China, In Review

Usually, I’m fairly responsible about my time management; I make sensible decisions, putting work and other obligations first. But this past Thursday night, I found myself still up at 2 AM–even with the start of my workday at the Consulate looming a mere 6 hours away–because I couldn’t tear myself away from a casual ladies’ night that brought together women from the Consulate ( a shoutout to our awesome hostess, if you’re reading!). I drank 3+ glasses of wine (amazing, since I’m usually a 1-glass-and-done kind of girl) and laughed until I had tears in my eyes… laughed harder than I have in months.

In the back of my mind, sensible Lauren was reminding me that I had to get home, that I still needed to shower and send off a bit of correspondence, that I had work in the morning. But I was having a desperately hard time prying myself away from the company. The women at the Consulate–Foreign Service officers and diplomatic spouses alike–come from incredibly diverse perspectives, experiences, and places. Occasionally, these differences cause conflict. But 95% of the time, I’m amazed by how lively, accepting, and kind our community is. Sitting there at 12:30 in the morning, trying not to wet my pants from giggling, I had two simultaneous thoughts running in the back of my mind:

“I can’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know these women, against all odds, despite the long distances we’ve had to travel to be here.”

And

“I can’t believe I have to say goodbye in two and a half months.”

My husband and I are both excited for our onward assignment to South America. Fascinating as China has been, we’re ready for a break. Chinese and American cultures are staggeringly different; over time, this can take its toll.

Still, I wouldn’t trade our years here for anything. And there are many things–especially our Consulate community–to which I’ll be sad to say goodbye. And so, riding the nostalgia wave initiated by Thursday’s girls’ night, I’ve been thinking about our China tour: what I did right, and what I’d revamp if given the chance:

3 Areas Where I Scored:

  1. Landing a job at the Consulate: I really hemmed and hawed over this decision. Because I fiercely protect my writing time, I was reluctant to sign up for a job that could intrude on that. I’d also never worked in a diplomatic environment before–I hadn’t the faintest clue what I was signing up for. Here, I owe our former management officer a word of thanks. Had it not been for his politely-persistent pushing–coupled with my compulsive need to please people–I probably would’ve given my current job a pass. But I’m so glad I didn’t! I’ve had the opportunity to do some amazing, sometimes-oddball things–like performing a survey of local luxury hotels to assess their handicap-accessibility for a wheelchair-bound VIP visitor to Chengdu. I’ve enjoyed contributing to the Consulate in my own right, not just as my husband’s wife. (Occasionally acting as arm candy is all well and good, but a two-year stretch of it is a bit much!) And I’ve worked with a cohesive, innovative team of Chinese and American staff who pull together daily to tackle difficult work in challenging circumstances. Bonus: I got to participate in a team-building exercise involving a 12-person group trying to keep a Chinese drum level enough that we could repeatedly bounce a tennis ball on its surface: a life-long dream I never knew I had.
  2. Hitting up the tailor: Much to my husband’s dismay, I’m a fan of the sartorial. Fairly early in our tour, our Chinese teacher hooked me up with an excellent tailor… and I’ve been returning ever since. (Probably a bit too often!) It’s addictive – the chance to select just the design you want, choosing the perfect fabric for your body, your coloring, as a compliment. Truly, the tailor is my version of “kid in a candy shop.” Which is probably why I just plopped down $550 for a custom 4-piece suit (vest, trousers, blazer, skirt). Gulp…. But although the awesome clothes are an excellent perk, tailor-trips also supply an unexpected extra benefit: female bonding-time. The best tailor visits are those where I have the company of my fellow-fashion addicts from the Consulate. We have diverse tastes and body-types, so that our selections wind up representing a rainbow of different colors, cuts, and designs. Yet we naturally work together as a team to help each person find just what suits her, just what she needs. No female cattiness here: just a lot of laughing and cheerleading. I’ve made solid friendships oohing and ahhing over bolts of tweed, silk, and crêpe de chine. And now I have a phenomenal wardrobe to help me remember every happy moment.
  3. Taking Time to Travel: While here, I’ve taken some amazing trips, both within and beyond China. I’ve shivered at a Chinese ice-festival near the Russo-Sino border. I’ve visited a tiger preserve. I’ve wandered through the muslim district in Xi’an, China, soaking in the incredible cultural exchange still taking place in that city, once the Chinese gateway to the Silk Road. I’ve drunk in the fairy-tale-esque beauty of the lakes and mountains of Jiuzhaigou, easily dubbable as the Yellowstone of China. I’ve hiked the Great Wall, gaining a new appreciation for the glute strength required of the Chinese soldiers who once patrolled that ancient fortress. Twice, my husband and I have had the pleasure of visiting Thailand. We hope to make a stop in Cambodia next month. Each excursion has provided much needed respite from our bustling Chinese hometown of Chengdu. But they have also truly been trips of a life-time… adventures I never imagined I would experience.

