So, just after my trip to Dandong, I went to Harbin to experience the Snow and Ice Festivals! Now, I’m a cold weather person, but Harbin was in another league entirely. I was freezing the whole time. (It was probably around zero when I was there.)  But, it was beautiful!

I started going to a little snow festival, with some traditional dress and games and such.20160109_10544020160109_105443

The snow slide was a lot of fun!


Then I went on to the proper festival. The snow sculptures were simply amazing. I could try to describe them all, but instead:

When I left, I decided to get some lunch. I asked the driver where to get something special to Harbin, and he took me to a place to get “huangyu” (Chinese for “yellow croaker.”) It was stupidly expensive ($100 for lunch!), but also amazing.

They cooked it right in front of me, with a bevy of vegetables and spices. I wish I could tell you how good it smelled, how good it was, or how it was definitely worth the cost. So wonderful.

From there, I took a train back to Shenyang. (I didn’t get to see the ice sculptures, because I didn’t have enough time.) On getting back, I got some street food from right outside the train station.

And, that was Dongbei. I absolutely loved my time in the frozen north, and I hope to serve there again one day!

As Close as I’m Willing to Get Political

I try very hard not to be political publicly, because I work for the State Department and (more importantly) I’m often the face of the US to foreign audiences.  I want to seem as neutral as possible when dealing with foreigners and foreign governments.

But, of course, it’s an election season, and we’ve got candidates out there who maybe don’t show America at its best.  So, keeping my mouth shut is getting harder.  However, rather than focus on them and the dishonest or crazy things they say, or the violence they incite, I want to focus instead on American problems that somehow still aren’t getting enough attention from politicians. And rather than write it myself, because believe me I won’t stop if I start writing, I think I’ll let John Oliver do (most of) it for me.

Our Criminal Justice System

So, our criminal justice system is pretty badly broken, due to a continuing fear of crime totally out of place with the actual crime statistics (CRIME. IS. GOING. DOWN. AND. HAS. FOR. TWO. DECADES!!) and a complete lack of concern for how it routinely screws over poor people and people of color.

Nine Months Later…

Wow, I haven’t updated this in forever. And, there’s some stuff I should post about, at some point. I’m currently bidding for my next post, and I’ve reached my five year anniversary with State, and I went to the southern hemisphere for the first time…it’s been a lot.

I’ll try to get back to this soon.


I know, I haven’t posted in forever.  Between FB and Tumblr, I’ve not felt the need for longer form writing.  But, I can’t freaking use FB, and Tumblr is not working well for me right now (damn Great Firewall), so this looks like my best bet.

State (particularly Consular) allows us to do “swaps” with other officres, if our bosses, the budget, etc., all allow.  In Mission China, this is particularly easy, since we have so many consular officers who are basically interchangeable, and so we can better understand some other part of the country. Right now, I’m on a swap in the far northeast (dongbei) of the country, usually known to Americans as Manchuria.

Now, most of my colleagues think I’m crazy for swapping to Dongbei.  It’s too cold, the pollution is too bad, yadda yadda.  But I swear I’m loving it (even as I’m sitting here in terrible pain, which I’ll get to.)

While this is my first time in Dongbei proper (which is just three provinces, Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang), I’ve been near here before, and in fact most of my China experience is in northern China.  The accent is thick, but usually understandable, and I’m somewhat used to pollution.  But, man, Shenyang (and now Dandong) are something else.20151228_173519

First view of Shenyang, late at night in front of my hotel.  So many lights, so alive!


I ate lunch at the above little hole in the wall.  I think they were tickled to have a laowai (foreigner) in their restaurant.  They were also tickled that I let the crowd decide what I should eat.  It ended up being crispy chicken bits in hot peppers and green beans.  Delicious!


While looking for a dinner spot the other day, I passed the above sign, and thought it was neat.  I should add that there is a chain here called “America California Beef Noodle King.”  I asked the lady there what made the noodles either American or Californian, and she said she wasn’t sure.  Really, they were normal Chinese noodles, but they were tasty enough.


Another scene of Shenyang at night.


The bar where I had dinner a couple of nights ago.  Great yakitori!


So, from here there will be some narrative, as this picture and all that follow it were from the same day, as I went to Dandong and explored!  This is the Shenyang train station, where I started.  I’m so glad for the huge sign, as I was walking, and I was afraid I’d get lost.


First impression of Dandong–very similar to every other place in Manchuria, but so much life!


The main reason tourists come to Dandong though is this–that’s the Yalu River, aka the border with North Korea.


This was my first view of North Korea–an impenetrable fog bank.  I remember thinking that it was kind of apropos, but still annoying.


Just because it shows the level to which American culture has permeated, that is in fact Spider-Man on some building next to the Great Wall (no seen here, but will be seen shortly.)


And here we have North Korea! Or, more accurately, a bit of island in the river claimed and run by both.  I took a boat tour of the Yalu, which was amazing.


