Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Last Saturday of 2011

…how will you spend it?

...and how do I love Saturdays?  Oh, let me count the ways!

One.  Sleeping in!  Or as they say in Chinese, 睡懒觉 (that second character literally means lazy, how’s that for ya?).  Even though we just had Christmas, in China things never really skipped a beat, so in my Christmas hangover, I’ve been daydreaming all week about sleeping in.  Let’s hope I don’t get woken up to the usual sounds of construction and throat-clearing down the hall…

Two.  Pajamas and slippers.  Thanks to recent Christmas presents from my sister and my husband, I have a comfy new pair of pajama pants and slippers, and I’ll put them to good use on this final 2011 Saturday.

Three.  Four.  Five.  Coffee, reading the news, blogs.  There’s nothing like staying in your pajamas and slippers as long as possible, brewing that cup of coffee, reading The New York Times (here are some of the more interesting articles I’ve bee reading- one about autistic young people navigating love; another about women heading back to school; and another about Mao, China, and the future), surfing blogs and pinterest, and waiting until you get the urge to…

Six.  Make pancakes!  Or eggs.  Or bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches!  Actually this Saturday we put our Christmas leftovers to use (leftover summer sausage from my mother-in-law, cheese, crackers, olives hanging around in the fridge, and salad from another meal) and grazed on a pu pu platter (Did you know that the term pu pu is Hawaiian and the dish refers to an American Chinese sampler platter?  Oh, the things you learn writing these posts!) as my husband took in the OU bowl game in his appropriate ensemble.

The Saturday mid-day grazing spread...
...and said husband in OU gear watching the game!

Seven.  Or bake a [dark chocolate] cake.  I threw a friend’s Christmas present of dark chocolate in with just five other ingredients into the crockpot, and plan to use the leftover peppermint icing from cookie decorating in the fridge to decorate this New Year’s Cake.  I’ll let you know how it turns out!

It doesn't look like much yet...

Eight. Nine, Ten.  Three movies for late afternoon lounging.  Try Our Idiot Brother, a heartwarming comedy starring Paul Rudd as a simple-minded brother whose honest charm brings clarity to each of his sisters’ lives in one way or another.  Or, Friends with Benefits, with Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake.  Now, I saw this one on the same international flight where I thought the wine was excellent, so it may have been my general loopiness, but I enjoyed the banter and the New York scenery in this one.  Or, have you seen Crazy, Stupid, Love?  Starring Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Julianne Moore, it’s strange little comedy about intertwining love stories that have something for everyone.

Eleven.  Get dressed up and go grab a nice dinner to ring in the New Year.  We’ll be getting together with some new friends at the Western restaurant, and perhaps having some friends back to our place to snack on said chocolate cake and…

Twelve.  Just like that, it’s midnight, the last Saturday of the year is over, and time in ring in 2012!   Of course, the U.S. (EST) is thirteen hours behind China, so if you haven’t figured out what to do with your Saturday or your New Year’s yet, you may want to ask that special someone.  Check out this cute video from Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and let me know, What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

A glass of champagne to ring in 2012.
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Favorite Posts in 2011

I had a couple thoughts as I scrolled through my blog posts from this past year.

One was that this year has been an exciting one filled with new experiences (Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, Canada, hosting friends and family from the states, trips with PFF to Yunnan, the American Anthropological Association conference, new forays in research…), and the other is that I don’t blog nearly as frequently as I feel like I do.  But that can always be fixed in 2012, right?!

While these aren’t necessarily the most popular posts, they’re my favorites, and I find that they nicely summarize the topics this blog revolves around, namely culture, spirituality, travel, and faith.  I hope if you’ve just started reading you might find something new here that sparks your interest.  Or if you’ve been reading for awhile, thanks for permitting my navel-gazing jot down memory lane!

