Monthly Archives: December 2007

The Christmas Package



The Christmas Package

Sometime last week, we got a phone call from a person speaking Chinese.  I always tell them, "I can’t speak Chinese," and hand the phone to Song Ying, who then takes care of whatever it is they’re calling about. 
This particular phone call was regarding a package which was to be delivered by Fed Ex.  Another phone call to David, and I had learned that his boss was sending us a Christmas package. 
The phone call was from the Fed Ex office in Shenzhen, which is a neighboring city on the border with Hong Kong.  What Fed Ex wanted was a copy of the passport (something we also have to supply when we pick up mail from the post office, I always thought to verify our identity), and I supposed some kind of declaration that the goods were for personal use and not for resale.  I prepared the documents and attempted to fax them.  The fax number was busy all day, so the fax never went through.  The whole issue slipped my mind until that night, when I saw the documents still on the fax machine with the reports that it had not been delivered (in spite of our automatic redial feature). 
The next morning at 10:30 AM, there was a crisis.  The Fed Ex people had not received the documents, and they HAD to have them by 2:00 that day.  It turned out that what they wanted was for me to tell them what was in the box. 
Uhm, excuse me, but it’s a gift.  I have no idea what’s in the box.  Moreover, you are the ones with the box in your possession.  How am I supposed to figure out what’s in the box, when you have the box and you are in a different city?  Well, it’s abundantly clear, was the reply (as relayed by Song Ying).  You must call the person in the USA who sent the box, and ask them what’s in it.  Song Ying was rather insistent that I must call David’s boss immediately and ask him what’s in the box. 
I explained that it’s a gift and it would be very rude of us to ask them what’s in the box.  Moreover, I said, it’s now 10:00 P.M. in the USA.  Even if I were willing to call and ask what was in the box, it would be very rude of us to call so late at his home.  Those things don’t matter, I was told via Song Ying.  The only solution to the problem was that we must call him, find out what’s in the box, and tell them the contents before 2:00 P.M., this day.  I couldn’t imagine that this was an issue that couldn’t wait 24 hours to be resolved.  It wasn’t life and death, and I just wasn’t going to do it.  Song Ying got back on the phone. 
Some other conversation occurred, and we received another fax from the Fed Ex people.  This second fax from them contained more documentation.  In that documentation was the customs declaration that my husband’s boss had filled out when he shipped the box.  Right there on the very documents they already had, the contents were itemized and the value declared.  Shocked, I told Song Ying to tell them that they already had the information they were asking me to supply!  The response?  They didn’t know English and didn’t have anyone in the office who could translate it. 
At that point, even more shocked that there was nobody in the Shenzhen Fed Ex office that could read an English bill of lading, I called in the heavy artillery:  David’s translator at his office.  Even though she was quite busy, I faxed her all the documentation (including the passport page, the list of contents, and the Fed Ex phone numbers).  I asked her to call Fed Ex, figure out what they needed, and take care of it, which she did. 
The box arrived on Christmas day around 2:00 P.M.  It was in great shape.  The only evidence that it had been opened and inspected was that the gift basket had been wrapped in cellophane.  When it had been rewrapped, the cellophane hadn’t been closed where it had been cut.  Styrofoam pellets had gotten inside. 
The treats were really yummy — a real taste of home!  Very nice surprise!   David — poor thing — just got a book.  We girls, on the other hand, got some real goodies!  Clarissa exclaimed, "Daddy, I love your boss!"  Munchkin squeals, "Poppers!" and grabbed them.  Sarah gasped and grabbed the big candy canes. 
Candy Canes                                        Pop Rocks                                             Praline Pecans  

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Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men!
May spiritual blessings rain down and flood your cup to overflowing this joyous season! 

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Christmas meditation #4: The Alpha and the Omega

"The parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks about a love that existed before any rejection was possible and that will still be there after all rejections have taken place." — Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1667/1670
National Gallery of Art
In my last Christmas Meditation, I promised to tie in the story of the Prodigal with the story of the Nativity.  At first glance, perhaps they are totally different.  One involves an innocent baby, the other a not-so-naïve son.  Proper writing etiquette for a good comparison – contrast study requires that as part of my analysis I elucidate the many differences between the two stories as well as discussing the similarities.  Yet, I find very few differences. 


