Life in Quarantine 隔离

Inside the Safeway
It's like the Eastern Bloc
People have a way of getting crazy
When they think they'll be dead in a month
- Benjamin Gibbard

Jane Dough rises to the occasion
It’s 6:15 am. It’s early. Too early. I should close my eyes and join birdMAN and Dumpling in their blissful slumber. But then again, perhaps I woke up precisely on time.

Downstairs, atop of Moomoo’s quartzite countertop is a bowl of rising sourdough. Last night, I mixed together sourdough starter, flour, milk, sugar, butter, and an egg to form a dense round of dough. Throughout the night, the yeast from the sourdough starter converted the sugars to ethanol and carbon dioxide, and the bacteria converted the ethanol into lactic acids. As our house settled into stillness, the yeast toiled on in hungry earnestness.

Yes, this is how I do. Waiting for the sourdough starter to become active. Waiting for the precise right moment to make dough. Waiting for the exact precise moment to preheat the oven. The precise right moment to pop that fermenting clump of dough in the oven. Anticipating a glorious bake. Gleefully cutting into a crunchy crust to reveal a hole-laden crumb.

After all, I've got all the time in the world with no end in sight. It’s a quarantine life for us.

As of March 19, the State of California enacted a shelter in place order. Basically, the State requires people to limit contact with others outside their household. Malls, parks, and schools are closed. Restaurants echo empty aside from a few kitchen staff preparing takeout orders. An exciting outing is a trip to the grocery store where shoppers don face masks and maintain a distance six feet from others. After all, asymptomatic carriers could be anyone. Wedding guests and funeral attendees, tied together virtually via Zoom, rejoice and mourn at home. Even though the State has allowed some businesses to open, life is far from normal. Everyone is beginning to forget what pre-pandemic life was like.

Without IG I would never have
 known about these nestlings 
So...what about you?

Maybe you are embarking on long neglected house chores and contacting friends that you haven't talked to in years. You are reading some thick books and knitting anything imaginable from potholders to earmuffs. You have binge watched Seinfeld and watched all four hours of Lawrence of Arabia in one sitting. You can't buy instant yeast and you've got the time, so you have jumped on the sourdough baking bandwagon. You spend way too much time on Instagram watching what other people are doing under quarantine. Online workouts. Baking extravaganzas. Homemade pasta. Zoom meetings. Cupboard organization. Home renovation. Planting a vegetable garden. Installing a video camera to watch eggs hatch out of a nest that an industrious bird built in above your front door.

That reminds me, time to check Instagram. Anyone post anything during the last seven hours while I slept? Did the hatching birds hop out of their nest yet? Oh yes, I remember, it's time to wake up.

Time to roll that risen dough flat, layer on the brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter, roll it back up, and slice it to reveal a decadent spiral of dough and sweet. Let it rise and let it bake. That’s right, I am talking cinnamon rolls. Get up now, and we can eat by 9 am.

Chinese Word of the Blog: 隔离 Gélí
English Translation: quarantine

Quara-buns make your buns grow

Land of the rising dough

Cheese improves everything

Moomoo's dutch oven is a sourdough baker's dream

Quarantine run keeps us from going quara-bonkers

Just Zooming around


Go West 向西去

Sun in winter time
(Go west) We will do just fine
(Go west) Where the skies are blue
(Go west) This and more we'll do
- Pet Shop Boys

In another turn of events...we are back at Moomoo’s eating gourmet dinners and enjoying California sunshine. Yes, things are comfortable as comfortable does (under quarantine) in sunny California.

We decided to leave South Korea for these reasons:

  1. Dumpling: Living in a tiny apartment with no one to see and nowhere to go made both Dumpling and me stir crazy. Dumpling watched enough Frozen II for two lifetimes and the days felt long. When it was chilly, we happily spent buckets on Caffè Americanos and bagels in fancy coffee shops. When the weather was nice, we ran around the playground and tried out new restaurants. Even though coffee and playgrounds are very nice, we all longed for a place to set down roots (Beijing or California would have been both OK).
  2.  China Said "Stay Out": China closed its borders to all foreigners entering from outside of China. We couldn't -- and still can’t -- go back there.  
  3. School Went Online: The original plan for birdMAN to teach students face-to-face in a physical classroom never happened. Just as we arrived, South Korea implemented several virus control measures, which included delaying the start of the school semester. birdMAN’s school soon went entirely online. Students returning to the classroom became more and more improbable. Meanwhile, one-by-one birdMAN’s fellow teachers went back to their home countries to quarantine with family and teach online. Quarantining with family, after all, is better than living isolated in a foreign country where you can't speak or read the language. We thought the same thing.
After throwing around the idea of going back to California for a couple weeks and eating as much kimbap (Korean sushi rolls) as possible, we ultimately decided to say annyeonghi gyeseyo (안녕히 계세요) to South Korea. Instead of heading to the East, our home of eight years, we headed to the West, to the land of our birth [1].

