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.

Dancing!
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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Adalyn Lucia ~ One Year Old


Happy Birthday to my sweet little Adalyn Lucia.  Sigh, I'm a little sad that she's already a year old!  She is just such a cute, sweet baby.  I'm sure she will be a cute, sweet toddler as well (minus the inevitable tantrums), but I will miss her babyness.  Here is what her life is looking like at one year old!
Eating
Adalyn eats pretty much everything we eat, cut up into small pieces, with the exception of the unhealthy stuff!  I think doing very few purees has paid off because she will eat a large variety of foods Juliana would never touch.  She was slow to get into eating, but in the last month she has really been picking up on the quantity of food.  Probably her favorite food is grapes.  She gets excited and points wildly whenever she sees them, and usually we get tired of cutting them up before she gets tired of eating them.
She also loves to drink water.  She drinks down her sippy cup then goes on a hunt for our waterbottles.  She just got her own waterbottle for her birthday, undoubtedly her favorite persent.  She also loves nursing and nurses 4-5x a day.  I'm planning to cut down over the next few months but will probably continue to nurse her some until around 2 years old, like I did with Juliana.  We both enjoy our nursing relationship, and it still has lots of benefits, so why quit?
Sleeping
Bedtime is usually around 7:30pm, a little earlier if she has a particularly bad nap day and a little later if we are out.  She is often tired and starting to fall apart, but that's the earliest we can usually manage.  A month or so ago we moved Adalyn into Juliana's room, and she started more or less sleeping through the night.  Except if she slept all night, she woke up at 5am, which I consider inhumane.  We have now struck a compromise - I go in and nurse her at 4:30 or 5 and then she sleeps until after 6am.

Adalyn naps twice a day.  She will go through brief happy spells of longer naps, but generally she is adamately sticking to her 45 minute naps.  She is happier when she naps better, but to paraphrase the old saying: "you can lead a baby to bed but you can't make them sleep."
Playtime
Adalyn's very favorite activity for the past couple of months has been pushing stools, chairs, and toys around.  Her favorite is Juliana's step-stool, but she has tried pretty much anything that can be pushed around the floor.  She is close to walking independently but not quite there yet.  She particularly enjoys playing with (and eating) Juliana's toys, but she will play with her own toys if necessary.  She has a pretty short attention span for reading, but she is becoming quite familiar with our personal children's library as she pulls all the books off the shelf every day.

Personality
While she has started to exert more "spunk" (screaming when frustrated or when being persecuted by her sister), Adalyn is still pretty laidback.  She can entertain herself pretty well, especially if her sister is nearby (but not sitting on her).  She's more active than cuddly now, but she still likes to check in for hugs.  She likes grabbing my face and bringing our foreheads together while we rub noses and go, "aaaah."  I just have to kiss her chubby little cheeks about 100x a day, and she has just started kissing back.  Although she still sometimes confuses "kissing" with "eating your face."  Either way, it's sweet.


Communication
I think Adalyn's first word was mama.  At first she used it to say, "I am in great distress!  Someone rescue me!" but now she uses it to refer to me.  Now she also says dada, bye-bye, night-night, uh-oh, ball, and an approximation of "peekaboo."  She often imitates our intonation on words, even if she can't quite get the sounds.  I never really did baby sign language with Adalyn, but she has gotten down those universal basics - waving and pointing.  She also loves any sound that can be made by flapping her tongue around.

She Loves: Eating crumbs off the floor, stealthy shoe gnawing missions, playing in the pantry, tickles, imitating big sister, attempting to catapult off our beds, eating Cheerios, playing on blankets and pillows on the floor, bopping to music

She Hates: Sister taking her toys, being near but not WITH mama, sitting still too long, diaper changes, not being able to get to the shoes, falling down so often, having to nap

I love: Her chubby cheeks, when she burrows her face into mine, the way she follows her sister around, her proud look when she accomplishes a new feat, her giant expressive eyes, how she likes to "share" things back and forth, her quiet nature, and her reaching arms and cry of "mama!!" when she sees me.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kindergarten


I wound my bike between the dozens of other bicycles, motorbikes, and cars pulled up in front of the kindergarten.  All around parents led their 3-5 year old children through the gate, past the alluring playground equipment, and toward the castle-looking school building.  The children all carried backpacks - covered in princesses, cartoon characters, and superheroes - half as big as themselves and mostly empty.

