Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jesus was a two-year-old

By Kevin

This year at Christmas, I'm amazed by the fact that Jesus was once a two-year old. I see him running into a room and yelling, "I'm hiding," then screaming with delight when someone finds him. I find myself picturing Juliana playing with him like she plays with her little friends, running around in circles till he's dizzy, laughing his face off, then tripping over his feet and falling to the ground, crying for Mary to pick him up and hold him. I picture him spread-eagle, sleeping wedged between Mary and Joseph, while they struggle to find an inch of space to sleep.

I see him climbing into Joseph's lap, asking him to tell the story of the Exodus for the hundredth time (what did they do before picture books?). I picture Joseph laughing with Mary about the peculiar phrases he comes up with. "Daddy, I'm Exiting," he says in Aramaic as he tries to play the part of Moses in the Parting of the Red Sea, using a pile of rocks and a bowl of water as his toys. "He's trying to say he's leading the Exodus," they laugh, wondering if he meant it or it was a grammar mistake, after all he has been adding "ing" and "ly" to an awful lot of words lately. Could the Son of God have made Juliana's grammar mistakes as a two-year-old?

All the while he sings Psalms at the top of his lungs while he plays, then pauses, mid song, when he realizes he desperately needs a snack. And they beam with pride as they look at him and wonder just what he will become, just like we wonder with Juliana. I can see him excitedly mimicking the sounds of every donkey, chicken and cat he sees, then laughing when Mom and Dad remind him where he was born. I wonder if he wandered around seemingly unsupervised like the two-year-old in the shop downstairs did last winter, while her parents worked. Or maybe, when Joseph was working with wood and Mary was doing some chore, his grandparents followed closely behind him, forgetting the shame and doubts they had once had about her untimely pregnancy, wondering if her insistence that it was a miraculous conception may have been true.

I wonder if, perhaps, he was like Juliana was this morning -- giddy with uncontainable excitement -- when the Magi came to bring him strange gifts (after all, we don't really know how old he was at that time -- Could have been a newborn. Could have been two -- after all, Herod killed all the kids 2 and under after learning from the Magi that the King of the Jews had been born ). I picture how some Chinese two-year-olds look at a rare foreign face like they've seen a ghost. Would Jesus have been startled if those Magi from the East were Chinese? Persian? Blonde? Or would he have smiled and welcomed them like other two-year-olds, who haven't yet learned to divide people by race. (as a side note - The possibility that they could have been Chinese, which a teammate mentioned reading about, fascinates me. It's for another time, but in Brent Landau's book (which just went on my reading list) Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem a Harvard scholar apparently proposed that a recently-translated 8th century Syriac texts suggests they came from China.)

 But more than anything, I'm just as blown away that God would confine himself to the limits of a two-year-old's little body as I am amazed by the fact that he was once a newborn. Maybe it's because I never thought of him as a two-year old before. My mind has followed the Biblical narrative and hop-skipped through his life from the the baby in the manger, to the young boy him lagging behind in Jerusalem making his parents frantic. Then boom, he's about my brother's age, healing the blind and telling people that "blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall inherit the kingdom of God." Then, at my age, he takes the sin of the world upon himself on the cross and days later comes back to life.

I desperately want to fill in those gaps. Not just out of idle curiosity. But because He matters. For the same reason I want to know the stories of what Ruth was like before I knew her. Because those stories shaped who she is. Trying to imagine him at Juliana's age each step of the way is helping me to see all the holes of my knowledge of Him. I pray that He can fill my imagination to give me a fuller picture of who He really is through the eyes of our two-year-old.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Foreign Experts Once Again

It's only been 1.5 years since we were "foreign teachers" (although 2.5 years since I was actually in the classroom), but sometimes I forget how different our life is as foreign students.  Not just our daily activity, but also our status in China.  We certainly still get lots of attention as foreigners, but we live on a campus with close to 100 foreign students, half of whom look noticeably foreign.  People almost get used to us.  As foreign students, we have no prestige.  But as teachers, we actually carry a "Foreign Expert Card," which we sometimes literally use to "pull the foreigner card."

Yesterday we helped with a Christmas program for another university in Yinchuan, and we got a reminder of what it was like to be Foreign Experts again.  We don't know any foreign teachers at that university - there may not be any - but we had a few connections so our team decided to go help out.  This campus was only about a 25 minute bike ride away, but it was pretty far out on the edge of town.  Past long rows of greenhouses and mud sheds.  Past large fields of newly sprouting trees.  Past the fancy new buildings of other college campuses also sprouting up on the edge of town.  No neighborhoods, no shops, no restaurants - just one bus stop down the road and a few fruit sellers by the campus gate.  A group of mini-vans for hire waited on across the road since no taxis come out this way.  Their drivers were gathered around a bonfire, waiting for someone to come along and request their services.

This is not a top-level or even mid-level school.  The students are almost all from small Ningxia towns.  Many of them have probably never seen a foreigner before and most have never talked to one.  The word about the Christmas program spread and the original 70 students mushroomed into a couple hundred.  The teachers scrambled to move us into a new classroom - a large auditorium with stadium seating and giant screens connected to a computer in the front.  This campus was only a year or two old, and it was still looking quite new and fancy.  The teachers ushered us in, eager to show how much they were honored by our presence and wondrously amazed to find we could speak Chinese.  See what I mean?  Prestige.  Nobody treats students this way.