It could be said that the story of the Prodigal involves a relationship between father and son; but so does the story of the Nativity.  Indeed, the pillar, the same thing that underlies each story, is a God who loves us so much that the grace of that love cannot be measured.  When we, the Prodigals, respond to that love, the result is forgiveness and reconciliation.  This is not to say there will never be consequences from sin.  In both the Prodigal’s world and in the world of the Nativity, there was imperfection and pain.  But separation from the love of God is never the end of the story. 


It also could be said that the story of the Prodigal involves redemption in an individual sense whereas the Nativity involves redemption in a collective sense.  But, in fact, the individual reformation of the Prodigal is not distinguishable in kind or degree from the transformation – the commitment – which faith in the Nativity demands of each of us.  The Nativity is the story of the Prodigal multiplied by as many humans as there exist on earth.  In the Nativity, humankind itself is the Prodigal: stained by Adam’s sin, lost, humankind achieves reconciliation with the Father through the victory of the One who leads the way.  Because the bottom line is that as far as each individual is concerned, any amount of sin is unacceptable.  We are all Prodigals, but the hope of the Nativity is offered to each, individually. 







Raphael, The Madonna of Foligno
(at the Vatican)

Thus, as viewed through the lens of comparing what it is that is demonstrated by each story, the differences melt away.  In each story, the one who falls short is offered a cup that overflows with abundance of forgiveness and love, a love whose limits are boundless for the one who accepts the offer.  When we accept this offer, the liberation from sin and death is complete.  We are freed from a life of deprivation and eating slop intended for the pigs.  We can come into the knowledge of who we truly are:  God’s beloved children, liberated by Grace.


Hence we celebrate the birth of the One who made it possible.  Just as the father of the Prodigal could see the end, we too know the ending; the victorious triumph over sin and death.  We thus sing:  “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come, Let Earth Receive Her King!”  And we sing:  “Peace on Earth, and Mercy Mild, God and Sinner Reconciled!”   A message of love and reconciliation.  That’s what it’s all about.  A timeless message from an unbounded, timeless God, a God who beckons us with open hands, saying, “Welcome home, beloved Prodigal.” 




Forgiving Father                          

Frank Wesley                  

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Christmas Meditation #3: Return of the Prodigal

In my last blog entry, I suggested lectio divina as a way of spicing up one’s spiritual life.  A most striking example of the fruit this technique can bring is the book Henri Nouwen wrote about his own lectio divina journey in his meditation on the story of the prodigal son.  In Return of the Prodigal:  A Story of Homecoming (see link in my book list), Nouwen shares his reflections that were specifically aided by his meditations on Rembrandt’s painting by the same name, one of Rembrandt’s last works.  Nouwen’s musings on the scripture — and the painting — spanned over several months of time.    


(thanks to Web Gallery of Art for this illustration, )


It’s a beautiful story.  And a beautiful, deep painting.  But, at first glance, the story of the Prodigal Son – just like the story of the Nativity — seems a bit over-chewed, doesn’t it?  The story is so vivid that it’s the subject of children’s books, and then again tends to be the subject of at least one sermon per year in church.  It’s easy to understand why:  the story is vivid, the characters easy to visualize, the circumstances easy to imagine.  The scene of the Jewish son reduced not only to tending for unclean animals, but to eating slop intended as food for the unclean animals, is pretty dramatic, as is the homecoming itself.  The father running to greet his wayward son is a touching end that illustrates the elder man’s forgiveness in the face of the son’s humility and repentance.  It’s a beautiful illustration of God’s love for us wayward creatures. 


Yet, this visual picture actually just skims the surface.  Just as there is another layer to the Nativity, there is another layer to the story of the Prodigal.  The characters in the painting have none of the worldly beauty or cockiness sometimes apparent in Rembrandt’s earlier works.  Why did Rembrandt choose this subject to paint, near the end of his life?  Why did Nouwen choose it?


As if peeling an onion, Nouwen reveals layer after layer of complexity.  He notes, for example, the two very different hands of the father which are touching the son, one decidedly masculine and the other decidedly effeminate.  One old and one young.  At some point, his attention turns to the other characters in the scene, each of whom was surely included by Rembrandt for some purpose.  Nouwen ends up dwelling extensively on the unrepentant elder brother, who stands scowling from the sidelines.  In the older brother, Nouwen recognizes his own hardness of heart as a young man; Nouwen also discusses Rembrandt as a younger man, through exposition of Rembrandt’s personal biography. 


