Adventures of Life in Beijing

My husband knows about the other man in my life and he’s OK with it. As a matter of fact, he encourages the early morning rendezvous. So I lace up my shoes, take a lap around the park and then make a detour on the way home.

I turn left on Dongdaqiao Street, pass the only magazine stand  nearby that carries English newspapers (all propaganda) and look for the door with the red signs. My heart beats faster as I get closer, like a silly school girl hoping to catch a glimpse of her latest crush.

 

Here’s the newsstand – just prior to opening

I haven’t seen the other man  since the virus hit, and for the last three months I’ve come home disappointed. I continue my daily routine, hoping one day the strong, silent man will come back into my life.

We call the object of my affection the “Baozi Guy.” I don’t know his real name, but this street-food chef  with the ruddy cheeks and heavy apron has been satisfying our comfort food craving with fluffy, pork-filled steamed buns since we arrived in Beijing nine months ago.

 

This place has the best steamed buns

 

I really wish you could taste them. I miss them so much!

 

He stood outside the mom-and-pop shop even on the coldest winter days, surrounded by woven baskets stacked high as commuters rushed by to grab their morning meal. I joined the crowd, picking up an order or two of bite-sized buns for breakfast. Fresh out of the steamer, the baozi were hot, juicy and irresistible. I would eat one or two on the way home and bring the rest to my family.

But it wasn’t just the food that brought comfort. In a city of 20 million people, I’d found a place where I was a regular. The Baozi Guy recognized me, greeting me with a friendly Ni Hao and charging me the local price when other foreign friends (even my husband) paid more. If my WeChat payment on my phone didn’t work (which happened occasionally), he’d wave me away saying “tomorrow, tomorrow.” If there was a crowd, he made sure to take my order in turn.

Unsure if the Baozi Guy would ever return, I’ve been looking for a replacement, which leaves me feeling a little unfaithful.

My morning walks have taken on new purpose. I head in different directions each day looking for baozi, along with other signs of hope that Beijing is coming back to life after after being shut down for weeks by the virus. One day I see the city awakening in the blooming trees; other days I notice the buzz of traffic is just a notch louder.

 

Beijing is reawakening from winter and the virus.

 

I found a Halal restaurant by the park, and waited hopefully in line at the takeout window, heeding the social distancing stripes marked on the pavement.

 

Here’s a new place I tried

 

I stumbled over my order in Chinese, and slunk away feeling embarrassed, which made me miss the Baozi Guy even more. Maybe it was bruised pride that made the buns hard to swallow, but the flavorless beef and dense dough sat heavily in my mouth.

 

These beef-filled buns just can’t compare.

 

I found another place near the Russian district that had potential, but it’s just too far to walk on a daily basis, and the baozi just weren’t quite as good. I had a stomachache after I ate one, which is never a good sign.

 

 

Every few days I walk past the door with the red sign, checking to see if the Baozi Guy has returned. Recently, I saw lights on inside. Had they always been on and I just didn’t notice? It felt too good to be true. The door was locked, but I saw keys on the table. Maybe there’s hope.

But hope is fleeting these days, slipping away quickly like noodles through my chopsticks.

Noodles, like hope, can be hard to hold onto.

 

I woke up feeling depressed the next day when I thought about the rising death toll  and crashing economy. Getting out of bed is challenging sometimes.

“Did the world come to an end last night?” I asked my husband.

“Let me see,” he said, pulling open the curtains. “Nope. Doesn’t look like it.”

“I just want normal again,” I complained. “I want the Baozi Guy to come back.”  Ten weeks of severe restrictions and constantly changing rules were starting to wear me down.

“That would be nice, whatever normal means,” he agreed.

The smell of coffee persuaded me to get out of bed and I remembered the lights I had seen yesterday at the restaurant.

“Just maybe today will be the day,” I thought.

I made my usual loop around the park and headed toward the Baozi Guy’s shop on the way back.

There, in front of the restaurant, was a sack of flour and bags of carrots, onions, chili peppers and sweet potatoes. Tears came to my eyes.

