Family Photos

Christmas season is upon us, and like many of you I am feeling the Christmas rush! Even though I do have some stories to share from the past few weeks, for time’s sake I am going to save those for next time and just post some pictures this time around. These pictures were from a family photo session that we did recently. Enjoy!

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A Chinese Halloween

Now that Claire has turned 3, we are finally starting to put some effort into holidays and celebrations. During the month of October, I thought it would be fun to introduce Claire to the idea of Halloween. Truth be told, I had grandiose ideas of a whole month of Halloween activities – painting pumpkins, making Halloween cookies, dipping apples in caramel. Of course, then life happened and I got too tired to do any of that. However, I did get out the children’s books and movies about Halloween that I had bought during our last visit home. Claire enjoyed the children’s books that had funny illustration of witches, pumpkins, mummies, etc.; however, she wasn’t too keen on the movies. In fact, she got so scared watching Sesame Street Halloween and Winnie the Pooh Halloween that she refused to watch them again. I felt a little guilty that my attempts to introduce my child to American traditions resulted in her hiding behind the couch, but how scary can Elmo really be?

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I also organized some trick-or-treating among the American families in our town. I was a little nervous asking people if they wanted to participate because as I get older and encounter people from all over the place I realize now that not all Americans are fans of Halloween. When I was little, I loved Halloween. I loved the spooky decorations in the stores, watching scary movies on TV, picking out my costume, and most of all knocking on my neighbor’s door to get candy! It was all fun and games. However, as a parent planning Halloween I had to be mindful of families that might not share the same view. All in all, we had 7 households volunteer to participate, which sounds like a small number, but it provided a great hour of fun for our little expat kids who were absolutely thrilled to come home with their little bag of candy. Claire still talks about Halloween so that makes me happy knowing she has some fun memories from the experience.

Claire was Elsa this year. I know, we are on the back end of that phenomenon, but that is how we roll. Chloe was a sweet little ladybug. 🙂

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School has been going pretty good for Claire so far, but we have had one bump in the road which we still haven’t completely figured out. Our teachers tell us, and we have also witnessed, Claire leaving the classroom without permission rather frequently. Her tactic is not to run full blast out the door, but rather to slowly mosey out the door as if she is going for an innocent stroll. She doesn’t wander far – usually to the classroom across the hall or to the principal’s office next door. At first, we couldn’t figure out what was going on since it was clear that no other kids were allowed to leave the classroom, but for some reason the teachers were giving Claire a rather long leash. As we became increasingly aware of the problem, we voiced our concerns to the teachers and told them that Claire must stay in her own classroom. We also gave Claire some stern talking-tos and told her she would be punished if we caught her in another room. After that, the problem has been a little better. However, it has been difficult solving the problem completely since the teachers don’t discipline Claire like they do the other students. I know they think she doesn’t understand Chinese, but I am pretty sure she can understand a lot simply based on context. After having been a teacher/school counselor in an elementary school for 8 years, it is strange for me to be the parent in these kinds of situations. Ideally, I would meet with the teacher and set up a plan with her to nip this problem in the bud, but I get the impression that Claire’s teachers are embarrassed by our direct communication with them. All that to say, navigating problems at school are even trickier when culture is involved!

Tomorrow we are making a quick road trip to Thailand to get our visas stamped, catch up on shots, and attend to some work-related matters. Although it will be a lot of driving and not much time for playing, it will be nice to leave our 2 mile radius for a brief time. We might even squeeze in one visit to the Mexican food restaurant!!

 

 

 

A Year Later

There has not been much excitement these past few weeks, but we still have been busy with our normal routine. It has been exactly a year since we moved from Tianjin to Banna, and we finally feel like we are settling into a good schedule. Honestly, it has been difficult to transition from attending language school full time in Tianjin to a regular working schedule in Banna. When we were both in language school, our days felt more balanced and predictable since we both spent equal number of hours going to school, studying, and watching kids. After moving to Banna, we have been transitioning to Cameron working outside of the house most days and me being at home with the kids. This is actually the first year I have truly experienced life as a stay-at-home mom. While I do love spending time with the kids and I would not trade those moments for the world, there are times when I can go a little crazy from being around little people too much. On top of that, I don’t have many places to take the kids where we all can get out of the house and socialize a bit. There are no malls to walk around in, no parks to go to, no mothers-day-outs, libraries, Chick-Fil-A playgrounds…you get the point. Therefore, in order to avoid total mental breakdown, we have eased into this new schedule slowly and adjust as needed.

