Archive for category: Fairly Odd Parents-Present

Jeff’s Top 10 Photos for 2013 (+ 6)

26 Dec 2013
December 26, 2013

Photographically, this was a wonderful year for me. I found myself in all sorts of interesting places and situations. And the best souvenir of an experience is either a story or a photograph. The best is when I get both.

Yesterday, I began to contemplate the end of 2013. And I started to grimace at all the end-of-year lists of which we were about to be inundated. Suddenly, I thought the best way to combat the nostalgia those lists always bring out in me would be to put together one of my own. So here are my top ten photographs from my experiences throughout the year. But, I couldn’t narrow it down to ten so here are my top 16 images.

Picking these and putting them in order was a more difficult task than I imagined. Some I loved because of that “decisive moment” I caught, some for the memories, and some for their importance in my life. I arranged and rearranged them in a number of orders. The only one that always was number one remained so and is probably one of the most important photographs in my life. But you will have to wait to the end to see it.

So, in an order that is bound to change, here’s the countdown of my most interesting photographs from 2013. Click on any image to see it larger.

  1. Xian Airport

    Our trip to China in June and July to show the girls where they were born was a wonderful photographic opportunity and many images on this list were taken on that trip. At number 16 is a photo I took during a long delay, waiting for our flight from Xi’an to Chendu.

    In China, when there’s going to be a long delay, they don’t just book you on a different flight. You wait for the plane you’re supposed to take. And wait we did. Five hours. With all that time on my hands I went looking for photo ops and found one in front of the smokers’ lounge near our gate. When we were in China the first two times, back in the late 1990s, smoking was prevalent everywhere. Times have changed and I’m glad to report that smokers at airports must do their business in their own smoke-filled rooms.

    I stood there for quite a while, watching men (only men) go in and out of that room and waiting for just the right moment to take my shot. His look says it all.

  2. Traditional Marriage Rally

    After a meeting I had at the Smithsonian Castle last March, I came outside to walk back to my office and walked right into the middle of a rally for “traditional” marriage. And, with my constant companion, my iPhone camera, I infiltrated the group as a neutral bystander. That was hard but the images I got more than made up for keeping my mouth shut.

    I’m not sure there are many psychologists who would feel comfortable taking this stand. Who here (or anywhere) has a “normal” marriage? Let’s see a show of hands.

  3. Obama Inaugural

    Living in Washington, D.C. does have its perks. I’ve been to four Presidential Inaugurals: two for G.W. and two for Barack. It was a lot harder getting close to the front with either of Obama’s ceremonies. And for shear joy, nothing can beat Obama’s first. But despite the Great Recession, Congressional acrimony and before the debacle of the Affordable Care Act website, those who attended this year’s event were all happy to be there and glad to no longer have to contemplate the alternative.

    I took this photograph at the moment President Obama was sworn in. Taken with my iPhone, the panorama captured flags waving in a staccato fashion. I think it adds to the feeling I had being there.

  4. Machine Gun Game, Yashuo, China

    Close to Guilin in China is Yashuo, where the Li River runs. Guilin and the surrounding countryside is a Chinese tourist spot and even Americans will recognize the limestone mountains that surround the area.

    As part of our trip we took a ride down the Li River on a bamboo raft. When we got off I saw this machine gun arcade-like game. I had to stop to get a picture. I can’t tell you if they used real bullets but the guns looked quite authentic (especially with their red stars). I was always the last to get on the tour bus, lingering wherever and whenever I could to get a good shot. By the end of the trip, Susie, always made sure she could keep an eye on me so I wouldn’t get lost. And the tour guides all knew to wait.

  5. Visit Washington, DC: Home to the World’s Most Revered Chambers of Government

    Washington, D.C. is one of those destination cities. At various times in the year we are inundated with tourists: spring break, summer vacation, and, of course, for the cherry blossoms that line the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial.

    One of the perks of working downtown is taking my lunch break to view whatever special event might be happening. My coworker Cathy and I once trotted down to the World War II Memorial to grab a look at Queen Elizabeth. I was the designated photographer. Too bad I missed that decisive moment when I suddenly saw her leave in her limo and shouted, “Look! There she is!” Cathy still hasn’t forgiven me.

    So, this year I grabbed my camera and went down to see what I could find interesting at the Cherry Blossom Festival in April. As usual, I was more interested in what’s happening at the periphery of events that the more scenic center. That’s where my special images reside. Turning 180 degrees from the iconic cherry blossom shot I spied this one. I think it would make a perfect postcard! I titled this image Visit Washington, DC: Home to the World’s Most Revered Chambers of Government.

  6. Ai Wei Wei Exhibition, Hirshhorn Museum

    It won’t surprise you to know that I love politically-based art. And one of the stars of this genre is Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. So I was really looking forward to his exhibition, According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum.

