April 26, 2010

Taxi Talk

In the last few months, as James and I have become more confident with our conversational Chinese, we have been braving the waters of chatting with taxi drivers.  If you think about it, it is the perfect built in opportunity to practice conversational Chinese, and to become more confident with colloquial speech.  You are essentially stuck in the car with a common citizen and have nothing to do but sit.  James has been braver about this than I have.  The driver's accent is always a hit and miss as far as comprehension goes.  Beijingers tend to put a strong "rrrr" (kind of like pirate speak!) sound at the end of every word, which distorts their speech to varying degrees.  However, I too have been becoming more brave, and let me tell you, it is worth it!  They are always very talkative, they hold strong opinions about a wide variety of topics and they are curious about you too.  Some of our most interesting conversations have come out of taxi rides.

First comes the pleasantries.  "Where are you from?"  And that's where the pleasantries end, because as soon as we say Canada we hear one of two things.  "You must know Bai Qiu En!" or "You must know Da Shan!".  These two are, respectively, a Canadian doctor who helped the Communists during their revolution and a Canadian TV star here in China who is famous for his impeccable Chinese.  To this we usually respond, "Actually, before I came to China, I had never heard of him."  They find this very hard to believe.

The taxi drivers are usually between forty and sixty, so we usually here about the doctor, Bai Quien rather than DaShan.  His real name was Norman Bethune and he was apparently best buddies with Mao Zedong (or you would think so to hear Chinese people talk about him).  However it seems that he is remembered only for his revolutionary zeal, and not for his shortcomings (womanizing, alcoholism and the like).  He died of sepsis before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and as such has been awarded immense post humas fame and respect.  As strange as it may seem, this little known Canadian has won us instant approval from countless taxi drivers.  One driver told us that we and he had a very close relationship, just like Mao and Bai Quien, and as such did not want to accept payment from us!

Here are some highlights of interesting conversations.

There is one taxi driver, who always waits in our area of town, whom we have almost become friends with.  He has the deepest, rumbliest voice I have ever heard.  I'm not kidding, the combination of smoking for several decades, plus living in pollution, plus genetics have given this man a voice that sounds like the Indian chief from the Peter Pan cartoon.  This particular driver's distinctive characteristic is that he loves learning phrases in other languages.  He proudly told us that he can greet people and say "Your wife is very beautiful" in several different languages, including but not limited to: Italian, English, Spanish, French, Korean, Thai, German, Japanese and Russian.  It was very strange to hear "guten tag", "bonjour", "ciao", "privet", "hola" etc. coming from this deep rumbling man with a thick Beijing accent!  James added to his collection by telling him how to say those things in Khmer.  

I had a driver last week who had a different response when I told him that I was Canadian.  He said "Your prime minister's name is Ha Le Po" (which is Stephen Harper's Chinese name).  I looked at him in shock and asked him how he knew that.  No one in China, even foreigners or Canadians, has ever mentioned Stephen Harper to me.  His response was that he knows all of the world leaders and their country's political situations.  I didn't believe him, so I quizzed him on the few that I knew, and his smirk got deeper and deeper with each one he answered correctly.  After I had exhausted  my knowledge, he went on to list the leaders of obscure countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America.  After each one, he paused to look at me and say, "Am I right?", and of course looked very satisfied when I had to say "Sorry, I have no idea!".  Of course, I felt at a great disadvantage.  All of the leaders and countries have Chinese names that sound vaguely like the names I know.  When I know what is trying to be said, I can understand it.  For example, I know that Gordon Brown is the leader in England, so when I hear his Chinese name, I can recognize it.  But even though I could ask him who Spain's or Italy's leaders are, I couldn't understand the name he gave.  He then proceeded to quiz me on Canadian/Chinese relations, to which I had to plead ignorant.

Today I had a 50-year-driver who looked at me with great dissatisfaction and asked, "If you are from Canada, why is your nose bigger than mine?"  
I had to laugh at this unexpected inquiry and didn't have a chance to respond before he asked "Do YOU think that my nose is too small?"  
I had to tell him honestly that I had not noticed his nose, and that I thought most other people wouldn't notice either.  But he was not satisfied and then asked "Why do I have such a small nose?  Tell me!"  
I hazarded a guess, "Maybe your Mom and Dad had small noses too?".  
But apparently they didn't.  He continued, "People in Russia have big noses."  
I responded, "Yes, but I think Russian people's noses are sometimes too big."
He laughed.  "Its true.  Once I had a Russian in my cab and I asked him, 'When you Russians kiss each other, do you have to push your nose to the side with your hand?'"
I laughed very hard at that.  It seems that he was so pleased at making me laugh that he never told me what the Russian said in response, and we arrived at my destination shortly thereafter.  