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Our normal day goes something like this…

6:00 – workout/shower/quiet time

7:30 – Get kids up and dressed. Make breakfast.

8:20 – Cameron takes Claire to school and then heads to work.

8:30 – 11:15 – Cameron is at work. I go to the market or run errands, take Chloe outside to play, catch up on a few emails/administrative tasks, etc. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I have tutoring from 8:30 – 10:30.

11:15 – I pick up Claire from school.

11:45 – 1:00 – Lunchtime and playtime for kids.

1:00-3:30 – Kids nap. Mom conquers the world (or crashes completely depending on the day). Once a week Cameron and I have an afternoon “group” meeting. On Fridays, I go on a long trip to the grocery store (not on purpose, it takes a while to get across town in what equates to a go-cart).

3:30 – 4:30 – Snack time, schoolwork time

4:30 – 5:30 – TV time for kids (no shame here). Get dinner ready.

5:30 – 7:00 – Dinner, baths, bed

7:30 – Mom and Dad collapse on the couch and zone out until bedtime.

 

Obviously, I left out alot of details about what Cameron does during the day. Vaguely, he is either in a village somewhere (villages are usually 30 minutes – 1.5 hours away), meeting with other coworkers, at our office doing work on the computer, or going to tutoring. Occasionally, we have visitors who come to Banna on a work-related visit and in that case we drop everything and host them for however long they are here. All in all, it is nice to finally have a schedule to rely on.

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A family hike

After a year of not focusing on language, Cameron and I have also both started spending about 6-8 hours a week on language study. I am still hacking away at the seemingly monumental task of learning Chinese, hoping to transition from being an intermediate level speaker to an advanced level speaker. It would help if the local people spoke standard Chinese, but roughly 70% of them speak the local dialect. That means that many of the tones are different and there are many different ways that they say things. Cameron is spending 4 hours a week learning the local dialect and another 4 hours learning the Dai language (a minority group language). Therefore, some days Cameron finds himself communicating in almost 4 different languages – English, standard Chinese, the local dialect, and Dai.

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Doing a butterfly craft with daddy at school.

We also have continued to explore possibilities of how to switch to a work visa. We are currently on a tourist visa which isn’t the best for stability or ease of life here. For us it boils down to two options – either find someone who can employ one of us for a limited amount of time each week or to start our own business. Both of these options involve significant challenges. It is very difficult for either local or foreign employers to obtain the proper permits to issue a visa to a foreign employee. Starting a business would actually be easier for us, but in order to obtain a visa, that requires us to have $50,000 in a bank account here in China. Most of our business ideas involve exporting local products such as tea or purple rice to America. We continue to brainstorm and pray for options, so we are hopeful that an opportunity will present itself sooner than later!

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The non-mommy approved way of taking Claire to school – strapped to daddy’s back while daddy rides his bike.

Obviously, no funny stories to share this time, but it was probably time to catch you up on our normal, everyday life!

 

 

 

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival

Even though it feels nothing like fall in our tropical city, China just celebrated mid-Autumn festival or the “moon cake” holiday. This year we were gifted moon cakes by two people – our landlord and another woman who Cameron did a favor for a couple months ago. Below is a picture of the box of moon cakes that the woman gave us. We don’t like moon cakes, particularly the ham flavor that is popular here, so our house helper happily took them home with her.

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In school news, Claire is already starting to surprise us with random Chinese phrases. Today, she walked into our apartment after school and said, “Dajia hao!” which means “Hello everyone!” Even though Claire is probably already learning how to fit in among her classmates, her parents aren’t doing her any favors in that area. We initially were sending her to school every day in her school uniform until her teacher kindly informed us that she only needed to wear it on Mondays. (Thank goodness because the uniforms are not the cutest as you can tell in the pictures below.) We also brought her to school on a day when they didn’t have school. I promise we are responsible parents, but when all the notices that they post on the wall at school are in Chinese, we can’t help but to miss some information here and there!

