Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Chinese Language In All Its Forms - 4 Tones of Mandarin

Chinese languages are tonal. The Chinese language has approximately 400 syllables,whereas English has approximately 12,000, and one of the ways to increase the range of meanings to words is to give syllables different tones. In fact, apparently, it's possible to have as many as fifty words that sound exactly the same, and the only way to differentiate them is with tone and context. The Cantonese dialect has seven tones, and Mandarin has four tones.
In short, the tone in which a word is said affects its meaning.  The four Mandarin tones are high, rising, low, and falling. 

For example, the word Tung, said in the four tones, has four different meanings:

Tung (high tone) means to succeed
Tung (rising tone) means together
Tung (low tone) means to govern
Tung (falling tone) means painful 

You can hear the word ma in each tone at this BBC game, by clicking on the button "learn the tones".

Ma (high tone) means mother
Ma (rising tone) means linen
Ma (low tone) means horse
Ma (falling tone) means to scold

Monday, March 25, 2013

Making a Chinese Chop

Chinese Chop
Photo Credit: Chris Blakeley

A Chinese Chop is a seal used officially to sign documents, and artistically to sign artwork. Chops have been used for over 2000 years, and continue to be used today. Official seals are used within companies for legal documents, and personally for all official documents, for example when signing for mail or buying a house. Artists use chops as a signature and artistic element to their artwork and calligraphy. 

Keep reading to make your own seal

Friday, March 22, 2013

Pet Crickets {With craft ideas and book recommendation}

Cricket hanging from rear view mirror in taxi
Photo credit: Afflicted Monkey
Keeping a pet cricket, or Jiao Ge Ge ("singing brother") is fairly common in China. Male crickets, considered lucky, are kept in a variety of cages and pots and enjoyed for their song. 

Merchant carrying hundreds of crickets in cages
Photo credit: Dharbigt Maersk
 Cricket keeping is believed to have begun 2000 years ago in the Imperial court. Crickets were companions to the emperors concubines, who were constricted to certain areas inside the imperial palace. 

Different cricket cages
Photo Credit: Jun
Crickets sold in Chinese markets are mostly caught in the wild, in remote provinces. Hunting crickets in rural China has become one of the ways to supplement meager incomes.

Photo Credit: Steve Easterbrook
Crickets are also kept for cricket fighting, a past time that has been popular for a thousand years. Bets are often waged on the fights, and winning crickets are prized. I was relieved to read that cricket fighting is no longer to the death, but until one cricket retreats, allegedly uninjured. 

Though I don't personally agree with goading creatures to fight, I can relate to the enjoyment of hearing crickets sing. Growing up, when visiting my grandmother, I would love to fall asleep to the sound of crickets in the yard. Would you keep a pet cricket?

How about making a cricket pet :) Ladies Home Journal has this cute cricket craft, with printable pattern for arms and legs. The popsicle stick and emery board are used to make your cricket "sing". 

Or how about looking for a real cricket? You can make your own cage using Handmade Charlotte's printable template.

You can also read The Cricket's Cage retold by Stefan Czernecki, a Chinese folktale in which a clever cricket brings luck to a carpenter by designing an intricate cage, which becomes the model for towers in the Forbidden city.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Chinese Language in all its Forms - Basics of Calligraphy

The Eight Principles of Yong 

It is considered that there are eight common strokes in regular Chinese writing, all of which are found in the Chinese character for "Yong" which means "Forever", "Eternity", and "Permanence".
The Eight Principles of Yong explain how to write these common strokes while practicing this character. Traditionally, it was believed that practicing writing this character would ensure beauty in one's calligraphy.

I put together a calligraphy practice sheet, and the girls and I went to it. Once again, we were reminded that there is a reason Chinese calligraphy is considered an art. But once you get started, it becomes a bit addictive - or maybe it's because we are all perfectionists. We kept practicing the character, and printing more sheets. We certainly have not perfected it yet :)

Read more for a printable calligraphy practice sheet

Monday, March 18, 2013

Irish Escapade - Printable Welcome Sign

For St. Patrick's Day,
we thought we'd venture out of China
and head over to the Emerald Isles.

