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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Friday, January 31, 2014

Chinese Paper Cutting {With Tutorial & Template}

Chinese paper cutting has been around almost since paper was invented. They were once used for ceremonial and religious purposes, being buried with the dead, and as offerings for ancestors and gods. They were also used as stencils for woodcarving, lacquer and porcelain; and as guides for embroidery. For over a thousand years, papercuts have decorated farm households. 
Considered a folk handicraft, papercuts are made with the use of scissors and knives. Some artists work with a pattern, creating many identical pieces at a time, while others create their patterns freehand. Red is mostly used, since it is considered the most auspicious color, though Yuxian papercuts are multicolored.

Yuxian Papercut with Double Happiness Character
Photo Credit: Jenny Kellerhals
Known as window flowers, these days papercuts are mostly decorations, adorning walls, windows, doors, mirrors and lamps. These intricate pieces are often Chinese characters, animals & flowers rich with symbolism, and domestic scenes. Entrances decorated with papercuts are supposed to bring good luck, and as gifts, they are expressions of wishes for wealth, health & longevity.

Created by Jing Jing Jiang
There was a time when papercutting skills were a criteria for choosing a bride, since good papecuts are a sign of patience, diligence and attention to detail.

Decorating our Windows with Papercuts

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Glimpse of China - Ping Pong: China's National Sport

Photo Credit: Nathan Wind
Although invented in England, Ping Pong has become China's national sport. Also known as table tennis, it is played by more than 300 million Chinese, with approximately 30,000 in formal training. Nearly every school has a ping pong table, and after school programs offer Ping Pong lessons and competitions. Kids who show promise are selected to attend sport schools, with some beginning as young as nine years old, where they practice for six hours a day. Since it became an Olympic sport in 1988, China has won 90% of the gold medals.

Photo Credit: Matt
I thought it would be fun to play Ping Pong ourselves, and bought a simple portable set for our family Christmas gift. Neither of the girls have played before, and I may have played Ping Pong in someone's basement in my childhood (my sister has a memory of us playing), but I don't remember! Our first attempt was a riot of giggles. And luckily, that plastic white ball is so light, it would be hard pressed to cause damage :) We got a fair bit of exercise our first few times since we had to run around chasing the ball - at one point I hit it over the stairwell and we had to retrieve it in the basement, and Elle managed to get it in the ceiling light fixture twice. But we have improved, and are having a lot of fun getting plenty of practice. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

2014: Year of the Horse {Craft Round Up}

It is 2014, and according to the lunar calendar, as of January 31st, we will be headed into the Year of the Horse. 

The Horse year is considered fortunate, bringing good luck, unexpected adventures, and victories. 

Horses are a favorite animal of the Chinese. They are a symbol of nobility, travel and perseverance. 

It is believed that those born in the year of the horse (2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966,1954, 1942* ) are active, energetic and like to be in a crowd. They don't like to be confined, are free spirited, and become rebellious if they feel their freedom is being constrained. They are proud, stubborn, sweet natured, generous and impulsive. They pay attention to appearance and style, and they like extravagance. 

Elle was born under the sign of the horse, and I can't help but notice that the description bears an uncanny resemblance to her!

*Based on the lunar calendar, lunar years start and end on different dates each year, sometime in January or February. If you were born in either month, your "year" may be different than you think. You can find out which sign you were born under here

Chinese Zodiac: Book, Printables & Felt craft

Photo Credit: Brian Beggerly
At its simplest, the Chinese zodiac is based on a 12 year cycle, with each year related to an animal sign. The years are based on the Chinese lunar calendar, with each new year starting on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Each animal, with its own unique characteristics, is said to influence its year. It is believed that our personal character is influenced by the animal from the year we are born into. According to the Chinese Zodiac, your animal year is reflected in your strengths and weaknesses. 

These are the twelve animal signs:

Rat, Ox, TigerRabbit, DragonSnake, Horse
Goat/Sheep, MonkeyRooster, DogPig

Since the lunar year starts and ends on different dates each year, sometime in January or February, if you were born in either month, your "year" may be different than you think. You can find out which sign you were born under here
The Great Race 
how the years were assigned to each animal

According to legend, the Jade Emperor had decreed that the years in each 12 year cycle would named after the animals in the order in which they arrived to his meeting place across a great river. Cat and Rat were the best of friends, but the worst swimmers in the animal kingdom. They cleverly convinced good natured Ox to carry them across the river. Rat deceived his friend by pushing Cat into the water midway across the river, and jumping over Ox when they reached the shore, which is how Rat claimed first place in the race and in the zodiac. Some say this is why cats and rats have become enemies. 

Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac  by Dawn Casey (Affiliate link)

This is a fun illustrated storybook of the story of the great race. The endnotes include some characteristics associated with each year/animal.

