China Family Expat Experience 2007

Ok, this needs some description as many of our friends and relatives don’t even know that we are living in china, much less WHY we are in China and how!?!

Arrival to China

Our family had been planning to move overseas to Spain this year, that having been our family goal for many years now, with the intention of our boys being exposed to spanish and experiencing a foreign culture at a young age–in some ways replicating the formative years that I had myself back in Zapallar/Chile at the age of 6-11.  I had surfaced the idea of working in Spain with my managers at Microsoft, and while they were generally supportive, it was clear that moving to spain was a bit “random” for my career and for the business and team that i’ve been a part of my 3+ years at Microsoft.

I visited China in Feb 2007 for the first time, and on the trip I was just blown away/amazed by the country, the people, and the excitement in the business community around my product area (rich user experiences in software, both for Windows and the web).  About April of this year I started thinking–“what if we moved to China instead of Spain”?  I floated the idea by Cristina more as a joke than anything else, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when her eyes lit up and she said “YEAH!” site unseen (she had not yet been to china or anywhere in asia a that point!)

Over the summer I started vetting the idea at work and figuring out what role/opportunity there was for me to drive for the company in the region–the idea being that whilst we live in Beijing, i’m really over here to work on the market for my products in Japan/Korea as well as China.  Living in China makes sense because of the size of the market here (there are more internet users here than anywhere else in the world!) and as a family experience we really want the kids to learn Mandarin and be a part of this amazing country and people at this amazing time in its history.

So, starting in August Cristina and the kids moved out of the house in Seattle, i spent the month packing up the house (most stuff into storage, some things flying or boating their way over here to China, house is on the market (see the real estate listing and photos here)) while the crew went to California for some vacation time with grandparents.  We then met up in San Francisco and boarded our flight to Beijing, and have been over here since September 8th.  We will be here for at least 2 years (on contract with msft) and don’t really know or need to know what happens beyond that!

So…. that’s the brief version of why and how…


It’s funny, this blog started off with my visit to China earlier this year, and here I am making my first update in a belated long summer, back in China, but this time, as a resident alien!  My family and I just moved here, we are living in “the most important city in the world” (as some are calling it)–Beijing.  I’m joining the team over here to help out with the Microsoft UX business.  I’ll be living in China but working with Korea, Japan, India, Australia, and other geographies in the region–there is so much vibrancy to the cultures, the business community, and of course, for the internet and web business.

This summer summarized in 1 paragraph = shipping Silverlight 1.0 was a blast, and the momentum in the market is awesome… we’ve got amazing partners lining up worldwide, and i’m really psyched to be over here in Asia where 40%+ of broadband connections exist and the growth and excitement in the market is second to none.  Going to be fun! 

Here’s a picture of me and the kids eating our first of many dim sum meals in town–my 6 year old said “this dim sum is like 10x better than Seattle’s”, and he is of course underplaying the divide!  Oh-my-god, the “chinese” food back home is indeed a different beast completely from what we’ve enjoyed here in just our first week.  I’m taking pictures of all the food we eat, plan on making a Silverlight widget of “food forest has eaten in china” for one of my killer demos some day!

PS: Using Windows Live Writer new beta–at last, red squiggly lines for misspelled words–ahh, technology is wonderful! 

First Week Update

WHEW…what a long week! it feels like we have been here for 3 weeks, we have gotten so much accomplished. After looking for a house and finding our way around and picking up some phrases in Mandarin and getting the boys situated in school, I feel a bit pooped already!

But it’s all good.

The boys love school. It is a beautiful place full of new discoveries every day. They are so excited when I drop them off and happy when I pick them up. What a relief. Carlos has Mandarin class every day and was proud of himself when he wrote numbers in Chinese characters. He gets to pick his own food in the cafeteria which makes him feel so grown up. Caetano has explored the various playgrounds on campus and today showed Carlos and me his favorite

spot– a little garden labyrinth with a giant chessboard in the middle. He’s doing art and learning lots of fun little things every day about the natural world.

Roberto and I have explored the neighborhood a bit more. Our relocation specialist included him on a BIG night on the town Saturday with a huge group of people, starting with dinner and moving on to drinks and then dancing at a huge club. He was out til 4:30 and it sounded like a great time!

I finally learned the ropes at the supermarket and have learned to elbow my way to the front of the line with the toughest of Chinese ladies to get the produce person to weigh my fruits and veggies.

Once I had to actually cut in front of an out of town Chinese guy (I’m guessing he was from a small town or something since he was as clueless as I was). I felt so bad, but if I had waited for him I never would have gotten out of there.

Shopping for food is a little scary because apart from produce, you really don’t know exactly what you are getting since you can’t read the ingredients! Not to mention it is hard to trust Chinese food makers given the track record lately. We cook a lot of noodle and rice dishes with veggies. But when we go out to eat, MAN is it good!!!! We had another amazing round of dim sum the other day, and we then we went to a funky food place on the way home from the Great Wall. It was a pretty country road full of pick-your-own-fruit farms and nut vendors. Talk about trust…I used my Chinese phrasebook and our driver to help us order a few things and we had a typical “Beijing” meal, including fresh tomatoes and also big fat noodles cooked with tomatoes and eggs, pan fried tortilla type things, chicken neck and other random parts. It was great.

Every few days it pours rain and today it is quite clear. You can actually see beyond a few blocks today.

Last night Forest and I did some haggling at a high-tech merchandise bazaar.

Hope you all are doing well!!!! Please write back and stay in touch.

Cristina and the guys

Got cell phones working!

My IT travails continue in China.  First I spent over a week messing around with the cell phones in order to get Cristina and my cells to both work and read/write email.  Then I spent the last week goofing with this blog software to get it working adequately.  The good news is we are now set up and we should be able to start actually communicating with everyone–i know folks back home are wondering what the heck we are up to… stay tuned for more regular updates!

Eating Chicken Heads

One of the things cristina and I are enjoying tremendously is being observers as the boys seamlessly adjust to being kids in China.  The best example of this to date was how they both dived in and devoured bizarre (but surely tasty) bits of chicken (including feet, neck, head, etc.) when we sat down for lunch during our countryside outings to the great wall last weekend.  It was delightful and horrifying all at once to see them fighting over the chicken head.

