Friday, December 28, 2007

Dreaming of a White Christmas in Hohhot

Just before Christmas dinner--that's the ill-fated half-baked pie with the abused crust next to us on the table. It still tasted good, especially slathered with whipped cream.

It didn’t actually snow on Christmas, but it did on Christmas Eve—when we went ice skating with Lynnette, Tad, and Dalai—and then again on Wednesday and Thursday. Temperatures are supposed to drastically drop tonight (Thursday) so I guess the ice and “fluffy clouds” (as Grace calls it) will stick around for a while. There is only one drawback to all the snow, which probably only I notice: my laundry doesn’t dry in one day and I am perpetually behind. To make matters worse, the kids have taken to rolling in the snow on the sidewalks and courtyard, making for wet, dirty clothes, which also must be washed. We have laundry hanging off of every radiator, on every available space on the balcony, and on every chair. I like to think of it as a new kind of Christmas decoration.

Despite my laundry woes, Christmas went off beautifully, as I hope it did for everyone at home. We had a pretty mellow Christmas Eve. Dave had to “teach” (he showed Polar Express three times to three different classes—they loved it), I did what I could to prepare for Christmas (dry out the bread that I baked earlier in the week, buy the last ingredients, wrap the last presents, try to keep the kids from climbing the walls), the kids succeeded in climbing the walls (well, almost).

We managed to get them to bed by 10:00, they fell asleep by 10:30, and Dave and I stayed up doing all those parental things one does on Christmas Eve. One of the last things Samuel said as he was going to sleep was that Christmas didn’t seem too exciting this year (yes, Virginia, even though there is a Santa Claus, there comes a time when a young boy finally must be told the truth—the line between keeping up a nice tradition and outright lying when your kid starts questioning in a truly sophisticated manner becomes downright blurry), but he was the first one awake, sometime before 6:00. We managed to keep him from waking up Grace for about a half an hour (in the pitch dark, no less, since we don’t have daylight savings time here—it’s dark until almost 8:00) and then finally had to relent. Christmas morning here mirrored exactly Christmas at home: stockings to delve into, presents to be distributed and then opened, breakfast to be squeezed in at some point, phone calls home to family via Skype, and then hours of playing before dinner at 2:00pm.

The master lego builder at work Christmas morning.

Grace and her Polly Pockets

And what did I do in the hours before dinner? I struggled yet again to make a pie crust—and after finally losing my patience with it and whacking it with my rolling pin (note: the secret to making a pie crust lies in treating it gently and handling it as little as possible, usually not a problem at home with my trusty food processor or, as a last resort, my pastry cutter) I gave up, put it in the tin, and hoped for the best. I then discovered why I’ve been having problems lately getting things to bake in a timely fashion in my pathetically small oven. It is slowly making its way to that great cloud in the sky reserved for over-worked appliances. How did I make my discovery? First, my honey-walnut pie took twice as long to bake and, horror of horrors, it still didn’t bake all the way through, as I found out when I cut into it hours later. Then, I borrowed Jed’s oven (this is the young bachelor guy who lives upstairs and doesn’t use his kitchen for much more than to store his Mountain Dew and raise cockroaches) since I had to bake my stuffing in two pans. Scientific discovery number two: the stuffing in Jed’s oven cooked nicely, the stuffing in mine…did not cook at all. Needless to say, much later in the day when it came time to take the oven back to Jed, Dave kindly took my dinosaur oven up to Jed’s apartment (with Jed’s permission) and now I have a more sprightly oven to work with.

Dinner lived up to expectations: a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green beans, cranberry sauce, gravy, biscuits, creamed corn, apple cake and honey-walnut pie. Not too shabby for Inner Mongolia, thanks to Jenny’s Import Store (formerly the Import Warehouse) and the ingenuity of many cooks.

We took a break from food and opened a bazillion presents. The American teachers organized a drawing about a week before Christmas, in which each adult pulled another’s name from a hat. The kids (unfortunately, says the scrooge mama) got a present from nearly everyone, increasing their horde of random things cluttering up our little apartment and doing nothing to alleviate the “gimmies” we thought we had escaped from. We did have a lot of fun with the present-opening, anyway, and everyone chose well for each other.

By this point I was ready to be done with Christmas. It is a great thing to be able to have this group of people to share our American holidays with, but everyone has their own traditions and ways of doing things and I have to admit that I was ready for a little downtime. As hard as it may be to believe, I found a little quiet and solace in returning to our apartment to do the dishes. Something as mundane and irritating as always having to tackle the dishes can sometimes be the best remedy for everything from cold hands to boredom to people-overload. That time away also helped me put everything into perspective: Christmas away from home, living in China, miniscule kitchens. Finished with the dishes, I was able to mount the stairs once again and face dessert and “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”. By the time all of this was done, it was only about 6:30—it easily felt like two hours later to both Dave and me. A lot of visiting and eating and gift-exchanging got crammed into 4 ½ hours.

We finished out the day with popcorn, ginger beer and grown-up beer, and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Needless to say, Wednesday is a total blur. Samuel spent Tuesday morning putting together his Star Wars spaceship—and did remarkably well, with very little intervention by his parents. Wednesday proved to be a totally different story. Everyone was feeling “hung over” from too much food and excitement and not enough sleep. One would think that this wouldn’t be a terribly good time to undertake building a Chinese-lego tank. The directions, like legos at home, were clear—no written instructions, just lots of step-by-step pictures. Unfortunately, tanks are army green. Entirely army green. Imagine not only trying to decipher the instructions when everything is the same color, but also trying to find the necessary piece—even when sorted by shape—in a sea of army green. After two attempts at tackling the tank, and many blow-ups, both by Samuel and us, we put the tank away until the afternoon, when a much more rested Samuel and Mama put it together. Gosh, and I thought Polly Pockets were crazy with all the little pieces and clothing to put on and take off… Undaunted, Samuel built (again with some help from yours truly) a battleship, almost entirely made of gray pieces (yes, battleship gray), on Thursday. I hope to not see another lego set until his birthday, at least. Of course, the kids are rolling in Christmas money so I am prepared to find more itty-bitty monochromatic lego pieces underfoot in the near future. Despite the after-Christmas exhaustion, the kids insist that this was a terrific Christmas. They loved all their presents, from family and friends in America and from their friends here, and have more than enough to keep them occupied now that the weather is getting super cold again.

