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.   

Mealtime

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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.

Market

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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.

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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.

 

X-Ray

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.