  • February: Journey to the Philippines–A few photos from our spring trip to the island nation of the Philippines, complete with white sand beaches, and palm trees!
  • March: Trains, Migration, and China–Inspired by the documentary, The Last Train Home, this post discusses the world’s greatest yearly migration, when China’s migrant workers return home to the countryside to spend the Spring Festival, this upcoming year in late January, with their families.
  • April: Preconceptions and Possibility–A reflection on the April trip my husband and I took to Yunnan with PFF and the patient faith of minority Christians there that may challenge preconceptions about what it means to be the church in China.
  • May: Imitating Christ’s Humility–A bit of a rant on the misuse of the phrase, “like-minded” in the Christian community, this post tries to unpack the deeper meaning of the surrounding verses, urging us all toward imitating Christ’s humility.
  • June: Nanning–>Hanoi (First two days)–I track the first leg of our Southeast Asian tour to Vietnam and Laos, with our great friends, Andrew, Emily, and Ben.
  • August: Faith and Fieldwork–Some more thoughts on how I experience my bi-vocational call to ministry and anthropology.
  • September: Living the Challenge–Drawing on faith to reformulate fear, anxiety, and self-doubt in the face of challenge toward something more like gratitude, grace, and rejuvenation.
  • October: Recipe for Success–My tricks to beating stress and procrastination!
  • November: A Weekend in Guilin (Part 2)–The second part of our weekend in Guilin with visitors from the states.  It was a great trip, and I highly recommend the city as a must-see China destination!
  • December: Mary’s Song: Advent Expectations–Reflecting on Mary’s words and preparing for Jesus.

And there you have it…2011 in a nutshell.

Happy 2011. --Erin

What were your favorite moments from this year?  And how are you preparing for the next?

So this is Christmas…

Even as Christmas Day is still underway in North America, it’s quietly come and gone here in China, and Chinese friends are already looking toward their festive late January new years celebrations.  I find myself lingering, however, on the Christmas holiday and the Christmas cheer, thankful for another wonderful year here in China, and missing friends and family back home all the same.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I find that I miss the little things, as much as the big things, about celebrating Christmas at home.

So here are some lovely photos (all courtesy of my husband, of course) of the little ways we celebrated here and there, and wishing you all a very, merry Christmas, too.

The table set for our holiday expat party, complete with imported Christmas paper plates, courtesy of my mom's care package!
Two of my favorite gifts this year, both from my mother: a beautiful dish cloth from Hawaii, and candles to set the mood!
The tree gets a few more shiny balls that remind me of my grandmother, who loved to decorate the tree with them.
Rice for our Christmas chicken curry spiced with cumin and corriander seeds.
Sugary, thick hot chocolate made by one of our expat friends.
Our Christmas cookie decorating certainly felt festive!
Of course, this is the more typical scene year-round in China, this one a few days before Christmas to celebrate the grand opening of a store downstairs from our apartment.
Making peppermint bark. (I also made a vanilla cake in the crockpot to try to use up the leftover peppermint frosting I made for cookie decorating, but I wouldn't recommend the combination!)
Pine candle burning (courtesy of my mother-in-law) in a sea of opened gifts, and mimosas, our China Christmas morning tradition.
Our nieces opening up their presents we sent from China on Christmas Eve in Oklahoma, as we watch over skype from China. Thanks to my sister-in-law for capturing this precious moment!

And other favorite little things from this season found round the web:

Christmas around the world

This article on “Keeping Christ in Christmas,” and you might be surprised by what she has to say!

Another healthier play on peppermint bark from my favorite magazine, that I’m looking forward to trying

This quote from Etsy, which I love.

And the day after Christmas: catching up on that Packer game from the day before, of course!

Pizza!

Pizza in China is usually bit of a joke.  Although the Chinese claim to love it, you can’t get really good pizza where we live, except at one restaurant previously owned by an Italian guy who put in a pizza oven.  Lucky us.

But also lucky me, because recently my husband has mastered making Indian naan and had the ingenious idea of making pan pizzas in our very own kitchen.

One down!

Even though we don’t have an oven, he’s mastered the fine art of toasting them on the stove until the naan makes a nice and crispy, thin crust!

In his element!

I took a few photos of the pizza making, but of course, we ate them so fast, there’s none of the final product be seen!