So here we are in sunny California waiting out coronavirus. Waiting for California's shelter-in-place order to be lifted. Waiting for Gap to ship California weather appropriate clothes that I ordered three weeks ago. Waiting for China to take us back. 

Seriously though, waiting is a pretty sweet deal when Moomoo is cooking. I've almost--just almost--have forgotten about the kimbap.

Chinese Phrase of the Blog: 向西走 (Xiàng xī zǒu literally, toward west go)
English Translation: Go west

[1] Asia lies in the Eastern Hemisphere, and North America is in the Western Hemisphere.

More kimbap please!
$4 Americano worth every penny
Foodie in training
Coronavirus can't stop the us from playing
This nearly empty flight was the most comfortable flight ever
Quarantining in style
All my shorts are in Beijing. Hurry up Gap and send me some shorts! It's hot here!
Moomoo's cooking makes quarantine life pretty nice


Wild Thing 浣熊

Wild thing, you make my heart sing
You make everything groovy, wild thing
Wild thing, I think I love you
--The Troggs

There's all kinds of crazy things to see and do in Seoul. You can sip a latte from a toilet shaped mug or chow on a doo-doo shaped chocolate scone at the Poop Cafe (yes, really). You can grow a mermaid tail or sit inside Van Gogh's Starry Night at the Trick Eye Museum. You can make like Sherlock Holmes and solve your way out of a locked room at the Escape Room Experience. Or you can eat freshly killed and still writhing octopus at the Noryangjin Fish Market.

These things all sound like a blast for me, but neither birdMAN nor Dumpling would agree. So while my crazy ideas got nixed, birdMAN and I  did agree on craft beer, cheeseburgers, and pizza during our Seoul weekend. But what about Dumpling? Isn't there a fun place for an active three year old in super hip, super fun, and super trendy Seoul?

Brews and a snooze is a win-win
We are definitely in Seoul: beer comes with a side of dried fish and hot sauce

The answer is yes, and that fun place involved coffee and raccoons.

North Americans may share my view: raccoons are just giant rats in cute, furry coats. As many campers have experienced, raccoons seem to have a personal vendetta against humans to spoil their camping trips. They break into ice chests and scatter hot cocoa powder everywhere, and viciously snarl when shooed away. Lock up the hens, lest a raccoon emerge from the storm drain thirsting blood. In the dead of the night, raccoons smite innocent chickens, leaving their owners (or in our case, a houseguest which happened to be my sister) to clean up the aftermath under the brutal summer sun.

So you see, raccoons don't get any love from me. But Dumpling, on the other hand, has never encountered a wild raccoon. She thinks they are as they appear: cute, furry animals. The Raccoon Cafe attracts coffee lovers that share Dumpling's view. I suppose the vast majority of Seoul dwellers have never encountered a wild raccoon (raccoons are native to North America) [1].

For 10,000 won ($8), patrons can fawn over, awe over, pet, and of course, take an ussie with a very plump and docile raccoon. Throw in an americano or latte for an extra 2,000 won. But there are rules. Latte drinking and raccoon cuddling may not be done at the same time. The cafe area is separated from the animal area by a glass wall and a gated door. Wild raccoons and coffee shop dwelling raccoons have this in common: they will attack for snacks.

Besides the raccoons, the cafe also has some meerkats and the tamest dogs I've ever encountered. An aggressive child could probably play tug-of-war with the dogs’ ears without even getting a (deserved) doggy nip.

For about two hours, Dumpling was over the moon with delight, the only kind of delight that a three year old can exude. She danced around in glee, alternating between petting the raccoons and playing catch with an exceptionally talented dog that caught balls midair. And I have to admit, even though the room smelled like a petting zoo and my clothes were covered in animal hair, the time spent at Raccoon Cafe was time well spent.

