Friday, December 30, 2011

I've missed you more than me own luggage.

Two weeks since a post. Roughly that length of time without consistently solid sleep. Welcome to a country in which the end of one fairly new(ish) imported holiday (Christmas) is only the overture for a more widely celebrated holiday known as Spring Festival. In a few weeks, the entire country will begin stampeding in all directions as each and every good citizen makes the way home in time for the most important holiday of the year. Travel during the month of January is a nightmare, especially if a train ride is involved. That is one of the reasons why I head to Thailand as early as possible. I enjoy exploring China, but not in competition with 1.34 billion people.

So what's been keeping me so occupied for the last two weeks have been:

1) Cookies. All kinds of cookies. Chocolate. Peanut butter. Peppermint. Lemon. Sugar. Pinwheel. Some drizzled with chocolate. Some rolled in mint crumbs. Some decorated with royal icing and amateur piping. I lost count of how many I made. Fortunately, cookies and all things involving baking are wildly exotic here in China, so if I mention that I need helpers, I get immediate responses. Sounds exciting until you take into account, though, that Chinese people - for the most part - are completely unschooled in the art of baking. It's no exaggeration that some of them have never even handled butter. So...eager help doesn't always mean faster turnout. Nor does it ensure that their cookies will look anything like the photos online. In fact, assume that their batches could double as ink blot tests; no one sees the same thing twice.

2) The boss kept her promise. She came over to learn how to bake. We made fudge brownies from a box mix that she brought with her, and I also taught her a classic sugar cookie recipe. It was a big moment that's taken four years to materialize. I have never seen a Chinese woman - or man, for that matter - find such delight in operating a hand-held mixer. She squealed. SQUEALED. And she's already ordered one for herself.

3) Christmas day was a steamroller. It began with service at our fellowship, every pew being filled by people. I will give credit to the Chinese; their body size and lack of personal space qualifies about 50% more attendance than foreigners trying to maximize the same amount of seating. Our service is flanked by two other services, both in Chinese. The first went into OT, thus pushing ours back, which meant the final service was delayed. They weren't happy. Standing outside in negative temperatures didn't do anything to alleviate the situation. There were other things I noticed that day -- workers dressed in Santa suits during the first service -- that were unsettling to someone who has been brought up with very clear boundaries between secular and sacred. I would be eager for someone to explain that perplexity to me and more than eager to share my thoughts with them, in return.

4) Christmas evening was spent singing Christmas carols with students in the dining hall. More or less a yuletide choral flash mob. Our grand finale was sung by candlelight, intruded upon only by camera flashes.

5) Final exams have almost finished. I have no guarantee that I will see the same students next semester, which saddens both me and them. Those freshmen sure are lovable.

6) Tickets for Thailand have been purchased, sort of. I know when I'm going, and I know roughly when I'm coming back. I've booked the outgoing flight but am still hammering out details about the incoming itinerary. Some friends and I are thinking of paying a visit to The Soldier while he's home. If so, we will be the only foreigners - moreover, foreigners with fair skin and hair - in his entire village, population 40,000. I really really hope we get asked to be in a parade.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

the power of cookies, part three

The title of this post refers to its parent and sister posts made last year around this time. (Click here for original and then click here for the follow-up. The backstory will help to explain why cookies have received so much attention on this blog. Essentially, homemade cookies are something of myth and lore in China -- akin to finding a magical unicorn.)

This is merely an extension of a project that we tested last Christmas. It comes at the worst time of year. We're nearing the end of the semester. Final exams have either commenced or are in progress. Students vying for graduate positions at US institutions are inundating us with requests for proofreading their personal statements or supplying letters of recommendation. The holiday banquet - practically an institution, itself, within China - is at the end of the month. It's not just a palooza of food; it's also a buffet of performances by multiple departments. No expense is spared with even some groups going so far as to hire professional choreographers. (Keep in mind that China is not known for its intrinsic rhythm.) As our contribution to the festivities, my teammates and I are planning to sing a song in Chinese, which means at least a few practice sessions so that people don't confuse our lyrics for high mass in Latin.

There are many things pulling at our hours, but not much can be sacrificed. The month of December is - even in its most naked form - bustling. So why is it that cookies get such priority? Because they make people happy. Moreover, they make important people (like my Chinese boss and my national colleagues) happy. And building relationships with them is important to me. So, if some holiday cheer comes by way of sugar, chocolate, peppermint and peanut butter, I'll gladly be a little wearied by the end of the week. Today's special delivery to my department - and the smiles and oohs and ahhs it elicited - reminded my tired eyes and parched knuckles that spending Christmas efforts for the right thing will ultimately be rewarded.

Check out my goodwill ambassadors for this year:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...

But radiators are so delightful.

And temps are getting low low low

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

The Christmas tree went up this afternoon, with help from three young men who were rewarded with homemade peanut butter cookies and a meal outside of campus.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

a student's reality

What if this was your neighborhood...your yard...your house...your living room...your bedroom...your life?