Year Abroad: Pre-Departure & Presents

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As I head off to Shanghai, I’m thinking I’m really lucky I’ve been to China before.

In June last year, I made my first trip to Mainland China teaching at the incredible Tsinghua University English Summer Camp (TUESC) and then tentatively backpacking around the East of the country afterwards.  And as such, when I leave my friends behind in Belfast, I have a favour to ask my Dad:

“Please can I have lots of individually packaged Twinings teabags.”
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Twinings Teabags

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Whatever for you ask?
Well, it’s not to quench my ‘wee cuppa tea’ addiction, which, admittedly, I do have.
They’re pre-prepared presents. Asian-style.

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EVERYDAY GIFTS

I was baffled in Taiwan two years ago, to receive a stream of little mechanical pencils, cute rubbers, juice boxes, sweets, individually wrapped biscuits and even clothes from fellow students and new friends. And just two years later, the same thing happened throughout my Tsinghua teaching experience – even though I was technically a teacher. It took me ages to catch on that this wasn’t just ‘everyone-spoil-Charlotte’ season.

Relationships in Asia, from basic friendships, to familial relations, the classroom and workplace, to everyday exchanges are bound up in a cultural expressions of amicable feeling through buying little favours for one another.
And it’s super super cute.

The material expression of sentiments through gifts is much, much more casual in China and Taiwan. It’s quite different to formation of friendships in the West; I imagine that buying gifts for friends at home in this cute fashion could potentially arouse suspicion (“What does this person want from me that they’re buying stuff?”),  or a sense of being bought off (“I don’t need presents to be their friend”).

It makes me think about UK workplace rules about buying presents for superiors, or cultural etiquette regarding gifts for lecturers and teachers. Friends of mine in internships and just starting work swap stories on embarrassing ‘No gifts’ rules (Well, there’s a £30 bottle of Red I’m going to have to drink) and the anti-bribery rules that make buying gifts to express thanks an absolute mine-field.

Gifts sure are complicated wherever I go…

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ON TEA

My Dad made an off-hand comment about how it’s strange that I want to give tea, grown in India, as a present from home that somewhat ‘symbolises’ Britishness. Granted, with some intense over-thinking, there’s something of a secluded British Colonial history in using tea as a gift. Furthermore, perhaps there’s some Western superiority in giving a present of tea to a country that was cultivating, brewing and drinking it, long before we Brits knew what the whole show was even about…

But still.
Not to get lost from my original point. All academic debates aside, it’s the culture of tea-drinking that I want to share…  And what a lovely culture it is! I love a good brew: first thing in the morning, after a mind-boggling lecture, in the sunshine, in the rain, after a boozy night out – there is no situation in which a tea (with a good dollop of milk) is not welcome. Hopefully, I’ll learn a little about Chinese tea in return!

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Earl Grey

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DOING IT RIGHT

 Barely a week later, as I watch a Taiwanese girlfriend pack for her trip abroad, a quarter of her suitcase is filled with biscuits, Chinese buns and egg rolls to give to people she meets along the way. While the process certainly makes me glad I’ve taken the teabags, barely 10g in weight of shrivelled leaves that are in my luggage for prospective friends, it’s clear that my very basic idea of pre-departure present preparation isn’t quite up to scratch with proper Chinese standards

Oh well, I tried.

PS. CHINESE PRESENT-GIVING

I’ve got a super-simplified guide to stay away from accidentally offending when giving gifts in Chinese cultures:

~ Nothing in fours
~ No clocks
~ Nothing white
~ Never Chrysanthemums

All of these are related to funerals (white and Chrysanthemums) or death (four sounds like the word for death in Chinese, and clocks, well, time – it’s like reminding us that it’s running out…).

And on that cheery note,

Till next time  x

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Lemon Drizzle Cake: “Easy Peasy…”

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“Easy peasy lemon squeezy!”
– Not sure if anyone else’s family have this saying, but it’s a oldie in my house. Urban dictionary tells me it comes from an old TV commercial from when dinosaurs roamed the earth, lost even to the cataloguing power of Youtube.

So here I am in Taipei, Taiwan as I start my Year Abroad in the East, and already I’ve been doing my fair share of baking (typical!) with my girlfriends here, and in our tiny Asian-style kitchen as gifts for old family friends. This recipe is a favourite, and it’s based on one that I found by Tanya Ramsay, and have experimented with to give it a proper lemony bite; it’s a cake I’ve saved for special occasions so I can guarantee it’s a crowd pleaser!

Even if you’re a first-time baker, this is one to try, it’s very very hard to go wrong.

Have a read through the method, gather your tools, and get baking!

