30 December 2011

A donkey named Gracie

Countdown:  26 days

We are still on the East coast and today both LiLi and I rode a donkey, Gracie.  Much like riding a horse but a tad bit harder to control despite Gracie’s ability to understand voice commands.  She understood me but didn’t necessarily agree with me especially when I wanted to get closer to the pregnant cow paddock because I thought one of them was delivering a calf.  It wasn’t.  Gracie didn’t care either way.  Still, she was unbelievably patient and after I dismounted and stood in front of her, she dropped her huge head onto my chest and let me scratch her forelock and oh so sensitive gigantic ears.  Then she gave LiLi a ride.  I decided that she should be in the movies and plan to find her an agent in LA soon. 

So the countdown is now less than a month and several large items remain on our to do list:  rent our house in SF; sort, pack, store our stuff in SF; find an apt in BJ.  I’m oddly calm about this list and feel like things will work out because they’ll have to. 

This past month we’ve had so much strange and wonderful, strange and tragic, and just strange news that our logistical issues seem less important somehow.   We get back to SF on 1/1/2012 and will get to work on our list then. 

26 December 2011

No apartment

Yesterday, Christmas Day, at 5 a.m. we had an oral contract on the apartment.   I'm on the (US) East Coast for the holidays and was on my blackberry at that ungodly hour reading Christmas Eve correspondence from a Californian so I was on when our would-be landlord emailed wanting a Christmas Day commitment.  So I made one.  I made one despite that the day before I was unable to open the photos our Ayi emailed us after visiting the apartment herself.  An apartment!  We were able to open the new photos later on and confirmed that the landlord's photos were legit.  An apartment!  I told LiLi who was thrilled.  I told Grandma who was happy for us.  I told the whole family all about the apartment and its view over Chaoyang Park.

Later, after Christmas morning with family and a visit to my sister's way rural farm (pregnant Black Angus cows, goats, dogs and...donkeys), our would-be BJ landlord went sideways, wanting a higher rent and different terms.  So, standing in my sister's farmhouse looking out over a chilly field of trotting donkeys, running along the fenceline nipping at each other's necks and rough-housing like my  teenaged nephews, I texted the landlord and declined the apartment.

Oddly, nearly simultaneously, I received an email from the American/Ghanan family who moved their three kids over the summer recommending a different 'hood in BJ as accessible to both my job and the kids' school bus.

So...more of the meant to be?  or a lost opportunity?  Who knows.  We are back to square one on the apartment hunt.  Probably because I'm surrounded by my family, or maybe because I'm supported back home, I feel really okay about this.  Easy come, Easy Go?  The List That Refuses To Shrink?  Whatever.  We are okay and things will work out.

I'm off to go ride a donkey.  Its ears, huge and swiveling around completely backward looking like a cartoon of itself, a giant red bow on its behind, the incredible intelligence (they know voice commands!) and patience in its eyes, I feel lucky to be in its presence.  I ride horses but never before a donkey!   The apartment can wait for now.

22 December 2011

An apartment (maybe) falls in our lap

 Countdown:  34 days

Sometimes late at night I google some of the apartment complexes I know to be close to Chaoyang Park where we want to live.  I look at pictures, imagine us there, examine maps, roads and bus routes.  Occasionally, I send out an email query to an agent.  Many many people have cautioned that one should first go to BJ, THEN look for an apartment, because things change so quickly there and it’s easy to be cheated.  I started making an apartment search spreadsheet but abandoned it since I figured we’d need to be there first.  That means that I don’t have a record of the searches I’ve done or the emails I’ve sent.  So when my San Francisco cell phone rang a couple of nights ago and the woman making the call was speaking Chinese, I didn’t know what she was calling about.  I called for LiLi to come to the phone and the woman switched to English.  Turns out, she’s the owner of an apartment in one of the BJ complexes!  I’d  emailed her one late night who knows how long  ago.   The owner lives in NYC and just doesn’t use her BJ apartment so much anymore.  It’s 3 BR, 2 BA, fully furnished, and faces the park.  Wow!  Fantastic.  It’s quite a bit more expensive than I had in mind, but it’s furnished and includes internet and TV.  It also has a washer and dryer (the latter being rare) and an oven (also rare.) 

