Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving in China

Our Thanksgiving Feast: Yultuz, Katera, Kunduz, Peach and Jesse (from left to right).
My homemade pumpkin soup
Katera's delicious stuffing, some bread and the Christmas-colored salad

Peach getting some drinks...
Jesse showcasing his specialty
Happy happy Kunduz cutting the cake for dessert
Yultuz and Kunduz as we gathered round the phone (laptop) to call Fawn in America...
Our beautiful flowers from Peach!

Last year, I ran away from Thanksgiving--traveling with Fawn to Yangshuo, one of my favorite places in China. It was wonderful on so many levels: the scenery was breathtaking, the company was fun and hilarious, the weather was warm and sunny, and the activities were refreshing. It was one of the best trips I've had in China. And it helped distract me from the family-formed festival that was happening in my mother's home. It helped me to ignore the fact that my brother was home and that I wasn't. 

This year I decided to bite the bullet and stay in town--and try to make a special Thanksgiving here in my China home. I invited over a few of my favorite Chinese friends and my neighbors and Katera and I cooked a feast--which turned out to be vegetarian, but wonderful. (I don't like to cook meat in my teeny tiny kitchen and I don't really like turkey anyway) Between the two of us we prepared savory pumpkin soup, stovetop stuffing, broccoli and cheese casserole, spinach salad with a homemade lemon-pepper vinaigrette, cranberry sauce and a loaf of homemade bread. Jesse shared with us his homemade hot chocolate mix from America, Yultuz and Kunduz brought a cake and Peach brought beautiful flowers! 

It was a really lovely evening with our "family." The word takes on so many meanings when you've been away from your actual family for the holidays. We laughed and laughed when we were telling our Chinese friends about the 1-800-Butterball hotline--so much so that we actually tried to call it, but couldn't get through to a real person. We told stories of funny or awkward holidays passed and we all were thankful for the fact that sometimes holidays away from family can have their own special moments and joys. I had been dreading it a little--but it was ok. 

I was sick for the rest of the weekend (true to holiday form--from childhood on I've always managed to fall sick for thanksgiving or Christmas or both), so I didn't get to go to the grand Thanksgiving party on Saturday that is held annually among the foreigners in Wuhan. Our extended team here rents a party room and buys up a bunch of turkeys from the import store (there's only one place in town to find turkeys for sale--in fact, many of our friends in smaller towns travel to Wuhan--sometimes 5-8 hours one way--to pick up a turkey for their own thanksgiving celebrations if they don't come to ours), and many of our very extended network from out of town come in for the weekend. It's like a huge potluck and is supposed to be great. Last year I didn't mind missing it for travel--but this year I was stuck in bed with an upset stomach--so that was a bummer. I hear that it was great though.

And now it's time for the Christmas season--and I'm so excited to share it with my students and friends again. This week I will pull out all the Christmas decorations that I managed to find last year and maybe will go hunting for some more and begin to fill my apartment with festive cheer. I can't wait!

Monday, November 24, 2008


One of my favorite aspects of my life:

It happens in two ways. 

1. You come across something, anything, while riding the bus or turning a corner or taking a different aisle through the supermarket. Sometimes it's a store that you've passed a dozen times that suddenly catches your eye and comes into focus. Sometimes it's when you are looking for an item and find something else instead. Sometimes you just get a feeling that you should keep wandering down that street...just a little bit further...and see what's there... And boom!, it happens.

2. You put something together--in the 2+2=everything kind of way. Meanings lodge themselves into the foreground of your thought that you can't quite shake until you realize that they explain so much, all at once, a new color or shade of comprehension of all of China becomes yours. 

It's exulting and triumphant when it happens. We have so few victories of understanding as foreigners in a complex and constantly changing land, we are always so constantly behind the curve, so dependent on our gracious Chinese hosts for their acquiescence to our bumbling attempts at assimilation. So whether it's by luck or by Grace or by the sheer tenacious flexing of our own brain muscles, it all adds up to moments of discovery that we experience here, day by day, over and over again.

