Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gifts from Babcia (Jane/Jenniey's mom)!
September 29, 2009

I've apparently got the best mom in the world. Thanks so much, Mom! It was so totally like Christmas here. Brought tears to my eyes!!!! Love you.

4 Piano Explorers magazines
Piano books: Train songs, Hungry Mosquitoes, Easy Classics to Moderns, Big Note Piano Pieces

17 or so postcards
2 sticker pad books, 4 sticker packs (2 music types)

3 ceramic pigs: salt, pepper, toothpicks. 2 Southwest-style pot holders

Giant Coloring Book; Berenstain Bears’ Thanksgiving; Cats Don’t Dance; notepad;
Hirsch Grades 1, 2 and 3; Magic Tree House Viking Ships at Sunrise;
Master Skills English Grade 2; Going Places text + workbook; On the Horizon text + workbook; Invitation to Mathematics; The “Modern” Mastery Drills in Arithmetic

6 packs Tic Tacs, 2 Ghirardelli bars, candy-cane-type sticks, bag of bag of M&Ms, bag of York peppermints, bag of Skittles bags, 36-oz. bag of Nestle chocolate chips; 1 bag Hershey’s chocolate chips; Hershey’s chocolate syrup; iodized salt

Mosquito wipes, Off bug stuff, 2 tubes Hydrocortisone cream, kids’ AquaFresh

2 rolls duct tape; “Best is Yet to Come” pin and Marian Anderson pin

birthday card for Dave!

Zekey: "When I get back from China, I’m going to give Babcia a million kisses! Cuz she has magic, and she readed our mind!

Let’s make her a kiss card!

I wanted everything we got! I wanted tic tacs and that stuff (Hershey’s syrup) and chocolate and candy canes and these stuff (Skittles)!"
Articles of Note



Monday, September 28, 2009

Wok on...

(posted by Dave)


Okay, I can’t believe I’m starting entry with such a lame pun, but my tribute to the Chinese domestic kitchen continues. Next exhibit: the best two-burner gas stoves on the planet! You may be able to guess this from the picture: the Chinese believe in focusing some serious heat on their food. We’re talking some serious kilocalories here. (Joules? BTUs? Sorry if I’m not feeling very scientific right now.)

A further digression: some of you may know that my first job after college was as a stir-fry cook at LeeAnn Chin’s Carryout Chinese Cuisine in St. Paul, MN. While the food there wasn’t anything special, (okay, the polar opposite of special) I did come away from that job with the illusion that I knew how to stir-fry stuff. Every time I invited people over to my house for Chinese food, though, I always was secretly disappointed. People would like what I cooked, but there was always something missing.

Now I know - that missing something was heat. Lots and lots of it. Enough to get that cube of tofu perfectly brown on the outside and piping hot in the middle. If our microwave worked, it would lose the leftover reheating race to our wok every time. No wonder it stopped working after our second week here. “Ah, but what about the oven?”, you ask. Well, there, um, isn’t any. Zippo, zero. They don’t believe in ‘em, I guess. We do have a small electric “oven” on our tabletop that looks like a toaster oven on steroids, but that’s the subject of another post.
Mmmm, mooncakes!
(posted by Dave)


Whew, we’ve been teaching for almost a month now. Time for a week off! Fortunately, the Chinese national calendar has obliged us with just that. First is National Day on October 1st, the anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic. Then it’s Mid-Autumn festival on October somethingth, where people celebrate, um ... Autumn? (Yes, my boundless knowledge of Chinese culture astounds even me sometimes.)

Anyway, besides a full eight days off, the Autumn festival also gives us (cue Homer Simpson drooling over donuts sound effect here) mooncakes! Mooncakes are little round cakes made from wheat flour with any number of rich sweet fillings inside, and they are pleasing in oh so many ways. First off is the general visual appeal - they always have really cool looking intricate designs stamped on top. Second is their heft. They’re about the size of a medium Little Debbie snack treat, but they’re very dense. They weigh as much as a ... baseball? Well, a very tasty baseball, anyway.

