Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Still Pretty Foreign

I am sitting in a tiny chair, listening to Juliana's kindergarten teacher rattle off a bunch of instructions to parents, thinking, “I don't know Chinese. At all.” The other parents are looking glassy-eyed after two hours of sitting around, but at least they can understand what the teacher is saying. These are all the specific things your child should have in their backpack. Don't just pack all their favorite snacks (I'm looking at you grandparents). This is the new procedure for picking up your kids. And fifteen minutes of other stuff I have no clue about.

I have the idea that after this many years, living in a foreign country should be easy. It should, right? We have lived here for the most part of twelve years. I have spent nearly a third of my life – pretty much all of my adult life – in China. It feels like home. Sort of.

It also never ceases to feel like a foreign country. The habits and customs of our childhood culture run deep. I am fascinated by culture because it influences us so profoundly in ways we don't even realize. After all these years, a lot of the things that bother me are not necessarily bad, they are just still so different.

I grew up in the suburbs and then in the country, where my family were the only inhabitants of 6.5 acres of peaceful nature, 30 miles from the city. Now I live in a country with 1.3 billion people, in a city, on a small campus with 20,000 students packed 6 to a dorm room.

The walls of our fifth floor apartment seem thin. In reality, I hear little from our neighbors, but I am aware of their nearness. I am particularly aware of the ones below us, who undoubtedly hear plenty of jumping and stomping and screaming. They kind of scowl when they see us outside. We hear the laughter of students, the rattling of carts, and the roar of trucks bumping along the road just below us. Over a hundred windows look into our own.

Outside, we are watched. Not in a creepy way, but there are always people around, and they are always curious about the foreigners. Random strangers turn to watch us every day, every where we go. Students gasp as they catch sight of the girls, taking their pictures or summoning the courage to say hi. The girls are used to this attention but they do not always receive it benevolently.

Even Juliana, attention lover that she is, gets tired of people touching her. After stopping a random stranger on the street who is trying to pick up Adalyn, I explain to her, “You don't have to let people touch you and hold you. If you don't like that it's okay to say so. But you do need to be kind.” I watch Nadia closely to see how she responds – is she comfortable with the attention or do I need to intervene? Will this person be gentle or pushy? Why do people love playing the “I'm going to steal you away from your parents” game? What kid thinks that is funny?

Our own neighbors are familiar with us. They watch us kindly as if we are unusual but relatively normal people. At the park or the supermarket or on the street, however, we are more of a spectacle. In their excitement or curiosity, strangers sometimes forget we are real people, not just a fascinating display for their viewing, touching, picture taking pleasure.

Our weirdness comes out in the most normal of circumstances. I think about it whenever I drink cold water or eat bread instead of rice or put on a bike helmet or home-school my daughter or write with my left hand or step outside the door with my white face. I am foreign. I will always be foreign.

There are other stresses in China that I am realizing will never go away. Language has always been a stress. Even after all these years, it is still a big challenge. Chinese is no joke! Kevin teaching English and me spending so much time at home with kids does not place us in optimal language positions. We can do all the basics and carry on conversation, but there are always things I don't understand.

Almost every Chinese conversation involves stress. Even if I do understand everything, or enough to get the general idea, there is always the fear that I won't understand and will look like an idiot. Or I will understand but won't be able to think of all the right words to respond. When I interact with Juliana's teachers I want to say, “Really, I'm smart! I know I sound like your kindergarteners, but I actually have a masters degree!”

I feel stress whenever the children are sick – will they need to go to the hospital, where I don't fully understand the doctor and don't necessarily trust what he says anyway? Will people blame me for not putting enough clothes on them or feeding them the right food or letting them sit on the tile floor?

There is the stress of travel – the ridiculous 30+ hour trips to see our family and the jetlag and the suitcases and the children shuffled from one place to the next with too little routine and too little sleep.

I feel the stress of uncertainty – What if something happens and we have to leave China? What if the school decided they didn't want us to live here anymore? Will Juliana be able to go to primary school part time next year and how will we figure out the system? Will Adalyn's kindergarten teachers know what to do with a foreign kid, and how will she handle being the only foreign kid in an all-Chinese environment?

There is the stress of responsibility – Am I using my time well? Is it worth us being here? Are we spending enough time with students? Why don't we know our colleagues better? Are we friendly enough with our neighbors? At the end of the day how do you ever do enough?

Many things about life are easier than the used to be. We understand the culture much better, but with children we are constantly venturing into new aspects of life. Just like everyone, we worry about their schooling and their social life – and we also worry about how they are handling always being the weird ones.

So what do we do with these stresses? That is what we are trying to work out. I think the first step is recognizing these areas are still challenging so we can give ourselves grace.  Beyond that...well, I'll let you know when we figure it out.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

So Weak and Strong

The first pill was surprisingly hard to take.