This is the kind of boat most people on the river were on.  That is North Korea behind the boat.  One of these pulled up along our little tour boat, and the person on the boat began selling North Korean booze, cigarettes, ginseng, pickled duck eggs, and kimchi.  The Chinese tourists were buying all kinds of things, but particularly the kimchi and the cigarettes.  (Why the kimchi? I don’t know.)


Here we have the parking lot of the Great Wall, which you can see behind.  I was determined, despite my medical issues, to do the whole damn thing.  (As in, the whole thing here in Dandong.  Obviously, not the whole 3,000 miles.  I don’t have enough time on a day trip for that.)


This is just to show how stupidly steep parts of the climb were.  However, they’ve done a great job fixing up the wall, and while it was kind of slick from ice, it wasn’t too bad.20160102_130203[1]

So, this is the view from near the very top, showing the end of the wall in our section.  I was very proud of having climbed all the way up.20160102_130358[1]

This is a picture of the tiny stairwell to the top of the building that was behind me in the last shot.  Unfortunately, the top of it was covered in trash and so also nasty bugs.20160102_131851[2]

Coming back down, that building at the bottom used to be a museum, but it seems totally closed up now.  It did have some really cool ancient cannons on it though!20160102_133430[1]

Sign explaining the rules at the border.  No worries, I obeyed them all without question!  (Fortunately, I also didn’t see any military installations or people, except when on the boat.)20160102_133523[1]

Statue at the bottom of the wall.20160102_160902[1]

Me, taking a selfie in front of North Korea, and the bridge connecting the two countries.  (It didn’t dawn on me to get this kind of picture until I was back at the foggy places, but at least it had kind of let up a bit.)20160102_171226[1]

Mao, overseeing the town and the train station, as I left Dandong for Shenyang again.

So, I’m in Shenyang another week, and next Saturday I’ll be heading to Harbin for the Ice Festival before flying back to Guangzhou!  I’m really looking forward to it!

Update on Medical issues

So, short update (and to make sure I keep blogging):

1) The meds have been useful, but far from the cure I’d hoped.  I’m still having lots of stomach troubles, and I need to talk to the State doctors soon about that.

2) My meds will be changing anyway, as some of the  meds I was put on are available in the UK, not in the US.  So, I’m waiting for the new ones to come in.

3) All of our stuff has finally come in, and dear god, it is apparent how much smaller this place is than our Togo place.  We’re going to be getting rid of a lot of stuff–if only we’d done it before arriving!

4) I’m itching to throw a cocktail party soon, but we can’t do that until we get some space in our living room.  I’m hoping for weekend after next.

Back from Hong Kong

So, the last few days, despite not having that much activity, were horribly draining and exhausting.  (Also, temporarily horrifyingly expensive.)

We left for the train station at around 9, to catch our 10:30 train to Hong Kong.  While it was stressful, going to a new train station with our luggage, trying to figure out where we go and what the procedures were, I have to say that it went very smoothly.  (Well, except for the cab ride itself.  I swear, I thought I was going to end up in Guangzhou hospital after all.) At the station, having a diplomatic passport definitely helped, as we got to use the “special line” both at immigration and customs.

(That’s right, immigration and customs.  Despite Hong Kong being a part of China, China treats the border much like an international border that they control both parts of.  I’ve crossed actual international borders with less control.)

Getting a taxi in Hong Kong was difficult, mostly because I didn’t understand that we weren’t in Hong Kong proper, and so needed a “cross-harbor” taxi and so we ended up in the wrong taxi stand for forever waiting.  While there, I got a call telling me that we had missed my initial doctor’s appointment in Hong Kong.  I’d thought it was at 2PM, and we still had about 40 minutes to get there, but it was actually at 11AM, and so I’d bought the wrong train tickets to get there at all.  *headdesk*  Fortunately, the doctor agreed to meet with me later at the hospital, so we just went straight there. The driver wasn’t at first sure where we were going, and his English didn’t seem great, but once I gave the address (in English) he was like, “oh, Stubbs Road, got it.”  And off we went.

My wife was very impressed with Hong Kong taxis, compared to Guangzhou ones.  The driver was much more careful and the taxi was much cleaner.  I was more freaked out by the whole “left-side” of the road thing.  I know I shouldn’t have been, but it felt so damn unnatural in so many ways.

Intake into the hospital took awhile, as they had 3 people for both admission and discharge, but we finally got in.  When I was setting up the visit, I was asked what kind of room I wanted, and not knowing anything, I decided I might as well go with private, as Becca was coming too.  I feel vindicated in that choice.  The room was wonderful.  We had a bathroom, plenty of room for our stuff, and a wonderful view.  (It turns out that insurance only covers up to a semi-private, but I still consider the upgrade money well spent.)

Hospital view

That night involved the preparations for the next day.  No solid food, only liquids, and two pitchers of the nastiest tasting ick I’ve ever had to swallow.  (I seriously gagged on it near the end.)  That led to the cleansing of the insides, and then nothing more by mouth.

The next morning started with the scopes.  While originally I was just going for a colonoscopy, the doctor decided that an endoscopy would be a good idea too.  I was put under, and when I woke up I had a weird itch on my hand.  (We’ll get back to that.)

