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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Strange but True

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.

 

Don’t forget the jewelry. Yes, these outfits are for the dogs. I didn’t check the price.


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.

 

Bring on the tacos!

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.

 

One of dozens of skin whitening products on display at the drug store.

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.

You can even whiten your skin at the beach!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Jellyfish Lake


DAY TWO 

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.”

“Twenty minutes? It’s been almost an hour!”

“He’s eating his breakfast first and then he’ll come.”

Unbelievable.

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.

 

Grilled donkey meat and peppers stuffed in a bun, sometimes called a Chinese burger.

 

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.

DAY THREE

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.

DAY FOUR

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.

 

Traffic jam on the way to scuba class.

 

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.