Thursday, March 27, 2008

Xi'an trip: Monuments, Muslims, and Museums

Xi'an boasts an attractive travel scene in many ways beyond the Terracotta Warriors, the city's main attraction. Despite our short stay, we utilized our time eating savory Xinjiang food and searching out the rich history embedded within, and without, the ancient city walls.

The Bell Tower

The area between the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower contains an exciting plaza where people of all walks of life and ages gather together to fly Chinese kites in the colored lights, or just chat with their friends.

Behind the Drum Tower holds a special Xi'an delight:

If you ever go to Xi'an, the Muslim quarter walking street (aka 'the Muslim Market') is an absolute must see. It is well known for its delicious snacks dripping in a hodgepodge of mystery sauces and seasonings. This combination of flavors is pure magic to me. Though my beloved Cajun seasoning makes my mouth tingle in utter satisfaction, the flavors found in these Uygur snacks make my taste buds jump around quicker than MC Hammer's piston-like legs, bouncing rapidly on stage at the Kingdome. This delicate balance of seasonings is truly a masterpiece that deserves more recognition (which was particularly delectable on the Xinjiang Nan bread and lamb kabobs). It was so good, in fact, that we rushed over to buy more yummies on our way to the train station to go home the next day.

Xi'an holds an amazing museum for anyone interested in Chinese history. Because Shaanxi province was the heart of Ancient China, they keep digging into unbelievable artifacts and stuffing them in this classy museum. This museum highlights several dynasties, and displays everything from 3000-year-old bronze ceremonial pots to 500-year-old Ming vases that European countries tried so hard to mimic. (In 2006, a Ming vase sold for $10 million USD!!!)

Xi'an was also the edge of the Silk Road, which connected China with Europe (and brought great cultural and technological exchange), the museum even displayed anciently imported goods, like unearthed Roman Empire coins and such! It is fascinating to think about the mixing of the world's 'greatest' cultures. The grotto below, also displayed at the museum, shows the early influence of South Asian Buddhism via the Silk Road.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is within walking distance of the Shaanxi Museum, and like most places in Xi'an it's full of people (doesn't anybody work during the day?). We spent a long time here, not out of choice, but because we had nowhere else to go for a few hours, and we were tired of walking around aimlessly with all our stuff. I hear they have a killer water show at night- that would have been cool. What we loved about this place is that every other store was a small photography shop where people dress in ancient Chinese clothing and walk into the park for a memorable photo-op; we saw countless old Chinese men get a little too carried away in-costume, which is always good for a laugh. Hey man, you're not really the emperor.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Xi'an trip: Challenges

I've decided to respond to our friend mmm.chocolate's comment about our Xi'an trip in a new post because 1) it leads well into my next Xi'an topic and 2) we can't leave 'comments' due to restrictive government measures. She said:

Brian and I considered a trip to Xi'an on the train before we came home. But, then, we bagged the whole idea because we were planning to take all three kids with us and we were just too nervous about the possibilities of a bad hotel and not knowing what to expect from the train, etc. How was your experience in those regards? Do you think you could have done it with Ellie? Or, maybe I should ask, do you think you would have wanted to do it with more kids? I've always wondered if we should have just gone for it. Seems like an awesome trip.

China is Mafan
I don't remember if I have defined 麻烦(mafan) for you before (though you've read plentiful examples, like the hospital system), but this word pretty much sums up the trip (and often, the China experience as a whole). Mafan means troublesome. It means jumping through ridiculously tiresome hoops to do something relatively simple. It means drenching your patience from a consuming swim in Lake Arbitrary, with nobody capable of an explanation or even a towel to sop up the mess. Mafan brings uncertainty, confusion, and unmerciful time-wasting (but a lot of soul-searching to kill the time).

Item #1: Trains and travel
Let me add to the list of Chinese railway inefficiencies that I have mentioned in prior posts. Here in China, for some reason, you cannot buy round-trip train tickets; you can only buy tickets to a destination from the city of departure. That also means if your city does not offer direct train access to your destination, you need to blindly buy a ticket to a third city [maybe Beijing or Shanghai] in order to make way to your final destination. Once you arrive, you will buy the next available ticket to your choice destination, hopefully sometime during the same day. Also, this makes confirming travel plans extra nerve-racking. Making short trips anywhere becomes extremely risky; what's the point? Mafan.

