Last Sunday, three friends and I hopped on a high speed train from Beijing to Tai’an City in Shandong Province. We came to climb Taishan, China’s most sacred peak. For more than 3,000 years, religious pilgrims, philosophers, and emperors have come to trek up 7,000 stone stairs to offer sacrifices to the gods and obtain spiritual favor.
We came seeking adventure and an escape from big city Beijing. Personally, I dedicated my efforts to raising money for New Day Foster Home, hoping to make a positive impact on the lives of some very special orphans. You can read more about my fundraiser on my previous blog post Climbing for Kids
Our Chinese guide met us as we exited the train. With a buzz cut, glasses and a button down oxford shirt, Asher looked more like he was dressed for the office than for hiking. His miniature backpack was barely large enough to hold a toothbrush. Does he remember we are planning to spend the night at the top in sub-freezing temperatures?
At 32, he told us he’s been guiding for 10 years and has been up to the summit more times than he can remember. We forgot to ask him whether he actually hiked up, or took the cable car.
After dinner of Spicy Rice Noodle Soup with Lamb, it was back to the hotel for an early bed time. Explorers need their beauty sleep.
The breakfast buffet was heavy on beer, baijiu and baozi. I decided to stick with the Pop Tart and instant Starbucks I brought along.
We drove 15 minutes to the foot of the mountain. “Everybody, follow me, follow me,” Asher said waving his hiking pole as he led us through the parking lot toward the Red Gate where we will start the day. It’s about 10 kilometers to the top with 1,400 meters of elevation gain.
The pavement path leads us past bamboo forests, temples, stone tablets, and ancient cypress trees.
“Can you see the signs on the trees?” Asher asked. “Some of them are between 500 to 1,000 years old.” In places, the trees curve and bend over the path, forming a tunnel. It’s a cool, fragrant forest, a welcome respite from the recent heavy pollution and sandstorms in Beijing.
And because it’s China, there’s no shortage of souvenir shops and snack vendors on the lower mountain. I’ve never thought of bringing a whole cucumber or radish on a hike, but they’re popular here.
Asher pointed out historical markers along the way, but I confess I was more interested in listening to the birds sing and the river rush by. I’ve never been very good at keeping the Qing and Ming dynasties straight.
But even with my embarrassing lack of knowledge of Chinese history, knowing that I was walking in the steps of Confucius was heady. Did he hike in straw shoes and a flowing robe? I was thankful for my Gortex-lined boots and practical hiking pants.
“Whether a man thinks he can or cannot, he is right.”
I pondered this as the path became steeper. The breathing around me got louder, punctuated by the occasional “jia you!” as the Chinese shouted encouragement to each other. It translates as “add oil (to the fire)” but it means something like “you can do it!”
“Woo-woo-woo-woo,” Asher started belting out the occasional primal shout that shattered my quiet thoughts.
“Why is he doing that? What is that noise?” I asked my hiking buddy Andrew, not wanting to offend Asher in case he’s engaged in some sort of religious ritual.
“It’s bloody irritating, is what it is,” replied Andrew. “It sounds like a mutant monkey in mating season.”
Maybe Asher thinks we’re getting tired, and he’s trying to revive the esprit de corps, or he’s sounding an alarm to the souvenir shops around the bend to tell them the gullible foreigners are coming. I added it to my “It’s China, don’t try to understand” list.
After about two hours we arrived at the Middle Gate, where hikers normally rest before starting the steeper second half to the top. There’s a small restaurant and vendors selling instant noodles, roasted sweet potatoes and cold beer.
“Here, have some drinks,” Asher offered as he pulled out some pouches of milk that have likely been sitting in his backpack next to his toothbrush since yesterday. I’m sure he didn’t want to carry them any further, and I felt bad rejecting his hospitality but I just couldn’t stomach warm milk. I drank some water and ate some crackers I brought, along with a piece of cheese, which actually had been sitting in my backpack since yesterday.
