Archive for March, 2009

Through children’s eyes

Kids say the funniest things.  What they spout out is a wonderful way for us to learn how we really are perceived by people here, without all the decorum and manners of adults holding raw responses in check. For example:

“That’s a foreigner!”

“He can’t understand you, he’s a foreigner.”

“Why are the foreign people speaking Chinese? It’s not their language.”

What suddenly worries me about this is the day that Leo will start spouting things in Chinese that he’s overheard his own parents say in English.  Some ill-timed comments could be as follows:

“Why does he have to smoke right next to us?”

“Is this meat cooked all the way through?”

“Do you think it’s clean enough to eat here?”

“This is China, what do you expect?”

“Do you think this water is contaminated?”

Depending on who overhears these comments that we usually screen behind English, it could be pretty embarrassing!


Leo speaks!

LeoLeo has a few words to say

Leo has a few words to say

Our son now understands more Chinese than he does English. We feel like delinquent parents.

His Chinese words that he can speak include: light, no, it fell, thanks, nanny, carry me, food, yes, not okay, grandma(!), and of course, mama and dada.

Hot dogs.. and so much more

China does sell hot dogs! There are some local stores that feature them, and even some traveling hot dog carts just like you’d see in New York. Well, almost like New York. They gather in the high traffic areas of town, which is pretty much everywhere.

The most ubiquitous hot dog carts in town in fact do not sell hot dogs. These mobile wagons are run by local fix-it workers offering services of many kinds, from tinkerers to bike repairmen, locksmiths, even one making hard candies in the most fantastic shapes imaginable.

The bike repairmen are the most numerous cart business in town. Every single street corner seems to have one at the ready for a broken chain, flat tire, or rusted axle. All of the bikes in town (some number in the millions) are old, weather-worn rusty hunks of metal. The idea is to own the worst-looking bike possible, so the thieves will not steal it. ‘They have all the keys to the locks anyway,’ my students have told me.

Today, however, I did not need bike repairs. My favorite windbreaker has had a broken zipper for the longest time, but I have insisted on wearing it anyway. Walking down a side alley to get home after class, I passed another hot dog cart worker, this one streaming with pieces of cloth, ribbon, thread, and presided over by a jolly looking woman at a portable sewing machine. There was even a bundle of new zippers strung across a bar that normally would have been a station for condiments.

Showing her my zipper I asked, “Can you fix this?” “Sure,” she said. “How much?” This was where I got skeptical. Being a foreigner, I have many times been given the standard 1000% markup on prices, leaving me in the position of bargaining hard or simply walking away.

“Only 3 yuan.” Wow- this sounded perfectly fair. Less than 50 cents for a new zipper, repair cost included! I agreed, and out came a jar filled with spare zipper clasps. She found one my size, and with a pair of pliers and a few minutes of wiggling, my windbreaker was rehabilitated! I gave her the three coins, thanked her, and went on my way.

Only in China, I was thinking to myself, do you follow a blind instinct leading you down an alley, thereupon finding the exact sort of cheap, reliable labor you’re in need of.

I will keep an eye out for the next hot dog cart when need arises. If only they had a remedy for not being able to read Chinese characters!

The Neighborhood Watch

In the past two months, our Ayi has begun to take Leo outside to play during her shifts. Before that, we were a little too worried about him being outside without one of us. But now that he’s a big bad 18 month old 🙂 – we figure he can handle it and our nanny has proven herself capable of caring for him mostly according to our liking. She still puts multiple layers of clothing on him (sometimes he’s a little too warm when I get home, and I have to strip a layer or two off), and every once in a while she sneaks in a few contraband crackers/sweets, but for the most part, she honors our standards. We joke that she is like his Chinese grandma, and she feels that way too. After 10 months of caring for him, the two of them are peas in a pod in some ways.

A few days after I agreed to let her take Leo out during her shifts, I was doing some shopping at the vegetable market down our street. As usual, the neighbors were all gathered on the street, chatting and joking around. Two ladies and a security guard began playing with Leo, and soon another little boy about his age was in on the action. As they were all having a good time laughing at the little ones trying to climb onto a few stools they had set out, I began chatting with a couple of neighborhood ladies. They instantly began to tell me how things were going with Leo and our nanny. The ladies gave me a full report on their activities outside – how long they were out, what they did, where they went, and who they talked to and played with. I gladly received this information, because although I knew that it was good for Leo to get out of the house with Ayi, it still makes me nervous, even now. I had reiterated a list of rules for her (don’t let other people kiss him, take him out of your sight, or feed him anything, and watch him like a hawk, because he moves fast and the streets are narrow), but all rules aside, it was new territory for me as a mother to have Leo outside in China without a parent. I apparently had nothing to worry about though, because everyone in our neighborhood knows Leo and they were keeping an eye on him just as our ayi was. The report was mostly positive; the ladies’ only exception was that they felt Leo was out a bit too long for his own good.

