China

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As we prepare to pack up and head back to San Diego for good in just a couple of weeks, I decided that it was time to sit down and put some structure to something that I’ve been ad-libbing throughout our year in China.

So here is an ode to our temporary home, meant to be sung to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”

Hello China, my old friend
We have nearly reached the end
In two weeks we will be on our way
But there are some things that I would like to say
So now it’s time for us to have a heart to heart
The hardest part
Is the sound of China

People spitting next to me
While I’m sitting down to eat
And with all the yelling in my ear
It’s so fucking hard to hear
I put my headphones on every time I walk out the door
I can’t take much more
Of the sounds of China

Then of course there are the smells
Those are pretty gross as well
Between the smog and all the cigarette smoke
At times I think that I am gonna choke
I try not to worry about the damage to my lungs
What’s done is done
Thanks to the air in China

The locals like to touch my kid
And cabs and buses make me sick
We get pushed out of the elevator
Then bring the stroller on the escalator
I’ve been shoved so much that I’ve started shoving back
To avoid a heart attack
Amidst the crowds in China

But when I’m in a sour mood
I eat some really yummy food
Dumplings and noodles are the things I’ll miss
I’ve never had them quite as good as this
And my feet were saved by reflexology
There are wondrous things, you see
About life in China

Massage

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Along with the travel, dumplings, and noodles, massages are for sure one of the highlights of living in China. Around every corner are signs advertising foot reflexology and body massage – and they’re crazy cheap. Even 10 bucks can buy a pretty awesome foot massage, and body work doesn’t run you much more. Now that we’re approaching the end of our sojourn here, I’m taking full advantage by getting at least one a week (as well as weekly hot pot and dim sum).

But this year of pampering has definitely had its awkward moments. Like that one Sunday night back in November when I decided to switch it up and try a new spot, only to realize that I was probably the only guy to ever walk in the door who wasn’t looking for a happy ending. I’ve since learned that you can tell these places by the absence of male employees and the ridiculously short skirts on the “masseuses.” As it turns out, this is also a good technique for determining which bars to avoid (or frequent, if that’s what you’re looking for).

Even at my regular place, where I always get the same foot massage – and have often been with my wife – the creepy gal at the door constantly tries to upsell me beyond my comfort zone. The scene unfolds as follows:

Me: “Ni hao, I’d like this foot massage, please.” I point to my usual item on the menu.

Her: “Why you no try body massage today? This one very good.” She turns the page, indicating their most expensive (and extensive) body massage.

Me: “No, thank you. Just feet today.” I smile graciously, hoping that it will end there. But I know that it won’t.

Her: “This one very good. Back, shoulders, neck, arms, legs… even mysterious parts!” In case I’m not sure what she means, she leans towards me and gestures vaguely in the direction of my crotch.

I cringe, and take a step back. “No thank you, just feet today…”

And this is only one of the pitfalls of Chinese massage.

Here, you see, massage is medicine. In the West, it’s also meant to be relaxing. But in China, they’ll beat the shit out of you in order to get rid of your knots. You’ll be bruised when you walk out the door. But you sleep like a rock afterwards, and it’s amazing. There’s nothing I’ll miss more when we get back to California.

Spanglish

“Mucho más rápido, Daddy!”

I’m trying to get Little Dude ready for his nap, and he’s running around the apartment shouting in Spanglish.

“Mucho más bed!”

“Mucho más blanket!”

“Mucho más Bunny!”

I scoop him up and try to wrangle him into a pair of sweatpants. He giggles hysterically.

“Mucho más Daddy!!!”

Gracias a Dora the Explorer – as well as Janice, our awesome Filipino part-time nanny – the little guy is actually picking up a fair amount of Español here in China. Today, his favorite phrase is “mucho más rápido.” Last week, it was, “muy bien, Daddy. Muy bien!”

Even more fun is the counting. As he continues to learn his numbers, he seems to prefer Spanish to English. When he’s in the groove, he can make it all the way to veinte, and he knows his colors in both languages as well. He’s constantly asking me to teach him random words, and I’m excited for his bilingual education to continue when we get back to San Diego.

