Tai Shan the Matchmaker: Love, Through a Panda
To some, Tai Shan may just be the cute and cuddly panda that makes crowds "ooohhh" and "awwww" as he bounds around his habitat at the National Zoo. Little did anyone know, Tai Shan had a side job moonlighting as Cupid.
Frances Nguyen laughs lightly after a brief sigh. She fights back emotions as she reflects on what's taken place in her life over the past few years—first, a husband and, now, a baby on the way. In a way, she owes both to Tai Shan.
Before Tai Shan, Nguyen had no real interest in pandas. It wasn't until she viewed the lovable guy on his Web cam—courtesy of the zoo—and noticed his human-like behavior that she became intrigued. So intrigued that she eventually founded Pandas Unlimited, a fan club that raises awareness on panda conservation. Most of its members were single women—love through a chance encounter with a fellow panda enthusiast was the last thing on Nguyen's mind.
Foo Cheung had joined Pandas Unlimited out of his love for photographing the quiet bears. He was shy and made only a few comments on Nguyen's postings to the group. Its members met regularly at the zoo, and while everyone else was under Tai Shan's spell, Cheung opted to photograph Tai Shan's mom.
"I thought that was a bit odd, that he would only photograph the mama," chuckles Nguyen."But when I think about it, I think he was just captured by the beauty of the nature of the mama panda."
Over time, she and Cheung became friends. After a year, they became a couple. They were married on Sept. 19, 2009. With the exception of a panda cake topper, the wedding was panda-free, instead focusing on Cheung's Chinese and Nguyen's Vietnamese heritages.
And now Tai Shan's getting ready to leave. "There's like this empty space. I'm going, 'What do I do with my weekends now?' as my husband and I were still going to the zoo almost every weekend to see the pandas," says Nguyen.
While Nguyen has been getting all emotional about Tai Shan's departure, her husband, a scientist, seems to be focusing more on the DNA of the matter. Tai Shan is headed to China to enter a breeding program.
"My husband reminds me that this is for the better, for the panda gene pool," says Nguyen.
While some members of Pandas Unlimited are making plans to visit Tai Shan in China, Nguyen will have to make plans after her baby is born. The group was raising money to "adopt" has already "adopted" Tai Shan through Pandas International, a non-profit that looks after the preservation of pandas, but Nguyen says a Chinese company beat them to it.
Tai Shan's final hours in the nation's capital are winding down—today's the last day to see him. Nguyen has been at least twice in recent days, including Saturday, the day of his farewell party. "I feel like Tai Shan was a gift," says Nguyen. "Now I'm sharing my angel."
Photos courtesy of Frances Nguyen