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Still Surviving in Beijing

My family and I just returned from our first visit back to the US since we moved to China almost a year and a half ago. This was a somewhat unplanned trip, and our intention was simply to give our lungs a much-needed break and to restore some sanity after a bit of a tough year here.

Now that we’re back in Beijing and almost halfway through our term in China, I’ve been trying to gather some of my thoughts on our time here. Partly, this has led me to acknowledge just how behind I am on blog posts! There have been so many experiences I’ve wanted to share here — about our travels, encounters with local life and culture, recipe experimentations — but for some reason or another, I have just gotten stalled on them. I also haven’t quite figured out how to share more about everyday life here without turning this into an expat blog, and I’m hoping to find a way to do a little more of that.

Among the reasons I haven’t been writing as often as I’d like (besides wanting to spend more time with my son!) is that I’ve been down with sickness much more often this past year than I think I ever have been. Whether it was food poisoning (I don’t think I’d ever even gotten food poisoning in my life, despite all the questionable things I consume when traveling, but I was out for a full week earlier this year for no apparent reason), or asthmatic episodes (I also have no history of asthma but was hit with an episode right at the start of 2013, when the air pollution in Beijing made world news), or just constantly coming down with colds and terrible sinus infections. I also think many of the challenges of living here have put a strain on my psyche (I have become a total hypochondriac! And claustrophobic, among other things). The rest of my family remained fairly healthy — that is, up until this past summer, when our toddler began to show symptoms of asthma as well. I have to say that my already low spirits really plummeted at that point, and I had to ask myself why we were here, and more importantly, how could we have brought our baby here? It was hard on everyone to have to physically force our little one (he was not yet 2 then) to use an inhaler, even with the spacer tube for toddlers. Even though we have an upcoming trip scheduled to the US in the spring, we decided it would be worthwhile to take a break from China now.

View from our compound on a bad-air day in Beijing.

So E and I spent a little over five weeks in Portland, where both my and my husband’s families now live (my husband later joined us to spend Thanksgiving there). Neither of us have ever lived in Portland, but it has definitely become one of our favorite cities (coffee shops! bookstores! food carts! FRESH AIR!!). And coming from China, I just can’t think of a better landing place. It really felt like we were in an alternate universe at times — some otherworldly place where the entire city composts, the air is crisp, the tap water tastes good, there are bike lanes everywhere, and drivers actually stop for pedestrians not only at stop signs but pretty much any time you look like you’re trying to cross the street. (Side note: stop signs were one of my reverse culture-shock moments — I completely forgot they even existed and often waited for traffic to clear before crossing the street.) Indeed, I think Portland is considered somewhat of an enlightened place even for visitors from other parts of the US, so landing there right after 16 months in China truly felt like we were heading to another foreign country.

Fall in downtown Portland.

Among the liberating experiences upon arriving back on American soil was being able to get in a car and drive anywhere I wanted to go — not to mention that I knew just where to go for anything that I needed. (We haven’t gotten around to getting our driver’s licenses in China; it’s one of our priorities in 2014, and I’m sure it will be an interesting experience!) Another reverse culture-shock moment was seeing how people don’t use GPS systems anymore — they use their phones and attach them to these nifty little devices that hold them up in the car — how completely novel, right? :) I asked my husband, “Do you catch yourself thinking, ‘Oh, so that’s what people do these days,’ or ‘So this is what the outside world is like’?” :) I marveled at how cheap everything was (like plain, no-sugar Cheerios, which, when I finally managed to track it down in Beijing [at City Shop, if that helps anyone out there], cost about 10 USD a box). I went to Target every couple days and wished that I could buy everything (and bring it back with me to China!). We also went on walks and short hikes in the forests and spent lots of time with family and friends and had playdates all around the city. A dear friend of mine lent me her bike, and I was even able to slip out one morning before E saw me and take a short ride on one of the trails near my parents’ house. I savored the luxury of uncensored internet, not having to show ID every time I came home, and not living in a bugged compound where we sometimes find ourselves writing notes to each other.

All in all, I felt like a human being again!

