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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Monday, July 29, 2013

Our Week in a Nutshell

This past week was a quiet one - it rained for five days straight, but that was just an (other) excuse to put off yardwork. Elle spent most of the week at her mother's, Pea was engrossed in a new fiction series she received for her birthday, and I appreciated the quiet, relaxing atmosphere :)

Saturday was overcast, but not raining, so Pea and I tagged along with Hubby as he went to do some work in Lunenburg, a beautiful port town, a Unesco Heritage site, just over an hour from home. The town was hosting a Wooden Boat Reunion, that I thought Pea and I could enjoy. It turns out, boats don't hold our interest to a great degree :) but we did enjoy the parade of sails and sending off a message in a bottle (actually, a ship captain will be throwing the bottles further out to sea). We dutifully made our way to the pier to watch the sail boat race, and just when we thought the boats were lining up to begin, everyone dispersed and left. And the boats remained still. It turns out we (somewhat) watched the boats reach the finish line, but didn't realize it at the time. We enjoyed visiting art galleries, with some colorful folk art, and sipping coffee overlooking the harbour with a new acquaintance. Our favorite part, as always, was the historic homes that line the streets, and pointing out all the fine details. 

One of the many gorgeous historic homes in Lunenburg
Photo Credit : Kid Cowboy
Lunenburg, as seen from across the water -Don't you just love the colors?
Photo Credit: John Piercy
We didn't take any pictures of the homes, but I still wanted to share :) So colorful and gorgeous!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Chinese Toy: Tangram Puzzle

Have you ever played with tangrams? Known to the Chinese as qi qiao ban: the "seven-board of cunning" puzzle was invented 1500 years ago, and still used today as a popular toy and in schools to teach trigonometry and geometry. 

It consists of 7 pieces, or tans, that are moved around to create a shape, often following an outline. The 7 pieces include five right triangles (large, medium and small), one square, and one parallelogram. The rules are simple, though the puzzles range in complexity. When doing a tangram puzzle, all seven pieces must be used, they must lay flat, they must touch, and none may overlap.  

Read the Tangram Legend

You can buy plastic or wooden tangrams but we created our own using cereal boxes and decorative origami paper. We glued a square piece of paper to the boxboard, and cut into our shapes using this tutorialYou could also just cut them out of paper, but we wanted ours to be sturdier.

Of course, it would be easier :) to first find a tangram template, and cut the boxboard and decorative paper to size. Here are two tangram templates: large & small.

Also, All Things Beautiful, has a great post and tutorial on how to get your tangram pieces without measuring, but by folding your square into pieces.

Elle and I read "Grandfather Tang's Story" by Ann Tompert. It was a great way to introduce her to tangrams, as the characters are drawn alongside their tangrams, and the story is told with traditional Chinese characters of fox fairies, which are magical foxes that can change forms and get into mischief. 

First we read the book, and the second time Elle and I had fun creating the character shapes as we read along. We then closed the book to see if we could remember how to shape some of the animals - though Elle remembered a couple, my pieces just kept going in circles. 

Inspired by a game played with tangrams at Angelic Scalliwags as part of their ancient China study, I created an animal tangram challenge. The puzzle is placed in the middle of the table, with the shape facing in all four directions, and the race is on to see who can complete the puzzle first. 

I thought I would have an unfair advantage, having put the challenge together. But though I would have a general idea of where to start, I was just as puzzled as the others! I kept hearing comments like: "It's missing a piece" or "It doesn't need the square" (that square kept stumping us). I think this game will continue to challenge us, and I particularly loved seeing the focused attention hubby gave it!

I also created two animal tangram puzzle booklets (seen in picture at top of post)- one with the outlines showing, and the other without. I'm hoping to try the ones with the outlines with my almost four year old nephew, who loves puzzles.

And you can find more puzzles here,and here with varying levels of challenge.

Here are some fun things others are doing with tangrams:

Almost Unschoolers made tangram cookies  and tangram toast

Jimmie's Collage created artwork using tangram shapes

Have you played with tangrams? Do you find them challenging?

