If you read my post Strange but True you know that life in Beijing can be downright quirky at times.
Are dogs in other cities this well dressed and I just haven’t noticed?
I thought it might be fun to share a few more aspects of life in China that sometimes leave us wondering.
Why stand when you can squat?
I thought squatting was something I did at the gym to buff my thighs. It turns out that squatting can be used as a convenient position to rest, grab a smoke, slurp some noodles or do some work. It’s preferred to sitting on the curb or the ground, which of course is where those doggies in their cute little outfits do their business.
Masks aren’t just for the virus.
Every hotel room I’ve been in in China has some variation of this mask. At first I thought they were gas masks to be used in case China and North Korea decide not to be buddies anymore, but it turns out they are to be used in case of a hotel fire. Whew. I feel better. I think.
Chinese are a snap-happy bunch. From selfie sessions to pass the boredom on the bus to hour-long photo shoots in traditional dress, there’s no end to the opportunities to click and post. On a recent vacation I was so captivated by people posing for the camera I left without a single shot of my family. We might, however, end up in someone else’s holiday album.
Make it work
Everyone in China has a job to do. If not, the government will make one for you. I’ve seen people cleaning the guardrails on freeway overpasses, wiping down trash cans on street corners and sweeping water off the street with bamboo brooms after a heavy rain.
Local villagers make a little extra money by planting flowers to beautify the roadside. The government gives them seeds and a small stipend.
A large, flexible workforce is part of what has helped control the virus. Within hours, cities can mobilize testing crews, set up barricades and conduct contact tracing. In a recent outbreak in Qingdao, the government tested 10 million people in four days. Workers are simply temporarily shifted from other jobs to where they are needed.
What are you curious about when it comes to life in China? Feel free to post questions in the comments. I might just use one for a future post.
“Just keep putting out the cookies,” my pastor advised years ago after we volunteered to lead a Bible study in our home.
Now I know why this is so important. Cookies create community, offering comfort, encouragement and laughter. If you calculate the payback on a cost-per-cookie basis, I’d say they’re a pretty good investment.
Growing up in America, most of us have some fond memory from childhood of making chocolate chip cookies with mom or enjoying one as treat with a special friend.
There’s a reason realtors bake them for open houses. We’ve formed an emotional attachment to these sweet little rounds, and the smell reminds us of home. One whiff of Nestle Toll House and we’re transported back to a time when life was simple and we felt safe and loved. That’s a lot of power packed into one little sweet.
Living in Beijing during COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. Everything is foreign, uncertain and sometimes scary. Crossing the street during rush hour and trying to decipher between hand sanitizer and hair spray are both challenges that make me long for home, or at least a good strong cup of coffee and a warm, chocolate chip cookie.
The thing is, chocolate isn’t really popular in China. Every now and then I get my hopes up only to be fooled by a red bean paste- or black sesame seed-filled pastry masquerading as a brownie or pain au chocolat.
So I bake my own. But just like finding a clean public bathroom or ordering from a Chinese menu, making cookies presents challenges too. I shop at at least three different stores (sometimes four) to find all of the supplies. Brown sugar and chocolate chips are scarce here.
While I mix the dough and wait for my Easy Bake-sized oven to preheat, my thoughts are on my community. Some of the faces have changed, but we still hold a weekly Bible study in our home. My family, friends and the cookies are the glue that makes me stick with this place.
They’re not magic, but this combination of butter, flour, sugar, eggs and chocolate speaks where words fail.
A warm chocolate chip cookie says “I’m sorry you have five hours of math homework. I can’t understand any of it but I’m so proud of you.”
Five or six in a small cellophane bag with a gold ribbon says “I’m glad your surgery went well. I hope you recover quickly.”
It takes at least a dozen to say “I’m so happy we’re neighbors. I really needed a friend” or “two weeks of quarantine in a Chinese hotel sounds awful. Welcome home.”
