6.15.2019

At the Zoo 动物园

Someone told me
It’s all happening at the zoo
I do believe it
I do believe it’s true
-Simon and Garfunkel





On the playground or in the park, I sometimes bring the Beijing Zoo up as a conversation topic. Have you been to the zoo? How is it? Most people respond, “还行 (háixíng)”, which can be translated as “okay”, or “passable”. Háixíng is the ultimate non-answer. 还行 could mean: 1) the person doesn’t like it but not enough to say, “不好 (bùhǎo)” (bad), 2) has no opinion, or 3) likes it but not enough to say, “挺好 (tǐnghǎo)” (really good). Tripadvisor, by comparison, rated the Beijing Zoo with 3.5 out of 5 points. I would say that too is háixíng.

The time finally came for me to judge for myself whether the Beijing Zoo is háixíng

As Qing Ming Jie (Tomb Sweeping Day) approached, we contemplated how we should spend birdMAN’s day off. As tempting as it was to jet over to our favorite cheeseburger and beer joint, Great Leap Brewing, we ultimately accepted a friend’s invitation for a zoo outing. Who needs beer when you can rub elbows with (or get smashed among) loads of strangers vying for a glimpse of a lion or a space to take a selfie in front of a resplendently blooming cherry tree?

So on the morning of Friday, April 5, birdMAN and I-- with Dumpling, chicken sushi rolls (prepared by yours truly), and a load of snacks in tow-- made a 45 minute bike ride south to the Beijing Zoo. There we met up a group of friends who, like us, had accepted the same invitation to spend the holiday getting down with caged wildlife and hoards of strangers.

The Beijing Zoo is spacious, boasting 220 acres of animal exhibits, rivers and lakes, traditional Chinese style pavilions and gardens, and an aquarium. The crown jewel of the 14,500 animals that call Beijing home is the giant panda. By contrast, the San Diego Zoo, the gold standard of zoos, covers 100 acres and houses 3,500 animals.

Like all public places in China on a Chinese national holiday, the zoo was packed. Everywhere you looked there was somebody along with somebody else, and they all morphed into a pulsing sea of somebodies eating sunflower seeds and Chinese hot dogs (insert gag reflex here). The crowds, the claustrophobic feelings, and the hot dog smells dissipated somewhat as we meandered deeper into the zoo.

Upon entering, we channeled through through an impressive Chinese style courtyard and then to a spacious walkway lined with trees and shops. I thought, “Ah this is nice! What a nice Chinese zoo.” The blue sky, the ambient temperature, and the trees teeming with fluffy pastel blooms dazzled me. The zoo was definitely better than háixíng. In fact, it was entering into the realm of tǐnghǎo (really good).

The monkeys’ cavernous glass enclosure was the first stop on the animal walk about. There were ropes to swing from, plenty of ledges to sit on, loads of carrots and sweet potatoes to snack on, and an adoring audience. Monkeys were happy. I was happy. Tǐnghǎo de.

My fuzzy zoo feelings didn’t last long.

Not far from the sprightly monkeys roamed the polar bear. Normal zoo animals roam around looking for things to eat while leisurely scratching their bellies. This poor polar bear, however, was far from normal. Fur matted and thinning in spots, he roamed - no, paced - back and forth across the dilapidated concrete expanse with wild eyes. He bobbed his head erratically as though he were locked up in a windowless sanatorium and desperate to escape his friendless prison. This was far from háixíng. This was bùhǎo.

Things really nosedived upon reaching the hippos. True, I am not a hippo expert, but my gut feeling is that a cramped concrete enclosure, a muddy puddle scarcely larger than a hippo, and a dozen or so fists pounding on the glass separating one sort of wild from another, are a hippo's worst nightmare. Another bùhǎo moment.

Other animal exhibits were what you expect for an average zoo--not exactly a wild animal’s dream home, but adequate like a retro tract house. The rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and zebras seemed content enough roaming around dirt enclosures while spectators looked on from an acceptable distance.