Which brings us to their taste. Now maybe my sweet tooth has been starved a bit while here, but one bite (of the good ones anyway) and you know you are sampling the Most Awesome Thing In The World. The best are the ones with bean paste, brown sugar, raisins, and nuts. A little like good baklava, but without the crumble and drip factors. They are a little oily, so maybe I have been deprived of sweets as of late. Maybe I should send some home and see how they stack up against a hot fudge sundae and a handful of Oreos. I think they’d beat the Oreos hands down. Not sure about the sundae, though.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Required Reading...
(posted by Dave)


A couple of weeks ago, my friend Bob sent me a link to this article in Chicago Magazine, and it’s been going around and around in my brain ever since. Once you see the article, those of you who know me may guess why.

For those I’ve recently connected with, a bit of background information may be in order. Last March, while riding my bike home from work, I experienced an attack that was eerily similar to the one described by John Conroy, the author of the article. (Did I mention required reading? Okay, go now and click on the article and read at least the first page. I’ll wait...)

A few differences between my “incident” and Conroy’s: I actually saw my attacker, and he didn’t knock me out. My attacker also didn’t notice the police car right behind him, so fortunately for me, I had help right away. Unfortunately for me, the policemen (Chicago’s finest!) who witnessed the attack didn’t think to get out of their car and run after the kid, so my attacker got away on foot and was never apprehended.

Even with the differences, many of the feelings Conroy describes in his article also ring very true with me. Like Conroy, I still have lasting effects from my injuries (mine is a lingering numbness and tingling in my upper lip and cheek from nerve damage) that bring me back to the event.

As you might guess, this was a very strange article to read in China. I’ve had several trains of thought to chew on in the last couple of weeks. (A mixed metaphor, I know, but I’m leaving it in because I like the idea of chewing on trains...) Haven’t come to any conclusions that I can formulate clearly enough to write clearly about, so I will leave you this assigned reading with a few (possibly loaded) discussion questions:

1. If an act of violence happens over and over again in the same place with the same characteristics, can we truly say that it is “random”?

2. Where and when do the powers that run a society permit acts violence to occur? Who commits these acts of violence?

3. Speaking of Power, is there difference between violence caused by coercion and violence caused by neglect? If there is a difference, what is it? Is one preferable to the other?

For class next week, please read the above article in its entirety and write your answers to the discussion questions in paragraph form in your journals or on a plain A4 sheet of paper. Be prepared to share your answers in class!

(Or you could just enter your answers in the comments section below. Just copy and email them to me as well if you want me to see it, as we can’t get in to see our comments very often. Ah, power and its many uses...)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pass it on...

Speaking of which, this may be a good time to mention that we are more than happy for you to pass a link to this blog to your friends, family, second cousins, hairdresser's niece's new fiance, etc.

Also a small disclaimer: Because we are using another site to remotely post to our blog, we don't (yet) have a way of going back and editing things, so you may have to put up with a few typos and so on. Photos may likewise show up as grey boxes, or mysterious looking links. Do go ahead and click them to see what we've been up to - we promise they won't bite.

Also, we have no way of posting a title or the blog author, so you may be reading stuff by Jane, or stuff by Dave. (or maybe by one of the kids, if they happen to get possessed by a computer-literate poltergeist) A general clue as to the author of a piece: Long, meaningful, and full of insight = Jane. Short, lazy, and lame jokes = Dave. Okay, back to your regularly scheduled programming...
Did I mention things are blocked?

(posted by Dave)

Ah, yes, the big six zero anniversary of this nation is coming up next week, so the powers that be seem to be impeding several of our usual workarounds - just to make sure things run smoothly, no doubt. (Hmmmm....)
Anyway, I am now officially giving up on trying to connect with Facebook or any blog on Blogspot (including ours) until the whole brouhaha is over. For those of you who have not entered the world of proxy servers, mirror sites, VPNs, and all of the various and sundry ways that expats try to get around the Great Firewall here, consider yourselves lucky. It does provide a constant topic of conversation with any Westerner we happen to run into, though....
Getting Served

(posted by Dave - written 9/20)

...as in getting my (behind) served to me on a silver platter, that is. Allow me to explain. A couple of weeks ago, Johnny (another American here at Xihua) mentioned to me that many of the teachers in the English Department met every Friday for badminton, and last week was the first day that I was around and could come along. There were some racquets sitting in a back closet at our apartment along with a few birdies, so I dusted them off and trooped out to the university gate to meet everyone and head on over to the gym at a neighboring university.

