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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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Chinese Staple Food: Noodles & Recipe for Dan Dan Noodles

Noodle Shop
Photo Credit: Grey World
Noodles, or Mian, are served throughout China, and especially eaten in the north. In the north they are made from wheat flour, and the water from boiling the noodles is drunk as a digestive. In the south, noodles are made from rice or bean flour and often come in fine threads.

Rice noodles drying outside
Photo Credit: Dennis Kruyt
Many historians believe noodles were invented in northern China (nope, not Italy), where they have been eating noodles for over 4000 years. Noodles are such an important part of the diet that in the northern province of Shanxi, there are 300 different types, each made with a different tool and action. They are most famous for their knife cut noodles, where a block of dough rests on the chefs forearm while the other hand shaves off pieces of dough, with about 200 noodles per minute flying into a pot of boiling water. 

Hand pulled noodles
Photo Credit: Matt
Hand pulled noodles take months to master, and are made by stretching  and folding the dough repeatedly. It's the dough's own weight that stretches the strands longer and thinner. You can watch noodles being hand pulled in the video below.

We made, and enjoyed, Dan Dan Noodles. The words "dan dan" refer to the method the noodles used to be carried in and sold from. The noodle vendor would carry two baskets hanging from a bamboo pole over his shoulders, one basket holding the noodles, and the other basket holding the sauce and toppings. This is a Sichuan dish and if it's authentic, it's been made with hot and numbing Sichuan peppers - an ingredient we omitted, so our whole family would enjoy them.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Our Weekend in a Nutshell

This week, my sister celebrated her birthday, for which a group of us got together, enjoyed a sushi feast, participated in a murder mystery, and overall laughed and giggled over the littlest things as we often do when together. It was a great time, and all the more special in celebrating the remarkable woman I am blessed to call my sister. She has been a constant source of support, understanding, and laughter for me and there are no words to describe how grateful I am. 

The girls spent most of the weekend working on school projects (Elle) or studying for a week of midterms (Pea). We took a break to make Thai pancakes, roti that requires a special touch to get them quite thin. At first, Pea felt her break time would be better spent elsewhere, but was drawn in from the sounds of our laughter while trying to slap that dough into shape - it didn't work, but we had fun! 

Pea had been asking for me to dig up photos (I really need to organize those!) and we spent a cozy evening looking at them. With all those baby and toddler pictures, there was a lot of "awwww"ing going on :) Kids really do grow up fast, don't they?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Tutorial: How to make a Kite

In China, flying kites is a popular pastime. In fact, the Chinese may have invented kites, though even if they didn't they were the force behind the spread of kite design to the rest of the world.

To read more about the Chinese history and legends of kites, read our post here.

Weeks ago, in getting ready for the Double Ninth festival, the girls made their own Chinese kites. They perused Demi's "Kites: Magic Wishes that Fly Up to the Sky" for inspiration. With rice paper, acrylic paints and thin dowels, we jumped head first into making fanciful Chinese kites. They looked gorgeous! As it turns out, we weren't being very practical.

Their gorgeous Chinese kites - they spent hours making them.
Pea's butterfly kite symbolizes beauty and free spirit; Elle's bat kite symbolizes joy and long life
Kite making and flying is a science - many factors determine whether and how a kite will fly: balance, wind pressure, and gravity. You can read more about how kites fly here. Various aspects of kite making determine its success, especially the tow point - the angle at which your kite line is attached to your kite. When making a kite without instructions, you will need to experiment where your tow point should be, and the girls' beautiful kites were not strong enough to withstand the trials. Our other mistake was trying them out in our spacious yard - spacious but surrounded by trees. As the wind goes around trees and buildings, it becomes turbulent, making it difficult to fly a kite. An empty field of sorts is ideal.

