Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘baking’

Christmas Eve Cookies

In Uncategorized on December 23, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Yesterday, I was fixing up my collection of Chinese music on iTunes.  (Incidentally, the Android app SoundHound was astonishingly helpful in this, identifying most of my foreign-language songs on the first try!)  Anyway, I came across a song titled “我叫小沈阳".  This reminded me of my friend, 小沈, a guy from the Xiamen church choir (on the left).

Maria - 2690

He got on QQ later that night, so I started chatting with him.  It had been a year since I’d last talked to him, probably, so I wasn’t sure if he would remember me.  But he did, and asked if I was in China or the US.  When I said I was at home on winter vacation, he reminded me that Xiamen is also home and said that I need to go back to visit soon.  I asked him about my church friends, priest, and bishop over there, and he said that Fr. Jiang had been in the hospital a lot recently, but that he would be at midnight Mass the next day on Gulangyu.  Then, he added, “But this year we won’t have any of those delicious cookies that you baked.” 

Ah yes, the 300 cookies that I baked four at a time in my roommate’s tiny microwave oven. 


I brought several batches to Midnight Mass that year to give to all my friends.  Of course, I ended up giving them to a LOT of people that I didn’t know, too, which resulted in even more people around church knowing me (as if being the only foreigner wasn’t enough).  When I left, there were people crying and shaking my hands and wishing me well who I would have sworn I’d never seen before in my life. 

So yeah, I knew that the cookies were kind of a big deal, but I had no idea that they would be a prominent Christmas memory for a guy with whom I had had numerous interactions.  Of all the shared memories we had, he brought that one up.

As we continued to reminisce, he brought up another friend, 传鹭, who I had not talked to since I left China (below, dressed as Santa).


I got his QQ number, though, and was able to catch up with him.  Since it had been nearly a year and a half since I last saw him, I asked right away if he remembered me.  His response?   “Of course I remember you, you’re the one who baked the delicious cookies the Christmas before last.”

Clearly I underestimated the importance of a chocolate chip cookie, a mistake I will not make again.  Baking for people who don’t own ovens is a powerful thing . . .

Okay, That Was An Exciting Game

In Uncategorized on June 19, 2010 at 4:14 am

We had a test at 8 this morning.  I didn’t get home until after 3, and didn’t sleep til 4, and while it seems that I should feel like this was a bad idea, I don’t.  The test was fake – although really, when I think about it, what parts of our classes here aren’t?

But after the test our teacher taught us some soccer terminology which, in terms of conversations with actual Chinese people, is seriously the most useful lesson we’ve ever learned in that class.  Coach, referee, goalkeeper, [a bunch of position names I don’t know in English], favorite, upset.  I also learned that yellow cards accumulate between games, but that was in English.

Carmen and Dorothy, two women from English Mass, invited me to Marco Polo (Xiamen’s nicest hotel) for lunch at noon.  After a mild panic attack over having nothing to wear to a place like that, I met up with them for a very nice lunch.  We had dimsum (Cantonese) and a waitstaff who smiled, responded quickly, and changed our plates between dishes.  Crazy! 


The main event of the day, though, was the US-Slovenia game.  Kristina and I had been trash-talking for a week already – as well as we can when neither of us is very knowledgeable or usually very passionate about soccer.  We went to dinner first, enjoying the time while we were still friends.  [For dessert, we had no-bake brownies that I had made in an effort to 1) use up my can of sweetened condensed milk and 2) attract (bribe?) fans to the American side.]

Maybe it was just my nation’s pride at stake, but I thought this game was exciting from the very start.  Unfortunately, it was mostly the bad kind of exciting throughout the first half – Slovenia scoring twice, our goalkeeper miles away both times.  Most people were cheering for Slovenia, the underdog, but a lot of the time it was just me and Kristina yelling at our players.  She’s about 3 games behind me in soccer knowledge, which is pretty funny – I got to watch her learn what offsides is! 

During halftime, I remembered why I don’t watch sports (well, one of the reasons).  I can only care about a game if I really care about one of the teams, and I can only care about a team if I have a deep personal connection.  I’m too much of an Army brat without roots to get excited about one part of America competing with another, but I can get behind my university or my country.  So, especially with Kristina (Slovenian) sitting right next to me, I had my heart in the game and my pride on the line.  But I don’t like it when my emotions are dependent on the actions of others . . . I don’t know how you Chiefs and Lions fans handle it!

I sought the solace of Carlos, my Spanish friend who recently experienced the agony of a loss, and he reminded me that we still had a chance.  Sure enough, we scored right after play resumed and, later, we scored again!  It was glorious. 

We scored again in the last five minutes, which should have won us the game.  But when I say “we scored”, I mean “the ball went into the Slovenian net” and nothing else.  The ref called it offsides and that was that.  I’m far too ignorant – and know it – to make my own judgments on officials’ calls, but from what all of my expert friends said it should have counted.  But the game was quite dirty – at times even resembling American football – and apparently the same official missed what should have been a red card earlier, so it seems more like bad calls than biased ones. 

Oh well.  At least this way Kristina and I are still friends.


