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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“You’re very good at silver linings,” a friend texted me recently.
I’d just shared with her that we probably won’t be able to come to the US for a visit this summer since China has banned foreigners from entering. If we leave, there’s no telling when we can return.
I tried to highlight the positive.
“The good news is that lots of places are opening up for travel here. So instead of petting bunnies at your place I might be riding camels in the desert in Inner Mongolia,” I told her.
I’d spent weeks dreaming of sipping wine together on her balcony and snuggling with her two pet bunnies this summer.
I just knew that running my hands through George and Bella’s fur was the antidote I needed to my stress
As I scrolled through the fuzzy duo’s Instagram feed Triple Chin George tears started to roll. I realized I’d have to settle for virtual bunny therapy this summer. At least I’d be in good company with George and Bella’s 969 other followers. (You should check them out. This much cuteness has to lower your stress.)
Here’s the silver lining. As our return to the US this summer seems unlikely, we’re being forced to dig deep to experience more of what China has to offer.
Still round the corner there may wait, a new road, or a secret gate. – J.R.R. Tolkien
“The great thing is we live in such a big country,” I said to my sons as we discussed our summer plans. “We can go hiking in the mountains near Tibet or go to Hainan Island for scuba.”
I’ve tried really hard to put a positive spin on things in the last four months and rock this China adventure for all it’s worth.
It’s not always easy. Constantly feeling like an outsider (no one wants to share an elevator with a foreigner), innumerable temperature checks by guys in hazmat suits, and a ban on leaving the city have taken a toll. (The guys in white jumpsuits showed up in my dreams one night, jolting me awake and making my heart race.)
I feel like I lived through the pandemic twice. Once when it was at its peak in China and a second time as the virus swept across the globe.
Watching my home country succumb to increasing death and confusion from my living room TV is surreal. It’s like tracking a hurricane as it approaches landfall, waiting for destruction but being powerless to stop it.
I need to be refueled by hugs from friends and family and have meaningful conversations that don’t include my phone as a translator.
I want to go out to eat and have everyone’s meal come out at the same time, and not have to fumble with chopsticks.
My kids looked forward to seeing how many times they could eat at Chick-fil-A in a week, or ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster without puking.
And the thought of seeing them hanging out with their friends? It would mean everything’s right in the world again, kind of like finding the missing sock in the dryer.
I get a lump in my throat when I think about everything we’re missing. Unlike boxes of Clif Bars and a good jar of face cream, enduring friendships and cultural familiarity can’t be ordered online.
We’re all missing out on something important this summer. Just like many of your plans, mine will have to wait.
But as I imagine my family camping out under the stars in the desert
Or exploring the spot where the Great Wall plunges into the sea,
I think I can see a faint glimmer of a silver lining.
I hope you find a silver lining in this difficult time. I’d love to hear about it.
If you’ve been following along, you know there’s someone special in my life I haven’t seen since the Coronavirus started in Beijing three months ago. You can read about the street food chef gone missing in my last post. Craving Normal
I began to give up on the Baozi Guy, trying to accept the parts of my life that have changed forever. Some friends who left China will never come back. I can’t wear lipstick in public because it just gets smeared inside my mask, and going out carries an element of tension since we have to scan an app (in Chinese) and verify our health status to enter most public venues.
It seems that everyone can relate to craving “normal” – that part of your daily routine that stabilizes your life, whether it’s a lunch stop at Chick-fil-A with the kids, a sweat-inducing workout at the gym or catching up with a friend at Starbucks.
I love that you are cheering for my Baozi Guy to return right along with me. I was savoring your words of encouragement with my morning coffee a few days ago when my phone pinged.
Who’s texting at 6 am? The kids were asleep and Mike was out running.
“Closer to normal,” the message said, with this picture:
I’m not one to cry over sappy movies, but that one image caused the tears to flow. There really is hope that we’ll all come out of this OK on the other side. I wondered what battle the Baozi Guy had been fighting while I struggled with loneliness and uncertainty in my apartment?
Five minutes later Mike returned from his run, like the Messiah bringing good news.
I took the precious warm bag and cradled it in my hands, inhaling deeply.
“You only bought one bag?” I asked. Ten bite-sized buns divided by four people times two teenagers is a very small number.
“Hey, I was impressed that I was able to pay for them at all. I didn’t want to get two orders and then have to leave them there because my phone didn’t work.”
