My Chinese Church Choir Offers a Glimpse of Faithfulness

“Ping, Ping, Ping!”

It’s Saturday morning and my WeChat messages from the choir’s soprano group are becoming unusually active. Luzhou is 14 hours ahead of Illinois, meaning messages were coming in for China’s Saturday evening. That is a strange time for so many “ping!”s to take place.

What set everyone off? Below, I have translated for my English-speaking audience. Before reading, notice what always emotionally stirs me the most about this faithful group of individuals:

  1. The willingness to follow government guidelines to keep people safe.
  2. The dedication of both the monitors (leaders) of announcements and attendance to make sure their duties are performed in a timely manner.
  3. The commitment of being a responsible choir singer, which requires asking for leave and informing others why you will be absent.
  4. An adept, knowledgable use of Scripture for all occasions.
  5. A Christian-centered re-enforcement of encouragement, concern, care and love to one another.

January 16, 2021 Saturday Evening (China time)

Shouyi (monitor for choir announcements): Urgent notice, Brothers and Sisters. Peace. In response to the government’s epidemic prevention arrangements, the Sunday worship will be held online. All the staff involved in the service, be on time. (The congregation will not come.). There will be a live broadcast. We are singing tomorrow. We will prepare at 8:30 a.m. on the third floor of the church. The service will begin at 9:30. May the Lord prepare the time for the brothers and sisters, keep us safe and ask the Lord to remember us. Hallelujah!

Dian Da: In the morning tomorrow, be careful. It is very cold now. Wear more clothes.

Ke Daying: Good evening! Because I am out of town, this time before the Spring Festival (i.e., Chinese New Year) I ask for special leave. Thank you!

Gao Zhong: Well, may the Lord grant you peace as you come and go, and have a blessed New Year!

Huang Hong: I am sorry I cannot come. I am watching my grandson, in Shidong township.

Liu Ming: I am in the hospital today for the treatment of skin, my feet. I ask for special leave. Pray for the Lord tomorrow for us to prepare the time to serve. May the Lord remember you!

Zhang Ming (Attendance Monitor): @ Ke Daying, Huang Hong, Liu Ming — Got it!

“Naomi” Yu: What’s wrong with you, Dear Sister Liu? May the Lord lead you and help you.

Liu Ming: Thank you, gentle sister. Sorry, I sent the wrong message. It is not my feet, it is my face. Because of a lot of inherited freckles on my face, yesterday I went to the Medical Beauty Center of the Affliated Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine to laser off my freckles. After the face laser, blemishes surfaced more and more. The scabs are still repairing. I am afraid to scare you, my brothers and sisters, so temporarily, I need to ask for leave for a week. Everything is fine after the treatment. I thank God. I thank the sisters for caring.

Naomi” Yu: Thank the Lord, sweet child of God. You are gentle, virtuous, kind and optimistic. As the Lord said, “A capable, intelligent, and virtuous woman—who is he who can find her? She is far more precious than jewels and her value is far above rubies or pearls.” (Proverbs 31:10) Do safe protection, prevent infection, and may the Lord keep you safe.

Liu Ming: Thank you for your praise. I know I’m still far from a woman of virtue, so I keep working toward perfection. Post-care is really important. May the Lord renew my spirit through this treatment, just as it renews the skin from broken pigments. Whatever is not to God’s liking, He Himself renews. Just as the metabolism of the skin drains away the old, so we must drain away sin and let the care of the Holy Spirit clean and harvest new life.

 My Hope for this Entry

May we all stop, think and reflect upon our own faith as witnessed through this tiny glimpse at my Chinese church family’s devotion to the Lord.

平安 (Ping Ahn, Peace) for your Sunday. 

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My Birthday Celebrations

I celebrated my 56th birthday on Tuesday, January 12.  Here were my day’s events

Birthday Greetings from China

I awoke to find over 30 birthday text messages of good wishes, all from China:  my students, my colleagues, my church choir members, my friends.  Most were a very simple “Happy birthday, Connie!” but one rather long note was from my former English Association President, Ice. (The English Association is our campus language club, usually consisting of about 300 members who have interest in English, although their language skills may be quite limited.)

Ice was my best English Association President.  She was so capable!  Whenever we had planned events, such as our yearly Halloween and Christmas Activity Nights, Ice was the one to fill out necessary school paperwork,  coordinate the volunteers, order the items we needed, arrange schedules for set-up and clean-up and be present for all our organizational meetings.  She was always two steps ahead of me, uncannily knowing what was needed before I even thought of it.

Ice had such enthusiasm and a positive spirit for any idea I threw at her.  She was competent, trustworthy, and excellent at multi-tasking, problem-solving and organizing.  The fact that she remembered my birthday, 3 years later, shows what a thoughtful person she is.

Her words were as follows:

“As a student, my English skill is not perfect in choosing my words to give you birthday wishes.  I will try — Thank you for always having been nice to me. Also, thank you for your lessons before.  They really helped me a lot.  I wish you have a great birthday!”  

Ah, Ice!   Those words are perfect.  

Ice sent me this current picture of her studying in the library for her upcoming exams.

Others came from my Chinese church family, sent by choir members.

Zhang Dijie:  “It’s midnight at your place.  Rest well and God bless you and your family with good sleep!  Happy, happy every day!”