After the game, we went to check out a beach party and then to Paradise for another going-away party.  Sietze leaves tomorrow! 

Again, I only caught the first half of the 2:30 game (England vs. Algeria) but saw later that it ended in a 0-0 tie.  I really love the NYT sports writer:

If Robert Green has been the most ridiculed man in England, he may soon have company — the rest of the nation’s soccer team.

We still have a chance!  Oh goodness, I can’t handle this stress . . .

Today’s Menu: Cookies, Mushu Pork, and Rape

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Monday – back to the daily grind.  And by “daily grind”, I mean one class in the morning followed by whatever I want to do for the rest of the day.  Basically, a weekend with a reason to get up.

After class, Aleid and I went to the tailor.  I picked up my white dress and shorts, and ordered my qipao top – $14, super excited!  Then we met up with Eunice and Katrine for lunch at 小肥羊 (Little Fat Sheep) for lunch.  It’s an a la cart hotpot place with quite good meat and some other interesting menu items:


The “selected sheep tail” and “duck blood” (not typos) looked interesting, and we all wondered what “kiss chitlins” are, but the thing that really caught our attention was “rape” – only 5 kuai!  We passed though, and still enjoyed our meal.  It was nice to get off campus and away from West Gate on a weekday for lunch, something we almost never do.

From lunch, I went to my friend Carmen’s house for baking.  It’s a little weird to have to schedule baking and travel halfway across the island to get to an oven, but this is my life in China.  I made one batch of chocolate chip cookies and one of chocolate chip banana bread, mostly destined as birthday presents.  It was good to bake again, and the fact that Carmen has an actual kitchen with actual baking supplies and materials made it so easy.  Can’t wait to get home to my kitchen . . .

It was nice to see their place, to visit a home even if it wasn’t mine.  They have an amazing view, too:


I also enjoyed talking to Carmen, who is one of the nicest people I know.  During the few hours that I was using her kitchen, she took two phone calls from people who needed help and made a soup for the woman next door.  She’s such a good model of a kindness, generosity, and all-around selflessness.

This evening, I went to dinner with Aleid.  We went to one of our usual restaurants, but ordered something new and totally struck gold.  We tried the 木须肉 (mushu pork) because it sounded familiar to me, but I’m pretty sure this was 10,000 times better than any Chinese food I’ve ever eaten in America.  It has pork, egg, carrot, cucumber, mushrooms, ginger, and amazingness.  New favorite!


PS – I added more pictures to yesterday’s post: group photos on the mountain and pictures of my new glasses!

58.3333333% Of A Year

In Uncategorized on March 26, 2010 at 11:14 pm

This morning was so awesome.  Kristina came over with a stack of surveys, a spreadsheet full of data, and no idea what to do with it.  Bliss!  I calculated like a fiend, transposed rows and columns like a mad man, and created graphs like there was no tomorrow.  I even pulled out the special numerical keypad that I bought on the cheap here for intensive data-entry sessions when I return to my life as an engineering student.  It works like a charm, by the way. 

Her thesis is on body image in Chinese and Western females and the results of her survey (questions answered by 50 women from each group) are very interesting.  There’s a ton of data to look at – height, weight, BMI, body dissatisfaction, eating habits, sources of pressure, etc.  Double bar graphs, stacked bar graphs, scatter plots, and pie charts – long time no see!  I’ve missed you. 

I really enjoyed working with Kristina on this.  I knew it was a big help to her, but I also enjoyed seeing the results of her work – especially unfolding before us in real time!  I’m also a ridiculous graph snob, so I know I’ll sleep a little bit better tonight knowing I saved the world from one more poorly-labeled, confusing graph (or worse!  The main precedent Kristina’s been following used tables almost exclusively; it made me feel unwell just looking at her report).  I think I like math and science, how they’re built on such simple foundations but can be combined and derived into such complex and amazing things, but I think I’m just as passionate about communicating.  The best inventions, the most innovative conclusions, and the most promising proposals are nothing if no one understands them, and sometimes I see my calling in that.  Organizing data into an accessible form is just one manifestation, albeit one that brings me great pleasure.

The afternoon was also awesome.  After asking around last week, I found out that Dorothy, a Filipina woman from church, has an oven and allowed me to come over and bake.  I made two batches of my family’s special Sour Cream Chocolate Cake (substituting yogurt for sour cream, which is nonexistent in China) for the planned double-birthday celebrations tomorrow.  I haven’t seen a 13×9 pan in 7 months, so I ended up making 4 medium round cakes and three tiny cakes.  I hope it’s enough!

Today, as my calendar reminds me, is the 26th of March – my 7-month anniversary.  It hasn’t seemed that long since the big 6-month mark, but looking back through my journal (which is, after all, why I keep it), a lot has happened:  We started classes again – 二年下 for me, plus two challenging optional courses.  I spent two weeks visiting Lester in the hospital, and along the way became much closer to him and to a few of our mutual Chinese friends.  I learned and have nearly memorized the main texts of Night Prayer, which I now pray in a comfortable combination of English, Chinese, Spanish, and Latin.  I lucked out in stumbling upon a few things I’d hesitated to even look for here in China: Catan, confession, and pants that fit me.  I finally crossed a few things off my bucket list when we found a cheap cobbler, ordered custom-made clothes from a tailor, and visited the Xiamen Botanical Garden.  I started making travel plans for the remainder of my time here, and even looked at plane tickets home.  What with Fall 2010 registration just around the corner, it sure does seem close . . .

