April 28, 2009

Chaotic Day 8

More loud noises!  I've learned that these renovations happen frequently and our friends here in Beijing even had to live through one set of renovations lasting four months!  They had cracks running up their walls after it was done!  Please no!  I can already see Jude losing his sanity.  Aiyi has taught them a coping mechanism where they put their hands to their cheeks or tear out their hair and "pretend" to go crazy.  Unfortunately when I got home yesterday, Jude was so exhausted from "pretending" to go crazy that he was sweating.  He threw himself at me like a suction cup and wouldn't stop screaming hysterically.  Again we had to go out for supper just to leave the house.  I cooked today and tomorrow's supper yesterday after the workers were gone.  This is getting very stressful!

That all took place after the crazy afternoon events.  Just before leaving for my class, Aiyi arrived and promptly dragged me down to the front gate of our section of the complex.  There she and the guard proceeded to start up a furious discussion in rapid fire Chinese that I had been supposedly brought there to solve.  It was all I could do not to let my mouth drop to the pavement as they became more and more hostile to each other (hand gestures, face-making and the whole deal).  Kathi (our MCC rep) came to help me figure it out.  It turns out that one of the guard's cars was stolen and they are watching anyone closely who enters, wanting everyone to sign in.  But Aiyi apparently cannot write characters and he didn't believe that she works for us.

I got a late start for class, and I took advantage of the bus ride to zone out... so well that I didn't get off the bus.  Alarmed I got off as soon as a I realized and hailed a chuzuche (taxi).  "Anjialou, ma?"  I said, asking brokenly if he could take me there.  I jumped in the front seat and we started out.  I became alarmed when I saw no sign of him stopping where I had asked and gestured to the side of the road.  His response was to drive even further and proceed to drive down into a deep dark parkade where he continued to drive deeper and deeper around the winding parkade.  Realizing that he had no intent to stop (even though I had no idea where I was) I said "Zai zher!"  (Right here!)  He looked at me, bewildered that I wanted to get out in the parkade.  I looked at him bewildered that he would have brought me down here in the first place.  Turning on the light because it was so dark, he promptly charged me 10 kwai and I hopped out, trying to find my bearings. 

I'm not saying he had bad intentions, since it is possible that my directions were too vague, but I wasn't about to find out.   

I managed to get to class, where I had to explain to my teacher all the events.  Thankfully she has been very sympathetic to my hectic existence since James left.  Because of the one child policy, I find that most Chinese people who know I'm alone with two boys are very sympathetic because of how busy they think it would be with two kids.  Somehow, I then had to focus so that I could learn the Chinese Perfect Progressive Tense.

So now we are at Day 9 and who knows what it holds.  The corner of my left eye has been hurting the last few days, and this morning when I woke up it was swollen.  I've never had a sty before, but I'm wondering if that is what it is.

So far we really have been doing well, but at this moment, James can't get home soon enough for me!

April 27, 2009

Days 6 and 7

Day Six went by fairly uneventfully.  I ventured to bus with the boys by myself (no small endeavor when it involves crossing eight lane crazy highways with two jumpy boys) so that we could go to church. It was certainly nice to see other humans again!

Day Seven dawned with the return of the renovating crew who burst onto the day with such zeal (8:00am) that we were deafened by their feverish pitch of air guns, cement drilling machines, saws, wrecking balls and the infamous "flatulence machine" (I might have added wrecking balls).  We were calmly eating breakfast when right underneath the table the most ear splitting machine possible sent the boys into a fray of screams, and me jumping to the roof.  I am not kidding when I say that these are the kinds of construction noises that a requires North American construction companies to provide their workers with protective ear equipment.  At my parent's suggestion (who got to hear the whole thing on skype), we stuffed our ears with the cotton from the boys' vitamin bottle.  

It really was sad.  The boys had started the morning so happy, but when the noises started Jude in particular spent the morning shaking like a leaf and clinging to me.  When we moved to a new part of the house it followed us.  Normally I would have taken them outside, but I had to study for my exam this afternoon.  Eventually I just put on Robin Hood for the boys and sat closely huddled with them so that they finally relaxed (Jude even slept for half an hour through the fray, as long as he was curled up on top of my chest with my arms wrapped tightly around him). 

 Yes I did manage to study!  I had my exam, and managed to score a 96%!  This launched me into the next textbook, having finished the first.  My teacher also told me that my pronuciation has really been improving.  Hurray!  

When learning new vocabulary after the exam, one of the new vocabulary was the word for "body" or "health" - shenti.  My teacher asked me to make a sentence with this word.  So I said  "Zai Jianada wo xue shenti" meaning "In Canada I studied health".  From the way that she almost spit out her water laughing, I'm sure my sentence came out sounding extremely crass and vulgar.  Later in the lesson, I had my turn to keep my laughter in.  My teacher was trying to describe just how fat her husband is.  She spread her arms wide and said over and over again "He's so fat!  He eats huge mounds of noodles in under three minutes!  He is fat!"  I couldn't tell if this was a bad thing or a good thing, but whatever it was, she seemed to be extremely energetic about it.  

5 more sleeps!     

April 25, 2009

Day 5

Today a blessed change occurred.  I relaxed!  So far I have been fairly tense, planning each day carefully to make it go by faster, entertaining the boys nonstop to keep their conflicts down etc, etc, etc.  But today, I decided not to plan.  I read while the boys played.  I baked bread.  I talked to my sister on the phone and I napped while they napped (no renovations today!).  And then just 30 minutes ago, I was delivered a short half page note from James, by one his traveling companions who has returned a week early.  He does not have phone or internet access, so this note is probably the only thing we'll hear from him.  Thank you Jesus!