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Summer uniform – not too bad, except the front says “Tiger Show.”

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Claire’s winter uniform, and possibly a rapper costume

Claire also has been bringing home homework (keep in mind she is 3). Not every day, but usually once or twice a week she brings home 5 or 6 pages of homework. Some of the homework meets her ability level, but there were a couple pages the other day that were a little difficult for her. I helped her with them of course, but it was a little stressful trying to get her to follow along. On one page of homework, the teacher wrote, “Good job, but make sure you color it all in.” Heck, I can barely keep her from scribbling all over the entire page, much less get her to color it all in!

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Claire reluctantly doing homework

The past two weekends we have fulfilled some obligatory hang out time with our landlord. Our landlord is a nice guy, but he is not the type of person we enjoy hanging out with on the weekends. I won’t go into specifics as to why we don’t enjoy being around him, but I will say he likes to drink and party alot which doesn’t exactly match our interests or life stage (or his for that matter). Even if we did like going out with the guy, you are probably wondering why we need to hang out with him at all. In our experience, relationships are very important here in China. If we maintain a good relationship with our landlord, we will probably be able to stay here for many years and have very little problems. If we don’t have a good relationship with him, there is very little protecting us when we have a disagreement or if he wants to break the contract. Since China operates almost completely on a system of “guanxi” or relationship, the law is not our side. Problems are solved, jobs are earned, trouble is avoided, things are acquired, all through the people that you know. As foreigners, our guanxi is zero. Our landlord, who is a rich guy and a Party member, has a ton of guanxi with people all over town. Therefore, he is a good guy to have on your side and a bad guy to get crossways with. Of course,  he seems to really like us for some reason and literally asks us out at least every other week. We say “yes” about every 10th time he asks which seems to keep things friendly, but not too friendly.

All that being said, we reluctantly agreed to attending two parties hosted by our landlord on back-to-back weekends. The first weekend was a gathering of coworkers and the second weekend was a family holiday celebration, both at the same restaurant which was in a village about 30 minutes away. The restaurant had a nice atmosphere and probably wouldn’t have been that bad except that we have no car and therefore no control over when we could leave. I also got very stressed trying to keep both kids happy and safe. This proved to be a big challenge since my kids didn’t like the strange food (fried crickets, anyone?), there was a small pond which I was sure one of my children was going to fall into, some restaurant staff were killing and defeathering chickens next to the kitchen area and for some reason Claire wanted to get a first row seat to that, and poor Chloe was traumatized by being passed around from one squealing Chinese woman to the next. In addition, Cameron was busy being culturally appropriate by participating in toasts and also being forced to sing by the landlord (who was drunk by that time). We left the restaurant by 8:00 both times, but that was late enough to make our kids super grumpy and tired.

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Claire was not digging the fried crickets.

Thankfully, we have a few days off this coming week for the national holiday. I am eagerly anticipating some fall weather to arrive, but the stubborn heat outside doesn’t seem to show any signs of letting up anytime soon. It looks like I will just have to trick my brain into thinking it is fall by hanging up my fall decorations and listening to football!

School Days

Our little 3 year old has officially started school! It has felt like a big step for all of us especially since Claire has been home with me since day one. Before she turned 3, there were no dance classes, gymnastics classes, mothers-day-out classes, daycare, or any other type of organized group activity for us to take her to. Therefore jumping into school 5 days a week for 3 hours a day was quite a shock for all of us.

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A blurry first day pic.

I have to admit, the night before school started I did shed some tears over Claire going to school and whined to Cameron in hopes he would cave and say she didn’t have to go. I wasn’t sad about the fact my baby was growing older. I guess I am just not that sentimental when it comes to those things. Instead, I was terrified of all the (unlikely) “what-ifs”, such as what if she is sexually abused?, what if she is kidnapped?, what if…you get the idea. I was also nervous about sending her to a school that did not meet my American expectations of what a preschool should be. As I walked around her school, I noticed things like sharp edges on the playgrounds, the stairs being too steep, the bathroom being (in my mind) unsanitary, the teacher-student ratio being too small, and the list goes on. I also felt the basic fears of any mom. Who is going to be there to hold her when she is crying? Who would help her pull up her underwear when she finished using the restroom? Who would stop kids from pushing or being mean to her? And the obvious one – who would understand her if no one speaks English?! I would have pulled the plug on the whole thing if I didn’t truly believe that Claire’s life is in God’s hands and that attending preschool is the best thing for her in the long run.

