Halfway

One year ago, we were just arriving in Shenyang, and one year from today we’ll be leaving.  It’s a good time to reflect on my first year living abroad.  Hopefully some things I’ve learned will be helpful for others, or even just for me to remember moving forward.

-Get used to being alone.  As we know, China has no bilateral agreement, so I can’t work on the local economy.  Plus, the EFM hiring freeze put the kibosh on getting a job for the first six months or so I’ve been here.  So, without a job, I tend to stay home most of the time, alone.  Well, except for Diplocat, but she sleeps during the day.  I do most of our family’s grocery shopping and other errands, but there’s not that much for me to do.  As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, there aren’t a lot of other guys around to hang out with, and I’m not very good at making new friends anyway.  So, your mileage may vary, but I’m on my own during the day.

And I haven’t even mentioned that Diplowife has to work late and go on trips sometimes, so there’s that too.  Her job doesn’t involve a lot of late hours, but other officers here put in tons of overtime, so I imagine their families have learned to deal with it.  It’s not a huge problem for me, but it can be for some people, and you should know what you’re getting into.

Brussels has a huge expat community, compared to Shenyang, and there’s even a club just for trailing husbands.  And I’ll be way more likely to find work there.  So I’m looking forward to that, but I know the next post after could very well be another no-job, no-expat kind of place.

-Related to the above point: get used to isolation.  Aside from being alone, physically, you’ll often be cut off from the Internet too.  It’s not too bad these days, but sometimes the Internet just doesn’t cooperate and I have to step away.  Shenyang is a good post to live if you want more time with your hobbies (assuming your hobbies aren’t related to the Internet).

-I don’t have a lot of new insights about what to pack, what to put in your consumables, stuff like that.  But I will say this: use the pouch.  Order the stuff you want and ship it to post.  It’ll make you feel better, it helps you get over your homesickness and makes your new house into a home.  We were cautious at first about ordering stuff, and people gave me a hard time at the consulate about too many boxes coming, but to hell with that.  Order a big box full of potato chips if that’s what you like.  Buy some new winter socks, it’s cold here.  Buy a stack of new movies, because movies are fun and the Internet here is garbage for streaming.  Whatever it takes, treat yourself.

-Invite people over, and go out with them.  The cool people that greet you and your spouse when you get here?  They’re going to leave much sooner than you think, to their next assignments.  And when they leave, you don’t want to think, “I wish we had spent more time together”.  This is a hard one for Diplowife and me; we’re introverts and aren’t used to socializing much.  But I think it’s worth the effort.  This is a lonely lifestyle, even for introverts.

-Don’t like where you live?  Leave.  Well, temporarily, I mean.  We’ve gone on lots of trips from Shenyang and seen some amazing places.  From late last summer up until recently, we went on a trip somewhere about once a month (Seattle, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Munich, Harbin and Seoul).  We’re in a slow patch right now, but we’re heading to Xi’an in May, and hopefully more after that.  Use your R&R money and get out of town!  Take a three-day weekend and ride the train someplace new.  I know not every post has good travel options, but do what you can.  A change of scenery is really helpful, especially when the view out your window looks like Shenyang.

-Kind of related, but don’t wait to see your new city.  We’ve been here a year and have barely seen any of Shenyang’s sights.  Granted, they aren’t all that compelling, but I think it’s worth a couple Saturdays to see it all.  Spring is here, and I started using a rental bike app (Mobike) which has done wonders for my mobility.  Soon, I’ll actually see every point on the map I made of all the interesting places in Shenyang.

I’m sure there are many other nuggets of wisdom out there for getting through the first half of your first tour, but that’s all I can think of.  Hopefully I’ll have more to say a year from today, but I suspect I’ll be too busy moving, then enjoying home leave to do much blogging at the time.  Stay tuned!

 

 

 

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You might say I’m a unique individual

At least, I am unique at our current post.  I knew going into this weird lifestyle that trailing husbands were rare, but ho boy they weren’t kidding.  Here in Shenyang, I’m one of three trailing husbands. One of the others has a house full of kids he’s busy with.  And the third one just left post for a job opportunity.  So, I’m the sole trailing husband with no kids here.  Hey, at least I take care of our cat.

Now, Shenyang is a small post, less than 50 Americans work here.  Presumably the expat demographics in Brussels will be very different, but for now, I’m a man alone.  Not a big issue for me, I tend to be a loner anyway, and Diplowife and I have friends (her coworkers) that we socialize with regularly.  But you should know going in: don’t expect a lot of fellow childless husbands to hang out with.

On the bright side, back at FSI when I went to spouse orientation, there were a lot of other trailing husbands.  So, hopefully the Foreign Service’s demographics are shifting and one day we won’t be such a rarity.

Next, to where!

Sorry I kept you in suspense, busy times with the holidays and all.  Diplowife got her next assignment a couple months ago: we’re going to Brussels!  It was our top choice, head and shoulders above the other Management posts (especially Port Moresby, shudder).  It features our favorite kind of climate (wet, cool, grey), everybody speaks English and it’s a short train ride to most of Western Europe.  I could go on and on about this wonderful news, but I’d feel like I’m bragging.  Suffice it to say, this is as close to an ideal post that I can imagine.

