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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently, I made a quick weekend trip to Luoyang in Henan province. I joined a tour group called Foreigners in China Network, designed for “laowai” like me to travel around without the hassle of booking train tickets, reserving hotels and navigating the changing landscape of post-pandemic tourism in China. There are still many places that foreigners are not welcome, and traveling with a Chinese guide just smooths out the lumps.
We met at the train station at 5:30 a.m. for the 4-hour high speed train to Luoyang, the jumping off point for the trip. Our group consisted in part of another American family, an Iraqi embassy cultural representative, a London IT guy, a couple from India, my Indonesian friend, and a guy who thinks Beijing winters are tropical compared to his hometown of Philly.
We packed a lot into 36 hours. I could tell you all about the Longmen Grottoes, with their 1,500 hundred year history and 100,000 buddhas carved into caves and niches along the river side.
We strolled the streets of Lijing Ancient City, passing vendors selling fresh pomegranate juice, traditional snacks and handicrafts.
We visited the Kung Fu training school in the Songshan mountains, made famous by the actor Bruce Lee in his 1970s martial arts films where he played a Shaolin monk. It’s currently home to hundreds of young martial arts practitioners who master their school work along with their leaps, kicks and splits.
And of course there is the Shaolin Temple itself, set in a tranquil forest with a view of the mountains. It’s history dates from around 500 A.D.
and the Stone Pagoda Forest, with over 250 stone stupas which serve as monuments for deceased monks.
As I worked my way through China’s greatest hits and checked off a few more UNESCO World Heritage sites, (China has 55), I realized my favorite part of the trip wasn’t something you could put on a magnet or T-shirt.
It was the people.
Like these ladies. We can’t always communicate, but a smile and thumbs up sign are universal, and I had a few encounters like that.
And then there’s this man practicing calligraphy on the street corner, who smiled when I pointed to a few characters I knew and then penned a poem for me.
And these dancers in their colorful costumes, who were happy to pose for a photo.
And this dude on the Segway who kept us company while we were waiting in line for tickets. He struck up a conversation in excellent English with the American family in our group, then quickly ran off to buy presents for their family before we all parted ways.
Outside of our group, we didn’t see any Western tourists. I felt like a rock star, with giggling teenage girls following me into the bathroom, and people asking for photos with me. Some parents pushed their kids to practice their English on me, which usually resulted in tears, since the kids were afraid of the “da bizi.” (Literally, “big nose” which is slang for foreigners, used in places where Westerners are rarely seen).
Other times, they were curious about us and wanted to know what we thought about China, like this man.
He told us he had seen some really bad things on social media about how Westerns hated Chinese people, and so he was surprised to see us. He wanted to know what we thought about his country. I could hear the earnestness in his voice. He wanted us to love China as much as he did.
I explained that I think China is a beautiful place, but right now it’s a little difficult to be here because there are places I can’t go, or I get questioned by the police. Finding a hotel is often problematic.
“Oh, it’s for your safety,” he told me. I think sometimes Chinese use the word “safety” when they really mean “security.”
“But no matter what the governments say or the politics are, I want to very much welcome you to my country. My family welcomes you too,” he said before reaching out to give me a big hug. Showing this kind of affection in public to a stranger ? A foreigner? It’s unheard of. I was moved, almost to tears.
This was the China I was hoping to see.
“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.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Two sticks of butter, softened (about 227 grams)
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We left Jellyfish Lake three days ago, but the sting is still fresh in my mind.
We took a bullet train 20 minutes south of Beijing to the bedroom community of Zhuozhou so my sons could take a PADI scuba certification course. They completed the basic coursework online, and we found an English-speaking instructor to teach them the open water skills. It turned out it wasn’t just their diving skills that were put to the test.
We crossed the provincial border arriving in Zhuozhou and were immediately pulled aside by the police as we tried to exit the train station. Since we’re “waiguoren” (foreigners) this was not unusual but it’s always unsettling.
The questions (in Chinese of course), are routine enough in the beginning. “When did you arrive in China? Why are you here? What’s your phone number?”
Quickly, the sight of three foreigners draws a crowd and we are surrounded by four police officers and a few traffic cops looking for entertainment.
“Lai, Lai, lai,” one officer says, waving us to follow. Since he’s holding our passports, we have no choice but to follow him outside into a make-shift police station fashioned out of an old shipping container.
You know the feeling you get when you’re driving, and you see the red and blue lights flashing behind you and your stomach gets all tied up in knots? That’s how I feel.
Inside, a lady in a white coat and nurse’s hat perches on the edge of a cot. There’s a matching bed across from her, with a wok, electric kettle and cooking pot stored underneath. The windows are blacked out with pieces of cardboard boxes.
