Many things about living in China have left me speechless. Some things are so surprising that I’m at a temporary loss for words; other times I would love to speak, but just can’t.
There is a huge cultural gap between what is considered socially acceptable in China and what’s kosher in the U.S.
A grown man urinating inches away from a police car on a busy street corner? No one turns a head. Digging a hole in the sand at a local water park for an al fresco toilet? I guess when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.
Not everything leaves me stunned into silence. Some things are just startling, like scooters driving the wrong way down the street straight into my path. Some are surprising, like seeing people catch a few winks on the beds at IKEA (I mean curled up and out cold), or realizing that not all Chile peppers are spicy hot.
It’s not just shocking social behavior that leaves me tongue-tied. Sometimes it’s the unexpected kindness of strangers that leaves me at a loss for words, like the fellow on my right who reached out his chopsticks to offer me a taste of his lunch. How could I say no?
Then there was the lady in my apartment building who gave me her old toaster because I needed one.
And this sandwich grill might not look like anything special to you, but it left me speechless.
Before we moved into our new apartment, a friend and I scoured the city looking for one of these, getting lost and more frustrated with each shoulder shrug and “mei you” we received (Chinese for don’t have).
When I was unpacking my kitchen supplies, guess what I found tucked far into the back of a cupboard? Thanks for the housewarming gift God!
Often it’s the beauty of my surroundings that takes my breath away, like the majesty of Longqing Gorge on the outskirts of Beijing.
Or the sunset in Hong Kong.
Or this adorable baby panda in Chengdu.
Such beauty, whether in nature or manmade is hard to put into words.
Other times I’m at a loss for words because with my limited Chinese I just can’t get the point across, or it’s not worth the effort to try and communicate.
Here’s an example. The other day the boys and I took a break from shopping to have lunch. In the U.S. I would have said:
”Excuse me waiter, I dropped a french fry in my water glass and now there are parsley flakes floating in it. Can you please bring me a fresh glass of water?”
I didn’t even try to explain. What’s a few floating green things in my drink? At least the water was cold (it’s usually served hot in China).
There’s no polite small talk when I go to the grocery store, or chatter on the subway about the weather. Chinese people just assume a “waiguoren” or foreigner can’t speak Chinese.
Expressing preferences like “I want vanilla ice cream, not Durian,” leaves me at a loss for words. My limited vocabulary means sometimes dishes we order in a restaurant are a mystery. The picture looks good so we point to order. “That was delicious, I wonder what it was?”
It’s a good thing I always liked charades as I kid, because I play that game often here. Try explaining to the dryer repairman that the dryer gets hot and the clothes spin around but they’re still wet and smell bad.
Or telling the sales lady that your son’s jeans fit in the waist but he needs one size longer, but first convert from metric to inches to find the right size then say the numbers in Chinese while there is a line of customers waiting. I’m pretty much done talking after that.
My Chinese is improving but having the verbal skills of a two-year old leaves me feeling powerless. It’s like everyone else is part of the action and I’m just watching it unfold as an outsider, a “waiguoren,” a fact strangers remind me of by calling it out regularly as I pass by.
Life in China is exciting, tumultuous, beautiful and frustrating . Some days I am in awe of my surroundings and feel so grateful for all that I’m experiencing; other days I weep in dispair. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not left speechless one way or another by living in this exotic place I now call home.
I have the most tender feet of anyone I’ve ever met. I never went barefoot as a kid, and I can’t tolerate anything between my toes, not even those sparkly, cute flip flops that are so popular in Florida.
So why did I think it was a good idea to get a traditional Chinese foot massage? I’m not sure, but let’s just say it was one of the most memorable things I’ve done so far in Beijing.
I guess it was curiousity that drove me down a dark corridor in the building across the street. There was a small sign advertising foot massage and bone setting, whatever that is. So last Saturday my husband and I ventured in.
”Hello, you want massage-ee?”asks the man behind the desk. Yes, we nod, pointing to our feet.
My husband and I part ways, and my masseur leads me to a recliner and fills a little foot bath with hot water.
“Ni yao zhe ge ma? San shi wu Kuai.” He offers me a whiff the optional herbal sachet he wants to add to my foot bath. I take a sniff, expecting a relaxing lavender scent. It smells like hay. For five bucks extra? I’ll pass thanks.
“Ni bu yao?” He seems puzzled by my refusal. Clearly I’m missing out but he shrugs and walks away, returning with a half-filled water bottle containing something that looks like motor oil. He’s saving the good stuff for foreigners I think, as he dumps the brown liquid into the steaming foot bath.
