All for the Love of Birds: A Rural King Shopping Venture

Our record subzero temperatures in the Midwest had my mom and me staying indoors as much as possible during the past few days.

The way mom and I spend our indoor winters -- jigsaw puzzles

The way mom and I spend our indoor winters — jigsaw puzzles!

Even Lao-lao (Old-old), our China Chi rescue, hunkered down in his doggie bed, hoping we’d forget about him and not throw him out into the cold to do his business.

Lao-lao hides in his bed in hopes he'll go un-noticed

Lao-lao hides in his bed in hopes he’ll go un-noticed

But yesterday, my mom and I braved the polar vortex chill for the love of birds.

Yes, on Friday, the last of the birdseed stored in the garage was dumped into the feeder on the back deck. The squirrels, sparrows, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, doves and even the grackles (which we despise) tugged on our heartstrings as they clustered in overhanging tree branches, waiting anxiously for their daily meal.

A delay in relieving their hunger was not an option.

The impending snow and ice storm, predicted for Friday night, had me and my mom taking Route 1 for a road trip to Paris, IL, 20 minutes away, where our favorite wildlife food center is located:  Rural King.

Rural King: A Rural Mid-westerner’s Dreamhouse

For my Chinese readers, Rural King is a supply store that mostly caters to rural folk, i.e. farmers.  It actually began quite near Marshall in Mattoon, IL (45 minutes away) in 1960.  In fact, the corporate office, distribution and flagship store are still located there.  Now it has 70 stores in a nine state area that includes Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Florida.

The website touts “an outstanding product mix” of agricultural parts, farm equipment, workwear, housewares, pet supplies, automative items, clothing, outdoor living gear and tools.   That includes a huge supply of wildlife food for woodsy critters. Rural King also offers free freshly-made popcorn and coffee for patrons wandering the various sections.

Free anything is always a big sell for me and my mom.

Not only that, but the store is pet friendly.  On trips to Rural King, it’s not unusual to see someone’s leashed hound following along behind his owner or a smaller breed riding contentedly along in a shopping cart.

On our trip to Rural King yesterday, we debated bringing Lao-lao along to accompany our cruising of the warehouse but decided against it.  While the store itself is heated, the wind chill was at -10.  Not exactly pleasant for a short-haired Chihuahua to be carried through the parking lot in that kind of weather, nor suffer in the freezing temps while waiting for the car’s heater to kick in.

Lao-lao was left behind, a desertion that honestly suited him just fine.

Our Rural King Adventure

A visit to Rural King for us “city” folk is always a rather exotic undertaking.  That initial blast of warehouse smells, whiffs of new vehicle tires, leather items and recently unpacked overalls and jeans, is one that we never experience in the Walmart.  Viewing the wide expanse of products we don’t deal with on a daily basis is another.  Hardy work clothes, farm animal gear and feed, curious-looking tools, hefty big-men furniture, unique gardening figurines and countryside food staples keep us in a constant state of interest.  Every turn down an aisle presents a new surprise, making this trip to Rural King a little more than just a quick shop-and-grab for birdseed.

No, it’s an event!

Creating a Spectacle

Before meandering, we set our minds to completing the task at hand– our bird mission.

Planting herself in the fowl wildlife section, my mom pointed to what she wanted and it was my job to lift the loads into the cart:  two 40-pounders of all-purpose birdseed, 40 pounds of black oil sunflower seeds (a cardinal favorite), a 12-count box of suet (grackles and woodpeckers), 5 pounds of loose peanuts (blue jays), container of cracked corn (doves) and 12 pounds of classic dried ear corn treats (squirrels).

The higher our stack grew, the more attention we drew from those passing by.

“Looks like you’re feeding the entire Illinois bird population,” one of the male employees joked.

Another spectator, a gruff-looking farmer looking down at his one measly 20-pound bag of birdseed, remarked, “Guess I’m not quite as generous as I thought.”

We parked our overburdened cart near the cashier before beginning our strolling tour of the store.  No sense in pushing 200 pounds around if we didn’t have to.  After another hour of leisurely shopping, we called it quits, paid for our items at check-out and came home, my mom being $89 poorer than when she arrived.

