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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The Beer-Drinking Orchid Lady

 

“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.

 

The cut flowers are beautiful, but I’m here for the orchids.

 

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.

 

The Orchid Lady at work

 

So many choices

 

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.”

 

Black Cat Orchid

 

“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.

 

Do you like my new corsage?

 

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

 

 

 

 

Back to School

In early February when the virus flared up in China forcing schools to close, I held my breath and wondered how long online school would last. How long would I last?

What would my new role be? Cheerleader? Truant officer? Hall monitor? Janitor? Lunch lady? Would I have to wear a hairnet? I tried not to panic.

Eighteen weeks later, as I vacuum up crumbs from under the breakfast counter, a wave of sadness sneaks over me. Western Academy Beijing (WAB) opened to high school students again on Monday.

Entering campus under the “new normal”

 

Entering campus when school started last August

Instead of feeling relief, I’m replaying the 90 weekdays my sons and I shared without the harried early mornings and traffic-snarled evenings slicing into our days.

I can’t say this loudly enough: I’m so proud of how they’ve handled this challenge. They got up, got to work and never complained. From math assignments to indoor P.E. classes to filming art and cooking projects, they’ve completed everything asked of them.

No one ended up in detention and as far as I can tell we’re all still speaking to each other (at least as much as we were before this whole mess. Some days, more).

 

Taking a break from school. I love these guys.

 

I’m not saying it was easy for any of us. For me, these were some of the loneliest days of our time in China, as I tried to figure out how to support two teenagers who spent the better part of the day behind their bedroom doors doing school work alone.

And for them? They left their friends behind, moved to a strange land where they were just starting to make new friends and then their lives were up ended by a deadly virus. Many of their classmates won’t be returning. I can’t even imagine.

These past four months haven’t been what any of us expected, but like I mentioned in my last post, every cloud has a silver lining (You can read about it here Silver Linings)

Instead of nervously watching the clock every morning, I made blueberry pancakes or breakfast sandwiches.

 

We even grew our own micro greens.

 

Often the boys cooked for themselves and actually had time to eat.

Who knew having them home would increase our food consumption so drastically? I found a grocery store that delivered American-style bagels, milk, avocados, orange juice and bananas within an hour with free delivery. I ordered so often they started bringing me free gifts, like a dozen eggs or a frozen fish.

 

We are spoiled with fast, free delivery.

 

What mom can say she had lunch with her teenagers everyday for 90 days? Some days it was lunch at home, with fried rice and dumplings or barbecue pork sandwiches.

Other days, when restaurants opened again, we took advantage of the extra time to treat ourselves to Red Lobster (sadly, the cheddar biscuits just aren’t the same), or kebabs from the Turkish restaurant near the park.

 

Lunch anyone ?

 

As the days turned into weeks, I pressed the boys into kitchen duty at dinnertime. Unhindered by the usual “get dinner on the table as quickly as possible” time constraints, we discovered that homemade enchilada sauce is so much better than canned, a proper roux is worth the effort for a satisfying gumbo, and that shepherd’s pie is one of our new favorites, even without Worcestershire sauce which we can’t find here.

Online school meant freedom to travel (we made a trip to Seattle to see family and friends before the virus hit the US), go to the gym or take a Starbucks break for a Black Tea Latte.

Laptops were propped up on bedroom pillows instead school desks, eliminating the hour-long commute. I’m happy to say that showering and getting dressed remained part of the routine.

Returning to school after the pandemic requires almost as much paper work as enrolling in the first place. The Beijing Education Committee has a strict protocol in place for returning to campus, and inspects every aspect of the school, from air flow in the class rooms to social distancing markers.

 

Directional arrows on campus.

 

New hand washing stations

Students are required to keep a daily temperature log for 14 days prior to returning, and complete a survey listing the date and flight number of any trips made outside of China since January 23rd. We have to sign a “Letter of Commitment” verifying that we haven’t been to Wuhan recently or left Beijing in the last three weeks (there goes the impromptu trip to Shanghai Disney). Failure to comply would require proof of a negative virus test.

 

Lots of paper work to return to school.

 

Then there’s proof we have the “Health Kit App” which records our travel history and health status by tracking information on our cell phones (yes, Big Brother is watching) just in case we decided to sneak off for a quick meet-and-greet with Mickey Mouse or paid a visit to the fever clinic without reporting it.

 

This app tracks our travels, health status and ID. It’s required for entry into most public spaces.

I turned in the paperwork, prepared a supply of masks (mandatory for students and teachers), verified funds in the lunch account, checked the revised bus schedule, re-read the six pages of “back to school” instructions and laid down for a nap. I’ll have two weeks to recover before school is out for the summer.

“How was school today?” I asked my soon-to-be junior when he came home after Day 1.

“It was OK,” Daniel said. “But I don’t think I really want to go back tomorrow. We didn’t really do anything except work on our online assessments.”

Going back to school isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when you’re met by a guy in a hazmat suit, have your temperature taken three times and spend an hour commuting to do what you could do at home in your pajamas. Except you’re not in your pajamas.

To avoid crowding students stay in the same classroom all day and have to sign up for a designated lunch spot and choose free-time activities in advance.

“They’re really strict about enforcing the social distancing and making us keep our masks on,” my son told me. “Apparently the government can show up anytime to check and they can also ask to see the security tapes.”

With the high-surveillance atmosphere and the fact that over half of the students and teachers are still outside China, it’s easy to understand why some kids are less than enthusiastic about returning.

While the opportunities at school are still limited, we’re grateful that the campus re-opened. It’s a sign of hope, that at least for the time being, the virus is under control in Beijing.