We set off again, and got the first glimpse of what lay ahead.
We arrived at the section called the 18 bends, where the slope of the stairs is close to a 70 degree angle. I’m thankful for the railing. The steps are small and steeply pitched, almost like a ladder.
Near the top, the steps are uneven and some are loose, making it difficult to find sturdy footing. I kept going, knowing something beautiful was waiting at the summit. I hope the same will be true for the orphans on their difficult journey through life.
I was thankful for all of the subway stairs I did in preparation, but still my legs started to shake.
I started counting steps to keep myself going, and pictured the orphans with their leg braces, walkers and wheel chairs. Ten steps for Freddy, ten steps for James, ten steps for Titus…..this became my meditation that carried me to the top.
Asher propelled himself up the mountain with his battle cry vocalizations; one elderly woman held a small red recording device that played the ancient Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum.”
Seven hours after we started, we reached the South Heavenly Gate, where Taoist followers feel a sense of Nirvana, believing they would become immortal. We just felt tired and hungry, and celebrated with chocolate chip cookies and Snickers.
The true summit lies at 1,545 meters, which meant we still had a bit more climbing to do to reach Jade Emperor Peak.
We decided to drop our backpacks at the hotel and rest for a few minutes before continuing. We had been told that the accommodations on the top of the mountain would be very basic, so we were pleasantly surprised at how nice our hotel was. I wonder where Confucius slept on his journey.
It was late afternoon by then, so we headed to top, stopping at the Bixia temple (built 1009 AD) on the way. Every year thousands of Chinese couples make the trip to the top of the mountain to pray for the blessings of a child from the Goddess Bixia Yuanjun. I love my boys, but I kept a respectful distance from Yuanjun’s statue lest any utterances on my part might get lost in translation on the way to fertility goddess.
We take a few obligatory photos at the summit marker, and head back down the hill.
We have a few minutes rest at the hotel before a short walk to see the sunset.
After dinner at the hotel it was time for bed. We’d scaled 1,441 meters of vertical by climbing over 380 flights of stairs. It was time for a rest.
We got up at 4:30 (that’s a.m.) to hike to the best spot to view the sunrise.
It was below freezing with a brisk wind, and I was thankful for my down jacket. For those who came unprepared, long military-style coats were available to rent.
We had a quick breakfast at the hotel (which was not served with alcohol this time) and started down the mountain.
Instead of retracing our steps, we took an alternate route down through a pine forest, with more steps of course. There are very few dirt hiking paths in China; most trails are cement stairs or paved paths. It takes a bit of “nature” out of the experience, but the Chinese believe that a more stable path is safer.
As one of the world’s most climbed mountains in a country with over a billion people, having the forest to ourselves was a delightful surprise. Our plan of coming during a weekday in low season was paying off.
I’m savoring the views and tranquility of the pine forest when Asher starts again with the strange noises. Is he yodeling? Listening for an echo?
“Why are you making that noise?”
“I’m calling the monkeys,” he said.
Asher had been slowing down and limping visibly. Maybe he was calling out in pain.
“You guys, let’s wait up. I’m getting a little concerned about Asher. He’s falling further and further behind,” my friend Mil said.
“What happens when your guide can’t continue?” I ask.
“You call the tour company and tell them you want a new guide, because the old one is broken,” Andrew responded practically.
We can’t just leave him behind. Maybe we could run back up the hill and get the sedan chair I saw at the summit and carry him down.
“I think I underestimated you,” Asher said to me at one of our rest breaks, which had become more frequent as he rested his knee.
“I think you underestimated all of us,” I said. Did he think we were a bunch of middle-aged out of shape tourists? We hike together regularly in Beijing, and the rough unrestored section of the Great Wall had been excellent training ground.
“I think it will only take 2-3 hours to get down, not 4,” he said.
We make our way down through the forest dotted with the occasional spray of wildflowers, punctuated with Asher’s caterwauling. It’s really annoying, but I don’t have the heart to ask him to stop. I think his shrill howls are his way of giving himself a pep talk.
