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.