Monthly Archives: September 2011

Little Bloggers that could

Photo Credit

It’s funny, because up until a few months ago, although I was a rather avid-blogger, I didn’t actually read many blogs myself.  It reminds me of how I used to write a ton of poetry in my youth, but could never actually bring myself to read any.  I’m wondering if all those creative juices got refunneled into this online art form, and now you, wonderful friends, are humoring me by reading along {MANY THANKS, by the way}.

However, it’s time to pay it forward.  I’ve not only started browsing a unique set of blogs every week, but I’ve been warmly received by a few of them, as well.  I’d been enjoying reading about Jen at homemadeadventure‘s healthy forays, despite her busy medschool study schedule, and apparently the feeling’s mutual.  She recently highlighted my little blog, among a few others with under 200 followers, and challenged us awardees to do the same.

So, besides Jen’s great blog, here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order:

Channeling Contessa
Clara’s Blog, inspired by her love of Barefoot Contessa and her recipes, includes her own culinary creations, as well as style and travel points.

The Thoughtful Christian
I was first turned onto this blog through a fellow Davidsonian, Erin Lane, who is one of their guest bloggers, and I find their content really good- it’s a large range of reflections on contemporary Christian life, regarding media, literature, scripture, and lifestyle, mostly from a Reformed perspective.

One Hundred Ninety
My former high school gymnastics teammate, Jaclyn, and her husband Chris Webb keep this stylish and informative blog about their vegan lifestyle, complete with glossy photos and fun recipes.

My (until recently, sniff, sniff) fellow China ex-pat, Australian native, Rachel, documents her intercontinental life, with reflections on faith, baby rearing, and cultural conundrums. Plus, her photos are brilliant!

My Favorite Things

Sometimes I’m not much of a girl.

As a little girl I had no interest in Barbies, and playing dress-up my sisters and I usually donned mismatched hats, vests, and slippers, which amounted to trucker-like ensembles (minus the elmo slippers, of course).  Today, I prefer sports, intellectual conversation, and theological inquiry (I know, what a dork…sigh) to shopping and cooking, but living in China has at times brought out my inner-girl.

Manicures and pedicures are dirt cheap here, female clothing unadorned of bling and lace is virtually impossible to find, and with little sweet options, I’ve even taken to a little experimental baking.  I also recently joined Pinterest (much to the horror of my husband- he doesn’t get why anyone would want to virtually collect lovely things and stare at them, but I love the idea of a virtual mood board).

Now, I’m well aware that I’m working with gendered stereotypes here- there’s nothing about baking or bling that’s really girly (in fact, one of the things I love best about my husband is that he is our enthusiastic full-time chef and gardener), but the point of this post is to say that in China, I do enjoy a few female-friendly comforts of home, and so here are some of my latest favorite things:

These are a few of my favorite things (description below clock-wise)…
  • Sparkly green slouch sack, which I picked up last year in Guilin, to store jewelry when I travel.
  • Grapefruit Body Butter from The Body Shop, which I recently picked up in Hong Kong, switching scents from Orangey Satsuma to this perky note.
  • Anthropologie‘s Adele Perfume, a thoughtful anniversary gift from my husband on our last one in the states.  (And no I’m not just a fan of the store because of the name, although I do think it’s a great name!!)
  • Tan tolietry sack, definitely a knockoff, picked up in Xi’an during this summer’s travels, and a perfect solution to my favorite carryall that has no inside pockets, and in which, until recently, I could never find anything!
  • Cover Girl CG Smoothers Tinted Moisturizer— I swear by this stuff, and recently had my male friend bring me more from the states (I think he was kind of mystified that there’s something that straddles the divide between lotion and makeup).
  • Olive/coconut/avocado/castor oil homemade soap from my recent trip to Yunnan.  You can read more about the soap making experience here.
  • Burt’s Bees Replenishing Lip Balm with Pomegranate Oil.  I’ve got many variations of these (some with honey and no lip tint- this one has a slight red to it, or the lip shimmer in lovely shades, fig, merlot, etc.) stashed in bags and around the house.  I love the slight tint of this chapstick and its refreshing tingle.
  • My favorite chandelier earrings, also from Anthropologie.  They go with anything and everything.
  • A bracelet I recently bought in Shuhe, Lijiang.  I’m obsessed with circle decals, and I love this one.
  • An issue of National Geographic Traveler–my mom sent this along recently in a package, and we’ve got issues strewn about our living room detailing trips to Italy and the Amazon.
  • Scarf recently purchased in Lijiang, due to packing a lack of winter clothing.  But I can always use another scarf!