We're like children learning to walk, or add, or read, or drive an automatic all at the same time. We figure out the basic bus routes and the skeletal layout of our sprawling city, we memorize the fundamental Mandarin phrases necessary for survival, we learn where to buy Coke, vegetables, condiments, soap, wine, chocolate and junk food...and at first, we just get around. At first, it's all we can do to make it to a friends house and back without 5 cell conversations reconfirming the directions. At first, it is a victory just to choose bus over taxi. But then, the pioneering joy of foreign living begins. 

Last year, I found a store that sells jelly beans and gummy bears. I found which supermarket and which aisle to go to for liquid drain cleaner. There is a store along my bus route that has really great camping and outdoor gear. I discovered how to tell sugar packaging from salt packaging if you can't see inside the bag. 

Within months or weeks of moving here last year, I knew that dadao must mean 'highway' or 'street' or 'avenue,' because on street signs it was one of the common words. So...sure, I learned that. Separately, I learned to order my cokes "da da," or "big big" from McDonald's or KFC or describe things as "tai da da" or "too big." And also separately, I learned that Taoism is known as Daoism in China, with the Dao being "the way." It was only last week, 1.25 years into living in China, that I figured out that dadao means "big way." It makes complete sense--and putting it together, with my own brain doing the work, the figuring, the discovery, made me really excited and really proud and really in love with life. 

In a another scenario, I began the process of shopping for a couch last week. I'm not looking for anything fancy or special, just a two-seater that is more comfortable than the shellacked   wooden chairs that currently occupy the living room. I began the search in the area of town called Furniture City--complete with all sorts of housewares stores. When I realized that all of the stores nearby were out of my price range, I walked towards a bus stop. From a distance, I noticed that a side street had smaller shops with lamps and vases--so I turned down the alley. 

Wandering a little farther, on the right there was a nearly deserted alley lined with art studios and antique shops. Ancient looking Chinese wood carvings and ornate decorative wood planks filled shop after shop, covered in dust and unaffordable but fabulous. The street was as silent as China gets, until out of the back of one stall, the achy mellow strains of an accordion filled the air. Like the antique wooden panels and dusty books and rusted, brassy coins filling the shops, everything felt incredibly abandoned in this tiny pocket of Wuhan. Wrinkled old men with fingers stained black looked up from 7 ft yellow scrolls that they were filling with oversized calligraphy characters as I walked by. Bored looking men in their dingy undershirts and striped pants sat around a mahjong table in one corner. Decayed and tattered red lanterns hung askew from awnings. It smelled like ink and turpentine and mold. 

And here I was. China. A tiny corner street that I happened upon by chance--there sat the antique district of Wuhan. It was so unforeseen and beautiful and completely Chinese that I had to stop and stand still there on the street--inviting even more curiosity and attention than I already had--but I had to stop there, because this was a moment. I had found something new and this was a moment in my life that very few people will ever understand. It was a discovery.
I write this post longer than it should be, because I fear that there is absolutely no way to really describe the little, minute, incredible acts of discovery that brighten our days here. If I were in the US reading this, I would probably think, "So what? It's liquid drain cleaner, of course it's at the supermarket. Big Way? Duh. It's a highway--of course the word would mean that." 

But what so many don't understand is that it's not like I can read the items that are at the supermarket. It's all a bunch of bottles with Chinese characters--and the idea of using chemicals to clear a clogged drain still doesn't occur to alot of people here. When my drain clogged last year, I called 5 different people to ask if they could help me find a bottle. Every single one of them said I would just have to call a worker to come and repair my sink. It took a search to come across a bottle with a picture of a clogged pipe and a muscular arm punching through the clog on it. Even then, when I showed the bottle to my school liaison, who was waiting to call the 'plumber,' she said she had never seen it before. Unclogging a sink became a quest!

There are some things that we learn because others teach us, either our Chinese friends or those who were here before. They tell us where we can find most things, and what certain phrases mean, and they teach us so much. But another whole element of life here must be discovered in order to exist for us. Last year, liquid plumber did not exist for me, until it did. Gummy bears were not in my world, until they were. The word dadao had no significance, until it did. And there were no side alleys filled with fascinating antiques and calligraphy shops perfumed with ink and turpentine, until there were. 

