Adventures of Life in Beijing

Beijing

Becoming Chinese

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. 

Staying Flexible: Yoga in Beijing

 

So we finally took the plunge and joined a gym. Winter is coming and with it the promise of frigid temperatures and worsening pollution. I wanted a place to keep up my exercise routine despite the climate and was excited about getting back into yoga again.

Like every new endeavor here in Beijing, including simply crossing the stree, going to yoga made me a little bit nervous. There are language and cultural barriers at every turn.  “What do people wear to yoga class?” I wondered.  Should I bring my brightly colored pink yoga mat or use one from the gym?   Will I be able to understand the instructor?  I have a hard enough time keeping my chaturanga and savasana straight in English. How will I manage in Chinese?

But I gave myself a peptalk and headed to the gym. Lunchtime is busy and the yoga studio was already halfway full. (Yoga is called Yujia in Chinese in case you were wondering).  There were a lot of empty mats spread around the room so I grabbed a spot and started stretching.

Instructor Ken, with his tatooed shoulders peeping out from his muscle T-shirt, looked at me and wagged his finger. “Those are for people,” he said, indicating that I should find a different spot. Ok then. I grabbed a mat and staked out a spot in the back, hoping I could blend in with white walls. I was the only waiguoren (foreigner) in a room of 28 svelte Chinese ladies in black leggings and one lonely guy in the front near the door. “Smart,” I thought. He can make a quick exit if things get too intense.

We start with some basic moves:  cat and cow stretches, Downward Facing Dog and Cobra.  I do my best to follow along by watching the people around me. (I quit watching the lady in front of me because she was showing off and doing headstands  when everyone else was in forward fold.  I think she was the teacher’s pet).

I understand a few words here and there,  and there is a little bit of English sprinkled in, like In-Hall and Ex-Hall.  But then instructor Ken keeps saying something that sounds like “Mama Hoochie” and I just want to burst out laughing,  which made it hard for me to hold my Standing Tree upright. I found out later after consulting my dictionary he was saying “Man man hu qi” which means breath out slowly. That makes much more sense.

I am holding my own until  we start with the backbends.  I haven’t done a backbend in about four decades but as I look around, 2/3 of the class is in perfectly poised curves, navels to the ceiling.  Some started on the mat and pushed up into a wheel;  others started from the standing  position.  The instructor circled the room to help each one up, leaning his body over hers and rising to the standing position together like an exotic dance.

There’s a lot more touching going on here than I’m used to as Instructor Ken comes around to adjust our hips, straighten our shoulders and push our stretches deeper.  As he heads my way, I’m frantically trying to think of how to say “don’t touch me. I haven’t done yoga in six months and my white bones just don’t bend that way” in Chinese.

All I can think of is “Bu Yao”  which is the Chinese catchphrase for “don’t want”  which is a handy way to fend off aggressive sales people in the markets and to tell the street vendor not to add copious amounts of chili peppers to my lamb skewer.

Thankfully the instructor passes me by so I’ll save “Bu Yao” for another day.  I watch from my mat and I’m amazed by the collective flexibility of the ladies in the room (the dude in the front is pretty good too). Did I accidentally enter the Acrobat Training class instead of Universal Yoga?  I can’t help but wonder if thousands of years of tai chi and Kung Fu has somehow seeped into their genes, offering a natural flexibility that we waiguoren don’t have.  Or is it something in the food?  If so then there’s hope for me yet,  because I’m a big fan of the local cuisine, as you know if you’ve been reading along.  More than likely it’s their active lifestyle of walking and biking everywhere that plays a big part.

We moved from backbends to warrior poses and I’m back in the game again. “Yi. Er. San. Si. Wu,” instructor Ken counts as my legs start to quiver.  At least my Chinese is good enough to know how long I have to hold the pose.

Another 20 minutes and I need a rest. Focusing on balancing, breathing and translating in my head at the same time is exhausting. Kind of like trying to rub your tummy, pat your head and count in Spanish all at the same time. I take a quick break in child’s pose, dropping to my knees and tucking my head between my arms. I feel like a turtle that has momentarily retreated safely into its shell. I think of all the times I wish I could do this when I’m out running errands and frustrations arise.

 

I glance at the clock. We’re almost finished so I rejoin the group, looking forward to Savasana, the restful pose that comes at the end of the class. That’s the payoff right? Where you get to lie down, close your eyes and dream about your happy place before returning to the real world.

Except the Savasana never comes. Instead Instructor Ken gives a mini-lecture as we sit in lotus position.