The path is steep, and curves at such an angle it disappears into the horizon like an infinity pool.
It’s hard to trust the unknown road, but like life, the path is filled with surprises. There’s an unexpected waterfall around one corner and a gazebo around another.
At one rest break, I tied a traditional prayer flag on tree. It fluttered in the wind, sending out my prayers for the orphans that “forever families” would come soon.
As we got closer to the end of the trail we saw local villagers collecting plants on the hillside.
“In ancient time people in China were very poor, so they had to eat whatever they could find. This is the reason they like to collect plants, for medicine and to eat,” explained Asher. “But we don’t eat snakes or rats and most people don’t eat dogs,” he said.
I think about the dog meat hanging at the markets we visited in Yangshuo, and Peter Hessler’s article in the New Yorker “A Rat in my Soup,” about the specialty rodent restaurants in Guandong province.
Some things are best left unmentioned.
We finished the hike uneventfully and headed to a local restaurant for lunch, which thankfully, served neither rat nor dog. Instead we celebrated our accomplishment with a few local specialties: braised pork with chestnuts and scallion pancakes.
As we travelled back to Beijing, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. I was grateful and humbled by the opportunity to do something that I love – hiking in the mountains – while raising money for some very special kids. If you didn’t have a chance to donate to my fundraiser, there’s still time. You can donate by Clicking Here
Just write “Mt. Tai” where it says “add a note.”
Thank you for coming alongside me on this journey. I hope your calves aren’t as sore as mine.
Who Says You’re too Old to Play with Your food?
From meaty, cumin-scented lamb skewers to sweet, candied hawthorns, Beijing is filled with food on a stick. These fork-free dishes are perfect for strolling, sharing, dipping or indulging. If you’ve ever cooked over a campfire or savored a popsicle, then you remember that hand-held food is fun for all ages.
Head to Qianmen or Nanluoguxiang to start, and grab some lamb skewers, “whirlwind” potatoes, squid or sausages on a stick.
For the truly adventurous, there are scorpions, silkworm larvae and tarantulas, perhaps best left for capturing with your camera and not your taste buds.
For an experience that’s a little more off the beaten path, head to Xinmin market (subway stop Guloudajie) and spend the morning exploring the produce, spices and wet market. When hunger strikes, look for the ma la tang stand selling a variety of skewers including mushroom bundles, quail eggs, meatballs, broccoli, lettuce, noodles and much more. Don’t worry – there’s no menu to decipher; just point to a skewer that looks good and give it a try. For just a few kuai a skewer, it’s a fun, affordable outing.
Travel the Globe
Don’t limit yourself to Chinese food. Beijing has a whole world of flavors just waiting for you to try. Grab a map and start checking off your destinations. At Athena Greek restaurant the Chicken Souvlaki comes on a suspended skewer.
Nearby Alameen offers a platter of mixed Lebanese kebabs, and a taste of Turkey is just a hop, skip and a jump away at Turkish Feast.
Branch out from curries at your favorite Indian restaurant with a skewer of cheese-like paneer or head to NomNom in Haidian District for Indonesian mutton or beef Satay with a side of Sambal Kecap, sweet soy sauce mixed with chilies and shallots. And of course, don’t forget to stop in Thailand for some peanut-y Chicken Satay.
If you’d rather take cooking into your own hands, Café Zarah offers Cheese Fondue every evening after 6pm. Each bowl of melted cheese-y goodness comes with crunchy cubes of bread, vegetables, cornichons and a bowl of pineapple.
Winter is the season for tanghulu, those shiny, sugary fruit sticks decorating the city like ornaments.
Round red hawthorns are the most popular, but you’ll also find grapes, kiwi slices and Chinese yams. There are even some Santa-themed ones with marshmallows and strawberries.
Keep an eye out for purple sticky rice dipped in sugar or waffles on a stick that spell “I Love Beijing” in Chinese characters.
