Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An outing of FIRSTS

Last week I went to lunch with some friends. In our church we do something called Visiting Teaching, we thought it would be fun to meet for lunch. It was one of the most spiritual conversations I've had in a long time. I took the subway down to their neighborhood and we went to a restaurant called "Lily's American Diner". 

Instead of sending a server to the table, there is a tablet-like device where you order from.

 Diet Dr. Pepper! It is hard to find here and despite it "being imported" it still tasted like flavored seltzer water. Not good for a $3 USD can of soda! I stick with water now since none of the soda products taste good.
A yummy bean and cheese burrito!
 My two friends have these cool electric bikes that run on battery. You can either pedal or cruise along, taking one or two kids on it with you also. You see them all over the city, but riding on the back of one was great! A little scary but totally worth it!
 These girls are my heroes!!
That day was a good "China" day!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


It is not uncommon, here in China, to see a child walking along (in split pants of course)  holding the hand of a Grandmother. All day long I see Grandmothers taking care of little ones, as multi-generation is still very strong here.

When we were on our cruise, E and I happen to meet a Chinese woman who worked on the ship. Her name was Ling Ling. She was kind and excited to speak English to us. She also was pretty bored since she worked at the Ben N' Jerry's Ice Cream counter and it was about $5.00 a scoop. Needless to say there was not too much business there. But E and I found the chairs comfortable while we watched this show on DVD on our laptop. Ling Ling told us her story and it helped me to understand some cultural differences between the US and China.

After talking about how long she had worked on the ship (2 months) and how long she will work before a vacation (6 months) she mentioned that she has a three year old daughter. I felt comfortable enough to ask her if it saddened her to be away from her child. She replied, "Yes, but I do not know how to be a mother. She is with my parents and they know how to take care of her better than I can." Being the nosy journalistic person I am, I asked her if her husband was there with her daughter. Tears quickly filled her eyes and she said, "My husband died six months ago in a car accident. That is why I have to work." My heart broke for her. She shared such a tender thing with us. I told her that I thought she was a very good mother, sacrificing everything to provide for her daughter. 

Ling Ling's story touched my heart because of the circumstances. Likewise, we have a woman in our church that works as an ayi (nanny/cook/housekeeper) full-time here in Beijing. She lives with the family she works for while her husband and son are still in the Philippines. She told me that the money she makes here is so much more than she would ever make there and she sends all of it back to her family. Her husband's parents take care of her son while her husband is at work. Her eyes beamed as she told us her husband and son had just been here to visit her, but saying goodbye was extremely difficult.

Last week I went to a friend's house so her ayi could teach us to cook some authentic Chinese recipes (that post in the future). This woman worked harder than I have ever worked in one day. And she does that every single day! She had a smile on her face and truly looked like she enjoyed her work. She gets to my friend's house at 9am after she drops off her child at school, a luxury most ayis do not have. Then she cleans, does laundry, grocery shops and cooks lunch for my friend. After lunch she cleans some more and cooks an elaborate dinner (no opening cans, everything is fresh). She leaves at 5pm and never, ever eats with the family. I wondered how in the world she could go home and cook for her family. She doesn't...her family lives with her parents and her mother cooks for the family. I was happy that she got to be taken care of a little bit.

These situations are as common as sticky rice here. These women make sacrifices to provide for their family. These women have support from their mother or mothers-in-law. The results are children that are being raised by up to six adults! 
1 child to six adults, now that is a ratio!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Great Wall of China ~ HuangYaGuan

We were so excited to learn when we moved here that the congregation of our church always goes and stays the night at The Great Wall and holds church services at the wall. After much anticipation, the weekend had finally come. It was arranged that our group of about 250 would occupy the entire hotel, while some would camp on or near the wall. This is a tradition that has occurred for a long time here and we knew nothing like this would ever be possible in the United States due to church guidelines (not to mention there is no Great Wall in the US).

