Yu Garden: Lanterns

Known by its many different names such as Yu Garden, Yuyuan Garden, Yuyuan, Yuyuan Bazaar, and Old Town, Town God Temple, Yu Garden is a classical Chinese garden that dates back to the Ming dynasty. It was built by a wealthy official to please his parents as a place for them to enjoy a tranquil and happy time in their old age.


During its centuries of existence, it had undergone many changes. The garden that we see today is the result of a five year restoration project which began in 1956. It was open to the public in September, 1961.

With its wealth of history and secluded location, the garden inside the walls makes you feel as if you’re entering a bygone era of Shanghai – clean (or cleaner) air, birds chirping, a quieter place to gaze upon elegant pavilions, fresh greenery and pools teaming with corpulent goldfish. And, you are quite right, don’t go during the weekend.

I don’t go there often, as it is not very close to us, need to interchange from Line 2 to Line 10 after a bus ride. Being very popular, it is usually jam packed with crowds of shoppers, domestic and foreign tourists and people who love to just wander in the garden, looking for the same bygone era escape.

I heard it is a great place to get Lunar new year trinkets and curios. Red lanterns, toy horses, and red envelops are among the bestsellers for the upcoming year of the Horse that starts this Friday, January 31. The day when we went to Yu Garden was on the 23rd day of the lunar month. On that day the Kitchen God is believed to return to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor on every household’s performance over the past year to help him decide whether to reward or punish a family. Therefore tradition goes that every family pastes a drawing of the Kitchen God above the stove on the day he returns to heaven. Honey is spread on his lips to make sure he only speaks sweet words.

This tradition was revived by a skillful artisan practicing the paper cutting trade of the Kitchen God right on the spot, which attracts a crowd of gawking onlookers.

Amidst all this lunar new year atmosphere, kiddos and I were most attracted by the lanterns – they are hung everywhere, on tree branches, rooftops, walls, with all different shapes and sizes, yellow and red and gold colors. Yu Garden certainly knows how to ring in the year of the Horse in the auspicious way!

Happy New Year!

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Oh the Joy of the Golden Pig

My daughter is a Golden Pig.

She is very much into the Chinese zodiac sign these days and comes up with questions that I have no answer to. Why was the year she was born called the year of the pig? And why was it then golden?

She seems to be happy with my answer so far.

Why is it the year of the pig? This is what I tell her, the tale passed on to me by my mom.

Many many years ago, around the Chinese new year time (which occurs on different dates from mid-January to mid-February), Buddha called upon the entire animal kingdom for a meeting, but only twelve animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig) showed up.

Buddha then honored them in the order of their arrival by endowing upon them with a year of their own. From then on, each successive year of the Chinese calendar bore that character of the animal that gave it a name, and so those born in specific animal years are marked by the nature of that animal.

People born in the year of the Pig are peaceful, tolerant, generous, innocent, might be too sincere and naïve sometimes to the extent to do themselves harm. They’re wonderful buddies, straightforward, patient, rarely criticize others. They are intellectuals with a very strong need to set difficult goals and carry them out. They enjoy simple and existing richness of life. They possess considerable determination. If they set their minds on something, they will continue to pursue it until they attain it. Though generally tolerant, Pigs can turn vicious when absolutely being backed into a corner. Pigs are occasionally dreamers, but sharp enough to understand what’s going on. They are kind and light hearted and usually go to sleep easily.

Ah I can see about all the traits in my daughter except the last one. She certainly doesn’t go to sleep easily, not quite pig-like (now I am not speaking from experience though). It would take her an hour or so to fall asleep, I would say, if not more. I get a chuckle of the part that Pigs turn vicious if cornered. Aren’t we all like that? But for my golden pig, yeah, don’t mess with her! She’ll have all her hooves out to strike back!

Rumor has it 2007 the year my daughter was born was the year of the Golden Pig which comes along once every 60 years. Not 12, but 60 years! Children born under the pig’s patronage or sign will benefit from the animal’s image as chubby, happy, prosperous and are destined for riches and a life of good luck.

