Zai Jian Shanghai

After a year and a half living abroad, I said farewell to Shanghai a little more than a month ago. The city of 23 million people is a place I won’t forget and somedays miss. Despite its size, it has a lot of charm. It’s not every day that you get to see something that makes you say, “what the hell?” – but that is one of China’s beauties. There is such an eclectic mix of people riding their bikes with their work on them (literally) to people practicing their morning tai-chi in the park. Here are some of the things that I miss about Shanghai.

1)  The city’s massive skyline, which dwarfs NYC. It’s never ending and goes on for miles.

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2) The delivery man. Whether it’s dinner, the beer “truck”, the styrofoam man, or the guy with fish tanks on the back of his bike. These moments are special.

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3) Riding my bike through the city.

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And Adam riding our chariot (for a few minutes)…

532091_10100870389534359_1789126223_n4) Our neighborhood in the vibrant, touristy Xintiandi.

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5) Sorry P.F. Chang, eating real Chinese food (with all the peppers!).

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6) Amazing fashion.

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7) Afternoon workouts in the park.

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8) Sherpas delivery – whether it’s pizza, ice, salad, beer, or whatever – it can almost always be sent to your doorstep.

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9) Lost in translation moments.

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10) Studying (and botching) Mandarin.

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11) Crowded elevators, okay crowded everything.chinese-crowd.jpg

12) Being able to travel throughout Asia.

IMG_054013) Every day pajama parties.

images14) Upsetting the locals on Yongkang Lu because the Americans just wanted a beer.

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15) Outdoor grooming.IMG_1506

16) Chinese weddings.

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17) Our friends.

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18) The creepy balloon man at the park.IMG_0381

19) People being resourceful – especially when it comes to laundry.Airing Your Dirty Laundry

20) Adam’s driver Peter and our ayi (housekeeper) who made our lives a lot easier!

There are plenty of other wonderful things about Shanghai from the delicious restaurants to the great nightlife. There are also some interesting historical places not mentioned. These may be simple things that I miss about Shanghai, but they are memorable ones! As they say “zai jian” (goodbye, which also means see you again). Now, we’re on to the next chapter – being back in the USA.

I Don’t Need A Cig

You don’t really need to smoke in Shanghai, especially on days like today. This was my morning commute via school-tour bus at 7:00am. The “fog” was settling in.

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The past few days have been tough on the lungs. I woke up this morning feeling like I smoked a few packs of cigarettes.

This U.S. Consulate’s Air Quality Index (AQI) measurement was 291, which is deemed “very unhealthy.” Those crazy-looking SARs masks are recommended. The Chinese government’s AQI read 241 – “moderately polluted.”

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No matter how you look at it – or how you can see through it – it’s unhealthy. Heathy AQI is usually 50.

So, if you see me around Shanghai rockin’ my Hello Kitty…

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Inspire Others to Give

It’s been awhile since I wrote my last blog, but this idea inspired me. It came to me from a simple email from one of my colleagues. He has volunteered a lot of his time and taken several trips to Bali, Africa, Thailand, China – to give back to the people who need us most in this world. 

His passion for helping others is one like I have never seen before. He encourages others to get involved and join the cause in a truly remarkable way. I am grateful for people like him. 

He brought to my attention the Jacaranda Foundation. The foundation is a primary and secondary school to orphans in Malawi, Africa. Only $240 will sponsor a year’s worth of tuition for a child. 

That $240 to take out of my paycheck was simple though after I saw Memory.

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Memory is a girl that my fiance, Adam and I are sponsoring. She wrote us a sweet letter about liking to play with dolls and thanking us for giving her the gift of education.

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She even wrote, “I love you” to us. What a sweet girl. I was so touched by her note. It made me realize that giving something so little could mean so much.

So, I’m encouraging others to give. It doesn’t have to be to this specific foundation, but to donate money to a charity of your choosing. It’s easy to hold tight to our hard earned cash, but there’s still a lot of need out there. A little bit goes a long way. My mission is to inspire others to give – and the one way to do it – is to prove by example, just like my coworker has taught me.