Occasionally cookies say thank you to my son’s guitar teacher, and to our Chinese tutor (anyone who has enough patience to teach my husband how to deliver a toast at a Chinese wedding deserves a treat).
Cookies speak the language of teenagers when everything I say just comes out wrong. I usually keep extra dough in the freezer in case my sons have friends over; moms really aren’t cool anymore but cookies are chill.
Cookies say “I’m sorry the borders are closed and you’re stuck in China. I know you miss your friends.”
On Sundays, I bring out the yellow platter and fill it with few dozen and put it at the end of the kitchen counter next to the watermelon. We share a meal and remind each other that even here, God is with us.
So, for as long as we live in China, I’ll keep putting out the cookies. I made a fresh batch today and I was thinking about you. I miss you and wish you could join me.
CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Feel free to add your own special touch. One friend doubles the chocolate chips and uses all brown sugar; my mom adds vanilla pudding mix to keep the cookies moist. If you can’t find chocolate chips, substitute baking drops or break a chocolate bar into small chunks.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Two sticks of butter, softened (about 227 grams)
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups chocolate chips
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars together. Add eggs and vanilla, mix well. In a small bowl, mix flour, baking soda and salt. Add dry mix into large bowl, stirring to combine. Add chocolate chips and mix well.
Drop one spoonful of dough on a baking sheet at a time, leaving room between cookies. Bake at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes or until cookies are lightly brown around the edges and on top.
“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.
I’d spent weeks dreaming of sipping wine together on her balcony and snuggling with her two pet bunnies this summer.
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.
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.
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
Or exploring the spot where the Great Wall plunges into the sea,
I think I can see a faint glimmer of a silver lining.
I hope you find a silver lining in this difficult time. I’d love to hear about it.
While it’s true that I don’t hunt down wild animals with a bow and arrow or collect edible plants by the river, I feel like each day in China is an adventure in providing for my family. On most days, I spend several hours in search of food, common household supplies and clothing.
Stone Age hunter-gatherers had to catch or find everything they ate, moving around from place to place. Fortunately I’m not a nomad, but I do routinely shop at 5 to 6 different stores to find everything I need.
For a simple dinner of pulled-pork sandwiches, I might stop at one store for a pork roast, another for barbecue sauce and a third for buns. If the third store is out of buns, I move onto the fourth and fifth store.
Sometimes foraging results in soup or stir fry for dinner when I can’t find the ingredients for the meal I had planned. Ripe avocados are a rare find, and chocolate chips take some searching too. Taco seasoning, Triscuits, Goldfish crackers and ranch dressing? Those are things dreams are made of.
Breakfast is a challenge too. There are no toaster waffles or Wheaties. Donuts and bagels are scarce too. Some days I hit the bagel jackpot, finding 5 or 6 at a time, in which case I buy out the whole supply and freeze a few.
Recently someone in our expat chat group posted this photo:
My phone blew up. Everyone was chiming in with excitement about finding a store with Triscuits, Stove Top stuffing and Vlasic pickles. There was even a rumor that Jenny Wangs had Eggo Waffles. It’s about an hour taxi ride for me, but the Triscuits might just be worth it.
Did Wilma Flintstone have it this hard? How come she always looks so good with perfectly coiffed auburn hair and I look weathered and wind-blown after my foraging trips? Maybe Fred brought home the victuals; I don’t recall.
Like the hunter-gatherers of ages past I can only bring home what I can carry, since I don’t have a car. This means daily shopping is a given.
Sometimes I set off in search of clothing. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know finding jeans long enough for my tall, lanky boys is a challenge. Not as difficult as finding shoes though. Trying to find size 11 or 12 soccer cleats is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Looking for a lower priced option isn’t really a choice when we’re just lucky to find a pair in the right size. So we fork over a king’s ransom for shoes with a swoosh, and admonish our sons to stop growing.
Shopping for household goods can feel like foraging at times too.
Today I went to two different stores looking for light bulbs. It should be a simple task, you say. Well, I found exactly one bulb in the desired wattage.
