Sunday, September 25, 2011

Qi Ban (The Wives Class)

By Ruth
In case you were wondering, yes – I'm studying too! All of my posts have been about the baby, the apartment, and you know, the baby. But in between feeding baby's insatiable appetite and trying to pick up all the little pieces of food, fuzz, and hazardous material (where does it all come from??) from the floor before they end up in a certain someone's curious mouth, I am also learning Chinese!

While Kevin is in the main department classes, I am in a special afternoon class. Our teachers sometimes half-jokingly call it “qi ban” - the wives class, or “mei guo ban,” the American class. My classmates are the two other American wives/mothers on our team. In the morning we are looking after our assorted children (and in one case, homeschooling as well!) while our husbands are in class. In the afternoon, the husbands watch the children (and in one case, finish homeschooling!) while we attend class.

Our classes cover the same information, more slowly because we have one class a day rather than two, and more quickly because we only have 3 students instead of 19. Our classes are taught by post-graduate students, some of whom know more about teaching than others. We just got switched to a new reading teacher, though, and she's awesome! She doesn't just talk through the lesson; she actually teaches and explains it! I am really glad the school is willing to provide this special class for us because it is great to have classroom time and fun to have classmates.

In addition to our regular daily classes, Kevin and I have two classes other classes each week we both attend. One is a writing class – very helpful since our other (beginner) classes already expect us to write, even though Chinese writing is complex, to say the least. Each character is made up of 1 to fifty billion strokes, and each stroke must be written in the right direction in the right order at the right place or the character is incorrect. I am really enjoying the writing class though, because our teacher explains things really well, even using almost all Chinese, and writing appeals to my artistic side.

Our second class is a practicum class, one that just our team does. It involves sharing some of the new, personally useful words we learned in the past week and doing practical-application activities. During those two class times our ai yi comes to watch Juliana. Fortunately Juliana has already come to love her and gets excited whenever she comes!

We also meet with tutors each week. I meet with a tutor four hours a week, and since Kevin has tutoring at the same time, ai yi also watches Juliana then. Tutor time has been helpful to reinforce the things we are learning in classes and to work on our problem areas, like say, pronouncing the second tone correctly. I have really been enjoying my tutor this month. She is fun and we tend to laugh a lot, even though most of the time it is at all the mistakes I make.

Our language team situation is unique because we are three families. It certainly makes things like meeting together tricky, but it is a really good situation. It's great to be with other families! Before class or during the break we commiserate about children who aren't sleeping and the difficulty of finding study time. We are all struggling to balance doing homework, learning new words, meeting with tutors, spending time with children who start feeling neglected, being woken up multiple times at night, occasionally talking to our spouses, and sometimes even doing things like cooking and cleaning and going to the store (or say, homeschooling two kids every day!). Both husband and wife feel the pressure of classes and the importance of learning Chinese, but we have to negotiate not just class times, but study, homework, and tutor times. Sometimes even sleep times! It's definitely tricky, but it's encouraging to be around others who are also figuring out how to make things work.

Despite the difficulties, I find I am enjoying language learning a lot more than I thought I might. Remembering my past language experiences (middle school Latin and high-school French), I felt extremely doubtful about my language learning ability. I still feel doubtful about my ability, but one thing has changed a lot; Chinese is actually incredibly useful for me, so I feel very motivated to learn. After five years of living in China, it's exciting to finally feel like I am making progress. Things I have been hearing over and over start to make sense. Already it is easier to have (simple) conversations with taxi drivers and vegetable ladies because I can understand their full questions instead of just a few words. I can actually read (very simple, introductory) passages in characters. I can finally write my (rather difficult, 30 stroke) name!

I'm excited to be learning Chinese! I am happy to be able to attend class. Which in no way dampens my excitement for the week long National Holiday coming up October 1st! Thank goodness for holidays - we need all the breaks we can get!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Happy Birthday Baby!

I cannot believe that Juliana is one year old!! A few months ago I looked at her and realized she was no longer a little baby. She's still a baby, but not a baby baby anymore.  As a side note, we have finally chosen a Chinese name for Juliana, just in time for her first birthday: 林安安 lin2 an1 an1. Lin is Kevin's family name meaning "forest" and "an" means peace or safety.

We had her an early birthday party at my parents' this summer, so today was not a big 'to-do.' We had a little three-person party after I got home from class. She opened a couple of gifts we had bought (well, they weren't actually wrapped, just hidden in her special cabinet) and a package from Nana and Gramps. She played with her new toys – a little train, a 3D puzzle, and a phone toy that talks to you, plays music, and flashes lights. Clearly she is unfamiliar with the 'old fashioned,' non-cell-phone type phones, because she grabbed the whole phone, base and all, and held it up to her ear.

