If you missed my last post on the obstacles we faced yesterday on the way to scuba lessons, you can catch up here: Jellyfish Lake
Hoping to avoid being detained by police again, I printed out a copy of the paperwork we filled out yesterday. On the train to Zhuozhou, I silently rehearse my lines in Chinese. “We came here yesterday and registered. We’re back again today.”
“Maybe we’ll get the same guy as yesterday and he’ll let us through,” Daniel says as we get off the train.
Walking toward the exit, we are confronted with three security guards and four guys wearing neon Traffic Control vests. We’re outnumbered and get immediately pulled over to the side.
“Who are you meeting? What’s her name What’s her phone number? Where are you going?” Officer #232 asks. This takes about 45 minutes. So much for a faster exit today.
“Can we go now? What else do you need?
“Please wait, another officer will come soon.”
“How much longer?”
“Twenty minutes? It’s been almost an hour!”
“He’s eating his breakfast first and then he’ll come.”
Officer #232 paces in circles and wipes his brow. He really wants to be done with us but doesn’t want the responsibility of letting us go. He looks so uncomfortable we almost feel sorry for him.
“Can we go? Our friends are waiting,” we try again.
Officer #232 hands me the papers and points to the locked exit door.
“Show it to him,” he says.
We knock to get the guard’s attention, pressing our faces to the glass like puppies at the pet store pleading for freedom.
“Mom don’t stop – keep going!” Daniel urges when the door opens.
“Aren’t we supposed to show him our papers?” I ask the boys.
“I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to come after us and tackle us. Just go,” Timothy says.
Our instructors Chris and Lexie meet us in the parking lot. The good news is Chris isn’t hungover today.
“Maybe next time you should try driving. There’s so much traffic they don’t stop everyone,” Lexie says. “It should be much faster.”
She tells us that the police grilled her on the phone while we were waiting in the station. Her relationship with three foreigners was causing suspicion from the authorities.
We agree to arrange a car for tomorrow, hoping to avoid another encounter with the police.
The boys master their scuba skills successfully, and Chris and Lexie drive us to the train station. We’re hungry, but the pork bun shop is closed. We pass a vendor selling chicken feet from a roadside cart and produce vendors displaying their goods on the ground. It’s grittier than Beijing.
“Do you eat lu rou huo shao?” Lexie asks. Donkey Meat? We love it.
“It’s amazing we’ve never gotten food poisoning here,” Timothy says, digging into a hot flaky roll stuffed with donkey meat. The car smells like peppers and cumin.
There’s a local idiom here that “in Heaven there is dragon meat, on earth there is donkey meat.” Finally, something likable about Zhuozhou.
We pass security quickly after pointing to the clock and speaking urgently about our train departing soon.
At dinner time, Mike asks about our day.
“There was really nothing fun about swimming in a trash filled lake. I just want to get certified,” Timothy says in a voice that conveys truth, not complaint.
Being grilled by the police over the last two days takes an emotional toll. No one wants to go back, but we need to finish before school starts. We take a week off and then schedule the last two classes.
We’ve arranged for our driver Chen to take us, hoping driving across the provincial border will be easier than travelling by train. Success! We didn’t get stopped at all.
That was such a good decision, I thought, as we wrapped up the scuba lesson and hit the road by 2:30. So far, the trip was uneventful. No police checks, paparazzi or dead fish floating in the lake.
Then we hit the first police check point. We get pulled over, Chen hands over our passports and gets out of the car to talk with the guards. A few minutes later an officer gets into our car (without Chen) and starts driving. We’re on a road trip with no passports and a Chinese cop behind the wheel. Before my heart rate hits dangerously high, the officer pulls into a parking lot behind the police station.
After about 20 minutes of questioning, we’re on our way. We pass checkpoint number two, leaving Zhuozhou without incident. We cross the bridge to checkpoint three, which is the border into Beijing.
We roll up to the guard and as soon as he sees us in the car he motions for us to park and get out. We hand over the passports and the questions start again.
“Where are you from? When did you arrive in China? Where’s your virus test? Where’s your proof of quarantine? Who is your community leader?” The officer asks in Chinese, thumbing through our passports.
Chen patiently answers for us as we stand on the side of the road. The officer isn’t satisfied and disappears inside the building with our passports. We wait as a steady stream of traffic rolls by. From tattooed truckers to old ladies hauling peanuts to market, their eyes rest heavily on us. If we were still in Florida I’d wish for a sinkhole to swallow us up.