Our 200 pounds worth of bird nourishment from Rural King sits in  the garage and awaits to be doled out in the weeks to come.

Our 200 pounds worth of bird nourishment from Rural King sits in
the garage and awaits to be doled out in the weeks to come.

The Big Snow: No Starving Birds Here!

Last evening, my mom and I watched the growing excitement of our local TV weathermen as they followed by radar the swath of snow soon to hit us.

Watching the storm blow in on the computer's weather map

Watching the storm blow in on the computer’s weather map

Snow greets us on Saturday morning.

Snow greets us on Saturday morning.

Snow plows were out all night.

The Marshall City workers spent a busy night and morning clearing the streets.

The Marshall City workers spent a busy night and morning clearing the streets.

And this morning, we had to shovel a pathway for the dog so he could get to his favorite pee tree.

Lao-lao gets his path cleared to his favorite pee tree.

Lao-lao gets a snowy path cleared to his favorite tree.

Finished!  Let me back in.

“Finished! Now let me back in.  It’s cold out here!”

As for the birds, they’ve had the time of their lives.

We’ve filled up the feeder twice already, including putting extra corn ears out for our 3 sassy squirrels.

New ear corn awaits our squirrels' arrival.

New ear corn awaits our squirrels’ arrival.

The suet has attracted a ladder-back woodpecker and the sunflower seeds given our cardinals something to cheer about.  The sweet, puffed-up doves are enjoying the cracked corn.

Bird feeder full, it's time for feasting!

Bird feeder full, it’s time for feasting!

For our winged woodland creatures, this Saturday’s been a feast fit for a king, or rather, I guess we could say, a feast fit for Rural King.

From snowy Illinois, here’s wishing you Ping An (Peace) for your weekend!


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Honoring My Dad: A Worthy Send-off

Today is President’s Day, quite an appropriate time to address last week’s send-off for my father, a politically-minded individual and strong advocate of the American right to vote.

As the only Civics teacher in our  high school, who taught a class that was mandatory for graduation, he made sure that every student who was turning 18 was signed up for the next election.  He would bring the County Clerk to the school, have those eligible line up, fill out the forms and register to vote.  Didn’t matter what political party you belonged to, your viewpoints on government or even if you touted you didn’t care: My dad nailed home that the vote was an honor and privilege of our country. Everyone needed to have that privilege, thus the in-school voting registration.

Getting to Know My Dad: A Story Worth Retelling

Group photo,  immediate and extended family members after the service.  Most of us were present for the visitation to hear Mr. Wieck stories.

Group photo, immediate and extended family members after the service. Most of us were present for the visitation to hear Mr. Wieck stories.

During the funeral visitation last week, my family greeted 150 neighbors and friends from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

At the funeral home, my niece (brother’s daughter, Meredith) and I had put together a display of both photos and then a memorial table for my dad.  (He was cremated.  No body or urn was present.) We included his Marine veteran baseball cap, his stuffed animal Marine bulldog mascot, retired teacher’s apple award and a Democratic donkey from his collection.

Meredith Wieck, my niece who flew in from London for the funeral, and me put together the display for my dad

Meredith Wieck, my niece who flew in from London for the funeral, and me put together the display for my dad

At the funeral home, notice our flowers were minimal, as requested by us.  Donations were instead made to many of Bill's most favored organizations.

At the funeral home, notice our flowers were minimal, as requested by us. Donations were instead made to many of Bill’s most favored organizations.

My father's remembrance table:  teacher, Marine and Democrat

My father’s remembrance table: teacher, Marine and Democrat

Those who came sat to chat or fondly looked over the displays, as Meredith and I had hoped they would, but by far, the most meaningful contact with our visitors came with the stories they told of my dad.

His former students, Veterans of Foreign Wars members (his favorite hang-out in retirement years being the VFW), former colleagues, golf buddies and friends gave me a humorous, unique picture of my dad that I hadn’t known before.

One of my favorite stories was a bet he made with Garnet Evola, one of  the English teachers at Marshall High School.

Every year, Garnet took on the task of being sponsor for the Senior Prom, a dance organized by high school juniors for the graduating senior class.   This was Garnet’s baby, so to speak.  She would spend practically the entire year, working with the junior class student volunteers to pick prom themes, make decorations, order refreshments, prepare  programs, and help with fund-raising ventures.

