April 25, 2012

Facing death shapes life in Chinese memoir

Posted in Between Us column, Books, Diversity, Relationships at 5:14 pm by dinaheng

Wenguang Huang was 10 when he started sleeping next to a coffin. The coffin, built at his grandmother’s request, would not be used by her for another 15 years, but its symbolic reminder of death and traditional Chinese customs is at the heart of a story that examines how belief shapes who we are and who we want to be.

Huang, a Chicago-based writer and translator, grew up in Xian, a city in central China, during the Mao-era, giving him a unique perspective on the generational conflicts  between those who clung to Confucian traditions of the past and those caught up in the political campaigns of the early 1970s that aimed to wipe such rituals out.

In Huang’s first book, “The Little Red Guard… A Family Memoir” ($25.95, Riverhead Books), the author shares a coming-of-age tale in Communist China that offers cultural insights into an often closed society, yet is universal in its observations about life.

“There was a lot of self-discovery in the process of writing it,” says Huang, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, Harper’s and other publications. “The book was about my father. His teachings have guided me in a lot of my decisions, but it’s only now that I’m starting to appreciate him.”

In an era where traditional Chinese burials were forbidden, Huang’s father had to hide his mother’s coffin, bribing relatives and others to keep the plans for her burial a secret. Huang, the eldest son in the family, was caught between the wishes of his grandmother, who raised him, and the resentment of his mother, who saw the family’s life revolve around her mother-in-law’s future burial plans.

As China lurched forward with economic development after the Mao era, historic sites, family homesteads, and traditional cemeteries gave way to skyscrapers, tourist attractions and lost landmarks.

“After my father’s death, I felt bitter about his plans with Grandma’s coffin, that he’d wasted so much time and money on it,” Huang says. “But when my mother died, I understood why. At my father’s funeral, I wasn’t able to speak about him. For years, I felt I owed my dad a eulogy, so I decided to write this book.”

In addition to giving a window into life in China, Huang writes about his immigration to the United States. He shares the difficulties of assimilating into a different culture, and how he came to accept both his Chinese heritage and American identity.

Through Huang’s anecdotes, we see that every family grapples with generational conflicts, personality differences, and changing values over time.

“In the old days, you’d have a family cemetery in China,” Huang says. “Now, in this era of modern development, everything’s demolished and you can’t even find your ancestors’ graves.”

He says even though the Chinese government rejects human rights and the principles of democracy, sooner or later, “it’s a trend they can’t move back. In China, long term, the trend is always going forward. I’m optimistic changes will come to China over time. At the same time, the West is becoming more Easternized.”

Last month, Huang returned to China to visit his parents’ gravesite. A sister told him that he should burn the galley of his new book at the gravesite so that their parents could read it in the other world. The author who once scoffed at such rituals decided to follow her advice.

“Our driver gave me a cigarette lighter, and the only thing that burned was the cover,” Huang says. “I saw the lighter fluid was running out, so I tried to put the book on the tombstone. A gust of wind blew, and within seconds, the book was in ashes. Before, I would have thought the wind’s appearance was just coincidence. But now, I thought, at least my dad has a chance to read it.”


April 18, 2012

Inspiring story of man and ‘DUKE’

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies, Relationships at 11:15 pm by dinaheng

The plight of homeless veterans is not an easy story to tell, but a thoughtful Hallmark Movie Channel film inspired by true events explores what happens when a veteran of the war in Iraq — traumatized by both PTSD and a disabling injury — finds the strength to go on with the companionship of a faithful Border Collie named Duke.

Duke,” which airs Saturday, April 28 at 8 p.m. Eastern on the Hallmark Movie Channel, stars Steven Weber as Marine Sergeant Terry Pulaski, a depressed war vet who leaves his wife and daughter when he feels unable to resume his former life, taking with him only a stray dog named Duke that has bonded with him.

Ten years later, Pulaski and Duke are living in an old RV, homeless, but still together. When the dog becomes seriously ill, the former Marine decides to leave him at a veterinary clinic, ashamed that he doesn’t have the money to pay for Duke’s treatment.

“My partner Kelly is a social worker, and saw an article in the paper about a homeless guy who’d left his dog at a vet’s office, with a note saying that he was afraid the dog had had a stroke,” says Michael J. Murray, who wrote the teleplay for “Duke.” “The newspaper ran a couple of stories about the dog, who lived. A friend of the vet helped to reunite him with the dog a week later. I took the article and fictionalized the idea for a movie.”