Chen brings us some water from the car. If I’m going to be an object of shame at a Chinese border crossing, I can’t think of anyone better to have at my side. With a fuzzy brush cut and a face like a teddy bear, Chen is kind and gentle, providing the comfort we need.
“How much longer?” Timothy asks.
“I think I heard someone say 20 minutes, or maybe he said he’s been working here 20 years, or that we’ll be waiting 20 years, I’m not sure,” I answer.
It’s been almost an hour when we see a police car pull up, lights flashing.
“Maybe they’re just starting their shift,” Daniel says. “Or they’re coming to take us away.”
I take a mental inventory of the snacks and toilet paper in my purse as three soldiers walk up behind the police car and toward us.
“Maybe they requested back up,” Daniel say. We laugh a little, but there’s tension, realizing the situation is completely out of our control. The police car and soldiers continue past and we relax a little bit.
“What can they possibly be doing inside?” I wonder out loud.
“Maybe he’s waiting for his boss to finish his plate of dumplings before he approves our paperwork,” Timothy says.
After about an hour and a half an officer comes out and unceremoniously hands back our passports.
What we had hoped would be an easier trip than going by train had turned into a 4-hour car journey that tested the depths of our patience and strength of my bladder.
I get up early and bake blueberry muffins. If we spend hours at the border or get thrown in jail at least we won’t be hungry.
We set off with Chen and arrive quickly in Zhuozhou. The only obstacle in our path this time was a herd of sheep.
We arrive a little early, hoping we can finish and head home before Friday traffic gets too bad.
“Maybe we can hide in the back of the van,” Daniel says. “Except they probably have infrared sensors and they’d find us.”
The boys grab their wet suits from the equipment room head down to the lake.
It rained last night, raising the water level and gathering more debris into the lake.
“Well. There’s a couch to sit on with your feet in the water, kind of like New Symrna,” Mike says, when I text him a picture.
The only thing missing is a fruity drink with a little umbrella.
I find a patch of shade and watch the boys disappear into the lake, leaving a trail of air bubbles. Local kids play in the water, eating watermelon and tossing the rinds. A toddler comes with his dad, looking to catch some fish in his small net.
The boys finish their skills and make their way to the beach, greeted by a golden retriever who’s gone for a dip to escape the summer heat.
“Congratulations to our open water divers,” Lexie says, snapping photos of the boys she will use to make their official PADI certificates.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I will beautify the pictures first – make your eyes bigger, make your skin whiter.”
I think of the rows of skin whitening products for sale in the grocery store. Maybe everything here would be easier if our skin were just a little bit whiter and we didn’t look so foreign. I look at my handsome blond boys with a hint of color on their skin from a day at the lake and think they look perfect.
We left Jellyfish Lake three days ago, but the sting is still fresh in my mind.
We took a bullet train 20 minutes south of Beijing to the bedroom community of Zhuozhou so my sons could take a PADI scuba certification course. They completed the basic coursework online, and we found an English-speaking instructor to teach them the open water skills. It turned out it wasn’t just their diving skills that were put to the test.
We crossed the provincial border arriving in Zhuozhou and were immediately pulled aside by the police as we tried to exit the train station. Since we’re “waiguoren” (foreigners) this was not unusual but it’s always unsettling.
The questions (in Chinese of course), are routine enough in the beginning. “When did you arrive in China? Why are you here? What’s your phone number?”
Quickly, the sight of three foreigners draws a crowd and we are surrounded by four police officers and a few traffic cops looking for entertainment.
“Lai, Lai, lai,” one officer says, waving us to follow. Since he’s holding our passports, we have no choice but to follow him outside into a make-shift police station fashioned out of an old shipping container.
You know the feeling you get when you’re driving, and you see the red and blue lights flashing behind you and your stomach gets all tied up in knots? That’s how I feel.
Inside, a lady in a white coat and nurse’s hat perches on the edge of a cot. There’s a matching bed across from her, with a wok, electric kettle and cooking pot stored underneath. The windows are blacked out with pieces of cardboard boxes.
“Do they live here?” my son Timothy asks.
“It looks like it,” I say, as the nurse takes out her phone and starts filming us. Posting videos on social media of two tall, handsome blond teenagers being questioned by police will gain the nurse instant fame in this small town.