For my part, I sometimes beat myself up for not putting more effort into learning Mandarin. I’ve become the guy you want around when you’re ordering Dim Sum or negotiating for knockoff electronics. But beyond that, my Chinese skills remain pretty limited.

On the other hand, living in an expat bubble has allowed me to brush up on the languages that I have dedicated my energy to over the years. I can’t help but introduce myself to everybody who I hear speaking Italian, and I haven’t used French this much since the year I worked harvest at Trévallon. Thanks to Little Dude’s buddy Gustavo and family – not to mention the delicious churrascaria that we frequent – I’ve even upped my comfort level with Portuguese.

When we came to China, we wanted to expand our horizons and learn about the world. But we never said that it was all going to happen in Chinese.

Bazaar

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It’s March now, and with my birthday approaching I decided to take advantage of living in China by getting fitted out for some bespoke clothing. You can have just about anything made to order here, of good quality and at ridiculously low prices. But let’s just say that it isn’t exactly a glamorous experience.

You see, in Shenzhen, it’s Knockoff Row, not Saville. The center of it all, Luohu Commercial City, is a bustling five story shopping center located above a bus terminal and beside the train station. Traveling there from where we live takes an hour or so on the subway (or a nauseating 45 minute cab ride). The heckling begins the moment we arrive.

“Copy watch copy handbag copy sunglasses?”

This is the mantra of Luohu. In the words of my friend Chad, who accompanied me this time around, the place is more a bazaar than it is a mall. The peddlers occupy tiny booths, and they claim to have access to anything you’re looking for. It’s no joke – they probably do. But the only goods here without fake logos are the ones that are custom made.

The tailors’ domain is all the way up on the fifth floor, so we must first pass through the gauntlet. Sneakers, electronics, watches, eyeglasses, purses. Along the way, we’re escorted by a chorus of people chanting,

“Copy watch copy handbag copy sunglasses?”

We are men on a mission, however. Walking stubbornly onwards, we eventually make it through the obstacle course, off the top-floor escalator, and to my tailor of choice. We show her photos of what we’d like to have made, select our fabrics, and each in turn have our measurements taken. Then, she names her price. We haggle extensively and inevitably threaten to walk away. Finally, a deal is reached.

On the trip back down, we can’t help but allow ourselves some minor detours. Now that our goal has been met with time to spare, it’s impossible to resist the siren’s call.

“Copy watch copy handbag copy sunglasses?”

And so it goes. I return home and excitedly show Wifey the leather swatch from the jacket that’s being made for me. Somewhat abashedly, I also display the knockoff Bose speaker that I caved for, as well as a pair of light up Lightning McQueen sneakers for Little Dude. The shoes even have a tag that reads, “Producto Original Disney. Con Luz!”

Because why not. This is China.

Ikea

Ikea Shenzhen

I never would have thought that a big box store could be a source of comfort. But Little Dude and I took a trip to Ikea yesterday, and it felt like coming home.

Those clean Swedish lines, so yellow and blue, transport me across the miles and years. I walk in the door and am no longer in China. Each step takes me further back in time.

Suddenly we’re home in San Diego, buying a kitchen faucet for our new house, which Wifey and I are determined to install ourselves (with some help from YouTube). I take a step into the model bedrooms, and I’m once again brimming with joy and selecting baby goods for the tiny extra room in our Ocean Beach bungalow. Another foot forward, and Wifey and I are back in Brooklyn, furnishing our first apartment together.

Deeper into the store, and I’m 22 years old again. It’s a couple of months after NYU graduation, and my buddy Dan and I have driven to Long Island in the station wagon that I borrowed from my folks. We’re buying my first new bed, to replace the hand-me-down that I’m in turn handing down to Dan. He doesn’t quite believe me when I tell him how the slats tend to fall out at the most inopportune moments. And we have no idea how to affix the mattress to the roof of the car.

Back here in the future, we reach the check out line and exit the store. I stuff my big blue bag, full of the comforts of home, into the trunk of a Shenzhen taxi. As usual, it’s a struggle to explain to the driver where we’re headed. And I’m thinking, maybe globalization isn’t so bad after all.

