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Friday, October 18, 2013

Market day . . .

With working a Sunday through Monday evening schedule at my current job, I get a virtual long weekend every week - Friday morning through Sunday afternoon when I need to be back in the office at 1630. It makes it possible to take mini-trips as I did to Seoul last month and plan to do to many more places, as in addition to everywhere in China I want to visit, there are many other fascinating countries within a few hour's flight.

When I stay in Beijing for the weekend, it becomes my nesting time, particularly as the days get shorter and cooler. A usual Friday routine has become to visit my favorite food market, Sanyuanli, to which I introduced a friend today.

Located just four bus stops and a short walk from where I live, Sanyuanli is my go-to place for my weekly stock of vegetables, herbs and herbal tea supplies and also has just about anything else one might require for cooking, including kitchenware at a few hardware stores at the rear of the market.

There are hundreds of stalls, of which I have found firm favorites to which I return each week, while also keeping an open eye for specialty items I might want. The front of the market is dedicated to fruit, all of which looks fabulous but most of which I can purchase at better prices elsewhere so I walk through there quickly, replying politely to greetings but not stopping to buy.

There is then a section with many imported products, plus teas, nuts, grains and spices. There is a tea store I also stop by, even if I'm not buying anything, as the sisters who run the stall are always friendly and welcoming and make me practice the little Chinese I have learned thus far. The younger sister (mei mei) speaks reasonably good English but seems to like to teach me new words in Chinese and I definitely need the help.

rice and grains
dried fruits and nuts

the tea shop
 Thanks to her, I now have a extensive selection of herbal teas that I mix and match to try new combinations, both hot and iced. She also has beautiful cardboard canisters she gives me to store them in (inside ziplock bags for freshness).

Just past the tea lady is the meat section, which my friend, who is basically vegetarian, found a little hard to take. She had to shield her eyes and run the gauntlet, while I find it rather fascinating. I haven't bought pork or beef there as I'm a little wary of both here (although I eat both when the canteen serves it so I admit I'm inconsistent), but there is a particular stall I frequent for chicken and am happy with in terms of both price and quality. I was even more reassured when I met a Chinese friend at the market on Saturday morning and found we both prefer the same chicken vendor. The seafood section is next, which seemed a little less disturbing for my friend, but I think she was glad to get through both.



Once past the dead creatures (tho some of the seafood is still alive), we come to my favorite part - the vegetable section. My first stop here is always an old lady who always has the most amazing fresh herbs - basil, mint, cilantro/coriander - plus other things not found most other places. She doesn't always have a huge selection but did this time, with fennel, witloof and rocket as well as more conventional lettuce and cabbage varieties, plus beets, potatoes and sweet potatoes (one of the sweet potato varieties here is just like kumara in New Zealand - which makes me happy). There's another stall that is primarily different varieties of tomatoes, and a couple of vendors who carry only mushrooms, both fresh and dried, in a wider range than I knew existed.

The produce is beautifully displayed and the stalls look like artworks.
bags of fresh basil and mint for only a dollar or two

a riot of color

Today's swag for me was fresh basil and mint, asparagus, bell pepper, radishes, tomatoes, red onion, ginger and garlic, a good grater and an electric mixer from the kitchenware store (winter = baking time), a large bottle of olive oil, some peanuts, dried lemon slices from the tea lady and a bag of mushrooms. A quick stop across the road at a liquor store scored me a bottle of Grant's whisky at a ridiculously inexpensive price (less than $US11.50) and I'm a happy gal.

A neighbor dropped off an organic cabbage, carrots and beet yesterday so for dinner, I poached a chicken fillet with ginger, garlic and lemongrass (tea), then sliced it and added it to shredded cabbage, grated carrot, finely sliced red onion, fresh basil, mint and crushed peanuts. I'm fighting off a cold right now (tho it could just be the crud in the air giving me a sore throat and snuffly nose) so plan to make a hot toddy tonight with lemon (dried and some fresh that my friend gave me), ginger and garlic steeped with a little lemongrass, with New Zealand honey, fresh mint and Grant's whisky added before sipping.

I do like my market day . . .

Friday, October 11, 2013

Opening up to the universe . . .

Depression . . .

It's a dark cloud that creeps up without you noticing until one day, you simply don't want to get out of bed, don't want to face the day, don't want to think any longer.