    Working in an art museum, interested in the makeup of the art world, and continuing with my peripheral way of working, I love finding those “other” shots that comment on this world. This is the first room you saw when you entered the exhibition. I was overwhelmed with images. But I also spied the museum guard standing against the wall, absorbed in her paperwork. You can barely make her out against the backdrop of Ai Weiwei’s color images. Perfect.

  7. Birdnest Stadium, Beijing

    Our last day in Beijing was free of the smog and the humidity that welcomed us to China days before. In fact, it was so clear you could see the distant mountains that surround the capital city! The humidity had been replaced with that “dry heat” I love so much —well, perhaps 105F/40C is a bit too much.

    Our itinerary took us to the site of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and, of course, the iconic Birdnest Stadium (designed by Ai Weiwei). As we were led inside, I started looking for my shot. When I saw the guard standing with his back towards us, I raced down the steps, hoping he’d stay just where he was.

  8. Alley, Guilin, China

    The first two-thirds of our China trip was devoted to seeing the country. We traveled with a number of other families with their teenage girls, all of us on our first trip back after adopting our children many years ago. The last third was focused on our family’s visit to the girls’ orphanage and the area around it. Our last stop before our group split and went our separate ways was Guilin. Everyone was leaving to their orphanages at separate times and many of us had a wait until we were driven to the airport for the rest of our trips.

    We had a few hours wait so my family and I set off to explore the city. It was raining on and off. As we walked down one street I saw this scene. It was like I’d entered the film Chinatown. I love film noir and loved the monochromatic foreground with the colorful neon. I hoped I could capture that with my camera. Seedy and beautiful: just my style.

  9. Airline Transit Bus, Guangzhou Airport

    Photographers have to be ready at a moment’s notice to capture images they come upon. On our China trip I carried two cameras: my Canon G 1X and my trusty iPhone. And, early on, I had to devise a strategy for having both ready to shoot as the shot demanded. I would have my Canon hanging by the strap from my wrist while I’d shot with the iPhone. When I wanted the Canon, I’d slip the phone in my front pocket. It worked well but I had to be on my toes, always thinking just ahead of any potential photo.

    I have already told the story that goes with this shot. After a delay in boarding our flight from Guangzhou to Shanghai because of “Super Typhoon Soulik,” everyone was a little testy and eager to be on our way. When we finally were told we could board the plane they loaded us onto a transit bus that would take us there. I thought it would be nice to document this in a photo. I started to take a panorama with my iPhone and suddenly, in the middle of moving from left to right the woman you see just closest to the camera yelled at me for taking her photo. I got one shot off and had no idea what, if anything, I’d gotten. The person in the middle of the image, giving me the evil eye is my daughter, who, afterward, chided me for taking the photo despite the woman’s objections. Yes, I did it and I’m glad I did. Needless to say, the image says it all perfectly.

  10. Students, XiaHe Village Elementary School, LinTong County

    Our trip to China was special. By that I mean that it was organized especially for families bringing their children back to China. And the organizer, Louie Yi, made sure the girls got a special look at the country. While some of the trip was about visiting iconic parts of China, others were about experiencing the people. We spent two days with a family in a farming village outside Xi’an. This photo was take a few days before when we visited the XiaHe Village Elementary School in LinTong County on the outskirts of the city. It was their last day before summer vacation. And our girls had a chance to talk with these children while the adults watched.

    I was, of course, bouncing around the classroom looking for interesting shots. I got a lot but this one resonates with me: their expressions, their body language —I’m not sure what it is about this image I’m attracted to. Perhaps it’s simply the universal human quality of these children.

  11. Woman on Sunset River Cruise, Shanghai

    Our family’s final stop was Shanghai. This was a must for me. I’d always wanted to visit the city after seeing Christian Bale’s first film Empire of the Sun, a film adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s autobiography. It’s one of my favorite films and the soundtrack by John Williams is wonderfully evocative of the young boy’s life during that period (I’m listening to it as I write this).

    The story is about a young English boy (Bale), living a very cloistered life in a British part of Shanghai just before World War II. Chaos prevails when the Japanese enter the city and everyone is scattering to get out. On Shanghai’s famous Bund, on the banks of the Hunangpu River that now bisects the city, Bale is separated from his parents in the crowd and spends the rest of the war in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. That sudden separation from one’s parents is a theme that resonates strongly with me.

    On the last day of our trip, as the sun was setting, our guide offered to take us on a cruise on the Hunangpu River. Of course, the Bund no longer looks like it did in 1937, although you can still see buildings from that era that line the street if you look closely. Susie and our younger daughter were tired and decided to go back to the hotel. It was just Lily and me. The yellow light from the lights on the boat were such a wonderful contrast to the deepening blue of the evening. Suddenly, I saw this woman taking a “selfie” with the high rises of new Shanghai in the background. I love this photograph. The combination of the city skyline mixed with the self-aware sense to this woman was a perfect way to remember my time there. And, later in the year, I used this image for an essay entitled Uneventful, The Rise of Photography, that was published on the changes in photography at the beginning of the 21st century.

