Last Sunday, three friends and I hopped on a high speed train from Beijing to Tai’an City in Shandong Province. We came to climb Taishan, China’s most sacred peak. For more than 3,000 years, religious pilgrims, philosophers, and emperors have come to trek up 7,000 stone stairs to offer sacrifices to the gods and obtain spiritual favor.
We came seeking adventure and an escape from big city Beijing. Personally, I dedicated my efforts to raising money for New Day Foster Home, hoping to make a positive impact on the lives of some very special orphans. You can read more about my fundraiser on my previous blog post Climbing for Kids
Our Chinese guide met us as we exited the train. With a buzz cut, glasses and a button down oxford shirt, Asher looked more like he was dressed for the office than for hiking. His miniature backpack was barely large enough to hold a toothbrush. Does he remember we are planning to spend the night at the top in sub-freezing temperatures?
At 32, he told us he’s been guiding for 10 years and has been up to the summit more times than he can remember. We forgot to ask him whether he actually hiked up, or took the cable car.
After dinner of Spicy Rice Noodle Soup with Lamb, it was back to the hotel for an early bed time. Explorers need their beauty sleep.
The breakfast buffet was heavy on beer, baijiu and baozi. I decided to stick with the Pop Tart and instant Starbucks I brought along.
We drove 15 minutes to the foot of the mountain. “Everybody, follow me, follow me,” Asher said waving his hiking pole as he led us through the parking lot toward the Red Gate where we will start the day. It’s about 10 kilometers to the top with 1,400 meters of elevation gain.
The pavement path leads us past bamboo forests, temples, stone tablets, and ancient cypress trees.
“Can you see the signs on the trees?” Asher asked. “Some of them are between 500 to 1,000 years old.” In places, the trees curve and bend over the path, forming a tunnel. It’s a cool, fragrant forest, a welcome respite from the recent heavy pollution and sandstorms in Beijing.
And because it’s China, there’s no shortage of souvenir shops and snack vendors on the lower mountain. I’ve never thought of bringing a whole cucumber or radish on a hike, but they’re popular here.
Asher pointed out historical markers along the way, but I confess I was more interested in listening to the birds sing and the river rush by. I’ve never been very good at keeping the Qing and Ming dynasties straight.
But even with my embarrassing lack of knowledge of Chinese history, knowing that I was walking in the steps of Confucius was heady. Did he hike in straw shoes and a flowing robe? I was thankful for my Gortex-lined boots and practical hiking pants.
“Whether a man thinks he can or cannot, he is right.”
I pondered this as the path became steeper. The breathing around me got louder, punctuated by the occasional “jia you!” as the Chinese shouted encouragement to each other. It translates as “add oil (to the fire)” but it means something like “you can do it!”
“Woo-woo-woo-woo,” Asher started belting out the occasional primal shout that shattered my quiet thoughts.
“Why is he doing that? What is that noise?” I asked my hiking buddy Andrew, not wanting to offend Asher in case he’s engaged in some sort of religious ritual.
“It’s bloody irritating, is what it is,” replied Andrew. “It sounds like a mutant monkey in mating season.”
Maybe Asher thinks we’re getting tired, and he’s trying to revive the esprit de corps, or he’s sounding an alarm to the souvenir shops around the bend to tell them the gullible foreigners are coming. I added it to my “It’s China, don’t try to understand” list.
After about two hours we arrived at the Middle Gate, where hikers normally rest before starting the steeper second half to the top. There’s a small restaurant and vendors selling instant noodles, roasted sweet potatoes and cold beer.
“Here, have some drinks,” Asher offered as he pulled out some pouches of milk that have likely been sitting in his backpack next to his toothbrush since yesterday. I’m sure he didn’t want to carry them any further, and I felt bad rejecting his hospitality but I just couldn’t stomach warm milk. I drank some water and ate some crackers I brought, along with a piece of cheese, which actually had been sitting in my backpack since yesterday.
We set off again, and got the first glimpse of what lay ahead.
We arrived at the section called the 18 bends, where the slope of the stairs is close to a 70 degree angle. I’m thankful for the railing. The steps are small and steeply pitched, almost like a ladder.
Near the top, the steps are uneven and some are loose, making it difficult to find sturdy footing. I kept going, knowing something beautiful was waiting at the summit. I hope the same will be true for the orphans on their difficult journey through life.
I was thankful for all of the subway stairs I did in preparation, but still my legs started to shake.
I started counting steps to keep myself going, and pictured the orphans with their leg braces, walkers and wheel chairs. Ten steps for Freddy, ten steps for James, ten steps for Titus…..this became my meditation that carried me to the top.