She sent some photos of the place and it looks great.  Very sunny and with wood floors.  The rooms are not large but there are two bedrooms with full beds (probably on the hard side by our standards; LiLi will need loads of pillows) and one small bedroom set up as an office.  The livingroom is a corner so there are windows on two adjacent sides.  Since it’ll just be me and LiLi until family and friends visit, it seems plenty large enough for us. 

But what next?  We had an email exchange about the rent and may have an agreement which is still a bit higher than I wanted but seems reasonable when compared to what is being advertised. 

We Skyped with Lee Ayi at 6 pm (her 10 a.m.) the night before last and asked if she could go and see the apartment if the NYC owner could get a relative to show it.  At this Skype session, we had LiLi’s SF tutor with us on our end for better communication.   As an aside, I’m convinced we are all a good fit and continue to get a good vibe from Lee Ayi.  I think everyone is wondering how I plan to manage the language issue since it’s clear to everyone I have a pathetic inability to hear and use correct tones.  But I have high confidence that I can make myself understood if LiLi goes on strike and refuses to translate or isn’t around.  Pantomiming, drawing pictures, using google translate!  Ah well.  I’ll learn a lot of Chinese because I will have to.   Lee Ayi is going to come to meet us at the airport and bring along her bilingual college student son, plus organize a large van taxi for our luggage.  Incredibly helpful! 

Yesterday I heard back from the apartment’s owner who said her relative will show Lee Ayi the apartment.  So…we shall see!  We may be in contract for an apartment and be able to land in BJ and move in straight away.  Sounds a bit crazy and hasty but this journey has unfolded in this way so I’m trying to be present and open for the opportunities when they drop out of the sky. 

21 December 2011

Last office holiday party

Countdown:  35 days

I went to my office’s holiday party yesterday.   Several people said to me, “hey, this is your last holiday party!”  I felt kind of sad and out of sorts.  These are some of the most amazing, smart and dedicated attorneys in the country and I’m walking away.  Very mixed feelings.  

19 December 2011


Since there is a China consulate office in San Francisco I just got our visas myself for our trip last summer and didn’t use an agent.  Though we did not ask for them, we were given 90 day, multiple entry, 1 year tourist or “L” visas.  I suspect it was because we are considered “Overseas Chinese” because we’re Chinese American and I wrote our names in Chinese on the visa application.  I wrote them badly, of course, because my writing looks like a four year old’s, and the woman at the counter had to first laugh, then rewrite our names on post-its.   But it’s great good fortune for us now because those L’s are good until the end of April, long past the craziness of Chinese New Year, so we can just go in on those visas and renew them, switching to business visa, once we get there.  Or anyway, that's the plan.  

I have to be sure to bring the documents we will need.  A list is included on my earlier posting about lists.  It includes bringing some passport photos.  When I was a younger traveler I learned to always bring at least two extra passport sized photos, even traveling in Africa or Eastern Europe, not just Asia, because if you need to pop into some consul’s office because, say, you decide to cross the Kenyan/Tanzanian border afterall, you don’t have to first search for a passport photo outfit. 
But back to China:  another great thing is the extremely courageous and competent mom of three mentioned earlier already found an agent in BJ to get her and her kids’ visas AND she negotiated an awesome fee for them so we will just piggyback on all of her work once we get there.                 
If  we did not already have these L visas I would probably hire an agent here because I have such a finite amount of time to get my list done (Countdown: 38 days including today!) and can’t deal with any new time drains, and because we’re traveling during Chinese New Years which can be tricky.  I’ve heard that the Consul can be fussy and one never knows when one might hit a grouchy agent and have problems.  Hmmmm…just like our agencies.  But if one lives in San Francisco the process is fairly straightforward.  Download the form fill it out, take your passports and go to the consulate and plan to wait in line for a bit outside and then inside the building.  Then go back the next week and pick up your passports with the visa inside.   One tip that worked for me last Spring was to get there about 20 minutes before opening in the morning or reopening after the lunch break.  That way I got into line before it went around the block and only waited outside about a half hour to clear the metal detector, and inside even less because everyone goes into different lines once inside.  If you speak even a tiny bit of Chinese, it might help to brush up on an opening friendly phrase to two, too.  But that might only help if you’re “Overseas Chinese.”  Also, as with all travel to China, it might help to brush up on business etiquette.  I’ll have to do a posting on that later. 
The China consul website linked above also includes a list of the types of visas.  Even some of the business visas require leaving China every 90 days but Hong Kong counts as “leaving” so it’s pretty easy (and fun!)  to accomplish what is necessary.  Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand are all right there, too, obviously, so a nice hot sandy beach is an option.  One just has to remember that one needs a visa to go to those places, too, even if it’s just a long weekend getting out of BJ every 90 days.  There’s a whole thread on one of my BJ yahoo groups right now about Thai beaches for the summer weeks.  Very enticing!

