Posts Tagged 'adjustments'

Life Is Different

So it’s been about five-hundred years since my last post.  At least it feels that way!  And it also feels like our lives in China have fast forwarded quite suddenly as well.  This is likely because in the last year, I’ve had a baby (and boy does that fill your time!), gotten a new job, moved (across the street, but still), traveled throughout the US for two months, and to top it off, I am now a full-time working mom.

Our lives look a lot different than they did last year too, which is another reason it likely feels we’ve fast forwarded.  We are both working full time, and formal time as students of Chinese has come to a close.  Which is not all bad, since being a student is rather rough on the pocketbook.  Leo is in kindergarten, and is speaking Chinese all day either in school or with his nanny.  JM continues his full-time work as a teacher, and I am in an office all day, with mostly Chinese colleagues and some other Americans.  Rosie is at home with our nanny, a new ‘ayi’ that we hired to work all day from 8-5pm while we work.

We live where I work, as the company provides housing for the foreign employees.  This makes for the world’s shortest commute.  Our apartment is nice, and we are enjoying some creature comforts we’ve gone without the past few years – like a bathtub, carpet, a built-in oven, a clothes drier, central heating and air, and filtered water from the tap.

Lest all these perks fool you into thinking we have suddenly hit easy street :), know that I am working hard for the money.  I am separated from my children a LOT, but we are adjusting and managing.  I am working in education administration, and one of my favorite things about the work is that I work with mostly Chinese colleagues.  I enjoy my American colleagues, for sure, but it has been a great opportunity to use my Chinese far beyond the market, the playground, and the home. I am now using it everyday in a professional setting, and that is great.

So our lives have, over the course of almost three years, settled down here in China for the time being.  Life feels much more normal now than it has ever before.  We have some routines now that we haven’t had in the past, and it’s not as difficult as it used to be to navigate our everyday life.  And I count that as a blessing at this point!  I don’t have to look up new vocabulary words every time I walk out the door.  My newer challenges include things like getting to know an entirely different office and business culture and balancing two small children with a very busy work life.

For instance, I just returned from my first business trip away from my kids here.  I was gone for five days up in Northeast China.  I had the opportunity to meet a lot of directors of different educational programs, and it was a great trip all around.  One funny thing, although while I was on the road I worked about a twelve-hour day each day, my days seemed exceedingly relaxed in comparison to my days at home.  I practically didn’t know what to do with myself (but I figured it out eventually – time to read a book over a glass of red wine quickly became a fulfilled vision, as did an eight-hour night of sleep).  I had time to think and make phone calls; I even trimmed my cuticles.  That being said, I was glad to scoop my kids and husband back into my arms this past Friday afternoon.  There really is no place like home – sloppy wet kisses, snuggles, and sweet funny babies really make my days and nights.

So here we are, living this very normal/abnormal life here – on the one hand working and raising our kids, and on the other hand doing it in China.  It’s still exciting, it’s still exotic at times, and it’s still challenging in many ways.  But it’s a very different life than we’ve led over the past two years.

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The Ayi Diaries, cont…

So our Ayi has been with us for three months, and I thought it was time for another installment of “The Ayi Diaries.” We have had our share of bloopers over these past few months, as we sort out our differences and find a routine. I’ve been around the house studying the whole time, and next Monday marks the beginning of school. It’s been wonderful to have the time to get to know each other as well as work out some of the inevitable kinks in such a relationship.

Leo adores Ayi, and is happy to see her every day, which is a relief to me! I have to admit though, as a Mom, the first time he reached out his arms to her while in my arms I thought, “Oh, so soon you forget who carried you in the womb and fed you night after night!” ☺ Just kidding, sort of.

We almost parted ways when she fed him a bunch of her lunch one day without telling me. Without being too explicit, let’s just say there was “evidence” that he had been fed something very strange. We had to confront her with this (very interesting to confront anyone in China about anything, by the way) and at first she just said, “Well, he really liked it.” (I thought to myself, “Well, he would really like to eat ice cream for breakfast every day too.” ☺) I kept pushing the issue, because she knew that I wanted her to only feed him our food (I’m neurotic about food because we’ve had two bouts of food poisoning and I’m not anxious for Leo to have this experience!). Finally, she admitted that she thinks we don’t feed him the appropriate foods, and thought he needed more fiber. We then had another conversation about his poo habits (yes, at this point my potty vocabulary ROCKS), and settled the issue. She promised to never do that again. That’s the only time I thought our relationship wasn’t going to work out!

She has taught Leo how to dance and how to clap! He responds to the Chinese for “dance” and “clap” and still doesn’t know these words in English. We’re really interested to see how his language develops, and it seems he’s having no trouble. He can speak about 4 or 5 words now – all in English so far. But it’s great to see that he’s assimilating the sounds and is beginning to show understanding of some Chinese words.