10 of Life’s Little Luxuries

Three words: life’s little luxuries can be found when you’re away from home for awhile. It had merely been a few months since I was on American soil, but sometimes it’s the little things that we take for granted and often forget about, are appreciated most.

1) Delicious grocery stores. (American grocery stores are fresh. Endless spices can be found, along with great produce, vegetables and delis. It’s a little different to China’s version of a grocery store, which can resemble a pet shop and some outdated wine and goods).

2) Cars. (It’s nice not having to drive in China (granted I could get my license in Shanghai – if I want to kill myself or others), but it’s really nice to hop in a car and go when and were you want in the US).

3) Wine that’s not overpriced. (It’s relative in restaurants in the US, but the markup on wine in China is incredible. Horrible Yellow Tail wine looks comparable in price to a nice $25 wine.)

4) Diet Pepsi that tastes like real Diet Pepsi.

5) Shopping and sizes that fit an American girl not a Chinese woman who weighs 90lbs. (Yes, something I can choose from and plenty of options).

6) Being able to vote.

7) Clean air. (There are places in China that have clean air just not in larger cities – there’s a good haze).

8) Running outside. (see number 7).

9) Having lots of space, whether it’s personal or for your belongings.

10) Not hearing the sounds of spitting, hacking and snotting while walking down the street – BONUS!

It’s been fun, America. I look forward to more time on US soil in the months ahead, but I also look forward to living in a different world for a little while longer.

Emma’s Story: A 10-year-old’s battle with cancer

When you are 10 years old and told you have cancer — you are not really sure what that means.

Photo provided by Oldager family

 “When I first found out I had cancer, I didn’t mind because I didn’t know what I had to go through to make it go away,” said Emma Oldager.

She did not realize it would mean chemotherapy, body scans, blood transfusions, a leg amputation, and being away from her father, brother, friends, and school. Neither did her parents.

Emma, a 5th grader at the Shanghai American School, or SAS, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, back in February. She had complained that her left leg was sore. Her parents, naturally, thought it was growing pains. As the pain intensified, they took Emma to the doctor.

The doctor said the words no parent ever wants to hear: “It’s cancer. Your daughter has a tumor on her left leg. “

“I did not want to break down in front of Emma,” her mother, Janne, said. “While Emma played on her iPad, I went into the nurses’ room and telephoned Claus (her husband). Then, and the week to come, we broke down often, but picked each other up.”

Fighting back tears and hoping for better news to come, the Oldager family knew they had a battle with cancer on their hands. And part of beating it is the right treatment.

The best option was 2,350 miles (3,780km) away from home.

Leaving their friends and family behind, Emma and her mother moved to Singapore. Emma’s father and her brother, Sebastian, 8, a 3rd grader at SAS would continue their lives in Shanghai.

Sebastian said the hardest part of being away from his sister and mother is “I can only see them on the weekends.”

Janne shared the same sentiment. “I am used to being there for Sebastian all the time, but knowing that he has had family around to help, the best teachers and friends imaginable, has been a great relief.”

 SAS becomes family

It is SAS teachers and students who help lift the Oldagers’ spirits.

“Even the teachers and staff I did not know before, everyone at SAS, has been supportive,” Janne said. “It has really helped our family through this difficult period of time.”

And thanks to technology, Emma has been able to keep up with her schoolwork and be a regular part of her class. She joins Judy Sweeney’s 5th grade class almost every day via Skype.

“Emma is right there with us.  She’s doing exactly what we’re doing, “ said Sweeney.

She shuts her bedroom door and goes to school. Students take turns carrying “iPad Emma” to recess, Chinese, math, and lunch.

“I love that I don’t have to count her absent,” Sweeney said.

Emma has homework. It is emailed to her, or her father brings it on the weekends.

Sweeney has made the classroom so real she even sent silk worms to Emma in Singapore.

“Emma told me the silk worm eggs were hatching. I didn’t believe her at first, until Emma returned them (via her dad) to Shanghai,” Sweeney laughed. “There were lots of silk worms!”

The SAS students have really gotten to enjoy literally carrying Emma from class to class.