The homeless vet’s dog in real life was a German shepherd mix, but Duke in the film became a Border Collie, played alternately by two canine stars, Zeek and Tanner.

“Zeek was quite the performer,” says Murray, laughing. “Everyone wanted to play with the dog, and all he wanted to do was do his scene and go back to his trailer.”

Dog stories have a special place in our hearts because we all have the need to be loved, unconditionally, and dogs, well… they get it. They bark to protect us, sit at our feet when we need company, and lick us silly when we need to laugh. In “Duke,” the dog of the hour rescues a broken soul, an act of valor that humans could learn from.

Murray, whose TV movie credits include “Desperately Seeking Santa,” “A Neighbor’s Secret” and “When Angels Come to Town,” did extensive research on the problems faced by returning veterans, and met with the homeless vet whose story inspired the film.

“It was tough interviewing him,” Murray says. “He had so much emotion about the story, and gave me a lot of details that I used in the script, like how the dog liked to wear different colored bandanas every day. I was really attracted to the story because of the issues of homelessness and returning vets. We send these guys away, equip them for war, but don’t give them services to help them when they come back.”

As Murray notes, helping our nation’s wounded warriors hasn’t become an issue that has galvanized the public to action. Regardless of the reasons behind the inattention, “Duke” is a touching reminder that injured vets need more than gratitude for their service — they need the tools to rebuild their lives.

“If I can incorporate those themes into a movie that makes people think, that’s great,” Murray says. “I commend Hallmark for letting us do this. There’s hope and redemption in this movie. The homeless vet who the story is based on still lives in a motorhome in California. I hope he gets a chance to see it.”

“Duke” shows there’s always a way for heroes to come home.

April 11, 2012

Spa-delicious time at Paradise Point

Posted in Between Us column, Health, Travel, Women at 9:53 pm by dinaheng

Choosing a treatment at The Spa at Paradise Point in San Diego is like taking a mini-vacation on the island of your choice.

My sister Linda and I, who love getting massages, recently stayed at the luxurious Paradise Point resort on Mission Bay, and decided to spend an afternoon relaxing at The Spa. As we perused the spa’s offerings, it was hard to decide what to try.

Following the theme of the resort, The Spa offers treatments and services that use techniques and ingredients from four exotic destinations — Hawaii, Bali, Fiji and Thailand — as well as the usual Mainland fare.

Samples from the menu:

* Blissful Stone Massage (Fiji) (50 minutes for $150 or 80 minutes for $200) : An ancient massage technique uses heated volcanic river stones to penetrate the deeper layers of your muscles to create a deeper level of relaxation;
* Organic Cocoa Cream Wrap (Bali) (50 minutes for $130): Therapeutic dry brushing prepares the skin for a blend of warm organic cocoa cream and coconut oil infused with vanilla and bergamot,  before receiving a face, scalp and foot massage;
* Bamboo Scrub (Hawaii) (25 minutes for $75): A delicate scrub using micro-particles from bamboo to massage and exfoliate, essential oils and a finishing spray of Oligo Relax Mist;
* Heavenly Soak (Thailand) (25 minutes for $75): Unwind in a traditional Japanese soaking tub with a fusion of rich mineral sea salts and essential oils; or
* Tension Tamer (Mainland) (50 minutes for $130 or 80 minutes for $180): Swedish, Deep and Sports techniques  combine for a personalized massage treatment.

“All of these treatments are more than just pampering,” says Brenda Larnin, director of The Spa. “Baths are detoxifying. Massage breaks up lactic acid and pain in the  muscles. Getting a massage after strenuous activity can be the equivalent of taking two aspirin. After a treatment, the therapist will tell you to drink water when you leave. The health benefits from a couple of extra glasses of water a day are great.”

Larnin points out that stress is an underlying cause of most diseases, so it’s important to unplug and relax, even if just for a 25 minute massage, or a bath treatment.

“You can’t bring that phone into the treatment room with you,” she says. “The recession’s made people more leary of spending money, but once people come, they appreciate the amenities and experience. You get the pool, fitness center, sauna, relaxation, and you can make a whole day of it.”

Linda and I certainly enjoyed our afternoon experience. Entering The Spa, we passed the outdoor pool, a well-equipped fitness center, and gift shop area before walking into the quiet retreat. A salon offering hair, manicure,  pedicure, and makeup services was nearby.

After changing into robes and slippers in the women’s locker room — which features dry sauna and steam rooms — we met our spa therapists and parted ways.

