Sunday, April 29, 2007

This week is the May Day Labor Day holiday in China (and other communist countries, apparently). It's a big deal - most schools are closed for the week, although since the holiday is officially Tuesday - Thursday, they go to school Saturday and Sunday so they get the whole week off. Tim's company is closed for the week, except for Monday. The kids' school is only closed Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday. We had originally planned to travel to Macau for the break, but we heard that all of China will be traveling and vacationing, so we'd best not go there. Then we thought we'd go to Beijing for the week, but, same thing, just tons and tons of crowds, even moreso than usual. So, we're staying home and hanging out here. It will actually be nice, I think.

Today was Andrew's birthday, he turned 5. Amazing, I remember quite vividly the events that led up to his early birth, as I'm sure anybody who knew me then remembers. Lucky us, how blessed are we to have that little boy around! He's so funny.

I made him a racecar cake, as I have done for his past 3 birthdays (thanks, Mom, for sending the pan!). I made it Friday and planned to decorate it for the party on Saturday. Saturday afternoon rolled around - I waiting as long as possible to decorate it because the humidity melts icing - and I realized the cake wasn't cooked all the way through, all gooey and such in the middle. So, stressing like only I can, I baked another cake, waited patiently for it to cool (well, kind of patiently) and decorated it about 1 hour before the party. Since it took 1 1/2 hours to decorate, I was still scrambling when everyone got here. Bummer. My cheesecake was also subpar, which was disappointing and embarrassing because I truly am the Queen of the Cheesecake. Ah, well, Andrew had a nice party and it was really nice to spend time with our friends. The pizza was good - they have Papa John's here which taste pretty much the same as it does back home. Except they also deliver salad and the Ranch dressing tastes like nothing but plastic with some pepper in it. It's strange, nasty and scary. But, I digress...

Today I went to the Protestant service with the boys and really enjoyed it. I met some more very nice people, saw some people I already knew, which was very nice, and felt "spoken to" during the message. In all, it was a refreshing, grounding experience and I felt blessed to be there.

This past Friday I went to the neighborhood pool with the boys (they didn't have school Friday because they really never have school, now, do they?). On the way down I had this feeling of deja vu, only it was us heading to our neighborhood pool in Knoxville. It was really lonely to realize that I would, indeed, not be running into my friends Carolyn, Mary, Heidy and Barb and their lovely kids at the pool, I would just be running into a bunch of people I don't know so well and their kids. It was a very lonely moment for me and I felt so homesick for my neighbors and friends. I miss you, pals!! And your lovely children! The really nice thing was, though, that I did run into some new friends I had met before through my wonderful neighbor. They hung out with me and made me feel quite welcome and included. It was very enjoyable. The sad thing is, they're both moving back to the States this summer. I am going to have to get used to the incredibly temporary situation everyone is in here and not guard my heart too closely. I'm going to have to be open to friends who may not live near me for very long but who very well may stay in my heart and in my life even after we return to our respective homes.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lily's Wedding

We were invited to a Chinese wedding party this Sunday. When a Chinese couple gets married, the actual marriage takes place at a government office with just the bride and groom attending. It has to be on a good day according to the lunar calendar. The party, too, has to be on a good day according to that calendar (not the Gregorian calendar). One of Tim's coworkers who was there said she got married but they didn't have the party until over a year later because the year in between wasn't a good year to get married.

The party was in a city north of Shenzhen, and has a much smaller foreign population - we received many stares from people in other vehicles.

When you walk into the venue, the bride is there to greet you (she had on a beautiful white dress, gloves and veil) along with a few friends/relatives who carried silver trays. The trays were for little red envelopes, the traditional gift of choice for weddings (filled with cash, of course). Then we walked into the party room where tables were set with red cloths, bowls of peanuts and candy, and two packs of cigarettes on each table.

