From Along the Yangtze: 50th Birthday Celebrations Finally End

 

Yesterday evening had me celebrating my Luzhou birthday dinner surrounded by Chinese friends and  Peace Corp colleagues, Angela and Geoff.  It was such a unique,  wonderful evening that I felt I should give you all the details.

As mentioned in the last post, I had a gathering in Chengdu with the young folk eating hotpot and was awaiting a more upscale, posh dinner in Luzhou the next Friday.  That took place last night and it certainly was an amazing event.

Cathy (Li Xiaolian, my former departmental dean at this college) has been my best friend for 12 years now and she was the one to arrange the gathering for my 50th.

When I turned 40, Cathy was also in charge of my birthday banquet here in Luzhou.  She booked a restaurant for me so I could share my celebrations with not only a few friends, but the entire English language department and the leaders as well.  It was a huge affair, with 4 tables of 12 people each.  I remember loyal Cathy as a constant presence next to me.  She’d poke me when it was time to toast this leader or that, encourage me to keep the conversation flowing with my pitiful  Chinese small talk, and nudge me to pay attention to the other tables so I could adequately include all in my birthday invite. My dear Cathy was the one ushering me  into the tricky world of banquet etiquette which I was ineptly stumbling along to perform.

Yes, for my 40th, it was a bit of a stressful evening on my part, one that I hadn’t expected due to my unfamiliarity with being the hostess in a  formal Chinese dining affair.

Make It Simple

10 years later, I am certainly better skilled to handle such a situation with more poise and dignity but I decided to scale down my party for a couple of reasons.

At present, everyone at our school is too busy with wrapping up the end of the year.  Students are still having final exams and teachers are scrambling to get grades finished.  Administrators are also rushing about, dealing with all that needs dealt with before holidays begin.

Yet another reason is that I’ve been gone so much from this area for the past 5 years that I am just starting up relationships that had been firmly established 10 years ago.  Leaving Sichuan, being in Guangxi for 3 years, returning to Luzhou for 1 year, and then having to leave again  last year due to the work visa business strained most of my ties formed before.  I am  now having to re-establish those, meaning the closeness I once felt to my school staff here is not quite as strong as it was in the past.

Cathy and I decided that a small gathering of her special friends who are now my special friends would be better.  And I must say, we were both right.  No stiff, formal leaders to impress or tons of colleagues to manage as a hostess.  It was just one table of 12, jovial, easy banter, private one-on-one toasting and a warm feeling of friendship.

Yes, there was cake which we ate first because Cathy insisted we’d have no room to stuff it in if we waited for all the dishes to arrive.

Having dessert first was not something I wanted for my 50th but I bowed to Cathy’s decision.  And, as always,  that was a wise move on my part.  We managed to down only half of the light, whipped-cream sponge cake before over 20 stir-fried dishes started to fill our table.  No way could we have dug into cake after such a full-course, meat-and-vegetable fanfare.

Thus we began with lighting the candles, the Happy Birthday song, me serving cake pieces to everyone and then my thank you toast to all before digging into the feast set before us.

好吃! 好吃!” Good Eats!  Good Eats!

I must say, that was the best dinner I’ve ever had in my 20 years in China.

Ms. Liu, Cathy’s elementary school classmate and one of our attendees, had selected  the dishes from the restaurant’s menu. This is always a challenge when ordering for foreigners because we can get pretty picky.  We are not guts-and-gore type of folk who delight in fatty meats, strange animal innards and odd flavors invading our delicate stomachs.  These are what Chinese enjoy for their palates but far from anything foreigners such as myself care for.  This difference often makes it difficult for Chinese to understand a foreigner’s tastebuds, thus we overseas folk usually find ourselves hungry after leaving a fully-loaded Chinese table.

But Ms. Liu did an outstanding job.  Everything was perfectly catered to this American’s food preferences and I left nothing  untouched.  Not only that but we 12 actually finished off everything!  That is quite unusual when so much food is set before us.

The only thing I just absolutely couldn’t bring to eat was my bowl of noodles and an egg, courtesy of  the hotel.  This was placed before me at the tail end of our dinner.

Noodles with a fried egg on top are to bring long life to the birthday individual.  It’s a tradition in China to have this on your birthday but one which I just couldn’t bring myself to eat, not because it was unwanted or unappreciated but because I just couldn’t stuff anything more in!  I just hope my disregard for this custom doesn’t cause the  Chinese gods to snap off a extra few years from my hoped-for age of 100.

Leaving for the States on Tuesday

Now that my Luzhou dinner is finished, today is all about getting ready for my visit to the States.  I leave on Monday for Shanghai, straight from our tiny Luzhou airport, and then head off to Illinois on Tuesday.  This will therefore most likely be the last post until then.

I finish off this post  with the visuals of my birthday celebrations for you to also enjoy.  Thank you again for making my 50th so very special with your website visits, cards and notes.  Ping An (Peace!)