Some highlights from the last day include:
- Ari pulling his hood on and asking me "Do I look Germanic?"
- baking 7-grain bread for the first time since arriving in Beijing, with the whole grains my parents sent out from Canada - biting into that first warm, buttered slice was even more enjoyable than the Cadburry Creme Eggs that also arrived (sweet bliss!)
-   A particularly hilarious noise being made by the renovating crew yesterday.  I promise I'm not a crass person, but it sounded like extreme flatulence on top of a wooden box and it was shaking our entire apartment!  I was laughing so hard I couldn't stop!  The boys were terrified!  Ari thought it was funny when he realized what it sounded like, but Jude in particular held on to me like a Koala bear.  Knowing that they usually work until about 7:00pm, and that there was no way Jude would let go of me to make supper, I figured my best bet was to leave the apartment with the boys and go out for supper.  I include a video of the humorous noise, but I promise it doesn't nearly compare with the way it ricochets through your very bones and brain!

April 23, 2009

Days 3 and 4

Well, I felt the verdict for these last two days yesterday when we woke up to heavy skies, heavy rain and heavy smog.  Stay inside!  Shoot!  My plan relied entirely on keeping the boys outside and having them expend all their energy that way.  The gavel came down even harder when Aiyi called to say she was not coming.  Apparently it was raining to hard on the west end of the city.  I must admit to feeling slightly irritable at the weak excuse for not coming (thereby depriving me of my only human contact other than the boys - Chinese lessons!).   

I found myself thinking of Ma Ingalls, my new hero.  In On the Banks of Plum Creek, she valiantly holds up the fort with four children, stuck in the cabin through a three day snowstorm, with the knowledge that her husband is somewhere out in the storm, possibly dead.  But instead of loosing her cool, she spends those three days playing Pea Porridge Hot, making paper dolls for the girls and singing.  Honestly that sounds hellish to me.  But she did it and many other mothers have been trapped in the house with children to feed and entertain.

Well, if I were to make paper dolls for the boys, they would no sooner be created than be headless, armless and legless.  So I settled for solid, sturdy, dinosaurs folded from sturdy construction paper and heavily taped.  These babies are not ripping.  Besides, I let them take out their destructive tendencies on the paper scraps with child-safe scissors.  But I expect that the boys will soon discover that they can rip the tape off.  

This morning looks the same, but we might brave the weather to go find some cheap picture frames.  This video clip is more of an experiment than anything and it demonstrates a little of how silly the boys are during a dreary, somewhat tired and grey breakfast.  I think the most humor is in the music playing from iTunes in the background.  I apologize for the heavy glare of grey light off of our favorite piece of furniture: the glass table.  Again, I feel obliged to point out as many times before... we did not decorate this apartment! 

The sound of banging in the background is our new best friends, the work crew renovating the apartment below us.  They started the day James left and the noise is overwhelming.  You can tell where they are hitting things by tracing the floor vibrations to its source and standing over top.  Without fail, everyday, they have waited until the boys go down for their nap to start sledge hammering right underneath the place where their heads are laying.  Sigh...    

April 22, 2009

Day 2

There is nothing quite like an evening snack of fresh green beans from the market to finish off the day.  They are super cheap, extremely crunchy and fresh and refreshing.  The boys and I are munching away.

I've been reading a lot despite limited time since we've arrived.  Amidst all the studying and general  crazyness I have so far finished ROOTS and Wild Swans.  I am currently working on three others: a biography of Mao Zedong, The Jungle and another called The China Road.  James, for some reason, seems to be irritated by the fact that I never read one book at a time.  I guess I just like having a good mix of fiction/non-fiction, lighthearted/serious etc.

ROOTS was excellent despite the controversy surrounding Alex Haley's possible plagiarism.   

Wild Swans is the true story of three generations of Chinese women from 1909 to 1979.  It is written by the third generation woman and the story spans the overthrow of imperialism, the rise and fall of the Kuomintang, the Communist reforms, the famine, the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao.  I feel very privileged to read it while being among the people whose lives these events impacted.  I find myself studying people on the bus wondering who they are.  There is a an old man who regularly sits on the side walk close by.  He looks like Confucious, but very, very old with dark leathery skin and a thin, wispy, white beard.  He alternately plays a Chinese instrument that looks like a violin coming out of a tin can (sorry James, I'm sure you know what it is called!) or sleeps.  I want to know who he is.

I haven't had any moments of hating our transition, by contrast I find myself becoming more and more fascinated by such a dynamic country.  I'm looking forward to seeing more of China than just Beijing.  I've read nutritional reports from rural Chinese provinces where mothers are selling their highly nutritious eggs so that they can buy chocolate for their children because they think it is better for them.  I want to meet those mothers.  James really wants to get out west and see the herders and the Gobi Desert.  

The China Road is written by a British journalist who lived in China for many years and wrote about his experiences traveling from one end of the country to the other.  His intent was to see from all angles of the country what modern China is like.  So far its very interesting.

I'm sure you didn't check in for a book review, but the point is, I'm really enjoying educating myself about our home for the next three years.  I've always loved history, but there is something even more fascinating about it when you are on location.  I'm sure those who are more widely traveled than I am have an even greater appreciation for it.  


