The New Normal

I know it’s been a long time since I told you about our adventures but honestly, what was the point? YOU were experiencing lockdowns of epic proportions. I doubt you wanted to hear about my new normal as you were living through your own chaos. But as we’ve turned a real corner in our lives, I just have to share.

Since January 23rd, our normal has been changing everyday. Once Wuhan was locked down, things started to change in Beijing. Here’s just a snapshot (in somewhat chronological order):

  • school activities cancelled just before Chinese New Year/Spring Festival
  • mandatory face-masks for everyone out in public or in a public space
  • employees who served the public wearing gloves and face masks (occasionally wearing face guards and/or hazmat suits)
  • plenty of food and toilet paper
  • during our holiday break we were informed that online school would commence
  • gyms, pools, public parks closed
  • streets/communities/residential areas fortressed
  • mandatory temp. checks to enter any building or gated area
  • forms filled out (read: tracking for possible contract tracing)
  • delivery guidelines (i.e. the temp. of your food preparer being attached to your packages or packages dropped off at centralized locations, no home delivery unless you are in mandatory quarantine, etc.)
  • 1m spacing marked at grocery stores/retail chains
  • plastic sheeting between the driver and passengers in taxis
  • some restaurants offered only to-go services
  • app tracking and/or verification of movement
  • residential areas closed to non-residents
  • security teams/volunteers set up outside every fortressed residential area/street to monitor residence cards, temperature checks, etc.
  • still plenty of food and toilet paper
  • 14-day in home quarantine for returnees (with delivery services, video monitoring, trash collection, etc. set up by your residential community group)
  • travelers in the vicinity of someone who tested positive immediately quarantined in hotels (paid for by government)
  • no more in home quarantine, 14-day hotel quarantine mandatory for all air-travelers, children under 12 with mother, all other family members in their own individual room (paid for by individuals)
  • my hair has gone grey… not by choice but by circumstance
  • and there is still an abundance of toilet paper

You get my drift, right? Things were changing on a weekly or daily basis but things were serious right out of the gates. The problem was, things were changing at such a rapid pace, it was hard to keep up. Even a restaurant that my “Brew Crew” returned to week after week through this pandemic changed their protocols regularly. In late January, after having our fevers checked and data recorded, 8 of us were sitting, drinking, eating, and laughing together. Two weeks after that, our group dwindled to 6 and we were only allowed to sit in couples, each table 1 meter apart (which made for some interesting food-sharing). And the last time we were there, 4 weeks ago, the 6 of us had to sit at 4 tables (hence the panoramic shot I tried to take).

But things are on the upswing here. Spring has sprung new life in to my temporary home. Wuhan is open, flowers are blooming, and 12th graders have been allowed to return to school in our province. Unfortunately this is a rather moot point as seniors are technically done with school, but returning to get their graduation jackets, take their awe-inspiring Great Wall photo, and just seeing each other (if from a meter away) is so good for everyone’s emotional well-being.

Though I wasn’t one of the 200+ staff and teachers that got the COVID-19 tests and were allowed back at school (because I don’t teach grade 12 students), this is the report that I pieced together from Rob and other lucky ones:

There are a lot of security/health measures in place. It’s not the same old WAB, but everyone is trying their best to show WAB spirit- Gong he! Marta [the Superintendent] and Melanie [the HS Principal] greeted the students and staff from live-streamed TVs near the entrances. They were beaming from ear-to-ear. I’m sure everyone else was too, but you couldn’t tell ’cause we were all wearing masks. Overall, everyone seemed happy to see one another but there is a thread of sadness too. Not everyone gets to be together and this isn’t the senior year they were hoping for. But we have to be grateful that they are healthy and together… ish. I bet things will be different when the 8th graders come back in a few weeks. But at least it gets us out of the house, out of a rut, and planning for the future. Now we have to reflect on what the future of education looks like because I think this is our “new normal.”

I certainly don’t have a crystal ball to envision our future, but I can surmise that the future looks different. Until we have a vaccine, I think life will take place behind a shield. Whether a mask, gloves, face guard, or app tracing, we will all be more mindful of one another’s personal space. I also think, and I’m not a doctor, so I’m just guessing here, quarantines and shutdowns will be part of the norm.

That said, I don’t see our future as sad or dire. We have learned so much. We connect with friends and family in different ways. We make an effort to smile with our eyes and be grateful to be alive. We have learned to appreciate the small things in life like taking a walk, (literally) smelling the roses, thanking others, playing a game, and the art of cooking. There have been bad times and it hasn’t been easy. But we are so much more resilient now.

