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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

'tis the season . . .

Unexpectedly, the recent Thanksgiving holiday and this month's Christmas are very much front and center here in China. Thanksgiving seemed to slip by the average Chinese almost unnoticed but not so the large and vibrant expat community. For at least a month before, English-language publications and websites were talking up the US holiday, dispensing tips on where to go to get provisions for a celebration at home and which hotels and restaurants were serving Thanksgiving dinners.  Markets started selling Butterball turkeys and pie bases (cans of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie filling are always available at the expat markets) and Sanlitun - an area that contains many embassies and high-end international brand stores - lit up the trees along its streets.

Nobody who has a facebook account could fail to notice the holiday, whether one's friends were taking the date as an opportunity to be thankful for all they have or simply posting turkey and pilgrim jokes that ranged from humorous through obscene (and often both). Social media may well be as instrumental in globalizing celebrations as the Web was in cementing English as the world's lingua franca and as television has been in disseminating the "American dream."

In what has become a China Daily foreign expert tradition of its own, a colleague organized a trip to an amazing restaurant/eco-resort that sits in the shadow of the Great Wall for Thanksgiving dinner. Because of work schedules, we attended the "reprise" on the Saturday evening rather than the Thursday event. I've attended the last two years, with an out-of-town US guest last year -  the organizer-in-chief has been for the past four or five years. Despite losing our way (the site moved from the restaurant to the eco-resort), rain, motion-sickness (not I) and horrific smog, the evening was fabulous. As were the fellow guests (including a table of Australians I made a point of harassing, because that's what we Antipodeans do), the food, the wines, liqueurs and live jazz.

As was our host, Jim Spear, who is fully deserving of his own post.

Reader, as Bronte might have writ, the post becomes a little darker here but I promise a spark of light throughout.

In one of life's bad jokes, Thanksgiving this year fell around the time of the anniversary of my mother's suicide (sorry family, but I'm incapable of calling it anything other than what it is). It's a sad anniversary I share with a treasured friend whose baby girl died that day before we even met. I was surprised I wasn't as upset this year as on previous years, but perhaps we are getting to the point where we have grown accustomed to the loss and the pain and the date itself is irrelevant. The space they occupied will always be empty, no matter what day it is.

Having breezed through some other country's holiday with no ill effects, I find myself coming up on Christmas, which has always been a sensitive time, Mother-memories wise. And the melancholy snuck up on me unexpectedly. Which is okay, because I felt a little guilty about not being overly sad on the designated day.

But it is tempered more than it has been in the past. I've been less tolerant than usual and gotten mad at an acquaintance over something I would normally laugh off, but I'm coping, with a little help from my friends.

Two of those friends took me to a Christmas bazaar last weekend, which not only restored my faith in human nature but gave me plenty of ideas of how I may be able to contribute to my new home, outside of work and friendships. Many of the stalls belonged to nongovernmental organizations and i was surprised and heartened by the range.

One organization teaches marketable skills to women lured to the country's capital with the promise of legitimate jobs that are anything but, another houses and educates visually impaired orphans. We shared our lunch table with a woman whose friend started a group that teaches skills such as baking to people with mental challenges.

Since leaving Korea, one of the things that has been missing from my life is the opportunity to volunteer - to help others who weren't born with the accident of place, race, health or potential that I was.

I now have an overabundance of choices and am researching the options.

I'm very tempted by crazy bake - helping the mentally ill cook will remind me of my family (typed with love). Or, for 300 kwai a month, about the cost of a good bottle of wine here, I could sponsor a visually impaired child. The latter offers the opportunity to visit the home and farm but I'm not quite sure how viable that would be for a non-Chinese speaker.

There are other options to peruse also, and a little time to go until Christmas.

But I'm thinking that my Christmas gift to myself (if we ignore the necklace I bought at the bazaar) will be to give something back.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Deadlines . . .

I need deadlines, a target, a goal, a commitment . . .

It doesn't mean I will make them. One of my favorite quotes from my of my favorite writers:

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Mine don't whoosh so much, because I get to set them myself. To some degree. (I don't freelance because I would starve but I pitch stories to my employers, and then am expected to write them.)

When there is a space to fill that I might have a story for, I get reminded that a story is expected to fill a particular space.

Then, and unfortunately, only then, I draw in all the threads of the tale that have been roaming free in my mind, try to identify the strongest and track down it's supporting friends. I love it, I love writing, I love finding what it is about each story that might ("might") grab the reader's interest and hold them, but I'm really bad at doing it without a deadline.

So, tonight, I took a "rest" day from my gym, baked brownies, made curry and texted my subject with questions that the deadline made seem more important. I already have all the background - now it's about making it sexy (newspaper sexy, that isn't actually sexy).

