Friday, December 30, 2011

The Christmas Apple

New Year's Eve is fast upon us, but I didn't want to let Christmas slip away....
(in your heart, never let Christmas slip away)

"... and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!"* - Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol

Which, while we're on the subject (we were on the subject, right), my all time favorite movie version of A Christmas Carol is the 1951 rendition,"Scrooge," starring Alastair Sim. I don't think you could find a more penitent, joyful Ebenezer anywhere.

Okay, so where was I?  Oh.... Not letting the holiday slip away without mentioning a Christmas Eve tradition which is, as far as I know, uniquely Chinese....

The Christmas Apple.

In Chinese, Christmas Eve is called 平安夜(Píng'ān yè), literally "peaceful night."  The title and verses of the lovely carol "Silent Night" are also translated in this way. Because the first character in the word "peace," 平(píng) and the first character in the word for "apple," 苹果(píngguǒ) are basically what we would deem homophones (sound the same, but with different meanings), these two unrelated objects have become now and forever linked.  The giving of a cellophane wrapped and ribboned apple at this time of year has come to represent a wish for peace and health. And most often the gift giver will be a young man or woman in love.


This apple says, "我爱你"(Wǒ ài nǐ) or "I love you."

 *I am indebted to John Holbo who supplied this great image from an 1843 version of A Christmas Carol illustrated by J. Leech.

Apple images all from Chinese shopping website Taobao  (which does not sell to those outside of the Mandarin speaking world) and are credited to the following shops:

Mini Bears

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Memories

A comfortable, safe, fire-lit or candle-lit darkness.... Perhaps a faint, lingering remembrance of the sheltering, life sustaining environs of the womb.  Protected and cared for, warm and surrounded by love.  These are my early associations with Christmas.  Family traditions weaving a pattern of togetherness and belonging through the fabric of my life....  Like the rolling out and icing of sugar cookies that were cut into shapes of bells and stars, trees, angels and reindeer.  Forming the Mexican wedding cookie dough (my Dad's favorite) into crescents and smothering the fresh-baked partial moons in layers of powdered sugar while still warm. The small galley kitchen was a center for mother-daughter activity which included the production of fudge and cheese biscuit delicacies and small bread pans filled with sweet batters (strawberry and poppy seed) waiting for their day to be given as gifts to neighbors and friends.

Other than the one outing to the fir tree farm to cut our own holiday icon (which was an adventure); we typically searched the fire station lot diagonal from our home or the specially set up lot in the empty grassy plot by Ben Franklin and High's Ice Cream. Huge white bulbs hung from draping wires as we lifted one tree then another trying to agree upon which was the best.Then in a shower of needles and tumbling of branches the volunteer would stuff it in or strap it to the car; so we could bring it home.

There was always the event of my Dad trimming the bottom limbs and base of the tree in order to make what always turned out to be an awkward, twisted trunk fit into the stand.  We did have that one time when my Mom and Dad were out for a Christmas party and the tree tipped so dangerously that my sister had to stand precariously holding it for dear life while my brother telephoned some of our oldest family friends.  Mr. Gunter came right over to handle our tree emergency which if I recall correctly required a secure tether.  There was also that other time my parents were out and the front, wide bay windowsill caught on fire due to the large cylindrical candle and encircling holly, but all in all there were no serious decoration mishaps over the years.

My southern Mother has the gift of making a home truly welcoming and lovely for the holidays. Fresh greens: pine or holly with bright orangey-red berries or even magnolia draped along stair rails and mantels, around tall, thin Williamsburg candles and accented with stiff, full cloth ribbon bows. Between the smells of the kitchen, candle fragrance, cinnamon and clove bedecked pineapples, oranges or other fruit pyramids, flickering candles in the windows and Christmas tree lights, stockings hung and log fires; the house was magical.

