I’m really sorry I let you down. I made promises I just couldn’t deliver.
If you recall in my last post Chinese Medicine I planned to drink a pot of Chinese herbal tea everyday to try and improve my reptilian skin, itchy scalp and overall parched demeanor caused by Beijing’s cold dry winter. I know you were hoping I could share the results of a miracle cure.
The concoction, brewed from a collection of beige roots and twigs, smelled a bit like a musty wool blanket that had been stored too long in a closet. It didn’t taste bad but as the holidays approached there was too much competition.
My first-ever homemade eggnog with a splash of Captain Morgan’s did nothing for my skin, but it uplifted my spirits tremendously in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Then there was the buttery yellow Chrysanthemum tea given to me by a friend. The color just made me happy, and I’d choose the floral aroma any day over the musky medicinal potion.
And then there was the treasured Cadbury’s hot chocolate mix, which felt like such an indulgence topped with homemade whipped cream.
(Instant hot chocolate is a foreign luxury good, not readily available.)
Peet’s Coffee made its debut in Beijing this winter, and Santa brought me a shiny red mug for Christmas. It just didn’t seem right to fill it with Moisturizing Yam Tea.
With all of the competing beverages, I just couldn’t face another cup of astralagus root and dried yam tea.
In an effort to soothe my winter-weary skin, I turned to another (this time external) popular Chinese remedy: snake oil.
I know what you’re thinking. That’s what those fly-by-night traveling salesman used to sell at carnivals in the early 1800s, right?
Actually, it turns out that snake oil has a long history of popularity in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Made from the oil of water snakes, this omega-3 fatty acid rich substance has been used to soothe skin, cure dandruff, relieve split ends and reduce arthritis.
A quick visit to Wal-Mart and I strike gold: there’s snake oil cream right next to snail slime extract. Maybe these cold-blooded creatures can help.
Online shopping offers more choices, from Snake Oil exfoliating gel to Snake Oil hair removers and whitening creams.
I’ve ordered a moisturizer and a scrub. I passed on the snail slime. I’ll check in again in a few weeks and let you know things are coming along.
Who Says You’re too Old to Play with Your food?
From meaty, cumin-scented lamb skewers to sweet, candied hawthorns, Beijing is filled with food on a stick. These fork-free dishes are perfect for strolling, sharing, dipping or indulging. If you’ve ever cooked over a campfire or savored a popsicle, then you remember that hand-held food is fun for all ages.
Head to Qianmen or Nanluoguxiang to start, and grab some lamb skewers, “whirlwind” potatoes, squid or sausages on a stick.
For the truly adventurous, there are scorpions, silkworm larvae and tarantulas, perhaps best left for capturing with your camera and not your taste buds.
For an experience that’s a little more off the beaten path, head to Xinmin market (subway stop Guloudajie) and spend the morning exploring the produce, spices and wet market. When hunger strikes, look for the ma la tang stand selling a variety of skewers including mushroom bundles, quail eggs, meatballs, broccoli, lettuce, noodles and much more. Don’t worry – there’s no menu to decipher; just point to a skewer that looks good and give it a try. For just a few kuai a skewer, it’s a fun, affordable outing.
Travel the Globe
Don’t limit yourself to Chinese food. Beijing has a whole world of flavors just waiting for you to try. Grab a map and start checking off your destinations. At Athena Greek restaurant the Chicken Souvlaki comes on a suspended skewer.
Nearby Alameen offers a platter of mixed Lebanese kebabs, and a taste of Turkey is just a hop, skip and a jump away at Turkish Feast.
Branch out from curries at your favorite Indian restaurant with a skewer of cheese-like paneer or head to NomNom in Haidian District for Indonesian mutton or beef Satay with a side of Sambal Kecap, sweet soy sauce mixed with chilies and shallots. And of course, don’t forget to stop in Thailand for some peanut-y Chicken Satay.
If you’d rather take cooking into your own hands, Café Zarah offers Cheese Fondue every evening after 6pm. Each bowl of melted cheese-y goodness comes with crunchy cubes of bread, vegetables, cornichons and a bowl of pineapple.
Winter is the season for tanghulu, those shiny, sugary fruit sticks decorating the city like ornaments.
Round red hawthorns are the most popular, but you’ll also find grapes, kiwi slices and Chinese yams. There are even some Santa-themed ones with marshmallows and strawberries.
Keep an eye out for purple sticky rice dipped in sugar or waffles on a stick that spell “I Love Beijing” in Chinese characters.
Find your zodiac sign fashioned in sugar candy or grab a stick full of sweet-and-sour shan zha (dried Hawthorn).
Floral scented gui hua cake drizzled with syrup beckons with its golden yellow hue, derived from Osmanthus flowers.
For a more interactive experience, head to Qianmen Kitchen restaurant to make some S’mores. Roast American marshmallows over your own charcoal brazier, add some Lindt Chocolate and sandwich it all between Biscoff cookies and digestive biscuits.
