Adventures of Life in Beijing

This post is a continuation in a series of my impressions of living in China during the Coronavirus epidemic. You can read my most recent post here:

 Stay or Go

 

We board the flight from Tokyo to Beijing, bellies sated from last night’s Waygu beef dinner and pockets stuffed with Kit Kats (orange and raspberry are my favorites).

I’ve got butterflies in my stomach, kind of like the first day of school. I’m excited to be going home to Beijing after two weeks of vacation in Japan, but nervous about how the spread of the Coronavirus has impacted daily life. Depending on what things look like, the boys and I will decide to stay in Beijing or leave for awhile.

Everyone in Asia is on high alert now; a fellow traveler coughs and we all take two steps back. As we fill out health questionnaires on the airplane, I can’t help but glance at the guy across the aisle in 35C. Like a guilty school girl, I sneak a look at his paper to see his answers: Have you traveled to Wuhan recently? Do you have a fever? Are you having trouble breathing?

We pass uneventfully through immigrations and baggage claim. The airport is empty, and roads are bare on the drive home. It’s an eerie feeling when life just seems to stop in such a vibrant city. It reminds me of the freeways in Los Angeles after the 1992 riots, when curfews were enacted to keep people off the streets.

Near my apartment, most restaurants and shops are closed and the streets are deserted. It feels like a ghost town. It’s so quiet.  I never thought I’d miss the sounds of the city: traffic, people talking too loudly and believe it or not, even the spitting.

 

It feels like a ghost town in Beijing these days. Even the bone setter / Chinese medicine office is closed.

 

Where did everyone go? Familiar faces are missing, like my favorite security guard outside my building who always greets me with a smile and a song. And where is the ruddy-faced chef at the corner restaurant who makes my fresh, pork-filled baozi every morning? His place is closed, with an official sign on the door I can’t read.

 

Oh how I miss my baozi for breakfast. I hope the restaurant owners are OK.

 

With around 10 million people leaving Beijing in last two weeks for the Spring Festival, I worry that some of my local friends might have traveled to virus-infected provinces and fallen ill, or ended up in quarantine somewhere. Are they OK? Are they coming back?

Many of my ex-pat friends have left as well, either out of safety concerns or by the order of their home country’s government.

With hiking trips, hot pot lunches and outings with friends, the pieces of my life in Beijing were just starting to fit together nicely, like a puzzle taking shape to reveal something beautiful.

 

Hot pot lunch with friends earlier this year

 

In the past two weeks as the virus spread, the puzzle has started to crumble with closures, quarantines and restrictions.

As I walk around the city, I feel an uneasy sadness I can’t articulate, like an achy tooth or favorite necklace gone missing. The suffering and loss for China is profound, and we all feel it. We do the best we can, settling into school online and working from home.

Chat groups share the latest statistics, where to find groceries and hygiene supplies and how to find the closest infection sites to our home. There’s even an app to check our last flight to see if we traveled with a suspected carrier. Sometimes too much information is not a good thing.

I make chocolate chip cookies to keep everyone’s spirits up, and share some with the guy at the desk downstairs, who seems to be working 24/7 right now.

Adding to my feeling of depression, there’s fear in the air in Beijing. It feels as heavy as the pollution right now, which sways between “unhealthy” and “hazardous.”

 

View from my apartment. Recent pollution adds to the oppressive feeling in Beijing.

 

People stay inside as much as possible, and when they do go out, they move quickly, minimizing social interaction. Masks cover their faces, but I can see the stress in their furrowed brows and eyes that dart quickly, as if the disease could jump from one human to another by making eye contact. Some wear goggles or heavy glasses, just in case.

If I felt like an outsider as a foreigner before, the anonymity of wearing a mask and the weariness of being sequestered to our apartment (we aren’t allowed visitors at the moment) has added to the feeling of isolation.

The atmosphere is emotionally charged, with rumors fueling the fire as they circulated on social media and news reports. One day we heard that the government would be spraying disinfectant from above, using drones and we should all stay inside after 4 p.m. That didn’t happen, but drones have been deployed to give public service messages in some provinces.

When masks became mandatory, it was announced that lack of compliance would be met with reprimands or possible arrests. Instructions came down from the top that anyone hiding the illness from authorities would be “forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame” and neighbors and colleaugues were encouraged (sometimes with monetary rewards) to report anyone who might being trying to cover up an illness.