We found a table and sat down, and were served tea even though we were the first ones there. We relaxed and listened to various songs such as "auld lang syne", "Happy Birthday", and some traditional Chinese music. People began arriving and finding a seat. Finally the bridal procession entered - a wedding cake (very small) on a cart, followed by a wedding performer/MC guy, then the bride and groom, and then some friends with big Chinese crackers that shot out confetti and streamers with a bang. The groom then picked up the bride and paraded her around the room so each table could get a good look at her. They walked up to a platform where speeches were given - in this case, by each of their bosses. Since they are both from different towns, they had already had two parties in each of those towns with their relatives. After speeches and some jokes and nice words from the MC guy (who would normally, I believe, be a friend of the couple), they had a ring ceremony. I suppose I don't need to add that I had no idea what any of the speakers was saying, except for Lily's American boss. The woman next to me explained that it was mostly about how they met and about them as a couple.

Then they cut the heart-shaped cake in half but did not eat any. After that they had champagne in two cups that were tied together with a red ribbon, and poured some champagne into a cup on top of a tower of cups. The MC guy poured that cup into two cups underneath it and they each drank from one of those.

After that, the bride left to change into a beautiful reddish tulle dress - sort of a vermillion color, I guess. It was gorgeous and she looked like a princess. So much so that Ella was terrified of her because she is terrified of any Disney character including Alice in Wonderland and the Princesses. But, I digress.

Chinese meals are served family-style, with a big lazy susan in the middle of the table, and you just grabe what you want with the chopsticks for each dish and put it on your plate. We had a delicious meal of broth soup, fish balls with oysters, mushroom and braised lettuce leaves in gravy, stewed ginger chicken, shrimp (which the Chinese eat whole - head and shell and all, then they spit out the shells), grilled pork (usually sliced, with a lot of fat and skin around very tender meat), cashew chicken (which was REALLY good), fried rice, and whole grilled fish. The other people at the table looked at me funny when I peeled my shrimp and took off the head with my chopsticks - the woman next to me even showed me how to just pop the whole thing in....ummmmm, no thanks. I also didn't try the fish balls because I had a hard time with the smell, but everything else was really, really good. The kids even ate really well. While we ate, the bride and groom visited each table for a toast and a welcome.

Then they served a plate of sweets - little egg custard tarts, which Alex loved, and these sticky rice pastries filled with sweet black sesame seed paste. These were really, really really good! After that came the usual dessert of a huge tray of cut fresh fruit. It was really good - we had star fruit, apples, oranges, melon, watermelon, and grapes.

After that, it was done and we headed back to Shenzhen and a very light supper because we were still so full!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In case you're wondering what Americans can eat in China, here's a rundown of our normal meals:

hamburgers, french fries and baked beans
spaghetti, sauce and meat balls
chicken nuggets and green beans
baked fish, broccoli and rice
Fillippino pork stew (menudo) and rice
Ham, mashed potatoes, beans and salad
pork chops
pizza, pizza, pizza
salad (usually only at restaurants, it's hard to find salad in the store)

There is a wonderful butcher shop nearby where we get all the normal meats we're used to, and with the import stores and wonderfully fresh produce at the corner shop, we can eat fairly similarly to the way we used to. It's pretty cool, because everything is pretty fresh as far as meat and produce goes. We had eggs and toast tonight (the corner shop DOES refrigerate their eggs, probably thanks to the heavy expat population here, yay).

There are some pretty cool perks that come along with living here, too, besides the obvious one of domestic help. Because the only kids' channel we could get was Cartoon Network, and now we can't even get that, the kids just don't watch tv or want to. They play together inside sometimes and outside as often as they can, riding scooters and bikes or drawing with chalk or playing at the playground. It's amazing to watch them fill up their time with good, old-fashioned activities that involve moving your body! We spend more time together as a family, which I had been told ahead of time by dear friends would happen, and we're enjoying each others' company much more.

Everybody delivers, even McDonald's and Subway, though we don't frequent those places often at all. The other restaurants deliver, and nobody expects a tip. Cool! They ride up here on bikes with our food, piping hot and ready to eat. I don't know how they keep the soup that hot for that long. I also found out that STARBUCK'S DELIVERS. Whoooppee! Even though, as I previously mentioned, they don't carry their fantastic cream cheese danishes, pumpkin muffins or strawberries and cream frappuccino. Somebody out there (Marlena?), please have one for me and think about me because I miss those!