You might wonder, besides curious tourists scratching an itch for the outre, who else goes to the Raccoon Cafe? My guess is people who live in cities and have little exposure to wildlife. While raccoons living in a fourth floor coffee shop smack in the middle of a bustling city is far from natural, humans have a natural urge to be at one with the furry kind; and that urge may be satisfied even in the most absurd settings. 

There are, however, some unanswered questions I have about the Raccoon Cafe. Do the dogs ever go outside?  Do the raccoons ever go outside? Where do these raccoons come from? Was that blonde raccoon bred to be blonde? Surely, a blonde raccoon couldn't survive in the wild. Are the raccoons happy? Is it ethical to house nocturnal animals in a coffee shop where they are bothered all day to take pictures and get petted?

Truthfully, these raccoons reminded me of domesticated cats. When they weren't snoozing, they were snacking. When they weren't snacking, they were relieving themselves somewhere in the room (the raccoon keeper was quick to clean up any messes). Otherwise, they were snuggling up to some fawning animal lover, who had forked over a load of money to be at one with the raccoons.

I admit, my prejudice against raccoons was squished flat. Raccoons aren't all giant rats in cute, furry coats. Some of them are cuddly and cute. Just don't leave any hot cocoa around for them to steal. That just might unleash the wild within.

Chinese word of the blog: 浣熊 huànxióng
English translation: raccoon 

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raccoon


Suddenly Everything Has Changed 韩国

Putting all the vegetables away
That you bought at the grocery store today
And it goes fast
You think of the past
-The Postal Service

"New hotel" is what Dumpling calls our little South Korean (SK) apartment. Obviously, she reasons, this place is not home. This home does not have her stuffed Piglet. This home does not have her stroller or her scooter. This home does not have her collection of toys.

Over the last month, I realize how much Beijing is home to me too. I miss the effusive morning light that radiates through our Beijing living room. SK apartment never sees direct sunlight. I miss my stockpiled ingredients like dried chickpeas, coconut milk, and array of spices like garam masala, cumin, and cardamon. Now home cooking is primarily flavored with soy sauce and sesame oil. I miss simple communication with normal people. You know, just being able to say, "excuse me” or "sorry."

All that stuff takes time. Finding a well-lit apartment in Beijing was partly coincidence for us. birdMAN's employer arranged our SK apartment, so we didn't have much of a choice. Accumulating an arsenal of ingredients takes familiarity with local/foreign grocery stores or online shopping. In Beijing, I know which local convenience store carries tomato paste and I'm a wiz at ordering pretty much anything online. Here in SK, I'm limited to whatever the local grocery store has (which does not include cheddar cheese). And language? Learning to speak and read Chinese took years! Although I've made inroads for learning Hangul, the Korean alphabet, I have slim hopes of any sort of mastery anytime soon.

"New hotel", however, does have some things that are nicer than BJ apartment. The SK mini kitchen actually has a decent sized sink. Dumpling is super stoked about the "big" TV. We both got upgrades.

Chinese Word of the Blog: 韩国 (hánguó)
English Translation: South Korea
Chinese sentence: 我们住在韩国。
English Translation: We live in South Korea.

I'll be able to read this someday #goals
I'm long way from home!
So much sauce
Grocery haul... I'm thinking of cooking Korean for dinner
Soy sauce flavored stuff for dinner. Good thing we love soy sauce.
Big TV... Thanks Korea
Domino's pizza when we don't feel like soy sauce


Half the World Away 冠状病毒

I would like to leave this city
This old town don't smell too pretty and
I can feel the warning signs running around my mind

Photo Source: Sight Magazine

On January 31, from the confines of her Beijing university campus apartment, fellow expat, Xialian, wrote me, “I would suggest you stay in the USA.”

Yes, it has come to this: Stay out of China.

The timing was incredible. On January 15, just as the Chinese New Year holiday commenced, we landed in sunny California. Literally the next day, the news dominated the headlines: a deadly novel virus was spreading throughout China. Although this new flu was discovered in December, China was just beginning to go into disease control mode.

So under university orders, Xialian and her new husband were confined to campus grounds. With no appointments to keep, no work, and nowhere to go, they went into vacation mode. They lazed about in their pajamas, ate breakfast at 10 am, and watched Chinese movies.

