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.

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.

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.

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.

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.