The year 2014 will stand out as quite successful for the Pigs. All the nice qualities in a Pig are very much valued by the Horse, the host of the year. Being an idealist, the Horse especially values the down-to-earthness of the Pig. Natural caution and healthy skepticism will help the Pig get some fat and not become a sausage. However, in the next 12 months the Pig will have to run after the frisky Horse. It will not be easy, after all, the 2014 patron will have a hot temper and quick feel, but what can you do if all the opportunities are on her back! Go after him! Pigs must keep pace with the rapidly changing outside world.

In general, everything will continue to be peaceful and idyllic for the Pig. The universe seemingly decides to reward the Pigs for good behavior. In 2014, be confident in yourself Pig, and then the Horse will surely turn your life into a chain of pleasant events and happy coincidences!

There you have it! I don’t usually delve into astrology, not that I have anything against it, it’s just that I am not educated in such matters. But it’s fun to read about it to get a chuckle or two. I love it that the year of the Pig, or the Golden Pig year showers extra powerful blessings on those born that year.

Do you have a Pig in your family?

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Much Needed Air Purifier

We had a few days of good to “perfect” air, and both kiddos and I thought the pollution was over. Can you blame us? We actually saw the blue sky with white fluffy clouds hung around, a beautiful sight!

Just when we were breathing easy, the smog came back.

Last weekend, we had to stay indoors for both Saturday and Sunday. Both kids were itching to go out, but couldn’t. The feeling of being trapped is not good. We were hoping it would be a temporary setback. “Maybe this week would be better, just be patient.” My good coaching resonates only feebly as a result of them being cooped up two days in a row.

Today is worse, with the AQI (air quality index) number hitting almost 300! Inside our apartment, our two precious air purifiers are running full speed, full horse power to help us breathe easier.

This whole pollution thing reminds me of four years ago when we first moved to Shanghai. After settling in with the most basic household stuff, one of the first things my smart husband insisted (I use “insisted”, because I was not too keen on it) on buying is air purifier, not only one, but two. We have multiple floors, with the kitchen, living room area and bedrooms all on separate levels. With two air purifiers, we can enjoy cleaner air on the living room and the bedroom floors.

Four years ago, the pollution was not as bad as now, at least I didn’t see it and didn’t choke on it. It was not visible to the eye and tangible to the touch, now it is.

Oh wait! Didn’t I write about Shanghai’s pollution lately? Yes, I did, and this is indeed my second in a really short amount of time. You probably think I have nothing better to write, or that I am really frustrated. The truth is, I am frustrated beyond belief.

Putting aside my frustration, this post has another purpose, a noble one. I hope that anyone who is considering moving to Shanghai, and who stumbles upon this blog post (lucky you!), please get yourself a good air purifier (or two). Your lungs will thank you!

The two purifiers we have at home are HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorption) ones, which trap particles along with a fan to pull air through the filter. They are pricey, about US$700 each, but they are for large room use and are totally worth it. As a parent of an asthmatic child, I am happy to report my child’s asthma symptoms are gone. Who knows? Maybe the air purifiers did/does its magic!

Some of my homeschool mom friends told me they wish they had bought their air purifier sooner so that they could have used it longer and the lungs had enjoyed fresher air. With the nature of expats coming and going, some of them bought the purifier just for this massive flare of pollution only to find out that they are leaving Shanghai after a couple of months using it. So my advice, get it as soon as you arrive. You’ll need it!

Today we planned on going to the Foreign Language Bookstore on Fuzhou Lu with friends from the neighborhood. We normally go by bus, then switch to metro line 2. Not a glamorous way of going places, but to help cut down on car emissions, I need to adhere to my new found awareness of green living.

But the irony of the day is, we had to opt to taking a taxi because of the horrific air quality outside. I feel the pull towards being green friendly, at the same time, I didn’t want to let my children wait for however short the amount of time at the bus stop. That’s how the dark force won in the end, and we hopped in a taxi.

Shanghai city government is pretty proactive in trying to cut down on the smothering smog and high ozone levels with such plans as limiting the number of cars on the road, etc. Let’s not talk about the results now, and some may say it’s a little too little too late. Anyway it just put into place an emergency system when the AQI hits a certain number, half of the cars are going to be pulled off the road.