We strung popcorn and cranberry chains, trying to eat less of the former than we put needle through; and watched seasonal specials like the stop-motion animation favorite "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," fearing the Abominable (well, I did anyway) and never knowing the snowman narrator was the famous Burle Ives. We loved the original "A Charlie Brown Christmas" with Vince Guaraldi's incredible jazz-piano compositions and Linus' indomitable wisdom beyond his years.  I read on Wiki that Coca-Cola was the original television sponsor for this show, but all I remember were those Peanuts' cameos in the Dolly Madison snack cake commercials.

Every December 24th we shared a special, formal Christmas meal with the above mentioned family friends at their house or ours; and then, bedecked in velvet and curls (not my brother - he wore a coat and tie), we piled into the station wagon or current family vehicle and drove to Trinity Presbyterian Church for their Christmas Eve service.  The purple and pink candles were re-lit on the Advent Wreath and the white Christ candle finally flickered and burned.  I loved sitting on the dark wooden balcony pew surrounded by family, hearing the Christmas Story re-told in parts interspersed with the familiar holiday carols. The sweetness of the story, the excitement and anticipation of what the next day held, and the novelty of being at church at an unusual time swirled comfortably around me.  Finally the expected passing of candle light.  Each of us holding our own small white candle, receiving light from the one beside us and passing it along.  It's wonderful to watch the beacons of light spread and prevade the darkness.  Then we sang "Silent Night" raising and lowering the candles in unison to the music and finally filing out of the building, some times to freezing cold or even delicate flurries of snow, we blew out the tiny flames and exchanged warm Christmas wishes before heading into the crisp, star-lit night.

Once home my sister and I, if we didn't first watch "A Christmas Carol" (of which I was mortally terrified), climbed the stairs; donned our matching floral flannel nightgowns with yokes and edges trimmed in eyelet lace; and got into the twin beds in the room we shared, but would one day be hers alone. The room had three windows and the headlights of passing cars traveled through them in an arc across the ceiling.  From the side window we had a fairly good view of the winter night sky and my brother and sister assured me repeatedly over the early years that they could make out Rudolph's nose from a distance through it.  This is irregardless of the fact that a traffic light also stood sentinel in that general direction. It was hard to go to sleep that night.

I guess you can tell, my memories are all sweet.  Even from the Christmas when I was sick.  Year after year one of my favorite things to do was to lay by the fireplace watching the flames and eventual glowing embers and experience the warmth surrounding me, inside and out.  I also loved to sneak into the dark living room and position myself underneath the glowing Christmas tree looking up through the branches at the myriad of twinkling, blinking lights.  Of course, I enjoyed the ever growing number of red and green wrapped and be-ribboned packages under the tree.  And at times we were allowed to choose one to open on Christmas Eve. But in my quiet heart, I loved and love still the primitive hand-carved wooden nativity from the Holyland settled in the candlelight and Christmas greens of the coffee table the best. I could sit there suspended in time and surrounded in the comforting darkness, looking at and touching the figures, because the Light of the whole world shone in my little girl world.  And Love had come.

 This is not my Mother's own nativity, but almost identical. Thank you to Avondale Patillo UMC for this photo from their church display.

Hope you have a wonderful, meaningful celebration of this special season!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Focus on Christmas Past and Present

When we first moved to China 14 years ago, we had difficulty finding Christmas decorations to help make the season bright.  In fact the only place in town which carried any festive items was a Japanese department store strategically located beside the Holiday Inn (the only foreign chain hotel at the time). I managed to find two stockings and some wooden ornaments there, bears playing musical instruments; but passed on the expensive artificial trees.  My husband finagled a cedar tree from a nursery that grew plants for parks and roadsides, and we were set.
 Standing in front of the nativity scene we made in their usual dress-up attire.

 Second son playing at Santa on his sleigh.

 Singing Christmas songs.... If you know anything about our boys you will smile, as the one on the left still loves to sing and the one on the right loves to create music.

 Under our "Charlie Brown" cedar Christmas tree.

Things have changed since then.  While Christmas is still not a nationally recognized holiday in China, people have adopted some of the trappings of the season.  They know about Santa, Christmas trees, and presents; but very few know that Christmas has anything to do with the birth of Jesus or who Jesus is at all.  While chatting with my tutor yesterday, she said Christmas has become somewhat of a shopping event.  And that it most especially resembles Valentine's Day with young couples going out to buy gifts for each other.