The animals were not the only things to see at the zoo, at least not for some Chinese visitors who have never seen foreigners before. One elderly man squatted not five feet from our picnicking group brazenly snapping photos away of our friend, Mr. Italy. Perhaps the shutterbug was enamored by Mr. Italy’s prominent schnoz or his deli sandwich. In any case, three different people from our group told him to knock it off before he finally went on his way.

The three hours we spent wandering around at a snail’s pace was not enough to see even a fraction of the zoo’s 14,500 animals. We didn’t even see China’s national treasures: the giant pandas. Recovering from a ghastly cold, Dumpling also wasn’t feeling so hot. Sick kid, tons of people, hot dog smells everywhere, and the poor hippo left me with some not-so-fuzzy zoo feelings.

All wasn’t bad though. We enjoyed the flora and flauna adorning the walkways and the swan filled lake. The 15 RMB (2 USD) ticket price wasn’t too bad either.

So was the zoo háixíng (OK), bùhǎo (bad), or tǐnghǎo (good) ? Well, I disliked it, but not enough to say bùhǎo. I liked it, but not enough to say tǐnghǎo. I am just like everyone else who can’t make up their mind. As much as I hate to say it...I am going with háixíng.

Chinese Word of the Blog: 动物园 (literally, “animal park”)
English translation: zoo

Here we come zoo
Monkeying around
A lot of somebodies

Dumpling got the best seat

The saddest hippo ever
Dumpling wasn't in a giraffe viewing mood
I woke up at 5 am to make these chicken sushi rolls
Dumpling's stroller is a nice rest spot for some random lady
Where the swans dive
Our only family picture


3.07.2019

This Here Giraffe 长颈鹿

And you hear yourself
Thinking
And you hear yourself
Thinking
This here giraffe, laughed
-The Flaming Lips



After six and half years of living in China, you would think I got this language thing down. Speaking Chinese should slide off my tongue like water off a duck’s back. Sigh...just wishful thinking. I frequently mix up characters and struggle with tones. Is it 空天 (means empty sky) or 天空 (means sky)?And what tone is 空?

Dumpling, on the other hand, after two years on the planet, seems to be mastering language duality with ease. What’s the formula for raising this bilingual toddler? Dumpling hears Chinese daily, interacts with Chinese people and children daily, hears me read (poorly) in Chinese to her daily, and occasionally watches Chinese cartoons. Her young brain is a dry sponge soaking up everything she sees and hears.

She has yet to form a complete sentence, but whether she says “fish” or “鱼”, “ball” or “求”, or “cookie” or “饼干”depends on who is around. Last weekend, she grabbed a toy fish and presented it to one her Chinese aunties screeching with gusto, “鱼!” When she saw a picture of a giraffe on another baby’s water bottle, she said the ---not one, not two, but the three character long word--- for the long necked deer, “长颈鹿.” (literally, changjinglu means “long neck deer). I’m no expert, but I am pretty sure her tones are pretty spot on.

When she was about a year and a half, I would say, “Can you say dog?” She would respond, “狗 (gou)”. Or I would say, “Can you say thank you?” She would respond with her little voice, “谢谢 (xiexie).” Before dinner, we would say, “Let’s wash hands!” and then she would respond, “洗手!” Now she often switches between several Chinese and English words seamlessly.

As far as I can tell, these words include but are not limited to:
  • Thank you, 谢谢
  • 1-2-3-4, 一二三四
  • Cookie, 饼干
  • Balloon, 气球
  • Fish, 鱼
  • Ball, 球
  • Dog, 狗
  • Cat, 猫
  • Horse, 马
  • Giraffe, 长颈鹿
  • Pig, 猪
  • Chicken, 鸡
  • Shoe, 鞋
  • Eggplant, 茄子
  • Flower, 花
  • Squat, 蹲蹲
  • Jump, 蹦蹦
  • Run, 跑跑
  • Star, 星星
  • Wash hands, 洗手
  • Hi and bye, 你好,再见
Everyday her speech is getting more and more clear. She’s using adjectives to describe objects (“green car”), and possessive nouns (“mommy shoes” and “Dumpling coat”). She responds to the question,“你叫是什么名字?” (What’s your name) with her Chinese name, “紫依” (Ziyi). Her response to directives is getting faster and faster. Watching Dumpling develop her language skills is downright thrilling.

birdMAN and I will never, ever, ever, ever, be fluent in Chinese. We can only hope for some competency. If we stick it out in China, however, Dumpling will become our personal translator. Now, that prospect is thrilling.