Lastly, don’t rule out ice cream just because it’s winter. Beautiful rose-shaped ice cream and vibrant fruity popsicles (at Nanluoguxiang) will make you forget how cold it is outside, even if just for a moment.
When my brother and I were little, we spent summers with our grandparents in Denmark. My grandmother didn’t have a drier, so she hung all of the clothes on the line. They smelled like sunshine, but were so stiff and sharp that we pretended to sword fight with pointy wash cloths.
My body feels like one of my grandmother’s line-dried wrinkled wash cloths. We are less than two months into Beijing’s winter but the extreme dryness and cold temperatures have wrung every once of moisture out of my hair, my skin and my lungs. The level of static electricity means I look a bit like Einstein when I return from shopping and take my hat off.
If it were possible to bottle some warmth and humidity from Florida, I’d ask you to send it to me. Add a pinch of salty ocean air too please.
I’m in a Chinese Medicine chat group and I saw a post recently for “Moistening Yam Tea.” The recipe promised to “benefit my Qi, nourish my Yin and promote fluid production.” I have no idea what that means, but since slathering my skin with gallons of lotion only goes so far, I’m willing to try anything that promises moisture. Maybe it will work like a Bounce dryer sheet, softening my skin, reducing stiffness and eliminating my static cling.
Out of the five ingredients listed, I recognize two: Chinese yams and licorice root. I like licorice (my roots are Danish after all), so how bad can it be? (Chinese medicine concoctions in general aren’t designed to taste good).
I took a tour of a market recently about 30 minutes away, and I know they have a Chinese medicine shop. (It’s called a wet market, really, but I don’t want to scare you into thinking they sell snakes and bats. The most exotic things I saw on my visit were eels, frogs and turtles.
So I hopped on the Subway to Xinmin market and found the Chinese Medicine shop. I had a photo of the recipe with Chinese characters, which I’m hoping the doctor understands because I can’t tell astralagus root from licorice root.
“How much is this going cost?” I asked the doctor. I’m not sure what maidong is, but if it’s as pricey as ground dragon bones, I’ll just rub my hair with a Bounce sheet instead.
She takes a little note pad and adds some figures, and shows me: 150 kuai, a little over $20 bucks. I give her a thumbs up, and she measures the ingredients.
I wanted to take a picture with her, but felt a little embarrassed to ask. Just as I’m practicing the words in my head, she hands me my purchase with a smile and comes out from behind the counter and starts taking a video of the two of us. I’m guessing I’m the first foreign customer she’s had, and she wants to brag about it on social media. I wonder how many followers I have on TikTok now?
“How much of this stuff should I be drinking?” I asked in the Chinese Medicine chat group.
“It depends on your constitution,” came the reply. “Just brew a big pot and drink it as you need it.” How will I know when my constitution has had enough ?
I measure out the ingredients and brew a pot.
It’s not bad. It’s earthy, with hints of licorice, spice and leather. Oh, wait, that was my wine from last night. Wrong glass.
I add a few more pieces of licorice root (at least I think I did), close my eyes, and think of chocolate as I take another swig. It doesn’t taste like chocolate, but I can pretend.
Honestly, it’s not bad and I manage to down a pot a day. It’s only been a few days so I don’t have any data to report. I’m hoping in a few weeks I’ll feel less like a wrung out wash cloth and more like a rehydrated sponge. But you can go ahead and mail that package with the tropical, Florida humidity. Throw in a few Bounce sheets while you’re at it; they cost almost as much here as ground dragon bones.
If you read my post Strange but True you know that life in Beijing can be downright quirky at times.
Are dogs in other cities this well dressed and I just haven’t noticed?
I thought it might be fun to share a few more aspects of life in China that sometimes leave us wondering.
Why stand when you can squat?
I thought squatting was something I did at the gym to buff my thighs. It turns out that squatting can be used as a convenient position to rest, grab a smoke, slurp some noodles or do some work. It’s preferred to sitting on the curb or the ground, which of course is where those doggies in their cute little outfits do their business.
Masks aren’t just for the virus.
Every hotel room I’ve been in in China has some variation of this mask. At first I thought they were gas masks to be used in case China and North Korea decide not to be buddies anymore, but it turns out they are to be used in case of a hotel fire. Whew. I feel better. I think.
Chinese are a snap-happy bunch. From selfie sessions to pass the boredom on the bus to hour-long photo shoots in traditional dress, there’s no end to the opportunities to click and post. On a recent vacation I was so captivated by people posing for the camera I left without a single shot of my family. We might, however, end up in someone else’s holiday album.
Make it work
Everyone in China has a job to do. If not, the government will make one for you. I’ve seen people cleaning the guardrails on freeway overpasses, wiping down trash cans on street corners and sweeping water off the street with bamboo brooms after a heavy rain.