  12. Government Shutdown Protest, U.S. Capitol

    Our trip to China was not the only major event in my life this year. The 16 day shutdown of the federal government by the Tea Party-loyalists in the House of Representatives in October was filled with activity for me. I did a number of Chamomile Tea Party posters protesting the costs of the closure: 1, 2, 3, and 4. And news outlets, scouring the web for new content, found my tweets and, suddenly, it seemed I had become the de facto poster boy for the furloughed government worker. CBS News and then the Washington Post interviewed me and Susie and outlets in Switzerland and France came next. While not a photo I took, the image of me and Susie that accompanied the Post article on furloughed employees’ spouses is one of my favorites of the year.

    When I heard there was going to be a protest of the shutdown by government employees on the Capitol grounds I felt compelled to go. This is a panorama I took of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaking, along with other officials who attended. It says it all: the Capitol, the furloughed employees, the politicos, and the media.

  13. Chinese Tourists, Tiananmen
 Square

    How do you take an interesting photograph of something so iconic as Tiananmen Square and the imposing painting of Mao? That’s what I was thinking about on our first day in China. I began looking and shooting. In fact, when our group was set to move on to the Forbidden City, which is behind Mao, Louie, our tour organizer volunteered to stay with me for a few more minutes while I shot. My quest was to find something “different” or slightly askew. Everyone takes this picture postcard image, so I moved just a bit to the right so that the guard’s umbrella covered Mao. You know, to make a point.

    The cult of Mao is in transition in China. In fact, in today’s Washington Post is an article about the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth. The writer speaks about a man who, on the one hand, brought the country together during the 1949 revolution, yet was responsible for thousands of deaths during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Yet, tourists are tourists, no matter where they’re from. And Chinese tourists visiting Tiananmen Square are no different than the Americans I see on the National Mall, taking pictures of loved ones in front of the Capitol and Washington Monument. So, the photo above of Chinese taking photos of their family was a good catch for me.

  14. Ghosts, The Great Wall of China

    The day we took the two hour drive from Beijing to The Great Wall of China was foggy and it was drizzling —not your ordinarily optimum conditions for photographing the Wall. But I was totally excited. Again, who wants a typiclal pic of this tourist attraction and one of the Seven Wonders of the World? Not me. Not me. Not me!

    I couldn’t wait to see what things looked like up there in the clouds. I felt bad for my daughters who wouldn’t be able to see the wall stretch out forever across the Chinese landscape but I put that temporarily aside as I looked through the lens. This photograph captures a sense of time for me. And the tourists in the background look like ghosts of generations past.

  15. 21st Century Gothic: Traditional Marriage Rally, National Mall, Washington, DC

    I mentioned earlier that I happened to walk right into a traditional marriage rally on the National Mall after coming out of a meeting. This photograph is one of the most interesting images I took. When I saw the family standing there in front of the Capitol, I asked if I could take their picture. I couldn’t resist that Scottish Highlander uniform. It seemed so incongruous and inexplicable. Why was that uniform important to that boy at this rally?

    I positioned myself so that Capitol dome would be visible in the background and asked them if they were ready. They smiled and I took my iPhone panorama. The rest of the children look like they were dressed in early 20th century clothes. Where they Mennonites? I didn’t think so. The father’s dress is contemporary. And, as I look at this image, they all seem so happy. I mean, really happy. Who am I to judge their lives? But, alas, who are they to judge mine and others who are part of non-traditional families?

  16. So, finally we come to the most important photograph of my year. It’s not an image that resonates because of its craft or positioning. It’s one that speaks of the transition of my life and the lives of my wife and two girls.

    Both of my children come from the same city and orphanage. And we went to China twice to adopt them, in 1997 and in 1999. Both times we stayed at the same hotel. The city, many hours drive from Guangzhou, hadn’t seen many Westerners at that point and the only acceptable hotel for us (according to the Chinese government) was a 3 Star abode. It was the best the city had to offer back then. But it came with a few strings. There was a bordello on the second floor and the second time we came back I warned my fellow parents-to-be that getting off the elevator on that floor would net them an offer they should refuse. The restaurant was also not what you would call first rate. But we certainly accepted this as part of the process.

    Amazingly, both times we stayed there we were given the same room. Room 603. The rooms were fine and not as scary as the 2nd floor. So, when we came back this summer I asked our guide if we could see the hotel. He said, “Of course! And, in fact the director of the orphanage wants to take you to dinner there this evening.” Susie and I blanched at the thought. “No,” he said, “this has become a very good restaurant and, in fact, the entire hotel is being renovated right now.” When we got there I asked if we could see the room we stayed in. We were told it was under renovation but, of course, go on up.

