Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Wonderful Terrible Adventure

Travel with children is wonderful.  They are so eager for adventure, and unofficial research has shown that 98.37%* of all good adventures are found on the journey itself. (*This statistic applies only to children and solo adults carrying very large backpacks).

While the adult is busy thinking about the full day of travel to reach the destination, the child is busy taking in the size and echo of the giant new playground/airport full of shiny reflections, endless corridors, escalators, and of course, "Airplane! And another airplane! And an airplane going up in the air! And that airplane looks like a bird!!"  While the recently mobile child thinks, "Run! Climb! Elude! Freeeeeedoooooom!"

The adult settles into the airplane seat and rearranges 52 items from 7 bags - snacks, toys, water bottles, distracting mobile devices - check.  The child has already found new toys: the windowshade, the tray table, the buttons that don't seem to do anything, and especially the safety card - "Look, those people are on an airplane too!  What are they doing?  What's that sign?  What's that light?  What's that slide?  I want to go on the slide!"  And the baby child thinks, "Ooh, yummy table.  Ooh, tasty armrest.  Ooh, must grab another safety card to eat!"

Repeat the airport and airplane scene a few more times, and the adult has never been happier to see the hotel room.  Must. lie. down.  The child is overjoyed by her very own tiny home to explore.  "Look at that bathtub!! It's so big!!  What's this little room? (A closet - we don't have those. Or bathtubs.) It's like a little house!  Oh look there is my own bed!"  Meanwhile the less verbal child thinks, "Ooh, someone left me a crumb!  A PHONE!  I wonder if I can fit my fingers in those tiny holes in the wall?  Look at the big bed!  Must. climb."

And when the adult travels with child, the adult starts to see things in a new light.  All those airplanes taking off in the air are pretty amazing and the airport (some parts) are great places to run, even when you aren't about to miss a flight.  Thank goodness for a giant free playground and a large admiring audience (We mainly travel in Asia where children, especially foreign ones, are almost universally beloved.) And yes, the emergency slide does look fun, even if you never want to try it.  The child causes the adult to remember that travel is supposed to be an adventure.

Travel with children is terrible.  Unofficial research has shown that 98.37%* of sleep, reasonable behavior, and general sanity are left behind at the starting location.  (*This statistic applies to both children and adults).

The adult arrives on vacation (we'll say the beach) needing vacation.  The trials of travel are over and now it is time to relax.  The child suddenly and is freaking out about the sink handles in the bathroom.  The baby child (who has spent the entire day running away) suddenly must touch the adult at every moment, even/especially in sleep.

The adult, despite years of contrary experience, still believes that vacation = sleeping in.  The child believes that sleeping in = "It's 5:20 am!! It's still dark, but let's go out and play!!  The less verbal child believes that vacation = doing away with those silly notions of "sleep" and "nighttime" altogether.  Loudly.

The adult, despite years of contrary experience, brings a book down to sit on the beach.  The child thinks that the beach is too sandy and the water is *moving* and the pool looks much better except that the playground is even more fun.  No, let's go back to the pool.  The beach!  The pool!  Nevermind, let's just watch Frozen.

The adult gazes out at the ocean and thinks 3.2 seconds worth of deep, contemplative thoughts.  Meanwhile the recently mobile child tries to dive headfirst into the pool, eats some sand, and then takes off straight for a cuddly-looking jellyfish.

The adult looks forward to sampling the local foods.  The child would like a peanut butter sandwich.  Daily.  For every meal.  The baby child would like to sample all the local foods.  Preferably from the floor.

Despite the Germ-x baths, nobody is too surprised when the baby gets sick.  And drinks from the child's water, making the child sick.  Who coughs all over the adult, making the adult sick.  The baby gets better and is ready to play.  The child gets better and is ready to play.  The adult stays sick.

Travel with children is wonderful.  Particularly if you are the child.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Land of All Good Things

My first trip to Chiang Mai was in college; it was the first foreign country I ever visited.  That first time, everything was strange and exotic.  I rode on the back of a motorbike through crazy (tame) traffic and thought I might die.  I ate new foods and bought an iconic Thai Coke t-shirt (which I still own).  I had my first encounters with squattie-potties and European showers.  I afraid to venture anywhere on my own, sure I would get hopelessly lost.

I returned to Thailand after my first six months living in China.  Chiang Mai was like a fabulous oasis.  I almost cried over how friendly everyone was, greeting me with smiles instead of suspicion or shock.  And mostly, I breathed in the beauty - deep, gulping breaths of one who hasn't tasted air in too long.  And speaking of air, I actually felt healthy breathing it.  I could see blue skies and mountains, flowers and lush greenery, and if the sky turned red it was from sunset, not an unnatural smog.  Even the restaurants were beautiful, and I enjoyed the decorative plates nearly as much as the burritos, pad thai, and milkshakes.  Ten years ago, I'd say that asthetics were still quite low on China's priority list, and I was starved for beauty.

It was sometime during my first years in China that another China-dweller and I started referring to Thailand as "the land of all good things."  It sums up our feelings pretty well.

