Saturday, January 31, 2009

Why We Are Here

Sometimes I sit and ponder this. Why are we here? What possessed us to travel to the other side of the world, to settle in a country where almost nothing is familiar and everything difficult to understand? What were we thinking? Then I look at pictures like the ones below. Our friends back home who have no one to talk to, and I remember why. Because we needed to. Because we could. Many of you know that my first response is usually to blame Frank, but I truly understand now that he was only a very small part of it. And there is very little blame left now. I do find it difficult to be away and I often think of those we left behind. Every day in fact. But I am usually able to combat the overwhelming emotions by staying productive and active. Remembering why we are here. Sometimes personal desires must wait. That is only one of the many lessons I am learning here. I only hope I can continue to be a good student.
Let thy Child's first Lesson be Obedience, and the second will be what thou wilt
Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Silence is Golden

About half an hour from the city you can find the sound of silence in a beautiful park. Most people are home with their families during Spring Festival, so the park was relatively empty. We spent the day there preparing ourselves for the noisy week to come. The cherry blossoms welcomed us with their sweet fragrance and the coy and goldfish followed us as we circled the pond. No car alarms, no "bombs" exploding, just birds chirping and children playing. Sweet serenity! This park is steeped with thousands of years of history. The monks wore black with their hair in buns on top of their head. The gentle sounds of an old man playing the two stringed "banjo" filtered up to us as we climbed to the summit. How many people, wondered Frank, have traversed these steep hand-hewn stairs over the past thousands of years? Whose steps were we walking in? Picturesque scenes awaited us around every corner and it was like stepping forward in time, when the worries of today will no longer be remembered. We enjoyed a rather large lunch beneath an old hotel. Kung Pao Chicken, Bai Cai (sauteed Napa Cabbage), potato slivers with garlic and chilies, two types of stir-fry pork, and a bowl of rice big enough to feed 6 people. Somehow we finished most of it. Maybe the fresh air stimulated our appetites. Our day of quiet and beauty had come to an end. But our appreciation for the beautiful things made for our enjoyment was enhanced, our spirits lifted and our minds reset for the goals at hand.

Monday, January 26, 2009

ChunJie Begins!

You are getting two reports of the festivities here, one from each of us. Things are crazy here right now. I think any evil spirits they thought were about have all been chased away by the fireworks last night, this morning and now, noon. Earplugs are a must have this time of year. Last night it was impossible to sleep since it was the first day of ChunJie. We decided to brave the cold and walk around outside for a little while. Armed with earplugs, ear muffs and a hat that covered them, we set out. I was immediately grateful for the mufflers as the noise was so loud, it made the ground beneath our feet rumble and our stomachs quiver. From our apartment, we could feel the vibrations too, as if our city were under attack, but not like this! There were officers standing nearby but only to make sure that certain types of fireworks were placed in a box before lit, since they danced and sent sparks everywhere. They did not however, keep little children from standing amongst the lit pipes. One child was hitting the ones that had been set off already. I had to turn my head so I would not witness him losing a finger or two. Where were his parents? Nothing happened to him thankfully and finally a lady told him to get away. There were little unsupervised pyros everywhere. The bouquets of colors that exploded right over our heads were beautiful and frightening at the same time. All that firepower, how do more people not get injured? I know, I sound like my mother. But one man who spoke pretty good English told us that some people go blind on this night and even die. Am I the only one who sees a problem with this? There were many fireworks used that I know would be illegal in the US. We got tired of the noise and decided to sit in McDonalds for awhile with a cup of coffee. There were more people there than I had ever seen! Staying open on this night was a genius financial decision. We warmed up and decided to head back to our apartment when the whole building began trembling. Everyone ran outside to see what was happening. The government had set up their own display in the park across the road. Wow! It was like the finales of all US fireworks displays put together, and then some. It must have lasted an hour. It ended as we reached the first floor balcony of our apartment building. Traffic was backed up as people just parked in the road and stood and watched. Why do we have such a fascination with fireworks? Is it the noise or is it the amazing ability to create stunning artwork in the sky with the light of a match? Whatever the reason, I wonder how fascinated we will be after the next week and a half? The noise continued all morning and our apartment often smells like the building is on fire since our neighbors light the loud popping ones right in the hallway. Welcome to China!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

