What’s in your consumables?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Ingratiate yourself by baking

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

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

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

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

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

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

pie

My Favorite Store in Shenyang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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China- The First Few Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pack like an EFM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Don’t be a burden, Part 1

Once we get to post in Shenyang, Diplowife will be working at the Consulate, and I’ll be on my own for 40+ hours a week.  In China.  Where people speak Chinese.  This is a problem.  I don’t intend to stay home all day, waiting for Diplowife to get home from work, so I can then go out to run errands, dragging her along to translate for me.  Diplomacy is a full-time job for her, she doesn’t need a second job as an EFM hand-holder.

So, my first step is to learn Chinese.  Mandarin, to be specific.  FSI is way ahead of me here.  Of course, they offer classes in every language imaginable, and EFMs can attend, provided the class has space.  But I’m working full-time and need options that don’t involve going to FSI every day.

With help from Diplowife, I got signed up with an account in Mango Languages which is a terrific system.  You can access the lessons on the web, or via apps that work on my smartphone and tablet.  I’ve learned a lot already, like greetings & introductions, how to talk to shopkeepers, give directions, ordering food at restaurants.  It’s pretty much all verbal, so don’t expect to learn how to read & write.  They show you the Chinese characters, but there’s little emphasis on reading.

Aside from Mango, there are some other options for learning at home, or “distance learning” as FSI calls it.  Ask your spouse about FSI’s Distance Learning options, they probably already have an email about it in their DoS inbox.  The “Express” option caught my eye, it’s available in Mandarin and is two 14-week courses taken at home, about 6-8 hours per week, plus an hour of one-on-one time with a mentor, via Skype or something similar.  So I’m signed up for the first Express Mandarin course, starting next month, so I’ll be sure to post about it once I start.

Also, some posts have language training that EFMs can participate in, so ask the CLO if that’s an option.  Ideally, you shouldn’t wait until you get to post to start learning, but it’s good to have the option, not everybody has free time like I do.  Learning some Mandarin should go a long way to preparing me for a semi-independent life in Shenyang.

I have some other concerns about burdening Diplowife, but they’ll have to wait for another blog post.