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.
If you want a glimpse of Chinese culture, head to a local park. Tucked away between high rise buildings and busy motorways, neighborhood parks are the lifeblood that runs through the heart of Beijing.
So much life takes place in these multi-functional spaces. Of course you will find people exercising, and built-in gym equipment is common.
Walking and running are also popular past times, and many parks have a circular loop for this purpose.
In addition to running, you will find locals practicing tai chi, yoga, jumping rope, hula hooping, lifting weights, and dancing.
Parks also serve as a place for social gatherings. People read or meditate. Men bring their pet birds in little cages and hang them in the trees. Some parks have ping pong tables and built in Mah Jong tables.
You can bring your own snack, or buy one.
Parks are a place where traditional culture is preserved, including architecture, physical activity and more.
There are a few rules to follow though, which takes some getting used to. No sunbathing, bike riding, playing ball, picking flowers or talking on your cell phone during a thunderstorm.
And most importantly, stay off the grass. There are so many lovely green spaces in Beijing, but grass is off limits.
Carnival rides and water parks coexist with centuries-old traditions at many parks, and this blending of ancient and modern is such a reflection of Beijing as a city.
There’s nothing like a walk in the park.
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.
Living in a foreign country is like eating an orange. There is something sweet and juicy and delicious inside, just waiting to be discovered. But first the bitter, tough peel must be removed: learning a new language, navigating unfamiliar terrain and patiently waiting for strangers to become friends.
Sometimes as the outer layer is peeled away, juice squirts into your eyes and makes them sting. Loneliness, unmet expectations and strange food can have the same effect. But if the scent of the orange is sweet enough, it will tickle your nose and entice you to keep going even if the process is messy.
I know this all too well as we contemplate our upcoming move to Beijing. What will living in China be like? I don’t really want to know, because that would take the pleasure out of the discovery, kind of like eating an orange without having to peel it first. But I do want to know in a general sense. Will we be safe? Can we stay healthy? How will my fair-headed teenagers adapt to chopsticks, crowds and Chinese friends?
In the light of day, the potential for adventure becomes intoxicating . I convince myself that I can learn Mandarin and master the strokes of the elegant written characters. In my mind I create a new life, where the difficult tonal language flows effortlessly from my lips and my sons handle chopsticks as easily as the buttons on their smart phones.
My mental guidebook includes weekends in X’ian with the terra cotta warriors, holidays spent with my toes in the South China Sea and winters spent shushing down the slopes of Badaling. In the terraced plantations near Hangzhou I pick tea with women whose nimble fingers have done this work for generations.
Imaginary friends fill my days, like the noodle master whose solitary skill I admire every day on the way to the market. I wear a path of familiarity into his consciousness until he invites me in. Students in my English class listen eagerly and share pearls of Chinese wisdom that enrich my days.
In some of these daydreams I am invisible, enabling me to walk through shopping streets and hutongs without the crush and odor of half a million bodies pressing against me. Being unseen means no one touches my blond hair, stares at me or takes pictures of my children. I glide along like a spirit, connecting with reality when it is convenient and disappearing when I am afraid or uncomfortable.
It sounds so easy and appealing during the day when images on my iPad of the Forbidden City, the snow-covered Great Wall and the tranquil Li River weave themselves into a colorful, beckoning welcome mat. But when the sun goes down, insecurity slithers into my stomach like a snake and fear becomes my new friend. A blanket of doubt as heavy as the acrid air over Beijing covers me as I lie in bed unable to sleep.
I worry that I will be too hot or too cold, lonely, yet smothered by a billion strangers who spit and smoke too much. I can’t speak, read or understand a single syllable. How will I bake a birthday cake without an oven? Do we have to eat fermented tofu and chicken feet? Will wearing a face mask become as ordinary as putting on socks? What if the pollution causes my younger son’s asthma to flare up? How will my older son navigate his potentially life-threatening food allergies?
The fear and excitement volley back and forth like a ping pong ball in my head. Risk serves first. “It’s going to be the most amazing, mind expanding experience of your life.” Caution lobs back. “What are you thinking? How can you do this to your kids? You’ll be lonely and miserable.
I study subway maps, phrase books and air quality statistics trying to make sense of it all. I pray and wait as our moving date draws near, contemplating the orange sitting on my kitchen counter. There’s a tantalizing hint of citrus in the air and the orange looks tempting. Some oranges are bitter; some are sweet. I won’t know how this one tastes until I begin the messy, sometimes painful job of peeling it.