Better “Suit Up”

Barney Stintson, on “How I Met Your Mother” had the catchphrase, “suit up.” This comedic phrase referred to his incessant need to wear a suit for any occasion.

During winter in Beijing, “suit up” refers to the 5-10 minutes that must be added to any outdoor activity as one prepares their body to deal with the inclement weather. (read more about how one would “suit up” in Beijing)

But during the time of COVID-19 (previously known as “Corona” virus), “suit up” takes on a whole new meaning and an extra few minutes of work. In the past 4 weeks, I’ve learned a lot about the art of “suiting up” and wearing a protective shield over my nose and mouth. I thought I would be remiss if I didn’t share my “knowledge” with you.

WARNING: My expertise is not medical in nature. Any information shared here is just an expat’s experience of this phenomenon and a light-hearted way to bust the boredom. This is all in jest.

Too Many Choices

There are many different kids of masks. Reusable and disposable. Cotton and fleece. Medical and gas. There are also thousands of “invented” masks or techniques to wear masks. To get the legit scoop on mask wearing, listen to the WHO, but if you want a laugh, check out Bored Panda.

For this illiterate-in-Chinese family, once news about the virus hit the 24-hour news cycle, sourcing masks became a challenge and we’ve had to make do with whatever we could get our hands on. Our collection of masks include those which should be used when the AQI is high and those which should be disposed after each wear.

Create a “Safe Space”

It is important to create a safe space for any items that may be subjected to COVID-19. We have created this space near the front door of the house, where our shoes, jackets, scarves, hats, boots, gloves, and dog leash rest between jaunts outdoors.

Our “Safe Space” includes (from top to bottom):

  • hand sanitizer: because it’s the perfect way to further dry out your winter skin
  • wet wipes: a good way to clean your hands before/after/while touching something outside
  • our Lego family: because neither Rob nor I have hung it on our front door yet
  • masks: in various colors, sizes, and materials
  • tissues: for the inevitable nose blowing that commences once one enters from the cold
  • breath mints: the only way to avoid the question, “Does my breath REALLY smell this bad?” once you’ve put on an over-used mask on… again
  • headphones: so you can avoid the teen squabbles that may be included on your outdoor excursion

Who Does It Belong To

When your family has a collection of masks by the front door, it’s important to make sure you can identify whose mask is whose. There are countless ways you can organize this: bins, baskets, hooks, and labels. I have invented my own organizational trick which I have dubbed: “the Lipstick.”

The Art of Mask Wearing

To know me is to know that I love to communicate. Whether friend or foe, stranger or neighbor, I have an insatiable need to communicate. This need is difficult in a country where my language skills are limited to basic greetings, thanks, and apologies. What does one do? Well, they learn how to communicate with their face. The art of non-verbal communication served me quite well until… well, until COVID-19. Below are four ways to help you “read” the mask face.

Smiling With Your Eyes: notice the squinted eyes and even fatter cheeks

Damn It’s COLD Outside/Why Do I ALWAYS Have to TAKE the Dog Out At Night?/My Kids are Fighting Again: observe the arched eyebrows and cold, dead stare

The Neutral: there’s nothing going on. Not. A. Thing!

The Don’t-Make-Eye-Contact-With-Me-Because-I-Don’t-Speak-Chinese-And-I’m-Nervous-You-Might-Ask-Me-A-Question: observe the eyes darting a way to look somewhere. Anywhere.

I hope some of this helps you the next time you decide to “suit up.”

Be safe. Suit up. Wash hands. Live life!

Camaraderie in Chaos

I have no excuse as to why this post has taken me two weeks to complete. It could be the 10+ hour days we’ve been putting in to online learning plus the time we’re spending cleaning our own house (I know… shock, horror!). But I think the real reason it has taken me nearly 2 weeks to blog an update about how we are surviving through the #CoronaChaos is because… well… we’re socializing A LOT more!

Like any normal family, the regularity of the work/school week includes so much routine that, by the time Friday and Saturday roll around, we really just want to chill on the couch munching on delivery pizza while watching some stupid Netflix movie that the kids will end up texting their friends through anyway. And in the blink of an eye, it’s Sunday again. We’re busy grocery shopping, prepping meals, setting up our schedule for the next week of craziness, and vowing to go to bed early.

Repeat.

But with the chaos that is (read this part in an ominous voice) the Corona virus… things are a bit different. Yes, we still get up early, walk the dog, have breakfast, and get to “school”. But, we can do it all in our pjs. Of course we are at home and glued to our computers (for longer periods of time than is healthy for any human being), but then, when we tuck the computers away we don’t have to stress about having to get ready for school tomorrow.