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Despite my fears, Cameron, Chloe, and I all took Claire to her first day of school. Cameron thought it would be a quick drop and go, but I had a secret plan to linger around as long as possible to make sure she was OK (despite having worked at an elementary school for 8 years and knowing that would only make things worse). For most of the first morning, I sat wide-eyed in the back of the class with Claire while we watched kid after kid completely lose it after their moms left. I knew Claire would do the same thing, so I wanted to wait until there was a teacher available who could hold her while I left. However, with all the kids screaming, crying, and thrashing around on the ground, there wasn’t any extra hands to help. Finally, an older, wiser teacher came in and took charge. She politely asked me and a few other parents to leave (ok, so I got kicked out on the first day, big deal). She had to physically wrestle Claire away from me as Claire kicked and screamed. I just prayed that that wouldn’t be Claire’s first memory – mom shoving her away into some stranger’s arms. Nice.

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The second day didn’t go much better. When it came time to leave, I had to once again ask the teacher to help pry Claire away from me (Claire got a hold of my hair that time which made things more difficult). I thought the third day was going to be a turning point, but come to find out that it was just a two day school week. School was cancelled on Thursday and Friday for a holiday, but everyone needed to return to school and work the following Sunday to make up for the missed time (that is how most holidays go in China). Despite the 3 day weekend, the drop offs went remarkably smoother this week. There have been only a few tears this week, and she even was talking and laughing with a little friend when I left her the other day (of course, Claire was talking in English and the other girl in Chinese, but they seemed to be communicating just fine in their toddler speak).

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Chloe liked being at school more than her sister did.

The holiday I mentioned above was actually a new holiday for China. They celebrated 70 years since the end of WWII, or as they say “The War of Resistance Against the Japanese.” The holiday was a little strange since the hatred of Japan for the war crimes they committed centuries ago still runs very deep here. It was also a little awkward since China made it known to all its citizens that President Obama was invited to attend the impressive military parade in Beijing, but that he declined along with most other western leaders. We heard about that one from several local folks. Another hiccup in Chinese-American relations, but that is nothing new. We did have fun watching the military parade on TV. They showed off some impressive marching skills and displayed all their latest tanks, bombs, rockets, and airplanes. It was quite the show!

End of Summer, Beginning of School

After our insanely busy month of July, Cameron and I have been trying to take a short break these past few weeks, but despite our best efforts we still have two little ones who need something at least every 15 seconds. These past few weeks have also been a much-needed time to catch up on things around the house that we haven’t tended to in quite some time. After 7 months of living in our apartment, we finally installed a hot water heater. We were surviving with just the hot water from the solar water heater on the roof until the rainy season came in July and left us with nothing but freezing cold showers for about a month. I finally realized we had been toughing it out too long when my children were screaming and crying every time they had to take a bath. I am guessing I won’t be earning any mom-of-the-year awards after that!

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We also were able to put together a small birthday celebration for Claire turning three. We invited a few other families to join us at the Ramada pool down the street for swimming, lunch, and cupcakes. They don’t have a snack bar there, so I loaded up our three wheeler with a ton of food, drinks, and party supplies. Lucky for us, Chinese people generally don’t swim in the morning (just like they don’t shower in the morning) for fear of it being too cold. We were the only ones at the pool besides one other Chinese woman who was so enthralled with our kids that she joined right in with our party, playing with the kids, joining us for lunch and cupcakes, and singing “Happy Birthday” to Claire. Yes, I admit, I was a bit annoyed that she joined my three-year-old’s birthday party, but it was also a good opportunity for me to continue to practice flexibility and love towards strangers!

