The Great Interview Experiment

Neil at “Citizen of the Month” is hosting a fabulous social experience he calls the Great Interview Experiment. I’m horribly delinquent in completing my part of the experiment.

Ironically, the person I’m responsible for interviewing lived for a time in Shanghai, China. Ironic because this post has been held hostage by my 2 week trip to China.
Without further ado, I would like to introduce Alecia of Hoobing Family Adventures!

I see that you’ve traveled extensively, including living in Shanghai for a while. Coincidentally, I’m heading to Shanghai on Monday (my 3rd trip). I’m spending the better part of 2 weeks in Kunshan (west of Shanghai). Where do you recommend I go for a memorable weekend of tourism?
The top of the Jin Mao building, Yi Cafe for dinner (awesome international buffet inside the Shangri-La in Pudong), gardens in Suzhou, take the ferry across the Huang Pu river (we liked to take the ferry over to the fabric market in Puxi as we lived in Pudong), KeJiGuan fake market (Science and Technology Center subway stop on Line 2), Little Sheep (Xiao Fe Yang) Hot Pot restaurant (located all around town), Yu Yuan gardens (go to the tea house in the center and walk the streets further away from the enclosed area to see where the locals shop), Xintiandi if you want the more westernized shopping experience. There are also a ton of really good European restaurants (French, Italian) if you are looking for that. I know, random, right? I would say Jin Mao, Little Sheep, Yu Yuan and KeJiGuan are the musts. Oh and the ferry. Very few foreigners take the ferry, it is a great experience. Let me know if you need directions or the Chinese characters for any of those to show the taxi driver.

Of all of your travels, what was your favorite place to live/visit? Why?
We loved living in Guadalajara. The weather is awesome and we were close to the beach and the Mexican people are so wonderful. In one year we visited the beach (Manzanillo or Puerto Vallarta) over fifteen times. We could have been tour guides, seriously. Mexico is not the safest place though. For that China was good…very safe, but not good weather and the culture is less inviting. We do love living in Boise too, but after a few years back here, we generally get anxious to live somewhere exotic/different again. We like change and learning new cultures. How is that for not exactly answering your question?

As for our favorite place to visit…Cambodia sticks out in my mind as the most amazing place we have ever been. With the temples everywhere, the monks in their vibrant orange robes, the absolute poverty coupled with a newly booming tourism industry, the place is like no other. Honestly we have been so many cool places, it is hard to choose one. The Maldives were absolutely incredible with island atolls and having to fly up to the island on a sea plane. And there are still so many other places we want to go.

What was your least favorite place to live/visit? Why?
Hmmm, least favorite. Almost every place has something endearing about it. Generally, we would not go to a place if it wasn’t compelling for some reason. After some thought, I would say my least favorite places to visit were the cities in China during holidays because there are way too many people. We had this experience in Hangzhou, Suzhou and the Yellow Mountains.

Also, despite the unique pieces to each Chinese city, after awhile, they all start to feel the same with the exception of their key landmarks. I enjoyed living in China but it would not be my first choice to go to live again…and my husband will not go back there to live (although with the awesome sailing club in Shanghai, I could probably talk him into it if the opportunity was right.)

Do you plan to take Belén, your precious daughter, on adventures to foreign lands? Why/Why not? If so, where’s the first place you plan to visit? (If I’ve missed that she’s already made such a trip, forgive my oversight…and please tell of her adventures.)
Absolutely. That is actually why I chose the name for our new blog. We plan to continue with the adventures. We are taking some time to let her grow out of her newborn state and build up the bank accounts a bit. We hope to have another child and then in time, we would like to take both of them on a sailing adventure for an extended period of time. Details to be determined, but this is our goal. Belén’s personality seems to fit very well with adventures, I hope #2 is the same. We will be taking her on her first big adventure next May to Puerto Vallarta. She has had her passport since she was six weeks old but it turns out she did not need it as soon as we were expecting due to the costs of having a baby and lack of time of due to an extended maternity leave.

