Adventures of Life in Beijing

Many things about living in China have left me speechless. Some things are so surprising that I’m at a temporary loss for words; other times I would love to speak, but just can’t.

There is a huge cultural gap between what is considered socially acceptable in China and what’s kosher in the U.S.

A grown man urinating inches away from a police car on a busy street corner? No one turns a head. Digging a hole in the sand at a local water park for an al fresco toilet? I guess when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.

Not everything leaves me stunned into silence. Some things are just startling, like scooters driving the wrong way down the street straight into my path. Some are surprising, like seeing people catch a few winks on the beds at IKEA (I mean curled up and out cold), or realizing that not all Chile peppers are spicy hot.

Spicy or not? It’s a bit like Russian roulette.

 

It’s not just shocking social behavior that leaves me tongue-tied. Sometimes it’s the unexpected kindness of strangers that leaves me at a loss for words, like the fellow on my right who reached out his chopsticks to offer me a taste of his lunch. How could I say no?

 

Sharing a meal with strangers

 

Then there was the lady in my apartment building who gave me her old toaster because I needed one.

And this sandwich grill might not look like anything special to you, but it left me speechless.

 

The perfect grill for feeding hungry teenagers.

 

Before we moved into our new apartment, a friend and I scoured the city looking for one of these, getting lost and more frustrated with each shoulder shrug and “mei you” we received (Chinese for don’t have).

When I was unpacking my kitchen supplies, guess what I found tucked far into the back of a cupboard? Thanks for the housewarming gift God!

Often it’s the beauty of my surroundings that takes my breath away, like the majesty of Longqing Gorge on the outskirts of Beijing.

 

Longqing Gorge. Beauty beyond words.

 

Or the sunset in Hong Kong.

 

Or this adorable baby panda in Chengdu.

 

Are there enough words to describe this bundle of  cuteness?

 

Such beauty, whether in nature or manmade is hard to put  into words.

 

Old fashioned handmade parasols

 

Other times I’m at a loss for words because  with my limited Chinese I just can’t get the point across, or it’s not worth the effort to try and communicate.

Here’s an example.  The other day the boys and I took a break from shopping to have lunch. In the U.S.  I would have said:

”Excuse me waiter,  I dropped a french fry in my water glass and now there are parsley flakes floating in it. Can you please bring me a fresh glass of water?”

I didn’t even try to explain. What’s a few floating green things in my drink? At least the water was cold (it’s usually served hot in China).

There’s no polite small talk when I go to the grocery store, or chatter on the subway about the weather. Chinese people just assume a “waiguoren” or foreigner can’t speak Chinese.

Expressing preferences like “I want vanilla ice cream, not Durian,” leaves me at a loss for words. My limited vocabulary means sometimes dishes we order in a restaurant are a mystery. The picture looks good so we point to order. “That was delicious, I wonder what it was?”

It’s a good thing I always liked charades as I kid, because I play that game often here. Try explaining to the dryer repairman that the dryer gets hot and the clothes spin around but they’re still wet and smell bad.

Or telling the sales lady that your son’s jeans fit in the waist but he needs one size longer, but first convert from metric to inches to find the right size then say the numbers in Chinese while there is a line of customers waiting. I’m pretty much done talking after that.

Buying jeans is a challenge

 

My Chinese is improving but having the verbal skills of a two-year old leaves me feeling powerless. It’s like everyone else is part of the action and I’m just watching it unfold as an outsider, a “waiguoren,” a fact strangers remind me of by calling it out regularly as I pass by.

Life in China is exciting, tumultuous, beautiful and frustrating . Some days I am in awe of my surroundings and feel so grateful for all that I’m experiencing; other days I weep in dispair. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not left speechless one way or another by living in this exotic place I now call home.

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (9):

  1. Paula Kasnitz

    August 9, 2019 at 2:41 pm

    Kirsten, I look forward to reading your adventures. This certainly an amazing opportunity for you and your family and you are making the most of it. The pix are terrific as well. Enjoy and appreciate
    every day in spite of the challenges. Love, Paula and Paul

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 9, 2019 at 10:56 pm

      Thanks Paula! You and Paul should come to Beijing! I know the perfect hotel just down the street and it comes with a local tour guide:)

      Reply
  2. Amy

    August 9, 2019 at 4:51 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  3. Cynthia Vanderlip

    August 10, 2019 at 9:46 am

    Oh Kirsten , I was cracking up reading you’re blog , Thankyou . I can relate to some of it .

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 10, 2019 at 12:46 pm

      Crazy journey we are on, huh? So glad you are part of it.

      Reply
  4. Kristy

    August 10, 2019 at 11:52 am

    Wow! This blog left me speechless. What an experience. You opened my eyes to things I would have never thought of like shopping for jeans and wondering what you just ordered. Things we just take for granted. God is really stretching you and
    blessing you all at the same time. Thank you for sharing your adventures. I am learning so much. Also, helps me to know how to pray for you. 😊

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 10, 2019 at 12:45 pm

      Thank you Kristy. Yes we are being stretched for sure. Some hard times for sure but praise God for keeping the discouragement from taking hold.

      Reply
  5. Michele

    August 10, 2019 at 12:26 pm

    I’m stuck on the urinating and sandbox situation……Are there not public bathrooms? Speechless!
    Miss you!!!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      August 10, 2019 at 12:43 pm

      Yep. There sure are. Aren’t you excited to come visit?😂

      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.