My first week in Nanjing


I'll start at the end of my trip, with a delightful young Chinese bellhop squatting down and playing with my son's hands in his stroller. We were on our way out of the hotel to the airport, going home. He was legitimately happy to see my son. (This was very common in China: men, women, all ages, all wanted to talk to my son, take his photo, take a photo with him, etc. Yes, he's white, which is considered exotic, which is funny to me, I certainly don't feel exotic. I will definitely be writing a post on my experiences as a minority in China, but I really also get the impression that they love babies, period.)

"I love babies!" he said, almost apologetically, like he knew he should be working, or he thought perhaps I'd want my son to myself, or something. But he just couldn't help himself. He continued to make this tongue-clicking sound (like their version of coochie-coo) every Chinese person seemed to make at babies, and ask me questions about my family.

"I have a baby sister, I babysit her all the time." It wasn't clear if this was present or in the past. He pressed, "Is this your first baby?"

"No, my third. He has an older sister and an older brother."

He smiled like I just told him Howard lived in a house made of gold, "Oh yeah? Wow! He's the most happy guy!" he gushed. Beijing has only recently loosened the one-child policy, so a family of three is a bit rare.

He's the most happy guy. I have been repeating this phrase over and over in my mind since leaving Nanjing. He also said it about Mike, that Mike is a good babysitter and that he is the most happy guy because he has such a big family.

I think this phrase, and this young man's sentiment captures so much about what I learned about Chinese culture in my very short week in China. The Chinese love family - it is critically important to them. This love is built into many aspects of their culture, most notably to me in the family-style nature of meals. You do not order a meal for yourself. You, along with others at your table, order some dishes, and you eat them all together, sharing plates, no worries about double-dipping your chopsticks, (or if you're worried, too bad, it's just what's done!) In other words, it doesn't really work to eat alone. Generally you are served too much food, and the dishes have no sides, so if you wanted to order "sides" you would get multiple heaping plates and absolutely have to share them with someone else.

When we visited a daycare, I was amazed by the fact there were as many family members of the children as there were employees to care for them. The grandparents come to daycare to hang out with their grandkids whenever they want. I found that wonderfully sweet (if not a tad confusing - I kept asking the daycare owner who all the people were, why they were there, if we were required to be there for certain times or something...) At the hotel buffet, a young girl in her 20's was serving her father or grandfather breakfast in the buffet line - he looked capable of doing it himself, but I got the sense she was serving him his food out of respect. (I could be wrong about that.) At a dance performance at the Nanjing University of the Arts I was heartened to see very young kids and very old grandparents all attending the performances together. You see this everywhere. People are everywhere.

So, how was it?
Overall? Amazing! Exhausting! Scary! Fun! Every emotion and experience I've ever had in my entire life was experienced in one week. I truly believe this is the taste of what the next 3 years will hold. A very wild, very interesting, very fulfilling ride.

What was the food like? 
I could write a post about the food alone, but here goes. The food was indescribably delicious. I ate everything I was served and tried to be open-minded. Our first night in the hotel we were both still wide awake at midnight and called room service for a giant, spicy and piping hot, ceramic bowlful of beef with noodles with chilis and cilantro.

Within the first 24 hours of arriving in China I (perhaps stupidly) ignored the warnings of my travel doctor: "don't eat street food and don't eat any raw vegetables, especially salads." But the sights and smells of the food were too alluring! I have become hopelessly addicted to pai huang gua (smashed cucumber salad), which I cannot yet approximate at home. It's simply cut up, smashed (I know!) cucumbers, with lots of garlic, liberal amounts of oil, and what I can only imagine is Chinese magic because there are only 3 ingredients to this thing and I cannot seem make it taste the same myself. The garlic is always too strong. Maybe sugar? I don't know! It's amazing though.