”Cu,” he says with a smile, offering me a sniff. It smells familiar. Like vinegar.
”jiaozi!” I reply with recognition. Dumplings! My feet are soaking in dumpling dipping sauce, sans the chili oil.
I wiggle my toes in the hot water and toss the word “jiaozi” around in my head, thinking the word “jiaozi” (dumpling) and “jiaozhi” (toe) sound remarkably similar.
After a few minutes when my feet are sufficiently cooked, my masseur fishes them out of the broth. He takes my right foot and wraps it neatly in a clean white towel, sealing the ends just like a dumpling wrapper.
He focuses on my left foot, massaging it between his open palms with the same force a Boy Scout would use trying to start a fire without matches. Iron Hands (I’ve renamed my masseur) generates such heat I’m wondering if it’s possible for my foot to spontaneously combust.
We are only about 10 minutes into a sixty minute massage when I realize this isn’t a “feel good massage.” This is a pain inducing, “let me fix your feet at all costs” massage. There’s no turning back now. I’m glad my right foot is blinded by a dumpling wrapper towel so it doesn’t see what’s coming.
Next Iron Hands works on my shin with closed fists, pummeling with the strength of a butcher mincing pork with a cleaver. I can hear loud flesh-thumping sounds from the room next door. Apparently my husband is enjoying the same treatment. I wonder what fantastic shades of purple and blue my lower leg will be tomorrow.
While he works on my shin, I wonder what I should be doing. Iron Hands is watching me watching him, and it’s a little bit awkward but I’m not relaxed enough to close my eyes.
He finishes my shin, splashes it with dumpling sauce and grabs ahold of my foot. He flings it up and down rapidly, causing my whole leg to undulate like a noodle. I’m beginning to think Iron Hands might have been a noodle puller or dumpling maker in his previous lifetime.
Next he moves on to my kneecap, which actually feels quite good. I’m starting to relax when works his way to my jiaozhi (toes, in case you’ve forgotten). The pressure on the tip of my big toe near my toenail is so exquisitely painful I yelp out loud. Is this what the splinter-under-the-nail torture feels like?
”Tong ma?” Iron Hands asks, sensing my discomfort. Yes it hurts, I nod. I’m sure he think I’m a big sissy.
He pulls out his phone to show me a reflexology chart of the foot. He points to the spot on the chart where he inserted the red hot poker. It’s the pressure point for my brain. So, I’m getting a lobotomy thrown in for free?
He resumes, toning down the pressure. A few minutes later, he scrolls through his phone with one hand, massaging my foot with the other. How rude, I think. Is he ordering a pizza? Then he hands me the phone.
I realize he’s calling his boss who speaks English.
“So how is the massage going? How are you feeling” she asks.
”I’m ok, but it’s a little bit painful,” I admit.
”That’s because you have some problems with your feet and he is a very old massager,” she explains.
I look up at Iron Hands with his boyish face and chubby belly. I’d place him in his early 20s. I think she means experienced, not old. I assure her I’m fine and we hang up.
My left foot breaths a sigh of relief as Iron Hands wraps it up dumpling style in a clean white towel.
My right foot knows what’s coming, but doesn’t complain much until we get to a particularly painful spot on my outer sole.
“Liver,” Iron Hands says, pressing on the painful spot for emphasis. My poor liver must be overworked from processing all of the strange food I’ve eaten since I arrived four weeks ago. Who knew too many pork stuffed buns and spicy eggplant with garlic could make my feet hurt?
Iron Hands goes through the same routine, and I try to distract myself by looking around the room. There’s a wolf pelt on the floor next to me and a leopard skin slung over a chair nearby. No wonder he’s out for the kill.
One last dip in the dumpling-scented foot bath and we are on the home stretch. He soothingly pats my feet as he dries them with the towel. Maybe he’s apologizing to my jiaozhi.
Now that we’re finished, I have to admit my feet feel invigorated and my skin is very soft. I realize I’ve worked up quite an appetite. Pain can do that to a person.
I’m not ready for a steaming bowl of dumplings, so we head to an American-style barbecue restaurant for dinner instead. Given enough time, I’m sure I’ll regain my craving for jiaozi, and I might even work up my appetite for another vinegar-infused foot massage.