Shishu: “God bless you and your mother.  God bless your loved ones!  I hope all of you be safe and peaceful.  Jesus loves you!”

So many thoughtful notes of blessing me for my day.  It was wonderful!

Cards Arriving

In the post, I had 15 cards that made their way into my hands.  Some were new friends, United Methodist Women units that had seen my name in the prayer calendar.  Others were e-cards.  

My mom made sure to add to the pile with her own.

 

A daughter can never be too old to get a birthday greeting from Mom.

An Out-of-Town Trip to Rural King

Added to the special day was a trip to Rural King, located in Paris, Illinois which is a 20-minute drive from my hometown.  We hadn’t left Marshall in 2 months so this small excursion was one which we found especially fun.  

Those not familiar with this Midwest chain, see the below, taken from the website:

“Rural King, also known as RK Holdings, LLP, is America’s Farm and Home Store, a General Merchandise Store, providing essentials to the communities we serve. More specifically, we provide a broad range of necessities, essential goods, food, feed, seed and other farm and home products. Rural King planted its roots in Mattoon, Illinois in 1960. Since that time, Rural King has added over 100 stores in a thirteen-state area (Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia). The heart of Rural King is the corporate office, distribution center and flagship store, located in its city of origin, Mattoon IL.”

While Mattoon is merely an hour away, we stayed closer to home at the Paris branch.

The best part of Rural King, aside from the unlimited, freshly popped popcorn (which is no longer served due to Covid concerns — boo!!!), is that dogs are welcome.  Bridget, our rescue from China currently celebrating her 1 1/2 years as an American citizen, tagged along with us.  She perched with contentment in the car as we cruised down Route 1. Later, she rode in the shopping cart around the store.  There she received numerous pets from customers and employees alike.  

 

One woman, enamored by how sweet she was, scooped her up and didn’t seem to want to put her down.  We almost lost our dog!

 I finally caved to Bridget’s whining and prancing and bought her a doggie toy, which she spied in the pet aisle.  Nor was I the only one conned by her cuteness.  She received meaty canine bits from the cashier upon check-out.  While this seems to be a Rural King tradition, I’m sure it’s not a tradition to give double treats, which is what she got!    

 

As we left, I was thinking this trip to Rural King ended up being more for the dog than for me.   I mean, gee whiz.  Whose birthday was it, anyway?!  

A Celebratory Cake

What is a birthday without a birthday cake?  My favorite kind has always been a decorated ice-cream cake and that’s exactly what I had.  Lit candles and a “Happy Birthday to you” singing  from my mom made the evening complete.  

 And the wish upon blowing out the candles? Can it possibly be that much of a secret?  Absolutely, a speedy return to my China, where I hope to be spending my 57th birthday among my Chinese friends, colleagues, students and Christian church family.  

Thank you to all who sent birthday greetings, prayers, thoughts and best wishes.  You made my day very, very special.  

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Covid Desperation: An Inability to Help

I was up at 7 a.m. last Sunday morning. Usually, I’m tucked away in bed, in my PJs, since my hometown church went to virtual worship services. My mom and I can easily sip coffee on the bed while watching Pastor Bob and our organist, plus special music volunteers, carry us into our spiritual moment for the Sabbath.

But last Sunday had me giving the message, with Pastor Bob taking a Sunday off, so I had awakened early enough to have some meditative time before getting dressed for church. It was also time for me to check my WeChat messages from China, this included notes from a former Peace Corp volunteer, Lindsey, whose messages are almost always uplifting.

But not that morning:

“Please pray for my family. My meme (grandmother), poppa (grandfather) and uncle have Covid. The hospitals are so full that she called an ambulance and they wouldn’t take her. The told her not to move except to go to the bathroom because her oxygen level is 80%, 90% if she is totally still. She’s very scared. There’s not much anyone can do. Our hospitals are overwhelmed and have a diversion order. They aren’t taking anyone and it’s a 12-hour wait in the ER.”

Lindsey’s family lives in South Carolina but Lindsey herself is in Korea, teaching English at a private pre-school in a city 3 hours from Seoul. She left for Korea in August after her Peace Corps volunteer position ended while she was in China, teaching English at my college. Due to Covid, in January, all Peace Corps volunteers were called back to the States.

Lindsey was able to spend time with her family before being accepted to a job in Korea, a country which had continued to accept applications for teaching positions in the country.

While America’s virus situation has escalated, in other countries (especially those in Asia), the governments’ pandemic plans went into effect quickly and swiftly. These helped to contain the virus and keep it under control. While Korea isn’t doing as well as China, it still hasn’t stopped a beat in hiring overseas’ teachers.

Lindsey is like Family

I consider Lindsey close to family. Our very short, 5 months together at my college had us sharing teaching ideas, enjoying campus walks, coordinating special English events (Halloween Activity Night was a huge hit!), and co-hosting English Center evenings. Lindsey was also extremely generous in helping me with my Open House Christmas parties and joining in to greet students, colleagues and friends for my special holiday gatherings.

Lindsey was such a huge help in entertaining my Open House guests. She joined me in almost every gathering I had (We are in the front row, sitting, to the right)


Hearing about her family, with all their quirks and unusual personalities, made me feel like they were my own. We even had hoped I could have a meet-up with them when I visited Clemson, SC, which was very near where her family lived. I had hoped for a visit to that area in the summer but due to Covid, and concern of spreading the virus or getting the virus, I canceled that trip.

