Last Minute Holiday Ideas with Chinese Characteristics

img_20161217_202428I can’t believe it’s already December 20. As I write this post, I’m still knee deep in preparations for two Christmas parties this week — and, of course, have yet to do a single Christmas card. (At least I can send them out by e-mail – thank you, Hallmark eCards.)

Welcome to my busy December!

Of course, I’m busy in part because I moved a little over a week ago. (We’re still kind of living out of bags!)

But a lot of us get busy this time of year just because of the holidays. Believe me, I’ve been there.

You know – weekends packed with holiday get-togethers or shopping for presents or even just decorating your place. Then comes the big day and you’re schlepping yourself across town to visit all the family. Or you’re at home most of the day preparing dinner for the guests.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

But if you need some last minute holiday ideas, I’m here to help.

Are you struggling to decorate your place with a little Chinese flair? How To Make It A Very Chinese Christmas is chock-full of ideas, including a bunch of easy DIY decoration tips.

If you’re still pulling together your holiday menu, sometimes all it takes is a dish to bring a little something Chinese to the table. My husband and I always loved making sesame balls, one of his mom’s signature dishes for the Winter Solstice. Turns out, they’re super easy to prepare and very delicious. Check out the recipe here.

For those of you in desperate need of last-minute gift ideas for your Chinese family and friends, look no further than my Huffington Post article, The Top 6 Gifts Sure to Please Your Chinese Family. (If you want the short version, when in doubt go with a fruit basket!)

Wishing you all a wonderful week – and here’s hoping you get a little rest too. 🙂

Your 2016 Holiday Gift & Survival Guide

Christmas in China might sound cool and exciting -- but sometimes it's not as fun as it seems

The holiday season is just around the corner. Whether you’re filled with delightful anticipation or dread, don’t worry. I’ve got you covered with this 2016 holiday gift and survival guide.

Okay, so let’s start with the biggest thing on everyone’s mind – the gifts.

Need some ideas on what to buy your Chinese loved ones? Begin with my 2016 piece for the Huffington Post, The Top 6 Gifts Sure To Please Your Chinese Family. (It was actually inspired by a classic post on my site, which is currently the number one most popular post, Giving Gifts to your Chinese family – A Modest Guide.)

But if you’re doing your shopping outside of China, I recommend reading Gifts to Buy Abroad for Chinese Family and Relatives.

Do you have a loved one who happens to be a Rooster in the Chinese zodiac? Have a look at Great Gifts For Your Chinese Zodiac Year (Ben Ming Nian).

Stumped on what to buy? Repeat after me – fruit basket! It’s the perfect present for your Chinese loved ones when you have absolutely no clue what to get. Check out my 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China.

Would you like to “deck the halls” with a little Chinese flair? How To Make It A Very Chinese Christmas will show you how.

What do you do if you’re stuck in China during Christmas and missing the holiday spirit? Well I say, if they can’t bring the holidays to you, you can always bring the holidays to them. Here’s How to spend Christmas in China with your Chinese family.

Don’t forget, sometimes it can actually be fun to spend the holidays with someone new to the experience. If that’s you, you’ll enjoy 3 Joys of Celebrating Christmas With Someone Who Didn’t Grow Up With It.

But sometimes, no matter what you do, you’ll still face those holiday blues, especially if you’re spending the holidays in China. You’ll find comfort in my post On Having the Christmas Blues in China.

Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who has been shopping Amazon to help support my husband’s case! If you’d like to join them and support the blog (and my husband) while you shop for the holidays, at NO additional cost to you, here’s how:

Wishing you all a great start to your holiday season!

How Chinese New Year Beats the January Blues (Things I’ve Learned From My Chinese Husband)

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Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio in America, January was always a great melancholy expanse of a month, as depressingly white as the snow that piled around the house.

Sad little evergreens, once the beloved focal point of the season, would end up tossed unceremoniously beside the road for garbage collection soon after the New Year, while I secretly hoped for a few more weeks with the trees on display. Everyone would pull the plug on their merry Christmas lighting, and its absence on those dark and well-below freezing nights would lend even more of a chill to the neighborhood. And just the thought of another two months or more of winter was often enough to make my head ache, just like a bad after-Christmas hangover.

