My day usually begins around 7.30am and, as I stumble to the bathroom for my wake-up shower, I look out of the windows of our 10th floor apartment to gauge the air quality. I know I am doing exactly the same as thousands of other Beijingers – hoping for a Blue Skies Day.
If I can see the mountains to the far west of the city: the air is clear and that lifts my spirits; if I can’t see the towering buildings opposite, the pollution is at dangerously high levels and I stay indoors unless leaving the apartment is essential. After all, I did not give up smoking 32 years ago just to have my lungs buggered up by the filthy muck in the air here.
9am finds me at my lap-top with a mug of jasmine tea. I start my day with a five-minute Skype call to our 22-month old grandson who lives in San Francisco. We sing rhymes together, practice counting, look at pictures and he shows me his current favourite book/car. Thank God for Skype, keeping up with far-away family and friends is so much easier than it was for my mum who lived in central Africa in early 1950s.
Once a week I head off to San Yuan Li market for all my fresh provisions. A Chinese friend and I are writing a book about Chinese vegetables. Not a recipe book, more a cook’s guide. Many of the vegetables available in China are little known in the west. The market ladies at San Yuan Li are a great resource and are always coming up with something new. This week we got a bunch of Xiangchun (Cedrela Sinensis/Chinese Mahogany Cedar): available for only a few weeks each year. It is chopped into egg dishes or soups.
Everything else we need requires a trip to the nearest Jenny Lou supermarket which stocks imported Western (mostly American) goods, or to Jinkelong – a big Chinese supermarket. I haul my shopping back home in a trolley that years ago I wouldn’t have been seen dead toting (what a snob!). Now it is a godsend.
Sometimes I meet a friend for lunch, or head off to visit one of Bejing’s many temples, galleries or museums. I must get to The Imperial Eunuchs’ Graveyard and to the Watermelon Museum (I kid you not) which claims to exhibit 400+ varieties. A must, if Watermelons are your thing!
I had a series of strokes in 2010 which has put the Beijing public transport system out of play for me. So now I travel everywhere by taxi which are plentiful in Beijing. They are inexpensive, clean and well-regulated – they even give you a printed receipt. I have a great time practicing my Chinese on the cabbies.
Afternoons see me at my laptop – blogging, dealing with domestic trivia and writing up the vegetable book. I also put together a general knowledge quiz which I send out every other Sunday. I’ve been compiling it for four years, and keeping the bi-weekly 20 questions fresh is a tough job, but I love ferreting out nuggets of useless information.
Twice a week I have a Mandarin lesson. My teacher is terrific, but she doesn’t half pile on the work. I feel like schoolgirl again, having to get up really early to get through my homework done before the lesson. Typically last-minute. But I’m making progress and feel more confident in conversation with the local Chinese.
We often go out for business dinners – which invariably start around 6.30pm and are over by 9.00pm. They have been a real lesson in the various cuisines of China, and I have discovered some wonderful restaurants that are below the radar of most westerners here. Right now, Yunnan food is the trend in town, and Yunnanese restaurants are springing up all over the city
Often our host wants to impress and orders the most expensive dish on the menu, like Sea Cucumber (aka Biche-de- Mer) – which is wasted on me because I can’t abide the taste. Or fresh abalone (perlemoen), often illegally imported from South Africa, which I won’t eat on principle.
We know the meal is over when platters of fresh sliced fruit arrive. There are no lingering farewells, everyone just gets up and goes.
If it’s only the two of us staying in; I cook something simple – cauliflower cheese, Bobotie or sausages and mash. Much as we love Chinese food, it is good to have a taste of home.
After supper we watch CNN or BBC World News, or maybe a DVD. I nearly always fall asleep before the film is half-way through, and have to be turfed off to bed by my long-suffering husband.
More about Jo: “One of the ‘scatterlings of Africa’, I spent three decades in London, before moving to Beijing four years ago. I’m a married, 60 something, two adult kids, one son-in-law, doting grandmother of a 2-year-old , keen cook, voracious reader, cruciverbalist, lover of gardening, cooking, socializing and a dog-owner (my Border Terrier is spending quality time in Scotland whilst I am in China). I love travelling with my husband and I pour a mean Gin & Tonic.”
Read more of Jo’s Beijing fascinating experiences on her blog Herschelian.