December 31, 2009

Aiyi's Big Fish

Today we were made a gift of Aiyi's favorite food from her home Anhui Province.  This was the second time that we've had it.  The first time we had it, Aiyi came in the door, very excited, with a red plastic bag.  When she showed me the contents, I wasn't exactly sure what to think.  There in the red lit bag were two enormous brownish-reddish dried fish, eyes bulging, complete with scales and fins and a very strong smell. (The picture at the top resembles it, but is not the actual thing)  She proclaimed with excitement that it was "da yu" (leaving room for different tones, I think that it means "big fish") and announced that she was going to prepare it for us.  I was very thankful that I would not have to pretend that I knew how to prepare that fish.  It was as dry and hard as a bone.

She began cooking and foreign odors started drifting from the kitchen.  I peeked into the the massive simmering pot (full to the brim) at one point.  I was surprised to see that the only moderations she had made to the fish were to hack them into massive pieces (with bones, scales, fins and eyes) and then boil it with onions.  Eventually it was done and she presented us with massive bowls of rice with the hunks of fish on top.  James and I bit into our first taste of "da yu".

Strong salty flavor burst through our mouths, so strong that our cheek linings, tongues and lips burned with it.  Quick!  Take a bite of rice!  She is watching us!

"Hao chi Aiyi!  Hao chi!" (Delicious Aiyi!  Delicious!)

Thankfully, she does not speak any English and James and I were able to analyze the taste to each other (with smiles of appreciation on our faces and the occasional "Hao chi!").  She beamed, watching us.

"Yikes!  That is salty!".   "I think there is another flavor in there, but I can't tell".  "There are so many bones!".  "Its not so strong if you take ten bites of rice for every bite of fish".  "I don't think I have enough rice in my bowl to do that".  "Do you think there is this much salt to cover up the mud flavor?"  "I think that is just the fat".

We ate our fill, regardless of our reservations, and by the end had decided that not only was it edible, it even had a little charm of its own.  But after three straight meals of eating "da yu" (and still having not made a dent in the massive pot) we decided to freeze the rest.  For all of its charms, I had happily forgotten that it existed.

Today another batch came in the door.  It seems that a fresh delivery arrived from Anhui in the last 24 hours and Aiyi has sacrificially given us some of her favorite food, as a special gift for us.  So we cooked it up and ate it for supper tonight.  I contemplated that the taste seemed even stronger than last time (my mouth was burning with salt) while James concluded that it was less strong. I was completely unaware that I was eating it with a deep grimace on my face until James burst out laughing at me.  As we ate it, we made a ranked list of people who we thought would absolutely hate it.  Here is that list:
  1. Leonard Gerbrandt (My dad, whose combined displeasure for seafood and Chinese food would collide in this tasty dish.)
  2. Char Kenemy (My close friend, and a vegetarian - although there are many more reasons than animal flesh that would stand in the way of enjoyment.)
  3. Diana Stahl (James' sister, also a vegetarian who once read the back of a package of bologna, only to scream in horror, "There are turkey hearts in here!")
  4. You, the reader, whoever you are... guaranteed.
However, James was quick to decide that there was, at least, someone who would undoubtedly like it.  This is of course, Steven Frey (his dad).  James went on to elaborate that even if he didn't "like" it, he would steadfastly swallow every bite, determined not to allow his face to display even a hint of displeasure, and defending it as "good eating".  He would then make a few comments along the lines of, "After all, we're not eating at the Ritz", or "I'm not saying I'd want to eat it for breakfast", or alternately, "Sure, it doesn't taste like candy".  But he wouldn't skip a bite.

Following this categorization of our loved ones, we went through the full range of analysis again. "Is there a subtly unsubtle taste of BBQ in here?"  "I don't think so" .  The final conclusion yet again was "It has its own strange charm".

And that is the story of our last charming meal of 2009.  I'm sure that 2010 bring more such charming meals.

Happy New Year!

December 27, 2009

Our Son, Harry Potter

A few weeks ago when I dropped Ari off at school, I was asked to sign a permission form to have Ari's picture taken.  It struck me as a little strange, but I figured that it was some kind of school picture.  I imagined that it would be something like my school pictures with some horrible fluorescent line background and me beaming a toothless smile (minus the frilly little girl dress of course).  What we were not expecting was the picture we were handed when we went to his school program!  Harry Potter is quite the rage here in China.  He even has his own name: Hālì Bōtè.

Ari however, has no idea who is impersonating in this picture; he was just excited to wear glasses!

December 25, 2009

Christmas Picture Appendix

Jude wearing his lion costume from Grandparents.  

Merry Christmas!

Today we passed our first Chinese Christmas.  We did not have a white Christmas, but there was a bit of a dust storm last night (if we just listened to the wind and tried not to breath the dusty air, we could have imagined that it was a blizzard!). In addition to this being our first Christmas in China, there is another reason to memorialize this time.  It was a year ago on the 23rd that we first found out that we were coming to China.  That's right, it happened in a very fast flurry of two months!  There have been a few events lately that led us up to this momentous Christmas.

On Thursday, Ari had his very first Christmas function at school.  Ari is the only foreigner in the class, but as we have mentioned, it is popular to celebrate Christmas in some form or fashion here.  All the parents were invited to listen to their kids sing strangely worded Christmas songs (Ari argued vehemently with me the other day for the weird words he was taught to We Wish You A Merry Christmas), and watch them dance.  Ari surprised us with very smooth and sleek dance moves, and we were secretly pleased to note that he seems to be the most interesting child in his class.  We had already suspected this from the reports that his teachers give us from time to time.  "Ari has not been participating with exercise time. He has been hiding behind the slide" or "Ari thinks its funny to put his rice in other children's bowls during meal time."  Aiyi came with us to see him perform and she seemed to quite enjoy it.  We were also able to see the girl in Ari's class that he has deemed "girly" enough to be pretty.  We suspect that he has the slightest of a crush on her!

I have been playing piano a lot for the church over Christmas.  This poor audience has had/will have me for four straight Sundays.  I still am not all that great with learning several new pieces of sheet music per week so the mistakes are definitely abundant.  However I am getting better, and am learning to accept the fact that it takes time to recover from eight years of not playing.  One of the most fun things recently was playing a piano duet with another MCCer for the Christmas Eve service.  We played Carol of the Bells, and it went quite well.

After the boys were in bed last night, James and I set about decorating the tree and wrapping the presents.  Our tree is partly edible, with hanging tangerines and marshmallows.  In spite of the fact that I caught an unfortunate and exceptionally unpleasant cold and have spent the last 24 hours mouth-breathing, it was quite fun to watch the boys come out of their room this morning.  James decided that the traditional Santa Claus story is boring, so the boys now believe that Santa Claus is a fur trapper who rides a dog sled and only leaves presents for children who leave furs under the tree on Christmas Eve.  They were very excited this morning to see that the furs were indeed gone, and that there were presents in their place.  

Tomorrow we will be hosting a Christmas party at our house with our Chinese friends.  The boys will be re-enacting the Christmas story for everyone and we will eat pizza, jiaozi (Chinese dumplings), and chicken.  We are looking forward to it quite a bit. 

We have discovered that there are some advantages to celebrating Christmas in a country that doesn't really celebrate it.  1) Because it is popular to celebrate Christmas, everything goes on sale to try and convince people that they should buy Christmas gifts.  In North America, everything goes on sale after Christmas.  2) You can invite anyone over and no one has special plans.  Friends can come over and their parents have no idea that today is Christmas and that they are theoretically supposed to be together with family.  3) It is really worthwhile to say "Sheng dan jie kuai le" (Merry Christmas) to a Chinese person, because they are genuinely surprised to hear it and then look quite happy about being included (in our experience).  

I saw a really great English sign that just went up recently in our neighborhood.  It is a barber shop whose name is "Adoring Ancientry Haircuts".  Ancientry?  How far back shall we go?  Paleolithic man?  Care for a Confucius cut?  A Socrates cut?   Nebechudnezzar?  Queen Nephrititi?  You know where to go!  
(For the record, I'm not writing this to make fun of their English, because I know that I make equally silly mistakes in Chinese.  Rather, I am noting how funny it sounds in English)

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Menagerie

Christmas Menagerie

Fun Costumes for Boys!  Merry Christmas!