“I tell my students to be careful with Emma,” Sweeney said kiddingly. “Don’t run, don’t drop her.”

Emma’s lesson

Emma has a sense of humor and a big smile. A smile that is so radiant it’s hard not to grin back.

Photo provided by Oldager family

The other noticeable accessory is her scarf. She wears this around her head because she lost her hair, a common side effect of chemotherapy.

When asked how many scarves she owns, Emma — who was wearing a navy and red one  — said, “I don’t know. I have a lot.”

The moment you speak with the 10-year-old she seems happy and healthy. She and her family are teaching us a lesson.

“Don’t live a life in fear of getting sick, or yet worse, your children getting sick,” said Janne. “Cancer does not change who you are, though it might change your life and how you look.”

Emma is a girl just wanting to have her childhood back. She wants to go outside and play, which is limited because her immune system is still weak.

 Her mother wants people to know, “She (Emma) is the same girl that left Shanghai at the end of February, but has been in a battle that has been harder than Harry Potter fighting Voldemort — than any fiction can depict. “

Treatment regimen

Emma has a rigorous treatment schedule.

She went through three cycles of chemotherapy at first. When that did not affect the tumor in her leg the doctors suggested surgery to save her life.

Emma’s leg was amputated above the knee in March, just 10 days after her 10th birthday.

 “When my mom and dad told me my leg needed to be amputated I cried and then I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about it,” said Emma.

After surgery, she was put on a nine-cycle chemotherapy regimen. She is given three different drugs over three days. On the fourth day, she is given a shot to boost the production of her white blood cells. She also gets medicine to protect her from chemotherapy’s side effects.

She gets two weeks of “rest” in each cycle –which includes several medical tests, at least one blood transfusion, and rehabilitation.

Janne said the hardest part of the treatment is “seeing Emma suffer, the only treatment option (chemotherapy) for this is so inhumane, and the uncertainty, there is always the risk of micro metastasis that scans cannot detect.”

For Emma, “The hardest part of treatments is going to the hospital and not being with your friends,” she said. She often keeps in touch with her friends via Skype.

Emma shared that she is thankful her mom is nearby. “My mother is always there for me when I need treatment.”

The greatest risk to Emma is the cancer spreading to her lungs, so she goes through scans to make sure it is not present.

She is also trying to learn to walk again.

“I wish all her battles ended after the last chemo at the end of October, but learning to walk and run anew is going to take time,” said Janne. “I hope her leg will remind her of what a great fighter she is.”

Treatment and research

As with many cancers, continuing research and treatment for cancer like Emma’s is essential.

Chemotherapy, the most commonly used cancer treatment, kills cancer cells to control the spread of it. It also shrinks tumors to make surgery another option.

But “It (chemotherapy) is a nasty cure, since so many healthy cells are destroyed too,” said Janne. “It takes more research to develop a way to better target the cancer only.”

Right now, hospitals like Mayo Clinic (in Rochester, Minnesota) are running clinical trials of new treatments for sarcomas.  The more doctors learn the more treatments will be available for patients like Emma.

Emma will finish her final round of chemotherapy in October. The Oldagers will return to Shanghai at the end of October.

Until then, Emma will still go to class and learn like everyone else. And she will go to her favorite restaurant in Singapore when she can.

 “My favorite restaurant is a Korean one. I like the seafood pancakes.”

Life is Beautiful

We often look at our lives as we ring in the new year. It’s always good to have some reflection of the things we want to accomplish or overcome. My year reflection is in October.

Last year at this time I was packing everything I own – saying “see ya later,” “I’ll miss you” to my family, best friends and dog. But with those “don’t worry, I’ll see you agains” I also had the chance to live life differently with my best friend. It is still the best decision I have ever made.

I have been able to see the world differently – both literally and figuratively. But no matter the exotic places, or the beautiful scenery – there is nothing better in the world than knowing you have people in your life, in your world – who support you, love you and help make you – better.

The past couple of years have been difficult – without my father. He would have loved to travel the world. He was always great company. And he always put life into perspective. And two years after his death, I have finally begun to realize the true meaning of one of his many important life lessons: “Life is beautiful.”