Adventures of Life in Beijing

Dumpling Massage

I have the most tender feet of anyone I’ve ever met. I never went barefoot as a kid, and I can’t tolerate anything between my toes, not  even those sparkly, cute flip flops that are so popular in Florida.

So why did I think it was a good idea to get a traditional Chinese foot massage? I’m not sure, but let’s just say it was one of the most memorable things I’ve done so far in Beijing.

I guess it was curiousity that drove me down a dark corridor in the building across the street. There was a small sign advertising foot massage and bone setting, whatever that is. So last Saturday my husband and I ventured in.


Down the hall to the massage place.

”Hello, you want massage-ee?”asks the man behind the desk. Yes, we nod, pointing to our feet.

My husband and I part ways, and my masseur leads me to a recliner and fills a little foot bath with hot water.

“Ni yao zhe ge ma? San shi wu Kuai.” He offers me a whiff the optional herbal sachet he wants to add to my foot bath. I take a sniff, expecting a relaxing lavender scent. It smells like hay. For five bucks extra? I’ll pass thanks.

“Ni bu yao?” He seems puzzled by my refusal. Clearly I’m missing out but he shrugs and walks away, returning with a half-filled water bottle  containing something that looks like motor oil. He’s saving the good stuff for foreigners I think, as he dumps the brown liquid into the steaming  foot bath.

”Cu,” he says with a smile, offering me a sniff. It smells familiar. Like vinegar.

”jiaozi!” I reply with recognition. Dumplings! My feet are soaking in dumpling dipping sauce, sans the chili oil.

Vinegar and dumplings go together like ketchup and fries


I wiggle my toes in the hot water and toss the word “jiaozi” around in my head, thinking the word “jiaozi” (dumpling) and “jiaozhi” (toe) sound remarkably similar.


Dumplings lined up in neat rows waiting for a steam bath.


After a few minutes when my feet are sufficiently cooked, my masseur fishes them out of the broth. He takes my right foot and wraps it neatly in a clean white towel, sealing the ends just like a dumpling wrapper.

He focuses on my left foot, massaging it between his open palms with the same force a Boy Scout would use trying to start a fire without matches. Iron Hands (I’ve renamed my masseur) generates such heat I’m wondering if it’s possible for my foot to spontaneously combust.

We are only about 10 minutes into a sixty minute massage when I realize this isn’t a “feel good massage.” This is a pain inducing, “let me fix your feet at all costs” massage.  There’s no turning back now. I’m glad my right foot is blinded by a dumpling wrapper towel so it doesn’t see what’s coming.

Next Iron Hands works on my shin with closed fists, pummeling with the strength of a butcher mincing pork with a cleaver. I can hear loud flesh-thumping sounds from the room next door. Apparently my husband is enjoying the same treatment. I wonder what fantastic shades of purple and blue my lower leg will be tomorrow.

While he works on my shin, I wonder what I should be doing. Iron Hands is watching me watching him, and it’s a little bit awkward but I’m not relaxed enough to close my eyes.

He finishes my shin, splashes it with dumpling sauce and grabs ahold of my foot. He flings it up and down rapidly, causing my whole leg to undulate like a noodle. I’m beginning to think Iron Hands might have been a noodle puller or dumpling maker in his previous lifetime.

Next he moves on to my kneecap, which actually feels quite good. I’m starting to relax when works his way to my jiaozhi (toes, in case you’ve forgotten). The pressure on the tip of my big toe near my toenail is so exquisitely painful I yelp out loud. Is this what the splinter-under-the-nail torture feels like?

”Tong ma?” Iron Hands asks, sensing my discomfort. Yes it hurts, I nod. I’m sure he think I’m a big sissy.

He pulls out his phone to show me a reflexology chart of the foot. He points to the spot on the chart where he inserted the red hot poker. It’s the pressure point for my brain. So, I’m getting a lobotomy thrown in for free?


He resumes, toning down the pressure. A few minutes later, he scrolls through his phone with one hand, massaging my foot with the other. How rude, I think.  Is he ordering a pizza? Then he hands me the phone.

I realize he’s calling his boss who speaks English.

“So how is the massage going? How are you feeling” she asks.

”I’m ok, but it’s a little bit painful,” I admit.

”That’s because you have some problems with your feet and he is a very old massager,” she explains.

I look up at Iron Hands with his boyish face and chubby belly. I’d place him in his early 20s. I think she means experienced, not old. I assure her I’m fine and we hang up.

My left foot breaths a sigh of relief as Iron Hands wraps it up dumpling style in a clean white towel.

My right foot knows what’s coming, but doesn’t complain much until we get to a particularly painful spot on my outer sole.

“Liver,” Iron Hands says, pressing on the painful spot for emphasis. My poor liver must be overworked from processing all of the strange food I’ve eaten since I arrived four weeks ago. Who knew too many pork stuffed buns and spicy eggplant with garlic could make my feet hurt?

Iron Hands goes through the same routine, and I try to distract myself by looking around the room. There’s a wolf pelt on the floor next to me and a leopard skin slung over a chair nearby. No wonder he’s out for the kill.

One last dip in the dumpling-scented foot bath and we are on the home stretch. He soothingly pats my feet as he dries them  with the towel. Maybe he’s apologizing to my jiaozhi.

Now that we’re finished, I have to admit my feet feel invigorated and my skin is very soft. I realize I’ve worked up quite an appetite. Pain can do that to a person.

I’m not ready for a steaming bowl of dumplings, so we head to an American-style barbecue restaurant for dinner instead. Given enough time, I’m sure I’ll regain my craving for jiaozi, and I might even work up my appetite for another vinegar-infused foot massage.





































Comments (11):

  1. Adele

    July 24, 2019 at 11:39 am

    When my daughter lived in China, foot massage was one of her favorite things. And so inexpensive! I went twice while I was visiting her, two different locations. It was interesting, but I don’t remember pain. Maybe there are different types of foot massage or maybe my feet are toughened…I grew up in the sticks going barefoot! Love to hear about all you are experiencing! You make it come alive!

    • Kirsten Harrington

      July 25, 2019 at 12:37 am

      Thanks Adele- like I said I have very tender feet 😣 I’ll have to give it another shot.

  2. Fran

    July 24, 2019 at 3:32 pm

    Dear one,
    You have made me laugh out loud and often with this story. Brava!! I surmise that you would have had a very different experience had you known it was a reflexology treatment. With love – FM

    • Kirsten Harrington

      July 25, 2019 at 12:36 am


  3. KSL

    July 24, 2019 at 8:54 pm

    So enjoyable to read, though I felt your pain at points. Try it again sometime, maybe emphasize the relaxation benefit rather than the diagnostic part. 😎

    • Kirsten Harrington

      July 25, 2019 at 12:35 am

      Thanks for following ! Yes I’ll have to improve my mandarin skills and try again.

  4. Terri Buzzard

    July 25, 2019 at 4:29 am

    Lol. Awesome story

    • Kirsten Harrington

      July 25, 2019 at 5:40 am

      Thanks Terri

  5. Ainslie

    July 25, 2019 at 3:15 pm

    You’re an amazing writer. Your descriptions help me to follow along with all the details as if I was there. I laughed out loud while reading this one. I’m in a doctors office waiting room and started a couple people with my laughter. I loved that you included the foot diagram. Reflexology is so interesting to me. Thanks so much for sharing

  6. P bainter

    August 3, 2019 at 11:22 pm

    So funny!!

    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 7, 2019 at 12:58 am

      Thank you!


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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.