Chinese Word of the Blog: 长颈鹿 Chángjǐnglù (literally, long neck deer)
English Translation: giraffe

Peppa Pig in Chinese is a Dumpling fave
I think they are talking in Chinese




2.21.2019

Isn’t It Nice? 不错

It's a long and winding road to our house
So if you come to see us take it slow
Take it slow anyway when you come
You will know why we stay so far
From the city lights
-of Montreal




Coming up with clever opening sentence to talk about our recent trip home to the United States is eluding me. So let’s be succinct: California is nice.

Nice to spend the mornings lazily drinking coffee and chatting with Moomoo. Nice to sip a pint or two at local micro-breweries. Nice to take Dumpling to the park and not worry about stepping in dog doo-doo (or human doo-doo). Nice to watch Dumpling shriek with glee chasing around her cousins. Nice to eat juicy oranges from the my parents’ bountiful orange tree. Nice to be overwhelmed by the hummus selection at Whole Foods. Nice to be served water with ice. Nice to wear clothes fragrant of dryer sheets. Nice to surf the a speedy internet without a VPN.

So nice.

Chinese Word of the Blog: 不错 Bùcuò (literally, no faults)
English Translation: not bad; pretty good

Moomoo's apple pie. She's on a mission to get me fat.
Life is sweet at Moomoo's!
Dumpling gets sandwiched
Enjoying blue skies before the storms roll in. No babies drank beer during the taking of this photo.
Cantonese style food in California
Dumpling with her Pop-pop and Great Grandma
What a nice park...no doo doo anywhere!
Two dads and their babies
The dreary weather didn't dampen these girls' spirit. Getting courageous in YC.
5:30 am hot pilates or cycle is how I like to vacation
Yaya's favorite: giraffe

Giraffe is now Dumpling's favorite
Happy to have J&G out from Georgia. 
This may be the worst picture ever. I blame the photographer (uh hum birdMAN!)
Zephram is definitely more fun than Disneyland (and cheaper).
Coffee and scones with my 老朋友. So nice.
 I'll loosen my belt to make room for the pie.
Who likes apple pie more? Ilein or Dumpling? It might be a tie.
Ice cream is nice in the winter


1.18.2019

Smells Like Funk 榴莲

The funk phenomenon
We funk you on and on
There’s no need to hold your nose
Cause this funk stink like a rose
-The Black Eyed Peas


Don't blame that funky smell on Momo

More the six years ago as a China newbie and curious about local fare, I bought some cut-up pieces of durian fruit at a large outdoor market. Thorny, oblong and pungently fragrant fruits piled at various produce stands intrigued me. What was this weird fruit? So I took my little Styrofoam container of cut-up durian--it kind of looked like alien poop--back to the office that I shared with birdMAN and other expat teachers. Everyone took a whiff of the durian’s stench and chewed me out for stinking up the office. Then I tasted it. Oh the regret! It tasted like rotten mangoes laced with onion and gasoline. No wonder this malodorous abomination is banned from entering Singapore’s subways. The aftertaste lingered long after we opened up the windows to air out the miasma. This so-called king of fruit in no way won my loyalty.

