Adventures of Life 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.

 

Tengger Dessert, Inner Mongolia. Courtesy of Beijing Hikers

 

I’d spent weeks dreaming of sipping wine together on her balcony and snuggling with her two pet bunnies this summer.

 

Maybe next summer, George and Bella

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.

 

Exploring the Forbidden City

 

 

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.

 

With shipping from the U.S. these babies cost about $4 each but they’re so worth it. We ration them in ziplock bags marked with everyone’s name.

 

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

 

Inner Mongolia, courtesy of Beijing Hikers

 

Or exploring the spot where the Great Wall plunges into the sea,

 

 

I think I can see a faint glimmer of a silver lining.

 

Every cloud has a silver lining. Sometimes we just have to look really hard to see it.

 

I hope you find a silver lining in this difficult time. I’d love to hear about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (9):

  1. Shari Johnson

    May 22, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    love seeing your heart and travels through your post…

    Reply
  2. Michele Greenwood

    May 22, 2020 at 2:44 pm

    Love, love, love this. And you.

    Reply
  3. Maria

    May 22, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    My silver lining hopes are for local camping this summer- under the stars in nature with my family…

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 23, 2020 at 6:09 am

      Sounds like that should be possible !

      Reply
  4. Erin Rauch

    May 25, 2020 at 1:53 am

    This is such a beautiful post! Love your silver linings and thankful we are blessed to see them as so many do not. Miss you, friend!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 25, 2020 at 3:59 am

      Thank you,hope you guys are well.

      Reply
  5. Fran

    May 28, 2020 at 11:05 pm

    K-
    The ONLY time I camped under the stars was with you in Joshua Tree. I would do it again in a heat beat – as long as you and yours were tagging along. 🙂
    I have it in my mind to drive across the country to see my parents and to let Daddy know how things have been for you in China. He still asks about you and hope you are able to embrace the “difficulties” of living abroad, while enjoying the small things. I tell him you do. Some pork buns come to mind. Be well my dear – you are loved. FM

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 29, 2020 at 3:43 am

      So happy you can visit with your dad – say hi for me! Take care-
      K-

      Reply

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Strange but True

We’re not in Kansas anymore. Just about everyday I see something in Beijing that surprises or shocks me. Some things make me laugh; others just make me shake my head in disbelief. Here’s just a sample of a few of the strange things I’ve noticed around town.

 

Dogs Wear Shoes.

 

And cute little t-shirts.

Sometimes they get really decked out.

And if there’s a special event coming up, they can even take their owners to a  shop that sells haute couture for pooches.

 

Don’t forget the jewelry. Yes, these outfits are for the dogs. I didn’t check the price.


Hot is Cool.

From drinking hot water to layering on sweaters in mid-summer, Beijingers like things steamy.

 

At first I thought I was just suffering through hot flashes, but my expat friends are constantly fanning themselves as well. Maybe my internal thermometer speaks a different language, because I can feel perfectly comfortable in short sleeves and get tskd by a jacket-wearing local for being under dressed. I’ve had people in the elevator comment on my capris when it dipped below 60 degrees.

Last winter we didn’t have to turn on our heat because our neighbors kept their places toasty enough to permeate ours. There’s even a Chinese word –  pa leng – that means “fear of the cold.”


Gloves aren’t just for winter.

If you can’t pick it up with chopsticks, you’d better put on your gloves.

 

Bring on the tacos!

Pizza, wings and other hand-held food come with disposable plastic gloves so you don’t have to gasp touch the food with your naked hands. With the shortage of soap (and sometimes water) in public restrooms, it’s probably not such a bad idea.


Skin care is a big deal.

From whitening creams to foot masks, there’s a poultice or potion to firm, lighten or moisture just about any body part. Porcelain white, smooth skin is the goal here, and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

 

One of dozens of skin whitening products on display at the drug store.