胖星期二 (Literally, “Fat Tuesday”)

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2010 at 12:41 am

Yesterday was among the best holidays I’ve celebrated in China – Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnaval, call it what you will.  I woke up late and spent the morning grocery shopping.  I had to pick up wine and fruit for sangria and flour, sugar, chocolate, and eggs for the cookies.  Then I forgot the butter and had to walk all the way across campus again . . .

I got started baking in the afternoon, making one batch of chocolate-chip cookies and one batch of M&M cookies.  It was going pretty well until one tray of cookies burned.  Just to be clear, by ‘burned’, I do not mean that I overcooked them – I mean that they started on fire.  They were black lumps of charcoal by the time I noticed it, and when I opened the oven the rush of oxygen caused them to ignite.  Luckily, my friend Deni arrived just then and helped me move the oven to the balcony, extract the bonfire, and throw it in the sink – crisis under control.

I was nervous to start the second batch until I figured out what happened.  My oven, in addition to being small, is probably less technologically advanced than the average Easy Bake Oven.  It resembles nothing so much as a toaster, in that its only control is a little wind-up timer.  When the set time (chosen by turning the knob to the 5, 10, or 15 minute marks or to some carefully-calibrated [not] position in between) is up, the oven ‘dings’ and turns off.  But sometimes the cookies aren’t done, so I turn it back on to approximately 45 seconds and try again.  Well, the oven is starting to break down, I think.  Based on careful observation I can see that when I reset it for a short amount of time, it ticks for the proper duration, and then falls silent – without ‘dinging’ or turning off.  This is a problem.

I paid more attention, let the oven cool off between trays, and managed to bake the second batch without incident.  Then I hopped in the shower and hurried to meet my friends at West Gate.  We had invited everyone we knew who was back in town, and it ended up being all women.  From left to right: Nathalie (Germany); Andrea (Romania); Kristina, Maja, and Anja (Slovenia); Paloma (Columbia); Eva (Germany); me; and Deni (Mexico).


We went to a new Thai restaurant for dinner, which was a delicious choice.  Two curries, Thai barbecued chicken, sweet-and-sour fish, garlic shrimp, egg rolls, 茄子 (eggplant), fried noodles, and Thai rice – for $7 each. 

IMG_2292    IMG_2293

We ate ‘til we were full, ate some more, finished the curry sauce and rice, had a few more bites, and then started on the cookies.  While we snacked, we took a bus to Bailuzhou Park to take in the Lantern Festival. 


It was kind of like looking at Christmas lights, only there were inordinate amounts of tigers and red-colored things.


The festival is supposed to run all the way through March, which is good because I’d like to go back someday when it’s not cold and rainy.  As it was, a quick walk-through was enough, and we went back to the dorm.  We hung out in Paloma and Deni’s room, where we drank a whole pot of sangria and polished off the rest of the cookies.  We talked while we ate, about anything and everything.  I learned a lot about the other countries represented, especially Slovenia.  I don’t know that I’d ever heard of it before coming to China – an Eastern European country near Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia.  It has 2 million people and its own language.  Slovenian sounds like a crazy language because, among other things, it has different ways to say each noun depending on if there are 1, 2, or more of the objects – and that’s without discussing gender.  Despite the challenges, I am slowly picking up the language.  I can say ‘tissue’ (paloma), ‘two boys’ (fanta), ‘smart boss’ (bisterbosch), ‘orange’ (pomerancha) and ‘beer’ (pivo). 

Anyway, last night we were lucky enough to have THREE Slovenians with us (0.002% of the ethnic Slovenian population), which we judged worthy of a picture.


The group included one Orthodox girl who goes to Mass with me, a few former Catholics, and others who had no affiliation, so knowledge of the celebration varied.  Most of them were familiar with the idea of Carnaval or Mardi Gras in some language, but I think only one of them knew that it was associated (at least at some point in time) with the Catholic season of Lent.  I think this is pretty common in the US as well; it’s kind of excusable because the first thing I think of when I hear about New Orleans’ crazy partying is not the Catholic Church.  At any rate, I told them a little bit about the tradition, focusing on the season of Lent ahead of us – with its fasting and penitence – which is what gave rise to the tradition of Fat Tuesday, one last day to stuff yourself.

We finished about 4 minutes to midnight, feeling full and ready for Ash Wednesday and the following 40 days.

Chocolate Chip Cookies – in Metric

In Uncategorized on January 11, 2010 at 12:53 am

Yesterday in my funk I made plans to get out of my funk.  I called the friend who said she wanted to learn how to bake and we made plans to get together today.  She picked me up at noon and treated me to steak! 