I helped Juliana down from the bike seat, her own Minnie Mouse backpack bouncing on her back.  "Look!  It's my school!!"  Juliana cried excitedly.  She had been talking about starting school for the past year, and the day finally arrived.  I could tell she was feeling pretty important, albiet a little confused, because for a long time we have been telling her she would start school when she was four.  Technically, she will be in school for three weeks before she turns four.  Almost-four-year-olds don't deal in technicalities.

We stopped first at a nurses station just inside the door where a nurse checked each child's hands and throat.  She handed Juliana a red plastic chip to show she was healthy.

As we climbed the stairs to the second floor, where the 4 year old classes are held, Juliana held the child handrail and carefully placed her feet on the painted footprints leading upstairs.   Her teacher greeted her kindly as we entered her classroom, and Juliana remembered her "laoshi hao."  I put Juliana's backpack and jacket in the cupboard while she happily placed her red health chip in its slot.
Twenty-some children already sat at tables, quietly playing.  Juliana spotted her Norwegian friend across the room and hurried to join her.  The two blond-haired, blue-eyed children certainly do stand out!  Juliana's friend has already been in this class for a year, but the other children watched Juliana curiously.  I said goodbye to Juliana, but she was already involved in play.

When I returned at noon, Juliana ran happily to me.  The teacher told me Juliana cried a little bit before I came, but she ate well (she eats breakfast and lunch at school).  Juliana cheerfully waved to all her classmates.  The other children were finishing their lunch and climbing into beds pulled out for naptime.  They stay at school until 6pm.

On the ride home, I asked Juliana what was her favorite part of the day.  "Dancing!"  No surprise there.  Every day the whole kindergarten gathers outside on in the play yard to dance or exercise together.  Dancing has been her favorite part of every day, along with time on the playground "running and screaming."

 Finding out what else happens at school is a little trickier.  "What else did you do today?"  "Oh, I played.  A little boy hit me."  Every day, there is some variation of a little boy hitting her.  It's hard to tell if that actually happens every day or if it happened one day and just makes the account every day.  Either one seems like a decent possiblity.

We have a lot of exchanges like this:
"What did you eat for breakfast today, Juliana?"
"Hot milk. I like hot milk."
"What about for lunch?"
"Hot milk.  Just hot milk."
"Wait a minute, you were still eating lunch when I came, and I saw you had some soup."
"Oh yes.  We had soup.  We had some orange bubbly drink.  It tasted strange."
"Hmm, I don't know what it was.  Maybe something with vitamins?"
"They were yucky vitamins."

Halfway through the week Juliana's enthusiasm was momentarily dampened.  She got up saying, "I'm a little bit sick today.  I don't think I should go to school.  I'm grunting a lot."  But by the time she was heading out for school, she was excited again.  On Saturday morning when I told her there wasn't any school, she said, "But whyyyyyy??"  She quickly recovered when I told her she could stay in her pajamas.  She would be happy to stay in her pajamas all day, except that I don't let her wear them out of the house.

Kindergarten is off to a good start.  I am really grateful for my super-social, crazy-energetic little girl to have somewhere to go every day to enjoy being around kids (even if she can't communicate well yet).  And I'll be honest, I have been enjoying my calmer mornings hanging out with Adalyn.  I can even get some things done since Adalyn doesn't usually demand constant attention.

Every day I also ask Juliana, "What was your least favorite part of school?"  And most days she says, "Nothing!  There is nothing I don't like!"

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Letter to Myself 2005

 Dear Ruth,

Yes, you, the one who just turned her life upside down to move to China.  Standing on a bus as it careens through the city, feeling a dark panic not from traffic but from the culture shock settling in.  The air is crowded with noise and lights and people, so many people, and you feel more alone than ever before.

You think you signed up for a 2-3 year stint, but I've got a surprise for you.  Here it is nine years later with no leaving in sight.  But even more surprising - you really like it here!  I wish you could see that now, how accustomed you will become to life here.
         
But sometimes it's best that you can't see the future, because it's actually going to get a lot harder before it gets easier.  That darkness that is going to get deeper.  I wish I could tell you to reach out and get help, to recognize the depression this time, and for goodness sakes to turn on some lights in your apartment!  And I especially wish I could tell you - it won't always be this way.  One day you will realize that happiness comes almost naturally.