Local villagers make a little extra money by planting flowers to beautify the roadside. The government gives them seeds and a small stipend.
A large, flexible workforce is part of what has helped control the virus. Within hours, cities can mobilize testing crews, set up barricades and conduct contact tracing. In a recent outbreak in Qingdao, the government tested 10 million people in four days. Workers are simply temporarily shifted from other jobs to where they are needed.
What are you curious about when it comes to life in China? Feel free to post questions in the comments. I might just use one for a future post.
Up. Down. All around. I counted 96 security cameras on my morning walk to the park which is just over a mile away. That was on my side of the street. It could have been 95 or 97. I started to lose count after awhile.
Cameras line the streets to monitor traffic.
Crosswalks are monitored to discourage jaywalking. Sometimes names and ID numbers pop up next photos of the offending pedestrians.
Cameras in restaurant kitchens send a live feed to the dining area. Find a stray hair in your food? Now you’ll know whose it is.
Cameras are in every school classroom (keep those masks on!), and adorn entrances to hotels, apartment compounds and shops.
Mini-cameras hang from rearview mirrors or sit on the dash in taxis and ride share vehicles.
If there’s a place to gather, chances are there’s a camera nearby.
Since Beijing is the capital, it’s surveillance heavy, with around 1 million cameras watching 20 million people. The city boasts 100 % coverage. Combined with the ever-increasing technology of facial recognition, the use of cameras is a way to keep people in line.
In China, whether you sip, stroll, work or play, someone is always watching.
Thankfully, I haven’t seen any cameras patrolling the public restrooms yet. Using a sometimes less-than-clean squat toilet is stressful enough. I don’t need an audience.
I’m so used to it I don’t even notice them much anymore. I guess I should put on lipstick or at least comb my hair when I go out for my morning walk.
I did get a little nervous this morning taking pictures of them taking pictures of me (there should be a word for that).
I’ve been scolded for taking pictures at sensitive places before, like Tiananmen Square.
On one hand, I do feel safer. I don’t have to worry about anyone spitting in my food when I go out to eat, and if my taxi driver decides to go on a joyride, the whole thing’s on tape. I haven’t seen any graffiti, looting or damaged property. I think there was one murder reported last year in Beijing that I heard about. My biggest fear is someone stealing my bicycle.
Most Chinese people who are interviewed on the subject for local news outlets don’t mind the scrutiny. It’s the government’s job to keep people safe, and the cameras are one tool. Personal privacy is foreign concept in this country anyway.
On the other hand, it’s a little creepy to think Big Brother knows everything about my day, from what time I went to the gym in the morning to what I bought at the grocery store for dinner. If I partake in any suspect behavior, I’m quite sure someone will come knocking.
And I’ve only told you about the cameras. Maybe another time I’ll explain the tracking apps, bank monitoring and media censoring that’s part of everyday life.
How would you feel living under such tight surveillance? Do you think life in your hometown would change if people knew they were being watched? Drop a comment. I’d love to hear.
Recently, I made a quick weekend trip to Luoyang in Henan province. I joined a tour group called Foreigners in China Network, designed for “laowai” like me to travel around without the hassle of booking train tickets, reserving hotels and navigating the changing landscape of post-pandemic tourism in China. There are still many places that foreigners are not welcome, and traveling with a Chinese guide just smooths out the lumps.
We met at the train station at 5:30 a.m. for the 4-hour high speed train to Luoyang, the jumping off point for the trip. Our group consisted in part of another American family, an Iraqi embassy cultural representative, a London IT guy, a couple from India, my Indonesian friend, and a guy who thinks Beijing winters are tropical compared to his hometown of Philly.
We packed a lot into 36 hours. I could tell you all about the Longmen Grottoes, with their 1,500 hundred year history and 100,000 buddhas carved into caves and niches along the river side.
We strolled the streets of Lijing Ancient City, passing vendors selling fresh pomegranate juice, traditional snacks and handicrafts.
We visited the Kung Fu training school in the Songshan mountains, made famous by the actor Bruce Lee in his 1970s martial arts films where he played a Shaolin monk. It’s currently home to hundreds of young martial arts practitioners who master their school work along with their leaps, kicks and splits.
And of course there is the Shaolin Temple itself, set in a tranquil forest with a view of the mountains. It’s history dates from around 500 A.D.
and the Stone Pagoda Forest, with over 250 stone stupas which serve as monuments for deceased monks.
As I worked my way through China’s greatest hits and checked off a few more UNESCO World Heritage sites, (China has 55), I realized my favorite part of the trip wasn’t something you could put on a magnet or T-shirt.
It was the people.
Like these ladies. We can’t always communicate, but a smile and thumbs up sign are universal, and I had a few encounters like that.
And then there’s this man practicing calligraphy on the street corner, who smiled when I pointed to a few characters I knew and then penned a poem for me.
