Tuesday, June 28, 2016

My China Dream Home

Our apartment building
Juliana goes through these spells of nostalgia. Thoughts of the carefree life of the long ago four year old can bring her to tears. She especially misses our old apartment, where we lived when she was 1-3 years old. One day after telling her once again that no, we couldn't go back to visit because someone we don't know lived there now, I decided to show her some pictures of the old apartment.

The first picture she saw was this one, and what do you think she said?
"Oh, I miss our old bathroom! It was such a pretty bathroom!"

I had to laugh, wondering what exactly she missed. Was it the mold? The broken tiles? The rusty water pipes lining all the walls? The leaky pipes and broken toilet? Or perhaps the perfume of sewer gasses that was particularly pungent in warm weather.

As teachers, the school provides furnished housing, but as language students we had to find our own. Pickings were rather slim, and all we had to go by were pictures from another city. We chose the smaller, older, cheaper apartment partly for the price ($120/month) and partly because it was furnished. The only furniture we owned was a crib, and the thought of furnishing a whole apartment sounded daunting and expensive.
Living/dining room.  Does this count as "open concept"?
You could say our apartment had some special features.  One of the windows broke and since the landlord didn't want to repair it, we fixed it ourselves - with thick plastic, tape, and chopsticks. [We realized in the US this would be considered super trashy, but in China our American friends congratulated us on our resourceful fix].  The laundry porch was filled halfway to the ceiling with random things the landlord left behind.  If you sat in one particular spot on the couch, you could smell cigarette smoke from an unknown source. The kitchen was so small that the fridge was in the living room, as was the folding table and chairs which served as the dining area. 
I bought some green fabric to cover up the big gas tank and rickety counter frame.
And the kitchen itself was the most special part of all. The "counter" was actually layers of boards propped up on a rickety frame/old broom handle. The one burner stove was in its own little metal alcove built onto the window. You had to bend out the window and down into the alcove to cook. In winter, the burner sat on a bed of moldy ice; in summer, rain dripped down through the crevices. Every winter, the kitchen windows froze over from the inside. 
When we arrived the stove alcove was covered in newspaper.  That seems like a good idea, right?
And then there was the roach infestation. I still shiver thinking about opening the cabinet to see dozens of roaches scurry away. And every spring we would lose water for a couple of months. The water would be on for an hour at meal times and sometimes for a couple of hours at night. We planned laundry, baths, and toilet flushing accordingly.
Juliana's room was definitely the prettiest.  Perhaps that's why she has such fond memories. :)
It would be hard to go back to that apartment, with its particle board furniture. And yet, I really liked that home. It was there that Juliana took her first steps and finally (finally) slept through the night. It was there our Chinese language abilities progressed from pathetic to passable. I spent many all too memorable hours throwing up and awaiting the arrival of Adalyn.
Ice patterns inside
It was in that apartment I learned that there is always beauty even in the ugliness. Admittedly, I never found a purpose for the roaches, nasty little abominable creatures. But the thin windows and inadequate heating allowed for intricate ice patterns on the windows and cozy evenings doing homework next to the radiator. The small space meant that Juliana could keep me in sight no matter where I was. The climb to the sixth floor meant light and breeze and unobstructed mountain views.

I once planned to be an architect, and then -when I learned how much math that would entail- an interior decorator. I still get hooked on HGTV in America. I particularly enjoy the shows like Fixer Upper or Property Brothers, where they take a really ugly old house and transform it into something new. I think there is something in us that craves beauty and restoration.

I always dreamed of having a house like that - beautiful, spacious, and mold free. A place where everything matched. Instead most of my homes have been more similar to the “before” version than the after. Even the apartment we have now, a very nice roach free three bedroom apartment - a huge step up from the last one - is hardly an American dream home.

Perhaps one day I will have a pretty home with more than one bathroom, hot water in the sinks, and no downstairs neighbors to worry about. Ooh, and a dishwasher.  I think a dishwasher would be veeery pretty. But until then, I will keep enjoying our home for what it is – home. Perhaps one day I will restore and redecorate and transform, but for today I will overlook the ugly and focus on the beautiful all around.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Tips for Air Travel: Pregnancy through Preschool

As we waited in the security line, 2 hours into our 33 hours of travel, Juliana chatted with the family next to us. “We're flying to China! We live there! We're going to fly on THREE airplanes!”

The mother gave me an incredulous look. “Is that true?? I've been stressing about traveling with two kids across the country! How do you do it?”

I'm not a travel expert, but I do have an awful lot of experience flying with little kids. I stopped keeping track of Juliana's flights once she hit 50-something several years ago. Here are my tips for making travel (especially the ridiculous 24+hr variety) manageable.

Flying while Pregnant
...Don't do it.

