Adventures of Life in Beijing

“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.

 

Spread of the virus means stricter quarantines in Beijing.

 

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.

 

Photo by Bian Jingjing, taken on a flight recently arriving in Beijing. Numerous passengers were quarantined directly.

 

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?

 

How will my sanity hold up?

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:

BRAIN FOOD 

A good book is a powerful escape from reality, so I grabbed a few at Barnes & Noble.

Armchair travel is the next best thing.

 

I also have crossword and jigsaw puzzles, a set of photography classes on disks and plenty of Chinese language study materials.

 

This should keep me busy for awhile.

 

SOUL CARE 

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.

 

They smell like a tropical vacation

 

And I think junk food counts as soul care doesn’t it?

 

I’m trying to add some Girl Scout cookies, but no luck so far.

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.

 

I’m kind of excited!

 

TECHNOLOGY

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (8):

  1. Paula Kasnitz

    March 5, 2020 at 12:28 am

    Kirsten, You will handle it like a pro. Your adventure has had an added element of challenge.
    Ironic that you left Beijing for Washington only to be in the center of the virus in the U.S.
    Keep up the optimism and get through the chaos with your family together.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      March 5, 2020 at 12:55 am

      Thanks Paula. Very ironic. In the last month we’ve been in China, Japan and South Korea. Now Washington! We are flying out through Canada – really hoping the virus doesn’t follow us.

      Reply
  2. Yvonne

    March 5, 2020 at 12:41 am

    Why are you going back???!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      March 5, 2020 at 12:53 am

      Because I miss my husband and we need to be together as a family again.

      Reply
  3. Angelika

    March 5, 2020 at 11:34 am

    I was shocked to hear you were heading back, but it’s not like you are not at risk in the US, so you might as well be together as a family. I felt badly for you at first, with the prospect of being isolated again, but now I think you might be disappointed if you DON’T get quarantined (as long as it’s in your own apartment)! If you do not get quarantined, at least you are prepared for any free time you have for a LOOONG time!
    As I got more and more excited reading your list, it made me want to join you, but since that is not going to happen, I suggest we keep your impressive list of supplies for future reference to plan out a “Girl’s Night In”….to celebrate your return to Orlando (especially the coloring supplies and chocolate!). Praying for a safe flight and continued safety for your family.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      March 5, 2020 at 4:51 pm

      Yes, that sounds great ! I just feel better having a few diversions on hand, because even during the “regular” days (whatever those were) I spend quite a bit of time alone. I also plan to share some things with friends, who have been hunkered down in China this whole time.

      Reply
  4. Susie

    March 5, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    Wow! Such calmness found in your writing! I am impressed! I did miss a few weeks of following … where did you guys go for a few weeks while all this was going on in Beijing? I though I saw something about Japan or Tokyo? Just curious where you guys headed during the super crazy days….
    will continue to follow your story and learn from it all! I don’t plan to ever go to China so I love experiencing vicariously through you and your adventures! 😘
    Continued prayers for your family! 🙏

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      March 5, 2020 at 4:55 pm

      Hi Susie,
      Thanks for reading! There are some anxious moments for sure but it’s really been a lesson in letting go. We just spent the last three weeks in Seattle with my mom, and before that a few extra days in Tokyo. Mike has stayed in Beijing, so we need to go back and spend some time as a family. Who knows, we might hit the road again if schools stay closed !

      Reply

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The Beer-Drinking Orchid Lady

 

“Let’s ask her the price, then wait til she finishes her beer and ask again,” my friend Josie said.

“Yeah, I remember last time. First she said they were 25 kuai, then she went down to 20 and we didn’t even bargain,” I said.

I press the button in the elevator to go down to the basement of the office building where my favorite orchid vendor has set up shop. The flower vendors used to be across the street in the Lai Tai Flower Market, not far from the U.S. Embassy. For some reason last spring the Beijing government decided to close the place down, and now the vendors are scattered across the city.

Orchids are my guilty pleasure. I don’t smoke, I’m not hooked on chips or donuts and I prefer strong coffee to strong liquor.

But lead me to a display of orchids? I can’t help myself. I’m like an addict.

Buttery yellow, deep lusty purple, pale pink, warm tangerine – I just go weak in the knees when I see all of the choices.

 

In the U.S. I kept my orchid habit in check because they were kinda pricey. But at $3-5 a pop in China, I can afford to treat myself once a week if I want to. It’s cheaper than Starbucks, and they last longer than a latte and have fewer calories.

