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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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Chinese Brush Painting: Orchids

Chinese brush painting is one of the Three Perfections (along with calligraphy and poetry). We are exploring (rather than perfecting) brush painting by painting the Four Gentlemen: bamboo, plum blossoms, orchids and chrysanthemums. These four plants are most often used for teaching the fundamental skills of Chinese brush painting. 

To learn more about Chinese brush painting read our post here. For a step by step tutorial to paint bamboo, read this post (further down the page). You can see our process and finished plum blossoms here, and chrysanthemums here.

Confucius, one of the most influential Chinese philosophers, compared being virtuous to an orchid. Therefore, orchids are often painted to evoke the Confucian qualities of a cultured gentleman: humility, integrity and refinement. 

“An orchid in a deep forest sends out its fragrance even if no one is around to appreciate it. Likewise, men of noble character hold firm to their high principles, undeterred by poverty.”
- Confucius (551-479 BCE)
Our "method" is to look at examples, and practice on lots of practice sheets. Lots. The biggest hurdle is getting a feel for the brush, and learning when to press and release.

The first step was to practice the leaves. With undiluted ink, we practiced these long strokes. Swing the arm upward, press the brush for thicker lines, and lift for thinner lines (giving the effect of the leaf twisting), and lift to taper the end. Paint leaves of different lengths, going in different directions for the final piece.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Day of the Dead: Calavera Craft & Printable

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. With this celebration, death is not meant to be feared, but recognized as a natural part of life. Families come together to honor their deceased loved ones, either at home or in cemeteries, with sugar skulls, altars, marigolds, and special foods and drinks. 

Day of the Dead Altar
Photo Credit: Eleni
When we explored Mexico six years ago, Dia de los Muertos was our favorite celebration, and we continue to celebrate it, remembering and honoring our departed loved ones, whether family, friends or pets, every year. 

Day of the Dead Skeletons
Photo Credit: Jen Wilton
A few weeks ago, Elle had a sleepover, and as an activity, hubby bought each of them a wooden skeleton to paint. As they deliberated how best to paint them, I suggested they draw inspiration from Day of the Dead sugar skulls and skeletons, also known as calaveras. They were excited about the idea, so we did a Google search for mexican skulls, and used these as inspiration.

I just love their tuxedos!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Our Weekend in a Nutshell

This weekend was rather easy going with no big plans. Pea had a slumber party, but at that age, they pretty much gather in a room and chat, likely about boys. They had planned a "vintage" Halloween movie marathon, with the first Frankenstein movie, The Blob, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and for good measure, Edward Scissorhands (since when are the 90s "vintage"??). They watched Scissorhands, and only bits of the other movies, getting bored of them early on :) Pea had a great time, and even told me she was glad she didn't have an embarrassing mom- until the next day, when I apparently gaffed 3 different times. Oh my. 

We also put together Elle's Halloween costume. She is mostly looking forward to wearing it to her first school dance -  though she may be 11, I feel like we have two teenagers in our house! 

Can you guess what she is? The Alice in Wonderland White Rabbit - girl version. And between what we had at home and thrift stores, we managed to stay within budget!

We were also happy to see Grandma - my mother is now back from a nearly three week business trip to Peru. So proud of her and happy that she has found fulfilling work. Also grateful for the Peruvian chocolates she brought back to share :)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Recipe: Snacking on Chinese Boiled Peanuts

We were at the Asian grocery this weekend, when I spotted a bin of raw peanuts in their fridge. It was the first time I had seen any for purchase, and was excited to pick some up to try boiled peanuts at home, a snack I had read about on various occasions, but thought unlikely we would get to taste them.

These are nothing like the dry, roasted peanuts we are used to. They are sweet and spiced, and similar to soft beans, like edamame. You could also add a dried chili or a small nub of ginger to the braising liquid for a spicier snack. 

Chinese Boiled Peanuts

Adapted from Serious Eats

3 cups raw peanuts in shell
3 tbsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
2 cloves

1. Rinse peanuts well, making sure the shells are clean. Add the peanuts to a pot and cover with water.
2. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir to dissolve the sugar and salt.
3. Bring the water to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 3 hours. 
4. To serve, remove peanuts with a slotted spoon, and eat while warm. 

These were a fun and tasty snack. Pea didn't care for them, because they have the same texture as beans, which she does not care for. Elle particularly enjoyed them with a sprinkle of salt. It was fun sitting around the table, squeezing open the shells, and tasting the peanuts, with lots of giggling all around. 