This is my ninth trip to Thailand.  After so many years, everywhere I go is filled with memories.  I walk through the stalls of the night market remembering the lamps and pillow covers I bought to beautify my first China home (the wares have hardly changed).  I still expect to run across friends who have long since moved on.

The YMCA hotel seems like it should be filled with our lively group of young singles, staying up late studying and talking like we were in college again.  I think of sitting around in the small classroom for our weeklong classes, discussing holistic development and finding out we had a giant research paper due in a few days.  I think of the night Kevin and I paraded among our classmates announcing our engagment to squeals and shock ("What? I thought you just started dating?!" Yes, yes we did.)  I remember card games and ice cream and even some of the content I studied.

Across the street is the tiny "mom and pop's" restaurant with the dirt floors and the tasty $1 dishes.  It was there I was first pooped on by a baby (my teammate's).  It was there I had a mini-breakdown from stress and exhaustion - all-out bawling in the middle of the restaurant to a distraught Kevin (who must not have been too freaked out as he proposed to me later that day).

Down the road is the internet bar where I sat and worked on many a paper and sent many an email in the days before free wireless everywhere.  There Kevin talked to my dad for the first time - to ask if he could marry me.  There we called our family and friends to share news of our engagement.  It was there I received the call that my grandfather had died.

There is the hospital where I saw both of my babies for the first time - tiny little blobs with beautiful heartbeats.  When I look up to the mountains I remember riding a motorbike up to a waterfall and coming back with a ring on my finger.  I walk on past the secondhand bookshops, now that I have my kindle and limited luggage space, but I think of the excitement of so many English books just waiting to be read.

I know where to find the cheap iced coffee cart which never seems to be open when you really need it.  I have eaten years of banana rotis and coconut smoothies.  I have marveled at Burger King and Subway, just because they were there.  We know where to find the Mexican food, the Mediteranean, the Amazing Sandwiches, the burgers, and the pie.  And every year we discover new favorite restaurants, until there is barely time to hit them all.

The other day when we returned to our favorite falafel restaurant, I was touched to realize the Israeli owner remembered us.  "Oh yes, these two come back every year.  I remember before they had children, when he was still chasing after her.  And then they come back with a child, and now with these two little ones.  It is beautiful!"

I know the streets of Paris and London and Rome are far more cultured and presumably cleaner, but I can't imagine I would ever feel as at home as I do here, with the smelly canals and cheap street food and the beautiful memories.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

On Losing My Title and Finding My Niche

When I had a job, it was easier to define my role in life.  Teacher - The focus of my life seemed to fit well into that description. I spent time preparing lessons, teaching, grading, meeting with students, planning extracurricular activities.  Language Student - my expectations were pretty clear: Learn Chinese.  Go to class, study on my own, meet with a tutor.  My purpose and actions were directly defined by my role.

For the past year I have been a part-time teacher.  That has been a little harder to define, because while I was doing something definite, it was only about 10% of my life.  And since it wasn't my main role, it never felt quite as "real."  It seemed more like a side thing I was doing for fun, so I just needed to make it fit in where I could.  Nevertheless, there was a contract and a salary, and nothing says "this is a legitimate job" like actually getting paid for doing something.

But now I am venturing into a new role, one that doesn't seem to define anything.  Next semester my official title will be "supporting spouse."  Honestly all the terms that have attempted to describe this role make me cringe: Accompanying spouse, non-teaching spouse, trailing spouse, "I'm just along for the ride" spouse (okay, I made up that last one).

Maybe this is egocentric, but any of these titles make me feel like a supporting actress in the story of my own life.  I definitely think I should support Kevin in his work; I also think he should support me in my work.  After years of having the same role - teacher and then student - our roles are different now and mostly very traditional.  But I don't think either of us is supposed to be the "main player" in this life we are sharing.

I want to support Kevin, but I didn't come here for him.  (I didn't even know him when I came!)  I came because I was called, and we stayed because we are called - both of us.   I believe God brought us together and when he calls us to a place, he has a purpose there for both of us.

But I struggle sometimes, now that I have lost my titles, or at least the titles that make any sense.  Sometimes when you stop being The Teacher, people forget your years of teaching experience and assume you don't know what you're talking about.  Sometimes when you stop being The Student, people forget you still remember (some) of the things you learned.  Sometimes when you are The Spouse, people ask your husband questions about culture and ask you questions about laundry.  

Sometimes I feel that when I lost my title, I also lost my voice.

And I feel the loss.  Kevin and I have lived in China for the same length of time, we have held the same jobs, we have studied almost the same amount of Chinese, and we even have exactly the same masters degree.  But since he is Teacher and Leader, and since I am Spouse, others seem less interested in what I have to offer - or maybe I truly do have less to offer.  I feel I have lost some of who I am and who I have been.

I try to sift through the pride that is certainly there - the desire to be significant and recognized.  I admit the selfishness inherent in every human regardless of their title - the desire to become greater instead of less.  