Before I go, here is a brief update on the visit to Ari's school.  When I arrived, the teachers were making the students practice quietness.  One student after another would walk quietly to the other side of the room and then back again, while the teacher praised the student's stealth to the rest of the class.  "See how he makes no noise? Do you hear any noise? This is very good!"  After this they proceeded to the English lesson, which Ari is far beyond.  The teacher held up flash cards with English words and pictures and Ari inevitably was the first to yell out the answer and the other kids would repeat after Ari.  What a wonder he gets his best grades in English!  They then proceeded to the geography lesson where they identified counties on a map of Asia and learned city names and locations.  Its certainly the first kindergarten I have been to where kids are learning the location of New Dehli.  

That's all for now!

April 23, 2010

Just Your Average Kindergarten!

Every few weeks (maybe once a month) we receive a report card for Ari.  The one we received this last week, reported very positively that he is doing well in math (for example, counting to 1000 in Chinese), and that his ability to concentrate on doing one thing has improved.  Overall it was a good report.  I was also personally excited that I could understand the gist of the report from reading it in Chinese characters.  My teacher helped me fill in the specific nouns later on.

However, a few months ago we received huge folder of a report card.  This thing came equipped with pictures of him doing activities, personal progress reports and an introduction to the teachers.  As I paged through the extensive and detailed pages, I couldn't believe the kinds of things he is being graded on.  Here are just a few examples (and I do mean a very few!).  In all of these he has been graded as being P (whatever that means, it is supposed to be good).   These are direct quotes, except for my comments on the side.  Its a long list, but worth reading through.  It gives strange insight into both the Chinese school system and into their version of what Montessori is.

General Rules 
Sitting in a chair, Pushing a chair
Rolling up a mat
Tidying up materials

Social Etiquette
Asking permission to watch someone
Correcting someone kindly
Making way to pass

Establishing Eye Contact during a handshake (When we send him for a job interview as a child laborer this will come in handy! No one wants a bashful employee!)
The difference between greeting peers and older people

Care of Self
Folding - six folds, napkins, aprons, packages
Spooning - large grains, small grains, water
Pouring - from a teapot, with a funnel, pouring to marked levels, pouring into beakers/test tubes (What is this chemistry? Where's the bunsen burner?)
Sewing a button, beading
Squeezing a sponge, wringing a cloth

Housekeeping (Cinderelly Cinderelly!)
Wiping/Mopping spills
Dusting and waxing
Beading a pillow, polishing shoes
Polishing glass/mirror, wood, and silver/brass (Thank goodness, my brass buttons need a good polish!)
Taking care of plants including but not limited to: washing leaves and harvesting a garden
Peeling and cutting fruit

The Silence Game ("Hey, MY parents made up this game!")
Timed silence, identifying sounds, identifying a pin drop

Walking on a Line
Hands by side/head up, Heel to toe
Carrying objects: tray with a glass of water, bowl of water (Waiter!)

Smelling bottles (Where's my smelling salts!)
Tasting jars

Visual and Stereognostic
Geometric Cabinet: Tray 1 (circles), Tray 2 (rectangles), Tray 3 (Quadrilaterals)
Geometric Solids: sphere, cube, cone, cylinder
Identifying solids blindfolded

Visual: Mixed Impressions
Knobless Cylinders, Fabrics
Baric Tablets: Light, medium, heavy (what are they anyway?)
Superimposed Geometric Figures: Concentric, Tangent, Adjacent, Inscribed
Small and large hexagon box
Binomial cube

Parts of a fish, frog, turtle, bird, horse
Sorting by vertebrates and invertebrates
Life cycles of a bird, butterfly, frog

Map of North America
Puzzle map work

On Monday morning, I have been scheduled for a sort of parent/teacher interview, where Ari will demonstrate his skills for me.  I have asked him about some of these things to see how much he really knows about them, but I think that there is a bit of a disconnect because he is learning them in Chinese.  I suspect that a lot of these categories are fancy words for more simplified concepts.  Whatever the case, there is no chance that Canadian kindergartens teach these types of things.  In Canada, he still wouldn't be starting school until September!  I am very curious about what I will see when I visit his school at 9:50 on Monday morning.  According to this report card, our son is well on the way to becoming a professional butler, waiter, host, chemist, zoologist, wine and cheese taster, maid, tailor, mathematician, cartographer, gardener and acrobat.

For awhile I was certain that we had ended up in a higher end school than we had originally thought.  But as we were looking at his tuition prices and compared them to other schools, we were struck yet again by the fact that it is on the cheeper end of Chinese kindergartens.  International schools are multiple times more expensive.  We have heard a number of people say that they don't want any more than one child because schooling is so expensive.  

