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, September 30, 2013

Our Weekend in a Nutshell

We had glorious fall weather this weekend. Sunny and warm with a fresh breeze. Perfect for, ugh, yardwork. We also had the pleasure of a lovely visit from my brother and sister in law while they were in town for her yoga teacher training. 

Elle had a sleepover with two of her friends, spending much time running around the yard, giggling secretly, and trying to convince us they did indeed hear a wolf howling. They also painted some fabulous calaveras (Mexican skeletons) that I can just imagine playing in a band together. 

The girls and I tried our hands at making paper, and we went for a hike in the woods. I just love spending an afternoon walking in a forest. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Chinese Invented It: Silk - Our attempt at raising silkworms (And how you can try!)

Pea getting to know one of our silkworms
When we first started learning about silk making, my immediate thought was: I need to get my hands on cocoons! To have the tactile experience of holding one, and the possibility of unraveling a mile long filament is the kind of experience that excites me :) Unfortunately, I was unable to find a company that shipped cocoons to Canada (if you know of any, please drop me a line!). The next logical step was to look for silkworms, so we could watch it spin the cocoon itself - so much better! 

I discovered that silkworms are sold as pet food for reptiles, and so headed to a nearby pet supply store. We only got three, because based on our past experiences, we did not want the death toll to be too high. Unfortunately, our fears came true. 

We set them up in our kitchen table, and supplied them with mulberry leaves. They immediately started chewing, and that is what they did for the remainder of the afternoon.  We stared for quite some time :) And when we brought our ears close to them, we could actually hear them chewing. We put the paper plate in an empty aquarium, and left them for the night.

The following day, however, they began acting strangely. Or it seems, they began over night. They were wandering. Leaves were left behind, and the silkworms would not stop wandering the aquarium. Despite our repeated attempts to tempt them with mulberry leaves, the caterpillars continued to wander away, without a single bite. Thinking perhaps they were ready to cocoon, we tried varied ways of giving them a small area to make it easier to attach themselves. All of this to no avail, they continued to wander for the remainder of the day until the next when all three died. We were so disappointed, and confused. 

Not to be deterred, we went back to the store the following week the day their shipment of silkworms comes in, to be told that the entire shipment died due to the cold. Aha! This may be the answer to the puzzle of why our silkworms behaved erratically, and inexplicably died. 

Our house is almost always cold. In the dead heat of the summer, we may have needed a fan or two on for a total of three days. We are surrounded by trees, have no south facing windows, and live not far from the coast. It is very likely those poor silkworms, used to the heat of southern Asia, were too cold to eat or cocoon, and inevitably died. Perhaps if we had tried this in mid July, we would have had a greater possibility of success. 

If you would like to try raising silkworms, here is what you will need:

  • Silkworms (check out your pet store for their feeding supplies)
  • Access to fresh mulberry leaves. Seriously, they will eat nothing else. Not even raspberry leaves that you thought might be worth a try since the berries look similar and you know your stock of (dodgily acquired) mulberry leaves may dwindle before cocooning.
  • Heat!
  • A small contained space that is easy to clean (bug catcher, shoe box)
  • Egg carton for cocooning
These silkworms were raised in a small box. Note the mulberry leaves (and droppings!) One has already began cocooning in the corner.
Photo Credit: Ivan Walsh
Once hatched from their eggs, silkworms spend approximately 5 to 6 weeks devouring mulberry leaves before cocooning. When you get silkworms from a pet store, it is unlikely that you will know how old they are, therefore it is difficult to determine when they might be ready to cocoon. You will have to pay attention to them. 

They should be kept at a constant temperature of 23 degrees or more (as it turns out) and out of direct sunlight. They should not be handled too much. Over the course of their life as a caterpillar, they will change their skin four times. Be sure not to touch or disrupt them at all during these transitions. The first signs of this molting is when they stop feeding and rest with their heads raised, not moving for several days. Again, do not disturb them when they are changing their skin. 

The week before they are ready to cocoon, their appetite will increase. They also become slightly translucent when they are ready to start spinning. They will also start wandering, looking for a nook to settle themselves in, swaying their heads back and forth. This is a good time to place them in the egg carton. Before spinning, the silkworm ejects a fluid glob. Then they begin to spin, which takes approximately 3 days. Once cocooned, the caterpillar (or larvae) changes into pupae and then moth. It takes ten to fourteen days for the entire transformation.

You need to decide whether you want the silkworms to develop into moths, or if you want to save the cocoon for the silk filament. You could let the moth emerge, which dissolves a part of the cocoon, still giving you part of the cocoon, but not an unending filament. You will need to consider what to do with the eggs should the moths mate - one moth lays 300-400 eggs.