But I also recognize the longing to acknowledge that I have gifts and talents far beyond the scope of laundry, and I want to use them for the benefit of others and the work we do.  I want to be faithful to my calling - and motherhood and spouse-hood, while incredibly significant and highly time consuming, are not my full calling.

So how do I find my niche?  How do I find my true role within this this ambiguous title of "Supporting Spouse"?  I don't know.  This is a questions post, not an answers post.  All I know is that in my questions I hear a quiet voice saying, “Remember the fearless woman leader, the left-handed judge, the shepherd king, the persecutor turned preacher, the baby Savior?  I have been redefining roles and titles since the beginning of time.  You are bigger than any box because I am bigger.”

I truly believe that God gives contentment and purpose within the roles he has for us.  I also truly believe that God gives incredible freedom beyond titles - freedom to listen and seek and discover what he has for us.  I am still learning how to be content and discontent, how to accept and reject the titles given and taken away, how to work within and beyond.  I am still looking for my niche.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Year of Grace

Three days into the New Year and I am sick again.  Or perhaps truthfully, I never quite got over that cold that arrived with December.  I feel guilty about being sick.  It is just a stupid cold - anyone can get over a cold.  And since I can't, I must be doing something wrong.

Maybe if I just thought positively enough (Haven't you ever heard someone say, "I don't have time for a cold so I'm just not going to give into it!"), if I ate more spinach and apples, if I took the right medicine, or if I used the right herbs and oils, if I did or didn't exercise - if I figured out just the right combination, I could get better.  If I did everything right, surely I wouldn't be sick.

And then I realized, this is how I think about everything.  Oh, not rationally.  Rationally I know that nobody is perfect, that certain illness is inevitable, that I cannot wield control over the whole world through my sheer goodness.  But just below the surface of rational, I believe that pretty much everything that happens in my life is somehow a result of my perfection or imperfection.

If I did everything right, Adalyn would sleep well every night and take long naps every day.  If I did everything right, Juliana would meekly obey instead of fighting approximately everything she is asked to do.  If I did everything right, Kevin and I would have meaningful conversations every evening as we gazed lovingly into each others' eyes.  If I did everything right, students would flock to me to explore the mysteries of life.  If I did everything right, maybe I would finally feel satisfied with myself.

And so, in the midst of this delusion, I realize the word that has come to me, my word for 2015, hasn't come a moment too soon.

I spent the first part of last year striving and striving and almost collapsing every night with soul-deep exhaustion.  Over the weeks and months of struggle, I felt an idea reiterated in what I read (like 1000 Gifts), the songs I heard (like Gungor and All Sons and Daughters), and in my own thoughts: beauty.  I didn't choose that word for last year, but in the end it chose me.  As I began searching for the beauty in the everyday, I saw beauty.  Instead of chaffing at my limitations and longing to get away from it all, I started to recognize and appreciate the beauty that was already all around.  At least, most of the time.

I think my perspective on life has changed a lot, but my inward struggle remains.  The drive to be good enough.  The need to prove myself.  The pressure to get it all right.  Once again in this struggle, my word came to me:


This year I am declaring a year of grace.  I will not make resolutions.  We might not eat healthier.  I will not figure out the perfect discipline strategy to finally cure a selfish nature.  My hair may permanently mold itself into a ponytail.  Some days my to-do list will get longer instead of shorter.

I am not reveling in or exalting my imperfections.  Believe me, I want to figure it all out!  I am just declaring (mostly to myself) that I am human.  Striving comes naturally: accepting grace does not.  And when I cannot accept grace for myself, I cannot give it to others.

How am I going to live in grace?  I don't really know.  How do you practice being over doing?  How do you practice being accepted?  How do you dig out the deep rooted deception that I am only as worthy as my usefulness?  That my purpose in life is to attain perfection.

Right now, I am starting with breathing.  Like a mantra for yoga or meditation or birth: Breathing in grace, breathing out grace.  Letting it fill my lungs and soak into my bones and bring life to my heart.  Not just reading words of grace and saying, "I should believe that," but setting the words in my mind and letting them rest there.  Making grace a habit, until it becomes a part of my daily rhythm, until it is as consistent as a heartbeat and necessary as a breath.

Recognizing and rejecting the lies of perfection and striving and not-good-enough.  And when I fail, when I become entangled in them all over again, stopping to breathe.  Setting it down - along with the guilt and frustration and discouragement that I can't even get grace right! - and choosing grace once again.

It won't happen this year or really ever.  I will never reach grace-perfection, not in this imperfect self in this broken world.  But this year if I learn to take more grace into myself and breathe it out onto those around me, if that is all I learn, if that is (tiny shudder) all I accomplish in 365 days, the whole year will be worthwhile.

[linking up with Velvet Ashes: One Word]

Sunday, December 21, 2014

O Holy, Noisy, Messy Night

This Christmas season I was prepared.  I had all kinds of Christmas activities planned out to do with the girls and our students.  I had an advent wreath (of sorts) and prayers for each week.  I had materials to make a Jesse tree and our own advent calender with a Christmas activity to do each day (yeah, I had a feeling that was going to be a bad idea before I even started).