Garnet’s all-consuming interest in prom became a topic of teasing by the male teachers, which included my father.

When Garnet announced that orchids were being ordered from Hawaii for one particular prom, my father was dubious.

“You’re ordering orchids from Hawaii?!” my dad asked in astonishment.  “There’s no way you’re going to get orchids from Hawaii in time for a prom in small town Marshall.”

Garnet most assuredly intoned that they would.

“You think so?” my dad continued. “O.K., Garnet.  I tell you what.  If those orchids arrive before the prom, I’ll wear a grass skirt and do the hula.”

“You’ve got a deal!” Garnet replied with a grin.

Thus the bet was on.

During the following months leading up to the prom, both teachers were fairly confident they’d win.

Every day, my dad would corner Garnet in the teachers’ lounge and ask, “So, Garnet, those flowers arrived yet?”

“Not yet, but they’ll be here soon,” Garnet answered with certainty.

Sure enough, right before the senior prom, the orchids were delivered.

And my dad, not to shirk on his betting duties, made sure that his grass-skirt hula was done in full Bill Wieck style.

He researched how to do the Hawaiian male hula, practiced his moves at home with appropriate hand motions, arrived at school for his appointed dance time and gave it his all in a serious, distinguished manner befitting any muscular, big-boned, manly guy.

Cheers and claps from faculty and students followed his dignified performance.

I also was told that he swayed his way toward a triumphant Garnet, standing to the side of the room, where he blew her several kisses of congratulations before making his exit.

Yeah, that’s my dad!

Touching Moments

The memorial service on Wednesday morning was attended by about 50 along with immediate and extended family members.

During this time, my brother spoke about our father in a remembrance piece, Pastor Richard Lewis of Marshall First UMC presented a message entitled “Thinking Outside the Box” (my dad’s approach to life) and my dad’s younger brother, Chuck, gave very moving, heartfelt words about his big brother whom he loved and looked up to for many years.

My brother, Attorney Paul Wieck (left) and Uncle Chuck (right), retired physics teacher at Lakeland College, talk after the service.

My brother, Attorney Paul Wieck (left) and Uncle Chuck (right), retired physics teacher at Lakeland College, talk after the service.

“Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”

Members of my dad's honor guard gather in the outer room before my dad's memorial service

Members of my dad’s honor guard gather in the outer room before my dad’s memorial service

My mom and I were doing fine emotion-wise until it came to the military rites portion of the memorial.  Then the tissues came out.

One by one, the American Legion Post #90 and VFW Post # 5975 honor guard members (some of whom were US Marines) slowly, majestically saluted my dad’s photo as the US Marine Hymn played.

One by one, each of the honor guard saluted my dad my dad.

One by one, each of the honor guard saluted my dad.


Later, we were ushered outside where Marshall’s American Legion commander, John Yeley, presented my seated mother with the folded American flag.  As he knelt before her, he gazed directly into her eyes.  With moving intensity, in a clear, strong voice, he thanked my mom for her husband’s service to his country.

Commander Yeley takes the flag to present to my mom.

Commander Yeley takes the flag to present to my mom.

I watched  this solemn scene unfold with growing admiration for our young Commander Yeley.  You could tell it was a struggle but he never once waivered in keeping his emotions in check.  He carried out this most reverent duty, one U.S. Marine giving tribute to another, with the poise, grace and stateliness it required.


The honor guard immediately followed with a volley of synchronized rifle shots after which taps was played.


Words can’t describe how deeply proud I was of my dad or how touched I felt for the honor fellow soldiers had given to one of their own.  Such powerful sentiment I have never experienced before, and most likely, never will again.

With Profound Gratitude to All Readers

As I close off this entry for my dad, I’d like to thank those  who sent condolence emails (even clear from China) and others who showered me and my mom with food,  fifty-plus cards, donations to my dad’s favorite organizations (over $600), flowers, and sympathy hugs in the Walmart, church and local Marshall restaurants we’ve been patronizing.

Such loving support and concern for me and my family make being in America at this time all the more meaningful.

From Marshall, Illinois, here’s wishing you Ping An (Peace) for your week as Chinese New Year (Feb. 19) approaches.