I guess my first clue that the Chinese take their badminton a bit more seriously than we do should have come from the birdies. No stamped out plastic imitation feathers here - nosiree! Real bird feathers of some kind painstakingly trimmed and hand sewn together and inserted into a (likewise real) cork. My second clue came when I met Fred, one of the Chinese teachers in the department. Fred was dressed in warmup pants and had a genuine custom shoulder bag that he carried his racquets and gear in. I don’t know if any of you ever gone bowling and had someone show up with their own custom bowling shoes and their own bowling ball with their name lovingly engraved on it, but that describes the sinking way-out-of-my-league feeling that I had in the taxi on the way to the gym quite accurately.

A word or two may be in order on my badminton heritage at this point. Actually two words: seventh grade. Yes, that, to the best of my knowledge, was the last time I can recall ever playing a serious game of badminton. Those few people reading this blog who know me from my days at Orion Middle School will guess that by “serious”, I mean that, knowing that everyone was watching me publicly humiliate myself, I seriously prayed that at least one of my serves would make it over the net. Didn’t happen.

Okay, fast forward back to a sweaty gym on the Northwest Campus of the Sichuan School for Traditional Chinese Medicine. I don’t know what happened between seventh grade and now in the badminton department, but I am happy to report that, even without any badminton practice whatsoever in the intervening twenty-nine years, my skills have greatly improved. Except in the serve department. I’m playing doubles, we’re smashing that birdie back and forth, I’m diving to recover long shots, playing hard against the net, making spectacular saves, and getting the serve over the net... ummm....one fourth of the time? Oh, and did I mention that I’m playing with both the Chair of the English Department AND the Dean of the college of Foreign Languages?

No matter. They graciously let me have two tries each serve. Mildly humiliating, but I’ll take all the help I can get. I had fun, got some exercise, and had a good meal afterwards. (And the chair of the English Department showed me a cool backhand spin serve that I think will be killer. I’m going to practice trying to serve to our TV set every evening this week)

Note: Did I post this already? Things are blocked blocked blocked, so I have no way of checking. Apologies for any redundancy (redundancy redundancy) this may have caused...
Fresh Vegetables!
(posted by Dave)


So last Wednesday, we got a chance to stay overnight at one of the first organic farms in China! The Gao family runs a small chemical and pesticide free vegetable farm near Anlong village, which is about an hour or so west of here. They offer a CSA (which stands community-sponsored agriculture, in case you don't know), and deliver their veggies to 150 or so subscribers in the city of Chengdu.

Of course we signed up, which means that we'll have fresh organic produce delivered to our door (okay, the university gate around the corner) every Tuesday and Friday afternoon! They were apologetic that our vegetables, picked in the early morning, will have to stay on the truck until 4:00 or so, and asked us if we were okay with that. Coming from a country where some people consider a one month old tomato shipped a couple thousand miles “fresh”, we enthusiastically agreed.

This is one of those cases where a picture is worth a thousand words, and since we posted eighty-some pictures of the farm on to Flickr, (with expert comments by Jane, I might add), I highly recommend that you click on the link below for more info. Jane is also writing an essay on our stay there for possible inclusion in Chengdoo, the local English language news magazine, so stay tuned for further posts about our time there.

Our set on Flickr:

Annnd, if you want even more info, our friend Matt (who told us about the farm in the first place), gave us these links to a couple of stories in the American media - one from NPR, and the other from the Christian Science Monitor.



Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Me and Turtles (by Jane)

I have this relationship with my turtles that is very intense. We received these 3 lovely gifts from our friend, Joy, who wanted to give each of the kids .