    China Hotel, Room 603

    This photo of my two daughters standing in the room we first cared for them is the completion of a thread that has been the most important in all of our lives. To see my daughters standing there was very emotional. When we first were handed Lily I actually thought, for the first time ever, that their might be a God. When we came back for Eve, I believed in what adoptive parents refer to as the Red Thread. According to Chinese legend, certain people are destined to meet in order to help each other. These girls were destined to meet us and we them. And all of us have helped each other over the years. And, interestingly, it was only this year that I realized that 603 held significance for me. I was born exactly at 6:03 P.M.

So, these are the photographs that helped define my life this year. I think it was a special year for me, personally and artistically. How about you? What are your important photographs this year?

What Becomes a Legend Most? Wait, Let Me Tweet That.

27 Oct 2013
October 27, 2013

What becomes a legend most? I have no idea. I’m not the legend type. But, earlier this week I received my first fan letter. I have had a few brushes with fame—by now, perhaps an hour’s worth. But, as always these strange encounters come in fits and spurts and without fanfare I quickly recede back with the rest of humanity.

Il Caffe

My Swiss Media Debut: Il Caffè (Click image for larger picture and, if you can read Italian, see how this government shutdown played in Europe.)

Recently, as many of you know, I became the de facto poster boy for the furloughed Federal worker. First on Washington, DC’s Fox affiliate, then in a news story CBS News beamed to its affiliates across the country and world, then The Washington Post and finally a Swiss weekly and French public radio.

I should thank my agent for all the exposure but I don’t have one. I was discovered by my Tweets. Facebook will never make you famous, but Twitter could, at least for a few minutes. Take last week’s célébrité du jour Tom Matzzie. While riding an Amtrak train Matzzie suddenly recognized an important phone call going on a few rows ahead of him. Former National Security Agency director Michael Hayden was being interviewed by a journalist on the other end of the line. And, like all good social media wonks, Matzzie immediately began live tweeting a running commentary. The event was covered in real time by the Post and other news outlets.

Trains are wonderful places for voyeurs like Tom and me. In fact, I’ve been chronicling my fellow commuters in a series called The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable that documents phone conversations I’ve overheard on DC’s Metro. People have lost all common sense about their personal space, talking about anything in front of anyone. I don’t mind. It makes my commute that much more exciting. And Matzzie’s running Twitter stream was a jackpot handed to him by the former head of the NSA! Irony is not dead. No way.

But enough about him.

Both CBS and The Washington Post contacted me after seeing my own government shutdown Twitter stream. But, unlike others who have confused public for personal spaces, I was very aware of my surroundings. Setting my conditions for an interview I stated at the outset, “I will not talk politics.” If they were looking for soundbytes from “Furloughed Joe Average,” that’s exactly who’d I’d be. Not that some didn’t try. Oh, you Media! You can be a cagey lot.

I spent a good deal of my furlough on social media. As my private self, I had no qualms about stating my opinion. And because of a comment I left on a Post article about Matzzie and Hayden, I discovered I had a fan.

Jeff, I was thrilled to come upon your site. Your writing, your range, your obvious intelligence…. I have subscribed and look forward to many hours of sharing your meta-ness.

“Your writing, your range, your obvious intelligence….” Wow. I was immediately suspicious.

I had just been pranked by friends of my daughter’s new boyfriend. We got a phone message the other night in which a father’s voice stated “This is Henry’s father. Would the parents of Lily Gates please call me at….” Was this going to be one of those Romeo and Juliet calls? Were my daughter and her boyfriend destined to be apart forever? I dutifully returned the call only to find it was a bunch of high school friends playing around.

So, just who was this fan? Some crazed nutcase who’d stalk me, forcing me to get a restraining order? I was born in Hollywood and inherited the drama that goes with. I did a little sleuthing, relaxed, and by the time I’d gotten to work, she wanted to friend me on Facebook.

My “15 minutes” was going in all sorts of unexpected directions. And this could start to become a problem. It’s been almost two weeks since that Post article appeared. My wife was just recognized at the grocery store. One person wanted my autograph (I’m sorry but those 15 minutes are way long gone). And strangers continue to tell me “I saw you in the Post.” I honestly don’t know how to react. So I default to “Oh, yeah, that.” Very polished. But all of this has gone on much longer than my previous encounters with fame. And, if it continues it will start to cramp my style. I’m a lurker. I watch and listen to people because I’m invisible. I get my best ideas this way. If people “see” me I’ll be lost and my artistic muses will evaporate.

I’m counting on you not to let that happen. Look! A squirrel!

China: A Cultural Mishap

05 Oct 2013
October 5, 2013

During June and July 2013 my wife and I took our children, both born in China, back to see where they came from. It was an incredible trip for all of us. For my children it made a very abstract part of their lives real. For my wife and I it completed a circle we began in 1997. This is the fifth post in a series of stories about our trip. But if you know me, you’ll know I’m attracted to the fringes of any narrative. That’s where the memories are. I won’t be giving any interminably long and boring slide shows of the trip but if you want to take a look at some of the photographs I took, feel free to do so in the comfort of your own Internet café.

