Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Free kids

Free kids, you ask? Am I looking to give Noob away to avoid having to do any more long-haul flights with him?

Nah... the flights weren't that bad. (I'll blog about those separately). Anyway, what I mean is that our kids were able to get in free to just about everything we did in China, from attractions to transportation.

This wasn't too unusual for Noob, who is just shy of 2 and is still able to get in free to many things in the USA. But even Littles was free, at age 4.5. Most places we went only charged for kids over 1.2 meters, which is just a little under 4 feet. Some places were even more generous and allowed kids under 1.3 meters to get in free.

I think Littles is pretty average height for her age, but she is well under 1.2 meters. Here she is at a height checker in the Beijing subway. You can see that she's well below the 120 cm line, even with her hat.


The two places where the 1.2m rule didn't apply:

  • At the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium. They charged for kids over 1 meter. Littles just barely squeaked in.
  • On the high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing. Well, the kids could've ridden free... if we didn't mind holding them in our laps. For the 5-hour journey, we decided to splurge on child tickets, which were half the price of adult tickets. Still way cheaper than flying!

Almost everything we did was pretty cheap compared to similar attractions in the USA, and not having to pay for the kids made them an even better bargain.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chinese toilets

Yes, this post will talk extensively about toilets. You have been warned.

Most toilets in China are just like the ones bck home. But at some point, you'll likely encounter a Chinese toilet, or squat toilet. If you've never seen one before, it looks like this (courtesy of Wikipedia):


(You may encounter these elsewhere in the world, too. For example, I used one on a trip to Japan, and one of my friends said that she had to use one at an Italian train station.)

Needless to say, these posed a bit of a challenge for Littles during our travels in China. Aside from the fact that, well, they're just different from the potties she's used to back home... she was physically too small to use them properly. The leggings or tights she wore did not allow her to separate her legs enough to straddle the toilet as she needed to.

What I ended up doing was this:

  1. I had her face me, with her feet just in front of the longer narrower part of the toilet, while I faced her/the toilet.
  2. She pulled down her leggings or tights.
  3. I held her under her arms and lowered her bottom towards the toilet so that she could go.

I would strongly recommend being with your child the first time they encounter one of these toilets. Littles' first time was with my mother-in-law. Her solution to the squatting problem was to remove Littles tights. Which required removing her shoes. Then, Littles was indeed able to squat over the toilet... barefoot! I'm not easily grossed out, but that still makes me shudder, over a week later. I made sure to go with Littles the next two or three times she used a squat toilet, and by then, she was a pro and could use one with assistance from anybody. With her shoes on.

Even older kids who are fully bathroom-independent back home may need some help with these toilets the first few times, so be aware.

This should be less of an issue for boys, since they can just stand up to go, but I was still very glad that Noob was still in diapers for this trip :)

A couple more tips for these types of toilets:

  • Some places have both types of toilets -- for example, on the train. They had little pictures on each stall door showing which type of toilet was in that stall.
  • Bring toilet paper (or Kleenex) and hand sanitizer/wipes. Toilet paper and soap is often not provided.
  • Hold your breath. Most of them stink. Really, really badly. (Which makes Littles' barefoot incident even grosser. Ugh)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

American kids in China

The kids attract a lot of attention here in China. I guess they are a curious sight, given that they are young Western faces and that there are two of them! We've seen hardly any other Western kids during our stay, and thanks to the one-child policy here, it's rare for us to see two Chinese kids from the same family. Literally, I can think of maybe two or three instances of each of those that we've seen, in two weeks here -- and none of both combined, i.e. two Western kids from the same family, like my kids.

(Too bad I'm not showing more with Q. That would really blow everyone's mind :)

Sometimes this attention is welcome. Like when we got to the long line to clear immigration at the airport and an official took one look at the kids and waved us to the front of the line. Sometimes, it's not-so-welcome. Like when Noob throws a tantrum on the subway and I look up to see every face on the train turned our way. Just a typical toddler tantrum folks, nothing to see here, move along... please?

Noob attracts noticeably more attention than Littles. I don't know if it's a preference for his age, his sex, or his blue eyes. (Blue eyes are rare here. Littles' hazel eyes are closer to typical Chinese coloring.)

