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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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.