January 29, 2010

Re: The Tiger Crouches

Ari in his school performance

Re: The Tiger Crouches

The most important event in the Chinese calendar is fast approaching.  It goes by the names Chun Jie or Xin Nian, but we refer to it as Spring Festival or Chinese New Year.  Traditionally, the Chinese follow a lunar calendar.  We are now entering the Year of the Tiger.  The new year is very important. This is the time that most people hop on a train, no matter how far away they live, to return to their home town and celebrate with their family.  Schools break for an entire month.  This year the new year falls on February 14.  

Ari's school had a new year's school performance.  Actually, it would be more rightly termed a New Year's Extravaganza.  Despite the fact that we are talking about kids aged 3-6, it was an event to behold.  Held at a theater in China's most prestigious post secondary institution, Peking University, (with the important opportunity of having your child's picture taken at the main gate), admission was charged at ~$5 per person.  We had to drop Ari at an inconvenient bus stop (where a Greyhound-like bus chauffeured the children) at 7:50 in the morning only to then fight the morning subway traffic to get there ourselves.  The program started at 9:00 am (nothing like a convenient time for parents).

They handed out glossy multipage programs outlining four acts (4-5 hours long in total), each composed of 7 different performances.  We contemplated that Ari's performance might be near the beginning so that we could leave early, but quickly discovered that his performance was in the fourth act.  It didn't take long to decide that it might be most prudent for James to attend and for Jude and I to stay home.  Nothing like five hours of watching young children dance to music!  One performance was five minutes of watching a bunch of babies lying on the stage dressed as flowers while music played.  

Nonetheless, James reported that some of the acts were actually quite good, with young children performing ballet, acting out scenes from traditional Chinese opera wearing traditional dress etc.  Ari's performance was something to do with being a traffic cop.  

We've been told that there are massive festivals at the parks in Beijing that we should check out, but we are not sure yet if we are brave enough to face the crowds.  The Chinese refer to themselves as "dumplings boiling in a pot" when there are such crowds.  Personally, I think that the mental image of dumplings in a pot sounds spacious and relaxing compared to this kind of a crowd.

Will we go or not? We'll keep you posted!

January 14, 2010

Welcome to the Family Aiyi

Aiyi has recently felt like more and more a part of our lives.  It should not come as a surprise that there are pros and cons to this. What follows is a blog of pros and cons.  While it may sound like the cons outweigh the pros, it is actually the other way around.  This is merely a process of coming to terms with the cons.  Aiyi has been a great blessing in our family.   

These are the pros: 
1) We spend a lot of time chatting, exchanging information about each other, and sharing stories about the boys.
2) There is a level of comfort and trust there that is necessary if we ever want to ask her to change something that she is doing
3) She has learned our household patterns and knows how to give us extra help if we need it.  For example: She knows from many times watching me, that if I am talking to my parents on the phone when she arrives that I probably haven't eaten yet and that I won't have time to make myself anything before going out the door.  In those instances she often throws some delicious dish together in 5 minutes and presents it to me in a container as I go out the door.
4) We have mutually orally expressed our appreciation for each other 
5) The boys really love her and trust her and she has demonstrated a high degree of loyalty to them.

These are the cons:

1) Close observation allows for close scrutiny.  

The Chinese word for scold is ma.  It is said with a sharp descending tone, and I personally think that it is a good example of onomatopoeia, when a word sounds like its meaning.  The word, when it is said correctly, sort of sounds like  a slap across the face.  I have received a few ma's from Aiyi in the last few weeks.  Here are two examples.

One was for giving Jude fruit juice when he was sick and not eating anything.  I listened to the ma patiently and then waited for her to leave to give him the juice.  After all, I'm only following western medical advice.  Another ma was for failing to put long johns on Ari when he went to school.  They were in the laundry that day, and I figured that for one day he would be alright ("After all." I thought, "Canada gets much colder than this".)  

The unfortunate thing about these ma's are that they based on different cultural perceptions, and I have to fight the urge to tell her that she is not right.   But I want to keep a basis of respect in our relationship, and if I am constantly undermining her, then the relationship will become tense.  Now if only I could remember this all the time.  Inevitably the ma catches me off guard, and my defenses instantly go up.  The message I hear from what she says is "Wow you are an idiot!  I can't believe you children even made it this far!".  It takes a lot of pride swallowing to receive a hearty ma.  