Beijingers hide from the sun under parasols, arm sleeves or whatever item they might be carrying (I’ve seen laptops, jackets and squares of cardboard) as they hurry down the street to reach the shade.

You can even whiten your skin at the beach!

Traditionally, dark skin was a sign of an outdoor laborer’s heavy toil and lifestyle of poverty; thus fair skin reflected wealth and status.

There’s so much more I could tell you so stay tuned for another “strange but true” post in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Jellyfish Lake


DAY TWO 

If you missed my last post on the obstacles we faced yesterday on the way to scuba lessons, you can catch up here: Jellyfish Lake

Hoping to avoid being detained by police again, I printed out a copy of the paperwork we filled out yesterday. On the train to Zhuozhou, I silently rehearse my lines in Chinese. “We came here yesterday and registered. We’re back again today.”

“Maybe we’ll get the same guy as yesterday and he’ll let us through,” Daniel says as we get off the train.

Walking toward the exit, we are confronted with three security guards and four guys wearing neon Traffic Control vests. We’re outnumbered and get immediately pulled over to the side.

“Who are you meeting? What’s her name What’s her phone number?  Where are you going?” Officer #232 asks. This takes about 45 minutes. So much for a faster exit today.

“Can we go now? What else do you need?

“Please wait, another officer will come soon.”

“How much longer?”

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty minutes? It’s been almost an hour!”

“He’s eating his breakfast first and then he’ll come.”

Unbelievable.

Officer #232 paces in circles and wipes his brow. He really wants to be done with us but doesn’t want the responsibility of letting us go. He looks so uncomfortable we almost feel sorry for him.

“Can we go? Our friends are waiting,” we try again.

Officer #232 hands me the papers and points to the locked exit door.

“Show it to him,” he says.

We knock to get the guard’s attention, pressing our faces to the glass like puppies at the pet store pleading for freedom.

“Mom don’t stop – keep going!” Daniel urges when the door opens.

“Aren’t we supposed to show him our papers?” I ask the boys.

“I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to come after us and tackle us. Just go,” Timothy says.

Our instructors Chris and Lexie meet us in the parking lot. The good news is Chris isn’t hungover today.

“Maybe next time you should try driving. There’s so much traffic they don’t stop everyone,” Lexie says. “It should be much faster.”

She tells us that the police grilled her on the phone while we were waiting in the station. Her relationship with three foreigners was causing suspicion from the authorities.

We agree to arrange a car for tomorrow, hoping to avoid another  encounter with the police.

The boys master their scuba skills successfully, and Chris and Lexie drive us to the train station. We’re hungry, but the pork bun shop is closed. We pass a vendor selling chicken feet from a roadside cart and produce vendors displaying their goods on the ground. It’s grittier than Beijing.

“Do you eat lu rou huo shao?” Lexie asks. Donkey Meat? We love it.

“It’s amazing we’ve never gotten food poisoning here,” Timothy says, digging into a hot flaky roll stuffed with donkey meat. The car smells like peppers and cumin.

There’s a local idiom here that “in Heaven there is dragon meat, on earth there is donkey meat.” Finally, something likable about Zhuozhou.

 

Grilled donkey meat and peppers stuffed in a bun, sometimes called a Chinese burger.

 

We pass security quickly after pointing to the clock and speaking urgently about our train departing soon.

At dinner time, Mike asks about our day.

“There was really nothing fun about swimming in a trash filled lake. I just want to get certified,” Timothy says in a voice that conveys truth, not complaint.

Being grilled by the police over the last two days takes an emotional toll. No one wants to go back, but we need to finish before school starts. We take a week off and then schedule the last two classes.

DAY THREE

We’ve arranged for our driver Chen to take us, hoping driving across the provincial border will be easier than travelling by train. Success! We didn’t get stopped at all.

That was such a good decision, I thought, as we wrapped up the scuba lesson and hit the road by 2:30. So far, the trip was uneventful. No police checks, paparazzi or dead fish floating in the lake.

