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.

Dumplings

Dumplings

When I lay me down to sleep, visions of dumplings dance in my head.

No joke; images of these steamed pillows of joy have invaded my subconscious. I never thought it possible that my pizza obsession would meet such serious competition, but I could eat dumplings every day. (Some weeks, I do.) And my enthusiasm seems to be contagious. It’s clearly infected Little Dude already, who occasionally runs around at lunchtime shouting “Dumplings! Dumplings!”

Xiao Long Bao were the first to win my heart. These heavenly bundles of liquid love, known in English as soup dumplings, both mystify and amaze. (To answer the obvious question, the soup inside results from gelatin in the filling, which liquifies in heat.) I’ve never known anybody to sample these babies without falling head over heels – at least after learning how to eat them without burning one’s mouth or dripping scalding soup all over the place. It does take some real chopstick chops. 

But I’m surrounded by a sea of dumplings, and these days I find it hard to commit to just one variety. I’ve got it bad for Har Gao (shrimp dumplings), too. These sexy morsels are a Dim Sum staple, and they stole my affection before I even knew their name.

It doesn’t end there. I like to get down with Shumai as well. And while most lack the mystique of Xiao Long Bao, the Shumai at world renowned restaurant chain Din Tai Fung even contain a hidden pouch of broth at the bottom. It’s enough to get a fellow in trouble. 

As it turns out, I guess I’m just not a one dumpling kind of guy.

Lucky Number Nine

IMG_0018Yesterday, I learned how to say “wine” in Chinese.

This valuable linguistic tidbit came my way just in the nick of time, given that this week I also finally managed to crack into the wine scene here in Shenzhen. It must have been fate that included this term in the lesson plan for only my second language class. (Or maybe the fact that the word doubles as the number nine.)

I’ve been pretty quiet on the subject of vino since leaving California; most of my energy has been spent navigating the early stages of expat life with a toddler in tow. It hasn’t helped that the beverage options in mainland China are just as limited as I’d been led to expect, consisting primarily of watery beer, overpriced (and possibly counterfeit) Bordeaux, and big-brand liquor. It’s taken me time and persistence to track down the good stuff. And given that I have a higher threshold for bland beer than boring vino, I’ve consumed enough cerveza over the course of my research for it to show in my waistline. But I’ve been here long enough now to connect with some of the right people. So, I’ve decided that it’s time to get back to work.

With the help of my new friend Antonio Panetta, cinematographer extraordinaire, I’ve begun developing a series of videos called “Where to drink wine in Shenzhen.” I’ll be exploring the best wine lists in town, starting close to home here in Shekou. So stay tuned! We hope to release the first one in a couple of weeks.

Patience

IMG_9944 (1)This week scored a couple of big wins in my book. Not only did I finally track down a pool that I can actually swim laps in, but believe it or not, it’s housed in the same facility as the best bar I’ve seen in Shenzhen. No joke – my gym pass also gets me 10% off of legit cocktails and the most interesting wine list in our immediate vicinity. (I won’t deny that this helped swayed me when confronted by the rather exorbitant membership fee.) I figure, if I swim enough and drink enough this year, it’s definitely worth the price of entry.

A good workout – followed by a nice dry martini later in the evening – always helps me balance out. But this valuable new find came at a time when I have a lot of extra steam to blow off. When we set out on this crazy adventure, we knew that many challenges would come along with it. As we approach the two-month-mark, though, I’m realizing that I’ve thrown myself right onto the flames. And I’ve gotta say, it’s getting hot in here.

You see, if there’s one thing above all others that I’m determined to take away from this journey, it is patience, a virtue that I’ve always known myself to be lacking. It’s mission critical for both parents and travelers alike, so I guess I was hoping that new surroundings would make it easier to pick up some new skills. Silly me.

Rather than cooling down, over the course of the day I feel myself slowly igniting. Each toddler tantrum pushes me close to breaking, and every cultural snafu makes my ears steam. In response, I’m trying to train myself to laugh more often at my own foibles – or at least push through the frustration. So, when I showed up at my new fitness club for my first swim, only to find that the electricity was out, I didn’t let it stop me. Instead, I changed into my bathing suit by the light of my iPhone.

Despite the daily struggle, I still believe that patience is an achievable goal. To get there, I guess I just need to be more patient.

Groceries

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My heart is racing, nerves frayed before I even lay my clammy hands on a shopping cart. I can do it this time, I tell myself. I’m not leaving here until I have everything I need to make dinner tonight. I will NOT have a panic attack in the middle of this supermarket.

It’s tough to explain the anxiety that overcomes me each time I prepare to enter a Chinese grocery store. Yes, they are crowded, and yes, they contain a lot of products that I can only presume to be edible. But neither of these is what really intimidates me. To be honest, I think it’s the very familiarity of these places that I find most unsettling. I should feel at ease. After all, I even recognize many of the logos, and a lot of the unfamiliar items have delicious looking photos on the package. But the thing is, other than the branding, everything is in Chinese.

“Damn, those are some fine looking dumplings!” I might say. But then, I think, How the hell am I supposed to cook them??