Then the first of December arrived and I got sick.  And the girls got sick.  The girls improved, but 3 weeks later I'm still coughing my way through the night and croaking my way through the day.  It could be much worse, but I haven’t had a nasty cold drag out this long since I was pregnant (which I’m not, btw).  We should have read a Bible story and made an ornament each day for the Jesse tree.  It currently has 5 ornaments.  The advent calendar is in slightly better shape only because on day 3 I scraped the whole "do an activity each day," and one day we put up 9 pieces.

This Advent hasn't gone quite how I planned.  I feel exhausted and stressed, kind of like most people probably feel right about now.  Much as I want to slow down and relish the wonder of the season, if we’re honest, this feeling might be closer to how everyone felt at the first Christmas.

That Christmas didn't go how Mary planned either.  It was lonely and confusing and inconvenient, and if you've ever been 9 months pregnant, you know she probably felt like crap. 

I've been thinking a lot about Mary this year.  Much as I love Christmas carols, I can't imagine they do much justice to the real story.  There's all this talk of silent nights and a baby who doesn't cry, but have you ever actually been at a birth?  I think birth is an incredible, wonderful process, but even in the most peaceful birth setting (i.e. not a stable), it's generally noisy.  And messy.  And there were no Christmas carols.

Here is Mary, a young girl, having her first baby.  She is far from home and has spent the last days of her pregnancy traveling on a donkey.  I was too uncomfortable to ride in a car for long by the end of pregnancy - but a donkey!  I don't think it's a giant leap to assume she's sore and tired and perhaps silently cursing the emperor for his stupid decrees.

Mary and Joseph finally arrive in Bethlehem only to be greeted by closed doors.  In a culture that so valued hospitality, it must have seemed like a slap in the face.  Were the people of Bethlehem already maxed-out with census travelers?  Did they somehow get wind of the baby's presumably scandalous conception?  Among all Joseph's relatives in his hometown, there was really no-one willing to take in their own family member?  Did they not want to risk bringing condemnation upon themselves, accepting this not-yet-married couple about to have a child?

Shunned by their relatives, Mary and Joseph are left to give birth in a stable.  I think of the comfortable, sterile birth environments we try to create, and then I think of a smelly, dirty stable.  No candles or aromatherapy or even hospital cleaner smell; instead, animal poop. No bed that sits up on its own with the press of a button.  I know they didn't have those in that day anyway, but I imagine no bed was a step down from whatever Mary was used to.

And perhaps worst of all, Mary is alone.  With her new not-quite husband who she probably doesn't know real well. Perhaps a compassionate relative or the local midwife is willing to help out and just isn't mentioned. For Mary's sake, I sure hope so.  Even so, here is a young girl without even the support of her mother.  Pacing the stable in pain.  Moaning and swaying and wondering if she can actually do this. 

The time has come, and it probably doesn't feel holy.  I'm not sure there was a beam of light coming through the conveniently placed hole in the ceiling.  And even if there were, I doubt anyone would notice.  Mary, in that "other world," her entire body and mind carried away in the incredible work of pushing a baby into the world.  I doubt she's thinking about the angel or this amazing Christmas miracle.  This baby may have been the Messiah, but that didn't make transition any less intense.  

Joseph...I mean, what is Joseph thinking?  He's probably scared out of his mind.  This isn't the day of husband-as-labor-coach.  There were no birth classes or books or videos to prepare him for what to expect.  He had probably been kept far away from the birthing process in the past, and suddenly he is thrown into the center of it.  He's never even slept with Mary, and here he is getting really intimate with her in a way he would have preferred to avoid.  Kevin said he was a little traumatized by watching the pain and difficulty of my first birth, and that was after the classes.  Poor Joseph.

I think there was probably some screaming.  The little halos magically floating over everyone's heads are doubtful, but there was definitely sweat.  And blood.  Baby Jesus had a placenta.  Let's just pause to think about this aspect of Jesus' humanity, which also had to be birthed. When Mary saw that baby Savior for the first time, he was red and wrinkly and covered in just-born gunkiness.  He might have pooped all over Mary.

I imagine Mary lying back in the straw, shaking from exhaustion.  She looks into the face of her messy, wailing baby and marvels at his birth.  She feels relief and terror and a rush of  crazy postpartum hormones.  Joseph looks on in amazement, overwhelmed by a flood of protectiveness for this baby that's not even his own.  And still kinda scared out of his mind.

And let me tell you, there was crying.  That whole "Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes" - what, was he sick or something? (Or is crying supposed to be sinful for a baby? I've got big problems with that!)  This is a newborn we're talking about.  And since those stupid lowing cattle just woke up the baby, Mary is probably crying too.

Then the shepherds show up.  I know this is amazing and the angel told them to come, but I don't remember an angel notifying Mary of these unexpected visitors.  She's just had a baby.  She is exhausted and overwhelmed.  She is dirty.  She is bleeding.  Who knows when she slept last. She's pretty much a mess. 