April Lee, a good friend from Hawaii, sent these tropical flowers from Kailua.  The flower farm she ordered from is owned and run by a U.S. Marine and his family.

April Lee, a good friend from Hawaii, sent these tropical flowers from Kailua. The flower farm she ordered from is owned and run by a U.S. Marine and his family.

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Mr. Wieck, My Dad

Me and my Dad, Valentine's Day, 2013 while I was in Marshall for my Chinese New Year vacation

Me and my Dad, Valentine’s Day, 2013 while I was in Marshall for my Chinese New Year vacation

After my last post, there have been a few days of silence on my end.

My father died on Friday morning in the hospital as my mom, brother and I were driving over to meet with the discharge planner about options.  The day before, we had visited an end-of-life facility in our area, not exactly a perfect choice because my father was suffering.  “End-of-life” is more like intensive hospital care where all medicines continue to be given.  Hospice allows someone to be monitored and made comfortable with medication while family are around until the person passes away. That is more of what we wanted.

The dread of our final decision as we drove over was lifted when the call came on my mom’s cellphone:  My dad was no longer with us.

He had just died, 20 minutes before our arrival.  My brother, mom and I were able to spend time with him in his room without all the hook-ups and machines pumping away.

It was very quiet, peaceful and comforting in the hospital room now, something we had not experienced since my dad’s admittance 10 days before.

For about a week, he was almost continually on the by-pap (a full-face mask that pumps oxygen into the lungs) because he couldn’t breath except for about 45 minutes when it was taken off for him to eat.   The nurse told us they’d taken off the by-pap,  he’d had his breakfast, they’d given him a sponge bath, turned on the TV for him to watch and were returning for his inhaler treatment when he passed away.

It was a great blessing, for all of us.

A Beloved, Respected Teacher and Community Figure

Because my father taught at Marshall High School for 30 years as a history and civics teacher,  he was very well-known in the surrounding community.  In the hospital, we had 3 nurses who’d had him as a teacher before he retired.  Even if they weren’t assigned to my dad, they came by to see how he was doing, talk to him and tell humorous stories about his classes.

And my dad was humorous!  He was quick-witted and had the best one-liners of anyone I know.

Because he  had struggled in high school due to learning difficulties, he understood students who were not considered the best or the brightest.  Civics and U.S. History were courses that all had to pass in order to graduate from high school.  Those were the subjects my father taught and he made sure to give extra help to anyone who needed it.  He’d stay after school, coach at-risk students so they’d be able to pass his tests and patiently explain concepts that were difficult or new.  That extra help gave him the respect and admiration of everyone, including parents worried their kids wouldn’t get a high school diploma.

Within the community, he was very active and always rooted for the underdog.  One of the greatest achievements in life for both my mom and dad was organizing and leading a local activist group called Concerned Citizens of Clark County.  This group was specifically formed to voice their concerns and adamant opinions against  having a nuclear waste facility put in our county.  This was a 10-year battle against the State of Illinois, the government itself which sent down all their lawyers, researchers and experts to tell our community that this was a wonderful thing for our area.

It was not!

Concerned Citizens of Clark County, with my dad as the chairman, eventually won the battle to protect our land from becoming a nuclear waste dump.  This accomplishment was an amazing feat, one which my mom and dad were so pleased to have been a part of.

Visit the Funeral Home Website To Really Know My Dad

If you would like to know what a truly wonderful father I’ve had, please go to our local funeral home’s website to read his obituary and all the touching stories people have been sending in about Mr. Wieck.

Just click on “William Y. Wieck” under obituaries and “View all” under the daily posted condolences.

I will add a note that the date of birth and death “Feb. 7, 2015 – Feb. 6, 2015” is wrong (duh!) unless it’s been corrected by the time you log on.    Just one more thing for my dad to get a huge kick out of if he were alive.

One thing that would really please my dad is that he will have a military send-off after the memorial service on Wed. morning.  He will have his color guard, his gun salute,  taps played and the folded American flag which will be presented to my mom.

His service to his country as a US Marine was very dear to his heart.  It will be a fitting way for all of us to to say “goodbye.”

From Marshall, here’s wishing you Ping An (Peace) for your day and ours here in the Wieck family.