As Beijing went into lockdown, people got scared. They flooded the supermarkets and bought up all the vegetables, fruit, and instant noodles. Face masks went flying off the (both literal and online) shelves for exorbitant prices until there were no more. People stayed at home watching their phones for updates. A few thousand infected. The next day a thousand more. Each day the number of infected climbed.

Jan 28 From a friend in Beijing: the vegetables all bought up
Jan 29 From a friend in southern China: no ramen for you!
Some of our friends had their plane tickets to leave China suddenly cancelled and they were unable to rebook a flight originating from China. Others had traveled to their hometowns and couldn't return to their Beijing homes. Beijing had closed its borders. Others were like us. They had left before the lockdown and wouldn't go back to China anytime soon. Everyone's lives became suspended and limited.

Meanwhile, we took sanctuary at Moomoo's house and the coronavirus threat was half a world away. We soaked up the California sunshine and feasted on delicious oranges plucked fresh from my parent's prolific trees. We met up with our friends for brews and food. Despite their busy schedules, my sister and her husband squeezed in a brief trip from Georgia to California at the same time as us. Dumpling played and played with her cousins, and revelled in one-on-one Moomoo and Yaya time. Not to be forgotten was all the ice cream she ate. birdMAN and Kyle hit the trails with their mountain bikes. My California workout partner, Gabie, and I took 6 am barre classes and rewarded ourselves with Peet's coffee. California was good to us.

Just hanging out in California

But as February 7, the date of our return to Beijing, drew closer, the coronavirus began to hit closer to home. Fellow expats living in Beijing reiterated for us to stay away. The city was getting stricter and everyone was self quarantining at home. The city was quiet. Even the Chinese New Year's fireworks had been silenced. The subways were empty and temperature checks were everywhere.

The main concern was birdMAN's job. birdMAN was obligated to return to his job as a math teacher at an international high school. Since China's schools would delay the start of the semester, however, there was no reason for an immediate return. Furthermore, anyone entering Beijing must first undergo two weeks of self quarantine before returning to work. Communication with the school later revealed that it was developing a plan that did not require birdMAN in Beijing.

Truthfully, I wasn't too keen on going back to China. Quarantining in a dinky apartment with an active three year old would not be a walk in the park. Staying at Moomoo's was a much more appealing way to spend the next couple of months.

The number of infected continued to increase. The coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, dominated the headlines. I received messages from concerned friends. You aren't going back to China, are you?

Much to our mothers' relief, we extended our California stay by another week. That bonus week gave us more time to enjoy the onset of California spring and eat as much cheese as humanly possible. Meanwhile, birdMAN-- who had initially speculated that the virus craze would abate quickly and we would be back to Beijing in no time-- was beginning to wonder how this would play out. Perhaps the time to call China quits had finally come. We could just take up semi-permanent residence with Moomoo. This coronavirus business was not going away anytime soon.

The immediate future was hazy. Where would we end up?

We soon got our answer. birdMAN received the news via WeChat: The semester will resume in South Korea. You have been selected as one of the teachers to move to South Korea.

So... that's how we have become temporary residents of South Korea. A month ago we had no clue that we would have to start all over in a new country with a foreign language. But we rolled with it. That's life. Time to learn some basic Korean.

As of today, more than 92,000 have been infected worldwide and the disease continues to spread. Outside of China, South Korea is currently one of the worst affected countries, tallying more than 5,700 infected with COVID-19 and 35 deaths [1]. In response to the virus, schools in South Korea are closed for another three weeks. Everyone here wears face masks and nobody talks to each other.

Meanwhile, back in China, restrictions continue to be enforced. People are slowly trickling back to Beijing and subsequently doing two weeks of quarantine. Six weeks into lockdown, Xialian is learning to make home-made noodles and undoubtedly improving her Chinese with all those crazy Chinese movies she's watching. Our Beijing apartment is gathering dust and John Dough, my sourdough starter, is being woefully neglected. That block of cheese in the fridge awaiting our return, despite its vacuum pack, has probably turned green with mold.

Interesting times we live in, is it not?