Generally speaking I think we would be hesitant to have him continue in the Chinese system past lower elementary years.  When Ari's classmates are finished kindergarten they will have to test into different elementary schools, then into middle school, then into high schools. There are certain cultural things that I am quite willing to live with, but I would have a hard time watching the boys have scholastic stress at such a young age.  I do appreciate that his school is so good about sending memorabilia home for us.  This report card and accompanying pictures will be an interesting thing for him to look back on when he is 16 years old.  We also have a full DVD of that New Year's Program that I complained about back in January.  They also regularly send his school work home for us to keep.

That's all for now!  Farewell!

April 16, 2010

Three Year Old Boy

Today Jude turned three.  It seems that birthdays have officially become something to be envious around here.  Ari could hardly stand it that it was not his birthday, to the point of being downright cranky about it.  It all reached a climax when Aiyi showed up at our house today with a massive remote control car for Jude (picture 1).  At this point Ari burst into inconsolable tears and not even Aiyi's reassurance that he would also get one on his birthday was effective.  As he sobbed, I gave myself a silent pat on the back for thinking ahead to also buy him a bit of a gift.  Jude doesn't seem concerned that Ari got the same airplane as he did, and after-all, it will keep a little more peace.  Back in the days when I was a very wise and all-knowing NON-parent, I would have condemned my actions as spoiling children.  However, now I value sanity (mine especially) and dislike the idea of breaking up fights all the time.  Besides, they only get gifts twice a year and their collection of toys is actually quite small.  I imagine that once they are a little bit older, the two gift policy will become unnecessary.   

The car that Aiyi gave him, however, is another matter.  When she brought it in I simultaneously felt my heart drop into my stomach from guilt and yet also very touched that she would buy such a huge gift for him.  I have seen these cars around for sale at department stores, and the price is steep enough that I never would have considered buying them one.  Knowing that she lives in a house the size of our dining room and that she is putting two sons through school and still bought this gift was very humbling for me.  When I told her what I was thinking she said that she wanted to buy it for him because she appreciates us and feels that we have been very generous with her.  Again, I was touched by her unselfish gesture.  The guilt also eased a little when she told me that she had only paid 1/3 of the price that I have seen in department stores.  Thank goodness!

I made Jude a "Dirt" Cake for his birthday, complete with crushed Oreos, chocolate pudding, gummy worms and gummy frogs, and flowers "growing" out of the top (picture 2).  Let me just say that it is definitely a child's cake!  I only ate a few bites and my stomach is still unhappy with me.  Uhhh!  Too much!  Give me my sweets in smaller, less concentrated doses and I'll be happy!

The day Jude was born was actually quite ideal.  From 2:00 in the afternoon until 7:50 in the evening, I gritted my teeth (as women are prone to do in these situations!), but after that we had just the right amount of time to admire him before settling in for a good night's sleep.  I remember it quite clearly and fondly.  Ari, on the other hand was born after 48 grueling hours and I was half unconscious when it happened.  My memories of holding him the first time are very foggy and somewhat dreamlike (but still very happy of course).

While it is true that Jude has not been talked about as much as Ari on this blog, that doesn't mean that his role in our family is any less important. It is just not as dramatic!  Maybe I'm just a typical Mom, but I think of Jude as being such a sweetie.  I know that someday he'll be embarrassed of hugs and kisses, but for now he dishes them out to me freely.  I soak them up now because I can see how fast he is growing.  When he gets tired, he comes to me and says "Mommy, I want you".  If he is really tired he says, "Mommy, I really, REALLY want you."  He is very tough, as I mentioned before, but he loves his hugs and he likes just sitting on my lap.  He does not like large gatherings of people, and he hates loud noises.  I think that when he grows up these things will translate into steadfast loyalty to the people and the things that he loves. He is strong willed, but he is not confrontational unless provoked. He loves one-on-one interaction.  He loves playing with Ari, but he still enjoys being by himself as well.  One of his favorite activities is driving small cars on the window sill while watching people and cars go by outside.

Before ending this blog post, I just wanted to make brief comment on how interesting it is to learn spoken sayings here in China.  I don't mean famous Chinese proverbs.  I mean more colloquial sayings.  For example we'll say things in English that conjure up pictures in our minds like "being in a pickle".  I learned one recently that I thought was a very unique description of a very specific concept.  It is a description for older women who wear a lot of make-up to look young (not very polite!).  The expression is "Painting an old cucumber green".  It think it is fascinating because it is so evocative!  But then, how does one use such an expression without offending people?  Apparently it is actually quite acceptable for women to say it jokingly to each other.  For example, "You've painted nicely today" (meaning, "you look young today").  However if a man says it, it is very insulting.  Hmmm... just to be safe, I don't think I'll ever say it!


