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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The Beer-Drinking Orchid Lady

 

“Let’s ask her the price, then wait til she finishes her beer and ask again,” my friend Josie said.

“Yeah, I remember last time. First she said they were 25 kuai, then she went down to 20 and we didn’t even bargain,” I said.

I press the button in the elevator to go down to the basement of the office building where my favorite orchid vendor has set up shop. The flower vendors used to be across the street in the Lai Tai Flower Market, not far from the U.S. Embassy. For some reason last spring the Beijing government decided to close the place down, and now the vendors are scattered across the city.

Orchids are my guilty pleasure. I don’t smoke, I’m not hooked on chips or donuts and I prefer strong coffee to strong liquor.

But lead me to a display of orchids? I can’t help myself. I’m like an addict.

Buttery yellow, deep lusty purple, pale pink, warm tangerine – I just go weak in the knees when I see all of the choices.

 

In the U.S. I kept my orchid habit in check because they were kinda pricey. But at $3-5 a pop in China, I can afford to treat myself once a week if I want to. It’s cheaper than Starbucks, and they last longer than a latte and have fewer calories.

We step out of the elevator and head down the hall, following the tropical smell.

 

The cut flowers are beautiful, but I’m here for the orchids.

 

We breeze pass the cut flowers and head to main attraction, the orchids. They’re right next to the frog, turtle and fish vendor (the kind for aquariums, not the dinner table).

For some reason, in Beijing it’s common for aquatic pet purveyors and flower vendors to share space. I guess both living creatures  bring color and happiness to their owners, and require the same finicky degree of care.

“Eh, Ni hao,” says the orchid seller, turning to say hello as we approach.

 

The Orchid Lady at work

 

So many choices

 

Her easygoing greeting can either be interpreted as friendly recognition (I come here often), or a result of her morning beverage: the tall can of beer that’s sitting on her desk between a watermelon and a bag of peanuts.

 

 

She has a tea kettle,  but I think it’s mostly for decoration. Every time I visit – sometimes as early as 9 a.m. – she has a can or bottle of suds open. It’s 11 a.m. and there are more than a few empties beneath the counter.

“Women keyi kan kan ma?” I ask. I want to look at all of my choices before deciding on which ones to take home. I’ve bought orchids from other places, but these just seem to thrive. Maybe she feeds them the same liquid diet she enjoys.

“Keyi, kan ba.” She nods her approval and takes a long swig of Harbin, China’s oldest beer. She goes back to snacking on peanuts between sips while we admire her flowers.

“What do you think of this one?” Josie asks me, picking up a deep burgundy orchid accented with white and yellow in the center. It’s darker than all the others, almost inky.

“I like it. It looks like it has a little face in the middle.”

 

Black Cat Orchid

 

“Zhe ge shi  hei mao,” the orchid lady tells us.

Josie and I process what she’s telling us for a second, then we both smile.

Hei Mao. It’s called Black cat,” Josie says.

“Dui, hei mao,” the orchid lady confirms, prancing around softly like a cat, as her jet black braids swing back and forth.

Hei mao. Hei mao,” she laughs as she dances, garnering a few smirks from the neighboring vendors.

I notice that she has a stem of orchids clipped to her blouse.

“Ni chuan zhe hua. Piaoliang,” I say, trying out some newly acquired Chinese vocabulary.

I think I told her she was wearing beautiful flowers, but I might have called her a lamb skewer by mistake. That’s the problem with Chinese, so many words sound the same.

I guess I said it right, because she took the flowers off and pinned them on me. What an unexpected gift.

Thankfully, we really do speak the same language: a love of orchids.

 

Do you like my new corsage?

 

With their intricate patterns, heart-shaped faces and lush colors, orchids transport me to another world. They make me feel like I’m on a tropical vacation even when I’m living on the 15th floor looking out my window at a concrete jungle. I don’t actually talk to them, but I jokingly refer to them as my “Friends.”

After about 30 minutes of basking in the sea of orchids, I choose three lovely flowers to take home.

 

 

“Yigong 75 kuai, dui?” I check the price with the Orchid Lady, doing the quick math in my head. That’s just over 10 bucks for all three.

She takes a sip of beer, pulls out her calculator, and takes a quick look around, as if we’re making a black market transaction.

She punches the numbers in the display and shows us the total: 70 Kuai.  We lingered long enough to receive the “I’m on beer number two and feeling happy” discount.

We settle the bill with our unasked for discount and leave with our new friends, touched by the Orchid Lady’s kindness.

 

“If you are in the company of good people, it’s like entering a room full of orchids. After awhile,  you become soaked in the fragrance and you don’t even notice.”       —Confucius

 

 

 

 

Back to School

In early February when the virus flared up in China forcing schools to close, I held my breath and wondered how long online school would last. How long would I last?

What would my new role be? Cheerleader? Truant officer? Hall monitor? Janitor? Lunch lady? Would I have to wear a hairnet? I tried not to panic.