The Wright brothers used kites to study aerodynamics

Kites have been patched with lots of masking tape on the back, touched up and hanging as art (next to the tetrahedral kite we made years ago, but haven't even tried flying).
We then decided to try a simpler kite, the classic diamond shaped two stick kite. We were inspired by this, (though we made a single kite):

Above is an example of a train kite - mulitiple kites connected by a line together
Photo Credit: Will Clayton
And finally, over a month later, we flew it. (I kept waiting for the stars to align with good weather, enough wind, both girls at home, and no previous commitments or homework to complete, and the time to go the beach - I ended up going separate times with each girl) I ignored my own advice and took it to a baseball field -- surrounded by trees. As noted above, the trees created too much turbulence. We had much more success at the beach, though luckily it was deserted because it took a few tries to get it going. I wanted to make sure it could fly before posting this :)

Yay! It can fly!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Recipe: Popular Chinese Drink "Bubble Tea"

For an after school snack this week, we thought we would make another* popular Chinese drink: Bubble Tea. Also known as Pearl Milk Tea, or Boba Milk Tea, this drink is not part of traditional Chinese culture, but a piece of pop culture. Originating in Taiwan in the 1980s, it became popular in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, and trendy with youth. Bubble tea shops seem to have sprung up in many major cities, and you might be surprised to find one near where you live.

Bubble tea is a sweetened cold drink, with many variations. It is generally sweetened black or green tea, mixed with milk and fruit syrup. Originally, it was a cold milk tea that was shaken until frothy. Nowadays, it generally has boba pearls in it. 

Various Fruity Bubble Teas
Boba are tapioca balls that you drink/eat with your tea through an extra large straw. They come in many different colors - often black, though also white or multicolored. They must be cooked in boiling water for some time, and expand into chewy balls that rest at the bottom of your drink. 

Black boba pearls, prior to cooking
Photo Credit: Mokiko
We first tried fruit based bubble tea at a tea shop in Halifax, and it was the creamy fruit drink the girls didn't care for - so we decided to make ours with a regular tea base. We bought the tapioca balls and extra large straws at an Asian grocery store.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sayings of Confucius - Printable Quotes

Confucius, arguably the most influential Chinese philosopher, had followers who recorded his sayings and lessons in a collection known as Analects of Confucius. After learning about his life and an introduction to Confucianism, I thought we could discuss some of his sayings in order to better understand his influence and philosophy.

I'm not sure why the image comes up so...gray, but the printable is on a white background

I like to place quotes prominently for the family to read, usually in the bathroom mirror - we all use it, some of us more than others :) - and after a few days we talk about what it means. For the next few weeks, we'll be discussing a few of Confucius' sayings- what they mean, and how they could influence our lives. 

Our earlier post about Confucius and his philosophy can be found here.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Confucius: Sage of the Ages

"If a person doesn't constantly ask himself, 'What is the right thing to do?' I really don't know what is to be done about him."
~ Confucius

Kong Qui, better known as Confucius in the West, was most importantly a philosopher. He was born in 551 BC during a time of political turmoil and corruption. His teachings were an effort to return morality and tradition to the Chinese culture during difficult times. To this day, his teachings are considered the most influential in Chinese history. 

The philosophy based on Confucius' teachings is called Confucianism. The Analects is a collection of his sayings and ideas, put together by his followers. It is from this collection that so much has been learn about Confucian philosophy.

"Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself"

Confucianism emphasizes the importance of being proper in one's actions, coming from a place of compassion. What is most valued is loyalty to family, honoring others, being caring and kind, and a respect for ritual demonstrated through politeness and good manners.

“Be considerate of your elders, open-hearted with friends, and treat the young ones tenderly.”

Our Weekend in a Nutshell

Hubby's brother and family joined us this weekend, and as always it was a pleasure to spend time with them. I am always grateful to have the chance to catch up with my rather inspiring sister in law. 

We took the opportunity to take the kids to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia for one of their monthly family Sundays. We made snow globes and tree sculptures and fun resist artwork. The best part was how much we all enjoyed ourselves - adults as well as kids. The girls now have a few Christmas gifts made they are quite proud of.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hakka Architecture: The Tulou

Tulou cluster
Photo Credit: Ed 37
The Tulou are traditional residences of the Hakka, who are thought to be the earliest settlers of Han Chinese. There are approximately 38,000 tulou in the Fujian province, and some of which have been declared world heritage sites. Many of these had been isolated until the 1990s.

