Sponsor Somebody; It Makes a Big Difference

When an officer and family arrive at their new post, another officer that’s been at post for a while is assigned to be the new officer’s “social sponsor”.  (There’s also a work sponsor, but I know little about that)  The social sponsor is responsible for several things, including meeting the new officer at the airport, showing them around their new home and neighborhood, setting up their new home’s welcome kit, and corresponding before the new officer’s arrival, to answer any questions they might have.

Recently, Diplowife and I volunteered to be a new family’s social sponsors.  We had already met the new officer, back at FSI before we moved to Shenyang, but his family was new to us.  We sent some emails back and forth with him before they arrived at post, he had some questions about using VPNs in China, arranging to buy some IKEA furniture and having it delivered, and scheduling us picking up the family at the airport.

Our correspondence was similar to Diplowife’s and my emails to our own sponsors last winter.  I had questions about VPN/Internet stuff, what to put in our consumables, and using a Roku in China.  Diplowife wanted pics of our new apartment, mainly.  And, of course, arranging for our airport pickup.  Even if there’s nothing important to discuss, I found it helpful to talk with somebody already at post, it helped with my anxieties about moving someplace so unfamiliar.

Before you head to post, you fill out a checklist of groceries that your sponsor will buy and have in your home.  Nothing unusual for an American kitchen, stuff like milk, bread, eggs, etc.  So basically you can get home and have something to eat without going back outside again.  Plus you have the option for your sponsor to take you and your family out to dinner and/or leave a ready-to-eat meal in your refrigerator.  I’ve done this several times now; I like to make a one-pot chicken and rice dish that makes enough for the new family and enough leftovers for Diplowife and me.

Sometimes there’s the “welcome kit” to deal with too.  This consists of an assortment of silverware, coffee maker, toaster, dishes and stuff like that.  It might include a vacuum cleaner, bed linens, towels, it depends on where you live.  The family we sponsored is in a hotel that supplies all these things, so there was nothing for me to do.  But our home is in a different building that doesn’t supply it, so our sponsor had the welcome kit to unpack for us.

The day you arrive at post, your sponsor should meet you at the airport, along with transportation to your new home.  Our sponsor also brought along a local staffer from the Consulate, who helped us get our cat into China.  Make sure your let your sponsor know how much luggage you have, we needed two big vans to get all of our sponsee’s family and their stuff home.

After arriving home, and getting everybody settled, (and after sleeping a while, probably) you’ll want to take your sponsee and family around the neighborhood and show them around.  Let them know the important nearby streets and landmarks (important when telling your taxi driver where to go!), where the good grocery stores are, and anything else they’re curious about.  Don’t rush them, let them ask questions, or not.  You may need to leave them a map afterwards if they had trouble getting their bearings.

It’s a good system, overall.  I was very nervous about moving to China, and having somebody there to meet us and guide us through the first couple days helped a lot.  I hope we helped our sponsee and his family in the same way.  Please pay it forward and sponsor somebody else when you’ve been at post for a few months and feel comfortable with it.

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Black Tie and You

The Shenyang Consulate had its annual Marine Corps Ball last weekend, and Diplowife and I attended.  We were excited about going to our first State Department fancy ball, and to support our Marines.  And we had a great time, the food was catered by a local luxury hotel, there was dancing, and they had a lovely ceremony covering the history of the Marines and their relationship to the State Department, and of course, cutting the cake with a sword.

The problem (as I saw it) was the horrible way most of Diplowife’s male colleagues dressed for the event.  The tickets clearly specified “Black Tie”, and most of their outfits did not remotely qualify.  Now, you may call me a snob, but I don’t think it’s right to show up to a black tie event and dress inappropriately.  They make good money, and they should buy a proper tuxedo and learn how to wear it.  The women looked great and probably spent good money on their hair and makeup, so what was the mens’ excuse?

So, in the interest of averting any future embarrassments for my male readers, I want to go over the basics for what “black tie” is, and is not:

1. “Black Tie” means TUXEDO.  Not a black business suit, or some other color suit with a black tie.  A tuxedo is a special kind of suit, and it’s just for black tie events.  Tuxedos come in many varieties, but here are some bare minimums: black (or midnight blue), decorative lapels (usually satin or textured grosgrain), a single button closure, no vents, and a satin stripe up the outside of each pant leg.  Some tuxedos have notched lapels, but it should be peaked or shawl lapels.

