Saturday, August 30, 2008

Shanghai Chic, Volume 1

Shanghai is seriously bursting with energy. The pace of construction alone is mind boggling with buildings being thrown up all around town; people say that China's national bird is the crane. The construction crane. But for me? The energy is with the people.

I am on a serious quest to find and interview the cool people of Shanghai, the ones who are propelling that change.

So when Ted (on the left), the Coolest Person I met at July's YPulse Mashup conference (coveing all things teen & tech) in San Francisco, told me he was swinging through Shanghai via Italy and wanted to get together, I immediately said YES. His hao pengyou (good friend, aren't you impressed with my growing vocabulary?), Evan, brought us to one of his favorite restaurants, Kathleen's 5 rooftop cafe on top of the Shanghai Art Museum. Between the two, they've got the entrepreneurial spirit of Shanghai nailed.

There, looking over the Shanghai skyline lit up like arcade games--or Shanghai women with all their bling--it was the Ted and Evan Show as they regaled me with stories of the Singles Scene in Puxi (the old section of Shanghai). Let's just say I got several ideas for novels from this one dinner alone! SEVERAL. I haven't laughed that hard since moving to Shanghai.

Inspirational in a different way was the tour of my kids' new international school. How weird is it that I was invited to speak at the school two years ago...and now we're members of the school community! The campus is beautiful and vast, housing K-12 students from something like 140 different countries.

If I don't get my act together, my kids will be my translaters. Here's my daughter's Chinese book that the Mandarin teachers said she'd be able to read in a few months...

My hubby and I officially celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary in China. (Unofficially, we had partied it up in LA before our move.) So we brought the kids with us to the Face Bar in the Dongjiao State Hotel where we had a fantastic Indian meal. Totally hip and cool, if a little out there in the boondocks. But there's another Face in Puxi, which we will for sure visit.

My own hao pengyou, Stacey--remember? my kids' former music lao shi (translation: teacher. Impressed, yes?)--took me to one of her favorite hot yoga spots, Y+ Yoga near Xintiandi (this is the refurbished area of Shanghai clustered with old courtyard buildings). I haven't done yoga period for 5 months since I bruised the cartilege in my knee in a flow class. (Say no to advanced jumping techniques!) Can you say out of shape? I sweated enough to water my lawn and my neighbor's lawn.

After the class, Stacey and her husband, Richard, took my family out to her favorite restaurant:

I am for sure bringing my sister to this place. And isn't the postcard darling? Whoever the artist is should be a picture book illustrator! Who are you? And couldn't Stacey be a model? She's gorgeous and I'm sure half of the high school boys at our school are in looooove with her.

The brunch was heavenly, but paradise? Being a paper freak, I found it on Fu Zhou Lu. Here's my new favorite store on stationary street--Jian Lan. Just look at all that paper! For a fraction of the cost as in the U.S. Unbelievable. I went a little crazy and will be collaging soon. (No, really, I will be writing again. Really.)

There was a Tibetan rug store that I wanted to visit (as research for a novel), but they had moved and we got lost. But just look at what we found instead. A lovely little alley of old homes.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bu Yao to the Blues!

After wallowing in self-pity as murky as the unwanted soup that appeared and stayed at my table no matter how much I protested, I decided, enough is enough! Sheesh. I am so fortunate!

Besides, how bad can life be when I finally figured out the perfect way to bribe my little sister to visit. You see, traveling is not her cup of tea; purses are. So look what I found for her at a local market! I'm holding this perfect purse hostage until her cutie patootie self steps into my Shanghai abode.

With a little bit of soul searching, I realized that all the pressure of turning our House into a Home for my family was getting me down. There's only so much furniture shopping I can do. Or bookshelves and benches and carpets that I can drag my kids to look at with me. And then there was the pressure of getting back to work and facing the computer and my unfinished novel and three other book ideas I've been mulling over for a year. A year!

So new rule: for every errand we do, we must do One Fun Thing. Or two. Okay, or three. (I am such a procrastinator on All Things Boring.) And on Monday, I will return to my computer, errands be damned! So I took the kids on a little tour around the JinMao Tower where my hubby works. (It's the building that looks like a modern pagoda or so the architect thinks--and was once the world's tallest building until guess who came along? The building behind it.)

Afterward, we walked over to the Oriental Pearl Tower, which is such a weirdly fantastic building. (Notice the purse I bought for myself to match my sister's! Sue, if you're reading this blog, just look at how CUTE the purse is! CUTE! Don't you need to come visit me and collect yours?!)