April 06, 2010

Short and Disconnected Updates

This blog entry is very scattered, and I apologize for that.  In case you hadn't noticed, I treat this as our family news website.  I don't write newsy emails to anybody (even close family and friends), so this is where that information comes from.  Because of that, some people may find the contents of the blog to be boring and mundane. ("Why does she write about children so much?")  But then again, I also assume that if you didn't enjoy it, you wouldn't be reading it!

On Saturday morning I brought some MCC visitors to see the Forbidden City.  It is, of course, one of Beijing's biggest tourist attractions.  This city in the middle of a city used to be the emperor's home. The emperor, his family and his concubines all lived in this city and no one was allowed in unless they were important dignitaries, officials or eunuchs (the emperor himself was the only male allowed in the city overnight.  This place was virtually unseen by the Chinese people whom it governed until the emperor was overthrown in 1911.  Even then very few people saw it.  I'm hoping that the pictures I attach to this email will come out right-side up, but if they are sideways I sincerely apologize!  Using email to blog is very inconvenient!

Ari has finally shown an interest in learning to read.  We've known for a long time that he is smart enough to read, but first he had to get through this "I already know how to read" phase.  Now that he has gotten over this stubborn perception (I was waiting patiently), he is learning very fast.  Obviously he is slow, but he can sound out most simple words.  For example, "Peg the hen gets in a green jet" (learning about e sounds).  I have been using this new opportunity to have more meaningful interaction with him.  I enjoy young children's antics of course, but there is something quite thrilling about watching him learning and struggling to figure things out.  We've been using this interactive website to learn phonics: http://www.starfall.com/n/level-a/learn-to-read/load.htm?f

Everyday when we take him to and from school, Ari asks us to tell him a story.  James is better at making up stories than I am.  I have been trying hard to remember all the stories I read as a kid.  Some stories have provided wonderful long sagas (like Watership Down) and others are mere one timers (fairy-tales or Bible Stories).  On days when there is no story to be found in my head, I have taught him about such things as carbohydrates, proteins and fats, or how digestion and electricity work.  James spent a trip home teaching him about how sedimentary rock is formed.  We won't claim that he understands everything after he hears it, but he does really like it.  Now, I have been inventing stories about phonics, vowels and spelling.  

I know we could sound like real bummers of parents to make everything about learning, but I challenge anyone to have a child's story ready at any moment and be able to tell it with enthusiasm.  Rain or shine, sick or healthy, this is an daily demand made on our creativity.  Fortunately, he is at an age where discussing how positive and negative charges can jump sounds very exciting!  But don't worry for all those science lessons, he does still get his fair share of Brer Rabbit and other stories.  

We have recently finished a stint of reading Roald Dahl books together (thanks to Ruth!).  The most recent was James and the Giant Peach.  Every time the book mentioned James Henry Trottier (the main character), I changed it to James Barclay Frey.  In the very beginning of the book, James' parents get trampled by rhinoceroses in London.  After hearing that, Ari looked at me wide-eyed and said, "Papa's parents were killed by rhinoceroses?  But that's not true, I've seen them!"

On a new topic, eating has become a very important activity for both of the boys. The two of them could finish off a kg of carrots in an afternoon.  Aiyi spends the whole afternoon feeding them fruits and vegetables.  Last night they both polished off large bowls of a very plain lentil and rice mash and then wanted more. Of the two of them however, Jude's body seems more effective at turning it into thick dense muscle.  He is a bit shorter than Ari, but stronger and heavier.  They scrap with each other now and then, and there is no doubt about who is the strongest.  As such, Ari just whines while Jude dominates.  James and I predicted this scenario a long time ago.  Apparently if you double your child's height at age two, you will get their approximate height when they are full grown.  James said his family did this and they all turned out to be very close.  When we did it, we found that we can expect Ari to be around 5'7, while Jude will tower over him at 6'2.

James has also recently had some exciting developments.  In the last while he has had seven short stories accepted for publication with six different journals.  He has been very excited about all of these, and I am very proud of him.  For years now, I have been his primary audience, but I don't think that I am biased in saying that he is very, very good.  Before now, he has never tried very hard to get published.  But he finally decided to give it serious effort, and I think that it has been very good for him to get some positive professional feedback.

I meanwhile have been reading like mad.  In retrospect, I find it hard to believe how much my reading tastes have changed in the last while.  I never used to read dry historical commentaries or books with long drawn out text but no story.  But in the last year this is all that I have been reading, and all of them have been about China.  For example I recently found myself flying through a dry 400 page book all about a rebellion that took place in China during the summer of 1900.  I can't even imagine how boring I would have found that book two years ago.

Thats all for now (if you made it to the end of this rather mundane post!).  Farewell!

Blogging Problems

I apologize that there has been a delay in blogging these days.  As you may already know, we have to email to our blog and can not get directly on to it.  We have been encountering some more difficulties with this recently.  Please be patient until we get it worked out!