Otherwise, there have been some interesting cultural encounters. We’ve made a point not to fuss too much over him when he hurts himself. In China, the babies are really fussed over when they fall, and they tend to cry quite a bit. So she likes it that he’s not quite that easily flustered. She also told my tutor that she likes my methods that I get from books (she thinks we’re a little book crazy because all we do is study and read), and that it seems that the methods work very well. She asked me to go the bookstore with her to pick out a Chinese book so she could read about it herself. I told her that I don’t think they’ve translated them into Chinese quite yet! Now that he’s walking and has turned one, he’s turned into a bundle of busy-ness – enough for any one person to handle. I’m not so sure there’s a book that covers this territory! We joke that we now live with ‘Animal’ from the Muppets ☺.

Although sometimes it’s still hard to communicate, it’s gotten so much better over the past three months. I understand her fairly well now, and she’s really patient with my choppy Chinese. It’s a complicated relationship, both because of the language and the culture. Some things don’t translate that well no matter what you say! However, we’re working it out a day at a time, and at the end of the day – she’s pretty cool. She recently came to his birthday party, and we were glad to celebrate with her. Cheng Ayi is a big part of Leo’s life and ours.

Saving Face…

Yesterday, after trying on several pieces of clothing at a small shop, I told the shop assistant, “Zhexie bu xiang.” Which, roughly translated, means, “I wouldn’t like these.” I thought that was a simple enough phrase – it did the job and I even used the form of the verb “to want” (there are two) that has a softer edge. Usually, when I don’t want something, I say, “Bu yao, xiexie.” (I don’t want, thank you). This form of want (yao), conveys a stronger meaning, but when said correctly, it isn’t rude – just very direct. I use it all the time at restaurants and in the marketplace with no problems. JM has been encouraging me to try saying, “Bu xiang” instead of “Bu yao” – to be a little less direct. So, I thought I would try it out.

Imagine my surprise when the shopkeeper laughed right out loud! I was a bit taken aback, realizing I must have said something wrong, but not quite certain exactly what could have been wrong with three simple words. I looked at JM, and he just shrugged. The shopkeeper quickly corrected my language, and told me to say instead, “It’s not ok.” So today, during my lesson, I of course asked my tutor what caused the problem. She said my grammar was fine, but my cultural awareness was lacking. By using that form of the verb, I was implying that I didn’t want the clothing, partly because I didn’t like it (which is a bit of an affront to the store), and partly because I couldn’t afford it (which causes embarrassment to me). She told me that I should have made up a reason why I didn’t want the clothing (wrong size, wrong color, bad fit…) – ANYTHING but imply that I couldn’t afford it or that I straightforwardly just didn’t like it.

I’m going to have to get used to this, as my first inclination is to politely tell it like it is. Luckily, here, I have no choice but to think before I talk (since Chinese doesn’t quite come naturally yet!), so I don’t imagine I’ll make this mistake twice.

What we miss (and don’t)

So, you may be wondering, what do Liz and JM miss after 4 months outside of the US? And, what don’t we miss that we thought we would before we left? Well, here’s a short list (we will not be talking about the obvious things like friends and family – YES, we miss you all terribly!).

THINGS WE MISS:

Our oven! Ovens do exist here, but they’re a luxury that few can afford.

The comfort of blending right into your own culture. Everywhere we go, we are different. In a given setting, we may not always be sure of the social context. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to communicate, and sometimes we long for the ease of being in a group of Americans! We are also the objects of LOTS of second glances and curiosity, which we’ve grown more and more accustomed to over the past 4 months. Nonetheless, sometimes we really would like to blend in!

In a word: YOGA. (This is Liz writing. For the record, JM does NOT and will never miss Yoga.)

Foods we miss: Chocolate, Cheese, Good Wine, Avocados, Good Cheap Coffee (no one sells decaf here, and the coffee they do have is very expensive), Deli Meat, BREAD, Hommos, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Western Spices (Funny though, we don’t really miss lettuce salads.) AND, we especially miss all the fabulous restaurants in New Haven (Thai Taste, Sitar, SUSHI Palace!, Istanbul, Claire’s, Pepe’s and Sally’s, Modern Apizza, The Pantry, etc, etc, etc!).

US Sports Coverage on TV – We do wish we could watch a good game now and then!

Fresh air and clean water: We are coughing a bit more and inhaling a lot more dust, and we buy bottled water every day. We certainly appreciate the quality of American air and water!

A soft bed mattress. As far as we can tell, we are actually pretty lucky to have a mattress. Beds of criss-crossed ropes are not uncommon here.

Space: It is crowded here. There really are a LOT of Chinese people. And we thought New England was crowded.

Toilet paper and hand soap in restrooms; we make sure to bring our own.

