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.
“Yes. No. Maybe.” Those are the answers to whether we will be quarantined when we fly back to Beijing tomorrow.
The government policy has changed several times in the three weeks since we left, trying to keep pace with the fluid nature of COVID-19.
At first the Chinese government announced that all incoming foreigners would face a 14-day quarantine; mere days later they retracted that statement, perhaps thinking that quarantining someone from a country without the virus was too restrictive.
Last week, as the virus flared up around the globe, the quarantine was reinstated for travelers coming to Beijing from South Korea, Japan, Iran, Italy and “other severely affected countries,” which leaves room for interpretation.
What qualifies as a “severely affected country?” An acquaintance came back from Thailand yesterday, where there are a total of 43 cases, and yet his compound required him to stay confined to his apartment.
I’ve known others who were initially told they didn’t have to quarantine only to find out a day later they did.
Living in such a shifting landscape is like living with a toddler again; what was true yesterday isn’t necessarily true today.
The bottom line seems to be it’s up to management office of individual apartment compounds to decide. That’s the first place we will stop when we arrive.
With that in mind, I’m preparing for the probability that we will have to spend the next two weeks in “voluntary” self-quarantine at home in Beijing. What I’m really hoping doesn’t happen is any kind of mandatory quarantine at a government facility, which could happen if there is a suspected case of the virus on the airplane.
I’ve prepared for hurricanes, earthquakes and snow storms, but never quarantine. I’m heading into uncharted territory, kind of like setting off into the jungle without a map. What dangers await? Will I etch tally marks into the walls to count the days as my sanity starts to crack? Or will I find beauty in slowing down, enjoying times of quiet reflection?
Quarantine. It even sounds exotic. Coming from the mid-17th century Italian for “quaranta,” it conjures images of the bubonic plague, scarlet fever and small pox. I think of the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, and Mary Mallon (aka Typhoid Mary) who spent nearly three decades forcibly quarantined on New York’s Brother Island for spreading typhoid Fever.
Being ordered to stay in my apartment with my Nespresso machine and Kindle full of books sounds like a luxury staycation in comparison (that reminds me, I need more Nespresso pods).
But still, I’d like to be prepared, just to make things easier. So here’s my quarantine packing list:
A good book is a powerful escape from reality, so I grabbed a few at Barnes & Noble.
I also have crossword and jigsaw puzzles, a set of photography classes on disks and plenty of Chinese language study materials.
I always travel with my Bible and devotional; it’s critical to stay grounded in something unchangeable during such uncertainty. I also keep my writing journal nearby, because getting my thoughts on paper helps me manage stress.
Additionally, I purchased a few coloring books and a fancy set of colored pencils. I’m hoping I can channel the first-day-of school excitement with my new supplies.
I’ve purchased some new skin care products so I can pretend I’m at the spa.
And I think junk food counts as soul care doesn’t it?
I decided to pick up a some seed packets because watching plants spring to life has to be more exciting than watching my hair grow.
This is a biggie. Of course I’ll make sure my phone and battery pack are charged, and I have my laptop in my backpack. I’ll get some new books on my iPad, download some uplifting music from Spotify and try to find some binge-worthy episodes on Netflix (suggestions?).
Acess to the Internet has been problematic in Beijing lately, so I’m arming myself with a few new VPNs also.
I’m not sure what will happen when we touch down in China, but it feels good to be prepared.
What would you bring if you were packing for quarantine? Drop me a note, I’d love to hear from you.
This post is a continuation in a series of my impressions of living in China during the Coronavirus epidemic. You can read my most recent post here:
We board the flight from Tokyo to Beijing, bellies sated from last night’s Waygu beef dinner and pockets stuffed with Kit Kats (orange and raspberry are my favorites).
I’ve got butterflies in my stomach, kind of like the first day of school. I’m excited to be going home to Beijing after two weeks of vacation in Japan, but nervous about how the spread of the Coronavirus has impacted daily life. Depending on what things look like, the boys and I will decide to stay in Beijing or leave for awhile.