After Lindsey left for Korea, we stayed in touch via WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facebook). Her job was a challenging one but she soldiered onward and finally settled into a routine with her pre-school children, teaching full days from 8 to 5 p.m.

Hearing that the Covid situation with her family members was so dire really hit hard. Even though this same story had been told on the news throughout the country, especially in California where my niece lives, having first-hand desperation coming from my friend, Lindsey, brought the danger of this virus even more into reality.

How strange that my hometown remains somewhat untouched by virus fear, with school in session, restaurants still open for in-dining, our 2 local hospitals managing very well and some places not even requiring masks. My hometown public library, for example, has patrons able to freely wander about without any face coverings, used computers, and easily handle book. This is a complete mystery to me.

Lindsey’s message reminded me that other areas are suffering unimaginable heartbreak and we must keep those people in our thoughts. We might seem indestructible at the moment, but I see my small-town community can very easily go the way of Lindsey’s small town in South Carolina. We are not immune and need to be vigilant.

Giving words of support

After shooting off a text message of prayers and concern, it was time for me to get ready for church.

I was so very thankful she had sent her message when she did. I was able to personally share her prayer requests during the worship service that morning. Being able to vocally ask for prayers, rather than through the usual emails and newsletter announcements, made my Sunday morning sanctuary presence all the more meaningful. How grateful I am for technology, which allows us to still connect through livestreaming, Skype and Zoom.

Since that morning, I’ve waited anxiously for each day’s update.

On January 4, I texted, “How is your Meme doing?”

Lindsey: “Not well. They have been waiting at the hospital for 12 hours. Have not been seen by a doctor, a nurse or anyone. Just sitting in the waiting room. It’s terrible.”

From her Meme: “Have a COVID type of pneumonia. Was given a Covid test finally, Covid positive. Oxygen level only 93%. Poppa may be going home. His vitals are better than mine.”

Then January 5, Tuesday news from Lindsey:

“Meme got a bed and said the nurses are really doing their best and working hard”

Today is January 7, my Thursday evening. Lindsey is just getting up in Korea to begin her day and I am waiting to hear from her. After yesterday’s events in DC, I am in need of some encouraging news. I await her email and will share with you when I hear more.

Until the next entry, here’s wishing you a calm spirit, a quiet moment of reflection, and a feeling of peace (Ping An) for your weekend.

 

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From China: Reaction to the Wieck Family Vimeo Christmas Greeting

In the previous post, you were able to enjoy my family’s vimeo of Christmas greetings to my Chinese students, colleagues and friends. Yesterday evening,  I spent over an hour individually sending to all my groups, students (past and present), special contacts and friends via  WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facbook).

 This morning, I had over 60 messages of praises and excitement over watching my brother, my mom and me give our special Christmas message. Here are the highlights of those communications.

Former student, Hero, Shows his Class

“Hero” is my former student, an English Education Major who  graduated from my college 5 years ago.  I have written of Hero in previous posts.  He was one of my most outstanding pupils.  While his classmates were sleeping during the 2 1/2 hour siesta time, Hero was with me, walking the campus and practicing his English.  Every noontime, he’d call me to ask where we could meet up for our daily chat time. Due to his diligence, his spoken language skills and understanding of my American culture far outshone all the other students in the English education department.

During his student teaching experience, he would often consult with me about problems he was encountering and how to solve these.  He also went out of his way to make his 45-minute English class for his young people, in elementary school, a special and exciting time.  Because of  his enthusiasm and excellent recommendations,  he  landed a teaching position in a highly respected Luzhou primary school, teaching the 3rd and 4th graders.   He’d often borrow my Halloween costumes and masks, Christmas decorations, Thanksgiving Day set-the-table lesson props and other visual aids to create interesting lessons for all three classes of 60 + students whom he was assigned.

 I actually visited his school 3 years ago and gave an English language activity session to 300 plus children (ages 9-12), including 8 teachers and the principal in the institution’s lecture hall.  We had such a wonderful, interactive 2-hours with prizes given and audience participation, which included not only the kids but the staff and administrators. Everyone was eager to join in, no matter how excellent, adequate or non-existent their English skills were. Having such an enthusiastic crowd made my visit both memorable and rewarding.

 I remember being very impressed by the progressive approach to learning at Hero’s school, which was one of the premiere public primary schools in Luzhou.  

Fast forward to today’s time period, with Hero preparing, on December 25, a Christmas Party for his home-room class of 60.  He had asked if I could prepare a few things for his students, including a video of my home.  This I did and sent to him last week.  He showed the 5-minute tour of my holiday house in between classroom holiday games.  The reactions, which Hero recorded for me, were hilarious!  Claps, cheers, “Oh!”s and “Ah!”s resounded as different Christmas items appeared on the power point screen.

My family Christmas greeting, however, was what brought down the house. This was a later addition to Hero’s lesson, which he had so carefully put together for several days.  I basically did my family video as a spur-of-the-moment thing and sent it to him around  his 3 a.m. on December 25.  His class party was to  be toward the end of the day after all the regular teaching was over.

I didn’t expect my Vimeo to appear in their party activities but Hero had spent his noontime putting together our video clip into presentable material.  This included framing us in holiday images. 