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Celebrating Claire’s birthday at the pool

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Birthday girl anxiously awaiting her cupcake

In the recent weeks, we also had some opportunities to check out a few of the preschools in the area. No, our motive for sending Claire to preschool in the fall is not because we need a few hours of peace and quiet each day (although now that I think about it that does sound kind of nice). Actually, Cameron and I both feel that during the preschool and kindergarten years there exists a narrow window of opportunity for Claire to learn how to communicate in Chinese. We have heard, according to a number of expat friends, that starting in 1st grade the Chinese school system begins to focus heavily on writing characters and also requires students to do alot of homework each night. While this may be just heresay and there are probably expat kids out there who do just fine in the Chinese school system, our personal plan is to put Claire in school for PreK and Kinder and then homeschool her after that. Our hope is that this will establish a solid Chinese language foundation, open the door to having Chinese friends in the future and allow for a deeper understanding of the Chinese culture. This is important to us because we don’t want Claire to always feel like an outsider. It breaks out hearts when we watch Claire run up to a group of kids outside playing and excitedly say something to them in English only to have them laugh at her because they don’t understand what she is saying. Our hope is that in learning Chinese at a young age she will retain her confident, outgoing spirit and not withdraw out of being unable to communicate.

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Chloe at the playground

And of course, our introduction to the world of Chinese preschool has been a learning curve for us. For starters, most Chinese kids begin preschool as soon as they turn 3 and attend school 5 days a week usually for 9 to 10 hours a day. When we talked to the principals at several schools about Claire only attending school for half of the day, they either reluctantly agreed or said that they only offer full-day enrollment. Thankfully, we found a school that will allow her to attend from 8:30am-11:30am Monday through Friday. Another interesting difference is that the class sizes are much bigger. They can enroll up to 35 kids per class. I feel a little better knowing that there will be 3 teachers in each room; however that is still alot of 3 year olds in one space! Furthermore, all the kids wear uniforms and are issued the same backpacks, water bottles, and other supplies. No cute first-day-of-school outfits or monogramed backpacks for us! I can tell there is alot more we will be discovering as we head down this road, but at least it will give me something fun to write about!

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One of the preschools we looked at

 

It Takes a Village to Host a Wedding

Last weekend our American coworker got married to a local guy here in Banna. Because there are only about fifteen foreign families that live here, we all were recruited to help with various aspects of the wedding. One of my responsibilities was to host my friend’s wedding shower. We don’t often have parties here, so I was really excited at the opportunity to host her shower. In fact, planning the shower became a hobby for me over the last several months (in my defense, I needed something to distract me from all the diaper-changing and crying!). Of course, I had to look at Pinterest first so that I could see what all the super-human people in the world do at their wedding showers and then decide which of their ideas I could copy best. Then, after I came up with all these lofty ideas for decorations and food, I remembered that I live in a place where I can’t even buy popcorn. Thank goodness for “Taobao”, China’s version of Ebay except with mostly new items. I can find almost anything on Taobao as long as I can figure out how to translate it into Chinese. For example, when I was searching for tissue paper pompoms to hang on the ceiling during the party, I had to think of how to describe tissue paper pompoms using Chinese – “paper balls”, “party paper balls”, “paper ball decorations” (mind- numbing, isn’t it?). Once I found the right search term, I had to look carefully at the seller’s website and the pictures of the products to decide if the seller and his products were reliable (many are fake or poor quality). Lastly, I often sent the seller chat messages to ask him/her questions about the product. As much as I love having the option of buying many things on Taobao, it is obviously an exhausting and time-consuming process!

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The shower itself was great! I was pretty stressed leading up to the shower since I didn’t have any co-hosts to help me and there were a larger number of guests coming than I had expected. In fact, one person called the day before and asked if she could bring two  of her friends and her two daughters. Being from America, this annoyed the heck out of me, but I reluctantly said “yes” since living in another cultural often means one has to be very flexible (a skill I am not so good at). Due to all the stress I was feeling leading up to the shower, I was actually pleasantly surprised when the party turned out to be a big hit among both foreigners and Chinese people. The Chinese people who attended the party were thoroughly entertained by all the American party traditions especially the wedding shower games. I also noticed how much the foreigners enjoyed having time to let loose and have fun. I think we all spend so much time and stress trying to survive here on a a daily basis, that we were so excited at the opportunity to get dressed up and attend an actual party!

