Thursday, January 30, 2014

Chinese New Year Books for Kids

It has been a very long time since I've posted anything. Many apologies to my readers! 

In August, we welcomed baby Ailin (爱霖), whose name I translate (with some creative liberties) as "deluge of love." Born during a summer downpour, she is all sweetness but being a mommy to three has taken more of me than I imagined, and I am just now starting to write down all the ideas that have been circling in my head for months.

In honor of Year of the Horse, here is a list (and mini reviews) of some of my kids' and my favorite English-language children's books about the New Year.  





My First Chinese New Year by Karen Katz (Henry Holt and Company: NY, 2004) is the story of how a little girl prepares for the Chinese New Years with her family: sweeping the bad luck away with a broom, purchasing plum blossoms, getting a haircut and wearing new clothes. The book features Katz’s signature colorful and endearing illustrations. Unlike Katz’s board books, this book is geared toward older babies, toddlers or even preschool age.





In Bringing in the New Year by Grace Lin (Alfred A. Knopf: NY, 2008), a young girl tells of her family's preparations for the Lunar New Year: hanging red couplets, making dumplings, sweeping the floors, getting a haircut, and wearing new clothing. The celebration culminates in a dragon dance, which is depicted on a large three-page fold-out. 

Children will be swept into the New Year's celebrations by Lin's vibrant illustrations. Parents will appreciate the cultural notes Lin provides about the traditions described in her book. 




A New Year’s Reunion by Yu Li-Qiong and Zhu Cheng-Liang (Candlewick Press: Mass, 2011) tells the story of Chinese New Year, as experienced by Maomao, a young girl whose father works far away, and can travel home only for the important holiday. When the father arrives home, the family of three make sticky rice balls (yuanxiao), fix up the house, and watch a dragon dance weave its way through town.

The illustrations are touching, the bright colors of the Chinese New Year celebration and child’s clothing contrast the dark colors of the father’s clothing.  I love this book because it captures Chinese New Year as experienced by many families across China. It captures both the joy of being reunited as well as the sorrow of separation when the father must return to work, all through a child’s eyes.



Long Long’s New Year: A Story about the Chinese Spring Festival (Tuttle Publishing: Boston, 2005) is a story about a young boy (Long Long) who helps his grandfather (a cabbage seller) earn enough money to buy food and supplies for his family’s Spring Festival. 

The story captures the hustle and bustle of small village life in the days leading up to New Years. The illustrations, which look like they were painted on antique rice paper, are replete with details of village life and will appeal to adults and children who will enjoy looking for hidden details.




Silk Peony, Parade Dragon by Elizabeth Steckman (Boyd Mills Press: PA, 1997) is the story of Silk Peony, a magnificent dragon who is rented by a powerful mandarin for the annual New Year’s parade. Based on legend, this is the story of how the dragon came to lead the New Year’s parade.  The traditional story and whimsical illustrations of dragons are sure to appeal to young children and the young at heart.






The Star Maker by Laurence Yep (Harper Collins: NY, 2011) tells the story of young Artie during the months leading up to Chinese New Year in San Francisco Chinatown during the 1950s. Throughout the book, Artie is vexed with how he will come up with the money to buy firecrackers**for all of his cousins to set off during the Lunar New Year, a boast he made to his cousin Petey during a family dinner. This is a story of a young child’s perceptions of family (his idolization of his Uncle Chester, disdain for cousin Petey, and respect for Granny), in the context of 1950s Chinatown. A chapter book, this will most appeal to kids in 1st-3rd grade. 

**Parents, don't worry: In the preface, Yep explains that even though firecrackers were legal when he was a child, he always set them off when his parents were close by. He encourages children reading his story to stay away from firecrackers due to their danger**







Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rice and Pasta?! How about chicken salad?

As you might have noticed, my blog posts have slowed down in the past months. Morning sickness--rather, "all day sickness"--lasted the better part of four months, making it difficult for me to do just about anything, especially write about food!

When I have felt like eating, I have regressed to some of my childhood favorites: grapefruit juice, butter toast, and chicken salad on Ritz crackers--comfort food, I guess.

