The Hot Pot Blog


February 28, 2012

Qi ge Yue

Dear Will,

That’s what I tell people now when they ask how old you are.  7 months.  It feels like just last week I was writing your 6 month post.

This wasn’t a month of big firsts, big developments; instead it felt a little like the quiet before the storm.  We saw lots of little glimpses of the determined and insatiably curious, on-the-move, baby we have to look forward to.

Everything is fascinating to you now, everything.  The sound of the vacuum cleaner, the texture of your pureed squash between your fingers…and in your hair.  Today you nearly lunged clear out of your Ergo to try and grab Daddy’s bottle of Coke.  On the airplane last Monday I spent thirty minutes trying to keep you from eating the stewardess’ hair.  Thank goodness for the strong snaps on your cloth diapers, because nothing was more fun to you in Tokyo than ripping off your disposables before we could ever even get a clean onesie over your head.

You’ve been physically capable of scooting around the house backwards on your tummy for over two months now, but its only been in the last week or so that you seem to have realized how useful self-propelled locomotion might be in your mission to put every single object ever invented in your mouth.

On one hand, after a couple months of backwards scooting and nearly a month now of rocking on your hands and knees, the anticipation of that first forward crawl is killing us.  On the other hand, we know once it happens we will have to be constantly on the move right alongside you, clearing your path of such unbearably attractive chew toys as electrical cords and the strings on my house slippers.

You are still the sweetest, cuddliest little baby boy I could ever ask for.  You love kisses and tickles and burying your head in my shoulder when your tired.  When you’re not actively challenging the laws of gravity, you like to sit in my lap and lean your head back against my chest while you play quietly with a toy or a book.

You also love your Daddy.  Your practically glows when you are hanging out with him and you squeal and coo every night when he walks in the door.  Daddy makes up all of your favorite games and its fun to watch how he can keep you captivated with anything from a container of rice puffs to an in-flight magazine.

You especially love Daddy’s “Near and Far” game and any version of “keep away.”  It’s fun to watch your eyes light up at the challenge of grabbing whatever it is we are playing with.  Your hands are quick and you’re quite good at grabbing for just about anything.  You keep us on our toes.

You are still no fan of mushy food but you like gumming on cucumber and carrot sticks and even chunks of frozen bread.  We’re looking forward to America where we won’t worry so much about you breaking out in hives from the pesticides.

Your attention span is somewhat amazing to me these days.  As long as I’m nearby you will happily sit and play with the same toy or block for 20 or 30 minutes at a time.  Granted, I can’t go anywhere for those 20 or 30 minutes and should I dare pull out a notebook, an iphone or some knitting to pass the time, you are immediately done playing with your toys and climbing over my legs to gnaw on the piece of paper or ball of yarn in my hands; but even so, it’s something.

Along with awaiting that first crawling step and the first American farmers’ market vegetables, we’re also still waiting for teeth…and some more hair.  But seriously though, these teeth!  Where are they?  I always knew motherhood would teach me greater patience but I always thought I’d learn patience from, you know, the actual parenting part of this mamahood gig–not by waiting for your first tooth to break through!

Will, I joke about your attempts to eat plastic and your lack of hair, but really, truly, your Dad and I go to bed every night thinking about how lucky we are to have you in our lives.  You still are, and always will be, the best thing that ever happened to us.

All my love,

Mama

February 26, 2012

A Weekend Tokyo Trip with Baby

Post-nap is an excellent time to stop for sushi, Will was still a little too drowsy to grab at our fish and just kind of hung out making eyes at the older Japanese couple next to us.

So.  You think you want to do Tokyo…with a baby.

Congrats!  You’ve probably picked the world’s easiest vacation destination for the toothless, fearless, diaper-wearing set.

Does your kid tend to drink the bathwater whether it is potable or not?  No problem!  Tokyo’s water is some of the cleanest we’ve seen.

In need of a diaper change?  Does your baby hate nursing under their cover?  The city is covered in clean, spacious “nursery rooms” complete with a cushy changing pad, toilet, hand sanitizer, hot water tap for formula, a fold-down high-chair attached to the wall and a nice big sink should your diaper emergency require total submersion.

Is your child having a meltdown right around suppertime?  Two words for you: Bento Boxes.  Tokyo is probably the one destination in the world where bringing a baby won’t seriously hamper your ability to eat well, mainly because you don’t need to eat in a restaurant to do it.

This is the land that practically invented take-out food.  Wander into the basement of any department store and you will find huge, gleaming, bustling “food gardens” serving up everything from tempura to sushi to french croissants, all packaged to-go, all delicious whether eaten on a park bench or on your hotel bed while your spouse gives the baby a bath in that clean, drinkable water.

You’ll find vending machines stocked with water and coffee drinks on every block (a well-hydrated/caffeinated parent is a happy parent after all).  You’ll see Dads sporting Ergos the way Chinese men sport man-purses.  You’ll find immaculate public restrooms everywhere.  There are baby clothes for sale so hip and cute that you might even be tempted to ponder what you want more for your child: his future college education or a Japanese baby wardrobe.

Tokyo is expensive, it is busy, English is not everywhere.  You are certainly not going to be welcome in the nicest, fanciest of restaurants with your wriggly wee one.

On the other hand, travelling with baby, you can save a fortune and you’ll likely make friends more easily.  If you are willing to keeping your sight-seeing expectations realistic, I’d say Tokyo is about as close to a stress-free vacation with baby as you will find anywhere in the world.

Here’s how you do it:

1. Choose your hotel wisely.

Don’t stay in Disney Land because the hotels are cheaper there unless you really want to spend your whole trip with Mickey.  Instead, find a mid-range hotel near a big subway station in a bustling neighborhood.  Tokyo is an infinitely fascinating place to walk around whether you are at a big “tourist sight” or not; and some days sticking close to home base and making pit-stops for play-time and nap-time makes more sense than running all over town.