When the complexity resulting from the elder brother’s jealousy and misunderstanding is added into the tale, the story becomes more than a simple tale of a father and son reunited.  Lifetimes worth of complex relationships must be sorted out.  A hard hearted elder brother becomes the rejecting child, the new prodigal; an indulgent father reaps the consequences of many prior years of parenting decisions. The younger son can repent from his actions, but he cannot erase the fact that he has spent his half of the family inheritance and must therefore live in the future as a servant to his brother.  This family clearly has a lot of work to do before it will achieve peace.  The story isn’t quite as simple as it first appears.   


But, in my own meditations, this was not the aspect of the story that I found most striking.  Though inspired by my reading of Nouwen, my own wild revelation came more from my own quest and from my own meandering meditations.  Namely, I was most struck by the father and on what transpired just before the younger son left.  When his snide, young son came to the father demanding his inheritance “up front,” the son’s spiritual state was already clearly evident. It was already clear to the father – painfully clear — that the young man was going to go squander his inheritance living the high life.  It was clearly foreseeable that once the son spent his half of his father’s estate, he would have nothing left.  The end, though perhaps not pre-determined, was already known.  The father knew what would happen.  Because as I dwelt upon this story, it gradually dawned on me that the elderly father was not the fool that the son took him to be.  He knew what the son was about to do; he knew ahead of time that the young man was going to squander his inheritance. 


If so, then why did he allow the grand folly to proceed?  Why?   Tomorrow, I will tie this in to the Christmas story. 

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Christmas Meditation #2: Rediscovering Christmas

Yesterday I wrote about the formidible challenge of keeping Christmas from losing all real meaning in a secular world.  But, even assuming that we agree to keep the baby Jesus rather than an orgy of commercialism as the "reason for the season," does it even then sometimes seem as if the story is — well — sometimes a bit rehashed?  I mean, yes, it’s all warm and fuzzy and babies are cute and all.  And we love to welcome babies into our midst.  They are great cause for celebration.  But I mean really, at Christmas, for the umpteenth time, and the same baby?  He never even grows, he’s always just a newborn in a manger!  Do you ever feel that those same old same old sermons sometimes just get a bit, well, worn? 


If so, boy do I have a solution for you to spice up your prayer life!  It’s called "lectio divina," which in Latin means (more or less) to ponder the meaning of the word. Though it’s most famously associated with and propounded by St. Benedict, this technique is actually not unique to Christianity.  I believe it is a form of meditation called by many names by thoughtful people all over the world, widely used by most major world religions.  I would like to share it and offer it as a technique that can be used by a person from any religious tradition.  It can even be used to spice up your prayer life where the Nativity is concerned.


The technique is to take one verse of scripture and then to meditate on it.  Not just read it.  Meditate.  Dwell on the idea, imagine it, think about it from various aspects and angles.  From the web page of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Gertrude, I quote: 

The actual process of lectio is as simple as it can be transforming.  Traditionally lectio is taught as four steps.  The first is lectio or reading.  Take a short passage of Scripture and read it over slowly and carefully.  What word or phrase seems to catch you or make you stop?  Take that word or phrase and repeat it slowly to yourself several times.

The next step is meditatio or meditation.  Ponder the word or phrase that came to you.  How is it speaking to you?  Where does it lead you?  What does it remind you of?  Spend some time listening to where it takes you.

Next, let your meditation become oratio or prayer.  Turn the insights of your meditation into a prayer.  It may be a prayer of thanksgiving, a plea for help, a request for the strength to change.  This prayer is simply offering to God whatever came from your insights in meditation.

Finally, from prayer move to contemplatio or contemplation.  This is a simple, wordless resting in God’s presence.  God knows our needs, our wounds and gifts, words are no longer needed.  Simply spend some resting under God’s loving gaze.


I have to confess, lectio divina is my favorite prayer technique.  Perhaps that’s because something so simple is all I can manage, or perhaps it’s because it suits me well.  Even as I go about my ordinary routine, washing dishes perhaps, I can still think and meditate. 


I also like it because it seems particularly fruitful for me.  When one follows the same passage of scripture mentally, or prayerfully, for many days on end, it’s amazing what different insights emerge.  Sometimes the twists, turns, and eddies that one follow through extended meditation can lead far from where one might have imagined.  The Order of St. Gertrude writes, “[t]his encounter with scripture will not leave us unchanged, in God’s revealed word we receive strength and guidance for our continuing journey.” 

