Thursday, February 27, 2014

Episode Fourteen: Lanterns in the Night

Lanterns in the Night

The ending of the Chinese New Year’s celebration culminates 15 days after the New Year’s Day in the Lantern Day Festival. Z and I were traveling in ZhongZhou, watching monks do Kung Fu, so we missed the Lantern Day festivities. However, Juan waited until we returned and had a Lantern Festival party at her house, inviting five of Simon’s friends. She didn’t want Zephaniah to miss experiencing the traditions of the festival.
I can’t say enough how much I appreciate the lengths to which our friends here go to making sure our year here is not only happy but rich and interesting. From Tiantian to Juan to Changan to Wenning: our stay here would not be near as easy or trouble free without them. They have gone out of their ways in so many times, day and night, to make sure our needs are met and that our stay is enjoyable. We were very touched to know that Juan put together the party for Zephaniah to experience the magic of the traditional lantern evening.

We arrived at Juan’s apartment  at 7:30, just as dark was settling. The children who had already arrived were busily hanging balloons and handmade paper lanterns from strings strung across the room. Each child was also supposed to write a riddle and tape it to one of the paper lanterns. Then, once all the riddles were hung, we were supposed to try and solve the riddles. Juan urged the other children to write their riddles in English so Zephaniah could understand them. Some of the riddles were those quirky kid-riddles, akin to baby knock-knock jokes: they only make vague sense if you are the wee one who came up with it. “What is big and goes in the sea?” A sea monster. Zephaniah’s was the classic, “If a boy walks into the woods three meters, when will he walk out of the woods?” The next step because then he will be heading out of the woods.

After the head-scratching riddles, a furious game of pop-the-balloons ensued, but we soon herded the children together for another game. Juan had printed pictures of traditional New Year’s scenes/traditions on paper. One at a time, the children came up, chose a photo randomly, and had to describe the scene/tradition without using key words. The other children had to guess. Again, Juan wanted the children to attempt English. Most of them did a great job, even with limited English skills. Or they used simple enough Chinese words that Zephaniah knew what they were saying. Z, ever the over-eager participant and hyper-competitive child, shouted out answers before the child at the front of the room had a chance to say or do much. This drove Simon, typically calm and serene, more than a bit crazy and after a few of Zephaniah’s rude blurting out of guesses, turned to him and said, “You must wait! Wait until they finish!” This admonishment slowed Zephaniah only a bit. Years of blurting out the answer in an attempt to be “first” cannot be broken in one party game. Poor Simon.

Traditional lantern day treats were served: some sticky rice dumplings with a sweet, dark paste in the center. After the party game, more balloon antics ensued until everyone was given a lantern and shuttled outside for the lighting. Juan had bought a monkey lantern for Z (as he was born in the year of the monkey) and a horse lantern for Simon. She also had some very elegant satin-like lanterns that she re-uses every year. The other children had brought their own lanterns from home. Some made of paper, some made of material, all prominently red in color (good luck in the New Year).
The lanterns are lit by small candles at the base and then attached to sticks for carrying. Zephaniah, of course, wanted to RUN with his. The other children warned him his lantern candle would blow out if he ran. Since when has Zephaniah ever listened to what any one tells him? He ran. The candle flickered but did not die. The other children raced after him, bobbling glows of golden red in the night.
We walked as a group, mothers trailing behind, and children running and chattering ahead, to the soccer field on campus.  We had to do one mass “lantern re-light” on the way there as the candles had all burned down and needed to be replaced. People passing by were bemused by the lantern-wielding sprites: we were a week late in the celebrations. They couldn’t quite figure that out and I saw people pause and inquire as to whether we had confused the date . . . or what?

The children ran and danced and cheered each other on until the lanterns’ second candles burned out. Then Juan brought out a large paper lantern, a sky lantern, and the children gathered around, each taking a corner of the three-foot high paper dome. Juan lit the candle under the paper lantern, and as the warm air filled the pink paper dome, it began to lift off the ground. She told the children “Make a wish! Make a new year’s wish!” The children wished, shrieked, and let go as the lantern wobbled and floated into the air. We tipped our noses to the sky, watching the pink lantern become an orange dot and then a white speck and then nothing at all as it sailed into the February night.
Juan said it was customary to burn the paper lanterns, but we kept Z’s monkey lantern. It is hanging off the top of the television, smiling in a crinkled and lopsided way after its night of sweeping, dancing, and twirling wildly at the end of Z’s stick. A different kind of New Year’s hangover.
Here is to Juan and her party planning. May the New Year bring her as much bright happiness as she brought to Z on the belated lantern celebration.