I don't miss the pressure or stress that can accompany the holiday season in the states; but I do miss the music, decorated homes, greenery, candles, smells, the warmth of Christmas greetings, and the remembrance of the Christmas story.  It's a shame for China to receive all that is commercial in Christmas and none of the miracle and love.

In this modern, globally connected world if you were introducing Christmas into a culture, what would your focus be? Or would you do it at all?

Wishing you all that is Joyful and Meaningful in this season!

I am linking to Jenny Matlock's Alphabe-Thursday.  You will find many wonderful Letter "F" posts here.


Can You Guess What This Will Be?

A few weeks back we had a dear, brave little house guest whom I will call Rose. She heard about a childrens' photography studio contest and decided she would like to participate. I told you she was brave.  At five years old, she made it to the third round (the very youngest of the top 8).  He mother was so sweet and kept asking her if she was sure she wanted to continue.  She loves attention and loves to perform and didn't know it was supposed to be a competition; so she was still having fun.  Anyway, her last round required a Trashion outfit.  Neither her mother nor I were quite sure what this was or where to begin; so we looked online and got some garbage bags plus a grocery tote I had from Carrefour, and Voila!...    Our little Rose Fairy.

This was her final day and she ended as happy as she had begun.

I am indebted to Dana at Bungalow56 for the reminder that I had these photos.  If you want to see a simply darling duck tape dress her daughter created, you can find the post here.

Hope your day is full of joy and creativity.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

E is for Expressive Canines

Dogs can be extremely expressive.  Their deep, pitiful eyes lock on to yours, wearing down your will until you rise from the computer and feed them or take the much anticipated walk.  Our current visiting guest pet has an adorable way of pawing and whimpering his pleas, all the while his body remains taunt like a spring ready to bound ahead of you in the moment of response.

 Our permanent resident and precious little white poodle, unfortunately, seems to lack the dogs' amazingly sensitive sense of smell.  Her sight is also questionable. But she remains alertly snoozing on the back of the comfy chair waiting for shadows of humans, or better yet cats, to pass by in the scene below our apartment picture window.  To make up for her lack, her ears seem to be overly developed and she can, in fact, hear and acknowledge a family member's approach as he or she treads across the open paved area that leads to our stairwell doorbell.  Before the button is pressed, she is already announcing the arrival.

 And she tends to lure our boisterous house guest in to her joyous and triumphant chorus. "They're here....they're here. Quick open the door. Did you know they were here?"  Some times the puppies' untimely expressions may feel inconvenient, disruptive, or crazily noisy; but their devotion and affection are beyond compare. As I write this post, I feel deeply grateful for the intense eyes and acute ears of our own dear canine companions.

I am linking to Jenny Matlock's Alphabe-Thursday. Please check out other E-ntertaining posts here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

D is for Dòufu 豆腐

Before I came to China, I never liked dòufu (豆腐) or tofu as most Americans call it; and I certainly didn't know it came in all shapes and sizes. The dòu in dòufu means "bean" as in the soybeans it's made from. The fu actually means "rotten" if you separate it out. I'm not sure where you want to go with that. (Okay, curdled or fermented does sound better.) Anyway, I love it now; in all shapes and sizes. It has the great quality of taking on the flavors within the sauce (spicy or sweet) or other foods it's mixed with, and is often used in soups.

My favorite way to eat it is stir fried with chives.

The only kind I've found so far that I have no desire to eat is chòu dòufu(臭豆腐)or"stinky doufu."

Also in China, people have been drinking warm soy milk, dòujiāng (豆浆), long before it became a health craze in the West. I can remember visiting the countryside over ten years ago and being offered a hot frothy mug; and China's history stretches way beyond the limited spans of our US few hundreds of years. Ancient, we would call it.  I feel grateful to be able to experience such a rich culture and expanse of history, especially when it comes to food.

Soybeans or soy milk are also really good for you... so eat or drink up!