But in case you, like me, try to fit multiple international trips into each pregnancy, here's what I suggest.
  • Stay hydrated. Bring lots of snacks
  • If still dealing with nausea, snack often, keep peppermints within reach, stock up on the air sickness bags, and may God have mercy upon you. You might still end up in the family bathroom puking in a trashcan while your child sympathetically yells, “Gross! Gross!” But most likely you'll survive.
  • In the later trimesters, wear compression socks and move around often. It's not like you'll be sleeping anyway.
  • Find out the latest date on which your practitioner recommends traveling and plan your trip for that exact day. Or earlier, if you like to take the fun out of things.
  • Check individual airline requirements and restrictions for traveling while pregnant. Some recommend a note from your doctor or don't allow travel after a certain point. Having a letter stating your due date and current health is always a good idea.
  • Don't read any stories about babies being born on airplanes. You don't need that stress.

Flying with Babies
….It's actually not so bad.
  • Bring extra clothes for everyone involved.
  • Before you get on the flight, try to make sure people have a good view of the cute happy baby so they can keep that visual in mind later when baby is not quite so happy.
  • Consider whether a stroller or carrier (or both) will be most convenient for your travel. You can pile all your bags in a stroller and have a place to set baby down, but it's a pain in security and can get beat-up, even if gate-checked. A carrier means more weight for you to carry, but it's small and can be easier to deal with. Sometimes you won't even have to take it off at security, depending on how lenient the security officer is.
  • For a small baby on a long flight, request a bassinet. It's handy for diaper changes and a place to set baby while you eat, and if you're lucky baby might even sleep in there! A bassinet also means you get bulkhead seating.
  • A lightweight scarf works great for discreet nursing in close quarters. Less cumbersome than a nursing cover and doesn't shout “Hey everyone, check out my giant drape! I'm nursing!” but can provide some cover up. Baby can't pull it down, since it's around your neck. If baby hates being covered, like most babies, just pile it loosely on top of baby leaving the face clear.
  • A button-up shirt (only buttoned at the top) over a pull-down tank top allows for great coverage even without anything else.
  • If baby has started eating solids, make sure you bring what you need – including a bib and baby spoon. Once you hit finger foods: Cheerios. 24 hours worth of Cheerios.

Flying with Toddlers
…bless your heart.
  • The generally accepted hardest age for travel is around 9 months – 2 years, when your baby/toddler is mobile and not old enough to be entertained long. Accept that it's just going to be hard, but that it will get progressively easier with lengthening attention span.
  • Let your toddler be active whenever possible. Some airports have kid play areas where your child can play and older baby can crawl on less-dirty surfaces. Walk your toddler up and down the airplane aisles. Let him stand on the seat and look around.
  • Bring lots of snacks. One day of eating a continual stream of goldfish or your equivalent nutritionally devoid entertaining food is not going to hurt your child, and snacks can ward off some of those mid-flight meltdowns.
  • Meltdowns will happen. It's pretty much unavoidable. Your toddler is overtired and stressed and everything is weird, so try to have extra patience and do what you need to do. Sure, you might not normally bribe your way out with 500 goldfish, but these are not the usual circumstances.
  • Don't entertain until you actually need to. If your toddler is happy examining the safety card or looking out the window and calling, “Airplane! Airplane!” 200 times, great. Let this continue for as long as possible. Look through the magazines, talk about the airplane slides, play with the window shade.
  • Games of “hide the toy,” finger games, songs with actions, and tickle games can all be played in a small space.
  • Bring extra clothes for everyone involved.
  • If potty training, or recently potty training, put on a pull-up. You really don't want to go through your back up clothes with 20 hours left of travel.
  • Put some little kid movies or games on your phone or tablet. Toddlers may not be interested in the movies on the airplane, or they may have trouble seeing the screen.
  • If you are traveling with your spouse and the plane has rows of three, choose an aisle and window seat toward the back of the plane. That middle seat will be the last to fill up, so you might have an empty seat, especially helpful with a 23 month old lap child. If it does get filled, nobody in the history of travel has ever minded switching out of a middle seat (also worth trying in a row of four when you have three paid seats).

Flying with a Preschooler
One word: Movies
  • Congratulations, you have entered the golden age of movies. This is a big reason why Juliana (5) likes travel so much – getting to watch as many movies as she wants is one of life's great rewards. And again, one day of watching 4 movies in a row is not going to rot anyone's brain.
  • Bring extra clothes for everyone involved. Really you should just do this whenever you travel. People throw up. Luggage gets lost. Someone spills an entire cup of coke on your pants. Make the space.
  • Bring kid headphones. They are bulky and take up space, but the airplane ones often won't stay on, and my kids hate earbuds.
  • Bring snacks. Your kid might love or hate the airplane food and you never know until that particular moment. Something known and loved (aka peanut butter sandwiches) can be a lifesaver.
  • Two toys in the hand are worth 10 in the bag. We always pack extra activities and then end up using the two things that are in the diaper bag because they are reachable.
  • Print out coloring pages ahead of time. Just search for “absolutely anything + coloring page” and you can find all sorts of custom things your child will enjoy. Put them in a folder and they can also be easily shared among siblings.
  • Consider if your family will be split up between multiple rows and pack accordingly. Passing snacks and toys back and forth over seats gets tiring.
For further musings on travel with children, check out "The Wonderful Terrible Adventure"

Linking up with Velvet Ashes: Travel