Travel

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Without a doubt, the opportunity to explore Asia as a family is the most rewarding thing about living here in China. Shenzhen is a perfect jumping off point for this part of the world, and in the almost six months that we’ve been here, we’ve covered a lot of ground and created priceless memories.

But that’s not to say that the going isn’t often tough. Traveling with a two year old can be rough, man. (Hell, just living with one is difficult.) I think back on those peaceful trips that Wifey and I took in the days before we needed a crib in our hotel room, and I’m not sure if what I actually miss most is sleeping, having sex, or being able to eat whatever and whenever I wanted.

Every time we hit a snag – or a toddler hissy fit – Wifey and I take turns reminding each other that we’ll only live once. And we also refer regularly to a quote that she dug up before we left San Diego, from the totally apropos Suitcases & Sippy Cups:

Let’s face it. Traveling with children is hard, sometimes really hard. Kids get sick on the airplane, or have a meltdown in customs, or stay up all night with jet lag. And that’s just the first 24 hours! But, we decided long ago that we wanted to experience all the world has to offer and we wanted to do it with our kids, making lifelong memories along the way. Sure, I can tell you “horror” stories of moments on trips that will go down in family lore. But, I can also list memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything. In fact, if you asked me to list my top ten memories of all time, they would all involve my kids and traveling. So, despite the difficulties we will keep saving our airline miles, making our itineraries, and making family memories.

I concur. Yes, I could write about delayed flights, hellish airport layovers, disastrous meals, and the inappropriate places that we’ve changed diapers (or more recently, the nasty spots where we set up our kid’s travel potty). But instead, I try to focus on the joy of watching my toddler slurp ramen at a noodle bar in Osaka, and the pride I feel when he asks, “Daddy-O, what’s that big Buddha [statue] doing?”

So, even as we desperately attempt to catch up on sleep after our last “vacation,” we find ourselves already working to plan the next one.

Toilet

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It all began with an attempted trip to the bathroom.

“Honey, please stay here and play with your toys while Daddy goes potty.”

“NO! I want to come in!”

“Can you give Daddy some space, buddy? Why don’t you just sit here and race your cars?”

“No! I want to come in with Daddy!!”

“Baby, you’re a big boy. You can play with your toys for a minute. It’s hard to  potty with you staring at me.”

“No no no! I come in with Daddy!”

I give up the fight, and he follows me into the bathroom. And the next thing I know he’s trying to lift up the toilet seat. The one that I’m sitting on.

“Please stop that. You’re making this really difficult.”

“I want to play in the bathroom with Daddy.”

“Listen, dude. I love you, but I can’t poop with you messing around in here. If you don’t stop, I’m going to pick you up and carry you outside.”

“No! No stop it! I want to play in the bathroom!”

“I’m going to count to three…”

“No! Daddy no count to three!”

“One…”

“No!”

“Two…”

“No! No!”

“Three.”

Commence toddler tantrum.

“Ok. That’s it, Dude. You’re outta here.”

I get off the toilet, scoop up the little animal, and deposit him next to his toys in the living room. Returning to the bathroom, I lock the door behind me with a sigh. And then it begins in earnest. He’s immediately crying so hard he can barely breathe, and it sounds like he’s going to gag himself. Even through the door, I can picture the snot and tears rolling down his face.

I pull up my pants, take a deep sigh, and head back into the living room trenches.

Just another morning at home with a two-year-old.

Explorer

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Like most parents, I’m constantly wondering what the world looks like through my child’s eyes. Our Little Dude currently inhabits a particularly exciting environment, and he never knows what kind of adventure is coming his way. He’s taken to inquiring each morning when he wakes up, “Where’s M going today?”

It cracks us up without fail (not least because he refers to himself in the 3rd person). With all of the travel we’re being spoiled by during our year abroad, the kid thinks that every day he’ll be boarding a plane, train, or automobile. Now that we’re city folk again, there are even buses and subways in his daily life. This weekend we’re going to check out Macau, and he’ll get to take the ferry there and back. Let the good times roll.

