Sunday, November 16, 2008

Exploding Chestnuts

There are little bits of chestnuts on my kitchen ceiling. They are hopefully all of the remaining evidence of a culinary catastrophe that occurred here on a recent Saturday afternoon - the day I was hosting a party for some international students from a local university.

Being the over-achieving perfectionist hostess that I am, I started getting nervous about the party days ahead of time. Did I invite too many people? Not enough? Did I forget anyone? What if nobody shows up? What if everybody shows up? What if people don't talk to each other, don't like the food, don't have fun...???? The night before the party I could hardly sleep. Right after breakfast on the day of the party I started cleaning and preparing for the event. I was too nervous to eat much lunch.

When my friend Jiadi dropped off the ingredients for the Chinese dishes she wanted to prepare and gave me hurried cooking instructions before rushing off to her class, I felt a sense of impending disaster. She assured me that it was simple, but I felt very inadequate to complete the task. How would I know when the steamed eggplant "looked done" if I'd never done it before? How could I "season to taste" when I didn't know what the sauteed sausage and vegetables was supposed to taste like? However, with only a few minor snags, the preparations actually went quite smoothly. In between calling to check on who was coming, giving directions to those who needed it, dusting, straightening up, and setting out paper plates and wooden chopsticks, I simmered and stirred and steamed and sauteed like a pro.

It was while I was on the phone with my Indian friend who was explaining to me why he couldn't come that I heard a loud bang inside the oven. It sounded like an oversized popcorn kernel popping. My mother, who had come home from her errands, opened the oven door quickly and shrieked, "Mi-CHELLE! What did you DO?" I calmly told my Indian friend that I had a little problem in the kitchen and hung up to see what was going on.

Apparently, the fresh chestnuts that my friend Jiadi had bought at the Asian market were exploding from the heat and pressure, splattering their insides all over the oven walls! Taking the pan of chestnuts out of the oven, my mom grabbed a knife and started jabbing at them furiously, telling me to help. I grabbed a knife too and started poking holes in the chestnuts as quickly as I could, to allow the steam to escape and keep them from bursting. But it was a dangerous mission. The chestnuts were still exploding as we worked, and soon we had bits of the soft yellow insides on our glasses, in our hair, and all over our clothes. When one of the popping chestnuts burned my mom's hand, I decided we should use potholders and oven mitts to protect ourselves and avoid getting hit by projectile particles. We'd hold the potholders over the chestnuts with our left hands and then jab at them frantically from the side with the knife in our oven-mitt covered right hands.

Finally, the popping stopped. Unsure whether the danger was really past, I kept stabbing the chestnuts with the knife for a few more minutes, until I was sure every last one had a slit in it. Then I stopped to survey the damage. There were specks of yellow chestnut flesh everywhere - on all the cabinet doors, on the walls, on the floor, on the stove and refrigerator, and on the ceiling! With just an hour until guests would arrive, I tried not to panic and quickly began the clean-up process. After scrubbing the whole kitchen and cleaning the inside of the oven, I quickly took a shower and changed my clothes just as the appointed time for the party arrived, so that I could greet my guests at the door with a calm and welcoming smile.

Needless to say, we didn't serve chestnuts at the party. And nobody would have known what had happened, except that it was such a great story I just had to tell everyone about it! And I was sure to point out the tiny yellow spots on the ceiling, the only evidence that remained - a silent testimony to my foolishness.

So if you get cravings for "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" (or in an enclosed oven) during this holiday, please don't make the same mistake I did. Be sure to poke a hole in them FIRST before roasting or baking to avoid exploding chestnusts in your kitchen!

p.s. Here are pictures of the exploding chestnuts and the specks in my mom's hair!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sin and Sick Long Underwear

Because it's getting into cooler weather now, I'm reminded of the winters in northeast China, that begin in October and last until April! By now my friends in my town in China are probably wearing several layers already. With buildings not always heated sufficiently, you have to get very comfortable with your long underwear! Here's a story about this topic from my first year in China.

Monday, November 22, 2004

I was in the office of one of the schools where we teach, talking to the head of the English program (a Chinese woman who doesn't really speak English) about our class schedule when it happened. The department head, Nancy,* was looking critically at what I was wearing, which made me nervous, because she tends to be bluntly honest with her opinions. But this time she didn't say anything. She just reached out and grabbed my sweater and lifted it up to see what was underneath! Thankfully I was wearing long johns, as I've been doing since October, because it's pretty chilly in northeast China this time of year. Then she took some of my undershirt between her thumb and forefinger and rubbed it between her fingers, frowning disapprovingly.

"Too sin. Too sin." Nancy shook her head as she grunted her verdict of this random long-underwear test. Since I am now pretty fluent in Chinglish, I interpreted that she was saying I needed thicker long underwear. Before I could protest, she had pulled up her own sweater to reveal her superior long underwear. Then I had to feel HER undershirt myself to see how much better it was than mine.

