Adventures of Life in Beijing

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.

 

A defunct washer causes a strain on Lucy and Ethel’s friendship.

 

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.

 

Chocolate always makes things better.

 

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, strongerGonna make you stronger, stronger, stronger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (15):

  1. Paula Kasnitz

    August 15, 2019 at 3:02 am

    Hang in Kirsten! These experiences will bring smiles in the future.
    Saw One Child Nation today. China has come a long way from the 80’s.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 15, 2019 at 3:58 am

      Thanks. For sure, Beijing is a very modern city. I can’t imagine doing this 20 or even 5 years ago. The hard days will make the best chapters in the book I hope to write one day.

      Reply
  2. Terry

    August 15, 2019 at 3:49 am

    You are so brave and have always, as long as I have known you, found a way to overcome. It is a marathon not a sprint and I remember you being good at preparing for a marathon. So in awe of your determination and spirit. Keep training, you will overcome.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 15, 2019 at 3:56 am

      Thank you Terri, that means a lot. We really are doing well. Some days are just a challenge. It helps so much to have your support ❤️

      Reply
  3. Kellie Harrington

    August 15, 2019 at 8:52 am

    Awwww! That does sound thoroughly frustrating Aunt Kirsten. Too bad they don’t have take-out laundry. I find that sometimes it’s best to ask for help. I hope things get better between you and your nemesis. *Hugs!*

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 15, 2019 at 8:55 am

      Thanks Kellie! Everyday is a fresh start. So far today has been a good laundry day😂

      Reply
  4. Cynthia Vanderlip

    August 15, 2019 at 9:33 am

    I’m having a China Day too my typing tutor won’t work . I blame it on the sketchy internet . I was thinking of ordering something online but remembered we don’t get mail here yeah! Trying to do homework too frustrated . So I decided to journal to the Lord I was already crying thinking I miss friends and decent internet and my doctors at home . Then I thought would check to see if got extension on homework .And bam you’re blog popped up .With tears in my eyes I started reading and then I was feeling encouraged by what you wrote and even giggled . Praise God , and thank you for sharing now I know I’m not crazy . And by the way I finally figured out how to get washer unlocked so far and yes it seems 2-3 articles of clothing is the limit for washer! Thank you for your blog!🌈

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 15, 2019 at 9:55 am

      Glad I was able to make you laugh 😀 what’s the secret to getting the washer to open?

      Reply
  5. Jacqueline Lewis

    August 15, 2019 at 9:51 am

    Hang in there, the challenges will make you stronger. Love Mike’s I love Lucy comment, I remember that episode.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 15, 2019 at 9:53 am

      Thanks Jackie. Yes Mike can always make me laugh.

      Reply
  6. Denise Tormey

    August 15, 2019 at 11:11 pm

    You are strong and persistent. Small but mighty. Hang tough!!! You got this💪😘

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 15, 2019 at 11:15 pm

      Thank you. Feeling better today, I got out on my bike by the river this morning.

      Reply
  7. Ainslie Lewis

    August 19, 2019 at 3:42 pm

    I found this online from a blog about a person having a hard time doing laundry in China. I hope it helps! Praying for strength and wisdom!

    漂水 piao4shui3 = bleach
    脱水 tuo1shui3 = dehydration, damp dry
    排水 pai2shui3 = drain

    带预洗 dai4yu4xi3 = prewash
    棉麻 mian2ma3 = Cotton and linen
    节能 jie2neng2 = energy saving
    快洗 kuai4xi3 = fast wash
    冷水 leng2shui3 = cold water
    混合洗 hun1he4xi3 = mixed
    化纤 hua4xian4 = chemical fibers, man-made
    樱儿服 ying1er2fu2 = baby
    运动服 yun4dong4fu2 = sportswear
    精细 jing1xi = fine
    窗帘 chuang1lian2 = curtain
    手洗 shou3xi3 = hand wash

    羊毛 yang2mao3 = wool

    准备 zhun3bei4 = prepare, start
    结束 jie3shu4 = end

    Reply
  8. Holly

    August 23, 2019 at 2:12 am

    I had a friend that did a year teaching in Japan. On his first trip to the store he bought “soap” but when it didn’t lather he asked a friend to tell him what the label said. It was a toilet deodorizer.
    So on your China days, you can tell yourself “at least I didn’t wash my face with a toilet deodorizer”.
    Hang in there!!!! You are missed!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 23, 2019 at 4:06 am

      Oh Holly that is hilarious ! I laughed so hard.

      Reply

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Strange but True

We’re not in Kansas anymore. Just about everyday I see something in Beijing that surprises or shocks me. Some things make me laugh; others just make me shake my head in disbelief. Here’s just a sample of a few of the strange things I’ve noticed around town.

 

Dogs Wear Shoes.

 

And cute little t-shirts.

Sometimes they get really decked out.

And if there’s a special event coming up, they can even take their owners to a  shop that sells haute couture for pooches.

 

Don’t forget the jewelry. Yes, these outfits are for the dogs. I didn’t check the price.


Hot is Cool.

From drinking hot water to layering on sweaters in mid-summer, Beijingers like things steamy.

 

At first I thought I was just suffering through hot flashes, but my expat friends are constantly fanning themselves as well. Maybe my internal thermometer speaks a different language, because I can feel perfectly comfortable in short sleeves and get tskd by a jacket-wearing local for being under dressed. I’ve had people in the elevator comment on my capris when it dipped below 60 degrees.

Last winter we didn’t have to turn on our heat because our neighbors kept their places toasty enough to permeate ours. There’s even a Chinese word –  pa leng – that means “fear of the cold.”


Gloves aren’t just for winter.

If you can’t pick it up with chopsticks, you’d better put on your gloves.

 

Bring on the tacos!

Pizza, wings and other hand-held food come with disposable plastic gloves so you don’t have to gasp touch the food with your naked hands. With the shortage of soap (and sometimes water) in public restrooms, it’s probably not such a bad idea.


Skin care is a big deal.

From whitening creams to foot masks, there’s a poultice or potion to firm, lighten or moisture just about any body part. Porcelain white, smooth skin is the goal here, and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

 

One of dozens of skin whitening products on display at the drug store.

Beijingers hide from the sun under parasols, arm sleeves or whatever item they might be carrying (I’ve seen laptops, jackets and squares of cardboard) as they hurry down the street to reach the shade.

You can even whiten your skin at the beach!

Traditionally, dark skin was a sign of an outdoor laborer’s heavy toil and lifestyle of poverty; thus fair skin reflected wealth and status.

There’s so much more I could tell you so stay tuned for another “strange but true” post in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Jellyfish Lake


DAY TWO 

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.”

“Twenty minutes? It’s been almost an hour!”

“He’s eating his breakfast first and then he’ll come.”

Unbelievable.

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.

 

Grilled donkey meat and peppers stuffed in a bun, sometimes called a Chinese burger.

 

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.

DAY THREE

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.

DAY FOUR

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.

 

Traffic jam on the way to scuba class.

 

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.