If you don't want the moths to emerge, harvest the cocoons 7-10 days after the silkworm starts to spin its cocoon. You should then place the cocoons in a paper bag, and bake them in an oven for 20 minutes at 200F.

In order to get your filament, put the cocoons in boiling water. Don't forget, there are pupae inside. 

Has anyone tried this? I would love to hear about it!

In learning about silk, we learned its history and legends with related books, learned the process of making silk, and made silk calligraphy scrolls.

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:

Best4Future Wednesdays
Highhill Homeschool

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Chinese Invented It: Silk - How it's made

To read about the history and legends of silk, read our earlier post here.

How is silk made

Photo Credit: Nathan Nelson

Silk comes from the caterpillar, known as a silkworm, of a type of moth: the bombyz mori moth. Silkworms have special glands in their bodies that make liquid silk - as soon as the liquid silk comes into contact with air, it hardens and is known as a filament. 

Silkworms feasting on mulberry leaves
Photo Credit: Kevin Jaako

Silkworms spend pretty much all of their time eating mulberry leaves, the only food they eat. They do this for about six weeks.

Silkworm cocooning
Photo Credit: 
Nathan Nelson 
When the silkworm is ready to change into a moth, it spins its cocoon with the liquid silk. These cocoons are made up of one continuous filament of silk that can be as long as 1 mile (1.6 km)! It takes 3 days for a silkworm to spin its cocoon. 

Silk cocoons
Photo Credit: Nathan Nelson
The cocoons are harvested before the moth is fully developed, because the moth will break through the cocoon, tearing the silk filament, and one long continuous filament makes stronger silk and is therefore more valuable. When the cocoons are harvested they are heated/baked in order to kill the pupae inside. 

Harvested cocoons
Photo Credit: Nathan Nelson
In order to unravel the silk filament of the cocoon, the gummy substance sericin that holds it together must be softened. To do this, the cocoon is boiled in water.

Boiling cocoons
Photo Credit: Patrick Barry
When the silk is ready to unravel, it is reeled - this means the filaments of several cocoons are wound together around a cylinder to make strong thread.

More silk cocoons with filaments ready for reeling
Photo Credit: Adam Jones
Silk reel
Photo Credit: Nick Hobgood
Silk reels in a factory setting
Photo Credit: Randy Adams
When the silk has been reeled, silk threads are twisted to make them strong enough to be woven.

Raw silk, ready to be dyed and woven
Photo Credit: Nathan Nelson
China is the main producer of silk, and most of the world's raw silk comes from countries in Asia, such as India, Thailand and Uzbekistan. In China, the silk is produced in factories and as a cottage industry, that is by people at home using their own equipment and labor.

Silk Factory
Photo Credit: Andrew Hitchcock
Ever wonder what happens to the silk worm pupae - the ones baked in order to ensure no moth breaks through the cocoon? Well, in many Asian countries, including China, silk worm pupae is enjoyed as a snack.

Silk worm pupae on a stick in Beijing
Photo Credit: The Duffers
In learning about silk, we learned its history and legends with related books, made silk calligraphy scrolls, and even tried raising our own silkworms

The Chinese Invented It: Silk - History and Legends

Photo Credit: HansenX
Thousands of years ago, the empress Lei Zu was drinking hot tea in a garden of mulberry bushes, when a cocoon fell into her bowl. When she tried to fish it out with her hands, she found it unraveled into an unending string. She was then inspired to weave the thread into fabric and raise silkworms for their cocoons. 

Or so the legend goes. 

No one is certain of who discovered the process of making silk (known as sericulture), but the empress Lei Zu is known as the Goddess of Silkworms in China, and was worshiped for thousands of years. In fact, the old tradition of honoring her is still kept in certain parts of China.

We do know that silk has been made for nearly 5000 years, and was a vigilantly kept secret in China for thousands of years. In fact, revealing the secrets of silk making by smuggling silkworms, their eggs or cocoons was punishable by death. The fabric itself was used for trade through a series of trade routes known as the Silk Road, introducing it to various countries. Eventually, the secret did become known, and one legend tells of a young princess smuggling silkworm eggs and mulberry tree seeds in her hair when married off to a foreign prince. 

As well as for clothing, silk was used in a number of ways, including as scrolls for artwork and writing on, fans, kites and toys. Over time, laws passed that only emperors and nobles could wear clothing made of silk. Peasants were not allowed to wear silk until the Ching dynasty (1644-1911 AD)

Silk was so valuable that customs were developed to ensure silkworms were healthy and spun strong silk. It was believed that loud noises would affect the growth of silkworms, and certain smells would affect the quality of silk. 

We read the following books to learn about silk, and enjoyed them all.