I am linking to Jenny Matlock's Alphabe-Thursday. There are so many great posts to read here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


"This is the day that the Lord has made let us rejoice and be glad in it." (Psalm 118.24) Each day has it's things to be thankful for. Of course, Thanksgiving is not taking place in every part of the world today. In fact Canada celebrated their Thanksgiving last month and it is just a regular work day here in China. Some times it's hard to celebrate your national holiday while everyone else around you is just going about life. But we are extremely grateful for dear friends to come together with and share a tremendous meal.  In fact, we had two such opportunities this year.  A glorious five family feast complete with regional southern recipe contributions from all and then a special turkey meal at a small expat and Chinese run restaurant nearby. It was such fun to give our dear Chinese friends their first taste of turkey.  My blessings are too many to count... good friends, health, a safe warm place to lay my head, a loving family, and a husband and three sons who bring more joy to my life than my words can express.  This Thanksgiving my predominant feeling has been a deep gratefulness to have this last year as a family altogether here in China. Next Thanksgiving will find us with two sons in college and settled in some cozy southwest corner of Virginia. Hope this day is delightful for you, with many reasons small and large for giving thanks.

Linking to Jenny Matlock on her "Thankful Thursday."

Do you know what this is?

 I'm actually not sure myself...

  We had it at a friend's house last week and really enjoyed it.

 So we decided to give it a try...

 with rice wine vinegar like previously.

 My son says it tastes like cold slaw.  Can anyone out there tell me what it is?  And would it lose something in the translation.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Learning Chinese Language Like a Child

For much longer than I'd like to admit, I have been feeling dissatisfied with my Chinese language ability.  I can communicate on a surface level and get most things accomplished, but there is so much more that I want to say.  So after learning about the Growing Participator Approach or GPA (not to be confused with grade point average) method of language learning, developed by sociolinguist Greg Thomson; I decided to start again from the beginning.  The GPA method strongly takes into account the way language develops in childhood.  Infants listen for a long time, storing up a well of information; and then begin to speak. Our vocabulary or language reserve can be demonstrated through the illustration of an iceberg.  Everything visible above the water, the small tip, represents the language we have ready at hand and are very comfortable using.  As you get deeper and broader into the iceberg, your ability to use the words is considerably less; though you may still recognize a word as one you've heard before. At the base you find words that you've had some contact with, but they will need much more interaction before they will begin to rise closer to the surface.

There are an assortment of activities which take place in a learning session of GPA.  All are intended to help the learner interact with new vocabulary in numerous ways.  But to start out, the learner ONLY LISTENS. Listening may require a physical response. Many people are familiar with the TPR (Total Physical Response) method of teaching.  This is one kind of activity in GPA.  So on any given morning you may visit my home and find me placing plastic animals in or on play dishes; or hopping across the dining room; or touching my head, shoulders, knees, and toes. Which can be a bit humbling for a forty-ish mother of teenage boys. But I must admit, I am a bit fascinated by this whole process and am keeping my sense of humor.

This has already gone on far longer than I intended, but I did want to mention one other guiding principle of GPA; and that is that language takes place within culture and in community (not apart from them). We all have our own stories and use our words in unique ways to communicate them.  For example, if I ran in to you at about noon time in the states, I may say, "Hi. How are you?" You may reply, "Fine," with neither of us thinking of this conversation as more than a greeting. Here in China, at the same time of day, I wouldn't say, "Hi." I would ask, "Have you eaten?"

Words in different cultures may not carry the same meanings and objects may not as well.  It wouldn't be shocking for me to be out for a stroll on a pleasant evening and run into a neighbor doing the same in his or her pajamas. Last time I checked this wasn't common practice in the states. But a nice set of pajamas are like comfort clothes here; the kind you wear around the house on a Saturday afternoon or out for a walk with your spouse. Also umbrellas are commonly used here as protection from the sun.  I, myself, like to carry one for this reason.  We like to say, "Not bad.... Just different," when we encounter aspects of another culture that seem strange to us.