Peppermint Bark: so easy!

I’ve really never been much of a homemaker, but I think there’s some sort of challenge in it for me now that we live in China.  When China suggests that it can’t be done (baking without an oven, pumpkin-inspired treats, Christmas trees), I want to say YES, it can!

And so when I discovered earlier this week that peppermint bark involves merely melting some chocolate, crushing candy canes, and cooling in a refrigerator, I had only one obstacle in my way: baking chocolate.  (Thanks to a recent trip back to the states and a rough transit, I already had a bunch of crushed candy canes on my hands!)

But, when I stumbled upon white chocolate at the baking store yesterday, some full-fledged holiday merry-making, double boiler tinkering, and peppermint goodness ensued!  (Note: I gave up on trying to find peppermint abstract in China, but you don’t need it…)

I followed this website for tips on how to make your own double boiler, and stuck to white chocolate.  I enlisted my husband to ensure that my clumsiness didn’t spoil the pot, so to speak.

But it was so easy!

Just crush candy canes thoroughly.

Boil chocolate…

being careful to stir continuously.

Spread onto wax paper and sprinkle liberally with candy canes, and freeze for 30 minutes or so.

And maybe use the leftover chocolate on the spoon to lap up the candy cane bits.  I maybe did that…

One of the best things about this project is that is was so easy and used so few dishes.

However, speaking of cheap thrills: my husband broke our sink faucet last week, and while at first I was really annoyed at what I thought would require yet another long adventure to find and install a replacement, the other day I told him it is the best thing he could have done!  Our old sink faucet was notoriously unreliable, shooting water at innocent bystanders, and twisting back and forth from sink to sink.

I am now the proud owner!

Our new faucet (and now I really am being dramatic, but I mean it!) makes washing dishes a dream.  So not only did I get to wash dishes with my new dream faucet last night, but it smelled like white chocolate and peppermint the whole time!  Nothing like a little Christmas merry-making in China to get one in the holiday spirit!

 

Prepare ye the way…

Each of us is an Innkeeper who decides if there is room for Jesus. –Neal A. Maxwell

I was lamenting to a friend over skype this evening that Christmas in China is a bit disorienting.  I’m a little ashamed to admit I miss some of things I do (snowflakes, hot chocolate, lights, trees), but not so embarrassed about the others that I really do miss (the tradition and season of Advent in the church, my family, and friends).

But the fact is, Christmas in China can be a bit of a solitary affair, and while my husband and I have hung our jade beads on our bonzai blue spruce, I’ve been practicing a few minutes of silent prayer in order to become centered, and have been reading through the birth story in the book of Luke, I’m not sure I feel prepared to something quite so momentous.

It’s not the stress–Christmas in China is wonderfully stress-free, but that’s because Christmas isn’t celebrated, there are no days off, like in every other month, and there’s not a lot of people who understand what it’s really about.

And yet, tonight as my friend and I sat in silence, pondering Mary’s song and the preparations God made for Jesus in her heart, I was struck again by her words, her prayers praising God for doing great things for her, scattering those who are proud in their inmost thoughts, and keeping God’s promise through the generations.

And then it hit me: the beauty of this season and God’s promise is that it never ends, and if I still need more time to prepare, God will provide it.  We spend our whole lives preparing for Jesus, not just Advent, not just one season, not one day.  

There’s so much left to prepare, and that’s a good thing.

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

–Luke 3:4b-6

Amen.

The Best Things about Winter in China

It’s still not cold here, but that in itself could be one of the best things about winter in Southwest China– it stays a mild 40-50 degrees F, with a decent amount of sunshine.

But there are lots of other lovely little things, if you look close enough, and they do bring a certain warmth to the relative cold that the concrete buildings seal in with a vengeance!

  • Chinese Babies all Bundled Up!  If you’ve ever been to China in the wintertime, you know the Chinese take their children’s internal temperature seriously…piling on an amazing amount of layers, that usually amounts to the child looking like a marshmallow in a blanket-like shell.  When indoors the children’s cheeks turn bright pink, and they’re certainly a sight to see on the streets!

