China: Day 1 – reality sets in

It’s 5am, Sunday morning.  I just spent 3 hours playing summer sausage math with Caleb and making sure Andrew doesn’t eat anything that will kill him.  Caleb missed dinner because we couldn’t wake him up once he started taking a nap at 5pm.  He promptly woke up after 9 hours of sleeping at 2am.  Andrew is now back to bed, but Caleb is still wondering what there is to do in the middle of the night.  I thought I’d take a quick break and journal our first day in China.

I don’t fully understand why we’re not supposed to drink the tap water.  If it’s a bacterial issue, it seems boiling it would make it drinkable again… If it’s a poisonous material issue (like arsenic), then we should probably just keep it out of our system.  This was my dilemma this morning as I was brushing my teeth.  Is it ok if I spit it out?  I didn’t really mess around with it, and used bottled water to wet my tooth brush and gargle.  Then I took a shower… this seemed impractical with bottled water… I’m sure as time goes by, my relationship with tap water will morph into something more practical…

Our apartment is a bit cozy, especially coming from our house in Bothell.  The whole place is probably about the size of our kitchen/living room back home.  It seemed much smaller when we had 9 big bags sitting in the living room, but Tenille, using her crazy Tetris skills, has packed it all away somewhere (including the bags).  Also the apartment is incredibly hot.  It’s frigid cold outside (below freezing), but inside we could hardly breathe it’s so hot.  After reading about how cold the Gallacher’s apartment was, we were hesitant to turn off the heaters, but as the day wore on, we eventually turned off all the heaters and our now mooching off the apartment heat from the other units.  It’s still a bit hot.

At 8am our whole family went downstairs to the cafe that provides us breakfast.  There was bread, yogurt, juices, and an array of covered hot plates.  Excitedly, Tenille went over to the spread and uncovered a hot plate to discover what delicious, Chinese morsels await us.  There was nothing.  Tenille opened another.  There was nothing… Tenille uncovered every one of them (about 10), to discover that they were just there to taunt the newcomers.  A couple that was sitting next to the buffet table gave a knowing smile to us…  So there was breads, yogurt, and juices.  There was some milk, but it felt a bit warm to us, so we skipped out.  Caleb dived in on the Yogurt.  I guess we’re not going to let the melamine thing slow us down in dairy consumption…

At 9am, the apartment people came to our room and inventoried everything as well as fixed our Internet connection.  The apartment folks are quite friendly and speak some English.  There is a bit of pantomiming, but I’m learning that it doesn’t help much…  

At 9:30am, we caught the apartment shuttle to a grocery chain called "Carrefour".  I believe it’s the European equivalent to a Walmart that is expanding into China.  There is also a Walmart in Beijing, but the apartment folks told us that Carrefour is closer.    Tenille expected it to be full of expats from America and Europe… where we’d be able to talk and associate with the customers and employees. 

We were dropped off about a block away.  Even walking one block was a bit treacherous with the kids.  I eventually held Caleb in my arms and Tenille pushed Andrew on a stroller.   After weaving in and out of cars through the parking lot, we made it to the front door.  It’s difficult to describe the scene inside.  It was like the day before Christmas, this was the only store open, and all Chinese people had postponed their gift buying to this day.  There was hardly room to stand, and you were swept up by currents of people going from one aisle to the next.  Reality set in when we reached the detergent aisle, and we couldn’t figure out which box was for the dishwasher.  After spending about 15 minutes trying to decipher the cleaning agents, we decided that we’ll need to make some friends to help us figure some stuff out, and decided to browse through the rest of the store.  We’re grateful we found a dishwasher in our apartment (the size of a big bread basket), but we’re still unable to use it.  Carrefour was probably about as big as a typical two story Fred Meyer.  More or less everything seemed to be available except it was all in Chinese.  There were some English descriptions on the packaging and the price tags which helped us a little. 

The really interesting stuff happened when we got to the fresh meat section.  We couldn’t actually get to the 50 yards of the trough of meat, because there were so many people crowded around poking, flipping, and bagging the meat.  We just watched from the backrow being swept across by the current.  We saw all kinds of seafood, and even little kiddie pools full of live fish.  There were people there to help you net a fish and bag it for you.  Just as Tenille was thinking, "I wonder what they do with the fish?  Does it just wriggle alive in your grocery bag?"  Then thwap!  It sounded almost like a firecracker.  Right in front of us, a Carrefour employee swung a net over his head like an axe and slammed it against the floor.  We could see the fish twitching it’s last twitches in the net.  Tenille’s eyes went about as wide as I’ve ever seen it.  Then nervous laughter spilled out uncontrollably.  She must have stood there and stared for about 10 seconds.  I suppose there are less humane ways to kill fish…

Tenille wanted some fruit, so we navigated our stroller and cart to the fruit section.  It was enormous with all kinds of fruit.  Tenille found some bananas and put them in a bag.  She then went over to a counter mobbed with people to get it measured.  It took about 5 minutes as she vied for attention of the weighing attendant among the throngs of people thrusting fruit in their face.