December 17, 2009

Our Days

Alarm goes off at 7:00.  James slaps snooze, Jess is unable to fall asleep again and lays in semi-wakefulness.

Both eventually crawl out of bed.  Parent A gets dressed and Parent B tiptoes into the boys room and tries to pull Ari out of bed without waking up Jude (50% success rate, especially on a morning when Ari says in a loud voice "Am I going to school?)

Parent B brushes Ari's teeth, dresses him and repeats any instructions to him at least 10 times.  His hearing is horrible in the morning and you might as well be talking to a hitching post.  Parent A meets them in the entrance and goes out the door with Ari by 7:30.

Parent A and Ari run to catch a bus (either the 538 or the 467).  On the way to school there is a mix of taxi counting, story telling and sometimes silence.

Parent A drops Ari off at school, watches as he has his temperature taken and tonsils checked and then runs back to be squished onto a bus.  This parent may have to pick up milk or cereal on the way home.

When Parent A gets home (8:15-8:30) Parent B has coffee ready in the French press and Jude is eating.  The two parents eat breakfast and drink coffee together.

Parent B goes to the MCC office (9:00), and Parent A either works from home or does other things while Jude plays.

At 11:30 Parent B leaves office, catches the 467 bus and picks up Ari.  More counting taxis. Two days ago we saw 52 in the short time of waiting for the bus.

When Parent B and Ari get home (12:15-12:30), Parent A has made lunch.  The two parents exchange 5 minutes of small talk while gobbling lunch.  

At 12:30 the sound of the doorbell pierces the air...and doesn't stop.  It keeps going, and going and going...  Heaven forbid you should be in the bathroom and unable to answer the door when Aiyi arrives!  After you buzz her in, Aiyi comes in with a flury of "Hen leng, hen leng, hen leng!" (So cold! So cold! So cold!).  When speaking to us Aiyi calls us "Oreh de Baba" (Ari's father) and "Oreh de Mama" (Ari's mother).  I think it would be embarrassing at this point to tell her that we have names!

Parent A gets ready to go to class with the inevitable caution from Aiyi of "Duo chuan yifu!" (Wear more layers of clothes!).  Parent B goes back to the office.

During the time that Aiyi is at the house Ari refers to Jude as "Judah" and to himself as "Oreh".  Jude also refers to Ari as "Oreh"

Parent A studies four progressive hours of Chinese (from 1:00-5:00) with four different teachers.

Parent B stays at office until 4:15 and then comes home and makes supper while Parent A squishes home on the bus.

Parent A gets home (6:00) and there is a short while to relax while waiting for supper.

We eat supper.  This is a mix of reminding the boys that supper is for eating and not playing with and that if they talk more than they eat, they may have to be quiet.  There is also quite a bit of "Ari, Jude, sit properly.  Do you think you are riding a horse?"

Jess practices piano for an hour while James reads or is on the computer.  The boys run around playing, yelling, giving each other horse back rides etc.

Boys go to bed at 8:00. One parent does teeth brushing and the other does storytelling.

James and Jess retreat to a room with one lamp on and try to ignore the upstairs neighbor who bought an electric guitar a few weeks ago and plays the same three 80's hair-band songs every night for up to four hours.  We have contemplated that he seems to be trying to start a band.  The other night someone was playing scales on the piano to the guitar song, someone else was drumming and the guitarist was constantly singing at the voice cracking range.  Once in a while James starts to sing along. I hate to rain on their parade, but I don't think they will make it far.  Its just too bad that the lack of garages around her renders the term "garage band" unusable.  

Jess reads on the couch (usually falling asleep before 10) and James continually comments how much he "loves" our neighbors music, while reading about strange topics on Wikipedia (a recent example being the Assyrian Church of the East).

James wakes Jess because its bedtime.

The next day Parents A and B switch roles.

The other day as I was waiting for the elevator at the office building, my ears were assaulted.  Someone had parked their pink motorbike inside the entrance and their high-pitched alarm decided to go off.  The entrance has many curves and is solidly stone, so the sound ricocheted around the small area, building and building.  The bike itself was also getting louder and I saw that it eventually became so frenzied that it was throwing itself around.  It was a truly horrible noise and I could feel the blood pounding in my ears in time with the alarm.  Needless to say, I was very happy when the elevator arrived.


December 09, 2009

More Xi'an Pictures

These pictures are of the boys and a Terra-Cotta Warrier, the Nestorian Stele, and the stele rubbing.


Dear Friends, Family and Countrymen!

The last while has found us extremely busy.  There has been much traveling, much work, much learning new piano music for church, and much school.  What we have had less time for is, blogging, grocery shopping, and resting.

Last weekend we were in Xi'an.  With a few breaks in between, Xi'an was the capital of China from 1046 BC until 907 AD.  It is also the well known home of the home of the Terra-cotta Warriers.  This army of 6000 warriers, are life sized, individualized statues of warriors made of fired clay.  They were made for the Emperor Qin 2300 years ago so that when he enter the afterlife, he would be already have an army with him and could also dominate in the next life.  It includes horses, chariots, sword bearers, archers (actually crossbows), and much more. When they were made, they were even painted bright colors.  It is a truly fascinating sight, and is the eighth wonder of the world.  

We also spent Saturday night dragging the boys through the loud and crowded Muslim Market.  James and the boys came home on Sunday evening, but I had to travel to Chengdu from Xi'an the next morning.  Thus, I and and two other MCCers were able to do some more walking around the city.  

We walked to the Forest of Steles, where there are many huge metal slabs contain writing from hundreds and thousands of years ago.  They proclaim edicts, write histories, and record social exhortations.  Here in this "forest" is a stele declaring the history of the first Christians (Nestorians) that come to China in about 650 AD.  They set up a church and did well for 150 years, after which point, the Emperor had them driven out/killed.  The church also still exists a three hour drive away from Xi'an.  This stele was carved in remembrance of the Christians shortly after they were driven out.  All of the steles are mounted on the backs of giant turtles (which are a symbol of wisdom).  It was truly fascinating.  See the picture at the top.  We were also fortunate enough to watch the workers make rubbings of the steles (picture).  One of the other MCCers bought a rubbing of the Nestorian Stele.  Knowing many people who would be interested in such a rubbing (James and his Mom!), I briefly considered buying one as well, but did not have enough money.

Also in Xi'an we saw the Big Goose Pagoda (built to house the Buddhist Scriptures in 649 AD).

Before I end, here is a story.  Today Ari casually told me "Today at school I threw up in the garbage can again."  I wondered to myself why his teacher would not have thought to tell us about this.  Then he said, "I had paper in my mouth from my food.  My teacher had to squeeze my throat in order to get it out".  WHAT!!!  My mind started racing, wondering what on earth could have happened.  However, a few simple questions it came out that "squeezing" was actually the teacher putting her finger in his mouth to pull out the paper, and "throwing up" was actually spitting it in the garbage.  Moral of the story: Readily recall at all times that your  child's vocabulary is new and untried!  

November 26, 2009

One Tragedy and 3 Positive Updates


It all started when Ari came home from school humming a deadly tune.

"There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name-o! B-I-N-G-O! B-I-N-G-O! B-I-N-G-O! And Bingo was his name-o!"

There are no words to describe how much I hate this song.  Of all the thousands of songs Ari could sing, and that he could learn in a Chinese school, it had to be that one.  Why not "Oh Susanna!" or "Old McDonald" or "The Farmer in the Dell"?  I'm not necessarily fond of those songs, but at least I can ignore them.  Bingo, on the other hand, has a penetrating tune that snuggles itself deep into the long-term memory part of my brain.  This is the only song that has the ability to stay in my head for a week at a time and has been since I was about 13 years old.  It plays over and over.  I find myself tapping my feet to it, making up high piccolo lines, involuntarily tapping my teeth to the new drumbeat I have added to it (leading to headaches), writing alternative harmony lines for mandolins etc.  All of this is entirely involuntary, and half of the irritation is that I keep on suddenly realizing what I am doing and trying to stop.  Night time may or may not offer a brief reprieve.