Find your zodiac sign fashioned in sugar candy or grab a stick full of sweet-and-sour shan zha (dried Hawthorn).
Floral scented gui hua cake drizzled with syrup beckons with its golden yellow hue, derived from Osmanthus flowers.
For a more interactive experience, head to Qianmen Kitchen restaurant to make some S’mores. Roast American marshmallows over your own charcoal brazier, add some Lindt Chocolate and sandwich it all between Biscoff cookies and digestive biscuits.
Lastly, don’t rule out ice cream just because it’s winter. Beautiful rose-shaped ice cream and vibrant fruity popsicles (at Nanluoguxiang) will make you forget how cold it is outside, even if just for a moment.
When my brother and I were little, we spent summers with our grandparents in Denmark. My grandmother didn’t have a drier, so she hung all of the clothes on the line. They smelled like sunshine, but were so stiff and sharp that we pretended to sword fight with pointy wash cloths.
My body feels like one of my grandmother’s line-dried wrinkled wash cloths. We are less than two months into Beijing’s winter but the extreme dryness and cold temperatures have wrung every once of moisture out of my hair, my skin and my lungs. The level of static electricity means I look a bit like Einstein when I return from shopping and take my hat off.
If it were possible to bottle some warmth and humidity from Florida, I’d ask you to send it to me. Add a pinch of salty ocean air too please.
I’m in a Chinese Medicine chat group and I saw a post recently for “Moistening Yam Tea.” The recipe promised to “benefit my Qi, nourish my Yin and promote fluid production.” I have no idea what that means, but since slathering my skin with gallons of lotion only goes so far, I’m willing to try anything that promises moisture. Maybe it will work like a Bounce dryer sheet, softening my skin, reducing stiffness and eliminating my static cling.
Out of the five ingredients listed, I recognize two: Chinese yams and licorice root. I like licorice (my roots are Danish after all), so how bad can it be? (Chinese medicine concoctions in general aren’t designed to taste good).
I took a tour of a market recently about 30 minutes away, and I know they have a Chinese medicine shop. (It’s called a wet market, really, but I don’t want to scare you into thinking they sell snakes and bats. The most exotic things I saw on my visit were eels, frogs and turtles.
So I hopped on the Subway to Xinmin market and found the Chinese Medicine shop. I had a photo of the recipe with Chinese characters, which I’m hoping the doctor understands because I can’t tell astralagus root from licorice root.
“How much is this going cost?” I asked the doctor. I’m not sure what maidong is, but if it’s as pricey as ground dragon bones, I’ll just rub my hair with a Bounce sheet instead.
She takes a little note pad and adds some figures, and shows me: 150 kuai, a little over $20 bucks. I give her a thumbs up, and she measures the ingredients.
I wanted to take a picture with her, but felt a little embarrassed to ask. Just as I’m practicing the words in my head, she hands me my purchase with a smile and comes out from behind the counter and starts taking a video of the two of us. I’m guessing I’m the first foreign customer she’s had, and she wants to brag about it on social media. I wonder how many followers I have on TikTok now?
“How much of this stuff should I be drinking?” I asked in the Chinese Medicine chat group.
“It depends on your constitution,” came the reply. “Just brew a big pot and drink it as you need it.” How will I know when my constitution has had enough ?
I measure out the ingredients and brew a pot.
It’s not bad. It’s earthy, with hints of licorice, spice and leather. Oh, wait, that was my wine from last night. Wrong glass.
I add a few more pieces of licorice root (at least I think I did), close my eyes, and think of chocolate as I take another swig. It doesn’t taste like chocolate, but I can pretend.
Honestly, it’s not bad and I manage to down a pot a day. It’s only been a few days so I don’t have any data to report. I’m hoping in a few weeks I’ll feel less like a wrung out wash cloth and more like a rehydrated sponge. But you can go ahead and mail that package with the tropical, Florida humidity. Throw in a few Bounce sheets while you’re at it; they cost almost as much here as ground dragon bones.