  • Carlos: “caetano, don’t eat it all, save some for me”
  • Caetano: “uhmm, chicken head is yummy”
  • Carlos: “noooooo, save some for me”
  • Caetano: “one more bite then i’ll give some to you!”
  • Carlos: “noooo!!!”

While for cristina and I the experience of new food, new language, non-verbal and verbal communication, etc. all around us is sometimes shocking and new, for the boys it all must seem just “new”, in the same way that trying so many things back home was also new each and every day in the life of a 4/6 year old.  That said, the new food experience for the adults is pretty off-the-charts amazing as well… in the last week we’ve had duck intestine, duck tongues, jellyfish, various spicy noodle dishes with flavors we’ve never tasted before, new fruits and vegetables… and that’s just the stuff we could identify–there are many dishes that we simply must characterize as “Chinese mystery dish”

Food feast

This weekend we took the boys to the Chaoyang park (biggest park in Asia) where we rode various amusement park type rides, and the next day went to the flea-market which was a hoot because we got to see all kinds of cool trinkets we’ll want to shop for when we move into our house and need to decorate with the local flare (click here for the photos).  We also got the boys their first local haircuts, was really funny to see all the attention they got from the staff at the salon, which had probably not cut little american boys’ hair before.  We got a cute picture of the boys with their barbers.

Change of Seasons

I hope everyone is enjoying the change in season.

This week is the Full Moon festival, celebrating the fall harvest.

The main way of celebrating is to eat “moon cakes” which are big thick sweets in the shape of the full moon. They come in a big fancy set of 8 or 9 and Forest received a couple of boxes as gifts. Next week is “Golden Week” and everyone gets vacation.

The weather is nice and warm without being sticky and hot. Last week we enjoyed beautiful clear blue skies after some rain. Now the smog is back, but we are still loving the weather and all the fun this city has to offer and doing lots of exploring.

Our temporary apartment that we have lived in for 2 weeks is right in the city, and there’s lots to do within walking distance. There’s a fun bar and restaurant street near the embassy district where Forest and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary. At the end of that block is “the” expat bookstore/cafe hangout.

Across the big busy street is a super cool park with a lake. The boys caught some goldfish there and they are still alive after one week!

The fish, that is. This weekend we took a boat ride and a stroll

On Sunday we started the day off with a friend from SF, Ann Williams, who was finishing business in China before taking a year off to be a FT mommy. She took us to an open air market that was amazing. It had everything: old cameras, brass buddhas, turquoise and coral in bulk, antique tibetan textiles, traditional blue and white china tableware. I got to bargain for some Russian nesting dolls painted like pandas that Carlos fell in love with. It’s awful hard to wheel and deal with a kid around, whose heart starts breaking when you pretend to walk away from the toy he has his heart set on, all so you can get a better deal. But she knocked the price from 150 RMB to 50, which was probably still too much but good enough for me.

Everywhere we go people are so charmed by Carlos and Caetano. They try to goose their little arms. Men and women both have such friendly smiles for them. They get the Chinese word for “pretty” a lot. “Pretty” wild if you ask me.

Tina Furniture Shopping

Went to look at furniture the other day. Thought it might be fun to invest in a pretty table that we could take back to the States. Saw some amazing hand-crafted pieces, very creatively designed and beautifully rendered. The saleslady mentioned that one I was admiring used wood made from Russia. Rather than seeing it as a selling point, I immediately became cognizant that anything I bought in the store might have some political implication, an environmental impact or infringement on human rights.

I asked about the table that I liked the most. Where did that wood come from?


I became familiar with Myanmar last year when I did a play that featured a biographical sketch on Aun Sung Suu Kyi, the courageous, self-sacrificing pro-democracy activist and nobel prize winner that has been under house arrest and intense personal suppression for her powerful yet peaceful opposition to the brutal military junta. The government did not recognize her victory in elections and murdered thousands of her unarmed supporters.

Then, right after my furniture shopping, news came out of Myanmar about the monks that were demonstrating against the government, triggered by a sudden 500% price hike on fuel. The story figures prominently in the news here, and it has gripped me as the number of protesters has swelled to tens of thousands. The monks hold rice bowls upside-down over their heads, symbolizing excommunication of the would-be benefactors in a government that reveres but represses them. The riot police are coming out, and observers are marveling that brutal action hasn’t been taken yet.

The news people now say that China must be exerting its influence on the country with no other “friends” in the world. China’s no beacon of democracy, but the Olympics are driving this country to put their best face before the world. We’ll see in the next couple of days what will happen.

Meanwhile, I’ll pray for the monks. I’ll not buy any of those tables. I’ll think about where my furniture comes from. While this may cause delay, inconvenience and extra expense, I have to heed Aung San’s example. She said “To live the full live, one must have the courage to bear the responsibility of the needs of others. One must want to bear this responsibility.”

Where am I going to buy a table? I’m in China, for God’s sake. But it’s not like I’m putting my life on the line marching for freedom.

(Ads forest) Cristina and I spent all day yesterday shopping for furniture.  Our land-lady didn’t want to furnish the house herself, so she gave us allowance to do the shopping.  We’re on the lookout for 3 couches (one for basement entertainment room where we will build our projector based media center, one for the living room, and another for the children’s room-level play area).  Couches are nice, and about 30% of what they would cost in the US.  I personally fell in love with this dinning room set, german style design, has lots of space under it as it has no posts at the corners… it will go very nice in our wide open main level floor plan.


So i’m over in tokyo for a quick visit and had a blast looking at toys in this toy store that absolutely blows away anything in the US.  the density of toys, in a 6 floor structure, was astounding.  They had an entire section on Ultraman, which the kids are really into even though they have yet to see an episode.  Ultraman is a 30 year old tv show from japan with guys in rubber suits fighting monsters (godzilla style).  The show is rigorously formulaic (each episode follows a rigid strucutre of acts 1-3 with a very consistent ending: ultraman fitghts monster, ultraman starts to loose and his light flashes on his chest, ultraman whips out his power energy move and kills monster…).  It’s just like when the kids started loving spiderman, months ahead of ever seeing spiderman images… something about these toys/concepts is certainly very deep in our consciousness… in the same way that Cristina, Roberto, and myself are all hooked on Heroes tv show–the superhero fantasy is powerful.