Lower Macleay Trail in Portland

Yet at the same time, I’ve been trying to tell myself that many of these new experiences and realizations are one of the reasons why we wanted to live abroad. We still believe there’s meaningful work to be done here and enriching experiences to be had. The expat life can be so surreal at times. One moment you’re sitting down to a beautiful Italian meal deep in the back alleys of Beijing, and then in another moment you’re desperately trying to save every last precious Cheerio that your toddler spilled all over the kitchen floor. I find myself conflicted as to how exactly to share about our life in China at all, because it can by turns seem either ridiculously extravagant (like jetting off to Seoul for a few days) or woefully unreal (like questioning the safety of every imaginable thing).

Life in the hutongs (back alleys) of Beijing (as viewed from an Italian restaurant where my husband and I had an anniversary dinner).

For now, all we can really do is to try to take things as they come. Our intention has been to stay here for a 3-year term, and possibly even extend that stay. Now, we find ourselves saying, “let’s take it a year at a time,” or “let’s see how this winter goes” — if not even just “let’s see what the pollution is like tomorrow.” Indeed, the unpredictable air quality here means that when the air is suddenly good outside, we immediately drop all our plans (including potty training) and head outdoors for as long as we can. Just this past weekend, the air quality index hovered around 450 (for reference, 50 and below is considered good, and 500 is the top of the index), and then suddenly on Sunday night it started dipping down toward 50. So of course we ditched the rest of our stay-at-home plans, slapped a diaper on our kid (they say this negates your training efforts, but what can you do?), and went out for dinner, some errands, and a walk.

So this, dear readers, is some of what’s been transpiring between posts over here. Thanks for still sticking around and for reading thus far. Hopefully, over the next little while, I can fill in a bit more on other happenings that have taken place, like visiting more fish sauce factories, eating ramen anonymously, and thoroughly enjoying ourselves at the fresh farmer’s market in Portland. Stay tuned!

elijah’s red balloon birthday party

We are heading briefly back to Paris today in honor of this little guy…

That’s right, our little E is one year old today!

Usually I like to celebrate special days quietly, with just a few close friends. And when you move around a lot, it can be hard to gather even your really close people for those days, hence my history of semi-untraditional celebrations. With Elijah’s first birthday coming up, though, I found myself really wanting to do something special to mark the milestones of this past year. Since my sister the DIY queen was planning to visit in September, we thought it’d be fun to enlist her help in throwing an actual kids’ birthday party and inviting some of our Beijing friends who have kids close to E’s age.

Becca and I spent some time brainstorming what we could do in Beijing, given that we aren’t too familiar with what resources are available here. We also didn’t know whether the shipment of all my stuff would arrive before or after the party, so we needed to be flexible and creative in terms of supplies.

After tossing around some ideas, we decided to base the party theme on the classic French film, The Red Balloon. It’s a short film, with barely any dialogue, about a little boy in Paris who finds a red balloon that follows him around. He gets made fun of, excluded by various people, and even shunned for his balloon, but he never lets it go. It’s a simple, poignant story about childhood that can be appreciated on various levels. Plus, France has always been special to my husband and me (our wedding was inspired by another French children’s story), and we were glad to be able to share it with E earlier this year.

For the party, Becca did an amazing job capturing the spirit of a child’s imagination. (I knew I could count on her!) She created an invitation that was simple but fun and clever.

The childlike outlines on the invitation then served as inspiration for Becca’s wall sketches with black tape à la Harold and the Purple Crayon. This actually worked out really well, since we had a whole empty apartment at her disposal. (My stuff actually did arrive just before the party, so we were able to access a few more supplies in the end yet still work with a pretty much blank canvas of space.) You can read more about Becca’s creative process here.

For food, we decided a birthday brunch would fit perfectly in terms of baby schedules as well as the Parisian red balloon theme. So we put together a French-inspired menu…

(Click through links for recipes.)

Mimosas: We had a small little DIY mimosa bar with sparkling wine and orange, pink grapefruit, and pomegranate juice.

Vietnamese Coffee: I set up some French presses with a thermos of hot water and some condensed milk. I also set out my Earl Gray French Blue tea from Mariage Freres, as well as some Chinese jasmine, in case anyone preferred tea.

