Photo Essay: Ningxia Video Shoot (More Than Just Goji Berries)

I just returned from a weeklong trip to Ningxia to do a video shoot, where I learned more about how the province is doing poverty relief, with the help of the internet.

Prior to heading to Ningxia, the greatest impression I had of the province was through one of its most renowned agricultural products — goji berries or wolfberries (枸杞,gǒuqǐ).

And, yes, I did get a chance to get up close and personal with goji berries, even enjoying the rare opportunity to pick fresh goji berries right from the plant. (Goji berries only stay fresh for about two to three days after being harvested, so they are generally sun dried into the wrinkly red-orange berries that end up in your kitchen pantry.)

But I discovered Ningxia offers so much more, in terms of specialty agricultural products — and also in terms of how those products have helped power poverty relief by the internet.

First stop — Minning Hemei Factory, which packages and sells direct a variety of local specialty products (including goji berries) which mainly come from Ningxia. All the products are natural with no preservatives, and purchasing them helps support efforts to relieve poverty — including at the businesses that make the products as well as the factory itself.

The factory, built right beside a Hui minority community, hires only Hui people to work for it, and 99.9 percent of the workers there are women.

Hai Yan is the young woman at the factory I got to know. She’s been working there for a year. Before coming to the factory, she was a housewife. And the working opportunity there completely changed her life.

She invited me to experience the factory, which meant getting suited up to dress just like her and the rest of the workers. Love the flowered gloves!

Initially, Hai Yan (standing beside me) worked on the lines in the factory, assisting with sorting and packaging. Here I’m experiencing what it’s like to package goji berries while talking to another woman who works at the factory.

But then, when COVID-19 emerged, the factory changed strategy and decided to train these women to do livestreaming. Most of the women, like Hai Yan, haven’t received education beyond primary school. But they were eager to learn and work hard. Through this training, the factory chose the six best women in livestreaming skills and created a team they dubbed the 巧媳妇 (qiăo xífù), which means skillful wives. And these women take turns doing livestreams throughout the week, where they promote the factory’s products. This is a screenshot from the livestream I did together with Hai Yan.

Hai Yan (standing at front) gave me a quick lesson in how to do livestreaming. Before, she used to be very nervous about livestreams — and now she’s teaching me how to do it!

We did a livestream for over 30 minutes together, where we promoted a number of the products at the factory, including goji berries and black goji berries.

Through the experience, I feel like I made a new friend!

She also showed me around her charming community, with its neat rows of brick houses. Her home is just a five-minute walk from the factory, and so are the schools for her kids. It’s incredibly convenient, and that’s a big reason why so many of the young women love working there.

We also had a conversation at her home, sitting under an apple tree. In my hand I’m holding an apple picked from her tree — so crisp, sweet and just a little tart, which is exactly how I love my apples.

Hai Yan wore her favorite hat. She told me that Hui women, after marrying, should cover their head. Traditionally they would wear a kind of hijab — but nowadays they may also wear fashionable hats too.

Then we ventured out to the beautiful big sky country of Ningxia in Yanchi county, where we visited the Ningxin sheep ranch run by Feng Huan (the man in the white jacket). He raises organic mutton that also helps support poverty relief.

The ranch has a specific flock of sheep raised to support impoverished families, where the proceeds help to pay for school tuition, health care or more nutritious food. And the sheep are sold online through an app, which allows customers to see what the sheep are doing 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the cameras set up all around the ranch.

The sheep are given high-quality feed and daily exercise to maintain an optimal weight, and listen to music each day. All of this care ensures the sheep are happier, which in turn leads to better mutton.

I got the chance to meet a sheep named Princess, who is a pet sheep around the ranch. Given the darling outfit of overalls and red striped shirt, Princess clearly gets the royal treatment around the ranch. She follows the senior man, Feng’s grandfather, around the ranch like a puppy and lives a charmed life (without, of course, worry of slaughter).