I was so excited to go and see The Wall for the first time. Hubby and D had already been there with the Cub Scouts. Unfortunately, our shipment still had not arrived so we were missing crucial items that would have made this weekend trip much more enjoyable and warm. However, with lots of friends offering us warm clothes, sleeping bags and a tent we were able to make it through just fine. Next year we will be more than prepared.

Members of the Beijing 1st branch loading buses.
 We met at the church at 9am on Saturday and filled three buses. We headed about two hours to the province of Tianjin to a section of the wall called the Huangyaguan Pass at the Bangalang Mountain. It was neat for me to see something of China outside of Beijing. 
The view of the mountain from the hotel.
 Sadly it was one of those grey China these pictures will really not do the scenery much justice at all. You will just have to come here and check it out for yourself!
Hubby with a lion among the fall foliage.
 We quickly stowed our bags and gathered with a few families to go for a "hike". The families that we were with all had cub scouts and our den leader decided this would be a great opportunity to sign off a three mile hike. 
To the left of the hotel is this section of the wall. The group we were with did this section last year.

Our group setting out for our Cub Scout hike.

 Since the group we were with had already done the left section, they decided to do the "right section" this year. See below...I thought that we were heading up to that first tower at the top of the hill...piece of cake so off we went!
The beginning of the trail is marked by red flags. The terrain is rocky steps and then a dirt path. Up at the top the wall resumes.
 This is the section of the wall that The Great Wall Marathon takes place! Can you imagine running 26.2 miles up this mountain? We were with a guy who did it and actually lived to tell us about it! I had contemplated doing the half marathon in May of 2013...but after seeing it I think not.
Up we go. Here I was full of optimism and energy.

At about one third of the way up the mountain, the grey courtyards below is our hotel.

Still climbing. Still smiling.

You can see we have now surpassed the tower on the top of the mountain that we saw from below. E is starting to frown by now.
 Once we hit the top of the mountain the wall turned to dirt path. As we started to go on the backside of the mountain the wall reappeared.
It is so much more fun to have these experiences with friends! This is one of my pals.
 When we got to where I thought we were going I saw this....we were not even near the end!!!! UGH!
 I decided my time was done. I know that perseverance is not my strongest attribute. I don't have a need to acquire bragging rights and there is no reward at the end, so I decided to head on back down with one of the girls. Everyone else, including many children (of course, D) went on.
Rest time!
 The hike back down took about 45 minutes and our knees were sore and our legs were shaky. But I guess we could take pride in the fact that we really did "Climb the Great Wall"! They really should pass out those shirts for free! Maybe I would've endured on if I knew that were the case! Instead our room was now ready and I was able to see our accommodations....oh wow!
Our upgraded room was moldy with dirty wallpaper, filthy bed covers and disgusting carpet! I'd hate to see the basic rooms!
 Hubby was very glad that he was not responsible for arranging this room. We just had to grin and bear it!
Our bathroom light fixture had a plethora of dead bugs!  YUM!
 This was the outside of our room, which was absolutely gorgeous!
 Besides being at the Great Wall, the best thing about this trip was being with tons of other friends! We barely even saw our children, they were with friends the entire time! Below is a mini Great Wall and labyrinth the kids hung out with all afternoon after the hike. The boys all bought weapons (crossbows and swords) from a vendor and played war until dinner time. They were in their glory while the teenagers hung out and flirted with each other!
 While the kids were occupied with friends, hubby and I decided to walk up the left side of the wall. I made it very clear that I was not climbing up anything for the rest of the day!

 The hotel provided dinner for us. It was a Chinese fare that included three meat dishes, five veggie dishes, a fruit salad and rice. 
The youth having fun!

Dancing next to the wall in the amphitheater.
 Without our backpacking equipment only D arranged to sleep outside in a borrowed tent.  A group hiked back up the wall about 30 minutes and camped in one of the towers. D camped out in the courtyard in his own one man tent. He is pretty hardcore as he set it up and took it down all on his own. I think he had the cleaner accommodations...maybe not warmer though.
The great outdoors at The Great Wall.