After presents, we partook of some iced banana bread 'cupcakes.' She was hesitant about the cake at her early birthday party, but this time she had it figured out. She grabbed the cupcake and immediately tried to stuff the entire thing in her mouth. She gobbled down about ¾ of it before resorting to one of her recent favorite games: fling the food across the room.

The rest of the day was filled with some extras of the normal activities she normally enjoys. Block towers to demolish. Containers to fill with toys. Books to pull of the shelves. Music for dancing. Tickles. The kissy game (in which I grab her and kiss her chin until she erupts into giggles). The hide-toys-in-the-special-cabinet game. Cheese snacks. More of the fling-food-all-over-the-floor game. All in all, I think she had a good day.

So here is the one year update!

Baby loves: putting things in and out of containers, knocking down block towers, standing up and cruising around on the furniture, being carried up and down the stairs (she's happy to live on the 6th floor!), pulling all her books off the shelves

Baby eats: Lots of mashed veggies and fruits (squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, melon, peaches) and some finger foods (tofu, mixed vegetables, eggs, cheese). You wouldn't know it looking at her, but she eats a ton! Sometimes as much as me! She nurses about 5-6x a day, generally while practicing her latest acrobatic moves.

Baby moves: She is always eager to explore and follows me or Kevin around everywhere we go. She's not walking on her own yet but loves to stand up and cruise around whenever she gets the chance.

Baby sleeps: Yeah, it's still her personal nemesis. She has been doing a lot better lately (sleeping 6-8 hours at once!) but once she wakes up, whether it's 3am or 6am, she thinks nighttime should be over. We're still working on that... She also thinks she should drop her morning nap, even though she's clearly not ready. She's just too busy for sleep!

There are many things I just love about Juliana. Her incredibly bright blue eyes, which you can bet draw a lot of comments here! Her squeals. Her love of cuddling (even when it's a 3-second “check in” before she's off again). Her “I'm going to die if you don't feed me this instant” impatience for food. Her friendliness. Her little arms reaching out imploringly for a pick-up. Her little dimpled smile, her wispy hair, her chipmunk cheeks. One of the things I enjoy best though is her exuberance for life. She is so happy. Not just content, but thrilled, delighted, vibrant, and joyful. I can build the same block tower 20 times and each time she is so excited she can't wait for me to get more than two blocks on. I can hide the same toy in her special cabinet every day and she still thinks it's the greatest thing ever. She dissolves into giggles when you tickle her or sometimes just look at her funny. She beams delightedly when she sees me and squeals when daddy comes in the door. She makes us laugh a lot and smile even more.

Happy Birthday to my not-so-tiny baby!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Before and After: Pictures of our new home!

With the arrival of the new sofa covers we got made, I finally feel enough settled into our apartment to post "before and after" pictures.  I didn't think we would get so far this quickly, with all we've had going on.  But I'm very happy to have things cleaned, (mostly) organized, and decorated.  In comparing the before and after pictures, I can really see what a difference it's made!  Enjoy!

1. The Living Room

BEFORE: The "before" pictures are ones our friend sent to us when she was looking for an apartment for us to rent.  We decided to replace the old slipcovers (and get extra foam padding) because they were falling apart, even though they were oh-so attractive.  The glass coffee table (with it's sharp, unattached glass top) was deemed a hazard and removed.

BEFORE: This is what our living room looked like when we arrived, since we had all our things shipped ahead from Weinan.

AFTER: A quick comparison with the before pictures makes this look downright awesome!  The slipcovers look better, no?

AFTER: The living room, view 2: We moved a cabinet into the living room to store our dishes, since there isn't room in the kitchen.  We also moved the little table in so we have an eating area!  The kitchen is separated by a sliding glass door and a window (which you see in the back).
AFTER: On the other side of the living room is Juliana's cabinet.  We have left it empty so she can hide toys inside.  It is one of her favorite activities, along with standing up and pushing buttons on the TV.  On the right you can see that our water machine and fridge are in the living room because they don't fit in the kitchen.  To the left is the hallway leading to the other rooms.

2. The Kitchen

BEFORE: We had a little bit of trouble figuring out the kitchen from the pictures we saw.  The dirty towels hide shelves on the top and cover up the gas tank and random empty space on the bottom.  The counter is formed by two wooden cutting boards.

BEFORE: When our apartment contract listed "dishwasher" we thought, "Well obviously it's not really a dishwasher.  Who ever heard of a dishwasher in China?"  We arrived to find it was in fact - a dishwasher!  Totally bizarre.  Also irreparably moldy.  Bye bye dishwasher.  This side of the kitchen (opposite from picture 1) does have 2 cabinets on top and three cabinets (no shelves, of course) on the bottom.

BEFORE: One of the more interesting facets of our kitchen is the stove cubbyhole/window box.  The one-burner stove hangs off the kitchen in it's own area separated by windows.  To get to the stove, you have to bend over the wide windowsill and out the small window opening, where the burner is located almost a foot below.  Two other nice things about this area: (1) It was covered with newspapers.  If you know anything about Chinese cooking, you know it involves lots of large fires and hot oil.  Smart, very smart.  (2) It leaks.  So if you try to cook when it's raining, your food will probably get wet.

AFTER: The biggest change that brighten up the space are the new fabric coverings I got made (For $2.50).  Very cheerful and green.  We shipped the small oven, toaster, and blender from Weinan.

AFTER: We bought the cabinet on the right so we would have a little more storage space and even a few drawers!  It is very pretty.  The dishwasher removal made room for a dish-drying rack, which is probably more useful anyway.
AFTER: Not a whole lot we could do about the strange cubbyhole/windowbox stove arrangement, but Kevin did take off the windows in front and raised the stove up on a platform constructed from an overturned basin and a random piece of tile, so now you don't have to bend over to get to it.  We are planning to borrow a caulk gun from some friends and maybe even fix the leaking problem!

3. The Bedroom

BEFORE: This is our bedroom, with the laundry porch in the back.  The bed is not actually too uncomfortable...once we added some foam and a couple of comforters to cushion the board, uh, I mean, mattress.
AFTER: Much more cheerful with our pretty flowered bedcovering and some wall-hangings (a fancy name for pieces of scrapbook paper taped up :).  The laundry porch has become a storage area for all the random/broken/useless stuff left behind by the landlord or the previous student renters.

4. The Office

BEFORE: We moved the bed out to make this room into an office space.
AFTER: It doesn't look amazing, and will probably never really get organized, but it is finally functional, and not even unpleasant to be in.  You may not be able to tell from the picture, but that desk on the left is monstrous and Kevin had to remove two doors to move it from the baby room into here.  Out the window you can perhaps see a very Chinese sight: the big construction area across the street.

5. The Bathroom
BEFORE: In typical Chinese style, the shower is directly in the middle of the bathroom.  It's a little annoying that the whole bathroom is always wet, but you can also think of it as a self cleaning mechanism.  The bathroom also includes our washer on the right.

AFTER: Not a lot of transformation here, because really what are you going to do?  Other than scrub and scrub and scrub and add a few Mickey Mouse stick-ons.  Yes, those were mine and I even brought them from Weinan.  I have lived in China too long.  The pipes all along the walls work well for shelves and towel racks.

6. The Nursery: last but not least, and arguably the best room in the house...


After!  Look how pretty and colorful it is!  Juliana enjoys her own shelf where she can pull off all her books and hide toys in the low drawers.  We bough some  inexpensive foam tiles to make the floor a little softer (and warmer in the winter) and moved the extra bed into here.  Her curtains and pictures, along with all her homemade blankets (crib afghan made by my mom, floor blanket made by myself, and bed quilt made by my sister Becky) make the room look very homey.
I am loving the name letters we got this summer!  The beautiful IKEA lampshade made it from Weinan unscathed.  She still has one or ten giraffes.

As you can see, we've made a lot of improvements!  However one part has remained the same...
View from the kitchen window: Most days have been clear enough for us to see the mountains!  And just look at those clouds!  We love the clean air here!!

Friday, September 9, 2011

From Firehose to Punctured Straws

By Kevin

If the first two days of class were like gulping from a fire-hose, we were sipping from perforated straws during week two.

Just before stepping into the classroom on the Monday of our second week of class, some classmates summoned me down the hallway to enter a new classroom. I was handed a new schedule and told that now we were members of class “B,” rather than class “A.” Apart from the fact that we'd now have to rearrange childcare for one two hour chunk of time from our original plan of Tuesday to Thursday, my first reaction to joining another class was relief. I'd learned that several of the students in class “A” were actually second-year Chinese students, repeating the class. That explained why my mind raced to catch up with them during the first couple days of class. I figured, perhaps this class would be more suited to my Chinese level. Now I'm not so sure.

We spent the next four hours practicing  pronunciation and repeating about one-third of the content that we covered in our first eight hours of lessons with class "A" last week.

Instead of fretting because we were moving too fast, I starting wishing that the teachers would just hurry up. One of the reasons for the repetition was this class was filled with nine new students who weren't here last week and speak very little Chinese. There were five students from Mongolia, two from Kyrgyzstan, one from Tajikistan one from Uzbekistan, in addition to four of the Americans, the Canadian and the Mexican from last week's class.

Most of the second week's lessons were similar to our first day in class “B.” In spite of the name of the class, we didn't really do any reading in Reading class. After working on some basic greetings, we spent 2/3 of our time going through the pronunciation of every sound combination in the Chinese language. The teacher spent half her time listening to each of the 15 students pronounce a list of words. Most of our classmates have problems with several Chinese sounds, so it is helpful. But it's also boring for everyone who isn't being called upon. I am sure that their Pronunciation class will cover these basics, but our teacher insists that we need to go through it here too (we spent a good chunk of time focusing on pronunciation with our tutors the week before official classes began to free us up to take a “Practicum” class instead during this time to apply our learning).

In Oral class, we spoke a little, but there were few opportunities for us to practice with one another (as we would in an Oral English class). Our homework was writing: write these 20 characters 10 times apiece. Time-consuming and helpful, but not improving my speaking. Several of us longed for the challenge of the other class, even if it was a bit too fast-paced. However, I am sure that things will pick up once we get past pronunciation.

Outside of our classroom, a large gathering of senior citizens were playing in a croquet tournament, so we watched during the break. We asked our teacher what croquet is called in Chinese – 门球 (ménqiú). Translated into English, it's “gate ball.” The name seems especially fitting when you consider the shape of the characters and imagine a ball rolling through the .

During week two, I did miss one day of class – on Wednesday, when the school loaded 26 of the new students onto a bus and brought us to get our medical examinations, which are required to obtain a residence permit. It took almost an hour for each of us to register and pay. We waited in line alongside about two dozen curious Hui, presumably applying for passports so they can make their pilgrimage to Mecca. During the next 2-1/2 hours, we cycled through an assortment of required medical exams. We were checked for normal things like height, weight, blood pressure and eyesight along with more exotic exams like an EKG, chest x-ray, abdominal ultrasound and blood test to make sure we don't have any major health problems. Oddly, the school was able to exempt us from having our backs examined because it might make us “uncomfortable.” Juliana generally enjoyed the attention she got as we juggled her back and forth. But, she wouldn't nap and we didn't expect to be gone so long, so she was getting hungry and cranky by the time we got home at noon.

So, the first almost full week of classes is done. And we're already ready for a break. It seems we won't truly have a “normal” week of class until week four, so we're still easing into a normal routine. Last week was the end of Ramadan. Next Monday (week three), we have no class in honor of Mid-Autumn Festival. 
I imagine that, by the time we reach the week-long National holiday at the beginning of October, the straws will have been replaced by fire-hoses and the Chinese will again be gushing instead of trickling into our brains.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Healthy Eating

I decided that Juliana eats much healthier than I do.  On the way back from the vegetable market, I realized that about ¾ of the veggies brought into our house are consumed by the littlest member. The majority of her diet is fruits and vegetables, with some Cheerio and tofu snacks thrown in. Plus few other things, like chicken, cheese, and rice cereal, but really nothing unhealthy. Realistically, even though I like most vegetables, I now know all of the other yummy tastes available, and when I want a snack I'll probably never think, “Mmm, mashed carrots.” I also have no real desire to give up my chocolate. The day will come when Juliana realizes what she is missing out on, but for now she is extremely content to chow down on mashed peas.

Yesterday when I was getting us breakfast, I decided that hers looked better than mine (a plain piece of bread), and included grains, fruits, and vegetables! So this morning I made us both the same thing: oatmeal. I am determined to like oatmeal because (1) it's healthy, right? And (2) while I love cereal and could eat it multiple times every day, it's hard to come by around here. My box of Multi-bran Chex I brought from the States is looking mournfully low, and even the local import store mostly has an expensive brand of corn flakes. I liked them fine when I was pregnant, but ever since then they taste like cardboard. Expensive cardboard. Thus – the search for a good breakfast alternative.

I have to determine to like oatmeal because really I don't like. But yesterday, as I was making up Juliana's oatmeal, it didn't look half bad so I thought I'd give it another try. Here is my “recipe” for mama and baby breakfast extraordinaire:
  1. Boil water (for instant oatmeal, of course. You think I'm actually going to cook in the morning?)
  2. Pour into instant oatmeal for desired consistency (with some blended for baby).
  3. Divide one mashed banana between the two.
  4. Add several spoonfuls of pre-mashed sweet potato (perhaps stored in ice-cube trays in the freezer).
  5. Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste.
The result was actually quite tasty. Maybe not eat-every-day tasty, but pretty good for oatmeal. I made too much and didn't finish mine. Juliana, who has hardly ever refused food in her life, did not have the same problem. She probably ate almost as much as me. Meanwhile she enjoyed her watered-down apple juice while I drank my mommy juice (coffee, of course).

I am planning some other alternatives like mashed peaches or apples, more spices, some of our yummy local honey, and if all else fails, a generous portion of brown sugar (for me, not her). What was that about healthy eating?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Inside, outside, upside down

by Ruth

It's been a rough few weeks for Juliana. She's been through a lot of changes. First we woke her up at 2:30am to begin seemingly endless days of travel. When we finally arrived at our new home, we wouldn't even let her crawl around because everything was so dirty. Throughout a week of jetlag and waking up coooooonstantly all night long, we gradually began expanding her area: we made the bedroom safe and relatively clean, then the living room, and finally her (future) bedroom.

Then we started our “foundations/pronunciation” class and every day we left her in an unfamiliar room with two strange (though very nice) Chinese woman and two other strange (though very friendly) kids. It was only for an hour a day, but she still didn't like it. Even when we were with her, we were distracted by cleaning and unpacking and organizing.

This summer she not only got to be around mama and dada all the time, she was surrounded by adoring relatives, ready to shower her with attention at every waking moment. They played with her, read to her, laughed at her, built her block towers, bought her new toys, talked to her, fed her, and she loved every moment of it. It's hard to go from that to...well, much of anything else.

Even though she has spent most of her life in China, she was away for two months (1/5 of her life), and America had become normal. She wasn't surprised to see all those 'foreign' faces anymore. She enjoyed carpets, large bathtubs, and abundant cheese snacks. She didn't even fight the car-seat too hard after a while.

This summer she was insanely happy. Coming back, it seems like she has been unhappy all the time. She isn't really, but that's how it has seemed. She cried because she didn't want to sleep at night and fussed because she was tired during the day. She protested our divided attention, the fact that we wouldn't let her play on the floor, and then the fact that we couldn't hold her all the time. She even freaked out at bathtime – and she usually loves bathtime – I suppose because her small, baby tub was now unfamiliar.

All these things were starting to become more familiar, but then we started abandoning her. I'm pretty sure that's how it seemed to her, since she has spent an average of 1-2 hours a month away from us in her first 10 months of life.

One of those nice Chinese ladies who watched her during our pronunciation class has become our “ai yi” ("auntie"/house-helper). She will be coming in the morning twice a week to clean and cook (yay!), in the afternoons twice a week to watch Juliana while we meet with tutors, and two other times each week to watch Juliana when we both have class at the same time. She does not speak any English and we...well...there's a reason we're going to language school. (Hint: Our Chinese is pretty darn bad.) So at this point, communication is quite a challenge. She is very nice and patient, though, when I cock my head and look perplexed.

On Tuesday she came for the first time. She played with Juliana and sang to her and gave her lots and lots of attention, but even so, Juliana was not happy. She screamed tortuously when the ai yi took her away from me. She cried for about 4500 hours (i.e. at least 5 minutes) until the ai yi sufficiently distracted her. She did pretty well for the first part of the time, but toward the end she became inconsolable and sobbed until I finally rescued her. The ai yi (who watches some of the other students' children) said, “The other children don't cry. She cries a lot.”

As any normal, paranoid mother would, I felt that I was scarring her for life. Even after her rescue, she clung and cried and fussed all evening.

Today our ai yi came back. This morning she whisked Juliana away for a few minutes, and once again Juliana screamed and cried. This afternoon she came back to watch Juliana, and the start was the same - heartbroken sobs. But after a few minutes Juliana stopped crying and the rest of the time was much better! Even at the end, when I came in to get Juliana, she didn't start crying. She was still willing to laugh and play with the ai yi (so long as I was close by). The ai yi said, “She is getting accustomed to me. She is happy now.”

Next week will start Juliana being away from me for 18 hours/week. It's not so much compared to working full time, like many people have to, but it's a lot compared to being with me all the time. Hopefully she will continue to quickly get accustomed to her new life!