THINGS WE THOUGHT WE’D MISS, BUT DON’T:

Our clothes drier – not a big deal once we got the hang of doing laundry this way… Even with a baby and all the laundry that entails.

Carseats and strollers: Let’s face it, carseats (while admittedly safer), are annoying. We don’t know a baby who loves his/her carseat. We don’t drive our own car, and there aren’t seatbelts in the taxis to hook up a carseat. People do use strollers here, but we don’t know how they navigate the sidewalks and ad hoc construction zones with them. Plus, hauling a stroller up and down 96 stairs to our apartment sounds backbreaking. Not to mention, Leo is more protected from all the attention he gets here while in our arms or in our carrier. So, to heck with carseats and strollers!

Driving our own car – we just don’t need (or want) a car here. Everything we need is within walking or bussing distance. Navigating the streets of Nanjing in a car also sounds a little scary. It’s pretty organized, but still a bit cutthroat.

Endless supplies of hot water: We have a solar water heater on our roof and it heats a certain quantity of hot water for us each day when the sun is out. It saves a tremendous amount of electricity.

Toilets with seats: You may or may not know that Asian toilets are holes in the ground (with plumbing, of course), and so no one sits in restrooms. It is quick and can be clean (as long as you don’t slip on the floor).

For all the things we miss, we are having constant adventures exploring our new territory and are feeling more and more at home here. People are indeed curious, but also very friendly – asking us what kind of food we eat, where we’re from, where we live, what we’re doing here, and – our personal favorite – if we know who Michael Jordan is! Although we may not always be at ease and it takes about 10 times as much energy to communicate, it’s incredibly satisfying to be able to have conversations with people who, just a few short months ago, we could barely say hello to in Chinese!

Foreigners on table three!

Going on our fourth month of residence here in Nanjing, we sometimes feel a routine start to set in. Things that first were strange to us, like spitting in public, are now second nature (for JM at least- PTOO!).

Every now and again, though, something gives us a pretty good reminder that we’re unquestionably a foreign element here in China. For instance when eating out for lunch a few days ago, we were finishing up when another group of people came in looking for a seat. Standing right by us, the waiter called out to them in front of all the other guests, “Just wait a second and these foreigners will be done!” It’s an adjustment, but we’re slowly getting used to being branded “WAIGUOREN” (foreign person) in everyday speech!

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.”

Three weeks in

It’s hard to believe we’ve been here for three weeks already. We feel like there are so many interesting things we’ve seen that it’s hard to know what to start with. I’ll try to pick out just a few of the things that stand out in my mind as noteworthy experiences in our new life here.

First, there are many parts of Nanjing that aren’t so different from life in the states. Our first surprise was to see many American companies that have made their arrival in this mainland city, even though being 4 hours removed from Shanghai. First were the obvious, McDonald’s and KFC. But after a few days of taxi rides around town trying to file all of our visa papers, we spotted Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and of course, multiple Starbucks coffee shops. Our neighborhood food mart has Pampers disposable diapers, and a full line of Johnson and Johnson toiletries. The department stores in town are stocked with all of Liz’s favorite makeup brands and beauty products, and many name-brand clothing companies have their lines for sale, from Gucci to Esprit. Maybe due to our apartment’s proximity to the Johns Hopkins campus at Nanjing University, we find ourselves right around the corner from an American food import store, with everything from pasta and cheeses to Swiss Miss and Betty Crocker mixes. Our impulse to leave parts of US commercialism behind seems to be thwarted by all of this. However, it is certainly a clear segment of the population that can afford these items, as they are all sold at American prices, which makes them 7 times more expensive in the local currency.

Second, we had our first experience of receiving bias towards foreigners. During our apartment search we found a well priced flat near school that was relatively clean. Desperate by this point, we tried to lock in the lease. At first the landlord backtracked, saying he had another person interested in a longer lease duration than us. Our friend translating pressed him with our counter offer for a higher monthly rental rate, but he confessed that he didn’t feel comfortable with tenants who had a language barrier. We realize this is quite a natural concern, but we never imagined we’d be in this situation ourselves, especially since we came to town with the objective of improving our Chinese. Also, people typically had no reserves about renting property to us. Was there something else besides the language difficulty behind this situation? We don’t really know, but this was definitely a new experience for us. (We found a much better apartment, so this one just wasn’t meant to be.)

Third, today I had the experience for the first time of looking at a fellow Westerner as a foreigner. While practicing Chinese with a classmate, I found myself subconsciously evaluating his features, noticing that his eyes looked strange to me. I realized what I was doing, along with the irony that I shared these exact same features that put us so out of place in China. The six million residents of Nanjing share the same ethnic background, much more so than the residents of most cities in the US. This makes we few Westerners stick out like sore thumbs against the homogeneity. It really struck home today that I too am a foreign element to this community, something that I’m powerless to change no matter how well I may learn to speak Chinese.