I can imagine what a bad parent I must seem like when Ari goes to school and tells his teachers that his mom "hates that song" and has forbidden him to sing it around her.  But this is truly a matter of maintaining sanity.  I have told him that he is welcome to sing any other song he wants.  The interesting thing is that telling him this brings out his debating skills, in which I feel like I am at a disadvantage.  He doesn't understand how I can hate a song that he loves, and thinks it is a bad reason to not sing a song.  I suppose he has heard us tell him enough times that "Because" is not a good answer.  

It seems that his school seems to love teaching him repetitive children's songs.  For example, Ari recently learned "The Wheels on the Bus" and has logically decided that the best time to sing this song is when we are riding the bus.  The first time was a tired Sunday afternoon on the way home from church.  I don't know if every family is like this, but our family is inevitably tired and cranky on the way home from church.  Ari started to sing the song.  James and I exchanged tired expressions, but by mutual silent agreement, decided not to shush him.  So verse 2 came and then verse 3 ("the babies on the bus go wah wah wah").  James and I found ourselves starting to open our mouths to ask him to be a little quieter, but then verse 4 started. "The parents on the bus go shush, shush, shush!".  It seemed a little too appropriate.  When whole song had gone through one time, we felt justified in telling him that once was probably enough.  

Positive Update #1

Ari's teacher and her husband are coming over for supper tomorrow evening.  If you will recall, there was a whole blog entry in October about the somewhat confusing circumstances we found ourselves in with her.  We are making Thai food for them.  I think it will be a lot of fun.

Positive Update #2

I have discovered that by far the best place to be on the crowded bus is crammed against the door on the bottom step.  There is less shoving, because people know you are at the end of the line.  Also if you turn toward the glass you can breath without having some woman's fur hood going between your lips (today's experience).  The door is also guaranteed to open every stop which brings fresh air sweeping into the bus.  Everyone getting on the bus instantly tries to plunge into the depths of people so that means they don't try to usurp your spot.  And finally, you get a full length view of the streets as the bus drives (which is kind of fun), and everyone in traffic gets a full length view of the foreigner squished against the glass.  Its a win-win situation!  I have also tried praying on the bus, which takes my mind off of my momentary discomfort.  This combination has made me a much happier bus rider. 

Positive Update #3

Both boys have completely weaned themselves of their dependence on diapers (and that includes night time).  We didn't push it, it just happened.  We still put one on Jude at night, just in case, but morning after morning it is 100% dry.  Sweet freedom!

November 25, 2009

Hurry for Tacky Christmas!

As I bussed home the other day, I was shocked to see six little on-the-sidewalk Christmas shops.  Christmas is not celebrated in China, although apparently, it has become popular among young people who have money to celebrate it.  They are aware of many of the popular traditions of Christmas from seeing it in movies.  The  unexpected discovery of any Christmas paraphernalia, warmed my heart and I secretly made plans to return after class two days later.  

Yesterday, I went with a friend.  It was a very fun time!  She has never celebrated Christmas before, so we strolled arm in arm, browsing the Christmas wares and giggling.  She asked me what different things were and asked if this was the kind of stuff you would find in most North American homes.  Sadly, I had to say... no!  How do you explain the difference between the more stately, Victorian turns that Christmas in North America have taken, and the Christmases of 20 years ago to someone who has never seen it?  The people here love things that shine, sparkle and flash.  Thus, it makes sense that the Christmas things they stock would be a brilliant display of garlands, hard-to-look-at flashing lights, shimmering trees, immense shining wreathes, and huge Santa Clauses!  I took the pictures at the top with my phone in bad lighting, but it certainly illustrates my point.

Fortunately for them, I grew up on tacky Christmases!  We hung the shining garland from the door frames.  Anything that sparkled was definitely hung.  Red and green were great, but gold was better!   Therefore, I thoroughly enjoyed my walk through Santa's shop and had my picture taken with a brilliantly lit Frosty the Snowman.  What a great time!

We are making our own ornaments with the boys this year.  Its a childhood classic (for me anyway).  Make the ornament out of a tasteless dough, bake them and paint them.  We have some Chinese friends coming over on Sunday to help us.  We'll probably invest in a tree and some lights, but not much else.  

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

November 17, 2009

Strange Things Recently said by Freys

The other night at supper I found myself saying to Jude, "Jude if you want your bread and water, you have to finish your food!"
EXPLANATION: The boys love bread more than anything and if we give it to them with their supper they only eat the bread.  Water gets played with and distracts from eating.  Thus, they come as a bit of an after supper treat.

Not 5 minutes ago I heard Ari yelling through a paper tube "Now proclaiming the Republic of South America!" and then cheering.  I have no idea where he heard anything like that, but a mental image flashed through my head of him as an angry peasant in the French Revolution or Ari-turned-Pancho-Villa.

Thanks to Google images, I can share my mental images with you all.

November 11, 2009

The Bus: Don't be Surprised When...

I realize this topic might be getting old, but having to deal with it everyday, both the humorous and the frustrating stories are daily mounting.

Don't be surprised when... You are standing at the bus stop and see man trying to get on the bus by taking a running start, throwing himself onto the single toe-hold on the bottom step and bouncing off the solid wall of people.  Then don't be surprised when, after he has tried to do this a few times, two people try to hold him in from the outside the bus and two people try to hold him in from the inside of the bus.  At this point at least five people yell "Close the door, close the door!" and try to get their hands out of the way in time for the door to close.  It reminded me a bit of trying to close a suitcase that is far too full, and having to coordinate holding the clothes and closing the lid without pinching fingers.  I had to wonder what would happen at the next stop when the door opened again.

Don't be surprised when... As you are trying to squeeze off the bus before the driver starts driving again, you hear the person you are squishing past make the sound of someone who has just landed on their lungs from a height.  Then you might hear a breathless "Kuai yidianr ba!" ("Hurry up will ya!").

Don't be surprised when... You hear the man standing next to you on the crowded bus starts snoring in your ear.  You might be curious to look at see if he really is sleeping standing up, but his face is a little too close to yours.  However, when the driver slams on the breaks you hear him making the noise of one who is startled awake.  

Don't be surprised when... You feel something wet brush over your lips.

Don't be surprised when... You get stuffed into a very uncomfortable position with a stranger.  You might perhaps end up with your chin over someone's shoulder (because of pressure from behind) in a sort of "spoon" position.  It reminds me of our MCC orientation. We were given a scenario of riding a crowded bus, and feeling someone's hand in a questionable place and asked if we would think it was sexual harassment.  At the time I said a definitive yes, but now that I have been put in countless similar compromising positions, many times as the "aggressor", I wonder how many people in China feel that they have been sexually harassed by some strange blond foreign girl.

Don't be surprised when... You want to get off the bus, but the passengers getting on the bus have the unstoppable energy of a horde of Spaniards during the Running of the Bulls.  Better luck next stop.

Don't be surprised when... You see someone vomiting into a clear bag.

Don't be surprised when... This causes others to follow suit.

Don't be surprised when... You realize that it is not always the best thing to have firm footing and a good handhold.  This is the recipe for becoming the only support for about five other people who don't have firm footing and a good handhold.  There are times when the best thing to do is flow like water.

It is at times like this that we remind ourselves that riding the bus costs less than $0.08.  I caught an unexpected glimpse of my face in the bus window today and realized that the rest of the people must think they are riding the bus with an Iron Maiden.  I suppose the best summary of my face would be (in Pa Ingalls' words) "Keep a stiff upper lip!".

November 01, 2009

When Snow Rocks Beijing

November 1 brought some of the heaviest (and I actually mean weight) wettest snow we have ever seen.  When James made a snowman, it took him two rolls of a snowball to get a basketball sized head.  We spent the day trudging through it to get to church and go for lunch with our MCC visitor, Laura.  By the time we got home our pants were soaked up to the knee, our jackets were soaked, feet frozen through.  The heat will not be turned on for another two weeks yet, so we have to wear long underwear at all times now.  The snow was so heavy that we saw tree branches a good six inches thick breaking in half (picture).  

