Adventures of Life in Beijing

 

Three months ago if you had told me  that I would ride a bike through the streets of Beijing, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, during lunch hour traffic I would’ve wondered what was in those dumplings you had for breakfast.

That is exactly what I did last Wednesday. I just received approval for my Mo Bike App (all foreigners are required to undergo ID verification which includes submitting a passport). Mo Bike is the world’s largest bike share company, with over 10 million bikes available for rent in China.

The technology is simply: scan the QR code with your phone to unlock the bike, hop on and ride. When you’re finished, locking the bike ends the rental time. It costs roughly 15 cents per hour, about the price of a small pork-stuffed bun.

I had signed up for the bike share app just to have another means of transportation. Traffic is so bad here hopping on a pay-per-use bike is often faster than driving or taking the subway. It’s a favorite solution for many Beijingers, which is one reason they are so fit.

The app shows the location of the closest bike, but there’s never a shortage.

 

You are never more than a few steps away from a share bike in Beijing.

 

So last Wednesday I wanted to visit my friend Liana who lives just over three miles away as the crow flies. Driving can take 30 minutes, 40 with the subway. Three miles on a bike? Less than 20 minutes.

How hard can that be, you ask? Well, if you live in a country where cars seemingly have the right away over pedestrians and traffic lights are viewed as purely decorative akin to twinkling Christmas lights, then it’s a little intimidating. Factor in honking, public spitting, sharing the road with 1,000 distracted commuters and stealth  scooters that zip up from behind and it becomes downright frightening.

But they say that fear releases the same endorphins as exercise and chocolate, two of my favorite things, so I was willing to give it a try. I pushed thoughts of death out of my mind, swallowed the last of my coffee and headed out the door.

Finding a stash of bikes was easy, but I took my time selecting one. After all, this bright orange baby was the only thing separating me from the pavement. I squeezed the brakes, inspected the tires and checked the seat height. That’s one thing that’s easy here, my petite stature is the norm so no problems reaching for the pedals.

 

 

Now let me tell you, these are not the Maseratis of the cycling world. They’re more like Ram trucks, tough and built to last. I choose my bike and plop my purse in the basket, looking down at the handlebars and wondering if I could use them like a big horn sheep to fend off my enemies.

I say a quick prayer and pedal off. Between the weight in the front basket (and I’m not about to jettison the Brie or the baguette I’m carrying) and the loose steering, I’m weaving dangerously through traffic  like a five-year-old who just got his training wheels off.

Within a few blocks I get the hang of it. I’m giddy with excitement. I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.

Then I hear “click clack, click clack” and I think the chain is about to fall off. The crowd is too thick to pull over, so I tuck in behind a lady on a scooter. I figure my chances of survival are better in the middle of the pack. That’s what animals do right? It’s the weaker ones on the outside that go down.

I make it to the first traffic light and glance up at my protector. That’s when I noticed the lady on the scooter whom I’ve been following has a baby across her lap. The little fuzzy headed guy is fast asleep, clutching the orange and green pillow held in place by his mom’s legs.

 

 

At this point I stop feeling guilty about not wearing a helmet. The light changes to green and I  start up again, past the baby killer. The bike stops making strange noises, so I start to breath again. People randomly dart across the street, cars park in the bike lane, scooters whiz by, startling me. Crossing through intersections is like playing a game of chicken. I try to avoid eye contact with motorists, thinking if I don’t acknowledge them, they won’t expect me to yield.

I grip the handle bars and stay focused. I pass the American Embassy and nod at the guards. Isn’t there a law that says if I crash and die here they’ll have to scrape me off the pavement and notify my next of kin?

I leave the tree-lined embassy street and turn right. I hit the 2nd Ring Road and traffic gets thicker. Soon I come to a steep overpass that takes me across the motorway. The great thing about these bikes is you can ditch them anywhere.

 

Tired of riding? Just drop the bike.

 

So I leave the bike and walk over the pedestrian bridge to the other side.

 

 

I pick up another bike and set off, failing to notice that the left brake lever is broken. Well, I’m only going about 5 miles an hour and I have a bell I can use if anything threatens to cross my path so I continue on.

Since I moved to China I’ve developed a heightened sense of peripheral vision, because even stepping off the curb to cross street requires prolific head-swiveling to avoid being struck by moving objects.

