Wednesday, November 28, 2007
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Pre-pie sweet potato. That's a brand new pencil--the potato had to be 2 lbs.
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
We just got back from a whirlwind weekend in
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
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
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.
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 marble boat that Empress Cixi built using funds that were earmarked for building up the Chinese navy in the late 19th century.
Friday, November 2, 2007
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.
Apples and oranges also abound on every street corner and even in between. We’ve fallen in love all over again with
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
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.
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.
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.