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for animals and had so much fun playing with Princess.

I even made friends with a bunch of other sheep, which astonished everyone, including Feng. The sheep usually fear strangers, but they warmed up to me and soon I had an entire crowd of sheep nuzzling my hand. Feng joked that the sheep “gave me good face”.

The landscape, covered in brush and hundreds of different herbs, such as the gorgeous purple huangqi (黄芪, huángqí) or Astragalus membranaceus, brought back memories of some of my favorite trips out in the western US, cruising through the prairie lands of states such as Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.

I couldn’t help snapping a few shots of the huangqi flowers, which looked dazzling in my favorite shade of purple.

Then we made our way to Xiamaguan village in Tongxin county, home to a factory producing a variety of grains, from oats to buckwheat and more. There I met the factory owner Wang Dejun, who quizzed me on the different grains they produce. I had to guess which name went with which product on the table. (I guessed right!)

And if you’re wondering why I’m still wearing that same purple jacket, it was really chilly that day — and even raining a bit in this very scene.

This factory employs people from impoverished households to help them improve their lives, and also assists poor families by raising crops for them and then giving them the proceeds. The grains they produce get sold directly on the internet through a variety of platforms, including my favorite of Taobao.

Wang took me out to the buckwheat fields, which were so beautiful and vast, surrounded by mountains, that I was inspired to belt out a rendition of the song the “Sound of Music”.

The fields actually sit on a high plateau nourished by the rain, and have never been developed, so they are unspoiled and produce high-quality grains.

Overall, I discovered Ningxia offers so much more than just goji berries, and is also making great efforts to help more people live better lives, thanks in part to the internet.

Traveling to China’s Ningxia for Video Shoot

This week I’m in the Chinese province of Ningxia (which is in the west, with desert areas, mountains and the Yellow River running through, and also the land of the wolfberry/goji berry). I’m in the midst of a very busy video shoot — but I promise to return next week with plenty of photos to share. In the meantime, hope you are staying safe and healthy wherever you are, and wishing you a wonderful week!

American Woman’s Chinese Husband Has Leukemia, Needs Help

Lita, the Atlanta, Georgia native who many of you may remember from a few years back when I featured her as China’s WeChat Cookie Queen, is facing great difficulty. Her husband was diagnosed in August 2020 with acute myeloid leukemia, and the family has no health insurance to cover the expenses for treatment:

Lujun “Lawrence” Wang is my brother-in-law, married to my sister Shalita. Lawrence was recently(August 2020)diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). The diagnosis has been extremely hard for our family. Unfortunately, during this uncertain time of the pandemic, we were informed that he needs to start treatment immediately. He will need a bone marrow transplant and 3 months of chemotherapy; all of which is very expensive. Of course, as we all have experienced, they have a financial strain due to quarantine and lack of work. They are paying out of pocket because health insurance was 1 of the expenses they cut back on earlier this year(prior to the diagnosis)to get through the financial strain that coronavirus has brought to this world. Lawrence & Shalita, being  faithful believers in God are both trying to stand strong and weather through the storm.

Here’s the Chinese version of the story:

尊敬的广大社会爱心人士,您们好:
我叫王兵,今年35岁,得病的是我哥哥叫王路军,今年39岁,家住湖北省枣阳市。2004年,父亲永远的离开了我们,让人没想到的是,如今厄运又一次降临在我大哥身上,他被诊断出了急性髓系白血病,不得已,我只能怀着沉重的心情在此写下这篇求助信!