“Bu yao,” I tell her to stop, scowling. I feel enough like a circus freak already.
The officer continues to question us, asking for proof of quarantine (which wasn’t required), a virus test (which we don’t have) and a list of all of the places we’ve traveled since we moved to China (too many to count).
“I think he’s asking for our address in America,” my older son Daniel says. It’s a bit like Wheel of Fortune, where we guess the questions by knowing a few key words. I’d gladly pay for a vowel if it would help us out of this mess.
It’s been 45 minutes of interrogation and I’m reaching my breaking point. I don’t know how to write “Orangeshire Court” in Chinese and I really need to pee. I text our Chinese scuba instructors Lexie and Chris to ask for help. Eventually, the officer runs out of questions and reluctantly lets us go.
“That’s crazy. He asked so many questions. I told him it’s none of his f***ing business,” Lexie says as we walk to her car. I don’t know how to say that in Chinese, but it probably wouldn’t have helped.
I fan myself with our passports. I’m hot and frustrated and my stomach feels icky. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Covid-19 has been an easy excuse to keep foreigners from traveling around China, securing tickets to scenic spots and staying in hotels. I wonder if this is how my friends of color feel in the U.S.
We drive 25 minutes to Jellyfish Lake, stopping to pick up some pork stuffed buns since it’s already lunchtime.
“You guys want something to drink? Coke? Cold water?” Lexie asks when we stop. I really want a beer but I’m trying to set a good example for my kids, so I settle for water.
Lexie and Chris run their diving school out of an old farmhouse near the lake. Lexie helps the boys pick out wetsuits and loads them in a van with the oxygen tanks.
“Now we just need Chris,” Lexie says. “I think he’s in the toilet.”
On cue, we hear Chris retching from nearby bushes.
“Is he sick? I’m not really comfortable with this,” I tell her.
“Oh, don’t worry – he’s not sick,” she reassures us. “He’s just hungover. He drank too much sake last night.”
Great. The boys might drown from a hungover instructor, but at least they won’t catch the flu.
We drive the short distance to the lake, passing through a cornfield, paintball course and a cemetery. From a distance the lake looks pretty, its blue-green color reminding me of the glacier-fed lakes in Canada. But as we get closer, I see a dead fish and garbage floating near the shore.
“It doesn’t look too dirty,” Timothy says, noticing my concern.
“It’ll be ok as long as they don’t have any amoebas,” Daniel says.
Swimmers itch? E Coli? Water snakes? What should I worry about most?
“Remember all those shots we got before we left home? This is why,” I say.
I text my husband Mike a few pictures and tell him that we’re outnumbered, as a small group of locals has come to watch the foreign scuba divers.
He sees the photo of the dead fish and texts back “I hope the boys have fun and that you’ll forgive me one day.”
There’s a quick break after the first dive and Chris comes out of the water and starts dry heaving, sounding like a sick seal.
The boys laugh and Timothy asks, “How is that sound even human?”
“I don’t really think he’s fit to teach. Maybe he should rest this afternoon,” I tell Lexie as the noises from Chris’s belly grow louder. He must have been holding it in while they were underwater.
Chris sits the afternoon out, giving occasional instructions from the lakeshore between cigarettes.
The boys finish for the day and we head to the train station.
In the car, Lexie and Chris tear open small, colorful packages that look like candy.
“You guys want some? You just chew it and spit it out,” she says, holding it up for them to see.
“What is it?”
I type the words into my phone, wondering what kind of dried fruit or nuts she’s offering.
“It’s like, how do you say – chewing tabaco,” she says, happy to find the correct words.
“The areca palm tree seed known as Betel Nut or Bing Lang in Chinese produces a quick, cheap high but carries the risk of oral cancer, addiction, stained teeth and cardiovascular disease,” my phone tells me.
“No, that’s ok. We’ll pass,” I say.
We’re all a little nervous walking into the train station, but thankfully, leaving Zhuozhou rated about 3 on a 1 to 10 hassle-factor scale. I’m so ready to put this experience behind us, but we have to come back tomorrow since the class is a 4-part series.
I get ready for bed, tell the boys how proud I am of them and pray that tomorrow will be easier.
Make sure to subscribe to my blog to find out what happens next at Jellyfish Lake.
“You’re very good at silver linings,” a friend texted me recently.
I’d just shared with her that we probably won’t be able to come to the US for a visit this summer since China has banned foreigners from entering. If we leave, there’s no telling when we can return.