Sure, I loved that Christmas trailed the Winter Solstice by a few days, entertaining us through the longest nights of the year with family, feasts and fabulous presents. But what would get us through the long and often bitter winter weather ahead of us? (I’m not kidding about the “bitter” part — Cleveland, Ohio actually made the Forbes list of America’s worst winter weather cities).

Thank god I married a man from China, where January marks the start – not the end – of the holiday season.

Everywhere I go in Hangzhou, there’s a palpable sense of anticipation of what the Chinese consider the most wonderful time of the year. The other night, I caught a glimpse of a raucous end of the year banquet, where everyone wore a festive red scarf printed with Chinese characters around their necks as toasts were made among laughter and smiles. Supermarkets entice shoppers with glossy red Chinese New Year gift bags that shine like beautiful Christmas wrapping paper, each filled with the season’s must-have snacks, herbal remedies and spirits, the perfect gifts for relatives and friends you’ll visit during the holidays. Christmas trees, holiday lights and even Santa Claus himself continue to grace the malls, stores and public squares, a nod to the many Chinese friends who often think of Christmas as Chinese New Year in the West – borrowing those Christmas symbols to imbue the city with even more holiday cheer. My mother-in-law has spoken of how she plans to do another large batch of homemade tofu, and given the way her fried tofu melted in my mouth the first time I tasted it, I’m salivating just thinking about it.

With all of this joy, excitement and holiday spirit buzzing all around me, the January blues I used to know as a child don’t have a chance in the buildup to Chinese New Year.

I love the timing of the Chinese holiday season. We have a holiday to look forward to just when winter is at its worst. Plus, once it’s over, you needn’t wait long for Spring. People here call Chinese New Year “Spring Festival” and in Hangzhou, it actually lives up to its name – not long after the official end of the holidays, the golden rapeseed flowers start to bloom in the countryside.

Even better, all of this gives me an excuse to do the one thing I always wanted to as a child – keep that Christmas tree up through the winter (and, sometimes, a bit longer than anyone ever expected). 😉

Wishing you all a Happy New Year!

Has Chinese New Year helped ease your January blues?

On Having the Christmas Blues in China

Christmas in China might sound cool and exciting -- but sometimes it's not as fun as it seems
Christmas in China might sound cool and exciting — but sometimes it’s not as fun as it seems

This year marks my third consecutive Christmas I will have spent in China since moving back here in November of 2013. I’d love to say it’s all tinsel, glitter and joy — but as I’ve learned over the years, it’s not always easy to spend the holidays in a country that doesn’t celebrate them.

Add to that the fact that I’ve come down with the flu twice this month (maybe three times — my throat is feeling scratchy as a I write this) and you’ve got a holiday season that really doesn’t have much of a holiday feel to me. Sigh.

That said, I know I’m not alone in this feeling.

Last year when I wrote about The Ups and Downs of Spending Christmas Abroad (in a Country That Doesn’t Celebrate It), lots of you wrote in to say how much that post touched you. (And I was touched to see my words resonate with so many others.)

So this year, I’m once again sending you on to The Ups and Downs of Spending Christmas Abroad (in a Country That Doesn’t Celebrate It):

Initially, I had this perfect little holiday-themed post all sketched out to run today. It would snappy, upbeat and fun. Everything Christmas should be, right?

But after I let it sit for a day and revisited it, I realized it didn’t hit the right note with me. The thing is, I wasn’t feeling snappy, upbeat or fun.

I didn’t like the idea of having to force a happy face out there when it wasn’t the truth. The heaviness in my heart that weighed upon me as I stared at the computer screen told me I just couldn’t run that post in good conscience – not when I’m still facing my own share of ups and downs over spending Christmas in China, a country that doesn’t officially celebrate it.

You can read the full post here.

Have yourselves a Merry little Christmas wherever you are in the world — and sending you hugs and understanding from China.

That Shanghai Christmas My Chinese Husband Forgot The Presents

I’ve come down with a huge cold recently and wasn’t able to write up something new for you this week, as I had hoped. But the good news is, I have a classic story that I wrote up as a guest post for Beijing Cream a few years ago — one I haven’t shared with you before. And because it’s a Christmas story (and the Christmas season has just begun) I thought you might enjoy it. 

In the meantime, I’m going to pop some Tylenol, burrow under the covers, and watch a few classic Christmas movies. 🙂

—–

Christmas in ChinaWhen you spend Christmas in China as an expat, it’s easy to feel a little forgotten by the holiday season. But in 2004, when I lived in Shanghai, I had just visited the Shanghai Marriage Bureau to register with my Chinese sweetheart, John — a man who I had spent the previous two Christmases with — so I considered myself somehow immune to that feeling of isolation. Or so I thought.