At the airport coming home I took some time to play with some of my technology from work–put this video up directly on my blog using “silverlight” technology… to see it you’ll need to install Silverlight on your computer first (click here) but once installed it will work forever and I’ll be putting up more videos periodically.  You can of course also just see the videos on our phanfare site.

In other news today… we have lease worked out and should be moving into our new place next Saturday the 8th of oct.

Meals Meals Meals

We had a series of delightful meals, starting with the LAN Club with just the adults on friday night, where we feasted on exotic/elegantly prepared food amidst the bizarre decorations of this huge, and largely empty restaurant designed by famed french hipster Phillip Starck.  We ordered a australian lobster that was brought to our table live for inspection before preparation… i misread the menu so what I thought was a $!00 lobster turned out to be a $100 per 500g, or $300 when all said and done.  Fortunately it was indeed delicious, along with the other excellent food.  On Saturday we hit the korean bbq in the Lido neighborhood that cristina and I had visited back in June on our first visit to Beijing.  The kids (caetano in particular) were in no mood for a 90 minute sit down, even with the awesome decor and incredible visuals of over 50 different plates of yummy food placed in front of us.  The korean bbq is done on hot wooden coals, brought to your table, and various pork and beef cuts were prepared for us along with delicious pickled side dishes and salads.  Both restaurants must visits for any friends/family that come to visit… we are sure that Tio Joaco in particular will love both and we look forward to taking him. 

Roberto Haircut!

Roberto got his hair cut this week, it looks very good!

Wo Xiexi Han Yu

Learning Mandarin. Our main motive for moving here.

In the Americas, you often hear Chinese immigrants speaking Cantonese.  China has several languages, but Mandarin is the official language, and spoken by over 800 million people. It’s the language with the most speakers! If you have seen art films from China, you have probably heard it. It has a lot of sh and rr sounds.

It’s hard, but I am really making an effort to learn. Once I got here, I started listening to lessons on my ipod, and now have a private teacher a few times a week.

Of course, the secret to learning a language is to go out there, practice, and make a fool of yourself as much as possible. I’m accomplishing this mission with zeal. Most Chinese don’t speak any English at all, but the younger generations all learn it in high school, and some take it really seriously. As part of the Olympic push, people gamely make an effort. This helps a lot, since I can speak only a few phrases and then I’m lost. Someone always seems to swoop in and save me.

My attempts at Mandarin are typically received with embarrassed chuckles, and more often profound confusion. Unlike other languages, you have to really nail the pronunciation to be understood. In Mandarin, I can finally get across “Do you speak English?” and by the time I warble out “I don’t speak Chinese” they usually get it. But I can ask for a coffee, water or beer. Forest can say “diet coke.” “Hello” and “thank you” are the phrases that all foreigners can say. “My name is…” comes out pretty easily for me now, and “where are you from” is one I’m working on. I liked learning the names of countries, and it helped when we were furniture shopping, when I asked where a table was from that we were looking at. The women understood, and when they answered Germany, I got it! (De Guo; America is Mei Guo).

I have been practicing a bit with our driver, and can politely ask to be taken somewhere, although my driver would rather I just get to the point. Forest finally got the words for left, right and straight under his belt. If you are not careful with how you say “driver” you will say something really obscene.

I can say he/we/ I like it or don’t like something. “I don’t know” is fun to say — “Wo bu ji dao,” but it sounds a lot like “you’re welcome” “—“bu ke gi” and excuse me — “dui bu qi.”

We had trouble ordering our sofa today. Seemingly basic vocabulary can be a real problem, such as asking “how many pillows are included.” It took awhile to first establish that Forest was talking about pillows (after one of the salesgirls made a joke about her flab). Then we found out where they were made, what they were made out of, how much they were in multiple fabrics, when they would be delivered, everything but how many came with the couch!

Luckily, we have a couple of people we can turn to for translation–mainly Forest’s co-workers, and the relocation agents. This week is China’s national holiday, and all those people will be on vacation. We’ll be doing lots of pantomime!


Strangers in a Strange Land

We just got our first taste of being strangers in Beijing, as we went to Tianamen Square on “National Day”, which is the beginning of “Golden Week” holiday (all week off for most).  Beijing is flooded with out of towners, many of whom who have apparently not seen much of foreigners before.  The boys were very popular, as we had a dozen or so requests for taking their pictures with the locals.  Here in this picture you can see a very happy chinese guy holding carlos up for his friends to take a picture of them together.  The boys got a little sick of it after a while, but cristina and I thought it was really cute.  There was massive number of people out, probably close several hundred thousand in the square if i had to guess.

Moved into House!

We moved into our house!  Hooray.  It’s going to be so great, the space and layout is fab, it is SOOOO close to the school we could literally throw a frisbe and hit the entrance.  We just need more furniture, i’m regretting that we didn’t send more stuff over from the US. The landlord provided us with a budget to buy core furniture as part of our lease, but it is taking a lot of time to find stuff and we have to get her approval before we buy as she has good taste and doesn’t want us just buying anything, thus we have to shop, take pictures, send to her for approval, then go back, haggle/negotiate, fill out paperwork for delivery, then await.  They are quick, however, so new couches only take 10-15 days as opposed to months in the US.  Cheap too, some really nice stuff for 1/2 to 1/3rd of US price.  We’ll be looking for some antique/wood style stuff to bring home with us someday… we get our Air shipment from the US wed this week, so we’ll have more clothes and some of our electronics stuff, the kids are psyched for xbox, they are video game fiends these days which is cute, but only allowed on weekends so as to not overdue it.  I think I blew the packing and didn’t put any of our winter clothes into the air shipment, so we are going to have some cold days soon and will need to get some emergency supplies–jackets, etc.  The winters here are cold and dry, you can already feel the swift change from fall into early winter, nighttime much cooler than just a few weeks ago when we arrived which still felt decidedly like summer.  They say that “fall is shorter now with global warming”, funny have everything gets blamed on global warming, who knows.

Said goodbye to little bro (didi in mandarin) Roberto, who goes off to thailand Tuesday.  It’s been amazing having him here to help out and share the experience, i think he had a good time and will remember fondly, at the very least he has a huge appreciation for our experience, as both parents with the kids, and as expats in asia!  Will be interesting to hear how he draws on that in his future… thailand will certainly be a blast for him, the beaches/warm sand will be waiting for him.