16 December 2011

Bad Air

BJ's bad air has been all over the news of late.  700 flights cancelled because the smog is too thick, like fog, the planes can't take off.  "Crazy bad," they say.  Face masks sold out.  Air purifiers everywhere.  I have a link to the US Embassy feed on BJ Air Quality on my desktop.  My friends are scared for us.  Me too.

15 December 2011

End dates & the Countdown begins!

Have last days set now for both jobs.  The FT one will be done Thursday 12 Jan (because I just couldn't leave on Friday the 13th) and the PT one will be done Wednesday 18 Jan.  We get on a plane Wednesday 25 Jan 2012.

I made a trip to China in 2004.  My sister in law, from Cuba, lived on the East Coast and was planning to join me in China on this particular trip.  She and I emailed daily or more during the planning stages and at some point she started a countdown in the subject matter line of her emails:  "22 more days" or "15 more days."  When I got there and got to the hotel she wasn't in her room.  I logged on and found an email from her:  Zero more days!

So I am officially beginning our countdown:  42 more days!

I'm tired but I'm really really excited and happy.  This is real.

13 December 2011

Freaking out

Okay I knew there would be days like today and I'm hella lucky I haven't had more of them but really...I'm losing it.  The list seems to be at a standstill.  The house still is not rented.  There's still no BJ apartment because, hey, ten years is OLD and don't I want something, like, new?  

Oh, and my kid comes home from school with four packets of homework and I can't figure out which is due when.  But there were emails, bunches of them, explaining it all but who the heck has time to fire up the laptop to check the email now?  And anyway, hadn't she oughta be in bed?  And also, who the heck cares about this homework?  She's only going to be in this school a couple more weeks.

I'm off-the-charts distracted.  I have major performances at both jobs (did I mention I have 1.5 jobs?) this week and can't seem to focus on either.  Plus, I need to give notice still (still!) for the part time one and have to somehow squeeze that in on Wednesday.  AND the house is just full of stuff.  So much stuff.  Where are we going to put all this stuff when we have renters.  We cleared out a lot from the basement on Sunday but even still, there's not enough room for all this stuff.  And why do we have so much of it anyway?  Thomas trains and tracks to fill a room-- but there's zero interest in them from the 8 year old.  Calico Critters sets to fill a mansion, even the darn Calico Critter CAR.  Zero interest there too.  And me, mama, who just can't let go of the baby stuff so there's still a glider and ottoman, a rocking horse, and guess what:  A STROLLER.  The kid is almost 9!

Also, said almost 9 year old started a whole long whine in the car tonight:  I don't want to move to China!  I do want to move to China; it'll be so much fun, sorta, but I'll miss the Chinese New Year Parade!  I mean, I'm kinda excited about moving but I'm not moving.  Can I bring my [built in] loft bed?  Why can't I bring all my stuffies?  [Last count: 162 stuffed animals.  Some of them huge.]

Seriously.  I'm losing my mind.

10 December 2011

Internet apartment hunting

I've been advised that searching for an apt. in BJ on the internet is not useful because the postings are teasers.  Still, I'm obsessed with the hunt and the maps and occasionally send an email query to a posting.  We want to be around the giant Chaoyang park because LiLi's school's private buses already have a route with an opening there, because the air is somewhat better as the park is sometimes called "the lungs of Beijing" and because it is relatively close to my work.  So, while hunting I found this old listing.  I sent an email to the agent/owner/whomever.  Here's the response:

Dear Kayla:  Have you visit the Jinda apartment before? It's quite old - around 10 years....