Then he sent me pictures and videos of the children watching and singing along with us, after which all the party fun they had participated in.  As you can see below, his well-planned, well-prepared Christmas unit was a huge success.

    Hero later told me what  touched his heart the most was when the students gave him a very special Christmas surprise:  Cards they had made themselves and a store-bought Christmas holiday  wall hanging which they had paid for and chosen themselves.  What a treasured moment  for us educators to experience: our students being inspired by, and grateful for,  the most precious gift we have to offer:  that of the love of learning. 

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My Sponsoring organization in China, The Amity Foundation, Shares with the Office 

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While Hero had his own touching ‘Spirit of the Holidays” moment, mine came in a text message from the director of the education division in the Amity Foundation. The Amity Foundation is my sponsoring organization in China and is located in Nanjing. It was founded in 1985 by Chinese Christians and serves impoverished Chinese people through development projects in education, health, social welfare, emergency relief and numerous other programs (See amityfoundation.org for more detailed information.)

I am an Amity Foundation teacher and have been in this position for close to 25 years. It’s just this year of Covid that has me away from my role as an educator and has kept me “stuck” in the States until my city allows my return.

Director She Hongyu shared that my video had been forwarded to those in charge of the meeting and would be shown to the entire Amity organization, administrators and staff, during their office Christmas celebrations. Another staff member sent me the above photo, captured in the middle of our carol, “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

It was honestly the best Christmas present I could ever receive. 

My students from Last Year:  Christmas celebrations?  Hmmm

The posted video also was a hit among my freshmen students from last year (now sophomores) and the college’s 200-member English Association WeChat group. I received many texts of “Merry Christmas, Connie!”, “We miss you!” and “Hope to see you soon.  Love you!”.  

Some mentioned remembering last year’s  Christmas lessons and visit to my home.  They included in those notes pictures of us together in my overly-decorated home.  Such wonderful memories for them.

 An Ego Lost

I’ve always been very proud of my 4-week Christmas unit. It includes the religious story, a history of modern-day customs, necessary holiday vocabulary, a Christmas-themed bingo game and a visit to my home to finalize all that we’ve learned.  An open-book, small group collaborative written test nailed home all that I had so carefully imparted to these young people, soon to be teachers themselves in a few years.  Almost everyone received 100% for their Christmas exam.

Particularly sad for me this past Fall semester was not being able to lead the 2020 freshmen through my culture classes, including Christmas.  I imagined all that previous students had learned from me about this special December celebration and how informed they are to pass on to others.  

Well, that was until I received the following WeChat message, complete with visuals, from one class of my 2019 English education majors:

Student Becky gleefully reported,  “Hello, Teacher Connie!  We remember your Christmas home last year.  It was so beautiful. So we have our own Christmas party in the classroom this year.  We had a very good time. Here are our pictures.”

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“Masks?” I was thinking.  “Surely they remember that’s a Halloween thing.”

If only Becky had stopped there. The true stab in the heart (and utter disintegration of my ego) came with her closing remark.

“Thank you, Connie, for teaching us about your festival.  Without your careful instruction, we would not understand this wonderful holiday.  Merry Christmas!”

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Merry Christmas to “My” China!

My family took time to record a message for my Chinese colleagues, students and friends which was sent out this evening. I’ve already received numerous texts: “Thank you, Connie, your mother and brother! Merry Christmas!”

Same to all of you: Merry Christmas!

Me, my mother Priscilla and my older brother, Paul, took a quick moment in between opening gifts to send a greeting to my Chinese students, friends and colleagues.

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Christmas Eve Service Preparations Underway: China and USA

During my time in the States, I am constantly updated through friends, students and colleagues about the virus situation in China. For the most part, things returned to normal beginning in the summer after strict protocols went into place on how to control Covid-19. Quite simple, really: If a case suddenly popped up anywhere in the country, everything shut down in that particular place. Contact tracing was implemented to pinpoint where the individual had been and who had been exposed. Massive testing of everyone within the person’s apartment building area went into place, anywhere from 2 million residents upwards, completed in a matter of days.

Almost all cases were imported, from returning overseas’ Chinese or foreign business people who came in for work purposes. The 2 Covid tests required 48-hours before getting on the plane (an anti-body test and a Covid test) plus the 2-week mandatory hotel quarantine upon entry into the airport, helped keep the virus from leaking into the public.

Despite these efforts, there were a few cases that mysteriously popped up with little clue as to where they came from. This happened last month in my particular region of China.

Sichuan Becomes a Hot-spot

Sichuan Province, where Luzhou (the smaller city of 5 million where I live) is located, was doing very well until last month. In the capital city of Sichuan, Chengdu, which is 3 1/2 hours away from Luzhou, a young woman tested positive. She was asymptomatic but her grand-parents became sick, thus the discovery of the virus. The girl was living with them and when they were tested for the virus, just in case, the positive result sent the hospital staff and city into virus-containment overdrive. Since everyone in China must have the health App on their phones, authorities can easily track where a person has been or is currently. The young woman’s route throughout the city, when it was discovered she was a carrier, was posted on government websites. Arrows and lines tracked her from different venues she’d visited, from several coffee bars, shops, the grocery and a friend’s house. Those who had been to those places were requested to come in for testing. Also, health officials in full protective gear went to test her grandparents’ apartment to see how much of the virus residue was left. They found quite a lot.

