Flower Street Fun

When most foreigners think of Chinese New Year, they think of fireworks, Dragon Dances, and egg rolls. Though there are fireworks in abundance, I’ve never seen the famous Dragon Dance (though we have witnessed many Lion Dances), and have to go to America if I want an egg roll. For native Chinese, Lunar New Year means family, food, and pretty decorations…much like many of our western holidays. One of their (and our!) favorite traditions is Flower Street. Whether they are set in narrow alleys or sprawling squares, for three days leading up to midnight on Chinese New Year’s Eve, these bouquetted boulevards are sure to be thronged with a press of people, a plethora of posies, and  tons of toys for the patron’s purchasing pleasure. :)

Many people will meet up for a meal before going to the market. Hot pot and BBQ are both popular choices, because they allow people to sit around a warm pot or grill (remember, the indoors is usually unheated, and it can get cold), chat, and leisurely fix their food to suit their own fancy.

Our friends had found a Groupon-style deal for a BBQ grill, and we thoroughly enjoyed the unique experience.


As we chatted, we grilled thinly shaved pork and beef, small steaks, chicken, sardines, eggplant, sausages, green vegetable #9 (not sure what it’s called in English or Chinese), and mackerel steaks- all seasoned to perfection with cumin, garlic, soy sauce, and numerous other sauces.

Though it may not have been what westerners would think of as BBQ, we gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up.

With happy bellies, we made our way to the Flower Street at the sports center- the largest Flower Street in GZ. What a spectacle it was!

We knew there would be a huge crush of people once we went in, so I told the ladies to keep an eye out for the white hat bobbing above the crowd and follow that. It pays to be tall sometimes.

I think this imposing gate guardian would agree.

The square leading up to Flower Street was massive, teeming with people, and lined with beautiful traditional decorations.

In a nod to China’s long history of celebrating this lunar holiday, they had set up mobile museums displaying traditional artifacts and historical tidbits.

From here we took a deep breath and waded into the crush of people. Please excuse the quality of some of my shots. Not only was it night time, but sometimes the only way I could get a picture was to hold the camera over my head and shoot.

Did I mention that there were a lot of people there?

Flower Streets are a conglomeration of time-honored “lucky” items, beautiful flowers, fun toys and food. While we don’t believe in luck, it’s interesting to understand the mindset behind these traditional items.

No, these are not lemons with udders. They symbolize “five generations under one roof.”

A bunch of these would symbolize the giver’s desire for your family line to continue and prosper, and for all of its members to love each other and live in harmony together.

Having this in your home would show a desire for success in your career. Each tier represents a promotion, until you’re the big boss at the top of the pyramid.

Some things are tied to accumulating wealth, because of their visual resemblance to money-

Oranges look like gold coins…

…and pussy willow (at least in its natural, undyed state) looks like silver coins.

This unique pitcher plant is given to families hoping for children.

Peach blossoms are traditionally put in the homes of single ladies to advertise the need for a husband. Many friends are encouraging me to buy some this year…

…but I decided I didn’t need them to meet my Mr. Right. Or is he Mr. Wong???

Not all flowers are “lucky.” Some are just lovely; these are my favorites!

Hu die hua (butterfly flowers) are both popular and expensive.

It’s easy to see why these beautiful flowers are so coveted.

I thought these azalea bonsais were stunning…

…and the paperwhites delicate beauty and sweet fragrance make them another perennial favorite.

You’d think with these and many other flowers perfuming the air, the Flower Street would be a pretty nice-smelling place to be. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Hanging over everything was a really dreadful stench. I kept checking the bottom of my boots, looking to see if we were near portable outhouses…but I could not figure out where that horrible smell was coming from. Then, it dawned on me. Check out the food vendors.

After all, their offerings were, shall we say, a little out of the ordinary?

The Tibetan BBQ guy, dancing to the rhythmic beat of the music as he tossed and turned his meat skewers, checked out okay.

Here we find the culprit- a huge mound of chou dou fu- aptly translated as stinky tofu. I won’t go into details about how it’s cured, but sufficed to say I plan to stay away from it.

Ah, this is much more our speed.

This is all-natural cotton candy; no artificial colors or flavors. It’s practically health food.

To make it more fun for the young and the young at heart, vendors hawk everything from balloon sculptures…

…to hand formed clay models…

…cutesie accessories…

…pinwheels…

…blow up hammers (which many boys/men were having way too much fun with)…

…giant fake candied fruit sticks…

…and Do Re Mi?

Probably  my favorite part was the red lanterns swaying in the trees overhead…

…aren’t they magical?