How does parenting compare to your previous adventures?
I could take the cliché approach and say that it is the best. In reality it is, but that is not a fair answer. Andy and I were married eight years before we definitively decided to have kids and had Belén. We had so much fun in those eight years that having kids was actually a tough decision. We really liked our lives. We are spontaneous, not planners. Kids require more planning and make spontaneity more difficult. I think we are taking it in stride and plan to try and change as little as possible of our previous patterns while at the same time bringing Belén with us on our globe trotting adventures. She is only seven months old so more experienced parents are probably saying, “uh huh, ya right’ and maybe it won’t be possible, but that is what we would like.

Both Andy and I have adored every moment we have spent with our daughter. She absolutely changed our lives in every sense and deciding to be parents was the best decision we have ever made. I guess the point I am trying to make is that the parenting adventure is superb but the ideal situation will be when we can better couple the previous adventures we were having with the parenting adventure. I cannot wait to show Belén the world and I hope she gets to see much more than I have seen in my lifetime and I hope we will see a lot together. Nothing sounds better to me than that scenario!

Do you consider your dreams complete or are you still harboring a list of things you’d like to do before “slowing down”? If so, what are the top 3 items on your list of dreams?
Absolutely, positively not. I am not ready to settle into American life for good. And for the record, I don’t ever intend to slow down. 🙂 I actually started a list of things I wanted to accomplish in my life when I was in high school. I have already accomplished many of the key things (marry for love, run a marathon, live in another country for a year, become a manager, earn a Masters degree, visit Salzburg, obtain a patent, etc.) There are still quite a few things on that list, but I think my top three things are probably not on that list.

  1. I would like to either start my own business or find a job where I can use what I learned in my MBA to achieve something meaningful or be a full time blogger or writer :). Ideally whatever this turns out to be, it would be flexible such that I can see more of Belén and hypothetical baby #2 during the day.
  2. Write a book. I am scared, but I must do it!
  3. Travel around the world with my family for a year, ideally sailing for at least a portion of it.

If I had a #4 not including the travel, it would be my non-goal of doing an Ironman. I have tried really hard to not let this become a goal of mine because once I have a goal, I have to do it…but I am afraid it has crept on to my list.

There are also a million other places I want to see (France, Peru, Croatia, Turkey to name a few) and we would like to live abroad again. Oh I also want to perfect Spanish, and pick up another couple of probably romance languages.

Wow, it is exhausting talking so much about myself. I feel so incredibly selfish, but thanks for the opportunity! Enjoy your time near Shanghai. Zaijian!

I have to admit, I’ve fallen in love with the remarkable and inspiring Alecia. I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to know her better. Not just because of what’s she’s done, or what she’s yet to do – she’s got great travel tips! Thank you, Alecia!


Life Interrupted

A reality of traveling to China (or anywhere on the other side of the world) is that the trip doesn’t end upon arriving home. Jet lag is a souvenir that hangs around for a week or two then is gone, leaving only hazy memories of the days spent in a sleep-deprived stupor. I shouldn’t schedule anything important during the week following these overseas trips. I should just add a week to the trip agenda and pretend I’m still out of the country.

One thing that makes travel to China exceptional is that while in China, Facebook, Twitter and Blogger are all blocked (or at least, they were blocked from the hotel I was in). I could get to Blogger while in the factory, but that is because I had access to a secure network in Taiwan. But the connection was painfully slow. And I tended to be busy working when I was at the factory.

The nutshell is that I fell hopelessly behind and felt ridiculously out of touch when I got back to the States on Monday. And, I had to overcome jet lag. Jet lag and exhaustion. One symptom of jet lag is insomnia. It’s ironic that in fighting the time change (14 hours difference between there and here) our bodies fight sleep. I’m starting to get over the worst of it. Just in time for the holidays. Fortunately I’m not going into the office for 2 weeks so I can play “catch-up” on some things, like blogging.
I’ve been seriously delinquent with my participation in The Great Interview Experiment but today’s the day. I’m providing responses and preparing to post responses. Please stay tuned.

