My Rectilinear Life


Dalian, China
December 11
US expat living in China. Another 40-something woman experiencing mid-life crisis, only this time in China, with dumplings.


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DECEMBER 11, 2009 1:01AM

Settling In - In China's Rust Belt

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It's a rainy afternoon here in Dong Bei Zhong Guo (Northeast China). Today is the birthday I share with my oldest daughter, Eleanor.  Eleanor gets a new Barbie and a Chinese Christmas outfit today. My birthday gift to myself is to hang around our dumpy efficiency apartment jamming to Neko Case, sipping tea, washing clothes, and doing nothing in particular.  We moved to China three weeks ago and every moment here has been filled with activity.  I'm exhausted from taking in new sites and learning new words, from helping my children adjust and from socializing with new and old friends who are also here.

But I am thoroughly happy.  Happy happy happy birthday to me.  Moving to China is the second best birthday gift I ever received (Eleanor is #1).  Life has generally turned in our favor since our arrival. 

We are here for my husband's job. His company provides a van and driver for us.  No one wants to end up in a Chinese court, least of all your average major international corporation. So we are not allowed to drive. This is just as well, because Chinese traffic is just as advertised: chaotic.  My Chinese friends tell me it is especially bad in our Northeast China city,  Dalian. My Chinese friends love to tell me what a backwater place Dalian is and I'm beginning to get a handle on the regional attitudes.   Shanghai is China's New York, Beijing is its Washington, D.C., or maybe Boston.  These cities' residents have a lot of hometown pride.

rust  China's Rust Belt

I've had a hard time identifying a single analogous American city, but Dalian is a bit like a cross between Detroit and Atlantic City with a dash of any large port city you might know and a pinch of any city hoping to ride the high-tech wave up to prosperity.  There are car engine factories, tractor factories, shipyards, software "parks," chemical plants, tourist beaches, golf courses, and a contingent of foreigners mostly from northeast Asia: Japanese, Korean, and Russian.  Bitter cold weather is approaching and the blue-collar feel is enhanced by a layer of icy snow over ubiquitous rusted-out metal.

shrinkageJimmy's face says, "Shrinkage!"

We love our driver, Qi Tong Lin.  He is trying to learn English and we are trying to learn Chinese and both sides are having fun. Yesterday I spent 30 delightful minutes explaining "Sheng Dan Lao Ren" to him.  "Sheng Dan Lao Ren" is the old man of Christmas, or Santa Claus.  We were laughing because my youngest was in the car and had no clue what we were talking about. I was telling him that Santa Claus only gives the gifts, I provide them. 

Chinese is my new secret language for discussing the kids in front of them, but hopefully not for long.  Hazel started preschool at a school which both non-Chinese and Chinese children are allowed to attend.  Hazel is the first American there.  She is fully immersed in the Chinese language and we hope she comes out fluent.  For now, she is clearly confused.  The other day, after picking her up from preschool, I was walking along, holding her sweet little hand.  "Mommy, what am I speaking?" she asked.  I suppressed a major guffaw and said, "Hazel, you're speaking English."

Hazel is actually our secret weapon for survival in China.  Everywhere we go, the women want to touch her, hold her, talk to her.  She's bearing up well under the pressure and we are working on teaching her to say, "Wo yao jiao zi." I want dumplings.  This phrase alone, uttered by our adorable little kid, could feed us for the next two years here.

woyaojiaozi   Hazel awaiting her jiao zi

One afternoon in a new favorite dumpling restaurant a man spotted my pale little American children and insisted on posing for a photo with us and with his daughters.  We all whipped out our camera and took photos.  Small steps in international diplomacy: acknowledging that each other's kids are cute.

  diplomacyInternational "ke ai de hai zi men" diplomacy 

Both girls are stifled in our temporary apartment.  Their only hobby recently has been fighting with each other.  We are supposed to move into a glamorous new high-rise any day, but the building suffers from that traditional Chinese problem: air quality problems. I suppose every chemical in the book is used in Chinese construction and our new apartment, while looking beautiful, smells like a glue store. 

Qi Tong Lin hanging in our fancy new apartment ... where we don't live ... yet

So we're in a one-bedroom efficiency in the Kerren Hotel. We get a maid and a breakfast buffet to help us deal with the constriction. The maid empties the washer every morning while I am dropping the kids at school, so I don't have to hang my own laundry.  But I do have to wait for it to dry.  I now know why it took jeans so many years to become popular in the third world.  Jim's jeans take 24 hours to dry and when they are all dry, I can stand them up without him in them.

  Hazel poses with the laundry
Lucky for us, the Kerren also provides free tea.
Mmm, kerren warmth

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expat living, china

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Sounds like a great adventure.
Remarkable! I admire your adventurous spirits. and I really appreciate your photos.
Keep us posted.