A week before the end of our trip it was time to go to the city and orphanage where both my girls are from. Yangchun is where our children spent the first few months of their lives. It’s a “town” of two million people a few hours west of Guangzhou, capital of China’s southern province of Guangdong. After we split off from the rest of our tour group we flew to Guangzhou and met our tour guide and driver for this part of the trip, Tom and Jerry. Yes, Tom the driver and Jerry our guide. And they took great pleasure introducing themselves, knowing the cultural significance of their names.

Airport Transit Bus

The Diaolou of Kaiping (Click on image to view entire panorama.)

Our drive to Yangchun would be four hours on a new nonstop freeway, much shorter than our two previous trips down bumpy back roads. The back roads allowed us to see a part of China off the tourist track. However, this time we took pleasure in driving the quicker and smoother road. Jerry asked us if we’d like to stop about half way at Kaiping, a town very distinct from other Chinese towns. This is where many immigrants to the U.S. and Canada came from in the early 20th century. I had noticed the distinct European colonial buildings called Diaolou on our previous trip and thought they were remnants of European rule in that part of China. Instead, I learned they were homes built by those first immigrants when they came back to China. And many of these homes were now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.


I found out about the Super Typhoon from the TV in a Kaiping Restaurant. (Click on image to view entire photograph.)

As we ate lunch at a huge restaurant in Kaiping, I noticed they were talking about a “Super Typhoon Soulik” on the large screen TV at one end of the room (Chinese love to watch television while they eat in restaurants). I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I know what a map showing the path of a storm looks like. And it looked like it was heading right for us. I asked our guide about it. He watched the news report and told me not to worry. It would hit landfall in between Guangzhou and Shanghai (our next stop). “But, what about flying,” I asked. “Don’t worry. He’ll fly over it.” Oh so simple. I knew this was not the tidy end to this story.

A few days later, as we arrived at the Guangzhou airport to fly to Shanghai I noticed our flight was listed as “Normal” (China’s way of stating it was on time). As we said goodbye to Tom and Jerry at security, Jerry told me all would be fine. This would be the first time we on our own, without a tour group or guide. Once past security, what could happen? And, at the appointed boarding time, everyone lined up. Of course, without a translator I queued us up in a line that was boarding a flight to Kumming. The gate attendant pointed us to the next gate over.

Our boarding passes in hand for Shanghai, we stood at the door where a transit bus would take us to our plane. Now, there is a huge cultural dissonance between an American’s expectations when standing in a line and a Chinese’s. Americans politely take their place at the back of the line while Chinese just make their way to the front. Think of the chaos that used to be Southwest Airline’s boarding procedure. It was hot, we were tired, and it was getting near the end of our trip. And, to be honest, my adventurous and open approach to this very different culture was starting to wear thin. I made a few snide comments about these line cutters but they were under my breath and in English. (I was secretly hoping those people had good hearing and understood what I was saying.) We stood there for quite a while until there was an announcement over the public address system in Mandarian, of course. All of sudden, my fellow Chinese passengers started yelling. With no guide, I had to take extraordinary actions to find out what was going on.

I stood at the gate with other passengers who were yelling at the airline agent. I had no idea what they were saying but somehow I thought that if I stood there I would pick up everything I needed to know by osmosis. No chance. When the conversation seemed to be just an exercise in Chinese venting, I slowly backed away.

I scoped out the crowd and saw a European man (my sleuthing showed he held a Portuguese passport). “Do you speak English?” I asked. “Why of course,” he replied. He also spoke Chinese. Through him and a Chinese American I got the news that our flight had been delayed. First we were told that the plane had electrical problems. Apparently, no one believed that. Then were were told it was because of the typhoon. Air control was holding the plane. I braced for a 5 hour wait (as we had in one of our previous flights). The airport had free WiFi, but you had to get the password in a text message on your phone. In my case, that would be an international call and not free at all. My Portuguese friend kindly used his phone to find out the password. I braced myself and the family for a long wait.

I was sitting there writing emails to my friends apprising them of our international incident when, about an hour in, all of a sudden, everyone started lining up at the gate. I quickly ended my emails, leaving my friends on the hook and rounded up the girls (only after I got home did I get an email from one friend, frantically wanting to know what happened). Glory be, I thought. But wait. By this time in the trip, what I lacked in mastering the Chinese language, I had gained in understanding Chinese bureaucracy. Yes, we were boarding the plane. But until we took off I wouldn’t count on our good luck.

Airport Transit Bus

An International Incident Unfolding (Click on image to view entire photograph.)

