Photo Essay: A Stroll at Beijing’s Summer Palace in September

Recently, Jun and I spent a leisurely September afternoon at Beijing’s Summer Palace.

We’ve missed the West Lake all these years living up in Beijing, and found strolling around the Summer Palace to be Beijing’s answer to our favorite destination in Hangzhou.

The Summer Palace is built around a lake (Kunming Lake) with many features recalling the West Lake — from its bridges and willow-lined causeway (modeled after the West Lake’s Su Causeway) to the pagodas and towers perched along the hills that frame the lake.

And did I mention the Summer Palace, like the West Lake in Hangzhou, also includes a number of osmanthus trees, which were just beginning to perfume the air with their heavenly scent?

One wonderful thing about the Summer Palace is that you can enjoy it at your own pace — and even take time to smell the flowers along the way — despite how many people there are.

It took us a few hours to circle the lake, and the experience left us with plenty of good memories — and the hope that we’ll return again soon!

Have you ever visited Beijing’s Summer Palace? What was your experience there?

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Cooking!

Author Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang recently kicked off a project titled Creatives in a time of Covid 19, and I was thankful she reached outto me for an essay about how I’ve been creative during this time. She just recently published my piece, titled When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Cooking. Here’s an excerpt:

The shiny new pressure cooker propped up in the corner of my kitchen in Beijing, China had become the latest cooking gadget I was swooning over before Chinese New Year’s Eve in 2020, when my husband and I would prepare a dinner to mark the holiday.

Days before this paramount holiday, as I was beginning a flurry of online searches under the keywords “pressure cooker vegan recipes”, news surfaced that Wuhan was going on lockdown because of a novel coronavirus outbreak.

Days later, the rest of the nation was urged to stay at home, avoid gatherings and wear masks due to the virus.

Most restaurants had already closed for the holidays, but my boss nevertheless urged us to avoid those eateries still doing takeout. “It’s safer to cook for yourself,” she said.

Even before the coronavirus, I preferred my own kitchen to dining out. Yes, part of it was my fussy vegan palate, which the Beijing restaurant scene could never entirely please. But cooking had also long served as a creative ritual that comforted and grounded me through ups and downs, as I tapped into the power of a delicious meal, which could redeem an otherwise mediocre or even disastrous day.

So as the virus threatened Beijing, I turned to the kitchen.

And since the virus is still threatening Beijing once again, you can guess where I’ve found my sanctuary these days. 😉

Head on over to Rhiannon’s Tumblr to read the full post. And if you like it, share it!

I’m Starting to Forget To Wear My Mask: Reopening Adventures in Beijing

This past weekend, we just heard that in Beijing, you no longer need to wear a mask while outdoors. It’s welcome news with the warming weather, which has made wearing a mask outdoors an often sweaty proposal. But it’s also a relief to me for another reason – I’ve started to forget my mask.

Seriously.

In the past month or so, at least once or twice a week I would leave the apartment and then have to turn back when I realized I had walked out of my apartment with a “naked” face.

(Side note: Isn’t it something that nowadays not having a covering over my mouth and nose somehow seems bizarre and even like a form of “indecency” when stepping out?)

Anyhow, if I had to speculate why I seemed to space on wearing a mask, I would guess it’s partly the weather, and partly because people in Beijing are worrying a lot less about the virus.

Now, I don’t take anything for granted when it comes to the coronavirus. China continues to register small handfuls of imported cases every single day, and parts of the country have seen small flare-ups in local cases. I know the virus still remains in our world, and as the experts here continue to caution, we cannot entirely let our guard down.

Still, it’s been over a month since Beijing saw any locally transmitted infections. Businesses are continuing to fling their doors open, schools are gradually welcoming students back, and you see more people out enjoying the blue skies and late spring breezes.

Even my office has eased measures to enter the building. We now need to just flash our QR code showing our health status (green for OK to enter) and pass by an infrared temperature checkpoint that takes only a second. If I can pull up the QR code while walking in, I barely even need to pause. It’s a huge step up from what we once had to do – stop while an attendant checked our temperature, and then sign in on a registration sheet.