To my husband's dismay, Chinese food has been one of most detested foods this pregnancy: garlic has been albeit banned from the house (my keen sense of smell can detect even a trace of it), sesame oil now leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth, and rice holds absolutely no appeal.

I went through this perplexing transformation when I was pregnant with my son, and thankfully, immediately after birth, my cravings returned (chocolate and coffee included).

This being said, I'm not giving up on writing about food...just taking a break until the cravings (and inspiration) return. In the meantime, check back for posts about family (babies!) and culture.

Has pregnancy affected your taste for Chinese or American food? 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Book Review: Home is a Roof Over a Pig


Aminta Arrington’s Home is a Roof Over a Pig: An American Family’s Journey in China (The Overlook Press, NY: 2012) chronicles the multi-year transition and adaptation of her American suburban family (consisting of the author, her husband, and three young children--including a daughter adopted from China) to life in the small town of Tai’an in Shandong, China.

I love this book because of its many interwoven themes. It is, simultaneously, an adoption tale, a tale about encountering, engaging, and ultimately embracing another culture, and a tale about the Chinese language.


Adoption: The author relates how she and her husband decided to adopt their daughter Grace. She tells about their first trip to China to bring Grace home, and their decision to return to China--to, as a family, learn about the country and language of their daughter’s birth and to give their daughter a sense of pride about who she was and where she came from

I'm impressed by the dedication of Arrington and her husband in not only providing their adopted daughter with this experience, but also her American-born brother and sister. 

Cultural Encounter: The author highlights instances when her family is, at first, distanced from the local culture due to a language barrier, but also how they are slowly drawn into a local community, through their children’s involvement at a local preschool (as well as their own teaching experience at local colleges).

I find it refreshing that Arrington openly struggles, at times, with apparent cultural difference (e.g. her students’ necessity to think and sometimes believe only the facts as they are presented in their textbook vs. the American value of critical thinking).

Chinese Language: Each chapter is organized around one Chinese character or phrase (e.g. lei 累, or “tired”). The author talks about the different elements/radicals that make up the character (e.g. “field” 田 and “silk” 丝) and the overall meaning when the elements are combined. This is a really technique effective in terms of storytelling and it also makes the reader feel like they’re really learning something about the Chinese language.

Final take-away:  There are not very many books about American families with children living in China, and fewer yet about American families living in a small Chinese town. Arrington's book provides an entertaining and informative window into that world: we see the ups and downs, the challenges, and (best yet!) the successes as her family adapts to and embraces the Chinese language and culture. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

What's in a Name?


In Home is a Roof Overa Pig (which is a wonderful book—review to follow—I promise!), Aminta Arrington talks about the significance behind her children’s Chinese names--beautiful names, each invoking an image of a season (spring, winter, and fall).

This started me thinking about my own children’s Chinese names. 


I chose my daughter’s Chinese name months before she was born, lu () which means “dewdrop,” and xi () which means “hope.”

I chose “dewdrop” because her father’s name, bo ()--meaning “wave,” has the radical for water in it.  I wanted my daughter to have water in her name as well.  Even though “dewdrop” does not have this radical, it has the radical for “rain” ().

Soon after her birth, my daughter grew into the meaning of the second character of her name, “hope.” She was born with a rare congenital heart defect, and in the first ten months underwent five catheter procedures to correct it. Watching her survive, heal, and then thrive after undergoing such hardship filled me, and those around her, with amazing hope.




Then, there's my son. While we quickly picked out his English name (a family name), it took us three years to settle on a Chinese name for this boy. Prior to his birth, I drafted a potential Chinese name, but my husband, and then my in-laws, quickly shot it down. “That’s not a real Chinese name,” they said.  

Sigh...

My father-in-law then decided that he would ask his mother to choose a suitable name. More than two years later, I was told that his name was, jia () li (), which essentially means “good encouragement.”

This name sounded fine, and was family approved, but I felt slightly disappointed that my son did not have water in his name like his father and sister.  I suggested to my husband that we change the first character of his name to chao (), which means tide, and keep the second character li ().  Although my husband thought it sounded unconventional, he approved of the overall meaning, “tide of encouragement.”