First visit Hong Kong

On plane just taken off from Hong Kong.  What a truly fabulous city.  The contrast of the ocean, the forested hills, and the dense but efficient vertical buildings, it really is one of the wonderous cities of the world, as it has always been billed to me by friends who have visited.  Driving around the city in taxis i kept looking out the window and marveling at what a strong imprint the city has a unique entity, it felt as though you could have dropped me out of a teleporter and asked me “what city do you think you are in: and within just a few moments of looking around it would be clear to me, even without ever being there before, “this is hong kong”.  Something about its representation in films perhaps, or maybe some images from long ago memories that are now intermixed with noise in my brain, but it definitely has a unique signature that is palpable on just a glimpse of the streets.  I can’t wait to explore more, was only here 1 day, now off to Taipei for the day (Taiwan, will get to see the National Museum where many chinese imperial artifacts are stored, as they were swept away to Taiwan when Chang Kai Shek and his buddies the Nationalists were fleeing mainland), then back to Hong Kong this evening, but then tomorrow off to Beijing.  We’ll be coming here for New Years this year for 6 days, together with Jane and the kids/etc., so we’ll have ample time to explore and see disneyland with the boys, etc.  should be blast, can’t wait to walk the streets at night and just get lost!

Managed to score an iPod touch in the airport, been looking for one for a month now in asia, was pleasantly surprised to find one staring back at me at the counter right by our boarding gate.  Been watching videos on my flights around asia using the smaller ipod, will be nice to have the bigger screen.

Taipei and National Museum

Had a great day in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital.  Arrived to a lovely lunch looking out from the restaurant in a famous landmark hotel that was built and managed by Mrs. Chang Kai Shek herself (the founder of the modern republic’s wife, who led the Nationalist party in China that fled to Formosa to form Taiwan when they lost the civil war to the communists/Mao in China).  The hotel itself was a trip, had an awesome bright red exterior and interior, with traditional chinese looking architecture and decorations.  Very picturesque.  From the restaurant we could see the entire city, which is marked by the Taipei 101 skyscrapper, the tallest building in the world–the weird thing is that it is like 7 times taller than the next tallest building anywhere near it, so you look out over this vast city and see relatively level buildings, and then there is this *m*a*s*s*i*v*e* tower that looks like a big shoot of bamboo shooting up into the stratosphere.  Not what I expected.  Pretty cool, didn’t have time to scale it yet, but next visit will be sure to do. 

We then went over to the National Museum, which is where the national treasures of China are located, since the Nationalists took them with them as they fled Beijing with the communists on their heels.  The treasures were amazing, and we got to see all manner of porcelain (china), jewels, jade, paintings, scrolls, etc.  We got a tour by one of the directors of the museum, with whom we met to discuss some business.  Really neat little excursion, left me wanting for more time here to get to know my colleagues and the city better.  Didn’t have my camera on me so got neigh a shot!

Madrid Side Trip

So I’m in madrid for a few days for a work meeting/summit with colleagues from all around the world.  It is interesting being here and comparing/contrasting to our experience so far in China–as you know, we were planning on moving here and opted for china kind of out of the blue, so in some ways madrid is where we were supposed to be right now… and being here is thus all the more strange!

The food is so bland here compared to china–yes it is delicious, but it is really really really bland!  Also, the place just feels old and crusty and so 15th century… whereas Beijing feels like a 21st century city in the making, with the vestiges of a 2000 year old history/tradition (forbidden city, imperial gardens, and great wall…)  The city feels generally like a small town, compared to the size and scale of Beijing.

As I look around I can’t help but think “this place is dead”… it has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, folks are really into their great quality of life and clean air and pretty buildings, but there just isn’t any vibrancy, any sense of urgency, of what’s coming next… it seems more about holding on to what it was and what it likes to be, but aimless.

This sounds like a huge indictment of spain, i don’t mean it that way–went for a walk in the Retiro park today and it was absolutely lovely, with “maxfield parish clouds” gleaming orange/blue and pretty manicured gardens, then a visit to the Prado for some amazing Goya and Velazquez (and my favorite el Bosco painting)… really marvelous!

But Beijing is SOOO much more… alive?

City Living

Oct 22, 2007

City living with kids has been great: San Francisco and Seattle offered ample stimulation, cultural activity, access to organic food and local products. But we realized that mostly everything worthwhile is made in China. To really shop locally meant that we needed to move to a Beijing suburb.

Kidding, of course, but that is how it has turned out. This month, we moved into our “permanent” digs in a gated “villa” compound. Here in China, villa living means American-style tract housing. When we signed up to live in Beijing, we weren’t really sure what to expect.

I picked an international school located fairly close to Microsoft, and we determined that our house should be within easy access to both. This was accomplished using terribly incomplete maps and unreliable websites. Luckily, it has worked out really well! We walk along tree lined paths and cross the street to get to the kids school. Forest has room for a home office and a reasonable driving distance to get to MS.

I have resisted suburbs for a long time, fearing mental freeze and cultural death, boredom, or Stepford-type hardwiring under my floppy summer hat. Especially in China, we thought we might be robbing ourselves of some of the “real life” experiences we were enjoying living downtown: walking to fun places, buying homegrown eggs from the lady in the alley, watching tens of thousands of Beijingers start their day on bikes.

Knowing the kids would be on a bus for an hour or more each day tipped the scales, and we definitely made the right choice. I go to the city for my Mandarin classes, and we pop over to the big parks, hyper-markets and yummy restaurants on the weekend or whenever we feel like it. The kids have an easy lifestyle. The environment in this compound is very peaceful. There is a blend of Chinese and European families. Kids are in the street, riding their bikes or scooters. I can walk to a little expat-friendly store that sells organic produce and some imported food that we must have from time to time, like smoked salmon or a $10 box of Crispix cereal. I’m still pretending that cheese doesn’t exist in this country because it is working for my diet, but it’s there. In fact, just about anything you could want is available in this city if you are willing to search and/or pay a premium for it…EXCEPT for a copy of the XBOX Star Wars Lego video game that is compatible with a European or Chinese version of the XBOX console. Long story. Don’t ask Forest about that.