Some things won't change much.  You will always be surrounded by a lot of people, and many will continue to stare (although the shouts of "laowai" will become fewer over time).  You'll never quite feel like you belong, but you'll get a lot closer.  You will have friendly conversations with neighbors who will start seeing you as a real person.  American supermarkets will become more overwhelming than Chinese ones.  You will get to know so many students and friends who will treat you with such warmth and respect.  You will make a decision to stay here, first because you feel you are called, and then because you really don't want to leave.

It's going to get easier.  You will go through more moves and transitions than you really want to know about, but you won't do it alone.  Remember that one guy you met at training, the one who seemed so much older than you.  Two more years and you're going to be married to him!  Fast-forward to 2014 and you have two adorable little girls, your own family to stay with you no matter what.

So right now, I know it's hard.  There's really no way around that.  Please give yourself some grace.  You don't have to do it all.  You don't have to handle it on your own.  You don't have to love it all.  But treasure the moments that you can.  Those endearing little freshmen filling your home.  The late night bike rides with your teammate.  The silly photo booth pictures.  The wonderful varieties of Yangzhou doufu.  The incredible quiet and alone time you're going to long for later.

Years from now, you will remember the difficulty, but mostly you will remember those first years with fondness.  Enjoy what you can.  And go start photo-stalking that Kevin guy.
Love,
Older, wiser (??), tired-er Ruth

Linking up with Velvet Ashes today, considering hindsight.

Romantic photo shoot by Stinky River and the overflowing garbage can

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Clean and Just: My Top 10

While I strive to live more naturally and justly, I often find it difficult and overwhelming.  I have a long ways to go, but I am slowly taking steps in that direction. When a friend recently wrote her top 10 "clean, green, and not-so-mean" list, I was inspired to do the same.  And a month or so later, I'm finally doing it!   Here are the best/most manageable things I have done recently to move toward cleaner living.

1. Read: Awareness doesn't equal change, but it's a very important first step.  The most significant books I have read in this area are Serve God, Save the Planet and Everyday Justice.  These books made me really think about the importance of conservation and worry about if the person who made my shirt earned a fair wage.  I also just finished reading Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.  It was really eye-opening to think about how much processed food fills our lives.  If you've been around me in the past month, chances are I brought it up!

2. Cloth diapers: Perhaps the most significant change we've made in past year has been plunging into cloth diapering.  Not only have we saved a lot of money, we have reduced a TON of garbage.  I hate to think about all those thousands of Juliana's diapers we hauled out to the trash over 2.5 years.  I was hesitant to switch to cloth with Juliana because it all seemed so daunting.  But really it has been much easier than I thought.  Yes, there is more laundry (and hauling buckets of hot water to the washer), but once it's part of the routine it's not too much more work.

3. Fair trade coffee: Sometimes even when you recognize a problem (like people not receiving a fair wage), it's hard to know what to do about it.  Where do you even start?  For me, buying fair trade coffee is a really easy place to start.  It is readily available - even decaf - and in most of the varieties you are already accustomed to.  It is a switch that requires very little sacrifice or even change.  It costs a little more than a big canister of the cheapest brands, but you can enjoy knowing that the people who grew and processed your coffee are able to live off the wages they make.

4. Moving to reusable: I was happy to notice 3/4 of our roll of paper towels is still left -the one I opened when we moved in five months ago.  I have realized it is just as easy to reach for a rag as for a paper towel.  We almost always use reusable shopping bags, and we try to remember to bring plastic containers whenever we plan to get take-out.  I also have some super handy reusable produce bags my sister made (out of sheer curtains from Goodwill).  I have a harder time remembering to keep them with me, but I love cutting down on the tons of plastic bags that end up under our counter.  Recycling is great - reducing is even better!

5. Ethical shopping guide: This guide is a handy list of some "ethical" companies I have used for finding toys (I discovered Hape toys which makes some great, creative toys) and clothing.  It is hard for me to spend $30 on a shirt when I'd prefer $8 at Ross, but I remind myself that when I am buying fair trade, my money is actually going toward fair wages and decent working conditions, while my great savings are at the expense of someone else.  Paying a fair price for clothing also makes me really consider what I buy.  Instead of buying three cheap things, I choose to buy one fair trade item and be content with the rest of my wardrobe.