You also can't buy tickets more than one week in advance, except at certain travel agencies that extend the time frame to 10 days. This makes planning logistics a bit more complicated. If Transportation Bureau only extended the one week in advance rule and connected the computer system with other cities, it wouldn't be nearly as awful as it is now.

The unreasonable process doesn't seem to bother the average Chinese, though, at least the two people I recently talked with in the Tianjin train station; they've accepted the fact that nothing will change, so why burst your britches over it? (I think they sit complacent because they don't understand that things can be different... just like that whole 'eedomfray' of speech thing that Big Brother restricts so well[encrypted pig latin]).

Well, to complicate our journey, we wanted to leave from Beijing because we would be there that weekend anyways and didn't want to backtrack (plus the Beijing trains to Xi'an are up to 10 hours faster). So as soon as we arrived to Beijing on Saturday, we ran to the ticket office to buy our continuing ticket to Xi'an on Sunday. The only tickets available the day before were in the expensive first class train that reaches Lhasa some 40-odd hours later (remember, we were forced to buy our tickets in Beijing, so the selection was reduced). We dished out the cash, determined to ride economy on the way home, but only after the ticket lady confirmed that Tiff and I were in the same compartment (which we later 'de-confirmed' when we got to the train and saw that we were separated).

First class is fun!

[Disclaimer: While Xi'an held many similarities with other cities that we had seen, we have never witnessed consistent crowds--at all times of the day--as nasty as Xi'an's, which was exceptionally mind-boggling to us. Xi'an is tiny in land size compared to other 'big' Chinese cities, but has a large population stuffed in there. So, our experience is not necessarily typical to China in that aspect...]

Xi'an: buying tickets home to Tianjin
We arrived Monday morning in Xi'an in good spirits, excited for our cultural excursion, but it didn't take long for the mafan to kick into action, which pummeled our spirits like whole grain being crushed on a mill. At the railway station, the unreasonable crowd jammed into the large ticketing office and spilled outside making it difficult to maneuver with our luggage and baby Erik on my back. It seemed like we waited for an eternity as we listened to the police yell at anybody out of queue. It was here where we got our first hint that we wouldn't have done well if Ellie had been along; she would have been absolutely restless, adding a whole new level of stress to our experience.

After the extended wait, we made our way to the ticket office and learned that there were no tickets available to Tianjin on Tuesday!!! (Blast that cursed no roundtrip ticket system!!!) I began to freak out; I had to leave on the Tuesday night train to get back for work by Thursday morning. There was only one available train to Beijing, and it was the ultra-first class, which cost more than it would to fly home. With intensifying pressure surrounding us to make a quick decision, we opted out of this mess to search for a cheaper flight home.

Erik's backpack; strollers are impossible in Xi'an's crowds.

Cheaper flight home???
I realize I'm already being long-winded, so I'll try to stay on the point= mafan. We spent all afternoon and into the evening trying to buy a flight home which was comparably as mafan as the train station. It turned out being a little more expensive than the ultra-first class train tickets, but at least we would make it home, right, and in a matter of hours! We were missing our sweet Ellie (we obviously had forgotten what a terror she can be at her age) and wanted nothing more than to be with her. In order to buy the tickets, we had to fax stuff here and there and make copies of stupid other stuff... our multiple credit cards or grips of cash were not enough (they of course needed to confirm that we didn't illegally enter the country-since that's easy to do, right?). Well, it was late in the evening, so all the [less-than-24-hour] generic Kinkos that line the road were closed for the day. We were forced to give it up and hit the city for some fun (which we enjoyed). In the morning, the flights were already taken.

Cheer up, lil' camper.

Item #2: Xi'an transportation
Xi'an is so densely populated that it's hard to get anywhere, by bus or taxi. To find an empty taxi requires almost as much time to run a half-marathon, so why not walk? The other choice of transportation, the buses, seemed even more humorous to me. Crowds of people, sometimes 5 people deep or more, stretched down the block at almost every stop. The amusing part of the situation was that people willingly put their life in jeopardy whenever their bus came, by jumping out into the road and running the 100-meter-dash along the side of the bus, just get on. The competition was fierce, but it was always the strongest people who conquered the crowds (utilizing the Heisman pose), leaving the elderly and the wounded stiff-armed at the curb. Though these athletes seemed to make it on board unharmed, the bus undoubtedly soiled their slacks as it skillfully slid past the pushy mob that brushed up against the machine (I really am surprised that we didn't see any injuries).