I couldn’t respond because my mouth was full. Those little fluffy, pork-filled bundles were just as good as I remembered. How does he get the dough so light?
“I think he recognized me,” Mike said. “We were both kind of excited to see each other.”
It was a milestone day. The Baozi Guy returned, and the city of Wuhan reported that all virus patients had been released from the hospital.
Today I had to go and see him for myself, to make sure it hadn’t all just been a dream, like a mirage in the desert.
I gave a joyful wave as I approached, knowing I was probably embarrasing him with my unreserved emotion. But he waved back and stood up as I approached.
“I’m so happy ! You’re back!” I said, using the simple words I’d practiced all day yesterday. “Are you good?”
”Yes, yes, I’m good.”
In the past my camera-shy friend refused my requests for photos, but today his eyes crinkled kindly as he smiled behind his mask.
I paid for my order (called a Ti from the word for basket) and headed home, sampling a warm bun from the bag. I’m sure it was my imagination but it seemed like the friendly exchange added a depth of flavor to the pork and scallion puffs that I didn’t notice yesterday.
I thought about all of the pieces in our lives that have been scattered, at least temporarily. It’s left me longing, craving for connection. At least in a small way today, normal has returned. I hope your normal comes back soon too.
My husband knows about the other man in my life and he’s OK with it. As a matter of fact, he encourages the early morning rendezvous. So I lace up my shoes, take a lap around the park and then make a detour on the way home.
I turn left on Dongdaqiao Street, pass the only magazine stand nearby that carries English newspapers (all propaganda) and look for the door with the red signs. My heart beats faster as I get closer, like a silly school girl hoping to catch a glimpse of her latest crush.
I haven’t seen the other man since the virus hit, and for the last three months I’ve come home disappointed. I continue my daily routine, hoping one day the strong, silent man will come back into my life.
We call the object of my affection the “Baozi Guy.” I don’t know his real name, but this street-food chef with the ruddy cheeks and heavy apron has been satisfying our comfort food craving with fluffy, pork-filled steamed buns since we arrived in Beijing nine months ago.
He stood outside the mom-and-pop shop even on the coldest winter days, surrounded by woven baskets stacked high as commuters rushed by to grab their morning meal. I joined the crowd, picking up an order or two of bite-sized buns for breakfast. Fresh out of the steamer, the baozi were hot, juicy and irresistible. I would eat one or two on the way home and bring the rest to my family.
But it wasn’t just the food that brought comfort. In a city of 20 million people, I’d found a place where I was a regular. The Baozi Guy recognized me, greeting me with a friendly Ni Hao and charging me the local price when other foreign friends (even my husband) paid more. If my WeChat payment on my phone didn’t work (which happened occasionally), he’d wave me away saying “tomorrow, tomorrow.” If there was a crowd, he made sure to take my order in turn.
Unsure if the Baozi Guy would ever return, I’ve been looking for a replacement, which leaves me feeling a little unfaithful.
My morning walks have taken on new purpose. I head in different directions each day looking for baozi, along with other signs of hope that Beijing is coming back to life after after being shut down for weeks by the virus. One day I see the city awakening in the blooming trees; other days I notice the buzz of traffic is just a notch louder.
I found a Halal restaurant by the park, and waited hopefully in line at the takeout window, heeding the social distancing stripes marked on the pavement.
I stumbled over my order in Chinese, and slunk away feeling embarrassed, which made me miss the Baozi Guy even more. Maybe it was bruised pride that made the buns hard to swallow, but the flavorless beef and dense dough sat heavily in my mouth.
I found another place near the Russian district that had potential, but it’s just too far to walk on a daily basis, and the baozi just weren’t quite as good. I had a stomachache after I ate one, which is never a good sign.
Every few days I walk past the door with the red sign, checking to see if the Baozi Guy has returned. Recently, I saw lights on inside. Had they always been on and I just didn’t notice? It felt too good to be true. The door was locked, but I saw keys on the table. Maybe there’s hope.
But hope is fleeting these days, slipping away quickly like noodles through my chopsticks.
I woke up feeling depressed the next day when I thought about the rising death toll and crashing economy. Getting out of bed is challenging sometimes.
“Did the world come to an end last night?” I asked my husband.
“Let me see,” he said, pulling open the curtains. “Nope. Doesn’t look like it.”
“I just want normal again,” I complained. “I want the Baozi Guy to come back.” Ten weeks of severe restrictions and constantly changing rules were starting to wear me down.
“That would be nice, whatever normal means,” he agreed.