She is trying to figure out how to nurse this tiny baby. The culture was probably not quite so freaked out about breastfeeding as ours, but I still doubt she is excited to practice with an audience of strange men.  Breastfeeding a newborn takes a lot of concentration, and it's practically impossible to do discreetly.

But here come these shepherds.  Dirty, smelly shepherds and they're wanting a look at her just-born baby.  Maybe they even want to touch him.  I imagine they're a little bit awkward.  Visiting a newborn baby, much less a stranger's baby, was probably way out of protocol.  I'm glad they told Mary and Joseph about the awesome angel display and all the "Glory to God"s.  They probably could have used a reminder of holiness.

The shepherds leave and Mary settles back to ponder what has just happened.  She thinks of the pain and the pushing.  She thinks of the wonder of that first cry.  And now, she remembers the angel who came to her a lifetime ago.  Thinks of the angels and the shepherds, and can these events get any more bizarre?  She holds her baby and tries to comprehend how the world has just changed.  She gazes into the eyes of the helpless baby Messiah, and she catches a glimmer of messy glory.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Everyday Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving morning two years ago, I discovered that Juliana's room was being overrun with mold.  I spent a day furiously scrubbing and bleaching and moving furniture. The next day I painfully sprained my ankle and hobbled on crutches to our Thanksgiving celebration (down 6 flights of stairs, up 5, down 5, up 6... it was tricky, but I was determined to make it to the turkey!)

Thanksgiving morning one year ago, I spent in my parent's warm, turkey-scented kitchen while my mom and sisters scurried around making voluminous amounts of traditional foods.  I made a chocolate salted caramel pecan pie because...we were in America and Americans do that kind of thing.  It was my first Thanksgiving with my family in 9 years, and I loved all the traditional foods and all the traditional people, plus a handful of new children!

This year I am looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with the other teams in our province.  Thanksgiving Day itself probably won't be anything out of the ordinary, but this year I am delighting in thankfulness.  If I could go back and re-choose my "one word" for the year, it might be gratitude. It's not that I have been amazingly grateful all year, but it may be the most important lesson I have been learning throughout the year.

Actually I spent the first part of the year stewing in discontent.  I was stressed with the thought of all the changes coming up as we ended our time in the States.  I was frustrated that months after moving back to China, settling into our new apartment and school and teaching positions, I still felt so unsettled!

I pushed against the constraints of mothering; planning my life around naps and nursing, telling my stubborn 3 year old the Same Things every other minute of every single day.  I looked longingly at other people's lives and was frustrated that mine didn't seem to be working as well as theirs.  I stewed over the days filled with endless, seemingly empty tasks.  Laundry and more laundry and didn't I just cook last night and now people expect to eat again?  Shouldn't life be more meaningful?  Where was the Important work I was supposed to be doing?

There were many happy moments as well, as my baby's first year flew by, and as my 3-year old occasionally broke out of her "I rule the world" delusion, but often I just dreamed about getting away.  When I read back over my occasionally-kept journal, I see themes of discontent spring up everywhere.  I was exhausted from discontent.  Also from not sleeping, but discontent emptied my soul every day.

This summer I came across Ann Voskamp's book 1000 Gifts.  I had been hearing about it but started reading a bit skeptically because the writing seemed rather flowery.  I discovered I not only found the writing beautiful (although it was flowery and I did do some skimming), I also loved what she had to say.  There are many times I have read an inspiring book, but soon after I finish reading the inspiration fades.  What I appreciated about this book is that it introduced a practice, a very simple habit of developing gratitude.  While I've forgotten most of Ann's wise, quotable sayings, I have made the practice my own.

Ann Voskamp talked about her experience with keeping a gratitude journal, simply noticing and writing down the small, everyday beauties.  I started keeping my own gratitude journal, but after a few weeks I never remembered to write things down.  However, I have continued noticing.  And in noticing, I have realized how much beauty there is in the most simple things.

The scent of baking bread.
The warm sun caught in the prism, throwing rainbows across the floor.
The soft, warm cheek of a just-woken baby.
The silly words of a stubborn 4 year old.
The feeling of satisfaction over a momentarily clean floor or empty laundry basket.
The way my student's eyes shine as we discuss important things.

I still grumble and take things for granted and notice the ugly, dull, and unpleasant parts of life.  But I make much greater effort to stop and absorb the beautiful moments.  When I see a colorful sunset, I force myself to stop and drink it in instead of rushing off to accomplish something.  I have become a seeker of beauty.  On the days when I am feeling crabby and ungrateful, I look even harder.  I always find something.

My life has changed somewhat since the spring.  We are more settled.  I am getting better sleep.  Four-years-old has been easier than three.  But mostly what has changed is not my life but my eyes.  I see the depressingly old, rusted windows, but I also see the sun reflecting brilliantly in them.  The beauty is there; we just have to open our eyes and see it.

