Thursday, August 31, 2006

Column response

I am going through the letters from my last column and editing them down to run this week. But I wanted to share this one with you. I would actually like to run part of it but it is hard to edit. Read it all the way through, then my response.

I have a lot of experience dealing with hostile emails, after over a decade as Guitar World’s Online Editor. I regularly get emailss that are some form of “You and Guitar World are corporate whores who should die slow, painful deaths…” And when I write back “I’m sorry you have been unhappy with the magazine of late” I almost always get a repl;y that begins, “Gee Mr. Paul,. I’m sorry I insulted you. I have been reading your work for years…”

And so it goes.

Normally I would not even consider taking the time to sit and write my reaction to such a surprisingly ignorant article as the one you have written, but think of it like a hangnail - I can't help it, I have to chew on it.

I have been in Shanghai for one year working for an automotive supplier. I am slated to return to the USA next month and I can't wait. Although I have taken the time to learn some Mandarin and I have tried to take in as much of the Chinese culture as I can stomach, you will never hear me call China home.

It's not amazing Alan, it's dirty, it's polluted, it's backwards, and I hate to break the news to your child, the food is not good. If I go home and see anyone sucking on a foot or a head of any kind I will choke them where they sit. Oh, and if I hear anyone speaking Chinese, I will not hug them. I will, however, hug everyone that I hear say God bless America.

Yes, at night the skyline of Shanghai is quite impressive - if you embrace overpopulation and destruction of the environment. Let's face it Alan, a gold plated pile of dogcrap is a sight to behold, but at the end of the day it is still feces.

Let me tell you one thing you have going for you Alan. You deserve China and China deserves you. You are not free in China, it is an illusion. You are not safe there either. You are not Chinese. If you prefer China over the USA then do everyone a favor and stay there. I am sure your family is way better off, and you couldn't possibly provide your children with a better childhood. Oh, and don't worry if you or any of your family members get really sick or develop special medical needs - the health care system in China is wonderful. I have been in Chinese hospitals more than once during my stay here, due to the wonderful food here in China, and I have seen barns that are more sanitary.

So, enjoy your time in China Alan. Relish the fact that you are living in a communist country where you can't drink the water. Pray that you don't get really sick or injured. When you wake up in the morning and take a deep breath, don't be fooled by the smell - it's ok that the air always smells of garbage and sewage, just drink green tea and the pollution won't affect you.

As for me, I will be in Michigan. In America - the greatest nation on the planet. I am going to throw a real steak on the barbecue, drink water from the tap, flush my toilet paper, drive my car to the 7-eleven and give the clerk a high-five for being intelligent enough to know where the greatest place in the world is. I will shoot my guns, I will vote, I will watch cable TV, I will tip my waitress, and most of all, I will be free while I am doing it.

Proud to be from the USA,

David DeBiasi
Director of Process Development
Jiangyin-Venture Interior Systems Co., Ltd.

I usually start these letters by saying something like thanks for reading the column and taking the time to respond. And so I will here. I understand from my own experience that vitriol can be a powerful motivator, and I take it that my column enraged you enough to share your thoughts. Whatever your motivation, you’re a fine writer who expresses himself clearly and I’m sure that your book will be well written if you actually pursue it. I would urge you to do so and would love to read it when it’s done.

Iappreciate a good head of outrage, but I want o be clear about one point. I’d like to make it clear that I consider the USA my home and I have no second thoughts about where I will be ending up long term.

Best of luck with what I'm sure will be an easy transition.

Alan Paul


Wow Alan, now that I have recieved the response that I never expected from you I feel bad. I did not mean to attack you, although I did. I hope you are not offended by anything I have written. I am sure you experience many of the same frustrations I do here in China. Unfortunately I decided to vent and aimed it at you. For that I apologize.

I am serious about writing the book. I will be sure to look you up when it is finished. Thank you for your compliments Alan, and if you are in Shanghai next month for any reason, contact me. I would love to talk to you about your experience here. I wish the best for you and your family. Good luck with everything and thank you for taking the time to respond.


David DeBiasi
(86) 13524628942

P.S. - I am relieved that you are also intelligent enough to know where the best place in the world is. Do your time and get back to the USA. We need intelligent people there.


To be honest, I was offended by some of what you wrote because of its personal nature, but I'm a big boy and can take it, no problem. Overall I found your hostility towards China interesting and a good reminder that everything is not hunky dory.