D was snug as a bug in his own tent.
 Breakfast was provided by the hotel at 7:30am. It was a Chinese breakfast with toast, fried bread, baozi (steamed buns), sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and roasted peanuts. A woman at our table was smart and brought several batches of homemade cinnamon year!
 The whole purpose of this trip was to hold our worship meeting here next to The Great Wall. Sadly, it started to rain just before 9:00am when church was about ready to start. No problem! Everyone gathered their blankets and jackets and we all lined the courtyard to sing hymns, partake of the sacrament,  listen to speakers and pray. 
Church services along side The Great Wall.
This was an incredible experience that I am grateful for! It was amazing to be united with so many people that share the same beliefs (and the same language!) at such an extraordinary place! If I have more experiences like this, China just may grow on me.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Good Days & Bad Days

It is certainly no secret that China has bad air quality! 
We knew that before we came, but being from California (hubby from LA), we thought we knew what "poor air quality" looked like. Oh how wrong we were!

Good Day

This is the amazing view from our living room window. Our bedroom has the same view, lucky us! This picture was taken as the sun was setting and it made the buildings sparkle like gold. It had been one of the rare blue sky days.

Bad Day

Here is the exact same view today (and yesterday and the day before). While we knew we would have bad air quality days, what we didn't know was just how many we would have! Sadly for every 5 or 6 yucky days, we have 1 pretty day.

I definitely see that the grey yuckiness takes a toll on my mood. I have less motivation to go out and exercise, shop or explore. On the clear days I have an extra spring in my step. I asked hubby whether he noticed a difference on the two different types of days...he said no. Just another example to chalk up in the record of "differences of men and women".
 A friend asked me what the one thing was that would make China a little bit better for me and I said, "it just looks so ugly all the time." I don't really think it is an ugly place...but with all the sludge it makes something pretty look pretty dreary. I won't even go into the health concerns of this air. 

So if you are not in China...please do not take for granted the crisp clear fall days that you may be experiencing in your corner of the world.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bon Voyage V~ Busan, South Korea

Our last stop on our lovely National holiday, therefore my last post in this series, is Busan (formerly known as Pusan) South Korea. It is not one of those places that you hear about a lot so we were very surprised to see how large this city was. The picture below is only a small section with similar landscape spreading far up and down the coast. It looked quaint with the city sprawling up the hills.
One section of Busan from our ship
 We were a bit "toured" out, I am not much of a sight seer, so hubby did some research and learned that Busan is known for their natural hot springs. He had experience with Sentos in Japan, but I had no idea what to expect! He assured me it was a family atmosphere AND that we would be NAKED! 

After a 20 minute taxi ride through the city we found the Hurshimchung Hot Spring Park, located inside the Hotel Nongshim.  It boasts to be the "best spa in the world".

The kids were not traumatized at all about being naked.
 After checking in at the front desk E and I separated from the boys. We put our shoes in one locker and our clothes and bag in another. That is when the naked-nude-birthday suit adventure began. As an American, I realized that our culture is just not that comfortable with our bodies and being naked. I did not like it at all. At first E, who is now thirteen, felt awkward but she got over it after a few minutes. We walked up to the women's section of the hot spring park. First we were given a loofah towel and motioned to go shower. There were stand up showers and sit down showers and it was full, although we were the only foreigners. After showering we headed to the pools. I had never been to a hot spring before so I expected it to be in the ground (pretty naive I suppose). They are really just pools with hot spring water pumped into them. There were extremely hot pools all the way to extremely cold pools, and everything in between. There was a salt pool, a medicine pool, pools inside rock caverns, whirlpools and outside pools. There was also a waterfall section and many saunas you could go into. E and I wandered around and two little girls thought it would be fun to hang out with us. At first they were cute speaking the little English they knew and then they decided it would be even more fun to splash us with water and sing "sorry" to us with a grin. After about the fifteenth time we decided it was time to move on.