"We don't have to change what we see.  Only the way we see." - Ann Voskamp

[Linking up with Velvet Ashes today]

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Morning Commute

The 8 o'clock "go to school" bell is ringing as I snap on Juliana's helmet.  Coat, gloves, towel to cover the legs, princess backpack - check.  We wave goodbye to Daddy and Adalyn and head down the stairs. Here on the edge of the desert, the temperature drops every night.  Right now it is 28 degrees, but long about January our early morning bike rides are going to get awfully chilly.  I heave Juliana up onto the bike seat, and we are off to Kindergarten.
Selling fried egg bread outside the school gate
The guard waves cheerfully as we pass through the school gate.  Just outside the gate, several carts sell morning snacks to the students passing by.  Flat egg bread sizzles as it fries.  Vendors pass out cups of hot soy milk.  The fruit seller begins to arrange her wares.  The bike repair man is already fixing a flat tire.  Many of the shops and restaurants are still closed.  Since China is all on one time zone, here in the "west" morning begins a little later, and shops cater to students' later hours.

On the small street across from the campus gate, the morning market is in full swing.  Local farmers line the street with trucks, carts, and sheets full of apples, cabbages, and all manner of produce.  Grannies and housewives are already making their way back home with their morning purchases.
A fruit seller is ready for the morning
The roads are seldom crowded out on the edge of town, but other parents drive small, backpack-ladden children to kindergarten.  Middle school students, garbed in their schools' track suit uniforms, bike to school with friends.  A car pulls up next to a food cart along side the road for some "drive-thru" breakfast.  I enjoy biking, though I'm not looking forward to the cold winter months, but one primary disadvantage is the inability to drink coffee during the commute. 
So this is actually a new building, but you get the idea...
The sun is still low but reflects brightly, turning old, rust-rimmed windows to brilliant orange.  The snow-topped mountains are starting to show through the morning haze.

Music is blaring from the local park, and through the gate we catch a glimpse of 30-40 middle aged women dancing together.  They wave fans and march along to the music.  The weather is chilly, but they are warmed by their dancing - not to mention their multiple layers of long underwear.
Dancers in the park
As we get closer to the kindergarten, we see more parents and backpack totting children biking and walking toward the school.  The tiny road in front of the school is a mess of cars, motorbikes, and bicycles trying to get around each other during the morning drop off.  Lively children's music is playing through the speakers and the guard gives each child a friendly good morning as we join the line for the morning health check.

After dropping of Juliana at her classroom, I join the other parents hurrying off to work and home.  The street is less crowded now.  Several tractors lumber down the road with huge loads of hay.  I pass a local mosque, it's green roofs peering out from behind a large gas station.  I hear the tell-tale sound of "It's A Small World" as the water truck drives through spraying off the road.  The street cleaners work their way down the sidewalks with large, straw brooms.
A local mosque
A car drives down the wrong side of the street and swerves onto a side road, narrowly avoiding my bicycle.  This happens so often it's not worth worrying about.  You know what they say: "6 inches is as good as a mile."  Instead I feel a little nostalgic for the old days of chaotic traffic, when part of the bus route went down the wrong side of the street.  As more and more cars take over the roads, traffic is tamer, especially on Yinchuan's wide roads.  

At the park, some women are still dancing, but others are returning home.  One woman pulls a large red drum on wheels.  The sun is higher and the windows no longer shine.  Campus is quiet; most students are in class now.  The grannies have not yet brought their babies and toddlers out to play.  I open the door to the warmth of home: to a baby toddling toward me, to laundry and dishes and to-do lists, and to half a cup of coffee waiting to be reheated.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Parents Day at Chinese Kindergarten

Welcoming the parents and grandparents
Today Juliana's 幼儿园 kindergarten had a "parents day" where parents and grandparents could come and see a typical morning of kindergarten.  Since the reports we get are usually a big convoluted, it was interesting and helpful to see exactly what Juliana does while she's gone!

This morning we caught a taxi to school since I needed to bring Adalyn along too.  I dropped Juliana off and then went to a friend's house (The mother of Juliana's Norwegian classmate used to be my language school classmate) for a quick cup of coffee while the kids ate their breakfast.  Then we headed back to the kindergarten.

The back of the large classroom was lined with child size chairs, already crowded with parents and grandparents when we came in.  The two dozen children were lined up in their own chairs near the front of the room, waving excitedly to their parents.
Telling a story about candy rain
The lead teacher asked the children some questions and then told a short story about when it rained candy.  She showed a large picture which went along with the story.  She asked if the children had ever seen it rain candy, and they all replied, yes, they had!

She called on different children to tell what kind of rain they would like to see.  Candy, ice cream, and hamburgers were some of the answer she received.  She asked where they would like to see this rain, and the children answered, "Just outside my door!" or "Inside my house!"  She asked what they would use to collect the candy-rain.  "My hat!  My gloves!  My clothes!"

The group of 4 year olds were surprisingly quiet and orderly.  I guess this is one of the important things you learn at kindergarten!  After the story, the children gathered at different tables to paint a collective picture based on the story, using paints and q-tips.

By this point the kids were getting a bit more restless, and there was a break for drinking water (they each have a tin cup in their own cup cubby), using the bathroom, and generally wandering around the classroom.
Collaborative painting

Next several activity stations were set up.  One group of children painted pictures.  Another built with connecting block-tiles.  Juliana's group used a large box of different colored cylinders to build a tower.  Toward the end of the activities the calm was beginning to evaporate, and after some clean up the kids got on their coats.

