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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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.