I am sitting in a tiny chair, listening to Juliana's kindergarten teacher rattle off a bunch of instructions to parents, thinking, “I don't know Chinese. At all.” The other parents are looking glassy-eyed after two hours of sitting around, but at least they can understand what the teacher is saying. These are all the specific things your child should have in their backpack. Don't just pack all their favorite snacks (I'm looking at you grandparents). This is the new procedure for picking up your kids. And fifteen minutes of other stuff I have no clue about.
I have the idea that after this many years, living in a foreign country should be easy. It should, right? We have lived here for the most part of twelve years. I have spent nearly a third of my life – pretty much all of my adult life – in China. It feels like home. Sort of.
It also never ceases to feel like a foreign country. The habits and customs of our childhood culture run deep. I am fascinated by culture because it influences us so profoundly in ways we don't even realize. After all these years, a lot of the things that bother me are not necessarily bad, they are just still so different.
I grew up in the suburbs and then in the country, where my family were the only inhabitants of 6.5 acres of peaceful nature, 30 miles from the city. Now I live in a country with 1.3 billion people, in a city, on a small campus with 20,000 students packed 6 to a dorm room.
The walls of our fifth floor apartment seem thin. In reality, I hear little from our neighbors, but I am aware of their nearness. I am particularly aware of the ones below us, who undoubtedly hear plenty of jumping and stomping and screaming. They kind of scowl when they see us outside. We hear the laughter of students, the rattling of carts, and the roar of trucks bumping along the road just below us. Over a hundred windows look into our own.
Outside, we are watched. Not in a creepy way, but there are always people around, and they are always curious about the foreigners. Random strangers turn to watch us every day, every where we go. Students gasp as they catch sight of the girls, taking their pictures or summoning the courage to say hi. The girls are used to this attention but they do not always receive it benevolently.
Even Juliana, attention lover that she is, gets tired of people touching her. After stopping a random stranger on the street who is trying to pick up Adalyn, I explain to her, “You don't have to let people touch you and hold you. If you don't like that it's okay to say so. But you do need to be kind.” I watch Nadia closely to see how she responds – is she comfortable with the attention or do I need to intervene? Will this person be gentle or pushy? Why do people love playing the “I'm going to steal you away from your parents” game? What kid thinks that is funny?
Our own neighbors are familiar with us. They watch us kindly as if we are unusual but relatively normal people. At the park or the supermarket or on the street, however, we are more of a spectacle. In their excitement or curiosity, strangers sometimes forget we are real people, not just a fascinating display for their viewing, touching, picture taking pleasure.
Our weirdness comes out in the most normal of circumstances. I think about it whenever I drink cold water or eat bread instead of rice or put on a bike helmet or home-school my daughter or write with my left hand or step outside the door with my white face. I am foreign. I will always be foreign.
There are other stresses in China that I am realizing will never go away. Language has always been a stress. Even after all these years, it is still a big challenge. Chinese is no joke! Kevin teaching English and me spending so much time at home with kids does not place us in optimal language positions. We can do all the basics and carry on conversation, but there are always things I don't understand.
Almost every Chinese conversation involves stress. Even if I do understand everything, or enough to get the general idea, there is always the fear that I won't understand and will look like an idiot. Or I will understand but won't be able to think of all the right words to respond. When I interact with Juliana's teachers I want to say, “Really, I'm smart! I know I sound like your kindergarteners, but I actually have a masters degree!”
I feel stress whenever the children are sick – will they need to go to the hospital, where I don't fully understand the doctor and don't necessarily trust what he says anyway? Will people blame me for not putting enough clothes on them or feeding them the right food or letting them sit on the tile floor?
There is the stress of travel – the ridiculous 30+ hour trips to see our family and the jetlag and the suitcases and the children shuffled from one place to the next with too little routine and too little sleep.
I feel the stress of uncertainty – What if something happens and we have to leave China? What if the school decided they didn't want us to live here anymore? Will Juliana be able to go to primary school part time next year and how will we figure out the system? Will Adalyn's kindergarten teachers know what to do with a foreign kid, and how will she handle being the only foreign kid in an all-Chinese environment?
There is the stress of responsibility – Am I using my time well? Is it worth us being here? Are we spending enough time with students? Why don't we know our colleagues better? Are we friendly enough with our neighbors? At the end of the day how do you ever do enough?
Many things about life are easier than the used to be. We understand the culture much better, but with children we are constantly venturing into new aspects of life. Just like everyone, we worry about their schooling and their social life – and we also worry about how they are handling always being the weird ones.
So what do we do with these stresses? That is what we are trying to work out. I think the first step is recognizing these areas are still challenging so we can give ourselves grace. Beyond that...well, I'll let you know when we figure it out.