We all traipsed outside to the large courtyard and playground area.   The students each lined up on a painted spot on the ground and the teachers led them in dances.  I already knew the dancing is Juliana's favorite part, and she had it down pretty well!  They did several different dances and Juliana seemed to know just what to do for all of them, adding a little extra hip-shaking-vigor of her own.

Inside the classroom Juliana seemed a little lost some of the time.  She watched the other children, but I could tell she didn't understand a lot of what was going on.  I saw her stand around uncertainly, trying to figure out what she was supposed to be doing, and I felt glad she is young enough to not have developed too much self-consciousness.
Doing a circle dance with a partner
But dancing outside, Juliana returned to her confident self.  She knew just what to do and could follow the directions better than many of her classmates.  And she loves to dance!  Everyday she still tells me that dancing is her favorite.

After dancing, the children got out balls to throw back and forth with their parents and had a little time on the playground.  The kindergarten has a lot of great playground equipment, which is a big plus for a little kid!
Serving lunch
Outside time was over far too soon (as far as Juliana was concerned) and the kids were ushered back inside for lunch.  The teachers ladled out rice, meat, and vegetables into their metal bowls.  The children eat with spoons; generally chopstick skills are learned a little later.

By this point all the parents were getting a bit antsy, because after the children were done eating, they could take them home.  "Eat quickly.  Come on, eat quickly so we can go home."  Which was what I was telling Juliana as well!
Adalyn wonders when someone is going to feed her
For Adalyn's part, she thought kindergarten was very interesting, especially being outside.  Inside she charmed many grannies and aunties and uncles with her big smiles.

One auntie kept asking Adalyn if she could hold her, and Adalyn kept shying away against me.  Then the auntie said, "我抱抱你,给你好吃的!Let me hold you!  I will give you something good to eat."  Adalyn smiled and held out her arms!  So maybe she understands more Chinese than I realized!

Adalyn making friends with a 姐姐 (big sister)
I was really glad to get a better picture of Juliana's school.  In many ways it seems just like I would expect from any preschool.  I felt a little sad thinking about how much Juliana would thrive in American preschool, if she understood everything that was going on and could interact easily with the other kids.

When I watched her standing uncertainly, twirling her hair and wondering what she was supposed to be doing, I thought, “Surely this is too much to ask of a 4 year old.  To go every day to a place where they stand out, don’t understand, and don’t fully belong.”  But despite the difficulty, Juliana really seems to enjoy kindergarten.

I was proud of her, as I saw her watching the other kids to see what she should be doing, as she waited patiently through the parts she didn't understand, as she dove in and got involved anyway.  Her resilience and natural confidence came through. I am so thankful kindergarten has been a positive experience for Juliana!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Voices

I hear voices.  Of course on the outside, I hear very loud voices of very loud children asking questions, making her demands, protesting injustice, shouting with excitement, and wailing in despair.  But the voices I hear inside are almost as loud and insistent. They are the voices that compare my ideal self with my actual self, what I should accomplish with what I do (or mostly don’t) accomplish, and my life/talents/strengths/accomplishments with others,’ a tyranny of shoulds.  They are the voices that can never be satisfied.  They are mostly my own voice, and they sound like this:

I should really do something with my hair at least occasionally.  Look at all the moms who manage to look amazing all the time (or at least for Facebook photos).  Maybe some makeup would help.  And my clothes are looking awfully ratty. 

Maybe I need some new clothes.  Well of course I don’t need clothes.  I’ll just be contributing to the over-consumption and crazy consumerism. Most of the clothes I have were probably made by some kid or a factory worker in terrible conditions, and I try to buy fair trade now but I’m not sure how helpful that even is. I probably shouldn’t buy anything ever again.  And I’m sure I could be doing something more important with the 2 minutes it would take to put on makeup, so scrap that idea.

For example, I could be reading to Adalyn.  I never read to her and she’ll probably grow up hating books.  She’ll end up in therapy because she never gets any attention. 

Well, except I did hold her most of the morning because she was so fussy and screaming every time I put her down.  Some people would say I’m spoiling her and should just let her scream.  Maybe I should.  The only thing I accomplished this morning was getting dinner in the crockpot while Adalyn emptied the cabinets and poured spices all over the floor.  So we might have something to eat (though not with as many vegetables as it should and I should really take the time to make sure we eat healthier), but the kitchen is a huge mess.

I should really keep things cleaner.  Of course, I spend all day cleaning and trying to reign in the chaos, and that’s why I don’t spend enough time with the kids.  I shouldn’t be so worried about the house being clean.  Isn’t that what everyone says?  I say that to other people. 

But every time I walk into another room I feel stressed out from everything that is out of place.  Maybe I need to keep things cleaner for my own mental sanity.  If I was doing a better job teaching my kids responsibility they wouldn’t leave random toys and goodness-knows-where-they-found-that items scattered over every surface of the house.

