Explorations: Chinese Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall

My friend Shanghai Sue is lucky enough to have a driver.  Getting around in Shanghai isn’t too difficult by taxi or subway, but having the chance to tag along with her when she has the driver makes all that work just to get from place to place seem like such effort.   I miss being able to hop in my car and run a few errands without having each stop become a major production.  Using the driver is more complicated than driving yourself—you need to plan ahead and make arrangements that include someone else being part of everything—but I don’t think I would want to try driving in Shanghai.  For now I am content to let Sue be in charge of transportation every now and then.

Today’s stop—the former French Concession (you have to say former or face the wrath of the Chinese government) and the Chinese Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall.

Sue has relatives that are into fabric and she wanted to check out the Chinese style indigo batik.  There is allegedly a museum with all the information you would need about the process of making the cloth and the history of nankeen in China, but we never managed to get to any museum.  Maybe because the lane we had to walk down to find the place looked like this.

We pushed past all the laundry and wandered down the alley.  Sue’s driver had a difficult time finding the lane we needed so there was always that sliver of possibility that we were completely in the wrong place.  There had been a sign that seemed to say we were headed in the right direction, but when the alley got extremely narrow and the only indication that we should keep going was a handwritten sign all in characters, well, I was tempted to give up.

Sue:  “How is your reading these days?”

Me:  “Not great.  Poor.”

Sue:  “Hmm.”

At one point Sue tried a random door hoping we weren’t about to burst in on someone’s afternoon bath.  Luckily, the door was locked and we avoided arrest for breaking and entering.

Suddenly we were in someone’s back yard with the most beautiful laundry you have ever seen hanging on the line.  After some confusion with where exactly the entrance might be, we were in!  We had found it! 

They have beautiful things, but I resisted making any purchases right before we leave for vacation.  Maybe next time…

Changle Lu 637, House 24, Shanghai

In Praise of … Cautiousness?

Last week Ava’s teacher sent me an email inviting me to their class assembly.  Ava would be receiving an award so I told her I would be there.  It is a little bittersweet to get an award at the last assembly of the school year before you ride off into the sunset and change schools, but we would take it!  Ava had told me that in class they had voted for their classmates in a variety of different categories for awards to be given out the last week of school.  I didn’t ask too much follow up so I just assumed that was what I was going to be seeing when I went to the assembly.

Dear China,

Please remind me never to assume anything while we are living here.  Thank you in advance.



This assembly had nothing to do with the awards Ava had been discussing.  This assembly was one of the school’s character assemblies.  Yes, character, and not like cartoon.  Throughout the school year, the classes make presentations about specific attributes that are part of their character education program.  I am all for building character, and when I heard about this part of the school curriculum I wasn’t too alarmed.  The school has a religious element, not too strong, but there none the less.  It seemed at first to be just the melding of Western and Asian culture that would help the kids to better understand China and make sense of their experiences here.  It leans heavily toward Christianity, but my kids have had exposure to other religions.  Done well a little character education might be nice, right?

Ava showed me her “character cards” during our parent conference a month or so ago and I asked her some questions about them.  She was vague, maybe because she wasn’t entirely clear on things.  Some of the assemblies and discussions were from the beginning of the year and she had only participated in a few.  These character cards had cartoon animals on them –I am guessing the animal is supposed to represent that character trait somehow—and then a small description.  Some of them were confusing, and there were quite a few of them that I was a bit skeptical about.  There are things like “discernment” and “hospitality”.  The kinds of things that are difficult to define and the explanations didn’t always fit my interpretation.

Last week’s assembly was about “cautiousness” and I was treated to a performance all about following the rules and being obedient.  Some of it was easy to agree with.  I am all for internet safety and leaving the scene when you think you might be in danger, but there were parts that made me uncomfortable.  There was so much of the performance that was about the rules and how following them made everyone safer.  Now, I am not against rules or following the rules.  But I like my rules with a healthy dose of explanation.  I don’t think that kids should blindly accept the rules just because an adult tells them to and I don’t think adults should be offended when kids ask them to explain where a rule comes from or why we all should follow it.  I am not excited to hear people say that we have a rule “just because”.  Sadly, much of this assembly was about how grown ups know more than kids and, for that reason, kids should do what grown ups say.  An administrator got up at the end to thank the children for their work in putting on the performance.  He reiterated how the rules were in place to keep kids safe and that grown ups know more than kids.  Rules help us to have more fun, not less!  All hail, cautiousness!