You can find more cultural and historical activities at the following linkups:

You can find more creative and kid friendly activities at the following linkups:
Highhill Homeschool

Friday, July 26, 2013

Yeh Shen: A Chinese Cinderella

Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China
Retold by Ai-Ling Louie
One of the oldest Cinderella stories recorded, the Yeh-Shen story was published in the 9th century. 

Following similar ideas of the western Cinderella I grew up with, a young, kind girl is mistreated by her step mother, she is helped with magic, she is chosen by royalty though her identity is unknown, and she loses a slipper, which later only fits her feet.

Despite the similar ideas, this story reflects the Chinese culture in the practice of having more than one wife, living in caves, and the Spring Festival. Also,in this story, the king falls in love with the size of Yeh-Shen's tiny shoe.This reference to foot binding, and the importance of tiny feet on girls in China for much of its history, is something well worth discussing. (post coming soon...)

Kid World Citizen has a great post about the cultural aspects of this story.

The magical helper in this story is a friendly fish, whose bones grant wishes after it dies. After reading this story, the girls made their own fish bones out of polymer clay in order to make their own wish granting fish bones.

They started off by drawing a bit of a template, and trying to replicate that with clay.

Before baking the fish bones, they speared a toothpick through the length to be able to use the pieces as "beads". After baking, they were strung together with wire, adding small beads between the bones. Pea hung hers in her room, and Elle turned hers into a wishing box.

To make Elle's wishing box, we used a small lidded cardboard box, and cut a hole in the lid. She drew the ancient pictograph for fish on a piece of blue paper, and glued that to some heavy cardstock. The fish was wired to the card, and the card was then glued halfway inside the box. I cut a hole at the top of the box, and attached it to her wall. She now has a wish box.

Elle putting in her first wish
I've linked up this post to this great blog hop of reviews and activities for Children's books the Kid Lit Blog Hop & Booknificent. You can find more activities to do with folktales at the Poppins Book Nook.
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 including a link to Amazon.com in the book title. Please note that I have become affiliated with them, which means that if you make a purchase, you are also supporting this website.
Kid Lit Blog Hop
Booknificent Thursdays

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Chengyu: Peng's Journey of Ten Thousand Miles

Peng's Journey of 10,000 Miles

Once upon a time, deep in the northern sea, there lived a giant fish known as the Kun. When there was a storm in the northern sea, the Kun leaped out of the water and magically transformed into a gigantic bird, the Peng. The wing span of the Peng was thousands of kilometers wide. When the Peng spread its wings, the wings were like the clouds in the sky. In one bound, the Peng could travel from the northern sea to the southern sea, on the other side of the world, 10,000 miles away.

This idiom describes a bright future, one with success and prosperity without undue duress. It is also used to wish someone success with their endeavors. 

Why not send someone a wish of encouragement, a wish for Peng's journey of 10,000 miles. 

An idiom is an expression that is not meant to be taken literally. For example, in English, we often use the expression "It's raining cats and dogs". Obviously, we don't take this expression literally, we come to learn that it means it's raining hard outside. 

Though the Chinese have many proverbs and idioms, Chengyu are formalized idioms, usually using only four characters and relating to folktales, classical literature, and historical accounts. The four characters typically state a moral, and in order to properly understand their meaning, it is important to know the story behind them. There are at least 5,000 Chengyu. 

To learn about Chinese idioms is to gain another insight into the Chinese culture, their mores, and their history. We will be learning Chengyu, and their related stories, regularly for the rest of our "year in China". I believe the insights we'll gain will highlight many universal facets of human nature within their cultural context.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Our Week in a Nutshell

This week we explored ruins and abandoned buildings, cooled off at the beach and at the lake. 
George's Island, in the middle of the Halifax harbour, and home to Fort Charlotte, is not usually open to the public. However this past weekend, it hosted "Picnic in the Past" with historical reenactments, tours of the underground tunnels, and general exploration. I am always astounded by the grit it takes to walk around in the summer heat in those heavy cotton and wool uniforms! Thank goodness for modern clothing :) 

Today was Pea's 15th birthday. We've been celebrating for over a week because this birthday is the one that means the most to her. She invited her friends over for a sleepover, her closest friends from her old school, and closest from her new school. She spent a day watching old movies. We went on a road trip to take photographs of an abandoned building she loves. We had a fiesta with our group of friends she has connected with, hearing the stories of when they were fifteen. And tonight, after a supper of crepes and fruit with family, we watched the sun set on her 15th birthday sitting on the roof of the house. 