Grace's Christmas treasures: yes, a barbie, stuffed animals, doll clothes and Polly Pockets, alongside matchbox cars and airplanes. She's a well-balanced gal.

Samuel's Christmas treasures: an aluminum bike rack, a bike light, airplanes, a stuffed bunny, and his legos. It looks like Samuel got a lot less than Grace, but that's because he didn't want to put it all out for show.

The semester is wrapping up for Dave. After showing his movie on Monday and Tuesday, he has been holding review sessions in all his classes. Next week is reading week with the final taking place sometime near the end of the following week, so for the first time since… maybe last Christmas?... Dave will have a little vacation. And after the final, he’ll be all done with teaching until the end of March when third quarter starts up at CBC. Because it’s nearing the end of his teaching responsibilities, his students are coming to the realization that he won’t be here next semester. He is being taken out Friday night by one student and Saturday night by an entire class. Helen took us out to a wonderful dumpling restaurant Wednesday night and Thursday night Dave went alone to the English Department party—I have been under the weather and the kids wouldn’t go without me. Next week we have dinner dates with a few others, including Wu Yunna, vice-dean at the IEC. It’s starting to feel like a whirlwind right about now.

To top everything off, Jed and Emi (a Chinese biking friend) are trying to organize a gift drop-off at a Hohhot orphanage. There are apparently 229 kids there, mostly mentally and physically disabled boys ranging from newborns to age 20. There is a lot of mistrust on both sides in trying to establish contact: the officials at the orphanage don’t want to let foreigners in to take pictures or see the conditions, Jed and Emi don’t want to just hand money over for fear of it not being used for the kids. So, Jed has a sign-up sheet going around the building with items they feel Emi could take to the orphanage—small toys, toothpaste and toothbrushes, soap, books, candy, etc. Samuel and Grace eagerly signed us up for small toys and soap, so that is what we must go in search of before Saturday. The whole orphanage thing and one-child policy here opens up a gigantic can of worms that I don’t want to go into here. Suffice it to say, it breaks my heart to think of the unintended consequences of a seemingly effective population control system.

We have had a week off from lessons which is supposed to give me time to dig out from under Christmas and all the piles resulting from the holiday. We’ll start back on Monday, since we’ll have a two week break in January for traveling, and another couple week break when we get home. I have no idea if New Year’s Eve is celebrated here, since Spring Festival in February celebrates Chinese New Year. I’ll keep you posted. I don’t know that we’ll do anything in particular, other than maybe try to stay up to midnight. If I don’t post before then, we wish all of you a very Happy New Year and all the best for 2008.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Tale of Two Dinners

The kids and Dave are out ice skating on this beautiful sunny day, temps around freezing, I have bread rising in the kitchen for Christmas dinner stuffing, Mozart’s Requiem is on the iPod, and I finally have a moment to sit down and write about our week.

Being as I only have about forty pages left in Bleak House, and that we listened to the “Christmas Carol” yesterday, I have Dickens on the brain; hence the silly title, slightly ripped off from my favorite Dickens novel. The title works, though, as we had two very different dinners this week: the IMNU Christmas banquet given for all the foreign teachers and students, and our “typical American dinner” which we gave for two of Dave’s graduate students from his seminar.

I am sure I have mentioned before—or maybe just in emails—that Hohhot is pretty well decked out for Christmas. Never in a million years while preparing to come to China did I think there would be Christmas here. The whole effect is a little surreal: shopkeepers have stationed fully decorated fake Christmas trees outside their doors; Santa Claus’ face is plastered in nearly every business window and the hotels are thoroughly wallpapered with the jolly guy’s image; Christmas carols play on the sound system as I weave through the aisles at the big grocery store; random students wish me “Merry Christmas” as they pass by me; students are standing on street corners selling apples wrapped in clear paper emblazoned with “Merry Christmas”. But don’t get me wrong. While there is a substantial population of Christian Chinese, the holiday here appears to be anything but religious. I don’t even know if anyone outside of Christian Chinese celebrate it in their homes. I think it is more like non-Irish serving corned beef and cabbage and dressing up in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it’s an excuse to decorate with shiny baubles (which abound everywhere), wear red hats with a white pompom, post up a bazillion pictures of Santa Claus, and depart from the routine of traditional holidays. There is a nightclub near our apartment which has a gigantic poster on it, advertising a Christmas night bash—drinking and dancing on Christmas? Like I said, it smacks of green beer at O’Malley’s or green milkshakes at McDonald’s.

When we heard of the annual Christmas banquet, Samuel’s first reaction was to scream “noooooo” and hide under his pillow. Remember, this is the guy who didn’t appreciate the sheep’s head banquet back in August. We reassured him that there would be no such repetition. I was fine with the idea of a banquet until I heard there would be a talent show. This kind of thing is most definitely not my cup of tea. Rumors spread that the foreign students (mostly Mongolian and Korean) were busy preparing their “acts”, and then rumors became reality when we found out that the American teachers would also be performing. Ack. The ELIC teachers (all the other American teachers with the exception of Dave, Tyler, and Karen) organized a dancing exhibition to Christmas music: one minute of waltzing, one minute of swing, one minute of hip hop (I know, hip hop Christmas music?). If there was a silver lining anywhere on this looming cloud, it was that Dave and I were asked to waltz (not that we had ever done it before, but it’s far less embarrassing to waltz than to do the other dances). And so, a week before this last Thursday we began “rehearsals”. Amazingly, Samuel and Grace wanted to participate, too, so we all practiced a couple of times and then the big day came this last Thursday.

As you can tell, the dinner part itself never posed a problem in my mind—it’s the talent show that I dreaded. The university held the banquet in a nearby fancy hotel (decorated top to bottom in Christmas regalia, complete with animal scenes inside the lobby and a gigantic tree of lights outside).

Decorations in the hotel lobby--a chainsaw??

