Yes it’s true, the birthday was in February and we didin’t have the party until the end of March. That’s because the real birthday was the same day we flew to Thailand during Chinese New Year, and the real cake was the brownies we carried on the plane, and the friends were all out of town because nobody stays in town for Chinese New Year. For the big event, for the real party that happened much later than the birthday, David did his special Daddy thing. He carried on the tradition of making a very fancy cake and decorating it himself. This tradition began on the year of S’s fifth birthday, when he made a "My Little Pony" birthday cake, complete with green coconut flakes for grass. But this year was a bit of a challenge for several reasons.
One was the issue of what kind of party to have and who to invite. J wanted it to be a Barbie Princess party with only girls, and this theme seemed to lend itself to "dress up." But we didn’t have a school directory to get addresses, and mailing a letter also involves a special trip to the post office and standing in a very crowded "line" to get stamps. (Chinese lines are a bit confusing to Americans and have different rules, but that’s another story.) If we distributed the invitations at school, the rule is that all the children in the class have to be invited. I checked with the teacher. It’s not sufficient to invite all the girls. All the children — all 21 of them — must be invited. But in the meantime, J decided she wanted to invite the boys too. We decided they were welcome to come if they didn’t mind the princess theme. So, then the search was on for a place to have the party.
Last year just 12 kids in our small apartment felt like bedlam. And we had gone to the expense of hiring clowns to help with crowd control. This year, I made scouting trips to numerous potential not-my-house locations. Play gym, local parks, special "children’s park," movie theater. It took some time to scope out the possibilities. A lot of asking (nobody does this type of birthday in China it seems), and there were some language barriers. For instance, the local park has about 25 kiddie rides and various activities (including a bona fide "goat cart" and I mean a little goat hitched to a cart that takes the children on a little ride). But they told me it’s not possible to do a birthday party there (I can’t quite believe that, so it must be a language issue). The children’s park told me the child got free admission on their birthday, but otherwise paying about 50 RMB per child for rides for a lot of kids could get really expensive. The local theater wanted 35 RMB per child (about $4.50 U.S. times 21 kids, hmm). One local play gym wanted 30 RMB per child. This city has special children’s theaters and puppet theaters, but I don’t know how to get in touch with them and they probably only speak Chinese. So, finally, I settled on a particular play gym that every other child in J’s class uses. It was just 7 RMB per child on Monday – Friday, which meant we could also add in a McDonald’s Happy Meal from the Mickey D downstairs. So we decided on Friday afternoon. I had wanted to be creative and innovative and different, but I guess there’s a reason every mother chooses the exact same place. I made a reservation, and then planned the party.
We had purchased the Disney Princess invitations (along with napkins, plates, and party favors) in the USA and shipped them to ourselves in China. So they were very precious. Once the time and date were written, we were committed! But then a glitch. There are 21 kids in the class and only 16 invitations. Okay, a few kids will get color photocopies. Of course the boys? No, random. Then, I couldn’t find all the ingredients for the cake. I had shipped two fancy cake pans and our Wilton cake decorating tips (which we now store in our tiny bit of closet space) but we ran out of flour. The local foreign grocery was out of everything but Bread Flour. I just decided to use boxed cake mix which we can get for about $4.50 U.S. per box from the same store. (That’s one aspect of how the tendonitis in my foot has affected things a bit, didn’t want to engage in a long walking expedition to find cake flour.) The next hurdle for cake decorating 101 was to get cream cheese for the frosting. But the cream cheese at the foreign grocery runs about $3.50 U.S. per small package, and I knew I could get it at a wholesaler for significantly less. Well, I never made it to the wholesale market, again due to the tendonitis. (The good news is that all this pampering is paying off and the tendonitis is very, very gradually getting better.) Anyway, finally I broke down and purchased 4 packs of cream cheese. Surely plenty, right? But there was no food coloring to color the icing. What to do??!!! Try as I might, I couldn’t find food coloring in the store nor locate the food coloring I was sure I had shipped from home. About an hour into searching our cabinets, David admitted that some of the items we shipped to ourselves were still in Hong Kong, waiting to finish their journey by being placed in our suitcases. (This is how we have carried in almost everything we have brought from home; we literally each came with only two suitcases, and only four boxes were delivered to our door; the rest has been carried in by hand after being shipped on containers carrying industrial supplies to David’s employer in Hong Kong.) I think he finally found some red food coloring in our cabinet, which is good because the foreign groceries had none.
After David made frosting in two shades of pink, he decorated the cake. He ran out of cream cheese and added some crisco to the mixture. But the big battle stemmed from the fact that we don’t have an electric mixer here. The powdered sugar was lumpy, and he couldn’t get the lumps out. He borrowed a manual egg beater from a neighbor, and I remember thinking "That thing’s gonna break!" as he tried to turn it in the frosting. In the end, the sugar made lumps and also the frosting was just a bit too runny and so hard to work with, and the food coloring didn’t work so well. But Daddy made it, J helped daddy make it, and so it was absolutely a perfect cake. And J topped off the decorations with sprinkles which had also been shipped from the USA. The rest of the story will be shown by pictures in the photo album labeled "J’s special day."
But that was just the first of two special days. Each year at the school, two days are devoted soley to Student Led Conferences. Every student prepares a presentation for his or her parents about their school work, their interests, and their goals for the future. The objective is to give each student an opportunity to self-reflect and to learn how to make a formal presentation. J’s class spent two weeks preparing their portfolios for them to present. Additionally, children were encouraged to take their parents on a tour of the school and to visit with their special subject matter teachers (e.g. art, music, P.E.). On the second of J’s two special days recently, she took both parents on a tour of her work and of her school. She very proudly dressed up in her best dress and her pearls, walked us to school, and presented her portfolio and gave a tour of her classroom. Then she took us on a tour of her school. We learned that P.E. is her favorite subject. She demonstrated every P.E. activity including climbing rope, jump rope, and we all played mock field hockey for a little while. She is quite good at P.E.! Go J! Then we toured the music classroom and played on the Orf Instruments which J has been taught how to handle. After two hours at the school, it was time to go. So now the rest of that story is also shown in the same photo album (see the drop down menu on the photo album page to choose which photo album to look at).