Hospitality, Vulnerability and Waiting for Perfection

I love having people to my home. Some of my greatest memories are of meals with eight people crammed around my table (which definitely does not fit eight) eating and laughing together. I love having nearly 20 students crammed in my living room—playing games and I even love how somehow, in China, we almost always end up with a dance performance and suddenly I’m singing a solo or a duet (who knew Jason Mraz “I’m Yours” is such a long song?!). I’ll happily tackle the challenge of cooking big meals for dinner parties and coming up with random games for groups.

But there is something I don’t excel at. Housekeeping. I’m certainly not saying I couldn’t improve in this area, but I also don’t think I’m ever going to be a person that you walk into their home and everything looks perfect. When I cook somehow manage to dirty every dish I own and every surface in my home. My teammates joke that the only time they can see the dining room table is if I’m hosting dinner and therefore we need to eat on it. My former student and friend came over the other day to bake together and as we looked at the giant mound of dishes in the kitchen she said something like, “Miss Anna you need to find a husband who likes to dishes.” I feel like at one point in my life I would have been insulted at her pointing out my inadequacy, but I just smiled, laughed and said, “I know.”  (And yes, I can’t believe I’m posting it, but there’s my kitchen sink. Dishes in progress.)

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For a long time, I was afraid to have people over to my home because of this. I grew up with the idea very much ingrained in me that a person’s house should be perfect. Sometimes I’d have people over and I’d constantly feel guilty. I’d wonder if my guests were thinking about the clutter in the corner. I’d wish my home looked “perfect.” I’d think maybe I should have waited until things looked better.

But then I realized something, people aren’t looking for perfect. People are looking for real. People are looking to be invited into others’ lives.

At least I know I am. If I waited for the moment when I was going to become the perfect housekeeper with a perfect house to let people in than I would never have anyone over. I’ve also realized there’s something special about inviting students and friends into my imperfect space—allowing them to see my humanity and my failures.

I wonder how many of us are being held back in our lives in areas we are waiting to be cleaned up until others can see them. We are waiting for perfect—because surely others don’t want to see our imperfections.  I often say vulnerability breeds vulnerability—but I don’t want to be the person who takes the first step. I don’t want to be the only one whose life is messy. Yet I realize that is where we experience true hospitality—the ability to be ourselves and to know that we can be loved, accepted and challenged for who we are. Whether it’s hidden behind a perfect mask or not, deep down we all have areas that are really messy and it’s when we allow each other into those spaces in our lives that’s when true community begins to grow.

What are areas of your life that you are waiting for perfection in? When have you invited others into the mess with you?

The Power of Food

I love to cook. I was trying to recall exactly when this happened—if there was some moment, or dish that pushed me over the edge. I’ve never disliked cooking, and I do remember experiencing slight devastation when my mom decided we should get rid of my play kitchen as a child (which in actuality rarely played with, but I didn’t do change well) and my mom encouraging me with the assurance that I could play with her Tupperware.  I also remember being the most knowledgeable cook of my college roommates…but perhaps that wasn’t an incredible feat (yes, yes, if you’re reading this you know I love you—and that we’ve all come a long way since).

But I feel like it’s in these past two years of living in China that my “like” and even “enjoyment” of cooking has become more of a deep abiding love. There is something about food in a foreign land that evokes a sense of home, a sense of belonging—and for me a sense of accomplishment even in the midst of chaos. Even when little else around me makes sense, I can go to the kitchen and I can create something new.

About two years ago, when I was newly arrived in China, I found a “quick and easy” recipe for some sort of broccoli chicken cheese bake. It had a banner advertising “30 minutes or less.” Now, even in the best of circumstances, I often find suggested cook times given on recipes can be a bit on the not-so-generous side. Insert: China. First off, for those of you who don’t know what we’re dealing with—my kitchen consists of one gas burner and an approximately US-sized toaster oven (it tightly fits a 9 X 13 pan and was one of my earliest big purchases!). As I began to go through the recipe I realized some problems—ingredient one: can of cream of chicken soup. I didn’t have one of those. I then Googled—“homemade cream of chicken soup” (And found this great recipe…which I managed to ruin the first time and had to make a second time). This process of Googling substitutions or improvising happened at least 2 more times.