Red Butterfly: How a Princess Smuggled the Secret of Silk Out of China by Deborah Noyes.

This is a beautifully illustrated telling of the legend of how a princess, being sent away to a distant land to marry a king, brings a piece of China with her: the secret of silk by smuggling silkworms in her hair. 
This story is told with poetic, repetitive text, and winsome illustrations. Both of the girls enjoyed this story, and its setting in ancient, imperial China led to light hearted discussions of imperial fashions, concubines, and courtyard homes. 

The Silk Princess (Picture Book)  by Charles Santore

A beautifully illustrated retelling of the legend of how silk making was discovered. The author notes that he took liberties with the story adding the empress' daughter and her adventure leading to the discovery of silk making. 

The Biography of Silk (How Did That Get Here?) by Carrie Gleason.

This great informative book about silk, with lots of colorful photographs, is written in sections, making it easy to read it when the interest is there. It describes the life cycle of a silkworm/moth; the process of making silk; the history of silk from ancient China, Europe and America; the Silk Road; the uses of silk; the top producers and consumers of silk; the future of silk; and the issue of child workers in silk production, past and present. Again, this was a great book.

Dragons of Silk (Golden Mountain Chronicles) by Laurence Yep.

This is a historical fiction book, and part of the Gold Mountain chronicles (which we haven't read). It is a multi-generational story spanning the years of 1835-2011, with strong female characters. Love, family, Chinese lore, sacrifice, and immigration to America are strong themes throughout, woven together by silk, and the silk industry in China. This was a wonderful book, though we now wish we had read the previous installments in the series as the stories and their characters are connected. 

In learning about silk, we learned the process of making silk, made silk calligraphy scrolls, and even tried raising our own silkworms

Find more creative ideas to explore world cultures at the Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop
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
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
Kid Lit Blog Hop
Booknificent Thursdays

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Glimpse of China: Professional Ear Cleaners

Ear cleaning in the park
Photo Credit: Iain MacLean

Actually, this is a glimpse into the city of Chengdu, where you can have your ears cleaned by a professional in one of the many outdoor tea houses. 

Dating back since the Song dynasty, professional ear cleaners wander around tea houses offering their services. They carry with them a variety of instruments, long sticks with attachments at the end: goose feather brushes that tickle, tiny scoops for gathering ear wax, razors to remove ear hair, and tuning forks that create relaxing vibrations. A professional ear cleaner knows how to access the ears acupressure points, creating a pleasant, meditative experience.

And when your ears have been cleaned and groomed, you can resume sipping your tea.

Photo Credit: Aidan Whiteley
Would you be open to such a service? I admit, my curiosity is peaked, but I'm not sure I would have the courage!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Recipe: Sweet & Sour Pork

When you consider that the Chinese character for home is a combination of the characters for roof and pig - that is to say, a home is a roof over a pig - you get a sense of the importance of pork in Chinese cookery. A classic way to enjoy it is with Sweet and Sour Pork

Sweet & Sour Pork

Serves 4 (with rice)


3/4 lb pork tenderloin, diced into 1" cubes
1/2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp minced fresh garlic
1 sweet red pepper, sliced
4 green onions, sliced in 1'' pieces
vegetable oil for frying

1/2 cup cornstarch
1 egg

3/4 cup ketchup
6 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

1. Marinate the pork: lightly beat the egg, then stir in the cornstarch until blended. Toss with the pork and let stand for at least 10 minutes.

2. Make your sweet and sour sauce by combining all the ingredients. Whisk together until sugar is dissolved. 

3. Pour one to two inches of vegetable oil in pan, and heat over medium high to 360F. (Though the recipe calls for 2", I only used about 1" of oil, and it worked fine). Deep fry the pork, about one quarter of your pork at a time. Fry, turning occasionally, until golden brown, 3-4 minutes. Scoop from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain the pork on paper towels. Reserve 1 tbsp of the oil.

4. Heat your pan over med-high heat. Add the tablespoon of reserved oil and stir fry the garlic and ginger until fragrant, 20 seconds. Add the pepper and onion, stir-frying until tender crisp, 2-3 minutes. Pour in the sauce, and stir to coat the vegetables. Add the pork, and toss until heated through. Serve immediately. 

This dish was a hit with everyone, and Pea even ate her peppers, so successful all around :) We enjoyed it with rice and stir fried vegetables, though if using chop sticks, use sticky rice, because brown rice was quite a challenge. We had to pull out the forks. 

Our Weekend in a Nutshell

We spent a rather relaxed (read: lazy) Saturday, enjoying the company of my mother for brunch and playing dominoes.

