2013 is the Year of the Snake and Chinese New Year celebrations are fast approaching! The 1st day of the 2013 Chinese astrology year begins on February 4th with Chinese New Year Day falling on Sunday, February 10th. Chinese New Year is the most important Chinese holiday and is known as Spring Festival in China. It ushers in the lunar New Year and is like rolling the West’s Christmas and New Year’s Eve into one giant celebration.

In the days leading up to the holiday, every house gets a thorough cleaning, because sweeping on New Year’s Day could sweep away the coming year’s good fortune. Nearly every university student and migrant worker travels home since it is such an important time for families to spend together and celebrate. Food plays an important role in the celebrations. Fish is a commonly served dish because the Chinese word for fish is a homophone for ‘surplus’. It is a lucrative time for children as red envelopes filled with money are given to young unmarried relatives by elders.

Snake years are sixth in the cycle and recur every 12 years. Chinese legend says a snake in the house is a good omen meaning your family will not starve. It is said that those born in the year of the snake are the wisest and most mysterious of all. They are usually financially secure and have a taste for the finer things in life. Snakes are goal-oriented, hate to fail, and are intense and passionate. Their weaknesses include being stubborn and jealous.

More specifically, 2013 is the year of the Water Snake. Water is an element that shapes us and will play a prevalent role in 2013. It provides calm, nurtures and forges new paths of discovery. Water’s influence makes this year the perfect time to take on new challenges and open yourself up to new experiences! This year will also bring many opportunities for the career and romantic life to flourish, and friendships will be more important than ever. This is a year for people to come together for a greater good. 

2013 is a year to be bold like the water snake and take chances! Best wishes to you from AJ Panda!

Labor of Love

In honor of the Labor day holiday, we wanted to do a special interview with someone who plays a vital role in the lives of adoptive children. The process of adoption can be quite stressful for both families and their adoptive children, but thanks to a wonderful team of people called adoption specialists, thousands of children are adopted by families in the US each year.

The following interview with Kate Engle, MSW, LCSW, Case Manager, gives some great insight into one of these such specialists, her typical day, and the most rewarding parts of her job. To Kate, and all of the adoption specialists that make a difference in so many children’s lives, THANK YOU, for all the work you do.

AJP – Why did you become an adoption professional?
Kate– I studied Russian in college, and during that time I went on a trip to help out at a Russian orphanage. Meeting the children there, seeing what they had and what they didn’t, made me want to do more to help children like them get forever families.

AJP – What is your favorite part about being an adoption professional?
Kate – My favorite part is seeing children come home. It is particularly gratifying to play a part in helping older children or those with special needs come home to their families.

AJP – What does your typical day look like?
Kate – Because I work with families all over the US and our partners/representatives overseas, I spend a lot of time on the phone. I also do a ton of paperwork because international adoption requires satisfying the bureaucracies of two different countries at once without letting any documents expire.

AJP –What advice would you give to a family thinking about adoption?
Kate – Talk to a social worker. An adoption social worker can help you sort out whether adoption is a good option for you in growing your family, and point you in the right direction to get started.

AJP – What do you look for in a family that is looking to adopt?
Kate – We look for a good fit between the family, the children available, and the country requirements/process. The types of children in need of families through international adoption varies around the world, so one of the first things that we explore with a family is what sort of child the family is hoping to adopt, what their capabilities are, and from what countries they qualify to adopt. We want the adoption to be successful, right though the child’s and family’s adjustments to one another, so it is important for everyone to be candid and realistic from the start.

AJP – What makes adoption so special?
Kate – So many parents tell me they feel that “this is the child that was meant for me,” even though their child was born in a different country. It is definitely a special way to create a family.

*For more information about adoption, the adoption process, and whether its right for your family be sure to check out our selection of adoption books

Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections.

*The following is a guest blog post by the founder of AJ Panda, Chris Deck. For more about their story of adoption, visit ajpanda.com/aboutus*

Last week I visited the Chinese Lantern Festival at the Missouri Botanical Gardens and was reminded of the splendor and  beauty of Chinese Culture. It also reminded me of how long it’s been since I’ve provided an updated and shared how things are going with the inspirations of this site… AnMei and JiaLi.

Generally speaking, things couldn’t be going better. These precious little girls bring joy to our lives every single day. I know all parents think the world of their children, and I am certainly no exception… they are smart, funny, adventurous… really beautiful in every way.