“Do they live here?” my son Timothy asks.
“It looks like it,” I say, as the nurse takes out her phone and starts filming us. Posting videos on social media of two tall, handsome blond teenagers being questioned by police will gain the nurse instant fame in this small town.
“Bu yao,” I tell her to stop, scowling. I feel enough like a circus freak already.
The officer continues to question us, asking for proof of quarantine (which wasn’t required), a virus test (which we don’t have) and a list of all of the places we’ve traveled since we moved to China (too many to count).
“I think he’s asking for our address in America,” my older son Daniel says. It’s a bit like Wheel of Fortune, where we guess the questions by knowing a few key words. I’d gladly pay for a vowel if it would help us out of this mess.
It’s been 45 minutes of interrogation and I’m reaching my breaking point. I don’t know how to write “Orangeshire Court” in Chinese and I really need to pee. I text our Chinese scuba instructors Lexie and Chris to ask for help. Eventually, the officer runs out of questions and reluctantly lets us go.
“That’s crazy. He asked so many questions. I told him it’s none of his f***ing business,” Lexie says as we walk to her car. I don’t know how to say that in Chinese, but it probably wouldn’t have helped.
I fan myself with our passports. I’m hot and frustrated and my stomach feels icky. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Covid-19 has been an easy excuse to keep foreigners from traveling around China, securing tickets to scenic spots and staying in hotels. I wonder if this is how my friends of color feel in the U.S.
We drive 25 minutes to Jellyfish Lake, stopping to pick up some pork stuffed buns since it’s already lunchtime.
“You guys want something to drink? Coke? Cold water?” Lexie asks when we stop. I really want a beer but I’m trying to set a good example for my kids, so I settle for water.
Lexie and Chris run their diving school out of an old farmhouse near the lake. Lexie helps the boys pick out wetsuits and loads them in a van with the oxygen tanks.
“Now we just need Chris,” Lexie says. “I think he’s in the toilet.”
On cue, we hear Chris retching from nearby bushes.
“Is he sick? I’m not really comfortable with this,” I tell her.
“Oh, don’t worry – he’s not sick,” she reassures us. “He’s just hungover. He drank too much sake last night.”
Great. The boys might drown from a hungover instructor, but at least they won’t catch the flu.
We drive the short distance to the lake, passing through a cornfield, paintball course and a cemetery. From a distance the lake looks pretty, its blue-green color reminding me of the glacier-fed lakes in Canada. But as we get closer, I see a dead fish and garbage floating near the shore.
“It doesn’t look too dirty,” Timothy says, noticing my concern.
“It’ll be ok as long as they don’t have any amoebas,” Daniel says.
Swimmers itch? E Coli? Water snakes? What should I worry about most?
“Remember all those shots we got before we left home? This is why,” I say.
I text my husband Mike a few pictures and tell him that we’re outnumbered, as a small group of locals has come to watch the foreign scuba divers.
He sees the photo of the dead fish and texts back “I hope the boys have fun and that you’ll forgive me one day.”
There’s a quick break after the first dive and Chris comes out of the water and starts dry heaving, sounding like a sick seal.
The boys laugh and Timothy asks, “How is that sound even human?”
“I don’t really think he’s fit to teach. Maybe he should rest this afternoon,” I tell Lexie as the noises from Chris’s belly grow louder. He must have been holding it in while they were underwater.
Chris sits the afternoon out, giving occasional instructions from the lakeshore between cigarettes.
The boys finish for the day and we head to the train station.
In the car, Lexie and Chris tear open small, colorful packages that look like candy.
“You guys want some? You just chew it and spit it out,” she says, holding it up for them to see.
“What is it?”
I type the words into my phone, wondering what kind of dried fruit or nuts she’s offering.
“It’s like, how do you say – chewing tabaco,” she says, happy to find the correct words.
“The areca palm tree seed known as Betel Nut or Bing Lang in Chinese produces a quick, cheap high but carries the risk of oral cancer, addiction, stained teeth and cardiovascular disease,” my phone tells me.
“No, that’s ok. We’ll pass,” I say.
We’re all a little nervous walking into the train station, but thankfully, leaving Zhuozhou rated about 3 on a 1 to 10 hassle-factor scale. I’m so ready to put this experience behind us, but we have to come back tomorrow since the class is a 4-part series.
I get ready for bed, tell the boys how proud I am of them and pray that tomorrow will be easier.
Make sure to subscribe to my blog to find out what happens next at Jellyfish Lake.
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“You’re very good at silver linings,” a friend texted me recently.
