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.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_3104

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.

Distance Learning Begins

My Distance Learning class started this week.  This is a language course (Mandarin, naturally) that’s all online, no classroom.  FSI’s website has everything you need: course materials, several ways to interact with your fellow students, and a mentor that guides you through the class.  I couldn’t sign up for the class myself, Diplowife had to take care of that, so ask your spouse about signing up if you’re interested.  The class goes for 14 weeks, so I should finish in mid-December.

Right off the bat, I was skeptical about the class.  You’re supposed to schedule time to talk with your mentor once a week for 45 minutes, and my mentor has a calendar on the course’s website.  Problem is, the times she’s available are when I’m at work.  I asked her if she’s available evenings or weekends, and she was kind enough to accommodate me. So don’t be afraid to ask, you never know.  My other issue was I assumed this class was redundant since I’ve already been using Mango for a while now.

As it turns out the course has complemented Mango Languages pretty well so far.  The first week’s study material focus on how to pronounce Chinese properly (it’s not easy) and how written Chinese works.  The class barely touches on written Chinese, but at least they provide a brief introduction to it.  Mango doesn’t really cover this, so right off the bat I’m learning new stuff.  I’ll need to be able to read street signs, price tags and who knows what else in Shenyang, so this is important.

I did my first mentor session a couple days ago, and it was interesting. We met up on Skype in video chat.  She had me pronounce various Chinese sounds and let me know what I was doing wrong.  I had been speaking Mandarin with Mango for a couple months now, but it seems my pronunciation needs work.  Good to know!  Some of the sounds are so similar to each other that I can barely hear any difference at this point, but I’m told it gets easier with practice.

Anyway, I recommend taking the Distance Learning course, if you have the time.  Ideally, before shipping out to your new home, but better late than never.

Speaking of China, happy Mid-Autumn Festival!  Diplowife brought me some moon cakes yesterday.  Not very good, but maybe they’re better in China.

The Doldrums

Not much going on these days, Foreign Service-wise, for yours truly.  I’m still studying Mandarin with Mango Languages, and about to start Distance Learning with a mentor from FSI.  At this rate, I should have some decent beginners-level Mandarin skills, which was my goal all along.  Diplowife is likewise busy with her own Mandarin training, way beyond my level of course.  Still, it’s fun to occasionally surprise her with a bit of vocabulary that she didn’t know.

It’s been four months since Flag Day, and there’s six more to go, at least, until we head to China.  The last couple months we’re here should be more interesting, I’ll have a lot of work to do around the house, getting rid of stuff we don’t need and inventorying the rest.  Plus, I have several short classes lined up in February and March at FSI and elsewhere.  But I’ve run out of things to research online about Shenyang, so it’s been pushed to the back of my mind.

For the time being, we’re trying to socialize with Diplowife’s colleagues as much as we can, but as introverts it’s not easy.  I prefer to ingratiate myself with them by sending Diplowife to work with baked goods that I made.  Summertime isn’t my favorite time to bake, but it’s a good skill to have at post.  Who wouldn’t invite the couple to a party that always brings a homemade pie or cake?  If my EFM corridor reputation is solely “Diplowife’s husband, he always brings a pie to parties”, I can live with that.

So, it’s my least-favorite time of year (summer), not-so-great job, and several months until much of anything changes.  I’m trying to make the most of it, but not always succeeding.  It’s a good time for lots of distractions and hobbies.  I’m kind of glad our election coming up is such a dumpster fire, it’s definitely distracting, if not exactly good for the country.  Anyways, that’s where things stand, hopefully something more meaningful will come up soon to write about.