However, it was also very beautiful.  The threes have not lost their leaves yet, so peaking out from under the snow was brilliant red, gold, orange and green leaves (picture).  Some trees still had fully opened flowers on them and brilliant red berries (picture).  The bamboo patches were amazing crisscrosses of sparkling snow.  Miserably wet and cold as we were, we even stopped to pose for a family photo (picture).  Coming home to hot coffee, dry socks and blankets was a wonderful feeling.  James and I felt the distinct lack of a woodstove.  That cheery glow, sparking sound and homey smell was all that was missing from a day that felt distinctly Canadian to us.  I couldn't resist the urge to make bread, just so that the smell of it would fill the house.

Needless to say, after having been told that Beijing gets snow maybe twice per winter and that it melts right away, we were a little surprised.  Even in Canada, this would have been unexpectedly big for a first snow.

More pictures to follow.

Beijing Under Snow Pics

Supplement to last post

October 30, 2009

Pictures and Discoveries

Fact number 1 - I found out this week that Beijing adds another 15,000 cars to the road every month!  No wonder no one can get anywhere!

Discovery 1 - The world's greatest vending machine (first picture)  Put in a few coins and this baby actually gives you a roasting hot, entirely whole sweet potato, and they are NOT SMALL!  Wouldn't it be strange if China was facing a similar school funding scandal that North America faces? The evil sweet potato vending machine companies only give funding to schools if they agree to put vending machines in their lobby, leading kids to eating too many yams and becoming overweight!

Discovery 2 - As Jude was eating a hot dog at a small shop the other day, he became the subject for a charcoal artist.  Second picture.

Discovery 3 - The apartment complex beside Ari's school really hates saxophones - picture 3

Discovery 4 - Ari and Jude always cuddle and kiss each other's cheeks on the bus when other people are watching, leading to a chorus of coos and awes. Picture 4

Discovery 5 - Ari told me he knows how to use chopsticks the other day.  As far as we knew he had never used them but when I gave him pair, he proceeded to eat his whole meal with them.  I suppose this is a product of school.  Picture 5

Discovery 6 - It seems that Aiyi has decided that she is my Chinese mother for the time that James is gone.  This week she has been caring for me in a very motherly way.  She does things like making sure I have an apple cut for me when I go out the door for school.  Even though she has never really cooked for us, this week she made supper for the boys and I four times.  If she has seen me about to do something, she quickly runs and does it ahead of me.  Its a kind of nice discovery.  When I'm the big one in the house, it is unexpectedly nice to have the sensation that someone is watching me closely for signs of tiredness or ways to help that go above and beyond her job.  We prayed a lot about who we would entrust our children to, and I think God brought us the right person.

James comes home tomorrow!  Hurray!

October 25, 2009

Pictoral Appendix to "If Mama Ain't Happy"

I found a wonderful picture of a Beijing traffic jam that sums up the experience quite nicely.  I found it at

When Mama Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy

Well, the title pretty much says it, except for one thing.  In this house, Ari and Jude have not learned yet that when Mama ain't happy, you should avoid her, or at least stop roaring like a lion.  So, James being gone on another one of his unable-to-make-any-contact-whatsoever week long trips, I have no choice but crab a little bit to the internet.  I say no choice because, if I can at least put a little humor into my stormy mood, maybe the boys won't have to suffer my irritation.  What a caring mother to expose others to her mood instead of her children!

That said, I will make a brief list of the things that are poking my irritation.  But first I will disclaim that these are just normal things that I usually don't notice.  I will readily admit that I am seeing things though an unhappy mindset.  A bad attitude is entirely responsible for this list, but I hope that writing them down will also help me let go of them.  

1) The boys did not have a good nap today = no rest for their mother from their noise and charades and irritable children

2) Necessity has dictated that I have many couriered pieces of mail coming to my door for the next week.  When the courier comes up to our door, he inevitably gawks to see a foreign woman answer the door and then giggles and tries to say any English word he knows.  I ignore it all, sign my name, say thank you and close the door. I am not about to start a cozy conversation with a strange man in the door of my home when my husband is not here.  The one today was particularly bad, and I found myself being irritated about it long after he left.

3) On both of the outings we had today, we had the usual number of staring, inquisitive people.  This is the first time I have been annoyed by it, since it is usually a chance to practice my Chinese.  But today I was as prickly as a porcupine, so I just pretended to either not hear / understand / notice.  I know that there are a lot of foreigners in Beijing (70,000 to be exact), but when the total population is 16 million, expats are still a minority of 0.4%.  As such, unless you are in a place where foreigners gather (foreign language bookstore, food store, restaurant), it is extremely rare to be in the same place at the same time as other foreigners.  This means that there is still a lot of curiosity about foreigners.  I feel obliged to say again, that I do not begrudge the curiosity, only that I really wanted to be left alone today.

4) The boys want to play with everything except toys and have had a few chases around the house today with one holding the coveted item and the other in hot pursuit (usually screaming).  They are also sporting runny noses.

5) James left on Saturday morning.  I don't like his trips starting at the beginning of the weekend.  If I am going to be at home all weekend with the boys, I like it to be at the end of a busy week when I enjoy the time at home.  If it is at the beginning I don't enjoy the time as much.  Right now, I am longing for the luxury of Ari being in school and being able to go to school myself.  

6) The lack of Daylight Savings Time.  At this time of year, I am used to turning the clocks back an hour so that there is more darkness in the morning and less in the evening. Without it, things get awfully dark here and very early.  Thus, the evenings alone with the boys seem longer than usual.

7) The buses and roads here in the last week have been in a state of serious atherosclerosis.  Every time I have gotten on the bus, it is only to be jammed up against the door (necessitating that you have the quick sense to open and close with the door at the various stops).  Usually when this happens, it eventually clears out and becomes a little more comfortable, but not this week.  This week, every stop has at least five people (with none getting off) that somehow manage to get on the bus regardless of its vacuum packed environment.  Its like you are expected to turn into water on the bus and fill whatever crack and crany that you can.  

This is combined with the fact that the roads have been solid vehicles.  On Friday night we looked down a straight street and saw nothing but solid buses and taxis.  As we walked down the column, we could see the same bus route numbers piled up one after the other.  Nobody was moving anywhere.  When riding the bus in this state (and crammed like sardines), it is a ride of desperately clutching on your handhold as the bus lurches forward 6 inches at a time.  It seems that when there is a short distance to be closed between two vehicles, it must be closed at 30mph, followed by a sharp brake.  I don't know what has caused all of this congestion in the last week.  Perhaps because it is getting colder, there are less people biking.  Since it is highly unlikely that I will be able to buy a monster truck and drive over the highway of vehicles, I can see that I will need to weave some serious patience into my transportation expectations.

8) I am irritable that I am irritable.  James does one of two things when I feel like this.  He either tells me that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, or he ignores me.  Strangely enough, both reactions reassure me that the things annoying me are not really that important.  Right now, I feel a little lost in my moodiness.  So that said here is my interpretation of the famous Psalm.

Why are you so down O my Soul?  ----->  Jessica, why are you so discouraged?
Why so discouraged within me?     ------> Why are you disparaging over small things that do not last?
Put your hope in God                    ------> Stop looking at what you see, and look for what you don't see
For yet will I see him,                   -------> Wait for truth to penetrate the storm in your mind 
My Savior and my God                 -------> No matter what you feel, God has not changed

Farewell from the Mainland!

October 18, 2009

Individualists living in a Collectivist land

It seems we have been here long enough we are learning some of the underlying layers of Chinese interactions.  Other than the other MCC family and church on Sunday morning, we have had very little contact with the expat community here in Beijing.  Our friendships are primarily with Chinese people (neighbors, teachers etc.).  It seems that we have so far been living under the graces of western ignorance, because we are suddenly finding out ways that we have potentially been offending people.  There seems to be a lot less that is directly said in Chinese society.  This is not for lack of "reading people"on our parts, but it has more to do with how we have been deeply ingrained to behave toward other people.  Here in China, some of these things are fundamentally different.  I will elaborate by telling some of these differences and then describing a tangled web we currently find ourselves in because of these differences.  A lot of this comes from a book published in 2000, co-authored by Chinese and Americans.