My employer gave me Christmas off. John also had no classes that day, and promised to take a break from his dissertation work — work that, for the weeks leading up to the holiday, meant lengthy trips to Hangzhou and exhausting late evenings typing away at his computer.

Since I always loved playing “Santa Claus” to John, who of course never grew up with stories of this jolly old man, I presented him with his gifts first — two wool turtleneck sweaters, one in royal blue and another in deep maroon. John beamed at them, and I couldn’t help but smile with pride, knowing I’d nailed the perfect gifts.

“So, what did ‘Santa Claus’ bring me for Christmas?” I asked John. By then, he already understood that “Santa Claus” was our little euphemism for the gifts we gave to one another.

His smile evaporated. “I’m sorry.”

My heart sank as I noticed that no other gifts, cards or bags sat under our tiny artificial tree in the corner. “You forgot?”

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. He never even celebrated Christmas until he met me, and even then, he usually left his gifts in plastic bags under the tree, sometimes even with the receipt. Plus, in late 2004, the pressure to finish the draft of his dissertation before Chinese New Year had probably distracted him so much he didn’t realize that this was, to his foreign wife, as important a time of year as guonian.

Yet I couldn’t think about any of that, not on a morning I had anticipated for weeks. Even a few pairs of socks — something he had been known to buy for me in past Christmases — would have cheered me. But the absence of any gift from my favorite “Santa Claus” only magnified the loneliness and isolation that can come from spending the holidays in a country where Christmas carols are often nothing more than great karaoke tunes. I hung my head and started to cry.

To John, though, my tears were a catalyst. “You wait here, I’m going to find something for you.” He jumped up, threw on his jeans and a sweater, and headed for the door.

A few hours later, a grinning John burst through the door with two plastic bags in hand. “Shengdan kuaile,” he said as he placed them in my hands.

Inside the first bag, I found several pairs of cotton socks in my favorite colors, including red and pink. But from the second, I pulled out a knit scarf and matching hat splashed in waves of brilliant apricot, creamy yellow, and a light toffee brown. Even the style, right down to the button on the brim of the hat, felt as unconventional as the clothes I wore outside the office. Only John could have known I would love this scarf and hat. That thought warmed me from head to toe, even in our drafty apartment, and turned a “forgotten Christmas” into something unforgettable.

P.S.: In the picture below, that’s me wearing the knit heat John gave me for Christmas!

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The Ups and Downs of Spending Christmas Abroad (in a Country That Doesn’t Celebrate It)

 

My husband and I spent Christmas Eve in Shanghai's Xintiandi many years ago.
My husband and I spent Christmas Eve in Shanghai’s Xintiandi many years ago.

Initially, I had this perfect little holiday-themed post all sketched out to run today. It would snappy, upbeat and fun. Everything Christmas should be, right?

But after I let it sit for a day and revisited it, I realized it didn’t hit the right note with me. The thing is, I wasn’t feeling snappy, upbeat or fun.

I didn’t like the idea of having to force a happy face out there when it wasn’t the truth. The heaviness in my heart that weighed upon me as I stared at the computer screen told me I just couldn’t run that post in good conscience – not when I’m still facing my own share of ups and downs over spending Christmas in China, a country that doesn’t officially celebrate it.

I live here in China because it’s my husband’s home country. We moved back here from America in November 2013 and plan to reside here permanently for the rest of our lives. Part of that means that, sometimes, I’ll spend Christmas in China too.

In theory, the holidays can be a lot of fun here in China. We’ve got our own Christmas tree decked out in shiny ornaments, sparkling colored lights, and golden ribbon. “Santa Claus” already has gifts ready to go for us. We’re planning a romantic Christmas Eve dinner at our favorite restaurant, followed by a nighttime stroll beside the West Lake to take in the stunning views of the gardens lit up in pink, blue and green lights. On Christmas Day, we’ll climb up to the top of a beautiful pagoda and enjoy some breathtaking views of the city. It’ll be a Christmas like no other – in theory.