Meanwhile, as Beijing is rising from the past ravages of COVID-19, my home country of the US is still very much under siege by the virus. I find myself caught in a kind of “Twilight Zone” existence every time I flick on the international news and get the latest updates about the US, where the people I love most in the world still live. Their lives have been thrown into a turbulence I could never have imagined nor wished for them, as they struggle with everything from furloughs and other employment unknowns to the specter of illness that has settled over their communities as the virus continues to spread.

Not long ago, a comparative immunologist in the Boston area penned a viral post about the risks of getting infected as places open up, which painted a sobering picture.

And yet, the states where my loved ones live — which are still seeing new daily case numbers that either equal or exceed the total number of cases we saw in Beijing — are starting to reopen. It’s stunning, in the worst possible way.

When I go to my office, I don’t really worry that a coworker might be infected with COVID-19. My employer had even asked everyone in the company to stay in Beijing and not travel outside to avoid any potential risk of transmission.

Meanwhile, when my family and friends eventually return to their offices — which might have minimal or no screening measures in place, nor other policies to lower the potential for infection — they may not have the same peace of mind.

And chances are, it’s going to be a long time before they ever forget to wear a mask.

Has your area been reopening? How has it been for you?

Ditching Beijing Subway for a Chevy: A Tale of Caution Amid Reopening – Pub’d on WWAM BAM

The group blog WWAM BAM just published my post Ditching Beijing Subway for a Chevy: A Tale of Caution Amid Reopening. Here’s an excerpt:

Before the virus, it seemed unimaginable that my colleagues at the office in Beijing would brave the snarl of traffic jams in their own four wheels.

Most of the cars parked at work usually belong to managers or supervisors – people who had put in years there or brought seniority to their position, and were rewarded with a designated space, surely one of the most coveted possessions in Beijing, if not most major Chinese cities.

But just the other day, my colleague – a local who is not a supervisor, manager or anyone with years of seniority – announced that he had ditched the subway for his own Chevy while we were chatting after work.

He used to commute in on the subway before the virus, he admitted. But now his navy-blue sedan ferried him to and from his home on the other side of town – because, in his words, “It’s safer.” The potential risk associated with the subways had kept him away.

He didn’t need to spell out what that risk was. We had all lived the coronavirus since late January, learning to avoid indoor and unventilated spaces crowded with people to steer clear of potential infections. Subways check every box in terms of places you shouldn’t be.

Head over to WWAM BAM to read the full post. And if you like it, share it!

‘I’m a Volunteer (in China)’: Spanish Woman Helps Beijing Community Amid COVID-19

Across the world, front-line workers in many places, including communities, have played a pivotal role in fighting against the COVID-19 outbreak. And here in China, they include foreigners such as Laura, or 龙小西 (lóng xiǎo xī), a Spanish woman who serves as a front-line volunteer in her community in Shunyi district, Beijing, where she also lives with her husband, a Chinese national.

China Education Network Television spotlighted her efforts, along with others, in a video news report titled I’m a Volunteer (我是一名志愿者, wǒ shì yī míng zhì yuàn zhě).

I actually know Laura myself, as we’ve met up a couple of times during social gatherings here in the Beijing area. What a delightful surprise to see her on TV!

Here are a few excerpts from the interview with Laura, where she’s speaking in English:

I saw all the colleagues from the management, they’re really busy, the compound has a lot of activities. And they need someone who can help them for the English translations, and also with the door service. So I decide to join the team.

Actually I thought because in this moment is when we need more people helping each other. And you just need to wear your mask and your gloves and keep your hands clean and follow all the protection regulations, so you can help.

I think it’s totally safe nowadays, because everybody put a lot of effort (in) to make it safe. You can see every day in the compound people are wearing masks, going outside with the masks, with gloves, keeping the social distance. It’s really important. We have to keep on doing this until the situation improves.

With her amiable smile and initiative, Laura serves as a reminder that many foreigners who live in China are doing their part to support the nation they call home during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can watch the full segment featuring Laura (which begins at 3:51 in the video) online. And if you like it, share it!