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Christmas Meditation #1: Sing A Song of Christmas



The house is a mess, the dishes are undone, I’m all alone.  But the stockings are hung with care — on the knobs that hold the stairs — and, for some reason, it feels like Christmas today. 


Maybe it’s because today is the first day we’ve had where it is legitimately cold enough to wear a sweat shirt, and thus the first time I can wear any of my clothing that has Christmas themes to it.  Or perhaps it’s that familiar feeling of guilt that I always have during Christmas when there is so much still left undone.  Or, perhaps it’s because I’ve just come home from a school Christmas production.  Munchkin was a mouse in “The Night Before Christmas” (and a very cute one, I might add).  I’d prefer to think it was the Christmas mouse idea that makes me feel like it’s Christmas time, rather than guilt or weather . . . . 




The school was careful to be politically correct and only sing secular songs: songs like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  It’s my opinion that Americans in the USA tend to be more sensitive about the “religion” issue than is warranted.  The strength of a multicultural environment is that, living in an international setting, we become knowledgeable about many different traditions.  We deliberately honor our friendships with our multicultural friends by learning about each other’s beliefs and traditions.  For example, since living in China, I’ve learned more about Diwali, Ramadan, Hanukkah, and Ya Sui (Chinese mid winter festival) than I knew in the USA.  Last year, as we strolled along the streets of Guangzhou on the night of Ya Sui, it was so nice when strangers also out strolling in the evening would chime to us, “Merry Christmas!”  Christmas was our celebration, not theirs, but they had the courtesy to learn something about it and I appreciated that.    


And so it is with some sense of regret that I see the meaningful part of Christmas – my own religious tradition — being blacked out by the fat, felt tip marker of self censorship, depriving young learners of the opportunity to learn about an important world tradition.  In the name of political correctness, not only traditional Christmas carols but most of the story that underlies Christmas is erased from minds, memories, and vocabularies.  Children who would love to learn about Christmas and what it might stand for, as a matter of natural curiosity about religions of the world, are prevented from acquiring knowledge of a few thousand years worth of western heritage and tradition.  My sister told me of standing next to some people in one of the world famous art museums, gazing at one of the world reknowned works of art, and the people had no clue what the painting was about.  If they had received any instruction whatsoever in the history of their own culture, they would have known the painting as well as its circumstances.  Such is the cost of ignorance:  it only takes lack of education in one generation to wipe out centuries of heritage.   


Thus whitewashed, gradually being snuffed from the collective memory of society, the holiday becomes as meaningless and utterly commercial as the seven tiny Santas I once saw waving from the a storefront display at a big, Chinese shopping mall – looking as if all they needed to complete the picture was for Snow White to appear there with them, dressed in her matching Christmas suit and handing out discount cards designed to encourage people to buy even more “stuff” — celebrating a giant binge of consumerism at the height of the winter solstice.  No wonder the rest of the world thinks that rampant consumption and consumerism is what western culture – and American culture in particular — is all about.  Out of fear of causing offense, we utterly fail to communicate the basis for our values, what we hold dear, and the true basis for our traditions.  Sometimes, we fail to communicate our heritage even to our own children. 




As a parting thought then, I suggest that we celebrate a song of Christmas.  Let vibrant voices ring out in the traditional, sacred Christmas carols.  Be honest about the Christmas story.  It’s not about Santa Claus or Father Christmas.  Father Christmas is a spirit of giving, a symbol only of a much deeper, more meaningful gift:  


For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.   (John 3:16) 


Christmas celebrates the birth of a baby, but not just any baby.  It represents the birth of hope.  This is what we Christians need to show we are excited about:  the fact that there is a place for hope and redemption in a world where there is so much pain and brokenness.  A true cause for celebration.  Forget guilt, forget cold weather.  I’m going to be happy right here where I am, and gonna’ put on a little Christmas music, too!    