2. A proper tuxedo shirt is required.  That’s a white dress shirt with either a pleated front, or a pique-textured front, french cuffs, and holes for shirt studs down the front.  Get a matching set of studs and cuff links.  I admit, I wore my State Department cuff links but my shirt studs were legit.

3. Black dress socks, shiny black dress shoes (preferably without laces, NOT loafers or brogues), and suspenders holding your pants up.  Note: if you’re shopping for a tuxedo and the pants have belt loops, run away.

4.  Waist covering.  Either a cummerbund or a waistcoat (vest).  The stores that sell tuxedos should have cummerbunds for sale, the material should match your tie, and colored black.  Waistcoats are less common, but are a fine alternative.  Tuxedo waistcoats are not like the vest from a 3-piece suit, they only come up to around your navel, so your shirt studs are visible.  Your waistcoat shouldn’t be visible when your jacket is buttoned.   The waist covering should cover the normal buttons at the bottom of your shirt, along with the top of your pants, and your suspender fasteners.  Note: no waist covering is needed if your jacket is double-breasted.

5. BLACK TIE.  OK, maybe this is obvious to most people but just in case: wear a black bow tie.  And I’m talking about a real bow tie, not the pre-tied kind, which look horrible.  Learn to tie one, there are many instructional videos on YouTube.

Additional things to avoid: matching novelty vest/cummerbund and bow tie sets, black neckties, unpolished shoes, silly socks, sport watches or bracelets.

And don’t stand off to the side of the dance floor while your wife dances alone.  That’s not cool either.

More info here, this site helped me a lot: http://www.blacktieguide.com/

 

We caught a glimpse of civilization

In a lot of ways, Shenyang represents (I’m told), the “old China”.  Less influence from the West, more “authentic”.  I guess so, but along with that come a lot of stuff that’s not very pleasant.  People here spit a lot.  The drivers are reckless, honk all the time, and ignore crosswalks.   Public drunkenness is not uncommon.  Gross odors are the norm outside.  I thought I was getting used to this place, then we took a weekend trip out of town.

Memorial Day weekend coincided with Dragonboat Festival this year, so we had 4-day weekend on our hands.  Shenyang is only 4-5 hours from Beijing, so we headed down for a stay in the capital.  One of Diplowife’s friends offered us her apartment, near the Embassy, so we could see how the FSO’s down there live.  Pretty well, as it turned out.

The train down to Beijing was surprisingly nice.  The Shenyang train station is fairly new and modern, not too crowded the day we left.  The train itself was OK, not too fast, but we opted to not pay for the extra-fast train.  Scenery between Shenyang and Beijing was mostly nondescript at first, but eventually the flat plains gave way to pretty mountains in the distance.  Mountains were an everyday part of the scenery back in Seattle, and it’s funny how their absence in Shenyang (and Maryland) bothers me.

We arrived in Beijing and made our way to Diplowife’s friend’s place.  She lives about a block from the US Embassy, in an apartment about the same size as ours, but much more modern and well-appointed.  She has two balconies and a sun room, with just a single neighbor on her floor.  Her couch is really uncomfortable, so we’ve got the advantage there.

Within a three block radius of the Embassy and the apartment are a really nice bakery, the Kempinsky Hotel (with its amazing German brunch), a big array of nice restaurants (including a respectable BBQ joint), a luxury supermarket and who knows what else.  The sidewalks are wide and hole-free, for the most part.  There’s a subway station near the bakery that connects to a highly developed transit system.  Our first impression of the US Embassy’s neighborhood of Beijing was very good, in other words.

It gets better.  We took the subway to the middle of town and walked around some of the old “hutong” houses, many of which have been converted into shops and restaurants.  Within moments, we find a craft brewery full of expats.  There was an ice cream stand (it was closed, but bear with me).  There was a beautiful Tibetan temple that we explored.  Lots of expats were walking around and nobody was spitting or honking.  We went on a terrific tour of several restaurants in the area.  The next day, we saw the Forbidden City and parts surrounding it.  Then we saw more hutongs and explored a big shopping district.

You get the idea.  Beijing is a world-class city, and it makes Shenyang look like a provincial collection of tarpaper-roofed shacks.  Anything we wanted was available in Beijing, even pretty-good beer.  We got back to Shenyang on the fourth day, and it was immediately clear where we were.  Sidewalks, if they existed, were a mess of holes and cars.  Bad smells galore.  Honking, so much honking.  It felt a little bad to come home after seeing how Diplowife’s colleagues live.  On the other hand, if we can make it in Shenyang, a second Chinese tour will be easy.