These things appear into our lives, and the moment that we discover them...well, it's just a rush, a joy and an experience that I can't imagine living without.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Cleverest Housewife

My flour--hence, the title of today's post! I can't think of any better way to advertise your brand of flour actually. If only I could be a clever housewife someday!!! ;)

The wait begins

My first bubble appears!!!!

The dough rises.

My finished product!

After baking the bread, I got allll biblical and wanted to have a meal to match it: so I made lentil soup (a la Jacob and Esau) and a warm potato salad (which isn't from the Book--but tastes good!). Katera, Jesse and Michael came over and we all feasted OT/NT style!


And so it came upon me one day that I wanted to be a baker of bread. I don't know how or where the whole idea began--it was inspired--Creationist--something: out of nothing. Baking Bread.

There's just something so romantic about the idea of it all. Perhaps this talk of the looming and morbid economic downturn that has befallen America has me thinking of those sepia toned portraits of the Depression--wrinkled old women in a kitchen of orange formica and linoleum with flour dusting their checked aprons. 

Or maybe it's because real bread is so difficult to come by here in China. There seem to be two options at the bakery on my market street: 1) over-processed sweet breads or 2) bread with particles of ground pork mixed into the dough. Neither are very appealing (to me). There's a French boulangerie across the Yangtze--but it takes 2 hours and 3 modes of transportation to get there and I'm usually just not up for it.

When I was a child we lived for a brief time on a hill overlooking a Kern's Bread Factory. There was a florescent sign out front of a loaf of bread with the final piece falling away from it: first at a 5 degree angle, then 25, then 50, then 90. In the mornings, the air smelled like yeast. We'd sit on our grassy hill and watch the 18 wheelers roll in and out of the place with Kern's logo on the sides. Now, the factory is gone and a strip mall is in it's place--the strip is called something like "ol factory square" or something that makes me, at the age of 24, one of the "ol-timers" who remembers the town before "commercialism" hit. 

So I decided, for whatever reason, to be a bread baker. It's not like other actions in the world that are just mundane extensions of our daily journey: when you go buy groceries, you don't become a "buyer of groceries" in the same way that you become a "baker of bread" when you undertake that task. It seems that baking bread is a holy thing--a thing that connects you to all other bakers of bread that have gone before--a thing that is a moment in life that is pure and essential, elemental.

I think I've been reading too much during the past few days.

Anyway--so I set out to bake this bread. A friend had an extra jar of yeast that she shared when she found that I was asking around about it. I found a recipe on the NYT that seemed simple enough (because, of course, when you want to learn how to bake bread--you turn to the New York Times??).  This recipe is contingent on allowing the yeast to do all the work: you must let the dough sit and ferment/rise for 18 hours after the initial mixing of ingredients.

The waiting was the best part for me. According to the recipe, when the dough was ready it would have little bubbles all over the surface. After I mixed everything--I was supposed to go on with my life. I couldn't. A few hours later, passing by the room, I peeked in and checked on it. Nothing. During the night, when I got up for water or whatever, I paused by the dough. Still nothing. This was fascinating to me. There, in that lump of flour, yeast, salt and water--something was happening. Something was going to make bubbles appear. Something was going to make the dough get larger. 

It's something that even JC took note of. During His 33 or so years on earth, when he knew that nearly every word he chose would be referenced for the next 2000 years (at least), he mentioned the workings of yeast. Twice in Matthew, He used yeast to explain himself and the Big Picture. I thought of Him as I waited to see signs that the yeast was working. This is probably a trend for me. I know that it will--I know that it takes so little--one eighth of a teaspoon--to work its way through the dough--but I wait anxiously for hours wanting to see the signs that it's working.

It was the tenth hour when the first bubble appeared. I saw it before I went to teach class that morning. I had nearly begun to despair--worrying that maybe I had used dead yeast (does it die?) or that the room had become too cold in the night. But there it was, one tiny little bubble, reminding me that biology and chemistry and everything else was taking place inside that bowl--just like JC said it would. 