My Happy Birthday Nikes, a gift from Gao Pei (Frank)

My Happy Birthday Nikes, a gift from Gao Pei (Frank)

My Chengdu birthday celebration with the young folk.

My Chengdu birthday celebration with the young folk.

Jason (Ji Ke) presents me with a warm scarf.

Jason (Ji Ke) presents me with a warm scarf.

Zhang Ou (Rebecca) gave me a lovely silk scarf for my dress-up wardrobe.

Zhang Ou (Rebecca) gave me a lovely silk scarf for my dress-up wardrobe.

Gao Pei, presenting me with cool pink Nikes.

Gao Pei, presenting me with cool pink Nikes.

The traditional hotpot

The traditional hotpot

In Chengdu, a pizza birthday dinner treated by Mrs. Zhao for me and Frank.

In Chengdu, a pizza birthday dinner treated by Mrs. Zhao for me and Frank.

Another birthday dinner with Little Flower's sitters (Mrs. He, center, and husband) with her friend.  Very cozy home gathering.

Another birthday dinner with Little Flower’s sitters (Mrs. He, center, and husband) with her friend. Very cozy home gathering.

On January 12, I joined my Dog walking companions on the Sichuan University campus: Madame Zhao (curlers), Ms. Yang (center) and Mrs. Zhao (red)

On January 12, I joined my Dog walking companions on the Sichuan University campus: Madame Zhao (curlers), Ms. Yang (center) and Mrs. Zhao (red)

My Luzhou Birthday gathering:  Me and Li Xiaolian (Cathy) with my birthday cake.

My Luzhou Birthday gathering: Me and Li Xiaolian (Cathy) with my birthday cake.

Ms. Liu (left), who ordered all our dishes, and Cathy, presenting me with a birthday necklace.

Ms. Liu (left), who ordered all our dishes, and Cathy, presenting me with a birthday necklace.

Here's to the birthday girl!

Here’s to the birthday girl!

Having my cake and eating it, too.  Yes, we eat with chopsticks!

Having my cake and eating it, too. Yes, we eat with chopsticks!

Toasting to friendship:  Cathy and her elementary school classmates, my new friends

Toasting to friendship: Cathy and her elementary school classmates, my new friends.

Posted in From Along the Yangtze, Luzhou, Luzhou Vocational and Technical College, Luzhou: Yangtze Rivertown Stories, Tales of China, Travel | 1 Comment

She’s 50 Today, Folks! A Note from the Birthday Girl

Currently, I am in Chengdu where the rental room’s XP computer limits my website use of all the bells and whistles it usually has. No ability to post pictures and the homepage is all ascew but I did check my stats.  As of today, I have had 7,340 visits, which is still shy of my hoped for 10,000 for my special day but nothing to sneeze at.

Best of all, despite the computer’s outdated software, what I can do at present  is post an entry about my birthday!

Surprise!  An Extra Few Days in the Big City

I arrived in Chengdu for my holiday R&R last Monday, with the assumption that I’d be returning earlier than I’d hoped. In the last post, I mentioned a 2-day workshop on Jan. 14th and 15th which I was asked to lead for area educators. The topic was Activities in the Classroom. After putting together hand-outs, preparing a very nice power point presentation and writing up an outline of the event, it was ready to go and I was happily on my way to Sichuan’s capital.

Then came the text from my vice-dean, Lisa Zhang.

“Connie, so sorry! The lectures are canceled.”

While a little disappointed, I can’t say I was too crushed. This would allow me to spend a few more days in Chengdu than expected, so that’s exactly what I’m doing. Those extra days include my fiftieth birthday, which is today.

So what has the birthday girl been up to and what’s to come? Let’s get started!

A Week of Relaxation 

Since I arrived, every morning has been enjoying my pool time at my favorite exercise hang-out, the Meng Zhui Wan Natatorium. My swimming buddies have been wondering where I’ve been for the past 4 months. Many don’t realize I actually live in Luzhou, not in Chengdu, so they’ve been discussing among themselves where the foreigner with the amazing swimming skills has disappeared to. Mystery has been solved now that I’ve informed everyone during our pool deck or locker room chit-chat of my where-abouts.

After the pool, it’s 3 p.m. doggie playdate with Mrs. Zhao, Hairy Bean (her poodle) and our other canine partners. At times, we’ve had as many as 9 pooches frolicking on the Sichuan University campus lawn in front of the graduate school classroom buildings. All breeds of various sizes, including their owners, join in the fun so we’ve had quite a crowd at times.

Also meeting up with me has been Gao Pei (Frank), who is a Sichuan University senior majoring in international economics. Last year, he accompanied me on daily walks while at the same time practicing his spoken English. His hope is to attend a US university after graudation to pursue his MA degree. I’ve likewise helped a bit with his application essays, all outstanding but in need of a little tweeking here and there. He’s applied to numerous top-notch schools so we’ll see what comes of that after acceptance announcements are sent out within the next few months.