This winter, we vacationed in balmy Malaysia where durian reigns. If you have never enjoyed experienced eating or smelling durian, here are some descriptions that I found perusing the internet:
  • After eating it, “Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” - Anthony Bourdain Eat Sip Trip 
  • “a sweet almost bubble gum flavor with little hints of something strange going on, like little hints of sweat or something like that. Like sweaty bubble gum.” - Scientific American  
  • “Its odour is best described as pig s***, turpentine and onions garnished with a dirty gym sock” – Richard Sterling, food writer The Guardian 
  • “Like eating raspberry blancmange in the lavatory” – Anthony Burgess The Guardian 
  • “To durian lovers, the taste is mildly sweet, almondy and very creamy, not unlike a rich cheesecake. It has a whiff of alcohol about it, which explains why eating it gives you this hot feeling inside – like you’ve downed a shot of vodka.” The Guardian 
birdMAN, Dumpling, Xialian, and I came to Malaysia, not to eat durian, but to see good friends Qen and Momo. After suddenly leaving Beijing due to injury, and spending some time recovering and working in Japan, they landed in a small town in east Malaysia. And wow! Life here is light years from Beijing. Here they drive an all terrain vehicle (to navigate muddy roads), are learning the local language, Iban, survive without a pizza or beer joint anywhere in the vicinity, and have become durian aficionados.

Happy reunion!
Momo knows how to pick out the best durian

The first day on our arrival, Momo touted a bag of those offensively stinky and thorny stink bombs back from the market. Out of consideration for our durian unaccustomed noses, she placed the durian outside until snack time.

Preparing durian for eating requires muscles and the right equipment. Clearly no amateur, Momo slipped her left hand into a thick, protective glove. With her other hand, she wielded a large knife as shrewd as a bear prying open a beehive. That beast did yield, its prickly exoskeleton split into two defeated halves. She scooped out its buttery flesh, smooth like warm cheesecake and reeking like gasoline-laced, long overripe mangoes.



Before long, Xialian and I faced off over a plate of durian. Kidney shaped pods glistened smooth like pale-yellow earthworms. The funk enveloped us like Agent Orange. Here goes nothing...I bit into its custardy flesh. It tasted like gooey mangoes...like caramel liquor...like gasoline...like onions with a hint of tropical Starburst candy. Describing the taste of durian is like trying to describe a full-bodied complex wine without ever having tried wine before or familiar with how it's made. Impossible.

This time durian went down much smoother than the first time six years ago. I even had a second helping immediately and more the next day. Xialian, on the other hand, is now a loyal subject to King Durian, craving durian flavored snacks and drinks (durian coffee an abomination!). She even prefers durian over soursop, a magically refreshing white fleshed fruit that tastes of sour apple and banana. birdMAN was a bit ho-hum about durian. Dumpling threw her serving on the floor and promptly ran after the very gentle (and tolerant) kitty, Torazo.

Why durian is so tremendously loved is quite a conundrum for many Westerners. Why do people eat something that smells like rotting garbage? They eat it for the same reason that Westerners eat blue cheese. Blue cheese smells like dirty gym socks that have been festering in a locker room for months. Like durian, however, blue cheese is creamy, decadent, layered with complex pungency that inspires both adulation and repulsion. You can't explain why you eat either blue cheese or durian. You just have to eat them and learn to love them. Both are an acquired taste.


Watch me eat durian

Finally after all these years, and several trips to southeast Asia where durian reigns, the king and I have made peace. The stink emanating from the durian’s custardy flesh now seems more tropical than toxic. Perhaps I’ve gotten used to the smell. Perhaps I even enjoy its putrid stink. While I may not be a loyal, die-hard subject of King Durian, I do bow in respect.

Chinese Word of the Blog: 榴莲 (Liúlián) 
English Translation: durian fruit

Hail King Durian! May your reign be thorny and stinky
If it smells like funk, looks like funk, is it funk?
Durian burps coming up
Why isn't soursop king?
Let's skip the durian and torture kitty instead
Coffee + durian = an ungodly combination
If it exists, it can be durian flavored
Add caption


12.10.2018

Smoke Detector 吸烟

My eyes burn
Everybody smokes
My eyes burn
Everybody smokes
I smoke too
But not as much as you
I do the smoke detector
- Rilo Kiley



Take a breath. Ooohh, maybe I shouldn’t...the kitchen is getting smoky. And it’s not because someone burnt the toast. Someone-- or someones-- is smoking.