  • The smell of chestnuts, peanuts, and sweet potatoes roasting: You can pretty much find these vendors on the streets anytime of year here in Guangxi, but there’s something seductive about the smell and the steam rising in the winter air.  Plus, there’s that little allusion to our own traditions, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”  Admittedly, I think they all smell better than they taste, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the smell!

  • Da Feng, or big winds, and kites flying in the air:  Lately Nanning has been subject to gushing winds that fly through the alleyways and chill even a thick-blooded Wisconsinite.  The Chinese recognize these winds are prime for kite flying, and as I ran over the bridge over Nanhu Lake it was fun to see all the bright colors in the air.  On weekends families crowd the park to fly a few kites and enjoy a green patch in Nanning’s concrete jungle.
  • Perfect running weather:  As aforementioned, temps here are more like fall in the US than what we expect from winter, and they’re absolutely perfect for a jog alongside the park.  The demographic that runs in China is more like sixty-year old men, so I’m always impressed when I see them plodding along, and they’re usually equally impressed by me, as I’m the one who’s really the odd duck here!
Some of my favorite running scenery here in Nanning. Photo by Evan Schneider.
  • A warm cup of tea:  It’s here year-round, of course, but the Chinese actually serve lukewarm or cool tea during the summertime, and hot tea is served when the weather actually demands it.  I’ve never been into tea, but friends who have come to Nanning wanting to learn have had me take them to the tea houses, and I’ve generally enjoyed chatting with the knowledgeable men and women, and enjoying the casual cup of tea with the regulars in the late afternoon.
Sipping liu pao cha (Guangx’s specialty) with my friend Taylor this summer.  Photo by Justin Twardy.
  •  Hotpot!  What do the Chinese do to warm up on the really cold days?  Hotpot, a tasty, often spicy, boiling soup into which they throw fresh veggies and meat, and around which they warm their toes and hands, and also fill their bellies with rice wine liquor and beer.  Hotpot is surprisingly filling, and incredibly tasty.  I’ve been lucky enough to sample goat that’s just been slaughtered in someone’s at-home hot pot in the mountains of Yunnan, and an amazing mushroom hotpot that I still dream about.  Either way, it’s the place to be on a chilly evening.  New Christmas dinner tradition, anyone?
Hot pot fixings. Photo by Evan Schneider.

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Top China Books

I’ve been living in China for about a year and half now and studying China for the past three and half years, so I’ve enjoyed reading quite a few English-language books about Chinese history, society, and culture.  Whether you’re looking for a gentle introduction into what life in China is like, a more rigorous read, or some top anthropological books, this list has it.  Let me know what your recommendations might be if you’re a China-enthusiast or a wannabe.  There’s always room for more books in my Kindle!

Best Light Reads

Dreaming in Chinese:Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language by Deborah Fallows

A linguist by training, Fallows spent three years in China with her journalist husband.  In this playful book she takes an introductory look at the culture by way of the language.  For anyone just starting Mandarin studies or thinking of doing so, this book is a delightful, manageable, and approachable read.

Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost

Full of inside jokes, cautionary tales, and adventure, Troost’s naked eye view of China is surprisingly on target when it comes to the challenges of traveling and learning the ins and outs of Chinese culture.  This book can be appreciated by the adventurous traveler or the seasoned ex-pat; it’s a quick, light, and humorous read.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Lisa See’s historical fiction is mesmerizing, well-researched, and brings you into the intimate worlds of two Chinese girls, whose friendship spans distance and class to create a touching, slightly tragic tale.

Best Rigorous Reads

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

Arguably the best book written about China to date, Hessler traces China’s past and present through the mystery of the oracle bones, through the Cultural Revolution, and into contemporary Beijing where he works as a reporter.  Although I study Chinese culture for a living, this book brought Chinese history alive, and provided an interesting contemporary reflection on the plight of the Uighur minority in and outside China today.