-The only bus stop picture we got was this- it doesn't capture the magic but maybe it helps you visualize it a little better??? The actual 'bus stop' is where the four white signs are located on the right, behind the trees. The crowd continues on the other side of the signs, too.

Going home
After calling friends in Tianjin for advice, we learned that we could buy "standby" tickets, and hopefully take the place of people who didn't show up. The only problem is that, if there weren't any beds available, we would have to stand for 11 hours straight back to Beijing. YIKES!!! Being desensitized to any mafan at this point, we somehow agreed that this plan was a brilliant one indeed.

As an answer to our prayers, we chanced upon small ticket agency Tuesday afternoon to buy our standby tickets. Just to humor myself, I inquired about sleeper tickets that evening. The ticket lady quickly responded "No," but checked the computer anyways. To her surprise (and ours) she found two tickets on the same first class train we rode two nights earlier, as it returned to Beijing from Lhasa. Tiff and I looked at each other tickled with glee, ran and got enough cash from the machine down the road, and bought them just as she closed shop (she denied service to the people standing in line behind us as she hastily closing the ticket window as she ran off)! We said another prayer of thanks that we didn't have to stand for 11 hours on the train that night with a fat, but adorable, sleeping baby on our backs.

Xi'an Station: Woody's Round-up
Though I've long lost the count of all the times I felt like cattle here, the similarities to livestock were particularly frightening at the Xi'an Railway Station in the evening. The masses were funneled into two big gated area which gradually pushed you into single file on either side of the entrance. We couldn't actually see the entrance because the farm-like flood lights ahead blinded us into submission, and somehow made us forget how far away we were from our train. We were so tightly corralled that we were body to body with the strangers around us; if you were to fall, you would not be able to get up. Again, we were glad Ellie was not with us; this time for safety reasons.

After some time of not moving and wondering if we would make the train at all, an officer began yelling at us, wanting to see our tickets. Fearing that this could potentially mean more mafan, we quietly handed them over. He called us out of the herd and told us to walk to the front of the line! For a few moments, we had free grazing rights in our own emptied pasture before we made it to the barn. We still don't know why he did this: it could have been because we had a child, or a first-class ticket, or just because we were foreigners with a train leaving in a few minutes (they are trying to set a good impression to the world). Regardless of the reasons, it was somewhat bittersweet; we did feel somewhat guilty from receiving special treatment--I'm sure there were many others who had a train leaving soon but were forced to wait the cattle-shoot through the end.

Inside the small station, the crowd control wasn't much better than on the outside-but at least you could actually see evidences that you weren't roaming free on the range, but at a train station! People pushed their way through the standing-room-only masses to in hopes to catch their train. To add to the worries, we couldn't find our train number on any of the platform signs, even though we were leaving in a few minutes. The station workers were unhelpful to us because they were too occupied hypnotizing the crowds with their piercing bullhorns. We eventually figured out that there was a special enclosed platform for first class trains, filled with leather sofas and soothing music. Upon entrance, we felt guilty again, but were mostly grateful that we would make it home.

-This picture does no justice either--look down the hall and you will see how many people they can jam in there. If the camera could capture 360 degrees, you would see that every platform and surrounding areas were this packed...

...except for the first class platform.

Beijing West Station- the biggest in Beijing

Beijing West Station to Beijing Station
After arriving at the Beijing West Station, we rushed across town to the regular Beijing Railway Station to buy our tickets to return to Tianjin. Because the subways were full of people going to the center of the city during the morning work rush, there was no room for two foreigners with their luggage and infant- or even a small Chinese. Inside, it was so packed that when the subway doors opened, the riders against the door exhaled in relief for 15 seconds before they sucked in their stomachs as the door slid closed again. Because five or more subways passed with nobody getting off or on, I saw one friend help another by ramming him with a linebacker-esque shoulder push before the doors closed. WOW! Fearing rush hour injury, we rode the tracks the opposite direction [farther outside the city] to beat the crowds. (It took about 20 minutes in the other direction before we could beat the crowds toward the center of the city.) Eventually, made heard the refreshing words "Arriving at Beijing Station" being announced from the automated announcement, and we got off.

Tickets to Tianjin
We ran to the special Tianjin ticket booth inside the station where we quickly snagged tickets for the next available train: in 5 minutes!!!