April 21, 2009

Day 1

Those left on the Mainland spent the evening outside today, enjoying beautiful weather.  I walked with Jude in the stroller while Ari rode his bike.  We went to a more picturesque French or Italian looking neighborhood, just across the highway.  I have included pictures of the walk.  The first picture is actually a shot of the MCC office building (the office occupying maybe 0.0001% of the building).  It was very pleasurable, broken only by training Ari what attitude to have toward cars.  Either he would see a car far off in the distance, scream and desert his bike, or when I cautioned him about cars coming from behind, he would nonchalantly brush me off.  

For the most part this neighborhood is quite a bit quieter, but we did have one scare.  A huge van having just passed I figured it was safe to cross the road.  But no, the van kicked into reverse and gunned it right back toward us.  It loomed closer and closer, closing us in against the curb.  Ari froze, screaming and I dashed to get him and his bike (and Jude in the stroller) up on the curb before we could be harmed.  I may have dramatized it a little, (it certainly wasn't life threatening) but it did teach me that I should never assume that a car that has passed is no longer a threat.  I'll add that to my list of cautions, along with "Never assume the sidewalk is safe".  I actually had a car honk rudely at me on the sidewalk the other day and butt me over to the side of the sidewalk in his ambition to get by (glaring I might add).   Which one of us supposedly belongs on the sidewalk?  Definitely not the car, and definitely with all four wheels, using it as a road.

So we walked along, generating the usual interest and questions from the people we passed.  "They must be twins!"  Also as usual, my Chinese was tested, but I managed to do a mediocre job.  We sat for a while watching some recreational basketball, eating pocky and drinking green tea, and then finished the walk with spin around the pond.  

I have just put the boys in bed.  We finished reading Stuart Little this evening, and I'm sad to report that I am extremely relieved to be done with such a tiresome book.  E.B. White had a great idea, but had horrible delivery.  James and I have decided that by the end you just want Stuart Little to drive off a cliff.  Highly surprising coming from the same author as Charlotte's Web.

In conclusion, I apologize that the blog will probably have a different feel while James is gone.  I promise not to use it to bemoan child related frustrations and I will try not to talk only about mundane household events.  But, that said it will be lacking James' usual zaniness (sorry no upcoming series on all the different types of ashtrays I've seen in Beijing!).  But I'll do my best!

April 20, 2009

H.M.S Jumping Castle

Well, tomorrow sees James off on a 12 day trip with some other MCCers from Winnipeg.  It will be an interesting time for us all.  I've never been left with the boys for that long by myself, or even by myself without extended family help that long.  My greatest concern is going crazy as the only on call parent.  The boys will have their quiet napping time in the afternoon when Aiyi is with them, and I'll get to come back from my "refreshing" Chinese lesson to pick up the ball again after the boys have been fully recharged!

I expect to come out of this with deep admiration for single parents who do even more than that for longer.  Out of respect for them, I'll try to keep my complaints to a bare minimum.  After all, James will return (May 2), and its not as though he's off on a shopping spree in Milan either.  I wonder if James would even enjoy a shopping spree in Milan?

That said, I will try to stay up beat, since I really don't want to be in a bad mood for two weeks.  Its up to me, and I have God on my side.

This weekend as promised we celebrated Jude's birthday at the "jumping palace" (I'm sure the pictures are self explanatory).  A far cry from the other child/parent bankruptcy-inducing attractions I have complained about, this one charged 30RMB (~$5) for both of them to play for as long as they wanted.  In fact it was almost like a date for James and I since we could talk for hours beside the palace while they threw themselves around wildly on a giant, painless balloon.  

You can see in the next photo that the jumping palace is quite elaborate.  In the center is a tall column, speckled with heavy-duty handles for the kids to climb up.  But in case they should fall, the owners have rigged up a pulley system, with a harness that attaches to the child's waist.  James hitched up Ari and sent him up like a little cabin boy into the crow's nest.  James has the other end of the rope, in case he slipped.

Here you can see the chaos that broke out at the various bottlenecks on the jumping palace. All the kids wanted to get up on the "drawbridge", which flopped back and forth, dumping kids all over the place.  Several times, we caught a glimpse of Ari and Jude leaping daringly across the gulf.  (On a side note, there were a squad of 7 year old girls who spent the whole time taking care of the boys...)

Jude fell in love with this massive blue cat(?) and spent a good 15 minutes "riding" it.

As busy as the weekend was with preparing for James to leave (stocking up food and such) I did absolutely no studying for Chinese. As such I was dreading going to class today (getting ready for an exam no less). But to my surprise, when Aiyi got here today she and I communicated very well in Chinese. This bolstered my confidence and I went and had a really great class. Since it is rare to have a very good Chinese lesson, I have decided to celebrate by posting a picture of the Chinese characters I have so far learned to write. No two in this picture are the same contrary to how it may look.

Also, just to increase my "brag-factor", each of these characters has a specific order that you have to write the strokes in, which of course increases the level of brute memorization.  But it's coming, little by little!

April 18, 2009

An Unlikely Cause to Celebrate

Greetings from the Mainland!
Today I (James) learned that my grandmother passed away (my mom's mom.)  The news is not unexpected - she had been suffering from advanced Alzheimer's disease for some time now, and had spent the past nine months or so in care home.  By the end, she was quite incapacitated, barely able to move.  And so the news of her passing comes as a relief, knowing that she has been released from a body that has definitely failed her.
My family lives scattered around the world, on several continents.  My grandfather has requested that people to not come immediately to Vermont for a funeral, but rather wait until Summer.  A family reunion had already been planned for July, and this will now be part memorial service/part celebration.
Mary Barclay really had a fascinating life.  I wish I could write out a complete list of her accomplishments!  Her C.V. was just too varied and eclectic to summarize in one sentence.  I'll try to touch on a few of the highlights.