It wasn't the first time I had been on an anti-depressant, and I was not opposed to starting again. I could understand the doctor's belief that this was more than just situational. “If you had high blood pressure or heart problems you might need to take medicine. This is no different. Your brain needs some help getting regulated again.” It was explained this way both now and in the past, and it made sense.

Still, starting medication seemed like an admission: This is bad, and I can't fix it myself. I suppose I already knew it was bad. I already went through the “ignore it and maybe it will go away” phase, and it only got worse. Eventually that word, that force I had dodged for so long was again staring me unavoidably in the face. Depression.

I tried to take care of it myself. Reduce stress, get sleep, exercise, eat well, think positive, get out of the house. But sleep has been a joke, and sickness has piled on sickness. My efforts at life change were thwarted by circumstances I could not control. Mama needs a break, but baby is crying with a fever. Mama may be throwing up, but baby needs nursing. The “self-care” I did manage was a brief pause in a downhill plunge.

I used to think depression looked like sadness and crying all the time. And sometimes it does. But actually I rarely cry. I don't feel sad as much as heavy. Hazy. Anxious. Deathly tired. It is like carrying around a giant weight everywhere you go. It is like too many programs open on your computer and nothing is operating as it should. It is like walking through thick smog – you know there is a road ahead but you can't see it. The weight of the future grips so tightly you can't get a full breath.

“You know that point in a book,” I told a friend, “When you see the person heading in a bad direction and you just want to say, 'Stop! Don't go there!' That's how I feel about my life right now. I know I am walking down a bad path and I just can't get off.”

I felt sick at the thought of heading back into the same situation with the same futile hope of fixing myself. The weight of responsibility was too heavy: I have to figure this out. I have to do something to fix this. And I am just so tired. I already have so many people to take care of – I don't want to have to take care of myself too. What if I can't make myself better and we have to go home?

So the medicine represented relief. This is something that will help me even when I can't do all the right things, even if we stay sick all the time, even if we can't get this baby to sleep. I cannot reasonably expect myself to change my brain chemistry. I can let the medicine do that, and that's okay.

And yet the medicine represented my weakness. Oh, I don't mentally believe that, but of course it feels that way. Whatever you tell yourself and others tell you, depression feels like weakness, like a character flaw. We have all heard that if you just think positively enough you can heal yourself. If you just have enough faith. If you just ate the right food or used the right oils or had the right genes you wouldn't have this problem. Even in this modern day we hear whispers of shame, shame. This is your fault.

I took the first pill. And the second and third and a couple of weeks down the line I already feel a difference, a change in my brain. Breath comes a little easier. Moments look a little sharper. I feel hope that I could climb out of this hole and enjoy life again.

I can face those whispers of weakness and say, No, that is a lie. No one chooses their genes, no one controls the makeup of their brain. I am weak, not because I am depressed but because I am human. None of us were meant to be so strong we have no need for others, no need for grace.

I am weak, but I am also strong. I am strong because I cared for my family. I am strong because I cared for myself. I am strong because I got the help I needed. I could not see the path ahead but still I kept walking.

I still cannot picture the months ahead or wrap my mind around the future. My brain becomes overwhelmed and turns away. I accept this gift of fog that allows me to focus instead on today. I look out the window at the bare trees and the cold brown earth. But I remember the springtimes of the past, I remember that one day I will be startled to find leaves in bud. The bare ground will sprout fresh green grass. Breathe in, breathe out, and watch the colors come back.

I write about my depression, even though it is very personal, because maybe you understand what I am talking about and you need to know you are not alone. I write about it because maybe you have never experienced depression, but I am almost certain that someone you know is dealing with it, whether you realize or not.  Maybe this will help you to understand them a little better.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nadia Charlotte - 1 Year Old!!

I usually say, “I can't believe this child is getting so old! Where did the time go?” For the first few months of Nadia's life I did feel this way, but overall this year has seemed long, and actually it's hard to believe it was only a year ago that I held Nadia for the first time. Surely she has been part of our family for more than a year.
Isn't it amazing how you first look into that tiny baby's scrunchy red face and have no idea yet what they will become? Of course at one year, Nadia has quite a ways to go in her “becoming.” I still have a hard time figuring out her personality, partly because Juliana has always been so strongly extroverted and Adalyn has been so much calmer/quieter in comparison. Nadia is somewhere in the middle. Despite her overwhelming mama preference at the moment, I think she tends toward extroversion. She is easily bored on her own and quite happy in a crowded room full of older kids. She likes smiling and waving at others from the comfort of mama's arms.
It has also been harder to figure Nadia out because she has been sick so much. Twelve times in her first twelve months. Whenever she is sick she is understandably fussy, and by the time she is well I am often sick, which makes her fussy too. So it's hard to figure out how much is her temperament and how much is related to sickness. Either way, I am hoping toddlerhood will be easier and healthier.