We got a great rate at the Courtyard Marriott in Ginza (much lower than the published rack rate).  It was still $30 more per night than the hotel we originally booked but we are so glad we switched.  The Ginza metro stop is at the intersection of 3 subway lines and its just around the corner from the hotel.  In the opposite direction its a ten minute walk to the Tsukiji Fish Market.  There are two massive department store “food gardens” just passed the metro station and there’s a grocery store on the edge of the neighborhood.

It’s definitely a high-end ritzy sort of area, but there is still lots to look at and plenty of fun places to window-shop and stop for quick bites to eat.  We really liked that we could spend an hour or so walking around the neighborhood and then easily head back to the hotel when Will needed a break.  When we took the subway to other parts of town, it was really nice to have only a quick 3 minute walk back to the hotel from the metro station.

2. Skip the stroller, bring the baby carrier.

We don’t use our stroller much here in Chengdu and we were really glad we didn’t bring it to Tokyo.  The streets are great for strollers if you are staying above ground, but there are lots of stairs in the subway stations.  There are elevators at most stops, but I think you really have to know where to look.  We saw some Japanese families with light little umbrella strollers but most people were wearing Ergos or similar baby-carrying apparel.

Many Japanese work at least half a day on Saturday, but Saturday afternoon and Sunday we saw tons of families out walking around.  Interestingly enough, it was always the dad wearing the baby.  We got lots of quizzical looks since I wear Will most of the time.

One downside to wearing Will all weekend?  I took hardly any pictures of him in Tokyo!  Oh well, next trip.

4. Sight-see on the weekends, especially Sundays when families with young children are out and about everywhere.

Japan’s labor market is one of the strangest in the world I think.  A variety of factors as well as a sharp decline in the birthrate means that you see lots of older people doing the work that young people or recent immigrants might do in other countries.  The housekeepers in the hotel, the parking attendants, even the people serving up bowls of soba at the fish market all looked to be at least 65 years old.

I bring this up because kids are just not as common in Japan as in lots of other Asian countries.  People love them of course, but I think perhaps they aren’t used to having to deal with them in their public spaces anymore, at least in some neighborhoods, some shops, and during the work week.

Let me say that never once did we feel unwelcome bringing Will into a store or market, but we definitely felt a little more comfortable on Sunday when it seemed like every young family was out on the town.

5. Eat in food courts, buy food at “food gardens.”

Hands-down, the best thing about doing Tokyo with a baby is the ability to eat really well even if you never once set food in a restaurant.

Nearly every single nice department store or shopping mall will have a basement with a “food garden” and often a small grocery store as well.  The food garden we visited most often near our hotel was in the Mitsukoshi shopping center.  There were counters for tempura, grilled fish, grilled meats, bento boxes, rice, sushi, gyoza, Korean food and even Chinese food.  There were counters selling Italian food and several counters selling nothing but Western-style salads.  There were fresh juice bars and fro-yo lines.  There was a gigantic bakery and at least 15 counters selling nothing but chocolates, pastries, and beautiful Japanese desserts and mochi.

It can be totally overwhelming at first, especially around dinnertime when the place filled with hundreds of people all shopping for dinner.  Luckily though, you can get by mostly with pointing and nodding, even if you don’t speak Japanese and the salesperson doesn’t speak English.  Food is generally sold by the box, by pieces, or by weight and it’s easy to tell which just buy looking at the signs and prices.  It seemed like most counters took international credit cards but we saw cash used more commonly.

At the top of the department stores you will generally find sit-down restaurants, at least in the buildings we went to.  Some of these places looked a little too fancy to take Will but there were also several cafes with hundreds of families hanging out, eating ice cream and enjoying the late afternoon sun.

Having now dragged Will on two international trips, in addition to living in China, I’ve started to formulate some ideas about sight-seeing and international travel with a baby.  I’m not even going to attempt to give “airplane tips” because I honestly think its kind of a crapshoot when you are dealing with an infant.  So far, Will has been pretty easy-going about flying but my hunch is that could change at any time.  (For older kids on planes though, check out these great ideas.)

Take my tips for sight-seeing, etc below with a grain of salt, but this is what has worked for us:

My first two tips actually have to do with you as the parent.  Travel in a foreign city is never as relaxing and easy as a trip down to your local park.  You don’t know the area, you might not know the language, you might not know exactly how to get back to your hotel.  As such, addressing your own comfort issues first will make a huge difference between a fun afternoon of sightseeing and a stressful, tense outing that has you longing to just curl up in a ball on your hotel bed and stay there.

1. Know thyself and what makes you most crabby when out and about.  Address it.

Me?  I can go without sleep for days if we are doing something interesting.  I don’t mind walking for hours, I’m happy taking all sorts of complicated public transportation routes and I’ll carry heavy bags without complaint.

On the other hand, I turn into a bear when I’m hungry, I get angry when I’m too thirsty, and it’s hard for me to have fun when I’m too cold.  So I do what I have to do to be the best travel Mama I can be.  I dress in lots of easily removable layers and I’ve always got snacks for myself and a bottle of water packed in my diaper bag.  I also always eat something before we leave our hotel, no matter how soon we plan on eating again. You never know when you are going to get lost and lunch is actually 4 hours rather than 4 minutes away.

2. Know what stresses you out most about taking care of your baby on the go and figure out how to avoid those situations.

Maybe its finding a clean place to change a diaper, maybe its the nap schedule.  For me its feeding Will.  He hates nursing in public under his nursing cover and feeding him solids is still more of an exercise in post-modern baby finger-painting.  These days, if we are going further than ten minutes from our hotel, I always pump a bottle and pack it in our diaper bag.  It reduces my stress level by about 110 percent.