They are well aware of their birth country, and we try to be open and mindful about celebrating Chinese culture within our family. I wouldn’t say we’ve reached our full potential, but we try. The girls love to get dressed up on their “fancy Chinese dresses” when we go to special events around town. We’ve explored Chinese tutors that have come to the house and local Chinese summer camps. It’s funny… the girls are quick to correct me when I make pronunciations errors with the few Chinese expressions I know. (The really funny thing is that, because of the “tones” that are so meaningful in Mandarin, I’m completely oblivious to their corrections because my ear doesn’t pick up the nuance.)

Anyway, the girls continue to inspire me and the site. They like to explore the “inventory” and look for the essential things they need for their room. They’re curious to hear about what people are buying and where they live. And they are quick to identify the things we need to improve (sorry we’re lacking suitable Chinese dresses on the site!). I haven’t put them to work yet 😉 but they’re eager and willing.

Above: AnMei and JiaLi observing the Chinese ship made completely out of recycled bottles and other materials a the Botanical Garden’s lantern festival. 

And about that Lantern Festival… it was wonderful. Although a bit crowded, the gardens were strewn with a range of impressive lantern displays that captured various themes of the rich heritage from Chinese folklore. We arrived a little before dusk and toured all the displays in their unlit state and then re-toured the park again when they were in their lit splendor. Very cool. My favorite display was the Pandas. The girls were trying to figure out which would be the “A” panda and which would be the “J” panda.

Above: JiaLi and AnMei with their matching panda counterparts. 

Help savor the spirit of summer with a fun, new party challenge! We all know the best parties include great company, a great theme and of course lots of great food. We can help you with the theme and delicious recipes and we’re sure you’ve got the top notch company covered!

Chopstick Challenge

Are you ready for this theme? We challenge you to take on the the Chopstick Challenge. What does that mean? It means the only utensils allowed at this party are chopstick sets. Pretty awesome right?? Now you’re probably going to need some chopstick sets, maybe several depending on the size of your guest list. The idea is to serve food you can practice eating with chopsticks and have a little fun while doing so!

There are a lot of recipes that would work perfectly for a chopstick challenge so we’ve compiled a few to help you create your menu. To help celebrate the culture of China and the chopsticks traditionally used to eat Chinese cuisine, the main dishes are mostly Chinese in nature but you can make anything you think you could eat with chopsticks. Just keep your party guests and new users of chopsticks in mind when searching through recipes.

While we may think of chopsticks being used with Chinese cuisine, there are lots of American appetizers that would be perfect for a chopstick challenge. The ever popular little smokies, meatballs, spinach balls, mini crab cakes, or three cheese mini macs are sure to be a party hit. You may also want to try spinach and bri topped artichoke hearts too. Are we making you hungry yet? 🙂 As we’ve mentioned before, really any miniature food will work, just keep chopstick usability in mind as you determine what to put on your menu.
Fore more traditional Chinese cuisine, try these appetizers:
 Main Dishes

A variety of  main dishes will ensure your guests can get a lot of practice with their chopsticks. We’ve compiled this list of a few of our favorites to get you started, and would love to hear if you try anything else! We’ve chosen these recipes based on short prep time and affordability.

Oh the Veggies!You can’t forget the green, the leafy, and the good for you stuff. Green beans, fried or steamed veggies can be easily managed with chopsticks, even for those just beginning.
Chinese vegetable appetizers include:
Moo Shu Vegetables (pictured above)
– Gai Lan
Although sweets are not a big part of Chinese culture or cuisine, there are plenty that you can serve to your chopstick challenge party guests. Mini cheesecakes, tarts, cake bites, mini pies, or fruit are all perfect ideas. Essentially anything bite size works well for chopsticks. Cake or brownieswould work for easy to pick up bite sized bits. For tarts, think fruit tarts like lemon, raspberry, or blackberry. If you want to make mini pies, just make sure the crusts are sturdy enough to be picked up.

Party People
So there you have it, a Chinese chopstick themed party. To prepare for your party, consider getting Chinese chopstick sets. Party People would be great for a group new to chopsticks since they’re one piece as well as easily distinguishable for each person. Our Double Happiness chopsticks come with 10 sets of chopsticks making them ideal for a larger gathering or celebration. We would love to hear if you give it a try!

The Tolman Twins

*The following is a guest blog post by Kristi Tolman, mother of  twin girls, Kenna and Michal adopted from China and brought home to the United States in July 2005.*

Every adoption journeys begins differently.

Ours began with a really difficult boss.