For the record, this is a common Chinese practice.  I have received ma's from random people on the street when one of Jude's pant legs was up and showing half an inch of leg during warm T-shirt weather.  The ma comes sharp and fast in crisp Chinese and it could come from anyone, young or old.  It also doesn't work to pretend that you don't understand them, because the ma just gets louder and more emphatic.  I have also been told that what children really ought to be eating is fish heads.  Again, it is a cultural perception, but it is almost comical for me to imagine the boys' faces if night after night, we plopped down a bowl of completely intact boiled fish heads in front of them.  

2) Living with the Financial Prowess of someone who does not have much money

Aiyi really likes to ask me how much I paid for something.  Aiyi, by necessity, knows how to pinch the pennies.  I could write a whole blog about bargaining and the process I've gone through in learning how to bargain, but here is a brief summary.  There was a while when I was intent upon getting the best price for something every time all the time.  But I quickly discovered that I have two things working against me.  The first is that I just don't like bargaining.  If I think someone is giving me a bad price and won't go down, then I just don't buy it.  My best solution is to only bring the amount of money I want to pay.  The store vendor is usually quite cooperative (even if a little unhappy) when I inform them that it is all the money I have.  The second is that I can't stop comparing prices to what I know I would pay in Canada for that same item.  The result is that I probably pay more than I need to, but I don't walk away feeling like I was ripped off.  Here are two examples.

James' Mom sent us some Christmas money to buy the boys something.  It was a good opportunity to buy them some nice new winter coats.  I asked a few people what they thought would be a reasonable price for children's coats before I sent shopping.  The unanimous vote was ~80 kuai (~$12 US).  So I found a few coats that I was not very impressed with (too thin) that I was able to bargain down to 80 kuai.  But then I found some others that were thick, warm and also pretty handsome.  The lady wanted 120 kuai (~$18). For an extra $6 I could get something I was really liked and was actually effective, not to mention that I felt like I was getting a steal of a deal.  In Canada, I have seen coats like this for sale anywhere between $50-$80.  However, when I showed Aiyi the coats and told her how much I paid for them, she shook her head at me in amusement, saying that I should have only paid 80 kuai.  I swallowed my irritation.

When getting Ari's hair cut two weeks ago, I paid 15 kuai (~$2.20).  In Canada, haircuts are atrociously expensive,  It is not unusual to pay a good $40 for a woman's haircut.  When Aiyi asked in amusement how much I paid for his hair, she countered that she would pay no more than 5 kuai (~$0.74), making me feel like an idiot.  I wanted to tell here that this was a very small fraction of the price for a haircut in Canada.  However, I realized that if I said this then I would make it seem like everyone in Canada is rolling in dough and throws away 2 weeks of earnings on a child's haircut.  To Aiyi, that 10 kuai makes a big difference.  But as far as I am concerned, I don't begrudge the person who did a good job cutting Ari's hair the extra $1.46. 

Again, I feel the need to point out that she is not acting out of meanness or superiority.  This is also a very common Chinese practice.  It is not unethical to inquire of a total stranger or friend how much money they make or how much money they spend.  These are merely some of the cultural differences that I have a harder time swallowing, especially when they are directed at my parenting ability or my supposed lack of financial judgement.

I suppose its all part of the growing process...

The pictures at the top show Ari in the school magazine.  I suppose he makes good publicity for the school.

January 10, 2010

You Know It is Time to Get Something Fixed When...

...You start on fire when using it!  As I write, the smell of my charred sleeve still hangs in the air.  Sort of resembles roasting marshmallow, curiously enough.  

We have noticed for several weeks that the starter on our gas range top is a little too vigorous.  What has kept us from getting it fixed?  Pure laziness I suppose, and lack of concern.  James and I each made sure that the other one was aware of it and mutually decided that we should just be more careful.  But today, when I started the flame to cook pancakes (two minutes after James walked out the door), I was surprised to suddenly see flames leaping up the sleeve of my sweater (which apparently seems to be made out of exploding cotton).  

Thankfully, I had fast reflexes and put it out by myself very quickly, using my other bare hand and waving my arm.  I have no burns and since my sweater is dark blue, the damage is not visible.  The only hint of what happened is the odor hanging around in the air.  I calmly called James to tell him what happened, and informed Aiyi (who was in the other room when it happened) that she shouldn't use the burner.  

Will we call the repairman now?  I think so.

January 03, 2010


As some of you know, I've recently bought a new camera of relative worth.  This event coincided with our coworkers' vacation to Thailand, and as they agreed that it would be difficult for them to ride their bicycle while they were gone, they decided to lend it to me.  I've had it in my head for a while already to get out on the country roads and see the villages around Beijing, and it also seemed like a good time to get in some practice with the camera.

