July 4 Fireworks — Made in China

A question for my American readers — did you enjoy your local fireworks display last night? They were most likely made by hand in a small factory somewhere in China.


The Asia Society blog recently posted a series of photos from a fireworks factory in China. Here is some of the accompanying text:

Fireworks and the United States have a longstanding relationship dating back to 1777, when John Adams commissioned a fireworks show as part of the Independence Day celebrations, prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote that the festivities should include “pomp and parade” but most notably, “illuminations from one End of this Continent from this time forward forever more.”
Though some may believe fireworks to be a distinctly American tradition, they are — like many things — believed to have been invented in China more than 1,300 years ago. Indeed, most of the fireworks exploding in the U.S. skies this weekend will have come from China, the world’s largest producer and exporter. And there’s no shortage of demand. In 2012, the U.S. spent roughly $1 billion on fireworks, with a staggering $645 million spent on July 4 festivities alone. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA), this number continues to grow steadily, earning the industry the title “recession-proof.”
The amount of hard work to produce these short lived light shows is eye-opening. In China, fireworks are predominantly made by hand by factory workers.

Click here to see the full collection of photos.

And in case you’re wondering, I did not go anywhere to watch the fireworks last night. This video clip showing the scene from my apartment window in Beijing during Spring Festival every year will explain why!

(if you receive this post by email and cannot see the video clip, click here)



Reading Up on South Africa

With the passing of Nelson Mandela this week, I thought it would be a good time read up on South Africa.

I  ordered Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, the story of how rugby brought healing to a nation. I look forward to digging into it.

playing the enemy





For those wondering where to start, I’ve compiled a short list of books and movies about South Africa. I’m sure there are many more (and perhaps better) items, but I wanted to confine my list to things I have actually read or seen.


Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton 

This novel, which has become a classic, details the racial tensions in South Africa in the 1940’s. Extremely powerful.

cry the beloved country





The Covenant, by James Michener

Another great Michener novel, set against the backdrop of the birth and rise of South Africa. I think I am going to re-read this.

the covenant





The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild, by Lawrence Anthony

I picked this book put at the Cape Town airport a few years back, and didn’t put it down for the entire 12-hour flight to Dubai. It is about a conservationist who agrees to take in a herd of “rogue” elephants. The story of how he tames them and builds a relationship with them is amazing.

elephant whisperer






Cry, the Beloved Country (based on the book)

cry the beloved country movie





Cry Freedom

This movie is about black activist Steve Biko and a liberal white newspaper reporter who was instrumental in telling Biko’s story to the world. (Based on a book by the same name)

cry freedom movie





And finally, I found this article by Ed Stetzer on his Christianity Today blog, to be very helpful: Nelson Mandela Has Died: Some history, thoughts, and reaction from South African pastors. In fact it inspired me to write this post.

What have I missed? What are your favorite resources on South Africa and Nelson Mandela?


And the Winners Are…

A special thanks to all the new subscribers from last week. Unfortunately, only 2 of you could win a copy of my book.

The winners are Mark J. and Elaine C.

I will contact you by email to get your mailing addresses.

And now for something completely different to start off your Monday morning.  The good folks at one of my favorite sites, Tea Leaf Nation have posted a very funny photo that has been burning up the Chinese social media scene in China this week, along with a translation of the caption.

I am re-posting it here.

Mao and Zhou Playing Angry Birds


Zhou Enlai: I’m so close to getting all those fat green pigs!

Mao Zedong: Aim higher. Use the anger of our proletariat birds to undermine the capitalist superstructure.

Deng Xiaoping: Someone get me a chair.






And while you’re at it, click on over to Amy’s blog The Messy Middle for her subscription drive.


Toast Stories

Is there a more quintessential comfort food for Americans living abroad than toast (preferably slathered with peanut butter and jelly)?  Most of us can go a long time with out a lot of things, but extended periods of time without toast will eventually start to prey on our minds and emotions.

Earlier this week a colleague and I found ourselves in the need of new toasters. Her ‘toaster’ oven was on the blink and my supposedly top-quality brand toaster had decided that the number settings were merely an indication of how quickly to burn the toast instead of an indication of when the toast should automatically pop up.