I have a deadline.

I have to deliver.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A wise investment . . .

I joined a nearby gym shortly after I moved to Beijing but found, for many reasons, I wasn't using it as much as I would have liked. It wasn't simply laziness or procrastination, but the gym had inconvenient hours (it didn't open til 0900 and my work day started at 1000, and it was always too busy in the evenings), was more set up for body builders with half the cardio machines out of order on any day, and had such primitive change and shower facilities I never used them but rode home to shower and change.

With my membership about to expire and the gym under new management, I was promised things would change and offered a great deal to renew. By then, however, I'd talked with friends and colleagues who went to a health club in a hotel a little further away and a lot more expensive, and decided to check it out. A friend who was also a member of my gym but never went came with me and we decided to join together (and got the couple discount).

Being in an upmarket hotel, I'm now paying per month what I was paying for three months at my old gym, but the luxury of the surroundings and the vastly superior facilities make it well worth the cost. I have gone from struggling to manage three 30-minute workouts a week to working out at least six days a week, usually spending two to three hours enjoying the gym, pool and wonderful sauna. On working days, I go straight from work and am joined by my friend when he finishes 90 minutes later, which means I do at least that long on the treadmill and/or elliptical each night. Add a swim and sauna to that and I'm sleeping much better than before. Days I'm not working, or Sundays when I start late, it's easy to spend hours there listening to music on the headphones provided (the machines all have iPod docks so I just plug in my phone and dial up a station) then luxuriating in the sauna (there's a steam room also, but the dry heat of the sauna is great for my asthma also).

The change rooms and facilities are top of the range also, as you would expect.

I've barely lost any weight yet, but am measurably fitter and stronger (lifting heavier weights, running faster and longer at a lower heart rate and recovering quicker each time). Best of all though, I'm vastly happier and more tolerant, as well as sleeping better. Even on days I really don't feel like going, I always feel better after I've been.

It's definitely money well spent!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Paris, in a sports car . . .

it is early morning on my last day of my first visit to Paris . . .

and I can't help but think how far I have come, not simply in miles, and how much further my family's next generation will go . . .

when I decided to come here, I wanted to "ride through Paris, in a sports car, with the wild wind in [my] hair" (I still may, I have almost a full day left)

I loved The Ballad of Lucy Jordan  when I was younger - it had all the angst a young girl wanted

BUT, I didn't quite understand why her life was dependent on her husband and children:

Her husband he's off to work
And the kids are off to school
And there were oh so many ways
For her to spend her days

She could clean the house for hours
Or rearrange the flowers
Or run naked through the shady street
Screaming all the way
OR, you know, she could have taken control of her own life and booked a trip to Paris and rented a sports car, or a gigolo, or whatever she thought was missing from her life

I never dreamed, as that young girl, that I would be in Paris, or living in China, or most of the paths my life journey has taken so far

but I was fortunate enough to have a mother who taught my siblings and I (and they have passed it on to their children) that life is what YOU make it

she also taught me that being human means making mistakes, and that's ok also

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

One taxi, two planes, three airports, three trains, one bus, two very sore feet and an awfully tired Kiwi . . .

Sunrise in Frankfurt

At 3 pm local time, I finally arrived at my Paris hotel, 21 and a half hours after stepping out my apartment door in Beijing.

Phase 1: Beijing to Frankfurt
I thought I might have trouble finding a cab close to midnight in torrential rain but it only took minutes. I tried to relax as my driver raced along the highways at normal speed despite the amount of water on the road, passing the other sensible drivers with hazard lights on and driving sedately, and managing not too aquaplane too badly. I was of course at the airport with hours to spare, but luckily had a distracting book with me.
The flight was uneventful and the two French-Canadian women seated in my row were very pleasant but, having barely slept on Monday night and then had to stay up to catch the 0205 flight Wednesday, I was so overtired that I could not sleep. Being in a aisle seat didn't help. I watched three movies on the way.

Phase 2: Beijing to Frankfurt
Frankfurt Airport is lovely, even if you're so tired you feel like a zombie. The food there is better than many restaurants I've eaten at and at reasonable prices. I had three hours to spend before my connection so explored the concourse for an hour, walking off the stiffness from the plane and deciding where to eat, spent an hour enjoying the best sandwich I've ever eaten (no exaggeration) while watching the sun rise and another hour reading.
The flight was only 70 minutes and uneventful, but it seemed strange to see so many well-dressed people on a flight when you spend so much time traveling in Asia. I imagine most were just popping next door for business meetings, like my neighbor who only had his computer and a briefcase and spent the flight reviewing a contract.
I was also surprised that, even for non-EU passport holders, once you're in Europe now, that seems to be that. My passport was checked at Frankfurt and I was asked where I was going and for how long, but didn't provide any proof and simply exited the airport in Paris with no sign of Customs or Immigration.