But in practice, in anticipation, it doesn’t always feel as fun as you might expect. I can hardly find a hint of the Christmas season on the Chinese TV stations I have available and it’s tough to find more than a handful of Christmas movies. In my community, I don’t see folks making the same Christmas preparations I remember from back home – and I have a feeling that my Christmas tree is quite possibly the only one in the entire block. I can’t make Christmas cookies at home and the ones I tried finding online looked nothing like the batches of warm, cinnamon-scented joy that used to come out of your mother’s oven. I told my family not to send Christmas cards because it can take up to a month to receive the mail here and, anyhow, I’d get it late because an out-of-town relative receives our mail; but a part of me secretly mourns the fact that this might just be the first Christmas I won’t receive a single physical Christmas card from anyone.

That’s what it feels like for me on some days – the days when nostalgia for Christmases past gets the best of me.

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Now, this isn’t the end of the world. I know that things could be far worse. I know this Christmas will come and I’ll be okay. In fact, in all likelihood it’ll turn out to be a nice Christmas. But that doesn’t mean that some days I won’t be a little down – like I have been recently.

It’s a relief to finally be honest about how I’m feeling – especially when it seems the online world would rather us all put on our best “holiday cheer” face. I was on Facebook the other day and confronted by a neverending stream of happy, confident, “we have perfect lives and never get depressed” kind of posts. It was really hard for me to read it at times. It was as if every ultra-positive post was saying to me, “This is the holiday season and if you’re not happy, there must be something wrong with you.”

But when I got off social media, meditated along with my favorite meditation song, and chatted with my husband about how I was feeling, I remembered that, in fact, there’s nothing wrong with me. That’s it’s all right to have those down days during the holidays – especially when you’re far from your family and friends in your home country. And that social media is often like smoke and mirrors, hiding away the darkest parts of our own lives.

My holiday wish to you is honesty – as in, being honest with yourself during this holiday season. No matter where you are in the world, perhaps you might find yourself facing another round of the holiday blues. Maybe you don’t even have the “I’m living abroad and missing family” excuse. Whatever the reason, know that it’s okay. Know that you’re not alone. A lot of us don’t speak up because it’s not cool or not the kind of thing everyone wants to hear. But we should.

I can’t predict exactly how I’ll feel on Christmas. I’d like to hope it will be a very merry Christmas. But I know that if it isn’t, I’ll give myself the permission to acknowledge that, to feel my feelings, and to remind myself that it’s part of being human. That life – even a Christmas spent abroad with your husband in China – will have its share of ups and downs.

Has spending the holidays abroad — or even, in a country that doesn’t celebrate your holiday — left you with a touch of blues sometimes?

3 Joys of Celebrating Christmas With Someone Who Didn’t Grow Up With It

Ask my husband John about Christmas and he lights up with wonder in his eyes. You’d think he spent his entire life anticipating that one magical day of the year, when everything seems possible.

But in fact, Christmas wasn’t even a part of his life until the two of us started dating years ago. People in China don’t traditionally observe the holiday.

Since then, we’ve enjoyed 12 Christmases together. And I have to say, there’s something joyful about celebrating it with a total newcomer to the holiday – a person who brings a fresh perspective on that silent night.

Here are three things I love about spending Christmas with someone who didn’t grow up with Christmas:

1. Playing Santa Claus all over again

My husband John loved how "Santa" brought him an inflatable globe for Christmas one year.
My husband John loved how “Santa” brought him an inflatable globe for Christmas one year.

When I was a kid, Santa Claus was the real deal. We used to sit on his lap in “Santaland” at the local mall and tell him what we wanted, write him letters asking how the reindeer were able to land on our roof, and leave out milk and cookies. It brought a sense of anticipation and magic to the holiday season – one that can easily slip away from you as you grow up into the “there’s no such thing as Santa Claus” reality of adulthood.

Or does it have to slip away? Not if you’re married to someone who loves the idea of Santa Claus – enough to will him into existence into your life all over again. As I’ve written before in my post titled My Husband and His Childlike Christmas Cheer:

The other day, I caught John pouring over his inflatable globe — and couldn’t help but remind him of its origins.

“Remember when ‘Santa Claus’ gave that to you last year?” I said with a wink.

He giggled in response. “‘Santa Claus’ really knows what I like.”

It’s the sort of thing you’d hear a parent ask their child — instead of a wife asking her husband. Yet, even though we both know who “Santa Claus” really is, any talk of the jolly old man never fails to bring a smile to his face.