This lovely Irish welcome, One Hundred Thousand Welcomes, is a common Gaelic saying in Ireland.

You can print the above welcome sign by clicking on it.
 Find more Irish crafts and recipes with Around the World in 12 Dishes

Irish Escapade - Irish Claddagh {With Printable}

For St. Patrick's Day,
we thought we'd venture out of China
and head over to the Emerald Isles.
Photo Credit: Allie Osmar
In honor of St. Patrick's Day, the girls and I made friendship cards inspired by the Irish Claddagh. The claddagh ring is often used as a friendship ring, but more commonly as an engagement ring. The heart represents love, the hands represent friendship, and the crown represents loyalty.

We pulled out our cardstock, scrapbooking paper, scissors, glue and markers. I created a printable the girls cut from that includes hands, and various hearts and crowns.

We also found some Irish blessings they wrote inside their cards. Elle is giving her card to her BFF, and Pea is sending hers to her grandmother.

You can find my free printable for an Irish claddagh friendship card, which also includes a few Irish blessings here:

Find more Irish crafts and recipes with Around the World in 12 Dishes
Find more cultural and historical activities at All Things Beautiful

Irish Escapade - St. Patrick's Day Dinner

For St. Patrick's Day,
we thought we'd venture out of China
and head over to the Emerald Isles.
Brotchen Foltchep & Irish Soda Bread
Last night, for St. Patrick's day, we cooked and ate an Irish dinner. I found most recipes at European Cuisines, a site I stumbled across searching for this meal, and am looking forward to using again.

Irish Escapade - Brigid's Cross

For St. Patrick's Day,
we thought we'd venture out of China
and head over to the Emerald Isles.

Brigid's Cross
Pea and Elle being 14 and 10 (going on 15), respectively, have done many a shamrock and rainbow craft, so this year, I found some new ways of celebrating the Irish spirit, St. Patrick's day, and spring.

Saint Brigid's cross is traditionally woven on January 31st, in preparation for the Irish spring festival on February 1st. With the first day of spring fast approaching, we made our own versions.

The cross is traditionally made of freshly pulled rushes, or straw, and is hung by doors and rafters to protect the house from fire and evil. Each year, a new one replaces the old.

We wove ours out of 1/8" strips cut out of a paper bag. We also used glue and twine.

It's a fairly simple process and both Pea and I found it relaxing. I cut 17 strips per cross.

1. Keep one strip as is, and the rest get folded in half.
2. Keep your long strip vertically facing you, and wrap one folded strip in the middle, open ends facing the right. Glue to attach.
3. Rotate one turn to the left.
4. Take a folded strip, wrap around strip that is now vertical, with its open ends facing right.
5. Pull the folded strip down to meet the other horizontal strip, glue in place.

6. Repeat steps 3-5 until you've used up all strips - rotate one turn to left, wrap strip with ends facing right, pull down to meet in the middle, glue in place. Repeat.
7. As the cross gets larger, I found it helpful to run a bead of glue on both sides of folded strips before attaching in the center.
8. Weaving is complete
9. Secure ends together with twine.

We strung a short garland of Brigid's crosses over our mirror, by the front door.

Find more Irish crafts and recipes at with Around the World in 12 Dishes 
Find more cultural and historical activities at All Things Beautiful

Thursday, March 14, 2013

China's Spring Migration

China's migrant workers, migrating from rural to urban areas, are counted at more than 250 million. And every spring, most of these workers travel back to their home villages to celebrate the New Year, creating the world's largest human migration.

It was when reading a picture book about Chinese new year that we stumbled across this facet of China.
A New Year's Reunion: A Chinese Story  by Yu Li-Qiong is a beautifully illustrated award wining children's book that gently relates the story of a young girl celebrating the new year with her father, the only time of the year that she sees him.