Photo Credit: Ed 37
The literal meaning of the name Hakka is "the guest people" due to various migrations over the centuries into the southern parts of China and around the world - often due to invasions. It is no surprise then that tulous are designed to protect the inhabitants from bandits.

Photo Credit: Slices of Light
Tulou literally translates to earthen structures, though not all are made of earth - especially more modern ones. Typically though, the outer wall is earthen or some form or brick, and the inside is wooden frameworks. They each have only one entrance, are protected by a wall and a gate, and generally range from 3-5 stories high. They are often built in a circular fashion, though some are square shaped.

Congee & Hundred Year Old Eggs - Recipe for a Chinese Breakfast

As vast as China is, a typical breakfast varies from one region to another, from dim sum to spicy noodles to steamed buns. One common breakfast in many areas of China is congee, being affordable and easily made.

Congee (also known as jook) is basically porridge made of rice cooked in quite a bit of extra liquid for over an hour. At its most basic it is flavored with white pepper, soy sauce and sesame oil. 

Various toppings and seasonings are offered with congee: thin slices of cooked, marinated or cured meats and fish; green onions; ginger; garlic; cilantro; preserved eggs; fermented tofu; fish sauce; and fried dough crullers (youtiao) to dip.

Congee, right out of the pot, without any seasonings or toppings
The girls idea of a great breakfast usually involves something wheat based doused in maple syrup - and I can't say that I disagree. Even at its most basic, I knew this would be a hard dish to sell first thing in the morning - don't get me started on the toppings! So I decided I had to do this carefully: ensure they were in a good mood, wait until mid morning so they would be truly hungry, and offer a bribe incentive of chocolate croissants if they ate it all. I also tried to come up with a reason to send them in the cold outdoors so that the hot gruel would be more appealing. Since it's best to cook the rice for a couple of hours, we had no choice but to wait until mid morning. To help along with the mood, I suggested a pyjama day and no need to get ready (which is why Elle was the only one brave enough to be photographed). I started to worry on the mood front when Elle panicked about her project freezing on the computer (not having saved any of it) and Pea grumbled about the lack of information she could find for her project - I'll admit, I was getting worried because their moods were plummeting.

And do you know what lifted their spirits and returned joviality to the kitchen? The hundred year old eggs. These are a common topping enjoyed with congee. The nervous energy about trying once more to taste these had the girls giggling. 

100 year old eggs, also known as Century eggs, and according to this packaging, "preserved eggs". Not to be confused with salted duck eggs which are not coated or black on the inside

Friday, November 15, 2013

Chinese Dragons: Legends & Folktales with books and crafts

Dragons are important creatures in Chinese mythology and culture. They are symbols of power, strength and good luck.

In China, dragons were believed to be water gods, flying up to the skies each spring to ensure plenty of rain fell on the farmlands. Dragons were believed to live in water such as lakes, rivers, seas and pools, and their magic was well tied to it, causing thunderstorms, controlling tides and ensuring rain. Since a good harvest made the difference between a life of hunger or well being, dragons were honored and worshiped. They reward those who please them, and punish those who anger them. Unlike western dragons that breathe fire, Chinese dragons breather clouds.

Photo Credit: Lee Hsu-Hong
Chinese dragons have the head of a camel or horse, the horns of a deer, eyes of a rabbit, ears of a cow, body and tail of a serpent, scales of a fish, claws of a hawk, and paws of a tiger. They can move, breathe and live in water, on land and in the skies. They also have the power to transform into human or animal forms. They have a magic pearl that enables them to fly, which is carefully guarded, either in their mouth or under their chin. The pearl is associated with wealth and prosperity.

Photo Credit: Peiyu Liu
The dragon was considered the symbol of emperors, and it was forbidden for anyone but the Emperor and his sons to use the five clawed dragon as an emblem of any sort. There are legends of emperors who are descended from dragons, and the imperial throne is called the Dragon Throne. 