He’s gesticulating with his hands (unusual for Chinese), making big circles with his arms and stretching his neck to a fro as he talks. Everyone listens attentively. I imagine he is explaining various relaxation techniques we could use throughout the day to keep our Zen, but he quite easily could have been talking about what he was going to make for dinner, illustrating with big stirring motions. Suddenly there is a short burst of clapping and the class is over.

Living in China has stretched and strengthened me in ways I never could have imagined. Muscles have been called into action that I didn’t even know I had. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll even be able to do a back bend  before we move back to the U.S.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Changing Seasons

Wow, we’ve moved from summer into fall. Sometimes I feel that our time here in Beijing is flying by; others days the clock ticks slowly.

But we recently celebrated Halloween and fall is definitely in the air.

 

Pumpkin Frappuccino at Starbucks in Beijing

 

 

Trick-or-treaters near my apartment building.

 

The cooler temperatures at night and crisp sunny days have brought out vibrant colors in the autumn trees. After years of living in Florida,  I’m savoring every moment of fall.

 

 

 

The distinctive ginkgo leaves blanket the sidewalks.

 

Golden ginkgo biloba trees adorn the local parks and walkways. The trees are prized for their fruit which smells terrible but is collected by locals and used as a kidney tonic in traditional Chinese medicine.

The change in seasons also brings out new street vendors selling selling seasonal treats.

 

 

Fresh pomegranate juice is made on-the-spot from local fruit. This pomegranate tree grows in the Lama Temple courtyard.

 

Other treats include sunflower seeds and candied fruits and nuts.

 

Tanghulu, or candied fruits, include hawthorn fruit, strawberries, or nuts threaded on a skewer and coated with a crackly sugar glaze.

 

Winter vegetables are popping up in the produce market, like this beautiful specimen. I’m not sure what it is. It looks a little bit like lettuce at the top but the base looks like bok choy. It’s almost too pretty to eat.

 

 

If the hats, gloves and coats with fur-trimmed hoods for sale in clothing shops are any indication, it’s going to get cold this winter. Scooter riders are prepared, fitting their bikes with sleeping-bag like contraptions to shield riders on their commute.

 

Just tuck your arms under the blanket and go!

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and Christmas is not far behind. While these Western holidays are not traditionally celebrated in China, retailers here are taking full advantage of the shopping opportunities.

 

How long will it take for letters to get to the North Pole from China?

 

While it is possible to order a turkey from an international grocery store, I can barely squeeze a scrawny chicken in my tiny oven. I might try to bake a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving just to make the house smell good, but we will probably go out to eat even though it’s  a regular work and school day.

How are the seasons changing where you live? What holiday preparations are underway at your house? I’d love to hear from you.

China Days

Remember when I told you life in Beijing wasn’t all pandas and dumplings? There are days when reality sets in and discouragement runs deep. We call those days “China Days.” Everything is just hard, and I feel completely incompetent. Today was one of those days.

Laundry is my nemesis. I have shed more tears over washing clothes here than I care to admit. I believe Chinese washing machines and dryers are designed for one or two articles of clothing at a time max  – Chinese-sized clothing. I’m an extra large in Chinese sizes and I’m a US size 4 if that tells you anything.

There are some cryptic well-worn labels on the machine settings, so it’s been trial and error in learning how to use them. Google Translate gives poetic-but-not-so-helpful translations likes “fast force,” and “flowing river” which I think is the rinse cycle.

Often the clothes come out of the washer dripping wet, or the dryer imparts a funky, sour smell. Sometimes the clothes refuse to come out at all, locking themselves in with a stubbornly shut door. Spending the night inside the damp washing machine does not make them cleaner than when I put them in.

This morning I checked the laundry room to see if I could pry the door open to the washing machine, as last night it wouldn’t open no matter how how hard I pulled or pounded on it. Sometimes it’s best just to walk away for awhile.

Not surprisingly, the clothes smelled terrible. I decided to wash them again, so I added some soap, pushed a button and said a little prayer.

When I checked a little later, soap bubbles were flowing out of the machine and onto the floor. I reached up above to empty the dryer, dropping some of precious clean, dry clothes into the soap bath. It would have been comical if it had been happening to someone else.

 

 

I don’t recall which words of frustration came from my mouth, but it was enough to draw my husband’s attention.

Surveying the laundry room and finding me standing in suds, he says “Wasn’t there an ‘I Love Lucy’ episode kind of like this?”