The smell of coffee persuaded me to get out of bed and I remembered the lights I had seen yesterday at the restaurant.
“Just maybe today will be the day,” I thought.
I made my usual loop around the park and headed toward the Baozi Guy’s shop on the way back.
There, in front of the restaurant, was a sack of flour and bags of carrots, onions, chili peppers and sweet potatoes. Tears came to my eyes.
That sack of flour and pile of vegetables brought me more hope than I’ve felt in weeks. Maybe normal will return soon.
“Yes. No. Maybe.” Those are the answers to whether we will be quarantined when we fly back to Beijing tomorrow.
The government policy has changed several times in the three weeks since we left, trying to keep pace with the fluid nature of COVID-19.
At first the Chinese government announced that all incoming foreigners would face a 14-day quarantine; mere days later they retracted that statement, perhaps thinking that quarantining someone from a country without the virus was too restrictive.
Last week, as the virus flared up around the globe, the quarantine was reinstated for travelers coming to Beijing from South Korea, Japan, Iran, Italy and “other severely affected countries,” which leaves room for interpretation.
What qualifies as a “severely affected country?” An acquaintance came back from Thailand yesterday, where there are a total of 43 cases, and yet his compound required him to stay confined to his apartment.
I’ve known others who were initially told they didn’t have to quarantine only to find out a day later they did.
Living in such a shifting landscape is like living with a toddler again; what was true yesterday isn’t necessarily true today.
The bottom line seems to be it’s up to management office of individual apartment compounds to decide. That’s the first place we will stop when we arrive.
With that in mind, I’m preparing for the probability that we will have to spend the next two weeks in “voluntary” self-quarantine at home in Beijing. What I’m really hoping doesn’t happen is any kind of mandatory quarantine at a government facility, which could happen if there is a suspected case of the virus on the airplane.
I’ve prepared for hurricanes, earthquakes and snow storms, but never quarantine. I’m heading into uncharted territory, kind of like setting off into the jungle without a map. What dangers await? Will I etch tally marks into the walls to count the days as my sanity starts to crack? Or will I find beauty in slowing down, enjoying times of quiet reflection?
Quarantine. It even sounds exotic. Coming from the mid-17th century Italian for “quaranta,” it conjures images of the bubonic plague, scarlet fever and small pox. I think of the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, and Mary Mallon (aka Typhoid Mary) who spent nearly three decades forcibly quarantined on New York’s Brother Island for spreading typhoid Fever.
Being ordered to stay in my apartment with my Nespresso machine and Kindle full of books sounds like a luxury staycation in comparison (that reminds me, I need more Nespresso pods).
But still, I’d like to be prepared, just to make things easier. So here’s my quarantine packing list:
A good book is a powerful escape from reality, so I grabbed a few at Barnes & Noble.
I also have crossword and jigsaw puzzles, a set of photography classes on disks and plenty of Chinese language study materials.
I always travel with my Bible and devotional; it’s critical to stay grounded in something unchangeable during such uncertainty. I also keep my writing journal nearby, because getting my thoughts on paper helps me manage stress.
Additionally, I purchased a few coloring books and a fancy set of colored pencils. I’m hoping I can channel the first-day-of school excitement with my new supplies.
I’ve purchased some new skin care products so I can pretend I’m at the spa.
And I think junk food counts as soul care doesn’t it?
I decided to pick up a some seed packets because watching plants spring to life has to be more exciting than watching my hair grow.
This is a biggie. Of course I’ll make sure my phone and battery pack are charged, and I have my laptop in my backpack. I’ll get some new books on my iPad, download some uplifting music from Spotify and try to find some binge-worthy episodes on Netflix (suggestions?).
Acess to the Internet has been problematic in Beijing lately, so I’m arming myself with a few new VPNs also.
I’m not sure what will happen when we touch down in China, but it feels good to be prepared.
What would you bring if you were packing for quarantine? Drop me a note, I’d love to hear from you.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
This is the second post in a series of my impressions of living in China during the Coronavirus outbreak. You can read the first one here:
News alerts, emails, text messages, and We Chat notifications came fast and furious:
All employees are being offered voluntary evacuation…….The U.S. bans travelers from China….mandatory quarantine…..United Airlines ceases operation from mainland China starting February 5…..death toll rises…..Wuhan under lockdown…….countries close borders to visitors from China……WHO declares global health emergency…..