What’s in your consumables?

Shenyang is a “consumables” post, so Diplowife and I are allowed two shipments of consumables over the next two years.  The first was done as part of our pack-out, and arrived at the same time as our HHE.  We’ll probably do the second one about a year into her tour, like next March.  (Consumables are anything that gets used up, like food, alcohol, grooming products, cleaning products, etc.)

Shenyang is a consumables post, for various reasons.  Presumably it’s because certain products are more difficult to obtain here than in other, more developed places.  For example, the next city over, Beijing, is not a consumables post.  Beijing, as I found out when I visited recently, a world-class city unlike Shenyang which is a bit of a backwater.  However, all posts have access to Amazon.com and other Internet/mail-order retailers.  I’ve ordered a lot from Amazon and others over the last few months.  Some of which could have been shipped with our consumables, if I had thought to include them at the time, other stuff were things we needed that just aren’t for sale here.  Point is, your consumables don’t have to only be things that you can’t buy locally, they should be things that can’t be bought locally OR sent through the diplomatic pouch/DPO mail.

Here’s the list of restrictions for DPO.  For a lot of posts, and people, the really important restriction is for alcohol.  From what I’ve seen, Shenyang has plenty of booze for sale, in grocery stores and liquor stores.  The selection is not all that great usually, but if you’re not picky, you can get by with the local stores.  Diplowife and I were advised to load up our consumables shipment with alcohol, and we did, but we probably didn’t really need to, given the local stores.  It helps that we aren’t big drinkers.

The other big problem is for liquids in general.  Our post office in Shenyang only accepts liquids in quantities of 16 oz. or less, per box.  So when I order food from Amazon pantry and want a 12 oz. jar of peanut butter, and a 8 oz. bottle of molasses, those two items have to be in separate boxes.  Which means separate orders made a couple days apart, because Amazon likes to stick orders in the same box if they can.  So you can order liquids, but it’s kind of a pain.  And some liquids can’t be shipped at all, like vanilla extract (I think it’s because it contains alcohol), and some of my art supplies.

Aerosols weren’t allowed in our pack-out, and they can’t be shipped, so I’m still trying to figure out how we’re supposed to get them here.  Some people hide their aerosols in their HHE, but I don’t advise that.  Hopefully you’ll be lucky and get a shipping company that allows aerosols.  If you do, pack enough for your entire tour!  The local stores don’t carry the brands I like for aerosol art supplies, so I think I’m out of luck.

So, given all that we’ve learned, I would have included some things in the consumables shipment, and left other things out.  Here are some items that I can’t find in Shenyang, or are imported and therefore expensive:

  • chicken stock
  • maple syrup
  • peanut butter
  • corn syrup
  • molasses
  • vanilla extract
  • canned fruits and vegetables
  • nuts, other than peanuts
  • rye flour
  • Dijon mustard
  • breakfast cereal
  • cheese, other than pre-sliced sandwich cheese
  • tortillas
  • gluten-free pasta
  • quality paper goods of any kind (napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, you name it)
  • arborio rice
  • lots of spices, too many to list here
  • cornmeal
  • ranch dressing
  • bread crumbs

The list goes on and on.  On the other hand, here are some items I was surprised to find were available here:

  • familiar grooming products like Head & Shoulders shampoo, Cetaphil cleanser, Dove soap, etc.
  • AP flour, cake flour, bread flour
  • yeast
  • powdered sugar
  • milk and cream (albeit UHT)
  • butter (mostly from New Zealand, and kind of pricey)
  • potato/tortilla chips (mostly in strange flavors, but I’m having fun trying them)

So plan accordingly.  Every post has its own idiosyncrasies, so what’s common in one place is unknown in another.  But one thing is constant: liquids are a pain to ship, so put a lot in your consumables, if you can.  Good luck!

 

 

Ingratiate yourself by baking

I’m not really that cynical, but baking does wonders for my social life.  Since discovering the baking shop (see previous blog entry) I’ve brought baked goods to a couple social events, sent Diplowife to work with cookies a couple times, given baked goods as going-away presents to departing friends (catching the eye of the Consul General in the process, I might add), and greeted new arrivals with homemade bread.

I was pretty stressed out when we got to post, partly because the consulate Easter potluck was right around the corner and I volunteered to bring a carrot cake.  I forgot the fact that A) I didn’t have any cake tins, B) I didn’t have any baking spices or leavening ingredients, C) I had no cream cheese and carrot cake without cream cheese frosting is a sad thing indeed.  I picked up most of those things at the baking shop and made a terrific carrot cake, if I do say so myself, for the Easter party.  Crisis averted!  Plus, the cake impressed the Consul General’s wife, which is basically like being friends with Wonder Woman.