So, while we can get Chinese food if we wanted to (and just about any other nationality of food!), and the kids COULD watch Chinese TV, they and we don't. There are some pretty neat things about living in China I hadn't even thought of ahead of time.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Dirty eggs and Other Chinese Stuff

Some funny stuff, some sad stuff, and some meaningful stuff:

1. Egg Hunt on Easter Sunday - We went to an egg hunt/Easter Party Sunday morning in our neighborhood. After walking down to the front of the neighborhood, then following the directions of various security guards, we eneded up at the bottom of the 188 steps behind our back door. There was pizza (at 9 a.m.!) and a bunch of other food. And an egg hunt, which consisted of eggs that were buried in the ground (the dirt) that kids were trying to dig up with sticks or whatever tools they could find, like broken pottery shards. If you were lucky enough to find an egg (few were!), and if there was a piece of cardboard inside your egg, you got a prize. If not, tough luck and keep digging in the dirt. It was the strangest, silliest egg hunt I've ever seen, and we had a good laugh about it.

That afternoon, Andrew had a birthday party (yeah, on Easter Sunday) and Alex and I went to the Catholic church. I felt a little lost, enough said.

2. Last evening we went to a Gala at the school to benefit students in Guizhou Province, which is a very poor, rural province in northern China. The children there didn't even have a bathroom, just a ditch. The building was a shack with big spaces between the roof boards (so, no roof, really). Desks were primitive wooden tables with a bunch of kids crowded around each one. It's very cold there and the children were without warm clothing. And the drinking water came from a ditch - it looked pretty green and gross. Last year's Gala resulted in a bathroom, 6 water cisterns for drinking water, a school building, desks, supplies, warm clothes, hats and mittens, and pigs for many families to raise. It was heartbreaking to watch the presentation of before and after, and even the "after" would be considered sad in the U.S. It was heartwarming at the same time, to see the difference in these childrens' and their families' lives. The really nice thing was, all the work, such as building the desks, was done by people in the town there, so the money went to the community in addition to providing the school facility to the children. We had a nice time, spent as much money as we could on a few auction items, and met so many wonderful people. We met some people from Wisconsin, even, and had a great time talking about "home." We did bid on a "win" a digital camera, so I'll be taking pictures this week of Resort Land and our house and the kids for all of you who are asking : )

3. Church today was a completely different scene from the last time I attended the Protestant service. This morning, we all went and had a very uplifting, moving, spiritual worship experience. It was really fantastic, and I felt so at home. All the Wisconsin folks we had met last night were there, along with a mix of Christians from all ends of the earth. The music was inspiring, the message was solid, thought-provoking, and challenging (in a good way), and the kids had fun in Sunday School. It was the thing I've been so missing since coming to China, and I'm so glad we went back for another chance. I feel like a hole inside me has been filled.

4. This afternoon we all headed down to the pool where Alex beat me severely in a water gun fight (that I started) and we all had a nice time on a hot afternoon. Even Ella got to go swimming, which she loved as long as she could hang onto Daddy. Tim is out starting the grill two hours before we plan to eat because Chinese charcoal is much more difficult and fussy than U.S. briquets. There is no lighter fluid, either, just these wierd little pills, about 3 cm around and 2 cm tall that stay really hot and help the charcoal get fired up. It takes forever to get a fire going, and we've had some really late dinners because of this. Also, the grills don't have covers so the food takes much longer to cook.

5. And yet, aren't we so very lucky and blessed to have what we have!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

(Sesame St. Voiceover) Cookies! Um num num num num....

Tonight I had this great idea to give everyone a taste of home and comfort: chocolate chip cookies! Sounds easy enough, right? Riiiiight.