The first difference is that China is a collectivist society.  This is deeply rooted and is does not stem from the government structure.  There is a concept here called guanxi, which literally means "relationship".  This is not an official definition but is my interpretation of what it is based on reading and experience.  Guanxi is the relationships and networks you have with people.  Guanxi is not easily established, but once it is established it is there forever.  If you have guanxi with someone, you must do everything you can to help that person if they need it or ask for it.  It is a social obligation.  You have guanxi with family members, teachers, students, classmates and the acquaintances of those people.  For example (this is an example from a Chinese book, it is not mine), if I need help with something, my aunt might help me by going to her old professor from 20 years ago and asking that person to help.  The professor has guanxi with my aunt so they would do anything they could to help me, even though they don't know me.  

However, you can also build guanxi with someone by doing them a favor.  They now owe you for that favor and you are indebted to them.  Now this already stomps on some western toes.  Everyone helps themselves and you can ask for help from maybe three people that are very very close to you.  We hate the idea that we would be obligated to help someone we don't know just because we are connected to them by some invisible thread. We don't like being indebted to people, or thinking that they are only helping us to that they can get something in return.  However the advantages are, of course, that if you have good guanxi with people (especially people in helpful positions), you will go far.

The second difference is the view on what is polite.  In the western world we believe that we should be polite to everyone, because it shows respect for them.  My Chinese teacher asked me to give her a sample sentence where I was asking James to wash the floor.  I said a translation of "James would you please wash the floor?"  My teacher laughed at me because I was being so polite to my husband.  Here, if you are overly polite to someone, you are saying that the relationship you have with that person is formal and not close.  If you are overly polite, the other person may think that you are mad at them because you are being so distant and formal.  Meanwhile, when I ask someone to do something for me, I think that there are two key words.  They are "would" and "please", indicating that the person has a choice and that I respect their right to refuse.  

A third difference.  When hosting someone for a meal, the belief is that the guest is most honored by the quantity and quality of food.  You honor your guest by laboring in the kitchen for them and turning out up to 10 different dishes, while they sit at your table alone, eating and watching TV.  In the west, this would be very rude, because you are virtually ignoring your guest.

A fourth difference.  In scholastic papers, citations are not nearly the big deal that they are in the west.  Too much citation means that you are insulting the reader's intelligence, and assuming that they have no idea what you are talking about.  Meanwhile, we call it plagiarism because you are not giving credit to the original writer's intelligence.

This leads us to our current, extremely confusing scenario.  

I had mentioned that Ari's teacher (our neighbor) has been taking Ari to and from school for us because she is going anyway.  After a month of this I began to wonder if we owed her some sort of guanxi debt.  However, simultaneously, I have been editing her English university papers for her.  Does this cancel the guanxi debt?  Who knows?  Well, I edited one recently for her, and I could tell that she had done this one in a much more hurried way because I had to make a lot of changes to sentence structure.  The ideas were excellent and well expressed, but there were a lot of technical difficulties.  I also edit according to Canadian University standards.  I don't know what the expectation is at her class, so I can only the use the reference I have of English papers.  Anyway, when I sent it back there were a lot of corrections.  After that she started acting strangely short with me.  

I started worrying that maybe it was the whole guanxi thing and my reaction was (every time she picked up and dropped off Ari) to be very polite, saying "thank you" and "I appreciate it" and "if it is not convenient...".  Essentially I reacted from my cultural instinct to be very polite so that she knew that I respected her individual rights in our relationship.  But things have gotten stranger still and it seems that I might be the cause of this by acting too polite.  So we thought that we could invite them for dinner, until we realized that we don't know enough about the protocol for hosting guests and could further insult them without even knowing it.  We would fail at making Chinese food the way that they like it, and in our experience, making American food is a serious gamble.  Nevertheless we extended the invitation for sometime in the future.

Thats not all!  Ari asked us last week if we would bring him to and from school again, and we thought it was a good idea since it gives us quality time with him.  But when I called his teacher to tell her that, she seemed even more confused and acted strange.  Now I am convinced that she thinks we don't trust her.  

To sum it up, I feel like throwing my hands in the air and pulling my hair out.  I am not accustomed to all of this second guessing and I don't know what to do.  I can't apologize or be polite.  I can't explain because now all of our interactions very short and formal, and because North Americans are known for surprising Chinese people with their shocking directness.  I know enough about these interactions to know that it is easy to do the wrong thing, but not enough to know the intricacies of the best response.  

So I have chosen a strange middle ground.  I emailed her saying that I sometimes have a hard time understanding Chinese culture and asked if we could have lunch together this week so that she can explain Chinese culture to me.  I'm hoping that this sends the message that I know I could accidently offend people and that I consider her close enough to help me understand her culture.

I am understanding a little more about why it is hard to adapt to some aspects of a different culture.  Just because you know something is different (and can even understand why), that doesn't make it easy to throw years of training out the window.  It is very very hard not to be "too" polite (perhaps even more so as Canadians, who are notorious for their nearly absurd politeness).  It feels rude to command someone to do something and to not sit and talk with guests at meal time.  Because it feels rude, I want to apologize, but that would be too polite.  

The learning continues...

October 14, 2009

James' Girly Shirt

Take a good look at the shirt depicted above.  Would North Americans be surprised to learn that James got this shirt at a duck hunting lodge?  Its a pretty standard northern outdoors shirt, dime a dozen, man's shirt.

Well every time James goes out in this shirt he get girls saying "Ohhh! How cute! Did you wife give you that shirt?  Ohhhh, how sweet!".  James was finding himself mightily confused.  As it turns out, apparently it is a well known fact in China that these ducks mate for life, and so it has become a symbol of everylasting love and commitment.  Because of this, James apparently seems like the world's sweetest man for openly wearing a shirt that is symbolic of his loyalty to his wife!  It sort of seems similar to a man wearing a cute teddy bear shirt back in Canada.

If only we had included something about ducks in our wedding vows!

October 13, 2009

Animals Speak Chinese and Other Small Anecdotes

1) I don't know why it never occurred to me that we gave animals "English" words to say, but apparently we did.  The reason I know is because in China, animals speak "Chinese".

A dog says "wang wang!"
A chicken says "ji ji!" (pronounced gee, gee)
A duck says "ga ga!"
A sheep says "mie mie!" (pronounced myeh myeh)
A frog says "gua gua" (gwa gwa)
A cow says "menr menr" (sort of sounds like a combination of men and myrrh)

Its been quite a shake for my kindergarten training.  Dogs have always said "Bark!" and a chicken says "cluck".  But, I suppose Chinese has been around a lot longer than English as we know it, so who knows, maybe dogs actually say "wang".

2) Pizza Hut's name here in China is "bi sheng ke", which means "must win customers" (that's straight from the teacher's mouth, it is not my own translation).

3) Tonight we took the boys on the bus and after we got off, James related the conversation of several adoring girls who didn't know he could understand them. The boys and I listened as he told us.  "Oh how cute!", "The younger one's nose looks like his father's", "The bigger one has beautiful eyes", "Oh look! They have two!".  At this point in James' retelling, Ari asked, "Did THEY only have ONE eye?"

4) The other night at supper, James asked Ari if there were any pretty girls at school.  Without hesitation, Ari answered yes, there were two.  James then asked him why they were pretty.  Ari's answer was "Because they are girls."  James then asked "What about the other girls?"  Ari thought for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, the other girls just look like boys!"  James and I laughed hard for a good five minutes, because that is definitely a true statement here at times!

5) The other night I went to the corner store to buy some milk.  I was pleased with myself because I was going to use all of the change that we have been collecting in a rice bowl.  For the purposes of this story use the following comparison:

                Dimes are to dollars as jiao are to yuan. (but do not have equal value)

The coins that I was planning on using were jiao (which for some reason I was thinking were yuan).  When I brought my milk to the counter, the total was 27.00 yuan.  So I drew out of my pocket a massive fistful of jiao and handed it to the girl to count, saying "Duibuqi" (sorry).  She gallantly counted it out and then, with an embarrassed face, told me that she needed another 24.30.  I got all confused.  Additionally interesting was the fact that there were four high school aged kids gathered around me looking at me like they thought I was crazy, and barely restraining their laughter.   When I finally clued in to what had just happened I spent a good long time laughing at my self in front of all those teens, which made me look even more crazy.  It would have been the same in Canada and the US, as trying to pay a $27 grocery bill with 27 dimes and then being thoroughly confused when it didn't work.  Ah yes, the benefits of thinking before doing something are bountiful and rewarding!