And voila, more than 2 hours later, the quick and easy broccoli chicken bake emerged. And I took a bite…and I thought, “This might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”  Now, it’s entirely possible at this point, I may have been so hungry the little crushed piece of broccoli residing amidst the muck on the floor may have also been tasty, but there was also a sense of having overcome many obstacles—to ultimately prevail.  Maybe for some it’s not so appealing, but I love the adventure of not being quite sure what the final product will be.

When I first arrived in China (and let’s be honest I didn’t really fully know what I was talking about yet), I wrote about the goodness of the daily struggle. What’s the English saying? (Yeah, I tend to forget those). Something like “the harder the battle, the sweeter the victory.” That’s what I’ve learned in the kitchen. The continual challenges brought to me by cooking and baking are always bringing opportunities for new victories (and sometimes opportunities to crash, and quite literally burn—like the time I managed to unsuccessfully make 2 rounds of strawberry cupcakes—which were quite valuable in expensive imported ingredients…and I probably can’t count the number of times a large cloud of smoke was billowing out of the kitchen).

But the success goes beyond personal sense of accomplishment. It’s also here in China, I’ve learned about the real power of food. If I were to think back on my life before now, I would note that many of my good friendships emerged over sharing meals together. My college roommate Stephanie and I moved from roommates to dear friends as we bonded over eating Mexican food whenever we could. Another friend and I bonded over visiting new ethnic food restaurants. But even more so now, I realize the degree to which food brings people together. It’s true in Chinese culture—but it can be true in any culture if we have the time and space. There is something about sitting down together at a table with friends and trying new (and sometimes weird) dishes, eating food that’s so spicy we’re all near tears, or eating your favorite holiday dishes from America that brings you together. There’s something about my students exclaiming excitedly to each other when I have baked them cookies (and trying to discourage them from eating so many they’ll feel sick) that brings such joy to my heart. Cooking not only brings me on adventures, but it also gives me an opportunity to go on shared adventures.

I always say I’m going to start a food blog, so we’ll see if we can start here. So here’s a recipe for lentil soup I recently made (with notes for those of you cooking overseas). If you’re in America, there may be some adaptations to make this easier for you.

Lentil Soup (adapted from The Best Lentil Soup–some modifications are for cooking in China and some are just because I never follow a recipe) 

The original recipe said it served 4, but I easily got at least 6 and possibly 8 servings

First, those bins full of dry goods in China can be your best friend–check them out. You will find all sorts of great things–grains, beans, brown rice–and at least at my supermarket 1-2 kinds of lentils. (Be aware: I realized red beans and peanuts can look pretty similar.)

Here’s the ingredients minus the tomatoes which were soaking in hot water to remove their skins. I used curry powder, black pepper, some Italian seasoning blend I have, some Cajun seasoning and some taco seasoning (because I was out of cumin and it’s mainly chili powder, cumin and onion). You can use what’s available to you or check out the original recipe for what she did. Most of these ingredients can be pretty easily bought in China. I used one of the spicier red peppers and spicier green peppers–maybe a bit overdoing it. If you don’t like spicy you might go with a traditional bell pepper of each color or one of the spicier green with a traditional red bell pepper.FullSizeRender (5)

I do bring organic Better than Bullion Chicken stock back from America and buy vegetable stock powder at Metro (a large import store), but if you don’t have access to stock for some reason (other than the MSG/sodium combo they sell at the supermarket) you can make it yourself fairly easily. If you want this recipe to vegetarian you can just use vegetable stock but I like the flavor the chicken stock gives.

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The vegetables cooking in olive oil. Somehow I managed to burn myself when dumping in the vegetables and the olive oil splashed in my face. Food safety, everyone. Don’t stick your head right over the hot oil when pouring.