I tried to highlight the positive.
“The good news is that lots of places are opening up for travel here. So instead of petting bunnies at your place I might be riding camels in the desert in Inner Mongolia,” I told her.
I’d spent weeks dreaming of sipping wine together on her balcony and snuggling with her two pet bunnies this summer.
I just knew that running my hands through George and Bella’s fur was the antidote I needed to my stress
As I scrolled through the fuzzy duo’s Instagram feed Triple Chin George tears started to roll. I realized I’d have to settle for virtual bunny therapy this summer. At least I’d be in good company with George and Bella’s 969 other followers. (You should check them out. This much cuteness has to lower your stress.)
Here’s the silver lining. As our return to the US this summer seems unlikely, we’re being forced to dig deep to experience more of what China has to offer.
Still round the corner there may wait, a new road, or a secret gate. – J.R.R. Tolkien
“The great thing is we live in such a big country,” I said to my sons as we discussed our summer plans. “We can go hiking in the mountains near Tibet or go to Hainan Island for scuba.”
I’ve tried really hard to put a positive spin on things in the last four months and rock this China adventure for all it’s worth.
It’s not always easy. Constantly feeling like an outsider (no one wants to share an elevator with a foreigner), innumerable temperature checks by guys in hazmat suits, and a ban on leaving the city have taken a toll. (The guys in white jumpsuits showed up in my dreams one night, jolting me awake and making my heart race.)
I feel like I lived through the pandemic twice. Once when it was at its peak in China and a second time as the virus swept across the globe.
Watching my home country succumb to increasing death and confusion from my living room TV is surreal. It’s like tracking a hurricane as it approaches landfall, waiting for destruction but being powerless to stop it.
I need to be refueled by hugs from friends and family and have meaningful conversations that don’t include my phone as a translator.
I want to go out to eat and have everyone’s meal come out at the same time, and not have to fumble with chopsticks.
My kids looked forward to seeing how many times they could eat at Chick-fil-A in a week, or ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster without puking.
And the thought of seeing them hanging out with their friends? It would mean everything’s right in the world again, kind of like finding the missing sock in the dryer.
I get a lump in my throat when I think about everything we’re missing. Unlike boxes of Clif Bars and a good jar of face cream, enduring friendships and cultural familiarity can’t be ordered online.
We’re all missing out on something important this summer. Just like many of your plans, mine will have to wait.
But as I imagine my family camping out under the stars in the desert
Or exploring the spot where the Great Wall plunges into the sea,
I think I can see a faint glimmer of a silver lining.
I hope you find a silver lining in this difficult time. I’d love to hear about it.
“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.
“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.
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.
“They must sit up straight and not be lazy,” our instructor commanded as she surveyed the room.
I looked around at my fellow classmates, a German grandpa and his son-in-law, and a father-daughter duo from Singapore.
I’m here to learn how to make dumplings, China’s iconic snack. Thankfully our teacher Sophia is chastising the dumplings, not us, for their lackadaisical attitude.
“If they are lazy and fall over you will lose all of your money,” she warns. Sophia explains that “jiaozi” or dumplings to us foreigners, are shaped a little bit like the ingots that were used as currency during the Ming dynasty. If your “money purse” falls over, it’s a bad omen for your finances. Similarly, the filling might spill out from toppled dumplings. Shaping the dumplings correctly therefore is important.
The history of jiaozi goes back almost two thousand years, Sophia explains, when a famous Chinese medicine doctor was faced with a village full of patients with frostbitten ears. Seeking a cure for the malnourished, suffering villagers, he combined mutton with chopped medicinal herbs and warming spices and steamed it into ear-shaped soothing dough packages.
The villagers ate the dumplings and recovered, crediting their renewed health to the jiaozi prepared by the doctor. Thus began the tradition of eating dumplings at the beginning of the new year to bring health and prosperity.
But thankfully we don’t have to wait until they new year to enjoy them. I can’t walk more than a few blocks or so without finding a place to stop for dumplings. Even the frozen ones make a pretty good afterschool snack that can be prepared in a hurry. That’s important when you have two teenagers who can down a dozen or two in one sitting,
We started from scratch, making a simple dough from flour and water. Vegetable juice, like carrot, spinach or beet, can be used instead to color the dough.
“The texture should be like playdough,” Sophia tells us, as she walks around to inspect. Do Chinese kids play with playdough I wonder?