And these dancers in their colorful costumes, who were happy to pose for a photo.
And this dude on the Segway who kept us company while we were waiting in line for tickets. He struck up a conversation in excellent English with the American family in our group, then quickly ran off to buy presents for their family before we all parted ways.
Outside of our group, we didn’t see any Western tourists. I felt like a rock star, with giggling teenage girls following me into the bathroom, and people asking for photos with me. Some parents pushed their kids to practice their English on me, which usually resulted in tears, since the kids were afraid of the “da bizi.” (Literally, “big nose” which is slang for foreigners, used in places where Westerners are rarely seen).
Other times, they were curious about us and wanted to know what we thought about China, like this man.
He told us he had seen some really bad things on social media about how Westerns hated Chinese people, and so he was surprised to see us. He wanted to know what we thought about his country. I could hear the earnestness in his voice. He wanted us to love China as much as he did.
I explained that I think China is a beautiful place, but right now it’s a little difficult to be here because there are places I can’t go, or I get questioned by the police. Finding a hotel is often problematic.
“Oh, it’s for your safety,” he told me. I think sometimes Chinese use the word “safety” when they really mean “security.”
“But no matter what the governments say or the politics are, I want to very much welcome you to my country. My family welcomes you too,” he said before reaching out to give me a big hug. Showing this kind of affection in public to a stranger ? A foreigner? It’s unheard of. I was moved, almost to tears.
This was the China I was hoping to see.
“Just keep putting out the cookies,” my pastor advised years ago after we volunteered to lead a Bible study in our home.
Now I know why this is so important. Cookies create community, offering comfort, encouragement and laughter. If you calculate the payback on a cost-per-cookie basis, I’d say they’re a pretty good investment.
Growing up in America, most of us have some fond memory from childhood of making chocolate chip cookies with mom or enjoying one as treat with a special friend.
There’s a reason realtors bake them for open houses. We’ve formed an emotional attachment to these sweet little rounds, and the smell reminds us of home. One whiff of Nestle Toll House and we’re transported back to a time when life was simple and we felt safe and loved. That’s a lot of power packed into one little sweet.
Living in Beijing during COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. Everything is foreign, uncertain and sometimes scary. Crossing the street during rush hour and trying to decipher between hand sanitizer and hair spray are both challenges that make me long for home, or at least a good strong cup of coffee and a warm, chocolate chip cookie.
The thing is, chocolate isn’t really popular in China. Every now and then I get my hopes up only to be fooled by a red bean paste- or black sesame seed-filled pastry masquerading as a brownie or pain au chocolat.
So I bake my own. But just like finding a clean public bathroom or ordering from a Chinese menu, making cookies presents challenges too. I shop at at least three different stores (sometimes four) to find all of the supplies. Brown sugar and chocolate chips are scarce here.
While I mix the dough and wait for my Easy Bake-sized oven to preheat, my thoughts are on my community. Some of the faces have changed, but we still hold a weekly Bible study in our home. My family, friends and the cookies are the glue that makes me stick with this place.
They’re not magic, but this combination of butter, flour, sugar, eggs and chocolate speaks where words fail.
A warm chocolate chip cookie says “I’m sorry you have five hours of math homework. I can’t understand any of it but I’m so proud of you.”
Five or six in a small cellophane bag with a gold ribbon says “I’m glad your surgery went well. I hope you recover quickly.”
It takes at least a dozen to say “I’m so happy we’re neighbors. I really needed a friend” or “two weeks of quarantine in a Chinese hotel sounds awful. Welcome home.”
Occasionally cookies say thank you to my son’s guitar teacher, and to our Chinese tutor (anyone who has enough patience to teach my husband how to deliver a toast at a Chinese wedding deserves a treat).
Cookies speak the language of teenagers when everything I say just comes out wrong. I usually keep extra dough in the freezer in case my sons have friends over; moms really aren’t cool anymore but cookies are chill.
Cookies say “I’m sorry the borders are closed and you’re stuck in China. I know you miss your friends.”
On Sundays, I bring out the yellow platter and fill it with few dozen and put it at the end of the kitchen counter next to the watermelon. We share a meal and remind each other that even here, God is with us.
So, for as long as we live in China, I’ll keep putting out the cookies. I made a fresh batch today and I was thinking about you. I miss you and wish you could join me.
CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Feel free to add your own special touch. One friend doubles the chocolate chips and uses all brown sugar; my mom adds vanilla pudding mix to keep the cookies moist. If you can’t find chocolate chips, substitute baking drops or break a chocolate bar into small chunks.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Two sticks of butter, softened (about 227 grams)
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups chocolate chips
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars together. Add eggs and vanilla, mix well. In a small bowl, mix flour, baking soda and salt. Add dry mix into large bowl, stirring to combine. Add chocolate chips and mix well.