Lots of Pre-50 Eat Outs

As for my evenings, I’ve been most fortunate to have had some excellent pre-birthday meals with friends.

The first was Mrs. Zhao, who invited me and Frank for a pizza dinner at a local Chinese pizza place.  I haven’t had pizza in quite some time so that was a very rare treat for me.  Frank likewise enjoyed the  3 selections we made:  Hawaiian, Southwestern flavor and chicken.  All were personal size pizzas which we shared.  Great way to start off my time in Chengdu.

Next was my invite to others on Friday evening for my Chengdu birthday dinner.

In China, it’s often the custom for those of us celebrating an event (birthday, winning a contest, getting a good job or acceptance into a great university) to invite and treat friends to a big dinner. What a better way to bring in my 50th than to surround myself with an energetic group, those half my age? For my city birthday gathering, I chose the young Chengdu crowd: Jason (Ji Ke, former Luzhou student), Rebecca (Zhang Ou, friend working at a bank in Chengdu) and Frank to eat hotpot with me.

Sichuan hotpot is quite popular in this province and is a specialty item which everyone enjoys. If you’re not familiar with the Chinese huo guo, or “fire pot,” which is the direct translation, it’s basically this: a huge pot of broth (either unbearably spicy or mild and plain, you choose), with a burner underneath, set in the center of the table.  The hug pot bubbles away to await what is placed into the turbulent liquid. We customers order raw vegetables, meats, fish and noodles which come on plates to our table. We then throw these into the broth, wait for them to boil up and then chopstick them out to eat.

I chose my favorite place, The Old Ghost Hotpot Restaurant, because they have a half-and-half hotpot where half the bowl is spicy and half is plain. This allows the patrons to choose which is best for their tastebuds and their stomachs. 

The establishment was packed full when we arrived at 6:30 p.m. but all the noise and bustle didn’t stop us from sharing our stories, chatting and catching up. I hadn’t seen Jason or Rebecca since October so we had a lot to discuss.

Much to my dismay, Rebecca had to suddenly leave. Her workmate forgot the keys to the office and she needed to unlock the door for him so he could finish a weekend project. That didn’t stop her from making sure I received my birthday present, a lovely silk scarf with a Chinese fan design. Jason’s turn was next with a very warm checkered winter scarf.

And Frank had actually found out my shoe size, gone online and ordered a very trendy, pretty pink-and-gray pair of Nikes for me. Not only were they quite an eye-catching item, but they fit perfectly.

Now that’s a birthday with young folk for you!

Yet another dinner had me at Mrs. He’s home along with her husband. This older couple and I go back a long way. They are the ones who for 10 years took care of Xiao Hua (Little Flower, my dog) while I visited the States. Although my little Chi no longer brings us together, our decade-old friendship still has me visiting their home every time I’m in Chengdu. We had a very simple dinner in their home yesterday and caught up on all the happenings since we last talked.  It was very pleasant to sit back and enjoy their cozy home rather than be stuck in my simple, one-room rental for the evening.

Today’s Birthday Jaunts Around Town

For the day itself, which is today, I’ve certainly been making the most of it.

The staff at both indoor and outdoor pools received lots of candy from me. The more candy I bestowed upon them, the more “Happy Birthday!”s I received.

Even the taxi drivers to and from the pool had a handful of sweets to brighten their day, and mine, due to their “Happy Birthday!” greetings after I told them why the give-away.

Best yet was when my return driver gasped in surprise at my age, which I had proudly announced as we drove along.

“50?!” he asked  in astonishement. “No, no.  I think younger.  You look 30.”

Yeah, you know it.  I’ll take that compliment any day!

Afternoon walks with the dog owners are soon to come and then to finish off the night, it’s a nice evening watching pirated DVDs I’ve loaded up on.

When I return to Luzhou on Thursday, I’ll be having my Luzhou birthday gathering on Friday night. This has been arranged by my best friend and former departmental dean, Li Xiaolian (Cathy).  I’m paying for the dinner at a very nice restaurant and she’s providing the birthday cake.

There will be about 10 of us, both foreigners and Chinese, and I’m truly looking forward to more birthday wishes sent my way, and most likely a few more gifts to boot. 

Finished after that?  Not by far!

 The last celebration will have me trekking across the ocean next week, back to Illinois to be with my parents and earthquake rescue Xiao Lao-lao (Little Old-old), whom I brought back to the States 5 years ago. (He is one very lucky, currently spoiled, little dog.)  I’ll be in my hometown for a month before returning to China  after the Chinese New Year, which begins on Feb. 18. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on happenings during that time.

Grateful Thanks to So Many

I end this with a special blessing and thank you to those who have sent email birthday greetings, text messages and overseas’ cards which have recently been landing at the college. I’m sure there will be even more envelopes waiting for me when I return in a few days. Lots of birthday surprises yet to open!  Excellent!