But aside from the climate, culture and food, the subtler aspect to Brussels that agrees with me is the fact that Brussels is a rare “three mission” post.  That means there’s the US Embassy to Belgium, the EU mission, and our mission to NATO.  So the expat community will be huge, compared to Shenyang. So I may actually be able to socialize with other diplo-husbands!  Do others exist?  I’m skeptical.

Plus, the work situation will be far better in Brussels.  Belgium has a bilateral agreement for diplomatic spouses (unlike China), so I’ll be able to work on the local economy.  And the three missions all have jobs I can apply for.  IT jobs, even.  So, to prepare for finding work in Brussels, I’ve applied for work here in Shenyang, so I can get a security clearance (see: future blog post).  Hopefully I’ll have a clearance by the time we leave Shenyang, which may make it easier to find work in Brussels.

Now comes the hard part: spending another year plus in Shenyang, while dreaming of Brussels.

 

Where to next?

Pretty much as soon as you arrive and settle in at your new home, you’ll start to daydream about what your next post will be.  Especially if you’re posted someplace that’s less than ideal like, for example, Shenyang.  Diplowife’s colleagues from her A100 class that arrived at their posts months before us went through the bidding process around the time we got to Shenyang last spring, so we got a preview of the process before we had to experience it.  People seemed happy with their assignments, or maybe the unhappy people just kept it to themselves.

Our turn came a couple months ago, when the summer bid list came out, and Diplowife was in the group of officers to bid for them.  This was when living in Shenyang is supposed to pay off, since it’s a high differential/hardship post and a hand-to-fill post.  Specifically, Shenyang is (as of 2017) a 25% differential, which is added to 5% for being a hard-to-fill post, giving Diplowife 30% “equity”.  Officers going into the bidding process with more than 10% equity are in “tranche A”, the ones that get to bid first.  In theory, officers in crummy posts are supposed to be rewarded with a better post in their second tour.  It doesn’t always work out like that, and one officer’s ideal post is another one’s nightmare, so it gets a bit muddy.  But overall, based on what I’ve seen so far, the CDO’s do a good job.

Diplowife sent me a copy of the bid list spreadsheet, and the FSI training schedule and I got to work.  Timing is critical, more than any other factor.  If you want to serve in a post, you need to have the timing work out, or come very close.   That means the end of your current tour, plus home leave, plus training (if any) need to equal the start date at your new post.  If you can make that happen within a week or so, that bid is “valid”.  There is some wiggle room, like leaving your old post a month early/late, or arriving at the new post early/late, which results in an “imperfect” bid.  Also, there are limits on how many weeks you can spend at FSI during your first couple tours, so if you go over the limit, that also means the bid is imperfect.  If you have to be early one place, and late in another, that bid is “invalid” and you should probably just forget about it.

Diplowife is Management-coned, so she was able to bid on Management posts, along with Consular posts (there always seems to be a shortage of Consular officers), but it was made clear that she should emphasize her cone on her bid list, because she’s already serving a consular tour, and the CDO’s really want officers to serve in their own cone, if possible.   There weren’t a lot of valid options for Diplowife, as it turned out.  I found four of them, including a dream location, two iffy places, and one of the worst posts on Earth.  Also, I scrounged up a few imperfect posts, and a bunch of valid Consular posts.   As I mentioned, the timing was the hardest part.  FSI doesn’t offer the job-specific training more than  a few times a year, so it’s difficult to get the timing right, especially if you also need language training.  All of our four valid Management posts had no language requirements.

Another difficulty was the bid list kept changing.  Every couple days a new list was released, with no indication of what the changes were.  Every time, I’d go through the new spreadsheet and mark any new posts, and determine if it was possible for Diplowife to bid on it.  Also, the FSI training schedule was inconsistent, some languages took 24 weeks in one year, and 30 weeks in another, with no clear indication of how long they’d be in 2019.  As you might guess, the 24 week classes were short enough for Diplowife to squeak under the limit, but 30 were too long.  I had to assume the higher number was correct, to avoid going over the limit.

Eventually, we reached the deadline, and turned in Diplowife’s bid list.  We had to include all four valid Management posts, even the ones we really didn’t want.  Also, we included numerous imperfect posts and even an invalid one, just to include the minimum number of in-cone bids.  The rest of the list were Consular posts in nice places, Europe mostly.

Diplowife’s bid list contained many amazing places we’d like to live, like London, Dublin, Brussels, Oslo and Milan.  On the other hand, there were posts in Latin America, Africa and southeast Asia that were less-than-ideal.  We did our best to leave out posts that we wouldn’t be able to bring our cat, but it wasn’t always possible.  On the bright side, we wouldn’t have to wait very long to get the results, the CDO’s typically only take a couple weeks to decide.  Plus, this all happened while we had Thanksgiving preparations, a trip to Hong Kong and mailing our Christmas presents home to distract us, so it could have been a lot worse.  We survived the process, and so will you.

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.

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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