I like making cookies, but having them in the house doesn’t help us stay in shape, so I usually send about half the batch to the Consulate via Diplowife.  That’s a sneaky way for her to make friends at work, because people tend to assume the wife does the baking in the family.  That’s OK with me, she’s almost as introverted as I am, so I’m happy to help.  But then people will eventually find out it was me, and my reputation as a competent baker (haha) will continue to develop.  That reputation pays off in a big way.  Once people found out I’m into baking, free ingredients started showing up at my door, mostly from people leaving post.  I’ve acquired bags of spices, flour, sugar, even a giant bottle of homemade vanilla extract!

Another strategy occurred to me when a friend mentioned she loves cheesecake and can’t find it here.  She was due to transfer back to DC in a few weeks, so I made her a cheesecake, which she brought to the office to share.  One of the people she shared it with was the CG himself, who told his wife about it (further cementing my reputation) and she now wants me to come to their home to teach their chef how to bake.  Since then, I’ve made a couple other treats for friends on their way out of Shenyang.  I haven’t experienced moving away from a foreign post, so I can only assume it’s very stressful, and having a favorite pie or batch of cookies around must be nice.

Conversely, arriving at post is a big pile of stress, especially if your social sponsor isn’t any good at their job.  That’s what happened to some friends of ours who arrived here a month after we did.  Their social sponsor did next to nothing for them (and their two little kids) and Diplowife and I were appalled.  I figured a fresh loaf of bread would be a nice thing to have when you arrive at a new post, so I’ve been baking bread for new people since then.  It’s a good excuse to come by their home and introduce myself, and let them know they’re free to ask me about the area, places to shop, etc.  We had good social sponsors, but clearly not everybody is so lucky, so hopefully I can help out in those situations.

Shenyang is a relatively small post, so I doubt I can make treats for every new officer and every departing officer when we get posted to a big embassy.  But those posts (I’m told) aren’t very closely-knit anyway, and I doubt I’ll have much impact there.  But in Shenyang, everybody is in everybody’s business, and it’s totally doable to welcome people and say goodbye properly.  Maybe it’ll catch on at other posts, but adapted to whatever is lacking there.  China’s baked goods are pretty bad, so my work here is cut out for me.  But what’s hard to find in Africa or South America?  We shall see.

pie

My Favorite Store in Shenyang

That last post was kind of negative, so I wanted to tell you about a very positive part of living in Shenyang.  I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but China is not exactly a great place to go for baked goods.  Not Western-style anyway.  There are Chinese-style baked stuff here and there, but it doesn’t seem to be a big part of the cuisine here.  And there are bakeries here, but their products are mediocre at best.  I think the local bakers learned their craft by finding pictures of bread, cakes, etc and then they tried to duplicate them, without knowing what they’re supposed to taste like.

So, I would either need to buy cookies online and have them shipped here, or make my own.  And if you’re familiar with the name of this blog, store-bought cookies aren’t my style.  Most basic baking ingredients can be found in the local grocery stores: AP flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk, etc.  But oftentimes they’re a little “off”.  Sugar here is either clumpy or large-crystals.  Milk is UHT.  Butter is all imported, and therefore expensive.  All other imported goods are expensive.  And, of course, lots of ingredients just don’t exist in normal grocery stores.

This is where my months of Shenyang-related research paid off.  I had read every Shenyang blog ahead of time, and made a map of all the places I wanted to visit.  One of those places was the “baking street” not far from our apartment.  Google maps was not helpful at all, all the business names were lost in translation, assuming they were on the map.  I can’t read Chinese, so Baidu’s maps are limited in their utility.  So a week after we arrived in town, I walked down to this supposed baking street to see for myself.

I found the “baking street”, no problem, it’s “Nansi Malu”, meaning 4th Street South (OK, I can read a little Chinese).  The businesses were pretty normal, mostly restaurants and nondescript general goods stores.  However, just as I was starting to lose hope, I found it!  Not a baking street with multiple shops, but one baking shop.  And in this case, one is enough.  It’s called “JNLY 1992” or “Jinliang Food Materials” (it’s not clear) and it’s my favorite shop in Shenyang.  Here it is.

