Adventures of Life in Beijing

We left Jellyfish Lake three days ago, but the sting is still fresh in my mind.

We took a bullet train 20 minutes south of Beijing to the bedroom community of Zhuozhou so my sons could take a PADI scuba certification course. They completed the basic coursework online, and we found an English-speaking instructor to teach them the open water skills. It turned out it wasn’t just their diving skills that were put to the test.

We crossed the provincial border arriving in Zhuozhou and were immediately pulled aside by the police as we tried to exit the train station. Since we’re “waiguoren” (foreigners) this was not unusual but it’s always unsettling.

The questions (in Chinese of course), are routine enough in the beginning.  “When did you arrive in China? Why are you here? What’s your phone number?”

Quickly, the sight of three foreigners draws a crowd and we are surrounded by four police officers and a few traffic cops looking for entertainment.

“Lai, Lai, lai,” one officer says, waving us to follow. Since he’s holding our passports, we have no choice but to follow him outside into a make-shift police station fashioned out of an old shipping container.

You know the feeling you get when you’re driving, and you see the red and blue lights flashing behind you and your stomach gets all tied up in knots? That’s how I feel.

Inside, a lady in a white coat and nurse’s hat perches on the edge of a cot. There’s a matching bed across from her, with a wok, electric kettle and cooking pot stored underneath. The windows are blacked out with pieces of cardboard boxes.

“Do they live here?” my son Timothy asks.

“It looks like it,” I say, as the nurse takes out her phone and starts filming us. Posting videos on social media of two tall, handsome blond teenagers being questioned by police will gain the nurse instant fame in this small town.

Bu yao,” I tell her to stop, scowling. I feel enough like a circus freak already.

The officer continues to question us, asking for proof of quarantine (which wasn’t required), a virus test (which we don’t have) and a list of all of the places we’ve traveled since we moved to China (too many to count).

“I think he’s asking for our address in America,” my older son Daniel says. It’s a bit like Wheel of Fortune, where we guess the questions by knowing a few key words. I’d gladly pay for a vowel if it would help us out of this mess.

It’s been 45 minutes of interrogation and I’m reaching my breaking point.  I don’t know how to write “Orangeshire Court” in Chinese and I really need to pee. I text our Chinese scuba instructors Lexie and Chris to ask for help. Eventually, the officer runs out of questions and reluctantly lets us go.

“That’s crazy. He asked so many questions. I told him it’s none of his f***ing business,” Lexie says as we walk to her car. I don’t know how to say that in Chinese, but it probably wouldn’t have helped.

I fan myself with our passports. I’m hot and frustrated and my stomach feels icky. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Covid-19 has been an easy excuse to keep foreigners from traveling around China, securing tickets to scenic spots and staying in hotels. I wonder if this is how my friends of color feel in the U.S.

We drive 25 minutes to Jellyfish Lake, stopping to pick up some pork stuffed buns since it’s already lunchtime.

 

Rou jia mo, sometimes called a Chinese Hamburger is one of our favorite street foods.

“You guys want something to drink? Coke? Cold water?” Lexie asks when we stop. I really want a beer but I’m trying to set a good example for my kids, so I settle for water.

Lexie and Chris run their diving school out of an old farmhouse near the lake. Lexie helps the boys pick out wetsuits and loads them in a van with the oxygen tanks.

 

“Now we just need Chris,” Lexie says. “I think he’s in the toilet.”

On cue, we hear Chris retching from nearby bushes.

“Is he sick? I’m not really comfortable with this,” I tell her.

“Oh, don’t worry – he’s not sick,” she reassures us. “He’s just hungover. He drank too much sake last night.”

Great. The boys might drown from a hungover instructor, but at least they won’t catch the flu.

We drive the short distance to the lake, passing through a cornfield, paintball course and a cemetery. From a distance the lake looks pretty, its blue-green color reminding me of the glacier-fed lakes in Canada. But as we get closer, I see a dead fish and garbage floating near the shore.

 

Ready for a swim?

 

“It doesn’t look too dirty,” Timothy says, noticing my concern.

“It’ll be ok as long as they don’t have any amoebas,” Daniel says.

Swimmers itch? E Coli? Water snakes? What should I worry about most?