6. Homemade stock from veggie scraps: This is so easy and such a good idea, I wish I had started doing this before!  Instead of throwing those carrot peels and bean ends in the trash, just put them in a plastic bag in the freezer.  Once your bag is full, use your scraps to make an easy vegetable stock.  Freeze it in 1-2 cup servings for easy use!

7. Cleaning with vinegar: I started using vinegar to clean a few years ago, and now it's pretty much all I use.  Vinegar has great antibacterial properties, is safe in the hands of a 3yr old, and the smell evaporates when it dries.  Safe, cheap, effective, and all purpose!  For some heavier scrubbing, use some baking soda as well.  If you don't like the smell, add a little bit of orange essential oil to your spray bottle.

8. Making bread: I have always loved bread and was making it pretty consistently before becoming pregnant with Adalyn, when all kitchen activity ceased for a while, and since then I could never find the time to make it work.  Thanks to a breadmaker passed on from teammates, making bread has now become manageable again.  It only takes a few minutes to throw all the ingredients into the bread machine.  I don't make all our bread, but I have been making more of it.

9. Honey-Garlic-Lemon Shots: I'm not a person who shuns medicine.  I think it can be very helpful for things, but I do like to find natural remedies when I'm able to.  We dealt with a lot of sickness while back in the States, but I've been able to stave off several colds with this remedy.  It's likely that plain raw garlic would do the trick too, but this mixture makes it a little more palatable - though no less potent!  Maybe just don't try this if you have an important interview or first date in the next 24 hours.

10. Live in China: Solid, practical advice for everyone, right?  One of the things I appreciate about our life in China is that it is easier (at least in some ways) to live more simply and more naturally.  Fresh fruits and veggies are a 5 minute walk away.  We do a lot of biking and walking (although I've heard that one international air trip is equal to about 4 months of driving in ecological terms, so we aren't off the hook there!).  We can't buy a lot of cans and mixes (or they are very expensive) so I have to make things from scratch. Clothes dryers and dish washers aren't an option.  We don't have A/C.  We don't have a huge house to fill - no attics, basements, or sheds.  And moving every few years keeps you very aware of how much you really have

I still have a long way to go.  I don't love cooking and value convenience, so eliminating processed foods is hard.  I still buy chocolate that I know was likely made with child labor (aka. most chocolate brands).  I buy something for the kids because I really want to even though they really don't need it.  We still produce a lot of garbage.  But with each step I make in the right direction, the next step on the journey becomes a little bit easier!


What are some manageable changes you have made toward more natural, just living?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Top 10 Reasons I’m Glad to Stay in China this Summer

Though we came to China nine years ago, this will actually be our first summer in China!  It seems crazy, but when I think about it I guess it makes sense.  The first four years we needed to return to the States for master’s classes.  When we were both teaching pre-children, the school paid for both of our tickets home, so why not go?  The year after Juliana was born we wanted to return because some family and friends still hadn’t gotten to meet her.  The following year in language school we originally planned to stay, but after many family members expressed interest in coming to visit, we decided it would be easier and cheaper all around for us to return instead.  Last summer we were starting our home leave, and that leaves this summer - our first in China!

While we just returned from the States not long ago, it is strange to hear friends and teammates counting down the days, talking about the things they will do (and eat, of course!) in America and realizing it will be another year until we are back.  There are some reasons I'm not excited about staying for the summer, lack of A/C being one of them.  Not only will all our students be gone, but many of our foreign friends are leaving too.  As friends prepare for their departure, however, I've been thinking about the reasons why it will be good to spend the summer in China.

1) Connecting with neighbors.  As the weather gets hotter and very few homes have A/C, people spend more and more time outside.  Particularly in the evenings, our neighbors come out to to walk, pick mulberries from the nearby trees, wash their cars, and watch their children play.  We are getting to see some of the kids Juliana's age who are usually in Kindergarten (starting at age 3) all day, as well as their parents who work during the day.  All the little babies are coming out of their winter hiding as well - although still well padded against the 90F weather.

While most of our friends and co-workers will be gone, we are happy that a few foreign friends will still be around.  We are looking forward to spending time with them and getting to know them better.  A few students have also said they will stay the summer and are excited we will be here as well.