How the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak Has Changed My Daily Life Here in China

As the novel coronavirus epidemic has gripped China, it has led to a cascade of life changes for everyone still here in the country, especially those living in Hubei or the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

I reside in Beijing, which hasn’t been as hard hit as Wuhan or Hubei province or other regions. Nevertheless the ongoing epidemic has still touched my life in a variety of ways, and it has meant adapting to a new, albeit temporary, existence in the name of doing our small part to prevent and control this new virus.

For those of you outside of China wondering what it might be like to be here right now, as an average person, I wanted to share some of my own experiences as someone residing in Beijing.

I’ve been at work during most of the Spring Festival holiday – the news doesn’t take a vacation — which allowed me to see it all unfold.

First things first — why I’m staying put

As many foreigners living in China have engaged in the “do I stay or do I go” debate, I’ve never once entertained the thought. For me, it was never even a question – of course I would stay. My life and work are here, my husband is here, and this country has long been a second home to me. No matter the headwinds, Jun and I will soldier on together in China.

Furthermore, people (such as Michael Wester in a piece for the Beijinger) have noted that travel poses a far greater risk for exposure to the novel coronavirus — on the train, bus or taxi to the airport, in the airport itself and even on the plane. And some asymptomatic cases have emerged, which means someone who appears perfectly healthy could in fact carry and transmit the virus.

It also helps to keep the epidemic in perspective. Consider what the US Center for Disease Control has said about the seasonal flu in the US:

CDC estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9 million – 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.

And here’s what the CDC said about the 2018-19 flu season in the US:

CDC estimates that influenza was associated with more than 35.5 million illnesses, more than 16.5 million medical visits, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths during the 2018–2019 influenza season.

In any event, I am here to stay in Beijing. And remaining here means making a contribution, however insignificant, to support efforts to manage the outbreak, which involves complying with the many changes and measures now in place because of the epidemic.

Avoid going out, crowded places or unnecessary gatherings

News reports and public service announcements constantly remind us to not meet up or go to crowded places, and to generally avoid going out unless you absolutely have to. Because of this advice, I actually canceled a get-together at my apartment that I had planned with an old friend.

Many people in China have had to do the same, and it’s tough at this time of year, because visiting family and friends is a holiday tradition in Chinese culture known as bainian – but TV spots have suggested doing any such meetups online, such as a video chat.

Most cities have made the choice relatively easy – for example, Beijing canceled all of its temple fairs during the holiday, closed up nearly every major tourist attraction, and shuttered theaters to stage performances and screen movies.

Games in China national soccer and basketball leagues have halted.

Even my Catholic diocese here in Beijing has suspended all masses until further notice. Some people in a local faith community chat post the week’s readings for church and other suggestions for worship in lieu of going to church.

At the same time, recently local governments have encouraged people to work from home, and have delayed the start of school until later in February or even until March.

For me, abiding by the recommendation to avoid going out, crowds and gatherings means that I only spend time in the office and at home. Since I live just around the corner from the office, getting to work is still very easy and involves little chance for coming into contact with lots of people. As it is, I generally encounter only a handful of folks on the streets when I make the short walk between my apartment and the office.

I don’t mind having to stay in and avoid going out or meeting up with people. We all must make some small sacrifices to do our part to support the fight against the epidemic. And besides, I’m quite the homebody, loving an excuse to enjoy a movie night at home, read a book, write or cook up something delicious in the kitchen (like vegan carrot cake….mmmm!).

Temperature checks to enter main work building, community

During this outbreak, everyone must have their temperature checked in order to enter the main work building or our community. The checks help to detect one of the major symptoms of the virus – fever. Nobody with a temperature of 37.3 degrees Celsius or higher can come in.

If you register a fever, you would have to visit one of the designated clinics in the city that receives patients with fever and/or other potential symptoms. One of those clinics sits just a 10- to 15-minute walk down the street, so if I ever actually had to go, I could easily make it there on foot.

But of course, nobody really wants to get that kind of “firsthand hospital experience”. I don’t really fear for my life since I’m healthy — but I also don’t relish the idea of ending up isolated in a hospital for any period of time!

That’s why I have stepped up my vigilance to ensure I don’t get sick and end up developing a suspicious fever or other symptoms. Mostly, that means doing things like washing hands as much as possible, not touching my face, and paying more attention to hygiene in general.