This week we find ourselves Aiyi-less.  She called us Monday morning to say that her father is sick and that she was going to her home province (one of the poorest in China) to be with her family.  We are praying that it is not serious, and looking for ways that we can help her when she returns.  She is becoming  part of the family in her own unique way.

Two days ago I was very pleased to finish my first queen sized bed quilt.  The different pieces are from old clothes (mostly jeans), with some other pieces of scraps here and there, and one piece bought here in Beijing.  Picture at the top (the edging was not yet done at this point)

On a parting note, I apologize for typos in this blog.  I only get a one time write and edit because I have to send it to the blog via email.  If I ever look at the blog itself, I see all the glaring typos that come from typing too fast.  I'm trying to remember to reread a few times before sending!  

October 07, 2009

(Wo)Man-Handled on the Bus

My bus ride home today made for an interesting show for the other people riding the bus.  As I mentioned recently, I have severe wrist pain that flares up every now and then. Its been pretty bad of lately, so doctor gave me a brace that does not allow me to use it too much.  If I wear it all the time, it prevents me from hurting it during daily use, and then I can usually play piano if I take the brace off. 

Anyway, I was wearing it on the bus today.  The seat I was sitting in was on a raised platform at the front of the bus (where everyone can see and sounds carries).  Beside me was sitting an older woman.  She inquired as to what the problem is with my wrist and I answered her.  This instantly got the attention of everyone on the bus who perked up their ears to see the blond haired foreign lady speaking Chinese.  The lady told me that she wanted to look at my wrist.  I was sure I must have heard her wrong, because I said (a little too loudly considering that we were practically on a stage performing a Chinese drama), "What? You want to look at my wrist?  I should take my brace off?"  She said, "I'm a doctor".  Aware of everyone's eyes on us, I took my brace off and gave her my wrist.  

What followed, could hardly be topped by a Jim Carry performance in Liar Liar.  She instantly started pulling and twisting my wrist (which has been going through a particularly bad spell of late), digging her hard pointy fingers deep into the exact epicenter of my pain.  I couldn't help that gasps of pain and and gritting teeth, the little "Ahhhs!" and the involuntary trying to pull my wrist away.  In spite it all, my deeply ingrained sense of showing respect for elderly people held fast and I plastered a smile to my face as the rest of me jerked involuntarily.  I turned my cries of pain into twisted sounding laughs and wondered in despair whether I would have to endure this for the rest of the 20 minute bus ride. 

When she finally gave me my wrist back, she asked "Does it hurt?"

October 05, 2009

Military Parades, Canadian Thanksgiving and More

As I blog, the bedtime story is unfolding.  Not two seconds ago, I heard Paul Bunyan chopping open a letter from a mysterious Mr. Kenneth Watanabe who invites him (along with Babe, Jesse James, John Henry, Pecos Bill, and Wild Bill Hickok) to come to Japan and eat sushi.  The return address on the envelope is P.O. Box 129 Japan.  When P.B. (as he's come to be known) arrives in Tokyo, he heads straight for the main post office.  Outside, he spots a monolithic samurai who challenges him to a duel.  As they destroy the environs, the samurai gasps, "Who are you?"  P.B. sinks his axe (Chipper) deep into the sidewalk and says, "I'm Paul Bunyan, from Quebec".  The samurai kneels before Bunyan-san and lets him know that he is Mr. Watanabe, and the two promptly feast upon sushi until their stomachs are bulging.  And thus, another hero has joined the ranks of Paul Bunyan and the Gang.  James has foreshadowed that soon we will be introduced to Annie Oakley.  After that, who knows?  Calamity Jane?  Hatchet Carrie?  Typhoid Mary?

Holiday atmosphere is fairly bursting here in Beijing.  Thursday, Oct 1 was the national 60 year celebration.  We watched the celebrations on TV with all the rest of the Chinese nation even though we were not 7 km away from Tiananmen in the comfort of our home.  The streets were amazingly empty (especially for a holiday) since everyone was inside watching the celebrations.  The nation's leader viewed the troops standing up in a car.  There was a cannon salute, followed by an hour long military parade.  I've never seen anything like it and constantly turning to James for his insight (gleaned from years of playing Axis and Allies).  He spotted the amphibious tanks, surface-to-air missiles, surface-to-sea missiles, surface-to-surface missiles, special forces, super-special forces, and of course, lots of aircraft of all shapes, sizes, and uses, including a plane with a long dangling hose for refueling fighter jets in mid-air.  The planes could be heard from our apartment window.

We saw the medical, food, and gasoline units.  At one point, it began to feel a bit like a very elaborate game of Miles Bournes, and we were waiting for the "Puncture-Proof Battalion".  The overall effect of the parade was certainly very awe-inspiring, and made us realize just how formidable a force the military really is.  It was very interesting to see thousands of men and women marching in perfect unison, and when they took a step forward, you could see straight down the column between their moving legs.  And of course, there was the satisfying and incredibly crisp sound of thousands of boots striking the pavement.

After the troops and equipment came the floats, and then the hordes of dancers.  The most amazing thing about the dancers is that they were able to move in unison by the hundreds, but in ways that seemed to be constantly verging on chaos.  There were streamers and fans flailing, and drums beating and every colour in the rainbow.  This part went for another hour.  This was probably the first time that we appreciated our gigantor TV.

Later that night came the rest of the celebration.  The Insider's Preview before the beginning, showed us that about half of Tiananmen Square was covered in a forest of fibre optic trees, and that within this 21st century forest dwelt a colony of men in shimmering gold coats who stood ready to burst forth with fronds, giant flowers and various other eye-pleasers.  We later learned that during the show there were 99 different fireworks shows going on throughout the city.  The one we saw was by far the most elaborate one we've even seen.  

On Saturday we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving a week early. We hosted a meal with our Canadian friends and invited some Chinese friends as well.  I spent the day making bread, pies, baked beans and apple sauce.  One picture at the top is of some baking cooling on our laundry rack.  The boys spent the day watching me, making their own little "pies" (picture) and trying to steal bits of food, with the word "pie" never too far from their lips.  James did the bird(s) and marshmallow yams (James can't celebrate a Thanksgiving without making Grandma Frey's marshmallow yams!).  Turkeys are non-existent here and chickens are pretty small, so we had to make do.  Saturday was also the Mid-Autumn Festival, and we've been eating so many moon cakes (picture) that I'm almost sick of them... almost!

Sunday, I went shopping for some more winter-like clothing.  I didn't bring any with me from Canada because they were too bulky, and I suffered a fair bit last spring when the heat was turned off in March and it was still cold outside.  The heat doesn't go back on again until the middle of November, so we'll be chilly again soon.  I intend on being prepared this time around!

This morning we were invited to go with three other Chinese families to the Olympic park.  We travelled with men in one car and women in the other.  A sort of surreal moment for me was when I found myself describing in Chinese for the ladies in our car how to make maple syrup. We all started giggling together because something about it was terribly funny.  It turns out that Olympic park is the closest thing we have seen here to the Whiteshell (for all you readers familiar with Manitoba).  It had (what looked like) uncontained growth of trees and shrubs, many little "lakes", hills, big rocks etc.  James and I quite enjoyed ourselves, and the boys barely complained, which is sort of like enjoying themselves...

All in all, its been a great week and we have enjoyed ourselves tremendously. 

September 25, 2009

1 in Thailand, 3 in China

This week has seen James off in Thailand.  James is thoroughly enjoying the food, although he has tried (to some extent) not to gloat about it.  I was sure to mention to him that our neighbor brought us two meals worth of jiaozi (meat dumplings) and we been receiving moon cakes in droves.  James is a huge fan of both of these food items.  He will return in two days.  We're looking forward to it!