The santary conditions and overall health system should a serious problem arise are by far my biggest concerns aboutliving here. But I am really enjoying the change of pace.

In terms of my wanting to hear about my experiences here, I am a pretty open book. Just read the column every other week. I don't really hold back, a trait to which you can surely relate.

Best of luck with everything and do keep me posted on the book.


Still No DSL and more...

MY DSL line is still down and has been all week. Several other friends are having the same problem. Apparently, there was some sort of telecom “update” done that for whatever reason left some of us but not all of us in the dust.

I had the guy from China Telecom here last Friday and he insisted that we needed a new modem. I pointed out that Becky’s DSL was also out. He checked that and said that modem was shot as well. I tried to point out that the likelihood of both modems crapping out at the same time was rather slim but he insisted. He plugged in his own modem and showed me strong signals from both lines. That was hard to argue with, and everything was actually hard to argue with what with his limited English being a bit better than my Chinese.

So I went out and bought two new modems and plugged mine in nd lo and behold, it worked. I was relieved. I plugged my Isight in. I downloaded some music, I went out and did some stuff. I got back and there was no signal and it has never returned. Ugh. I did manage to figure out a way to get online with dial-up and the dirty little secret is it’s not really so bad, at least for email and basic websurfing,. But I can’t even contemplate trying to upload the great photos I have of the first days of school or using the ISIght camera which should now function well on my desktop as I have finally upgraded to Tiger OS.

Anyhow, I have been sort of waiting all week for the guy to come back and resolve this mess, but it never happens and the chain of command about whom to call is not at all clear. I go to the Riviera Management office and they say, “Oh, he will be back Weds. but then I go int here and they say “He is here today.” He will come. But I call and call and no one comes. He was at my neighbors’ yesterday but either didn’t come here or I missed him. I think I am now going insane. I went in there and really demanded that he show up. The nice, nice young ladies said, ”yes, he come.” I demanded to know a time frame.

“I can’t be there all the time,” I explained.

“Yes, yes, sir.”

She called someone and talked loud and fast. The only thing I could understand was she repeatedly said “Must come today” which I figured was good.

She hung up, smiled and said “Maybe 1,2, 3 oclock.”

It was 1:11.

I said thanks and rode my bike home.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Struggling with next column a bit

Man, I am really struggling with this week’s column. Part of it is just struggling t o get back into a routine and groove. Part of it still being out of sorts from jetlag. Part of it the kids just finally went back to school today, giving me a little peace and quiet. Part of it is that just as that happened, my internet connection vanished, leaving me not only disconnected but discombobulated and orced to spend a lot of time delaing with that issue.

And part of it is that it’s a lot easier for me to write for this forum than that one. I wrote all of the above in a couple of minutes, however long it took me to physically type them. When I wrote for the blog, I just type. I think with my fingers. I don’t really have a plan. The idea just takes me where it wants to go and I realize things as I type them. Many of the columns stemmed from thing I originally wrote here and they were a lot easier to write, because I am a pretty ruthless self editor. When I write a column from scratch, exploring the thoughts in that format first,. I can never reach the same level of ease. I tend to agonize over each sentence, each word, each idea.

So, finding myself a little stalled on that front, agonizing over a few hundred words, only phrase at a time, I thought I should let loose a little and share my thoughts with you.

What I’m writing about is how different this year is than last.. how a year ago, w were fresh off the boat, wet behind the ears and overwhelmed and awed by everything and this year everything is normalized.. we are returning home. We have friends.. the kids love school, we have drivers licenses and a car.. we can speak at last a little chinese…

But as thing normalize, I worry if they are getting too normal – do we really want to spend our few years here basing our schedules around soccer games, Sunday schools and birthday parties?

Does that sound like a good column? It better because I’m in too deep and it’s too late to turn back now.

Good story about Beijing Hospitals

My friend alan de zon, writes:

I made my monthly attempt to hit your blogspot from Beijing, and was amazed to connect immediately. I can only imagine why you’re suddenly accessible, though I couldn’t imagine why you were blocked on the first place.

Liked your piece on suction massage. My wife arrives here Monday, and as she loves regular massage, I was wondering where to send her……As to medicine in China overall, I broke my wrist here two month ago; was trying to be good and exercise, then swim everyday. The local obsession with polished marble didn’t mix well with water, and I slipped by the pool. Language differences set in immediately – I asked for a sling or a splint, or just to see what was in the first aid kit – I was insistently handed a tube of antiseptic cream. I got to my knees, and then to the side of the Jacuzzi, where I fell in, unconscious, but the imminence of drowning woke me up. Made it to my room where I managed to put on some sweats, created a sling out of one of the ties that I brought but never wear, and was taken to Peking Union Medical Centre (“For Foreigners” wing).