Videos in Western media soon went viral of the authority’s efforts to squelch the virus: people being dragged from their apartments into quarantine, one man being chased by police as he tried to avoid being sent to the hospital, and an infected passenger being wheeled from the airport in an isolation tent. Others showed residents being quarantined in their home, effectively  being held hostage with police tape over their front door. (Of course these can only be viewed with a working VPN).

The images are powerful enough to make us feel uneasy. On a recent trip to meet friends for lunch (a rare treat) I encountered 6 temperature checks along the way. I am perfectly healthy, but each stop heightened my anxiety, like the feeling you get seeing a police car in your rear view mirror even though you know you are not speeding. What if a thermometer malfunctions? Will I be hauled away on the spot? It was worth it though, to linger over lunch with friends. I savored the freedom from my mask and the company more than the spicy shredded potatoes and pork with chilies that I was eating. I wanted to linger.

I asked several Chinese friends why everyone is so afraid and I heard a common refrain. “The government takes this very seriously.” While I was keeping up with the news to the best of my ability, my lack of Chinese language skill acted as a filter from the incessant reminders that we were living in a global health crisis.

My Chinese friends, on the other hand, were being bombarded all day long with We Chat notifications, public announcements, banners, and e-mails instructing them to stay inside, pay close attention to hygiene, not get too hot or too cold, monitor their health, avoid social gatherings and not to panic. I’m sure I would be much more jittery if I consumed as much information about the current situation as they did. Here are a few examples of slogans from banners appearing around China:

If you hang out in public today, grass will grow on your grave next year.

Everone you encounter on the streets now is a wild ghost seeking to take your life.

A bite of wild animal today, see you in hell tomorrow.

A surgical mask, or breathing tube, your choice.

Some of the signs simply remind us to wear a mask, wash hands, avoid crowds and encourage ventilation

 

Who wouldn’t be scared!

Equally disturbing is having a front row seat to watch the spread of fear as it slithers around the globe, morphing into something more evil: xenophobia. From Italy to Singapore, Chinese are being banned from restaurants and hotels. In the U.S., ugly remarks are flung at Asians on the metro, a high schooler is bullied by virus-fearing classmates and a woman is attacked in New York for wearing a mask. Asian restaurants are hurting because people are afraid that they are unclean. Unless they they are serving pangolin as the daily special, I think you’re pretty safe.

It was the thought of weeks or possibly months of living this fearful, monastic lifestyle that swung the balance in favor of leaving China for a bit, more so than the fear of actually contracting the virus. It’s not a breakup, it’s more of a cooling off period.

The boys and I are visiting family and friends in Seattle now, where the coffee is strong, the air is fresh and the pussy willows are blooming. The signs of spring with new life soothe my soul.

 

Pussy willows blooming

I miss my husband, but I feel lighter here. Freedom of movement, clean air and good food will recharge us. The boys continue school online, while I write and keep up with my Chinese studies because I know we will be going home soon.

Beijing is home, because that’s what I call the place where all four of us are gathered safely under one roof, no matter what kind of craziness is happening outside our front door.

 

Comments (16):

  1. Adele

    February 15, 2020 at 5:30 pm

    So grateful you and the boys are healthy and in a safe and relaxing environment. Praying for your husband and that your family will be reunited soon. Also praying for China, wisdom for the authorities , healing for all those who are ill, protection for the healthy, and peace in all their hearts.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 15, 2020 at 10:53 pm

      Thanks for the prayers – an interesting time for sure!

      Reply
  2. Jackie Lewis

    February 15, 2020 at 6:45 pm

    So happy you guys r safe. I will continue to pray for all of you.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 15, 2020 at 10:53 pm

      Thank you very much.

      Reply
  3. Paula Kasnitz

    February 15, 2020 at 10:08 pm

    Kirsten,
    Your writing reaches my soul. I am overjoyed you are in Seattle. The separation is difficult, but
    will add to your strength as a couple and a family. You have always made the most of every situation
    and continue to do so. Please, keep writing.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 15, 2020 at 10:53 pm

      Thanks Paula for your concern and kind words about my writing:)

      Reply
  4. Jeannie

    February 16, 2020 at 3:15 am

    I am glad to hear you are all safe and disease-free. I think being in Seattle with the boys is a wise move and will give you an opportunity to relax and recharge your batteries for your return. Praying for Mike’s safety and for those in China and around the world who have been affected by this coronavirus outbreak.