The restaurant, Houcaller, is really not bad (for China, obviously).  I ordered my steak done to 6 points (I’m assuming out of 10?) and it was a pretty good rendition of medium rare.  It came with some mediocre spaghetti, a mostly-raw egg, and a buffet of tropical fruit afterwards.  Just like America! 

After stopping by a supermarket to pick up some ingredients, we went to her house.  This woman is rich.  Ridiculously rich, in fact.  She drives a BMW and lives in a 3-story, single-family house.  Said house has a karaoke room and a wall-mirrored dance studio in the basement, and TWO kitchens upstairs – one for Chinese food and one for Western cooking, complete with oven. 

It was fun baking with them.  They enjoyed all of my favorites parts of baking – sneaking a taste (or five) of the dough, smelling the delightful scent of baked goods, eating the cookies fresh from the oven, licking the spoon afterwards.  They even had COLD MILK to go with my cookies.  Score! 


After a batch, we went to Metro to check out supplies for the next time.  So here’s the low down on what you can and can’t buy in China – and where:

  • Average store: flour, coarse granulated sugar, dark brown sugar, chocolate, butter, eggs, sweetened condensed milk, peanut butter, baking soda, yeast, salt
  • At Metro: powdered sugar, light brown sugar, fine granulated sugar
  • Nowhere: vanilla, chocolate chips, baking chocolate, sour cream, cream of tartar, . 

Plan well . . .

Back at the house, I watched TV while my friends made dinner.  I ended up on Channel 3 watching a Taiwanese show called I Do?  I actually really liked it.  It’s probably not anything super special, just a love story, but it met all the qualifications I was looking for in a Chinese show – namely, they speak clearly and relatively slowly and I understand most of it.  Corny lines like “When I’m with you, it’s like time stops” or “You’re about to get married, don’t you know that?” or “Every sunset for five years, I thought of you” sound more fresh in a new language. 

Dinner was great.  I’m hoping to go back sometime – we have a lot more to bake.


PS – here’s the chocolate-chip cookie recipe from the back of the chocolate-chip bag – in metric:

300 g flour
5 ml baking soda
5 ml salt
225 g butter (softened)
150 g granulated sugar
165 g packed brown sugar
5 ml vanilla extract
2 eggs
300g chocolate chips
120g chopped nuts (optional)

Bake at 190C

As Lately We Watched

In Uncategorized on December 26, 2009 at 2:52 am

Merry Christmas!  I hope your day started off better than mine, with 10 a.m. Listening Class.  I actually wasn’t sure which was more sad – the fact that I had class on Christmas morning, or the fact that I had nothing better to do than go to class on Christmas morning.  All the other students were whiny about being there, so it was even less enjoyable than it theoretically could have been.

Afterwards Aleid, Jimmy, and I enjoyed a traditional Christmas feast of fried 饺子 (dumplings).  The place is under new [incompetent] management but we still love it.  It’s on the perfect street and since all the seats are outside you have no choice but to enjoy the view.  It’s close enough to campus that you see people you know (today, a dancing friend and former classmate) but far enough that there’s always something to surprise you.  Today, the surprise was the two men riding by with enormous cakes on their bikes (sorry, no picture).  We followed them after lunch to buy the Chinese version of fruitcake – dense, chewy, peanut-y and fruity something. 

My afternoon was consumed by cleaning up my room, devastated by the aftermath of baking 300 cookies.  I had turned my entire room into a kitchen, which had left me with flour all over my bed, chocolate smeared all over the floor, and dirty dishes in the bathroom.  Ugh . . .

I took a break in the middle of this to go see my friend Carlos, who was being paid to be Santa Claus on ZhongShan Lu.  It was a pretty funny sight – Carlos in this huge Santa Suit; white beard hanging low enough to show his dark Spanish facial hair; and on his feet, the same blue shoes that he wears every single day.

After finishing up my chores, I went out for a nice Christmas Dinner. 


The International Friend Association had a big party at a new Italian restaurant nearby – 45 kuai for an all-you-can-eat buffet.  The food was not bad (although after four months my standards for Italian food have dropped, probably to dangerous levels), but I purposefully left as karaoke was getting started. 

Christmas day actually ended on a high note, as Carlos came up to have some more cookies.  We just sat and talked for about an hour, and it was good to catch up.  It feels like I’ve just been baking these past few days, but that brought about a lot of opportunities to connect with friends so it was certainly not wasted time. 

So now, with Christmas behind me (well, to my west at least), I want to reflect on my first celebration of the holiday in China.  I guess I thought it might be easier to remember the “true meaning of Christmas” in China where none of the “other stuff” would serve as distractions.  But I ended up realizing that a lot of the other stuff is important to me, too, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to recreate that.  It was things that, in America, take place without any special effort on my part – listening to Christmas music, watching Christmas movies, eating fancy meals and fresh baked goods, sending Christmas greetings.  It ended up being even more distracting than usual from my attempts to observe the season of Advent, preparing for the birth of Christ.  Going to Mass here is kind of an ordeal (for lack of a better word) on any given Sunday, and Christmas was just more so.  When I spend so much of my effort just trying to figure out which Bible story to match up with the readings, there’s not a whole lot of time left over for spiritual preparation.  (This is why I chose the song “As Lately We Watched” for today’s title: I feel like I’ve been watching my sheep [or cookies] while Jesus was born . . . but if the shepherds didn’t catch on until afterwards I can only hope there’s still time for me.)