First the turtles weren’t eating, weren’t moving, seemed to be dying. I was trying to feed them the teeny store-bought turtle food pellets. So it was this revelation that I could search outside for live insects that we thought they might like. Centipedes were about the only insect around that were plentiful, easily catch-able, big enough to make it worth it (as opposed to the ubiquitous ants), and didn’t jump after you caught them (like crickets). I had this revelation one morning after a big night-time rainstorm. I originally thought I would find a million worms, but there seem to exist very, very few worms in China. So centipedes it was.

At first I enjoyed gathering centipedes. Armed with chopsticks and a glass jar with lid, I felt purposeful, with the mission of saving my poor turtles’ lives. The medium-sized turtle, Franklinstein, or Speedy, as he came to be known, gobbled them up like a hunter worth his weight in gold. The way he shoots his neck and head forward with precision instills in me a relieved feeling that I am not the object of his aim, and that I am about 200 times his size. Franklinstein can down about 8 centipedes in one feeding.

The baby turtle, Franklin also, would have none of the centipedes. I resorted to chopping up the centipedes into barely visible particles, trying to stuff them into his mouth. Did you know that centipedes make a crunching noise when they’re chopped into pieces? For that matter, did you know that centipedes make that same crunching noise when a medium-sized, expert hunter turtle named Franklinstein crushes them with his powerful jaws?

Anyways, the baby, whom I call “Little Guy,” only tolerates being force-fed the store-bought turtle pellets. You can usually get them into his mouth when you see him, plain as day, perched on top of a rock, craning his mouth open as wide as he can. He’s practically guilt-tripping you with these silent screams of, “Why haven’t you fed me?! I’m so hungry!” Yes, you respond to his supposed despondence, only to find that he immediately shuts his mouth and won’t let a smidgeon of that store-bought food pellet into his mouth. And if you do get it in, he tries to spit it out. Out comes that turtle tongue, pink and thick, shoving the food right back out. The way to win is to dip the chopstick into water, and with the lone drop that falls off the suspended chopstick, to plumb wash that stuff down into his belly. You will not starve under my watch!

If you can’t tell yet, the amount of time spent with turtle care ranks up there with the amount of time I’ve spent nursing my three children these past almost 7 years. Dave at first was quite upset with my dereliction of duties such as helping put children to bed at night, feeding them in the morning, getting out the door, etc. After a couple of weeks, however, he has, too, been hooked. He takes particular pride in his innovation of using clear plastic tweezers in order to be able to successfully force-feed Little Guy. He can get 7 or 8 pellets all the way down him in one sitting! Most I’ve gotten is 3 or 4.

After the initial soaring spirit of being somebody’s savior wore off, I began to find the food-gathering and feeding times to be a bit troublesome. Weren’t these supposed to be the boys’ turtles, anyways? My skills with feeding Little Guy seemed to be waning. And I realized one big thing: the centipedes really stink. So I’m looking for centipedes, inevitably attracting the attention of our many neighbors. I know the Chinese sentences for: “We have 3 turtles. They can eat these [centipedes].” But something smells! Have I forgotten to put on deodorant? Has the heat really gotten to me that much? Is it the sewer system malfunctioning (again)? No! It dawned on me slowly that it’s the dang-blasted 100-legged creatures I’ve been deftly finding under the purple, pointy bush’s leaves spilling out onto the cement. I resort to holding the jar at a distance behind me when talking with neighbors. Or I set the jar aside for a few precious moments of fresh air. Wow. I’m calling China’s non-caterpillar-scented air fresh. Now that’s saying something.

I persist in my new-found motherhood status of a non-mammal. My most recent feeling is the kind you get once you’ve broken an initial cycle of laziness. It’s kind-of like meditation, which can be difficult to get into. But after you’ve done it for a while, it’s just part of your routine, is something you rely on, and is almost comforting. I get to go outside with a child or two, usually Zekey, who zooms around on his scooter while I squat up and down our street, chatting with neighbors, holding a glass jar with a squirming, moving, alive layer at the bottom, at a safe distance. I know my turtles will appreciate it. “My” turtles.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oh, and we have a couch...

