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


Happy Accident 兵马俑

Tell me where it is 'cause I'm lookin' for that happiness
Come on tell me where it is
-Bright Eyes

Young Emperor Qin thought a lot about death and the afterlife. Surely, the afterlife is much like the current life: fraught with dangers from marauding armies, deceptive palace officials, and evil spirits.

Thus began one of the largest projects in China’s ancient history: the construction of the Terracotta Warriors (兵马俑). An estimated 8,000 warriors and horses forged from clay and fire would accompany the Emperor into the Great Beyond. Each warrior, unique in appearance, would protect the deceased Emperor not only from up-to-no-good demons, but perhaps also from other terracotta warriors inhabiting some other dead emperor’s tomb.

Fast forward some 2,000 years to the year 1974. A lot of China history has happened and been buried under eons of rocks and soil. One day, local farmers digging a well penetrated through those eons and accidentally unearthed one of China’s greatest archaeological finds. The government swept in, the archaeologists weighed in, and the local farmers never got their well. The Terracotta Warrior Army was eventually hailed “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

And that’s pretty much how my parents, Dumpling and me-- along with hordes of other tourists-- ended up in Xi’an.

Instead of kicking it in Beijing during my parents’ yearly visit, we decided to take a short trip somewhere, and that somewhere was Xi’an-- home of the famous Terracotta Warriors. Sadly, we left birdMAN behind to fend for himself for four days. That left me to play tour guide for my non-Chinese speaking parents. I am happy to say we got to our destination, we found our guesthouse, and despite a downpour and having a small child in tow, did quite a bit of sightseeing. No major setbacks or disasters (Whew! It’s China, after all, what could possibly go wrong?). As for Dumpling, even though her nap schedule was a mess, and keeping her sane involved a lot of bribing with goldfish crackers and Peppa Pig, she was a trooper!

The start was not so smooth sailing. After a somewhat stressful morning of catching a taxi, snailing through Beijing traffic, and scrambling around the train station trying to find the ticket pick-up counter, we boarded our Xi’an-bound fast train with a mere ten minutes to spare. As we congratulated ourselves on successfully boarding the train and recovered from the morning stress, we zipped 1,000 km in about five hours. That’s an average of 200 km/hour, or about 124 mi/hour. By comparison, driving a car from Beijing to Xi’an would take about 12 hours.

We stayed in a cozy guesthouse called Xi’an Simple Palace. Located near the south perimeter of the ancient city wall, it was a nice mix of old and new-- like IKEA set up house in a “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” movie set. And when I say cozy, I mean cozy. Narrow corridors connected the courtyards and the rooms. A narrow, spiral staircase led up to the rooftop terrace, which offered a view of the ancient wall and its nearby fortresses.

Breakfast at the palace
Charmed by Xi'an Simple Palace 

So anyway, back to the Terracotta Warriors. As aforementioned, the Terracotta Warriors is why we, along with a million tourists, visited Xi’an. One million tourists is not an exaggeration. Literally, one million tourists visit the museum each year [1]. Even though our visit came on the heels of the Golden Week holiday, the place was bustling like a Beijing subway stop at rush hour.

Because we wanted an efficient tour with minimum hassle, we booked a private guide and driver via Viator, as recommended on CNN.com [2]. The price was steep at $113 a person, but the odor-free van with working seatbelts, an affable, English speaking guide, and no pressure to buy touristy junk made this tour worth every penny.

The museum is made up of three buildings that were constructed over the archaeological pits. Pit 1 is the most impressive, housing row after row of battle-ready warriors. To get that view, however, you have to fish through a sea of heaving bodies and cellphones to the ledge overlooking the warriors. You have about three seconds to take a selfie before getting shoved aside. Miraculously, Dumpling didn’t get swept away in the tourist tide. The other pits are busy too, but the shoving is kept to a minimum. Dumpling was especially enthralled with the horses and the headless soldiers. 

So many people and it's not even the weekend
Quick! Take a selfie before getting smashed
After surviving the crowds and getting some one-on-one with the ancient warriors, Pop-Pop wondered if he could buy a souvenir. Yaya handed him a wad of cash and muttered something about having too much stuff in their house. The tour guide cheerfully accompanied him to the visitor center where high-quality warrior replicas could be purchased. Imagine Pop-Pop’s thrill upon seeing a local celebrity at the center. No, that celebrity was not Jackie Chan. It was one of the local farmers who accidently unearthed the warriors. The farmers enjoy celebrity status in Xi’an and can often be seen around signing books and taking pictures with tourists. So Pop-pop not only took home a warrior figurine and a signed copy of a book all about the Eighth Wonder of the World, he also got to take home the sweet memories of shaking hands with one of those famous farmers and getting a photo-op.

Farmer meet and greet
Besides the warriors, Xi’an has plenty of good eating. Culinary highlights included the best fried chicken ever at a restuarant I found on Dianping (China’s version of Yelp). I still dream about that fall-off-the-bone-fried-to-crispy-perfection chicken . We hit up Huimin Street (回民街) for some stinky tofu and barbecued squid kabob. And of course, good ole’ reliable Starbucks saved us from a torrential downpour while satisfying our caffeine needs.

Finger lickin' good. Just ignore the head.

In summary, Xi’an is a beautiful city seamlessly blending modern and ancient. The city center is encircled by the ancient city wall, a distance of 13.5 km which can be strolled or biked. Statues paying homage to Xi’an’s history dot the street corners and provide plenty of photo-ops. The people are exceedingly cheerful and drivers don’t seem as eager as Beijing drivers to run pedestrians over. Be warned, however, like many Chinese cities, Xi’an is not stroller or handicap friendly. Stairs are everywhere! It seemed for every half a kilometer of walking, we encountered a flight of stairs. Someone would grab Dumpling and someone would grab the stroller for a treacherous descent or ascent.

So thank you Emporer Qin and your clay army. We had a lovely visit to your tomb and your city. Dumpling will forever talk about the headless soldiers. I will never forget the fried chicken. Yaya will always treasure Dumpling and Peppa Pig time. And Pop pop will never forget the farmer meet and greet.

Also, many thanks to Yaya and Pop Pop! But next time, let's go somewhere with less stairs. Like Tahiti.

Chinese Word of the Blog: 兵马俑 Bīng mǎ yǒng (literally, soldier horse tomb figure)

Oh no, they've lost their heads
Peppa Pig time
No rain today!
Is that smell of sweaty feet? Nope, it's stinky tofu.
Really spicy sheep feet
BBQ squid on a stick~ street food staple