All I can say is that it’s very nice to be thought of on such a special day by so many.

Half a century old! My goodness. That’s a milestone.

From China, here’s wishing everyone Ping An (Peace) for your day and your week.

Posted in Chengdu Daily Life, Luzhou Vocational and Technical College, Luzhou: Yangtze Rivertown Stories, Travel | Leave a comment

Christmas Eve at the Luzhou Protestant Church

Getting ready for Christmas Eve worship:  The Luzhou Protestant Church (1913)
Getting ready for Christmas Eve worship: The Luzhou Protestant Church (Our  sanctuary, the original 1913 decore)

For 2015, let me finally give you the highlights of our Luzhou Protestant Church Christmas Eve festivities.

Every year, our celebrations are a little different as the worship committee plans what’s best for everyone involved. For two years now, the church has given two worship services for Christmas in order to reach as many as possible. Monday evening, Dec. 22, was for the Christian church members and then Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) was for the public.

Both evenings, with 40 minutes of traditional worship (choir processional, anthems, hymns, prayers, clery message) then 2 hours of performances followed by a quiet, solemn countdown to midnight, are exactly the same but with different audience members.

I was asked to attend both, since Pastor Liao and I had planned to sing together, but sorry to say, I was not able to attend Monday evening. I had a full day of testing, with two more yet to go, and just didn’t feel I could invest two nights of celebrations to keep fresh enough for my own students the next day.

Christmas Eve, however, was a definite go.

Christmas Eve celebrations for the public and congregation members had us at full capacity. (Balconies were crowded as well.)

Christmas Eve celebrations for the public and congregation members had us at full capacity. (Balconies were crowded as well.)

My Personal Observations for The Church’s 2014 Christmas Eve

We didn’t have quite as many dance performances this year as last. I did miss the elderly fan dancers and some of the traditional Chinese folk numbers with floaty, elegant garb. We’ve also had Xinjiang Province belly dancers in our midst who had lovely dance moves and our young teen girls’ “Santa Baby” swivel numbers which had us cheering. This year brought more choir numbers and solos.

This was also the first year we opened with an orchestral performance accompanied by a professional singer.

Our hosts introduce the opening number, soloist accompanied by an orchestra

Our hosts introduce the opening number, soloist accompanied by an orchestra

This turned out to be a bit too dirgy for my taste. It was a Hebrewesque number, perhaps translated into Chinese, with the theme music to Schindler’s List thrown in at very odd moments. Our soloist — slow, dark, mournful wailing with overly dramatic gestures and sorrowful facial expressions.

Our soloist's pained expressions during her Schindler's List moments created a rather dismal atmosphere.

Our soloist’s pained expressions during her Schindler’s List moments created a rather dismal atmosphere.

The orchestra – too loud (especially the horns) and the violins off. Plus is went on forever! There seemed to be no end, leaving those in attendance to start talking to one another, answering cellphones, texting friends or squeezing through the standing-room-only populace to find a better vantage point.

Usually, we start with joyfulness, with the elementary kids in their colorful outfits doing their well-choreographed moves. Did make me wonder what in the world the public thought about Christianity after being put through that tormented lament but one thing I will say: We could go nowhere but up after that, which we certainly did as the kids immediately followed.

Finally! Here came the laughter, smiles and delight I always expect for our Chinese services on Christmas Eve.

Foreign Students Once Again Show Their Supportive Presence

For the first time, Overseas' Guests have their own placard on the pews!  Seats of honor, near the front.

For the first time, Overseas’ Guests have their own placard on the pews! Seats of honor, near the front.

The foreign Christian students, about 20, from the Medical College always do something for our evening.

Here we are:  America (me), Pakistan, India and Nepal

Here we are: America (me), Pakistan, India and Nepal

At our local medical college, there are enrolled about 500 foreign students from Pakistan, Nepal, India and different African nations. They study in the medical school here in China mainly because they were not able to pass their medical school entrance exams in their own countries.

Their instruction is all in English by Chinese professors since their program is separate from the Chinese students, who are taught in Chinese. They also have a few professors, sent by their separate countries, who give classes as well.

It’s a very strange set-up, in my opinion, but an extremely profitable one for the Medical College which charges about $5,000 a year per foreign student to attend. The Chinese students pay about $2,000. This is one of the reasons why the Medical College was able to build a gorgeous new campus outside of the city limits, where all the foreign students are currently placed. The older, rather run-down campus, near the city center, is comprised of all the rest: the Chinese students whose majors include dentistry, Chinese traditional medicine, Western medicine and medical English.

These foreign students study at our Luzhou Medical College for 5 years, then return to their own countries where they take their medical exams once again to see if they pass or not.   While a majority are Muslim or Buddhist, there is a small Christian community who come to our Luzhou church from time to time, even though they don’t speak Chinese.

