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.

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.

Changes

IMG_7797.JPGLittle Dude’s passport arrived last week, and he’s going to break it in awfully quickly. Big changes this way come; thanks to Wifey’s consulting gig, we’re preparing to embark on a yearlong family adventure in Shenzhen, China!

I’ll be bidding adieu to Le Metro Wine at the end of June, to focus on the little guy and my own writing as we begin this journey. So, please do keep your eyes on this blog (and anticipate some changes here). There’s bound to be no lack of material for a big-ass white dude chasing a tiny, crazy blond person around parts unknown.

You can never predict where we’re going to pop up next. But my question is, will I still be called a “stay-at-home-dad” when we’re 7,000 miles away from home?