Phase 3: Airport to hotel, Paris
My friend had told me this was simple - metro from Charles De Gaulle Airport to Gare de Nord, walk to Gare du l'Est and transfer to line going to Rosny-Bois-Perrier. Hotel was about 500 meters from the station, he said.
It might have been easier if I was so zombified by then. And if I had been able to find any maps of Paris online before I went that overlaid the street system and subway system. Lots of either available, but nothing that gave any sense of where the hotel was in relation to the subway stop, or even how to get from Gare de Nord to Gare du l'Est. .
After buying a transport pass for the five days I will be here (long lines for that) and picking up a good subway map, I noticed a line that adjoined Gare de Nord and went to my final stop, which seemed easier than negotiating roads between the two when I didn't even know which exit I needed.
Got to Gare de Nord and had lost my five-day pass - they're about the size of a raffle ticket and did recall seeing one on the ground while waiting for my first train but was so tired I didn't even pick it up and look at it, thinking mine was safe in my pocket. I did wonder if the owner might have a problem exiting his or her destination station but that was all.
The owner did, and got to buy a pass again, which would have paid for a taxi to the hotel, I'm fairly sure.
Then was the problem of finding where to take my connection from and which platform, and thankfully the French are much more tolerant of people who barely speak their language than they have a reputation for. But it's a line that splits just before my destination, so you have to be sure you're taking the correct train. Which should be easy if you know the alternate end destinations, or so one would think. Except the one I took missed my stop and the next, so I then needed to come back again.
Once finally at the right stop, I looked at the map of the local area and the street I needed to get to wasn't on it. Ready to cry with sheer exhaustion by now, I asked a shopkeeper who sweetly took me outside and showed me the bus to take, I told the driver where I needed to go and he told me the name of the stop I needed (all individual, as in Beijing) and let me know when we were two stops away.

My relief at getting to the hotel proved less of a relief when I realized just how budget it is but, having showered, changed and walked to a nearby Carrefour to buy things I expected would be supplied, I'm feeling more positive. The WiFi won't work in my room or on my phone, it seems, but there's a comfortable lobby where I'm tiredly ensconced.

I'm sure tomorrow will bring much more interesting adventures . . .

Friday, August 8, 2014

Powerless - a forgotten post

A quick explanation - the Kiwi, who is technologically challenged, to say the least, just got her first hard drive and, perusing files before saving them, found an old post that never got uploaded. Because, as you will read, the power was off:

April 9

I woke this morning to no power – it was the silence that woke me. I first noticed the absence of my air filter, which provides white noise as I sleep. I checked the dial, the connection, then realized everything was quiet. I tried to turn on a light, and nothing happened. I dressed, checked the hall and a neighbor's apartment, and all were powerless. It's daytime, but I would still expect to see a single light in one of the many buildings outside my window – I don't.

Being a writer, with an overactive imagination, I leapfrog over the most obvious reasons directly to an end-of-the-world scenario and realize Beijing, China, isn't where I want to be for the end of the world.
Aotearoa, my home, is. So, because that's the person I am, I consider how to get there, and survive.

I also quickly realize, if my fictional scenario became real, that, failing death from chemical annihilation or conventional weaponry, I'd probably be a survivor. I know how to grow food, I can teach others, I can forage, I can make do, I can find a port, find a boat, read a chart and sail to my homeland. Which, fortunately, happens to be the place I would want to be for an end-of-the-world scenario, even if it weren't my home.
Thankfully, it is.

I'm also very good at making friends, even when we don't share a language, and even better at being meek, mild and invisible when needed. The ability to calm people and direct their anxiety into useful tasks will probably stand me in good stead also. People like to feel they are doing something useful.

So, having realized that I can and will survive, excepting “Acts of God,” and unable to do any of the work I had planned today without power and an Internet connection, I shall go back to bed and store some sleep, just in case I have to cycle to the outskirts of Beijing tomorrow to buy food from farmers (before they realize money has no value), then find my way to a harbor and a boat. Then home.

I will sleep peacefully knowing that my often erratic life path has equipped me perfectly for such a task.

Then, most likely, wake when the power comes on and go back to my series on Ambassador's Spouses, interview New Zealand directors for a preview on a Film Festival, cycle to visit my colleague in hospital and meet other colleagues for dinner. While knowing, if the worst were to happen, I could  always make my way home . . .

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Power of the Press . . .