Four weeks in and we are learning the ropes of living in Beijing. Just like wobbly-legged sailors who must learn how to tie knots and hoist the sails effectively to maneuver across the ocean, we’ve had to learn how to navigate changing winds and sometimes choppy water in this vast sea of Chinese culture. If we don’t learn, we’d be stuck in port or shipwrecked, neither of which sounds good to me.
So we are learning to decipher the language, which means we can order our favorite steamed buns for breakfast.
We can figure out which app to use and select the right buttons to order a pizza or movie tickets or purchase tickets for an upcoming visit to the panda research center in Chengdu (pictures of panda cuteness coming soon).
Learning a few simple words means we can ask for a taste of grapes at the market before we buy them.
And decipher the price of the melons
Or ask how much it costs to take the boat out on the lake.
And if something is really tasty, we can ask for a second order.
We’re getting pretty handy with taking the subway, the bus and calling a Didi (Chinese equivalent of Uber). We don’t have a car here, so figuring out public transportation is vital.
We also do a lot of walking, and I can proudly say I can now cross the street without sprinting or holding my breath in fear, but I will confess to occasionally grabbing the arm of my fellow pedestrian as I cross exceptionally busy intersections. Bikes, scooters and cars in the turn lane don’t yield for pedestrians, which takes some getting used to.
We’ve learned a lot about being flexible and improvising. We didn’t bring many things from home, so we make do with what we have. I really wanted to buy some fresh flowers, so I recycled my favorite yogurt containers into vases. They are about a buck a piece. Aren’t they cute?
It’s not all smooth sailing. Some things take a little getting used to, like eating with chopsticks. Getting my sea legs here means not being afraid to use a little force to keep my place in line, or call out loudly to the waiter when I’m ready to order. I don’t expect anyone to hold the door for me (except my family), and I no longer flinch when I hear a lung-clearing sound which warns me inevitable spitting will follow. And blowing your nose free-streaming into the air as some are in the habit of? Well, I guess it saves on Kleenex.
There are are cultural differences for sure, but when I need help and am bold enough to ask for it, people are quick to respond, like the sweet old lady who walked two blocks out of her way to show me where to buy produce when I was looking for a neighborhood market.
One new acquaintance patiently taught me how to buy tickets for an upcoming trip on a Chinese app, and a friend who arrived before me not only told me where I could buy chocolate chips when I was craving a taste of home, but bought the last package and delivered it to my door.
Thanks to strangers, aquaintences and friends, we are learning the ropes of living in Beijing. Now we can return the favor by helping other newcomers find their bearings in this easily overwhelming city.
Trying to fit in takes a toll. My husband’s electric toothbrush, whose prongs became bent when he tried to plug the charger into an adapter that was just a little too snug, is useless now.
Our espresso machine, carefully packed in its original box and sent by air with our high priority items, quit brewing after just a few shots. We think it was shocked to death after accidentally being connected to a high-voltage Chinese outlet rather than the transformer we brought from home.
I can sympathize. Sometimes I feel bent, squeezed and frazzled by being plugged into a foreign culture and being expected to perform my normal tasks, just like the espresso machine. Sometimes the frustration of simple everyday tasks brings me to tears.
But giving up is not an option, so the boys and I set out to buy a new electric toothbrush and a replacement espresso machine. Now we have two of each, a non-working US model and a functioning Chinese version.
The outing was going pretty smoothly until we stopped for a snack. (If you have teenagers you know it’s always time to stop for a snack). I wanted them to try one of my favorites, deep-fried lotus root stuffed with meat. Imagine just the right amount of seasoned pork sandwiched between two wagon wheel-shaped slices of lotus root, similar in texture to potatoes with a slightly nutty taste. Then fry the whole thing to a golden brown. It’s kind of like eating a hamburger and fries all in one bite.
Since I have teenagers, and “snack” really means “meal,” we ordered a bowl of stir-fried pork over rice too.
So ordering food in a different language in a crowded food court at lunch time is stressful. Mostly I point to the pictures and say how many I want, using my fingers to help clarify. Except in Chinese even counting on your fingers is different.
I’m reduced to a toddler. I feel like everyone is staring at me and wondering why I can’t just use my words. It goes like this:
Me: I want two of these (lotus root) and one of those (pork dish).
Server: Has two per order (pointing out that crispy lotus root always comes in a pair.) You want one, she corrects.
Me: I want two orders – four total, I repeat. They are like Oreos, three of us cannot possibly share two, especially when teenagers are involved. We each get one and fight over the fourth.