We ran. Didi smiled as he bounced on my back.

We barely made it on the train when I noticed our ticket seat number was "无坐," which means "no seat". I thought, well, standing for one hour is much better than 11. Luckily, a nice lady led us to take a seat in the dining car where we traveled quite comfortably, sharing a table with two strange men who kept staring at my kid.

Though this entry highlights the negatives of the trip, we really did have a wonderful time--one that we will never forget. Lessons learned in my Ancient Chinese History class at BYU began to make a deep impression in my mind as I pondered the greatness of China's rich past, and marveled at artifacts as evidence of that greatness. I also learned a lot about modern Chinese culture and society, both negative and positive aspects. I learned a lot about myself, which was probably the most valuable point of the trip. Challenges bring growth, eh?

Would I do it again, mmm.chocolate? No way.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Xi'an trip: Terracotta Warriors

In one last huzzah before returning to work, Tiffany and I ventured 12 hours to historical Xi'an, the ancient capitol of China for 6 major dynasties. The trip was only possible because our dear friends Chris and Emily wanted to watch Ellie for a few days, bless them, so we could travel more easily and comfortably. After arriving via first class train, we were first greeted by this guy:

Was he saying the Terracotta Warrior story was fabricated? Was he making defiant accusations about the current political system? Was he sharing his opinion about the rumors of a New Kids on the Block reunion tour? Sorry bud, the tour is confirmed.

Tiffany and I later determined that he was probably offering a practical solution to the natural disadvantages we white-skinned tourists suffer from. "When in Rome...," right? We mentally declined to stoop down to that level because it would only justify their deceitful actions, perpetuating the problem. It was at our first destination that we were reminded of the nature of tourist-trap Chinese businesses, in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near the Terracotta Warriors--

Me: Do you have any napkins? (noticing a stack of them next to the cash register)
Waitress: Oh... yeah... Let me get some for you. [she proceeds to hand over a package of nice unopened wet wipes.]
Me: Oh... Are you going to charge me for these?
Waitress: Umm... yes.
Me: Hmm... Can I just use some of these napkins right here? (pointing to the stack next to her)
Waitress: No.
Me: Why not?
(...awkward silence...)
Waitress: Okay. You can use those ones.
Me: Okay.

After the napkin incident, I began to feel anxious about our bill; but no worries, it was a small breakfast in a frigidly dark restaurant:

Me: Check please!
Waitress: (she writes down the breakdown of our mediocre meal and hands me the receipt)
Me: This costs too much.
Waitress: No it doesn't.
Me: I have never paid this much for these dishes before.
(...another awkward silence...)
Waitress: Wait a minute...
Waitress #2: What seems to be the problem?
Me: I want to see your menu.
Waitress #2: (enthusiastically justifies the exorbitant prices in a "foreigners menu" that we had never seen)
Me: I want to see the Chinese menu.
(...extended awkward silence...)
Waitress #2: Okay. (She subtracted 30 RMB from each dish! To put it in context, our total bill eating such meals at such restaurants is usually around 30 RMB.)
Me: [grudgingly hand over my hard-earned cash]
Waitress #1 and #2: Thanks for coming! Come back again! (making playful faces at Didi) He is so cute!!!

Had they seen the guy at the railway station before us, or was it their own deceitful plan? Regardless of the scam's dubious origins, we got sucked into their trap. We entered the restaurant as mere tourists and left as true American heroes, wielding the sword of "sticking it to the man."

After breakfast, we marched ourselves into Qin Shihuang's Terracotta warrior site. This is one of the most famous archaeological finds in the last century, and for good reason. His massive unearthed army carefully guards his unopened tomb and was virtually unknown until several farmers dug into them in 1974. Since then, the site has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The warriors themselves are life size and completely individualized--no two are alike. It makes you wonder who they were modeled after: were they actual soldiers in his army? Or did the workers design them after themselves?

Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty and is responsible for unifying China in 221BCE. (Many scholars believe the word for "China" in English and other foreign languages derives from his name, too.) If you have seen the Zhang Yimou film Hero, Qin Shihuang is the stoic emperor in this international blockbuster. Though I've heard Zhang Yimou makes some costuming blunders and other historical errors, the film portrays a sense of the enormity and encompassing power of his army.

