Float On 东西

Bad news comes, don't you worry even when it lands
Good news will work it way to all them plans
-Modest Mouse

Eight years ago, on August 13, 2012, we landed in Beijing, China. We had said, “We’ll give it a year, or at least until we can’t take it anymore.” After all, nearly every expat living in China has an expiration date. No matter how much the expat thrives on noodles or fluently speaks Chinese, there will eventually be a thing that will drive him/her back to his/her homeland. That thing may include family obligations, financial reasons, physical or mental health reasons, or perhaps, simply because it was time to go. 

Over the last eight years, several things could could have sent us packing. After the first year of teaching English for a serious wage reduction compared to our previous jobs, we could have said, “Well, apartment living was fun but let’s pull the plug on this China deal.” Thereafter, return to our former careers and once again settle into suburban comfort. Instead, we jazzed up our Beijing apartment with used furniture and our Beijing bikes with new chains and bike bells. In 2014, birdMAN’s father was diagnosed with cancer. While we spent more time at home that year, not even his illness and death prompted us to move back. Instead, we planted our feet a bit firmer on China’s soil. We saw life in China precious and fleeting, impelling us to spend more time with our students and local friends. Then in 2016, I got pregnant. Surely, everyone thought, a baby would bring us home. Nope. Instead, we envisioned our future chopsticks wielding baby singing “一闪一闪亮晶晶” (“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star") and eating weird snacks like dried squid. 

As we ignored all those things, unconsciously Beijing became “home” and California became that other place that we sometimes call “home”. 

But perhaps the thing finally came. You totally know what I am talking about. It is the thing that made words like quarantine, social distancing, and Zoom part of everyday language and donning a face mask in public as important as wearing underpants. It is the thing that makes you shudder when you watch a TV show with people hugging and having conversations without maintaining 6 feet of distance. It is the thing that you are all sick of but at the same time have grown accustomed to: the Pandemic.

Back in January when we were visiting California and news of the novel corona virus broke, we thought the whole thing would blow over fairly quickly and we would be back in Beijing in a few months. Well, eight months later, here we are, deep into August, and we are hesitant to say with any certainty about our prospects of returning to our Beijing home. If the pandemic drags on--which seems likely--and international relations continue to worsen, we may just be forced to throw in the towel and set up permanent residence in the Golden State.

While the pandemic has thrown a wrench into our plans, there is a BIG upside. Dumpling is getting a lot of Moomoo and cousin love, and having two extra adults around means I can often leave Dumpling behind for a solo runs. Quarantine has done wonders for my exercise regime. I ran 67 miles in July! There's also the washer and dryer and Netflix. Oh, and family that has swimming pools and Papa Murphy's take-n-bake pizza.  While we wait to figure out what the future holds, those things make life pretty good.

Chinese Word of the Blog: 东西 (Dōngxī, literally east, west)
English translation: thing

This is a good place to social distance

Sometimes we leave the house

I definitely wouldn't see this in Beijing

Zoom service: how we socialize

Dumpling makes dumplings
Bringing some Beijing to California



On the Road to Find Out 在外国生活

Well I left my happy home to see what I could find out
I left my folk and friends with the aim to clear my mind out
Well, I hit the rowdy road and many kinds I met there
Many stories told me of the way to get there
-Cat Stevens

I may have given my readers the wrong impression about how I felt about living in South Korea. True, the first couple weeks in South Korea were a bit jarring. Not being able to speak or read the local language, living in a dimly lit and dinky apartment, the weather being really cold, coupled with travel and social restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 made life slow and sometimes boring. Even so, life in South Korea was pretty good and improving as the weather warmed up. If living in South Korea had been a long-term commitment and the pandemic hadn’t put all my friends and potential friends into lockdown, living there would have been pretty sweet.

Here are some great things about South Korean life:
  • Internet and WiFi:
Restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, malls, outdoor recreation areas and playgrounds,and literally every place had super fast and free WiFi. One playground even had a solar-powered bench with wireless and non-wireless cell phone charging stations. The one exception to our Korean WiFi heaven-- infuriatingly-- was the WiFi in our apartment. Why our devices couldn't get on the WiFi or randomly got kicked off the WiFi remains a mystery.

Wireless charging at the playground plus WiFi

  •  The Food:
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Korean food! In fact, when we had decided to leave, I panicked a little that I hadn't sampled every sort of delectable Korean deliciousness. From temperature to spice and flavor, Korean cuisine turns up the notch to full amplification. Hot food is HOT. Cold food is COLD. Spicy food is SPICY. Plain food is PLAIN. Soups and bibimbap (mixed rice) are served sizzling in a scalding hot stone pot. Cold noodles should be called ice noodles because the broth is literally shaved broth ice flakes. Even a simple poached chicken soup satisfies with just a few scallions swimming in the broth. And don't even get me started on the millions of banchan (side dishes) that come with Korean barbecue. Four more sides of kongnamul muchim (spicy bean sprouts) puh-lease.