Scroll up to the top of the page and click on my Current Loves page to see more.

What are some of your favorite things?

Living the Challenge

My husband and I recently viewed a webinar from Zen Habits together, which featured Jen Gresham, founder of the No Regrets Career Academy talking about how to find your passion when it comes to vocation. In the Main Presentation Jen mentions that a lack of motivation toward finding your passion or seeking a much-needed career change can often stem from a fear of failure. However, simply put, she described fear of failure as a necessary, important part of any challenge, and reminded listeners that if we’re not afraid of failure, we’re probably not challenging ourselves, and even if we fail, we probably won’t have the dreaded feeling we anticipate, but rather the satisfaction that comes from such hard work and perhaps even more importantly, the drive, experience, and the dedication to try again.

In the past year, I’ve been faced with so many challenges here living in China, from navigating visa paperwork, to negotiating compensation for a flood that occurred in our apartment just a few months after moving in, applying for grants while studying Chinese and making research contacts, not to mention the daily language challenge, as well as working in cross-cultural ministry and research. There have been challenges that I’ve been reluctant to take on not only for fear of my own inadequacy, but also for fear that my impact on others’ cultural and spiritual lives would do more harm than good.

It’s odd how these two fears, while seemingly different, come from the same place–namely, a lack of confidence that God is in control, and that God will equip those whom God calls.

Of course, a sense of careful evaluation and self-assessment is important and necessary when we face any challenge, but in most cases, we’re being asked to take on a challenge because others see us as the right person for the job, respect our abilities, and believe in us. While there’s that old adage, that God never gives us more than we can handle, the problem with such a statement is that it implies that we’re supposed to handle things down here, more or less on our own, whereas in fact, God is the ultimate giver, not only of challenges, but also of companionship, peace, strength, assurance, love, and encouragement.

I have found such peace this past week in surrendering to the fact that I am unable to solve all the problems put before me, but I’m also not called to do so. I’m called to make myself available to God, and be in communication with God, so that God can use me to be a part of healing, insight, and peace to others.

I’ve also found such joy in realizing how utterly challenging (sometimes I use the word overwhelming!) my life has been here in China, and embracing that as a good thing. I am growing and learning in both my academic and my spiritual life everyday…how many people can say that? I am blessed to live these challenges, and though I don’t always do so gracefully, I trust in a God who pretty much wrote the book on that. So, when I really think about it, failure becomes not so scary, challenges become amazing opportunities, and God, powerfully, patiently, and need I say, eternally, stays wonderfully the same.

Breathtaking Views

The first time I was in Yunnan, I swore I’d seen the most beautiful scenery of my life: the Snow Jade Mountain towering above the scenic old town, and the turquoise glacial lake at its foot in the national park.

Snow Jade Mountain with glacial lake below in national park in Lijiang, Yunnan.

Imagine my shock this time, when I saw nearby Lashihai Lake at twilight:

Lashihai Lake, Lijiang, Yunnan

It seems photos (especially my photos) can’t quite do it justice, but it literally took my breath away.  And just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on Chinese geography, it never ceases to disappoint!

Soap making in the Mountains

While in Shuhe this past week, we had the opportunity to make a few natural, fresh bars of soap, and it was a fun experience.  I can’t say that it was exactly easy.  While the woman who was instructing us showed us pages and pages of lists of oils you can use in varied proportions to create different soaps with different benefits and properties, certain oils are impossible to come by here in China, and are expensive and inconvenient to import.

(Try explaining to your Chinese friends who have never seen an avocado before what one is, let alone what it tastes like or what’s so special about its oil?!)