We step out of the elevator and head down the hall, following the tropical smell.

 

The cut flowers are beautiful, but I’m here for the orchids.

 

We breeze pass the cut flowers and head to main attraction, the orchids. They’re right next to the frog, turtle and fish vendor (the kind for aquariums, not the dinner table).

For some reason, in Beijing it’s common for aquatic pet purveyors and flower vendors to share space. I guess both living creatures  bring color and happiness to their owners, and require the same finicky degree of care.

“Eh, Ni hao,” says the orchid seller, turning to say hello as we approach.

 

The Orchid Lady at work

 

So many choices

 

Her easygoing greeting can either be interpreted as friendly recognition (I come here often), or a result of her morning beverage: the tall can of beer that’s sitting on her desk between a watermelon and a bag of peanuts.

 

 

She has a tea kettle,  but I think it’s mostly for decoration. Every time I visit – sometimes as early as 9 a.m. – she has a can or bottle of suds open. It’s 11 a.m. and there are more than a few empties beneath the counter.

“Women keyi kan kan ma?” I ask. I want to look at all of my choices before deciding on which ones to take home. I’ve bought orchids from other places, but these just seem to thrive. Maybe she feeds them the same liquid diet she enjoys.

“Keyi, kan ba.” She nods her approval and takes a long swig of Harbin, China’s oldest beer. She goes back to snacking on peanuts between sips while we admire her flowers.

“What do you think of this one?” Josie asks me, picking up a deep burgundy orchid accented with white and yellow in the center. It’s darker than all the others, almost inky.

“I like it. It looks like it has a little face in the middle.”

 

Black Cat Orchid

 

“Zhe ge shi  hei mao,” the orchid lady tells us.

Josie and I process what she’s telling us for a second, then we both smile.

Hei Mao. It’s called Black cat,” Josie says.

“Dui, hei mao,” the orchid lady confirms, prancing around softly like a cat, as her jet black braids swing back and forth.

Hei mao. Hei mao,” she laughs as she dances, garnering a few smirks from the neighboring vendors.

I notice that she has a stem of orchids clipped to her blouse.

“Ni chuan zhe hua. Piaoliang,” I say, trying out some newly acquired Chinese vocabulary.

I think I told her she was wearing beautiful flowers, but I might have called her a lamb skewer by mistake. That’s the problem with Chinese, so many words sound the same.

I guess I said it right, because she took the flowers off and pinned them on me. What an unexpected gift.

Thankfully, we really do speak the same language: a love of orchids.

 

Do you like my new corsage?

 

With their intricate patterns, heart-shaped faces and lush colors, orchids transport me to another world. They make me feel like I’m on a tropical vacation even when I’m living on the 15th floor looking out my window at a concrete jungle. I don’t actually talk to them, but I jokingly refer to them as my “Friends.”

After about 30 minutes of basking in the sea of orchids, I choose three lovely flowers to take home.

 

 

“Yigong 75 kuai, dui?” I check the price with the Orchid Lady, doing the quick math in my head. That’s just over 10 bucks for all three.

She takes a sip of beer, pulls out her calculator, and takes a quick look around, as if we’re making a black market transaction.

She punches the numbers in the display and shows us the total: 70 Kuai.  We lingered long enough to receive the “I’m on beer number two and feeling happy” discount.

We settle the bill with our unasked for discount and leave with our new friends, touched by the Orchid Lady’s kindness.

 

“If you are in the company of good people, it’s like entering a room full of orchids. After awhile,  you become soaked in the fragrance and you don’t even notice.”       —Confucius

 

 

 

 

Back to School

In early February when the virus flared up in China forcing schools to close, I held my breath and wondered how long online school would last. How long would I last?

What would my new role be? Cheerleader? Truant officer? Hall monitor? Janitor? Lunch lady? Would I have to wear a hairnet? I tried not to panic.

Eighteen weeks later, as I vacuum up crumbs from under the breakfast counter, a wave of sadness sneaks over me. Western Academy Beijing (WAB) opened to high school students again on Monday.

Entering campus under the “new normal”

 

Entering campus when school started last August

Instead of feeling relief, I’m replaying the 90 weekdays my sons and I shared without the harried early mornings and traffic-snarled evenings slicing into our days.

I can’t say this loudly enough: I’m so proud of how they’ve handled this challenge. They got up, got to work and never complained. From math assignments to indoor P.E. classes to filming art and cooking projects, they’ve completed everything asked of them.