Sometimes treasures show up in unexpected places when I’m not even searching, like finding a clean, Western toilet in a city populated with squat toilets.
Or persimmon and date trees offering a sweet snack during a hike along the Great Wall.
Sometimes the treasures I collect are a smile or friendly greeting offered by a stranger, not a common occurrence in this fast-paced metropolis. Beijingers tend to keep to themselves until a personal connection is made.
I collect the bagels, soccer shoes, light bulbs and smiles to fill my house and my heart so that I can provide love and security to my family and friends who visit. While I might be living in a city that is racing toward modernization at break-neck speed, my days are grounded in the same desires shared by hunter-gatherers from days gone by.
As you might imagine, there are many hoops to jump through to obtain official residency status in China. In Beijing, this means a mandatory check-up at a Chinese government health center.
While we were on our house hunting trip last month, we decided to get this checked off our list. Here’s what I heard from friends who had completed the process:
”They put these weird suction cups on your nipples for the EKG.”
”Well, let’s just say it’s over with quickly.”
”You must not eat or drink before, and it takes an hour and forty minutes in traffic. I’ve never felt so carsick in my life.”
Armed with this information, I strapped on my motion sickness-prevention wrist bands, stuffed an energy bar and water bottle in my purse and headed down to the lobby to meet our driver.
Thankfully the drive passed without incident and our relocation company had arranged a translator to meet us there. Mr. Jimmy took our passports and returned with our paperwork. The goal was to collect signatures from each doctor as we visited each of the required rooms.
In exchange for the signature, I handed the doctor a bar code sticker with my information. Vision screening, blood pressure, stomach ultra sound – I ticked off the tasks as quickly as possible, just like the Amazing Race. In this case, there would be no luxury vacations awarded to the top finisher, but the promise of a strong cup of coffee back at the hotel propelled me forward.
If the line was too long, Mr. Jimmy held my place while I went on to a different room. Security guards patrolled the hallway to keep order.
I stood in line at room 104 behind a group of beautiful Korean dancers- young ladies with matching yellow t-shirts, red sequined jackets and hair swept up in a bun. I heard flesh-smacking noises coming from inside, and one-by-one the petite teens came out almost in tears.
As I got closer I peered into the room to see a row of technicians whacking the young girls’ forearms to make their veins pop out. When my turn arrived, I proffered my forearm and averted my gaze from the needle, reading the sign requesting that I “kindly inform them if I have a history of fainting before blood draw.”
One more room to go. So close I can almost smell the coffee. How do those teams make it through the Amazing Race without coffee? I wait outside the x-ray room as a fellow American complains of a caffeine-deficit headache. I hand her two Tylenol, and glance at the sign warning that women of procreating age should not enter as the technician beckons me in for a chest x-ray.
Eight stops, a few pokes and 30 minutes later I feel a sense of accomplishment as I hand Mr. Jimmy my paperwork. Out of the three carloads of Americans that arrived at the same time as I did, I came in first!
I can’t say I’d want to do it again soon, but it wasn’t awful. In fact it was kind of fun once I started to think of it like a game. It’s just like anything else; the experience depends on your attitude.
And even though I didn’t win any prizes along the way, I collected experiences most people will never have. And the coffee back at the hotel tasted even better than ever.
What does home mean to you? A place to rest your head, nourish your body and relax with your family? In Chinese, the character for home or family comes from the pictograph that symbolizes a roof over a pig.
I’m not sure why it’s depicted this way, perhaps because if you had a pig in your house and a roof over your head, you had food and shelter and life was good.
My concept of home has changed over time, from the security of my childhood home surrounded by family and furry friends on our farm, to the excitement of my first home-away-from-home, my college dorm where I met people who helped shape me into who I am today.
Now that I have my own family, home is where we gather to pray before dinner, track my sons’ height on the garage wall (I stopped once theirs surpassed mine), light the candles on our Christmas tree and celebrate birthdays with homemade lemon bundt cake.