Adventures in Dining

In case you haven’t already picked up on this, I’m not averse to trying new things. If I’m feeling fickle, I know I can order chicken just about anywhere and be satisfied. If I’m feeling fine, there’s very little I won’t eat. During my travels to Malaysia I was told I was one of the few American’s they’d ever known to try chicken feet. I assured them I was familiar with po-man’s food. I maintain that boiled chicken feet is a dish for those with little else to eat. It shouldn’t be considered a delicacy. The foot is literally skin and bone. Whatever meat might exist is hardly worth the effort of parsing through the bones. I did, however, draw the line with the “Spare Parts” hot pot – another soup dish with, well…spare beef parts. By “spare” they mean “the parts that most people won’t eat”. In this case, I went with “most people”.

During my travels to China I’ve enjoyed dining at several buffets. Buffet dining offers the benefit of letting the diner check out a variety of dishes, picking and choosing at will. All of the dishes are (usually) labeled so the diner knows what they’re getting (such as Braised Seaslugs shown here, and “yes, I tried them”). Traveling with vegetarians and picky eaters has made me appreciate buffet dining even more, if only because my meal is not held up by the effort to find something on the menu which appeals to and appeases my companions. One alternative is to find a restaurant with dishes they like and then frequent the same restaurant. Another alternative is “family style” dining. This works well with Mandarin-speaking hosts who can order a variety of dishes and highlight which are vegetarian or spicy, etc. as the dishes arrive.

A common approach to dining is the “set” meal, with an appetizer, soup, main course, fruit, tea and dessert for each diner. Each patron can select a unique set of dishes for their meal. A variety of dishes are brought to the table and each diner can help themselves to whichever appeals to them. I think there are hybrids where the set meal can be family style or more like traditional American style (each person gets their own main course).

And even with our most seasoned hosts, there is still the occasional opportunity for the unexpected. On Tuesday we went to lunch at a local restaurant in Kunshan. The atmosphere was homey. There was a fireplace, bookshelves and magazine racks inviting the diner to get comfortable and stay a while. Two of my companions were picky – one a “meat and potatoes” man (he ordered steak and fried rice) and the other, a vegetarian (she ordered spicy tofu noodle soup with vegetables because, she said, it had turned out so well for her when we dined in Shanghai). Most of the ordering effort went into deciding what they wanted. My three other companions hail from Taiwan and they could read the menu. As noted, I’m not picky. I was asked “chicken or fish”? “Chicken.” “Is curry okay?” “Sounds fine.” And with that our orders were placed.

One of the first dishes to arrive was a fried fish dish. The expression on my hosts’ face was priceless. I wish I’d had my camera poised and ready, but unfortunately that opportunity was missed.

Here’s the dish.

Later I was told they were also surprised to learn that the meal was not a “set” so they were charged extra for my tea. Also, there were no free drink refills, so one of our guests’ refill was on the bill. And completely outside of anything I would notice (given that the entire exchange was in Mandarin) I was later told that the waitress’s communication skills were not very good.

Add to the list of surprises: our vegetarian’s request for “spicy tofu noodle soup with vegetables” resulted in two main courses (one dish with spicy tofu noodles and one dish of soup with vegetables) and our other guests’ request for steak with fried rice resulted in two main courses (steak and fried rice). The team’s assessment was that the ambience was nice, but the food was overpriced and the service was not good.

Room service occasionally brings its own surprises. One night this week, I ordered beef tenderloin which came with a side of fried mushrooms with butter, grilled potato chips and spaghetti.

I was most interested in the tenderloin. Good thing since the sides actually turned out to be grilled bell pepper, sliced zucchini and macaroni with ground beef.

Alternatively, today’s “box lunch” delivered to the factory turned out to be scrumptious fried dumplings and soup. Perfect for a cold wet December day.