So, we set off to the nearest METRO store to purchase new toasters. As we were on our way home in the taxi, we got to ruminating on the importance of toast in the life of an American expat and started exchanging toast stories. We’ve both been in China a very long time, so we remember the days when toast was scarce and oh-so-special! She wrote up one of her stories in a blog post titled “Dance Party with Toast.” Give it a read.  It’s quite funny.

In the early days, before we had toasters, we had bright orange toaster ovens. Under a centrally planned economy, someone somewhere had decreed that toaster ovens in China would be orange. Bread itself was hard to come by, but when we did manage to find some (usually on a trip to Beijing), to be able to toast it was glorious. Trips to Beijing also yielded cans of cheese (yes, I said cans), which meant that we could now have cheese toast. That was positively divine!

When I was a language student in Changchun, my classmate (who lived in the dorm room next to mine) went in together to buy an orange toaster oven and a teflon frying pan.  Every morning we had ourbreakfast routine:  I would make the toast and she would make the scrambled eggs, and we’d meet in the hallway to make the exchange.

Sometime in the late 1990’s actual toasters appeared. We were delirious. I promptly bought one, thus reserving the orange toaster oven to the baking of those other necessities of life, like brownies.

It is said that man shall not live by bread alone. That’s true, but if there are points for at least trying, then I should be ok.

Especially if the bread is toasted.

Leave a comment and tell me some of your toast stories

(Note: the photo above was shamelessly – but with permission – snatched from Amy’s blog, since we bought the same toaster and daily toast the same Bimbo bread)


You know your day is not going according to plan when you find yourself horizontal in a dentist's chair in a village outside of Beijing round about sundown.

That's exactly what happened to me yesterday.  There I was, sitting down in a salon to get my nails done, happily chewing on a piece of cinnamon gum, when all of a sudden there was a big CRUNCH in my mouth.  The last thing you want to hear while chewing gum is CRUNCH! I took the gum out of my mouth, and sure enough, a piece of molar had decided to detach itself from a filling. 

The young man who was helping me looked at it and said, with no particular surprise or concern, "That's your tooth! What color do you want? "Yes, I replied,"it's my tooth.  How about purple."

With no pain and no blood I decided to press on with the task at hand (pardon the pun) and my plans to meet a couple of friends for at Element Fresh, one of our favorite eateries in Beijing.  I ordered the softest thing I could find on the menu — macaroni and cheese!  It was divine, even if only one side of my mouth was able to enjoy it.

After lunch I set about finding a dental clinic that had an opening on a Saturday afternoon. The only one had an opening was the United Family Hospital Dental Clinic in Shunyi. "Come at 5," they said, and "we'll squeeze you in at the end of the day."

Making the appointment was easy; getting there was another story. Shunyi is a suburban district of Beijing out near the airport. Previously an area of villages, farms, and light industrial factories, it is now also home to much of the expat community of Beijing, who live in gated luxury villa compounds that exist alongside the small factories and villages. This clinic is in a small "strip mall" near a group of villas, and of course the taxi driver had no clue where it was.

Using my trusty cell phone and the directions given by the receptionist we finally vectored our way to the clinic.  All along the way he kept asking me why I had to go to a dentist in Shunyi….why didn't I just go to the #1 Dental Hospital in town? I ignored the question because I didn't know how to say Novocaine!!! One  hour and 100 kuai later, we landed. The staff were relieved and threw me into the chair.

The kind dentist who was most likely extending his working day got to work filling the gaping hole. An hour later I was on my way home.

Nothing like starting things off with a Bang!  Or should I say a CRUNCH!

The Computer is Back!

"Big Red," my Toshiba laptop has returned from the shop with a new brain. I am very happy! It took longer than expected because it seems there is a shortage of hard drives, due to the floods in Thailand last fall.

Blogging will resume shortly.