Sometimes I’m hard on myself for not being a craftier stay-at-home parent. I don’t take on many art projects, bake cookies, or plan a lot of play dates. Our week lacks the organized activities that we engaged in back in San Diego. But our routine is pretty active, and it’s clear that my sidekick is rarely bored by our life in China. Last night as I prepared him for bed, he asked, referring to the park near our apartment building, “Daddy, can we go up the mountain again tomorrow?”

I’m afraid I’m going to have a lot to live up to when we get home to California. And he’s going to have to get used to his car seat again.

Airpocalypse

Smog over Tiananmen Square
Smog over Tiananmen Square

Since we returned from our trip to Beijing a few weeks ago, lots of friends have reached out to ask about our experiences with the air pollution there. It turns out that our visit to China’s capital coincided with international headlines about the record-breaking levels of smog (as well as, coincidentally, the climate change conference in Paris). I’ve been asked to share my own impressions of the region’s infamously toxic air. And while I generally do my best to keep this blog upbeat and even entertaining, I have to be honest. The conditions in Beijing scared the shit out of us.

It’s hard to find words for what we witnessed there. It’s no exaggeration to call it “apocalyptic;” the only reference point I can come up with is a dystopian SciFi film. Before flying north, we’d been cautioned about the pollution this time of year, and advised to bring masks along. Unfortunately, we didn’t heed the warnings. To believe it, you first have to see it, smell it, taste it, and feel it. For Westerners like us, to whom Los Angeles represents the pinnacle of smog, it’s just impossible to wrap your head around. I’ve got news for you, LA: you ain’t got diddly squat on Beijing.

Waking up in the morning and looking out the window of our hotel room, the view of the Forbidden City – just blocks away – was obscured by what looked like fog. It kind of looks like San Francisco, you can’t help but think. How picturesque. Then you step outside, and it’s your nose that first makes the connection. This “fog” smells like a cloud of smoke from cheap cigarettes. It burns your nose and the back of your throat. You walk for a bit, and it’s hard to catch your breath.

Perhaps the scariest part is that the locals seem to take it in stride. It’s just another part of the weather system. They dress for the day with coat, scarf, hat, air mask. On a bad day, like the one on which when we visited the Forbidden City, you literally can’t see more past the end of the block. This isn’t rolling in off of the ocean; it’s coming from factories. And it sure as hell isn’t natural. We humans are responsible for this, and I can’t help but believe that it affects the whole planet.

Apparently, when the factories are switched off, the air cleans up in no time. Some quick reading about the pollution in Bejing turns up the phrase “APEC blue,” which describes the clear skies that appeared just in time for the 2014 APEC conference. For sure we’ll be hearing about “Olympic blue” as we get closer to 2022. Recently, however, the city has issued its first-ever “red alerts,” closing schools and warning citizens to stay indoors.

Here in Shenzhen, the situation isn’t nearly as dire. But I’ve taken to religiously tracking the air quality index with an iPhone app, and in preparation for particularly bad days I’ve ordered high-style air masks from Vogmask for all three of us. I only wish I’d had them in hand for our weekend visit to the airpocalypse.

A toddler walks into a bar…

As I continue to stumble my way through basic Chinese lessons twice-weekly, I’m constantly amazed by the feats of linguistic prowess that Little Dude is displaying at home. Kids his age seriously are sponges, and as my small sidekick grows more confident about expressing himself verbally, nothing is more fun than watching him develop a sense of humor.

The other evening, he was playing with his toy kitchen as I began preparing dinner nearby. He placed a piece of plastic pizza in his pretend microwave and stated, “Micah cooking for Daddy. Micah make pizza in the microwave!”

“You mean the Micahwave?” I asked him, repeating one of my favorite puns.

He smiled, padded over to me, and pointed to the real microwave, where I was defrosting vegetables. “Daddy cooking too,” he said. “That one is a Daddywave!”

Wifey and I looked at each other and burst into laughter. We couldn’t believe it – 2 years and 2 months old, and he’s already cracking jokes. This kid is going places. When he’s not driving me totally crazy, he really is a hell of a lot of fun to be around.