You can find more cultural and historical activities at the following linkups:
Best4Future Wednesday Link-Up Party

Glimpse of China: Hand signs for numbers

If you wanted to convey to someone a number without speaking you would use your hands. How would you convey, with your hands, the number 10? Here's how we would do it:

And here is one way of how it's done in China:

Want to see how 1 through 10 are conveyed with hand signals in China? It is demonstrated in short video (created by 'My New Chinese Love') below:

One of the great things about learning of different cultures is realizing where your assumptions are - I had never thought of number hand signs in a cultural context, but if I had taken a moment to think about it, I would have assumed everyone did it "our" way. But of course, there is always more than one way to do anything.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Chinese Staple Food: Bean Curd (Tofu) & How to Make Your Own

After eating Ma Po Beancurd, and being asked how tofu was made, I thought we'd try making it ourselves.

Tofu Stand
Photo Credit: Xymox
Bean curd is made from soybeans, which have been eaten in China since 3000 BC. Tofu originated in China, speculated at about 2000 years ago.

Tofu is an important source of protein in most Asian countries, and is known as "meat without bones". It has a very subtle flavor, and takes on flavor of other foods or marinades. It can be eaten fresh, cooked, chilled and fermented (such as "stinky tofu").

How to make bean curd

Recipe adapted from Perennial Plate

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Kites: Chinese History, Legends, and Book roundup

Above is an example of a train kite - mulitiple kites connected by a line together
Photo Credit: Will Clayton
In China, kites are called "Feng zheng", which translates literally to "wind compete" - kites toss in the sky, competing with the wind. Flying kites has traditionally been a favorite pastime in China, and continues to be popular among the young and old today.

Photo Credit: Beardnan
These men seem to be taking kite flying rather seriously
Photo Credit: Gabriel White
Though there is question as to where kites were first invented, the earliest written account of flying kites comes from China, dating back to 196 BC. There is one Chinese legend that credits a peasant whose straw hat flew off his head, but followed him in the air attached to a thread from his clothing as the inspiration for kites. Kites were initially used for religious and ceremonial purposes, sending messages and prayers to the spirit world. They were made of silk and bamboo.

Photo Credit: thewamphyri
Kites were also used for military purposes. In one legend, a kite was used to determine the distance needed for a tunnel. A kite was set to sail over the width of a huge wall - when the kite flew over it, the kite line was marked. This told the troops the distance they needed to tunnel underneath the wall to make it to the other side and surprise the enemy. Another legend tells of giant kites equipped with noise makers sent out to fly over enemy troops at night - the enemy soldiers believed the sound was made by spirits, and fled in terror.

Photo Credit: Tym
With the invention of paper, kite making became a folk art, and was enjoyed by many. It was common to fly kites as a means of sending up wishes. Another custom was to let the kite string out as far as possible and cut the string, sending all bad luck away. This was especially done during the Double Ninth festival. During Qing Ming, kites were flown to frighten away evil spirits.

Photo Credit: Toyohara
Long before the rest of the world, the Chinese learned about air currents, balance and gliding due to their kite designs. These days, flying kites remains a favorite past time. Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, is a popular spot to fly them. 

Flying kites in Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Photo Credit: Gabrielle Marks
Currently, there is a project in Beijing that uses kites and attached sensors used by residents to monitor the air quality (the air quality being some of the worse in the world).

Here are a few books about Kites in China:

The Legend of the Kite: A Story of China - a Make Friends Around the World Storybook   by Chen Jiang Hong
While celebrating the Kite Festival, a grandfather tells his grandson the legend behind the festival and kite flying. The illustrations give a glimpse of ancient China, and at the back of the book there is information on the history of kites.

The Emperor and the Kite  by Jane Yolen
A sweet Chinese folktale in which the young daughter of an Emperor, who is largely overlooked due to her diminutive size, saves her father through the use of a kite. We enjoyed this story, and the paper cut illustrations of Ed Young.

Kites  by Demi
This beautifully illustrated book is not so much a story as a compendium of Chinese kites, the symbolism behind each shape, and their purpose. It also includes kite making directions at the end. The girls used the images in this book to inspire the shape and design of their kites. 

Would you like to make your own kite? We made one, and you can find the full tutorial here.