Eric and I had been married for 15 years and both had careers that we loved.   I ran a large marketing department for a high tech company and worked with smart, interesting people who I enjoyed being around.  We lived in Chicago but I commuted to Phoenix for my job two weeks of the month.  My boss was someone I had worked with at another company – someone whom I greatly respected.

And then my boss resigned.

The woman they hired to replace him was extremely challenging .  Throughout my career I had had many bosses.  Some had been wonderful and some had been difficult but none had been like this woman. Not one to give up easily, I tried being sickeningly nice to her.  I also tried being coolly professional.    But four months after she arrived, I simply couldn’t take it any more and called Eric and nearly yelled in the phone, “I’m going to quit.”

I was secretly hoping that he’d talk me off the proverbial cliff and tell me all the reasons why I should stick it out, try my best and make it work.

But he didn’t.

He simply said, “Quit.”

I immediately launched in to a long list of reasons why I couldn’t possibly quit but by the end of our conversation I’d written my letter of resignation.

One month later I was unemployed for the first time in my post-college life.

Voluntary unemployment has a sneaky way of making you stop and think about what you really want.  It was then, at that pause in our lives, that we decided what we really wanted was a family.  Our close friends and neighbors had a daughter from China, whom we adored, and it was surprising simple to decide that we wanted to adopt from China too.

We attended an informational meeting at the adoption agency our friends had used and three months after that our dossier was completed.  After our paperwork was assembled, we learned that our agency had a policy of not sending any dossiers to China until they had a minimum number of families who had completed all of their paperwork.  They thought it would be at least two months before they would be ready to send our dossier to China.

Waiting two months seemed like an eternity, so I turned to the Internet and started researching other agencies.  One agency in Texas kept coming up again and again so I called them.  They told me to FedEx them my completed dossier so they could review it and see if it met their guidelines in addition to China’s guidelines.

They called me the next night around 9:00 p.m., after staying late to go through it.  They said it looked great and they could send it with their group of dossiers going that week.

Three days later, on November 11, 2004, our dossier arrived in Beijing China.

And six months later, on May 23, 2005, we received the phone call that literally changed our lives.

Thanks to the Internet, I knew agencies had received referrals.  Eric went to work and I paced in the kitchen waiting for the phone to ring.  When I couldn’t take it any more, I called our agency.  They confirmed that they had received referrals and I should wait for a call from our social worker.

I had a neatly-typed a list of all the questions I wanted to ask her when she called.  Each question had a space after it so I could take notes.  I laid a pen on top of the paper to make sure I was ready.  I checked the Internet over and over and read one posting after another from people happily sharing their referral information.

And then the phone rang.

It was our social worker.

She was holding our referral in her hand.

She. was. holding. our. referral. in. her. hand.

She asked me one simple question that made my heart leap.

“Did you buy one crib or two?”

“One,” I answered.  Trying hard not to allow myself to believe that her question meant what I thought it did.

“Well, you better buy another crib because it’s twins . . . . and they’re beautiful!”

Almost everything after that is a blur.  My neatly-typed questions were never asked and I didn’t write down a single thing she told me. I spent the entire day in a foggy, blissful state celebrating that we were not just having a baby – we were having two.

On July 11, 2005, almost one year to the day after we attended the first meeting at our first adoption agency, two beautiful little girls, wearing identical pink flowered sundresses and too-big, hot pink sandals, toddled into a stuffy conference room in Guangzhou China and forever grabbed hold of our hearts.

Looking back now, I’d like to give my former boss a huge hug.  If it weren’t for her we might not have started the journey; a journey that lead to the two most amazing little girls I’ve ever met.

A journey that made me a mom.


Kenna and Michal are now 8 1/2 and about to start the third grade.  They both play the piano, dance, sing beautifully and swim like fish.  They are talkative and funny and are the best of friends — most of the time!  I truly can not imagine our lives without them.

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Follow the Tolman family on their blog at www.andbabiesmakefour.com

How do you steep tea? Silly question, right? You boil water and pour it over a bag and let it steep for a few Chinese Tea Setsminutes, right? Not so fast. It depends on the type of tea you’re brewing.  It also depends if you’re using a pot from a Chinese tea set or a cup.  Sure, you can heat up water in a cup in microwave and let a tea bag steep.  That works if you’re at work.  But if you’re at home and you’re entertaining, maybe you should try a new approach to making tea.  There are two ways to make tea: GongFu and conventional method. But first, make sure you have a Chinese tea set so you can make tea to begin with.