The Lost Daughters of China by Karin Evans

This read is rigorous in the emotional sense, as you will feel as though you’re traveling along with Evans to China to pick up her adopted daughter.  She helps readers begin to unravel the complexity of the international adoption explosion from China in the 1990s-2000s.  Although a little outdated, this book is a powerful, factual, reflective look at foreign adoptions from China.

House of Lim by Margery Wolf

Technically an anthropological look at Chinese family life, this nonfictional account reads much like a novel of intimate family life in rural Taiwan, during the mid-60s.  Wolf tells the story of a family that struggles to live together under one roof, rather than “divide the hearth,” as many of the neighbors had begun to do.  You’ll feel transported in time, and begin to understand the complicated dynamics which pervade Chinese family life.

Best Anthropological Reads

China’s Peasants Sulamith Heins and Jack Potter

The earliest foreign post-revolution ethnography of Chinese family life, the Potters chart the Maoist transition through life in one village.  Their cultural insights make the Chinese experience accessible and understandable, and they provide a snapshot in time in rapidly developing, ever-changing China.

Private Life Under Socialism by Yunxiang Yan

Yan’s deft account of the emotional lives of Chinese villagers, argues that the collapse of the socialist system actually created an unprecedented development of private life, individualism, and egotism among rural Chinese.  Yan’s 2003 account of life since the Cultural Revolution is apt and still poignant to present-day China.

Gifts, Favors, and Banquets: The Art of Social Life in China by Mayfair Mei-hui Yang

Yang tackles the total social phenomenon of guanxi and the way in which it has transformed from traditional kinship ethics, under Maoism, and into the present.  Yang’s reflection on her own identity, as well as the cult of Maoism, are important forays for Chinese Anthropology, and the book is a masterful treatment of contemporary social life, its idiosyncrasies and dynamics.

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Getting to Know YOU

“Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…” –Anna, in The King and I

I am a frequent reader of The Happiness Project blog, and the other day I clicked on one  of their popular quizzes, “How well do you know yourself?”

Now if I were to answer that question, as someone who has graduated seminary, done countless spiritual gifts inventories, and studies human behavior and culture for a living, I might say quite well.

But I found the quiz pretty enlightening, and probably the more so because it’s not a scored group of questions, or multiple choice, but short answer format, that forces you to really do the work of thinking about what your childhood hobbies and unfulfilled goals suggest about your current interests, passions, and dreams.

Here’s the quiz, off the Happiness Project Blog, adapted from The Creative Lawyer, to help you figure out what actually interests you:

1. What part of the newspaper do you read first?

2. What are three books you’ve read in the past year?

3. As a child, what did you do in your free time?

4. What’s a goal that has been on your list for a few years?

5. What do you actually do with your free time?

6. What types of activities energize you?

7. What famous people intrigue you?

I loved the question about what you did as a child in your free time, because it brought back a slew of memories when creating and pretending were encouraged, and when there just weren’t enough hours in the day for playing with Fisher Price little people, running a gymnastics meet in the living room, or all those books to write and art projects to accomplish! 

My sisters and I spent hours playing with little people in the basement!

I wasn’t surprised to find that two out of the last three books I’ve read have to do with my Ph.D. research, but what I was encouraged to find is that I genuinely enjoy that reading, and my research was one of the activities I wrote down that energizes me.

On the other hand there were lots of ways that I spend my time that don’t really energize, refresh, rejuvenate me.  I had a revelation about relaxation and balance this February when my husband and I took a two week vacation to the Philippines.  I think my revelation that the perfect vacation, to me, wasn’t all laying on the beach and overeating, stems from my desire for fulfillment, energy, and rejuvenation in life.

As Gretchen on the Happiness Blog suggests, there are different types of fun: fun that is challenging, fun that is accommodating, and fun that is relaxing.  It’s kind of a short term/long term thing, in that while relaxing fun is really satisfying in the short term, accommodating fun and challenging fun have a greater long term yield.

This has all been a healthy reflection for me, as I begin to look back on this year (as I have in the past) and look toward the next, especially as my time doing my research in China is winding down.