This shows half of the banquet room--there were a lot of people there.

Peking Duck

The usual university bigwigs were there, along with some city officials, a visiting delegation of Russian students (a sister college to IMNU), the foreign teachers (American, Hungarian, Japanese), and all the foreign students—altogether about 200 people. The talent show went on, but no one really seemed to pay any attention as they were busy hobnobbing, drinking, or eating. When our turn came the kids (Grace in her Mongolian dress, Samuel in a new pair of khakis and a tie he picked out) took the stage alongside Jed, Lynette, Dave and me.

I know--we didn't arrange the kids very well. The audience just got to see Samuel's back. Oh well, the fact they're up there at all is the most important thing, right?

The Korean students. They sprayed "snow" around for their song, that's all the dots in the picture.

It went off without a hitch. The amazing thing about this? Our super shy kids performed in front of a lot of people that they didn’t know. Not being in school, they’ve never experienced the Christmas assemblies or shows kids put on for their parents. The mortification I experienced at having to waltz paled in importance to the fact that Samuel and Grace performed without the least nervousness, danced beautifully, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves, to boot. This is a good thing, too, as we have since been invited to the English Department’s banquet next week—yes, there will be a talent show there, too.

Watching the crazy acts--except Grace and Abby, posing for the camera.

The second dinner? Last night we had two of Dave’s graduate students from his seminar class over to dinner: Helen, her husband Lao Li, and her daughter Alice (8 years old), and Pegaleg (this is her chosen English name—I do not have the nerve to ask about Long John Silver or Captain Hook, but you can be sure I have wondered how she chose her name). Pegaleg also has a husband and five-year old son, but they are in Wuhai, a 9-hour train ride from here. Except for brief visits back home, she will be away from them for the next three years as she gets her Masters. Her mother-in-law is raising her son, apparently a common occurrence here, according to Pegaleg. We cooked a “traditional American dinner” for them: spaghetti with hamburger and sausage, a cucumber/tomato salad, and a sweet potato pie for dessert. A normal Chinese dinner involves a number of plates in the center of the table, from which everyone takes a little bit throughout the meal. As you know, most American dinners involve everything on one plate. In other words, there’s quite a difference between the way Americans eat a meal, and the way Chinese eat their meal: a communal shared experience around Chinese dishes vs. each diner having their own plate of food. It’s hard to tell if they enjoyed the food or not. Dave seems to think they did, but they were so polite it was a little hard to tell. They definitely did not like the black olives Dave set out beforehand—I guess they’re an acquired taste. And they politely observed that American food is less salty than Chinese food. I think that translated as: this food is not salty enough. Helen observed that Chinese love salt, and as a result they have really high blood pressure. So here’s the dilemma: high blood pressure and skinny, or fat from… fat, sugar, and more fat…and high blood pressure, too, of course. The exception is popcorn. The Chinese appear to like their popcorn sweet, while of course we like it salty. Even when the propane gas finally ran out, we were able to cook our noodles on Vanetta’s stove upstairs, so no worry—just a wait until maybe tomorrow to get new gas. Samuel, Grace, and Alice jumped on beds, ran back and forth slamming doors, and did the usual things three big kids do when hopped up on excitement in a tiny apartment. All in all, everyone was happy with the dinner and the company, and we have plans to go to Helen’s home for dinner in the near future.

And now it is Sunday evening, my bread is baked, the kids are back from skating and have had their showers. We’re having black bean burritos for dinner and afterwards will curl up with some popcorn to watch “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” borrowed from Harmony downstairs. Tomorrow the kids and I will bake some Russian Tea Cakes, I’ll do my last-minute shopping, we’ll have a Beef Daube Provencal for Christmas Eve dinner (that’s a fancy name for beef stew) and then go to bed, to have sugar plums dance through our heads and to dream of all the goodies to come. I hope you all have a cozy Christmas Eve and Christmas day, with friends and family alike. Cheers!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to All!

We wish you all the very best of holidays this year. Thank you so much for following along with our adventures over the past 5 months--you have helped us feel much more connected to home.

Here is a Christmas greeting and a Christmas story, the former sent to us by our good friend Drew, the latter a part of our Christmas tradition for the past few years.

First the song and then the story, by John Henry Faulk.

Love from all of us,
Arienne, Dave, Samuel, and Grace

Monday, December 17, 2007

Writer's Block, or Nothing to Write About

This is a pretty good example of how normal our life has become. Nearly half of all the photos in our December file are portraits of Baotou (above) and Chengdu (somewhere eating bamboo, I guess). The kids are using the camera more than us.

A thousand years ago (or, as Thompson and Thomson in the Tintin books would say, to be precise: last July) when I set up my blog I had a clear idea of what it should accomplish. It would document for friends and family our daily trials, tribulations, and triumphs of our adventures in Inner Mongolia. For the first four months my blog lived up to my expectations: you got to experience our bewilderment over chaotic streets and a new culture; visit Beijing and Datong with us; go through all of our physical ailments and one big Thanksgiving dinner. Lately, however, I’ve found myself in a really weird predicament. Life here has become normal—or as normal as is possible for someone who doesn’t really interact with anyone outside of our building in any more meaningful way than to get potatoes or smile idiotically while saying “yes, yes” as the vegetable lady reads me the riot act for not putting Grace in thicker long underwear. Except for the fact that we live in a postage stamp apartment in Inner Mongolia, in many ways we could be living our same normal humdrum lives as back home. Routine, in other words, has taken over adventure, and I don’t have anything flashy, witty, or exotic to share with you.

On the other hand, a lot has been happening on the domestic front. This is where my conundrum sets in: do I reveal all the minutia of our life, something which we don’t normally write about at home, or do I wait until something momentous and new happens, and then write about that, leaving our personal lives in the background? Since we’re crammed into such close quarters, and are linguistically quarantined from everyone around us, little things that we perhaps wouldn’t normally notice are amplified in their importance to us. But are these events blog-worthy? I mean, I’ve made an incredibly awesome pumpkin bread three times in the last week, using sweet potatoes from the garbage can guys on the street corner and dried cranberries and walnuts, and we all love it and it makes our lives cheery, but it’s not an event that is any different from what occurs at home (with the exception of the sweet potato substituted for the canned pumpkin, of course). We’ve started skating at the university across the street, which means not having to take a cab, and it’s cheaper and nicer skating, too, but is it important enough to tell you all about it?