It’s not a big place, my living room is bigger.  But they have all kinds of ingredients that I can’t find anywhere else.  Baking powder!  Lard!  Cream cheese!  Gelatin!  The list goes on and on.  They have “normal” (American-style) sugar, vanilla extract, lemon juice, lots of different flours.  And I found cream of tartar, so of course I made snickerdoodles a few days later (now who’s the cookie pusher?).  They have butter, which isn’t special, but it’s like half the price of the grocery stores!

The staff that works there are very helpful and cheery.  They always let me browse on my own, but are quick to show me where something is (provided I can explain in Chinese) and hand me a shopping basket.  One time I came here and forgot my money, which was embarrassing, but they were able to get my local debit card to work eventually.  Oftentimes, they’ll have some bread dough rising on a table somewhere, or have some kind of cake baking in the back.  It’s a wonderful contrast to most shops here with their blaring loudspeakers and unsettling odors.

Needless to say, I’ve gone back there many times in the last few months.  Our consumables shipment arrived last week, and I’ve ordered some ingredients from Amazon,so I don’t need as much as I used to, but I still go back for perishables, especially butter. And it’s nice to check back in from time to time: their stock changes periodically so it’s fun to see what’s new.

Everybody has their own way to make a new place feel like a home, and my way is baking.  I suggest that if you’re moving someplace far away, research the heck out of it, and figure out how to make yourself happy there.

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China- The First Few Days

I was pretty tired when we arrived in Shenyang (I barely slept on the flight over), and was jet-lagged for a couple weeks afterwards, so I may not be remembering everything with 100% accuracy.  Anyway, here are my first impressions of Shenyang:

  1. This place smells BAD.  Immediately after we got off the plane, I realized air pollution here is no joke.  The air inside the airport was smoky and stinky, like a coal fire.  The local coal plants have mostly shut down for the summer by now (June), but the coal smell has been replaced by a vaguely yucky garbage-y smell.  That and the smell of used cooking oil pretty much saturates this place.
  2. This is a developing country, so most buildings, roads, infrastructure and so on are in a worse state of repair than I’m used to.  Sidewalks have gaping holes everywhere, if they exist at all, everything is dirty, paint is peeling off, stuff just looks shabby in general.
  3. On the other hand, there are a lot of brand-new buildings dotting the skyline, in between the ugly gray apartment blocks.  There is money pouring into new construction, so hopefully in a few years the city will look a lot better.
  4. Expectations for good manners should be lowered.  People here are used to having to push and shove their way in life if they want to get anywhere and because of that, they aren’t as polite as we might want people to be.
  5. Kind of related to #4, people around here vomit in public a lot.  I think it has something to do with drinking too much, but whatever the reason: watch where you step.  Also, they spit…a LOT.
  6. Walking around town can be really dangerous.  People will drive through red lights, and go right through the crosswalk when you’re trying to cross the street.  And the sidewalks are where people park their cars, so watch out for that.  Also, the electric scooter people are all over the sidewalks, and they will mow you down if you don’t get out of the way.  Basically, assume everybody around you is trying to murder you with their vehicles.

I know I’m being really negative, but I want people to have a clear picture of this place before making any decisions about coming to visit or work.  I’ve been here a few months now, so the shock has mostly worn off and I’ve gotten used to Shenyang’s quirks.  If you’re squeamish, have lung issues, or you’re a slow walker, I’d stay away.

Once we settled in and had a chance to explore a bit, we needed to get a few important things done.  Our home has Internet included and we brought a VPN-equipped router, so we didn’t have to worry about that after arriving.  And our home came with several air purifiers, something everybody should have.  Speaking of the air, we brought some disposable air filter masks in our luggage, so we didn’t need to deal with that.  So here are some things we needed to do right away:

  1. Get a Chinese smartphone, or a SIM card for your unlocked smartphone.  Here’s a useful website to research whether or not your old phone will work here.  Once you have a Chinese phone number things are much easier here.  Not to mention, you’ll be able to use various smartphone apps to find your way around, buy stuff, get movie times, you name it.
  2. Related to #1, install the WeChat app on your phone.  Make sure you do this after you have your new phone number, because your phone number is integrated with the app.  This app is super useful, everybody here uses it for instant messaging, shopping, paying for your cell phone, and lots more I don’t even know about yet.
  3. Get a Chinese bank account.  I use Bank of China, but there are other choices.  I don’t keep much money there, but a lot of businesses don’t accept American debit or credit cards, but Chinese bank cards work.  Also, you can integrate the account with WeChat, to pay for stuff.  Really useful.
  4. Other useful apps, while I’m at it: AirVisual, for monitoring the pollution levels, Baidu Maps (Google Maps is  not very accurate here), a VPN app (I use ExpressVPN) so you can use the Internet when you’re away from home.