1.  Was born in New Jersey (all good stories start in New Jersey, don't they?)

2.  Grew up in the same town as my grandpa.  They knew each other, but didn't have any interest in one another until they met again as adults.

3.  Worked in the British information office in New York City during WWII, where she worked with a man who she later learned was one of the top British intelligence operatives.

4.  Trained as an opera singer, and studied at Juilliard.  Throughout her life, my grandpa and she would sing duets.  My grandfather, who also has a very pleasant (and LOUD!) voice, would dutifully belt out the baritone parts.

5.  When my mom, her two sisters and her brother were in their teens, my grandma and grandpa decided to move overseas with the Peace Corps.  Over the years, they worked in Malaysia, Swaziland, New Guinea, and many other countries.  The stories from these years could fill countless blogs!

(For example, she told me about a time in New Guinea when she was on a boat that was filled with smugglers.  The craft was suddenly overtaken and boarded by a government boat, and chaos broke out as all the smugglers rushed to hide their goods.  My grandma was accidentally thrown through a small hole in the deck, and fell into a stack of tires in the hold.  Thankfully, she was unhurt, but her backside was shoved so far down into the stack of tires that she couldn't get free.  How long she stayed wedged there I don't know!)

(A second anecdote! As my grandmother was flying in a small bush plane over the jungles of New Guinea, she looked down and spotted a clearing.  There, before her eyes, were two groups aboriginals in the middle of a war!  They were throwing spears, shooting arrows, and swinging clubs!  She later learned that on occasion, tribes in the region engage in ceremonial warfare (sort of like using conflict for the sake of conflict resolution...)  But they also have old-fashioned wars too, with all the blood and guts.  She never knew which type she had witnessed!)

6.  Grandma helped to raise me between the ages of 7 and 11.  My sisters and I lived with them in Vermont, where we ran all over their property.  You have to visit their place to understand just how idyllic the landscape is in Southern Vermont - maples and spruce, fields and streams, hills and valleys.  In high school, I was able to spend three summers there with them, fishing and working in a small French restaurant in South Londonderry.

As I said above, Grandma's accomplishments could fill books.  She worked with Cambodian refugees in Thailand, with village women in Swaziland, with her choir in Vermont, and of course, with her family throughout her long and exciting life.
We will all miss her.  It is very sad to think that I will never see her again in my lifetime.  But I know that she is in a much better place, free from her now-useless body.  And now her life is in the hands of those she leaves behind - a devoted husband, three daughters and a son, and many grandchildren.  We get to carry her story with us, sharing it with those around us.

April 16, 2009

Just Add Ham, or Little Green Men are Not to be Trusted!

Greetings from the Mainland!
Another week is nearly done!  How time seems to whiz past.  Jessica and I have felt rather stretched this past week on the Chinese language front, but we seem to be emerging onto yet another plateau.  We'll rest here a while, content to now be able to tell time, speak in strange and rather abstract type of past tense, and ask for basic directions.  Of course, it's more or less useless to ask for directions if you can't understand the answer...
Today is Shooter's birthday.  That'd be Jude, for anyone who doesn't know him that well.  He's Shooter with his closest pals - he only goes by Jude at the office.  Now, it turns out that here in China, they sing "Happy Birthday to You" with the same tune we do.  The words are different, of course.  Zhu Ni Shengri Kuai le!  In a land were karaoke is hugely popular (it's called KTV here, or karaoke television), it shouldn't seem at all strange that I spent a portion of my language class singing Happy Birthday to You in Chinese with my teacher.
Did we do anything for Shooterbaum's birthday?  Well, no.  But before your Shengri Kuai Le Ship dashes upon the reefs of the Isle of Melancholy, please know that we've merely deferred the festivities until Saturday.  We plan to go to the "Kite Show" (recall that this is the park, according to Ari), where we will discreetly inquire as to how much it costs for the boys to go in the "Jumping Palace" (again, Ari's name for the small amusement park at one corner of the park).
I've got a few pictures I'd like to share.  First, we have a strange flat of, well, eggs:
I'm afraid I do not like green eggs and ham.
On to the next picture.  This one I enjoy simply because it is colourful:

Here's a shot of a tree that's starting to send out its leaves.  This picture is already a week old, and most of the trees already have leaves on them.  In fact, most of the flowers that were everywhere last week have faded, and now the parks are very green.  But this photo has a geometric quality to it that I like:

And finally, I think I'm really starting to hate the way that cars whip through crosswalks...  It's insult to injury that some crosswalks even have signals.  A little green man appears, beckoning to you, whispering, "Step out onto the road!"  And then, WHAM!


April 13, 2009

I, Procarit! or, Can You Read the Writing on the Wall?

The famous saying, "the writing on the wall" (handed to us in the story of Daniel and King Belteshazzar in Babylon) has gone down in classic literature to describe events of a clear cut and sometimes supernatural nature.  The writing on the wall in Babylon told King Belteshazzar that his kingdom was about to be divided between the Medes and the Persians.  Mene Mene Tekel Parsin, and all that.  "The writing on the wall" is a sign to all that someone's days are numbered.

Well, the writing on our wall last night let us know that a "Certain Someone's" days of unrestricted crayon usage are also numbered.  No divine hand had scribed the eight-inch block letters above his bed...  And when a hastily pointed finger denounced his completely illiterate brother as the culprit, the charges went from vandalism to "little liar".  For there, written in  bold fuschia crayon, larger than life was... ARI!
The full text had a vaguely Latin feel to it, much like the graffiti one might find in an alleyway of Pompeii.  I, PROCARIT.
And thankfully, when Jessica brought the boys into the bathroom to brush their teeth, I slipped in with a camera and snapped a few pictures for posterity's sake.  Yes, we even thought it was funny at the time.  And really, a 150 ft sq. white wall is just about the most tempting surface to write on to a boy just learning his letters.