Our friends who were heading up the program talked about some different Christmas traditions and beliefs, interspersed with the whole group coming up to sing several Christmas carols.  When the students spotted our teammate's daughters (Juliana had stayed at home), a couple hundred cell phones whipped out and started snapping pictures.  Each time we came up to sing a Christmas song, the students clapped enthusiastically and took more pictures. 

After the formal presentation was over we moved to different corners of the room for question and answer.  The students shyly gathered around and awkwardly looking at each other hoping someone would talk.  A couple of brave boys came in a little closer and several girls linked arms for moral support. 

One of the brave boys shook my hand and said, "Nice to meet you!  You are very beautiful."  I had to laugh.  I almost forgot how people used to say that all the time.  I'm not being vain, they really did.  Guy and girl students, random grandmas and shopkeepers.  Usually at inappropriate times like when you are trying to have a serious conversation with them or trying to buy milk at the supermarket.  I would be more flattered but mostly they think I am beautiful because I look so foreign and because I have such white skin, which is enviable in China.  And because I have yellow hair and blue eyes.  I don't have either, by the way, but reality does little to sway preconceived notions.

In between awkward pauses the brave boys yell out mildly coherent questions.  They are supposed to be related to Christmas, but we give that up after a few minutes because really any question will be an accomplishment.  The usual questions proceed, in somewhat more garbled English than normal.  They also repeat their questions in Chinese, which is helpful when the English doesn't make a lot of sense.  When in doubt I just make up my own question to answer and they are happy since they don't understand most of what I respond anyway.

When the awkward silences start to build up, I try asking them questions instead.  Where are they from - that's usually easy enough to understand, what year are they -  freshmen, what do they do when they have free time - sleep, shop, one girl said "farm work.

Over in Kevin's group, the students are even more intimidated by the thought of trying to talk to two guys.  Kevin looms about two heads above the group.  The students are all too shy to ask questions, so their teacher starts ask questions for them.  "These students are not very good," she says, "Their English scores on the GaoKao (the huge standardized test to get into university) were around 30 out of 150pts."  Not exactly a motivating speech, but if the students even understood, they are probably used to hearing that type of thing.  The main education philosophy seems to include "learn through shame and scolding."  The students know this is not such a great school, but probably some of them are just happy to be going to any college.

I've missed students.  I miss their awkward shyness as they stand around forgetting every word of English they've ever learned but still desperately hoping you'll talk to them.  I miss how intimidated they are just by the foreign face.  They are so cute and so young at 20 going on 15.  I want to get to know them better, especially these students who have likely never been to a city bigger than Yinchuan.  I even miss their dumb questions like, "Can you use chopsticks?" (after I just told them this is my seventh year in China), their ever-repeated questions, "Do you like China?  Do you like Chinese food?", and of course the one that never will die, "How do I improve my oral English?"  I miss even that.

As the time ends and the students file out, they stop to mob us for photos.  Once the photo ops start it's hard to end them, with a dozen more students crowding around waiting to grab your arm and turn you toward the appropriate camera-phone wielding student.  I forgot what it was like to be all famous.  Tonight my picture will go up on twenty more qq or renren pages (kind of like Facebook), probably with some caption like, "My foreign friend!!  Did I mention we are very close?  Like best friends!  p.s. She knows Obama."`

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Tale of a Nursling

Note: I am not writing this to make anyone feel bad about whether they nursed or how long; I am writing because I want to share my story of what a great experience nursing can be.

Nursling Baby
Juliana nursed for the first time when she was about half an hour old.  It must have been very comforting, after being thrust into a loud, confusing world, to once again be surrounded by a familiar smell, a familiar taste, and a recognized voice.  Her tiny hands flickered over my skin, and she looked up at me with big, bright eyes.  I could hardly believe she was mine, but she obviously knew I was hers.

The first couple of weeks of breastfeeding were very difficult.  Juliana latched pretty well from the start, but she was jaundiced, so keeping her awake long enough to nurse was nearly impossible.  We took off her clothes and annoyed her in every way possible but she still slept on.  Getting enough milk was important to reduce the jaundice, so the hospital lactation consultant recommended I started pumping and giving her extra feeding from a syringe.  Each feeding I spent 30 minutes trying to wake her up enough to nurse her, then I spent 30 minutes painfully pumping while Kevin fed her tiny bits of colostrum from a syringe.  It was so hard to relax, and the high blood pressure I developed just after leaving the hospital didn‘t help.  She nursed every 2-3 hours during the day and we had to wake her up every 3 hours at night, so there wasn't much of a break before it was time to start over again.