We made up for it on Sunday by spending the day outdoors, in and around Windsor, NS. We headed out in the morning planning on enjoying the day at On Tree, a tree climbing park. Unfortunately, it was a rather crowded and we were told we would have to wait quite some time to enjoy it. We decided to come back on a weekday afternoon, and spent a lovely day meandering around the area. 

We came across Elmhurst Stock Farm selling gorgeous pumpkins (at amazing prices!) in their front yard. We left with 13 pumpkins. Our family loves pumpkins, Elle especially, and the smaller ones were a dollar a piece. Since our pumpkin patch did not produce a single pumpkin for the second year in a row, we couldn't help ourselves. Further down the road, we came across another farm with sheep, geese, and a friendly donkey. The donkey just loved getting all that attention!

Since we were in the area, we stopped by the Haliburton House museum grounds for a picnic. Though an hour from where we live, we love this area so much we stop by a few times a year, and even got our wedding pictures taken there. It has the girls' favorite willow tree in all of Nova Scotia, a spot where you will always see frogs sunning not even a foot from where you stand, and great crab apple trees for climbing on. We even saw what we think is a muskrat swimming in one of the ponds. 

And for the first time, we stopped by an area of Acadian dykes I've always wanted to walk. With the strong wind blowing in our ears, we could (almost) forget the highway was behind us :) It was a gorgeous walk,with the verdant dykes and fields, and gypsum cliffs ahead of us. 

It was truly a lovely, fall day. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mid-Autumn Moon Festival - Our Celebration

Tonight, we spent the evening outdoors to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Our yard is surrounded by trees, so it took some time before the moon came into view. While we waited, we read the legend of Chang-E and poetry about the moon. 

We drank tea and tasted more mooncakes. The tin hubby bought had mooncakes with a dried fruit filling, similar to fruitcake. The red bean paste mooncakes were a big hit, and all six disappeared. We gathered some round fruit: peaches, watermelon and pomelo. The pomelo was tricky to get the fruit out - we were unable to peel the skin in such a way as to wear it as a hat -but it was worth it. Quite tasty, like a milder flavored grapefruit. 

It was a cozy night, with Elle cuddled up against me while Pea made up a song about the moon :) And a beautiful moon it was!

Mid Autumn Moon Festival - Poetry

The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, being a time to gaze at and honor the moon, often ellicits bouts of storytelling and poetry. 

To learn more about the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and the Moon Goddess Chang'E, read our earlier post here.

Li Bai, from the Tang dynasty, is considered one of the greatest Chinese poets. The following poem is so popular, that even today, most Chinese students know it by heart.

Thoughts of a Quiet Night

Before my bed, there is bright-lit moonlight
So that it seems like frost on the ground:
Lifting my head I watch the bright moon
Lowering my head, I dream that I'm home.
- translated by Arthur Cooper

Do you know any poems about the moon? Maybe you'll be inspired while moon gazing tonight. If you would like to read more Chinese poems about the moon, you can print our "booklet" with 3 Chinese poems. Just fold the sheet in half (horizontally along the center), then in half again (vertically along the center), with the image as the front page. 

This week, we'll be preparing for the moon festival by reading bookstasting mooncakes and learning how they are made, making lanterns to hang on sticks, reading and writing poetry about the moon, and honoring the moon on the 19th with tea, mooncakes, and pomelos.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Mid-Autumn Moon Festival: Moon Lantern Tutorials

Lanterns are also a big part of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival celebrations. From simple paper lanterns children play with at home to elaborate larger than life lantern displays in Hong Kong, Chang-E and the moon are honored with luminous displays. 

To learn more about the Mid-Autumn festival and the moon goddess Chang-E, you can read our earlier post here.

Photo Credit: Casual Chin
We decided to make our own Moon Festival lanterns out of tissue paper and using LED candles. If you'd like to make a lantern of your own, you can follow one of our tutorials below. We also made various lanterns during the Chinese New Year, which can be found here, here, and here. Yes, we do like lanterns :)

Jade Rabbit Lantern

Pea and I made Jade Rabbit lanterns to float around. 
You can find our tutorial on the link below:

Mid-Autumn Lantern

Elle made this rectangular Mid-Autumn lantern. 
You can find our tutorial by clicking on the link below:

Grace Lin, author and illustrator of many childrens books that focus on the Chinese culture, including her Mid-Autumn festival picture book "Thanking The Moon" also has a great tutorial with printable template for a simple Jade Rabbit lantern that can be found on her blog here.

Photo Source: Grace Lin Blog
This week, we'll be preparing for the moon festival by reading bookstasting mooncakes and learning how they are made, making lanterns to hang on sticks, reading and writing poetry about the moon, and honoring the moon on the 19th with tea, mooncakes, and pomelos. 

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

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