Next up was a CT scan with contrast.  I’ve never had a CT done, and it was a strange experience.  I’m not usually too claustrophobic, but that machine started to trigger it. Then, they pumped in the contrast.  They had warned me, but it…nothing could have prepared me.  There was a horrible taste and smell (despite it being put in intravenously,) and then my whole body felt like I was suddenly on fire.  My bowels felt like they were going to release, and I felt a horrible need to urinate.  I’ve had a lot of awful experiences, medical and otherwise, and I don’t think any compare to this.

When that was over, it was back to my room to wait.  Eventually the doctor got back to me–colonoscopy was clear, CT scans showed nothing, endoscopy showed a strange “node” in my throat, but otherwise nothing.  (I am awaiting the biopsy of the node, but I was assured it didn’t look too bad.)  So, all that, and nothing.  No polyps, no tumors, no inflammation, no sores, nothing.  So, he said I have “spastic colon” (aka IBS), and suggested drugs and diet changes.  (The diet changes have more to do with some fat deposits near my liver, actually.)

By this time, the hand that was kinda itchy after the scopes had fully swollen up and become extremely painful.  For the rest of that day, we were trying to figure out what was wrong with my hand and what kind of medicine would help with it.  We never figured it out, but two days later (as I’m typing this) it’s finally back down to normal, and back to just “kinda itchy.”  Ugh.

We left yesterday and came back.  I’d taken 3 days off of work, which had been granted slightly grudgingly by my boss when it came time to sign the forms for it (“With all this time off, do you think you’re going to make it through your tour here?”  Really??).  I’m down (temporarily) $11K, because the hospital in HK doesn’t have a “contract” with my insurance (despite my insurance sending a letter promising to pay the vast majority of my bill), so I have to deal with that on Monday.  In some ways, it was a disheartening experience.

At the same time, I know I’m incredibly lucky.  I have enough space on a credit card to charge that $11K, and even if insurance is slow in paying me back for part of it, I can afford to pay that off.  (It will set back some other long term goals until it gets paid back, of course.)  I do have medical leave, something I didn’t have at most of my previous jobs.  Though, if I’d been in teh states, I wouldn’t have had to spend 3 days in the hospital for these services–it could have been a single day.

Next up are some talks with MED in Beijing.  I don’t imagine this will affect my med clearance, but the possibility exists.  I’ve been working with them on these issues, and they need to stay on top of it.  I have to get prescriptions for the various drugs into my online pharmacy, to make sure I can keep getting them.  I have to work with my insurance for reimbursement.  (All of that on top of my normal work day.)

Funsies. I know I’m lucky, to be a public servant and to have a job that gives me so many benefits, but the challenges with dealing with foreign medical systems are real.

(To support Foreign Service Officers in situations like mine, I’ve created a Foreign Service Spoonies Facebook Group.  It’s open to any FSOs who suffer from chronic illness.)

More medical issues

So, what has always been some “minor” stomach issues has now erupted into a full-blown medical crisis.  I’ve had some weird stomach pressure and pain recently, and I missed a few days of work because of it.  Then, it went away, and I figured it was just something I’d eaten (though, honestly, I knew that the pressure at least had been around too long.)

This week, the “pressure” came back, but it wasn’t pressure.  It was full blown pain, like “Oh god, my stomach is going to explode” pain.  I worked through it for two days (yes, I’m American, and yes we do that way too much), and on a day when we didn’t have as much going on, I went up to the nurse at work.  She investigated it, and found that it was tender, and it had something called “rebound tenderness,” where suddenly letting up causes the pain to get worse.  She told me I needed to go see a doctor.  Again, because I’m an idiot, I asked it could wait until Saturday, and she looked at me like she couldn’t believe I said that, and said that I really needed to see the doctor that day if possible.  I was worried that my bosses would object, why I don’t know (I know I wasn’t thinking clearly), but they (of course) said it was fine for me to go.

(I bring all this up because I want to explain the crappy mindset you can end up with if you grow up poor, and then spend several years without either insurance or sick leave. It leaves you fearful of taking any time off work when sick.)

The doctor inspected me, and further explained that rebound tenderness is a Very Bad Thing.  Blood and stool tests were both done, but both came back normal.  He talked to me about possibilities, and this conversation included some scary words (though he did say it probably wasn’t a tumor, since there was no blood in my stool).  He said that he wanted to do a colonoscopy to try to figure out what was wrong.

And this is where being sick in the FS is different than normal life.  Back home, I’d say ok, and we’d schedule it for as soon as possible in the closest hospital.  However, due to concerns about local doctors and facilities, I’m supposed to run this by our health unit at the Consulate, who then run it by the Health Unit at the Embassy.  They have detailed information on all the facilities in the country, and can determine if it is safe to have it at the local hospital or if I need to go elsewhere.  In this case, they have decided that I should go instead to Hong Kong to have this test done.  So, now I wait for that to get scheduled, and then I’ll put in for the few days off needed to go and get a simple procedure done.

I am currently grateful for having good insurance, good bosses, good friends, and most of all a good wife who supports me through all my problems.  But, for once I’d like my body not to be falling apart.  Oh well.