No one ended up in detention and as far as I can tell we’re all still speaking to each other (at least as much as we were before this whole mess. Some days, more).

 

Taking a break from school. I love these guys.

 

I’m not saying it was easy for any of us. For me, these were some of the loneliest days of our time in China, as I tried to figure out how to support two teenagers who spent the better part of the day behind their bedroom doors doing school work alone.

And for them? They left their friends behind, moved to a strange land where they were just starting to make new friends and then their lives were up ended by a deadly virus. Many of their classmates won’t be returning. I can’t even imagine.

These past four months haven’t been what any of us expected, but like I mentioned in my last post, every cloud has a silver lining (You can read about it here Silver Linings)

Instead of nervously watching the clock every morning, I made blueberry pancakes or breakfast sandwiches.

 

We even grew our own micro greens.

 

Often the boys cooked for themselves and actually had time to eat.

Who knew having them home would increase our food consumption so drastically? I found a grocery store that delivered American-style bagels, milk, avocados, orange juice and bananas within an hour with free delivery. I ordered so often they started bringing me free gifts, like a dozen eggs or a frozen fish.

 

We are spoiled with fast, free delivery.

 

What mom can say she had lunch with her teenagers everyday for 90 days? Some days it was lunch at home, with fried rice and dumplings or barbecue pork sandwiches.

Other days, when restaurants opened again, we took advantage of the extra time to treat ourselves to Red Lobster (sadly, the cheddar biscuits just aren’t the same), or kebabs from the Turkish restaurant near the park.

 

Lunch anyone ?

 

As the days turned into weeks, I pressed the boys into kitchen duty at dinnertime. Unhindered by the usual “get dinner on the table as quickly as possible” time constraints, we discovered that homemade enchilada sauce is so much better than canned, a proper roux is worth the effort for a satisfying gumbo, and that shepherd’s pie is one of our new favorites, even without Worcestershire sauce which we can’t find here.

Online school meant freedom to travel (we made a trip to Seattle to see family and friends before the virus hit the US), go to the gym or take a Starbucks break for a Black Tea Latte.

Laptops were propped up on bedroom pillows instead school desks, eliminating the hour-long commute. I’m happy to say that showering and getting dressed remained part of the routine.

Returning to school after the pandemic requires almost as much paper work as enrolling in the first place. The Beijing Education Committee has a strict protocol in place for returning to campus, and inspects every aspect of the school, from air flow in the class rooms to social distancing markers.

 

Directional arrows on campus.

 

New hand washing stations

Students are required to keep a daily temperature log for 14 days prior to returning, and complete a survey listing the date and flight number of any trips made outside of China since January 23rd. We have to sign a “Letter of Commitment” verifying that we haven’t been to Wuhan recently or left Beijing in the last three weeks (there goes the impromptu trip to Shanghai Disney). Failure to comply would require proof of a negative virus test.

 

Lots of paper work to return to school.

 

Then there’s proof we have the “Health Kit App” which records our travel history and health status by tracking information on our cell phones (yes, Big Brother is watching) just in case we decided to sneak off for a quick meet-and-greet with Mickey Mouse or paid a visit to the fever clinic without reporting it.

 

This app tracks our travels, health status and ID. It’s required for entry into most public spaces.

I turned in the paperwork, prepared a supply of masks (mandatory for students and teachers), verified funds in the lunch account, checked the revised bus schedule, re-read the six pages of “back to school” instructions and laid down for a nap. I’ll have two weeks to recover before school is out for the summer.

“How was school today?” I asked my soon-to-be junior when he came home after Day 1.

“It was OK,” Daniel said. “But I don’t think I really want to go back tomorrow. We didn’t really do anything except work on our online assessments.”

Going back to school isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when you’re met by a guy in a hazmat suit, have your temperature taken three times and spend an hour commuting to do what you could do at home in your pajamas. Except you’re not in your pajamas.

To avoid crowding students stay in the same classroom all day and have to sign up for a designated lunch spot and choose free-time activities in advance.

“They’re really strict about enforcing the social distancing and making us keep our masks on,” my son told me. “Apparently the government can show up anytime to check and they can also ask to see the security tapes.”

With the high-surveillance atmosphere and the fact that over half of the students and teachers are still outside China, it’s easy to understand why some kids are less than enthusiastic about returning.

While the opportunities at school are still limited, we’re grateful that the campus re-opened. It’s a sign of hope, that at least for the time being, the virus is under control in Beijing.