One of the ladies then asked me, “Does your ayi have culture?” This took me a few seconds to digest, and I truly wasn’t sure how to respond. I sort of knew the answer was no, but I didn’t have any intention of belittling our ayi. I wasn’t sure if I said yes, was I going to look silly? If I said no, was I going to be speaking unkindly? This is one of the challenges of language, the uncertainty of the nuances and meanings of certain words in certain circumstances. I didn’t have to worry about how to answer for long though, because the other lady piped in, “Certainly she does not have culture; she’s from the countryside.” So I surmised that culture meant being from the city and having some education. They didn’t approve of this either, but I assured them that she was very warm and loved Leo very much, and it didn’t matter to us that she was from the countryside. They seemed to accept this. In some ways, being a foreigner is easier than being a local because we can get away with not conforming to certain social standards because we are outsiders. So if I think it’s okay to have an uncultured nanny for my son, then people are for the most part accepting of that and chalk it up to me being a foreigner, even if they think it’s wrong.

Speaking of the language, Leo is starting to sound more and more Chinese as the days pass. We are starting to be more intentional about speaking English with him, as his Chinese is arguably better than his English at the moment. I come home from work to find Leo saying, “Dui!” (Yes or Correct) and “Diaole!” (It fell!) and “Baobao” (Pick me up!). His language is a bit behind his peers, but his comprehension is not. Which, from all reports we’ve heard of children raised in bilingual settings, this language lag is pretty normal and he should catch up as the Chinese and English sort themselves out in his mind. The funniest part is that recently, I’ve had people begin to ask me (when just the two of us are out together) if his Dad is Chinese. People even debate about which of his facial characteristics come from his father (who must be Chinese). Last time I checked, JM was most certainly European American, and I do explain this to dubious strangers on busses and in stores. I really think that the people of China just want to claim Leo as their own, and who can blame them? He’s a pretty cute kid!

The trip out west – pictures

It’s been two months since I set out for the frontiers of Tibet in January, and I’m still amazed by the memories of the places I went. The good news is that I have finished a website for my pictures, which I welcome everyone to peruse.

Please let me know what you think!

The weather outside is STILL frightful

It’s been raining for over a week, pretty much non-stop, and we’re not so sure when it’s supposed to stop. The rain is accompanied by some pretty cold temperatures, so we’re all a little chilly these days.

We thought the worst of winter was over when during Spring Festival, temperatures were truly Spring like! It was only a brief reprieve though, and now we are back to winter.

JM was saying the other day that he used to really love winter – the cold runs outside followed by a hot shower and a warm living room to hang out in. These days though, our reality looks a bit different. We have persisted through winter here with what for us is a bare minimum of heat (and sometimes below what we would consider the bare minimum). We’ve struggled to dress our son warmly enough (he really does look like Ralphie from The Christmas Story right now!). We’re entirely grateful for having brought along two down sleeping bags, and we sleep each night in them when the temps really drop. The toughest part though, is when evening comes and we need to sit and do work – this also usually entails being zipped up as much as possible in our sleeping bags surrounded by our books. It also entails drinking copious amounts of hot water. We’re thankful for these things, and they make life bearable.

We’ve had our moments of fatigue with the cold, when enduring another day of seeing our breath in the kitchen and dining room (which have no heat whatsoever) is just a bit much. Or when our water supply freezes entirely for the morning (this is thankfully very rare and we’ve figured out to run the water at a drip all night to keep the pipes running). It’s at these times when we do long for home, for the ease of turning on endless supplies of hot water and effortlessly being warm. It takes up energy to stay warm here in the winter, and I’ll be grateful for Spring. Neither of us would say that Winter is our favorite season anymore, not even one we remotely like – at least in China.

When I was young, I read “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It chronicles her family’s very tough winter in Minnesota – they experienced bitter cold, tremendous snows, lack of food supply and firewood, amongst other sufferings. Although I’d never compare our situation to the Wilder family’s long winter, I do feel like I understand the harshness of cold more after having been through a winter in China. Growing up in Wisconsin, I’ve always considered myself rather accustomed to the cold. But that was with quality furnaces and plenty of energy to run them all winter long, and cars to take me where I needed to go. I know I’ll appreciate the suffering of cold more now than before this winter.

We’ll also be looking for a better apartment with more reliable heating for next winter! I’m not going through another winter like this again on purpose :).

With March having arrived, I know Spring MUST be on it’s way… I can’t wait!

You are just too annoying!

It often happens here that we’d like to thank people for their kindness. Like the wonderful lovely waitress at our favorite Indian restaurant who gave us a free order of nan on our anniversary and who watches Leo for us for a few minutes so we can eat. Or, another example, when JM was in Tibet and I was having trouble one night with a very tired Leo who needed to go to bed, the restaurant at the bottom of our building delivered dinner to my door without asking for anything in return. These are the moments, among many here, for which we are very grateful for people’s help and generosity. Naturally we want to say thank you, and tell people how kind they are.

Now, here’s where things went wrong for a while. It turns out that I’ve been mispronouncing the word “kind” for a good number of months. And, unfortunately, my pronunciation does make another real Chinese word. It’s also an adjective, so it’s pretty close. Except it means “annoying” rather than kind. Oops. So I’ve been telling our sweet waitress how annoying she’s been when she’s watched Leo for us, and thanked our generous downstairs restaurant owners for being so annoying. Nice of me, eh?

Thankfully, actions speak louder than words, so I’ve never offended anyone. It’s clear by my smile and behavior that I’m grateful and not annoyed. But I am grateful that I now know, and can look a little less foolish and a little more polished in the future. No one has ever corrected my pronunciation (it’s a rare thing here anyway; I actually wish people corrected me more often!). I only found out because JM and I were having a debate over it in a taxi one day, and we looked it up at home (I lost that debate!).

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