Then it was over to the Ocean Aquarium that boasts the longest underwater tunnel where sharks swim right over your head. How cool is that?!

Now, here's a little known fact about me: I rather like arcade games. Not the shoot them up ones. But anything that requires a stick and bopping, sign me up! So imagine me finding a Japanese taiko drumming game--a precursor to Guitar Hero. My giggling embarrassed my kiddos who started stepping away from me when a crowd gathered to watch my drumming prowess. Who knew?

And wonder of wonders--guess who is teaching music at my kids' new international school? Their former piano teacher from Seattle! Can you believe it? Stacey is a yogini of the highest order and she's introducing me to three yoga studios in Shanghai. Just don't tell my orthopedic surgeon who lectured me on the dangers of yoga after I bruised the cartilege in my knee from an advanced jumping technique.

Then...I booked myself into a Mandarin class not far from my home. The first class is on Tuesday. And I will NEVER have an unwanted dish arrive on my restaurant table and stay there because I'm too incompetent to tell the waiters, Take. It. Away. (Many thanks to blogger buddy Emily who counseled me on email after my previous post on the effectiveness of a loud and emphatic: BU YAO!!!!!)

Just say BU YAO to the blues!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Culture Shock!

Frankly, I had always wondered why so many women living abroad joined the American Women's Club, stayed put in their tidy expat compounds, and when they ventured out, traveled in packs. Now, I do.

While we've been able to laugh (usually hours AFTER the fact) at our stupid newbie moments, during them, it's all sweat and tears. Language isn't just a barrier; it's the Great Wall.
Take today.

I went foraging for furniture. (Although...take a look at this cute sofa I found. Are the orange accessories a yes or a no?)
Anyhow, all the guidebooks said to go to this one antique shop. I should have known better. Can you say tourist trap? But, heck, we traveled a full HOUR to get to the place. Rather than call it a waste of a day, I learned that just 2 kilometers away was an old village.
So off we went, all happy and proud of ourselves for being adventurers.

And then came lunch.
I decided that one week of acclimatizing to Shanghai wasn't quite enough time for our stomachs to handle street food.

So we ducked into a little restaurant, crammed with people, where I thought I was ordering won ton soup. Instead, I got...

...the bowl of mystery. Under full disclosure, it was an expensive bowl of mystery.

My "bu yao" (I don't want it!) didn't do much to remove the bowl from our table. Neither did pantomiming that no-I-did-not-order-this. Clearly, I need to study my Mandarin more. No translation required for the tittering among the waitstaff. *sigh*

And just to wallow in my ineptness, let me just mention my first grocery shopping expedition to Carrefour. You would think: hey, it's a French company. I'll be able to get around this grocery store just fine! Uh-huh. And you would think: hey, I'm a regular shopper of the Asian food stores in Seattle. I'll be able to get around just fine. Repeat after me: uh-huh.

There was no preparing for the sheer number of people in the store. Nor the bewildering array of products, most of which I have never seen before. To be blunt, I went catatonic. As in I was able to steer my cart, but not much else. I literally put 3 things in my grocery cart. Meanwhile, my husband dumped the entire contents of the beverage aisle into his cart.

So I was very much relieved when I took the kids for an evening stroll back at our home...and there, waiting for me on my computer, was a message from one of my best friends from college. We now live 10 minutes away from each other in Shanghai. She announced that she was back in town!
I am so eating humble pie tonight...and let me tell you, it tastes good. YAY! A friend who speaks my language and knows her way around Shanghai. A friend who I can hang out with. YAY!

Friday, August 22, 2008

China, Jai You!

Whatever language I had been faithfully practicing every day in my car to prepare for this move, it was clearly not Mandarin. People have been staring blankly at me, head cocked to the side in a mixture of confusion and amusement and irritation, whenever I've tried my few words and phrases. Embarrassing.

After the deafening cheers in the stands during yesterday's kayaking races for the Olympics, I turned to the Chinese guy next to me and asked him what he was yelling: "Jai you!" He said, "It means, go!" Last night, I asked my friend, Alex, what it really meant, and he explained, "Literally, it translates to 'add oil.'" When you want to win or go faster, you need to add a little fuel. I love that.

So while my family slumbers on this morning, I thought it was about time that I committed my personal resolutions for the next year in China in blog. Here's how I want to add a little fuel for myself! Justina, jai you!
  • Acquire some basic Mandarin language skills! While it's impractical to think that I'll be fluent in Mandarin after a year, I'd like to be proficient enough to have a real conversation. Not just a transaction of information: where is the bathroom? I would like two orders of these dumplings. You know what I mean. Exchange ideas. And really, it would be absolutely amazing to get fluent enough that I could speak with my mom. Have a true conversation with her.