Is a day coming when Ari will be crafty and/or vindictive enough to write Jude's name on a wall?  Only time will tell.

April 12, 2009

All I Want for the Dragon Boat Festival is an Iron Lung

Greetings from the Mainland!
If you decide to come visit us here in Beijing, I suggest you bring an oxygen tank.  For the last few weeks, we've been having "blue sky days" - the sort of fine, clear weather you find in Manitoba.  The temperatures have varied, but have been pleasant.  One or two days over 30, but most in the 20s.
But Beijing's reputation as a smoggy city is not entirely undeserved.  All weekend they've been promising rain, and last night we finally had some.  But it hasn't done much to clear the thick miasma that has been draped over the city the last few days.  It's quite amazing to look out the window on morning and see the buildings across from you, only to look out the next and wonder where they went.  On days like these, roads fade into obscurity.
I've pulled a photo off the web that illustrates the point very well:
(If you go to the link below, you can read an explanation behind these two photos.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beijing_smog_comparison_August_2005.png)
I rode the subways this morning to go pick up our visas. I guess the air had been seeping down into the subway tunnels all night, because it was just as hazy down there as it was on the street. Except there, no breeze blew to take the edge off. It was positively caustic.
As if this weren't enough, it's pollen season, and the air is thick with it.  Cars are dusty yellow in the mornings.  The poplars have sent up an army of white fuzz, floating on the breeze like a hundred billion tiny paratroopers.  It almost looks as if it might be snowing, except that snow doesn't float in through the bus window and get sucked up your nose.
I feel that I should defend Beijing a bit, however. We really have had 20 days of beautiful weather, with air as clear as you could hope for (if only a little dusty). No burning lungs. No slime at the back of the throat. But today is a different story.  So if you're sending a care package, a spare set of pink lungs might be good.  Or an industrial-grade scrubber that I can affix to my lips.

April 10, 2009

Papa's Boss

 Greetings from the Mainland!
The other day, Jessica decided to sit down with Ari and teach him how to write some letters.  He is an apt pupil, and in just twenty minutes, he was able to write all sorts of letters.  Several days have passed, and he can write his name very well.
He's also taken to drawing pictures and announcing that it is 'so-and-so'.  His latest masterpiece is a portrait of a person he alternately refers to as "Papa's Boss" or "Mr. Ets".  Below, you can see his rendition of Martin Entz, who was my indeed my boss at the University of Manitoba.
Martin will be coming here in about a week, and Ari is quite excited by the prospect of bestowing his drawing upon him.  I suspect Martin will be pleased.  After all, it's an uncanny resemblance.

Notice the horizontal line at the lower right hand corner of the picture, with two short perpendicular lines.  Ari informed me that these are Martin's boots, which are very responsibly placed on a mat by the door.  I guess we've taught Ari well.

Despite the somewhat horrifying expression on Martin's face in this picture, I still think it has a lot of artistic nuance, considering that it was drawn by a three year-old.  For example, the eyes have pupils, and the ears are vaguely 'ear-shaped'.  Perhaps we have a baby Picasso on our hands...

April 09, 2009

Some Pittys, for Pitty's Sake

Infrequent greetings from the Mainland!
As is to be expected, our lives have filled with 'normal' activities, and this leaves less time for filling up space on the internet.  In this case, no news is actually good news, as it's just one more sign that real life has begun.  With the boys, language classes, market expeditions, and even some relaxation time, our days fill up rather quickly.
Nevertheless, it's fun to jot down a few words about the day, or share some photos we've taken.  As Jessica mentioned in the last post, our camera seems to have sprouted a pair of legs, but I've been using my camera phone.  Here are a few pictures that I've snapped in the past few days.  They're taken at a spot near our school, where a large building has recently been constructed.  These are shots of what I believe to be old housing for the workers.

Not much else to say, at the moment. In fact, I'm wasting valuable 'quiet time' (that is, the boys are in bed) and I should crack the books. My teachers are starting to expect more from me, and they've been cracking the whip a bit.  But I've come up with the perfect revenge.  They don't seem to understand why some of the sentences in our book should be at all hard to say.  So tomorrow I'm bringing in... Fox in Socks.  Try those socks on for size.

A Nanny in the House

Yes you read correctly, we have a part time nanny. Not because James and I are too lazy to care for our children, but rather because the increasing demands on our schedule necessitates some extra help. In addition to this, in a week and a half James will be gone for 10 days, leaving little old me with two boys in Beijing! This was the main reason for the nanny rush, since we wanted to get things adjusted before James suddenly left. We call her Aiyi (auntie)

Its very interesting having someone else in the house in the afternoons, especially since she is virtually a stranger and only speaks Chinese. We make all the food and she gives it to the boys. She also cleans the floors. Beijing is so dusty that if we don't sweep and mop everyday, we literally get dirt streaks on our feet, hands and faces.

We've already made fools of ourselves more than once. One of the first days I was preoccupied cutting up carrot sticks and forgot about the grilled "cheese" sandwich I was preparing on the stove. Of course I only realized that it was burning when she came walking in the kitchen hollering something I didn't understand in Chinese. I felt very foolish only being able to laugh, point at it and say "bu haochi!" (not delicious!) and "wo de" (mine).

