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.
So we finally took the plunge and joined a gym. Winter is coming and with it the promise of frigid temperatures and worsening pollution. I wanted a place to keep up my exercise routine despite the climate and was excited about getting back into yoga again.
Like every new endeavor here in Beijing, including simply crossing the stree, going to yoga made me a little bit nervous. There are language and cultural barriers at every turn. “What do people wear to yoga class?” I wondered. Should I bring my brightly colored pink yoga mat or use one from the gym? Will I be able to understand the instructor? I have a hard enough time keeping my chaturanga and savasana straight in English. How will I manage in Chinese?
But I gave myself a peptalk and headed to the gym. Lunchtime is busy and the yoga studio was already halfway full. (Yoga is called Yujia in Chinese in case you were wondering). There were a lot of empty mats spread around the room so I grabbed a spot and started stretching.
Instructor Ken, with his tatooed shoulders peeping out from his muscle T-shirt, looked at me and wagged his finger. “Those are for people,” he said, indicating that I should find a different spot. Ok then. I grabbed a mat and staked out a spot in the back, hoping I could blend in with white walls. I was the only waiguoren (foreigner) in a room of 28 svelte Chinese ladies in black leggings and one lonely guy in the front near the door. “Smart,” I thought. He can make a quick exit if things get too intense.
We start with some basic moves: cat and cow stretches, Downward Facing Dog and Cobra. I do my best to follow along by watching the people around me. (I quit watching the lady in front of me because she was showing off and doing headstands when everyone else was in forward fold. I think she was the teacher’s pet).
I understand a few words here and there, and there is a little bit of English sprinkled in, like In-Hall and Ex-Hall. But then instructor Ken keeps saying something that sounds like “Mama Hoochie” and I just want to burst out laughing, which made it hard for me to hold my Standing Tree upright. I found out later after consulting my dictionary he was saying “Man man hu qi” which means breath out slowly. That makes much more sense.
I am holding my own until we start with the backbends. I haven’t done a backbend in about four decades but as I look around, 2/3 of the class is in perfectly poised curves, navels to the ceiling. Some started on the mat and pushed up into a wheel; others started from the standing position. The instructor circled the room to help each one up, leaning his body over hers and rising to the standing position together like an exotic dance.
There’s a lot more touching going on here than I’m used to as Instructor Ken comes around to adjust our hips, straighten our shoulders and push our stretches deeper. As he heads my way, I’m frantically trying to think of how to say “don’t touch me. I haven’t done yoga in six months and my white bones just don’t bend that way” in Chinese.
All I can think of is “Bu Yao” which is the Chinese catchphrase for “don’t want” which is a handy way to fend off aggressive sales people in the markets and to tell the street vendor not to add copious amounts of chili peppers to my lamb skewer.
Thankfully the instructor passes me by so I’ll save “Bu Yao” for another day. I watch from my mat and I’m amazed by the collective flexibility of the ladies in the room (the dude in the front is pretty good too). Did I accidentally enter the Acrobat Training class instead of Universal Yoga? I can’t help but wonder if thousands of years of tai chi and Kung Fu has somehow seeped into their genes, offering a natural flexibility that we waiguoren don’t have. Or is it something in the food? If so then there’s hope for me yet, because I’m a big fan of the local cuisine, as you know if you’ve been reading along. More than likely it’s their active lifestyle of walking and biking everywhere that plays a big part.
We moved from backbends to warrior poses and I’m back in the game again. “Yi. Er. San. Si. Wu,” instructor Ken counts as my legs start to quiver. At least my Chinese is good enough to know how long I have to hold the pose.
Another 20 minutes and I need a rest. Focusing on balancing, breathing and translating in my head at the same time is exhausting. Kind of like trying to rub your tummy, pat your head and count in Spanish all at the same time. I take a quick break in child’s pose, dropping to my knees and tucking my head between my arms. I feel like a turtle that has momentarily retreated safely into its shell. I think of all the times I wish I could do this when I’m out running errands and frustrations arise.
I glance at the clock. We’re almost finished so I rejoin the group, looking forward to Savasana, the restful pose that comes at the end of the class. That’s the payoff right? Where you get to lie down, close your eyes and dream about your happy place before returning to the real world.
Except the Savasana never comes. Instead Instructor Ken gives a mini-lecture as we sit in lotus position.
He’s gesticulating with his hands (unusual for Chinese), making big circles with his arms and stretching his neck to a fro as he talks. Everyone listens attentively. I imagine he is explaining various relaxation techniques we could use throughout the day to keep our Zen, but he quite easily could have been talking about what he was going to make for dinner, illustrating with big stirring motions. Suddenly there is a short burst of clapping and the class is over.