I have to admit, it makes me smile to see John loving the idea of Santa Claus. He reminds me that you’re never too old to appreciate Santa.

2. Creating new and unique Christmas traditions together

My husband inspired me to hang all sorts of non-traditional -- but fun -- Chinese ornaments on our tree, including one of the mascots from the Beijing Olympics!
My husband inspired me to hang all sorts of non-traditional — but fun — Chinese ornaments on our tree, including one of the mascots from the Beijing Olympics!

In my Midwestern Catholic family back in America, it’s not traditional to have a Christmas stocking with Chinese characters on it. Or hang one of the mascots from the Beijing Olympics on your tree. Or even worship your ancestors on the holiday.

But since marrying my husband John, Christmas has taken on some decidedly Chinese characteristics – all because he never grew up with the typical traditions I did. (See my post titled How To Make It A Very Chinese Christmas.)

Sometimes, it’s just fun to be able to ignore the usual “Christmas rulebook” and create your own new and unique traditions for the holidays as a couple.

3. Discovering that Christmas doesn’t mean the same thing around the world

Christmas in China
For my husband, romance and Christmas go hand in hand.

Is this Christmas or Valentine’s Day? That’s something I’ve wondered after celebrating a few Christmases here in China with my husband. As I wrote before in my post China and Its Oh So Romantic Christmas:

Christmas is oh so romantic. At least, that’s what my Chinese husband thinks of the holiday — and I know he’s not alone.

I’ll never forget one Christmas Eve when I stepped out onto Huaihai Road, Shanghai’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue, and right into a sea of twentysomething and thirtysomething couples, strolling hand-in-hand under strings of soft white led Christmas lights up and down the street. There were so many young people in love all around me, I almost felt like I walked onto a set-in-China romantic holiday movie.

My husband gets all starry-eyed when I ask about what we’re going to do on Christmas. To him, the entire holiday is candy-coated with lots of love and romance, thanks to all of the romantic Hollywood and TV movies about Christmas that have come over to China.

Granted, the Christmas I grew up with was more about family than falling in love (or falling in love all over again). But on the other hand, there’s something lovely about having a husband who gets all excited about all the romantic things we might do together this year on Christmas – like sharing coffee and Christmas cookies for two at Starbucks, or holding hands as we stroll around the West Lake all bundled up in our winter best.

Sigh.

Have you celebrated Christmas with someone who didn’t grow up with Christmas? What joys have you experienced, thanks to their unique perspective on the holiday?

How spending the holidays in China taught me the meaning of the song “White Christmas”

Christmas in ChinaA couple of weeks ago, John and I made a quick day trip to Shanghai to run an important errand. Our journey also brought us to Nanjing Road – the ultimate shop-till-you-drop heart of Shanghai’s retail world – and the many malls towering over the street. We happened to pass through some of them during the day where I spied glittering silver tinsel, wreaths, painted wooden nutcrackers and even a montage of snowflakes twinkling under the soft white lighting in a department store.

There they were, all the signs that Christmas is coming. And yet, with every sight of a Christmas decoration, I felt all melancholy inside, as though I were housebound in the midst of a huge winter blizzard.

After all, they’re a reminder that another Christmas in America will pass among my family members – and I won’t be there to share it with them. I’ll be spending it here in Hangzhou, China with my husband.

“Home for the holidays” sounds like the title of yet another saccharine made-for-TV Christmas movie. In the holiday movie world, the script of my life would work like this. A young American woman who returns to China with her husband says “good riddance” to her seemingly dysfunctional family in the US. But she suddenly has a change of heart on Christmas Eve, rushing to Shanghai’s Pudong Airport with her Chinese husband, where they buy tickets for two to Cleveland, Ohio and make it just in time for Christmas Eve mass at Grandma’s Catholic church with the whole family, singing “Silent Night” together as the credits roll.

IMG_7637In reality, none of that’s true. I didn’t return to China with my husband John to escape my family in the US. I still love them all very, very much. In fact, I would love more than anything to once again be reunited with everyone around Grandma’s cozy little table in Cleveland for Christmas Eve, and then wake up the following morning at my father’s home to a delicious spread of bagels, sweet figs and truffle chocolates.

Unfortunately, I’m just not able to make it home this time around.

For months leading up to this holiday season, I expected this. I told myself, It’s just another holiday season. You did it last year, after all. And you even spent a number of Christmases away from family in the US. Why the big deal now?