Adoration of the Magi for the Spedale degli Innocenti (1488)
by Domenico GHIRLANDAIO. 
Thank you to Web Gallery of Art,

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Common Sense

I don’t know why I’m telling this story, and also I don’t know whether I should categorize it under cross cultural issues or daily life in my blog.  But something about it just struck me and I decided to write about it. 
Today I was in the store with Song Ying and she was helping me shop for groceries.  I’m out of olive oil in my kitchen and I wanted to buy some.  We were shopping at Metro, a large German brand store that has a lot of western food.  It’s something like a Costco or Sam’s Club for food and household supplies.  But unlike Sam’s, the Italian food is imported from Italy, the Spanish food is imported from Spain, etc.  [Metro is the place where I purchased my Italian "ham" last Christmas without knowing what it was made of.]   In the aisle where we found ourselves, there were about ten different types of olive oil from Spain and Italy, all in native language labels, as well as a few that had English language. 
One Spanish brand was 85 RMB per 1000 ml, and it was on the shelf next to an Italian brand that was 95 RMB per 1000 ml.  Song Ying remarks, "Zhege bie zhege gen gui [This one is a lot more expensive]."  Song Ying is really good at pinching a penny, but sometimes less really is less.  There are other factors like taste, nutrition, adulterated ingredients.  I proceed to show her the English words on the labels indicating that one was first pressed and cold pressed, whereas the other was neither first pressed nor cold pressed.  Then I say, "Zhege bie zhege gen hao [This one is a lot better]."  Then she smiles and says, "Qian ye hao [Money is also good]!"  We both laughed.  As we did, I thought about a conversation I once had with my mother comparing the price of peppers.  Red and yellow peppers are a lot more expensive than green ones, but my mother pointed out that they also have a lot more vitamins and that you have to also balance nutritional value when you purchase food.  Sometimes the more expensive food is the healther.  Especially in China! 
Just then, I found a different olive oil that was the cheapest of all:  the Metro store brand.  It didn’t say it was first pressed, and it didn’t say it was cold pressed.  But it did say it was "Extra Virgin," and it was 79 RMB per 1000 ml.  Both smiling of us smiling, we put it in the cart. 
Later, I was looking at my favorite drink, which I did not buy.  An imported bottled mineral water.  Song Ying says, "Ni xihuan zhege [You like this]."  I reply, "Wo ye xihuan quian [I also like money]!"  Laughing, we walked by that as well. 
I guess this says more about my own values than anything cross cultural, and it maybe says more about daily life as a housewife.  On the other hand, in a cross cultural sense, it also goes to show that people everywhere think about the same things, face the same challenges, sometimes answer the challenges slightly different ways and for slightly different reasons, sometimes reasons that aren’t so different after all. 
Here’s a P.S., which one could tie into another conversation SY and I had a few months ago which I wrote about on my blog (when she told me that Americans are fat because they have enough money for food, and that the reason Chinese are not fat is because they don’t have much money for food).  The other day, I pulled out a sample of some Italian salami, which is very expensive here.  I pulled off one piece for me and one piece for her.  Handing it to her to taste, I said that this was really good, but it was expensive.  She replies (in Chinese of course): "Hao chi duo gui"  (delicious food is all expensive). 

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A Small Trip to the Hospital in Guangzhou

On Saturday , Munchkin thought she broke her hand when she fell down.  Her hand never swelled, and it never turned blue, and I didn’t think it was seriously injured; but it has become more painful with each day that passes.  She has found it increasingly painful to write, so that by Wednesday it interfered with her school work.  We didn’t have appropriate bandages at our house to wrap it.  So, today after school I asked the school nurse to take a look at it and tell us if she thought we should get a doctor to look at it. 
The nurse agreed with me that it probably wasn’t broken, but she thought a wrapping might make it more comfortable, and she thought that perhaps an xray would be wise.  So, we went straight to the most convenient place where there is an x-ray machine.  Immediately after school, we went to the small hospital just around the corner from where we live. No English is spoken there, so I got the school nurse to relay Munchkin’s history to Song Ying (who was unaware of it), and Song Ying went with us so she could tell the doctor the story.  Munchkin and I walked straight to the hospital, while Song Ying took her bookbag home, returning on her bicycle to meet us at the front gate.  I imagine we arrived at about 3:30 or so. 
I’ve written about a previous trip to the hospital,* but today happened to be the performance of the school Christmas program.  Because of that, I already had my camera in my pocket.  About halfway through our hospital visit, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to take photographs to describe our adventure there.  It was the third time we’ve visited the hospital on account of a potential (or real) broken bone.  *[ I wrote about one of the earlier visits in my Blog entry titled, "Our $10.82 ER Visit," (27 Feb 2007).] 