Living in China has stretched and strengthened me in ways I never could have imagined. Muscles have been called into action that I didn’t even know I had. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll even be able to do a back bend before we move back to the U.S.
Wow, we’ve moved from summer into fall. Sometimes I feel that our time here in Beijing is flying by; others days the clock ticks slowly.
But we recently celebrated Halloween and fall is definitely in the air.
The cooler temperatures at night and crisp sunny days have brought out vibrant colors in the autumn trees. After years of living in Florida, I’m savoring every moment of fall.
Golden ginkgo biloba trees adorn the local parks and walkways. The trees are prized for their fruit which smells terrible but is collected by locals and used as a kidney tonic in traditional Chinese medicine.
The change in seasons also brings out new street vendors selling selling seasonal treats.
Fresh pomegranate juice is made on-the-spot from local fruit. This pomegranate tree grows in the Lama Temple courtyard.
Other treats include sunflower seeds and candied fruits and nuts.
Winter vegetables are popping up in the produce market, like this beautiful specimen. I’m not sure what it is. It looks a little bit like lettuce at the top but the base looks like bok choy. It’s almost too pretty to eat.
If the hats, gloves and coats with fur-trimmed hoods for sale in clothing shops are any indication, it’s going to get cold this winter. Scooter riders are prepared, fitting their bikes with sleeping-bag like contraptions to shield riders on their commute.
Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and Christmas is not far behind. While these Western holidays are not traditionally celebrated in China, retailers here are taking full advantage of the shopping opportunities.
While it is possible to order a turkey from an international grocery store, I can barely squeeze a scrawny chicken in my tiny oven. I might try to bake a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving just to make the house smell good, but we will probably go out to eat even though it’s a regular work and school day.
How are the seasons changing where you live? What holiday preparations are underway at your house? I’d love to hear from you.
Last week a friend and I made a quick overnight trip to the city of Datong in Shanxi province, home to two famous Chinese landmarks, the Yungang Grottoes and Hengshan mountain scenic area.
Datong is less than one hour by air from Beijing, but the experience was a world apart. My head is still spinning from the dizzying mountain heights, spectacular scenery, friendly people and one insane Didi driver whom I’m still trying to forget.
We headed straight from the airport to the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating from 450 AD.
This series of ancient Buddhist temple caves is comprised of over 50 caves and some 50,000 plus statues.
The caves, some of which are several stories high, contain ornate carvings and paintings, with golden Buddhas and colorful scenes of emperors and religious deities. Out of religious respect, photos are not allowed in some areas.
The largest statue is over 60 feet high, and the level of ingenuity required to construct these beautifully decorated sandstone caves is mind-boggling.
Almost as impressive as the scenery was the lack of crowds. We strolled leisurely, exploring the caves and stopping to enjoy an ice cream in the shade (My Chinese is just good enough to avoid the salted egg and red bean flavors in favor of a coffee one, thankfully).
Just like any good theme park, the exit from this attraction ended in an area filled with restaurants and gifts shops.
We took a break from sightseeing to sample the locally produced vinegar and admire the dried chilies from a safe distance (no sampling necessary).
Lunch of freshly carved noodles with ground pork and a few stuffed buns set us back about $3 each, including water.
It’s pretty cheap to travel around China subsisting on some kind of noodle dish, fruit, yogurt, bread or dumplings and tea, water or beer depending on how stressful the day has been. And these are all words I know how to say in Chinese, which makes things easier.
After a quick catnap at the hotel (our non-smoking room held strict warnings not to smoke in the bed), we explored Datong, which was once the beginning of the trade route headed to Mongolia.
We enountered some ghost town- like areas, with a shocking absence of crowds. After three months of living in China, I’m just used to wall-to-wall people. What a refreshing change.
We started out early the next morning, once again expecting large crowds. Our anticipated destination was the Hengshan hanging monastery, an ancient structure attached to the side of a cliff with spindly wooden poles. I had seen this feat of engineering in pictures, which is what lured me to Datong in the first place.
Does it count as getting lost if you don’t arrive at your intended destination but never actually lose track of where you are?
In our case I’ll just call it serendipitous that our crazy driver passed the turnoff to the hanging monastery and took us instead to Heng mountain scenic area. I won’t bore you with the details of the trip, but after three hours with Driver Wang we were just happy to get out of the car. Anywhere. Alive. The actual destination was of secondary importance.
We looked up at all of the monasteries on the hillside and assumed we had arrived at our intended destination.
Fueled by chips and cookies from our backpacks and buying water along the way, we started out hiking. In China, at least everywhere I’ve been so far, hiking means stairs. And lots of them. I was thankful for all of the times I opted for the stairs over the escalator in the subway station.
