Adventures of Life in Beijing

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

 

 

 

 

Comments (12):

  1. Paula Kasnitz

    June 14, 2020 at 12:31 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed the adventure and the photography.

    Reply
  2. Paula Kasnitz

    June 14, 2020 at 12:33 pm

    A wonderful addiction. Photography. Gets better and better.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      June 14, 2020 at 10:02 pm

      Thank you 🙂

      Reply
  3. Mom

    June 14, 2020 at 2:18 pm

    That is the market you and I went to in October?
    Chen took us there?
    Lovely orchids .

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      June 14, 2020 at 10:01 pm

      Yes, it is. Remember her? Or maybe we just upstairs, can’t remember.

      Reply
      • mom

        September 13, 2020 at 3:11 am

        no she was there

        Reply
  4. Jackie

    June 14, 2020 at 4:24 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this, needed this bright light.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      June 14, 2020 at 10:01 pm

      Aren’t orchids cheerful? They just make me feel happy.

      Reply
  5. Farncesca

    June 15, 2020 at 7:24 pm

    Such a lovely story. I have two very small ones, that are thriving with minimal care. I do remember to take a cotton swab and pollinate them manually when they bloom. Enjoy your new “friends” Love you – FM

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      June 18, 2020 at 4:14 am

      Thank you !

      Reply
  6. Kristin Daniel

    June 17, 2020 at 4:08 pm

    I have an orchid in my bathroom! It makes me smile every time I see it!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      June 18, 2020 at 4:14 am

      They are so cheerful aren’t they ?

      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.