I’d just shared with her that we probably won’t be able to come to the US for a visit this summer since China has banned foreigners from entering. If we leave, there’s no telling when we can return.
I tried to highlight the positive.
“The good news is that lots of places are opening up for travel here. So instead of petting bunnies at your place I might be riding camels in the desert in Inner Mongolia,” I told her.
I’d spent weeks dreaming of sipping wine together on her balcony and snuggling with her two pet bunnies this summer.
I just knew that running my hands through George and Bella’s fur was the antidote I needed to my stress
As I scrolled through the fuzzy duo’s Instagram feed Triple Chin George tears started to roll. I realized I’d have to settle for virtual bunny therapy this summer. At least I’d be in good company with George and Bella’s 969 other followers. (You should check them out. This much cuteness has to lower your stress.)
Here’s the silver lining. As our return to the US this summer seems unlikely, we’re being forced to dig deep to experience more of what China has to offer.
Still round the corner there may wait, a new road, or a secret gate. – J.R.R. Tolkien
“The great thing is we live in such a big country,” I said to my sons as we discussed our summer plans. “We can go hiking in the mountains near Tibet or go to Hainan Island for scuba.”
I’ve tried really hard to put a positive spin on things in the last four months and rock this China adventure for all it’s worth.
It’s not always easy. Constantly feeling like an outsider (no one wants to share an elevator with a foreigner), innumerable temperature checks by guys in hazmat suits, and a ban on leaving the city have taken a toll. (The guys in white jumpsuits showed up in my dreams one night, jolting me awake and making my heart race.)
I feel like I lived through the pandemic twice. Once when it was at its peak in China and a second time as the virus swept across the globe.
Watching my home country succumb to increasing death and confusion from my living room TV is surreal. It’s like tracking a hurricane as it approaches landfall, waiting for destruction but being powerless to stop it.
I need to be refueled by hugs from friends and family and have meaningful conversations that don’t include my phone as a translator.
I want to go out to eat and have everyone’s meal come out at the same time, and not have to fumble with chopsticks.
My kids looked forward to seeing how many times they could eat at Chick-fil-A in a week, or ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster without puking.
And the thought of seeing them hanging out with their friends? It would mean everything’s right in the world again, kind of like finding the missing sock in the dryer.
I get a lump in my throat when I think about everything we’re missing. Unlike boxes of Clif Bars and a good jar of face cream, enduring friendships and cultural familiarity can’t be ordered online.
We’re all missing out on something important this summer. Just like many of your plans, mine will have to wait.
But as I imagine my family camping out under the stars in the desert
Or exploring the spot where the Great Wall plunges into the sea,
I think I can see a faint glimmer of a silver lining.
I hope you find a silver lining in this difficult time. I’d love to hear about it.
If you’ve been following along, you know there’s someone special in my life I haven’t seen since the Coronavirus started in Beijing three months ago. You can read about the street food chef gone missing in my last post. Craving Normal
I began to give up on the Baozi Guy, trying to accept the parts of my life that have changed forever. Some friends who left China will never come back. I can’t wear lipstick in public because it just gets smeared inside my mask, and going out carries an element of tension since we have to scan an app (in Chinese) and verify our health status to enter most public venues.
It seems that everyone can relate to craving “normal” – that part of your daily routine that stabilizes your life, whether it’s a lunch stop at Chick-fil-A with the kids, a sweat-inducing workout at the gym or catching up with a friend at Starbucks.
I love that you are cheering for my Baozi Guy to return right along with me. I was savoring your words of encouragement with my morning coffee a few days ago when my phone pinged.
Who’s texting at 6 am? The kids were asleep and Mike was out running.
“Closer to normal,” the message said, with this picture:
I’m not one to cry over sappy movies, but that one image caused the tears to flow. There really is hope that we’ll all come out of this OK on the other side. I wondered what battle the Baozi Guy had been fighting while I struggled with loneliness and uncertainty in my apartment?
Five minutes later Mike returned from his run, like the Messiah bringing good news.
I took the precious warm bag and cradled it in my hands, inhaling deeply.
“You only bought one bag?” I asked. Ten bite-sized buns divided by four people times two teenagers is a very small number.
“Hey, I was impressed that I was able to pay for them at all. I didn’t want to get two orders and then have to leave them there because my phone didn’t work.”
I couldn’t respond because my mouth was full. Those little fluffy, pork-filled bundles were just as good as I remembered. How does he get the dough so light?
“I think he recognized me,” Mike said. “We were both kind of excited to see each other.”
It was a milestone day. The Baozi Guy returned, and the city of Wuhan reported that all virus patients had been released from the hospital.