2) No travel and no jet-lag!  Well, that's not quite true.  We are planning to do a little traveling within China.  I need to take Adalyn on a short trip to Beijing for a vaccination we can't get here.  We may go to a neighboring province with Kevin's past student Brian, and we may spend a little time in Xi'an to get away and see some past students there.  But no international travel, no 12 hr jet lag, no foreign germs, and no major sleep changes for children!  That will definitely make things easier. 

3) Greater health.  We can't ever seem to spend time in America without gaining weight (and not just including the times I've been growing a baby!).  There are so many good foods we have missed that we over-indulge.  Walking and biking to get places aren't practical where our families live, so we spend lots of time in the car and little time being active.  No matter how hot it is, we don't have much choice here - if we want to go anywhere we need to do at least some walking or biking plus our five flights of stairs.  We'll probably make a trip across town to Dairy Queen and eat pizza a little more often this summer, but I'm hopeful we can stay more on track with our health goals.

4) Saving money.  International tickets are expensive.  The school would pay for Kevin's ticket, but paying for mine and Juliana's still adds up quickly.  And I don't know if you've noticed, but America is expensive.  Flying from California to Georgia.  Filling up the car with gas (over and over) as we drive around visiting family and friends.  Eating out with friends, buying cereal...  When we first came to China we would always think, "How much would this be in dollars?"  Now when we return to America we mentally convert into RMB.  "Apples are HOW much a pound?  That's like 3x what we pay!"  Milk and cheese are undoubtedly more expensive here; just about everything else is cheaper.

5) Productivity.  We'll see how much actually happens, since heat can be a real energy-zapper.  I always have great plans for our breaks.  But even though we'll have more free time, there will still be laundry and cooking and taking care of children and all those normal things that can take up a whole day.  I'm trying to keep my list reasonable.  #1: Organize the entire house  ...that sort of thing.

6) Maintaining perspective.  It's amazing how fast my idea of "normal" can change.  When we are here, I think, "Wow, we have so much stuff.  We have so much more than even our middle class neighbors with similar size apartments."  But not long after I return to America I start thinking, "Our apartment is pretty small.  I wish we had a backyard.  Look at these fun toys Juliana would enjoy.  Maybe I should buy another shirt.  Well, you know, everyone drinks Starbucks."  While I still have to constantly fight against the urge to accumulate, it is so much easier to maintain a simple lifestyle here!

7) Seeing my parents.  What we will really miss is seeing our family and friends and In-n-Out.  We can't do much about In-n-Out, and we will still miss most of our loved ones, but happily my parents are coming here to visit!  My mom is going to be doing a Summer Teaching Program with ELIC, so she will be teaching in Harbin (northeast) for the summer.  Beforehand she is coming to spend about a week with us, and afterwards my dad will meet up with her and they will come for several weeks in August.

8) Consistency.  We love for our kids to experience normal American summers - swimming, libraries, corn-on-the-cob and all.  But the transitions back and forth between worlds is wearing.  It will be nice to just stay in our own home with our own routines and lifestyle. It will also be nice for Juliana to not be transitioning back to China just as she starts Chinese kindergarten in the fall.

9) Rain, apple trees, and an Expat 4th of July.  There are some things we miss by being gone during the summer.  Yinchuan gets very little rain: the average precipitation for Nov-April is 0.6 inches.  However, the average rainfall in July-August is 3.7 inches!  Living on the edge of the desert has really made us appreciate rain!  Right now we are yielding the wealth of mulberries, and we just heard that during the summer the apple trees on campus ripen.  Who doesn't love free apples?  And even though we will be in China, we will be able to have a 4th of July picnic with other American expats who will still be around.

10) [Relative] peace and quiet.  Our school is on the outer edge of town, so the area is pretty calm.  Our apartment is right next to the main thoroughfare between one of the campus gates and the campus stores and one dining hall.  All day long, but especially at nap-times, delivery trucks clang and bang and honk their way by, with extra rattling as they plow over the speed bump directly under our windows.  I will miss having the campus stores open, but I won't miss the noisy trucks. The campus will also be eerily empty as most of the 20,000 students will be gone.  Of course, the school may choose summertime to step up the nearby construction, so we'll just have to see how all the peace and quiet actually works out!

There are a lot of things I will miss about being in America this summer, but it will be a good opportunity to have some new summer experiences in China!

Linking up with Velvet Ashes (http://velvetashes.com/the-grove-top-ten/)