When you have to miss an important birthday because you live in China…
When you have to miss an important birthday because you live in China…
After school one day, Henry greeted me at pick up time with a package. It was a “snack” he had been given by a friend and he needed help opening it.
Notice that the package clearly states that this “snack” is sea vegetable. Roasted seaweed! There is even a photo, albeit somewhat misleading, that plainly shows the contents to be green. I pointed this out to Henry who responded to my concern with the famous Erickson eye roll and an impatient, “I know!” Never one to miss out on the chance to watch my children suffer, I promptly tore the wrapper open and waited for the inevitable. Would he spit it out? Fall to the ground and writhe around in agony? Beg for a drink to wash the foul taste from his delicate American tongue? Instead, this happened:
Later, at home, Ava spied the empty package. “You bought this for Henry?!” she accused. “No fair!” Hello, this is SEAWEED, children. Sea VEGETABLE, no less! Apparently Ava has been eating it all the time, too. On purpose.
“It really is delicious, Mom,” Lucas chimed in. “Crunchy and salty. You can’t go wrong with that.” Lucas has been sampling roasted seaweed as well. With gusto. And all of this without me having any idea. I had absolutely no knowledge of this new favorite snack. They come home from school requesting “those Korean dried noodles” and wanting “fairy bread” for their birthdays. Who are these little citizens of the world?
Last night I asked Mark how it could be possible that we have only been back in Shanghai one week. One week?! It feels like a million years. He agreed so I felt a little less dramatic. I managed to resist using my hands in very theatrical ways so he couldn’t accuse me of making the situation worse. Yes, our collective excitement has already worn off and we have so many more weeks to go before we leave China again. I have the added pressure of defending my dissertation in early March, so I can’t do what I would like to do and wallow in my unhappiness while moaning about how hard it is to live in China. The ayi would never allow it anyway. She would be unable to resist asking me all sorts of personal questions to get to the bottom of things. Am I sick? Does my head hurt? Have I eaten anything today? Was I trying to sleep? That is too bad because she needs to make the bed and I should really try to get some exercise. But I digress.
The thing that pushed us all over the edge–today is Ava’s birthday. She is nine now and while birthdays are always a celebration, China can always find a way to make me feel less than celebratory. In the US, I went all out for birthdays. As a mom–let’s be honest here—I used to kill it. We have the family tradition of the birthday boy or girl waking up to fresh cinnamon rolls and streamers festooning the dining room. I used to plan elaborate parties and bake magnificent cakes. Suffice it to say, all this is more difficult here. My oven conspires against me resulting in cinnamon rolls that were today labeled “puck-like” by Ava and her siblings. I couldn’t disagree. The proof was almost too difficult to eat. I am less plugged in to the school situation and so this morning when Ava asked if I would be making or buying treats to bring in for her class today, I was struck dumb by the realization that I had planned to do neither of those things. I had actually planned to do nothing because I had forgotten all about that! She was less than impressed. She wants a slumber party but can’t narrow down her guest list. My mother rightfully pointed out that this is a welcome change from last year when she was newly arrived and hadn’t had time to make friends in Shanghai. While this is true, I can only focus on how much harder it is going to be to host a party for a bunch of screaming 3rd graders without the benefit of Party City or Michael’s. Tough times, indeed.
And this comes on the heels of a China day where there were no taxis to be found so I walked to school (uphill both ways! in the snow!) cursing every Chinese person I passed along the way. It was unreasonable, I know, and it was even more unreasonable when I arrived home and was irritated that the ayi wanted to have a discussion about the vacuum cleaner. How dare she! And this after she showed up this morning with a huge pack of special cookies and the biggest stuffed bear you have ever seen. She was late and I think she was concerned that I would be angry with her. I actually love to have even five minutes alone in the house so I had been hoping she would be even later! She would never have guessed that plan. When she came in with her arms full of all that stuff my face must have registered some sort of wild emotion. She blurted out that it was for Ava’s birthday and then seemed to doubt that she had the correct day. She was right, of course, which only added to my guilt. How did she know it was Ava’s birthday? Luckily, she didn’t head into the kitchen and bake a cake—that would have been the last straw. I am sure hers would have been delicious and a pleasure to eat.