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The other responsibility I had during the actual wedding was making the wedding cake. Keep in mind, I have very little baking expertise. I make cute cupcakes, and that is about it. At the time my friend asked me to do her wedding cake, I was convinced that the result would be something like this…

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The bride probably would have been happy with a simple sheet cake, but, oh nooo, my perfectionist crazy-brain got in the way and decided I needed to do a 3 tiered cake with a “rustic” design. Thus began a frantic process of me trying to educate myself via Youtube and Pinterest on the ins and outs of making a wedding cake. I learned all about things like dowel rods, cardboard rounds, crusting vs non-crusting buttercream, cake pan strips, etc. I, once again, scoured the endless abyss known as Taobao to find things like floral tape and off-set spatulas. During the cake-making process, I did everything a person should NOT do when making a wedding cake for the first time such as testing absolutely nothing beforehand. This led to a very stressful and busy week before the wedding. It was nothing short of a miracle that this was the finished product…

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Not bad for the first time, huh? All thanks to the world wide web (and I think God had pity on me, so he might have intervened as well).

At least I didn’t have to sing at the wedding. Hehe. 🙂

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Just Another Day at the Playground

The other day I read an article written by a mom who was frustrated by the habits of other playground moms, and I chuckled to myself thinking about how minor those annoyances seemed compared to what Claire and I encounter on a day-to-day basis. Every morning Claire and I go outside for awhile in a usually futile attempt to burn off the endless energy that she has. I have come to enjoy this time for many reasons – one-on-one time with Claire, a chance to enjoy nature, a break from my never-ending to-do list at home, etc. And as much as I prefer just to have some time to ourselves, we inevitably encounter other people outside during our daily outings. People passing by rarely go past us without staring or asking us a quick question or two (usually “Does she (Claire) speak Chinese?”). We often run into older ladies who quickly start searching through their bag so that they can find something for Claire to eat. I have learned it is just easier to accept the food even if it means throwing it away when they aren’t looking. Yesterday, I confiscated so many of Claire’s snacks that I was walking around with an entire corn cob and some kind of unidentified hairy fruit for a good 20 minutes (trash cans are hard to come by!).

Every day we run into groups of playground “moms” and their kids. I say “moms” because in China, it is the grandmother who takes care of the child while mom is at work. Every time we walk by them, they immediately erupt into loud squeals of excitement followed by lots of curious questions, invitations to join their play, and cheek squeezes. Most of the playground “moms” are inquisitive, but relaxed in their interactions with us. Other moms can be very annoying. They might holler at Claire from across the playground to come play with their child or ask us lots of “why” questions such as “Why don’t you have any boys?” I always encourage Claire to be kind and say “Nihao”, but I don’t force her to play with anyone in particular. For foreigners it can be frustrating to draw so much attention when we go out, to answer the same questions from strangers over and over, and for people to interact with our kids in ways we don’t always like; however, God is gracious in the way He gives me lots of patience and flexibility. I even find myself relieved that we are in a place where people are excited to approach us and that we don’t have to work very hard to meet new people. It makes our job a lot easier!!

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In other news, Chloe turned 1 a couple weeks ago! We had a very low-key celebration and invited one other family over for dinner and cupcakes. I am glad I didn’t bother with a huge birthday blowout, because Chloe was not feeling well on her birthday. She was also disgusted by the cupcake I gave her, so watching her spit out every bite with disgust was not that fun or exciting. I think all she really wanted was to go to sleep early (just like her mom)!

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Another major milestone in our family during the last few weeks was Claire being successfully potty-trained. We did the crash-course method, and simply let her walk around the house without anything on. As soon as we started offering her 1 skittle for every time she used the potty, she has hardly had any accidents. Although at some point, she attempted to cheat the system and earn a skittle for every tiny squirt or nugget that came out. We quickly had to define that we only gave skittles for “real” pees or poops. I am glad that we are past the initial stage of potty-training, but I don’t enjoy the inevitable clean up that goes with it and the seemingly endless discussion of bathroom habits around our house.