We have a full-time housekeeper who speaks great English so she has helped me tremendously with getting settled here. Every day for the last two weeks has featured a different delivery man, maintenance person, repair worker, landlord or building management person, sometimes on the same day. In addition to translating, our young “ayi” (auntie) does all of our cleaning and laundry. But our house is still a Key Family Mess. She’s not a magician after all.

Besides, every night after dinner the boys recreate epic battles of Ultra Man and get the sofa cushions all over, so there’s that.

Well, there’s a rambling account of what is going down here on the home front.

When an Xbox is not an Xbox

Oct 29, 2007

I’m writing this particular blog entry because i”ve been meaning to for a while as this is a great way to share the particular joys we face daily in china, but also because I’m appealing to a friend back home who sent me a rebuff when I asked him if he would please “mule” my xbox back to me on his Asia visit next week (“mule” as in “to carry like a mule, aka, carry as a pack animal”); hopefully upon reading this he will take pity on me and the kids and bring the replacement box with him!

So our boys have not been allowed to play video games until quite recently, sometime in the last 6 months we fell hard off the wagon and have been permitting a mix of games (for their considerable reading and math instructional value) and more recently, Star Wars Lego on Xbox (for its fun factor, coupled with Carlos’ two favorite things in the world = legos and star wars!).  Before packing to China the kids expressed grave concern that there wouldn’t be Star Wars Lego Xbox in China!! to which I reassured them that certainly there would be, and i would take care of all technical matters to ensure a happy gaming experience on weekends when they listened to their mama and were good  boys.

So, the first month in China we didn’t have our videogames of course as they were on the air shipment, but once they arrived at the house on a wed, i promised Carlos that when I picked him up at school that friday we could come home and play Star Wars Lego into the wee hours of the early evening before his bedtime.  This was the friday before I was to go to Spain for a week, so it was the extra sweetener to set him up for a good week with Papa away on business. 

About 10am that morning I started to plug-in the cables, and was remiss in not checking to see the power supply for the xbox; almost all of the computer and electronic devices i had plugged in up until that moment (and mind you, i have 20+ of these things) had supported 110-240v inputs, so i didn’t think twice before slamming the plug into the wall and promptly frying the power source for the Xbox, which I now know only supports 110v with the factory provided power brick.  There was an immediate electrical fire of sorts, which brought me immediately back in time to our years in Chile, when I as a 6 year old had similar fried numerous devices.  Funny how powerful smells are–i kid you not, it was the closest thing I’ve experienced to time travel in a long time!

So, i figured i’d run out to the store and get a new power source / transformer and all would be well.  I had a business meeting with a customer that AM, so afterwards I had a colleague join me at the Haidian area electronics shopping supercenter–a multi-square-block city mall of nothing but electronics and computer parts–kind of makes Frys look small and quaint by comparison, really marvelous!  A mere four hours later I had (a) a repaired version of my power source, (b) the knowledge that procuring a 240v native converter would be $400rmb, but they didn’t have in stock, and (c) for just a few hundred bucks, they would be happy to provide me with a new Xbox, with the added benefit of being able to play ALL xbox games for free–what is known as a “cracked” box–a really bad idea as far as I’m concerned since however tempting on the one hand, it completely undermines the very idea of software as a business and that is a key perception we are trying to overcome here at work/microsoft within the chinese culture/market.  Interesting nonetheless…

So, back at home with my new power adapter, a mere 6 hours after i first attempted to get everything working, I plug-in and find out that my xbox unit has suffered the “red-lights-of-death” failure–that is, the box is broken completely and needs factory repair, a apparently common hardware glitch that microsoft has acknowledged and has extensively procedures in palce to rapidlly remedy… if you are in a market where xbox is legally sold.  In China, xbox is all grey market, that is, the product is not an authorized and supported product, nor are any video game systems, as the Chinese government is not yet granting licenses for such.  They are readily available, but they all come from legal markets such as Taiwan or Hong Kong… and thus are not supported in country by microsoft.  You can get local shops to fix them, it turns out, quick and cheap–but I didn’t know that at the time… so, i packed up my dead xbox and took it with me the next morning to Spain for my business trip, where I handed it over to my colleague and asked him to take to the US for life-support-service and planned to make arrangements to get it back to me at some future date.  Meanwhile, Carlos was heartbroken after the big build up, and i promised him I would return from Spain triumphant with a working game system, intending on buying a new system in Spain.

While in Spain, however, my research led me to understand that Microsoft has “game regions” that tie the hardware and software together so that you can’t use a US game in a European xbox, or a Asian xbox with a european game… that is, my US copy of Star Wars Lego would not work with the Spanish xbox… i’d have to buy the game again at the hefty $60 Euros price ($90! when in the US it had cost me $19.95!), and none of my other games (10 or so) would work.  Furthermore, any new games I bought would have to be european versions, which of course would be hard to find anywhere but… Europe!  Hard choice ahead: one thought was to buy the frickin thing (a bird in hand…) and then see if the chinese “machine doctors” could “fix” my euro xbox so that it could play my (legal) US games?  Yes, a side benefit would be that it would also play “other games”, but my only real gaming interests are Star Wars Lego and Halo 3 which i can get from work… i stared at the box at the Cote Ingles store for a good 20 minutes doing the triage in my head… what to do?  In the end, I took the advise of a chinese friend, who said, “better wait, just buy in china, there they can assure that all works well together”  So I boarded the fateful plane back to Beijing (through holland, where I again was tempted by an Xbox at the airport, with the promise of a credit for the 20% IVA imposed on retail in Euroland).