That’s all great! But when this policy REALLY takes effect, I bet I can’t rely on taxis to get out of the house anymore, because taxis will be hard to find. So I have to stay in for a good cause. But for how long before I go crazy? Well, we’ll find out. And I’ll let you know.

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Entrepreneur Fair

Our Pudong homeschool group meets once a month. Every meeting we try to come up with a theme, “entrepreneur fair” being one of the most popular ones.

This fair is a great way for the kids to be creative. We all try our best to come up with unique ideas for either a product or service.  Not only that, it also provides an opportunity for the kids to recognize the importance of the economy in terms of buying and selling, profits and losses.

All the selling booths look fantastic. There are beautiful artwork, cute crafts, tons of tasty treats, services, all trying to get your attention or money!

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She is the proud seller of rabbit droppings, chocolate droppings and peppermint bark, etc

She is the proud seller of rabbit droppings, chocolate droppings and peppermint bark, etc

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The artwork booth - my two children's creation - is a smashing hit

The artwork booth – my two children’s creation – is a smashing hit

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Time flies!  The meeting is over before you know it. We have to wait for a month to meet again. Can’t wait!

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What’s the Rush, Ent Mom?

I’m increasingly impatient with my kids these days, especially with my daughter who is six, who is slow at eating, slow at putting her clothes, socks and shoes on, slow at getting ready to go out for fun, for class, for basically everything. Whenever I rush her, she’ll roll her eyes and say in the most laid back tone, “What’s the rush, mom?”

I am one of those people who can get ready to go out in five minutes. But for my daughter, no way! It takes an excruciatingly long time to get ready for her ballet lesson – the tights, tutu, shimmer wrap-around, matching blouse – all great and wonderful, but the time it takes? I have to exert all my mental power not to raise my voice.

One of the afternoons, she was doing just that, getting ready for ballet. The kid did everything herself, and just as I was ready to step out of the door with her, she took her shoes off again. Why? Her tights are not perfectly aligned with her toes!

“Hurry up! The class will be over soon!” I snapped with an obviously agitated voice.

I didn’t even feel like mentioning the ent joke that we always make whenever she is slow. I sometimes call her ent girl, and she likes to call me ent mom. All in good humor and cheer.

In the mythical world of The Lord of the Rings created by J. R. R. Tolkien, ents are tree-like creatures, who actually herd the trees and protect them from all kinds of dangers and perils. Ents are not hasty creatures, they take their time. With imagery and sensory technology, Peter Jackson‘s movie version portrays the slow moving ents so vividly that we can’t help but react to it emotionally, like walking in the way the ents do. My daughter enjoys the idea of ent children and ent parents. She is an ent girl, and I am an ent mom, even though I am fast moving.

But at the moment when I was in such a rushed mood, even our joke had lost its touch to cheer me up. I was just enraged.

I wanted her to be fast at everything. What if she goes to school later in life and falls behind with every activity? What if we are late for school to begin with? What if she is slow at test taking? Or slow at following instructions? Can you imagine she is only beginning to react to the teacher’s question while the smart looking kids already shout out answers?

My worries are more than the slowness at putting the shoes and socks on and getting out of the door. I worry about years later if this habit will make her not excel and be the very best she could have been.

My daughter always makes me feel better by telling me this story.

Mom, stop worrying. One time in my drawing class, the teacher asked us to draw sunflowers. Other kids only drew one, but I drew ten and all of them are good. See? I can be fast if I want to.”

Exactly! She can do it if she wants to. I need to learn to let her be. I need to learn to let her work and do things at her own pace, to give her freedom and learn in her own way. Not mine.

This reminds me of one of John Holt‘s classic books: How Children Learn. One of the paragraphs is particularly moving to me. “The only good reason for playing games with babies is because we love them, and delight in playing these games with them and sharing in their delight with them …. Take away the delight, and put in its place some cold-hearted calculation about future IQ and SAT scores and we kill the game, for ourselves and the baby. “

Yes, I am doing just that, killing the game. I am too busy calculating the future and carving out the unknown. In the course of doing that, I am not trusting my daughter. In the name of rushing to classes and for her own good, I act like a tyrant and feel like a saint.

