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?

8 Adorable Masks For Couples Found on China’s Taobao

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, masks have become an indispensable form of protective gear not only for health care workers but also average people too. Here in China, it’s still mandatory to wear a mask when going out. Yet this essential item has also turned into an opportunity to show off your relationship and fashion sense as a couple when you’re both out and about.

Yes, I’m talking about masks just for couples. And on China’s Taobao platform, you can find a host of adorable options to cover up together with that special someone in your life. So you can say to the world, the couple that wears masks together, not only stays together — but stays safe amid COVID-19.

Here are 8 of the cutest options I found on Taobao:

Wear your heart not only on your sleeve, but also your mask too with these complementary masks, featuring hearts with the same design in different colors.

The mask for him says “Love”, the one for her sports a little kitty-cat face. While I have no idea how they paired these two up, it does make for a darling duo, regardless.

Astrology fans will rejoice with these masks embroidered with each of the 12 zodiac signs. Wear yours as a couple and show off your astrological compatibility. And if you’re single, wear it out to sidestep that annoying “Hey, what’s your sign?” pickup line.

Perfect for the anime lovers, these masks come decorated with cartoon versions of a lovely boy and girl just made for each other.

If it’s true that opposites really do attract, then surely one of you must be naughty and the other nice. Now you could wear your disposition on your face — or fight over who gets to be naughty today. 😉

Pit the fairy (“小仙女”, up top on girl’s mask) against the devil prince (“大魔王”) in this fantasy-inspired pair of masks. Wahahahahaha!

Adorned with the words “Love Story”, one mask features a girl who just released her heart in a bottle out to sea, and the other a boy waiting to receive it. It’s one of the many adorable options from this store that just might have you humming that Taylor Swift song.

You might call it a bicycle design built for two. On hers, a girl rides on two wheels while leaving a trail of hearts behind her. On his, a boy collects every single one. It just might pedal its way into your heart too.

What do you think of these masks? Which one is the most adorable?

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!

Has Coronavirus Made My Balsamic Vinegar More Expensive?

Balsamic vinegar never cost more than 25 yuan (~$3.50) in my online supermarket. But recently, it left me with a sour aftertaste when I discovered the outlet now selling it for 69 yuan (~$9.80), a more than threefold jump in the price. And I had to wonder, was this because of the coronavirus?

Here in China, balsamic vinegar has always starred among the tantalizing selection of imported foods you can find in supermarkets, particularly those online. If anything, online shopping has made securing this trademark Italian condiment that much easier, because so many sellers have flooded major platforms, like Taobao and JD. We have always relied on our online supermarket, which can deliver as fast as the same day you place an order. Plus, it even boasts not one nor two but three mouthwatering versions of balsamic vinegar.

Over the years, I’ve consistently stuck with the best-selling option, with a price that hovers around 25 yuan. And it has delivered that rich, sweet flavor on just about every creation I’ve ever used it in (with our household favorite surely being my vegan bruschetta, served on crusty homemade wheat bread — yum!).

But now, if I want to enjoy one full bottle I must fork over the cost of what nearly three used to be.

Has coronavirus bumped up the price of balsamic vinegar?

According to a report by HuffPost on March 19, the contagion hasn’t been curbing exports out of Italy to the US, at least:

But is Italy’s crisis impeding shipments of our beloved pastas and balsamic vinegars? Not necessarily.

“The strangest thing is, production and shipping in Italy has not come to a halt,” said Rolando Beramendi, who owns the Oakland and New York-based Italian food import company Manicaretti. “People are still producing and shipping. Every day I’m in close communication with the 38 producers I work with in Italy. They’re fine. The trucks are able to get to the port.”

Still, the article notes that one importer canceled a shipment of cheese, citing “a combination of surge pricing in the air cargo rates and a series of flight cancellations,” which suggests that some exports from Italy may be getting more expensive. Has this happened to the supply chain for China as well?

Meanwhile, a more recent April 29 report on Italy at NPR, titled Italy Considers Permits For Undocumented Migrants To Fill A Big Farmworker Gap, notes the following (emphasis mine):

Seasonal farmworkers usually go to Italy each year from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, but recent lockdowns have kept them home. That’s creating a critical shortage of labor for picking fruits and vegetables needed for food and exports.