3. Try to stick to your kid’s schedule as much as you can…but don’t stress when you can’t.

When we travel with Will now we try to arrange our days so that he gets an hour or so of play time in the morning before we head out.  We try to go out walking while he naps since he usually sleeps well that way, at least in the morning.  When he wakes up we take a break and give him some more play-time.  We also usually do a pit stop at the hotel for a few hours in the afternoon to give him a little more time to decompress, nap, wriggle around and get his bearings again.  His bedtime is a little later when we travel but we stick to our bedtime routine of bath, nursing, bouncing and lullabies no matter where we are.  We also make sure to bring a few of his favorite toys or books, though generally he seems much more keen to play with whatever dirty or completely inappropriate plastic bag or water bottle is closest to him.

See that Evian bottle in the bottom of the shot?  It was a muuuch bigger hit with Will than the pureed mango he ended up wearing.

Routine helps kids feel secure, but travel isn’t broadening just for adults.  I think for babies it can also be a really exciting, really wonderful experience.  New sounds, new sights, new people, new things to try and put in their mouths.  What they lose in schedule seems to be more than made up for by the stimulus of the experience.  Travel in Asia is especially great with babies since everyone loves smiling and talking to them.  When Will got back from Thailand in January, I seriously think he went through attention withdrawal, he missed all of the waitresses and shop keepers fawning over him!

4. Unless you are staying within a few blocks of the hotel, pack the diaper bag like you aren’t coming back for 2 days.

In fact, maybe even skip the cute diaper bag in favor of a big backpack with lots of pockets.  It’s easier to carry and easier to cram full of stuff.  You’ll be really glad you packed that extra outfit after the second diaper blow-out of the day.  When Chris and I travel we pack two “diaper bags.”  One is my cute day-to-day bag (I love it) and one is Chris’ big 511 military-style 24-hour pack (he loves it and the additional attachable ammo pouch is, ironically, perfect for diapers).  Both are stocked with the basics: a spare outfit, diapers, hand wipes, a few toys; but Chris’ also holds medicine, first-aid, extra clothes, blankets, and more toys.  Depending on how long we are going out, we might bring one or the other.

On the other hand, when we know we are only a 10 minute fast-walk back to the hotel, we rarely bring our whole diaper bag.  Instead we just pocket a pacifier and some antibacterial wipes and head back if we need anything else.  No sense in trying to change a diaper on top of a plastic stool if you don’t have to!

5. Speaking of anti-bacterial wipes, bring lots of them.

We aren’t huge germaphobes, a little dirt and grime is probably good for Will’s immune system.  On the other hand, we’ve had wayyy too many experiences with random Chinese tourists grabbing Will’s hands, squeezing his cheeks, or actually trying to grab him out of arms when we are in airports, on planes, or at tourist sights.

I don’t care who you are or how clean you are, when you are traveling you never know what illnesses or coughs and colds you are coming into contact with and then covering my little boy in.  I hate to be rude, so I usually just smile, tell Will to wave “bye-bye” and then scrub his hands and face down with a wipe as soon as we are out of sight.

Soap and water would probably be more effective, but knowing we have a bunch of these wipes on us at all times keeps us from stressing out and let’s us feel more comfortable about all of the attention (and germs) Will is regularly showered in.

So that’s it!  What have been your experiences?  What are your tips for international trips with a baby?

I call this photo ramen karma.  There was a Japanese family standing next to us at the ramen counter.  Dad was wearing baby and Mom was taking photos of their adorable toddler as she slurped on her noodles.  I offered to take a family photo for them and they returned the favor before they left.  Not our finest looking hour but definitely a happy one!

February 23, 2012

Eating our way through Tokyo: the delicious, baby-friendly & surprisingly affordable way

“Why are you guys going to Tokyo?”  people asked us.  With a baby.  In the middle of winter.  For 72 hours.  Followed by a 5 hour flight back to Chengdu with a baby won’t sleep with approximately 145 Chinese tourists taking his picture and making googly eyes at him behind my head.

For the food, we told everyone.

That flight back to Chengdu was so hellacious it deserves it’s own blog post, but for the food? So, so worth it.

In our former lives, pre-baby, pre-living in the boondocks of China, Chris and I loved dining out.  Strip-mall Vietnamese, greasy spoon breakfasts, Michelin-starred restaurants, street food, road food, we loved it all.  Instead of giving each other birthday gifts, we used to give each other tasting menus at the best restaurants we could get into/afford.  Some people buy clothes with their disposable income, some people go out drinking.  Us?  We like to eat.

Japan is just a 3.5 hour flight from Chengdu (with a strange 5+ hour return) and we had enough frequent flier miles to get ourselves to Tokyo and back for $40 per person.  We don’t know when we’ll be this close to the freshest sushi in the world again, so we cashed in those miles, packed up the baby and went for it.

Had we taken this trip before Will I have no doubt we would have criss-crossed the Tokyo subway system seeking out the best back-alley ramen joints.  We would have stood in line for hours to have sushi at the fish market.  We would have bellied up to the bar for an omakase tasting menu.  We would have spent a fortune on sublime food.

Instead, we spent a relatively modest amount of money on really amazing food and we did it without putting Will through any fancy dinners or annoying any restaurant patrons.

We were strategic.  Rather than aiming for specific restaurants or trying to eat the absolute “best” of everything in town, we made a list of “food goals,” things we really wanted to eat on our trip that we could check off, one by one, as we wandered around town.  We ate every single thing on our list.  We spent no more than $60-$100 a day on food, including drinks and coffee.  Rather than gambling on Will’s moods at mealtime, we stopped whenever we saw something that interested us and we ate bento boxes and take-out every night on our hotel bed.  We probably didn’t eat the same quality of food we could have eaten if we went without Will, but that wasn’t the point of this trip.  We just wanted to eat well and enjoy ourselves, which we did.   We left Tokyo very happy and very full.