Translation: hire a Mandarin tutor, make sure to get out of my expat compound and practice the language with real people!

  • Write my next novels! So my agent kicked me in the rear end when I saw him in L.A. a few weeks ago, telling me it was time to Get Back to Work. The truth is, after my last book tour which lasted almost SIX months, I was burned out. Absolutely and completely burned out. I took the entire summer off of writing. That's one long dry spell, longer than any I've ever given myself. Even when I was launching readergirlz with Lorie Ann Grover, Janet Lee Carey, and Dia Calhoun, I was writing--and even finished North of Beautiful during our most intense time. As my writer-friends have assured me: I have just been filling my creative well. I think they're right. Now, I am yearning to get back to the empty page and spend hours writing. I have four (count them, four!) book ideas that I've been ruminating over the past year or two.

Translation: commit to writng 3 full days a week and 2 mornings a week.

  • Throw myself into the China experience! My year in Australia with my husband flew. Absolutely flew (except for the first few months when I had to adjust to all the racism...). So I know my time in Shanghai will be fast. I want to get to know the city, the quirky neighborhoods, the secret places to eat and shop. I want to travel in Asia (and have already booked our trip to Bhutan!). And I want to meet the cool, creative people who are changing the face of China now: the architects and designers, the directors and producers and writers and artists, the entrepreneurs.

Translation: set aside a day a week to explore the city. Pick out the places we want to visit in China and Asia. And interview cool people. This is all about feeding my creative well.

  • Take exquisite care of my family, friends, and self! And of paramount importance to me, I want to make sure my family is safe and happy. So I want to do what I can to help my kiddos acclimatize to their new home. (That might mean volunteering at their school as a writer-in-residence since my eldest still--so far!--doesn't have a problem with me being onsite with him. I realize this will change sooner than I like.) One of my very best friends from college lives 10 minutes away from me now in Shanghai! I definitely want to devote some great quality time with my girlfriend. And finally, the big 4-0 has proven to me once and for all that my metabolism is slooooowing down. Must work out. Every. Day. Or I will take on the shape of a round Shanghainese dumpling.

Translation: breathe.

And take new exercise classes: try out tai chi! fencing! heck, racewalking!

Geocache with my family! And just have fun.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Real Olympics

And let the Games begin! After a marathon shopping expedition at Ikea in Shanghai where we picked up sheets and towels and rubbish bins and candles (what can I say? I need my candles), we powered through the traffic to the airport.

Beijing bound, baby! Here's my hubby and I with my daughter's obsession (and reason why she was excited to move to China: the Friendlies, mascot of the Beijing Olympics!).

We arrived at the Olympics Sporting Green to a deluge of Ark-ian proportions. The gray skies didn't put a damper on our excitement. What did was my husband "forgetting" to pack the brand-new, ultra-cool man purse that I had purchased for him back in Seattle. Oh, don't even get me started on my own travel bag angst. After years (years!) of searchng, I have yet to find the perfect handbag for traveling, one that is chic yet can hold a car's worth of just-in-case supplies. (Don't scoff: look who has a raincoat...and who doesn't.)

Anyhow, let me return to the Man Bag offense. So I found the perfect bag for my husband fitting all my requirements: hip enough for the coolest guy, able to hold a ton of stuff. Translation: I would not have to be the sole family sherpa of all things. Someone--who shall remain nameless--conveniently forgot to pack the man bag. So I spent the day participating in the first of the Headley Olympics events: Man Bag Spotting. (Note the guy standing behind us. What is he carrying over his shoulder? Oh, that's right. A Man Bag. )

And the winner of the Man Bag Spotting event?

Providentially, our first tickets were for the two events that our kids competed in this last Track season: racewalking and turbo javelin! Here's the remote control car the Olympians got to use to transport their thrown javelin back to the pit. How cool is that?

Even so, jetlag set in after the first two hours...

Then, on to our Marathon Subway Expedition to the women's soccer. As a rule when we travel, we try to stay away from taxis (expensive, traffic, etc.) and travel by public transport. The Beijing subways are awesome! Clean! Well-signed! Now, the toilets... Yes, you got it: in my ginormous travel bag, I had (thankfully) tucked in our own toilet paper. Thank goodness.

