Adventures of Life in Beijing

This is the first in a series of posts on my reflections of living in China during the Coronavirus outbreak.

The events of the past few weeks swirl around in my mind as I try to make sense of things. How did we get to this new-normal where temperature checks and mask-wearing are part of daily life?

We first heard about an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan in mid-January. No need to worry, I thought. Pneumonia’s not contagious right? Besides, Wuhan is over 1,000 kilometers away from Beijing. I quickly  forgot about the news reports and started packing for our upcoming ski vacation to Japan over the Lunar New Year holiday.

Fast forward two weeks. By the end of January all public events in Beijing had been cancelled and school was closed until further notice due to an epidemic of a new coronavirus.

This wasn’t simply a few octogenarians in Hubei with a case of the sniffles; this was a major epidemic brewing that would alter our daily reality in many ways.

We heard it all started with a snake. Or was it a bat? Does anything good ever come from snakes? (Remember what happened in the garden of eden?) Did people fall ill from snake bites or eating snake soup? Later the blame shifted to the pangolin, whose scales are prized in Chinese medicine, making it one of the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world.

 

 

“Coronavirus? Isn’t that what happens to you when you run out of Corona?” My husband jokes.

”No, that’s what I’ll need to survive in-home quarantine when school doesn’t start for two weeks,” I replied. On second thought, you’d better make it tequila.

 

 

Advice poured in on social media on how to stay healthy. Chat groups argued endlessly about the various types of masks and which ones were preferred. Given the shortage, some people resorted to drastic measures.

 

How does he breathe?

 

 

I haven’t seen it, but apparently even dogs are covering their snouts.

 

Really?

China’s rich history of traditional medicine meant many tips for beating the virus focused on strengthening our immune systems. Here is some of the well-meaning advice I received.

  • Cut at least four whole garlic cloves into small pieces, add boiling water and drink garlic water twice a day (this surely will keep the virus away, along with vampires and my husband).
  • Coat each nostril with Vaseline (which is difficult to find here and almost as expensive as maple syrup. If I’m going to stick something up my nose I’d choose the syrup ).
  • Whatever you do, don’t  let yourself get thirsty. Drink every 10 minutes, preferably warm water (do you think I could substitute a salt-rimmed margarita twice a day instead?)
  • If you must go out, place a slice of ginger under your tongue.     (under your mask of course).

 

And it’s not just social media watching over us. Shortly after the outbreak began, fliers appeared on our doors from the local government, reminding us to wash our hands and check for fevers. Banners hang in public places urging proper hygiene.

 

Banners around town remind us to take care

 

Local parks, which thankfully have saved my sanity and negated my need for tequila, offer a platform to encourage public caution as well. In addition to banners, loudspeakers blare instructions in Chinese, urging us to wear masks, wash our hands and avoid gatherings. I’ll be a very clean, (hopefully sober) hermit by the time this thing blows over.

 

Loudspeaker inside the bear reminds me to wear a mask, wash hands and monitor symptoms

 

As the epidemic brews, we make final preparations for our ski trip to Japan, where the only face mask I’ll have to contend with is ones to keep away frostbite.

We don our masks leaving Beijing, and I struggle to breathe through the thick fabric. I’m either going to suffocate or be consumed by a deadly virus. Either way I’m a goner. I take my mask off and breathe freely, garnering suspicious looks from fellow travelers, all of whom are sporting  some kind of face protection, from black Darth Vader-ish numbers to flimsy Hello Kitty masks. We pass through security, apply a liberal dose of hand sanitizer and board the plane to Sapporo where a cold Asahi awaits.

 

 

 

 

Comments (20):

  1. Ainslie Lewis

    February 10, 2020 at 12:03 pm

    Thanks again for a well written blog spiced with humor and authentic emotions. There are many BSF Leaders praying for you and your family. We are praying for your health and your safety as you travel and your husband as he stays back in China.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:20 am

      Thanks for your kind words – I appreciate the prayers.

      Reply
  2. Maggie Sigiani

    February 10, 2020 at 1:45 pm

    Keep praying for you all!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:20 am

      Thank you Maggie!

      Reply
  3. Jackie Lewis

    February 10, 2020 at 2:02 pm

    Continuing to pray for you and your family. Keep the information coming.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:19 am

      Thank you Jackie- more updates coming soon!

      Reply
  4. Alison

    February 10, 2020 at 3:15 pm

    Have the tequila!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:19 am

      Ha ha – I’m not even sure if they have that here. I know I can get the Coronas though😂

      Reply
  5. Wanda

    February 10, 2020 at 11:51 pm

    Great blog… love your humor and transparency! Praying for you and your family.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:18 am

      Thanks Wanda!

      Reply
  6. Holly McCsll

    February 11, 2020 at 3:24 am

    Although it’s a very scary subject, you had ne laughing out loud! We are praying for you guys!!

    Reply
  7. Holly McCall

    February 11, 2020 at 3:25 am

    Although it’s a very scary subject, you had me laughing out loud! We are praying for you guys!!

    Reply
  8. Erin

    February 11, 2020 at 4:16 pm

    This is great! Thankful for your sense of humor in a scary situation. Continued prayers…

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 11:07 pm

      Thank you Erin.

      Reply
  9. Laurie Pytosh

    February 12, 2020 at 3:18 am

    Wonderfully written with a bit of humor …an excellent read!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 12, 2020 at 3:20 am

      Thank you Laurie !

      Reply
  10. Kara Lewis

    February 13, 2020 at 5:36 am

    This is amazing, Kirsten!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 13, 2020 at 5:57 am

      Thanks for reading, it’s very surreal in China right now.

      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.