The skating rink at IMNU--a flooded dirt field. That's Grace and me on the left in orange, Samuel is on the right in gray sweats and a red and blue coat.

Believe it or not: they actually thought of holding hands and skating together all on their own. How cute is that? Blog-worthy, though?

And finally, the Tintin comics have taken on a huge role in our house: they’ve helped Samuel move from not reading anything without coercion this summer to voraciously reading all his Tintin books, and then to make the leap from a comics-only diet of literary consumption to reading his first-ever novel, Redwall, written at a level most middle-schoolers might find challenging; and now, Grace has picked up the tradition and is learning to read from Tintin.

The usual breakfast routine: Tintin and sweet potato bread. That's my crockpot on the desk behind the table. No room in the kitchen, so our dinner cooks in the living room.

As I write, Dave, Grace, and Samuel are watching a Tintin DVD. Samuel wants to grow up to be Tintin (I guess this might have to fit into his busy schedule as the 5th Beatle). Okay, maybe this last item might be blog-worthy, since it may mean Samuel will lead a charmed life as an eternally young journalist fighting bad guys and uncovering political intrigue the world over, but it wouldn’t make it into my blog for ten years yet. Stay tuned? And when I took Grace to a market this afternoon to find a present for her brother, she said “Mom, I’ll talk to the lady and bargain with her.” And she did. In Chinese. Yes, I think that is blog-worthy, but I didn’t take pictures and the whole thing only lasted for about 5 minutes.

Anyway, I hope this explains why I’ve been awfully quiet lately: nothing too zippy to report. On the other hand, we have been practicing with the other American teachers for an upcoming Christmas banquet being given in our honor this Thursday: the students are going to give a talent show, and we must do our part—Dave, the kids, and I have been roped into waltzing for a dance number the American teachers have organized. At least we will not have to do the swing or hip hop portions of the skit, and we’ll only be "on stage” for one minute. This of course opens up an interesting question of why there are Christmas decorations all over Hohhot, when Christmas is not only not a Chinese holiday, but it’s a religious one at that (I’ve heard, however, that Chinese students like to celebrate Christmas by drinking a lot, since it’s not a holiday proscribed by centuries of Chinese tradition) and also why there are three Christmas trees and flashing lights in the lobby of our building. There will be a post on the banquet. And Dave must teach on Christmas Eve, but he’s just showing a movie (Polar Express). While he is supposed to teach on Christmas itself, he will just run over, push the start button on the movie, and come back to join in the Christmas madness.

So there you go, a non-blog-worthy post, but at least you know we aren’t suffering some new kind of plague and that we are all well and happy (and getting fat like everyone else this time of year, munching on Christmas cookies and sweet potato bread).

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Brinker Update

We just couldn't wait for Santa! The Arnold family is officially an ice skating clan--and oh boy is it a lot of fun!!

Our new mode of recreation

Friday, December 7, 2007

Hans & Gretel Brinker Come to China

Dave, Samuel, and Grace went to Manduhai Park this afternoon to test the frozen waters. Earlier this week the kids and I discovered that all the water at our favorite park is frozen solid, making for great explorations as the park looks totally different from water level. Where but two months ago the kids and their grandma pedaled a boat around the park, now an ice skating rink is set up and skates and bike-skating-contraptions are ready for rent.

Grace took to skating like a fish to water.

Unable at first to find his sea legs, Samuel took the bike-skating-contraption around for a spin.

By the time I arrived at the park everyone was skating like real pros--even their spills onto the ice were spectacular, as was the panache they exhibited as they sprung back to their feet to skate again.

The dilemma now is: Do we ask Santa for ice skates? Living as we do in the desert back home, ice skates don't sound too practical. However, there is an indoor ice skating rink there, and rumor has it that a dirt field across the street at IMNU will soon be flooded for ice skating, only there won't be any rentals. I don't think we have to worry about melting ice for the remainder of our time here, so who knows, maybe we'll all be ready for speed skating by the time we return.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Christmas Cookie Factory

Everything finally came together today. I got bulk powdered sugar and a jar of star sprinkles from the import warehouse, food coloring, cutters, and more sprinkles from Abby, and a gigantic jar of yet more sprinkles from Lynette. With these adornments, plus the cookie cutters mailed from the States, the Arnold family opened for business.

Cutting out the cookies

Nearing the end of the line. The kids cut out and decorated all the cookies. I just sat by and facilitated the whole thing ("Green, red, or white frosting? Sprinkles?"). Yes, I am wearing a Santa apron and candy cane earrings--thanks, Mom!

After decorating all the cookies after dinner and then consuming a few (product testing), we piled some of the choicer cookies onto a big cutting board and took them around to distribute to our friends. Unfortunately, Wednesday night is "night out at the new campus" for all the American teachers in our building so we weren't able to give many away. We will try again tomorrow.

Cookies, anyone??

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Whirlwind Weekend (of Domestic Happenings)

No, this post isn't about whirlwind oranges. But we did happen to pick these up today from a donkey cart outside our building--how pretty can you get?

With a spiffy title like that, you are undoubtedly thinking I am cracked (domestic whirlwind??) and that I will proceed to regale you with further tales of vegetables or laundry. While those two things are a permanent part of my everyday life (you wouldn’t believe the incredible precision that now accompanies my laundry planning: is it sunny out? good, then I can do sheets because they will be dry by bedtime; do the coats need to be washed? if so, we have to plan an indoor day, etc. etc.), I’m saving those topics for a particularly dry stretch so I will have something to post about.

No, I have so much more to relate. First, I finally took the plunge, after four months of growing my hair out from a near-bald state (only a slight exaggeration) and went for a haircut. All that “shaggy dog-growing hair out-what to do with my hair” state of affairs finally trumped my fear of hair salons. Or rather, I am not so much fearful of hair salons per se (although I am generally not too fond of them—too fussy) as I am fearful of trying to communicate what I want in Chinese. Talk about the potential for a really bad haircut.