Then we hit the first police check point. We get pulled over, Chen hands over our passports and gets out of the car to talk with the guards. A few minutes later an officer gets into our car (without Chen) and starts driving. We’re on a road trip with no passports and a Chinese cop behind the wheel. Before my heart rate hits dangerously high, the officer pulls into a parking lot behind the police station.

After about 20 minutes of questioning, we’re on our way. We pass checkpoint number two, leaving Zhuozhou without incident. We cross the bridge to checkpoint three, which is the border into Beijing.

We roll up to the guard and as soon as he sees us in the car he motions for us to park and get out. We hand over the passports and the questions start again.

“Where are you from? When did you arrive in China? Where’s your virus test? Where’s your proof of quarantine? Who is your community leader?” The officer asks in Chinese, thumbing through our passports.

Chen patiently answers for us as we stand on the side of the road. The officer isn’t satisfied and disappears inside the building with our passports. We wait as a steady stream of traffic rolls by. From tattooed truckers to old ladies hauling peanuts to market, their eyes rest heavily on us. If we were still in Florida I’d wish for a sinkhole to swallow us up.

Chen brings us some water from the car. If I’m going to be an object of shame at a Chinese border crossing, I can’t think of anyone better to have at my side. With a fuzzy brush cut and a face like a teddy bear, Chen is kind and gentle, providing the comfort we need.

“How much longer?” Timothy asks.

“I think I heard someone say 20 minutes, or maybe he said he’s been working here 20 years, or that we’ll be waiting 20 years, I’m not sure,” I answer.

It’s been almost an hour when we see a police car pull up, lights flashing.

“Maybe they’re just starting their shift,” Daniel says. “Or they’re coming to take us away.”

I take a mental inventory of the snacks and toilet paper in my purse as three soldiers walk up behind the police car and toward us.

“Maybe they requested back up,” Daniel say. We laugh a little, but there’s tension, realizing the situation is completely out of our control.  The police car and soldiers continue past and we relax a little bit.

“What can they possibly be doing inside?” I wonder out loud.

“Maybe he’s waiting for his boss to finish his plate of dumplings before he approves our paperwork,” Timothy says.

After about an hour and a half an officer comes out and unceremoniously hands back our passports.

What we had hoped would be an easier trip than going by train had turned into a 4-hour car journey that tested the depths of our patience and strength of my bladder.

DAY FOUR

I get up early and bake blueberry muffins. If we spend hours at the border or get thrown in jail at least we won’t be hungry.

We set off with Chen and arrive quickly in Zhuozhou. The only obstacle in our path this time was a herd of sheep.

 

Traffic jam on the way to scuba class.

 

We arrive a little early, hoping we can finish and head home before Friday traffic gets too bad.

“Maybe we can hide in the back of the van,” Daniel says. “Except they probably have infrared sensors and they’d find us.”

The boys grab their wet suits from the equipment room head down to the lake.

It rained last night, raising the water level and gathering more debris into the lake.

“Well. There’s a couch to sit on with your feet in the water, kind of like New Symrna,” Mike says, when I text him a picture.

 

The only thing missing is a fruity drink with a little umbrella.

 

I find a patch of shade and watch the boys disappear into the lake, leaving a trail of air bubbles. Local kids  play in the water, eating watermelon and tossing the rinds. A toddler comes with his dad, looking to catch some fish in his small net.

The boys finish their skills and make their way to the beach, greeted by a golden retriever who’s gone for a dip to escape the summer heat.

“Congratulations to our open water divers,” Lexie says, snapping photos of the boys she will use to make their official PADI certificates.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “I will beautify the pictures first – make your eyes bigger, make your skin whiter.”

I think of the rows of skin whitening products for sale in the grocery store. Maybe everything here would be easier if our skin were just a little bit whiter and we didn’t look so foreign. I look at my handsome blond boys with a hint of color on their skin from a day at the lake and think they look perfect.