Satisfied with our efforts, she instructs us to let the dough rest while we start making the filling. If we don’t let the gluten rest, the dough will be too bouncy to work with.
There are probably as many recipes for dumpling fillings as there are cooks in China. Eggs, tofu, pork, beef, mushrooms, lotus root, cabbage, leeks, vermicelli, carrots — can all be incorporated. The key is the fillings must be dry, not soggy. Eggs and tofu must be cooked first for that reason, and water must be squeezed out of other vegetables.
The workhorse in every Chinese kitchen is a big cleaver, called a cai dao. It’s sharp, big, heavy and a little bit intimidating . I can understand why they require permits to buy these things.
“Hold it like a ping pong paddle,” Sophia suggests. “Like Westerners do, not Chinese,” she says, clarifying the type of grip we should have on our cai dao.
We chop vegetables, mince ginger and cilantro, add in five spice powder, salt, pepper, vinegar, cooking wine and mix our fillings. Thankfully no one loses a finger.
“Don’t forget to add a pinch of sugar. It’s the magic seasoning that brings all of the flavors together,” Sophia tells us.
Next we wake the dough up from its nap and start making the wrappers. We poke a hole in the dough ball and end up with a doughnut. We cut the doughnut into a snake, and then cut the snake into pieces which are supposed to be evenly sized. Where is my engineer husband when I need him?
Next Sophia demonstrates how to roll out the dough into circles.
Next comes the hard part: filling the wrappers. There is a lot of pressure here because remember how I told you the dumplings are supposed to sit up straight and not be lazy? It has to do with how you pinch the edges closed after filling the wrapper.
We don’t want the filling to fall out or the dumplings to tip over or we will be poor and sick in the new year.
The filled dumplings can be boiled (the original method of cooking), steamed or fried (also delicious). It takes a lot of work to roll, fill and cook the dumplings, so it’s often a family affair.
Dumplings can be eaten as a snack (allow 20 or so per teenager) or paired with smashed cucumber salad and fruit for a meal.
They are usually served with a combination of dark vinegar and soy sauce for dipping, and sometimes ginger or chili pepper is added.
The markets in Beijing are alive with color, smells, sounds, people and interesting things to taste and touch. From worry beads and fake Gucci purses to fresh lotus root and chicken feet, there’s a market for just about everything.
The one I frequent most often resembles a farmers market, with fresh produce and dry goods like rice, tea and spices. The quality is high and the prices are low.
If you need some clothes hemmed, or a plunger for the sink, you can find that here too.
There’s even a place to buy pink panties and lucky red underwear. I wish I could shop here everyday.
Another place I love to visit is the flower market.
The market itself used to be huge, taking up almost a whole city block with flower vendors. The government closed it recently, citing the need to use the building for something else. Fortunately a number of vendors have relocated to a building next door, so I can still get my orchid fix.
They also sell house plants, baby turtles and little furry pets.
And then there are several antique markets which are a great place to find some funky decorations like porcelain vases and cricket cages.
Or get a glimpse into China’s past with Mao-era paraphernalia
Some items are painful reminders of how things used to be, like these doll-sized slippers worn by women who had their feet bound.
These are about 3- inches long from the chunky heel to the tip of the pointy toe. For hundreds of years Chinese women endured the painful practice of foot-binding to shape their feet into “golden lotuses” which increased their value as a potential bride. The practice was outlawed in the early 1900s.
The hotel and restaurant market is the place to go for small kitchen appliances, bedding, silverware and dishes.
I went there shortly after we arrived, looking for a serrated bread knife. I can easily find crusty baguettes and hearty sourdough boules in specialty shops but finding a way to cut them was problematic. The Chinese cleaver that came with my apartment wasn’t going to cut it. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).
This is when I learned that cooking knives are regulated items, kind of like buying a weapon. You might be able to waltz into Wal-Mart in the US and buy a firearm, but at Wal-Mart in Beijing you’ll be lucky to find a butter knife. I raised deep suspicion and a few eyebrows when I asked to buy a knife at the hotel market. Stores that do sell knives, like Ikea, will require you to show ID. And getting home? Forget about taking the subway because it won’t pass security.
Visiting Beijing’s markets is a culinary experience, a lesson in history, a taste of the language and a window into Chinese culture all rolled into one. It’s one thing I know I’ll miss when our time in Beijing comes to an end.
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.