08 December 2011

An Ayi

If you happen to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about all the things there are left to do, all the people there are to see, all the ways to get in trouble before moving to another continent, sometimes, maybe sometimes, you also get some good news.

BJ is 16 hours ahead of us in San Francisco during the winter months.  So now it is just after 4 a.m. on Thursday morning here and they're already nearly done with Thursday.  This is why we lose a whole day of our precious lives when we travel there, only gaining it back if we come home.  Try explaining that to an eight year old.   In any case, they've had their Thursday so they've had the day in which our potential already Skype-interviewed ayi had her interview with "the other family."

Our interview with her on Sunday evening went so-so.  My abysmal Mandarin was essentially no use at all, and LiLi was feeling shy and a bit weirded out by Skyping (though we did lots of it last summer and even after we came back to SF and left my niece still in China Skyping with her regularly), so luckily Lee Ayi's current employer though German also spoke enough English and Chinese to be the translator.  We left the Skype video on long enough so we could see each other, then turned it off so we could speak more fluidly.  Sometimes there's a delay and more garbling w the video on; audio alone works best.  I liked Lee Ayi a lot and got a great vibe.  Her current employer said that she's very bright, has the requisite (for being a homework helper) high school diploma, and has years and years of working for expat families.  When we discussed cooking for us, which is often part of an Ayi's duties, she was concerned that maybe we'd want her to cook Western food!  Apparently she worked for a family that didn't want her to cook Chinese food but preferred Italian or some such.  LiLi and I just laughed.  Really, the food in China is amazing, all over.  We went to a restaurant in Sichuan with my cousins and when my cousin asked what vegetables were available, they said: well, anything.  Because you order and they just go out to the market right there and get whatever veges, totally fresh, that you want.  Anyway, of course we want Chinese food when we're living in BJ.  I'm sure we'll want an occasional sandwich or pasta (or latte!), but those can be had there too.

So...When we last left Lee Ayi, she was going to decide between the two of our families after interviewing with the other family on Thursday.  The other family has a toddler and presumably needs regular morning hours, and we need mid- to late afternoon and evening/dinnertime hours which seem less desirable to someone who is commuting by bicycle and may have a husband at home.  (Yeah, I'll write about gender roles another time).  Oh, and Lee Ayi has a kid at University in BJ (a huge, huge deal).

And guess what?   She chose us!  Matching the other family's offer of slightly more per month for the 30 hour work week (about usd30) and our promise to help her find another gig when we leave.  We have an ayi!  Wow!  Double wow!  I'm so happy.

I have to say what I've said to some friends before that this whole move has required some kind of patience, a quieting the mind, or whatever the equivalent of faith, is from me.  Each of the really big things, LiLi's school, my job, this, has been suggested or hinted but then gone into a week or two of dormancy before coming to fruition.  I've had to resist the impulse to act on my mind's agitation around the not-knowing, stressing out about whatever it is when I don't have any control whatsoever (though I have to admit to sending a follow up email to Lee Ayi's current employer attempting to sell us...okay so I gave into the monkey-mind in this occasion).

I'm just hoping that the rest of the big items follow the same path.  A place to live!  A subtenant for home!

But here, now, we have our Ayi.  I'm so happy!!

A Job Posting (not mine)

I just saw this job posting.  Not for me b/c of the language requirements (though perhaps if I study very very hard for a year or two?) but maybe for someone else in my circle:


03 December 2011

The Big Things’ List

1.     LiLi’s school—Check [wired the tuition; it was received]

2.     My work---Check [signed the contract for contract work; it was received]

3.     Place to live---Still looking; realtor has gone silent on e-mail—where is she?; currently obsessed with subletting an apartment  listed on the Beijing Mamas yahoo group.  It’s in the wrong ‘hood but it has a roof deck.  The current owners want too long a commitment but it has a roof deck.  Also, it’s too expensive.  But it has a roof deck.  I can’t get the photos of the place and it’s wildly planted deck out of my mind.  It’s because otherwise BJ is so concrete and urban and lacking in outdoor space.  Anyway.  No place to live yet.  Been advised to just stay in a hotel or service apt. near school while looking.  