Flower Street is a fun blend of old and new; traditional and whimsical– a great place to go to experience the full effect of the pageantry of this country and the warm, joyful spirit of its people.

 

 

 

Fun with Chinglish- Food Edition

During my years in China, one hobby I’ve taken up is documenting the amusing Chinglish translations on signs and packaging. When I moved here, I decided my sense of humor was going to be an invaluable tool for the transition, and I haven’t regretted it. :) Menus, park signs, packaging, and clothing provide an almost endless source of fun. Over time, I’ve built up quite a collection of signs that have given me a chuckle. I intend to share them in installments in hopes that you will enjoy them, too.

Please be aware that I am not making fun of my Chinese neighbors. Goodness knows, I’ve made enough language mistakes of my own to leave no room for finger pointing. When I visit the States, I frequently find similar mistakes in Chinese (for instance, one man had a prominent tattoo which he thought said “wolf,” but which actually meant “pig”…oops!). I only hope they enjoy my occasional blunders or quaint phraseology as much as I do theirs.

You can tell a lot about a restaurant by its name.

Something tells me this food will be quite tasty.

East meets West in this one…

…and creates quite a funny mental image. Think the Chairman with a big, polka-dot bow.

This bakery is bending over backwards to bring us a beautiful appointment, coming song.

Let’s see some of the tasty treats we might find inside this accommodating eatery.

Mmmmm, that’s hard to resist…literally.

Smokin’.

On occasion, I stumble across that rare gem of a restaurant that doesn’t make me come inside to discover their specialty.

You had me at “frog eggs;” although the “sticky nice balls with tar” were a close second.

Unfortunately, most cafes aren’t so forthcoming, and I have to peruse their menu to see their offerings.

Good thing I can be “surrounded by the sweety feelings” here, because I still have no idea what they’re selling. If their fish are on dialysis, I’m definitely skipping the sushi.

Let’s face it, most of us don’t have the luxury of eating in restaurants often. Grocery stores are where we buy our food, and we create delicious, well-rounded, healthy meals at home. I find when stir-frying it’s usually good to start with…

…that Inedible Blend Oil is just nasty.

Over in the refrigerated section, I like to search for all-natural ingredients, bursting with flavor, like…

…nothing says “farm fresh” like “Burger King Colored Burger Slice.” Yummmm!

I would say that Classy Kiss comes from classy cows, but that just sounds wrong.

When simple bacon just doesn’t make the cut, this bacon is a cut above.

For those people on a no-frills budget, try…

If disapproval, we will drawback; now how’s that for a guarantee?

There is also a wide assortment of appetizing snacks, for the “kitchen impaired.”

Or not so appetizing.

That’s more like it. Although, if I were the “Saying Plum,” I’m not sure it would be super smart to say, “Hey, so delicious, let us try it fast!”

I’m sorry, but as a Christian, I just wouldn’t feel right buying “temptable food.” How could I live with myself if I led it astray? I want my food to stay on the straight and narrow, even “while travelling.”

The more times I try this, the more “specious” I feel. This delicious snack really fit me.

So next time you’re in China, be sure to sample some of their culinary masterpieces. Whether you’re wowed by their frog eggs or lured into sampling the dialysis fish, we know that nowhere else can you get that same specious feeling as China. It is, indeed, a Delicious Place.

 

Called to Have Open Doors

People often ask us what an “average” week is like in the Dexter household in China. That question makes us laugh because we don’t have many average weeks. Life is full of unexpected and varied experiences. Learning to be flexible has been a big key to being content in China. But one constant of our lives is welcoming many friends and strangers through the door.

Recently I was researching the definitions of the word “hospitality” and found something surprising. When people think of hospitality, they often think, “Oh, my house is too small. When I get a bigger house I’ll invite friends over.” Or, “I’m not a very good cook. If I learn to cook I’ll have guests.” Then there’s, “I can’t afford to entertain.”  But hospitality doesn’t really have much to do with the size of our abodes, the quality of our cooking, or the state of our wallets.  Rather, the Biblical definition is “love to strangers” and according to one online dictionary it is the “quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.” As with all of the important things in life, hospitality flows from and reflects our hearts.

