Monday, April 30, 2012

A Box of Blue Eggs

Shopping at the market was going well – that is, until it came to the eggs. I (Kevin) was walking up and down the narrow street, looking side to side. Who should I buy from? Buckets were full of eggs: white eggs, tan eggs, dark brown eggs, light blue eggs … blue eggs? I was initially going to reject the pale blue eggs, but then I saw an older woman, alone with only a small box of eggs. Surely she needed business.

“I want 10,” I said, handing her a 10 yuan (dollar) bill. That is equivalent to $1.75. Since eggs are cheap, I figured she would give me back a lot of change. Instead, she carefully bagged up 8 eggs and pocketed the 10 yuan.

I stood there, quietly, thinking. My purchase of 8 eggs should not have cost so much. Maybe she had just forgotten to give me change.

“8 eggs?” I said. “I gave you 10 yuan. I wanted 10 eggs, and I …” I couldn’t remember how to say I needed change.

The woman looked at me, puzzled, and then she rattled off a long discourse of very important sounding words. She spoke with passion. I’m sure I looked completely dumfounded because in fact, I was. I did understand her say the words “10” and “8,” but that knowledge didn’t help me in the least. Also not helpful was the fact that several people had now gathered around us. A man joined in the lengthy discourse, adding emphasis and volume to what the vendor had told me. I think he thought I was hard of hearing.

Part of me just wanted to leave – forget about the money and leave. And really, I should have done that. Instead, I took out 1 yuan. I was beginning to fear that in fact, I owed an additional 8 mao (15 cents) than I had already paid. While that notion seemed crazy to me, maybe the blue eggs had come from something different than a chicken. Maybe the blue eggs were extra expensive because they came from some kind of exotic bird. That might explain the reason behind the passionately long discourse.

When I showed the 1 yuan bill, everyone got very quiet. The vendor stared at me – a mixture of disbelief and frustration. “Oh, Lord,” I prayed.

The woman grabbed the bill, took another egg out of her box and threw it down into my bag. I exhaled, imagining the insides of the blue egg running over the bananas and apples. But after a moment, I nodded and said, “Thank you.”

I walked away before checking the contents of my bag. I really didn’t want to look, but I needed to. To my pleasant surprise, I saw that the egg was intact. But it did have a dent. Suddenly, I had an epiphany. Raw eggs break; boiled eggs dent. I had purchased boiled eggs. 8 boiled eggs for 10 yuan … though now, I had 9 boiled eggs for 11 yuan. Goodness.

But I decided to make the best of things and started peeling the shell. When I took a bite of the egg, my face contorted. I can’t remember tasting anything so salty. It’s hard to provide an adequate description, but I can say, the egg journeyed to the nearest trashcan.

With the remaining 10 blue eggs, I made a center piece for the coffee table. Why not? Maybe our friend who was coming to visit would like to eat them for breakfast. So this morning, I offered them to Doreen, but she graciously declined. She explained that salty boiled duck eggs are only eaten with porridge. Otherwise, she said, “Too salty.”

If there's any grace in it all, it's this: when I saw the woman with the eggs again, she returned my greeting with a smile. Who knows what God can do with a salty batch of boiled blue duck eggs? I'll just have to learn enough Chinese to find out.
~ Kevin

Thursday, April 26, 2012

It Takes a Community

I'm honored to be a guest blogger and “Reflections” columnist for my Dad this week. You can visit Bro Darryl's Notebook to read his weekly thoughts and inspirational posts.

One of my top priorities after we moved to northeast China was finding the right preschool for Molly and Hudson, so they could make friends and learn Chinese. The problem was I didn’t know where any preschools were located, and even if I did, I couldn’t communicate with anyone there. Thankfully, we are surrounded by people who could help. First step: Phone a friend with young children and ask for advice. Spend several hours walking to three different preschools and talking with principals. Second step: Talk with my husband, my mother-in-law (a preschool director in Houston), the leader of our organization here, and pray for guidance. Third step: Ask a Chinese friend to return with me to our favorite preschool and work out the details, including negotiating how many English lessons I could teach in exchange for free tuition. Fourth step: Arrange for a driver with a van and another Chinese friend to help us take Molly and Hudson to a health clinic for a required medical check. Fifth step: Return to the preschool with yet another Chinese friend to deliver the results and finalize our starting date. Sixth step: Reach out to everyone we know to ask for prayer as Molly and Hudson adjust to spending two days a week in a school where no one speaks English. If you’re keeping track, that’s a whole lot of people involved in our children’s preschool registration!