For New Yorker’s, think of Coney Island Hospital in the 1970’s, without the gunshot victims in the waiting room. Missing ceiling tiles, cracked floors, bad lighting, and reeking toilets. Also for Americans, the concept of medical privacy was totally unknown. Waiting for my examination, other patients would just pick up and scan my paperwork, try to steal the low numbers from other files, and once inside the examination room, people would just routinely barge in out of turn. After a few bi-weekly visits, I got used to it, and actually enjoyed the show in the waiting room, which was shared with a Pediatric unit, so there were lots of cute babies to play with. As for the doctors, they were just fine, and my treatment was as good as at any US hospital. It was also a lot cheaper (no surprise); each visit consisted of Y200 registration with individual cash payments of Y100/200/300 for casts, x-rays, etc. – pay as you go. The most expensive visit was Y700, which as you know equals $88, and which buys you an aspirin in the US. And, just when I thought the chief osteopath spoke only Chinese, he looked me in the eye and asked me questions in perfect English.

The other cultural difference exposed in this long affair – the attitude towards legal action in this type of situation. Every American (European, Australian) I mentioned this to immediately talked about suing the hotel (the hotel took full responsibility and paid for all expenses and have been extra nice to me ever since); the only Chinese person who asked that question was my Beijing lawyer….

My knuckle-to-elbow cast was finally removed yesterday. It’s a real pleasure to be able to shower without ritually wrapping my arm in a trash liner.

Please keep in the government’s good graces so I can keep up on your parallel universe.



Glad to know your arm is better. why didn't you go to one of the western hospitals? At least you got a good story out of this.

My blog wasn't blocked per se -- it was blogspot and it came and went a few times last year so let's keep our fingers crossed. I like being able to see it.

More updates coming soon

I have been having major connectivity issues.. like I am not connected to the internet. It's very frustrating. I am on B's computer, using dialup, which is remarkably fast, via the WSJ lines, but it's all very frustrating. This is no way to get things done. I wrote a whole happy birthday Eli post that I never got up.

Today was the first day of school and all seemed to go well. Anna was the first one ready, bounding out the door and into her class. She is quite amazing. She is also now wearing a uniform. Pictures to come, a soon as this mess is straightened out.

Meanwhile, I have my first Chinese class in 6 weeks in a few minutes and I have to turn a column in but it's going rather slow.. I started writing about the differences in being a "veteran" instead of a newbie expat, but I'm not really feeling it. Hopefully inspiration will strike soon.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Victim of a cupping...

This photo was supposed to run with my column about being cupped, but didn't for some reason. Maybe they didn't want to ruin anyone's breakfast.

It should also be noted that this picture was taken about four days later when it was fading. I forgot to do it earlier.

Welcome to Julia Cohen, newest member of the family

My cousin Dan and his wife Alisa had their second daughter, Julia Natalie Cohen Monday in New York. She weighs 6-13, I think and was named Emma for about 24 hours before her folks decided that she had matured into a Julia.

Joan and Ben are now grandparents x2 with little Manuel Antonio due to arrive in October.

Bubbie Marilyn Fogel gets post position for her loyal blog readership.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

My last column

A Return Stateside Brings
An Elusive Sense of Home

August 18, 2006

I am writing this column from Maplewood, N.J., sitting at my aunt and uncle's kitchen table, right in the heart of the cozy little neighborhood we called home for eight years before moving to Beijing almost exactly one year ago. I am directly across the street from my house, which we still own but have rented out to tenants who are themselves expats, from Denmark. It is calming and reassuring to look out the window and view the house, which looks lovely. Yet I feel surprisingly dislocated, pining for China and my life there far more than I anticipated.

I have been in the U.S. for a month now and I want to get back. I've been trying to sort out just what I'm longing for. In part, it is my house and possessions, the things you see every day which ground you and remind you who you are, but it's much deeper than that. Last week, I wanted to jump up and hug a couple I surprisingly heard speaking Chinese in a state park in Bay City, Michigan.