A few days later, it was even worse because both James and I were in the kitchen trying to throw together some pancakes very quickly, and we managed to burn not one or two pancakes, but thoroughly the whole batch! Incidentally, we were extremely baffled that everything was burning within 1 minute of entering the pan (and no, we didn't have it on extremely high heat!). However, we couldn't communicate any of this to the nanny and looked even more foolish with TWO of us standing over the skillet looking baffled and giggling. We can only imagine what she was thinking "These strange foreigners obviously don't know how to cook and they think it is funny!" It didn't help that she then started asking us if we ever eat Chinese food and if we like it, and why we don't cook it! We actually do cook it, but all she has seen so far is our strange foreign burnt cuisine. She always curiously stares at the boys' lunch, even the not burnt things! By the way this is a google image, not our pancakes. They were not that bad.

Monday was a national holiday so both James' and my classes were cancelled but Aiyi still came to watch the boys. So we decided to kill two birds with one stone. We decided to spend our first afternoon alone together since coming to China and buy a bike for the boys out of our savings account in Canada. We had a lovely time and were excited to show the boys the bike, but when we got home... Well, first we just saw Aiyi knocking at the bathroom door knocking and hollering at the boys to let her in! When James finally got them to unlock the door we saw both of them in the shower covered in shampoo with their clothes on! It was everywhere!

We were not really upset about the shampoo, but the locking out was quite unacceptable (Ari definitely knows how to manipulate the locks). So we decided to creatively punish them in someway that they would remember....so into the shower they went! Shampoo clothes and all! Not too hot and not too cold, but from the noise they made you'd think were torturing them! The shower had the added advantage of washing them and cleaning the mess they had made. Ari was the most upset that we were getting his clothes wet! As if he hadn't done most of the damage! Then we promptly dismantled the locks.

So the first take home message is...if you decide to visit us in China, don't expect to be able lock the bathroom door! The second message is only burn food around people that you are able to explain yourself to!

Since the last posting aroused some concerned comments from many parties, I also feel that I must point out the other good things that have come from use being here. One is that we have spent far more time as a family and one-on-one with the boys than we were ever able to back in Canada. I have enjoyed very much being able to spend much time with them (playing "tickling blanket monster" and chasing them, singing loudly with them, helping Ari learn to write the alphabet, going for walks, reading books etc.) It is true that we are still needing to learn how to work around some of the inconveniences of living here, but I think that time will make a big difference.

I apologize for the lack of home grown pictures on this post. We seem to have misplaced our camera this last week. I'm wondering if little hands might have hidden it someplace...


This is an addition by James:

The other day when I was making lunch, Aiyi walked into the room, took a look at the spaghetti sauce I was preparing, and actually grimaced. I guess it just wasn't her thing. The funny thing is, she refers to it as "Yingguo cai", or English food. I don't have any plans of making Yorkshire Pudding, but it's all the same to her...

April 02, 2009

What's a Kid to Do? By Jess

Strangely enough, even after everyone's predictions that the boys would adjust to living here faster than us, the reverse seems to be true.  We've watched in bewilderment as they have done one uncharacterstic thing after another.  I find myself shaking my head as Jude refuses to move after spreading himself across the elevator door unaware of the doors about to close, or when Ari refuses to stop playing with eggs in the grocery store and throws a fit in public places.  These behavioral outbursts and bizarre happenings really are not like the boys.  They've always listened very well.

But as we've started to see it from their perspective it seems a little more justified.  While I have read in books written for expats that Beijing is a very child friendly city, my experience so far would say the opposite.  There's a lot of open space, but they're too young to run off by themselves and not get hit by a car. Perhaps if we had boundless energy and cash we could take them day after day to the many flashy child entertainment places that abound.

For example, in an effort to make a fun outing with them today, I brought them to the mall to look at the floor that is dedicated to children's stores.  In Winnipeg we could do this easily and they loved it, without begging and asking for things.  But today was pure torture, for all of us! Whining, crying, begging.

I was momentarily relieved to see that there were two child playgrounds.  One was closed in with glass and was a huge sandpark with sand toys and slides and the other was a netted in area where they could throw themselves into huge bins of balls (not unlike the notorious McDonalds balls).  We headed toward them (both boys very excited!) only to see that they charged an admission fee of 25 RMB ($4-5) per child.  Ouch!  That's steep!  That started the whining and crying over again, and I dealt with it in true parent fashion..."Ari, I'm sorry but what do you expect me to do?  We don't have buckets of money sitting at home!"  The only more classic parent line would have been "What do I look like?  A money tree?"

We have a playground outside in our courtyard, but there is only so long they can slide down the same slides without being bored.  Besides, they also have to contend with the fact that there are as many parents as there are children on the playground, so that at times, "playing" is standing in  a slow moving line.  They've also been reprimanded by other parents for carrying sticks or rocks around the play ground.  Today Ari was reprimanded by a guard for walking on a small strip of grass beside the apartment building. 

I certainly give credit to the Beijing city planners for trying to make up for the abundance of concrete and skyscrapers, by adding in plenty of beautiful ponds and fountains and vines and flowering trees.  As an adult I can fully appreciate them and even feel refreshed to spent some time in them.  But the boys are not as content to look as I am.  If they could jump in the pond and frolic under the fountain and climb on the craggy rocks that line the pond in our complex, they would be very happy!  But as it stands they can't even climb on the rocks that surround the pond because they are as sharp and dangerous as any lake in the Whiteshell.  We let them do it for a while once, until Jude took a very dangerous looking tumble.  One inch further and he would have bounced off of three sharp craggy rocks, hit a pipe and then fallen into the pond.  So we walk nice and slow, admire the fish and return home.  All these pictures of the fountains and ponds in our complex.  We can almost see them out our window!

