I can say that because I'm not at home for the holidays and it's okay, but it's certainly not the same. I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss the happy holiday excitement, the Christmas carols, and even the frenetic pace of the malls (though maybe not the parking lot.) I have no Christmas cookies -- and this is a major point of contention for me -- and I have no brussels sprouts -- also a major beef.
We're in Yangshuo, China, staying at the Yangshuo Cultural House, a great guest house run by wonderful Mr. Wei and his family. Our meals are served family-style, and each night at dinner they serve their guests (up to 15 of us at any given time) a staggering array of dishes: one night we counted no fewer than 15 different dishes, and there are never fewer than a dozen individual dishes, each delicious in its own homey way: spicy tofu, stuffed peppers, dumplings, stir-fried chicken with peppers, beef with snow peas, pork and green beans, tomato and egg... I could go on. At lunch it's a massive plate of fried rice or noodles, and at breakfast a mountain of delicious, local fruits are offered along with the toast and spreads. When we arrived four days ago after lunch, they set a mid-afternoon "snack" in front of us for fear that we might be hungry: toast, fruit, tea, and dried sweet potato. (Who knew? It's yummy.) So as you can see, even in the absence of Christmas cookies, the chipmunk cheeks you see in our photos are distressingly real.
Mr. Wei has also given us very rudimentary lessons in Mandarin, which I've determined is the hardest language in the world to learn or understand. We tried two years ago to pick up some basic phrases on our previous trips to China, but gave up in frustration after the ma/ma/ma/ma (horse/mother/scold/slow) debacle of 2005. Mandarin has four tones: flat, falling, rising, and falling/rising, and if each of these tones is applied to the simple syllable "ma", the word takes on all of the four meanings above; you can quickly see the danger here. This time, confident in our teacher's abilities (and they are great and he is very patient), we felt we would finally be able to master Mandarin. Mr. Wei gave us a worksheet, and the first thing on it: ma. ma? ma! maaaaaaa.
He went through a harrowing hour of Mandarin, where he showed us how to count to ten, how to ask where the bus is, how to ask where the toilet is, and how to say that we don't speak Chinese, though that would be abundantly clear the second after we opened our mouths. In the end we walked away no better at Mandarin than when we'd sat down at our studies. We are very poor language students, it seems, as all through Nepal, India, Tibet, and Hong Kong, we never got further than "Thank you" and "Hello" in any of their native tongues (and not even that far in Hong Kong, where English is ubiquitous.) The first few days in Yangshuo, it rained, unfortunately, so we spent some quiet time here in the Cultural House with Mr. Wei, walked around the shops and cafes of Yangshuo, and paid a visit to Yangshuo's famous Water Cave-- no neon lights, this time, but we declined a dip in the seemingly popular (though I can't imagine why) mud bath.
Yesterday, Christmas Eve, was the first dry day we'd had since we got here, and we took advantage of the decent weather and hired a two-person bicycle (the Co-operate cycle!) and took to the paths near the river just outside of town. We got lost a few times and had to backtrack, but enjoyed the fresh air as we rode along, and admired the karst scenery of the area, the orange tree groves, the riverbank, and the countryside in general. We biked to the Moon Hill, walked the 1200-odd steps to the top (with two old ladies on our tails, desperate to sell us a can of mango juice -- they shamed us by keeping up with what we thought was a pretty quick clip), and then had an adventurous ride through town on our way back to the bike shop, dodging buses, cars, pedestrians, other cyclists, and even a few chickens on our two-seater. It was not a typical Christmas Eve by any stretch.
Our evening was a bit more traditional, as we went into town for a Christmas Eve dinner that included turkey, stuffing, potatoes, Christmas cake with brandy cream, and wine. It was a delicious meal and did a bit to ease our homesickness -- so much, in fact, that we're going back into town today to have another Christmas dinner. Tomorrow we may hire a bamboo raft and drift down the Li River for an afternoon if the rain stays away.
Merry Christmas, all!