This is my first summer living as an expat and I largely followed the lead of others. I actually moderated the "get the hell out of Dodge" approach many have, in large part because my wife Rebecca and I really don't like lengthy familial separations, which are common among expat families. We stayed three weeks after school finished and enjoying a less harried daily life before heading back together. Still, I decided to stay on in Maplewood for an extra week with my two sons after Rebecca returned to work. (I wisely thought better of flying home solo with all three of my kids and sent three-year-old Anna home with mom.) That pushes the visit close to five weeks, and it's too long. The result of this lengthy sojourn away from my daily life is a strangely disassociated feeling.

Everywhere I go, people ask me a variation of the same simple questions: "How's China? Is it weird to be back?" Depending on my mood and to whom I'm speaking, I answer the first question with anything from a muttered "great" to a lengthy disposition (all the while resisting the urge to simply ask, "Don't you read my damn column?"). The second question is a little tougher to answer honestly.

Upon arriving here last month, the strangest thing about being back was how not strange it felt. Within a day, it seemed like we had never left, like everything that happened in the last year was just a dream. But it's gotten more complicated as the weeks have rolled by and we have made pilgrimages to our most familiar, comforting places, including Beach Haven, N.J., Ann Arbor and Bay City, Mich., and my parents' house deep in the Pennsylvania woods. Returning to each and every one of these locales and the dear friends and family who populate them is a positive and grounding experience, but the cumulative effect of a month dragging kids and bags from place to place is something different. You start to feel lost in time and space. You're not quite on vacation but you're definitely not home either.

Our first morning in Maplewood, we took a family stroll into town to get breakfast. The tree-lined streets we formerly took for granted became objects of fascination and awe. We marveled at the chirping birds and scampering squirrels and oohed and aahed at the gentle breeze and the morning light filtering through the dense overhead foliage. All of these sights are common to leafy, suburban America in the summer but rare and wondrous in Beijing and its environs.

This was not our first trip back since moving. We also visited at Christmas time, just four months after moving. We wavered on returning home so soon, before my father's illness made the decision easy. Ultimately, it was a good decision, one that somehow helped clarify for all of us that we now lived in China; sometimes you have to leave and return for a place to truly feel like home.

But it was also a strain at times to stay so close to our house. The kids wanted to go inside, they wanted to see their rooms, and they didn't like the fact that other children were living there. We considered bringing them over to see and get it out of their system before deciding against it. Only I went in, to pick up some documents. It was nice to see and the house looked great, but it was not in any way a profound or moving experience.

This time, no one has asked to visit the house and it hasn't felt weird for a minute to be staying across the street. That seems like good news. The kids have had a great time visiting grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and cousins and frolicking at some of their favorite spots, but they have never once wavered about returning. We were walking down the Jersey shore beach when we passed someone reading New York magazine's "Best Cheap Eats" issue. A large bowl of Asian food was featured on the cover, causing five-year-old Eli to turn to me and say, "I really miss Chinese food, dad." Boy, did I understand.

We've visited with friends and families, rejoiced in my father's good health and rather amazing recovery, seen doctors and dentists and filled bags at Target, Nordstrom's and Modell's Sports with hard-to-get-in-China items. We've dined on cheesesteaks, Jersey corn, tomatoes and pizza, Michigan pasties, banana splits and other only-in-America culinary delights. We've endured a scorching heat wave and reveled in the sweet late summer weather that followed as we visited beaches, parks, state fairs, amusement parks and water slides. And now we're ready to get back to dumplings and pollution, uniforms and compound walls. We're ready to get back to our lives. We're ready to go home.
* * *
Readers Respond

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, about unexpectedly and painfully getting "cupped" on a massage table. Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions for treating my chronically sore shoulder, which ranged from physical therapy to shots of B12 to more cupping.

You can get used to chronic, long-term shoulder pain especially if, like so many of us, you've been taught to "grin and bear it." But when the flair-ups get more frequent, you may find yourself more irritable, that the activities of daily living are more difficult, and that what you've grown to take for granted is a constant feeling of pain that hurts all aspects of your life.

Ignoring for a moment the intangible, undocumented, and anecdotal benefits of Eastern medicine, I suggest you look into Western physical therapy. I wasn't familiar first hand with PT until my own shoulder drove me to an orthopedist for help. Rather than diving in with lots of medicine and surgery, he prescribed a few weeks of physical therapy that produced great results.

Take care of the little things so you can enjoy the big experiences -- and thanks for sharing those big pictures, as reflected in the vignettes.