My concerned supervisor then firmly declared that she would take me shopping to help me buy good Chinese "sick" long underwear. I thanked her for her kind consideration, but politely declined the offer to go shopping. I tried to explain that I had thicker ones at home, but I had worn my thin ones today, because it wasn't very cold yet. However, she wasn't satisfied until I assured her that I would wear my thicker long johns in the future.

From that day on, I was sure to wear my "sick" long underwear at that school, just in case I had another run-in with the underwear police!

* Not her real name.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Smoking Kills

(For your entertainment, from the China files - Written October 22, 2004)

Recently one of the staff at the high school was helping me with the fax machine in the office while puffing away on a cigarette. The small room was obviously a favorite spot for faculty to come and have a cigarette break, as evidenced by the overflowing ashtrays on the desk. The no smoking signs posted everywhere in the school must be just a suggestion...

Shortening my life span by inhaling second-hand tobacco isn't one of my preferred pastimes. But my cigarette-puffing buddy apparently thought my dramatic hacking and coughing meant that I wanted to join him in smoking a cancer stick. So he said something to me in Korean and then pulled out a big box of cigars from a desk drawer and graciously offered me one. It was a red package with gold lettering, and it looked pretty impressive.

I guess I should have felt honored to be offered such a gift. But even if I had been tempted to smoke a stoagie with my non-English speaking co-worker, I think I would have resisted the temptation after reading the big white label pasted on the bottom half of the box that proclaimed in bold black letters:


Needless to say, I politely declined.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My Patriotic Duty

I wasn't feeling particularly patriotic when my alarm went off at 4:15am on Tuesday. Any sense of civic duty was squelched by the overwhelming desire to stay snug in my warm bed, under the covers. And, of course, it had to be raining. And cold. And pitch-black outside. The drizzling rain on the roof and windows was lulling me back to sleep, but I had to drag my unwilling body out of bed and get ready for the long day ahead of me. There was no backing out now.

The house was still and quiet as I took my shower, got dressed and gathered my things for the day, tiptoeing out the front door at a quarter to 5:00, trying not to wake up the rest of my family. As I started up the engine and drove down the empty streets, I wondered who else could possibly be awake at this hour. But when I got to the chrch where I had been assigned to work, I was surprised to see there were quite a few people up and about already this gloomy, wet morning. In their raincoats and boots, huddled under umbrellas, on folding chairs on the sidewalk, people were already lined up outside the door to take part in the big event.

It was November 4th. Voting day. And, as the media predicted, the citizens of the U.S. were out in record numbers to make their mark on history. As one of the "election officials" of this precinct of Virginia Beach, I was experiencing this monumental day from a unique vantage point.

I'd already been to my 3 hour training a few weeks earlier, with over a hundred other volunteers from my area, where we learned all about how to use the new voting machines, what to do if protestors showed up, how to handle the news media if they wanted to get a story, and how to help voters who may be blind or have other physical handicaps. I scanned through (but didn't read every word) my thick packet of instructions covering every possible situation and problem that could arise. And I stood in line at the Virginia Beach courthouse for early absentee voting for two and a half hours the Friday before election day.

But the real challenge was on Nov.4th. All the preparation and planning was for this one day. It was my first time to "work the polls" and with all the predictions of the flood of voters that would come and the likelihood of extending the voting hours to fit everyone in, I was trying to prepare myself for a long, hard day. My lunch bag was bulging with enough food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus snacks for in-between times. I had 3 full water bottles. And I had a big bag of Hershey's Kisses, Kit-Kat bars, and Snickers to give me a perk when I needed it!

So when I arrived at the chrch at 5:00, I quickly put my things away, got settled, and helped set up for the gathering voters. By the time we opened the doors at 6:00, there was already a long line snaking around the side of the building, spilling over into the grass behind the chrch, and going into the back parking lot. Some people said they'd been there since 4:30am. They were cold, wet, and tired, but happy to wait as long as it took, just to be able to take part in the democratic process.

And they did. Hundreds of them. From 6:00am on we had a steady stream of voters. I was working with one other woman at one of the pollbooks, registering voters whose last names began with L-R. Our table and the table for names beginning with A-E were the busiest. If there was ever a bit of a lull, I'd get another roving election official to cover my spot at the table for me and rush out to the bathroom, or to get a drink of water, or to gulp down a few bites of my ham and cheese sandwich in the kitchen. (We weren't permitted to have food or drinks at our stations).

My job was to greet the voter, ask him to state his last name and first name, locate the name in the list, ask him to state his address, check to see that his name and address matched his ID, and then record which number voter he was at our station. The other woman at my table would then activate a card for the voting machines, give it to the voter, and direct him to the next line to wait to use the machine. We sat at that table and processed voter after voter after voter. All day long. From 6am to 7pm. For 13 hours straight.