Everyone in Asia is on high alert now; a fellow traveler coughs and we all take two steps back. As we fill out health questionnaires on the airplane, I can’t help but glance at the guy across the aisle in 35C. Like a guilty school girl, I sneak a look at his paper to see his answers: Have you traveled to Wuhan recently? Do you have a fever? Are you having trouble breathing?
We pass uneventfully through immigrations and baggage claim. The airport is empty, and roads are bare on the drive home. It’s an eerie feeling when life just seems to stop in such a vibrant city. It reminds me of the freeways in Los Angeles after the 1992 riots, when curfews were enacted to keep people off the streets.
Near my apartment, most restaurants and shops are closed and the streets are deserted. It feels like a ghost town. It’s so quiet. I never thought I’d miss the sounds of the city: traffic, people talking too loudly and believe it or not, even the spitting.
Where did everyone go? Familiar faces are missing, like my favorite security guard outside my building who always greets me with a smile and a song. And where is the ruddy-faced chef at the corner restaurant who makes my fresh, pork-filled baozi every morning? His place is closed, with an official sign on the door I can’t read.
With around 10 million people leaving Beijing in last two weeks for the Spring Festival, I worry that some of my local friends might have traveled to virus-infected provinces and fallen ill, or ended up in quarantine somewhere. Are they OK? Are they coming back?
Many of my ex-pat friends have left as well, either out of safety concerns or by the order of their home country’s government.
With hiking trips, hot pot lunches and outings with friends, the pieces of my life in Beijing were just starting to fit together nicely, like a puzzle taking shape to reveal something beautiful.
In the past two weeks as the virus spread, the puzzle has started to crumble with closures, quarantines and restrictions.
As I walk around the city, I feel an uneasy sadness I can’t articulate, like an achy tooth or favorite necklace gone missing. The suffering and loss for China is profound, and we all feel it. We do the best we can, settling into school online and working from home.
Chat groups share the latest statistics, where to find groceries and hygiene supplies and how to find the closest infection sites to our home. There’s even an app to check our last flight to see if we traveled with a suspected carrier. Sometimes too much information is not a good thing.
I make chocolate chip cookies to keep everyone’s spirits up, and share some with the guy at the desk downstairs, who seems to be working 24/7 right now.
Adding to my feeling of depression, there’s fear in the air in Beijing. It feels as heavy as the pollution right now, which sways between “unhealthy” and “hazardous.”
People stay inside as much as possible, and when they do go out, they move quickly, minimizing social interaction. Masks cover their faces, but I can see the stress in their furrowed brows and eyes that dart quickly, as if the disease could jump from one human to another by making eye contact. Some wear goggles or heavy glasses, just in case.
If I felt like an outsider as a foreigner before, the anonymity of wearing a mask and the weariness of being sequestered to our apartment (we aren’t allowed visitors at the moment) has added to the feeling of isolation.
The atmosphere is emotionally charged, with rumors fueling the fire as they circulated on social media and news reports. One day we heard that the government would be spraying disinfectant from above, using drones and we should all stay inside after 4 p.m. That didn’t happen, but drones have been deployed to give public service messages in some provinces.
When masks became mandatory, it was announced that lack of compliance would be met with reprimands or possible arrests. Instructions came down from the top that anyone hiding the illness from authorities would be “forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame” and neighbors and colleaugues were encouraged (sometimes with monetary rewards) to report anyone who might being trying to cover up an illness.
Videos in Western media soon went viral of the authority’s efforts to squelch the virus: people being dragged from their apartments into quarantine, one man being chased by police as he tried to avoid being sent to the hospital, and an infected passenger being wheeled from the airport in an isolation tent. Others showed residents being quarantined in their home, effectively being held hostage with police tape over their front door. (Of course these can only be viewed with a working VPN).
