Monday, January 30, 2017

All the Tea in China

One of the cool things about teaching in an international school is the exchange of cultures. My school only has a few different cultures represented because the students are all Chinese (the staff are Chinese, American, Canadian, British, Australian and South African), but the school tries to give the staff, especially the international staff opportunities to learn about Chinese culture (see here for the coolest Peking Opera experience). One of those opportunities was given to us last week during our weekly meeting time. The Chinese department organized a traditional Chinese New Year meal (with delicious jiaozi - also called Chinese dumplings, pot stickers or gyoza), a presentation about the history of the Chinese zodiak and for a parent to come and share with us about tea.
Introduced as Dora's dad we had a parent who was really passionate about tea come and share with us about the history of tea, and the types of teas. More importantly, we go to sample the teas (and he gave us both an ornate tea disc and a sample of the tea in the disc so that we don't have to destroy the beautiful disk to sample it). As we sampled each tea he explained how to brew the tea (yes, the different teas had different procedures), and showed us different equipment we could use in different situations for making the tea.  He spoke some English so sometimes he presented in English and sometimes in Chinese. The funny thing was a Chinese member of the social studies department was translating, but when Dora's dad spoke in English he would just automatically repeat it in English. Sometimes, I would translate it faster than he could and he would stick the microphone in my face for me to take over translating, but there were too many words I didn't know for me to take over translating.
This is tea wrapped in painted wrappers. I actually got some interesting shots
Of the tea and the tea "ceremony," but the just won't upload....
It was really cool seeing Dora's dad (sorry that's the only name that was used) present about tea, because his passion was so apparent. When we tried to ask about how much some of the really good teas cost we were told that there was no price, because they weren't teas we could buy. They were from his private collection!
According to legend the order of the Chinese zodiac is the result
Of a race. This is an illustration from that story. 

The history of the Chinese zodiac was explained using a YouTube video.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find the same video or I would have shared the link here. 

They served lots of yummy foods including three different types of
Chinese dumplings (a traditional Chinese New Year food). 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The quick turnaround