I’ll do a “Tokyo with baby” post to cover some of the food-with-baby points in more detail so, without further ado, let’s get to the food porn, shall we?

First item on the list: #1. Oysters and Sushi

I’m going to say it: we didn’t eat Tokyo’s best sushi.  On the other hand, we ate the best sushi we’ve had in over 2 years.  Aside from one quick meal at the fish market, we bought all of our fish in department store “food gardens” and ate all of our sushi on our hotel bed whilst attempting to keep Will from eating the plastic grass dividers.  I’ll get to these “food gardens” later but for now just picture a floor of gleaming department store make-up counters; except, instead of cosmetics, every single counter is stocked with food, beautiful, glorious food. We hadn’t planned on having oysters. We hail from D.C., after all, where oysters are kind of a thing around the Chesapeake.  No offense to our hometown bivalves, but these ginormous, freshly shucked, lightly dressed beauties had us slurping at the shells and wondering why we even bothered ordering sushi.

#2. Takoyaki

Sort of like an octopus-stuffed round pancake topped with bonito flakes, seaweed powder and kewpie mayonaise.  If you’ve ever tried them before, you are probably moaning softly now with desire.  If you’ve never had them before you might be wondering what about these little snacks would possess us to jaywalk in Japan (the nerve!) just to get to the front of the rapidly forming takoyaki line.  Chris and I first tried these little fried balls of wonder in Singapore and we’ve been craving a repeat ever since. These things take serious preparation. We watched an assembly line of 4 people follow approximately 35 steps for each order of octo-balls.  It was mesmerizing.  We also noticed that the cashier used hand-sanitizer every single time he touched a piece of money.  After 2 years in China, it was such a beautiful sight, almost as good as the takoyaki themselves.

#3. Yakisoba

Sort of like an omelet, sort of like a stir-fry, mostly a mess of flavors and textures full of noodles and eggs and fermented stuff and, of course, yaki sauce.

#4. French Pastries, Batards, and Baguettes

The best French bread in the world may no longer be made in France.  Instead I think you might find it in Tokyo.  We sampled many, many flaky pastries and crusty-on-the-outside-chewy-on-the-inside breads, all were delicious.  Even the mini chocolate croissants from a generic pastry shop in the bottom of a shopping center were better than all but a handful of the best croissants I’ve ever had.

The best bread we had though remains, sadly, unpictured.  We were wondering, lost, through a small, everyday neighborhood when I spied a basket of bread outside a door with no windows.  We pulled back the heavy sliding door and found ourselves in a tiny, tiny bakery.  The room was not even 3 meters across, with just four customers inside we all barely had room to turn around.  But that bread.  The crust shattered as we tore into it, the inside was warm and downy.  Instead of tasting like styrofoam like French-style breads do here, it tasted like wheat and yeast and salt and mineral water.  It was some of the best bread I’ve ever had.

I’ve wandered many streets in many places, but that moment, in that beautiful, quiet little neighborhood, was one of the best.  I had Chris by my side, Will asleep on my chest and fresh pastries in my hands.  The sun was sinking low in the afternoon sky and the air was cold but that bread kept us warm and happy.

#5. Soba with Tempura

On our first day down to the fish market we took note of the long winding line in front of this stall.  3, slightly grumpy, elderly people run the place and there is a big sign in English that says “No Tempura without Soba” or something to that effect. Why you would want tempura without the amazing noodle soup served up at this stall, I have no idea.  The broth was heavenly.

(Photo by Chris!)

To beat the lines for noodles and curry, head over to the fish market around 8-9am.  By then all of the workers in the area will have already had their breakfast and most of the tourists will still be lined up for sushi.  There are a few stools at the counter in front of the stall but there are also a few “standing-room only” counters perched upon styrofoam boxes and shipping crates.  Even at this make-shift counter, the sanitation is immaculate.  A spotless white rag sits next to a container of chopsticks for you to mop up your drips and spills before bringing your bowl back to the main counter.

#6. Ramen

After sharing a bowl of soba noodles, (photo above by Chris again!) we wandered down a few stalls to try a ramen place written up in the New York Times a few years ago.  What can I say?  It was delicious.  Ramen comes in many, many forms though and so one style was really not enough for us.  We especially love the Sapporo style ramen we used to get in D.C.  The noodles are thick, yellow, and chewy and the broth is so rich and opaque you can’t see anything in the bowl but the par-boiled egg floating on top.  We weren’t able to get our Sapporo style ramen until we got to the airport.  Just as well.  It may have been airport food but it was the best airport food I’ve ever had.

#7 Bento boxes, grilled fish, meat on a stick, tempura, Japanese pickles…

Knowing our son was likely going to lose his cool somewhere in the range of 6:30pm, we decided to go all out at the big “food garden” near our hotel on our last night in Tokyo.  What you see pictured above isn’t even everything we ate that night. The grilled fish was incredible.  The tempura actually tasted like something other than grease-which is how you usually get it in the States.

Fried food to-go is normally horrible but this tempura was still delicious and flavorful, even cold.  I don’t usually even like meatballs but the little ones pictured above were so flavorful and so tender.  They were also so light!  I’ve never had a meatball that tasted so…fluffy and soft?  Is that a weird way to describe a meatball?  In any case, delicious. We had better bento boxes other nights but the pickles in this one were still lovely.  Japanese pickles are amazing in every way.

#8. Baumkuchen

This wasn’t on our original list, but after seeing a six-foot long roll of this German-style cake baking on our first night in town, I had to try it.  Baumkuchen are big in Japan.  You find them everywhere from Starbucks to the fanciest dessert counters.  It’s basically just cake but there is something to the texture that is especially addicting.  They can also be things of great beauty.  I saw some of these circular cakes nearly a foot in diameter with hundreds of delicate little rings running from the very inside to the lightly frosted edges.  You can read more about them here.