The images are powerful enough to make us feel uneasy. On a recent trip to meet friends for lunch (a rare treat) I encountered 6 temperature checks along the way. I am perfectly healthy, but each stop heightened my anxiety, like the feeling you get seeing a police car in your rear view mirror even though you know you are not speeding. What if a thermometer malfunctions? Will I be hauled away on the spot? It was worth it though, to linger over lunch with friends. I savored the freedom from my mask and the company more than the spicy shredded potatoes and pork with chilies that I was eating. I wanted to linger.
I asked several Chinese friends why everyone is so afraid and I heard a common refrain. “The government takes this very seriously.” While I was keeping up with the news to the best of my ability, my lack of Chinese language skill acted as a filter from the incessant reminders that we were living in a global health crisis.
My Chinese friends, on the other hand, were being bombarded all day long with We Chat notifications, public announcements, banners, and e-mails instructing them to stay inside, pay close attention to hygiene, not get too hot or too cold, monitor their health, avoid social gatherings and not to panic. I’m sure I would be much more jittery if I consumed as much information about the current situation as they did. Here are a few examples of slogans from banners appearing around China:
If you hang out in public today, grass will grow on your grave next year.
Everone you encounter on the streets now is a wild ghost seeking to take your life.
A bite of wild animal today, see you in hell tomorrow.
A surgical mask, or breathing tube, your choice.
Who wouldn’t be scared!
Equally disturbing is having a front row seat to watch the spread of fear as it slithers around the globe, morphing into something more evil: xenophobia. From Italy to Singapore, Chinese are being banned from restaurants and hotels. In the U.S., ugly remarks are flung at Asians on the metro, a high schooler is bullied by virus-fearing classmates and a woman is attacked in New York for wearing a mask. Asian restaurants are hurting because people are afraid that they are unclean. Unless they they are serving pangolin as the daily special, I think you’re pretty safe.
It was the thought of weeks or possibly months of living this fearful, monastic lifestyle that swung the balance in favor of leaving China for a bit, more so than the fear of actually contracting the virus. It’s not a breakup, it’s more of a cooling off period.
The boys and I are visiting family and friends in Seattle now, where the coffee is strong, the air is fresh and the pussy willows are blooming. The signs of spring with new life soothe my soul.
I miss my husband, but I feel lighter here. Freedom of movement, clean air and good food will recharge us. The boys continue school online, while I write and keep up with my Chinese studies because I know we will be going home soon.
Beijing is home, because that’s what I call the place where all four of us are gathered safely under one roof, no matter what kind of craziness is happening outside our front door.
This is the second post in a series of my impressions of living in China during the Coronavirus outbreak. You can read the first one here:
News alerts, emails, text messages, and We Chat notifications came fast and furious:
All employees are being offered voluntary evacuation…….The U.S. bans travelers from China….mandatory quarantine…..United Airlines ceases operation from mainland China starting February 5…..death toll rises…..Wuhan under lockdown…….countries close borders to visitors from China……WHO declares global health emergency…..
It was early February and we had a big decision to make, in a very short amount of time. We were wrapping up our ski vacation in Niseko, Japan and about to part ways, with Mike going back to Beijing and the boys and I planning to extend our holiday by flying on to Tokyo for a few days since schools were closed.
Suddenly, splitting up as a family didn’t seem like such a good idea. What if Mike makes it back to Beijing and 5 days later our flight from Tokyo is cancelled?
Do we stay in Japan as a family, with Mike setting up shop in Osaka, the closest Universal Park? Do the boys and I ditch our plans for Tokyo and head back to Beijing? Return to safety in Orlando?
Do we stay or do we go now? The Clash’s 80s punk rock song spins around and around in my head like a record on a turntable.
Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. And if I stay it will be double.
Lead singer Mick Jones was perhaps singing about the torment of an indecisive lover, rather than fleeing a global health crisis, but our angst was the same.
We hurry to pack our bags two hours before our airport shuttle arrives, tossing around the pros and cons along with ski helmets and snow boots as we try make a decision.
