Lisa McClure's China Diary

Allen and Lucy, decorating the courtyard for the birthday party

Greeting our guests

Lara opening one of her many gifts

One of Lara's classmates, with his Grandma

One of Lara's classmates, with her mother

One of Lara's teachers, with her daughter

Diana, videotaping the party

Lillian and Linda writing in Lara's 'Birthday album'

Lara's best friend, Meng Meng, with her mother and the dragon pinata

Enjoying the pinata

This little boy was a very enthusiastic player

As the pinata begins to break, the crowd surged forward

Enjoying the pinata toys and candy
Lara and her friend look for pinata goodies

One of my Freshman students, Lillian, enjoying some ice cream and strawberries

Lisa, pouring punch for the guests

Lucy, with the remains of the fish pinata, after the party

June 12, 1999

Let me tell you about Lara's fourth birthday party! First of all, I've got to tell you that it was a heck of a celebration! You know, in China, generally children's birthdays are celebrated fairly quietly. Usually, somebody will buy a birthday cake for the child, and perhaps take her or him out for long noodles or another birthday meal. And the parents will probably buy a gift for the child or plan some special outing.

But for Lara, I decided several months ago that I wanted to host a huge, old fashioned, American birthday party for her, and invite all of our friends and Lara's classmates and my students. So, back in early April the preparations began.

First of all, I sent a message to my e-mail friends on the APC and PAC lists, asking them if they might be willing to send us their children's unwanted fast food toys, so that I could use them in a pinata for Lara's birthday party. The response was overwhelming, as boxes and boxes toys began to arrive within a few weeks. And such glorious toys, too! Everybody who saw them was very impressed with them, and in awe that they would be given away free with a child's meal in America.

Some of the packages that arrived for the party.

In the meantime, my students began helping me to make not one, but two, large pinatas for the party. We needed two pinatas, you see, because this party was held not only for Lara, but also for her best friend, Meng Meng, who turned four just three days after Lara. So, we made a fish pinata and also a dragon encircling the earth pinata.

I'd say that it's a safe bet that these are the first two pinatas ever seen in Jinzhou, perhaps the first two pinatas seen in all of Liaoning province. And though my students took my descriptions in good faith, I could tell by the look in their eyes as we began the project that they had very little idea what it was that we were making. So, I spent a fair bit of time describing them, and explaining the pinata game. But gradually, as the pinatas began to take shape, and I showed the toys and candy that we'd be putting into the pinatas, they began to understand what it was all about, and their enthusiasm and dedication to the project was enormous! I could never have finished the pinatas without their help, and even with their help, we spent several weeks making them.
Just a few of the many wonderful toys sent to us by our generous e-mail friends in America

Meng Meng's Aunt, Leanne, volunteered to arrange for the birthday cake, and with one of my student's help, I arranged for 30 jin (about 33 pounds) of Meadow Gold ice cream to be supplied for the party. Shiny streamers and other decorations were purchased downtown at the local department store.

On the morning of June 12th, several of my students came over at 6:30 am, and we set out to buy fresh strawberries for the party. We bought over 20 jin of them, and then spent a couple of hours cleaning them up, while other students decorated the courtyard outside for the party. We used decorations I'd bought in town, plus some donated by one of my students, and others sent from America by friends. It was a wonderful assortment of colors, textures and types, and really gave the courtyard a festive air of celebration.

Jackie, Allen, Lucy, Steven, and Lara with the pinatas in the courtyard of the guesthouse

I had planned Lara and Meng Meng's party to begin at 3pm, and expected that we'd have plenty of time to prepare, decorate, rest and clean up before the party began. But my students (I invited all of my English students) began to show up a couple of hours ahead of schedule, many of them with gifts for Lara. So, we never did have a lull before the party began, and we were swept straight into the celebrations.

Simply speaking, it was a madhouse, with dozens of children of all ages in attendance, along with their parents, and many of my students. But it was a happy, joyful madhouse, and everybody had a great time.

A few days beforehand, I had sorted through the many toys that my e-friends had sent me, and filled the pinatas with those toys that wouldn't break with the fall or clonk some poor child on the head, and I also had purchased wrapped candies and cookies to add as well.

