Why It’s Hard to Leave China to Visit Family Abroad Amid Pandemic – Pub’d on WWAM BAM

The group blog WWAM BAM just published my post titled Why It’s Still Hard to Leave China to Visit Family, Friends Abroad Amid Pandemic. Here’s an excerpt:

“When are you coming home?”

Recently, my family asked if I might return to the US sometime later this year, as the pandemic situation improves.

My heart sank a little at the mention of this, since I already knew my answer would be disappointing — that at least for now, I can’t make any plans to return home during the pandemic.

Obviously, it’s hard enough to make plans with the uncertainties of the pandemic itself — where a sudden surge in case numbers can quickly turn a country or region into a health disaster.

But there are also other issues that come into play — things family and friends might not even be aware of, which add to the challenges of overseas travel amid the pandemic.

Here are 3 other factors, besides health concerns, that make it difficult to leave China to visit family and friends abroad amid the pandemic:

Head on over to WWAM BAM to read the full post — and if you like it, share it!

The Best Posts on Speaking of China in 2020

As we bid farewell (or good riddance) to 2020, it’s time to look back on the top five posts of the year, by views! And much like 2020, it’s a very COVID list.

#5: Actor Liu Ye, Wife Anais Martane Stand Up for Sea Turtles with WildAid

While reading the newspaper, I encountered an ad featuring this celebrity couple, made to support a WildAid campaign.

#4: SARS vs COVID-19: Comparing My Experiences in China

As COVID-19 has exploded into our lives this year, I’ve often found myself reflecting back on my experiences during SARS in China, comparing and contrasting.

#3: Coronavirus: 11 Tips to Prepare for an Outbreak (We’ve Managed in China, You Can Too)

Earlier this year, as COVID-19 began to threaten the rest of the world, I prepared a list of tips to consider in preparation for a potential novel coronavirus outbreak in your community, based on authoritative sources as well as what I’ve learned and experienced.

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

For those of you outside of China wondering what it was like in amid the coronavirus outbreak, I shared my experiences in Beijing.

#1: Coronavirus: My Bread Flour Shortage Points to Curious Trend in China

Toilet paper shortages? Seriously? I was stunned when I read news of how this bathroom essential was flying off shelves — and leaving them bare — around the world, all due to fears about the coronavirus.
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Here’s hoping 2021 brings better days for all — wishing you a Happy New Year!

2020 in Photos on Speaking of China

As we’re days from bidding farewell (or perhaps good riddance!) to 2020, I thought it might be fun this year to share a sampling of some of my favorite photos on the blog from this past year.

2020 ushered in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has turned the face mask into an everyday reality for just about everyone around the world, including us. Here Jun and I stand in a local park in Beijing, sporting our fab facewear. 😉

I had the opportunity to visit Ningxia, a tiny province located in western China, which included a visit to a sheep ranch. The rugged prairie highlands recalled memories of trips through the “big sky country” in the western US.

Befriending the sheep at the ranch proved a highlight of the trip!

For the first time, I also had the opportunity to flex my online sales “muscles” and give livestreaming a go. The experience proved a pleasure!

Jun and I experienced the early autumn charms of Beijing’s Summer Palace this year, arriving just as the osmanthus trees scattered across the grounds had perfumed the air with their beguiling fragrance.

Here’s Jun with one of those osmanthus trees. Reuniting with our favorite flora from the West Lake brought back sweet-scented memories of our days in Hangzhou.

November gave me with the chance to go to Ordos, Inner Mongolia. There I met with a local Mongolian man who had become poverty-stricken due to his medical condition and gained live-saving support for his ongoing treatment through public medical insurance.

I loved visiting his home on the high prairie, which included this decoration before the home, one typical of Mongolian households, which featured a replica of the renowned picture of eight fine steeds as well as horse-shaped metal embellishments at the top.

Finally, like many folks this year, I found refuge in the kitchen — and expanded my cooking repertoire to include some delicious new entrees, such as homemade pizza (yum!). I actually shared a recipe for a vegan pizza with cilantro, shiitake mushrooms and eggplant sauce.

No matter where you are in the world, I’ll be wishing you a very Happy New Year, filled with good health. Cheers to 2021!

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?

Mugwort Foot Baths Soothed Us Through Worst of COVID-19 Outbreak

mugwort

During the height of the COVID-19 outbreak here in China, we adopted a new habit to counteract the stress of the epidemic – a daily foot bath.

Foot baths have long been a part of Chinese culture, and a constant in my husband’s family household. During long stints where we resided with Jun’s parents, pulling out those plastic washbasins just for cleaning feet was as much of an evening ritual as lining up the toothbrushes and toothpaste as well as the terrycloth towels for your face. Bathing the feet of your elders has also endured as a gesture of filial piety in China, which is perhaps why Jun’s grandmother — who stubbornly refused our gifts or envelopes of RMB, telling us “Don’t waste your money” — never turned down my offers for a soak and massage.

For years, we’ve owned a washbasin made just for foot baths — deeper and sturdier than those typically used for washing up. And at home, we’ve always kept a stash of foot bath powder, usually something made from mugwort (wormwood or Artemisia vulgaris, 艾草), said to have a warming effect on the body. Foot baths weren’t necessarily a nightly ritual for Jun and me, but something we did to stave off the chill of winter evenings and unwind after long days.

But when COVID-19 shook up our lives in late January, as the world around us snapped into a “new normal” and news reports day and night focused on the emerging war with the virus, we found ourselves longing for anything that could offer a respite. On top of it all, being at the office felt more and more like a marathon effort with an unprecedented workload of news stories prompted by the coronavirus outbreak, which left me heavy with fatigue most days after returning home.

The last thing I needed was overexhaustion, which can lower your immunity and leave you more vulnerable to infection. But I remembered we had something in our arsenal of bath products ideal for stress relief — foot baths with mugwort powder.

When I returned home from work every day, we would break out the washbasin, fill it to the brim with steaming water, and add in a couple bags of mugwort powder. It brought some much-needed comfort amid unsettling times, and was so enjoyable that we would repeat it later that evening just before bed, something Jun’s family would definitely approve of.

Adding foot baths to your daily routine can be a soothing way to counteract the stress of a COVID-19 outbreak — and it doesn’t require a pricey “foot spa” or even the same mugwort powder we use. Any plastic receptacle or bucket in your house big enough to hold feet that can also withstand warm water will do. Epsom salts also make for a relaxing foot soak, and you can even build on those to make some cool and inexpensive DIY foot soaks on your own. Don’t have anything on hand specifically for a foot bath? Just sinking your feet into warm water with a few drops of an essential oil or a squirt of your favorite body wash will help wash away your worries for a moment.

If you’re interested in mugwort for foot baths or other Chinese herbal foot baths, you can explore the options on Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog. And wherever you are, stay safe and healthy.

What do you think?

P.S.: The featured photo shows a view of the actual mugwort plant, the base of the powder we used to bathe our feet.