His officer's "head"quarters

The emperor's actual tomb has not been excavated yet, if it ever will be; I guess there is some controversy about it (though it's a no-brainer to me). Supposedly, the government is waiting until excavation technology is improved, in order to better preserve the artifacts. According to the Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian (who detailed the tomb in his writings), there are crossbows cocked and ready to shoot anyone who enters. Inside the tomb there are jewels, gold, pearls embedded on the ceiling to copy the stars, and other valuable artifacts strewn about. One of the biggest excavation feats to overcome is the high levels of mercury in the soil--he had silver rivers flowing within the tomb itself, mentioned by Sima Qian and that modern remote sensing technology confirms. In my tomb, I want thick rivers of moist avocado paste--to keep my skin fresh.
-What will your rivers be made of?

The Evolution of Crawl

I try to give little heed to infant development charts telling me exactly when my children "should be able to" walk, speak in full sentences, be potty-trained, have a full head of hair, etc. As long as the doctor and my better judgment tell me they're healthy and happy, I don't want to get caught up in that game that consumes the greater part of new-mother small talk:

"Hi. Oh your baby's so cute. How old?"

"Eight months. Yours?"

"Oh my gosh! Eight and a half months! Is yours sleeping through the night yet? Eating solid foods? Holding a spoon? Does she cry with a babysitter? Can she say "Mama" and "Dada" yet? Does she walk? Does she talk? Does she recite poetry and play the violin and skip a grade in math every year?"

That's the gist of it, at least. Honestly, small talk doesn't bother me, but perhaps I've been immersed in an exceedingly competitive society for a little too long... it's hard not to compare my kids with other kids, especially when everyone around me is doing it for me anyway. I guess I've just seen a glimpse of how the constant comparisons and pressure to excel burden children to the extent that by young adulthood, feelings of self-esteem are fleeting, at best. I've spoken with a college professor here who claims that, according to her students, she was the very first person who'd ever told them they are special, unique, and valuable. I suppose that's one of the disadvantages of being one in 1.4 billion. It is mighty difficult to stand out and, well, it's downright discouraged in this society anyhow. Plus, with hundreds willing to replace you should you fall out of line, the possibility of making a unique contribution to your community and world seems quite grim.

This is one of the many reasons that when real freedom of religion is introduced to the country, it will take like wildfire to the masses. The knowledge that we are unique, capable, talented, and loved by a Father in Heaven, and that we each have a mission on earth only we can fulfill-- wow! What a liberating, comforting, inspiring message. I'm as different as can be in this society, being a foreigner who stays at home instead of working and has two kids instead of one, but I still have days on which I wonder if I'm doing anything special or worthwhile, or if I'm qualified to do worthwhile things. Yes, I believe we all need that reassurance that we didn't end up on this planet on accident. Our lives and circumstances are not mere coincidences. There is a tremendous and rewarding goal to be worked toward, and our efforts and contributions as we work toward it, even through the drudgery of daily tasks and routines, are each unique and important. Sheri Dew wrote a book addressing this idea entitled, "No one can take your place." I haven't read it, but I think I should.

Holy tangent. Yes, we are each unique and wonderful and needed, even the babies who aren't crawling by seven months, like my son. Since I already downloaded the pics, I will still address the original topic of this post. Actually, I was a little concerned that he'd just give up on the whole crawling ordeal and go straight to walking in a few months. If you've ever had to rally small muscles and fat limbs wearing slippery clothes on slippery floors, you understand what a trial it's been for Erik to transport himself around our 100% carpet-less apartment.

First he mastered a slithering, waddle-like army crawl, pulling hips up to adjacent shoulders one-at-a-time. Next came the inch worm belly-glide, during which he'd smack his hands down as far forward as possible and shimmy on up, rumpus in the air, culminating with a full-out face-plant. Then repeat. At least these methods motivated me to keep the floors extra clean.

After a couple months of mastering these techniques, he actually could crawl on hands and knees a little (thanks to G & G Larsen's coaching!), but it was wildly inefficient in comparison so rarely attempted. I am pleased to report that over the past week or so, Erik officially crawls, and even while wearing pants! His Buddha belly slides across the ground as he shuffles along, but it still counts. I can't tell you how many people have told me that the longer a baby crawls, the better they'll be in math and reading. No one can tell me why, but yay, Didi has begun that journey! We are so proud.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tianjin menagerie

Near the end of February, Ellie's not-so-gentle prodding finally softened us to tackle a trip to the Tianjin Zoo. I didn't even know Tianjin had a zoo, but according to some website, they breed hippos there to be sent off to other prisons/zoos--and hey!--they have a panda, and who doesn't love a cuddly little panda bear?