Our route from Beijing to Detroit
- flying time 12 hours 33 minutes
When I lived in China before, one of the most difficult things was missing every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Nowadays I usually only see my family at Christmas anyway so it might not be as bad as before to miss all three holidays (not to mention most birthdays), but thankfully I don't have to. I was really excited when I was applying for jobs to see that even though Christmas isn't really celebrated in China, most International Schools have Christmas off. Originally, my school was supposed to have two weeks off for Christmas. Unfortunately, because we are a new school, construction was not finished on time and we had to push the start of the school year back by two weeks. This resulted in the calendar being altered and Christmas was shortened to only 7 school days off (Thursday the 22nd - Sunday the 1st). Nonetheless, I was able to get good connections (less than 20 hours from Beijing to Greensboro) at a good price (about $750) and so I decided to go to the U.S. for Christmas. I figured this will help me to not get so homesick (and it probably did). I'm glad I went back, but unfortunately, I picked Influenza A somewhere along the way and got sick on Christmas Eve morning.
I only have a toaster oven, but I baked sugar cookies and
took them home for Christmas. They survived my checked
luggage unbroken.
My flight home was quite enjoyable. I was sitting next to a lady from Xian and we had a good time chatting. I also chatted in the Beijing airport with a man from Inner Mongolia (both of these conversations were in Mandarin). One of the flight attendants who covered my section couldn't speak any Chinese and my neighbor couldn't speak hardly any English so I did a lot of translating and rather enjoyed it. Like I said it was a nice flight. I changed planes without incident in Detroit and made it to the Greensboro airport in about 19 hours from the time I departed Beijing - not bad, but exhausting.
Santa's workshop - at Pilot Mountain
I got to see the Pilot Mountain Christmas Lights. I'm including some of the photos in here. The Pilot Mountain Christmas lights are done by a family that used to live in Florida and moved to North Carolina about 12 years ago. They've been turning their yard into a Christmas display for 50 years (in three different locations) and it is so cool! They have all kinds of music playing, a synchronized Christmas tree, just too much to even begin to describe and it is all free (they do have a donation box), they even give out hot chocolate. Unfortunately, they decided this was going to be their last year. I will greatly miss their display, but I'm so glad I was able to make it (I couldn't go until my last night in NC because I was just too sick).
I texted this picture to a friend of my who lives
in North Pole, AK
After going to the lights I went home and finished packing. I got about 4 hours of sleep before I had to wake up (at 4 am) to drive to the airport for my 7:25 am flight. I crossed the International Dateline somewhere in the flight and since it was December 31st, I missed midnight and suddenly jumped into 2017! I landed in Beijing around 3 pm (having been traveling again for less than 20 hours) on the 1st. Because of my jet lag, I only managed to sleep about 4 hours that night and then went to school to teach.
At Pilot Mountain Lights
I can only show a fraction of the things they had there
(even a lot of the trees have been given faces, but those
don't photograph well in the dark)
Unfortunately, having had the flu (I still had a cough), taking an international trip and then going straight to work ended up being problematic. I taught 3 of my 5 classes that day just fine, but then in the 4th class (7th period), I had some horrible health problems and ended up going next door to get help. One of the guidance counselors covered the rest of that class (actually I think I heard three of them did) while it was decided I needed to go to the hospital. The only other math teacher (yes, I'm a chemistry teacher, but I have been teaching 4 math classes since October) covered my 8th period class. The school driver drove one of my international co-workers (and friend) a woman from the HR department (it was her first day on the job) and I to Oasis International Hospital. We picked this one because it is an international hospital so it has a high level of care and cleanliness (a real issue in Chinese hospitals) as well as an English speaking staff. Unfortunately, January 2nd was a public holiday. Because it was a public holiday the hospital was closed. Yes, closed! The only portion of the hospital open was OB/GYN and pediatrics. Luckily there was another international hospital, Beijing United Family nearby. We did go to Beijing United Family at first because even though it is considered the best hospital in town, it is also the most expensive. At Oasis (and every other hospital except Beijing United Family) my health insurance will cover absolutely everything. At Beijing United Family I have a 20% co-pay.
I saw the doctor and we ran some tests. He determined that what had happened was apparently just the result of having the flu (I had a fever when I arrived at the hospital in addition to the cough) and lack of sleep (I had had less than 10 hours over the previous three days combined). I definitely do not recommend sticking an international flight in the middle of your recovery from the flu.
I am happy to announce that I have fully recovered and since we celebrate both Christmas and Chinese New Year we have another holiday coming up next week (we only have 3 weeks of classes between Christmas break and Chinese New Year break) and I am going to Thailand and Hong Kong. Stay tuned for further "kapers."


Of course they have to have Pilot Mountain represented.


The reason for the season.

It did snow quite a bit about a week after I left.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Thanksgiving Times Three