Last year, they performed an updated version of the birth of Jesus, including doctors in medical coats to assist during Mary’s labor. The entire skit was in English, which no one understood, but there was honestly no need. We all got the humor of the scenes, not to mention the meaningful ending where everyone sang Silent Night as Mary rocked Jesus to sleep. It was quite moving and touching, a real addition to our evening together as Christians.

This year, the group scaled down a bit and sang Joy to the World.

Singing "Joy to the World":  the medical college foreign students.

Singing “Joy to the World”: the medical college foreign students.

I know the Chinese church members always appreciate their participation, as do I so I’m not the only non-Chinese in the bunch to share in the festivities of our Christian holiday.

Enjoy the Gallery of Photos!

To finish off this post, I hope you enjoy the gallery of photos from my Christmas Eve.  As you can see, it was a joyful night for all.

Ping An (Peace) sent your way this first week in 2015.

Posted in From Along the Yangtze, Luzhou, Luzhou Vocational and Technical College, Luzhou: Yangtze Rivertown, Luzhou: Yangtze Rivertown Stories, Tales from The Yangtze River, Tales of China, Travel | 1 Comment

Happy 2015 from Along the Yangtze!

New Year's Eve had my 2014 Christmas lights ushering in 2015.

New Year’s Eve had my 2014 Christmas lights ushering in 2015.

Farewell, Christmas 2014!

Farewell, Christmas 2014!

It was a quiet ringing in of the New Year here along the Yangtze River for the Luzhou Vocational College foreign language teachers­­.

Chinese are receiving 3 days off (Thursday to Saturday), including all those in schools and government public service workers, with everyone going into their offices or classrooms on Sunday to make up for the Friday that was generously bestowed on them by the government. Yes, the make-up-your-work-day-for-a-holiday is still kicking all across China. Continues to bewilder me how making up a holiday makes it a holiday to begin with but that’s just another enigma of the country.

Years ago, when I first came to China, we never celebrated January 1st. It was business as usual. But within the last 10 years, the government decided to add one more no-work day to an already sparse national holiday schedule so January 1st was it.

Angela, Geoff and I have finished testing for our classes but the Chinese teachers will begin their testing schedules starting Monday, January 5-7. After that, students are dismissed for the school year to return home to their families for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), which begins Feb. 19.

Most Chinese in the smaller cities such as ours don’t do much for Yuan Dan Jie (   ) aside from shopping past midnight at stores whose hours have been extended to accompany the millions of shoppers going out on the streets. No special count-downs, fireworks, drinking binges or holiday snacks. Just hanging out with family or friends.

However, I did read this morning of a New Year’s midnight countdown stampede in Shanghai’s downtown district, near the Peace Hotel, that killed 35 people and injured even more. The annual event was organized by city officials, with over 300,000 attending last year, to mimic overseas’ traditions and give the big city folk a taste of joining in on such celebrations worldwide.  If you remember in the last entry, I wrote of Chinese dissing “western” holidays and encouraging their countrymen to ignore festivities that are not considered their own.

Perhaps in this instance, they have a point. How sad for those wishing to ring in the New Year with the rest of the world, only to have it end in great tragedy. I have a feeling next year will not see such events planned in the country as government officials take precautions to make sure what happened last night does not happen again.

As for us three Americans, New Year’s Eve had us in my home, enjoying hot cocoa and finishing up the Christmas cookies and fudge while my remaining decorations sparkled away. These have mostly come down with only the inside lights yet to disappear into their boxes so we still had a little leftover Christmas cheer to brighten our evening.

We eventually called it quits at 1:30 a.m.

Plans for the First Day of 2015

It is a dark and dreary day outside, unlike a week ago for Christmas Day when bright sunshine gave us temps close to 70. I had a lovely walk along the Yangtze shoreline but probably not today.

Last week's Yangtze river walk was a great way to begin Christmas morning last week.  Views today are much dimmer and colder.

Last week’s Yangtze river walk was a great way to begin Christmas morning last week. Views today are much dimmer and colder.

I will, however, head across the street to our city’s beloved Buddhist temple. There will most likely be several coming to burn joss sticks or candles to celebrate the new year, although this is usually something that Chinese do for Spring Festival or special Buddhist festivals.

I will also be working on a 2-day workshop presentation which I was asked to do on January 14 and 15 here at our college. Our English Department is sponsoring a Classroom Activities Lecture for area school teachers and our vice-dean, Lisa Zhang, asked if I’d take the lead on this. Since I will be leaving on Monday for Chengdu (my favorite R&R destination), I would like to get my materials, hand-outs and power point completed so when I land after a week, there will be little for me to do aside from give the presentation.

Next entry:  Christmas Eve pictures!  Ping An.

Posted in From Along the Yangtze, Luzhou, Luzhou: Yangtze Rivertown | Tagged | 1 Comment

How Many Visitors in 2014? My WordPress Stats!