ChunJie 春节

China has begun to celebrate its Spring Festival or Chunjie. It is perhaps the most important of all the celebrations here. Tradition holds that the Nian (Chinese for year) was a mythical beast terrorizing a village. The villagers put out food to appease it, as it devoured crops and even children when it appeared. Once, it was seen shying away from a child wearing red. From then on, the people knew to put up red banners on their doors and red lanterns to scare him away. They used fireworks to frighten him as well. The Nian never returned to the village. Eventually, he was conquered by a monk who used him as his mount. This festival is full of such superstitions and traditions that are followed by over a billion Chinese all over the world. Chunjie is traditionally 15 days long and each day has special significance with a certain food and activity to be carried out. You can do research on it further if you are interested. The fireworks have begun already although the official start date is the 25th this year. I have been told what we have seen is nothing compared to what it will be. I think I know what it sounds like in Iraq as mortars and shells explode overhead. Thankfully, there is no carnage here but the explosions often sound like gunfire and bombs. From our kitchen and bedroom windows we will have a front row seat to the fireworks as they begin to blossom in the night sky. Right now though, we mostly just hear them. Every night. All night.

Many Chinese use this holiday to return to their home villages and many foreigners use it as an excuse to get out of town to escape the noise. We have been told to get as many pictures and as much footage as possible now, before we can no longer stand the sight and sounds. This will be an interesting next two weeks. Many of the people we have met so far are headed out of the city. Somehow, though, there are more people here than ever before. I made the crazy mistake of going to the grocery store on the way home today. What was I thinking? We barely escaped unscathed. All the stores are packed to the hilt. Families with bags and bags of candy and gifts. I saw a woman stooped over dragging a basket full of goodies across the floor because it was too heavy to pick up. Apparently, buggies were scarce. I need to stock up and stay low. Here is a video of our evening as we head to bed. We wish everyone the pleasant, quiet night we will soon be wishing for. Sweet Dreams!


The amount of noise which anyone can bear undisturbed stands in inverse proportion to his mental capacity.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860) (Things that make you say "hmmmm...")

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Things, They Are A Changin'

We have spoken many times of how different things are here. That difference is part of what makes this country unique. Some things here are so "backwards" compared to our home countries and yet, when things change, we are not happy with that either. For example, the city has decided to relocate its center. Part of the domino effect of this decision is that many buildings are to be demolished. This includes a huge market that has been here for over twenty years. In the picture you can see there are two stories to the building as well as streets of tents and stalls. The top level are all homes of probably 1000 or more people. This entire area has to go. These people now have to return to their home villages and hopefully find a new line of work. The market itself has helped many of us get settled. Here you can find everything to set up an apartment and the men to deliver it, all for a fraction of the cost in the local Western stores. The people are friendly and talkative. They have their children with them all day long. They cook, clean, and do homework right in the shop. In only three months, we already have so many memories within these streets and alleys. We got our first lessons in Chinese haggling right here. We bought our bikes here, haggled for my first wok, set up my kitchen, found our phones here, and met so many nice people. But in a few days, it will be void of people and a few days more, void of buildings. Sometimes we are so grateful to see a Western store; a KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Starbucks. But other times we are just as grateful for the Asian way of life. The simple tent and stall markets which can provide all of life's necessities, the beautiful smiling faces that want to know everything about you even if you don't buy. I am going to miss this market. Perhaps another one will appear to replace it. These markets are part of what makes this country different. They make it unique.


Spring Rolls

Spring Rolls (春卷, chunjuan)

This is a local version of the popular spring roll. It is generally made larger than its Cantonese cousin. It is also made using a thicker and more porous pastry which gives it a more deep-fried flavour.
1/2 bunch (approximately 100 grams) chives
250 grams bean shoots
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
100 grams minced pork (vegetarians can use chopped tofu and/or mushrooms as a substitute)
1tablespoon cornflour
oil for deep frying
30 pre made spring roll rounds -These rounds can be made at home with wheat flour, egg white and water or purchased in a local market.

Part one – Preparing the filling----Fill a wok halfway with water and bring it to a boil. Once boiling, add chives. Boil for around 30 seconds to blanche the chives and then remove. Chop the chives into 2 cm lengths. Add bean shoots to the water, boil for one minute and then remove. Place chives, bean shoots and minced pork in large mixing bowl. Add soy sauce, salt and a tablespoon of cooking oil and mix thoroughly. Mix cornflour with about 3 tablespoons of water in a small bowl. Keep this 'glue' handy.