Longest blog post ever right?  Next up: bringing baby to Tokyo and those magical “food gardens” I keep talking about…

February 21, 2012

Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market

I’ve never been as nervous at a “tourist attraction” as I was in the Tsukiji Fish Market.

I put “tourist attraction” in quotations because, unlike Times Square in New York City or the Weekend Market in Bangkok, the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo is a serious commercial center first and a sightseeing destination second.  It is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the entire world.  It’s not just a place for foreigners to oggle at giant slabs of tuna.

Over 5 billion dollars worth of fish and seafood are bought and sold at the market every year.  Once you cross the two lanes of truck and forklift traffic that separate the heart of the market from the tourist stalls along the perimeter, you enter a world of ice and fish and million dollar transactions.  It’s intimidating.  There are only a few feet of walkway between rows of vendors and there are deadly serious men tallying figures and driving little flatbeds at high speeds.  People either don’t want you there or don’t care, but nobody’s going to be thrilled by your presence, especially if you get in their way.

It’s no Disney Land.

On the other hand, by the time most tourists show up after 9am, the serious deals are done for the day and, as long as you watch your step and give way to the serious seafood buyers, vendors are pretty nice and its a fascinating place.

I was a little nervous to take photos.  There are so many signs and so much literature about how “thou shall not get in the way of a fish sale” and how the market isn’t a place for children, but it wasn’t that bad.  One guy smiled at Will sleeping on Chris’ chest and I asked him if I could photograph his fish.  After that it got easier.

I didn’t come away with too many great shots but it was still an amazing experience.  So many different kinds of fish and seafood, all different colors and sizes.  There are all sorts of specialized pieces of machinery just for moving fish around the market and little tiny offices perched on top of shelving units and wooden pallets.

There are, of course, fish innards and guts everywhere you look-as long as everywhere you look is on the inside of neatly contained little styrofoam containers.  The pavement might not be clean enough to eat sushi off of, but you won’t find anything much more offensive on the ground than some ice and sea water.  The place is pristine.

If tiny walkways and fish heads aren’t your thing, there is still plenty to see in the stalls and shops around the perimeter of the market.  It’s busy and atmospheric without the intimidation factor.  And of course, there is the sushi.

It is said that some of the best sushi in Japan can be found at the tiny little counters around the market. I wouldn’t know.  We might be crazy enough to take our 6.5 month old to the world’s largest fish market but we aren’t in the business of ruining anyone’s sushi nirvana with our wriggly baby.  People start waiting in line at 7am for sushi.  With Will in tow we knew this wouldn’t be the trip to wait 2 or 3 hours for a meal, even if the sushi is amazing.  Next time, hopefully.

Instead, we found ourselves in a very touristy little place that seemed to cater especially to crazy Americans with kids.  It certainly wasn’t the best or most creative sushi in the market but it was still very fresh and very delicious.  We took our cues from a Japanese couple sitting next to us and ordered up some oysters.  They were truly amazing, nearly as big as my hand and dressed with just a light touch of soy, daikon and green onion.  We could have skipped the sushi for one meal and feasted solely on oysters, probably the freshest we’ve had since we left Washington D.C.

If you want to go eat good sushi and take photos of the market, head over around 7am.  Look for the longest line and join the queue.  Eat the best sushi of your life and then, after 9am, go wander around the market for an hour or so.  The earlier you go the more you will see, but the less people will be happy to see you.  By 11 the scene is mostly dead and by 1 or 2 everyone closes up shop for the day.  Which is just as well.  By the time you are done seeing the fish, you should be just hungry enough again to join the ramen line on the other side of the market…

February 20, 2012

Back from the Land of the Rising Sun

Before our trip I planned on a blog post or two coming out of the trip.  I bought a little notebook on our trip and started filling it up with notes about everything we saw and did.

I wrote nearly 10 pages in very tiny print.  After two years in China, I felt like I was visiting an alternative reality where everything is the exact opposite of the way it is here.

After 3 days of sightseeing on about as many hours of sleep, I still laid awake in bed last night still reliving all of the details.

I expected to love the food, I hadn’t expected to like Japan as much as I did.

Lots of Tokyo posts coming this week including: noodles, the fish market, how to eat well in Tokyo on less than $60 a day, stationary stores that make me want to spend Will’s entire college fund on stickers and washi tape, doing Tokyo with a baby, and more.  Until then, I’ll leave you with the iphone photo above of Mount Fuji from our (very, very long) flight home.

 

February 16, 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Leaving China, Visiting Japan & baby, of course

Looking forward to America’s sunny skies where I can hopefully stop dialing down my aperture and maxing out my ISO on nearly every single photo I take!

1. Last Sunday we hit our 2 months left in China mark and it’s like we flipped a switch into cabin fever mode.  Suddenly I’m itching to clean out closets.  I miss sunshine more than I have in months.  I miss my family more than ever.  I daydream about taking Will to parks and running again through clear morning air.  I still like Chengdu but as our time winds down, it is harder and harder to stay content with where we are.  America!  I miss you!

2. We had a feeling we would start to feel a little stir-crazy by now so Chris and I, wisely or unwisely, planned a trip to Japan for this weekend.  We figure we are as close now as we’ll ever be and, hot-damn, we are really craving some good food.  We cashed in a bunch of frequent flier miles and so we are headed to Tokyo for a grand total of $40 per person.  Is sushi (and sunshine) worth the expense and hassle and the utter insanity of dragging a 6.5 month old on 2 5-hour flights to spend a grand total of 72 hours in Tokyo?  We’ll find out!

3. Speaking of babies and travel: is there any way to lessen the enormous upset of taking a kid away from the only home they’ve known, dragging them on a short tour of America to see family, then giving them the chance to juust get settled for a few months in D.C. before packing them up for a new tour in a new country?