Though a fictional story, the reality is that over 100 million migrant workers only see their children once a year during the spring festival, for only a few days. Working hundreds if not thousands of miles away from home, workers cannot afford and/or are unable to take the time off required to travel home, except over the new year when most workers receive a week long holiday.

Last Train Home This book led me to find this award winning documentary which follows a couple who are migrant workers and their journey home during the spring festival over the course of a few years, and presents some of the conflicts that arise between the parents and their children.

I had read that it was unwise to travel in China during the Spring Festival, and the girls and I have seen pictures of traveling crowds, but it was during this film that the crushing reality and immensity of this yearly exodus really sunk in.

Though we regularly watch travel shows, and nature documentaries, this was the first social documentary I had introduced to Elle, and being Chinese with English subtitles, I wasn't sure it would receive a positive review. However, one hour into the film, both girls were keen to finish it. The dialogue is minimal, but you are visually transported into the reality and struggles this family faces.

As it was rated General, I did not watch it beforehand. And until the last 15-20 minutes, I was quite pleased knowing both girls were involved in the story. However, nearing the end, there is an unpleasant scene of violence between the father and his 18 year old daughter. It is not something I would have knowingly let Elle watch, as it was upsetting for all of us, and she is 10 years old. However, I did use the opportunity to discuss social norms and how immense stressors can take their toll and affect a person's responses. Other than that scene, it was a thought provoking documentary that truly opened our eyes.

This post contains affiliate links

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Chinese Language In All Its Forms - Basics of Calligraphy

Patience & Endurance
Photo Credit: Bloomsberries

Once you have your tools for Chinese Calligraphy, the first step is to get comfortable with the brush. The proper way of holding the brush is straight up and down, keeping your hand relaxed, and using your wrist to make the movements. This in itself takes some getting used to - slanting the brush at an angle, like a paintbrush is very easy.

The Chinese Language in All Its Forms - Basics of Calligraphy

 The Four Treasures of Study

Calligraphy being an art, Chinese calligraphers ensure they use quality tools. There are four essential tools, which are called "The Four Treasures of Study". These are the brush, ink, ink stone, and paper.

Brush, Ink Well, and Ink Stick
Photo Credit: Theen Moy

Monday, March 11, 2013

Recipe - Making Wonton Soup

Tonight, we made Wonton Soup. After making the filling, I put the girls to work at filling and folding the wontons. In Cantonese, the word Wonton means "swallowing clouds", and I don't know about clouds, but these wontons were quite good. Elle has never liked wontons, but she enjoyed these. In fact, everyone enjoyed this soup, and it is a rare occurence for the four of us to enjoy the same dish.

Here's our version of wonton folding, demonstrated by Elle:

Wonton Soup
Adapted from "Feeding the Dragon" by Mary Kate Tate & Nate Tate.
Serves 4
6 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 tsp soy sauce
1 1/2 tsp dark rice wine
1 tsp sesame oil
2 green onions, chopped
2 handfuls baby spinach

4 oz shrimp, shelled, deveined and chopped into a paste
4 oz ground pork
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp dark rice wine
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
Wonton wrappers

1. Mix all the filling ingredients together well (with the exception of the wonton wrappers, of course).

2. Start heating your broth while you fill your wontons: In a large pot, combine the stock, soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. Bring to a boil and let simmer.

3. Fill the wonton wrappers with the mixture and fold. 

4. Gently place wontons in boiling broth, and cook for 5 minutes. Scoop wontons out with slotted spoon and divide into bowls. Add spinach to broth and let it wilt for one minute. 

5. Divide the broth into each bowl, over the wontons. Sprinkle each bowl with a generous amount of chopped green onions. Serve immediately and enjoy.