Next came the awards and I began to get a sinking feeling that Ava was about to get an award celebrating her cautiousness.  Each class gave two awards and one of her teachers stood up to sing the praises of the first lucky student.  He always raises his hand.  He always asks permission.  He always does things at the right time.  He was all smiles as he came up to receive his award.  The Chinese-speaking teacher got up and presented the second award.  I have no idea what was actually said because the combination of Mandarin and the growing dread of Ava being recognized for cautiousness was just too overwhelming.  When her name was called, Ava looked genuinely surprised.  Her face lit up and she rushed forward to get the coveted piece of paper.  She beamed for the rest of the assembly as the other classes handed out their awards.  When she made eye contact with me her smile intensified and she bounced a bit, her excitement unable to compete with her cautiousness, apparently.

When it was finished she ran over to me gushing about the award.  She had never been given an award before and she was elated to have been recognized.  Thrilled.  I shared some of her enthusiasm, but it was tinged with a bit of regret.  I know how hard these last few months have been for her and how difficult it has been to adapt to this new school.  She has trouble sitting still and tends to be the kid who bounces around full of crazy ideas.  Here she has been told that she needs to be quiet and she needs to raise her hand.  She needs to follow directions and she has had to wear a uniform to conform even more.  The first few weeks of this were excruciating.  She was trying so hard and it was so exhausting.  It got better, but now here we are getting rewarded for our cautiousness.  I found myself hoping that they had given her the award only because she hadn’t gotten one before and they didn’t want to leave her out.  I am hoping that they were just being nice, because the alternative is that Ava has squished herself so tiny in the last few months that her teachers actually see her as exemplifying cautiousness.  I don’t want her to be cautious.  I want her to be fearless.

Mark met me on his way to the metro station and I told him about the award and the assembly.  He laughed because he had just spent the last few days interviewing Chinese job applicants and had noticed that they were awfully, um, cautious.  This was starting to look like some sort of Chinese thing, this cautiousness!  He had to snap a few photos of the award to show his colleagues.

Later when I bemoaned the award and my mixed feelings, my friend took up the cause of cautiousness.  “Why couldn’t she have been recognized for “Enthusiasm” or Hospitality?” I had wailed.  “Something I could get behind.”

“You could get behind “Hospitality”? she had asked.

“Yes, maybe.  If it was done right.  I mean, I’m from the South.”

But Ava didn’t get an award for hospitality.  She got one for her cautiousness.  A trait that I am not entirely sure I can get behind.  The more we talked about it, the clearer it became—Mark and I don’t always value cautiousness.  We moved to China, leaving all our family and friends.  We took the kids out of wonderful schools and put our house on the market.  We decided to put our faith in something that has a pretty high failure rate.  That isn’t cautiousness.  That is risk– calculated risk.  We take chances.  We try to think things through, but occasionally we decide that even  though it isn’t 100% safe we are going to jump anyway.  How can we tell our kids to be cautious if it means shying away from a few calculated risks?  I want to raise kids that see the merit in weighing their options and sometimes taking a risk.  I want them to do the unexpected every now and then.  I understand that sometimes it pays to be cautious, but I also know that sometimes it is just the fear talking.  It would have been so much easier to stay home and let things stay the same, but then the kids wouldn’t be learning Mandarin or living in Shanghai.  Those experiences are worth a little risk.

Forgotten School Photos

In the crazy rush of the new schools, I had completely forgotten that the kids had school photos taken.  As we count the days until our first semester of school in China officially ends (single digits!), here is a look back at those photos for your viewing pleasure.

Henry’s is the most interesting.  I can’t stop looking at this.  He is a little mad scientist here.  A deep thinker.

Ava doesn’t look at all like herself.  The uniforms make them look so unfamiliar.  I am wondering if she and Henry were told not to smile.  They both look so reserved.