Still, I was hesitant. Ever since the miserable, molting polar bear of 2004 (during our visit with my sister Christie to the Denver Zoo), well, my sensitive little soul just can't enjoy gawking at isolated, poorly-treated animals and calling it recreation. I'd heard about zoos in Asia, so I was also just as worried about our safety as the condition of the animals (that San Francisco Zoo tiger escape last year shook me up for several weeks, including in my dreams...).

Alas, the lack of exciting alternatives, coupled with some mild curiosity and Ellie's unabated enthusiasm, finally landed us in front of a large park sign on which half of the animals illustrated were not even represented within the park. Oh well. Okay, this intro is getting drawn out as if there's some thrilling twist in the plot. But there's not, so I'll just enumerate a few of our visit's highlights, or rather, how the Tianjin Zoo experience differed from that of American zoos:

-You have to pay extra to see any of the animals worth seeing. For instance, to see common snakes and frogs, it costs you 15 yuan. Kyle exclaimed, "If they really do have a panda, I'd pay...hmmm...even 20 yuan to see it!" (And we all know that's a big deal for Kyle.) Well, he lucked out because the highly endangered species was on display for only 1 yuan! (That's about 15 cents.) But apparently every yuan counts because the booth guy chased us down to get an extra yuan for Ellie's entrance fee. Kyle began to dispute him since we've never paid fees for Ellie anywhere in China--buses, parks, museums, etc., but then he realized we were still getting a good deal since he was willing to pay 20 yuan a minute before.

-Aside from looking a little lonely and perhaps cold, the panda seemed to be in decent health and condition. A little punier than we expected, but still worth the price. =)

-The tiger exhibit also required an extra fee, but why they expect people to pay to enter these terrifying jaws... need I remind you of the San Francisco Zoo incident of Dec. 2007? I don't think Ellie was the first kid to run screaming from this exhibit entrance...

-Thankfully, there was a much less intimidating back entrance (free of charge) that afforded us a viewing opportunity of no less than FOUR tigers! (I guess they grow them here in Asia or something.)

-We'd read about some exploitive circus show involving bicycling bear cubs, so we avoided all tent-like structures, but then we discovered that all the zoo's bears are performers! This one would stand up and dance or roll around on his back to merit baozi (meat-filled buns), crackers, Mandarin oranges, candy, etc. tossed down from snack-laden passers-by. I guess my accent was too thick because he didn't respond to my Chinese commands. Actually, I don't think I was holding any food. Even in the absence of restrictive zoo rules, something in my code of ethics was holding me back...

-These playful little cuties also begged for snacks from visitors by clasping their hands together while repeatedly bowing their heads on the cue word "xie xie," which means "thank you." I think if you've seen the way many Asians express gratitude in this way, you'd've been mighty impressed by the bears' accurate impersonation. As entertaining as this was, what I really wanted was to see the bears in action on their playground swing set. I'd toss my oranges overboard to see that.

-There were even some caged animals that also ran free on the zoo grounds. Of course, they came from the exhibit of house cats, but that didn't stop two middle-aged men from persecuting free-range cats with pebbles and sticks. Get a life, bozos. Anyway, we did our rounds of the zoo and almost missed this quintessential wildlife scene, which was probably my favorite exhibit. We did some hearty belly-laughing over this one.

-What was most perplexing about the house cat exhibit, though, was that their cage was mighty larger and more interesting than the leopard's. This leopard looked at me with eyes that begged, "Free me. You've visited the African savanna and you know how I'm supposed to live." Oh, the guilt.

-I had an equally difficult time witnessing the chimpanzees (remember that they are not only endangered, but very intelligent), who are highly social creatures, resorting to banging their heads on walls for entertainment and eating paint chips in their solo cages. I was so affected by that scene that Kyle wouldn't let me see the polar bear exhibit.

-On an up note, the baboon could really do the moonwalk! I mean, he was good, though a little mechanical--obviously reliving the glory days when he starred in the zoo's circus show, before that baby bear took over.

-There was another monkey exhibit (that we were too cheap to visit) in which visitors can just run amok with the monkeys on a fenced-in island. I think that would've been just a little too much fun for us.