You look for ways to dull the pain, through medication, self-medication, distractions or entertainment - anything to stop the mind from dwelling on your failures and inadequacies, all the wrong choices you've made and people you've let down.

It's an unhappy place I've spent a lot of time in of late, not helped by being removed from my support networks, both physically through relocating to a new country and virtually by having no computer access outside of work. It reduced me to a shell of myself, neglecting friendships (sorry Tania and others), enduring my life rather than living it, losing my voice - all the while beating up on myself for being so weak, so self-absorbed to feel so sad when I have so much more than so many.

Thankfully, I am stubborn, even when depressed, and, as a survivor of a loved one's suicide, hold that as an absolute prohibition. So the morning I spent considering how to painlessly and conveniently end my life (not as easy as one might think, when one really thinks about it), was an all-bells alarm that I needed to deal with this.

But how?

I tried to access counseling, but finding the right person to talk to is difficult enough without adding in the cultural and language differences I face in another country. I tried to make friends but that's not easy when you feel you have nothing to offer and can't understand why anyone would want to be your friend. Fortunately, I have friends as stubborn as me who don't put up with that and who kept reminding me I am my own worst critic (as many of us are).

But, while doing these things, I also reverted to something I learned as an awkward, shy, constantly scared child - that if you act as if you're confident for long enough, you eventually gain confidence. So I tried doing the things that happy people do, in the hope some happiness would rub off.

And I found, as I often do, that the universe is waiting with gifts and life lessons when we take the time to listen.

My happy list was fairly simple, as most profound things are.

Looking after myself was top of the list. Good food wasn't a problem - I have long been a believer in that - but a drastic cutback on alcohol was definitely in order, particularly when I was using it as a way to avoid thinking or feeling.

Mindfulness was another - allowing myself to feel bad about bad things, but not allowing them to make me feel I was bad. Taking the time and focus to experience each day, good and bad, rather than simply getting through it.

Gratitude was intellectually easy, as I have traveled and seen enough of poverty and despair to realize how rich my life is, but being thankful in my head and my heart were two different things. But, like confidence, the more I practiced gratitude, the more real it felt. I've advised a young friend to make a list each day of what he has to be thankful for - I took my own advice and have started to feel truly thankful.

In with looking after myself was to exercise - something I've always tried to do but a habit I lost in the past year or so, which not coincidentally was when I started on my downward slope to depression. Having gotten back on track with that, I find myself working out not solely to lose/maintain weight as has long been my main reason, but because it makes me feel good. I've always wondered about the runner's high people talk about but have realized it's simply a result of letting our bodies do what they were designed to do, which is not sitting at a desk for upwards of eight hours a day.

As I said, the universe was waiting with tools to help me, when I became ready. A neighbor left the schedule to a yoga studio she had started attending and I joined, and now spend at least one class a week challenging my flexibility while calming my mind and feel blissed out afterward. The practice also makes me more aware of my body - how I sit, stand walk, what I feed it, how I relax. I'm eager to go to each class, and feel great for doing so.

I joined a gym and found the hardest exercise is stepping out my door to go there or finding time to do so. But I'm doing both. Again, it has made me more aware of this amazing machine of muscle and tissue I live in, and how what I ingest matters. It's much more tempting to drink chamomile tea after work than a glass of wine when I know I want to work out the next morning, and much more pleasant to do so. Having noticed the effect regular exercise was having on my mood (I found myself singing to myself last week, something I hadn't noticed I had stopped doing until I started again), I then found this TED talk by clinical neuroscientist Steve Ilardi, in which he states that 30 minutes of brisk walking three times a week has proved to be as effective as taking anti-depressants, while also enhancing cognitive functions. (Scary stats from the talk - one in five Americans takes a psychiatric drug every day, there has been a 300 percent increase in anti-depressant use in the last 20 years.)

I also, through my yoga studio, met a Chinese medicine practitioner I interviewed for an article (coming) who was leading a workshop on aligning the head and heart and sees herself as a seeker of happiness. (She has just released a book if anyone is interested in learning more, and I'll link my article when it is published.) I'm reading the book, in e-mail correspondence with the writer and learning from her experiences.

I'm not Miss Happy, by any means, but am definitely back to seeing the positive in life, not the drudgery. And I'm finding my voice again . . .