However, most of the other ingredients and tools can be found at local stores, and for those of you with more access to various oils, this may be a challenge you’re up for!

It seems for making a basic few bars of soap, you’ll need olive oil, a few other kinds of oil (we used 20% coconut, 20% avocado, and 10% castor oil, as well as the 50% olive oil), sodium hydroxide, any fragrance you’re looking to add (we used chrysanthemum tea and tea flowers), a sensitive scale to measure amounts, a liquids thermometer, some gloves for safety, and some flexible plastic molds (while they had fancy equipment, they had also used moon cake molds in the past, which actually made for pretty patterns on the soap when you pop it out!).

Gathering our materials for soap making.

The play-by-play is more complicated than I want to go into on this post (you can find basic soap recipes all over the internet if you’re interested), but the basic steps involve adding (carefully!) the sodium hydroxide to the water and tea base, and letting it cool to an exact temperature.

Sodium Hydroxide, a necessary ingredient for soap making.
The water, tea, and sodium hydroxide mixture waiting to cool.

Then, you’ll want to combine the various oils and heat on the stove to desired temperature.

Measuring oils.
Combining oils.

Then, when you’ve got your sodium hydroxide mixture cool, and your oils heated, you want to add the sodium hydroxide mixture to the oils, and whisk vigorously (preferrably in one direction) for probably ten to fifteen minutes, until the mixture thickens.  (Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of the whisking since I was the one doing it!)

This is what the sodium hydroxide mixture looks like after it’s been sitting to cool.
Adding the sodium hydroxide mixture to the oils.

Finally, pour the mixture into the molds, and let sit in a dry, dark area, and cover with blankets for about one month.

Homemade soaps get their tints from natural elements, such as spinach, jasmine, or chrysanthemum.  here we added flower petals to make the soap prettier!

I had a chance to use my natural soap later that week in the mountains, and I even used it to wash my hair as friends suggested.  Unfortunately I didn’t feel like I was really able to get the dirt and oils out of my hair, but I did feel that the soap definitely added moisture to my skin.

I’d be interested in learning about how to make natural detergents as well at some point, but I guess I have to admit that I’m still skeptical about how “well” these natural remedies work.

Perhaps it’s more about getting used to different standards of cleanliness?  What do you think?

Breakfast in Shuhe

I just got back from a weeklong trip to Lijiang and Lashihai, Yunnan, bookended by twenty-four hour train trips in and out (NN–>KMG–>LJ and back).  It was partially exhausting, of course, but mostly exhilarating to continue to glimpse and gather an understanding for the countryside of China that lies so dimly in the background of the scaffolding of climbing, modern, bustling cityscapes.

A view of Yunnan from the train.
Although not specific to the Lijiang area, I like that this map of Yunnan shows the general distribution of the many Chinese ethnic groups home to Yunnan.

We spent the majority of our time in Shuhe, a small town with a preserved old-timey feel, and home to the Naxi and Mosuo (among other minorities), and a previous stop along the tea route.  In my opinion, Shuhe beats neighboring Lijiang’s Old Town, and other similar vibes, like Yangshuo, out of the water.  While local friends told us many of the previous residents have moved out of the town, and foreign merchants have crowded in, Shuhe is still without the thundering bars, Western tourists, and ticky-tacking shopping now present in both Lijiang and Yangshuo.  Older Naxi women hauled their goods along the cobbled streets, we met a Mosuo woman who sells scarves woven by her minority village members, and prices for food and accommodation were relatively affordable.

A view of scenic Shuhe Old Town.
A Mosuo loom at a local shop in Shuhe.

I was sold on Shuhe the very first morning, however, when we woke up to the fresh air, mist over the mountains, and stumbled onto the streets in search of breakfast, coming back with simple, delicious fried bread with chili sauce and cold yogurt in glass jars.  I really should have taken a photo of this fried bread on the street, because I’ve been unable to find anything like it (locally or online), and the woman appeared to be frying it first and then steaming it in the same tray in which they steam baozi and mantou.  I did, however, take a few shots of the town, and my morning coffee which I finagled from the Starbucks instant packets my mother had sent me, and my empty yogurt bottle!