There was about 10% of me that thought it was freeing being naked with a bunch of other naked woman from a different country. You know, the whole "I'll never see these people again so what the heck" attitude. But the other 90% of me just wanted to get dressed ! So I convinced E to find out what else was around. We headed back to the locker room and checked out some cotton "pajamas" and went downstairs. Now I felt comfortable. Downstairs is co-ed (except for the sleeping rooms). Also, there is an igloo room, a mud room and another sauna. Many people were just hanging out on the heated bamboo floor. My favorite place was the sleeping room. The floor was heated below Japanese tatami mats and the pillows were buckwheat filled. There was soft music and a reddish dim light, the atmosphere was dreamy. I stayed there for quite sometime while E decided to go back to the hot springs. Later we met up with the boys and had massages in those high-tech massage chairs. Massages are offered both upstairs and downstairs for a small fee.

We stayed at the spa for over three hours, an all day pass was $10 USD per person. It was a good deal and I would go back to one that allowed swimsuits. Surprisingly I was the only one out of the four of us who felt awkward about being naked. What an example my kids are to me.
Outdoor foot hot springs. I would've been fine with this!
 Getting back to the port area was not as easy as getting away from it. We walked a couple of blocks to find the subway but the streets are confusing in Busan and we felt like we were just going in circles so we decided to hail a taxi. The taxi driver drove around for about ten minutes and we knew he had absolutely no clue what we were trying to tell him, depsite us pointing to the cruise port on a map. So we got out and got another taxi. This guy had no clue either but called his English speaking dispatch to help out. After about 3o minutes we made it back to the port with 45 minutes to spare. We decided to grab a bite to eat at the top of  a luxurious shopping mall. The food was good but we scarfed it down in fifteen minutes, afraid we would be late. We made it onto to the ship just in the nick of time!
a typical street in Busan
Our trip quickly drew to a close. It was the perfect vacation as we were able to relax, bond as a family, and see and learn about new places. Now it is back to Beijing for about eleven weeks until we go back to the US for Christmas!!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bon Voyage IV~ Fukuoka, Japan

Fukuoka is on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. Since we were not familiar with Fukuoka we decided to use the cruise line expertise and book an English speaking tour. We set out at about 4:00 pm, dawned with our umbrellas and hoodies, as it was sprinkling. 

We had a sweet Japanese tour guide who spoke amazing English. She told us that she had never traveled out of Japan and learned all of her English from a radio program. 
Why can't I do that with mandarin?
Our first stop was a city park that was built on the remains of the ancient castle. There are still remnants of the rock wall that was to protect the castle. 
This Japanese garden was spectacular. Imagine it in the spring  in bloom!

D was trying to find his zen.
 Just outside the park is a lake. Our guide told us that this lake used to be the ocean. All the land built on the other side is reclaimed land.
 Our next stop was the Fukuoka Tower. We went to the top to see the panoramic view.
One side of Fukuoka

Fukuoka Tower
 Our next stop was a shrine right in the middle of the city. There were even people walking through it on their way home from work. An interesting thing at this shrine were actual anchors from Mongol ships that were set to attack Fukuoka in the 1200s. A typhoon hit and sunk the ships before the attack. Kamikaze (divine wind) is what this typhoon is referred to.

 Throughout history Fukuoka has been called Hakata. The city is divided in two by a river. One side of the river is known as the shogun side and the other is the merchant side.

At the very end of our tour we had about ten minutes to wander through these stalls. We were able to find a 100 yen store ( $1.00 store) which are awesome in Japan! The kids got origami paper and I got a much needed measuring cup. So luxurious!
Happy to be shopping! Lots of Halloween decorations here. That is something we just don't see in China.

An alley way in Fukuoka.