Happy Birthday, Ava! Your mom is officially crazy.
We finally got out of the house. I never thought we’d get out. We were heading to Bali, a wonderful place. Except the ride was a little bit obnoxious. Why don’t I tell you about it? It started one morning, we were getting in the taxis to go to the Maglev. For those of you who don’t know, the Maglev is this big floating train that goes as fast as you will ever go on land. We went up to 400 miles an hour. It made my head dizzy it was so fast! Finally we stopped. We got off at the airport. Little did I know there was a big problem ahead of me. We got on our first flight. I took out my IPad, my headphones, and I took out one small polka dotted piece of pink fabric. I put it behind my pillow. The fabric is my lovey, my blanket, my beloved Pinky! I have had her all my life. They discontinued this blanket the year I was born.
We got off the plane and I got off without a small piece of pink polka dotted fabric. We sat in the airport for what felt like a long time. We finally got on the next plane. I went to reach out for Pinky but I realized when I put my hand in my suitcase… SHE WAS GONE!!!!! I cried for the first three hours of the flight. In case you were wondering, the flight is more than six hours. I finally got over that I might not get Pinky back and so my crying calmed down. And then my stomach didn’t feel so good. So I got up and went to the bathroom about five times and then I said, “Mom, I think I might need a throw up bag soon. Like NOW!” I threw up six times on the plane then finally we got off in Bali. My mom went back into the airport to see if they had found Pinky. Meanwhile, we waited. After what felt like a couple of hours, I threw up again. Mom had the supply of throw up bags so I threw up on the ground in the middle of the waiting zone. Finally, my mom came back. She didn’t know that I had thrown up on the ground and she was shocked that me and my dad were across the street in the grass in case I threw up again.
Then we got in the car. I threw up again and luckily my mom had one more throw up bag. The bad news was that this was our last one– the last one of them all! We got to the hotel finally, the hotel where we were going to stay one night. We got in our room after what felt like a hundred and sixty miles of walking. Mommy had to stay with me and she was the one who had to put up with me throwing up the entire flight. But luckily, I didn’t throw up again. The next morning I woke up the latest of anyone even though my mom is usually the lazy bird. Me and my mom went down to breakfast. The boys had already had breakfast and were now swimming in the pool like little fishies. My dad called to see if anybody had found Pinky. Unfortunately, no one had. My mom was looking at the Korean Air website at pictures of lost things. She looked through pages and pages and pages, but Pinky (my beloved!) wasn’t there.
When we got to our villa, we first started picking out our rooms. Then we looked again to see if anyone had found Pinky. Still, unfortunately, no P-I-N-K-Y!!!!!! We looked for three days and still nothing. Finally, my mom did something smart. She looked on ebay! She looked at one hundred pages of pink baby blankets. She found three identical Pinkies! I was saved! All that time crying on the plane– it wasn’t worth it. We ordered two of them and my grandmom is sending me one of them.
We went to another villa where we spent one night and then we went back to the airport. We got to Seoul, Korea, our first stop. Our wait there was four hours and that is the same city where I lost Pinky. My mom and I went to the information desk to see if we could find the lost and found. They sent us on a wild goose chase. They told us to go upstairs. We went up and we asked. They asked for our flight information and stuff like that. It was pretty annoying but I had to deal with it. We went back downstairs. My mom was generous enough to let me stay at the gate with my dad and she went on the rest of the wild goose chase to see if they had found Pinky. Of course, they hadn’t. We got on our next flight empty handed with no special piece of pink polka dotted fabric.
We finally got back to China and I am waiting for my replacement Pinky.
P.S. Don’t read this when you are eating.