As we got on the bus to be taken to our plane, I thought it would be great to document this experience. So I took a panorama of all of us tired passengers. As I turned the camera the woman you see center right yelled “Don’t take my picture!” Without thinking twice, I said “Look away, if you don’t want your picture taken.” My daughter, the devilish looking one just to the left of the woman) immediately and publicly scolded me. Yes, it had become a cross-cultural incident. Our first of the trip, mind you. Neither the woman nor I said anything else (although, I glowered a bit as we walked up the stairs to the plane as she and her family stood at the foot of it having their photo opp). And, I only took that one photo. In my defense, I didn’t think taking a picture of a crowded transit bus would be objectionable. I didn’t even look at the photo until we got to Shanghai. The look on her face captures the moment perfectly. Henri Cartier-Bresson would be proud (maybe). It was, indeed, the decisive moment.

And, true to form, we sat on the tarmac for two hours before being cleared to take off. Still, a three hour delay is nothing in China. And I got a great photograph.

Furlough: Day 4

04 Oct
October 4, 2013

On Day 4 of my forced time off I woke up to our local Fox affiliate’s morning news program. First, a disclaimer. Fox 5 here in DC is not Fox News. Their connection is in name only. And our local Fox station has a much more professional approach to the news. A crew interviewed me last year when I had my ads in the DC Metro and that was one of the first questions I asked. It’s clear the people on the Channel 5 morning news like each other and that makes watching them a pleasure, especially when you have to get up and go to work. Except, today, and for the last four days, I haven’t had to go to work. But I watch them anyway, just to feel normal.

There’s a segment I particularly like called “Ask Tony and Tucker.” It comes on around 6:45 a.m., just when I’m getting dressed. Newscaster Tony Perkins is “Tony” and Tucker Barnes, the weather man is “Tucker.” Every morning they read a viewer’s question “weather related or otherwise” and then attempt to answer it. I had a question I had wanted to ask them for months. And, true to form, it was a “meta” question, one about their newscast. But I never had time. The furlough changed that. With more than enough time on my hands, yesterday I sent in my question and a photo of me wearing my furlough attire.

This is the news I woke up to this morning.

China: The Search is the Holy Grail

25 Aug 2013
August 25, 2013

During June and July 2013 my wife and I took our children, both born in China, back to see where they came from. It was an incredible trip for all of us. For my children it made a very abstract part of their lives real. For my wife and I it completed a circle we began in 1997. This is the fourth post in a series of stories about our trip. But if you know me, you’ll know I’m attracted to the fringes of any narrative. That’s where the memories are. I won’t be giving any interminably long and boring slide shows of the trip but if you want to take a look at some of the photographs I took, feel free to do so in the comfort of your own Internet café.

Beijing Apple Store

Our first stop: Apple's newest and largest store in Beijing

My first escape from our tour came with a shock. I had decided to buy a new 11 inch MacBook Air to accompany us on our trip to China. Ostensibly, I had convinced my wife we needed this so we “all” could connect to the Internet while we were there. In reality, I wanted to make sure I had a place to store my photos in a backup place while in country. So, on our second day as I sat down to upload my first photos to my, I mean, our new computer, I was shocked to discover there was no SD card reader slot on the machine. With no slot there’d be no way to copy my images over. I was so surprised, despite having looked in all the right places, I kept looking. “It’s got to be here somewhere,” I remember saying out loud.

Once I accepted my new reality I made plans to visit the huge Apple Store I had spied just a few blocks from our hotel on Beijing’s largest pedestrian street Waifujing. And, my oldest daughter wanted to come with. Perfect. Seeing the “real” China on our own would be a great experience for her (despite the fact that Waifujing is in one of the classiest parts of the city). This would be a teaching moment as she watched me converse with the locals without guide or translator.

In 1974 I took my first overseas trip on a seven month odyssey throughout Europe and the Middle East. My first stop was London. I remember how scared I was to open my mouth and speak to shopkeepers I encountered. And English was their native language! I was afraid of being tagged a crazy American the moment I said anything. That would be pretty evident in Beijing but in the last four decades I had learned to ignore those pesky insecurities. I was now the guy who conversed with strangers in elevators. I wanted my daughter to share that sense of adventure. And I was to be her guide.

As we exited the hotel and started to walk down the street we were pretty excited to be “in” the culture. Now it was real. No tour bus to insulate us. And I knew my daughter would be watching me talk with the locals. But I couldn’t have anticipated where this would take us.

When we entered Apple’s largest store in Asia I walked up to one of the greeters at the door and asked “Do you speak English?” Yes? Good. “I’m looking for an SD card reader for my MacBook Air.” The look on his face said it all. “You know, a camera card reader. (I pantomimed the camera, taking a photo, turning the camera upside down, taking out the SD card and putting it in a slot of the computer.) “Ah!” (I had always been good at charades.) He went to find a salesperson who could help me.

When the savvy Apple employee approached she asked me in English: “You’re looking for an SD card?” No, I was looking for an external SD card reader. She took me down a beautiful circular glass staircase to look in their accessories department. I was encouraged. My daughter was taking it all in. The Apple lady looked around. Not finding it she excused herself to ask for help. When she returned she told me the bad news: “We don’t sell those here.” I was shocked. Yes, that’s the only way to describe it. If the Apple Store didn’t have a reader who would? And if they built their laptop with no reader the least they could do was to sell something I could plug in.