Early in my life with young children, God convicted me about my attitude in offering hospitality. Everything had to be perfect! I’d get all stressed out, become impatient with my children, and just make life generally miserable for everyone. Everyone in the home almost hated having guests over because my attitude was so miserable. In my Bible reading, God in His kindness gave me Proverbs 15:17, which says, “Better are vegetables served with love than a fatted ox with hatred.” That became my goal in opening our door to family, friends, yes, and strangers! I have a few tips that have helped us enjoy this lifestyle God has called us to:

  • Make it a family affair. Involve children and teach them early how to take ownership of the joy of hospitality. If everyone works together to prepare meals, set up the room, and greet the guests, it’s just more fun. Interacting happily and cheerfully while working makes sweet memories and teaches practical life skills.
  • Keep it simple. It doesn’t need to be complicated, expensive or fancy to make friends welcome. Once in Texas when we were really broke, (really, really broke!) we had a friend whose wife and kids had just left him, so we invited him over once a week for a pancake supper! At that point we were eating pancakes four nights a week, and that was what we had to offer. The first time we had him it was a little embarrassing, but he just loved those pancakes and he was happy to get out of his quiet house once a week.
  • If you feel you want people to especially enjoy their meal, you can serve them almost anything for the main dish if you give them a good dessert! People remember what comes last! (And if it’s chocolate, that’s all the better, but maybe that’s just me!)
  • Hospitality is all about the people so work to have individual conversations with as many guests as you can. Ask questions, interact, and engage. Even if you have a room full of people that you want to greet, when you’re speaking to a person give him your FULL attention even if you have to move on quickly. Look her in the eye and listen when she answers!
  • Treat guests like home folks. Relax and enjoy the people God has brought into your life for that period of time.

I’ve had this subject on my mind lately because July has been the month of the open door in our household.

Our granddaughter, Angela, came and stayed for a few days. (Ok, that’s not really hospitality but I wanted to show her off!)

Lacy and Alyssa came for about three weeks to work alongside us.

Alyssa enjoys one of the babies at the orphan camp.

Lacy + violin = music therapy!

Grace doing her bit by giving Lacy a massage!

As I said, sometimes our guests are strangers. (Some are stranger than others!)

One week, while the “girls” were here, was especially full! On Friday, we hosted the orphan camp. It was not at our house, but together with our good friends at the Fountains we provided food, fun, and fellowship for the orphans and the staff from the orphanage.

We were blessed to be able to present gift bags to each member of the orphanage staff who came to this event, thanking them for allowing us to be involved with what they are doing for these precious kids. The bags contained some very fun things among which were specialty foods, travel bags, tea “bottles”, fish oil capsules (coveted by many Chinese because they believe American fish oil is the best in the world), compacts, sets of dishes, tote bags, and some most excellent reading materials.

This is a group shot of the orphans, the orphanage staff, and some of the volunteers who were there that day. Unfortunately, none of the superb staff of the Fountains (who are good friends of the orphans and share sponsorship of this event with us) were there for the final photo as other tasks had their attention at that time.

Then, two days later on Sunday, two families who are friends through adoption, Ruthi,  Amy and Bill along with their daughters (9 total), spent Sunday afternoon and evening with us. They were kind enough to bring us all kinds of things for both the orphans and our family, as we fellowshipped over a spaghetti dinner. Our girls had fun playing Uno with some of their daughters!

On Monday, our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, Mark, Ryan, and Joe showed up on our doorstep after a few weeks of traveling around China. They get the vote for being the most fun to feed of anyone we’ve had in our home this year! Their hearty appetites and “Mmmm” sounds during the three days they were with us made our summer. I even got word that one of them was crying over the roast beef. They can put their feet under our table any time!

While they were here, on Wednesday we gave our friends an opportunity to invite their friends to our house for dinner and a lecture. As stated in a previous post, most Chinese are very community oriented and like to share their experiences with their friends, so every now and then we give an open dinner invitation. On this night we had fifty-five enjoying our menu, which was sort of a “Chinglish” mix- fried chicken strips, Chinese fried noodles, fried rice, white rice, dumplings, corn on the cob (not really a meal item here, more of a snack, but we serve it at meals anyway), broccoli, salad (with LOTS of ranch dressing! Our friends here LOVE ranch dressing and will literally use it as gravy on almost anything on the table!), rolls, several kinds of fruit, and oatmeal raisin cookies for dessert.

Oops, how did this photo of me holding my grandson, Josiah, end up HERE? Oh, well… That’s Josiah’s gong gong” on the left. (The “o” makes the long sound and it means his grandpa on his mom’s side.) You can tell that I’m saying, “Oh, MY! What a darling child!”

This is our foyer that evening!

As you see, we have a lot of cheap, portable accommodation for large groups. We set up small tables and plastic stools. We always try to rent apartments with spacious living rooms because we give a lot of parties. After dinner, all the tables were folded up and the stools were moved out into the room. Here, Joe is telling about his past life, his present life, and his expectations for the future.