Asher propelled himself up the mountain with his battle cry vocalizations; one elderly woman held a small red recording device that played the ancient Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum.”
Seven hours after we started, we reached the South Heavenly Gate, where Taoist followers feel a sense of Nirvana, believing they would become immortal. We just felt tired and hungry, and celebrated with chocolate chip cookies and Snickers.
The true summit lies at 1,545 meters, which meant we still had a bit more climbing to do to reach Jade Emperor Peak.
We decided to drop our backpacks at the hotel and rest for a few minutes before continuing. We had been told that the accommodations on the top of the mountain would be very basic, so we were pleasantly surprised at how nice our hotel was. I wonder where Confucius slept on his journey.
It was late afternoon by then, so we headed to top, stopping at the Bixia temple (built 1009 AD) on the way. Every year thousands of Chinese couples make the trip to the top of the mountain to pray for the blessings of a child from the Goddess Bixia Yuanjun. I love my boys, but I kept a respectful distance from Yuanjun’s statue lest any utterances on my part might get lost in translation on the way to fertility goddess.
We take a few obligatory photos at the summit marker, and head back down the hill.
We have a few minutes rest at the hotel before a short walk to see the sunset.
After dinner at the hotel it was time for bed. We’d scaled 1,441 meters of vertical by climbing over 380 flights of stairs. It was time for a rest.
We got up at 4:30 (that’s a.m.) to hike to the best spot to view the sunrise.
It was below freezing with a brisk wind, and I was thankful for my down jacket. For those who came unprepared, long military-style coats were available to rent.
We had a quick breakfast at the hotel (which was not served with alcohol this time) and started down the mountain.
Instead of retracing our steps, we took an alternate route down through a pine forest, with more steps of course. There are very few dirt hiking paths in China; most trails are cement stairs or paved paths. It takes a bit of “nature” out of the experience, but the Chinese believe that a more stable path is safer.
As one of the world’s most climbed mountains in a country with over a billion people, having the forest to ourselves was a delightful surprise. Our plan of coming during a weekday in low season was paying off.
I’m savoring the views and tranquility of the pine forest when Asher starts again with the strange noises. Is he yodeling? Listening for an echo?
“Why are you making that noise?”
“I’m calling the monkeys,” he said.
Asher had been slowing down and limping visibly. Maybe he was calling out in pain.
“You guys, let’s wait up. I’m getting a little concerned about Asher. He’s falling further and further behind,” my friend Mil said.
“What happens when your guide can’t continue?” I ask.
“You call the tour company and tell them you want a new guide, because the old one is broken,” Andrew responded practically.
We can’t just leave him behind. Maybe we could run back up the hill and get the sedan chair I saw at the summit and carry him down.
“I think I underestimated you,” Asher said to me at one of our rest breaks, which had become more frequent as he rested his knee.
“I think you underestimated all of us,” I said. Did he think we were a bunch of middle-aged out of shape tourists? We hike together regularly in Beijing, and the rough unrestored section of the Great Wall had been excellent training ground.
“I think it will only take 2-3 hours to get down, not 4,” he said.
We make our way down through the forest dotted with the occasional spray of wildflowers, punctuated with Asher’s caterwauling. It’s really annoying, but I don’t have the heart to ask him to stop. I think his shrill howls are his way of giving himself a pep talk.
The path is steep, and curves at such an angle it disappears into the horizon like an infinity pool.
It’s hard to trust the unknown road, but like life, the path is filled with surprises. There’s an unexpected waterfall around one corner and a gazebo around another.
At one rest break, I tied a traditional prayer flag on tree. It fluttered in the wind, sending out my prayers for the orphans that “forever families” would come soon.
As we got closer to the end of the trail we saw local villagers collecting plants on the hillside.
“In ancient time people in China were very poor, so they had to eat whatever they could find. This is the reason they like to collect plants, for medicine and to eat,” explained Asher. “But we don’t eat snakes or rats and most people don’t eat dogs,” he said.
I think about the dog meat hanging at the markets we visited in Yangshuo, and Peter Hessler’s article in the New Yorker “A Rat in my Soup,” about the specialty rodent restaurants in Guandong province.
Some things are best left unmentioned.
We finished the hike uneventfully and headed to a local restaurant for lunch, which thankfully, served neither rat nor dog. Instead we celebrated our accomplishment with a few local specialties: braised pork with chestnuts and scallion pancakes.
As we travelled back to Beijing, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. I was grateful and humbled by the opportunity to do something that I love – hiking in the mountains – while raising money for some very special kids. If you didn’t have a chance to donate to my fundraiser, there’s still time. You can donate by Clicking Here
Just write “Mt. Tai” where it says “add a note.”
Thank you for coming alongside me on this journey. I hope your calves aren’t as sore as mine.