Chinese Word of the blog: 冠状病毒 (guānzhuàng bìngdú, literally crown-shaped virus)
English translation: coronavirus (Now officially named COVID-19)

[1] BBC News: Coronavirus : California declares a state of emergency after death

Maybe extra Vitamin C will give our immune system a boost
So many cousins to play with!
Track 7 Brewing is clear both of Corona beer and Corona virus
Moomoo time
Moomoo pancakes are the antidote to virus fears
Yaya takes Dumpling to the zoo
Just me and the babies getting over jetlag
If we stay in CA, we could eat at Burger Lounge all the time...
What? We're not leaving all of THIS? Are we?


Here Comes the Sun 斯里兰卡

Here comes the sun
Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
-The Beatles

I am so behind on blogging! To catch up, I will streamline the next few blogs. Streamlining is not my strong suit, but I'll try my best to avoid all the rewriting, editing, rehashing, and flowery language that takes so much time to publish a single blog. No five course French meals. You'll get the quick and easy BBQ dinner with a couple of store bought sides.

So let's go back to December. Let's go back to before this coronavirus craziness started and back before everyone thought people traveling from China are carriers of a deadly disease. (Stay tuned for more on the coronavirus in later posts.)

Just like we do every December during birdMAN's winter break, we left behind Beijing's cold and dry clime for a warm and balmy one. This year we landed in Sri Lanka. Oh, you don't know where Sri Lanka is? Don't feel bad. I didn't know either and neither do most people [1].

Let me help you out. Sri Lanka is an island country located in the Indian Ocean in South Asia, southeast of India. Ok, back to streamlining…

sri lanka arrows
Source: insider.com

Now that we travel with a small child, we play it pretty safe. We no longer go for crazy long bicycling or electric scootering trips, overnight bus rides to far-flung places, mountain climbing, day long snorkeling excursions, or eating food of questionable sanitary standards off the street. Yes, Sri Lanka offers all of these plus much more for adventurous travelers. Our idea of vacation, however, is to plant ourselves in a nice homestay that is conveniently located near a nice beach and plenty of good food. That is exactly what we got.

Basically, we played at the beach in the morning, followed by lunch, nap, dinner, and sleep. Start over the next day.

Shirani Nature Palace (NP) in Weligama was our base. We originally planned on staying there for only a few days, but we liked it so much that-- with the exception of a one night excursion to the jungle-- we ended up staying at Shirani NP for our entire week long vacation.

The homestay is a family run operation managed by the ever affable Lala and his lovely wife, Shirani. They treated us like family. Lala arranged an elephant safari, massage, and recommended good places to eat, not only saving us the hassle of research, but also saving us money. (Of course, he was doing his pals some favors giving them some customers. But everything was honest and we were more than satisfied.) Also the free monkey show every afternoon delighted three year old Dumpling. As we sipped mango juice and lounged in the courtyard, the monkeys pranced from branch to branch and occasionally snagged some snacks from the garbage bin.

Close encounter with the primate kind

Additionally, Shirani cooks up a wickedly, deliciously unforgettable Sri Lankan menu for the front side restaurant. Everyday mouth watering smells wafted out from the kitchen. Lentil curry was an everyday staple, but other curry variations included jackfruit, mango, okra, and dried fish ---all of it amazing. Complement the curries with coconut sambol and coconut roti, and you could die happy. Be still my stomach… I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

We took one overnight excursion to the jungle for an elephant safari. Lala graciously arranged transportation, accommodations, and the safari tour. Elephant viewing is best early in the morning. So we woke up before the sun at 5 am, boarded our safari truck, and took a bumpy ride into the jungle. Our jungle homestay packed roti, egg, and fruit breakfast to go. We saw lots of peacocks, monkeys, and of course elephants! Dumpling had a blast.

So that's our winter vacation in a nutshell. The Sri Lankan people are the friendliest people in the world. The food is outstanding (if you can do spicy!). The weather sublime. We loved Sri Lanka and hope to go back soon.

How was that for streamlining?

Chinese word of the blog: 斯里兰卡 Sīlǐlánkǎ
EnglishTranslation: Sri Lanka

[1] No one knows where Sri Lanka is

Shirani the curry master
Oh curry! Be still my growling stomach
Lala: the friendly face of Sri Lanka
Dumpling makes friends easy!
Life is just beachy
Monkeying around
Fishers of fish
Surf's up!

Safari time
Bee-eater sighting
Stalking peacocking peacocks
This is way better than Disneyland