And with that, I wish you all a very blessed Christmas, filled with the presence of friends and family near and the love of friends and family far. 

O Holy Night?

In Uncategorized on December 25, 2009 at 1:33 am

Well, this was certainly the strangest Christmas Eve I’ve ever celebrated.  But in an earlier conversation with Aleid, we decided that if every holiday here isn’t the weirdest you’ve had, then you’re doing something wrong.  In that case, I must be doing everything JUST RIGHT.

I began the day by getting up early to bake.  I wanted to bring cookies to class fresh-from-the-oven, so I had pre-made some batter the day before.  I baked frantically while getting dressed and made it to class a few minutes late.  The teacher forgave me, though, when he tasted the cookies; they were generally a pretty big hit.  Showing up to class already dressed for Christmas Mass and bearing a platter of fresh cookies made me feel like such a trophy wife . . . I think my baking skills are earning me major points with the men; I even had one guy “approve me as a wife”.  Sweet?

After class, I had a wonderful lunch – some of my favorite dishes (红烧茄子,地三鲜,西红柿炒蛋,辣子鸡丁,干锅白菜,米饭) with some of my favorite friends (Aleid, Kristina, Carlos, Katrine, Bianca, Talia, Vikki). 

In the afternoon, I took another student – my Chinese friend, Vikki – under my wing to teach her the art of baking cookies.  We made one batch of batter together and she stayed to proudly take the first few trays out of the oven:


I continued on my own, baking all those as well as another batch.  Some friends passed through and one of my Chinese friends, Yong Zhi, even stayed for the rest of the day.  We had interesting conversations while I baked – I showed him my photo album and we somehow ended up discussing the 2nd Amendment and why it’s in our Constitution.  

All in all, I baked over 300 cookies – 6 batches.  That was probably a bit much, but I will definitely bake again.  I really like feeding others, and making a single batch isn’t really that hard.  It’s also quite cheap – 35 kuai, or just over $5, per batch using all Chinese ingredients.  But obviously, you can’t put a price on joy, which is how I felt when I watched people eat my cookies.  For most people, it was either their first cookie ever or their first cookie in a long time – different kinds of happiness, but happiness all the same.

But it turns out that baking 100+ cookies 5 at a time takes a little while, and I didn’t start until after 2:00.  Before I knew it, it was past 5 and I was still baking.  I called someone at church and they told me that things started at 7, so I finished baking then quickly made my way over to the church on Gulangyu.  Arriving at a quarter to 7, I discovered that dinner was already over and the pre-Mass performance had already started.  I still haven’t figured out exactly what started at 7 . . .

Christmas Mass here had only the vaguest resemblance to home.  There were a thousand million gazillion people and Mass was held outside in front of the shrine instead of in the church.  Some of my church friends thankfully found us a spot behind the choir where we, like the rest of the congregation, half-squatted on small plastic stools.  There were more people than usual, but I didn’t mind the crowd that much actually – it’s hard to be upset when there are ‘too many’ people at Mass.  The thing that bothered me, though, was that a Chinese Catholic Christmas celebration proved to be a tremendous draw for every photographer in the province.  There was the man who, for some reason, likes to record Chinese Mass from start to finish, getting up close and personal with lectors, celebrating priests, and participating foreigners.  There were the guys with full hitchhiking backpacks wandering around the alter snapping photos, occasionally taking phone calls on their cells if the need arose. 

It was all a bit too much for me and I found it really frustrating.  The good thing is, the part of Mass that resembled home was the important part – the actual substance, the Eucharist.  I took a few deep breaths, reminded myself that nothing else mattered, and made it through without crying or yelling (despite thinking, at various points, that self-control was not possible). 

After Mass, I wandered around trying to find people I recognized in the crowd so that I could give them cookies.  I also got a picture taken with a friend who was playing Santa Claus.


As we waited for my Santa Claus friend to get done, we walked around the shopping area of Gulangyu a little bit, which was crazy crowded.  I also caught some of English Mass, and what I saw made me wish I had chosen to go to that one.  There were less people for one, but even more important was the belief, widely-held among foreigners, that it’s not acceptable to talk or answer phones during the service.  Crazy talk!

By the way, here’s me and my friend Yong Zhi after Mass. 


Word has it he’s a member of the Party.  I find it a little hard to believe but, at the same time, it shouldn’t surprise me because it just sounds like one of those situations I find myself in – taking a Communist to Mass. 

We caught the last ferry back to the mainland – midnight.  Chuan Lu (Santa Claus) took us to meet some of his friends, who were waiting for us at ZhongShan Lu.  Specifically, they were waiting for us at McDonald’s . . . so yes, slightly after Christmas Eve turned into Christmas Day, I found myself entering McDonald’s.  (And, since Chuan Lu was paying, I ordered an ice cream cone.) 

