Sunday, January 26, 2020

China: Chinese New Year of the Rat and Coronavirus

There is a dichotomy going on in China right now--exhilaration for a new year, a new beginning, achieving new dreams, but also a resolve to try and not to be afraid about a virus where the epicenter is in Wuhan, China. I guess, on a macro-level, that is the way we all feel--joy and excitement for dreams of a new year, but trying to be prepared--to not fear the future. And we all need each other to achieve the conflicting feelings that sometimes collide. The Chinese people are doing that right now: trying to be brave, joyous, and peaceful because they know it is a holiday they have been anticipating. It was supposed to be happy and festive. However, they are also nervous about a virus that has come to their country. So we celebrate here in China for a new year, but are conscious others are suffering... We celebrate a new year, knowing that every moment with loved ones is precious. 

Gathering as families is the main reason for the Chinese New Year. People work hard all year so they can travel to see their loved ones. Linking the generations together is very much a part of Chinese culture and philosophy. 

Here in Tianjin, China, everyone has been happily preparing for the year of the rat for about a month. You can read China: Preparing for the Year of the Rat (before the virus hit). Yet, when I left the hospital last night on New Year's Eve where my husband works, there was a pensive sadness in the air. A few days ago there was jubilation and cheer in everyone's faces--people chattering about the dishes they were preparing and spending time with their families. I was always being stopped again and again outside in the streets to exchange New Year's wishes. One old Chinese woman with just a few teeth wanted to practice her English on me as we crossed a busy intersection together. Now, there is not nearly the excitement.

Last night for New Year's Eve there was a noticeable, palpable fear--and we are far from the epicenter of the coronavirus. I smiled at everyone on the street and wished them a wonderful new year. But everyone was wearing a mask to protect them from the coronavirus. They wished me a great year ahead too, but I could not see smiles underneath the masks or hear the usual easy conversing. The day everyone had been preparing and waiting for felt different because we knew many people were scared and suffering.

As we hailed probably one of the last taxis that would pass by that street in hours, we felt lucky to chat with the taxi driver all the way to our New Year's Eve dinner. We decided to still attend since we knew many people had canceled their invitations. The roads were mostly empty. Restaurants that are usually kept open for people who don't want to cook were mostly closed. All the public events had been canceled in the parks.

I knew that many people who have been working hard all year long to see their family--especially the migrant workers in the city--will likely not make it home to their province or village. Most everyone is just staying in. At times like this, it is important to not panic but to listen to official news and enjoy the time to be together in our homes.

I was planning on a more jovial blog, but I did want to show some of the artistry and happiness of what was going on just before the virus came to China. I invite you to pray for China and all those who are affected by the coronavirus. Hopefully, smiles will soon return to everyone's faces soon, and we can all take off our masks.

Making dumplings is what most people eat at this time of year with their families in northern China. In fact, many families in the north make dumplings together a couple of times a month. They make the dough, filling, and then "bau" (or fold them together). The old and the young continue this tradition together--taking time to make them together, instead of boiling a bag of frozen dumplings. "Reunion" nights are very important in China. 

Some young girls at a pre-Chinese New Year show with traditional instruments. This night was about a week before Chinese New Year began and the virus started spreading.

A night of Chinese culture just before the Chinese New Year when everyone was more exuberant. This is a ten-year-old girl who is performing Chinese opera. 
Another picture of her. She was just adorable...

Shopping in a nearby market before the outbreak. The Chinese celebrate the vegetable, unlike any other place I have ever seen.

More shopping outside our apartment building. I bought enough for a couple of weeks since I knew many stores would be close. Now, I am glad I did because no one is going out now. 

At a well-known restaurant in Tianjin, where workers were getting ready for customers to buy packages or gifts for families from the restaurant. Gifts are very important to take to family gatherings and dinners.

One of my favorite traditions--people make their own banners for friends and family to hang on their windows and doors, instead of buying them. All the Chinese sayings wish blessings on families--to bring peace, joy, abundance, health, and longevity to them. I love these young boys a few days before New Year's making banners of us foreigners to view. 

A Chinese friend came to help me decorate my door a few days ago before everyone stopped going out. Two days before Chinese New Year's Day, the Chinese put up their banners welcoming in the New Year, and wishing everyone prosperity, blessings, health, and family joy

Rats are everywhere--stuffed rats, statues, cartoons, performers who are rats, little children dressed up like rats. It is hilarious, very playful, and fun.