Dead computer

Last week, while I was working in the library, a message appeared on my screen telling me that my hard drive was about to fail and that I must back up its contents NOW! I will be honest with you and say I didn't take it seriously at first — thought it was kind of like the "check engine" light on the car, which half the time doesn't mean anything.
After the 3rd or 4th time, however, I decided to take it seriously and back everything up. Good thing I did that since, by the next morning, she was dead as a door nail.
So now "Big Red" (my red Toshiba) has gone away for a brain replacement and left me floundering.
I will resume my book posts once she is back.

A Tribute to My Father

Eleven years ago today, my father died.  Below are the words that I spoke in farewell and tribute to my dad at his memorial service on January 25, 2001, in Roseville, Minnesota.  Speaking them before 600 people was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  The first part of this tribute was written at 30,000 feet above the North Pacific Ocean as I flew home from a vacation in Thailand.  

This is my annual tribute to him.

The call you dread and fear and never expect comes.  It’s mom.  “Joann, your father died this morning.  Please come home as soon as you can.  I need you.”  Like an arrow out of no-where, somewhere, it hits first the head, then the heart, and slowly the pain sinks into your bones.  One day you’re relaxing on the beach, washing off the stress of a difficult term, and 24 hours later you’re wandering in a daze around international airports—Phuket, Bangkok, Narita—all jammed with people, and yet feeling so incredibly alone.  The words keep shouting in your soul.  “Joann, your father has died,” slamming against your bones and your organs and your skin like a bullet ricocheting around a steel cavern.  You try to drive them away with polite conversation, with reading, with hymn-singing, hoping against hope that driving the words away will drive the reality away as well.

But then the words and reality force their way back and the pain starts again.  “Joann, your precious father stepped into glory this morning.”  “Joann, your wonderful father went home to be with his Savior.”  With every fiber of my being I believe these words, but don’t want to believe them at the same time.  He was a precious father, but now he is lost in wonder, love and grace in the presence of Jesus.

Yet here at 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, I feel just plain lost.  Lost in sadness.  Lost in pain.  I know he’s with his Savior, but I want him here with us.  How will I get through the next ten hours on this plane? How will I bear to see my mom and sister and her family at the end of this long journey?  One hour at a time, one grace at a time.  “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater; He giveth more strength as the labors increase.  To added affliction, He addeth more more mercy; to multiplied sorrows, He multiplies peace.”  Then it hits me.  Despite the pain, I too am lost in love and grace.  Sustaining grace–John Piper describes it like this:  “Not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress, but this—the grace that orders our trouble and pain, and then in the darkness is there to sustain.”  Will the sadness and the tears and the pain ever go away?  Probably not.  But then again, neither will the grace.

So, my beloved dad is gone.  What to say?  The words that scream loudest from my soul are simply, “please come back.”  I know he’s in a better placee, but I still want him back here. There are too many words and no words.  But following are a few—just a few of the special things I remember about my dad.

He had a sense of humor.  He loved to laugh and make others laugh, and he was never in danger of taking himself too seriously.

He was a servant.  He would do anything for anybody anytime anyplace, from bringing coffee to my waking mom every morning to fixing church roofs to shoveling neighbor’s driveways.

He was humble.  In a stuffy academic world, he was just himself.

He was generous.  If there was a financial need, he gave. His giving to us seemed limitless and it gave him great joy.

He was compassionate.  His heart was tender and easily broken by the pain and suffering in the world.  Last month in Beijing, we visited a clothing market that the government was ready to close down.  The peddlers were selling their goods at rock-bottom prices.  In a crowd frenzied over the best bargain, he kept asking, “what will happen to these poor people?”

He loved Jesus.  Quietly and simply, he ordered his life grounded in that love.

He was a wonderful father and I miss him so very much.

Perhaps the greatest tribute I can give will be when I come to the end of my days and people say of me, simply, “she was just like her father.”

Goodbye Dad.  I love you and miss you more than words can express.


My dad was an ice-cream lover. In his honor our family will make a run to a local Dairy Queen this afternoon.

If you knew my dad and have any special memories, please feel free to leave a comment. (For those of you receiving this by email, you need to click open the site in order to leave a comment)