Lara, wearing the dress Grandma sent her from Arizona, and the 'princess dress' her teacher gave her for her birthday

On the morning of the party, I asked one of my many incredibly helpful students if she would pick out some additional toys to hide in the grass of the garden so that the children could have a treasure hunt. And that turned out to be a very fine way to begin the party.

The assortment of ages and interests was very great, and of course, most of the guests had little notion of the proper procedure for a child's birthday party, so I didn't try to do anything too complicated. We visited with our guests, took loads of photos, accepted many, many gifts for Lara (which made a huge pile on our sofa!) and after a little while, began the pinata game. I explained it to the guests, and Leanne translated.

Then, one brave little boy from Lara's class volunteered to go first. His mother helped him tie on the blindfold, he was handed a bamboo stick, and then he began to strike away at the fish pinata, with great determination. I've got to say that it didn't take the crowd long to get into the spirit of this game, as one child replaced another, and soon the air was filled with the sounds of people shouting, 'Da!' (Hit it!) and generally encouraging the action.

After a while, the pinata met with a mortal blow, and the crowd surged in to gather up the goodies. Then, we set up the dragon pinata and repeated the game, this time allowing the older children (Leanne's English students) to play. I can safely say that no crowd was ever more enthusiastic at a party than this one, and afterwards, several of my students talked to me about the pinata and party, and I could tell that it will be a memory that they won't soon forget.

After the pinata, my student helpers began to bring out the ice cream (It was in 1 jin containers) and there was a slight crisis, as some of the more aggressive guests began to abscond with entire containers of icecream, to the extreme unhappiness of other guests. But quickly, my students took charge and began serving ice cream out to everybody. And since there was plenty (I've still got about 3-4 jin leftover from the party) nobody went without. We also put out the big bowls of fresh strawberries, and served strawberry drink to everybody.

Then, we brought out the birthday cake, lit the candles for Lara and Meng Meng, and everybody sang, "Happy Birthday" (in English) to them. While a couple of my students served cake to everybody, I went inside, where another birthday cake was waiting, and served cake to several adult guests (officials of the school and others) were visiting and enjoying the celebration from a safer distance.

Around 5pm, the guests began to depart, right on schedule. But a core of my students stayed behind, and took over the massive clean up effort, and very quickly the yard was picked up and back to normal. Then, we went back into the guesthouse and while Lara played with several of her many, many gifts, we pulled out a 3rd birthday cake (which somebody had generously brought Lara for the birthday party) and had cake and ice cream again. In fact, the students I had invited were fabulous, helping the flow of the party in every way, and I was very glad that we had this last cake, because I know that none of them had really had a chance to enjoy the cake at the party, with all the crush of children and their parents there. So, it was a very nice end to a very busy day.

But that wasn't the end of the celebrations, because Meng Meng's family had come for the party as well, and they invited Lara and me to go out to dinner with them. So, we walked a few blocks down the street to a restaurant I'd never been to before, and proceeded to enjoy a lavish dinner, complete with courses and courses of wonderful dishes, most of which I'd never eaten before. I stuffed myself silly, while Lara played with Meng Meng and her cousins, and a very cute kitten that was running around on the floor.

Then, we went back home and went to bed. The next morning, as I was cleaning up the apartment, sorting through the birthday gifts, and generally trying to put everything back in order, I went next door where I'd been storing all of the little fast food toys for the party, to see what had been left over, and discovered that every single toy (and believe me, there were lots of them!) was gone! I was happy to see this, but surprised, because there were so very many of them. Leanne told me that my students had come by after the party and picked out toys that they wanted to keep for themselves. So, for those of you who helped to make this party such an incredible success by going to all of the trouble and expense of sending me your children's toys, I want you to know how very much appreciated they were.

And in fact, I have to tell you that toys are still continuing to arrive! But though these toys may not be used at Lara's birthday party, my students are already asking me when we'll have another party for Lara. So, now I'm thinking that maybe we'll plan a Christmas party, this time just for my students who have been so incredibly wonderful to us, and use the toys in another pinata! Never fear! Those toys will definitely find a loving and appreciative home here in Jinzhou!

And what did Lara think of it all? Well, without a doubt, it was a bit overwhelming for her. But she's still talking of that birthday party, and I think that maybe it'll be a happy event that she'll remember all her life. I know that I definitely will!

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