I'm not sure about other writers, but in this world of citizen journalism, social media mediation and falling print numbers, I often feel I am only writing for myself, my subjects and their immediate whanau, and my paycheck. (None of which are worthless)

Then, occasionally, I get reminded that other people read and comprehend what I write . . .

I wrote a profile on an amazing Irish artist back in June, and went away feeling I could have written SO much more, but I'm limited to a word count for the paper. I could have easily written a magazine article from the interview and the person.

This week, Niamh contacted me to tell me that a director at CCTV, China's major TV station, read the article and was intrigued and contacted her. CCTV is now filming a 30-minute documentary on Niamh preparing for her solo show. The exhibition venue has also been upgraded.

The funny, funny thing - the documentary on preparing for her show is really getting in the way of, you know, PREPARING for her show.

Well done Niamh, I will be at the opening . . .

Friday, July 25, 2014

Pam . . .

It's been a bad month . . .

Except it hasn't, it has been a month filled with friends and travel and abundance, but all of that has been overshadowed by the untimely death of a wonderful friend and family member, and I have allowed that to make everything else meaningless.

Pam, who family and friends are farewelling as I write this, would be the first to kick my butt for that. Though she would be much more likely to pour me a glass of great wine, show me her latest shoe purchase and laugh about the world with me first, over fabulous food.

Being away from home so often, I never spent enough time with Pam. I remember when I first met her, that I was amazed someone so smart and vibrant and alive had chosen my brother (apologies, Kevin, you always did attract class). At that time, she was running a bakery and my mother, a cook also, loved her and worked with her.

When Georgia was born, Mum watched over her with love so Pam could keep the business humming and I, even so far away, was regaled with how beautiful, smart and promising this child was.

And is . . .

Those few times I returned home, Pam was my home, more so than people I had known all my life. Totally accepting, always positive, nothing but good memories where I sometimes had bad.

It's a cliche, I know, to say someone has been taken too soon, or that he or she was a truly beautiful person, but none of those are cliches when it comes to Pam. She was taken too soon, for many more people than just me, and she was a truly beautiful soul.


Today I feel grateful for knowing her, and for her love of life, her sense of fun, her ability to see the light in the darkest times. And the best way to honor her is to try to make those qualities part of me.

I will carry her forever in my heart, and see her in my niece and family, and try to feel more blessed that we knew her than that we lost her.

She would not want to remembered with sadness, but with life.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Editing the editor . . .

*heavy sigh*

as an editor, I need to step back and allow people to edit

BUT when someone wrings most of the color from a story, it hurts

I just have to remind myself that I get paid regardless and have the  largest possible audience imaginable in China

Here is what we ended up with . . .

Saturday, June 21, 2014

One day . . .

In explanation, I'm reading "Zoli" by Colum McCain - a gift from the Irish artist I interviewed recently

It struck chords - m' Da, as far as I know, had Rom blood and I was proud of being a gypsy as a child, them I roamed further afield

not so welcomed

BUT, it's a book about poetry, and life, and where life takes you

enough introduction - I wrote a poem (it's my first since age 16 so forgive me if it's not good)

The Next Time

The next time I come home
I will be a conquistador
aka a tourist

I will explain my homeland
my tangata whenua
as if I were selling wine

because I am

I will weave stories
enthrall with our creation myth

knowing that I will leave

The next time I return home . . .

Diamond Harbor, Rapaki, the Lyttleton ferry
My surrogate father,my unfulfilled  mother

'The next time I return home  . . .

Monday, June 9, 2014

Adventures of an Artist . . .

This is only a snapshot I took to remind me of Cunningham's work while I was writing, but is stunning and a piece I would love to own.

It's strange how you can meet someone socially, spend time with them and their family and yet not suspect some of the most important parts of who they are . . .

It was like that with Niamh Cunningham at first. The wife of a fellow journalist, I first met her when we went on a group trip to the Great Wall and a ski resort not far from Beijing. I knew she was Irish, as is her husband (though she and their son have stronger brogues), learned she was an avid swimmer and liked her instantly. But we never had any in-depth conversations.

Then, a month or so back, one of my editors asked me if I could do a profile on her and her art - I hadn't even known she was an artist. I set up the interview, arrived at her home, and was blown away by her talent, her drive and her prolific and diverse body of work.

The resulting article is here . . .

Friday, May 30, 2014

Lucky Kiwi . . .

I'm a big believer in creating one's own luck. I also believe in the Law of Attraction, karma and paying things forward. When I'm functioning at full strength (I get caught up in negativity sometimes and fall down a black hole that can take some work to climb out of, but positive is my default), I expect the Universe, God, Gaia, Buddha and people to be kind to and with me, and they usually are. When life bites, as it does at times, I try to accept it, learn any lessons I need to learn (and I'm incredibly stubborn about learning lessons, so life gives me constant reminders) and let the bad be the contrast that allows me to treasure how much good I have in my life.