Last fall, Pea made a very difficult decision, a decision that created a fair bit of change and some negative repercussions. It was a brave decision, one that when she looks back on it, would choose the same again, although handle it differently. I am so proud of the maturity, the strength and the grace she has shown. It has been a difficult year, but one that has brought about a blossoming, and a freedom to be herself. 

I love you Pea, and I hope this year brings greater happiness and peace. xo

Review: Chinese Recipe Books

The first thing I look up when interested in a culture or country is the food. How it is cultivated, prepared, shared and enjoyed - these are hallmarks of a culture. I spend (too much) time browsing online, and get as many recipe books as I can from the library. 

A few years ago, my criteria for recipe books was mainly colorful photography. I needed to see what the food was supposed to look like. Because when I first started cooking, the comparison to what I had prepared was not always obvious.  Okay, it still isn't always obvious :) but with experience, and the ease of finding images online, my criteria for recipe books has changed. Photos are great, but more importantly, I want to read the story behind the recipe. In fact, my bedside/couch side piles of books always include recipe books. I enjoy sitting and reading them. And once in a while, I'll cook from them. Here are my favorite Chinese recipe books, with authentic recipes, some photography, and lots of great stories.

Feeding the Dragon: A Culinary Travelogue Through China with Recipes by Mary Kate Tate & Nate Tate.
This brother and sister team traveled throughout China and collected recipes and stories. There are a hundred authentic recipes that are easy to follow, a glossary of ingredients, and a section for basics such as holding chopsticks and folding dumplings. The travel photography is stunning, and I loved reading the travelogue aspect - their experiences studying and traveling in China, the people they have met, the foods they have tasted. Their companion website Feeding the Dragon has recipes as well.

My Grandmother's Chinese Kitchen: 100 Family Recipes and Life Lessons by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. This book is as much a memoir as it is a recipe book. The recipes are authentic recipes the author (a professional chef) grew up with, that she helped prepare as a child with her grandmother, and her grandmother's servants. Some of the recipes are elaborate, but the instructions are clear. Through anecdotes, the author writes about lessons in character as well as cookery. I particularly enjoyed reading about how she and her family celebrated various festivals, and the importance of ancestor worship. This book also includes a glossary of Chinese ingredients.  

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province  by Fushia Dunlop. This book is an extensive collection of the regional cuisine of Hunan, Chairman Mao's home province. The recipes are clear and easy to follow, and range from street food to sweets. There is an introduction before almost every recipe, and historical references throughout which I found very interesting, in the context of the cultural revolution. There is also a great introduction about the Hunan province, a glossary of food items, and descriptions of cooking methods. 

Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking: 200 Traditional Recipes from 11 Chinatowns Around the World  by Martin Yan. The recipes from the Chinatowns range from traditional to fusion, simple to elaborate. I love the sidebars and introductions filled with information and history, with tidbits like table etiquette and the meaning of dimsum.

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.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Recipe - Shanghai Fried Noodles

These noodles are part of the street food scene in Shanghai. Along with pot stickers, kebabs, tofu cubes, and dumplings, these noodles are xiao chi, "small eats", picked up from one of many food stalls in the bustling city of Shanghai.

This recipe, as simple as it is, was also a testament to lack in preparedness and using what you have. I try to find authentic recipes, and cook them accordingly. This time, however, I assumed I had all the ingredients. In the end we had to use fettuccine noodles to compensate for the small amount of buckwheat noodles we had. The recipe also calls for star of anise, which I assume would give the dish a distinct flavor - I searched high and low in my spices and baking cupboards, certain I had bought some, but did not find any. (Days later, I found a bag at the bottom of my Chinese food basket - of course) 

Shanghai Fried Noodles

Adapted from "Feeding the Dragon" by Mary Kate Tate & Nate Tate

Serves 4


12 ounces buckwheat noodles (or whole wheat fettuccine noodles)
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp dark soy sauce (I used mushroom flavored soy sauce)
2 tsp light soy sauce (I used regular, light soy sauce)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp cornstarch, stirred into 1 tbsp cold water
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger
4 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
3 green onions, chopped (also out of these, I used chives)
1 star anise
2 cups snow peas, ends trimmed
2 cups shredded napa cabbage

Definitely not enough buckwheat noodles for four, so we added fettuccine
Cook the noodles until they are al dente, then drain and rinse them under cold water. Toss them with sesame oil.

