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.