Since the Chinese New Year holiday began, most of us in the region have been glued to our cell phones WeChatting the night away. We’ve been sharing info (both good and bad), seeking advice, cheering each other up, and supporting each other’s decisions. But as our “stayers” group continues to dwindle, we’ve busied ourselves in an effort to beat the boredom. There have been brunches and parties, game nights and walks, dinners and pub visits with people who were once acquaintances but who are quickly becoming our friends: the ones we’ve laughed with, been worried with, joked with, and calmed.

The “stayers” have become a tight knit group of people who know the ridiculousness of having had their temperature checked at the entrance of the mall and 100 meters later at Starbucks before being given the honor of ordering a coffee… to go. (This is particularly insane as my temperature was 24C/75F at the grocery store this morning and 36.5C/97.7F 10 minutes later when I entered my village gate. I’m not sure this whole temperature thing is all it’s cracked up to be).

… but I digress.

The “stayers” are the ones who share important intel about which restaurants are open, who is still delivering food, and where new clean masks can be sourced. The “stayers” are becoming the family you need when you’re wondering, in secret and aloud, “Did we make the right choice?” The “stayers” are now the ones I will always remember when, decades from now, I’m thinking about the historic moments in my life, like where I was when the Challenger exploded, or 9/11, or when Corona struck.

This camaraderie that has been formed amongst our colleagues, our neighbors, and the waitress at our local pub is an unmistakable feeling of unity, togetherness, and calm.

I guess I haven’t written in such a long time not because I’m busy working… but because I’m busy living. I’m busy finding ways to fill my tank with joy.

…and so far, it’s working.

“Living” Through It

What do you do when you’re sick of reading about nCoV? When you’re bored, cooped up, and flooded with queries from loved ones I think the best thing you can do is… blog.

A lot has changed in the past few days. The constant barrage from my news feeds, first hand reports, and personal experiences have made for some angsty moments. But a daily family vote means that we’re seeing it through (for now). Let me catch you up.


School/Work

Schools are closed until further notice. Most international schools will begin online learning on Monday February 3rd. WAB has things in place and we’re ready to go. It won’t be perfect. But it’s all we can do.

Last weekend, our school gave the OK for teachers to leave Beijing. This option has caused another layer of stressful conversations in the Langlands’ home. But more on that later.

WAB is allowing the community to come on campus from 10-11 am to get supplies and tools they may need for online learning. You can only get on to campus under tight restrictions. Before walking in the security gate, we masked up, showed school ID, had our temperature checked, and completed documents that notified the ministry about our travel movements during the Chinese New Year holiday. This measure will permanently end on February 3rd and campus will be on complete lockdown.


Our Village/Life

Our village community is normally open with multiple entry points and small alleyways snaking throughout. All but two have now been barricaded. At the two that remain open sit a security team and the occasional guy in a hazmat suit. They are checking temps and IDs. This caught me off guard yesterday and all I wanted to do was pack a suitcase and get out. 

I’ve calmed down since then.

This is our lockdown

The village is doing a lot to keep people safe. If you show symptoms of the flu, you are encouraged (read: required) to self-quarantine. At that point, the village governance will provide food to your home for 14 days. On our way to school yesterday, my friend took a picture of us crossing the red carpet. If you read the picture details you can learn more about the protocols that are hiding in plain sight.

Today, the grocery stores and veggie market proprietors reopened as their anticipated Chinese New Years celebrations ended.


Our Life/Beyond the Wall

For the last few nights, we’ve been meeting friends for dinner or drinks at local establishments. Some restaurants are staying closed because of staffing issues as staff haven’t returned from their government mandated Chinese New Year extension. The ones that are open are taking extra precautions to keep everyone safe. A benefit to some restaurants being closed, you can often pick up some fabulous produce from those that have set up tables outside. They would rather sell off their stock than see it go to waste.

One of our favorite Craft Breweries is now adding security measures to their ads.

A Lesson/Don’t Always Believe the Hype

When you watch the news or read an article online, I’m not sure you’re getting the full truth. I don’t know what life is like in the epicenter of Wuhan, but here is my lesson on perspective.

When I went to the grocery store yesterday, there are some shelves that are completely empty and huge gaps where the hand sanitizer once stood. I took a picture of the empty freezer cases but if I chose to show you only that, I would change the narrative. Because turning the corner to the 2nd freezer case–there was an abundance of food. It was all strewn about and disorganized so I’m thinking, maybe the freezer cases are just broken for some reason. But I wanted to show you that it’s not as dire as it sounds on the news. In all honesty, there is an abundance of fresh breads, milk, fruit, and veg. We wont starve any time soon!


