Adventures of Life in Beijing

“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.

RECIPE

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Two sticks of butter, softened  (about 227 grams)

3/4 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup white sugar

2 eggs

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.

 

Comments (18):

  1. Brooke

    September 25, 2020 at 12:06 am

    I love this! It’s amazing how those rituals and rhythms ground and connect us. I’m sure you’ve converted many non-chocolate loving people in your community to cookie lovers because of your sincere heart and hospitality.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 25, 2020 at 12:34 am

      Thanks Brooke. When I feel weary sometimes of hosting I hear Renaut’s voice “just keep putting out the cookies” ❤️. Miss you guys tons.

      Reply
  2. PaulaKasnitz

    September 25, 2020 at 3:23 am

    Delightful as usual. My special twist is Heath Bar Bits. Don’t even try finding them in Beijing.
    The fabulous adventure continues.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 25, 2020 at 3:25 am

      Ooh now there’s an idea:). I like Andes Mint Chips too. I’ll have to see what candy bars I can find here.

      Reply
  3. Shannon

    September 25, 2020 at 4:12 am

    So well put! Thank you for sharing– it makes me want to go bake! And I’m glad you can bake a. little bit of home right there. Wish we could visit- for China AND for cookies!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 25, 2020 at 4:26 am

      I wish you could visit too! I bet the boys would love the adventure. I think of you often – this place takes Grit!

      Reply
  4. Jackie

    September 25, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    I can’t wait to have that cookie with you. Miss you guys

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 26, 2020 at 4:23 am

      Sweet! Miss you too. Seems like a long time we’ve been gone.

      Reply
  5. Carolina Henry

    September 25, 2020 at 3:27 pm

    Absolutely just love how you can master us all and transport is into your wonderful experiences I feel so privileged to be able to live out and experience each and every one of your description items specially your treasured friendship and most importantly your delicious cookies 😋😁🙏🙌❣️!!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 26, 2020 at 4:22 am

      Thinking about all of you as I wrote:)

      Reply
  6. Francesca

    September 25, 2020 at 6:33 pm

    I am so very tempted to ship a few bags of toll house chips to you, yet I am not sure if they would make it through customs. You will have to let me know. A delicious read as always, with warmth and love shared generously. Miss you.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 26, 2020 at 4:21 am

      The chocolate chips would probably reach us eventually but they would be very expensive 😂

      Reply
  7. Beth

    September 25, 2020 at 9:28 pm

    You had me smiling the entire time I read this! Despite a stinky airport surrounding me right now, my brain smells those cookies. Thank you for such a sweet break from this crazy time.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 26, 2020 at 4:20 am

      Yes I started craving cookies while I was writing. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Reply
  8. Denise

    October 5, 2020 at 7:15 pm

    I think I will go make some cookies right now!! Thanks for the inspiration. Miss you😘

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      October 5, 2020 at 9:39 pm

      Miss you too! Enjoy the cookies😊

      Reply
  9. Irene

    October 18, 2020 at 6:50 am

    Oh, how this is very well said! Love it! I am an addict to your Chocolate Chips cookies, by the way 🙂 xoxo

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      October 18, 2020 at 7:19 am

      So thankful that we can share this adventure together !

      Reply

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Stranger Things

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?

 

Ready for the rain.

 

I wonder how dogs really feel about wearing shoes.

 

This mutt was rocking his ride; his owner had a radio blaring as they wove through traffic.

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’m afraid if I go that low I’d need a crane to haul me back up.

 

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.

Selfie-focused 

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.

 

Taking pictures of people taking pictures.

 

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.

 

Colorful fields in Gansu province provide beauty and jobs.

 

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.

Curious?

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.

 

Say Cheese!

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.

Cameras record license plates as only certain vehicles are allowed into the city on given days to reduce traffic.

 

Crosswalks are monitored to discourage jaywalking. Sometimes names and ID numbers pop up next photos of the offending pedestrians.

 

Smile, you’re on candid camera.

 

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.

 

I’m not sure I want to know what goes on back there.

 

Cameras are in every school classroom (keep those masks on!), and adorn entrances to hotels, apartment compounds and shops.

 

Entrance to a local store.

 

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.

 

A peaceful spot at the park under watchful eye.

 

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.

 

Stone sculptures stand watch

 

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.

 

Can I have some privacy please?

 

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.

 

Cameras at the park.

 

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.