Holt describes it vividly in his book:

“Do what I tell you!” roars the tyrant. “It’s for your own good, and someday you’ll be grateful,” says the saint. Few people, feeling themselves powerless in a world turned upside down, can or even wish to resist the temptation to play this benevolent despot.

I admire my daughter’s spirit of staying true to herself. No matter how I want to mold her into someone she is not, she remains the one she is meant to be, not giving in to my tyranny and authority. She is the one making the rule for herself in the end. My ent girl can be fast when she wants to! Most of the time, she sees no need to that. She’d rather be slow, steady and do everything her way at her own pace. The socks have to wrap her feet perfectly. She would not settle for less. That’s how she sees and interprets the world at the moment.

Her favorite way to win the mother daughter power struggle?

What’s the rush, ent mom?”

She is obviously not impressed with my robotic accuracy, efficiency and speed and wants to do things her way. Who am I to make her early life run like clock work?

Whenever I am away from her for a couple of hours (which is rare), I miss her terribly. Her calmness has become such a reassuring support in my often frazzled world. I cry for wanting to change that, for rushing her, for reprimanding her, for the confusion, uncertainty, ignorance and suspense I have caused in her world.

I want her to be an ent girl. More than ever, I want her to be herself. She is at a perfect age, sweet, caring, loving me with no condition. I don’t want to change a thing about her.

She is so right in her rhetorical question, “What’s the rush? ” I know as well as she does that in our hurry to the next destination, our steps are harried, and we miss out the truly wonderful scenery along the way. I am now more determined than ever not to impose my accuracy on her.

Ents are very strong, as recounted by Merry and Pippin: “… their punches can crumple iron like tinfoil, and they can tear apart solid rock like breadcrusts.”

If only Merry and Pippin knew there is an ent child in my home! I know from first hand this strength is not merely physical, but in every other way.

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Pollution, Pollution, Pollution

We all have our routines. Some people check the weather first thing in the morning before heading out of the door for work, others check their email communication with family, friends and colleagues. But our morning routine lately is quite different. Oftentimes my children report the air quality index (AQI) number when I am barely out of the shower. It has become their habit to check the day’s air quality, something they’ve watched and learned from me doing every morning. We want to know how polluted our city is, and what kind of air we are breathing in our lungs. Is it Moderate, Unhealthy or Very Unhealthy or worse? With that information, we can then decide the day’s activities, if or not we can go out for some air – I hesitate to use “fresh” here, or we’ll be stuck inside.

Learning about the AQI is a recent thing for all of us. Both the Chinese government (The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection) and the US Consulate monitor the air quality, and both have developed a color coded system to keep people informed. Particles in the air are measured at different times of the day, then a number from 0-500 is assigned as the overall air quality of the day, or the period measured. Since it is measured several times a day, the numbers are different depending on the time it’s being checked. For example, at 8 in the morning the reading is 180, but that number may go down to 100 at 3 in the afternoon. The air is categorized to be Good (0-50), Moderate (51-100), Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (101-150), Unhealthy (151-200), Very Unhealthy
(201-300), and Hazardous (301-500). Good is green. Moderate is yellow. Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups is orange. Unhealthy is red. Very Healthy is purple. Hazardous is brown (which makes perfect sense!). While green and yellow are appealing to the senses, purple and brown are heavy, thickening and sickening. Visually disturbing.

This color coded number system is certainly informative, but what is lacking is which part of the city is sampled for the actual measurement. If some Puxi neighborhood is measured, does it mean Pudong has the same air quality, therefore the same reading? I often doubt that. Puxi is a lot more densely populated than Pudong in terms of housing and traffic. But I shouldn’t be too concerned about it, because looking out of my window will give me the exact information I need, an idea if a big gulp of the outside air will refreshen or choke me.