A view of some of the green patches in Shuhe Old Town, outside of Lijiang, Yunnan.
Morning coffee in Shuhe.

More to come on the rest of the trip, but suffice it say, despite my fears, Lijiang round two, did not disappoint!

Crockpot Cake Adventure

Traditional Chinese kitchens do not have ovens.  So when I first got to China, I would hear many of the expat women trading war stories about the toils of baking in toaster ovens and locating baking powder, chocolate chips, and other supplies.  In my household, my husband does all the savory cooking, and I only ever baked on a whim, usually when I stumbled across a recipe that contained the words chocolate, peanut butter, and low fat together (yeah right).

So when I first began making friends with these ladies, they would look at me rather oddly and apologetically, and say, “It’s really too bad you don’t bake, because if you did…”  It seemed I was missing out on some exclusive expat fellowship that happened only in the company of toaster ovens, but given that my sweet tooth is much less pronounced than most, and I’m not that into typical girl-talk either, I kind of shrugged my shoulders, and made do.

In fact, I made it a whole year, fairly satisfied with Chinese bakeries, the occasional McFlurry from McDonald’s, and mooncakes.  And then last Saturday, I decided to try baking a lemon cake in a crockpot.  It was more the chemistry experiment side of it that inspired me rather than the sugar, but I wanted to see what I could do when life handed me lemons…and no oven!

So armed with some fairly decent-looking (unfortunately imported, though) lemons, and the Chinese version of a crockpot, I made my first attempt- a three-hour bake on high, using some parchment paper (or a cheap Chinese version of it) to line the pot, and this recipe.  Even I, who am not a baker, thought the batter looked way too soupy (and contained way too little flour) to turn out as a proper cake, and sure enough, it was only custard-like when I removed it around three hours later, but still pretty tasty!

Now, perhaps I should have gone with my gut, because for my second attempt, I used the blog recipe that inspired the whole lemon cake quest in the first place, and adapted it a bit for my lack of ingredients and a longer cooking time for the crockpot. The adaptations were that I used vanilla yogurt instead of plain, and then only an 1/8 tsp of vanilla extract, the zest of two lemons, which I think is much more than the 2 tsp recommended (I tasted the batter and wanted more lemon!), no nutmeg because I didn’t have any, and instead of coconut oil, butter, which was a scary amount of butter, so I’d be open to other suggestions on that substitution. Again, I used the parchment paper to line the pot, and after four and a half hours of cooking, the cake came out with a squishy center, and a crusty bottom. I made the cake topping and the glaze as per Jane’s recipe directions. It’s so sickeningly sweet, and dense, but all in all not a bad second attempt!

The finished product, with Chinese "crockpot" in the background.

For my third try, I’m thinking of doing the foil under the cake pan, and paper towels on top method crockpot baking method, because there seemed to be just way too much moisture on the top layer of the cake, and it’s really hard to get it to cook through, more or less, evenly. I also think I’d try a cream cheese and powdered sugar frosting, and omit the topping and glaze suggested here, because it was just too sweet for a recently turned-onto-baking girl such as myself!

Another view of the sugary final product.
Slices of the cake which my husband and I dined on last night after a light sushi dinner downtown.

Have you done any crockpot baking, or do any of you baking experts out there have any tried and true advice?

Enchanting Lijiang

A view of the Snow Jade Mountain from the national park in Lijiang.

You know the feeling when you go to a place for the first time, and everything from the air you’re breathing feels magical and ethereal, and you’re almost afraid to go back for fear another trip will spoil it?  Well, that’s how I feel about Lijiang, and returning to it next week.

A glacial lake amongst snow-cappped peaks in Lijiang.

While I have other friends who have not been so mesmerized by Lijiang, perhaps because it was my first experience being in China in the winter, I recall crisp, clear mornings with views of the Snow Jade Mountain, the intimacy of warming my feet by the coals under the table while eating steaming bowls of life-changing wild mushroom hotpot, the bumpy ride up by a glacial lake towards Tiger Leaping Gorge, and the warmth of the electric blanket in the quiet darkness.    