We are very seriously considering buying Ari a bike for his birthday, so that he could whip around the concrete paths and maybe burn some of his energy.  Other than that, we try to spend time with them, play games, read books, go to the park on the weekends etc.  Maybe this is a time for development of the mind.  Maybe Ari will become really good at reading and writing before he even sets foot in a school!  But some days they are just downright bored!  What's a kid to do?  Almost as valid a question is, what's a parent to do?

On a side note, I remembered something today that momentarily got me down.  When I was purchasing groceries this last January at Pal's Grocery on Henderson Highway, I looked disdainfully at the big Cadburry Easter Eggs they were already selling (Give it a break, it wasn't even Valentine's Day yet!).  In retrospect though I realize that at that moment I should have bought and eaten Cadburry Eggs until I was so sick of them I wouldn't think about now!  Much as Easter has a far deeper meaning, I still have extremely fond associations with eating those shiny, individually wrapped eggs.  I used to freeze them and then eat them slowly, pausing to dig out the creamy "yolk" before finishing the second half of the chocolate.  

Ahhh, sweet chocolate memories!  I must admit that the indulgent side of me feels the loss heavily!  Its a good thing I'm made of a lot more than my indulgences!  

Boston is the Beijing of the West

Greetings from the Mainland!
In some ways, Beijing reminds me of Boston.  But it bothers me when people say that such-and-such a place is the so-and-so of the East.  For example, Phnom Penh was, in the days of French Indochina, referred to as the Paris of the Orient.  Pyongyang, believe it or not, was referred to as the Jerusalem of the East.  The Chinese city of Suzhou is called the Venice of the Orient.  And so on...
My beef, so to speak, is not that we're making comparisons between cities (refer to post title).  It's that we're calling the unknown (East) a replica or a mirror of the known (West).  The comparison between Venice and Suzhou is a good one, actually.  Both are crisscrossed by numberless canals, both boast beautiful architecture.  Both are very old, with pasts that disappear into legend.  It's kind of silly, however, when we say that Lhasa is the Dallas of the Orient, or Louangphrabang is the Steinbach of the East.
How do we feel about a reversal?  New York is the Tokyo of the West - an imitation of sorts, only a shadow of the glorious magnificence that is the seat of Japanese power.  Doesn't seem quite right.  Comparing cities with Paris is easy.  All you need are a few tree-lined boulevards that zero in on an arch of some sort.  But making comparisons with Kuala Lumpur?  Not so easy.  I wonder how much of it has to do with the simple fact that, while we know quite a bit about Paris or London or San Francisco, most of us know jack-squat (yes, I said jack-squat) about most cities in the "Orient".
Anyhow, back to today's content.  Boston is the Beijing of the West.  It's true.  For any of you who have ever travelled to New England, you will know that Boston offers some of the worst drivers in the world.  Folks there drive their automobiles with the recklessness of young African elephants that have just grown tusks.  Beijingers don't really fare much better.  Crossing the street is putting your life on the line.  Crosswalks are somewhat irrelevant, and a pedestrian must not expect any courtesy.

 For example, I witnessed as a taxi and a bus simultaneously whipped past an old, cane-reliant woman, one to the left and one to the right.  She was halfway across the crosswalk, and I think she nearly died with fright.  If only Lei Feng, the legendary Chinese do-gooder, had been around to escort her.
In some ways, it's an adventure.  But when you've waited at a light for 10 minutes to cross, but a jillion taxis keep swerving around you on all sides, the charm wears thin.  I keep looking around for the RCMP officer that would roundly bust their proverbial chops back in Winnipeg.  Lei Feng might do it too.
There are other commonalities between Beijing and Boston.  Consider tea, for example.  It's completely possible that the tea that was tossed into Boston harbour, in that unforgettable display of nascent nationalism, was grown on a hillside somewhere in the Middle Kingdom.  (Probably not, unfortunately.  Given the time period, it probably came from India or Ceylon, but if you can't tell, I'm grabbing at any straw I can to draw connections.)

But the real meat and potatoes of my argument comes in here.  Chinese is really a hodgepodge of languages in a common family.  The language that is most used, however, is Standard Mandarin, which is theoretically also the language used here in the capital.  I only say theoretically because there are people from all over China here in Beijing, each using their own dialect.  Some of the differences between dialects are small, and some are quite big.
However, even those Beijingers who speak what would be called Standard Mandarin, have idiosyncrasies of their own.  They add a strong retroflex 'r' to the ends of certain words.  For those of you who don't know what a retroflex is (I counted myself among this crowd until only a few months ago), the simple answer is that your tongue is placed in such a way that it adds a strong nasal quality to whatever consonant it's used with.
In the diagram above, you can see how the tongue (that hideous red thing) is touching the roof of the mouth.  Try putting your tongue to the roof of your mouth, pulling it back as far as you can (towards that dangly bit at the back of your throat), and then saying "Germany".  You'll probably sound a bit more Chinese if you do.
So folks in Beijing add a retroflex R to the end of a lot of words that don't have one in Standard Mandarin.  The interesting thing is that the character for whatever word they're saying remains the same (if it is written down, that is), and the character   is added after it.  For example, the words gong yuan mean public park.  But if you say, "I'm going to the gong yuan", a Beijinger will say, "Ah, I love the gong yuanr".  (It's not pronounced yuan-er, but rather yu-ar.  The 'n' seems to disappear right up their nose.)