Life as expats in Shanghai is not easy these days, especially for old timers like us. The “Let’s do this.” and “Let’s see that” kind of excitement is mostly, if not completely worn off. We’ve seen Shanghai, the good, bad, wonderful, weird, absurd and all. Now with this smog, not only are our lungs suffering, our mood goes down the drain, too.

Call me melodramatic or boring. After all, who wants to read or write about pollution these days when there are so many popular topics out there? But things are not looking up after a whole month of living in a smog ville. If tomorrow will be better, then I am definitely making too much fuss, but it’s not like that. We are really killing ourselves in the name of economic growth.

I read an article recently about how Beijing, an infamously more polluted city is less polluted these days. The author said Beijing had been shrouded all year around by the thick smog because the city is surrounded by pollutants inducing provinces, where steel and cement making is the main money making industry. Since Beijing’s air quality is so closely tied to these provinces, the central government has decided to shut down these plants and move them to the southern provinces such as Jiangsu and Zhejiang which are far from Beijing, but are actually close to Shanghai. Too bad for Shanghai, isn’t it?No wonder a joke is going around in the country saying Shanghai is catching up with Beijing, even in terms of air quality!

That’s one of the reasons Shanghai got its pollution. Good to know, sad, too! Why does it have to be that way? One city enjoys better fresher air by spacing itself from these plants, and the other one has to inhale the thick smog only because these plants are dropped next to it? These man-made rules are totally unfair. Or a rush of wind came and dispersed the polluted air from Beijing to Shanghai?

So here is the problem. When Beijing’s air quality is improved, Shanghai’s is deteriorated. I can see that from the reading. Very often, when Beijing’s AQI reading is coded yellow, Shanghai’s is always red, or vice versa. The two cities’ reading is like a yo-yo, one is up, the other one down. We can’t be happy as long as the bad air is dispersed from our front door, can we? Things are not right this way, the temporary good air can change in a split second by a different atmospheric pattern.

It all boils down to one thing, we are all connected. Global village is not just a saying, it is a reality. We can’t even pick up and move to a different place, because there is nowhere to hide. Who knows? Maybe the city you are moving to is just the city that air pollution will be dispersed to. Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul. We are not immediately next to each other, but the bad air can find us. Our actions have consequences, a concept we teach our children.

China has one of the fastest growing economies, and we can see the result it brings. People drive their own cars and take pride in it. There are more factory owners in a room than we have enough fingers to count. The wealth is shown in the latest hi-tech gadgets, the branded cars, shoes, clothes, accessories they are wearing, the astronomical amount they are willing to spend on their children’s education. That’s all great! But at what cost? Clean air, clean water and healthier lungs? Our beautiful skyscrapers which are supposed to showcase the creativity of our mind are disappearing right in front of us. We all sigh that it would be nice if we could progress without putting our lives in danger and destroying our environment.

Almost every morning for the past month I wake up to the vivid reminder that I have to keep my children home for another day because of the heavily polluted air. A Shanghai Daily article dated Jan. 6, 2014 says that the city had only 8 days of good air in December of 2013. That means a majority of the time the city was heavily polluted. Dec. 6 2013 becomes a day everyone remembers here, when the AQI reading was off the chart!

However, the problem is, even with the sad reminder outside my window, my habits are not changing much. Recycle? Take public transportation? That’s for other people. I admit that I recycle the bare minimum. I try to use a little less paper towel in my daily living. But the fact remains I can’t even give up the convenience of taxis, it’s cheap and convenient and available, and best of all I don’t have to share my space with other riders. I know this sounds selfish. Another sad fact remains that you can find people like me everywhere. Watch how much waste going to the bin next time when you fly. Think about air travel, and all the cute little paper cups. Plastic cups. The silverware inside a plastic bag. The individually packaged salt and pepper packets. Untouched meals, etc., etc. Every meal service involves a phenomenal waste. Every time I fly, I have the guilt conscience that my family and I are contributing to this waste.

When I feel powerless as a speck of dust, I remind myself of this Chinese proverb, “Dripping water can pierce a stone”. It means a small but consistent effort can have a powerful impact. Even though I am just one individual, the collective force toward the making of a better environment can be very powerful. If we all recycle, reduce, willing to use public transportation, the world will indeed be a better place.