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Hospital Experiences: USA and China

When the ambulance appears in the front of anyone’s house in my small Mid-western town , the whole world seems to know.

Next door neighbors peer out of windows to see who is in such urgent peril.  Cars slow their speed so those inside can glimpse who’s being carried outside.  Dog walkers stop to gawk while their pooches strain at their leashes to continue onward.

In other words, news travels fast that someone in our community is being rushed to the nearest hospital, 20 miles away in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Just days after my arrival from China, such news was making its way all around town, not about one of our family’s neighbors or friends, but about my dad.

A Serious Medical Situation

Union Hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana, 20 minutes from my hometown.

Union Hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana, 20 minutes from my hometown.

Last week, my father was taken by ambulance to Terre Haute Union Hospital’s emergency room because he literally could not breath.

After 3 days in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit), he was diagnosed with acute pneumonia.  His lungs have been quite fragile for many years now so for him, pneumonia is deadly and life-threatening. At present, he is being loaded up with antibiotics, steroids, breathing treatments and anything else his doctors can do to make him feel better.

He is currently in a regular hospital room but in no shape to leave or be transferred.  My mom and I drive over from our Illinois town, Marshall, every day to stay with him during the day before returning home in the evening to take care of Lao-lao, our Chinese earthquake rescue Chihuahua, and rest up for the next day’s visit.

Aside from our daily to-and-from hospital trips, we also deal with another challenging venture:   Since we live next to the Illinois/ Indiana state border, which happens to be a time zone, we in Illinois are one hour behind the Indiana hospital time.  Makes for a bit of confusion  when converting “our” time to “their” time, especially when some doctors begin their rounds at 7 a.m. which is 6 a.m. for us, meaning if we’d like to get first-hand information, we need get out our front door by 5:20 or we’ll miss them!

Union Hospital: The Place to Be

The front lobby area, with ground floor offices, gift shop and cafeteria; second floor hallway waiting area for updates on surgeries

The front lobby area, with ground floor offices, gift shop and cafeteria; second floor hallway waiting area for updates on surgeries

For anyone reading, especially my Chinese followers, I can tell you that the newly built Union Hospital is a good place to be.

Gorgeous, airy building with open lighting and spacious waiting areas.  The doctors are conscientious and knowledgeable.  The ICU nurses (both male and female) are utterly amazing in patient care and their colleagues on other wings are likewise excellent.  The specialty staff, such as the nutritionists and respiratory therapists, certainly know their stuff.   Everyone is caring, helpful, and answers patient and family questions thoroughly.

Ashley, one of my dad's ICU nurses, at her station outside my dad's room.  Excellent care-giver!

Ashley, one of my dad’s ICU nurses, at her station outside my dad’s room. Excellent care-giver!

There is definitely a close bond that is formed between those of us who are worried and concerned, and our healthcare professionals who are treating our loved ones.  Since this is the first time I’ve actually been involved in any long-term hospital stay for my dad, I am learning quite a lot about our medical system and how wonderful it is compared to that in China.

Things American Readers Might Not Know About China’s Healthcare System

While I am no expert in Chinese hospital care, I can only report on my own personal experiences or what other Chinese have told me.

Many Americans may not know that healthcare in China is not free.  Yes, Chinese have to pay for their medicines, doctors’ visits, operations and so on.  The cost will be substantially lower than in the States, and a percentage is covered by insurance, but a substantial amount is out-of-pocket.  If you have a serious illness or you must receive a life-saving operation yet don’t have the money upfront to cover the treatments needed, then you will not get the care needed to live.

When you read over past blog entries, you will notice this was true for Jason’s (Ji Ke’s) sister who had congenital heart disease.  The non-evasive procedure she needed to fix the hole in her heart, which had been left undetected from birth until she was 21 years old, cost around $5,000.  Her family, farmers from the countryside, could only scrape together a small percentage of this.  Without the full amount, the hospital would not admit her so I stepped in to cover what the family could not.