This opens up an opportunity for another long aside. I realize that I have ceded all pretensions of learning Chinese and Dave will be the first to agree with me when I say that I am totally incapable of ordering anything at a restaurant. He is the undisputed champion in that field, and even Samuel is picking up way more Chinese than he will ever willingly admit. The only thing I am good at is figuring out by context what someone is probably saying: like the meat lady wondering why the kids aren’t in school, or asking me if they are wearing their long underwear because I’m buying potatoes from her for a cold winter dinner (how convoluted is that?); or figuring out that the restaurant lady was telling us that the pumpkin cakes would be available the next day, so come back; or being able to tell the same restaurant lady that it was okay where we were sitting, we weren’t too cold right there by the door; or finding out the manicurist thought I was anemic because the skin under my fingernails isn’t pink enough; or having a long discussion with an 83 year old gentleman on the IMNU campus about our ages, and yes, that both children are mine, something he thought was terrific, that Dave looked old because of the white in his goatee, and that this gentleman didn’t look his age because he swims, does tai chi, and lifts weights (pretty good for no English on his part, or Chinese on mine, eh?). Of course, when he finally started outlining the length of his nose with his finger and then pointing at us, he lost me. Was he trying to tell me that his nose was long, like ours, or was he calling us “long noses” which is a racial pejorative reserved for Westerners? (not likely) He kept smiling at me and I kept smiling at him, but the conversation flagged at that point and he soon drifted off for a walk. What I’m trying to say is that I live in a weird little bubble where I go around and do my shopping or park visiting, or get my nails done, and I smile and say how old the kids are, say that Grace is shy when someone tries to get close to her, and trot out my pat phrases that cover pretty much everything: I don’t understand, I don’t speak Chinese, We’re from America, I’m linguistically challenged and basically an idiot. I yearn to have a real conversation with the meat lady, who seems so nice, or with the vegetable lady, who has a beautiful, worn face, or with the manicurist who exudes sex-appeal and financial success—what incredible stories I could hear from each of these ladies.

Now where was I? Oh yes, the haircut. I contacted Karen about where she goes to get her hair cut and pretty please could I go there some time with her as I was about ready to take the scissors to my hair myself (the punk look?). We finally settled on a day and time and her friend Dalai came with us, to serve as translator. By the way, I should mention that Dave and the kids get their hair cut down the street from our apartment for a mere 5 yuan each (less than a dollar a piece). I figured I would find safety in a big fancy hair salon, which this place mostly definitely proved to be. Of course, because Dave didn’t come along, I don’t have pictures so you will have to just bear with my descriptions.

The hair salon—“Out of Hong Kong” says Karen, which I think might be code for “They know how to cut all different types of hair in all different styles.”—is on the ground floor of a huge building. Attendants at the door opened it for us and we were greeted by young men dressed in full tuxedos, complete with tails and cumberbund. A lady took us to the back where she put our belongings in little lockers, handing us the key as another woman escorted us to the hair washing area. Here is where I should have had the camera—the stations were not your garden-variety chairs that tip back to sinks. Instead, I had to lie down on a table that looked suspiciously like those car beds you find at Toys R Us. The bed was lined with a rug that, when turned on, vibrates underneath you. Thankfully, she didn’t turn it on. Instead, I gazed up at a t.v. on the ceiling that played fashion show stuff while a woman washed my hair for 15 minutes (no exaggeration, really) and massaged my head. I couldn’t relax the way I was probably supposed to because I couldn’t stop worrying about the haircut to come. I know, I know, way to stay in the moment…

The hair washing lady marched me into the cutting area where there were about 10 different stations, with slender men in tuxedos cutting or dying or drying hair, ladies with fancy hairdos (but no tuxedos) holding cutting implements or simply just standing around looking beautiful. Dalai followed me to my chair and made a valiant effort at translating to the guy what I wanted (“I’m growing my hair out, but I still want it short, just get rid of the straggly stuff, blah de blah blah.”) Poor Dalai—I don’t know that he is used to trying to talk about ladies’ hair like that but he did a good job. At least, I don’t think the end result turned out too badly, though I am not going to post a picture. How vain would that be? The crazy thing—besides the car beds, tuxedos, and 15 minute hair dry on a short haircut—was that the whole thing cost 30 yuan. So, 6 times as much as Dave’s haircuts, but still only $5.

Samuel and Grace with the first of the Christmas presents (and plastic shedding needles on the floor around them--for the authentic tree experience?)

The other big event of the weekend? The kids and I went to the Muslim market and bought a Christmas tree. A real live four foot artificial tree with white-tipped needles (for that freshly chopped down in the snowy woods look). Our first ever (artificial tree, that is), and the kids couldn’t be happier with it. And here I thought I was going to have to construct one out of paper. The kids picked out blue, red, and gold plastic balls (“bulbs”, says Grace) and white lights (the colored ones were too small and blinked on and off in such a frantic manner that we were all instantly struck with headaches). I have become obsessed with cutting out snowflakes from a book Vanetta gave us, so a few of my attempts (from a pattern of course) also adorn the tree. To top it all off: a very corny paper angel, also from a book given to us by Vanetta, and dearly loved by the children. All in all I think things are looking pretty Christmas-y chez Arnold. We’ll bake some sugar cookies this week, using borrowed powdered sugar from Karen and hopefully borrowed food coloring from Abby. I have to say, I think I like this scrounging (not scrooging) around to make a Christmas.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Skype Revolution

The first phone call!

We have heard through the grapevine here about skype, but we haven't paid it much attention, mostly because I am a technophobe and have to be pushed into anything new on the computer. Well, my mom got skype and mentioned it to us, so we figured we better really do some researching. Um, well, we went to the website, Dave downloaded skype for free and here are the results: with a simple headset we can talk to anyone in the world for free if we do it computer to computer, and only 2 cents a minute computer to telephone. Dave even bought a webcam but he hasn't yet got that working. My mom called us this morning while we happened to be online and we could see her and hear her beautifully. Hard to believe that thousands of miles and 16 hours time difference can be so easily erased, and for free. So, if anyone is interested in trying it, click here on skype, follow the directions, get a cheap headset from Target or elsewhere, and give us a call. Our i.d. is arnoldsinchina (how original, right?). You can easily do a search for anyone--just put our i.d. or name in and our skype address will pop up.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

"This is the best Thanksgiving ever!"