Now, some geographic background is necessary here.  Beijing is a city that is growing at an unimaginable rate.  In Winnipeg, they periodically announced that certain roads would be closed off due to construction, or that new subdivisions would be built.  But I don't think it's any exaggeration to say that at any given moment the total amount of construction going on in and around Beijing is equal to the total area of Winnipeg.  Maybe two or three Winnipegs.

That being said, I sometimes wonder just what the purpose of some of the buildings being put up really is.  It's plain to see that the new chrome-windowed office building or high-rise apartments are intended to meet demand, to be teeth on the cogs of progress, all part of the enormous engine of growth.  And yet, if the millions of empty square footage of office space in Beijing mean anything, then perhaps the demand, or the market in general, is a wee bit sluggish.

I don't want to sound as if I'm railing on growth.  That's not what this entry is all about.  It's about change.  As I slipped quietly out of the house at 6 am, the sky still lemon-coloured from the streetlights reflecting on the underside of the coal haze, I thought eagerly about what I'd see as I pedaled northwards.  If the maps said anything, I'd be out in the "environs" by the three-and-a-half mile mark.  But, embarrassingly, after 10 months of living in Beijing, I still had only vague ideas of what this would look like.

When I was younger, I knew a boy who had a massive train set in his basement.  There was a table about 30 feet long, covered in foam and papier-mâché hills, plastic houses, and lichen-topped trees.  You could watch the train move along the track, but if you looked too far, your eyes just dropped off the edge of the table.  As I cycled north along Guangshun Bei Da Jie, I suddenly reached a point that reminded me an awful lot of that strange HO-scale world.  The road didn't end, but it was abruptly transformed into a narrow two-lane thing that squiggled its way under an overpass, riddled with potholes that would bottom out the moon buggy.  The high-rises and the shops just ceased to exist, and in their place were squat buildings of brown brick.  They hunched, windows smashed and dark, as if the people inside were impervious to the elements.  The people I passed on that road were dressed in thick, quilted coats, scarves and hoods pulled up against the cold.

I rode on, as the sky turned to charcoal and then to smoke, never quite reaching blue.  The smell of coal was thick, spilling out of tin chimneys and obscuring the road.  I crossed frozen canals, choked beneath an inch of pale dust.  Then the buildings fell away again, and I found myself alongside corn fields that had been harrowed until they were smooth as felt.  There were greenhouses, half brick and half curving plastic shell, something like a polyurethane hermit crab spilling out of an open book.  Inside, I suspected that the vegetables I would eat later that night were being harvested, protected from the cold by long straw mats that look a bit like Venetian blinds.

Further on, the villages became more discrete, with long stretches of field or poplar woods in between.  It's easy to understand why they are referred to as nong cun, or "farm villages".  At first, I doubted the name, thinking that they were too close to Beijing for them to really be farms.  But the villages are a mix of courtyard-style houses, crooked alleys, and tiny gardens.  The rooftops are covered with the crispy remnants of this summers' cucumber vines, and every window sill is piled high with twisted leeks and corn cobs.

But as I traveled, the also I passed the shattered remains of houses, recently bulldozed to make way for some new development.  I met an old woman in one village.  She was lifting a bulky sack onto the back of one of the many flatbed trucks parked in the alleyways.  She explained that she was moving, and everyone in the neighborhood with her.  I learned a new word that day - Chai (拆), which means to demolish.  You can see it scratched into the plaster or spray painted across the bricks of a building slated for destruction - the mark of progress.

It is often bemoaned by Westerners that the city is chai-ing vast areas of old-style brick, one-storey housing to make room for the new.  The old China is being knocked down, they say, sifted through, and buried beneath 30 floors of reinforced concrete.  However, many Chinese that I have spoken with are brightly optimistic about the whole affair, pointing out that the Lao Fangzi (old houses) are draughty, cold, and leaky.  They also observe, with a wry smile, that the same Westerners who decry the destruction of Chinese history are hardly lining up to live in these houses.  In fact, far from lying in front of the bulldozers or strapping themselves to the wrecking balls, they seem quite a bit happier to move into the villas that get put up soon after.  They swim in their new pools and putt on their new greens, never thinking once about what life once breathed there, never hearing the voices that whisper from within the burial mounds.

I don't know what to say about it all.  I realize that my personality is such that I am prone towards idealizing "the old".  But it should be remembered that the old was once new, and that the mortar was once quite moist between the bricks of those lao fangzi.  Someday, perhaps, there will be crowds who mourn the loss of the quaint turn-of-the-century high-rise apartment buildings, and the symbols of what Beijing used to be, back in 2010.