By weird happenstance, my former yoga teacher's little sister is the goalie of the U.S. Women's soccer team. Hope did an amazing job defending our goal. Woo hoo! The U.S. team won the gold in overtime! And my kids take the gold in Power Sleeping on the go.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Ni hao! And so our life in China begins.

The night of our Big Move, I couldn't sleep. So at 3:00 a.m., I just got up and cleaned the house. My parents had mentioned that they would try to come wish us goodbye. We waited and waited. No sign of them. As we pulled out of our driveway for the last time, there they were, ambling down the street. My mom looked so sad that I wondered whether we were making a mistake, leaving the country. Leaving them behind. But my husband reminded me, "They're visiting in a few weeks."

Three movies on a plane later, we arrived! (Question: was Anne Bolyn truly as conniving and cruel as the movie made her out to be? Now, I'm curious and want to read about her.) Traveling with 6 suitcases (not to mention 2 stuffed animals, 1 guitar case, 4 carry-on backpacks, and 1 loaded Kindle!) was a shock to my system. I--Ms. Traveling Light--never check luggage if I can help it. I like being unencumbered. I like walking off the plane and being directly on my way. When my husband and I moved to Australia for a year (before kids...and those are the operative words), we took one suitcase each. One. Each. That was it for the year.

We all woke up at 3:00 a.m., hungry and totally wired. As we waited for stores to open, we took a walk (already stifling in the thick, hot air) and then escaped into the air-conditioned Tourist Tunnel underneath the river. There, we hopped on a tram, narrated as part horror show (weird heh-heh-heh laughter) and Disney.
Foraging for food was a good reminder that we were in a different country. Here, luckily, everything was translated into English. What I liked was ordering our meal via placemat. We just circled whatever we wanted.

Then it was on to the first store to get basics for our new home: towels, sheets...mooncakes. The mid-autumn festival (celebrating the full, fat moon and family) is in a few weeks, and already the mooncakes are out in stores. Even ones selling linens! This is the fanciest box I've seen:

Picking what we wanted was easy. A half-dozen salesladies fluttered around us. Paying for what we needed took a bit of time. Cash registers aren't at the front of the store. Instead, we finally spotted a cashier, located in the perimeter, in front of the changing room. Two people cut right in front of me. And that's when the "exciting" and "surreal" concept of moving to a foreign country became reality. Finally, I tried out my feeble Mandarin when a third person squeezed in front of my cart: "Bu!" Which communicated effectively enough: the line is behind us.

Off to Beijing tomorrow for the Olympics!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Parting Thoughts

Here I am, on the eve of leaving America to move to China for our year abroad. It's been a lovely whirlwind of family and friends that's often felt like my own Olympic of goodbyes.

My emotions by Wordle:

The week started with a last goodbye with the readergirlz divas where we toasted each other for our great year and conspired on new literacy programs. And then my mentor, Janet Wong, who refused to let me take her picture. She didn't say anything about me blogging about her though.

Then it was on to the annual Meat-and-Corn Fest at our friends Bill & Kristin's home. If there are any people who can make miracles happen, it's these two.

Yes, yes, Kristin is a genius and bestselling author (The Motherhood Manifesto) and political activist (Moms Rising). But Bill? He can preside over Congress. He can start businesses. And most importantly, he can bake! Here it is, my very own China pie a la Bill.

Then my sister and kids ventured to the Puget Sound Blood Center with me. There, we met some of the crew who, after hearing about Girl Overboard, thought we might have some mutual interest in getting more minorities to give blood and register for the National Bone Marrow registry.
Not only is my sister gorgeous, but she'll be attending nursing school in a few weeks. She was fascinated with our tour: from the blood extraction to the bones warehoused at the center for surgeries. I was...faint. Who knew that bones and heart valves could be...freeze dried. (Fine, fine, there's some scientific term for this procedure, but look at this ankle bone for yourself. Freeze dried, yes?)

And then! At last! My buttons from the wonderful Kyle at Button Arcade arrived just in time. (Love Button Arcade.)

As a present for all the wonderful authors who have blurbed my previous novels and my readergirlz crew, I had their book covers turned into buttons.'s supposed to be a surprise. But I just had to share since there buttons are so darn cute! Can you name all the books and authors? (Major shout out to Lorie Ann Grover who coordinated this project for me as a PRESENT to me! I love that woman.)
And then...the goodbyes. To my mom and sister. (I can't even begin to express how much I will miss them.) To my kids' track team. To my writing mentor, Janet Lee Carey and Janet Wong. To my readergirlz buddies, Lorie Ann, Dia Calhoun, and Holly Cupala.
And one last goodbye to my local library. I love libraries, and I especially love my local one. Let me ask you this: how many librarians come to your house to say goodbye? How many librarians email you to assure you that they will help you research WHATEVER YOU NEED?!