“Awareness without action is worthless.” I forgot who said that but I’ve heard of it from somewhere and I like it. In the spirit of the right action, this year I want to live a more environmentally friendly life. I am going to turn off the tab while I brush my teeth in the morning and at night. I am going to cut down the use of paper towels and napkins. I am already using public transportation more than before and I am going to keep that up, even though it means I will be pushed and shoved on the metro train. I am using a reusable bag for my grocery so that I no longer need plastic ones. I am not going to use any paper plates, plastic cups and silverware for the kids’ birthdays. Giving up the clothes dryer would have been hard, but mine broke and seems beyond repair at the moment, so opting to clotheslines is a natural (pun intended) choice. Anyway I think these goals are attainable, so if they are not attained, I will be truly disappointed at myself.

I am only a drop of water, totally insignificant, but together we can form an ocean. I am going to be mindful next time when I use earth’s precious resource. One drop of water matters, literally and figuratively.

This long winded rambling gives me hope of a clear blue sky so we can all go out and play! Maybe very soon checking the air quality would be a thing in the past. That day can’t come soon enough!

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A Belated Post: Trying to Remember the Year of the Snake

My last post doesn’t do justice to the year 2013, here is a more well-rounded view of this past year:

I wrote 53 new posts, not an impressive number compared to those outstanding bloggers who write on a daily basis. Insignificant as it is, I tried to write something each week. Some weeks are inevitably quieter than others, but overall one post each week was my goal.

Not much international travel. We only took a trip to Kyoto, and saw Japan’s finest temples, shrines, gardens, and markets. It was a great trip, but very cold there in February.

The rest of the time we were hovering between domestic cities. Beijing, Xi’an, Suzhou (twice), my hometown Shahe (twice). We took a lot of trains, mostly high speed, spent time in airport lounges, and train station waiting rooms. Our children climbed the Great Wall for the first time, saw the ancient city Xi’an and its Terracotta Warriors. We also experienced the epic crowd in China’s travel seasons, when “highways were turned into free parking lots, high-speed trains struggled to shut the door, armed police had endless missions of helping evacuate stranded crowds.” (from my earlier post) You get the picture!

We also managed to visit Chicago, where we still have our beautiful home. Not only did we see Grandma and Papa, we also visited our dear friends that live in Ohio. It was great to see them! The rest of the trip found us running in and out of doctors, dentists and ophthalmologists’ offices (thankfully for checkups), visiting friends and neighbors.

The timing of our trip back home was a bit off, to say the least. When Shanghai was relatively cool, we left it, just to come back to the record breaking heat that lasted too long for its residents to bear, during which most people suffered and some unlucky ones died because of the heat.

The cool breeze of fall did not bring the change of colors, carved pumpkins, or rustic leaves in Shanghai, at least I didn’t see any, but what I did see was smiles on people’s faces, those triumphant smiles after surviving the oppressive heat.

October found us busy preparing for our first family camping trip, my very first camping, too. It was monumental because I had successfully overcome my fear of being attacked by an angry robin or a beastly squirrel!

About the same time, I got my first Kindle, a gadget I fiercely resisted for the longest period. I have been reading non-stop since the day I got it. Having read about 20 books, I am still hooked to my gadget, one of the things I can’t live without.

This was a year that I couldn’t even pretend it’s good for Shanghai. In spring, a strain of deadly bird flu virus tormented the city, meanwhile over 10,000 dead pigs drifting on the river, followed by a unprecedented hot summer. At least those are old news. The city is now taken over by another dark force hanging around and doing its dirty job. Smog.

According to Chinese zodiac, the year 2013 was the year of Water Snake. Water changes all the time, continuously. It also changes shape to fill the shape of its container. Snakes shed their skins. It was a year when nothing stays the same, which was the momentum of the past year. No one can predict the future just like not one single post can summarize the entire year’s knickknacks, or those that are too deeply personal, complicated, unfinished or unresolved.

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