I scan the horizon as I ride, wishing I were a chameleon. Did you know they can move their eyes independently? Apparently they can watch for pray and predators at the same time.  Then I could have one eye focused on my route and another watching my surroundings. I could also blend in with the crowd, which I’d love to do at times.

But I’m not a chameleon so I do the best I can to keep an eye out for danger. I’m going west on Jinbao street, heading straight toward the Forbidden City.  It gets more crowded as I hit the tourist area, so I fake confidence and edge myself into the pack of cyclists again. Any sign of weakness and I’ll be picked off by a motorist turning across my path. I have a new found respect for herd animals.

I try to relax but then as soon as I let my guard down I hear that noise. That ever present throat clearing sound that is always followed by voluminous spitting.  The wind is in my favor and I don’t get hit by the stream of phlegm produced by a restaurant delivery guy sailing past me on a scooter.

Finally I see the sign on the side of my friends apartment building in the distance,  beckoning me to safety. Is this how the immigrants felt when they saw the Statue of Liberty welcoming them to New York Harbor?

I arrive safely, feeling triumphant. By conquering my fear I’ve gained a little bit more freedom to travel around. It’s just one more step to fitting in. I want to be part of the action here, not just look at it from my window.  I want to collect memories that involve all of my senses, like feeling the wind in my hair as I cycle toward the heart of Beijing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (17):

  1. Paula

    September 23, 2019 at 8:40 am

    Kirsten, This was terrific. Your adventures
    get better and better. We are at Helaines
    after a terrific visit to Puglia. Keep
    exploring.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 9:44 am

      Thanks Paula, I’m glad to hear you are still exploring too:) I thought of Paul when I was writing – I know he likes to bike too. Thanks for not lecturing me about the lack of helmet.😂

      Reply
  2. Jeannie

    September 23, 2019 at 11:47 am

    Glad to hear your bike ride ended safely. You are an excellent writer and I am sure you you are back in the US in a few years when you read this you will be amazed at all you have accomplished during your time in China. You are brave!!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 10:15 pm

      Thanks Jeannie, yes it will be fun to look back and laugh. Everything at home will seem so easy!

      Reply
  3. Kristin

    September 23, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    Love reading these and am always so impressed by your gumption. You never cease to amaze. Missing you!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 10:13 pm

      Thank you! Miss you too!

      Reply
  4. Holly McCall

    September 23, 2019 at 3:03 pm

    This is great!!!! I feel like I rode that bike with you, and I’m now a little worn out. Haha

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 10:12 pm

      Haha! Why don’t you come over and give it a try?

      Reply
  5. Tina Miller

    September 23, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    I love reading your stories of adventures. I can just imagine seeing you riding right past me!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 10:14 pm

      Thanks Tina, it’s fun to be able to share my stories. Even on a bad day I think “oh this will make a great blog post.”

      Reply
  6. Yvonne

    September 23, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    Kirsten – I read your blogs while holding my breath!!! Never quite sure if the chain is going to break or the spit is going to hit you in the face!!! So proud of you deciding to venture out, conquer your fears and find the humor in it all!! sending you a hug from Orlando!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 10:11 pm

      Aw, thanks Yvonne. I know the love and prayers from home are sustaining us! Miss you all but getting plugged into BSF here and some charity work.

      Reply
  7. Heather WINTERS

    September 24, 2019 at 1:24 pm

    Hi Kirsten! Just wanted you to know how much I enjoy your blog! So well written and very descriptive! Keep the stories coming!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 24, 2019 at 9:45 pm

      Hi Heather – thank you so much! I’m glad you are enjoying it. I’m trying to boost my following so feel free to share or subscribe. Hope all is well!

      Reply
  8. Teri

    September 25, 2019 at 12:56 am

    You. Go. Girl. Thank you for sharing, Kirsten. Missing you in our carpool.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 25, 2019 at 10:45 am

      Thanks Teri- miss you guys too!

      Reply
  9. Ruth Meyer

    September 28, 2019 at 4:06 pm

    Dear Kirsten.
    You are so brave and so very good to share all your experiences with all your friends and family. We are thinking of you and your family and I send a special greting to the 29th September – congratulations on your anniversary . Lots of greetings to Mike and the boys and a special to you from Denmark. Moster Ruth

    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.