So, that's the Tianjin Zoo for you. Of course Ellie loved everything, and I probably spent equal amounts of time laughing and crying (in my heart). When I chose not to internalize what I saw, I was able to enjoy the family experience. Would I go again? Probably not, but you look into those glee-filled eyes and tell me if you could deny them their heart's desire to "see ammals atta zooooo!"

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Kyle thinks he's behind on blogging because he hasn't finished documenting last week's Xi'an trip or Ellie's new haircut, but my blogging "to do" list dates back to the kids' bouts of sickness in mid-Jan. Submitting to my characteristically lengthy style of posting would only perpetuate this vicious cycle of accumulating blogworthy pictures and experiences much faster than I find time to post them. Therefore, this post will be mostly devoid of my commentary that is only sometimes interesting and almost always irritatingly child-obsessive (if I can tell my obsession is annoying, what you all must be going through!). I am a mother; I cannot promise my comments on my children's good looks and funny behaviors to be any more objective, but at least there will be less of it. This time. =)

Probably the majority of strangers here exclaim "shuang bao tai!" (twins) when they see our kids cruising in a double stroller. Yes, they unfortunately both managed to inherit my nose instead of Kyle's adorable, petite schnoz, and they both seem to have an unwillingness to grow hair. Do you note any other strong resemblance?

After five months, Kyle finally installed the child seat on the back of his two-wheeler, and I finally consented to letting my small child ride in it unrestrained to the super market. As far as transportation is concerned, there has been precious little constraint these months in China. I can only dream of how much my children will love the carseat experience when we're back to abiding US laws...

We are proud to announce that 1.) Ellie's hair is officially long enough to become fiercely tangled into dreadlocks (yes, she still needs to twirl it to fall asleep) and 2.) Ellie has entered that stage of life in which she spends just as much time being hilarious as adorable. Along with pirated dvds, she remains a primary source of quality entertainment.

I really rejoice when Ellie offers to feed Erik for me--one less task on my list! Am I just getting spoiled, or is it really possible that even with an ayi cleaning my house three times a week, I am still justifiably overwhelmed by household responsibilities?

Ellie's Chinese is about as good as mine. Here she's deciphering the public bus route signs, all geared up with "shu bao" (backpack) and ready for school! Most kids her age (if grandparents aren't with them) are enrolled in full-time (40 hours a week) preschools.

I was trying to capture the misery of a baby who'd dry-heaved seven times in one hour and the need to keep him naked to avoid soiling clothes yet warm enough to fall asleep, but I guess he wasn't all that miserable. Erik will literally smile through tears at anyone who points a camera at him.

Have you ever shared a twin-sized mattress with a fat baby and a rolling toddler? I think I would've slept better standing up.

One reason I love putting my babies in footie-pajamas is to avoid the nuisance and frustrating ineffectiveness of socks on restless, chubby baby feet. They just plain don't stay on! Okay, so wearing the footie-jammies out to this extent may defeat that purpose, but everybody's got to love those hobo toes. Hobo toes! Hahaha.

We finally took the shuttle train to Tanggu, Tianjin's clean and modern neighbor city, in late January with Chris and Emily. Our day trip was filled with great food, shopping, and homemade ice cream (!) at the home of friends who live in Tanggu.

At a glance it may appear that Erik has gone native in terms of crotchless infant apparel. Have no fear--we are staunch supporters of 24-7 diapers! Even now that Ellie is potty-trained at home, she still experiences the outside world diaper-clad-- no child of mine will be found squatting at trees and on sidewalks, or even squatting over Chinese public "toilets!"

P.S. I also want to express appreciation to everyone who takes the time and interest to view our blog. When Kyle first started this in 2006, I was convinced it was an utter waste of time, and indeed during the beginning months, his parents and I were likely the only viewers. Our newly-installed "hit counter" happily confirmed our hope that our audience has since multiplied. Thank you also for your comments, and please believe me that if the Great Firewall would permit it, we'd be leaving comments on your blogs, too. It seems that instead of directly corresponding with several of our family members and friends, we read your blogs and when we find something funny or enjoyable, since we can't comment on your blog, we just create our own unrelated post instead. Less than ideal communication, I know. Anyway, I just wanted to recognize our fan base: we love you, we love your blogs, we love your comments. (Kyle checks for blog comments more frequently than I'll admit for him. Then again, he probably accounts for half of the visits sited on our "hit counter"...)