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My new favorite thing is to add a whole pumpkin to things. After cutting the small pumpkin into about fourths, you can steam it (I use my rice cooker) or roast it in the oven (face down on a cookie sheet with foil and a little oil spread on the surface). I then blend it right up in my blender with chicken stock. You really can’t tell it’s there, but it’s a great healthy addition!
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All of the stock (chicken/pumpkin) and vegetable are added to the vegetables along with the lentils…and let it cook! I missed some pictures along the way, but after the lentil are soft you can blend part of the soup then add it back in for thickness. Then add greens, parsley and lime/lemon juice.

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I decided to sprinkle a little fresh parmesan on top. Kind of odd perhaps, but tasty. A delicious, thick hearty soup chocked full of vegetables and nutrients. It was a bit spicy so I served it to my Chinese friends with a little whole grain rice.

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow or white onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 Anaheim green pepper
  • You can be a little creative on the seasoning mix based on what you have available and the kind of flavors you like. Here’s what I used
  • 2 teaspoons taco seasoning/chili powder and cumin (you can just use cumin if you’d like, I like the flavor chili powder adds as well)
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder (I actually might omit this ingredient in the future)
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning blend (if you have thyme and would like to use it exclusively you can, but the blend adds nice flavor)
  • 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning (spice and herbs)
  • Ground black pepper
  • About 2 lbs./2 jin/1 kg tomatoes, peeled and diced (I only used 4 or 5 but they were very big– if you want the easier option you could get a 28 oz. can if it’s available to ou)
  • 1 cup brown or green lentils, picked over and rinsed
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 small pumpkin, steamed and peeled
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup chopped spinach or bok choi
  • 1/4-1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • Lime juice (I used this because I didn’t have lemon juice–either lemon or lime would work I think)
INSTRUCTIONS
  1. Warm the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. As the recipe said 1/4 cup olive oil may seem like a lot, but it really helps to bring out the flavor in the soup.
  2. Add the chopped onion and carrot and cook, stirring often, for about 2-3 minutes. Then add the red and green pepper and cook for 2-3 minutes more. Add the garlic and other dry seasonings you chose (taco seasoning, cajun seasoning, curry, Italian, etc.).  Pour in the peeled/diced tomatoes and cook for a few more minutes, stirring often.
  3. Meanwhile, blend the pumpkin with about 2 cups of chicken broth. The pumpkin should blend completely in resulting in a slightly thicker broth.
  4. Pour in the lentils, broth, broth/pumpkin mixture and the water. (If you are not using Cajun seasoning you may want to add salt, but I didn’t because the stocks and seasoning have quite a bit of salt.) Add black pepper. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat and partially cover.  Cook for 30-40 minutes, or until the lentils are tender but still hold their shape.
  5. Transfer about 3 cups to the blender (maybe more). Be careful to make sure you don’t splash yourself with the hot soup. Pour the puréed soup back into the pot and add the chopped greens. Cook for 5 more minutes, or until the greens have softened to your liking. Also add chopped parsley.
  6. Remove the pot from heat and a couple dashes of lime juice.  Taste and see if you need more seasoning!
  7. Enjoy!

You are Beautiful

I was at the supermarket earlier this week when suddenly I was surrounded by about 5 children (approximately age 12). They were working hard to communicate with me (one child whispered to the other, “what…is…your…name?) After our short conversation in Chinglish, one child proclaimed, “You are beautiful!” The other children all echoed, “Beautiful, beautiful!” And then we went our separate ways, but I saw them several other times and they would shout, “Beautiful!” and keep going.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the word beautiful. Maybe it’s because I’ve been called beautiful more in the last two years than I’ve been called beautiful in my whole life combined. Really it probably only took 2 weeks in China to be called beautiful more than in my whole life combined.

My friend (another blond-haired foreigner) and I were discussing whether the word beautiful means as much to us anymore when we hear it so often. Sometimes I would say it doesn’t. It lacks sincerity. But other times, it’s still touching, like when my student pulls out her phone and points to a picture of us together and says, “I show everyone this picture, so they can see my beautiful English teacher.” Or when I’m at the supermarket looking about my absolute worst and those cute little kids shout out “beautiful.”