Dragon sculpture in the Forbidden City
Photo Credit: Adrian Tritschler
Dragons continue to be featured during festivals, especially the Lunar New Year, with dragon dances, and the Dragon boat festival.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Around the World With Pancakes: Korean Hotteok

We're trying out pancakes from around the world, looking beyond fluffy pancakes and beyond breakfast food
This past weekend, we had Hotteok, a Korean pancake made with yeast dough and stuffed with a brown sugar, cinnamon and nut filling. It's a popular street food, best eaten fresh that warms you up on a chilly day. And we are having the perfect weather for it! We actually enjoyed these as an afternoon snack, and they were a big hit. 

This yeast dough does need to rise for 1 1/2 hours, so if you want to enjoy these, be sure to set aside some time. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Our Weekend in a Nutshell

It was an easy going, relaxing long weekend, and we all feel refreshed from it. Pea spent a couple of days with a couple of her grandparents (all told, she has 11 grandparents - a traditional nuclear family we are not) while Elle and I enjoyed some crafting and baking. It was a dreary, drizzly sort of weekend, so we stayed indoors.

We made and played with shadow puppets (and the girls just had fun making shadows :), we tried new foods (some more enjoyed than others!), we enjoyed a power outage while reading by candlelight, and cooked a politically incorrect "hobo" meal in our wood stove - Pea wasn't home during the actual power outage, so we had a "power outage hobo meal" the following night because they both think this is such a treat. Homework was worked on, class presentations were practiced. We also had a nice visit with my mother and nephew, who has so much fun with Elle. 

We took the time to remember Canadian veterans, and their many peacekeeping missions, and mourned the millions of lives affected by violent conflicts, past and present. I'd also like to take a moment to recognize the contributions my parents have made serving in the Canadian military. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

How to Make Chinese Shadow Puppets

Photo Credit: Ernie Reyes
Shadow puppets are said to have originated in China, 2000 years ago. Until recently, they were one of the most popular and widespread folk arts in China. To learn more about their history and how they are made, read our earlier post here.

Making Chinese Shadow Puppets

You will need:
  • Printable template (see options below)
  • White cardstock or vellum/translucent paper (I don't recommend using regular paper as it will be a little too flimsy to use)
  • Crayons, markers or paint to decorate your puppets - if using vellum, use permanent markers
  • 2-3 rods per puppet - you can use chopsticks, bamboo skewers, popsicle sticks or pencils
  • Brass fasteners (brads)
  • Awl (optional)
  • Masking tape

Chinese Shadow Puppets

Photo Credit: Ernie Reyes
It is said that shadow puppets originated in China, over 2000 years ago. Legend tells of an Emperor so heartsick at the loss of his favorite concubine that he no longer had the will to rule. One of his advisers was inspired by how life like shadows were when watching children play, and conjured a puppet whose shadow resembled the beloved concubine. The Emperor was revived. 

Photo Credit: Ping
Shadow puppetry became the people's art form. There were nightime performances for all celebrations - house raisings, birthdays, weddings, funerals, and festival celebrations. It was an important part of community entertainment, and a quick way of spreading a message or story since most peasants were illiterate. It was one of the most wide spread folk arts in China, popular in each region. As with most traditional arts, it is losing its popularity to modern forms of entertainment.

Carving a shadow puppet from donkey hide
Photo Credit: Sheila

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Chinese Invented It: Gunpowder & Fireworks

Gunpowder is one of the Four Great Inventions, along with the compass, paper and printing. These inventions are celebrated in the Chinese culture for their historical and far ranging impact.

Invented in the 9th century, the chemical combination for gunpowder was discovered searching for an elixir for immortality. The alchemist mixed saltpeter with charcoal and sulfur (and honey), and this mixture exploded when exposed to a flame, burning down the house in which the experiment was being done. 

Photo Credit: Harold Neal
By the 10th century, this discovery led to fireworks and firecrackers, used during many celebrations, often to frighten away evil spirits. Gunpowder was also used to create various weapons, such as bombs, landmines and flamethrowers. They also used it to fight the Mongols in the form of miniature exploding rockets propelled toward the enemy.

Here's a short video created by SciShow that explains the science behind gunpowder (in an entertaining way):

So next time you watch a fireworks display, or enjoy playing with sparklers - you can credit the Chinese. 