I can imagine great ways to help older kids cope with the transition but I have no idea what to do for Will besides generous doses of hugs and snuggling and trying to stick to a routine as much as possible.  I’ve also been trying to introduce a lovey to little success.  Any other ideas?  I’d say a baby won’t notice or care, but this kid seems to notice everything.  Even at 6 weeks old he seemed to know China was very different than the place he was born, and he did not like it one bit.

4. Is there any point to sleep-training a kid that will be sleeping in 6 different places within the next 12 weeks?  Yea, didn’t think so.  We might try in D.C. when everything is new and we have a clean slate.  Until then we are taking baby steps towards sleep independence.  Very, very, very tiny baby steps.

5. I made these orange sticky buns a few weeks ago.  The dough is the best cinnamon roll/sticky bun dough I’ve found yet.  The orange filling is good, but maybe not my favorite recipe.  Definitely try out the dough for your next cinnamon rolls though.

6. Are reusable snack and sandwich bags the new “it” thing yet in America or am I just way behind?  A few months ago I got really sick of using plastic baggies for Will’s pacifiers when we are out and about.  I know there are little pacifier pods on the market but why get a bag that has only one purpose when I could get something that we could use after the pacifier stage?  Enter Lunchskins.  I found a 3-pack on sale at amazon and we love them.  They are cute and easy to wash and oh-so-functional.

Will is still in his “ziplock plastic bags are the most fun toy EVER” stage–he will wake up out of a deep sleep if he hears me open one on the other side of the house–so these bags serve an additional purpose in our house: baby entertainment device.  Unlike Chinese ziplock bags, these reusable Lunchskins are really sturdy, too small for Will to shove his head inside, and bad-stuff-free.  As long as I’m watching Will like a hawk, he can chew on these bags to his heart’s content, which he does, very happily.

7. We found out the hard way that the pesticides on Chinese lettuce give Will hives, even after being well-washed.  He didn’t even eat any lettuce, he just played with some while we were having dinner the other night.  Compared to a lot of Chinese kids though, a case of hives is nothing.  What can I say here without slipping into probably ill-advised rant about food in China?  Not much, so instead I’ll point you to this article from last year, in case you are interested.

8. My mom just sent us The Little Blue Truck board book.  I’m in love.  Even though Will has no interest in books beyond how many pages he can fit in his mouth, he still likes listening to a good rhythm and hearing me make funny sounds.  Thus, The Little Blue Truck is the perfect book for us right now.  It has a nice beat, it’s fun for me to read, it has all sorts of animals sounds and the story has a nice little message to it.  The illustrations are lovely if ,perhaps, a bit above Will’s head.  And of course, its made of cardboard so we can actually read it without worrying about Will ripping out the pages and eating them.

9. Do you still remember being a kid?  And if so, does it influence how you parent?  I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately as I vividly remember not just my childhood but also what it felt like to be a kid.  We are still a few months away from needing to begin introducing boundaries and other such parenting quagmires with Will, but I know that time will be here before we know it.  As such I’m thinking a lot about my own, really wonderful, childhood these days and how grateful I am to my parents for the way they raised us.

10. Speaking of board books, I’ve been imagining a board book that teaches colors, in which each page is a really vibrant, really beautiful photograph highlighting one color.  Does such a book already exist?  It sure would be fun to make one if it doesn’t!  Sort of a different spin on this neat alphabet book I found a few weeks ago.

Have a happy weekend!

February 15, 2012

China: Land of the Ginormous Camera

Chinese amateur photographers

A (poor) picture of someone taking a picture of someone taking a picture.  You got all that?

I’m always really hesitant to write these posts about my observations of Chinese society.  I feel like I am not embedded deeply enough in the culture to say things that are correct or relevant.  My Chinese is horrible, I have only a few Chinese friends.  After nearly two years in China, there are still many basic facts of life here that perplex me.

On the other hand, I try really hard to be empathetic, to imagine why things are they way they are.  I’m the ultimate justifier of “strange things.”  So when I empathize and I research and I try to justify and I still don’t understand something I see, it becomes a subject of fascination for me.  Hence, this post.

So let me ask, what is up with all of the huge, high-end digital cameras around the necks of wealthy young Chinese in this country?  And what’s up with all of the portrait photography?

Before I go any further: I’m not writing here about your average Chinese person, I’m writing about extraordinarily wealthy young people.  It just so happens that China is massive and so the population of well-off young people is also massive.  The things they do tend to attract a great deal of attention and scrutiny from the rest of us mere mortals, Chinese and expats alike.  I’m sure many of them are quite lovely people, but love them or despise them, its impossible not to notice them.

End of disclaimer.

In the States lots of people have DSLR cameras.  They are practically as much a part of the metro-area upper-middle-class uniform as a reusable Trader Joe’s bag and a yoga mat.  We regularly spend $500-700 on a cameras we don’t really know how to use.  If you are the sort of person who finds this practice absurd then, with all due respect, China would blow your mind.

According to my highly unscientific Amazon research, the number 1 and number 2 best-selling DSLR cameras in America are the Nikon D40 and the Canon Rebel–both the most basic, entry-level DSLR models for their respective brands.  I too have a Canon Rebel XS that hubs got on sale for me a few years ago.  I shoot with my kit lens and my nifty-fifty (the best photography bargain you will ever find, by the way).

We Americans might not always know how to really use our fancy cameras, but perhaps to our credit, we don’t seem to be kidding ourselves about it by shelling out for the top models either.

In contrast, according to my highly unscientific anecdotal evidence gathered at Chinese tourist sites, wealthy Chinese photogs don’t mess around with entry-level cameras.  Instead they buy the biggest, most expensive machines they can find, outfitting them with expensive-looking telephoto and wide-angle lenses and always a giant lens hood-always attached backwards for some reason.