But sometimes, when I expect life to hand me gifts and it does, I can be pretty damned annoying. This may be one of those posts.

You have been warned . . .

Two weekends ago, I returned to Seoul to attend the 6th New Zealand Seoul Wine Festival with a bunch of great friends. It's organized by fellow Kiwi expat Simon Walsh and the amazing Suuny Myung, who run Tiwi Trade and import wines from Aotearoa to Korea, and held in the Waterfall Garden of the Hyatt - one of Seoul's premier spots on a sunny afternoon. I invited the Chudy-Buddy who allows me to use his spare room when I'm in town and puts up with me, Allison invited two of her friends and I arranged to meet up with most of the Seoul-Kiwi crowd while there, plus some honorary members. The only person missing and missed was our ambassador, Patrick Rata, as work called him elsewhere.

A few weeks before the event, Simon started posting links to the vineyards participating, including many of our very best. I had already decided we would start with the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc and then my friends were on their own. He also posted a list of fabulous prizes for a raffle, the grand prize being a trip for two from Seoul to Christchurch, flying Singapore Air and staying in a gorgeous hotel in Singapore for a night each way. I told my friends I was going to win it.

Which I did, but I'd sampled enough of the 90-odd NZ wines on offer by then to not notice or care. Thankfully, the Chudy-Buddy stepped up and claimed it for me and I learned about it when I read his facebook status update early the next morning. He apparently also won a few prizes himself, and people were booing him by the final time he stepped up to claim one. (Important note: the raffle was not in any way rigged, I bought 13 tickets and that's a lucky number for me.)

So, here I am with a return trip for two to my tangata whenua and no idea who to take. Then I thought of the perfect person - a friend/surrogate family member I stay with whenever I'm in Norfolk, VA, who loves to travel, has recently retired for the second time and loves Aotearoa.

I'm going to bookend Chinese New Year with a week worth of holidays and spend about two weeks traveling my home land. Diamond Harbor, Littleton, Rapaki, Sandymount, Otakou, Cromwell, Wanaka, Alexandria, the West Coast, Picton and Wellington, then drive up the North Island to Auckland. Go sailing, maybe visit Rangitoto Island, then fly back to Christchurch and out.

It will be a grand tour, on a grand scale. I hope to see a lot of my whanaungatanga along the way.

BTW, next year is the Year of the Sheep - where better to see it in than the Land of the Long White Cloud . . .

Friday, May 9, 2014

The ambassadors' spouses: Part 2 . . .

I'm also writing an occasional series on the spouses of ambassador's to China, which started with the Argentine wife of the New Zealand ambassador. Being a New Zealander, she is now acting almost as an assistant on the project and introducing me to other spouses. (Once, again, the benefits of being from a small country, while overseas.)

While I was in Seoul last week, this profile on the wife of the Moroccan ambassador was published . . .

Thursday, May 8, 2014

New Zealand on film . . .

another recent article was on the New Zealand Film Festival in China . . .

A still from Eternity
I've once again fallen into doing a lot of New Zealand-related stories, just because I hear what's going on and suggest we cover them.

One of many things I am very happy about at China Daily is that they welcome my stories, and pay extra for them. A win-win situation . . . 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bicycling Beijing - the column . . .

While I have been rather remiss with this blog of late, I have been writing for China Daily and this column was printed today - complete with my own cartoon . . .

(Apologies to Steve - the editors changed "friend in Korea" to "Korean friend" - it's hard to get good help)

Friday, April 11, 2014

The salon . . .

I have a very awkward relationship with this blog - it's partly a journal, where I store notes for if I ever get around to expanding on them; it's partly, or was, a portfolio of what I can write, but there are other sites for that now; it's partly a place where I can write letters to friends without needing postage; it's partly a response to the few people who hate me (there would probably be more if I got out more); occasionally it's a big fuck you to things I don't approve of . . .

It isn't, and has never been, a means to invite readers, or fans, or whatever we call them these days . . .
I write. I edit. I observe. I help journalists in the country I am in.

I freely admit I could be completely wrong about every observation I make. That is why I don't get paid to editorialize, and the blog is just current feelings.

So, if you're here, welcome to my salon - please be polite in your criticism

I've had responses to things I have written that I found hard to believe, and all I wanted to do was stand in front of those writers and ask if they would say that to someone they knew by name, or even saw in person

but, because you're not being "THAT" person, welcome

Friday, March 21, 2014

PGR's Classy Response to the Death of Fred Phelps Sr . . .