She received wonderful care at Chengdu’s Hua Xi Hospital, one of the best in the city.  I visited for a short time while she was in a large room with 12 others who were recuperating from their own operations and treatments.  Everyone had their own cot, lined up alongside the wall, with a chair for a guest visitor beside it and a small cabinet to place their things on.  This was in the recovery wing for high mobility patients.  They were chatting and visiting with family members who were sharing huge baskets of fresh fruit, a favorite gift to those in the hospital.  The room and medical facility was clean, the staff professional but not present often as they were extremely busy, and the conditions acceptable, in my opinion.

City Hospital Care for the Foreigner

My other hospital experiences involved those who were Amity teachers, those I was teaching with.

Years ago in Luzhou, my American colleague Beth (in her 50’s and new to China) had a respiratory illness that sent her to our Luzhou Medical College hospital.  Beth had the money for her treatment and paid for a private room at $22 a day.  It had a TV, its own bathroom (most are shared among 4 to 6 people depending on the room size) and an extra bed which Beth paid for so another person wouldn’t be in the room with her.   She was on intravenous drips for 2 weeks and not allowed to leave until she was 100% recovered. Doctors in China are never quick to discharge anyone.  Even new mothers get coddled and cared for in the hospital for 2 weeks or longer after giving birth.   America is a   very different story, where those who are able are hustled out as soon as possible.  (For my Chinese readers, a new mother in my country, one who has no complications, usually remains in the hospital for 2 days or 48 hours before going home.)

As for Beth’s hospital stay, I remember that two of our students took turns being with her 24/7, which is the custom in China.  Nurses are overworked and have little time to attend to the hundreds of patients they are in charge of so basic patient needs (feeding, monitoring, comforting, bathing, hygiene upkeep) comes from family members.  They stay with their loved one around the clock, making sure they are comfortable.  They are also the ones to hustle off to get the nurse if there’s a problem, such as an IV runs dry or a patient requires something beyond their help.

This was 10 years ago but I believe the same watchful care from Chinese families still continues today.

A 1994 Experience in a Rural County Hospital

Twenty years ago, another of my older Amity colleagues (56-year-old Jean from Great Britain) wound up in a county hospital when we went traveling and she became sick.  It was some sort of stomach thing which had her on constant IV fluids being pumped into her system.  The hospital had never had a foreigner before but did have a private wing for the privileged.  This wing opened out into the open-air walkway with the rooms having never been used because no one privileged enough had ever been in them.

That was, until Jean arrived and she was quickly ushered inside.

Wallpaper was peeling off in clumps from the molding cement walls. The private bathroom was filthy and had no running water.  The metal-framed bed was harder than a rock with a thin, lumpy padding placed on planks of wood.   I was in charge of cleaning the room and food runs, which mostly included noodle soups I picked up at venders lined up alongside the streets.  (In the larger public hospital rooms, crammed with 20 people, the family had set up coal braziers next to the beds and woked up meals for everyone.  I remember the food smelled pretty darn good!)

We also had someone’s sad-looking mongrel roaming about.  He was being treated for mange and had spots of purple iodine (a Chinese cure-all) over his hairless skin patches in the hopes this would cure his skin ailment.

He was a sweet little thing but Jean was always discouraging me from being too friendly with him.  In her miserable state, I don’t think she was too pleased by his presence, which became just another reminder that we certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Jean spent 4 days in the hospital with the doctors trying desperately to get rid of us.  At that time, being responsible for a foreigner’s well-being was a huge commitment and one which could get the hospital into huge trouble if, heaven forbid, Jean took a turn for the worse.

Although she was in no shape to be released, the staff pulled some strings and got us both into a sleeping car for the 5-hour train ride back to our school’s city, Nanchang.   Jean was then able to get better medical care from our school and the big city doctors. However, by that time, she was pretty much over whatever it was she’d picked up.

Closing Off with Visuals

While I have many more stories to tell about Chinese hospital, I’ll close this off more for my Chinese readers who might be curious about hospitals in the States.  The following are more pictures taken at Union Hospital, where my dad continues to remain.

From Marshall, IL, here’s sending you a huge Ping An (Peace) for your day.

Note: My dad is not doing well.   I am just very grateful to be in the States and be able to spend time with him, my mom and my brother.

Posted in A Visit Home to America, Luzhou, Luzhou Vocational and Technical College, Smalltown American Life, Tales of China, Travel | 2 Comments

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