Those sights, smells, and literal chills have stuck in my bones since last November, and while of course, I can’t wait to return, I know it will, sadly, not be the same.

Ethereal view of a temple in the clouds outside of Lijiang.

What place sticks with you, eternally frozen in your memory, and why?

Books I Read This Summer

Photo Credit

I have been a very poor reader of fiction these past, oh I dunno, ten years of my life, and much of it I blame on the experience of what I call “reading for a living,” or being a college/turned masters/turned Ph.D. student.  But as my husband pointed out the other day, traveling can sure turn one onto reading.  And given that we traveled a lot this summer, and both picked up shiny new Kindles, we’ve both been doing a bit more of it (he still blows me out of the water with the way he sticks his nose in a book…and totally ignores me, by the way!).

I’m proud to report that I’ve read four books this summer- two old-school, and two on the Kindle.  (It’s funny, by the way, how treasured English books become here in China, where one cannot get easy access to them.  We ex-pats tend to hand them off, rather reluctantly, as priceless gifts to one another.)  Anyway, here are my brief book reports!

1.  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie:  I picked up this little treasure in a bootleg bookshop in Yangshuo, when my husband and I were there in May, and recently passed it onto a friend here.  It’s a whimsical tale of a time when foreign literature was banned, and a few boys who were shipped off to the countryside to be reeducated.  Balzac, the philosopher, becomes one of their muses, as well as a little seamstress, and it speaks to the power of print to make our imaginations and our consciousness come alive.  It’s a quick, enchanting little read, that a little like Pan’s Labyrinth or Life is Beautiful, brings mystery and life to a darker time.

2.  Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Present and Past by Peter Hessler:  My friend Andrew left this one with me after our travels through Vietnam and Laos, and I thoroughly devoured it while in Nanjing.  Nanjing was an appropriate backdrop for Hessler’s jam-packed take on the complicated country that China was, is, and is becoming.  At first I wasn’t sold on the way Hessler wove archeological digs and historical vignettes in between his contemporary experiences, but soon it became clear that tales of the past had a present all their own.  This one is only for those who truly long to know China inside out, but I learned some fascinating things about Chinese characters and archeology.

3.  Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery: I found this book for free on Amazon for Kindle, and decided to return to my roots.  I forgot that I’d never read the fourth in the Anne series (with this I skipped to the fifth), but nevertheless, it was as good as I remember like coming home to old friends, and I realized what an excellent role model Anne is for young girls!

4.  The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball:  I’d bought this book as a birthday gift for my friend who lives in the north country, and who drives by this farm often.  She loved it, and so I bought it for myself, and read it on my kindle, which I have to say, seemed all too sterile, given the dirt Kimball talks about finding under her fingernails, the sweat of the animals, and the everyday grittiness of farm life!  I loved this book, reading it feverishly, salivating at the simple dishes Kimball talks about conjuring from the harvest, and dreaming of someday, when I’m in one place (not China) for more than six months, joining a CSA!

Not a single boring read in the bunch- if I’m only going to read a couple, I guess I chose well, and I recommend them all.  I’m heading out Lijiang all next week, so I’ll likely make some progress on the two that I’ve currently got on my Kindle- The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber, and Private Life Under Socialism by Yunxiang Yan (rereading this one for research, not so much for fun, although I get excited about it, dork that I am).  I keep track of what’s on my nightstand on the left side of this blog if you’re ever interested.

A very unflattering picture of me reading my Kindle in the Nanning airport.

What did you read this summer, and what do you recommend?

Things About the House

When you live in China, you accumulate rather unusual items that become part of your everyday life.  These are just a few that sparked my interest this morning:

A triptych of Vietnamese propaganda posters we brought back from our June trip that now hang on our wall.


It's kind of hard to see in this fuzzy photo, but the new earbuds I brought to run with are bejeweled with faux diamonds on the outsides. Only in China!
Lisu minority crafts my husband brought back from his recent trip to Yunnan province.


This little item: heaven! Actually it's a primitive head scratcher that we discovered on our first trip to China in 2009, and searched all over for upon our return!

What interesting items do you have hanging around your house?