I know this is a long one, so I’ve made a quick letter here at the top, and then there’s a break before all the other stuff if you don’t feel like reading all the details :)
It’s been a while since my last update – and plenty has been happening! Health wise, I’m finally feeling free of the colds that have plagued me constantly since mid-November. Winter is starting to let up a little (still not uncommon to have negative day time temps, but positive temps are also common) and the extra light really helps.
For those interested in what my family’s up to, Natasha is all-but graduated from her Engineering degree and heads to the outback (!) for three months of work experience at the end of Feb. Carla is going strong in Sydney, working/saving for her next round of travel adventures, and the parents are on a boat to Antarctica. As you do.
I hosted a little party at my flat today. It’s been holidays here because of Chunjie (Chinese New Year) and so I decided to invite the youth group round. Obviously, the whole youth group wouldn’t fit, but lots are away. Anyway, about twenty people showed up in the end – enough to fill the place without it being completely crazy. After I started to invite people I came up with a better excuse for a party. Today marks four years from when I first arrived in Beijing as a student. FOUR YEARS?!?! Has it really been that long? Have I spent as much time in Beijing as I spent studying at ANU? That’s longer than I’ve spent at any school other than Epping North in Sydney. That’s twice as long as I spent living in the US. That’s over 200 weeks. Over 1400 days. As the song goes, I still call Australia home – but Beijing has also been home for quite some time already. I will stay for at least another 18 months (I promised that to some teens quite some time ago) but I suspect I’ll be here longer that that. Not forever, but another two years.
Okay, let me go back now and update you on what I’ve been doing since my last email update! There’s Christmas, New Year’s Eve, my trip to Texas, a visit to the new Beijing Olympic Aquatics Venue, Chinese New Year, the always chilly Beijing Winter, and of course, my music, and my kids – that is, the youth ministry.
I spent Christmas Eve at a friend’s house, feasting and sleeping over and just generally having fun with a few of the young adults who stayed in town. Most people go away for Christmas so it was lovely to have so many fun people to hang out with. We had a lovely big dinner, games, movies, and secret santa present. In the morning there was breakfast, a spur of the moment carolling competition and gift exchange presents. So fun! I then went to the house of one of the youth group families I know. I spent the afternoon helping out in the kitchen (after a call from my family in Australia) and then sat down to a big candlelit Christmas dinner. After dinner I went upstairs with the three kids of the family and watched a DVD they’d just got of pixar short films. And I may or may not have instigated a game of throw-the-foam-sponge-bob-football…In short, I felt really at home, and it was a wonderful way to spend Christmas.
New Year’s Eve
BICF has a New Year’s Eve service every year – which I think is a pretty cool thing. This year I was asked to perform something at the service. And since I’d just written a new-year sort of song, I eventually decided to sing that. It was kinda freaky, playing and singing by myself. It was even freakier to be performing a song I’d written myself! But I think it worked well. Two friends popped in to hear me sing and had decided they should steal me away afterward – and being so pleased they’d come to hear me, I was more than happy to accompany them! We ended up at The Tree, one of my favourite places in Sanlitun (the bar and embassy district) eating fresh woodfired pizza and talking til 2am. Twas a great night!
Texas – Stop One: Houston
I left for Texas on the 9th of January and returned on the 21st. With travel time, that meant 10 days in Texas, which was split about 50-50 in Houston and College Station. In Houston I stayed with my friend Sharee’, at her parents’ house. Sharee’ was one of my best friends in Beijing (not to mention my baking mentor!) and her wedding to Daniel (another best friend from my Haidian days) was the reason for my trip. I was SO glad to be there for the wedding! It was a really fun wedding and although I didn’t know many people everyone I met was lovely. Jen and Clark (a couple we’d all met in Beijing) lived a few hours away and came down for the wedding, and I got to sit and chat with them for ages at the reception. I had a really lovely time in Houston. Sharee’s parents were just amazing. I had so much good food! I did some shopping, and a LOT of relaxing. I had a haircut at a hairdresser for the first time in nearly 8 years. I didn’t cut it all off – just three inches off the bottom and a FRINGE – for the first time since I was 5 or 6! I like it most of the time but the hair is wavy and I have trouble controlling it sometimes. I also had my first ever ride on a motorcycle! Sharee’s dad had spent a chunk of time repairing his while we were there and on my last afternoon he took me on a lovely ride down the highway to a park with real swamps and stuff – so much fun! I really enjoyed myself.
Texas – Stop Two: College Station
My friend Jay picked me up from Sharee’s parents’ place the day after the wedding and drove us to College Station – home of Texas A&M. Last year in Beijing I knew a few guys from Texas A&M who were working on the construction of the new US embassy. When I realised how close that was to Houston, I arranged to go and see them for a few days – and I’m SO glad I did! It’s a crazy place – or at least seemed that way to me. The twin towns of Bryan and College Station apparently double in size when the university is in session and it is a true college town. EVERY place we went had something A&M on the wall. Even the awesome sushi place had an A&M jersey on the wall. We had breakfast burritos in a place that BRANDED the tortillas with the A&M logo! SO WEIRD!! I spent a few nights staying with some friends of Jay and a few nights staying with some friends of Nate – they were such lovely hostesses and I was most grateful to have beds to sleep in! It was a wonderful week of relaxing – I read my books, listened to my music, played the piano at one house… so good! On Friday Carmen (another good friend from Beijing) flew down from Michigan and the four of us had a GREAT time together. We had dinner and then went out to a place that teaches salsa dancing! Jay and I sat and talked while I drank a margarita, then later Nate and Carmen made us go down and learn the dance steps they’d just been taught! It was VERYVERY fun. On Saturday Carmen and I went shopping and that night Nate took us and another friend of his to a place called Hurricane Harry’s (or something like that) where lots of people come to dance Texas style! It was a very fun place to people watch! There were so many different ways to dance… I had one turn on the dancefloor with Nate, before it got too crowded – twas fun. Oh and we all took turns wearing a black cowboy hat! About an hour after getting back to Jay’s to nap on the couch we left to drive down to Houston for my stupid early flight back to Beijing. All in all it was a WONDERFUL trip!!