I still continue my trusty “walking program” indoors, together with Jun, thanks to an exercise video.

Also, as l still work these days, I try to take it easy as much as possible and rest more in every way possible. (It’s a great excuse for me to indulge in some herbal additional foot baths for relaxation and well-being!)

Health reports to work unit

Human resources has asked us to also report our health and situation to them every sday starting late last week. We need to tell who we’re living with, where we are, whether we’ve had any connection to Hubei province (the epicenter of the virus), whether we have a normal temperature, and how we’re feeling. This appears to be common practice at other work units and even schools, based on what other people in chat groups have reported.

As odd as it might feel at times, I understand the measures – it’s a way for an organization to ensure early detection and quarantine, if necessary.

No more delivery guys allowed inside community

Before, delivery guys would bring any packages straight to our apartment door. But in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus, anyone in the community receiving a delivery must pick it up at the gate. Again, it’s understandable, even if it creates some inconvenience – and could mean making two trips just to bring your order back.

In some cases, I’ve read that other communities in places in China have required no contact between people for any deliveries (in other words, the delivery guy must leave the goods at the gate and not hand them directly to you — after the person leaves, then you can retrieve your order). And some areas of China with more severe outbreaks have chosen to temporarily suspend deliveries altogether.

We feel very grateful deliveries to still receive deliveries here in our community in Beijing – including groceries and vegetables. We did our most recent produce shopping via delivery and this allowed us to get groceries without having to go to a market, which again helps to reduce person-to-person contact, an important way to prevent the novel coronavirus.

Face masks in short supply, making do with what you have

Once Wuhan and other cities in Hubei went into quarantine, it set off a wave of panic shopping on masks, leaving many – including me – with few to wear.

The official guidance suggests wearing a mask when you go out and many have been recommending disposable masks. But if you don’t have many, you can’t afford to throw them out. And if you have just a few, you don’t want to wear a potentially dirty face mask multiple times. Besides, a recent WHO report said:

Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures to limit spread of certain respiratory diseases, including 2019-nCoV, in affected areas. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide the adequate level of protection and other equally relevant measures should be adopted.

I figure, having something to cover my face outside, as a courtesy and to abide by the official guidance, will do for now.

I tie a large winter scarf around my head to cover my nose and mouth area. It works perfectly and, as a bonus, I can regularly wash it for good hygiene.

At the same time, the shortage in China has resulted in a lot of ingenious face mask alternatives emerging, some with hilarious results – masks made from instant noodle containers, plastic water jugs, plastic bags, pomelo/grapefruit rinds, T-shirts and, yes, even a thong.

A very empty office

At the office, we have easily at least 30 or 40 people on our floor, if not more. But these days, I can generally count on one hand everyone I’ve seen here.

Why are most of my colleagues not here? Besides heeding the advice to avoid crowding in offices, the company has, as an extra precaution, also asked everyone who left Beijing during the holiday to quarantine themselves in their homes for 14 days before coming to work. Given that most of my colleagues are either not from Beijing or like to travel during the holidays, that has forced the vast majority of them into this self-quarantine situation.

Still, I see a silver lining — at least I don’t have to queue up at the women’s bathroom in the office right now.

Don’t worry about me and Jun — we are doing fine here in Beijing, as I reported earlier this week, and have adjusted well to the new situation.

In the meantime, until things change, I will continue to work, stay positive and pray for the people on the front line as well as the patients and everyone else directly affected by the virus. Stay strong, Wuhan!

Are you living in China right now and experiencing the epidemic? Or do you know someone who currently is? Share those experiences in the comments.

Short Update Amid Virus: We Are Safe, Well in Beijing

Posting a quick update here, as the novel coronavirus outbreak here in China has made headlines around the world, leading some family and friends to express concern over me and Jun here in Beijing.

I just wanted to let everyone know we are safe and well in the capital city. My office is just around the corner from my apartment, and our residence has put in place reasonable measures to reduce the possibility of transmission, including temperature checks for everyone.

Demand for news coverage on the novel coronavirus has kept us extremely busy at the office. I’ve been working through most of the holiday, which has also left me with a lot less time and energy to quickly post an update here. In any event, I will update you with more soon.