If I go there will be trouble
If we decide to leave China, where will we go? Beijing is our home. We rented out our house in Orlando. Technically we’d be homeless. Friends and colleagues were quickly skattering around the globe, like cockroaches when the light is turned on. No one wants to be exposed to the virus. But I’m not a quitter. Pulling the plug less than halfway through our China adventure seems like giving up, like taking the cake out of the oven before it’s finished.
We could stay in Japan, but then I’d have to learn a new language, just when my Chinese was advancing from “Ni hao” to “can you please take me to the grocery store so I can stock up on toilet paper before the apocalypse?”
Plus, although I’m trying to like it, I’ll confess sushi’s really not my favorite and I’ve had enough pork cutlets in the last week to sink a ship. I miss Chinese food.
If we decide to fly to the US, we’d be stuck with only ski clothes and bathing suits we brought for the onsen (hot springs), which turned out to be unnecessary since Japanese bathe au naturel. We’d also be without all of the laptops we needed to keep up with work and school.
We called the airlines to discuss our options. Getting a seat back to the US on one of the major airlines was a bit like musical chairs at this point, with more players than seats. I always felt sorry for the kid who got left out, trying to wedge himself onto the edge of a seat as the music faded.
Even if we could get a seat, signing up for 14 hours on a flying Petri dish might not be the smartest move.
We also face unknown quarantines upon arrival, with information changing and rumors flying.
Two weeks in isolation? I didn’t download enough episodes of The Big Bang Theory or pack enough chocolate to survive that. And what will happen to my orchids if I don’t come back?
And if I stay it will be double
Returning to Beijing and riding out the virus presented challenges as well. We’d already heard about a shortage of face masks and other hygiene supplies. What if there’s run on rice, meat or vegetables? (Don’t worry – I got the toilet paper). Finding food and cooking a decent meal is always a challenge for me in China. Would it be even harder now in the wake of the epidemic?
Then there’s the thought of weeks of inactivity, with schools, restaurants, museums, shops and even ski resorts and hiking trails being closed indefinitely in and around Beijing. And of course, there’s the unlikely chance that we could catch the virus (although in all honesty I think I was more worried about being trapped at home).
So come on and let me know. Should I cool it or should I blow?
With the Clash still spinning in my head, we zipped up the duffel bags with a week’s worth of slightly damp ski clothes (which will probably smell as bad as stinky tofu when we finally unpack) and grabbed a box of Ritz crackers from the vending machine down the hall in case we get stuck somewhere.
Sometimes in a relationship you just need time to clear your mind, to figure out what to do next. It’s the same facing a voluntary evacuation. We decided to buy ourselves time, so we headed on to Tokyo as a family to find the best ramen, sample Waygu beef and gorge on Kit Kats. Everything’s clearer on a full stomach, right?
Stay tuned to hear what happens next. You can sign up for updates delivered by email by hitting the subscribe menu at the top. Thanks for joining our adventure.
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.
While it’s true that I don’t hunt down wild animals with a bow and arrow or collect edible plants by the river, I feel like each day in China is an adventure in providing for my family. On most days, I spend several hours in search of food, common household supplies and clothing.
Stone Age hunter-gatherers had to catch or find everything they ate, moving around from place to place. Fortunately I’m not a nomad, but I do routinely shop at 5 to 6 different stores to find everything I need.
For a simple dinner of pulled-pork sandwiches, I might stop at one store for a pork roast, another for barbecue sauce and a third for buns. If the third store is out of buns, I move onto the fourth and fifth store.
Sometimes foraging results in soup or stir fry for dinner when I can’t find the ingredients for the meal I had planned. Ripe avocados are a rare find, and chocolate chips take some searching too. Taco seasoning, Triscuits, Goldfish crackers and ranch dressing? Those are things dreams are made of.
Breakfast is a challenge too. There are no toaster waffles or Wheaties. Donuts and bagels are scarce too. Some days I hit the bagel jackpot, finding 5 or 6 at a time, in which case I buy out the whole supply and freeze a few.