It was early February and we had a big decision to make, in a very short amount of time. We were wrapping up our ski vacation in Niseko, Japan and about to part ways, with Mike going back to Beijing and the boys and I planning to extend our holiday by flying on to Tokyo for a few days since schools were closed.
Suddenly, splitting up as a family didn’t seem like such a good idea. What if Mike makes it back to Beijing and 5 days later our flight from Tokyo is cancelled?
Do we stay in Japan as a family, with Mike setting up shop in Osaka, the closest Universal Park? Do the boys and I ditch our plans for Tokyo and head back to Beijing? Return to safety in Orlando?
Do we stay or do we go now? The Clash’s 80s punk rock song spins around and around in my head like a record on a turntable.
Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. And if I stay it will be double.
Lead singer Mick Jones was perhaps singing about the torment of an indecisive lover, rather than fleeing a global health crisis, but our angst was the same.
We hurry to pack our bags two hours before our airport shuttle arrives, tossing around the pros and cons along with ski helmets and snow boots as we try make a decision.
If I go there will be trouble
If we decide to leave China, where will we go? Beijing is our home. We rented out our house in Orlando. Technically we’d be homeless. Friends and colleagues were quickly skattering around the globe, like cockroaches when the light is turned on. No one wants to be exposed to the virus. But I’m not a quitter. Pulling the plug less than halfway through our China adventure seems like giving up, like taking the cake out of the oven before it’s finished.
We could stay in Japan, but then I’d have to learn a new language, just when my Chinese was advancing from “Ni hao” to “can you please take me to the grocery store so I can stock up on toilet paper before the apocalypse?”
Plus, although I’m trying to like it, I’ll confess sushi’s really not my favorite and I’ve had enough pork cutlets in the last week to sink a ship. I miss Chinese food.
If we decide to fly to the US, we’d be stuck with only ski clothes and bathing suits we brought for the onsen (hot springs), which turned out to be unnecessary since Japanese bathe au naturel. We’d also be without all of the laptops we needed to keep up with work and school.
We called the airlines to discuss our options. Getting a seat back to the US on one of the major airlines was a bit like musical chairs at this point, with more players than seats. I always felt sorry for the kid who got left out, trying to wedge himself onto the edge of a seat as the music faded.
Even if we could get a seat, signing up for 14 hours on a flying Petri dish might not be the smartest move.
We also face unknown quarantines upon arrival, with information changing and rumors flying.
Two weeks in isolation? I didn’t download enough episodes of The Big Bang Theory or pack enough chocolate to survive that. And what will happen to my orchids if I don’t come back?
And if I stay it will be double
Returning to Beijing and riding out the virus presented challenges as well. We’d already heard about a shortage of face masks and other hygiene supplies. What if there’s run on rice, meat or vegetables? (Don’t worry – I got the toilet paper). Finding food and cooking a decent meal is always a challenge for me in China. Would it be even harder now in the wake of the epidemic?
Then there’s the thought of weeks of inactivity, with schools, restaurants, museums, shops and even ski resorts and hiking trails being closed indefinitely in and around Beijing. And of course, there’s the unlikely chance that we could catch the virus (although in all honesty I think I was more worried about being trapped at home).
So come on and let me know. Should I cool it or should I blow?
With the Clash still spinning in my head, we zipped up the duffel bags with a week’s worth of slightly damp ski clothes (which will probably smell as bad as stinky tofu when we finally unpack) and grabbed a box of Ritz crackers from the vending machine down the hall in case we get stuck somewhere.
Sometimes in a relationship you just need time to clear your mind, to figure out what to do next. It’s the same facing a voluntary evacuation. We decided to buy ourselves time, so we headed on to Tokyo as a family to find the best ramen, sample Waygu beef and gorge on Kit Kats. Everything’s clearer on a full stomach, right?
Stay tuned to hear what happens next. You can sign up for updates delivered by email by hitting the subscribe menu at the top. Thanks for joining our adventure.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“How long until we start eating each other?” one traveling companion asked. I turned my head toward the back of the bus to see the words “HELP” scratched in the frost on one of the windows.
“Maybe we’ll see a yeti,” the ice carver quipped, sipping a Jack and Coke for warmth. I wondered if anyone would know where to find our frozen bodies on the edge of the Gobi desert if we failed to return.
It was three degrees above zero outside and only slightly warmer inside our 17 passenger bus. We left Beijing in the early afternoon, headed on our weekend ski trip to Chongli District, an up-and-coming international destination and host to the Beijing 2022 Olympics.