Yes, why should I feel so blue about the holidays? I’d love to offer a rational explanation for that and yet, I come up empty every time. How can you have a rational explanation for something that comes from the heart?

My Chinese husband John has long become a home to me – an adult home, in a sense, a home that I’ve created on my own. He is the one person in the world who has seen all of me – the Midwestern American, the woman who came of age in China, even the me that speaks half a sentence in English and the other half in local dialect (making him erupt in a fit of giggles). It is the greatest gift that I have someone who knows who I really am and loves all of the messy and imperfect things about me.

But when the holidays arrive, I still long for the home I knew as a child and the Christmases that once captivated me year after year. It was a place where the snow covered the ground like thick layers of sweet white frosting, where the aroma of cinnamon-spice pinecones greeted you at the local supermarket, and the local electric company put on a dazzling show of Christmas lights strung together to make Santa’s sleigh and reindeer and Christmas stockings and stars.

As much as I have come to love Hangzhou, my husband’s hometown and my new home, and as much as I appreciate the many signs of Christmas that you can find in China, there are some things that I’ll never quite replicate in this place. That’s part of life when you choose to make a life for yourself in a foreign country like China – especially one that doesn’t officially celebrate the holidays you do.

Christmas tree in Shanghai

Of course, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll make the best of the season by decorating our apartment in Christmas stockings and lights, and I’ll buy a small tree to place in the corner. We’ll make a plan for Christmas Day to stroll around the West Lake and then indulge in a little coffee and Christmas cookies for two at a local Starbucks. I’ll call family that day and wish everyone the happiest of holidays.

But now I truly understand the meaning of that nostalgic tune, “White Christmas,” because I’m dreaming of my own white Christmas back in the US – and wishing that sometime, maybe next year, I’ll finally make it home.

How I had mistaken a Winter Solstice family recipe for tangyuan

11496262656_7f543f100c_nAll these years, I had it wrong.

Whenever my husband mentioned the sesame balls they ate for Winter Solstice, I imagined a version of tangyuan, those delicious glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet sesame or red bean paste traditionally served in parts of Southern China. Except John called them sesame balls or máqiú (麻球), not tangyuan. Maybe máqiú was just another name for tangyuan in the local dialect?

But then Saturday night I watched my mother-in-law prepare máqiú in her kitchen and had a double take. She dropped balls of glutinous rice dough straight into the boiling water without even filling them. Had she lost her mind? Where was the muss and fuss of filling the dough with sesame paste that I had to slog through all these years in the US?

When she fished them out of the boiling water and then rolled them in the black sesame seeds and sugar until every inch of the dough was covered in that sweet, black coating, that’s when I realized it. It was my mistake, not hers.

Sesame balls just fresh from the wok, coated in sesame seeds and sugar.

“Here, eat them while they’re hot,” my mother-in-law said as she pressed a steaming bowl of them into my hands.

“But that’s it?” I said, my face almost flushed with embarrassment. Could she tell that I had mistaken tangyuan for máqiú all along?

“Eh, it’s simpler! You don’t need to worry about all that trouble of filling them.”

Oh, I knew all about the trouble of filling them. All those years in the US, I had slaved hours upon hours to make so-called máqiú — never realizing the actual recipe was so easy and fast.

Sometimes, family traditions get lost in translation when you’ve never experienced them. I only learned about máqiú through long-distance phone conversations with John’s family over the years and through John himself (who definitely missed a few important details in his descriptions!).

Happy holidays from me and the family!

But aren’t you bound to misunderstand when you learn something secondhand? Today during our huge Solstice dinner, I tried explaining some of the foods we used to eat for Christmas — cranberry sauce, turkey and mashed sweet potatoes. How do you explain “cranberry sauce” to them when they’ve never even seen the actual berries at the heart of this sweet-and-tart holiday delight? How you can you describe the aroma of a turkey fresh from the oven when they’ve never eaten turkey and don’t have an oven? Even though sweet potatoes are native to this region, chances are they’ve never tried anything like my creamy, buttery sweet potato and parsnip mash. I wonder what went through their minds when I described Christmas dinners of the past?

Well, you live and learn — especially when you’re living with family. And actually, I’m kind of relieved about what I just learned. Never again will I have to mess around with filling rice dough in the name of tradition. Woo-hoo!

Happy holidays!