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We are anticipating a very busy month of July. A friend and co-worker is getting married in a couple weeks and so we have numerous things to do to get ready for that. I am throwing her a wedding shower and in true character have gone completely overboard in planning it. I also was somehow convinced by my friend to make the wedding cake. I like to bake, but baking a wedding cake (especially in a place with very little baking resources) is way outside my comfort zone. On the other hand, it could be worse. Cameron was recruited to sing at the wedding. Is he a singer? No. Does he have any musical background? Sure, if Junior High choir counts. Don’t worry, I will be filming and will thoroughly enjoy mercilessly teasing him for many years to come. 🙂

Look Who Can Cook!

 

A couple weeks ago we had a small party to celebrate our good friend’s fiancé getting his visa to visit America. I chuckle at the fact that I once thought China was strict about issuing visas, because even obtaining a tourist visa to America is difficult. A Chinese person must prove that they have enough ties to China (bank accounts, a steady job, family) that there is absolutely no reason for them to stay in the US, and even then they sometimes get denied. When they go to interview at the Embassy, they must bring family pictures, financial documents, a letter from their employer and many more supporting documents to convince the officer that they will, in fact, be returning to China. I certainly don’t fault the US for needing to be so strict, but I feel badly for my friends here who have really good reasons for wanting to go to the US but are denied a visa. Our friend’s fiancé was denied a visa a year ago when they both wanted to return to the US to meet her parents. So, this time we were all relieved that they were given permission to go back and visit her friends and family. For the “Welcome to America” party, I had to try out this Pinterest idea…(and before you count, no there are not 50 stars!)

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On the subject of baking and cooking, I have been doing a ton of that lately. When we lived in the States, my cooking ability was sub-par, at best. Cooking chicken was a challenge for me. Then when we came to China, unless we wanted to eat Chinese for every meal and spend lots of time in the bathroom because of it, I had to learn to cook. I had no choice but to learn through experience all those cooking skills that I had chosen not to pay attention to in the past. I can now safely say that even though the kitchen is still not my favorite place to be, I have grown leaps and bounds in the cooking department. I am particularly excited at how many things I have learned to make from scratch – bread crumbs, sour cream, pancakes, rolls, bread, ice cream, cured ham, beans, hot fudge, pancake syrup, and the list goes on. I realize I sound like I am tooting my own horn, but I am just that excited to be able to make food, real food, like the kind people will eat.

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And we haven’t just been putting together meals for ourselves, we have been hosting people a lot. Every week we have at least one night, if not more, when we invite people over for dinner. It is not that I love to host, that has definitely become an acquired skill, but going out to a restaurant is just not that fun when you can’t decide if you are more distracted by your child rolling around on the dirty floor under the table or by the ladies hovering over your table staring at the spectacle of white people before them.  One of our more impressive hosting feats has been for our regular Sunday Fellowship. Since the foreigners in town don’t have an actual building to go to, we meet in each other’s homes every Sunday to worship and share a meal together. It is great fun and all, but cooking for 20, 25, 30 people is not for the faint of heart. An additional challenge is having to make most of the meal from scratch. If we need bacon bits for the salad, then, by golly we have to cook the bacon and chop it up ourselves! If we need bread crumbs, then we have to toast some bread and chop it up in the food processor. On top of all that, we have to do all the dishes BY HAND! Every time we host the Sunday Fellowship, I swear I will never step foot in the kitchen again, but somehow we survive our hosting duties.

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In other news, we did our first “border run” to get a stamp in our visa. Because we have a tourist visa, we are required to enter and exit the country every 90 days. Ironically, this is to prevent people like us from actually living in China on a tourist visa. Lucky for us, we are only a 3 hour drive from the China/Laos border. Since China has no rule regarding how long we need to stay out of the country, then all we need to do is get our exit stamp in the exit building, and then walk across the street and get our entry stamp in the entry building. Technically, we are supposed to actually go the extra 100 meters down the road to the Laos entry and exit buildings and do that same thing, but it is common knowledge among the foreigners in this area that they don’t actually check to see if you got your Laos stamp. So, rather than waste an extra 45 minutes and $160, we chose not to get the Laos stamp as well. I realize this all sounds a little risky and unstable, so we are in the process of searching for ways to switch to a work visa. Getting a work visa is no small matter either, but we have a couple leads we are trying to pursue.

One last update – our little baby girl is walking now!

