Archive for May, 2008

The torch arrives

And the Olympic torch made its way to Nanjing!  It was on Tuesday this week that the torch made its stop in our city.  We were astounded by the show of people arriving from all over Jiangsu province to get a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse at the torch being carried towards the Olympic games.  Millions of people, literally, descended on Nanjing to take part in the celebration.

The event brought out plenty of nationalist fervor.  Everywhere you looked, there were reams of the national flag waving red and yellow above the crowds.  Vendors showed up selling flags, t-shirts, banners and stickers to hype the celebration.  The Chinese are very proud that it’s their turn hosting the Olympics, and make plenty of effort to emphasize the fact.

JM was in class when the torch came, and Liz missed it by about 10 minutes since the baby was asleep.  But when she went down to see the aftermath, a group of 30 Chinese tourists spotted her and the baby and rushed in all at once for the kill.  "A foreign baby! So cute! Smile! Look at his shoes! Such white skin!"  Leo lost it and started wailing on mommy’s shoulder.  It was all Liz could do to physically restrain them from touching and grabbing at the baby before they finally realized how overwhelming they were being and backed off.
In other news Leo’s little friend with the bird continues to try to offer some fun.  The other day he brought his bird right over to our table and plopped it down in front of us before our food arrived.  Umm, no thanks.  Leo doesn’t like playing with birds all that much, but maybe next time.


Bird Flu and Dinner Chit Chat

Tonight we ate dinner at our favorite neighborhood noodle shop. It’s just a block or so down our street, and is run by a nice family. We go there often and they know what we like to order. We’re actually not sure how many family members there are, but so far we know there’s Mom, Dad, Big Brother, Big Sister, Little Brother, A Cousin or Two, and a few other helpers that we’re not sure are actual family members.

They are always happy to see us, and Mom often will take Leo when our food arrives, saying, “Gei mama chifan!” (“Let your Mother eat!”) She is on the very short list of people that Leo is allowed to go off with for a minute or two unsupervised (so far there are three people on this list!). It’s always a mixed blessing – on the one hand, it’s GREAT to have a few minutes to eat with both hands free, but on the other hand, we are always a little nervous about what might be happening to Leo in our absence.

Tonight it was going well, as Leo was enjoying everyone’s company in the front of the shop. He had about six admirers making every attempt to amuse him. JM and I were telling ourselves to relax about the germs, no one was spitting on him or sticking their fingers in his mouth, after all! So what if his toy fell on the ground and they gave it back to him. He’s had his vaccinations.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spied Little Brother making haste to play with Leo, dragging his little pet wild bird on a string along the sidewalk behind him. I almost laughed at the irony of the situation – there we were telling ourselves to relax, Leo was just fine, not in any present danger, he’s made it this far without getting ill, everyone’s so kind, etc, etc, and suddenly a wild bird is about to make contact with our precious 9 month old son! For anyone who doesn’t know, Bird Flu is a risk here, and one of the most important precautions is to stay AWAY from contact with live birds. It’s a big no no. I saw JM’s eyes widen, said “GO!” and he leapt up, scooped Leo into his arms and made a very gracious exit with Leo back to our table. Phew!

We’re not letting our guard down anytime soon, although we really enjoy our growing relationships with our friends at various restaurants and shops in our neighborhood! Little Brother and his little bird, be on guard! 🙂

The Nanjing 1/2

We’re proud to say that we completed a half-marathon here in Nanjing! Our good friend Rachael was running her first 1/2 in the States, so we decided to run in solidarity with her here in China. We followed her training schedule for the most part, and found a great area to run in here in town. There’s a big lake that’s almost 6 miles in perimeter, so a couple of laps made up the bulk of our 13.1 mile race.

Our training was interrupted by a few colds and food poisoning, but in the end we feel great about our accomplishment. We ran it together at the same pace, while a friend looked after Leo back at the house. (Our ayi starts work June 1st.) It was the one day of the week it rained, which coincidentally matched Rachael’s weather back in Cleveland. The rain turned out to be a benefit- it kept things cooler and kept the crowds of weekend visitors to the lake at bay.

The scenery was the best part- about half of the lake is bordered by Nanjing’s city wall. This ‘mini Great Wall’ is much akin to Beijing’s famous wall, built in the same era. It’s also very historical, and impressive to run alongside, reaching about five or six stories high. Also by coincidence, our race day was on the same day as the official Great Wall Marathon in Beijing. Our course was nice and flat, though. We didn’t have to tackle going up and down close to 4,000 steps on our path like the other runners did!