Eighteen weeks later, as I vacuum up crumbs from under the breakfast counter, a wave of sadness sneaks over me. Western Academy Beijing (WAB) opened to high school students again on Monday.

Entering campus under the “new normal”

 

Entering campus when school started last August

Instead of feeling relief, I’m replaying the 90 weekdays my sons and I shared without the harried early mornings and traffic-snarled evenings slicing into our days.

I can’t say this loudly enough: I’m so proud of how they’ve handled this challenge. They got up, got to work and never complained. From math assignments to indoor P.E. classes to filming art and cooking projects, they’ve completed everything asked of them.

No one ended up in detention and as far as I can tell we’re all still speaking to each other (at least as much as we were before this whole mess. Some days, more).

 

Taking a break from school. I love these guys.

 

I’m not saying it was easy for any of us. For me, these were some of the loneliest days of our time in China, as I tried to figure out how to support two teenagers who spent the better part of the day behind their bedroom doors doing school work alone.

And for them? They left their friends behind, moved to a strange land where they were just starting to make new friends and then their lives were up ended by a deadly virus. Many of their classmates won’t be returning. I can’t even imagine.

These past four months haven’t been what any of us expected, but like I mentioned in my last post, every cloud has a silver lining (You can read about it here Silver Linings)

Instead of nervously watching the clock every morning, I made blueberry pancakes or breakfast sandwiches.

 

We even grew our own micro greens.

 

Often the boys cooked for themselves and actually had time to eat.

Who knew having them home would increase our food consumption so drastically? I found a grocery store that delivered American-style bagels, milk, avocados, orange juice and bananas within an hour with free delivery. I ordered so often they started bringing me free gifts, like a dozen eggs or a frozen fish.

 

We are spoiled with fast, free delivery.

 

What mom can say she had lunch with her teenagers everyday for 90 days? Some days it was lunch at home, with fried rice and dumplings or barbecue pork sandwiches.

Other days, when restaurants opened again, we took advantage of the extra time to treat ourselves to Red Lobster (sadly, the cheddar biscuits just aren’t the same), or kebabs from the Turkish restaurant near the park.

 

Lunch anyone ?

 

As the days turned into weeks, I pressed the boys into kitchen duty at dinnertime. Unhindered by the usual “get dinner on the table as quickly as possible” time constraints, we discovered that homemade enchilada sauce is so much better than canned, a proper roux is worth the effort for a satisfying gumbo, and that shepherd’s pie is one of our new favorites, even without Worcestershire sauce which we can’t find here.

Online school meant freedom to travel (we made a trip to Seattle to see family and friends before the virus hit the US), go to the gym or take a Starbucks break for a Black Tea Latte.

Laptops were propped up on bedroom pillows instead school desks, eliminating the hour-long commute. I’m happy to say that showering and getting dressed remained part of the routine.

Returning to school after the pandemic requires almost as much paper work as enrolling in the first place. The Beijing Education Committee has a strict protocol in place for returning to campus, and inspects every aspect of the school, from air flow in the class rooms to social distancing markers.

 

Directional arrows on campus.

 

New hand washing stations

Students are required to keep a daily temperature log for 14 days prior to returning, and complete a survey listing the date and flight number of any trips made outside of China since January 23rd. We have to sign a “Letter of Commitment” verifying that we haven’t been to Wuhan recently or left Beijing in the last three weeks (there goes the impromptu trip to Shanghai Disney). Failure to comply would require proof of a negative virus test.

 

Lots of paper work to return to school.

 

Then there’s proof we have the “Health Kit App” which records our travel history and health status by tracking information on our cell phones (yes, Big Brother is watching) just in case we decided to sneak off for a quick meet-and-greet with Mickey Mouse or paid a visit to the fever clinic without reporting it.

 

This app tracks our travels, health status and ID. It’s required for entry into most public spaces.

I turned in the paperwork, prepared a supply of masks (mandatory for students and teachers), verified funds in the lunch account, checked the revised bus schedule, re-read the six pages of “back to school” instructions and laid down for a nap. I’ll have two weeks to recover before school is out for the summer.

“How was school today?” I asked my soon-to-be junior when he came home after Day 1.

“It was OK,” Daniel said. “But I don’t think I really want to go back tomorrow. We didn’t really do anything except work on our online assessments.”

Going back to school isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when you’re met by a guy in a hazmat suit, have your temperature taken three times and spend an hour commuting to do what you could do at home in your pajamas. Except you’re not in your pajamas.

To avoid crowding students stay in the same classroom all day and have to sign up for a designated lunch spot and choose free-time activities in advance.

“They’re really strict about enforcing the social distancing and making us keep our masks on,” my son told me. “Apparently the government can show up anytime to check and they can also ask to see the security tapes.”

With the high-surveillance atmosphere and the fact that over half of the students and teachers are still outside China, it’s easy to understand why some kids are less than enthusiastic about returning.

While the opportunities at school are still limited, we’re grateful that the campus re-opened. It’s a sign of hope, that at least for the time being, the virus is under control in Beijing.