Whatever the case, as I pedaled, I wished I could remember the entirety (instead of just fragmentary snatches) of Shelley's poem, "Ozymandius".  Here it is, in full:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Somewhere along the way, I met an older gentlemen who put it best.  When he asked me why I was taking photographs of the old buildings, I answered that there weren't any like them in Canada.  "Buildings these days", I said, "are all exactly the same."

He shuffled his cloth shoes on the stone alley a bit before he smiled and said, "These houses, they're all the same, too."

p.s.  Happy Birthday Jess!

January 3 - An Auspicious Day

January 3 auspicious?  How could it be? Christmas is done and everyone is tired and broke.  Most people managed to perk up again for New Years Eve, but then they crashed again for New Years Day.  A few ambitious people are still off on their Christmas holiday vacation, but that just means that when they get back they'll be even more tired and broke.  It seems like January 3 is as bad a time of year as it could be.

Well, its auspicious because every year on January 3, no matter where I am, it blizzards.  Even today, here in Beijing after two months of severe drought and no precipitation, the Chinese government fired their silver nitrate canons and the result is a blazing snowstorm.  You may ask yourself why I would notice that every year on January 3 it blizzards.  Well here are but a select few illustrative stories for you, and you'll soon figure out why.

January 3, 1984
My mom, hugely pregnant and supposedly in labour (not that she felt anything) braved a massive snowstorm with my Dad to drop the two older children off at a friend's house and then go to the hospital.  It was morning.  When they arrived at the hospital, the doctor told them that they should go home and then come back in the evening.  So they braved the storm home again.  They spent the stormy day at home waiting, somewhat bored (Mom was still not in pain).  They then braved the storm again in the evening to go back to the hospital.  Twenty minutes after my mom was checked into the hospital, I was born.  

January 3, 2004

James had a plan.  He was going to take me out on my birthday to a park, cook me a winter meal over a fire and then pop the question.  However, a massive snowstorm hit overnight, covering his car in snow up over the dash and the temperature then promptly plummeted down to -45C.  There was no going anywhere.  My Dad, having been let in on the plan generously offered to let James take his car.  Off we went.  We arrived at the park and strolled about 10 feet away from the car before we were too cold to proceed.  James grandly proposed and put the engagement ring on my icy white hand before we threw the glove back on again and rushed back to the car.  

We decided it would be silly to go right back after such an momentous occasion, so we went for a drive.  But it wasn't long before we found ourselves driving through thick heavy snow that was bumper deep without no option except to keep driving forward fast enough to not get stuck and snow enough that the tires didn't spin.  It took about an hour and a half to drive 4km and when we finally got out, we discovered the car would not drive faster than 40km/hr and made horrible noises.  We dropped the car off at a friend's house nearby and hitched a ride back to my parent's house, with James moaning about how to tell his future father-in-law about his car.

January 3, 2009

I was excited that James and I were going out alone for my birthday.  We were going to see the IMAX 3D Safari show.  But a massive snow storm hit.  I felt pouty that the weather had ruined my birthday yet again, and James finally decided that we would brave the weather anyway to drive the 30 minutes to go see the show.  It was a long and harrowing drive.  We questioned the wisdom of heading out as we drove along.  We did see the show, but the 3D strained our eyes and made the drive home, even less pleasant.

January 3, 2010

Northern China has been experiencing drought for the last two months.  The farmers are edgy and water prices have been raised in Beijing to deter people from wasting water.  The air is as dry as can be.  There was even a small dust storm on Christmas Eve.  I get my hopes up that I might pass my first birthday without either the prerequisite snow or storm.  But then, on January 3, the government "cloud seeds" with a giant cannon and Beijing sees a massive downfall of snow that puts a stop to everything.   

However, I still have to go to church to play piano.  I manage to get a taxi, but the driver's cutthroat driving in heavy snow makes me pause to think that I might not live past 26.  Only thirteen people show up at church, but I grandly play my rendition of "Shall We Gather At the River" that I have been working on for a few months anyway.  

Will we make it out for Greek food and cheesecake like we had planned?  Who knows...

I have come to the conclusion after all these years of having my plans blown by the weather, that the only thing I should ever plan to do on my birthday is celebrate my own life.  After all, where did we come up with the idea that it is more important to be celebrated than to celebrate yourself?  

Today I am a happy 26 year old.  It used to bother me that everyone is shocked to hear how young I am, but I have stopped caring about that now.  It would be silly for me to be self conscious about my age, because it doesn't change who I am or what I am.  I thank God for my life and when I take the time to think about what I have done so far, I am quite proud of myself.  

However, that said, I imagine that when I turn 30, I will turn to myself (in whatever snowstorm that I am found at that time) and say "Hey look at that!  You're finally 30!".