“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.
If you’ve been following along, you know there’s someone special in my life I haven’t seen since the Coronavirus started in Beijing three months ago. You can read about the street food chef gone missing in my last post. Craving Normal
I began to give up on the Baozi Guy, trying to accept the parts of my life that have changed forever. Some friends who left China will never come back. I can’t wear lipstick in public because it just gets smeared inside my mask, and going out carries an element of tension since we have to scan an app (in Chinese) and verify our health status to enter most public venues.
It seems that everyone can relate to craving “normal” – that part of your daily routine that stabilizes your life, whether it’s a lunch stop at Chick-fil-A with the kids, a sweat-inducing workout at the gym or catching up with a friend at Starbucks.
I love that you are cheering for my Baozi Guy to return right along with me. I was savoring your words of encouragement with my morning coffee a few days ago when my phone pinged.
Who’s texting at 6 am? The kids were asleep and Mike was out running.
“Closer to normal,” the message said, with this picture:
I’m not one to cry over sappy movies, but that one image caused the tears to flow. There really is hope that we’ll all come out of this OK on the other side. I wondered what battle the Baozi Guy had been fighting while I struggled with loneliness and uncertainty in my apartment?
Five minutes later Mike returned from his run, like the Messiah bringing good news.
I took the precious warm bag and cradled it in my hands, inhaling deeply.
“You only bought one bag?” I asked. Ten bite-sized buns divided by four people times two teenagers is a very small number.
“Hey, I was impressed that I was able to pay for them at all. I didn’t want to get two orders and then have to leave them there because my phone didn’t work.”
I couldn’t respond because my mouth was full. Those little fluffy, pork-filled bundles were just as good as I remembered. How does he get the dough so light?
“I think he recognized me,” Mike said. “We were both kind of excited to see each other.”
It was a milestone day. The Baozi Guy returned, and the city of Wuhan reported that all virus patients had been released from the hospital.
Today I had to go and see him for myself, to make sure it hadn’t all just been a dream, like a mirage in the desert.
I gave a joyful wave as I approached, knowing I was probably embarrasing him with my unreserved emotion. But he waved back and stood up as I approached.
“I’m so happy ! You’re back!” I said, using the simple words I’d practiced all day yesterday. “Are you good?”
”Yes, yes, I’m good.”
In the past my camera-shy friend refused my requests for photos, but today his eyes crinkled kindly as he smiled behind his mask.
I paid for my order (called a Ti from the word for basket) and headed home, sampling a warm bun from the bag. I’m sure it was my imagination but it seemed like the friendly exchange added a depth of flavor to the pork and scallion puffs that I didn’t notice yesterday.
I thought about all of the pieces in our lives that have been scattered, at least temporarily. It’s left me longing, craving for connection. At least in a small way today, normal has returned. I hope your normal comes back soon too.
My husband knows about the other man in my life and he’s OK with it. As a matter of fact, he encourages the early morning rendezvous. So I lace up my shoes, take a lap around the park and then make a detour on the way home.
I turn left on Dongdaqiao Street, pass the only magazine stand nearby that carries English newspapers (all propaganda) and look for the door with the red signs. My heart beats faster as I get closer, like a silly school girl hoping to catch a glimpse of her latest crush.
I haven’t seen the other man since the virus hit, and for the last three months I’ve come home disappointed. I continue my daily routine, hoping one day the strong, silent man will come back into my life.
We call the object of my affection the “Baozi Guy.” I don’t know his real name, but this street-food chef with the ruddy cheeks and heavy apron has been satisfying our comfort food craving with fluffy, pork-filled steamed buns since we arrived in Beijing nine months ago.
He stood outside the mom-and-pop shop even on the coldest winter days, surrounded by woven baskets stacked high as commuters rushed by to grab their morning meal. I joined the crowd, picking up an order or two of bite-sized buns for breakfast. Fresh out of the steamer, the baozi were hot, juicy and irresistible. I would eat one or two on the way home and bring the rest to my family.