Each set of stairs brought us to another vista – a monastery, a rock outcropping, a small temple, or a man with a thermos of hot water selling instant noodles.
The farther we went, the farther we wanted to go. Where does this lead? What’s over the hill top? What’s around the bend? It was impossible to stop. The views got more spectacular as we ascended.
And there was only one way to go – up. We climbed over 100 flights of stairs, gaining a few thousand feet in elevation.
The surrounding peaks, temples and valleys were our primary focus, but to our fellow Chinese hikers we were the center of attention. In this somewhat remote area away from Beijing, as a couple of foreigners we drew a lot of attention. I’m guessing for some, we might have been the first “weiguoren” they had laid eyes on. Everyone wanted pictures, wanted to know where we were from. It was a friendly curiosity, and we shared a spirit of commaraderie as we urged eachother on.
What we didn’t realize until we reached the top was that we were sharing a pilgrimage; we had summitted one China’s five sacred peaks.
This was not the hanging monastery we had set out to see, but something much grander that we achieved with sweat, quivering muscles and smiles from strangers.
It was breezy at the top, and I twirled around in exhilaration, taking in 360 degree views that spanned mountain ranges and neighboring provinces, unobstructed by human development. I can almost imagine what it was like as caravans of traders traveled from here along the Silk Road centuries ago.
We kept an eye on the clock, realizing we needed to return to the parking lot before evening came unless we wanted to spend the night on the mountain. We headed down, making more friends along the way.
In the U.S. such strenuous hikes might lure outdoorsy types who spend half their paycheck at REI, or at least weekend warriors and fitness buffs. Not here. From a four year old girl carrying a pretty red purse to a hunched over octogenarian, they climbed up the mountain. Sporting dressy pants, parasols, flip flops, cozy slippers, sequined tops and warm sweaters despite the upper 70s heat, our fellow hikers looked more prepared for a shopping trip or lounging at home than an adventure in the wilderness. They put us to shame with their level of fitness, earned from a car-less lifestyle where carrying groceries, cycling to town and climbing stairs in the subway were part of their routine.
Not wanting to chance it with another crazy driver, we took a public bus back to Datong, thanks to a friendly young couple who helped us buy tickets and find the right bus.
We travelled on small country roads, passing farms, stopping for passengers and taking our time. $3 and 2 hours later we arrived back in the city and caught a cab to the airport.
I’ve climbed high peaks in Mexico, trekked up hills in Nepal, visited Alpine mountain tops in Europe and seen some splendid wilderness in the United States. I found something special in each of those places. Being in nature (in the mountains especially) feeds my soul like nothing else. Maybe I feel closer to God because I’m high up on a mountain. Silly, I know.
But there was something different about this trip, about these vistas, about this mountain top that will stay with me. Perhaps it was the sheer adventure of getting there, navigating everything on our own without a tour guide, or not realizing we had just summitted a sacred peak until we saw the marker. Or the strangers encouraging us on the way to the top, surprised to see two foreigners in their midst. Or the freedom of a 360 degree view after being hemmed in in Beijing.
I’m not sure, but I loved it, and I’m hooked. There are many peaks to climb in China. I’ll let you know which one is next.
If you enjoy following my adventures, would you consider subscribing to future posts if you haven’t already? You’ll find a “subscribe” button in the menu at the top. And feel free to share this blog with a friend. I’d love to have your company, and I promise not to make you eat any chili peppers along the way.
“They must sit up straight and not be lazy,” our instructor commanded as she surveyed the room.
I looked around at my fellow classmates, a German grandpa and his son-in-law, and a father-daughter duo from Singapore.
I’m here to learn how to make dumplings, China’s iconic snack. Thankfully our teacher Sophia is chastising the dumplings, not us, for their lackadaisical attitude.
“If they are lazy and fall over you will lose all of your money,” she warns. Sophia explains that “jiaozi” or dumplings to us foreigners, are shaped a little bit like the ingots that were used as currency during the Ming dynasty. If your “money purse” falls over, it’s a bad omen for your finances. Similarly, the filling might spill out from toppled dumplings. Shaping the dumplings correctly therefore is important.
The history of jiaozi goes back almost two thousand years, Sophia explains, when a famous Chinese medicine doctor was faced with a village full of patients with frostbitten ears. Seeking a cure for the malnourished, suffering villagers, he combined mutton with chopped medicinal herbs and warming spices and steamed it into ear-shaped soothing dough packages.