Server: ok, ok, ok, she says. She’s in a hurry to scan my phone for payment and move on to the next customer who clearly knows how to order properly.
I step aside and wait for my order while the line grows. A second server hands me my tray. One bowl of pork and two fried lotus roots. A pair.
I take the tray over to the boys, my exasperation growing. I hand over the pork and let them have the hot, crispy lotus root because that’s what moms do.
I look at the line and almost give up. But they’re really really good. I take a deep breath and get back in line, practicing Chinese phrases in my head while I wait.
Me: please give me another order, I say pointing to the line item for lotus root on my receipt.
Server: please sit, your food is coming.
Me: no, I want another one of these.
Server: Sit, sit. Your food is coming. She’s practically shooing me away from the counter.
My despair is mounting when Server number two steps in and translates my feeble Chinese to Server one.
Server: Oh, you want another one? She repeats exactly what I just said. I almost weep with relief as she punches in my order with a big smile and scans my phone. Success!
One order of lotus root is 5 Kuai (about 75 cents). My phone pings and I see a receipt for 28 Kuai pop up just as server number two hands me my tray -with another bowl of pork and an order of fried lotus root.
My language failed me again. I sit down with the boys and pick up a hot stuffed lotus root, holding back tears. I contemplate asking for a take-out container so we can bring the pork home, but it’s just too much.
Just like the toothbrush and espresso machine that I brought from home, my language doesn’t work here. I need the Chinese version. My tutor starts next week. One of the first things I want to conquer is ordering from the menu, especially things that come in pairs.
In the meantime, I think I’ll fire up our new Chinese espresso machine and brew up the perfect shot in my favorite cup I brought from home.
Looking for a new place to live is exhausting under the best of circumstances. Touring 13 apartments in three days 8,000 miles from home in a jet-lagged caffeine-fueled state tested the limits of my physical and emotional endurance as we looked for our new home in Beijing last week.
From too small or too big (more furniture to buy), run down to ritzy, dark and smelly to bright and airy we saw everything from a penthouse with a spectacular panoramic city view (trashed by a previous tenant unfortunately) to a three-Bedroom split-level with mirrored walls and a sauna in the master suite.
We saw great places in the wrong location (no school bus stop or far from amenities) and the wrong places (too small or bad smells) in great locations.
Have you ever walked into a place and it just felt like home? That’s how I felt when I stepped out of the elevator on the 28th floor of Tower 21 and into apartment #3 in the Central Park residential compound in Beijing. I’m surprised I fell for something in such a massive space; apartment #3 is one in a sea of 2,000 other dwellings in the 24 buildings that surround Central Park, a hilly, grassy oasis in the center of the compound.
From its perch on the 28th floor, the apartment offers views of the city and the park below, enabling us to watch the hustle and bustle without listening to the incessant blaring of horns which Beijing drivers are so fond of.
Located in the heart of the central business district, Central Park is surrounded by upscale shopping malls, cafés, noodle shops and convenience stores. I counted three Starbucks within four blocks and it is walking distance to the subway, Walmart and two 7-Eleven’s. There’s even a small grocery store stocked with western goods right downstairs where I can buy a sesame bagel if I’m desperate for a taste of home, or procure ingredients for a simple dinner if I just can’t face risking my life to cross the heavily trafficked main road to get to a larger store.
While Western conveniences abound, you will also see ladies dancing to music in unison on their lunch break (a favorite excercise option in a city where gym membership costs as much as rent in other cities) and local preschoolers taking a stroll through the park in the morning.
The kitchen is small but it does have an oven which isn’t always the case.
Closet space is scarce, but the clean white walls, bright sunny windows and warm wood floors put us instantly at ease. No bad smells, stained carpets or remnants of former inhabitants. It’s the perfect blank canvas on which to write our family’s story of living in China.
So with high hopes, we put in an offer to the landlord and headed home to Orlando. With huge disappointment, we heard Monday that the landlord had changed her mind and was no longer interested in renting out the apartment. With our moving date about four weeks away, we’re not sure at this point what our housing will look like. Stay tuned for more on our crazy China adventure.
As we prepare to move to Beijing, I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about what to bring and what to get rid of.
I follow the advice of best-selling author and organizational guru Marie Kondo, sorting my possessions to find the ones that spark joy: gifts given by new-found friends waiting for us in China,
treasures and drawings made by my sons,
and of course my orchids, which I love.