By my estimates, these cameras cost at least $2,000 plus another couple grand in lenses, plus at least a few hundred dollars worth of Chinese import taxes.  These are not “fake” cameras, these are the real thing.  There are lots of extraordinarily wealthy people in China, but even so, the number of fancy cameras around town seems a bit disproportionate.

At first I thought maybe China was just full of professional photographers.  The more I studied these photographers though, the more I realized they looked a lot like me: amateur…amateur and shooting in full automatic mode on cameras so big and powerful that they could eat my camera for breakfast.

Additionally, rather than using these wonderful machines to capture street scenes or anything that would seem remotely interesting to me, these cameras seem to be used mostly for people to take lots of pictures of themselves and their friends holding up ‘V for Victory’ fingers in front of tourist sites.

Or posing dramatically in display beds at Ikea.

Or on street corners in trendy neighborhoods.

Or in the middle of a narrow staircase halfway up a mountain (blocking the path for hundreds of people).

Interestingly enough, its also seems quite popular to have your friends take pictures of you taking pictures with your giant camera.

I’ve asked around about this phenomenon, why do we see such massive cameras and why are the people using them not taking advantage of all of the amazing power they have at their fingertips?  Some people tell me they think that a giant camera is a little like a Louis Vitton bag or, for some families, an American college education.  They are highly visible luxury goods, they are status symbols.  Knowing what to do with the camera isn’t necessarily the point, it’s being seen out with one.

You could argue perhaps that there are many other consumer goods that could convey status just as well or better than a fancy camera, and yet they are everywhere.  Hiring a professional photographer to take photos seems almost as popular as having a big camera.  I’d love to understand why.

In many ways, Chinese and Americans are the same, we love our wedding photos, we love photos of our kids, we love taking pictures.  In both countries, photos with the people we love are priceless.

On the other hand, it does seem like personal portrait photography is much more the cultural norm here than in America.  In the U.S. if you see someone with a photographer out in public they are likely taking engagement photos or family photos, they are rarely by themselves.  Here it is somewhat common to see an individual being fussed over by 3 or 4 members of a photography crew doing a professional shoot.  Why?  I’m not sure?  Maybe just because?  It’s a little like senior photos, I guess, but watching from a distance, it seems different in some way.

Or maybe I’m just too close to my own culture to see that it’s the same.  Maybe I just notice the big fancy cameras because someday, down the road, I’d like to have one.  Maybe when I go back to D.C. in a few months I’ll notice just as many cameras being used in exactly the same way.  And maybe everyone likes having photos taken of themselves and some cultures are just more open and matter-of-fact about it than others.

What do you think?  Is this a China phenomenon or a world-wide thing?

February 13, 2012

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I tried so hard to get a picture of Will with his Valentine for his daddy but, wouldn’t you know, his determination to eat the valentine outmatched mine to photograph it.  Maybe next year…

B.W. (Before Will) Chris and I proudly boycotted Valentine’s Day.  I’m not entirely sure why exactly, but we just decided we didn’t need a special day to “celebrate our love.”  We were just fine celebrating everyday, thank you very much.

So one year I took a nap on the floor of Chris’ office while he worked the weekend at our old organization.

Two years ago, Valentine’s Day fell on the first day of Chinese New Year.  Instead of going for a romantic candlelit dinner, we headed to a boisterous Chinese banquet hall in New York City to celebrate with Chris’ extended family.  Restaurant staff bedecked every conceivable surface with the traditional red and gold decorations and then upped the festive ante, adding piles of pink hearts and gauzy sashes to the mix.  The effect was striking, to put it mildly, but I’ll take Flushing chinese food and hanging out with Chris’ wonderful family over a generic prix fixe menu for two any day.

Last year Chris and I spent Valentine’s Day Eve flying back to China from the U.S. and Valentine’s Day fighting and losing spectacularly in our battle against the jet lag.  I don’t think we remembered Valentine’s Day until the 16th of February.

This year we will be staying put for the big V-Day and, more relevantly, we’ve got the wee one now.  A nice quiet dinner for two may be out (for now) but suddenly Valentine’s Day seems as good an excuse to celebrate as any.

Chris and I have talked a lot about creating an assortment of simple holiday traditions for Will and any future siblings.  We want to have small rituals they can count on every year and look forward to, no matter where we are living.  Things like Christmas Eve pajamas and Chinese New Year noodles and Hong Bao.  Our annual Labor Day hike.  A homemade family meal with “fancy” ingredients and silverware for New Year’s Eve, and pictures of all the kids’ Halloween costumes from throughout the years to display in the fall.

As per interwebs inspiration, we want to make Valentine’s Day a holiday to give books, make a few sweet treats, and maybe even craft some Valentines for one another.  I’m hoping its not as twee in reality as it sounds when I write it out.

Will hasn’t quite moved past his “paper tastes better than pureed squash” stage though, and since we came to this idea a little late to order any books from Amazon, we’re improvising this year. Instead of books and precious baked goods, we’ve got pink marshmallows (for us, not for Will) and a valentine from Will to his daddy.*  Valentines from children too young to even say “Happy Valentine’s Day” may be both twee and ridiculous, but I’m giving myself a bye in the sap department until at least Will’s first birthday.

Honestly, I don’t know entirely what’s up with the pink marshmallows.  I was craving sugar, still on my no dairy, no soy, no chocolate, no fun elimination diet, and marshmallows seemed like a good fix.  I added a touch of red food coloring and they just looked so sweet, I had to share them.  If Princess Lolly decided to get out of the CandyLand gig and into masonry instead, I think these would be her building blocks of choice.  Soft, fluffy, and pink.

pink homemade marshmallows

I always use this recipe for my marshmallows and I skip the potato flour in favor of corn starch because that’s always what I have on hand.  You can make these marshmallows for every season, with all sorts of different extracts, shapes, and flavors.  I think they are actually best if you let them get a little stale, but that’s just my personal preference.  Should you decide to char them black roast them over an open fire, they get rather gooey and difficult to manage.  Don’t be put off by my disclaimer though, its the most delicious way to eat them.  I’ve been known to stand over the gas burner with a skewered marshmallow cursing the mess I’ve made of the stove top while licking my fingers with rather satisfied-sounding sighs.