Anyone who hasn't had their head in a hole is aware that Fred Phelps, founder of the controversial Westboro Church, was announced dead this week. Not surprisingly, a lot has been said about that on social media, much of it in a spirit of celebration. I've been expecting to hear, "Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead" repurposed in Phelp's Sr's dishonor.

What has surprised me are the strongly hateful reactions from those in my social networks whom I know to be fervently Christian, to the point of proselytizing constantly. Their problem with Phelps and his church was the hatred it displayed, yet they seem to see no contradiction in displaying that same hatred toward Phelps. Motes and beams in eyes spring to my mind, as does casting the first stone, but Christianity has no exclusive claim on hypocrisy.

In 2011, on a motorcycle road trip through the U.S., I met with Fred Phelps Jr and a brother, Jon Phelps, at the home of one of them in Topeka, KS. I had tried to attend their service the previous day but, being a little nervous, tried to enter the church at the last moment and found it locked. I then e-mailed, explained I was a writer from New Zealand traveling through the country and had some questions I'd like to ask, and was invited to come back.

The main question I wanted an answer to was what is at the heart of every person and every story - Why? Particularly, why they did the things they do, why they increased the grief of those already suffering, why they thought their God equalled hate?

They had their own agenda, about which they were very forthcoming. They believed any publicity they get benefits what they see as the tasks God has assigned them, even if it was a modern-day gypsy writer from the other side of the world. It was only when I played the interview back many weeks later that I realized what a battle of wits it had been. I was determined to remain calm and ask rational questions, they wanted to argue scripture (which they all know far, far better than I ever plan to) and antagonize me. They had done their homework and knew of New Zealand's liberal stance on homosexuality and tried to link that, through scripture, to a series of earthquakes and aftershocks the Canterbury/Christchurch region had begun experiencing the previous year.

Through it all, what I found scariest was how normal an American family they seemed, if one did not know their religious views.

I was also, while in Kansas, honored to meet and interview some Patriot Guard Riders who told me why THEY do what they do. As I continued to travel through the U.S., I discussed both entities with many people and tried to put together my thoughts on the place of each in the world.

Many months, miles and a couple of countries later, I sat down to reprise some of my U.S. experiences, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and felt that the purpose of the WBC (and I believe everyone and everything has some purpose) was that, "Their presence at such public events [as military funerals] has so incensed middle America that it has made communities take note of the sacrifices made for them by the less than 1 percent that is the military."

I had the honor to ride in a funeral cortege with PGR members while in Chicago, and was moved to tears by not only the leather-clad bikers I expected to see standing strong and silent and escorting the deceased and his family to the cemetery, but by the streets we rode along lined with people standing silently, holding flags or hand-on-heart as the hearse and escort passed.

Perhaps some of that, I thought, is a result of the WBC and what they stood for.

I have regularly received notices from the Patriot Guard and wake most mornings to notifications of too many military deaths, ones I can put names to, tho thankfully not faces. This morning, there was a PGR National Message which, as I would expect of the PGR, was the classiest response I have seen to Phelps Sr's passing. It needs no further words from me:

Patriot Guard,
Let’s first remember our Nation’s true Heroes. Those brave men and women of our military and first responders who gave their life so that we may enjoy the freedom to express our differences.
While it is hard to find anything good to say about his views or actions, we do give our condolences to his family during what must be a painful time for them. We take no joy in the sickness and death of any man. We do not celebrate the death of Fred Phelps. Patriot Guard Riders hope that Mr. Phelps somehow found the peace that seemed to elude him in life.
It is true that the PGR grew out of a response to protests at funerals. That's a fair statement.
However, that was 2005 and the PGR quickly learned that there was something powerful in a gathering of Americans who would simply stand and hold flags and let a family know that they were not alone. That powerful thing became our mission.
We are neither a protest nor a counter protest group. We honor fallen Heroes and those who have honorably served this free America. The presence or absence of a protest does not alter that mission.
If it not for this man and his family we might not have heeded the call to regularly honor the sacrifices of our nation’s true heroes and their families. Nor would we have come to know the brother/sisterhood that has become the Patriot Guard Riders.

Robbie Smart
Patriot Guard Riders

Thursday, March 6, 2014

An International Palate . . .

The first person I met on my first invite to a function at the New Zealand Embassy, Beijing, was the ambassador's wife, Connie Aldao Worker. I saw her again some weeks later when I went to interview a visiting New Zealand chef and found her helping out in the kitchen.

On finding out she is a professional chef and restaurateur, I asked to interview her and spent a pleasant morning in the temporary residence chatting over coffee, before sharing her homemade pavlova and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

The resulting interview was printed here

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Kiwi on Wheels . . .

Evening on Beijing's streets . . .

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee . . .

The Kiwi has wheels again. Not, as she prefers, two wheels attached to a sizeable engine and offering a freedom that only ends when the roads (and tracks) do, but wheels nonetheless. And she's wondering why she didn't do this earlier.

A friend left country for family reasons some months back, leaving behind a bunch of stuff including his bike for when he returned. I asked what he was doing with the bike and he said I was welcome to
ride it, and the key was in another friend's apartment, with all his other gear. This week, it was found.

Yesterday evening, I took the bike for a spin, only intending to go to the gym, which I'd been missing for the past week as Beijing's hazardous smog kicked my asthmatic Kiwi butt. The 10-15 minute walk is reduced to a 3-5 minute ride but, unfortunately, the gym was crowded with lots of people waiting for machines and most cutting in line as any came empty. So, rather than standing there getting mad at people, and having some chores to do, I decided to hit the road instead.

Cycling in Beijing, particularly in peak hour traffic in the half-light of early evening may not give quite the same adrenaline buzz as speeding down a highway on a high-powered motorcycle but it
has its own sense of defying death. I'm thankful for the time I've spent riding roads and sidewalks in South Korea, avoiding boulders and bullock-drawn carts in Thailand and simply watching cyclists from the front of a double-decker bus here in Beijing. All have given me an insight on how to behave on Beijing's roads and, one hopes, stay in one piece.

Here in the inner city, many of the main roads have sectioned off side lanes, intended, it seems, for bikes, the ubiquitous three-wheel trailer motorcycles that are the workhorses of China, plus the real
horses drawing carts from which farmers sell their produce direct to customers, and also buses and cars that are either about to turn, stop or just decide to take that lane. It's very common for bikes and motorcycles to take these lanes in the opposite direction and most of the cyclists seem oblivious to anyone behind them. The route I take on the double-decker bus includes a section on one of these lanes and I have often watched as a cyclist nonchalantly pedals along with the bus honking and crawling behind.

By the way - nobody seems to see a need to put lights on bicycles simply because you might ride them at night.

My ride took me along a few main roads and across many intersections, watching for turning cars (I'm not sure of the law but cars turn on red lights here, so it's a good thing to watch for them), heedless pedestrians, soundless electric bikes coming up behind me (mirrors on bikes are also an unknown here, it seems) and other road users appearing out of the gloaming headed toward me, like salmon swimming upstream.

I loved it! Cycling in Beijing makes me feel part of China in a way I hadn't before and I'm eager to explore this city on two wheels, traveling like a local.

Watch this space . . .

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Life goes on . . .

It's been a long time between posts . . .

I've been in semi-hibernation as I learn my place in China and learn more about the place. There's so much to see and write about here but I'm wary of making quick assumptions that rely more on preconceptions and misinterpretations than any real analysis or personal experience. It's such a vast, vast country, with 55 recognized ethnic minority groups in addition to the Han majority so stereotypes are of as little use here as most places.

A friend from the United States keeps reminding me there's no such thing as a typical American - the same can be said of Chinese.

As always, when I travel, I watch what the government does but judge the country on how the people act - to each other, to me, to family, strangers and visitors. On that scale, I find China, or its people anyway, to be warm, welcoming, friendly and basically happy. I recall the dire warnings I was given by many people before coming here and I see the attitudes of folks in my social networks but, listen up guys, people are people, and these people often put a smile on my face.

It's the little things that matter, especially when you don't have the language skills to communicate verbally:

The janitor who at first seemed kinda glum but now has a huge smile and a "Ni hao" for me whenever we see each other . . .

The young woman at the staff canteen who has noticed I never eat there but stop by each day to get the piece of fruit and yogurt that follows each meal, except I take two pieces of fruit instead. She now has two of the best pieces of whatever is on offer that day waiting for me . . .

The people at the local market I go to, a few hundred stallholders who now recognize me and always say hello, even those who have worked out I shop at another vendor for what they also sell . . .

The guards who man the entrances to my workplace, and often open the gate for me to save me the bother of swiping my ID card (don't tell anyone about that one) . . .

The grandparents who look after the children while the children's parents work, and who are always happy to have a stranger admire their little emperors and empresses and laugh when the kids find a round-eyes frightening . . .

The produce boys at the small supermarket near me, who pick out the best of whatever it is I am buying and practice their sparse English on me as I do the same with my meager Chinese . . .

The total strangers on the buses who direct me to an empty seat, because obviously I'm incapable of finding one myself (that's actually pretty sweet, you know) . . .

The feeling that, despite everything against them, I'm in a place where people believe that hard work results in earned rewards . . .

It's far from paradise, of course, but most of this crazy, messed-up, wonderful world is far from paradise. I like that the locals here try to make the best of what they have.