Anyway, all this long discourse was really just an attempt to follow up on some thoughts I had for Alphabet Thursday.... C is for Communication, Culture, and learning Chinese like a Child. You can visit Jenny Matlock, read the creative posts there, and add your own too.

Isn't the first photo wonderful?! It was taken by Nadja von Massow (nadworks) and can be found here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

B is for (my) Boys in "Beauty and the Beast"

As a Peasant

As Lumiere

Guy in the Tavern

Lumiere moonlighting as a Peasant

"Be Our Guest" (Note the Dancing Knife)


Cast Photo

I am linking to Jenny Matlock's wonderful Alphabet Thursday.  Please check out the other brilliant B posts.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Around Again

I noticed from my side column that some friends from Alphabet Thursday are at it again.  Starting with the letter "A" for the fourth time around.  Wow.  I think I was a first round participant. Time is flying by.


Life circles and cycles around and around. Makes me think of the old sweet song "Sentimental Lady" by Bob Welch.

Sentimental gentle wind
Blowing through my life again
Sentimental lady
Gentle one
(all I need)
Sentimental gentle wind
Blowing through my life again
Sentimental lady
Gentle one

I guess I am feeling sentimental tonight.  We've just returned home after watching our two youngest boys perform in the musical "Beauty and the Beast." Our oldest, after performing in seven seasons of theatrics, stayed in; preferring to watch the Saturday, closing night show with his girlfriend.

The air has a nip again. The days are getting shorter again.  We left the brightness and energy of the theater and ventured into the enveloping muffled darkness of the night.  Life is sweet and sad all at the same time as it circles around and around again.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My last post was "How Long Has It Been...."

How long has it been since I started this lovely crochet pattern? It's called "Journey Scarf" and was created by Kim Guzman.  Journey Scarf for certain... if you click the link you will see that it has been over 18mos since I started this project and that there have been some u-turns and route changes along the way.  I decided the baby yarn I was using was too bright and tiny and so switched to the denim and ivory colored cotton yarn I found on sale at Walmart (in the states).  I also decided to make a shell stitch doggy scarf for my girlfriend's intelligent and much beloved Shih Tzu.  Their photo is included below. I hope she likes them!

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" -Lao Tzu

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How long has it been?

 How long has it been since you last played Candy Land? Princess Lolly, Queen Frostine, and all.... Considering I have a high school graduate, senior, and tenth grader at home... it's been way too long for me. Thankfully, I had saved it. All part of the joy of moving in to the auntie-ing or grandmothering stage of life. A couple of weeks ago we had the privilege of caring for a Chinese friend's little girl while she and her husband needed to be away. I thought Jia Yuan would feel disoriented and frightened staying in our home for a few days and nights, but she showed no real fear and only a slight, temporary shyness. She slept in my second son's full-sized bed (which is a bit tight for him). The next day she asked, "Am I sleeping in 2nd brother's bed. The tall one?... No wonder it is so long and wide." I cannot imagine how I would feel thrust into a home were the language sounded like loud white noise; and the main staples were milk, cereal, peanut butter, and bread instead of rice and vegetables; and household rituals and customs seemed odd. Especially when I was five years old. We did try to accommodate as much as we knew how, but for all our efforts it was really she who bridged the cultural gaps (our little white poodle helped a lot too). I returned to my young mother days, playing blocks and cars while sitting bent knee-ed on the floor and listening to simple songs sang full-heartedly and with joy. It's way harder to get back up from the carpet than it used to be and I was thoroughly tired by the end of the day. But we enjoyed walks to the playground and digging in the complex sandbox. She was much neater in the sand than any boy I ever produced (and tidy in the apartment as well, for that matter). It was a surprise gift to relive the sweetness of seeing the world through the eyes of a small child and to have the responsibility of her care. It's priceless to have a preschooler to make memories with again, if even just for a little while... and a girl at that! And it's nice to be able to give her back in to a loving family. I get the best of both worlds.

I forgot to mention that the first morning Jia Yuan came up to me pigtail holders in hand with the expectation I would put up her hair. I eventually succeeded after several time-consuming fumbled attempts. The next morning she decided to do it herself. :)


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