But some of those things will have to stay behind. You see, I’m trying really hard to travel light. I want to live this experience, to take in all of the new sights, sounds (and yes, even the smells) of ex-pat China living. If I am too heavily laden with baggage, like my favorite coffee and preconceived notions of how things should be, I risk missing out on new experiences, like learning to drink tea. Expectations often lead to disappointment, and stereotypes act as barries to forming new relationships.
Instead, I want my suitcase to be filled with a sense of adventure, an open mind and lots of patience. I’ll also be bringing my strong faith and a sense of humor, packed right between the smog masks and a few good jars of face cream.
I’ll need to bring boldness to try new things, like getting on a bus even if I’m not sure where it’s going, or ordering a basket of dumplings with mystery filling.
Flexibility will help me accept changing rules, adapt to different ways of thinking and wedge myself onto the almost-full subway.
Curiosity will entice me to buy one of those little white jars and discover a new favorite yogurt drink, and nudge me out of my comfort zone to ask questions and interact with strangers.
I also want to leave room to bring some things back, like new friends, priceless memories and a tolerance for spicy foods.
Acquiring functional Mandarin skills and cute new shoes (in a size 5 1/2) would be a bonus too.
What would you bring if you were moving 8,000 miles away?
Living in a foreign country is like eating an orange. There is something sweet and juicy and delicious inside, just waiting to be discovered. But first the bitter, tough peel must be removed: learning a new language, navigating unfamiliar terrain and patiently waiting for strangers to become friends.
Sometimes as the outer layer is peeled away, juice squirts into your eyes and makes them sting. Loneliness, unmet expectations and strange food can have the same effect. But if the scent of the orange is sweet enough, it will tickle your nose and entice you to keep going even if the process is messy.
I know this all too well as we contemplate our upcoming move to Beijing. What will living in China be like? I don’t really want to know, because that would take the pleasure out of the discovery, kind of like eating an orange without having to peel it first. But I do want to know in a general sense. Will we be safe? Can we stay healthy? How will my fair-headed teenagers adapt to chopsticks, crowds and Chinese friends?
In the light of day, the potential for adventure becomes intoxicating . I convince myself that I can learn Mandarin and master the strokes of the elegant written characters. In my mind I create a new life, where the difficult tonal language flows effortlessly from my lips and my sons handle chopsticks as easily as the buttons on their smart phones.
My mental guidebook includes weekends in X’ian with the terra cotta warriors, holidays spent with my toes in the South China Sea and winters spent shushing down the slopes of Badaling. In the terraced plantations near Hangzhou I pick tea with women whose nimble fingers have done this work for generations.
Imaginary friends fill my days, like the noodle master whose solitary skill I admire every day on the way to the market. I wear a path of familiarity into his consciousness until he invites me in. Students in my English class listen eagerly and share pearls of Chinese wisdom that enrich my days.
In some of these daydreams I am invisible, enabling me to walk through shopping streets and hutongs without the crush and odor of half a million bodies pressing against me. Being unseen means no one touches my blond hair, stares at me or takes pictures of my children. I glide along like a spirit, connecting with reality when it is convenient and disappearing when I am afraid or uncomfortable.
It sounds so easy and appealing during the day when images on my iPad of the Forbidden City, the snow-covered Great Wall and the tranquil Li River weave themselves into a colorful, beckoning welcome mat. But when the sun goes down, insecurity slithers into my stomach like a snake and fear becomes my new friend. A blanket of doubt as heavy as the acrid air over Beijing covers me as I lie in bed unable to sleep.
I worry that I will be too hot or too cold, lonely, yet smothered by a billion strangers who spit and smoke too much. I can’t speak, read or understand a single syllable. How will I bake a birthday cake without an oven? Do we have to eat fermented tofu and chicken feet? Will wearing a face mask become as ordinary as putting on socks? What if the pollution causes my younger son’s asthma to flare up? How will my older son navigate his potentially life-threatening food allergies?
The fear and excitement volley back and forth like a ping pong ball in my head. Risk serves first. “It’s going to be the most amazing, mind expanding experience of your life.” Caution lobs back. “What are you thinking? How can you do this to your kids? You’ll be lonely and miserable.
I study subway maps, phrase books and air quality statistics trying to make sense of it all. I pray and wait as our moving date draws near, contemplating the orange sitting on my kitchen counter. There’s a tantalizing hint of citrus in the air and the orange looks tempting. Some oranges are bitter; some are sweet. I won’t know how this one tastes until I begin the messy, sometimes painful job of peeling it.