It’s the weird stains on the carpet from experiments gone wrong, shoes by the front door, crumbs on the placemats and half-full water glasses littering the counter (why do all of the other dishes make it into the dishwasher?)
A home lives and breathes the connections and love of the people who live in it. It’s more than food and shelter. It’s more than a roof over a pig. I think about these things as I get ready to head to Beijing next week to look for our new home.
Sure, I’ll ask about square footage, count the outlets in the kitchen and check the air purification system, but what I am really looking for is a place our family can thrive. We need an oven to fill our apartment with the smell of fresh baked cookies.
We need space to decompress with a good book, play music or just be alone for a bit. We need a table where we can gather, thanking God for this grand adventure and share a meal together. I would love a space large enough to host visitors from home (now taking reservations), welcome new friends and reconnect with team members who have gone before us.
I want our home to be safe, comfortable and conveniently located, but that’s just the house. It’s the laughter, tears, frustrations, joys and memories that we will experience together behind those walls that will turn into a home. I can’t wait to find it. But please, no pig.
What makes your house a home? How did you know when you found the right one?
Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to subscribe so you won’t miss the next post: House Hunting in Beijing
As we prepare to move to Beijing, I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about what to bring and what to get rid of.
I follow the advice of best-selling author and organizational guru Marie Kondo, sorting my possessions to find the ones that spark joy: gifts given by new-found friends waiting for us in China,
treasures and drawings made by my sons,
and of course my orchids, which I love.
But some of those things will have to stay behind. You see, I’m trying really hard to travel light. I want to live this experience, to take in all of the new sights, sounds (and yes, even the smells) of ex-pat China living. If I am too heavily laden with baggage, like my favorite coffee and preconceived notions of how things should be, I risk missing out on new experiences, like learning to drink tea. Expectations often lead to disappointment, and stereotypes act as barries to forming new relationships.
Instead, I want my suitcase to be filled with a sense of adventure, an open mind and lots of patience. I’ll also be bringing my strong faith and a sense of humor, packed right between the smog masks and a few good jars of face cream.
I’ll need to bring boldness to try new things, like getting on a bus even if I’m not sure where it’s going, or ordering a basket of dumplings with mystery filling.
Flexibility will help me accept changing rules, adapt to different ways of thinking and wedge myself onto the almost-full subway.
Curiosity will entice me to buy one of those little white jars and discover a new favorite yogurt drink, and nudge me out of my comfort zone to ask questions and interact with strangers.
I also want to leave room to bring some things back, like new friends, priceless memories and a tolerance for spicy foods.
Acquiring functional Mandarin skills and cute new shoes (in a size 5 1/2) would be a bonus too.
What would you bring if you were moving 8,000 miles away?
Learning has no boundaries.
Western Academy Beijing
Since many of you have asked, I wanted to tell you a little bit about what school will look like for our sons in Beijing. Starting in August they will be attending high school at Western Academy Beijing, a k-12 international school located just on the outskirts of the city.
We have had an opportunity to visit the campus, which is a colorful blend of traditional and modern Chinese architecture, featuring sculptures, green spaces and a tranquil pond in the center.
There are even bamboo trees and a koi pond in the lobby of the high school building.
They will be joined by 430 other high school students representing 39 nations and 26 languages. The IB World Curriculum will be taught in English with elements of traditional and contemporary Chinese culture woven in through guest speakers, language classes and week-long field trips to other regions in China.
The facilities rival that of a college campus, with first-rate science and technology labs, visual and performing arts centers (with three theaters), libraries, dining courts and cafes, sports amenities including soccer fields, swimming pool, climbing wall and three full-sized gyms. For heavy pollution days, activities take place inside a purified air dome.
To say this is an amazing opportunity is an understatement, and if my kids had a dollar for every time an adult has told them that recently, they’d have fat wallets. But it’s hard, hard, hard to leave friends behind, and I get that. I’m feeling it right there with them.
Have you had an opportunity to live abroad or travel for an extended period? What were the highs and and how did you manage the lows? We’d love to hear from you.