When she is happy she is very, very happy, and when she is mad she screams very, very loudly. She can go from content to distraught in two seconds (generally when mama hands her off) and back again (when she gets mama back). She doesn't talk as much as the other girls, but she makes herself known.
All the girls have gone through a glued-to-mama phase around this age, but Nadia wishes she could get her hands on some super glue. She generally does okay with Kevin if I'm not there, but if I am in sight she wants me. She is so excited when I come home. Heck, she is so excited when I come out of the bathroom, if she wasn't already in there with me to begin with. She can be with Kevin six inches away from me and still wail because she is not WITH me. She needs to be able to smush her little body into mine.  When I hold her she clings to me and pats my back.  It is sweet and exhausting.
Undeniably one of my favorite things about Nadia is her chubby, chubby cheeks. And her chubby, chubby thighs. And chin. Pretty much all of her roly-poly self begs for kisses. Many people comment on her bright blue eyes, even westerners. A lot of people we see say she looks like me, but I'm not sure how much of that is because they see us together.
It's funny to think that she was so small when she was born. She dropped down to 5lb 11oz in the week after birth and the doctor was concerned she wasn't gaining enough. Apparently she took his concerns to heart because she shot right up the growth chart afterwards. She is currently 23 pounds or 90th percentile. She does love to nurse, all day and all night, although lately it resembles more of an acrobatic check-in. She also loves to eat. She eats pretty much what we do now and will try almost anything offered. Her favorite is probably crackers - although after today cake might a close runner up!

Speaking of her sisters, Nadia sure loves to be one of the pack. She likes to sit with them as they play Little People or My Little Ponies, quietly sneaking away their toys to chew on. Mostly she loves her sisters, although sometimes she loses patience when they love her a little too aggressively. When they come home she is always excited to see them, and she gets big smiles when it's time for night-night hugs. “Ni-ni” seems to be her first specific word, that's how much she enjoys the ritual.
For a while Nadia was surprisingly quiet, perhaps because she couldn't get a word in edgewise. Now she is babbling a good deal and will imitate some words, though she only seems to specifically say night-night and mama right now.

And you know about the sleep struggles. I guess it's improved some since the summer. She is not always waking up every 1-2 hours; sometimes she sleeps for several hours at a time. Sometimes she doesn't. Usually she sleeps from 7:30/8pm to 6:30/7am with 3-4 breaks in the middle. She naps twice a day, usually for 45 minutes, sometimes longer. Any progress has been slow and inevitably stopped by her getting sick, so what are you going to do? I'm holding out hope that we can make something stick in the second year.
Nadia can take a few steps on her own but isn't too interested in walking further right now. She has perfected the wave and lights delighting passersby by waving frantically at them. She claps and bangs and yells with the best of them. She just had her first try at a baby swing, which is a big hit. She has learned to climb up the little slide at our house and loves sliding down.

We'll see what the second year holds. Hopefully a lot less sickness, a lot more sleep, and all the same chubby smiles!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Weary Year

2016 almost perfectly encompassed a year of babyhood. I started the year pregnant and exhausted, just two weeks out from giving birth. I wasn't expecting Nadia to come early; from the beginning I felt like I couldn't catch up, she was growing so quickly. I wanted to appreciate these last baby moments, to not wish away my time with a toddler and kindergartener. I chose “moment” as my word for the year because I didn't want to rush through; I wanted to stop and notice the little moments.

I knew this year would be challenging, but somehow I hoped I would make this three child transition with grace and ease. I pictured myself calmly juggling their needs, taking it all in stride. I had already done two kids, surely one more shouldn't be that much more difficult.

Except that it was. I wasn't the mother that made life look easy, more the one that makes me people think, “Parenting sounds kinda miserable.” I've always been a fan of painting an honest picture, and I appreciate others who have been honest with me. Like all the ones who said three kids was stressful. I probably should have taken them seriously.

My journal this past year reads something like this, on repeat: “This is really hard. I am so tired. I am overwhelmed. Why can't I enjoy this? I am just so tired.”

After nearly a full year of “why is this so hard?” I finally recognized the other piece of the puzzle: postpartum depression. It seems obvious looking back. It's not my first experience with depression; you'd think I would recognize its familiar patterns. I guess it was a relief to realize it's not just that I'm really bad at this, that there was something more going on.

“Moment” seems like an ironic word choice for the year because looking back I don't remember a lot of moments. The year seems draped in a fog. Mostly I remember the feelings: weary, stressed, overwhelmed, irritated, discouraged.

I remember a lot of screaming – a crying baby, a tantruming toddler, a kindergartener always on full volume. I remember feeling like my head would explode. I remember losing my temper and feeling like a bad parent.  I remember the effort of just trying to get everyone through the day.  I remember lying in bed exhausted, knowing I would be awakened again in a couple of hours, night after night all year long.