Local TV channels and newspapers reported the grandmother was not doing well but the grandfather seemed stable. The adult grand-daughter, meanwhile, was feeling fine but quarantined for 2 weeks far from others in a designated hotel outside of the city.

How Chengdu’s virus pop-up affected Luzhou and the Luzhou Protestant Church 

When Chengdu went into a red-zone infection category, Luzhou medical personnel were immediately called to their hospitals, clinics and offices as emergency procedures were put into place.  Luzhou has bus and car travel to and from Chengdu on a regular basis, with thousands of Chengdu-Luzhou/ Luzhou-Chengdu passengers a day journeying along the expressway and entering/exiting both cities.  The possibility of a virus-carrying someone landing in Luzhou from the capital city, 170 miles away, was deemed highly likely.  Temperature checks went back into effect for anyone on the freeway coming into the city.  The same went for people entering the city’s grocery stores with masks once again appearing on people’s faces.  

As for the Luzhou Protestant Church, which had been holding in-person services since the large-gathering ban was lifted in June,  notices from the religious affairs bureau to the church leaders were sent out about safety precautions to take.  Congregation numbers were to be limited, masks worn, members seated  3-feet apart and temperature checks taken upon entry.

Pastor Liao and others were informed to wait a few more weeks before final word came  down about Christmas Eve services and if those should be virtual only or could be in-person as always.  

As of last week, I heard the verdict:  Services can take place but with limited numbers entering the church.  Due to this, the church decided to do a fully taped virtual service to offer the public and believers with a fewer number of congregation members attending on Christmas Eve.  

The showing of the recorded service will be in the church on Christmas Day, beginning at 3 p.m., with a posting of the recording as well on WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facebook).

Choir Rehearsals Announced

As a choir member, I still receive the Christmas Eve rehearsal instructions:   schedule of practices, what to wear, warm-ups to do, the program order of service and hints for food intake.  The most recent text message is as follows:

“Dear Brothers and Sisters:  Rehearsals will start promptly at 7 p.m. today.  The church has prepared food:  soybean milk, bread and eggs on the 3rd floor.  If you want noodles, we contacted the noodle shop next to the church for dinner.  The brothers and Sisters who want noodles must go on their own, between 5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.  Pray that God will prepare us for the presentation.  Thank the Lord!  Hallelujah!”

My Hometown Church Rehearsal and Recording

In response to all the choir announcements, I sent my own pictures and inside look into  a USA Christmas Eve service in the midst of a pandemic. 

My mom, former choir director of my hometown’s Marshall First UMC, was enlisted to consult with Pastor Bob Sabo and organist Jo Sanders to put together a Christmas Eve service.  Like my Luzhou Church, an in-person service was planned but then, due to increased virus cases, plans changed.  Unlike my Chinese church, however,  which will be having both in-person and virtual showings, Marshall First is going all virtual as strongly advised by our Illinois Great Rivers’ Conference bishop,  Bishop Beard.

Yesterday evening, all performers (my mom and I included) arrived early for a run-through before the final taping.  It was a 4-hour affair, with youth director James Southworth in charge of the production procedures, practice session and clockwork timing.  Masks, social distancing, staging strategies, disinfecting procedures for shared hand mics and where-are-your-marks were practiced to the point where we all felt comfortable with what to do, how to do and when to do.  

When it came time for the recording itself, with 3 volunteers manning the new cameras and sound-system, we felt confident of a successful virtual offering for December 24th.  

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By the time our evening ended at 8:30 p.m., with a “thumbs up” from James that the recording had stopped, we gave a HUGE sigh of relief. I couldn’t help but give a peek at the computer screen while our recording team checked to make absolutely sure they’d gotten it right.  

Wow!  It looked and sounded fantastic!  For a small-town church, it is impressive.  I will definitely be posting the link in the next entry for you all to enjoy as well.

While it might not have been the kind of Christmas Eve we’re all used to, I will say that as participants, my mom and I truly felt the spirit of this holy night was upon us.  I’m sure the others felt the same as well.

Until then, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your before-Christmas celebrations. 

 

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Last Year’s Christmas Memories

In the previous post, I gave you a look at my USA Christmas, one which I haven’t had in the States in 28 years. How about China?

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Our culture class had students re-enacting the Christmas Story from my own simplified script I’ve been using for years.

Christmas Activity Night

The English Association, one of our college clubs of about 200 members, and I organized the yearly campus-wide Christmas Activity Night.  All students of any major were invited, including teachers and their family members.  Former students who were teachers in Luzhou brought their own students as well  for our special night.  

It was a huge amount of work (we worked on it for a month) but well worth all the time, energy, and planning that went into it.  Our stations included:  Christmas greeting candy stations (Say “Merry Christmas,”  “Happy Holidays,” and “Happy New Year” to get a piece of candy), decorate the Christmas trees, gift wrapping (we had 200 apples and 200 oranges to be wrapped with special paper and tags to write on), craft-making (snowflakes and ornaments) and photos with Santa and elves.  I still remember the excitement of that night and how no one wanted to leave, despite our 8 p.m. deadline.  

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Welcome to my Christmas Home!