We are approaching two major events here.  The first is the sixty year anniversary of the People's Republic of China, and the second is the Mid Autumn Festival (Zhong Qiu Jie) two days later.  It is interesting to watch the city prepare for their national holiday.  Every single shop, no matter how closet-sized is sporting a massive flag and hanging brand new red lanterns.  Every light post has anywhere from 6 to 8 red lanterns hanging from it.  The effect is that EVERYWHERE you look, there are flags and lanterns.  Its a lot of red!  Somehow, they even have managed to keep all the shades of red the same.  Its a very bright cherry (and cheery!) red.  Every school you pass on the street usually has students learning patriotic songs and dances in their courtyard and there are usually a lot of people gathered around the fence to watch.  There is a school right next to Ari's called The Beijing Experimental School (yikes! that sounds scary!).  When I drop him off at school, I sometimes see all the students, big and small, lined up in military formation marching to brass band music.

Meanwhile the bus is showing new videos on route to school.  One is an informational video on military marching and another is of a massive choir singing massive songs in front of a massive screen showing Chinese scenery.  The school that we attend is right beside a fairly prominent hotel and theater.  One day as I was leaving class, I suddenly found myself walking through hordes of men wearing bright cherry red suits and women wearing white silk, sequined dresses with glittering earrings and necklaces.  I found them walking toward the theatre, and figured that they must be rehearsing for some choir production.  

The country gets an entire week of holidays in the beginning of October.  

I have also been learning a fair bit of Christmas music on the piano this week.  I'll be playing in church a fair bit for the month of December.  Its really quite fun, even if it is early.  My sister and I used to start playing Christmas music in October (before our parents decided that Dec 1 was the absolute earliest for this).  I'm playing around a fair bit with the type of music, some jazzy, some traditional.  It is obscenely hard to get good music.  Apparently books that are ordered don't usually arrive, which leaves me with downloading off the internet.  There are tons of easy songs available, but finding Intermediate/Advanced music is rare. I have spent hours trying to find good music.  

Well, lazy Saturday that it is, the boys are waiting for their lunch, so...


September 17, 2009

Hospitals, Medicines and More

As we pass a pleasant evening here at home, it seems like a good time to blog about the day's events.  We have classical music playing, the boys are playing dress-up with pillow cases, under the alias of "Sir" and lugging around loads of "cheese" (blankets) that are as big as they are.  I have been playing unproductive games of Spider Solitaire and James is chuckling to himself as he reads his book, periodically letting me in on the joke.

Today we had some overdue business to take care of.  Immunizations.  Because we left Canada rather quickly, we did not get our six month boosters for our various hepatitis shots before we left  (we practically boarded the planes with the needles still dangling from our upper arms).  As such we carried the doses with us on the plane here and have kept them in our refrigerator since then.  The only thing we had to do was find someone qualified to stick the needle in our arms.  But we had no idea where to do this until now.  Because medical things are so technical and hard to translate, we decided to go to the international hospital here in Beijing with English speaking staff.

It was definitely my first time coming face-to-face with having to pay for my medical care.  Although it is embarrassing to admit that fact, lets just call a spade a spade.  It was quite an eye opener to go to the hospital and be told, "Now that the doctor has talked to you for five minutes, you owe us 2000 RMB (~$300)".  I have only experienced this two other times.  When I was 12, I knocked my teeth out ice skating.  The insurance company covered new teeth for within 6 months of the accident, but because of delays (by the insurance company) the claim went through 7 months after the accident.  I remember feeling about 5 minutes of guilt that my parents had to shell out $600 per tooth.  (I won't mention what happened the second time I knocked my teeth out).  The other time was when we had to get Jude to the hospital in an ambulance.  I was very ripped off when a bill for $250 arrived for the 10 minute ride.

Today it hit home that I grew up as part of a small percentage of the world's population with "free" medical care.  The only thing that kept me from going to the hospital for "free" care was the availability of transportation.  When we took newborn baby Jude to the hospital for pneumonia / possible meningitis and stayed for three days, there was no bill for us.  But today we had to travel with a wad of cash, and I still had to go back later with another wad.

However, there was something quite nice about going to a place where I speak the "language".  Having studied in a medical subfield, it was really nice to see laboratory charts that had familiar clinical terms like blood albumin, prealbumin, occult blood, etc.  I know what those things are, and that meant I could ask the doctor questions and understand the answers.  When I was in a medical clinic Dazhou, Sichuan, I saw a chart denoting the most common causes for hypertension treated in that clinic.  I was really interested and wanted to know more about it, but the doctor only spoke Chinese.  Even if we were educated in similar areas, we were unable to communicate about them.  

It was also nice to see some medicines with English on them today.  There is something unnerving about giving your children a medicine that only has Chinese characters on it.  Its not that I doubt their legitimacy (well, maybe I do at times), I just don't know how to use them and researching them only produces websites in Chinese characters.  For example, I have a lot of trouble with my left wrist.  It is a recurring problem that is almost arthritic in nature.  For the last week it has been so bad that my arm has been immobile.  So James went to a pharmacy and asked for a medicine for joint pain.  He brought home something called "Dog Skin".  Sure enough it comes in skin-like patches that could be very effective for all we know, but we have no idea how to use it.  We have also found that asking for translations for medical things always produces very unclear answers and a lot of confusion.  Anyway, when I was give a prescription today for an anithistamine for my wrist, I was very happy.  Just two days ago, I told James this was exactly what I needed.  

On a side note, we have used some traditional Chinese medicines that do seem to be quite effective.  For example, the picture I included at the top is a traditional medicine for a sore throat.  It is the pit of the Boat-Fruited Sterculia.  It starts out like the pit of a plum, but when you put it in your drinking water, it expands and fills your cup like a sea sponge.  I tried it, and I thought it did the job quite nicely.  

In three days James will be off to Thailand for a week, where he will be attending an agricultural seminar and meeting with big names in the realm of rice research and visiting rural farms.  He is very excited about it.  This is the first of three one-week trips he will be taking this fall.  Another is to Korea and then to Northern China.  We are certainly not bored! I am very thankful that one of Ari's teachers is our neighbor and friend, and that she has offered to take Ari to school for me in the mornings while James is away.  This saves me the hassle making two trips to Ari's school with Jude.  It's a fair bit of walking so it takes about an hour to go there and back when Jude is along.  Doing that twice a day with my own schooling and other responsibilites would be too much! Keep us in your prayers!


September 08, 2009

Goings On

These weeks find us settling into a new schedule with Ari in school, our schooling and more regular office hours in our MCC volunteer positions. With so many things to juggle, we've been forced into regularity, which is actually quite a good thing.

When we were looking at our options for putting Ari in school, we saw that many kindergartens actually function as a sort of boarding house, even for kids as young as two. They stay all week and go home for the weekend. As such, putting Ari in school for a half day includes breakfast, snack and lunch. We assumed it would be a lot of rice, noodles and vegetables, but since some kids are there for every meal, I suppose they want to add variety. And variety they have!

Here are some free samples:
- five flavor quail eggs
- five flavor bean curd
- congee with red date
- dried small shrimps and purple seaweed with cucumber soup
- chicken liver in "brown sauce"
- calcium congee (the nutritionist in me is very curious as to how much Ca there is per gram of this congee and what chemical form it is in. Of course I shouldn't be surprised since they are many interesting nutritional fortifications here. Like sugar fortified with zinc. I've done a lot of reading on fortification and have never seen that one before)
- peach congee with pine nuts
- bean paste bun

Suddenly it seems like Ari might look chubby for the first time since he was a baby.

In other news, the other night a security guard was so enthralled by the boys that he took his hat of and gave it to them. This is a very typical security guard hat around here. But until we had one in our house we hadn't realized just how 1939 Germany they look. Especially when James wears it!

Speaking of James, we have time for a funny story. James was under the impression for a while that the word for receipt was mai pian. So when he took a taxi recently, he told the driver that he was waiting for "mai pian" before he got out of the taxi. The man looked at him strangely, but James eventually got what he wanted. He got out of the car and thought nothing of it. A week later we were studying together and the word for receipt came up, fa piao. James was confused and told me the story of the taxi and what he had said. I started laughing, because I suddenly remembered that my teacher had told me that mai pian means oatmeal. So James was there calmly telling the taxi driver that he was waiting for him to give him oatmeal before getting out of the car!

