We left Jellyfish Lake three days ago, but the sting is still fresh in my mind.
We took a bullet train 20 minutes south of Beijing to the bedroom community of Zhuozhou so my sons could take a PADI scuba certification course. They completed the basic coursework online, and we found an English-speaking instructor to teach them the open water skills. It turned out it wasn’t just their diving skills that were put to the test.
We crossed the provincial border arriving in Zhuozhou and were immediately pulled aside by the police as we tried to exit the train station. Since we’re “waiguoren” (foreigners) this was not unusual but it’s always unsettling.
The questions (in Chinese of course), are routine enough in the beginning. “When did you arrive in China? Why are you here? What’s your phone number?”
Quickly, the sight of three foreigners draws a crowd and we are surrounded by four police officers and a few traffic cops looking for entertainment.
“Lai, Lai, lai,” one officer says, waving us to follow. Since he’s holding our passports, we have no choice but to follow him outside into a make-shift police station fashioned out of an old shipping container.
You know the feeling you get when you’re driving, and you see the red and blue lights flashing behind you and your stomach gets all tied up in knots? That’s how I feel.
Inside, a lady in a white coat and nurse’s hat perches on the edge of a cot. There’s a matching bed across from her, with a wok, electric kettle and cooking pot stored underneath. The windows are blacked out with pieces of cardboard boxes.
“Do they live here?” my son Timothy asks.
“It looks like it,” I say, as the nurse takes out her phone and starts filming us. Posting videos on social media of two tall, handsome blond teenagers being questioned by police will gain the nurse instant fame in this small town.
“Bu yao,” I tell her to stop, scowling. I feel enough like a circus freak already.
The officer continues to question us, asking for proof of quarantine (which wasn’t required), a virus test (which we don’t have) and a list of all of the places we’ve traveled since we moved to China (too many to count).
“I think he’s asking for our address in America,” my older son Daniel says. It’s a bit like Wheel of Fortune, where we guess the questions by knowing a few key words. I’d gladly pay for a vowel if it would help us out of this mess.
It’s been 45 minutes of interrogation and I’m reaching my breaking point. I don’t know how to write “Orangeshire Court” in Chinese and I really need to pee. I text our Chinese scuba instructors Lexie and Chris to ask for help. Eventually, the officer runs out of questions and reluctantly lets us go.
“That’s crazy. He asked so many questions. I told him it’s none of his f***ing business,” Lexie says as we walk to her car. I don’t know how to say that in Chinese, but it probably wouldn’t have helped.
I fan myself with our passports. I’m hot and frustrated and my stomach feels icky. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Covid-19 has been an easy excuse to keep foreigners from traveling around China, securing tickets to scenic spots and staying in hotels. I wonder if this is how my friends of color feel in the U.S.
We drive 25 minutes to Jellyfish Lake, stopping to pick up some pork stuffed buns since it’s already lunchtime.
“You guys want something to drink? Coke? Cold water?” Lexie asks when we stop. I really want a beer but I’m trying to set a good example for my kids, so I settle for water.
Lexie and Chris run their diving school out of an old farmhouse near the lake. Lexie helps the boys pick out wetsuits and loads them in a van with the oxygen tanks.
“Now we just need Chris,” Lexie says. “I think he’s in the toilet.”
On cue, we hear Chris retching from nearby bushes.
“Is he sick? I’m not really comfortable with this,” I tell her.
“Oh, don’t worry – he’s not sick,” she reassures us. “He’s just hungover. He drank too much sake last night.”
Great. The boys might drown from a hungover instructor, but at least they won’t catch the flu.
We drive the short distance to the lake, passing through a cornfield, paintball course and a cemetery. From a distance the lake looks pretty, its blue-green color reminding me of the glacier-fed lakes in Canada. But as we get closer, I see a dead fish and garbage floating near the shore.
“It doesn’t look too dirty,” Timothy says, noticing my concern.
“It’ll be ok as long as they don’t have any amoebas,” Daniel says.
Swimmers itch? E Coli? Water snakes? What should I worry about most?
“Remember all those shots we got before we left home? This is why,” I say.
I text my husband Mike a few pictures and tell him that we’re outnumbered, as a small group of locals has come to watch the foreign scuba divers.
He sees the photo of the dead fish and texts back “I hope the boys have fun and that you’ll forgive me one day.”
There’s a quick break after the first dive and Chris comes out of the water and starts dry heaving, sounding like a sick seal.
The boys laugh and Timothy asks, “How is that sound even human?”
“I don’t really think he’s fit to teach. Maybe he should rest this afternoon,” I tell Lexie as the noises from Chris’s belly grow louder. He must have been holding it in while they were underwater.
Chris sits the afternoon out, giving occasional instructions from the lakeshore between cigarettes.
The boys finish for the day and we head to the train station.
In the car, Lexie and Chris tear open small, colorful packages that look like candy.
“You guys want some? You just chew it and spit it out,” she says, holding it up for them to see.
“What is it?”
I type the words into my phone, wondering what kind of dried fruit or nuts she’s offering.
“It’s like, how do you say – chewing tabaco,” she says, happy to find the correct words.
“The areca palm tree seed known as Betel Nut or Bing Lang in Chinese produces a quick, cheap high but carries the risk of oral cancer, addiction, stained teeth and cardiovascular disease,” my phone tells me.
“No, that’s ok. We’ll pass,” I say.
We’re all a little nervous walking into the train station, but thankfully, leaving Zhuozhou rated about 3 on a 1 to 10 hassle-factor scale. I’m so ready to put this experience behind us, but we have to come back tomorrow since the class is a 4-part series.
I get ready for bed, tell the boys how proud I am of them and pray that tomorrow will be easier.
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