But it wasn’t just the food that brought comfort. In a city of 20 million people, I’d found a place where I was a regular. The Baozi Guy recognized me, greeting me with a friendly Ni Hao and charging me the local price when other foreign friends (even my husband) paid more. If my WeChat payment on my phone didn’t work (which happened occasionally), he’d wave me away saying “tomorrow, tomorrow.” If there was a crowd, he made sure to take my order in turn.
Unsure if the Baozi Guy would ever return, I’ve been looking for a replacement, which leaves me feeling a little unfaithful.
My morning walks have taken on new purpose. I head in different directions each day looking for baozi, along with other signs of hope that Beijing is coming back to life after after being shut down for weeks by the virus. One day I see the city awakening in the blooming trees; other days I notice the buzz of traffic is just a notch louder.
I found a Halal restaurant by the park, and waited hopefully in line at the takeout window, heeding the social distancing stripes marked on the pavement.
I stumbled over my order in Chinese, and slunk away feeling embarrassed, which made me miss the Baozi Guy even more. Maybe it was bruised pride that made the buns hard to swallow, but the flavorless beef and dense dough sat heavily in my mouth.
I found another place near the Russian district that had potential, but it’s just too far to walk on a daily basis, and the baozi just weren’t quite as good. I had a stomachache after I ate one, which is never a good sign.
Every few days I walk past the door with the red sign, checking to see if the Baozi Guy has returned. Recently, I saw lights on inside. Had they always been on and I just didn’t notice? It felt too good to be true. The door was locked, but I saw keys on the table. Maybe there’s hope.
But hope is fleeting these days, slipping away quickly like noodles through my chopsticks.
I woke up feeling depressed the next day when I thought about the rising death toll and crashing economy. Getting out of bed is challenging sometimes.
“Did the world come to an end last night?” I asked my husband.
“Let me see,” he said, pulling open the curtains. “Nope. Doesn’t look like it.”
“I just want normal again,” I complained. “I want the Baozi Guy to come back.” Ten weeks of severe restrictions and constantly changing rules were starting to wear me down.
“That would be nice, whatever normal means,” he agreed.
The smell of coffee persuaded me to get out of bed and I remembered the lights I had seen yesterday at the restaurant.
“Just maybe today will be the day,” I thought.
I made my usual loop around the park and headed toward the Baozi Guy’s shop on the way back.
There, in front of the restaurant, was a sack of flour and bags of carrots, onions, chili peppers and sweet potatoes. Tears came to my eyes.
That sack of flour and pile of vegetables brought me more hope than I’ve felt in weeks. Maybe normal will return soon.
This post is a continuation in a series of my impressions of living in China during the Coronavirus epidemic. You can read my most recent post here:
We board the flight from Tokyo to Beijing, bellies sated from last night’s Waygu beef dinner and pockets stuffed with Kit Kats (orange and raspberry are my favorites).
I’ve got butterflies in my stomach, kind of like the first day of school. I’m excited to be going home to Beijing after two weeks of vacation in Japan, but nervous about how the spread of the Coronavirus has impacted daily life. Depending on what things look like, the boys and I will decide to stay in Beijing or leave for awhile.
Everyone in Asia is on high alert now; a fellow traveler coughs and we all take two steps back. As we fill out health questionnaires on the airplane, I can’t help but glance at the guy across the aisle in 35C. Like a guilty school girl, I sneak a look at his paper to see his answers: Have you traveled to Wuhan recently? Do you have a fever? Are you having trouble breathing?
We pass uneventfully through immigrations and baggage claim. The airport is empty, and roads are bare on the drive home. It’s an eerie feeling when life just seems to stop in such a vibrant city. It reminds me of the freeways in Los Angeles after the 1992 riots, when curfews were enacted to keep people off the streets.