That's not what I want to remember from this first year of my last baby. But as Nadia approaches her first birthday, I feel less sad at the passing of time and more relieved. Maybe she will be healthier. Maybe she will be more content. Maybe she will sleep. I don't want to wish away the time, but I'm also glad this year is over.

I know the screaming is not the full story. If I think hard, I can remember chubby baby cheeks and baby giggles. I remember Nadia crying and crying until she got me back. Then she cuddled her head against my shoulder, quietly breathing me in. She didn't care if I was being a success; she just wanted me.

I remember Juliana's pride at reading her first story. Even with all the interruptions and distractions, without a lot of fabulously inspired activities, she is learning. I think of her unflagging enthusiasm for life, which my lack of energy has never managed to destroy.

While I do remember a lot of screaming from our three year old, I also remember her sweet smile and bright, mischievous eyes. I remember the funny thing she said. I think of her crawling around on the floor and lavishing Nadia with somewhat aggressive love.

I remember Kevin taking the girls outside to play, putting in a load of laundry, or trying again to get the baby to sleep. It's not always easy being married to someone who is exhausted and depressed and easily irritated, but he has tried to be helpful and patient.

With time the fog will lift and I will look back on this year with more benevolence. I'd like to write this in retrospect, looking back on the good things I learned through difficulty, summing it up with a pretty picture. But right now I'm still in the middle of it. Most of life takes place in the messy space before tidy conclusions.

I know depression still has a bit of a stigma, and that's why I choose to be open about it. I have appreciated others who have been honest about their own struggles. There is always the risk of people discounting your story or giving advice to “just pray more.” We don't want to look as weak as we feel. We so much want to have it all together, but we all need to know it is okay to struggle. We all need to be reminded that we are not alone.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Waiting for the Light

This is the season of darkness. We eat breakfast and dinner with a backdrop of blackness. Every day is just a little shorter, as the night attempts to overcome the daylight. Some days when the sun does rise, it seems to make amends as it clears the frozen air with orange and yellow light. Other days the sun stays hidden behind a heavy layer of haze and smog and dull clouds. Our lungs are choked with coal dust. If the sun appears, it looks like the weak faded sun of an old, old world.

As a child at Christmastime, I was only aware of the excitement– the decorations, the cookies, the presents waiting under the tree. But as adults, we bear the weight of awareness. We see the brokenness and pain and conflict of individuals and families and nations that do not pause for the “most wonderful time of the year.” Some years we feel less like calling, “Merry Christmas!” and more like crying, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”
And so we enter the season of Advent. A season of expectant waiting, one in which we join with the groaning of a creation longing to be restored. Each week the wreath on our table is lit by one more candle. Hope, peace, joy, love. Each week we say a new prayer, something simple and childish and so fitting.

Jesus, you are light even in the darkest places...
Jesus you are peace even when there is hatred...
Jesus, you are joy even in the saddest times...
I didn't know much about Advent as a child, beyond waiting eagerly for my turn to open the little door on the advent calendar. I didn't even realize that Advent was a season, the start of the church calendar. Our solar calendar year starts in a flurry of resolutions and new beginnings, recovering our schedules and diets and budgets after a season of celebration. This year we will get it right! How appropriate that the church calendar year starts in quiet reflection, in waiting. This is something bigger than ourselves.

This year we haven't done many Christmas activities. We put up our decorations and strung all the lights, but we haven't even made a single Christmas cookie. Generally I enjoy baking, but this year cookie making means children fighting over turns and a baby crying at my feet, and that sounds more stressful than fun.

We made a faux gingerbread house (from a cardboard box). The girls enjoyed meticulously covering it with wafers and candy, while Nadia scavenged for candy wrappers on the floor. We planned a student Christmas party which was postponed due to sickness. I have searched Taobao for Christmas presents. We read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
But this year doesn't find us particularly jolly. Last week both Kevin and our teammate lost grandparents, and they mourn far from family and home. Our family has been dealing with colds and throwing up and not sleeping. I feel the weighed down by a hard, tiring year.  Too many hormones, too much screaming, not enough sleep. Nearly every one of the girls' friends here have been sick this past week.  We have friends who have lost family, who are in the hospital, who are worried about children or spouses or parents.

There is no place for weariness or grief in our idea of holly, jolly Christmas. But this is what advent is all about. We don't have to make joy; we just wait for it. We accept this dark night. We hold tenuously to hope, we breathe in peace, we watch for joy, like the dawning of the morning.
Each week we light another candle – three this week, the week of joy. Each week the night comes a little earlier, but our dinner table is a little brighter. In the kitchen window, star lights shine clearly against the darkness.