From about 3 in the afternoon until the day was over at 3 in the morning, I pretty much spoke only Chinese with my friends.  There were three particularly memorable exchanges – little gifts of encouragement in my Chinese studies:

  1. During Mass, one of my friends showed me which page we were singing from.  I, in turn, told Yong Zhi “一百零二”(one hundred [zero] and two).  You have to say ‘zero’ in there because if you say 一百二 (literally, one hundred two), it means 120.  Anyway, he noticed that I said it correctly and later told me that I sounded like an actual Chinese because this is something foreigners so often mix up.
  2. As we were getting off the ferry, the ramp up to land was particularly steep.  While in Wuyishan, Aleid and I spent about 20 minutes describing the concept of “steep” to our Taiwanese friend, trying to learn the word before he told us 陡.  So, just to test out my new word, I commented that the ramp was very 陡 and my Chinese friends, without a second thought, agreed with me and remarked that it was because the tide was low.  I literally leaped with joy.  That was a hard-won word but is now MINE.
  3. After Chuan Lu introduced us to his friends as “my American friend, Maria, and her Chinese friend”, one of them asked him (in Chinese) if he was my translator.  Without even thinking, I responded myself: “I don’t need a translator!”  All of his friends were shocked that I could speak Chinese – not just 你好 and 谢谢, but a slightly harder word like 翻译 (translator).  The look on their faces (surprised and a little bit embarrassed) was priceless. 

After talking with them for a few minutes, Yong Zhi and I decided to head home.  After waiting for a taxi unsuccessfully, we figured it wasn’t too far to walk (although it was then almost 2 in the morning).  It was a nice walk, though.  There were very few people out, which is something you almost never see in China.  We had an interesting conversation, too, asking about parts of each other’s culture that we don’t understand.  I asked about keeping windows open when it’s cold outside and talking through concerts; he asked about drinking out of the same bottle or cup. 

When we passed a barbecue stand on the side of the road and Yong Zhi offered to treat me, I figured that this was exactly what my Christmas Eve was missing.  I said yes and we sat down on tiny plastic stools to eat skewered lamb meat – just like we do at home every hear.  The air was filled with the familiar sounds of Christmas, like the young people next to us loudly playing drinking games.  And of course, I was sharing it with just the people I would have wanted to be with on Christmas Eve – my friend Yong Zhi and the half-drunk Chinese man next to us.  Actually, the last part was kind of nice because the man quickly became a friend.  After quite the argument between the two of them, he ended up paying for our food.  (And when I asked his name so I could thank him, it turned out that his last name is actually the word for ‘thank you’ . . . “Thank you, Mr. Thank You!”)

I got back to my room around 3.  I talked to my parents for a few minutes and also got to hear from some relatives who are snowed in in Oklahoma (which actually is a December tradition for me), then went to bed.  Pretty standard, actually, except for instead of looking forward to opening presents with the family I was dreading the arrival of Christmas class . . .

Joy to the World!

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2009 at 12:21 am

I skipped class for the first time since coming to China today.  Well, that’s not entirely true, but this was the first time I skipped to sleep.  The other times were all for travel, which is practically the same as attending class anyway (in terms of progress in my Chinese skills).  It was Oral class and it was at 8 a.m. and it just wasn’t happening.  I approved of 10 o’clock Grammar class, though, and went to that.

Afterwards, Aleid and I shared an odd but good lunch.  She took me to the 东北 (northeastern) restaurant by West Gate where she had had caramelized sweet potatoes.  We ordered those, a plate of dumplings, and fried egg-and-tomato with rice.  None of the dishes really go together but they’re delicious individually and were still quite good together.

Then I had a dessert of paste.  I went to the post office to mail my 29 postcards, and ended up licking 29×3 stamps.  To those of you who are about to receive postcards with as much area taken up by stamps as by writing, I would like to say: “Blame China Post.”

I keep adding to my list of who I want to give cookies for, so this afternoon I had to go buy more ingredients.  I don’t want to use my precious American chocolate chips quite yet, so I went looking for cheap Chinese chocolate.  While I wouldn’t voluntarily eat it, it’s fine for baking and much cheaper than Dove.  When I was in Jilin, we had all sorts of waxy disgusting chocolate bars for 1 kuai each – Chum, for example, or Yong Fen (pictured below) which, despite looking remarkably similar to Rittersport, has only its brown color in common.

Michelle - 1010

Anyway, I realized as I looked in vain that I hadn’t seen any of these brands in Xiamen.  Figures, just around the time I want crappy Chinese chocolate, I can’t find any.  I finally found some suitably cheap stuff at the 3rd supermarket, but it was hard enough to be painfully ironic.

This afternoon I was joined by another Thai friend, Doi, who wanted to learn to bake cookies.  As the first ones came out of the oven, my Japanese friend Keiko came over to help too.