This method is used when you’re making tea for one or a few people, not a large crowd. You’ll need tall aroma cups and tasting cups. Start by rinsing out the teapot with warm water by rocking the water back and forth and discarding the water.  Measure your tea and add to the strainer inside the teapot followed by hot water.  Cover and steep.

Traditionally, you pour the tea in tall aroma cups. Using your ring finger and thumb on the aroma cup and your index and middle finger, lift up the inverted tasting cups down on the table. Then pull the inverted aroma cup upwards. This releases air pressure allowing the tea to flow in the tasting cup. It sounds a little complicated, but it’s oh so good!

Conventional Method
The conventional method is by far easier. You still rinse the pot with warm water. You add the right amount of tea leaves, pour hot water over them, and let steep. That’s it. You are free to enjoy your tea.

The gongfu method is more aromatic. You use this method when you really want to enjoy a cup of tea.

Did you know that in traditional Chinese culture, it is customary to give gifts when you visit someone’s home?  It’s known as a visiting gift.  You thank your hosts for inviting you and having you in their home with a gift. These types of Chinese gifts should be useful for everyone.  Here are some ideas as well as some things NOT to give for gifts.

Let’s start with what not to gift.

Avoid these colors: Green, black white. Green implies unfaithfulness, specifically a wife being unfaithful. Black and white are associated with funerals.

No Clocks. They symbolize death and the end a relationship.

Pass the Towels.  Towels are used in funerals. Even for a housewarming, avoid giving towels. It just makes people sad.

Four.  The Chinese word for four sounds like their word for death.  It’s best to avoid the number 4 altogether.

So what type of Chinese gifts make good visiting gifts? Let’s see if we can find some good ones for you.

Chinese Tea TrayIt’s beautiful and functional. There are no associations with death or bad luck. It’s also something everyone can use.

Antique Finish Chinese Landscape Scroll. Beautiful and perfect for a blank wall, everyone will enjoy looking at this scroll.

Traditional visiting gifts can be food. Just make sure it’s not cheese. Chinese people are lactose intolerant. Fruits, especially oranges are safe. Oranges are actually good luck. A fruit basket is a great idea.

These are just a few ideas for now. If you have other ideas, share them with us!

*The following is a guest blog post by Chris Tracy, father of three whose youngest, Ellen Christine (Ellie) was adopted from China and brought home to the United States in March. 

I would like to introduce myself, my name is Chris, my wife, Julie and I, recently returned from China earlier this year in March, with the newest addition to our family, Ellen Christine (Ellie).  Ellie, who is two years old was welcomed by big brother and sister; Summer 15 and Wyatt 13.  It seems like such a long time ago in which we started the process to adopt.  Ellie was in the waiting child program, so our wait was relatively short, just 14 months.    She has quickly become such a fixture in our family, I can’t imagine a time in which she wasn’t with us.  Our lives have definitely changed since adopting Ellie, I would have to say all for the better.

As soon as Julie and I, met Ellie, we instantly fell in love with her.  I know some people don’t think it’s possible to fall in love so easily, but I was in love with her as soon as I saw her picture.  Our time in China was exciting, however, Ellie had a bad cold and we were unable to get out and see all of the sights we had planned.  We were able to visit the Terra Cotta warriors and other sights in Ellie’s home province, Shaanxi.  One of the things Julie and I were both fascinated with was the architecture.  To think some of the buildings were over a thousand years old and still standing, what an accomplishment.

Once we arrived home, we were met by family and friends at the airport.  Ellie, who wasn’t real comfortable around strangers, immediately went to our son and oldest daughter.  I think it was because she had seen pictures of ourfamily we had provided her orphanage.  They immediately took to one another, brothers and sisters in arms, so to speak.  Upon our arrival home, I took a picture of the three of them playing on Ellie’s bedroom floor with my IPhone, just a spur of the moment picture, it remains one of my favorites.

While recovering from jetlag and readjusting to our time zone, we remained at our home for about two weeks, just trying to get settled in as a new family.  Once we recovered, we began taking Ellie to all the places we like to visit as a family.  Trips to the park, local shopping centers, all the places a family goes when they’re ready to venture out and show off their newest addition.  People are drawn to Ellie and ask all kinds of questions about where she is from and her heritage.  We’re proud of her and tell everyone we meet about our adventure in China.