Emmanuel, God is with us. With us in the grief, the sickness, the darkness. This is Christmas:
Light rising in the darkness,
Hope springing from weary despair –
A world resigned is surprised by joy.

A thrill of hope
The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Internet Shopping and The Trouble with Numbers

One delivery company has packages piled up on the ground just before classes let out.  A few minutes later the whole area was filled with lines of waiting students.
It was only several years ago when we asked students about online shopping and they said, “Oh no, we wouldn't do that. We couldn't trust it.” Judging by the many hundreds of packages delivered to our school, I guess most students have now decided differently.

It was only a few years ago when we ourselves had our eyes opened to the broad shopping horizon known as Taobao. Taobao is like a Chinese Amazon marketplace (there is also Chinese Amazon, but their things tend to be more expensive). You can find pretty much anything on Taobao. Clothes, toys, furniture, produce, live hedgehogs. The selection is wider and the prices often much lower than in stores. And you can avoid actually having to go shopping, which I think is a big plus. I buy most of the girls clothes on Taobao, some harder to find or bulk grocery items, and a lot of odds and ends I don't want to have to search for in real life.

The only tricky part can be figuring out the names of things in Chinese. “Girls winter boots” is pretty simple, but sometimes I have to do a lot of guessing and baidu translating to get what I'm actually looking for. A lot of import items are also available, but they are usually still expensive.

November 11th is “Singles Day” in China (11 or “double 11”). Thanks to the owners of Taobao, in recent years this holiday has been turned into a Chinese Black Friday. It is now the biggest shopping day in the world (because you know, China has an awful lot of people). We waited until the holiday to buy things for ourselves and our teammates, and the past week we have been getting multiple packages a day.

If you live in a regular neighborhood, delivery companies will deliver packages to your house. Since we live on the university campus, they deliver to several designated areas and we have to go pick them up. There are close to a dozen different small delivery companies with different locations near different school gates. The delivery company sends a text message letting you know you have a package to pick up, generally around lunchtime but recently as late as 8 or 9pm.

This past week the companies were seriously overloaded with Singles Day packages. Hundreds of packages delivered through each company, multiple shipments a day. When we went to pick up packages, there were often 30-40 people waiting in line at each location. Fortunately the delivery companies have improved their organization. Instead of searching through an incomprehensible organization of 100 packages, they now text you a package number.
Students lined up at another delivery location.
As I went to pick up several packages the other day, waiting in one of four lines while harried delivery workers called out, “What number? Next! What number??” I realized that I still have trouble with Chinese numbers. The numbers themselves are pretty elemental and one of the first things I learned in China. But I still find it hard to read off a series of numbers in Chinese, like a phone number or a 5 digit package number. “That's kind of ridiculous,” I thought.

But then I realized, I also have trouble reading numbers aloud in English. They make sense when I see them, but to say them out-loud I feel like I have to translate the numerals into words and my brain or my mouth gets easily confused. So naturally it is hard to read numbers in Chinese, when my brain has to first figure out what the numerals mean and then into Chinese words.

I also have a terrible time remembering numbers. I still don't have my phone number memorized, and I have had the same number for 5 years! I have tried memorizing it several times and it just hasn't stuck.

Well, I always knew my brain had a tenuous relationship with numbers, despite their color connections.  Isn't it reassuring that I am the one teaching Juliana math?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Challenges of Raising Kids in China

A week ago I wrote about the benefits of parenting in China. I'll be honest – this list was easier to think of. I suppose that's the nature of things; somehow it is always easier to see the negatives. Or maybe that is just my pessimism coming through. There are great things about raising children in China. I've never really done it anywhere else. But it certainly does have its challenges as well.

Inconvenience factor: I already wrote about this, but let me just say again. I would love a dishwasher. I know it's better to make everything from scratch, but some days I'd really like the option of just opening a can. I don't actually want a car in China, though it would make some things easier. And taking the kids to school with a 10*F wind blowing in your face isn't our favorite. But we'd still have to cart everything up to the 5th floor anyway.

Differences from my childhood: There are a lot of things I wouldn't miss at all if I grew up in China, but when I think about my childhood I wish my kids had some of the same opportunities. We went to the library every week. My mom sent us outside to play in the backyard everyday while she fixed dinner. I appreciate the great green spaces on our campus and other kids around to play with, but sometimes I would love a private area where the kids could run wild.

Cultural Differences: On the other side of this is the reality that people just do things differently and we are weird. We start getting the “why is your child still in diapers?” question before they turn one. A common way of showing concern is giving criticism. Thus the five hundred “Your child isn't wearing enough layers” comments. If your baby is sick, it is obviously because of something you did (give them cool water). A lot of things we do with our kids just seems plain wrong.