 

 

That sack of flour and pile of vegetables brought me more hope than I’ve felt in weeks. Maybe normal will return soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (24):

  1. Jeannie

    April 26, 2020 at 3:19 am

    Thank you for this post. I sure hope your friend re-opens soon. We here in the US can now relate to what you have been through for months. It has only been 6-7 weeks and already feels way too long since we have had normal. I think the whole world just wants to have a healthy, safe “normal” again. Praying for you, your friend to re-open and for the world to go back to “normal.”

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:57 am

      Thanks Jeannie. It’s been a long haul but I know we are all in the same boat now. Hope you are well.

      Reply
  2. Jill

    April 26, 2020 at 3:45 am

    Can’t wait to see your next post eating the steam buns!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:55 am

      I’ll let you know as soon as it happens. Thanks for following along.

      Reply
  3. Paula Kasnitz

    April 26, 2020 at 4:02 am

    Kirsten , This is beautiful. By the time you read this he will be back. This is hard on everyone.
    I just wonder what the new normal will be.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:54 am

      Thanks Paula. I’m trying hard to embrace the new normal. I love seeing pictures of you and Paul enjoying the simple pleasures in life.

      Reply
  4. Angelika Sorrow

    April 26, 2020 at 1:42 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  5. Heather Winters

    April 26, 2020 at 2:08 pm

    I really enjoy reading your blog! You’ll be eating those little steamed buns before you know it!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:47 am

      Thanks Heather, so happy to have you following along. Love seeing pictures of your girls on FB.

      Reply
  6. Tina

    April 26, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    I don’t know why but reading this post made me tear up! Your Baozi Guy will be back soon; keep using those chopsticks and don’t give up. I can totally see your husband looking out the window and reporting the world did not come to an end…LOL.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:49 am

      Yeah, I think we all feel sad over lost opportunities. I’m thankful for my husband the optimist 😊

      Reply
  7. Vera

    April 26, 2020 at 8:32 pm

    I absolutely loved this entry! I can completely understand just wanting the little things back to add that pep back in our days. Just getting food from Chick Fil A was such a huge win for us! But I love the flowers blooming and the idea that each day, we need that hope in our hearts. So excited and can’t wait to hear how they taste again! Love you!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:50 am

      Yes! What we wouldn’t give for Chick-fil-A right now. Miss you!

      Reply
  8. Frankie

    April 27, 2020 at 12:19 am

    Dear one – PLEASE do NOT keep us waiting. ALL of us want to know about this kind man.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:51 am

      I promise to update as soon I have news!

      Reply
  9. Ainslie Lewis

    April 27, 2020 at 1:19 am

    Seeing your posts is like returning to normal in a way! Thanks for sharing. I pray your guy returns soon!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:52 am

      Thanks Ainslie, I hope you guys are hanging in there.

      Reply
  10. Susie

    April 27, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    Kirsten when you started posting all about the Corona Virus and it’s effect on China and specifically Beijing, I thought it was such an interesting thing and in many ways I believed that Could never happen in the US…. this kind of lock down…. well it has! And it is harder then I ever thought! Thankfully we do not have the virus in our home yet… and we are following all stay at home orders, social distancing etc…
    I love your post on craving normal… we do to! I am so hopeful to see what happens with your favorite shop! 🙂

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 28, 2020 at 4:54 am

      Hi Susie,
      I’m so glad you guys are remaining healthy. It’s a challenging time for sure. I feel less alone now, but sad that very one else has to go through this too. Thanks for reading along – I love to hear from you❤️

      Reply
  11. Kara Lewis

    April 28, 2020 at 12:16 am

    Love this post, Kirsten. It is a cliff-hanger for sure. Please tell us when you see the Baozi Guy! Keeping fingers crossed. Virtual hugs across the miles to you!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 28, 2020 at 4:52 am

      Thanks – I hope to have an update soon!

      Reply
  12. Shari

    April 28, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    Oh man. So hope he’s healthy and well. I can’t wait to hear!! And oh man would I love some of those steamed buns!!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 29, 2020 at 7:22 am

      Hi Shari,
      Keep an eye out for an update soon. Miss you guys!

      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.