(posted by Dave)


After our long morning at the (shudder) international health clinic last Friday, and that nice long brunch to shake it off, we also spent a long afternoon with Luo Bou at a humongous furniture market getting a couch for our apartment. The term "Furniture Market" may be a bit misleading - please feel free to substitute the term "Massively huge complex of thousands of furniture stores mostly under one roof connected by myriad alleyways and passages and twice as big as the town that I grew up in" if that will help clarify your understanding.

We spent a couple of hours there looking for our perfect sofa, and of course, I took wayy too many photos of the place and posted them in the flickr set above. If you view the set all the way to the end, you'll see Jane sitting on the couch that we finally picked out. Photos and comments about the couch in its new native setting forthcoming, as soon as we get done moving furniture around...
One would think...

(posted by Dave)

So - my cell phone had been dead for the whole weekend. The battery died, and even though I recharged it overnight, no matter what I did, the thing would not turn on. Just a lonely tiny little blinking battery icon in the middle of a blank black screen. So I finally get around to taking it into the cell phone shop around the corner, pantomime my distress to the sullen 19 year old behind the counter, and he has it fixed in less than two seconds. Turns out that to turn on cell phones in China, one has to press the RED (off / hang up) button, not the green (answer / turn on) one. Who knew? (Besides every single person in China, that is...)
...is that it has artists and writers like Maria Kalman living in it. I first got to know her though her great kids’ books, but have been totally sucked in to every one of her online pieces for the New York Times that she is written so far. The most recent one (link below) was no exception. Reading it in China brought patriotic tears to my eyes, even. Check it out!

Not your Grandma's WalMart
(posted by Dave)


Yes, I went to WalMart a while back, out of curiosity, comradeship, (we were invited along by our very helpful LuoBou), and a desire for peanut butter. A lot of it was familiar, but I did take a few photos of some of the, um, less typical by American standards, items. The link above takes you a photo set on Flickr, presented for your educational pleasure. (Warning: don't click if you are averse to raw pig kidneys or dried seahorses...)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

noise vs. Noise

(posted by Dave)

Before we left for China, we told everybody that we were going to be living in a sixth floor walk-up apartment. Thankfully, that’s not true - our apartment is actually on the fifth floor, not the sixth. Our building has six floors and four stairways. Two apartments per floor per stairway makes... let’s see...48 units in our building, times, say, an average four residents per apartment = approx. 200 people in close proximity. Add the 250 or so people in the building directly across from us, and more from the buildings outside the university campus behind us, all of the employees of the restaurants and businesses just outside the gate of the campus (also directly behind us), and all of the 14,000 students and faculty and staff going in and out of that campus gate, and it’s a major miracle that our apartment feels relatively quiet.

Part of that quiet is due to the relative lack of cars. The “small gate” next to us is only for pedestrians, bicycles and mopeds to go through. Judging from the number of cars parked in the “driveway” between our two buildings, I’m guessing that maybe 10-20% of the University faculty and staff that live in our complex even own cars, and they have to creep slowly past crowds of students through narrow streets to get anywhere.

Still, because it’s still fairly warm out and everyone keeps their windows open, we have no shortage of background noise for our life in China. It starts out at around five-ish, with the swishy sound of workers sweeping the streets with long handled brooms that are basically bunches of branches tied together. This is shortly followed by the dull clanking of the restaurant workers filling their pots full of water and putting them on the stove - most of the restaurant kitchens are on the back porch. There’s then a slow crescendo of babies crying (yes, Ysa often adds to the mix), the chopping sound of knives on cutting boards, the clatter of spatulas and hissing of woks, and more distant beeps and honks from the major street a block or so past the gate. Later on, there are the grannies hollering to each other and their grandkids as they head off to market, a second flurry of cooking noises around lunchtime, and then sounds of kids practicing piano and televisions going as people get home from work in the late afternoon. In the evening and into the night, more student traffic, the occasional burst of fireworks for reasons unknown, and maybe a loud domestic argument or two to spice things up. Oh, and a percussion symphony of water on sheet metal awnings when it rains, and extremely loud cicadas and crickets when it doesn’t.

