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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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.