Yes, there was. Remember when Ricky and Lucy got a new washing machine and decided to sell the old one to Fred and Ethel? Well, after one load it erupted like a volcano with soap bubbles flowing everywhere.

 

A defunct washer causes a strain on Lucy and Ethel’s friendship.

 

It made for a funny episode but it almost ruined Lucy and Ethel’s friendship. Malfunctioning washing machines have been a source of tension in my family too.

“I can’t even figure out how to do laundry,” I complain to my husband.

“Why don’t you talk to the landlord?” He suggests.

“And what, tell her I’m too stupid to operate a washing machine?” No thanks. I push the “flowing river” button again, trying to rinse the soap out of this load. Going on eighteen hours later, these  are going to be the cleanest clothes ever.

I decide to go to gym to relieve some frustration, knowing full well I’m only contributing to the laundry problem with my sweaty gym clothes.

I hop on the only open treadmill but this one doesn’t speak my language.

 

 

I press a few buttons, but nothing happens. At this point, the tears are welling up in my eyes and I just want to go back to America. Or at least back to bed. I swallow my pride and ask one of the regulars (the friendly guy with the pony tail and really cool shoes) for help.

He pushes a button. “Zou,” he instructs. “Kuai! Kuai!” He urges, pushing another button causing the treadmill to take off under my feet. I’m sprinting to keep up, nodding and smiling thank you.

I find a comfortable pace and turn on my music. Why is everything that should be easy so hard? Tears are streaming down my face as I listen to  Mandissa sing ‘Stronger.’

When the waves are taking you under, hold on just a little bit longer. He knows this is gonna make you stronger, stronger.

The past eight weeks have stretched me and tested my patience in ways I never expected. It’s like raising toddlers all over again, and feeling like one myself at times. I’ve had  to count to ten often to control my temper and even given myself a timeout on occasion.

Most of the things that I find frustrating like laundry or trying to order online when I can’t type my address in Chinese and my name doesn’t fit in the space because it’s too long, are just minor inconveniences. I get that. But coupled with the stress of adapting to a new culture, trying to learn the language, missing friends from home and a shortage of warm chocolate chip cookies, they become supremely frustrating.

Revitalized from the gym, I returned to find the washer and dryer behaving themselves nicely. I folded the laundry and felt a little bit better about life.

I met some friends for lunch, which always lifts my spirits. I stopped at the store afterwards, still craving cookies. These minty ones caught my eye.

 

Chocolate always makes things better.

 

They taste kind of like Thin Mints, and that sweet reminder of home helped me make it through the afternoon.

This pain ain’t gonna last forever, it’s gonna make you stronger. Believe me this is gonna make you stronger, strongerGonna make you stronger, stronger, stronger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning the Ropes

Four weeks in and we are learning the ropes of living in Beijing. Just like wobbly-legged sailors who must learn how to tie knots and hoist the sails effectively to maneuver across the ocean, we’ve had to learn how to navigate changing winds and sometimes choppy water in this vast sea of Chinese culture. If we don’t learn, we’d be stuck in port or shipwrecked, neither of which sounds good to me.

So we are learning to decipher the language, which means we can order our favorite steamed buns for breakfast.

 

Can you tell what’s on breakfast the menu?

 

We can figure out which app to use and select the right buttons to order a pizza or movie tickets or purchase  tickets for an upcoming visit to the panda research center in Chengdu (pictures of panda cuteness coming soon).

 

 

Learning a few simple words means we can ask for a taste of grapes at the market before we buy them.

 

Can I have a taste please?

 

And decipher the price of the melons

 

About 25 cents a pound.

 

Or ask how much it costs to  take the boat out on the lake.

 

 

And if something is really tasty, we can ask for a second order.

 

Stir-fried lamb with cumin.

 

We’re getting pretty handy with taking the subway, the bus and calling a Didi (Chinese equivalent of Uber). We don’t have a car here, so figuring out public transportation is vital.

Bus 107 goes right past our church. Can you figure out the time table?

We also do a lot of walking, and I can proudly say I can now cross the street without sprinting or holding my breath in fear, but I will confess to occasionally grabbing the arm of my fellow pedestrian as I cross exceptionally busy intersections. Bikes, scooters and cars in the turn lane don’t yield for pedestrians, which takes some getting used to.

 

Cars, bikes, and scooters come from all directions (even down the wrong way).

 

We’ve learned a lot about being flexible and improvising. We didn’t bring many things from home, so we make do with what we have.  I really wanted to buy some fresh flowers, so I recycled my favorite yogurt containers into vases. They are about a buck a piece. Aren’t they cute?