-- Guy Barudin

My wife is a physical therapist and she has done miracles for many patients with "trigger points." They had various, inexplicable aches and pains, which were completely alleviated by applying pressure at appropriate trigger points where muscles went into spasm. If you have a trigger point, a knowledgeable PT can diagnose it and fix the pain.

-- Alfred D'Souza

Thanks to you both. I am definitely open to PT and may well explore it down the road.
* * *

I am Chinese and knew about this type of treatment, which is very common (including the pain after the treatment). The interesting part was the lady who administrated it. Usually it is carried out by Chinese doctors [not] a lady in the massage parlor! If you feel the treatment was good for you, you should go back and thank her.

-- Ken Fong

I actually have returned to the massage place to try to talk with the masseuse but have not been able to find her again. It closed for a renovation and recently reopened. I may try again.

* * *

Another name, more commonly used in the U.S. is Gua Sha. As you experienced, the technique can be uncomfortable and sometimes bruising, but it is very effective for breaking up chronic scar tissue, muscle fibrosis and trigger points. My patients have a love-hate feeling for the technique.

-- Robert "Dr. Bob" Konowitz, DC, DACBSP

I do not doubt that anyone undergoing regular "gua sha" treatments would have a love-hate relationship with the technique.

* * *

I'm a certified massage therapist and hadn't heard of cupping before. It was interesting that you mentioned Starbucks, as I have noticed that I, myself, get some muscle tightness in my right shoulder blade area when I drink coffee. Coffee is a stimulant and sometimes causes tension in muscles. When I stop drinking coffee for several days, it goes away.

-- Paul

You raise an interesting point, but quite a disturbing one. Can't... go...without... coffee… I readily admit to a severe addiction. I try to drink only tea in the afternoon (which is rather pleasurable in China), but this column would really get interesting if I gave up coffee. In fact, I just packed six pounds of Peets into my bag for my return trip.
* * *

As someone who knows a thing or two about cupping, I really urge you to try at least several more sessions before you give it up. It is a common folk remedy in China, and, speaking from personal experience, it works. Cupping could be the best thing for your shoulder ache, and you owe it to yourself a few more cupping sessions.

-- Mark

I am certainly willing to give cupping a try in a slightly different setting. Part of the intensity of my experience was simply that I had no idea what was going on and did not know it was coming.
* * *

I have been treated with cupping, but with small cups all over the back. It did not hurt but felt tight and warm. Afterwards I noticed the bruising was in tiny circles that followed my backbone. I forgot all about it until I walked out to the pool at the local YMCA for a swim and realized it might look like someone had been beating me. But then I also realized that most of the swimmers were Asian and would know exactly what treatment I had had.

Fortunately, my acupuncturist speaks English. I don't know what I would do if I felt tortured and couldn't get it to stop and tried to communicate in a language I wasn't proficient in.

-- Elizabeth Zima

I could have communicated, "Stop it right now," and definitely considered doing so. But I was intrigued to find out what was happening. As I said, I'm still not sure if my passive acceptance makes me a very strong man or a very weak one.
* * *

Attempting to draw conclusions based on your "series of one cases" may mislead those who are unfamiliar with the concept of "scientific method."

-- Michael Corbett

I was just relating my own peculiar experience and in no way intended to draw scientific conclusions.

Write to Alan Paul at

We're back!

The eagle has landed. We have all arrived safe and sound back in the bosom of Beijing Riviera.

Lots of updates and photos to come. Several people have asked if my lack of updates means the blog is through, wondering if it was a first-year-only project. The answer is a definitive NO! I love writing this blog., It’s the only way I can possibly keep straight what we do and how I feel about it. Life is enough of a blur. Without this, I would barely remember anything we have done.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how secret blogstigators are out there, like Marilyn Fogel.. or people I sort of knew were looking at this but didn’t realize how avidly.. like Aunt Judy, who knew every detail of our life from the last year. I will keep feeding this beat for all of you, and for me.

Anyhow, Jacob and Eli got in yesterday afternoon.. flight was as painless as it gets.. but Eli really didn’t sleep and Jacob only slept about 4 hours.. last night he went to bed close to 9 (Eli and I were out by 7:30) and woke up.. before midnight! Unbelievable. I heard him rattling around the house and finally came out to check on him and it was only 12:15. We went downstairs and I got him a bowl of cereal and put the Yu Gi Oh movie on and went back to bed.. he came up and said he wanted tot ry to sleep.. thrashed around for a bit and got back up.. Eventually, I heard eli with him as well. I joined them by 5.