Our front door

After nearly four months of sobbing and whining and romanticizing life at home, Samuel finally delivered this coup de grace, so to speak, just before loading up his plate full of Thanksgiving delights. He can never, never complain again (well…) about how it isn’t like home here. In other words, we truly did have a great Thanksgiving weekend and it bodes well for Christmas.

In many ways our Thanksgiving dinner was just like being at home: the turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes (with marshmallows, even!), mashed potatoes, gravy (two kinds), green beans, fruit salad, jello salad (what American holiday is complete without it?), rolls and butter, and pies (apple, pumpkin, and peanut butter), a big table with a grandpa and grandma, kids and babies, young and old, and lots of feasting and laughter. In other ways, not so much: all of Hohhot continued with its normal routine outside our building, we had to get a turkey from the import warehouse, marshmallows and pumpkin filling were brought all the way from the States, as were the decorations, and the only football to be seen was the tag football game the next day on the IMNU campus.

Just before the dinner—which we had on Friday as everyone taught on Thursday—Samuel and Grace ran up and down the stairs like frenzied… uh… kids (I cannot think of anything that could be more crazed and frenzied than two kids just before Thanksgiving dinner, except maybe two kids on Christmas Eve). Vanetta and the kids set up and decorated the dinner table in her apartment on the 5th floor, but the dinner spread covered tables set up in Lynette’s apartment, across the hall from us on the 4th floor. So, lots of exercise before the meal. All of the American teachers at IMNU came, along with Marsha’s parents, in China for two weeks. The kids piled on the food (Samuel ate too much and was found “scavenging”—his word—after everyone else was pushing the plates away), my apple pie turned out as a decent replica of my pies at home, my stuffing actually worked for once, and everything tasted absolutely wonderful together, including the Butterball turkey, courtesy of the import warehouse.

The dinner table--Samuel and Grace set the table.

Unveiling Mr. Butterball

The spread--Karen on left, Marsha and me contemplating the food.

Peanut butter, apple, and pumpkin pie!

This is Jed, who fills the role of crazy uncle for the kids. He wins the prize for most food on a small square plate.

Trying to break the wishbone a little too soon.

After the dinner clean up we all gathered around in Vanetta’s apartment for Christmas carols. I’ve never done that before on Thanksgiving—certainly not a group sing-a-long without music—but I have to say it was a heck of a lot of fun. Grace and Samuel even performed “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” together in front of everybody! They’d been practicing for a couple weeks but I never thought they would have the nerve to do it, Grace especially. But they did it beautifully, got a huge round of applause and their sappy mom had to wipe tears of pride out of her eyes. Without the t.v. blaring commercials at us, cramming toys, power tools, diamonds, and sentimental blather into us, without the incessant Christmas carols in every store, without the whole shebang that generally starts assaulting us at home a week before Thanksgiving (or even as early as Nov. 1), the singing seemed like a really natural bridge from the one holiday into the other. Somehow we felt the spirit of the holiday, even while all of Hohhot went about its usual business.

The Christmas season is now officially upon us and we can make of it what we want, without all the outside interference. So we will bake and decorate sugar cookies, put up snowflakes and color pictures of Santa, listen to our favorite Christmas albums, maybe even watch some sappy Christmas movies, and no matter what we do, it will be of our own creation. That may seem pretty radical to Hallmark and the advertising business, but I hope it will carry over in years to come.

Saturday morning Vanetta knocked on our door with a huge pile of books—both Christmas and otherwise. Turns out we were the happy recipients of her housecleaning and de-cluttering. Of course, with so many new books we had to go to the Muslim market to get a basket to hold them, space being something of very short supply. While at the market Grace and I found an entire booth (sandwiched between the dried fruit stand and the lollipop stand) dedicated to kitschy and not so kitschy Christmas decorations. We poured over them all and finally chose the shiniest and most Santa Claus-y one we could find for our door. I am eyeing the big fuzzy white balls and the blue bell wreath, but I don’t know if I can subject the kids to such terrible taste. We will probably just content ourselves with the wonderful Christmas craft books we inherited from Vanetta and make our own.

And that’s about all there is. Samuel and Dave got to watch a bit of football highlights on the t.v. this morning (Sunday), wonderful friends and family are sending us the few things we need to make Christmas complete (can you believe we left stockings at home??), another turkey is in the freezer for Christmas dinner, and it’s getting really cold. What more could we ask for?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Creative Learning, or How I Learned to Use YouTube

One great disadvantage to being here instead of within walking distance of my beloved public library is that we can’t just go over to the library to get books that will fill out the kids’ history lessons. In the past the library has been a terrific resource that we’ve all enjoyed: a source of myths, picture books with full pyramid layouts, and great literature. I knew that we wouldn’t have library access here in China and brought only one book to complement their history books—The Odyssey (kid’s size). I am sorry that we don’t have more, but I already brought so many books that there’s no way I could have done it any differently.

Last week the kids’ friend Jed (one of the American teachers, about 25, who perfectly plays the role of big crazy uncle) mentioned in passing the phrase “walking like an Egyptian.” This week we read a chapter in Grace’s history that included information about King Tut, among other Egyptian pharaohs. Somewhere in the middle of the chapter, Grace turned to me and said, “Mama, what does it mean to walk like an Egyptian?” Oh, how I was cast back to my sixth grade year, when I won a spot to visit the King Tut exhibit in Seattle. It was an experience that I’ve never forgotten (punctuated, curiously, by witnessing a girl in my class innocently and generously giving a five dollar bill to a beggar and then watching her get yelled at by our teacher—we didn’t have beggars in our small farming town in Eastern Washington, so it was a new thing to us) and I vividly remember the hype and commercialism that surrounded the entire exhibit. Anyway, here Grace wanted to know about King Tut (and that goofy phrase) and I could only imagine the really cool books from the exhibit that Samuel and I looked at two years ago. And then it came to me: if I can’t offer the real thing, at least I could address the “walking like an Egyptian” thing.