Once the jaundice started to go away, Juliana became more alert and nursing was much smoother.  I was happy to leave the breast pump behind for the most part.  For the first month or two she mostly ate every 2-3 hours, for 30-45 minutes each time, and I felt like I was nursing all the time.  I read 20 books in the first three months, mostly in the middle of the night!  I also watched a lot of TV, both of which were helpful in allowing me to relax.  Once we both started getting the hang of breastfeeding, it became much easier.  I loved the way Juliana would close her eyes and start rooting around when she was hungry, and she would wail pitifully if she had been hungry for longer than 30 seconds.  I loved the way she predictably drifted off to sleep at the end of every nursing session, too warm and cozy to resist.

I first started nursing in public when Juliana was 5 weeks old and we had a 37 hour flight back to China.  I was a little nervous about it since I still wasn't entirely comfortable with nursing even with no audience, but it went fine.  By the end I felt much more comfortable nursing on airports and airplanes and with people looking over my shoulder.  Nursing isn't as popular in China right now, but people do seem to be a bit more open about it.  When we would have (female) students or teachers over and I was nursing Juliana, they would come sit by me and watch her nurse.

When Juliana was about 2 months old I developed mastitis.  A student took me to see the local doctor and then tried to translate his diagnosis: "He says you have too much milk."  Eventually we were able to translate the word "mastitis" which made things a little clearer, but then he prescribed some medicine I shouldn't take and told me to stop nursing, which I knew I shouldn't do.  After a call to the doctor-aunt of another student and a bit of self diagnosis, I bought some amoxicillin and it started to improve.  Everything I read said that rest was very important…they probably didn't mean "take a 14 hour train to Beijing and then trek across the city on bus and subway."  But Juliana had a 2 month check-up and immunizations, and at least I was able to see a better doctor in Beijing who confirmed that the mastitis was improving.

Once we got past the early days, nursing was pretty easy and I enjoyed it.  I loved the connection I felt with Juliana and the peace I felt knowing I was providing the nutrition and comfort she needed.  She continued to nurse during the night, but a particularly nasty stomach bug forced me to learn to nurse lying down, which was helpful.  She went through several stages of supreme distraction, and there were times when she drove me crazy by picking at my skin.  She learned to do some pretty complex acrobatic moves while nursing, a skill I didn't always enjoy.  But overall, things were going great.  She became a more efficient nurser and started to nurse for 15-20 minutes instead of 30-40, and she wasn't nursing as frequently so it was much easier to schedule going out or being away from her for short periods of time.  She was never on a strict schedule, but she naturally fell into a relatively predictable routine.

Nursling Toddler
Shortly after Juliana was born I distinctly remember telling a friend I planned to nurse her until she was about a year old and that was long enough.  I said, "Once she can start asking to nurse, that's a little weird."  Now I have to laugh at how much my thinking has changed.  When she reached the one year mark I thought, "One year is such an arbitrary time.  Just because it's when most people stop nursing doesn't seem like a good enough reason to stop."  So I didn't.  To my surprise, I found that nursing a past-one year old seemed completely normal.

One day Juliana started walking and suddenly I was nursing a toddler, something I would have never seen myself doing before Juliana was born.  But once again, it seemed pretty arbitrary to stop nursing just because she started to walk.  I read more about the benefits of "extended breastfeeding" both for Juliana and myself.  We were both still happy to be nursing, so why stop?  I knew it would seem strange to some people, but fortunately I discovered many friends who had nursed into toddlerhood.

As Juliana started to enjoy drinking cows milk and became less dependent on nursing, I gradually started nursing her less.  By 15-16 months I was just nursing her before bed and first thing in the morning.  It was nice to have more flexibility during the day, and I enjoyed a chance to cuddle with my increasingly active child.  At bedtime when she asked, "Nurse?  Nurse?" it seemed sweet rather than strange.  Sometimes she would stop in the middle of nursing and look up to give me a kiss.  I could tell these times were important to her for a lot more than just nutrition.  In the mornings I brought her into bed with us and enjoyed not having to get up right away at 6am.  Sometimes she would doze off and we'd both get a little more sleep.

Weaning a Nursling
I planned to stop nursing when Juliana was about 2 years old, but it took a little bit to actually get around to it.   I kept thinking, "I guess I should stop nursing," and then I would think, "But why?  We are both still happy with it."  I don't think there is anything naturally strange about nursing a toddler (in fact the worldwide average age for weaning is four!), though I realize it is a bit countercultural.   At some point I think we have to take cultural norms into account, but let's be honest - there is quite a bit about my life that falls outside of the cultural norms!

Around 26 months I decided to stop nursing at night, since Juliana was only nursing for a few minutes.  I usually prayed for her as she nursed, so instead I just held her and prayed with her.  For a few weeks she sometimes asked, "Nurse?"  I would say, "No, we'll just pray together," and she was fine with that.  A few weeks later she randomly, wonderfully started sleeping much later in the morning, so the morning feeding disappeared rather naturally.  Since her entire weaning experience was so gradual, it was never difficult for either of us. 

I admit that I am a little sad to think of this sweet part of our relationship coming to an end.  It is just one more milestone to show how quickly Juliana is growing.   But mostly it seems like the right time for us to let it go.  I am so grateful for the opportunity to nurse Juliana as a baby and a toddler.  I am grateful for all the support from friends and family and doctors who never doubted my decision.  It has been a beautiful experience.