Making Tofu
Juan, who unlike me loves to cook, invited me over to make tofu. She makes the best tofu Z and I have ever tasted (and in China there are all sorts of wonderful and interesting varieties of tofu that make our vegetarians selves extremely happy). I had no idea that one could “make” tofu. I knew someone did make it. I buy tofu from women with thick slabs and blocks of very interesting types of tofu laid out on tables inside the vegetable market and clearly they are the ones who are making it. But I assumed that, like good beer, it was something that was beyond my limited kitchen skills.
What I discovered is that tofu is a lot like making bread: the ingredients are quite simple and if you
are patient and have some time, it is no big deal to make tofu. It is actually quite easy. Easier than pie (by far). And we know what everyone says about pie.
In order to make tofu, you have to have soybeans. I am not sure how easy it is to find dried soybeans in a U.S. grocery store, but here they are everywhere. Get a bunch of beans and soak them like you do any beans before making soup. Once they have absorbed their fair share of water, put them in a blender with two parts water to one part beans. Whip those babies up.
Pour the soupy mixture through some cheese cloth (into a bowl or pan), then squeeze and wring the cloth with the pulpy stuff in it (save the liquid; it is the important part). Once you have wrung out all the liquid you can, put the pureed bean junk back in the blender with 2 parts water. Blend again. Pour through the cheese cloth again, and wring. Then discard the curd in the cloth. The goods you want are what you poured off (that is to say: soy milk).

Put the soy milk (you just made soy milk!) into a big pot and start heating it. When it starts steaming, add a mixture of white vinegar and a bit of salt (1/4 cup vinegar and 1 t. salt for a medium pan). Stir, stir, stir. The vinegar/salt mixture should curdle the milk. If it doesn’t, add more vinegar/salt mixture until it does.

Once the soy milk is curdled, pour it one last time through a clean cheese cloth. This time, the stuff in the cloth is tofu. All you need to do is put it in a strainer (keep it in the cloth, just put it in a strainer so you can shape it) and squeeze out all the excess water. Juan used a little square plastic basket as her tofu mold and another on top to squeeze out the excess liquid.
That’s it. No big deal. A little soaking, a little blending, a little heating, and a few iterations of straining and twisting to get the liquid out. Easier than pie. And better for you. Fresh tofu, like fresh goat cheese, has a buttery, nutty, rich taste that makes that slimy, grey crud packaged and marketed as tofu in the states look like a different food product altogether.

Z’s New Bike

Deborah gave me her old bike when she left the country. I took it to the “bike man” who has a little shop on the back street and had him install a seat on the back for Z to ride on. Everyone who has a child under the age of 12 has a seat on the back of their bike. The seats can also hold grown-ups and it is not uncommon to see a young woman riding side-saddle on the back of her sweetheart’s bike.
The little seat works slick when we have to go a mile or so and I don’t want to wait for the bus. However, it is a workout when Z is back there commenting on the scenery and giving a traffic report while I am sucking wind trying to keep us moving forward. It doesn’t help that he occasionally (frequently?) yells, “Yah! Yah!” to encourage me, patting my hips as if I were a sluggish, sway-backed nag.
Maybe I am a sluggish nag, but it makes me want to swing around and bite him when he is tra-la-la-ing into my back as I am working up a major cardiovascular sweat, on my way to a cardiac infarction.
To solve this problem of vanity and ego, we went to the bike market (across from the fabric market – a bus and then a subway ride away from our apartment) to buy a bike for Z. My child, always eager to spend my money, started out test driving the bikes with gears and wild decals, shock-absorbers and mean-looking lines. I asked the price of one such model and reeled back from the asking price.

I got eyeball to eyeball with Z and said, “Look. We are not buying this bike. We are not buying any bike like this. Scale back your expectations. Way back. You need a bike to get you around for the next five months. We want the basics: two wheels, matching pedals, a seat, and handle-bars you can reach. Anything beyond that is considered out of your price range. Your budget is 200 yuan (about $30).”

Z quickly began negotiating with one of the bike shop owners and chose a sensible, stripped down, blue model. He got a lock and a snappy little compass/bell combo thrown in for free. He’s a shopper. The boy can haggle.
Off he zipped before I could even get the change back in my purse. A boy on a bike in a city of 6 million? Four miles from home and a bazillion streets in between? Crap! I ran like OJ Simpson through the airport as Z expertly wove around people on the sidewalk, ringing his bell in warning as passers-by hopped out of his way.
I did catch up before any major intersection. We agreed he could bike ahead as long as he waited for me when he had to cross a street that was more than one lane.
He biked the entire way home (about 6 kilometers), whistling happily all the way. Yesterday he took a tour around campus on his bike and came back declaring his crotch hurt. I assume it is not so much an ill-fitting seat, but overzealous bike riding. Not a bad problem to have.
Last night he tried to give a girl a ride on the back of his bike. At first she wanted to ride side saddle. I encouraged her to ride astride as Z’s balance is not so great. After a few failed attempts, Z huffed, “That is too much work.”
Ah. Touché. “And now you know exactly why I wanted you to get a bike. At least she wasn’t yelling, ‘Yah! Yah!’ and smacking your rump.”
“Aww. Come on! That’s the most fun part about riding on the back of your bike! You have the perfect horse bottom.”
Post Script: R.I.P.  Little Blue Bike.  Stolen from the above campus bike parking lot (locked) less than 48- hours after it was purchased. Between the hours of 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Right in front of the security check point at the gate.

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