Boston, on the other hand, doesn't seem to realize that some words end in R.  Car = cah, for example, and water = watah.  Alexandah, go get the fiah extinguishah!  I'm curious to know what would happen if you put a bunch of Chinese students in an English school with teachers from Boston, or vice versa.
I've just come to a realization.  Here I am, at the end of my post, and I now see that I've just undone my argument.  With the exception of the drivers, Boston is the Un-Beijing of the West.  If you dug a hole in Boston, you would eventually come out somewhere in Beijing, astonished to hear this mysterious sound... RRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!
One final comment.  I stumbled across the beautiful specimen below, and just had to add it in.  Just think of it as an appendix to the "Bonny Bins of Beijing" post.
Warning: May be Poisonous

April 01, 2009

A Haircut Befitting of the Revolution

Greetings from the Mainland!

Today has been a good day. We're pulling out of a prolonged cool spell (although still warm compared to the type of March weather we would expect in Canada). The forecast for the next couple of days (which I received from one of my teachers at the language school, so it must be reliable) is for sunny days in the mid-20s.  But I won't believe it until I see it.  Unless it comes out of John Sauder's mouth, it don't mean a thing.
A notable transition has occurred in my life.  I've finally emerged from the awkward No-Man's-Land between Beard-dom and being clean-shaven (I found myself reading Psalm 23), and I no longer flinch when I don't see a beard on my face.  In fact, I shave every morning, except Saturdays!  This is big news for any of you who know me well.  Facial hair found an unqualified welcome on my face sometime around my 18th birthday.
My attitude has always been, "If it grows, let it".  Of course, fingernails are the exception, and my toenails never seem to grow.  I think the last time I trimmed them was shortly before my wedding, when I felt obliged to do everything I could to 'spruce up'.
But for the last week or two, I was beginning to feel unduly slovenly.  It had everything to do with my hair.  In a previous post, Jessica alluded to the fact that I sometime wrestle with the state of my hair.  Baldness, or shall we say 'the B-word', has chosen me.  I am reminded of the short story, The Lottery, in which a woman receives a slip of paper with a black dot on it, and is therefore doomed to die.
Hang on a minute... baldness and death in the same paragraph?  Comparing the two is, first of all, a heinous injustice to bald, balding and so-to-be-balding men globally, and secondly, is just plain melodramatic.  I'm fascinated by society's obsession with thick, perfectly manageable hair, and my decidedly thin, unmanageable hair just doesn't fit the mould.
If there is a complaint to be heard from these lips, it is merely that in this in-between time, this hazy netherworld of sparseness, I would rather just lose it all, Daddy Warbucks-style.

The reason I got on all this is because today I went out and got a haircut.  Heads are a bit like topiaries, if you think about it.  Going into a barbershop is a bit like entrusting your precious bush to a stranger's shears.  I picked a place that looked inexpensive (tucked at the edge of a neighbourhood that's all torn up with construction, and directly across from a worker's shantytown of sorts).  The women inside were surprised to see me come in, but very nice.
I asked how much for a hair cut.  10 yuan, she replied, for a haircut, and 20 for a wash, haircut and scalp massage.  I indicated that I only wanted a cut.
In the chair, it soon became apparent that my wishes had not been properly communicated.  I got the full scalp treatment, a rinse, and a dry.  Then the cut began.  A different lady did the cutting, relying mostly on a large set of clippers.  She was very meticulous, and her precision was really something.
One interesting feature to life in China is the much larger role that massages seem to play in daily life.  You can see massage shops all over, and it seems that even barbershops offer massages.  There's something about massages that make North Americans automatically edgy.  I'm not alluding to the darker side of massages... the parlour side of things.  I mean massages in general.  Strangers touching you with for the purpose of giving you pleasure.  I know people in Canada who have gone for massages, but it is generally because they hurt themselves at the gym, or for some specific purpose.  Here, it is sort of a general past time.

I didn't get the full-body massage (it would have been an extra 40 yuan), but surprisingly, it didn't seem as though it would have been a big deal if I had gotten it.  Of course, at some point I was forced to try to answer some of the many questions being directed at me.  Where was I from, what was my name, how old was I, where did I work, how long would I be in China, did I like Chinese music?  She knew a little English, but I was able to catch a lot of it in Chinese, and answer accordingly.  It's one thing to have your language teacher ask you carefully scripted questions, when she knows exactly what words you know and don't know.  It's another thing entirely when it's a total stranger!  But it's way more satisfying too!

Here's the finished product.  If I could provide you with a panoramic shot, you would get a complete feel for the militaristic quality of the haircut.  Quite in keeping with a certain type of cut you see frequently in China.
In other news, I was asked by someone back in Canada how expensive groceries are.  This is the first of two photos that I will put up (the other in a later post) that attempts to illustrate relative costs.  All the food on the table was purchased with about $27.  This was purchased at the grocery store.  The other place we shop is a vegetable market, where prices are more 'flexible'.

However, a second, and more immediately available fact comes through in this photo.  Everything, from the tiniest cracker to the biggest bag of rice has about twice or three times the packaging that it would back in Canada.  For example, we bought one item that was packaged in individual bags, inside a larger plastic tray, inside a large plastic bag.
Ordinarily, we would just not buy something with that much packaging.  But there are no alternatives.  It's as if someone said, "Hey, we have a billion tons of plastic wrap sitting in the warehouse, and we need to get rid of it NOW!"
I'm sure that as time goes by, and we learn the subtleties of shopping, we will be able to reduce our waste.  But for now, all our food has a slightly guilty taste...