Near my apartment, most restaurants and shops are closed and the streets are deserted. It feels like a ghost town. It’s so quiet. I never thought I’d miss the sounds of the city: traffic, people talking too loudly and believe it or not, even the spitting.
Where did everyone go? Familiar faces are missing, like my favorite security guard outside my building who always greets me with a smile and a song. And where is the ruddy-faced chef at the corner restaurant who makes my fresh, pork-filled baozi every morning? His place is closed, with an official sign on the door I can’t read.
With around 10 million people leaving Beijing in last two weeks for the Spring Festival, I worry that some of my local friends might have traveled to virus-infected provinces and fallen ill, or ended up in quarantine somewhere. Are they OK? Are they coming back?
Many of my ex-pat friends have left as well, either out of safety concerns or by the order of their home country’s government.
With hiking trips, hot pot lunches and outings with friends, the pieces of my life in Beijing were just starting to fit together nicely, like a puzzle taking shape to reveal something beautiful.
In the past two weeks as the virus spread, the puzzle has started to crumble with closures, quarantines and restrictions.
As I walk around the city, I feel an uneasy sadness I can’t articulate, like an achy tooth or favorite necklace gone missing. The suffering and loss for China is profound, and we all feel it. We do the best we can, settling into school online and working from home.
Chat groups share the latest statistics, where to find groceries and hygiene supplies and how to find the closest infection sites to our home. There’s even an app to check our last flight to see if we traveled with a suspected carrier. Sometimes too much information is not a good thing.
I make chocolate chip cookies to keep everyone’s spirits up, and share some with the guy at the desk downstairs, who seems to be working 24/7 right now.
Adding to my feeling of depression, there’s fear in the air in Beijing. It feels as heavy as the pollution right now, which sways between “unhealthy” and “hazardous.”
People stay inside as much as possible, and when they do go out, they move quickly, minimizing social interaction. Masks cover their faces, but I can see the stress in their furrowed brows and eyes that dart quickly, as if the disease could jump from one human to another by making eye contact. Some wear goggles or heavy glasses, just in case.
If I felt like an outsider as a foreigner before, the anonymity of wearing a mask and the weariness of being sequestered to our apartment (we aren’t allowed visitors at the moment) has added to the feeling of isolation.
The atmosphere is emotionally charged, with rumors fueling the fire as they circulated on social media and news reports. One day we heard that the government would be spraying disinfectant from above, using drones and we should all stay inside after 4 p.m. That didn’t happen, but drones have been deployed to give public service messages in some provinces.
When masks became mandatory, it was announced that lack of compliance would be met with reprimands or possible arrests. Instructions came down from the top that anyone hiding the illness from authorities would be “forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame” and neighbors and colleaugues were encouraged (sometimes with monetary rewards) to report anyone who might being trying to cover up an illness.
Videos in Western media soon went viral of the authority’s efforts to squelch the virus: people being dragged from their apartments into quarantine, one man being chased by police as he tried to avoid being sent to the hospital, and an infected passenger being wheeled from the airport in an isolation tent. Others showed residents being quarantined in their home, effectively being held hostage with police tape over their front door. (Of course these can only be viewed with a working VPN).
The images are powerful enough to make us feel uneasy. On a recent trip to meet friends for lunch (a rare treat) I encountered 6 temperature checks along the way. I am perfectly healthy, but each stop heightened my anxiety, like the feeling you get seeing a police car in your rear view mirror even though you know you are not speeding. What if a thermometer malfunctions? Will I be hauled away on the spot? It was worth it though, to linger over lunch with friends. I savored the freedom from my mask and the company more than the spicy shredded potatoes and pork with chilies that I was eating. I wanted to linger.
I asked several Chinese friends why everyone is so afraid and I heard a common refrain. “The government takes this very seriously.” While I was keeping up with the news to the best of my ability, my lack of Chinese language skill acted as a filter from the incessant reminders that we were living in a global health crisis.