We made another batch of chocolate chip cookies and one of Anna’s wonderful snickerdoodles.  What a wonderful afternoon – tantalizing smells, delicious cookies, the heat of the oven and the warmth of the sun on the balcony.  After the cookies were done, I again receiving visitors again – Chinese, Cape Verdean, German, and Austrian.  (It was good to see my Chinese friend, Hu Jing.  She’s the ME student I befriended, but she’s been too busy to meet with me recently.  I now understand why she hasn’t had time – between her classes for her major and minor, she has 15 finals coming up!  AND one of them is on New Year’s Day!!!)

I also gave cookies to the desk guards, the woman who sells candy downstairs, and the guy who delivered my takeout.  This seems really normal to me (my mom usually gives something to the mailman and people like that when she bakes for friends) but everyone here seems to think it’s odd.  Whatever.  When I’m in China I pretty much live to rock boats . . .

The highlight of the evening was dancing.  Yeah, I know I say that a lot but tonight really was special.  I packed up what was left of today’s batch of chocolate chip cookies and brought them with me.  Before sitting down, I made the rounds of the room, offering them to everyone – and, when they refused, insisting because they were 自己做的 (made by me)!  Everyone seemed to like them and I ended up in a conversation with some of the women about how to make them.  IT TURNS OUT that she just happens to have a full-sized oven in her home and doesn’t know how to use it!  (I really thought that there were no ovens in China but this is apparently not entirely true.  The average house does not have an oven, just like the average American house doesn’t have the equipment to have hotpot, which we don’t eat.  But this woman is rich – driving-a-BMW rich, to be exact – so I shouldn’t have been that surprised.)  Enter Maria, foreigner with cooking experience who hasn’t seen an oven larger than a shoebox in 4 months, and a beautiful partnership formed.  We’re going to go shopping together and I’m going to teach her to bake cookies and cakes and pizza and stuff!

Also, I danced a lot, which is great too.  Tonight was the first time I danced an entire song of the samba and the Viennese waltz, and I learned some cool stuff in the 慢四 as well.  Sweet.  I can’t stop dancing tonight, even as I’m typing right now!

O Come, All Ye Faithful

In Uncategorized on December 23, 2009 at 1:01 am

Listening class was really interesting today.  Read my translation of this passage on “The Men of China’s North, South, East, and West”:

There are a lot of differences between the men and women of each place in China . . . First off, men from Beijing love to talk the most and even like to chat with strangers, which isn’t often seen in other cities in China.  It is the custom of most taxi drivers in Beijing to talk to their passengers about what they’ve seen and heard.  “Beijing-speak” is pleasant to hear, and makes passengers forget about their worries.

Men from Shanghai are the most polite, but it’s hard to know what they really think.  In their homes, women are the most important.  Men are very kind to their wives, which is why people think Shanghai women are the most fortunate.

Men from the northeast are uninhibited.  They like to drink, but they usually don’t drink at home.  Western-style fast food really doesn’t do well because whether it’s McDonald’s or KFC, none of them allow customers to drink.  Towards women, they more often than not extremely friendly, and when couples are in public the husband usually plays the role of protector.

Men from Guangdong (Canton) are the easiest to recognize – short with strong bodies, relatively dark skin, big mouths, big noses, and big eyes.  They are thin but not weak, with a lot of energy.  They’re the most likely to drive a deal, but at the same time they are very generous, and finding sponsors for activities in Guangdong is very easy.

First of all, it seems broad to me to generalize not only entire provinces but entire regions, but I can accept that as a difference between the social geography of our countries.  In America, there’s east vs. west, north vs. south, coasts vs. ‘flyover territory’, cities vs. suburbs vs. rural areas – and that’s just for starters.  In China, there is Beijing (aka, ‘the North’), Shanghai (aka, ‘the South’), the northeast and Guangdong.  That whole HUGE part of China anywhere west of Hong Kong?  Don’t worry about it, it’s not important . . .

But, all that aside, I can kind of follow up until the last paragraph.  Then I just get totally lost because there’s no place like that in America.  Describing people physically based on their place of residence is such a non-sequitur in America that it just about blows my mind.

Anyway, it was a really interesting dialogue.  Afterwards, our teacher added that actually, most people think the best husbands come from Hubei because they cook really well and do household chores.  (We asked her if she had found a good Hubei husband yet and she said she’s still looking).  Apparently guys around here aren’t prime marrying material because, while they tend to be rich in Fujian, this makes them view household chores as below them.

There was another interesting passage on directions:

Woman: Let me tell you – the first time I came to Beijing, I asked someone how to get to the bus station.  He said “Head straight north to the intersection, then turn west and it will be on the north side of the street.”  I then asked again, “I’m sorry, is north that way?”  The man looked at me, dumbfounded, as if I were a crazy person – how could I not know which way was north?

Man: You really can’t tell which way is north?!

Woman: You don’t understand, we southerners aren’t used to using “north, south, east, and west” to express directions.  We usually say “forward, backward, left, and right” – for example, “Walk straight ahead to the intersection, then turn left and it will be on the right side of the street.”  This way is very clear!  You can figure it out with just your body, whereas you need the sun and streets to figure out “north, south, east, and west”.  It just makes things confusing for first-time visitors to Beijing. . . Also, Beijing taxi drivers don’t use maps and street names to recognize streets, they just rely on the environment.  For example, cross the intersection, at the tree turn back, then there’s a red house.  But if they go to a new place, it can be a problem and they can waste a lot of time in vain.  Taxi drivers in Shanghai are good at figuring things out; if they know a street name they can take you where you want to go.