We also picked up some milk, 4 big bottles of water, chicken nuggets, yogurt, a couple different types of sausage, and a bathroom squeegee.  We got the squeegee because there’s a minor flood in the bathroom each time we shower due to suboptimal sealing.   There were a lot of checkout lines, but they were all stacked about 8 deep.  We got in a line that claimed to take credit cards, and got checked out in about 30 minutes.  Chinese New Year is this weekend, and we’re hoping that the crowds are because of this special weekend.  We’ll see.

It was about 1pm at this point.  There was a KFC next to the entrance of the store and we decided we should eat there.  It’s something familiar.  We entered with our stroller and shopping cart, and Tenille was promptly kicked out because she was not supposed to have a shopping cart in the store.  I got in a crowded line of about 20 people and this is the moment that it hit me that we’re outsiders.  KFC is my favorite restaurant, but when I looked up at the reader board, it was all in Chinese with different numbers on it.  There were some pictures, but it also had 3 different prices, for which I had no idea what the difference was.  Discouraged, I went back outside to consult with Tenille.  Although I could have done some pantomiming, pointed to something, and paid whatever they asked me, we thought it might be a little better somewhere else not as crowded after we’ve put away our groceries. 

"Fresh" Fish Pools – notice the belly-up fish in the back.

Black Chicken

Duck – I think

Navigating the crowds at Carrefour

Now to get home.  We walked outside and tried to find a taxi, but none were available outside the doors.  We had to abandon our cart and carry our bags and children to the main street.  As we’re walking, we’re stopped by 3 men that are saying something to us.  I gave my best shrug to let them know I’m completely incompetent.  Then one of them shouts out "Taxi!"  I said, "Yes, we’re looking for a taxi."  Then they started saying something else in Chinese…  I had not let down my look of incompetence.  Tenille chimed in and showed them a card from our apartment that shows the location.  The three of them discussed for a while, looked at me and asked a few more questions… I replied with more incompetence… Then one of them says, "fifteen".  I said, "OK."  He led us to his car, which looked like a normal passenger car.  Tenille gave me a warning, "We’re only supposed to get in clearly marked and metered Taxi cabs."  I replied, "I think we should be fine."  Taxis in general charge 12 RMB (which is a little less than $2) which is the base fare for the first several kilometers, and so 15 doesn’t seem so bad.  Lesson #1 – Always listen to your wife.

In the car, I complimented our driver on his English, and he denied it.  He asked to see the directions again, and he called our apartment, talked to the apartment front desk to get the exact directions.  After a little bit of searching, he got us to our door.  Tenille found 15 Yuan and handed it to me.  As he was unloading our bags, I smiled and gave him the money.  He looked at it, then looked at me again and shook his head as if saying, "what is this?"  I told him, "fifteen".  He then took out his phone and typed in "50". 

It’s possible that it could be the culmination of the lack of sleep, the stressful shopping experience, not being able to order at KFC, hyper-sensitivity to all the Beijing fraud stories, and my wife’s "I told you so" lingering over me… but I went berserk-o.  Why in the world would I pay 50 when I could have caught a taxi for 12?  I told him that he said, "fifteen".  He then looked incredulous and wouldn’t take the 15.  Flabbergasted, I went to talk with our apartment front desk.  He came out and talked to the taxi driver.  He asked me which Carrefour I went to, and I told him we went to the one that the shuttle took us to.  Evidently, there’s a closer Carrefour, but even then, he said it shouldn’t cost more than 30.  They argued for a moment.  I told the driver, that I’d pay him 30.  He came down to 40.  I told him he could have 30 or 15, the originally negotiated price.  After some more squabbling, he came down to 35, then finally took my 30 and left with some sore feelings.  I could feel the "I told you so" eyes searing on my head on the slow elevator ride up to our apartment.

After some calmer reflection in the confines of our home, I came to grips with how ridiculous my behavior had been.  The amount of bad feelings caused over $3.  Frankly, now I’d pay $20 to be able to apologize to the driver and resolve the mess without bad feelings.  Not to mention dragging in the apartment staff, who I’m sure felt awkward about the situation.  Tenille and I agreed that next time, we just pay.  But, it was a bigger lesson for me, that we’re guests in a foreign land, and should show graciousness to our hosts.  Hopefully, this experience and attitude will take seed in me.