So, back in the US friday AM when the kids are already at school, Cristina and I go to microsoft office to pick up an xbox loaner system, which my colleague said I could use for the weekend to ensure a high CPE for my family (customer satisfaction index we use at work = CPE); i bring a test game with me from home, not Star Wars Lego itself (that would have been *way* too smart of me), rather a different game that the kids don’t play called Gears of War.  At the office, we set up the xbox (an Asian box from japan) and test the game, which works great. We do some grocery shopping at Carefour, then head home.  I plug the box in, not chemical fire, all seems well, and then jet off to pick up the kids at school.  They are very excited to see me, and really excited when I confirm their worst fear was for not, and “YES, the xbox is working and YES we can play star wars lego”.  We walk home, have a snack, and I go to fire up the box when I learn to my dismay that the asian xbox doesn’t play the US game in question, it just happened to play Gears of War because that game is a “regionless” game, where as Star Wars Lego is a North America specific title, and the game+box combo is dead on arrival!  Oh-my-god, i couldn’t believe I had gotten this wrong and built up the kids’ expectations.  What a let down.  I reassured them that I would run out and be “right back”, and that I would just solve by buying one of the local xbox’s, cracked
r not, and return in time to play the game this evening.  This at about 3:30pm.

So, 8pm that night I’m finally home, empty handed, with yet more understanding of the situation.  Turns out, while the xbox’s sold locally are indeed cracked and can play any game, when they say “any” they mean “any Asia region game”.  As sophisticated as the hackers are, they haven’t bothered to find ways around my particular problem, playing a legal game on a legal xbox that isn’t from the same region.  I’m sure microsoft has reasons for this type of region-specific-security, i guess to prevent 6 year old boys from playing games when they move to new countries and their xbox’s break?  So while I could buy a cracked xbox, it would only be an asian cracked xbox, since nobody in china wants a North America cracked hardware since those don’t play the cracked videogames.  Oh, and funny thing, there is no cracked version of Star Wars Lego because the game is NOT AVAILABLE IN ASIA (Can you believe it) in any form… for some reason it was not published for Asia region at all?)  Basically i had walked into a perfect market that could serve everyone’s illegal whims in china, but not my legal aspirations to pay for the intellectual property!  This is a recurring theme with movies, software, and xbox & psp games–when you want to buy something here you find it is much easier to just buy cracked/hacked/illegal versions–the real versions are not supported by the economic model and the legal market.  It is very daunting for me personally with my star wars lego travails, and looms as a large issue for companies like Microsoft and the US Film Industry/etc.

So, the happy ending to this story, if any, is that Carlos called me in tears at about 7pm when I was still in the throws of my research at a illegal xbox store which was littered with literally 3-dozen xboxes in various stages of repair/disrepair all over the floor… and says to me “i don’t care about the stupid xbox, just come home and play with me”.  Since then he hasn’t asked for the thing, and i’ve made no promises of when and how it will be available again… maybe its a good riddance… but maybe my friend in seattle will read this and feel a ounce of pity for us Beijingers and thus act as a happy mule and bring our now repaired US xbox back to us!  I did purchase a new power source, so barring other acts of god, we should be in business for Star Wars Lego!

Scorpions on a Stick

Oct 30,2007

No need for words on this one.  And yes, he did eat them 🙂

Halloween in Beijing, 2007

Yes, we celebrated Halloween.  I kicked off the true pagan holiday season by shopping at a toy flea market with my friend, Pei, who happens to be a good haggler.  Her secret weapon to getting low prices is being Chinese and a native speaker of Mandarin.  She has a guy whose gives good prices on costumes, and he invited us to go into his storeroom of spooky fun goodies. I got two ghost costumes, two pairs of scary hand gloves, some rubber bats, neat paper calavera streamers, a big spider web and some miscellany cheap toys all for about $17!! If I had gone by myself, it would have cost a lot more or taken a lot longer to get a better deal.

This is how Halloween works here in Beijing:  anyone who lives in an apartment complex or villa compound with a least a couple of North Americans enthusiastically embraces the spirit of spookiness and decorates their doorsteps, dons a disguise and goes crazy for candy.

At the mega-market where I shop on occasion there was a mad rush by Chinese on the pre-packaged bags of candy.  I don’t know if they were all shopping for trick or treaters. Maybe so?

On Saturday we went to a party at Pei & Doug’s apartment complex to celebrate with her family, including Tyler (6) and Kaidan (4), Carlos and Caetano’s Asian counterparts in kiddie chaos.  Tyler and Carlos used to eat in the same San Francisco sandboxes when they were babies, and Pei brought me homemade chicken soup right after Caetano was born, so those guys go waaay back. The boys played blindman’s bluff in the hallways and had a blast.

Wednesday night, C & C got spooky again as spidey and a scary ghost and we went to the Lane Bridge Villa clubhouse for another party.  There were pinatas and food (which I had to elbow old chinese people out of the way for). Then big groups of kids went house to house on the quest for sugar. 

I ran home to give out treats.  In the past few years, I have been stuck with at least one bag of mini-snickers all to myself but not this halloween!  I gave away SO MUCH candy.  Everyone who lives here has a family, because why would you live in the boondocks for anything other than schools and space to ride bikes?  The funny thing is, probably EVERY kid regardless of home country or cultural background came to my house for candy.  Didn’t even matter if they had no costume or didn’t speak enough English to say “trick or treat.”  French, German, Indian, Chinese, Dutch.  All kids love costumes and candy.

I asked this cool Chinese woman whose kids are in the school if they had gone trick or treating.  She said no, they are Christians.  I would have respected her more if she said “we are lazy and couldn’t get it together” or even “we hate American Imperialism and see Halloween as another evil capitalist ploy: candy is the opiate of the young people.”

Oh, in case you are wondering, there was very little American candy.  Lots of hilarious gummy things like fake teeth, trolls, mini-burgers and trippy Chinese hard candy in flavors like corn, milk and pomegranate!

In Case You Didn’t Know

What do people here think of George Bush? Nobody cares. They are not following the election either. China’s got their own stuff going on.

There are a LOT of barber shops in Beijing, but some people go to the guy who’s got a chair set up in the public park.

Taro ice cream is DELICIOUS.

A head and shoulder massage at a spa may include ear wax removal using candles, and it’s very soothing.

Many many blog sites are blocked in China, including Wikipedia. I can’t even see our own blog unless we use Forest’s MS corporate laptop which gets through firewalls.

The olympics are a VERY VERY VERY big deal here.

We pay for our utilities using a pre-paid debit card that goes into the meter.

Some public bathrooms have squat toilets, with the hole in the ground. Some of those have automatic flush, so it’s not like it’s an old fashioned thing.

Chinese people are totally sassy, and when they tell each other off, I love them even more.