Quiches: These were the main dishes, and I ended up making three different kinds — a classic quiche lorraine, a broccoli quiche, and an onion tart. The broccoli quiche is actually a favorite of mine. It’s easy (especially if you buy a premade crust) and is always a big hit with guests. I especially like it with sharp cheddar. Sometimes I will make double and freeze the cooked broccoli and the grated cheese separately, so that I can put together a last-minute brunch just by mixing in the egg filling. I would’ve gladly bought premade frozen pie crusts this time, but I wasn’t able to find any (and when I did, it was ridiculously expensive), so I ended up making the crusts for these quiches. There’s a related story to that, so I’ll save the recipe for another post.

French Toast: This was the other main dish and another favorite of mine. I’ve made Talida‘s raspberry baked French toast many a time, and it also is a hit with guests. Truth be told, I make it even when nobody’s coming over. :) I love the caramelized bottom, as well as the aroma of the raspberries after they bake. I think it tastes amazing even without maple syrup.

We also laid out some slices of baguette with raspberry jam and nutella. And we cut up some watermelon and papaya as well.

Croque Monsieurs: Instead of making full-blown croque monsieurs, we decided to do something simple so that kids (and adults) could easily munch on these. So we basically just made grilled ham and Swiss-cheese sandwiches. And topped a few with cherry tomatoes to go with the theme.

Cheese Board: This included some Camembert, herbed goat, bleu, and a sharp white cheddar, as well as a few red round Babybels for the babies. :) Plus crackers, apple slices, and grapes.

At the last minute, we thought it’d be fun to include red hard-boiled eggs, which are usually reserved for a baby’s one-month-old party according to Chinese tradition, but it fit our red balloon and brunch themes so well (not to mention we are also in China) that we just couldn’t help adding these on.

Birthday Cake: My personal philosophy is that if I’m going to eat cake, it should be chocolate cake. I’m not typically a huge sweets person, but for some reason or other, I found myself loving chocolate cake when I was pregnant. At the time, my husband and I agreed that it was nearly impossible to determine what was a true pregnancy craving, given that I am often prone to whims of odd appetites at the slightest suggestion anyway. But if we were to pinpoint a pregnancy craving, it would have to be chocolate cake. For all these reasons, I decided to make this chocolate cake, minus the peanut butter frosting and chocolate glaze (I’ve done the whole thing before, and it is very intense but very good), just in case any kids should have any nut allergies. We paired that with a chocolate cream cheese frosting (I just added 4 oz. of melted unsweetened chocolate to that recipe). Because I only had one cake pan, and it was bigger than what was called for, I ended up having to make three layers (that is, 3x the recipe) for the cake not to look odd. It was a little crazy. In the end, I don’t know if I would call my cake effort a success, but it turned out fine for our purposes. Becca has more experience with birthday cakes, so she did the messy frosting. And we went with 12 candles — one for each month we survived. :)

Desserts: I made some chewy chocolate chip cookies, and we also set out some Pepperidge Farm strawberry Verona cookies and chocolate mint thins.

Favors: Lastly, we found some cute little Bonne Maman jams at Paris Baguette, a chain here in Beijing, which we gave out as favors.

I love how it all turned out! I think we adults might have had even more fun than the kids. But the kids look cuter, obviously. :)

I’m so thankful that we were able to mark Elijah’s first birthday in a special way. This past year for us has really been full of challenges, changes, and big transitions. I have to confess, at times I found myself longing to get to the next stage of E’s development (head control! napping for more than 30 minutes! SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT! — these last two did not happen until 7+ months). I wasn’t that familiar with the timeline for a baby’s development, and when I realized that for E to become a little more self-sufficient essentially meant for him to grow up, I really tried to savor each moment more. To be honest, I’ve been surprised to find myself more emotional over our little guy turning one than I expected. I think it may have something to do with how much he has changed just in the past few days. He suddenly can mimic things that we do and has picked up on a number of tricks we’d been trying to teach him for a while. We’ve been told from the very beginning that he has a lot of personality, and now we’re all the more delighted to see his personality grow. He’s really becoming a little person!