I ate a meal from one of the favorite street vendors of the Nanjing University of the Arts students: ji dan bing. Imagine a spicy cabbage omelet wrapped in a flaky, oily bun smothered with a rich, thick red chili paste, piping hot, smashed in half into a tiny, ultra-thin plastic bag that by some miracle didn't melt from the heat off the food cart. I was wary. Egg and cabbage? Was this cooked in gutter oil? But I was starving, jet-lagged, and several young women from the University were staring at me eager to taste it. I kept telling them it was too hot, and it was! Furthermore, we were making a spectacle of ourselves and I just wanted eyes off of me. We had held up traffic for several minutes as Mike needed to detach our car seat from our van, haul it onto the street and attach it to a trolley so we could walk around with the baby, while I stood there with him strapped to my person in a carrier looking terrified, I'm sure. We may have been one of the most bizarre things some of these people had ever seen. There might be pictures of our harried faces and our laowei baby on Weibo somewhere. Anyway. The ji dan bing was delicious. I could eat one every day, gutter oil or not. The rest of the week I kept asking Tess, our tour guide, if I could have another bing and she kept thinking I was asking for beans. It was a confusing time.

Our hotel had a breakfast buffet filled with both Chinese and Western fare. I dove right in to the noodle bowl stand and didn't look back. (Okay, I admit I did try an American-looking pancake one morning, and it was filled with spicy chili paste! Yes! I love that something weird like that happened like everyone told me it would and I was still totally fooled!)

But nooooodles. I think I had a noodle bowl for breakfast and dinner every day. (Lunch was always some kind of adventure with our tour guide, Tess, who took us to some of her favorite spots which all served dumplings...which I'll get to in a second). There is nothing more satisfying than a piping hot bowl of noodles in a light, fragrant broth filled with blanched veggies, maybe some seafood, and a smattering of sauces, condiments and always fresh cilantro. Mmmmm. And dried shrimp. Dried shrimp are something I'd never had and they are basically like crunchy, salty flakes of shrimpy goodness. I don't know how else to describe them, and their little black eyes staring at me didn't deter my enjoyment in the least. Slurp slurp. I also finally discovered why the slurping. (It cools the soup as you slurp, duh!) It's so pragmatic and I now slurp with gusto (though Mike protests at how quickly I've adapted. Heh.)

I have never tasted anything like the dumplings in China. My favorites were from this little hole in the wall place near where our new home will be (yay, clearly I'll be eating there daily) where we got at least 4 varieties of dumplings that were all different and all delicious. My favorite was the pine nut and corn dumpling. First of all, at least I have never thought of those ingredients together in Chinese food, but they were delicious! There was a spinach-filling dumpling, a pork and cumin filled dumpling, and some other kind I don't know what it was but it was also delicious. They dip the dumplings in vinegar and this chili seed and oil stuff that is everywhere and I have been craving like mad since being home. I have returned to our local market that I used to think had "the good Asian food section" and have been super disappointed. However, our Chinese teacher said a new Chinese super market with a little restaurant inside just opened in Madison Heights where the Michael's used to be. I'm going to head there soon.

Other things about the food - I'm still really concerned about the general safety of the food - and not from a food poisoning standpoint, since we didn't get sick and pretty much broke all the "rules" of what not to eat in China, but from a general pollution and chemical-laden-ness standpoint. I will probably be getting all our food from the giant Metro or Carrefour stores (German and French owned, respectively) which are like the Costcos of China, just to be safe. But I will definitely not turn down local fare from time to time - and my dream is to find some cooking classes to take so I can make this stuff at home and then start a food truck when I return to the States one day. :D

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about my first scone in China! It was okay! It was from a Russian bakery in a Chinese shopping mall. :D

Was it polluted?
Yes. It's really, really bad. The sky is gray. There is no sun. I would wake in the morning with dry, red eyes, difficulty breathing (in a "I feel like I spent last night in a smoky bar" way). Howard developed a bit of a wheeze within a few days. (I know, I know, I totally freaked out.) That said, we were out and about every day because we had to be for this one week. This is not normally how we'll spend our days. Coco's school is like a fortress of purified air, and I have decided to homeschool Milan so our home will also have air filters in each room. Needless to say I will be obsessed about this and will take every possible precaution to protect myself and my family.

We have spoken with several doctors (and rely heavily on information from this well researched, evidence-based site about pollution and living in China by a doctor who lives in Beijing which is the worst city in China for pollution) who have assured us that as long as we aren't outside performing strenuous exercise all the time, then there is very little likelihood we will suffer long term health problems from the pollution, but that's not a reason not to be careful, especially with such young kids.