And yes, there are plenty of negatives, such as the pea soup impersonating air outside my window as I type. But, you know, it's life, and I'm content living it here for now . . .

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Small steps to awesome . . .

I have long been an "all or nothing" kinda gal.

It seems I was always that way, even as a child. I remember my mother telling me as a teen, when I was distraught about something, that I seemed to lack the ability to see shades of gray. That, to me, things were either good or bad, right or wrong; people also, and that life wasn't that simple, she said.

I understood that of course, intellectually at least, and tried to apply it in my dealings with others. But I never treated myself that way. Everything had to be all or nothing, in every aspect of my life. That led to some incredible adventures and some amazing highs, but it also caused some major lows. Not surprisingly, not being perfect, it also led me to be incredibly hard on myself when I didn't reach my own high standards.

That has changed of late, in a gradual, slow way I didn't even recognize until very recently. There are probably many catalysts - growing older, accepting that being the best I can be doesn't require comparisons with others and, probably most of all, becoming a friend, supporter and cheerleader for a friend in NorCal who has way too much in common with me. Whom I often gently tell the cliches we all know but often fail to heed - to take life in small steps, celebrate small successes on the way to the big goals, walk before you can run, learn to cook a simple meal before tackling a gourmet feast (that last one is mine, and very specific to this friend).

And in giving these long-distance pep talks, it seems I have been listening myself. Without realizing how much I was taking in.

Health-wise is where it has been most noticeable. Having decided to reclaim the fitness I'd let slip in the past few years, I'd been forcing myself to go to the gym for a few months now, pushing myself to attend yoga class. And, although I always felt better for doing so, getting there was a chore, especially rising early enough on cold winter mornings after working a night shift to travel to the yoga studio in time for my favorite classes.

So I bought a mat, found and bookmarked online a selection of yoga routines I enjoy and started getting up when my body wanted, and doing whichever routine I felt most in need of that day. Then, after a good breakfast, I'd go to the gym on the days I had time, while keeping in mind a minimum number of times I wanted to go each week. Without the pressure I'd been putting on myself, it became more fun, yoga something I now look forward to each morning to stretch and wake and start my day well. Even my gym time has gone from my inner voice counting down the kilometers I had left to do on the treadmill or elliptical trainer ("1 more km, .5 to go") to having fun seeing what my body could still do.

I surprised myself last week by running, if only for a few minutes at a time, and enjoying it. That's a big deal for someone who used being asthmatic to get out of ever running at school, then used having had a fractured spine and broken ankles as self-justification to not do so as an adult. (I'm being mindful of past injuries, hence just the short spurts of speed for now.) I also realized that, if I had set myself a goal to run, I would have probably set something unrealistic and been disappointed. Having not done so, a small, small step (or a number of speeded-up small, small steps) became a sense of achievement. Since then, it's been fun to run a little each day and see how my body feels for it.

Then today, when I'd planned a rest day, I woke early and full of energy and with nothing much I needed to do before work. So, after yoga and breakfast, I went to the gym. Here's the thing - I didn't go because I felt I should or that I needed to, but because I wanted to. My fitness level is back to where I want to work out, rather than it being a chore, and I've gotten there by not setting goals, but simply taking small steps. And sure, I'd love to get back to the 55 kg size 4 I was some years back, but I'd rather be healthy and comfortable in my body and enjoy good food.

Work-wise, my progress has been similar. When I started my new job six months ago, I'd beat myself up each time I got something wrong until I was so scared of making mistakes I second-guessed every decision I made. Letting go of always needing to be perfect means it's OK to sometimes make mistakes, learn from them and move on. Doing the best I can while accepting that others may be better not only makes work more enjoyable, but regaining my confidence makes my work better.

Emotionally, I've learned to dial back a little also and learn to let go when I need to. To realize that it's normal to have lonely times when I'm in a new place and that solitude isn't always a bad thing. That friends take time to make and to appreciate those I have are only as far away as a computer or a call. To understand that going from being someone's significant other to being their loving friend takes time and comes with speed bumps and allowing that to develop in its own time also. And to start behaving more as a friend myself, and to myself, if I want that in return.

Spiritually, I'm probably as confused as I ever was. I believe there is something much more than just the material world in which we live, that there's an essence and a purpose that goes beyond this, but I'm still unsure just what, or who,  that is. But I realize that also is OK. That there is no reason to expect myself to understand mysteries far greater minds have pondered for centuries without agreement, but to keep questioning and questing and keep an open mind. While being grateful and appreciative of just how wonderful this physical world is and can be.

So, for me, these small steps have led to peace, and contentment, and, dare I say it, even moments or days of that often-elusive happiness. I expect and trust that will only improve, small step by small step.