Here is our little E at 12 months, taken this morning. He can walk, blow kisses, wave bye-bye, and sometimes high-five. He eats everything I give him, including spinach, liver, and durian! (Really, sometimes he eats better than we do.) He has been to five countries and lived in two of them. And he speaks two languages: Baby and Monster.

Happy birthday, sweet Elijah! We love you!



Just wanted to post a little update after arriving in China four weeks ago. We’ve been in Shanghai for a little longer than intended, due to a couple unexpected complications and what my husband calls the molasses speed of the paperwork process we encountered. But! We are scheduled to head to Beijing this coming Tuesday, and I am relieved to be nearing the end.

I don’t know what it is… the first time I was in Shanghai, I was absolutely smitten with the city — the history, the sophistication, the friendliness of the people. All of that is still true, but I guess this time around I’ve been more exhausted. We moved three times in less than two weeks (and still haven’t arrived at our intended destination). The weather’s been typically hot and humid (though the air quality is much better here than in Beijing). And the addition of a baby this time, of course, complicates things a bit, including how much longer it’s taken to get over jet lag (he has, though, been quite good overall!).

All of which to say, I have done virtually nothing in Shanghai and consequently have hardly anything of interest to report back here.

We did, however, take the opportunity last weekend to go visit some DC friends who moved to Hangzhou last year. While we were heading out that way, we decided to take a little getaway trip for our anniversary (which happens to be today!) to the bamboo forests of Moganshan. More on Moganshan later, but here’s a bit on Hangzhou from our trip last weekend. [Link updated.]

There’s an old saying that goes, “In heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Hangzhou.” It’s purportedly one of the most beautiful cities in China. Given how industrialized most cities have become in China, though, I’m never quite sure what to expect. Perhaps that was for the best, because it allowed me to be pleasantly surprised by just how lovely Hangzhou actually is.

The city of Hangzhou is so refreshingly lush with trees and water. It actually smells naturey! Our friends Melanie and Brian took us on a nice long walk through their treelined university campus and on to West Lake and then back to their apartment.

To give you an idea how hot it was, here’s our poor little guy trying to stay cool.

On our way back, we stopped at Pur for dinner, a favorite of our friends’. We started with a carafe of lemonade that included lemon, calamansi lime, and passion fruit — a fragrant tropical drink that really hit the spot after a hot afternoon of walking.

Even little E seemed to be doing better (well, he had food but not lemonade :).

For the meal, we were eager to try some of our friends’ favorites — a cold pumpkin appetizer dish topped with parmesan, and tofu cubes in a nest of bread covered with tomato sauce. We also ordered a couple meat dishes, a claypot rice dish (bo jai fan), some stir-fried water spinach, and mango sorbet. It was all really well done and, what’s more, came to only about $8 (US) per person.

In the end, Hangzhou turned out to be just the break we needed: trees, water, fresh air, good food, and good friends!

Update (5/13/2013): The Hangzhou friends we visited tell me Pur is no longer what it was — skimpier portions and not quite as good food. Nevertheless, here are the details, and more (including a map) can be found in a review here.

Pur 朴墅餐厅
Qingzhiwu, 61 Yugu Road
Phone: 0571 8720 3383


I’m currently in the middle of a big move… to the other side of the world.

My husband’s work is sending us to Beijing for the next three years or so to cover news in China. I’ve always wanted to live abroad and to give our little E the chance to be immersed in another culture. So we’re both excited about this opportunity.

The past week has been full of craziness: We found a tenant for our apartment, amassed things we’ll need or just miss, had movers come and pack up most of our belongings, and today we sold our car.

We leave on Sunday for Shanghai, where we’ll be taking care of some official things before we head to Beijing.

In light of all this, I’ll be taking a short break from posting here, but I’m hoping to resume soon with lots to share as we embark on this new adventure. I also still have a few more France posts (hope you’re not sick of those yet!). And we hope to take advantage of our time in Asia to travel to various nearby countries. In fact, Becca and I will be joining our parents for 10 days in Saigon in September, which I’m super excited about!

In the meantime, if you’d like to follow along, you can find me on Instagram. Be back soon!