At a park where all the 12 Zodiac animals have statues. This year, the rat rules. 
Interesting tidbit: The rat is the first of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. According to myth, the Jade Emperor organized a race for a group of animals on his birthday. He said whoever won the race could start out the Chinese zodiac sign. Legend goes that the rat climbed on the back of the ox, jumping off at the finish line to win first place. That is the reason the rat starts the Zodiac cycle. People who are born in 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1996, and 2008 are the sign of the rat.

On a frozen outlet of a pond near our home. Everyone was so happy to spend time together outside with loved ones. Again, just a few days before Chinese New Year's. There was such exuberance in the air. We were all so excited...

I love the way this older gentleman leads everyone out on the ice every day to play hockey near my home. 

A grandfather and son out just before everyone went inside. I love the way grandparents are such an integral part of Chinese children's lives. 

A little girl eating a favorite Chinese festive candy apple.

Going into a store to buy candy for Chinese friends, and to take them to gatherings. Red paper-cuts and banners adorn most of the windows.

We all laughed when a little robot came to try and serve us some candy.

The entire city is ablaze with red color to show the Chinese people's favorite color--a sign of luck and blessings. 
Excited to take off our masks soon....

Monday, January 20, 2020

China: Getting Ready for the Year of the Rat (Part 1)

If you are born in the year of the rat, Chinese tradition says you will be quick-witted, smart, and frugal. 

Happy Year of the Rat! Red envelopes on this tree called "hungbau." They are delivered by family and friends for their loved ones. 
Over here in Mainland China, everyone is preparing for the next two weeks of Chinese New Year or Spring Festival as it is called in China (not sure why because there is ice floating down the rivers).  Chinese New Year officially begins on January 25 this year and lasts until February 8, which is the day of the Lantern Festival. For one week, none of the stores are open so crowds are bustling everywhere to buy their friends and family gifts. Many people are carrying home big bags of food for their New Year feasts. New clothes are bought. People clean their houses to sweep away ill-fortune and make way for coming luck. (I invited a Chinese friend to come today and she offered to "house-clean." I guess she wants to let the luck flow this year for me with a cleaner house. I did think it was quite tidy the last time she came. Ha!). Everyone is preparing their homes for the new year.

Red lights and lanterns adorn many shops, apartment buildings, schools, and businesses. Schools are closed for two-four weeks for this auspicious holiday that enters in the new year of the Zodiac sign of the Rat. The streets have flowing banners, and the doors and windows in houses have red paper-cut signs that say Blessings, Health, Longevity. There is an exhilarating excitement in the air wherever you go.

Many people travel to their province or village to be with families at this time. One friend with a few tears said to me, "Everyone works hard all year long so they can be with their family at this time. On the night before New Year's, this year on January 24, will be"the reunion night" when families come together all over China. I have been told not to travel around China at this time to avoid the crowds. Planes, trains, and coaches were booked long ago. Ancestors are remembered, and red envelopes containing money are given to family members--especially children. There will be fireworks, gatherings, activities and all kinds of food to eat and gifts to give. But here are some suggestions or even warnings before you choose your gifts to give your host for Chinese New Year:

1) Don't give knives or other sharp objects like scissors because that would mean you want "to cut" off the relationship with them.
2) Don't give anything with a number four, even four apples because the Chinese will do anything to avoid the number four. The sounds of the words death and the number four are similar. Everything associated with the number four is unlucky. (There is often not a number four on elevators, and no one wants to live on the fourth floor in apartment buildings).
3) Don't give someone a new Apple watch or a clock because that would mean their time on earth is coming to a close and death is imminent. It means you are running out of time.
4) Don't give cut flowers because that is for funerals, especially white flowers since the color white is associated with death.
5) Don't give shoes because the word's shoes and bad luck sound the same. Shoes are something you step on so definitely avoid giving shoes!
6) Don't give pears (another fruit is fine). It is taboo since the word pear and the word "leaving" sound the same.
7) Don't give a mirror because it could attract terrible ghosts to your life, and besides it could possibly break!

Yesterday we went to a huge convention center in Tianjin where people from all over China were there to sell delicacies for the Chinese New Year tables. Honestly, I have never seen the abundance of samplings that were available yesterday. If you fancy eating jellyfish in your salad or expensive sea cucumbers or sheep's head, it was there for you. Here is a smorgasbord of pictures that shows how people are preparing over here:

Everyone decorates their windows, and especially doors with red banners and paper-cuts.