Part two – Rolling --Place a small amount of the mixture onto a round and spread it lengthways approximately 1/4 of the way into the round. Roll up the round until about halfway then fold in the edges after applying a little of the cornflour 'glue' with a finger to each of them. Apply a little glue to the end of the round and roll along to complete the rolling process. Place completed spring roll on a plate and then repeat with the next round until the filling is used up.

Part three - Frying--Heat a sufficient depth of oil in a wok to just under a boil and place the first spring roll in. After a short while add the second. Cook each roll until nice and brown, which will require turning them over in the wok. Ideally, you will want to have your own 'production line' of 4-6 rolls in your wok at any time with a new roll going in one end as the longest-cooked roll is taken out the other.
When browned each roll should be removed from the wok and placed on a plate, ready for eating. The spring rolls are ordinarily served hot without any dipping sauce alongside the other courses of a meal.
If you do not have an Asian market nearby, most Wal-marts carry eggroll wrappers in the produce section next to the tofu. They are square. Place the mix in one corner and begin wrapping as described. They are really good with duck sauce or a mix of soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and cilantro. I have used ground turkey, chicken pieces and shrimp(my personal favorite). If you are not partial to bean sprouts, Substitute finely chopped bok choy, the cabbage that looks like green leaf lettuce. Hope you enjoy. Once I try other recipes, I will send them your way.
A cookbook must have recipes, but it shouldn't be a blueprint. It should be more inspirational; it should be a guide.
Thomas Keller

Saturday, January 17, 2009

It's Off To Work I Go...

Today was my first day of real work. As in, I get to go back. I taught five children between the ages of 3 and 6 for one hour. I am still alive but more importantly, so are they. It was actually fun. I introduced them to important things like Bugs and Daffy and taught them Old McDonald Had A Farm using pictures of farm animals. I think they liked it, because at the end of the class, they all ran out to their parents singing it. That felt good. I hope the parents liked me, they were all very friendly and respectful. One joined us so her little boy whom I have named Sam would not be afraid. He is only three, and cute as a button. All the children already have a small grasp of the language, some can count as high as thirty. They certainly were familiar with the farm animals as they yelled the names when I flashed the picture. When I finished the class they all ran out except Sam who was stil looking at the picture of a cat I still had up. He had been very quiet for most of the class. "Do you like the CAT?", I asked him. "CAT" he said, and then repeated the names of the animals as I cycled back through the pictures. Perfectly. Children have such a wonderful capacity for learning. They will pick up English faster than we will learn Chinese and we have almost three and a half years head start. I was a little lighter in my step as I walked to the bus stop. Maybe it was because I had work finally, even if just an hour, or maybe it was being with young minds. Whatever the reason, I look forward to returning after the Spring Festival.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tomorrow Really Is Another Day!

I went from Kindergarten to the sixth grade in one day! My frustrations from Monday were short-lived. Tuesday morning, we marched ourselves down to school prepared to fight. Instead, we were greeted with smiles and directed to a different classroom, with a class much more our level, even challenging. Our teacher speaks almost no English. This is actually an aid not a hindrance. It is interesting though that in three days of class, she has mentioned Sheng Laoshi and I in the same sentence or asked about her at least five times. Why is there a need to compare? Both teachers are good, their techniques unique to themselves. The elderly English lady has been placed in our class as well. Also interesting. I am very happy that I didn't have to make do and, we get to keep Sheng Laoshi since she will teach us during the Spring Festival, one of the biggest Chinese holidays. Having other students in the class is nice too. It makes things a bit more challenging and we all help each other. The extra body heat comes in handy too since there is no other heat available. Scarlet was right- Tomorrow is another day!

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Vocation Class"????