And, here’s Lucas, predictably almost laughing.  He had a “fancy” shirt to change into, but he didn’t have time.  Or he forgot.  Or he decided to just leave that red shirt on to look like he is wearing the Yew Chung uniform like his siblings.  He also looks vaguely familiar, but not like his normal, every day self.  These weren’t taken that long ago, but they have changed so much even in just a few months.  We are almost ready to head back to the States for our summer visit.  We survived!

Finishing the School Year

It has been some rough times this school year, but I’m finally moving on.  My dad tried to move me at the beginning of the year to another school, but it didn’t really work.  All they would do is be a butt.  My dad thought it would be hard if I left my school at the end of the year because I would have made friends and it would be hard to leave them behind.  Leaving them behind would not be easy because it would give me a bad feeling.  Some of my friends live very close so I can probably see them a lot, but others I am not so sure.  I’m hoping to get the phone numbers of all my friends so then I can invite them over for playdates and sleepovers.  I hope next school year works out.


Dictated to Gwen by Ava

The Complainer

Have I mentioned that I am a complainer?  Maybe you have noticed my occasional need to vent?  Yes? I am sure that it has become apparent that I cannot let the opportunity to whine pass me by.  I am not naturally a glass half full kind of person.  You can guess what this means for people who are lucky enough to be around me when I hit a little pothole in my China experience.  Fun, fun, fun!

I have been in a dip for a week or so and this, unfortunately, coincided with my parents visiting for a few days from the United States.  They had been touring around China for a week and a half and had only a few days in Shanghai. Initially, I had been confused about their trip to China.  When my mother called to tell me they were planning to visit, it seemed that they were only going to be in the country for three or four days—barely long enough to recover from the plane ride and begin to adjust to the time difference. They wanted to see the kids’ schools and our neighborhood and spend some quality time with the grandkids.  This seemed like an unusual to do list for my mother.  She is known to sightsee from dawn until well after the sun has set and I couldn’t believe that she would spend her time in Shanghai sitting around our house.  Things became more clear when their departure date got closer.  My mother started talking about their China trip long before they were to arrive.  Weren’t they coming on the 26th?  Why was she packing and talking about their flight details?  It turned out that my parents weren’t merely coming for a Shanghai visit.  They were booked on a China tour complete with river cruise.  They were scheduled to see the Great Wall and the terracotta warriors.  They had events planned for every day and every evening.  By the time they arrived in Shanghai, they would have seen more of China than we had seen in our five months living here.  No wonder they were content to fill the last few days with cafeteria lunches and classroom visits.

Since my parents were only staying for a few days, we decided they would stay with us rather than in a hotel.  This would give them the opportunity to spend more time with the kids.  Apparently, it also gave me more time to vent, whine, and complain.  My mother tried very hard to look at the positive but I was in no mood for that.  Our conversations went something like this:

Mom: I like the roof deck.

Me:  I hate it.

Mom: This kitchen is nice.

Me: I hate it.

Mom: The neighborhood is pretty.

Me: I hate it.

I am sure this got old, but still my parents tried to enjoy the experience.  I worked hard to keep a constant frown on my face.  When I could also furrow my brow and turn up my nose I worked that in as well.

Soon after they arrived, my dad got a terrible cold with a fever and the chills.  He spent the remainder of the trip in bed trying to recover.  Mom and I went to the Pearl Market to bargain for some souvenirs.  Thrown in there was a visit to the pediatrician for Ava, a major work snafu for Mark, and more of me grinding my teeth.  Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful time?  Ok, the market part was fun, but the rest of those things were less than enjoyable.  Mom got to visit my local Carrefour and take a few photos of the turtles and eels ready to be taken home for dinner, but we stayed close to home for the rest of their Shanghai time.

And I complained and complained and complained about everything.  I am fairly certain that my parents left thinking that the kids were fine but I had some real adjustment problems.  Any of the ease I had been feeling about living in Shanghai was gone when my parents were here.  I wanted to be a good hostess and to show them the great things about our new life here but, honestly, I couldn’t remember what any of those things were.   All I could remember was how frustrating every little thing was, how much time I spent on things that at home took no time at all, and how no one would ever really understand any of this.  Even when things went well, I still acted like it was the end of the world.  Who wants to visit the Ericksons in Shanghai now?  You’ve all got an open invitation to visit The Complainer!