The Difference Between Boys and Girls

Nov 4, 2007

I picked up Caetano the other day from school and while I was waiting for his class to come out i was perusing the pictures and stories on the wall.  There was a recent project where the kids had made these cute clay drawings that they they painted, and they each told a short story about their creation that the teachers wrote up and placed next to the work with a picture.  The contrast between the boy and girl stories was striking.  See if you can guess which of these stories was written by girls (2 of them) and which was Caetano’s.

Story #1

My picture is a Pegasus pony playing in the grass.  It is eating grass.  She is paying with her friends.  Her mummy says she needs to eat dinner and she ate all her dinner and then she had a sleep-over.  She had lunch there and dinner there and breakfast there and she payer with her friend.  They played hide and seek outside.

Story #2

This is me sitting in my chair outside having a rest.  And I saw two suns and I saw three flowers.  And I saw a pink flower and an orange flower and a red flower and a blue sky and also green grass with my name.

Story #3

It is going to steal the treasure from Treasure Island.  But there is an octopus in the water comes and grabs the ship.  He cuts off his arm and then they steal the treasure.  Then a shark and alligator comes back and then they chop off the alligator’s mouth.  Then they come and kill the shark and then on the way back a flying saucer comes and then it drops a bomb.  And then it moves out of the way and explodes another shark.  Then they go to the island and they look around for an angler fish.  Then the angler fish comes out of the water and suddenly and then they panic.  They go back to the shore.

Great Wall Rocks

Nov 12, 2007

I think I could go to the great wall 100 times and not be bored with the experience.  This last visit was back to Mutianyu locale,

where we went with brother Roberto last month, this time with friend Adam Brownstein in tow who was visiting on a business trip.  Adam and Caetano and I went for the long uphill treck this time, while cristina and carlos hung out in the golden fall sunshine on a clear day.  Caetano is a real trooper, was game for the physical exertion–until we got to the 80 degree vertical 250+ steps that led up to the end of the restored section.  I carried him on my back  like a compact rumpsack, was a great workout for my calves/legs, and when we reached the top we had glorious views of the valley below.  It’s just a crazy thing to see, as if someone had built a massive wall up to the top of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, and then kept building it all the way to New York!  It isn’t all restored of course, and parts of it are a mere shambles/trace in the ground, but seeing the sections near beijing in all of their crazy glory is a real treat, and a great nature outing from the capital.  Cristina and I joked when we moved to Beijing (as opposed to Shanghai) that we’d always have the benefit of the great wall to show our guests when they come to visit–we look forward to sharing it with many more of you as you make your planned and unplanned visits to us in the coming years!

We are the Weirdos

This week at the kids’ school, a woman appeared to promote her book and give a talk about “Raising Global Nomads,” that is, the challenge of raising kids outside of their own or their parents’ culture.  Robin Pascoe gave a funny and energetic talk highlighting common themes in the life of an expat. She said anyone who claims they have never had culture shock after moving overseas is in denial.

2.5 months into our stay in Beijing, and I haven’t felt “culture shock.”  Expert advice indicates that family members may go through it at different times.  Nobody in our family has seemed to have much trouble adjusting. 

And then today I burst into tears during my Chinese class. 

I went shopping at a mall to eliminate the stress of haggling at the local market place.  Then the sales girl confused the hell out of me, explaining something about the prices in Chinese, taking me (all sweaty in my winter coat) through the whole store again to pick more things out. Further review of the receipt indicates that I came out okay, but it was a little crazy.

Before picking up Carlos, I get an email from his teacher saying he had been crying at every little thing.  When I saw him I just held him, knowing how he felt.  I knew that nobody “kicked him in the stomach” as he claimed.  He just gets sick of all the extroverts he is surrounded by day in and out

Caetano won’t eat anything.  He won’t do eggs, rice, noodles, sandwiches, cereal, salad, quesadillas, tofu.  All the things he used to love he doesn’t want.  But tonight after I picked out the good stuff from my Kung Pao Chicken leftovers, he gobbled up all the cashews, mushrooms and green onions in spicy sauce.  Okay, I get it. He likes MSG.

What salvaged the day was a visit to the fabulous house of a fabulous woman with adorable kids that Caetano played with after school.  She brewed me up some cappuccino and we laughed and all was right in the world.

Basically we all have good and bad days, and we all need friends and good food to get us through the rough spots, not matter what country we are in.  It takes time to find those people you can trust to open up to.  The boys and I have each other, and we are doing fine.  They are just little things, really. 

What’s the word in Mandarin for “weirdo”?

Thanksgiving in China 2007

Lots of people have asked me about Thanksgiving in China.  It is not like Christmas or Halloween, where the spirit of American consumerism is so infectious it spreads everywhere.  China already has its own harvest festival in early October, when everyone gorges on special goodies (in their case, moon cakes) and gets out of town. 

Thanksgiving is a hard holiday to get into as an expat because it is about getting together with family and/or close friends and sharing a feast of traditional dishes usually prepared throughout the day with communal support, and also watching either football, the Twilight Zone Marathon, or newly released Hollywood Blockbusters. 

Here in China, I can’t do any of those things.  Turkeys are hard to come by. So are Americans.  I saw two that were huge and very expensive.  The turkeys that is.  I don’t think they would even fit in my little Chinese fridge.  I thought about skipping the turkey and doing stuffing like my mom makes, but the thought of cooking alone in the kitchen while everyone was at work or school depressed me. 

Forest scheduled a business trip to MS HQ and planned it so he could enjoy a REAL Thanksgiving with Grandma Bess and family.  This had me seething with jealousy for a good week.  Nonetheless, I wanted to create a sense of the holiday for our little family and have a special meal before Papa went away.  I thought a duck dinner at a famous Beijing restaurant, Da Dong, would be a neat substitute–but to no avail.  The kids turned out to be fried and a little sick.  Traffic was horrible and we all had to be up the next morning. 

The Forest and Cristina Key philosophy behind celebrating holidays is Going With the Flow and Not Forcing Anything, so I moved on to plan…what was it by then, plan D?  We ordered in Chinese food.  And the feast included duck, a nice pumpkin dish (the Chinese word translates into “Southern Melon”), great Kung Pao chicken, Chinese BBQ pork and Szechuan green beans. Each of us shared our own words of thanks, prayed for our loved ones, and enjoyed being together.