 

 

It’s not all smooth sailing. Some things take a little getting used to, like eating with chopsticks. Getting my sea legs here means not being afraid to use a little force to keep my place in line, or call out loudly to the waiter when I’m ready to order. I don’t expect anyone to hold the door for me (except my family), and I no longer flinch when I hear a lung-clearing sound which warns me inevitable spitting will follow. And blowing your nose free-streaming into the air as some are in the habit of? Well, I guess it saves on Kleenex.

There are are cultural differences for sure, but when I need help and am bold enough to ask for it, people are quick to respond, like the sweet old lady who walked two blocks out of her way to show me where to buy produce when I was looking for a neighborhood market.

One new acquaintance patiently taught me how to buy tickets for an upcoming trip on a Chinese app, and a friend who arrived before me not only told me where I could buy chocolate chips when I was craving a taste of home, but bought the last package and delivered it to my door.

 

Cooking is therapeutic, even in our tiny kitchen. Fresh cookies smell heavenly and remind us of home.

Thanks to strangers, aquaintences and friends, we are learning the ropes of living in Beijing. Now we can return the favor by helping other newcomers find their bearings in this easily overwhelming city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Walk in the Park

If you want a glimpse of Chinese culture, head to a local park. Tucked away between high rise buildings and busy motorways, neighborhood parks are the lifeblood that runs through the heart of Beijing.

Such beauty in Ritan Park.

So much life takes place in these multi-functional spaces. Of course you will find people exercising, and built-in gym equipment is common.

Sometimes they take a quick smoke break between reps, but who am I to judge? At least they are here.

Walking and running are also popular past times, and many parks have a circular loop for this purpose.

Parks are a great place to log a few miles, just don’t forget to follow the flow – counter clockwise.

In addition to running, you will find locals practicing tai chi, yoga, jumping rope, hula hooping, lifting weights, and dancing.

Love watching the couples dance.

Morning stretching at the park.

Parks also serve as a place for social gatherings. People read or meditate. Men bring their pet birds in little cages and hang them in the trees. Some parks  have ping pong tables and built in Mah Jong tables.

How about a game of Ping Pong? Just bring your own paddle and balls.

You can bring your own snack, or buy one.

Enjoying some watermelon after exercising.

Parks are a place where traditional culture is preserved, including architecture, physical activity and more.

This group gathers to sing about the beauty of the flowers.

There are a few rules to follow though, which takes some getting used to. No sunbathing, bike riding, playing ball, picking flowers or talking on your cell phone during a thunderstorm.

 

And most importantly, stay off the grass. There are so many lovely green spaces in Beijing, but grass is off limits.

 

 

Carnival rides and water parks coexist with centuries-old traditions at many parks, and this blending of ancient and modern is such a reflection of Beijing as a city.

There’s nothing like a walk in the park.

 

 

 

Crying over Fried Lotus Root

Trying to fit in takes a toll. My husband’s electric toothbrush, whose prongs became bent when he tried to plug the charger into an adapter that was just a little too snug, is useless now.

Our espresso machine, carefully packed in its original box and sent by air with our high priority items, quit brewing  after just a few shots. We think it was shocked to death after accidentally being connected to a high-voltage Chinese outlet rather than the transformer we brought from home.

I can sympathize. Sometimes I feel bent, squeezed and frazzled by being plugged into a foreign culture and being expected to perform my normal tasks, just like the espresso machine. Sometimes the frustration of simple everyday tasks brings me to tears.

But giving up is not an option, so the boys and I set out to buy a new electric toothbrush and a replacement espresso machine. Now we have two of each, a non-working US model and a functioning Chinese version.

 

The outing was going pretty smoothly until we stopped for a snack. (If you have teenagers you know it’s always time to stop for a snack). I wanted them to try one of my favorites, deep-fried lotus root stuffed with meat. Imagine just the right amount of seasoned pork sandwiched between two wagon wheel-shaped slices of lotus root, similar in texture to potatoes with a slightly nutty taste. Then fry the whole thing to a golden brown. It’s kind of like eating a hamburger and fries all in one bite.

Lotus root stuffed with pork and deep-fried is delicious

Since I have teenagers, and “snack” really means “meal,” we ordered a bowl of stir-fried pork over rice too.

So ordering food in a different language in a crowded food court at lunch time is stressful. Mostly I point to the pictures and say how many I want, using my fingers to help clarify. Except in Chinese even counting on your fingers is different.