You can also make decorative firecrackers with instructions on our earlier post here.

You can learn more about the Four Great Inventions with our earlier posts:

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Chinese Legend: The Monkey King

The Monkey King - A Trickster Tale from China

Born from a rock, king to a band of monkeys, with many magical powers and incredible strength, Sun Wukong, The Monkey King, is no ordinary monkey. 

Sun Wukong, one of the most loved and known characters in Chinese literature, is one of the main characters in "Journey to the West", a 16th century Ming dynasty epic story, which is considered one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature. 

The Monkey King is extremely strong and fast - in fact he can travel 180,000 miles in one somersault. He is defiant and bold, openly rebelling against the authorities of Heaven, regularly playing pranks on the gods and tricking enemies to protect those in his care or company. He even tricked his way out of the book of mortality, achieving the immortality he deeply desired. His greatest weaknesses are pride and believing himself invincible. For his mischief, Buddha imprisoned him for 500 years after Sun Wukong failed at a challenge he believed to be an easy win. He redeemed himself on a quest riddled with adventure accompanying a monk to retrieve Buddhist scriptures. 

The legend of the Monkey King has and continues to be adapted in many forms, such as in Chinese opera, animationsMarvel comics,  and a major motion picture.

Here are the picture books we read with retellings of the adventures of the Monkey King:

The Making of Monkey King (Adventures of Monkey King, 1) by Robert Kraus & Debby Chen

This book is the first in the "Adventures of the Monkey King Series", and it was our favorite telling of the Monkey King's adventures. Because it is part of a series, the story is not too condensed, and the first book tells of this trickster's beginnings: being born of a rock, crowned king, schooled by an immortal master and fighting the Demon of Chaos. We are looking forward to reading what adventures he will meet next.

Monkey King  by Ed Young

This book is a very simplified rendition of the Monkey King's adventures. The paper cut illustrations are gorgeous, and there are open fold pages that add greatly to the presentation,making the scene wider or taller. Written for younger kids (grades K-4), it is a simple introduction to the Monkey King.

You could also re-enact some of the Monkey King's adventures with shadow puppets: Asian Art Museum has a printable Monkey King shadow puppet template you can find here (on page 4). Find our tutorial on how to make Chinese shadow puppets here.

If you'd like to read more about Trickster Tales, Kid World Citizen has a round up post of trickster tales from around the world.

I've linked up this post to these blog hops of book reviews at
 the Kid Lit Blog Hop  and Booknificient

Kid Lit Blog Hop

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 through the book titles.  Please note that I have become affiliated with them, which means that if you make a purchase, you are also supporting this website.  

Monday, November 4, 2013

Irish Escapade: Recipe for Irish Coddle

With Elle working on a school presentation about Ireland over the weekend, we decided to make a traditional dish to enjoy. And it was delicious! A simple dish, with layers of onions, sausages, potatoes and carrots, braised for hours with stock in a pot with a tight fitting lid, this was comfort food at its best. I added more stock than called for, making it a cross between soup and stew. It was perfect during our cold and rainy weekend. 

Irish Coddle

  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 medium onions, cut in half, and sliced
  • 6 slices of bacon
  • 6 fat pork sausages (I used oktoberfest sausages)
  • 3 large carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 8-10 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced
  • 900 mil of low sodium beef broth - you can use as little as two cups of broth, but we wanted the extra broth
  • pepper to season
1.Heat a pan on med-low with oil, and add the onion slices. While the onions are cooking, slice the bacon. Add bacon to your pan with the onions, separating the pieces so they cook evenly. While the bacon starts cooking, slice the sausages. Add sausages to pan, and cook until they are nice and browned on both sides, stirring occasionally.

2.Preheat your oven to 300F. While the onion/bacon/sausage mixture was cooking, I prepared the carrots and potatoes by peeling and slicing them. Once the sausage mixture is ready, spoon half of it into a medium pot with tight fitting lid (if you don't have a tight fitting lid, you can use aluminium foil). Layer half the carrots, then half the potatoes. Season with pepper. Repeat with the remainder. Slowly pour stock over the layers and bring to a boil. As soon as it starts to boil, take it off the heat and cover with lid. Put it in the oven and cook for at least 3 hours. 