One of the things that is rather fun about living overseas is celebrating holidays. I find Thanksgiving to be an especially interesting holiday experienced abroad because while it is a holiday only celebrated by Americans and Canadians (and the Canadians celebrate a month earlier), everyone knows about it and wants to celebrate.  I found it very interesting when I heard that the student council was hosting a Thanksgiving Dinner and so I decided to buy tickets (40 RMB or about $6) and go. The tickets said the menu was turkey, mashed potatoes, salad and a fruit cup. I wasn't sure how good it was going to be because Chinese turkey isn't known to be tasty (Chinese think turkey is tough and not good, but that's because the domestic birds are tough and not good. You can buy turkeys imported from the U.S.), but I figured it would be a fun evening. I ran into some friends in the hallway (the wife of one of my co-workers is quickly becoming a very good friend) and we went to the cafeteria together. The students weren't quite ready and we had to wait a few minutes. When we walked in they had the lights down and hit lit a hundred or more tea lights. They had a collections of greeting cards (with blank insides) that you could select one from (free with your dinner ticket), flowers which you could buy and I think something else (but I just don't remember). The students had arranged the tables in a U-shape with rows of additional tables in rows and the bottom of the U. They had the sound system ready to go and throughout dinner the students performed (singing, playing instruments, etc.). With the candles and the students in uniform it reminded me of Hogwarts (are students uniforms are rather formal with skirts, blouses and sweaters for the girls, slacks, sweater vests, suit jackets, ties, etc for the boys). It felt somewhat magical.
Unfortunately, the magic ended with the appearance. The food was already sitting at each place. It was in plastic take-out containers with chopsticks on top. I laughed an commented how this would be my first time eating Thanksgiving dinner with chopsticks. Inside the food container the turkey was rather pink and from a pig (it was ham and sausage), the mashed potatoes had turned into a weird sushi roll (seaweed wrapper surrounding rices, a few anaemic looking vegetables and egg. The whole thing was then topped with a squirt of mayonnaise). We did have a tiny bit of leafy veggies to serve as the salad, but the fruit cup had become soup. The students said that they had discovered they couldn't afford to buy the turkey and mashed potatoes. (Last year they had turkey and mashed potatoes, but apparently the ticket price was 70 RMB and they felt not enough people came. I'm not sure how they thought they could drop the price and afford to buy turkey) One of my coworkers complained and they did provide fruit cups (procured from the coffee shop located within our cafeteria) that were quite tasty. The students also did a good job with the entertainment. It will definitely be a Thanksgiving I will never forget.
I hosted my own Thanksgiving dinner as well, but since Thursday and Friday were regular work days I had to host it on Saturday. Friday evening I started cooking and I got up Saturday morning and continued to cook. I served mashed potatoes with gravy, home made bread, cornbread stuffing (made from homemade cornbread), apple pie and pumpkin pie (both with homemade crusts and the pumpkin was cooked down from, well a pumpkin), salad, fruit salad, deviled eggs, sweet potatoes with apples and dried cranberries (my favorite way to make them), cranberry sauce (out of a can because you cannot get fresh cranberries in China) and roasted chickens (unfortunately I forgot to take pictures). A couple of things you have to understand about cooking this feast. 1) There are no ovens in China. Actually, if you own your own place it is now possible to buy an oven at IKEA or a few other places. They aren't as big as American ovens, but not terrible. I, however, rent. I cooked everything in a toaster oven or on the stove (I have a two burner stove, but only one burner is working. 2) I could have purchased turkey from the import store, but I didn't have the oven space to cook it. I also could have purchased turkey already cooked from somewhere (I don't know where it is, but I know someone who did buy turkey from there), but it cost about 215 RMB (USD 32) per kilogram (or about $15/lb). I bought already roasted chicken for 16 RMB per kilo (or $2/lb). I think I made the wise choice.
I had 10 guests over and we had a grand time. I didn't have enough chairs for everyone (even with people sitting on the couch), but we made it work. I invited mostly American and Canadian friends because I knew they were the ones that would appreciate it the most. We did have a few other nationalities represented and it was a total blast. I am now thinking about hosting a Christmas party.
With all of that celebrating you would think I would have been Thanksgiving Day'd out, but no. On Sunday my small group had another Thanksgiving dinner. I made a chocolate cream pie for this one (I wanted to make a graham cracker crust, but there aren't any graham crackers here - at least not without paying a fortune at an import store for them - so I used digestive biscuits. I didn't think they turned out nearly as good as a graham cracker crust would have, but the others at least claimed they liked the crust.), and brought some of the sweet potatoes and bread from the day before. This time we had turkey! Third time's the charm (however, the turkey alone cost as much as my entire feast the day before). I did a really good job not overeating on Saturday, but on Sunday I didn't resist the temptations quite so well. Thankfully, after Sunday's feast Thanksgiving was finally over.
Thanksgiving dinner number 1: The first time I've ever eaten Thanksgiving dinner with chopsticks! 
Thanksgiving dinner number 2: I forgot to take a picture of the wonderful spread, but we had two awesome pies: apple and pumpkin.

Thanksgiving dinner number 2 - The aftermath: my refrigerator isn't much bigger than a dorm size fridge. That made it rather difficult to fit all the leftovers in it.

Thanksgiving dinner number 3: We're still setting up. I didn't get a picture, but this one actually had real turkey!