The first step when one arrives at the hospital is to go the cashier and pay to open one’s chart.  Song Ying managed this for us.  When I had gone there by myself, I didn’t realize that there are two different fee schedules.  If you want quick service, it’s 8 RMB.  If you are willing to wait a bit longer, it’s much less (I think I recollect that it’s 3 RMB).  Paying the up front fee gets you in the queue to see a physician.  Notice this point:  no pay, no see.  So first ante up to the Registration fee payment line.  Song Ying told them we wanted quick service and she instructed me to pay the 8 RMB.  She said there were so many people, there might be a long wait.  It was the same amount as the fee I had paid the previous time. 
After we paid the 8 RMB, we went to sit and wait for one of the three doctors who was staffing the emergency room.  The nurse looked at our receipt and then went to tell the orthopedic doctor that we were there.  We sat down, and I looked around at the people in the waiting room.  Two people looked extremely ill, bent over and pallid.  They were waiting for the internal medicine doctor, who practices in the middle room.  The orthopedic doctor has the third room.  While we were sitting there waiting for the bone doctor, a staff member ran into the first room, crashing through the doors and swinging them wide.  I could see a medical team clustered around one person on a guerney.  I began to think about germs, and suddenly noticed that Munchkin was still holding and sucking on a candy cane that Santa had given to her at school.  I told Munchkin that there were germs in the hospital and it was time to either get rid of the candy cane or eat it, and thereafter to keep her hands away from her face.  She looked around at the sick people, was duly impressed, and promptly agreed.  (Then we wiped her sticky hands with one of the wet wipes that mommies learn to always carry.) 
Presently, the doctor came to get Munchkin.  Maybe all of five minutes had passed.  No one had yet come to get the people who were there in line before us.  Thoughts about triage came into my mind.  I guess the nurse we showed our receipt to functioned as a front line triage person, but I doubt if that was officially part of her job description. 
Song Ying told the doctor the story, except something was lost in translation.  She didn’t really get it right.  I had mentioned to Song Ying that it was the same arm Munchkin had broken this winter.  She thought I meant the pain was in the same place.  It was not.  Munchkin had broken her arm, but now the pain was all in the heel of her hand. 
We had to show the doctor where it hurt, but Munchkin wasn’t so much help, either.  She was too busy sucking on the remnant of the candy cane, which she had shoved in her mouth even though it was too large.  But finally the doctor did mash the spot where her hand was quite tender, making her wince and cry out loudly.  When he did, this, Song Ying chided him, fussing that he had been too rough.  In the end, just as we thought he would, he told us that he didn’t think it was broken but he needed an xray to make sure.  He wrote an order for the xrays, but before we could get them we had to once again go and pay for them. 
This is when I remembered I had a camera in my pocketbook.  Here are the photos I took as we waited to pay for the xray: 
The fee for the xray was 146 RMB.  This is in contrast to the 30 RMB or so that we paid last March when Clarissa thought she might have fractured her finger.  I can’t say why it was more expensive. 