3 Areas Where I Could Use a Mulligan:

  1. Practicing my Mandarin: When my parents came to visit, my dad made a point of telling me how important it was to fully avail myself of this language immersion opportunity. He urged me to study, to practice dialoguing with local people as much as I could. I nodded with the vigor of a bobble-head doll, wholeheartedly agreeing, making mental vows to carve out an hour each Sunday to study. My oath was a sincere one. And I’ve reiterated it to myself many times. But somehow, that Sunday study hour never happens. As a result, I’m leaving here without the fluency I might’ve had. I have decent survival Chinese. This is hard to remember when I’m surrounded by U.S. diplomats with brilliant Mandarin, but I probably speak better Chinese than 90% of non-Chinese Americans, so from that angle, I’m not doing so badly. I can navigate a market and negotiate prices. I can survive a visit to the tailor if I have the help of visual aids like photographs and textile samples. I can order food and direct a cab and even express frustration–“Hey, there’s a line!”–or express regret–“Sorry, I forgot!” But I can’t count the times I’ve been conversing with someone in Chinese and had my head go blank when I reached for a word I needed, fully aware that I’d learned that word once upon a time… I just hadn’t retained it because I never studied.That kind of moment is embarrassing. And worse, it feels wasteful when I’ve had weekly Chinese lessons and more opportunities than I can count to practice with native speakers. The good news: it’s Sunday morning here, and it’s not too late to make good on my Sunday Study Time vow.
  2. Made More Time for Girl-Time: As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I can get pretty hyper-focused on my work list, especially as I’m trying to balance two jobs. Most of the time, I’m happy enough with this arrangement. I’m highly motivated by meeting goals, and it’s important to me to get in those 2 hours of writing, that 1 hour of painting. But I can definitely become unbalanced in this area, leading to loneliness, especially when my usual social circle is far away in the U.S. of A. But I have no excuse for staying lonely, given the awesome group of female friends at my fingertips right here in Chengdu. Lately, I’ve been striving to make more time for the social stuff–setting semi-weekly lunch dates with a friend, snatching up unexpected dinner invites, staying up past midnight on a work night for a chocolate-and-wine-centric girls’ night (just for a random example.) I only wish I’d made a point of this sooner.
  3. Taking MORE Time to Travel: This is a tough one, because I don’t want to forget to be grateful for the traveling I have gotten to do. But before we arrived at Post, I had dreams of working in visits to Australia and Japan and Hong Kong, too. Foolishly (so foolishly!), I passed up the chance to accompany my husband on a business trip to South Korea. Of course, living the Foreign Service life means having lots of unexpected opportunities–we may well live in Asia again someday. But one never knows; this could be our only time in this part of the world. So I wish I’d carved out the necessary time from our busy daily lives to plan those getaways. Then again, perhaps this is just the excuse we need to start planning our Asian-destination getaway when we’re ready for a break from South America’s rainforests and monsoon-seasons….

So in conclusion, yes, I have a few regrets regarding our tour here. But honestly? I had a harder time coming up with things to lament than I did things to celebrate.

I’m pretty sure that counts as a victory.

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4 thoughts on “China, In Review

  1. I just wanted to drop by and say hi. We were in Chengdu from 2012-2014 (I was CLO) and loved it! I love the community there and still miss the friends that I made during those two wonderful years.

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  2. Our brief trip to China to visit was absolutely stunning because it is so vastly different culturally, from the USA.
    I never had any desire to visit China, and I am so glad I did. I’m also very happy to have purchase some paintings there as I will always have regular reminders of our time there.
    I definitely clearly remember being shocked by the physical demands of even walking briefly on the Great Wall!
    Those soldiers were athletes in the truest sense of the word!

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