I assume you have central heat. To get the jeans to dry faster, place the drying rack over or under the vents. This will also help humidify the air in the apartment. Also, if you can, go out and buy another drying rack or two. The one you've got is overloaded and is why it's taking so long for your clothes to dry.

Hang your jeans with a skirt hanger with the clips fastened to the waistband. Remove any bunching and flatten out all the pockets.

Unsolicted advice from someone who dries clothing on a drying rack indoors in humid New Orleans. I can get a pair of jeans dry overnight if I hang them right and in the right place.
Wow! It sounds like you moved to Chinese Jacksonville!

It is REALLY cool to me that you are living in China. Please continue to keep us updated on your adventures!

(thumbified for kerren warmth)
What an exciting adventure! I'm still laughing at "Mommy, what am I speaking?" Thanks for giving me a glimpse of your life in China.
Good writing, keep them coming so we can follow you and your family.

Fabric softener can sometimes delay drying time, but your jeans will be softer. Another trick if you are hanging out in the apartment is to wiggle them. Before they are entirely dry move them around. Each time you go past, run your hand to shake/wiggle/move the items. The shaking trick won't get dryer soft results, but it will get slightly softer jeans.

When we were on a trip to Dubai, my daughter was 2 and her blonde cuteness attracted so much attention. Despite not knowing a word of Arabic, I recognized grandmotherly-type overtures to tot. My daughter found the ladies dressed head to toe in black with eyes barely visible through netting absolutely terrifying.

She's 12 now and when we went to Tunisia, men kept asking my husband how many camels she'd cost (as a bride). This was clearly a joke meant to compliment a father on his beautiful daughter. They were respectful of her youth and, in fact, I don't think she figured out that half the men from 15 to 30 had checked her out and found her desirable. She did not get any comments that made her uncomfortable (as any flirtatious attention from a strange man would do).
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about & seeing your new "home."
What a great experience, and as Jodi said--Cool!
What a wonderful account of your adventure so far. You have beautiful children. I really enjoyed your stories and the pictures. Thanks for sharing with us.
What a wonderful journey! I look forward to hearing more....xox
Wow, wicke cool! Love the stories and the pics nd look forawrd to more
(Belated) Happy Birthday!

What an engaging piece. Best of it all to you and your family.
I am so jealous. I lived for almost a year in China in 1986. I'm sure it's changed a lot in many ways, but from your photos I can see it remains in many ways the same. What an adventure for your family!

Gong xi, gong xi!

PS: love the pic with the uber-hip chung-guo de hai tzen; hau kuu ai!
Oh yeah: wo yao gay nee shuo - xi nien quai luh!!
Wow! What a wonderful adventure. I wish I was your cute little girl!
What a grand adventure for your whole family and a wonderful opportunity for your children to become truly fluent in a language that is so difficult to learn in adulthood. Looking forward to reading more.
Oh, you are so lucky you don't live in the coal belt.

Further note on clothes drying - when I lived in Japan, we had a bamboo pole and would slide through arm and leg holes of clothes instead of using a line. It is better than traditional clothes racks because the fabric doesn't rest against itself and allows for more circulation.
Happy Birthday and looking forward to more !
Great post! Loved hearing about your new life and hope you keep blogging it.

I'm glad you're not moving into your toxic new apt. I once worked in a building that did a spruce-up with new fabric-walled cubicles and new carpet and some other stuff. The whole office was sick for about 6 months and the people with existing respiratory conditions were the worst off. That stuff has to "out gas" for several months at least !!
Well, it is now Sunday morning and I'm sipping my cop of kerren warmth and reading all of your kind comments (and laundry tips, thanks!). We managed to celebrate our birthdays for two days and topped it off last night at a dinner party where several expats exchanged stories of getting massages here. The best was a big Texan dude telling about a tiny Chinese woman climbing all over him and twisting his limbs, then accidentally setting his foot and a towel on fire while attempting to "cup" his foot. Jim has now put "get a massage" on his "to do" list.
I loved this too and am looking forward to following future posts. And the "Mommy, what am I speaking?" line is priceless!
I really identified with your story of expat life with kids. I'm living abroad, in Canada, too... which doesn't sound as exotic, but is still different from home.
the wave of the future: immersing the kids in mandarin. it's an easy language for kids, simple and regular. they'll be your portable dictionary soon. have fun, and look both ways crossing the street.
I love your sense of adventure and come-what-may vibe. I went back and read all your "getting ready to move" posts and you've imbued me with a new sense of approach. Looking forward to more. My daughter is studying Mandarin in college and with luck will be in China this summer for eight weeks. Happy birthday!