“Remember all those shots we got before we left home? This is why,” I say.

I text my husband Mike a few pictures and tell him that we’re outnumbered, as a small group of locals has come to watch the foreign scuba divers.

 

The boys have a fan club.

 

He sees the photo of the dead fish and texts back “I hope the boys have fun and that you’ll forgive me one day.”

There’s a quick break after the first dive and Chris comes out of the water and starts dry heaving, sounding like a sick seal.

The boys laugh and Timothy asks, “How is that sound even human?”

“I don’t really think he’s fit to teach. Maybe he should rest this afternoon,” I tell Lexie as the noises from Chris’s belly grow louder. He must have been holding it in while they were underwater.

Chris sits the afternoon out, giving occasional instructions from the lakeshore between cigarettes.

The boys finish for the day and we head to the train station.

 

 

In the car, Lexie and Chris tear open small, colorful packages that look like candy.

“You guys want some? You just chew it and spit it out,” she says, holding it up for them to see.

“What is it?”

Bing lang”

I type the words into my phone, wondering what kind of dried fruit or nuts she’s offering.

“It’s like, how do you say – chewing tabaco,” she says, happy to find the correct words.

“The areca palm tree seed known as Betel Nut or Bing Lang in Chinese produces a quick, cheap high but carries the risk of oral cancer, addiction, stained teeth and cardiovascular disease,” my phone tells me.

“No, that’s ok. We’ll pass,” I say.

We’re all a little nervous walking into the train station, but thankfully, leaving Zhuozhou rated about 3 on a 1 to 10 hassle-factor scale.  I’m so ready to put this experience behind us, but we have to come back tomorrow since the class is a 4-part series.

I get ready for bed, tell the boys how proud I am of them and pray that tomorrow will be easier.

 

Make sure to subscribe to my blog to find out what happens next at Jellyfish Lake.

Comments (17):

  1. Paula Kasnitz

    September 2, 2020 at 2:14 pm

    I hope the boys realize how lucky they are to have all these adventures.
    In spite of COVID you are having an amazing time.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 6, 2020 at 4:27 am

      I’m sure one day they will see the benefit of being here. Not the easiest right now.

      Reply
  2. Stephenie

    September 2, 2020 at 2:42 pm

    Wow, so many adventures in just one day! Great job keeping it all together and providing these very valuable and once in a lifetime experiences to the boys! Always love to read your posts, the writing is wonderful! Miss you all!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 6, 2020 at 4:26 am

      Miss you too! Every day is an adventure, that’s for sure.

      Reply
  3. Alison

    September 3, 2020 at 9:59 am

    You are brave! Four days of possible interrogation sounds so scary!
    Glad you’re making the best of it.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 6, 2020 at 4:26 am

      Thanks Alison. I’m sure things will feel so easy when we move back.

      Reply
  4. Terri Buzzard

    September 3, 2020 at 10:12 pm

    Bravo. Your sense of adventure is unmatched. Reading your story always brings back memories of some of our adventures together. The boys will have so much content to share when they start their own
    Family. I love it.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 6, 2020 at 4:25 am

      Hi Terri, I think about our adventures a lot too and share some of the stories with the boys. Wish you could experience China with me.

      Reply
  5. Michele

    September 4, 2020 at 2:15 am

    That is so unbelievable. You’re so brave Kirsten, I just cannot imagine…. Great stories though!! 🙂

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 6, 2020 at 4:24 am

      Which part? The trash in the lake or the street food? Miss you!

      Reply
  6. Goya

    September 4, 2020 at 6:51 am

    WoW, What a great story. I am very proud of you and boys. I felt like I am reading an original novel of the movie ” Once Upon a Time in China”
    I can’t wait to read your next story👍
    Thank you

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 6, 2020 at 4:23 am

      Thanks Goya! Can’t wait to go on more outings together.

      Reply
  7. Carolina Henry

    September 4, 2020 at 9:27 am

    Absolutely amazing adventure one thing is for sure the boys are never bored! Always keeping us on our toes with what’s next! Loved it !! ☺️🙏

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 6, 2020 at 4:22 am

      So happy to have friends to share it with.