Felt Zodiac Animals

Pea and Elle are a Tiger and a Horse, respectively

Our Weekend in a Nutshell

This past weekend, we sent off the Kitchen God back to the Jade Emperor to report on our behaviors over the past year. Last year, he had only been presiding over our stove for a couple of weeks before the grand send off, but this year, this Master of the Household has been presiding in our kitchen, over our stove for a full year. We definitely didn't skimp on the honey (smeared on the kitchen god's face lips) to sweeten his report :) He has witnessed a year's worth of laughter, singing, dancing, sharing, debating, sulking, scolding, and frustrations (especially by the stove where new recipes are tried). He has witnessed many a hug, a few tears, and overheard a confession or two. And now we hope for a favorable report!

We also tried our hands at Chinese knotting (oh the Kitchen god heard a fair few grumbles of frustration with that one!), and with Chinese new year around the corner, our local library hosted the Chinese society who performed a few musical pieces and dances. It was a rare treat to watch live performances of art forms we'd only heard of or seen on youtube.  

The icing on the cake this weekend was the You Gotta Sing choir performance of which my mother is a part of. They are a non-audition choir for all levels of experience and their performance was in an effort to raise funds for a local centre for at risk youth. The choir was so energetic and the songs from various cultures were uplifting and joyous. I could listen to them sing every week (which my mother thinks means I should join - but listening, and ruining the songs with my voice are very different :). My mother had mentioned their would be audience participation, which made us all wary, but it was the best part. The director had the audience sing easy verses in harmony with the choir, and to see the girls singing and swaying (in public!) with great smiles and near abandon was absolutely wonderful. We are all already looking forward to their spring performance.

On Sunday was P--- Day - Pea's half birthday. This tradition started when she was seven, back when being "--and a half years old" was very important. On half birthdays, there is no cake or gifts, or parties. The girls get to decide everything we do and eat (as long as it isn't dessert for supper), within a budget. They love it, and this year Pea was quite easy, requesting an Ice Age movie marathon. Those movies are quite the franchise! And so, we hunkered down in our pyjamas and laughed along with a mammoth, a tiger and a sloth. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Around the World with Pancakes: Chinese Jian Bing

We're trying out pancakes from around the world, looking beyond fluffy pancakes and beyond breakfast food
On our last leg "in China", it was time we tried out Jian Bing, Chinese pancakes found on nearly every street corner and eaten for breakfast. It is similar to a crepe, fried on a griddle, with a filling of egg, scallions and chili sauce. 

Preparing Jian Bing at a food stall in Shanghai
Photo Credit: Tom Mascardo
Jian bing are made with wheat, rice, or bean flour, or a combination of these. They are often topped with youtiao (also known as Chinese crullers), a crispy piece of fried dough in the center of the crepe before being folded over, which apparently gives it a great crunchy texture. We couldn't find any, so ours went without. 

Finished Jian Bing
Photo Credit: Aaron May
With just one flat round pan, I could only make one pancake at a time, so we cut it in pieces for everyone to enjoy, the cook eating at the stove. Meant as street food though means you can enjoy it standing up, wrapped in a piece of paper towel. Everyone enjoyed these, and they make a great savory breakfast or light lunch.

Top Ten Things to Do for Chinese New Year

Updated for 2015

Chinese New Year, known in China as the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year, is just around the corner, on February 19th, ringing in the Year of the Sheep. Here are ten things you and your family can do to prepare for the most important celebration in the Chinese culture.

1. Clean & Decorate. Get the new year off to a fresh start by cleaning your room or your house, sweeping out last years bad luck. Set out bowls of oranges and tangerines - oranges represent money and wealth, and tangerines represent good luck. 

2. Read a Book. There are many great books about Chinese New Year, and Chinese folk tales to be found. You can find our favorite books about Chinese New Year here; Pragmatic Mom's round up of books for Chinese New Year hereour round up of Chinese folktales here; and a round up of Chinese folk tales by What Do We Do All Day here. 
3. Decorate with a Chinese Papercut. Red papercuts with symbolic designs and Chinese characters are used to decorate for the Spring Festival. You can find our tutorial and printable pattern for the character for Spring, in honor of the Spring Festival here.

4. Lucky Money Envelopes. Known as Lai-See and Hong Boa, these red envelopes contain money and are given as gifts, especially to children. You can buy some at Asian grocery stores or make your own. You can read more about them and find links to printable versions here

5. Make a Chinese Lantern. Decorate with easy to make Chinese lanterns. Find our tutorials for various lanterns that add festive Chinese flair here, here, here, and here.

Our Holidays in a Nutshell

After a rather lengthy hiatus, we are finishing off our virtual year in China, extended to last until the Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year, on January 31st. 

Our holidays were merry and busy, with lots of celebrating and enjoying time with our wonderful family and friends. 

The girls received apples on Christmas Eve in accordance to the Chinese tradition, and we celebrated New Year day with a Chinese feast. Elle found the lucky bean in the galette des rois we enjoyed on epiphany and was "queen" for the day - a French tradition we have been celebrating since we studied France 3 years ago. We also gathered with friends around a French feast to celebrate hubby's birthday.

It was a busy, joyful time, and now we have been back to work and school and getting ready to celebrate the most important Chinese celebration of the year, Lunar new Year

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