As Italy rushes to solve this issue by considering granting work permits to undocumented migrants, the situation itself reflects the inherent uncertainty that can reverberate all the way to our own dinner table. Could that be driving up the price too?

Regardless, like any couple, Jun and I have to eat. And for now, we’d prefer to eat at home, with the kind of gusto that comes from a well-prepared meal. With our preferred ingredients, like balsamic vinegar. So if I can’t find better alternatives, I may just shell out for a pricier bottle.

The things we do for la dolce vita.

What do you think? Have you seen the price of balsamic vinegar rise in your area? Or other Italian imports?

‘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!

Separate Plates, Serving Chopsticks: Dining Out in China Changes Amid COVID-19

A few years back, I snapped a photo of Jun and myself huddled with family around a table stacked with more delicacies than all of us could humanly finish in a meal.

Like most meals with relatives, we all had our own rice bowl, but were expected to pluck vegetables or meats from the communal dishes before us, using our own chopsticks.

Sharing meals as a group has long endured as a hallmark of Chinese dining culture, whether at home or while dining out. It made the experience more intimate, a way to reinforce the bond among everyone at the table and a reflection of the communal culture of society.

But in the coronavirus era, the tables have turned on this etiquette, prompting a transformation in dining in public restaurants.

The national health authority in China just mandated that restaurants should serve diners separate dishes of food for each person. This move comes months after areas and regions have moved in this direction due to the outbreak. For example, in February Shanghai had already proposed having separate spoons and chopsticks for serving people from communal dishes, noting “such a change of etiquette allows diners to avoid using their own chopsticks to pick food from the same dishes and therefore reduces the chances of transmission of many diseases.”

This new approach has gotten mixed reviews, as China Daily notes in its March 2020 story A Question of Table Manners:

Recently a photograph published in China promoting the idea of dining alone and with one’s own plates and dishes set off a storm a lot bigger than you’ll find in a Chinese teacup. Some saw the suggestion almost as sacrilege, running totally counter to the idea of communal eating that goes back centuries in Chinese culture, while others wondered whether, like the near disappearance of the Chinese tunic suit, it was just another sign of changing times.

Still, the same story highlights that Chinese dining norms have evolved throughout history, and they didn’t always involve communal dining from the same plates. An op-ed titled Social distancing on the dining table too offers a good summary:

Separate dishes for everyone is not something new for China; the earliest records show people having their meals from separate dishes. Even during big feasts, people had a table to themselves. And there is nothing to suggest this practice was because of an epidemic. Instead, this helped personalize the menu for everyone and avoid the wasting of food.

It was not until the Jin Dynasty (265-420), when nomadic tribes from the northern regions migrated to China, that people started having their meals from common dishes on a shared table. Some historians say the food for nomadic tribes, say a whole sheep, was difficult to divide and serve. Besides, tribes rarely had metals to fashion enough pots.

So in China, a switch to a more separate, personalized experience might merely be reverting to a historical norm, but for a different reason — to fight the coronavirus.

Of course, nowadays restaurants do far more than offer separate dishes and utensils for serving. A friend of mine recently patronized a restaurant in Beijing. The eatery checked her temperature, required her to register her name and phone number with them, and had her and her dining companion sit diagonally from one another at the table. What she described jives with everything I had read on the local Beijinger blog about the guidelines for dining out in restaurants amid COVID-19.

As for Jun and myself, for now, we’ll stick with our favorite way to “dine out”, one we’ve often indulged in long before the pandemic began — home delivery.

What do you think?

Have Introverts Found Silver Lining in COVID-19 w/ More Time Alone? – Pub’d on WWAM BAM

The group blog WWAM BAM just published my post titled Have Introverts Found Silver Lining in COVID-19 w/ More Time Alone? Here’s an excerpt:

To go out or not, that was the question.

At least, for many of us, it used to be something we all asked ourselves in the pre-COVID-19 era, as the weekend approached, with possibilities for dining, socializing and other activities that took us out and about in our respective cities.