The guys left on Thursday morning and you’ll never guess what we did THAT day? We rested! It was a great week- lots of people, lots of fun, and lots of work – a perfect mix. Thanks, Lord!

Lest I sound as if we are always on the giving end of hospitality, I’d like to relate some special memories we have of times in other people’s homes. We are often traveling when we are in America, and have been very blessed by so many along our path. I can’t possibly relate every episode in this space but will give you a variety! I hope this will encourage you and spur you on to open your homes to friends and strangers and give you ideas of ways you might make guests feel welcome!

  • On a recent trip to Los Angeles, Raj and Tracy welcomed us in, having never met us. Tracy had their guest bath set up with luscious organic hair and bath products that I would never purchase for myself. She also had a cute little shelf with all kinds of samples and small items we might need. Every trip to the bathroom was a treat and a luxury. I felt like I was in a spa!
  • We usually fly in and out of Raleigh, NC, arriving late and leaving early for those transcontinental flights. Two families there take turns hosting us during those transitions. Their homes seem like refuges to us, since those are very stressful times. Once, upon arrival, we found that Mary and Curtis had put Russell Stover chocolate covered marshmallow candies on each of our pillows- my favorite candy in the world! Another time, Tricia and Mark made us “to go” breakfast bags to eat at the airport. We felt so loved…
  • My friend Janice (who may be the most hospitable person in the world) usually has a little gift bag to greet us with things for our girls to do/play in the car as we travel along with clothing items she has purchased for us, knowing that when we get back to the states our clothes are pretty ratty. She has nice taste and purchases the things at thrift stores, so these items don’t bankrupt her, but her thoughtfulness and attention to detail make us feel special.
  • Laureen, another dear friend and busy mama, took two hours out of her always tight schedule to make a quiet two hours just to visit over glasses of iced tea. I treasure that memory! That meant even more to me than the huge fourth of July pool party she hosted on our behalf so that we could see friends in her area!
  • Carol and David, a brother and sister in Houston, had visited our home in China and remembered us mentioning what foods we most missed from America. When we arrived at their place, they had the freezer stocked with ice cream in my husband’s favorite flavors! They gave us freedom to make ourselves at home, to sit on their front porch and let Texas soak into our bones, and to rest our weary souls. It wasn’t just the food and rest that showed love to us (they took us out for yummy Mexican food- the favorite of many in our family), but they spoke many words of encouragement and prayed with us and for us.
  • We parked our camper in Stu and Pam’s driveway for several days and felt like part of the family as they and all of their children made us welcome. They allowed us to be silly, to laugh, and to be ourselves. (Some people treat folks in our position as if we forged the holy grail!) We truly did “Consider ourselves…at home. Consider ourselves…part of the family.. (Think “Oliver”) After a few days it was almost hard to see where one family ended and the other began! (Of course, it didn’t hurt that one of their daughters had lived with us for three years:-D)
Time and space do not allow for all the blessings others have given us through hospitality, so I hope no one I left out will feel overlooked. I hope those of you who leave comments will include some of your ideas for things that others have done that have encouraged you and ideas God has given you as you have sought to use your home to “contribute to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.” (Romans 12:13)

 

Photo credit- Alyssa was the official photographer for these events!

 

A Sense of Community

The longer we live in China the more we realize that Americans and Chinese approach life from different perspective. The American viewpoint is individual, whereas the Chinese viewpoint is communal. When we first arrived we often wondered “Why?”

Why do people here go outside in their pajamas?

Why do girls clean their boyfriends’ ears in public?

Why do people ask us how much we pay for rent or how old we are?

Why are there generational names by which they call strangers the same thing they call their family members?

Why do the ladies in Bible study wait to “go together” after the lesson even if they are just riding the elevator downstairs and then taking different buses?

Why are we constantly offered advice, especially about how to take care of our young children?

Why do the elderly still have friends from grade school?

And the list could go on (and on and on and on….)!

The answers to those questions would have many facets, but a common thread would be that Chinese live in community with others. You might wonder if this is part of being a Communist governed society, but I don’t think that has much to do with it. One contributing factor is likely that China has a long and varied history, which is shared by all people. It is not a “melting pot” of different cultures but rather a very homogenous society. While we Americans treasure the diversity and differences various ethnicities and races bring to our collective, my Chinese brothers and sisters value their shared roots, their well-known history, and their national pride. In America it tends to be “all about ME” whereas in China it’s “all about US!”

