Adventures of Life in Beijing

If you’ve been following along, you know there’s someone special in my life I haven’t seen since the Coronavirus started in Beijing three months ago. You can read about the street food chef  gone missing in my last post. Craving Normal

I began to give up on the Baozi Guy, trying to accept the parts of my life that have changed forever. Some friends who left China will never come back. I can’t wear lipstick in public because it just gets smeared inside my mask, and going out carries an element of tension since we have to scan an app (in Chinese) and verify our health status to enter most public venues.

It seems that everyone can relate to craving “normal” – that part of your daily routine that stabilizes your life, whether it’s a lunch stop at Chick-fil-A with the kids, a sweat-inducing workout at the gym or catching up with a friend at Starbucks.

I love that you are cheering for my Baozi Guy to return right along with me.  I was savoring your words of encouragement with my morning coffee a few days ago when my phone pinged.

Who’s texting at 6 am? The kids were asleep and Mike was out running.

“Closer to normal,” the message said, with this picture:

 

In addition to Baozi, the fried dough sticks on the right are a popular breakfast food.

 

I’m not one to cry over sappy movies, but that one image caused the tears to flow. There really is hope that we’ll all come out of this OK on the other side. I wondered what battle the Baozi Guy had been fighting while I struggled with loneliness and uncertainty in my apartment?

Five minutes later Mike returned from his run, like the Messiah bringing good news.

I took the precious warm bag and cradled it in my hands, inhaling deeply.

“You only bought one bag?” I asked. Ten bite-sized buns divided by four people times two teenagers is a very small number.

“Hey, I was impressed that I was able to pay for them at all. I didn’t want to get two orders and then have to leave them there because my phone didn’t work.”

I couldn’t respond because my mouth was full. Those little fluffy, pork-filled bundles were just as good as I remembered. How does he get the dough so light?

“I think he recognized me,” Mike said. “We were both kind of excited to see each other.”

It was a milestone day. The Baozi Guy returned, and the city of Wuhan  reported that all virus patients had been released from the hospital.

Today I had to go and see him for myself, to make sure it hadn’t all just been a dream, like a mirage in the desert.

I gave a joyful wave as I approached, knowing I was probably embarrasing him with my unreserved emotion. But he waved back and stood up as I approached.

 

 

“I’m so happy ! You’re back!” I said, using the simple words I’d practiced all day yesterday. “Are you good?”

”Yes, yes, I’m good.”

In the past my camera-shy friend refused my requests for photos, but today his eyes crinkled kindly  as he smiled behind his mask.

 

I paid for my order (called a Ti from the word for basket) and headed home, sampling a warm bun from the bag. I’m sure it was my imagination but it seemed like the friendly exchange added a depth of flavor to the pork and scallion puffs that I didn’t notice yesterday.

 

A taste of normal in my day.

 

I thought about all of the pieces in our lives that  have been scattered, at least temporarily. It’s left me longing, craving for connection. At least in a small way today, normal has returned.  I hope your normal comes back soon too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (23):

  1. Angelika Sorrow

    May 1, 2020 at 11:15 am

    So happy to read this!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 1, 2020 at 11:23 pm

      Thank you !

      Reply
  2. Jackie

    May 1, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    So happy for you

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 1, 2020 at 11:21 pm

      Thank you – hope your normal comes back soon!

      Reply
  3. Paula Kasnitz

    May 1, 2020 at 1:59 pm

    A good omen for all of us.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 1, 2020 at 11:20 pm

      I hope so! Love your pictures – you two eat well. Makes me smile.

      Reply
  4. Michelle Taylor

    May 1, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    I love this. I could feel your emotion & I’m ready to feel closer to normal as well. Big ((hugs)) my friend.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 1, 2020 at 11:26 pm

      Thanks Michelle – hope it comes your way soon!

      Reply
  5. Tina

    May 1, 2020 at 2:09 pm

    sniff…….I love this!! I think we will all look at normal a little differently after this is over. At least I know I will.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 1, 2020 at 11:20 pm

      For sure! Hope you aren’t going too stir-crazy. Thanks for the encouragement.

      Reply
  6. Ainslie Lewis

    May 1, 2020 at 5:27 pm

    I’m so excited for you! And I find it encouraging that normal will return, at least some of it. For the first time in seven weeks, I saw toilet paper on the shelf at Walmart. It was just stacked there without a large group of people gathering around to make it disappear again. And yesterday the stay at home order expired. There are still many restrictions in place however, I’m encouraged that in the coming weeks will get small bits back. I’ll continue to pray for you and your family. Thank you for your blogs.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 1, 2020 at 11:19 pm

      Thank you ! That’s funny about Wal-Mart. Isn’t it crazy that things that seemed so mundane are now causes for great joy? Good lesson here.

      Reply
  7. Ruth Meyer

    May 1, 2020 at 6:28 pm

    Det ser rigtigt lækkert ud,Kirsten, kan du ikke sende nogle hjem til Danmark?
    Mon ikke også du selv kunne lave sådan nogle?
    Glad for, at I har det godt og at tingene bliver nemmere for jer – her er meget lukket ned.
    Pas godt på jer selv. Ønsker moster Ruth

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 1, 2020 at 11:18 pm

      Hi, so happy to hear from you. I wish I could send you some. I could learn how to make them but we pay about $1 for a whole bowl, so it’s cheaper to buy them. Take care – hoping things will be better this summer.

      Reply
  8. Wanda

    May 1, 2020 at 6:41 pm

    Wonderful news .. I’ve enjoyed you Blog-sharing your adventures. Grateful for the JOY you experienced!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 1, 2020 at 11:27 pm

      Thanks for following along Wanda!

      Reply
  9. Rimjhim Dey

    May 1, 2020 at 8:24 pm

    Lovely love story dear Kirsten.
    You are a wonderful writer. And, your dispatches are so heart-warming.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 1, 2020 at 11:29 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement Rim. Hope things are getting better in NY.

      Reply
  10. Marlyn G.

    May 1, 2020 at 10:55 pm

    Wonderful story about your new life in China. I am so happy to read that your bun guy is back; and you can feel that things are coming back to being somewhat normal.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 1, 2020 at 11:27 pm

      Thanks Marlyn, it’s been a journey for sure. Miss all you Tuesday ladies❤️

      Reply
  11. Frankie

    May 1, 2020 at 11:12 pm

    Our human connection to those people who come into our lives, makes living rich. Delighted your friend is back in business and that YOU get to share those savory treats with us.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 1, 2020 at 11:28 pm

      So true- I think that’s the biggest lesson in all this. We are wired for connection.

      Reply
  12. Shari

    May 3, 2020 at 1:33 pm

    I LOVE a happy ending!!! ❤️❤️

    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.