Since I tried and so epically failed at homemade baby footprint wrapping paper for Christmas, I’d been eyeing up Valentine’s Day as a chance for redemption.

Turns out homemade cornstarch finger-paint does not have quite the staying power on paper that I was hoping for.  In the end, I painted the bottom of my baby’s feet with some Crayola watercolors.  Much, much, simpler.  We’ll save the edible finger-paint for when Will is the one doing the painting and not his Mama.

As for technique, in case you were wondering, it is far easier to lay a 6.5 month old on his back and press a piece of paper to his foot than it is to make him stand in one place long enough to get a footprint.  It’s also a lot cleaner.  If you give your baby something enticing enough to play with, (say, your mobile phone, because-oh yes-we’ve officially reached that stage) you might even get through the process without any transfer of paint from baby foot to baby mouth.  A notable accomplishment, to be sure.

Happy Hallmark Holiday/Valentine’s Day/Anti-Valentine’s Day/Tuesday Everyone!

*Remember all of my moaning about Will’s intense Mama’s boy/anti-Daddy tendencies?  Sooo happy to report we’ve definitely moved onto a stage of daddy-worship for now.  When Chris walks in the door, Will drops whatever random object he is chewing on and starts smiling and giggling.  These days no one can make him laugh like his daddy.  Last night Chris was away in Chongqing and we skyped so he could say good night to Will.  Will still doesn’t know that the baby in the mirror is actually his own reflection so when he saw Chris’ face on the screen he started beaming and laughing like his daddy was right in front of him.  Love, love, love.

February 8, 2012

Ringing in the Chinese New Year with Angry Birds

Chinese New Year/Spring Festival is finally over here in Chengdu but I couldn’t resist sharing this little bit of festiveness that Chris’ mother sent us for the holiday.

If Angry Birds is big in the United States, its like a national obsession here.  You know how people say everything is bigger in Texas?  I’m starting to feel that way about things in China.

Louis Vitton bags are a prized possession for some people in the United States; here they are so vital to the way business works, we have the world’s 1st and 3rd largest stores.

People in the U.S. love sushi; people in China are starting to love sushi so much that there is a good chance they will decimate the world supply to the point that we may no longer get much of it Stateside within the next decade or so.

I could go on and on with examples but I’ll stop for now.  I hope I don’t sound judge-y writing these things.  I think at one time I might have been very judgmental but I don’t feel that way anymore.  It’s not that I think China is all great and there is nothing wrong here, it’s just that there is always a reason for why things are done the way they are done.  Sometimes its a good reason, sometimes its not, but I can appreciate how difficult it is to change the way things are done in a country like this one.

I don’t particularly like the guanxi/gift “tradition” here but I can empathize with the employee who desperately wants a promotion and has no other recourse.  I wish we would all choose our raw fish wisely and do a better job protecting the oceans, but I love me some sushi and I really can’t blame my Chinese neighbors for loving it too.

All of which really has nothing to do with Angry Birds, whoops!  Let’s come up for some air now, shall we?

Bottom line, if you need any (not entirely IPR legit) Angry Birds paraphernalia, up to and including Chinese New Year decorations, China is where it’s at.

February 6, 2012

Proving Mama Wrong or How Babies Really Do Grow Up Too Fast

“Well that was a waste of money I guess,” I said as I watched my 4 month old give Sophie yet another quick cool look of utter disinterest.  Try taking that giraffe away from him now.  I dare you.  It won’t be pretty.

“Will hates his stroller,” I used to say.  Until Sunday when we took him to the grocery store in it and then on a long looping walk around the neighborhood.  He watched the scenery for awhile and then fell fast asleep as we rolled over bumps and curbs and swerved around scooters.

“He won’t let me put him down!” I wailed on more than one occasion.  Now he grunts and whines in frustration if we keep him penned up in our arms for too long.

“He’s too thin!”  ‘Thin where?’ I think now, as I study the dimples on the back of his hands and the pudgy fat pads on his feet.

“He wont eat solids!” I told anyone who would listen.  I cleaned squash out of his nose yesterday, twice.  He likes it so much he practically bathes in it as he attempts to lick his spoon clean.

“Schedule? Routine? My kid abhors the concept of a regularly scheduled nap or meal!”  Or he did until he settled into a near perfect 2-3-4 pattern within a week of turning 6 months old.  These days we can actually plan things around his naps instead of dreading an ill-timed outing.

“Baths scare him,” I told my mom.  Until we went to Thailand and he discovered how much he loved the pool.   It’s getting him out of the bath that is hard now.

It turns out my little, tiny baby has turned into a braver, more curious about the world, bigger baby.  I hear one day soon he’ll turn into a little boy on me.  It hardly seems believable but then again, I still can’t get over how my chicken-wing newborn got those absurdly adorable chubby thighs that he’s sporting now.

He may take time to warm up to new things but really, it seems I have no business saying what my baby likes or dislikes, what he can or can not do.  It’s always just a matter of what he can’t or doesn’t like to do yet.

Which means the rocking-to-face-plant maneuvers will eventually turn into full-blown crawling, those teeth I’ve sworn were just about to poke through since he was 8 weeks old will one day come in and maybe someday he’ll even sleep through the night.

But even if he doesn’t anytime soon, it’s ok. He’s my baby for now and while I can’t keep him small enough to sleep on my chest forever, I’ll take what I can get.  It’s nice to be right about at least one thing for a little while.

baby self feeding with spoon

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