Dictated to Gwen by Ava
The kids are finally back in school and we are settling back in to life in Shanghai. Ava is adjusting well to her new school- riding the bus with her big brother and making new friends. Both big kids tried out for the school swim team which turned out to be a somewhat stressful endeavor. At the end of last year, the kids decided it might be fun to be on the team, so I popped by the pool office to meet the coach and get more information. I spoke with some of the other swim moms first to see how they felt about the time commitment and to see how their kids were enjoying the team experience. I got only positive feedback so I happily made my way to the pool and introduced myself. The coach seemed nice enough, but it took me only a few seconds to realize that his idea of swim team and my idea of swim team were two very different things.
In the United States, my kids swam for the neighborhood pool. We had maybe four meets and the coaches were all teenagers. Ok, some of them were “swimmers”. Maybe they swam for their high school teams or they might even be swimming in college, but it wasn’t ever serious business. I don’t think the season even lasted a month and a half. For the very little ones who weren’t yet strong swimmers the coaches would even jump in with them and propel them forward like tiny little missiles, keeping one hand under to help them stay afloat. But our neighborhood pool is only open in the summer and the hours aren’t great so there is a more serious pool where Mark swims. Oh, and Michael Phelps swims there, too. Maybe you’ve heard of him? The greatest Olympic swimmer of all time? Yeah, that guy. My kids have taken swim lessons there and participated in stroke clinic on the weekend, but they don’t swim competitively there. I have spent plenty of time hanging around watching the kids swim. This is why I can tell you firsthand how Michael Phelps actually looks in his bathing suit. It is the kind of sacrifice that mothers sometimes have to make. Mark had been pushing for the kids to start year round competitive swimming or at least for us to change summer pool memberships so that his future Olympians could be on the Meadowbrook summer swim team. He isn’t really one for sports, but when it comes to swimming he is worse than any peewee football dad could ever be. I mean, are we aiming for the Olympics or not?! Can we all just get serious here!?
I had always put my foot down about year round competitive swimming. After all, I was going to be the one running kids to and from practice. And they seemed so little. How could they know that swimming was really their thing? It was a big time commitment for small people. Mark argued that earlier was better and that if they hated it they could decide it wasn’t for them. I was skeptical that he could let it go that easily. He swam year round as a kid, even when he hated it, and I was sure he would expect the same from them.
But the school team seemed like a good idea. It is after school so it requires very little running around. There is even a bus that will bring them home after practice. What could be simpler? Two practices a week, a commitment for all Shanghai meets, and one meet outside of Shanghai each year. So manageable. But the school coach was clearly more in line with Mark’s way of thinking. He needed to know specifics. Where were we from? Baltimore got him interested. Had the kids competed before? I played it cool. I didn’t volunteer the light Roland Park Pool swim schedule. Did they swim year round? Um, sort of? I mentioned Meadowbrook and that they swam there. His face registered instant recognition. Oh, he knew that pool. Michael Phelps’ pool! This was technically true, but I was immediately aware that he now thought the kids were competitive year round swimmers working under the supervision of the coaches and staff that had produced multiple Olympians. Basically we were superstars! We were nearly fish!
The coach demanded to know more. What were their times? Um, their times? I had no idea. No worries, he assured me. Over the summer when they competed I would be able to compare their times with the ones on their website, right? Sure I could! Well, I could if they were going to be swimming on a team, which, they weren’t. He found this troubling, but helpfully suggested that I could time them when I had them in the pool. Yes, yes. During one of our many training sessions I would whip out the old stopwatch! Maybe I would just ask Michael Phelps to do that for me.
The coach could make no promises, because the team was competitive, but he liked that Ava had a late birthday. And Lucas was swimming in PE so he could check out his skills the very next week. They didn’t have spaces for everyone and some kids were going to be disappointed. You see, not everyone makes the team. Yes, this is elementary school. Oh, and they needed to be proficient in all four strokes. They were, right? How was I supposed to answer that? Could he be more specific about “proficient”? I was suddenly concerned that we were biting of more than we could chew.