I read an article a few years ago (that I was going to link to, but couldn’t find at the moment) about not calling little girls pretty..  It was thought-provoking.  It talked about how often we define girls by their looks. But as I was thinking about it, I wondered if the bigger problem is not about defining girls by their looks, but rather how we define beauty.

Do we truly see beauty as we look around us? By beauty, I don’t just mean the perfect symmetry that our mind thinks as beautiful—but beauty in the mundane, in the ordinary, even in the seemingly unlovable. Do we look at the world around us and do we see beauty, or do we only see ashes?

This year as I reflected upon a word I wanted to emphasize, I could not shake the word beautiful. What would it look like for me to look at the world around me and truly see beauty? How would it look for me to look around me and see the faces I interact with, the crowded masses on the street—and sincerely say—“you are beautiful?”   Can I say this not because of what they have to offer, or what they look like, but because I believe that each person is created in image of the one who declared it is good?  Do I sincerely believe He can bring beauty from ashes, light from darkness and in the words of Gungor, He “is making beautiful things out of us?”

A Misplaced Christmas

Call me crazy, but there’s something I love about airports at Christmas in the US. The hustle and bustle. The waiting areas packed with people as you trip over luggage and have to sit on top your suitcase on the floor.  There is a sense of excitement (okay, yes sometimes also stress) in the air.  Christmas is coming. For a moment, it feels like we are all on the same team. We are all looking forward to something together.

That’s the strangest thing when I walk outside on Christmas in China. It’s like the world is going on around me—a world where Christmas is maybe a passing thought, an apple on Christmas Eve, but not an overshadowing reality.

It makes me think of the first Christmas. Our imagery of Christmas is so often homecoming—the happy glow of family and friends. (This week I listened to a Christmas version of Michael Buble’s Home by Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert—I must say tears were running down my cheeks.) But that wasn’t the reality of the first Christmas. Everyone was not excited and aware of what was going on.  A young pregnant woman and her husband had to journey away from home. They were uncomfortable, misplaced—a yet in that moment is where we see great redemption.

Here in this place, Christmas can too seem misplaced, but just as there is joy for me in crowded airport waiting areas, I can also discover joy in sharing Christmas with those who may have never really known what it is.  It’s a joy to receive giant earmuffs, fancy boxes with apples (in Chinese the word for apple “pinguo” and the word for Christmas Eve/Peaceful Night “pingan” sound similar so it is a custom to give apples on Christmas eve), and boxes of candy. It’s a joy to bake hundreds (literally over 300) cookies and get to share Christmas stories, songs and customs with students. It’s a joy to have nearly 90 students come through my house…taking about that number of selfies each with my Christmas tree.

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Christmas Open House with my students!

It’s a joy because even though Christmas can seem misplaced, I still know that true joy has come—to the whole world. And even moments where Christmas can seem misplaced, misunderstood or out of place, I’m reminded that those are the moments when redemption shines through.

Fears and Far Away

When I told people I was moving thousands of miles away, on the other side of the ocean, to a land where I didn’t speak the language, far from everything familiar, the response so often came, “You’re so brave.” Or, “Aren’t you afraid of what could happen?”

In many ways, moving to the other side of the world requires facing fears. I have to say some “normal” fears rarely enter my mind. I’m not so concerned about things happening to me in daily life, about travel, about crossing the street (which can be a pretty scary thing!). But it can also cause a whole new pile of fears and uncertainties to creep in.

Will people forget me? Will I be able to really adjust?  Where will I fit?

A few weeks ago, with several of my teammate we discussed our biggest fears being in China.  For me, the biggest fear has long been the same—something happening to my family and not being there.

Two days later, my grandpa died.  My grandfather—the man who I hurried across the gravel driveway to see every morning as a small child. The man who taught me all about cars, boats, houses, James Bond and John Wayne.

And there I was 7000 miles away.

Yet, as I set on my bed crying I couldn’t shake the unmistakable peace upon me.