‘Spinster Kang’: Interview with Author Zoe Roy

The life of a 30-something Chinese immigrant, haunted by her past and determined never to marry, creates a powerful portrait of courage in the new novel Spinster Kang by Zoe Roy.

Set in Toronto, Canada, the novel follows the titular character Kang, as she strives to build a new life for herself in her adopted country while grappling with her own past and, later, the past of another fellow immigrant she befriends in the story. The book explores women’s issues across cultures, from dating and marriage to sexual assault and divorce, as well as cross-cultural relationships (through two parallel love stories). Spinster Kang strikes a more positive note throughout its pages, despite some of the heavy topics, so readers will find it easy to settle into the story, even when it touches on the shadows of life.

It’s my pleasure to introduce Spinster Kang to you through this interview with the author Zoe S. Roy.

Here’s Zoe Roy’s bio from Goodreads:

Born in China, Zoë S. Roy, an avid reader even during the Cultural Revolution, writes literary fiction with a focus on women’s cross-cultural experiences. She holds an MEd in Adult Education and an MA in Atlantic Canada Studies from the University of New Brunswick and Saint Mary’s University. She currently lives in Toronto and taught for the Toronto Public School Board for years.

You can learn more about Zoe Roy at her website. The novel Spinster Kang is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.


Tell us about what inspired you to write this novel.

In 2011, I made a comment on the website entitled “What is Toronto?’ by the writer, Susan Screan, at http://www.whatistoronto.ca/susan-on-toronto/lets-all-fillintheblank-toronto#comments. Her website was the initial inspiration for the setting of Spinster Kang. Here’s a part of my comment: “Toronto is where I resumed my career and also a place that I call home now. As a non-Toronto-born Torontonian, I’m thinking about having my next novel set in Toronto as a contribution to this great city.”

How did you conceive of the main character in Spinster Kang?

There’s a long story behind my main character. In 1993, Gu Cheng, A Chinese poet who was exiled in New Zealand, killed his wife, Xie Ye, before he hung himself. The death of Xie Ye haunted me, and her acceptance of her husband’s lover in sharing their lives together perplexed me, too. I imagined that if Xie Ye had survived, she would’ve been terrified by men. Several years later, I wrote a short story of a confirmed spinster who distrusts and fears men because of her sister being a rape victim in China. After coming to Canada, she tells a gay friend about her sister’s story that not only releases her from dismay in the past, but also gradually helps build up her trust in men. The story was written in a series of dialogue without a good storyline since I was at the stage of learning how to create plots. Dissatisfied, I put the story on the back burner. However, that story didn’t die out but grew stronger in my head over the years. Then I continually made cross-cultural comparisons about the different social conditions for women and their love affairs or relationships; I also imagined how a woman who distrusted men would change in a different culture. Nearly two decades later after Xie Ye’s death, I wrote about Spinster Kang as a novel.  So to speak, Xie Ye’s tragedy has inspired me to write my protagonist, Kang.

Through Kang’s experiences, you explore a number of women’s issues, including rape and sexual assault as well as stigmatizing women at certain ages, and consider them through a cross-cultural lens. Why did you choose to look at these issues in Spinster Kang?

I’ve been interested in women’s issues since I was young through reading and observation in life. In addition, I’ve been making some comparisons between China and North America in my writing. For example, about rape, many families in China prefer hiding the fact from the public to protect the victim from feeling humiliated and protect themselves from feeling humiliated or being humiliated. The raped women would have trouble getting married as if being sexually assaulted is their own fault instead of being seen as victims. However, in North America victims and their families are more encouraged to report it. The issue is more open in public. The rape victims wouldn’t be discriminated against when they choose to have a relationship or get married.

Women’s preference for getting married or staying single in China is a main issue in Spinster Kang. According to Chinese tradition, grown-up women must get married; otherwise, people would treat you as an abnormal woman or even as if you were an alien. In contemporary China, many women receive higher education and have a career, but these women spend more years on education and career development so that they may not get married until around 25 or even 30. They are called “leftover women” — “剩女” in Chinese. According to a Chinese adage, “A man by the age of thirty should have accomplished his goals,” but this milestone age for unmarried women implies that “you’re at a doomed age and become undesirable.” “Leftover women” is a name tag for these women while “spinster” is a particular nickname for Kang. In this novel, I also touch a taboo subject in China since homosexual people are not accepted. Many Chinese are not aware of their existence. Kang is no exception so that there is an amusing story to go with her based on her misunderstanding the culture as a newcomer.