Over summer vacation we worked very little on swimming so that when we arrived in Shanghai the kids’ preparation was not unlike cramming for college finals twenty minutes before the start of the exam. Mark had them in the pool on the weekends to fast track their flip turns and attempt to give them some more help with swimming butterfly. It was going to be close, but it would have to be good enough.
The first day of tryouts arrived. Lucas was decidedly positive but Ava was terrified. She has had some confidence issues these past few months. Issues that warrant their own post, but suffice it to say, not making the swim team might have been a giant blow to her already weakened self-esteem. She considered not trying out at all. Lucas tried to encourage her by telling her that she needed to believe in herself, but this didn’t calm her nerves and she left for school on tryout day in tears.
But she came home all smiles. She powered through and was so proud of herself for finishing the tryouts without falling apart that she said it didn’t matter if she made the team or not. Of course, I knew it probably did matter just a little bit, but she was so genuinely happy—so visibly excited to have had that little bit of success– that I really believed her. It had been scary but she had done it and she had done her best. Lucas was more concerned, however. The other kids had been better than he had expected. Some kids were trying out for the second time after being rejected last year and he wasn’t so sure his name was going to be there when they posted the team list.
We waited. Ava claimed to have seen a list of 3rd grade swimmers with her name on it posted by the pool. Lucas had no idea what she was talking about. Surely they would make certain the parents knew, right? When would they find out? Lucas thought Wednesday, but he wasn’t sure. We were on pins and needles. Finally, we got emails on Monday.
They both made the team! Michael Phelps is lucky he retired because I think there are a few new kids that just might blow him out of the water. I mean, once they get those flip turns down.
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.
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.
Today was my birthday. It started out a little bit crazy but then it got smoother. I got to go to the fabric market with daddy. It was fun. Because for my birthday I was allowed to get a qi piao. It is a traditional Chinese dress. It was almost like the whole building is made of fabric, although, no, it didn’t collapse. I thought it was going to be just like one store, but instead it was like the pearl market with only clothes. You can have yours made or they have already made ones that you can buy right then. We looked at a few stores. The first store had tons of fabric, but they wouldn’t negotiate at all. Then, as we were coming to the end of the market, there was one store with no one in it. They negotiated and had really nice fabric. It was the best store of the ones we looked at. Did I tell you that I have to wait for a month and a week until it is done? Yes, because they are taking a break for Chinese New Year.
Dictated to Gwen
We just arrived in Shanghai. The flight was really long but I enjoyed it. I couldn’t sleep. At least I got to sleep 5 hours out of the 14 hours. The funny part is that Henry said, “There are servants!” We were in business class– it was very enjoyable! That’s why Henry said that. I am scared and I don’t know what is coming next. I was pretty much crying through the entire flight.
We are staying in a really nice hotel. The funny part is mom and dad got two rooms. Actually, that isn’t really very funny. I was awake all last night because of jet lag and Henry. I was very, very sad and I still don’t know what is coming next. You can never know what to expect when you move somewhere.
Dictated to Gwen
Mark took pictures of the new house and he took only corner pictures so every single picture you see is a corner picture of the house. I still think he was trying to make side pictures, but instead he made corner pictures. The house looks nice. It is a little town housey, but I’ve got to get used to it. I am not sure what China is going to be like because I have never visited. I am not sure what is ahead of me and stuff like that. I had to say bye to our minivan because we had to leave it in Georgia because of the moving. I was sad, but I had to do it.
Dictated to Gwen
I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen to Maggie when she is leaving. I wish I was with her every single part of my life. I wasn’t with her before we found her, but you get what I mean. I don’t know if this is going to be an exciting adventure for Maggie or not. I bet she’s going to be nervous because she’s never gone on a plane. We picked a very friendly pet service. I am going to be without Maggie for three days! I can’t believe it! It feels like the move is never coming.
Dictated to Gwen