Other useful things you might want to work on: get a Roku or some other streaming device, get a VOIP box and a landline phone to plug into it so you can call people in the states.  And if you’re like me, get a sourdough starter going, and you’ll be able to use it in a week or two.

Pack like an EFM

Related to the last post, I wanted to share my strategy when packing to move to China with Diplowife and our cat.  Also, how we arranged to have certain necessary items at post, waiting for us when we arrived.  FSO’s and EFM’s get to take two pieces of checked luggage apiece.  The weight limit for our checked bags was 50 pounds each, but your airline may be different.  Also, our carry-on bags had to be under 25 pounds each.  So add it all up and the plan was for 200 pounds of checked luggage, and another 50+ for carry-on bags and “personal items”.  Not to mention the cat carrier, but that’s another topic.

A few weeks before moving, I ordered a bunch of prescription cat food (our cat has kidney problems) and shipped it to our social sponsor.  Diplowife mailed some bedding and other cat stuff, too. Theoretically, we could have mailed it to our own DPO or pouch address and the mailroom would have held it for us, but that’s not a certainty by any stretch.

Before you ask, our social sponsor was fine with all of this, but check with yours first.  Also, I mailed a few things to our new DPO address, that I knew would arrive after we did, so there was no need to involve our sponsor.  These packages took a lot of pressure off us, since it was all stuff we would have had to carry in our luggage otherwise.

Speaking of luggage, we bought several of these duffle bags from LL Bean.  The large size is good as airline luggage.  Keep an eye on them before you need to buy, they go on sale from time to time.  They don’t stand up straight like stiff-sided bags, but they take up almost no space when you’re not using them.

There were a few special items I had to have in our new apartment, I wasn’t going to wait until our UAB or take the chance on shipping them.  One item was our new Internet router, with built-in VPN.  That’s a necessary thing in China.  Another was my bag of knives, as I’d heard the welcome kit knives were not very good quality.  And I packed my instant-read thermometer, a good surge protector, electrical plug converters, and a multi-tool.  And my laptop bag, which I hope I never have to check.

But being an EFM, I had little need for a full wardrobe since I don’t have a job.  Maybe that’ll change someday, but for now, I’m a stay-at-home cat father.  And when I go out to the grocery store it’s not like I need to impress anyone.  So I packed a week’s worth of underwear and t-shirts, some pajama pants, a few button-up shirts, a pair of chinos, jeans and a couple pairs of sneakers.  And I brought my navy suit, a couple ties, a white dress shirt and a pair of dress shoes.  Just in case some kind of unexpected formal event cropped up (it didn’t, but better safe than sorry).  This way, our luggage had room for Diplowife’s work clothes.

So, try to plan out what you’ll need at post for that first month or so before your UAB arrives.  Try not to take up much room in the luggage, your spouse has more need for clothes than you do, if you’re a non-working EFM like me.  If what you need won’t fit in the luggage, see if your social sponsor will let you mail stuff to them, or send it to yourself if you can be sure you’ll get to post before the package does.  Good luck, and remember you can always buy stuff online and ship it to post when you arrive and need something that can’t be found on the local market.

Moving Day

This was it, the big day.  The one we were dreading for months.  The day we did this insane thing, actually getting on an airplane bound for China, of all places.  We knew it was coming for almost a year, and I think it turned out pretty well.  Hopefully if you’re like me and not looking forward to this, I can help you get through it in one piece.

The day started with Diplowife, myself and our cat in the hotel near our old apartment building.  We had already cleaned the apartment and turned over the keys and signed the paperwork.  We gave away a few more things to friends and the local charity drop-off, so all that was left was to get ourselves to China.  We had two big suitcases apiece, plus the cat carrier.  I also had my laptop backpack, and Diplowife had her small carry-on suitcase.  Diplowife had trouble fitting all our stuff into our suitcases and we realized we would need to check her carry-on suitcase and use a tote bag full of stuff as her carry-on.  It cost a little extra, but it beat mailing our stuff or leaving it behind.

We hired a car service, well van service I should say to pick us up at the hotel and take us to Reagan National.  Amazingly, the driver fit all of our luggage in the van.  He also did us a huge favor by encouraging us to get the skycaps to help with the luggage.  He recommended a $5 tip each time one of them carted our stuff.  We didn’t go far, just from the curb to the check-in desk, and from there to the luggage drop-off area, but it’s money well-spent.