Attention: We get a lot of attention. People watch us absolutely everywhere we go, any time we step outside our door. We are used to it, but it's still draining sometimes. Some days the kids don't mind the stares and pictures and “come shake the foreign kid's hand,” but understandably some days they just want to be left alone. No matter how long we live here, we will never fit in. They will always be the weird foreigner.

Confusion: Figuring out how everything works can still be hard. We've figured out a lot in our 10 years, but we are still figuring out the realm of school. We have to learn how the school system works and struggle with understanding teachers and decoding numerous internet messages that may or may not be important.

Language: I know you've always heard that kids pick up languages so quickly. And that's true, sort of. But that doesn't mean it's easy, especially in a really difficult language like Chinese. Juliana has learned a lot of Chinese in the past couple of years, but it has meant sitting through a lot of lessons she doesn't understand and trying to play with friends she can't talk to. And she still struggles. If you think it's hard to send your child off to preschool or kindergarten for the first time, imagine if they couldn't communicate with their teachers or classmates AND were the one weird kid that is different from everyone else.

Travel: We get to go to really awesome places like Thailand, which makes up for a lot of other things we put up with in life. A lot. But people who travel around the world with their kids for fun are CRAZY. If you have never taken a 30+hr trip while 8 months pregnant or with a newborn and toddler and kindergartener – DON'T DO IT. Nobody does that for fun. Much as we love seeing our family and eating In N' Out, every time we go through jetlag I swear we will never travel again. You finally survived the loooong trip and now you get to say up with super hyper kids from 1-4am every night for a week. If you have ever complained about daylight savings time, trust me – this is a thousand times worse.

Medical care: Everyone feels worried when their child gets sick, especially when they are only a few months old. I am grateful that we have decent medical care here and lots of medicine available, but I having to take my kids to the doctor fills me with great anxiety. I never really trust what the doctor says, perhaps because I only payed 30 cents, or because the checkup was less than 30 seconds, or because sometimes the doctor looks 12, or because I know they will prescribe antibiotics whether it is necessary or not. Oh, and we have often gotten a wrong diagnosis or potentially harmful medicine, so there's that. I super miss our pediatrician. And of course there is the whole flying across the country to get necessary immunizations. Or traveling to another city or country for a few months to give birth.  That's kind of a pain.

Family: But one of the biggest things is, we really miss our families. I want my kids to make cookies with their grandmothers and build towers with their grandfathers. I want them to read stories with their aunts and play with their cousins. Instead we settle for a mostly-Skype relationship. We have the only grandkids and nieces on both sides of the family, so our families miss them extra much. The newborn they saw last time is now walking and talking; the toddler is now starting school. We miss them, and they miss us.

There are a lot of great things about raising kids in China. I've thought of even more since my last post. But to be honest, it's really hard as well. We are fortunate that our kids are doing well. This life is all they have known. But one day they will realize how different their life is from their friends and how much they have had to put up with.  We feel that this is where we are supposed to be and the challenges are worth it.  I hope when they grow up, they will be able to feel the same way.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

One Ordinary Moment

 “We should never even try to leave the house,” I think. Adalyn is at the marvelous age (3) when she suddenly thinks she can do whatever she wants. What she wants to do is color on her bed, not get ready to go. After forcibly taking her markers and coercing her into the other room, she stares blankly at her socks as if she has never seen such a thing before.

Juliana is remarkably ready, standing at the door, whine-crying about how long it is taking everyone and how her foot is itching so bad and it is the worst thing that has ever happened to her. Nadia is half-dressed, crying on the floor as I run back to the kitchen to fill up water-bottles.

Boots, coats, hats and 20 minutes later we finally close the door behind us. On Tuesday nights we usually meet students for dinner in the cafeteria after Kevin's class. The third floor offers good tasting, cooked to order food, slightly more expensive than the other floors ($1.50). It is an easy opportunity to connect with students and a night without cooking. But still, sometimes the effort of getting three children out and fed seems ridiculous.

We arrive at the cafeteria, students exclaiming over the children as we climb the stairs. Kevin has ordered and is waiting with three students who are equally delighted to see the children. Nadia offers a half smile; Juliana and Adalyn look at them with shy suspicion. They ask Adalyn her age. She looks at them blankly.  “You tell them,” she mumbles to me. They ask Juliana to say something in Chinese. She finally tells them her name, under coercion.

We leave on our coats. Even though the cafeteria is technically heated, it is always freezing up here, due to the full wall of windows. These windows look out over the whole campus and (on clear days) the mountains beyond. Tonight, the sky is already darkening and all we see are the lights flooding the basketball and tennis courts below.

I start doling out bowls and kid chopsticks and water-bottles and noodles. The girls notice these are not exactly the same kind of noodles they usually get, ergo obviously gross and weird. They are unusually long noodles, and on the journey from bowl to mouth, half end up on the not quite clean table. Adalyn keeps choking on every other bite and Juliana complains that she wants a hot dog.