There are situations where we may tend to question that thinking, and, in truth, it is not always a good thing. However, our passion for individualism at the expense of the common good is not always healthy either.

Another reason for this mutual life would be sheer numbers. Masses of people living in high-rise buildings next to high rise buildings; crowded villages with open courtyards where people gather; cities of millions…. Many people plus little space equals cooperative lives!

Our purpose in having this blog is not to criticize our host country. We will share the good, the bad, and the ugly things we see to some extent, because every nation has its warts and we would be remiss not to mention some. However, neither will we be disrespectful of a country, which has welcomed us in and given us so much- including a daughter, two daughters-in-love, and many friends. With that in mind, I’m not telling you the downside of this equation, but highlighting the positives I see in this mindset.

• The elderly are included, respected, and not set aside.

• No need to worry about what others would think if they knew this or that, because they do know!

• No preoccupation with privacy

• Lack of self-consciousness

• More opportunities for the gospel

• Crimes, at least petty crimes, tend to be punished immediately within the community rather than before a court of law resulting in greater hesitation to do it next time!

• Less loneliness

• Within one’s own circle, people tend to take care of each other with a system of mutual support. (i.e. In your circle you have a doctor. You have made him sticky rice dumplings for Dragon Boat Festival. When you get sick, he will contact a friend in the medical field of specialty you need and help you get proper care.)

• If you don’t know or forget someone’s name, you can just call him a generational name!

• You know what relationship someone has with another by the name used. (There are special names for “younger sister’s daughter” or “grandmother on my dad’s side”. It’s very complicated to learn but once you’ve learned it you can save all that explaining of who’s who!)

• Safety in numbers

I am sure there are others, but those are off the top of my head. I’ve mentioned it briefly earlier, but one funny aspect of this is the “yiqi zou” idea, or “going together”. In America we see it a little in the example of ladies going to the restroom at the same time, but in China you see it continually. People just prefer to do things together. Recently I saw this during Dragon Boat Festival. Let me depart for a moment to explain this holiday so you’ll understand the context.

Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. This year it was June 23. Legend has it that Dragon Boat Festival memorializes the patriotic poet Chiu Yuan who committed suicide by attaching a large rock to himself and jumping into the river. Chiu Yuan is said to have been the primary advisor of the Chu kingdom, making him the target of jealousy, which resulted in slander. When an interloper killed his king, Chiu lost his position and went to the countryside to write poetry. There, he is said to have met a peasant who didn’t care about the country but only about himself, so the disillusioned Chiu jumped into the river to drown. (Seems drastic but you know those poetic temperaments!)

According to the story, all the neighbors came out in boats to seek the fallen Chiu. (You see, they KNEW he had done this AND they came to help him!) They threw sticky rice pyramids (called zhong zi) into the river to attract the fish to keep them from eating his body, and they also beat drums to scare predators away. Somehow a dragon entered the story so villagers poured white rice wine into the water to make the dragon drunk, causing him to leave poor Chiu alone! Later, a drunken dragon-fish flew up out of the water with shreds of Chiu’s garments hanging from his whiskers. Thus began the festival today called Dragon Boat Festival!

What does all this have to do with communal living? Here it comes! This year, we live along the river, so we enjoyed watching the long, thin boats practicing the week before the event.

Local companies sponsor boats, as does every little village that can muster a crew to man one. The long, skinny watercraft can hold about fifty passengers most of whom row, but there is also one at each end of the boat yelling a cadence to keep the tempo, people who toss firecrackers in the water ahead, and, of course, a pair or two of drummers. Down river a short distance, we could see two gathering points for boats, which we hoped meant that we would see a race on the actual festival day.

But much to our surprise, there was no competition nearby. Guangzhou has one huge race featuring entries from all over the surrounding area. So why were they meeting outside our window? Yi qi zou! All the boats from this district- and there were tens of them- left at the same time to go down to the race. So though we got to enjoy the excitement of the continual drums and firecrackers all week, when race day came we only saw them join together and leave as a group! For us, it seemed anticlimactic.

But for our neighbors, this translated to great fun as huge numbers gathered around the river, cheering, shooting off firecrackers, and just generally giving their friends and colleagues a big sendoff. After all, what are holidays for except to gather together in community, making noise, eating traditional foods, and just hanging out? This is only one example of people going to great lengths to “go together” but I hope it demonstrates the idea at the same time as it educates you regarding one of the more popular celebrations of the year. At any rate, it provided me with a chance to post a few of the photos taken from our window, showing that there really was a plan behind my convoluted posting.