Man: I think there are a lot of reasons for this difference – for example, the weather.  In the south it is often cloudy and rains and you can go the whole day without seeing the sun.  If somebody doesn’t have a compass on their person, it would be very hard to tell which way is north, south, east, or west.  In Beijing it’s often clear and you can see the sun all day, so it’s easy to tell directions.

Woman: It’s definitely related to weather, but it also might be related to terrain.  In the south, there are a lot of mountains.  In cities, buildings are built around mountains so the roads twist and wind.  It’s not like in the north, where cities usually don’t have mountains and the streets are really square – if it’s not east-west, it’s north-south.  So to people who live there, north-south-east-west is really clear, but to southerners it is confusing.

This is an area of personal challenge for me, as I find the Chinese language (on which I have made progress in a year) easier than telling north-south-east-west (on which I have made almost no progress in 21 years).  Left and right is so much easier to me, but I always have this sort of argument with my friends who disagree – most often in the past, boyfriends who can’t tell left from right and inexplicably excel at cardinal directions.

Anyway, this passage resounded with a sign seen on my recent trip to Wuyishan:


It also reminded me of a story from my second trip to China.  I got into a taxi with some of my fellow travelers and, as we drove, I decided to try out some of my new vocabulary.  Pointing out the driver’s side window, I said “zuǒ” (left); out my window, “yòu” (right); and out the windshield, “qián” (forward).  She looked at me like I was speaking some other language and corrected me, pointing the same way as I did but instead saying “xī dōng běi nán”.  I was deeply troubled by this, as my Chinese ‘teacher’ Xiao Zhang had definitely taught me “zuǒ yòu qián hóu” and he understood me when I said them.  Why, then, were these words not working with this other Chinese?  I decided she was speaking a different dialect or was, herself, crazy and thought no more of it.

Fast forward a month or so – my Chinese is progressing, as is that of my friends.  We’re working our way through children’s picture dictionaries on a bus ride to the next town over when Alli lets out a sigh/exclamation of understanding.  (It’s a sound I make frequently in the process of learning Chinese: OOOOOOOooooh!)  She turns around to me and says, “Remember those weird words that that taxi driver was using?  They mean north, south, east, and west.”

I felt pretty stupid after that.  But seriously, if someone pointed left and asked if that was called ‘left’, would you correct them and call it ‘north’ (or whatever)?  I wouldn’t; that’s just mean.

Wow, I didn’t intend this whole post to be about those two listening passages.  The real excitement of the day started after class was done for the day.  I had lunch, cleaned up my room, and then one of my Thai friends, Pun, came over to help me bake cookies.  We basically turned the entire room into a kitchen – melting butter on the hotplate on Leinira’s chair, mixing dry ingredients on her bed, sitting on my bed to watch the oven on top of the refrigerator.

The first batch was just two cookies, which is good because I burned them.


My ‘oven’ (or the closest thing to one that exists in China) has exactly two settings – on and off – and apparently ‘on’ is really really hot.  They’re supposed to cook for 10 minutes at 375F, but after 5 minutes at ‘on’, they were burnt.  We ate them anyway, and went on to improve our timing and technique as we baked another 43 cookies.


Another Thai friend, Bu, joined us later and helped with the cookie making.


Despite having to bake them in batches of 4 or 6, the whole process was surprisingly quick – less than 2 hours from start to finish.  Also, the recipe calls for less ingredients than I thought so I can make more batches than I originally calculated :)  The only ingredients I can’t buy at the small local supermarket are baking soda and vanilla, both of which my mother sent me.  The sugar grains are larger than I’m used to and the brown sugar is very molasses-y, but the cookies turned out well so who cares?

I enjoyed the baking process, especially with the help and company of my friends.  When we were done, I began calling other friends to come over for either a taste of home or their first taste of fresh-baked cookies.  Throughout the afternoon and evening, I was visited by friends from Thailand, Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, Sweden, Slovenia, and Austria.  As they snacked, we sat around and talked – so while I didn’t get much done today I had a very enjoyable time.

In between visits, I watched “It’s A Wonderful Life”.  Seriously, is there a better Christmas movie?  Only 11 minutes into it, I was already crying.  I love everything about that movie.  One of my favorite parts of the movie is how it shows the effects of one’s life as so far-reaching.  For instance, by saving his brother’s life when they were young, George was also responsible in a way for saving the troops on the carriers that Harry was honored for saving.  I see so much of other people in the things I’ve done, and want to share my successes and joys with those who have helped or influenced me because they’re partly theirs.  In the same way, I hope to enable others to do good things, just as I want to do good things myself.

My other favorite part of the movie is the line: “My lip is bleeding!  Isn’t it wonderful!?!  My lip is bleeding!”