We used our GPS watch to clock the time and distance, since our race was an individual effort. We came in at just over 2 hours, much to our amazement- race day brings some extra adrenaline!

Now it’s back to life as usual, and dreams about the next race to put on the horizon. The Tibet Marathon? Next year’s Great Wall? Or how about making four laps of the lake as an inaugural Nanjing Marathon?

Rescue efforts continue…

The death toll from the earthquake continues to rise. At this point, it’s hard to know when it will stop. However, some survivors have been found alive after the 100-hour mark. This is exceptional and miraculous. The Chinese government, in a departure from their normal policy, has begun to accept outside help from other nations and organizations. They’ve mobilized their military and all of their resources, but the magnitude of this quake is too much for them to handle by themselves. So many people are homeless and the situation is very difficult. Clean water, enough food, and access to medicine and medical care are among the major concerns right now. Since many Sichuanese people have, in recent years, migrated to the coastal cities to make more money, there are many people who still don’t know if their families are alive. Communications systems are very weak and much was destroyed by the quake.

Please pray for the 7,000 students and their families who were lost in the earthquake. Tragically, many schools collapsed when the earthquake hit while classes were still in session. There will be many orphans and widows, as well as many parents who have lost their children. Please pray for all those lost, and for the rescue efforts to continue swiftly and efficiently. We know that people could still be alive, and ask for your continued prayers on their behalf especially.

Leo has a Chinese Aunty!

How, might you ask, can Leo possibly have a Chinese aunty? It’s simple; we hired one for him. You can buy anything in China, even relatives! “Ayi,” the Chinese word for aunt, is also the term used for a household helper/nanny. Forms of address here tend to be very personal, and so even JM and I will address our new babysitter as “Cheng Ayi.” Although we would have been content to hire a couple of students from the University to look after Leo, we’ve found that it’s just not the way things work here. Although students in the States might like to pick up some extra money by babysitting a couple of mornings a week, in China the students see this kind of work as a little below them. They are educated, and being an “ayi” is not an educated person’s work. (We did try to post a notice for students, and this was the response we got.) The class divides seem to be a bit sharper here than in America. My tutor, Luo, told me that this would be the response, and further quipped that no student would be qualified to look after Leo anyway. Luo said, “I think the students still need ayis, but maybe if they grew up in the country…” There are also definite attitudes about those who grew up in the country versus those who grew up in the city. Being a country girl myself, I’ve tried to take these attitudes with a grain of salt.

Starting in June, Cheng Ayi and I will begin to transition his morning care to her during the week, and I will eventually have more time to study Chinese. I am looking forward to this with a mixture of happy anticipation (more time to focus on the language) and anxious trepidation (I will be separated from Leo for half the day). She and Leo bonded rather instantly though, and her sweet demeanor gives me a lot of confidence. Communicating with her will be interesting, as she speaks a dialect rather than Mandarin. It’s understandable, but still a lot harder on my ears than a clear Mandarin speaker.

Many people here, Chinese and foreigners, have ayis to buy food, cook, clean, and look after the children. Just being students ourselves, we feel a little strange hiring a nanny (which is a luxury of the privileged in the US). That being said, it is a tremendous relief that someone will be able to come into our home to care for Leo.

The interview process was rather interesting, giving us more perspective on the way things work in China. Our first interview was awful, with the ayi showing up an hour late, not smelling that great, and to top it off her manner with Leo was just a bit too gruff and cavalier. We asked her about her experience caring for children, and her response was along the lines of, “Well, of course I can look after a child.” OK, next question! It fed my fears that an ayi would not respect our authority as Leo’s parents. Thankfully though, this first interview was not the end of the story.

Parental authority is a rather weak concept in China, as child rearing is largely seen as communal, rather than just familial. This has its benefits, as there are always hands willing to hold a baby, help carry a diaper bag in a bathroom, look after a little one while Mom and Dad eat a quick bite, or give helpful advice. It also has its downside at times, as a grandparent can easily override the authority of a parent when questions arise, for example. In my mind, that doesn’t always allow the parents the freedom to develop their own confidence in their roles, but here it seems that tradition is more important and the inherent (and very beautiful) respect for elders overrides the need for parents to “find their own way.” For us, the downside translates into lots of comments about Leo’s well being – “He’s hungry/full/tired/cold/hot/needs a hat/etc, etc, etc” – well intentioned though they may be, it does get old after a while! In the middle of feeding Leo the other day, I had a twenty-something young guy (who doesn’t have children) tell me rather forcefully that Leo was full and only needed something to chew on, like a teething ring. I told him I’d take that under consideration!