Linda went with Mandy, an aesthetician and massage therapist, for her Signature Tropical Paradise Facial from Hawaii (80 minutes for $185), which began with a 25 minute neck, back and shoulder massage. “I really liked it that Mandy was so knowledgeable about skin care,” Linda said later. “She answered all my questions about the procedure, and it was so relaxing to get the massage on the upper body.”

I went with another massage therapist, who gave me a Tropical Essence Massage from Fiji (50 minutes for $160), a treatment that combines the exfoliation of a scrub and the moisturizing feel of a massage.  While the massage was competent, it felt a little rushed. The therapist worked to exfoliate the skin, then gave me a few minutes to shower off the scrub before quickly finishing up with a massage. If you’re looking for true relaxation, I wouldn’t recommend this treatment.

After our first treatments, Linda and I sat for a few minutes in the Relaxation Lounge, a quiet waiting area that offers fruit and water. Those making a day of it can order food from a menu, as well.

Before long, therapists came by to get us for our second treatment of the afternoon. Linda went to get the Balinese Massage (50 minutes for $150), which combines techniques of palming, kneading, stretching and pressure point massage to create a calming and invigorating experience.

I chose the Na, Tropical Fruit and Flower Facial (80 minutes for $185), an organic therapy for the face combined with an aromatherapy massage up the shoulders, neck and scalp. Mandy, who also worked on me, said that most customers getting a facial are concerned about aging skin, acne or sun damage.

By the time she was done with me, I felt every bit of tension leave my body. Looking in the mirror, I could see a visible difference with lighter, brighter skin. Needless to say, when we left, Linda and I both bought the facial exfoliant Mandy recommended for our skin, Hylunia’s Grape Seed Exfoliating Scrub ($32).

There’s nothing that lifts the spirit and pampers the body like treating yourself to some time at a spa. So if you’re in San Diego, and relaxation is on your mind, be sure to check out The Spa at Paradise Point.

The Spa offers daily specials, and will be offering a promotion rate to celebrate Paradise Point’s 50th anniversary. For any massage that offers an 80 minute and 50 minute option, spa goers can get the 80 minute massage at the 50 minute price, subject to availability, from May 1 until the end of the year.

For more information, check out http://www.paradisepoint.com/san-diego-spa-deals.php on the Internet.

April 5, 2012

Finding paradise along the way

Posted in Between Us column, Travel, Women at 4:21 pm by dinaheng

Drive onto the grounds of Paradise Point Resort & Spa in San Diego at night, and your body will instantly relax. The lights that lazily wind up the trunks of trees along the driveway entrance say welcome to our island on Mission Bay, leave your cares behind, and listen for the sounds of wind and water.

When my sister Linda and I decided to take a weekend trip to San Diego, home to the first permanent Spanish settlement in California, we wanted to try a spot close to the water. So we chose Paradise Point, a luxury resort that sits on 44 acres of private beaches, walking trails, and tropical greenery.

Built by Hollywood producer Jack Skirball, the resort offers gorgeous views of the Bay, bonfire pits on the sand, and a wonderfully friendly staff that doesn’t mind pointing you in the right direction when you get lost on your walk.

After checking in Friday night, we found our way to our assigned “bungalow,” which was not a free-standing structure, but offered a sense of privacy just steps away from the beach. Walking out the back door, we had our own little patio and could easily imagine ourselves in a tropical paradise.

The recently-renovated guest room had an Indonesian-inspired decor, with teak furnishings and a flat screen television on one wall. The wireless Internet worked well and the lights above the beds were great for reading, but the floors were cold underfoot with no floor coverings.

As we got ready for bed, we caught up on family news and what was going on in each other’s lives. Since Linda lives in Houston, and I live in Los Angeles, it isn’t often that we get the opportunity to spend a few days together and just share. Life goes by so quickly, yet family time often gets put on the back burner.

The next morning, Linda and I took a stroll around the resort. Families are sure to love the numerous swimming pools and water sports offered here. You can go sailing, jet skiing or kayaking at the resort’s marina, or rent a bike and explore the island with pedal power. A SeaWorld water taxi ($9 for adults, $5 for children) will ferry you across the bay if you want to bypass the crowds this summer and avoid the traffic.

As we passed tennis courts, ponds, and the resort’s putting green, Linda’s eyes were drawn to the Island Market, an extensive boutique offering everything from apparel and accessories to forgotten sundries and reading material. So we went in to browse before asking a sales clerk for directions to our afternoon activities.

