Thailand Instead of Turkey

Since we are going to Idaho for Christmas this year and will be surrounded by snow (maybe?!), live Christmas trees, sparkly wrapped packages, peppermint hot chocolate and all of the excitement of the holidays at home, we opted for the non-traditional Thanksgiving celebration.  Last year we had Foreign Service friends from Chengdu and Kuala Lumpur over for a giant turkey (two, actually!), every possible side dish you can imagine and several hours of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Spaces” video on loop (thanks, Tom!), but this year we traded all of that for Friendsgiving in Thailand:  fruity drinks with umbrellas in them rather than turkey, lunch delivered to our beach chairs instead of dinner at a dining room table and snorkeling with the sharks (just one!) instead of pop music on repeat.

I have no complaints about either one.

With friends in town for the month of November, we thought wrapping up their visit with a trip north was the perfect way to celebrate. What’s not to be thankful for with white sandy beaches, clear blue water, inexpensive massages and beautiful pink sunsets?  (Plus, it was one more stamp in their passports, after a whirlwind three countries in four weeks!) Shannon and Joe had already hiked the rain forest in Borneo, wandered miles of pavement in Singapore, visited Batu Caves and all the sites Kuala Lumpur has to offer, dressed up in formal wear for the marine ball and checked out the street art in Penang. There’s no better way to end a first-trip to Southeast Asia than with a bit of tropical paradise.

Possibly the most amazing thing about our Thanksgiving weekend was that we spent three days either on the beach or on boats (or a combination of the two!) and I got absolutely no sunburn! Granted, I did get a weird set of hives, possibly from the hotel shampoo, but that is entirely out of my control. Between one day lounging on the hotel beach, one day snorkeling off a dive boat three hours from shore and spending one day at Hong Island, I barely had a pink tinge to my skin. It’s amazing what a little bit of sunscreen can do for a white girl! (Tan? No way. That is asking too much for this pasty skin.)

On our Air Asia flight Wednesday afternoon, Thad and I were trying to count how any times we’ve been to Thailand and I think we came up with this being our sixth trip there, but even with multiple visits to Bangkok, Phuket and Krabi over the years, last weekend did offer up a new experience- fish pedicures. That’s right- a tank full of tiny fish that eat away the dead skin around your toes and feet. Thad partook of this strange experience when we were in Cambodia with friends a few years ago, but I think I did a little night market shopping while he let his feet be nibbled upon. The idea of purposefully letting something, even a little something, bite me held no appeal.  But, it when Joe wanted to give it a shot (not his first go at the strange experience) I decided now was the time for me to join the club. Everyone’s doing it, right?

How did it go? I don’t think there is any need for words. Watch the video. That is all.

I may not have busted out the turkey platter, gravy boats and autumn table cloth that I obsessed over getting last year, but Thanksgiving 2015 was fantastic and I got the best of both worlds this year: Thanksgiving with best friends on a beach and then a white (??) Christmas with family in Idaho. Happy holidays all around!

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A Kuala Lumpur Friendsgiving

My intentions were to never host a Thanksgiving dinner. Ever. But, like all great schemes of rodents and humans, my plans went awry.

You see, being a middle child has many downfalls. I never got the first crack at anything (piercing my ears, getting a Walkman, driving a car) and many of my clothes when I was a child were gently worn before they made it into my dresser drawers. Even in school, I was constantly compared to my older sister, who was just two years ahead of me. But, not being the youngest, I also didn’t get any of the advantages that come with being the last baby of the family. There were many small offenses that my younger brother got away with on a regular basis that wouldn’t have flown for my sister or me, namely fake-claims of torture by his older siblings.

Stuck in the middle. That is me.

Always looking on the bright side though, I have found a way to make my middle ground a productive one. Up until we moved away from Idaho, one of those advantages was never having to do the heavy lifting on the holidays! As soon as Thanksgiving plans were finalized, I annually threw my name into the potluck pot to bring rolls. That’s right. Rolls. Not homemade rolls, but swing-by-the-grocery-store –on-the-way-to-the-meal rolls. In a pinch, I could be counted on to pick up any other last might Albertson’s buys, so it wasn’t as if I weren’t willing to do my share. It is just that my share didn’t involve much time in the kitchen.

The long term plan was to show up every fourth Thursday of November to indulge in my dad’s deliciously home-cooked feast. When that was no longer an option (an idea I can barely contemplate), I figured either my sister would host, as the oldest sibling, of my brother’s wife would throw a spectacular holiday even.t.

Then, two years ago we moved to Chengdu, where I organized a community Thanksgiving dinner for the Americans who were living there with the consulate. This one required a lot more legwork on my part, planning and preparing, but again, nothing in front of a stove or oven. Sticking with my traditional role in the event, I signed up to bring the rolls when I created the potluck papers. With tiny Chengdu ovens, we ordered the turkeys pre-cooked from a local bakery, where I just went ahead and put in my bread order at the same time. Easy peasy.

2014 changed it all. No longer could I just be the roll-gal.

With a combination of friends from Chengdu and new embassy friends here in KL, I went from never taking on a Thanksgiving dinner to hosting for ten. (I know ten isn’t a huge number for a holiday meal, but it was more than a big enough one for my inaugural efforts!) After weeks of preparing and shopping, it was time to make this thing happen. Emails about traditional must-haves had gone back and forth and an awesome turkey tablecloth was on order from Amazon. (Side note: it never came. Sometimes the DPO is unpredictable. I am guessing it will come home with Thad today. Five days too late for this year’s table masterpiece, its debut will be put off indefinitely, as I have no plans to become an annual host of this feast-madness. I hauled Thad to Spotlight with me, where we [by which I mean I] spent nearly an hour debating the pros/cons of tablecloth vs. place mats. I had a new turkey platter (although not nearly as awesome as the one I grew up with), fancy new gravy boats (that ended up being totally non-functional, dripping gravy across the table from one end to the other) and nine chairs ready for seating. (But wait! Ten guests were coming…eeek!)

Luckily, our fantastic guests are much better cooks than I am and threw in to make sure the meal was a success. Along with a massive amount of bird, we had gourmet mac ‘n cheese, sweet potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, rolls (of course!), mashed potatoes, gravy, tossed salad, and pie. Lots of pie. As dishes went in and out of the oven and off and on the stove, Skype calls were made to locals all over the US, with Thanksgiving wishes extending from KL to families and friends on the other side of the world.

By the end of the meal, we were all ready to loosen our belts a hole or two and stumble our way to the living room for an entertaining evening debating with state would be best to cut loose from the Union and giggling at horrifying maternity announcement photos on Facebook.

I may not have been able to get away with merely showing up, rolls in hand, but this year’s Friends-giving reminded me of how many people I have to be thankful for; those who we were able to spend the day with and those who range from Nairobi to Washington DC to Idaho are all counted among our many blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving! Gobble. Gobble.

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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!

Cyber Monday Mania

I don’t know how Santa and his minions did it before the advent of the World Wide Web. With a belly full of Thanksgiving goodness, maybe he braved the possibility of pepper spray to fill his giant velvet bag full of the year’s best gifts. I am sure the reindeer would provide more than adequate entertainment as he queued up hours before a store’s opening just check off handfuls of “nice list” names.

Not having the patience of a saint, Santa Claus or any other mythical being, I opted out of Black Friday madness, choosing to spend the wee-hours of it curled up with a biography of Mao Zedong’s personal physician and the daylight hours devouring Thanksgiving, round two, at Thad’s cousin’s home.

While I was glad that I wasn’t trampled trying to buy low-priced electronics or crushed searching for Elmo’s most recent noise-making reincarnation, I soon realized that while my list was made, I’d checked it twice for those whom I deemed naughty and nice, that was as far as my planning had gone.  In recent years, a fertility explosion has left Thad and I with eleven nieces and nephews, not to mention parents, siblings, in-laws and friends to expand my holiday shopping experience.

