Archive for the ‘Expat Life’ Category

Chinese Lessons

24 January 08

Today I have a book recommendation. “Chinese Lessons” by John Pomfret. Pomfret first came to China as a foreign student in the early 80s. Later, he returned as a journalist. “Chinese Lessons” presents the stories of his fellow classmates, among the first students to return to university post-Cultural Revolution. Through Pomfret’s writing, these classmates share their experiences living through the Cultural Revolution, their time in university and life in the new China.

If you are involved in the China expat blogosphere, undoubtedly you have heard of this book before. There is an excellent review here. I brought this book back to China with me last April. I read it. The DH read it. Our coworker read it. His Chinese wife read it. Now it is in the hands of a fellow expat friend. I hope it gets passed around to more friends. It really should be required reading of all expats in China. If you want to know what your neighbors & Chinese coworkers lived through, you’ve got to read it.

I decided to blog about this book after reading this article on NY Times about the first class of students allowed to take the university entrance exams in 1977. For those of you who don’t know, studies of all kinds were suspended during the brutal Cultural Revolution years. When universities opened in 1978, students of all ages flocked to their campuses. (Only if they scored well on the entrance exam – an exam still used to this day.) What happened to the so-called Class of ’77? Some of them are now the country’s leaders.

For Ms. An and a whole generation consigned to the countryside, it was the first chance to escape what seemed like a life sentence of tedium and hardship. A pent-up reservoir of talent and ambition was released as 5.7 million people took the two-day exam in November and December 1977, in what may have been the most competitive scholastic test in modern Chinese history.

The 4.7 percent of test-takers who won admission to universities — 273,000 people — became known as the class of ’77, widely regarded in China as the best and brightest of their time. By comparison, 58 percent of the nine million exam-takers in 2007 won admission to universities, as educational opportunities have greatly expanded.

Now, three decades later, the powerful combination of intellect and determination has taken many in this elite group to the top in politics, education, art and business. Last October, one successful applicant who had gone on to study law and economics at Peking University, Li Keqiang, was brought into the Chinese Communist Party’s decision-making Politburo Standing Committee, where he is being watched as a possible successor to President Hu Jintao or Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Among those who have assumed positions of power, aside from Mr. Li of the Politburo, are Zhou Qiang, the governor of Hunan Province; Wang Yi, party secretary of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and a former ambassador to Japan; and Jin Liqun, vice president of the Asian Development Bank.

Artistic talent to emerge from the class of ’77 includes the filmmakers Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern”) and Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”), and the writer Chen Cun.

May they never forget the lessons of those lost years!


Blog Blues

23 January 08

Although I didn’t blog much while in Spain, it would have been infinitely easier there. Blogging in China is a real headache. Over the last 2.5 years in China, I have witnessed a noticeable decline in Internet usability. Maybe it is just me, maybe it is not. It just seems that more websites than ever are blocked. Proxy servers that were usable in the past are now blocked. (TOR still works most of the time!) I hear that YouTube will be blocked permanently soon.

WordPress, of course, continues to be blocked. Using TOR to access my blog and update posts is my only option, but it has gotten really slow lately. All that waiting around for pages to load stifles my creativity!

I’ve got a solution in the works. I’ve purchased my own domain name and web space. Soon my blog will be transferred from to its own home. Of course my long term plan is to leave China. Knowing how my life works, however, I may leave China and end up in a country where Internet censorship exists, as well.

Europe’s Worst Airport?

16 January 08

Having recently run the travel gauntlet and sworn like a sailor over security, I’m pleased to discover I had the good fortune to transit through some of the best airports in Europe – Madrid’s Barajas airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

I’ve always known that Schiphol is an amazing place. I’ve been flying through there for 15 years! Barajas, on the other hand, seemed poorly designed to me. Anyway, Barajas is nothing like London’s Heathrow, which wins top prize as Europe’s worst airport. Heathrow should be avoided at any cost. Read the NY Times article and the comments to get the full picture.

Happy Traveling!

It Seems

2 January 08

I spoke too soon!

The DH and I have decided to return to China for an additional 3 months. I’ve come to realize that China has woven a magic chain around our ankles, sort of like the one in Stardust, and no matter what, we somehow find our way back there.  We are still planning on moving somewhere new, we’ve just delayed it a bit… We should be back in Qingdao on the 15th, after a stopover in Hong Kong.