Happily, everything seems close in San Diego, so it didn’t take long for us to drive downtown for a Flagship whale watching cruise, which features commentary by experts from the Birch Aquarium at Scripps (www.flagshipsd.com). Adult admission is $35 weekdays, and $40 weekends. Youth, ages 4 to 12, cruise for $17.50 weekdays and $20 weekends. Children ages 3 and under are free.

“We’re watching the whales during their migration from Alaska,” explained Rachel Pound, an educator from Birch Aquarium. “They leave home during October and we start seeing them here in December to mid-April. They’re solitary creatures, so they’ll be by themselves, or be with five other whales, 10 at the most. We also see dolphins, who will play alongside the boat, and California sea lions and other species.”

We had a sunny afternoon for our four-hour cruise, and were lucky enough to not only have two whale sightings, but a number of dolphins also swim with us part of the way. While most of us get to see marine life in aquariums, it was amazing to observe sea creatures in their natural habitat.

For dinner that evening, we decided to head to Old Town, the oldest part of San Diego. Mexican lore and historic sites can be found at every turn in the crowded neighborhood that features mostly Mexican restaurants. Traffic is everywhere, so be prepared to walk from wherever you can find an open spot.

One of the oldest surviving buildings in San Diego is the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant (http://oldtowncosmopolitan.com/), which is now the only bed and breakfast hotel in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Catherine Miller, one of the co-owners of the concession, gave us a peek at one of the 10 private rooms with private bathrooms above the restaurant.

“This is the largest house in the square, and everything is furnished with period antiques,” said Miller. “The 1870 bar downstairs came from a saloon in Silver City, Idaho. It was apparently bought by Wyatt Earp, put in storage, and then was found through eBay. The property has wonderful trees. We have lemon, lime, olive, fig and loquat trees that give us fruit that we use in the bar and kitchen.”

The kitchen, under the direction of Executive Chef Andrew Sasloe, produces an amazing variety of dishes with a distinctive flair. Dinner entrees run the gamut from seafood and pasta to chicken and steak, as well as Mexican favorites.

The appetizers ranged from house-made Guacamole with Sea Salted Chips ($7.25) to an Artisan Cheese Board ($14.95). We tried the Beef Fritters with Chimichurri Pesto ($9.50), which turned out to be the one disappointment of the evening, as the meat was a tad tough.

For her entree, Linda decided to try the Expresso-Braised Kobe Short Rib, with Smashed Potatoes, and Root Vegetables in a Cabernet Reduction ($17.95). She raved over the flavor of the tender short rib and said all veggies should taste so good.

I chose the Jumbo Shrimp Scampi with Portobello Mushroom Ravioli, Oven-Dried Tomato and Shaved Black Truffles ($17.95). It was a heavenly combination that made me want the recipe. After tasting Linda’s entree, as well, I would say that dinner at this restaurant is a fantastic find, especially with its reasonable price point.

Desserts (at $6.95) included Seasonal Gelato, Cinnamon Churros, and more. We gave in and ordered the Cardamom Spiced Carrot Cake Pop-Over, which was a sinfully rich indulgence with citrus cream cheese, crystalized ginger, sun-dried cranberries and slivered almonds. If you’re in Old Town, this is definitely the place to dine.

A visit to Old Town would not be complete without exploring the mystery of Whaley House (http://whaleyhouse.org/ghostly.htm), known as a San Diego historic landmark and one of the most famous haunted houses in the country.

From the outside, the mid-19th Century Greek Revival home doesn’t look spooky at all. But when you take the last tour of the evening at 9:30 p.m. and listen to a tour guide share the history of the place, you just might get a chill.

Built on land where people once hung from the town gallows, the building that stands there has alternately served as a granary, courthouse, general store, and commercial theater, as well as the home of Thomas Whaley and his family.

Visitors have reported seeing several ghosts in the house, including those of Thomas Whaley, his wife Anna and the family dog, Dolly.

“There have been seven identified spirits in the house, none of them malicious,” said  Andrea, our tour guide for the evening. “I’ve worked as a docent here for four years, and have experienced numerous things. Creaking floors, chandeliers swinging. One night, one of the crystals in a chandelier started vibrating and I saw it. Why was it happening? It didn’t make any sense, but these things happen frequently.”

Linda and I are both sci-fi fans, so we enjoyed the paranormal tales, even if we left with none of our own to tell. We were, however, happy that it was short drive back to Paradise Point. You never know when ghosts will choose to follow.