I've been guilty of looking too closely for the bubbles here in China. There is so little I can do in some of my classes--at best--it's injecting just a tiny bit of yeast into our lessons. I teach English and try to improve their conversational skills and if I'm lucky, there's maybe one eighth of yeast added to the class during the whole semester. This is my second year and I get worried sometimes that there will be no bubbles. That the bread won't rise. That it will all just remain flour and salt and water and nouns and verbs and idioms.

And then in the tenth hour--a tiny bubble appears. We are promised that a word from Him will not return to Him empty, that the Big Picture is like a mustard seed or a tiny bit of yeast and that it will work. It turns out, that this week, I've seen a couple of bubbles. One is a bubble from someone else's batch of dough--another from mine. It's been really neat.

I guess I'm just glad that in all of it--though I aspire to be a Baker of Bread--it's really the yeast that does the work--just like he said it would. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Afternoon

I'm proud of America. 

My election "night" (it's afternoon over here) consisted of hitting "refresh" a couple dozen times a minute as I clicked back and forth from,, and  My internet was too slow for live video feeds--but I did manage to hook up to NPR's live audio feed. Coupled with Skype calls to friends in the US--it was a pretty fun afternoon and I felt pretty well connected to what was happening. I still miss Dan Rather's Texas idioms from 2000 though! 

Whichever side of the political spectrum you fall on: we can all share in this historic moment for our country. My favorite non-Obama quote so far is from Thomas Friedman of the NYT: "Let every child and every citizen and every new immigrant know that from this day forward: Everything really is possible in America."

A few friends and I are going to an American-style restaurant for a late lunch: 

I plan to order apple pie.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A little more halloween...

I wigged it out for Halloween this year...I claim that I was a "Chinese Person"--but I really just wanted any excuse to wear a wig!

Shots from the Halloween Party...

The cutest condiments EVER--getting some mustard and ketchup for my burger!

Johnny and Liz as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash

David and Katie as Yin and Yang!

Megan was a more legitimate Chinese girl--she even got black contacts to complete the ensemble!

Julie as Nobody

Julie's inspiration: Emily Dickenson's "I'm nobody" poem....what happens when English Majors choose Halloween costumes

Shy Princesses

Music moment with Andrew

Pumpkin carving!!! Chinese pumpkins aren't like U.S. ones--they are more like gourds--so we just have to make do!

Somehow mine ended up being a self portrait...I can't help it: the wig brought VANITY!!!

Me, Katera and Megan at VOX later that night

After a FUN night!

I hope all of you had as wonderful of a Halloween as I did! To see the full album, click here.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Halloween Present

Halloween isn't observed here in China--so it's always so much fun to explain the holiday to my students. I mentioned this last year--but we really do lead a charmed life. One day a year, all children get to dress up as anything they could ever want to be and then acquire bags upon bags of candy! Why? Because it's Halloween. Niiiiiice.

There are groups of sophisticated Chinese young adults who reportedly have begun hosting halloween costume parties--probably much in the same way that occasionally we have cinco de mayo parties in the US--and so maybe eventually Halloween will become more known to the Chinese people. 

As it is--It's been pretty fun to celebrate it among our Waigoren (foreigner) friends --to the confusion of our Chinese neighbors/passersby. Last night, many of us gathered for a Halloween party--complete with costumes, pumpkin carving and a "parade" out into the crowded streets to showcase the spectacle of Halloween! It wasn't quite tricking-and-treating--but it was hilarious. 

I'll post pics of the party soon--but for now wanted to share these two videos. I showed It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown to my classes that hadn't seen it last year. This is a great movie/show, I know...ok...I'm NOT arguing anything otherwise. I love it! BUUUUTTTTT....there are some sections of it that are a little....well...boring. 

Or so I thought! My students are 19-20ish years old--and EVERY class that saw the film laughed through the whole thing! I mean--LAUGHED--out loud--heartily! I understand giving an amused smile when you see Charlie Brown flummoxed by his bad luck...but really? Laughter? I finally was so dumbfounded by their enjoyment of it that I brought my camera and tried to capture it. The sound is quiet b/c they are listening through earphones--but here are two examples of them finding something funny that just blows me away! And this class (of COURSE--b/c it's the class I brought my camera to) was one of the more mild of the experience! 

Anyway--it cracks me up! Here's a glimpse of what they find funny: