The Most *Fabulous* Time of the Year

The holidays can be stressful. There’s no getting around it. From searching for the perfect gift (something I obsess over and start working on in September!) to decorating and wrapping, to holiday parties, there is always lingering things on my to-do list. When you live overseas, some of that stress lessens, as the hectic hustle and bustle of mall shopping in non-existent (okay, in China, it exists, but as the status quo, since you’re sharing the mall with a million other shoppers on any given Saturday) and you’re used to being flexible with traditions. (In the States, we *always* had a full-sized, live Christmas tree, but now that we are constantly on the move, we’ve got an adorable 3-foot tree that stores away on top of an armoire eleven months out of the year, but does the trick.)

But, this year, I ran into a whole new level of holiday craziness. No, it wasn’t the four parties in seven days. That was actually pretty fun: one fancy house party for sixty, one staff party for eighty, one cookie exchange that I baked not one, but *two* kinds of cookies for (the only place I spent less time than the kitchen is the gym!) and then a low-key, enjoyable evening with friends to wrap up the hectic holiday week.

So, if four parties wasn’t the cause of my quickly graying hair, what was? Santa. Plain and simple. It was Santa.

He’s a staple of Christmas parties and was scheduled to make an appearance at not one, but both of the events that I hosted this year. With that in mind, before Thanksgiving, I was checking on my red velvet suit, coal black boot covers and white wig/beard combo. Last year, it was borrowed by some folks at work for their personal Christmas party and it then spent the rest of the year at their place. When I went in search of it a few months ago, I was told by the borrowers that yes, they had it, no problem.  Then, once I tore of the penultimate page of my calendar and was facing down the holiday season, I again inquired about the suit. This time, the news was not good. What the borrowers thought was my Santa suit turned out to be a Mario Brothers costume! (I know. You are currently wondering how in the world the two could be mistaken, but without asking too many questions, I’m chalking it up to seeing a lot of red fabric in a bag and assuming it belonged to Santa, rather than Mario. (Yes, I did just have to look up which brother wore red. Thank you, Google.)

That left me a week before Santa was supposed to make his inaugural appearance and with a middle-aged Italian plumber in place of a jolly old fat man with a massive white beard. I don’t think I’d be able to pull that one off, even for the toddlers!

No good.

Talk about ramping up the holiday stress! Four days and counting, with no Santa.

Chengdu was searched, high and low, to no avail. Malls were walked. Markets were scoured. Schools were called. Hotels were contacted. Nothing.

Just as I was starting to contemplate two holiday parties with no guest of honor, a Christmas miracle appeared out of the fog (pollution?). A colleague mentioned that her apartment complex had a holiday party the weekend before, where Father Christmas made an unexpected appearance (along with dancing pandas and dinosaurs  reenacting “What Does the Fox Say?” and scantily clad girls gyrating to Christmas classics, but that is an entirely different story!) This colleague’s husband made a few calls and sent a few emails and within hours we were in possession of a FABULOUS Santa suit. (And believe me, it was fabulous. The white around the collar and the boots was rainbow glittered and the belt was gold and just sparkly enough to summon unicorns, but I was in no position to negotiate my suit accessories. Fabulous Santa it would be!)

In the end, my two volunteer Santas suited up and did a marvelous job, entertaining the young and the less young alike. So, while others are pondering their last minute gift shopping needs (I did have to run and do stocking stuffer shopping at the last minute, on my lunch break today), I’m using Google to search out the nearest hair salon to our hotel in Honolulu. Santa may be blessed with snowy white hair, but after this holiday season, I’ve been gifted with stress-given gray!

Fabulous Santa #1

Fabulous Santa #1

I Feel it in My Fingers, I Feel it in My Toes

There’s a chill in the air. (Not an Idaho-chill, but still, it is cooling off enough to kill all but the hardiest of mosquitoes.)  Last week my flight back from Shanghai had English Christmas carols blaring during boarding. (Not that Christmas carols are indicative of anything more than the desire to play foreign music, as I do hear them all year long in the supermarkets, but I particularly enjoyed the evening’s rousing rendition of “Frosty the Snowman.”) And the fruit stands are overflowing with mandarin oranges. (These things are the nectar of the gods and my favorite part of late fall in Chengdu!) All of this adds up to just one thing- the holiday season is upon us!

I’m a sucker for Christmas! I know all the complaints about it being overly commercialized and I understand those sentiments, but I also get frustrated when I hear them uttered by the same people who are plowing through the Black Friday crowds to get the last Play Station 4. (Although, I hear Black Friday is losing a bit of its appeal, as so many retailers are opening on Thanksgiving. That is sheer madness!! Go home, eat some turkey, read the ads in preparation for Friday and watch the Lions lose to Green Bay.)  Christmas is what you and yours choose to make of it. If you want to go whole hog on the retail side of things, go for it. Have a prettily decorated tree with a pile of gifts underneath and stocking overflowing with sweets.  If you want to focus on the service and selfless giving side of the holiday, make shoebox kits for the homeless, teach your children to love unconditionally and put an extra effort into making others happy. But, I don’t think one has to choose between these two distinct versions of the holiday.

For me, it takes great amounts of will power to hold off on the Christmas music and decorating until the day after Thanksgiving.

I totally didn’t make it this year!

It started with the Chengdu International Women’s Club holiday bazaar on Saturday and then quickly devolved into full-on holiday-ness on Sunday.  The start of the weekend saw me manning the US Consulate booth at the bazaar, selling the Chinese silk stockings that the ladies of the consulate community had sewed over the course of the last three weeks. (It was a veritable sweatshop for charity!) After a bright, warm day that felt nothing like the white Christmases of my childhood (this is Chengdu, no sunshine, just brightness), but was filled with Santa and stockings and middle school band performances,  the holiday was coursing through my blood.  Still, I thought I could hold off for just ten more days. But no. One of my favorite Christmas movies is Love Actually, which I had been telling myself I’d watch the weekend after the turkey feast, but then we had a friend in town who had never seen it, so I just couldn’t put it off two more weeks. Into the DVD player it went!

Over the weekend, the holiday seal was broken and now I’m dying to jump in with both feet!

I’ve got boxes of decorations stashed away in my apartment’s one closet. My tree (fake, of course) is tucked away in a cardboard box on top of an armoire in the spare bedroom, just waiting for the acrobatic athleticism it is going to take to haul that thing down from eight feet up. And, my Christmas gifts are all in the mail. (I his “send” on the last Amazon order, headed to friends in DC, this morning.)

Now, all I need are the Christmas music CDs and candy canes from America that are set to arrive in Chengdu on Saturday night and a tad bit of patience to make it through two more weeks until I decorate both home and the office and let the festivities ensue!

Thumpity, thump, thump

Thumpity, thump, thump

Look at Christmas come!

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Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night

Merry Christmas from China, round three.

After two Christmases in western China as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I would have told you with a rather high level of certainty that Shengdan Laoren would not be making another visit in my life. Oh, how wrong I was!

Granted, the holiday season in the Foreign Service bears little resemblance to that of a Peace Corps Volunteer. This year we had a whole like-minded community with which to celebrate, several Christmas parties to get us in the spirit and the good fortune to have access to pouch shipping, which allowed family and friends to send gifts knowing that they would make it without being riffled through by various post offices along the way.

Christmas in Idaho entailed a morning of gift opening at our place, followed by the lively and a bit chaotic gathering at my parents’ house, an afternoon nap and then a trip to Thad’s mom’s place for the evening. Throughout those various get-togethers, there is enough food to feed a small army, which to be fair, is what we comprise when the entire McDaniel family is all in a room together. (Over the last few weeks, as I’ve chatted with Mom about winter plans, she has twice mentioned that they might go tubing at Bogus Basin since no one is pregnant…that she knows of. Is this a bit of wishful thinking on Grandma Joycie’s part?)

Christmas is China is much mellower, lacking the bedlam created by young ones full of belief in Santa and sugar cookies. Family is still a part of the mix though, with calls home for the big day. (Apparently, every foreigner in China had the same idea this morning, as FaceTime was unusually choppy and computer-to-computer Skype was unusable. Thank goodness for regular ol’ Skype long distance.)

Now, as bread is baking in my brand new bread-maker, I am curled up on my couch with Ellen Degeneres’ latest book and a wheat-filled lap warmer making me just a tad bit cozier, as Thad loads his Revolutionary War themed video game and we contemplate reheating the last of the Christmas Eve lasagna on our pretty, new plates. (The bread warmer was a welcome surprise, as a loaf of bread is astonishingly difficult to find in China. I can buy several slices of very soft, almost cake-like white bread, but it will cost $3US for just four slices. The other choices are small loaves of bread at local bakeries that are always filled with unsavory surprises. I lovingly call these loaves “shit-in-the-middle” bread. Sometimes it is a red bean paste that hides inside the crust of a seemingly safe loaf of bread; at other times, that bread has a ribbon of raisins and custard slicing through the center. None of these breads are fit for a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich. From now on, all bread in my house will be Ross-made bread!)

Is China Christmas the same as the one we would have in the US? Nope. No way. Not a bit. But, it is still Christmas in its own unique way and we get to spend it together as our little 2-family, so there will be no complaints from me.  Not all are so lucky.

So, as the day winds down on our side of the world and many of you are just starting to celebrate, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

圣诞快乐.

Merry Christmas from the Ross family

Merry Christmas from the Ross family

‘Twas The Night Before Christmas– Chengdu-Style

Yesterday, to complete my holiday-ification of the consulate, I hung (with care!) stockings outside the Marines’ Guard post, in hopes that our community would help fill them with holiday cheer. To encourage others to stuff the stockings, I (re)wrote a little poem you will all recognize, giving it a decidedly Chengdu feel.

Enjoy.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas–Chengdu-Style

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the Consulate
Not a creature was stirring, not even a Pol. Officer working a bit late.
The stockings were hung outside Post One with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas (or maybe Ambassador Locke) soon would be there.

The visa applicants were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Vegas danced in their heads.
And a consular officer in his ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a quick, xiuxi nap.

When out on the concrete there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the CLO Lounge to see what was the matter.
Away to the door I flew through the smog,
Through CAC One, out to the guards’ and their dog.

The moon through the Chengdu haze, on the horizon sits low
Gave the same lack of luster as mid-day to objects below.
When, amazed by the sight, I had to stop and stare,
At a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny panda bears.

With a little old driver, who else could it have been?
I knew in a moment it must be Shengdan Lao Ren.
More rapid than visa adjudications, his pandas they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

“Now Lun Lun! now, Mei Lan! now, Tao Tao and Zhen Zhen!
On, Chuang Chuang! On, Chi Chi!, on Gao Gao and Gu Gu!
To the top of the consulate! Over the razor wire wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the compound-top the pandas they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I listened with awe,
To the prancing and pawing of each little paw
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Buzzed through Post One St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with factory pollution and soot.
A bundle of toys on his back, for all who would like
And he looked like a peddler, overloaded with goods, just needing a bike.

His eyes-how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like lajiao, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a Zhonghua cigarette he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly too,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of mapo dofu!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
Stockings were filled with brilliant EERs and dream posts to bid on in a flurry,
And giving a nod, past Post One and beyond, he fled in a hurry!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Shengdan Kuaile to all, and to all a Wan An!”

 

From Turkey to Reindeer- Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200

The day of eating massive amounts of turkey and carbs is behind us, but it is never too late to be thankful for the many blessings in our lives. This weekend, I am pretty dang thankful that the day of gratefulness is behind us.

CLO-ing (that is the official verb for what I do) has given me a whole new respect for holidays- especially those that are ingrained in American culture. Earlier this fall, I had to make peace with Halloween, letting go of my crotchetiness about too-old kids coming to my door to beg sweet treats, and instead got to celebrate with an array of critters and creatures in homemade costumes. Then, came Thanksgiving, a holiday which I have always loved because I can eat an entire meal of nothing  but white foods, which tend to be my favorites. There is turkey (no dark meat for this girl), mashed potatoes, rolls and maybe some Jell-O for a dash of color.  (My parents were firmly in the “eat-what’s-on-your-plate” camp when I was growing up, and since my dad served up the Thanksgiving plates, there always seemed to be an inordinate amount of yams on my plate. No one wants those nasty orange tubes of gunk, but they appeared on the table and my plate every year until I began the “by damn, no yam” protest, which continues to this day.)

In past years, I was able to sail through Thanksgiving with an offering of rolls and juice, but this year, not only was I right in the middle of the action, I *was* the action.  One of my CLO areas of responsibility (out of eight, in case you were wondering) is event planning, and nothing screams “event” like a sit-down, family-style meal for forty-five folks!

So how does one throw Thanksgiving for nearly four-score attendees? Potluck style! I ordered the turkeys from a local bakery, which would cook and deliver them to the consulate right in time for dinner. (At $92 each, USD, they’d better deliver!) To round out the meal though, everyone in the community pitched in with a variety of dishes and desserts. I panicked (internally) for days about whether there would be enough food. It would be a nightmare to plan such a big meal and have everyone go home without being totally full, because really, we say Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, but we all know it is about overeating until our pants are too tight and we want nothing more than a nap on the couch.

My fears were all baseless. On top of the four turkeys, cooked to perfection, we had all manner of potatoes, veggies, breads and casseroles, not to mention apple pie, pumpkin pie, spice cake and cheese cake. Even after sending as much food home as I could with anyone who was willing to take it, we ended up with enough leftovers that on Friday, we had turkey sandwiches in the CLO Lounge at lunch for anyone interested.

This year, the list of things I have to be thankful is longer than ever. Of course, I have a wonderful family and fabulous friends, and the fact that I am able to live on the other side of the world and still be in touch with them on a daily basis is nothing short of a technological wonder.  In a single day, I am able to log into Gmail and send a quick note to a friend, use the Vonage line at the consulate compound to call my parents, Facetime with my nieces and nephews in Idaho and chat with former students about their college classes on Facebook.

I’m also thankful that Thanksgiving is over, as lovely as it was, because I am ready to hit the ground rolling with Christmas party preparations first thing Monday morning! (The consulate tree is half assembled in my office; I’ve got a growing stack of boxes behind my desk that I plan to wrap to go under the half-assembled tree; I’ve got stockings for our marvelous Marines, ready to be hung; and I’ve got a friend lined up to be Santa for the community party in a few weeks.) CLO-ing will be in overdrive for the next few weeks, but since Christmas is the number one holiday of the year, I’m happily ready to jump into the holiday fracas with both boots.

Good-bye turkeys. Hello reindeer!

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How Bizarre, How Bazaar

I’d like to announce that Christmas is in the Chengdu air, but it isn’t. (Something is in the air, but it definitely isn’t holiday joy, unless you consider that the muck from Santa’s “naughty list” hunks of coal Christmas cheer.) But, I have discovered that a peppermint hot chocolate from the Starbucks around the corner from the consulate creates a little bit of Christmas in my mouth though, so that is a good start.

There might not be pine scent wafting on the breezes or small town streets lined in twinkling lights, but the calendar tells us that the holiday season is upon us, so celebrate we will!

The holiday festivities kicked off this last weekend with the annual Chengdu International Women’s Club Christmas Bazaar. This yearly event takes over the grounds of QSI, one of the local international schools. Along with vendors from shops around the city, lots of food booths and a rotating schedule of school-kid performances, the few consulates in town also join in the fun. When I took over the CLO job back in June, one of the last things my predecessor impressed upon me was the importance of this event. It is, by far, the biggest ex-pat happening in this town and the US Consulate is expected to be a major participant.

With that in mind, as the pages quickly tore off my summer calendar, placing me squarely in the midst of fall, I was plotting and planning, with the help of some tremendous ladies in our community. Hours of gluing and sticker-ing and bow tying and ink stamping created one hundred lovingly handcrafted holiday greeting cards. (You can read all about that adventure by clicking here.) Many of those same women also brought in handmade goodies for cookie plates or volunteered to help run the booth.

Having been placed in charge of our table at the event which I had never before seen, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best!

Saturday morning dawned clear (qualification: Chengdu-clear) and cool. I met up with a couple ladies and got a ride from the consulate motor pool to the school with my loads of signage, decorations, plates of treats, pies, donated cheesecakes, boxes of imported Washington state apples and bags of cards. As we hauled boxes and bags from the van to our designated area, I had a suddenly flashback of all those summer mornings on the road with my family, selling my dad’s woodworking at art shows across the northwest. Even in the middle of the summer, the air was crisp as we cobbled together our tent of metal brackets and wooden beams, unloaded apples boxes filled with beautiful cutting boards, vases and bowls, handcrafted by my parents. Last Saturday’s goods were nowhere near as impressive as the works of art my dad churned out from our backyard woodshop, but the deja vu was overwhelming.  (About two in the afternoon I was wishing I had the luxury of hiding away from the world, under the tables for an hour or two of solitude and sleep. I loved the forts created by the table clothes, the way they tinted everything orange or green and how I could lay under there for as long as I wanted, listening to people chat about the various pieces, watching all manner of feet wander in and out, invisible to adults, my presence only known by my parents.)

By all accounts, the bazaar was a success. The weather was gorgeous. It was 65 degrees and as sunny as Chengdu ever gets.  (Knowing that I am always cold and thinking that I would be chilly sitting in the shade of a tent for hours, I did what any cold-blooded American would do- layered up. I wore long johns under my jeans, two pairs of socks, as well as a tank-top, long-sleeved t-shirt, hoodie and jacket combo, paired with thin gloves and a scarf. Nearly none of which was necessary. By the end of the day I had shed more layers like hermit crab unloading too small shells.)  Our American Consulate booth made over $600 USD for local charities and I saw a lot of shopping bags headed out the gate with our community members. Success on many fronts!

As someone who usually puts off Christmas giddiness until after Thanksgiving, feeling like the fire chicken needs his annual chance at glory, I’m rearing to go this year. I want to put up our not-quite-authentic Christmas tree in our apartment. I want to put up the brand new IKEA purchased tree at the consulate. And I want to hang the Marine’s stockings by their post with care. It is taking all of my self-control to hold off until Friday morning, when I can officially declare the Christmas season upon us. It’s time to start making moves and starting grooves.  Oh, baby, this waiting is making me crazy!

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Maybe Ostrich *Should* Be on the Table

Remember a month, or maybe six weeks ago, when I was talking about my lack of cooking ability and how it was fine because being a middle child, I’d never have to worry about being in charge of a Thanksgiving dinner? (No? Check it out here.)  I figured it would fall to the older sister or the only boy of the family, leaving me free to wander in and out of the kitchen, sampling as I pleased and then sprawl on the couch to watch my fantasy players mop-up during the holiday games.  Well, it turns out, Thanksgiving is headed my way, with a vengeance!

(On a side note, you hear a lot of complaints about being a middle child, but I figure, if you play your cards right, you’ve got the best of both worlds. Having on older sister who was good at cleaning got me out of many a chore. I’d do mine poorly and soon enough, they’d get passed off to her. At one point, I remember the bathroom being on my list of Saturday chores. I’d go in there with my oh-so-80’s boom box, turn on the radio with the door shut and “get to work.” All I needed to do was spend about twenty minutes and make it seem like work had been done. By splashing cleaning powder around the tub, the room had the smell of detergent, which means I worked. Occasionally leaving a trace of powder was also helpful, as it showed I’d really scrubbed. I’d be sure to run water long enough that it was convincing and then swirl some cleaning fluid around the toilet with the brush, again, keeping up appearances and smells. With that done, it was time to unplug my radio and move to my next Saturday morning chore.  It wasn’t long before the majority of the “real” cleaning jobs were reassigned to my sister, while my list included the ever-so-important chore of vacuuming the hallway and emptying the bottom rack of the dishwasher.

On the other end of the family tree, is my younger brother, who, to be fair, got away with a lot, but because he is a boy, bigger things were pushed his way, skipping right over me.  Time to haul hay? My siblings were the bale-buckers while I drove the truck, only occasionally hitting the gas just a little too hard or braking a bit too suddenly.

So middle children, have heart! Play your in-between role for all it’s worth. It can be done.)

But I digress. Thanksgiving. Yes, I am hosting one this year. And not a small one. Right now, my RSVP count is hovering right around the forty-five people mark. That’s right. I’ve gone from never having a Thanksgiving responsibility, beyond calling dibs on the wishbone, to planning and organizing an event for nearly four dozen adults and children.

With just a week until the big poultry eating day (big-poultry to be eaten or big day on which to eat poultry? You decide!), I’ve put in my meat order and am quickly assessing the tableware needs. Luckily, Chengdu has an American-style bakery in town that is cooking turkeys, so they’ll prepare the four birds, but at a price. Those suckers cost $92 each! That’s US dollar rates, by the way.  When I mentioned this to my mom in an email the other day, she responded by asking if they were possibly ostrich. She has a point. Considering wild turkeys wander across the ridge near my parents’ cabin on a regular basis, it’s a little painful to be paying so much, but that’s the name of the import game. If it were ostrich, I could get away with just one, rather than the four headed our way next week. Maybe I should consider a larger poor-at-flying poultry for next year’s festivities.

The birds are taken care of, decorations are ready to go (thanks to Thad’s recent State-side trip), a work order for the room set-up has been placed and now it is a matter of side dishes and desserts. The Foreign Service, in some ways, reminds me a lot of the Mormon ward I grew up in. We too are a potluck community! Nearly every event, whether it be a gathering at the Marine House, a back-to-school pool party or a Thanksgiving dinner, hinges on the attendees hauling along a dish or two for the crowd. Our current sign-up sheet is filled with holiday classics: green bean casserole, sweet potato pie, cornbread, as well as pumpkin pie to top it all off.

“I can’t cook a Thanksgiving dinner. All I can make is cold cereal and maybe toast.” muttered the lovable Charlie Brown in his eponymous Thanksgiving special. He and I are obviously twins, at least when it comes to kitchen-skills. (I have much more hair than him and would never wear a yellow shirt with a giant zigzag across the front. Twins in the kitchen, not in the style department.)  I may not be cooking the entire dinner (I did sign up for my old sit-down-dinner standby- rolls, which will actually be made by my ayi!), but I do have a whole lot of organizing and preparing to do in the next seven days so that the Foreign Service Officers and their families can enjoy a taste of America with a traditional Thanksgiving feast.

Good grief, there’s a lot to get done!