The next morning, we headed out to Little Italy where we had Sunday brunch at Davanti Enoteca (http://davantisandiego.com/), a wine bar bistro with a lovely courtyard and private booths out back.

The intimate eatery, with wood plank walls and exposed beams in the ceiling, is reminiscent of neighborhood restaurants on New York’s East Side. A Sunday brunch menu features Italian fare that’s plentiful and filling.

Linda enjoyed the Davanti Burger ($12), which came with shoestring fries and the expected accompaniments, and an antipasti dish of Crispy Pork Belly and Peach Mostarda ($8). She deemed the burger an excellent choice, but said the pork belly was closer to its Chinese version than expected. “It was, well… just pork belly,” she said.

I had the Calzone del Mezzardro, folded pizza dough around scrambled eggs, potato hash, sausage and provolone cheese ($10). Unfortunately, the filling was slightly dry. For the price, though, the offerings were a great value.

It was neat strolling through the neighborhood of Italian bakeries (I had to pop into one for a bagful of cookies), grocery stores, gifts shops, and restaurants. Parking is difficult here, so be prepared to walk a few blocks.

The afternoon was spent back at Paradise Point, getting pampered in the resort’s wonderful spa, but more about that another time.

At the risk of sounding like foodies, Linda and I love to try different restaurants. There’s nothing as meaningful as breaking bread together, and we were happy to discover that Paradise Point has two restaurants well worth trying.

One morning, we stopped in at the Barefoot Bar & Grill, the more casual spot, for breakfast. Tables on the deck seemed a little chilly, so we opted for a spot indoors. Offerings here include the omelettes, French toast, and steak and eggs that you’d expect at any hotel restaurant. The difference is, everything was mouth-wateringly delicious.

Linda ordered the Eggs Benedict ($13), which were perfectly poached, and served with grilled potatoes. I had the Irish Steel Cut Oatmeal ($7), which came with dried fruit, roasted nuts and brown sugar, a hearty way to start the morning. Fresh orange juice was $4. While we arrived slightly after 9:30 a.m., the restaurant was already out of their fresh baked muffins ($3), so they must have been yummy.

Lunch, on another day, was equally satisfying. Linda’s Cobb Salad ($15) was excellent, and my Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pulled Pork and Tomato Basil Soup ($14) hit the spot. You know a restaurant is solid when the popular dishes sound pedestrian, but please the palate.

Our last night at Paradise Point ended with an evening at Baleen, the resort’s restaurant for fine dining. In keeping with the resort’s paradise theme, fanciful monkeys are hidden in the restaurant’s wall murals and perch playfully around the chandeliers. An open kitchen sits on one side of the dining room, with a fireplace adding warmth to the other.

The service is here impeccable, and by the welcome smell of the house Monkey Bread — a Foccacia with rosemary, thyme, butter and parmesan cheese — you know it’s going to be a memorable meal.

Appetizers range from an Artisan Cheese Plate ($15) to Seared Diver Scallops ($19), but since both Linda and I didn’t want to stretch our tummies too much, we decided to just split the Poached Pear and Arugula Salad ($11), which came with Bosc Pear, Candied Walnuts and Roquefort Cheese.

For an entree, Linda chose the Apple Brined and Glazed Pork Chop, accompanied by a Chipolte Sweet Potato Gratin, Smoked Apple Slab Bacon, Apple and Pecan Relish and Long Beans ($28). I selected the Wood Roasted Half Chicken with Seasonal Baby Vegetables, Goat Cheese Arugula Potato Puree, and Wild Mushrooms in Herb Citrus Butter ($26).

If you think those descriptions are a mouthful, they were, but oh, what a mouthful they made. The nicely seasoned, pork chop was thick and tender. The chicken was juicy and nearly melted in my mouth. We both cleaned the vegetables off our plates.

When it came to dessert, we almost declined, but when the house specialty was described, we couldn’t resist. The Black Bottom Creme Brulee with Fresh Berries and a Cookie ($8) came with a chocolate surprise underneath the traditional French custard. Needless to say, we left Baleen that night wishing we had room for more.

Our weekend in San Diego was jam-packed with sightseeing, and staying at Paradise Point turned out to be a luxurious treat. Not only was it within a 15 minute drive of everything we wanted to see, it was a comfortable retreat to return to each night.

It’s nice to know that even if you’ve only got three nights to get away, paradise can still be found.

For room rates and more information on Paradise Point, check out http://www.paradisepoint.com/ on the Internet.