I’ve determined some activities that energize me (going to church), making time for silence with God everyday, exercising, and having stimulating conversations with friends and family, and I’ve been convicted to choose them in order to grow toward some of those lingering goals (question #4).

But more than anything, I’m reminded that how we spend our time is not just a choice, but a reflection of who we are, and I want to be someone who is constantly growing in wisdom, gentleness, and goodness.  

And it’s nice to know I have a say in all that.

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Praying the News

A lot of times we complain that reading the news fills us with nothing but violence, depression, and fear.  But lately, there’s been a slew of stories that have sounded like nothing but good news to me.

And so I got to thinking, if we can pray the psalms, why can’t we pray the news?

Here are a couple of my favorite stories from the past week and some suggestions for prayerful reflection:

  • Americans and God (Eric Weiner, NYT): This is a strikingly hopeful reflection on the Nones–the roughly 12 percent of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, but the vast majority of whom believe in God.  Eric Weiner, author of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine writes, “We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt,” and concludes with, “I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment.  A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.”
  • Sounds pretty great to me.  How can we who identify with a God who is big enough to hold all our doubts, experimentation, and doesn’t laugh at us, but laughs with us, listen and encourage those who are open and searching?

  • To Fix Health Care, Help the Poor (Elizabeth H. Bradley and Lauren Taylor, NYT):  As I posted on my facebook page, what Bradley and Taylor are preaching here isn’t rocket science, but then again, America has yet to change what we’re doing when it comes to health care, so it seems we need to hear it again.  Bradley and Taylor compare the amount other industrialized countries spend on social services (much, much more) to what the US spends on health care (a ton of moolah).  Bradley and Taylor suggest that to build a healthy society, we clearly need to start thinking about spending money somewhere else than directly on medicine and medical care (perhaps on social services).  They point out that while something like homelessness is not usually thought of as a medical problem, it has huge, hidden costs for society.
  • I’ve learned this from listening to a friend who is in social work school talk about the costs of treating homeless mental health patients for out-patient services, over and over, with few results.  The article on the Nones above referenced how frustrating it is for the religiously undecided to see the religiously decided engage in nasty political fights.  How can we religiously-minded folks together seek healing for those in our society who need it, not only those who can afford it?
  • The Generous Marriage (Tara Parker-Pope, NYT Blog):  New research shows that those couples who report happiness in their marriage rank high on the generosity scale, generosity being defined as “the virtue of giving good things to one’s spouse freely and abundantly.”  They include a quiz at the bottom of the blog post, with questions about how often you engage in acts of kindness for your spouse, beyond household duties, and forgive him/her.
  • I remarked to my husband this morning that this understanding of generosity in marriage relationships seems to mirror my understanding of grace in my relationship with God.  If we judge others by the world’s standards, they’re destined to fail, because we’re all broken human beings.  But if we resolve to love one another’s brokenness, with a grace that keeps no record of wrongs, and serve one another as Christ humbly served us, it seems we have the makings of an unconditionally loving relationship, which no doubt is the recipe for a long, healthy marriage.  How is God calling you to expand your expressions of generosity and grace to those in your midst?
  • When a Disabled Child Dies (Meadow Rue Merrill, Boston Globe):  Grab your box of tissues, because this article is a tear-jerker.  However, it’s worth reading: this young girl with cerebral palsy’s life touches those around her and those across the globe.  Merrill describes not only the joy of her child’s life, but her stages of grief, and her revelation that while children with disabilities’ internal organs aren’t sought out after death, their external organs (wheel chairs, hearing aids, voice computers) aren’t often put to use either.  Her and her husbands’ quest to get these items to those who need them and honor the life of their daughter is courageous and moving.
  • Lately I’ve been visiting a lot of foster families with children with cerebral palsy, and I’m so amazed by the love between the parents and the children, because it’s a love that knows the depth of patience, frustration, possibility, and commitment.  Where have you experienced God’s love this week, and how does that love change the way you live your life?