Our Choice/Conversation Topics

Every day, the group of “staying teachers” seems to get a bit smaller. Some will stay. Some will go. For each family, there are so many factors to consider. For ours, here are some things we discuss daily.

  1. When will we be coming back?
  2. Should we buy tickets for a few weeks in Bali to wait this out? Or do we go home and stay with friends and family for a few months? If you don’t know the answer to #1, you can’t answer #2.
  3. Where should we go if we need to be available to kids between 8:30 am and 3:30 pm, Beijing time?
  4. What will be open today, tomorrow, and long term?
  5. What does the next step of government protection/mandatory closures/quarantine look like?
  6. What if more airlines stop flying out of Beijing? Will we be able to get out?
  7. What do we with our dog?
  8. How do we stay mentally healthy?

Our Opinions/Life Decisions

We are healthy and confident that we are doing what needs to be done to stay safe. So, at present, we’re staying. We’re washing our hands, wearing masks, avoiding large crowds, going on walks, and being social. We’re going out with friends again tonight and planning on taking advantage of Beijing’s traffic desert by exploring on bike and foot.


Final Thoughts/Small Moments

For now, we’re using the tips that our school counselors sent out in an effort to avoid cabin fever.

An excerpt from a fabulous message WAB sent from the school counselors

That’s all we can do.

Laugh…

This is a picture our friend, Stephen Taylor, took to show some measures
people are taking to keep their kids safe. Look VERY closely!

… and blog!

Baby It’s Cold Outside

As a Californian (read: a Bay Area girl) I don’t really get weather. Growing up, living, and working between San Jose and Fremont kept me in a pretty consistent weather zone. Summer would ease in to fall with the occasional bouts of hot and humid days in September or October. But for the most part, Bay Area weather is beautiful. Never too hot. Never too cold. So when we woke up one morning in Beijing and the outside furnace had been turned off, my inner monologue was screaming profanities!

No, no, no… there is no outside heating device warming the world, but on said morning, the weather had gone from a toasty 25c to an earth-shattering 8c overnight (for those who think in Fahrenheit that means the weather went from 77f to 46f). And… it. Just. Got. Colder!

This immediate change in weather was not a fluke (so I’ve been told). Apparently, it’s just what happens in October in Beijing. It’s as if the gods wake up one morning and say, “Today we begin winter!” and the weather drops. Instantly. And then it keeps getting colder and colder, and colder. And because cold air blows in from the Siberian desert (and the even closer Tianmo Desert) the air is dry, the wind is biting, and electric shocks are around every corner.

So what does that mean for life here?

Well, just as arbitrarily as the weather gods change the outside temperature, so the government changes the inside temperature. Many homes here are heated by district energy which turns the heat on one day and turns it off months later. If the schedules don’t match between inside and outside temperatures… well, you’re shit out of luck!

Side Note: When we went to Tokyo to visit our friends Amy, David, and Cathy (who we worked with in Nairobi so long ago), they told us a similar tale. All of the vending machines around Japan are changed arbitrarily. One day, all you can find is cold beverages. And then one day all you can source are warm ones. I mean, who doesn’t want a steaming hot cup of coffee when it’s 31c (88f) outside?

For most of my Bay Area chums, this random temperature decision making sounds insane. But district heating is a thing in many places around the world (including parts of the US).

And though our house is not on government regulated heating, WAB runs an air filtration system through the school which also controls the heat. So as I write this blog during my break time, it’s -7c (19.5f) outside and I’m down to jeans and t-shirt because we’re all roasting in doors. I find this lifestyle crazy because we wake up and “suit up” layers of clothes to walk the dog and get to school and then have a heap of clothes near our work environment because it’s just blisteringly hot inside.

This is how I “suit up” to get to school. My heap of clothes includes my down jacket with hood and fur, gloves, scarf, leg warmers, and a wool headband/ear covering that is still on my head because my hair looks AWFUL!

But I digress.

Growing up in the Bay Area, I can vividly remember a few crazy winters that may have included torrential rain or a few events of hail. But snow… never! So when the first snow fell in our village it was a site to be seen! And I was like a kid in a candy store.

The snow fall was beautiful, the city blanketed in white was stunning, and the hygge we develop in our home has been so connecting for our family.

But damn. It’s COLD outside. And it’s just. Getting. Colder!

Eye Candy in Prague

I am no stranger to the crooked old cobblestone streets of Europe. Being the daughter of a Portuguese father, wife of a Belgian, and having studied in England, I get Europe. But there is something about Prague that is different than all the other cities I’ve been to. Maybe it’s the enchanting beauty of a city fairy lit for Christmas or the smell of trdelník (a spit cooked doughnut-y thing) and svařák (mulled wine) in the air, but whatever it is, Prague has left an indelible mark on my memory.