One through five isn’t so hard but it gets tricky after that.

I’m reduced to  a toddler. I feel like everyone is staring at me and wondering why I can’t just use my words. It goes like this:

Me: I want two of these (lotus root) and one of those (pork dish).

Server: Has two per order (pointing out that crispy lotus root always comes in a pair.) You want one, she corrects.

Me: I want two orders – four total, I repeat. They are like Oreos, three of us cannot possibly share two, especially when teenagers are involved. We each get one and fight over the fourth.

Server: ok, ok, ok, she says. She’s  in a hurry to scan my phone for payment and move on to the next customer who clearly knows how to order properly.

I step aside and wait for my order while the line grows. A second server hands me my tray. One bowl of pork and two fried lotus roots. A pair.

I take the tray over to the boys, my exasperation growing. I hand over the pork and let them have the hot, crispy lotus root because that’s what moms do.

I look at the line and almost give up. But they’re really really good. I take a deep breath and get back in line, practicing Chinese phrases in my head while I wait.

Me: please give me another order, I say pointing to the line item for lotus root on my receipt.

Server: please sit, your food is coming.

Me: no, I want another one of these.

Server: Sit, sit. Your food is coming. She’s practically shooing me away from the counter.

My despair is mounting when Server number two steps in and translates my feeble Chinese to Server one.

Server: Oh, you want another one? She repeats exactly what I just said. I almost weep with relief as she punches in my order with a big smile and scans my phone. Success!

One order of lotus root is 5 Kuai  (about 75 cents). My phone pings and I see a receipt for 28 Kuai pop up just as server number two hands me my tray -with another bowl of pork and an order of fried lotus root.

My language failed me again. I sit down with the boys and pick up a hot stuffed lotus root, holding back tears. I contemplate asking for a take-out container so we can bring the pork home, but it’s just too much.

Just like the toothbrush and espresso machine that I brought from home, my language doesn’t work here. I need the Chinese version. My tutor starts next week. One of the first things I want to conquer is ordering from the menu, especially things that come in pairs.

In the meantime, I think I’ll fire up our new Chinese espresso machine and brew up the perfect shot in my favorite cup I brought from home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disconnected

I woke up the other morning hoping to check Facebook, scroll through Instagram and check my email with my morning coffee.

Nope. Not happening. I wasn’t able to get connected.

While I knew this was to be expected, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I wanted to know that someone was out there, thinking of me and cheering me on.  I wanted to hear news from home, to see a familiar slice of life in your pictures and posts.

Feeling cut off left me frustrated and sad, kind of like there was party going on and everyone was having fun but I wasn’t able to get there.

Remember the first time you went on a trip and left your family behind? Sure it’s fun and exciting but you felt like something was missing. That’s how I felt.

So as my mood spiraled downward, I put on my walking shoes and headed out, hoping a change of scenery and some endorphins would help. With my earphones in, I cranked up the music and headed in the direction of a local park.

The English street signs are so helpful.

I felt better as soon as I got out the door. The new sights around me flooded my brain, launching me into my vibrant present reality, temporarily interrupting the feelings of homesickness.

 

On the way to the park.

Ritan Park, also known as Temple of the Sun Park was a flurry of activity, with people walking, running, practicing tai chi and yoga.

 

Entrance to Ritan Park, dating from the 16th century.

 

The park buzzes with activity in the morning.

 

Bright flowers everywhere.

There were spirited games of badminton and ping pong taking place, traditional dancing, stretching and even a man playing a saxophone.

All kinds of exercise, from hula hooping to badminton takes place in the parks.

 

Ping pong is seriously competitive here.

 

In a high density city like Beijing where living space comes at a premium, parks become gathering spots, exercise arenas and dance halls. It’s colorful, lively and uplifting to watch.

I left the park in a much better mood, which spilled over into the rest of the day. I became more focused on what was happening here, in my new life. To be honest, it’s exhausting to try to split my emotions between two different countries. It’s an uncomfortable stretch, like doing the splits. (I speak from experience – I could do them when I was a kid). Sometimes it’s easier to disconnect, emotionally and electronically for awhile.

I made a few stops on the way home to buy some things for breakfast, carrying on short conversations in my childlike Chinese and navigating payments on my phone with WeChat. With each stop I felt more successful and less disconnected. The feeling of missing out was still there, but not quite as strong. The more I get plugged into my new Chinese life, the better things will be.

In my next post, I’ll share one of the high points of living here: the food. You won’t want to miss it.