Back in the Swim

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.




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

Next Year

Next year I am going to change schools because we think Yew Chung isn’t the right fit for me.  So I am going to go to SAS which I hope will be a better fit for me.  Just to let you know, I’m not really lovin’ YCIS.  It is sort of an ok school, but it does a lot of work that I’m not really used to.  Everybody thinks that the work I do is easy but for me it is not.  I would be fine if I had to stay there but it just isn’t really the right place for me.

I will miss my friends there and they have already said they will miss me, but still, I have to do what is right for me.  I can have play dates and sleepovers whenever I want, but for school I have to do what is best for me, not what is best for everyone else.

I hope that SAS will be a better fit, but if it isn’t… there are always other schools!


Dictated to Gwen by Ava

My homework

The dog ate my homework.

You’ve heard that before?
This one ate the table,
then chewed through the door.

Broke into the living room
with his munch mouth,
snacked on some carpet,
and lunched on the couch.

He chewed up some albums,
then swallowed the mail,
even ate pretzels,
though they were stale.

He garbaged down everything
left in his path
and still wasn’t full
when he found my math.

He chewed tops off bottles
then drank all the pop.
As far as I know,
he still hasn’t stopped.

If you don’t believe me,
then give Mom a call,
if she still has a kitchen
or phone on the wall.

She’ll answer and tell you
my story is true.
The dog ate my homework.
What could I do?

that is by Sara Holbrook. I wish the dog had eaten my homework. I really hate homework. I get too much of it each day and most of the time it’s easy but I have sooooooo much of it! 😦    I get this much each day*

my homework


*it’s not really my homework




Ninja Post 3

Good Things About School:

1.  My friends

2.  Playing on the playground

3. My teachers (Ms. Tammy speaks English and Ms. Stacy speaks Chinese)

Bad Things About School:

1.  Physical Education (We don’t get to do just one thing.  We have to do like FOUR things and we are always with another class.)

2. Nothing.  I like my school.

Dictated to Gwen by Henry

The Hottest Ticket in Town

Friday was Ava’s violin concert.  All of the students are required to learn the violin as part of the music program at her school.  When I toured the school for the first time, this was a real selling point for me.  They told me all about how it helps children with the tones in Chinese and it exposes them to reading music.  At Ava’s previous school, Music was connected with Math (along with everything else—yeah integrated curriculum!) and I am a firm believer in the benefit of learning to play an instrument.  Studying music is really a no brainer, in my opinion.  That said, I have tried to learn to play several instruments and have been wildly unsuccessful at all of them.  Still, I think music is important.

Apparently, the other parents at this school agree with me.  At least they agree on the importance of attending the Spring violin concert.  The concert took place on two days in order to accommodate all of the special guests who needed to see their little virtuosos perform.  You had to request tickets or go to the main office to get them.  Each child was only allowed two tickets when they were first made available but there was the possibility of obtaining more tickets if there were any left after round one.  Yes, two rounds of tickets for an elementary school violin concert.  You need tickets but then it is general admission.  No assigned seats!  First come, first served!  We have only two adults that might possibly endure such a concert, so this all seemed unnecessary to me.  This wasn’t U2, right?  Was Paul McCartney going to make a guest appearance?  No?  Then why all the fuss, people?