Stir together the soy sauces, sugar and cornstarch mixture.

Heat the vegetable oil over high heat. Stir fry the ginger, garlic, green onions and star anise for 10 seconds. Add the snow peas and cabbage, and cook until the peas are bright green, and still a little crunchy. Add the soy sauce mixture and stir for 20 seconds, then add the noodles, and stir until the noodles are evenly coated with sauce and heated through. Serve immediately. 

We sprinkled sesame seeds over the noodles, because we like the texture. The noodles were tasty, if not completely authentic :)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Making Baby Tiger Head Shoes

Elle's baby sister turned one month old last week. We took the opportunity to learn about the Chinese custom of celebrating a baby's first moon, and Elle made her sister adorable tiger head shoes as a blessing and gift. 

In China, the tiger is a symbol of power and bravery, and is a protector of children. The Chinese believe the tiger can ward off diseases, evil and misfortunes, which is why babies often have at least one pair of tiger head shoes. 

Elle was quite excited to make these for her baby sister. She was especially happy that she would be using the sewing machine (or so we thought), since she really does not enjoy sewing by hand. She spent nearly an entire day working on these, with my help, to ensure they were complete to give to her sister on time. She also created a template for the tiger head if anyone else wants to make these, and it can be found at the bottom of the post.

Photo Credit: Denis-Carl Robidoux
We looked at images of tiger baby shoes on google, and found a pair on Etsy that were the basis for these. Elle wanted to use red felt, red because it is an auspicious color in the Chinese tradition, and felt to make them sturdy. Luckily we had quite a bit of red felt in our Christmas craft box. We purchased yellow printed cotton for the inside of the shoes and embroidery thread for the tiger head decorations. 

Elle started off by making baby kimono shoes, using this template and this tutorial from Homespun Threads. (note there is a tutorial with the template we used, and a second tutorial that was of greater help, which includes three templates for different sizes).

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Chinese Celebration: Baby's First Moon

In China, when a baby turns one month old, it is customary to celebrate the baby's first full month (or full moon) of life. In the past, since there was a high infant mortality rate, babies weren't named before this milestone. By living to be one month, the baby was considered likely to survive, and was then named and celebrated. 

This is when a baby is introduced to the extended family and friends. Baby's health is celebrated, and blessings and gifts are offered. Red money envelopes, lai see, are given, as well as jewelry. In the past it was mostly only held for baby boys, but today, both boys and girls are celebrated. 

Photo Credit: Garry Knight
Traditionally, the baby's first moon was the time to shave baby's head. These days, most parents give their baby their first haircut. Those who have shaved baby's head sometimes use the hair to make a special calligraphy brush, engraved with blessings for happiness, health and wisdom. Other parents wrap the bit of hair from the first haircut into red cloth and sew it into baby's pillow to help calm him/her. 

Photo Credit: Alpha
Red eggs are served during the First Moon celebration. Eggs are hard boiled with red money envelopes, which dyes them. Eggs represent fertility and the shape symbolizes harmony. They are dyed red to represent luck and happiness. For boys, an odd number of eggs are given out, and for girls, an even number of eggs are given out.

Red Tortoise Cake
Photo Credit: Christopher Kent
Ang Ku Kueh, or red tortoise cakes, are served during the celebration. These Chinese pastries have a sweet filling, wrapped in glutinous flour, and shaped in a mould to look like tortoise shells. The tortoise shells represent longevity. 
(There's a recipe to make your own here - I would love to find those moulds)

Tiger Head Shoes Elle made for her one month old baby sister
Elle's baby sister turned one month old last week, so she made her baby tiger head shoes (seen above) to celebrate. 

Henry's First-Moon Birthday by Lenore Look is a sweet, colorful picture book to introduce kids to this celebration and Chinese customs.
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