      Reply
  8. Patsy Ford

    September 4, 2020 at 12:45 pm

    I love reading about your adventures! When I lived in Guam I dove at Jellyfish Lake on Palau. Such a cool experience! Glad it all turned out.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 6, 2020 at 4:22 am

      Hi ! Thanks so much for following our adventures. Sounds like you’ve had some great ones too.

      Reply

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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.

 

Chinese Medicine

When my brother and I were little, we spent summers with our grandparents in Denmark. My grandmother didn’t have a drier, so she hung all of the clothes on the line. They smelled like sunshine, but were so stiff and sharp that we pretended to sword fight with pointy wash cloths.

My body feels like one of my grandmother’s line-dried wrinkled wash cloths. We are less than two months into Beijing’s winter but the extreme dryness and cold temperatures have wrung every once of moisture out of my hair, my skin and my lungs. The level of static electricity means I look a bit like Einstein when I return from shopping and take my hat off.

If it were possible to bottle some warmth and humidity from Florida, I’d ask you to send it to me. Add a pinch of salty ocean air too please.

I’m in a Chinese Medicine chat group and I saw a post recently for “Moistening Yam Tea.”  The recipe promised to “benefit my Qi, nourish my Yin and promote fluid production.” I have no idea what that means, but since slathering my skin with gallons of lotion only goes so far, I’m willing to try anything that promises moisture. Maybe it will work like a Bounce dryer sheet, softening my skin, reducing stiffness and eliminating my static cling.

Out of the five ingredients listed, I recognize two: Chinese yams and licorice root. I like licorice (my roots are Danish after all), so how bad can it be? (Chinese medicine concoctions in general aren’t designed to taste good).

 

I took a tour of a market recently about 30 minutes away, and I know they have a Chinese medicine shop. (It’s called a wet market, really, but I don’t want to scare you into thinking they sell snakes and bats. The most exotic things I saw on my visit were  eels, frogs and turtles.

 

I think he’s trying to escape.

 

 

Do they kill them for me or do I have to do it myself?

 

Turtle soup anyone?

 

So I hopped on the Subway to Xinmin market and found the Chinese Medicine shop. I had a photo of the recipe with Chinese characters, which I’m hoping the doctor understands because I can’t tell astralagus root from licorice root.

 

The red board contains combinations of ingredients for a variety of ailments.

 

There are a variety of dried teas, flowers and herbs for sale.

 

“How much is this going cost?” I asked the doctor. I’m not sure what maidong is, but if it’s as pricey as ground dragon bones, I’ll just rub my hair with a Bounce sheet instead.

She takes a little note pad and adds some figures, and shows me: 150 kuai, a little over $20 bucks. I give her a thumbs up, and she measures the ingredients.

 

 

I wanted to take a picture with her, but felt a little embarrassed to ask. Just as I’m practicing the words in my head, she hands me my purchase with a smile and comes out from behind the counter and starts taking a video of the two of us. I’m guessing I’m the first foreign customer she’s had, and she wants to brag about it on social media. I wonder how many followers I have on TikTok now?

A lifetime supply of moistening tea.

 

She was quite excited to capture me on video. I’ve been filmed in restaurants, hiking, in the elevator, shopping…..I always wonder what they do with the videos. No one ever asks permission.

 

“How much of this stuff should I be drinking?” I asked in the Chinese Medicine chat group.

“It depends on your constitution,” came the reply. “Just brew a big pot and drink it as you need it.” How will I know when my constitution has had enough ?

I measure out the ingredients and brew a pot.

 

Getting the potion ready for brewing.

 

The doctor was kind enough to number the ingredients according to the recipe so I know which ingredient is which.

 

It’s not bad. It’s earthy, with hints of licorice, spice and leather. Oh, wait, that was my wine from last night. Wrong glass.

I add a few more pieces of licorice root (at least I think I did), close my eyes, and think of chocolate as I take another swig. It doesn’t taste like chocolate, but I can pretend.

Honestly, it’s not bad and I manage to down a pot a day. It’s only been a few days so I don’t have any data to report. I’m hoping in a few weeks I’ll feel less like a wrung out wash cloth and more like a rehydrated sponge. But you can go ahead and mail that package with the tropical, Florida humidity. Throw in a few Bounce sheets while you’re at it; they cost almost as much here as ground dragon bones.