This Here Giraffe 长颈鹿

And you hear yourself
And you hear yourself
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


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


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


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


We a Famly 姥爷和姥姥

It’s been a hot long summer
I miss you, it’s a bummer, yeah
We both travelin’
You’re somewhere south of Wichita
I’m up here somewhere under the moon
I can’t see you
- The Flaming Lips and Miley Cyrus

This past October, my parents traveled 5,892 miles from Sacramento, California to busy Beijing, China. They came not to see ancient China’s cultural treasures like the Great Wall or Forbidden City. Nor did they come to witness firsthand China’s rapid development like Beijing’s very impressive, efficient, and ever expanding subway network. Neither did they come to visit me, their second born daughter (that they love so much). They came for the same reason that Chinese grandparents drop everything and move into their kids’ house for a really long time. They came to see their one and only granddaughter, Dumpling.

Every minute they languished on that cramped overseas flight was worth every minute spent with Dumpling. Our little chatterbox greeted them every day with a very exuberant, “Pop-pop! Yaya!” She thrilled them with her new skills like hopping and putting on other people’s shoes. She pointed out colors as if Yaya and Pop-pop couldn’t distinguish green from red. She inherited Yaya’s love of french fries and Pop-pop’s love of weird Chinese food like preserved duck egg and bitter melon soup.

Unlike Chinese grandparents who are happy to camp out in the living room, my parents chose to forgo free accommodations and live it up at the nearby and very posh Holiday Inn. That’s right, the posh Holiday Inn. Beijing’s four-star international Holiday Inn boasts a palatial reception area, indoor lap pool, and a breakfast buffet to boot.

Nearly every morning, Dumpling and I joined Yaya and Pop-pop for stuff-your-face-until-you-can’t-move breakfast buffet. Pop-pop savored more than his fair share of jook (Cantonese for rice porridge) topped with salted duck egg and salt-preserved veggies. I opted for the house-made wonton soup and cross cut french fries. Yaya was all about the hash brown patty and watermelon. Dumpling’s hands down favorite was the yogurt. Seriously, Dumpling could win the toddler version of a yogurt eating contest.

In addition to the hotel buffet, China’s capital has plenty to offer to the culinary savant. After all, eating local fare is an important way to experience different cultures. From Peking roast duck to Xinjiang’s barbecued lamb to Cuandixia’s mountain village steamed fish, the parents got just a taste of China’s various cuisines. Our food tour ended at the newly opened and kid-friendly Boxing Cat Brewing for western food that I can’t prepare at home (like rotisserie chicken and beer). Thinking of that rotisserie chicken just makes my mouth water. Dumpling was so excited to see french fries, she cried “fench f-eye!” for the first time. Then she ate waaayyy more french fries than her fair share.

But Yaya and Pop-pop didn’t have to eat restaurant food everyday. They did get a couple home-cooked meals, one of which included my homemade pita bread. As I told Pop-pop, pita bread has yet to infiltrate local bakeries, so until that happens--I must make my own.

Fortunately, jet lagged grandparents and Dumpling’s sightseeing pace and sleeping schedule are the same. We took it easy, enjoying October’s mild temperatures and blue skies. We didn’t make it over to the Forbidden City, but we hit a couple hot spots like the Bird’s Nest at Olympic Park and 798 Art District. We took one day trip to Cuandixia, a folk tourist village about two and half hour’s drive away. We usually spent the afternoons in the hotel where both grandparents and Dumpling got an afternoon snooze and I snacked on the Yaya’s stash of Big Hunk, Look!, and Almond Joy candy bars.

This is what usually happened sometime between 1 and 4 pm

Pop-pop had done his research and had a few things on his while-in-Beijing bucket list. Unfortunately, eating scorpions in Wangfujing didn’t make the cut, but attending Peking opera did.

After eliciting my Chinese friend’s help and navigating a nearby opera house’s website, I successfully purchased three tickets for 200 RMB ($30) each. Dumpling and birdMAN stayed home and went to bed while my parents and I could have a night out on the town.

So what did I think of my first ever Peking opera? Costumes were gorgeous. How the singers get their voices to such exponential shrillness is a mind-boggling. But after two hours of “EEEEEEEE---eeee--AAAA---aaahhhhhhh!!!!”, my ears were bleeding from the inside. Honestly, eating scorpions is much more endurable and enjoyable than that screeching cacophony. Maybe Peking opera is like blue cheese or stinky tofu. You just have to develop a taste for it.

Peking Opera = Blue Cheese

Before we knew it, Yaya and Pop-pop’s eight days in Beijing came to an end. They packed up all their loot including a few hand painted ink drawings, postcards, salted dried fish, bamboo cutting boards and various snacks. The morning of their departure, we ate our last stuff-your-face-until-you-can’t-move breakfast buffet, Dumpling ate her final Holiday Inn yogurt, and Yaya took Dumpling for final dip in the pool. Dumpling and I said our final goodbyes. .

So nice that Yaya and Pop-pop came 5,892 miles to see us. And double nice that they left us a stash of Almond Joys as reminder of their visit. But the stash has now dwindled...so they better come back real soon.

As Dumpling says: “Wuv yoo! Yaya! Pop-pop! Buh-Bye!”

Chinese Words of the Blog: 姥爷和姥姥 Lǎoyé hé lǎolao
English Translation: Maternal grandpa and maternal grandma

Dumpling checks out the running ladies of Olympic Park
Houhai has all kinds of shopping
Our big excursion to Cuandixia
Dumpling would like another yogurt
Yaya's cake dreams come true
Salted dried fish found on Taobao
Hot pot is sooo good when it's not hot
Subway is a cheap way to get around
Yaya's happy place: the pool
More buffet please
We A Famly