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Favorite Resources in Exploring and Learning about China

Throughout our year of "virtually travelling" to China, I have come across and used many resources to guide our exploration. Books, videos, and the internet are used regularly either as a starting point (inspiration for activity or recipe) or as a means in itself. I refer to them as they come up in posts, but there are a few general resources that we have used regularly that I would like to highlight.


Cultural China

This compendium on Chinese culture is fascinating, and I am engrossed anytime I am on this site - as well as reminded that our yearly exploration is only scratching the surface of the rich Chinese culture. The home page changes regularly, featuring current news, culture, history, stories, traditions to name a few. I often go on the site to look up something specific, and end up reading about half a dozen posts, having to tear myself away.
(Just now, in getting the link, I was waylaid reading about traditional toys, chabaixi tea customs, chinese greetings, and congee's health benefits)

You Tube

Of course, we often look up something we have heard or read about on youtube, and invariably find someone's take on it - though some videos are better than others :)

Hello China is a series that took 100 Chinese words that represent Chinese culture, and for each word made a 2-3min video about it with narration, animation, and great video footage. Short and sweet, these are great to introduce a concept about China to kids. They are sometimes very general, for example "music" or "family", and sometimes very specific: "chime bells", "chrysanthemum", with everything in between, including zodiac and various festivals.


Globe Trekker  travel documentary series has been a favorite in our family for years - they are our go to videos to learn about what it would be like to travel to another country. The hosts are youthful, engaging and everyone in our family can appreciate and/or relate to them - despite all of our age differences. They travel on a budget, go on and off the beaten road, and spend time with the locals. Note, these videos are not geared toward children, but are appropriate for the family, as long as you are prepared to see the reality of their travels - this has included the occasional disturbing scene, for example, in a Chinese apothecary, an attendant skinned a snake for medicinal purposes. 

BBC's Wild China  is an impressive six part nature documentary. Each episode is an hour long, and focuses on a specific area of China: its wildlife and nature and how these impact and are impacted by the local communities. It was filmed in HD and the cinematography is stunning. The girls love learning about wildlife, and really enjoyed these. We spread them out throughout the year and have been amazed at the beautiful scenery and diversity found in China. From bamboo bats (they live inside bamboo!) to cormorant fisherman, fascinating creatures and customs impressed us all. 


We read many a book related to our country of choice, from illustrated fables to books with general overviews or specific topics. I've posted about specific books throughout the year with related activities or information, and these can be found in the right sidebar under Read Your Way Around China. Here are the books and series that we particularly enjoy, and that are more generalized and therefore have not yet been mentioned:

China: Land, Life, and Culture John Tidey's series is a great set of books, each focusing on certain aspects of China: Arts and Culture; History and Government'; Land and Climate; People and Cities; Plants; Wildlife. These books are a must if you plan on studying China. Informative, colorful, filled with fun facts and photographs, these are great on their own, or as introductions to encourage further research.

The following are book series we look at for each country:

We're From . . .  With colorful photographs, these books focus on children's daily lives: their school, home, and family. Kids love seeing how other children live, and comparing with their own lives.

Festivals of the World  I love this series - with colorful photographs, it outlines the various festivals and traditions from each country, through the seasons. It focuses on the most important celebrations, but also mentions the various smaller, or more localized festivals. It's also fun to see the different traditional costumes.

Taste of Culture  This series explores the food, eating habits, cooking traditions and customs of various countries. Each book includes a few basic recipes kids could make, colorful photographs, and sections on traditional foods, staple foods, and festival fare. These books aren't as enticing to the girls as a whole, but certain sections hold their interest, such as eating customs and habits, and they help lead me in which direction to focus on for recipes. 

Games People Play  This series gives an overview of games, toys, and hobbies from ancient times to current pop culture. It is fun to compare the differences between past and present games, and those that are still used today. Also, to compare with what we play. These books give great ideas of ways to incorporate toys and games into our exploration. 

Do you have any favorite books or series in your multicultural explorations?

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

Monday, October 21, 2013

Our Weekend in a Nutshell

This past weekend was all about getting together with friends, and carving pumpkins.

It was a glorious fall day to take our annual trip to the Howard Dill Farm, where they grow 1400lb (and more!) pumpkins. They also sell a variety of pumpkins and gourds, which we always stock up on. It was all the more fun this year because friends and family joined us, all new to the experience. My four year old nephew loved sitting in the pumpkin boats :) and Elle had a great time playing on hay stacks and deliberating over the perfect pumpkin.