So here is what Grace and Samuel watched over and over again—Steve Martin and The Bangles. Will they remember this, years down the road, and say that I ruined them forever? Probably not. Heck, they probably won’t even remember it. But I will. And I will laugh, thinking about the look on their faces when they saw for the very first time Steve Martin doing his King Tut song on Saturday Night Live (“Look at the blender, Mom!”), or the city people on The Bangles’ music video “walking like an Egyptian.”

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Sweet Potato Pie Saga

I remember being horribly shocked and disappointed when I found out, oh so many months ago, that I wouldn’t have an oven in China. Once I started thinking about Chinese cuisine, I realized that this made sense—food is steamed or stir-fried, not baked. This is probably one reason, besides the paucity of cheese, that Chinese are generally trim (and in-shape because of all those exercise parks). I, however, am a compulsive baker: cookies, pies, crisps, bread, whatever, I love it and want to bake it and eat it. Soon after the American teachers moved into our building I inherited a super small oven and a crockpot, both of which transformed our eating here from picnic-style to something more like we were used to at home.

About a month ago my mom sent me a pie pan—I had held off requesting one for all that time, thinking that we really didn’t need to eat pies, we could survive 7 months without a pie, right? How wrong I was. The first day after its arrival, I made a quiche. Then another. And then I started obsessing on sweet potato pie. I knew I could make an apple pie anytime—with the help of my supply line (mom) I have cinnamon, from the import warehouse I have awesome New Zealand butter—but with Thanksgiving coming I starting thinking about sweet potato pie. I’ve never been a pumpkin pie gal. I think it’s like Yankees and Red Sox, or coffee and tea, or Mrs. Butterworth’s and pure maple syrup—you’re either one or the other. And for us, it’s sweet potato pie. Sweet potatoes abound in Hohhot; evaporated milk is conspicuously absent. I trolled google for substitutions but when all I got was light cream (none to be found as far I can tell). I started to reconsider the whole thing. Then I stumbled upon a site where someone said it was just plain easy (as pie?) to make evaporated milk—milk powder, water, and butter. I am not a fan of milk powder, it smells weird and I only use it in powder form as an ingredient in something like bread. Desire for pie trumped pickiness and I started searching for milk powder. Finding it now brings this painfully long description to the main point—I made a sweet potato pie yesterday!

Pre-pie sweet potato. That's a brand new pencil--the potato had to be 2 lbs.

I was so eager to try the pie out I cut into it and distributed 3/4s of it before I remembered I hadn't taken a picture of it. Anyway, you get the idea...

The result? Yummy. The best part was that we shared most of it with the American teachers. Isn’t that one of the great things about baking? Yes, eating is great but being able to share your goodies is even better—and it keeps you from eating the rest of the pie after the kids go to bed!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Beijing Redux

We just got back from a whirlwind weekend in Beijing. As I write that sentence I feel silly for using such a cliche but I honestly can’t think of a better way to explain it. The last time we went, we took an eleven hour train ride overnight, stayed three nights, and took the same long train home. This time, we flew out of Hohhot—a scant hour flight—to Beijing, stayed only two nights, and flew back home late Sunday night. I guess it was sort of a “jetsetters” weekend, without all the obligatory socializing, lights, glamour, the kind of things you see in magazines. Anyway, we knew in planning this weekend that we wouldn’t get another shot at Beijing, as time is suddenly starting to compress at an alarmingly fast rate. [In fact, today marks our 106th day in China—the exact halfway point before we come home. In 106 days we’ll be taking that same flight from Hohhot to Beijing and we’ll continue on to home. It’s hard to believe.]

Before I start up with pictures and the whole story of our weekend, I have to officially set the record straight about something that has been haunting us since we arrived in China. I think that when we touched down in Beijing on August 1 we landed on probably the worst possible day ever at the airport. Days of rain had created massive delays and cancellations, the airport was packed with tired, harassed, and confused passengers and probably just as many airport employees in the same condition, and we were in a trebly horrible situation: 1) we had just flown for eleven hours and had lost an entire day as far as the calendar was concerned—we were dead tired, in other words; 2) we couldn’t speak a word of Chinese—not that we’re so fluent now, either; 3) we didn’t have boarding passes for our flight to Hohhot from Beijing. In retrospect, I see that there is no way the experience could have been anything other than terribly scary, trying, and generally traumatic for all of us. With this in mind, I have to publicly admit that the Beijing Capital airport is a wonderful place, a lot of people actually do speak English, and for as many people who flow through there, it operates in a remarkably smooth fashion. We are very glad that we ended up flying—we got there and back quickly and we quashed our residual fears of flying in China. Good thing, as we are flying to Xi’an and Shanghai in January.

We stayed at the same ridiculously expensive hotel as before, since the kids seem to think there is nowhere better to stay and frankly, Dave and I are a little attached to those Frenchie breakfasts and evening snacks. The kids swam everyday, I lounged in an armchair on the 17th floor, overlooking Wangfujing Ave. and the Forbidden City, and we ran ourselves crazy visiting every last thing we wanted to see: the Lama Temple, San Li Tun (the hipster youngster stay-out-late-at-night neighborhood near all the embassies), the Summer Palace, Starbucks, and once again the foreign language bookstore. We lamely splurged on western food everywhere we went with the exception of the most incredible baozi in the world, just across the street from the Lama Temple, drank coffee, rode bikes, and did rock climbing. All in all, it was a very satisfactory visit and we are content with our Beijing experiences.

Yes, Harry Potter is a big deal here, too. Samuel came away from the Beijing Foreign Language Bookstore with another Tintin collection, Grace got a book of pony stories, and I got Bleak House by Dickens (it should last quite a while, right?). And what did Dave get? A gigantic coffee mug from Starbucks across the street.

This is the baozi restaurant near the Lama Temple. Baozi are steamed buns filled with vegetables, eggs, or meat--and sometimes all three together.