But the coronavirus has prompted nations across the world to respond with stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, dispensing with the wrangling over where to head for the weekend. Cue the internet memes with “travel plans” involving a floor plan of one’s apartment or home.

However, as socializing and going out gets put on hold, some of us, such as myself, have quietly breathed a sigh of relief. And I was reminded of this by recently by a message from a friend of mine in the US.

She’s a few weeks into her stay at home and noted that, in spite of the other pressures that the coronavirus has swept into her life, it had cleared away one notable item – the stress of socializing. She had often spent much time debating over whether or not to take her kid out to see others, and pushed herself to go out even when it was probably the last thing she wanted to do.

But calls for people to remain at home, apart from essential errands such as grocery shopping or picking up medicine, proved liberating for her – because she’s an introvert.

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

Finnish Woman in Guangzhou Spreads Love for City w/ Heartwarming Campaign

The coronavirus has not only ravaged countries around the world with an alarming death toll and economic hardship, but also through heightening anxieties and igniting hatred and discrimination. These are dark times for us.

But some have responded by lighting the way forward to spread a little more love and understanding, like Sara Jaaksola, a Finnish woman in Guangzhou who runs a Chinese language teaching business and is married to a local man. Here’s what she said:

I’ve been living in Guangzhou for 10 years, probably will stay here for the next 10 years as well. I feel this is my city, this is the place where I feel like home. So when fear and hate spreads faster than the virus, I feel responsible for doing something about it.

So she created a social media campaign, sharing her love for Guangzhou and asking others to do the same. And she got 80 other residents to join in, posting their own uplifting photos declaring their affection for the city. She shared the backstory behind it all:

To share a little personal story. My local sister-in-law sent a message in our family WeChat group: “Check out this news and be careful when being in touch with foreigners”. I felt my heart broke.

All my years in Guangzhou I’ve been trying to work as a bridge between the Chinese and foreigners. I moved here because I love the language and the culture. I’ve been married to my local husband for 6 years and our daughter is 4.

After all of this, she sent me this message. Not just a stranger on the street, but my family member. Telling me I should be careful when seeing my students and friends. That other should be careful when seeing me and my daughter.

I decided then, that I can’t stop when I feel hurt or sad, that is exactly the time to show everyone that we all can live together in Guangzhou. That we don’t need to be afraid of each other, instead we should learn to understand each other.

Head on over to Sara’s blog to read the whole story and also view all of the touching personal photos from other Guangzhou residents. She proves that, while fear may be contagious, so is love. Pass it on.

 

‘Always Goodbye’: Ups, Downs in China, US and Beyond in Graphic Novel by Ray Hecht

In this midst of this worldwide pandemic, I’ve found myself passing on those dystopian novels I used to adore and instead seeking out a little more “comfort food” in the books I’ve read this year. Lighthearted, humorous and even self-deprecating stories of people grappling with everyday problems that you wouldn’t find in a disaster film have offered me much-needed refuge in these unusual and challenging times for all. Bonus if they touch on experiences I’ve had living here in China and Asia, including cross-cultural dating and relationships.

Thank goodness Ray Hecht sent me his new graphic novel Always Goodbye, which really hit the spot on all fronts.

The graphic novel spans Ray’s life from birth up to 2019, and it makes for a pleasant read, thanks to its honesty. As much as it charts the highs in his life, the novel also delves into those lows and failures too as he pursues a variety of different careers, not always with success. Ray approaches even difficult topics and moments with a refreshing sense of humor, and we could all use a laugh these days. And Ray’s experiences in moving to China and dating locals will resonate with those of us who have visited or lived here.

I’m honored to feature this interview with Ray Hecht about Always Goodbye.

Here’s Ray’s bio from Amazon:

Author Ray Hecht was born in Israel and raised in the American Midwest. He currently lives in Taiwan.

You can learn more about Always Goodbye on Ray’s website. The graphic novel Always Goodbye is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.


Why did you decide to create this graphic novel?

I’ve always loved the comics medium. I worry I”m not quite good enough at drawing, and that’s why I’ve been focusing on prose writing for most of my creative career, but after a bit of a dry spell in book publishing I decided to return to my first love…

The decision was partly due to me just trying to practice the art of cartooning again. Focusing on myself has worked well with my writing before, so why not? Autobiography/memoir has been an indie comics tradition for many years, and it simply felt right for me to share my perspective that way. When I sat down and thought about the whole of my life, with the second half focused on being an expat in China until in the “climax” finale I moved to Taiwan, it seemed like a story worth telling.

