China

china-flag

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

IMG_3319

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

IMG_9721

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

IMG_1048-3

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.

Explorer

IMG_0805

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.

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

IMG_9768

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.