I've never talked to so many individual people in one day. Even for an extrovert like myself, that was a lot of talking. A lot of people. A lot of smiles and greetings and questions and answers and "have a nice day" and "thank you for coming". At our table alone, we processed about 642 people! By the late afternoon and early evening, when the lines finally started thinning out a bit, and my smile was wearing out, I really had to make an effort to keep my voice cheerful and not snap at people who didn't have proper ID or who weren't staying within the blue taped areas for the lines. It gave me a new appreciation for workers at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). No wonder they get crabby sometimes - I would too, if I had that kind of job all day, every day!

Throughout the day, I was struck by how many people came out to vote, of all races, all ages, all backgrounds. I talked to a tall blonde Russian woman, an older Hispanic gentleman, a friendly Filipino family, and a quiet Vietnamese couple. There were young mothers with babies in strollers or toddlers on their hips. There were wide-eyed 18-year-olds, voting for the first time. There was the buzz-cut young serviceman who had asked for early leave that day so he could make it to the polls in time. And there were the grandparents with canes and walkers and in wheelchairs, cheerfully waiting in the lines.

We even had the ambulance and paramedics show up - twice! Two elderly gentleman collapsed while in the building. One was at the voting booth when he fell, and one was waiting in the lines. Thankfully, the paramedics were able to stabilize both men. But one of the men was determined to cast his vote. While he was being wheeled out on a stretcher, he stopped at the voting booth and, with assistance, cast the ballot that he'd been waiting so long for!

By the time 7:00pm came around, all the election officials were very happy to close the polls and lock the doors! However, our job wasn't over yet! We had to stay to clean up, tally the votes from the machines, record the votes, call in the votes to the city registrar's office, and pack up everything. We didn't get out of there until 10:00pm, making it a 17-hour work day!

It was dark by the time I drove home. I hadn't been outside of that chrch building all day. From before the sunrise until long after it had gone down, all that long day, I had only seen glimpses of daylight through the crowds as I sat at my little voter registration table. When I finally got home, I was exhausted, and never so happy to fall into my bed. But I'm glad to be in a country where I can vote. What an amazing thing it is to think that the common, everyday people of this country have that amazing privilege and responsibility to choose our leaders. And now that the elections are over, whether the ones we voted for won or lost, our responsibility is to pr for those who rule over us. (I Tim 2:2) May they guide us with wisdom!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Karaoke Party Upstairs

(Another story from my China archives that never got shared - until now! From July 2, 2005)

What is it that compels middle-aged, tone-deaf Chinese men to sing karaoke at volumes loud enough to wake our neighbors in the city across the river? Social pressure and consumption of large quantities of alcohol have something to do with it, I’m sure.

Karaoke is hugely popular in urban China. Many families have personal karaoke machines, or karaoke VCDs (Video CDs) they play through their TV. Old and young, men and women, talented or otherwise, all take turns singing Chinese folk songs, patriotic songs, and love songs into the microphone, keeping time with the words as they appear on the screen. In a spirit of generosity, the would-be vocal superstars kindly share their warblings with all residents of the apartment building, so everyone can be a part of the festivities.

For the past 30 or 40 minutes, I’ve been treated to a string of songs belted out as enthusiastically as they are off-key, by the occupants of the apartment directly above ours. I’m sure they’re lovely songs, full of tradition and history and sentimentality. I have done some Chinese karaoke in the past myself. It’s a lot of fun, as well as a good way to learn more of the language and culture. But at this late hour of the night, exhausted from a day of teaching, I’m not in the best frame of mind for a music appreciation lesson.

These are the same neighbors who often have pulsating dance/techno music booming through the rafters way into the late night hours. It’s the local party house apparently. Recently, after a night of little sleep due to the activity and noise above me, I asked my roommate if it had kept her up too. She hadn’t heard a sound. So either I’m a lighter sleeper than she is, or it’s louder in my bedroom than in hers. Or both.

That particular night, as 10:00pm turned to 11:00pm, 12:00am, 1:00am, and 2:00am, and they were still partying hard upstairs, no amount of shoving earplugs in my ears, holding a pillow over my head, or humming other songs could get that pounding disco beat out of my brain.
Finally I decided that the Father must have had me awake for a reason. I figured maybe He wanted me to pr for my neighbors. So I did. Through clenched teeth, I alternated between prs. of “Make it stop, Lrd!” and “Blss them, Lrd… Just make it stop, please!!!”

It’s too easy for me to get caught up in the rhythm of daily activities here – shopping, cooking, eating, cleaning, teaching, sleeping – and forget about those all around me who don't know Him. Then the Father has to do something drastic, like keep me awake until 2:00am with party music upstairs, to remind me of the reason I’m here. And He tells me, in no uncertain terms, that I need to be pr-ing for all the millions in this nation who still have not heard of His love.

“But how are they to call on One in whom they have not belvd? And how are they to blv in One of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Him? And how are they to proclaim Him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rm 10:14-15)

…There’s a strange sound coming from upstairs. Silence. The karaoke party upstairs seems to be over. How wonderful! I don’t know how long it will last, but I’m going to take advantage of it and try to get some sleep! Thank the Lrd!