** We have been enjoying this soup throughout the year. In order to minimize the workload, I've started doubling the filling recipe, and filling twice as many wontons. The wontons are then placed on a cookie sheet (with wax paper or silpat between sheet and wontons) and frozen for 24 hours, after which I throw them into a ziplock bag. Whenever we want soup, I make the broth and add in four or five wontons per person, taken from our bag of frozen wontons. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Books - Chinese Calligraphy

Mastering Chinese calligraphy takes years of discipline. But learning the basics takes a brush, ink, paper, and a look through one of these books.

My First Book of Chinese Calligraphy  by He Zhihong & Guillaume Olive.

If your child is interested in Chinese calligraphy, I recommend getting this book. It teaches the basics of calligraphy, such as its evolution, the different styles and the radicals, in an engaging, easy to read manner. It includes numerous practice sheets, and simple "games" with the strokes, along with well written instructions. It also includes a dvd, for those who prefer that medium, that talks you through the lessons, with some simple games.

Chinese Calligraphy Made Easy: A Structured Course in Creating Beautiful Brush Lettering  by Rebecca Yue.

Great book that works for beginners, and includes a character stroke guide. With easy to follow diagrams, it describes brush strokes and proper orders. I especially like the projects included, like the greeting cards.

Books are a wonderful way to experience new worlds and ideas. Our house is filled with books, most of which are borrowed from our public library. Public libraries are an incredible resource, making books accessible to everyone, and we highly encourage everyone to discover theirs. If you are hoping to build your own home library, I've made it easy by linking book titles to Amazon.com. Please note that I have become affiliated with them, which means that if you make a purchase, you are also supporting this website.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Chinese Language In All Its Forms - Calligraphy

A few weeks ago, Hubby and I took Elle (10yrs old) to see a Chinese Calligraphy demonstration being offered by Dalhousie University's Chinese Studies program. We watched for about 40 minutes (which was pretty much 30 minutes too long for Elle), and Hubby and I were transfixed.

Running Style of Chinese Calligraphy
Calligraphy, known as Shufa in Chinese, is literally "the way of writing." It is inseparable to the Chinese culture. Writing is an important way to preserve a culture, and through calligraphy, writing becomes an art form, preserving and promoting the Chinese culture. The way a character is written is as important, if not more important, than the character's meaning. The aim is to bring life and energy into the ink strokes.

"The way characters are written is a portrait of the person who writes them.”
                                                                                           -Chinese saying
Although an art, Chinese calligraphy is also a discipline. In order to master this art, regular practice is necessary. Dr. Jiang, who gave the demonstration, has been practicing calligraphy since he was a child, and practicing for up to four hours a night.

The girls haven't had a chance to practice since our Chunlian, but with spring break coming up, we'll have a some extra time to try it out.

Come back next Wednesday to see the basics of beginning to learn
Chinese Calligraphy.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Chinese Basics - Using Chopsticks

Elle using chopsticks
Confession: I am the only one in our family who has yet to master the use of chopsticks. Pea has been using them for six years now, Elle uses them whenever she gets the chance, and Hubby has been using them since before we met. When out with my friends for sushi, which they enjoy regularly, I have always used my fingers (that's acceptable, right?). But this year, I decided it's time to just learn. We can't very well properly explore China with a fork next to my plate. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Basic Chinese Words

There are seven main ``dialects`` in China (though none are intelligible to the other), however China`s national language is Mandarin, and is termed the common language. We will therefore be exploring Mandarin this year. Below are a few basic Mandarin greetings and sayings.

Ni Hao
pronounced*: knee how

How are you
Nihao Ma
pronounced*: knee how mah

Thank You
Xie Xie
pronounced*: sheeuh sheeuh (said very quickly)

Good Bye
pronounced*: dsai-jee-en

*I haven't included the tones, which are difficult to explain without hearing it. 

Below is a short video from Learn Chinese With Ease that describes the formal and informal ways of saying Hello in Mandarin, including the tones.

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