So surprised, I thought perhaps she still didn’t understand what I was looking for. I repeated. “You don’t sell a reader?” I started to play charades again when she stopped me. “I know what you’re talking about,” she said in perfect English. “No, we don’t. You might try the Sony store a few blocks away.” Resigned to this twist in our plans I asked her if she could write down the address so I could show it to someone in case, no, when we got lost. As she handed me the paper I said in my best Mandarin: 謝謝。Thank you.

Directions to the Sony Store

Our Apple saleslady gave me directions to our next stop.

So began our quest. She told me the Sony store was a few blocks away and drew me a map. So, if the store wasn’t visible from the street, we’d have to ask a stranger for help. We were walking down one of the best known pedestrian streets in central Beijing and my daughter was absorbing everything. “Look, there’s a white woman on that billboard!” It was full immersion into Asian culture and biases.

After a few very long blocks we had no idea if we were on the right track. I found a street vendor and silently handed her my piece of paper. She had a short discussion with her coworker and pointed us “that way.” We continued another few long blocks, finally stopping in front of an expensive jewelry store. “Let’s go in here. I’m sure they speak English.” Once again, I handed the salesperson my note and she took me by the hand and led me to another door that opened into the biggest high class mall I’d ever seen: the Oriental Plaza. It was so big it was divided into zones and once inside we could have been anywhere in upper class America. She pointed across the walkway to the Sony Store. We had passed the first part of our quest. As we entered I went directly to the counter to find my English speaker. They grabbed a guy from the back and I repeated what I was looking for. He started to laugh. “There’s no need to sell SD card readers here. All Sony computers already have them. Don’t all Macs have them?” You think? Sigh.

He had no suggestions as to where to look next but I asked him to write down “SD Card Reader” in Chinese (you’ll be interested to know that “SD” in Chinese is “SD”). I was tired of playing charades. Perhaps I could stand on a street corner handing strangers my Chinese translation. Now that would be an experience my daughter would never forget (but one she’d never, ever agree to —death by parental embarrassment is a universal teenage angst).

We had failed. But then I remembered my prime directive: my daughter was learning how to navigate an alien landscape. We hadn’t failed; we had scored big time. We headed back to the hotel, now a few miles away. And, suddenly, something wonderful happened. As we waited to cross a busy street she suddenly wrapped her arm around mine and held it tightly. She had already learned that Chinese drivers and bicyclists simply ignored traffic lights. Dodging cars and bikes, along with the locals, I cherished that moment. When was the last time she held onto me that tightly?

A few blocks later we passed a tiny electronics store. It looked like the whole family was behind the counter. I handed one of them my Chinese “SD card reader” calling card and he immediately opened a case and pulled one out. Thirty yuan (about $9). Perfect.

The goal of a quest is to take it and to experience it. My daughter and I shared our first encounter together with Chinese culture, making it back just in time to get on our tour bus, once more somewhat insulated from the country we had come to experience. The bonus: crossing that street with my daughter (yes, and finding that card reader too).

Thanks Apple for not putting that SD card slot in the 11 inch MacBook Air!

China: The Economics of Teenage Shopping

18 Aug 2013
August 18, 2013

During June and July 2013 my wife and I took our children, both born in China, back to see where they came from. It was an incredible trip for all of us. For my children it made a very abstract part of their lives real. For my wife and I it completed a circle we began in 1997. This is the third post in a series of stories about our trip. But if you know me, you’ll know I’m attracted to the fringes of any narrative. That’s where the memories are. I won’t be giving any interminably long and boring slide shows of the trip but if you want to take a look at some of the photographs I took, feel free to do so in the comfort of your own Internet café.

China is a cultural shock. Any similarities to America (and there are many) are only skin deep. The object is to take notice but never assume that what you see is an exact replica of what you know back home. I know this and my wife knows this because this was our third trip to the country. However, the focus of this journey was to introduce China to our children. This was their first visit to the country of their birth—to any foreign place actually. And there were lessons to be learned. Yet, they were raised and are American teenagers through and through. Very few Chinese would mistake them for fellow citizens (well, except for the hostess standing outside a first class lounge at the Guangzhou airport who mistook my youngest for my interpreter, but that’s another story).

The focus of our trip was cultural. We toured with other families who were also bringing their girls back to China for their first look as burgeoning adults. So, most of the trip focused the landmarks of Beijing (like the Forbidden City), centuries-old traditions (like visiting a tea research institute and learning the ways of a traditional tea ceremony), and the landscape depicted in art from dynasties past (like the limestone mountains of Guilin).