Probably the time I spend cleaning is selfish, though.  There are so many more important things to do.  My friend was just talking about how much time they spend with mothers in the neighborhood.  Our teammate is doing things with students every day.  I have only had my students over once this term!  I should be getting to know the neighborhood families better.  Why is that so hard?  I should get to know the other teachers better and try to do more things to help them.  Those other teachers at that other school do so much with their colleagues and look at how good that has been.

And we STILL need to write a newsletter!  I just need to figure out a really captivating idea.  Hmm, no captivating ideas.  Maybe I just need to write one anyway.  It’s been too long and everyone will forget about us.  I’d like to tell about the awesome things we are doing except I’m not doing anything awesome!!  Can I just talk about the laundry?  I do an awful lot of that.  That will be really unimpressive.  They’ll probably tell us to just come home.

Remember before I had kids how I had students over all the time? Good in-depth conversations.  Meals. Christmas programs.  Right now I do approximately nothing.  I am probably impacting nobody.  Does it even matter that I’m here? 

Of course my kids are important.  But I don’t spend enough time with them either.  Juliana’s preschool lessons are so haphazard sometimes.  And we have already established how I neglect Adalyn. I’m so busy keeping them in cleanish clothes and eating not-quite-healthy enough meals.

And our discipline is clearly not working because she is still whines and flips out and acts like we have never ever before told her not to hit her sister.  She is already four years old and I’m pretty sure if we had followed someone else’s parenting method she would be duteous and respectful by now.  And oppressed.  Those kids are going to end up in some major teenage rebellion.  Maybe I’m being too hard on Juliana. She’s only four years old.  If I just spent more time with her we wouldn’t have these problems.

I should stop thinking about all the things I should be doing. It’s really not helpful. And everyone knows you shouldn’t compare unless the other person really is doing more good than you which they obviously are.  If I stopped thinking about it so much, then I could actually get more things done like I should be doing.

Okay, I’m going to stop worrying about it and just go do the dishes or maybe first the laundry right after I arrange at time to meet my student and read a book to Adalyn except oh crap there’s still spices all over the floor! Oh forget it. Maybe I’ll just make another cup of coffee.

Linking up with Velvet Ashes this week on the topic of shame.
"Shame begins to loosen its grip when you begin to believe you are enough, right now, just as you are."

Monday, October 13, 2014

Our Big Backyard

Biking through campus

Autumn comes to the Hundred Acre Woods
 One thing many western parents miss about living in China is having a backyard.  I remember spending so much time in our backyard as a child.  We rode our bikes on the driveway, built forts from leaves and sticks, played in our treehouse, performed acrobatic fetes on our jungle-bars, slid down the grassy hill, and trapsed through the woods escaping from tornadoes and evil step-mothers.  Once we were old enough not to need constant supervision, my mom could watch from the kitchen window as she prepared dinner.  We played for hours outside and were generally reluctant to come back inside.
"What is he doing?  Why is he sad?"
I expect to see Wild Things come dancing through
 In China, we will probably never have a big backyard, and it will be quite a while before the girls are old enough to send them out on their own.  While it only takes a minute or two to scale the stairs, somehow 5 flights seems like a bigger obstacle than just walking out the door - particularly when carrying a baby, a stroller, a bag, some toys, and a child bike.  If we forget anything less important than a child, there is no going back.
The playground near our apartment

Using the see-saw as a drawing table.
I sometimes wish for our own private bit of nature, but we have been blessed to live on a beautiful campus right now.  Just outside our apartment is a small playground area, definitely a rarity in China.  This is Juliana's favorite place to play, and unlike a personal jungle gym, this playground is usually swarming with other kids to play with!  I may value some peace and quiet, but you know Juliana - alone time sounds like some form of torture to her.
The step-stone path

The stroller-backpack

One of the best things about this campus is the abundance of nature.  It is full of beautiful trees and lush green grass - you would never guess we are right on the edge of the desert!  When we (I) want some quiet time in nature, we head to "The Hundred Acre Woods," a little grassy strip between some teacher houses and the campus wall.  Here we dig in the dirt, play in the leaves, and watch the seasons change.  Noisy trucks lumber by on the other side of the wall, but our side is peaceful and hidden. It is secluded enough that we hardly see anyone other than the man who waters the grass.
The lake on campus
Summer in the Hundred Acre Woods
Some days we scale "North Mountain," an unnatural grassy hill covering some sort of machinery (I assume...).  Other days we play hide-and-seek behind the statues and inside the pagodas in a very Chinese-looking park area.  We hop back and forth along the stepping stones in the middle of campus while students swarm by taking pictures.  We walk around the lake.  We explore winding paths and underneath arbors and make pretend houses on the basketball courts.  We collect apples in summer and leaves in the fall.
This summer we discovered apple trees!

Adalyn exploring nature

Our backyard may not be private, but I realize Juliana is not missing that backyard experience at all.  Instead she has an expansive backyard full of fun places to explore.  And even better, every time she goes outside she finds new friends to play with!
Throwing leaves