Winter Solstice Máqiú Recipe

I think of máqiú as “inside-out tangyuan” or even “tangyuan without the filling fuss”. They’re easy, delicious and a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays. They’re best eaten hot or steaming.

This comes straight from my mother-in-law, who approaches the whole process intuitively — hence, the lack of exact amounts.

Ingredients:

For the sesame coating:
Sugar
Black sesame seeds

For the rice balls:
Glutinous rice flour
Cold water
Oil (to protect your hands)

Toast your sesame seeds, then place them in a bowl. Toss them with sugar of your choice until sweet, and adjust according to your taste preference. Put the bowl of sugar/sesame seeds aside. (Note: this step can be done a day or two in advance).

Mix the glutinous rice flour with just enough cold water so the flour begins to stick together, but not more than that. You don’t want your flour to be too watery, so err on the side of less and then add small amounts of water as needed to clump the dough together.

Rub oil of choice on your hands. Pick up a small amount of dough — just enough to put in the palm of your hand — and squeeze it back and forth between your hands until the dough sticks together. Then, with as little pressure as possible (too much pressure will cause the dough to fall apart), roll the dough between your hands until it becomes a nice ball. Shoot for balls around 1 inch in size, give or take. Repeat until you’ve used up all the dough.

Boil water in a large pot or wok over the oven. Add the glutinous rice balls to the boiling water, and boil them until they float to the top.

Once you’re ready to fish them out, bring over the sesame seed/sugar mixture. After you remove the glutinous rice balls from the water, immediately roll them in the sesame seed/sugar mixture until fully coated. (Note: if you’re not sure that you’ve added enough sugar, sample your first one to determine whether it’s too sweet or not sweet enough). Repeat until you’ve coated every ball. Serve immediately.

How to spend Christmas in China with your Chinese family

A Very Chinese Christmas Stocking

What do you do when no one else notices Christmas is coming? That’s what it’s like here in China’s countryside as I spend December with my husband’s family — a family that never had the tradition to celebrate this holiday.

Well, I say — if they can’t bring the holiday to you, you bring the holiday to them. So this year, I’m giving my Chinese family a taste of Christmas…with some inevitable Chinese characteristics.

1. Pull out the old Christmas tree. There’s nothing that says Christmas quite like a tree — and fortunately, they’re easy enough to find in larger cities in China. Back when I first lived in China, I bought a fake Christmas tree from a local supermarket and it followed me through the years…until I left, and it was left at my inlaws’ home. Well, turns out they stored it all these years and it’s still lovely enough to bring me some holiday cheer. I plan to decorate it with the supply of Chinese-style ornaments I’ve acquired over the years, and can’t wait to see it shining brightly on Christmas Eve.

2. Stream holiday music online. One of the best gifts anyone living in China can have is a fully functional Internet connection. Find your favorite online station and stream holiday music, if available (I’m impartial to Folk Alley’s holiday stream myself). And if you’re really ambitious, use it to teach your family a few favorite Christmas carols.

3. Serve your family a Christmas dinner. Isn’t eating half the pleasure of the holidays? And everyone has to eat — so your family in China surely won’t protest if you suggest doing dinner for Christmas or Christmas Eve.

Of course, I can’t make exactly the same dinner my mom or grandma used to make. Here in China, I have a toaster oven and a cupboard full of ingredients completely different from those I used in the US. But I can always improvise. For example, Chinese haw fruit makes a wonderful substitute for cranberries and they’re widely available in China during the winter. Instead of the chocolate cake I hoped to make (sorry, no cocoa powder in the supermarket), I’ll flavor it with the mandarin oranges that are so plentiful nearly everyone in the village gives me a few when I visit. Ham is a traditional Christmas roast not commonly found in China, but I can make something else from pork (my husband insists on ribs, who can blame him?).

But if, say, you can’t live without cranberries at the table, then head to one of China’s online stores. Yes, Virginia, you can buy dried cranberries in China…though it will cost much, much more.

4. Spread some generosity. The Christmas season is all about giving…so why not give a little something back to your family in the form of some gift? It doesn’t have to be expensive either, just something to show your generosity and love. I’m planning on setting up some “Christmas hats” (using the plethora of knitted hats around the house in place of Christmas stockings) and stuffing them with some candies from the local supermarket.

If you’re in China, how are you planning to celebrate Christmas? Or if you’ve spent Christmas in China, what did you do? Share your experiences or ideas in the comments!