When my brother and I were little, we spent summers with our grandparents in Denmark. My grandmother didn’t have a drier, so she hung all of the clothes on the line. They smelled like sunshine, but were so stiff and sharp that we pretended to sword fight with pointy wash cloths.
My body feels like one of my grandmother’s line-dried wrinkled wash cloths. We are less than two months into Beijing’s winter but the extreme dryness and cold temperatures have wrung every once of moisture out of my hair, my skin and my lungs. The level of static electricity means I look a bit like Einstein when I return from shopping and take my hat off.
If it were possible to bottle some warmth and humidity from Florida, I’d ask you to send it to me. Add a pinch of salty ocean air too please.
I’m in a Chinese Medicine chat group and I saw a post recently for “Moistening Yam Tea.” The recipe promised to “benefit my Qi, nourish my Yin and promote fluid production.” I have no idea what that means, but since slathering my skin with gallons of lotion only goes so far, I’m willing to try anything that promises moisture. Maybe it will work like a Bounce dryer sheet, softening my skin, reducing stiffness and eliminating my static cling.
Out of the five ingredients listed, I recognize two: Chinese yams and licorice root. I like licorice (my roots are Danish after all), so how bad can it be? (Chinese medicine concoctions in general aren’t designed to taste good).
I took a tour of a market recently about 30 minutes away, and I know they have a Chinese medicine shop. (It’s called a wet market, really, but I don’t want to scare you into thinking they sell snakes and bats. The most exotic things I saw on my visit were eels, frogs and turtles.
So I hopped on the Subway to Xinmin market and found the Chinese Medicine shop. I had a photo of the recipe with Chinese characters, which I’m hoping the doctor understands because I can’t tell astralagus root from licorice root.
“How much is this going cost?” I asked the doctor. I’m not sure what maidong is, but if it’s as pricey as ground dragon bones, I’ll just rub my hair with a Bounce sheet instead.
She takes a little note pad and adds some figures, and shows me: 150 kuai, a little over $20 bucks. I give her a thumbs up, and she measures the ingredients.
I wanted to take a picture with her, but felt a little embarrassed to ask. Just as I’m practicing the words in my head, she hands me my purchase with a smile and comes out from behind the counter and starts taking a video of the two of us. I’m guessing I’m the first foreign customer she’s had, and she wants to brag about it on social media. I wonder how many followers I have on TikTok now?
“How much of this stuff should I be drinking?” I asked in the Chinese Medicine chat group.
“It depends on your constitution,” came the reply. “Just brew a big pot and drink it as you need it.” How will I know when my constitution has had enough ?
I measure out the ingredients and brew a pot.
It’s not bad. It’s earthy, with hints of licorice, spice and leather. Oh, wait, that was my wine from last night. Wrong glass.
I add a few more pieces of licorice root (at least I think I did), close my eyes, and think of chocolate as I take another swig. It doesn’t taste like chocolate, but I can pretend.
Honestly, it’s not bad and I manage to down a pot a day. It’s only been a few days so I don’t have any data to report. I’m hoping in a few weeks I’ll feel less like a wrung out wash cloth and more like a rehydrated sponge. But you can go ahead and mail that package with the tropical, Florida humidity. Throw in a few Bounce sheets while you’re at it; they cost almost as much here as ground dragon bones.
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.
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.
“How long until we start eating each other?” one traveling companion asked. I turned my head toward the back of the bus to see the words “HELP” scratched in the frost on one of the windows.
“Maybe we’ll see a yeti,” the ice carver quipped, sipping a Jack and Coke for warmth. I wondered if anyone would know where to find our frozen bodies on the edge of the Gobi desert if we failed to return.
It was three degrees above zero outside and only slightly warmer inside our 17 passenger bus. We left Beijing in the early afternoon, headed on our weekend ski trip to Chongli District, an up-and-coming international destination and host to the Beijing 2022 Olympics.
I was accompanied by my husband, two teenage sons and a group of fellow ex-pats who, like us, had also relocated to China to work for Universal Studios, set to open in Beijing in 2021.
Somewhere around nightfall, our renegade driver decided to take a “shortcut” subjecting us to an hour-long wild goose chase on a windy gravel road filled with potholes. We were close to mutiny. No amount of Google translating or charades could convince our Chinese-speaking driver to turn back.
Finally, after a phone call to the driver of the other bus (our group split into two) and lots of loud, angry protesting, our driver reluctantly made a u-turn and eventually delivered us to our destination, Wanlong Ski Resort.
