Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Internet Shopping and The Trouble with Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Challenges of Raising Kids in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

One Ordinary Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“IT CAME OUT!! IT CAME OUT!!”

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

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