4.     Ayi---Still looking.  We are Skype interviewing (in Chinese; help!) a potential Ayi [babysitter, bus-meeter, homework helper, cleaner, shopper, cook] tomorrow afternoon.  Her current employers are moving out of BJ in January so the timing is perfect.  She has a high school diploma, too, which we were advised  by LiLi’s school was necessary in order to be a good homework helper.   The going rate is apparently around the equivalent of US$400/mo. for a 30 hour work week.  We likely won’t need that many hours but will probably pay for them anyway to secure a great, competent, reliable person, assuming we all click.   She’ll also need to be tremendously patient with me using a translator or the 8 year old to communicate through. 

5.     Renting our SF house—Still looking.  Last weekend I posted the house in several places and got a handful of queries.  Tomorrow, we have a pot’l tenant family coming over.  They’re renovating their own older home so we hope they’ll be patient with the many imperfections of our 111 year old house.  They’re also within our six degrees of separation since one parent teaches at a local law school and knows friends of ours.  Plus they have a daughter and so may love the glider, tunnel set, train set, doll house, etc, that we’re leaving behind.   I’m hopeful!

Unrelated to the Big Things’ List is this fun fact:  LiLi wore a tank top and skirt to pick out our Christmas tree yesterday.  Meanwhile, it was snowing in Beijing. 

01 December 2011

School Search, Beijing style

How do you find a school in Beijing where most of them are gigantic and intimidating even to adults, many look like US college campuses with large buildings, dorms, quads, AND you can’t read the websites?  

There are many, many choices for schools in a city as huge as BJ, even for foreigners.  Here is Beijingkids Magazine’s school guide.  http://www.beijing-kids.com/beijingkids-School-Guide-2011  (This mag is a fantastically useful resource for all things ex-pat-kid in BJ.) 

An American mom from LA who moved her three kids in September enrolled them in a local public school on the West side of Beijing in the District called Haidian. That’s where the big universities are, plus many of the Silicon Valley-like companies.  Some, not all, of the public schools accept foreigners.  Public schools aren’t free but they’re much more affordable than the privates.  Some of the privates—that apparently cater to expats who are funded by huge corporations like Chevron rather than totally un-funded moms like me --rival San Francisco private schools in tuition.  Like in the high 20k’s: http://www.beijing-kids.com/magazine/2011/02/24/Sticker-Shock

I have also heard good things about FangCaoDi http://www.fcd.com.cn/  and know of an American woman who lived in Beijing until her kid completed her schooling there, then came back to the States for college.  It’s taught under the Chinese Nat’l Curriculum and I’ve heard it is quite rigorous.  It accepts foreigners but it’s my understanding that the placement evaluations are only done once per year.  I may look into it if we decide to stay longer in BJ or if we’re unhappy with Daystar for some reason.  It’s a huge school and frankly intimidates me.  LiLi would probably be fine; it’s me who might be too timid for that school.

I mentioned earlier that when we were in BJ this past summer we met another family who also decided to move for their three kids' language acquisition.  That family did the research and field work and evaluated many BJ schools.  They settled upon Daystar Academy, a relatively small private non-profit school that has 2/3 native Mandarin speakers and 1/3 M learners from all over the rest of the globe.  Of the 2/3 native M speakers, 1/3 are what they call "Mainlanders" from China and 1/3 are native M speakers from other areas like Taiwan and Singapore.  The school teaches 50% Mandarin/ 50% English and the English side is taught Montessori style.  The Chinese half is taught under the Chinese National Curriculum (Renmin Jiaoyu Chubanshe).  A friend mentioned that those sounded like polar opposites and would be an interesting day for LiLi.  The school also focuses on character development and the “whole child” and that sounded like a good fit to me too.  Our friends reported that their kids are thriving there and that was enough for me.  I emailed the admissions director, downloaded and completed the application, wrote a page mostly about LiLi, got her teachers and tutors to do their recs, and had one Skype with the admissions director who, as it happened, was from the Bay Area.  After an exchange of a few emails and a couple of weeks, we were accepted.  I wired the tuition last week and we are in!   I feel tremendously fortunate and also relieved.