    Reply
  5. Mary

    February 16, 2020 at 3:55 am

    Thank you for sharing. Have been thinking of you all, what a choice you had to make. Prayers and blessings to Mike. You wrote from the heart of all this and from your heart ❤️

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 16, 2020 at 5:56 am

      Thanks very much Mary, really appreciate it.

      Reply
  6. Angelika Sorrow

    February 16, 2020 at 4:41 am

    Wow. What incredible pictures you created with words. I felt like I was there experiencing it myself. You’ve captured a piece of history. I am glad you’re getting a little “breather”. Wow.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 16, 2020 at 5:54 am

      Thank you Angelika- so nice to hear from you and to know you are following along.

      Reply
  7. Carolina Henry

    February 16, 2020 at 9:21 am

    There is absolutely no way I can describe how powerful your writing is and how deep it touches me and I know many others that have been following along. It always leaves us waiting anxiously for the next chapter! You are blessed with a wonderful gift and so wonderful to see that you are using it in such a positive way like in this specific sad circumstances. So nice to hear that you and the boys are doing so well praying for Mike as well. Because you and I know that This Too Shall Pass my sweet friend! … Till then carry on with much much more writing I am in love with it !!!! 🙏🤗😊

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 16, 2020 at 4:17 pm

      Thank you Carolina for your sweet words and your friendship. We are sharing a unique time in history together. So thankful God placed us on the same path.

      Reply
  8. June

    February 16, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    Wow Kirsten! I have to admit I was relieved to read that your safe and in Seattle with the boys. Thank you for taking us on this journey through your amazing storytelling. It has given me a much truer perspective on what is happening and how everyday life really is. We continually pray for God’s protection and peace for you and your precious family and all of China. We know He is in control! Love you girl!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 16, 2020 at 4:15 pm

      Thank you so much June. I miss you guys and BSF. Doing my questions at home:)

      Reply
  9. Alison

    February 18, 2020 at 5:03 pm

    I’m so relieved that you’re in Seattle! How are Mike and his co-workers holding up? Is Universal giving them an option to come back to the states?

    Reply

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Snake Skin

I’m really sorry I let you down. I made promises I just couldn’t deliver.

If you recall in my last post Chinese Medicine I planned to drink a pot of Chinese herbal tea everyday to try and improve my reptilian skin, itchy scalp and overall parched demeanor caused by Beijing’s cold dry winter. I know you were hoping I could share the results of a miracle cure.

 

Traditional Chinese Medicine moisturizing tea

 

The concoction, brewed from a collection of beige roots and twigs, smelled a bit like a musty wool blanket that had been stored too long in a closet. It didn’t taste bad but as the holidays approached there was too much competition.

My first-ever  homemade eggnog with a splash of Captain Morgan’s did nothing for my skin, but it uplifted my spirits tremendously in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

 

You can’t buy eggnog in Beijing, but homemade was so easy !

 

Then there was the buttery yellow Chrysanthemum tea given to me by a friend. The color just made me happy, and I’d choose the floral aroma any day over the musky medicinal potion.

 

Chrysanthemum tea

 

And then there was the treasured Cadbury’s hot chocolate mix, which felt like such an indulgence topped with homemade whipped cream.
(Instant hot chocolate is a foreign luxury good, not readily available.)

Peet’s Coffee made its debut in Beijing this winter, and Santa brought me a shiny red mug for Christmas. It just didn’t seem right to fill it with Moisturizing Yam Tea.

 

 

With all of the competing beverages, I just couldn’t face another cup of astralagus root and dried yam tea.

In an effort to soothe my winter-weary skin, I turned to another (this time external) popular Chinese remedy: snake oil.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s what those fly-by-night traveling salesman used to sell at carnivals in the early 1800s, right?

Actually, it turns out that snake oil has a long history of popularity in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Made from the oil of water snakes, this omega-3 fatty acid rich substance has been used to soothe skin, cure dandruff, relieve split ends and reduce arthritis.

A quick visit to Wal-Mart and I strike gold: there’s snake oil cream right next to snail slime extract. Maybe these cold-blooded creatures can help.