The attention often takes a form that Americans would consider quite intrusive and rude. For example:

  • Apparently, we don't dress the kids warmly enough, by Chinese standards. So people come up to me and point out that there's a gap between Noob's pants and socks when he's sitting in the Ergo, or that Littles is only wearing tights (not the thick winter pants that Chinese kids wear) underneath her dress. They tell me in Chinese, of course, so while I know what they're referring to by now (after being told a million times), I don't understand the words at all. My blank stares don't deter them from going on. And on. And on. This happens, on average, about once per outing.
  • If I don't put Littles' hair back before we go out, people will come up and brush it out of her face for her.
  • People are constantly trying to touch Noob, play with him, even pick him up. He has some stranger anxiety and so this really seems to bother him. Keeping him in the Ergo prevents some of this type of attention, but not all.
  • People frequently take pictures of the kids when we're out and about. They rarely ask our permission.
  • Lots of staring. Not just when Noob is throwing a tantrum. It's pretty much constant. Often, the stares are accompanied by friendly smiles, but not always.
  • On the train from Shanghai to Beijing, the kids were standing by a big window in the snack car. Noob was being an obnoxious little brother and pushing Littles out of the way -- hey, it happens. So I put him in timeout in the corner right next to the window. He wasn't crying or disturbing the other passengers, but almost immediately, one of the train attendants came up to him smiling and cooing in Chinese, picked him up, gave him a hug, and plopped him by the window next to Littles again. Timeout FAIL.

After two weeks of this, I've kinda gotten used to it, but it was definitely unnerving at first! If we ever return to China when the kids are older (and therefore more aware of others' reactions to them), I'll probably prep them directly about this. Otherwise, they might spend the first week wondering if there's something on their face or some other reason why people are staring at them :)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Getting a Chinese visa

I'll do a trip log for our China trip, just like I always do. But I'm finding that China is much more difficult to navigate than our typical destinations, and it's harder to find the information I need to do it effectively -- especially with kids. (I'm guessing that much of the information I need is out there... in Chinese.) So I'll do some shorter posts covering some of the details, and link to those from my all-up trip log.

The first step to planning any trip to China is getting a visa. They are a royal pain to obtain! For starters, they're ridiculously expensive. A normal tourist visa costs $140! That's more than a US passport! And while a passport is good for 5 years (for kids) or 10 years (for adults), a Chinese visa is good for only a single entry. You can get a multiple-entry visa for the same price, but even then, it's only good for a few months. What a rip-off!

Also, you cannot mail in a visa application, or get your passport with your visa mailed back to you. If you're lucky enough to live in one of the five US cities with a Chinese consular general, this isn't a problem. Houston is one of those cities, and we briefly considered driving down to get our visas done, but it would have been a full-day expedition (it's about a four hour drive from Dallas, one way). Then, we would have had to either pay even more for same-day service, or plan on repeating the journey a few days later to pick up the visas.

Instead, we decided to use a visa service. A quick web search for "cheap Chinese visa service" turned up a link to Chinese Visa Express. It's a little scary mailing your passport off to some random place, just weeks before you're supposed to leave the country. So I called beforehand to ask a question about the application, and was encouraged when someone picked up the phone immediately and helped me with my question. At least I knew I could get ahold of a human being if my passports disappeared!

This service worked out well for our family because they will send up to five passports back under the same return shipping fee, rather than charging a flat rate per passport. So "all" we had to pay (on top of the actual visa fee) was a $16.95 service fee + $4.95 processing fee per passport, plus a single return shipping fee of $23.95, for a total of just under $90 for the kids and me. Not too bad, considering my husband's visa service cost nearly $100 -- thankfully, paid for by his work, since this was a business trip for him.

The actual visa application process wasn't too hard. Chinese Visa Express provides a link to download the application forms (in PDF format) from their website. You have to fill out the form on your computer and then print it -- you cannot print it and fill it in by hand. You also need to provide a recent passport-size picture. As I mentioned previously, I used ePassportPhoto to do this easily and cheaply.

Even though we were doing all this over the Christmas holiday, the passports were returned very promptly, about 1.5 weeks later. This was for their regular service. They do offer various levels of expedited service if you need your visa back faster.

I would definitely recommend Chinese Visa Express if you need to get a Chinese visa.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Updated: Making a child's passport photo

I've updated my post from a few months back on making a child's passport photo. We recently had to apply for visas to China, which required a passport-style photo, and I discovered the wonders of ePassportPhoto for easily making passport pictures. Way easier than the process I outlined previously! Full details are in the updated post.