I hope everyone in the States has a great Thanksgiving too!

How’s our Mandarin?

Dec 4, 2007 – Cristina

I have completed level 1 in Mandarin!  Yay!

What this means:  I can bargain in Chinese and while not getting bargains that locals would, I can hold my own price and get it.  I can say “how much is this?” “I live in Beijing” “That’s waaaay too expensive” “lower it a little more” “that’s not that cheap” and other handy phrases.  I get cultural literacy points for having a smile on my face, not getting mad, not taking it personally and hence not taking the fun out of it. 

Today I went to a traditional pharmacy and bought some cough syrup for Caetano, in Chinese.

I eavesdropped on my driver making plans to meet his wife (presumably) at a bar after work.

I went to a local food-court-type table, ordered noodles without meat and found out where to pay.  I ended up sharing a table with 3 local girls who for the first half of their meal together only talked about the food before moving on to topics that I couldn’t understand.

I’m still too shy to have a real conversation with someone because my vocabulary is still very basic and understanding is hard.  But I’ll get there someday.  I try a lot of stuff out on my driver who corrects me.

I watch kids shows in Chinese and understand 20%, but it’s stuff like “never” “so” “but” “excuse me” “thank you” and such.  Lots of gaps in meaning!

Caetano can say “I want milk” “hello” and “goodbye.”  He learned a really cute little song in Mandarin about friends, and he says the words great but doesn’t understand what any of them mean.

Carlos, between his hour a day at school and two hours with a private tutor one night a week, is picking up some phrases and getting the confidence to try them out on the few non-English Chinese he encounters, such as the cafeteria ladies.  He felt pretty empowered to say he wanted rice the other day (“Wo yao mifan”).  His accent is totally cute and his pronounciation is great.  His tutor is impressed with him, but he has almost no opportunity to practice!

While having an English speaking housekeeper has made life easy for me, it has eliminated one of the few chances the kids have to learn Chinese.   I’ve asked her to speak to them in Chinese, but she is a little shy and the boys hate it since they know she is “teaching” them I guess.  There are kids here whose parents work, and spending 3 hours a day with “Ayi” has them understanding and speaking quite a bit.

I thought about having a local teenager play with them in Chinese, but someone informed me that after age 10 all Chinese kids are studying their butts off.

Carlos and Caetano will go to a little camp over Christmas break that has Chinese teachers.  We’ll see how that goes. 

Meanwhile, we’ll just keep talking to each other about our food in Mandarin!

Happy Roman New Year 2008

Jan 5, 2008 – Cristina

Happy New Year everybody! Want to know how our Christmas in China was? It was the best of Christmas in the US, without the stress and commercialism and (cough cough) religious meaning. It was great!

First, let me clarify that Christmas is NOT a holiday in China. This is an officially atheist country, and Chinese cannot go to church without a Western passport. All businesses are open, and nobody takes the day off. Chinese people do not put trees in their homes, decorate, or personally celebrate in any way. However, in Beijing, Hong Kong and I’m sure Shanghai, the spirit of Christmas is in the air. The holiday is called “Shen-dian-jie” which means, saint’s birthday festival. But guess which saint they think Christmas celebrates? Santa Claus! Yes, they have it nailed. Santa’s image is in all restaurants and shops, and many restaurant and bar staff don floppy jaunty santa caps. It is a secular celebration of light during the dark days, warm feelings in the dead of winter, and non-stop Christmas soundtracks from Bing Crosby to Bruce Springsteen, just as our Northern Hemisphere pagan forebears intended it to be even before the birth of Santa.

I have an American buddy who was lamenting that Christmas isn’t the same, that decorations are half baked, etc. But she is pregnant on bed rest and doesn’t get out much, I’m afraid, because it was plenty festive for me. I went to the big flower market and found a bunch of Christmas deco stalls catering strictly to Westerners. I bought a bunch of ornaments, probably full of lead but so cute. Pine trees don’t smell here, but I got a little live tree for $25 and it really brightened up the house. The boys and I had a little party with some of their friends. My intention was to recreate our Seattle ritual of decorating “gingerbread” houses made of graham crackers with frosting and candy–something we did at their school right before the break.

Stupid me underestimated the degree of technical difficulty in the construction of these houses (it brought back memories of a remodeling disaster in San Francisco). We ended up with one-dimensional graham cracker houses, plenty of frosting and candy, and happy boys.

Christmas Eve was a festive affair, celebrated at Garth and Molly Forte’s house (the preggers one), Beth and Will Knight (also a Microsoft family), “wo de poa poa” Jane (Forest’s mom) and all the kids. Highlights (for me) were: Molly’s yummy tortilla soup, which made me think of my family eating pozole on xmas eve this year, a clothes maker fitting Forest with his surprise cashmere hoody, catching Carlos with his ear glued to the speaker blaring Jackson 5’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, trying on Beth’s floor length mink coat and thinking of the I Love Lucy quotes Joanna, Gloria and Juanita would be throwing down if they were there. Lowlights included bursting into tears trying to assemble the play kitchen at 11:30 at night.

Christmas day was a blast, very casual and lazy, and that night we bundled up and trundled out to a Mongolian Barbecue extravaganza, complete with camel rides, ritualistic goat carving, Tuvan throat singing to a disco beat, Chinese wine and dinner in a yurt with about

5 other families. See our pics online!

After sightseeing with Jane a few days after Christmas, we all went to glamorous Hong Kong to meet up with Adam and Megumu Brownstein (in Tokyo for holidays), Adam and Jess Dawes (in Malaysia for December) and swooned over the fashionable people, trendy and swanky stores, gorgeous skyline, and rang in the New Year at the Inter-Continental overlooking fireworks reflecting in Victoria Harbor. Inter- Continental indeed.

Some of us are looking forward to getting back to our little routines. The boys actually miss school, anxious to see friends. I’m happy to get back to my Mandarin lessons. Unfortunately for Forest, his routine involves lots of travel, and he booked a last minute flight to the US to do some work at MS HQ. He’ll be off to Japan and Tokyo after that. Then we’ll start getting ready for the next big

holiday– Goodbye pig, hello rat! No, not the US Presidential Elections. Chinese New Year!

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