Never has the concept of “community” meant more to us than in the preparation of our move to China and in our daily life here. We would not survive without it. The prayers, financial support and physical help from countless friends and family members paved the way for us to pack up our house and move here in the first place. Our team members and friends in China have helped us learn our way around, buy food, furnish our apartment and establish a routine. The faithful prayer support and encouragement we receive through emails, phone calls and care packages literally restore us and keep us accountable. It’s a helpless feeling when you realize you can’t buy stamps from the post office by yourself, much less explain to your son’s teacher that he’s allergic to milk. It’s humbling. And it’s a powerful way to experience God’s grace and provision every day. Thank you for being part of our community.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"So what do you eat?"

We are asked all the time about food here in China -- what we eat, how Molly and Hudson are liking the food, how it is different from Texas. I cannot possibly explain the complexities of Chinese food in a paragraph, but I'll try to sum up a few differences. In Texas, we ate a lot of chicken, cheese, beans, potatoes, stew, steamed vegetables, ground meat, pasta, tomato sauce, deli-sliced lunch meat, waffles (with Nutella on top!), applesauce -- I could go on and on. I used the oven a lot for chicken pot pie, quiche, lasagna, casseroles, etc. Here, butter, cheese and pasta are available at a few fancy European supermarkets but certainly aren't normal fare. Chinese cooking involves a wide variety of vegetables (eggplant, tofu and many kinds of leafy greens are quite common) and meat (pork, chicken, beef, mutton) stir-fried in a wok. There is soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil instead of butter, cream and olive oil. You go to the outdoor market and buy fresh chicken or beef from a vendor instead of finding wrapped packages of lean ground meat or skinless, boneless chicken breasts.

When we lived in northeast China 10 years ago, it took me quite a while to come around to really enjoying the food. Sure, there were dishes I liked, but it was a solid six months before I truly adjusted. This time has been completely different. I hadn't realized how much I missed the food until we arrived and I began ordering my favorite dishes. So delicious! I have been eating with gusto.
The photo above shows shao qiezi on the right, which is eggplant with pork, garlic, onions and red and green peppers. Our friend Susan says the city we're living in now has the best shao qiezi in China, and we believe her. It is excellent here! I forget the exact name of the dish on the left, but it is a type of bread (called "bing" which means pancake) filled with beef and seasonings. A Chinese meal typically has rice, but rice is not needed if you order bing or jaozi (dumplings or potstickers, as American restaurants call them).
This photo was taken on our first morning in China, at the hotel's breakfast. Molly was trying to work with her chopsticks; usually kids begin eating with them around age 5. Her plate has fried rice, a hard-boiled egg and bread, like a sticky bun. I am eating zhou, which is rice cooked in a lot of water (kind of like porridge). Another breakfast staple -- and my personal favorite -- is baozi (dumplings filled with meat). When our friend Leroy was here, we found a small baozi restaurant nearby and can now pick those up to eat on the go or bring back to the apartment.
At home, we've been eating a lot of peanut butter and crackers. We also make PB&J on wheat bread, slice cheese to go on our crackers, and eat a lot of scrambled eggs and fruit. Cooking at home has been really hard for me because our kitchen isn't equipped to cook the way I'm used to, and I am not at all familiar enough with the seasonings and way of cooking to make Chinese dishes. It's a terrible feeling to not be able to provide healthy food for your family, especially when that includes two growing kiddos. It's difficult to take our kids to restaurants -- they are 2 and 4, after all -- and it's also usually a very smoky environment (non-smoking sections are extremely rare). So we recently made one of the best decisions ever and hired a sweet Christian lady to be our cook. She does all of the market/grocery shopping and then comes to our apartment from 3-5 p.m. Monday through Friday to cook dinner for us. We explained Kevin and Hudson's food allergies to her, told her the types of food we especially enjoy, and know she is cooking with less oil than the restaurants use plus no MSG. Hopefully I can watch and learn from her, as well as practice my language skills (once I actually have some, of course). She only charges $32 a week, plus the cost of the groceries. Win, win, win!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Start with Autism

Last week, I was privileged to be a part of autism seminars at a preschool and children's hospital. Below is a photo from a conference room at the preschool. To my right is Sophie, the children's director at our organization, Dr. Bin, the plastic surgeon who translated, and Dr. Tammy Johnson, the professor and autism expert visiting from Lee University. The information she provided was very helpful. See, I was taking notes :).

No matter the special occasion, it is Chinese culture to lavish guests with various fruits and pastries.

They also gave coffee, but I politely gave my cup to Paulette, who is sitting to my left. She is also with our organization. I did enjoy eating one of those bananas. Below is a photo of us with the preschool teachers who work with children affected by autism. They were very receptive of anything they could learn to improve their teaching.

At the children's hospital, the seminar involved numerous hospital staff, ranging from doctors to secretaries.

Afterward, we had a Q & A session with psychology staff members. They invited parents with their children affected by autism to join us. The hospital has been working with autistic needs for 16 years, but the staff and parents were hungry for effective tools to help the children. The kids were precious.