After we paid the fee, we carried our receipt and order, along with Munchkin’s hospital ID number, and gave all the documents to the clerk in the radiology department.  As we waited in the waiting room, Munchkin saw a poster showing an MRI machine.  We talked about what MRI machines are used for and whether she had ever had one.  I suppose there is one in this hospital.  Within about five minutes, a technician came out and called us to go get the xray made.  Here are photos of the xray room.  Notice the open window.  When we were there in the middle of winter, the windows had been open at that time as well.  I’m told that houses and hospitals were all stuffy up until the advent of SARS.  Guangzhou and Hong Kong were the epicenter of the SARS breakout.  During the time when no one knew how the SARS illness was spread, a policy decision was made to open windows to get stuffy air out of buildings.  I’ve only been in hospitals in Guangzhou maybe six times, but so far in all my visits, all the windows have been wide open, even in the dead of winter.   People simply bundle up in their long underwear, gloves, and coats.  It’s no warmer or colder inside than it is outside. 
Song Ying and I were instructed to leave the room when the technician performed the xray.  But thinking about it, I now notice that I never saw a radiation shield for Munchkin’s tummy.  Gee, I wish I had thought about that while we were there!  I would have asked for one. 
After they took the xray, the technician told Song Ying that the wait for the xray to be developed was 30 minutes, since we had paid for expedited service.  If we had not paid for expedited service, she said, the wait would have been two hours.  As Song Ying told me this, she pointed me to a sign on the wall which repeated this information.  I could read the numbers and the characters for "minutes" and "hours".  Sure enough, it seemed to be a policy decision.  Song Ying told me it would be a half hour wait.  But it wasn’t. 
The staff was working in an orderly fashion.  They were taking films to the radiologist as they were developed, and he was reading them right there in front of us.  A small group of doctors was discussing the xray of a set of lungs.  Another doctor came down and picked up a film.  Shortly, the technician called us and said our films were ready to be carried back to the ER doctor.  She gave the films to Munchkin, who carried them, and we all went back to the ER waiting room to show the films to the doctor. 
The ER doctor passed us in the hallway as we were walking.  I heard him say something about supper, and he told Song Ying he would be right back.  Perhaps he was just going to order his supper, because he wasn’t gone long enough to eat.  He returned to his room in just a minute.  He sat down and held the backlit film up to the sunlight in his open window to read it.  He ascertained that the bones all looked fine.  After he did this, he typed his diagnosis and treatment into Munchkin’s computerized record, which is when I snapped this shot.  He then gave Munchkin a prescription for a bandage and a topical anti-inflammatory, Voltaren Emulgel.  He instructed us to go pay and to get the prescription filled while he wrapped the hand in a gauze bandage.  The bandage was soaked in traditional Chinese medicine.  I like the smell, but it’s something you have to get used to. 
So then, we went to the Cashier’s counter for the third time.  There were two lines and two cashiers, moving steadily along.  There were nine people in each line when we got there.  The fee for the two bandages (one that he put on and one for the next day) and anti-inflammatory was 73 RMB.  The pharmacy is across from the main reception area.  It smells like traditional Chinese medicine.  This was the longest wait of the day, and it seemed like the most tedious since we had already been twice in the cashier’s line.  After we paid, we took the receipt and order to the pharmacy to pick up the medicine and bandage.  Here is a picture of the pharmacy: 
By the time we paid and went back, Munchkin’s hand was already wrapped, she smelled like pungent traditional Chinese herbal medicine, and she was ready to go.  Song Ying coached Munchkin to say "Thank you" to the doctor, which she did ("xie xie ni"), and I told him, "xia ce jian," (see you next time).  He smiled.  We showed him the receipt, said goodbye, and left.  Here is a photo as we were leaving the ER: 
 The last thing was the bike ride home  . . . . 
Zai jian!  (Goodbye!)  We were home by 4:30. 