Our school has taken our wonderful teacher away and placed us for four weeks in "vocation" class. From the first day, we began asking for specifics on this class but for some reason, noone knows anything about it, not even who will be teaching it. Interesting. I am trying to be upbeat and excited about it but....nothing. I have to leave for our first class alone because Frank is sick today. I will fill you in when I get back...
I just looked out the window- it is pouring down rain. It's going to be such a great day....
Okay, I got to the class 40 minutes early because someone called to tell us 9:00 when it actually started at 9:30. I beat the teachers there. When our class finally began, I realized I had been dropped from the 6th grade back to kindergarten. a..b..c..d.., or in this case: b..p..m..f..d.. No chinese characters, and the other two students had never had a class before. How exactly do they go about organizing students with classes? I am so frustrated! Ok, I have to find something positive. One of the four students in our class is a lovely 77 year old Englishwoman from Hastings. She has lived here for four years teaching English and has finally decided to take on the challenge. She is very sweet and I am so impressed by her desire to learn. You go girl! The teacher is also very sweet. Chen Laoshi (Teacher Chen) speaks relatively good English, has hopes and dreams outside of China and crinkles her nose when she laughs. She made the simplicity of the class bearable. Hopefully, we will be able to switch to a higher level class before I start sucking my thumb again, but if not, I will make do and perhaps learn some teaching techniques to use on the children I will be teaching on Saturday. Our teacher offered me a job teaching English to her son and a few neighbors at her house every Saturday for one hour. It isn't much but it's a start. Now I am back home and it is time to make lunch. Perhaps tomorrow will be brighter, it is another day.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Climb Every Mountain

Last month, I spent a day in the mountains with some friends. We started out early in the morning, took a bus to the base of the hills and set out. The weather was clear and a bit chilly. The first part of our hike was through a cemetery, large tombs with food and incense sticks set out at the entrance. Some of the oranges had been peeled and partially eaten. Someone was taking advantage of other's beliefs. After an hour or so, the trail ended at a farm. It looked abandoned except for evidence of animals. We trespassed in the hopes of finding a path or someone to help us find it. Sure enough, squatting outside her door peeling onions, was a snaggle-tooth elderly lady. She was surprised to see so many foreigners but was quick to offer us a drink or something to eat. She let us take pictures with her and we chatted brokenly. She doesn't travel to the city, too difficult. We gave her some of our snacks we had with us and some fruit. The custom is to refuse several times which she did but you could see in her eyes how much she wanted them and we carried out the custom by pushing it at her until she accepted. She was kind enough to point us in the right direction. Past the farm, the trail took an upward turn and suddenly, we came across two women with horses. They gave us pieces of root that tasted much like radish. We haggled over prices to rent the horses since the path had become very steep. They gave us a reasonable price and two people mounted up. We were passed by another group of riders in suits and ties. It was Christmas day and they were going to the top to sing. I had never seen so many well dressed people in the middle of nowhere.
After a while, we shifted riders and suddenly the price went up! Doubled because now someone else was on the horses. What? They told us we couldn't change riders again but we did it anyway and halfway up they said we had reached to top and should dismount and pay. We gave them the original agreed upon price and struggled up the rest of the way on our own. We stopped for lunch outside a small village. Since I had not thought to bring lunch, I followed an old lady who said she had a restaurant nearby. Nearby was a relative term but the food was delicious, rice with potatoes in it, kung pao chicken and pickled cucumbers. I carried it back to the group and we ate seated on the ground near a newly plowed field, enjoyed singing and took a nap. Reluctantly, we decided it was time to get moving since we hadn't yet reached the top. We soon realized though, that we did not know where we were going. Our paths became dead ends and brambles. Each person we met sent us in a different direction. Before we knew it, we were following three teenagers over rocks and cliffs. They were in heels and suits. The view at the top, while not providing us with a way home, was stunning! Another visitor sent us over more cliffs in search of the illusury "path". We reached the pagoda we had seen from the other peak and again the landscape was worth the work, but we still were not headed downhill. We spent all day on that mountain and just before it became dusk, we came upon a paved road. I would not need the emergency thermal blanket I had in my bag or my pocket knife after all. The road took us to a park where knowledgeable visitors started and finished their hike. Bathrooms, stores and a bus home. Who knew? Not us! Despite my active imaginary plan to sleep on the mountain, build a fire, hunt for food and make sure our group survived the night, we made it home without serious incident and feasted family style on Korean food at a local restaurant. It was a wonderful day. I am grateful to my parents for taking us hiking and camping so often growing up. It often comes in handy here and makes situations that would unnerve many others, quite enjoyable.

"Hiking through the mountains is easy, except for the hiking part"