As I look back on the last four years of my son’s life, I see how he has grown into his name: as a one-year-old, encouraging my mother with his huge, open-mouth smiles when she was recovering from breast cancer surgery; as a two-year-old, comforting my family with his big grins and high-fives as we gathered to mourn the passing of a beloved uncle in a hospital waiting room. He has been such a “tide of encouragement” in our lives!

Now, as we await the arrival of our third child (Yes! A third is on its way!), I consider names again. Of course, my husband and I will pick a special English name, something that is linked to my family’s history. But I am giving more thought this time to the child’s Chinese name, wondering and dreaming how, in time, they will grow into this precious name chosen for them.

How did you choose your child’s Chinese name? What meaning does it hold for you?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Nearly Perfect Chinese New Year

Over the years, I have come to realize that, as good as our intentions may be, our bicultural family cannot celebrate Chinese holidays the way they are celebrated in China. 

We face some inherent challenges: we are separated from our Chinese family by a 12-hour plane ride; we live in a state where fireworks (the legal ones) are  available only during summer months; we often have to cram our holiday celebrations in with our regular routine because don't get time off from work and school as in China. And then there's the fact that when we do make holiday plans, things rarely go as expected. 


Take this Chinese New Years for instance: I started out with a "to do" list, the traditional preparations for the holiday. 

1. Clean the house.  

We cleaned the house, and then it got messy again. Valentines Day was just a few days away and boxes and cards needed to be crafted for school parties. When we finished, the living room was strewn with decorations and crafts for both holidays, along with the usual collections of toys, books, shoes, snack bowls, etc...All in all, it was very un-clean. 

2. Buy fresh flowers.  

This was on the "to do" list, but I got sidetracked with all the Valentines Day preparations and ran out of time. Oops!

3.  Skype with the relatives in China. 

Miraculously, we secured a good connection on New Years Eve (their New Year) and were able to talk long enough for everyone to wish each other Xin Nian Kuai Le (Happy New Year) and Gong Xi (Congratulations--the typical New Year's greeting). Before signing off, my mother-in-law reminded me to prepare hong bao (red envelopes) to slip under the kids' pillows at night. 

4. Prepare Hong Bao 

"Do we have any hong bao?" my husband looked at me hopefully. If I answered "No," one of us would be off on a wild goose chase looking for the Chinese envelopes at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night in a mid-sized Midwestern city. Instead, I told him that we had a couple from last year that we could reuse. And I had cash to fill them! (We never ever have cash on hand so I was feeling mighty proud about this.)

Fast forward to New Years Day. The kids woke up, ran into the kitchen clutching their hong bao, and exclaimed in happy voices, "Xin Nian Kuai Le!" Picture perfect, right?

Less than an hour later, I was deep in negotiations with a stubborn three year old who was determined to wear paper-thin Chinese printed shorts out the door in 40-degree overcast weather.  


"Fine. You can wear your shorts," I conceded, "but you have to wear pants either over or under them." Minutes later, my three year old walked out the door wearing two pairs of pants--his thin shorts under a pair of corduroys. 

Then, there was the mouse poop...lots of it.  Mice had taken up residence in our van overnight, and turned our vehicle into their shredded, poopy Mousedom. Wasn't this the Year of the Snake? Where was my snake when I needed it? As much as it turned my stomach, I didn't have time to clean this mess up now.  We were late to see a Lion Dance at a local restaurant where we had planned to eat dim sum. 


When we arrived, the restaurant was bustling. We waited over an hour with other Chinese and American families, packed shoulder to shoulder. While we waited, the kids watched the Lion Dance performers warm up, don their bightly-colored costumes, and begin their dance (accompanied by loud gongs and drums) into the restaurant. 


One hour later, we were eating a delicious meal and watching the performance again, this time from the inside. The kids, happy with their full bellies, watched the lion eat a head of cabbage suspended from the ceiling, and then shake its dancing tush in their father's face. 


Did we have a perfect Chinese New Year? No, but nearly.