Here are some of our family highlights:

Beautiful Architecture

Prague, as a city, is over 1,000 years old. And its architecture proves it. From the Castle buildings constructed in the 9th century to modernized and colorful buildings dotted in and under the Charles Bridge. There is something to see around every corner. My only recommendation: look up and down. Some of the most amazing things are happening under foot.

Interesting Art

Prague is a city littered with beautiful spires and intricate brick facades. But it’s the fantastically bizarre art around every corner that really stops one in their tracks. From the graffiti of the Lennon wall to the eerie Franz Kafka statue, there is something for everyone…Though I’m not sure that woman posing next to the blue gorilla really knew what she was getting in to until she walked past the other end of the creature.

Everyday Life

The great thing about going on holiday before the Christmas holidays start, is that we get the luxury of seeing a city in everyday life mode. Sometimes you just have to skip all the Trip Advisor attractions and just get lost… that’s where life really happens.

What Shouldn’t Be Missed

There is so much to be seen in Prague. But there are also a few things I don’t think anyone should miss. Unfortunately, I say this and everyone seems to agree with me so be on notice… it will be busy! Don’t miss the opportunity to eat a delicious trdelník. They are these amazingly delicious doughnuts that taste similar to a Portuguese filhós thanks to the generous roll in cinnamon sugar. But the brilliant thing about these hard-to-say-their-name-delights is that they are hollow on the inside because the dough is rolled on a spit and then roasted over coal. You don’t feel as if they are too bad for you because you’re not eating that much doughnut after all. Pure genius.

With so many tourists around every corner, the food in Prague is a menagerie of cultures and cuisines. We actually spent our first few days eating very little Czech food, and instead, filled our bellies with shawarma, tacos, and beer. But the highlight of these experiences (except maybe that beer is cheaper than coffee), was a visit to U Flekü, purported to be the oldest pub in the country (apparently it was opened in 1499). When you walk in to U Flekü, you are seated at long tables, where a server immediately hands you a small glass of something that looks very similar to apple juice. It. Is. NOT. Apple. Juice. While sipping your spirit, the strolling accordion player excites the patrons to eat, drink, and be merry. Vegetarians will love the pickled cheese while their meat eating counterparts say the goulash is not be missed. Regardless, U Flekü is a fascinating restaurant that shouldn’t be missed.

All in all, Prague was a fabulous experience. I’m so glad we went and I can’t wait until we can explore again.

 

Beijing Burrito

There are so many things we’ve learned in the 4 months we’ve lived here in Beijing. But the education we’ve received about Chinese traditions and Beijingers is intensified as we explore our neighborhood–a slightly gentrified area called He Ge Zhuang Village. Here’s a little taste… but I’ll explain more in a future post.

The one thing that is absolutely fabulous about living in the village is the great ease at which one can support the local economy. Food stalls, street vendors, restaurants, and shops abound. From permanent fixtures to stalls on bike or moped, there is a glowing sense of entrepreneurship around every corner.

The village’s original food truck is a moderately wind-proof kitchen on the back of an electric tricycle or small truck. The couple who cook at one close to our house work steadily to craft some sort of delicious smelling pancakey concoction. On our regular dog walks or bi-weekly visits to the green grocer, we would pass the food truck and walk by obnoxiously slow in an effort to peek in the windows. Alas, the steam that permeated the “kitchen” never allowed me to see get a clear view.

But one night, while walking with my new friend (and village tour guide), Merle, I got first-hand mentoring about all the fabulous delicacies that can be found in the most unassuming of locales. With her support, I stopped by the food truck and purchased one to take home to my hungry clan.

The masterpiece, made by our local chef (whose name I will learn one day), is a beautiful creation which begins with a thin crepe and an egg cracked, scrambled, and cooked as a thin layer on the crepe. Once flipped, the paper thin pancake is filled with a menagerie of goodies: black sesame seeds, hot sauce and/or a homemade hoisin sauce, cilantro, lettuce, onions, chopped mustard pickles, and a crispy cracker.

It is called a Jianbing and it is amazing! Though it’s very popular in our village as a dinner food, it is China’s most famous Chinese breakfast.

The infamous Beijing Burrito is so popular, young artists are making jianbing t-shirts, paintings, and these fabulous earrings.

I don’t know when you are planning to come and visit. But when you do… we’re not letting you leave without enjoying our beloved Beijing Burrito!