Kevin balances Nadia on one knee, feeding her with one hand and wielding chopsticks with the other. He talks to the students in between doling out bites. I sit down and take two bites of my eggplant and chicken when Adalyn decides she needs to go potty. I take her to the other end of the cafeteria where she checks out each stall deciding which squattie-potty is calling her name.

We return and douse with hand cleaner. I'm certainly not a germaphobe, but a Chinese public bathroom will definitely send you searching for the Purell. In between bites and helping with noodles and feeding a sleepy baby, we find out that two of the three students are twins! Not with each other – one girl's twin also attends our university, where they routinely confuse classmates who see them around campus.
By this point, it is late enough that most students have already cleared out.
Ten minutes later, Adalyn decides she needs to go potty again. As we head across the cafeteria once more, Juliana comes running behind yelling, “WAIT FOR ME! I'M COMING TOO!” The cafeteria workers, waiting behind their food stall windows, are not at all sad to see us traipse through again. They call to the girls, who ignore them. Back to the smelly bathroom to help a small child balance over a large hole and try to convince her not to touch anything. She manages to touch everything.

We parade back across the cafeteria expanse, students turning in their seats to watch. Adalyn runs off to crawl under tables and watch TV. Juliana runs after to call her back. I sit down to eat cold rice remains. “This is not worth it,” I think. “Life with children is ridiculous.”

Suddenly we hear a yell from across the cafeteria. Juliana comes running, waving something in her hand.


We know exactly what she was talking about; her very first loose tooth, stubbornly hanging on for two weeks. Juliana bounces around, ecstatic. She proudly shows off the hole in her mouth, and the tooth, and the little bit of blood, to us and the students.
“In China,” they say, “You throw your tooth on top of the roof so you (or your tooth?) will grow up faster.”

I still remember losing my first tooth (sitting in church, entertaining myself with hours of wiggling). How strange to think that Juliana will likely remember as well – this moment on the third floor of a Chinese cafeteria. This ordinary moment, which was achieved with so much effort and inconvenience. I'm sure she thinks it was worth it.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Benefits of Parenting in China

At a restaurant recently when the girls climbed into the neighboring booth to play games on this student's phone.
Last month we were at a restaurant celebrating Juliana's birthday with friends. The adults were sitting at one table while the kids (four 3-6 year olds) were sitting at another table. After a while their coloring and giggling and eating pizza turned to crawling under the table playing hide and seek. The few others in the restaurant looked on indulgently, smiling when the kids encroached on their personal space (which they probably don't realize is a thing).

We sat back watching and occasionally reigning in when it got a bit out of control, talking about how great it was to raise kids in China. “Can you imagine doing this in America or Norway? No way your kids could run around a restaurant. It's so much more stressful going out with kids!”

There are certainly hard parts about raising kids in China, which I'll probably touch on later, but there are some real advantages too. China is such a kid-friendly culture. For example...

  • You don't have to keep an eye on your kids every minute when they are outside at the park or in the neighborhood. In fact, I've seen a number of unattended 5-6 year olds playing near our home. There is much more of a communal feel – there are always aunties and grandmas around to keep an eye on things, and everyone is more or less familiar with their (hundreds and hundreds of) neighbors.
  • In general, I feel like my kids are honestly safer in China. There are no practice lock-downs at school. There also isn't such a culture of fear here - people just don't seem to worry about sunscreen or the wrong kind of bed killing their child.
  • Restaurants are naturally noisy environments, so if your kids are making noise nobody cares. If they run off and play with the owners' kid or explore behind the counter, it's just to be expected. If they get overly friendly with the people at the next table, checking out their food, they will probably get a lot of smiles and possibly candy. If the restaurant is slow, the waitress might offer to hold your baby while you eat (so long as you don't mind her being shown off to everyone in the restaurant).
  • If your child starts throwing the standard supermarket fit, instead of casting disapproving looks, strangers are more likely to do whatever they can to cheer up the poor child. (Any disapproving looks would be from your failure to give the darling whatever they want).
  • Potty training is a lot easier when it's totally acceptable to squat your toddler by the nearest tree.
  • When people realize we have three kids, they ALL say, “! 好辛苦!” (“Wow, so hard!”) They are shocked that you raise children without help from grandparents. People are very good about recognizing that kids are hard and you are pretty amazing to be doing this all on your own. :)
  • There are a lot of fun things for kids to do. For $1.50 you can spend hours in a bounce castle at the nearby park. There are indoor and outdoor play areas (though very few free playgrounds). Our city has a free kid-friendly science museum, a kiddie beach, and a park with a carousel, train, and the standard tank ride.
  • Your kids can almost always find playmates outside. It helps to have hundreds of neighbors in a few acre radius. Grandparents spend a lot of time outside with their little toddlers, and school children congregate outside at the end of the day.
  • The in-home childcare rate is around $3-4/hour.
  • I hardly ever take all the kids to the supermarket. In fact, I only go to the supermarket about once a month, since most essentials can be gotten from small shops nearby. We even have old-fashioned fresh milk delivery two days a week!
  • Your kids have visited multiple countries, taken hundreds of flights, napped on the back of an elephant...all before starting school.
  • Bouncing around in a little electric cart or sitting on the back of a bike is much more interesting than riding in a car. You can see the scenery much more clearly and really enjoy those fun speed bumps.
  • One of the official duties of grandparents (students, friends, random strangers...) is to pass out candy to any child around.
  • You often refer to the world map when talking about where various friends live.
  • You realized that people around the world have very different perspectives on parenting.  Here, everyone sleeps with their babies/children and putting your baby in another room sounds horrifying.  They also rarely use diapers, would never give a baby cold (room temperature) water, and don't put kids to bed until late at night.  People do things differently, and shockingly, it all works out.  So perhaps there is more than one right way after all.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