Beijing Olympic Aquatics Centre
At the beginning of February, the new Beijing Olympic Aquatics Centre was opened and a special event held. A friend arranged a bunch of us to buy tickets and go along and it was such a fun thing to do! I now think that it’d be great to go along to more of the sporting events that will surely be held at various Olympic venues in the lead up to the Games. Anyway, the Centre is knows as The Water Cube – it’s a big oblong building with this bubbly texture all lit up blue. Craziness! It’s designed to collect and re-use rainwater and I think something about storing solar heat as well…it’s a pretty cool venue. So we went and watched two hours of heats. To make it fun, for each race we all picked who we thought would win and cheered for them. Then we got points depending on how they did (1 point for 1st place, 2 points for 2nd place, etc) although I honestly have no idea how our scores came out. The best race was when I picked the Papua New Guinean guy just because PNG is close to Australia and he won from like lane 6 or 7! I was very pleased :)
Chinese New Year
The new year began on February 7th this year – it is not the Year of the Rat (Carla’s birth year, as a matter of fact). The fireworks leading up to New Year’s Eve really weren’t all that bad. I spent the afternoon of New Year’s Eve hanging out with some of the girls, went home to chat to a beloved mentor on Skype, then headed out to a party with a previous flatmate. Bec and I walked over (if we hadn’t wanted to, we probably would have anyway because there were hardly any taxis out) and I tried taking pics of the crazniess on the streets along the way. At Lynn’s we had a delicious homemade hotpot dinner and headed out to shoot off fireworks with some nearby families (including a couple of kids from youth group). I got a bunch of photos – even some good enough to justify my iceblock fingers!! We went back home and played games and made homemade jiaozi (dumplings). Pearl had already made the mixture, and a few people wrapped them while she made the wrappers. They were SO GOOD (pork with water chestnuts and other goodies), although by the time they were cooked and ready to eat it was about 2am! Long story short, I ended up staying up the whole night chatting with a few people – a fantastic conversation (we talked about war, politics, world hunger, Buddhism…you name it!) that lasted til about 9am. Needless to say, I slept pretty well the next night despite the noisy fireworks!
The fireworks have continued ever since, and they’ll keep going for another week and a bit. Last night was the 5 night thing, and it was pretty crazy outside. The buildings of our compound intensify the noise with crazy echoes, but even without that it was insane. I counted fireworks going from 9 different places at once when we walked over to Ikea. I think overall it’s been less crazy than last year, but one trend I’ve noticed is an increase in the bigger, more “industrial” fireworks – HUGE things! I’m including a photo I’m quite proud of showing one of them going off in/outside our complex.
Winter in Beijing
Winter hadn’t been too bad this year – until I went to Texas! Pretty much as soon as I left the daytime tops started to go below freezing – and stayed there until the last week or so. We’re still getting some negative daily maximums, but not on a daily basis. I haven’t seen it go below -10 overnight, either, so that’s not too bad. The only problem is when the wind gets up – the Siberian breeze slices through your everything! My room is definitely the coldest room in the house, which I’m normally okay with – I’d rather a room that’s too cold than too hot. However, it’s kinda funny when opening my door creates a cool breeze. Or when Bec comes over talk to me and after taking one step into the room hops back onto the TILED floor of the living room and talks to me from there because it’s WARMER!!
Music + Me
I’ve continued teaching singing and music theory, and leading worship (mostly at the Bilingual service). I haven’t been writing a whole lot lately. Doing my song at the New Year’s Eve service was a big deal, though. With being sick I haven’t been singing at my best (which annoys me) but my voice really started improving when I was in Texas. I’ve lead worship a couple of times since, and it’s been nice to be able to do so with a good voice. Two weeks ago Bec and I were the only singers for the Bilingual which was SO FUN! We kept swapping lead/harmony and just generally enjoying ourselves. She was also scheduled to translate the message (simultaneous translation from a booth at the back of the theatre) at both services (Chinese to English, then English to Chinese) so it was a busy day for her! This past weekend I lead at both of the main services – there weren’t any backup singers scheduled so I co-opted Bec for both which was awesome! I thought the services would be pretty small because of the Chunjie break but there were still quite a lot of people there (about 500 at BLS and 900 at the English service). At BLS I played keys and let Bec lead the singing (I usually can’t play decently and sing decently at the same time) and I really had a ball. At the English service I just let go and sang my heart out and it was SO FUN! I really love to sing more than almost anything else.
Things have been going… well, they’ve been going. I love the kids here, I love spending time with them, and I look forward to years and years of staying in touch with them, no matter where in the world we all end up. That said, running the youth ministry doesn’t really suit me. I knew it wouldn’t, because this sort of up-front leadership isn’t something I like to do, let alone the responsibility of working with/for 150 teens. I agreed to do it short term, joyfully, but I am pleased as punch that a new director has been hired and will arrive in a few weeks’ time. We’ve been in touch and I’m really excited about it. I can’t wait to give back the authority/responsibility and go back to hanging out with the kids!