Drop one spoonful of dough on a baking sheet at a time, leaving room between cookies. Bake at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes or until cookies are lightly brown around the edges and on top.
We’re not in Kansas anymore. Just about everyday I see something in Beijing that surprises or shocks me. Some things make me laugh; others just make me shake my head in disbelief. Here’s just a sample of a few of the strange things I’ve noticed around town.
Dogs Wear Shoes.
And cute little t-shirts.
Sometimes they get really decked out.
And if there’s a special event coming up, they can even take their owners to a shop that sells haute couture for pooches.
Hot is Cool.
From drinking hot water to layering on sweaters in mid-summer, Beijingers like things steamy.
At first I thought I was just suffering through hot flashes, but my expat friends are constantly fanning themselves as well. Maybe my internal thermometer speaks a different language, because I can feel perfectly comfortable in short sleeves and get tskd by a jacket-wearing local for being under dressed. I’ve had people in the elevator comment on my capris when it dipped below 60 degrees.
Last winter we didn’t have to turn on our heat because our neighbors kept their places toasty enough to permeate ours. There’s even a Chinese word – pa leng – that means “fear of the cold.”
Gloves aren’t just for winter.
If you can’t pick it up with chopsticks, you’d better put on your gloves.
Pizza, wings and other hand-held food come with disposable plastic gloves so you don’t have to gasp touch the food with your naked hands. With the shortage of soap (and sometimes water) in public restrooms, it’s probably not such a bad idea.
Skin care is a big deal.
From whitening creams to foot masks, there’s a poultice or potion to firm, lighten or moisture just about any body part. Porcelain white, smooth skin is the goal here, and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.
Beijingers hide from the sun under parasols, arm sleeves or whatever item they might be carrying (I’ve seen laptops, jackets and squares of cardboard) as they hurry down the street to reach the shade.
Traditionally, dark skin was a sign of an outdoor laborer’s heavy toil and lifestyle of poverty; thus fair skin reflected wealth and status.
There’s so much more I could tell you so stay tuned for another “strange but true” post in the future.
If you missed my last post on the obstacles we faced yesterday on the way to scuba lessons, you can catch up here: Jellyfish Lake
Hoping to avoid being detained by police again, I printed out a copy of the paperwork we filled out yesterday. On the train to Zhuozhou, I silently rehearse my lines in Chinese. “We came here yesterday and registered. We’re back again today.”
“Maybe we’ll get the same guy as yesterday and he’ll let us through,” Daniel says as we get off the train.
Walking toward the exit, we are confronted with three security guards and four guys wearing neon Traffic Control vests. We’re outnumbered and get immediately pulled over to the side.
“Who are you meeting? What’s her name What’s her phone number? Where are you going?” Officer #232 asks. This takes about 45 minutes. So much for a faster exit today.
“Can we go now? What else do you need?
“Please wait, another officer will come soon.”
“How much longer?”
“Twenty minutes? It’s been almost an hour!”
“He’s eating his breakfast first and then he’ll come.”
Officer #232 paces in circles and wipes his brow. He really wants to be done with us but doesn’t want the responsibility of letting us go. He looks so uncomfortable we almost feel sorry for him.
“Can we go? Our friends are waiting,” we try again.
Officer #232 hands me the papers and points to the locked exit door.
“Show it to him,” he says.
We knock to get the guard’s attention, pressing our faces to the glass like puppies at the pet store pleading for freedom.
“Mom don’t stop – keep going!” Daniel urges when the door opens.
“Aren’t we supposed to show him our papers?” I ask the boys.
“I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to come after us and tackle us. Just go,” Timothy says.
Our instructors Chris and Lexie meet us in the parking lot. The good news is Chris isn’t hungover today.
“Maybe next time you should try driving. There’s so much traffic they don’t stop everyone,” Lexie says. “It should be much faster.”
She tells us that the police grilled her on the phone while we were waiting in the station. Her relationship with three foreigners was causing suspicion from the authorities.
We agree to arrange a car for tomorrow, hoping to avoid another encounter with the police.
The boys master their scuba skills successfully, and Chris and Lexie drive us to the train station. We’re hungry, but the pork bun shop is closed. We pass a vendor selling chicken feet from a roadside cart and produce vendors displaying their goods on the ground. It’s grittier than Beijing.
“Do you eat lu rou huo shao?” Lexie asks. Donkey Meat? We love it.
“It’s amazing we’ve never gotten food poisoning here,” Timothy says, digging into a hot flaky roll stuffed with donkey meat. The car smells like peppers and cumin.
There’s a local idiom here that “in Heaven there is dragon meat, on earth there is donkey meat.” Finally, something likable about Zhuozhou.
We pass security quickly after pointing to the clock and speaking urgently about our train departing soon.
At dinner time, Mike asks about our day.