Last year, so many students crowded into my apartment in the teachers’ apartment building on my campus. For 8 days, my evenings were staggered with groups of my college English language majors stuffing themselves into the elevators to ascend to the 9th floor, where my home was located. Exclamations of surprise, laughter, “Oh!”s and “Ah!”s, giggles and unbridled joy filled every visit. Baskets overflowed with candy as I constantly replenished from my 3-bag stash in my bedroom. I am sure my candy seller has missed me these past few weeks, not so much for my enthusiastic “Merry Christmas!” greetings as I approached her storefront but more for the 800 yuan (close to $150 US) I spent at her stall.

Take a look at how your gifts (holiday pencils, monetary donations, wonderful Christmas cards) made these gatherings so very, very special.

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The Chinese Church

At present, I am receiving so many messages from the choir members about practices for the Christmas Eve service.

Yesterday, Sunday, our choir monitor announced by text that the noodle shop next to the church would be open at 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. for all church performers to get a hearty meal for free before practice began promptly at 7 p.m. We were to be there at 6 p.m., in robes, for warm-up and be ready to start the run-through at 7 p.m.

Last year, we didn’t get home until 11:30 p.m. for our practices and we had two of those! I remember making sure to tell my college’s gate security guards that I’d be coming in close to midnight. This also included Christmas Eve, although we usually ended around 10:30 p.m. for December 24th. Since our campus has a 10:30 p.m. curfew for students, it’s important to let them know to be expecting a late-night entry from the foreign teacher. That is just common courtesy and something I know our security staff always appreciated so no misunderstandings would develop.

Here are some of last year’s best moments. With Covid completely under control, with not a single case in my city of 5 million, masks are not even required. These photos from last year will most likely be very similar to what you’d be seeing on Thursday night. What a “Hallelujah!” worship that will be!

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Christmas Eve in Marshall

Yes, my Christmas Eve will be very different this year.  No exhausting Christmas schedules squashed between teaching duties (Chinese New Year is a holiday, not Christmas, so I’m working as always), and late night practices with early morning risings.  This year, it’s a quiet stay-at-home with my mom and me participating in tomorrow’s taping of our church’s Christmas Eve service.  We are singing “Once in David’s Royal City,” a peppy “Come, Expected Jesus” and Silent Night along with a few other singers and instrumentalists.  We definitely will be home long before midnight, I hope!  

While here, I’m very grateful to have these new holiday memories to share with my students and choir members, either this year or next.  I have been taking full advantage of this time in America, making sure to record everything in both pictures and video clips for future lessons.  My lessons next year will be outstanding, I’m sure.

In the meantime, I’m making sure to enjoy every minute I spend here.  Merry Christmas and God’s love for your celebrations this year, everyone!  Hold tight to this Christmas, rejoice in what is and not what isn’t, and embrace the reason for the season:  Christ’s light brought into the world on this, our Christian faith’s most holy day.

Ping An (Peace)!

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Christmas is upon us!

I can’t believe how fast this month has flown by. How can Christmas be just a few days away? And how can it be that I’ve been “stuck” here for almost a year now? Yes, still waiting for my visa to be approved, which seems unlikely to happen due to our unstable virus situation here in America. We just can’t seem to keep Covid from rampantly invading every niche, corner and crevice of our country, including our own Covid fatigue, somewhat defeated attitude. So many, tiring of stay-at-home urgent pleas and mandates, itch for close contact with loved ones, family and friends to the point of throwing all care to the winds. We are seeing, after the massive “Homeward bound!” during the Thanksgiving Day holidays, where that has landed us: In a dire, mind-numbing quagmire of virus cases that sink us deeper and deeper into the unknown.

My greatest hope is that getting the vaccine, which I’m guessing will be a requirement for any foreigner re-entering China, will give the necessary boost I need to bring me back into my English language classroom. Hope for that; wish for that; pray for that.

In the meantime, let me offer up a happier, more cheerful and festive look at the happenings from my end

Decorating my Mom’s New House

My mom and I have been busy decorating her new home for Christmas, which demanded pulling out all the bins stuffed with so many of my childhood memories of Christmas: the 90-year-old Christmas scene, the 1930’s creche, treasured tree ornaments, holiday figurines and stuffed animals, and ornamental gifts from friends and family over the years. It was fun finding just where to put things.

In her old home, every piece had its special, time-honored place on the shelves, on the walls, on the tabletops, on the buffet, on the piano . . . But in the new house, choosing the proper spot was a challenge. We spent hours, even days, selecting items, discussing placement, analyzing balance, commenting on decor, moving things from here to there, adding this or subtracting that . . . The production of it all! But, oh, what satisfaction and delight in the final settling.

Sure, there are still a few frowns and sideways glances at what might be better elsewhere but those will be saved for next year. As it stands now, the house is finished!

A Visit to Danke’s Tree Farm

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Preparing the Outside

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And the Inside: Tree is first!

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Next come all the family favorites

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The Christmas Scene

My most favorite, and missed while in China, Christmas tradition has always been the Christmas Scene.  These 1930’s and 40’s Barclay figurines have been saved and kept safe for many years.  The houses as well, which include an 1800’s wooden cabin with a 150-year-old couple to match.  Don’t you want to shrink yourself to an appropriate size to live here? I sure do!

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What a grand holiday home!