Ingredients:
The Cake Mix
1 lemon’s worth of zest ie. yellow of the peel grated
1/2 lemon of squeezed juice
225g self-raising flour
225g unsalted butter, softened
225g caster sugar
4 medium eggs

The Drizzle
75g Caster Sugar
1 lemon’s worth of zest
1 & 1/2 Squeezed lemon juice
(pips removed, bits removed if preferred – but I like them in)

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Method:

Tip – Start by grating both lemons of their zest, then cut lemons in halves and put aside for squeezing

1. Turn on the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4.

2. Mix the butter and sugar either by hand or electric whisk till light and fluffy.

3. Add the eggs and beat thoroughly until the mixture is smooth.

4. Fold in the flour, grated lemon zest of one lemon and the juice of half a lemon – gently fold till mixed thoroughly.

5. Use a kitchen tissue/butter wrapping to grease the insides of the cake tin, then fill with mixture.

6. Pop in the oven for 45-50mins!

The Drizzle

– While your cake is cooking, squeeze the rest of the lemons (1 & 1/2).

– Add the sugar and the lemon zest of one lemon to the juice and set aside to steep while the cake is baking.

The Finishing Touch

– When the cake is ready, a metal skewer can be inserted and removed leaving no trace of mixture on the skewer.

– Take the cake out of the oven and pour the drizzle as evenly as possible over the cake.

– Leave to stand for approx. 15-20 mins to cool before removing from tin.

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Voilà!

Cake is ready to be served.

For any experienced bakers out there who want to experiment with a different texture to their cake, I recommend trying a pure wheat flour. I struggle to find anything other than this extremely fine version of low-gluten flour here, and it produces a very light and even bake to any cake. Try your local Asian food store and let me know what you think!

Taiwan: Cultural Boo-Boos

A gift bag for a good friend!

Despite being half-Taiwanese, and having spent a fair amount of time here observing what are very foreign customs, I still struggle to express myself sometimes. Not only linguistically, although that also happens more often than I’d like, but rather importantly, in terms of gestures. This gift bag is something I fretted over for weeks; a very good girl friend of mine helped me out a lot in the past, and I wanted to find some way to repay her that she would appreciate, and wouldn’t be accidentally offended by. I settled on some beauty products and a top of Western labels (harder/more expensive here in Taipei) and making some passive Origami goldfish (six, with my mother’s suggestion, staying well away from the unlucky number four).

Pish, how can you possibly accidentally offend someone, you ask?
Believe me, it’s happened in the past.

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Two years ago I made a big boo boo offering to pay a Taiwanese friend petrol money for a three hour round trip out to the beach; there were five of us in the car, and he paid for petrol and toll booths along the way, so of course we should offer, right? As the strange look passed that his face quickly told, it was very wrong.

I later asked a girl friend what I did wrong, and she suggested that I should have taken him out to dinner instead. I didn’t see the difference between her suggestion and my action at the time, and it wasn’t until later till I realised that that in itself was was a subtle indicator that I had committed a cultural faux-pas; it wasn’t till later I thought that perhaps the custom I was used to, that of ‘Let’s go Dutch’ – each person being accountable for their own finances and it being expected of the recipients to split the costs – wasn’t something that was expectable a third of the way across the planet. In a conversation with another Chinese friend, she put it in a rather succinct analogy, where the cultural barrier could be transcended in one blunt description: what I did was the equivalent of treating him like a taxi driver.

Ah.

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I think half the the pain of being a foreigner is insulting people when you mean well.

I’m still not sure that there’s a set in stone guideline for how these things work, but I suspect that there are a whole set of cultural mistakes I make every day without noticing. Do share any similar experiences if you have them; I’m still carrying a long back-log of cultural misunderstandings, waiting to be deciphered…

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Beijing, TUESC: Class Party & Last Goodbyes

First Days, Last Days

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After weeks with my trusty, temperamental bike, of hitching rides off Stefan in the morning – and doing my fair share of return journeys – the three and a half weeks at Tsinghua University, Beijing are drawing to a close.

I am going to sorely miss my Floridian teaching partner, my right-hand man and my back-covering classroom bud. I am going to miss making up Greek Chants with my students are we learn about American University life, going to miss cramp inducing hilarity at their interpretations of Shakespeare drama and their proud presentations in English. Onward and homeward journeys are being planned by students and volunteers alike. Closing drinks, letters, address exchanges and travel tickets. But, before all that,  Blue G plan a proper send-off:

Class Party!

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I didn’t write nearly enough, or photograph enough and I wish I had the time to take the whole experience again from start to finish, but sadly the end is finally here… To celebrate our time together, class Blue G decorate our lecture room, and we volunteers pile it full of edible treats.

For the last class of Tsinghua English Summer Camp 2013 we play 60-student strong games, sign T-Shirts and finally, chorus a deafening Westlife ‘My Love’ through twice, teary and stubborn to make the most of our last few hours as Students and Teachers.

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Origami Messages
Origami Messages

Thank you Blue G!

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 The class presents items to each of us, and I am incredibly touched by the glass jar of hand-folded origami hearts with my students names, as well as a folder of fabulous letters from my students thanking my for our time here. I can’t read it with them as my inability to control my tear-ducts is embarrassing. We give out our photo that we’ve printed out for the class to remember us by.

Blue G, we will miss you!

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Find out more about the Tsinghua English Summer Camp, including volunteer application details and deadline by following the link!

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