Inside the Lama Temple complex. You can't burn incense inside any of the rooms where the buddhas are, so people light their incense from huge tubs of fire and make their offerings outside. As you can see, even in the temple, cell phones are popular.

In one of the alleyways at the Lama Temple.

One of the many gift shops at the Lama Temple. Commerce and consumption are alive and well even at the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet.

The key broke off in the lock on one of our rented bikes--many people came to our rescue but ultimately it was the lady in blue on the right who took us and the bike to a nearby hutong where the bike repair guy cut the lock off and put a brand new one on for us. Everyone was really nice and I even had a "conversation" with the lady in my pathetic Chinese.

On the corner of San Li Tun. No, we didn't do any of the cosmopolitan hanging out that this neighborhood is known for, but we did check it out--the construction going on in this area of town is just phenomenal.

This is the view from the 17th floor of the Novotel Hotel. Just beyond the cranes in the background you can see the low red roofs of the Forbidden City.

At the Summer Palace, in front of Kunming Lake. The Empress Dowager Cixi built up and renovated what was traditional a summer retreat for the emperors.

This is taken behind the big building you can see in the background of the picture just above. There are rocks and tunnels everywhere--the kids climbed and jumped and explored and pretty much didn't want to leave.

The kids are now in back (and on top of more rocks) of the Tower of Buddha Fragrance, the big building in the first picture of the Summer Palace. The whole complex is gigantic and surrounds Kunming Lake. There are buildings for contemplating nature and long covered walkways for strolling around in the shade.

The marble boat that Empress Cixi built using funds that were earmarked for building up the Chinese navy in the late 19th century.

A boat trip across Kunming Lake.

Friday, November 2, 2007

On Produce in General and the Vegetable Market in Particular

Temperatures have recently dropped into the 30s during the day, into the teens at night. While it looks like it’s warming up this weekend (maybe even up to 50?), fall is definitely upon us and the woolen under-things are out in full force. Not that you can see the woolen under-things (except in the marketplaces, of course) but since I have been wearing them myself, I’m pretty sure that the Chinese are too. They may not wear hats (we’ve been told that they only wear hats when it snows) but the Hohhotians (?) have definitely been dressed for the cold since before summer officially gave way to autumn. We were repeatedly warned as the seasons started to change to beware the instability of the weather, citing that it was a prime time to catch a cold. We have caught lots of other things (rashes, eye infections, stomach problems, continuing visits with the Chinese version of Montezuma’s Revenge) but so far no colds. Nevertheless, we cling to our own old wives' tales and wear our hats everywhere.

Despite the drop in temperature—and probably because of those woolen under-things—the streets are just as filled as always with vendors selling everything from candied fruit to vegetables to bicycle repairs.

The aroma from these roasted sweet potatoes is absolutely wonderful. People peel them like a banana and eat them on the go.

Just before it started reaching below freezing at night I noticed donkey wagons and even huge trucks piled sky-high with bags of potatoes. About the same time gigantic mounds of leeks appeared on the streets, formed mammoth piles in front of store fronts, and filled small blue trucks to capacity, long green tails hanging off the backs of the truck beds. I couldn’t figure it out until it finally dawned on me that these were vegetables that live underground—maybe the farmers knew it might either be hard to get them out of frozen ground, or maybe the freeze would just plain ruin them. I’m no farmer, obviously, but it certainly got really cold after the potatoes and leeks appeared en masse. Now everywhere you look, on roof tops, in windows, and lined along doorways, leeks and cabbages are the chief ornament around.

Cabbages in the background, leeks in the foreground. This is the view from the staircase leading to Dave's classroom in the International Exchange College.

Running out of space for your leeks? Try the bicycle cage.

Apples and oranges also abound on every street corner and even in between. We’ve fallen in love all over again with fuji apples and now the oranges are out in record number. We’re particularly fond of the ones without seeds (go figure) and there are also itty bitty oranges, about the size of a golf ball or even as small as a walnut, that the kids just plow through. Easy to peel, no seeds, sweet and juicy, what’s there not to like?

We buy oranges from this lady's cart daily.

And finally, I’ve become completely enamored and fascinated with the vegetable market, about a fifteen minute walk from our apartment. It apparently provides produce for all the restaurants in Hohhot, along with fresh fish, meat, live fowl, spices, and cooking supplies.

Live chickens...

and dead ones.

Spices and other sundries.

Those of us not in the restaurant trade can also shop there, thankfully, and I’ve found all kinds of wonderful vegetables for a fraction of the cost of the ones behind our building. This means, of course, that they are dirt cheap.

There are many, many stands that look just like this one.

This is just one aisle of vendors out of many.

Maybe a type of squash? I can't even imagine trying to lift one of those babies. For a sense of size, I think those are onions on the right and the truck on the left is huge.

The white bags in front of the people are filled with garlic.

Grace said, "Mama, I'm going to take a picture of eggplants for your blog." And she did. Those are garlic shoots in the front right corner.

The tomatoes here are incredible—like Dave’s Grandma’s garden variety—and the cucumbers and carrots are better than you could get in a supermarket at home. The cukes are like “European” cucumbers, long and dark green with thin skins that you eat. The carrots are shorter and fatter than the standard American variety, with a darker and richer flesh. The pumpkins the kids cut up for Halloween were actually so beautiful inside that I barely could stand to give them over to “art”. I’m going to try baking one whole in the oven (a trick I heard about on KCRW’s Good Food podcast). You mostly see small round eggplants that just call out to be eaten (yeah, right, but honestly they are wonderful) and I’m getting better about figuring out how to cook them. I am sure that the beautiful heads of broccoli shipped in from south China come from distances greater than the ideal 100 miles, as do the little tomatoes and edamame (I know, Japanese word, but I have no idea what they’re called in Chinese), but the flavors are full and wonderful—they are not picked before their time so I’m just going to pretend that China is a lot smaller than it is. Ha. In any case, we are lucky to have so much produce at our disposal, and I find it infinitely more exciting to plan a meal around whatever vegetables I have on hand than on whatever piece of meat I can pull out of the freezer.