Today I had to go and see him for myself, to make sure it hadn’t all just been a dream, like a mirage in the desert.
I gave a joyful wave as I approached, knowing I was probably embarrasing him with my unreserved emotion. But he waved back and stood up as I approached.
“I’m so happy ! You’re back!” I said, using the simple words I’d practiced all day yesterday. “Are you good?”
”Yes, yes, I’m good.”
In the past my camera-shy friend refused my requests for photos, but today his eyes crinkled kindly as he smiled behind his mask.
I paid for my order (called a Ti from the word for basket) and headed home, sampling a warm bun from the bag. I’m sure it was my imagination but it seemed like the friendly exchange added a depth of flavor to the pork and scallion puffs that I didn’t notice yesterday.
I thought about all of the pieces in our lives that have been scattered, at least temporarily. It’s left me longing, craving for connection. At least in a small way today, normal has returned. I hope your normal comes back soon too.
My husband knows about the other man in my life and he’s OK with it. As a matter of fact, he encourages the early morning rendezvous. So I lace up my shoes, take a lap around the park and then make a detour on the way home.
I turn left on Dongdaqiao Street, pass the only magazine stand nearby that carries English newspapers (all propaganda) and look for the door with the red signs. My heart beats faster as I get closer, like a silly school girl hoping to catch a glimpse of her latest crush.
I haven’t seen the other man since the virus hit, and for the last three months I’ve come home disappointed. I continue my daily routine, hoping one day the strong, silent man will come back into my life.
We call the object of my affection the “Baozi Guy.” I don’t know his real name, but this street-food chef with the ruddy cheeks and heavy apron has been satisfying our comfort food craving with fluffy, pork-filled steamed buns since we arrived in Beijing nine months ago.
He stood outside the mom-and-pop shop even on the coldest winter days, surrounded by woven baskets stacked high as commuters rushed by to grab their morning meal. I joined the crowd, picking up an order or two of bite-sized buns for breakfast. Fresh out of the steamer, the baozi were hot, juicy and irresistible. I would eat one or two on the way home and bring the rest to my family.
But it wasn’t just the food that brought comfort. In a city of 20 million people, I’d found a place where I was a regular. The Baozi Guy recognized me, greeting me with a friendly Ni Hao and charging me the local price when other foreign friends (even my husband) paid more. If my WeChat payment on my phone didn’t work (which happened occasionally), he’d wave me away saying “tomorrow, tomorrow.” If there was a crowd, he made sure to take my order in turn.
Unsure if the Baozi Guy would ever return, I’ve been looking for a replacement, which leaves me feeling a little unfaithful.
My morning walks have taken on new purpose. I head in different directions each day looking for baozi, along with other signs of hope that Beijing is coming back to life after after being shut down for weeks by the virus. One day I see the city awakening in the blooming trees; other days I notice the buzz of traffic is just a notch louder.
I found a Halal restaurant by the park, and waited hopefully in line at the takeout window, heeding the social distancing stripes marked on the pavement.
I stumbled over my order in Chinese, and slunk away feeling embarrassed, which made me miss the Baozi Guy even more. Maybe it was bruised pride that made the buns hard to swallow, but the flavorless beef and dense dough sat heavily in my mouth.
I found another place near the Russian district that had potential, but it’s just too far to walk on a daily basis, and the baozi just weren’t quite as good. I had a stomachache after I ate one, which is never a good sign.
Every few days I walk past the door with the red sign, checking to see if the Baozi Guy has returned. Recently, I saw lights on inside. Had they always been on and I just didn’t notice? It felt too good to be true. The door was locked, but I saw keys on the table. Maybe there’s hope.
But hope is fleeting these days, slipping away quickly like noodles through my chopsticks.
I woke up feeling depressed the next day when I thought about the rising death toll and crashing economy. Getting out of bed is challenging sometimes.
“Did the world come to an end last night?” I asked my husband.
“Let me see,” he said, pulling open the curtains. “Nope. Doesn’t look like it.”
“I just want normal again,” I complained. “I want the Baozi Guy to come back.” Ten weeks of severe restrictions and constantly changing rules were starting to wear me down.
“That would be nice, whatever normal means,” he agreed.
The smell of coffee persuaded me to get out of bed and I remembered the lights I had seen yesterday at the restaurant.
“Just maybe today will be the day,” I thought.
I made my usual loop around the park and headed toward the Baozi Guy’s shop on the way back.
There, in front of the restaurant, was a sack of flour and bags of carrots, onions, chili peppers and sweet potatoes. Tears came to my eyes.
That sack of flour and pile of vegetables brought me more hope than I’ve felt in weeks. Maybe normal will return soon.