For the last few days my in-law’s house has been full of people – the DH’s brother and sisters and their kids, cousins, and an uncle. We had a full table for New Year’s Eve dinner and it was a lot of fun. More stories to come now that the house is quiet again and I have time to sit down and think! (And I’m finally over the jet lag – it was awful!!)

Happy New Year!

Going Home

25 December 07

This is just a quick post to let everyone know that I am SUPER busy trying to get ready for our trip to Spain and onward move…somewhere!

Merry Christmas and Happy Eid and Best Wishes for a Wonderful Holiday!

We will be in transit for the next few days, hopefully arriving in Spain for the weekend. Posts will resume upon our arrival, I can’t guarantee any updates in the meantime. Take care, I’ll be thinking of you all!

Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

21 December 07

I’ve just come from a really fun night that almost makes me regret what I am about to announce here.

Dinner with friends is a way of life here in China. You get together with your buddies, (Chinese or foreign or, hopefully, both), and you eat as much as you can, drink as much as you want and laugh and enjoy yourself.

That is what we did tonight. We met up with our good friend PB and a small group of his friends. Caution here, PB speaks a little English, but not a lot, so in the past, our conversations have consisted mainly of “what’s up, man?” and “how are you?” Tonight, PB brought along a friend who speaks very good English, so we could translate with each other. No matter anyway, because over the last year, PB has learned an amazing amount of English and even if we can’t always understand each other, we always have a fun time.

We started out the evening over a never-ending dinner at a Western-style barbecue restaurant. These kinds of places are all the rave in China and are vaguely reminiscent of Fuego de Chao, the Brazilian barbecue restaurant. The Chinese versions offer a buffet of salads and Chinese dishes, while the main entrée is barbecued meat, circulated around the restaurant on long metal skewers. Our little group polished off quite a few pitchers of beer, brewed on-site (dark, light, green and ginger varieties) and countless plates of food. My mother always told me to think of the starving children in China when I wouldn’t eat my brussel sprouts, but now I can confidently say there are NO starving anything in China!! Every table in the place was over flowing with food!

The evening ended at a disco, located, conveniently, next door to the restaurant. Chinese discos are always wacky. This one featured a bouncing dance floor, but I was a little disconcerted to find the floor bounced up and down a good foot or two, making for a very uncomfortable dance.

I realize that this might offend a reader or two, but I beg you to consider the hilarity of the situation. As the number of dancers increased and the beat of the music intensified, I suddenly realized everyone was dancing furiously to a song which basically consisted of one lyric repeated over and over: “Everyone wants the pu**y!!” Loudly. Girls and boys laughing, pumping their fists in the air. No one had a clue what the singer was actually saying. Aww. Gotta love China!!!

Gotta love China. What a complicated country. Which makes me both a little bit sad and a little bit happy to announce that after a great deal of contemplation, the DH and I have decided it is time for us to leave China and move on to a new adventure somewhere else on the globe.

I know it seems sudden, but we have reached the end of our contract and this is something we have been considering for a long time. As some of you know, I am a serial expat. After two and a half years in the Far East, it is time for something new.

It’s been awesome, China, thanks for the memories!!!

China Keeps on Truckin’

17 December 07

Ever been on the roads of China at night? Just go down to your local Wal-Mart, walk around and look at all the products on display. Then just imagine all of the parts they are made up of loaded on heavy trucks, thundering across the highways of China. That is what it is like.

Overloaded Truck

Fairly typical truck
from Automobile blog

On my recent trip to Mt. Tai, my friend Wendy drove her car the two and a half hours to Tai An, where we would begin the climb. The highway was like a solid mass of trucks. Big, overloaded trucks. In Wendy’s zippy little Chevy, we weaved around and between them. (My eyes were definitely wide open!)

When I used to live at the Shijiazhuang airport, anytime we wanted to travel to the city, we drove 45 minutes on the highway, also covered in trucks. I’ve never seen anything like it.

From the New York Times’ Choking on Growth series:

Trucks here burn diesel fuel contaminated with more than 130 times the pollution-causing sulfur that the United States allows in most diesel. While car sales in China are now growing even faster than truck sales, trucks are by far the largest source of street-level pollution.