For those interested, here are my blog stats compiled by the WordPress team for 2014.  Although I won’t be reaching my goal of 10,000 visits for my 50th birthday (Jan. 12), you have all helped me surpass previous years as far as readers are concerned.

Thank you so much for checking up on my experiences in China.  Here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for 2015!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,900 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Posted in From Along the Yangtze, Luzhou, Luzhou Vocational and Technical College, Luzhou: Yangtze Rivertown Stories, Tales of China, Travel | 1 Comment

China Cashing in on Christmas Commercialism

Note: Before you read this, I’d like to add a few notes concerning the below entry. A friend sent me an article from the New York Times concerning the recent banning and “humbugging” of Christmas by certain provinces in the country. University students carrying banners for the public to dis foreign holidays, schools forbidding Christmas holiday decore (Santa hats, Christmas trees, flashing wands, etc), lectures being given to “return to your Chinese roots,” and so forth criss-crossed the country as December 25th approached. In Sichuan, just the opposite took place as Christmas exploded into 100% commercialism with the public having not a clue what the festival was about but enjoying their new-found shopping spree all the same. This just goes to prove, once again, that China is a very big country where what is true in one area is certainly not in another.

Luzhou's Christmas Alley, located in the downtown business district, carries stalls where anything Christmas can be found.

Luzhou’s Christmas Alley, located in the downtown business district, carries stalls where anything Christmas can be found.

Streets packed with shoppers.

Malls crammed with buyers picking over advertised sale items

Sidewalk snack venders and discount clothes stalls overrun with the masses.

This was what greeted me fighting my way to the church on Christmas Eve at about 7 p.m.

Yes, it’s China cashing in on Christmas commercialism! While the Christian world prepared for a joyful evening of worship and ushering in Christ’s birth with solemn prayer, this country was busy holding midnight specials for millions of consumers eager to find a bargain.

Mixed in with the everyday goods were those considered special only for the foreigner’s holiday. Santa hats, flashing wands, colorful floral masks, confetti canisters, reindeer and devil horn headgear were being sold to children all along my route leading toward my final destination, the Luzhou Protestant Church. The little ones eagerly picked over the wares while parents pulled out their wallets to pay for these items which everyone believes is a part of the Christian celebration. Trying to convince them otherwise is a never-ending battle so I have stopped trying.

A New Holiday Emerges: 平安夜 Ping An Ye (Peace Night)

During the past 10 years, Christmas Eve has taken on the name Ping An Ye (平安夜,Peace Night), celebrated by Chinese of all ages. Very little of this invented name has to do with peace. It’s all about stocking up for the upcoming Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) while sending greetings to those you love or know with the gift of an apple packaged in a decorated cardboard box or enclosed in pretty wrapping paper.

How this commercialism business got started is beyond me but it has really exploded.

“Merry Christmas! Have an Apple.”

Sellers up and down the crowded streets selling "peace" apples in Luzhou

Sellers up and down the crowded streets selling “peace” apples in Luzhou

I find the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day apple offerings especially curious, although not quite as curious as you’d think.

In Chinese, the word for “apple” is ping guo (苹果); the word for “peace,” ping an (平安). The two “ping” characters are different but the sound is the same, thus the relationship between “apple” and “peace.” For Peace Night (Christmas Eve), an apple bestowed upon others brings them wishes of peace for the upcoming year.

Knowing the clever Chinese, my guess is that this apple gift-giving venture was an incredibly masterful idea, thought up by some brilliant business entrepreneur to make money. Since its first appearance in some Chinese city somewhere, it’s now caught on like wildfire and has spread throughout the entire country of 1.3 billion.

Even outside our church, apples were being bought and given to congregation members before the service.

Even outside our church, apples were being bought and given to congregation members before the service.

That’s why I am currently inundated with apples by students, faculty, friends and even my Chinese church members who thrust them into my hands before I left the church Christmas Eve.

A few of my specially boxed peace apple gifts, sold for about 75 each.

A few of my specially boxed peace apple gifts, sold for about 75 each.

One Last Party to Go

Before launching into my church Peace Night, including pictures, I’ll post this so as not delay any further on updates. I have one more gathering of Chinese friends to go in my Christmas Home and then two more days of final conversation testing before my school year finally ends before January 1st. Great way to end the year with the beginning of a long vacation! Can’t wait.

Last party snapshot, December 27.

Last party snapshot, December 27.

From along the Yangtze, here’s wishing you Ping An (Peace) for your week.

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Posted in Luzhou, Luzhou: Yangtze Rivertown, Tales from Sichuan's Yangtze Rivertown, Travel | Tagged | 2 Comments

Christmas Along the Yangtze

Fragrant evergreen, scented candles, sticks of cinnamon, spiced cider – these are the smells I associate with Christmas.

But in my apartment here in China, at least for the past 3 weeks, it’s the aroma of one thing and one thing only that consistently permeates my tiny 3 rooms: coffee.