The villagers ate the dumplings and recovered, crediting their renewed health to the jiaozi prepared by the doctor. Thus began the tradition of eating dumplings at the beginning of the new year to bring health and prosperity.
But thankfully we don’t have to wait until they new year to enjoy them. I can’t walk more than a few blocks or so without finding a place to stop for dumplings. Even the frozen ones make a pretty good afterschool snack that can be prepared in a hurry. That’s important when you have two teenagers who can down a dozen or two in one sitting,
We started from scratch, making a simple dough from flour and water. Vegetable juice, like carrot, spinach or beet, can be used instead to color the dough.
“The texture should be like playdough,” Sophia tells us, as she walks around to inspect. Do Chinese kids play with playdough I wonder?
Satisfied with our efforts, she instructs us to let the dough rest while we start making the filling. If we don’t let the gluten rest, the dough will be too bouncy to work with.
There are probably as many recipes for dumpling fillings as there are cooks in China. Eggs, tofu, pork, beef, mushrooms, lotus root, cabbage, leeks, vermicelli, carrots — can all be incorporated. The key is the fillings must be dry, not soggy. Eggs and tofu must be cooked first for that reason, and water must be squeezed out of other vegetables.
The workhorse in every Chinese kitchen is a big cleaver, called a cai dao. It’s sharp, big, heavy and a little bit intimidating . I can understand why they require permits to buy these things.
“Hold it like a ping pong paddle,” Sophia suggests. “Like Westerners do, not Chinese,” she says, clarifying the type of grip we should have on our cai dao.
We chop vegetables, mince ginger and cilantro, add in five spice powder, salt, pepper, vinegar, cooking wine and mix our fillings. Thankfully no one loses a finger.
“Don’t forget to add a pinch of sugar. It’s the magic seasoning that brings all of the flavors together,” Sophia tells us.
Next we wake the dough up from its nap and start making the wrappers. We poke a hole in the dough ball and end up with a doughnut. We cut the doughnut into a snake, and then cut the snake into pieces which are supposed to be evenly sized. Where is my engineer husband when I need him?
Next Sophia demonstrates how to roll out the dough into circles.
Next comes the hard part: filling the wrappers. There is a lot of pressure here because remember how I told you the dumplings are supposed to sit up straight and not be lazy? It has to do with how you pinch the edges closed after filling the wrapper.
We don’t want the filling to fall out or the dumplings to tip over or we will be poor and sick in the new year.
The filled dumplings can be boiled (the original method of cooking), steamed or fried (also delicious). It takes a lot of work to roll, fill and cook the dumplings, so it’s often a family affair.
Dumplings can be eaten as a snack (allow 20 or so per teenager) or paired with smashed cucumber salad and fruit for a meal.
They are usually served with a combination of dark vinegar and soy sauce for dipping, and sometimes ginger or chili pepper is added.
The markets in Beijing are alive with color, smells, sounds, people and interesting things to taste and touch. From worry beads and fake Gucci purses to fresh lotus root and chicken feet, there’s a market for just about everything.
The one I frequent most often resembles a farmers market, with fresh produce and dry goods like rice, tea and spices. The quality is high and the prices are low.
If you need some clothes hemmed, or a plunger for the sink, you can find that here too.
There’s even a place to buy pink panties and lucky red underwear. I wish I could shop here everyday.
Another place I love to visit is the flower market.
The market itself used to be huge, taking up almost a whole city block with flower vendors. The government closed it recently, citing the need to use the building for something else. Fortunately a number of vendors have relocated to a building next door, so I can still get my orchid fix.
They also sell house plants, baby turtles and little furry pets.
And then there are several antique markets which are a great place to find some funky decorations like porcelain vases and cricket cages.
Or get a glimpse into China’s past with Mao-era paraphernalia
Some items are painful reminders of how things used to be, like these doll-sized slippers worn by women who had their feet bound.
These are about 3- inches long from the chunky heel to the tip of the pointy toe. For hundreds of years Chinese women endured the painful practice of foot-binding to shape their feet into “golden lotuses” which increased their value as a potential bride. The practice was outlawed in the early 1900s.
The hotel and restaurant market is the place to go for small kitchen appliances, bedding, silverware and dishes.
I went there shortly after we arrived, looking for a serrated bread knife. I can easily find crusty baguettes and hearty sourdough boules in specialty shops but finding a way to cut them was problematic. The Chinese cleaver that came with my apartment wasn’t going to cut it. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).
This is when I learned that cooking knives are regulated items, kind of like buying a weapon. You might be able to waltz into Wal-Mart in the US and buy a firearm, but at Wal-Mart in Beijing you’ll be lucky to find a butter knife. I raised deep suspicion and a few eyebrows when I asked to buy a knife at the hotel market. Stores that do sell knives, like Ikea, will require you to show ID. And getting home? Forget about taking the subway because it won’t pass security.