Earlier this year, we celebrated the Chinese New Year at two separate events.  We were excited because we were very close to going to China to get Ellie.  I can’t even imagine what next year’s celebration will be like with Ellie.  Hopefully, we will be in anticipation of travelling to China again, as we have started the process to adopt another little girl. As we move forward, we will be relying on our faith, family and friends, to help us bring our fourth child home.

Learn more about the Tracy family and the latest on their adoption process by visiting their family blog, Hopeful Hearts Waiting Arms.  

*The following is a guest blog post by Stacie Hrabe, mother of two girls adopted from China. 

I first heard about Chinese adoption in the early to mid 90’s (before I was married or knew my husband) looking at the referral photo of a co-workers niece I knew instantly in my heart that I would some day adopt from China.

Ten years later my husband and I set out on the journey to start a family.  We realized that we would not be able to conceive (without IVF) on our own and after a few attempts we made the decision to adopt.  Chinese adoption had stuck in my mind and heart for those ten years, knowing eventually that we would find our child there but not knowing in what way it was to happen.  I am such an emotional decision maker, but this time I wanted to make sure that our decision was a rational one, as well, so I set forth on many months of research and due diligence into the different adoption programs both International and Domestic.  In all cases China seemed the most stable but most importantly I could not get China out of mind.

Long story short- the power of the Red Thread is unstoppable.  We were meant to be the parents of these two amazing girls. Zoey, our first, was adopted at 14 months old in the non special needs program (after a 2 year wait).  She is now 6. Violet was adopted last month at 30 months old in the minor special needs program after less than a year wait.

It was inn January of 2011 that I felt the tug of the Red Thread, once again.  I knew that I had left a piece of my heart in China and it was time to go back to find that missing piece. We chose to be matched rather than choose from a waiting child list because I wanted it to be a process that was completely out of my hands as I am someone who tends to overthink everything!   We had been unsure up until this moment as to whether we would adopt again but the feeling of “now or never” was so overwhelming that we jumped right in knowing that our daughter was waiting for us to come.

Celebrating Zoey and Violet and their Chinese heritage has become a way of life.  It is interwoven into our daily lives through festivals , celebrations and customs we take part in.  It is present in the Mandarin lessons, calligraphy, Chinese watercolor painting and the food we cook.  It is present in the school we chose that celebrates all countries and customs and welcomes Zoey to share hers from her first country.  It is present in the art and decorating we choose for our house and the friends that we seek out who share our daughter’s heritage.  We are excited to join a family culture camp in the next few years once Violet is old enough and look forward to many trips back to China, the country that has given us so much!

Every Tuesday, we feature a new family whose lives have been touched by adoption. If you would like to contribute by sharing your story, please e-mail amy@ajpanda.com. 

It’s summer taxi season. Kids are out of school, and they need you to take them to their events. You gladly chauffeur your children to and fro so they can enjoy this carefree time in their lives. The only drawback is that you still have to work.  Taking your kids to and from practice and music lessons can be a bit draining. What happens when mom or dad gets really tired and worn out? Who will pick up the slack?

The trick for this summer is to learn balance. We’re going to make sure the kiddos have fun this summer, that’s for sure.  But you don’t have to wear yourself out in the process. Here are some easy and inexpensive ways to enjoy a few quiet moments this summer.

Chinese Teapots | AJ Panda

Tea. It may be hot outside, but inside it’s nice and cool. The benefits of drinking a cup of tea in the evening are convincing.  Tea is not only relaxing, but it is calorie free. Tea can prevent heart attacks and strokes. It has lots of antioxidants. To fully enjoy tea, we recommend shopping for Chinese teapots. Authentic and beautiful, making tea out of a Chinese teapot enhances the experience and allows you to fully savor the moment of peace and quiet. We recommend drinking tea while the kids are at baseball practice or at work in the afternoon.

Mani and Pedi. This isn’t so much for dads, but moms for sure. All you need is a half hour or so to get pampered. Schedule a “me date” and let someone else take care of you for once, making your hands and feet feel pretty. The massage you get helps too.

Chocolate. You probably heard the rumor that chocolate is good for you. Well, it is. Dark chocolate has many health benefits. It makes you smarter, helps reduce strokes, increases blood flow, and so much more. So even if you’re driving the kids around, at a ball game, or at work, enjoy a piece of dark chocolate.

These are just a few small ways to relax this summer and take some much needed me time. So go on—browse AJ Panda’s Chinese teapots, schedule a mani and pedi, and grab some dark chocolate.