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.
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.
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.