Last stop will be Busan, South Korea!
You will NOT want to miss out on our adventure there!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bon Voyage III ~ Osaka & Kyoto, Japan

If you would like to see the prior posts for this trip visit here & here
Part of the allure of taking this particular cruise was the fact that hubby had lived in this area of Japan for two years while serving as a missionary for our church. While we had visited Tokyo as a family he has never before had the opportunity to take us to some of his old stomping grounds. This was a dream come true for all of us.

entering Osaka by boat was really breath taking
 We had the cool opportunity to have a full 24 hours at this port. We were able to disembark the ship at about 6:00pm. We walked the very short walk to the subway and headed to the Osaka Castle. This castle was built from 1585~1597. 
Osaka Castle at night

up close of the Osaka Castle
 The grounds were large and peaceful. There were joggers and walkers scattered throughout. The one kilometer square is surrounded by an outer moat. The inner moat is dry.
 After walking around the castle we decided to head back to the ship by subway. Below is a quaint Japanese restaurant next to McDonald's.
Notice the lantern, the garden and painted screens. Very detailed
 After having a good nights sleep on the ship, we woke up early and walked to the subway toward the Shinkansen (bullet train) station which was headed for Kyoto. Can't say we didn't use public transportation. Lucky hubby speaks Japanese!
Catching a few zzzzzz's
 Of course we HAD to ride the bullet train to Kyoto. 
Second time D has ridden on a bullet train. First time was from Zurich to Paris. Lucky kid!!!
 Once there we took a taxi to the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-ji.
We ran into a group of 8th grade boys. Just had to take this pic for E! They loved it too!
 Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is one of the most visited sites in Japan. It is now a Zen Buddhist temple, but was originally a villa belonging to a powerful statesman dating back to 1397. 
I really did take this picture! The pavilion is gold leafed and lacquered.

The beautiful Japanese garden and mirror pond.

 There are many building surrounding the pavilion among the meandering gardens. This spot housed outdoor food stalls offering yummy samples. It reminded me of Costco.

the Buddhist temple
 After leaving Kinkaku-ji we hailed another taxi. The driver was the sweetest, chattiest man! Such a contrast to the taxi drivers in Beijing! He loved speaking English to us and showing us pictures of his beloved Kyoto. He took us to the Kyoto station where we would head back to a section of Osaka we wanted to visit.
a typical street in Kyoto
 It is difficult to not compare and contrast Japan to China. Besides the taxi drivers there are many other differences. For one, they drive on the left side of the street. But striking differences are the cleanliness and conduct of the Japanese cities and people. The streets, shops and subways are immaculate and the people act with the utmost politeness. And of course the toilets are SO AMAZING! Click here to see why.
D in front of the famous Kyoto tower. Towers are popular in Asia.

Hubby and D at the modern and sleak Kyoto station.
 Despite Japan being friendly and clean, there is one main reason why I would be very apprehensive about living here...navigating the train system! I had difficulty reading and deciphering the subway and JR maps while alone in Tokyo a few years back and it was not much easier now with hubby who speaks the language!!!

We took the train back to Osaka to an area called Umeda that hubby was not able to go to while on his mission. It was known for having too many bars and temptations. Since it was daytime and years later we decided to head there now.

Hubby has always loved an Osaka dish called okonomiaki. He has made it for us several times back home but it was a treat to find an authentic restaurant in the region it is known for. It was very, very good!
Okonomiaki on the 10th floor of a ritsy mall in Umeda, Osaka, Japan
 This mall had a few shops that I could have spent a few hours and many dollars in.
A French shop that I still have dreams about.

Beautiful florist and amazing flower arrangements. More exquisite details.
 Umeda is a shopping mecca, especially for electronics. 
 One spot that hubby was allowed to visit, way back when, was a foreign bookstore in the subway station. He wondered if it was still there because this section of town was completely destroyed during the earthquake. After looking for a minute or two, we found the exact bookstore. Amazing since it has been almost twenty years! Foreign books are a treat since they are hard to find in Beijing!
E was so happy to have a book to read! She finished it three days later.

We would've loved to have had more time to visit Kobe and  Kakogawa where hubby spent most of his mission. However, we were grateful to have this brief introduction.

Next stop is Fukuoka!