We all headed back to our place for pumpkin carving and dinner. It was a lovely day with wonderful friends.

The following day, Elle had her friends over for a pumpkin carving party. We had planned it outdoors, with mounds of leaves and a couple of haystacks, and well, all the mess. But in true Nova Scotia fashion, it decided to rain, so we set up indoors, with lots of packing paper to contain the glory of pumpkin carving :) The kids also had a blast at apple bobbing (they got sooo wet!) and eating doughnuts on a string, fashioned thanks to Hubby. And what do you do when you expected kids to be playing outdoors for hours? You find a Halloween movie - though from all the screaming, I started to doubt the 8yrs and up rating for Frankenweenie! 

Friday, October 18, 2013

How Learning About Different Cultures Has Enriched Our Family Life with New Traditions

Having spent the last six years exploring and "virtually travelling" to various countries, our family has celebrated many a festival, and dipped our toes in various traditions. They have all been enjoyed, but there are a few that have become a part of our traditions, adopted or adapted, year after year. 
Multicultural Kid Blogs
You can read my post about which traditions we have embraced at Multicultural Kid Blogs, a website written by various, inspiring bloggers who are dedicated to raising world citizens. Along with the varied posts, with such a range of topics, you can find weekly menu plans, monthly blogging carnivals about various subjects related to multiculturalism, a resource page of the various blogs by topic, a bookclub, give aways, and more. I am grateful to be part of such a varied and supportive community. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Recipe: Ma Po Bean Curd

Feeling as though we've been playing it fairly safe with our Chinese dishes lately, I thought it was time to try something that might stretch the boundaries of Hubby's and the girls' comfort zones: Ma Po bean curd. A popular Sichuanese dish, it is made with ground pork, soft bean curd (tofu), and Sichuan pepper. The girls being sensitive to spicy food, Elle especially, we omitted the Sichuan pepper since I wanted to stretch their comfort zone, not set in on fire causing pain :) The bean curd was the ingredient we would learn to appreciate. 

Tofu is not foreign to the girls - various friends and family members are vegetarian. However, they generally leave it to others, and head for any other dish. They have eaten it in stir frys, etc, but it has always been one of many ingredients, not the star of the dish.  It certainly hasn't helped that Hubby always has an unpleasant comment or facial expression whenever the mere mention of tofu comes up. This would be all of our first time eating soft tofu, which has the consistency of custard, rather than firm tofu. I knew this dish was not going to excite them, but I hoped it would surprise them.

Cubes of soft bean curd

There is a story behind this dish: it is said that a peasant woman, only able to afford tofu and vegetables, created this dish to sell on the street to make some extra money. It became very popular, and was later named Ma Po - which literally means "pockmarked grandmother", after this lady.

Ma Po Bean Curd

Adapted from Epicurious here & here
Makes enough for six to eight as a side dish

  • 1/4 cup chicken broth
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp black bean paste

  • 1 package soft (not silken) tofu, cut into 1/2 inch cubes. Be sure to handle tofu gently, it is very delicate and will break easily
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1/2 lb ground pork (some use beef, but pork is traditional)
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 1/2 tsp ginger, finely minced
  • 1/4 cup dark rice wine (Shaohsing)
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 2 tbsp water
  • 2 green onions, sliced
1. In a large pot, bring 4 cups of water to boil. Add tofu, remove from heat, and let steep for 5 minutes, uncovered. Drain by transferring tofu with a slotted spoon to a separate dish. Again, handle tofu gently. 

2. Stir together ingredients for sauce and set aside. 

3. Heat your pan on high heat, and add the oil. Add pork and stir fry until no longer pink, breaking up any lumps. Reduce heat to medium, and add the garlic and ginger, cooking for 2 minutes until fragrant. Add rice wine, and cook for 1-2 minutes. Stir sauce, and add to meat, cooking for another minute. Now gently slide the tofu into the pan, and carefully stir it all together. Stir cornstarch mixture, and add to pan, stirring gently. Bring to boil until thickens, about 1 minutes. When serving, sprinkle with green onions.

We served this with sticky rice and stir fried broccoli. 

Verdict: The girls were not surprised. They did not care for this dish, but did eat it. The big surprise was that Hubby thoroughly enjoyed it, going back for seconds. Seconds! I will, of course, bring this up whenever he deigns to sneer at tofu again.

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