“There was really nothing fun about swimming in a trash filled lake. I just want to get certified,” Timothy says in a voice that conveys truth, not complaint.
Being grilled by the police over the last two days takes an emotional toll. No one wants to go back, but we need to finish before school starts. We take a week off and then schedule the last two classes.
We’ve arranged for our driver Chen to take us, hoping driving across the provincial border will be easier than travelling by train. Success! We didn’t get stopped at all.
That was such a good decision, I thought, as we wrapped up the scuba lesson and hit the road by 2:30. So far, the trip was uneventful. No police checks, paparazzi or dead fish floating in the lake.
Then we hit the first police check point. We get pulled over, Chen hands over our passports and gets out of the car to talk with the guards. A few minutes later an officer gets into our car (without Chen) and starts driving. We’re on a road trip with no passports and a Chinese cop behind the wheel. Before my heart rate hits dangerously high, the officer pulls into a parking lot behind the police station.
After about 20 minutes of questioning, we’re on our way. We pass checkpoint number two, leaving Zhuozhou without incident. We cross the bridge to checkpoint three, which is the border into Beijing.
We roll up to the guard and as soon as he sees us in the car he motions for us to park and get out. We hand over the passports and the questions start again.
“Where are you from? When did you arrive in China? Where’s your virus test? Where’s your proof of quarantine? Who is your community leader?” The officer asks in Chinese, thumbing through our passports.
Chen patiently answers for us as we stand on the side of the road. The officer isn’t satisfied and disappears inside the building with our passports. We wait as a steady stream of traffic rolls by. From tattooed truckers to old ladies hauling peanuts to market, their eyes rest heavily on us. If we were still in Florida I’d wish for a sinkhole to swallow us up.
Chen brings us some water from the car. If I’m going to be an object of shame at a Chinese border crossing, I can’t think of anyone better to have at my side. With a fuzzy brush cut and a face like a teddy bear, Chen is kind and gentle, providing the comfort we need.
“How much longer?” Timothy asks.
“I think I heard someone say 20 minutes, or maybe he said he’s been working here 20 years, or that we’ll be waiting 20 years, I’m not sure,” I answer.
It’s been almost an hour when we see a police car pull up, lights flashing.
“Maybe they’re just starting their shift,” Daniel says. “Or they’re coming to take us away.”
I take a mental inventory of the snacks and toilet paper in my purse as three soldiers walk up behind the police car and toward us.
“Maybe they requested back up,” Daniel say. We laugh a little, but there’s tension, realizing the situation is completely out of our control. The police car and soldiers continue past and we relax a little bit.
“What can they possibly be doing inside?” I wonder out loud.
“Maybe he’s waiting for his boss to finish his plate of dumplings before he approves our paperwork,” Timothy says.
After about an hour and a half an officer comes out and unceremoniously hands back our passports.
What we had hoped would be an easier trip than going by train had turned into a 4-hour car journey that tested the depths of our patience and strength of my bladder.
I get up early and bake blueberry muffins. If we spend hours at the border or get thrown in jail at least we won’t be hungry.
We set off with Chen and arrive quickly in Zhuozhou. The only obstacle in our path this time was a herd of sheep.
We arrive a little early, hoping we can finish and head home before Friday traffic gets too bad.
“Maybe we can hide in the back of the van,” Daniel says. “Except they probably have infrared sensors and they’d find us.”
The boys grab their wet suits from the equipment room head down to the lake.
It rained last night, raising the water level and gathering more debris into the lake.
“Well. There’s a couch to sit on with your feet in the water, kind of like New Symrna,” Mike says, when I text him a picture.
The only thing missing is a fruity drink with a little umbrella.
I find a patch of shade and watch the boys disappear into the lake, leaving a trail of air bubbles. Local kids play in the water, eating watermelon and tossing the rinds. A toddler comes with his dad, looking to catch some fish in his small net.
The boys finish their skills and make their way to the beach, greeted by a golden retriever who’s gone for a dip to escape the summer heat.
“Congratulations to our open water divers,” Lexie says, snapping photos of the boys she will use to make their official PADI certificates.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I will beautify the pictures first – make your eyes bigger, make your skin whiter.”
I think of the rows of skin whitening products for sale in the grocery store. Maybe everything here would be easier if our skin were just a little bit whiter and we didn’t look so foreign. I look at my handsome blond boys with a hint of color on their skin from a day at the lake and think they look perfect.
We left Jellyfish Lake three days ago, but the sting is still fresh in my mind.
We took a bullet train 20 minutes south of Beijing to the bedroom community of Zhuozhou so my sons could take a PADI scuba certification course. They completed the basic coursework online, and we found an English-speaking instructor to teach them the open water skills. It turned out it wasn’t just their diving skills that were put to the test.
We crossed the provincial border arriving in Zhuozhou and were immediately pulled aside by the police as we tried to exit the train station. Since we’re “waiguoren” (foreigners) this was not unusual but it’s always unsettling.
