Adventures of Life in Beijing

Six months into my temporary stay in  Beijing, I feel like I’m becoming a little bit Chinese. Don’t panic. My hair is still blond and I haven’t changed my name, but living in China has definitely changed me.

I can eat chicken or frog and spit out the bones just like a local, and I can slurp soup with best of them.

Deep fried frog legs sprinkled with chili peppers

 

I feel annoyed when I walk into a restaurant and there are too many other waiguoren because clearly it’s not authentic. When the waiter warns that the ma po tofu I’m about to order is a little bit spicy, I wave him off with a quick mei wenti. 

Spicy you say? Mei wenti, no problem. It’s one of my favorites.

 

When we first arrived from the US, I waited eagerly for months for our sea shipment, filled with things I was sure I’d miss.  As I unpacked  taco seasoning and cocoa powder and lined them up on the shelf next to the schezuan pepper corns, I felt rich with possibility.

But as I placed the Ranch dressing in the fridge next to the sesame oil, soy sauce and dark vinegar, the white bottle looked foreign next to its Asian counterparts. Those tall, dark bottles showed up one at a time and helped me build a new life; now I can’t imagine a day without them.

Move over Ranch. You’ve got competition: dark vinegar, sesame oil and soy sauce.

 

Pork-filled boazi have replaced waffles for breakfast, and black tea lattes are now my go-to order at Starbucks.

I’ve adopted the local preference for drinking hot water instead of cold most of the time, and I’ve stopped buying napkins because small tissues work just fine. (I’ve always got a package tucked in my purse, since not all restaurants provide them and it doubles as TP in a pinch). Dumplings and instant noodles stand in for chicken nuggets as a quick after school snack.

 

Dumplings make the perfect anytime snack.

 

But it’s not just my appetite that’s changed. I prefer the subway or biking during rush hour because it’s faster. I speak survival Mandarin most days and resort to Google translate or English only when I’m feeling particularly fragile, like when my yoga teacher scolded me in front of the class because I couldn’t sit on my heels for the entire 45 minute class.

 

I’m not afraid to ask a stranger’s age, and I can bargain like my retirement fund depends on it. In restaurants, I call loudly for the waiter to bring the bill, even though it makes my sons cringe. (It’s not considered rude in casual restaurants).

Humans are remarkably resilient. I’m learning that adaptation is a means of survival. Just like a puffer fish  expanding to ward off enemies, I’ve learned new skills that have helped me thrive here in China, like closing the gap so I don’t lose my place in line or safely crossing the street by refusing to make eye contact with the scooter that wants to run me over.

 

A deadly delicacy, puffer fish were banned in 1990. Recently a non-poisonous variety has appeared in restaurants to meet the demand for luxury dishes.

 

I will admit that some days I feel much more like an opossum, wishing I could curl into a ball and play dead, especially when people are staring or taking photos. Did you know that once in an elevator a Chinese lady even took a video of me? Maybe it’s gone viral, I’m not sure.

But even a chameleon can only turn so many shades. I haven’t learned to spit, and I still close the door to the stall in public restrooms. I don’t use the plastic gloves they give you when you order pizza, and sometimes I sit on the ground even if it’s dirty.

Nine times out of ten, I’ll hold the door open for the person behind me and say hello to strangers in my apartment building. I love Chinese food, but some days a good chocolate chip cookie or a burger and fries speak my language.

After all, a leopard can never change its spots, even if it learns to speak Chinese.

Comments (14):

  1. Holly

    January 7, 2020 at 10:24 pm

    When you come back, let’s plan to cook some of the yummy food you’re learning to make!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      January 7, 2020 at 10:38 pm

      Sounds great! Do you eat puffer fish😂😂?

      Reply
  2. Paula Kasnit

    January 8, 2020 at 12:02 am

    Happy NewYear! Sounds like you have adapted beautifully.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      January 8, 2020 at 1:02 am

      Happy New Year! Thank you – I’m giving it my best shot.

      Reply
  3. Jacqueline Lewis

    January 8, 2020 at 12:19 am

    I enjoy your writings. Sounds like you are adapting well.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      January 8, 2020 at 1:01 am

      Thank you Jackie. We are making the most of this amazing opportunity!

      Reply
  4. Marcy Thompson

    January 8, 2020 at 4:58 pm

    Kirsten, it was so nice to see you when you visited here. You truly are resilient, and are having the experience of a lifetime. I would choose pork boazi over waffles anytime!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      January 9, 2020 at 2:22 am

      Hi Marcy,
      It was great to see you guys too! I think often of your travels in the Peace Corp. Now that must have been an adventure! Yes, the pork baozi are delicious – I will miss them when we move home.

      Reply
  5. Fran M

    January 9, 2020 at 12:40 am

    Your best line (from my vantage point that is) made me laugh out loud scarring the dog out of her nap. “I can bargain like my retirement fund depends on it.” You GO girl! – Delighted that food has brought you closer to your “New” country. Love you.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      January 9, 2020 at 2:20 am

      Hi Frances,
      Thank you! I love it when I can make people laugh. It fills me with gratitude to be able to connect with you and other friends across the miles. Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  6. Graham

    January 11, 2020 at 1:56 am

    Kirsten, we absolutley love that you are sharing this amazing journey with the world, really us. Though I find myself frequently quite hungry after reading your posts. Hmmm…

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      January 11, 2020 at 11:09 am

      Thanks Graham ! It’s an adventure for sure. We are off skiing this weekend – another interesting experience for sure.

      Reply
  7. Kara Lewis

    January 11, 2020 at 10:48 pm

    Love this post. Your writing is wonderful and draws me in. Looking forward to coming to visit. Until then — keep up with your updates!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      January 12, 2020 at 7:00 am

      Thank you ! Hope to see you here in Beijing.

      Reply

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Snake Skin

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.

 

Traditional Chinese Medicine moisturizing tea

 

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.

 

You can’t buy eggnog in Beijing, but homemade was so easy !

 

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.

 

Chrysanthemum tea

 

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.

 

 

Pick up Sticks

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.

Local Flavors

Head to Qianmen or Nanluoguxiang to start, and grab some lamb skewers, “whirlwind” potatoes, squid or sausages on a stick.

 

Cumin-rubbed lamb skewers are a must try.

 

Called “whirlwind” or “cyclone” potatoes, think of them like fresh potato chips on a stick, seasoned with salt and pepper.

 

Choose your squid and have it cooked to order.

 

For the truly adventurous, there are scorpions, silkworm larvae and tarantulas, perhaps best left for capturing with your camera and not your taste buds.

 

They’re mostly a gimmick, but you’ll find scorpions and tarantulas too. See the starfish in the back?

 

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.

 

Tofu, potatoes and broccoli are my favorites. Choose “spicy” or ”non-spicy.”


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.

 

A cozy evening at Cafe Zarah.

 

Cheese fondue.


Sweet Endings

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.

 

Freshly dipped in molten sugar water gives fruit a crackly, sweet finish.

 

Santa-themed fruit skewers.

Keep an eye out for purple sticky rice dipped in sugar or waffles on a stick that spell “I Love Beijing” in Chinese characters.

 

Warm glutinous rice dipped in sugar makes a filling snack.

 

Waffles on a stick make it easy to snack and stroll.

 

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.