Now it’s 10:30 and feels like 3 pm.. It will be an interesting few days. But we’re all glad to be back and friends started popping in searching for the kids almost immediately. It really does feel nice to be back.

One other thing, as soon as I walked into the house I noticed that it looked nicer, less cluttered and cleaner than ever. Ding and Ho ayi seem to be a lean, mean fighting machine. I am confident this was a good move.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Previous column

Friends Come and Go
As Expat Families Relocate
July 20, 2006

This is the transient time of the year in a notoriously transient community. School is out, summer is here and people are on the move. Friends and acquaintances have departed or are preparing to depart for: Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Seattle, Tasmania, Washington D.C., Guangzhou, Stockholm and elsewhere. These people are both returning home and moving on to their next assignment, in approximately equal numbers.

People who have lived this lifestyle for a long time manage to shrug it off, attending one bon voyage party after another then moving on. As expat newbies, this is a little more difficult -- the volume of movement is quite disconcerting -- but what else can you do? It's not always so simple for the children.

My eight-year-old son Jacob recently turned to me and said, "Three of my best friends are leaving."

"Yeah," I said. "I know you will miss Michael, Andrew and Javier a lot, but…"

"Javier's not leaving. I'm talking about Charlie. With Andrew gone, I am going to have to be Javy's best friend."

I had never even heard of Charlie but I realized that I had to break the news that Jacob's dear friend, Javier Wong, was decamping for California.

"Uh, sorry, Jacob, Javier is leaving, too. I thought you knew that."

He looked crushed, like his breath was taken away, and I felt his pain. When we moved here last August, Jacob immediately bonded with Andrew Moy, the son of Rebecca's colleague, Kathy Chen, and Andrew's longtime best friend, Javier. The two boys let Jacob into their inner circle and the trio's closeness has never wavered.
Liming Wong
Best friends Andrew, Jacob and Javier.

Javy and Andrew have grown up together and they go everywhere seemingly as one. I had wondered how the two will fare apart, with Andrew moving to D.C. while Javy heads to the Bay Area. Until this moment, however, I hadn't fully realized how deeply their departures would affect my own son. They have been like brothers to Jacob, and it is hard to replace that kind of unspoken, understood closeness.

As hard as it will be for Jacob to see his dear friends go, I suspect the departing boys will have a harder time. Javier has lived here his whole life, and Andrew since he was four. Their passports are American but Beijing is home and they are fully comfortable in their school, their friendships, and their lives. Both will be going through a transition and adjustment to a new home every bit as real as the one we all go through when arriving here.

Meanwhile, another type of exodus is also under way; movers, packers and giant shipping containers clog the lanes of our housing compound and incoming or prospective newcomers prowl the streets clutching relocation guides, real-estate agents by their sides. Many families are packing their bags and boarding planes for extended summer breaks back in their homelands. In most cases, the wife and kids head out while the husband stays here alone, usually joining them at the end of the summer for two or three weeks, or however much time he can get away from work.

The expat-heavy housing compounds around here began noticeably emptying out a few weeks ago, within days of the international schools letting out. Our kids' school was the latest finishing; the last day was Friday, June 23, and we had friends on planes back to England and the U.S. that afternoon and the following morning.

The rushed departure puzzles me a bit, particularly since most of the rushers seemed to be people wrapping up their first year in Beijing, like us. While I too am somewhat anxious to get my feet back on American soil for a few weeks, I don't have any desire to rush out. The end of our first year in Beijing feels like a significant milestone, an achievement worth lingering over and reflecting on.

To some extent, the different approaches reflect a broader attitude toward living here; some people exist as if constantly on borrowed time, or an extended vacation. They are here, but their real lives are elsewhere, in some cases complete with fully furnished homes while they live in China in pre-furnished houses or apartments. We have tried to avoid that mindset.

We kept our house in New Jersey, a choice that made the initial decision less emotionally complex, but it is emptied out and occupied by tenants. We discarded many possessions, put some in storage and moved our favorite things here, to our new home. That somehow felt like an important part of acknowledging that Beijing is more than just where we are for a little while.

Andrew and Javy's families will struggle to right themselves and get readjusted to life in America, because they are leaving home. Others, meanwhile, count down the days until they end their exile; their readjustments may be easier, but their lives here are less rich. Meanwhile, Jacob, and many other kids like him, only know that their soul mates are leaving and they will have to find some new ones. I think he understands that a lot of families will be arriving in August.