We also found that during the hiring process, we weren’t offered say, 5 ayis to interview from a given agency, after which time we could deliberate and make a decision by comparing and contrasting different options. On the contrary, the ayi agency presented us with one ayi to interview at a time, and then we were asked to immediately say “yes” or “no”. This went against our American sensibilities, but we rolled with it (and are really learning to trust our intuition, which is about all we have to go on at times!). It’s also not customary to check references, because questioning someone’s background (except in the most formal of interviews at a much higher professional level) makes them “lose face” – a very important cultural concept for us to understand about China.

We also have to make sure that our ayi is healthy, as many diseases are more prevalent in China (like TB and Hepatitis B). Our ayi will either give us a certificate of health or we will pay for routine testing at our clinic to make sure it’s okay for her to be in regular contact with Leo. I had heard about this in the States and thought that it would be rather awkward to ask for this (but necessary). On the contrary, she was used to the question!

So, Leo and his aunty will have their mornings together starting in June, and I will transition my tutoring and language partners to the mornings as well. We’re thankful we can make this transition with him slowly, and are hopeful this situation works out well for all of us.

As you all know, the earthquake continues to take a huge toll on China. Please pray for the victims and for China; it is a difficult and sad time here!


You may have heard that today there was a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in China, Sichuan province. It was quite large and followed by a quake near Beijing of a much smaller magnitude. It happened this afternoon, and the tremors were felt by much of China, according to news reports. We wanted to let you know that the earthquake came nowhere near our home in Nanjing. One of JM’s classmates said that he felt a tremor in his office building this afternoon around 3pm, but we didn’t feel anything.

Many people are still trapped and injured in Sichuan; please keep them in your thoughts, along with those whose lives this earthquake has claimed.

Running to the market

We are getting back on our feet after the food poisoning (have we said that already? :)) Seriously though, it hit us hard, and this morning’s tough run was proof that our bodies are still recovering. We are in the last few weeks of training for a half marathon, and the food poisoning caused us to miss a week and a half of running. In the meantime, the weather has become rather warm here, in the 80s most days. There are more people out exercising in the mornings, and a few more runners on the road! I must admit, I actually try to run a little faster here out of patriotism. I realize (this is Liz writing) this is somewhat illogical, but it’s true. My long-run outfit is also red, white, and blue (this is coincidental). No one is going to mistake me for an Olympian anytime soon, but it’s interesting how being in a foreign country has brought out my patriotic side. I’ve also learned that if I respond to the inevitable stares and gawking with a smile, most often, I get a smile in return. Every once in a while there’s an obnoxious person who yells out HELLO in the loudest voice possible, just to get laughs from other observers. I usually ignore this, but I’ve thought about stopping and yelling NI HAO (hello in Chinese) really loud just to make a point. I probably won’t, since that would mean slowing down.

We’ve been cooking up a storm in our home! After two months of going out to eat, it finally got old (getting sick probably had a lot to do with it). We both love Chinese food, and it is really cheap to eat out, but we were craving “xicai” (Western Food) and some more normalcy in our daily routine. This has meant that we’ve been heading to the markets for fresh food a few days a week. The produce here would be the envy of anywhere I’ve ever been in the US. It’s fresh, bountiful, and incredibly inexpensive. We’ve been taking advantage of this to learn some new words and some new foods. They have most things we have in the States, but it’s not always exactly the same. The carrots here are a little sweeter and are about the size of my forearm.

Bargaining is the norm here in China, in any marketplace. However, foreigners can expect a “foreigner’s mark up” right off the bat. Although I’ve been frustrated at having to pay higher prices than the locals, it’s motivating to learn the language so that one day I can bargain (and therefore perhaps pay) like a local. I have always been a pretty good negotiator in the States, but here I have no skill. When the shopkeeper tells you the price and you counter-offer, they look at you disdainfully – like you just kicked a puppy… or worse! It was really disarming the first few times it happened, until I realized that this reaction is all part of the negotiation process here. I’m also getting to know fair prices for things, which really helps. I asked a Chinese person how they know what to counter offer, and they told me, “You just have to know it in your heart.” This was not so helpful, but I got the drift… “Follow your gut.”

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May 2008
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