A darling little girl choosing a lantern for her home.

Picking some for our door
In front of an international school here in Tianjin

Dried shrimp anyone?

Dried dates are popular here.

Sheep's head for a soup?

Dried mushroom for soups. I bought some and made a delicious soup today.

Joseph just found the best oranges of his life he said. 

Making music with metal drums

Salmon from the seafood section

These are wonderful big crackers, sprinkled with sesame seeds. 

Candy made with different kids of camel and sheep milk. 

I love the way fruit and vegetable vendors take such great pride in their produce.

Joseph trying some tofu noodles.
The Chinese love nuts and seeds in every variety.
Fresh dates--sometimes people like them dried, fried, and fresh. They are a snack you see everywhere.
A honey vendor

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Merry Christmas again--this time on January 7!

A Ukrainian feast in Doha

Lucy and Ibrahim dressed up in Ukrainian attire on Christmas Eve.... 

Much of the world is getting back to work, school and taking down the Christmas decorations right now. But today is a special day, Christmas Day, in other parts of the world. Last year on this day I celebrated with Ukrainian friends in Doha, Qatar on their Christmas Day on January 7, and we plan on doing it again tonight--a world away in the United States. Much of the world celebrates the Gregorian calendar that confirms Christmas is on December 25. But Orthodox and East Orthodox celebrate the Julian calendar--which means Christmas falls on January 7. These are the countries that typically celebrate it in January: Belarus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Russia, and Ukraine.

Music and caroling is a a big part of the Ukrainian Christmas

In the countries where Christmas is on January 7, many people have fasted for 40 days from meat. They bring to their Christmas Eve table 12 dishes that represent each of the 12 apostles--typically with no meat--waiting for the Christmas Day feast to have meat. It is called the Fast of Philip. These are some of the dishes they have in Ukraine: Grain pudding made with wheat berries or barly, braided breads, often red borscht, meatless cabbage rolls bean dishes, mushroom dishes, and poppyseed cake.

Poppyseed roll
  • 3/4 cup milk, warmed.
  • 2 tsp. active dry yeast.
  • 1/3 cup sugar.
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour.
  • 1 tsp. salt.
  • 1 large egg.
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted.
  • 1 tsp. vanilla.
  • Grated zest of a lemon (optional).
Poppyseed filling:
  • 1/2 cup poppyseed.
  • 1/3 cup ground almonds or ground/finely chopped walnuts.
  • 1/2 can sweetened condensed milk.
  • 1/4 cup sugar.
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten, for brushing.
To make the dough, put the warm milk in a large bowl (the bowl of your stand mixer, if you have one) and sprinkle with the yeast and a pinch of the sugar. Let stand for five minutes, or until it gets foamy. (If it doesn't, you may need fresh yeast.)
Add the rest of the sugar along with the flour, salt, egg, butter, vanilla and lemon zest, if you're using it.
Stir until the dough comes together and is smooth and sticky. Cover and let rest for an hour or so. Meanwhile, make the filling: if you like, grind the poppyseed in a spice grinder or using the finest setting of a food mill.
Transfer to a bowl and stir in the ground almonds, sweetened condensed milk and sugar. (Some like to boil their poppy seeds to soften them first. To do this, cover with water in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer, remove from the heat and let sit for 20 minutes or so, then strain through a cheesecloth-lined sieve).
Divide the dough in half and roll each into a large oval that's about 8x12-inches. Spread each with half the poppyseed filling, leaving about an inch gap around the edges.
Roll each up loosely, starting from a long side, and place seam-side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover and let rest for another hour while you preheat the oven to 350˚F.
Brush the loaves with beaten egg. (I dipped my fork into the remaining sweetened condensed milk before stirring up the egg, to give it a little extra sweetness, which will create a darker, glossier crust). Bake for 25-30 minutes, until deep golden. Let cool slightly before slicing on a slight diagonal.
Makes 2 loaves, serves about 12.
The barley salad that represents a hopeful abundant harvest and gratitude for the past harvest.

Some of the delectable food--beetroot salad, wheat/barley salad, cabbage roll, lentil salad, and of course the borscht.

So if you have a desire to leave the decorations a little longer, you can still celebrate like us tonight for Christmas. In my opinion, the dark winter nights in January are perfect for some more gatherings with light, food, and music to share....