Parenting Fail

There are limits to my patience. I know this surprises you. After all my previous blog posts concerning my inability to just “let it go,” I am sure you were thinking that eventually I would be full of vanilla cupcakes and rainbows. While I am pretty certain no one was expecting sunshine from over here, I have found it hard to put up new posts because I am feeling so negative about China. And that isn’t really fair to China. While my rants about Shanghai are often funny, sometimes I can’t seem to see the humor in certain situations. When I get to that point, there is no turning back and my mood tends to poison the whole house.

I didn’t want to come back to Shanghai after this summer and was finding it hard to motivate to pack and organize all the things we would need and want once my direct access to Target was cut off. A few days before our departure I found myself waking up in the wee hours to obsess over all the things about China that drive me crazy. That state of mind has lifted a bit since the end of July, but not much. This wouldn’t be a problem if I were here in Shanghai alone or just with my husband, but I am here with those wonderfully impressionable children that I decided to drag along for this adventure. Part of my job as a parent living abroad is to make the experience as enriching for them as possible. This does not mean that I make everything easy or that I keep them from having those difficult moments, but it does mean that I try to keep my feelings to myself when I am particularly venomous about our host culture. Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a poker face. I am also (surprise!) a notorious complainer. These two things combined with our general lack of privacy here in our cramped living space means I have been doing a terrible job of focusing on the positive.

This brings us to a few nights ago when my unhappiness was really ticking along. One of the boys was also having a ShangLow day and was railing against the table manners of the Chinese. This is certainly something that you will never hear me defending, particularly as my Southern roots tend to make themselves apparent when it comes to moments like these. That said, I know it isn’t up to me to decide what is and what isn’t polite here in China. If you want to know about how to behave in the United States, feel free to ask. If you want to see me volunteer this information as we sit with a table full of Chinese nationals eating dinner, good luck. You won’t hear a peep out of me. This means my house is often ground zero for heated discussions concerning manners and what is and isn’t acceptable. Inside our house, the US rules apply although Mark has taken to slurping his soup and drinks as if he grew up in Puxi. The kids ride the line sometimes, but they are well aware of the limits of cultural exchange here at Chez Erickson. The child in question was furious, and deservedly so, at having witnessed what they thought were atrocious manners. Of course, the other individual in this scenario might have seen things differently, but I was trying to provide some good mama vibes. I held my own until faced with, “Name one good thing about Chinese culture!”

Ouch. And here is where I drop the ball both as a parent and as a guest in a country that is not my own. For all the things I complain about, there have been some wonderful things that have happened here in China. I have some fabulous Chinese colleagues and friends who have opened their hearts to me and have helped me when there was no reason to do so. There are many things about Chinese culture that I respect and admire. I may not always understand China, but I can respect history. I can see the good in individuals even when the overall picture frustrates me. But do I say this? Do I volunteer this information to my child as he shakes his fist at the sky? No. I hesitate. And this is just enough time for his eyes to grow wide and his mouth to harden and for him to spit out, “See! Even you can’t think of one positive thing!” And I stammer and stall as I try to push down the part of me that is angry and annoyed and remember the part of me that can see the shiny happy stuff. But the moment is already gone and I have missed the chance to say what needs to be said, to put the train back on the track and convince my child to give things some time. I have done the thing I have tried so hard not to do and let my feelings become the conversation here at home.


Welcome Home!

The first thing our ayi says to me after our return to Shanghai…

Sally: “Oh, you only got a little bit fat on vacation!  Usually you get so much fatter.  But the kids, they got really fat!”  (Here she pinches Henry’s not very fat cheeks for emphasis.) “Fat, fat, fat!”

Ah, there’s no place like home.

Revisiting the Meat Section of Carrefour (Or Why We Don’t Buy Much Meat in China)

Remember when I described the meat section of Carrefour? How the meat is in these big open bins and you choose the pieces you want? Here is more proof that I am not crazy and that Chinese shoppers value “creative” solutions to problems. Enjoy!

Shoulder to Shoulder

One of the things that still always surprises me about China is the lack of personal space.  By now it should be commonplace to spend most of the day shoulder to shoulder with a million other people, but I am still using my Lamaze breathing at the grocery store.  It requires deep breathing for me to hold it together when the person behind me in line has their chest completely pressed against my back.  This is especially irritating when they have chosen to position themselves as close as possible merely to belabor the point that they think the line is moving too slowly.  As if getting extremely close to me will persuade me to speed things up.  The subway is crowded to the point that on more than one occasion someone has sneezed on my back and been so close that my hair flew forward as if a stiff breeze had blown through the car. And, yes, that experience is as horrifying as you imagine.