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Small Triumphs in Learning Mandarin

Eureka!  This morning I was able to use the Mandarin word for "key" without thinking twice about it!   What a milestone that is! 
I’ve speculated that I have to need, look up, and use a new word about 20 times before I commit it to memory, but I must have repeated that process 400 times before I remembered the word for "key"!  I can’t count the number of times I’ve drawn a blank on the word for key, as in: "Ni you meiyou ____ uhm ________ a, a, a KEY? [Do you have a , a , a, KEY?]" and then add in the words "kai men" [open door] and do a pantomime of unlocking a door. 
There were two reasons why this particular word was so hard for me.  First, the very first time I asked Song Ying the word for key, as I was trying to learn it, she told me both the Mandarin and the Cantonese words for it.  This was when I was beginning to learn a bit of Cantonese, and she thought it would be helpful for me to be bilingual in Mandarin and Cantonese.  But it was too much.  I can only learn one language at a time, and the addition of the Cantonese word just muddied the already cloudy waters of my memory, causing constant confusion about what exactly was the word.  For the longest time, my brain simply shut down at the idea of "which word is it,"  leading to an instant feeling of confusion and stubborn refusal to embed the word into memory.   
The second confusing issue ws the sound of the word itself, "yao shi" [key].  The "shi" and "zhi" words all tend to run together in my mind, leading to confusion of this word with the sound of other words like shou(d)zhi (finger) or wa(d)zhi (socks).  There have been numberous times when we’ve been going out the door and I ask my traveling companion, "Do you have a sock?"  At times like that, it’s helpful to have a sense of humor and a rather thick skin (and hope that one’s companion doesn’t fall over and roll on the floor laughing).  I notice I’ve recently been able to learn more words in the "zhi" category (such as bao(4)zhi [newspaper] and bao(2)zhi [dumpling]).  There are more examples of using similar sounding, but wrong words, but I can’t use them here because they would be obscene.  (I’m only halfway joking on that one, because I HAVE done it.)   
Well, this morning I’m triumphant!  Not only did my new word pop right into my mind when I needed it, but also I very clearly knew that I was NOT talking about a shouzhi or wazhi.  I very suddenly knew those words, too, and could use them at any time even though I don’t need to use them nearly as often.  Strange how the mind works.  Now that I know them all, I can’t see how anyone could fail to hear the differences in the sounds.  As a taxi driver laughingly told me the other day (after I told him that the sounds of Chinese were very hard for me to hear), "Chinese isn’t hard to hear at all! English is hard to hear!"  The sounds we know aren’t nearly as difficult to comprehend as the sounds we can’t yet put a linguistic handle on. 
In terms of ear training, I’m reminded of when I first met our driver.  It was important to me to know and say his name.  But even when he had repeated his name six times, I still couldn’t comprehend it.  I mean, I couldn’t have even repeated the syllables.  It sounded like there were ten of them all strung together in different ways.  Six months later, one day when I was feeling particularly courageous, I decided to have another go at it, and asked him again to teach me his name.  This time, I could at least hear the sounds, or so I thought, but he gave up on teaching me his formal name (Cai Yong Fu) and exhasperatedly ended my tutoring sessions by saying "Jiao Wo Afu! [Just call me Afu]!" (which is a pet name or informal, family-only name when the ‘ah’ sound is put in front of the Fu, but it’s all the simple American could manage). 
I notice that my Mandarin often seems to grow by fits and starts.  I learn a whole lot all at once, then plateau while my mind and mouth seem to adjust, then there’s a period where my brain seems to resist change, then suddenly I learn more at some unexpected time.  Like this morning, when I suddenly knew how to say the word for "key" after so many unsuccessful months of trying to remember it.  I’ve also noticed a another, more gradual transition, and that is in fluency (versus vocabulary).  If I look back at my Mandarin notebooks from three years ago, I notice I don’t always remember the vocabulary in those notebooks, but I’m certain that I’m more fluent in using and saying what I DO know.  Now, after more than three years, I have no problem hearing and saying Afu’s formal name correctly, which is only useful when I’m introducing him to strangers since I only call him Afu in ordinary usage!  I have no trouble spitting out the words "xiao xin [be careful]" or "jiao jingcha [call police]!"  and they don’t feel like tongue twisters like they did when I first practiced them. 
But the main way I know I’m getting more fluent is not on account of any subjective feeling that learning Chinese is getting easier.  To the contrary, the more I learn, the more proficiency seems just beyond my reach.  As soon as I can have a conversation with the taxi driver about where he’s from, how long he’s lived here, and whether his family is here with him, I find myself unable to go to the next basic level, frustratingly unable to understand anything more than the barest fundamentals about anything else he might say.  A true example is that the other day I was able to manage booking a private room for yum cha (brunch) in a restaurant, ordering, and managing the basic details, but the manager who did all this for me came and told me something important as we were being seated.  I was unable to discern what he was saying.  Since he said something about 11:00, I supposed that what he was saying was that they had a lunchtime reservation for the room and we needed to leave by 11.  Or was it that he said they don’t usually give private rooms at breakfast, or was it that he said they stop serving yum cha at 11?  Or was it that he was letting me know he had done me a great favor and hoping I’d give him a tip?  I don’t know!  One of my companions also surmised that he was trying to politely say he needed us out by 11:00, so that’s where we left it.  Not quite sure.
No, the main way I know I’m getting more proficient is simply that life has gotten a bit easier.  I no longer have near-heart attacks when driving in a taxi, suffering through a taxi driver who doesn’t know where I’m going and takes me to the wrong place, worrying if I’ll be able to get him directed back to my home, or struggling to say a word three times before he understands it.  Now, they seem to understand where I want to go the first time I say it.  Not only because I know the bare words, but also because I’ve learned the word order and inflection to make myself understood in a tonal language.  You simply have no idea how much easier this makes my life! Wow, the thought of being able to get from point A to point B!  Never again will I take that for granted!   The small joys in life — the ability to communicate is like having keys in a pocket — priceless! 

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Broccoli Cornbread Recipe

My "little" sister asked me for this recipe.  It is yummy in a memorable way, and it’s so easy to make!  So, I’m often asked for the recipe when I serve this dish.  Since I got the recipe from Beth, I’ll call it
Beth’s Broccoli Cornbread
1 Box frozen broccoli, cooked and drained (if using fresh broccoli, use equivalent amount)
1 Box Jiffy cornbread mix (if not using a mix, one small cornbread and be sure to add some sugar to the flour)
1 stick melted butter or margarine
4 beaten eggs
1 small, chopped onion
8 ounces cottage cheese
Mix ingredients together, bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees F (about 210 C) 


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