Or, as occurred yesterday while shopping with the family, “that laundry detergent with a photo of a baby on it is hypoallergenic and good for washing the little guy’s clothes, right?” No, of course not. It’s just baby scented, or some shit. True story.

Then, there’s the dairy section, when I’m lucky enough to find one. Most milk here is of the non-refrigerated “shelf stable” variety, and while I’ve encountered this elsewhere in the world and my goal here isn’t exactly to discuss varying pasteurization methods, let’s just say that strikes most Americans as odd. When there are fridges, it’s hard to distinguish between milk, “milk products,” soy milk, drinkable yogurt, and other ambiguously labeled white liquids. God forbid one should want half and half for coffee. (Note to self: whipping cream doesn’t quite fit the bill.)

Last week, I spent a good 10 minutes totally bricked in front of one such display, near tears because I was below ground and couldn’t connect to the internet to determine which package, if any, contained cream. And this was WITHOUT Little Dude in tow, complicating things even further.

I used to love shopping for food. Even in San Diego, I managed to retain some of the habits that I picked up in Italy years ago: leisurely strolls to purchase dinner supplies, buying produce in one shop, meat in another, and then finally stopping to pick up wine or beer.  

Here in Shenzhen, even the online grocery store scares the shit out of me. When I do attempt to take advantage of it, I find myself purchasing the most random assortment of items – everything but what I actually need to assemble a proper meal. Hand soap? Check. Paper towels? Sure. Dried pasta? Indeed. And…. Nerds! Yes, of course! 

Each week I promise Wifey that I’ll cook more than once or twice. “I’ll get the hang of it,” I say. “Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out eventually.”

Good thing there’s a solid restaurant delivery service around here.

Celebrity

Before we left for China, a number of friends tried to warn us. “People are gonna be all over you guys, especially your little blond dude. They’ll stare at you and take a lot of pictures, and don’t be surprised if some even touch him.”

So perhaps we should have known what we were getting ourselves into. But despite the numerous heads ups, all of our previous travels, and Wifey having lived in Russia until she was 9, it’s hard to overestimate how, well, Western we are. After a month here, it’s still tough to wrap our heads around how different the sense of privacy and personal space is.

It begins the moment we walk out the door. Even inside of our building, which does have a real sense of community, there are folks who just can’t resist the urge to photograph and occasionally grope the little guy. I find myself constantly trying to discourage people from getting all up in our faces, and while I don’t exactly go around picking fights, I’ve also never claimed to be the most even-keeled dude on the block. Plus, the language barrier doesn’t really help the situation. “What are YOU lookin’ at” doesn’t sound quite the same in Chinese.

Meals can be the hardest, especially on Sunday morning. Today, for the first time since our arrival, we decided to forgo the breakfast buffet downstairs in favor of brunch out. It took quite a while for our OJ and coffee to hit the table – because the ladies behind the bar were too busy ogling Little Dude to prepare them. And by the time our food arrived, we had quite the crowd around us. Finally, I cracked. I knew that our audience wasn’t likely to understand my words, but my body language was pretty clear as I said, “Can I help you with something? Is there a reason you’re watching us eat?”

Luckily, my sidekick seems to be doing a better job than I of maintaining a sense of humor. He’s even started a Tumblr page to help keep things in perspective. You take pictures of me? I take pictures of you.

Oktoberfest

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As I write this, I’m catching my breath on the upper deck of the Ming Hua, a former cruise ship which now sits landlocked in the heart of Shekou “Sea World.” (See my previous post for explanation.) I’m sipping a German Pilsner that was brewed not only in Shenzhen, but in fact on this very vessel. And among other recent events of note, I find myself reflecting on the sheer surreality of the Oktoberfest celebration that I attended here one week ago. 

The evening began with an introduction to the brewer himself, who was the only Westerner present besides my small group of friends. As he approached our table, he exuded the vibe of one who not only brews beer but perhaps also concocts MDMA. With a face-splitting grin, he repeatedly bellowed, “my name is Stephen, and I am the brewer here! I give you my card!” (He would truly have handed each of us several business cards if we had allowed him to.)

Then, the live music began, followed by drinking games the likes of which I’ve never seen before. This was my first true night out in China, other than one lovely dinner date with my lady wife. So, while I certainly had no fixed expectations, Latin performers in the German restaurant on a dry docked boat in Shenzhen did come as something of a surprise. 

And the games! These were a far cry from flip cup and quarters, and their true purpose remained unclear to us even after extended roundtable analysis. However, at least one was easy enough to decipher, as it appeared to be a simple competition to see who could keep their arm extended 180 degrees longest whilst holding a full liter of beer. (Those glasses are heavy, which is part of the fun of drinking them.) If I understood correctly, the winner was to chug his liter – presumably for free – while the losers returned to their seats to purchase their own next round.

All in all the evening was a blast, and the beer and pretzels both quite tasty. However, as I walked home, passing a number of stumbling Chinese fellows along the way, I did wonder how much our experiences mirrored those found at Oktoberfest parties in Germany. As I’ve said before and will surely say again, everything here in China is at least slightly off-kilter.