My word for the year is dependence. And I realized I had to depend that my Father was taking care of my family.  I had to realize I’m not in control.  That the hands that hold the universe hold me and my family—even on opposite sides of the world. And He tells me, “Do not fear, for I am with you.”

Lady in Red: A Chinese wedding!

Last weekend, I had the exciting opportunity to attend my first Chinese wedding.  It’s something I’ve been excited about doing since I arrived here a year ago. Our neighbor (who is also our invaluable colleague and helper) got married. We were so happy to celebrate with her!

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Some interesting Chinese wedding traditions & observations:

  • Traditionally, the women’s parents do not attend the wedding because the woman is leaving her family and joining the groom’s family. Today, more and more brides (especially in the cities) have their parents at the wedding. The bride’s parents did attend this wedding and her father walked her in and presented her to the groom–similar to what we are accustomed to at Western weddings.
  • In another influence from Western culture, more brides wear white wedding dresses as opposed to the traditionally-styled red dress. In spite of this, the bride will often change into a red dress.
  • Wedding pictures are often taken at various locations before the wedding, similar to what we do for engagement photos, only the bride and groom wear various formal attire (wedding dresses, colorful formals, etc. I think the outfits are often rented.)
  • The wedding itself might seem a little bit more like a reception, centered around a meal and taking place in a hotel ballroom. There is an announcer who MCs the event (quite loud and energetic–think of the guy who introduces the basketball players at the beginning of the game).  I’ve heard vows are not always said (perhaps a simple question of “will you marry this person?”), but our wedding did have something similar to Western wedding vows. (Or so I was told. I basically understood the part where the bride said I love you.)
  • The day of the wedding is strategically chosen by a variety of factors according to the Chinese zodiac calendar. I’m not sure exactly how this works, but I do know it takes into account the bride and groom’s birth years, as well as days that are considered lucky. Apparently all of 2015 is both a bad year to get married and a bad year to have children. That’s unfortunate. (Pun intended.)
  • As part of the ceremony, the bride and groom have to call their new in-laws mama and baba (mother and father), until they do so satisfactorily. Then they receive a gift from the parents.
  • After the ceremony, the bride and groom walk around to each table and toasts all of their guests.
  • The event is quite colorful. Some even have fireworks indoors. We didn’t have fireworks, but a screensaver that gave a simulated look of them at times.  Not quite as exciting, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to see and hear fireworks living in China 🙂

**Yes, I do remember I have a blog. I’m planning on weekly updates this year, so if I don’t do it you can keep me accountable.**

Home to a Foreign Land

If I learned to speak Mandarin perfectly, with no discernible foreign accent, if I lived the rest of my life in this city, if I my children were born here, if my grandchildren were born here, even if I dyed my hair black, got dark contacts and tried my very best to blend in as much as possible—one thing will still always remain—I’m a foreigner.

As a native of a country where we can’t readily identify foreigners, even by their color of skin or the language they speak—it’s easy for us to never really ponder what it means to be “foreign.”  But here, my status as a foreigner is obvious and constant.

After nearly 4 weeks of traveling, I returned “home” a few days ago.  Although I was leaving this beautiful country full of warmth and sunshine:

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I was excited to be returning to this foreign land—which over the past few months begins to feel more familiar, like a place I belong.  Perhaps that’s why my status once again as foreign was a little bit jarring.  My first night back we went to dinner at a restaurant we frequent.  Another diner moved across the restaurant to stare at us.  He probably wanted to examine the foreigners’ chopstick skills. Or maybe he was just intrigued by the group of foreigners.

While at times this identity as a foreigner can be a bit overwhelming, I have to say I’ve grown in some ways to appreciate.  In one of my early letters home I mentioned that living here, ‘I’m continually reminded that for each of us, this is not our home.  China is no more my home than the land of (real) football and barbecue is.’

So even as I retain my foreign status, I’m thankful for the opportunities that it brings me to meet new people and build relationships.  I’m thankful for the many foreign things that become familiar.  And I’m thankful for the reminder that I am made for a greater home and have been given a “longing for a better country—a heavenly one.”