Morning, noon and night, coffee is made and guzzled in shameful quantities to get me through the holiday that keeps me extremely busy, but also extremely happy.  Here we are, Christmas Eve, and I am finally able to catch you up on everything.

Setting Up

Yes, it’s Christmas along the Yangtze in this foreigner’s home!

For five days, Christmas boxes stuffed with decorations were hauled down from the top of my wardrobe, opened, and unpacked for extravagant display. After 2 years of slumbering in deep, peaceful sleep, it was time to wake everyone up.

Stuffed animals, battery-operated toys, desktop trees, colored lights, tinsel roping, colorful Christmas stockings, miniature creche scenes, figurines, votives, wall hangings, Santa hats and reindeer ears – Welcome to Connie’s winter wonderland.

This was my time to make my home inviting for all and get ready for the open houses soon to follow.

5 boxes of Christmas things, evenly distributed among 3 rooms.

5 boxes of Christmas things, evenly distributed among 3 rooms.

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The pet Christmas tree is at the entrance and is a favorite for all animal lovers.

The pet Christmas tree is at the entrance and is a favorite for all animal lovers.

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My sitting room

My sitting room

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The religious corner

The religious corner

My Christmas Tree

My Christmas Tree

So many toys to play with!

So many toys to play with!

In the Classroom: Prepping for Christmas Festivities

Along with in-home decorating, my classroom lessons had me pulling my suitcase of materials to and from the classroom numerous times over the last 2 weeks. We began with the Christmas story, going over a simple script of Jesus’ birth and then re-enacting this in the classroom with costumes and props.

In the classroom, Gabriel tells Mary she will have a baby

Gabriel tells Mary she will have a baby

Joseph is encouraged by the angel to marry Mary, even though the child is not his.

Joseph is encouraged by the angel to marry Mary, even though the child is not his.

Pregnant Mary and Joseph come to the inn door in Bethlehem.

Pregnant Mary and Joseph come to the inn door in Bethlehem.

Joseph: "Please,sir, do you have any room?" Innkeeper 1: "No room here.  Try down the street."

Joseph: “Please,sir, do you have any room?”
Innkeeper 1: “No room here. Try down the street.”

Shepherds and wisemen await their entry into the story.

Shepherds and wisemen await their entry into the story.

Shepherd 1:  "Do you hear something?  It sounds like singing." Shepherd 2:  "It's the sheep!  Go back to sleep."

Shepherd 1: “Do you hear something? It sounds like singing.”
Shepherd 2: “It’s the sheep! Go back to sleep.”

Angels: "Glory to God in the highest.  Peace on earth and good will toward men.  Follow the star to see the baby!"

Angels: “Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth and good will toward men. Follow the star to see the baby!”

There's the star!  Let's go.

There’s the star! Let’s go.

Wiseman 1 brings his gift to the child.

Wiseman 1 brings his gift to the child.

Wiseman 3 and his gift.

Wiseman 3 and his gift.

Class photo of everyone, including characters, were taken for our final curtain call.

Class photo of everyone, including characters, were taken for our final curtain call.

The next week followed with a showcase of traditional items (tree, stocking, Santa Claus, candy cane) and a Christmas bingo game to nail home the newly learned vocab. Candy as prizes is always a must, giving students ample time to sample even more fun that is soon to come: Invitations to my Christmas open house.

A Week of Visitors

The first class of freshmen came two weeks ago, keeping me occupied from 7 – 9 p.m as wave after wave of groups arrived. Candy baskets were everywhere, strategically placed and heaped high with goodies. Keeping them replenished was a challenge, especially while being pulled this way and that for photo ops at the many different areas in my home. Every backdrop was different; every corner filled.

Welcome for photo ops!

Welcome for photo ops!

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Nothing like playing with the decorations.

Nothing like playing with the decorations.

In my home, it was pictures galore for my first freshmen class of visitors.

In my home, it was pictures galore for my first freshmen class of visitors.

Squeeze together!

Squeeze together!

Everyone's cellphones with photography ability were passed around constantly.

Everyone’s cellphones with photography ability were passed around constantly.

We even managed a timed shot using my camera to fit everyone in.

We even managed a timed shot using my camera to fit everyone in.

Another group shot for yet another gathering.

Another group shot for yet another gathering.

Word went flying around campus that Connie’s open houses had begun.  Freshmen began pestering me in every class  when their turn would come. My last one took place last Monday, followed on Friday by the faculty.

The departmental staff and English teachers were invited to my home on Dec. 19 for our foreigners’ open house. After the Friday departmental meeting finished, those who had time came to enjoy the decorations  but they received a grander spread than the students.

The Chinese teachers and staff need extra energy to get through their busy schedules at this time of year. That includes hours of test grading. My infamous cut-out sugar cookies, chocolate truffles, fresh tangerines, soft drinks, coffee and tea gave all who attended a feeling of the true Christmas spirit, as shown by us 3 Americans.

Our teacher's and faculty staff in my home.