I wish we had time to visit other areas of the hospital, but we hope for more opportunities in the future. The staff shared that this hospital was recently completed last October. They emphasized that the ceiling has LED lights.


Preschool Update

We survived our first day of preschool! Thank you for all the prayers as Molly, Hudson and I started preschool today. All in all, I consider it a big success. Hudson cried a lot as we were dropping him off in his classroom, but he settled in within a few minutes and was happily playing when I came in an hour and a half later for the English lesson in his class. He participated so nicely during that time (I was afraid he'd want me to hold him the whole time) but had another meltdown when I was leaving again. Hopefully he'll get used to me coming and going. The teachers were very attentive and carried him around to soothe and distract him. He is the only one not potty trained at the school -- it's an attendance requirement, which apparently they're making an exception for with us. They do change his diaper there, although they don't seem to be as familiar with diapers since it's the Chinese way to potty train basically from birth, in a "go on command" style. (If you're curious, diapers are available here. I've seen Pampers, Huggies and even Pull-Ups, which I wasn't expecting. But the prices are pretty much identical to the US, which makes them an extravagant purchase.)

When I dropped Molly off in her classroom, she immediately went over to the table, sat down with her breakfast (bowl of noodles with half of a hard-boiled egg on top) and waved, "Bye Mom!" This is exactly how they've always reacted to preschool, BSF, Sunday school, etc. One of the administrators took me under her wing and guided me through the morning. Her English ability was very sufficient -- leaps and bounds ahead of my Chinese -- and she helped out in each classroom I visited. The kids were sweet, and the time went by quickly. I know now how to prepare for next week, and hopefully I can encourage the shy ones to feel comfortable speaking up. I wish I could post pictures! I was finished for the day at 10:30, so I enjoyed a nice lunch date with Kevin. When we picked up the kids at 5, they were excited to see us but in very good hands. The teachers are all very gracious and seem happy to have us there. And the kids have been very positive tonight as they've recounted the day. Molly has already been talking about what she is going to wear next time and what book she wants to bring along in her backpack. :)

We learned tonight that the water will be shut off for two days starting tomorrow morning. Apparently something needs to be fixed in our area of the city. We're thankful we heard in advance so we can fill buckets and pots tonight with extra water. (We always keep one bucket of water on our porch because it's rare to have advance notice.) Kevin is washing dinner dishes now, and I'll run a load of laundry as soon as he's finished.

We're excited that we'll be using our guest room again tomorrow night -- our third guest in as many weeks here! Our close friend Linda (a Chinese teacher at the college where we taught before) is arriving tomorrow afternoon. She will spend Friday night with us and accompany us to travel back there on Saturday morning. Although we've navigated trains in China before, we're thankful to have her help with us this weekend as we travel with our kids for the first time by train. It's just a little over two hours by express train, and we'll get to spend most of Saturday and half of Sunday catching up with our friends there and attending the International Fellowship for Easter worship. We feel blessed in so many ways!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Twas the night before school...

The kids and I start preschool tomorrow! I'm trying not to be nervous, but I definitely have first-day-of-school jitters. Molly and Hudson are pretty excited because we've been talking about it all week and walking past the building a lot as we've been out exploring our neighborhood. Here's the front of the school:
It's the three-story light yellow building between the two tall ones. The kids will be there from 8 to 5:15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I'll be teaching English classes between 9-11 both days. I'll be in each of the five classes for about 20 minutes, and in return we don't have to pay any monthly tuition, just a small daily fee for meals. What a great deal! That will save us $250 a month.

I'll let you know how the kids adjust to a full day of school with everyone speaking only Chinese. We've been trying to teach them how to say things like teacher and bathroom, but mostly I find myself saying: "Just watch the other kids and do what they do." Not my typical parenting advice! I hope they can pick up the words and phrases quickly, and likewise I hope I'll be able to understand what the other teachers are saying to me as they direct me from class to class.

I know there is no way I'd be brave enough to do this if it weren't for the six months I spent as a BSF children's leader this past year. God definitely engineered that as perfect preparation for me, and I'm looking forward to finding ways to include some of the songs and finger plays we used. Music is universal! I'm praying the kids will be eager to participate and repeat and sing along with me. Maybe 2- to 5-year-olds aren't as worried yet about making pronunciation mistakes.

In other news, our close friend Leroy came to visit us on Sunday and Monday. (Schools and offices were closed Monday through Wednesday for a national holiday.) It was so wonderful to reconnect with him and spend time together. He helped us try new restaurants in our neighborhood and shop for a few more household things. He lives in Beijing with his wife and 1 1/2 year old son, so we hope to see them a few times a year.
Back in 2003, we had the chance to celebrate Chinese New Year with his family in Fujian province -- a very memorable week for all of us.