The check-in desk was an ordeal.  The lady working there wasn’t very familiar with special provisions for government employees traveling for work like we were.  Specifically, she refused to take our cat’s carrier, saying we needed to drive (with what car?) to the cargo area (where?) and drop her off there.  Diplowife activated her newly honed diplomatic/bureaucratic superpowers and went toe-to-toe with the ticket lady for well over an hour, but she was successful, and we got to send our kitty on her way.  Not without having to take her out of her carrier briefly, but it was OK.

By then, we were running late to reach our first flight, to JFK.  We got held up at the security check-in, the TSA were intrigued by my laptop, and gave Diplowife some trouble for her jewelry.  After that, we boarded and sat on the runway for nearly an hour.  But we got to JFK eventually, and that’s when the serious waiting began.  We had a six hour layover there (well, five hour because of the delay in DC), and unfortunately, for reasons I’m not clear on, we had to claim all of our luggage and our cat, and hang onto it all until about 90 minutes before our departure.  Then we had to go through the check-in process again, and go through security again.

While we waited, I figured we could take advantage of the “pet relief” areas at the airport, that I had read about.  Well, turns out they aren’t so useful.  For one thing, all but one of them are beyond the security gate, so unless your pet is flying in-cabin, it’s useless.  And the other one is outdoors, basically a wide section of the sidewalk.  Uh, it’s 25 degrees out there, and I’m not setting my cat free to scamper away in the dark, and it’s not like she’ll pee without privacy or a litter box anyway.  Ugh, good thing she has the absorbent pad in the carrier.  Speaking of the cat, make sure when you board your flight, ask a flight attendant to confirm the pet carrier has been brought on board.  They can check, and will let you know.

One nice part of this was we were now flying Korean Air, going from JFK to Seoul, and they were far more helpful and capable than the airline that we took from DC.  So, again, we said goodbye to our kitty, then headed to the gate.  The flight to Seoul was delayed (of course) another 45 minutes or so, but the actual flight was very nice.  I got to ride a 747 for the first time, and our seats were towards the back where we found an abundance of legroom.  I tried sleeping, but wasn’t very successful.  Thankfully, the in-flight entertainment worked great, I had power for my phone and I could watch our progress on the map (we flew around North Korea).

We reached Seoul’s airport around 6am, before almost anything was open for business.  I always thought it was strange that airport businesses close down when flights are coming and going 24 hours a day.  Anyway, after killing some time, we took advantage of a business lounge’s hospitality, thanks to a new credit card Diplowife signed us up for (did I mention she’s a keeper?).  Free breakfast in comfy chairs did us a world of good, but we were worried about our cat the whole time.  We knew she was here in Seoul, but couldn’t get anyone to feed or water her.

After a few hour layover there, we took the final flight to Shenyang.  Nothing much happened here, we flew around North Korea again, and landed safe and sound.  Once I got off the plane, the first thing I noticed was the smell.  It was like a coal furnace was burning away inside the airport.  The air was hazy and stinky, and I knew this was for real.  This was my first time in China, and the pollution is no joke.

We collected our luggage, and oddly enough, our cat’s carrier also came through the luggage conveyor.  She was safe and sound, just like us, and was happy to see us.  What a relief.  Our social sponsor and a couple local workers from the consulate were here to help.  They got us through customs (we skipped the big lines, since we have diplomatic passports!) and got the cat’s paperwork squared away.  And took us to our new home.

Our apartment is huge, but strange.  We’re definitely living in a hotel, with oddly-shaped rooms that connect in… “creative” ways.  The furniture is OK, but I can see how picky people would be disappointed.  I set the kitty free to explore and use her new litter box and gave her some food.  Our bed was fully made with pillows, sheets and all, so it was ready for nap time.  I was excited to explore a new city, but that could wait until tomorrow.

Pack-out!

We moved several months ago, but I wanted to talk about the process just before we left for Shenyang.  Pack-out consisted of three days of movers coming to our apartment.  First was the HHE/UAB movers.  That’s everything we’re taking to post, divided into two piles.  The first pile (UAB, or Un-Accompanied Baggage) consists of 250 pounds of stuff for the officer, plus another 200 for each EFM.  So that’s 450 pounds for Diplowife and me (the cat doesn’t count).  The other pile (HHE, or HouseHold Effects) is everything else we want to have at post, minus our luggage and “consumables” (more on that later).  UAB is also known as “air freight”, which means it should get to your post a month or so after your arrival.  HHE is surface/sea freight, so it takes longer.  Ours still hasn’t arrived and we’ve been at post for over three months.

