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.


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.



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.


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.



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.   



I have a confession to make: in the two short weeks since our arrival in China, I’ve eaten more pizza than in two whole months back home. (If you don’t know me well, this is saying quite a bit). And while it’s tempting to use Little Dude as justification, I’ll admit that it’s my own comfort as well as his that draws us to the various pizzerias scattered around our area, which I’ve taken to calling “Epcot Center.”

It helps that the climate here makes it especially easy to burn off extra calories, and that we’re clearly not the only ones to behave in this way. Whatever an expat may crave, be it burgers or schnitzel, sushi or pad thai, it can be found in spades around here. And this isn’t exactly a vacation, so I find myself shamelessly balancing each unpronounceable dish that we try with something more recognizable.

That’s not to say that we aren’t also taking advantage of the local cuisine. I get my noodles on regularly, and Little Dude is quickly developing a penchant for spice (which is convenient as well as gratifying, as it allows me to share food with him without sacrificing my own fiery fix.) Hot pot has proven to be the family favorite so far, and I’m actively on the hunt for soup dumplings, which, being from further north, have proven to be more difficult than expected to track down.  

With some digging, I’ve even managed to sniff out a couple of bakeries with satisfactory gluten free bread for Wifey. Although she does seem to be jealous of our burgeoning pizza and pretzel habit, at least she now has some comfort food of her own.

Finding the right meals to keep a family happy, healthy, and well fed is undoubtedly one of expat life’s greatest challenges. But it’s also sure to be the most rewarding. And with a whole year to explore our surroundings here, I’m confident that we’ll eventually be able to have our cake and eat it, too.



The moment we exited the Dongjiaotou metro station, two subway stops and a world away from the expat enclave that we now call home, Wifey and I looked at each other and said, “OK. Now we’re in China.”

We had descended underground in the heart of “Sea World,” which rather than being a controversial home for marine mammals is the central meeting point for much of Shenzhen’s international community. Unlike the one back in San Diego, this Sea World is a pedestrian-only “international bar street.” It’s a bit like Chinatown in reverse; the area is a Western bubble surrounded by what I can only refer to as “real China.” Here, we eat pretzels and drink German beer. A couple of short blocks away, the narrow streets contain countless tiny shops, street food vendors, and constant sparks flying from people welding random metal objects on the sidewalk.

On this, our first real expedition outside of our immediate neighborhood, we were seeking the Shekou “wet market.” “Wet” presumably because of all the live seafood for sale, this market is where many locals shop. However, our fellow expats had given us conflicting reports. While a few said, “Watch out, it’s smelly and gross!” Others claimed, “it’s very cool, and a great way to get a feel for China. You have to check it out.” So, off we went with our stroller.

When we emerged at street level, our first challenge was finding the place. There’s English on many of the signs here, but that doesn’t mean the directions are always easy to follow. So, we rolled the dice and began walking down “Shekou Old Street.” Naturally, we soon realized that we were walking away from the market, but after thirty minutes of zigging, zagging, and sweating profusely – just as we were ready to throw in the towel and take the train back home – we stumbled upon our destination.

First, our attention was drawn to the colors. IMG_9525These technicolored bins full of shrimp, crayfish, and God knows what else marked the entrance to the market, which was indeed rather wet. Inside, along with the profusion of fish, was a dense mass of people, delicious looking produce that I’ve never seen before, and poultry hanging from hooks. There were also whole animals being butchered, and at one point, Wifey turned to me and asked, totally deadpan, “whose tail do you think that is?”

In the central part of the market, the fish were illuminated by red lights, which made the whole experience even more surreal.


As we meandered, we seemed to be the only Westerners in attendance, although ours was not the only stroller to be blocked by scooters delivering fresh catches inside the market. At one point, when our narrow path was cut off, we had to dart outside to avoid the bottleneck, as our Mandarin is still limited to “hello” and “thank you.” But we witnessed a Chinese mother giving the driver a piece of her mind, much as I would have if I’d been able to. The New Yorker in me imagined that she said something along the lines of, “Hey, what’s a matter with you?! Can’t you seen I’m walkin’ here?”

Needless to say, all three of us had the time of our lives. This is only the beginning, and I plan to revisit the market on a regular basis. Hopefully, by the time we get back to California, I’ll actually know how to cook some of that stuff.



Well, that was without a doubt one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had.

36 hours into our Chinese sojourn, we were treated to our initiatory Shenzhen taxi trip, a voyage that doubled as Little Dude’s first car seat-less car ride. Where to? Why, the hospital, of course.

Fear not for us, dear friends, for this was not an emergency journey. As it happens, in order to obtain a Chinese residence permit, one must first undergo a local medical exam. What are they checking for, you ask? It beats the hell outta me, but the process was shockingly thorough – despite the almost complete lack of verbal communication.

Following an extended cab ride through a tropical downpour, clutching our child on our laps, we arrived at the hospital. We were then led immediately out of said hospital, down the street to a small, heavily trafficked photo shop. After our visa photographs were taken – no small feat, with a highly energetic almost-two year old – we returned to the hospital, where Wifey and I each subjected ourselves to a series of unusual medical tests in rapid succession.

First, a standing X-Ray; presumably of our torsos, to what end I have no idea. Then, even more strange, a brief EKG, followed by an ultrasound of God-only-knows-what, in the general vicinity of our ribs. Next, an eye exam – not so far off in practice from the one at an optometrist’s office stateside – but consisting solely of letters similar to M, W, E, and what I could only hesitantly refer to as a “backwards E.” (After comparing notes with Wifey on the ride home, I now believe the expected answers to have been more simply “up,” “down,” “left,” and “right.”)

Finally, a rather large quantity of blood was drawn, with no indication whatsoever of what it was to be tested for, and we were each told to pee in a cup. For descriptive purposes, it bears mentioning that the cups had no type of closure, and upon being filled, were placed on a tray containing samples from all the other newly arrived expats in Shenzhen.

I’m not sure what any of this means, or if we’re soon to be deported because of the results. But from my perspective, this adventure confirmed two things. One: the Chinese bureaucracy really is extremely efficient. And two: we sure as hell ain’t in Kansas anymore.


Each day, while I’m out and about with Little Dude, I receive a number of totally undeserved compliments from strangers. Not that I necessarily mind the attention, but I do heed the social ramifications. When was last time you saw a stay-at-home Mom receive heaping praise from fellow supermarket shoppers, simply for making it to the check-out line with her toddler?

The subject has come up more and more frequently as of late, and an article that a friend of mine posted on Facebook this morning inspired me to sit down and put some thoughts in order. Somewhat provocatively titled, “My Husband: Five Reasons Why I Am Not Lucky To Have Him,” argues that it is by choice, rather than luck, that many of our generation have managed to alter our household roles.

I’ll raise a glass to that. I choose to spend my days with my child and to encourage my wife to continue her career (in which she utterly excels). She, in turn, takes pride in setting an example as a working mother, as well as in my decision to raise our son. Of course it would be lovely if we could all stay home together, but for practical reasons that’s not really an option. However, we have chosen our roles, and taken them upon ourselves willingly.

At the end of the day, I do give luck some credit. It brought Wifey and I to the same place at the same time, so that we could choose to spend the rest of our lives together.