All It Contains

My life seems smaller these days, and in some ways it is. There are days when I don't leave the confines of this apartment. I rarely venture outside this two mile radius, because who has time for that (but then life in China was meant to be lived locally). “I don't teach” - I say this often and it's not actually true, but it's true that I have no real job that involves dressing up and having a title and getting a paycheck.

We have students over so much less often than in our pre-children days. I rarely go out after bedtime. I read a lot, holding a baby in the dark, but it has taken me over 9 months to get through the last season of Gilmore Girls.

I have shared my body, through pregnancy or nursing, for 6.5 of the past 7 years. I sleep in two hour segments, if I'm lucky. I never finish anything before having to start it over again. I must remind myself some days I am in fact, a separate entity, a person in my own right.

But actually my life is not smaller; it has just shifted. My days are arguably fuller than ever before. I wash and chop and cook and puree and freeze vegetables. I feed them to baby and then clean up her and her tray and the table and floor and sometimes myself. I nurse. I cook dinner for the sake of my family and bake brownies for the sake of myself.

I don't have a salaried position, but I teach how to read the consonant blends and how to solve word problems. I plan simple lessons that will keep the attention of small, restless bodies.

I do a dozen loads of laundry a week. I puzzle over grease stains and spinach spit up and coal dust and ink. I memorize the view from my laundry porch as I plan how to fit all the clothes that need to dry, and I curse silently over 20 mismatched, inside-out socks. I rotate clothes already outgrown since last month and prepare for a new season of jackets and gloves. I search the internet for a bigger size of winter boots and pants without holes in the knee.

I calm a million tantrums and hand out ice for a million hurts, real and imagined. I wipe and dress and brush and redress. I find toys and put away toys and get down toys and secretly throw away toys. I clean and I clean and I clean and wonder how it can still be so messy.

I talk to students in between doling out bites of food and answering insistent questions. I invite students to take part in the noisy chaos of our home. They marvel at the way we play with our children and wonder at this strange idea of a mother who doesn't go to work. I send the kids off so I can talk with students about deeper things, some brief focused time in between nap time and nursing and making dinner.

My brain seems to work slower these days - something about sleep deprivation and missing brain cells. And yet it is constantly planning for the day, heading off the next conflict, scanning the floor for choking hazards, calculating the days since the last bath, problem solving the latest discipline issue, and imagining all the possible ways my children could die (fall down stairs, run in front of car, choke on candy, fall on head...).

I stop to read a picture book. I kiss those chubby cheeks, still so soft from sleep. I watch another Frozen dance performance. I admire a bristle-block building. I make up a knock-knock joke. I examine a tooth that is just a bit looser than this morning. I answer questions about life and death and war and butterflies and My Little Ponies. I watch and wait for the giggles, the shining eyes, the silly faces, the outreached arms.

My life is smaller, compared to the outside world, compared to the scope of what it used to encompass. But my life is deeper, in this small space that is filled to bursting. It bursts through the 8 or 10 or 12 working hours and spills onto all 24. It floods the weekends and holidays. It fills my body and my mind and my heart. This house encompasses whole worlds.

This is my pasture, and I struggle to rest within its boundaries. This is my sphere of influence, and I bend beneath the holy weight of all that means, the depth of impact I will have on these lives so closely tied to my own. I join in the ancient rhythm of feeding and clothing and caring for those who cannot care for themselves.

One day, gradually, the space of my life will expand again, no longer measured by hours between nursing, by nap times and loads of laundry. Perhaps I will put on professional clothes and stand at the front of a class. Maybe I will spend full days away from my children, or they will spend full days away from me. Perhaps I will send them off to college, or I will send myself off to get another masters degree. The world is still open, full of possibilities.

But for now I will look inward. This is a season, and in this season I will live small. But I will live deeply.