The questions (in Chinese of course), are routine enough in the beginning. “When did you arrive in China? Why are you here? What’s your phone number?”
Quickly, the sight of three foreigners draws a crowd and we are surrounded by four police officers and a few traffic cops looking for entertainment.
“Lai, Lai, lai,” one officer says, waving us to follow. Since he’s holding our passports, we have no choice but to follow him outside into a make-shift police station fashioned out of an old shipping container.
You know the feeling you get when you’re driving, and you see the red and blue lights flashing behind you and your stomach gets all tied up in knots? That’s how I feel.
Inside, a lady in a white coat and nurse’s hat perches on the edge of a cot. There’s a matching bed across from her, with a wok, electric kettle and cooking pot stored underneath. The windows are blacked out with pieces of cardboard boxes.
“Do they live here?” my son Timothy asks.
“It looks like it,” I say, as the nurse takes out her phone and starts filming us. Posting videos on social media of two tall, handsome blond teenagers being questioned by police will gain the nurse instant fame in this small town.
“Bu yao,” I tell her to stop, scowling. I feel enough like a circus freak already.
The officer continues to question us, asking for proof of quarantine (which wasn’t required), a virus test (which we don’t have) and a list of all of the places we’ve traveled since we moved to China (too many to count).
“I think he’s asking for our address in America,” my older son Daniel says. It’s a bit like Wheel of Fortune, where we guess the questions by knowing a few key words. I’d gladly pay for a vowel if it would help us out of this mess.
It’s been 45 minutes of interrogation and I’m reaching my breaking point. I don’t know how to write “Orangeshire Court” in Chinese and I really need to pee. I text our Chinese scuba instructors Lexie and Chris to ask for help. Eventually, the officer runs out of questions and reluctantly lets us go.
“That’s crazy. He asked so many questions. I told him it’s none of his f***ing business,” Lexie says as we walk to her car. I don’t know how to say that in Chinese, but it probably wouldn’t have helped.
I fan myself with our passports. I’m hot and frustrated and my stomach feels icky. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Covid-19 has been an easy excuse to keep foreigners from traveling around China, securing tickets to scenic spots and staying in hotels. I wonder if this is how my friends of color feel in the U.S.
We drive 25 minutes to Jellyfish Lake, stopping to pick up some pork stuffed buns since it’s already lunchtime.
“You guys want something to drink? Coke? Cold water?” Lexie asks when we stop. I really want a beer but I’m trying to set a good example for my kids, so I settle for water.
Lexie and Chris run their diving school out of an old farmhouse near the lake. Lexie helps the boys pick out wetsuits and loads them in a van with the oxygen tanks.
“Now we just need Chris,” Lexie says. “I think he’s in the toilet.”
On cue, we hear Chris retching from nearby bushes.
“Is he sick? I’m not really comfortable with this,” I tell her.
“Oh, don’t worry – he’s not sick,” she reassures us. “He’s just hungover. He drank too much sake last night.”
Great. The boys might drown from a hungover instructor, but at least they won’t catch the flu.
We drive the short distance to the lake, passing through a cornfield, paintball course and a cemetery. From a distance the lake looks pretty, its blue-green color reminding me of the glacier-fed lakes in Canada. But as we get closer, I see a dead fish and garbage floating near the shore.
“It doesn’t look too dirty,” Timothy says, noticing my concern.
“It’ll be ok as long as they don’t have any amoebas,” Daniel says.
Swimmers itch? E Coli? Water snakes? What should I worry about most?
“Remember all those shots we got before we left home? This is why,” I say.
I text my husband Mike a few pictures and tell him that we’re outnumbered, as a small group of locals has come to watch the foreign scuba divers.
He sees the photo of the dead fish and texts back “I hope the boys have fun and that you’ll forgive me one day.”
There’s a quick break after the first dive and Chris comes out of the water and starts dry heaving, sounding like a sick seal.
The boys laugh and Timothy asks, “How is that sound even human?”
“I don’t really think he’s fit to teach. Maybe he should rest this afternoon,” I tell Lexie as the noises from Chris’s belly grow louder. He must have been holding it in while they were underwater.
Chris sits the afternoon out, giving occasional instructions from the lakeshore between cigarettes.
The boys finish for the day and we head to the train station.
In the car, Lexie and Chris tear open small, colorful packages that look like candy.
“You guys want some? You just chew it and spit it out,” she says, holding it up for them to see.
“What is it?”
I type the words into my phone, wondering what kind of dried fruit or nuts she’s offering.
“It’s like, how do you say – chewing tabaco,” she says, happy to find the correct words.
“The areca palm tree seed known as Betel Nut or Bing Lang in Chinese produces a quick, cheap high but carries the risk of oral cancer, addiction, stained teeth and cardiovascular disease,” my phone tells me.
