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.
Four weeks in and we are learning the ropes of living in Beijing. Just like wobbly-legged sailors who must learn how to tie knots and hoist the sails effectively to maneuver across the ocean, we’ve had to learn how to navigate changing winds and sometimes choppy water in this vast sea of Chinese culture. If we don’t learn, we’d be stuck in port or shipwrecked, neither of which sounds good to me.
So we are learning to decipher the language, which means we can order our favorite steamed buns for breakfast.
We can figure out which app to use and select the right buttons to order a pizza or movie tickets or purchase tickets for an upcoming visit to the panda research center in Chengdu (pictures of panda cuteness coming soon).
Learning a few simple words means we can ask for a taste of grapes at the market before we buy them.
And decipher the price of the melons
Or ask how much it costs to take the boat out on the lake.
And if something is really tasty, we can ask for a second order.
We’re getting pretty handy with taking the subway, the bus and calling a Didi (Chinese equivalent of Uber). We don’t have a car here, so figuring out public transportation is vital.
We also do a lot of walking, and I can proudly say I can now cross the street without sprinting or holding my breath in fear, but I will confess to occasionally grabbing the arm of my fellow pedestrian as I cross exceptionally busy intersections. Bikes, scooters and cars in the turn lane don’t yield for pedestrians, which takes some getting used to.
We’ve learned a lot about being flexible and improvising. We didn’t bring many things from home, so we make do with what we have. I really wanted to buy some fresh flowers, so I recycled my favorite yogurt containers into vases. They are about a buck a piece. Aren’t they cute?
It’s not all smooth sailing. Some things take a little getting used to, like eating with chopsticks. Getting my sea legs here means not being afraid to use a little force to keep my place in line, or call out loudly to the waiter when I’m ready to order. I don’t expect anyone to hold the door for me (except my family), and I no longer flinch when I hear a lung-clearing sound which warns me inevitable spitting will follow. And blowing your nose free-streaming into the air as some are in the habit of? Well, I guess it saves on Kleenex.
There are are cultural differences for sure, but when I need help and am bold enough to ask for it, people are quick to respond, like the sweet old lady who walked two blocks out of her way to show me where to buy produce when I was looking for a neighborhood market.
One new acquaintance patiently taught me how to buy tickets for an upcoming trip on a Chinese app, and a friend who arrived before me not only told me where I could buy chocolate chips when I was craving a taste of home, but bought the last package and delivered it to my door.
Thanks to strangers, aquaintences and friends, we are learning the ropes of living in Beijing. Now we can return the favor by helping other newcomers find their bearings in this easily overwhelming city.
Trying to fit in takes a toll. My husband’s electric toothbrush, whose prongs became bent when he tried to plug the charger into an adapter that was just a little too snug, is useless now.
Our espresso machine, carefully packed in its original box and sent by air with our high priority items, quit brewing after just a few shots. We think it was shocked to death after accidentally being connected to a high-voltage Chinese outlet rather than the transformer we brought from home.
I can sympathize. Sometimes I feel bent, squeezed and frazzled by being plugged into a foreign culture and being expected to perform my normal tasks, just like the espresso machine. Sometimes the frustration of simple everyday tasks brings me to tears.
But giving up is not an option, so the boys and I set out to buy a new electric toothbrush and a replacement espresso machine. Now we have two of each, a non-working US model and a functioning Chinese version.
The outing was going pretty smoothly until we stopped for a snack. (If you have teenagers you know it’s always time to stop for a snack). I wanted them to try one of my favorites, deep-fried lotus root stuffed with meat. Imagine just the right amount of seasoned pork sandwiched between two wagon wheel-shaped slices of lotus root, similar in texture to potatoes with a slightly nutty taste. Then fry the whole thing to a golden brown. It’s kind of like eating a hamburger and fries all in one bite.
Since I have teenagers, and “snack” really means “meal,” we ordered a bowl of stir-fried pork over rice too.
So ordering food in a different language in a crowded food court at lunch time is stressful. Mostly I point to the pictures and say how many I want, using my fingers to help clarify. Except in Chinese even counting on your fingers is different.
I’m reduced to a toddler. I feel like everyone is staring at me and wondering why I can’t just use my words. It goes like this:
Me: I want two of these (lotus root) and one of those (pork dish).
Server: Has two per order (pointing out that crispy lotus root always comes in a pair.) You want one, she corrects.
Me: I want two orders – four total, I repeat. They are like Oreos, three of us cannot possibly share two, especially when teenagers are involved. We each get one and fight over the fourth.
Server: ok, ok, ok, she says. She’s in a hurry to scan my phone for payment and move on to the next customer who clearly knows how to order properly.
I step aside and wait for my order while the line grows. A second server hands me my tray. One bowl of pork and two fried lotus roots. A pair.
I take the tray over to the boys, my exasperation growing. I hand over the pork and let them have the hot, crispy lotus root because that’s what moms do.
I look at the line and almost give up. But they’re really really good. I take a deep breath and get back in line, practicing Chinese phrases in my head while I wait.
Me: please give me another order, I say pointing to the line item for lotus root on my receipt.
Server: please sit, your food is coming.
Me: no, I want another one of these.
Server: Sit, sit. Your food is coming. She’s practically shooing me away from the counter.
My despair is mounting when Server number two steps in and translates my feeble Chinese to Server one.
Server: Oh, you want another one? She repeats exactly what I just said. I almost weep with relief as she punches in my order with a big smile and scans my phone. Success!
One order of lotus root is 5 Kuai (about 75 cents). My phone pings and I see a receipt for 28 Kuai pop up just as server number two hands me my tray -with another bowl of pork and an order of fried lotus root.
My language failed me again. I sit down with the boys and pick up a hot stuffed lotus root, holding back tears. I contemplate asking for a take-out container so we can bring the pork home, but it’s just too much.
Just like the toothbrush and espresso machine that I brought from home, my language doesn’t work here. I need the Chinese version. My tutor starts next week. One of the first things I want to conquer is ordering from the menu, especially things that come in pairs.
In the meantime, I think I’ll fire up our new Chinese espresso machine and brew up the perfect shot in my favorite cup I brought from home.