The past three days has had me busy preparing for a class party.
At the end of every term, I think it’s a nice idea to have a gathering of my classmates in my home as a final farewell before we go our separate ways. Last year’s party was a joyful one as Christmastime had arrived, my class was full of young university students from many different countries and we had grown fairly close over the semester.
This semester, however, our group dynamics were a bit different. We had many older men, mostly from Korea and Japan, with a sprinkling of young Thai girls and a couple of aloof European college guys. The earthquake dropped my class from 22 down to 8 since quite a few went home so we combined with another intermediate level class to reach a total of about 18 all together.
Only about 10 of us attended classes on a daily basis. The rest came and went according to how they felt.
Despite the rather distant relationship we all had, I still felt it would be nice for a Saturday get-together, especially as Friday was our last class day. It gave me a great excuse to clean my apartment and an even better one to actually bake something from scratch if you have the right equipment.
Ovens in China are rare but in most department stores, a person can purchase a table-top oven about the size of a small TV set. Costs range from $45 on up and, while small, if you enjoy baking, I’d say the purchase is worth it.
My oven was a gift from a former Amity teacher who returned to her home country. She’d had it for 4 years before giving it to me. I’ve had it for 7 years now so it’s had 11 years of great use.
I only use this oven for Christmas baking or other special occasions. Mostly, it sits atop the refrigerator and gathers dust until it’s time to pull it down, set it up on the kitchen table and get busy flipping through tried-and-true recipes which can be made in China. I’m fortunate to have the International Store just around the corner where I can purchase butter or margarine, chocolate chips, powdered sugar, vanilla, cocoa and baking chocolate.
Butter and margarine used to be impossible items to find in China but within the past 3 years, I’ve seen them crop up in average chain groceries like the Trust-mart. They are Chinese brands, however, and while the taste is fairly nasty by itself, in cooked items, they’ll do just fine.
The only problem with having a small oven is that it takes a long time to make anything. I spent two evenings preparing chocolate chip, peanut butter and chocolate truffle cookies. When you can only bake about 10 cookies at a time, it’ll take awhile, believe me.
For the party, as always, I enlisted the help of Jalin (my 14-year-old neighbor girl) and her friend, Angel (13 years old). The last time I had a class gathering, I handed out hand-drawn maps of how to get to my place. Of course, some got lost. Jalin and Angel’s job had been to go find them after they telephoned for help. The two also poured drinks and assisted with clean-up afterwards.
In exchange for all their hard work, they excitedly had pictures taken with the handsome foreign guys (two Germans and 4 Thai young men), practiced a bit of their English, and taught the Thai girls some Chinese party games and songs. They also ended up taking home quite a few of the goodies that were left over, including the cut-out sugar cookies which were quickly their favorites.
Last semester, I knew the party would be a success but with this group, I had no idea about. When Saturday evening came, and no one but Jalin and Angel had yet showed up 45 minutes after the appointed 6:30 start, I wondered if this was such a good idea or not.
7:20 finally brought a small group to my door after Jalin went after them. They’d walked past the apartment complex entrance and were several blocks up the road. By 8 p.m., everyone who was coming had arrived, including one of my teachers, Ms. Guo (gw-oh) and her new boyfriend.
As soon as she entered my apartment, all the Thai girls immediately burst into squeals of delight that she had brought her special guy friend to meet them. In fact, he was the only male among all us females (a total of 10) which made him quite the VIP.
As is the custom in Asia, flowers or fruit are good hostess gifts to bring. Ms. Guo chose a lovely bunch of fragrant yellow lilies as her gift for me. Flower shops in China are along every street and the prices, compared to the States, are very cheap. Lilies run about $1.15 a stem (3 blooms) and roses are about 50 cents each. Yes, they do have a wonderful smell, unlike those we purchase in the U.S. florist shops.
The Thai college girls and one older woman from Singapore went for fruit, which I was very grateful to have as I hadn’t bothered with more healthy choices for the party. Fruit gifts are meant to be shared right away with others so I sent Jalin and Angel off into the kitchen to prepare those items for serving, one being lichee and the other apricots.
The most popular in-season fruit now is the lichee, which is actually quite famous in Luzhou where (they say) the best lichee are grown. Lichee is a tree fruit about the size of a ping-pong ball. It’s encased in a rough, thin, bark-like covering which you easily peel away with your fingers to reveal the juicy, watery, white, succulent middle. There’s a pit so be careful if you bite down on it.
Lichee now is at its plumpest but soon, as the next few weeks wear on, the size of the fruit will become much smaller. We buy lichee in tied-together bunches with the stems still attached or singly, just with the fruit itself. Currently, bunches sell for about 5 yuan (70 cents) a pound. The loose fruit lichee is a bit cheaper because the selections are not as nice.
While my Asian classmates brought the traditional Asian hostess gifts, my American classmate Hanna did what most Americans would do: She prepared more goodies.
Her rice-crispy treats were probably the hottest item on the table. Because no one had ever seen these before, they were a bit hesitant by their gooey appearance. Hanna and I had a bit of work ahead of us prying the sticky squares away from one another and off the foil they were placed on. I admit, if I didn’t know what they were, I’d have been wary of them, too. But after everyone politely tried a bite of one, their faces lit up and the room filled with exclamations of, “Hao chi! Hao chi!” (Very good! Very good!).
Second and third helpings had Hanna’s treats gone within 30 minutes.
By 9:30 p.m., people were ready to go. We had numerous group pictures taken, with the help of Ms. Guo’s male companion, and then said our farewells.
So after three days of cleaning the apartment, baking and decorating, was it worth it for such a small crowd? Take a look at our party pictures and judge for yourself.
From Chengdu, here’s wishing you “Ping An” (Peace)