We still have a few more trinkets to go but my mom has decided that, for this year anyway, not everything needs to come out of storage.  After all, have to save something for next year, right?  Thus leaving this year’s Christmas home a finished product.   

Until my next entry, may peace (Ping an) and joy be with you.

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Another Column Entry from my Mom

Note:  My mom’s weekly column for our local newspaper talks about Christmas cookies.  I’ll add my next entry about my cookie-making in China, with pictures.

Walking about Town, by Priscilla Wieck

My mom, Priscilla Wieck, and I are enjoying the holidays together (Unmasked for this selfie picture. Otherwise, we are fully facially covered for virus protection.)

December blew in last week, bringing our coldest temps so far. I have had to retrieve my winter coat from the far reaches of the closet and my knit hat from winter storage to be able to continue our daily walks. Dog Bridget, however, has gloried in the wind and cold, prancing and chasing around like a pup. She surely is a winter dog because she begs to remain outside when it is sunny, snug in her doggie bed even after a cold walk.

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In December, walking in the town of Marshall becomes more interesting due to all the Christmas decorations that suddenly appear after Thanksgiving. During November, we walked the fair grounds in the late afternoon and followed with interest the assembling of the annual Festival of Lights. We will visit the result of all those volunteer hours of work put forth by our Christmas Committee in a few days. Many thanks to all those who spend so much time and effort to make our holiday season brighter.

Also in December, Christmas cookies become a subject of interest. This year, there seems to be a full-fledged debate occurring about the worthiness of those delectable morsels. Rex Huppke began this debate in his column of November 27th in the Chicago Tribune. Rex, who is a bit of a curmudgeon in my opinion, opened his column with this simple statement: “Nobody actually likes Christmas cookies.”

Huppke further claimed that we only make them because of tradition and we only eat them because of the frosting. Why else would so many people “offload the goodies they are given on friends and neighbors if they like them so much?” he asked.

I would debate Huppke on this subject. I happen to like Christmas cookies. In fact, in years past I actually enjoyed making them.

His column started me wondering just which Christmas cookie is the most popular among bakers and eaters. I would have guessed a cut out frosted Santa or tree, but no. General Mills Kitchens reports that the most requested holiday recipe in 2019 was for Peanut Butter Blossoms. I assume those are the ones made into little balls with Hersey Kisses on top. They are good but I prefer a thin, orange-zest flavored cut-out sugar cookie, the kind my mother so laboriously and lovingly made each year.

Contrary to Huppke’s posit, maybe we like Christmas cookies because they bring back a little taste of home with fond memories. Maybe we enjoy making them because as we do, we envision the enjoyment others will have when eating them. And just maybe we offer them to friends and family out of the joy of giving something of ourselves.

So that ends my debate with Mr. Huppke. Who do you think won?

A History of the Christmas Cookie

How did this Christmas cookie business get started, anyway?

To find out, I consulted my somewhat reliable resource Wikipedia and found that the making of special holiday foods began hundreds of years ago when the Druids celebrated Winter Solstice — sort of a feast-before-winter-famine idea. Later, when trade routes from the far east were developed, spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger were available to home cooks. Recipes for biscuits (the Brits’ name for cookies) can be traced to Medieval Europe with additional ingredients of almonds, black pepper and dried fruit. 

The earliest examples of today’s goodies were brought to America by the Dutch in the early 17th century. When the Germans introduced the first tin cookie cutters in the 1800’s, popularity of a frosted cut-out cookie really blossomed. Recipe books featured ways to incorporate the various shapes into the holiday decorations by hanging them on Christmas trees as well as serving them to guests. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that someone came up with the idea of pairing those cookies with milk and setting them out for Santa.

Many different countries have contributed to the variety of Christmas cookies that modern day families enjoy. The ones we seem to cherish the most are made from those recipes that have been handed down in our own individual families.

We should never underestimate the importance of the humble cookie. It is one of the many traditions that holds our families together throughout the years. So, eat up and enjoy! 

“A balanced diet is a Christmas cookie in each hand.”–Anonymous 

Peace

My Christmas cookies last year, which I so lovingly made for my students, friends and colleagues in China.

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My Thankfulness for Connie’s English Corner

It’s Thanksgivingday weekend and time for me to share what I am thankful for. Being “stuck” in America for so long hasn’t been something that I was expecting. Recently, I’ve tried not to dwell upon my holiday lessons, which I so much look forward to each year and are not to happen for 2020. Instead, I’m concentrating on the connection I do have with my China. I am so appreciative that our modern technology allows me to stay in touch with others around the world. How does this take place? Through WeChat!

WeChat is similar to Facebook and is used throughout China for instant communication with others through this special phone App. My WeChat account has a “Moments” page where I blog and post pictures of the topics I cover. I post teaching videos or walk-about-my-town clips. I record me and my mom singing or my hometown church in worship. I also have individual communication chats with all my Chinese friends so we can share what we’re doing on a daily basis.

Expanding my connections even more, I also belong to numerous WeChat groups: My college’s alums, my former students’, my Luzhou church groups (church choir, daily scripture readings, English prayer learners), my college English department, Foreigners in Luzhou, and my college students (English Association, English Corner Extravaganza, English Center volunteers).