Your story features two cross-cultural, interracial relationships, one set in Canada and other in Soviet Russia. Why did you juxtapose these two relationships in your story?

These two relationships in the novel are juxtaposed to show that different cultural and social environments can make different impacts on women’s personal lives and their choices. It also shows a linear comparison about the personal life of Kang and her father. Tania and Kang both experience cross-cultural, interracial relationships, but the former ends sorrowfully; the latter has a happy ending, because of the different eras and places. In the early 1950s, China regarded the former Soviet Union as a fraternal country because of the Stalin-Mao Alliance; Students at high schools or at universities all over China were encouraged to learn Russian. Sending Chinese students to study at Soviet universities was put in practice. Kang’s father’s love story reflects this historic period, and his interracial relationship with a Soviet citizen without the Communist Party’s permission was not allowed. Not only was he forced to leave his lover in the Soviet Union, but he was also branded a rightist after returning to China because of his love affair with a foreigner. Kang’s interracial relationship with Brian happens in Canada where people have the freedom to choose what they want.

What do you hope people come away with after reading your novel?

I hope readers, especially those women readers who have cross-cultural experience or interracial relationships or both, would feel emotionally connected to one or more of these characters. I expect, after reading this novel, readers would recognize something or someone familiar or they can identify something new or something old related to their own experiences that could help them get rid of any unpleasant feelings in their past and appreciate more what they have in life or feel happier about their relationships.


Many thanks to Zoe Roy for this interview! You can learn more about Zoe Roy at her website. The novel Spinster Kang is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.

Photo Essay: The Couple Who Walks Together, Stays Together

Jun and I have discovered our common love for walking and hiking, and it has led to many adventures outdoors in Beijing, from tracing the canal near my office to getting lost in the woods in Olympic Forest Park. This week, I’m sharing a selection of some favorite recent photos, perhaps proving that the couple who walks together, stays together.

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Wherever you are, wishing you a gorgeous autumn!

Guard in Beijing Shows How NOT to Ask for Help Finding Foreign Girlfriend

Recently, a guard in the community where I live surely demonstrated exactly how NOT to ask for an introduction to a foreign girlfriend.

For starters, his timing proved terrible. When he opened the door of his post to speak to me, I happened to be passing through the gate, hurrying to the office. Not exactly the perfect moment to discuss romantic matters.

Of course, the very question — “Could you help me find a foreign girlfriend?” – would surely surprise the average person, expecting a hand wave or a “Ni Hao”, but puzzled me in particular.

Nearly a year earlier, I recalled this same guard yearning to return ahead of Chinese New Year to his hometown in another province, distressed that if he couldn’t get a train ticket back home in time, then he would surely miss, in his words, his “son’s childhood”.

Which meant, of course, that he already had a wife – and a kid.

Furthermore, I had even witnessed him dispensing relationship advice to an unmarried friend of his, keen to “learn the ropes” from someone supposedly “older and wiser”.

So when I heard his question, I raised an eyebrow in disbelief and almost wondered if this was his way of telling me he had just wrapped up a tidy divorce. Had he really let go of his wife?

Instead, I said to him, “But you’re married, right?”

A grin crept across his face. “She doesn’t have to know that.”

Oh, goodness.

I have no idea if the guard was actually being serious. This is, after all, a guy who once blurted out to me in English, “I love you”, and I could swear he stifled a laugh at the time. (Note too that, for many Chinese, saying “I love you” in English doesn’t necessary have the same weight or meaning.)

Still, for all I know he might also subscribe to that awful line of thought that foreign women make for perfect partners for an affair. (See point No 1 in my post 5 Fascinating Stereotypes of Western Women in China.)

Given that the last thing I wanted was a reputation for setting up women with men who cheat on their wives, I shook my head and said no.

And as I made my way into the office, a more perfect response to all of this nonsense arose in my thoughts – face in palm.