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I also had to include this one, because it makes me laugh.We walked by this Buddhist temple one evening after dinner and Claire got so excited because she thought she had found The Great Pyramid from an episode of “The Little Einsteins”.

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Fun with Water

The last three weeks have been full of our regular activities and some unexpected ones as well. In fact, sometimes the unexpected seems to outweigh the expected around here. Take last night for example, I woke up to the sound of pouring rain at about 4:30am. Pouring rain is not unusual in Banna, but what was unusual was the loud sound of scraping that I heard coming from somewhere above us. I was worried that something might be wrong, so I went looking through our apartment to see if I could find the source of the sound. As I got closer to the front door, both the scraping sound and the pouring rain sounded like it was concentrated in the hall. As I opened the door, I stepped into a flow of rushing water and gasped when I saw that our apartment stairwell had turned into a giant waterfall. At first, I thought the roof was caving in above, but I couldn’t help but race up the stairwell getting soaked along the way to find out what was happening. As I reached our upstairs neighbor’s apartment, I saw our neighbor using a long-handled dust pan to literally shovel water out of his apartment (thus the scraping sound). A pipe had burst in the second floor of his apartment covering his entire apartment in about 3 inches of water.

I ran back down to yell at Cameron to get out of bed, and we both raced back upstairs to help our neighbor direct the flow of water out of his apartment (and hopefully stop it from seeping down into ours). After the maintenance guy showed up 15 minutes later, he finally got the pipe to stop gushing water. Cameron and I felt so bad for our neighbor that we spent from 4:30am to 6:30am shoveling, scooping, sweeping, and then mopping the water out of the apartment. I was pretty worried about possible damage to our apartment, but luckily there was only some minor damage on our outdoor patio.

    Some repairmen came yesterday to check out the damage to our patio. As I mentioned in my last blog, even though repairmen in China come to fix things, they often break other things and make a huge mess as well. This time they were thankfully just surveying the damage and not drilling any massive holes in the wall (yet). However, at some point during their visit a repairman ripped a piece of paper out of a spiral that was sitting on our counter to write down something. I was messing with Chloe at the time, so I didn’t see him do it, but as he walked past me out the door, I saw him walk by holding the month of June in his hand! In other words, he used my daily planner as a scratchpad! Anyone who knows me well knows that you DON’T MESS WITH THE PLANNER!!! I looked at Cameron with my mouth wide open, and he just started laughing. (Thanks, Cameron!) This is yet another reason why repairmen in China will continue to remain on my “extremely dislike” list.

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Acting silly

 

In other news, it has been getting pretty hot here, hitting 100 during the day, so we decided to go swimming for the first time last weekend. When we lived in Tianjin, swimming was never an optional family activity because there were no pools with the exception of the lap pools at gyms (and at those pools the men are required to wear speedos, so that was a definite no-go for Cameron). Now that we are in Banna and people actually swim for fun here, we chose to go to the hotel pool down the street to swim since we heard it was not crowded with people (foreigners often avoid crowds because it usually results in lots of stares, pictures, questions and advice from strangers).

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Anxiously waiting to go swim

     When we got there and finally got in the water, I was amazed at how much fun we were having and how I couldn’t remember having that feeling of “fun” since we first arrived in China. I couldn’t figure out why something as simple as swimming would lift my spirit so much. As I began to reflect, I realized that things I found “fun” when we first arrived are not the same things that I find “fun” now. When we first arrived, we loved things that were different from our life in America – riding a bike everywhere, speaking Chinese, witnessing Chinese celebrations – everything was new, exciting, and fun. However, it is the opposite now. The things I find “fun” are the things that are the most familiar to me. When we are the pool, I was able to relax and enjoy myself because things felt familiar, safe, and comfortable. No one else was at the pool, therefore we didn’t feel pressured to talk to strangers in Chinese. The pool and surrounding area was beautiful and well-maintained, so I didn’t have to worry about what my children were walking in or putting in their mouths. We were able to relax, play and laugh in a place that felt like my parent’s pool back in Texas. You are probably thinking why we would live in a place where we rarely have fun, but that is just how strongly we believe in what we are doing. Fortunately, the discovery of the swimming pool down the street will help us add a little more fun to our weekly routine!

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Taking selfies is now part of the pre-walking stage