2020年8月9日,我大哥工作的时候,突然觉得身体非常不舒服,恶心,头晕还有点发烧,感觉像中暑了一样。就赶紧去了浙江大学医学院附属第四医院做检查,经过几天住院检查,被确诊为急性髓系白血病,由于当地医院治疗手段有限,我们于2020年8月17日来到北京治疗。

2020年8月19日,经过一系列防疫检查,我们住进了解放军总医院第五医学中心南院(原307医院)。

从我大哥开始看病的那一天起到现在,身体一天比一天虚弱,一天比一天消瘦,而且在这一段时间里,我大哥反复发烧,最高烧到40.2℃。有时候一烧就是一晚上,根本休息不好。因为父亲离开的早,大哥就像父亲一样照顾着我和妹妹,看到大哥现在这个样子,我心里非常非常难过,我们全家人都在为我哥祈祷,祈祷他的病赶快好起来!

经过这几天在307医院的治疗,我哥的情况有所好转,他马上就要进行化疗,昨天还把头剃了,看着光头的大哥,我的心里有一丝想笑,但更多的是心酸。医生说化疗几次,要看我哥的情况,能不能把病情控制住,如果控制不好,甚至还需要骨髓移植手术。

由于我大哥社会保险和商业保险都没有上,所以他看病的费用完全是自费。我们只是普通的家庭,根本无力承担四五十万的治疗费用,如果后期需要移植总费用甚至高达80万。我哥平时工作就是给个人打工,我嫂子也没有固定工作,收入都不高。我也只是公司的一个普通职员,经济有限。

实属无奈,为了救我哥,我只能在此发起社会求助,希望广大的爱心人士能够帮帮忙,帮助我们顺利渡过难关,您的每一次转发都是对我极大的帮助,您的每一次捐款我都将永生铭记!未来我也会尽全力帮助更多需要帮助的人,让爱在人间传递,让困难不再无助,我急需大家的爱心帮助,感恩有您,祝您一生平安!恳请各位好心人士伸手相助,多多转发,您的每一次转发对我们都至关重要,每一次转发对我们来说都是莫大的帮助!

They are currently trying to raise funds to cover the treatment expenses through online fundraising on GoFundme and WeChat.

You can donate to help support them at GoFundme — or, if you have WeChat, you can donate through a fundraiser on Shuidichou.

But if you’re low on funds at the moment, even just sharing this on your social networks or with people you know will be an enormous help to the family.

 

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!

The Humble Power of ‘Sleeping on Sticks and Tasting Bile’ – Pub’d on China Daily

China Daily recently published my latest column titled The Humble Power of ‘Sleeping on Sticks and Tasting Bile’. Here’s an excerpt:

The year 2020 has unleashed a tsunami of suffering that continues to engulf much of the world, undoubtedly reverberating throughout the lives of everyone across the globe.

In my own personal sphere, I have seen loved ones get furloughed from their jobs under the threat of more permanent layoffs, known friends who contracted COVID-19 (including one hospitalized in serious condition), and watched a restaurant where I marked one of my most memorable evenings with friends close its doors for good. And given that experts have forecast a gloomy outlook for the rest of 2020, it would seem that the global misery wrought by the coronavirus has only just begun.

In trying times like this, I have sought spiritual refuge in stories of resilience amid adversity — such as the tale of Goujian, the king of Yue during the Spring and Autumn period who inspired the Chinese saying woxin changdan, or sleeping on sticks and tasting bile.

It all began when Goujian saw his nation defeated by the Kingdom of Wu, whose king, Fuchai, demanded that Goujian become his royal servant. So the Yue king not only lost his crown but also found himself thrust into the lowest rungs of the palace of his enemy, a prisoner to the whims of a man who had destroyed his country. The demeaning work required of Goujian included mucking out manure as well as acting as a kind of personal stable boy to the monarch, from feeding the king’s horses to leading them whenever Fuchai wanted a ride.

And if you really want to talk about taking crap from someone, consider Goujian’s most legendary deed during his three years serving Fuchai: He tasted the Wu king’s excrement to diagnose illness in a move to gain the monarch’s trust. As repulsive as it sounds, it so deeply moved Fuchai, who saw the gesture as proof that Goujian had wholeheartedly submitted himself in service, that the king set him free.

You can read the full column here and also listen to me read a recording of the piece. 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?

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!