And just like that, I missed Tuesday

We’re preparing to descend from 30,000 feet, to arrive in Taipei at 5:40 a.m. local time. I left Austin at 6:30pm Monday. Whenever I hear the phrase “time flies” I think about this journey from CST to China/Taipei time and back.

I’ll need to double check, but I think this leg took 14 hours. I slept some, ate dinner, watched a movie (The Orphan), slept some more, watched another movie (The Time Traveler’s Wife), slept some more, watched another movie (500 Days of Summer), then started the regrouping process. I changed into comfy pants for the long leg – more conducive for napping in cramped quarters. To prepare for landing I make a final trip to the lavatory to change and brush my teeth.

I’m still praying for folks, but my focus is a little more practical. Maybe because I’m tired. It’s not an excuse, but I confess that my prayers have included thoughts like “I pray for whoever is farting to stop” and “Lord, bless that woman. Her pacing and wild-eyed ways are worrisome.” And for the woman next to me. She seemed cranky from the start. And she slept for most of the trip.

I’ll be at the airport soon, hunting down a WiFi connection so I can log in and find out about the payment options my hubby’s investigating so that I don’t have to sleep in the park in Kunshan.

(Update from the airport – safely landed and am hanging out at my favorite “beer bar” drinking coffee and enjoying free wireless.)

The Joys of Traveling

As I give my husband and son farewell hugs and finally tear myself away from the comfort of their presence, a cold knot of anxiety forms in my stomach. I smile bravely and wave from the rope-course that is security’s introduction to their world. Like snaking through a line at an amusement park, but there is no ride at the end of this exercise. Just a serious looking TSA agent who approaches their inspection with as much rigor and enthusiasm as a CSI agent. I know I’ve forgotten something but I don’t know what. Not because I’m prescient but because I always forget something. I’m not too worried about it because I’ve learned that just about anything I need can be bought once I’m on the ground again.

About then I realize that my cell phone charger is in the bag I checked, and somehow my phone appears to need a charge. Didn’t I charge it last night? I’m sure I did, yet the low-battery icon is showing in the upper right corner of the display and its presence is an inarguable indication that my minutes will be limited. No worries. I’m getting to LAX too late to be chatty with the folks living in CST. I’ll just make a quick call to my darling letting him know I’m safe in LA. By the time I get to the Taipei airport I won’t be interested in using my local AT&T minutes or the overpriced international minutes. We can rely on e-mail or Instant Messaging during the layover. By the time I get to Shanghai I’ll have my China Mobile phone activated. (Note to self: need to give hubby China Mobile phone #). When I get to Kunshan I can plug my AT&T phone in and recharge it so it’s ready for the trip home…and I have almost 2 weeks to take care of that triviality.

The anxiety in my belly is inevitable because I’ve turned into a homebody and these trips always force me to accept that I’m not in control. There are so many factors at play that defy my will it’s humbling. I kinda like living my life under the pretense that I have some modicum of influence – don’t we all? Fortunately, I’ve committed myself to a prayer challenge as part of Advent this year, and as part of AirPrayer (check it out – a great ministry offered by a friend). I began to pray for everyone around me – fellow travelers, agents, airport employees…no one is exempt. I’m a praying fool. I feel peaceful as I allow my focus to shift from personal concerns to a general sense of wellbeing. I imagine prayer dust surrounding me like a cloud, spreading as I walk and talk and project good will at everyone in sight.

The flight to LA was uneventful. I finished a paperback and started another book. My seatmate had his headphones on and read the newspaper. Eventually he put his paper aside and became engrossed in his own book. I considered interrupted his flight to explain AirPrayer but in the end, I just went on spreading prayer dust. “God, bless this young man next to me. He seems to have a bit of a cough. I pray that he is well soon.”

I will say that I charmed the flight attendant through nothing more than apparent good will. There’s something to be said for the spreading of prayerful blessings. “God, bless this flight attendant.”