Did I mention that all this noise still seems quite peaceful to me? Maybe it’s because we’re up on the fifth floor above it all, but now that I think of it, it’s probably because none of these noises seems particularly threatening to me. Having lived through my share of subwoofers, car alarms, and even 140 decibel Mexican bakeries (long story) during my time in Chicago, I think I’m realizing that what set me on edge about noise in the city wasn’t the noise part, but the perceived danger. Noise in Chicago triggered my reptile brain, because it was noise that I had to evaluate, however subconsciously, to see if I was safe or not. Writing this, I’m coming up with the theory that here in China is the first time that Somebody Else’s Noise is making me feel safer. Ask me again about this topic in a couple of months - here’s hoping it sticks...
(Posted by Dave)

Ah, there’s nothing like spending four hours at the Chinese equivalent of the INS to make you appreciate a very cold mediocre Chinese beer! The beer in question is “Snow”, which, due to a quirk of Chinese label design, I usually read as MONS. It’s a step or two down from Heineken, but about three steps better than Milwaukee’s Best. A cold half-liter bottle from the corner store sets me back 3 RMB (45 cents or so), so I can’t complain too much.

As for my time at the Sichuan Provincial Immigration Authority (spent waiting for them to examine our Foreign Expert Certificates and take quick webcam photos of us and the kids), let me just say that I’m very thankful for Luo Bou, the assistant at the university’s foreign affairs department. You know the kind of person that can wade through a sea of red tape without batting an eyelash? The kind of person who tackles 5 page forms in triplicate like Indiana Jones talking out evil Moroccan assassins? That would not be me. That’s Luo Bou. All we had to do was keep our kids entertained and looking cute for the officials who were entering our information, and Luo Bou did the rest.

Now, as for our three-hour physical exam that we needed to get last Friday before we could receive our aforementioned Foreign Expert Certificates, that’s another story. A story rather long on culture shock and rather short on soap, salvaged ever so gracefully by a wonderful western brunch at Pete’s Tex Mex Cuisine. It will be funny sometime. I think. We’ll make sure and tell it to you then...

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Okay, we're still trying with this photo thing. Here's a cool sign that I ran into while exploring the far reaches of campus with Zekey one day. If you can't see the photo, try clicking on the link - the sign explains much about what we're doing here in China... ; )

Oh, and maybe this link will work if the photo above isn't showing up. One of these days, we'll figure out how to do blog posts here without any workarounds so that we can go back and add photos to this blog that work all the time, I promise...

Roman Riding (posted by Dave)

At least I think that’s what it’s called. If I’m right, it’s when you are riding two horses at once, with one foot on each. That’s what having the internet here feels like sometimes. I can hang out in our apartment and surf the web like I usually do. I can check my bank statement, see a bit of what my friends are up to, and can even get mind-numbingly frustrated with our mortgage company, just like home! In the meantime, the kids have a friend over and they’re watching Scooby-Doo on our DVD player (part of our bootleg movie score from last week).

Then I go out the door of our apartment, down five flights of stairs, take a right down the driveway and another right through the side gate of the campus, and bang! - I’m in China, complete with old guys pushing rusty three-wheeled bikes full of old cardboard, restaurants with piles and piles of steamed buns for sale, and ladies in shiny polyester print miniskirts walking tiny tiny dogs.

Oh, and did I mention that I then make a transformation to a barely functioning illiterate? Just the other day, I managed to piece together the sign for “dollar store”, but usually, my big accomplishment is telling a passerby that, yes, I have three kids and they are ages 6, 4, and 2. This exhausts my functional Chinese vocabulary, and then I have to smile and nod and grunt a lot. Good thing my kids are cute.

Of course, fans of slapstick comedy will know that if you have one foot in one place and one foot in another, (think one foot on the boat and one on the pier) there’s always the possibility that things won’t always go as smoothly as planned. Hence the periodic gaps in the blog posting schedule, email replies, etc. It’s not that we aren’t thinking of our friends and family, it’s just that we’re, um... in China for a while. Don't worry - we'll come back to the internet and visit and let you know what we've been up to...