The Twinkie Times

The life and times of a Chinese American. Born a Jersey boy, lived the expat life, attended boarding school (Lawrenceville), converted to a frat boy (Sigma Pi), got an MBA (Columbia), returned to China, and back to the East Coast now trying to carve out an identity and life as an Asian American dad (gulp) in the midst of a "tertial life crisis" ©

Monday, January 23, 2012

Enter the Dragon

As we prepare to enter the festival season in China with another week of public holiday, let me wish everyone a belated Happy (Western) New Year and an early congratulations to Craig, Vicky, Russ, and Dhanesh for their auspicious Dragon babies on the way.  We ended  2011 on a high note beginning with Thanksgiving weekend.  Although I was quite sad to have missed the gripping Dolphins/Cowboys game, seeing 50+ giant pandas in their natural habitat more than made up for it.  It was a whirlwind 3-day trip to Chengdu but well worth it.  Buying the plane tickets on the Chinese equivalent of Expedia was straight-forward albeit still strange to pay C.O.D. (delivered same-day) and I was also surprised because I have not seen a paper airline ticket for about 10 years.  Like Norm, I am fully converted, and we chose the top rated hotel on  Buddha Zen and we were not disappointed.  It was only about $60 USD a night including a hot breakfast buffet and was built in a huge converted ancient monastery.  It was very charming and in a great location.  Pictures are here.

The giant pandas were amazing and they were everywhere.  Unfortunately, the timing was not optimal because the panda cubs were too young to allow us to hold them since they were very susceptible to germs so Jenn had to settle with sitting next to a 2-year old who was as tall as she was sitting up and his paws + claws were already as big as my head.  Watching the bears munching on bamboo, playing with each other, and climbing trees was unforgettable but after 8 hours in the park, we were hungry and bamboo was not going to cut it.  I think the hunger was making Jenn a little loopy too because she was seriously scheming up ways to distract the guard, grab a baby panda, and sneak him out in our backpack.

Chengdu is a very fun city and has a completely different vibe from Shanghai.  The pace is much slower and for the most part the cab drivers even obey traffic regulations.  It is noticeably quieter at night with less horn honking and most shops and food stalls are all closed by 9 pm.  In contrast, in Shanghai I can still get my haircut after 10:30 pm at my local barber shop, browse the latest releases of street DVDs, and then pick up some bananas at the local fruit stand on the way home.

That night, we did get a little nostalgic since it was Thanksgiving so I called the Chengdu Sheraton and asked them if they had a special buffet dinner serving turkey.  Not only did they satisfy our tryptophan fix but they also gave every patron a small pumpkin pie as a gift to take home.  With our bellies bursting we returned to our monastery/hotel to dream about pandas and prepare for a busy second day.

On our ride back from the Panda Breeding center we had met a nice local driver and hired him to take us sightseeing the following day.  He convinced us to visit Mt. Emei (3 hours away) and we were grateful that he did.  We had no idea what to expect when he dropped us off at the base of the mountain; it was rainy and cold, so much so that they even rented parkas to visitors.  After about an hour and a half of hiking up this mountain in the rain, we were both frigid and wet and considered turning back since we could not see anything except mist and fog.  Luckily Jenn made the call to buy the tickets and ride the cable car to take us to the next level because halfway through, we broke through the clouds and it was a breathtaking sight to see the azure blue sky punctuated with monolithic golden temples on the summit of this mountain (10,103 feet high).  With the sun beating down on us, we soon dried off, warmed up and enjoyed exploring the monasteries that were built as far back as 300 AD.

Once we returned to Chengdu our driver dropped us off at Kuanzhai Lane and suggested that we go for a stroll as it was a popular place for tourists to grab a bite, have a drink, or relax in a tea house.  Again, he did not steer us wrong.  It was another charming site, a renovated Qing Dynasty alley revamped for the 21st century complete with a vintage style Starbucks.  However, unlike similar ventures in Shanghai, this one was different, more laid back and less ostensibly touristy.  We took a break in a cute tea garden, enjoyed a spicy Sichuan (formerly spelled Szechuan) hot pot, and then relaxed in a German beer house (complete with lederhosen-clad staff that would have made Jupiter proud) as we watched Stephon Marbury and his Beijing Ducks continue their undefeated season.

Before long, we found ourselves boarding our flight back to Shanghai and although Jenn was already thinking about a return trip coinciding with the 6 month anniversary birth of baby pandas so she could hold them, we actually had missed Shanghai a little.  We had come to embrace our new city now and Jenn was plugged into a regular Ladies Night with our new French friends.  They had weekly excursions to super cool, hip-sounding places like Dr. Wine, El Cocktail, and Bar Rouge.  She also found a part-time job at LearnFirst where she enjoyed teaching English to local professionals and Taiwanese expats.  I was gelling like Magellan with my team in the office and although we don't have pub lunch Fridays, we do have badminton club Tuesdays.  My Chinese has been steadily improving as well and I'm even able to crack some jokes like "it's not the badminton racket, it's the player" (translated) when talking smack.  (wei ruan) or Microsoft, (shu ju ku) or database, and (ce shi) or testing are also firmly in my vocabulary now.

For Christmas, we had decided to surprise my mom who was visiting my sister in Switzerland.  The look on her face was priceless as we walked through the door to greet them and we all enjoyed a wonderful week together.  The snow in the mountains was up to my waist which made for great fresh powder snowboarding and playing with my 2 year old nephew made the 12 hour flight well worth it.  He was talking away and could even operate the iPad himself to find YouTube videos to watch.  I think it won't be long before I have to ask him how to use Twitter.  We also had an international rendezvous with TK who happened to be on a short-term assignment in Zurich.  It was fantastic to see him and catch up over Swiss burgers and then home-made brownies sent from NJ in his ultra-chic, modern 3-story bachelor pad complete with roof deck accessible via a fancy retractable skylight.  Our Swiss-mas pictures are here.

So, Chinese New Year here is like Thanksgiving x Christmas + 4th of July.  There will be tons of food, lots of gifts, plenty of red envelopes, and non-stop fireworks.  Tens of millions of migrant workers take this opportunity to go home and on the news, as far back as 2 weeks ago, we had already started seeing footage of human parking lots at the train/bus stations 'queuing' to buy tickets (for reference check out Last Train Home - a good movie recommendation from Jane).  We decided to stay local to see what happens and my coworkers already warned me not to expect any sleep because people all over the city will be shooting off fireworks until 3 or 4 am.  I am excited and plan to partake by shooting some bottle rockets off of our balcony.

As we welcome in the Year of the Dragon, I would like to dedicate this post to another majestic and legendary figure: Joe (former head of my department).  Mentor, manager, leader, visionary, and friend: words can hardly express all that you have done for our group and the impact you have had on those around you.  Thanks for everything, you will be sorely missed at work.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Year of the 龙

In Chinese, dragon is pronounced 'long' (long o - no pun intended) and there has been some recent controversy here about the new Dragon Stamp which was unveiled prompting some silly considerations of rebranding the whole Lunar year as Long instead of Dragon to avoid the association with the fire-breathing monster known in the West: Washington Post Article.

But as we prepare here for another whole week of public holiday, we kicked off the year with some great news.  I accompanied Jenn to ProMed for her 1-year MRI and it was totally clean.  An auspicious beginning!  Cheers to that!!

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