My Chinese friends, on the other hand, were being bombarded all day long with We Chat notifications, public announcements, banners, and e-mails instructing them to stay inside, pay close attention to hygiene, not get too hot or too cold, monitor their health, avoid social gatherings and not to panic. I’m sure I would be much more jittery if I consumed as much information about the current situation as they did. Here are a few examples of slogans from banners appearing around China:
If you hang out in public today, grass will grow on your grave next year.
Everone you encounter on the streets now is a wild ghost seeking to take your life.
A bite of wild animal today, see you in hell tomorrow.
A surgical mask, or breathing tube, your choice.
Who wouldn’t be scared!
Equally disturbing is having a front row seat to watch the spread of fear as it slithers around the globe, morphing into something more evil: xenophobia. From Italy to Singapore, Chinese are being banned from restaurants and hotels. In the U.S., ugly remarks are flung at Asians on the metro, a high schooler is bullied by virus-fearing classmates and a woman is attacked in New York for wearing a mask. Asian restaurants are hurting because people are afraid that they are unclean. Unless they they are serving pangolin as the daily special, I think you’re pretty safe.
It was the thought of weeks or possibly months of living this fearful, monastic lifestyle that swung the balance in favor of leaving China for a bit, more so than the fear of actually contracting the virus. It’s not a breakup, it’s more of a cooling off period.
The boys and I are visiting family and friends in Seattle now, where the coffee is strong, the air is fresh and the pussy willows are blooming. The signs of spring with new life soothe my soul.
I miss my husband, but I feel lighter here. Freedom of movement, clean air and good food will recharge us. The boys continue school online, while I write and keep up with my Chinese studies because I know we will be going home soon.
Beijing is home, because that’s what I call the place where all four of us are gathered safely under one roof, no matter what kind of craziness is happening outside our front door.
Six months into my temporary stay in Beijing, I feel like I’m becoming a little bit Chinese. Don’t panic. My hair is still blond and I haven’t changed my name, but living in China has definitely changed me.
I can eat chicken or frog and spit out the bones just like a local, and I can slurp soup with best of them.
I feel annoyed when I walk into a restaurant and there are too many other waiguoren because clearly it’s not authentic. When the waiter warns that the ma po tofu I’m about to order is a little bit spicy, I wave him off with a quick mei wenti.
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.
Wow, we’ve moved from summer into fall. Sometimes I feel that our time here in Beijing is flying by; others days the clock ticks slowly.
But we recently celebrated Halloween and fall is definitely in the air.
The cooler temperatures at night and crisp sunny days have brought out vibrant colors in the autumn trees. After years of living in Florida, I’m savoring every moment of fall.
Golden ginkgo biloba trees adorn the local parks and walkways. The trees are prized for their fruit which smells terrible but is collected by locals and used as a kidney tonic in traditional Chinese medicine.
The change in seasons also brings out new street vendors selling selling seasonal treats.
Fresh pomegranate juice is made on-the-spot from local fruit. This pomegranate tree grows in the Lama Temple courtyard.
Other treats include sunflower seeds and candied fruits and nuts.
Winter vegetables are popping up in the produce market, like this beautiful specimen. I’m not sure what it is. It looks a little bit like lettuce at the top but the base looks like bok choy. It’s almost too pretty to eat.
If the hats, gloves and coats with fur-trimmed hoods for sale in clothing shops are any indication, it’s going to get cold this winter. Scooter riders are prepared, fitting their bikes with sleeping-bag like contraptions to shield riders on their commute.
Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and Christmas is not far behind. While these Western holidays are not traditionally celebrated in China, retailers here are taking full advantage of the shopping opportunities.
While it is possible to order a turkey from an international grocery store, I can barely squeeze a scrawny chicken in my tiny oven. I might try to bake a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving just to make the house smell good, but we will probably go out to eat even though it’s a regular work and school day.
How are the seasons changing where you live? What holiday preparations are underway at your house? I’d love to hear from you.