Just as no man is an island, no apartment in the Great Smoking Dragon (aka China) is a vacuum. Muffled voices reverberating through the walls and echoing up through the drain pipes. Babies crying. Pianos playing. Electric drills drilling. Toilets flushing. Loogies hacking. Fish and hot peppers frying. Rice cooking or incense burning. Sounds and odors--good or bad, poisonous or innocuous-- waft through the cracks, the crevices, the pipes, and the vents that connect our side-by-side, top-by-bottom homes.

As for the cigarette smoke, I suspect that the smoking son-of-a-gun is our black-gummed neighbor that lives directly below us. Maybe he smokes in the kitchen and turns on the kitchen vent to mitigate secondhand smoke effects on his two young children. Or perhaps he lights up in the bathroom before he brushes his teeth (Question: does he brush his teeth?). In any case, I’m not just blowing smoke. Every evening and most mornings, my home is going up in smoke.

Even if our home were a smoke-free sanctuary, avoiding cigarette smoke on a daily basis would be impossible. China is the biggest consumer and producer of cigarettes in the world. About 350 million of the 1.3 billion Chinese habitually light up [1]. That’s roughly one in four persons. No escaping the food delivery guys scanning their cell phones with one hand and a cigarette in the other. Or the grandpa shuffling along the sidewalk completely oblivious to the effect of smoke on his young grandbaby. Even in restaurants, in which smoking is supposedly prohibited, smokers can still light up in private dining rooms. The smoke, uninvited and knowing no boundaries, drifts to the public eating area mixing with the smells of garlic, seared meat, and rice.

Smoking man is not worried about his lungs

Back in 2015, we non-smokers rejoiced and optimistically hoped that Beijing’s public smoking ban wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. Hitting up the 15 RMB burrito special at a nearby western restaurant no longer meant inhaling fellow patron’s carcinogenic fumes. But it took awhile for smokers to accept that smoking was no longer accepted. The day after the ban went into effect, I saw a brawny baldy (think Mr. Clean but without the pearly whites) abandon his martini and plates of uneaten food in a puff (of smoke) when he was told he couldn’t smoke inside. At a Chinese restaurant, our pleas for fellow patrons to abstain from smoking fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, the boss juggled money and beer with a cigarette cinched between his lips.

Now more than three years since the ban went into effect, smoking inside restaurants is noticeably reduced. Every once in while, if someone does light up inside a restaurant, I am not shy about telling the rogue to go outside. There’s children here! And holy smokes, the offender is usually pleasantly compliant.

So...is the Great Smoking Dragon about ready to bid smoking zai jian? After all, even President Xi Jinping kicked the habit [2]. Ehhh, maybe, but certainly not for a long time. Smoking isn’t a exactly an habit easy to give up, and smoking culture is pervasive. The majority of China is yet unaffected by anti-smoking policies. Currently, only four cities in all of China enforce strict smoking bans. These cities are Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Xian [3]. While 2015 and 2016 saw decreases in tobacco sales for the first time since 2000, 2017 and 2018 saw increases over the previous years, likely the result of the tobacco industry’s push back against anti-smoking policies [4]. The Great Smoking Dragon won’t go down without a fight.

So as I close the kitchen door, a futile attempt to confine the smoke, I ponder what smells travel from us to our neighbors. Chocolate chip cookies baking. Banana and pumpkin breads laced with cinnamon. Italian garlic chicken. Indian butter chicken. Spicy pork carnitas. The smells we send up the pipes should make stomachs growl, not recoil in disgust. And certainly, the smells emanating from us do not increase risk of developing cancer. 

You can stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

Chinese Word of the Blog: 吸烟 Xīyān (literally, breathe smoke)
English translation: to smoke a cigarette






The smell of cookies...you are welcome, neighbors