Write to Alan Paul at

This week's column

A Chinese Massage
Takes a Painful Turn
August 4, 2006

Massage in China is plentiful and fairly cheap -- anywhere from $10 to $20 for a 60- to 90-minute, Western-style oil massage. It costs less for a traditional Chinese massage, where you keep all your clothes on, have a sheet placed over you and get manipulated in ways that aren't necessarily relaxing but can be quite beneficial. Foot massages are popular as well, especially among women.

There are also many massage joints that are actually fronts for brothels, but luckily they are generally easy to pick out. One solid clue is an attractive young woman in a white leather miniskirt running out of a storefront, grabbing you by the arm and saying, "You need very relax massage!" I have actually had to pry their hands off, while firmly saying, "bu yao" (don't want) and moving on.

I have a persistent ache in my left shoulder. It's usually dull and only mildly bothersome, but every once in a while it flares up badly and seems to lock me up from my neck to my elbow. One such day a while back, I was sitting in a Starbucks pecking on my laptop, increasingly distracted by the tightening on my left side. Realizing I wasn't going to get much work done, I decided to try to work the kink out at the traditional Chinese massage place down the block, which I knew to be both legit and first-rate. On my sole previous visit, the masseuse immediately found my sore spot, put her finger on it and said, "Pain."

I was pleased when the same woman appeared. I said I wanted an oil massage, focused almost exclusively on my left shoulder. I used my usual blend of Chinese and charades and hoped that she understood. Lying face down on the massage table, I felt pleased with my communication skills as she dug into my left upper back, hitting the right spot and staying there for a good long time.

I could feel the knot opening up and dissipating when she suddenly stopped and poured extra oil on my shoulder. I then felt her put a hard and warm object on my back, and imagined she was using a device to exert extra pressure. Then she started moving the thing up and down the scapula. It felt great at first, but as she continued to move, the oil seemed to dry up and the pressure intensified to the point of pain and then beyond.

I yelped and craned my head backward, trying to see what was going on. She said something I didn't understand and turned toward a table behind her. I still felt an intense pinching and pulling on my left shoulder as she turned back to me holding a glass jar in her hands, leaning over to place it on the right side. I yelped and groaned but she just shoved my head back down, saying something that I took to be, "It will be good."

After having slid the jar along my left shoulder blade for quite a while, with increasing pain, she removed it, then put it back down about half way up the shoulder. I now had jars on each side, which remained in place while the masseuse worked my lower back. It hurt. A lot. Imagine two high-suction vacuum cleaners clamped onto your back. I just lay there and groaned. I'm still not sure if my silent submission means I am a very strong man or a very weak one.

When my hour was up, she removed all the jars and washed my back with hot towels. I was dazed and stiff, and unable to determine how my normal shoulder ache felt -- it was replaced by a whole-back soreness.

That night, I related this tale to my wife and asked if I had any marks on my back. I pulled my shirt up and she screamed. I ran into the bathroom, craned my head toward the mirror behind me and took in a rather grotesque sight -- my entire left shoulder was black and blue, while the right side bore a perfect black and blue circle.

"What did they do to you?" Rebecca asked with alarm.

"I'm not really sure," I meekly confessed. "Something with heated jars."

The next day I showed a friend my back and learned that I had "been cupped." Googling "massage cupping," I stumbled onto a wealth of information, largely written in a New Age patois that I found impossible to penetrate. Seeking enlightenment, I called Dr. Barry Disch, a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor at Beijing's United Family Hospital, who was one of the first Westerners accredited to practice acupuncture in Beijing.

"Cupping is very popular here," said Dr. Disch. "I am not a big believer, because I think you can use acupuncture and some massage techniques and get the same results without ugly octopus-like bruises. But I don't think it does any harm and some people really believe it."

Okay, but what exactly is actually happening? And what is supposed to happen? I looked on and it said something about "draining fluids and toxins" and "lifting connective tissues," but it sounded like mumbo jumbo.

"Basically, they are using suction to take the evil chi out of your surface channels," Dr. Disch said. "In scientific terms, it's hard to say what is happening. You are breaking some vessels and creating circulation and bruising and that may have some anti-inflammatory effects."

So the bruise is supposed to be a good thing?

"Basically, yes. It's a very common belief in Chinese medicine that bruising proves that you had some kind of pathogen there."