Because we added so much stock, we just left it to cook. But if you only put in two cups, check the level after 2 hours as there should always be at least 1 inch of stock to braise the dish. 

This would be delicious served with Irish soda bread to sop up the broth. Otherwise, you'll need a fork and a spoon.

Our Weekend in a Nutshell

This weekend was mostly spent with Elle completing doing a school presentation on Ireland. We fell for the line of "all the work is being done at school, and all that will be left is assembling it on Bristol board". Ahem. Well, we did learn quite a bit about Ireland, and though that was interesting, after a week that included three late nights (school dance, Halloween, and sleepover) and excess candy consumption, cramming all that information over two days was not the easiest on Elle. Or me :) She did complete it beautifully, and we now know what hurtling is (a popular sport played in Ireland), and are well informed about the potato famine and the conflicts over the 20th century. Elle now has on her life's wish list to kiss the Blarney Stone ("Marie, it has been proven to bring you luck!"), and she discovered a dish she would like to try. And so our weekend ended with a delicious bowl of Irish Coddle. 

This weekend was also the time for Day of the Dead. When taking a break from her project, we set up an altar to honor our departed loved ones, and she and Pea helped make the Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead) by shaping the loaves and their skull and bones. We did spend time enjoying some bread, drinking atole and reminiscing with heartfelt stories of lost family and pets. 

It is interesting how similar the traditions and beliefs (albeit more colorful) Day of the Dead is to the Chinese Qing Ming festival.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Recipe: Hot and Sour Soup

Chinese say Hot & Sour soup helps cure colds and flu, and with our frosty nights, this was the perfect soup to warm us up. No surprise with its name, it is spicy and sour. 

We intentionally chose to make and eat this soup one evening when Elle was not here because she cannot handle spicy foods or sour foods (unless the sour food is a sugar coated gummy :). You can diminish the heat, or diminish a bit of the sour, but if yo do both, you aren't enjoying hot and sour soup. We did not diminish either, though I increased the water content. And for Pea, I gave her the trick I used to do when first introduced to this soup in restaurants - add hot water to your bowl, diluting it. 

Hubby and I loved this soup, and are rather excited to start making it at home more often. But what did Pea think? She was glad for the trick, because she really enjoyed it. I gave her half a bowl and topped it off with hot water. It took her a little longer to eat it, but she wanted to finish it all because she liked it that much. And she never pushes herself to eat something she doesn't like. She even had a second bowl the next day. 

This soup does require time set aside for many of the ingredients to soak, and as with most Chinese dishes, includes a lot of slicing into small pieces. Prep was time consuming, though I doubled a few of the ingredients to freeze and enjoy this soup more quickly next time.

Here's a look at a few of the ingredients:

Friday, November 1, 2013

Chinese Music: Traditional and Modern

Photo Credit: Maureen Didde
One of the ways we immerse ourselves into a culture is to listen to its music, traditional and modern. It's interesting to compare our pop music to that of the culture in question, and to hear the different instruments and compositions of both modern and traditional music. Music is such an important creative expression in all cultures, and I find it important to be able to appreciate all types. Admittedly, we prefer instrumental compositions of traditional Chinese music. Throughout the year, we have been listening to Chinese music every time we eat Chinese food and work on a craft or activity. We regularly borrow CDs from our library or listen to songs available online (for free). 

  • You can listen to modern Chinese music (pop, folk, ballad, instrumental) at Sing Chinese Songs. Each song also has the lyrics in pinyin and Mandarin characters karaoke style
  • In order to have continuous music playing, especially when eating dinner, I put together a youtube playlist with one hour's worth of traditional, instrumental music
  • All Music has a great list of traditional Chinese albums
  • A few traditional instruments are highlighted through youtube videos at Last FM, and for ease of finding I categorized them below, with a quick overview of the instruments:

Street musician with ehru - source
Ehru instrument - source

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