I was accompanied by my husband, two teenage sons and a group of fellow ex-pats who, like us, had also relocated to China to work for Universal Studios, set to open in Beijing in 2021.
Somewhere around nightfall, our renegade driver decided to take a “shortcut” subjecting us to an hour-long wild goose chase on a windy gravel road filled with potholes. We were close to mutiny. No amount of Google translating or charades could convince our Chinese-speaking driver to turn back.
Finally, after a phone call to the driver of the other bus (our group split into two) and lots of loud, angry protesting, our driver reluctantly made a u-turn and eventually delivered us to our destination, Wanlong Ski Resort.
Located about 250 kilometers northeast of Beijng, Wanlong and other neighboring resorts are the hub of China’s quickly growing ski industry. The government is actively promoting this new tourism sector, seeking to encourage 300 million new ski and snowboard enthusiasts leading up to the Olympics by building 800 ski resorts and offering free lessons in schools.
For us, a weekend at Wanlong offered a chance to escape the frenzy of Beijing, trading pollution and traffic jams for clear blue skies and wide open slopes.
Just like most adventures in China, skiing offered pleasant surprises wrapped in a layer of challenges that required an open mind – kind of like biting into a steamed bun without knowing what’s inside.
The first task (after surviving the 5-hour drive) was renting equipment, a bit daunting considering my Mandarin vocabulary is better suited to ordering food than for explaining that I don’t need to rent a helmet or those silly looking butt pillows that cushion falls.
As we stand in the gear rental line, I’m trying to simultaneously remember our various ski lengths ( for four of us) and boot sizes (in centimeters), translate them into Chinese and sternly practice my new phrase “wo zai paidui,” – which means “I’m in line.” I press myself up against the skier in front of me to show I’m serious.
Success! We gather our gear, swipe a card that keeps track of our rental information and carefully zip it away. We had to leave our passports as a deposit and will need this card to retrieve them. I try not to think of the time years ago when I fell skiing, burying the contents of my pocket deep in the snow, including my car keys.
Now on to the next challenge: navigating a squat toilet in ski boots and multiple layers of clothing without peeing on myself. If you can imagine trying to urinate into a cup while ice skating, you get the picture.
Thankfully no injuries occurred because if I’m going to slip and fall at a ski resort, it certainly has to be a better story than that. (I learned later that the lodge at the top had heated Western toilets and slippers included in the cost of the $12 lunch buffet. Who knew such luxury existed? The food wasn’t great, but I’d go back just for the slippers).
Bladder empty, parka zipped and helmet on, I’m ready to hit the slopes. Shocker: no lift lines and wide-open, uncrowded terrain. In China, if there’s someplace worth seeing, chances are that I’ll be joined by a million or two of my closest friends, so this was surprising.
The first run out we took the gondola to the top. Multiple chairlifts and gondolas serve the same mountain-top destination, so we never waited more than a few minutes to ride up the peak, which meant lots of skiing with little waiting. For roughly $60 a ticket, we definitely got our money’s worth.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the lack of smokers. (Thankfully it’s against the rules on the hill due to the danger of forest fires, but I did catch one snowboarder taking a quick smoke-break mid-slope).
At a little over 6,000 feet, the top of the mountain offered spectacular panoramic views. Being in Beijing surrounded by tall buildings had given me tunnel vision of sorts; standing at the top taking in the views reminded me of the enormity of this country. Unbroken landscape filled the horizon.
Wanlong ski runs don’t have catchy names like “Happy Trails” or “Body Bag” giving skiers some idea of what lies ahead. There are some numbers, a few symbols and characters (partially snow-covered) but like most things here, much is left to guessing.
So we take turns choosing the runs, our 14- and 16-year old sons leading the way. Here we are in China, thousands of miles from home, and they fearlessly navigate unfamiliar terrain without a trail map and beckon me to follow.
”Let’s just go straight. It might have moguls, I’m not sure. But it will be OK, we’ll just go slow,” my 16-year old says.
How did this happen? Weren’t they just toddlers learning to ski? We used to run alongside them down the bunny hill yelling “tips together – make a wedge like a pizza! Arms out front, like you are holding a tray. Don’t spill the hot chocolate!”
Now they are bold, independent, capable teenagers. I’m proud, but a little bit sad. We raised them to fly, and they are spreading their wings, soaring down the ski hill in China, out of my sight. It’s been a year of letting go, and trusting in the unknown spaces. I blink back a few tears and chase after them.