Doesn’t that sound lovely? Read more about trucks in China, oil consumption, diesel fuels, and how they are contributing to pollution here (NY Times).


13 December 07

This past summer, the DH and I made ourselves sick eating tons of these yummy, tart little berries.


We had no idea what they were, what they were called or where they came from. They weren’t available in our market for long, either. Today I finally found out what they are called – Yang Mei.

According to the New York Times, Yang Mei is (or will be shortly) the new antioxidant rage in US grocery stores. They’re calling it the new pomegranate. Get ready for it!

The Chinese name means poplar-plum; in English it is called red bayberry or Chinese bayberry. The name yumberry was coined about 2003 by Charles Stenftenagel, a garden products importer from Indiana, when he was visiting a friend in Shanghai who owned a company that bottled the juice.

If you’re in China, look for them May to July. If you’re in the US, sorry, you can only enjoy the juice, the fruit itself is banned to keep out unwanted insects. I assure you, they are delicious!

Read more here (NYT).

Conquering Tai Shan

12 December 07

In the steps of the emperors…

We start our climb at 9 PM from the base of Mt. Tai in the city of Tai An. It is dark and cold. I’m worried about freezing, so I wear a lot of layers. Five layers, in fact. Thirty minutes into the climb, I’ve stripped down to three. The imperial route up Mt. Tai is lined with steps and whew! I work up quite a sweat!

I’m tired!

We can’t see a thing, so we just clomp along in the dark. Eventually, our eyes adjust to the darkness and we can make out the outline of stairs ahead (never ending stairs!). Of course, we are instantly blinded anytime we approach a shop or temple that has a light on. We stop at one temple to light some incense and my friends pray for prosperity.

A tame staircase

We are among only a handful of climbers. They say during national holidays the mountain is full of people. The solitude and quiet are great for reflection. The stars overhead are brilliant.

Wendy & Ivy

At midnight, we reach the half-way point. We are cold, hungry and tired. Sunrise will be at 7 AM. We decide a nap would be a good idea. We check into a small hostel for a few hours sleep. The beds are hard, the room is cold.

DH makes a friend

At 5 AM we are up again, groggy and grumpy. The hardest part of the climb is straight ahead.

Stairway to heaven?

My friends, who are all 5 to 7 years younger than I, bound up the steps. The DH and I plod along slow and steady. The trail is not particularly strenuous, but it is good to pace yourself.

My Chinese pose

There is ice and snow on the ground all around us. We can hear it crunching under our feet.


The stairs seem never ending as we get closer and closer to the top. Slowly, the sky brightens.

Azure Cloud Temple on the summit

At 6:30 AM we reach the top of the hellish staircase (Actually, it is the staircase to heaven!) We’re almost to the summit.

1400 meters, 100 more to go

Another 10 minutes and we are settled in on some big boulders to wait for the sunrise. Crowds begin to gather around us. Everyone is wearing army style coats – thick and green – to keep warm. It is windy and brutally cold. I notice quite a few ladies are wearing high heeled boots. I assume they’ve just woken up and left their hotel rooms to view the sunrise. (Although I observe some intrepid climbers in high heels later.)


Just after 7 AM the sun pokes through the clouds. We all ooh and aah. Airplanes pass by, leaving contrails across the sky. We can just make out the trail we have climbed, through the clouds below us.


We begin our descent (too cold to linger at the top) and almost instantly we feel the effects of our climb – soreness! Our knees are screaming!

Jo-Jo, DH, me, Wendy & Ivy

Looking down the mountain at all the steps we’ve climbed, we all agree it was a brilliant idea to walk up in the dark. If we’d seen what was ahead of us, I’m not sure we could have continued!

It’s a long way down!

The walk down is fun, but long. We stop every few meters to pose for photos and to admire the views we missed on the way up. We pass lots of stone carvings and small temples.


The mountain is covered in cypress trees and boulders. It all looks straight out of a traditional Chinese painting.


By the half-way point, we are starting to wonder if taking the cable car/bus down would have been a better idea.

Ivy touches heaven

When we’ve reached the base, our knees are destroyed, our legs are sore, and we are starving. But we’ve had a blast! After lunch, we’re on our way back to Linyi (and bed!).

Piece of cake!

Kao Di Gua

12 December 07


Baked sweet potato vendor
Linyi, China

More Wordless Wednesday here.