This last picture is me trying to look as much like a scary Fraulein as possible. Unfortunately, I don't look all that scary, except for the fact that my eyes look differently sized and I am suffering the effects of my recent cold. Oh well!

September 05, 2009

Paul Bunyan is in China!

That's right! Paul Bunyan is in China... along with Babe, Jesse James (the notorious one, not the obvious Jesse James Frey), and John Henry. For months we stumbled along, reading the same tired Curious George bedtime stories, refusing to go to the Foreign Bookstore and spend ridiculous amounts of money on children's books. But no more! Tall tales have saved the day. Not only do the boys get to hear thrilling tales, their imaginative Papa is having a pretty good time making them up.

Paul Bunyan has only to move a few feet and he's already grown six inches. But that's because he's always eating so much. Consider the story from last week where some lumber jacks made the enormous Paul Bunyan (at 59ft7in tall) a pancake 200ft wide, and they buttered it by skating across the pancake with butter on their feet. Then there was the time that Paul Bunyan learned how to swim in the ocean and found sunken ships filled with candy. After that he ate candy for all of his meals. He also scared a pack of fearsome bears into making themselves into a giant fur coat for him. He fells 200 trees with one swing of his axe, Chipper.

And that John Henry, well he's just strong. The boys can easily visualize just how strong he must be when Papa bares his arm and pretends to flex giant, black, muscles for them. They can imagine a racing steam engine when Papa whistles his piercing whistle. Their eyes widen with terror when bears roar loudly at them. Jesse James was only introduced tonight, and so far he is normal, except for the fact that he has everything under his coat from a 7/8" crescent wrench to a toilet if you happen to need one.

As Papa weaves his tales, Ari and Jude burst into giggles, widen their eyes with terror, and smile about someone getting a hug. Their eyes are filled with awe to think of eating candy for every meal and being allowed to pee out of the top of a tree (James really knows how to play into their boy humor). By the way, at the end of the video the song James is singing says "Craisin Train! Rolling down the track!", because the train is full of Craisins (one of their favorite snacks back in Canada).

It all really makes me think (and not for the first time), how happy I am to be married to James and to have my boys.

I have also been able to be a little more creative with the boys now with the piano that we are "loaning" for the next three years. Ari and I have sat down usually once a day to play and sing songs together. We are doing some Negro Spirituals (Go Down Moses, Swing Lo Sweet Chariot, etc.) some classics (Clementine, Oh Susanna, Yankee Doodle, etc.) some slow beautiful songs (Morning has Broken, The Ash Grove, etc) and more. I have great plans for his song repertoire and he is really enjoying himself. Currently our big project is The Erie Canal. I am taking song suggestions, anything from goofy to poetic ballad. Throw them on me! Especially if you can scan sheet music and email it to me!

Ari was very ripped off the other night when James interrupted our singing of Swing Lo Sweet Chariot by singing, "I looked over Jordan and what did I see? Papa coming forth to brush my teeth! Coming forth to carry my to bed!" and picked him off the piano bench, whisking him away to his bedroom. I laughed quite hard, but Ari failed to see the humor in it!


August 31, 2009

Fall is in the Air and Ari is in School

The last week and a bit has given us some of the most delightful smells, temperatures and tastes that we have enjoyed since being here.  If don't know if it will stay in this fall-like bliss, or if it is too early, we are certainly loving it!  We are watching as the scorching heat of a very long summer melts away into cool breezes and pleasant temperatures of only 25C.  I've even worn some long sleeved shirts.  The Chinese have a word for this weather that I think perfectly sums it up.  Liang kuai means comfortably cool.  I think it is great that they have one word that describes a perfectly pleasant temperature.  The smog that hung low over us for most of August is starting to dissipate a little, and I feel a little less like a claustrophobic.  

Along with it is the stunning (and welcome) realization that many of the smells are reminiscent of home fall-smells.  Beijing seems to undergo massive fall and spring cleanings.  In the spring we watched as armies (that is not an exaggeration) of people trimmed unruly tree branches, raked up debris, mowed the scattered patches of grass etc.  But all summer long, there has not been much grass mowing and as a result, some sidewalks are fairly overgrown with long grass and weeds.  But now it is time to start fall cleanup!  The mowing has started again and the smell of grass clippings is in the air.  Breath it in deep Jessica!  That's the smell of my dad in some of my earliest memories, and the smell of my earliest money making endeavors!  I have also caught hints of woodsmoke in the air (not coal smoke, there's a big difference!), and it reminds me of the farmers burning their fields, right across the street from my house.  I remember watching the fires blaze across a whole field (not 100 yards away from my living room window) as the sun set and darkness fell, with shadowy figures of the farmers passing to and fro in front of the flames.  For some reason, the smell of earth/mud also figures heavily into the equation, and I have come to the conclusion that I love the smell of clean mud!  There's an oxymoron!

The cherry on top was the other day on the bus when we drove past something that smelled like spice cookies baking in the oven!  If I could bottle the smells of fall I would!  (Am I writing a poem or a blog entry?).  The summer smells here were quite foreign, but fall, so far, has been different.  

The market is now selling in huge quantities corn on the cob and crab apples!  Home sweet home!  I plan on buying bushels of those small apples and freezing them.  I have not found anything else here that is tart enough to make apple pies or apple crisp with.  It is a welcome discovery!  That first bite puckered my face into tiny little lines, just like the apples from my parents' backyard!  I haven't been overtly homesick at all, but these experiences have been mightily comforting in a strange and unexpected way.  

I have also been working on sewing my winter coat, which I mentioned a while back.  I have so far sewn the outer shell and the lining.  Now I need to put them together with the filling and sew the collar and cuffs.  So far and I am very pleased with the way it looks.

Today is Ari's first day of school.  This picture at the top was taken not 20 minutes ago.  The other picture is of his school.  Having just been woken up, Ari was still a little confused, especially when I showed him the spare change of clothes that I had tucked into his backpack and stitched his name on to (the school requires this).  I saw a hint of tears in his eyes and he said "Am I going to stay there for all the rest of the days?".  I was quick to reassure him that Jude and I will be there to pick him up at lunch time, but I was somewhat relieved to see that despite his obvious restlessness at home, it is still a place that he wants to be.  

We recently had a routine visit from our landlady.  We had never met her before.  We prepared a list of things we wanted her to know.  One was that the TV stopped working shortly after we arrive, and that we were not responsible for breaking it.  We were not asking for a new one, so it was a surprise to us yesterday when she arrived with a new TV for us... a monstrous, brand new flatscreen TV.  I was very alarmed when I saw the delivery man lugging a box almost as tall as I am.  We have never been TV watchers.  In Canada, we kept a very old TV stored somewhere in the basement and never used it, and now here in China we have this monstrosity.  Because it sits on a rickety stand and is a flatscreen, we were terrified that the boys would knock it over.  So it is now in our bedroom, which now officially feels like a hotel room.  This TV is so big that even when you are sitting as far away from it as possible, you wish you could sink deep into the wall, just to put a little more distance between you and it.  At 15 out of 100 volume capacity, it is starting to get uncomfortably loud.  The good thing is that we can actually practice hearing Chinese more now (although a small short wave radio probably would have accomplished the same purpose!).  

In other news, it seems that we narrowly escaped gaining a cat as a pet. Aiyi came in last week asking my permission for something having to do with the boys and a kitten. I thought she was asking if she could bring them somewhere to see a cat, so I gave my permission. Well, thank goodness she also thought to mention it to James, who after much clarification, discerned that she actually wanted to bring us a pet cat. Thankfully, he was able to divert this disaster before it happened. She seems bound and determined that the boys must have a pet for entertainment. Just think how entertaining it would have been if the boys had been able to watch the cat stalk and feast upon their precious baby chicks! Watch out! If you come to visit us, Aiyi might have already stabled a horse in the guest room! Come prepared to sleep on bed of hay!
Farewell from the Mainland!