Have no fear, the internet is here! Black Friday may be chaos and utterly overwhelming, but Cyber-Monday is right up my alley. While Xu Laoshi droned on about why Chinese characters look nicest when they fit in a perfect square, I planned my evening shopping spree.

Once home, it didn’t take long for my slacks and blouse to be replaced by cozy penguin-covered fleece pajama pants and an oversized purple Raven’s t-shirt. Soon, with a throw-blanket over my legs, a computer on my lap and my debit card leaned neatly up against the screen, I was ready to help the economy grow!

Pondering completed between (and maybe a bit during) classes, I was ready to shop. Within a few hours, I had checked most of the names off my list, fabulous presents on ordered and on their way.  Since we are flying this holiday season, the majority of gifts are being shipped to my Nampa-based concierge. As a three-year old, she doesn’t receive massive amounts of mail, so I figured having her collect my packages was the way to go. (Wrapping is not included in her services, as she is easily distracted by such worthy pastimes as that tart of a cartoon character Strawberry Shortcake and can’t fit extra chores in to her already packed schedule.)

My Christmas shopping is by no means complete, but thanks to Al Gore and his expedient invention, the internet, I have a respectable start. Cyber-Monday was a success in the Ross mo-partment. I think now we are ready to move on to World Wide Web Wednesday and e-Friday!

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas!

An array of international Santa Clauses, a giant, glowing evergreen tree, hoards of ice skaters bundled in puffy jackets, colorful scarves and a rainbow of beanies, and a cup of steaming, smooth hot chocolate all mean just one thing- Christmas is in the air!

The Christmas season, in my little world, has a definite period of time in which it fits. (Thad calls it arbitrary, but it makes perfect sense to me.) Christmastime starts the day after Thanksgiving, although I did not partake in any pre-dawn shopping madness, and continues through the end of the year. Once the turkey is devoured, the mashed potatoes have been ingested and the yams have been lovingly crammed down the kitchen sink disposal, Christmas can officially commence.

I love seeing the houses decorated in lights (although I can do without blow-up Snoopy and his cohorts in yard after yard), the malls and stores with wreaths hung and the familiar ringing of the Salvation Army bells. The all-Christmas-music-all-the-time station is officially the go-to radio station for the next four weeks.

As we spent Thanksgiving weekend in Greensburg, Pennsylvania with Thad’s dad’s side of the family, we had a chance to go in to Pittsburgh on Saturday night to officially kick off Christmas merriment.  After a great meal of hotpot at a rather authentic Chinese restaurant, we headed downtown where the city has an enormous Christmas tree lit and decorated, surrounded by an ice skating rink. The weather was great for a late November evening and we comfortably strolled through the masses awaiting their turn to take to the ice. Nearby, the windows of the office buildings were filled with gingerbread houses that local Girl Scout troops and school kids had created and built.

An attached atrium housed another gigantic tree, surrounded by even more gingerbread creations. I think the rules of the contest allowed for any edible construction materials, as graham crackers seemed to be the foundation of choice, with everything from ice cream cones to Oreos being injected into the creative process.  I do have to question the authenticity of several of the elaborate projects that assert to be from preschool-aged students, but are obviously creations of their helicopter-mothers and overly-involved, Boy Scout Troop leading fathers.

The outside edges of this elegant, glass walled/ceiling-ed area were lined with beautifully carved statues of the various images of Santa from around the world.  While I am not sure how factually accurate the stories accompanying each display were, the statues themselves gorgeously combined the romantic feel of the Christmas spirit and the culturally known aspects of each countries celebrations.   (The Chinese Santa, while correctly being called “Old Man Christmas” told a weird tale of gift giving at the holiday season that had an ancient vibe to it that just would not hold up in a history lecture.)

With the Thanksgiving carb-fest completed, all it took was a little Christmas music, a chill in the air and some twinkling lights to make me giddy for the overdose of red and green, of penguins and reindeer, of elves and Mrs. Claus and of shopping and wrapping that will occupy my free time for the next few weeks.  The Christmas season is here and I couldn’t be more thrilled!

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