One of my Favorite WeChat Groups:  Connie’s English Corner

Connie’s English Corner is one of my favorites. A very motivated Luzhou Vocational and Technical College alum, a Business English major, started this among her classmates. Her English name is Stacey and, while she was not one of my students, many others she knew were. Stacey (now married and expecting her second child) has been doing online courses to qualify for an English Translation certification. Her drive to improve her English is quite commendable. She began her English WeChat group to help unite her former English-speaking friends and classmates but also to help her in her own studies in English.

After I joined her group, she decided to change the name to Connie’s English Corner, and so it has remained for several years.

A Close-knit, Long-distance Community 

One of the reasons I rejoice in this special connection with all who have joined is their infectious humorous banter back and forth, not to mention their heartfelt sharing of their lives. You can feel the close-knit comaraderie among this special crowd, separated by miles, provinces, countries and even half the world, as in my case. The good-natured quips, joking comments, wicked teasing and shared sharp wit lift my spirits and make me truly grateful to have met each and every one of these young adults.

Their English names fill my chat box: Stacey, Mike, Herbert, Jason, Melody, Sarah, Violet, Alex, Ivy, Emily, Frida, and Hanna. Their busy lives with family and jobs never seem to interfere with taking time to post happenings of the week or day. Here are a few from the past few months.

Connie’s Mistake; Herbert’s Modeling Career

(Background:  Herbert’s company sells Halloween decor to overseas’ partners, from masks to animated figures to ghoulish mannequins.)

Jason: Are you a mask model?

Herbert: Professional. Free of charge. Only like to show it with photos.

Connie: My favorite is the pug (That’s a kind of dig).

Jason: @ Connie — Dog!! Wrongly spilt.

Stacey: @ Jason — Spelled, not spilt. Wrongly spelled.

Jason: So bad!

Connie: Not as bad a mistake as I made. I’m the native speaker!!

Stacey: And the English teacher. (winking emoji)

Connie (crying face): So sad.

Stacey’s WeChat Lament

(Stacey, pregnant with her second child, is doing online courses for an English Translation certificate. She had an in-person exam at a campus testing center and while waiting for her husband to pick her up, and re-hashing her test answers, she sent the below.)

Stacey: My god! I translated “world environment” wrong in my exam. I realized it at the last minute but the right word did not appear in my brain. I just attended an exam today, translation exam. We had two parts. Morning and afternoon. I am seated in a chair on the campus right now, waiting for my husband to drive me home. What a pity I wronged a word. Maybe 2 points or more is lost due to it. I wrote “inport” in last year’s exam. Today I made same mistake on easy words.

Connie: Don’t feel so bad. It happens! Do you remember Dean Li Xiaolian? Her mistake was tragic on her PhD entrance exam for the program at Beijing University. She passed the English interview with high marks. She easily passed the Chinese parts of the exam (teaching methodology, Communist Party Principles, philosophy and others) after studying for 8 months. Then came the very simple English section. Her BA and MA were in English. How could she possibly fail the basic English section of the standard PhD test? She easily whizzed through it and waited until the next day when she confidently knew she’d be asked into the PhD program. But when the committee invited her to sit in the office, she was told all her scores were outstanding except for one: The English section. In shock, she was told she had accidentally skipped a question when she filled in the ovals, meaning every question after the one she skipped (which was Number 2) had the incorrect answer for all the other 33 questions. Thus she failed. And because there was an age limit to studying for a PhD, she wasn’t qualified to try again the next year.

Stacey: What a pity for her!

Connie: Yes. She said she cried almost every day for 2 months.

Stacey: I will attend more English exams.

Connie: Do you feel nervous?

Stacey: Now I no longer feel nervous about exams. I am a veteran.

Connie: How about the baby?

Stacey: The baby will be born within half a month.

Connie: That’s so exciting. Such a lucky baby to have such a good, and intelligent, mother.

A plea for help that disintegrates into congenial ribbing

(Violet, working in a government position, was asked to translate for her department head a many-paged document with specialized, political language.  She attached the Chinese document and announced the below. )

Violet: Who will help me translate this?

Jason: I can’t.

Stacey: Too much! I’m powerless

Luo: How about Mike?

(No answer. 5 hours later)

Jason: Where r u, Mike?

Melody: Where is Mike? Violet needs you! Eagerly needs you.

Connie: @ Violet. There are many Apps that can be downloaded which can translate difficult documents into English. I know WeChat has one. Look on your Chinese websites and see what you can find.

Jason: A very good idea.

Stacey: It’s a big project. You can hire someone to do it.

Jason: Yes. Hire someone. Hire someone.

(Silence until a day later)

Mike: Hey! What happened? Seems I have missed getting tens of millions of $.

Stacey: Yes, Mike, you are wanted!

Mike: I have been tied up with work stuff.

Jason: A good excuse. How is your translation work now, Violet?

Melody: I think not even started.

Violet: Just like Melody said — not even started.

Melody: Ah! I am right. How well I know you, Violet!

Jason: Of Course. After all, you two used to skip classes together.

Melody: Nonsense! We were the hardworking ones. If not, we wouldn’t be good friends and successful women.

Jason. Well, there must be something wrong with my memory. My memory is hard work shopping.

Violet’s emoji followed:

In Closing

Ah, how I love this group! Can’t wait for us to meet up again in future correspondence via WeChat. And when I do return to China, we are planning a large reunion on the new campus of Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. What a joyful day that will be!

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