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.