to stop on the slide and wait them out.  A lovely couple from the Netherlands behind us thought me insensitive as I screamed at the top of my lungs, “GO.  DAMN. IT!” several times but I reassured them that I live in China and locals would only understand this type of communication.  Thom decided to let go of the brake and see how they liked to being bumped forward-the ugly NYC cab driver in him oozed out.  FINALLY, with us and the track workers yelling at them to “GO,GO, GO” they went, smiling all the way having held up dozens of people but they got their pictures and that’s all that mattered to them.

After some bargaining for more presents (Patti is getting as good or better than me!), we started on the two hour ride home-I won’t miss Beijing traffic for sure but I will miss the Great Wall.  There is nothing like it and I will always be in awe that I got to experience it not once but four times while I lived in China.  WOW!

The Shanghai Farewell Tour Begins

This the hardest blog post I have ever written and I’ve been avoiding it for days.  Because, if I don’t write about it, it won’t be true. But it’s time to face the truth and move on.  Last Friday, I found out that we would be leaving China two years earlier than I thought. It was sudden news and unexpected to say the least. While I am lucky to still be employed, I almost feel like a part of me has died. I have so loved this great adventure in China. The unusual, always fascinating world swirling around me daily, as I walk to work and travel with Thom will be ending next month and I am sad.

Big Plus to Repatriate-spending time with Hannah!
Big Plus to Repatriate-spending time with Hannah!

Why didn’t we travel more? Why didn’t I work less? I thought the first year here would be the time to dive deeply into the new job and learn and create and work harder than ever. Then, I could enjoy more of this exotic region the next two years with plans to visit Cambodia, Australia, Thailand, Taiwan, and other parts of China over the many Chinese holidays we are given. Alas, we have really only seen Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai plus Hong Kong. We so enjoyed our visits to Vietnam that I know that other parts of Asia would be equally cool. DAMN. If only….

So, while I am thankful for what I have and the experiences we enjoyed, it is a life lesson to share with all that should be remembered. Enjoy the moment. Live in the day and don’t wait for anything. Yes, you still have to plan for the future but you just never know. So, the next few weeks while we have our friends, Patti and Larry, staying with us from the U.S., we will conduct the Shanghai Farewell Tour and visit new places as well as say good bye to our favorite haunts around China.

This week, I had already scheduled a work trip to Beijing so despite the news, we are still going and I will get to say good bye to the wonderful folks I hired and trained here. I’ll get to take my childhood friend to the Great Wall (my fourth trip) and we will scream all the way down the toboggan there-one of my favorite things to do in China. We will find a panda somewhere to gaze at and maybe even hold for enough RMB—hoping the Shanghai zoo has a few since Patti really, really wants to see one and we’ll enjoy eating out on our gift certificates to various restaurants that we have acquired and, of course, the VIP massage card. Patti is very willing to help us use up the RMB still left on the massage account. Foot massages galore!

So, I will hold back the tears and appreciate everything I have been given. I will look forward to seeing my awesome family more often and spoiling my granddaughter, the beautiful and smart Mia, who is the inspiration for our new online business, Mama and Mia, that we will launch soon with my Hannah creating fashionable headbands that ALL the cool babies will want to wear and personalizing baby quilts from Vietnam and blankets from Uganda—benefitting the women around the world who make them.

Most of all, I will be grateful that I have had a chance to live in a different culture and understand that the world is a big wonderful place that Thom and I will continue to explore from our Seattle base. While one adventure is ending, many more are just beginning! Watch out world-here we come!