“No, that’s ok. We’ll pass,” I say.
We’re all a little nervous walking into the train station, but thankfully, leaving Zhuozhou rated about 3 on a 1 to 10 hassle-factor scale. I’m so ready to put this experience behind us, but we have to come back tomorrow since the class is a 4-part series.
I get ready for bed, tell the boys how proud I am of them and pray that tomorrow will be easier.
Make sure to subscribe to my blog to find out what happens next at Jellyfish Lake.
“Let’s ask her the price, then wait til she finishes her beer and ask again,” my friend Josie said.
“Yeah, I remember last time. First she said they were 25 kuai, then she went down to 20 and we didn’t even bargain,” I said.
I press the button in the elevator to go down to the basement of the office building where my favorite orchid vendor has set up shop. The flower vendors used to be across the street in the Lai Tai Flower Market, not far from the U.S. Embassy. For some reason last spring the Beijing government decided to close the place down, and now the vendors are scattered across the city.
Orchids are my guilty pleasure. I don’t smoke, I’m not hooked on chips or donuts and I prefer strong coffee to strong liquor.
But lead me to a display of orchids? I can’t help myself. I’m like an addict.
Buttery yellow, deep lusty purple, pale pink, warm tangerine – I just go weak in the knees when I see all of the choices.
In the U.S. I kept my orchid habit in check because they were kinda pricey. But at $3-5 a pop in China, I can afford to treat myself once a week if I want to. It’s cheaper than Starbucks, and they last longer than a latte and have fewer calories.
We step out of the elevator and head down the hall, following the tropical smell.
We breeze pass the cut flowers and head to main attraction, the orchids. They’re right next to the frog, turtle and fish vendor (the kind for aquariums, not the dinner table).
For some reason, in Beijing it’s common for aquatic pet purveyors and flower vendors to share space. I guess both living creatures bring color and happiness to their owners, and require the same finicky degree of care.
“Eh, Ni hao,” says the orchid seller, turning to say hello as we approach.
Her easygoing greeting can either be interpreted as friendly recognition (I come here often), or a result of her morning beverage: the tall can of beer that’s sitting on her desk between a watermelon and a bag of peanuts.
She has a tea kettle, but I think it’s mostly for decoration. Every time I visit – sometimes as early as 9 a.m. – she has a can or bottle of suds open. It’s 11 a.m. and there are more than a few empties beneath the counter.
“Women keyi kan kan ma?” I ask. I want to look at all of my choices before deciding on which ones to take home. I’ve bought orchids from other places, but these just seem to thrive. Maybe she feeds them the same liquid diet she enjoys.
“Keyi, kan ba.” She nods her approval and takes a long swig of Harbin, China’s oldest beer. She goes back to snacking on peanuts between sips while we admire her flowers.
“What do you think of this one?” Josie asks me, picking up a deep burgundy orchid accented with white and yellow in the center. It’s darker than all the others, almost inky.
“I like it. It looks like it has a little face in the middle.”
“Zhe ge shi hei mao,” the orchid lady tells us.
Josie and I process what she’s telling us for a second, then we both smile.
“Hei Mao. It’s called Black cat,” Josie says.
“Dui, hei mao,” the orchid lady confirms, prancing around softly like a cat, as her jet black braids swing back and forth.
“Hei mao. Hei mao,” she laughs as she dances, garnering a few smirks from the neighboring vendors.
I notice that she has a stem of orchids clipped to her blouse.
“Ni chuan zhe hua. Piaoliang,” I say, trying out some newly acquired Chinese vocabulary.
I think I told her she was wearing beautiful flowers, but I might have called her a lamb skewer by mistake. That’s the problem with Chinese, so many words sound the same.
I guess I said it right, because she took the flowers off and pinned them on me. What an unexpected gift.
Thankfully, we really do speak the same language: a love of orchids.
With their intricate patterns, heart-shaped faces and lush colors, orchids transport me to another world. They make me feel like I’m on a tropical vacation even when I’m living on the 15th floor looking out my window at a concrete jungle. I don’t actually talk to them, but I jokingly refer to them as my “Friends.”
After about 30 minutes of basking in the sea of orchids, I choose three lovely flowers to take home.
“Yigong 75 kuai, dui?” I check the price with the Orchid Lady, doing the quick math in my head. That’s just over 10 bucks for all three.
She takes a sip of beer, pulls out her calculator, and takes a quick look around, as if we’re making a black market transaction.
She punches the numbers in the display and shows us the total: 70 Kuai. We lingered long enough to receive the “I’m on beer number two and feeling happy” discount.
We settle the bill with our unasked for discount and leave with our new friends, touched by the Orchid Lady’s kindness.
“If you are in the company of good people, it’s like entering a room full of orchids. After awhile, you become soaked in the fragrance and you don’t even notice.” —Confucius