Anyway, the first moving day was UAB/HHE day.  It was mostly my job to get the house ready for this.  I bought gaffers tape in an assortment of colors, and stuck tape all over our stuff, to make sure the movers knew which items were UAB, which were HHE and so on.  I moved stuff that we weren’t taking into closets and the spare bathroom and put big signs on them to shoo the movers away.  So the day of the pack-out, five movers showed up first thing in the morning, and got working…FAST.  I worked with their leader to make sure the UAB pile got packed first, and we were under weight.

The UAB stuff was a source of stress all along.  What things should we put in the UAB, versus the HHE?  Let alone carry in our luggage?  And would we go over our weight limit?  Turns out we were way too conservative with our UAB pile.  I set aside a bunch of kitchen items, the mixer, food processor, silverware and various pans and utensils.  And Diplowife and I put a bunch of clothes on the UAB pile, too.  But the movers packed it up and we had maybe half our weight limit.  So we frantically ran around throwing stuff into the UAB box, and we should have been more considerate.

For example, I packed lots of winter clothes in the UAB, stuff that was too warm to wear a week or so after we got here.  Meanwhile, I didn’t pack any baking stuff, and I love to bake.  Whoops!  Meanwhile, Diplowife threw a bunch of extra blankets and pillows into the boxes.  Turns out there’s no need for that, the stuff here in Shenyang is fine for now.  So to sum up, put a lot of thought into setting aside stuff for your UAB, and weigh it beforehand!

The rest of the pack-out went well, it only took a few hours.  We brought in doughnuts and a jug of coffee from Starbucks, and ordered pizza for lunch.  It pays to keep your movers happy.  One annoyance about this pack-out was we had to take all the clothes off the hangers and basically make a giant pile.  Not exactly how I like to treat my good suits and jackets.  I think next time I’ll try packing them neatly in garment bags.

The second pack-out day was for storage items.  This is mostly furniture that we won’t need in our furnished apartment in Shenyang, and items too valuable to risk damaging there.  Also, we didn’t take any small appliances with heat elements, they don’t work well with transformers in non-110v countries (coffee machine, toaster, etc.).  And, we sent all of our photo albums and some other paper goods into storage, stuff that I meant to scan, but didn’t get to (next time!).

This move went a lot less smoothly than the previous one.  These movers could barely speak English, so there were communications issues.  For example, they kept misspelling Diplowife’s name on the boxes.  And they were SLOW.  They were supposed to take half a day, and by 11am it was clear they were never going to make it.  Diplowife called the moving company and the moving coordinator at the State Department, and got the movers to go somewhat faster, but it was still a mess dealing with the loading dock downstairs (neighbors had reserved it for the afternoon).  We’re still pretty nervous about the safety of our belongings, as that moving company didn’t instill a lot of confidence.

The third and final pack-out day was for our consumables shipment.  Shenyang is a “consumables post”, because it lacks Western-style supermarkets to some extent, and getting food and other items here can be a pain.  So we’re allowed to transport a big shipment of consumables to post twice during the next two years.  We went to the Costco in DC, because they sell booze, not just wine and beer.  We bought a lot of booze, wine AND beer, along with lots of other edibles, toilet paper, shampoo and the like.  That pack-out went very well, just took a few hours.

Our consumables haven’t arrived yet, as I write this, so I don’t know how successful the movers were at protecting our vast collection of wine, but I’m optimistic.

One thing I recommend is moving yourself and your luggage out of your house before the movers show up.  We spent the last week or so at a nearby cat-friendly hotel and it was paid for by Diplowife’s expense account somehow (I don’t have the details on that).  Our cat appreciated being elsewhere when the movers were lugging heavy stuff around her house, I can assure you.  Plus, we didn’t have to worry about the movers taking our luggage.

One more thing: your moving company could do things very differently than ours.  Some movers do the HHE, UAB, storage and consumables all at the same time, so it’s even more critical to mark your belongings clearly and/or group them together in different rooms.  And always keep your luggage and pets somewhere else entirely, even if it’s your car or a neighbor’s house.  You can’t be in every room at once to watch the movers, so mark stuff clearly.  Better yet, have some friends come over, so each room has somebody to keep an eye on things.