I would soon find out that the violin concert is no trivial matter.  Mark was late and so I waited outside the school gym until the very last minute.  I lined up with some other concert goers, but really, “lined up” doesn’t describe what we were doing.  In China, no one makes an actual line, and there isn’t this recognition of who is first, then second, and so on.  People clump together and push.  They will walk to the front and demand answers to their important questions as if they are the only person in the room.  This happens everywhere—the bank, the grocery store, restaurants.  I hadn’t expected it at the elementary school violin concert, but, well, there you go.  It is an international school, so you have the interesting cultural combinations that result when you mix some Chinese parents with other nationalities.  Some of us were lining up and handing our tickets to the teachers at the door, and some of us were clumping together or trying to ignore the ticket idea altogether and just push into the concert.  A group of Scandinavians in front of me had only two tickets for four people.  No, no, they were told.  All the seats were claimed and they would need to have two people wait to see if they could come in.  This was serious business, this concert.  Behind me a gaggle of Chinese parents and relatives were starting to groan and push.  It was of the utmost importance that they get into the concert!  Immediately!  Never mind that the rest of us were going to the exact same place and we could literally see into the gym.  Finally they could take it no more and several of them pushed past the rest of us.  The teacher in charge made a tight-lipped grimace and continued checking the tickets of the five or so of us remaining at the door.  Then she put someone else in charge, left her post, and began hunting down the gate crashers.  At first I thought this was a little over the top.  I mean, who would try to sneak into a school concert without a ticket, especially when the tickets were free?  Well, apparently, all of those pushy parents would, that’s who!  One had a ticket for the performance the day before.  She wasn’t Chinese, and made a big show of not understanding enough English to realize the date on her ticket was not the date of the concert she was trying to attend.  Tellingly she had crumpled the ticket and shoved it deep in her pocket in an effort to make it more difficult to read.  The rest acted shocked—truly shocked- that they were required to have tickets!  The teacher drug them all back out to the hallway to wait for available seats.

Mark arrived during the first squeaky number.  I had selected seats near the door so he could find me.  Unfortunately, an aisle had been made in front of us for traffic going to the other side of the gym.  As soon as the kids came on stage, this space filled up with doting family members holding their cameras.  No one looked around to see if they were obstructing someone else’s view.  We reluctantly stood up to be able to see the top of Ava’s head.  This continued throughout the concert, combined with a constant hum of conversation coming from parents whose children were not performing at that moment.  People were videotaping the event and I am sure that rather than the beautiful (ahem.) sound of violins, they primarily captured the personal conversations of those around them. The woman sitting next to me whipped out her phone and unabashedly played Angry Birds.  A talkative kid in front of us took candid shots of Mark with her mother’s camera.

Would you like to see some pictures?  I would love to show you some, but the combination of my small crappy camera and the other overzealous parents resulted in all my photos including the back of other people’s heads.  Eventually, I started taking pictures of the other parents taking pictures of their children.

If we don't document this, it is like it never happened.

The concert had been a big deal for Ava and she was very nervous about her performance.  She hasn’t been playing violin long and her entire experience has been about getting ready for this concert.  She smiled when she saw us, though, and she couldn’t have been any worse than the kid who kept putting his violin down and letting out repeated sighs of exasperation.  Or the kid who held his violin pointing straight up  so that his bow wasn’t really touching the strings.  Or the smaller kids who kept wiggling so much that it was impossible for them to hit the right notes.  There were a few solo numbers from some kids who took lessons outside of school and these included some baffling dance moves.  For visual interest, I guess?  Who can say, really.  And then it was over and we all pushed our way out of the gym as if there were Black Friday sales in the lobby.  I managed to get a few photos of Ava as she made her exit.  Notice the stylish uniform.  Which she hates.  

I Don’t Like My School

My school is very boring.  There is only one thing that I enjoy about it.  Oh, well, make that two things.  They are: my friends and the after school Chinese dance class.  My school is boring because it is nothing like Park School.  That was my old school.  Almost everything was different there.  For example, art is a lot different.  We don’t do the things we did at my old school.  We don’t get to make whatever we want, we have to make exactly what the teacher tells us to.  P.E. isn’t anything like Park school.  I can’t exactly explain that.  It will never be as good as Park School!!!!!!


Dictated to Gwen by Ava

My New School

I’m not used to my new school yet.  Every day I don’t want to go to school.  I don’t like having to get up at 6:15.  Now every time I hear something that sounds like my alarm clock, I start to cry.  I also don’t like my bus monitor.  She is really mean and has weird teeth.  I am not used to my new school yet because it just isn’t my old school.  I miss everything about my old school.  I hope I get used to my new school soon.