Recently someone in our expat chat group posted this photo:
My phone blew up. Everyone was chiming in with excitement about finding a store with Triscuits, Stove Top stuffing and Vlasic pickles. There was even a rumor that Jenny Wangs had Eggo Waffles. It’s about an hour taxi ride for me, but the Triscuits might just be worth it.
Did Wilma Flintstone have it this hard? How come she always looks so good with perfectly coiffed auburn hair and I look weathered and wind-blown after my foraging trips? Maybe Fred brought home the victuals; I don’t recall.
Like the hunter-gatherers of ages past I can only bring home what I can carry, since I don’t have a car. This means daily shopping is a given.
Sometimes I set off in search of clothing. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know finding jeans long enough for my tall, lanky boys is a challenge. Not as difficult as finding shoes though. Trying to find size 11 or 12 soccer cleats is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Looking for a lower priced option isn’t really a choice when we’re just lucky to find a pair in the right size. So we fork over a king’s ransom for shoes with a swoosh, and admonish our sons to stop growing.
Shopping for household goods can feel like foraging at times too.
Today I went to two different stores looking for light bulbs. It should be a simple task, you say. Well, I found exactly one bulb in the desired wattage.
Sometimes treasures show up in unexpected places when I’m not even searching, like finding a clean, Western toilet in a city populated with squat toilets.
Or persimmon and date trees offering a sweet snack during a hike along the Great Wall.
Sometimes the treasures I collect are a smile or friendly greeting offered by a stranger, not a common occurrence in this fast-paced metropolis. Beijingers tend to keep to themselves until a personal connection is made.
I collect the bagels, soccer shoes, light bulbs and smiles to fill my house and my heart so that I can provide love and security to my family and friends who visit. While I might be living in a city that is racing toward modernization at break-neck speed, my days are grounded in the same desires shared by hunter-gatherers from days gone by.
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.
Last week a friend and I made a quick overnight trip to the city of Datong in Shanxi province, home to two famous Chinese landmarks, the Yungang Grottoes and Hengshan mountain scenic area.
Datong is less than one hour by air from Beijing, but the experience was a world apart. My head is still spinning from the dizzying mountain heights, spectacular scenery, friendly people and one insane Didi driver whom I’m still trying to forget.
We headed straight from the airport to the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating from 450 AD.
This series of ancient Buddhist temple caves is comprised of over 50 caves and some 50,000 plus statues.
The caves, some of which are several stories high, contain ornate carvings and paintings, with golden Buddhas and colorful scenes of emperors and religious deities. Out of religious respect, photos are not allowed in some areas.
The largest statue is over 60 feet high, and the level of ingenuity required to construct these beautifully decorated sandstone caves is mind-boggling.
Almost as impressive as the scenery was the lack of crowds. We strolled leisurely, exploring the caves and stopping to enjoy an ice cream in the shade (My Chinese is just good enough to avoid the salted egg and red bean flavors in favor of a coffee one, thankfully).
Just like any good theme park, the exit from this attraction ended in an area filled with restaurants and gifts shops.
We took a break from sightseeing to sample the locally produced vinegar and admire the dried chilies from a safe distance (no sampling necessary).
Lunch of freshly carved noodles with ground pork and a few stuffed buns set us back about $3 each, including water.
It’s pretty cheap to travel around China subsisting on some kind of noodle dish, fruit, yogurt, bread or dumplings and tea, water or beer depending on how stressful the day has been. And these are all words I know how to say in Chinese, which makes things easier.
After a quick catnap at the hotel (our non-smoking room held strict warnings not to smoke in the bed), we explored Datong, which was once the beginning of the trade route headed to Mongolia.
We enountered some ghost town- like areas, with a shocking absence of crowds. After three months of living in China, I’m just used to wall-to-wall people. What a refreshing change.
We started out early the next morning, once again expecting large crowds. Our anticipated destination was the Hengshan hanging monastery, an ancient structure attached to the side of a cliff with spindly wooden poles. I had seen this feat of engineering in pictures, which is what lured me to Datong in the first place.