While my girls enjoyed these cultural lessons, there was always a universal thread they continued to bring to the surface: they wanted to go shopping. Not for the kitsch their father was focused on and not for traditional Chinese souvenirs—they wanted to go “clothes shopping.” My youngest was most eager and reminded us every time we arrived at a new metropolitan area. My answer was consistent: Shanghai, our last stop, was the fashion mecca of China. That is where she should go shopping. However, delayed gratification was a hard concept to hold onto. We had to tour a new mall in the town where they were born, far from the traditional city centers. But I was sure she’d find something in Shanghai. So, for my daughter, a visit to that city could not come fast enough.

Nanjing Road

Shanghai's Nanjing Road (click image for larger view)

At the end of a long day touring historical places in Shanghai (and after an arduous three weeks of tooling all over China) we went to Nanjing Road. This was supposed to be the shopping center of Shanghai and, therefore, of all of China (although, I doubt Peng Liyuan, stylish wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping would ever buy her clothes there). It’s a huge outside pedestrian mall where the hawkers of fake Rolexes just might outnumber those looking for real things: real fashionable things. The girls wanted to buy clothes. Our guide, Iris, gave us 90 minutes to walk around before our rendezvous. We were on a mission and, with no time to spare, we went looking. But where to start? We knew none of these stores. Which ones had the cool clothes? Stopping strangers on the street and asking “Where do the cool girls shop?” was out of the question. First, no one would have a clue what we were saying. Second, even if they did, my teens would sink below ground if I opened my mouth to ask. We entered a store that had big end-of-season sales and lots of women walking in. We looked around.

I was clueless. What were they looking for? Well, any woman will tell you: “When I see it I will know.” So I was of no help. But, of course, that didn’t stop me from calling them over to say “What about this?” This is why I don’t go and wouldn’t be allowed to go clothes shopping with them at home. Although, in my defense, sometimes —sometimes— my oldest has been known to ask my opinion in matters such as this. She knows I have a good eye but is suspicious because I am a man and her father: two strikes that are hard to overcome.

We found an interesting part of the store and the girls grabbed some dresses. I sat down as the young salesladies parted the curtain to let them try them on. My eye told me they looked pretty retro, like 1960s cocktail dresses, which I liked. But they didn’t look haute coutre by any stretch of the imagination, even in the teen sense. In fact, they looked a bit dumpy. They weren’t made very well. And they didn’t fit right. They were almost great, if you know what I mean. My youngest was enthralled with one and asked if she could put it on “hold.” That is, she asked me to ask if she could put it on hold.

She’d been with me the whole trip and knew I didn’t speak Mandarin. What was she thinking? But I tried. First, the salespeople didn’t speak English. Using my hands to describe the meaning of “hold” was useless. I tried my longstanding last resort: “Does anyone here speak English?” (Remind me to tell you the first time I used that in a Prague bus station in the 1970s). A saleslady brought over a young man, a customer, to help. But I didn’t get far. “Hold. Hold. We want to hold it and come back within the hour to buy it.” “You want to buy it now and come back later to get it?” he replied. I was useless. The concept seemed to be alien. No one puts something on hold. I had to break the news to my daughter. Either she bought it now or she would have to forget it. And, time was running out. We would have to meet Iris soon.

We left empty-handed. My daughter was not happy. Some day she may appreciate our efforts to help. But not then. She was getting in a bad mood and that did not bode well for a family of tired tourists. I pulled my oldest aside and said, “Have you noticed, Chinese “style” is, well, a bit different from our standards. It’s not what Americans would call stylish.” She had to agree. I knew they had been eyeing Chinese women throughout our trip. I played my hand. However, her agreement did not end our quest.

Forever 21

Shanghai's Forever 21. Very Chinese.

Suddenly, my oldest spied something familiar. A woman was carrying a bright yellow Forever 21 bag. “Go over and ask her where the store is,” I suggested. She shook her head. But the second time we saw the bag I went over, pointed to the bag, and in my best English said “Where is it?” It took a minute but she finally understood. She pointed that way. We started walking fast looking closely at each store. Time was running out.

Four long blocks later we found it. I wish I had a photo of their joyous faces. They ran in. We trailed. Suddenly, we weren’t in China any longer. We had finally bridged the cultural differences we had come to know throughout our trip by embracing globalization. I thought about discussing the concept with the kids but wisely jettisoned the idea immediately. They were very busy, looking around. My youngest was the first to find her Chinese souvenir, then my oldest. We got off pretty easy: both tops were under US $15. But, as we walked back to our pickup point, I couldn’t help myself. “Couldn’t you have gotten that cheaper at the Forever 21 close to our house?” “But these are made in China,” they responded. It’s all made in China! And then I had to tell them the truth.

“Yes, it’s all made in China. But here’s what happens. American and other foreign companies have their wares made in China because manufacturing costs and wages are low. The ship them to the States. Then these same companies sell them back to stores in China but the Chinese have to pay duty on them, which, in turn, raises the prices. These clothes are cheaper in the States than where they were made!”

My impromptu economics lesson fell on deaf ears. They had their authentic Chinese souvenirs and that was that.

Related posts: Read other stories about our trip back home to China.

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