At LAX I get to disembark and leave the main terminal, walking over to the International terminal. There are an overwhelming number of people and languages and cultures and luggage. It’s crowded no matter the hour. As I enter I paused to appreciate the sights and sounds, and to send out a cloud of prayer dust. An agent at the door asked if I needed help. Maybe because I was one of the few anglo faces. Maybe because I had a stupid beatific look on my face. Either way, I smiled and said, “No, I’m fine,” and went on with my business.

I maneuvered through all of this with my new carry-on luggage (one wheeled suitcase and an uber-bag which holds my purse and laptop). As I waited in line to get my boarding pass I chatted with the traveler in line behind me. While chatting, I turned my phone on. And the silly thing got hung up so I turned it off. And it got stuck on that. So I pulled the battery out and put the battery back in. And my fellow traveler interrupted my consternation to point out that the next ticket agent was open. At which point my bag dumped over. As he tried to retrieve it my purse and sunglasses fell out. And so, I got to juggle bag, suitcase, sunglasses, purse, and passport.

And all of this isn’t the point of the story! Once inside the International terminal I sought out food. It’s well past dinner time and I’m hungry. I end up in the same overpriced, crowded restaurant I enjoyed 2 months ago. Perfect. I pick out a salad and order a glass of wine. As I go to pay I realize I have my trusty Discover card. No problem. But…I remember that on the last trip I brought hubby’s VISA card because, well…China doesn’t really seem to know about Discover. They know about VISA. Ruh roh.

Making a list and checking it twice

I wonder whether I’m avoiding work by making a list or avoiding a list by doing things. I have a lot left to do before I leave for China tomorrow. One of the things I need to do is to make a list for my husband…so he doesn’t forget the things he needs to do while I’m gone. Like mulch the flower beds. And feed the fish. The flower beds will survive but it won’t be good for the fish if he neglects them for 2 weeks. The man will clearly benefit from a list, don’t you think?

Meanwhile my to do list for today is only a few entries long. “Pack for China” was one of the big items. Below that was “refill shampoo, conditioner and face wash bottles”. I’m reminded of a great tip I learned from a friend, but forgot to follow today: Break down the projects into each task to avoid getting lost in the details.
“Pack for China” is too big of a task. I’m still working on that task. I should have made a complete list of everything that needs to go in the suitcase. Then I would know what was lacking as of this moment. Instead, I can tell you that my bedroom looks like the suitcase exploded – clothes and toiletries are strewn across the bed and floor.
I never finished making the list because I started tackling the project. I know better, yet I fell into this common trap. As I began to build the list I began to get anxious about how much I needed to do. Jumping into action helped relieve the anxiety – but that relief was superficial.
Sitting down and writing this post has reminded me that it’s better to take the time to plan. If I have time to write a post, I surely have time to finish writing the list of things to pack!
So, I’m going to revise my list to reflect everything that needs to go into the suitcase. Below that I’ll highlight things I need to do in order to pack (like restock the travel kit). Below that I’ll list the loose ends that need to be tied up before I leave my day-to-day world for 2 weeks (like some e-mails that need to be sent). Finally, I’ll start a list of things I need to purchase before I go (Pringles – a must, Pepto, …) And then I’ll get busy packing.
Are you a list-maker? No? What works for you?

A Walk in the Park…in Kunshan, China

In front of the Swissotel there’s a guy sitting on a bench, playing the saxophone.

Beside the hotel is a nice promenade where children and adults occasionally played with the pebbles and the running water.(I missed catching them in the act, but you may notice the water around the base – there was a lot of traffic in the water.)

Behind the hotel there’s a small ensemble playing in the beer garden. I could almost hear the music.

In the park behind the hotel, there was an area for Tai Chi or other arts of the East.

The waterway was peaceful. The art, interesting. The air, fresh. A nice break from the smog.

I enjoyed my walk. I enjoyed the peace and the solitude. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in the city of Kunshan.