It's a good thing they offered. Because I need a lot. (Of books, that is. And friends. And family.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Word Obsessed

Dreamtime is such a beautiful thing, important when writing. Integral to living. And let's face it: a euphemism for procrastination.

Without dinking around, I would never have found Wordle. Nor would I have created a few new Wordles (doodles with words). Waste of time or moment of joy?

Wordle 1: My China Year Hopes

Wordle 2: readergirlz love

Wordle 3: Sisterhood

Join me, all you word obsessed ones! Create your own Wordles and show them to me. (It's always more fun when other people procrastinate with you.) And if you're a writer, tell your agent and editor we're working. Flexing our creativity. Really.

Crazy about Words!

Yes, it's true. I am obsessed with all things Moo.

You will be, too, once you check out for the adorable and eye-catching minute-sized business cards and stickers. So while I was trolling around Moo, I came across text-based designs.

Meet my new obsession: Wordle:

Type in your favorite quote or various words and the program automatically generates Word Art for you. Here's mine for North of Beautiful.

What's really amazing is that the program developer gives you full rights to use your creation on T-shirts (that you can sell, if you're so inclined)...or develop your own Moo card designs! How generous is that?

Moooooo... Will you Moo, too?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Real, At Last!

Never mind signing the book contract. Or holding the bound book after months (heck, years!) of writing and rewriting. Never mind seeing it in bookstores to make you realize, oh my goodness! My words are in print!

Nothing signals that you're a bonafide author than having your picture taken by Sonya Sones, wonderful novelist, former film editor, and fabulous photographer.

When I was in LA a week ago, Little Willow and I filmed a bunch of YA authors for our new endeavor: rgz TV. A ton of them have Hollywood backgrounds, which made it more nervewracking for ME than for the authors, I'm sure.
You can catch the first of our interviews up on Watch Paula Yoo ripping on her violin with sass and verve. And Sonya--witty, charming, gorgeous--giving the inside scoop on her latest book. And then she turns her camera on all of us.

It's nothing but fun at readergirlz! Especially when I'm editing the footage for these videos and giggling at all the (lame) special effects I'm (lamely) using.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Charmed, I'm Sure!

When I wrote the Mama Lecture Series in Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies), I never really thought I'd be scripting my own lectures. But here I am, telling (lecturing) my kids that nothing really matters in life except for friends and family. (This, I'm sure, will come back to haunt me when it's back to school time and the kiddos are slacking off: But, Mom, you said nothing mattered more than friends. I want to hang out with my new ones in China!)

How important friends are has become so clear now that we're down to our last week in the U.S. LAST WEEK! LAST 7 DAYS!!

In between getting our final shots--who knew that there'd be a run on the rabies vaccinations in the U.S.?--we've been saying our last goodbyes to dear friends.

(Note: The Japanese encephalitis shot hurts.)
Readergirlz diva Lorie Ann Grover has been a great sport, going geocaching with me in the HOT, DRY heat in Winthrop where I love to write.
Then, she and Dia Calhoun sent me off with the most gorgeous readergirlz yearbook, filled with photos of everything our group did in the last 18 months! 31 Flavorite Authors! Operation Teen Book Drop! Books for Your BFF! And all the authors we've brought to teen readers over the year.
Dia also created a geocache in honor of North of Beautiful!

Here we are, sneakily hiding the cache together in a super secret location for other treasure hunters to find.

Two nights ago, my StrataGem group--the fabulous women who worked with me to help women and children--threw a party for me. It was the first time in 2 years when all of us were able to get together on the same night (except for Birgit who lives in Vienna). It was a miracle, I tell you. They created a charm bracelet for me with each of the charms symbolizing a special moment together. Like the Christmas box for the boxes we created for kids in third world countries. And the snowflake for our retreat at the Sleeping Lady Lodge where we figured out how to fix the world! (Of course, fixing our own worlds--how on earth do you balance family with career with philanthropy?!--was and is a conundrum.)

And then the readergirlz of Seattle went (what else?) geocaching with me for one final time as we filmed footage for a future North of Beautiful video.

Pictured here: Dia Calhoun, Jackie Parker (Interactive Reader & postergirlz), Holly Cupala, Sara Easterly (rgz publicist), me, Lorie Ann Grover, Janet Lee Carey, and Nancy Pearl (honorary readergirlz).

Friends, I tell you. They make up a charmed life.