Visiting Beijing’s markets is a culinary experience, a lesson in history, a taste of the language and a window into Chinese culture all rolled into one. It’s one thing I know I’ll miss when our time in Beijing comes to an end.
Remember when I told you life in Beijing wasn’t all pandas and dumplings? There are days when reality sets in and discouragement runs deep. We call those days “China Days.” Everything is just hard, and I feel completely incompetent. Today was one of those days.
Laundry is my nemesis. I have shed more tears over washing clothes here than I care to admit. I believe Chinese washing machines and dryers are designed for one or two articles of clothing at a time max – Chinese-sized clothing. I’m an extra large in Chinese sizes and I’m a US size 4 if that tells you anything.
There are some cryptic well-worn labels on the machine settings, so it’s been trial and error in learning how to use them. Google Translate gives poetic-but-not-so-helpful translations likes “fast force,” and “flowing river” which I think is the rinse cycle.
Often the clothes come out of the washer dripping wet, or the dryer imparts a funky, sour smell. Sometimes the clothes refuse to come out at all, locking themselves in with a stubbornly shut door. Spending the night inside the damp washing machine does not make them cleaner than when I put them in.
This morning I checked the laundry room to see if I could pry the door open to the washing machine, as last night it wouldn’t open no matter how how hard I pulled or pounded on it. Sometimes it’s best just to walk away for awhile.
Not surprisingly, the clothes smelled terrible. I decided to wash them again, so I added some soap, pushed a button and said a little prayer.
When I checked a little later, soap bubbles were flowing out of the machine and onto the floor. I reached up above to empty the dryer, dropping some of precious clean, dry clothes into the soap bath. It would have been comical if it had been happening to someone else.
I don’t recall which words of frustration came from my mouth, but it was enough to draw my husband’s attention.
Surveying the laundry room and finding me standing in suds, he says “Wasn’t there an ‘I Love Lucy’ episode kind of like this?”
Yes, there was. Remember when Ricky and Lucy got a new washing machine and decided to sell the old one to Fred and Ethel? Well, after one load it erupted like a volcano with soap bubbles flowing everywhere.
It made for a funny episode but it almost ruined Lucy and Ethel’s friendship. Malfunctioning washing machines have been a source of tension in my family too.
“I can’t even figure out how to do laundry,” I complain to my husband.
“Why don’t you talk to the landlord?” He suggests.
“And what, tell her I’m too stupid to operate a washing machine?” No thanks. I push the “flowing river” button again, trying to rinse the soap out of this load. Going on eighteen hours later, these are going to be the cleanest clothes ever.
I decide to go to gym to relieve some frustration, knowing full well I’m only contributing to the laundry problem with my sweaty gym clothes.
I hop on the only open treadmill but this one doesn’t speak my language.
I press a few buttons, but nothing happens. At this point, the tears are welling up in my eyes and I just want to go back to America. Or at least back to bed. I swallow my pride and ask one of the regulars (the friendly guy with the pony tail and really cool shoes) for help.
He pushes a button. “Zou,” he instructs. “Kuai! Kuai!” He urges, pushing another button causing the treadmill to take off under my feet. I’m sprinting to keep up, nodding and smiling thank you.
I find a comfortable pace and turn on my music. Why is everything that should be easy so hard? Tears are streaming down my face as I listen to Mandissa sing ‘Stronger.’
When the waves are taking you under, hold on just a little bit longer. He knows this is gonna make you stronger, stronger.
The past eight weeks have stretched me and tested my patience in ways I never expected. It’s like raising toddlers all over again, and feeling like one myself at times. I’ve had to count to ten often to control my temper and even given myself a timeout on occasion.
Most of the things that I find frustrating like laundry or trying to order online when I can’t type my address in Chinese and my name doesn’t fit in the space because it’s too long, are just minor inconveniences. I get that. But coupled with the stress of adapting to a new culture, trying to learn the language, missing friends from home and a shortage of warm chocolate chip cookies, they become supremely frustrating.
Revitalized from the gym, I returned to find the washer and dryer behaving themselves nicely. I folded the laundry and felt a little bit better about life.
I met some friends for lunch, which always lifts my spirits. I stopped at the store afterwards, still craving cookies. These minty ones caught my eye.
They taste kind of like Thin Mints, and that sweet reminder of home helped me make it through the afternoon.
This pain ain’t gonna last forever, it’s gonna make you stronger. Believe me this is gonna make you stronger, stronger. Gonna make you stronger, stronger, stronger.