Did you find a house?
Yes! Phew! We had to find a place to live in 4 days. In China. We saw some opulent options with 5 bedrooms and 5 baths dripping in marble and gold that were too much for us. And we saw stuff that is still making my skin crawl. So when we were shown a totally empty shell of a townhouse that could be finished with our input, in the area of the city (population 8 million!) that we preferred, we jumped at the chance. Our home should be done in September, and we move in July. We'll be living in temporary Residence Inn-style housing until it is done. I'm hoping this all turns out OK. We visited the home of another renter with the same landlord, and it was very nice. Once we are there and settled I will definitely post pictures!

Do you like the schools?
To say I like the schools would be an understatement. Both main options for schooling were mind-blowingly wonderful. Both had happy students, very happy families, very happy teachers, incredible facilities. It is clear the international communities in China are robust (and happy! this is one impression I was struck by over and over...) So, I'm incredibly excited for C's school to commence: the Nanjing International School, which is an International Baccalaureate (IB) school. The benefit of an IB school is that no matter where we live in the future, we would be able to maintain continuity in her curriculum. We have no idea what our futures will hold in this regard, but we are open to anything! (Obviously, lol.) She will have amenities available to her in Kindergarten which I didn't even have in college, so I'm slightly jealous and want to go to school with her!

We did find some good options for Milan, but we still had some concerns over air pollution (that is, the schools do not have strict air quality management policies) that were deal-breakers for us. I will be homeschooling him for the next two years, which will be its own exciting adventure, so stayed tuned for that! And Howard? Well, he's just going to bobble around like he always does. There are a couple of mom-baby groups I was told about, so I'm sure we'll find great activities for all the kids in and out of school.

Anyone who knows me also knows I have a voracious appetite for doing new things (maybe not always finishing them, ha!) so I have fantasized about a wide variety of things I might like to try, as well as lend my talents or skills to participate in my new community in different ways - whether it's music, finance, cooking, gardening, whatever! The international community seems so super welcoming and diverse and there will constantly be things to do if we want!

To this point, Facebook and the pioneering families already living in Nanjing have been an amazing resource. Imagine being in a city in China where you are feeling lost and disoriented and two women shouting your name like they are your best friends from across the room. This is the magic of Facebook and online communities - one of the women I had friended online and she recognized me at the tour of Coco's school. We all grabbed sushi together that same day and they both offered their advice and assurance about how things would go. What a balm for my soul!

How's your Mandarin coming along?
I'm really excited to learn Mandarin, but have serious concerns about my ability to do so. Apparently Chinese teachers are very complimentary, and when they say, "Your pronunciation is perfect!" What they really mean is, "You are trying very hard and that is the most important part!" I was unintelligible with my few phrases out and about, even with our tour guide/translator, hence the whole bing/bean situation. I know that I will have to do some immersion-style learning or it's just not going to work. I hope I can really push myself to learn beyond survival Mandarin! I think taking some cooking classes will help with this too - I'm going to be really motivated to learn how to talk about food. :)

Are you crazy?
I have thought about this a lot. I realize that when I say things like, "I'm building a house in China." Or simply, "I'm moving to China." People look at me like I'm an alien and I have to remember I'm doing something most people consider a tad extreme. When they find out I have three kids they really question my judgement.

I will say this: for as long as I've known Mike he has talked about this possibility of an international rotation and I've always hypothetically said, "Yes." It's been marinating in my brain for at least a decade, and he's always revisited the topic with me. So when the real question was popped, I said, "Yes, but I have to see it first."

I will admit, there was a point on our first day when I very seriously questioned our decision to move our family to China. I was literally standing on the side of a road as busy as Woodward Avenue, holding Howard in my arms, waiting for a cab that actually had seatbelts so we could install the car seat we were crazily lugging all over the place (which no one could fathom why we needed and kept asking if we would just drive a few minutes without it) and it dawned on me that maybe standing on the side of the highway was more dangerous than not using a car seat and as I turned around to find a safer place to stand, I was nearly run down by piles of families on scooters in the scooter lane adjacent to the highway.

This was a very low point for me.

But I'm just glad it happened the first day because what I encountered over the next several days was great - I met some wonderful people with whom I hope to connect more over the next several years, ate great food, saw amazing things, and had a chance to envision my life in Nanjing which I can say will be a delightful challenge.

What else?
I don't know. I can't think right now. I'm just now getting over my jet lag and some kind of nasty flu-like cold that has run through every family member. I will post more at some point, I'm sure. Post some photos once I can upload them. Any questions?


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