Our teacher’s and faculty staff in my home.

We had one grandma visit with grand-daughter.

We had one grandma visit with grand-daughter.

Vice-dean Lisa Zhang, her son (Santa beard) and the foreign teachers

Vice-dean Lisa Zhang, her son (Santa beard) and the foreign teachers

Teacher Huang, who arrived too late for the group picture, had his own special picture with us all.

Teacher Huang, who arrived too late for the group picture, had his own special picture with us all.

Teacher Sun and me, showing off my trendy straw hat which was a Christmas gift.

Teacher Sun and me, showing off my trendy straw hat which was a Christmas gift.

Assistant foreign affair's director, Bruce Lu, and his wife, just recently married.

Assistant foreign affair’s director, Bruce Lu, and his wife, just recently married.

Adding even more to the occasion were visits from their kids.  We had about 15 children of all ages, toddlers to elementary school ages, who likewise participated in the festivities.  Not a single toy or stuffed animal was left untouched or not played with, which is the way I like to have it.

Welcome, kids, to Connie's Christmas house!

Welcome, kids, to Connie’s Christmas house!

A Crazy Saturday Morning of Pictures

Students of any age need something special for Christmas from their foreign teacher.   This is one of the reasons I’ve placed on my wish lists holiday pencils, which many of my American friends and church members have graciously sent. Such pencils are difficult to find in China, at least in huge quantities, so such presents add great joy to the classroom one they are displayed for choosing.

But by far the most precious gift is a photograph.

When I was on my own, I’d have holiday photos taken of me and Little Flower which were laminated and copied for every student I had. Now, there are 3 foreign teachers at our college. Two years ago, I blogged about the photo session with me, John and Ashley in my home. John set up his state-of-the-art camera on a tripod and we maneuvered ourselves into numerous poses for pictures.

The biggest hassle was continually positioning the camera at just the right angle to center us. Took about 1 ½ hours before we managed to get in the shots we wanted.

None of that this year!

I enlisted the help of Guo Shiyu and her husband, Liang Yong, for this year’s pictures. The couple, in their 40s, owns a small photography shop across from the school’s front gate. They have cornered the market for official school pictures since they are the only ones around.

I have known this couple for 12 years, when I first came to Sichuan. I’d have my holiday photos and others taken in their tiny studio with one of their 4 backdrops. My dogs Little Flower and earthquake rescue Lao-lao (now in America) still hold a place of honor in their photo display at their shop.

This is the first time, however, that I made arrangements for them to visit my home for our foreigners’ Christmas photo session.

I could tell the two were a little put out when I asked. There are only two of them working. To leave the shop, they have to close their doors, perhaps losing business while their gone. Both of them felt they should come, bringing 2 different cameras. They are a close-knit pair and always work together for the school pictures so rarely do I see them on their own.

As we walked the 10 minutes to my home, I prepared them for the grand showing. “You will see so many things for Christmas,” I told them in Chinese. “It’s really beautiful and special.” I was so excited to have my first Chinese guests see my decorations that I think my enthusiasm was contagious. By the time we hiked up to the 3rd floor, my key in the lock, their faces were eagerly and anxiously awaiting what was within.

For an hour, Guo Shiyu and her husband, Liang Yong, snapped away while Geoff, Angela and I struck our poses for our student gift-giving photos. Over 100 were taken and four were eventually chosen to give to our students.

A Joyful Week of Gift Giving

700 picture copies were made, titled in English and Chinese, laminated and ready to present to our leaders, English department and students last week.

Our faculty and leader gift photo

Our faculty and leader gift photo

For Angela's students

For Angela’s students

For Geoff's students and our shared third year  (graduating) seniors

For Geoff’s students

For the seniors:  Angel Angela, shepherd Geoff and Wiseman Connie

For the seniors: Angel Angela, shepherd Geoff and Wiseman Connie

A back-up, which was almost selected.

A back-up, which was almost selected.

Another possibility that we nixed

Another possibility that we nixed

I must say, everyone was extremely excited and moved by our gifts. This also included Christmas pencils which so many of you in the States have sent to me as requested on my wish lists.

Being able to share the Christmas spirit with others in this way has really made the holiday worthwhile, at least for me.

It’s Christmas Eve Tonight!!

Tonight, it’s the Christmas Eve service in church where my religious cards, pencils and individual photo will be presented to our pastors and church members that I know. The service begins at 7:30 with a worship hour and then at 8:45, the performances begin. There will be dancing, singing, solos, musical instrumentalists, skits and a visit from Santa Claus before ending at around 11 p.m. I also will be singing my yearly solo, Away in a Manger, in English and Chinese.

After that, the curious public will disappear and leave us Christians to a quieter, prayerful hour: the count down to midnight to welcome in Christ’s birth.

From along the Yangtze, here’s hoping your Christmas will be just as full of joyfulness as mine.

Ping An, everyone! Blessings for your Christmas!

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