 

 

Online shopping offers more choices, from Snake Oil exfoliating gel to Snake Oil hair removers and whitening creams.

 

I’ve ordered a moisturizer and a scrub. I passed on the snail slime. I’ll check in again in a few weeks and let you know things are coming along.

 

 

Pick up Sticks

Who Says You’re too Old to Play with Your food?

From meaty, cumin-scented lamb skewers to sweet, candied hawthorns, Beijing is filled with food on a stick. These fork-free dishes are perfect for strolling, sharing, dipping or indulging. If you’ve ever cooked over a campfire or savored a popsicle, then you remember that hand-held food is fun for all ages.

Local Flavors

Head to Qianmen or Nanluoguxiang to start, and grab some lamb skewers, “whirlwind” potatoes, squid or sausages on a stick.

 

Cumin-rubbed lamb skewers are a must try.

 

Called “whirlwind” or “cyclone” potatoes, think of them like fresh potato chips on a stick, seasoned with salt and pepper.

 

Choose your squid and have it cooked to order.

 

For the truly adventurous, there are scorpions, silkworm larvae and tarantulas, perhaps best left for capturing with your camera and not your taste buds.

 

They’re mostly a gimmick, but you’ll find scorpions and tarantulas too. See the starfish in the back?

 

For an experience that’s a little more off the beaten path, head to Xinmin market (subway stop Guloudajie) and spend the morning exploring the produce, spices and wet market. When hunger strikes, look for the ma la tang stand selling a variety of skewers including mushroom bundles, quail eggs, meatballs, broccoli, lettuce, noodles and much more. Don’t worry – there’s no menu to decipher; just point to a skewer that looks good and give it a try. For just a few kuai a skewer, it’s a fun, affordable outing.

 

Tofu, potatoes and broccoli are my favorites. Choose “spicy” or ”non-spicy.”


Travel the Globe

Don’t limit yourself to Chinese food. Beijing has a whole world of flavors just waiting for you to try. Grab a map and start checking off your destinations. At Athena Greek restaurant the Chicken Souvlaki comes on a suspended skewer.

Nearby Alameen offers a platter of mixed Lebanese kebabs, and a taste of Turkey is just a hop, skip and a jump away at Turkish Feast.

Branch out from curries at your favorite Indian restaurant with a skewer of cheese-like paneer or head to NomNom in Haidian District for Indonesian mutton or beef Satay with a side of Sambal Kecap, sweet soy sauce mixed with chilies and shallots. And of course, don’t forget to stop in Thailand for some peanut-y Chicken Satay.

If you’d rather take cooking into your own hands, Café Zarah offers Cheese Fondue every evening after 6pm. Each bowl of melted cheese-y goodness comes with crunchy cubes of bread, vegetables, cornichons and a bowl of pineapple.

 

A cozy evening at Cafe Zarah.

 

Cheese fondue.


Sweet Endings

Winter is the season for tanghulu, those shiny, sugary fruit sticks decorating the city like ornaments.

Round red hawthorns are the most popular, but you’ll also find grapes, kiwi slices and Chinese yams. There are even some Santa-themed ones with marshmallows and strawberries.

 

Freshly dipped in molten sugar water gives fruit a crackly, sweet finish.

 

Santa-themed fruit skewers.

Keep an eye out for purple sticky rice dipped in sugar or waffles on a stick that spell “I Love Beijing” in Chinese characters.

 

Warm glutinous rice dipped in sugar makes a filling snack.

 

Waffles on a stick make it easy to snack and stroll.

 

Find your zodiac sign fashioned in sugar candy or grab a stick full of sweet-and-sour shan zha (dried Hawthorn).

 

Floral scented gui hua cake drizzled with syrup beckons with its golden yellow hue, derived from Osmanthus flowers.

 

 

For a more interactive experience, head to Qianmen Kitchen restaurant  to make some S’mores. Roast American marshmallows over your own charcoal brazier, add some Lindt Chocolate and sandwich it all between Biscoff cookies and digestive biscuits.

 

Lastly, don’t rule out ice cream just because it’s winter. Beautiful rose-shaped ice cream and vibrant fruity popsicles (at Nanluoguxiang) will make you forget how cold it is outside, even if just for a moment.