What’s the story behind the title?

To be honest, I struggled to come up with a title. At last, it came to me.

Perhaps it’s a somewhat dark interpretation, but the one constant in my life seems to be that I always move. I moved from Israel to Indiana to Ohio to California to Ohio again to California again to China to Taiwan.

That’s a lot of goodbyes. So what else could I call this, other than “Always Goodbye”?

In your graphic novel, you chose to organize it chronologically, through your entire life. Why did you choose this approach?

Good question. Indeed, such a narrative doesn’t necessarily need to be chronological. Nor must it start at the beginning. Authors more clever than me may have taken a non-linear approach, but I went with being direct.

Back when I first thought about how to explain my life in a way that made sense, taking notes and interviewing my mom, I realized I didn’t just need to start with my birth; I actually needed to start with my parents. So the first years covered were 1954 and 1956, in Chicago and in the Ukraine of the former Soviet Union. From there, naturally it led to the year that I was born, and so on.

Plus, it was fun to map out a pop cultural or technological marker. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. 1982 to 2019, every year needed at least it’s own little chapter.

What was your favorite year to detail and why?

That would probably be 2008. A seminal year for me.

It was of course the year I risked it all and moved to Shenzhen, China to do the expat thing. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be in the China blog scene at all! But even before I moved, over in Southern California, a lot changed in my life. Maybe in a way that was the year I finally grew up. The crazy Burning Man festival part of that story was pretty interesting as well.

Your graphic novel gets very personal, including in how it portrays people close to you, such as family and friends. How have family and friends responded to your book?

I’ve been very fortunate to so far have almost no negative criticism from anyone portrayed in the book. I feel extremely lucky and grateful for that, otherwise it could have gone awkward.

Even if someone did respond negatively: My philosophy is that they were my experiences and I have a right to express what happened as long as I was involved (so long as I don’t literally libel someone, or expose some deep dark secret or anything). There was a common sense balance to the portrayals. I also didn’t include any last names for obvious reasons.

I needn’t have worried. For the most part, I have found that a lot of people are flattered to be caricatured in a graphic novel by me!

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

I suppose the main hope is to increase readers’ empathy.

If you’ve met me in person, please read to get a better understanding of who I am and where I come from. If you haven’t met me in person, I do hope that my life stories around the world are interesting and entertaining, and can also give some sort of deeper window into a different person’s perspective.

After all, isn’t that ultimately what all art is all about?


Many thanks to Ray Hecht for this interview! You can learn more about Always Goodbye on Ray’s website. The graphic novel Always Goodbye is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.

No Longer ‘Sleepless in Beijing’ After Sharing My Epidemic Experience – Pub’d on China Daily

China Daily just published my latest column titled No longer ‘Sleepless in Beijing’ after sharing my epidemic experience. Here’s an excerpt:

If my life in March were a movie, you might call it “Sleepless in Beijing”, as I spent much of the month worrying about the health and well-being of family and friends in my home country of the US, where the coronavirus epidemic was getting worse.

Only a month or so earlier, I had been the one they were concerned about, as they inquired about my situation in China and wondered if I was safe. But the tables had swiftly turned as the epicenter of the pandemic had shifted to Europe and experts predicted the US would be next. So there I was, dashing off anxious text messages to make sure nobody in the family had coronavirus symptoms, and even pleading with loved ones, sometimes in tears, to cancel meetings and other social gatherings.

At the height of my fears, I woke up one morning and decided to send out an email to my closest family and friends in the US, detailing my own personal experiences in Beijing with epidemic prevention and control over the past few months. I thought they might better understand the importance of the measures we had already lived – such as going out less, avoiding contact with other people, and not gathering together – if they heard it from someone they knew and cared about.

I hit the send button, crossed my fingers, and prayed at least one of them would actually read my words and heed the warnings.

You can read the full column here. And if you like it, share it. Wishing everyone out there safety and good health.