By this point, Tenille had enough China for one day and wanted to start cooking.  I convinced her that we should still check out the area, especially for lunch.  We went across the street to what I thought was a shopping center, but it was actually just a big bank.  I asked the concierge ladies there if they spoke English, and they said, "yes."  I asked where we could eat something.  They directed us to the 2nd floor where there is a Korean/Japanese restaurant.  After searching around for a few minutes on how we get to the second floor, the concierge lady came over and led us to the stairs.  I thought that perhaps there might be a food court.  At the end of the stairs, we found that we were in the middle of the restaurant.  The hostess there said hello and immediately seated us.  The place looked a bit pricey, but we just went with the flow and were seated before we knew it.  They gave us a menu, and luckily it had English as well as Chinese.  We ordered some Udon (noodles) and breaded pork.  They served us tea, and I tried to order some water by saying "Shui" (prounounced "Shway"), but they all looked at me, and asked a bunch of questions in Chinese… after replying with a blank stare for a few seconds, I told them it’s ok.  Tenille and I are now trying to compile a list of survival Chinese.  "Bottled water" is on that list.  The meal ended up being quite delicious, and the whole bill came out to about $15.

The whole time, Andrew was getting considerable attention.  The waitresses and restaurant staff all had turns playing with him, and they’d pick him up and hold him.  Andrew was overjoyed with the attention.  It reminded us of all the attention Caleb received in Korea.  Admittedly, Andrew is a little better at playing the crowds with his ever-present smile.  It was a bit strange to us that a dedicated waitress stood next to us the entire time we were eating.  She was very attentive to us and played with Andrew most of the time.

After lunch, Tenille went to our apartment to nurse Andrew, and I played in the park next to our apartment building with Caleb.  The playground is shared by the apartment and the preschool (which is right next door.)  It’ll be great to have him so close throughout the day.  As of now, if our boys got lost, I have no idea how they’d eventually get returned to us.  We’re trying to figure out a strategy on this issue. 

On the way back into our apartment,  I did discover a small snack shack that serves ice cream and chicken wings.  There’s hope that I could be happy here.  I just need to learn how to order.

The fun playground that we will get much use out of.

Bigger Structure for Caleb

Smaller Structure for Andrew

Caleb pretending to be spiderman


  1. Oh dear…good luck! I\’m sending my sister over here to help out with some words…her MIL is from China, and is staying with them right now (Max only speaks Cantonese.)

  2. Wow. That sounds like a busy first day. I\’m impressed you didn\’t just pass out on the beds in the apartment and fall asleep. I\’m writing with an idea for keeping track of the boys. Granted, I only used it for one child and in Spain, where I spoke the language, but I kept a piece of paper with my son\’s name, both mine and my husband\’s mobile numbers, and the apartment number with the stroller so that if he (in his stroller) were ever separated from me, information was there. Luckily we never needed to use it. He was pretty much my only responsibility when we were anywhere, and he was young enough that he sat in the stroller anytime we went anywhere. I think many of the Spaniards through strollers the way to go for safety because I saw many 4 year-olds riding in strollers. Good luck. I\’m excited to hear how things keep going. (One last thing, I LOVED Carefour in Spain.)

  3. We had Carrefours in Brazil when i was on my mission. Great stores, but can\’t say they were nearly as busy as you experienced.

  4. Hi Don and Tenille! Welcome to China! I can so relate you your experience in the Carrefour… Costco the day before Thanksgiving times 50! So many people! Everyone has been shopping this week to get ready for the new year. Well, you have survived your first day or two……it will get easier, but give yourself some time!I had just a few thoughts to share based on your first entry. I don\’t know how it is in Beijing, but most of the "bad" taxis here are red. To be sure, we always look for the numbers on the back which will appear on all regulated taxis. If you get a transportation card (which you can buy at the subway/metro stations) you can use this card on most of the regulated taxis. This is nice because then you don\’t have to worry about smaller bills for drivers (or drivers switching out the money you gave them and accusing you of giving them counterfeit.)We had the same questions about the water. We have become convinced that a little tap water won\’t hurt you. Most expats we know brush their teeth with it. But it definately does not taste that great and (even boiled) you would not want to drink much of it. I think it can be heavy with minerals and chlorine. But it is okay to use it for washing dishes. Regarding a plan for "loosing" kids, you may want to give Caleb a whistle and teach him to blow loud if he loses contact with you. Also, get a card from the hotel (with hotel address on it) and put it in kid\’s coat pockets. At least Caleb would have information about where someone could return him. I don\’t think you will lose either boy, but this will give you piece of mind.Hang in there! Do you have Skype? If so, we should set up a time to chat. I feel like I could finally offer suggestions regarding meal ideas and survival tips. This has been quite an adjustment for us as well!!!! China is SO DIFFERENT from the US and the language barrier has been so much bigger than we expected. We are definitely thinking of you all!-Claudine

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