To me, that sounded dangerously like the old practice of determining whether or not someone was a witch by pushing them underwater -- if they drowned their name was cleared but their life was lost. I didn't really need to have my shoulder beaten to a pulp to know there was something wrong with it.

For about two days, I felt like someone had beaten my back with a baseball bat. When that pain receded, I suddenly realized that the shoulder was largely ache-free. It was a strange and welcome sensation, but I hesitated to credit the cupping because I thought perhaps I was merely relieved to have the bruising pain recede. Within a day or two, everything was back to normal, a mild ache returning to its rightful perch in my left shoulder.

I have considered going back for another session, but can't quite bring myself to do it. As shocking as it was to be cupped out of the blue, I find it impossible to walk in fully aware of what's to come. At least I don't have to fend off any cuppers on the street.
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Readers Respond

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, on the transient nature of expat life

Rather than respond to each letter, I would just like to say thank you to everyone who wrote in and sent best wishes to my son Jacob and his departing friends Javier and Andrew. Many of you had good suggestions to help the boys adjust and remain in touch, several of which we will be employing.

I was an expat kid in the 70s and 80s, and I identify with many of the observations you make in your column. Reading this week's column, in particular, brought back a flood of memories of what it was like to leave behind friends.

As difficult as Andrew's and Javy's departures will be for your son, they will have the much more challenging transition. The good news is that they, and Jacob, when he makes the transition home, will almost certainly be more sensitive to the issues faced by subsequent new kids to their schools, whether they be from one town over or overseas. The other good news is that my extensive experiences relocating amongst various countries and states in the U.S. have brought me all sorts of people/coping skills, and now in my work life I find myself commended for the ease with which I relate to others at all levels of the company.

Whenever someone pays me a compliment like that I have to smile -- I was told as a kid that this would be a good side effect of all the pain I went through each time we moved, but at the time I couldn't have cared less.

-- Anonymous
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Those who think they are just putting life on hold for a few years till they can get "home" to the U.S. usually find that their transitions are not any easier then those of us who love to live abroad. They expect it to be easier because they want to go back but some of these people will realize that you can never go back, things change -- kids grow, so do communities and so do we when we live away. All of this affects us and who we grow into -- and that effects us on our return to 'home'. It's a hard adjustment -- especially when we expect it to be easy

-- Chrissie
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I have a 9-year old son, and my heart went out to Jacob. I realize it is a part of life, especially expat life, but it doesn't make it any easier while he's going through it. Days will seem like months for awhile. Good luck. Your columns provide a fascinating insight into expat life.

-- Mike
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A thought in regard to Jacob and his relocating friends Javy and Andrew: After a period of months to allow the boys to make new friends, it might be nice for all 3 sets of parents to give them Web cams as gifts, to allow them to see and talk to each other again.

-- Jud Fink
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I cannot begin to express how much I enjoy your column. My children were 2 and 4 when we were expats in Bangkok. Many of your experiences I can relate to -- from the British Schools to getting your television fixed.

We recently returned from a week vacation in Beijing. I pulled up your columns for my children (now 10 and 12) to read. They especially enjoyed your column about the zoo and found their experience very similar to yours. My 10 year old with her strawberry blonde hair was as much an attraction as the animals. There are many tourists from Beijing going home with pictures of her for their albums.

-- Lauri Van Eyl
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My heart goes out to you and your family, especially Jacob, as close friends are leaving. I remember when our oldest was eight and his best friend, who lived next door, moved away. That was painful -- for years they had been inseparable. And your son had four leave at once. My hope is this: First, it helps him grow and doesn't scare him from building deep friendships with others. Second, that all our instant messaging, emailing, etc., that has shrunk our world allow these boys to stay connected so that, someday, they might rekindle their relationships as young people visiting each other on vacation or in college or as young adults living in the same community.

-- David Lewis
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Your column really hit close to home. My dad's job took us away from home for about a decade and as exciting as it was to meet new people and learn about new culture, it was tough to see close friends go.

I now look back on my years at the International School with fondness, and I will forever be grateful for the experience. It was an eye opener and it taught me so much about people and the world. I hope to give my future children the same opportunity someday.

-- Tricia

Write to Alan Paul at

All's well in NJ

We are three weeks into our visit home and all's well. It's been a bit exhausting running around but it's been great to see and spend time with so many people.

Here are some fairly random shots from the first leg of our journey, in Maplewood.. More from country house and beach to come...