First off, you have to buy flour, baking powder, soda and brown sugar at the import store - they just don't bake here. Could be because nobody has an oven, I don't know. But I luckily had all the ingredients I needed on hand, even real butter (from Fraaaance). I even had my friend the Monster Mixer on the counter. Sadly, we couldn't find a way to make the mixer work because it's a 3-prong 110 Watt machine. Our converter to 220 watts only works with two-prong plugs. So, Tim got a nice workout mixing the ingredients for me.

About halfway through (too late to turn back) I realized the movers had never packed a single cookie sheet, even though I had clearly marked them "TO CHINA." Nor did they pack any of my cake pans, to go with the 16 cake mixes they DID pack, but that's another story for another time. So, I took a sheet of foil, greased it up and stuck it to the broiler pan. I also used a 9 x 13 pan for the rest of the cookies. I'm starting to believe that the bulk of creativity comes from desperation.

We used up our chocolate chip stash, and I have yet to see chocolate chips anywhere, even at the import stores. Very sad, indeed. Please don't send us any because it's really hot here and we'd end up with a giant chocolate lump. Eeuuu.

My oven, which I am incredibly lucky to have here in China, is a strange bird. Most ovens here are those teeny little half-size European jobs. Mine is full-size, but there is no window, so you have to open the oven to see what's going on, letting out most of the heat. In this case, however, that's a good thing, because regardless of what the temperature gauge says, this baby just keeps getting hotter and hotter and hotter. Perhaps it's a blessing in disguise that the cake pans never arrived. Perhaps they were afraid.

Anywho, we finally got them mixed and baked and put them to cool (for about 3 seconds). We all had a little bedtime snack (because it was bedtime by the time I finished). And you know, they did taste like home and they were some of the best chocolate chip cookies I've ever had.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Happy Palm Sunday

Yesterday we were invited to return to Hong Kong and spend the day with some associates of Tim. They met us at the ferry station and took us to a space museum (we all thought of you, Ariel!), the Avenue of the Stars (sort of like in Hollywood, but with Chinese stars), then we took the tram up to the Peak. The Peak is my favorite place to be. It looks way down on all the skyscrapers of Hong Kong and the harbor with all the ships and boats. It's a beautiful place to be during the day, and breathtaking at night. We had a wonderful dinner there and were right in front of the live music. Ella kept flirting with the singer and keyboard player, and they played a few songs for her to enjoy, like Sesame Street in a jazzed-up version and another jazzy kids' tune. It was really fun and I think they had a ball because she was so sweet and dancing and pointing and laughing with them.

We returned on the early afternoon ferry in time for me to check out the Catholic church that meets here at the school. I'm not Catholic, so communion was a big bummer, as Catholics don't let you take communion there if you're not Catholic. But, the liturgy was relatively familiar and the choir was outstanding. It was, again, a very international service. The priest, I believe, is French. The deacon is Irish, and the congregation is quite varied. I was once again struck by the worldwide fellowship of believers.

I cried all the way home. I really, really miss my church, and my support network and the fellowship I was so blessed to find there. I miss my pastor very much and my friends and people who worship like I do and who know me. This is Holy Week, and if I were in the U.S. I would be able to find a service Thursday night, Friday night and a sunrise Easter service. No such luck here; we are apparently lucky to get the part-time clergy we do get here. The Passion truly stirs me - it is a good thing to hear the story again and again. I will so very much miss it this week. Sunday will be church again, but there will not be a sunrise service, which I just love, with the trumpet blasting out "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" and people singing. I'm homesick.

I guess Sundays are going to be hard for a while no matter what.

We had a surprise this afternoon, too. Our shipment of all our things from home was to arrive tomorrow morning (Monday.) However, they apparently wanted to get it out of the way so they brought it tonight at 7:30. Who on earth delivers stuff on a Sunday night?? It was really fun trying to get the kids to bed and also to make them sleep once again in the guest bed because their beds weren't put together yet. Many tears and frustration from my poor 4-year-old. I now sit surounded by boxes upon boxes and more boxes. Tomorrow should be a fun day.

I'm thinking that since it's near midnight, perhaps I'll go to bed. It seems a shame with all the unpacking left to do, but I think I'm done for the night.