Does it count as getting lost if you don’t arrive at your intended destination but never actually lose track of where you are?
In our case I’ll just call it serendipitous that our crazy driver passed the turnoff to the hanging monastery and took us instead to Heng mountain scenic area. I won’t bore you with the details of the trip, but after three hours with Driver Wang we were just happy to get out of the car. Anywhere. Alive. The actual destination was of secondary importance.
We looked up at all of the monasteries on the hillside and assumed we had arrived at our intended destination.
Fueled by chips and cookies from our backpacks and buying water along the way, we started out hiking. In China, at least everywhere I’ve been so far, hiking means stairs. And lots of them. I was thankful for all of the times I opted for the stairs over the escalator in the subway station.
Each set of stairs brought us to another vista – a monastery, a rock outcropping, a small temple, or a man with a thermos of hot water selling instant noodles.
The farther we went, the farther we wanted to go. Where does this lead? What’s over the hill top? What’s around the bend? It was impossible to stop. The views got more spectacular as we ascended.
And there was only one way to go – up. We climbed over 100 flights of stairs, gaining a few thousand feet in elevation.
The surrounding peaks, temples and valleys were our primary focus, but to our fellow Chinese hikers we were the center of attention. In this somewhat remote area away from Beijing, as a couple of foreigners we drew a lot of attention. I’m guessing for some, we might have been the first “weiguoren” they had laid eyes on. Everyone wanted pictures, wanted to know where we were from. It was a friendly curiosity, and we shared a spirit of commaraderie as we urged eachother on.
What we didn’t realize until we reached the top was that we were sharing a pilgrimage; we had summitted one China’s five sacred peaks.
This was not the hanging monastery we had set out to see, but something much grander that we achieved with sweat, quivering muscles and smiles from strangers.
It was breezy at the top, and I twirled around in exhilaration, taking in 360 degree views that spanned mountain ranges and neighboring provinces, unobstructed by human development. I can almost imagine what it was like as caravans of traders traveled from here along the Silk Road centuries ago.
We kept an eye on the clock, realizing we needed to return to the parking lot before evening came unless we wanted to spend the night on the mountain. We headed down, making more friends along the way.
In the U.S. such strenuous hikes might lure outdoorsy types who spend half their paycheck at REI, or at least weekend warriors and fitness buffs. Not here. From a four year old girl carrying a pretty red purse to a hunched over octogenarian, they climbed up the mountain. Sporting dressy pants, parasols, flip flops, cozy slippers, sequined tops and warm sweaters despite the upper 70s heat, our fellow hikers looked more prepared for a shopping trip or lounging at home than an adventure in the wilderness. They put us to shame with their level of fitness, earned from a car-less lifestyle where carrying groceries, cycling to town and climbing stairs in the subway were part of their routine.
Not wanting to chance it with another crazy driver, we took a public bus back to Datong, thanks to a friendly young couple who helped us buy tickets and find the right bus.
We travelled on small country roads, passing farms, stopping for passengers and taking our time. $3 and 2 hours later we arrived back in the city and caught a cab to the airport.
I’ve climbed high peaks in Mexico, trekked up hills in Nepal, visited Alpine mountain tops in Europe and seen some splendid wilderness in the United States. I found something special in each of those places. Being in nature (in the mountains especially) feeds my soul like nothing else. Maybe I feel closer to God because I’m high up on a mountain. Silly, I know.
But there was something different about this trip, about these vistas, about this mountain top that will stay with me. Perhaps it was the sheer adventure of getting there, navigating everything on our own without a tour guide, or not realizing we had just summitted a sacred peak until we saw the marker. Or the strangers encouraging us on the way to the top, surprised to see two foreigners in their midst. Or the freedom of a 360 degree view after being hemmed in in Beijing.
I’m not sure, but I loved it, and I’m hooked. There are many peaks to climb in China. I’ll let you know which one is next.
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