This lack of personal space also means there is a general lack of privacy about almost everything.  There are plenty of things you aren’t supposed to talk about in China, but apparently very few things you wouldn’t do in public.  Children, especially the potty training ones, are frequently seen relieving themselves over trashcans and in the gutter.  People loudly spit.  I saw more men peeing in the bushes here in our first week than I did during an entire semester of wilderness education in college.  Noses and ears get picked and the findings closely examined in plain view of everyone.  Some of these things are cultural, but many of them are just the result of living shoulder to shoulder every day, all day.  When you want to see something special and everyone else wants to see it too, you all go together and stand shoulder to shoulder there.  You want to see the lanterns at Yu Gardens?  So does everyone else in Shanghai.  Should we all go on Sunday?  Of course!  As my neighbor says, “That’s China.”  But he is Chinese so his shoulder shrug is really just my signal to get over it.

As someone who loves to have alone time, China can be disconcerting.  For me there is too much closeness—too much bumping and pushing—and not any of the things that I am used to happening with so much touching.  There is never the “excuse me” or the “sorry,” only more jostling.  My Chinese teacher admits that hugging and touching like the Americans or the Europeans do makes him uncomfortable.  It is too familiar.  Which makes it impossible for me to understand how he can be fine with the familiarity of having your entire body squashed between two complete strangers and not feel the need to mumble some sort of apology when your elbow whacks one of them in the stomach.  Apparently, those are two very different situations.

A few days ago, I was planting primroses in the containers out in front of the house.  As I worked, one of the guys who cleans up around the compound kept inching closer and closer.  When we were shoulder to shoulder he asked me why I wasn’t pulling out all the old flowers.  They were “bu hao”—not good.  He pretended to sweep my front steps as he stalked me around the planters giving me advice.  I am actually pretty sure they are “bu hao,” but having him insert himself into the situation made me determined to ignore his advice.  Why so close?  Why so intrusive?  I am sure he just thought he was helping the crazy lady who wasn’t smart enough to hire someone to take care of her planters for her.  The poor, poor lady who doesn’t know dead flowers when she sees them.  “No, no,” I had insisted and made him get even closer to show him the buds and the green leaves coming in on the old plants.  “Look here.  This is good.”  And what could he do but press his face close to mine and examine the evidence.  In an effort to have him give me my space I had invited him to get nearly cheek to cheek.  “Ok,” he had shrugged, obviously not convinced, but mercifully pretending to sweep away toward the street.

And so it goes here in China.  As I push back harder and harder, people get closer and closer.   The more I howl and shake my fist, the more China leans in and breathes down my neck.   But apparently “that’s China” and China doesn’t mind making me uncomfortable.

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!


The Honeymoon Is Over

Yes, as predicted, the honeymoon is over. What?  You didn’t realize that first part was the good part?  Ok, there will be more good stuff, I assure you, but first Team Erickson has to get through the wonderful stages of culture shock!  Anyone who has lived abroad (or moved anywhere, most likely) can tell you about the stages of culture shock. First, everything is new and wonderful. Things are different, but they are exotic. Those differences are strange in a way that surprises you but what the kids would call a “good surprise”. Sadly, this stage only lasts for a while and then you move toward frustration. This is where most of us here at chez Erickson happen to be right now. Mark has had more time in China and he has adjusted more than the rest of us. The kids and I…well, we are feeling done with Shanghai. I have done this moving thing before, so I know that it will pass. The kids are not convinced. They miss their friends and schools and the familiar routines of “home”. They don’t like to hear that this is going to be home for a while or that things will get easier. They can only see today and how it feels right now to be here in China and to wish you were somewhere else. I understand, because right now I would be tempted to head back to the States. Today, I am missing my kitchen, Target, and the ease of American grocery stores. I am missing my friends and thinking about how much easier things would be if we packed up ran to the airport. But I know this will pass. I know we will all get used to China and eventually this will all feel so familiar that we can’t imagine not living here. “What if that never happens?” Lucas asks me as he begs to stay home from school for no apparent reason. I reassure them all that it will and that this part right now is the hardest part. Unfortunately, I also know that at least one more big negative swing will be coming up again. So I am kind of lying. It is like riding a roller coaster, but you can’t see where the dips are. You can’t prepare for the highs or the lows. It will even out, but we have to get through this part first. People give you advice. They tell you to “change your attitude!” and “keep trying new things!”. Someone the other day even said that she thought moving abroad was so much easier with children! Ha. Ha. There is this built in community, you see, and you are forced to interact with people because of your kids. I know this to be absolutely untrue. Being in Shanghai with the kids is great, but it is also exhausting. I am having culture shock for four instead of just one and I might have to drag them kicking and screaming through this part. Wish us luck.