Lots of skiing requires lots of eating. Who needs burgers and chili cheese fries? We refueled on grilled lamb skewers, handmade dumplings, made-to-order noodle dishes, fried rice and fresh tandoori baked naan. The variety was impressive and the quality was good, at a fraction of what food costs in U.S. ski resorts. This place takes pride in its food.
On the bus trip home, I watched the landscape roll by: jagged mountains, luxury chateaux, old factories, abandoned towns, new mini-cities bathed in lights from neon signs, hot pot restaurants, KFC, pig farms and silos. Villagers warmed their hands over open fires in the fields, while drivers stopped at nearby electric vehicle charging stations. I was witnessing a living museum of China’s history as the kilometers sped by.
Getting away from Beijing reminded me of the enormity of this country, the diversity of its people, and the richness of the landscape. Sharing new adventures as a family lifted my spirits and made me feel grateful for the way this experience and all of the others during our time in China is shaping our family.
Six months into my temporary stay in Beijing, I feel like I’m becoming a little bit Chinese. Don’t panic. My hair is still blond and I haven’t changed my name, but living in China has definitely changed me.
I can eat chicken or frog and spit out the bones just like a local, and I can slurp soup with best of them.
I feel annoyed when I walk into a restaurant and there are too many other waiguoren because clearly it’s not authentic. When the waiter warns that the ma po tofu I’m about to order is a little bit spicy, I wave him off with a quick mei wenti.
While it’s true that I don’t hunt down wild animals with a bow and arrow or collect edible plants by the river, I feel like each day in China is an adventure in providing for my family. On most days, I spend several hours in search of food, common household supplies and clothing.
Stone Age hunter-gatherers had to catch or find everything they ate, moving around from place to place. Fortunately I’m not a nomad, but I do routinely shop at 5 to 6 different stores to find everything I need.
For a simple dinner of pulled-pork sandwiches, I might stop at one store for a pork roast, another for barbecue sauce and a third for buns. If the third store is out of buns, I move onto the fourth and fifth store.
Sometimes foraging results in soup or stir fry for dinner when I can’t find the ingredients for the meal I had planned. Ripe avocados are a rare find, and chocolate chips take some searching too. Taco seasoning, Triscuits, Goldfish crackers and ranch dressing? Those are things dreams are made of.
Breakfast is a challenge too. There are no toaster waffles or Wheaties. Donuts and bagels are scarce too. Some days I hit the bagel jackpot, finding 5 or 6 at a time, in which case I buy out the whole supply and freeze a few.
Recently someone in our expat chat group posted this photo:
My phone blew up. Everyone was chiming in with excitement about finding a store with Triscuits, Stove Top stuffing and Vlasic pickles. There was even a rumor that Jenny Wangs had Eggo Waffles. It’s about an hour taxi ride for me, but the Triscuits might just be worth it.
Did Wilma Flintstone have it this hard? How come she always looks so good with perfectly coiffed auburn hair and I look weathered and wind-blown after my foraging trips? Maybe Fred brought home the victuals; I don’t recall.
Like the hunter-gatherers of ages past I can only bring home what I can carry, since I don’t have a car. This means daily shopping is a given.
Sometimes I set off in search of clothing. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know finding jeans long enough for my tall, lanky boys is a challenge. Not as difficult as finding shoes though. Trying to find size 11 or 12 soccer cleats is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Looking for a lower priced option isn’t really a choice when we’re just lucky to find a pair in the right size. So we fork over a king’s ransom for shoes with a swoosh, and admonish our sons to stop growing.
Shopping for household goods can feel like foraging at times too.
Today I went to two different stores looking for light bulbs. It should be a simple task, you say. Well, I found exactly one bulb in the desired wattage.
Sometimes treasures show up in unexpected places when I’m not even searching, like finding a clean, Western toilet in a city populated with squat toilets.
Or persimmon and date trees offering a sweet snack during a hike along the Great Wall.
Sometimes the treasures I collect are a smile or friendly greeting offered by a stranger, not a common occurrence in this fast-paced metropolis. Beijingers tend to keep to themselves until a personal connection is made.
I collect the bagels, soccer shoes, light bulbs and smiles to fill my house and my heart so that I can provide love and security to my family and friends who visit. While I might be living in a city that is racing toward modernization at break-neck speed, my days are grounded in the same desires shared by hunter-gatherers from days gone by.