Of course, nothing can be eaten without kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage or vegetables). Kimchi is an absolute staple in Korean cuisine-- probably more important than rice. Whether having traditional Korean grub, pizza, or beer, invariably pickles or kimchi will be served as a side dish- which was fine by us. Even Dumpling developed a fondness for sweet pickles.

Did I mention how much I love Korean food? In case you didn't get it, I LOVE KOREAN FOOD!

Cold noodles to the nth power
Little dried fish in spicy sweet goop - So yum!
  • Coffee 
The vast selection of cold brew coffee, lattes, caffe americanos, and mochas in the refrigerated section of any 7-Eleven and grocery store shows how much Koreans love coffee. A coffee shop-- or two, or three-- literally stood at every street corner. In these quiet refuges Dumpling colored in her first coloring books, smooshed her first play dough, and completed her first puzzle all by herself.

The following are a few of my favorite SK coffee shops:
    • A Twosome Place: This coffee shop was literally a five minute walk from the large closet we called home, so we spent many mornings and afternoons enjoying the sunshine gleaming through the floor to ceiling windows. The close proximity to home, chill music set at an appropriate volume, a nice strong Americano, and a decent 6,000 Won (5 USD) breakfast deal for a coffee and a sandwich lured us back again and again.
Me + Dumpling =  A twosome chillin' at a Twosome Place
    • Coffeesmith: Dessert waffles (~12,000W) for Dumpling and a pricy caffe americano (~4,300 W) burned a little hole in my pocket, but Coffesmith made my coffee heart sing. Not only were the bathrooms fragrant with floral hand soap and clean as a whistle, the WiFi ridiculously fast, and the ambiance soothing as a ritzy spa, but the staff unfailingly threw in a free hot chocolate (made with real milk) for Dumpling on every visit.
Waffle heaven at Coffeesmith plus hot cocoa
    • Starbucks: If you are a coffee aficionado living abroad, Starbucks is a comforting sanctuary in a land of the unfamiliar. Just like Any Starbucks in Any City, Any Country, Starbucks brews up a reliably strong cup of black coffee. 'Nuff said.

  • Eating out
My American friends were surprised at my Instagram posts showing us eating at restaurants and playing at the park. You can go out to eat? Our part of South Korea never went full throttle into lockdown, which meant we freely ate out at restaurants. South Korea has been highly praised for early and aggressive intervention to limit virus spread [1]. Restaurants, parks, and the like, all remained open for business. The only visible sign of a pandemic was that everyone wore masks and the unmasked faced stern scolding from strangers.
Pandemic? What pandemic? Let's go out to eat!
  •  Cleanliness
I can’t help but draw comparisons between China and Korea. Renting an apartment is one stark example of the differences between the two neighboring countries. You can pretty much assume that when you move into a new place in China, you will spend anywhere from a month to year scrubbing caked dust off the floors, accumulated oil droplets from the stove vent, or waiting for that cigarette smell to slowly dissipate. I still have nightmares about the state of the toilet when we first moved into our last Beijing apartment.

In contrast, our SK apartment rental was squeaky clean and faintly smelled of bleach. No pre-cleaning required, no accumulated mold behind the toilet, and no dust balls anywhere. In fact, our rental contract stipulated that renters must prevent mold from growing. The apartment manager repeatedly reminded us not to wear shoes inside, even demonstrating shoe removal and placing them in the shoe closet before entering.

Public bathrooms-- from hole-in-the-wall fried chicken joints to the airport-- sailed high above and beyond sanitary expectations. To reduce virus spread, hand sanitizer was as available as ice (Koreans love ice!). Bottles of hand sanitizer affixed above push-to-walk buttons on traffic light poles eased a pedestrian's virus fears. Coffee shops laid out a variety of hand sanitizers, sprays, and wipes like a buffet. Meanwhile, US supermarkets suffered from a shortage of sanitizer (and toilet paper, diapers, flour).

Forgot your hand sanitizer? No worries! South Korea has your back.
You could eat off this floor
  • Seoul
Seoul gets a special mention as one of the coolest cities I have ever visited. We only spent a few weekends exploring its plethora of restaurants, neatly laid out pedestrian friendly alleys, family friendly parks and gardens, and the murals that donned the sides of multi-story buildings. Seoul was where we ate legit Italian thin-crust pizza (served with spicy pickles), tandoori chicken, and found a grocery store stocked with sharp cheddar cheese and lentils.

Seoul stole my heart. She is an elegant lady who I would love to get to know better.

So that’s that in a nutshell. Hopefully, someday in the not-too-distant future we can visit South Korea again and do the things we didn’t get to do. For instance, visit our good friends G&C who went into strict lockdown not long after we arrived. They live in the Korean BIG HOUSE and we want to meet all their amazing family. Aaaaannnd....I wouldn’t mind getting a few bowls of cold noodles.

Chinese Idiom of the Blog: 在外国生活 (Zài wàiguó shēnghuó)
English Translation: to live abroad

Beer + Pizza + Pickles = Happy Tummy
Domino's pizza never forgets the pickles
Can you tell that this is the entire cast of Frozen?
Trippy art in Seoul
Dumpling takes art seriously
Sometimes A Twosome Place is A Nap Place


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