Located about 250 kilometers northeast of Beijng, Wanlong and other neighboring resorts are the hub of China’s quickly growing ski industry. The government is actively promoting this new tourism sector, seeking to encourage 300 million new ski and snowboard enthusiasts leading up to the Olympics by building 800 ski resorts and offering free lessons in schools.
For us, a weekend at Wanlong offered a chance to escape the frenzy of Beijing, trading pollution and traffic jams for clear blue skies and wide open slopes.
Just like most adventures in China, skiing offered pleasant surprises wrapped in a layer of challenges that required an open mind – kind of like biting into a steamed bun without knowing what’s inside.
The first task (after surviving the 5-hour drive) was renting equipment, a bit daunting considering my Mandarin vocabulary is better suited to ordering food than for explaining that I don’t need to rent a helmet or those silly looking butt pillows that cushion falls.
As we stand in the gear rental line, I’m trying to simultaneously remember our various ski lengths ( for four of us) and boot sizes (in centimeters), translate them into Chinese and sternly practice my new phrase “wo zai paidui,” – which means “I’m in line.” I press myself up against the skier in front of me to show I’m serious.
Success! We gather our gear, swipe a card that keeps track of our rental information and carefully zip it away. We had to leave our passports as a deposit and will need this card to retrieve them. I try not to think of the time years ago when I fell skiing, burying the contents of my pocket deep in the snow, including my car keys.
Now on to the next challenge: navigating a squat toilet in ski boots and multiple layers of clothing without peeing on myself. If you can imagine trying to urinate into a cup while ice skating, you get the picture.
Thankfully no injuries occurred because if I’m going to slip and fall at a ski resort, it certainly has to be a better story than that. (I learned later that the lodge at the top had heated Western toilets and slippers included in the cost of the $12 lunch buffet. Who knew such luxury existed? The food wasn’t great, but I’d go back just for the slippers).
Bladder empty, parka zipped and helmet on, I’m ready to hit the slopes. Shocker: no lift lines and wide-open, uncrowded terrain. In China, if there’s someplace worth seeing, chances are that I’ll be joined by a million or two of my closest friends, so this was surprising.
The first run out we took the gondola to the top. Multiple chairlifts and gondolas serve the same mountain-top destination, so we never waited more than a few minutes to ride up the peak, which meant lots of skiing with little waiting. For roughly $60 a ticket, we definitely got our money’s worth.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the lack of smokers. (Thankfully it’s against the rules on the hill due to the danger of forest fires, but I did catch one snowboarder taking a quick smoke-break mid-slope).
At a little over 6,000 feet, the top of the mountain offered spectacular panoramic views. Being in Beijing surrounded by tall buildings had given me tunnel vision of sorts; standing at the top taking in the views reminded me of the enormity of this country. Unbroken landscape filled the horizon.
Wanlong ski runs don’t have catchy names like “Happy Trails” or “Body Bag” giving skiers some idea of what lies ahead. There are some numbers, a few symbols and characters (partially snow-covered) but like most things here, much is left to guessing.
So we take turns choosing the runs, our 14- and 16-year old sons leading the way. Here we are in China, thousands of miles from home, and they fearlessly navigate unfamiliar terrain without a trail map and beckon me to follow.
”Let’s just go straight. It might have moguls, I’m not sure. But it will be OK, we’ll just go slow,” my 16-year old says.
How did this happen? Weren’t they just toddlers learning to ski? We used to run alongside them down the bunny hill yelling “tips together – make a wedge like a pizza! Arms out front, like you are holding a tray. Don’t spill the hot chocolate!”
Now they are bold, independent, capable teenagers. I’m proud, but a little bit sad. We raised them to fly, and they are spreading their wings, soaring down the ski hill in China, out of my sight. It’s been a year of letting go, and trusting in the unknown spaces. I blink back a few tears and chase after them.
Lots of skiing requires lots of eating. Who needs burgers and chili cheese fries? We refueled on grilled lamb skewers, handmade dumplings, made-to-order noodle dishes, fried rice and fresh tandoori baked naan. The variety was impressive and the quality was good, at a fraction of what food costs in U.S. ski resorts. This place takes pride in its food.
On the bus trip home, I watched the landscape roll by: jagged mountains, luxury chateaux, old factories, abandoned towns, new mini-cities bathed in lights from neon signs, hot pot restaurants, KFC, pig farms and silos. Villagers warmed their hands over open fires in the fields, while drivers stopped at nearby electric vehicle charging stations. I was witnessing a living museum of China’s history as the kilometers sped by.
Getting away from Beijing reminded me of the enormity of this country, the diversity of its people, and the richness of the landscape. Sharing new adventures as a family lifted my spirits and made me feel grateful for the way this experience and all of the others during our time in China is shaping our family.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, stronger. Gonna make you stronger, stronger, stronger.